ST. PETERSBURG — Somehow, in the course of navigating our way through the Asian continent, Kristina and I managed to arrive at all of our major destinations at some sort of absurdly inconvenient time. It was close to midnight by the time we found the alley entrance to our Beijing hostel. Our Moscow train arrived at the odd and eerie hour of 4 a.m. And now there we were, nearly alone on the early morning streets of St. Petersburg, trying to match our printed Google map to the maze of buildings and canals intertwining at the heart of the city.
As you might expect, the hostel we were looking for was on the fourth floor of a tan stone building that looked like all of the other tan stone buildings on its block, the entrance to which could be found through a nondescript archway, which led into a long courtyard, where finally one finds a solid black door with a buzzer beside it. We walked by it several times before seeing the black panel by the door, some cryptic gold lettering about the size of a newspaper headline being the only indication that this building held the hostel we were after.
After similar experiences in Irkutsk and Moscow, I can only interpret this as an inherently Russian resistance to advertising. Our destinations seemed to always be hidden inside a wide face of window and brick, up several flights of dusty, cracked stairs, and behind at least two locked steel doors. But get by all that and suddenly you have a bustling boarding house decorated to resemble a Nantucket inn (Moscow) or the darkly chic interior of St. Petersburg's Diva Hostel. Thus I have chosen to look at it as a kind of exclusivity, the cool, clean sheets of my waiting bunk being even more satisfactory considering the riddle I had to solve to get to them.
Once settled, it was easy to find our way to the landmarks of St. Petersburg, leaving the courtyard to follow Nevskii Prospect to the Neva River, the water-locked Peter and Paul Fortress, and the turquoise walls of the Winter Palace — better known as the world class Hermitage Museum — towering over the passing riverboats.
Kristina in St. Petersburg.
At this point in our journey we were still curious and excited, but getting tired, having traversed many time zones in two weeks, and weathered crash courses in culture before moving onto the next shift in space and mood. So we looked slowly but persistently, splitting up for four hours of wandering in the beautiful Hermitage, strolling by cathedrals, trying not to overwhelm ourselves with the scope of a city so full of interesting things. One of the difficult things for me to make peace with when traveling so far from home is the realistic limit to the amount of things I can learn, see and process before needing to sleep or go home. Before I am fully saturated in new information, and the sounds and the smells and the forever walking of city exploration. But because I don't want the St. Petersburg Cliff Notes version that a guided tour might offer, I try to accept what I am able to see and learn, and know that the rest is there for me to read about, to visit in another ten years, in another life, when there's miraculously time for all of the things a person craves knowing.
Looking through a small souvenir shop, I re-entered the familiar where-are-you-from conversation with the woman running the front counter, and the salesman that had been kindly joking with us since we walked in.
"Alaska? Oh, so you're Russian," she said, smiling.
"Yes. That's what I hear," I answered.
The salesman rubbed his blond beard and looked up to think.
"So, you were born in Alaska before it became America?"
The woman rolled her eyes and swatted at him. "NO Sergei, because she's not 300 years old." Actually they were both off on their dates, but their exchange made me laugh, the easy, out-going conversation one of the many marked differences between St. Petersburg and other Russian cities we'd visited.
As the woman settled my purchase in a small bag, she shook her head.
"This is all? You don't want to look more?" she asked. "People are shy today about buying, I don't know why..." She sighed away the end of her sentence, as if the day's disappointing sales marked some ongoing and inevitable decline in profits.
Sergei continued to smile beside her, handing me back the other bag I'd left at the counter while I browsed, then he swept his arm toward the packed and brightly lit shelves.
"Yes, see, you come in the store, we hold your packages safely," he said. "So you should give us all your money. And maybe your soul too."
The woman shook her head and smiled slowly, looking somewhere between him and me, toward the neat lines of carefully painted Matrioshka dolls, the baskets of warm hats, the jewelry glinting in locked cases.
"No, no we don't want that," she said. "We don't know what to do with our own souls."
Yes, I thought, isn't that the truth of it.