St. P #3 – The streets:

One looks at women with a new and different appreciation as one ages.  These streets throng with beautiful women – my favorites are the throwbacks to the 70’s – pointy shoes and big highlighted hair, as the modern versions with exposed bellies and tattoos and cultivated despair don’t emanate the same style, and seem imitations of their Eurotrash neighbors.  And lot sof young men on the make in the brave new sort-of capitalist world.  For sure there are the lumpen shapeless proletariat of both sexes toting heavy net shopping bags, but the city’s energy is upbeat, the predominant soundtrack techno, and a heady feeling of growth fills the spring air.

So is pollution in the air – like the Asian cities that I visited, the air pollution here is an irritating constant – smellable, palpable, sick-making, and humanly unacceptable.  On the one morning I took a walk – through a churchyard of a monastery, complete with beggars and decrepit tombs – one is hit with it as one re-emerges to a street.  Europe is bad, but this is worse.

Scene: Three huge black Chevy Tahoes parked on a side street, with nouveau riches on the sidewalk beside them, the men in black overcoats, the women drenched in furs, clearly working out some money laundering deal, against the background of large Soviet-style apartment blocks – though I never saw anything much worse than London’s council housing here.

One-way streets require us to spiral to and from the hotel and the venue – so we have seen a lot of the city – totally lost most of the time, but who cares?  The broad streets lead over canals, down, then by the river, away again – there are said to be over 300 bridges in the city.   On our first walk I touch the river water – my first touch of the Baltic for over 25 years – very cold and metallic.

Stately buildings everywhere, none very tall (no building was allowed exceed the height of the Winter Palace, but grandiosity spread horizontally very nicely, thank you. Long blocks of colonnades with graceful arches at intervals. One gold spire, thin as a mast, with the angel wind vane, stands as a lookout for the sailors from the old navy yard.  Round gloomy domes, large city squares, a blue-ribbed mosque (the most northern one in the world, I am told), columns and porticos and sculpture on a grand scale – both traditional and the blocky Soviet kind – everywhere.

The second night we board a canal boat, taking off at eight o’clock, but still in sunlight, turning the pastel buildings into Turner paintings, literally ducking under the iron bridges, including the one with four huge bronzes one on each corner, depicting the stages of taming a horse.  Julia is a non-stop tour-guide, but unfortunately I know too few of the references, and the information has rolled on again, not to be recovered for these pages.  But there’s a lot to be said about a city veined with canals, and everything looks different from the water looking back at the land, as in Maine.

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