Dump any notion you ever had of Russia as a drab and dowdy place. St. Petersburg is swimming in colour, seething with life. I've only been here a day now, but it's already staking a genuine claim to becoming my favourite European city.
That despite the fact I got pickpocketed in the metro this morning - for the first time ever anywhere - amidst the press of the shoulder-to-sholder crowd. Fear not, all I lost was a day's spending money (R800/US$30); my ID, credit cards, and US$ stash are tucked away rather more securely. And a good thing too.
The puppet theatre where I am staying is, alas, closed for renovations. (Had I known this, I would have stayed elsewhere, but it's comfortable enough in a Stalinist-hostel kind of way. I have my own room; I'm kinda too old for dorm beds nowadays.)
Mild culture shock hit before I ever got out of the airport: I ordered a Pepsi to change money, and got a Pepsi Cappucino, coffee flavour cola, which tastes pretty much like it sounds. Thence a rattling, belching, rusting old bus with a babushka ticket taker, down wide green boulevards into the city proper, into the metro, up at Nevsky Prospket - and up - and up - and up. If there's a deeper subway system anywhere, I've never seen it.
Nevsky Prospekt is the spine of St. Petersburg, a massive boulevard walled by ornate buildings, palaces, cathedrals, department stores, McDonald's, Armani, Citibank, etc., and covered by a tangled spiderweb of streetcar wires. Glittering spires, domes, and pillared colonnades are visible around virtually every corner, and the city is broken up by wide canals, massive public squares, and green patches of public parks. But dig a little behind this glittering exterior and you'll find traces of seventy years of Soviet neglect: interior stairways that appear to have been bombed and then littered with construction materials, scarred and faded walls. When you cross the street you stand an equal chance of being almost-run-over by a groaning Lada or a sleek BMW.
St. Petersburg women are exceedingly stylish, and the attractive ones - who so far as I can tell comprise the great majority - are, let's say, not at all reluctant to show off their looks, and often seem to have been born in three-inch spike heels. The wide sidewalks of Nevsky Prospect sometimes seem less like a pedestrian thoroughfare and more like a parade of models down the world's longest catwalk. Russian men, to a first approximation, appear to go through three stages in their adult life: "awkward student," "Cassius," "Yeltsin."
In A Srange Land
It's very strange being in a place where I don't even know the alphabet, much less the language. First time in ages. Oh, I can mostly puzzle out Cyrillic already, but it's very odd to read things letter by individual letter rather than six or eight words at a time, the way I read English. Russian is enough of a Latin language that sounding out the letters then helps me understand the word - it's an odd satori, halfway through, the first time you suddenly realize a sign says "Electronics" or "Telephone." I have a new understanding of what it means to be only functionally literate. It's intimidating, not knowing the language. It makes you an idiot. And not in the Prince Myshkin sense.
I suspect travel to alien lands is often only easy - mentally, that is - if you started young; in the same way that people who get their driver's licenses in their late twenties are generally forevermore much more timid behind the wheel than those who learned to drive in their teens. I find myself getting more cautious as I get older, more neurotic about plans and preparations, and I think if I hadn't gone to China when I was 23, and Africa when I was 25, today I'd be an organized-tour kind of tourist. Not, he said hastily, that there's anything wrong with that.
Today I went to see an entire woolly mammoth at the zoology museum, found out that said museum is closed, and went to the Kunstkamera collection next door. The museum was half-closed for renovations. Of the remainder, the Great Gottorp Globe could only be viewed with a pre-booked and expensive guide; there were various collections of cultural artifacts from around the world; and then there was the Kunstkamera collection itself, which was - well ...
You see, Peter the Great was one morbid SOB of a teratologist, and in this, Russia's first museum, he installed a room full of freak-show curiosities collected and embalmed by the anatomist Frederik Ruysch, who I bet was no fun at all at parties. The Kunstkamera collection is, for the most part, an assortment of horribly deformed fetuses floating in formaldehyde in big glass tubes, with the occasional two-headed beast or lump of coral thrown in for show. Labels include "Double-faced monster with brain hernia", "Cyclops with occipital hernia", "Skeleton of child with two heads and three arms," "Knife used for amputation." Body Worlds has nothing on this place. It's kind of fascinating - and more than a little disturbing.
Tonight, the local microbrewery (did I mention I'm travelling with a beer fiend?) Tomorrow, the Hermitage, the woolly mammoth, and maybe a run along the Neva, or in one of the local parks.
I flickrd some pictures.
eta: just realized - this is also the farthest north I've ever been. (St. Petersburg is just a handful of latitude-minutes from the Arctic Circle.) How odd.