St. Petersburg, January 2007

[Or, skip straight to the pictures]

Hazel had the forethought to change some dollars into rubles at Dulles, so we touched down at St. Petersburg International with two crisp five-hundreds, about forty bucks. The terminal was pretty small, just a cafe, a magazine kiosk and an exchange window, and it was a familiar drill: break down a bill into an amount suitable for bus fare.

So let’s buy a bottle of water at the cafe, we’re both thirsty enough, but the girl shirked when I brandished my bill. She pointed across the terminal, towards the currency exchange. At the exchange booth I held up the five hundred and made the universal gesture of breaking it down: three quick Karate chops along the length of the bill. The teller was unimpressed, and went back to her work without a word. Evidently, this issue had never come up at St. Petersburg International.

We approached the municipal information booth and I cajoled the girls (“Pa Russki? Ni Horatio!”) for a while until they started speaking English. I explained my dilemma and they frowned a little, conferred. They said that maybe the minibus driver would be happy to make change. This was pretty clearly a recipe for disaster.

So, yes, it was quite cold in St. Petersburg in January. People were saying that it was the mildest winter in memory–apparently the warm spell has confused the bears, who have come out of hibernation to mass public consternation–but Russia is nevertheless a cold place, and people live in this cold place, and I wanted to see how they lived, how they navigated the elements. I wanted to make a study of hats, footwear. If you’d been born in Petersburg, you’d be wearing these shoes, walking these streets.

This all makes January an ideal time to visit. We pretty much had the run of the town, Palace Square stock-empty of tourists, its unbearable beauty tempered by a gaudy hundred-foot Christmas tree twinkling in its center. We were the only guests in our hotel the first night, meanwhile the hotel manager was busy filling her last openings for May and June. And as far as I’m concerned, if you haven’t seen pasty Russian townspeople wearing enormous, cylindrical fur hats then you haven’t seen Russia.

The Cyrillic storefronts reminded us of Bulgaria, and that in Bulgaria, for all its charm, you never felt like you were at the center of anything. Even central Sofia and Plovdiv had a desperately peripheral sensibility. Walking down Nevsky Prospekt, by contrast, you feel like you’re walking down the center of the universe. The center of the empire, at least, however erstwhile, and an empire around which the entirety of Bulgaria felt to orbit.

They say that the St. Petersburg culinary scene has come a long way since the revolution. It was easy enough to avoid terrible Russian food, and there were plenty restaurants that brought flavors from the tastier corners of the former USSR, particularly the Caucasus. We ate Georgian, Armenian, and Daghestani and were content. The city is deliberately cosmopolitan, European in architecture and aspiration. The streets are lined with cute cafes, teeming with young women walking through the frigid cold in impossibly glamorous outfits. (Fir is in!) The city floats through a gentle fiction belied only by the oriental alphabet, doddering Babushkas, and soft Russian consonants that echoed through the alleyways. If you’d been born in Petersburg, you’d be walking these streets, muttering these curses.

This was a good trip for our traveler’s book of records. The Hermitage: the most astounding art museum I’ve seen. Collection comparable to the Louvre’s, but housed in the Winter Palace, which, you can say what you want about Versailles, but the technology of opulence came a long way between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the Russian monarchy was still oozing extravagance long past the point that the rest of Europe started struggling with civil society. The Church on Spilled Blood: the most beautiful ecclesiastical interior I’ve seen; every square foot covered in vibrant mosaic. The Mariinsky Ballet: etc. etc.

Friday we decided to take an overnight trip to Vyborg, three hours north on the Finnish border. We walked to Finland Station (workers of the world unite: big statue of Lenin out front), where I had a frustrating exchange in halting Russian with the ticket lady but was finally able to score a pair of tickets, and three hours of frozen waste later, around dinnertime, we pulled into Vyborg. It had already been dark for four hours.

Our first task was to secure a return ticket for the next day. This turned into an odyssey spanning three different ticket counters in three different corners of the train station, and involving my slapping against booth windows a drawing I had made of a little train with arrows towards Cанкт-Петербург (there was evidently some confusion whether or not we wanted tickets into or out of the city) and the time of departure. This all was because my polished “dva bilyet na Sankt Peterburg” invariably produced a flood of difficult Russian, and my fallback languages (“Aglooski Fransooski Norski Svenski???”) were not options.

Let me note here that I speak pretty good Russian for a tourist. Hazel can back me up on this. See also the panache with which I later delivered my “I would like to buy two ticket [sic] to [sic] balcony, please” at the Shostakovich concert. Thanks to my Pimsleur tapes I could also do an especially convincing, “tell me please, where is Red Square?” I had spent most of the holidays impressing my family with this one.

We left the Vyborg station flustered and without tickets, brainstorming that either (1) there was no train, (2) we could only buy tickets the day of, or (3) tickets are only available on the train. The next morning, with the help of the receptionist at the hotel, Hazel and I roleplayed my teasing out one of these three options from a hostile cashier. The girl listened to our skit, suggested some improved vocabulary, and, suppressing laughter, told us that we were very Horatio. This was probably the highlight of her morning. We went to the station prepared for any contingency. I started with my trusty “dva bilyet na Sankt Peterburg”, and the lady–a new lady–was like, “Horatio”, and handed us the tickets.

The obvious problem is that Red Square is in Moscow, not St. Petersburg. Dr. Pimsleur evidently had never considered this. So imagine my delight when I discovered that Vyborg also had a Red Square! And so in the morning I flagged down two unsuspecting townswomen: Izvenicha! Skajitti pa-jousta! G’dea Krosnaya Ploshad? They responded enthusiastically.

Vyborg was our Russian vacation in microcosm, and arriving back to St. Petersburg felt like a homecoming and a return to our comfortable hotel, the rest of our luggage, our favorite bakery, (comparatively) balmy southerly weather, all the familiar sights unchanged up and down the Prospekt. We spent the last two days in the traditional sightseeing routine: navigating museums, churches, lunch, streets, palaces, dinner. All very pleasant but a more comfortable, sedentary vacation than I’m used to and overall I prefer the more adventurous, peripatetic mode of travel. I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunity in the future for both.

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