06 Jul Russia: Sober Faces and the Mystery Meal
Welcome to Russia – Immigration –
Our welcome to Russia was more of an anti-welcome. After just visiting Scandinavia where natural beauty and friendly faces reigned, the contrast was stark.
When I went ashore in Scandinavia, I could go directly into the countries. For Russia, I needed to go through immigration each and every time I entered and left port.
The immigration lines were long, and the officers spent a long time looking at our passports and researching us online. I held my breath as I waited for clearance. The female officer had no smile. I repeat—no smile! Fortunately, she let me pass.
Yuriy – Our Guide –
I then met our guide, Yuriy. He looked like a Yuriy with a little mustache and pointed beard. When he introduced himself, he told us not to confuse him with the KGB agent named, “Yuri.” Yikes! The KGB was mentioned in the first minute of our tour!
Yuriy was very strict. He told us to keep the little plastic bag and return it with the tour headset at the day’s end. I’ve never had a guide request the baggy. He also told us to take the receivers from the top to the bottom of their storage rack. When we returned them, we had to place them from the bottom to the top. I’ve never had such specific instructions.
St. Petersburg –
We first drove into St. Petersburg, and I saw gray—gray skies, gray block-style buildings, and gray faces—no joy and no smiles.
We headed for the Hermitage Museum where we had early entrance tickets for 9:40 a.m. However, they kept us waiting for 10-15 minutes and then we waited in long restroom lines before seeing the museum at 10:20 am. It opens at 10:30 am, so we lost much of our early entrance time. The museum was gorgeous as were the other palaces and mansions along the Neva River.
We then drove to Pushkin to see Catherine’s Palace. En route, I saw rundown apartment buildings and bare, brown fields—no prosperity.
The Mystery Meal –
We then had lunch. When I eat out, I first put my napkin on my lap. However, our place settings had no napkins, so I asked if we had any. Nobody found one, until a man at our table saw some flimsy paper ones, about 5” by 5,” in a little wooden napkin holder on the table.
The servers then brought our meal—unidentifiable. “What is it?” I asked. To this day, I don’t know what it was. It looked like a scoop of mashed potatoes with cubed bread pasted all around it. Nobody could discern the taste, for it was highly bland.
I asked for salt, since our table had none, so our server brought us some. People added this to the food for flavor, but to no avail. The server spoke little English, so we never learned what the food was. Everybody lived, so it was edible, but to this day it remains—the mystery meal.
Back to Beauty –
After lunch, we went to Catherine’s Palace. It was magnificent, especially the Amber room with its gold and amber-colored walls. It’s sad that the Nazi’s stole the original jeweled panels, and only replicas exist today. The originals have never been found.
Still No Smiles –
Back at port, I passed through immigration again, and the male officer was stone-faced. My stomach tightened, and I feared he wouldn’t let me out of the country. Knowing that Russia had closed the U.S. Consulate did not ease my fear. Fortunately, he let me pass, and I was happy to be onboard and free again.
The next morning when I watched the news, one of the headlines was, “Why Russia Is Teaching Its Employees to Smile.” I laughed at the timing of the message and the need for such training, for I had yet to see any smiling employees.
Truth in the Details – Plumbing Problems –
The next day in St. Petersburg, we visited the Faberge Museum and saw nine of the exquisite imperial eggs. The museum is in a beautiful mansion, so I expected that the restroom would be in good shape. However, the plumbing did not work well. Paper was stuck in the toilet, and I couldn’t flush the paper and had to toss it in the trash. There were no paper towels or anything for drying hands. In the Pushkin restaurant, I couldn’t flush the paper either. Restrooms tell a lot about a country, and the truth is in the details.
Farewell to Russia –
Our last stop was the Impressionist section of the Hermitage, where we saw masterpieces by such greats as Picasso and Van Gogh.
After this artistic treat, I said goodbye to St. Petersburg. It was a city of beautiful palaces and mansions, with poor to modest living conditions for the average person.
I felt sad that the Russians’ lives don’t breed more smiles. The only excitement I felt was the anticipation about World Cup Soccer coming in a few days. Welcome flags waived along city bridges, and the Hermitage Palace Square was packed with bleachers for the event.
Most Russians I met were kind, albeit stern. They’ve had a rough road with the darkness of communism and now living under a corrupt and power-hungry government. I hope that someday an honorable government reigns and that joy flourishes in their land. I would then enter Russia with the same ease I felt when I walked into happy Scandinavia.
I wish blessings and health to Russia and genuine reasons to smile!
Jennifer K. Jordan
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Photo Credit – Jennifer K. Jordan took photo of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin, Russia