Matryoshka

Things that did not survive my trip to Russia: my boots, my Kindle, the functionality of all 3 pens I brought with me. Now I know how Napoleon felt.

When I went to Egypt last year, I found that a good way of remembering some of the smaller moments from the trip (and also delaying until I could finish getting photos sorted out) was to focus on some of the people I met. While I don’t feel like I had the kind of lengthy encounters in Russia that I had in Egypt, here’s what a matryoshka of some of the more interesting characters might look like, blending the nice exchanges with sketchy/weird ones, because what trip would be complete without its crazies?

#1:
I know these people are not actually weird or crazy by Russian/St. Petersburg standards; what they’re doing is totally normal. After all, look how many people have already done it:
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But in case it’s not clear from the photos, they are walking across the Neva River. I mean, it’s frozen and all, very impressively so. But it’s also April and as you can see in the bottom picture, there are starting to be some not-quite-so-frozen-anymore patches. I don’t know. I wouldn’t do it.

#2:

"I was just trying to get rid of some old bread and look what happened!"

“I was just trying to get rid of some old bread and look what happened!”

Russians in general seem to be really into feeding pigeons, as this happened a lot. While I’m not that fond of pigeons myself, I’m down with people being nice to them. Especially when they look like this:
"WTF! It's April and snowing and cold as balls out here! Tell me again why we live here??"

“WTF! It’s April and snowing and cold as balls out here! Tell me again why we live here??”

It’s like people’s way of saying, “Hey, birds. Thanks for sticking it out with us.”

#3: All the hostel employees I encountered in both Moscow and St Petersburg were really nice. I stayed at Soul Kitchen Junior hostel in St Petersburg, which was the best hostel I have ever stayed in and probably ever will stay in, which is why I’m mentioning the name specifically–give them your business if you’re ever in St Pete! The girls there were really sweet, offering me the chance to shower after my overnight train even when I wasn’t officially checked in yet and in general always being kind and friendly upon my return without being really pushy about forcing an awkward conversation. Just lovely. And the reception guy at the second hostel I stayed at in Moscow (I stayed in one for my first 4 nights in the city and then a different one, closer to the train station, for the last night after I returned from St Pete) was also really nice, helping me look up the Novodevichy Monastery and Convent on Google because it was off the tourist map and then using Street View to help me recognize where to go once I got off the metro.

#4: However, there was a Russian girl at that second Moscow hostel who was probably the worst hostel roommate I have ever had who wasn’t actually drunk or on something. She was there with two guy friends who were staying in a different dorm room across the hall, which meant that they knocked on the door a few times to try to find her and two of them were almost always waiting for the third one in the hall and talking loudly while doing so. She had been staying in the room by herself until I and another girl arrived, and she had taken over the one chair in the room with her clothes, was hanging her towels and such on all of the bed railings, etc–and didn’t move any of it when she saw she had two roommates.

I noticed also that when she came in and out while I was taking a nap after checking in (I didn’t sleep much on the overnight train–see below), she locked the door behind her. The room just had a deadbolt, so it’s not as if I couldn’t get out, but it was a little bit of a strange feeling to be locked into a hostel room. Then, in the middle of the night (like 2-3 am), I was asleep and so was the Russian girl when the third girl returned and I think was probably coming and going from the room to wash up for bed, and I woke up because suddenly the crazy Russian girl yelled, “Hey! You leave the room, you ALWAYS lock the door! ALWAYS! Even for a minute!!” and the other girl said, “OK, ok,” and that seemed to be the end of the conflict, but even in my semi-conscious state I was left wondering why it was such a big deal that the third girl wasn’t locking the door behind her when she just got up to use the bathroom given that we were all IN the room. I guess she was worried that someone could come in and rob her (or worse) while she slept, but I wanted to point out also that she was sleeping with two random girls in the same room who could just as easily rob her while she slept if that was her concern.

What really made her the worst hostel roommate ever, though, was the next morning. She was up early-ish (around 7:30), while I was taking a slow morning and sleeping in and the third girl ended up sleeping really late after getting in so late. I woke up because for probably about an hour, the Russian girl was, I swear, trying to be as loud as humanly possible in getting ready, perhaps as revenge for the door-locking incident during the night. I’ve never heard anyone be so loud in a hostel room in the morning; usually people are pretty good about realizing that other people are sleeping and you need to be quiet. Sometimes there’s a lot of rustling if the person is packing up to leave, but that’s the worst that’s ever happened. But this girl got fully dressed, including her combat boots, and then proceeded to walk back and forth across the creaky hardwood floor between the lockers, which was where all her makeup was stored, and the mirror that was on the other side of the room for each makeup item that she needed. So, for example: stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp to the locker, rummage around in the metallic locker, clanging loudly, for foundation. Stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp to the mirror, apply foundation. Stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp back to the locker to throw foundation back in makeup bag which clangs in metallic locker, rummage around for blush. Stomp-stomp-stomp-stomp to the mirror to apply blush. Etc, etc. Also, she was in and out of the room whenever she needed water from the sink, and she locked and unlocked the clanking deadbolt on the old door every single time (it apparently never occurred to her that she could apply makeup in the bathroom) And let me tell you: this girl did a LOT of work on herself based on the amount of stomping going on, but when I ran into her later in the kitchen, you couldn’t even really tell. I wanted to tell her that she wasted all that time, but I kept my mouth shut.

She was getting ready for so long that it became very apparent that we were all awake listening to the racket she was making. At one point the third girl made a sort of grunting/snorting noise of disgust and the Russian girl just snorted back at her. I lay there and thought, “1) If they start throwing down and fighting, my bet is on the Russian girl; and 2) Thank god this is the only night I’m spending in this room.”

#5: In my first hostel in Moscow was a guest who might’ve given this girl a run for her money as worst hostel roommate ever except that he wasn’t actively trying to be rude. I had booked an 8-bed female dorm at this hostel but had gotten switched (without them telling me) into a 6-bed mixed dorm; I didn’t figure it out right away because the first 3 nights I was there, all five other roommates were women. On the last night, though, the girls all moved out and two middle-aged men moved in, and at that point I didn’t feel like there was much point in fussing over the reservation change. One guy was very quiet and kept to himself, lying on the bed reading from his tablet most of the time; I never even heard him speak. The other guy was of unknown origin; the hostel staff spoke to him in English, so he wasn’t Russian, but I couldn’t figure out anything else. He was a little bit swarthy, slightly heavy-set and breathed noisily at the slightest exertion (like pushing his suitcase under the bed).

In the morning, after breakfast while I was packing up to go, he woke up and started doing something on his smart phone: email or texting, I assumed. The quiet older guy was already gone and a younger Russian boy who seemed to have just materialized during the night was also dressed and packing up, so with everyone in the room awake, the day was pretty much on (it was probably about 9:00-9:30 am at this point). Russian boy and I are both in the middle of the room packing when suddenly we hear a woman scream. Russian boy and I both start, and then, I imagine, undergo the same split-second realization as the heavy-set man hurriedly changes a setting on his phone: the scream came from the man’s phone, we suddenly heard it because the phone either got unmuted or the headset came out, and it’s a woman screaming in orgasm because the man is watching porn on his phone and jacking off. At 9 am. In a hostel bed with two other people in the room standing within six feet of his bed.

Things got really awkward then and nobody really knew where to look. I finished packing as quickly as possible and got the heck out of Dodge. While I was checking out at the front desk, though, the man emerged and asked the receptionist for a towel. Gross.

#6: I feel dirty just recalling that hostel story. So instead I want to thank the two random tourists who helped me take these pictures:

The first was a woman who was in Red Square with her husband, also taking pictures in front of St Basil’s Cathedral, and the second was a Chinese man with a small group inside the Hermitage. Both of them were really careful and took their time framing the pictures properly, waited for people to get out of the way, etc. I’ve generally found that people are almost always very happy to take your picture (they’re usually tourists themselves) but I always think it’s nice when people take a little extra effort.

#7: Taking an overnight train by yourself is always a little awkward. I opted for a second-class cabin based partly on the recommendation of my friend and also based on some prior experience with overnight trains and hostels. As with hostels, if you’re on your own it’s weird to share a double room with someone you don’t know. You need at least two other roommates to achieve the critical mass where it’s no longer weird that you are sleeping with total strangers. So I figured a second-class cabin (4 beds) was better than a first-class cabin (2 beds) in that respect.

However, be aware that although they do ask you for your gender when you fill out an online order form, the Russian trains don’t actually take gender into account when assigning cabins. On my first overnight train from Moscow to St Petersburg, I was in the cabin with a middle-aged Russian man and a young Russian man until finally a Spanish girl showed up at the last minute to relieve some of my anxiety. And the middle-aged man, despite sort of creeping me out at first glance and not speaking any English, actually turned out to be pretty patient, helping me figure out how to unlatch the door at 6:30 am and then finally stepping out of the cabin when he saw the difficulties I was having getting changed in a modest way in front of him (I had forgotten to bring my clothes with me to the bathroom when I initially washed up and the bathroom was very busy after that with the other train passengers). Even though all of it was done with the long-suffering air of, “Lord, what a moron this girl is,” it was also infused with a sense of paternalism that, in the end, made it kind of sweet.

#8: The reason I know that Russian trains don’t take gender into account is because on my return trip from St Pete to Moscow, I was in a cabin with three other men. Two were traveling together and one was alone, but they were exchanging some basic pleasantries when I arrived. The two younger men (they were probably in their late 30’s/early 40’s; the third man was older) who were traveling together gave me an appraising look. One of them asked something in Russian and, when I didn’t understand, pointed from the cabin number to me and then back again, questioningly. I affirmed, and he turned to his friend with a knowing giggle. My stomach twinged a little.

Inside the cabin, the older man made his bed and went to sleep right away. The younger men, who introduced themselves to me as Vlad and Sergei, however, were not in a sleeping mood. Although they both already had alcohol on their breath, they’d come prepared for this train ride: a bottle of cognac, 4 little tin shotglasses, a half-liter of Pepsi, and a bar of chocolate. They set all this up on the little table in the cabin. They invited me to partake with them; I declined. Vlad, the one who had initially asked me if this was my room, stood leaning against the top bunk, staring fixedly at me and occasionally giggling and repeating my name softly in a singsong voice as he sipped his cognac (in retrospect, I kind of wonder if he wasn’t quite all there, or if he was just really wasted already). Then, because the older man had one of the bottom bunks which convert into seats and was already sleeping, the only place left to sit was next to me, on my as-yet-unconverted bed, which was where Sergei, who spoke some English, parked himself, a little too close to me for comfort, and proceeded to ask me lots of questions, tell me about them, and periodically invite me to have some of their drinks and sweets. I felt slightly easier when Sergei told me they both had children (Vlad one and Sergei four, although neither wore a wedding ring), but then he asked me, “Do you like music?” and pulled out his phone, insisting that I listen to this one song, which turned out to be his oldest daughter singing Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which then woke up the sleeping man and seemed to finally persuade Sergei and Vlad to go to sleep themselves and allow me to fold down my seat.

Needless to say, though, I didn’t sleep well that night and was up extremely early the next morning, worrying about being assaulted and raped in my sleep and wondering if the older man would come to my defense in that case. (This was why I was so tired when I arrived at the second hostel in Moscow with the Rudest Roommate Ever.) I did briefly consider asking the conductor to switch me to a different cabin, but the language barrier was a major obstacle; I wasn’t sure that I could convey what the problem was without resorting to a lot of pointing and gesticulating and insinuating right in front of three men who’d probably cotton on to the fact that I was prejudging them on sight as potential rapists/molesters. I also am not sure still that the conductor would’ve seen it as a problem and would’ve bothered to try to intervene; they certainly made no effort on either train to serve their non Russian-speaking passengers. And in the end, nothing happened. But that was definitely the tensest night I had in Russia; I guess I’d take even Crazy Combat Boot Girl over the uncertainty and anxiety of that night.

#9 – I took a walking tour in St Petersburg with a guide who was a kind of Dostoevskyan character himself: tall, gangly, hippie-intellectual/maybe part-time stoner who’d moved around a lot as a child and now does things like fly to southeast Asia and try to hitch-hike back home but run out of time partway through and end up having to fly back from China. He took us through courtyards and back alleyways and told us stories about walking across the frozen inner canals when drunk, and the fine you have to pay if you fall through the ice and have to be rescued (if you don’t die of hypothermia before the emergency crew gets to you). He did a good job, but he seemed like someone who might not really like doing tours but does it for the money and then maybe walks away slightly disgusted with himself. (The fact that I was re-reading Crime and Punishment the entire time I was in St Petersburg was probably not helping these associations.)

#10: Finally, this.

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I saw this woman while walking up to the Kremlin entrance and was so disappointed that I didn’t manage to get my camera out in enough time to snap a picture of her…only to have her then walk past me inside the Kremlin itself. The front view was even better, but you take what you can get.
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