Once again, I decided to use David’s work as an excuse for my phone. He was designing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella at the Rossiya theater in Moscow, and I took it as incentive for my first trip to Russia. The show was scheduled to open October 1, 2016, but David had to be there a month earlier for rehearsals. He agreed to extend his stay so that I could join him towards the end and we could go together to the sure-to-be lavish opening night festivities, but once the production asked him to come a week earlier than planned, so that he could work during dry tech, I reluctantly released him from staying that final week. He could get all his work done by the middle of previews and shouldn’t have to stay in a hotel for a fifth week just so I could go to a party.
About two months before the trip, I mentioned it to a friend. To my surprise, he said he was also planning a trip to Moscow and maybe we could go together! I told him that I’d be staying with David, but I was sure I’d have free time while David was working. We could explore the city together, and we could probably get him into a preview of Cinderella. My friend said he wanted to go to St. Petersburg too, which hadn’t occurred to me, but as soon as he said it, I got so excited! There’s no way David would want to delay his return home to go sightseeing after a trip that long, but I could go with the friend and then join him in Moscow—that would be perfect! I would love a traveling companion, St. Petersburg looks fantastic, and my friend was studying Russian.
Only I didn’t do anything about it. I was too busy to plan anything, and the trip was only two months away. While I was neglecting it, my friend started researching and found two disheartening things:
- The visa requirements are onerous. Among other questions, the application asks for the exact dates of every trip you’ve taken out of the US for the last ten years and requires you to submit a “visa support document” from a local host, which neither of us had.
- Two different Russian friends of his told him how hard it was to travel in Russia if you’re not with an organized tour and don’t speak Russian. “It’s nothing like Western Europe,” they said, “nobody speaks English, it’s hard to get around, and people are very hostile to tourists.”
My friend decided he wanted more time to plan his trip and improve his Russian skills, so he postponed his departure till spring.
I didn’t have that option. Now I had to decide whether to go to St. Petersburg on my own or just join David in Moscow. I’d gotten attached to the idea of St. Petersburg, but I didn’t like the sound of hostile and difficult to get around. I decided to ask for more opinions. On August 21, I posted this on Facebook:
Looking for someone who does not speak Russian who has traveled to St. Petersburg or Moscow independently (not part of a group). If you’re willing to chat about your experience, I have some questions and would appreciate some advice. Thanks!
As usual with Facebook, I got a mix of responses: people who’d been on a tour, people who’d been with a Russian-speaking friend, people who spoke Russian themselves, people who planned to go but didn’t, and one person whose ship docked there but didn’t have the right visa to debark. One hadn’t been since 1979, and one had just gotten back from Moscow that week. Many people responded with complaints about the visa process or impressions of how safe or dangerous the city was, which hadn’t occurred to me as a concern. Several provided relevant answers.
Then one friend private messages me this:
Do NOT travel to St. Petersburg alone. I’ev been in Russia and the Ukraine, had it not been for the quick thinking of my interpretor – I would have been jacked and robbed by the local cops.Had I not been a trained fighter, i would have been robbed by a team of muggers. We hired former KGB agents as body guards and drivers – thank god for that.
Oh no! We traded a few messages, and he described Russia as “the wild west” where the people see westerners “as opportunity for an easy score.” Finally I asked when he was there: “90’s, but from my friends there, and coming here, not that much has changed despite the modernization. Still a very tough people.”
In the meantime, I bought a guidebook and started reading about St. Petersburg, and it sounded amazing. A few other things conspired to push me off the fence: I got laid off, so I had plenty of time, and I found round-trip flights for under $600. I decided to buck up and book the trip. I felt oddly nervous about traveling alone, worried that I wouldn’t know what to do or be able to get around on my own, but I finally decided that it wasn’t the end of the world to be lonely or disoriented, and even if I got lost I probably wouldn’t get raped and murdered so I should stop being a wimp and go!
I completed most of the visa application, estimating the dates for several past international trips but giving up on exact dates or a complete list. I spent hours on line trying to figure out who could write me the visa support document. Big hotels, travel agencies, and tour operators provide it, but I wasn’t using any of those. Finally, I asked the company producing David’s show, and they agreed right away. You know that part a few paragraphs ago when I described changing the date of David’s trip? Well, I don’t think that had happened yet, so I asked to come on or after September 16.
Between requesting the form and getting it back, I started researching Russian circuses. There are two circus buildings in Moscow. The Circus Nikulin was hosting a youth circus festival the first weekend in September, before my visa started. It would be dark while I was there. Even more frustrating, the Bolshoi Circus was hosting the Idol festival in mid-September. I thought I could make it for the festival, and I noticed that I knew several of the acts competing, including a Mongolian contortion group and a French flag stander I’d toured China with and a Japanese juggler who had translated across three languages for me when I’d directed a show with Japanese jugglers in French-Canada. I emailed them all, but only the juggler responded. He was leaving the festival early and wouldn’t be there by the time I could arrive. But then I checked again, and the main shows and competitions were all scheduled before I could get to Moscow, and yes, the building would be dark when I was there. So frustrating! To make matters worse, the one historic circus building in St. Petersburg would also be closed when I was there. They were all in rehearsals and scheduled to open right after I left. Oh well. Timing!
As soon as I got the visa support document, I applied for a visa. They recommend you do not book flights until they return your passport and confirm that your application was accepted, which takes ten days. But airline prices were going up. I waited a few days and then booked my tickets to St. Petersburg and home from Moscow. I figured I’d spend four days in St. Petersburg. My plan was land Friday morning and explore the city and fortress, visit the Hermitage Saturday, take a side trip to a summer palace Sunday, and try to get into the circus museum Monday, when everything else was closed. I didn’t book a flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow as I decided to take the train, but the website was confusing with fast trains (four hours), overnight trains, and multiple classes of service. I was leaning towards getting a second-class car on the overnight train Monday night, but I decided to stall the decision until I could get a Russian speaker to help me with the website. The other decision I put off was which summer palace to go to. It was easy to narrow it down to Peterhof or Pushkin, but beyond that, everything said Peterhof was way better in summer and Pushkin in winter and since it was neither, I decided to wait, get local opinions, and see what the weather was like.
I decided I’d like to have a local contact, so instead of looking for a hotel, I booked a private room in an Airbnb listing called “Old-fashion designers apartment” with a gay couple. All we hear here is about Putin’s homophobic oppression, so I was curious, and the apartment, while nowhere close to the cheapest option, was centrally located and beautiful. I forgot to ask what floor it was on though. Oops.
The host, Anton, was helpful and communicative. He was going to be at a conference when I landed, but even though I was arriving nine hours before the stated check-in time of 7pm, he agreed to meet me and give me keys to the apartment so I could drop off my luggage before going out to explore. We made the plans and exchanged WhatsApp texts to make sure we’d still be able to communicate after I lost phone service, as I always keep my phone in airplane mode when I’m abroad and only use wifi.
Our plans were slightly foiled by my first flight, which boarded late and then sat at JFK for hours as the crew attended to, and then removed, a sick passenger, and then his or her luggage. I landed in Moscow with time to make my connection but squandered it in the slowest customs line. By the time I got through, Aeroflot had re-booked me on a later flight. Only I couldn’t tell Anton. Moscow Sheremetyevo advertised free wifi, but to access it, you had to receive a code via text. I tried on my laptop and even turned my phone back on, but I couldn’t get the stupid code. Spent the entire layover desperately clicking “I agree” and trying to connect and then eyeing other passengers wondering if they’d let me use their phone or just place a call for me. I never managed to ask.
We landed in St. Petersburg without incident, and that airport also promised free wifi I couldn’t access, so I gave up and hopped on a bus to a subway to the meeting point. I got off the subway and dragged my luggage for what seemed like way too long, but it was a beautiful day, and I was on Nevsky Prospekt, aka “the Champs-Elysées of St. Petersburg.” I was looking for number 57, and I saw numbers 56 and 58 almost immediately across the street, so I was surprised to have to walk for blocks and blocks before finding 57, but when I did, it was a lovely hotel with wifi, so I could contact Anton, who came immediately, gave me keys, and walked me outside to point me to the right bus stop. He told me to take trolley number 5 or 22 to the last stop, which was right in front of his building. He said he’d be home at 2:30 to get ready for a trip, and his partner Dima would be home at 7pm.
His text about the trolley said “electrical with cables on the roof!!! Not regular bus!!” For some reason I thought he was just really excited for me to take a trolley, maybe thinking we didn’t have those in America, and I didn’t interpret it as an instruction. I was wrong. I saw the right number, and got on a 22 bus instead of a 22 trolley. Oops! I sat on it for quite a while, but Anton had said it was only a 20-minute walk, and I’d been on the bus for miles, so eventually I opened the maps.me app I’d put on my phone and discovered I’d overshot by almost two miles. Before exiting the bus I showed my phone to the fare collector, and she didn’t speak any English but I could understood she was adamant I get on a number 70 going the other way. I thought it was odd that I couldn’t get on the same bus in the opposite direction, but I dragged my suitcase back along the street until I found a 70 stop.
This time I monitored maps.me the whole ride so I’d have an idea where to exit the bus. When I got off though, I couldn’t find the building. Anton had given me a street address, but there was no building entrance where the address showed on my phone, and he had said the entrance was through a courtyard on Truda Square. One man offered to help me and kept trying for long after I would have given up on a stranger with a possibly wrong address. Eventually I figured out where the courtyard entrance was (I’d been standing right in front of it), and as I entered, so did Anton, returning from work to prepare for his trip. He said of all his Airbnb guests, only Americans kept getting on the bus instead of the trolley.
The apartment was a fourth floor walk-up, but Anton insisted on carrying my suitcase, and when we reached the top it was lovely. I had a little suite to myself, with a sitting room that I used as a big closet to unpack in, and a bed in a loft. I didn’t think to take pics until late in the stay, by which point I’d messed everything up (you can see better pics on the Airbnb listing if you’re actually interested. The listing says no pets, but it doesn’t mention the third resident of the apartment, a tiny white dog they’d gotten so recently they hadn’t named it yet. The unnamed dog ran out every now and then and then bolted back to their bedroom, apparently terrified of me or maybe of everything.
After I took a shower and changed, Anton served me herbal tea and asked me if I was hungry. I said he didn’t need to provide anything for me, but he said, how about just a little Russian snack that I couldn’t get at home? He made us each a cup of tvorog cheese mixed with sour cream and jam he’d made from raspberries he grew at his summer home. Yum! We sat and chatted. When I told him I was sad the circus building was closed, he told me about a local tent show and looked up showtimes and directions for me. When he realized where it was, he said the bus to Peterhof left from there, so if I decide to go to that summer palace, I could return directly to a 6 p.m. show at the chapiteau circus. Perfect!
Before leaving home, I’d prepared myself (and even printed!) a walking route to explore my first day, but Anton suggested I take the bus much farther than I’d been planning and then walk back along a route he sketched onto a map he provided. Okay! It was already mid afternoon by the time I got out of the apartment, but I was mostly only planning to look at the city and building exteriors that day anyway. As I rode the bus to the far east side of town, the jet lag hit hard, and I wasn’t sure I could stay awake on the bus, much less walking around. I thought about exiting earlier, as most of the sights I wanted to see were closer to home, but I stayed on the bus all the way to Smolny Cathedral.
The bus dropped me near a huge series of parks, the Tavrichesky Palace and Gardens, with an impressive entry gate and buildings in the distance. I was already exhausted, and my feet already hurt in my new shoes, so I knew I had to triage my afternoon. On the other hand, it was still only about 4pm, and I was determined to stay out sightseeing until a reasonable bedtime, and anyway I was miles from home. I grazed the parks, skipping the state museum and former revolutionary headquarters, but I did backtrack to enter the gorgeous cathedral, which was crowned with five blue and white onion domes. The interior was boring though. Oh well.
From there I more or less followed the line Anton had drawn on the map to walk the maybe four miles back to the apartment. The blocks were way longer than they appeared, and several times I realized I’d walked quite far out of my way, either getting disoriented in a park or misreading the map. I was loving the scenery, but my feet were in so much pain I felt like crying each time I realized I’d gone the wrong way. Maybe I’m that bad at navigating, but in my defense I was jet lagged and mostly illiterate, although I painstakingly sounded out the Russian (Cyrillic alphabet) street signs and tried to match them to my English (Roman alphabet) map.
The best thing I saw that day was the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood. And as a bonus, right as I was approaching it, I saw a dude carrying a unicycle! I stopped him in excitement but then immediately realized I didn’t have anything in particular to say, and he didn’t speak English. I gesticulated the only thing I could think of, which was “do you juggle?” but he shook his head. That was as far as my mime/Russian skills could carry the one-sided conversation, and we went our separate ways. Inspired by St. Basil’s in Moscow, the Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood was satisfyingly nutty outside, with multicolored onion domes, and satisfyingly ornate inside, with 70,000 square feet of mosaics plus stone carvings, gold leaf, and semiprecious gems.
When I was about halfway home, I stopped to eat, mostly as an excuse to rest my feet and charge my phone. I’d been looking for a not-too-fancy restaurant for a while and finally stopped at what turned out to be a branch of a chain restaurant called Teremok. By then I was exhausted. Besides the jet lag and blistering feet, it turns out it’s exhausting trying to read signs in an alphabet and language you don’t know. Teremok didn’t look great, but it had free wifi and a fast-food type board with pictures of the food, so it didn’t feel too intimidating. On the other hand, the menu was long, nothing was in English, and my Google Translate app wasn’t helping much. I realized I didn’t need to translate everything; I just needed to find one thing I could eat, so I ordered pelmeni, the classic Russian dumplings. I buy big frozen bags of them every time I’m in Brighton Beach and eat them all the time at home, so this wasn’t exactly a stretch for me, but they are among the classic Russian foods I’d wanted to try in Russia. Then the counter man talked me into ordering borscht too—a perfect Russian meal! The only downside was I knocked my water all over the table, but it was lovely to sit and eat and catch up on email for a while, and I was in no hurry to leave. I pored over my maps and guide book, planned the rest of my walk, and rested my sorry feet as long as I could and then set off to finish the walk home, which wandered through historic buildings, old churches, parks, and a fancy shopping district.
When I got back to the apartment, all the lights were on and the stereo was on, but the bedroom door was closed. I was so tired, I got ready for bed, but I felt awkward closing the door without meeting Anton’s partner Dima. Eventually he came out to say hello. He wasn’t as friendly as Anton, and his English wasn’t as fluid, but of course it was better than my (nonexistent) Russian. I stayed up texting David till a reasonable time, maybe 10pm or midnight. It was the first time we’d been in the same time zone in weeks, so I didn’t want to break the connection, but I was had to sleep. … which I did for maybe two hours, and then stayed wide awake until dozing off again briefly in the morning. So miserable. I hate it when my body sabotages its own needs.
The next morning I walked to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. On the way I tried to have breakfast at the quirky cat cafe, but it wasn’t open yet. The guide book listed it as one of the city’s top seven attractions for its gilded dome (world’s third largest domed cathedral) and view. It took me a few tries to find the box office and follow the confusing signs into the “museum,” by which I mean the interior. To save some of the more beautiful places of worship, the communists declared them museums, and many still use the term, even if they also host services. After admiring the interior a while, I was directed to the exit, which was across the cathedral from where I had purchased my ticket. Right outside the exit was a sign to visit the colonnade, with warnings about how many stairs you’d have to walk up to get to the view. I was game even though I wasn’t sure how much I’d be able to see on the slightly cloudy day, but the guard wouldn’t let me in without a different ticket. I would have paid for the interior and the colonnade if I’d realized they were separate admissions, but by this point I wasn’t willing to walk around the cathedral for a maybe third time to find the box office again and then circle back to the stairway entrance, so I just kept going.
I got almost all the way to the Hermitage before finding a place to stop for breakfast. There were plenty of restaurants on the way; they just looked too fancy, expensive, and touristy. Finally I stopped at the oddest hole in the wall with counter service and pointed to some little reakfast pancakes (one meat, one sweet cheese). The two cramped rooms of the restaurant looked like completely different places.
When I travel (in cities), my favorite things to do are explore interesting neighborhoods; eat exotic food; visit historic , interesting, or beautiful places, and check out the local juggling/circus scene. I don’t usually go to museums, because no matter how great the art is, once you’re in a museum, you could be anywhere. But the Hermitage is different. The art alone might merit a visit (Catherine the Great founded, which now owns the world’s largest collection of paintings), and it’s housed in historic buildings, some of which showcase restored palace interiors. The guide book said to buy a two-day pass, but even if I wanted to spend two days in the museum’s six buildings, my first full day in St. Petersburg was a Saturday, I was planning to visit a summer palace on Sunday, and the Hermitage was closed on Monday, which was my last day in town. Saturday was my only chance to see it. I spent some time reading the guidebook to triage the experience and decided I especially wanted to see the Rembrandts, the Treasure Room, a mummified tsar and his mummified horses, and the Winter Palace. The impressionist collection is also supposed to be world class, but I’m from Chicago, so that’s not such an emergency.
The museum opens at 10:30 a.m., but so did St. Isaac’s so by the time I got to the Hermitage, it was about 11:30 a.m. As I waited in line in the courtyard, I read LED signs advertising different tours, including tours of the Gold and Diamond Rooms. Uh-oh! Which was the “Treasure Room” I wanted to see? I perused my guide book while I was waiting and figured out it was the Gold Room. English-language tours were offered at 11:45 a.m. and 1 p.m. Perfect! I could go on the 11:45 a.m. tour and then head into the main branch of the museum.
Only I hadn’t figured on waiting in line for an hour. The line does not move. By the time I got to the window, I’d missed the first tour and wasn’t sure whether to book the second one as I had a lot I wanted to do that day. The admission is reduced if you have a student ID, which I do, so I presented it at the window. The cashier didn’t accept it but pointed me to a customer service desk inside the lobby and said to present it there. I went there and waited in another line. When I got to the front, the woman didn’t speak English, so I waited for the woman who did. She whisked away my ID for a few minutes and then came back and said they didn’t accept it. She pulled out a big book of reference images to show me what they accept. During all this waiting, I’d been thinking that I was actually an adult who could afford admission and should toss the ID and get on with it, so by the time she rejected it, I agreed with her, but I did not agree when she told me to get back in the ticket office line. I told her I’d already waited in that line for an hour, and she said well, I could go to the one on either side of the lobby. They’re exactly the same length. I protested, and she pulled out a little slip of paper, signed a note on it, and told me to take it to the front of either line.
I fought my way back through the crowded lobby with my line-skipping permission slip but still had a hard time accessing the ticket window. The people waiting in line, understandably, did not want to let me move in front of them, and when I waved the slip at the cashier, thinking she’d wave me forward, she ignored me. I waved it more assertively, and she sighed, grabbed my slip, and then handed me a ticket to enter the museum. I had my wallet out, but apparently the voucher wasn’t to cut the line—it was for a free admission. I asked if I could buy an audio tour, and she directed me to head into the museum. I found the audiotour guide in the lobby and headed into the museum, but when I saw how crowded it was, I decided I should go back and get the 1 p.m. Gold Room tour ticket before doing anything else. I asked a guard where to purchase it, and he sent me back into the lobby. I asked if I’d be able to re-enter, and he said yes, so I exited, returned to the ticket window, and discovered the 1 p.m. tour was sold out. Of course. Oh well. I tried to go back into the museum, but my ticket wouldn’t scan. The guard said it was single admission. But you just told me I could buy a Gold Room tour ticket and get back in! “Sure,” he replied, “show me your Gold Room tour ticket.” Eventually a different guard walked me to a side gate and let me back into the museum. How can they host so many visitors and have such poor crowd control management? They actually brought me to the brink of tears of frustration more than once.
The audio tour started on the second floor, and I wanted to see the mummies (and a big vase and a few other artifacts recommended in the guide book), so I did that first. Or at least I tried. To get to the ground floor exhibits, you need to walk up a staircase to the second floor, walk to the other side of the building, and then come back down. The different rooms of the ground floor don’t connect, at least not for visitors, and the signage is incredibly confusing even though it is in English and Russian.
After a lot of false starts down long corridors to nothing, I found the mummified priest and the vase, but I couldn’t find the mummified horses or the most ancient carpet in the world (I saw a different dead horse and a lot of fairly old carpets though). Then I tried to find a bathroom and get out of the ground floor, and that took me through the long course of the same set of exhibitions twice.
Eventually I made it up to the second floor, which was insanely crowded (the first floor was practically empty). The tour included a map, showing which rooms were included in the tour. I followed the route, listening to the overview on the most impressive rooms and then listening to descriptions on whichever individual pieces of art struck my fancy. Despite the crowds, frustrating design, and constant sense that I was missing half of it trying to navigate the confusing warren or rooms, it was amazing. The palace interiors were ornate and glorious; the peacock clock was incredible (even though I wasn’t there on a Wednesday to see it move); the armor was impressive; and the Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and other classic paintings let you forget the crowds and disappear in their canvases. You know, when you get through to them. The guide book said the French paintings were on the top floor, but in fact they have been moved to the Staff Building across the Plaza, and I did not have time or energy to enter another museum building.
When I walked out of the museum after maybe four hours (not counting all the time in lines), I didn’t even have the strength to exit the courtyard. Despite the chilly weather, I collapsed in an outdoor cafe with a cup of tea. The counter man didn’t speak English, so I pointed to what I thought was a croissant-type thing, but turned out to be a hot dog in puff pastry, and he talked me into a chocoalte kartoshka, aka log.
In the weeks before flying to Russia, I’d emailed as many circus contacts as I could think of, and after I had already landed in St. Petersburg, a very friendly woman named Lisa emailed me back inviting me to Upsala Circus. It was a social circus program for kids, and I was delighted to accept. I made my way from the Hermitage to a distant subway station, but on exiting the train realized I didn’t know which station exit she’d be at or what she looked like, and of course I didn’t have phone service or wireless. Nevertheless, we found each other, and she drove me out to an industrial park on whose grounds the small social circus had an office and kitchen, rehearsal rooms, a rehearsal tent/building, and a permanent performance space designed to look like a tent. She introduced me to the other office workers and then made us tea and brought cookies. As we sat in the kitchen chatting before the show, another clearly visiting couple was chatting in French and Russian with another employee host. Lisa had to take care of some work, so I stayed, drinking tea and trying to eavesdrop or get invited into the conversation, but neither my Russian (nonexistent) or my French (elementary) was good enough. However, I did distinctly make out the words “Patch Adams,” which the other Upsala employee repeated several times.
After a while, she left them also, so I tried to start a conversation. I asked if they were hospital clowns and told them I’d met (and taken a workshop with) Patch Adams. They had no idea who he was! I guess the other woman thought he was relevant to them, and they just hadn’t disabused her. Gilbert (soft “G”) was a French clown and musician who lived in Marseilles, and Marina was a Russian who lived in St. Petersburg (I never did find out what she did), and they had been in a commuter marriage for two years. Since we were chatting and she was a local, I asked her advise about whether to go to Peterhof or Pushkin, although by that point I was leaning towards Peterhof because the return bus would drop me at the chapiteau. “Pushkin!” She said, “we’ll go with you tomorrow.” YES! Decision made. I’d have company, and one of them spoke Russian. How delightful.
We moved into the performance building to watch the show, which was charming. Nine children, between about seven and seventeen, and one adult performed a sweet show of acrobatics, juggling, and clowning, around a loose narrative about bedtime. Lisa had told me about what troubled backgrounds the young performers came from, and I became aware of my inner bias when I felt cognitive dissonance seeing so many all-white kids as at-risk youth.
After the show, we returned to the kitchen, where the kids were having dinner and getting notes. It was the debut performance for two of the young ones, and they were so excited and relieved. Lisa offered me dinner, and we each had a bowl of kasha with soy sauce. Mostly we talked about Upsala’s work, but she also told me about a local contact juggling club. She paused, trying to find the words in her excellent English before warning me, “but I think they’re hippies.” We hung out for a while, and then she ordered me a taxi back to the train station, which I realized she’d pre-paid without giving me a chance to pay it myself.
The trolleys stop close to the Airbnb, but the closest metro stop isn’t that close. When I exited at Admiralteyskaya, it was already dark out, and I still had over a mile to walk home. Instead I stopped to watch a street performer singing Hallelujah and then set off to see some sights I didn’t need to enter by day. First I walked through St. Isaac’s Square, where I’d already passed many times. This time I paused to statue of Tsar Nicholas I and try to figure out which building Nabokov lived in. I walked to Sinly Most, which was an odd bridge that was so wide it just seemed like part of the plaza except the underside was painted blue, and under that was the Neva. Then I walked quite far out of my way to walk by Yusupov Palace where Rasputin was killed and visit the Great Choral Synagog. I’d see so many churches, and it didn’t seem likely I’d make it to the one mosque on the other side of the fortress. My path led along a dark canal, and I thought about all the people who’d warned me how dangerous the city was. I passed a woman in a headscarf carrying an orchid, a woman walking a dog, a couple with a toddler, and two men carrying a large screen (as in screen door, not as in monitor), clearly still working.
As I walked, which took much longer than I’d expected, I worked myself into a comic rage that it would be closed when I got there anyway. “Sure,” I inwardly fumed at the synagog, “you’re open during the day for tourists, but what if I were having an actual spiritual crisis? Those don’t keep regular hours.” Even as I was enjoying this line of mental tizzy, I was fully aware that I was, in fact, a tourist and not one who has spiritual crises. The synagog wasn’t where I expected it to be, but after back tracking a few blocks, I finally found it on a side street. It was dark but beautiful and distinctive. When I approached, just hoping to peek through the gate, I found the gate ajar, so I squeezed through into the courtyard, on one side of which was a closed kosher store (I was getting better at reading Russian), and then walked right into the building! All my inner mock rage was for nothing, but the inside was anticlimactic and plain. I sat in a pew for a while just because it was the first place I’d been so alone indoors.
On the walk home I couldn’t find a restaurant. Plus, I didn’t really want to sit down. I wanted a snack I could walk with. After rejecting a few bakeries that only had sweets, I found a small grocery with a glass counter full of savory pastries. The signs were handwritten though, and my Google translate app couldn’t make them out, so I typed in “I would like to buy one, but I don’t know what’s inside. Which one is your favorite?” and held the Russian translation up to the counter man. He stared at it for a while, puzzled. Another man stared at it too and then picked me out a pastry. It was filled with hot dogs pieces in mayonnaise. My third meat pastry of the day (and second hot dog pastry). Guess that’s a Russian thing.
Even though I was exhausted, I took one more detour to New Holland Island. It had looked cool as I passed it on the bus, and Anton had recommended it, but I had no idea what it was. When I got there, several guards blocked the entrance. They kept talking to me, but I understood nothing until they mimed, and I understood they were letting me in but that it closed in one hour. I walked onto the island and saw brick buildings, parks, sculpture, and paths, dimly lit by street lamps without streets. I stopped in a small kiosk that turned out to be an information center with a model, and two hipster kids explained that it was a park for events, and I’d missed the kite-flying exhibition. They seemed to enjoy practicing their English with me, and I enjoyed chatting with them. Then I walked further into the park to see what looked like a pirate ship and turned out to be a playground made from the large model of a frigate. It was closed, but I could tell how cool it was.
When I got home, the lights and stereo were on again, but Dima’s door was closed. Was he avoiding me because our interactions were so awkward? I wanted to ask him for help with the train and also about extending my stay a day so I could see the fortress and go back to the Hermitage to see the Winter Palace, both of which were closed on Mondays. But I didn’t want to disturb him. As I crossed the living room to get ready for bed, I noticed a framed photograph or Anton and Dima posing with maybe 20 other people at what looked like a family event. Here’s the weird thing: that dog, that they claimed was so new he didn’t have a name yet, was in the photograph! Hm. What’s going on here? Well, that mystery would need to remain unsolved. I had to go to bed!
The next morning I couldn’t find my slippers or umbrella, and I realized I didn’t have any weather-appropriate clothes. I’d only one two pair of boots and one pair of shoes. For some reason I’d fallen for the guide book’s insistence that women were expected to dress up and wear heels at all times. I’ve fallen for this kind of thing before, starting with a sophomore-year trip to Spain for which I brought ruffled blouses and skirts instead of the torn punk rock clothes I wore at home because someone had told me I had to dress conservatively in Spain. In any case, the shoes, which were new, in the store had seemed pretty comfortable for heels. For some reason I hadn’t tested how they’d feel as my only shoes for walking 12–14 hours per day every day, and my feet were regretting it.
As I searched for the slippers (paper ones I’d kept from the airplane, which were perfect for being a houseguest) and umbrella, I ran into Dima, who was investigating a strange “song” (sound) in the apartment. He had cleaned up the slippers, which I’d left in the bathroom, and umbrella, which I’d left by the front door. While we were talking, somehow we figured out that we both spoke Spanish, neither of us perfectly, but him better than English and me better than Russian. It was a huge relief. We could communicate! I asked him about the dog in the picture, and he explained that was their last dog, Tobi, a name I recognized from their wireless network. Speaking of wireless network, I never got theirs to work on my laptop, although it worked perfectly on my phone. My computer connected to their network, but not to the Internet. I asked Dima, who couldn’t help, and even sent a Whatsapp message to Anton, who was still in … well actually I don’t know. I swore he told me Tajikistan, but Dima said Kazakhstan. Their apartment was full of beautiful objects they’d collected traveling.
I stopped at a Starbucks for breakfast. From the Starbucks, I could see another Starbucks, which made me feel right at home. To order, I pointed to a quiche, but when they brought my food, they’d given me a pastry with ham and egg. It was fine, but I was getting a little tired of meat pastries! Also, I couldn’t use the free wifi because like in the airports, it required accepting a code from a text to a Russian phone. Oh well. I didn’t have a lot of time to dawdle anyway. Or did I? I realized I didn’t have any time association for either French or Russian people. If they’d been Swiss, I would have expected them to be early. If they’d been South American, I would have expected them to be late. Russian and French? I didn’t know what to expect.
I met my new friends, who arrived on time, as did I, at one of the many giant Lenin statues, this one near the metro stop at Moskovskaya (I was proud that I didn’t mix it up with the nearby metro stop at Moskovskiye). They had brought a third person, Ludmila, who was the mother of the husband of Marina’s daughter, and spoke only Russian. It was a huge relief to travel with two Russians who had been to Pushkin before. For example, they figured out which of the multiple small buses was leaving first and we clambered on for the maybe 30-minute ride, which, by the way, like the local buses and trolleys, cost under a dollar.
By the time we arrived I knew I’d underdressed. In fact, we were all chilly, and the others wanted to stop for a cup of tea before starting to explore the grounds. We paid our admission to enter the grounds, which I hadn’t realized was a huge complex of buildings and gardens, and then we went immediately to a small cafe, but it was only 10:30, and the cafe didn’t open till 11 a.m. I assumed we’d leave, see one thing and either come back or go to a different cafe, but the Russians waved me into an adjoining information center lounge and had a long conversation with the staff. Of course I understood nothing, but I assumed they were arguing that they wanted their tea now, and I thought it was odd they’d rather argue for 30 minutes than walk around and come back. I was extremely surprised when the guard from the information desk brought us all tea and cookies and found an English-language introduction-to-Pushkin tape for me to watch on the big screen television. Oddly, my tea cup was tiny, and everyone else’s was normal size. I think they gave me the fancy one. As soon as we got served, Marina and Ludmila each pulled sweets out of their purses and gave us each some in case the provided cookies weren’t enough. We ate Marina’s marzipan, Ludmila’s chocolates, and the info booth’s cookies, sipped tea, and watched a fascinating but quite long documentary, which gave both historic background and details on the renovations. One room lost its echo when it was renovated, and then years later the echo returned. Eventually I felt guilty that everyone was watching a video that only I and maybe Marina could understand, so when we’d finished out tea I assured them I was extremely grateful but didn’t need to keep them waiting any longer.
The first building we visited was called the Little Hermitage. The inside was only open to groups, but we peered in and saw that the ground floor was full of strange, large machinery. It turned out to be a big lift so the servants could set a table on the ground floor and then lift it, fully loaded, to the dining room above. We walked in the gardens a bit and then paid to enter the newly restored agate rooms, which I thought was a separate building but was apparently connected to the main section of Catherine’s palace. We had to wear booties and then slippers to walk on the gorgeous floors, and while everyone else slipped them on over their shoes, I was happy for the excuse to leave my shoes at the entrance. We each took an audiotour so the four of us wandered in three different languages. The rooms were amazing, but the strangest part for me was the artwork. Several pieces that looked like paintings turned out, on closer inspection, to be mosaics. Almost everything was made of stone.
Then we checked out outerwear (required), paid our admission, and entered the main section of Catherine Palace. We did not have audioguides, and there was no signage, so I was extra glad I’d seen the movie. The palace was incredible, and so were the crowds. Giant tour groups blocked halls and doorways taking selfies and listening to their guides via headset. We were funneled carefully in strange patterns, waiting behind ropes until we were let in or out of various rooms. The most incredible room was the Amber Room. Signs asked visitors not to take pictures, so I didn’t, but everyone else did. Completely stolen by the Nazis in 1941, the original amber has never been recovered, but the room was entirely rebuilt over the course of a quarter century. It was hard to believe there was enough amber in the world to build that room twice, but it seemed like there was even more in dozens of gift shop stalls upon exit.
Next, the group wanted to take a trolley tour of the grounds. It was only offered in Russian, but I was happy to sit and look around for the 45 minutes. I saw a man with two monkeys and then, well, actually then I dozed off quite soundly even though it was freezing in the trolley. We had zipped up a plastic cover around us, but it was ripped and cold air blew in. Still, I had quite a fine nap, waking occasionally to see a beautiful tableau or interesting building or fountain in the gardens.
We left Pushkin and tried to find a restaurant. Now I say “tried to find” because while the first two places we entered seemed fine to me, the group rejected them for reasons I never made out. As we were looking, a street vendor offered us three souvenir magnets for something like $10. Ludmila announced that she would buy me magnets and asked which one I wanted. I thanked her profusely but said I didn’t need any magnets. This upset her, and she launched into plaintive Russian to Martina. I may not speak Russian, but I could tell Martina was consoling her, and I even made out “maybe it’s a cultural difference.” I felt horrible.f We agreed on a third restaurant, which had a counter, cafeteria style. I tried to make up for the magnets by buying Ludmila dinner. She protested, but I paid anyway, but apparently I raised the stakes, because on the way out, she grabbed a souvenir apron from a display above the door, made me choose one, and bought me an apron. It was very sweet and silly. Next time I’ll know to accept the magnets.
We tried to cut through a park to get back to the bus stop, but there was no exit on the far side of the park, and maybe we got lost a little. I’ve noticed a lot of Russian parks have paths that lead very far in but require you to backtrack to exit. I don’t know if it was all the time searching for the bus or whether the trip took a lot longer than on the way in (I wouldn’t know; I was asleep again), but by the time we got back to the city, I was pretty nervous about making it to the 6 p.m. chapiteau show on time. Marina found me a taxi, and told the driver where to take me, and I made it with a few minutes to gawk at the elaborately caped female ushers and mostly empty (and freezing!) tent before the show started.
In the charivari, one little person climbed up and over a freestanding ladder while bouncing a ball on his head, one swung from a lyra, and one demonstrated some antipodism from a trinka while a full-sized strong man flexed. Most of the acts were little people, including two clowns, a bird trainer, a quick change act, a dog trainer, and a man who spun 14 plates, but my friends tell me they were gaffed. It did look awfully easy, but I don’t know how anything works. He did place them individually on poles on a rack, so I know they weren’t like the Chinese kind that snap onto the poles, but I don’t know what the gimmick was. Both the quick change and the dove lady wore what looked like wedding dresses. Full sized duos presented hand-to-hand and a Roman riding act. I think I like trick riding so much because my formative circus years were all spent while Katja Schumann always showed liberty horses at the Big Apple Circus. The strong man did an act with kettle bells and contact juggled cannon balls and caught them on his neck. Eight full-sized women presented a Russian swing act in long dresses that flowed behind them as they leapt from swing to swing. I was happy to see Russian swing in Russia and wished they’d also had a Russian bar!
At intermission I wanted to buy two programs, one for me and one for Jacob back home, but they didn’t have any. A small child tried to hold my hand before realizing I wasn’t his adult. I ordered a hot chocolate, in Russian. I was very pleased with myself and convinced that I’d said something comprehensible, but nope, the counter woman stared at me blankly until I pointed at the item on the menu. I was hungry and wanted some real food too but mostly they had ice cream, and I was freezing. The hot chocolate was satisfyingly warm, and I nursed it for most of the second half.
The most striking acts were the animals. In addition to the relatively standard dogs and doves, there was a comedy routine with a clown and a chimpanzee, a chimpanzee coach man pulling a chimpanzee passenger in a carriage pulled by a dog, and an act with what I think were dogs but might have been wolves and what were definitely bears riding on what I thought were water buffalo but am now convinced were yaks.
After the circus I asked a passerby, in Russian, for directions to the metro station and was extraordinarily pleased when he answered without asking me to repeat the question. I was even more pleased that following what I’d understood did immediately brought me to a station. On the train, a woman pushed an entire line of people over to give me a seat on the crowded train. Thanks! The man next to me smelled like booze. His jacket logo says Cap Horn.
I took the subway most of the way back to the apartment and then walked along Nevsky Prospekt, the fancy shopping street, where I could not find anywhere reasonable to have dinner. I cut through the fancy Gostiny Dvor market, thinking it would have a food court but instead walked through fancy jewelry stalls. I did find a caviar stall with a $10 trial special, so I sat down at the display counter and enjoyed a tiny jar of caviar.
That wasn’t quite enough though, so I stopped at a cafe I was sure would have wifi and sat down for a real dinner or anything that wasn’t a fried pastry with meat in it. I ordered a Caesar salad with shrimp and a fruit tea. My throat had been hurting, so I asked for honey in Russian, but the waitress didn’t understand. I tried again and eventually showed her on the translator, and she said it and made me repeat it over and over. Then she brought me the tea without honey. (I did get it eventually after asking again, but by then the tea was cold. And all the restaurants charge extra for honey. Lame.)
I haven’t mentioned this yet, so this is as good a place as any: I kept seeing teenagers wearing Burger King crowns. You know, those paper ones you roll into a ring and lock together? I saw groups of kids in them on the street and in the subways, nowhere near each other. Fashion, or some promotion I don’t know about? Maybe it’s a contest like that one in Bedazzled where they can only win if they’re wearing the crown when randomly selected.
When I got home, Dima and I hung out a bit. I asked him if I could stay another night, and he said he was expecting a couch surfer from Mexico, but he was okay giving him the couch or sharing his own room with him if I wanted to keep the private suite as a paying guest. I offered to pay through Airbnb, which I always insisted my guests do so that Airbnb got their fair cut and I got my insurance, but I couldn’t figure out how to change the reservation, so I just handed him cash. He also took care of booking the overnight train to Moscow for me for Monday night. I thought about booking the fast train to see the countryside, but who am I kidding? I can’t stay awake four hours in a moving vehicle!
I’m writing this a month after getting home, and I just checked my calendar to remind myself what I did Monday, and the next entry on that day says, “Декабрист.” So apparently after four days I thought I could speak Russian or maybe I just pasted it in from maps.me. I don’t remember. I think what I probably meant was that I walked through the square where the Decembrists Uprising took place. It’s pretty near the Airbnb. I was trying to keep track of some of the places I saw, but I walked through a lot of plazas. I have another entry that says “Гоборов,” and I can’t for the life of me remember what that is. I mean, I know it’s “Goborov,” but I don’t remember what that is. The Internets tell me there is a street in St. Petersburg named after Soviet military commander Leonid Govorov. Maybe that’s what I meant, but it sure doesn’t ring a bell. My non-calendar notes say simply, “Orange juice?!” I have no idea why I wrote that.
Also, all the times are messed up on my calendar. Man do I hate that thing where your appointments display in local time. When you’re traveling and you set up a meeting for when you get back, it always displays at the wrong time. I never want this function.
Anyway, when I first started researching the trip, I kept seeing that the historic circus building in St. Petersburg was closed for ceiling renovations, but in fact the renovations were complete; the show was just still in rehearsal for the next season, which would open six days after I left town. However, I’d dropped the right name in my email, because the museum director emailed me offering a private tour! I was so excited I got there super early and circled the building.
The museum was incredible! The displays fill a series of adjoining rooms that circle the performance ring. They look nothing like the museum pictures on its official website. I’m not sure whether show audience can stroll through them at intermission or even whether they’re generally open to the public. Displays shows costumes, props, and design sketches from clowns, acrobats, animal trainers, jugglers, and more. The director (who was an incredibly elegant woman, impeccably turned out in black and silver with her hair and make-up looking ready for a red-carpet opening not just a Monday at the office) was knowledgeable and gracious but cool and efficient. She also showed me behind-the-scenes areas, including offices, studios, and the book, recording, and photograph collections. Wow! We moved quickly, and I didn’t get very many photos, which is probably fine because I would have wanted a picture of everything. The two places she didn’t want me to enter or photograph were the backstage library and the circus ring where an act was rehearsing, but she let me lean in to see the ring. As I was walking by the rehearsals, someone shouted my name and ran over to hug me! It was a friend who had worked at the Big Apple Circus last season and was now contracted with the Bolshoi St. Petersburg State Circus (the official name of the resident show) for the season that was about to open. He said his wife was helping with the bears. I assume he was also doing his amazing straps act. I wish I’d known earlier I had a Russian-speaking friend in town. It was hard to know that the circus (and a new exhibition on circus smells!) would open just a few days after I left, but I kept telling myself I wasn’t missing it this year any more than I had every other year. It just feels harder to come so close.
After the tour, I walked to the Square of the Arts and then entered the Russian Museum, which I loved. It was 12:27 p.m., and the museum stopped selling tickets to its treasure room at noon, so I only saw the regular exhibition (and one temporary show), which turned out to be plenty. The rooms were gorgeous (the building was formerly the Mikhailovsky Palace), the staff/process had none of the unpleasantness of the Hermitage, and the impressive collection gave me a lovely introduction to the history of Russian art, beginning with what they call the icons (Byzantine icon paintings, heavily laden in gold) and progressing in a logical and easy-to-follow fashion through the early 20th Century. The rooms were laid out in a clear, mostly chronological order, and although it took me a while, I went through the whole thing. When I got to the end, there was a separate, temporary exhibition down a hall, and I walked over to check it out but then almost immediately got exhausted and lost interest, perhaps because none of the tags were in English. I saw a few set design sketches and tried to take pictures for David, but they didn’t have any super cool constructivist ones that he might have cared about.
Upon exiting the museum, I walked through the Summer Garden and the lovely Mikhailovsky Gardens. I ate a real meal at a sit-down restaurant. What else? Hm, well, I passed a sign for a restaurant that offered both sushi and anti sushi. I don’t know if that’s for people who don’t like sushi or for people who like it too much. I kept passing things I didn’t have time to see, like an ethnography museum that isn’t open on Mondays. I can’t grouse too much though. I’ve lived in New York City over twenty years and I still haven’t seen nearly every cool attraction here.
When I got home, Dima and the Mexican couch surfer, Alberto, were hanging out at the kitchen counter eating pickles and drinking vodka. I joined them, although I was too full for pickles, and I don’t drink. Alberto was lovely. He’d actually arrived in St. Petersburg the night before but mixed up his dates, so he’d stayed elsewhere. It was interesting to hear how he’d spent the day compared to how I’d been triaging my tourist time. He’d gone to Peter and Paul Fortress and loved it, which confused me because I thought it was closed Mondays. In fact, that was the main thing I’d missed that inspired me to extend my stay for a day. Turns out the grounds are always open; the churches and historic buildings were just closed. He’d also loved the view from the St. Isaac’s colonnade, the one I got too lazy to walk up. He was so much fun that I was sorry we hadn’t met a day earlier so we could have explored together, but I was happy to share stories, and I got to feel like such an expert because I could give him tips on the places I’d been to already. He’d lived in the US and spoke perfect English, but we all spoke Spanish together. He had left a lucrative career in marketing to open an art gallery and was in the middle of a quite extensive few months of traveling. What a life.
Tuesday was my bonus day, since I’d expected to be in Moscow by then. My train didn’t leave till almost midnight, so I had a full day. There were three things I’d been most sad not to see, and my goal for the day was to see both:
- Gold Room at the Hermitage. It’s only open to tours. They’d all been sold out Saturday, I was away Sunday, and the museum is closed Mondays, so this was my chance.
- Winter Palace at the Hermitage. This sounded really cool to me, and I hadn’t found it when I’d been there before.
- Peter and Paul Fortress. The guidebook listed it as one of the top five reasons to visit St. Petersburg. I’d planned to go the day I arrived, but my flight delays knocked it off the schedule, and I hadn’t had another chance.
Here’s where I made the first big mistake of my trip. I didn’t buy a ticket online for the gold room. Remember how much the Hermitage sucked the last time I was there. Double that for this day. If that place didn’t have the best art ever in the coolest buildings ever, I would have to warn the world never to go there. As it is, it’s like a super beautiful person who spends life being nasty to everyone because we’ll put up with anything for the goodies.
My plan was to get to the museum early and either go on the 11:45 a.m. English-language tour and then visit the Winter Palace or if the early tour was sold out, buy a ticket for the 1 p.m. English-language tour and visit the Winter Palace first. Either way, I’d see what I wanted to see and be done at the Hermitage by 2 p.m. to have plenty of time for lunch and the fortress (which closes at 6 p.m.). The museum doesn’t open till 10:30 a.m., so on the way there I stopped for breakfast at a little restaurant that turned out to have a prix fixe menu with a list of items on it, but instead of choosing among options, you could just ask for as many of the items as you wanted for the same price, so I figured they were small or mostly side dishes. The only omelet on the menu included ham and some other ingredients, I don’t remember what, but later the menu said they had sausage, so I ordered the omelet but asked them to substitute sausage for ham, and I asked for potatoes and fruit to go with the omelet. I thought I’d get one plate with an omelet, home fries, and a few pieces of fruit. Well, the first problem was that my substitution order didn’t translate, so I got a full omelet (without ham) and a full order of sausages, which turned out to be three hotdogs, not full size, but way bigger than cocktail franks. I also got a full plate of potatoes and a full plate of cut apples and oranges. Oh, and I got my tea with honey, and the honey comes in a separate dish every time, so I had about five plates of food on the table. I ate almost all of it; I am doing my part to maintain the American reputation and waistline.
I rolled over to the museum just after it opened at 10:30 a.m., but my plans were foiled. First of all, there was no 11:45 a.m. tour. The only one was at 1 p.m. Second of all, the museum was already so crowded that it had stopped admitting visitors, and hundreds of us stood in an un-moving line in the courtyard for over an hour. At noon I was permitted to enter. You can’t buy a ticket for the Winter Palace separately, and anyway you can’t buy a ticket for the Gold Room tour without buying the general admission to the museum, so I bought both, hoping I still had time to see the Winter Palace before the tour. I’d had a hard time trying to figure out online which building was the Winter Palace, so I picked up a museum map, which showed the Winter Palace as a completely separate building with an entrance behind and down the block from the main branch of the museum.
I considered going to see the impressionists at the Staff Building instead, but that would also take some time as it was also in a separate building, across the plaza. I explained to a guard that I had an hour before my tour, and she said there was no way I had time for the French collection so to go to the Winter Palace as that was smaller and I could finish in an hour. To my surprise, the guard directed me back to the lobby and down the stairs to the long hallway that housed the coat check and bathrooms, clearly in the opposite direction. He said at the end of the hallway, there was a door to exit to the back of the museum, and I’d be able to turn right and walk to the Winter Palace from there. It sure didn’t seem geographically efficient, but given my last experience with exiting and re-entering the museum, I thought it was the way to get in without leaving, so I fought my way through the crowds, walking the distance of maybe two blocks in the wrong direction, and indeed at the end there was a doorway out to the back of the museum. I opened it and discovered I was at the end of a line of hundreds of people. “Is this the line for the Winter Palace,” I asked one of them. She nodded. There was no way I was going to reach the front of the line in an hour much less get to the Palace, see it, and get back in time for the 1 p.m. tour, so I walked around the side of the museum and just sat in a park for a while, trying to conserve energy for my upcoming hours of museum.
Actually it took a while to find the meeting point for the Gold Room tour too, but I did. The treasures were pretty great, but the tour, unfortunately, was not. Our tour guide told us about something in the room, generally while standing directly in front of the relevant display so we couldn’t all see it, and then moved to the next room, beginning her new spiel while half of us were still trying to see the displays in the last room. Also, she was very quiet, and because she was so fast, we caught up with the Russian tour that had probably started 15 minutes before ours, and that tour guide was not quiet at all, drowning out ours. The 90-minute tour finished in just under 60 minutes.
As soon as it ended, I asked my guide for the most efficient way to get to the Winter Palace. She pointed me through the ground floor exhibitions I’d already walked through several times trying to find the mummified horses and then up a staircase that I knew led into the main museum, which I’d already seen. I pointed out to the lobby and that downstairs back hallway, but she insisted that if I went that way I wouldn’t be able to get back in, so I followed her directions, which led me up several flights of stairs, through several long corridors, and right back into the crowded rooms I’d already seen. They were so crowded in fact that as I tried to get out, I frequently had to wait at a doorway for several minutes as other patrons streamed through in the opposite direction. I asked guard after guard, and each pointed me in a completely different direction. Finally I found my way back to that long hallway downstairs and back to the line behind the museum. I waited in that line for quite some time. When I reached the front, however, I found signs saying that entrance was only for groups. The woman next to me was the tour guide for a large group of Italian speakers, but she spoke enough English to answer my questions. She confirmed that only groups could get in through that door. Since she was in line next to me, she knew how long I’d been waiting. I showed her my ticket, and she said it wouldn’t scan, so she confirmed with the guard that she could get in on her tour guide ID, and then she handed me her ticket so that I would be able to walk in with her group. When the guards finally let us in, this worked perfectly, except that as soon as I was inside I realized I was back in the lobby of the main museum building! I had walked so far west through the hallway that the long line had only returned me to a back door that was directly across from the one I’d entered. I had not continued east to the Winter Palace. I turned around to exit through the door I’d just come in, and it was blocked with stanchions and “No exit” signs.
I walked several more blocks and finally found a tiny, unassuming building where the guard accepted my museum pass and confirmed that this was indeed the Winter Palace. It was almost completely empty. As I walked through the interesting but fairly modest early 18th century rooms of Peter the Great. It turns out that the main museum complex is “the Winter Palace,” and I’d already seen the coolest stuff. My confusion was that this completely different building within the museum complex is called “the Winter Palace of Peter the Great,” and by the way you can purchase a ticket to get in there only, which is significantly cheaper, but I hadn’t known that and had bought the full-price ticket to the full museum. This older Winter Palace was pretty anticlimactic, but I did enjoy a few of the exhibits, especially the wax man and Peter I’s giant standing desk (he was 6’8″ tall).
By the time I finished at the Hermitage, it was already around 4 p.m., and the other main site I had stayed to see, the Peter and Paul Fortress, closed at 6 p.m. I was already beat, but there wasn’t a straight-shot public transportation option, and I avoid cabs, so I walked along the Neva and over a long bridge to the Petrograd Side, formally Hare Island, upon which Peter began building this fortress in 1703. Right when I got across the river, I could see a mosque in the distance, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it there and back in time to see anything on the island, and I was already conserving walking in exhaustion.
As I walked to the visitor center, I passed a cart with an old woman selling kvas from a barrel. I’d read in the guidebook that kvas was a classic Russian non-alcoholic sour drink made with fermented rye bread that is considered a hangover remedy. I hadn’t seen it yet and was excited to try it. I knew I was pressed for time, but I was also chilly and tired, and I thought it would be great to rest my feet and sip some nice, warm kvas. But she was out of it. Oh well. By the time I got to the visitor’s center to buy my ticket in as it was almost 5 p.m. Turns out the fortress includes a whole bunch of attractions, and there was clearly no way I was going to get to see them all in an hour (actually less since several were closing 15 minutes early for a private event), so I bought the pass that got me into the main attractions and asked the ticket seller which she recommended the most in case I ran out of time. I was delighted that she immediately drew big numbers on the map, ranking the sights in order of importance.
On her advice, first stop was the early eighteenth century Cathedrals of Peter and Paul, filled with tombs and statues and notable as the site where Leo Tolstoy was excommunicated. My next stop was Trubetskoi Bastion, the prison that housed revolutionaries when the tsars were in charge and then counter-revolutionary prisoners once the Bolsheviks reigned. I spent quite a while there, and by the time I got out, most everything else was closing. It seemed like the island included a mix of official attractions, which my ticket included, and private museums and displays on torture, miniature art, and other arcane subjects. I did enjoy the odd statue of Peter the Great by Russian dissident artist Mikhail Shemyakin, who used a living mask of the tsar but then made the body huge. I walked to the other side of the island on the beach along the Neva and saw people fishing but not swimming. While I was walking, I asked two more kvas vendors for kvas, but they too were out of it. Does this stuff exist?
From there I crossed to Vasilievsky Island to walk by a number of outdoor attractions: Rostral columns (former lighthouses now oddly shaped statues celebrating the Russian navy), sphinxes (two from the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep III), and the strelka, a spit of land with a pretty view back to the City Center. As I walked, I stopped at a kiosk and bought a kvas, which turned out to be a bottled soft drink! It tasted like rust, but I sort of liked it. I ate dinner at a real restaurant, but I was the only patron in its big, empty rooms. I had ordered the trout with garlic and lemon and a greens and was served the most literal interpretation of those dishes. Instead of being cooked in a lemon-garlic sauce, the plain grilled trout was served with a head of garlic and almost an entire lemon on the side, and what I thought would be a salad came as a big plate of uncut, undressed herbs, mostly dill. It was quite a long walk back. All day I’d been looking for a pharmacy, and I finally spotted one right across the street from my apartment. By that point I was so tired I almost wasn’t willing to cross the street—and this was one of the many streets you can’t cross anyway; you have to walk to the next corner and take the underpass—but I went. I just wanted to buy deodorant and cough drops, which turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. It turns out not speaking a common language can be a barrier to communication.
When I got back to Anton and Dima’s, I had a little time to hang out with Alberto and Dima as I packed up my belongings, They were talking about what it was like to be gay in different cities. Alberto had been nervous about traveling in Russia, but they both said there wasn’t too much homophobia in the big cities. Alberto described Mexico as much more progressive than the US and said gay people had no trouble marrying or adopting there. While we chatted, we nibbled on some kind of sweet, unfamiliar melon. When I said my good-byes, Dima gave me an apple grown on a tree at their summer home. I took the trolley to the subway to the train station. My trolley conductor walked over to where my rollerboard was partially blocking a seat and gave me the snake eye until I moved it so she could sit there even though the entire car was empty. Whatever.
I had been so exhausted the whole trip that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to stay awake and alert enough to find my midnight train. I arrived at the giant, confusing station with plenty of time though, found my track, and went to a public bathroom, where I paid the attendant the usual 30 rubles or so. On my way out, a man walked in, showed her his ticket and confirmed that the bathroom was free for passengers (this was in Russian, but I got the point). So I showed her my ticket, but I had suddenly turned invisible; she wouldn’t even look at me. Whatever. It was only 30 rubles, but it was a wee bit infuriating. Really, she was one of the few strangers I met who absolutely embodied the stereotypes I’d heard about how Russians treat tourists.
I’d waffled a lot about how to get from St. Petersburg to Moscow. Flights are cheap, there’s a full-day boat ride that stops at historic villages with old wooden buildings, and the fast (four-hour) train promises great views of Russian countryside. But as soon as I saw my cabin, I was delighted that I’d chosen the overnight train. I’d picked the second highest level of cabin, which meant two bunks, no bathroom (down the hall), and breakfast included. Between our beds was a little table with magazines, bottled water, and breakfast croissants. When I’d booked online, the second bunk had still been empty. Nope, my travel companion showed up, and it turned out it was a good thing he did, as otherwise I wouldn’t have had the slightest idea how to work any of the cool stuff in the room. For example, I had been smart enough to pack what I needed in my little backpack and everything else in the rollerboard, but while I was still struggling to figure out what to do with the bigger suitcase, he lifted his sofa and placed his in the hidden compartment under it. Problem solved!
He didn’t speak any English, but from the guidebook I knew that when he politely excuses himself almost immediately upon entering, it was my cue to change into my nightgown. I found a package that I thought contained bedding, but it only had pillows, so I got those out, ready to sleep on my sofa. When my roommate returned, I went to the bathroom to brush my teeth, waiting till he popped the door to re-enter. When I did, he hadn’t just changed into pajamas, but he had fully made his bed! I held up my sad pillow bag questioningly, wondering why I didn’t get any sheets, and he stood up, leaned over my sofa, and undid a few buckles, that caused a panel to drop down and convert the thin sofa into a fully made twin bed! I was a little nervous that I might keep him up with my coughing, but my guilt was assuaged because he was a little smelly. It was warm in the cabin though, and it’s possible I was smelly too. Oh well. We were both asleep within 20 minutes of boarding the train. It was lovely to sleep in the moving train, and I didn’t notice either of us keeping the other up.
In the morning, an attendant woke us to take our breakfast orders. Maybe the boxed croissant was supposed to be dinner, or maybe they just give you a lot of food. I ordered porridge and tea. She also brought us each a bottle of orange juice and some other goodies. Including the food that was already on the table, there was actually more than I could eat, and I stuffed my bag with leftovers. It had been warm in the cabin, and I felt pretty gross putting my clothes back on and heading into the metropolis of Moscow. It was also rush hour and a little difficult to navigate the subway crowds with my luggage, but it wasn’t hard to buy a subway card, get an English map, and find my way to David’s hotel, where he had another breakfast waiting.
I’m breaking this post into two now because I can’t deal with the giant picture galleries. See Moscow, Russia 2016 if you’re still reading.