A while back, I watched a movie called “The Art of Travel,” which contained the line, “The art is travel is deviating from your plans.” The longer I’m in Russia, the more I feel like this is absolutely true. Looking back on the weekend I just spent in Saint Petersburg, I’m realizing that the moments I’m really going to remember are the ones that happened completely randomly, that we never could have planned. Years from now, the stories I’m going to be telling aren’t going to be about the time I took a bus tour around Saint Petersburg… they’re going to be about the time we interrupted said bus tour to have a random dance party in front of the Smolny Cathedral.
My surprise adventures actually started before we even left for Moscow, when Sarah and Connor and I decided to make a last-minute emergency shopping trip to H&M. We had three hours between the end of class at 6 and meeting to head for the train station at 9. We should have been golden, and for a while, we were. Getting to the mall was a little like being on Amazing Race Moscow Edition, and we were totally winning. We navigated the metro like pros, counted stops in Russian, and made it all seven stops without holding onto the bar or falling over. When we were done in the store, we backtracked to the metro and got on the train back home. Easy. All was well until the train stopped halfway there. Enter panic. In retrospect, the train was probably stopped for a grand total of sixty seconds, but it was a harrowing sixty seconds of, “Remember that time we got trapped on the metro and didn’t get to go to Saint Petersburg?” Also, metro trains in Moscow get REALLY hot the instant the stop moving. The rush of cold air when the thing started moving again was just about the greatest feeling in the world. By some miracle, I managed to be packed, showered, and ready to go on time. Then it was back on the metro to the train station, and then onto my very first overnight train.
We spent the first twenty or thirty minutes of the trip assigning Harry Potter characters to everyone in our group, because clearly the only reason anyone ever travels by train these days is to get to Hogwarts. Once our inner twelve-year-old nerds were satisfied, we settled in for the seven-hour ride. There’s not much better than staying up way to late in a train car with your friends and then collapsing into a tiny fold-down bed to let the train rock you to sleep, all to wake up a few hours later in a completely new place. It may not have actually been Hogwarts, but it was still pretty magical.
My first impression of Saint Petersburg was that it looked a whole lot like Moscow, but as soon as we got a little distance between us and the train station, I realized that Saint P is more like Moscow’s classier older sister. Everything is old and grand and beautiful, and the entire city is criss-crossed by rivers and bridges and it’s the kind of place that makes you realize just how new everything in America actually is.
After a quick breakfast, we started our bus tour of this beautiful city. I could tell you about all of the sites we saw, but if you really want a Saint Petersburg history lesson, Wikipedia might be a better bet. Instead, I’ll tell you about the stuff only I know, like the aforementioned dance party. The bus stopped in front of the gorgeous, bright blue Smolny Cathedral, and as soon as the doors opened, we heard Russian pop music. Dancing to the music was what appeared to be a flash mob of pre-teen girls, dancing a choreographed routine. We ran over to join the crowd watching, took pictures, and clapped for them. When they left, the music kept going, and somehow our entire group ended up having a totally spontaneous dance party. It was a moment of pure, un-self-conscious joy for all of us, and I’m pretty sure it was also good entertainment for some other tourists who were hanging around.
Later on, we took a tour of the Hermitage, which was an overdose of glitz and decadence like nothing I’ve ever seen before. What was once the Winter Palace for the tsar and his family is now an enormous art museum with the most confusing layout I’ve ever seen. After our guided tour ended, I set off with a couple of friends to revisit the Impressionists that we had sort of breezed past earlier. It should have been easy enough to retrace our steps and find the room again, but the hour we spent hopelessly lost suggest otherwise. Around the third time we realized we were not even on the floor we thought we were, I became completely convinced the entire place had been designed by M.C. Escher, or else we really were at Hogwarts, and the staircases were moving around just to screw with us. Of course, the nice thing about being lost somewhere like the Hermitage is that “being lost” really just means stumbling across one amazing exhibit after another. Eventually, through what could only have been a miracle, we found our intended destination, and I got to spend a few minutes standing in front of Van Gogh’s and Picasso’s and one lone Degas, just staring and falling into amazing pieces of art.
The entire trip, which also included visits to Catherine’s Palace and Alexander’s Palace, was one of these accidental adventures after another. I’ll spare you all of the details for now, but if you’re ever curious, you can ask me about the time we gave up looking for a club and ended up befriending a Russian boat captain instead. Or the time we made if to the Kunstkamera museum two minutes after the ticket office closed and instead just walked all around the city, accidentally ending up walking around the base of the Peter and Paul Fortress, with the huge wall on one side and the edge of the Neva River on the other. Or the random monkeys we met outside the Hermitage. I can also tell you about all of the amazing things that happened that actually were part of the plan, but my best stories are the ones that happened by surprise.