We found out that our lost bag was sent back to California. After two weeks of getting misrouted all over Europe, it was sent back home. It’s a pain, since it had my sandals, toiletries (including glasses and contacts), and some of Joylani’s clothes. Needless to say, we’re going to have to do some shopping.
The last time I was in Rostock, I almost froze to death on a cold December morning, but that’s a whole other story. Today was different- it was hot and everybody was out. People were shopping, eating, drinking, and enjoying the beach. Joylani and I followed suit. We walked a bit, shopped a bit, and hung at the beach for a bit. We could have headed for Berlin, but decided to forgo the three-plus-hour train ride each way, opting for a mellow day instead. Berlin’s an awesome city and I would’ve liked to see it again, but we decided to experience one place and make a great day of it rather than see another famous city. We’re learning that long-term travel is a little bit different in that sense. We have seen and will see a ton of cool places. So rather than trying to squeeze in as much as we can, like a typical vacation, we can just take it easy and make the most of each day. I’m not worried that we won’t see enough places, but I am worried that we’ll be too busy traveling to enjoy our travels. Rostock is no Berlin, but we had a good day nonetheless.
Gdansk, Poland, did not impress me much. But it’s been through a lot too. It’s where WWII got started when Germany started shelling the port. It was bombed out for the next six years and then occupied by Soviets for the following 45. And although many of the cities we’ve visited over the past two weeks were devastated during WWII, Gdansk appears to never have completely recovered. Sure, a lot has been reconstructed, but there are still a lot of bombed out brick buildings. And the buildings that have been put up since are unimaginative Soviet concrete cubes. Although hot and a resort town, it still seemed dreary, almost depressing. The cab drivers we spoke to didn’t speak much English, but they said life has been much better the past 20 years. So I guess that has to be taken into consideration before saying Poland is a downer- things had been much worse under the Soviet regime.
You may have noticed a lack of posts. This is due to cruising. Yes, cheap Matt and Joylani are on a cruise. As if going from regular life to living from one backpack, cheap hotels and cold showers wasn’t enough, we agreed to make the transition even more drastic by going on a family vacation before we depart on our “real trip.” We are going out with a bang! In truly indulgent style, I have been going out on port days to explore the cities we stop at, and when on the ship I eat lots of dessert (warm peach halves stuffed with almond soufflé, kiwi frozen yogurt, tiramisu, hazelnut ice cream, and lots of cookies). Instead of pushing myself to write or take part in on-board activities, I sleep and veg out in front of the tv (British news with delayed sound, movies, and information on the next port. I try to avoid the propaganda from the ship’s channel that always seems to be trying to get the passenger to purchase “authentic items” form the on-board boutiques rather than risk buying a fake from other places.). Going in the elevator is always fun, I am usually the youngest by at least 30-40 years. Life is grand, and the great part is that since this is a Baltic Sea cruise, and not many people have been to the Baltic region, we are all seeing the new sights and experiencing new places for the first time all together. Instead of sharing the experience between two people, there are eight of us from three generations. Each individual shares a different perspective on the sights we are seeing, making the new experiences even richer. I will have a recap of all the places we’ve been so far in the next week or too, so stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, more on cruise life…As I mentioned before, Matt and I lost a piece of luggage containing mostly items for the cruise. I was able to pick up a few pieces of clothing in Denmark before we got on board, but for the most part we’ve been recycling outfits while the other cruisers appear to be changing clothes at least twice a day. Luckily, there are laundry facilities on-board, so I was able to wash all our clothes last night. Matt and I were stuck wearing the few clean items that we had left until our laundry was done. For me, this meant aloha print board shorts, green raincoat, and pink Chacos. Matt was wearing his hiking boots, board shorts, and a button-up shirt. This wasn’t too much of a problem since we just stayed in the room while we waited for the laundry to finish, but then came time to get the clothes from the dryer. When we walked into the laundry room we were met by 3 pairs of staring eyes. Were they upset from having to wait on our dryer? No, our dryer hadn’t shut off yet. It must be something else, I thought. Raincoat, board shorts, hiking boots…I started laughing as we left the laundry, realizing that our outfits must have seemed a little out of place on the ship’s formal night!
Estonia has been free from Soviet control for the same amount of time as Russia, yet it seems to be doing much better. The cars are newer and nicer. The streets are clean and the city has the markings of an environmentally-conscious city. The people look better off than their Russian counterparts. The land of Kazaa and Skype is reputed to be the most wired country in the world, in terms of broadband availability. It was such a contrast coming from Russia and seeing the differences in post-Communist development so clearly. In fact, the only clues I saw that Estonia is still developing was everything was cheaper and we saw lots of knock-off stuff.
And the clincher for me was the national beer, Saku. Being a domestic beer, a can is only about 60 cents USD. But although cheap, it tasted like a great amber (my favorite kind of beer, for the uninformed). Here’s to Estonia!
On the way to Peteroof Palace today, the summer palace outside of St. Petersburg, we passed the time by asking our guide questions, mostly political ones. Of course the answers were not completely candid or convincing, but they were interesting nonetheless. While not technically censored by law, those in the media must be very careful of what they say and write. I asked Maria, our guide, if the Litvinenko poisoning was covered in the Russian news, and what did the Russian people think of it. Asking more out of curiosity to see how she would answer the question rather than out of actually expecting a candid response, I was impressed by how she was able to give an answer that completely brushed off the crime in question. Maria said that of course the story was in the news, but in response to the second part of my question she said, “Um, well Litvinenko no longer had anything to do with Russia, he immigrated to England many years ago. The people here see it like a spy story—like James Bond, but not as anything that affects them.” Interestingly, later that night when watching the BBC news, I learned of Russia’s refusal to extradite the main suspect in the case. Apparently the British-Russian relations are at their worst since the cold war. In response to Russia’s refusal to help with the investigation, British authorities expelled four Russian diplomats and are putting higher restrictions on visas for Russian citizens. It appears that the Litvinenko case is having an affect on the Russian people after all.
Putin’s Summer Residence (and site of the 2006 G8 Summit)
As Joylani mentioned, we learned a lot today.
Putin is widely supported. We were told that Putin was elected almost out of default, due to the absence of any really strong candidates. I guess this would be akin to the 2004 US presidential election. There is some fear that Putin will become an autocrat, but multiple sources informed me that Russia needs a “strong” leader.
One strange thing about Russia is that it has gone through so many changes in the past hundred years, it’s ingrained into the Russian mindset. Most people in Russia rent, because (aside from mortgages still being a new concept) nobody has any idea what the future will hold: will there be another revolution, will the government seize your property, and so on.
The media is officially free. People can officially say what they want. However, it is clear to Russians that the media is censored again. Apparently for the past five years or so, the media has only shown Putin in a positive light. And since then, several journalists have mysteriously died.
The war is Chechnya is unpopular, for the same reasons Iraq is unpopular in America. The Caucuses, where Chechnya is located, is seen as a violent region (much like the Middle East) that will never have peace. And the Russian populace doesn’t want their young sons to die fighting for an unattainable objective.
And for the record, Russian vodka is strong and smooth.
Although Russia is usually classified as Europe, there is definitely something different about it. St. Petersburg was a good place to explore this, as it’s the city where Peter the Great introduced and implemented European culture on Russia. The city was founded and built up by Peter the Great, following a tour of Europe’s great cities. He admired European culture and he wanted to bring Russia into the fold, beginning with his new capital. Although originally built on swampland, canals crisscross St. Petersburg, reminiscent of Venice. Many of the buildings were designed by Italian architects, which is why much of the city resembles Western Europe. St. Isaacs scale and architecture is comparable to St. Paul’s in London or St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The Hermitage looks like its straight out of Paris- it’s on the water, built symmetrically, and enormous in scale. Not surprisingly, it’s the second-largest museum in the world, after the Louvre. The interior was unsurpassed though. It’s like Peter decided to model his new capital after Europe, but he surpassed it. The Hermitage and Peterhoff Palace were more impressive than the Louvre and Versailles. The rooms were bigger, the gardens nicer, and the extravagance unbelievably higher- Peter trumped King Louis XIV! In this sense, the czar went over the top in transforming wild Russia into a European state.
But during the day, I noticed some things were very different from Europe. The cars were older on average and more beat-up. The buildings were dirtier. It didn’t take long to learn that wages were lower. The major brands were foreign, rather than domestic. People dressed different and spoke different. The signs were totally unintelligible, as the Russian alphabet is totally different. And while the city looked mostly European, the soviet legacy can still be seen in the many industrial and monolithic buildings, found throughout the city. It was European, but not.
While Joylani attended a ballet, I went to watch a folkloric show at what is known as St. Petersburg’s best entertainment hall. The theater was huge and while the seats looked normal, they weren’t much more than wood boards covered with red velvet. The show was awesome, way surpassing my expectations. I’m not sure what it was that I enjoyed so much. Obviously, the music and dancing was very good. But beyond that, I think I liked the energy of it all. The few traditional shows that I do see are usually European or Japanese and, consequently, are pretty slow and boring. But this show was lively and energetic. Some of the dancing had elements of the Afghan dancing I’ve seen in the past. Most of the dance routines utilized central Asian dress, rather than European-looking costumes. The show reminded me that Russia is not European. Its culture has its roots in central Asia.
And I learned that even today, Russians debate what Russia is. Is it European? Is it something different? Which direction should Russia go?
Although geographically close to Denmark and Sweden, Finland is a world away.
Prior to arriving I learned that while Danes and Swedes originated from Europe, Finns are descendents of central Asia. In fact, Finnish is linguistically closer to Turkish than Swedish. Joylani noticed that the people are tall, really tall. She was surprised that most of the women were significantly taller than her (and me). While Joylani noticed the Finns size, I noticed that they looked different in other ways. This week has reinforced what I observed on my first trip to Denmark and Sweden four years ago: they are good looking people. There are a lot of beautiful people in Denmark and Sweden. Finland, not so much. Their style didn’t help too much either. People dressed weird in Finland. Not weird like high-fashioned Parisians, but weird like 1980’s rock videos. Even the female manikins in stores had mullets and mohawks. Enough knocking the Finns.
Time to knock their capital. Helsinki didn’t impress me. It’s not as clean or efficient as Copenhagen or historic and beautiful as Stockholm. A relatively new city build by Russia, its architecture was bland and uninspiring. We spent our day perusing a flea-market, strolling along a lake, and exploring downtown. It was a nice day, but that’s about it. Its not that I expect the extraordinary, but Helsinki wasn’t even interesting.
Copenhagen feels like a different world from Paris. Bikes are everywhere (courtesy of 150% tariffs on imported cars). The streets are wide and clean. The air is clean. The people all speak English and seem to be a lot friendlier than Parisians. I read that statistically Danish are the happiest people on earth (perhaps because the minimum wage is approximately $36,000 USD). It’s a small walkable city and is (literally) a breath of fresh air.