St Petersburg

Russia was not as scary as I thought. Maybe it’s the professors who do their best to scare us into behaving or maybe it’s what I remember from global history about Soviet Russia, but when I stepped off the ship in St Petersburg I was expecting a more rough-and-tumble town than I encountered.

Our dock was located along the picturesque Neva River, a tree-lined waterway that flows through the heart of the city. We walked along the wide pedestrian walkway, where Petersburgers spend warm summer afternoons fishing, biking, and rollerblading, heading towards the city center. We crossed one of many drawbridges; a passage that caused anxiety amongst some students. The drawbridges are down most of the day, but are raised late at night to allow assorted ships and barges passage through the city. This didn’t bother me much because I think returning to the ship before 1:30 AM while we’re in Russia is a good idea anyway, but a large contingency of students felt the need to check into hostels in the city center so they would be free to drink and be merry late into the night without any hesitation. I would rather sleep in my cozy bed bug-free cabin on the ship, so Erin and I were mindful to remember which streets we wandered down so we could retrace our steps later.

We were wandering in pursuit of a booking agent, planning on taking a train to Moscow. We stopped into a boutique hotel, hoping the concierge desk might be of some assistance. It is there that we received our saving grace: a free map of the city of St. Petersburg, conveniently written in English. Empowered, it didn’t take much longer before we had tickets for an overnight train to Moscow. We were then free to begin checking out scenic St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is notable for its cathedrals and architecture. The city was built with the intention of being more European in style. Many of the beautiful, Italian-designed buildings seem almost out of place. The city is beautiful, but at some points excessive. These amazing cathedrals, the ones we’ve all seen in photographs with the funny-looking roofs, are gorgeously decadent and were built centuries ago, when the tsars ruled and most of the country suffered. Before we arrived in St. Petersburg the resident geography professor gave a condensed history of Russia, broadly speaking about the monarchy, which clung to power far longer than the monarchies in other countries. The beauty of these buildings astounded me, especially considering the societal conditions at the time these gold-domed towers were erected.

We walked around the city, the Church of the Savior on Blood, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and the Winter Palace, stopping for lunch at Subway (which serves beer in Russia, FYI), and then returned to the ship once our feet had suffered enough. We formulated plans for the evening over dinner on the ship and then headed out in search of an ice bar. I’ve never been to such a bar, but apparently everything is made out of ice, and there was supposedly one in St. Petersburg. I’m sad to say that after two hours of searching, the St. Petersburg Ice Bar turned out to be pure myth. The Irish pub that we visited instead, though, did not disappoint.

When we walked into O’Hooligans we were glad to simply be sitting down after 2 hours of questing for a mythical place. O’Hooligans, though, turned out to be a Russian cultural experience in itself. On a Thursday night young Russians were packed into the small pub. The ales were flowing and the patrons and the staff were puffing away. It was a shock to see people smoking in a restaurant but in Russia it’s still totally legal. There is a small and separate (less fun) non-smoking section. I met a young woman named Jessica who spoke English excellently because she works for a marketing firm where she must speak the language for her job every day. I was excited to finally meet a local who I’d be able to speak to in English.

Jessica answered my questions on a range of topics. We discussed national politics (how Putin does not have popular support but will probably remain in power until he dies), local politics (how the police in St Petersburg don’t enforce the speed limits unless they can get a bribe out of it), culture (what Russians like to drink, where they like to go on vacation), and a selection of other topics. Besides our conversation, the other interesting part about the bar was when a friend of mine ordered absinthe. There is a misunderstanding amongst most people that absinthe is illegal in the United States. The ban has been lifted since 2007, but that hasn’t led to any sort of American absinthe craze, so it’s fun to order it in a foreign country. There’s many different ways to prepare absinthe, but the Russian version involves lighting it on fire, extinguishing the flame, then huffing the vapor, reigniting the absinthe, adding sugar and water (distinguishing the flame) and drinking the mixture. It was a gimmicky way to have a drink but nothing is more fun about traveling than trying something you’ve never done anything like before. After a fun time at the bar we headed back to the ship before the dreaded raising of the drawbridges and rested for another day in Russia.

London summary

The next day was our last in London before Erin had to head off to Southampton for her work-study job duties. We spent the morning at the Imperial War Museum, learning about the various conflicts that Great Britain has played a role in (they are numerous). Erin was mostly humoring me because, as you can imagine, my interest as a male in learning about wars is far greater than hers. She did, however, enjoy the exhibit on British espionage and the work of MI-5 and MI-6.

I’ll summarize the rest of our time in the UK because at the time I am writing this we are 36 hours away from Germany and I need to stay current on this blog.

London is a very approachable city for Americans. I felt almost like I was in New York City, except everyone had different accents and there’s a lot more history to it given that it is a much older city. It’s no wonder that London is a favorite for American students traveling abroad. I enjoyed my time in London but I didn’t feel that I grew as much from my visit than I have while visiting other foreign cities. Personal growth is about leaving one’s comfort zone and exposing oneself to different ways of living; different ways of thinking, working, worshipping, eating, celebrating, communicating, etc. In London, the contrast with the United States is not very sharp, and therefore as much as I enjoyed the comfort of being able to speak English with everyone I met and knowing exactly what to do and how to behave in almost every situation, I don’t think I grew as much.

The most enjoyable cultural experience I had in London was afternoon high tea in Soho with Erin. We sipped tea and nommed on finger sandwiches on a balcony; a highly enjoyable and different experience than any that I’ve had in the United States. However, I can’t say that the experience challenged my perspective very much. And so it was with great excitement that I returned to the MV Explorer after a 15 month absence and set sail for Russia: a country that would definitely take me out of my comfort zone and challenge my way of thinking.

The classic and dark sides of London

The morning started with hostel breakfast. I was disappointed there was no peanut butter because buttered toast and rice crispies are not sustaining enough for a busy day in the city. Regardless, we ate up and then headed out on a free walking tour of London. Our guide Josh works off us tips and spent the morning showing us the highlights of the City of London. I say the city of London because London proper is only the one square mile in the middle of London. Kind of like New York City’s five boroughs, each area outside of this one central square mile has its own name. This dates back to when it was walled city and everything beyond this mile was on the outside. The naming makes sense to me but what confused me is that this one square mile has separate public services. I don’t see the point in having two separate police forces, but that’s the way they do it and done it for centuries. I don’t see the point in a royal family either, but I guess that’s why America is its own country; so we can do things our own way.

In fact, Josh asked us who thinks the royal family is pointless and I raised my hand and he responded by yelling “TREASON!” There is still a law on the books that says it’s illegal to speak out against the crown but no one has been prosecuted for the crime for 120 years, so fortunately I wasn’t immediately hung drawn and quartered. I did, however, volunteer for the hung-drawn-quartered demonstration in which Josh demonstrated using his lanyard how enemies of the state were gruesomely prosecuted. First they were hung, but not until they died, just until they passed out. Then they were splashed with cold water to wake them up so that they would fully experience their stomachs being slashed open and their innards being exposed. Lastly, while still barely hanging onto life each limb would be tied to a separate horse. The horses would then be whipped so that they galloped off, ripping the victim apart, limb-by-limb. Each limb would then be sent on a separate world tour so that members of the British Empire would receive a gruesome reminder of what their fate would be if they stepped out of line.

We learned a lot of other fun facts that day. At Trafalgar Square we were told the origin of the phrase “a stiff drink.” Lord Horatio Nelson died in the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar and his body was placed in a barrel of brandy so that it could be taken by ship back to London for a proper hero’s burial. When the barrel arrived home the brandy was almost gone. Some of the sailors had gotten thirsty and decided to imbibe the brandy, disregarding the corpse infusing inside. I was glad for the walking tour. Seeing the sights with an informed viewpoint makes the experience far richer.

After our walking tour we went to a British pub for some standard pub grub. I had bangers and mash and Erin had fish and chips. We washed it all down with a nice pint of warm British ale and then headed back into the streets. We walked along the Thames, enjoying the sunshine and taking in our surroundings. Eventually we headed back to the hostel for a little R&R before beginning the evening.

Rather than head out for a night on the town Erin and I decided to learn about the side of London many tourists never see: the East End, London’s underbelly. We walked across the London bridge, heading against the raging current of Londoners in their business attire that were returning home after a day at work, and met our tour group at a nearby underground station. The tour began at the site where a multitude of the Crown’s enemies we gruesomely beheaded centuries ago. We learned about how Lord Lovat is responsible for the expression, “laughing your head off,” after he was beheaded while in a fit of laughter, and his head continued laughing in the moments after it was separated from his body in1747. Next we walked to a number of sites where Jack the Ripper grotesquely murdered and then disemboweled numerous Whitechapel prostitutes. Our guide was very well versed in the legend and lore around the serial killer, giving us detailed descriptions of the victims and how they met their demise. My favorite site on the tour was a piece of the original London wall that still stands behind a fancy restaurant. The piece of the wall was excavated, revealing its original foundation some fifteen feet below street level. These fifteen feet are the accumulation of trash, former buildings, and sometimes even corpses on which London has risen for centuries.

After our tour of the East End we headed to Brick Lane, the Little India of London. Here restaurateurs stand on the sidewalk and barter with you for your meal. We were approached in front of one restaurant and made an offer of 20% off our check and 2 free rounds of drinks. When we told him we would consider the offer and began to walk away, he stopped us, saying, “Okay, okay, okay! Appetizer, entrée, rice, nan bread, and dessert, plus two rounds of drinks, for 12 pounds each!” We figured this was as good as an offer we would get, and we were hungry so we headed inside for our meal. The service was subpar but the food was delicious, so overall I was satisfied with our Brick Lane experience. After dinner we headed back to the hostel via a double decker bus and went promptly to bed.

Arriving in London

You can begin learning about a new country the moment you step off the airplane. Stepping into London Heathrow Airport I could tell I was in a different environment just judging from the immigration process. There were innumerable signs about the immigration desks, all sternly stating the rules and regulations and the possible punishments for any violations. It felt more like the United States than Iceland, although they did not take it so far as to fingerprint or photograph me. This might be an American privilege though, as the signs suggested that they did have the capabilities.

Cleared into the country we headed straight for the London underground. It’s interesting to me the names that cities choose for their subway passes. New York City’s makes the most sense; it’s a metropolitan subway system and it’s called a Metro Card. Boston has the Charlie Card. Who is Charlie? I do not know. Singapore’s is the Octopus card. Why? There are no octopuses in Singapore. London’s card is the Oyster Card, and I’m not sure why. Regardless, we got our Oyster Cards and boarded the train into the city. I’m grateful that our flight was arriving at night because I’d heard of how crowded “the tube” gets during peak hours, and although Erin and I worked hard to pack lightly, we were still schlepping everything we would need for the next 4 months. Dragging duffel bags and giant backpacks through the city, we arrived at our hostel at about 9:30. We settled down and headed down the street for some donner kebabs. Apart from the accents I felt like I was in New York City. The city is large, diverse, and very active even at night. Given our exhaustion from traveling we decided to save the London nightlife for another night and headed back to the hostel.

3 words for Iceland

For this blog post I am going to completely break the pattern that I have worked to establish so far. Rather than give a log of my daily events, I’m going to speak summarily about my time in Iceland.

If I had to choose 3 words to describe Iceland, I would choose natural, contrast, and blissful. Natural is the most obvious choice. The population density is 7.5 per square mile, and most of the island is covered with lava fields, rolling green pastures, or ice-capped mountaintops. Even the capital city is very spread out, with lots of green space to enjoy. My next word is contrast because of the many that exist in Iceland. I alluded earlier to the fact that Iceland has both little and plenty. There’s plenty of space, energy, and water. There’s little plant or animal diversity, or any diversity for that matter (the population is 93% Icelandic, ethnicity-wise). There’s also a huge contrast in the landscape, from the frozen glaciers to the boiling hot springs, the lush grasslands and the deserted lava fields. The third word is blissful because of the peaceful, uninterrupted happiness that Icelanders enjoy. There are very few conflicts to speak of; no racial tension, no class warfare, no incendiary debates of any kind. Despite the long winter nights and the cold temperatures, Icelanders are some of the happiest people on earth.

Given that I don’t fancy myself a very outdoorsy person (I went hiking up a muddy mountainside in running shoes and jeans) it is unlikely I will return to Iceland again. However, I am very grateful for the experiences that the country offered me and the hospitality I was shown. Now on to England