Thursday, August 28, 2008

St Petersburg, Day 1 August 18th

Dear bloggie,

My first full day in Russia has been hot, humid, interesting, hair-raising, expensive, cheap and thrilling......

... after a biiiig sleep-in, which M in particular really needed, we had coffee in our room (missed breakfast by an hour at least). The reception person was quite happy to put on the kettle so we could make our own plunger coffee; she supplied us with cups and spoons, and later let us wash the plunger out in boiled water. (She also supplied a plug for the basin, which the maid eventually found after searching four other rooms, and a hair dryer, hurray no fringe issues!) We pottered around the room; unpacking, washing shirts, reading maps, talking about what we’d like to do, laughing at each other. It’s our wedding anniversary today (we celebrate every month) so there’s a festive feeling... we’re also remembering what a pain it is to wash your teeth in bottled water (and how very interesting it gets when the bottled water is sparkling!), and how much care we need to take for clean hands etc. We’re trying to remember what lengths we went to when we lived in China 10 years ago. There was no antibacterial handwash then... I think we made do with lavish soaping - and lots of it.

Anyway, eventually the first expedition hit the road at about 2pm. First we went to a bakery cafe around the corner (we walked around the block last night after dinner, spotting local points of interest) and had bagels, croissants and coffee. Quite a decent latte I must say. I think this KaveHaus might be a chain, it has that uber-regularised feel about the menu and the look of the food. Fine with me, means it should be clean and safe. M ordered a cup of American coffee, which is how you get a long black. It came in a big mug, about 3/4 full, with a jug of hot water on the side. M, as he always does, got out his little water bottle to add some cold water to it so he could drink it straightaway. And heh, he’d refilled his bottle with the sparkling water at the hotel, so his long black fizzed up like a capuccino! He tried stirring it, and then added some sugar, but dear readers, DON’T try this experiment, it’s kinda nasty... I wanted a small cake to round out my brunch, but even though I stood patiently at the counter making eye contact with the 5 or so staff, no luck. They were very involved in having an argument with some [possibly Bulgarian] blokes at another table, who we think were arguing about the bill. Then some young Russian girls came in, sat down and immediately began waving imperiously and impatiently at the staff, who of course all rushed over to offer their services. Except for the dude making the coffees, who shook his head lugubriously but continued to fail to see me. So I went and sat down, thought I’d have a little rest before trying again. Then I found the menu of cakes, so I more or less grabbed the little waitress the next time she passed, and strong-armed her into taking my order. The cake was described as a “cottage cheese pancake”, but I would describe it as a ricotta and nut cake with orange glaze. Whatever it was, it was very nice, filled up my tummy. And we wont’ talk about how I missed my gob and poured coffee down my front, a waste of a purrfectly clean shirt...

Now, off to the Tourist Information Centre, which Lonely Planet gives an extremely average mark as a source of help. It’s only 10 minute walk through the Admiralty Park (the Admiralty Building is right at the end of our street, about 50 metres away), but then we have to cross an Arc-de-Triumphe-esque multi-lane ring road to get over to it, and no pedestrian crossings in sight. In the end, we hold hands and run. M is nervous but I reckon the buses can see us.

The TIC is in fact almost useless - hardly any print material, a few very ordinary souvenirs at very extraordinary prices, and a woman behind a desk who is NOT inclined to offer any actual service. We wander around, reading what we can, and grabbing some maps, brochures and handouts. We’re looking for concerts, but apart from a lavishly advertised “Folk Songs and Peasant Dances” extravaganza there is no sign that classical music exists here.

Time to go for a walk and see ... we walk across the huge square, minding out for the huge statue, the beggars, the other tourists and the horse-carriage rides. The buildings are ex-palaces, elegant and very ornate. One has a row of dudes gesturing along the roof, looking very noble and triumphant. Many of these buildings are being renovated, all around us is scaffolding and that funny building-wrapping thing where a picture of the building underneath is wrapped over the scaffolding so it looks as if it’s still there. We first saw that in Venice, at the Guggenheim Museum, but I thought it was a fixture. Innocent little me. M is a bit apprehensive in the crowds, and twice a car tries to run him down on pedestrian pathways, so he’s nervous. I take his hand, say “THINK OF YOUR MANTRA” sternly, and lead on. Once we get out of the square and back onto the main road, which is incidentally the main shopping street (Nevsky Prospekt), he’s fine. We’re sticky-beaking away, noting that we’re in the high-end shopping district, with brands like Chanel and Max Mara on the storefronts. There are plenty of independent shops too, largely women’s clothing and tobacconists.

We find a music store which sells cds, dvds, musical instruments and scores. Aha! M-type shopping. Inside is a plethora of covetable things, arranged in wooden cabinets with glass lids, and interesting vertical cd-case displays which somehow lock each cd into a slot, so you can read each side of the case but can’t remove it. I find some recordings of Sergei Rachmaninov playing himself, recorded between 1919 and 1929, now re-mastered. Happy Anniversary to M! He’s lost in the scores, but comes away saying he wants to return when he’s not so fazed, to look more closely and perhaps buy some Tchaikovsky.

We wander further east, crossing two canals and noting the boat rides, which are heavily spruiked on each corner of the bridge by women with tiny amps and mikes. Some are English-guided so we’ll have a go at that another day. When our legs run out of oomph, we cross the road by going down a flight of steps and under the road (that’s probably how we should have crossed into the square, we’d forgotten about this method). We’re now looking for a newsagent or similar, with faint hopes of English newspapers. We know there’s the St Petersburg Times printed in English, but apparently it’s mostly ads, so a nice grittily-opinionated Brit newspaper would go down well. [I grapple with the crosswords (haven’t finished my sacred haul of Sydney Morning Herald crosswords yet, I keep them for when I need to feel successful) and complain about the bad-tempered columnists; M just reads them and tells me what’s happening in the world. And if any of it is happening in Australia - not much it seems, we’ve had almost no news from home via newspapers. - !!! OR via emails from our dear ones, HINT HINT HINT !!! - I know we could Google, but somehow we don’t want to spend time like that. And this blog may not get onto the webs for a while; the wireless connection at the hotel is kaputsky. I’ve seen Wi-Fi at one or two cafes, so I *could* get it done later... AND we passed the Mac shop, so I know I can do it if I really want to. I might even take M’s cd and get it loaded onto the puter, now THERE’S a thought...]

We come to a STOCKMANN shop - aha! Something we recognise. M is doing incredibly well, translating Russian, and even I have had some success, although I must say that the words I know from reading choral scores aren’t exactly in the popular dialogue. But a few clues help, and M has already bought a Russian/English dictionary, so by Saturday when we leave, we’ll be chattering away like locals. And yes, coffee is KAFE. Easy!

There’s a huge, dingy pile of a something important building over the road - to my delight this is the Palace Stroganoff! It certainly looks like quite a lot of very old stroganoff has been weathering all over it for some centuries.. it’s also being renovated; the top of the arch is covered in shade cloth. I have photos of it, very school of Pentridge architecture!

We go into Stockmann in case there’s a big bookshop, and/or papers, but this branch only has clothes. HOWEVER!!!! the shop opens into a delightful atrium cafe, which has a L’Occitane shop. And WHO has been looking for just such a shop, to replace her almost-finished Tired Leg Cream, absolutely vital travelling unguent to the House of Moi?? And WHO found L’Occitane in Helsinki but they only had half the range, and nothing for leggies??? Wonderful. Purrfect! I get the cream, and the two young Russian women serving me try to talk to me - we manage to agree that the products are beautiful, and that almond oil is the most luscious of all. They give me a fist-full of free samples - creams, scents and lotions. Fabbo. Yum. Lucky me! So Happy Anniversary to me too, the lovely Tired Leg Cream is my gift from M. And, dear readers, I do swear by this stuff, it’s made of rosemary and camphor, and when you rub it into those hard-working little legs n feet, it’s cooling and soothing and makes it all better. And excellent value for money, as all L’Occitane products are. Who me, justifying expense??? Never! I’m just being purr-agmatic.

There’s a big souvenir and bookshop on the road back to the hotel. We investigate closely, even though the inside of the shop is about 10 degrees hotter than outside, and very humid. M finds his dictionary. I find some books with textile prints, and various interesting things to photograph, like a Russian translation of a Sophia Loren cookbook, and many expensive books with jewelled covers, behind glass. And, bleugh, a lavishly-bound ginormous edition of, erg, all the Playboy centrefolds. This book comes with its own dark-blue briefcase with gold locks. Bleuuuggghhh...

Hot. Sweaty. Gotta take these leggies back to the hotel and cool off. Our room isn’t air-conditioned, but we have two fans and a high ceiling to absorb the heat. It faces north-east, so there’s little direct sun. I’m grateful to collapse on the bed while M rustles up a pot of coffee. Now we’re listening to Tom Waites, reading the Lonely Planet about the Hermitage Museum, which is our destination tomorrow. M says there is an internet cafe inside the museum, called Cafe Max, so we have to go!

Tonight will be brought to you by the music cafe down the road, which has been playing bassoon quartets each time we’ve passed. Today brought to you in general by the smell of washing powder, eau de Russian drain, and some of my Earth incense, which makes us feel more at home than anything else.

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