Well, what a trip. Russia is a country I knew very little about (and still have a great deal to learn). The media always presents what seems like a very biased image of Russia to those in the West. I hoped by travelling there myself, I could see what was true and what was fiction. Traveling at a time when tensions were high between Russia and the EU/North America because of the Ukraine crises and annex of Crimea didn’t help. A friend of mine from Germany went with me, Artur. Man, Germans can drink. We arrived in Stockholm to catch a ferry to Helsinki. We had a few beers in Gamala Stan (Old Town) before boarding. We were giggly like we were children. I don’t know if it was because of excitement, nerves or both. The ferry, we both agreed, was the weirdest place we had ever been. One section had half naked Brazilian dancers, another had a drunk Finnish guy singing Irish songs and another room had old people singing karaoke. Strange place. Artur and I both were susceptible to sea sickness so as soon as we felt the boat moving, we tried to have some drinks to ignore it. The next day in Helsinki we went downtown for some food beside the train station (which looked like something out of Gotham City) and then went right back to the harbour to try and nap after a long night. It wasn’t until our stop coming back from Russia that we got to explore the city and I can say that I love it. Very laid back feel to it and THE MOST helpful people I’ve ever encountered. People were always asking if we needed help getting somewhere (maybe our hangovers had us looking rather pathetic though). The harbour is very beautiful and we relaxed there having some coffee on our way back. However, back to the journey to Russia; After trying to nap in the harbour terminal for awhile, the boarding time neared. We tried to find our group, as we were meeting others who were also traveling with the same company to Russia, BigLand. The other groups “leader” had everyone’s ticket but was running late. We wouldn’t meet the BigLand tour guides until we actually landed in Russia. We boarded last minute and had our first impression of Russia as they hurried us through security boarding the ferry so very late.
After getting some food on the boat we decided we would probably call it a night when we ran into others from the group who told us to go to their room to hang out and have drinks. We were reluctant because we still didn’t feel great but decided it would be good to hangout. As soon as we went to the duty-free and bought a bottle of vodka we realized neither of us remembered the room number. Instead we went on the deck and had the bottle between us and chatted and made jokes. I don’t know what it is about vodka but after our first drink we both noticed how much better we felt. Popeye has spinach, we have vodka. Apparently. After we polished off the bottle we decided to go see what the “Cubar” (Cuban style club) was all about, and that’s also where we found the rest of the group. Trying to practise my non-existent Russian, we went through the cocktail list trying one at a time. Well, it was one at a time for me. Unfortunately one of the girls didn’t notice the pattern and at one point had three drinks piled up in front of her. After maybe getting halfway through the cocktail menu we retired to bed.
We were running on minimal sleep at this point as we were losing hours as we traveled east and were having late nights. When we docked in St. Petersburg we finally met our Russian guide’s. I give them great props because there is no way we could have made a good impression with the condition we were in. We hoped in a bus/van and headed into the city. This was our first taste of Russian driving, which is its own elegant mix of aggressive and fast. We got to the hostel, Soul Kitchen, located central to everything. The hostel itself was amazing! The room was better than most hotel rooms I’ve stayed in and definitely the cleanest hostel I’ve ever seen. The staff were exceptionally friendly (one of them even made waffles and shared with me). If I make it back to St. Petersburg that is where I will be staying, no question. Once again I felt bad for being in such rough shape and not as friendly and chatty as a Canadian usually is. Right away our guides took us out on the city showing us the historical site of the city and some general history of the area (Most of which I had just learnt in a class earlier that term; I was quite smugly proud). However, what I wanted to learn is what is it to be Russian? What are the social norms, the cultural traits? I relied on our guides for most of this as not very many people spoke english. One thing I noticed was that Russian’s really like the quiet (Canadians are similar but less so). It was very apparent on the metro where everyone kept very quiet and to themselves. Even if people were talking, they did it softly so not to disturb others. This also became apparent later that evening. Our guides took us out to a bar. Literally, took us there, helped us order, and then left. At first, my friend and I were quite shocked as Russia still had an intimidating quality. Our group was quite loud and my friend and I could feel (and see) that all eyes were on us, the loud foreigners. I didn’t realize at first that the bar was almost dead silent and that all the noise was only coming from our table. Another guest at the bar even came over to our table and told us “You be too loud.” To make matters worse, one in the group was then snapping at the waiter. That’s rude anywhere, but I especially felt terribly embarrassed as I were guests in this country. My friend and I finished our beers and took off back to the hostel not wanting to wait around and see the conclusion.
The next day we took a trip out to the Summer Palace which was in the suburbs. We took the metro and a bus/van to get there. The metro is very, very deep underground because of the river. The countryside was an absolute black and white clash to the city. The city itself is beautiful, with amazing architecture, canals and monuments. When we emerged from the metro there was what looked to be half built apartments, but they looked aged so were possibly abandoned. The landscape was very harsh with browned vegetation. You could tell it saw long, cold winters (it reminded me of home a little bit to be honest). Once we got into the suburbs, it looked much like St. Petersburg again, just not as well maintained. The people were well clothed and expensive vehicles were on the road (there was a hummer with a collage of naked women on it that I wish I got a picture of). However, it was interesting to see a lot of the gas pipes above ground and some of the buildings looking as though they needed maintenance. I wondered at the time whether that was the governments responsibility or not. The Summer Palace itself was very impressive, but once again, I was hoping to learn more about the current culture and interact with it (of course history is part of culture though, especially Russia which has seen a lot of war). Later that night our guides had arranged a limo ride around the city for us. Once again I was nervous that they would be leaving us since we didn’t have anyone who could communicate with the driver. Though, the night turned out just great and nothing got out of hand. At one of our first stops I had a man approach me and ask to take a picture of his friend with me. Weird, but okay. Then when I answered where I was from with Canada, he changed and became exceptionally friendly and forgot about the photo. After a few quick handshakes I was back in the limo. One of the oddest moments of the entire trip is when we stopped at a Carl’s Jr. and all cued with glasses of vodka in our hands to use their washrooms. Bizarre. Once the limo ride was over I had the most “badass” moment of my life when I walk up to the driver, said “Spasibo (спасибо)” and shook his hand while casually sliding him a tip. Though, I had been drinking and probably wasn’t as slick as I thought. Now, earlier that night my friend and I had agreed “After the limo, we go to bed” because we badly needed it. Nope. We had our magic energy juice of vodka in us and wanted to go out now. We found ourselves on the bar street, and that’s where we met Sacha…
We were denied at quite a few bars. They way they looked us over, I assume it was a dress code thing, or we looked foreign, I don’t know. My friend got impatient and walked right past the bouncers into the next bar, Poison Rock n’ Roll Karaoke. I liked the place! It was small but it had character and was the most animated I saw the Russians get as they let loose and belt out Bruce Springsteen haha! We were there maybe twenty minutes drinking our dirt cheap beers out of plastic cups when this mountain of a Russian sat down at the table. Black leather jacket, buzz cut, drunk goggly eyes and leaning heavy with his forearms on the table like he was going to pass out. He just pointed at us and said, “Where?” This was the moment. This guy was exceptionally intimidating. He was exactly what years of bad Hollywood action movies have brainwashed people into thinking is the “bad guy” He’s not. Once again, as soon as I said Canada his demeanour totally changed. He perked right up, “Canadia!? Northern Broshers! Nothern Broshers!” and proceeded to give me the firmest double handed hand shake. We chatted with him all night long and other friends of his came and went throughout the night. Once that cultural wall was broken down it was easy to see Russian people are like anyone else. Finally rather than being a witness to Russia, I was a participant and was engaging with the people. We were unsure if he initially approached us because we has a pimp because he had mentioned prostitutes at one point. My friend said, “No, married” (lying). Sacha then pointed at me and my friend gestured to me, “No, he married too.” Sacha suddenly sobered up and his eyes un-goggled. He pointed at the two of us, “You two!?” – “NO!” we exclaimed! After that he slouched back down and his eyes went goggly again. There’s cultural differences everywhere you go and the acceptance of homosexuality is one of them. At around 6am the bar was closing so we said farewell to Sacha with a Canadian hug and the Russian cheek kisses. It was exactly what I had hoped for and after that I felt very comfortable in Russia. I was able to get past all the media presentation and politics and interact with the people and see a truer image of Russia. They are a very practical people, and I think a lot of the customs and behaviours of other countries must seem silly to them. They have a great, very sarcastic sense of humour as well.
After getting back from Poison at about 630am we had about an hours sleep since we have to meet out leaders at 8am and start checking out. They took us around to more of the sights of the city, one being the iconic Church of Spilled Blood or Ice-Cream Church (very contrasting names). At lunch I finally was able to discuss a bit of politics with one of our guides (well, to the best of my ability with only 1.5 hours sleep). We had our final Russian driving experience and were back at the harbour. Our guides had some Russian goodies for us and we said our goodbyes. I gave them each a hug, not knowing if I broke a social norm or not but I’m Canadian, we hug. I’ve very grateful to the patience they had with us and for opening up their culture to us. That night on the ferry we were wiped and absolutely exhausted. After a long nap we grabbed some grub. Testing my minimal Russian I picked up (really my friend picked up quite a bit) I tried ordering a drink. We planned to have one drink and go back to bed. We planned. The drink was good and, what did it have in it? Vodka! Suddenly we were filled with energy again and went up to the Cubar once again. Once there we spoke with one of group members we didn’t talk to much during the drink. Her cheeks were very red and I asked if she was hot. She responded with, “I’m allergic to temperature.” I’m was just a little confused. “You mean sensitive?” I asked. “No, allergic.” she said, “You know allergic? What are you from the French part of Canada!?” Touché. So I pretended for a moment that this is a real thing, but still I didn’t understand. I mean, you’re allergic to ALL temperature? It got even better though. She went on to say that because Europeans can’t go to Mexico…(stay with me) she has a friend in New York who she’ll marry in Las Vegas so she can go to Mexico. She then asked us if this was a good idea. Of course it is, right? I told her that, “One, you can go to mexico as a European. Two, you realize you’ll be, you know, married.” She didn’t agree, “No, I go back to Czech and it doesn’t count.” It was a good evening. We all had a couple good laughs. The next morning we were back in Helsinki and gained an hours sleep and then we finally took a night off and slept a full night. Once we were back in Umeå it took several days before I felt normal again after so little sleep and drinking so much vodka.
Now I have 4 weeks to say my goodbyes and I’m off to travel around Europe!