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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Far Away Places #3(b)

St. Petersburg, Russia

As I am sure you can imagine, bickering between the US and USSR provided ample opportunity for those so inclined to practice espionage, subterfuge and other forms of mischief. And while my visit to this beautiful city on the Neva River took place about 6 years after what is generally considered to be the end of the Cold War, I engaged in a bit of sneaking around myself. It wasn't quite up to the standards of James Bond or George Smiley, but I did manage to go undetected until I decided to just give myself up. Here's the story:

Cancelation of a planned visit to a local compressor manufacturing facility provided a day off to explore a bit of St. Petersburg and its environs. It was Olga's turn to babysit accompany us on our explorations and she met us at our hotel in the morning. We were going to take a hydrofoil out to Emperor Peter the Great's summer palace, the trip on the high speed water craft being one of the attractions of the visit. Light rain was falling and we suggested taking a cab to the pier, but Olga said it was not so far and we could just walk. It was about two miles.

When we got to the dock, we were informed that the boat was not running because, well, because it wasn't. It might be making trips again tomorrow. But maybe not. That's the way Olga explained it. She said a lot of services in the city were like that – hit or miss. You just have to show up and take (or not) what you find. We set off on another short walk, only a mile this time, to a central bus staging area. Olga suggested we give her some money which she would use to purchase our tickets. When it was time to leave, she took us aside and said that we should not talk while we were on the bus. "Why is that?" I asked. She said, "I bought resident tickets. If they hear you speaking English, then they will know you are tourists and charge you the higher price for tourist tickets."

I was thinking it wouldn't have been any more obvious that we were Americans if we'd have had Old Glory tattooed on our foreheads. But, we did as we were told and kept our mouths shut. As the bus pulled out of the station, a lady got up at the front, took out a microphone and started talking to us. It soon became evident that we were not on a regular transit bus, but were now members of a tour group.

Without a clue as to what we were being told, we rode in silence. Once at the palace, we disembarked and our guide starting waving everyone into a group. She then motioned to Olga and took her aside for a private conversation. Olga came back and told us, "The guide knows you are tourists." Well that was a shock. So, we were busted. But not so fast…

It turns out that the guide also told Olga that she had a plan. It seems beating the system is a popular pastime in Russia and our guide rose to the challenge of getting us into the palace without having to pay the "tourist price." She called our tour group, about a dozen in addition to us, and had them gather together in a cluster, with us in the center. What we had to do was to get past the babushkas – meaning grandmothers or old ladies; that's what she called them. They collected the tickets and would turn us in if they saw we were trying to get in at resident prices. The group shuffled through the gate, looking like a giant, single-celled organism with the Americans and their Russian co-conspirator forming the nucleus. And you know what? It worked. We had been successfully smuggled into the palace grounds and were now free to wander around the spectacular gardens. Our guide conducted the tour and Olga translated, but only when she was sure no one outside our group would overhear her. Because if they did, they would certainly tell the authorities and we would have to pay the "tourist" price.

Still, it seemed as the situation was a little less restrictive and we enjoyed the walk immensely. Then, it was time to start the tour of the palace. And wouldn't you know, our guide was not allowed to conduct the tour as there were special guides provided for that. So once again Olga tells us that she cannot translate and we cannot talk to each other while inside, lest we are found out and end up having to pay the "tourist" price.

We decide that maybe there is another way. We ask Olga if we could just buy tourist tickets and then not have to skulk around in silence for the rest of the day. She said that we could to that and, except for the extra money we would have to come up with, it wouldn't be a problem. "How much are we talking about?" I asked her. "Two hundred roubles." That was about $5. "So, if we pay $5 and get tourist tickets, then you can translate during the tour and we can talk to each other and not have to worry about being carted off to some Gulag for the rest of our lives?" I didn't really say that last bit. But I'd been thinking that it was a possibility, given our nefarious behavior. "Sure," she replied. We bought the tickets, thus ending our little gambit and certainly avoiding a nasty international incident.

It was a spectacular place and we had an interesting and informative tour. It was about 2 p.m. when we finally left the palace for a last brief stroll around the gardens. We had not had anything to eat since our early breakfast and we inquired as to the possibility of lunch or at least a snack. Olga responded by digging around in her purse and pulling out an orange. She peeled it, broke it into thirds and gave the two of us our share. Lunch.

A few hours later, the bus was approaching the stop in the city and we asked Olga if she would join us for dinner. "No thank you," she said. "Why not?" "I don’t have any money," she replied. And it all fell into place. Walking to the dock and bus stop, tourist tickets, sneaking into the palace, a single orange for three. She was taking care of us, and doing it with what she had.

We ate at the Chaika, a restaurant whose name translates as Seagull. Olga told us that she lived at home with her parents, a brother and an uncle. Her father, uncle and brother were engineers, but only her uncle was employed. She was studying engineering, but it was not at all certain that she would find a job when she graduated. They had very little, although the "non-tourist" prices were quite a bit below what we saw as Americans. In addition to having little money, there were shortages of consumer goods of all sorts. Kirill had told us earlier that many people carried around lists of clothing sizes for all of their family members on the chance that they would stumble upon a shop that actually had something on its shelves.

When the bread came before we were served our meals, Olga took her share, wrapped it in a napkin and put it in her purse. She also had a large portion of her meal boxed up to take home for her family. It seemed it was something she did, taking care of others. Maybe she had to do it for her family, but not for us.

I know where Kirill is as I see him every other year at the International Compressor Engineering Conference at Purdue. But it has been years since I have heard from Olga. I hope it worked out well for her.

Here are some of my pictures from St. Petersburg. While it might have been a little rough around the edges in 1996, it was a beautiful city. I guess it still is, actually.

The Compressor Conference in St. Petersburg
With Professor Yuri Glaerkin, our host

Here we are with Kirill and Olga

He Made His Own Pressure Transducers

Banquet - The Scene of the Too-Short Speech

Around the City
Our Hotel

At the Summer Palace

Next: The land of the rising sun.