How I spent my summer vacation…

Whew. Where to begin?

Richie and I have just returned from a whirlwind of plane flights. We spent 12 days in Russia and Iceland, and when we were going through the security line to return to Budapest from Reykjavik, we learned that his grandfather had passed away from his cancer. We returned to Budapest and did a hasty unpack/laundry/repack before setting off for the U.S. to be with family.

Our trips to Russia and Iceland were so jam-packed with activity that it’s absolutely impossible to cram it into one entry, and even my entry on just Moscow was starting to approach thesis length. So this is the first of probably four posts on our adventures.

Several of Richie’s relatives joked with us this past week that they had been worried that we might not be let out of Russia. We replied that we had been more worried that we wouldn’t be let in. The Russian visa application is infamous for its length, its demands, and its expense, and once the visa is received, it is only granted for the specific dates requested in your application (unlike many other countries, whose visas generally grant 30, 60 or 90-day periods of entry and exit). The application requires that you provide the exact date of entry for every country you’ve visited in the past ten years. Lucky me – my study abroad at A&M was exactly 9 years and 11 months before our application – so in addition to the many countries we’ve visited since living in Budapest, I had to dig through my digital photo files to figure out where I was on a given day in the summer of 2003. (All of those entries and exits are stamped in my old passport before I changed my last name… which is somewhere in a safety deposit box in Texas.)

In addition, you have to turn your passport over to the Russian embassy while they are processing the visa – no copies allowed – and the application must take place within a certain number of days of your planned arrival (I think 60?). We had originally hoped to visit Russia last year, but Richie needed his passport for business trips during the time period that it would’ve been held by the embassy. Luckily, this summer we had no such complications, and we were cleared for entry without any issues.

Our time in Moscow and St. Petersburg made it clear that most Americans don’t make the trip to Russia, probably because of the cost of the visa. While we were there, we heard almost no English spoken, even in the most touristy areas. Restaurants generally had a few menus in English, but they were usually tucked in the very back or, in one case, nonexistent. The majority of tourists appeared to be from the former Soviet states, which makes sense – the entry requirements are less stringent, and they generally speak Russian. Still, despite being the obvious tourist having to use lots of gestures, we didn’t feel any hostility or rudeness. People were very welcoming.

We also had no trouble finding our way around despite the language barrier, primarily due to the excellent metro system. In Moscow, the metro lines access every part of the city, with a metro loop near the city center that connects all of the lines. Each trip costs less than $1, and the system is clean and well-maintained. One thing that made us laugh is that the metro cars are the exact same kind used on line 3 here in Budapest – except theirs are in much better condition. One of Richie’s Hungarian coworkers pointed out that the ones in Budapest were the old castoffs from the USSR, so naturally they’re in worse condition.

Our time in Russia was wonderful, and for those who can, I would absolutely recommend visiting. I’ll dive deeper into Moscow and St. Petersburg in my next two posts, but overall, the cities were beautiful, safe, and clean, and I left with a much different impression than I had previously had. I still don’t want to live there (ahem, Richie) but it is absolutely a worthwhile visit.

Up next: Details of our time in Moscow!

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