From Russia With Love (VI)

MOSCOW
PART I

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The snow continues to fall. It’s the same lucid dream I’ve been having all week. Then the train comes to a halt and I’m jolted awake.

It’s dark but the snow outside still reflects some light into the cabin. I look over the railing in both fear and anticipation. I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know why the train has stopped. I look out the window and all I see is a small rail yard. No buildings, no platforms, just a few lights and tracks. It’s fight or flight mode, and I remain still. The train jolts again and slowly starts to move. I convince myself to close my eyes and fall back asleep but I’m running on adventure mode. Clenching my passport and my pillow I slowly drift off and imagine loud footsteps. I’m being torn from the bed by Russian soldiers as the train jolts again. I look out the window. It’s just pine trees. The train does this a few more times and I slowly take my mind off the spy novel genre and lay back and watch the trees turn to houses and the night turn to day.

The everyone’s alarms all go off and now I know it is 6:00am. As we get ready we are served breakfast and chai. There is a  knock on the door and we know we’ll be pulling into Moscow momentarily. All the cabin doors open and the rest of the group crowds into the tiny hall ready to take on the capital.

Its off the train and strait to the bus. We’re all a bit foggy from the journey. As we swing around the city it starts to look more and more like the bus is a Delorean and we’ve just hit 88 miles per hour.

I swear I’m in 1930’s Soviet Union.

The Soviet star is still present on most of the buildings, and the hammer and sickle is no stranger. I always imagined anything resembling the old regime would have been destroyed in much the same was as the Berlin Wall was. As we turn towards the center of the city a familiar site comes into view. Saint Basil’s! The Kremlin! Red Square!

If there was one point I would have liked to have been fluent in Russian, it would have been to see Lenin’s Tomb. The walls of the Kremlin lined with burial plaques and red coronations. I don’t know who they were, or why they were there. As you descend into the pyramid there is a guard at either side of every step. The walls are black. Slowly, the black becomes pierced with red daggers ascending from the ground. At center of the tomb in a large glass casket is the man himself, Vladimir Lenin. The room is silent and with each step your gaze is locked onto mummified body. Perfectly preserved in a simple black suit and no different that those images in your high school text books. Silence follows as you exit. Outside busts of what I assumed to be Bolsheviks or Communist Party leaders stand looking on. Again, the language barrier fails me as I can only pick out who I assumed to be Trotsky and Stalin. More burial plaques follow as you exit into Red Square across from St. Basil’s.

I’ve drawn St. Basil’s Cathedral before. I’ve seen countless photos. How on earth did it never occur to me to wonder what it was like on the inside? The moment we gather inside I’m at a loss. This place has taken my coordination and turned it on its own head. I’m the last to enter and the old wooden door slams behind me. I trip on the floor as it turns from metal tile to brick to wood to concrete. It’s a maze. I’m trying to photograph it all the best I can and I can’t even focus on how to create the image. I keep loosing the tour group as the guide weaves them through the labyrinth. When you picture a church you picture a large room where the masses can gather… yet the rooms are oddly shaped and darted about. The church takes hold of my coordination again as I attempt to climb the stairs. Spiraling around an enclosed pillar the stairs are all different highs, materials, uneven, and there is a crowd of visitors all trying to get past you. I’ve lost the group again, and with them any explanation as to the history of the building. I’m still trying to capture an image that could sum up the grand confusion that St. Basil’s has presented me.

Moscow has a way of presenting me with a setting and twisting the concept of it on it’s head. It was St. Basil’s at first. This time it’s the hotel. Welcome to Kornston. You’re greeted by a Las Vegas style facade that flashes a neon roller coaster of a billboard situated on a usual style building. You enter into a modern Alice in Wonderland drug trip complete with Victorian style furniture, vibrant coloured lights, cheery techno house music, enough mirrors to get lost in, and walls adorned with neon Van Gogh’s. Then the hotel takes your mind for another spin just as you’ve gotten used to being in this crazy rave setting you open the door to your room and find a very conservative presidential looking suite. I drop my backpack on the floor. I’m feeling like Marty McFly again

-rt

From Russia With Love (V)

SAINT PETERSBURG
Part III

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Traffic is bumper to bumper and we slowly crawl through the city across frozen canals and through snow drifts falling from rooftops. When traveling traffic means one thing – less time to explore.

We missed out Peter the Great’s log cabin, but as day turns to night we manage to get to Peter and Paul’s fortress before the gates close.

Peter and Paul’s fortress is one of those places with a long and repetitive name. This is because in the centre of the island is the church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. It’s tall steeple peaks high over the brick walls  that surround it, and it is one of the few churches dedicated to two icons. While you cannot photograph the interior practicing churches, Peter and Paul is not a typical church. It is more of a living mausoleum to the royal family. Here lies many of the great rulers of Russian history. The most decorated tomb being that of Peter the Great himself. Golden icons watch over the graves of the wives, husbands, sons and daughters of the former rulers. You are almost taken back by just how impressive this protected church really is. So much so you almost trip over it’s resident cat and it blends into the marble walls.

In a room in the corner lies seven bodies apart from the rest of the tombs. Here lies the remains of Nicholas II, Alexandra, and their children Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexis. Possibly the most famous and the most mysterious members of the bloodline to the Western world. The reasoning behind the separation of the last tzar of Russia and his predecessors is simple. The remains are yet to be verified. Five nations have all examined the bodies, and the Russian government has yet to confirm the results. Until then, here they lie.

Before we leave we are escorted into a small chamber to hear the monks of Peter and Paul perform a hymn. With heavy accents their baritone voices fill the room. Russian is the only language that allows for such low notes to be sung. It is both amazing to witness and haunting to listen.

Everyone is filled with silence as we leave the fortress. With sleep in the corner of our eyes, traffic has come to a stand still. We sit on the bridge overlooking the Winter Palace. Slowly we crawl past the Admiralty building and turn onto Netsky Prospect. The traffic is to brutal and we all vote to walk back to the hotel.

We all wander off in different directions, but in time each of us finds one another until we all decide that we should have dinner together as a group. Rather than going for the traditional option we pile into a corner Italian bistro for pasta and drinks. The atmosphere with this group is fantastic. I start to look past my “tour-group” prejudices and find that it is actually a lot of fun with the right people. You can air your grievances over the state of your flat in London, or share in a laugh about the cow farms you left behind at home.

With a couple hours to spare before we depart on the next leg of the journey we all bum around the tourist shops and the twenty-four hour bookstore next to the hotel. If there is anything to suggest that Saint Petersburg is heaven… it is the fact that bookshops are open all night long.

It’s 23:00 and we all gather back at the hotel lobby. All the Aussies with there extra large suitcases and me with my little backpack. We trudge though the snow around the Soviet star and head to Moskovsky station.

We’re on the midnight train to Moscow.

From Russia With Love (IV)

PUSHKIN

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Pushkin isn’t your typical village. It’s one of incredible wealth between stately homes and grand palaces. It sits atop a hill a short drive away from Saint Petersburg. It has been the often unspoken center of Russia’s history. Many of the czars that came to rule Russia after Peter the Great made this town there home from Catherine the Great to Nicholas II. The village was once known as Tsarskoye Selo roughly translated, the home of the czars… That was until a local became one of the most popularized authors and the town came to be known as Pushkin for his namesake.

Under the Soviet Union, rather that ravaging the lavish homes of their oppressors, the Bolsheviks opened the doors to the public. This was to serve as a teaching point for the Russian population. For the first time the starved and  overworked proletariat could now see first hand how the czars lived in such luxury. When Germany occupied the Soviet Union and invaded Saint Petersburg they did so by making their decent into the city from the fields where the Leningrad airport now sits.  The Nazi’s used many of the palaces in Pushkin as a home base, and caused much of the destruction to the interiors. The bullet holes can still be seen on the sides of some of the statues that adorn the doorways. Post World War Two the Soviet government invested a portion of the economy into the upkeep of the palace, and restoration work was commenced to bring the Palaces back to their former glory.

As you walk through Catherine’s palace you truly begin to understand just how immensely rich the first family of the Russian empire was. Dozen’s of rooms to cater to lavish balls and dinning with the elite. As you walk through the halls adorned with lights, mirrors, and fresco that give the illusion of vaulted ceilings you can’t help but imagine this being a part of Versailles. Tiles from The Netherlands, clocks from England. The palace serves as a marker in history displaying the era Russia opened it’s doors to Europe and the western world.

Thousands of people each year come to Catherine’s palace to view the famous Amber Room. Cross sections of ancient amber mold together to decorate the walls and frame small paintings. It’s known to be the most expensive room in the world. It’s impressive, but I am more taken by the Painting Room. Oil paintings from the eighteenth century were collected not for their content, but for the lighting style. All with black backgrounds that show the subject in a soft light. These paintings are arranged much the same way as the Amber Room… used as a wallpaper rather than a display. If a painting was to large – it was simply cut to size. The further you tour down the palace you get to see a glimpse into the daily lives of the aristocrats, and once again you are hit with flashes of a Versailles in the north.

Leaving Pushkin behind us we come to a slowing crawl and are greeted with yet another Russian tradition… traffic.

-rt

From Russia With Love (III)

SAINT PETERSBURG
Part II

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Trudging through the softly pilled snow along the markets. Boots sinking down with every step following the freshly created footpath. The market is quiet from its usually hustle and bustle.

Under the shadow of the structural impressive, and equally intriguingly named, Church of the Sacred Spilled Blood the market offers tourists a spot to swap rubles for souvenirs for a fraction of the price. Looking for that perfect gift? Look no further that this printed tee of a shirtless Putin riding a bear, get your favorite NHL hockey team on a matryoshka doll, or if the cold has gotten to you the soviet style bear hats are sure to be a fit!

My purchase at the market was more accidental, but equally memorable.

On the corner of the bridge scampering in the snow was a furry critter with a black mask. I’m never one to pass up an opportunity to pet the local dog or cat, so to me… a racoon seemed no different. As I bent down he crawled up my arm and found a new home in the hood of my jacket. My second day here and I’ve already made friends with the locals.

But wild animals in the street aren’t wild. I had fallen into one of those all to often mentioned tourist traps to avoid. To get your picture will an animal will cost you. So far I had be sneakily snapping the men and women walking the streets in historical garb to avoid being charged for a photo but now here I was with a racoon in tow. If you want to see how terrible your Russian is, there is no better way then trying to talk yourself out of situations like these.

After money was exchanged the raccoon, somewhat reluctantly, was taken out of my jacket and I was left with a horrible photo. Ah well, You live and you learn!

***

As dusk fell the lights along the outer walls of the Winter Palace illuminated the deep ultra marine and violet hue of the sky. As a group we entered the Hermitage through the side and made our way down the halls to the grand staircase.

Regrettably it was nearing the end of the day. So we were only able to catch a glimpse of what the Hermitage had to offer. The “highlights of the museum tour” or so it was called.

Like a matryoshka doll, the Hermitage has more than meets the eye. When you enter you are walking through the court of Imperial Russia. The museum its self is a museum. You look at the walls, the floor… then your eye wanders to the windows to look at spectacular view of the river outside. And then like the doll more and more is discovered. You look at the paintings, the ceiling, the doors. Impossible to remain focus on one thing as you try and absorb it all.

The Hermitage is a series of buildings all linked together and houses the impressive collection of Catherine the Great. A woman who lived so large that a painting was never purchased alone, but rather as a collection of two to three hundred at a time. Hundred of statues line the halls. Gold. Silver. Everything. The works of the Italian great masters are found just a few steps from the throne room where matters concerning the empire were discussed until the fall of the Romanov Dynasty.

As you leave you walk back into the very square where so many lives were lost during Bloody Sunday. Now, covered in a sheet of white sparkling in the night.

Looking up at the archway from Alexander’s column the dream comes back to me.

-rt

From Russia With Love (II)

SAINT PETERSBURG
Part I

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Throughout the night I toss and turn. The light from outside illuminating the large vaulted room. The dream still haunting my conscious. Restless, I wander over to the window and drawback the shear curtains. The snow outside lights up the night. Pushing the television back I climb up onto the desk and lean against the window. There was something magical about the serenity of a Saint Petersburg Sunday night.

Gazing across the street the neon glow of a shamrock illuminates the entrance of an Irish Pub. Funny. No matter where in the world I am, I’m always within a shot of an Irish Pub.

I still cannot shake this feeling. I can’t sleep, and yet it truly felt like home. lying back I watch the sun rise across the city. Dobroye utro Russia. Morning arrives, and with it… adventure.

***

This is my first time in Russia so I booked a tour to make the visa application process much more convenient. I don’t typically travel in tour groups, but over time I’ve warmed up to the idea.

After stuffing my bag with food from the continental breakfast (Hey, free food is free food) I meet up with my group. As a Canadian it’s quite mild outside. A mere -5 degrees Celsius. But for a majority of my fellow travelers, mostly Australians, it’s the coldest they have ever experienced. For some, it is the first time they have seen snow.  They bundle up for the short walk out the lobby door to the van parked five feet away. Its adorable really.

Barreling down Netsky Prospect we are given the brief but incredibly informative tour of each and every building. By the time we’ve been told the history of one building we are a mile ahead. Impossible to keep up, we turn and come to our first stop. The statue of Czar Nicholas I. Armed with cameras we all exit in typical tourist fashion as we march towards the square by Isaac’s Cathedral. We all have a bit of fun playing in the snow, then it’s back on the bus.

The radiant blue of St. Nicholas Cathedral stands out on the Semimostye. Known as the best view in the whole city. Seven bridges take you across the canal and in every direction you marvel at the incredible planning that went into Saint Petersburg’s design. Grand European baroque style of the west meets the winters of the north and the language of the East. It is impossible not to fall in love with the city as you cross from one bridge to the next. Ravens with Stark Winterfell coats dot the iron railings while water foul below dot between the ice and freezing waters.

From the canals to the river Saint Petersburg almost turns into a white out. Crossing the River Neva the pastel shades of the buildings begin to disappear as the clouds drift lower and the falling snow turns everything to white. Along the embankment of the river sits the most peculiar sight. Two Sphinx’s lay across the banks of the frozen river covered in a blanket of fresh snow.

The vantage point from the lighthouse is incredible. Across from the Stock Exchange if you stood in place of these red columns you could see the history of the city unfold. While the city is almost unrecognizable through the heavy clouds the spire of Saint Peter and Paul’s fortress rises from the mist of where the city was born on 27 of May in 1703 (Saint Petersburg is one of the few cities that can trace it’s founding back to a single date). Saint Peter founded the city in the marshlands to open the mysterious country to Europe, and the world. Centuries later when the Russian people grew tired of the monarchy, the Bolsheviks took comand and sailed the battleship cruiser Aurora down the Neva River starting the first acts of the October Revolution.  Across the ice caped river stately palaces line the shores to make up the Hermitage museum… the boldest of all the buildings in a deep shade of teal and gold sits the Winter Palace.

-rt

From Russia With Love

It’s rare for me to wake up and remember a dream… more often then not if I do remember they were the stuff of nightmares. But this time was different.

For a week, the moment I closed my eyes I could see the snow falling so vividly. I was not yet asleep, but here I was in a dream. As I lay there in the hotel room I could see the way the snow fell… almost magical. Large snowflakes bunched together and seemed to fall in no particular order… there was no wind, it just fell from the twilight sky. I knew I was not yet asleep, I found my self not only in awe… but questioning the world I had been transported in. It was the same city, no doubt. Was this just my brain writing new memories? But no. I had not seen this particular building before. It dawned the same architecture as all of the other buildings in Saint Petersburg. A grand European design in faded yellow. I stood on a small bridge looking up at the snow falling past the building lit in firelite. It was beautiful.

And yet there was so much more to Russia. I have never felt so connected to a place before. It was so comforting. Like a home you never had.

***

This is a multi-part series that explores three cities in Russia.

Each excerpt will be published weekly. 

Bailouts and Baile Átha Cliath

When the stock market took a dive in 2008, the world economy followed suite. Wall Street collapsed and fears of another “Great” depression arose.

In Europe, soon entire nations became entangled in the mess. It became known as PIIGS. Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain.

Riots broke out on the streets. Governments became in-permanent. Buildings foreclosed. Companies moved abroad. Mass lay-offs and job losses lead to a rise not only in unemployment but in homelessness.

Before 2008 silicone valley found a new home on the emerald isle. Ireland became a strong and prosperous country. They called it the Celtic Tiger; and it appeared Ireland was sprinting miles ahead into the new century. Now Ireland was facing the same fate as Greece.

While Celtic Tiger was dying the slow death, I flew right into the middle of the storm.

***

I had just graduated high school, yet to be hit by the brute force that is what so many teachers had referred to as “The real world”. I had applied for university, but unlike my classmates – I did not have the desire to stay local. I had been accepted to universities abroad, but there was no scholarships available to cover the thousands for the cost of a single semester.

I attended a workshop earlier that year on the various ways to travel abroad. Study, work, volunteer… about half a dozen opportunities crammed into a half hour slide show. Tucked inside my stack of university prospectus and application forms were the brochures from that workshop. SWAP to Ireland was on the top. While my classmates were gearing up for university, I was gearing up to cross the ocean.

The move was in one word, like I was, … Naive. Just barely eighteen and my first move away from home was across the Atlantic. I had not lined up a job, nor so much as a place to stay. I half expected to conquer Europe with little to no regard of what experience I lacked. And much like Napoleon… I met my Waterloo.

Many firsts hit me within a week. This was the first time I had ever traveled alone. The first time I walked through the arrivals gate not to be greeted by a familiar face. The first mistake I made getting into a taxi rather than finding a cheaper way into the city. The first time I had ever stayed in a Hostel. The list goes on. Looking back on it, almost laughable at what a shock all of it was to me.

I lucked out when it came to finding a flat. My first viewing was a room in a shed behind a house in Raleigh. The second was a Georgian home on Upper Gardiner Street. I opted for the latter.

What I had no such luck on was finding work in the eye of the storm.

For months on end, everyday I walked out my door was a new experience of what happens to a nation under debt. The concepts of debt, economy, and the psychology of it all was a new one to me.

Half tourist. Half job seeker. New immigrant. Foreigner. In a city of one million I truly felt alone.

I spent my days walking down each and every street in central Dublin. Handing out CV’s to every shop in sight. I would pass students on the street juggling homework in one hand and a paper cup of loose change in another. I would become so common place to see people begging for change that you would have passed at least five on a simple run for groceries. Walk the streets enough you could start to tell the ones who were truly in need apart from the ones who had been taking advantage of the situation.

Protests became common place. Occasionally fires would break out. Theft was common.

Outside my flat alone was a man who slept in our rubbish bin who I came to know as Jack from the square bottles he surrounded himself with. A decent enough lad who was just battling his own personal demons. Inside, my flatmate, who was an immigrant like myself was facing deportation after loosing his job.

Twice I had the police at my door. Once because my flatmate had been daft enough to leave his window open and had his laptop stolen. The second I was on my own and a small riot broke out down the way. The police were urging residents to vacate for the night.

That’s when it hit me. At that point I was not only unemployed… but I knew no one in the entire city. A strange concept to be in a strange city and have nowhere to go, and nothing holding you to stay.

That’s when I made the decision to pack it in. Here I was looking forward to starting a new life, and being hit with the reality of what the world was like outside of the protective bubble of home. I left defeated.

I have to applaud the people of Ireland. Unlike myself who could go ‘home’ at anytime, this was their home. Over the years I watched Ireland from afar in admiration that they were able to face adversary and fight for their country.

-rt

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rooftop Writers

There is something to be said about a train. As you are carried away towards your destination your mind drifts away from your surroundings. All of a sudden your mind is no longer focused on the metal carriage, or the the passengers that surround you. You gaze out of the window and for the length of your journey your mind becomes fixated on something different all together.

No matter where I am in the world, the train is always the same.

For years now there has been a story in the back of my mind. Yearning to be told. Thousands of words needing to be assembled. But how best to communicate what was experienced. A film would be perfect, but for that a screenplay would need to be written. A book perhaps, but that would require a finished product. Writing travel articles… but I haven’t made a career of it. I am by no means a writer, a visualizer perhaps, but as a dyslexic… writing was always out of the question.

Then on a day like any other; on the same old boring commute it came to me. Day in and day out all I could think of was everything I have seen, endured, explored, discovered. A whole world beyond what was in front of me. So many stories sitting there untold. So to hell if I wasn’t a writer. To hell if no one expressed any interest in what I had to say. There was no profit to be made. All I needed was an outlet. One that I could continually add to. One that had no finished product.

So here it is. A blog. Just one entry after another. In no particular order. Just reminiscing on my train journey.

This is my story. And the adventures that followed it.