Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Postcard from St. Petersburg

Of course Moscow is known to be a fascinating city, and Russia has a storied history in art, in battle, and in politics. But they always say, the true showpiece of the country is St. Petersburg.

I went into my trip with exactly these expectations. St. Petersburg would be the final leg of the visit, and I imagined it would put an exclamation point on all that had come before it. Russia yes, but more beautiful, more lively, more culturally rich. We were to be there during the "white nights," and with at most two hours of darkness per night, the city never went to sleep.

I don't mean to look a gift metropolis in the mouth, and by no means is St. Petersburg ho-hum. Quite the opposite, in fact. Maybe, for my taste, too much the opposite. Architecture so ornate it's like a cityscape of wedding cakes. Tour busses clogging the streets, transporting people to Peterhof, the Hermitage, the Mariinsky Theater, or the Palace District. Souvenir stands and sushi restaurants around every corner.

I guess, for me, the city is somewhat overdetermined. Everywhere you look and listen, there's something. Something gilded, something blatant. It was a space I felt a little challenged to occupy. White nights, but no white space.

It was the kind of city with asphalt parking lots in front of its most treasured buildings. The kind of city where virtually every menu is translated into English. The kind of city where you might bump into Adrien Brody looking at art, then get yelled at by his bodyguard for taking what you think are surreptitious pictures.

More a European than a Russian city, in ways, though I'd never want to efface the Russian tenor of the place. It just felt like a city I'd visited before. I guess this might have been a comfort at some point in my life. For this trip, though, it left me hungering for my earlier experiences, which had jumbled up my roster a bit. I've never been to Asia, to Africa, or to South America, so Russia was pretty far afield to me. I liked feeling like I was in a different corner of the world. I liked it less when tour busses and movie stars maneuvered right into the center of it.

So what did I do? Well, I can admit this to you, since we're friends . . . but I bought souvenirs, I ate sushi, and I went to see "Swan Lake." Oh, and did I mention those snapshots I took of Adrien Brody at the Hermitage? In the end, it'd be plain old pretext to see myself as anything other than a tourist in Russia.

And maybe being a tourist is no bad thing, unless you do bad things with it. I'd like to think we escaped being ugly Americans, but who can say? It's the locals who get to make that call. One thing's for sure. We were hardly the only tourists in St. Petersburg.

One last note, before I put this to bed: I think it's important to embrace our inner tourist now and then, maybe especially in the places we actually live. It's equally important to imagine, even in a starstruck way, how it must be to live in the places we're lucky enough to visit.

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