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 Traveller's Notes St. Petersburg by tourist's eyes 

A Young American’s First Impression of St. Petersburg Russia

St. Petersburg is my favorite city in the world, and I travel to there as often as possible. As a young American I was first fearful of coming to Russia because of all the propaganda I had heard about.

I grew up during the end of the Cold War and I was interested in the “enemy” and I wanted to know more about them. Everyone said that Russians were “bad” and wanted to kill us. As a curious boy, I wanted to know all the facts and reasons behind such statements, but no one could tell me anything. I watched movies about Russia and the United States squaring off together. I found the Russians interesting and I respected their power to challenge the United States. I thought, there most be more to the Russians then what people are telling me if they can manage to pose a threat to what is supposed to be the “most powerful country in the world.” Bad people could never organize themselves to create a real threat; therefore, I decided at an early age that the Russian people could not be bad, and I looked down on those who would be so stupid to say that they were. I respected the Russians, and wanted to know more about them, but for many years I would never know.

If not for the Internet, I am not sure that I would have had the pleasure of coming to Russia. I began to communicate with Russians online when I was about 18 years old. I started realizing that I was right to question what stupid people were saying about Russia. Russia was nothing like what I had been told, seen on television, or heard on the news. My interest continued to grow and I was learning more and more about the good Russian people. I met a young student like myself online, and his name was Sergei. He was a year younger than me, but far more educated than I was. I was amazed at how smart he was and the level of education that he had achieved. Sergei and I chatted daily for about six months. I was so impressed and burning with interest that I became obsessed with seeing Russia. Finally, in December of 1999, I was able to come to Russia, and Sergei was their to greet me at the airport.

When I first arrived to St. Petersburg, the airport scared me. It was dark, quiet, and run down. I asked myself what I had done, and thought that if the airport looks like this, what is the rest of the city going to look like. I cleared customs and met Sergei in person for the first time. He was very friendly, but I was scared for my life. (You see I read a load of BULL from the U.S. State Dept, which said that in Russia, Americans are “frequently kidnapped and held for ransom, murdered for political statements, and other horrible things of that nature.) I wasn’t sure that Sergei and Edward (my driver) were going to really take me to the hotel or do something else. I got worried more when it took so long to get to the hotel, but once there, I was more relaxed. After checking in, Edward invited me to his house for dinner, and I reluctantly accepted.

My first meal in Russia was an incredible experience for me. I had thought that Russians were so poor that they had to wait hours in lines every day just for some bread. I thought that my experience in Russia was going to be harsh, but I needed to have it. At Edwards house, I met Sergei’s friend (Alexi) who was Edward’s son, Edwards wife (the most wonderful Russian babushka (grandmother) in the world.) On the table was bread and some orange looking stuff. I thought that was their best food rations for the week.

I was so impressed by the hospitality that Edward’s family was showing me. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, and I was a bit uncomfortable at first because I suddenly felt unworthy of their hospitality. I felt ashamed for being scared before and for being an American. (In America we value things, in Russia they value people, family, and life) It was an incredible awakening for me. Here I was in a house with people I thought had so little and I was so rich, but I realized that in fact, it was the other way around. They had opened their home to me and was now sharing their wealth with me.

Edward fixed some bread for me with some of that orange stuff on it, and gave it to me. I was curious about how it would taste. When I drew it closer to my mouth, I realized that the orange stuff was in fact caviar (fish eggs) and I gasped. Anything seafood makes me very sick, but I didn’t want to offend them. The palms of my hand were so sweaty and I was so scared of this food that everyone was eager to watch me try. I thought to myself: I will eat it and focus on the conversation and not think about it, I will pretend it is something else. I took a bite of it and tried to focus on the conversation. I must have turned green or white or some kind of color because I could not hide the reaction very well. It was the worst thing I had ever put into my mouth, but I chewed it and swallowed it, and then I gulped down a whole glass of water. The water didn’t help. I told Sergei that I was allergic to fish and that I felt so terrible about it, I really did. I mean, I thought it was their best and only food they were giving me. Sergei translated for Edward and then some words were spoken. Edward looked at me in a way that made me feel better. Edward doesn’t speak any English, but he has a great way of communicating by his expressions.

Next, I was surprised when they brought out some soup in big round bowls. Babuska had a great big warm smile as she placed my bowl in front of me. I was excited to have something else to try, but all I could taste was the caviar and the clear soup broth couldn’t cut it, in fact it seemed to enhance it for some reason. I was feeling really bad about not liking the soup and everyone had theirs finished by the time I had barely made a dent into mine. Finally I couldn’t do it anymore and said that I was full. Edward understood and he gestured to let me know that it was no problem and not to worry. I thought it was all over until Babushka brought out numerous platefuls of food. Pork steaks, potatoes, salad, and some other things I had never seen before, but looked interesting. Babushka generously served me meat and potatoes and I was getting really excited about this food, and it really looked and smelled very good. Indeed it was wonderful, I ate so much and was happy that I could enjoy it too. Babushka seemed please, and I let her know that I was so good. She was so happy that she loaded my plate for me again. I wasn’t sure if I could eat it all, but I managed. I was shocked by all the food, it was nothing like I had head on the news about Russians starving and eating only bread. We all talked and talked, and more food would come, and tea, and vodka, and so on. It was a wonderful experience, and it gave me a lot to think about; it changed my life.

I didn’t sleep much that night. I woke up in my hotel room around 5:30 in the morning and walked outside. It was cold, but not as cold as I thought it would be, certainly not the frozen wasteland that I had been told about. I remember standing in the parking lot and looking at all the lights, listening to all the sounds, still tasting that caviar in my mouth, and thinking “Wow! I’m in Russia” and I remember feeling so happy, so peaceful, and so safe. I never felt so free in my life.

Throughout the week, I visited many landmarks in the city and all of them were very breath taking for me. I was so captured by many of the buildings that I just had to walk up to them and touch them. Everyone that I met was so friendly and real, and beautiful I wanted to touch them also, but restrained myself for obvious reasons. I asked Sergei to take me to the good areas and the bad areas of St. Petersburg. He looked at me strangely and said: “there aren’t any bad or good areas in St. Petersburg, it’s all the same.” I found this difficult to believe, because in the United States every city is devided by good and bad areas. We went all over St. Petersburg and I could not find a bad area anywhere. I felt just as safe and peaceful everywhere that we went.

Eating in St. Petersburg while I was touring around was interesting. I loved Shaverma, and I tried some other interesting Russian foods as well. Some I liked and others I don’t want to talk about. I was particularly impressed by the Russian McDonald’s, because it wasn’t completely the same as in the United States. The difference was not so much taste, but in quality. Every time we ate at McDonald’s in St. Petersburg, I always got a perfect product. It was amazing to me, because in the United States fast food is the worst in terms of quality. It is normally all messy and slopped together. I realized that Russians have respect and take pride in their work. Something that is lacking in many Americans.

On the last two nights I visited a few night clubs. I was very impressed and had more fun at a night club than ever before in my life. I met many wonderful Russian girls who treated me like a movie star, and it was overwhelming for me. The Russian women are so beautiful I could not believe that the secret had been kept away from me.

I took many pictures and met many wonderful people. I was a different person when it was time to leave. I didn’t want to go at all, I even tried to cancel my trip to Moscow and reschedule my flights, but it was not possible. I cried like a baby in my hotel room on the last day. I remember feeling funny about it because I had not cried that way since I was a small boy, It felt good to cry, and it was then that I realize just how much my experience in Russia had changed me.

I went on to Moscow and enjoyed myself, but not at all like I did in St. Petersburg. As planned I went to London and celebrated the new year there. London could not compare to St. Petersburg and I missed St. Petersburg while I was there.

When I returned to the States, I was eager to tell everyone what I had seen. They were all shocked and amazed by all my photographs and the stories I had told them. They all expected me to have a terrible time, and most of them admitted to feeling ashamed for thinking that. In the end, I had to return. I didn’t return to London, or Moscow, I returned to my favorite city in the world: St. Petersburg, Russia.

Donald Green

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