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St. Petersburg...


Impressions... not easy to describe. Certainly the glossy pictures in the travel books don't really do the city justice, or don't capture its essence. Not that there is a lack of palaces, rather the opposite, and some of them are beautifully restored already, but they're a kind of alternate reality almost, a sort of Potemkin's village in relation to the reality of the rest of the city. I guess this would be true to some extent in most places, but it never struck me as forcibly before. There are amazingly beautiful buildings, street after street, for kilometers, but mostly in an incredibly bad state of repair. Turn around the corner of a boulevard, a newly painted church, monastery, palace or Western-style boutique, look into a yard, and there's decay, and not a prettily romantic kind of decay either, but the result of decades of neglect, fumes from cars and industry... a layer of dirt, broken windows, crumbling facades, beautifully iron-wrought balconies and gates corroded and bent... there's a lingering sense of depression and resignation, or at least that's how it felt to me.

A level of poverty that made me more than a little uncomfortable, especially staying in the posh hotel we did.

It's a beautiful city, and it must have been astounding a hundred, eighty, years ago, but it's not a city to instantly fall in love with, at least if you're willing to look a little further than the gaudily painted facades and gilded domes and spires. You'd need long walks to really appreciate it, not being dragged through the major attractions with a group of fellow-tourists.

You end up mostly overwhelmed and confused, or at least I did; not being able to speak Russian doesn't help, and makes it practically impossible to even buy something in a grocery store. Everything is on a very large scale - maybe not so much for people from places like London and Paris, but for little Viennese me. Even the Soviet buildings may still seem a little out-sized, but the scale becomes more comprehensible, considering what they were trying to top.

Tourism... ::sigh:: I realise this kind of rapid change and adjusting to mass-tourism is hard, but at the moment I feel that as a tourist you get the worst of the old and the new. Expensive (which was mostly why I originally gave up the plan and ended up on this trip with my mother), entrance fees for non-Russian tourists are high even for European standards, there's a lot of queuing and waiting (apparently it's even worse in July and August) and complicated organisational things which make it extremely difficult if not impossible for an individual tourist to visit some places; finding someone who understands and speaks a foreign language is hard outside the main tourist sites. At the same time you have people try to sell you things all the time at the tourist sites, souvenirs and books, postcards, matrojschka dolls, fur caps, scarves and soviet memorabilia while you wait to be let into some palace, and you constantly feel guilty for not buying them, but still don't because mostly they're useless and/or ugly...

In a way, though, I'm glad I saw it now, at this time of change, because there's a brutal honesty, an immediacy about the place. The prettification of the surface isn't far advanced yet, the past still very visible as well as the present change; neon signs of Western stores on crumbling 19th century buildings... Moreover, while I've no idea how far or fast Russia will recover economically, I rather doubt there'll be enough money to restore the whole old part of the city any time soon, or at least before many of the old buildings will be beyond rescue. At one point I'm afraid it'll just be cheaper to tear down buildings, replace a carved door, an iron-wrought gate or railing with a simple modern one, remove a dangerously crumbling balcony.

It's life, I guess, unavoidable, but it still makes you sad, seeing all that decaying and decayed splendor.




I can't do group travels. Never was comfortable with them, and it's been getting worse the older I get. As my mother constantly reminded me and our Russian guide confirmed, it really wouldn't have been possible, or extremely hard to do this on one's own, especially not speaking Russian, but I'm not so sure the constant level of irritation was worth it...

Maybe (possibly, probably) I'm over-neurotic or over-sensitive in this respect, but I hate to stick out in a foreign place. If possible, I try to blend in to some extent, I don't see a need to dress specifically touristy when visiting a city, I just take the same clothes & shoes and bag I wear/use at home. On my walks alone people did ask me things in Russian a few times, so I guess I at least got the benefit of doubt occasionally until I took out the map or camera...

With a group it's impossible not to stick out, and a German group in Russia complicates things even further... Standing in a small square/park in front of a statue of Pushkin among twenty-three German tourists, getting things explained to you at too long length, with groups of punk/goth local teenagers looking at you saying rude things about Germans and tourists and/or German tourists (so I don't speak Russian, but the nazi salute we got was pretty tell-tale) - I find that excruciatingly uncomfortable and painfully embarrassing and hate to be caught in such a situation.

(It's not that there was much overt hostility, but you can't help wonder what people think, especially older people... all they got for defeating Hitler was Stalin firmly consolidated in power, half a century of communism, and now, wealthy German people coming to look at the palaces their fathers might have helped plunder and destroy. It must be kind of frustrating...)

I hate the constant rush and the fixed schedule, never being able to look at things the way I would like to, or as long as I would like to. When I travel, for me it's not about striking points off a mental list, about efficiency and must-sees... there always are a few places/museums I'm interested in and want to see, but for the rest it's not so much about the what, but the how. I don't have a fixed schedule beforehand, I try to keep my mind open, get the a sense of a place, a personal impression, not a pre-fabricated one.



Also, traveling with my mother was a major mistake. It all started when two years ago I vaguely considered St. Petersburg, but it turned out to be too expensive, so when she wanted to go, but my father didn't, they asked me, and stupidly I said yes. I don't have a particularly bad relationship with my mother; I thought, I'm an adult, I can do that. Can't. Couldn't. At the risk of reverting to a whiny thirteen year old, but apparently that's what over-exposure to parents will do to your state of mind... It's not even when she treats me like a child instead of a thirty-three year old woman perfectly capable of packing and organising her own things, because when I remind her often enough, she stops, mostly. But. She talks all the time, comments everything. Maybe I'm a bit too extreme in my way, too reclusive, but I can't bear this. It's not that every conversation has to be profound in the life, the universe and everything way, but there's a level of banality, of repetition instead of reflection, that grates on my nerves after a certain time. Maybe, too, I'm too passive an observer, but when I see things, places, people, mostly I just look at them, try to see them for what they are, not to immediately put a label on them, categorize, compare, stick them in some pre-existing mental grid, talk them to death. It's a different country, but it's still life, not some kind of curiosity, and (within certain parameters) I try not to attach value or judgment any more than I do at home.

And perhaps it's unfair complaining about that, because we all have quirks, but while I'm whining... she's so complicated. How can things I give a second's thought take her so long to decide? I thought I had neuroses when it comes to making decisions, but at least I don't need ten minutes to decide which sweater or jacket to take with me.

What scares me most is the thought that I will be like this at the same age - either that, or, which is perhaps more likely, like my father, who's much more abstractly intellectual, but lives in his own world and more or less refuses to deal with or acknowledge everyday things.

::profound sigh::




Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
un_crayon_rouge
Jun. 18th, 2005 05:54 am (UTC)
Welcome back!

That was very interesting to read. I agree with the travelling in groups part, I did it once and four days almost did me in. It's especially bad when you have a "cheerful" group and they insist you "join in" on everything. I am a rather cheerful person, most of the time, so they mistake me for that kind of person, and that makes it really hard for me to say "no, I'd rather take a walk alone, thank you". I can't bear those astonished looks and end up giving in and "joining". Brrrr, dreadful experience.

And WORD about the travelling with mother thing. Although your mother and mine have probably nothing in common, they seem to have the same tendency to comment on everything. Worse, my mother thinks that constantly exclaiming things like "interesting!" or "how nice!" constitutes a conversation, ergo, if I don't respond the same way, I am refusing to have a conversation and being rude. She also thinks there's something wrong with me because I don't react with surprise and delight at every little thing I see that is different from what I am used too. Actually, it does delight me, but I don't see the need to shout out "how wonderfully different!"

::joins in sigh::
solitary_summer
Jun. 18th, 2005 05:07 pm (UTC)
Actually, it does delight me, but I don't see the need to shout out "how wonderfully different!"

::nodnod::Or the need to point out every single thing. I have eyes, I do use them. I've *seen* it. For better or worse, my mother is too nice to call me rude and she mostly accepts my silences and other quirks, which makes me feel doubly guilty for being so irritable, and makes it really impossible to tell her to occasionally just *please* be silent for a little bit. Ah, guilt... where would we be without it... ::eyeroll::

I ended up going on walks alone to regain my balance.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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