Russia: Encounter of the best kind

By Bronwyn Elsmore

Grand palaces prove less attractive than friendly faces, Bronwyn Elsmore finds.

New-found friend Alexei waves to boat passengers from a bridge above the canal in St Petersburg. Photo / Bronwyn Elsmore
New-found friend Alexei waves to boat passengers from a bridge above the canal in St Petersburg. Photo / Bronwyn Elsmore

Our guide says "My name is Natasha". I look again. No, she's not the same woman who escorted us to the Peterhof yesterday. That one also introduced herself as Natasha. Are all female guides in St Petersburg called Natasha?

The coach passes through streets of buildings painted yellow with white trimmings. Yellow, we know from yesterday's commentary, means prosperity. It's an idea our preconceptions didn't associate with Russia, Faberge eggs and caviar notwithstanding.

Natasha Two refers to the weather, "Here we have a saying: nine months of expectation, three months of frustration".

The weather is fine for our canals and river trip so we follow her past Pepsi stalls with bright blue umbrellas and board a long canal boat. The interior is covered by a see-through dome so there's a view both sides and above.

The cruise gets under way and we pass under a bridge. There's a young man standing on it waving. Minutes later another bridge and, directly above us, another teenager waving. Despite warnings against fraternising with the locals it seems some Russians are friendly to tourists.

Our attention is directed to the neoclassical architecture of the Pushkin house, the Institute of Russian literature.

Bridge three. Yet another lad waves and blows kisses as we glide beneath. Hold on. They all look remarkably alike. Then we notice our friend jogging along the footpath beside the canal. He reaches the next bridge ahead of us and is there as we pass below.

Between that and the next overbridge he jogs along the other side. By now more of our party are watching and he's rewarded by more waves. He does a cartwheel and receives a round of applause.

The canal is fringed with parkland for the next stretch. Alexei - as I find myself calling him - keeps pace. At bridge six Alexei throws kisses and we respond. We glide past a palace, one of more than 500 in the city, as Natasha tells of aristocratic intrigues at these places in their heyday, but at bridge seven attention is focussed on our friend.

Yet another palace is set among trees. We hear of balls held, and how these marked a different attitude to women. Perhaps surprisingly given Catherine the Great, the fairer sex was cloistered from public view. Attendance at these occasions marked their acceptance into society.

"The palace is to your left," Natasha Two repeats, no doubt puzzled that many heads are turned to the right where Alexei is keeping up.

After the next bridge we move into the River Neva, which is more like a harbour, leaving behind our honorary escort. Apart from the Natashas he's the only person we've met in this huge and intimidating country.

On the starboard side is the Battleship Aurora. Natasha says the guns of this veteran of the Russian-Japanese war signalled the 1917 assault on the Winter Palace by revolutionaries.

Large modern hotels and impressive new buildings are pointed out, and an older one that housed the KGB.

Then, as we re-enter the canal, he's there again, Alexei, on the overbridge, waving.

Slowly the kOpeck drops, and we feel in our pockets for rubles that aren't there. No one has needed to change money. Tours are pre-paid and stall-holders selling fur hats and matryoshka dolls quote in dollars and euros.

At the canal-side we come face to face with our friend - smaller and thinner up close, smiling shyly and waiting to be approached. Several of us say a few words, a few press donations into his hand, left over krona, a dollar or two, a bar of chocolate.

We move on to our next stop. Memories of the Pushkin House, palaces and KGB building have faded. What remains of our tour of the canals of St Petersburg is a teenage lad - his waves, kisses, cartwheels, and his ingenuity.

MORE INFO

* Websites:
Useful websites for finding out about St Petersburg include:
saint-petersburg.com, st-petersburg-life.com, visitrussia.org.uk

Bronwyn Elsmore paid her own way to St Petersburg.

- NZ Herald

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