First Day in St. Petersburg, Russia

13 Sep

St. Petersburg, Russia

I touched down in St. Petersburg. My word. Am I really in Russia? The Russia – where violence, hunger, romance and clandestine operations are the norm? This place introduced their version to sharing, openness and capitalism less than twenty-five years ago. That’s it. That’s nothing. You just can chuck a history of reminiscent government control and expect people to trust each other – let alone their government – and walk with smiles on their faces. It’s going to take decades, if not centuries.

I was traveling in the Middle East with a friend from East Germany. Their “wall” per se was physically knocked down in late eighties. She said that a private research group recently polled both East and West Germans about life now – in comparison to the Berlin Wall days. The majority of both East and West Germans said they wanted the wall back. Life – perceived life – was better then than now. Yes, business news just reported that Berlin – German economy – had one of this best growth quarters ever. My friend said that under communism, there was 100% full employment and health care. Though, trying to get proper health care of any sort could take weeks and months – but not matter – it was free. What’s free when the government is your employer, takes your $ and repackages as “Free Services.”

Today, West Germans are paying a fee or tax to support the East Germans. When the wall came down millions of East Germans were added into the social and economic fabric of Germany. How do you absorb them? Educate them? Provide a a stronger foundation? West is pissed at East. East is pissed at West. She says the same thing – it’s going to take decades and decades for Germans to be unified and the government to put into place an operating system that is fair, equitable and where people can contribute. That was one thing interesting about Poland. Polish have zero concept of volunteerism. Zero. They thought it was highly strange that we would travel around the world to help them build houses – volunteer. Poland is the same as East Germany in terms of history. They don’t have a concept of volunteerism for their government either did it or it never got done. The later was the norm.

Back to Russia.

Airport security was uneventful. That’s right. No friggin’ big deal. I expected to be detained and questioned about my itinerary and forced to live here forever and ever and ever. Nope. We landed. TGIF Fridays welcomed me at the gate.

look at the lungs

Look at the Lungs

People were smoking. They are smoking now. They will be smoking later. I need to show them the marketing propaganda in Jordan and Israel. It may make them stop. Marlboro is forced to put a picture of some sick lungs on their package. Nothing but a set of black lungs to remind you that death is knocking with each puff.

Anyway, I walked down the airport corridor and some young kid was passed out and friends were trying to revive him. Too much Vodka? People were trotting towards their gate. Others were smoking. Kids were screaming. All in all, a normal airport. I grabbed my bag – which DID arrive without any security trouble – and headed to passport stamp central. Another blond with steely eyes was hidden behind a wooden box with a glass window. She did not say a word. I handed her my passport. A young kid was in the box with her – training possibly – and they giggled over something. Probably my pictures. Ugly with a capital U. She stamped the paper and off I went.

I walked out “into the light” and Michael greeted me. I had the trans-Siberian travel group have a driver meet me at the airport for $20. Was not going to try and figure out the Russian subway system on this day. Michael and I walked outside. He left me the curb. The woman who sat the airplane aisle with her mini-football lap dog, was standing next to me. She’s Russian. Her dog is too. The air was clean. It was warm – like 65 degrees – and St. Petersburg welcomed me with a smile. I’m here. The RUSSIA.

Micheal and I drove off in this Toyota mini-SUV. The area around the airport is your typical commercial area. Large buildings. Soviet looking – gray and and grayer. It took around 45 mins to get to the historical, downtown area. Michael chatted about St. Petersburg. He’s lived there all his life. He is not in the tourism business. He’s just picking me up for a friend. His friend is busy. Michael works for a Greek bank in “relationship management.” He just passed all of is CPA, series 7 and financial analyst tests in English. There is 6 million living in St. Petersburg and only 5,000 have passed all of these tests in English. I told him, “I better not read about you going to prison one day because you are too rich for Russia.” He laughed. I believed him about the numbers. I later found out the Russians still track you. Most have a great computer data storage system.

He said that the Greek banks are more solid, healthy than the Russian banks. I responded, “Surprised. Because I would assume since the Greek financial crisis, the banks would be in deep trouble like the government.” He said, “Yes, as an outsider you would think that. But, the Greek banks did not get into trouble. The government is the one in trouble. The Greeks did not feel like paying taxes and the government did not feel like collecting taxes. Then, they had no money. Greek people got mad…” Huh…

He went on to say, “Russia banks. You walk in and never know if the bank will be there. You do not if you will still have a job. Russia bank here for a few years or months, then disappears. Greek banks are all over Europe. They follow European labor laws and pay on time and give you a vacation. Russia banks, no. I’m happy to be working for a Greek bank.”

OK. That conversation has may layers to peel back. I tried. Talks to trust in their government. In business. I later had a long conversation – like 5 hours – with a Russian man. He said that their government is in the business of “changing.” He said, “like Obama, change, no? I mean where did this Obama come from? We are the same about Russian government. No one knows background. They come to talk about better life. Better change. Better opportunities.” He went on “But, the government – politicians – want to keep the people always guessing. Always surprised. Always changing. No one becomes too rich, too powerful, too complacent. Businesses don’t know, so they leave, pay cash or barter. No one can plan – anything. We get ready for the next change.”

We pull up to our hotel. It is a brown building. No sign. No nothing. I ask, “are you sure?” Michael says, “Yes. Go press that button on the wall. They let you in.” Damn. Where am I? It looks like a deteriorated Red Light District of Russia. I ring the bell. Greeted by two young girls who speak little English. They take my passport. Hand me a key and show me to the room. We walk down the long sidewalk. Press a code and then insert a card into a door. Major security. Where am I?

No elevator. We take the stairs of 1940, three flights. I’m now sweating. She slides the card and inserts another code into another door. Down along hallway with lightening. Good lightening. The hallway looks clean. We open my door and two beds and a shower waits me. It’s nice. I even have a mini-couch. I like it. It will work. I have NO idea where I am. But, my rooms seems safe. I flush the toilet and smile. They even have a real blow dryer. Honey, it’s time to party.

I drop the bags. Its around 4:00 pm. I have NO idea where I am – meaning – know little about St. Petersburg. I’ve been reading about my Tsars, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Ivan the Terrible, WWI, Lenin Revolution, Civil War, Stalin crimes, WWII – but still have no idea where I am. I found my way back tot he front desk. The girls handed me a map. Circled our street and drew a line to the historical center. And, I grab my mini-back pack and start walking. I will find whatever I want to find and tomorrow I’ll do the “real deal” and tour like an American. Today, I’m touring like a clueless nomad. Where will the day and night take me.

I wander into grocery stories — they are some of my favorite places because it tells you about the country. Plus, I wonder if I can locate a fresca, diet 7-up or diet sprite. If they have anything diet, it tells me a little something about the people. No diet nothing. A lot of chocolate. Pasta. Tea. Fish. Bread. Rotten fruit. Cheese. And, Vodka. The mini-grocery stores have their food behind glass. You have to point and the lady screams and hands you food.

I find my way down Nesky street. That’s what I’m calling it. Everything is in Russian. Duh. I noticed a few words from my sorority days – gamma, pie, beta, alpha – but can’t tell you anything. I figured out the restaurant is the letter P with the Greek symbol, Pie. Coffee shops are KA(Insert Greek sign)E. And, signs in pink usually tells toilet paper. Got this place covered.

Nesky street is the “it” street of St. Petersburg. All the stores you want – H&M, ZARA, ECCO, MANGO, BENETTON and more and more expensive stores. They are littered in with fur shops and second hand electronics. I walk.

There are so many people on the street. The women are beautiful. No joke. They all wear the “I hate you. Fuck you. Die” expressions. I think Angelina Joelie must have sisters here – all skinny, pouty lips, ice eyes and looks like they need to be fed. Did I say they are skinny? I mean, super skinny regardless of age. They are trying their hand at the fashion thing. Some, you can tell, have $ and their clothes tell you this. How? Well, their heals have rubber on them, not nails. That is one noise you hear over and over again – Nails scratching the sidewalks. Girls out there know what I’m talking about. Click. Click. Click. Their shoes are a minimum of three inches and they look like they have been around the block many, many miles. Their clothes are every shade of black. No autumn, spring or summer colors here. They like boots. Heels. Big purses. And, tight clothes. But, not in a vulgar, slutty way. In a sexy, I want a husband with $$ way. Am I making sense?

They only smile if they are talking to a friend. But, no one smiles. No one. It’s seriously, “eat shit and die” look. My new BFFer, Nicoli, said that “Russian people don’t smile. But, they are laughing inside. American people smile. But, they are sad said inside. American people take pills to smile. Russians can’t afford the happy, prescription pills, no?” So, to make me feel better, I imagined all of them drug-free and laughing inside. Hey, maybe this is what an anti-prozac society looks like…

I made my way down to the Hermitage museum – Peter the Great’s Winter Palace. When Catherine the Great came on to the scene, she added some architectural enhancements. I walked upon this green monstrosities and thought, “OK, this is big. This is something. Looks like I’ll be back here tomorrow.” I then trotted over a bridge and ran into the onion church. That’s what Russians call it – onions. The Germans or Stalin did not destroy it during war’s heydays. It’s amazing. Again, no clue what I was looking at – but knew it was a bid deal. I find all of this stuff out the next day.

Peter the Great’s goal in the 1740s+ was to move Russia out of backwardness to forwardness – as he saw it. He built a city based on Amsterdam and with a European, intellectual curiosity. St. Petersburg – before Peter – was a big mound of swamp land. Nothing. Given I from Florida, it reminds me of Mr. Walt Disney. I guess Walt was inspired by Peter and thought – if Peter can build St. Pete in swamp land, then he could build a theme park devoted to mice on the same golden sludge.

“It took over 100,000 men with their balls up to muck to build this city,” according to Nicoli. I like the visual. Canals bleed through the city. Back then, the Russians hated St. Petersburg. Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg and forced the aristocrats to move to his city. They did. But, they believed the city was beneath them. I guess living with muck and mosquitoes will do that for you.

After walking for 4 hours or so, I headed back to my hotel. It’s night. Well, it’s 8:00 pm and it’s still light. But, my body clock is off and I’m tired. I find my way back to hotel. I buy water with greek letters. Did not have the right amount. The cashier did “not” have change. So, she kept my money. That is the norm around here. Rip you off. I did not care. She can keep the $.50 as a tip. I just wanted my water.

Came back. Showered with water pressure. Crawled into bed. Next day – I was signing up for the 6 hour walking tour with a “real live” Russian. I’m going to see this city. But, not only that, I’m going to talk politics, religion, sex and drugs – all the things that are damned. I can’t wait!

Yes, I’m in Russia. I’m tired. So, I can’t give it a two thumbs up or down. I can tell you that I’m clean. Safe. And, happy.

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