I'm still in a tumble of sleeping and waking at odd hours, tiptoeing into my hosts' kitchen at 4 am to make myself a cup of coffee and slice some dark, chewy coriander-topped bread. Then in mid-afternoon at a museum or on the subway, I'm suddenly overwhelmed with sleepiness and it feels like the middle of the night. Not to mention the fact that the sky starts getting light at 3 am.
Where to begin? Here's the street where I'm living; I share a fifth-floor walkup apartment with a kind couple in their 40's. I only have to walk about six feet past my door if I want a tattoo.
On streets such as the one I'm staying on, many businesses have no visible presence except a lettered sign. Looking at the photo, you wouldn't realize that the whole street is lined with shops and restaurants. I pass plain closed doors in plain walls, and it feels that commerce is carried on privately, closed off to outsiders. Gradually I begin to notice small signs saying, Groceries, Beauty Salon, Cafe, "Planet of Health" (health foods, yoga, etc.). It's hard to get used to simply opening a heavy blank door in order to go in and have lunch.
In the main tourist areas, though, the streets are more alive, and the shops and restaurants have actual windows. Indeed, I walked through a covered foot passage yesterday in the high-priced tourist zone, and encountered a glittering mall with shining marble floors and mirrors and guards and gold. I went into a shop called "The Museum of Chocolate," and the front room was a slightly terrifying display of diamond jewelry behind glass cases. Once you walked past all the diamonds, then you reached an impossibly fancy chocolate area. Despite the crowded sidewalks outside the passageway, inside I was one of only a handful of people, and was eyed by various guards. My boots kept slipping on the mirror-like marble floors. I backed away from the chocolate and diamonds and retreated to the comfort of the gritty street crowds.
My room is bright and lovely, with very high ceilings and pots of flowers. Floor-to-ceiling windows and filmy curtains, an ancient and disused white ceramic stove that takes up one corner also from floor to ceiling. Here's a late afternoon view out my window.
The apartment is pristinely clean, although baffling in certain details. (There is no bathroom sink, for example. You wash hands and brush teeth by bending over the bathtub.) Also no livingroom per se. Just an entry foyer, four bedrooms and a kitchen. The building was constructed in 1907 but feels much older. In the mornings I see women sweeping and mopping the staircases, but there's still a sense of permanent dust slightly veiling everything. Here's what it looks like right outside the apartment door.
And about that dust. It's the oddest thing. Walking out on the streets, I'm a little disoriented by the slight powdery grit that seems to coat everything. Like I'm looking through a window that hasn't been washed. I can't tell if I'm imagining it, or if it's really everywhere. This city has a powerful feeling to it, a mood. It feels heavy and (despite bustling traffic) kind of immovable. As if it's beyond the reach of time, somehow impervious. The scale is immense; the subway stations are cavernous and the important streets and squares so wide that it must have been all about grandeur rather than function. And the major buildings, too, are on a bafflingly giant scale. I whiled away a few hours yesterday at the Ethnographic Museum, grateful for the chance to focus on small things.
They were featuring an Ikebana display of fresh flowers:
In this earliest phase of arrival, I'm finding St Petersburg a somewhat difficult city to move through -- but that may be partly my unpredictable tiredness. It's hard to find a place to sit down and rest, for instance. There's a formality of behavior that seems to prevail, so I hesitate to perch on railings or windowsills, and outdoor seating is almost nonexistent unless you buy something from a street food cart. At least right now, the streets don't feel like a place where life actually happens, the way they do in New York. But that might be because it was snowing here only a week ago, and everyone is still in winter mode.
I took 5000 rubles (about $90) from an ATM, and received it in a single large bill. Going into the bank lobby, I asked if I could change it for smaller bills. This turned out to require me to sit and take a number in the (nearly empty) bank, and then be seated at a desk where I had to present my passport for copying. After that, the very proper clerk counted out the denominations I had requested onto a little ceramic tray and pushed it towards me (because people don't directly hand money back and forth here -- it's not polite.)
Today I'm visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress (which I'm sure is immense) with a volunteer "greeter:" a local who's willing to give visitors free tours. This seems like a cool worldwide organization - check out this link.