Sunday, August 16, 2015

Sunday in St. Petersburg

Two mistakes that I made in the course of this trip came back to haunt me today. And now that I've admitted to my stupidity, let me tell you about my day while I'm still reeling from its breadth and depth and beauty.

But first, breakfast. Just with Diane today. I'm back to oatmeal (and honey and fruit and yogurt).

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The reason the three of us (I'm including her husband in this) travel so well together is that we know when we should go our separate ways. Sometimes one of us will skip a meal, sometimes I'll want a heavy day while they'll want a light one, sometimes we simply want different experiences. Today we decide I should set out alone as I really want a long walk, beyond the historic center, poking into some of the the other neighborhoods that give St. Petersburg its color and soul.

It's funny that I should want a long walk. I hadn't broken in my shoes enough before the trip... (here they are, as I'm about to leave...)

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... and I butchered one of my feet walking in them without socks on that hot hot day in Warsaw (mistake number one). My first task is to find a pharmacy and pick up extra bandaids. My travel supply is quickly running out.

I practice my request at the desk clerk. Perfect -- the affable hotel clerk tells me. I set out for a pharmacy. There, I tell the young pharmacist I'd like some bandages for my sore foot. She nods her head and takes out a roll of thick, heavy ace bandage.
No, no, malenki (small), I want a malenki one, for my... (damn, how do you say heel in Russian?) I point to my heel.
She takes out a smaller roll of ace bandage.
I show her with my fingers how small I want this to be, she shrugs her shoulders. Niet. (No.)
Vy znayetse gdye (do you know where) I can find some?
The apteka (pharmacy) at (such and such) metro stop.

No. I will not waste more time on this. Let's assume I'll find something in the course of the day.

And I'm not going to waste time on going back for a jacket. (Mistake number two.) Even though I am walking right past the hotel door. I read the weather report! There will be sunshine this afternoon! And I'll be walking a lot. It may be in the low fifties now and yes, my light summer sweater seems thin against the wind that's blowing in from the Neva River, but I'll cut in away from the river soon. I'll be alright!

I trace (in my mind) a route that will take me past things I want to see today. Again -- I extend to you my invitation to follow along. Lucky you: your feet aren't blistered and you're probably not cold while viewing the very same sights here, on Ocean.

Here we go:

Walking along my hotel block, I note how quiet it is here. It isn't a tourist area, nor does it offer commercial enticement. A dad comes out with his daughter. I watch them and try to imagine how their day is unfolding.

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I turn toward the Fontanka River (which feeds right into the Neva). Ah, the tour boats are out already. They come with supplies of blankets for the passengers, should the weather turn nippy. This is how the travelers react to the temperatures this morning:

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To the left, I now have the Summer Garden (see yesterday's post)...

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...To the right, the chilling Neva.

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I'll turn inland. I'll be fine. I am fine! I pass the Marble Palace -- inside the courtyard, a statue of Alexander III looks to me like the quintessential monument to a Russian giant (so to speak).

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And now I am approaching the Winter Palace and the Hermitage Museum (which we intend to visit on Tuesday and Wednesday).

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(looking outwards from the entrance to the museum)

Okay, time for a little digression.

I just want to note that my first sentences in the Russian language came from songs I learned as an adolescent. "Poslednij Trolejbus" (the Last Trolley-bus)  by Bulat Okudzawa was one of them. Listen to it, if you want:

Okudzawa was a poet, a bard, and only thirdly -- a songwriter. This song about riding the very last trolley bus of the day, like nearly all his work, is a melancholic reflection on loss. He had experienced it himself, having had two parents, both active communists, suffer terribly at the time of the political turmoil in the Soviet Union just before the second world war. I loved all of Okudzawa's songs and I taught myself how to play them on the guitar. In my high school years, you'd often find me strumming quietly in my own corner of our Warsaw apartment. Loss -- I had my first adolescent encounters with it and his music suited me just fine.

And so you'll understand why I would especially take note of the trolley-buses of St. Petersburg.

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Further down the Neva embankment, you'll find perhaps the most famous statue in this city: it's of Peter the Great (the city's founding hero). It gained additional merit when Alexander Pushkin (that most beloved Russian poet) immortalized it in his epic poem about the Bronze Horseman.

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Right behind the statue, you'll find St. Isaac's Cathedral. People like hearing that something is the greatest, or tallest, or has the most this or the best that, so I can tell you that it is at least one of the largest domed buildings in the world.

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I climb the 262 steps, I circumvent the dome and I have to tell you -- I have a mixed feelings about the experience. Yes, it's good to do one climb up one of the towering structures in St. Petersburg to take in the whole city. But the fact is, St. Petersburg is far more attractive at the ground level than it is from the top, looking down. I'll post just one photo, made beautiful by the inclusion of the magnificent onion domes of the Church of the Spilled Blood. The rest? Bleh. Let's not waste Ocean space with them.

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 Inside the church -- well that's a different matter. Splendid mosaics! You'll have to travel here to appreciate them. I'll include here just two shots -- one of the dome looking up:

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...and one of a mother and daughter lighting candles inside. I thought the mom was so transitional in her choice of clothing! Older generation, younger generation. It's not a leap, it's a progression.

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After the church visit, it strikes me that the afternoon is setting in and I am on the verge of feeling quite chilled. The wind up at the Colonnade really whipped me about. A preemptive hot chai would really taste nothing short of wonderful.

I stop at the Dekabrist -- a small eatery and cafe just around the corner. There are many, many things that warm my heart about the place. I want to list just a few:

* It has WiFi. I can check to see if anyone has sent me an email in the middle of the (American) night. (They hadn't.)
* Two Russian gay guys are being openly affectionate with each other. Given that Russians have mixed views on gay rights, it's cool to see that at least these two aren't going to be intimidated.
* There is a TV and it's running, of all things, a clip of a Gordon Ramsey cooking show. In this particular clip he is showing a young girl how to cook salmon. Somehow I find it heartening that the cafe owners think this to be entertaining.

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Once I see the menu, I know that in addition to tea, I want Russian borscht. Here it is:

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I ask one of the guys what to do with the garlic. He grins and demonstrates that I should chomp down on it with my teeth. Okay!

It is a wonderful half hour.

I'm ready to continue my walk. Ignore my blistered foot! I read the book "Wild!" I know what it's like to walk with damaged feet: you just soldier on and you do not modify your aspirations just because of a shooting pain. Still, it would be nice to find bandaids.

I enter a medium sized supermarket. Maybe here? After all, I see Pampers. I see Venus shaving blades. I see chocolate bars from Switzerland, Belgium and Latvia.


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Okay, I get it. They're called "medical plasters." Who knew?!

I continue to head west, outwards, away from the tourist hub. I'm in a neighborhood with a reputation and it's not necessarily a good one. And yet, we are all mostly the same people, no? Same dreams, same emotions...

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And here's something pretty: a gorgeous bridge over one of the canals. Lviny Most, named after the four lions at the corners.

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I'm now approaching the Mariinsky Theater. Let's give you some tidbits to pique your interest: Rasputin, whom some say was responsible for the downfall of the Russian monarchy, was murdered here in 1916!

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From the artistic standpoint, it's no less important. Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov both premiered their works here. A statue of Rimsky-Korsakov stands just across the street.

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But if I had to list one destination for today's walk, I'd say it is the rather distant Nikolsky Cathedral. Gently blue on the outside, stunningly gold on the inside -- many believe it to be one of the prettiest churches of the city.

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Perhaps. But my impressions are tainted by what I see outside. There are just a handful of tourists poking around. Mostly, the inside is filled with worshipers. A service is in progress. Just outside the main gate, a gaggle of beggars sits and wait for coins. Except I can't say that they're necessarily down and out. They appear more down and drunk. Indeed, a drunk passerby is excited to join their fray until a furious woman, presumably his wife, drags him away by the arm. A little boy stands by and watches. Is he a passerby, or is his dad among the pack?

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Fact is, I haven't seen nearly as many drunks in this city as I'll find on a weekend in my own college town back home. But there is something disconcerting about the scene, perhaps because I know I am just a few houses away from where Dostoyevsky lived when writing Crime and Punishment. The guide books describe the streets that I'm about to walk as being a magnet for pickpockets and drunks. Well, that latter descriptor is certainly true.

And yet, I have some of my finer experiences right here: for example, I take in many scenes where families appear strong and deliberate. So deliberate!

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Too, there is the very pretty Yusupov Garden.

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I meet two younger people there. They are distributing some advertisement leaflets, but when I ask them for directions, we get stuck in a conversation. They instantly guess that I'm better in English than Russian and the young man goes out of his way to explain to me my route and the young woman gives me what I will henceforth think of as the Monalisa smile. I get it so often here, especially from women -- the shy, but ever warm half grin that seems to say -- I get it. You're here to see us as we are, not as others say we are.
I'm slowly walking back now, but in a most roundabout fashion. And yes, my foot is killing me! Ignore it! Ignore the clouds that should be sunshine by now, ignore the tiny flicker of raindrops!

My next stop is at the Sennoy Market. This is the real deal. None of the fuss of adornment, of carefully arranged containers, of smiling vendors and gawking tourists. Here, the shoppers and sellers are serious about their tasks.

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And yet, and yet... when I hesitate in front of a stand that appears to have all the accoutrements associated with pickling cabbage and vegetables, the women smile and tell me -- oh, go ahead! Take your photos.  And I do. And it becomes one of my favorites from the day.

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Back on the main drag, I can't help but think about the ordinariness of life and the ordinariness of steps we take each day. This is not a negative, mind you. Ordinariness is not necessarily a road block to creativity or even genius. You don't know what goes through the head of a person waiting at a bus stop. You don't know what emotions are guiding him or her through this Sunday afternoon.

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I pass a shop that any Russian will tell you is absolutely essential to happiness: it's one that makes and sells just one item: pishki! It's a form of doughnut and this pishki shop is jam packed with people waiting for their freshly fried treat.

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You don't linger. You eat and run. But oh, what a better run you have after devouring a couple. Or three, or more.

Me, I want to see no more sights. I want to head straight home to the hotel. But there is no straight arrow in St. Petersburg. The roads twist and curve and I am pulled along. And because there is a threat of drizzle - one that actually issues a few drops now and then, I am grateful to come across a block-long store. I suppose it's a department store though for the life of me I cannot figure out its name or cohesiveness. I go inside. I buy a chocolate bar for the evening (straight from Latvia!). And a notebook for my travel notes (I go through about a notebook per every two trips: it has to be small -- to fit in my purse, but it has to have  stiff back and tear out pages. You can't readily get that in the States).

And I ask myself -- might there be something here for Snowdrop?

Well, the children's section has interesting school uniforms and it has splashy tshirts of the type I try never to own and then I see that it has a rack of young childrens' winter hats. Wool on the outside, lined with soft (itchfree!) cotton on the inside. So pretty! So perfect! I look closer.

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They're made in Finland! Similar hats there cost 25 Euros (about $27). Here, what I consider to be a better version is going for 850 Rubles ($13). The world is an odd place.

And now I am in my home neighborhood. And truly it feels like home. St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Madison -- they all could be the source of this photo:

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And this one too: A grandma pulling her granddaughter along. Though the girl's braids seem especially Russian.

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At the hotel, I have a few minutes to rest, but just a few. My friends and I have a dinner reservation at the Duo Gastrobar -- an energetic place of good food and informal friendliness.

It feels grand to be in the company of my friends again...

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And I am smitten with the dinner: a delicious tomato-leek salad, a pike-perch (that's the way it is translated on the menu) with chanterelles, and of course, that wonderful dark bread...

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Our hotel is just a couple of blocks away and that's a good thing. My feet are grateful. It's time to go home and take off my shoes forever. Or at least for the night.  Hurry home, hurry home. Yeah, the world is hurrying home...

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