My Last Day in the Motherland… For Now

16/05/15

The next morning I woke up at about 8 because I was set to meet a group of people at 11 so that we could all go to the post office and send extra stuff home. This was very important to me as I would not be going home after the program as was the initial plan when I had left the United States 11 months earlier. Instead I would be traveling around Europe again, this time alone, but that meant that I could not bring with me two 50 pound (23 kilo) suitcases, because every time I wanted to check that extra bag, it would cost me an arm and a leg, not to mention the struggle of taking public transportation with those, and then trying to bring them from wherever I was dropped off to the hostel I would be staying at in any given city. It is not realistic to take a taxi to and from the airport in every location, because taxis become pricy, especially for tourists because the drivers like to increase the price when they see you are foreign. I had bought a carry-on suitcase when I went to Kazan’ a few weeks previously because I knew I would need it.

I spent my morning packing up one of the suitcases to send home and logging all of the contents (because you have to write them down during the shipment process, in addition to getting all of the paper items together that I wanted to send home. I ended up with a backpack full of notebooks and textbooks to send, and my suitcase. I think there were only three students who took advantage of the opportunity to send stuff home. Russian post is really slow, so I wouldn’t expect these things to arrive home for about a month, but at least it is not too expensive. It was about 5500 rubles to send home my 16 kilo suitcase and two packages of paper items, each weighing about 4 kilos (maybe about $100, probably a little more, and even though it seemed like a lot, I had to remember that each time I checked that extra bag, it would cost about $75, which would add up quickly). The whole process probably took about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete because of the paperwork that had to be completed. Today, (about 2 weeks later) one of the packages of books has arrived home. The books do not have tracking numbers, although the suitcase does. I have checked the progress of the suitcase multiple times, but the last entry was when it got accepted through customs and into shipping in St. Petersburg, which also happened about two weeks ago. I can only assume that it is on a ship somewhere out at sea (it is cheaper to ship by land, so this is why it would be at sea and not in the air) on its way to the United States. Perhaps I will stop checking for progress for a week in the hopes that more information shows up the next time I look.

After I turned these items over to the Russian post, I went in search of a few last minute souvenirs even though I had just shipped stuff home to make room and so that my suitcase wouldn’t be overweight. I spent many hours arranging and rearranging the contents of my bag so that everything would fit, but making sure to put the heavier items in my carry-ons. In the end I had one 50 pound bag to check, one carry-on rolling bag and a backpack. When I finally finished packing I hung out with my host mom for the rest of the day and watched Russian television. She called a taxi for me to get to the airport after spending time calling all of her friends and asking if they knew the best taxi company. (A very Russian thing to do. Any time something interesting was on television, or my host mom wanted to tell someone some news, or maybe there was a holiday, she would spend a long time calling up all of her friends to tell them about it or ask whatever question she needed answered). My flight was around four or five in the morning, but I had to leave my host mom early at about one to get to the airport before the bridges went up. By taxi it only took about half an hour to 45 minutes to get to the airport, so I had to wait at the airport all night.

As I was leaving my host mom’s place, she told me that I would always be welcomed back and that if I ever came back to St. Petersburg, to come visit. I did leave her contact information for me, but I have never seen her use a computer. I know my host dad uses one to skype, so perhaps when he returns the information will be more useful.

Trains, Tickets, Errands, and Markets

22/12/14

(Again, I am late posting again because it seems that the internet at the hostel where I posted the last post only worked for one day and then could not load anything after that. I will do my best posting regularly, but all I can say is I will post when the internet permits me to).

The following day was Monday, so more stands were open and more people were in the market. After eating breakfast (which at this hostel had been a terrible option of copious quantities of bread with choice slices of meat and cheese and some substance resembling cereal) we went back down to the market area with the intention of asking someone where a post office was so that I could mail back the extra Eurail pass that the company had annoyingly sent to me. (A Eurail pass is a pass you can buy to be valid for travel by various means within the European Union in valid countries that is only valid for a certain period after you activate them, but that overall makes the cost of travel less expensive if you plan to travel that much. Unfortunately for them, citizens of countries within the European Union are unable to purchase and use them. We found a post office stand where people were mailing postcards and I frantically scribbled a postcard to my family in the few seconds before it became our turn in line. I like to send postcards and letters and anyone who knows me well enough knows this, there just aren’t very many people who seem to enjoy writing or receiving such things like this as I do, so I end up sending them to my family usually. I am also not buying souvenirs on this trip because Europe is already expensive enough to travel in, so this is my chosen form of souvenirs for my family.

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(There were strange pieces of art all over the city. We found this particular one on the way back from the post office).

We asked our question and sent our postcards (Kenzy sent one too) and went on our way to find the real post-office. I was very annoyed to find out that in Europe you can’t simply write “Return to Sender” on the outside of an unopened envelope or package and have it returned without paying another shipping fee, like in the United States. Instead you have to put it in a new envelope, rewrite all of the addresses and pay the new shipping fee. I had not sent the Eurail pass back before the journey had started because I didn’t physically have it. Since Kenzy and I had been staying in Russia and new that the Russian mail system was not the most efficient or reliable, we had made the decision to send the Eurail passes all to Ali in Aberdeen, so she ended up with my extra one but did not have the time to send it back since she had to pack everything up because she would not be returning to Aberdeen for the next semester. When all was said and done, at least that was one less thing we had to worry about on our journey, even though I had to pay for it.

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(Also on the way back from the post office, just an idea of what some of the buildings looked like in this area).

After sending the Eurail pass back, we had business to attend to at the train station. We had to activate the Eurail passes to be able to use them; this apparently just took the stamp and a signature of a European Union transport official. Our train was the next day, so we wanted to ask all of the necessary questions and make reservations for some trains if they were needed. Apparently Italy has a very messy train system, so we had to reserve all of the trains relating to places we were going in Italy. For the rest of them (hoping there was room) we could just get on in the second class area and fill out the information on our Eurail passes to be stamped when needed. Some of the reservations were much more expensive then I would have liked, but I am told that overall the price for transport done this way was still cheaper than buying each of these train tickets individually.

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(on the way back from the train station, the sun sets early at this time of the year).

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(A church we walked by many times and finally visited).

It was not very late in the day and we had already been productive getting all of this done. (Actually now that I remember this more clearly after the retelling this story, we did all of these errands the same day I got my luggage back, so the day before, but since I already posted about that day and so that I will have something to write about this day other than walking around the markets, I will continue as if it happened this day).

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(The front of the church)

On the way back into the busier parts of the markets, Kenzy bought a desert we had seen at some of the stands before. She let me try a bite and, although it looked rather intriguing, it turned out not to taste like much of anything. It was a chocolate exterior with a flavored marshmallow filling (they had different options for the flavors and Kenzy bought the mocha one). Unfortunately the flavoring of the filling was too weak so in the end it didn’t taste like anything.

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(Stained glass window)

We also happened upon a smaller market area which was located inside what looked like a small village but was all shops. It was very quaint and Christmassy and enjoyable see, but not to walk through. The part that made it unenjoyable was the crowd we faced in every direction we turned. When we left this smaller area and returned to the larger and more open areas of the market, it was even more difficult to walk anywhere because more people kept arriving.

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(Entering the throngs of the market place)

Later we returned to the children’s area of the market because they sold a dessert over there that we wanted to try. I don’t really know how to describe it except to give you the unpleasant image of a mass of dough in a bowl with a watery-textured vanilla pudding substance around it and cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on top. It was a lot more attractive than what I just described, otherwise why would we buy it, and tastier too.

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(It became more crowded as it got darker)

I have traveled with people before who choose not to eat local food because they want to save money and I understand that, I want to save money too. However, I must say that every time I go someplace new I try to find local dishes to try because I feel like I haven’t traveled there and experienced as much as I can of the culture unless I try the food they eat. Also if I am traveling, I know perfectly well that I am spending and not saving money. I can try to spend less, but that does not mean I am saving any. There just needs to be a balance between spending money on food at a restaurant and buying groceries at a market. In addition, if I don’t have a kitchen available to me, then I have to spend money. This is why I am always buying and trying new dishes. Also, if you read any of my blog while I was in Lithaunia towards the end of this last summer and noticed that I went to an Indian restaurant, a Thai restaurant and so on, if I am staying in one location for that long I sometimes miss certain cuisine, but I also like to compare what other countries offer in the area of cuisine and their flavors to what I am used to in the United States.

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(Some examples of what was sold in the market)

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There were a few cathedrals we had passed the previous day in the markets, usually churches are free to visit, but occasionally (in touristy locations) they will charge you. These were free though so we did visit one. It was beautiful and spacious with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. However, it was obviously so spacious, done in an old gothic style, that there was no possible way the building could be heated. A few decorations had been set up around the church for Christmas, but no major decorations could be placed because the ceilings were too high to be useful for decorating.

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(The high ceilings of the church)

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(Inside the church)

One beautiful part of this particular church was what looked like a square filled with white sand, in the center of the square was a small nativity and around the edge of the square, people had placed small candles and drawn designs in the sand with their hands.

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At the end of the day, we really had spent time trying new food and enjoying the Christmas lights and the Christmas markets. Maybe this would not be interesting for some people, but the markets had such a variety of goods to buy and even a section where different stalls represented different countries (the United States was represented by Jack Daniel’s and other ridiculous paraphernalia), that it kept us entertained just looking at many of these stalls. Perhaps I will return to these markets in the future, when I am not already bogged down by a year abroad in Russia, and actually buy something representative of these markets or Christmas. It won’t be the Jack Daniel’s though.

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(More ornaments from the market)