St Pete: Bitching about Anya, Nearly Getting Mugged & Eating the Sturgeon
I’m still very much asleep by the time I arrive to breakfast (a boiled egg, 2 boiled sausages, 2 pieces of bread, butter and cream cheese). But Neil and Margaret are wide awake and being entertained by Tanya’s gripping stories about travelling to Africa when she was young, in the company of the famous Russian woman cosmonaut. Pasha waits for us outside and then takes us to the Alexandrinsky theatre (named after Pushkin, and the site of the first flop of The Seagull). There is a conference of the International Federation for Theatre Research going on at the theatre and Tanya has got us passes if we want to attend any of the proceedings. However, once at the theatre, Tanya delivers us to Anya – a local guide – who is vigorously complaining about something.
Within the first few minutes of being ‘guided’ by Anya we are worried. She rattles off meaningless facts at us (such as the precise height and weight of various towers etc) at meaningless speed. We can’t wait for the car to stop so we can get out, pretend to take pictures and discuss strategies of dealing with her. This basically amounts to bitching about Anya. She gives us a veritable tourist version of St Pete (which I can’t remember much of) and as we stop at one of the tourist infested bridges to admire the Winter Palace, we spend much time gazing at a bear entertaining the tourists. Eventually she takes us to an expensive Gallery/ Gift Shop (called Onegin) where we are served free coffee and chocolates and where we browse for ages. Anya obviously has a deal with the owners and probably takes all her clients there, but also charges for the time spent in the shop.
Our salvation arrives in the form of Tanya, and Pasha decides to take us to a tiny little tea-room for lunch. This is a basic, authentic place called Blinnaya which has two independent units next to each other (one serves the Russian pancakes – blinnies and the other the Russian ravioli – pelmeni). We have one of the best and most memorable gastronomic experiences ever!
After an afternoon nap at the hotel, Neil and I decide to go for a walk, having arranged to meet Tanya and Margaret in front of the theatre where we are seeing The Seagull tonight. We descend into the world of Petersburgian underground railway, heading back for the city centre. Neil is wearing a bag advertising the Baltic flour mill (a contemporary art gallery in Newcastle) as well as a badge with his name on which Tanya gave us in order to gain access to the theatre conference. Idly chatting away we are about to re-emerge back into the city again when we’re suddenly pressed against the exit doors by a group of men dressed in black who had been hovering around. The doors open inwards so we’re trapped - but the men aren't really saying or doing anything. They are probably waiting for us to panic and surrender. Somehow I manage to wriggle away, my heart beating loudly and my legs literally going weak at the knees. For a brief second I watch Neil struggling out past the door, holding onto his pockets and bag and exclaiming sharp ‘No, no, no’s! We’re both out and I establish I am in a state of shock. Neil is relatively calm and says the shock will probably come later to him.
We continue to wander around, look at a man polishing a statue of a horse on a bridge, go for a cheap coffee at a scary and overpriced Russian café (where we get charged for sachets of sugar and milk), wander a bit more, I get to ask for directions in my broken Russian for the first time, and eventually we stumble across an appealing restaurant where we decide to have dinner despite the fact that it’s completely empty. The waitress, looking like a Russian version of Barbie, talks to us in very good English and escorts us to our table. It’s all damask tablecloths and napkins, candles and expensive wine-lists. We’re sitting next to what Neil identifies as a china fireplace. On the waitress’s recommendation we choose sturgeon for two (one of the priciest items on the menu) and proceed to wait for it for 25 minutes, sipping our G&Ts (having been advised against having wine in Russia). Meanwhile several waiters are rushing around placing starters on all surrounding tables. What makes this look really surreal is that we’re still the only people in the room and there is no food on our table. Some minutes later an entire army of tourists files in (we recognize some of them from our plane, in fact). So evidently, we’ve fallen into Anya’s trap. Finally our sturgeon is paraded in front of us, cooked but still in one piece, and then taken away for carving. For a moment we wonder whether that was for real, but as soon as we tuck into our food we’re speechless once again. We remember the horror stories we’ve heard about food in Russia and consider ourselves extremely lucky. Until we see the bill that is – which is comparable to any posh restaurant in England. Still, we decide the sturgeon was thoroughly unique and well worth the price and we start looking forward to telling Margaret and Tanya all about it!
The theatre is around the corner and as we arrive the two of them are chatting to the director of tonight’s show – Gregori Kozlov. The show turns out to be a student production, without surtitles, and the students turn out to be a mixed bag of talent and good and not so good looks. We wonder whether it was a good idea to have arranged a post-show meeting with the director. But we must go through with it, and as we settle down at a café called Harlequin with vodka and pickled herring forced down our throats (on account that ‘Chekhov really liked these’), Tanya has one of the most difficult times in her career. We’re all very civilised; Gregori is very pensive and quite quiet (apparently, unhappy with how the show went) and we’re struggling to find things to say to him. He then asks us very directly – via Tanya – what we thought about the show. I brave the storm and proceed to give my detailed account of the performance and his interpretation of the play. He informs me he looked up the word ‘seagull’ in a thesaurus before he started working on the show. Then he tells us all about his research – some of which is quite interesting. After another bout of um-ing and er-ing, Gregori kisses the ladies’ hands and withdraws. Soon after we too hail a taxi and go to the hotel where after a brief soiree in my salon (and another couple of Tanya’s interesting stories) we disperse and go to bed.