St. Petersburg, Part 1

(Did you know we leave this beautiful place in a little less than TWO WEEKS? My heart is breaking.)

Ah, St. Petersburg! What to say?

When Tim first described St. Petersburg to me waaaaaay back when we were first dating, he called it "the Venice of Russia." At the time, I had a hard time believing that anything in Russia could look like Venice.  I was just a typical American, thinking typical stereotypical thoughts about Russia: it's always cold, people wear fur hats, no one ever smiles, the language sounds mean and harsh, everyone is in the was a different (scary) universe to me.  Without having experienced Russia, it was hard to imagine what it would be like.

But last summer, I fell in love with Russia.  I fell in love with St. Petersburg (which, as it turns out, does look like Venice), with Moscow, with the people, with the culture, the churches, the vast green farmland and vibrant sky.

And so, Tim and I returned for a weekend trip to St. Petersburg. We only had a couple of days, but we tried to make the most of it.  We stayed with Alexandr (Sasha for short) and Marina, who are Max's parents.  Max and Tim met in 2004, on the first day of Tim's mission in Russia.  Needless to say, they are man-besties and they go way back.

Someday, I will tell you more about this beautiful family, and how they helped me survive kidney stones (and much more) in Russia. But today is not that day. All you need to know is that they are sweet, nurturing, caring people, and that Russians in general are excellent hosts.  You'll see what I mean.

To start with, they greeted us right off of the train platform with a small bouquet of beautiful flowers. For us. Their guests!  We also got big hugs and multiple kisses on the cheek to welcome us to St. Petersburg.

They live in a small city right outside St. Petersburg called Tosna, so it took them about an hour's drive to meet us, and then they happily turned right around and drove us an hour back to their apartment.  Tim spent most of the drive home catching up and translating between Marina, Sasha, and me (I speak very little Russian and they speak very little English).

Once we got back to their apartment, Marina started making dinner.

Something that surprised me on our last visit about Russian hospitality: they will not let you lift a finger to help.  To them, it would be incredibly inconsiderate if I had to help--it would mean that I wasn't truly their guest. It felt incredibly weird at first, like I was just being lazy.  But nevertheless, Tim and I unpacked and relaxed while Marina finished dinner and Sasha set the table.

Another culturally Russian tradition: you always bring gifts.  It doesn't have to be something huge, but you just always do. Over dinner, we presented our gifts we had brought: a cowboy belt and buckle we bought in Nashville, one each for Sasha and Max; dinner napkins made by yours truly for Marina; and a beautiful scarf and earrings for Max's fiancé, Laetitia.  Tim and I also had them pick out a church painting, one for them and one for Max and Laetitia. They loved it all.

The next morning, they took us to a beautiful park that used to be one of the old Emperor's summer palaces.  There was a rose festival going on that day, so there were gorgeous flowers everywhere.

St. Petersburg is much more European than Moscow.  It's tied into the very history of St. Petersburg.  It is named after Peter the Great, who, after a trip to Europe, decided that Russians needed to become a lot more European.  Thus, everything in St. Petersburg is Russified European.  It was a big contrast after the medieval icons and churches of Moscow.

You can see the European influence everywhere you look, and this park was no different.  The palace, the performers, everything.

Marina and I, under an archway of roses. She is pretty much my fave.

Okay, so do you want to know what this cool thing is?

It's from way back in the Soviet times.  It's basically a vending machine for sparkling mineral water.  Back in the day, you'd put in 50 kopeks (that's about 1/60 of a cent, today) and choose a flavor, and the machine would give you a little cup of your chosen flavor.  Marina helped me get mine.

You can see the black cup in the center, getting filled up.  It was so cool! The soda itself really was not that great--it wasn't very sweet.  But it was nifty!

Marina said that back in the day, they would just have one cup to the side, next to a sink with some soap. After you drank yours, you would wash the cup and leave it for the next person.  It never got stolen or lost, it just always stayed right by the machine.

I cannot get over how beautiful this park was.  I kept turning to Tim and saying, "Can we just live here already?" This is my new wish--to have a house right in the middle of somewhere that looks like that.

Seriously, the Russian countryside is a thing of beauty.  While walking around in the park, I realized that no matter how much I have grown to enjoy living in cities, my heart will always yearn for the unbridled freedom of walking in nature barefoot, smelling hay and grass and feeling the sun on your cheeks. It made me realize that I had missed that part of my soul. 

I thought a lot about my childhood, growing up on the edge of a national forest in Idaho. I could go anywhere I wanted. I had a favorite spot on the hill behind our house, in a huge pine tree where you could overlook almost the entire valley on one side, or the beginning of the steep hills of the National Forest on the other side.  I understand now that I will always, always need that in my life, no matter where I live. 

Okay. Sorry.  I digress.  The point is, Russia is beautiful.

We even got to pose with some people of the court! How exciting! 

My guy was a ham.  He held my hand the entire time, and we did like three different poses together.  He even had me sit on his lap and pose.  What a riot.

Feeding the squirrels!

What did we feed them? Nutlets, naturally.

I love bad Russian translations.  

It was soooo cute.  They would come right up to your hand and sniff at the nutlets (I will pretty much be calling them that forever's way more fun than saying nuts), and then put their tiny little paw on your fingers and snatch one up.

Then they would literally go two feet, bury the nutlet, and come right back for another one to bury.  

Adorbzz!! I need a squirrel! Or a dog! Or a baby! Something to cuddle!!

More wanderings around the park.  These stone gates were over 200 years old.

Horse-drawn carriage rides!

Another part of the rose festival: the rose chair.  They had a building with hundreds and hundreds of different roses.  There was a line to sit in the rose chair, but it was too long so we didn't wait.

Beautiful Marina, stopping to smell the roses!

You know, roses are so overused.  They are the standard, go-to flower for everything.  Sometimes I get sick of them. 

But then--you stop and actually look at a rose, and marvel at its beauty and symmetry and awesomeness, and then you remember that there is a reason why it is the go-to flower.  They had every color rose imaginable: white, red, pink, orange, yellow--even green, which I've never seen before!

I'm so in love with this guy. I don't care if you think it's mushy, I must tell you how much I love him.  He is just the sweetest.

Also: do you know what the best part is? I don't love him because we haven't had any problems, I love him because we have made it through so many problems, together. 

Also because he's adorable. 

This is a house that's right across from the park.  Another one of my important life realizations: I must have a house that looks like a Russian dacha.  I already told Tim, and he put it on the list. You know, the "Things That Dani Absolutely MUST Have But We Probably Can't Afford" List. 

Russian houses are just beautiful.  Most of them use this beautiful herringbone pattern for the wooden paneling, and they usually have white woodwork trim around the windows.

I have seen so many stunningly beautiful cottages over here, but sadly, most of them are when I'm flying by in a train or car and I can't get a good enough picture.  So I suppose these two will have to do!

Aren't they adorable?

So that was day one of our adventures in St. Petersburg, which the locals call just Петербург (Peterburg, for those of you uneducated in the Cyrillic alphabet).

I am going to post the next day's adventures soooon, and there are so many pretty pictures ahead.  

Not to mention, I have to tell you about my close encounters with about 100 Russian police officers, so stay tuned for that. It's fun. (Well, as fun as a close encounter with lots of Russian police officers can be, that is.)