“If you smile at me, I will understand, because that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language.” “Wooden Ships,” David Crosby, 1969
Saturday was a day of rest, although nobody mentioned that fact to my fleet-footed fact-filled and ever-watchful benefactor Tanya Ivashina, an engineer for the state railway by day and an able and knowledgeable weekend guide.
She talked about the idea of a weekend guide service for English-speaking visitors to St. Petersburg during our walk. Her next step is to assign a name to her new business.
I like “Tanya’s Tours.” Maybe you have an idea? There is no end to the reach of human creativity when we put our heads and hearts together.
She arrived promptly at 11, helped me change dollars to rubles, and we off went. My mission: to experience St. Petersburg and make photographs and video for the U.S-Russia Social Expertise Exchange. I respect the power of local knowledge, so I left the details and route to her. Twelve hours and about eight miles later, my head swimming in half-remembered Russian words, and sated by borsch, beer, many images and more memories, she delivered me back to the Demitov Bridge Hotel.
In between, we posted an epic walk through the cultural heart of Saint Petersburg, a city most guidebooks recommend as the cultural heart of all of Russia.
Our first stop was the Russian Museum, a massive collection of Russian art and artists from the fifteenth century to the present. 950 rubles (about $12 USD) bought us both entrance and permitted me to make photos with available light.
“No flash,” a severe matronly attendant at the gate warned us.
Underlying the images of war, the toil of peasants, and the unyielding power of nature, I found a proud grim resolve in the faces of the people. To my uneducated eye, Russian art seems dark and brooding. I’ve read a few Russian writers, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, and listened to Russian composers, but this was my first look at Russian art, and this visual art echoes themes in those other media.
We strolled three wings of the museum, through massive oils of the 18th century – some more than 30 feet x 20 feet, through religious iconography of the 15th century to modern interpretations of 20th-century life.
We shared a laugh over this minimalist piece.
“I did not know I would get to visit Red Square here in St. Petersburg,” I told Tanya. She looked at me quizzically, but then cracked a smile.
A bad joke is better than no joke at all. My friend Hayne may disagree, but he’s an old goat, and we’re all working on him.
Laughter is a universal language, as evidenced by this short film, one of my all time favorites. At only seven minutes, you will be forever enriched by taking your time to watch it. I guarantee it. I will refund your time should you decide otherwise.
We left the museum and crossed the Troitskiy Most, a bridge across the Neva River, amid a Saturday afternoon throng of tourists, lovers, mothers pushing prams, and families out to enjoy the unlikely sunshine in mid-March.
The Fortress backs up to the Neva River. The walking trail there is a popular place for tourists and locals alike.
We strolled the banks of the Neva, busy with people of all ages enjoying themselves in the sun.
“We have 50 days of sun each year, Tanya said, “and you have had two of them. You are very lucky.”
I am Irish, St. Patrick’s Day is just a few days away, I am standing on the banks of a beautiful blue Neva in one of the world’s great cities, accompanied by Tanya, and the sun is warm. Who can argue her logic?
As we approached, I assumed the show was an organized event. But as we walked on through dusk and into our Saturday night, we came on more performers and I realized this kind of impromptu street performance meant a great deal to the throngs of Russians who crowded around these talented street musicians in various plazas on Nevsky Prospekt.
It seemed everyone knew the words. Their voices filled the night.
Warmed by this simple shared joy, I felt connected by song to these people here on this grand boulevard 6,000 miles from my home. Standing in the crowd, our collected breath rising into the cold night, I understood the music, if not the lyrics.
It was then, watching Tanya and her people sing, that I first glimpsed the Russian heart.
Fellow, 2015 US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange
DISCLAIMER: “The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SEE or Eurasia Foundation.”