Friday, 3 July 2009
Feedjit tells me that someone visited from St Petersburg. Exciting! I went there once, when I was a girl, and the city was still called Leningrad. I was in a school party of 13-14-year-olds, accompanied by two of our nuns. We were taking a Baltic cruise on a school ship, 22 of us having won 1st prize from Nestle for a national schools competition. Our project on cocoa had been laboured over; I had been responsible for drawing the maps. This was because I was considered to be "good at drawing" and could manage a steel nib and Indian ink without spattering the entire page or my school blouse, rather than to have any understanding of world geography, cartography, or, indeed, cocoa.
In hindsight, the trip was largely wasted on us; we were too young, too excitable because of the unaccustomed freedom, and too shockingly ready to forget most of the cultural experiences on offer. We would have enjoyed Scarborough just as much. Later we talked most fondly of our visit to Copenhagen, and in particular to the Tivoli Gardens, which tells you a lot about our age and maturity. But the trip was memorable, for a variety of reasons, chiefly because the ship was filled with other girls - and boys too, how thrilling! - from schools up and down the country. We had fun on board, despite the ghastly food and the crowded bunk rooms.
The Leningrad visit was one to remember, though not for any fun-related element. Firstly, we had been so heavily warned about dire consequences should our behaviour be less than angelic that we were frozen with nerves for most of the visit, and hardly dared to look around us, let alone laugh or speak. Security was so tight and oppressive that a sense of threat and of being watched penetrated even our teenage brainlessness.
We were rushed at lightning speed through the Hermitage Museum, of which my solitary and bizarre memory is of a red crystal door knob, while feeling terrified that friend Leonie and I might become separated from our group, which was usually just what we tried to be. The official guides were strict, officious, and difficult to understand, and were keen to avoid the nuns having any contact with another living soul save themselves and us; however, I noticed repeatedly that older women (of whom there were many, all in large headscarves) crossed themselves when they saw the Sisters. We speculated later, out of Sr. Cuthbert's hearing, as to whether this was to signify religious solidarity or a Russian version of averting the Evil Eye. We tended to favour the latter.
Buying souvenirs from the official outlet was an unforgettable lesson in queuing - and we British think we have cornered the market in forming an orderly queue? - we know nothing, nothing, compared to those pre-perestroika Leningraders. Only last year I found my enamelled brooches in an old jewellery box, the Soviet hammer and sickle, a flag with the head of Lenin in relief on it, and the Red Star, and passed them on to the Lovely Son. He will never understand how long and how patiently we waited, at three separate counters, for those little beauties!
A few years ago, the Lovely Son and I went to see Alexander Sokurov's "Russian Ark", stunningly filmed in one slow take entirely inside the Hermitage. I watched open-mouthed at all that I had failed to see or remember all those years ago, but could I spot that red doorknob? Well, no.
Posted by rachel at 20:50