Welcome to Russia

Peter celebrated our arrival in St. Petersburg by listening to the patriotic anthem that is Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA.” It seemed a fitting way to mark the transition between the easy part of this trip (Iceland, France, Italy, the surprisingly comfortable Baltic States) to the lands that lie ahead – Russia, Mongolia, China, and beyond. Gone are the days of toilet paper-stocked public bathrooms and potable tap water. From now on, I’m going to have to think twice before rinsing my toothbrush in the sink, and have a high – if not guaranteed – chance of getting severe diarrhea before I return to American soil.

Despite having spent time in China, I wasn’t quite prepared for the culture shock of Cyrillic, which we first encountered on a train across from the platform at the border. Being surrounded by characters is disconcerting and frustrating, to be sure, but there’s a certain comfort that comes from having absolutely no comprehension – after a while, you stop thinking of them as words, and they become more like interesting decorations on everyday sights like grocery stores and pharmacies. But with Cyrillic, there are just enough letters in common to make you feel like you should be able to read it – oh, look! An “M” — but enough differences to ensure that you can’t. Making things worse, the letters that do look similar are pronounced differently – “H” sounds like “N,” for example, a backwards “N” is “I” (as in “ee”) and “P” is “R.” Also, many of the letters are written, from an American perspective, backwards. The effect is to make me feel not just illiterate, but dyslexic.

Eat, pray, what?

We were met at the train station by a woman named Tatiana, who coordinated the homestay program we signed up for  — a cheaper and potentially more interesting arrangement than a typical hotel in which you stay in a local’s spare room. Our local was Dmitry, a friendly electrical engineer who shared an apartment with his mother on the bank of the river, just across from the Hermitage. It was in a fantastic location, though when Tatiana first led us to the apartment, we had our doubts: its entrance was inside a Soviet-style courtyard, in a building with crumbling steps, a decrepit-looking elevator and, perhaps most disturbingly, large piles of bags of concrete rubble stacked on each landing. (Dmitry later told Peter that the rubble was there because they were demolishing the top floor of the building in order to add some luxury penthouses. “But we are worried it may make the building fall down,” he commented, in what we hoped was a joke.)

This was right after they took away the rubble bags.

The apartment was basic but relatively spacious – three rooms sharing a foyer with a bathroom, shower, and small kitchen. The only problem was that it was warm – St. Petersburg was in the midst of a heat wave – and there was no air conditioning (in fact, when we asked if most people had it, Tatiana laughed). More on that later.

And there was one other weird thing: the entire city was covered in smog. Granted, there are hundreds of wildfires burning in Russia right now and Moscow is currently covered in a thick layer of smoke. St. Petersburg, however, is hundreds of kilometers away. There was not supposed to be smoke or smog. But there it was – thick enough that it was obscuring the skyline, and smelling slightly sweet, the distinct smell of burning wood. We found this curious, and so tried to get a local explanation.

“Is it usually like this?” we asked Tatiana, as she drove us to the apartment.

“Yes, this is the weather,” she said, enigmatically.

We had no further luck with Dmitry.

“So, is the visibility usually this bad?” asked Peter.

“It is not usually this hot,” replied Dmitry.

“Can you normally see farther?” I asked, wondering if perhaps he had misunderstood.

“I hope that perhaps it may cool down.”

No smoke here.

But from what I can tell, this denial of environmental contamination may be a cultural thing. How else to explain the crowds of bikini-clad bathers blanketing the banks of the Neva – the large river that flows through the center of St. Petersburg – happily plunging their children into the water despite the fact that, according to Lonely Planet, all of European Russia’s main rivers have viral and bacterial levels that are 10 to 100 times higher than permitted? Or the fact that Dmitry returned to the apartment one night proudly clutching a bag containing a fish he had caught – and which he intended to eat – from that same river? Who cares that the tap water in St. Petersburg is sometimes tainted with giardia, that water-borne parasite responsible for stomach cramps, nausea, and incessant diarrhea?

Fresh from the Neva.

The water's great!

Needless to say, Peter and I did not jump in. Instead, we walked across a long bridge to the main part of town, where we paid our first foreigner’s ticket price (Russia, like China, has the irritating habit of charging foreigners much more than locals for many sights and museums) and went into the gruesomely named Church of the Savior on Spilt Blood, which is decorated floor to ceiling with fantastic mosaics and, on that particular day, had a light layer of smoke floating beneath its ceiling’s vaults. It  is also across the street from a craft and souvenir market, which gave us our first chance to stare at hundreds upon hundreds of Russian nesting dolls, some painted traditionally, others decorated with rather unflattering images of Putin, Britney Spears, and Barack Obama. It was there that I first experienced one of the paradoxes of travel: the desire to buy things that you would never want if they were available at home. Am I honestly going to decorate my office with Russian nesting dolls? And, if I were, am I really going to take them all out and line them up in a long row to prove how many there are inside? The likely answer is no – which means that I either don’t really care whether the doll has 5 parts or 20, or that I don’t need a nesting doll to begin with. But I still am probably going to end up with one.

First day verdict? I like Russia.

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