Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Russia Day 23: Last Day in St Petersburg, The Hermitage and more

Woke up at around 4:30, good practice for tomorrow when I'll need to be up a bit earlier than that to get ready to head to the airport. Read a bit until the restaurant downstairs opened for breakfast at 6:30.

I headed out to the Hermitage when it opened up for the day. It's a massive museum and I didn't expect to really see it all. What I did see was pretty great. I saw most of the Palace Rooms, which were spectacularly built and decorated halls, including some impressive wooden floors. In one room the wooden floor pattern mopstly matched the design of the gilded ceiling. And I saw a lot of great paintings, including a lot of Matisse, Picasso, Monet,, Gaugain, Pissaro and my favourites: a few of Van Gogh's paintings.

From the Hermitage I walked to the nearby Cat Republic Cafe, where I had a light lunch, and then went in to the adjoining room (entering through a wardrobe) to play with about 20 cats. The cats were all very friendly, and included a few unusual looking ones. They were pretty lazy for the most part, but it was nice to get a cat fix after a few weeks away from my kitties.

Back to the metro, and then on my walk back to my hotel, I stopped at the Dostoevsky museum, set in the apartment where the author lived with his family, and where he died. The English audioguide was extremely informative (actually, it went on and on a little much at each of the 20-odd locations), and I learned a bunch about his life, and saw how his apartment was set up.

Rested up before dinner. Today was a light walking day, only about 5km, not including whatever I covered within the Hermitage as I walked through dozens of rooms for a few hours.

Here are some questions to things I've been asked:
Q: Are Russian women as beautiful as they say?
A: Well, like at home, people here come in all shapes & sizes, but on the whole I would say Russian women are quite a bit more gorgeous than average.

Q: How much did my Russian lessons help; can I speak to people or are there a lot of regional accents?
A: The Russian lessons helped a lot. Being able to read Cyrillic, even if I don't understand the meaning of every word I can read, makes it much, much easier to navigate, especially in Moscow where most of the signage in the metro was only in Russian. I can say enough to manage at stores and restaurants (all that drilling on numbers has helped a lot; I can bargain in Russian at markets). But I am very very far from being fluent, and I often get completely lost when others speak to me, especially if the context hasn't prepared me to expect what they might say next. I think most people appreciate that I have made an effort to learn some Russian, and they're nicer to me because of that.
At the same time, they must be immediately recognizing my foreign accent as I mispronounce words, because when they can speak English, they often quickly switch to English when responding to me.

Q: Does everyone there look sad all the time, since they are being repressed and surveilled?
A: Nope. People here look and act like people anywhere. They laugh, they kiss, they joke around. It's true that there is little to no eye contact on the metro, as I had heard, and in the streets in Moscow and St Petersburg there's no interaction with strangers (that was an anomaly during the Olympic party in Sochi!). But people here are just people, and I see no signs that they are suffering from living in a repressive state. I do believe that their government is undemocratic and dictatorial, and lying to them about much of what is going on in the world, but that doesn't seem to have any impact on their ability to enjoy life day to day. I know that the rest of the country is not as well off as what I see in Moscow and St Petersburg (perhaps the richest places in the country).

Other differences I've noticed:
  • Women often walk arm in arm down the streets. I have not figured out the protocol for who grabs whose arm (age? the side closer to the car traffic?). And when a bunch of them say goodnight as they head off in different directions at a subway station, there's a frenzy of kissing each other in all combinations.
  • There's a lot of smoking here! Google tells me that about 40% of Russians smoke (60% of men and about 22% of women). That's about double the rate in Canada, and it's one of the reasons why Russian life expectancy is about 10 years shorter than ours.
  • Racially, things are much more homogeneous here; almost everyone is pasty white. It feels weird.
  • There are flower shops everywhere, like we have Tim Hortons or Starbucks on every corner. And I don't think they all sprang up just for International Women's Day.
  • I've seen some beggars on the streets and in metro stations. It's been almost always old women, often holding/praying to an icon. I saw one young pregnant woman begging
  • In each metro station, there are either 3 or 4 escalators, and as I mentioned earlier, they are very long escalators. I timed a few rides today, and they were between 2-3 minutes each. That's why people turn around and ride backwards so they can chat with their friend or make out with their partner; you're on the thing for a while! The middle one or two of these three or four escalators are almost always turned off. There is a woman (almost always a woman) in a tiny booth at the bottom of escalators, and I have been trying to understand what she does. Some times she has a video display showing escalators so I guess she is monitoring them. She could perhaps turn on another one at busy times, but often there is a line of 30-40 people waiting to get on, while another escalator sits idle. Another example of very suboptimal crowd management. 
  • I've seen an interesting variety of subway platform and interchange experiences. At most interchange stations there is a long walk to switch lines, like at Spadina station in Toronto. The two lines have nearby stations and they just built a pathway between them.  At some it's just a short stairway (like Bloor/Yonge). At one station I used, they had cleverly arranged one direction from each of the intersecting lines to share a platform, so for half of the transfers between those lines you just crossed the platform to await your next train. Pretty cool. At a few stations there are doors built into the platform itself, that open only when the train has stopped in the station. I guess that eliminates jumpers. 
I'm heading home tomorrow. It's been a fantastic trip and it seems to have gone by so fast, but I'm ready to go home (and start planning the next trip!).

I'll post some more photos when I get home, and set up a little table of contents post to make it easier to gather all the posts from the trip in one place, instead of having to scroll back to the start.

Last post of trip: http://mrjohngross.blogspot.ca/2014/03/russia-trip-wrapup-and-table-of-contents.html

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