March 2012, St. Petersburg, Russia

In early 2012 I decided to buy a Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-R lens, adapted to Nikon. The problem was that I only knew one guy who could safely perform this non-trivial change, and he was in Russia, from which the import duties added another 26,7% to the price. Having never been to Russia, I checked the plane ticket prices, which turned out to be surprisingly affordable, so instead I arranged some time trade with my girlfriend, and prepared the trip. A visa is mandatory, but turned out to be somewhat time-consuming and fiddly to get, and I realized that my British passport had expired, so I had to renew that as well. Once all the papers had been arranged, I bought the ticket. Note that there is something of a chicken-and-egg problem in getting the visa, since you are meant to put the dates of travel on it, but you obviously don't want to book the ticket until you have the visa. It doesn't matter, just do the visa first with a general frame of dates, and then the ticket, it is a mere formality, a.k.a. a shakedown.

After I arrived, I took a walk around the neighbourhood, which is a suburb of St. Petersburg named Kolpino. It has a bad reputation on some travel sites, but in fact it is just a normal, middle class residential neighbourhood, and other than some rowdy drunks in the evening, could be pretty much anywhere in the western world. The ground is very dusty, owing to the copious amounts of mud which appear in the Russian late winter and early spring, and the buildings have seen better days, but it is populated by very normal people who just happen to be Russian.

By the way, in order to be able to read maps, bus charts, train schedules and dictionaries, I learned (most of) the Russian alphabet before I left. This turned out to be more useful than I thought, since with knowledge of a few other European languages, many words actually sound the same as German or English words when you read them, and so I often didn't even have to look things up, just read them out loud. There were a few letters I had trouble with and didn't seem able to remember, but with a bit more use these would come too. I think I will take a beginner's course in Russian at some point, since I already have a good start in it.

In my motel, there were several warnings, but I never did get around to getting them translated. I hope I committed no inadvertent crime while I was there.
Once I met up with Aleksandr, we grabbed cameras and went for a walk, to do test shots, with the lens I was buying, one I had brought for him (saving shipping and reducing risk; the lens was quite pricy), and one or two others. Here are the results of that. In the evening, I met his charming wife and beautiful little daughter, nearly the same age as mine. In another world, they could have been next-door friends, but in this one, we are lucky if they meet at all. Caroline regularly sees photos of Katie and often asks questions about her. In one photo of Katie, she wears a purple and green wig, and upon seeing this photo, Caroline sighed, and said "soo beautiful"! :)
On the next day I went to St. Petersburg, by train, which was an interesting exercise in trying to speak to people who spoke no English. Presumably due to the cold war, or possibly due to modern Germans being ferocious travellers, I would just as often find Russians who spoke a little German as ones who spoke a little English, so that doubled my chances of being able to communicate.

The first place I ended up entering was the "Church of the Saviour on Blood", a strangely named traditional Russian style church: This church was built on the land where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated.

After that I strolled down to the river, past another couple of impressive buildings, and into the Hermitage. St. Petersburg is really a very beautiful city, with stunning architecture. When Russia has had a bit longer to recover from communist (and oligarch) rule, it will surely be a truly wonderful place to live. For now, it remains a harder living than Europe, with less security in life, more work for less pay, and often surprisingly expensive goods.

Back out again (I could have spent a week there; I just visited the more interesting (to me) corners, and left much of the rest unseen), I strolled back past the St, Isaac Cathedral and the canals, and then bumped into a very large collection of serious-looking police officers. I hastily went by, sneakily making a photo by cellphone. When in a country you don't know, this is not something you take chances with. I never did find out what the problem was, if indeed there was any. Maybe it was just a picnic.
On the last day, a few more test shots, and a portrait of me with the Russian Bear. Spasibo, Aleks!