Thursday, August 28, 2008

From Helsinki to St. Petersburg, Sunday August 17th

!!!!!! Acatcan is in Russia!!!!!! ... which looks rather like Finnland, but the difference between the tidiness and upkeep of the buildings and land is quite marked. Finnland, as all of the countryside we’ve seen in Scandinavia, is incredibly orderly, the houses very well-maintained, fresh paint and gardens all clipped and square. Here, the same architecture is peeling and faded, there is junk lying around the edges of the yards, and all the way along the railway line. There is more mud here; more anonymous railway stops (no names that we can see), a lot of logging trains, and also a lot of people moving through the forest foraging for something - perhaps berries, because they are carrying smallish baskets.

The train is Finnish, so it’s a marvel of design, cleanliness and modernity. We’ve been to the dining car twice, through the mobs in 2nd class (which is purrfectly comfortable, we don’t need to be in 1st class really). This trip only takes 5 hours, of which at least one hour has been taken up with two stops at the border - a leaving Finnland border check, a short ‘demarcation’ zone, and then a longer stop at the Russian border where our passports were taken away for a while. That’s a slightly unnerving feeling.. but the guards were purrfectly polite and we have all been successfully stamped, clocked, noted, checked, spotted, listed and given purrmission to proceed. We’ll be in St Petersburg in about half an hour. Travelling companions (Aussies from Perth) have given us some very useful info about taxis - we have a price which is reasonable for the travel from railway station to hotel, and we also know we have to agree it with the driver before we set off. No meters.

The weather is slowly getting warmer, it may be nearly 30 degrees, altho I hope my extremely vague interpretation of the Finnish tv weather last night is wrong and that WAS the weather, and today it’s going to be a nice fresh 18 or something. It’s been rainy and cool in Helsinki, a steady 15 degrees from dawn to dusk.


Helsinki has been a busy time; M had a contact at the University from his linguistics professor at the ANU. On our first full day in Helsinki (Tuesday) was spent with Terttu ?, the Department Head of a Linguistics Centre of Excellence. She met us at the hotel, took us for a delightful walk through the Botanic Gardens to the cafe for lunch, and then we had the whole afternoon with her colleagues at the centre. We met people specialising in all manner of research and analysis - a very interesting team of three young men, all working on their PhDs, who are interpreting mediaevel texts of cuisine, medicines and ‘spy’ letters (reports from travellers). These blokes are working closely with a team at Oxford University, so their English was very beautifully accented. Nice to hear people speaking ESL that ISN’T American-accented. I get narked by that..

After four hours of high-speed, high-level linguistics, corpora, diachronics [and a sideways leap into pure research (we met Matti ?, who has examined the 12,000 !!!! examples of the word ‘to have’ in the Helsinki corpora and written a dissertation on it. Just before retirement... he is a charming, charming man, a 70 year old bear of a man wearing a t-shirt saying ‘ROCK AND ROLL FOREVER’. How inspiring! He sat us down, picked M’s brains, threw me a few curly questions about language acquisition, and then settled back to discuss Australian and Kiwi wines. Heh. A universal language!] ... we needed to rest our brains. We found a bar/cafe to meet our needs, and then staggered back to the hotel, feeling very welcome and most comfortable to be thrust back into the academic environment.

We found a good Italian restaurant for dinner, where the waitress listened closely to our questions about the wine list, and then proudly listed the three varieties of Freixenet piccolos - dry, sweet or rose. Rose! I love sparkling pink champagne wine grog. We returned to the university on Thursday afternoon, to join the group for their regular fortnightly afternoon tea. Once again we were warmly welcomed, given Finnish delicacies (a mild cheese, lightly grilled - looks a lot like fried havarti - which one eats spread with a dob of cloudberry jam, very nom; and a blueberry and almond tart, ditto). Matti came and practically sat on my lap, he was so keen to talk. We had a rousing discussion about Scandinavian music, during which he admitted to being a singer, and then told me he used to sing with the Finnish National Radio Chorus (I think that’s what it’s called). He must be quite a singer. Made me feel very nostalgic for Cantorion - hi guys!

Our stay in Helsinki wasn’t as cultural as we hoped for - my poor health slowed things down a bit, not to mention a patch of marital crunchiness. M went out one evening to see a concert of organ and bass singer, at a local church. He enjoyed the music very much, and compared the bass’ voice to the famous Finnish singer ‘Martti Talvela’. We heard bits of Sibelius at the Rock Church and I think in the background at an exhibition we saw yesterday - which was a strange but successful day. Finally we have bought mobiles! But still no connection - Finnsk mobile networks don’t extend anywhere else, so we bought the hand sets and will have to investigate SIM cards and prepaid cards here, and in the Baltic states. Then we bought a suitcase, on the less small side, so we could leave our customs-claimable goods and the cold-weather clothing at the hotel. When we return, only for a day, on the way home, we’re staying at a different hotel, so we went up there to check the booking and leave the bag. No worries.




... sorry for all the cor wow gob-smacking, but, you know, cor, wow!!! I’m in St Petersburg! I’ve been a bit uneasy about coming here, especially since that nice Mr Putin dropped eleventy thousand Russian troops onto Georgia and destabilised things... and I have my reservations about communist regimes, having lived in one before. As we cross the border, which takes about an hour and a half - we stop at the Finnish border for a passport check, then creep through a demarcation zone, then the official uniforms change and the very stern Russian border check mens come aboard. They collect our passports and take them away. None of us like this very much, but one doesn’t argue with Russian officialdom. They are returned in about an hour, happily stamped with entry dates on our visas. We have only about an hour to go now, to get to the city.

The change in environment is immediate - from the very clean, orderly train trackside, and the houses and gardens in Finnland, which are toy-town tidy and even the felled logs are left in neat little piles, the rubbish and decay and junk on the Russian side are like the dark observe of the Finnish picture - the landscape is the same, the building style and cars and so on are the same, but house need painting, there is a lot of junk in people’s yards (old car parts, broken toys, bits of wood, fallen-down washing lines and old plastic garden furniture). The sense of grace and pride is gone. How glad I am that we are in the nice clean Finnish train, and not the old-style Edwardian Russian carriages!

It’s easy getting into St Petersburg - even though it’s a city of over 4 million people, the train runs straight into one side of the city, with very few suburban stations between the end of the countryside and the terminus. We roll off easily, and are down a side exit and into a taxi in minutes. It’s hot, humid, smoggy and M can’t find his hat. We were told, most timely information, by R and S that one negotiates the taxi fare before getting into the car. They even had information about what a reasonable charge would be from the station to their hotel, and he and M looked up ours on the map and we decided the same amount (700 roubles) would be quite fair. And the taxi driver quoted that to us, so no problems.

He carefully laid all our cases into the boot and the front seat, bowed us into the back seats, and leapt in and put the airconditioning onto UBER. LOVELY. It’s only 10 minutes or so and we’re at the hotel. It’s a boutique hotel, perhaps only about rooms, in what is probably an old apartment block of one large apartment per floor. Our room is about twice the size of the Helsinki room, with high ceilings, parquet floor, and a bathroom big enough for two people very comfortably, bigger than our small Aussie bathroom in fact. The decor is post-bloc dinge, but not dirty. Policestation green walls, tan curtains and bedspreads, a rather grotty marked brown rug, and a sofa in dingy brown with darker dingy brown blobs, which wouldn’t be out of place in an old country motel in Queensland.

The plumbing is somewhat eccentric - every time you turn on the tap, the dunny gurgles. But M says the shower is good, and I am about to test his opinion. Lonely Planet says ‘DO NO ON ANY ACCOUNT DRINK THE TAP WATER’ so we are back to bottled water for everything. I’m glad I’ve done this before, too. It takes a certain discipline to remember to clean yer teeth in a glass of bottled water, rinsing the toothbrush ditto. And I have a special challenge to master - I remember what one does about food (NO salad, fruit or street food, unless it’s a banana; no ice or water from the back room)... but I have (sadly) taken to biting my fingernails again in the last year, and this might be a problem. I have a bottle of Aqium with me, and I will get more, so with luck I’ll be able to keep those tasty little fingers out of my gob and not give myself double-dystentery. Yikes!

We’ll also need mozzie spray, suncream and a bit of fortitude. This is the first smog we’ve encountered, and here’s me at the end of a month-long sinus battle which I thought (and I shall say this VERY quietly) I was getting on top of. So cross your nostrils for me please, that with my armoury of fixatives, squirties, drips, drops and tablets, I can fend off any challenges.

Today brought to you by train coffee, eau de electric trainline, a small blast of Gucci, and borscht for dinner!

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