It was our second consecutive day of sunlight in St. Petersburg.  Our tour guides marveled constantly at how lovely it had been, and said we had brought the sunshine with us.  Being that I’m from Arizona, I know we had plenty to spare.

We had done breakfast, coffee, etc. etc. and were making our way towards the Hermitage, one of the three largest museums in the world next to the Louvre and the British Museum. St. Petersburg is made up of about 120 islands, so we passed over many bodies of water, including the very ample River Neva, from which you could see many grand cathedrals and incredible buildings, several of which comprised the Hermitage, running alongside the river.

The Hermitage is an old palace with buildings alongside it that had been converted partially into a museum, much like the Peterhof Palace.  However, the artwork inside the Hermitage is far more valuable.  I won’t go into describing the decadence of the Hermitage, because it is quite reminiscent of the Peterhof Palace in that way.

Yet unlike the Peterhof, we were allowed to take pictures of all the artwork in the Hermitage, as long as we kept our flashes off.  I was very surprised, given the scale of the artwork we saw.  They had two original works by Leonardo DaVinci, one unfinished statue by Michelangelo that you could reach out and touch if you had the inkling and audacity, an entire wing filled with Rembrandt, and one of my most favorite things to see was Raphael’s Bible, a seemingly endless hallway of cerulean blue, and an interlocking web of arches that were painted with numerous scenes from the Bible.  It was overwhelming in its scope and incredible to get pictures of.

We toured through the old palace and looked incredulously on once again to see such lavish expenditure and remember its contrast with the lives of poverty outside the Hermitage’s walls.  It was almost a depressing feeling, seeing all the gold leaf inside and then remembering that millions of Russians had been starved and frozen during the time of the czars (and after) while the aristocrats lived in luxury.

But once we got to the Monet exhibit, I abandoned my sullenness and got excited—Monet is my favorite Impressionist artist.  I went around and took more pictures, and we wound through more famous artists: Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse, Pisarro, and Van Gogh.  I was amazed to be in such close proximity to some of the most amazing works of art in the world, and we left the Hermitage in a state of amazement.

We were driven back to the ship where we had time for a very quick lunch before our next tour.  We ate prosciutto and mozzarella sandwiches with pasta salad at the International Café, then went out to the bus staging area outside of Passport Control, the passport agents as brusque and morose as ever.  I suppose the smile I had received the day before had been a fluke, but I still count it as a victory.

We were bused to the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, one of the most famous and colorful onion-dome cathedrals in Russia, which had been built to commemorate Czar Alexander II who was assassinated at the site in 1881.  We had a very brief time to ourselves to walk around the church and the tourist shops nearby, so I only got a few pictures of the cathedral, but the inside of it was like nothing I had ever seen before. The interior mosaics were extremely intricate.  Religious art was scattered broadcast throughout the entire church, with not a single piece of wall or ceiling untouched.  The painted halos surrounding the angels on the walls actually glowed in the sunlight.  Ambient lighting was everywhere, and it was dark toward ground level, lighter up towards the ethereal, towering ceilings where the sunlight was streaming in through small windows.  I have never seen anything more beautiful than the inside of that cathedral.

We left to see how much time we had left to wander around, and we ended up in a vendor’s bazaar where we ran into an endless assortment of Матрёшка (Matryoshka) dolls, some of them depicting famous personalities like George W. Bush, Margaret Thatcher, and even Osama bin Laden.  We bought some Russian jewelry and hopped on the bus once again.

We weren’t taken very far.  The bus dropped us off alongside a boat on the River Neva, where we were to embark on a canal cruise through the city.  It was a fine day outside, perhaps 80 degrees, and much cooler once we were on the water, the river spray cooling our faces as we toured around the city.  We sped past the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, past luxuriant green parks filled with natives enjoying a rare day of Sun, an old battleship that had been converted into a museum (one of the only free museums in St. Petersburg), and various commercial and private buildings, many of which were in states of decay or undergoing construction.

We passed a very square building with numerous radio towers sticking out of it like a giant porcupine and were informed that it was the former home of those not-so-adorable scamps, the KGB.  The Russians had lived in perpetual fear of that building for years.  They knew that if they were to go there, they would be certainly tortured and possibly dispatched cleanly with a bullet to the temple.  It was still a loathsome place to many, and understandably so.

We sped along under a massive bridge, and we were served champagne before we went under it.  They said it was customary in Russia to drink champagne on such excursions, so we drank to the dregs, feeling like queens.  We made a turn into a small canal and slowed down as we meandered through.

Along the way I noticed a young man running alongside us in the canal.  I remember thinking he must be a real pro marathon runner because he ran alongside us for several kilometers.  Eventually, the tour guide got wind of this and said he’d likely be waiting for us at our final stop, wanting money.  Apparently it happened frequently on the canal tours, and I felt sad that he needed to do such a thing.  Every once in a while he would look over at us and wave as he ran alongside.  He was probably no more than 16 or 17, a real sweet kid.

He was indeed waiting for us at our final destination, and he never breathed a word about wanting money, but he got some from many people, which I was very glad for.  We took one long last look around the city and hopped on the bus to go back to the ship.

One more time through Passport Control.  There are no smiles in this place, just glares of unabashed hatred.  It’s one thing I didn’t miss.  I left them with a smile and boarded the ship once again.

We had made reservations that night to eat at one of the specialty restaurants onboard.  A $20 cover-charge got you a sampling of everything (and I mean everything) on the menu.  We didn’t realize what we had gotten ourselves into until they started bringing us massive quantities of food.   We got servings of ravioli, thick ribbon pasta, whole sun-dried tomatoes, zucchini with tomato sauce, braised mushrooms, baskets of bread, fried calamari, and fresh spinach salad. That wasn’t even the half of it.  By the time we got our main entrees, we were stuffed.  I had about two bites of a Dijon mustard-encrusted flounder before I simply gave up, my stomach tap dancing wildly inside of me.  And they hadn’t even brought out dessert!  I had coffee and a bit of wildberry custard pie before wishing for death or oblivion, something to take away the wretched pain of an indulgent night.  All through dinner I had been dancing on the moon.  And now?  The horror.  The horror.

We watched Russia floating away out the window as we ate.  After that, we decided to walk around and work off some of the 10 pounds we had just gained at dinner.  Mom tuckered out rather quickly and ended up going to bed early (though she told me later that she made a little stop at the casino before bed, much to my amusement), leaving me to wander the ship and find some adventure of my own.  I found it in spades.

Now, maybe to you an adventure is something out of the ordinary, active, and exciting, but I find adventure every day, even in things that many would consider mundane.  I like seeing what strange and interesting things can happen in the everyday occurrences of life, and I’m rarely disappointed by what I find.

I mentioned that I was planning on doing karaoke, and that was the adventure I found that night.  I walked into Club Fusion and had a seat while Mark from the Cruise Director’s staff informed everyone that only two people had signed up for the Princess Popstar Karaoke Competition, and there were 8 other slots available.  I took a deep breath and decided to go for it.  I went up to Mark and he handed me a monstrous book of songs to choose from.  I think I must suffer from some debilitating form of indecision because I couldn’t pick a song until the entries for the contest had closed.  But, since there were only two contestants that evening, Mark opened it up for regular karaoke afterwards, and I was the first person up.

I gave my song choice to the DJ, a very cool guy from South Africa named Clinton, and Mark introduced me to the audience.  He asked me if I had ever sung before and I said that I had, on church worship team for many years.  He seemed a bit taken aback by the information (as many people do, when they find out that I’m a churchgoer…it’s distasteful to some, and I can understand why in many ways) but continued in the introduction, and then I was up there.  Alone.  In front of tons of strangers. Under hot lights.  Sure, I’m probably making it sound like I was terribly nervous, and I do get nervous every time I sing, but it wasn’t as bad as all that.  I had picked out “That Old Black Magic” by Louis Prima and Keely Smith, a song that I had learned only a few weeks before but greatly enjoyed.  I had a lot of fun singing it, too.

When it was over I was greeted by lots of clapping and cheers, which is always an awkward sound in my ears, and something I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.  Mark walked over to me to collect my microphone.  He was shaking his head and smiling, arms outstretched, as he enfolded me into a giant bear hug.  I just laughed as I hugged him, and then walked off stage, glad that my moment in the spotlight was over (I’ve never cared for the spotlight, but unfortunately, in order to use a gift like singing, you sort of have to be in front of people. I think it’s in the rule book somewhere).  I had sung, and I had had fun.

I figured I was done.

It was not to be.  Mark came up to me after everything was over and said I should come back the next night, early, so I could pick a song and join the next heat for the competition.  The two men that had sung for the competition that night were already in, so the next night the audience would pick two more to compete at the finale.  He wanted me there, and so did several others who overheard us talking.  I found myself agreeing to it, and Mark seemed very pleased that I was coming back.

I went back up to the room and watched 30 Rock while I dwindled off to sleep.

What the heck was I going to sing?