St. Petersburg- The last time I was in St. Petersburg I didn’t see very much and the weather was just grey but this time was different. It was sunny and warm the entire time I was there.
My friend from Florida took the special ferry deal from Helsinki. If you arrive by ferry and show your hotel reservations you can get a 72 hour visa for St. Petersburg without the stress of apply for the regular visa and the huge fees. It was nice to finally show someone Russia. My friends from Smolensk came with me as well so I spent everyday translating from Russian to English and vice-versa. Often my American friend would say something awful or inappropriately funny and then I would have the awkward responsibility of translating it into Russian, then a couple of minutes later I would have to translate something similar into English which made me think; Russians and Americans laugh at the same things.
My friend from Florida wanted to do the traditional Russian things like drink vodka so that’s pretty much what we did the first day; Strike in the park, beer at the restaurant, flaming absinth shots at the club. One of the highlights was realizing we need to leave Trotsky park pronto to find a bathroom but we didn’t know where to go so we made the wrong decision of hiking across the long Trotsky Bridge to the Burger King. We were all cradling our beer bellies, swearing we’ll pee of the bridge and cursing each other as we crossed. Getting to Burger King there’s a huge line, so we end up breaking into a fancy restaurant to relieve ourselves, which led us to our next few beers at the restaurant. From noon to 2 am by which time my Floridian resembled a zombie at the club and I almost had to carry him out. Good times.
I like the feeling of the city. It reminded me of Paris, but with less tourists and less sketchy looking locals. My Floridian told me it reminded him of Barcelona. The city really did feel like the capital of an empire with the fancy restaurants, stores and buildings. I liked walking past plaques and museums devoted to famous writers like Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Gogol and Mayakovsky who all found their inspiration while walking the streets of St. Petersburg. The club we went to was also very small and sociable compared to the massive cold clubs in Moscow. In St. Petersburg the people I met seemed more sociable than their counterparts in Moscow. Peter is also cheaper and much slower paced than Moscow. The residence of Peter come from all across Russia, from Smolensk to the far east of Siberia. There are many international tourists and the proximity to Estonia, Finland and Sweden, makes the city feel more cultured and liberal. Most of all what impressed me about the city was that the residents were really proud and passionate about living in their city. I felt it.
Before leaving for Kaliningrad I spent a couple of days in Moscow enjoying Gorki Park and exploring the massive main market run by mostly central asian migrants. We went into a restaurant in the market complex and everything was in Chinese, nothing in English or Russian and all the customers were Chinese, but luckily Grace brought her chinese friend to translate for us.
Kaliningrad is also a pleasant city. Situated in the Baltics it also has a more European feel and many of the Prussian building and castles still exist. At the same time, Kaliningrad (Königsberg) also gave me a better picture of the horrors of world war two. In most European cities bombed during World War 2 , for instance Smolensk or Dresden, the city still has its scars but most of the building were rebuilt or something new was built on top of it to restore the pre-ww2 hustle and bustle, but in Kaliningrad it’s different. What was the bustling city center of the capital of eastern Prussia is now an unkept park. You’ll see postcards and posters hanging around the city of several hundred multi story cross timbered houses with the famous castle where Prussian kings were crowned but you wont find it now a days. Its trees and bushes now. The suburbs of the city still have the German style houses and the train station is still preserved. I think the trauma of what happened in Eastern Prussia was so great that collectively the Germans have decided to forget as quickly as possible. I told my German friend I’m going to Königsberg and she asked “where’s that?”
I invited my Russian friend to join the other Fulbright ETA and I to Kaliningrad. For him he did many first; first time to a foreign country (he flew from Minsk), first time on an airplane and first time outside of mainland Russia. It was fun to hear his excitement about being in Belarus where he encountered very strange accents he didn’t understand and his culture shock when he saw how few stores there are in Vitebsk. He said on the plane ride he was very scared and showed us a selfie of him on the plane looking sweaty and nervous.
The city is very German when it comes to the suburbs where we stayed in a hostel. The hostel was a regular German house with a Russian family that lived in it. At some points it almost felt inappropriate to be there with the Russian family watching television on the couch or the kids running around the hostel yelling playing tag.
The suburbs have cobblestone streets and old protestant churches. One night we walked to the city center and ate dinner and pre-gamed at a bar (Хмель) overlooking victory square where we watched the several thousands of sailors rehearse for their victory day parade. After that we went to a club in the cellar of an old Prussian fortress. The club was small with arched ceiling. The small size and large amount of patrons made for a very friendly environment. We woke up the next morning with some head aches and lost voices from singing Russian songs too loudly.
One day we went on an excursion to the Curonion Spit. We took the 2 hour bus ride to the baltic coast, most of which I was sleeping in the back. Grace nudges me to wake up at our destination and it’s the tiny tiny village of Morskoye about 2 miles south of the Lithuanian border. We stumble out and the bus drives off. The village looks very dusty and deserted. At the bus stop we ask a big crazy looking dude, who kinda looks like a character from the hills have eyes, with an old bicycle where the bike-rental shop is. He shakes his head and mumbles something indiscernible in Russian. We walk into the hotel and ask where the bike-rental shop is and lo and behold it closed 2 years ago, the closest shop is in Zelenagradsk 50 kilometers to the south and the next bus comes in 5 hours.
So we start hiking, at one point we awkwardly walk next to the crazy guy while he rides on his tiny bicycle. We cross the split and make it to the baltics, we find a little lavka and buy ice-cream and walk down the coast. We saw some huge dunes that reminded me of the sahara or saudi arabia. Then we hitch-hiked with some people from Smolensk to the dancing trees and then took the bus back to Kaliningrad from there.
Our last night we went went to Ushekova and climbed around the ruins of Brandenburg castle at sunset and then drank some German beer at a restaurant nearby.