Renovated. Rebuilt. Run down. Ruined.
Treasured. Memorialized. Exploited. Feared.
Vibrant. Lovely. Peaceful. Seedy. Scummy.
Compatible. Competitive. Complicated. Confrontational. Controlled. Killed.
My travels to St. Petersburg and through the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania revealed contrasts that are as difficult to describe as they are to experience. Let’s begin at my beginning…
The morning after flying into Tallinn I rode a bus for about six hours to arrive in St. Petersburg. In the bleak Soviet styled river town of Narva we spent an additional two hours at the border crossing between Estonia and Russia. The Estonian side was policed by armed border guards, dogs, and a tall, spiked, iron fence. Despite only giving them my American passport, they knew I lived in France and came looking for me to obtain my French credentials. Crossing the river to the Russian side was more nerve-wracking and definitely more barb-wired. First, an armed guard boarded the bus and stamped our personal entry document. Then, at a second militarized checkpoint, we disembarked with our hand luggage and were “processed” by passport control. After reboarding, the bus proceeded to a gated guardhouse (the kind James Bond would have smashed through) where another armed guard came to make sure all of our documents were stamped. I was grateful a Russian citizen was sitting next to me explaining the instructions in English. Despite this, I still felt vulnerable and like I was losing my freedom. My mind ran rampant with fragments of stories about detainees. Don’t smile. Don’t look anyone in the eyes. Don’t say hello.
The drive through northern Estonia was mostly green. Pine and spruce and birch forests. Farm fields of rye and barley, rapeseed and rolled haybales. Wildflowers, including Queen Anne’s lace the size of sunflowers. An occasional village, an occasional farm, a more than occasional occupied stork’s nest. The drive through northern Russia was also green and interspersed with shack villages whose proud owners cultivated the most beautiful and colorful flower and vegetable gardens on their small plots. The outskirts of St. Petersburg offered crumbling on the outside concrete apartment block complexes- a sea of grey Legos hiding the pastel palaced Imperial old city.
Arriving at St. Petersburg’s main bus terminal without google maps and not understanding the signs, I attempted to get roubles from an ATM and got rejected. Frantic, I searched the station and found a different bank’s ATM to get 500 roubles…less than $10. Knowing I needed exact change (40 kopeks) for the bus into town, I bought a coke-no help there. So I exited the station and walked toward where I thought the city buses would be based on a map I printed in advance. Attempting to follow my predownloaded plan, I boarded a bus with fingers crossed and found out that each bus has a “rider” who is also the ticket agent. My rider spoke only Russian but I was lucky to have a passenger who could interpret the ticket/money exchange and confirm my bus plans. However, I overstopped my exit and walked several blocks back toward where my hotel was located. On the way, I passed a phone store and practically hugged the clerk who spoke English and sold me a SIM card. Feeling slightly more confident, it was hotel by numbers as not much was signed. Although I wasn’t sure at the time, I found the iron entry gate into a shabby cobbled courtyard, located the crumbling on the outside building, searched for the elevator around a hidden corner and pressed 6, and voila! stepped out into a tiny but pleasant front desk area brightly lit and with a glass-doored refrigerator holding beverages and snacks. Checked in, bought a water and a chocolate bar for dinner, acclimated to my quirky room and crashed. My fears and confusion had turned some easy bus rides into an emotionally demanding day.