Tuesday, August 5, 2008

RU - St Petersburg

We arrived in St. Petersburg in the early afternoon. We had booked a room, but hadn’t paid for it; and were hoping to find something a bit cheaper. Sure enough, upon exiting the train, a number of babuskas (old ladies) were standing about trying to rent out rooms. We walked up to one, and within a minute there was a whole line of them waiting to talk with us, just in case the one ahead of them didn’t suit our needs.

We ended up taking the very first one, which offered an apartment right near the Hermitage. The location was fantastic – adjacent to the Bronze Horseman & alongside the river. A bit far from a Metro station, though, but still a lovely spot. The apartment was quite large and we had a room all to ourselves – Anastasia and Svitlana sharing a sofa bed and myself getting a single bed. We got our own set of keys, except we only had one for the three of us; though it did free us of having any sort of curfew with our hosts. We really didn’t have much dealings at all with our hosts, other than periodically running into them whilst moving between the WC, shower, and bedroom.

The remainder of the day was spent wandering about the city. We halted momentarily along a canal alongside the Hermitage to get a couple photos of each other. Anastasia sat up on along the rail/barrier alongside the canal, and when she got off it; her mobile phone went the other way. Kaplunk, into the canal. It caught onto a ledge alongside the canal – underwater, but clearly visible and certainly reachable; if only the water level weren’t about 3 meters down.

Anastasia ran off and grabbed two police officers standing down the street. I guess I should mention that the police in Moscow were sometimes tough to distinguish from military units – they wore blue camo and appeared particularly tough. My guidebook hints that travelers should fear the police more than the criminals. Fortunately, the police in St. Petersburg wore uniforms which were a bit more “police-like” by Western standards. The two officers stood with us & joined in finding the amusement of the situation – being able to see the phone but being able to do nothing about it.

Tour boats would frequently come down the canal and both the police & Anastasia would attempt to flag them down. However, they were trying to stop the boats right at the phone; rather than before it. Anastasia eventually ran off to try and catch boats earlier, but it was moot, anyway, since even if they did want to get the phone; the design of the boats certainly did not lend themselves to reaching over the side and into the water.

The police weren’t about to make any serious attempt, and they weren’t going to bring out a boat of their own just to get someone’s phone (indeed I don’t think they would in America, either). I suggested that if they had some rope, I could climb down. This idea didn’t seem to catch on. After the police walked off in search of more interesting things, Svitlana and Anastasia walked off the other way while I remained in place above the phone.

I lost track of the two girls behind a column down the street, but I became a bit concerned when Svitlana reappeared holding what appeared to be a rope made out of scarves and jackets. I dearly hoped she wasn’t going to come back and ask me to use that – climbing ropes is a cinch, but I just couldn’t envision a couple scarves as being able to hold my hefty America-sized body. I’m not sure if I was relieved when I discovered that they were not anticipating me climbing down, or if I was even more concerned when I looked over the edge and spotted Anastasia inching alongside the canal’s wall – in the canal.

The ledge the phone was on was perhaps a meter wide, but it was only wide right there. Along most of the length of the canal, it was only a couple inches wide. The knotted scarves and jackets was to provide Anastasia with handholds such that she could keep herself upright – I later discovered that she had actually used a stairwell located behind the column down the street. It was then that I was relieved that these scarves & jackets weren’t supporting the full weight of anyone.

Drawing a good crowd along the canal as well as making for good photo ops for the passing tour boats, Anastasia successfully made it to the phone, at which point I lowered my jacket, she put it into the pocket, and I raised it up to safety. I went to remove the battery and SIM card – you always want to disconnect the electrical supply as soon as possible when dealing with water damage, as you want to reduce the potential for short circuits. However, Svitlana stopped me from doing that & insisted that Anastasia do what she felt was necessary. I capitulated & went toward the stairwell to help Anastasia back up.

As soon as I approached the stairwell, I immediately recognized that this doubled as a free urinal for the city’s masses. However, to get Anastasia out, I had to kneel down to get the proper leverage. I hoped it was water; I prayed it was water; and I imagined it was water… but what I knelt in was most certainly not water. Well, we got Anastasia out and ultimately saved the SIM card; though I don’t think the phone itself made it.

The day progressed, and I found myself in more and more of a sour mood. This mood was primarily a result of what I believe are cultural differences, but it was certainly spurred on by the fact that I smelled strongly of urine from the stairwell. During the whole rescue mission for the phone, I was initially a bit bothered by the commands Svitlana was giving me – particularly the one “Help her” when I was clearly doing just that; or various commands dealing with my jacket (which lifted the phone to safety).

For cultural differences, the two girls generally talk amongst themselves in Russian – making it extremely difficult to join in on conversation. Probably my three biggest subjects of conversation while I’m abroad are travel, politics, and religion. The girls have little interest in the latter two, and my travel-oriented questions treat them more like tour guides as I constantly ask “what is that?” or “what does that say?”. Since I have little to go with, my brain just kind of shuts off its whole speech mechanism. The net result is that I come off as very quiet and introverted, whereas most of my friends would probably say I’m the exact opposite.

Another issue is that because they speak to me in English, it acts as a crutch which restricts me from learning the local languages. I know they would like me to learn some Russian and Ukrainian, but it’s exponentially difficult when I cannot mentally convince myself that I need to learn it.

The last, probably most significant issue: we have different interests. I like taking my time to explore every nook and cranny of a city, stopping very frequently to take photos of places and objects. I like long time exposures at night, I like close-ups of flowers, and I like waiting for people to clear out so I can get a pristine photo of a landscape. I like ballet, opera, and classical music; and I can spend a whole day staring at nothing more than antiquities, armaments, and/or gemstones. I can sit at a café for hours, just watching the world go by. When I walk, I don’t stop only to rest. When I hike, I go until the view takes my breath away; not the terrain. This is why I like to travel alone.

Basically, both Anastasia and Svitlana are on the polar opposite of the interests spectrum – it turns out we really have little in common. Well, I may have a bit more in common with Anastasia; but I could tell Svitlana was definitely becoming aggravated with my constant presence. In Moscow, Anastasia showed some interest in taking time exposures; but she was a bit limited by her camera with being able to do much more. Svitlana only likes photos of people, whereas my opinion is that people get in the way.

That night we ate at a restaurant and I stayed completely silent the whole time, completely lost in thought. It all got to the point where I was seriously considering reimbursing Svitlana for the train tickets around Ukraine, and that night booking a flight to Italy or Switzerland. I suppose it’s fortunate I didn’t, because I instead decided that I’m going to try and distance myself from them. Instead of using them as tour guides or babysitters, I’m going to go out and do my own thing by day; and we’ll rendezvous for a bit here and there – ultimately uniting at night. So far, it seems to have made all the difference – sparking a complete reversal in my mood. I have also managed to work the urine smell out of my clothes, which surely also helps.

Drama aside, the night came to a quiet end (very quiet) and the next day brought a new day. This new day would finally escape city life for a bit; and I also bought tickets to the ballet earlier, and that meant that tomorrow: I’d finally have some time to be on my own.

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