Posted by: ilanasmith | June 21, 2008

Leningrad was once Petrograd

Yammy’s fun to take travelling.  He’s easy-going, flexible, puts up with my crap, appreciates the afternoon nap break, can peer over the crowd to find things.  I figured he’d be a good companion for a trip around the Baltic, even if he wouldn’t be as useful language-wise as he had been last summer during our jaunt around the Adriatic.

Turns out he was totally handy. His Cyrillic education may have terminated in Grade 4 due to a certain secession, but being fluent in a Slavic language was ridiculously helpful.  It was funny to watch – he’d slowly sound out a word, then try mapping it to Croatian.  That worked most of the time, but otherwise, he’d try English, then the French/Romance connection via Italian, before finally giving Latin a go.  I’d make him read stuff just for the entertainment value.  "What’s that say?" "How about that?"  "And that one?" 

They should put it in Lonely Planet: When travelling to Russia, take a Slav.

Being in Russia itself felt like a big deal.  The visa stuff certainly helped and the funny picture characters; there was just such of sense of being on the other side of the curtain.  We spent a lot of time saying "Dude.  We’re in Russia."

St Petersburg was brilliant.  The city’s population is one of its most interesting aspects.  We had been warned that we’d see a lot of men wearing their sunglasses on the backs of their heads, hooked over the ears.  Disappointingly, we didn’t see this at all (at least, not until just one instance on our very last day), but the prevalence of mullets certainly compensated.  There was also significant representation by the marvelously badly dressed.  (Incidentally, when I was taking a few brief notes for this post, Yammy wanted me to include commentary on how some wardrobe choices made distinguishing between socio-economic tiers and occupations challenging, but as he did so by pointing to my page and exclaiming "Whores!", I’m going to decline.)  

Our hotel was fairly centrally located.  Basically, if Catherine the Great was still living in the Winter Palace, she would have been our neighbour.  On our first afternoon, we went for a walk.  We meandered down our street, under the arch and into Palace Square.  They were constructing a big stage there, so we figured it probably had something to do with the upcoming White Nights Festival.  When I finally noticed the name on the billowing banner, I started to laugh in disbelief.  You see, Yammy is a little bit of a Pink Floyd fan.  He flew to LA specifically for a David Gilmour concert, so it seemed almost ridiculous that we happened to be in St Petersburg, staying about 50 metres from where Roger Waters was setting up shop.  It became even more ridiculous the next night when somehow we just strolled past the security, into the square and caught the whole concert.

Russia (3) - Roger Waters in Palace Square Russia (3a) - Roger Waters in Palace Square

Me, I really only know the words to "Comfortably Numb" thanks to the Scissor Sisters and Dar Williams, so I wasn’t the core fan-base, but it was still pretty damn sweet standing in midnight twilight, looking up at the Winter Palace, listening to Roger Waters play "Another Brick in the Wall".

We wandered all about St Petersburg.  The Church on Spilled Blood was a highlight – ice-cream-cake onion domes on the outside, bright mosaic cartoons on the inside.  We tried to go to Peterhof, but after making us sit in a boat on the Neva for two hours, they decided that as Medvedev and his International Economic Forum friends were there, we shouldn’t be.  It was just like our Venice Three Hour Tour.

Russia (9) - Church on Spilled Blood (tone-mapped) Russia (10) - Church on Spilled Blood (interior)

Of course, we did the Hermitage.  As with visiting any museum housed in a re-purposed building, we spent a lot of time backtracking, mainly down two corridors – one where our guidebook promised we’d find a portrait of Catherine the Great dressed as a dude (we didn’t) and the 1812 Gallery.  This latter is filled with over 300 paintings of officers and heroes of the Napoleonic Wars.  I’d like to say say we spent our time there acknowledging their courage and sacrifices, but mostly we made fun of their hair.

Still, I’m disappointed that I missed the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography – it apparently has Peter the Great’s collection of deformed babies, which sounds fascinating.  Yammy baulked – he doesn’t like to be described as "squeamish" but then he also doesn’t like "whinging little girl".  Apparently the correct term is "hypersensitive to the idea that people have squishy insides."  This son of a surgeon made me go to the Nabokov Museum instead.



  1. 1) Afternoon naps are the best! That’s a dealbreaker for me on vacation. If you can’t understand my need for napping…it will be a loooooong trip.
    2)  I can’t CAN’T believe that you and Yammy just happened to stumble onto a Roger Waters concert.  Hee.
    3) Must. find. cheap. transatlantic. flights.

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