Thursday, July 18, 2002

Chapter 6: The wonders of the Hermitage Winter Palace and meeting Natasha E.

July 18, 2002

(Note: The reason I put Natasha E. in the chapter title is so as to not confuse her with Natalia T., my backup girl from Anastasia Web Agency)

As the three of us approached the giant gate of the Hermitage Winter Palace, we marveled at it's size. Its interior was decorated in splendor, and it was very crowded inside with both Russians and foreign tourists. I knew from my travel guide book that there was a cheaper fare for Russians and a more expensive fare for foreigners. I was hoping to try to get the local fare. When we got to the ticket office, they automatically charged me the foreign fare of $10 rather than the local fare of $2. Jasson had to pay the same fare as me but Jesús got the local fare somehow because of some special pass he had. We then were directed to leave our backpacks with some luggage clerks who took it and gave us a number tag claim. We made sure to get our cameras and video camera out first. As we went through the guards and ticket takers, one of them suddenly pointed to our cameras and we realized that we had to pay extra for bringing in cameras and camcorders. We went back and paid another hundred rubles for a ticket to do that, and came back in again.

After we climbed the first grand staircase to the first level (or is it second level?) we realized we were immediately in a labyrinth. There wasn't only one way to go either, there were multiple forks and turns at ever corridor, hall, and room. We knew we had to stick together because if we got lost, there would be no way to find each other and no intercom was set up there (and even if there was an intercom, I'm not sure how it would help anyway lol). Although the antiques, paintings, and relics were beautiful and grande, it was difficult for me to enjoy it all because the heat inside was incredible, and I constantly sweated a lot even though I rarely sweat in general. There was no air conditioning inside like there would have been in the states, and it was humid as well. And to make matters worse, the thousands of people around us inside raised the temperature in there with their body heat as well! Had it been cool, it would have been much more enjoyable. The relics and paintings here were not just from Russia, but from all over the world too.

(Some hot girls I was admiring)

As we went from room to room, hall to hall, in the labyrinth, taking pictures and video footage, I suddenly was not even sure anymore whether we were passing the same area twice or if this was new territory. It was hard to tell, so I kept asking "Have we been here before?" My bad sense of direction didn't help either. There were also little kiosks scattered throughout the Winter Palace which sold books and souvenirs on the Hermitage. We chatted and made small talk with some of the girls working at these kiosks and they taught us some Russian and were very friendly and open.

(Jesus with a girl selling souvenirs)

When we got to some windows, we looked outside at the humungus courtyard that lay in the center of all the buildings of this palace. Just to give you an idea, it looked about as big as the big courtyard in the middle of "The Forbidden City" did in the movie "The Last Emperor." Because of my vivid imagination and interest in military history, I imagined a vast army belonging to the Czar lined up in that courtyard in formations and beautifully tailored uniforms. However, rather than an army, the courtyard was lined with dozens of tour buses. We noticed plenty of tour groups everywhere in there, with the guide holding up number signs so their group members can keep track of where they were. As we passed these groups, we heard mostly European languages being spoken by the guides. But there were tour groups from all over the world in every language.

Eventually, we ascended to the second and third floors of the palace too. The third floor was mainly a small painting gallery with a gift shop inside. After that, we decided we had had enough and should begin descending to the exit. My feet were killing me at that point too. As we began trying to find our way down, we realized there was still plenty of areas of the palace museum that we missed, so we stopped in them along the way.

At one point, we passed through a big red room with a giant pot in the center. As I was filming footage of it with my camcorder, Jasson and Jesús passed to the next room. I started making my way to follow them when a girl with a great firm hardbody and dark brown hair tied in a braided pony tail walked by. The back of her looked a lot like the back of the video game character Lara Croft on the game "Tomb Raider".

Wanting to get a shot of her great looking backside, I turned the camera at her and walked forward. When she turned around, I turned off the recording in my camera. Immediately she made eye contact with me. I stared at her back and smiled. She looked like she had something to say to me, so I waited to see what she was going to do. After a few seconds of staring at each other, she said something, and I said "What?" And she said "You from Japan?" and I said "Me? Oh no, I'm from America, but I'm Chinese American. You?" to which she replied "Russian." She appeared interested in conversing further, so we did. Although she barely spoke any English, we at least made attempts to communicate with my dictionary and breaking our messages into small parts. I noticed that she sort of had an Eastern exotic look to her, though not Asian or Indian or Arabic. It's very difficult to describe. After a while, since I got good friendly interested vibes from her, I asked if I could call her and she said nodded. Borrowing a pen from someone nearby again, I got out some paper and wrote her my number at the hostel (I had no direct line there but people could call and leave messages with the receptionist), my email and number in the USA. I gave her a delicate brown piece of receipt paper and she wrote her hotel phone number, room number (so I could ask for the extension to her room, get your mind out of the gutter!), and mobile telephone number.

As we were doing this, Jasson and Jesús came back for me to see what the delay was. When they saw me and this girl writing stuff down for each other, they immediately knew what was going on and became patient in waiting for me. After we were done exchanging numbers, I introduced them all. Her name, she said, was Natasha. As we mingled for a bit, I noticed and liked how perky her personality was. She had a way of making you feel likable and giggly with her perky cute smile and voice. Her attitude and perkiness was contagious and I felt good and upbeat just being around her. As we mingled, we suddenly took out our camcorders and decided to film each other. Natasha also took out hers as well. It was a small flat square shaped video camera and looked very expensive. "She must come from a rich family" I thought. When I also noticed that she had braces, I thought that she must definitely come from an affluent family if she can afford that as well because so far I haven't seen anyone else in Russia with braces. We all filmed clips of each other introducing each other with our three camcorders. I also got a picture of me and Natasha taken with my camera by one of my friends.

Afterward, as we asked about each other, we found out that Natasha was lost and looking for her friend. I kept trying to ask her "Where did you last see her?" but she didn't understand my question. Finally, I led her out of the room to find a staff person. When I did, I explained to the staff person in English that Natasha was lost and asked if she could help her. The staff person spoke to Natasha in Russian for a while, and then told me that there was nothing they could do and that she would have to go wait at the front entrance for her friend. She also seemed to say that Natasha was part of a tour, so I asked "Can't you track down where this tour is right now?" and she replied "Russian tours are not like European tours. They do not wait for you. The only thing she can do now is wait at the front entrance." Natasha seemed in a hurry so she started walking toward the front entrance and I waved her goodbye.

As she walked off, I looked at her great looking back body side again and thought "I can't believe I just made eye contact with a good looking girl like that across a crowded room and just exchanged phone numbers like that! That NEVER happens in the USA! Russia sure is VERY different after all! I hope she really likes me. She gave me a lot of good vibes. I'll definitely call her tomorrow and I hope we get together soon. Perhaps Olga ditching me today was a blessing after all since I met someone far more interesting." Then I rejoined Jasson and Jesús and we slowly made our way to the entrance we came in through earlier.

When we got outside, I noticed that Natasha was standing out there re-united with her friend, who was a short blonde girl. I went up to her again and said "So you found your friend!" and she introduced her friend with the same name as her, Natasha again. As the five of us mingled, Jasson suddenly began chatting with two Arabic girls nearby. As me and Natasha were trying to understand each other, Jasson came forward with the two Arabic girls and told me that these Arabic girls could speak both Russian and Arabic and could translate between me and Natasha. I said "But I don't speak Arabic" and he replied "Ah but I do, so you just tell me your message in English, and I'll translate it into Arabic to these two girls, and they will translate it into Russian to Natasha." A light bulb clicked within me. "That's a great idea!" I said. So I began relaying messages through this process, to Jasson in English, then he to the Arabic girls in Arabic, and them to Natasha in Russian. Natasha replied by going the opposite way, to the Arabic girls in Russian, who in turn translated to Jasson in Arabic, who in turn translated to me in English. It was a perfect combination. I was amazed at the teamwork that was going on here. It seemed that outer forces were helping me get to know Natasha. Everything seemed to be clicking. I took this all as a good sign. Finally, Natasha relayed to me through the process that she and her friend were on their way to see the ballet, and that I could come with them if I wanted to. I didn't want to impose, and plus me and my friends already had plans to go explore St. Isaacs Cathedral after this, so I suggested that I call her tomorrow and we could just meet then. She relayed that that was a good plan, so we said our goodbyes and departed. I thanked the two Arabic girls for their help and we went on our way.