Wednesday, May 25, 2011

St. Petersburg Center: A Guided Tour

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Last week one of the coordinators from the School of Russian and Asian Studies, named Sergei, led Sarah, Hillary, and I on a walking tour of central St. Petersburg.  It was a warm, clear day and perfect for walking.  It turns out Sergei is a professor at one of the universities in St. Petersburg, and he is a wealth of great information.  Beyond simply knowing an immense amount of information about Russian culture and history, he is able to detach himself from his Russian identity and talk about issues objectively and in a global context.  

"Dom Knigi" ("House of Books"), otherwise known as The Singer House.
It was the first building built in St. Pete by an American company,
(Singer Sewing Company), and at one time it even housed the
U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Sunny Day in St. Pete

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A while back, I started using a site called DailyMile as an exercise log. It has a neat feature that allows you to map your routes, and even save commonly-used routes such as a daily commute.  I realized that my daily commute to school and back totals about 3.5 miles of walking (and about 40 minutes on the metro each way). When I plugged this in, and then added my other walking excursions, I was surprised to find out that I walked 29 miles last week!

I know it sounds unbelievable, but I happen to have 29 miles worth of photos to prove it.  And we've had lots of sunny days lately, a climate which always inspires me to pull out my camera.  In a city like St. Petersburg, I just can't resist the temptation to snap a photo of almost every building I pass.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Counting My Blessings

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I was looking around online tonight, hoping that by some miracle all the credible sources would tell me that Fruit Loops are gluten free.  You see, they've come up in conversation several times over the past week, and my walk through the cereal aisle tonight seems to have triggered a craving for the brightly-colored, entirely unnatural, sugary rings.  


Unfortunately for me, I will never eat a real Fruit Loop again.  There may be some knock-off gluten-free, lactose-free, casein-free, egg-free, lame excuse for a Fruit Loop that tastes like cardboard, but I'm not into allergy-free counterfeits.  I lived too long as a glutenarian (a word I made up for people who eat gluten) and the memory of the "real thing" is still too fresh. If I can't have the original, I'd rather not eat it at all.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Quest for King's Gate

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On my last day in Helsinki, Kiri and I took the ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, where we spent the afternoon exploring the old fortress.

Our first stop when the ferry landed was the Visitor Information building, where I picked up a map and immediately started looking through the "special attractions" page.  I don't often follow the guides very closely, as my sightseeing strategy falls into the "wander and see what happens" category, but I always browse the recommended достопримечательности (say "dostopreemyechatyelnostee," the Russian word for "tourist attractions") and usually pick one or two of them to set as my destination.  You should never wander without a final destination.

We decided that King's Gate would be our terminus, and very quickly our capricious exploring turned into the "Quest for King's Gate."

Waiting for our ferry to depart from the mainland,
we walked around the market at Kauppatori
(in Finnish 'kauppa' means 'market' and 'tori' means 'square')

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Efficient & Happy Traveler

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In all my years of traveling, I've learned a lot of things the hard way.  But I've also honed my ability to pack a bag that will equip me to do everything from working in a professional environment to hiking any mountain I come across.  Here are a few tips from my suitcase...

Always pack a towel if you're leaving the United States. Even if you think you'll be staying in nice hotels during your entire trip, you never know when your hotel room could be coincidentally double booked.  Or you might show up in the middle of the night and not be able to take a shower because there's no one around to ask for a towel.  I recommend this one from REI -- it's a high-absorption microfiber that dries you off quick and dries out completely within an hour.  My favorite thing about it is that it's super thin and comes with a little polyester/mesh sack that packs it up the size of a thin paperback book. I bought one large one that I use for both a washcloth and towel. But they're available in many other sizes and weaves as well.

Consolidate products. Unless you have the means to hire a personal butler for the entirety of the trip, you're not going to want to lug around your whole bathroom cupboard. Picking which items to bring depends on the trip and the climate you're traveling to, but try to minimize as much as possible; creams and liquids are very heavy! Invest in one lotion that you can use as hand/body lotion, face moisturizer, and makeup remover.  I love Gold Bond's Aloe Vera lotion, but haven't found it sold anywhere outside the States.  If I have to restock while traveling, I buy Dove Intensive Nourishment Hand Cream.  Both are multi-purpose and work great! All Gold Bond products are gluten free, and most Dove products are as well.


Monday, May 09, 2011

Return to St. Petersburg

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I feel like I could burst into tears at any moment. Arriving in St. Petersburg for the second time has been one of the worst experiences of my life.  

The three-hour train ride from Helsinki to St. Pete was okay, but it was all downhill from there. A driver from the university was supposed to pick me up at a friends house where I was keeping my luggage. He finally arrived, but said not a word during the entire 30-minute drive across town.  My efforts to make conversation were met with silence.  

We parked in front of a few high rises and dragged my suitcases over a mud path covered with wooden planks. Walking up to the kiosk adjacent to a ten-foot high barred fence with giant turnstile gate, my driver, who apparently works for the university, silently left me and approached the counter.  He presented some papers and eventually I was let in.  Inside the fenced area are a number of buildings surrounding a grassy quad. I was led into one of them and right inside the door the driver put down my suitcase, handed some papers to the lady at the desk, and shoved a xeroxed copy of a map in my direction as he turned and headed for the door.  I started after him and began to say, "Wait, I don't know where I'm going or even where I am. You have to show me where I live."  He kept walking away from me but flung his left arm out, pointing to the desk -- obviously suggesting that I should direct my inquiries to the women there.  And without a word he was gone.  

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Tallinn: The Door Collection

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I liked my Helsinki Door Collection so much that when I took a day trip to Tallinn yesterday I resumed photographing doorways. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, a country in northern Europe that used to be part of the Soviet Union.  These days, it seems that the city has one foot in Russia and the other in Finland.  As a whole the streets and buildings are much cleaner than Russia, but their distinctly ancient qualities don't quite mimic the contemporary and functional feeling of Finnish design. My Tallinn Door Collection is just a preview of my Tallinn exposé that is to come.

Now about the doors:
I think that we often enter buildings and walk through cities without really looking at the doors; but the more I travel, the more I realize how much entryways set the tone of a neighborhood and even a whole city.

Here are some of my favorites from Tallinn...


















This last one is definitely my favorite. Notice the trees and shrubs growing out of the roof.
Look forward to more pictures from my day trip to Tallinn later this week.


Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Easter in Helsinki

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Aunt Päivi and me
I'm a little late getting these photos out, but better late than never!  This year when I woke up at 6am on Easter morning to warm rays from a sun already quite high in the sky, I stayed in bed for a few minutes, thinking about all my Easter memories from years past. It's been quite a while since I dyed eggs with my brothers and sisters, or unwrapped one of the giant Easter baskets my Grambo always makes for us.  Laden with creme-filled chocolate eggs and big chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, tangerines, and little toys, I remember rounding up all the colored eggs we could find and then munching on chocolate to my heart's content.  That was, of course, after eating chocolate-covered donuts for breakfast.  But my parents were great about it and let us take in all the sugar we wanted on Easter.

In 2007 I was living in Belgium and went on Easter vacation with my host family to Montpellier in southern France. My parents came and met us there, and then I left with them on what became an epic European road trip.  The three of us spent Easter Sunday in downtown Florence -- a day I'll never forget!  I wish I had the pictures with me now so I could give you a taste of the festive mayhem that unfolded in the Piazza del Duomo.   Think white bulls decked out in ribbons and flowery wreaths; a giant wooden hutch that spewed smoke, fireworks and white doves when the doors opened; every inch of the piazza covered with people and then even more hanging out of windows and off buildings surrounding the square; brightly colored medieval costumes on jolly, dancing, singing, Italian men; a midget with an accordion who kissed my mom and me when I put a coin in his cup; going back at night to my favorite gelato dealer for what would be my fifth and final serving for the day....now THAT was an Easter to behold.

Monday, May 02, 2011

TULI ISO JYTKY!...A taste of Finnish Politics

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If you don't happen to closely follow Finnish politics, I'll give you a brief run-down on the current political climate...

Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns
Parliament elections took place the weekend I arrived in Helsinki. You might remember the Swedish-speaking Finnish men's choir I met on the way.  They were nervously checking their phones all night as the votes trickled in, and the reactions were not positive.  The ultra-conservative "True Finns" party gained 35 seats, a huge increase from the three they already had.  I don't have a complete picture of their agenda; but I've gathered bits and pieces of public opinion from conversations with people I've met here.  It seems that I've been meeting the most liberal Finns around, however, because no one I've met has been a True Finn sympathizer.  (Although one guy said he was embarrassed to admit that his dad voted for them.)
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