) and the glimpse they gave me of real life for real Russians. And after spending my first night in an airless, cramped dorm in a noisy backpacker hostel, with just two toilets between twenty-six people, it was absolute luxury to have a sofa bed in a room to myself!
I spent my second and third nights with Lyubomir and Olga in their flat in a northern suburb of the city, a total contrast to the centre, with functional housing blocks replacing the classical palace architecture. They were wonderful company: Lyubomir has a great sense of humour and is an oracle of information about the history of the city, which he shared on a walking tour near the north shore of the river, pointing out a striking monument to the people who died in the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, consisting of a skeletal figure on a rooftop in the beam of a searchlight, watching for falling bombs - I knew nothing of the siege so it was all very educational, as was
the stop by the battleship Aurora, whose three funnels, searchlight and canon are one of the main symbols of the revolution, an event which began when a shot from the canon gave the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace. More poignant was the simple monument in a nearby park, dedicated to those who died as a result of 'communist terror', represented by a large chunk of rock, brought here from a northern island to which many of these victims were sent. Perhaps my favourite halt on our sightseeing walk, though,
was the log cabin which was the first residence of Tsar Peter the Great, and the amusing details I gleaned about this character - for example, because lying flat was deemed unhealthy, causing blood to rush to the head, Peter liked to sleep in a wardrobe to maintain his head upright... and at 2.4 metres, practically a giant in those days, this was no mean feat! He was also an excessive drinker and fomred his own hierarchy of drunkards, with titles such as 'The Archbishop of Beer' - could've been a job for you there, Mick, you were just born in the wrong century!
Olga is a superb cook and as a result I was able to sample home made borscht with dark bread, and, when my love of potatoes was discovered,to be spoiled at breakfast time with extremely tasty potato pancakes and sour cream. My offer to cook on my second night resulted in a hilarious trip to the local supermarket where I managed to locate the ingredients for lentil stew... I thought... those were courgettes weren't they?... or maybe they were cucumbers... or marrows? Whatever they were I couldn't figure out how the weighing and labelling system functioned, when trying to bag them, and drew plenty of attention to myself in the busy queue by trying to elicit help via sign language.
Having grown up in a town in the far north,Olga was able to show me photos of the extreme winter and tell me tales of days when school was off the agenda as the snowfall in the night had risen higher than the top of the front door! She also talked me through some pictures from their recent mountaineerng trip in the Caucasus - they really are
quite a couple! Olga's knowledge of Russian art and history proved invaluable when she accompanied me around the Russian State Museum, where she filled in many of the gaps, putting the faces in context and explaining the background to lots of the historical and cultural details in the paintings. I effectively had my own private tour guides for a couple of days and this added immeasurably to my experience.
Local knowledge prevailed also, when they were able to show me how to recognise the Russian equivalent of 'Spud-u'Like' for my lunch stops! So Russian cuisine isn't all
just salted herrings and pickled cucumber, after all!
This dynamic, outdoorsy couple were off on a canoeing trip for the weekend and so I had expected to land back in at the hostel, but instead, Lubomir recruited his colleague Irina and her boyfriend Sasha, as hosts for the Friday night, down at the opposite end of the metro line, and again I was fed and given a sofa bed, as well as participating in fascinating conversation about changes to life in the past few years, the economic situation, generational differences etc. It was such a bonus to be able to sit and ask unlimited questions
about Russian life of people who were so well informed by personal experience. Unfortunately Irina wasn't feeling well on Saturday and so was not able to join me on my boat trip around the canals - as well as being good company, I would have appreciated her interpreting skills as the commentary was all in Russian, so I had no idea what I was looking at! But, feeling better that evening, she and Sasha insisted on escorting me on the metro to the train station and settling me in my berth for the night journey to Moscow, before saying goodbye.
I hope that, when I am finally settled in Aus, I will be able to return the kind hospitality I was shown by my new friends...
Without a doubt, the most interesting aspect of my stay in St Petersburg has been the people I encoutered through couchsurfing (