Street scenes

no gunsAs always, it’s interesting to see street life in a new city. This sign for example, from the door of the post office–better leave that gun at home, along with your dog. And if you feel like roast pork, how about a whole piglet on a spit?

pigletMaybe you’d prefer to listen to a one-man band play “House of the Rising Sun.”

onemanbandThe Czechs are big on public sculpture, a lot of which is ironic or campy. There is the line of yellow penguins along the Vltava river outside the Kampa Museum. They light up at night, visible for a long way.

Also this sculpture by David Černý that depicts two men facing each other, pissing. Their bodies and parts move appropriately and the pool is in the shape of the Czech Republic. Perhaps they’re meant to be Stalin and Hitler?  In any case they reflect a certain dark sensibility.

More to come, I’m sure.



Bad travel day

We had a glitch in our day getting to Prague. When we got to the airport, our scheduled flight on Czech Airlines was not on the board, and there was no representative at the Czech Airlines office. Apparently, the flight no longer existed. Fortunately, our travel agent was able to rebook us through Moscow, but it was a long slog and Moscow was the dirtiest and rudest airport I’ve ever been in–I’m sure there are worse, but this was a low for us. We got to Prague after midnight, tired and cranky.

Prague itself is a wonderful city, definitely more upbeat than Russia! Sadly, it’s horribly clogged with other tourists, mostly in huge groups. Our first days here were weekend days. I’m hoping it will be a little better during the week. Even so, as soon as you leave the main streets, things get back to normal. And early in the morning, even the main streets are clear. This was about 9 am.street

A visit to the Jewish Museum put our small travel problems in perspective–a harrowing series of exhibits of the fate of the large, integrated Czech Jewish population after the Nazis invaded in 1941. Many were shipped to Teresienstadt, then to Auschwitz. Only a tiny fraction survived. The entire Pinkas Synagog is covered with carefully calligraphed names of those who died–like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, only infinitely more so. Continue reading “Bad travel day”

Learning and leaving

When you travel, it always seems you’re just getting familiar with how things work when you’re off somewhere else, to start the learning curve all over. By now we’re comfortable with St. Petersburg, know how to get places, how to convert rubles to dollars.

We have mastered the amazingly deep (86 meters at its deepest station) and efficient subway (we never had to wait even a minute for a train). A word on the subway, the stations are palatial and very clean.sub2 Continue reading “Learning and leaving”

Connoisseur of Torture Museums

Larry and I went to the Peter Paul Fortress, a former military bastion just over the Neva river from the Hermitage. Like every multi-part attraction we visited here, it wasn’t possible to buy one ticket for everything. You pay to get in, and then each little area has its own ticket booth with someone in it selling a small ticket for their attraction. “That’s socialism for you,” Larry commented, “full employment through inefficiency.”

stocksIn any case, aside from the very sobering prison, with its lists of the famous and not so famous political prisoners, we had to see the torture museum, with its careful catalog of the ingenious ways people have tortured each other through the centuries. I was surprised to see that the guillotine was in use in France until 1977.

Larry felt it was significantly better than its counterpart in Siena, which we also visited.  A few images from the museum follow, but you may want to stop here.  They’re not for the faint of heart. Each image has a helpful little blurb like this one, in Russian and in English:

Continue reading “Connoisseur of Torture Museums”

Akhmatova museum

hatcoatOne of the most moving visits for me in St. Petersburg was the trip to the Akhmatova Museum.  For many years Akhmatova lived in rooms assigned to her in the former Sheremetev Palace, which was collectivized after the revolution and made into apartments. During this time, her son and second husband both endured varying prison sentences and she was forced to write poetry in praise of Stalin to hope to secure their release. Here’s a short quote from Wikipedia: Continue reading “Akhmatova museum”

Literary St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg is very conscious of the great writers who lived here. Whether or not they were persecuted, exiled, died (and mostly lived) in the most abject poverty, once their reputation is established and a few decades have past, they do their best to show them off.

Nabokov had a most bourgeois childhood, growing up in a large apartment in the center of town. He was trilingual (speaking Russian, English and French fluently), in an atmosphere he describes in his memoir, Speak Memory, as “perfect.” But of course, then came the revolution, and his father took a role in what became the provisional government before the Bolsheviks took over. For Nabokov and his family, this meant exile. We had the great good luck to wander in to the Nabokov Museum–reconstructed in the apartment he lived in for the first 18 years of his life–when it was virtually empty and got to wander the suite of rooms, peruse his butterfly collection in its boxes, look at his butterfly net and the pictures of his family.  He dedicated many of his first editions to Vera, his wife, drawing butterflies and making up genus and species names. Here’s a glimpse of it all:

roomThe entry room with the molded wood ceiling Continue reading “Literary St. Petersburg”

Bourgeois Individuality

astoria-diningIt’s impossible here in Russia not to acknowledge my bourgeois background. This morning, a rainy one, I lingered happily over my luxurious breakfast in a lovely room. The rain splattered outside, inside white table cloths, linen napkins, friendly waitresses willing to let me practice my few remaining Russian phrases, happy to fetch me a a poached egg, more tea. All this along with the time to relax, to savor it. I remembered Dickey’s poem, and gave it a nod. I didn’t even have to think about where to procure the sausages–it was all there for me. Continue reading “Bourgeois Individuality”

Russian poem

LevitanAnna Akhmatova never left Russia, although she had a difficult life here–persecuted, unpublished, her family and friends always at risk. Here’s an Akhmatova poem that seems to me to speak to her choice to stay. We saw this painting of her today, by Isaac Levitan, at the Russian Museum.

Lot’s Wife

And God’s luminous messenger, larger than life,
led the one righteous man along the black mountain.
But regret cried out to his wife:
“It’s not too late, you can still catch a glimpse
of Sodom, the red rooftops of home,
the square where you sang, the yard where you spun,
the tall house, its windows abandoned—
the house where your sons and daughters were born.”

She looked back—a sudden arc of pain
stripped her eyes of sight,
fused her feet to the ground—
her flesh became transparent salt.

Who will mourn this nameless woman?
She seems the least of all we lack.
Yet I, for one, can never forget
how she gave her life for one look back.

Anna Akhmatova, 1924

Continue reading “Russian poem”

Thoughts on travel

We got on BART on a perfect sunny Wednesday afternoon in Berkeley, heading for the San Francisco airport and about 17 hours of flight + layover to get to St. Petersburg. I wondered just why we do this, leave one of the most beautiful, temperate, pleasant spots on earth to spend thousands of dollars to go someplace else for awhile. Part of it must be the atavistic pleasure of exploration–despite the internet and travel tips, heading to a foreign country is an adventure: different assumptions, customs, money.

windowsJust the windows in our hotel are a marvel–wood framed, quadruple-paned, with a large space inbetweem. They really insulate here!

In the case of Russia, just walking around looking at a different alphabet (one I know, but not as well as English) makes me realize how much of reading is word recognition as opposed to reading letter by letter. How slowly and painstakingly I sound out the simplest words until I recognize them. Not to mention trying to decipher prices that are in the hundreds or thousands of roubles. A cup of borscht for 390 roubles?

city-of-st-petersburg-hermitageBut it’s also the pleasure of encountering the culture of another country. We spent several hours at the Hermitage Museum, yesterday. The grandeur of the hundreds of ornate rooms, gilding, parquet, mosaic, malachite, lapis, marble staircases, pillars, elaborate moldings and inlaid doors and tables, vaulted ceilings with painted frescos…there’s simply nothing like this on the American continent.herm1

Continue reading “Thoughts on travel”