Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To Russia Sans Coat

I don’t know how a self-proclaimed travel guru goes to Russia in the freezing winter without bringing along a coat, but somehow I managed to do it.   I realized it was missing from among my things just before I entered the security line at Tampa Airport.  I sat for a long moment in disbelief, alternately racking my brain and rummaging through my bags.  I knew the coat was on my arm sometime just before I left my brother’s house that morning, and I couldn’t imagine what went wrong.

By the time I reached Philly the mystery was solved.  In a between-flights phone call, my sister-in-law broke the news that the coat was draped over the back of one of her dining room chairs.  I must have put it down there when, at the last moment, I went to the kitchen for a slice of homemade pumpkin bread to take with me on the plane.  I boarded the next flight, and kicked myself all the way to my next connection in Switzerland. 

Somewhere between Zurich and St. Petersburg, I settled into the reality that soon I’d be arriving with nothing but a Target-brand, V-neck sweater to provide extra protection from the harsh Russian winter.  I tried to relax, but the in-flight monitor kept flashing the arrival temperature in St. Petersburg (5 below Celsius) like a cruel reminder to the dummy in seat 27-C who forgot her coat. 

I passed the time studying the somewhat-skeletal directions from St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport to my hostel in the city center.  I was to catch a “special bus” from the airport, but the directions failed to specify which one, or where this bus could be found.  The bus would supposedly take me to the metro, where I should find the line that would take me to my stop at “Gostiny Dvor,” after which I would need to walk several-hundred meters down two hard-to-pronounce streets before reaching my bed for the night.

We landed around 2:30 in the afternoon.  I did not learn until the next day—when I awoke at 10:00 a.m. to darkness—that one can nearly count on one hand the number of available daylight hours during the winter here.  By the time I passed the inspection of the seriously-unfriendly woman behind the immigration window, retrieved my belongings, exited customs, withdrew Russian rubles from the ATM, broke the large bills into smaller ones for use on the impending bus and metro rides, had a tinkle in the WC, and learned more about the “special bus” from the barely-English-speaking representative at tourist information, it was closing in on 4:00 p.m., and twilight was yielding to nightfall.

I emerged from the airport wearing nothing but a sweater-on-top-of-sweater and caught my first, shocking blast of the bitter Russian air.  I had no choice but to keep moving.  I spotted the No. K-3 marshrutka, or Russian mini-bus, some distance up the curb.  I paid 27 rubles to the driver and, in the process, discovered that neither he nor anyone else in the vicinity spoke a lick of English.  I indicated “Moskovskaya” to the fur-wrapped woman sitting next to me, and when we approached the station 30-minutes or so later, she pointed and gestured for me to get off.

I descended a set of slippery stairs, purchased a metro token from another woman behind a window, shoved my bags and myself through the turnstile, and stepped onto the overcrowded Blue Line.  I was beginning to feel proud of my foreign navigation skills when the train doors abruptly slammed shut on my backpack, lodging me halfway-in-and-out of the train.  I let out a shriek that immediately caught the attention of the man standing next to me; quickly he pried the doors open and pulled me all the way in.  I thanked him profusely in English while the red-faced embarrassment warmed up my cheeks.

The metro conductor’s announcements were in Russian only, and it was then that I began to understand that “in Russian only” would hamper my ability to do even the simplest of things, like buy a stick of butter, for example.  (I bought pie dough instead.)  It turns out that the language barrier extends not just to words, but also to the entire alphabet.  The Russians use the Cyrillic as opposed to the Roman one; but it may as well be Greek because I’ve been hard pressed to understand much of anything written or said around me for the past 17 days.  In any event, I counted seven stops between Moskovskaya and my intended destination and jumped out—quickly this time.

I wound through a maze of underground tunnels and finally ascended to find a large, grand avenue decked out for the holidays.  That old-familiar travel excitement began to take hold as I began to follow the walking part of the directions.  But soon excitement turned to dread when, after circling the same three-block radius for more than an hour, I could not locate the hostel.  There were no apparent street signs or numbers, and most people who wanted to help me couldn’t.  I started to fear—as once happened in Bolivia—that perhaps the place had just closed down.   

Earlier in the search, I had entered the foyer of an upscale restaurant on a corner of the street where my hostel was supposed to be situated.  The maitre d’ spoke just enough English to confirm that I was on the right street, but she knew nothing about any hostel.  It was dark and turning more frigid by the minute, and I had become exhausted from treading over snowy-sludge covered sidewalks beneath the weight of my bags.  So when 20 minutes more of searching turned up nothing, I returned to the restaurant to beg for further assistance.  I intended to ask the young woman if she wouldn’t mind phoning the hostel for me, but before I could make my plea, I somehow lost my balance and—in a weird, slow motion—fell straight backward onto my backpack and onto the floor.

Now I had become a certified spectacle.  The next thing I knew—to my complete horror—four handsome, Russian men were surrounding me with outstretched hands.  The best looking one spoke perfect English and, after helping me to become upright again, asked how he could assist me.  I stuttered through my predicament the best I could, and within seconds he had the hostel on his cell phone.  He went back and forth with someone on the other end in Russian, and then handed the phone to me.

It was Irina, one of the hostel’s administrators.  She advised me—in English—that the building in which the hostel is situated was directly across the street from the restaurant, and that if I would simply exit the restaurant, turn right, and walk a short distance, I would find myself at the gate, where they would buzz me in.

Humiliated but relieved, I thanked everyone and shot out of the restaurant.  I quickly found the hostel, along with Irina’s mother, Alla, waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs to help me up with my things.   On the way up, Alla kept pointing at me and saying something in Russian.  I asked Oksana, the young administrator who checked me in, to please translate.

Oksana said, “She wants to know, where is your coat?”  

“I forgot to bring it,” I replied, feeling extremely foolish.  Oksana translated my response, and then Alla left the room for a moment.  She reappeared with a mauve-colored, woolen coat and put it on me.  Through more gesturing and translation I understood that Alla was insisting that I wear her coat for as long as I needed during my stay in St. Petersburg. 

Seventeen days have passed and I am still wearing Alla’s coat.  I won’t bore you with the details, but after two or three days of searching in vain for a suitable replacement—and also learning that often Russians are forced to take out “coat-loans” in the same way we take out  car loans, on account of the sheer expense—I thought the sensible solution would be to have my coat sent to me.   You can probably begin to guess how this ends, but I’ll tell you anyway.

Two weeks ago my sister-in-law mailed the coat from a St. Petersburg, Florida post office via Express International service.  It cost about 40 bucks—considerably less than a new coat would cost—and was supposed to take 3-to-5 business days.  Each day I’ve been anxiously awaiting the postman's ring, but nothing.  Then last night I learned through tracking information that the coat did arrive in “Russia” as of 10:00 p.m. on December 26, but it didn’t say precisely where in Russia.  Oksana called the post office while I was out exploring The Hermitage today and when I returned, she delivered the bad news.  The coat was first sent to Moscow, and it left there this morning bound for St. Petersburg.  Meanwhile, I will be leaving St. Petersburg tonight on a train bound for Moscow.  So the coat and I just missed each other.

And now I have to sit and think about what to do.  I'll keep you posted.