Minority – St Petersburg

I navigated myself to the baggage pickup and most importantly through passport control and customs.

The next task was to ask for directions to the hostel which I did in perfect ummm English though I had learnt Spa-si-ba (thank you) and apparently my pronunciation was perfect. I regularly have mocked ex England manager ‘Schteve’ McLaren for using a Dutch sounding English accent when he was interviewed by Dutch TV but realised I could have easily made the same ignorant mistake if I’d not been careful.

Next I lined up at the ATM. The lady in front was struggling so we made a unofficial alliance to help each other especially when we learnt we needed the same bus and metro stations. Luckily the driver was sympathetic to our plight and let us know when to get off. The metro was easier than the bus as it is in London. Get on the right colour line make sure you’re heading the right way and you can’t go wrong. Though my bag did get stuck in the barrier setting of the alarm and getting disapproving looks from all those around. I was travelling at ‘Rush hour’ and at that moment i knew i had become that classic tourist most commuters hate.

The directions to the hostel were clear but I hadn’t appreciated how long individual buildings would be here. I was looking for number 46 and when I saw number 58 I wrongly assumed it was close. When it didn’t appear in 5 minutes I assumed I’d gone wrong and wrongly back tracked. With all my luggage that was a mistake as and when I was finally in the warmth of the hostel I thought my arm right was going to drop off.

I was meant to have a ‘honcho’ on my first day and my voucher implied they’d give me help and advice on the day of arrival. Unfortunately I had no way of contacting them and hostel attempts to contact the company failed. I tried to introduce myself but my room mates were Russian, Argentinian and German. So I opted to keep myself to myself and sort out my itinerary.

I knew that after being so busy in the build up the first night would be hardest and it was especially when I started to think about just what lies ahead. This is my life for the foreseeable future – a life where I have no place to call home. I tried to flip it around and think of the freedom but in truth that just made it all more daunting.

Next morning I woke at 8 but didn’t have the energy to get up. Eventually I did and shortly after 9 my ‘honcho’ Celina (originally from Latvia but now fully embracing life in St Petersburg) arrived and so started one long day of sightseeing.

First we walked to the train station and I was told how to read the information board; a task that sounds a lot more simple than it is because all the text is in Cyrillic.

Next we back tracked and started an epic walking tour of the city. I thought Celina would leave me to it but it turned out I had a personal tour guide for the day. Before we started an epic walk of the historic area we went to an old soviet style coffee shop.

The first historic stop was the Winter Palace (now more commonly known as the Hermitage) which I remembered from school when studying the Bolshevik revolution and my main reason for visiting the city. i later read the revolution started and the palace was seized on the 25th/26th October in 1917 so 94 years to the day.

Next we walked to the Kunstkamera which holds a collection of items obtained by Peter the Great. I didn’t feel I had time to go in so instead we carried on to the Peter and Paul fortress where the canon was fired to mark 12.00 just as I went to take a picture. I was not expecting this and almost dropped my camera as a result. We carried on walking and came to the Summer garden and Palace the former of which have been restored to the original design. Celina said it looked more romantic and enchanting when it was overgrown and so began a interesting conversation about the merits of conservation and preservation.

We had quite a lot in common which meant it felt like I was being shown around by a friend, though I believe that is the tour companies intention. Half way through the day we event went back to hers for a cup of tea. She asked if it was true the English only drank black tea as that’s what all the Russian adverts said and even though I had not normally a tea drinker I felt confident to confirm this was not the case. After we left we headed for the Church of Spilt blood where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated and on St Isaac’s Cathedral where I finally parted with some roubles to climb the tower to get an aerial view.

By this point my legs had given up and despite the city being full of museums which were now closed and I wasn’t sure what else there was to see or do. Next minute we were in an abandoned factory which was being used unofficially to house a club, cafe, contemporary art exhibition and some kind of cake sale. It was very odd but a good use of the space though Health and safety in the UK would have fainted.

Next Celina suggested going to the Opera at the famous Mariinsky theatre which I have to admit sounded a fabulous idea. Sadly it was sold out but instead we went to a smaller theatre to see Swan Lake which wasn’t without drama.

I wasn’t sure if I could take my rucksack in so to be sure handed it to the lady in the cloakroom but and I don’t understand what was said in Russian but the gist was “you’re not having a ticket but don’t worry I’ll remember you”. I tried to get it back but we were running late, the bell had just gone and the hand gestures I received meant the attendant wanted to move on. I spent the entire first half thinking bye bye bag and so long camera and train ticket. Everyone says watch your possessions – I knew all that but in the rush let my guard down, or at least I thought I had.

in fact there was no reason to worry – I got the bag at the interval and the lady looked very confused as to why I wanted to lug it around as she was quite frail and could barely lift it.

After the performance which was fantastic we went our separate ways. I had a night boat to catch to see the rising of the bridges. I tried to keep myself to myself again but it wasn’t long before the people in front realised I wasn’t native which felt slightly intimidating especially as I’d literally just read about the Russia for Russian murders. Luckily there were a group of uni students from Moscow and they whilst they very drunk they seemed harmless enough and acted as a translator. It was only a matter of time before I was asked “where are you from?” Where am I from. England. Who hates England, pretty much everyone especially Russia so I decided to go for where I’m moving to “Sydney in Australia”. Now I’m not proud but this was possibly the best lie I’ve ever told for it created gasps of wonder and meant David Cameron’s comments the other month wouldn’t haunt me. Luckily questions such as how hot is it were easy to answer. I did however refuse the vodka but only because my guard was still well and truly up.

The cruise finished and I made my way back to the hostel 18 hours after I set out. I hoped to fall asleep but the person in the bunk behind me appeared to have company. I need to get used to the hostel life. I put my ear plugs in, drew the curtain to my bunk, hid under the covers and pretended nothing was happening whilst i read about Rasputin when it happened…I dropped my phone on the floor and the screen lit up the room thereby causing the ultimate cock-block. Play time was over. I felt guilty but i have to admit it was also pretty hilarious.

Next day I woke up at 11.30. There was no reason to try another heavy day as my train from Moscow isn’t until 11.30pm.

I packed up put everything in storage and headed back to the Winter Palace/Hermitage to have a look around. I tried to ask “Vi ga-va-ri the pa-an gli-ski” (do you speak English). I practised for 30 minutes when I was in the queue and when it got to me I’ve no idea what I said. All I know is it created an angry lady who kept shouting change at me. I’m guessing it was because I gave 1000 roubles when the ticket cost 600 but if this is the issue the bank should give smaller notes.

The museum/art gallery had a number of stunning exhibits and was basically the British Museum, V&A and National Gallery combined. Whilst I have to admit whilst i appreciate art, any technical coment is lost on me and I couldn’t help but think how much Hamish would tell me off for not studying every painting in detail. After 3 hours of getting lost and stumbling upon famous works like Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child I collapsed on a chair in the cafe. It was at this point I realised I could have downloaded a free map which had all the main highlights marked.

I left and noticed that the big stage set up for the winter Olympics was now being used and there were loads of police and soldiers. Also part of the main road leading to the hostel had barriers along it and people were queuing behind them. I thought about asking what was going on but I didn’t know how and as everyone except me had a Russian flag I didn’t want to draw attention. Regardless it was clear due to the police presence some sort of procession was going to pass.

I carried on to the hostel and still failed to interact with anyone despite sitting in the lounge writing this whilst waiting for the moment I’d have to leave for the station. Hopefully conversation will be easier on the tour because meeting new people is part of the fun and feeling isolated is not. Still all part of the experience…


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