St. Petersburg has eternally resided on my radar. Perhaps it was those confusing “Don’t cross the Iron Curtain” lessons we were taught back in elementary school, those two years of Russian I took in high school or the plethora of international spy thrillers that I burn through like wildfire that always seem to drape this place in intrigue. When I arrived last week, I found it was exactly everything I imagined, yet nothing at all like I expected. I came to discover this beauty everyone speaks of, but discovered it lies in a very different form.
As far as my expectations went, St. Petersburg was spot on. My overactive imaginative brain was in overdrive when we embarked on our tour with an unusually vivacious young guide who deftly outfitted us with headphones and Walkman-style boxes to wear around our necks. “It’s so you can hear me as we walk together,” she chirped in enthusiastic impeccable English, which to me equaled “we’ll find you if you deviate from the hoards so don’t even try.”
The city is complex, if not a bit confusing to navigate, with an extremely disjointed style consisting of a handful of regal megaliths draped in bold fusions of color and ornate architecture perched awkwardly alongside drab basic squares of cement that serve as apartments and office buildings. Never a more appropriate symbol of the have/have-not issues that exists everywhere around the world. Just about everything is unnecessarily enormous, from the palatial courtyards to the squares, large boulevards to restaurants. We were in fact even told that it would take eight years for a human being to actually visit every single piece of artwork in The Hermitage. The restaurant experiences were quite controlled, with limited menus, minimal atmosphere, unfortunately subpar food, and smile-free perfunctory service performed by an older, stoic staff, but then again I didn’t come there to eat .
We drove, and we explored. We got on and off the bus for the token four-minute photo stops and sprints through cathedrals, we shopped in the touristy store which awaited our arrival complete with complimentary shots of vodka and strong coffee, and we rode through countless streets lined with the said gloomy box-style, city block-long structures and admittedly felt underwhelmed until we turned a corner. Driving past a most depressing, prison-style hotel, our tour guide had a chuckle to herself and shared with us how she couldn’t believe it was still in business as it was indeed “very Soviet.”
She was likely in her early 20s, dressed in fashionable clothes and able to speak three languages, and it hit me then as I wondered, did she even really know what that meant? While we drove by the very unexpected crowds of students decked out in prom-style outfits reveling as they poured out of Escalade-style limousines onto the riverbanks to take “thumbs-up” photos in celebration of their high school graduation, did they know what it used to mean to be Russian (or Soviet as it were), or what it means now? A very different land compared to what once was with enhanced opportunities and a renewed energetic lifestyle for the younger generation that most likely nobody could have imagined not so long ago.
It was only after then that I really got what I was looking for; for this traveler, the beauty lied not within the outside, but in their renewed pathway to the future.