Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Our vacation: St. Petersburg

Since we've been home a few days now I figure it's high time to write about our vacation. Gosh, when I was in Latin America I loved writing about all my adventures. But for some reason when I'm not in a third-world country things just don't seem quite so exciting. It just feels like normal life. But here goes...

We started on Halloween day. Which I must say, was quite a day. We decided to dress up and give our students a taste of how we celebrate it in the US. We raided our drama box and came out with some pretty nice costumes. I was Winnie-the-Pooh. I must admit it wasn't the most flattering costume... I found a Pooh head and then a random bear body that I stuffed with a pillow. I was huge. The kids loved it, and the part I loved the most was that the Russian teachers loved it too! They're almost always really serious, but that day they kept staring at us and smiling and laughing. And one of the teachers even swatted my huge belly and laughed as she walked by. It was definitely a bonding moment for us all. Pooh, Russian teachers and me.

So, back to the vacation. We started by leaving our house at 9pm the night of the 30th. Well, even that requires a little bit of an explanation. You see, if you read the previous entry you'll remember that our house is surrounded by guards and gates. And last time we got locked out. Well, this time when I pressed the buzzer, the gate wouldn't open, so we were locked in, luggage and all. “No problem,” I thought to myself, “I can just make a quick call...” Oh, but then I remembered my phone still had no minutes on it. We decided our best bet was just to wait until the driver came to pick us up (yes, the school provided us with our own personal driver for the evening). I heard the car drive up, but there still were no guards to let us out. He rang the bell, and no one came. So, I mustered up my very best Russian and all my courage and opened the window. I yelled below that he should call Gulya because we didn't have a key. He made some calls, Gulya called me, I explained, she called the guards in the other guardhouse, and lo and behold, someone finally came to let us out!

We boarded our train at about 12:45 and left at 1am. It was my first ride on a sleeping train. It definitely wasn't my most comfortable night's sleep, but compared to a few that awaited me on that vacation it was divine. The train was divided into compartments of 4. There was a table in the middle with benches on either side. Then along the hall there were two seats with a little table in the middle. When night came the whole thing converted into a sleeping space for 6 people. The two lower benches were beds, with benches above them that could also be folded down and converted into beds. Then the table and chairs along the aisle folded into a bench/bed with one folding down from above. I got an upper bed, and was somewhat concerned I might fall off in the middle of the night, but then I remembered my dad teaching me about packing things on top of the car and how heavy things don't fly off.

We arrived in Saint Petersburg at 10am. We had to get moving pretty quickly because that was our only day there. We started with a visit to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood which was built in the late 1800's, taking 24 years to complete but ironically 27 years to finish the restoration work before it reopened in 1997. It carries such a long name because it marks the spot where Alexander II was blown up by a terrorist group in 1881.

We also wandered through another cathedral...but I can't remember what it was called. They all start to run together after a certain point. But the highlight of that trip (besides finding an English bookstore for the first time during my stay in Russian and loading up on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) was our visit to the Winter Palace. It was used by the tsars of Russia for the last 200 years of their rule. I can't even begin to describe how spectacular this building was. I felt so small as I climbed the red-carpeted spiral staircases that I later found out was merely a side entrance. We couldn't help but grab a partner and dance in the coronation room while one of the girls whipped out her video camera and another hummed the appropriate tune from the move Anastasia. We were so enthralled in our dancing that the other girls didn't notice one of the Russian guards sitting on the side of the room motioning for us to come over. I braced myself for getting chastised once again (we can't seem to do anything right in this country), but the guard was smiling at me as I approached her and in her broken English she informed me that it was not the coronation room where Anastasia would have danced, but the ballroom next door! And the best part of the palace was that it not only let us see the grandeur of a Russian palace, but it now is a museum as well. Peter the Great began an art collection that Catherine the Great added to, and so it went through the ages. Now it fills not only the Winter Palace, but 4 other buildings, equally extravagant and massive that link together, forming the Hermitage. The Winter Palace alone has 1057 rooms and 117 staircases. And besides all the artwork on display in these five buildings, there is 20 times as much in storage in the vaults below. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time there and barely scratched the surface. I loved it!

Well, since this is getting so long, I'll post about Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia in separate entries. I'll just stick to some highlights. And I'll add pictures soon...


Justin said...

I miss overnight train rides in Ukraine. They were so fun. I only rode in the type of car you all were in once, when we were only going a short distance and our train left in the middle of the night to get us to the city by morning. We usually bought a kupei, which is a private room that sleeps 4, instead of just a divided up car (and we usually bought all 4 beds even though there was only 2 of us, just for safety's sake. There was that one time we only bought two beds though, and ended up sharing the room with random people as the train made its stops during the night). Anyway, so I fell asleep with my feet sticking out into the aisle. Suddenly I am rudely awakened by my feet being smacked and some guard yelling at me to take my shoes off. I hadn't taken them off because it was just one more thing to keep track of rather than being attached to my body, and I thought it would be less disgusting to have my shoes hanging out in the aisle rather than my feet (I'll let you decide who it was less disgusting for...). Needless to say it was quite unexpected and made me miss the privacy of the usual kupei. So I took them off and think I ended up putting them under the rolled up coat I was using for a pillow.
I'd really like to take a train trip here sometime, though I'm sure it's a little more comfortable than the good old Eastern European trains! Good to be able to hear from you again, by the way! Glad you enjoyed your "vacation"!

Susie said...

wow Nicole. Can't wait to hear about the rest of the trip. I have had several experiences in "sleeping trains" and like you got very little sleep. My first was in Spain when I was pregnant with Jesse and I had to sleep on a little hammock thing with 2 people above me and 3 across the way! Sounds like you are doing great.