Dead Souls

Disclaimer -This post has nothing to do with Gogol

Yesterday two friends from school and I decided to take advantage of the incredible sunshine and wandered our way to Alexander Nevksy Monastery, simply to see what we might find. Having done little to no research, we were not expecting to enjoy ourselves quite so much as we did, stumbling upon easily one of my favourite places in St Petersburg. This may sound morose seeing as the highlight of the Monastery is by far the Tikhvin Cemetery where many famous literary, musical and political figures are buried; Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, Lomonosov. The tombs and headstones are remarkable works of sculpture in themselves, and like many things in this country, they are over the top. There was of course one which featured a ridiculous amount of gold leaf for a graveyard. In Russia, or at the very least in The Northern Capital, you will never find yourself far from some building or other adorned in gold.

The monastery itself is of course astonishing, incredibly ornate and, like all churches here, intimidating. I always feel guilty as a mere spectator in holy places here, as they are Orthodox and take their religion more seriously than I have seen elsewhere. Before entering a church, people will cross themselves and bow once, twice, sometimes three times. This is then followed by more crossing as you pass by the multiple icons within the church/cathedral/monastery, and there are those who go round and kiss every single icon. The whole process takes a very long time and there is a serious atmosphere. Women must have their heads covered at all times. When leaving the church, there is more crossing and bowing at the door, and once outside the church, they turn and cross themselves and bow again. A lot of crossing, a lot of bowing, a lot of kissing, a lot of respect and reverence for the many saints.

Of course, it is forbidden to photograph the inside of the Church of the Annunciation. Picture monks in black gowns, gold, icons, gold icons, statues, mosaics, colours, gold, tiles, gold and gold and you might get near to understanding what it looks like. Did I mention the gold?

On a side note, whilst on the topic of monks, I saw two nuns smoking today. Welcome to Russia.

My few Instagram followers received a spamming yesterday – blame the weather and beautiful graves. Here are some snaps of my new favourite graveyard, not a phrase I ever thought I’d say.

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Vitali – Sculptor
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Avilov
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Tchaikovsky
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Rubinstein
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Dostoevsky
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Having wandered and wondered among the cemetery, we headed to the bridge just next door and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the Neva. Everyone else may be bored of seeing pictures of rivers, but I love them.

IMG_1511From Russia with love.

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Hipster Home

St Petersburg is the place for all those British hipsters back home. We should pack them up and ship them here to free ourselves of them (sorry Hipster friends) and let them run wild in the various hipster-friendly spaces in this city. I have stumbled upon so many places here with a very laid-back, cool atmosphere; the kinds of places which back home would be overrun with annoying, pretentious ‘cool-kids’ but here, they are populated by students and lovely, friendly young Russians.

The first of these is Clockface, or Tsiferblat, an anti-cafe in the city, where you pay by time, not by what you have. For 2 roubles a minute for the first hour, and a rouble a minute thereafter, you can enjoy as much tea, coffee, hot chocolate, biscuits, toast, porridge and cereal as you can manage. My friends and I take full advantage and compete to see who can eat the most for the least amount of money. I believe I win for having devoured countless biscuits, 2 slices of toast with jam, a pot of tea, a hot chocolate and then another cup of tea in the space of 2 hours, for a mere 180 roubles (roughly £3.40). There are 2 Tsiferblats in the city, both on Nevsky. One is situated opposite Gostinyy Dvor, on the 3rd floor of Passage; it is a bright, large room with high ceilings and an eclectic mix of furniture. There is tape of the floor, dividing the space into separate rooms to give the feel of a house. You can sit on Victorian style chairs around a mahogany table, recline on a bed or even lounge in a bath. The second is up by Ploschad Vostaniya and is made up of 3 rooms. Both have pianos and anyone is welcome to play and sing along. There is a real homely feeling to both, and truly, anything goes in Clockface.

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The second hipster haven is off the beaten track, a small vintage shop called Aloe. It is run by the absolutely charming Yana, who lives and works in the shop. She gave us her mobile number so that we could call her next time we want to visit as she said she’s not always there because she’s jetting off to Copenhagen or Berlin in search of more wares. The stock is relatively small but nice and reasonable quality. The prices are slightly higher than London vintage shops such as Beyond Retro as I suppose Yana has to cover her trips around the vintage world. I picked up a beautiful book of Russian Poetry, as well as some prints of Yana’s photos. The shop is on Moskovsky Prospekt, by Nab Obvodnogo Kanala. If you pop in, get chatting to Yana and she’ll make you a cup of tea.

Finally, we have Etaji, the biggest and probably most well-known hipster hangout in St Petersburg. Etaji means floors, and that’s exactly what this space is. The building is 4 storeys high and there are many different things on each floor, including exhibition spaces, talks, workshops, a barber, a hostel, a restaurant, and best of all right now, a pop up burger joint called Bro Burgers. For a mere £4, you can grab a delicious burger from a choice of 5 and it comes with a side of home-made chips. Fan-bloody-tastic. We inhaled ours in record speeds and the most unattractive fashion, but it was worth it. There are different things going on in Etaji all the time; it is a sea of change so always good to pop by for something new and cultural. Most of the exhibitions are talks are free, what more could you ask for? Etaji is on Ligovskiy Prospekt, hidden behind big metal gates covered in posters for the various events. In the summer, there is also a deck and rooftop space so that they can really make the most of the few short summer months and soak up enough Vitamin D to get through the winter.

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The young Russians are on to something, don’t try hard and these spaces will be organically inviting, unlike in Britain where most people steer clear for fear of mixing with hipsters who think they are just too cool to function. There’s a way to do it properly and the St Petersburgians have found it.

Fangirl Moment on Bolshaya Morskaya

Despite a hangover which would force even the strongest amongst us to shut themselves indoors for the day, yesterday I decided not to wallow in pity but rather to take advantage of the gloriously sunny day in St Petersburg and embarked upon what ended up being the most lovely 5 hour walk, complete with my German flatmate Jakob in tow. The walk took in all manner of sights, both on and off the beaten track as we stumbled upon beautiful building after beautiful building. By far the most exciting part of the day for me was discovering number 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa.

nabokov-house-on-bolshaya-morskaya-ulitsa-in-st-petersburgThe above house is where none other than one of my all time favourite writers, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov, lived from the day he was born (22nd April 1899) until he was 18. Nabokov described his childhood as “perfect” and you can see why when you imagine him as the eldest son of a wealthy and prominent family growing up in a house like this. Remove the cars and picture it on a snowy day, complete with horse-drawn carriages roaming the streets.

2892This picture shows the beautiful decoration at the top of the house; a mural running along the length of the house which adorns it with colourful flowers, all outlined in gold of course. How very Russian. In his memoir Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes the house in great detail, dedicating the first 12 chapters to his childhood here . Having seen this, it has moved up on my reading list and will be commenced very soon.

All in all, a perfect day and the best way to shake a hangover. I shall leave you with a picture of myself looking a bit too excited to be standing next to a plaque.

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(Translation: The writer Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov (1899-1977) was born in this house)

From Russia with love.

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St Petersburg Street Art

The St Petersburgians make excellent use of space (see parking), as is shown by their use of the pavement as an advertising location. As you walk along the avenues and streets, across the bridges and between the beautiful buildings, your eye is drawn to the many, often colourful, adverts, slogans and signs spray painted onto the ground. Personally, I love it – it adds more colour and life to this already vibrant city and provides something to look at when you walk with your head down to avoid the bitter winds hitting your eyes. Oh yes, it’s been that cold already.

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A boutique shop which has moved locations (I believe)

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A hostel (one night – from 350 roubles, a month – 9000 roubles)

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A selection

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A bar (called I Simply Love – very literal translation, it’s probably a colloquialism)

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A fitness centre on Nevsky Prospekt

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A big chain of coffee shops, called ‘Coffee Haus’

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The parking – another example of efficient use of space…

From Russia with love.

St P Snaps

Here are some of the photos I’ve taken so far. They are not great quality as most were taken on a rather overcast day, but they show some of the beautiful buildings and culture of the city.

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Today I’m off to the Kunstkamera, a museum of bizarre objects which Peter the Great collected including: a mammoth and Siamese twins in a jar. Sick bag at the ready.

To Market, to Market

Today my friend Saoirse and I ventured into the north-east of the city to find a recommended flea market. We went on the metro all the way over 3 different rivers (or branches of the same river, who knows?) and ended up in an area known as Udelnaya. Here, there is a market akin to those that you find in East London, a little home away from home perhaps. The traders all have stall-shops, they display their wares outside but all have a covered ‘indoor’ area too to protect them from the elements. At Udelnaya market you will find fur coats galore, vintage clothes, military uniforms, shoes, bags – you name it, they will probably have it, if you’re looking for clothes. There was a disappointing lack of junk jewellery which is something I always search for. However I did buy a Pringle 100% cashmere beige jumper for 350 roubles (roughly £7) and a bright yellow sweatshirt for 200 roubles (£4) and who can complain at that? Udelnaya is well worth the relatively quick metro journey and we will probably return at some point to hunt some more.

In other news I’ve realised that every time I have a bad meal (as I just have), I miss home. When I have good food, I feel better. It’s the luck of the draw whether you live with a Bab who can cook or not. My family are lovely, but I seem to have been a little unlucky in terms of food, something very important to me. With that, I’m off to eat some chocolate.

From Russia with love.

Life in Black and Grey

Everyone here wears dark colours all the time. This is another factor adding to the many reasons why I stick out as the foreigner I am, to be named and shamed in the street. As an avid supporter of colour, this wardrobe adjustment may prove difficult. Time will tell, at least it’s preparing me for the Parisian sartorial way – black on black on black, c’est chic. The choice of dark colours reflects and changes with the seasons. In spring and summer, colour is cracked out, but come those dark wintry days and nights, the Russians (or at least St Petersburgians) choose to dress in a way which allows them to disappear into their surroundings. Fantastic as it would be to advocate change by wearing my usual cheery palette, I think for now I’ll try to blend in.

I have also decided that even the way I sneeze is foreign. However, I was asked for directions in the street today, so maybe I am looking more Ruski as the days go by. I was flattered by his mistake and then blew it by saying (in Russian) “Yes, no here, no there!” to which I got a bemused look and we went our separate ways. Result!

From Russia with love.

P.S. Supper today was actually inedible.

First Observations

In just 2 days in St Petersburg, my eyes have been opened to so many new sights and my taste buds too, though that may not be for the best. Day 2 began with one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever eaten – молочная каша (molochnaya casha) aka milk rice. каша in Russian is a word used to describe any type of gloopy porridge-style mush, and in this case, the mush was rice in (slightly off and too warm) milk. Absolutely dreadful. The only way to stomach it and not risk offending my host family was to chase each spoonful with a bite of bread and large gulp of tea. I managed to get it all down, and keep it down. The food in general has been fine thus far, although it seems their diet consists of carbs, carbs, garlic, meat and carbs. All accompanied by oil, butter or cream. Yum? It’s not what I’m used to eating, but it’s certainly Russian and I’m in Russia.

Many things have struck me so far, but there are 3 that stand out: traffic, the people and couples.

If you choose to get into a car in St Petersburg, you can be guaranteed an experience far scarier than any roller-coaster you have been on. Forget Stealth, Russian driving is where it’s at for adrenaline junkies. There are no such things as lanes, red lights or pedestrian crossings here. Physically there are, but the drivers have little care for them and will run you down if you give them half the chance, even when you are crossing with a green man. This makes being a pedestrian a hilarious experience. My first taste of Russia was in a car, being driven from the airport to my apartment, and it was an adventure to say in the least: last millisecond brake application, driving onto the other side of the road with oncoming traffic to overtake a lorry, swerving every which way the driver fancied. No matter how I try to explain it, I will never be able to truly convey what that journey was like. Every Russian seems to think they own the road, and the road is in fact not a road, but a race track. Speed limits? I think not.

Parking here is also excellent; if you can’t fit your car into a space by parking it in the normal “parallel parking” style, why not just park diagonally into the space so that the front of your car mounts the pavement and the back sticks onto the road? Fantastic idea! Better yet, just drive onto the pavement and park alongside a car which is correctly parked on the road. Of course, how clever they are!

The people in St Petersburg can, from first impressions, be grouped thus: the ones whose gaze you avoid and would not want to meet alone at night, the ones with very bad taste, the ones who still think it’s the 80s (see bad taste), the ones who seem to know what year it is and make an effort, and my favourite, the women who wear the most absurd stilettos which bend their feet to a painful angle. I have a lot of respect for these women as the pavements here are very uneven and hard to manoeuvre in Converse, let alone 6 inch stilettos.

We were lucky enough to witness two weddings yesterday. The first bride definitely fell under the bad taste category by wearing the single most hideous ruched wedding dress my poor eyes have ever gazed upon (this blonde forget her camera lead and cannot upload photos unfortunately so you’ll have to let your imagination run wild).

This brings me to the final observation regarding couples. Ugly men have attractive girlfriends. So far, every couple has either consisted of 2 similarly (un)attractive people, or a beautiful woman and quite atrocious looking man.

So far, so good. More anecdotes and tales of the Ruski ways to follow.