I promise that unless/until we go back to Russia, this is it for Tales of the USSR!
Our trip to St. Petersburg several years prior was so different from our experience in Moscow. Yes, we had to go through all the same red tape to get in to the country, but the city was beautiful and charming and vibrant and we were desperately trying not to embarrass ourselves with any kind of oafish American type move. Ooops, too late…
Our guide in St. Petersburg was a young woman named, predictably, Natasha.
I had my fingers crossed that our driver’s name would be Boris, but I guess you can’t have everything. I don’t remember his name; I just remember being really disappointed that it wasn’t Boris. But life goes on.
Unlike Moscow, when we went off season, we were in St. Petersburg in July, during the magic of the Midnight Sun; the peak of Russia’s short tourist season. There were people packed in everywhere we went. The only people who weren’t in the museums were the locals who were all sprawled out naked on the riverbanks. Remember? I mean, were you paying attention a couple of postings ago?
Like Ivan The Studious, Natasha was very proud of her heritage. And she was eager to show off the Hermitage Museum. I was beyond excited to get in there…and we kind of got in there, by virtue of being shoved by the people behind us into the people in front of us. We made it through a few exhibits; intricate Fabergé eggs; magnificent jewels; an enchanting collection of Russian carriages being guarded by tourists who crawled under the red velvet rope and were never seen or heard from again.
But then I got to a point where I just couldn’t take it anymore. We were trying to look at some paintings, and we were at least 6 layers deep. I couldn’t see anything but a sea of heads; I was being pushed and shoved and jostled and I could barely breathe. I told Natasha I wanted to leave. She was none too happy—she couldn’t believe anyone would willingly leave the Hermitage halfway through. That made two of us, but I just couldn’t deal. I was trying to be polite but at the same time I was pushing my way out of there. Natasha was steamed. When we got outside I tried to explain about the crowds, but she didn’t get it.
It occurred to me that the Russians have a very different concept of personal space, and Natasha really didn’t understand what I was telling her. I’m an American dammit, and I’m entitled to land spreading out so far and wide; keep the Hermitage just give me that countryside! Well, I didn’t break out in song, but it was in my head the whole time. The point is, Americans need an inordinate amount of personal space compared to many other cultures.
But none of that mattered because Natasha was staring daggers at me and clearly wanted to kill me. Meanwhile, do you think Dan was supporting me? Heck no. He was busy telling Natasha that he had been just fine in there and he wished I hadn’t insisted that we leave. Way to have my back Dan…with a knife. Natasha was young, cute, sweet and charming; Dan would have said anything to save himself and throw me under the bus. So it goes.
We were fortunate to have absolutely amazing weather during our visit, 70 degrees, blue skies, lovely breeze. It was a perfect time to go to Peterhof, built by Peter the Great and inspired by Versailles. With palaces, elaborate fountains and ornate gardens, it’s pretty nice digs. At our first glimpse Natasha stood very straight and said to me “you have been to Versailles?” I said that I had, and she said “and?” and swept her arm across the expanse of gardens. Without a moment’s hesitation I said “Versailles is a back woods shack! It is erased forever from my memory!” Natasha was pleased and we were back on good terms. For the record, Peterhof really is much more beautiful than Versailles, and I am not saying that just to cover my butt in case Natasha is reading this. I look at these beautiful pictures and can barely believe we were there, but trust me, the “now-defunct” KGB (wink wink) has a file tracing our every move.
We went to a Russian heritage show one evening with lots of folk dancing and vodka. The dancers stomping on the stage at least kept Dan awake. And then suddenly, what do ya know, the Village People were appearing live! “It’s fun to stay in the U.S.S.R. it’s fun to stay in the U.S.S.R.!” Ooops, forgot, “It’s fun to stay in the Russian Federation, it’s fun to…” Not exactly the same rhythm, but there’s no YMCA so what choice did they have?
I tried caviar again…and hated it as much as the first time I tried it. Beluga or not, mother-of-pearl spoon and all, at the end of the day it’s just fish eggs. On the other hand, I do enjoy a cracker with a dollop of sour cream, so it’s not all bad. Plus I really love an excuse to work the word dollop into a sentence; it’s an awesome word. We did OK on food though; St. Petersburg is a sophisticated city where lepers, zombies and vegetarians could sit down together and eat in peace.
At the grocery store trying to buy some basic supplies, the city seemed less sophisticated. When we walked into the store, it was a row of check-out kiosks, but we couldn’t go any further. We had to write down the items we wanted (well, Natasha had to) and hand it to the grandma in the babushka (who later got a job in the lost luggage office at the airport in Moscow.) The grandma would walk back to the shelves, as slowly as one person can possibly walk and still be moving, and bring back lots of interesting items that were not on our list. I didn’t want to piss off Natasha again, let alone the grandma who would have to make another long trip, so we just bought the stuff and “accidentally” left it somewhere.
All in all it was a great trip with no unfortunate Stalin jokes. And if by chance Natasha is reading this, I’d like to give her a shout out and let her know I am coming back soon, in the dead of winter, to see the entire Hermitage. Twice.