First a word about St. Petersburg, a truly beautiful and unique city. I spent the summer studying Russian there in 1986 when it was Leningrad. All these years later, and after considerable political and economic upheaval, the city looks surprisingly the same. It is a city of stately pastel-colored buildings lining endless natural and man-made waterways. This is a city for walking, where every curve of a canal yields another gorgeous vista.
Fortunately, the Communists did pretty limited damage to the place. They mostly just let all those gorgeous old buildings slide into gradual decay. During my stay 27 years ago, the city’s magical allure was still there, lying just under a film of grayness and bureaucracy. Today much of the sparkle has returned through the buzz of economic activity, breath-taking renovations, and even just the fashions on parade.
There is one thing we certainly will not miss about Russia: its government’s grotesque displays of willful ignorance. During our visit, both chambers of the Russian parliament unanimously passed legislation to ban ‘gay propaganda.’ They also passed a law to ban adoption of Russian children by same-sex foreign couples. Much better to let those kids suffer in their orphanages than grow up in loving homes in the modern world.
It’s all such a bizarre contrast with the joyous news of progress from back home and so much of the rest of the world — including Helsinki where we happened upon a vibrant Gay Pride parade today. Yet it fits so comfortably into the broken record of Russian history. For centuries Russia has been conflicted about whether to be part of the modern world or to thumb its nose at the West and sulk in some state of willful backwardness. Today, one autocratic leaning figure is leading Russia again in the wrong direction. I didn’t want to get too ‘political’ while we were in his autocracy, but today I’ll say what I think: President Putin, you unequivocally suck.
As we boarded that train for Helsinki, the contrasts between wealthy, modern Scandinavia and its plodding Eastern neighbor became palpable fast. The sleek Finnish ‘Allegro’ train was so shiny and fast. As its speed hit 200 km/hour, we were whizzing through the countryside like never at any point in the 5,000-plus stretch across Russia.
The restaurant car was friendly, clean, and efficient. On the trains in Russia, they would have a huge menu with dozens of dishes listed under lots of categories. But since they never had most of those dishes we learned to ask, “which things do you have?” On this Finnish train the food was delicious (with steep Scandinavian prices to match), and they apparently don’t put things on the menu unless they intend to serve them. Interesting approach.
Here in Helsinki we are now practically in a state of “reverse culture shock,” marveling at how modern, efficient, and beautiful Scandinavia is.
And the food! Scandinavia has been at the forefront of the world’s food scene the past few years, and we were amazed by dinner last night. Once you get over the sticker shock — food is just insanely expensive here — it’s an incredible experience. This innovative cuisine focuses on super fresh produce, and they somehow do magical things with it. Every dish at dinner last night was stunning. Hope this holds up for a few days!