Perspective is important, especially when it comes to travel. I’m not talking about necessarily positioning myself as a white female Westerner living in an easy materialistic world. I’m bringing it a lot closer than that. I’m talking about what was going on in my head before heading off for a day in St Petersburg. I was homesick. I was travelling alone, on a seniors cruise when I wasn’t a senior (I’m still not). I’d found a lump behind my ear – the ship doctor told me it might be necessary to have an X-ray in Russia. In a Russian hospital, with Russian speaking medical staff. I was fed up, grumpy, out of enthusiasm and anxious for the whole damn thing to be over so I could bloody well go home.
Despite all of this, but more likely because of it, St Petersburg was one of the most surreal and affecting places I’ve ever been to.
A tour bus came to collect us from the port to take us to Pushkin Town and Catherine Palace. Industrial ports are never the prettiest places but the bus was quiet as we left the relative safety of the ship. Decomposing buildings, dirty broken glass, but net curtains and shadows moving behind them. So what appeared derelict was somebody’s home. Art deco bars on all lower storey windows. Avenues of stark trees trying to look alive. Perhaps aware of the subdued atmosphere, the local tour guide kept saying ‘Don’t be frightened. We’re just like you’. Which made me afraid.
An American was perhaps trying to break the ice when he asked the guide whether Russians believed in animal rights, since everyone seemed to wear fur. She berated him mercilessly with a hoarse voice and heavy accent. ‘Sir if you lived here in minus 40 degree weather I’d like to see what you wear. What are your shoes made of? Leather? Where do you think that comes from, huh? Huh??’.
Undeterred, the same man tried to generate a discussion on democracy. The guide laughed snidely ‘Americans and democracy. So much freedom! But you can’t even have a drink on the street! What about your censorship laws, huh? Huh??’.
And the bus fell silent again.
Catherine Palace was predictably spectacular and astonishing. Lavish, rich and sumptuous. I’ll tell you about the Amber Room another time.
Lunch then, was a disappointment. Something grey. With peas.
Long trestle tables – seats enough to accommodate everyone but me. I had to sit at an otherwise empty table (until another tour group arrived half an hour later) and the fact that no one made any effort to keep me company or make a little room to fit me in completely astonished and upset me. Human kindness failing miserably.
I keep touching the back of my ear [remember the suspicious lump]. The lump got bigger and smaller each time. I couldn’t wait to see the ship doctor again because I needed to involve someone else. I didn’t fully comprehend how stressed and anxious I was. A Russian folk group came to play and sing for us during lunch. Two women, two men. Peacock blue satin and crisp white shirts. They shouted out incomprehensible songs that were actually quite musical. They got me up to dance of course. I managed to laugh and shout and whoop but my heart wasn’t in it. I don’t know what had happened to my heart that day. It didn’t seem to be working in conjunction with anything else at that moment. All head, all thoughts.
|Catherine Palace detail|
After lunch the Hermitage was a blur of impressions: white Carrera marble staircase, green malachite urns, luscious red velvet walls, Chinese silks, gold peacocks, mosaic floors. A French gardens, cupids and flowers, smiling angels, swans and doves. Granite. Then the Monets, Renoirs and da Vincis. Ceilings so high, so detailed, white domes, impossibly long halls. Bohemia crystal and gilded bronze chandeliers. Rich blue green Flemish tapestries. Mournful portraits.
Our guide told us that the dour looking man in the grey suit following us around the museum was KGB. Um..they don’t actually exist anymore right? But I didn’t know whether to laugh or clutch my officially expired Italian passport a little closer to my chest. Anything seemed possible!
It hailed on the way back to the ship. Pedestrians caught out looked stoic – no flapping about with objects held over heads. Someone on our bus said (rudely) ‘they don’t bloody smile at you’. And I wondered if they had all that much to smile about.
I can’t claim to know anything about Russia. I met few Russian people. I was a misery guts and viewed the city through pathetically self-indulgent eyes. But if you asked me whether you should go to St Petersburg I would urge you to book your tickets at once because it was a fascinating and unlikely creature. Never mind my memories.