Sanctions against Russia and cheese

I posted the other day about how my time with my guide in Russia gave a face and story to global headlines.

I heard the announcement yesterday about increased US sanctions against Russian and Putin’s retaliation through the lens of the woman who guided me to Peterhof and Pushkin — food. We had been talking about her childhood in Soviet times, and how they had plenty of locally grown fruit where she lived in Uzbekistan — melons, berries — but oranges were imported and rare, and every Christmas they got a box of chocolates and one orange.

“I was 20 before I had a banana,” she said. “At the time I thought it was manna.” She paused. “Now I am indifferent to bananas, but I am a vegetarian, and the big problem is cheese. I depend on it as an important part of my diet. With the sanctions, we cannot get good cheese. In Soviet times, there were only three types of cheese, but they were all good — now all of the cheese we can get is terrible.”

When they can, they cross-border shop to Finland to buy… cheese. Because all that good European cheese can’t make its way through the economic sanctions.

Sanctions are headlines, and they are also this lovely woman and her inability to get cheese.


Completing the cycling circle

I wrote two more posts for fitisafeministissue on my cycling trip:

Why do a self-guided trip?

From Riga to Tallinn: Why I Chose a Self-Guided Cycle Tour

And some practical lessons from my cycling experience.

Self-guided cycle touring:  10 Practical Tips

And now I’m home!

Working away, work work work.

Why Russia was important

I’m back in Tallinn, after an early morning train. This time I was sharing my little cabin with a woman who was asleep and snoring slightly when I crept in, the Conductrice shhhhing me gently with her fingers. I listened to a podcast about the Romanovs, half asleep, until we got to the Russian border, when the attendant came and woke us up. My cabin mate sprang up, changed out of her pyjamas, put on some lipstick and spoke to me in English. She was a breeder and shower of St. Bernards, on her way to a dog show in Narva. Her five dogs were in a car with a handler. Her sister lives in Houston. She was a builder of apartments the rest of the time.
I was glad for the chance to chat with someone random before I left Russia. Now that I’m officially “on my way home” (I fly back to Canada tomorrow morning), I’ve been musing on what the whirlwind trip to Russia “meant.” Curiosity, mostly, and a chance to see the Famous Things of the World — but also, a bit, engaging with the nervousness I have around certain places. I alluded to this yesterday, and I was trying to articulate the source of it. There are places where I feel a certain kind of confidence, where I know “how to do it” — places that are easy to navigate for Canadians, like Western Europe and SE Asia.  And now, because of familiarity, East Africa. Even when there is real potential “danger,” like in the DRC, I’m still confident about how to navigate them. But there are places that make me more anxious, and Russia is one of them.
Part of it is the uncertainty about how much of the prevailing public temperature about places is genuinely a concern or not — how likely IS It that my devices will be hacked and my identity stolen? That I’ll stumble across some mafia deal gone wrong and end up murdered in a Russian sauna? Not very. But part of it is not knowing what channel of recourse there is if something goes badly, and part of it is simply the risk of difficult interactions because of language.
But even with those things, there’s a huge gulf between genuine alarm and what really happens. I actually get lost a fair bit in cities with different alphabets, but so far, I’ve always found my way home, even that time in Mandalay when no one knew my hotel. (Somehow, magically, in the dark, I ended up on the back of someone’s motorcycle pulling up to my hotel). I used to get very very anxious in foreign cities when we couldn’t find cabs to get home late at night (ask my poor ex about the two spectacular meltdowns in San Francisco and London), but now, I just assume I’ll find my way.  I couldn’t find my pickup from the train at midnight on Wednesday; I just made sure I got rubles from the ATM before I left the station (always have local cash before you leave the airport or station), and found a taxi. I was fine.
I think Russia represented something more than basic travel discomfort, though, something about, in a way, confronting the rise of “otherness” that has emerged in the world. I hinted at this with my jokes on FB about how the gilt-dipped baroque palaces of the Romanovs seemed to be the model for Trump’s decor and his view of the world. It was a joke, but it wasn’t — there really is something nested in the space of venal excess about a worldview where the acquisition of money and power are the end in and of themselves, where displays of that money and power stand in for virtue, where might reigns supreme and the suffering of so many as a result doesn’t matter. Where, in fact, those who suffer deserve to, because they haven’t demonstrated that they are as “deserving” — i.e capable of strong-arming others.

Like so many people I know, when I let myself think about it, I’m absolutely distraught about the current state of the world, the brutality, the misogyny, the homophobia, the privileging of wealth and might.  Learning more about the history of Estonia — 800 years of other powers taking over its land — Sweden, the Danes, Prussians, Germans, Russians, Soviets, more Germans, more Russians — was like nodding along to a long-repeated story. This tiny country continually invaded, seized, for access to its ports and routes to Russia, with no regard for its people. In one of the museums of Estonian history I visited, there was a little video that had little figures of the population of Estonia going up and down as different powers converted them, slaughtered them, made them flee.
I think I partly wanted to visit Russia at this moment in history to confront a little bit all of my unease at the apparently intractable divide that is getting stronger and stronger in our world. It was a welcome coincidence that it was my (late) mentor’s birthday while I was in St. Petersburg; as Linda and I said in text, what would Barnett make of Trump, of the Putin/Trump alliance, of the complete breakdown of cosmopolitan communication, any space for bringing opposing viewpoints about what constitutes good in the world together. I wanted to reduce my personal “othering” of Russia.
I got the gift of the perfect person to help me do this in the guide I hired to take me to Pushkin and Peterhof yesterday. I splurged on a driver and personal guide for the summer palaces at the encouragement of my friend Pamela, thinking it would be really good to actually have someone to talk to about everything I was experiencing. I was lucky enough to end up with a guide (who I won’t name) who was perfect for me — she said how much she appreciated that I could walk, and fast like her, so we covered all of the fountains in the lower park of the Grand Palace, and we talked about how we both love to travel, and don’t get bored with our own company. And later in the day, she opened up about her unhappiness at the regime, and how much her son hates Putin, and how although he is a brilliant student, she is afraid he will be barred from university because he’s actively protesting.

If I lived in St Petersburg, she would become my friend, and we would march briskly through the streets together. She gave me a hug at the end of the tour. But she gave me a lot more than that — she gave me a face, a name, a story, a son, to recognize that the world that feels full of animosity is filled with people I care about.

How to get to Russia

I felt nervous about going to Russia, the same way I felt about Myanmar and China. I’m a relatively intrepid traveler, but the combined force of a different alphabet, not so much English and a regime that feels repressive makes me quiver a bit. But I had the most magical times in Myanmar and China, and being in a place in the flesh among people just living their lives makes all of the warnings about surveillance, data-hacking, personal danger, vague feelings of unease all recede. Going into a place, the Warnings are loud; when I’m in a place, what I notice is the woman trying to pretend her shoes don’t hurt her, a couple telling each other about their days walking home.

I took the train because it felt romantic in the literary sense, the right thing for Intrepid Spinster Wandering the Globe. (But I also upgraded, because I can, and I like to lie down whenever I can. Unlike all of the Emperors and Queen and writers like the Brontes who slept sitting up. When did people realize that lying down to sleep wasn’t flirting with death?).

I liked that the Conductrice (there is no other word) for our first class wagon was wearing a skirt and comfortable shoes and a little hat with a red hammer and sickle emblem on it. I liked that the food in the fancy car was delivered by a woman with two reusable shopping bags, one with a snack pack of a bad packaged croissant, a yogurt and an apple juice, and the other a plastic box full of still-warm blintzes.

There is something about a train frontier that’s unique, not the stamp stamp stamp of airport immigration or the oddly intimate interrogration of having a border guard peer into your car. Especially when no one speaks English. The officials come to you, one at a time, in your little personal cave, and observe the nest you’ve made in 3 hours, the half empty haribo bag. First the Estonians, handing you back the papers you’ve filled out and flipping to find your entry stamp in Frankfurt and stamp you out, then a looooooooong wait while they cover the entire train. Then a creaking across a long high river bridge, past the red post marking Russian territory, guarded by one soldier on the river bank. Then the Russians. So many of them. The kind woman who takes your passport away to inspect the visa that cost $600 but will give you freedom to move about without a guide, the man with the broken nose scar who peers into the carriage and looks around, the two men with the sniffer dog who licks your hand (blintzes), then the woman who asks you about anything to declare and looks upward, decides to leave you alone.

And that’s it, after more than 90 minutes. You fall asleep, ish, in your little nest, hoping the Conductrice will wake you up when it’s St. Petersburg. You wake to see the 1030 pm sunset over the fields, and wait as you flow through the edge of a city, then get off the train at midnight in a huge station that has withstood wars and rebuilding and time and deprivation. And a loud anthem spreads through the station, greeting you. A song of St. Petersburg.

And in the station, like at the Great Wall of China, the first recognizable brand is Subway.

St Petersburg 1

I’m only here in St Petersburg for two days, and I booked a driver and guide to go to the palaces outside the city for tomorrow. With one day only, it was a moral imperative to spend most of it at the Hermitage.

Like most people, I suspect, I had this notion that there was “a lot of art” here but I really had no clue of the scale. It’s as if the British museum, the Louvre and the Vatican tossed everything that wasn’t a headline artifact into a slightly crumbling version of Versailles.
I don’t usually spend a ton of time when I travel in the places where clumps of people disgorged from tour busses shuffle along following a person with a held up flag, but sometimes it’s inevitable. And the thing about the Hermitage is? Even with rows and rows of squatting busses waiting in Palace Square, it’s still not crowded.  The museum is in the former Winter Palace, partly in a specially built gallery that was created in the mid 19th c, and partly in the royal apartments. So it’s a squash of Rembrandts and DaVinci madonnas Medieval holy art and all the Italians of the Renaissance, ancient artifacts from all over Asia, along with tiny glittery dresses, suits of armour and walls and walls of portraits of emperors and noblemen and soldiers.
In the great hall crammed ceiling to floor with portraits punctuating enormous — and I mean enormous — images of Peter the Great and his ilk, I was momentarily overwhelmed. I sat down on a bench and read a couple of chapters of Anna Karenina on my phone to right myself, while the Chinese ladies who never take off their wide visors milled around me.

The tour groups were good because I got to pick up some tidbits of info without the strain of shuffling in a claustrophobic clot. This gold peacock clock was commissioned by one of Catherine the Great’s lovers to win her favour. When it chimes, the peacock tail fans out.  They only let it chime once a week now to preserve the mechanism.

I’m surprised Trump hasn’t had a replica made, but bigger.

Even after just two hours, I was glutted in the Hermitage. I felt like a foie gras goose stuffed to the gullet with stimuli. I kept looking until I found the gold encrusted, recently restored golden chapel (a degree of  gilt I’ve only ever seen before in SE Asia). That

That was enough. I took myself off for a simple lunch. More beets — I’m about 14 % beet at this point — then I went in search of tampons, because I keep forgetting I’m the woman menopause forgot.

They keep them behind a little locked cabinet in the tiny pharmacy.  As I was prowling around looking for them, I came across a pretty young woman in a pristine short white dress and high wedges retouching her look. This included sniffing under her arms, applying deodorant and generally reprinting her face.  I was glad when I saw her put the deodorant back into her purse — I thought it was a tester.

I wandered over to the Church on the Spilled Blood (high noon, so the truly astonishing colours of the edifice don’t show up in my photos). Mosaics everywhere. Astonishing centuries of human time handcrafting this church.

As I wandered out again, I came across three wedding parties doing photo shoots. Brittle young brides teetering carefully across cobblestones. One set doing a carefully choreographed dance in front of the Winter Palace with a violinist and three photographers. Faux-aristocracy.

I had read that they had recently moved the French Impressionists to the General Staff building across from the Hermitage. This move is clearly recent since the vast building, which I entered with the same ticket, was almost empty if people. But stuffed with French art. Whole rooms full of Matisses, Picassos, Rosina, Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Gauguin. Along with a few Van Goghs, Kandinsky, late 20th c Russians and galleries full of porcelain I ignored. A feast, still being created.

Tomorrow, Pushkin and Peterhof.

Bring your own sticks

Today I ate wild Estonian mushrooms in an Oriental duck salad, had an excellent thai massage and flagellated myself with birch leaves in a Russian sauna with naked old women and small children.

It was a very improvisational day.

Yesterday I realized that I’d misplaced my dates a bit and thought I was leaving for St. Petersburg tonight, but it’s actually tomorrow. I was a bit at a loss at what to do with the found time. I put the question to my FB hive, and the majority opinion was to take the ferry to Helsinki, with a strong undercurrent of “simmer down and do nothing.” My sister asked me a good question — what will you be happy you did a month from now? — while advocating for not cramming too much in. Bonne describing the ferry as “basically a booze cruise” where a man belched right in her face was another point in favour of staying put, but I was still open-ended when I went to bed.

I woke up at 7 to the orchestral song that wakes me up and sends me to sleep every night. The first night I thought I was imagining it, but then I recognized that it happened every night. I tried googling “what is that music I hear at 10 pm in Tallinn” but that led me to apophenia, hearing music that isn’t there. I was pretty sure I was hearing it, but this place does feel like there are a lot of ghosts about.  The woman at the hotel desk finally told me this morning that it’s the national anthem, which they play when raising and lower the flag on the tallest tower of old town. Tonight maybe I’ll stay up late enough to see them lower it. I should find out more about bits history.

This morning, sore from my run yesterday in worn out shoes, the anthem was a soundtrack for supreme gratitude that I had so much choice, completely unfettered time. The sky was grey and any remaining intention I had for the ferry dissipated. I started making plans, but was quickly thwarted from doing anything. The spa where I wanted to have a massage was fully booked, the excellent restaurant I ate in the first night was booked for dinner, it was grey and looked potentially rainy so I didn’t want to rent a bike. So I just decided to wander and to make up my day as it unfolded.

My first stop was a bookstore on the edge of Old Town for a new journal (channeling my friend Grace), one made up delightfully from the cover of an old children’s book. The title means “Far off over the river,” which seems about right.

Wandering back toward Teliskivi, the design-y, hipstery creative cluster where I hung out yesterday for a while, I passed the Thai Orchid Massage spa, and, channeling my sister Melissa, impulsively went in. A self-appointed doorman let me in, clearly vetting me based on the sign on the door that they provide REGULAR massage. They had room right then and I had an excellent thai massage, focusing on my poor feet and legs and neck. She was gentle and put magical healing ointments on all of my bruises.

After restorative tea, I headed for the food trucks in Teliskivi, and had an excellent salad with chicken while christening my new journal. I then found a coffee shop and wrote and read for a bit more.

Then channeling my friend Jessica, I headed for the authentic Russian sauna. Men and women separately, with beer and sodas available downstairs. As utilitarian as it gets, but right in the heart of history.

The ritual is simple: you can rent a towel and get a little sitting on mat, for about 3 euros. You walk up two flights of stairs, past some ancient faux leather loungers. There’s a steel door, and inside, a sagging changing room with wooden lockers. Beyond that, a room filled with benches and taps and plastic basins, a couple of showers and a seriously questionable jacuzzi. Beyond that, another small version of the shower/basin room, and then the sauna. That’s it.

There were about 12 people there — a small naked blonde family and middle aged and old Russian ladies. Everyone was very practiced, with plastic baskets of soaps and unguents, loofahs, shower shoes.

I cannot over-emphasize enough the importance of the shower shoes.

I watched for a bit in the basin/shower room, but basically people were just washing themselves. I followed the old woman with the toque who came in at the same time as me, and went into the sauna with my watch, a bottle of water and my little mat.

It was… searingly hot. Dark, hissing, like the breath of a dragon hot. In my usual way, I crawled up to the top bench, my feet generating new words for “zowie that’s hot” as I climbed — and then I scampered right back down to the bottom bench. My old lady companion with the toque began to whack herself with a bundle of leaves. Another woman came in with her own bundle of leaves, and little droplets flew off them as she whacked. Back, front, legs, thighs, whack whack whack.

It was unbearably hot for me, and after 5 minutes I went out, let a cool shower wash over me. Two women were covered in mud. BYOB and BYOM. Bring your own branches and bring your own mud.

I went back into the source of all that is true, lasting about 6 minutes this time. I once outlasted all of my colleagues in a (culturally appropriative) sweat lodge in a misguided leadership ritual in the late 90s. These russian ladies were another-species level of more stoic than me.

After my second turn, I was kind of at a loss. I was baking from the inside out, like being heated in a microwave. In the small basin room, I just sat on my little mousepad mat, unmoving and absorbing. The second, non-toque lady, sat across from me, both of us just… sitting.

I showered again, and decided that I was done. Some kind of heart exploding event felt very possible. I wrapped myself in my towel and went to sit in the locker room. Five minutes passed and I couldn’t stop sweating. I felt good, but.. boiled dry, like a teakettle left too long on the stove.

I went downstairs to return the towel and I saw the basket of birch branches I’d missed on my way in. Sticks! I could have my own sticks! I paid for a second towel and a bundle of sticks and went back up.

I waved my sticks at the old ladies. “I have my own sticks!” Now they were my friends. One nudged at me that I should put my (truly gross) keens in the locker so no one would steal them. The toque lady showed me how to soak my sticks before using them, and kept saying massag! She pushed a basin toward me and said Foot.

I went into the sauna with my wet sticks and started whacking myself.

It was blissful. Like flossing the outside of your body.  With nature.

Whack. Whack. Whack.

I did three turns through the sauna with my own sticks, and was then both thoroughly baked and basted. Between the thai massage and the russian birch leaves, all of my blood had visited the edge of my skin over the course of the day and trembled back again.

I sat in the chair in my towel for a while , watching a few more Russian ladies come in. After their saunas, they just sat in the change room for a while, just being. Steamed, whacked, whole.

If I lived here I’d come here once a week. With shower shoes.