Peter the Great stepped into a northern marshland and said: “Here there will be a city”. The young Tsar was to establish for Russia, “a window on Europe” in the form of an outlet to the sea.
After a long journey in cardinal European cities, Peter I came back more resourceful than ever. During his time away, not only he had learnt naval mastery but he had also brought with him the best Italian and French architects, engineers and the likes, to build his new Russian capital which was going to rival its European counterparts.
His cossacks shove off their holy beards and renounced to their oriental-like manner, to adopt a more sophisticated gentlemen flair. Metamorphosis completed.
In Dostoyevsky’s words: “St.Petersburg, the most abstract and intentional city on the entire globe.”
A city so vain, that stands still, as if it was posing for a photograph.
I feel like a silly little girl. My first day in St. Petersburg is pathetic. I don’t understand a thing. Everything is written in Cyrillic and people don’t speak any other language than Russian.
I have the impression I’m being treated like a retarded, even tough they wink at me in the metro as they offer to help with my small luggage, as if I was made of porcelain. With all of these blonde Venuses populating the city, what on earth do they see in me? I keep laughing uncontrollably while I tell myself I’m absolutely mad to have come all the way up here alone.
All of that just happened on my way to the hostel from Pulkovo Airport. To big surprise, I realise that my accommodation is actually a boat on the river Neva, just a few km away, the Winter Palace.
I walk around a little further and I quickly realise that I’m surrounded by such tremendous beauty, that it makes me feel so small, so stupid to have focused my attention on people in the metro.
As I breath in the Baltic air, I’m suddenly baffled by the growing realization that the most spectacular things men has created, aren’t done for love, but for power and pride.
The thing that impressed me the most about this highly hedonistic city, is it’s size and grandeur. The streets are long and large, most of them protected by metal fences which don’t allow you to cross in a “European style”. There are more cars than people.
Each metro station is big as an airport, it’s really hard to see the end of the escalators but my goodness, everything is so sumptuous and immensely ceremonial. I can’t help but walk as if I had a book on the head, like a little woman learning the art of good manners.
People tend to dress elegantly here, especially middle-aged women. Even police men, whom are everywhere around the city, wear very old-fashioned uniforms which gives them an air of high regard.
I tend to see everything in a cinematic perspective, but here, it’s literature.
I never walked so much in my whole life. Let me rephrase that. I never walked so much, with such delight in my whole life.
St. Petersburg is the perfect city to find solitude. Exquisite solitude.
Everything is big and generous. It’s easy to get lost and walk around without meeting anyone for hours. The point is, there’s no need of being accompanied. One learns to have an intimate relationship with the city. Even its inhabitants are private and discrete.
The chilly air of the Baltic Sea stimulates thoughts and invigorates souls.
I’m sleep-walking on the river Neva. I have no idea where I am. I keep walking.
The canals really remind me of Florence.
The Italian touch is clamorous, but better not to mention it to proud Russians.
It is said that the church was built in memory of Tsar Alexander II whom was passing by the site with his royal carriage which was bombed by an anarchist conspirator, fatally wounding him. The tsar, bleeding heavily, was taken back to the Winter Palace where he died a few hours later.
It’s full of stalls selling souvenirs along the canal.
I bought a few small matryoshka for my friends and the stall lady thought I was from a city called Vladivostok, not far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. She said the most beautiful Russian girls come from that area. They are all brunettes with high cheek bones.
I thought it was an adorable way to make me buy more things
The Winter Palace was the official home of the Russian monarchs, now hosting the Hermitage, the largest and oldest museum in the world.
The name “Hermitage” derives from “hermit, recluse”. It was also called the Palace of Solitude, as only a few were allowed to visit.
Apart from the 3 million artworks that live in this humble dwelling, the true star of this incredible museum is the building itself.
There’s a certain kind of guilty pleasure walking down, slowly, the numerous rooms, galleries and halls, surrounded by such extravagant opulence.
I’m diving in milk and honey.
Such a privilege to sit down in the golden room, and write.
I can’t help but enjoy the polished noise of my heels on the wooden floor embellished by images of Greek myths.
I immediately feel more elegant, more lady-like. I’m forced to keep my head high and move my legs with pride and lightness.
I must say, I’m not so impressed by the artworks per-se. The most interesting thing here, it’s the atmosphere.
The air is heavy, filled with scandal and deceit.
I enter the Raphael Loggias and my heart stops. How do they call it? Art attack?
I think I got a fever. I guess I really understand what Stendhal Syndrome means now.
Nevertheless , this is just the exact copy of the gallery in the Papal Palace in Vatican City. The frescoes were commissioned by a group of Italian artists which were then exported to Russia.
It’s quite ridiculous to find out that almost everything exposed in the Hermitage, is a perfect reproduction of something else, usually an Italian marvel.
Everything around me is either a copy of something imported from somewhere. Yet another confirmation that originality is an abstract concept, just like the creation of the universe.
In Italy we say “tutto il mondo é paese”. You could translate that as “the world is a village”, just to say that it’s the same old story wherever you go.
I leave the Winter Palace and I cross a few bridges (the city has more than 800 bridges) here and there, still puzzled by what I’ve seen, as if under a spell.
I haven’t realised I’ve been walking for hours again. Time goes so fast. Puff, and you’re old.
I just can’t think anymore. I’m so tired and hungry and I can’t find either a metro or a place to eat.
St. Petersburg is tricky. You walk and you walk, but sometimes you just end up walking forever without being able to find any distractions around you. By “distractions” I mean any place where there’s any kind of casual social interaction, like bars, restaurants or shops.
But still, there’s only beauty around. Sumptuous architecture.
A kiosk materializes in front of me as by magic. Food is the only thing that matters.
You can’t philosophise without a full tummy, now, can you?
I might have found the most delicious thing after pizza. Mister “Khachapuri”. This Georgian dish, is an eye-shaped cheese filled fried bread, in the middle, an egg. I died and came back to life.
Khachapuri is apparently popular in all post-soviet states, and from now on, it’s also popular in my heart.
“The Prince’s friends are eager for the chase, but he begs them to leave him, and whilst he is alone the Swan Queen comes to him in the human form of Odette and tells her story. She is under the spell of an evil magician, Von Rothbart, and reveals that by day she and her friends are turned into swans.”
It has always been my dream to see the original Swan Lake ballet in St.Petersburg. I cried even before the show started. I don’t remember the last time I’ve been so moved by something. I let myself be transported with abandon.
It’s beyond belief how humans can reach such sublime perfection. Every Tchaikovsky’s note has a colour and every colour brings me back to my origins.
Talking about perfection…
Golden Rule proportions for Architect Rossi Street: its height and width are identical, and its length is exactly 10 times its width.
It’s truly stupid, but I walked up and down this street with Tchaikovsky in my earphones for about ten times or more.
Russians aren’t eloquent people. A very few people speak in English. A guy I met told me that many chose to not learn it for a question of morality. It’s easier to get by with Italian and French (Russian’s favourites), even though it’s still a niche to speak a second language. Even most of the tourists are Russians or Asians. I’m truly an alien here, an alien regarded with dreamy eyes.
After I visited Lenin’s Square with all due respect, I decided I would then get in the metro and stop in a random station, far from the center.
The Imperialist original style of the city had been so well-preserved, that it almost seems like communism has never happened. I couldn’t accept all this “perfection”.
Every city has a poker face, indeed.
I looked around with bewilderment.
Clothes and various garments scattered on the ground, people living in sort of sheds.
I couldn’t believe how all this could be possible. I asked myself how could these people even survive the cold winter months in such conditions.
The contrast between imperialist and soviet St.Petersburg was clamorous and disturbing.
I was really out-of-place. I was afraid for a moment. I was truly an alien now.
I thought it would be dangerous to stay any longer and decided to get back from wherever I’ve come from, but I was already lost. I kept walking.
I soon found some people who had put together a little market with soviet memorabilia.
Uniforms, statuettes of old idols, musical instruments, work tools, books, magazines, vinyls, lost documents, jewellery boxes, toys and so on. Absolutely only authentic items from communist URSS.
A guy approached me trying to sell me something. I found out he spoke both French and Italian, badly, but nevertheless it was a pleasure to finally communicate with someone.
He was gentle and smart. We talked about Russian’s history and compared it to France. He was young, I think he was about my age. He was very handsome too. He introduced me his parents, whom were standing by him in the market stall. His mother was a literature teacher and his father a piano tuner.
I think he had a little crush on me because he kept giving me things for free, saying they were a “surprise”. He gave me many documents, excellence certificates (people whom accomplished a “good job” used to get these certificates signed by Stalin), an old hand painted jewellery box and a few soviet propaganda postcards. In one of them, a little boy wrote that it was the most beautiful day of his life, because he had seen Stalin in the annual street parade.
His father showed me some Italian pop music vinyls and to my big surprise, started singing a few songs, with such passion, with such emotion.
On the other hand, his mother was in love with France and especially Gerard Depardieu, whom apparently had built a few hospitals in the surroundings. They complained about Russians nouveau riches and how they didn’t care about them.
They then introduced me to the other people hanging around, and even though none of them spoke any language I know, somehow we understood each other.
I was so touched, so grateful to these people. I couldn’t understand how such charming and smart people could live in these conditions. I didn’t have the courage to ask. I wanted to savour the moment. I’ve been really stupid to be afraid. Central St.Petersburg is much scarier, with all of these people who don’t absolutely care about anything but money.
I will never forget the face of this shy guy walking up and down the market bringing me things, without having the courage to look at me in the eyes, saying: “surprise”.
I will never forget the warmth of these people, their shimmering eyes. Eyes of goodness and kindness.
I left reluctantly and promised I’ll be back one day. We hugged and waved goodbye.
I woke up with the most terrible melancholic feeling.
It’s my last full day in St.Petersburg and of course, I had to visit the Peterhof Palace; the most pretentious, extravagant and arrogant thing on earth after Madonna.
It is probably the most beautiful château I’ve ever seen, it’s true, but it disgusts me.
It took me a few hours just to walk around the immense gardens on the Baltic Sea. They’re absolutely lavished but I’m empty inside, I’m sad. The clock is ticking in my head and the end of my journey is announced.
I’m asked to wear something to cover my shoes in order to enter the palace. The material of this kind of slippers is really slippery which allows me to “skate” with joy on Catherine the Great’s throne room. That was the only fun I had in there.
We weren’t allowed to stay for more than 5 minutes, and we couldn’t exceed the number of 10 people per room.
When I entered the golden salon, I thought I was going to get blind by all the bling-bling.
I couldn’t enjoy this carnival of eccentricities. Not that day. I was upset to see so much luxury around me, luxury I’ve witnessed before, but never in such exorbitant quantities. I was devastated. I couldn’t stop thinking about the soviet market and its adorable people, while here everything was gold and people were rude. The old museum lady with her badly painted eye brows is shouting at me like a nazi, because I approached too much to the rococo table set.
My only solace that day was the sea sight. The only beauty that men hadn’t touch with their greedy hands.
It’s starting to get really cold. My hands are trembling trying to write my little thoughts and my nose keeps sneezing.
I’m sitting exactly in the middle of Palace Square, maybe for the last time. It’s such a gigantic place, it’s overwhelming. There’s a grand sense of quiet splendour.
A terrible sense of nostalgia is assaulting me.
Do you know that strange sensation when you are at the cinema?
The big screen is front of you, illuminating your face. You suddenly feel as if your face is big as the screen, and your skin is tingling as if it were made of thousands of pixels.
I feel the same looking at the St.Petersburg. My eyes have seen so much beauty, it’s like all of this beauty is trapped in them, like a phantom in a painting.
My flight back to Paris is this afternoon.
I had a few hours to kill in the morning before I’d take off. I entered a random church and I soon realised that there was a funeral going on. A woman approached me an pointed to my head, to say that I didn’t have a veil on. She quiqly came back with one of those and put it on my head. I guess she thought I was a friend of the family.
The open coffin containing the deceased was placed in the middle of the hall, and around him, many women wearing folkloristic handkerchiefs on their heads quicky gathered. Some of them were crying while people kept arriving, placing flowers on the deceased’s body.
The priest was standing on the altar, with his back on us, reciting verses from his holy book, while, on the the other side of the hall, children were singing melancholic religious songs.
it striked me that Jesus Christ was portraid as an afro-american man.
But most of all, I couldn’t belive I spent the past two hours assisting to an orthodox funeral in Russia.
It is a great privilege. The funeral is the holiest function on every country in the world.
As it was my last day it St.Petersburg, it was approriate to end my journey this way. I thought it was a little bit like assisting to my own funeral. After all, I reached the death of my trip, a trip that intrisically molded me into someone different, the death of Lorna May as I knew her.
My experience with solo-travelling showed me that love is for desperate people who can’t get by on their own, perhaps it’s best to cherish one’s love only briefly.
After all, isn’t life one big lesson on letting go?