When I told people that I was moving to Russia, they gave me a look of concern.
“But why?” they asked, “are you running from someone? Try North Korea. It’s safer.”
Although I’m sure that North Korea brings certain experiences to the table, Russia still brings me so much joy – despite the current political climate. Though, I can assure you, that it doesn’t ever affect me.
Contrary to popular belief, Russia isn’t a huge Eurasian bogeyman looming over the rest of the world with vodka swigging inhabitants ready to relieve you of your personal items at any given moment. The Russians that I have met are the kindest, most open-minded and hospitable people on the planet. Even in the major cities (take note, London.)
This is something that greatly surprised me when I travelled to Saint Petersburg for my birthday. It also coincided with my friend’s birthday (I was born on the 2nd of December, she was born on the 3rd), and so once we had initially got over this amazing coincidence, we booked our plane tickets to Saint Petersburg and set off on a remarkable journey.
Now, I have travelled a fair bit: I know that I don’t ever want to be at Manchester Airport at 6am (so many stag-dos) and I can decant my hand luggage into the appropriate grey boxes blindfolded. However, I have a habit of being clumsy and doing stupid things, which leads to a lot of eye-rolling from security guards (like when I somehow lost my passport in the Paris Beauvais airport).
So when I constantly cocked up at Vnukovo airport (Moscow) and furthermore at Pulkovo (Saint Petersburg) airport, I was surprised when the Russian security guards just chuckled and set me straight. What is this? I thought, why are they being nice to this hapless tourist? I was waved through, red-faced, and we settled onto our flight for an hour.
On Friday, at midday, Nicole and I arrived in Saint Petersburg dishevelled, hungry and knackered. With my fuzzy memory of how to actually get to the centre of Saint Petersburg, we used our trusty friend Yandex to navigate the city and traipsed along Nevsky Prospekt to our hostel – Друзья, which was a perfectly quaint affair situated perfectly next to Dom Knigi. Dom Knigi translates to “The House Of Books” and is like your favourite independent bookshop on crack. The shop is teeming with extortionate leather bound fairytale books (Сказки), grammar books (my drug of choice) and souvenirs, slotted in among any other genre you could possibly want. I wholeheartedly recommend that you do not buy souvenirs here unless you can help it/have more money than sense, because you will be paying for the location as well as the souvenir. Things are greatly inflated here. Still, it’s excellent for window browsing and you can lose a couple of hours staring into the glass cases.
Practically starving, we headed to the nicest Italian restaurant near the hostel (Amo Cucinare), where the charming waiter complimented me on my poor Russian skills and I ate my own body-weight in gnocchi and pizza. It was reasonably priced and conveniently located, so we were pretty damn pleased with ourselves and TripAdvisor for recommending the little nook.
The woman at the hostel was incredibly welcoming, giving us a wee tour of Друзья and laying out the ground rules, which included no noise after a certain time. Obviously, Nicole and I stuck to these as we are decent tourists, but certain neighbours of us were clearly having a great time with one another and either did not know or did not care for the thin walls.
Friday was the first night I’ve had since moving to Russia in an actual bed, and so I slept like a log for 16 hours. Yes, that’s right, 16 hours. It was glorious. 10/10, would recommend sleeping in an actual bed.
On Saturday, at 4am, I turned twenty-five, and what better way to spend the day forgetting that time is ticking by and I’m getting old than to lose myself in the beautiful rooms of the Hermitage? In the queue, I was chatted up by a man that I would guess to be around 60, so although I’m twenty-five, I’ve clearly still got it. He offered to show us around, personally, and although I’ve waxed lyrical about the hospitality of the Russian people, this was an offer that we thought we should probably refuse. I made a mental note to learn Afrikaans, so that Nicole and I can pretend we don’t speak English and avoid any of these issues in the future.
The Hermitage had an exhibition on chronicling the lives, and the demise, of the Romanovs. With our historical knowledge coming mainly from Anastasia (the greatest film of 1997 if you want my honest opinion), Nicole and I felt thoroughly educated. Strolling through the rooms of the Hermitage and marvelling at the ostentatious decor, we also made notes on how we should decorate our flat when we move in together. Nicole had a more refined taste than I did, as if I saw anything teal and/or gold, I wanted it.
Having avoided our personal tour guide successfully, we decided that this was the ideal time to get some lunch and then head to hipster hangout extraordinaire, LoftProekt Etagi.
If you are in Saint Petersburg and want to find Etsy’s nest that constantly spawns postcards, ironic jewellery and alternative clothing, I wholeheartedly recommend LoftProekt Etagi. Swimming through jewel-coloured panelled walls, I closed my eyes as I handed over my debit card to purchase some ‘necessities’. LoftProekt also comes with street food stalls, so if you are looking for something other than a sit-down meal, Кофе хауз or Шоколадница, here you will find falafel, blini and international cuisine. I was starting to regret the fact that I had filled up on chocolate muffins for lunch earlier.
We finished the evening at an Indian restaurant, Namaste, where we were surprised with some dancing and enjoyed an excellent menu. It was thoroughly enjoyable and could only be improved by heading to a traditional angliskii pub, which we did. After having shared a bottle of Russia’s finest champagne to celebrate our birthdays, we collapsed into our beds and waited for what Sunday would bring.
Sunday was Nicole’s birthday and also check-out day, so we had a slow start and then meandered our way to ChaCha, a Georgian restaurant across from our hostel. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had Georgian food, but they do this calorific bomb of beauty called Khachapuri. Khachapuri comes in many forms, and they are all beautiful. Personally, having recently broken veganism and gone back to vegetarian (I will maybe explain why in a later post), I am a fan of Adjarian Khachapuri because it looks like a boat, and that’s fun. Again, this was decently priced. I was surprised because, you know, we were right next to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, which we decided we couldn’t not do, seeing as we were in Saint Petersburg.
I never know if I prefer the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood or St. Basil’s. Both have that beautiful onion-dome aesthetic that Russia constantly offers up, and although St Basil’s Cathedral has an upstairs and many photo opportunities, Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood has that badass name. I’ll call it a tie.
Another great thing about Russia is that they’re not fussy about photos. You know how sometimes you go into a church or a museum and it’s a tourist hotspot and you see those signs that say NO PHOTOGRAPHY? Yeah, Russia isn’t like that. Or if they are, all the Russians just ignore that rule and no one calls you out on it.
Having had our fill of icons, we headed for a quick coffee-and-cake before gloomily returning to Pulkovo airport, trying not to think about the fact that neither of us had done our lesson plans for the next week.
And so, that explains why I’m up at 2:30am Moscow time, writing this blog post.