Wanderlust is a treacherous thing. It causes some to burn all their savings booking an impulsive flight to an undiscovered place, and others to drunkenly stumble to their computer at 3am to book last minute tickets to the Far East; some it makes bitter and jealous, others it makes impossibly spontaneous.
The common ground, however, is that it usually ends with travel and subsequent happiness. This time, the trip was to Russia.
One of my greatest friends and travelling partners, Sasha, had been living out in St Petersburg for over 6 months, so I thought it was just about time I went and stayed with her. It sounds a bit silly, and hugely spoilt, but Russia had never really been on my ‘must go’ list before the decision to go was made. Swept away by the cold and austere stereotype and news debates on Pussy Riot, there didn’t seem to be anything very appealing waiting for me there. Little did I know.
Sash and Pushkin
We were mugged within our first few minutes of Russian life outside the airport… ‘Shall we head to the centre of the city the Russian way or the tourist way?’ our greeting committee – a fur hat clad Sasha – asked us. It was a loaded question; she was testing me to check if I’d changed. ‘The local way, of course’, I replied, as if on cue.
So down into the Russian metro we headed. I’d been told a little of the history about the metro by a friend, but I had hardly expected it to be so beautiful. It was filled with chandeliers and mosaics, golds and reds, as though it were an underground, undercover palace. This treasure was of course the result of Soviet looters and their fight for equality during the Russian revolution, passionately murdering, stealing and cutting the aristocracy back down to size.
Tickets were purchased, metro was boarded (neither of which would have been possible without our on-site translator) and moments later we were bumbling along in a train beside a lot of Russian commuters. But this wasn’t your average tube ride. To get on the metro, you had to run at the crowds of people and push your way in (a bit like getting onto platform 9 3/4). It was clearly believed that no train was ever full and to assume so would be completely defeatist. But not only that; to stay on the metro, you apparently had to continue your pushing and shoving, and take both to levels unseen in timid little England.
We fell out at our stop and – in a movie-esque way – Tom felt up his pockets and realised he’d been pick-pocketed. His hands had been resting over his pockets and yet, in the commotion of it all, some cunning Russian had grabbed what he’d wanted. The dramatic pushing was clearly some elaborate team pick-pocketing ploy. And it had worked.
So out into the depths of St Petersburg three English people walked, one with a slightly lighter pocket than before.
‘The Russian Smile’