I was excited about this. When you travel as much as I do, it's not often you get to visit a whole new continent. In fact, barring gigs in the Arctic circle, it probably won't ever happen again. I was going to visit Russia. Last week when I thought of Russia my mind threw up memories of Auntie Jean taking me to see the Russia expo in the 70's and queueing for ages for a glimpse of a frozen and perfectly preserved wooly mammoth which, I think, in later years may have turned out to be fake. I also stole lots of light blue CCCP badges. To be fair, I was a child at the time. Having said that, I probably would still steal the badges today.
This week when I think of Russia, this is what comes to mind:
Up early. 6am, to go visit Joslyn and get my money changed into thousands and thousands of Rubles. Then downstairs with all my documents. It's freezing cold and rain is pouring out of the grey sky as I queue up outside the rusty blue corrugated iron immigration hut. I'm grinning though, because it couldn't look more Soviet if it was a film set. The hut is staffed by satisfyingly surly large men in green uniforms. They look over my documents. They look at me. They ask for my tour ticket. I'm not on a tour, I tell them. They ask me if I have business in Russia. That's weird. I say no, I'm a tourist. They say no and literally throw my passport back at me and point to the door I came in through. I've been denied entry.
I storm back onto the cruise ship that is my home this week and go to find someone who can explain things to me. I'm in no mood. I've been looking forward to this. People explain to me that unless I'm on a tour, or have a special visa, I can't go ashore. Of course all the tours for today are booked up, and it's too late to get a visa. I'm furious that nobody told me this in advance. I decide that Russia is a shit hole run by thugs and the only good things they have are sexy peaked caps that are wasted on the aforementioned thugs. I realise that I'm in a foul mood, so I sequester myself in my room so I don't end up being rude to strangers and losing my job.
Later on in the day I go to visit the tour office and see if there are any guided tours I can get on tomorrow. With long faces, they tell me that there are no spaces at all. Nothing. No way they can help me. Then one of them says "well, unless you want to pay", as if it's the craziest thing in the world. "Yes", I say, "I'm fine with paying. I'm a man of means. This suit cost nearly one hundred dollars". The suit gag gets a laugh and suddenly they are laying out the tour schedules and saying I can take my pick. Woohoo. I pick "Hidden St Petersburg", and go to bed happy.
8am next morning and I'm sitting in the back of a coach. For years, as a street performer, I made fun of coach parties who follow their guide like kids being herded by a teacher. Today I'm one of those people. It was either this or no Russia. Our guide, the lovely Anna, is telling us that today we will "have big fun and a brilliant time I think!". We all take to her immediately. She tells us that she is not as crazy as most Russians, obeying the rule that the first thing a crazy person says is that they're not crazy. Then she says we picked a good day for the tour, as it is sunny outside. Russia, she informs us, only has 30 days of sunshine a year, "and we have one, so you must be happy actually I think!".
As we drive into the centre of St Petersburg I stare out of the window. There's a man asleep in his taxi - seat fully reclined. The taxi in question being parked in the middle of what looks like a fairly busy street. Maybe Anna wasn't joking about not being as crazy as most Russians. Reece Witherspoon is advertising Avon cosmetics EVERYWHERE. Anna starts to tell us how good our driver, Alexander, is. "We need a good driver because the traffic in St Petersburg is..", and she grabs her face like Maculy Culkin in "Home Alone", hands clapping against her cheeks, mouth wide open, eyes wide. "Russian cars", she tells us, "are much cheaper than foreign cars, but you have to repair them every day". This gets a laugh, and she giggles. Someone asks about Perestroika. The old days were simpler, she says. "We had free health care, free education, the only free thing we didn't have was freedom". This is obviously a well rehearsed little speech, but no less heartfelt for it. She talks about how expensive it is to live in the centre of town, and then, for no particular reason, tells us she lives with her mum, and smiles widely.
During the course of the tour we visit a subway station, complete with chandeliers and statues, and Anna actually gets us all on a train, and off again, without losing anyone - although at several points she uses herding tactics bordering on assault. Next, we go to a fresh food market, where we are eyed suspiciously by large-armed women sitting on tall stools behind mountains of fruit, vegetables and flowers. I watch two women hold opposite ends of a freshly killed pig while a man hacks it expertly with - and my knowledge and experience of bladed weapons will be of benefit here - a huge fucking knife. Then I go and buy some honey. Yum.
Then we're taken to a tea room, which is nothing special, and will take an hour. Since I don't drink tea, I tell Anna that I'll meet her at the coach and while momentarily startled, she gets that I want to explore on my own, and lets me go with a conspiratorial grin. I slip away and find a market to look around, then just wander for a while, looking at people and trying to get a little feel of the place in the ridiculously limited time I have.
Here's what I got: It seems to me that most of the place is loving the benefits of perestroika, the freedom of expression, of commerce, of individualism. It's clearly a very good thing, and it's influence can be felt everywhere. But there is, palpably, and underlying feeling that now they're a step closer to being just like everywhere else. I think some people, perhaps mainly the older ones, miss the old days when Russia was a big feared bear of a country. Scary because it was different. I think there's a slight feeling, from some, of nostalgia and lost pride there. The more I travel, the more I realise that everywhere is always the same but a bit different. Usually more the same than you might expect. I view this as a good thing, since assholes usually use difference as a reason for dislike, so if you see similarities in people, then you're less likely to want to hurt them. Must be weird for a country like Russia, that actually was pretty bloody different, and is now more the same. Must be hard for Anna's grandparents, but nice for Anna.
Visually, it reflects it's history, both recent and not so much. Some parts are shabby and nasty, and could be Swindon. But other parts are just spectacularly ornate and beautiful, and could not, in any way, be Swindon. The subway is the perfect example, the stations all like little marble palaces, because that's what they were - palaces to celebrate the people going to work for the good for the nation. Now they're tourist attractions, and the subway cars are full of people in knock-off designer jackets. Maybe one of the prices of freedom is the right to conform. Probably a good thing.
While I was walking around I became strangely aware that I was both hot and cold. It was a gorgeous hot sunny day, but at the same time there's the constant freezing baltic breeze, so you end up feeling hot one second, and, literally, cold the very next. The air tastes nice though. So there's St. Petersburg, I guess: Hot and cold simultaneously, but it tastes nice.
On the way back in the coach, we slow down to carefully pass a recent car accident. The front of a silver BMW has crunched against the back of a truck. Both drivers are virtually fighting in the street while a disinterested cop looks on. "See?", says Anna, "SEE? Crazy! I said it!"
Oh, and I learnt this: Say the following words out loud, run together and with Russian accent:
Yellow. Blue. Vase.
You just said "I love you" in Russian. Ahhh.