Monday, August 31, 2009

Things I'm loving in St. Pete

1. Chocolate. The dark chocolate here is nice and bitter but, unlike most other darks, is very smooth and creamy.

2. Honey. Although Malta was renown for its honey, I actually really didn't like the taste. Some of the honey we've tasted here seriously almost made me swoon.

3. Restaurants with play areas for children. Even some that weren't listed as having them do have little nooks with toys, dolls, and books. And we're talking some of the finer restaurants in town - nothing at all like a Chuck E Cheese.

4. Our apartment. It isn't just large, but for the most part well laid out. There's a door between the bedrooms and the kitchen/living/dining rooms, so the noise of daily living - or entertaining - is mostly muffled from the sleepers. It is also wonderfully located - 3 great playgrounds within 20 minutes, metro within 10, a bus stop just on the corner.

I'm sure I will think of more ....

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tsarskoe Selo

With summer reappearing this week, we knew we needed to take advantage of the warm weather and venture out to one of the several major sights outside St. Petersburg. We decided on Tsarskoe Selo, which means "tsar's village" and housed the Russian imperial family as a country residence. You can read more about it here.

Our adventure began as we tried to follow our inadequate maps using our inadequate Russian to read the very few signs we came across. The "highlight" was that we actually made it to one of the entrances of Tsarskoe Selo on our first try - but as there was nothing obvious about it as an entrance to the estate we decided this wasn't it and ended up driving around the neighboring towns for another 40 minutes. The second time we came across the same entrance I made Terry stop so we could ask directions. Imagine our delight when I said I was looking for Tsarskoe Selo and the lady said "Здесь" (pronounced roughly: zdes, and means "here") I then looked at the sign on the gate and sure enough it said Ца́рское Село́.

The sight is an attraction not only for the palace but also the grounds. We had packed a picnic lunch and settled onto a bench shaded by trees overlooking a little creek. After lunch we wandered around, interspersed with sitting in grass or on benches and just enjoying the fresh air, greenery, and moments of relaxation. Because we had Alex with us, there was never an intention of going inside any of the buildings. Where we entered was comparatively unkempt and forest-y, as we came closer to the palace the grounds became more manicured and there were more statues, ornate bridges, and flowers.

Although we had planned to stay longer, the gray clouds, grumpy sleepyhead missing her nap, and our own lethargy dictated that we only spent about 3-4 hours on the grounds. The good news was that we missed dacha traffic on the way home, and
grumpy sleepyhead not only fell asleep in the car on the way home, she made the transition back to bed seamlessly and let mom and dad take a mini nap too.

Is there a better way to spend a Sunday (minus the morning confusion, of course!)?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

language lessons

Alex has a babysitter who comes twice a week. She's a lovely Russian lady, and I've asked her to speak with Alex in Russian. Our 8 weeks of classes taught me a decent supply of basic words a child would use (tree, milk, colors, numbers, etc) so when Alex uses a Russian word with me I generally know what she's saying.

For the last 2 weeks or so she's been saying "issue", which I have interpreted as "tissue" because what toddler doesn't love to play with the box of tissues and one of ours sits on the kitchen counter in easy view but impossible reach.

This week, our babysitter and I were chatting about how Alex has grown so much just in 2 months, the playground equipment she has mastered, and some of the Russian words she uses. She mentioned that Alex regularly says "ЕЩЕ" ("more", roughly pronounced "yee-show") but it comes out "issue". Huh. Mystery solved. My daughter knows more of the local language than me!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

More adventures in driving

This morning I had to run an errand that normally requires 1/2 hour walk either way. Today I'm feeling very pregnant, and particularly exhausted from more than usual running around. So, I decided to get in the car.
Feeling very proud of myself, I saw my destination within 10 minutes. Then I remembered that I live in a pretty big city - i.e. there was nowhere to park. Ten minutes of searching for parking, with the attendant anxiety about being lost and frustration about all the people who parked like jerks - if they'd parked closer together there would be spaces available - I found a spot - 10 minutes' walk away from my destination.
Yes, it did save the wear and tear on my soles but I think the wear and tear on my soul may have been the same. Finding my way back out and then to home did end up saving me some time, but on the whole I'm not sure I'll be so eager to hop in the car unless I'm heading to one of the big shopping centers outside city center.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Metro security

Last weekend Terry and I had a child-free date of lunch and museum. We all had slept badly the night before, museums exhaust me (although I love them, what does that say about me?), and by going I was missing my rest/nap time (i.e. Alex's nap). This is all background to explain why I was so completely fatigued when we got onto the metro to go home.

Piter has one of the deepest subway systems in the world (possibly the deepest?), so the escalators are very, very, very long. You're not allowed to sit down on the steps while you're on them, but people do all the time. Every time I have been on the metro I have seen people sitting on the steps. So, in my exhaustion, what do I do? Yep, I plunk down to have me a 5 minute rest.

As we get closer to the bottom I can see metro security down there, as usual. I get up, and as I exit the escalator they gesture me over and start harassing me about sitting down. They point to the sign that forbids it. They try to get conspiratorial with Terry and ignore me when I explain his Russian is worse than mine. They demand an on the spot fine. The one guy pulls out of his pocket exactly what he wants us to give him in case we didn't understand.

We're not allowed to pay on the spot fines (aka bribes). If there is a legitimate ticket it has to be sent to the Consulate through the ministry of foreign affairs. Terry tries to tell them he's a diplomat, they just keep asking for the fine. He calls two different guys at the Consulate who do actually speak Russian to find out what to say to these guys. All the while he's holding his wallet - which contains his diplomatic ID card - in his hand. Finally, I pull the ID card out of his wallet and show the security guys, pointing directly to the part that says "USA Consulate" (in Russian). They say "bye-bye" (in English) and wave us away.

In Malta, being a diplomat didn't even get us discounts at the gym.

Lake Lagoda

Today, we took a trip to Lake Lagoda, also known to Russians as the "Road of Life" (more on that later).

We caravaned there with the CG and her navigation system, and another Consulate family. As it took almost an hour just to get out of Piter proper, and we turned around four or five times, Terry questioned my desire for a GPS system. I decided MAYBE it wouldn't be a good value investment.

We did finally arrive at the museum on the Lake, and between passing the baton of Alex back and forth Terry and I each got to hear about half the curator's spiel about the siege of Leningrad (Petersburg). You can read all about it here. The short story is that the Germans and Finns were able to completely blockade Leningrad in 1941. Rations became in such short supply that the daily ration of a non-worker/non-soldier was 125 grams of bread. I approximate that to about 2 pieces of regular sized sliced bread. The good/bad thing about that winter was that it was particularly cold, and Lake Lagoda was completely frozen by November. The Russians realized they could drive provisions across the Lake and fortify the city, which they proceeded to do that year as well as the next. Had it not been for this "ice road" it is unlikely anyone in Leningrad could have survived the 29 month siege.

After the tour, we went to picnic on the museum's grounds, where a table had been set up for us overlooking the lake. We grilled shashlik (super-yum!) and feasted on foods both Russian and American. The wind coming off the lake was a little chilly for me in the shade, but it was perfect in the sun. We basically just hung out at the picnic area for the rest of the afternoon. After we ate, the curator's wife came over with this amazing samovar - I'm calling it the campfire samovar - there is a "hole" for lack of a better word in the center where you put the burning wood to heat it up, and we had chai (tea. yes, it's called chai in Russian). I want one so badly! We'll definitely be on the lookout for this thing.

I was holding Alex and the curator's wife came over and said "Give her to me" in Russian (rough paraphrasing). I handed Alex over, she got a look of alarm on her face and handed her right back. She then said something in Russian, laughing as she walked away, and I was laughing with her ... as she walked away I turned to the rest of the group and asked what she was saying. The gist was "She looks so small but she's so heavy, what do you feed her?"