I woke this morning to moments of last night’s performance experience tugging me awake. My gut pulling from the rise and fall of adrenaline. My heart soaring from the roller coaster of so many emotions. But mostly the vision of Tina Kronis, our director, with tears streaming down her face as we exited the stage, stays in my mind. Her return to Russia where all of this was born – the artist has come full circle.
My spirit is full, and I feel an overwhelming gratitude as I slide into my jeans to head down to breakfast at 9 am. The hotel had asked us all to come down at that time because they wanted to present us with something. I am a little unsure as to what the custom or presentation will be and why, but bed head will not do, so I don my headscarf.
After we’ve eaten our breakfast, they bring out a most exquisite pie-type/filled bread with a gorgeous latticed crust. It is stunning and with my love for baking – I can appreciate the amount of time and effort that went into making this lovely sweet.
It is filled with sour cherries and berries of many kinds, candied ginger pieces and currants. It is surprisingly not sweet but tart and glorious.
There is a young girl, probably 9 or so, having breakfast with her grandmother, who has been eyeing us and the pie. I offer her a slice and she looks to her grandmother who nods and then to us with a ferocious nod. I give her a slice as well and she shares with her grandmother.
Today is our day off.
Vladimir will take us for the day to tour St. Petersburg. So we take our leave with expressions of thanks and race off to get ready.
We have a very busy day ahead of us and will be gone for the whole day, so we pack and dress accordingly.
We pile into a large van/small party bus. We drive across the river and into town. We stop and pick up Vladimir’s actress friend, who is a professional tour guide, and who will give us her tour of the town. She jumps into the van, and from word go she clicks into tour mode with her ‘’to your left” this…and “on your right” that. It was clear to me within the very first block that I had a choice. Try to keep up and immerse myself into every single detail or sit back and relax and let the city wash over me.
My favorite is when Vladimir interrupts her. He adds in his own details about the city he grew up in. Every so often the two of them argue in Russian about the path we will take and why their way is going to get us there better.
Such a conversation occurs as we try for more than twenty minutes to get close to the Church of the Spilled Blood. We discover that the streets to it are actually blocked off and two blocks away is as close as we get. It is very big and fancy and looks like the sister to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. It marks the spot where Alexander II was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt in 1881, hence the name.
We stop at a grassy park area just the other side of the river, where we are reminded to watch our wallets. I walk to the edge of the bridge and look across. The Neva River is about as wide as the Mississippi River, if not a little wider. There is a light breeze that blows through my hair and face, convincing me of it’s beauty. With it’s taste of the ocean it whispers:
This is a perfect moment.
You will remember it, and for the rest of time you will search for this breath that contains the most ions you’ve ever inhaled.
There were little tourist carts set up and a coffee hut that was shaped like a giant coffee cup. We only had 15 minutes but I took a look at the Babushka dolls. I had promised to bring one home for my mother.
Now is as good a time as any.
But then you have to carry it…
I end my inner conflict by picking the one that has the 8 nesting dolls.
Every block, there are impressive buildings with sculptures and monuments. Entire bronze brigades of horses carrying Generals or chariots exploding out the top of a shopping center or theater. There was this one horse – the artist used the backside of the horse’s anatomy to sculpt the outline of his wife’s lover’s face – forever cast by betrayal as a horse’s ass. That one was my favorite. Between the Summer Palace and the Winter Palace and the American Consulate and the home where Pushkin died, my mind boggled.
We go to St. Isaac’s Cathedral.
I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals, and they are designed to invoke awe, but this place is simply next level. The most impressive aspect is the lapis and malachite pillars. I’ve never even seen a large piece of either the blue or green stones. I’ve only seen them in jewelry, and these are floor to ceiling and carved into the shape of pillars. Never seen anything like it. Every inch of wall is covered in a spectacular ode to Russian Orthodox versions of the story of Jesus, but I gravitate toward these tablets in the middle of the cathedral. They stand about 8-10 feet tall, and, under inspection, reveal a mosaic of tiles that make up the picture.
We head to a lovely modern café with colorful tiles lining the floor and walls and stairs. I have an affinity for masterful tiling. It wafts over me as a feeling of order out of chaos. I have potato leek soup with smoked trout and a salad with pepitas. All is right with the world.
I step out to the bathroom, and when I return, our group is gone.
Aw, come on guys. Again?
(There was a night in Shanghai when we went on a river boat tour, and I was too busy taking photos to notice that the boat had stopped, my group disembarked, and the boat started off again. I ended up getting a cab driver who used his horn instead of his brakes, and I met everyone later at the hotel, so I guess it was fine. But seriously?)
I ask which way to the Hermitage and start walking. If I walk swiftly I can catch them. I see Doerr hurriedly walking back and catching up with me.
He asks me: Again?
I shrug my shoulders, and we catch up with the rest of the group.
The city square is massive. There is a giant angel on a spire in the center and the Winter Palace where the Hermitage is housed.
The Hermitage is a museum. A world renowned museum.
I could do an entire blog just on the Hermitage and my experience there.
But, suffice it to say that now is the moment when I will have to go off on my own. It’s just how I roll. I’ve got to do my own thing. I sneak into the exit of the museum and go backwards. Somehow I end up going down a hallway filled with art crates. And I find a secret corner of the museum where I spend an hour staring at Siberian horse bridles that were decorated with wood carvings of deer antlers and saddles with the most elaborate inlaid designs ever. From the 11th Century. I see only 3 people.
On the way out, I catch up with the group as if we’d been together the whole time.
We go off in search of a river boat cruise.
We hop on a bus which is packed. There is a woman who sells tickets but she is at the other end of the bus and has to navigate herself through the entire bus at every stop to get to everyone who needs to purchase a ticket. This seems like a bad method for ticket distribution.
Apparently I like river boat tours-especially at my favorite time of day. That golden time when the sun is at that angle that makes everything gorgeous. I get to put my feet up and just take photos and feel the wind on my face. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect. I look to the rest of our group spread out over the boat and smile at the sight of everyone having their own experience with the city. As the tour guide continues her tour completely in Russian over a speaker, I can see that her deep melodic vocal rhythm has lulled both Elizabeth and Jesse asleep in the seats next to me.
Somewhere between the warmth of the sun kissing my cheeks all day or the moisture in the air that nourished any part of me that could’ve been parched, I fell in love with the cracks and spots where the city shows it’s age and can’t hide it’s wear and tear.
After the boat ride I stay behind on my own for a dinner. I go to the Soviet Café where Vladimir had tried to take us the other night but it was too full. It has a red bicycle with flowers in a basket chained to the stairwell that leads down to it. Russian comfort food. I have the Chicken Kiev with mashed potatoes and cranberries. They bring dark rye bread that I cannot eat and I spend a fair amount of time removing the breading on the Kiev. It is worthwhile and there is a Russian War movie from the 50’s on the TV. This place reminds me of Gorky’s which used to be a 24 hour Russian Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles that I spent a good portion of my nights.
I feel at home even though everything feels familiar but not. Even though the people look like me, but not. Their clothes, their hair, the way they walk. Like me but not-in ways I simply can’t find words for.
This is a riddle that perplexes me. I’m not sure I will ever fully understand how St. Petersburg grabbed a hold of me demanding that I love it. Courting me with all of the riches the world has to offer and impressing itself into my soul.
You don’t have to leave tomorrow.
Yes. I do. I have to go to Moscow. Tomorrow.
But Moscow cannot give you what you want. St. Petersburg has everything for you.
I wouldn’t have even come if it were not for Moscow. I must go. I must.
You can go but it will not love you the way I can.
You think you must-but remember that I said this to you first.
You will never forget me and I will never let you go of you.