The longest day of the year has passed and from now on the days will slowly grow shorter. In Sweden people are still waiting for some warmth of summer. Here are some photos from the Midsommar holiday in Sweden. The traditions are strong but rather homogenized with families around the whole country making the midsummer poles and dancing around them. I wonder how this tradition became the dominant one and what other traditions may have died out. This year was particularly rainy, but still fun with children tying flowers onto the pole and then dancing around them like frogs.
Öland is a very long thin island separated from the mainland of Sweden by the bridge from Kalmar. Kalmar is dominated by a castle where a treaty was signed in 1397 to unite the Norwegian, Swedish and Danish kingdoms. This union lasted officially until 1523. This Midsommar was my first visit to this very popular Swedish tourist destination. The southern part of Öland is a UNESCO heritage site with quaint villages surrounded by pastures and the Baltic Sea. At the southern tip of the island is the Ottenby ornithological station, and a picturesque lighthouse. The sunset at 10 pm on the solstice day was stunning. But apparently a lot of people had the same idea to spend Midsommar on the island: I have never seen a traffic jam like that in Sweden going home over the bridge.
No more traveling for a while, and I am focusing on getting some writing done. I have heard similar things from professors on sabbatical: procrastination is inevitable.
After catching some birds in the morning, I left the Kaliningrad village of Rybachy, flew to Saint Petersburg, and heard a concert of Mussorgsky and Mahler that night. It is an incredible European city; in my opinion on the same world level as Paris, Rome or London. It seems that a lot of people create top 10 lists these days. Here is mine for visiting St. Petersburg:
1: The Hermitage Museum: This museum can only be called “grand”. It is opulent and huge and definitely worth getting the visa for Russia. I was there for an entire day, and just got a taste of the vastness. Each room could be a museum in itself. The paintings by Rembrandt are well known. But new to me was all the wealth exhibited in the Diamond Treasury. There is a serving set for Catherine the Great made of 45 kilos of pure gold. There is a horse saddle with 16,000 diamonds. I also liked seeing the ancient Siberian items, and one of the first known carpets from more than 2000 years ago. The museum goes on and on with each room full of baroque extravagance. This is definitely now one of my favorite museums in the world.
2: The Mariinsky Ballet: This city is fanatical about ballet, like Brazilians are about football or some Americans about baseball. I saw a performance at the beautiful Mariinsky Theater, featuring their top 3 male dancers. The audience went wild. It was some of the best ballet dancing I have seen. This is the place where Baryshnikov, Nijinsky and Nureyev came from. The next big names to watch out for are Igor Kolb, Danila Korsuntsev and Yevgeny Ivanchenko. I also saw an impressive orchestra concert at the new Mariinsky 2 sister theater.
3: White nights: It doesn’t get dark in June. Nobody seems to sleep, and the city is full of life late into the night. Last night, after the ballet ended at 11 pm, I walked through the parks, and heard street musicians, and saw thousands of locals just enjoying the evening.
3: Not many tourists: Yes, there are a lot of tourists, but seemingly few from Western Europe and the USA. I saw plenty from China, Japan and India, but the majority of tourists are Russian. Russian politics with Putin in charge can be dreadful, but the Russian people that I met are welcoming to tourists. My opinion is that we should foster more cross-cultural exchange and promote openness. Instead of blockades and sanctions, I think that the governments of the world should promote mandatory student exchange programs. It is strange that I see more Americans in Vilnius than St. Petersburg.
4: St. Petersburg is not expensive: I am staying at very Russian hotel right near the Hermitage Winter Palace, and it is less than $38 USD a night. I wouldn’t recommend it: the bedbugs are a real bummer. But there are deals and this is peak season right now. Restaurants are cheap compared to Western Europe. Taxis are about $6 to go anywhere in the central part of the city. The Russian ruble has collapsed, which makes it hard for the Russians to travel, but it is a great time for people with Euros or especially US Dollars.
5: Vegan St. Petersburg: I have found some great vegetarian/vegan places to eat here. The Happy Cow website is my indispensable travel companion. My favorite was a little apartment where a friendly guy named Fadi makes fresh falafel. It is very hard to find, because it is basically not a restaurant but a private “hang out space”. Address is Dumskaya 5/22 flat 68. The falafel was delicious and the adorable kitty will sit on your lap while your eating. I also liked the vegan buffets at Rada and K, and Samadeva. It is easy to be vegan here.
6: Peterhof – the Great Summer Palace: The hydrofoil costs 1250 Rubles ($23) round trip and it is definitely worth it for the speedy 40 minute trip to see the extravagant fountains at Peterhof. This was all destroyed during WWII, but now it is fully restored and enticing to the swarms of Russian tourists. I now understand much more about Russian history: I would have certainly revolted and joined the Bolsheviks had I lived in Russia in the early part of the 20th century. The extravagance of the Czars is just unreal. My concern is that now in the 21st century, the income disparities throughout the world are again widening to such a point that it may be time for another revolution.
7: Many more museums: I also enjoyed the Russian Museum full of landscapes, portraits and huge romantic paintings. The Erarta museum of modern art is a little harder to get to, but worth seeing what is going on in contemporary Russian art today. The interior of the Church on the Spilled blood is magnificent with its many mosaic Jesuses. There are dozens of museums to choose from.
8: The inherent beauty of the city: The city is built on rivers and canals, and the architecture is bold and striking. The buildings could use some touch up paint in most cases, but this adds to the charm. The huge Soviet cement block apartments are in the suburbs. Despite being relatively young, inaugurated in the early 1700’s, this city has had its share of world history.
9: Public transportation: The metro is fun and fast. I like how on the V3 Green line, the subway doors open up behind walls, so each compartment is like a showcase. The escalators go very very deep and sometimes the escalator ride takes longer than the train ride. It is a cheap and fast way to get around the city. Buses are great too. I am sure there are traffic jams, but this is a very walkable city.
10: Smiling friendly Russians: The Lonely Planet book states “It is not unusual for foreigners to find Russians quite brusque and even unfriendly”. I don’t speak Russian, but everywhere I have been, be it on the bus, at the museums, in restaurants or walking around, the people have smiled to me and whenever they know a little English, they are eager to talk. Definitely friendly.
Don’t worry, I won’t be defecting to Russia any time soon, but I find that St. Petersburg is surprisingly wonderful.
The trees, flowers, birds and sea look the same on both sides of the border, but it certainly takes some effort to get to the Russian side. Now I am at the Rybachy Biological Research Station, one of the oldest and best-known ornithological laboratories in the world.
It is about a 4-hour drive from Vilnius to Klaipėda, on a fast highway that directly crosses the country. Then it is a short boat ride to Neringa and the Kuršių Nerijos national park. Another 40 minutes south past Lithuanian resort villages gets us to the Russian border. I had the visa so that was no problem, but for some unexplained reason, they seem to hold Lithuanian cars at the border. One Lithuanian guy was there already for 4 hours, and he had once been held up for 22 hours. He said that the Latvian and Polish cars have no problems getting through, and he blamed it on the Lithuanian president Grybauskaitė, who has soured relations between the two countries. We waited about 2 hours before they finally, unexplainably, let us through. In the meantime, I started taking some photos, and one guard was certainly happy to let me take photos of Audrey, the patrol dog. But another border guard was not so supportive of my photo essay, and made me erase my pictures. I erased one, but not all of them, and he was fine with that. The laws all seem very arbitrary. So here are some rare photos of the border between Lithuania and Russia on the Curonian Spit.
The nature is beautiful on this strip of land sandwiched between the waters of the Baltic Sea. Pine trees and sand dunes, spring flowers and specks of amber next to the shells on the beach.
This morning I got to witness a project studying Pied flycatchers and their nest boxes. Scientists have long term tracking data of these birds, and also their blood parasites, like malaria. The station is famous for its huge Rybachy traps, where the birds fly into a huge net and are funneled into a small opening at the end. They catch and band up to 100,000 birds some years.
A birthday party in Russia: lots of food on the table, much of it that we brought from Lithuania. Friendly warm spirited toasts in Russian around the table, and I learned that the third toast is to the parents, for creating the person we celebrate. Generous friendly happy scientists in Russia welcome me as if I belong here and should plan to work here for many more years.
Here are a couple photos of the full moon of June in Vilnius. I flew here last night from Stockholm with the cheap convenient Norwegian airlines. Now it is summer, and my sabbatical from San Francisco State University is officially finished, but I will be based here until the beginning of the Fall semester. This is the time in Northern Europe when people come out to enjoy the long days, and activate their bodies among the green trees and spring flowers.
Stockholm has a rich maritime history and most tourists visit the Vasa Museum with its preserved ship that sunk on her maiden voyage in 1628. Now there are boats that take people to the archipelago, and cruise ships that shuttle them back and forth to Finland. You can use the same SL subway card on some of the boats, as an extension of the bus system. On a summer day, these boats are full of locals going out for the day to enjoy the serene beauty of the hundreds of small islands.
This year the Stockholm marathon took place on a cold rainy day. I have been running regularly, but no way could I do a marathon, and certainly not in the rain!
Now is the time for bird watching, and I was impressed by the large colony of grey herons living in Djurgården within Stockholm city. Next week I will be doing some field work with birds in the Kaliningrad region of Russia followed by some more cultural adventures. At this point, San Francisco seems very far away, and I think I would be longing for the California life if I knew I wasn’t going back.