Tuesday, September 2, 2014


Mermaid guarding the port, & Lovers on Nevsky Prospect guarding each other

I write everyday in my journal, but during this voyage I’ve decided to include one moment from each day that seems to capture the essence of the day & that moves me deeply. At the end of the voyage, I hope to have a cornucopia of memories. If you journal, it’s something you might consider. Already I find that it makes me more aware of each moment as something to savor & remember.

Three days in St. Petersburg gave a bouquet of moments. Rather than give you a travelogue, I’ll share four of my favorite moments. You should know that I did not have a visa, & hence could only leave the ship on Semester at Sea organized trips.

Moment 1: Nevsky Prospect, & my favorite shop so far—okay, the only shop I’ve entered besides a souvenir shop so efficient & prepared for swarms of global tourists it’s frightening—but I can tell. This is the store we all dreamed of as children—a confectioner’s shop with large glass windows in which mechanical figures dance. Enter from a cold, gray day into fragrant warmth & soft music … & the sight of exquisite pastries, extravagant chocolates, & desserts in an Old World atmosphere. I can imagine princesses dropping in for hot chocolate & marzipan fruit. We were given 10 minutes inside, & I had to be cruelly pulled away.

Moment 2: Descending underground on the longest escalator I’ve ever ridden on, truly into the Underworld. Standing in the metro, holding onto a strap & watching faces. Not many smiles, most expressionless or grim, & staring into space or into their own thoughts. I am struck by the contrast between the two St. Petersburgs I’ve seen: 1) the militaristic, futuristic Soviet architecture—rather dystopian & soulless, designed for dread; & 2) the French-inspired pastel-playful baroque & rococo palaces & churches blazing with light & incense, designed for awe.

St. Petersburg—located somewhere between Alphaville & Versailles.

Moment 3: Making wishes. So we’ve got the river Neva winding past old-time castles as frothy as confections in my favorite candy store in the world so far (& I didn’t even taste a sweet there, it will remain in dreams). Mermaids & Sphinxes guard the river, & lusty, enormous young Titans stretch outside an extension of the Winter Palace (the Hermitage). Touch one of their big toes, truly massive, & make a wish.

I did.

Also near one of the Sphinxes, where a lion-like creature opens its jaws, & you put your finger in & make a wish.

I never turn away from a chance to make a wish. It was the same one both times. We’ll see what happens!

Moment 4: And this is a city of wishes. One of mine was to see the Hermitage, & this morning I did. Dazzling, opulent, over-the-top, dripping gold—even more than the Vatican … a gold-plated peacock clock that fans its tail, an enormous chandelier (among what seemed like hundreds), intricately painted ceilings, vast windows that open to gardens or the courtyard that leads to the river …. Sculptures by Rodin, two paintings by da Vinci, & glorious art by Rembrandt, Titian, Caravaggio, Cezanne, Monet, & Gauguin—to mention some of my favorites ... but there’s so much, & I’m moving so fast through hordes of tourists, trying to keep up with the guide & one of those infernal hand-held devices with earphones that crackle more than communicate (for some reason my guide’s voice was replaced by a Japanese guide’s)…that I somehow get … lost. Or a little sidetracked, which may have been the best thing ever. I remove the head-ache-inducing earphones & wander with a fellow “lost” traveler through the French Impressionists’ rooms at my own pace, & even have a chance to buy a cup of the best coffee I’ve had since I left home.

So here’s my fourth moment: coffee & art at the Hermitage. Delicious perfect coffee & the dazzle of the some of the world’s most brilliant art housed in the Winter Palace.

The Hermitage

Moment 5: You might think it would be Catherine the Great’s Palace—more opulent gold & crystal, one dining room after another—each with its own set of china—& a room made of amber, thirteen shades of amber, a glittering gold-dark mosaic. Or Peterhof—Peter’s glorious park of fountains with gold-plated bronze mythological heroes, trick fountains that splash you without warning, a chessboard fountain, & winding paths that lead to the Gulf of Finland. But it’s the forest of tall, narrow birch trees we passed on the return to St. Petersburg—trees like guards hiding secrets, maybe fairy tale monsters.

And I’m going to cheat & add one more moment that came during an hour of freedom. We returned to Nevsky Prospect at night, where a long-haired electric guitarist played “Beat It,” while a pony-tailed artist sketched him, seated artists sketched portraits, people smiled, a couple kissed, & the candy store beckoned & twinkled. Two friends & I raced across the street like desert voyagers toward a mirage. In a race against time, our minutes of freedom ticking before we had to return to the ship, we ordered cappuccinos & a dark chocolate ├ęclair topped with a marzipan colorful figure of an Art Nouveau woman. She melted on our tongues.

As we left, I took one last look over my shoulder. It means something, doesn’t it, when you taste food in the enchanted land? 

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