“You must remember that there was virtually no air travel in the early 1930s. Africa was two weeks away from England by boat and it took you about five weeks to get to China. These were distant and magic lands and nobody went to them just for a holiday. You went there to work. Nowadays you can go anywhere in the world in a few hours and nothing is fabulous anymore.”
Boy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
Midnight. Every now and then a sharp whistle and a flash or two of light illuminated the cabin from the crack in the window blind. I lay on my narrow top bunk in a state of semi-sleep. The train rolled south, the clank and blatter of machinery somehow peaceful. I slept. Smoked fish, pine forests and icons visited me in my dreams all the way to the capital.
Moscow. A city of squeaky-clean-newness, works-like-clockwork-efficiency, labels and bling.
“Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.“
From Russia with Love by Ian Fleming
Our first view of Saint Petersburg (pronounced Sankt Pyterborrg or just Pyterborrg by Russians) was from the window of the Meteor (hydrofoil vessel) from Peterhof. A cheerful, high pitched woman’s voice shrieked and crackled over the loudspeaker in Russian – no doubt telling us the mysteries and wonders of Saint Petersburg. However, the Meteor was packed full of Chinese tourists and we three auspicious caucasians squished like sardines in among them.
“If so, better let him be named after his father. His father was Akaky, so let the son also be Akaky. Thus it was that Akaky Akakievich cam about. As the child was being baptised, he cried and made such a face as if he anticipated that he would be a titular councillor.”
The Overcoat by Nicholai Gogol
It seems that Putin and Zuma have formed an unholy alliance. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I hear your groans. I see your rolled eyes.
“There exists in St. Petersburg a powerful foe … This foe is no other than the Northern cold … At nine o’clock in the morning… it begins to bestow such powerful and piercing nips on all noses … At an hour when the foreheads of even those who occupy exalted positions ache with the cold, and tears start to their eyes, the poor titular councillors are sometimes quite unprotected. Their only salvation lies in traversing as quickly as possible, in their thin little cloaks, five or six streets, and then warming their feet in the porter’s room, and so thawing all their talents and qualifications for official service, which had become frozen on the way.”
The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol
Like characters in a winter fairytale, we’d had our fill of mulled wine and turkey, opened our presents, wished our friends and family a Merry Christmas and gone home to pack our passports and winter woolies. Early on the 26th, we made our way to Heathrow to catch our flight to St Petersburg.
When we booked our trip to St Petersburg back in September, I allowed myself to dream of a magical storybook land of romance and wonder, covered in a foot of white, fluffy snow. This, Hubby assured me, was a given. I’d read some of the drama of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and could picture Gogol’s beloved frost-bitten Petersburg with all it’s delightful Russian characters. Thermal underwear, merino wool socks, earmuffs, proper winter coat and woollen hat at the ready! Continue reading St Petersburg: gangsta grannies, advice unsought and a chance to walk on water
“Akaky Akakievich was taken away and buried. And St. Petersburg was left without Akaky Akakyevitch as if he had never been there. Vanished and gone was the being, protected by no one, dear to no one, interesting to no one, who had not even attracted the attention of a naturalist – who does not fail to stick a pin through a common fly and examine it under the microscope.”
The Overcoat by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol in The Collected Tales
Poor Akaky Akakievich, I thought, while reading this story. A copy clerk with nothing in life, but the excitement of skimping and saving every possible rouble he could spare in joyous anticipation of having a new overcoat made with chintz lining, small silk double seams and a cat fur collar.
Oh, the happy months spent, in an otherwise dull life, dreaming of such an overcoat!