Friday, May 30, 2008


Oy, veh! Did I mention—surely I mentioned—that I went to bed last night totally exhausted and not a little inebriated from generously poured wine at dinner and shots of vodka (I didn’t count) aboard our cruise ship; and therefore all the more secure in the knowledge that I would finally be rewarded with a good night’s sleep.

Nope. Have I mentioned—surely I’ve mentioned—that I sleep with the aid of a CPAP breathing machine to help me with my apnea and protect Ellie from my dreadful snoring? Last night it broke. We got to bed at midnight and I was woken at two with a blast of air in my face and an unusually loud sound coming from the machine. A piece had snapped off the plastic nose mask and fallen to the floor. In the darkness, I couldn’t find it, and settled for trying to use my hand to perform its function—to prevent the air from escaping from the hose. You can imagine that was not very successful. Every time I began to go to sleep, my hand fell from its task and the blast resumed.

At five AM I finally staggered out of bed and felt around the neighboring area of floor until I found the missing piece. Between five and five thirty, bleary eyed and clumsy with fatigue and irritation, I tried to work out how it fit back on. At five-thirty, success! I had two hours of sleep.

Breakfast at seven thirty. Bus at a quarter to nine. This morning we drove out through often heavy traffic to the village—well, these days, that town—of Pushkin, renamed as such, we heard, during the Soviet era in honor of the great Romantic poet. Ada treated us to a potted history of the tsars—tales of drunkenness and incompetence, internal family plots and cruel assassinations—not to mention some strange sexual appetites. A pretty dissolute and greedy bunch, those Romanovs. We were left with some considerable sympathy for the serfs and the revolutionaries who eventually rose up to dispose of them.

And what extravagant opulence! Opulence, that’s the word I’ve been looking for.

The Catherine Palace, which we had driven out here to visit—along with several thousand other tourists from all parts of the world—is a summer residence in unimaginably grand in scale, in construction, in interior design and in detail. In the Great Ballroom alone, Ada told us, eight kilos of solid gold were needed to gilt the decorative columns.

It took us a while to get that far. Many of our company needed a pit stop before the tour, and the lines at the restrooms were so long that the women’s line merged into the men’s, and even so, many returned with their mission unaccomplished. There must, then, have been twenty tour groups ahead of us in line to reach the entry and the foot of the staircase to the half-mile long upper floor where the tours were staggered by the staff to move fairly smoothly, in turn, from room to room.

Opulence was the word. The great ballroom, the grand dining rooms, the rooms where the family entertained guests, the others where they entertained, presumably, themselves… and the most extravagantly rich of all, the famous Amber Room, whose walls and decorative mirror surrounds and candelabras are constructed of an intricate mosaic of tens of thousands of amber fragments of different color and hue, a glorious, glittering, way over-the-top display of wealth and questionable taste. The walls of adjacent huge gallery were assemblages of masterpiece paintings, trimmed and sized to fit the requirements of the wall’s design and separated only by thin gilt beading. Those Romanovs!

After a tour of the palace, we strolled back to our bus, already two hours late for our lunch reservations at Podvorie in Pavlovsk, a vast log cabin affair with numerous tour buses and private cars parked in its lot. Entering the restaurant, we were greeted by a (stuffed!) brown bear offering a silver tray with glasses and a bottle of cold vodka.

We imbibed. Happily. This place is known for providing its guests with unlimited supplies of vodka—literally, as much as you can drink. No extra charge. We had been instructed by Ada on the etiquette involved: Only as much in the glass as you can drink down at a gulp, so that the vodka never gets cold. Cold vodka, she assured us, is the inevitable source of a painful hangover. We poured small. We drank. We poured again.

Long tables, laden with food, several starters, including a bowl of delicious assorted pickles, pork slices, creamed beef, bread and butter… followed by a delicious borscht soup with dollops of sour cream, and followed in turn by stuffed cabbage leaves and grape leaves. I have forgotten something along the way. I have forgotten a lot of things, probably. You could begin to understand what was meant by the “groaning board.” And wine of both colors. And, er, vodka, more vodka. Merriment would be the understatement. Toward the end of the meal, we got into a singing, table banging rivalry with a French tour group across the room, who had been singing and dancing to the sounds of the Russian band who arrived to regale us with their music. They beat us by far. At our table, none of us could agree on songs we all knew. The Beach Boys? Woody Guthrie? Edith Piaf?

Anyway, the scene ended up with all the merry chaos of a country fair. Breughel, anyone?

After lunch, we piled back on board for the ride back into town, and were delayed once again by traffic jams on all the major highways and city streets. We thought the traffic was bad back at home. It’s a nightmare in St. Petersburg, with a system that is totally inadequate for the new surge in car ownership, and traffic flows are poorly organized and supervised. We arrived at our next destination, a gallery and studio complex, about three hours later than planned, and I was ready to take a little down time. I see enough contemporary art in Los Angeles, and there’s an internationalism at work now that makes for a kind of sameness no matter what continent you happen to be on. With another weary traveler, then, I chose to find transportation back to the Astoria—Ada hailed us a private car, just like the old days in Moscow, when anyone might stop for you—and our driver found a quick back street route back to the hotel.

A blessed hour’s sleep, and then another blessed—albeit expensive—hour online to get some posting done. In fact, I managed to bring everything up to date, with the exception of one single day’s photographs, which will have to wait until later. Who knows what Moscow might or might not bring by way of connectability.

Ellie returned early from the afternoon tour, too, and we spent an hour packing and watching the news—notably, the death of Sydney Pollack and Scott McClellan’s book with its scathing report on the Bush White House. Finally, someone on the inside ready to share a little of the scandalous truth. After packing for tomorrow, we hit the streets for a pleasant walk in the late sun through what seemed like a predominantly student area close to the hotel. Most of them smoking! We failed to find an inviting café or restaurant and took the easy course, returning to our hotel restaurant for two small salads, a tiny bottle of Perrier and a third of a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, all for the modest price of $120. Service not included.


Sometimes Saintly Nick said...

Peter, I continue to be entranced by your adventures!

TaraDharma said...

Those Romanovs were just begging from trouble. The sheer pompacity of it all.

The dinner did sound grand. I would've been flat asleep on the table with all that vodka!