October 21

In St. Petersburg and Pushkin

Slept very badly, awakening at 4:15 to use the toilet and tossing and turning for several hours after that. The sky was cloudy this morning, but I felt it will clear up later. Olga was understandably skeptical. We were going out to visit the school and palace in Pushkin today. For comfort's sake I wore only one sweater. If the weather report was correct, it should have been be plenty.

A marketplace near the train station

It wasn't. The temperature hovered around 0 all day. It snowed slightly in Pushkin, but before that, in St. Petersburg, we waited at the train station for maybe 90 minutes, with a side trip into a marketplace full of kiosks and booths. It was mostly foodsellers of various kinds, resembling somewhat an American farmers' market but with neither the quantity nor the selection (nor, from the look of things, very appealing goods.) A few of the kiosks had sizable crowds while others with the same items at the same prices had no customers at all. Russian consumer culture remains mysterious.

A typical kiosk

I brought this notebook along in the hopes of writing on the train, but the train ride wasn't at all what I expected. I suppose by now I should know to leave my expectations at home. I had expected a preassigned seat where I could sit and write, as on the day train from Moscow, but this train was packed full of people as if it were a metro car. We didn't get to sit at all. There were many children, around 11 or 12 years old, riding with us. They got off at our train stop, and when we emerged from the train station we were confronted with mobs of children of various ages, all waiting for one bus or another.

Like this, but with kids.

Olga said they were most likely going the same place we were. And did that ever turn out to be true! The bus arrived near us. We pushed our way in; it was crowded but there was some standing room. Then an entire classful of kids came running across the square and somehow forced its way on. We were smashed against the wall of the bus, unpleasant since there was a row of seats in the way. The kids were loud and restless. One girl was constantly turning her head and unintentionally slapping Olga in the face with her ponytail. An old woman scolded some of the kids ("Who teaches you?" "You do!") which quieted a few for a little while. By the time we reached our stop, I was starting to feel almost ill from the crowding and jostling. On the other hand, the bus did have its benefits; it was freezing outside and at least the pressing of bodies kept everyone acceptably warm.

A small roadside fountain

We rushed quickly to the nearest museum entrance, hot on the heels of another group of schoolkids (pictured at the top of the page.) By then I just wanted a nice warm museum, no matter what it was about. It turned out to be the Lyceum, the school where Pushkin and other famous figures had attended classes. The building was fairly elaborate, obviously a place for the children of the wealthy and noble, though the dormitory rooms were much smaller than the ones I lived in when I was in college. The place was full of interesting drawings and documents, including a graphical diagram of the movements of various groups of people throughout history.

The Catherine Palace
Sculpture on the lawn in front of the palace

We finished looking at the school and walked to the Catherine Palace, but by that time the cold and the lack of sleep were getting to me and I didn't want to go to another museum. So we headed back, which meant a 20-minute wait in the drizzling snow for a bus. Olga again commented that they used to run far more often several years ago. This time, the train came right away when we reached the station, and it wasn't too crowded. We unpacked sandwiches and had lunch on the way, which didn't particularly please a small boy sitting across from us with his grandfather. He looked at me with a mixture of jealousy and anger as I consumed the food. I wasn't in the best mood at the time or I would have given part of a sandwich to him.

A familiar icon in a strange place

Upon returning to St. Petersburg, we searched in vain for a bridge I'd seen on TV. I thought it would probably be near the open water, so we went to the Gulf of Finland, but didn't actually look at any bridges. Instead we walked around the port, looked at the big cruise ships, and tried to find our way around one of the buildings. There is a miniature Statue of Liberty replica out by the water.

After returning home and resting a bit, we left for the concert hall for another performance of "Giselle," which unfortunately seems to be the only ballet playing in the entire country while I'm here! After a few wrong turns, we arrived at the concert hall, where Andrei was waiting. We had high balcony seats on the side, so I was able to watch both the orchestra and the ballet. The performance was markedly better than the one at the Bolshoi Theater. We sat next to a pair of Americans with a Russian host. One of them blinded us several times with a camera flash. It's too bad tourists don't take the time to learn how to use their equipment. Andrei recommended several museums to visit, but it wasn't likely we'd have time to do much more than we'd already planned.

We waited and waited for a tram to take us back to the apartment, but after about 45 minutes in the cold and wind, neither of the lines we wanted had gone by and Olga decided to risk flagging down a passing car. It seems a large percentage of the private cars in the city are doubling as part-time taxis. It makes sense; it's a quick buck and the drivers are going that way anyway. As soon as Olga put her arm out, someone stopped. He agreed to take us for, I think, 400 rubles, 20 times the cost of the tram but well worth it in my (financially distorted) opinion. While we rode I kept close watch on the driver. I'd read enough stories about people being robbed by taxi drivers that I didn't feel too safe. But he dropped us off as agreed and drove away. Perhaps we were just lucky, or perhaps the fact that there were two of us made it safer. In any case, even with the risk, I definitely prefer cars to the public transit system! Probably few people would feel otherwise, but given how expensive even the cheap Russian-made Ladas are, I guess Russia is stuck with crowded, infrequent buses for the time being.

I took a sleeping pill before bed. No more of this waking up 10 times a night. Just say yes to tranquilizers!

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