Trip report from St. Petersburg Russia

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation:
A Trip to Moscow & St. Petersburg

by Jay Reiss

Sitting in the LAX airport terminal, and looking around at all the smiling Russian faces, it becomes immediately clear how happy everyone is to be traveling "home" again. Everyone, of course, is speaking Russian.

There is a small group waiting near the exit gate lounge, chatting animatedly and sharing a liter bottle of Dr. Pepper - which, I suspect, is spiked with Vodka, judging from the evolving look on everyone's face as the bottle is passed from one person to the next. The room slowly fills up as we get closer to departure time. No one is speaking English, which sets the mood for what will follow.

The flight was long, as usual. I sat next to a Russian man, an earth scientist from Moscow University. He spoke "some" English - enough to pass the time until after dinner. There were two guys sitting in front of me on the airplane who spoke fluent English, and as I walked by their seats on my way up and down the isle, I discovered that one of them was a rock collector who apparently had plans to bring semi-precious stones out of Russia. His bilingual Russian male friend was traveling with him for free as a guide.

The service on Aeroflot was acceptably good, as it was the last time I traveled to Russia, about a year ago. There were two complete meals on the flight, as well as a couple "snacks" served with tea or coffee. A delicious red French wine was free, and was surprisingly good considering that it was packaged in a small plastic bottle with a metal screw-on cap.

I chatted with the Russian scientist for some time - discussing ways that he managed to sight-see all of Los Angeles, by cleverly purchasing bus tickets and transfers that covered nearly the entire city. "With a map and a bus ticket, I can see almost everything," he smiled with a look of pride on his face. Six hours into the flight, I closed my eyes and managed to get some rest.

At 5:30 PM the next day, the line at Customs wasn't long and I got through in less than 15 minutes. I met a man there (who appeared to be from the Middle East) who manufactured lingerie in Russia for Fredericks of Hollywood and Victoria's Secret. His comment was interesting - "Russian businessmen will tell you what you want to hear - but then they will do whatever they please."

Irina was waiting for me outside of Customs and she looked good - dressing casually for the severe and unexpected heat in Moscow this summer. The temperatures were running close to 90 degrees Fahrenheit with very high humidity. We drove in her brand new VW sports car to the apartment she rented for me. Our plan was to travel together to St. Petersburg, after a two day acclimation and rest in Moscow. As it turned out, it was a good idea to adapt to the eleven hour time difference for a few days before the real fun began. The apartment was simple but clean enough, and it was located just a short distance from Red Square. It had the typically small kitchen, a sitting room, living room and bedroom - and the door was three inches thick and as strong as a bank vault. Once inside the apartment with the door locked, one felt pretty safe - it would take explosives for a door this solid to even budge.

When we arrived at the flat, Irina brought in a small bag of groceries - some cheese spread, whole wheat crackers, about six tomatoes, four large juicy peaches, and two cartons of juice - and some mineral water. It was very considerate of her to think of the food beforehand. I was already beginning to really appreciate her good taste.

We sat at the kitchen table and she asked me if I came to visit any other women on this trip - "No, of course not," I quickly answered. I was glad that I hadnÕt planned the trip any other way - that would have ruined everything.

Irina left the apartment at 11 PM - I organized my suitcases, took a long cool shower, and went to bed.

Friday

I woke up early around 6:30 AM, feeling somewhat spaced out from the eleven hour time difference and jet lag. Taking another shower helped a bit. I ate one of those juicy peaches Irina left in the apartment, and drank some juice, pleasantly surprised at its quality and good taste. Irina arrived later and we took a long drive to meet Father Nikan at a remote countryside monastery, where he and two other "men of the cloth" performed one of the most interesting ceremonies I've seen. They blessed Irina's new car with Holy Water, doing sort of a baptism ritual with chants, prayers, and intermittently brushing the car with the sacred liquid too. During a tour of the monastery compound and church, I asked about the religious icons inside and Father Nikan spoke privately to Irina for several minutes while I lit a candle and prayed for "good luck" on this trip.

I still hadnÕt registered my visa, so we stopped in the city office on our way back home. The visa registration was painless and took only a few minutes. Finding the office was the hardest part of the whole thing. Afterwards we headed to the Moscow circus for an absolutely amazing performance. What a great show! The high wire act was a mind blower. Don't miss the opportunity to see the circus if you're in Moscow for a few days - it was the best circus performance I've seen anywhere.

Saturday

Irina arranged for a driver to take us to the airport. Along the way we saw some very old and rather depressing looking houses. In the airport itself, I was amused by a man having his entire suitcase wrapped in clear plastic. There was a vendor there with what appeared to be a shrink wrap machine. You put your suitcase on a turntable, and as it goes around, a long sheet of plastic wrap encases everything. After several layers of plastic are secured, small slits are made with a knife, through which the suitcase handle is accessible. What a clever idea! (And how easily amused I am :)

As we approached the exit gate, we spotted one of the airplane pilots up the stairs. He saw us too, and waved for us to follow him - he was inviting us to join him on the airplane! The airport was very hot and sticky - the humidity was awful and there was no air conditioning on the airplane either. As a result, near the end of our flight to St. Petersburg, there were fumes of air condensation rolling out of the air ducts inside the aircraft. It was frightening to Irina - I think she was worried about being suffocated by the air clouds forming inside the cabin. I tried to assure her that it was only air condensation, but I could understand why she was worried. The whole airplane was filling up with layers of "air smoke" and its appearance was not unlike those horror films where an entire room full of people were suffocated by poison gas. Yikes!

Once we arrived at the St. Petersburg airport, we were greeted by a tour agent and a driver I arranged to meet us there. We made our way by car to the apartment I reserved, hearing a guided tour along the way. The weather was overwhelmingly hot - but the traffic moved through town and we eventually found ourselves getting closer to the city center. There was a large supermarket there where we stopped and stocked up on groceries for the week. I was pleasantly surprised to see the abundant selection of European cheeses, fresh baked breads in more than a dozen varieties, and close to ten varieties of mineral water. We bought some vegetables and fruit, an herbal cheese spread that was really tasty on bread, several cartons of juice, some kasha, and three varieties of kefir - and then made our way to the apartment. What a relief to finally be settled down again!

After getting our bags sorted and another shower, we took a leisurely walk along Nevsky Prospekt and stopped into several shops to go window shopping. Two of the places we stopped in are worth noting: One of them was a children's book store, where we were shown several illustrated children's books by a shop clerk who was evidently very proud of the store's selection. I was impressed by the quality of the books and the outstanding artwork. And we also stopped at the train station in town, where people from all over Russia were either coming or going - and the looks on their faces taught me more about Russian life than a dozen books ever could.

Later we returned to the apartment - hot, sweaty and hungry. We made dinner in, putting together an assortment of foods from our earlier shopping trip.

Sunday

We got up late this morning (around noon) and took a walk along Nevsky Prospekt, making our way to the boat dock for a trip to Petergof. Peter the Great had a cabin 29 km west of St. Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland, to oversee construction of his Kronstadt naval base. He liked it so much there that he built a villa, Monplaisir, and then a whole series of palaces across an estate originally called Petergof (a direct Russian transliteration of the German 'Peterhof,' meaning Peter's Court). From 1944 the Soviets called the place Petrodvorets (Peter's Palace), and attempts from 1992 to rename it Petergof have met with difficulties. Whatever you call it, it's set within a spectacular ensemble of gravity-powered fountains that are now the site's main attraction. This lavish 'Russian Versailles' is probably the most impressive of St. Petersburg's suburban palaces, and certainly the most popular. (Description from the Lonely Planet Guide).

We took a tour of the palace, which was fascinating, and noted that the ticket price for foreigners was typically much higher than it was for Russians. At one place we visited, a Russian might pay an entry fee of 15 rubles, whereas I was asked to pay 300 rubles - twenty times that amount! This was a point of contention for many foreign visitors that I met on the trip. I heard many people complaining about this double standard, feeling insulted by it at the very least.

Like on many of the tours of palaces and museums we visited, there were special overshoes made of elastic with heavy cloth soles that everyone was asked to wear upon entering. This made good sense, as these shoes protected the floors from foot traffic damage. After a number of tours, one almost expects to see a large bin of overshoes at the entry gate.

During the tour, one rather rude American woman started talking to me (without even lowering her voice) while the tour guide was giving her narration. I noted that she was a typical example of the type of woman that many of us have been motivated by to seek love elsewhere. As quickly as I was able to, I quietly buzzed her off.

After the tour, we took a leisurely stroll in the palace gardens and enjoyed the gentle breeze of the late afternoon air. The boat ride back to the city was very refreshing, and we had dinner at a live jazz club in town which, interestingly, had telephones at each table where patrons could call anyone else in the restaurant, simply by dialing their table number. Irina and I talked about many things over dinner, and our conversation became lively when she observed how ethnocentric we are as Americans, compared to other nationalities she's experienced. She made some interesting comments about how we use our influence in the world, based on "donations" we've made to other countries.

On the way back to our apartment, we strolled along Nevsky Prospekt again, stopping to admire the artwork of various sidewalk artists along the way. All in all, a very good day.

Monday

Today we woke up "early" and had breakfast in the apartment. The flat we rented was located very close to Nevsky Prospekt and was only a short three minute walk from the main street. The kitchen in the apartment was convenient insofar as it allowed us to have breakfast and late night snacks right at home. Food shopping was easy too, with several small markets located within walking distance of our flat. Contrary to some other reports on the RWL, eating in restaurants was no big deal and was certainly a normal occurrence on a trip like this. And eating at home was fine too. The circumstances would dictate the choice, in any case.

Today's adventure was a trip to the local outdoor market where a large variety of vendors offered multiple varieties of cheese, sour cream, honey, various meat products, and dozens of fruits and vegetables. I always get a kick out of the large food markets when I travel. These are not supermarkets as we know them, but rather rustic markets where the common folks shop for food. I found that it was best to let Irina handle all the transactions, since she was more familiar with the language and the payment strategies. In fact, after the second day, I simply gave her all of my rubles as I exchanged money and let her pay for everything except for restaurant bills, which I put on my credit card. I found this a welcome change of pace from what I was accustomed to with American women, and she didn't overspend our money. She was in fact generous in spending her own money and refused to be reimbursed for some of the expenses made prior to the trip. This is a woman with class - well dressed in the current European fashions with a quiet elegance that brought out some of my best behavior in return. I was pleasantly surprised about all the new things I discovered about her in person - which were not conveyed in our nine month email exchange. (Still, it was a good thing to have invested the time writing - if nothing else, it enabled the relationship to get off to a quick start, unencumbered by the need to exchange a lot of information in person, including "our life stories").

Our trip to the market was fascinating to me. We sampled over a dozen products: several varieties of cheese, dried fish, tomato, melon, cherries, honey, salami and cooked pork. (In retrospect, it might have been reckless to eat all of this food without a second thought about washing it first, however).

We hurried to another smaller market on the way back to the apartment (to buy juice and mineral water), because the day was passing us by and we had an appointment with a tour guide at 2 PM to show us the Fortress of Peter the Great.

Our tour guide Helen met us at the Ahneezhkaff Bridge for our rendezvous. After a short taxi ride to the Peter the Great Fortress, we began the tour. I found Helen to be very knowledgeable about Russian history - in fact she received the highest grades possible on her graduate exams. Her English was nearly perfect too. She was not only knowledgeable, but very opinionated (which I liked). One of her comments, for example, was that "America uses its power to intimidate other countries." I enjoyed talking with her about many things, and later found her opinions about relationships between Russian men and women to be very interesting. This was a woman whose grandparents had spent twelve years in the gulag for minor offenses that here in the U.S. would have been little more than the subject of idle chat at a cocktail party.

As we entered the church on the fortress grounds I began to get a stomach ache that I tried to ignore at first, hoping it would go away. But the severe and unexpected heat in St. Petersburg was taking its toll on me - I was dehydrating rapidly and just couldnÕt keep myself hydrated enough to compensate for the loss of water through perspiration. My shirt was continually soaked as the sun and humidity kept up its punishment. I understood from some of the locals that we were going through an unexpected heat wave. To say that it was hot and humid during the two weeks of my visit would be an understatement. I should have brought some lighter weight cotton short sleeve shirts with me. Desperate for relief, I insisted that we interrupt the tour and immediately find some water, fearing I would need to seek medical treatment otherwise. So all three of us made our way to a nearby restaurant where I guzzled down nearly a liter of mineral water. The two women were very worried about me, but 30 minutes later, the pain subsided completely and we were back on our feet again.

So we resumed the tour. The fortress prison was our next stop. The prison cells and rooms for solitary confinement were a sobering sight. Outside the prisoner's rooms were photos of the prisoners who had been trapped inside. The whole thing was rather grisly and morbid, not unlike much of Russian history overall.

After the tour, Helen told me more about her grandparents and their imprisonment for political reasons. Her mother was actually born in prison. How sad that must have been. She gave me an interesting example of how people were so quickly imprisoned in those days. "If a person wrapped fish in newspaper which contained a photo of Stalin, they could be reported by a neighbor for such a "crime" and imprisoned for ten years!" Imagine that!

But Helen was a tour guide with multiple dimensions. She also told me a funny story, after our tour:

"The definition of heaven on earth - a Russian wife, an American salary, an American house, and Chinese food."

"The definition of hell on earth - an American wife, a Russian salary, a Chinese house, and American food!"

After the tour we went up to the top of the fortress to see a view of the St. Petersburg skyline. By then we needed to find our way back home, but transportation was nowhere in sight. Irina, however, stepped up to the plate and amazed me by approaching two armed policemen who were sitting in a private boat. "There's no way that she'll be able to convince these two thugs to take us home on that boat," I said to myself. But three minutes later we were all in the boat headed back to our apartment. Some money later exchanged hands, but I didn't ask her how much. Once again, Irina impressed me with her savvy way of handling people.

Once up on the boat dock, we said our goodbyes to Helen, and stopped in at "La Tratoria" restaurant on Fontanka for dinner. We had a glass of wine and stayed for nearly three hours! We talked and talked and talked - it was a very emotional conversation. And the food was great! We had Russian borscht, baked mushrooms, baked zucchini with parmesan cheese, fresh juice, lox, Russian black bread, mineral water and a typical Russian salad. The total cost for dinner was 550 rubles.

What a day!

Tuesday

We met Kerell at the horse statue early in the morning. He's a journalist who is just breaking into advertising in St. Petersburg. The advertising marketplace is really starting to open up in the larger Russian cities now. You can already see evidence of strong marketing by looking at the prevalence of billboards along the roads in Moscow and St. Petersburg - and an overwhelming number of television commercials in both cities. I understand that the billboards in Moscow have proliferated over the past seven or eight years. (One can only wonder about the next twenty. If it gets any worse, Moscow will start looking like Las Vegas!)

Kerell was the son of one of Irina's good friends. He had theater tickets for us which she arranged for - ordinarily ballet tickets are unavailable with such short notice. Another feather in Irina's cap.

After a shopping spree on Nevsky Prospekt we changed some money and prepared for an afternoon excursion to meet Irina's friend Anna out in the country. We drove past hundreds of dachas and along many winding roads, listening to Russian "joke songs" on the radio, along the way. This kind of "folk music" cracks me up - it sounds like stand-up comics singing Russian love songs. There's a radio station in St. Petersburg where you can listen to these songs non-stop - if you can stand it.

Irina's friend Anna has some family who own a dacha in a remote region outside of St. Petersburg. The old houses we saw along the roadside on the way were often depressing looking, but sometimes very charming too. I suppose it all depends on your definition of "charming." We met Ann at a train station out in the country. I noticed that there were statues of Lenin along this road, and made a mental note to ask someone about that later. In the car, Ann and I were sitting in the back seat trying to communicate with the help of a dictionary. She's a metallurgist who works in Moscow, and like many people, her family owns a summer house which she visits on the weekends. She told me some family jokes, which Irina translated from the front seat. She had quite a sense of humor - the self-deprecating kind that I hadn't seen much of before this.

We stopped at three lakes along the way to Anna's dacha to take photos, and a quick dip in the water. I was amazed at the winding roads that led us to these lakes. Only a daredevil driver would attempt to bring an automobile down these serpentine dirt paths. There were not only large gaping holes in the roads, but we drove over large tree roots and occasional rocks as big as basketballs along the way. We took several photos at each lake, climbing down steep hills to get to the favored spots. Hell Lake was our first stop. I'm not sure why this name was chosen for this lake (other than for the way to get there), since it was really quite attractive and many families were relaxing along the edge of the water and fixing barbeque lunches. Then we went to Beauty Lake, and then to Blue Lake for some more photos. Just before we arrived at Ann's dacha, we stopped at a cold water stream along a small back road, where a pump was installed to allow local residents to carry bottled water from an underground stream there. The water was ice cold, really clear, and very refreshing on such a hot day!

Then, finally we arrived at Sergi and Tatiana's dacha (Ann's family) where we met Ann's husband and Sergi and Tatiana's children. Their son gave me some raspberries and then later handed me a pickle from their garden. The berries were really sweet and delicious. After a half hour or so, we all headed out to dinner at a local barbeque restaurant along the beach. What an amazing place that was! The view of the sunset along the water's edge was worth the trip in itself. But you could also go horseback riding after dinner, or dance to live music. The food was quite good too. We started by ordering a few bottles of Russian wine and we all had a toast. I spoke with Sergi and asked him several questions about Russian women and Russian men. "How is it," I asked, "that Russian women were considered to make great wives, whereas Russian men were known to make such terrible husbands?" I was never quite comfortable with the publicity on the Internet surrounding this topic. Sergi looked at me and said, "Yes, there must be a lie here somewhere." He basically agreed that "many" Russian men were self-centered and didnÕt treat their women fairly, but it was only later, over the course of the entire trip, that I realized how distorted the generalizations I heard about truly were. We also talked about Lenin. I asked him why so many of Lenin's statues were still in place in the countryside, even though so many others had been removed closer to the big cities. "It would cost too much money to remove them ALL," he said, "and besides, people here still admire him so there is a strong feeling to keep them up in many places." (I didnÕt see any statues of Stalin anywhere, by the way!).

I danced with Irina and Anna while the music carried on into the night. I could feel myself becoming more and more attracted to Irina as the days went by. It was almost midnight and the sun was just setting in the horizon. After a long and luxurious dinner, we took some photos along the beach, and later bid each other Das Vidanya - and it was still not dark yet! Those white nights were really enchanting. Along the way home, we encountered at least three drunk drivers and barely escaped traffic accidents all three times.

Wednesday

The day began with a trip to the summer garden of Peter the Great. On the way we bought a special drink called Kvus which tasted to me like a combination of chocolate, coffee and root beer, all combined. Irina and I took a leisurely walk around the gardens admiring the many sculptures there, and saw the monument of the Russian author Krelov - who wrote fables about animals who possessed human qualities. Many Russian proverbs came from these tales. After a tour of the summer palace, we stopped at La Tratoria again for dinner, and then, stopping by the apartment to change our clothes, I was amazed to discover that we couldnÕt open the door! The two dead-bolts were locked - but I only had one of the two keys with me! Apparently, the woman cleaning our apartment locked both of the locks using both keys - but I had stopped using the second key a few days earlier, thinking it was overkill on a door that was already so heavily fortified that nothing short of explosives would be able to pry it open without a key. Oh my God - we were locked out!

Irina just laughed and suggested we leave our bags at the restaurant and pick them up again later after the ballet performance. So that's exactly what we did - we grabbed a taxi and quickly drove off to the theater.

The performance at the Mariinsky Theater was exquisite! This was the story of a Russian ballerina who had fallen in love with a KGB spy and who was trapped in the lifestyle of the underworld... she later paid the price of her sanity for her love of this man... what a sad story. So many of us were brought to tears by the performance. I found myself overwhelmed by the performance - it was wonderful. On the way out, I was almost speechless - but the look on my face said more than words could ever express.

After coffee and dessert at a local cafˇ, we taxied back to the apartment, hoping that the apartment rental office had located a spare apartment key while we were away, but no such luck - we were still locked out of our own place - and it was getting late. What could we do? We walked outside a bit, and eventually settling down in the garden area behind the apartment building. There we sat, my observing graffiti on the walls and a broken down fountain in the center of the sitting area. I felt like I was back in Philadelphia in the year 1975. More than 25 years had passed, but somehow I came a full circle in those minutes. Irina took all of this in good stride, maintaining her sense of humor, while all I could was to sit there and wonder just where in the world we would end up sleeping that night???!!! My gloomy spirits offered Irina much fodder for jest and good natured jabs at me - "cheer up!" she laughed. I could only wish that I thought it was as funny as she did! Here we were, sweaty, tired, desperately needing a shower and a good night's sleep - and we were basically homeless bums surrounded by graffiti in St. Petersburg's back alleys. Oh, woe is me.

We decided to walk to a nearby restaurant for a change in scenery. On the way there, we encountered a stripped down car, apparently salvaged for spare auto parts. My nightmare continued! "This was the ghetto side of the city," I suspected. Walking nearby, a few young people who were totally drunk, were hurling expletives at each other in rapid fire. I thought for sure that a fight was about to break out any minute. That's all I would have needed.

We finally found a Ukrainian karaoke bar that served food late. I would have settled for just about anything besides the bleak street scenes we had been surrounded by earlier. Irina found no end of humor in all of this, and I think my rather pathetic reaction made her laugh even more!

By midnight, it became clear to us that we were out of luck as far as getting back into our own apartment that night. So the apartment rental company manager invited us to sleep in the rental company office as a last resort. I was too tired to resist the idea, but I knew that it would be a long night without the comfort of my own bed... a very long night indeed.

When we arrived at the rental office, the street scene there was something out of a war movie - the entire street was torn up, apparently with heavy equipment. It looked like there had been an earthquake the way the street was all ripped apart. By this point, I was really losing it. This was the place we were going to spend the night??? Helen, the apartment manager, greeted us in the street. "Well, didn't you come to Russia for an adventure?" she asked me. "Yes I did," I mumbled back to her, "but I was hoping to time the adventure so it occurred only during the hours of nine to five." She apparently thought the whole thing was hilarious too. I was glad the two women were chuckling. As for myself, I desperately needed a cold shower.

Inside the office, we luckily discovered not only a western style hot shower, but the entire basement of the building had been converted to a sauna (and converted secretly as it turned out, so the neighbors didn't find out. But that's another story altogether). Irina suggested that we both take a sauna together. After a quick rinse in the shower, she gingerly walked down the steps into the cellar, and I quickly grabbed a robe and towel, and followed her. "What kind of a sauna is THIS?" I asked her. Apparently the entire basement of the building was dug out and this Scandinavian looking sauna was installed... and worked remarkably well, I noted. Irina just soaked up the heat, sitting all the way up as high as she could go (and there was NO WAY that I was going to sit all the way up there with all the heat rising - God, the heat was impossible to deal with, even sitting below). After ten minutes of oozing the day's pollution from our pores, we slowly made our way upstairs for a second shower, and pulled down the beds from the walls for the night. I was happy to see a computer in the office, which kept me busy for at least a couple of hours while Irina dozed off soundly on one of the two porta-beds. It was a long night, but at least we were off the streets - and clean.

In the morning, Helen came down again to wish us a good morning. I had had about one hour's sleep, and needed a good strong cup of coffee. She had a brand-new espresso machine in the office, which was very welcome news for me. After two strong cups of coffee, I was raring to go again, and I told her all about the Russian Woman List, which served to fascinate her to no end. After a twenty minute explanation, she quickly joined the list. "And why not?" I asked. She's in the apartment rental business, after all. And anyone visiting St. Petersburg could certainly use her help in finding a place to stay. (If you're planning to be in town, why not drop her a line at:  info@apartment.spb.ru ).

Helen was a gracious hostess and made us breakfast with some deference to my tastes by scrambling some eggs. We also had some kasha (which I have a long history with since my mother used to prepare it for us as kids) and some lively conversation followed. We were all becoming very good friends. One of the video professionals that Helen had worked with stopped by at the office too, and we were all chatting between ourselves and finding out we all had much in common. Helen showed me some videos that she made of Russian women, for one of the Internet websites featuring these ladies, and it was a top-notch production. She really knew her stuff! After breakfast, Irina and I said our goodbyes and we took some more photos on the street, near the "earthquake" zone we saw the night before (actually, I think some street construction was going on - but it looked like a huge mess in the dark!).

That night, we had one of our most favorite evenings in St. Petersburg at a wacky restaurant there called "The Sixth Corner." This place was really a find! They had live dance music, which, in and of itself was worth checking out, but the restaurant decoration was something really unusual. Some of the tables were decorated like a scene in the Titanic. Another table looked like a bed! Part of the restaurant had old political paintings on the wall, and the combined effect of all of this was a really fun atmosphere for a night a great fun. I highly recommend this place if you're in St. Petersburg for a couple of days. I have never seen so many people having so much fun in one place. (And by the way, the Russian men there seemed quite normal - and were treating their women very well too).

When we first walked into the restaurant, there were no free tables, so the hostess asked us to sit at another table where two other ladies were already seated. Although at first, they were reluctant to share their table with us, within a few minutes, we all started talking - and within fifteen minutes, we were all having a big party at the table and telling jokes and laughing like crazy! It turns out that one of the two women there was both an astrologer and a palm reader, and she took turns reading our palms and even studying our ear lobes! Warning: You must have a few drinks before you attempt this with strangers!

After some hours of good food, and some great dance music, we all four walked home together enjoying the afterglow of the white nights of St. Petersburg, as we strolled back to our apartment, both keys firmly in hand!

Friday

The next day was declared a national holiday for me. Irina and I went on a shopping spree for shoes! This woman really has good taste. I must have tried on twenty pairs of shoes that day, and eventually purchased a pair of Italian made dress shoes at a side street boutique. We marked the day as a turning point in our relationship.

We later made our way to St. Isaac's Cathedral and walked all 250 steps to the top without stopping. The walk was strenuous, but the view that awaited us at the top was well worth it - a panoramic view of the entire city. An interesting conversation followed.

"So why is there such a high incidence of divorce in Russia?" I asked. Apparently, it often starts like this:

A Russian man typically doesn't earn much money at his job, and naturally, this makes it difficult to support a family with kids. The wife feels the money crunch and then begins to nag him about it. Putting pressure on the man to make more money, the wife's complaints sooner or later start to sound like a broken record. The man eventually feels the need to escape this harangue, and begins to spend more time with his friends. Once he develops a routine that escapes the confines of his marriage, he is naturally exposed to other women in due course. Such women are not subject to the same economics as his wife, and naturally complain less (or not at all). The man finds solace in the company of these outside women, and eventually the inevitable happens, and the fidelity of the marriage is compromised. The wife finds out about this at some point, and her complaints take on a new life of their own. The marriage is then stressed to the breaking point, and the two of them divorce. This is a rather simplified explanation - but not an uncommon story, apparently.

After this philosophical interlude, our tour continued at the Peter the First monument outside the church - one of the main symbols of St. Petersburg.

Saturday

Another milestone in the trip occurred today as we discovered yet another boutique near our apartment where even more Italian designer shoes were sold - and the woman who owned the shop offered us a generous discount on any purchase. Irina's eyes lit up once we were inside the store and started looking around. After a few tries, it was clear that one pair stood out as a clear winner - not only in terms of design and fashion, but also by fit - a comfortable match. So we made plans to stop by again later, after our trip to the world famous Hermitage Museum.

The Hermitage didn't disappoint. It was everything I had read about - and then some. The room where Rembrandt's paintings were exhibited was hard to leave - in truth, I could have spent an easy hour on each one of his paintings! There was a special exhibit of Renoir at the museum too - what a visual feast we had on this day! In reality, it's impossible to see the Hermitage adequately without spending at least two weeks on the museum itself. We were there for nearly five hours, but I became overwhelmed with input from this great artwork after only two or three hours had passed. After that, much of what you see there becomes a blur. On the way out, we purchased a handful of guidebooks covering the museum's collection, with at least the possibility of catching a glimpse at some of the other works, once I returned home.

After the museum, we returned to our apartment and prepared ourselves for a night out at a local jazz club where good old American Rock & Roll was on tap. Helen, our apartment manager, met us on the way there. This club was actually quite humorous - there was a life-size wax replica of Jimmy Hendrix waiting for us at the door, and once inside, you got the feeling of being in an English pub the way the place was decorated. The band wailed - and the English lyrics were clearly memorized by the lead singer (with frequent mistakes throughout each song!) but who there really knew - except me? After their third set, I suggested that we all take a walk to a quiet coffee shop or bakery for dessert - and Helen knew of just the right place. After a quiet stroll across town - which was still in full daylight even at 10 PM - we arrived at our destination. There was a four man ensemble there playing New Orleans Jazz, but they were almost finished by the time we arrived. Our conversation stretched endlessly it seemed, as we talked about my three year quest to find a Russian bride - starting all the way back in 1998 when it all began. It was the first time that I relayed my tale to anyone so completely - and Irina herself hadn't heard it all before. And so my story was told - starting with the video dating service Great Expectations and my quest to meet an American woman - and the bitter disappointments that followed it - all the way to the multiple Russian woman Internet websites, where I plowed through so many thousands of profiles that eventually led to my two trips to Russia.

It was nearly 3 AM when we all reluctantly left the club. Helen suggested we walk over to the Niva River to see the bridges open and see the majestic procession of boats. We took some great photos along the way - in fact, one of our best pictures together from the entire trip. That night, I slept like a log.

Sunday

Waking late from a deep sleep, our driver Jzenia rang the bell and we hastily got ready for a trip to Pushkin Village for sightseeing and a walk through the beautiful gardens in the surrounding areas. Along the way we stopped at a beautiful country church where I slipped inside for twenty minutes of their Sunday morning Russian Orthodox service. It was a very moving experience - once again bringing tears to my eyes, while listening to the choir and seeing women lighting candles in this holy place. We took a few photos outside before traveling onwards to our next destination - Katherine's "special collection" of artifacts.

Katherine the Great had some exotic tastes - I can attest to that first-hand. This was a museum of sexual art objects - something I had never seen before anywhere. How very interesting. We saw small porcelain dolls and figurines in various sexually provocative positions - most of them rather carnal in nature - and some depicting graphic sexual positions and exotic scenes where three (or four) people were participating at once. Unfortunately, photos were prohibited inside (for obvious reasons) but I was tempted to sneak a few anyway...

Irina finally pulled me away and we proceeded to a tour of Katherine's summer home on the grounds. One of the museum curators offered to show us around privately - and Irina slid her a handful of rubles for her trouble. It was interesting to see how money greased palms during our trip. Irina was quite good at it too - knowing who to tip and how much to offer - evidently a skill that comes from living there all your life. This is not something one would learn when living in the United States, of course.

We stopped at a restaurant for coffee while strolling through the grounds - and ended up sitting there for nearly two hours - discussing our relationship! On the drive back home, we stopped along the roadside to buy fresh berries from some of the locals who owned farms nearby. And then, as we came to the outskirts of St. Petersburg again, we stopped at the big supermarket on the way into town, to stock up on bread, cheese, kefir, and three kinds of mineral water. Once back in the apartment, our "relationship" conversation resumed...

Monday

The next day we took a long walk to a big city park where Irina told me some heart-wrenching tales about her life and the men who had loved her. Her stories, like much of Russian history, were steeped in drama and tragedy. Our talk set the stage for what was to follow at the Church of the Savior - where Alexander II was killed. This church is a 'must see' for anyone visiting St. Petersburg - it should not be missed. By this point in the trip it was obvious to me that I had found a gem of a woman here in Russia, and we made plans to meet again in Santa Barbara later in the fall.

On the way back from the Church, we met our new friend Helen again at the British Book Store near our apartment and Nevsky Prospekt. We decided to take a walk along the avenue for some more shopping, and Irina wanted to buy some gifts for her colleagues at work. It was there, in broad daylight, that a teenage punk tried to snatch Helen's handbag! He apparently followed us for some time, and slowly edged closer, reaching to unzip her bag while it was still on her shoulder. Just in the nick of time, she discovered his hand - inside her bag - and quickly pulled it away from him! Then, quickly turning around - she grabbed his shirt and almost tore it to pieces! Do not underestimate these women - they are not as meek and mild-mannered as you might think!

We all needed a drink after that - so we stopped back at the apartment for a beer, some snacks and Kahlua (a gift of mine from California). A very lively conversation followed - which went on for a few hours nonstop! "Harasho - sidim!"

Then the three of us made our way to The Sixth Corner again for dinner and music on our last night in St. Petersburg. And then, some photos on the way home, where we made some tea - and fell again into a blessed sleep.

Tuesday - Moscow

Around noon, Jzenia took us to the airport for our flight to Moscow. We decided to spend a few days there, meeting Irina's family and friends. At the airport, my bags were overweight again, and the airline representative at baggage check-in requested a "bribe" from us to avoid waiting in line to apply for excess weight documents - and this was HER idea, not ours! By that point in the trip, such "under the table" payments were becoming common place to me, so I just shrugged my shoulders and waved the "okay" sign to Irina, who quietly paid her off. The money, naturally, quickly disappeared into the representative's pocket.

Such "bribes" or "payoffs" had become so "routine" for me during this trip that my initial surprise over their appearance at some point changed to a feeling of acceptance that this was the common way to lubricate many situations in Russia, and get people to do you "favors" or "courtesies" - or whatever you want to call them. Irina had a great deal of finesse when it came to these things - it's one of the (many) things I respected about her - she had a very good way of dealing with people. She almost had an instinctive feeling about what to say or do to make people comfortable around her - and in public situations, to get people to do what she wanted - without any hard feelings (in fact, with good feelings).

After the hour-long flight to Moscow, we finally were back "home" again. Irina's uncle Uri was there to meet us at the airport. He was a strong and very friendly man, with what I later discovered to be a great sense of humor. He greeted us with a warm handshake and a smile, and immediately grabbed both of my suitcases and walked at a fast pace out the door - before I could say a word or even reach out to help him. And remember, these bags were overweight according to airport regulations - and that means more than 20 kilos each. All the way back to Irina's apartment, Uri told jokes in the car - at first, making comical statements about Americans eating hamburgers all the time - and then later, the famous "ketchup" jokes where all of us Americans were depicted putting ketchup on literally everything we ate! It sounded hilarious the way he put it, but later, back at Irina's apartment, I heard the same comments from her other friends too - and they weren't kidding. Apparently, the stereotype of the typical American eating hamburgers and dousing ketchup on everything is alive and kicking in Russia. Not that we don't have our own stereotypes too, of course. Many Americans think of Russia as this dark and dreary country which is constantly covered with dark cloudy skies and in which babushka style women are walking down the streets, carrying large bags of food. Nothing could be further from the truth - but many of the old Iron Curtain images live on.

By the time we arrived at Irina's apartment building, Uri and I were becoming good friends. We walked up to the apartment elevator, took the lift up, and brought the suitcases upstairs. Uri and I shook hands goodbye and made plans to meet him again, and his wife Bella, the next day.

That night, we had plans to meet Irina's good friend Tanya, a heavy-set woman who seemed to bear the weight of the world upon her shoulders. Tanya's flat was well decorated and she had a lot of books - something I noted was common in the flats I visited - a reflection of good education and an interest in literature. Tanya put out a great spread of food for us too - I was really impressed by the variety of fresh salads she made for our enjoyment. We drank a toast together (and several thereafter) and started a very nice evening there. We all three talked in an animated way - Irina translating for both Tanya and myself - and after dinner, Irina and I took turns in the shower there (this was the three week time period during which the hot water was unavailable in Irina's apartment).

The next few days in Moscow passed by quickly. Not unlike the trip to the Hermitage Museum, it was easy to become overwhelmed with all the new impressions coming by so fast. The following day Irina and I spent a delightful afternoon shopping at the open air market in Moscow, where we bought dozens of fruits, vegetables, European cheeses, several varieties of dark bread (something we discovered we both had a fondness for) and tomatoes, pickles, onions, and of course, smetana - Russian sour cream. One of the oddest things I observed in these markets was the way the vendors allowed you to sample the sour cream, right out of the large tub it was stored in. The sellers would dip their ladles into the tub, and drip a small amount of the cream onto the back of your hand - which you would be expected to lick off - and show your appreciation, if warranted.

We later took a guided tour of Irina's fitness club, a place which could easily rival our best Gold's Gym layout, here in the America. I have never seen such a high tech fitness center in my life - they had dozens of computerized work stations there - enough to keep 100 people busy, at any time of the day.

That night, we decided to heat some hot water on the stove in Irina's apartment, and use that to take a "shower" with - soaping down and pouring the warm water over our heads to rinse off. This was a first for me - but it worked out just fine.

The next day we had dinner at Uri and Bella's apartment. Bella really put out a great spread - consisting of many home-made salads, cured salmon (lox) and chicken breasts, pickles, cured meats, and of course some drinks - red wine and the ever present vodka. Uri's son came by later and we all had a great dinner together - toasting, telling stories about "the good old days" and sharing our photos with them from St. Petersburg. Then Uri brought out his old photo albums too - and I was really treated to something special - pictures taken many years ago when Irina was a young girl - and photos of Irina's father, and several of Uri and Bella taken in their dacha over the course of many years. We were laughing and telling jokes, and of course, we took some more photos after dinner too. Bella's pet cat was the special guest of the evening - what a spoiled pet he was - lying on the bed sprawled out like he owned the place!

The next day

Today we took a trip to Irina's office where I met her business partner Natasha. Natasha impressed me as being very professional - well dressed in business attire, with a big executive desk which even included a small chair next to it - for a secretary or translator to sit and take dictation. Upon my arrival, Natasha sent for coffee and a plate full of chocolates and cookies as a snack. We exchanged business cards and I watched her conduct some business there for several minutes while sipping the rich dark brew. Their offices were quite impressive.

Today was also the day when I would finally meet Irina's best friend Galina. In some ways Irina saved the best for last. Galina was a fascinating woman who worked in video production in Moscow. She was intelligent and definitely opinionated! Which was fine with me. We met at "The Coffee Bean" in Moscow - an upscale trendy place to meet friends over a cup of cappuccino. An interesting conversation quickly developed on the differences between American women and Russian women. I gave my perspective, which the two ladies seemed fascinated by, and then one of the most interesting revelations of the trip came forth - the reasons why successful Russian women cannot find husbands in Russia.

As it turns out, almost any man over the age of 35 who is educated, polite, cultured, and who has a normal job (in other words, a job that is not related to the Russian mafia) is almost guaranteed to be nearly broke. Doctors, university professors - in fact almost all professional men who grew up in the years before 1970, did so in a way that has led many of these men into low income professions - with relatively few exceptions. Such men, as a rule, earn enough money to survive, but not enough to support the kind of relationship that we men in the west take for granted - a relationship which includes dining out, trips to other countries, dressing fashionably, and other middle-class activities. For a Russian woman who can afford such luxuries, a single and unattached male counterpart is almost non-existent. Hence, the need for these women to look abroad. Up until this time, my understanding of the reasons why Russian women sought western men focused on the often cited generalization that many Russian men were alcoholics or self-centered womanizers. Not arguing the validity of this generalization one way or the other, when it comes to affluent Russian women, their choices are really few and far between when it comes to Russian men. Most men in their 40's and 50's in Russia are often either married - or dead. Those who are single are often broke. And no self respecting Russian man would date a woman who is financially out of his league. He would be embarrassed if she offered to pay for things in order to keep the relationship going in a manner she is accustomed to. As a result, women like Helen in St. Petersburg (a successful photographer and apartment rental agent) and women like Irina's friend Galina - and indeed, Irina herself - are often stuck in Russia with few options for partners in their own age range. Such is the price of success there at the present time - which is where I come in.

MY complaints about American women are that they are often too darn busy (and too self-centered) to make time for a normal relationship. The good ones are already married (which is the universal law everywhere, of course) but those who are single by virtue of having been divorced or widowed, are often very angry towards men in general - or carrying such incredible baggage that most normal men run the other way when they get wind of what they're up against. It's just a coincidence in history now that several fortuitous events all have appeared at the same time: The Internet - making Russian-American meetings possible; The open-door policy in Russia which began around 1990 - making trips to Russia possible; and the combined forces of the backlash of the women's liberation movement here in America - and either the phenomenon of "undesirable" Russian men, or "financially ill equipped" Russian men, driving the women there to seek out their foreign options instead. Very interesting indeed.

After our meeting with Galina, I suggested that we take a walk and Irina quickly drove across town to one of the most delightful parks I have ever visited - I call it "The Enchanted Forest" because of the amazing encounters we had there with wildlife. Amazing that such a huge park would be found in the middle of a big city like Moscow, but even more amazing that the animals found in this park would be so approachable. Everywhere we turned, animals came out of the forest to greet us - birds were eating out of our hands, ducks swam across a lake directly to us (to see if we had some food for them no doubt), and later a beautiful little cat walked right up to us and was playing with us for quite a while too. I've never seen such friendly animals living in the wild!

Well, my trip to Russia was finally drawing to an end. On my last night in Russia, we had a dinner party at Irina's apartment. Her friends Anna and her husband Donik, their daughter, and Irina's best friend Galina were all there to say goodbye. We put out a spread of food, including calamari, salads, Russian dark bread, and of course some fine Russian caviar. We all toasted each other on a wonderful meeting, and the evening unfolded with jokes and with some tales of my experiences in Russia over the previous two weeks.

As the evening continued, I could feel the impending departure the next day, and had to choke back the tears. After everyone left, Irina and I exchanged some more gifts. I gave her the book, "Wedded Strangers" by Lynn Visson (in Russian) and also two other books I brought with me on the subject of living in America from the perspective of the immigrating foreigner. This was really a heart-felt evening.

In the morning, after a wholesome breakfast, I gave Irina some very personal gifts as our emotions ran high and our hearts met as one. Irina's aunt Bella accompanied us to the airport - and as a farewell gift, she gave me a loaf of the famous Russian black bread that I had grown so fond of during the previous two weeks. I could hardly contain my feelings at the airport - the tears ran down my cheeks as we said our goodbyes... this was surely the end of a chapter, but just the beginning of a great story.


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Irina and Jay Reiss
view from
churchtower
click here

Irina and Jay
at the
horse stable click here

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Jay with Helen
and Irina
click here

Irina as "Foxy Lady"
with wax statue of
Jimi Hendrix
click here


 
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