Monthly Archives: April 2012

Sunny St Petersburg

Catherine Palace
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.

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Encounters with strangers


The point of travel for me is connection – connection to place, history, culture, but above all people. Encounters with strangers are what have made my travel so special. Let me clarify (and perhaps disappoint you?) that when I say ‘encounters’ I don’t mean seedy hotels with pay-by-the-hour rooms! I mean gentle brushes (non sexual!) with random people that may not necessarily become best friends, but for whatever reason, leave an impression.
Sometimes the encounter is just one little random conversation. I had a lovely chat with an elderly gentleman and his daughter, on their way to Australia from the US. He struck up the conversation by trick quizzing me: ‘Do you know what Qantas stands for?’. Er… actually … no, not completely. ‘Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services’. I see. So I asked him how he knew that, what he was doing and where he was going and he told me that he was heading to Queensland to see a dying friend, etc, etc. Pleasant chit chat. And then, after about half an hour of this, he suddenly stopped, leaned on his armrest and said, ‘Anyway, I can’t hear anything you’re saying, I’m deaf!’. And then settled back down into his chair. I actually laughed out loud and left him alone. Later he asked me whether I could help him at customs – he hadn’t declared the two rifles in his suitcase and was anticipating some trouble. Er… what? I can’t hear you……
Some strangers do become lifelong friends. I met Jackie at the Grand Prix track in Sao Paolo, Brazil and only later discovered that, in a city of 11 million people and countless hotels, we were staying at the same place.  Jackie was a mad Formula 1 and Ferrari /Schumacher fan. When I say mad, yes, I mean a little unstable. She had flown all the way from Newcastle, UK just to witness Michael Schumacher’s (first) last race. She sobbed through the last twenty laps. Two years later I was visiting family in the UK and decided to take the train to Newcastle. She was so excited by my visit she met me on the platform with an air horn, a Ferrari flag and red painted face.
Other strangers are just strange. After another utterly predictable strike, my friend and I boarded a train in Rome, bound for Florence. We were scrambling around with our backpacks when a well dressed, middle aged woman came into our compartment, said commandingly ‘hold this’ to my friend and held out her hand. Unthinking, my friend took the object… which happened to be a leash… at the end of which…. was a small dog. And then the lady disappeared. We looked at each other wide eyed, wondering what we were going to do with a small foreign dog. But the lady reappeared after a moment with luggage and a giant carry bag. She first organised the cases and then took the leash again with a small smile and nod. Then she sat down and unpacked her carry bag – basket, blanket, toy, food bowl, water bowl, bottled water. She plonked the little dog on top and settled in to read a magazine. The dog looked dreadfully bored but there he sat for the duration.
Perhaps my favourite stranger is a man named Jody Cinnamon who my cousin and I met at Mt Robson in western Canada. (Let me remind you again, there are no romantic encounters in this blog…) Jody introduced me to both Shrek and Paolo Coelho. He was as serene and smiling as a Buddhist monk but passionate and energised. He told us he’d only been bored once, for 10 minutes. He seemed ashamed by that too – he just couldn’t understand the concept of boredom when there was always something to think about or look at. He played the harmonica while driving with his knees, played the guitar around a bonfire, and taught himself the bagpipes from a manual ordered from Scotland. I read The Alchemist in three days and thought about my destiny. Jody wanted to live for a thousand years because he had so much he wanted to do – learn astronomy, for example, or fly to the moon. He just had a beautiful effect on most people he met. You couldn’t be angry or petty or disgruntled in his company – he was just too darn happy and content.
I still remember the encounter and I still read The Alchemist on a regular basis. 

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