Friday, August 21, 2015

Thursday in St. Petersburg

My friend and I had set aside this morning for shopping. Neither of us would have been disappointed if no buying resulted, but we have similar interests in things we might take home (small plates or items for the kitchen for us or for our daughters) and so our shopping compatibility levels are very high.

But first, there is the morning meal -- I'm looking at her as I come down in the glassed elevator.

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Next, we go around the corner to the post office to buy stamps. Here's the sign -- it says "Russian Post." We go in. Nope. Not here. A few doors down. Okay. We try again a few doors down.

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The post office turns out to be a quiet place. Just one woman behind the counter.  She regards us with some curiously and her Monalisa smile hovers, just at the surface. [It strikes me that I assume incorrectly that everyone knows we're American, because even when I ask a question in Russian, I get an answer in English whenever the person speaks our language. But of course, English is the universal "other" language here. When I'm asked -- where are you from, I see that the assumption simply is that I'm foreign.]

Errand accomplished. We head for Gostiny Dvor -- that "shopping mall" where I spied the countless shops of folk items -- arranged mostly by place of origin and type of item.

This time we pause at the ceramics from Uzbekistan. The vendor here is so shy, so unassuming! She speaks no English, but when we get stuck in our conversation, she calls for help from another vendor (who happens to be my very delightful seller of Matryoshka dolls). It is such an agreeable few minutes and I hope very much that she works on commission because both Diane and I buy little somethings and honestly, not many vendors have customers this morning.

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And now we are back at the lacquered artifacts section. My preferred items are there, taunting me (I didn't buy them last time because of the demeanor of the sales clerk). And guess what? There is another seller by the cash register today and this one is quite delightful -- she reminds me of a strict teacher you're likely to have in school: the kind that you find out down the road has a stern facade and a heart of gold. We accomplish the purchases and leave quite pleased with the whole expedition.

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I point us then to Kupetz Eliseevs (the food halls). The point is to just look at and admire, but after seeing the pastries, Diane suggests we sit down for a delectable break.

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The cafe area is small -- it fans out in a circle -- but we find a spot...

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And our attentive waiter hovers in a most helpful way. I try Russian again, but he wants to practice his English so I gladly switch. (His English is strong. He's a university student and his ambitions veer toward business.) He asks which states we're from and is visibly happy when Diane admits to being from Florida and I tell him I'm from Wisconsin. He's collecting states: so far he has served only customers from California and Washington. We enriched his coffer!

He does a splendid job, too, of pouring us glasses of Russian champagne.

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I smile at that. When I was growing up in Poland, bubbly wine from the Soviet Union or Bulgaria was considered a lesser beverage, based not at all on the taste but on the country of origin. We admired the western stuff and though no one could afford it, we were convinced it had the taste of heaven. Our champagne now, at Eliseevs is quite inexpensive (you could not get a glass of anything in an American eatery for its price of $2) and quite good. Our pastries are impeccably decorated.

Diane and I are happy to sit back and talk (we are always quite happy to sit back and talk), but it is not to be. The seat to my right is suddenly occupied by a man our age (perhaps a tad older) and his (younger) guide. The man hears our English and boom! We're suddenly not a table of two, but a table of four.

He's a friendly, booming and not unpleasant American traveler and he hails from New York (I asked, but I didn't have to). Right away we learn what brings him to St Petersburg. His (young) wife is an Olympic figure skating coach -- she coached Sarah Hughes and I didn't have to ask to find this out, as he was very happy to share with us his (young) wife's accomplishments.  I do happen to follow Winter Olympics and I recall that Sarah Hughes won the gold in 2002. Our cafe companion and his wife come to St. Petersburg regularly to visit the counterpart (and now their friend here): the coach of the Russian skating women.
You know, the Russian coach was made an honorary citizen of St. Petersburg -- he tells us. Only thirty people have that honor. Putin is one of them! Well now, we are impressed, though come to think of it, I'm not sure how this honor trickles down to his wife or to him. Never mind. We find out about his accomplishments as well: he went to Law School with a future Supreme Court Justice. [To give him credit, he was quite pleasant to talk to and he listened attentively as we identified our own educational credentials which, to an extent, matched his. Minus the future Supreme Court classmate.]

Let's not leave by the wayside the equally affable tour guide that accompanied our guy (I suppose even accomplished Americans need help navigating Russia). He spoke perfect Polish! No, no, not from Poland. But his wife is from there and so he picked up her native language. He was delighted to learn that it is possible to travel from America to Russia because he thought it was perhaps too difficult for most. I have to think that the absence of Americans here is partly responsible for his views on this.

Diane and I leave and once again we follow different paths. She is joining her husband for their last bit of sightseeing and me, once again I want to walk. One last glance at Nevsky Prospect and the Anichkov Bridge, the one with the corner statues of men struggling with horses (think: people fighting the forces of nature)...

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... and at a girl with braids, perhaps imagining herself in the photo opportunity created by some enterprising soul (you want to appear to be taming horses? Put your face here!)...

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...and I turn in toward my neighborhood again. I'm aiming for the Hope Shop -- the place where I had first spotted the frocks, some of them sewn by aspiring designers right here in St. Petersburg. Might there be a Christmas present on the racks? I spend a while browsing and contemplating the possibilities and the very friendly clerks treat me to lots of lemonade and sweets, which I think is delightfully kind, though not very helpful to customers who may want to fit into their dresses' waistlines.

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On the street again, I think how easily you can form themes in your head and how quickly images and street scenes begin to fit in with what you've identified early on. My themes are simple: dads caring for young children...

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Girls with braids...

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And I don't look for examples: they throw themselves at me! But again I think back to a time when friends of mine visited Poland. This was some thirty years back and unquestionably, a walk through Warsaw would have revealed a less than adequate commercial scene. My friends (well, they are no longer my friends, though I suppose for other reasons) showed pictures from their Warsaw visit upon their return tot he States. The photos included many from their theme: a broken down infrastructure. Benches with peeling paint. Leaning lamp posts. That kind of thing.  After they left, I burst out crying. Was it true that my country presented itself this way to others? That there was no joy to be had in visiting it?

Well, I've seen no jarring or sad themes in St. Petersburg. The city smiles her gentle smile and I respond in kind -- smiling at the fathers, smiling at the prettiness of braids.

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Alright. I leave my various packages in the hotel (see photo above) and I turn again toward the islands. I had cut off Vasilyevski Island the other day. I have a handful of hours now. Let me return to it now.

I walk along the Neva embankment. Now here's a family that exudes joie de vivre! I think how utterly sweet the girls' caps are -- all decked with cherries -- but I refrain from asking where they purchased them. I am not that bold.

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Another bridal party, in front of the typical wedding car here. Are they aiming for a shot with the Church on the Spilled Blood in the background?

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If I had to make one generalization from this walk it would be that people like to hold hands. Lovers, friends, mothers and daughters -- all touching the heart of the other through this very simple gesture.

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Meanwhile, on the Neva River, the boats are out full force.

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Here's a grandma with her grandson watching the boats, telling him perhaps that someday he, too, can go out on a boat. And it strikes me how remarkably common this bond is between the helpful grandparent and the little one. These grandmas, they're all as thrilled with theirs as I am with my little Snowdrop. They hold their grandchild just as tightly, they show them cheepers or boats. The love, the dedication to this young life is just as powerful -- I do nothing that a grandma here doesn't do for her grandchild.

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And now I am on Vasilyevsky Island. Had I time, I might have checked out various museums here, but I'm really more interested today in the street scene. The island has a very nice pedestrian street with a few cafes and restaurants and this is what pulls me in. On this warm day, people tend to linger outdoors and I come away thinking that the island is both young in attitude and simple in demeanor.

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Oh, another grandma... Is she worried? Pensive? Tired? Content? I cannot tell.

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The island is crisscrossed by trams. Polish cities are crisscrossed by trams as well. This tram car seems just that much older. I have a nostalgic moment as I recall the older ones of Warsaw. Ours now are plastered with ads and they seem sleek and efficient, though of course, they do the same thing: zip through the middle of the street and spit out people at the stops. (For all the warnings I've picked up about ruthless drivers in this city, I felt 100% confident crossing on white stripes. Without exception, cars stopped. Just like here, they stop behind the tram car, to let the people walk safely to the curb.)

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Ah, but it's late again. I make my way to the metro -- it's the fastest way to get home. It's rush hour and I mostly ignore my camera. Mostly.  Tired me, tired moms, tired children. But the trains come promptly, the mass of humanity moves in an orderly fashion. I get to my destination efficiently and without issues.

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I join my friends for dinner at the hotel. We have free drinks (offered to those who book directly at the hotel's website) and this would be the perfect time to have that shot of vodka. It goes well with Baltic herring and potatoes!

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But at the last minute I change my mind. Russian bubbly seems more fitting. We're toasting our travels together, not slugging potent shots with the locals.

After, I offer to do a run to the Bize Bakery. A few marons in the room would be so heavenly.

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As I walk back along the busy Liteyny Street, I really have to smile. The sun has set. People are walking home. (Honestly, I did not look for this. And yet, the last (or next to last) photo taken by me in the course of my stay here always happened to have a watermelon in it.)

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I go to the top (just seventh) floor of the hotel to deliver the macarons to my friends. There is a window in the hallway, looking out toward the historic heart of the city.

The moon shines brightly over St. Petersburg tonight.

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