There’s a Rumor in St Petersburg!

One of my favorite things about traveling is that it reveals context. Sounds cheem and erudite, right? There’s nothing like walking the same ground tsars once did, to meander through geographical boundaries to better understand things you once read in history books. Though today I don’t mean anything quite so high-brow; it just feels cool to finally get down to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

JK! I’m just watching the film adaptation, haha. One of the characters told Keira Knightley’s Karenina, “You’re the belle of St Petersburg society,” and I was like, OF COURSE YOU ARE. ‘COS I NOW KNOW WHERE THAT CITY IS, BOOYA! Yeah… Now that I’ve graduated, these are the sort of intellectual thoughts I contend with.

Previously I ignored all things Russian, dismissing it as a culture/place too foreign for me to ever identify with — names I can never pronounce, philosophies I cannot relate to. My closest contact with Russian culture, prior to my travels, was (drumroll, please)… Nakobov’s Lolita. Which, given its American setting, obviously makes it the definitive book on all things Russian.

As cliched as it sounds, traveling does widen one’s horizons and most trips I come away feeling this paradoxical mix of gratitude (for my own life) and marvel (at humans’ ability to set down roots and make a life anywhere, regardless of geographical, political and religious differences).

In some cases, men carve out the palace of their dreams. We arrived at Peterhof, by hydrofoil (type of boat), no less, and it was a magical sight.

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A UNESCO World Heritage Site (although honestly, what isn’t, besides Singaporean movie theatres?), Peterhof is both known and dismissed as the “Russian Versailles”. I’ve never been so I can’t make that comparison, but I thought Peterhof was beautiful. I thought there was a lot more greenery than the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna — less sprawl, more room for wind (maybe ‘cos of its proximity to the sea). If I lived in St Petersburg, I think Peterhof would be a great way to spend the Saturday picnicking, reading and walking around the grounds with the boyf.

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There are 147 fountains in the park, with the one above being the most spectacular, and the first you see rounding the corner from the jetty. Called the Grand Cascade, it features an Adonis-looking Samson wrenching the jaws of a lion open.

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It’s really quite a sight to behold in person, seeing how large the fountains are. Every time the wind changes direction, the huge lion spray gets caught in the air and aerated mist falls on your face. Kinda puts the Merlion to shame, haha.

Other than the Grand Cascade, there’s also a fountain in the Orangery (where I saw a grand total of zero oranges) which features (I think) Samson, this time wrenching open the jaws of… a crocodile! Not sure why Samson seems to be such a compelling character in these parts. Edit: okay maybe this is Triton.

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There were more fountains, of course, but there were at least five different “trick fountains” which I thought were kinda lame. These involve a variety of ugly props — artificial-looking fir tree, a pavilion, a bench — which ‘lures’ visitors to come closer, sit under or on them and… spray theme with water. I suppose the idea warrants a good laugh but the obvious lines/queues of pimply teenagers on a school visit trying to impress their crushes gave the game away 🙁 Okay la, I say it’s lame but I also went to try:

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The main palace is closed on Mondays but all you really need is a book to soak up the whole atmosphere. Scratch that.. You don’t need a book to bask in amazing landscaping.

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Some of the more experienced vacationers brought their swimsuits to bask in Peterhof’s shallow beaches. I suppose all they did was tan, because I dipped my feet into the sea and it was icy cold!

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I can’t believe I was reluctant to head down to Peterhof in the first place. Not only did travel websites claim it was a 45-minute ride by hydrofoil (it’s really more like 30), our melatonin cycle was all messed up from the White Nights where, thanks to the solstice, the sun never goes down. (That last statement probably has astronomical inaccuracies, but I was just trying to convey the idea, alright?) This photo here, for example, was taken around 11. At night.

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We weren’t well in to the proper White Nights, where the sun doesn’t set for a full 24 hours, but with only 2 hours of proper darkness it was hard to get a proper night’s rest. Still, it meant more time to play.

We spent one of these nights attending the Mariinsky Ballet’s Swan Lake, a recommendation from my talented SOTA dancer-cousin. Our tickets were ridiculously cheap for a world-class company (US$16 including forex fee, a steal compared to the Bolshoi’s upcoming show in SG, and we got the best of both worlds because the principal ballerina was a Bolshoi lead) but they were also kinda uncomfortable. We were seated on the penultimate circle, in a box, in the second row. Which meant that mostly all we saw were… heads! But considering that the next price category was like $70 per ticket, and we are obviously ballet-illiterate, we sucked it up. My well-padded posterior served as a cushion for balancing on the top edge of my chair, heh.

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Having watched the best cartoon in the world, The Princess Swan, I thought I was well-prepared to take on the cultural edification that is a ballet/orchestra production. After all, I knew the plot, right? Prince is pressured to get married, sulks, meets swan, is about to shoot it and is like, whaaaaaat, this bird is a real-life chick, they fall in love, feel sad that she turns into a swan at night, etc etc etc.

For first-time ballet-goers / unwilling girl(or boy)friends at the theatre, do yourselves a favor and read the synopsis. Because you’re going to spend a long time wondering what’s happening when. For example:

Prince Siegfried is celebrating his birthday with his tutor, friends and peasants. The revelries are interrupted by Siegfried’s mother, the Princess, who is concerned about her son’s carefree lifestyle. She tells him that he must choose a bride at the royal ball the following evening.

Unlike a cartoon, there is no dialogue and other pointers common to human communication to point to you exactly where you are in the plot’s chronology. Despite surreptitiously keeping my data-enabled phone (and the attendant Wikipedia pages about the Swan Lake plot) close to my side, I was like… How do we know Siegfried’s mother is concerned? If she “tells” Siegfried that he must choose a bride, why is no one talking? Is there a particular dance move that automatically means “concerned”?

"Siegfried, I really, really think you should get a wife."

“Siegfried, I really, really, really think you should get a wife.”

The fact that we were sitting so far up also meant we missed out on the finer details of ballet, like pointe and donno-what-else (obviously out of my league here), which would probably have answered our above questions. Nevertheless, it was beautiful, especially the Dance of the Little Swans. (The video link I provided is actually that of a Mariinsky production, formerly known as the Kirov Theatre.)

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If you’ve watched Black Swan (the Natalie Portman / Mila Kunis drama), you’ll know that a popular ending to Swan Lake is The Sad One, in which Odette dies after Siegfried pledges his love to the wrong swan-girl, Odile. The Mariinsky production was far more uplifting, nobody died, everybody gets together and lives except the evil dude. After three hours of sitting on the edge of a hard chair and wondering whether the second intermission is actually an intermission or the end of the ballet, it’s probably the preferred ending.

One day I’ll watch the Nutcracker. But it’s not high on my list right now. 😉

Besides ballet, we embraced another Russian area of expertise: chess! I have kinda been hooked on it since, but while I’ve improved from the days where my dad would checkmate me in 4 moves, there’s still a long way to be good. Actually I realize that in many things in life you have to think 2-3 steps ahead of everyone else. That principle’s obvious in many pioneering business strategies. If you want to make a good movie, the screenwriter/director have to anticipate what viewers would think. My brief foray into programming taught me a little bit of this too.

Bottom line: gonna make my kids learn chess. And I am so grateful that I have God the Ultimate Grand Master who is not trying to checkmate me but guide me 🙂

Anyway, if you are ever down in St Petersburg, check out Zoom Cafe. Quirky menus + decor, chess sets you’re welcome to play, good food and most importantly, the pretty waitresses speak English!

I hope I never forget how important the ability to communicate is. Nobody in Russia speaks English. Well, that’s a generalization, but most of my conversations here involved the worst performance of charades in my life (and everyone knows how awesome I am at charades jk). I would get so tongue-tied trying to explain what I want. I only knew the Russian words for ‘hi’ (привет, privet) and ‘one’ (один, adeen), so exchanges at a convenience store would go something like this:

Me: Privet! Uh. Can I… get the… Um. (points at bottle of water)
Babushka stares at me, blankly.
Me: Privet! Privet! Um. The… (opens mouth and points head towards the sky, a mysterious hand-faucet dripping into this ridiculous cavity) Adeen?
Babushka saunters to area where drinks are. She points at the Coca-Cola and looks at me, an expression of disinterested expectance.
Me: No! I mean, nyet! The, um, water! (gurgles and gargles futilely)
Miraculously, babushka gets me. She grabs one water bottle.
Me: (wonders what Russian word for ‘thanks’ is, then gives up) Um… Thanks! (to Alan) Alan, do you want some water?
Alan: Yes.
Me: (to babushka) Can I, uh, get, adeen more?
Babushka gives me this ‘whatchu sayin’, guuuuurl’ look.
Me: (more slowly and pointing to existing bottle) Can. I. Get. Adeen. Plus. Adeen? (does peace sign, also universal sign for ‘two’)
Babushka nonchalantly grabs another bottle. I pay. Make another mental note to start learning more Russian words.

So yeah, if you ever head down to Russia, don’t try to be a hero and not learn Cyrillic. Since I know some Spanish, my travels in Latin America have been rather fun, being able to mostly order what I want and negotiate prices. But this trip round, I was like, you know what? I want to truly immerse myself in a country where I feel completely foreign, to lose myself in a completely alien culture. If I could go back in time I would tell pre-trip Rachel to stop sounding like a pretentious literature student (I have nothing against Lit students, in fact, if I could turn back time, I would have majored in English).

You don’t have to be deliberately, stubbornly ignorant in order to truly experience something fresh. That happens on its own. Instead, I deprived myself of stilted conversations which, though hypothetically patchy and halting, would have revealed something about the fabric that ties this great nation together. Sigh.

Back to learning Cyrillic: it’s a majorly confusing language. Our ‘R’s are their ‘P’s, their ‘S’s our ‘C’s. The Russian word ‘pectopah’ is not pronounced the way it looks but ‘restoran’. Yeah. For restaurant. So don’t go around asking the concierge or a stranger where “the nearest pectopah” is. (I’m not saying that that is what we did. Or am I?)

Speaking of food, I fell in love with blini, or Russian pancakes.

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Thin, slightly crispy crepes, served with a generous dollop of sour cream, salmon meat or, my personal favorite, RED CAVIAR, blini is the dish to start your authentically Russian day. Not very calorie-friendly, but sooooo good. I think I ended up eating them four times in one day. Everywhere we walked, my eyes were Ctrl-F-ing blini. No blini? No eat.

Besides binging on blini, we also got out to see the lifting of the bridges, a daily routine that takes place around 1-2am to let the ships pass through. It was really quite underwhelming. It didn’t help that the timings on the not-very-English-friendly websites seemed to contradict each other; we missed the actual bridge-lifting despite arriving what we thought was “15 minutes ahead of time.” Alan expected an Inception moment where the street lamps would fold over each other perpendicularly. What we got was this:

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St Petersburg is a very casual place to walk around, but if you’re looking for something more Russian and Soviety, this is not it. It’s Europe with a Russian spin! My housemate Darren, who also did the Trans-Mongolian and was several days ahead of us, found it boring but the place has more than its fair share of plus points. Ending off with a series of photos, most of which I find hilarious. Hopefully you find them funny too, otherwise it just means I have a weird sense of humor.

I think my favorite is the dulan, disgruntled cat Alan is holding ransom. :p

Oh, here’s a handy summary of my St Petersburg guide. I am too free at home.

rachelay_stpetersburgguideYou can download it here! “Or… they could just Ctrl-C the above image…” says Alan.

Read Part 1 of my St Petersburg / Trans-Mongolian trip here

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