Monday, September 17, 2012

Chalet Shenanigans - Chapter 21

Buying a Completely Inappropriate Gift for the Grandkids

We did our whirlwind trip to Russia in only five days.  Hopefully, for those of you going there on vacation, you will have much longer to enjoy the sights, absorb the culture, eat the food, etc.  I took up the whole last blog post on just one Russian bar, so let me clue you in on the rest of the trip.  Now, this is going to go fast, so pay attention.

My number one priority was visiting Anastasia’s Summer Palace, Tsarskoe Selo, (OK, it really wasn’t HERS, you know that, right?  It was her dad’s and he was a Tsar, so she like, got to use it.  She was, as we say in America about all the Euro royals, a Member of the Lucky Sperm Club).  My husband, bless his heart, had no opinion on the itinerary for the day, (for once), so we trundled down to the concierge to find out the best way to go to the palace which lies about 15 miles outside of St. Petersburg.

The most efficient and popular way was to walk 6 blocks down Nevsky Prospect, look for a multitude of kiosks advertising their daily tours and ask around of the various people wearing sandwich boards about guided bus tours, in English, to Tsarskoe Selo.  Now, y’all know that Mr. Big is not a fan of public transport, but his is also not a fan of spending money.  He tentatively asked the concierge if it wouldn’t just be easier to take a taxi, but he quickly jumped on the bus bandwagon when she told him he would have to pay the driver to sit there all day and wait for us for the return trip.  Cost:  approximately 10,000 rubles.

Russian money is one of those currencies that make your head hurt to do the conversion rate.  So, even though 10,000 rubles might only equal 15 cents, it still sounds like a lot.  It was certainly enough to make the blood drain out of Mr. Big’s face, I can tell you that.  Off we tripped to check out the tour buses.  Turned out, there was only one tour bus per day to the Summer Palace that conducted the tour in English, so we had four hours on our hands to kill before the tour left.  Hello, shopping.

Funny story.  One time, about a hundred years ago, Charming Daughter and I were in an antique store in Asheville, North Carolina and stumbled upon a set of Russian nesting dolls with all of the Russian leaders on them.  I mean, the biggest one was Gorbachev, Breshnev was in there, and back through time through Stalin and, finally, the teeniest one was Lenin.  Well, to find this set in North Carolina was just, um, shocking, really.  Like, WHO IN GOD’S NAME, had this decorative item on their mantle?  Ever since then, she and I have had an inside joke about “voold you laak zum Vruusian nestink dolls?”  And then we crack up.  Every time.  I know, I know, inside jokes are so boring.

Anyway, while strolling the streets of St. Petersburg waiting for our bus, Mr. Big and I came upon kiosk after kiosk after kiosk with, you guessed it, Vruusian nestink dolls.  Of course, I must buy some for my daughter, but then, I got a load of the price tags.  Crazy expensive!  (The real ones.  The ones made in China are cheaper.)  They have nesting dolls that are girls, they have nesting dolls that are world leaders, and, my favorite, they have nesting dolls that are American college football teams.  What?  Yes, on a street corner in St. Petersburg, Russia, there was a set of University of South Carolina Gamecocks nesting dolls.  No Clemson ones, though, so we gave them a pass.

The next kiosk had something that we did buy, however.   MRS. DOMESTIC SON, if Grand One is reading this, please make her stop!  Grand One and Grand Two like to play chess.  They are actually quite good.  Right before my eyes was a wooden chess set wherein the chess pieces were Russia vs. America army people.  The queens were carrying tiny briefcases with the word “bomb” written in Russian on them.  (Why the American queen’s suitcase had Russian writing on it is anybody’s guess.  Probably because the person who painted it did not speak English).  OMG, I must own this so-not-politically-correct-memorabilia.  So I do.  Natch.

After negotiating with the vendor by using my FINGERS because she was pretending to speak zero English, I’m pretty sure I paid upwards of 6,000 US dollars for the chess set.  It was either six thousand or six hundred or six.  Pick one.  Anyway, Domestic Son will have to hide it if he ever has any Eastern European friends over for coffee.  It’s that bad.  I love it.

We had time to visit the blue-green-yellow cathedral in one of the main squares before we had to catch our bus.  I don’t even know the name of the cathedral, but you can’t miss it. It is in the middle of St. Petersburg and it is lime green, turquoise blue and sunshine yellow with a million people standing around it taking pictures.  Mr. Big is a sucker for a cathedral and he heard, while eavesdropping on one of the tour groups outside of the church, that the mosaics inside were fantastic.

DON’T DO IT, PEOPLE!  It’s a giant rip-off.  It’s not even a CHURCH.  It is one big tourist trap.  There are gift kiosks INSIDE the “church”.  Here’s a hint:  if there are people haggling over t-shirt prices in the nave, you are not in a house of God.  You are in a house of commerce.  Fair warning.

Our English-speaking tour guide on our bus was hysterical.  She so did not speak English.  She had completely and phonetically memorized her four hour tour.  Her accent, her syntax, her word choice; just mesmerizing.  She was like a computerized taped tour and by that I mean that, as we passed one landmark or another, she would launch into this canned spiel in whatever crazy language she was speaking and, when she was finished, she was finished.

 If anyone on the bus attempted to ask her a follow up question, she would just raise her eyebrows and smile.  SHE HAD NO IDEA WHAT ANY OF US WERE SAYING.  The drive out to the palace was 35 minutes of absolute hilarity.  I kept looking around the bus at the other five people, (yes, on that day in St. Petersburg, there were, apparently, only 6 English-speaking tourists in the whole city), to see if maybe I was just totally STUPID, but, no.  The other five, including my beloved, were as equally in the dark as I was.  The woman was incomprehensible.  But funny.  So, I just sat back and took notes for the blog and tried to make her say even funnier things.  Which was not difficult.

For example, upon arrival at our destination, I immediately noticed that some of the architectural details on the palace, like the window sills, had been gilded in gold, but the vast majority were only painted in this faux-gold-toned paint.  I asked about this and she explained, haltingly, that “zere iz no money”. 

Yes, unfortunately, that is one of those ugly downsides to killing off your aristocracy.  If you execute all of the dudes with the money, who is going to pay for the upkeep on the 218-room houses?  Who?  Farmer Ivan?  His wife?  I think not.  No, no.  It is now up to the Russian taxpayer to pay for the upkeep on Tsarskoe Selo.  Do they like paying for palace renovation with their tax dollars?

“It iz not a qvestion of laak or dizlaak.  It is a qvestion of duty.  As the money comes in, leetle by leetle, ve pay for the gilding.  Vindow by vindow.  Now, does anybody elz haf any qvestions bezides zis voman?”

To wrap this up, if you go, both the Summer and Winter Palaces in St. Petersburg are worth the tour.  That’s two days, right there. 

The Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow are worth one day, if you count walking through the highly-westernized two-story mall on Red Square.  (You cannot afford anything at this mall.  If you want to pay $400 for a pair of jeans,  just come visit me in Lausanne.)

The four-hour train ride between the two cities is educational because you get to see the countryside, which was quite enlightening.  Unlike my chess set, I’m going to try to be politically correct here.  The villages in the Russian countryside are not quaint.  The houses look to consist of tar paper and galvanized tin.  In four hours, covering about 500 miles, I saw MAYBE eight paved roads.  It looks to be a hardscrabble life out there in the country on dirt roads in depressing housing conditions.  Hopefully, those conditions are on the rise for the Russian people.  But only after they finish paying for the gilding on 782 more window frames at the Summer Palace.

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