St Petersburg – Hope to see you again !

Tatiana geets us in the hotel lobby with flutes of champagne.  It’s a lovely surprise to begin an evening in this inviting, exciting city.  Interpid Travel contracts with two local families to host small tea parties.

We visit a young family in the northeastern part of the city.  They live in a fourth floor walk-up in a poorly maintained, but gloriously Rococco building.  They are in a single room apartment that shares a kitchen and bath with other families.  Ceilings and spirits are equally high as our hostess provides tea from a large pot and from a shining samovar.  Her cobalt tea cups are inherited.  The stack of pancakes resembles large, thin crepes and they are are lovingly prepared.  We enjoy them with home-made fruit jams made in summer from berries foraged near the family’s dacha (summer house).

The family’s nine-year old daughter is still in her costume from her dance lesson, and like children the world over, enjoys a tender moment at the table, conferring with dad.   I enjoyed seeing fathers with their children at every turn, every day.  A dad roller-skates (badly) with his daughter.  A young boy travels the subway with his father.    An working father lunches with his school girl daughter.

It’s an interesting glimpse of how families make the domestic transition from Soviet times through perestroika.  Our subway ride home gives us a look at austere but beautifully made tiled stations.  This is different, too, from Moscow’s revolutionary days when bold, patriotic artistry was the rule for public areas.

During another day, several gather to do some sport shooting at an indoor range.  The appeal for the new shooters is to handle the fabled Kalashnakov.    The range is managed in a professional, safe way.  A poster reminds shooters to pick up their spent rounds.

On another evening, we visit the Aurora Theatre just across the Neva River from the Hermitage.  The theatre lobby overlooks the City as well as the docked Aurora submarine, now also a historical point of interest.   The Russian Ballet performs an abbreviated “Swan Lake.”  The balletic technique is perfect, though the sight line is interrupted by glare from a light in the reed section of the orchestra.  The light aims at the first rows as much as it illuminates the sheet music.  Luckily, there’re seats available to reseat anyone finding themselves in the inadvertent spotlight. 

Time comes to catch a flight home.  There is a short-lived panic after being denied boarding.  In the early morning, I am told I am in the wrong airport.  Judi cleared just fine for her route to Colorado, but my flight destined eventually for Florida is another thing.  A compassionate fellow traveller re-translates.  I discover that I am in the wrong terminal, about a twenty-minute cab ride away from where I should be departing.  St Petersburg says it has two airports.  They are coded the same:  LED.  One is for domestic flights and one is for international flights.  Except the same named airport for domestic traffic now has a few international flights.  Go figure.

I borrow Judi’s last rubles to pay the cab driver to take me to the new airport slash terminal slash domestic slash international for my outbound flight to the States.   I do not give up.  I do not panic.At the security check point, a family passes through inspection.  The guard waives the wife through the scan as her husband pushes a pet carrier across the security belt.  The woman cradles the largest, most gentle and beautifully silken, Russian Blue cat that I’ve ever seen.

I’ll carry that sweet image in my head as a fine metaphor for this trip.  Glad to have met you, Russia & the Baltic.  We had a damn good time.

Saint Petersburg, Russia

Dear St. Petersburg, You’ve had as many names as I have!

Married to the great swells of history, the city has been St Petersburg from its founding in 1703 until 1914, Petrograd from WWI 1914 until 1924, Leningrad from 1924 until the fall of the Soviet regime in 1991, then St Petersburg again from 1991 until now.

St Petersburg also enjoys many unofficial titles:  It is the Venice of the North, for its canals and waterways.  It is the City of Three Revolutions, for a Century of upheavals between monarchy, communism, and democratization.  It is also Palmyra of the North, for its neo-classical style and its role as a cultural crossroads between West and East.  Mavens compare the city to  2,000 year old Palmyra, which was once a wealthy, camel stop with advanced architecture and a complex city plan.

We arrive by train and observe the immaculate station with marble niches for statuary.  The pace of the city is hurried, but not as frenetic as Moscow.  We’ve eased into the metropolis by sitting for a lesson on the Cyrillic alphabet from our perennially patient guide, Tatiana.  The mystery lifts from some of what we can now read.  Though we give respect to the tongue – Sounding out a written word is not the same as understanding its meaning.

How interesting to leave Novgorod – a medieval city dating to the 800’s – for an Imperial favorite, St Petersburg, built a thousand years later.  Peter the Great, the city’s namesake, reportedly conscripted Russian peasants and Swedish prisoners of war to build his maritime dream on the middle taiga lowlands along the Gulf of Finland in 1705.  Tens of thousands died in the process, but they remain nameless.  Some 200 years later, the Germans blockaded St Petersburg during WWII.  The seige claimed a million lives due to starvation, winter cold, and disease.  Later, when the Soviet communist bloc broke in the early 1990’s, St. Petersburg suffered from a broken economy.  Food was rationed, and it was a decade before things bettered.

“Venice of the North” is a bad euphemism for more than 300 floods that destroyed buildings and caused the city of 100 islands to reorganize.  It was not until the 1850’s that pontoon bridges were abandoned for permanent structures.  A needed series of dams began in 1980, stalled during the difficult recession years, then were finally completed in 2011.

The hydro project includes completion of about 30 water purification stations, as well.  Inept handling of phosphates and human waste plagues the City’s ability to cleanse its water.  In the hotel, bottled water stations stand at each floor.  Common understanding cautions the use of tap water for any reason other than bathing.

At midnight, we board a barge for a sail along the Neva River.  Because the city has a series of more than 500 bridges of varying size and age, bridges lift each night to allow large vessels to pass.  Lifted bridges mean that the island suburbs that they serve are temporarily cut off.  The accomodation is to lift bridges at 1:30 AM each morning, when most who are affected are expected to be asleep.

The late night boat ride is beautiful.  St Petersburg lights its main bridges in color.  The buildings along the Neva stay bathed in white light all night.  Happily for aesthetics – particularly at night –  St Petersburg’s developers are prohibited by a 1762 Code from building anything higher than the Winter Palace.    As 1:30 AM approaches, more and more people line the banks to see the bridges rise.  Boats collect.  Cheers quickly raise as the bridges take their turn going slowly up. 

Near Nevsky Prospekt, the venerable main street of the city, the national military school trains the next generation of soldier scholars.  Young cadets in uniform are in the street with their parents for the week-end.

This is a walkable city, with beautiful parks.  The scent of roasted nuts leads us to a vendor.

At the Church of Spilled Blood, we see why the site magnetizes visitors.  The many domes and mosaics and iconography on the exterior are picture perfect for the devout and curious alike.  The city’s souvenir market is conveniently situated in the church’s shadow.  One of the bridges leading to the church attracts bridal parties for photographs.  Another tradition sees the bridal party cheer the newlywed couple as the groom runs across the bridge toward the church, carrying his bride.

The Hermitage is similarly an irresistable visit.  It is home to Catherine the Great’s art collection.  And as her former home, it is one of the most lavish known to have been occupied by arguably the world’s most famous hoarder.  We are hours in the midst of the gilt and galleries.  We’re separated as one tour group after another floods the royal aviary where the Peacock clock is exhibited.   

I run like a Petersburger, and jump into the press of a rush hour crowd on a bus along Nevski Prospekt.  I hold out my fare, but no one takes it.  Four blocks later, I leap back onto the curb and weave the same path taken by Judi back to the hotel.

Earlier in the day, Judi and I stop for coffee at a shop named for Pushkin.  This stop is but one of the consistently entertaining and delicious meals that we find in St Petersburg.  St Petersburg feels very Continental in the manner of its cafes, the dominant presence of neo-classical buildings, and its cosmopolitan shops and people.

The State Museum holds its austere own with well cared for collections of art and artifacts of Russian origin.  Sometimes, the museum pits the outlying areas against curators, as when the church doors dating from the 1500s were removed from Novgorod for display in St Petersburg.

Novgorod

This place puts the “Oh!” in  old.  A bold number hanging on the gates to the city claims residents by 862, though archeological research says it’s more like late tenth Century.  Either way, that’s old.  Today, Veliky Novgorod is situated on the federal highway M10 that runs between Moscow and St Petersburg.  In its founding days, Veliky Novgorod was favored due to its location along the trade route linking the Baltic to Byzantium.

The scenic way to approach the detinets (kremlin), is to cross the bridge on foot.  The Volkhov River is broad here, and a natural barrier for the fortress.

The kremlin walls follow the natural curve of a swamp.  Centuries ago this was a military barrier.  Today, municipal crews work to clear growth from the slough to avoid flooding.

Inside the kremlin, St Sophia’s Cathedral stands today in full architectural and religious strength.  Built in 1045, it is said to be the oldest structure of its kind that is still in use.  It’s five, helmet shaped domes are iconic Veliky Novgorod. Wedding parties defy the chilling Fall winds to pose here for pictures.  The bride wears a maribou stole that lifts coyly in the wind.  They are not far from the many love locks that adorn the bridge over the river.  Brave suitors must have hung like acrobats over the river to fasten some of the locks.  That evidences determination and strength along with perpetual love.

We turn to view the 40 foot tall, 100 Ton bronze Millenia of Russia monument that was erected in 1862.  After a spirited competition, Mikeshin’s design was selected.  Many figurative sculptors collaborated to complete the plan, showing 129 statues of Russian statesmen, military figures, and men of letters circling the top.  Ivan the Terrible was omitted by universal consensus considering the massacre and pillage that he brought upon Novgorod in 1570.  During WWII, the Nazi’s disassembled the monument with intentions of transporting it to Germany.  Instead, the Red Army re-possessed it and re-erected it with great pride in 1944.

During our visit, workmen scrubbed the monument in anticipation of the arrival of President Putin.  The workers handled harsh cleaning chemicals and climbed the wetted monument without benefit of safety gear.   

Morning was the color of gun metal on the day that we crossed the Volkov River to leave Veliky Novgorod.  A memorable visit, indeed.

Overnight Train to Novgorod

Train matrons are stout, stern women in caps, low heels, and blue uniforms.  But they are not as formidable as the busty officials in white shirts who are charged with rousting drunk passengers from trains.  In the overnight train’s dining car, they find two passengers in punk hair styles whom they confront.  They accuse them loudly of being drunk and inform them that the police are coming to throw them off the train.

Witness forces to be reckoned with in a dining car that is brightly decorated in white and red.  Judi and I share a booth with a young Muscovite who says he goes to Novgorod for “work on the left.”  It’s only a moment before we decide that this is not a political job, it is a literal translation for “work on the side.”  He’s equally bewildered about why we would refer in English to such work as “moonlighting.”  It’s done during the day like any other desk job.

We decline our fellow traveller’s generous offer to share his order of pickled herring, onions, and vodka.  He recommends that we order a Russian Standard.  We do, but our young guide intercedes so that we are not the next ones to be thrown off the train.  Our guide adroitly intercepts the waitress with our order so that we receive two 50-proof shots instead of two standard 100 proof shots of vodka.

Our sleeping car has four berths.  Our guide works to shuffle our small group like a bent deck of cards.   Those in our group who had the bad judgment to bring huge luggage must share compartments with those of us who pack like we are travelling instead of moving a household of five.   We sleep in loose clothes, and allow the pack animals to take the top bunks along with their puzzle about how to cohabitate with their massive amount of belongings.

Our cabin locks.  You can open it from the inside, but not from the outside without the assistance of the car’s matron who controls the single pass key.  For an inconvenient sum of about 100 roubles, you can buy a duplicate key to your cabin.  No one but those who have medical necessity to bolt to the bathroom with great frequency bothers with this key purchase.  Instead, someone from our cabin stays in the cabin while the other goes to the WC, where we also take turns walking in on Russian men who don’t lock the door, but swear at the intrusion.

A half an hour before arrival, we hear the sharp click of the matron’s single knock that alerts each cabin that the station is minutes away.  Judi and I are ready to step into the new city.  Our cabin mates use the last few minutes on board to struggle against the crowd in the aisles in order to use the bathroom for the first time.

You could be you, or you could be them.

Sometimes it really seems hard to be them.

Did we talk about the food?

 

Pop Banya!

So.  We dove into the cultural niceties that include Finnish sauna, family banya in Suzdal, sauna cum clothes dryer in Lithuania, and a Russian public banya complete with serious attendants, cold showers and birch branches to enhance circulation.  Banya in Russia is a social as well as a therapeutic thing.  Thanks, Tatiana, for sharing this delightful parody:

In a Theatre Near You

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DEFIANCE   Daniel Craig stars in a gripping tale inspired by true events in Georgia that involved partisan warfare during WWII.  The film was made primarily in the dense woodlands and sweeping marshes near Vilnius, Lithuania over the Fall and winter months of 2007.

Although panned in parts of Eastern Europe for its reportedly historic inaccuracies, Defiance is a film to see.  It carries the great power of any great story that’s well told.

The same power that holds Defiance‘s audience is the same power that makes Les Miserables or West Side Story classics.  Les Mis and West Side Story are successful, theatrical works of art.  Success is granted despite their choices to turn the brutality of the French Revolution, or the murderous vendettas of New York City gangs, into relatively bloodless love stories in song.

Defiance’s literary license is much less than the literary license used to bend facts in Les Mis or West Side Story.  Instead of  song and dance inserted at the moment of high drama, Defiance uses exaggerated combat to drive the emotion.  All of these devices gain the compassionate and intellectual attention of their audiences.  Hopefully, the artistic works also take their audiences deeper into introspection about the ravages of hate.

Defiance trailer

Suzdal

A private, blue Mercedes van carries us from Moscow to the eastern, holiday city of Suzdal.  Moscow’s traffic is gridlocked, day or night.  Lanes are barely a vehicle’s width, and traffic signals are a mere suggestion.  Our Muscovite acquaintance tells us that in Moscow, pedestrians know that a red light means, “RUN!”

Green lights at city intersections give a digital countdown for pedestrians and drivers to know how many seconds remain before the light changes to red. Below the digital countdown, another display shows a green-lit figure.  In any other city of the world, this figure would be static in a “walk” position.  In Moscow, the green-lit figure flashes like a cartoon.  The figure runs as the clock ticks away the seconds.  Pedestrians do the same.

Another traffic sign is puzzling.  It shows a car with hash marks above it, pointing downward.  We soon learn that the sign is a blue and black directional for drivers looking for car wash stations just off the main thoroughfares.  Moscow drivers with dirty cars can be fined a hefty amount.  But from the looks of the grit on each passing car, this is a financial risk that most drivers are willing to take.

For parking, Muscovites go diagonally up and over curbs, leaving the front wheels on the sidewalk and the back end of the car still in the street.  This exposure to collision and brutal treatment of tires every time a driver parks his car, must bring a lot of business opportunities to collision repair and tire replacement centers.  On arrival in Suzdal, we see what is obviously a trusty horse and carriage owned by a Muscovite.  The horse’s front hooves are on the sidewalk, while it’s ass is left exposed in the street.

The eastern expressway is a truck route with kitschy truck stops dotting the way.  We stop midway from Moscow to Suzdal for a quick recharge.  There are frumpy and grumpy clerks in dark red uniforms and slippers, their short socks turned down around dusty, swollen ankles.  They take our handful of coins in exchange for a local treat – soft, home-made gingerbread cakes with fillings of nut or fruit jam.

A string of roadside vendors fearlessly stand by their tchotchkies’ stands as trucks roar by a few feet away.  They are selling gingerbread.  And they are selling pink, white, and blue stuffed animals that are the 4-foot tall size of carnival trophies.  When we ask why these stands cluster at the halfway point between Moscow and Suzdal, we get a shrug and the comment that the toys are made in China and are not very good.

The bus delivers us in front of the door to a recently built guesthouse.  It is intentionally built in a rustic style with caulked logs and carved wood framing the windows.   This is an example of a dacha or country house enjoyed my most city dwellers.  Windows showed more and more elaborate carvings in the days when paint was too expensive for vacationers with both a summer house and a budget.

We are assigned sleeping space, and share two baths for our night’s stay.  Allison gathers apples from the side yard, peels and slices them into thin strips, then steams them for breakfast.  Tatiana, our guide, makes cottage cheese cakes from her grandmother’s recipe.  We share meat, cheese, and freshly sliced bread.

Despite the hours on the bus, or perhaps because of it, we follow a local guide on a long walk through town.  Onion domes and other church architecture are presented for consideration.  Suzdal was once the center of Russian, monastic life.  Harsh winters didn’t deter worshippers from church.  During bad weather, a diminuative church built next to the larger one sheltered the devout.

The street’s curbs are lined with baskets of seasonal mushrooms, brought from the forests to market in large, straw baskets.  Head-scarved sellers stand at the ready for the next sale beside their portable scales.  Pickles, pickled beets, and cabbages share the attention of buyers at the small, open air market on the central plaza.

Compassionate Bernie, himself a retired farmer, returned to the guesthouse, shaking his head.  He regretted passing an old seller who had just six apples to sell.  Bernie regretted not buying all six, despite his practical response that made him wonder how he would use all the apples if he bought them.

We walked to a private home for our evening meal.  Irina, our hostess, is both entertaining and generous to share her home and her garden.  She is pleased to show us the family’s private banya at the end of the garden.  The wood-stoked sauna has two rooms within a wooden building. Half the space is the traditional sauna for sitting in a dry heat any time of year.  The other room sports a picnic-style table where family and guests can linger, smoke, and enjoy conversation.

Irina gives a cooking demonstration for making dessert bread rolls. A hearty soup and Russian beet salad flaunt fresh pickings from her garden.  Irina not only provides vodka, she gives a lesson on the polite form for toasting.  A glass is raised three times.  Once for health, once for the parents, and once for love.

Warmed by the overall hospitality as much as by the meal, we walk the quiet streets to return to the guesthouse. Cats cross the roads like feline Invisibles.    Cones of light from the few streetlamps take brief focus as we skip between their beams through the darkness to a good rest.

Here’s to health.  To our parents.  To Love.

Adept at Adaptation

Any good day begins with breakfast.  I pass on the limp and barely cooked bacon, and instead choose the Arbat House’s sausage.  This plump and delicious sausage rightly belongs in a Chicago ballpark.  It’s worthy of the hot mustard placed like a sidekick beside it on the buffet table.  There is also a pancake, which is a French-style crepe folded in four and served with honey or jellies from restaurant containers. Fresh bean coffee is so robust, one cup is satisfying.  I pour a smooth, warm milk into the coffee from a bright red carafe.

Red is everywhere, from early morning breakfast rooms to sad evening light at war memorials laden with red and white funerary flowers.

Seven years after their introduction, ribbons hang from car antennae or rearview mirrors.  They are orange and black stripe signifiying fire and smoke.  It’s a reminder of WWII when most Russians lost a loved one.  But to modern sensibilities, they are a collective symbol of bravery in the face of the enemy.  In 2005, this St George ribbon was distributed freely to civilians and not to just the military for remembrance, together with the motto, “We remember. We are proud.”

The Moscow hotel restaurant is full and we wonder about the nicely turned out men who speak in hushed tones.  Some phrases escape to open hearing. “Chaplain candidate…government organization… new youth groups.”  In the lobby, an ex-pat newspaper describes official moves to organize youth into groups as a reaction to nascent religious youth groups who organize on their own.

We hear in Suzdal that boys from the country are leaving for work in the cities, while girls from the country are on waiting lists for nunneries.  Religion enjoys a resurgence, seemingly more for the women than for the men.   In St. Petersburg, we hear conversation warning about increasing tension between liberal government and a growing religous orthodoxy.

Unexpected  governmental largesses arrives from Moscow at cultural centers. Restoration monies to support Unesco sites are conferred for the first time since Unesco was designated twenty years earlier.  Critics call it appeasement of growing religious power, while supporters describe it as an iteration of perestroika /economic and politcal restructuring.

At the appointed hour, we meet a local guide at Moscow’s Kremlin.  The Kremlin’s entrance is secured while preparations are completed for the International Military Band Festival.  We pass through security, and are in time to be in the audience for the Imperial Equestrians as well as for an afternoon practice by one of the visiting, foreign Bands.

Our guide is sweet and enthusiastic, with encyclopedic knowledge about his city.  He finds humor in the detail of the collections, pointing out a medieval shield that is covered in rhino hide, but is held out to be unicorn.

In the evening, we use the marvelous Russian subway to the All Russia theatre next to the Cosmos Hotel.  At the 60th Anniversary of Victory Day in 2005, a monumental 30-foot tall statue of Charles DeGaulle in military uniform was unveiled by Presidents Chirac and Putin, allowing France and Russia to again stand publicly shoulder to shoulder.  More than an honor to the Cosmos’ French architect, the statue observes collaboration between Russia and France against the Nazis in WWII.  The statue was created by  Zurab Tsereteli, the controverial head of the Russian Academy of Arts.

Poor Tsereteli and his controversies.  He reportedly uses his influence with Moscow’s mayor to put his huge, and very expensive sculptures on view.  Perhaps tiring of Russian resistance to his pieces de resistance, Tsereteli ventured offshore for a better reception.  He created a massive stone dripping with water, with tear-shaped titanium suspended inside, as a memorial to 9/11.  At least four US cities turned it down, until it was erected in New Jersey.  It’s critized form and looming presence puts the sculpture in jeopardy, especially  now that an international container port is planned for the site.

The All Russian theatre is inside a gathering area for conventions and travel agencies.  Up the stairs, there is a theatre with velvet seats and very good sight lines.  We purchase tickets for a Review that is to feature dancing and rural costumes of Russia.  This show performs nightly to an audience that is comprised almost entirely of foreign visitors.   Instead of an ethnographic Review, we are entertained by a Vegas-style production, only vaguely inspired by folkloric costume and dance.  Tall, gorgeous women move in synchronized small steps across the stage.  They are painted like living matryoshka.  The male dancers are athletic and rae as glittery as the women performers.

I’m reminded that governments as well as individuals adapt to the audiences before them.  They are adept at giving away part of themselves while adapting to the expectations of their audience.  Listeners. of course, are eager to absorb what is given.  The order of the day echoes.  “Make mine an American Russian, please.  With a twist of French, and a side of Polish.”  Da.

Moscow’s Military Pomp

It’s Monday.  We chart a great day that takes us to all but one station along the Metro’s Circle Line.  We marvel at the artistry and individual nationalistic messages at each station.  There is stained glass making one station a veritable chapel for honoring the arts.  At each stop, there is sculpted marble and elaborate lighting.

The presence of travelling soldiers breathes contemporary life into underground spaces that are so momumental with their bronze and iron ornamentation.

Uniformed matrons in booths at the foot of escalators help us stay on track.  One allows us to squeeze under a barricade so that we can avoid becoming lost in the corridors between stations.  She grants us this privilege right after we heard her bark at a young man who ducked under the same barricade on his own volition.

We then head above ground to Red Square.  Performance grounds are temporarily set up for the International Military Band Festival.  We’re feted with a free performance by one of the visiting bands, and also watch the elegant  dressage of the Russian Imperial Equestrians.

We pay for entry into St Basil’s Cathedral, which instantly transports us into a 16th C. monkish church world.  A few centuries ago, there were religious zealots who were colloquially known as “crazy for God.”  It was so common that a single Russian word became coined for the phenomenon.  Adherents did their best to do good works, but at their own peril also gave unsolicited advice to whomever was in power.

At the top of our climb through a winding, tight stairwell, we emerge inside a small chapel where The Doros are performing secular music.  Particularly wonderful is the bass in this quartet, who reverberates in the special acoustics created by one of St Basil’s domes.  The singer is tall and swarthy with a tremor in his voice that could be Mongolian tuva.  Sublime!