Thursday, 31 August 2007

We got up at 4am this morning to catch an early plane that took us to Finland, where we changed planes and flew to St. Petersburg, Russia. We were met at the airport by Tatiana, our guide, and our driver, Alexis. This is a wonderful thing, because the traffic in St. Petersburg is the craziest we’ve seen (Tatiana explained that more and more of the 5 million people in the city are wanting to drive, and the city is not ready for them. Not enough roads or parking lots, etc.).  The kids sat across the backseat, Clay and I took the middle, and Tatiana sat up front with the driver. She has a little microphone that she can plug in so the kids in the back can hear what she has to say. I know Nate is wishing he could get his hands on that microphone and rock out a little.

As we drove into the city Tatiana pointed out palace after palace, church after church. The city is full of these brightly painted and lavishly decorated buildings. She said that since the weather here is often dreary, architects like to use the bright pastel colors to cheer people up. While some of the palaces are museums, most are now being used for other things, from government offices to schools to after-school programs for kids. It’s strange to think that the walls that once held balls with swirling silk dresses, royal dinner parties and elite get-togethers are now filled with everyday people going about their jobs amidst the splendor.

Tatiana is like a walking history book, she is able to explain things that we just breezed past in other countries. For example, we went to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. This is a tremendous, majestic church. If we had not been with Tatiana we would have ooh’d and aah’d when we walked in the door, craned our neck to see the painted ceilings and dome far overhead, marveled at the colorful stone pillars and gold everywhere, and left. All the signs are in Russian, which by the way, we cannot even come close to sounding out. The Russian alphabet is Cyrillic with 33 letters, and two of them don’t even make a sound.

Tatiana explained that St. Isaac’s can hold up to 10,000 standing worshippers, that in a Russian Orthodox church you are supposed to stand, that the church didn’t have central heating for a long time and the cold and wet were ruining the huge, beautiful paintings on the walls so they were all removed and mosaics took their place. The mosaic tiles that have color fired into them so they would last much longer in the climate here. These mosaics are amazing. We stepped close to one and saw that a hand had blues, purples, reds, oranges, all sorts of colors that you wouldn’t use for skin. Then we stepped back and the colors all blended into the hand of Mary, natural skin colored.

Tatiana also told us that one time, during worship, it had gotten so cold that ice formed in the dome over the worshippers heads, but with all the people in there it got warmer and some of the ice melted and a giant piece fell on the worshippers below. Also, the process they used to gild the golden dome was to melt the gold with mercury, and sixty people died from mercury poisoning after working on the dome. We would never had known any of these things without her, we are grateful.

After Tatiana went home, we headed out for dinner. We entered one café where the menu was only written in Russian. This is not like in Europe, where most people speak English. Very few speak English, and then it is mostly a very limited vocabulary. While we were standing in line, a man dropped a coffee cup and saucer and it shattered on the floor. I jumped about a mile and stifled a scream, but none of the other customers turned to look or reacted at all. One of the workers came over and stared at the man, who slowly raised a hand to his lips in a mock expression of surprise and just stood there. The worker glared at him until the man slowly left, a blank stare still on his face, and the worker cleaned up the mess. No words were exchanged. It was a strange episode, one we still don’t understand.

We decided to try a different restaurant, this time the menu had some English on it. As we sat, waiting for our waitress, we tried to decide between “chicken in a fur coat” and “chicken on a brazier” (shish-kebobs). There was a man smoking a water pipe next to us, a huge contraption that sat on the floor and bubbled and smoked, and on the TV were some pretty inappropriate music videos. We decided to look for restaurant number three, this place was giving us the creeps.

Restaurant number three was a home run, a cafeteria where we could look and point and a young girl who spoke very good English. We found something everyone liked, and rewarded ourselves with some yummy pastries from down the street.

Tomorrow we go with our Tatiana and Alexei for a driving tour of the city. This is good, Nate is a walking hazard as he runs ahead, jumping off buildings, side-stepping and skipping. He’s got jumping beans and walks to the beat of an internal rhythm the rest of us can’t keep up with. He’s often beat-boxing or singing a song of his own creation, much to Alayna’s irritation. We’ll be on the lookout for some wide green spaces so that boy can run a while.


Saturday, 1 September  2007

Never put your hands in our pockets in a Russian Orthodox Church. Clay was scolded soundly by an old woman who was very offended. We were lucky enough to enter the beautiful St. Nicholas Cathedral while the morning service was going on Friday. The women must all wear a head covering (tourists stayed behind a rope strung between them and the worshippers). There was beautiful singing from a choir while the worshippers stood, and randomly wandered to different icons during the service to make the sign of the cross and pay homage to certain saints. We were all very quiet and respectful, but missed the part about not putting hands in pockets.

All the kids can now identify the difference between Baroque (lots of gold and fanciness) and Classical (much more understated, and, well, classier). We’ve seen the Hermitage, which is a treasure chest of paintings and sculptures and tapestries and furniture and jewelry and many more things, mostly collected by Catherine the Great and housed in several large building adjacent to the Winter Palace in the city center of St. Petersburg. There were crowds in every room, and we would huddle around Tatiana to hear the stories behind the things we were seeing. Re-tellings are in order for Benji, who is too low to hear most of what is being said, but we were able to spend about three hours before we all pooped out on treasure.

Today we visited Peterhof, which is a giant complex of palaces, fountains and gardens built for Peter the Great. One of our favorite rooms was full of portraits, from floor to ceiling. There were no spaces between the frames, so it was just a sea full of faces, all girls. The artist actually used only 7 girls, dressing them in different clothes and posing them in different positions, but it made for such an interesting place, with all those eyes looking at you, so many different expressions. I could have written stories in there.

There was another room with giant paintings of a battle the Russians fought against Turkey, commemorating “Russian victory” (all paintings and statues of battles involving Russia commemorate Russian victory). In one painting, a giant explosion was pictured, it was of a boat blowing up during the battle. When the artist drew the picture, he claimed he had never seen a boat explode like the boat from the war, and so Catherine the Great gave them permission to load a boat full of sixty cannons and packed to the hilt with gunpowder, and then blow it up just to see what it looked like. Nate and Benji really liked that picture.

The kids also enjoyed the gardens at Peterhof, there were tons of fountains and paths to walk, puddles to jump over, ducks to admire, long stretches to run. Running is good after a long tour of a palace. There was even a trick fountain. You walked in front of a bench, and if you stepped on a certain cobblestone, a fountain came up over the bench and drenched you. The location of the cobblestone kept changing, and the kids had fun trying to figure out where it was. The water from the fountains flows 12 miles downhill from a natural spring, and all the force that pushes them through the fountains is done by gravity, whether the water is spouting twenty feet in the air or just a foot. The pipes were originally made from wood, and small boys were used to climb into the pipes and keep them clean (remember those coal mine children?).

We’ve seen so many dazzling things. Gold and semi-precious stones and priceless artwork. It all starts to run together in my head, and I can’t remember which churches we’ve seen and where my favorite paintings were. There are some things, odd things, that will probably stick in our heads long after the finery has faded.

Clay has noticed that the drain pipes in this city are enormous. They run down the sides of buildings, churches, museums, and each one has at least an eight inch diameter. It would be unfortunate to be standing in front of one during a bad storm! We have been so fortunate with the weather. It drizzled a little this morning, but otherwise we’ve had sunshine and blue skies.

Another thing we’ve noticed in this city are cats. We’ve encountered many cats on the streets, ducking under parked cars and hopping from porches to the sidewalks. On one street there are two statues of cats, sitting up high on windowsills. Tatiana says that Russians love their pet dogs and cats, and the statues signify this. People try and toss coins onto the window ledge near the cats for good luck. The kids loved this. Tatiana said that in the Winter Palace, Catharine the Great kept many cats and called them her servants. They were responsible for rooting out the many mice that also occupied the Palace. Fleas were also a problem at the time, she showed us some little boxes that were intended to catch fleas, and a delicate backscratcher made of ivory, used by fashionable women to scratch their flea bites. Rich or poor, noble or peasant, the fleas didn’t seem to care who they bit.

We’ve noted that to pay at register, you are supposed to put your money in a little tray on the counter, and then your change and receipt are put in that same tray. Napkins are almost always arranged the same way, in a little fan between the salt and pepper shakers, whether in our hotel or at restaurants. And cars seem to find a place to park just about anywhere, often on the sidewalk. The jelly served with breakfast or with blinies (a yummy cross between a crepe and a pancake) is very runny, almost like syrup, but taste great, and we can’t drink water from the tap due to high bacteria levels.

We visited a metro station on our way home today. The most beautiful metro station I’ve ever been in. They were built in the 50’s, and they have big chandeliers and marble columns, or columns made of glass, statues, the hammer and sickle representing peasants and workers uniting together. It’s very interesting to talk with Tatiana about what times were like during Communism, she has good and bad things to say about it.

Tomorrow, we go to another palace, see some more gardens. The kids are watchful for playgrounds that appear on the horizon, the stray cat that wanders our way, or pigeons to feed. We enjoy these encounters as much as we enjoy the beautiful things we see in the churches and palaces.


Sunday, 2 September 2007

Today we visited Catherine’s Palace, and the grounds surrounding it. We learned a new style, “Second Rococo”, and the kids can tell the difference between this Baroque, Classical and High Classical style (Rococo has more plaster, less gold gilt, shells are often used since “Rococo” is combination of the French and Italian words for shell and Baroque). Clay and I are learning right along with them. In Copenhagen, I bought a book with Hans Christian Andersen fairy tales in them, and I’ve been reading them to the kids. They are darker than the Disney-fied versions, and some are very strange. A funny thing, Andersen uses the phrase “Good Lord” a lot. I find myself thinking in his voice sometimes, in those Baroque, gilt-ridden palaces. “Good Lord there’s a lot of gold in this place,” I’ll think to myself.

We saw a room where the walls were covered in Amber, but not the original amber. A mystery surrounds the room. When the Germans were moving in during WWII, many of the precious items from the palaces were evacuated and sent to safer places like Siberia. Although the Amber panels in this room were the most valuable thing in the entire palace, they were not removed. They were stolen, but by whom? The Germans, or possibly a corrupt Russian? Nobody knows to this day. They recreated the room exactly as it looked before (the Germans vandalized the palace horribly, it was left in ruins when they retreated), and it is now beautiful.

Tatiana explained that when Amber first appears it is the color of sauerkraut, and it takes many, many years, sometimes hundreds, to change to the pretty tones of browns and deep reds that it eventually takes on. Color can change depending on the soil, or the minerals it comes in contact with. To recreate the room, artists discovered different ways to color the amber so they wouldn’t have to wait so long to gather enough amber. For one color they added honey, for others they added different things. The effect is beautiful, all different tones of browns, shades of amber, warm and grand at the same time.

We ducked into a small workshop where artists work with amber today, shaping it into jewelry and figurines. There was also a collection of unusual pipes, some carved from ivory with an old man’s head as the bowl, smoke would come out his open mouth. Another with a hand holding skull, and holes for the smoke to come through the eyes and nose of the skull. It was all very fascinating, but Benji was most interested in the live canary in a cage that was kept in the corner of the workshop. “Mama, is it for sale?” he asked. He thought maybe we could carry it around the world with us, I guess.

While the palace and gardens were impressive, the kids may have been more impressed by the three story souvenir shop we visited in the afternoon. Woo-hoo, it was a souvenir extravaganza! The boys got little Russian soldier figurines, and Alayna got one of those traditional Russian dolls that nest inside of each other. She got a very small one, the tiniest figure is smaller than my pinkie nail!

We were also captivated by a market we visited to buy some supplies for dinner. The greasy, rich food has not been agreeing with me, and we were ready for a little home cooking. The food market, far away from any tourist destination, was indoors, and stalls manned by individual merchants were in lines up and down a large room. You could buy a whole pig with everything but the eyeballs, a rabbit that still had fur on its hind legs and its guts hanging out of its stomach, and lots of tongues. We passed on all of these, but found some excellent chicken breasts and some very nice-looking veggies to stir fry. We also got some great cookies, good Russian chocolate, and a piece of honeycomb. The woman gave us a sample, cutting deep into the comb and scraping it and the thick honey onto a small piece of paper for us to try. Tatiana told us we should chew on the comb. “Chew and chew and chew” she said. “It’s good for you.” The honey was very good and we bought some to take with us. The woman just cut a chunk out of the comb and put it in a container.

Some thoughts on traveling so far. The hardest parts have been laundry, and eating. Things you can’t plan in advance, things you must just deal with when the time comes--even when you’re tired and hungry and don’t feel like washing clothes for two hours in a tiny bathroom sink, or wandering around the dark streets trying to find a restaurant where you can read the menu. Benji has surprised us with his ability to eat anything he is served. We ordered veal-kebobs for him last night. The plate appeared with some very grisly looking meat that looked most unappetizing. But Benji dove right in and ate just about all of it with never a single word of complaint, even if several of the bites took him a good three minutes to finally be able to swallow.

Some of our most valuable items so far have been some things that almost didn’t make the list: our “spikes” (combination fork, spoon, and knife), our sleep sacks (ever since we left England, our covers include a fitted sheet and a duvet, that’s it, no top sheet, the sleep sacks are nice for an extra layer), our clotheslines, and our handy dandy laundry hanger that can hold ten socks in tiny clips, all attached to one hook. We are having trouble keeping ourselves supplied with books, but so far the kids have been  happy with legos, paper and colored pencils, and some occasional DS game time.

It is still a thrill to get up every day and wonder what is in store for us. Each day is an adventure. I had a little conversation with myself while doing laundry last night. I asked myself, “If someone told you that you could travel around the world for nine and a half months, but you’d have to wash laundry in a tiny bathroom sink three times a week for two hours each time, would you do it?”, and I said, “Yes, I would.” I can’t complain, it is still a wonderful world. I think about refugees who don’t have any water to wash their clothes in, and I am thankful. I think of pioneer women who washed their clothes in buckets and then plucked a chicken and milked a cow and sewed some clothes, and I am thankful.


Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Our last full day in St. Petersburg was very different from the previous ones. We did not see any large palaces. We did find a playground. It was old and wet from rain that morning, nothing special. But our kids made it into an obstacle course and ran up, around, over, and across it over and over, trying to beat their times. We must have played on it for over half an hour, this tiny playscape.

The park we were in had several dogs hanging around, something we had noticed throughout St. Petersburg. They didn’t have owners, and yet they didn’t seem wild or hungry. They were very well-mannered, trotting along sidewalks or across grass. The dogs in this park were all sprawled out on the grass taking a nap, a large pack of domesticated dogs with no owners in the park. A strange sight.

After the playground we visited a doll museum. Tatiana was not able to meet us that morning but had told Alexis where we would be going so he could take us there. He does not speak English very well, so we didn’t talk much, but he knew where he was going. When we got to the museum, the entrance was not apparent. Alexis got out of the car and checked a door, what looked like the side door. He beckoned for us to follow. We found ourselves in a dark stairwell, walked up several flights, and out into a hall flanked on either side by windows into rooms full of women stitching dolls. A giant Standard poodle and an important-looking woman appeared and had a heated discussion with Alexis in Russian. We were then directed to the front door of the museum, where the tour was to start.

A very sweet old Russian woman took us through the museum. She didn’t speak a lick of English, and we didn’t understand a word of what she said, but she kindly explained all about the dolls in Russian while we traveled from room to room, while we nodded and tried to look like we understood. These were not blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls. Oh no, these were handmade dolls from folk tales and artist’s imaginations. Dolls that sprouted roots and had leaves for hair and bird’s nests for hats, dolls with mermaid tails and spiky blue hair, dolls that were street performers with nose piercings, and dolls that pedaled a flying three-seater zeppelin. I wish I could have understood that guide, I wondered about the stories behind all these unusual, original dolls.

It even included a doll “peep show”. At one point the woman herded the kids into one room and motioned for Clay and I and Alexis to go through a closed door. I figured maybe the kids were going to put on a puppet show and we were entering the “audience” room. We found ourselves in a room full of bare-chested crocheted dolls and dolls in questionable clothing and positions. Hmm. A little odd, a little funny, a little creepy.

The last room was full of dolls from around the world. There were dolls made from wood and string and even corn husks. Lovingly crafted, they told of a people and history that was so intriguing. Except America. The dolls they chose to represent America were a plastic Beauty and The Beast, they looked like Happy Meal toys! It was a little disappointing, surely there are other dolls from our country they could have chosen that are a little more authentic, handmade looking. And yet, I bet every child that sees them knows their name and has seen the Disney movie, so maybe they were appropriate.

Later that afternoon we visited the Church on Spilled Blood, filled with huge mosaics on every wall but most famous for its colorful turrets, in bright blues and greens, twisting into the skyline, seen from all over the city. It took twenty years to build, and over twenty to restore after the Germans destroyed it. It is dazzling inside and out, I wish we could remember with clarity the soaring ceilings, the mosaics in the domes high above us, the colors all around. Pictures would never do it justice.

That night we went to a folk show that was one of our favorite experiences in Russia. It started with four men singing a capella. Their strong voices harmonized and filled the small rooms we were in. We couldn’t understand a word, and it was still wonderful. Then came many dancers and talented musicians. One man held a huge instrument that looked like a giant wooden triangle that sat on the floor, big as a bass but held like a guitar. The dancers changed into different costumes, they whirled and stomped right in front of our front row seats, but the highlight of the show were the “snowmen”. That’s what Nate and Benji called them, they were actually Russians all dressed up in winter gear.

What we saw when they came out were two Russians bent over, locked in an embrace, or a wrestle, it was hard to tell. Their embroidered heads and faces flopped around, and it looked like two men in a costume, with their heads bent down, and the false heads bobbing around. In reality, it was one man with boots on his hands and feet. Benji and Nate belly laughed as this strange creature bounded around the stage, even coming down into the audience, sitting in my lap and bouncing around while I got Russian hat hair in my hysterically laughing mouth. When the act was over the man flipped off the top half of his costume to reveal that it was just one man. You should have seen Benji’s jaw drop. He sat there long after the Russian man had left stage, trying to get this new reality straight in his head. The wheels were definitely turning.

Today is mostly a travel day, but before we left for the airport, we visited the ship Aurora, an old warship. Benji and Nate were fascinated by a map that showed the routes this boat had taken, the battles the ship had fought, where the ship had been hit, and diagrams of all the Russian ships. It’s strange, growing up during the Cold War when Russia was considered the enemy, to hear the boys saying “Ooooo, in that picture the good guys are winning”, and it’s a picture of a Russian ship gunning down an airplane.

And yet we met some very good guys during our time in Russia, especially our guide Tatiana and driver Alexis. The kids made them cards and presents and we exchanged hugs and bid fond farewells at the airport. Our trip would not have been nearly as enriching without them, and we would have spent most of our time getting from one place to the next. We learned a little bit about what life is really like in Russia, what Russians think about Communism and Capitalism, and what Russians do for fun. It involves a sheet and a branch and a lot of steam. We never did visit a Russian bathhouse. Maybe next time.