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Adventure through Estonia and Russia
Words and Photos by Karen Palmquist

We knew it'd be trouble when we picked up our electric-blue Seat at the AVIS car rental in downtown Tallinn. The car glistened in the Estonian winter sun, casting a bluish shadow on bystanders. Wary, we asked if they had something a little less conspicuous, like a rust-covered Lada. No luck. It was either glow-in-the-dark Seat or no car at all. AVIS, we had found out through many phone calls, was the only rental company that allowed customers to drive its cars over the border to Russia. We needed to get to St. Petersburg; it was too late to catch the train. Elena and I threw in our bags and headed for the highway.

After a pretty uneventful drive to the border, the fun started in the Estonian border town of Narva. To cross the border, we were told, we had to pay a newly instated border-crossing tax. That had to be done at a booth inside a gated industrial area at the other side of town. But first we had to pick up the ticket to pay the tax. Of course the two people who work in the booth where you pick up the ticket to pay for the tax can't take your money. That has to be done by two people in another booth, who can't issue the tax receipt. That has to be done by two people at a third window. And the two people who issue the receipt can't open the gate so you can get out. That has to be done by a guy who just happens to be on his break. And they still manage to have an unemployment rate of 18 per cent in this town. Don't ask me how.

Young soldiers in Admiratelsky Park, St. Petersburg

Then followed a thorough two-hour inspection at the border of us, our papers and our car. The thermometer hit minus five Fahrenheit that day and our teeth chattered as we answered the border guards' questions. Vacation in Russia in February? Now, what were we really going to do there? After a good hour of interrogation, they went on to inspect the car. That's when we found out that the lock to the trunk of the car that frozen solid in the cold. Very suspicious. Slowly they started to take the car apart, cushion by cushion.



A kilometer or two into the Russian side we had our first, of what would be countless, encounter with the Russian traffic police. We were speeding. 83 kilometers an hour. Speed limit was 60. Pretty sure we had not been speeding, but still a little afraid to argue with a Russian officer, we paid up. We haggled the fine down to ten percent of the initial asking price and paid, in dollars. When I politely asked for a receipt in very broken Russian, we got what looked like a couple of movie stubs. Maybe the stubs said speeding ticket; maybe they said 'one free popcorn'. I couldn't say.

Another kilometer or so down the road we were stopped again. This time we managed to talk our way out of a fine. And so we continued all the way to St. Petersburg. Start, stop, start, stop. Sometimes we paid, sometimes we didn't. And that's how the first word Elena learned in Russian was straff, Russian for fine. Straff means punishment in my native language, Swedish, and the alleged speeding was our crime. Rather fitting, driving, as we were, to the setting of Dostoyevsky's famous novel.

Church of the Resurrection, a short walk from the famed Hermitage

A few hours later, we reached our destination and checked into an old Intourist hotel (the state-owned tourism agency during Soviet times) on the Vyborg side of St. Petersburg. Intourist hotels seem to have been built using the same floor plan regardless of the location. This one differed only in one detail from other ones I've stayed in: the playing mirror in our room. At 7:30 promptly every day, our mirror started playing Swan Lake. A quick examination the first morning revealed speakers in the wooden frame and a couple of buttons along the bottom side. One button to turn on a flickering acid light, another to turn off Swan Lake.

The new capitalist Russia has fostered a rather entrepreneurial spirit not just in the traffic police, but also in hotel staff and parking lot attendants. My argument that a parking space is a parking space, and we should pay for the room our car takes up, was cheerfully ignored by the parking lot attendant. 'Nice car, pay more'.

In addition to fines and fees, the new capitalistic system is evident in curious little details, like sponsored street signs. When we first saw 'Versace Street' we didn't think much of it. 'USA Today Street' raised our eyebrows.

Regular street signs, on the rare occasion that you see one, are in Cyrillic letters only. Outside the city there simply aren't any signs and drivers are forced to choose a highway on a hunch.

Shoppers on Nevsky prospekt, St. Petersburg’s main street

Frustrating as it might be at times, there is something captivating about St. Petersburg. Where other cities look dreary in winter sleet, St. Petersburg is still beautiful with mild yellow and green buildings. Peeling paint and rundown buildings do not diminish the splendor of the Tsar Empire's capital.

After a few days in St. Petersburg, we started our start-stop trip back. It didn't start out well. Driving down main street, Nevsky Prospekt, we were stopped three times within five hundred meters. We were speeding. 83 kilometers an hour. All three times. Seat is pretty powerful car, being able to accelerate to 83 kilometers an hour three times within five hundred meters. And in city traffic no less. I think the GAI, the armed Russian traffic police, learn two English phrases at the academy. Speeding. 83 kilometers. No need to say more. A hand firmly planted on that big gun says the rest.

Twice on the way back, Elena had to go into a roadside shack and negotiate a fine with the officers. One officer would stay behind and make sure I didn't get out of the car. In the shack, a nifty invisible radar reported the speed. 83 kilometers an hour. The fines varied between five and twelve dollars, and were, of course, payable up front.

Scary as it might sound, we never felt really threatened. More annoyed. They're opportunists. We're the opportunity. We're going back, and we're driving. We're taking a longer trip this time. We hear Ukraine is really pretty this time of year.