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October 23, 2016
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A trip to Russia: Part 1

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

[Recently, Milanville, PA resident Sheila Dugan and Narrowsburg, NY resident Vera Williams took a trip to Russia. This week we print excerpts from Dugan’s extensive journal on the trip; next week we will print Williams’ account.]

Moscow, December 31, 2011

It is New Year’s Eve in Moscow. Yesterday, I gave Trevor some spending money for the party they are putting together tonight. Everyone here is celebrating, and they have been celebrating for days. Trevor and his friend Drusha (both sober, by the way) met Vera and me at the mall (what else), where we thought we would get some food, but the lines were unbelievable! All I wanted were some tangerines, so we may go back tomorrow before the partiers get up and try again.

We arrived at the hotel Thursday night around 9:45. Trevor was waiting for us, grinning. Thank God he was there, because he was able to translate for us. Nobody speaks English! We are learning Russian fast! We walked around for a while looking for some food and perhaps a bottle of vodka. A small kiosk that sold only beer and potato chips was open, but nothing else. Our hotel is about three quarters of a mile from the university, which is quite a ways out of the city. There are no deli-type stores around, no place to get snacks—nothing like that.

By now it was around 11 p.m. Russian time and Vera and I were getting hungry, so we braved a glitzy-looking, noisy restaurant next to the hotel and went in. A very young waiter named Kolya who could speak a little English was assigned to us.

We ordered meat pies and cabbage soup and vodka and tea. A fight broke out, and a young man was thrown to the ground near our table. A bouncer in an official-looking uniform came over and threw the perpetrator out. Friends helped the young man up and things began to quiet down. People began leaving and, aside from the extremely loud American and British music, the restaurant became bearable. Then it became more than bearable—it was charming! And they were charmed with us. As we got up to leave a young man took Vera’s hands and danced with her. Tired at last, we went upstairs and went to bed.

Moscow, Tuesday January 3, 2012

Zdrast vuytye! Woke Tuesday morning at 4 to the grating sound of snow plows plowing the snowflakes off the already plowed street. It was the first really cold, raw day, but we decided to set forth in hunt of a tourist kiosk or some place where an English-speaking person might give us a rundown on what concerts were playing and where.

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!”

Although we had hopes of finding the old section of Novgorod quainter and more reminiscent of our impressions of old Russia, we were impressed by the centuries-old buildings that were still standing. “My father must have been in this building,” Vera would say. We had a nice dinner in a sedate cafe and the maitre d’ called a taxi and we rushed off to the bus station for another three and a half-hour ride home.