I’d lost a day, well a good part of it at least. My sleep account was recklessly overdrawn from a night spent propped up on a plastic chair in Riga airport. I’d pushed things further via adrenaline and concentration – and by staying up late to write part of this. Now the slumber creditors had come to collect with interest and I had fallen into a dreamless black hole.
I dropped out the other side, sometime the following afternoon; too late to do much of anything with the day, frankly. Serenaded by the industrial ambience of the sunny port outside, I pottered about the apartment until I could function enough to venture outside for provisions. “Today will be a chill-out,” I told myself. That was part of the deal anyway, to just be here in St.Petersburg and soak up the atmosphere.
Already, a routine had started to form, along with a localised mind-map of the immediate area and it’s facilities. This was still embryonic however, largely consisting of the long main road and its bridges into town, the red brick church in renovation, the Apteka (pharmacy), the route to the Metro and its triumphalist archway companion, the Stolovaya (canteen) and the local Produkti (grocery/convenience) stores. I’d even started chatting in pidgin Russian to a few of the locals. Just the usual: “Where are you from?” they asked, “How long are you staying?” “What do you think of Russia?” and of course, in my case: “Why are you wearing that mask?”. A normal day around town then.
I had been planning to cook during my stay, but frankly Stolovaya is so cheap, convenient and delicious that the apartment’s oven and hob remained idle throughout, whilst the fridge yawned open and empty. In between ‘proper’ meals, guilty ‘junk’ consisted of sweet poppy-seed bread, a block of chocolate wafers and the inevitable: crab crisps. These all washed down nicely with some fruit juice (100% Sok!) and always bottled water. I wouldn’t drink the local tap juice even if boiled; stained as it was like a chain smoker’s fingers. It was time to plan something more productive for tomorrow, Skype call family and friends and then write again into the night (but not too late).
Morning heralded the impending autumn. Just a taster, mind; a pre-echo of extremities to follow as a hell of rain dashed the greyed-out cityscape; sea, concrete and sky alike, even beating the surrounding docks into a defeat of silence. At least I could open the damn windows and breathe in some fresh air at last, whilst the descending torrent leached toxins from the sky and poured them into earthbound drains.
I waited out the storm until the phone rang in a moment of surprise. No courtesy call to say that late summer would be resumed shortly, but instead, a contact in St. P. who I’d informed of my visit. “I’ll come over in the car, we will go for a drive around the city!” he stated enthusiastically. I’d half-set my mind on visiting the Hermitage after the weather cleared. Five minutes later and I would have been out of the building, away from the Wi-Fi connection, uncontactable and heading for the Metro.
Floor 3 of the Hermitage piqued my interest, it’s true. It holds selections of evocative artifacts from ancient Siberian culture; even clues from prehistoric times, all of which fascinate me more than faux Louis XIV ever could. I could browse those cabinets in awe for hours. Consider the following finds for example, as featured on Archaeology News Network:
“A crypt with up to 30 burials is giving archaeologists fresh insights of intriguing ancient Siberians famed for their death masks which give us a clear idea of how they looked. Made of gypsum, the masks recreate the – at least partially – European look of the people who lived mainly around the Yenisei River”.
This is amazing, right?
Visiting the Hermitage would also ensure that I would never have those conversations about why I went to St. Petersburg without visiting the one building that everyone knows (and mentions just to show that they know something about St.P). It’s like mentioning Dracula to a Romanian. Yes, I like to think ahead. ‘Time and money well spent on that reason alone, truly, but here was ‘V’ free between two work-days and raring to go. That’s company, conversation, dragging me out of my bubble and the benefit of an insider’s knowledge too. Sorry, but the Hermitage can wait. Thirty minutes later he is outside my block, beaming at me from the screen of my phone. “Two minutes!” I said before locking the slab-like security door behind me and heading off to destinations unknown.
[Church and Arch-Top photos by Bernard H.Wood]