Tuesday, May 11, 2010

On the Ground in St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg.

Oh, St. Petersburg.

I had built this city up in mind. I did not want it to suck.

I am so happy to report that it didn't suck.

Pulkovo Airport is a pretty dreary airport. It was nice to be in the same line as Asmus. When we traveled to Rome and returned from European destinations, he goes into the European Union citizens line and I head to the "All Passports" line. It is a bit lonely.

I am a bit ahead of myself. I am an immigrant. For all the conservatives out there, I want you to know that I am a legal immigrant. About two months ago, I noticed that my visa was going to expire in the middle of April. We live mostly in Kiel, so it is difficult to get to the foreigners office in Hamburg.

We don't know much about rules for foreigners but just to be on the safe side, we decided to update the visa.

I am a bit ahead of myself.

We were in Kiel on Friday, April 9. Saturday, April 10, we flew to Munich to visit his aunt Renate. We stayed at our favorite hotel chain the Meridien; Le Méridien München is not as great as its Hamburg cousin. We toured the Paulaner brewery (So far, we have visited Guinness, Carlsberg, Becks, Heinecken (I just visited Holsten last Friday without my beloved.).) We took a bus tour of the city.

We returned to Hamburg on Monday night, April 12. Then we packed and shopped Tuesday and Wednesday. Plus, I worked on my Fodor's chapter about Hamburg. So, we had to fix this visa thing the morning of our flight on Thursday, April 15.

The flight was at 11; the foreigners office opens at 8. It sucked. We got up at the crack of dawn and brought the largest suitcase that Samsonite makes to the foreigners office, because we were going the airport right after the office. Sadly, I had to take a photo. No one should be forced to take a picture at 8 in the morning. I did and I will never forgive the Bundesamtes für Migration und Flüchtlinge (Germany's ofice for Migration and Refugees). We were in and out in 15 minutes. Now I am set for a visa until October 14, 2010. The adventure continues.

So we get to the Hamburg airport and we notice that a flight to Norway was canceled. We wondered why but quickly moved on.

We ate the worst meal in the Goethe cafe in the Frankfurt airport. Skip it if you can. There was some liquid crawling across the floor but no one working there said anything to us when we sat down. We were drinking coffee when we noticed people kneeling around us with towels. They were trying to sneakily mop up the floor. Plus, the snacks were pretty crappy.

We got out of the cafe and into the sky. Easy flight. Even thought it was only a few years old, the St. Petersburg airport was gray and dimly-lit and quiet. It looked like some government office. Not a cool office, like the IRS but the one you go to get a permit to build a high fence.

Asmus and I had a free transfer to the hotel and little instructions on how to get it, despite my questions. We got outside arrivals and searched and searched. I was afraid this was going to happen. Before we left, I asked the hotel lady what is the procedure for transfers. What do we do? Where do we go? She said don't worry and not much else. Just arrive and the driver will be there and she hoped we have a fun vacation. Just as I worried, I had no idea who the driver was and when he is supposed to arrive. We don't speak Russian so we can't walk up to random people ask for help. There was a guy with a 8 x 11 pink piece of paper. I think I saw a bunch of Ms, so I thought he may be the guy. Who has more Ms in their names besides Asmus and me? I pointed and yelled my name a few times and confirmed my suspicions. And we were on our way.

There was a bit of highway out of the airport. I saw this huge Kentucky Fried Chicken nearby and I knew everything was going to be OK. The road up to the airport is littered with car dealerships.

When we got to the city, we took one long, broad road (We later learned that it was Moscow Avenue). Like East Berlin, which was designed by Communism, the city seemed to be all massive buildings that covered one or two blocks. They all had the same look. Tall, wide and beige-ish gray. It was a bit intimidating. You are so small, next to these striking buildings.

We did not notice a street sign but were able to recognize a STOP sign and St. Petersburg in cyrillic. There was a department store and a huge Park Inn hotel near the beginning of the street.

Along the way, our driver, who spoke little English, served as a ghetto tour guide. Right before we reached some landmark, he would point and give the name. We saw a statue of Lenin, a university, and a library. It was a bit ridiculous but so damn exciting.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

St. Petersburg or Bust

Date Night movie poster

As a child of the 80s, I just did something I never thought I would do -- I visited the former USSR.

I was brought up on Red Dawn, Yakov Smirnoff, and Rocky IV. Since then, I've been to the Berlin Wall. Life is crazy.

Asmus and I were supposed to visit St. Petersburg October 2009. We waited and waited to make arrangements and the price shot up. Instead we went to Copenhagen, which rocks.

For Christmas, Asmus' mother gave us an envelope of money to pay for the trip. Those euros paid for the flight for both of us and the hotel room.

If you read the previous post, you know that I have been busy. I was determined to learn some Tourist Russian. Asmus said he was going to but I knew he wouldn't. I got too busy and didn't either. I learned some of the Cyrillic alphabet.

The Cyrillic alphabet is interesting. Some Arabic letters look like Cyrillic characters and sound like them but then some Arabic letters look like Cyrillic characters and sound different.



But then there are all these other characters that look sorta like some things from Hebrew and others that look like things from Greek.You can probably translate the restaurant names below.

The Cold War is over but there seem to be some lingering malice from Russia toward Americans. Russia requires visas for all foreign visitors. Instead of getting a visa for a certain length of time, like 30 days, you get a visa for one specific date to another. I was in charge of visa applications for me and the German. His application was one page. The Russian Federation wanted to know his name, address and favorite color. My application was two pages long. They wanted to know my mother's maiden name, the city where my parents were born, my job, how I am paying for the trip, and the name of my husband. Asmus's application cost 35 euros. Mine cost 100. I didn't let their evilness keep me away.

The oddest thing -- I felt so welcome in St. Petersburg. Unlike in Germany, no one stared at me. In Hamburg and Kiel, people, mostly children, stare at me. There are people of various hues walking the street but I am exotic. About two months ago, I was looking through my pocket for the key to the apartment in Hamburg. An old lady (It is always an old lady here.) asked me if I lived in my apartment. She then asked my name and when I moved to the apartment. I answered her question and then asked her name. Then she walked away. No welcome. No "nice to meet you". There are few Black people in St. Petersburg, so I was ready to be an oddity. Fortunately, Russians are too concerned with their own lives that they do not care about anyone else. That is fine with me.

The other weird thing is that there were foods and restaurants in Russia that are not found in Germany. You may have noticed the Sbarro sign in the image above. I am not a fan of the pathetic attempt at pizza but it is nice to see something familiar. I had pecan pie. Pecan pie!!! A friend, Shurea, mailed me pecans from California, so that I can make a pie (Which I did. Delicious!), because pecanuss is rare in Germany. Plus, pie is not common in Germany. So I was amazed to have pecan pie in the former home of communism. When departing, we passed a T.G.I Friday's. Don't got that in Germany. I love TGIF's Cobb Salad. I had just eaten, so I passed up the chance to have that delicacy until I return to the United States in October. The best part is when I introduced myself people repeated my name the same way that I said it. I tell a German my name and they never come close to saying it the same way. It is the little things that make life worth living.

More about St. Petersburg to come.

What"s Happening

So much has happened since Christmas and Cinco de Mayo.

I finally passed the Integration test in January. Without passing, my visa was in danger, so I had to pass. My options were few. I could take the last three months of the class again. I am done with classrooms, so I decided to take the test again.

I went through two rude government officials and discovered that I could simply take the test again. Then I searched for a place to take the test again and soon.

I got my failure result in early November. This community college would allow me to take the test in early December. I worked on my own with books and CDs for a month. I had the world's worse speaking partner but I did not let that stop me. I had a crappy speaking partner for my first test. She would not shut up. So I said little and made mistakes. I decided that I would keep talking. Bring down my mistake to production ratio. So this guy would say nothing or sentences that made no sense and I kept talking.

My strategy worked. I passed.

I got B1 on all three parts. It would be embarrassing to fail for a second time. Also, to fail after told government workers that I did not need to take three months of classes again. I got my test results early January and then decided to go to school again. Ugh.

I wanted to teach English. In the poor economy, I thought having a certificate would make things a little better. That was one hard month. I was living in Hamburg and Asmus was living in Kiel. Again, I was stuck in a room for hours and hours a day. The day started at 10 and ended at 7.
I was fine but somewhere in the middle I was the worst teacher ever. I even got an official notice that I may not pass.

Plus, we also had the record winter here, meaning there was some piles. Hamburg is not used to the snow. No one shoveled or de-iced shit. I had to stutter-step over ice for three blocks to get to school.

Fortunately, I passed. I am officially certified to teach English.

Then the Job Search began.

I hate the Job Search. Being constantly judged and deemed unworthy really knocks me out. For some reason, I got interviews with some people who said they liked my resume but wished I had more experience. Of course, I was pissed. Getting dressed up, researching companies, and talking to managers for no reason whatsoever sucks. They knew what experience I had before they invited me to talk.

I had a mini breakdown. It is difficult from being a professional living the good life in New York to begging someone to hire you.

Eventually, I got a freelance position at a school two blocks from my apartment in Kiel. In fact, the same school at which I took the Integration Course.

Hallelujah! I was so relieved. I was not useless.

That feeling did not last long. I got "training." At first, I was alone with a poorly-organized teacher. We met five days a week. After the second week, I got a partner. It was better because the teacher could spread the crazy around. Then that partner disappeared. Then I got two more women with me. We met three times a week for two weeks. It was great because I didn't have to talk for half the sessions. However, it sucked because I was never given an end date for these sessions.

In the midst of these sessions, I got the fabulous assignment to write a chapter for Fodor's guidebook about Hamburg. It rocked. I loved it. I learned so much about hotel rooms here in Hamburg.

Everything was great until it came to inputting my changes. I made a fatal planning mistake. I spent a day for me to copy and paste the file. I cannot wait to until the book comes out next year. The current version is nowhere as fun as my take on Hamburg.