Notes from Abroad
Published: Thursday, May 3, 2012
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
Over a month ago, I told opinions editor Ben Ros ’14 that I was going to Russia for a weekend and he should expect an amazing column full of wacky Russia stories when I got back. Then he never heard from me again.
Now, if you’re in America and your pal goes visa-free to Russia right after Putin wins an election (complete with BBC News broadcasting footage of protesters being beaten at random by police in Moscow) and you don’t hear from her for a few weeks, it’s normal to get a bit worried.
Thankfully, I was in St. Petersburg and didn’t try any funny business (including, but not limited to: singing the Russian pop song “One Like Putin”). From my prolific blogging, Ben eventually figured out that I was not arrested and/or dead, but simply lazy. Whew. So here we are, many moons later, back with our regularly scheduled programming: The Russia Story (or, Everything That Could Possibly Go Wrong Goes Wrong on the Road to Destiny).
On my program here in Denmark, we do these little trips called “study tours” where we go to places away from Copenhagen with our “core class” to learn academic and cultural lessons. My long study tour was to Riga, Latvia and Helsinki, Finland with my Public Health class. I told a friend that I was going to Helsinki for study tour, and she said, “Oh, you know what you should do? There’s this ferry that you can take from Helsinki that goes to Russia. You can stay in St. Petersburg for something like 72 hours. It’s the only way to go to Russia visa-free! You should do that the weekend after study tour is over.” Boom. Seed planted.
I talked to a few of my friends in my class about it and they were surprisingly gung-ho about the idea. We looked up the prices for the ferry and flights back home, and it seemed extravagant yet reasonable in a “When will we ever go to Russia again?” way. We all agreed that it was worth the money and that it was probably a once in a lifetime adventure, but we wanted to sleep on it for a few days. You don’t just casually book a trip to Russia, okay?
Two days before the study-tour, we decided to go to Russia. We first booked our flights home from Helsinki; in the event that something went amiss with booking the ferry, we’d at least get a few extra nights in a cool city. When we went to book our cabin on the ferry, we filled out two pages worth of personal details (passport info, etc.) but when we submitted it, we were brought to a page that said, “Thank you for submitting your room request. We will contact you in 72 hours if there is any availability.” We felt so deceived and so foolish — you can’t just casually book a trip to Russia! Hadn’t we said this before? We went through the five stages of grief, reached acceptance and decided to wait for news from the ferry company before looking up hostels in Helsinki.
A Russian man named Roman contacted us 72 hours later: there was a cabin available for us, but it was more expensive than what we’d requested. We told Roman we’d take it.
Once that decision was made, we thought the emotional rollercoaster would be over. We were so wrong.
Here is a comprehensive list of all the things that went awry between Helsinki and Russia:
We realized four hours before departure that the ferry company botched my friend Susannah’s passport expiration date on the confirmation sheet, which required us to Skype call a Russian 800-number to talk to three different service reps before someone finally helped us out and fixed it.
We showed up at the dock to find it empty.
We were told by the parking attendant at the empty dock that they switched the dock for the Princess Maria two weeks ago and the new dock was across town.
We got on the boat and realized that Russian time and Finnish time are two hours apart, so we were actually getting two fewer hours in Russia than we thought.
We were woken up in the middle of the night by an announcement in Russian, Finnish and then English telling us that, due to severe ice conditions in the ocean, we would be docking at noon instead of 10:00 a.m.
We had to wait in a huge, sweaty, hostile crowd for over an hour to get off the boat.
We had to spend another 40 minutes in the intense and scary Russian passport control line where they spend five minutes on each person and look you up on a computer, probably unearthing scandalous details about you that you never really thought of as scandalous, like how many times in middle school you switched the TV channel really quickly from MTV back to ABC Family when your mom walked in the living room.
After all of this, we walked outside, and it was snowing in St. Petersburg like in all of the Anastasia fantasies I’ve ever had (minus John Cusack) and the fun part of the adventure could finally begin. We had five hours in Russia and we had to make them count.
Our first stop was the Hermitage, a gigantic art museum that could take weeks to walk through — we had budgeted about an hour and a half including waiting in line to get in. Luckily, I was traveling with some art buffs who knew exactly what rooms they wanted to see. We got in and power-walked to the third floor. The Hermitage itself is a work of art; the ceilings of every room are as beautiful as the art on the walls. By the time we reached the room of Matisse paintings we’d come to see, I was already pretty blown away. Then I saw something completely unexpected.
“Abby Scribner?” I called across the room in disbelief. The girl whirled around, equally astonished to see me. It was really her: fellow Kenyonite Abby Scribner ’13.
To call this incident unbelievable would be a drastic understatement. I know exactly three people studying abroad in Russia, I was there for five hours on this random Saturday in March and in a museum that’s almost the size of Rhode Island, I ran into Abby Scribner. It was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life.