Moscow vs. St. Petersburg?

The Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Over the past two months, Andrés and I have passed though many cities and towns. We’ve been to lots of churches, lounged at several beaches, and eaten dozens of bowls of phô (and we haven’t even made it to Vietnam yet!). It isn’t difficult to enjoy it all, but to really relish the experiences we’re having, I find myself craving a hierarchy.

Several times a day I ask Andres, “Which did you like better…” He knows that my brain has already arranged our experiences in an elaborate matrix, raking our daily toils based on their sensory and emotional appeal. And though I like to spend time detailing pros and cons of every piece of pierogi I try, what I most enjoy is deciding that, for no particular reason at all, I just prefer one experience over the other.

And so, acknowledging that there is an age-old rivalry between the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and recognizing that I’m only spending a few days in each city, I’m going to make the following bold statement: I love Moscow, and I just liked St. Petersburg. Something about these two cities begs a comparison. And I have fabricated reasons for my preference!

Moscow is dirtier. What can I say: I left Boston for New York. I like a dirty city. Based on my internet research, there is actually evidence that points to Moscow being a cleaner city than St. Petersburg. However, my short autumnal impressions are that Moscow has just a little more muck in the subway, and a little more paper plastered to the walls of buildings. It just comes across as a little more ramshackle, and that’s the way I like it.

Moscow is more populous, and so the sidewalks are healthily lively. In St. Petersburg, I felt rather alone walking around the neighborhood south of the Mariinsky theatre. I’m going to hide my third claim, that Moscow is friendlier, in this paragraph, because I think the two are related. With 12.19 million fellow residents, maybe Muscovites don’t have time to put on airs. If we use both cities’ extensive metro systems as microcosms of the cities themselves, I have noted more eye contact, more friendly gestures, and much more assistance here [in the Moscow subway, the veins of the city] than there [in St. Petersburg’s].

The never ending metro escalators.

Moscow has the Red Square. I wasn’t prepared for the immense beauty of this place. We walked over on a rainy night and had it practically to ourselves. Thrilling. (We also went during the day to see Lenin’s embalmed body, but I don’t think that’s relevant to this particular rivalry, so I’ll leave that to a different rumination.)

I just like it more. We walked off the train and onto the streets and I knew it: Moscow is one of my kindred cities. I have traveled enough to recognize the feeling I get in one of these places: I’m relaxed, I’m curious, I am excited to hit the streets. I’m delighted by the ordinary quirks that every place has: Green balloons around a McDonald’s entrance? How wonderful!

Maybe in another post I’ll explore my quack theory about energy vibrations causing certain cities to resonate with certain people ( :D). For now, I’ll just throw my less-than-two-cents into the bucket: I really like Moscow.

Visiting an Illusion

I came to know a city last week that I have dreamed about for years. St. Petersburg, in my imagination, was a city of golden domes and glossy nesting dolls. Of ballet and vodka and rosy cheeks. The name itself is regal, and I imagined St. Petersburg as the twinkling setting of every fairy tale I loved as a child.

St. Petersburg was our entrance to Russia. Russia, a shadowy mammoth of a country, and St. Petersburg its glittering eye, or a gleaming tooth that shows through a smile. Except that smiles don’t come very easily here, I soon discovered. At the Finlyandski train station, we used apps and the Cyrillic alphabet to buy metro tickets and join the stream of Peterburgstys descending deep into the belly of the city on a long escalator. The machine, a conveyor belt for humans, felt solidly made under my feet, but old. A uniformed woman at the bottom sat in a small glass box, watching the faces of rush hour gliding up and down. So many faces! Where did they go once we made it to the street?

I didn’t know that St. Petersburg is full of canals. The canals are spanned by low bridges. The sidewalks are made of large chunks of smooth rock. From any bridge, any sidewalk, I could look up and see the gold painted domes of a cathedral looming over the low blocks of buildings. In early October, the parks are still green. The plazas are monumental. The obelisks are tall. The traffic is bad. St. Petersburg is grand and golden against the cloudy sky, not the enchanted city I had imagined. It’s starker, more solemn, and no longer a figment of my imagination.

Vøringfossen

My model and I took a hike in Norway. The tourist brochure lured us city folk in by describing the walk to Vøringfossen as being a ideal for families, an easy ~4 kilometers out and back, with views of the waterfalls from below. Andrés only wears hiking boots so he was naturally prepared. I somehow believed that one pair of white sneakers would get me through 5 months of traveling. This hike put that fashion choice to the test.

The glaze of a light, constant, rain made the many rock slides we hiked over very slippery. Where there weren’t rocks, there was mud, and the 1000 ft decent into the river valley required all of our limbs and vigilance. We made it, and without any major injury to our bodies or our shoes. After witnessing the falls from below, we hiked back to the car and drove up to the top of the mountain, where we could watch the river valley winding towards the fjord in its new autumn yellows.

For those traveling to the Hardanger region of Norway, this hike is worth a try. As usual, wear your sturdiest shoes (my white Reebocks held up ok) and wear a few layers: temperatures here plummet when the sun goes behind a cloud.

Parking is located on the side of a short stretch of road between tunnels: if you are traveling from Eidfjord, park at the information turnoff directly after leaving the Mabøtunnelen to the right, before the road enters another circular tunnel. There you will see a sign for the path to Vøringfossen. Follow the road for about a quarter mile: it goes under the highway and along the mountainside until a path cuts down to the right into the forest. From here, you will be heading mostly downwards over muddy and rocky paths until you reach the suspension bridge. Walk a little farther and the mist of the impressive waterfall will be soaking your clothes.

3 weeks in Berlin: 15 little things I’ve learned

We’ve spent 3 weeks in Berlin, exploring and relaxing and imagining what it would be like to live here. Inevitably, my initial impressions have changed so dramatically that I can hardly remember what I was thinking two weeks ago, when I was a little uneasy. Here is some of the essential information I’ve picked up.

1) You cannot set your watch to a Berlin train, nor can you count on the buses following their assigned route.

2) Bicycles own the road, the sidewalk, and anything else they want. Do not try to defy a bicycle: they will run you over with a chirpy bell and a “danke shoen!”

3) You can get pretty far here speaking English and Spanish. Some say even farther if you speak German!

4) Eis is the word for ice cream. Beyond that, you’re on your own at the ice-cream store. With only color as my flavor guide, I’ve ended up trying some unusual ones: yogurt-currantberry, cardamom-passionfruit, apricot-something and blueberry marshmallow, to name a few. All were delish.

5) Despite the profusion of ice-cream, Berlin is a vegan paradise.

6) There is too much delicious food here to try in a few weeks. For non-vegans, I recommend focusing on bread, döner and ice cream. Currywurst is overrated as far as I’m concerned.

7) German-style breakfast is…amazing.

8) Wasps like sugar, they really like honey, but they go absolutely crazy for mortadella. A crazy wasp is not a pretty sight.

9) If you want to chance a ride on public transportation without a ticket, do so at your own risk: the transportation police don’t always wear uniforms.

10) Not all Riesling is too sweet.

11) The little neighborhoods of shacks that take up blocks here and there are not German shanty-towns. They are little garden communities, or Kleingarten, where city people can rent or buy a remote backyard for growing flowers and food.

12) Sometimes, though, the shacks are part of a squatting community. These communities are loudly visible in many of the Berlin neighborhoods I’ve visited, announcing their anti-capitalist presence in the middle of a city that, by all accounts, is rapidly changing.

13) Wear your ugliest outfit to the club for a good chance of getting in.

14) Contrary to all of my instincts, dimly-lit parks are totally safe in the middle of the night, especially when they are full of strangers drinking and smoking in all of the darkest corners.

15) Surfaces are meant to be covered with spray-paint. The graffiti here is magnificent.

Berlin has taken my calcifying brain and twisted it like a sponge, revealing some challenging ways to live in and share a city. It is confusing to my suspicious mind, but I am impressed by what seems to me a deliberate absence of judgement. Berlin seems to be truly a city of independents, co-existing with a level of harmony that isn’t perfect but really seems to have worked.

Aqua

I was told the Ionian Sea in the south of Albania had clear, blue water.

I found clear, blue water, and white sand and smooth pebbles. The sea was so salty that I floated like an apple, bobbing in the calm water without having to move my limbs at all.

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Thanks Cee for the posting opportunity!

Conformist

There is a bar on every corner. Where there isn’t a bar, there’s a späti, and you can pull your own beer from the fluorescent-lit refrigerators, pay for it, and drink outside on the ground, on the curb, or at the picnic tables the convenient stores here set up outside for just this purpose.

By the canal, groups of people sit on the sidewalk, their bicycles leaning against the bridge railing and their beer growing warm in their hot laps. The canal is full of bicycles. The streets are paved in bottle tops. The picnic tables are plastered with stickers. The walls are covered in graffiti, colorful and layered and meaningful. Everything is meaningful, or seems to be. People here are meaningful. They dress in somber blacks, faded denim, utilitarian pants gathered at the ankles so that they won’t be caught up in the bicycle gears, hair hacked short on one side of the head and left in long, tangled locks on the other. They wear burkas. They wear tracksuits. I catch snippets of a conversation, because English is commonly spoken here. So is Spanish.

“I was destined to end up here.”

“It’s a place for people to come together in meaningful conversation.”

“…e increíblemente, agarró la cabeza del otro y la cortó.”

[wait…what was he talking about?]

I do not understand a word of German, and it embarrasses me. I do, however, understand German crying. I witnessed this at a café. A man looked at his phone and a sob visibly rose in his throat. His face gathered towards its center, and he covered his eyes with his sleeve. When his friend arrived, they hugged, and the friend laughed. The crying man smiled, and the sob escaped his agonized mouth. Maybe I don’t understand this kind of crying.

At the cafe, wasps crawl in and out of the sugar bowls. They investigate my espresso, they fly around my head and with my eyes closed I can feel their wings tickling my eyebrow. At the cafe, men cry, men yell and yelp. Women smoke. Bottles fall and break. Everyone talks. The tables are sticky with sugar and spilt milk. The wasps are everywhere. I cannot fit in, because I don’t know how to communicate. One the other hand, I’ve heard that many Americans who live in Berlin don’t bother to learn German.

I could be a nonconforming American. But I am a conformist, in this nonconforming city.

Bohemian Rhapsody

One song that I love, despite its ubiquity in mainstream culture, is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I haven’t investigated where that name comes from, but I like to imagine that the highs and the lows, the darkness and the light of the song depict an artistic life lived in the extreme.

In Prague, the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia, visitors can gaze up at a different Bohemian masterpiece. The St. Vitus Cathedral is squeezed into the Prague Castle Complex, and visitors must look up to witness the overly-adorned pillars of Gothis splendor. Light and shadows play upon the faces of gruesome gargoyles. Serene Saints stand high above flying buttresses and art neuvou stained glass windows. It is a rhapsodic piece of work.

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Thanks to Cee for the photo challenge!

Four ways to get around Albania

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1) Tie on the boots, Fatos

Andrés and I walked into Albania. A driver, lacking proper papers to cross the border, left us with the Macedonian immigration agent after receiving half of our agreed payment. It was a sleepy Sunday, and few cars passed us as we rolled our bags along the countryless mountain road high above shining Lake Ohrid. In Albania, the agents looked at our passports but we received no stamps. It’s as though we were never there.

2) Share a taxi, Megi

The morning we left Pogradec for Albania’s capital Tiranë, we packed our bags and planned on waiting in the grape-strewn garden until 10:30, when we would walk to the bus station. I was stuffing my hairbrush into an outer pocket when Luli, our host, bustled into the room. “You go now! Taxi outside. Ready? You. Go. Now!” He grabbed my heavy suitcase and rolled it outside, past Amy the matted dog and the neat rows of potted flowers. In the street a dusty car was parked next to the public spring. A small old man in faded black sat in the back, and a blond teenager sat in the front seat with her iPhone. Flora and Luli kissed us goodbye and we were off, the hot wind blowing on my neck and the old man wedged into the middle seat, his hot panted leg digging into my own. Whenever we passed the crumbling ruins of factories and train tracks, he would poke me and say, gravely, “comunismi.”

3) Rent a car, Bujar

August is high season in Albania. In every city, the hotels double booked us and we tried again and again to find lodging that would stick. We finally found a hotel down south, on the Ionian Sea and across the border from Greece, but how to get there? Every car in the city had already been rented…but no: our Tiranë host (who had also double booked the room we were planing on sleeping in, and gave us the living room couch instead) knew a guy who knew a guy. We drove out of town on Wednesday morning in a dusty blue Ford Focus, no gas, no AC and no rear mirror. I hoped that the evil eye/ horseshoe talisman hanging from where the mirror used to be would protect us.

4) Travel in style, Bardhyl

Our dusty blue Ford did the trick: we saw it all, and after two 5-hour longhauls and a few day trips, we had the car back in Tiranë, gasless and parked against the same shady wall we found it on. It was time to move on. A gleaming white vehicle with Montenegro plates waited for us, ready to bring us to our next destination. With Momo the driver’s expertise, the 2-hour wait at the Albania/Montenegro border didn’t seem that bad. He expertly handled the winding decent into Kotor along a 200 year road, dropping us off with another patiently waiting host.

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Languid and Blue

I’m expecting to take a lot of photos on this trip, so I’m grateful to the bloggers behind the Lens Artist weekly photo challenge for coming up with a way for photographers to share their work with each other. This week’s theme is blue. I think immediately of the languid blue shades that emerge at sunset near large bodies of water, especially still lakes. The Albanian side of Lake Ohrid gave me this blue vista last night:

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Similarly languid was the water of Lake Michigan last May:

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