Our trip to Germany and Russia, Summer 2002 (Chris Friedrichs)
Rhoda and I returned on Friday from a very successful trip to Germany and Russia. I left on June 19 and did some
travelling for ten days in southern Germany and Switzerland. Then beginning on July 1 I spent a month as a visiting
fellow at the Max-Planck-Institut für Geschichte in Göttingen. Rhoda joined me there in mid-July, after spending a
few days in London. On July 31 we left for nine days in Russia to see St. Petersburg and some of the surrounding
During the early part of my trip I visited friends and relatives in Frankfurt, Munich and Augsburg and spent a day in
Constance, where I hope to spend part of my sabbatical in 2004. In Augsburg I was able to attend Barbara's
Abiturball, i.e. her high school graduation ball, which turned out to be a combination of a senior prom and a series
of skits in which teachers were toasted or roasted. As Barbara was one of the emcees she was on stage for most
of the evening. I also went to Lucerne, Switzerland for a day and a half, chiefly to attend a circus in which the
daughter of friends is the trapeze star.
It was very pleasant to be in Göttingen. The institute was most hospitable and the little apartment in which we lived
was very comfortable. It was certainly interesting to spend a month in a city which had played such an important
role in our family's history. Around the corner from the institute was the house in which the Courants lived from
1927 to 1933--a fact duly noted by a big plaque on the front of the house. Just a few streets away from the
institute was the house on the Nonnenstieg where we had all lived for a few weeks in the summer of 1955--and two
blocks from the house I found the woods where we often played. While in Göttingen I also came across some
interesting new information about Dad and Richard Courant, but I won't try to summarize all of that in this message.
Our trip to St. Petersburg was exceptionally rewarding. Rhoda had been to Russia once, as a teenager, but I had
never been there and I was eager to finally see a city I had so often mentioned in my teaching. In addition to seeing
the city itself we visited some of the remarkable palaces of the tsars in the surrounding countryside. We also spent
a day and a half in Novgorod, which is the oldest city in Russia, founded by the Vikings in the ninth century. It has
a medieval kremlin and about seventy churches, of which a few are open to the public.
Despite globalization, St. Petersburg is a strikingly unilingual city--few people seem to know any second language
and even kiosks in the main train stations do not carry any publications in languages other than Russian. In this
respect St. Petersburg is different from any other European city we have ever visited. Fortunately Rhoda had a
year of Russian in college and spent some time in Göttingen brushing up her knowledge of the language. So when
we got to Russia she was able to read signs and communicate our basic needs very effectively.
St. Petersburg is a remarkably beautiful city. The long rows of palaces and other buildings along both sides of the
Neva river as well as the network of canals, bridges and streets give the city tremendous visual richness. What is
particularly striking is that since the First World War almost no new buildings have been constructed in the central
parts of the city; during the Soviet era new buildings were put up almost exclusively in the outlying areas. So the
center of St. Petersburg looks almost exactly the way it did at the time of the Russian Revolution.
The city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703, so it will be celebrating its 300th anniversary next year. A
number of buildings are covered with scaffolding as the city is being spruced up for next year's visitors--and since
the current president of Russia is from St. Petersburg and seems to care for his home town more than for Moscow
the work is evidently being carried out with some urgency. What suprised us is the degree to which the city seems
to be focused on the glories of the tsarist era. The seventy years of communist rule are not exactly ignored, but they
are certainly deemphasized. Religion is also making a comeback in post-communist Russia. The churches are full
of worshippers, including young children.
You can't tell very much about a city's economic situation from a week's visit, but it is certainly clear that there is a
large and prosperous middle class. The parks, museums and streets were full of stylishly dressed Russian families
who were obviously accustomed to living well. Of course such impressions are only superficial, but except for the
unilingual and unicultural tone of the city, St. Petersburg has much in common with many western and southern
European cities. Some sections of the city even reminded us of Italy. But we were there in August. Presumably it
would not make the same impression during the winter!
I should finish off by telling of our pickpocketing experience, especially since it came to a suprisingly happy
conclusion. I had taken the usual precautions, e.g. making a list of all our card numbers, keeping only one credit
card in my wallet and so on. Even so, a few minutes after we had entered a crowded subway station I was upset to
find that my wallet was missing. Of course we followed the usual procedure of trying to retrace our steps. We
began by finding a station attendant to ask if anyone had found and returned a wallet. Not surprisingly, nobody
had. But as we were standing there planning our next step, a man came up to me and said: "You must be
Canadian--here are your cards." It turned out that he was a schoolteacher from Ontario who, as he entered the
subway station with some Russian friends, spotted some cards scattered on the ground. (Pickpockets often keep
the cash but immediately get rid of anything that would incriminate them if they are nabbed by the police.) The fact
that these were Canadian cards caught his eye and he scooped them up with the intention of returning them to the
Canadian consulate. But a few minutes later his Russian friend saw me standing on the subway platform and
pointed out that I looked just like the photo on the driver's license. So they approached me and returned the
cards. It was an unsual ending to what might otherwise have been an annoying travel experience.
We had to take three flights on the way home, with changes in Frankfurt and London. But the airline had
overbooked the final flight from London to Vancouver so they bumped us up to first class: a very pleasant way
indeed to finish off our trip.