A Day in Russia
So there I was, pulling out the map of Finland a few months ago, not having any memory from my high school geography class that Russia was so darn close. I squealed when I noticed, interrupting Ernie in the other room,
"Ern! Russia is like...practically outside Nina and Alex's back door! We should go!"
"Russia. Really, Jo? Alone with the two kids? No way. That's too much. Too hard."
"How hard can it BE? Can it be any harder than taking them to Laos or New Delhi? Cause you know...I've done that."
"Correction. WE have done that. You're going over there alone."
"Yeah but this is totally up Nina's alley. She'll love it. We'll do this together with all the kids. This is probably the equivalent of us going to Des Moines for the weekend."
As it turned out, Nina was game, but Alex was as uninterested as Ernie. He'd be returning from the States just prior to our arrival. His business in America was in...Des Moines. I laughed when I heard this piece, as it pointed to clear evidence that Russia was meant to be.
Three months later, Nina and I sipped glasses of champagne in the bar of the cruise ship we'd just boarded. Our five children had been unleashed with a handful of euros for the massage chairs and video games that scattered the lobby. As we set sail, we talked about our "plan" and how we'd manage the mere sliver of time we'd have in St. Petersburg. Our ship would sail overnight, arriving in the morning, then leaving again that same night. Our total time on Russian soil would be roughly 10 hours. Ohmygosh.
Our plan came down to this...We'd have to see only a couple landmarks. The Hermitage Museum/Winter Palace was non negotiable. I voted for the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, an iconic St. Petersburg sight. We tucked in that night with the waves rocking us to sleep. The sun rose and we docked in Russia full of adrenaline. As we made our way through customs, one thing became apparent...it was going to be a miracle if we didn't lose one of the five children. I gathered them together and announced,
"Kids, in about 5 minutes I'll be passing out hot pink t-shirts for all of you to wear so we can see you easier today. Prepare yourselves."
They looked flabbergasted until Will broke the silence with, "Mom! Stop! They don't *GET* your sense of humor. It's not funny!"
The alternative to neon t-shirts was simple. Hold hands and keep your eyes on your mothers. And say a lot of "spasiba." God yes, don't offend any Russians. Just say thank you. Constantly.
St. Petersburg was a breathtaking mix of colors and sights. A decidedly Western feel but also...not. It felt oddly familiar to all of us, likely because we were all so familiar with living in China. Will described it as feeling like "Euro Communism." The Hermitage lived up to expectations, with room after room of artifacts, each more exquisite than the room before. The enormity of the space was hard to comprehend until we tried to leave and realized we were buried in the bowels of the place, completely at the mercy of the Russian museum workers to answer the question they surely answered a hundred times a day,
"How do you get OUT of here?"
We pumped up the children with hot dogs and pizza before moving on to the church. As we walked through the city, we spoke to the kids in a mix of English, Finnish and Chinese. Talked and, shall we say, shouted at. There just wasn't any way to get through the day without a good degree of...shouting. Lovingly shouting.
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the site where Alexander the Second was mortally wounded in 1881. After its completion, it was badly damaged during the Russian Revolution, then closed for decades, only reopening in 1997. Nearly the entire exterior and interior are covered with mosaics, making it equally breathtaking from any angle. All seven of us found ourselves transfixed, our heads turned skyward to see every inch of every single design.
Upon leaving, it was time for more fuel. It was 3:00 and Nina and I had been fueled merely on breakfast and cups of coffee from a van on the side of the road. Souvenirs, ice cream and Segway rides did the trick, getting our tired bodies back to the ship for its evening sail back to Helsinki.
It might not have been the full-fledged visit I could have had minus children, but we hadn't been captured by the Russian mafia. It ranked more interesting on my list of places visited than Des Moines. And truly...it WAS easier than Laos and New Delhi.
Coming next...Last but not least...Iceland!