Saturday, October 23, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 1)

In our circle of acquaintances, it's not uncommon to know those who travel outside these shores. The locations vary: Western Europe is a usual destination, as are South and Latin America, and the major cities of the Far East. But tell someone you're going to Russia, and even among experienced road warriors you'll likely get a raised eyebrow or two. But with our youngest spending a semester there, it offered us an excuse to try something very different. And so we journeyed to St. Petersburg to spend a week and get a sense of the place.

Anyone guidebook will tell you the basics. A very manageable city on the Gulf of Finland, it sports such major attractions as the Hermitage, one of the great art museums of the world. Also not to be missed, (and we didn't) are St. Isaac's Cathedral, The Peter and Paul Fortress and The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  Add in the Kirov ballet, a few blini and some vodka, and a journey outside the city to Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great whose grounds and gravity-fed fountains are one of the wonders of the world, and you have a trip for the memory books.

But what follows are a few more personal impressions of the place beyond a blow by blow of the premier attractions. By no means definitive, it's some of the things that struck us as we walked... and walked and walked and walked... around the core of the city and to a few outlying areas. Colored by our own biases and experiences, while also being almost comically selective as to what made an impression on us, it is none the less what we remember most once we strip away the simple recitation of where we went and what we saw. For this week, the focus will be on the physical sense of place; next, on the people.

The first thing that caught our eye was the colors. Many of the buildings are mint green or soft pink or pale yellow or baby blue. Whether it is indeed to make them stand out from the snow as we were told, or for some other reason, it gives the city a certain fairytale quality which contrasts mightily with what you expect from a place that is so associated with historical repression.

But if the buildings are colorful, the crowds certainly are not. The people are almost exclusively white and European looking. You see slight variations from Slav to Nordic ("Piter" itself being 40 minutes by plane from Helsinki) to some slight Mongolian influence. But you literally see no dark or truly Asian faces walking down the street. Meanwhile, the clothes and shoes are 180 degree opposites of that. Yes, it is a city, but dark tones don't just predominate, they overwhelm. We passed many a store sporting huge collections of boots and shoes that Henry Ford would have appreciated: you could have any color as long as it was black.

The streets and sidewalks were pleasantly wide and the buildings refreshingly low, making it feel similar to and yet somehow different from other European cities. Part of that can be attributed to the fact that it was all but demolished in the great Siege of 1941-1945 and then rebuilt, a memory still fresh both individually and institutionally. Indeed, we were shown explosive damage from the war marked with a plaque, and further a field passed a bomb shelter adjacent to a haunting cemetery filled with war dead, whose headstones were each miniature coffins filled with fresh flowers.

But if the canals and rivers felt like Amsterdam, and the many parks and squares like London, the numerous onion dome churches and signs in Cyrillic reminded you that you are in a place the hails from a different heritage than the west. The alphabet conspires to make it all but impossible to discern at first glance what's on a given street. That being said, we were able to finally decipher the hieroglyphics enough to know the places where we could get a bite (кафе) and the ubiquitous food shops which were open around the clock (24 часа). And we noted that "yucas" only seem to come in sets of 24.

Space won't allow a full reporting of impressions made over the entire week, but there are plenty more: the leftover Soviet era buildings, the brand new sleek Mercedes contrasting with the barely running ancient Ladas, the brides posing with their husbands in front of almost every major landmark. Suffice it to say it was indeed far different than what we were used to. And the people? That, comrades, will have to wait till next week. Until then, das vadanya.


Marc Wollin of Bedford never knew he liked blini so much. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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