I turned on the lights and began to get ready, an old Rock Hudson movie called “Pillow Talk” playing in the background.  Our tour was scheduled to leave almost as soon as we docked at 6:30AM, so we prepared quickly and went up to the Lido Deck for breakfast.

It’s important to understand how unpolluted the skies and cities were in Scandinavia.  There was never a hint of brown or the stench of stale smoke and gasoline…that is, until we got to Russia.  I was quite astounded at how quickly the sky had taken on such a grey-brown hue in just a few short hours.  There wasn’t too much to look at on the skyline—a nuclear power plant, dozens of smokestacks spewing gaseous waste into the sky, and a few very utilitarian-looking buildings off in the distance.  The one cathedral that could be seen from the ship was gigantic, capped by a huge golden dome. I found out later that this was St. Isaac’s Cathedral, one of the most prominent in the city.

We ate our breakfast, had our coffee, and went to wait for our tour to begin as usual (I really wish I could spice this up for you, but it seems that no matter where you end up, you develop habits and routines, even in the midst of grand adventure).   This particular time we were required to go through passport control to get our passports stamped (we hadn’t needed to do that except at the airport in Copenhagen). We also needed migration cards, our cruise cards, and our tour tickets to give at the gate, and if you were unlucky enough, you also got a TSA-style rubdown by a burly Russian.  Such fun we had to look forward to!

We left the ship with our tour mates and walked a few hundred meters to Passport Control, an imposing building, the Cyrillic lettering on its façade clearly spelling out some sort of admonition for people to stay away and keep quiet if you see anything…unintended.  Or maybe that’s just the impression I got from all the history book stories of the Cold War, which ended in my childhood.

At any rate, I was a bit nervous walking into the sterile building replete with searching stations and cubicles for the “interview” to get into the country.  We walked up to one of the cubicles and handed our documents to a rather severe Russian lady who stared me down like I was the Antichrist.  She didn’t say a word, but only drilled holes into people with her eyes.  I’m typically a smiley sort of person and I tried my best to appear friendly and perhaps coax a smile out of her, but she was unflappable.  I eventually had to look down at my shoes, the weight of her disapproval was so palpable.  She stared at my documents for what felt like forever, and I was worried that she suspected me of some sort of anti-Russian terrorist plot.  I feared the rubdown, the further gazes of naked hostility from various Russians, and the sense that I might not make it home in anything but a pine box.  But while all this hysteria was going through my head, she finally handed my documents back and waved me through.

Relief poured down my face.  Or, maybe it was just sweat.  All I know is that I was free and clear. The Russians had let me in. They trusted me enough to give me a chance.

Cool.

We walked over to our bus and hopped on.  We drove through St. Petersburg as our guide told us about the city in belabored English.  As I gazed out the window at the non-touristy parts of the city, listening to the stories of St. Petersburg, I found myself becoming very sad.  Many of the city’s inhabitants still call it Leningrad.  Apartments are horrendously expensive, several thousands of dollars a month for even a mildly decent one, and because most people can’t afford them, they go in together on one apartment, sometimes living in one flat with up to fourteen other families.  Because of the constant poverty and extremely harsh weather conditions (it tops Seattle for annual rainfall, and even the biggest rivers in St. Petersburg freeze in the winter), many people have resorted to drinking copious amounts of alcohol.  I was told that no matter how experienced of a drinker you are, a Russian will drink you under the table any day of the week.   It’s a sad plight, which became even sadder when we got to the tourist areas.

We drove past several intensely-colored cathedrals complete with onion domes and cupolas, massive palaces that had been converted into museums, huge commercial buildings and lush parks, marveling at how ironic the city was, a moody and romantic place filled with melancholy, pulchritude, and more than a hint of absurdity.

I noticed with some mild discomfort that the bus was becoming extremely hot, and it was clear that my fellow passengers were feeling the same way, much to their chagrin.  The tour guide said that once we reached our destination we would be provided with a new bus.  I thought it was funny that the same thing had happened just a few days earlier in Aarhus.

We ended up on a country road that took us about an hour outside of the city center to the Peterhof Palace and Gardens.  It was quite a sight to see!  The gardens are multiple acres around the complex, which overlooks the Gulf of Finland.  Several grand fountains litter the grounds, many covered in gold leaf, one of which had been designed by a mob boss.  We parked outside of a line of souvenir shops that we had to walk through to get to the palace entryway.

As I stepped off the bus, I heard a familiar sound that confused me because of the context I was in.  A three-piece ensemble was outside, playing the Star-Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.  I looked over at my mom with incredulity. She merely laughed.

This is Russia, right?

It was a nice little gimmick for the tourists (apparently I am a skeptic), and with that odd memory now firmly implanted in my mind, we joined the fray making their way through the souvenir shops with their proprietors, who were clearly well-versed in the art of the hard-sell tactic.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the palace, but it would’ve been very nearly unnecessary anyway.  Once you’ve seen decadence on the scale that was in that palace, it’s hard to get the images out of your head.  Frescoes were everywhere. The ceilings were all painted or engraved with one thing or another, much of it in gold leaf.  The grand staircases were flanked with regal artwork in shades of grey, red, white, and black.  Marble angels seemed to glow as though internally filled with light. Portraits of czars, generals, and czarinas peppered the walls, hung in golden frames.  Chandeliers posed oppressively around the room, their bronze arms glittering in the sunlight.  There was not a blank space in the place, no part of the rooms that was not turned into some form of artwork.  Famous paintings hung in various places as we moved through the hallways.  The wood floors were designed intricately, with different kinds of wood used to make swirl patterns in the floor.

Part of the palace was filled with artwork and the other part was simply preserved to look as it would have in the time of the czars.  Crushed velvet hugged the rooms like wallpaper.  Tables with glass mosaic tops were set with the finest china available. Tiny staircases wound up to gold-domed galleries.  Passing the ballrooms, one could almost hear the music that had once been played there.  And though there was no air conditioning and it was nearly 80 degrees outside, the place was quite comfortable in feeling, if not completely oppressive in its ostentatious design.

Our tour guide knew so much about the place that, had she said she lived there, I would’ve believed her (so much for my skepticism).  She had a quiet sort of friendliness about her, and reminded me much of my friend Katarzyna from a German class I took in college.  She had a tough streak though, as well, very characteristic of the Russian women I met.

We left the very imperious palace and walked outside among the gardens, looking at the many fountains as we took the long way around to the main garden.  Everything was utterly gorgeous—I don’t think I’ve ever seen more beautiful gardens in my life.  On our way in the direction of the main garden, I began to hear some very grand Russian orchestral music being played.  We were told by our tour guide that the same music was played every day right before the Grand Fountain was turned on.

The view of the main garden was absolutely spectacular.  Dozens of fountains were cascading all around, surrounding a huge fountain going off in the center.  The fountain was a shot of water going up many meters, coming out of a lion’s mouth as Sampson was depicted holding its mouth open.  Everything was covered in gold leaf, and mounted on interlocking marble stones designed to look like a giant checker board.  Two gigantic staircases surrounded either side leading up to the palace.

Our group went up the stairs to start heading back to the bus. We passed once again through the souvenir shops and saw the same group playing music once again—this time, they were playing “Anchors Aweigh,” the theme song of the United States Navy!

Bizarre, but nifty.

As promised, we received another bus that was deliciously cool, and we made our way back to the ship.  We were scheduled to stay in port for another day, so we didn’t stick around for souvenirs or exploration. We went through Passport Control yet again, but this time there was no “severe schoolmarm” look given to me.  The girl behind the counter actually smiled a tiny bit when she realized I wasn’t going to give up on being friendly.

Victory is sweet.

When we got back on the boat we had a light lunch.  I had a mango smoothie (“prepared with love,” according to the barista, who had left the top of my straw wrapper on the straw and folded it into a little heart), fruit tarts, fish, and jello (yes, that’s a weird combination).  I had to eat light because I went to another afternoon tea after that.

I was the first one to show up for the tea.  My mom had decided to go off and do something else, promising to meet me at 4:30PM for afternoon trivia, so I went in and was seated by a very nice waiter from Mexico named Miguel.  He and I had a delightful conversation as we waited for others to be seated at my table, and for the duration of the trip he never forgot my name and I never forgot his.  Eventually two couples came to be seated with me—one from Canada, the other from England.   We all had a grand time chatting about current events and the things we had seen in our ports of call.  Tea was scrumptious yet again and I thoroughly enjoyed the scones with clotted cream.  I adjourned early to play afternoon trivia, and was very glad to have met such lovely people at tea that day.

I arrived at afternoon trivia in the Wheelhouse Bar and found my mom sitting towards the front, very near the member of the cruise director’s staff who was running the show that day, Mark.  Mom and I ordered martinis.  Hers was a raspberry crème brulee martini; mine was a key lime pie martini.  Exquisite.  Mark, the trivia director, saw the waiter bring them to us and told us they were delicious and that we would love them.  All throughout trivia, he talked to us quite a bit, telling us about himself and making us laugh.  That was our first meeting but I was to see a lot more of him during the rest of the trip.

After that, I had a very special appointment: a 20-20-20 treatment at the Lotus Spa—3 treatments, 20 minutes each.  I got a lime and ginger body scrub, a facial, and a back massage.  I floated out of the spa, feeling like a million bucks, and went down to the Botticelli dining room to have dinner with Brian, Thelma, and my mother. I was feeling brave from my victory over the escargot, so I ordered the calamari, thinking that I would get the version of it that looked sort of like onion rings. But no!  They sent out two tiny little squid!  I was horrified at the sight of two dead animals on my plate.  I don’t mind eating animals too much (though I try not to eat them very often), but I just don’t want them looking like animals.  I’d rather have a slab of beef and delude myself into thinking it’s not a cow than to get served an udder or a cow’s face…there are just some things I don’t want to see on my plate.  But, I thought maybe I’d luck out, so I cut off a leg (arm? digit?)  and chewed.

So that’s what a pencil eraser tastes like

After dinner and awesome conversation, I walked around the Piazza, looking at all the merchandise in the boutiques.  I went out onto the deck and saw Mark there, getting ready for what appeared to be a jog around the ship.  We exchanged pleasantries before he headed out.  It was probably close to 9PM at that point and, of course, the Sun was still up.  I sat in a deck chair overlooking the wild and magnificent Gulf of Finland, with my back to the brown cityscape behind me.

I walked back upstairs to the stateroom to look at the Princess Patter.  For several months before the trip, I knew they had karaoke on the ship, and I wanted to sing.  I’d been singing publicly since I was three years old, but hadn’t had an outlet for it for some months.  I kept my eyes on the Princess Patter, and every single night of the trip they had offered karaoke.  I was beginning to think that my chance was almost up because I kept missing it.  That night was no different—I had whiled away my time on deck and missed the whole thing.  I grabbed the Princess Patter for the following day and saw that they were having their first heat of the Princess Pop Star Karaoke Competition the next night, and decided to go and sing.  I only needed to sing once to get my fix, and I was determined that the next night would be it.

I got into my pajamas and hopped into bed while I watched “The Proposal” on TV.  I looked forward to the two tours we had selected for the following day.

I slept very well.  No nightmares of frowning Russians.  It was all smiles.

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