Saturday, August 15, 2015

from Finland to Russia

Sleep, still elusive, still comes and goes. Helpful to be awake at night for blogging purposes, but then comes the day of regrets as tiredness sets in.

No matter. I'll catch up on rest tomorrow, or the next day.

We meet up for breakfast. (I'm in my pink Polish pants today.)


Yes, it's a copious breakfast: egg, salmon (fresh and smoked -- pick one or, like me, help yourself to both), that grainy bread, then perhaps the best part: yogurt, smothered with fresh berries.

(she must be wondering if i'll eat all that. answer: yes!)

And then I take a final walk through the market, just because it's sunny and the colors there really grab me -- all those berries and marimekko prints! Light hair, bright dress, light, bright, yellow and red.


(i'd give a lot to have these back home -- fresh, abundant)




You can also buy reindeer, mink  and fox furs. And knives. And wooly caps (that probably itch to high heaven). And flowers of course. What blooms here in Finland now? Peonies and roses, sweet peas too.


And now it's time to catch our train. I choose to walk to the station. My case is light, the walk is a brief 20 minutes. I pass more of Finnish humanity, enjoying this sudden onset of sunshine (after a very cold and rainy summer).



And I'm done. Good bye Helsinki, hello train to Russia.


It's a bullet train. Three and a half hours to St. Petersburg (with a handful of stops along the way).

We zip past forests of pines and birches, past the occasional red cottage, a lake, a farm...



And then we cross the border and of course the scenery remains the same. Except when it's different.


The train pulls into Finland Station -- noteworthy historically for the fact that Lenin landed here in 1917, coming back from exile in Switzerland.

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Not surprisingly, the square in front is called Lenin Square. You see his likeness there, behind the fountains. Me, I'm paying attention to the people. Specifically -- the children.

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There is something about the hair, the clothes, the manner of being that puts me straight back to the Poland of my childhood.

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My friends cab it to the hotel, but I insist on walking, even if it means dragging my case behind. In every new place, I have this deep excitement to feel the pulse of my new environment.

In my broken Russian (there are some words and sentences that will be forever in my head and I try to make do with those), I ask to be pointed toward the street I need to follow. Reactions vary, but uniformly friendly. The last gentleman I ask answers me in perfect English. No one will ever mistake me for a native daughter, even though in at least one sense, I am of these parts. (Perhaps many of us are.)

I am surprised, in fact, how much this uninteresting set of blocks  by the railway station also reminds me of certain sets of blocks in Poland (though from many, many years ago). But that impression does not hold. As I cross over the Neva River, I know I am in St Petersburg.

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We're staying at the newly opened Indigo. It's a beautiful hotel in an old building just to the edge of the historic foundry district. Tchaikovsky lived just a few doors down and the street is named after him. Here's my stunning room, with sketches of the Summer Garden on the wallpaper (with breakfast, taxes, service included -- a little over $100 per night):

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And now is the time to go for a walk. Diane is my co-conspirator in this. We make our way to the heart of the historic district. It is a Saturday and the streets and parks are full of Russians. What would you do on a bright and sunny summer day? Get out, go for a walk, visit St. Petersburg parks and palaces. Of course you would!

I'll just give you highlights of our meanderings -- I'm less of a travel writer than you think! First, a few people shots.

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(we all scream for ice cream)

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(I love the fact that you're not allowed to smoke in this park. In 2014, Russia passed pretty tough laws banning smoking in public places.)

Did I tell you how different and how strong the sun feels here, up north?

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(so many weddings!)

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(so many!)

And now the iconic duo: the Church on the Spilled Blood (referencing the assassination attempt on Tsar Alexander II in 1881):

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...and the Winter Palace (home to tsars from 1762 to 1917 and now home to the paintings of the Hermitage).

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Looking back at the gates opening to it:

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St. Petersburg was designed to imitate (to an extent) Venice. The canals are stunning, if a little over used on this warm weekend day (so unusual for this northern city!) by the countless boat tours.

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And here, we veer off the well trodden paths to pick up on the more quiet parks and alleys. You need that respite after the noise of the streets. Ah, to make the historic heart of this city into one pedestrian zone!

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We're back at the hotel, but not for long. We pick up Ernest and head out again. I'd done my reading on food in St Petersburg and my pick for tonight is a pelmeny place (pelmeny are Russian dumplings, typically filled with meat or cheese). There are many, but this one (Pelmenya -- read about it here) stands out. It's worth the walk. Besides, it's a pretty walk.

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We over order. The smaller dumplings are easy to devour. The bigger ones become more of a challenge (they're big!).

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(the big ones)

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(the cheese ones)

Oh, and did I tell you we also ordered two plates of Baltic herring with potatoes? Delicious!

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(the little pelmeny and the herring)

All this, with a half liter of wine -- $20 for the three of us.

As we walk back to the hotel and reflect on the day, I can't help but recall the countless ways in which our questions, stumblings and awkward maneuverings through the city provoked half smiles with a smattering of words, always graciously delivered. We all just go about our daily lives. You forget that when you live oceans away from another country. We're really in the same game. All of us.

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