St. Petersburg…it’s a two-scarf kinda town.

“St. Petersburg is a two scarf place,” she says. Our concierge at the hotel in Moscow speaks perfect Canadian English, having gone to school in Vancouver…”You mean it’s even colder there than here?” I stammer…
Apparently. And there’s more wind. Delightful.

Sartorial splendor is taking a semi-backseat to practicality. Without question I am wearing my big fur hat at all times (regardless of the terror of hat head…), my heavy pashmina bundled about my neck and over my chin, and instead of tights or nylons today with my skirt, today I wore workout tights. And polar fleece socks. Thank god everything I own is black. And that I don’t have to take off my shoes to say, enter a church.

Because the language barrier is so severe, we just aren’t able to interact with regular people at even the most basic level. And I’m finding it frustrating. While I’m seeing Moscow and St. Petersburg, I’m not really experiencing Russia in a way that I’ve been able to experience other countries. People are loathe to be approached when I’m asking for help – it’s unclear really when Russians want you to speak to them. And when I try to speak in Russian, I’m almost always met with blank stares…followed by something in rapid Russian without hand gestures. Then they walk away. Yes, young people do speak English better than older ones, but I think there’s a holdover from years of government oppression that means Russians don’t talk to strangers. Even other Russians. They don’t look each other in the eye, they don’t make pleasant, if benign faces at one another that say, without speaking…we’re sharing the same experience, isn’t it great/awful. And so I’m here, and I’m thrilled to be able to see some of the things I’ve only heard and read about, but for the first time in a long time of travelling, I am very much a tourist. And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

That’s why these blog posts feel so different from ones I’ve sent before. I’m not having the everyday interactions with Russians that end up allowing interesting stories, funny misunderstandings or unexpected adventures to emerge. I’m sure they are a lovely people when you get to know them, but I really don’t know how an outsider, and I’m very definitely outsider, makes that happen. I can see it possibly happening in a hostel if say a Russian was also travelling, but the insular nature of a hotel doesn’t lend itself to the same sort of personal interactions.

Nevertheless, we’re eagerly diving into the city. I’ve always made fun (quietly of course and never to their faces) of those people sitting on the downtown double-decker tour buses. But you know what, I’m one of those people now, and it turns out, they’re quite helpful. We’ve done it in Moscow and now in St. Petersburg on our first day in each city, and it provides a succinct lay of the land (along with helpful, if not sometimes peculiar, audio guide commentary). It also makes real for the city-newbie the true distance between one guidebook landmark and another.

So there. I’m sorry I ever made fun.

From the hop on hop off bus, I am mesmerized by this city. It’s a veritable confection of beautiful architecture. I honestly don’t know what to take photos of because a) there are so many things and b) I know when I look back at the photos, they just won’t do what I saw justice.

Everything here, and really in Moscow too, is on such a grand scale that to find something to focus on to take a photo of is nearly impossible.

The Peter and Paul Fortress, basically the spot from which St. Petersburg grew, one ups the Kremlin in a lot of ways. All the buildings that are open are fully open (and warm!) and the audio guide gives great descriptions of everything, since all the signs and printed matter is entirely in Russian. But the absolute best thing is that unlike the Kremlin, the Fortress actually has a café and a couple of vendors selling snacks on the grounds. I thought the lady selling ice cream bars and frozen ice pops didn’t really have a firm grip on her market, until on the way out I saw her selling 3 ice cream bars to a group of ladies…apparently I understand Russian commerce even less than I understand Cyrillic….

But actually, I must say that my Cyrillic deciphering is getting better by the day. Being lost or hungry or both at the same time is great incentive to figure out where you are what you’re about to put in your mouth. But then I tried writing it out…Turns out I have the Cyrillic penmanship of a recovering stroke victim.

Off for dinner, and our first real attempt at a Russian menu in a restaurant. We’ve been eating at fairly familiar and safe places until this moment – either from our grocery stash in our room, or places like Subway and McDonald’s. Even the Russian takeaway place Tepmok has a menu with pictures and English translations. But tonight, tonight we tempt fate and order… into the abyss!
Note: We had dinner at a lovely restaurant called Brasserie de Metropole…French sounding but definitely a Russian menu. Because I couldn’t resist and needed to know just what it was, for starters I had the “salted ugly milkcaps”. I kid you not. And borscht. Flavoured with pork. Ooops. That’s the first time I’ve had pork in 20 years. (BTW, the ugly salted milkcaps were brined mushrooms with onions, dill and this Russian sour cream that’s absolutely delicious!)

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