Monday, January 4, 2010

Buggered Beyond Redemption

In the few days before we arrived in St Petersburg they had the heaviest snowfalls in 130 years. We had to fly around for a bit while they cleared enough off the runway for us to land. Viktor collected us at the airport after a while and took us for a very long and slow ride into the city.

I think that without Viktor we would not have found our apartment. I think that without Viktor, if we had found the entrance to our apartment, we would not have gone in and up the stairs. Normally the rats are on the inside but this time they were on the outside. The entry to the foyer was horrendous and beggared belief but – from what we saw – is probably quite typical.

The apartment was adequate but lacked a few things that one could reasonably expect in a ‘luxury serviced apartment’ and it would have been nice, for example, to have toilet paper, soap, dishwasher stuff, towels that weren’t made out of canvas and sheets that weren’t green flannel with floral patterns - but we were reasonably comfortable – all things considered.

While it was freezing outside it was very hot indeed inside the apartment – but we never could find the controls to adjust the temperature. All we found was a sign that said ‘DO NOT TOUCH THE FURNACE’ – but this would not have stopped us if we had been able to track it down.

So we had to keep opening the windows to allow icy blasts to cool us down and this was a bit tedious but hey – we were in St Petersburg during a once in a century snow storm!

I could not have imagined a city this beautiful. It was stunning, breathtaking, phantasmagorical. And snow! Never seen anything like it. There were piles of snow 2 metres deep along the sides of the streets. Other than on the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, we were generally trudging on or through mountains of snow, past cars completely buried and buildings that had vast sheets of ice hanging from their roofs.

And it was damned heavy going in many places. I slipped many times but only crashed head first into the snow once. The locals are very sure-footed and are as agile as mountain goats.

The snow removal people seemed to be a bit nonplussed by the quantity of white stuff under which they had been buried. They were able to keep the main streets clear but the minor roads were almost impassable and there was almost no attempt to clear footpaths. There were lots of ‘snow diggers’ around but they spent most of their time rearranging it – and indeed I am not sure what else you could do because it was pelting down all the time.

My camera was stolen on Thursday. I put it in my backpack and zipped it up. We walked about 1.5 kilometers to the Singer Café for a late breakfast – and stopped on the way only for red lights at pedestrian crossings. When we got to Singer Café my backpack was open and the camera was gone. I just do not know how anyone could have done that!

I had downloaded all the photos the previous evening so we lost no shots.

We did not report this to the police because they seemed to spend all their time stopping passers by to ask them for their papers. We managed to avoid this particular pleasure and I had no wish to have any kind of association with the police in Russia.

Our first foray to the supermarket was not particularly successful. The butter was in fact cream cheese, the sugar was salt, the pancetta was bacon and the milk was yoghurt. It is difficult to shop when not a single word is in a language you understand – and there are no pictures on the packets – but we started to get the hang of it after a while.

On Tuesday we went to Moscow on the fast train – the Sapsan. This took about 4 hours and was terrific. We arrived in the middle of what seemed to us to be a Blizzard but to the people in Moscow was probably just heavy snow.

We visited Red Square but could not get into the Kremlin. We spent an extraordinary amount of time cowering in coffee shops trying to escape the snow and cold.

Coming home we could not get the Sapsan so had to get the very slow, smoke-filled train with the drunks and lunatics.

The unhappiest people we encountered in Russia (and there are quite a few) were the people who sold tickets for the Metro. These all seem to be older women and they are impossible to avoid because – as far as we could tell – there are no ticket selling machines – or if there are the language they use is exclusively Russian (and why not) so are impenetrable.

My initial assessment of Russia – admittedly based on a very limited analysis – is that the country is probably Buggered Beyond Redemption and will need another 100 years to catch up to any other advanced European country. After all – the communists had a lot longer to bugger Russia completely than they did any other country so it figures that they did their best work there.

But gosh St Petersburg is gorgeous!

PS: Our bags turned up!

More later.


  1. I couldn't help picturing you and Cate in Raskolnikov's tiny little apartment in C&P, or at least how I imagined his apartment to look during the 3 years (or 3 weeks) I spent reading that novel.

    I'm glad you at least got your bags back. I suppose I should stop complaining about the snow in Kansas (though, honestly. that is unlikely to happen).

  2. Philippe: It would be nice if the Russian tourism authorities were to offer you some kind of remuneration for that fine piece of on-the-spot reporting, which is likely to have an effect upon the volume of foreign visitors. They should at least reimburse your stolen camera and maybe send you a small crate of caviar and vodka. Be careful, though, if they suggest an all-expenses-paid holiday in Siberia.