"Kickin' It Kiwi Style."
The Russians are a people who are serious about their rail travel. I began to grasp this point with a certain nuanced clarity as we took the train north. Our car was, to put it modestly, well-appointed. The bathrooms were spacious, nicer than anything I encountered in any building in Russia. It was so clean and inviting I felt inclined to lay down on the floor and take a brief nap inside. I could lock the door, so no one would disturb me.
The Russian countryside passed out our window like an old-fashioned movie background circulating on a loop. It was difficult to know what we were looking at except lots of pine trees and a few minor villages interspersed throughout. The foreground pines zipped by, while the background pines lingered in the picture.
Upon getting into the city we checked into our new residence, called Cuba Hostel. We were informed that we had not gotten the proper paperwork from our previous hostel (no surprise there). The Russian government likes to keep tabs on the lodging arrangements of tourists. We had apparently failed to register with the appropriate authorities. Once you move on from your initial residence, you cannot gain this paperwork. This was a little disconcerting given that we were going to skip around from hostel to hostel every two days or so for next few weeks. The girls at the front desk gave us a slight reprimand but told us that it wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Surely we weren’t the only World Cup tourists who had the misfortune of initially lodging with a Russian host who couldn’t be bothered to fill out the correct paperwork.
We spent that first afternoon wandering from pub to pub watching the games. Our first stop was at the bar next door to our hostel, where we ordered Chicken Kiev with a Kasteel Rouge. We were gratified to discover that every entrée comes with a gratis shot of whiskey—a practice which should no doubt be more widely adopted. Argentina and Iceland played to a tie. We made friends with the Iranians sitting next to us. We also became friends with the drunk Germans, though it wouldn’t be accurate to say we made friends because a drunk German typically considers anyone close enough to share a Prost or two as a natural alliance. We decided to move to another bar for the next game. We ended up underground in a sweaty “traditional English” pub. Every room in St. Petersburg boasts a mysteriously higher level of humidity than the world outside. The best outcome is a bit of additional moisture, the worst outcome is the scent of warm cheese and Russian body odor. We sat at a table with some Americans, from the midwest, who had spent the last four years teaching in Korea and Shanghai. As we left, we nodded goodbye to the Socceroos behind us.
Aussie #1: “Go Australia!”
“That’s right, mate!” I replied in a good natured, moderately drunken spirit.
Aussie #2, obviously a very clever lad: “Good luck to USA in the tournament. Oh, wait…”
To which I replied, “Good luck remaining influential in world politics.”
We went out to get a feel for St. Petersburg. If Moscow is arrayed as nested circles, then St. Petersburg is arranged as intersecting lines. Moscow’s center of gravity is Red Square, and everything emanates out from it. St. Petersburg features a number of main drags along which the prominent landmarks are scattered. We walked now along one of the most touristed main drags, then up toward the Church of Savior on Spilled Blood. The extravagant architectural sensibilities that produced St. Basil’s Cathedral—the one topped with exotic sour cream and dumplings—are more prominent in St. Petersburg than they are in Moscow, as Spilled Blood attests. It isn’t nearly as dire as it sounds. Though less celebrated than St. Basil’s, it is every bit as enchanting. It’s a church conceived by Pixar animators, with improbable spires plopped upon decadent columns. A magnificent, blood red brick structure festooned with elaborate dashes of color. It is a curious mix of eastern and western, resisting easy categorization—just like Russia itself. We stood for a few moments to take in it.
The church was situated right next to the FIFA Fan Zone, which we went to investigate afterward. The Fan Zone was a large concrete swath of city set aside for fans to watch the game. They served beer there, as well as some game food. The most that it had to recommend it was that the television screen was large, the alcohol was attainable, and the venue was public. It was exclusively standing room. None of these were inducement enough for us to hang out around. So we retired for the evening.
We awoke the next morning at 5am with the sun high overhead and spilling into our room. We heard the sound of partying on the streets, straining to perpetuate the festivities in transition from the wee hours to more substantial ones. There were chants in Spanish. We heard someone york in the bathroom adjacent to our room. Then we fell back asleep.
When we had risen for the day we set off for St. Petersburg’s ethnography museum. We found it on a street several removed from one of the cities main arteries. We were the only people on the block. Thinking the museum might be closed, we approached its vast wooden doors, standing ten feet high, and tugged on them experimentally. They opened in an empty room with high ceilings, at least three stories tall. We walked over to the ticket booth. No one in line. I cheerfully engaged the ticket clerk, testing how far English would get me if I delivered it with a gracious smile. The lady, however, seemed indifferent to whether or not a warm body found its way into the museum. She mechanically slid us a ticket and a map, then we went to explore the exhibits.
The display gave accounts of the various indigenous ethnic groups of the former Russian empire: Moldovan, Ukranian, Belarussian, etc. Each display featured a tidy alcove of life-sized figurines engaged in activities, such as fishing or weaving. Importantly, the figurines were not intended to be representations of what the people looked like—with ungainly carvings and over-exaggerated features—but just to give the feeling that a scene was taking place, with a person and an action. Each display had a wall of labeled paraphernalia germane to the societies in which the peoples lived. The displays were clearly put together with great care and admiration for their subjects. The little old ladies monitoring the exhibits, unlike most museum security, seemed like they would have responded with passion and knowledge if you had asked them about the exhibit they oversaw. Of course we couldn’t because we didn’t speak Russian. The exhibits were labeled in Russian, so we were unable to understand the specifics of them. We discovered a stash of laminated cards explaining what we were looking at, but we were disappointed to find that they too were in Russian. One of the monitors observed us looking over the card and explained to us, in Russian, something lengthy and involved that amounted to the effect of “Put the card back when you’re done.”
We were unable to learn all that much about the indigenous peoples of Russia, except that they were more various than we might have supposed. But it was clear from the exhibits that each of these people groups, along with the contemporary brand of Russians, were a people who payed exquisite attention to detail. Their traditional garbs without exception were complex and ornately decorated, as if they had had all winter with nothing to do but spend it sewing and had used that time productively. Whoever constructed the exhibits shared the same keenness for nuance as the people depicted. My favorite were the dioramas. These weren’t your elementary schools constructions in a cardboard box. These were fantastic beyond anything I could have ever imagined a diorama to be. They were built in such a way as to convey the appearance of linear perspective. In a typical diorama, the figures in a scene are all the same size, and looking over it as a being of larger magnitude, you have the privileged perspective to view the scene as God would, everything all at once uncommitted to any particular vantage point. This description is merely factual and does nothing to give you the sense of how much goes into executing such an effect in three dimensions. Not so with these displays. One diorama showed a seamstress workshop. The sewing stations in the back were smaller than those in the front, like they would be in an oil painting, giving the scene an appearance of depth. I was hugely impressed.
Another of the dioramas was of an entire town. Every detail was carefully implemented, all the way down to the texture of the thatched roofs. I got the feeling that I was seeing the same pride in the presentation of a model city that I had observed in the presentation of a real one in Moscow.
My one regret from the museum was that I got the feeling that I was looking at a varied and diverse set of people groups, but I was unable to distinguish between them. I couldn’t even contextualize them geographically, because I couldn’t read the inscriptions. They didn’t have maps, either, which would’ve been a big help. Even with that in mind, it was a delightful showcase of, in the words of the museum’s introductory video, the “universal and synchronism of culture of the Russian empire.”
We were ready for a coffee break and presently found a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop on our walk back toward the main drag. I got a cup of coffee and a donut. It is well known that Europeans give Americans shit for their croissants. And they’re right. Americans just don’t have the wherewithal to make croissants like Europeans do. I don’t care how good the bakery is. They’re not gonna make a croissant like you could get at even a mediocre boulangerie in Paris. What is less well recognized is that a symmetrical inability applies to Europeans attempting to make donuts. They just don’t get it. The proper execution of a donut is beyond them. Just as Americans don’t have the proper cultural legacy to do a croissant with that je nais se quoi, it’s not within the cultural repertoire of Europeans to get the significant details of a donut correct—from the springiness of the dough, to the proper surface tension when you bite into the epidermis, to a committed distinction between cake and raised donuts, to icing that doesn’t immediately call to mind molten plastic that is in the process of setting. Europeans couldn’t make a donut that competes with even a meager offering from Dunkin. This was, at any rate, the theory I emphatically related to Haily as I scarfed down my donut.
Caffeinated and reveling in cultural superiority we made our way to the Fabergé museum. I must admit I didn’t expect much from a gallery whose most celebrated attraction is a collection of nine eggs. Big deal, right? But as soon as we walked in I was struck by a feeling of recognition. This was the same love of ornateness and convolution that had inspired the exhibits in the ethnography museum. Whereas the indigenous Russians developed complex ornamental clothing, the imperial Russians developed complex ornamental eggs. If the Moldovans or the Ukranians had had the proper equipment, no doubt they would’ve been churning out fantastic eggs all winter long. These eggs were the centerpiece of the collection, obviously—colored in glowing azures and low-on-the-horizon sunset, studded with diamonds and other baubles that made you comprehend why these ornaments are so expensive. They looked substantial enough that if you tried to pick them up your hand would immediately be pinned to the floor, like a mortal attempting to wield Thor’s hammer. They were ornate without giving the impression of being overly busy. Nothing was superfluous; if one pattern were removed, it would feel like it’s missing something. Even the rooms that housed the eggs were spectacular: gold-laced fenestration, moulding that commanded attention, and a chandelier that was, well, one big ass chandelier, which is the only thing that can separate one chandelier from another in my mind. The museum featured more than eggs, too. One case was filled with tea sets that would make Queen Elizabeth blush. This all felt like the logical extension of what we’d previously seen, and it was superbly satisfying.
Now it was time for a drink. We repaired to a bar which we had identified as suitable establishment for day drinking (it was about 2:30). We were the only customers. We like being the only customers. Partially, it's about service. We don’t want to wait. Nor do we want to compete for the bartender’s attention. But we also like to get to know the person making our drinks behind the bar. That’s the difference between a chef and a bartender. The position of a chef is not customer-facing. A bartender plies her craft in the open. But these bartenders—Russian bartenders—were there solely to conduct business. They had no interest in banter or introductory dialogue, as is customary in America. Our relationship was transactional—what do you want? I’ll get it for you. You drink it. That’s it. We’d hoped instead that we might’ve made friends with the gentlemen before their shifts began in earnest and knocked back a couple convivial shots of vodka initially at our behest, then a round on the house, as a sort of celebration of a life and all that it has to offer. Alas.
That night we went to the Fan Zone again. This time for the Mexico versus Germany game. Now the Moroccans and the Egyptians were out en masse. Both of these groups endeared themselves to us throughout our time in St. Petersburg. In the case of the Moroccans, you could not possibly imagine a friendlier group of people. I went around the city in my Portuguese Ronaldo jersey. The Portuguese and the Moroccans were slated to play one another the following week. Seeing my jersey, dozens of Moroccans came up to me and asked to take a picture. We may be adversaries tomorrow but today we are comrades, drawn together by the mutual respect inherent in a competition. It is an amazing sight of the World Cup to see people representing different cultures taking pictures together and acting in a congenial manner expressly because they come from opposing factions. The world can use as much of that as it can get, wouldn’t you say? The Egyptians, for their part, are very good at cheering. I didn’t meet a single North African who wasn’t a remarkably warm and agreeable person.
Afterwards we went to Orthodox, the preeminent craft cocktail venue of St. Petersburg. Orthodox specializes in traditional Russian alcoholic beverages. We sampled Polugar (the Russian national drink, also known as "bread wine"), Chacha (a type of brandy, also know as "grape vodka"; Russians don't have command over an especially large array of alcoholic templates), and Khrenovukha (vodka made from horseradish root; this one infused with wasabi). Each of these base spirits was paired with a unique flavor profile, such as sea buckthorn. Afterward our stomaches felt as if they’d been experimented on by a Russian chemist. We felt finally felt culturally grounded in Russia.
On our way back to the hostel, staggering jauntily through the streets of St. Petersburg, we stopped for funnel cake. Vendors are scattered throughout the streets of the city selling these absurdly delicious treats. The essential idea is to take dough, and wrap it around a tube which looks more or less like what you'd use to repaint your living room. Then you cook it on a wall of spits. After that, douse it in something sweet, like cinnamon sugar. Happiness ensues. While waiting for funnel cake, we chatted up some Moroccans. I can't honestly remember what they said, but I can tell you they were, as always, very nice.
Crossing the street in Russia is like crossing Las Vegas Boulevard. The destination might only be 20 yards away, but it could take you 45 minutes to get there. It seemed we spent whole days waiting at walk signals.
We walked to the Hermitage, which is known as a building of historical significance in St. Petersburg. What is less known is that it is also the world’s largest and most well-appointed doll house. It looks as if the architect was inspired by the finest playhouses available to young girls in 1950s America. It is so big that it is impossible to take in the whole façade in one view. It is also painted teal. Specifically, it’s the teal that a thirteen-year-old girl chooses when she’s bored of whatever the original color of her room was. It is a grand, feminine, and slightly surreal building.
We made the long walk across the city's main bridge. It was hot enough to set brownie batter. After wandering streets that felt increasingly suburban, we chanced upon a vast, open compound. The compound, it turned out, was something of a lost and found bin of monuments and attractions. My favorite was a series of still shots celebrating Putin's presidency. They were printed out on posters the size of a large television. Each depicted a memorable moment of Putin’s term. Some of the events seemed significant, such as Putin gravely signing a document, German chancellor Angela Merkel nodding approvingly in the background. Other events commemorated seemed significant but in a different way. Take for instance a shot of ol' Vlad riding a horse bare-chested exposing the fleshy expanse of his upper body. It looked like someone had taken the kinds of pictures that a normal person would post on social media and printed them out and stuck them in the ground at the entrance to this fortress. I loved it.
Among the other attractions on the premises was a tall and pointy church, several remarkable statues of giant, human-sized rabbits, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, a world-record-holding bug, and an exhibit on King Tut. We were unable to figure out what was remarkable about the bug, other than it certainly was a doozie.
Then we went to the State Museum of Russian political history. Russian museums in general have the delightful benefit of being astonishingly cheap and of commendably high quality. They do on the other hand tend to have the drawback of being almost entirely in Russian. This is not especially helpful if this is not a language over which you have a solid command. They feature lots of details, not a lot of narrative. What was clear was that Russians have for most of their history been at the mercy—or lack thereof—of their rulers.
Sated on Russian history, we made our back toward the city center. At length we passed a bus with the slogan for the Egyptian national team: “When you say Pharoahs, the world must get up and listen.”
Oh, must they?
The thing is, I’m sure this makes perfect sense in Arabic. Unfortunately it’s quite unsuitable for English. I think this is something that we tend to forget about unless expressly reminded of—just how differently sentiments can be expressed in different languages. Only when we are faced with the problem of translation (which we rarely are) does it become apparent. That being said, most World Cup national slogans are stupid, or at the very least lack wit.
Poland’s for instance is, “Go Poland!” That must’ve required a lot of thought.
But at least it’s a coherent thesis. Some countries are just not to be trusted in this respect. Consider Australia’s in 2014: "Socceroos: Hopping Our Way Into History!" Maybe it's best not to indulge the creative itch for sloganeering, if that’s not your strong suit.
Here’s one that’s not so terrible, Senegal in 2018: “IMPOSSIBLE IS NOT SENEGALESE.” (Note that it’s not uncommon for teams to opt for all caps, presumably because it’s a more intimidating way of delivering the content than simply stating one’s slogan.) However, the slogan becomes a bit more suspect in light of the 2014 French motto: "Impossible Is Not A French Word.” See any similarities? Maybe the French wiped out the notion of impossibility during their colonial rule, who’s to say.
Here’s a couple good ones from 2010. Denmark’s rather provocative claim: "All you need is a Danish team and a dream.” New Zealand’s rather casual: “Kickin’ it Kiwi style.”
In the evening we set off to find an appropriate venue to watch the Belgium game. We stumbled upon a Belgian brasserie. We poked our head in and were disappointed to find that the establishment was full. Then a table in the back noticed my Belgium jersey and beckoned us over. We graciously joined them. The occupants were Belgian Moroccans, or Moroccan Belgians—at any rate ethnic Moroccans who lived in Belgium.
“You Belgian?” asked one of them.
“No,” I replied. They eyed me suspiciously.
I didn’t have a particularly strong answer to this.
One of the Moroccans was a drinker, loud and emphatic. He pounded the table when an opportunity was missed by the Belgian national team. His friend, not a drinker, was stolid and gestured for his compatriot to calm the hell down. The non-drinker didn’t have a strong command of English. We made a brief attempt at an exchange in Spanish, and then in Dutch, both of which were more successful. It’s a rare moment on planet earth that someone is worse at English than I am at those languages. But there you are.
After the game we went in search of further drink, unconstrained by association with the European lowlands. We found our way into an alley in which we had identified a cozy bar of interest the night before. We had declined to stay then since it didn’t have a TV to watch soccer. We took a couple seat along the back wall. The bar counter was three sides of a rectangle, each face with three or four seats. There were about half a dozen seats along the back wall. It was intimate. You could listen in to any conversation in the establishment if you were so inclined. Everyone there was Russia. No English menu, either. The bartender suggested some local fare: a Moscow Mule and a White Russian. We declined those offers. We managed two negotiate a couple mystery drinks—whatever the bartender found himself into at the time. We got the drinks. They were served high in sugar content, in accord with Russian preference. News spread through the bar that we were Americans. One of the men sitting at the bar leaned over to me. “My friend Roman wants to know," he asked, as if soliciting an illicit substance. "Why Belgium?”
The cocktails frankly were not good but the people were and that’s just as well. That’s really the most that I can tell you because my notes from the night were not that helpful and my memories were not well retained in any more natural form. When a couple spots opened up at the bar we moved over to sit next to everyone else. We did eventually order a couple White Russians. It's a delicious drink, really. The barkeep served us another dealer’s choice, this time a Sambuca and cream (our new friends were not sophisticated palates).
We saw the bartender serve a set of shots to another group of patrons. They were in vials. The set included a dozen shots in total. We ordered a round. We liked the look of it—real Russian chemistry—but it was far too much for us. We were pretty knackered at this point. So we shared with the bar. Needless to say, this act endeared us to the locals. To our left were a couple gentlemen with whom I got along with very nicely. They took a great interest in me. We suspected them to be homosexuals, so I won’t disclose their identities here since the Russian government doesn’t look kindly on that sort of thing. We spent most of the night conversing with them and then also, sitting perpendicular to us at the bar, with Roman and Roman’s friend. I impressed them all with my ability to spell Polugar in Cyrillic.
Then we went back to Orthodox. We tried to convince our new friends—those of the unsophisticated palates—to come with us. It was, after all, traditional Russian alcohol. They politely had one drink, exchanged perplexed glances while they thought we weren’t looking, then took off. We ended up making friends with some Belgians. We discussed the Congo and the United Nations, or something like that. They were a very worldly pair. But we were not, suffice to say, in the best state to entertain nuanced political discourse.
The previous evening I had filed a request for laundry service with the front desk of our hostel. Judging from her expression, I could not have saddled the young woman at the front desk with a weightier imposition. That morning I asked her if our laundry was done. She told me it wasn’t. “But we saw it in the drier with an hour left last night.” She gave me a pained look to confirm that I was going to make things difficult. The two of us went in search of my clothes. When after a couple minutes we were unable to locate them she sort of shrugged said, “don’t worry.”
“I’m not not going to worry,” I told her. “I have no faith in you.”
“It’s here,” she said indicating toward the dryer.
“But these aren’t my clothes,” I said as I rifled through someone else’s delicates.
She disappeared for a moment to do something else. I couldn’t tell what. I stood there and researched places I had already searched a couple times. She came back. “Don’t worry,” she repeated. “In here.”
Then she reached into the dryer and pulled out a drawstring bag, which upon inspection was full of our clothes. This seems like it might perhaps have been worth mentioning at the outset.
Laundry progress verified, we presented ourselves next at Kazan Cathedral. This is the most notable cathedral in St. Petersburg. It take up an entire city block, in two directions. Most of the building is a series of extended wings supported by columns, as if designed for a raised air strip, rather than a sanctuary. Entering the cathedral, you’re not struck with the same gravity that often comes with these kinds of churches. The difference is that Kazan feels that it has been preserved in a way other cathedrals are not. It is like walking into a living room where all of the furniture is covered in plastic. Everything might as well be covered in Saran wrap. The interior showed the same commitment to detail as every other cultural landmark in Russia. A long queue formed to offer a prayer in front of a small picture of Jesus. It seemed an extremely individualized experience. The visages of saints and important people in portraits hanging on the wall were noticeably different than they are in Catholic or Protestant traditions. There's something slightly unorthodox about Russian orthodoxy.
Our main attraction for the day was a museum called the Kunst Kamera, the main anthropological museum of St. Petersburg. It proved difficult to enter. When we approached it from a main street, there was a small door marked “group entrance.” There was no one coming in or out, and it was too undistinguished of an entrance for such a large and significant building. We followed the building around down a side street. There was another, more conspicuous entrance. It too was labeled “group entrance.” We weren’t sure if the entrance was designed for us or for buses full of Russian school children. The queue was only a half dozen people or so, but they were lined up outside of the building waiting to get in so there were no officials to ask. We didn’t want to wait in line only to find that we didn’t qualify as a group. So we continued to walk around another side of the building down an even smaller street—a back alley, really. We found a small door marked “exit.” I’m not sure why it seemed to us that an exit was more promising than either of the entrances we’d found, but I think we were tired of inspecting doors. We tried it. The door opened, and we entered. At least that way we’d be inside.
We wandered all the way through the lower level of the museum by the restrooms and the coat check only to eventually find our way back to the second “group entrance” we’d come across. This was what the people outside had been waiting to get into. We inquired with the guard, thinking it might be possible to sneak out through this door and join the line outside. Of course, it wasn’t. This was an entrance and therefore it is not in its nature to be utilized as an exit. So we walked back through the museum, back down the alley, and onto the side street. By the time we got back to the appropriate entrance the line was several dozen people long.
The Kunst Kamera’s take on “anthropology” was more like a sort of human zoo or natural history museum. Each wing considered a different geographical area, and behind the glass of each case was a different tribe or people group. It was similar to the ethnography museum featuring the indigenous people of Russia in the contents of its displays, but it lacked the obvious sense of respect and admiration for its subjects. There were plastic life-sized figurines of people with exotic features and brown skin. Tools and primitive implements were arranged on the wall. It all had the feel of “isn’t this a curious specimen of a savage?” Not a good look for anthropology.
Granted, material culture is difficult to interpret out of context (“What do you supposed they did with this baseball bat looking thing?”). But it really wasn’t put together in any compelling manner. The overall thesis of the museum was, “There are a great many places in the world and in each one of them the people make objects of various forms and complexions.” Not a terribly interesting or nuanced insight. It was like looking at a pile of bones and with an inscription that says, “Together these bones make a dinosaur. Use your imagination.” You don’t actually learn anything about the dinosaur from taking a casual look over an unstructured collection of femurs and teeth. It’s the same problem as a “Great Books” course you’d take in Freshman English. Yes, the collection is impressive. But it’s not about anything in particular. Really the only thing it successfully conveys is to exoticize the groups of people it features. It was heavily populated by tourists, too.
I’d heard tell that there was an exceptionally peculiar exhibit in the museum but wasn’t availed of any details. I hadn’t thought much about it when I entered a wing innocuously labeled “First Scientific Collections.” I entered unaware. Before I could make note of the collection my attention was arrested by a thud and then an emerging circle of onlookers. A young girl, maybe thirteen or so, had just fainted. She was blond. Her mother was able to collect her off the floor and usher her into a chair by the window. A museum attendant came over to see if she was alright. I looked on at the excitement with interest. At first I didn’t actually associate the fainting with the display. I just figured that the girl had a condition in which she just keeled over from time to time. Or maybe she was eminently hung over. Who knows?
But then I looked at the case that had temporarily relieved her of conscious bodily control. It was an exhibit featuring deformed fetuses, preserved in formaldehyde. I looked around and saw that the room was full of shelves with dead babies in jars, each with some striking defect, such as a comprehensive absence of limbs, or six eyes, or a hand where its ear is supposed to be. I would like to report that it’s not the single most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. But I can’t. It was the single most disturbing thing I've ever seen. However the Russians and the tourists alike seemed unmoved. They looked on with a certain detached curiosity, as if they were staring at a collection of exotic flowers rather than pickled dead babies. “Tasteless” seems like a harsh critique for a venerable institution such as the Kunst Kamera. But the presence of judicious and thoughtful presentation by the museum’s curators was very hard to detect.
And with that imagery to contemplate, we took leave of St. Petersburg and boarded a night train bound for Moscow.