We arrived in Suzdal in the evening and briskly walked to the hostel. The temperature had dropped quite a bit and ice was beginning to form on the streets. Suzdal was an interesting change from Moscow. Situated only 3.5 hours out of Moscow, Suzdal is known for its many, MANY churches. A beautiful river runs through the town and was now freezing over.
Once we were at the hostel, the receptionist informed us that the accommodation was overbooked. Around the corner we heard the stomping and running feet of what sounded like thousands of little children. There was some sort of wedding and the entire congregation had booked the hostel…with their army of Asian children.
In front of us were two Americans who were visiting Suzdal from Moscow. Both taught English in the city and were taking a short vacation. Jeff and Crystal had made reservations but as the receptionist told us, there was no more room. Jordan made a call to the owner to relay the situation. Then it was arranged that the three of us, plus our two new American friends, were given a mattress and the living room.
A few hours later a huge group of about 6 girls came to the hostel with the same problem. We decided to invite them into our room as well! Ultimately, we were about 11 people sleeping in all different spaces on the floor. It was like a slumber party and we had a great time.
We spent three relaxing days in Suzdal, with the temperature continually dropping, before we headed back to Moscow. Russia requires holders of tourist VISAs to register in every city that they spend more than 7 days in. We were told to register in Moscow and the process was easy but expensive. We only handed our passports to the reception and payed the hostel about 20 dollars.
After we were registered we immediately got on a train to Saint Petersburg. I had really been looking forward to this because I had heard numerous times that Saint Petersburg was the best.
AND OH IT WAS.
I had contacted a Couch Surfer in Saint Petersburg who was from England and lived with another Couch Surfer who was from Belarus. Once we arrived we headed to their flat. For me, this is always the exciting part in Couch Surfing because you never really know whom you are going to meet and what is going to happen.
It was about 7AM and still dark outside when we found the apartment. We walked up the stairs and knocked on door number 18. There was no answer. I was preparing myself for the boys to joke about how the one time I find someone to host us it falls through. I knocked again and breathed a sigh of relief when I heard footsteps and the door unlocking.
The door opened and there was Sam in only his boxer shorts. I think we were a little taken aback because we all had on our winter gear and backpacks. And honestly what would you think if a stranger you were staying with opened the door in his underwear?
“Hey guys,” Sam said sleepily.
He lead us into the apartment, taught us how to light the gas for the hot water, showed us his room where we could sleep, and excused himself to go back to bed before work.
The boys and I slept for a few hours and awoke to a sweet note from Sam explaining how to use his computer if we needed it, how to properly unlock the front door, and the time he would be returning so we could all hang out.
When Sam came back he cooked us all dinner and even set the table for us all to sit and eat together! I could not remember the last time I sat with the boys and ate a real dinner. It was lovely.
Sam is such a great guy. He is not in the least bit shy and his energy and humor made it seem like we had all known each other for years instead of minutes. He took us to his friend Nikola’s house where there was a piano. Sam is a talented pianist and we discovered that we had studied several of the same pieces. We took turns churning out Debussy’s Arabesques, Beethoven, and Chopin. It was wonderful. We left Nikola’s and ran for the drawbridge that was about to rise. If we had missed it, we would have had to wait 2 hours for it to lower back over the canal. Although it would not have been too bad since we would only have had more time to play music.
The next day Todd, Jordan, and I went out to explore Saint Petersburg. Let me say, what an incredible city! What an incredibly BEAUTIFUL city! The canals and rivers are reminiscent of Venice, the buildings and monuments resemble those in Paris. However, it was not only the European similarities that made Petersburg wonderful for me but (like always) even more so the people. There was a friendliness that seemed more present than, for example, the people in Moscow. Even though it was cold outside-you New Yorkers have no more excuses!-everyone had a smile and a very nice demeanor.
I spent most of the day walking through the maze-like palace of the Hermitage museum. It was breathtaking stumbling upon Matisse’s Dance rising at about 10 feet. I forget sometimes how important it is to acknowledge the beauty of visual art. I forget how, when I do take the time to witness visual art, I unwillingly feel or think something unexpected. I was lucky this time to see so many works that gave me elated emotions and thoughts.
I returned to our hosts apartment where a party was beginning. A Mafia party. Valentina (Sam’s AMAZING Couch Surfer roommate from Belarus) and Sam were hosting a Mafia party for the Couch Surfing community in Saint Petersburg. For those of you unfamiliar, Mafia is a game where players are given roles such as mafia, peaceful citizen, constable, doctor, and witness. The mafia players kill the peaceful citizens and the constable tries to put them in jail, etc. Jordan totally ruled the game killing everyone off on the first round and then conquering the second round as a Mafia King.
In the meantime, I was playing music in the kitchen with Nikola and Todd. As soon as Mafia was over, everyone came in and we had a fantastic jam. Sam pulled out his clarinet, I pulled out the melodica, and we grabbed all the other instruments that were around. Ochi Chyornye lasted for about 10 minutes. It was awesome.
A few hours later the party began to dissipate. We were down to only a few and got ready for bed. Jordan, Mathilde (another Couch Surfer), Todd, and I got into our sleeping places in Valentina’s room and Sam came in to say goodnight.
“Sing us a song to sleep!” Mathilde requested.
Without hesitation, Sam began to sing one of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard in a long time. It was such a simple but wonderful moment. The original version of the song, One Hand on The Radio by Coope, Boyes and Simpson has a country swing but Sam (maybe it has something to do with his English blood) sang it like an old English sea song. Absolutely amazing.
The next day we slept late and awaited Valentina. She told us that she would be coming home early and would be available to take us around Saint Petersburg. Valentina was initially quiet when we first arrived two days earlier but now we had time to get to know each other. I learned that she has a VERY sharp wit and hilarious humor that I loved.
“So, what is the typical Russian breakfast?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know. I’m not typical. And I’m not Russian.”
Then she smiled her beautiful smile and gave a look of, “Well, you did ask.” I LOVED this about her. Especially when she would do it to the boys.
Valentina took us to the Café du Monde of Saint Petersburg. A small café where they served the Russian doughnut called, ponchiki. Most tables are standing only and about 5 ponchiki are only $1. Easy to say we ordered about 20.
Valentina then took us to an artist commune that held a coffee and teashop, squatting apartment, and several art galleries. This area was called Pushkinskaya after the famous writer, Alexandr Pushkin.
(This reminds me of something Blackadder would say…)
Then we went to a small blues club that had a nice jazz duo performing. Todd’s friend Illiya joined us a little bit later. Todd had met Illiya on the street where he was performing on a hang drum. This instrument is very unique and rare. It was a complete stroke of luck that Todd saw him gigging on the street. At the blues bar, Illiya jumped into the jam and played with the pianist from the duo.
I even got to play this incredible instrument!
This same night we said goodbye to all our new friends and prepared for another over night train back to Moscow. It was a sad and prolonged farewell.
Like I said, I had heard numerous times that Petersburg was a lovely and beautiful city but little did I know that I would meet some of the most wonderful people there. I am not sure of the whole reason for choosing Petersburg to be their home away from home but I think I can guess why.
So, again I find that no matter where we go we are presented with the COOLEST people! I cannot tell you why it happens because I really am not sure myself. I some times think that I mentally attract it. As if I am constantly and unconsciously searching for these people. I have to say though that I prefer not knowing WHY it happens and keeping my thoughts positive and knowing that it WILL happen.
Back in Moscow we connected with a new addition to our Trans-Siberian Bound group. I’ll never know the reason why Sasha willingly chose to join 3 crazy Americans across Siberia but I’m soooo grateful she did.