Aug 17 2010

Sleepless in St. Petersburg

August 8th: Our last night in Finland before getting up at 6 for a train to St. Petersburg. Neither one of us falls asleep before 1:30 am.

August 9th: First night in St. Petersburg. Quickly discover that the city’s reputation for mosquitoes – it is, after all, a former swamp – is justified.  In our hot and humid room, we both spend the night fighting off small, agile dive bombers, too nimble and fast for our clumsy swats. Peter spends part of the night watching mosquitoes fly into our room through the window, circle the ceiling like planes in a landing pattern, and then fly back out to invite their friends. We learn one of the Catch 22s of our room:  the sheets keep off the mosquitoes, but it is too hot to sleep under sheets. Both of us get about five hours of restless sleep.

August 10th: The worst night of not just Russia, but the entire trip.

9:35 pm: Return to our room, already exhausted from a lack of sleep the night before. With the window closed, we spend about 35 minutes on a search-and-destroy mission. Kill about seven mosquitoes, including one that is so attuned to vibrations on both walls and air that it evades us for a full 25 minutes.

10:00 pm: I take a shower. As I’m standing in the tub, I notice that it would be very easy to lose my balance and fall out of the tub, crashing onto the floor below and seriously hurting myself. Make a mental note to hold onto the wall while washing my feet.

10:07 pm: Peter takes a shower. About five minutes into it, I hear a loud crash. Peter has fallen out of the shower while washing his feet. Luckily, his only injury is a jammed thumb. But the same is not true for the shower curtain, which came tumbling down with him and is now broken on the floor. We write Dmitry an apology note.

10:30-11:30: Watch the latest episode of Mad Men, trying to ignore an ominous flying object that occasionally darts across our screen.

11:35-12:15: Round two of Operation Mosquito Kill. At some point, Peter gives up and just begins reading, claiming that a combination of ear plugs and Tylenol PM is going to help him and the mosquito co-exist. I refuse to admit defeat, spending an additional fifteen minutes inspecting the walls as if I am a psychiatric patient.

12:16: Catherine: 1. Mosquito: 0.

12:25 am: After noting that the temperature on our alarm clock reads 88 degrees, we turn off the light. Peter has a balaclava on his head; we both are wearing socks. I lie spread eagle on my bed, trying to expose myself to as much air as possible while still under a sheet. I pull out a device I bought in the Milan airport advertising itself as “the world’s tiniest fan” and duct tape it to the night table, just in case.

12:26 am: Despite the fact that the window and door are closed, there are more mosquitoes. Where are they coming from? Can dead mosquitoes reproduce?  Regardless, they want blood.

12:47 am: Zombie fuckers.

1:07 am: I feel like I am suffocating. I try turning on the fan, but it sounds like a small propeller plane. What’s more, I am convinced that letting it run for more than five minutes will break its tiny engine, depriving me of future tiny fannage in days to come. I turn it off. Even in my exhaustion, I still retain my tendency to hoard.

2:23 am: The air is thick and hot. Caught between wakefulness and sleep, I have a flashback to fire safety class and decide that clearly the best thing for me to do is to lie down on the floor.

2:24 am: Peter: “Why are you on the floor?”

Me: “Because it’s cooler here.”

Peter: “Really?”

Me: “No.”

Peter: “Okay.”

I get back into bed.

2:39 am: HOW IS IT ONLY 2:39 AM?

3 am: For the first time in my life, I wish the night away. Peter is still awake as well. We make a group decision to risk further mosquito invasion by opening the window. I take the duct tape from under my fan and use it to tape the lace curtain to the ceiling in an attempt to improvise a screen, not caring that the holes in the lace are more than large enough for mosquitoes to fly through, entire families at a time.

Peter's attempts at defense.

3:15 am: Discover that what we thought was a Catch 22 might not in fact be one – the room is both hot and mosquito-filled at the same time. No need to choose! At some point Peter gives up on his own sleep and decides, in his delirium, that the least he can do is try to protect me; I wake up to find him standing above my bed with a headlamp pointed at my face, swiping at the air. This doesn’t strike me as odd.

4:15 am: A group of loud, drunken men decide to have a fight directly below our window.  “Go down there!” I command our mosquitoes. “Fresh blood!” They take no notice.

5:20 am: It is still hot. So, so hot.


7:49 am: Mosquitoes: 39. Peter and Catherine: 0.

Peter in the morning.

We wake up bleary-eyed at ten, having gotten a total of about three hours of uninterrupted sleep. Dmitry asks us how we are and Peter somehow gets Dmitry to bequeath us his fan, a treasure that we had glimpsed in his room the day before and which Dmitry has unwisely relocated to the front hallway to keep him cool while eating breakfast. In a different context, this might have made me feel guilty. But instead, as soon as Dmitry leaves for work, Peter and I grab the fan and put it in our room.

Dmitry: 0. Peter and Catherine: 1.

Aug 15 2010

Our Dirty Laundry

One of the most consistent challenges of this trip is trying to keep on top of our dirty clothes.  This doesn’t seem like it should be much of a problem – after all, at home I do laundry once a week, maybe week and a half. But there is a major difference between home and the road, and it boils down to this: underwear. I’ve got four pairs with me – or, rather, three plus an emergency back-up – and I’ve learned the hard way that I can only wash them in the sink so many times before they’re in need of the real deal.

This hasn’t been too much of a problem, given that we’ve stayed in apartments or hostels with machines often enough to avoid letting anything get truly offensive. But the result of our laundry uncertainty is a compulsion to wash our clothing whenever we’re within 10 meters of a washing machine. Who cares if the previous load was two days before – I can always find something in need of a good soak.

What we’ve discovered is that washing machines in Europe are far more evolved than those in the States. Or, at least, they’re more complicated. Instead of a simple dial decorated by minutes and a couple pictograms of cotton balls and delicates, these machines have multiple knobs, multiple buttons, multiple temperatures, and, quite often a life of their own. Yesterday, for example, Peter decided to do a load of laundry at Dmitry’s (our homestay host in St. Petersburg) – a good choice considering that we’d been spending every night sweating through our clothes. But having recently destroyed his shower curtain and commandeered his fan, we felt a little weird asking if we could use his washing machine. So we did the obvious thing: put in a load while he was at work.

Fine, it was a little sketchy. But what was the harm? And besides, we could just wait till the wash cycle was done and hang the clothes surreptitiously in our room.

But we had underestimated the options available on a Russian washing machine. Peter started a load on what he thought was an express cycle; 35 minutes later, it was still doing exactly what it was before: adding small spurts of water and then rotating the drum one turn, then spurting water again. Noticing that it was stuck on what appeared to be Step 3, he tried to move it toward its rinse cycle – but the dial responded by clicking forward on its own, working through 14 different steps before settling again on 3.  The water, while copious, was still filled with suds. Making things worse, it was a front load washer – which meant that even if we could get the machine to stop spurting, we couldn’t get our clothes.

Eventually Peter managed to get the machine to go through a spin cycle and, with some coaxing and unplugging, got the door to unlock. But there was a problem. Not only were our clothes wet and slightly slimy, but the detergent we had used smelled like ammonia – so much so that I insisted he had washed our clothes with toilet cleaner, despite the fact that the bucket was directly next to the washing machine and had a picture of a shirt on it.

We shut the door again, tried to start the wash on a different number. It clicked forward to 3, the washing machine equivalent of “Fuck you.”  Accepting defeat, we left the house.  I can’t tell you what happened next.  Maybe the machine spent the entire afternoon stuck in its wash cycle, running up Dmitry’s hot water bill. Maybe it grew tired of its little game and stopped on its own. Maybe Dmitry came home, wondered why we tried to wash our clothes with toilet cleaner on the endless cycle, and reset the thing for us. All I know is that when we got back that night, the machine was silent and its door was unlocked.  Our clothes smelled fine.  As for my underwear?  I’ve got four clean pairs.