Posted in Travel

Cool Times in St. Pete’s: The Way of Rasputin

The weather where I am right now is hot so let’s talk about a cooler place. St. Petersburg, Russia was cool, no downright cold (I wore on a daily basis long underwear, hat, scarf, mittens, and two coats) in March when I traveled there with an assortment of students from universities throughout England. Despite the cold, I was super stoked to even be in Russia. Nothing could bring me down, not even when things got frustrating or didn’t turn out as planned. I recall there being this one 24-hour period when nothing seemed to go right or come easily. (Insert transition to daydream sequence).

Entrance to the State Hermitage

My friend, Diana, whom I had met on the plane to Russia, and I set off after our morning lecture to see the State Hermitage. This place is massive and houses everything – antiquities, arts, crafts, jewelry, and armor to name a few. The line was long was we were happy to finally be admitted. The afternoon prior we tried to make it to the Kunstkammer, where Peter the Great kept his curiosities of science. We arrived just a few minutes after the last ticket time.

Knowing full well there’d be no way to see all of the collections, Diana and I narrowed our list down to a few select categories. On the top of our list was to see the Impressionist collection on the second floor. This sounded easy enough and with map in hand we headed into the depths of the Hermitage.

Diana letting us know that it took forever to find THE stairway to the second floor.

According to the map, the stairway to the second floor was locatable. However, the twists and turns through the collections felt more like a labyrinth with moving hedges. Every time we though we were where needed to be on the map, there were no stairs. We had read that the Impressionist paintings aren’t always open to the public, but we double and triple checked that they were accessible on this day.

Finally, after about an hour, we finally found the stairway. And compared to the rest of the building, this stairway looked so inconspicuous, if we weren’t looking so desperately for it, we might have thought it was for employees only. Seeing the Van Gogh and Seurat paintings, among others, and not being forbidden to take pictures of them was definitely worth the search. Plus we got to see parts of the Hermitage that we probably wouldn’t have had the stairway to the elusive second floor been easier to locate.

Dejected me at the closed Dostoevsky Museum.

After the extended tour of the Hermitage, Diana and I hopped on the Metro to visit the namesake of the reason for my wanting to see Russia. Metro Stop Dostoevsky made me fall in love with Russia. And now here I was. Having arrived at Dostoevskaya Metro Station, I felt I was on personal hallowed ground. The Dostoevsky Museum was just a few blocks away. Though I had not, by that time, read one of his books, I had to go. Unfortunately, it was closed and we wouldn’t have time to come back another day. Dejected, we soon returned to the city center.

In honor of our never giving up or letting our missed opportunities get us down we thought we’d check out the Palace and canal area where the infamous holy man Rasputin was allegedly lured, poisoned with no affect, subsequently shot four times, and again after not dying was beaten, wrapped in a carpet, and thrown into the canal where he broke free but eventually drowned.

My impression of Rasputin.

(Return from daydream) Sigh. That was 24-hours of not winning. But we kept going. Regardless, nothing could really get me down. I was in freaking Russia!

Posted in Travel

To Russia, With Love

Sometimes you are just going along in your life when something new comes your way and little do you know that a new path, a new interest will eventually take you somewhere you really never thought of going before. For me, that something new was a book and my new path led me to Russia.

The first Russian book I owned was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But this wasn’t THE book. I most likely bought this book because I wanted to read one of literature’s classics. I don’t remember buying it. I just remember it being thick, descriptive, with lots of notes in the back and way too many diminutive names to remember. I know that I finished the book in the summer of 2004 when Oprah had it as one of her book club books and I know, somehow, that it took four years to complete, so by counting backwards I must have bought the book in 2000. This book was abandoned about an eighth of the way through and six months in.

It wasn’t until some time between six months and four years when I was perusing the rather pitiful travel narrative section of a bookstore that I found THE book that would lead me in a new direction. The book was Metro Stop Dostoevsky: Travels in Russian Time by Ingrid Bengis. This book I devoured. I remember being transported to this place and time I had never been nor knew much about and being spellbound by Ms. Bengis’s storytelling. My first peek at a modern Russia compared to Anna’s.

From here I really got into the Romanovs and the Anastasia conspiracies of her surviving her family’s murder in 1918. I read both historical fiction and non-fiction of their kidnapping and murder with some pretty flimsy writing on the conspiracies mixed in.

Then I decided to give Anna Karenina another shot. And four years after I started the book, I finished. Anna’s storyline was far from my favorite as I found her rather annoying, but I was captivated by Levin’s story. And, sadly, I had found out the ending prior to getting there myself. But, I enjoyed the book and took pride in completing my first major piece of Russian literature. War and Peace here I come – ha!

Russia, prior to all this, had been the team the US beat in the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and had produced an ice-cold machine of a contender in my favorite of the ‘Rocky’ film franchise (gotta love the blatant, in-your-face Cold War commentary in that film). It was now a place of such rich culture and history.

Russia wasn’t really on my travel radar as in I never actually thought I’d go there. Why not, I’m not sure. But then when I was in London studying for my Masters, mere months after finishing Anna Karenina, I came across an opportunity to go to St. Petersburg and Moscow for a week over my term break. I couldn’t pass that up.

The process to get into Russia was definitely a process and is another post on its own. And once I got there – wow – it was amazing (again another post)! There I was in a country I never thought I’d ever visit nor thought I’d be fascinated by and loving it. All thanks to a book.