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The Russian Experience

The Russian Experience

by Thomas Lowers

I began my evening by meeting Natasha for coffee at what appears to be the Russian Starbucks (and I was told coffee and chocolate would be unobtainable in Russia?).

Together we talked about her upbringing, religion, our families and how it came that she now lives in St.Petersburg and my choice to visit (okay, so my lack of Russian and her limited English led me to believe that was our discussion, but maybe we were simply noting the weather). I talked her into allowing me to record some of our conversation on a digital recorder I picked up last minute at the SF airport… it shall become one of my most prized possessions. Afterwards, while walking her to the metro, she explained the reason for everyone's stares. It is not my lip piercing as I imagined, but my side burns, which leave the Russians amazed. Natasha says that there is a Russian word to describe me which means three words in English. #1. Beauty, #2. Strange, #3. "A little funny". She assures me that this is a good thing and should not create for me a complex. I express that my ego is too engrained for such. In our farewell, we arranged to hopefully meet again for more coffee and or drinks over the next few nights while I remain in St.Petersburg. Could it be because I got the bill? (Hahaha...)

After my company departed, I set out to discover the floodlit St.Petersburg on my own. Over two hours I wandered the streets, alleyways, multiple bridges, with "The Cure" creating the atmosphere through my MP3 player… all while the skies turned to rain. The combination of light, rain, and lack of sleep equated to a beautiful night. I took photo after photo, while having to remind myself not to forget to experience everything while trying to obtain the best shot. While returning to the hostel I had my first "questionable" experience with three random Russians. I was alone, crossing a bridge, when confronted. They, as I felt, became too close for comfort while all three spoke in Russian. Without a word to say, forgetting how to speak even in English at this point, I chose to instead retreat at a fast pace to the nearest side street. They followed me with what seemed aggression, though in all fairness, this may have been my interpretation due to fear. I was not however willing to wait around for them to justify such. As they followed closely, speaking in what seemed to be anger, I expressed my ability to speak English only. The head crony then laughed as he motioned that it was a cigarette they were in search of. Still nervous, we shook hands and I communicated that I had none. Thereafter, the other two men again closed in on me and I felt it was time for me to exit their company immediately. Ignoring their further pleas I departed.

Back now entering my residence I was greeted by the host as she was on her way out. She said that they had been in search of me in the hostel (I filled one of the two occupied beds in over 40 available) as they just made pancakes and wished to share. She said they wanted to offer me many, though, since they could not find me, only one remained. She had covered it and left it in the kitchen for my return. A great example of Russian hospitality! I took this time in the warmth to try calling whoever was reachable at home. My hostel has free international calls and internet service which any traveler knows must be taken advantage of. While talking on the phone I was passed by the hostel's other occupant, wearing a Scottish tee-shirt and looking of western descent. After ending my calls I found his name to be "Rich", a 23 year old from Tennessee who is working as an engineer for an oil company in the dead of Siberia. After each seven-week cycle of non-stop drilling, he is allowed 3 weeks' personal time. I believe he has now been doing so for a year and a half. This personal time has allowed him to travel England, Scotland and France, but he decided on this trip to revisit Moscow and St.Petersburg. As he just arrived that morning, I asked if he cared to join me for a pub crawl. That he did and so our night began...

We headed out with advice from the host as to the places we should visit.

(A little information about our host: Our host had just previously shared her "honest personality" when assisting a fellow traveler in his pursuit of purchasing rail tickets. She explained to us how she provided him with two notes written in Russian which were supposed to read his need for a train ticket from St.Petersburg to Moscow. She clearly explained that if the women at the ticket counter said "nyet" (no) to the first note, he should then follow by providing her with the second. Well, when he returned to the hostel in confusion he expressed in amazement that there were not tickets to Moscow. Concerned as to how this could be, she decided to break down and tell him the truth. Her first note was a joke which stated "I find you to be very beautiful and wish to invite you to a late night walk after you are off work". When the anticipated "nyet" response was to be given the second note read "well then, if you wish not to walk with me, then I shall instead need a ticket to Moscow". The translation of the first note explained why the MALE ticket agent would not accept the second note from him, allowing him his real request...)

Our first night club displayed exactly what the guidebooks prepare you for. Three strippers dancing upon poles, prostitutes were in abundance, seeking their prey, and local Russians moving to the music upon the floor. I would say dancing, but I cannot credit their movements with such a description. I myself, being a Gothic kid at heart, can knowingly dance… I am however always unsure as to how my dancing style will be perceived by foreigners (oh yeah, I am the foreigner, yes?). I was, however, given my first compliment from our new Russian friend "Andrew" who joined Rich and me at the bar. Andrew asked if we wished to join him at another club as he said this one would be closing at 3am. Now, I know what you're thinking, but no, he wasn't gay… though we did question his kindness and intentions. After some time we accepted his offer hesitantly, so much so that, as we walked outside with him, Rich and I immediately had second thoughts of our company. We instead decided to try and shed Andrew and move on to another club ourselves. Our mind was on such when quickly we walked down the street hoping to lose him. We however were surprised at this point to make new company with five approaching Police Officers calling out to all of us. Now, if you did not know, the President of Russia has recently stated that tourists visiting his nation should not fear that of rampant crime from locals, but the rampant crime from his Mafia driven, uncontrollable Police. Prepared for this you are given advice on how to handle this situation which I attempted. First of all, our new friend "Andrew" was quick to point out that he was Russian and therefore the officer's attention should instead be on us, the two Americans. I myself acted as to not know Russian (as I don't) nor understand the broken English which the officers spoke, therefore allowing Rich to translate for both of us. The officers asked if we had drugs, guns and or weapons on us, which Rich assured them we did not. They then began to search us for the like (Meaning they were really searching for nothing more than money which I had wisely stashed within a hidden pocket when the police initially approached. As in Russia, you are always guilty but can buy your freedom). When emptying my pockets to display their contents I noticed my stupidity as I had been carrying around a caffeine tablet on my person. Mind you this is perfectly legal in America and has no more effect than that of several cups of coffee… great for nights which will prove to include a lot of alcohol. However in Russia, it can easily be confused as drugs. MY GOD MY STUPIDITY!!!! Instantaneously I had every episode of "COPS" in my mind as what to do next. I attempted to gracefully drop the tablet while instead capturing the officer's attention using all that remained in my pocket… Chap Stick.

THANK GOD IT WORKED!!!

In fact, probably the only reason I can write to you today. The resolve of the situation led to the Police discovering no more than 10 rubles on Rich and no money on me, therefore, after checking that we had proper documentation, let us on our way. Our night closed with 3 more shots of "Votka" at the second bar followed by two "street vendor" hamburgers (bad choice but I ate it anyways).

This morning I woke up with the room still spinning...though nothing that another night out can't repair!!!

Cheers,
Thomas



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