Day two in Saint Petersburg was a packed one. In the morning, after free breakfast in the hotel, I grabbed coffee from the lobby of a business center near the Alexander column. I love the efficient way in which space is used in Russian cities; when you pass by a building and see a sign for a pastry shop, a coffee bar, a souvenir stand, a bar, or literally any other kind of business, it's just as likely you'll open the door and find that the business is a kiosk in front of a supermarket or next to the guard's stand of an office tower as it is to be a full room with seats and tables, or a complete shop with aisles. Later in the week, I would walk into a passage next to a shopping center (appropriately, the center itself was actually called “Passage”) which contained two coffee shops, a phone repair service, two DIY craft stands, including one where I found some amazing homemade buttons from carved and burned wood, a book shop, a bicycle repair station, and a juice bar. The space these businesses occupied had once been the management offices for the real mall next door—which was decidedly less interesting than its back corridor.
On Wednesday, though, it was Americano topped off with just a little cool milk (the barista's prerogative, not mine, but it was good nonetheless). Upon leaving, I began what would be a week-long dance with the local English-language walking tour. Upon visiting a major city for the first time, I always like the take the free walking tour (not really free, just tip-based, and my love of precision in language makes me wish they'd all just say this, though I'm sure the phrasing has something to do with cultural differences in the meaning of the word“tip.”) Even though I generally make it to all the sights covered in such tours on my own, I feel like there's something valuable about exploring with a community—even if it's just a ramshackle one formed of people who happened to roll out of bed on time that day. I also like to get spoken local context on the city's important places. Wednesday morning, I missed the tour's start by about ten minutes, which left me to wander.
I crossed the bank of the Neva River and headed to the Fortress of Saint Peter and Paul.
The central feature of the island is an orthodox cathedral built in the European/catholic style. It's a gorgeous white thing with an epic steeple that makes its way onto most photo montages of the city, and I spent some time wandering around it and admiring the grounds. After being exhumed from nearly a hundred years in their hasty, shallow graves in a Yekaterinburg forest, the remains of Czar Nicholas II and his family (including Anastasia, who really did die, if you're prone to believing science over Disney) were moved there within the past decade, joining most of the rest of the Romanov dynasty in the church's catacombs.
Years ago as I was preparing to visit Paris for the first time, a high school classmate who had traveled broadly during his time in the U.S. Air Force gave me some prescient advice. “There are plenty of free stairs in Paris,” he wrote me. “Never pay to walk up stairs. If you're smart, you can find the same view for free, and you don't have to live with the fact that you've paid money to do work. I've held on to that advice over the years, and expanded it in certain situations. In the case of Russia, I've generally expanded it to churches. There are plenty of churches to visit for free in order to see the shiny things inside. And if it's God you're after, I'm of the belief He'd rather you just talk to him where you are, rather than paying a fee to kneel in a certain spot and run through a certain set of motions. But that's me. Regardless, paying to enter a church isn't my thing, even if the church actually operates as a museum now, so the walk continued on. I took a hike on the beach that rings the island, just in time to be standing directly under the canon that marks noon—that was a loud bit of surprise.
I had lunch a Burger King.
Don't judge me. Here's the thing: there were plenty of sights to see in the nearby vicinity, and I didn't want to waste half a day searching for authentic local food that may or may not be good. So I grabbed a burger and got on with it. Here's the other thing, though: if fast food restaurants were to abide by the same rules the Russian government requires (KFC has to change its fry grease every 15 minutes, for example, instead of whenever they get around to it) or if they used fresh or interesting ingredients like they do in shops here, I might actually go to those places on purpose at home. At Burger King, I had a blue cheese burger with creamy pepper sauce and actual crisp bacon—not the limp, pale junk that so often populates the company's food in the States. McDonald's in Russia features a chicken curry sandwich that actually tastes like food. If only these companies would put the same effort into serving he people who made them rich instead of emerging markets they're trying to wedge themselves into, well, we might not see them as pariahs. Also, we might not all be teetering on the cliff of obesity.
After my fast food stop, I visited the Museum of Russian Artillery. I followed my policy again about paying to see things, and I feel this museum suffers a bit from its own hand: all the cool stuff is outside. I'm sure there were great exhibits inside, too, but when you put all the tanks and rocket launchers in the courtyard
and let people roam them for free, there's not much incentive for the casual visitor to come inside and read plaques about the inventors of the awesome stuff that's outside.
At this point, it was time to head back toward the hotel and begin preparing for the evening. I'd made reservations to Jamie Oliver's first Russian restaurant, after which I had tickets for a five-hour-long Russian opera.
The food was outstanding. Russia has given me an appreciation for beef carpaccio, something I’d never tried before or particularly cared to. That was a starter, followed by a perfectly cooked steak with fresh, local mushrooms, garlic sauce, and arugula. The restaurant was gorgeous, and even when it was half-filled, reservations were required. Most of the patrons were dressed as though they were at the beginning of an occasion. And then…clustered together in a corner the waiter called the “tourist section,” were a cluster of westerners in T-shirts and sweatpants, mostly talking loudly and complaining about everything—or making fun of the servers or other patrons who they apparently imagined couldn’t understand English.
By virtue of my reservation in English, I too was set for that section until the hostess, on behalf of my opera suit, upgraded me to the rest of the restaurant.
Dress how you want, I guess—although I have to believe that someone with the means to complete a months-long visa process, travel halfway across the globe, and intentionally book a table at a nice restaurant probably has access to grown-up clothes. But the words, the crassness, the smugness, but harshness—all of it unnecessary and unprovoked—that’s what got me. I don’t think anyone really cares if Americans roam the globe in fleece sweats, but when encountering some travelers, I sometimes fear that our culture gets represented chiefly by two groups: the most ambitious and the most caring, or the rudest and most selfish. The average, typical, everyday American seldom shows up in far-flung places, and so when we hear accounts of foreigners either “loving us or hating us,” I wonder deeply if it correlates with the sometimes too-binary group of us that travels. I know that one my worst days, I can fall into that wrong group. That’s something I’ve tried desperately hard to avoid on this trip. I’ve have numerous encounters in which people told me I was the first American they’d met. If I’m in a crummy mood and turn that in their direction, then they’re going to keep that interaction with them. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got on pajamas or an opera suit: the way I’m perceived comes down to the way I treat other humans.
Everyone has bad days, and I’ve had a few on this trip. But moments like that meal—situations in which I’m in a larger city and able to observe larger groups of tourists—makes me even more conscious of the way I act around others and the impact in can leave, of the benefit or damage I can leave behind in just a few moments or even seconds. Beyond teaching and writing responsibilities, it’s begun to dawn on my that simply walking around and being human has probably been the most lasting legacy I’ll leave via this program, and I hope that I’ve done well, no matter which section of the restaurant I was in.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.