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December 03, 2016
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A trip to Russia: Part 1

Breakfast at the Rachmaninov Hotel in St. Petersburg was sumptuous.

We came upon a concert hall and a couple who decided they couldn’t use their tickets came up to us and asked if we wanted to buy two tickets to a concert of multi-variations of Ave Maria. Vera decidedly did not, but did not appreciate my amusement at the thought of listening to 10 piano-bar musicians satisfying a slurry request: “Hey! Can you play Ave Maria! My mother loved Ave Maria!”

OK. OK. So it probably would have not been an appeasement to lounge lizards; indeed it might have been beautiful, but neither of us was in the mood for it. So we walked and walked, wishing with each step that we had made pre-arrangements with an in-city, English-speaking guided tour.

St. Petersburg, Saturday, January 7

Yes-s-s! In contrast to Moscow, a lively city full of everything New York is and then some, teeming with people crowding into the most beautiful and efficient metro system in the world, pushing and shoving its way into the modern world, startling people with its buskers and hustlers and bustlers and fist-fighters, St. Petersburg strolls its way calmly into the 21st century.

In contrast to Hotel Universititskaya, a bare-necessities hotel geared to visiting students who speak Russian, eat knockwurst, onions and kasha for breakfast, and don’t mind taking cold showers, Antique Hotel Rachmaninov is an old-fashioned tea-room-type hotel geared to artists and writers. Vera is in seventh heaven. The three-flight walk-up doesn’t faze her.

We arrived here around 7:30 a.m. and, although we aren’t even supposed to be checked in until noon, they served us breakfast and, when I told Anastasia, the young woman who had lugged our bags up to the third floor, that Vera was a children’s book writer and illustrator and that she had some books with her, she cried, “I want to read your book!”

Tomorrow we will find out about a day tour to Novgorod, where Vera’s father was born and raised until he was about 16. It is supposed to be one of the oldest towns in Russia. Shchasilivil Razhdestvo (Happy Christmas).

Novgorod, Monday, January 9

We took a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride to Novgorod where Vera’s father lived until he was about 16. There was no way of discovering where he had lived, but Vera remembered him saying he skated on the frozen river, so, after a visit to the Novgorod Kremlin, within whose wall was the basilica of St. Sofia, we walked across a bridge over the not-quite frozen river. Vera was suddenly stricken with something akin to nostalgia and said, “Now I know why I came to Russia!”