(Goodbye Prague, hello St Petersburg)
Woke up at 4:30, got up, and got going. Here’s a farewell to Prague photo.
Made a mug of tea – nothing quite like having that option anytime night or day. I am glad I made a point of it for all my hotels. Also, first time I brought my own mug and I am glad I did. An Innkeeper’s idea of a cup suitable for tea is insufficient for my needs. At 5:30 the night clerk brought a single cup of coffee and a tiny flask of steamed milk, and carried my bags down absolutely silently. Out to the pre-arranged car, off to the airport in zero traffic. I was dropped off not precisely curbside, but close enough to see the doors. Don’t know if this is a taxi thing or a security deal. I imagine cveryone is testy after Brussels.
The gate wasn’t open yet so I read for awhile, pinching myself periodically. I still can’t quite believe I am going to Russia. When security does open for business I set off alarms, but they swipe my hands with a square of material, analyze the result, and wave me through. I am the second person on board and the only person in business class. There were rattling sounds when the plane takes off, and a shuddering sensation. Like the parts were just a little bit loose. I read my two hour flight away.
We landed in St. Petersburg and I saw two other planes as we taxied in. There was a birch tree grove next to the runway. It reminded me of Duluth. I was expecting something bigger and much busier. Walked to customs through bare and industrial corridors. No photography allowed signs appeared at intervals (a SLR camera in a red circle with a slash across it, which seemed quaint. They haven’t gotten around to making iPhone cameras forbidden icons, I guess).
My customs guy looked about 23, with a bad hair cut and a uniform that was too big in the shoulders for him. He did a lot of frowning at my passport, running it over scanners, typing in information, and comparing it to my face multiple times. Like something might have changed from the first time. He seemed weary and much too young to be locked in this box. I soberly waited for his signal, thanked him, and practically skipped to baggage claim.
My driver, a rangy, mustachioed, white haired gent with a long stride, was holding a sign with my name. I literally had to run to keep up with him. Plenty cordial though, with a bit of English. A native St Peterburgian. He drove like NASCAR though a landscape that looked like the seamier neighborhoods of Chicago or down market Detroit. Rusting, crumbling, gray, grim, monolithic blocks of industrial architecture. Oh no, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures. Cars had a ubiquitous layer of streaky gray, a filthy, end of winter crust of grime and salt. I started looking for a Pets Or Meat sign in cyrillic. I told myself we just didn’t happen to drive through the attractive part, but it’s got to be here somewhere, right? The fact my hotel was apparently in this district gave me pause, but once we reached a canal the streets began to change, the concrete blocks of building fell away, and large houses appeared with architectural interest and charm.
I recognized my hotel entry from the time I spent gazing hopefully at the online photos and videos. My driver heaved my luggage onto the curb and sped away. I rang the two bells, hoping one worked. The door opened and I stepped into my refuge for the next three weeks.
The young people who run the front of the house are polite and cheerful and patient and friendly and helpful. Their English is excellent. There was a bit of a traffic jam at the desk; guests both coming and going. I was seated by glass wall looking into the courtyard garden. They took my passport briefly, then my money – the entire stay is paid for upon arrival. Their numbers exactly matched the ones in my notebook – having print outs of my email paper trail has come in handy, so I confidently coughed up my credit card.
Escorted up to my room via stairs that are broad and deep and old wood and marble. I’m on the top floor at the end of a corridor that’s all windows down one side. None of the doors have numbers or other identifying marks. My room is cream and white, with pickled beams overhead and light, knotty wood floor. It feels even more spacious that it looks online. Usually it’s the other way around. Must be 12 foot ceilings. Two enormous windows overlook the courtyard and have white sheers and roman blinds.
Took a stroll around my new ‘hood, saw this in a window and it exactly matched my mood.
My room is awash in light. One window is set at a slant in the roof, over one side of my bed. Lying there, I can see the blue dome painted with gold stars of Troitsky Church. Right now it’s dark-thirty and silent, profoundly quiet. It bodes well.