Thursday, August 7, 2008

RU - St Petersburg, Hermitage

Our first stop today was the Hermitage. This is the museum of St. Petersburg, located in the former palace of the monarchy and right along the river. It is free on the first Thursday of each month, and surely enough this day just happened to fit that bill. That meant that while the line wound its way about the adjacent square, it actually moved at a decent clip. Well, maybe… it took 45 minutes before we were actually within the Hermitage courtyard, and then another 45 minutes before we were at the ticket booth. Despite being free, you still had to grab a ticket and purchase any other add-ons you might want. I got the permission to take photographs as well as a ticket to the temporary Diamond Fund exhibit. I figured that if I missed the Armory and Diamond Fund of the Kremlin, I might as well see one here.

Within the museum, I immediately set out for the antiquities. There was one room dedicated to Egypt, which include several sarcophagi as well as an extremely well-preserved mummy. Immediately my thoughts of “grave robbers” returned to my head… while I love antiquities, I am disturbed to see mummies and sarcophagi anywhere but where they were intended to be several thousand years ago. Today, people giving their bodies to science have to write out just that, putting it all into paperwork. What makes mummies any different? Despite my reservations, however, I still couldn’t help but stare at the mummy for several minutes. Its preservation really was remarkable – you could easily envision what the person may have looked like in life.

The following rooms all dealt with Greco-Roman antiquities, of which there were plenty. I suppose it would be poor form for any museum not to have plenty of such artifacts, seeing as Rome built so many, lasted so long, and spread them so thoroughly across Europe, Africa, and the eastern Mediterranean. The Hermitage had many statues in truly excellent shape, and I took advantage of my photography ticket by imaging nearly every single one.

The collection of paintings was very good, including works by many high-end artists; as well as some amazing paintings by those lesser-known. There were large portions of the museum dedicated to Italian and French works, as well as a couple rooms toward more recent artists such as Monet and Picasso. I do not generally care for modern works, but I did enjoy most of the ones that they had.

Perhaps it was due to the reconstruction going on to the building itself, but I found it extremely confusing to reach the third floor. I was seeking the Byzantine section located there, but every path I took seemed to fall just short. At one point, I was in the room immediately beside a room for the Byzantine works, but the door between them was closed. Just as I arrived in the room, a caretaker even opened the door and asked if anyone wanted to go through. Since I had just arrived in this room, I wasn’t quite ready yet; but 30 seconds later I was wishing she’d come back. I have no idea why the door had to be closed.

Even when I found the Byzantine sections, they still were not all interconnected. According to the map, it should have been just like anywhere else – follow along the rooms, each connected together. However, some doors were shut and some rooms were closed; so the Byzantine section was effectively broken up into three different areas. To access each one, you had to go to the second floor, meander about, and then come back up. This hassle thoroughly sucked up my last hour.

It was unfortunate, as the Byzantine section really was not too remarkable. Then again, having been to Istanbul three years ago, I’d say that it’d be tough to beat anything that the former Byzantium and former Constantinople could offer up. The Diamond Fund was also rather lacking – I had expected a collection of massive gemstones and such, when it was really more a bunch of small stones worked into various trinkets. Some were still interesting and some were still pretty, but it just wasn’t what I had in mind. Many of the most lavish items were gifts from Turkish sultans (usually coming when Russia would win a war against them). Since these came from Turkey, my previous visit to Istanbul again trumped anything the Hermitage had to offer.

I saw most of the museum and was certainly impressed, though I missed the Prehistory section and only had a passing glimpse at the section on Russian culture. I would have dearly loved to have seen both of those. I ran into a cute Brazilian girl whom I chatted with for a moment, except I was still in “find Byzantine” mode and it was almost time for me to run off to meet the girls. It’s moments like that where I kick myself every trip in that I forget to take along my business cards, so that I’d have a rather classy way of handing out my contact info. Ahh well, se la vie.

My first set of Energizers died just as I was wrapping up my exploration of the Greco-Roman antiquities. I’d had this set in my camera since June, so I knew that they were probably nearing the end of their lifespan. The Energizer e2 batteries are fantastic – in my previous camera, I’d get about 6 months of intensive use out of them. With my current camera, I can pull off about 2-3 months – still a fine run.

I reached into my pocket to pull out my second set of batteries. I’d only brought one spare set, since I knew that the second set would last through my entire trip. Alas, at my apartment I have a mess of batteries sitting around on my bookshelves. When my camera drains the batteries, they still usually have enough life to use in some other gizmos for awhile, so I keep around the “dead” ones (or perhaps I should call them “injured”). The problem is, I found myself getting my good ones confused with the dead ones. Just two weeks before I left, I began separating my batteries; but I’d forgotten the system I was using… I had three piles: one for good, one for bad, and another (largest by far) for not-yet-tested.

Sure enough, I grabbed a set of dead ones. With the exception of one place I found which carries regular Energizers (which lasted me two days), I’ve been resorting to Duracell – which achieves a splendid one day of use. This reminds me of the time I went to Ireland and found myself in a similar situation: I ran out of batteries and resorted to buying a 40-pack of Duracells. I used the whole bloody thing in a week. Seriously, Energizer e2 batteries are the greatest things ever. One thing to watch out for, however, is that in both Russia and Ukraine: the prices are per battery; not necessarily per package.

Upon arrival at the Bronze Horseman – our prearranged meeting point – I found Svitlana already waiting; but no Anastasia. We were soon approached by a woman handing out free candies – a coconut-based candy with cream in the middle (Raffelli’s, I think?). Apparently Svitlana had asked about getting a box earlier, but they were only handing them out to couples. Upon my arrival, we scored a box; and I was immediately contemplating trying to get another box with Anastasia. I’m usually not a big fan of coconut, but these were dern good; and you know that you should never say no when a stranger is handing out free candy.

We waited for Anastasia… and waited… and eventually laid down in the grass. I’m not quite sure how long exactly, but I’d guess we waited about 30 minutes until Anastasia arrived. After lounging around a bit at the apartment, we all went our separate ways for the evening. Anastasia stayed at the apartment, Svitlana went westward; and I went eastward.

My goal was to see this large monastery further along the river, though I don’t think I quite understood how far it really was. The walk was lovely: following right beside the river most of the way, until I eventually crossed and took an inland boulevard directly up to the monastery. Along the way, I passed by the World of Water Museum. This has been on my list of places to visit, but I just didn’t get the chance.

Basically, it used to be a water facility – a treatment plant, I suppose – now converted into a museum. I hear it’s good for anyone, but being a civil engineer: I’d have a particular interest in the subject. Walking by, it had to be among the most beautiful water treatment plants I’d ever seen: lovely buildings made of red brick surrounded by plenty of greenery. If only it were a bit earlier in the day, I would have certainly stopped by.

Adjacent to the museum, I passed by a car which was parked along the curb with its flashers on. This is a common occurrence – apparently people like stopping by the curb at random intervals. Here, I was approached by a gentleman & immediately donned an Irish accent. Unless I know someone personally or we have a common acquaintance, I tend to pull different nationalities when I travel – usually Irish since I can pull off that accent better than Canadian; and people don’t like Brits: both the British government and the British people. Welsh or Scots might be OK, though, but why take the chance. Everyone loves the Irish – well nowadays they do, at least.

The first person had difficulty speaking to me. I tried my rehearsed line of “Do you speak English? Sprechen sie Deutsch? Parle italiano? Hablas español?” Another man sitting in the passenger seat said, enthusiastically, “English! Yes, I speak English.” I soon learned that his English abilities were about as extensive as my Russian, but combined with pantomiming: our little game of street-charades found that they had no idea where they were.

Remember how I mentioned before that it’s virtually impossible to get lost in St. Petersburg? Well they managed to do it, apparently – only a block from the river. This finding only reinforced my unease with the situation and I mentally began rehearsing moves I would need to disarm, incapacitate, and flee. I espied a government building across the street with a guardhouse and cameras galore, so I had my retreat point. And I mentally planned out each move I’d do if one of them made any sudden moves. The whole situation just seemed very odd, as I just couldn’t believe that anyone could be lost – especially here.

When they showed me a city map, within two seconds I was pointing to their exact location. I was fortunate in that their response to this seemed overwhelmingly positive: they seemed quite happy to know where they were at. I used this opportunity to excuse myself and, having learned that they were both Persian, bid them farewell with “Khoda hafez” – a phrase one of my coworkers had taught me. Continuing down the street, I was still bewildered when I would look over my shoulder and find that they were still stopped there, but I just continued on. When I later passed by here on my return trek, they had finally moved on.

I arrived at the monastery and was impressed at its size. These Orthodox churches could manage to take my breath away just as well as the Catholic architectural beauties of Italy or Montreal; perhaps moreso because these types of churches were completely new and foreign to me. I wandered the grounds a bit, but turned back and began returning westward. I knew I had been walking quite a long time, though I didn’t quite understand how long it had actually been.

Reaching the river, I crossed the bridge to the other side; and it was right here when my phone’s alarm rang that I had 30 minutes until I had to meet Svitlana at the Bronze Horseman. This was not good. The sky was still somewhat light out – the sun had only just set; and I had completely forgotten that the sun sets at about 11pm. We were meeting at midnight. I was about an hour walk away at a brisk pace, or about 1.5 to 2 hours at a natural pace.

I immediately tried to call Svitlana to see if we could change to a 1am meeting time. No luck calling, so I tried texting. A response soon came that said she thought we were meeting at midnight, but the presence of smiley faces in the message made me think she was just kidding; and that 1am was implied to be OK. So I continued at a natural pace, albeit at least in the correct direction.

Then midnight came and went. Then I got another SMS from Svitlana – she was waiting and wanted to know where I was at. This didn’t have the smilies of before – it clearly had a more serious tone. It was then that I realized we had a communication mishap… her previous text didn’t imply 1am at all. She was still expecting midnight. My pace quickened… at this point, I was perhaps 30 minutes away at a speedy pace. I even ran intermittently whenever I had a good clear sidewalk ahead of me.

A couple minutes into my trek, I texted Svitlana to tell her to go back to the apartment, take a shower, get ready for bed, and by the time she’s finished – I ought to be near. The importance of all this is that because we only had one set of keys, we had to coordinate our return to happen concurrently. About 12:45 or so, I believe, I finally arrived at the Bronze Horseman. Assuming she got my texts, I didn’t even pause there – I just continued across the street and down onto our street.

Midway down our road, I heard my name called out behind me… I knew that wasn’t good: that meant Svitlana had waited the entire time. Here I thought she’d have been able to put this time to good use. It turned out she never got my last two text messages telling her to return to the apartment. This was certainly no benefit to the already tenuous relationship we’d had thus far, and timing could not have been worse considering our wait earlier in the day for Anastasia; and here I go and do the same thing.

We immediately prepared for bed and while Anastasia was out of the room, I tried to briefly explain what happened to me; and apologise for being late. I don’t quite know how Svitlana took to it, but I went to sleep hoping that the next day would yield better affairs.

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