Why I Like Peter & Paul Fortress

I have to write about something fun now because after I told my mom about the dead body & the amputee she was like, “You’re not really selling me on going to Russia if it’s all dead bodies on sidewalks.”

To prove that it’s (mostly) not all dead bodies on sidewalks I’m going to talk about one of my favorite places to visit when I’m in Saint Petersburg—Peter and Paul Fortress because that place is full of weird stuff and while it is full of dead bodies, they’re the ones that are suppose to be there*.

So one of the reasons I really like Peter & Paul Fortress is because it always has the weirdest crap going on there. Like right now there’s an exhibit all about fleas…or art on fleas or pieces of art that only the size of fleas. I don’t really know because the advertisement for it was a giant picture of a flea, and even just looking at the sign made me start itching like crazy.

Elephant Art
Also, I accidentally wandered into an art exhibit that had an alarming/awesome (I really like them so it was awesome for me) number of pictures of elephants. Why there were so many pictures of elephants at an art exhibit in a fortress in Russia is beyond my understanding. Likewise, this exhibit led into a museum that I’d never even seen before. To be honest, it looked really lame, but the sign on the door said, “Hi! Come in! We’re waiting for you!” which made me feel guilty for not visiting since nothing in Russia is that friendly ever so I knew they were hard up for visitors if they were being welcoming and polite.

Even though I went to the museum, I’m still not entirely clear on the purpose of it because right in the beginning they had a huge rack of dress up clothes which I assumed were for patrons, and even if they weren’t I was the only person there so it wasn’t like I was going to be yelled at. So I tried on a bunch of period piece clothing, and then I fell in love with this jacket because it is super structured and very slimming, and I want a super structured jacket for the winter.

See? It’s slimming. And Fierce.

I liked it so much that I hunted down the cleaning lady and asked her to take a picture of it on me. I asked the museum if I could buy it from them, and they were like, “This is a museum for children, why are you trying to buy their toys?” So I left quickly without the jacket.

However, my absolute favorite thing about Peter & Paul Fortress is this sign:

At a quick glance, it appears that the maintainers of the fortress are just super strict, and don’t let you have any fun. To really see how awesome this sign truly is you have to look at each individual circle. So I’m going to narrate what you cannot do at Peter & Paul Fortress.

No walking your dog around Peter & Paul Fortress even if you pretend that your dog is a rocking horse that suspiciously looks like a camel. Also you probably shouldn’t pretend your rocking camel horse is a real dog & walk it around there either. That would just be confusing.

Do not grow to be 50 feet tall, and then pretend you are Godzilla and knock down trees at Peter & Paul Fortress

When someone tells you to take a long walk off a short pier, they do not mean do it at Peter & Paul Fortress because it is not allowed.

Do not complain about your weight at Peter & Paul Fortress. It’s not the fortress’s fault you couldn’t say no to that last piece of cake.

Do not wear a speedo at Peter & Paul Fortress…okay, I actually agree with this one. Speedos should be considered a crime against humanity. Well done, Fortress.

And lastly, no skiing at Peter and Paul Fortress. For the record this is what Peter & Paul Fortress looks like:

It hardly looks like an ideal place for skiing to me, but then again I don’t know how to ski so maybe skiers look at this picture & think it’s perfection. Even if that’s true, you’re still not allowed to ski there. Sorry.

Despite all of the clearly very fun stuff you cannot do at Peter & Paul Fortress, it is still a very fun place to spend the day–weird flea art and all.

*There are dead bodies here, but they are suppose to be here. The church at the fortress is where pretty much all of the Romanovs are buried including the famously missing-but-not-really-missing-Anastasia Romanov. But you cannot see those dead bodies because they’re in tombs or the floor where dead bodies belong. Not on sidewalks on midafternoons where unsuspecting tourists find them.


Bits of Beauty

I had a pretty bad day yesterday. I was walking down Nevsky Prospect (the main street of Saint Petersburg) when I saw the dead body of an old man on the side of the sidewalk. People and officials were milling around trying to figure out what to do with him. I walked away quickly. When I got a few blocks away I came across a man with no legs using a board on four little wheels & a broomstick to get around. I decided I had had quite enough of Russia for the day and hid in my room for the rest of the night.

Today I went over to Peter & Paul Fortress which is always a weird experience for me, but I got to see a bit of beauty today that stemmed my descent into Russia-inspired agoraphobia for the time being.

That’s Russia, I guess. This combination of images that horror you combined with beauty that you cannot forget.

The Time I Accidentally Went to a Russian Adult Video Store

This trip has been a comedy of errors, but without the laughter and about 75% more hassle & aggravation. My goal for this trip was to be adult-like and fairly responsible, and to not do things like accidentally recording a voice over for the militia, but that plan seems to have gone down in flames.

I was sitting in my hotel room on Saturday after our disastrous tour of Catherine’s Palace getting ready to send an email to my mom, when I hear a loud “CRACK” next to my left ear & all of the sudden my room goes dark. All of the electricity in my room was out.

I run out to the lobby (our hotel is one floor & only has 10 rooms so it’s not a far run), and all of the power is out there as well. Since I can smell burning plastic coming from my room—more specifically my adapter/converter-thingy, I was 99% sure that I cause the power outage so rather than have to admit that, I snuck back into my room and hid.

The power came back on about 30 minutes later, and I went to plug my adapter/converter thingy back in & nothing happens. All I can think is “Oh shit, this sucks.” It sucks for two reasons specifically:

1. Not having an adapter/converter thingy means that I cannot charge any of my electronics for the rest of the trip—no computer, phone, camera, etc., and I still have 11 days to go.

2. I just bought this new adapter/converter thingy from Macys the day before I left for Russia for an astounding $35 which just pisses me off.

This is the $35 “high-tech” adapter/converter thingy that exploded & took out the power for the entire hotel.

So I decide I’m going to go buy another adapter/converter thingy because I know I can buy these little ghetto ones because I bought one in the airport this trip when my luggage with my brand new adapter/converter thingy was stolen by hobgoblins at the Paris airport. Only this being Russia, this meant that the one that the person at the airport sold me didn’t work because that is just the shit that happens here.

So I walk myself over to Sennya Ploshad/Haymarket Square, and start accosting the cellphone store guys because that is the store I bought it at in the airport. The first store doesn’t have it, neither does the second or the third. Guy at cell phone store number 4 directs me to the mall where there is an electronics store.

So I go to the electronics store, and of course they do not have the ghetto adapter/converter thingy. They do, however, have a Mac power cord with the European connection, but it’s nearly $160 and I wasn’t willing to not eat for a week to justify purchasing that just yet. He assures me that the randomly named store “El Dorado” will probably have one. So I hike over to the other mall to visit “El Dorado” but of course they do not have one.

The sales guy at El Dorado suggests I go to the electronics store across the street, so I drag myself over there, but of course they too do not it. “Try three stores down, there’s a computer store.”

So I go three stores down, and what do I see? An Adult Video Store/Computer Store. Of course, why wouldn’t you combine those things. And oh, what’s that? Why, yes, it’s a man coming out of the store with a stack of adult videos*. Lovely.

After a lot of contemplating (and looking around to make sure the students didn’t see me wandering into an Adult Video store), I made my run inside. Yep, it was an adult video store. The sign was not lying. Luckily it was also a computer store so I made a beeline for that counter & ignored the trio of older men that seemed like they couldn’t decide if having me there was a good thing or a bad thing.

As if being rewarded for my bravery/foolishness for going in the store, they in fact did have my ghetto adapter/converter thingy for the cool price of 25 rubles (about $1.80) which means I was totally screwed over by the airport person who sold me the broken one for 200 rubles. I tried to buy 2 ghetto adapter/converter thingys just in case my new one didn’t work, but the guy wouldn’t sell me two. I think he just wanted me out of the store.

So I made my way back to the hotel, plugged my computer in the ghetto adapter/converter thing, plugged the whole shebang into the wall—–and nothing happened. Not a damn thing. I’m about to throw a hissy fit when I realize that although my overhead light is working I don’t hear my mini fridge going. I then decided to try to turn on the television, and no luck there either.

Turns out the fuse for my room was still out, and once that was replaced everything worked just fine including the original $35 adapter/converter thingy, which means that my entire 2 hours of running around trying to get a new one & being forced to go to the Russian porn/computer store was all for naught.


*I should explain that you have to pay for plastic bags here at stores. They cost a ruble. So this guy apparently would rather not spend 3 cents on a plastic bag & just carry his porn with him down the street.

PS. I really couldn’t see how the two concepts were connected until I went back to the store today to take photos for the blog, and then I understood the logic. People watch porn online. When your computer breaks & is in the shop for a few days, you need another way to get your kicks. So really it’s just one stop shopping.

PPS. Also, I came up with a slogan for the store: “Adult Video Store/Computer Repairs: For when your computer won’t turn on, but you still want to get off.”

PPPS. I might offer them that slogan for a small fee, but I don’t know Russian slang that well since “getting off” isn’t a phrase you come across in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky & asking a Russian how to say that will surely only lead to trouble.

PPPS. Also, I tried to take a picture of myself in front of the sign & the guy came out and yelled at me. Sad times.

Where Angels Fear To Tread

Today’s excursion was to the Hermitage, the art museum that is housed in the Winter Palace. Most of the time when I go there I have a hard time deciding what to focus on (thanks to my self diagnosed adult ADD), and never know whether to look at the art or the interior of the building itself.

One thing that I obsess over every time I visit is the stunning collection of sculptures the museum has, and the exquisite way the museum displays them.

So I think I’ll just let the sculptures speak for themselves. You can see why I somehow managed to spend nearly four hours wandering around the palace & kept finding myself back in this hall having to take just one more photo.

I especially love this one. In low lighting the three girls look almost alive.

So I spent this rainy Sunday wandering among silent fairies & angels. Not a bad way to spend the day at all.

The Beginner’s Guide to Charlottesville

“This post is my entry into the TBEX Blog Carnival Contest sponsored by Choice Hotels International Services Corp.”
One of the things that I love about traveling around the world is that I get to experience new places & explore new cities. However, as I discover every time I leave home for the summer one of the downsides is that I miss out on all of the amazing things Charlottesville has to offer—especially during the summer. When I saw that TBEX was having a contest with Cambria Suites about how to have a staycation, I wanted to put Charlottesville in the running for a fantastic place to have a small weekend getaway.

While Charlottesville is relatively tiny, there’s never a lack of things to do. If you’re lucky enough to get a three-day weekend in the area this is the best way to experience some of the very best that Charlottesville has to offer:

Friday: Get Schooled

-Tour of Monticello
-Lunch: Revolution Soup
-Tour of University of Virginia
-Fridays after Five
-Dinner & Drinks: Mas Tapas

You can’t come to Charlottesville and ignore the town’s history. Start your day off with a tour of the place that started it all-Monticello. Tours run every hour, and the guides are well informed about both Jefferson’s life and the history of the house itself. Luckily, the tour guides keep the information varied for each tour as I’ve been on the tour three times in the past year. Once you’ve seen Monticello, head down the mountain to see Mr. Jefferson’s university (as the students call UVA) where you can see the famous rotunda as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s room. While on grounds (call it campus and an angry freshman…I mean first year will tear your head off) grab some lunch at Revolution Soup, a small shop on The Corner that serves excellent soup (try the Senegalese Peanut) and sandwiches.

Monticello features plenty outdoor activities for children during the summer.

When you’ve had enough history & brick laden architecture, head to the Downtown Mall for Fridays After 5, the weekly event that runs from the end of April until mid September. Follow the crowds and the music to the amphitheater at the end of the Mall for free music, a decent selection of beer and plenty of locals. You’ll find half the town relaxing there after the workweek.

If the crowds on the Mall get to be too much for you, head over to the section of town called Belmont for dinner at Mas Tapas. A favorite with locals, the restaurant offers an ever-changing selection of tapas dishes that feature seasonal and local ingredients. The bacon wrapped dates are a must, trust me.

Saturday: Get Local

-The City Market
-Winery tour of the area: King Family, Veritas & Cardinal Point
-Dinner: The Local

This is your day to enjoy Charlottesville like a local. One of the best things about Charlottesville is the strength of the local food movement. Head down to the Downtown Mall and check out the weekly City Market. Grab breakfast and a fresh cup of coffee from local vendors at the market as your stroll through organic and local veggies and herbs, and maybe pick up a souvenir from nearby artists. The goods and vendors at the City Market range from homemade pumpkin pasta to edible flowers to face painting. There’s something for everyone. On your way out grab some cheese & homemade bread for a picnic at your next stop—the wineries.

View from Veritas.

Head just outside of Cville to the neighboring town of Crozet where you’ll find some of the heavy hitters of Virginia’s wine region—Veritas and King Family. Both offer top notch local wines as well as unbeatable views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Buy a bottle of wine & have a picnic at the beautiful outdoor seating areas that both wineries supply.

Not a wine drinker? Microbreweries are scattered throughout wine country. Check out Starr Hill, Blue Mountain Brewery or newcomer Devil’s Backbone.

For dinner head back to the Belmont area to the aptly named restaurant-The Local. Here you’ll find the freshest of ingredients mixed with an excellent selection of both wine and beer. The short ribs here cannot be beat.

Sunday: Get Active (or watch others get active)

Breakfast: Blue Grass
Hiking—Either Darden Towe or Rivanna Trail

Local wineries also feature free events such as polo matches on Sundays

For breakfast be sure to check out Blue Grass right off of the Downtown Mall. No matter what time you get there, you’re going to have a wait, but trust me, it’s worth it. If your wait is more than a half hour, take a stroll down to the Mall to check out local used bookstores like the Daedalus Bookshop to fill that time. When it’s finally time for breakfast check out any of the daily specials which include everything from vegan dishes to chocolate covered bacon.

Now by this time you’ve experience some of the very best restaurants Cville has to offer, and no doubt your waistband is getting uncomfortably tight. It might be time for a little physical activity. Head to any one of the hiking trails surrounding Charlottesville. For leisurely strolls there’s Darden Towe Park. More experienced hikers can find more challenging hikes just a few miles out of town.

Not in the mood for physical activity? Swing by UVA’s campus instead and grab the sports’ schedule. Depending on the season you can check out everything from football to baseball (where UVA is currently kicking some serious behind).

Lock and Key

One of my favorite things about repeatedly visiting the same city over and over again is finding things that you never knew were there. The thing that currently has me falling in love with Saint Petersburg is The Bridge of Kisses.

I knew of the bridge, of course, but I’d never seen the locks on the bridge until a tour guide pointed them out. The idea is that newly married couples place a lock on the bridge & then toss the key into one of the canals. I knew this was done in Florence, Italy, but never realized that it was a tradition here as well.

Maybe it’s the bright sunshine, or just the pleasure at being back in Petersburg after three years away from it, but I’m completely in love with the tradition.

I’m going to head back to the bridge tomorrow to grab some more shots that will work well in black & white. I have a pretty fun idea (that I picked up thanks to Pinterest) of how to display them in my house.

The Last Days of Moscow

I’m not sure how time is slipping by so quickly. I feel like I blinked and a week has gone by. For me, Moscow can be sensory overload. There’s so much to do and see, and so little time I feel like I have to constantly keep moving otherwise I feel guilty for not seeing enough. Even this time around I find myself with a list of things that I insisted on seeing that will now remain unfulfilled.

I’ve learned, however, not freak out or stress out about this list. If the past few years of grad school have taught me anything (and I hope it’s taught me more than this otherwise, I’m screwed for my comp exams)it’s that I’ll be back here again. Many many more times, and I’ll eventually cross those “must see” things off my list and continue to add new ones.

In the meantime, here are some things that I did get to see this trip:


Pasternak’s dacha.

This was my first trip to the tiny little town of Peredelkino. Located about a 20 minute train ride from Moscow proper, this little town is made up of dachas–the country homes that Russians love and for reasons that are still inexplicable to me, Americans have not.

Specifically Peredelkino was (and is) home to some of Russia’s most famous writers like Boris Pasternak (writer of Dr. Zhivago), and Kornei Chukovsky (writer of some of Russia’s most famous children’s poems).

The town was charming, and a wonderful little escape (that perhaps lasted several hours too long) from the hectic pace of Moscow. Watching a new Orthodox church being constructed was a highlight of the day for me. It looks like it’s going to be absolutely stunning when it’s finished.

Bulgakov’s Apartment:

If you know me, you know I’m pretty obsessed with Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master & Margarita. It’s what made me fall in love with Russian literature. I’d been to the Bulgakov House several times already, but what I didn’t realize was that there was a whole other museum located right next door to the one that I’d been to that was actually the one that Bulgakov lived in. Apparently there’s a big rivalry between the two neighboring museums.

I adored this museum. The walls of the staircase going up to the museum were filled with Master & Margarita graffiti, which sent my little literature-loving heart all a’flutter.

I also happened to sneak over to the other Bulgakov museum, and received quite a surprise. There was an exhibit there by an artist with the same last name as me! I don’t have that common of a last name, so I was beyond thrilled that there’s another person out there with my last name who has a connection to The Master & Margarita as well.

Giant Matryoshka Dolls:

I learned about this exhibit via the Moscow Expat Forum, and felt like it was the perfect thing to see on our last cold rainy day in Moscow. It was just the right amount of kitsch & interesting. What can I say about the giant matryoshka doll exhibit at the Afimall? They are really really damn big.

So those were my last few days in Moscow. Up next? My most beloved city of Petersburg.

J’adore Dior

Today was a rare & exceptional day–I had free time. An entire day to myself to do whatever I wanted to do with it. While the thunderstorms brewed overhead threatened to keep me holed up in my room for the day (the metro is a good half hour walk from campus & I forgot to bring an umbrella to Russia with me), I’d heard so much praise for the Dior Exhibition at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art that I braved the less than stellar weather and made my way downtown.

Notice the no photography sign, which I very clearly ignored. Whoops.

I guess I should admit that in my previous life (pre-grad school aka when I had disposable income), I was a bit obsessed with fashion. One of my friends once commented opening my closet was like having one’s own private Saks 5th Avenue. Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton–they all chill in my closet in the forms of handbags, shoes and accessories. One day, when I have disposable income again, one of my dream items to own is a dress by Dior*. While I don’t have the funds to fund my love of designer duds anymore, I still wanted to make my way to the exhibition to see one of my favorite design houses.

I have to say, honestly, that I wasn’t expecting much. The price for the ticket was 200 rubles (roughly $7.14), so in my mind I was prepared to see a dress or two worn by the latest Russian socialite and maybe some sketches. What I actually saw blew me away.

It was one of the most elegant and well designed exhibitions I’ve seen. Everything from the sheer number of dresses they had on display, the fantastic movies about the production of many of the signature items (it takes 4 months to make one of the rings!), to the layout of the exhibition itself was just incredibly well done. Even the little audio tour guides were imprinted with the Lady Dior pattern. Too amazing.

I guess I should confess here and now that I was naughty. The exhibition was supposed to be “no photos allowed” but several people were strolling around with their digital cameras and phones, and taking pictures so I did too (you know the saying “When in…Moscow). None of the guards seemed particularly concerned about enforcing the rule so I snapped away (quickly because I am a chicken hence the blurriness).

I walked around the exhibit several times and watched most of the videos about the design house & the process of creating the dresses, bags & jewelry twice each. It ended up being the perfect way to spend a rainy Moscow day.

One of my all time favorite dresses.

*Before he revealed himself to be such a not-nice person, I really wanted a dress by John Galliano because it’s just fun to say John Galliano for Christian Dior.

Day Tripping

One of the components of this trip is that the students have a field trip nearly every day that they are here in Russia. The field trips range from museums to churches to cemeteries. Our field trips are led by the incredible Lena, our contact at GRINT, who leads us around Moscow at a break neck speed in a dangerously high pair of heels. We often find ourselves jogging doggedly behind her trying to catch up as she tosses back a “Come on, guys, you are slow today.”

As today marks our first solid week in Moscow, here are some of the places the students have been.

Red Square/Kremlin:

The mandatory things to see while in Moscow. I’ve seen Saint Basil’s countless times, yet I never ever get sick of seeing the candy colored domes.

The Ballet: A Performance of Romeo & Juliet

One of the extras that’s included in tuition is various performances such as ballets, operas and symphonies. The first one the students saw was a performance of Romeo & Juliet at the Kremlin Ballet. The theater is a soviet construct which means it lacks the gilded loveliness of such theaters such as the famous Bolshoi Teatr or the Marinskii.

However, even the most ugly of buildings can sometimes hold unexpected treats-such as the amazing near 360 degree view of Moscow from the top level of the theater. With a bit of rain welcoming us at intermission, the view we got was stunning.

Novodevichy Cemetery:

This was one of the visits that I was most excited for, for purely selfish reason. When my computer crashed two years ago I lost all of my photos of that trip to Russia including the pictures of this cemetery. Novodevichy is pretty much a who’s who of Russian history & culture. Nearly every grave contains someone who had a massive impact on Russian society & culture. It contains such famous Russians as the filmmaker Eisenstein, writers Gogol, Chekhov, Bulgakov & Mayakovsky, Russian leaders Yelstin & Khrushchev and composers like Shostakovich. On top of that, Russian cemeteries are so beautiful and peaceful, they’re such interesting places to wander around.

The Grave of a Heart Surgeon.

The Grave of an Actor


Yasnaya Polyana:

Another big treat was our trek yesterday to Yasnaya Polyana–the estate of writer Leo Tolstoy. The field trip was a big one-3 and a half hours each way, but well worth it. The estate was absolutely beautiful, and filled with people celebrating Russia Day. There were various crafts set up for people to try their hand at-from knitting to making dolls out of hay.

The houses and schools on the estate were remarkably well preserved, and filled with items that belonged to Tolstoy and his family including his 23,000 volume personal library.

Tolstoy’s unmarked grave on the estate.

The students experiencing Russian culture via tapochki–slippers. They’re used at some museums to preserve original flooring.

So that’s some of the things we’ve seen in the past seven days alone. With Lena’s speed walking leading the way, we’re going to see tons of more things in the next few weeks (and get our heart rates up as a bonus).