Enter Russia first time, with my twin boys.
Narva, 11th June, still Estonia, the border town in the morning, I feed my boys their milk and honey and a croissant. They need eat before the border which is then easy but takes its time. The customs lady makes me fill out the 2 forms twice (so 4x) while the boys get off the car 10 times (at least), she has a ring on her finger that has a watch, its shows 1 o'clock when she wishes me fare well, this really took time. I put the time forward. Daniel needs to pee, has been asking for a while, I need to buy insurance, so we stop straight after the border for peeing. A guy walk up, I look around, is all in Russian, he says Versicherung, insurance in German. While we do insurance and I get my hands on some Roubles, just enough for a beer, border exchange rates are always miserable, the boys have long taken off to the unknown, almost no-man's land between Russia and Estonia, is scary as they could sneak in somewhere and I might not be able to follow, you don't want to go just about anywhere on a Russian border post.
I buy a beer, ЯРПИВО, can only half read it, unpronounceable. I don't open it; have a sense of what comes. 1km away a blond bull head and short neck policeman stops and asks for all the paperwork. I am glad Daniel needed pee at the right time, so I bought insurance and did not just continue. We are on our way, we are in Russia, I open my ЯРПИВО, I am so happy, I turn back to my boys, asleep already. Soon I turn left, on uneven country roads follow river Luga, try make it towards the sea and wild Russia comes over me, encompasses me. No Rouble in my pocket. The lands aren’t used, grass is high, yellow flowers remind me of Cyprus and Salamis, overcast skies, thunder rumbles in the distance. I am happy I am in Russia and escaped Europe and the overly correct Baltics. Somewhere I even find a spring, like elsewhere in the world, fill up my reservoir with clear water, people come in their cars and queue to pick up water, good clear water.
Large parts here are deforested, never reforested, some roads are really bad, some villages lie in complete desolation, old structures with no repairs made for decades; there is a smell of rot in the air, is so moist. The country roads spill me back onto the main road; I would not see the sea, have no map. The boys wake as well, is past three, they have not eaten since the croissant this morning so I prepare food; they can take so much.
St. Petersburg (wiki), a traffic-jam till we clear the suburbs; the town centre is surprisingly free this Friday evening. Then it really starts pouring, I turn where I should not turn, a police car stops me, it pours, I am between the police car, the rain and my van where the boys threaten to get out. He lets me off. He laughs; he enjoys having caught me, a tourist in an old shabby van, his mild heart lets me go, also he cannot read my foreign papers, he simply cannot be bothered in the rain. St. Petersburg is vast, imperial, a true residency of a tsar, laid out boulevards broader then Paris, bridges that cross channels broader than Venice, huge plazas with monumental architecture around, London looses it and the orthodox churches and cathedrals dotted in between everywhere where the palaces leave room for them, Vienna has nothing to say. I never knew she would exist, a city like this, grand, majestic, more than anything I have seen before, it has a feel, even when it pours and this is just what I feel at a glance, in this evening’s dark limelight, when all is wet. A real metropolis, I am glad we made it here!
So enthusiastic were my feelings about St. Petersburg when I got here, just great, totally impressed. Just shame I don’t speak Russian, - and that I am so busy with the boys. Reality of our day-to-day life in the van in a city and activity that is primarily geared to the boys’ need for movement gets to us and this is what I write on 16th of June, 5 days later.
Out of St. Petersburg.
Just checked, today is only Wednesday. Today finally the rains started with some ferocity, they were forecasting ferocious rains but for a while the ferociousness did not materialised. Last 3 days were simply more sunny then rainy. Tomorrow we will leave I think. Is that all I have to report about St. Petersburg? Weather? My second (supply) car-battery is getting weaker, it only charges the computer when it is switched off; my grand brain tells me let’s drive a bit.
Ok let’s go, now! We can’t the main battery is flat too; the boys played with the lights switches. Lights were only a glimmer two days ago when we returned from 4 hours of walking round town.
So here I sit in the driver’s seat, it rains, I recapitulate; ponder about St. Petersburg. I have to write a story, sort of. Just about the weather, no. So here is the story that is about to obtrude itself:
The car behind me has the warning lights on, written electro something on it; maybe he’s got jumper leads. The boys pester with their On-y-va, "Let’s go" demands, I try to explain that we can’t and that it is their fault. Don’t play with the switches! They’re not getting it. I also wait till the computer is sufficiently charged so I can call Denis or Alexey, two friends I was introduced here by Sara, Sara who I had met in Luxor this year, and who had lived in Russia.
I sit and wait and figure out a Petersburg blog entry, there is no such thing as a story and writing the blog feels senseless; a nuisance. St. Petersburg has been all hazy white light, hence dull photography wise. I could not explore it, could not see the Hermitage (Winter Palace) museum, 3000 people queued in front of us, just impossible with the boys. I can go in a museum with them but not stand in a mile long queue for an hour. In general I barely scratched the surface of the grand tsar city that was the capital of the Russian empire for 200 years, founded by Peter the Great, the Swedish-Russian Great Northern War... so interesting a history.
It is probably hard to enter the Russian psychic or soul anyway but... while talking to either Denis or Alexey I realised that even a half-real conversation is hard, stay concentrated on the topic, just remember the question asked is difficult while I screen the environment at the same time for the where-about of my two energetic boys Daniel and David; it is like in a film I am fading in and out of the discussion. Or when I take a picture and let their hands go, impossible in a busy street; Russian drivers with fully shaded windshields seem a bit mad. A crowded square, a restaurant, a bar, the mind is just fixed on the one thing: Where are they? It is a different journey, so important to me and the boys, we will be able to build on this, do longer journeys together in the future.
Long city stays are harder for them and more exhausting for me. The semi-on-the-road thing is easier, then half the day goes by driving, the monsters chained to their chairs, fact of the matter is they are capable opening and closing their belts now, there they sit and watch a road movie on a wide cinemascope screen and they love it.
So how is/was St. Petersburg? Imperial, while it is rainy and overcast; I never thought she, such a place existed, it has all the properties of a majesty, palaces, plazas, cathedrals, broad boulevards and canals all laid out to serve as the capital of an empire, broad, wide, high, enormous, tsarist, miles and miles of waterfront of imperial architecture. Petersburg really exists; she is a lady to me.
But then there is more, would be more, but slightly sadly not for me; in the alleys cafes, bars and clubs are dug away, night life and nightclubs, music and DJs and underground. This time of the year the city sees nearly 20 hours of daylight and even then it never goes really dark. They call them white nights, scores of people wander about, a beer, a sparkling wine bottle in hand, booze shops are open 24 hours a day, are on every corner, гулять or прогулять speaks Gulyat or Progulyat, "wander about aimlessly" they call it. This side of Piter I do not see either. But then for this and the museums I will have to come back one day (when I am old and gray).
Hmm. The car with the alarm lights on is still parked up in my back. Maybe I go and find somebody else with starter cables. The second guy I ask helps and we are on our way, it rains. We are not far, the engine sputters; stops, we are out of diesel, I miscalculated the effects of stop and go traffic in Petersburg from days ago. So there I go, boys in hand, we walk a mile and back, get 5 litres of fuel, 13°C says a sign somewhere. Of course we cannot start and just drive off; this is not an injection engine, is 32 years old and has a semi-broken starter motor. The battery not yet sufficiently recharged is soon flat again. Shall I call Denis or Alexey now? There is no internet connection here anyway and help comes to us with two guys that walk by and call assistance for me. An hour later we are on our way, way where?, well charge the battery, west, north, go on, drive to Kronshtadt an island of sorts in the Gulf of Finland, but gusty wet side winds make me turn half way out to the island that is connected by a land bridge. Now what, 40 km to St. Petersburg, Murmansk 1350km, Moscow 750km reads a sign, where do we go, back to St. Petersburg? It rains, the boys are asleep; I might as well use the bad weather and drive, I take the road to Helsinki.
It stops raining half way to Finland. We enter Finland and the skies are so clear all of a sudden, sunsets at half past 10 p.m.; local time is an hour earlier. They aren’t selling beers in supermarkets after 9 p.m. Thanks God that I bought a bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey in the duty free shop at the border.
So this is the story of how I have gotten my Petersburg story, what a story was that?
Helsinki (wiki) on the next day, like a travelling pro I find a nice parking, has free Wi-Fi, is quiet, but Helsinki is - Nordic maybe, is under-cooled, expensive, We find Pizza and a beer. In the evening we go for an extended march around the harbor, the boats are so attracting. Still I don’t know how secure their walk is, prepare myself mentally to jump behind, in the case. I have got to risk a bit, cannot leach them, need them become secure in their steps.
Helsinki in the morning, I buy a map of Scandinavia and Finland (which is not part of Scandinavia), we tour around the central pedestrian zone, Helsinki gives impression of being Germanic, a smallish German town is what it reminds me off. We enter Lutheran Cathedral after I run behind the boys up the steps, a beautiful building, truly protestant, no deco inside, an organ concert is on, the boys attraction for the music is however short-lived. So different next door the orthodox Uspenski Cathedral, so wonderfully decorated, I have a foible for orthodox churches, funny it is again located on a hill, my boys take the direct route over the rocks, me behind them, they have so much energy.
Bad food is sold on the pier market in the center, nothing I want afford for the price/quality relation offered, the boys hungry I have to have something for them, 2 Euro 20 cents one croissant, stupid me who buys two, it tastes like Zwieback, like 3 days old, the boys are not impressed, 4 and a half Euros, and they don't eat it. Helsinki has this ability to make me miserable, piss me off. No beauty here and you’re being ripped off on a croissant level.
Think we go north soon, north and further north, Finland is beautiful nature, I hope for clear photography weather, impressive cloud formations, red sunsets, no traffic, animal sightings, moose, reindeer, bears and wolfs are common, I hope for luck. Nordkapp/North Cape is 1,200km away on the 71st latitude north of the equator, here is still 60° 9' north and sunsets at 22.47 rises at 3.54, this is Helsinki, this is the 17th of June 2010. Later still in town, the rains have caught up with us.