Sunday, August 26, 2007

Arkhangelsk back to St. Petersburg

One day in Arkhangelsk was sufficient. I walked around a bit in the morning before checking out, and parts felt like the Wild West, as I walked down a large dirt/mud road with bushes growing and wooden planks lining it as sidewalks. It certainly was not a heavily developed city. I then walked along the embankment, seeing a bunch of monuments and maybe the White Sea (Белое Море). It was sort of tough being just on my own.

I took the bus to the train station, and saw that indeed I could have taken the bus from the airport to the hotel and saved myself 290 rubles, but oh well. The train station was interesting; there was no evident way to move between the tracks, which I thought meant that all trains came on the same track next to the platform, but no, I then realized you just crossed the tracks directly and were careful about it.

The train ride itself turned out to be quite interesting as well. The view and sunset were nice, especially as we crossed a large bridge, and then at the next stop the remainder of my compartment filled up (3 more people). The woman next to me asked if I was also going to Finland; confused (and not sure whether I understood correctly) I answered that no, I was from America, much to her surprise. A woman from the next compartment came in and asked if I could switch so they could be together and I said sure. In the next cabin was a woman and two boys, and as it turned out the 7 of them were studying English, with this woman being their teacher. She spoke slowly and deliberately, telling me that they were on their way to Finland as part of a program in order to practice for a week. She told me at length about the program and its virtues; I had thought the boys were studying at a university, but in fact the one was in 8th grade, which again reinforced the quick maturity of Russian youth. In Murmansk, Katya had quoted, "if you want to live two lives, live in Russia." Shortly thereafter, the 4 other women came by so that they could practice. The two boys spoke well, but the women didn't have as easy a time, which was not surprising as children have a far easier time with languages. The teacher's birthday was a few days before, so we celebrated on the train until late at night with some wine ("Bear's Blood" from Bulgaria) and a surprising large amount of food, with seemingly every suitcase and backpack dedicated to bringing food along.

The next day we played some games, like "guess the object" (describe something and everyone else guesses what it is) and "at the party," which consisted of writing down responses to prompts ("name a famous polititician", "name a famous actress", etc) and then took on personae based on those answers, so you were the politician, your wife was the actress (or husband the actor) and so forth. We then had to introduce ourselves to each other, which got repetitive after a short while as each pair did it. Moreover, I had the good fortune of moving into the cabin where the window was the emergency exit and didn't open, and it was damned hot throughout the ride. In any case it was interesting to have the shoe on the other foot, that is, now I needed to speak especially slowly and clearly in order to be understood, and it was still too fast, just like the directors of our program needed to do when speaking Russian when we started. I shared my similar experience and assured them it would get easier eventually as now I could understand normally, however frustrating as it was may have been at the beginning.

I met up with Katya at the stop; she hadn't slept well, due to noisy girls discussing makeup, little dogs and cats in neighboring compartments, a pair of loud women, and various other things. Later on I visited and saw all that she'd described, and then returned and lay down to sleep. When I awoke, there was another batch of guests; 4 more students (a boy and 3 girls) and a fairly old woman. They were another group on the program from another town, with another teacher in an adjoining car. We chatted for a while, and then I joined them in their cabin. The teacher in the first group and the old woman in the second played the classic Russian hosts, stuffing me with food long after I'd had enough. The old woman asked, "Do you want something?" "No thanks," I replied; she proceeds to make a sandwich. "How about a sandwich?" "Well, all right." While I eat she makes another one sandwich, and when I finish that asks if I want another. I say "no thanks," but she says, "just one more," and makes another. She offers me another, which I turn down, and so instead gives me more cheese. She asks if I want tea or coffee, I say "no thanks," so she says she'll give me some coffee; I say tea would be better, and she asks "green or black," so I take some green tea, and she still asks whether I want to have both together, which I turn down. The quantity of food they all brought was astounding. After this, I went back and chatted with Katya for a while, and then we pretty much were arriving in St. Petersburg, so I returned to my car and wished the group well.

I took the bus from the station, which, for a surprisingly convenient change went straight to the station from a stop not far from me (although on the way there when I went to Murmansk I missed the stop as the station was occluded). While I was on the bus home, there were a bunch of cars with people hanging out of the doors and sunroofs, honking and going nuts. I thought it was something to do with football (fine, soccer), but they did it again in the other direction with many more cars, this time stopping in groups and making a mess of traffic, with cars ranging from beat up Lada station wagons to Supras (2 at least). I asked Katya if she knew what it was all about; she said it was хрен (horseradish).

On the way home from the bus stop I saw a woman yelling at and walking away from a car in a short black outfit, and as I passed her she started telling me that he had told her to сайдись ("come sit here") and how it was not right and so on. I assented as we walked and she continued to talk about it, a beer in hand at obviously at least a bit drunk. As we passed a nice Escalade she said something to the effect that she would have at least thought about it if he'd offered, but for a crappy little Lada, no dice. She asked where I was coming from, indicating the suitcase, and I said simply that I had returned from Arkhangelsk, and she said she'd been there. It was somewhat difficult for me to understand her, so I didn't say all that much, and she asked if I understood what she was saying. I said, "more or less," and shortly thereafter she came to the realization, "you're not Russian, are you?" and I said no, I was from America, and she started laughing hysterically. She said to wait while she stopped into a store from some more beer, then our paths parted soon after and she wished me well and to watch out for such jerks, and I continued home.

The next day I walked along the English embankment, where the Leutenant Schmidt bridge was finally done and operating! with some obvious confetti remaining in the streets and the temporary one now closed. The following day I went to Pavlovsk, which was yet another palace, not too extraordinary, but had a nice park. I was sort of disappointed that when I tried to order a ticket for taking pictures, they wanted to charge the foreigner price and all sorts of chaos broke loose until I showed my St. Petersburg student Id, since they didn't know there was a foreigner in the group (thus affecting prices). It's frustrating that it's still (and will always be) so obvious. I understood little of the tour, which was also frustrating. I was surprised to see my hostess coming back home when I returned, who was unhappy about coming back to the city, a sentiment echoed by Katya (life at the dacha is so much calmer than life in the city, obviously). When I came home my hostess asked about the cruise (of which she'd helped plan a great deal), and we looked at my pictures for a while that I took while on the cruise. Tanya and I met up with Katya the next day, and then Katya and I said "poka" (bye), and she quoted someone, that "лето - маленькая жизнь (summer is a small life)," and then the next day it was off to Moscow!

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