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St. Petersburg: The Great One’s Window on Europe October 20, 2006

Posted by Bill Carroll in Russia, Uncategorized.
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Saturday, October 14, 2006
Grand Hotel Europe 11 PM

Today was kind of a deadhead day between meetings so the five of us toured St. Petersburg.  After saying good-bye to Aleksei, we started the city tour while it was still dark.  Couldn’t see much, but the traffic wasn’t bad.

stnicholas.jpgTwo cities could not be more different.  Moscow seems gray and dominated by high-rise 1950s architecture that is at best, antiseptic and at worst, threatening.  St. Petersburg is all low-rise, classic architecture, dominated by near-pastel yellow-orange, green and blue.  St. Petersburg looks like Venice or Amsterdam, cities that inspired its design.  Moscow is nearhermitage.jpgMetropolis.

Or maybe Beijing–the capital, more politically idealistic and uptight.  St. Petersburg is more like Shanghai; further away, more relaxed.  In St. Petersburg as in China, much of the beautiful art and artisan work done in the pre-Communist period in the name of royalty or religion was neglected or destroyed in the early and mid-part of the last century; it has since been restored and is incredible.

Anna, our tour guide made sure we bought souvenirs at a reputable place.  This is not trivial.  Russia seems to be one big negotiation.  You can stand on the street and flag any car as if it were a taxi and negotiate a price for a ride.  The taxis aren’t much different.  In this system, buying stuff on the street seems like guaranteed disaster.

band.jpgWe had lunch, at a very nice restaurant that tested my still touchy digestive system, but came complete with entertainment.  A band showed up and played a Russian song—Moscow Nights.  I recognized it because it had been remade by Kenny Ball as Dixieland jazz in 1962 and renamed “Midnight in Moscow“. I bought that single when I was in fourth grade.bird.jpg

I was sort of hoping they’d play the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR,” which might have been tasty with the accordion.  Instead to our surprise, they put down the instruments and took up the group’s “Yesterday” on ocarinas.

The ocarinas are designed so you blow air in a bird’s tail and music comes out.  I’ll pause here for you to insert your own metaphor.fivetourists.jpg

I was utterly not surprised when we were offered the “opportunity” to buy their cd’s and the ocarinas.  Yes, the theme from Dr. Zhivago is on there.  What, no 2006 World Tour t-shirts?

More sightseeing.  At the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul, we saw the tombs of all the Romanovs, and this interesting bronze statue of Peter the Great, advertised as being to scale.  Peter was over 2 meters tall, but had small feet, and apparently a very small head.  The head for this statue was taken from his death mask.  The real thing, by the way, is in the Hermitage, and a facial replica is also there, fitted with his actual hair.  His mustache as recreated in the replica looks a little cheesy though.  Presumably, it was not his original mustache.

peter.jpgYou’ll notice that his right forefinger is pretty shiny and rubbed smooth.  Local legend has it that if you rub his finger, your wish will come true.  I said, rub his finger, not pull it.  Be careful what you wish for.

Eventually I wound up at the Grand Hotel Europe, site of my next meeting.  It’s nice.  Most importantly, it has a fully functioning, understandable bathroom.  I cracked off the clothes I wore all day and all night and took what seemed like my first shower of the year.  Just to show St. Petersburg my technical savvy, however, I missed that the sleeping room curtains were on a rod with a drawstring and managed to pull them down instead of pulling them closed.  Sigh.

The five of us eventually regrouped for dinner at a restaurant called Demidov.  The concierge at the hotel said, “Oh. You mean the one with the Gypsy show.”  Note to self: One ocarina per trip is enough.

The specialty of the Demidov is bear filet.  I thought I misheard the waitress and asked if it was difficult to filet a pear.  No, she said, not Pear as in Bosc, Bear as in Yogi.  The filet was tempting, but at $90, a little pricey, so I went for second best–what amounted to bear sausage with fruit sauce.

Having bear for dinner is another pretty good metaphor opportunity so go ahead and take your best, ahem, shot.  My Cold War self thought, “Eating the Russian Bear…priceless.”  One grad school friend used to say, “Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.”  Tonight we evened the score a little.

The standard culinary wisdom might be that everything tastes more or less like chicken; to my palate, everything wilder than, say, chicken, tastes pretty much like liver.  Don’t look for a McBear anytime soon.

I’ve been here three days and I’m still sleeping at odd times.  The good news is, at 4 in the morning I’m really productive.  The bad news is, 2 PM comes awfully early.

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