For over a year I’ve feared writing this post. Luckily for me, over the last twelve months, Russia has done a fine job validating quite a few things I’ll be saying here. The truth. The gods honest truth. My experience in Russia and with Russians over the last year has SUCKED!!! And this was the beginning.
You see this was the beginning of my career as a full time travel journalist. After years of off and on travel work I launched this website and hit the road. Still largely optimistic that western media was full of shit (I still think they are) about eastern Europe and Russia. So I decided to put it to the test. Prior to leaving I applied for a Russian visa. AND WAS DENIED!!!! Plan B
NOTE: Old Military service stuff likely. Going to leave it at that.
Tourist are allowed into Russia by sea for 72 hours without a visa. I contacted Five Star Scandinavia, a U.S. based tour company, and booked my trip. Basically it’s a cruise that takes you around the Baltic Sea for five days. I figured it would be great to see all of these countries I planned to check out again anyway and get into Russia, Visa Free. Easy right. Nahhhhhh. Not with a Russian run cruise line.
SIDENOTE: Five Star Scandinavia were more than helpful. They are a very good company to work with. I in no way blame them for my experience.
THAT ONE TIME I REALIZED I WAS ON THE BOAT FROM HELL
So I’ll reserve telling you all about each country for a later post. We’re going to focus on this “luxury cruise ship” and the Russians that ran it. Let’s start with the ship itself.
I was on the Princess Anastasia. Woooooooo. Getting on the ship was surprisingly simple. Light security even though everyone looked pissed. I chalked it up to the fact it was about -10 degrees and freezing in Helsinki when we boarded. The first thing I noticed was the smell. You know that old Vegas smell? Vomit, sex, cigarettes, liquor, and more vomit? Mix in sea air and that’s the smell.
Anastasia reminded me of the Sahara in Vegas (god rest her soul). Old and dated. Still clinging to her former glory by constantly reminding us it’s a “luxury” ship on every dust covered placard and faded destination poster in the place. My room wasn’t actually terrible. May have been a bit better if I actually had wifi, a radio that isn’t transistor, or location not on the very last deck and in the back of the ship. Did I mention it was right next to the engine room with basically NO OTHER REGULAR GUESTS? (RACISM DING #1?). I was literally housed with the dock workers. No offense but come on.
This places was a nickel and diming ghost town. Until my German heroes showed up (more on them in another post) it was me and a bunch of Russians that seemingly hated me. The ticket was about $500usd. I paid close to that in food, internet, and “entertainment” over five days. And I was being cheap.
The food was disgusting with the exception of one place that hooked me up because the manager was excited to speak English. Nightclub was dead every night. The cinema played movies from two years ago (Pirates of the Caribbean. yes they went there), casino was robbing people, and bar watered down everything until I started flirting with the bartenders. I’ve never worked this hard for a Vodka and OJ in my life.
BUT WAIT. LETS ADD SOME ASSHOLES INTO THE MIX.
I don’t like to play the race card. I think it’s overused so I’ll let you be the judge in the following scenarios.
THE PASSPORT SLIDEEEEEEEEE: I was largely shunned by guest and staff alike. As if I didn’t even exist. Staff didn’t look me in the eyes at all and rarely spoke to me directly. They focused on the computer screen or Russian they were talking to before I arrived. One instance I was handed back my passport by the security guard when re-boarding the ship. He snatched it, looked at my pic and ticket, sat it on his desk and “slide” it to me. I stared at it for about 10 seconds and then he stared at me. A 15 second stare off ensued with no words. Given the circumstances, he won.
KEEP IT MOVING GRINGO: The night before we arrive to Stockholm I walk down to the lobby where a tour counter is for guest. I walk up and there are four young Russians. Early twenties on their phones. I stand there for about a minute and then say excuse me. No answer. Excuse me. No answer. I yell, IZVINITE!!!! ohhhhh now you see me. Now i’m thinking, they may not speak English and my Russian is guidebook basics at best. This cat without looking up from his phone, “May I help you”? MOTHERFUCKER. Here’s how the conversation proceeded.
Me: I’m looking to book a tour in Stockholm
Him: Where is your guide?
Me: I don’t have one. I’m here to book one.
Him: We only give tours in Russian and German
Me: OK. So can I book one?
NOTE: I’m a photographer. I tend to blow off what guides are saying to do my own thing anyway. I just need someone to show me where things are so I can photograph them.
Me: Why not?
Him: We only give tours in Russian and German.
Me: I don’t care. I like German. I’ll take that one.
Him: I cannot sell you a tour. We only give tours in Russian and German.
Now you may say this was lost in translation. A simple misunderstanding. But remember this, at this point he’s speaking PERFECT English and has barely looked up from his phone while talking to me.
WELCOME TO RUSSIA COMRADE…………………..SIKE!!!!!!!!!!
Once we get to St.Petersburg I was excited. Ready to get off this Titanic and get to seeing what I came to see. Almost two hours later I’m still standing in line……..seriously? Finally it’s my turn. And here it goes.
Me: Good Morning
PP control: Good Morning. Welcome. Where are you from?
Me: Texas, United States
PP: Ohhh Texas. Cowboy.
Me: Yup. Cowboys.
PP: So you in the military (pointing at my bag. It’s a fatigue military issue backpack)
Me: I was. I’m a student now.
PP: Oh. So you’re on leave?
Me: No. I left the military. I’m a student now.
PP: Why are you here?
Me: I’m on holiday.
PP: But you said you were a student.
Me: I am. A student on holiday
PP: Wait here. (picks up the phone and calls someone)
Ten minutes go by with him typing on his computer, looking at every page of my passport. Another agent arrives and “helps” him.
PP2: So you’re in the military (pointing at my bag).
Me: No I was. I’m a student now.
PP2: Where’s your guide? (you have to book a guide before you can go into St.Petersburg)
Me: She’s likely outside waiting for me. (I give him here contact info)
PP2: Why isn’t she with you?
Me: Because she’s Russian and lives here in Russia.
PP2: Wait here.
This went on for another 45 minutes. At this point I’ve been trying to get into St.Petersburg for almost 3 hours. I was LIVID at this point. This is why I sympathize anytime I see US Customs being assholes to foreigners.
My trip back to Helsinki was just as sad and miserable, with a few very cool highlights though. I don’t think I’ve painted all Russians as assholes. Just the ones I’ve met, seen, and interacted with. Come back later for the positives post (significantly shorter) and my impressions of each country we visited.