Wednesday, August 11, 2004


That's One Hell of A Caucasian, Jackie

I'm back and I gotta hand it to Peter the Great, he knew his shit. Saint Petersburg is a place that makes you forget nearly a million people died there 60 years ago. Basically, every czar since Peter brought in a famous architect of that period from Europe and commisioned him to build buildings there for the next however many decades. The city is made up of many islands, and in the center island its hard to find any building that is less than 200 years old. You don't get to the monstrous communist buildings (in both size and architecture) until you get to the outer islands. At least Russians can blame communism for their ugly edifices, we, unfortunately, don't have that excuse. Their old government model also seems to have given a sense of fashion appreciation to pretty much every generational demographic. The range of styles from a twentysomething to an 80 year-old is impressive.

Some Random Notes

The redundancy of the phrase "White Russian" was never more pointedly apparent to me as when I saw a black guy dressed in 1700 s clothing (which included a white wig) welcoming people into the Chocolate Museum.

Mickey Mouse outside the Kremlin:

For some reason, the Russians have a very efficient subway system. In Moscow the next train clocks at a minute and twenty--which is the fastest service I've seen in my limited exposure to subway systems in general.

I did drink a lot, which is impossible not to do since the Russians have a tendency to make a toast every five seconds. I also attended a barbecue where I was given the choice of eating horsemeat or pork. Mmmm.

Whereas the Ottomans were busy turning churches into mosques, Russian czars seemed to be comfortable in their curosity. I saw two mosques that were built in Imperial Russia, one by Nicholas II in 1910 in St. Petersburg and the other by Catherine the Great (18th century) in her palace.

"Coffee" in Russia means "Expresso". There is no "normal coffee". Similar to Turkey, where people ask for Nescafe. This is otherwise known as the Kleenex phenomenon.

There are close to zero taxi cabs in St. Petersburg, and a little more in Moscow. People take what are called "private taxis"--another name for hitchiking with a fee. You basically hail any car that passes by and tell them you'll pay X to get to Y. They either accept or give another price. The rest is left to your bargaining skills.

Some churches and cathedrals have a cross with an upturned crescent at its end. I asked a guide what that meant and she said it represented Christianity's triumph over Islam. When I first saw it the explanation made sense because the church I saw it on was partly paid by a Bulgarian contingent who were saved by Russia from conversion or death in the hands of the Ottomans. But the more and more I saw, the more and more I was unsure. The orthodox cross has a second smaller horizontal bar near its end, and the crescent on these churches seem to act as a substitue for the second bar.

In Moscow, I also checked out the cemetary where all the famous Russians are buried. A surprising number of clowns are buried there (more than zero), not to mention some of Stalin's family. Nazim Hikmet, the famous Turkish exile poet, is also there. I thought his grave would be in the backwaters of the cemetary since he's not Russian, but he actually has a nice pad.

A historical rumor in Turkey is that the Ottomans were going to invade Russia in the time of Catherine the Great but the Sultan at the time fell in love with her (or screwed, depending on who you talk to) and gave up on the idea. So regardless of the truth, I half-expected Catherine the Great to have been some kind of hot babe. She was huge by the looks of it. This is not surprising once you learn that dinner at a czar's humble abode lasted for eight hours.

I also went to a football game between St. Petersburg (Zenit) and Irtish. For those who are not up to par on their Tundra geography, Irtish is a town in Siberia that is a 10 hour flight away from St. Petersburg. Zenit won 7-1. Apparently while I was away, Fenerbahce beat Juventus 2-0 in Izmir and Galatasaray beat Porto in the States.

The sun set close to 11:00 while I was in Russia and it didn't get dark until midnight. St. Petersburg shares the same longitude as Istanbul, meaning when I got on the plane to get there I went north for three hours. It was still hot as hell.


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