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Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

The Brazilians come in around six and are comatose when I get up. My driver from the hostel comes at around eleven. He is a big rotund older fellow, balding with a moustache, and large eyes that never seem to quite focus on you. He is jovial, and seems keen to practice his English, which is pretty good but a bit halting. We jump in his little car and he goes tearing down the street, peeling around corners, barely missing passing car doors, pedestrians, trucks, land mines. There is almost no margin for error each time but he always squeezes through, it is like an obstacle course at the Grand Prix. The traffic is chaos, and no one seems to be paying much attention to lanes, the road or each other. And all the while, the driver manages to keep a running conversation going. I ask him about the beards, or lack of them. “This is the New Russia,” he replies. “Are most people happier now than before?” I ask him. He tells me that although now people can own cars and go out to eat in restaurants, there were certain benefits to the old system that are missed now, such as free education and medicine. He tells me that he was on the state rowing team when he was younger, but now without state sponsorship it doesn’t exist anymore. In a half hour we arrive at the airport. I hand him a fifty ruble note and he bursts out in a laugh and a big smile, shaking my hand vigorously. I enter the airport, go through a metal detector and see a small group gathered around the entrance to the gates. I walk up, there is a small, disinterested looking young girl draped over a chair, staring sourly at everyone. I walk up and begin to pass her. “Wait,” she says, holding her hand up. Apparently, passengers can only go in in waves at appointed times. I go up to the bar, have a beer and wait. About an hour later I go back down, and apart from waiting on a very long line, everything goes smoothly. In fact, they don’t ask me a single question along the way and seem to barely check the paperwork. The flight takes about two and a half hours and by mid-afternoon, I am in Frankfurt (once again), waiting for my transfer flight to DC and back to the States. This flight proceeds uneventfully for the most part as well, and by nightfall I am home. The trip is finally over. I have been feeling a profound sadness all day long, a sense that something monumental and wonderful has just happened in my life, and that it has now come to a close. It will take weeks, months to put it in perspective. I have seen so many new places, met so many new people, people I never knew existed. It has been life-affirming after all, unexpectedly and delightfully. I hope that my new friends, who I will never see again, do well, and I wish them the best of luck, I wish them health and success and happy lives. And I hope that the memories from this magical journey stay with me for a long, long time to come.


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007

Sleep in again until almost noon. Am a bit hungover. Have my free bread downstairs. Head to the bank to change some money, they are all at lunch. Wait until they come back, then I am escorted to the window by a serious looking fellow who looks no more than twenty years old. At the counter, he asks where I am from in good English. I tell him the US. “You only pay bills once a year there, yes?” I tell him no, he is probably thinking of taxes. He tells me that the heat they have been having is very unusual, in fact it is the hottest it has been in ten years. I leave and head for the Hermitage. The Hermitage is absolutely gargantuan; they say that if you looked at every exhibit they have for thirty seconds each, it would take you about nine years. I walk and walk and walk, it is seemingly endless. Sculptures, statues, painting, furniture, jewelry, you name it they have it. I see Renoir, Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, they are all there. In each room sits a little babushka, watching over things and sometimes nodding off. There are so many rooms and corridors and levels that you wind up spinning around, not sure of where to go next. Tour guides lead people around here and there, and there are large groups of Japanese moving in unison (as usual). I am generally not a museum or art person, but I am duly impressed – it would be hard not to be. Just the size of the building itself is impressive. When I have had my fill, I find the exit (no mean feat) and head out. Once more I’ve done quite a bit of walking and am tired, so I go back to the hostel and lay down for a while. In twenty-four hours I will be on a plane home, the trip is almost over. What I thought was poison ivy or warts appears to be accompanied by a rash, which is spreading. A bit worrisome, some vile thing I probably picked up in one of the seedier hostel showers or something. In a while I get up, walk down Nevskiy and eat a sandwich at Subway (again, not feeling energetic enough to brave local cuisine). After, I decide to take a walk down one of the main crosstown drags to the west side of town to see St. Nicholas cathedral. It turns out to be worth the hike, as the cathedral is very nice, light blue with white trim and big gold domes. It sits alongside one of the many canals in St. Petersburg – in fact, the canal layout reminds me of Amsterdam. St. Petersburg is really a beautiful city. After the cathedral, I grab a beer and drink it on the walk back. All the locals are doing it, so I guess it is all right here. Then back to the hostel to drink the last straggler and relax once again. I go to the bar next door, there are a bunch of Brazilians I had met earlier drinking there. Brazilians are among the friendliest and most light-hearted people I have ever met, it is ironic that such wonderful people can come from such a troubled place. They tell me they were stopped by the police that afternoon and had their paperwork checked, but nothing else came of it. One of the guys offers me his phone number and e-mail in case I should ever want to visit Brazil. A gang from the previous night shows up and we drink together, laughing and having a good time. Midnight comes around and the Brazilians want to go to a club, and foolishly I agree. I have almost no cash and have resolved to not be hungover for tomorrow’s trip. But there I am, getting in a cab and going across town to the Metro club, a flashy dance club full of glitz and pizzazz. Well, sure enough, it turns out to be a bad idea, as the cover alone at the place is more than enough to clean me out. I decide to cut my losses, duck out and head back on foot. I check my map, and I am miles away from the hostel, so I hail a cab (after a good half hour’s walk) and get back that way. Good and tired, I crash for the evening.


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Sleep until almost eleven. Get up, go out to see the Hermitage, which is a giant stately building situated in an equally giant square, at the center of which is a towering obelisk crowned with a statue. I admit to ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Get up at six am, shower and dress, pack up and head out for the train. It is early in the morning, I have my money belt around my waist, my pack on my back and this is the final ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
In the morning, the three other guys in the room tell me they were chased out of their original room by a strange smelly guy who was talking to himself. We arrive at about ten am, everyone files out slowly, ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
In the morning, I take a walk back into the city to go to the Vasa museum, stopping for fish and chips along the way. It contains a gigantic ship from the fifteenth century, which sunk on its maiden ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
I sleep fitfully, the train sounds a horn frequently and shakes and rattles but I do manage a bit of shut-eye nevertheless. At seven am we are in Stockholm. I get off and hike the pack across town, through Gamla ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Get a decent night's rest, get up and hop on the train back to Oslo. Today is the marathon journey - I have a seven hour train to Oslo, a four hour layover then a ten hour overnight train to ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
I once again lie awake before the alarm at seven, shower and walk down to the train station. Today, I have a tour of the fjords scheduled. The tour starts at eight, but at ten of eight the ticket girl ... [Continue reading this entry]


Wednesday, July 18th, 2007
Up in the morning and on the train to Bergen. I had heard this is one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, and it truly lives up to expectations. Tall stately green trees, deep blue still water ... [Continue reading this entry]