Sunday, June 05, 2011

Day Eleven

It’s hard to believe our trip is winding down, we have learned so much and have seen some amazing sights.
Today was another beautiful day. We started off at Church of Christ the Savior on Spilled Blood—a stunning Orthodox Church with the interior comprised entirely of mosaics. It received its name from an assassination attempt of Alexander II in 1881. A bomb was thrown at his carriage as it traveled along the river—The bomb reached its destination, killing the assassin and fatally wounding Tsar Alexander.
In honor of his father Alexander II, Alexander III began construction of the Church in 1883 on the sight of the attack. The structure is simply beautiful and very closely resembles St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.
After our tour we said a sad goodbye to our tour guide Svetlana and ventured off for the afternoon, exploring St. Petersburg and enjoying each others’ company.
The 12 of us met for dinner at “Café St. Petersburg”—a local, traditional restaurant near Church of Our Savior. This dinner was a special one, as it was our last dinner together. We took advantage of the time together and practiced an honored Russian tradition of toasting. In Russian culture, a group or individual will toast someone in place of giving a gift or present. We took the opportunity to toast Jane, without whom this trip would not have been possible. The toasts expanded to appreciation of our chaperones and recognition of the camaraderie of the group. It has been a phenomenal experience, every personality has contributed and made the trip what its been.
After dinner, we walked to “Ceber” (The Russian word for ‘North’), the most famous bakery as recommended by locals in St. Petersburg. After enjoying dessert there, we understood why!
Thank you again to all our family and friends who have kept up with the blog! We have tremendously appreciated the comments and thoughts—See you all soon!
Gretchen S

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Day Ten

Today was another stupendous day here in St. Petersburg!  We had our second day of touring summer palaces, so we journeyed to the countryside by bus and arrived at Peterhoff, the beautiful seaside residence and favorite palace of Peter the Great (the first Romanoff to reign and the founder of the city of St. Petersburg).  The palace was a gorgeous yellow color in the French style because the entire grounds was meant to be modeled after France and is called “the Russian Versailles.”  We arrived just before 11 am—in time to see the ceremonial turning on of the fountains which is set music and is quite lovely.  As we looked over the balcony, we saw a cascade of fountains and a canal leading out to the Baltic Sea.  After witnessing this, we toured the palace and saw beautiful rooms, restored after they were completely destroyed by Nazi occupation during WWII.  Some of my favorites were the bedrooms of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great—we actually got to see their beds, which was really cool.  Then we walked around the gardens and saw many unique fountains, such as one that spurts up at random times so that children can run through it and one that is a waterfall that looks like a chess board.  We also got to stand right on the shore of the sea and take pictures.  We planned to swim in the water, and even brought our bathrobes (J), but we ran out of time and it was a bit cold anyways.  We also were short on time due to a very large tour in front of us in the museum that would not let us pass.  Apparently, local guides do not want international tours to pass them because they are somewhat jealous of the guides of international tours and think they have the right to be first if they are leading Russian people.  It was unfortunate for us, but interesting to learn this cultural difference.  After walking through the gardens and grabbing a bite to eat, we had to catch the bus.  However, we could have stayed in those gardens all day due to their beauty and numerous fountains.
When we returned to the hotel, we had a conference with 3 business people in the hotel to learn about their lives and their businesses.  I won’t go in to great detail on our conversation, but it was very interesting and we all had many questions for them!  One of the most interesting points in the conversation was when we asked why they are proud to be Russian and they turned the question back around to us as Americans.  It was very difficult to answer and made for a good conversation.  Please ask your daughters/sisters/friends who came on this trip to tell you more about our conference because it was a very unique experience!
After that, we had only a couple hours to get ready for the ballet that we would be going to that night.  We ended up walking the whole way to the theater (15-20 blocks), and only arrived there 10 minutes before the show but were still the first to sit down in our section… that’s Russians for you!  The theater was recently-renovated and was simply stunning.  As for the performance, the dancers were spot on and Mary said it as the best performance of the Nutcracker she’s ever been to and she goes every year!  Simply amazing and so surreal.  Gretchen joked that she only goes to the ballet in Russia, which is funny to joke about, but amazing that it is actually true that we went there!
After this, it was 10 pm and we had planned to stay out for the White Nights celebration to see the draw bridges being lifted over the River Neva.  We got dinner and had to wait until 12:15 pm to get a boat.  Others of us decided to walk around a bit and go back to the hotel.  On the boat, the view of the bridges was amazing and it was awesome to see both the water packed with boats and the shore packed with onlookers all out at 1:30 in the morning to witness this amazing festival that only takes place in St. Petersburg for a few weeks until the Summer Solstice.  When we finally got off the boat and walked back to our hotel, it was passed 2 am and we basically all headed straight to our rooms and passed out from exhaustion.  What a wonderful, yet extremely busy day!  More from Gretchen tomorrow.
With love, from Russia,

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Summery Summary of the Day

Priviet! (That's "hello" in Russian--I'm sure I spelled it wrong, but phonetically that is how it sounds at the very least!)

Today was another grand day for the Bennies as we traveled outside of St. Petersburg to nearby suburbs to visit a couple of summer palaces of the Russian royals. Our first stop was at Catherine the Great's summer palace. The place was huge! The palace spanned many meters and is one of the biggest palaces in the country. While we're well versed in tours at this point in our trip, today was different because all guest had to wear fun little booties while touring each of the palaces (check out the picture below to see what we sauntered around in--very stylish!) This was done to preserve the originality of the royals' homes. Catherine's summer home was stunning--done completely in gilded Baroque style with lots of details in each of the rooms of the palace. It was very lavish and ornate; it almost looked unreal. I felt like I was in an actual fairy tale and I kept hoping at any minute my fairy godmother would show up to spin my outfit into a grand ballgown so I could waltz the day away. The place was incredibly gorgeous, but the thing that will stick with me from the tour is that Catherine's palace had to be rebuilt after World War II. During the war it was occupied by soldiers and completely stripped--75% of the treasures and belongings in the place were lost during the war. Only the outer walls and parts of the ceiling were left by the end of the war. In the 1960s the Russian government decided to rebuild and restore the summer palace to it's former glory and a thirty year labor of love began. It was inspiring to see the pictures of it during the war and then to walk through it completely redone, dazzling crowds on a daily basis. To me, this lesson of hard work, rebirth and revitalization will stay with me for a long time.

The second palace we visited was the summer home to Peter the Great. Compared with Catherine's summer palace, Peter's seasonal home was not nearly as grand, but many of the students said they preferred it more because it was smaller and felt more homey. It was still quite large, but not nearly as lavish. The fun thing about this palace was that the royals built a bedroom complete with a massive gilded canopy bed just for show! They never used it! The bed was really lovely and it's a shame to think that it was never used, only looked at when guests visited. Silly royals and their money.

I want to talk for a moment about Russia and some of the things we're experiencing as we're abroad. Everyone's done a fabulous job of capturing the day-to-day events, but so much happens that we could blog for hours and still not tell about everything! For me, Russian culture has been really interesting to experience. The biggest difference that I have noticed is that Russians rarely smile. This is a bit of a challenge for me to comprehend because I'm always smiling and laughing--and because of that I've definitely gotten some odd looks from people on the subways and sidewalks! The cultural norm is just different--people are much more reserved here whereas Americans are more likely to express and emote.

The other thing I've noticed is that Russian women dress a lot differently than American women. On a daily basis I wear jeans and cardigans. Here, it's like a fashion show as the women wear beautiful dresses and heels every day. I am inspired on a moment-to-moment basis because many of the young women here look like they are dressed to go to a party or the theater. They look stunning! We've asked some of the young women we've encountered about this and they've said that it's just the norm here. Women want to look good; they want to give the impression that they're put together and come from a good background--even if that isn't necessarily the case.

I must close for now, as tomorrow we have another big day. We're going to the coast of the Baltic Sea--we're all so excited! We'll also chat with some Russian business women to hear about their journeys and then we'll get to experience a true Russian ballet, The Nutcracker! It'll be another wonderful day for us as we wrap up our adventure abroad. We all send our love! Dasvidanya! (That's Russian for "goodbye".)

~ Krissy P

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Day Seven - Hermitage!

Today was another great day in St. Petersburg!  At 9:30 this morning we met up with Svetlana and rode the public bus to the Hermitage.  The bus was very user friendly—we were able to buy tickets in the bus itself. 
After making a few stops, the bus made it to the area of the Hermitage in time for our 10:15 entrance into the museum.  A large part of the Hermitage had been a residence of Russian tsars.  It was beautiful!  The entrance to the exhibits had a magnificent staircase.  Everyone imagined themselves as guests of the royal family as we climbed the stairs and entered several halls and throne rooms.  While in one of the first rooms, our group increased by one.  A woman apparently from the Ural Mountains tagged along with us for almost two hours!  We didn’t think she spoke English, but she seemed interested in Svetlana’s tour anyway.
Unfortunately, we could not see the entire collection at the Hermitage.  It contains so many masterpieces and artifacts that it would take three years to see the each piece for only one minute.  We enjoyed touring for two hours, but then we were ready to have lunch with Jane’s friend who was a curator there.  Jane’s friend told us about Hermitage and her experiences as a woman in Soviet and Post-Soviet times.  It was really interesting to hear her perspective.  She seemed like a brilliant person! 
After our two-hour lunch break, we toured the treasury at the Hermitage.  Our guide there told us about almost every broach, snuff box, necklace and crown on display. It was interesting to find out how jewelers disguised less expensive gems to look more luxurious.  For example, jewelers could dye one type of porous gem in hot water.  Jewelers also set clear diamonds on colored foil to look like a different, rarer type of diamond. 
After the tour, several of us rode the bus by ourselves while others enjoyed a second boat tour.  Now we have the evening off and are planning a game of Mafia.  I’m sure more will be posted tomorrow!

Sarah S.

PS: Keep commenting! We love hearing from all of you!


Day Six - More Russian Adventures!

Hi Russia trip followers!
Tuesday marked the half way point of our Russian adventure! It’s hard to believe that we started traveling one week ago. Time has been flying by, with each day filled with exciting new experiences.
Tuesday was no exception. We began the day with a trip to St. Isaacs Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  This gorgeous church is the 4th largest cathedral in the world. It was perfect timing for us to go there, because the day before was St. Isaac’s Day and the day Peter the Great was born. After touring the inside, some of us ventured up to the roof of the cathedral that circled the main dome. The view was definitely worth the 250 steps up to it!
After some people sun bathed in a nearby park, we all decided to take a boat tour. Because of the many rivers and canals going through the city, there are boats everywhere giving tours. We boarded a boat and set off with our guide Max (Hi Max if you went to our site like we told you to!). This was the most perfect day we could have asked for! Not a cloud in the sky, a slight breeze, and 80 degree weather made for a great time to soak up the sun and take pictures as we floated through St. Petersburg.
Next we walked to a little market and got food for a picnic in the park. We relaxed and ate in the grass for a couple hours before walking back to the hotel. We took the metro to visit Jane’s friends Marina and Ura later that night. Marina was a ballerina and gymnast, then a gymnastics coach for many years. Ura has worked as a service engineer for the metro most of his life. They graciously shared their home with us and were open to any questions we had about Russia and their lives. Marina even sang for us before we left!
Overall, it was a fun, eventful, and relaxing day!
Stay tuned for what else we are up to in Russia J
Molly J.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Day Five - Feeling Russian!

Hello Hello Hello!
We had a relatively laid back day today. In the morning we toured “Rabbit Island,” the smallest island in St. Petersburg and “the birthplace of the city”. There we saw St. Petersburg Cathedral, Trubetskoy Bastion (an old political prison), and a sprinkling of other sites. We had a fun little jump scare at noon; at exactly noon every day, they fire a blank shot on one of the old cannons. We all knew it was going to happen, but failed to realize just how loud that bang was going to be. Good stuff. After that the group split up a bit and some of us went to a grocery store to get fixings for sandwiches and whatnot.
We had a few hours of free time (nap time for some of us), then in the evening we met up to go to “Feel Yourself Russian.” I personally had no idea what it was going to be, just some kind of show. It turns out Feel Yourself Russian is a kind of compilation of traditional Russian song and dance. The singing and dancing were very well done, the costumes were beautiful, and many of the bits were funny or sweet. However, there was one thing that was totally out of left field. In the middle of the show, there was some Eskimo dance thing involving weird masks. First I was scared. Then I was confused. Then it looked like one of the masks was looking right at me and I was lost in a series of giggle-fits that did not subside until we got back to the hotel. Whatever that was about, it was very well done.
After we Felt Ourselves Russian, we got supper at Pizza Hut and retired back to the hotel. Did you know “Pooty Poot” Vladimir Putin (the current Prime Minister of Russia) is from St. Petersburg? True story.
Nighty Night
Kelly K.

PS: Keep the comments coming! We love hearing from you all. =) And we're trying to post more pictures, but the blog's server and the Russian internet aren't cooperating. We'll keep trying as long as you keep commenting!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Day Four - Arriving in St. Petersburg!

Greetings from St. Petersburg!
We took an overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and were pleasantly surprised by the accommodations.  Bathrooms were clean, bed linens were provided, dinner/breakfast (consisting of pepperoni, bread, and salad) was included, as well as some “fancy” red slippers to roam the hallway.  Four people stayed together in a cabin, and overall, it was an excellent experience.
Once arriving by train, we walked to our hotel; Oktobersky, and got ready to begin our city tour of St. Petersburg.  We were introduced to our St. Petersburg tour guide, Svetlana (who knows Sergai), and were off to the bus for our tour.  We were briefly delayed because of bus problems, but our handy bus driver, Constantine, took out his tools and soon the new Mercedes bus was traveling the streets of the amazing city! Traveling through the streets of St. Petersburg left us in awe of all its beauty.  St. Petersburg is known as the Venice of the North, and we can all attest to this comment.  The city is completely different from Moscow, and the fast hustle isn’t as prominent as it was in Moscow.
On our city tour, Svetlana gave us a quick introduction to the different sites we’ll be seeing and learning about over the next week.  These sites include viewing a Folklore Show called Feel Yourself Russian, touring Isaak’s Cathedral, the Hermitage Museum, the Summer Residence of the Russian Czars.  We’ll also be visiting St. Petersburg University, flea markets, Russia homes for conversations about life in Russia, and much much more!!
We’ll elaborate more on our experiences after we tour the different sites!  We’re all having a blast and learning so much about the Russian culture.  Be ready for some wonderful stories—both educational and entertaining!!
As I’m blogging, it’s 11pm and it's still light out because of the white nights they have during May-June!!!  It messes with our time systems but is fun to experience!
Kelsey S. M.

(This photo was snapped at 10:30 pm--the sun was just setting! White nights are here!)

Day Three- Kremlin and Hanging out with Jane’s friends Natasha and Andre

Hello family and friends!
Today was a busy day and we were all worried it would be long, but it actually went   by very quickly.  We started the day on the metro once again.  We have gotten very good at filing ourselves through, the station in an orderly fashion.  We headed to the Kremlin, seat of Russian government and past home of many Russian Tsars.  First, we toured the Armory, museum of the private collections of the Tsars such as jewelry, clothing, personal possessions and gifts.  We saw beautiful Faberge Easter eggs, tons of gold and jewels, drinking games of the Tsars (J), and beautiful coronation gowns of the Tsarinas.  Many were extremely skinny and we learned that one of the Tsarinas had the smallest waist in Europe—8 inches!!  Also, we learned about one of the past Tsarinas of Russia, Catherine the Great, who spent most of Russia’s money on one of the largest diamonds in the world, and after she died they opened her wardrobes to find 30,000 dresses!!  After this museum, we wondered throughout the Kremlin grounds, going into a couple of the cathedrals, seeing the “largest bell and canon in the world,” and coming feet of the offices of the President of Russia, which was awesome because we never would have been able to do that in the US!
After this we went to a food court and all had pizza because we missed American food J  Then we went outside and took pictures by a fountain.  Wendy took a picture with a snake!  We also had to say goodbye to Sergei today L L L  This moment was very sad, the saddest of our time here.  He was so cute as he walked away because he kept looking back at us.
Then we took another metro to Natasha and Andre’s apartment.  As we walked from the subway to their place, we went to a farmer’s market and bought real fruit- yum!  We sat in their apartment and chatted for a few hours.  It was very nice and we learned a lot from Natasha, who is brilliant!  Their apartment was very nice, but small so everything had to be very compact and efficient, something we are not familiar with at home.  We left their place to go back and get our luggage from the hotel and prepare for our overnight train ride to St. Petersburg.  More from Kelsey later!
P.S. If you are reading this, please please please comment! We want to know if anyone’s out there!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Day two- Tour of Sergiev Passad Monastery
Pribet!  We are finally accustomed to our new sleeping schedule, hotel location and have accumulated a few important Russian phrases and can now fully enjoy trekking around Moscow’s crowded streets to see the sights.  Even Sergei, our knowledgeable guide, has mentioned how much more lively and inquisitiveness we have become.
Our first venture of the day was to Sergiev Posad, which is the home to a beautiful 14th century monastery as well as the famous matryoshka dolls.  We spent the majority of our time there exploring the monastery, admiring the blue and gold onion domes, and learning about Orthodox traditions.  One of the more interesting facts we learned about the Orthodox faith is that there are two different kinds of priests: black and white.  The white priest is able to marry once and become a parish priest.  On the other hand, the black priest is not allowed to get married and can become a more prestigious member of the Orthodox Church, such as a monk or archbishop.  We spent the last hour of our tour at the monastery attempting to differentiate the black priests from the white priests.
For lunch we enjoyed traditional Russian bread and desserts at the monastery and tried to add a few slang words to Sergei’s English lexicon (you know, the usual…dork, nerd, fo shizzle).  He was a good sport J
 We finished the day by perusing the streets of Moscow looking for souvenirs and being entertained by the intricate and face-paced dance moves from Russian high school students.      
Interesting Thought of the Day: Why aren’t there any other tourists?  Tourism does not seem to be a big industry in Russia.  When we visited some of the big sites, there were only a few tourists taking pictures.  There are also not as many vendors selling souvenirs and hassling tourists as there are in other popular sites around the world.  Russia is a beautiful country that is rich in history, art and culture – I wish more people could be here to learn and appreciate it.
Interesting fact of the day: Russian Orthodox priests must be able to sing well and are required to take several music theory courses.  All 300 monks at the Sergiev Posad monastery participate in the “United Choir” (the largest choir in Russia) along with 600 seminary students and many parishioners.    
Meghan R.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Tour of Moscow

Hello from Moscow, what an incredible day. Today we got a chance to experience several of the adventures and sights of the city, learning a tremendous amount about Russian culture, politics and history. The morning started with a busy Russian breakfast at the hotel Cosmos, and we met up with our certified tour guide Sergei , a local and an expert in the goings on of the city.
Our first destination was Christ the Savior Cathedral, a beautiful Cathedral built over 3 generations of Czars (beginning with Nicholas II and finishing in 1887 under his grandson Alexander III). Stalin destroyed the Cathedral in 1931. Then under the rule of Boris Yeltsin, Christ the Savior was rebuilt beginning in 1994 and the exact replica was completed in 1998. Thanks to thousands of pieces salvaged in city archives, the exact replica was able to be built.  
Next we traveled through the old part of the city, down “Lazy Street” (the shortest street in the city) and down St. Barbara St. (the oldest street, named to St. Barbara, the patron saint of merchants), to the New Maiden Nunnery. In the time of Czars, men sent wives to the nunnery so they could remarry and get rid of their wives. It was then converted to a prison during WWII, a museum of “Female Emancipation” in the sixties, and was re-established as a nunnery in 1991. The New Maiden Nunnery is located on the lake that was the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”—a beautiful piece of nature amid all the chaos of the city.
Other highlights included seeing the stadiums of the 1980 Olympics, standing in the Red Square seeing Lenin’s tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral and the red walls of the Kremlin. We drove past Moscow State University known as: “the Wedding Cake of Russia”. We then ventured across the river to an Iconic Russian art gallery, the Tretyakov, getting a chance to view some stunning Russian pieces and learned an immense about them through the expertise of our tour guide.
It has been astounding to learn about “New Russia”, an identity only about 20 years old, but also understanding that WWII and the impact of Communism is an ever present force still shaping the economy, culture, and psyche of Russia and its citizens               .   
We finished the day at a local, traditional Russian café that no one could  pronounce the name of. It has been an adventure already, and its difficult to believe we have only been here for a day and half. We’ve been enjoying the culture and people, the beautiful weather and stunning sights.
We are quickly understanding the meaning behind a quote of Nicolai Gogol, roughly translated as- “There is no measure stick to measure Russia”. 
Gretchen Sitzer
Fun Fact: The first Mother Superior of the New Maiden Nunnery (once reestablished in ’91) was a Professor of Mathematics at Moscow State University.