Where's Sam the Man

48 countries, 12 months, one man, half a brain

Name: Samuel Hathaway
Location: Roaming..., Germany

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Baltic States

The Baltic States -- an sweeping term that covers the distinctly different countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania -- have been some of the great success stories in Europe. Despite being squeezed by Sweden, Poland, Russia, and, most recently, the USSR, the peoples of these countries have maintained a proud national identity and culture that lead to their recent independence. Although young as independent nations (this is only the the sixteenth year of Latvia's independence) and left with a crumbling economy by their retreating conquerors, the Baltic States have risen to join NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, and have built up some of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

After taking a train from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Tallinn, Estonia, my father and I began our bike tour in the thick pine forests and wonderfully preserved old towns of these states. The unmistakable touch of communism is still seen, with stark grey cubes rising alongside medieval towers, but much of the historical towns still remains. Everything seems to be built on a charmingly miniature scale -- from the castle wall to the carefully-tended parks. It does not, like St. Petersburg, awe you with size and grandeur, but it does not overwhelm; you can wander the delicate gardens and cobblestone streets without a 20-foot stone giant swinging his dagger at you from a pedastel at the fortress gate. They are built on a refreshingly human scale, instead of that of gods and godesses that Peter the Great had in mind. The people take great pride in their countries, and one of of the first steps they seem to have taken after independence was to restore their cities to their former beauty. It took some fierce scrubbing to clean away the communist grime -- indeed, some still remains -- but the sparkle of Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian culture is beginning to show.

Although we biked and strolled boulevards in each country, our real experiance came in Riga, the capital city of Latvia. Rather than our ignorant strollings, we had the pleasure of a guided tour by the charming Miss Zanda Treija -- a native Rigan who actually became acquainted with my family in Montevideo, while she was staying with Paul and Sandy Thompson. She played the gracious host of two sweaty, spandex-clad bikers (people I certainly wouldn't want in my house), and lead us around her city. It's exciting to see a city in the midst of such a wonderful transformation: to see smog wiped from copper domes, Art Nouveou facades shining again, streets laid with fresh cobblestone, etc. Although there are still reminders of their difficult past, these brilliant monuments to prosperity, blooming throughout the city, gives evidence of the energy and enthusiasm of the Latvian culture. We not only saw this during our walk, but we had the opportunity of hearing it for ourselves from Zanda. She never tired of explaining her history, pointing out the present delights of her culture, and envisioning how her country would develop.

You can't help but leave the town full of admiration for Latvians' drive, and excited for what's in store for their country. At least, not if you had the guide that we had! To the Treija family: best of luck, and thank you for sharing your country with us!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

St. Pete pictures

Ahh, that elusive Russian touch

Take a look above the window...

The Hermitage, and some drunk who wouldn't get out of the picture
Peter the Great's lake cabin

The lake cabin's private chapel

Monday, September 10, 2007

Санкт-Летербург, Россия (Saint Petersburg, Russia)

I arrived in St. Petersburg on September 6, feeling like Lenin returning from exile as a tinny Russian anthem was cranked into the air from Soviet-era speakers. It was a strange contrast: grand symphonic music projecting from a crumbling station that was probably maintained last when the speakers were installed. But St. Petersburg itself is a contrast, of grand extremes.

I have never before seen a city on this scale; the size of Peter the Great's vision is staggering. The idea behind his city was not just to build a gateway to the thriving western nations (St. Pete is located on the Baltic Sea, allowing water access to these nations), but also to trumpet Russia's success by western standards. Before building the city, Peter traveled around Europe as a humble shipbuilder, learning for himself what was great and beautiful across Europe. After travel, he washed the grime off his hands, pulled out his notes, recruited 40,000 serfs (per year)and, in 1703, got busy.

His vision was a "Venice of the North," a city of waterways and canals that would be unrivaled in its grandeur and sophistication. The greatest artists in the world were called in to design the buildings, parks, canals, etc. Peter held nothing back that the mighty Russian Empire could offer; anything that would make the city more breath-taking or cultured or unique was encouraged. Whatever he had found that made the west "great" was skimmed during his travels and incorperated into the city. Nobility, too, were called from throughout Russia and settled in the city. It was the Russian capital for over two hundred years. Although Peter's early death slowly killed the city's development, he lived long enough to create a city of incredible size and magnificence.

Like most things in Russia, however, time and Soviet rule have clouded the brilliance of the empire's remains. Walking along its streets, you are feel the same as when you see the wreck of the Titanic. You are struck with awe that something so massive and grand could appear in front of you as something humbled and corroding. The gay blues, yellow, and pinks of the sweeping arches have worn back to the dull sandstone. The broad boulevards are chained down by hundreds of rusting tram cables. The bright copper limbs of the gods and goddesses flying up the facades has aged past a proud green to a mouldy grey, coated with smog. The people rushing along the polluted streets, their eyes distracted with Blackberries and and ears plugged with headphones, seem oblivious to the faint echoes of opulance that rear up on either side.

It's easy to be distracted by the decay, but the grand dream of Peter the Great can still be seen. Nothing short of leveling the city could hide the proud splendor found in its streets. Despite historical and real divisions of politics and society, St. Petersburg still stands as a monument to civilization.