There’s a vibe to St. Petersburg. It’s a whiff of youthful energy and reckless abandon; a laid-back, almost lackadaisical attitude. Is it because of its proximity to water, or to Norway, the Happiest City in the World? Most probably. I vote that it’s something in the air.
Our hotel is practically across St. Isaac’s Cathedral; it fills our windows, and we can see a line of people snaking its way to the outdoor balustrade. Apparently, according to our concierge, it’s a great spot for orienting yourself with the city – from here you can see the Admiralty, the Winter Palace, the Mariinsky Theatre, New Holland – but it’s October and cold, so the climb gets a hard pass from me.
We stay on solid ground. I haven’t realised it yet, as we amble around St Isaac’s Cathedral, and then later the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, and even later still the Hermitage Museum, that St. Petersburg is a city where one must constantly look up. It’s a city for staring at ceilings, for craning necks, for seeing angels and Jesus and chandeliers and heavenly bodies looking back at you, meeting your eyes no matter where you are, like creepy Renaissance portraits in horror flicks where the eyes follow your every move. The Hermitage Museum, spread over six buildings in a sprawling complex along the Neva River, unfolds room after room like a magician smoothly fanning out a deck of cards. We look up at the ceilings in every room we cross. We can’t see everything, so we map out our paths with care and precision, determined to hit every one of our targets.
At Jerome, a cozy gastronomic restaurant in the city center, we sit by the window and order wine by the bottle. Their claim to fame is their geographically diverse menu, from Japanese nori to Italian piadina, which, among other dishes, we enthusiastically order and wolf down, following it up with dessert (no one wants to share with the other, so we end up with three.) Another time, Russian pelmeni, regional dumplings, at the local chain Pelmeniya. At Hamlet+Jacks, we sample dishes from two sections of their menu: food made exclusively from local produce (Ours), and those complemented with ingredients from around the world (Ours+Theirs).
Between meals, we cross the city’s bridges holding cups of coffee that warm our hands. We bite into fluffy pastries at odd hours: 2pm, 10pm. We sample bottles of local IPAs sitting in noisy bars where the balm of Russian chatter washes over us, the inflexions and cadences of a foreign language offering hints as to where nearby conversations are veering off to: from friendly to accusatory, from civil to flirty. People here are friendlier and put up fewer defenses than Muscovites. It’s just like the difference between Beijing and Shanghai.
I buy —cliché of clichés— a Matryoshka doll. I buy it knowing full well that this trinket will decorate our shelves back home for a time, slowly losing its luster until it becomes invisible, then packed into a box and shipped to another country, wherever that will be; or maybe even get lost along the way.
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