Sunday, June 17, 2018
Travel

The other St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia

Stuffed into two jackets plus a hat, scarf and two pairs of gloves, I stepped onto the slippery sidewalk outside my hotel in search of this St. Petersburg's Central Avenue.

The plan was simple: to knock on someone's door, show them my driver's license and watch us both laugh knowing that we share an address nine time zones apart. Snap a photo, too, if I remember and if my new tovarish agrees.

The idea came to me from one of Russia's most popular holiday movies, The Irony of Fate. In the 1970s film, a man drunkenly winds up in the wrong city but because of the Soviet Union's drab, repetitive architecture, he thinks he's in his own apartment. Hilarity and love ensue.

I'll get to what I found on Central Avenue in a moment.

It's told as legend, but it's the only story I know and sounds plausible enough: St. Petersburg, Florida, was named after St. Petersburg, Russia, following a coin flip between city founders Peter Demens and John C. Williams.

Demens won and St. Petersburg was born. If Williams had won, I'd be telling this same story about Detroit.

While our city is built around Tampa Bay, the Russian St. Petersburg was founded around Neva Bay.

I arrived via a night train from Moscow — it really sounds much more romantic than it is — and after a quick rest, I headed straight to the Hermitage.

St. Petersburg is a new city by European standards, founded by Czar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century to replace Moscow as the capital of Russia. The Hermitage, a museum that rivals the Louvre in Paris, is actually a series of buildings ringing Palace Square, including the czars' Winter Palace.

It's a labyrinth of a place, and it's easy to get lost.

Let it happen.

I put my map away — all the ones they had were in Korean on my visit anyway — and just wandered through the palace and museum halls. Around one corner, Rembrandt. Tucked away at the top of the museum are rooms filled with works by Picasso, Matisse, van Gogh. Almost hidden out of the way are two paintings of the Virgin Mary by DaVinci.

The rooms are part of the majesty of the Hermitage — the ornate throne rooms (yes, I counted two), the great halls covered in gold leaf and chandelier after chandelier after chandelier.

There's this one thing about Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia.

It's not central at all.

The city, which has about 5 million residents, is connected by five Metro lines. Rides are cheap — about 85 cents — and the crowds are not nearly as intimidating as they are in Moscow, Russia's overflowing capital. Put another way, it's a slight improvement over our downtown looper bus.

Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia, is at the absolute north end of the city's blue line, a place called Parnas. The few Russians I meet have never been there and don't know what's there.

Undeterred, I stick my 27-ruble Metro coin into a slot, walk through the turnstile and glide down the escalator.

I'm proud I have even made it this far, after how I still feel from the night before.

I came to Russia at the end of November as part of a monthlong journalism exchange put together by the U.S. Department of State, the International Center for Journalists and the Moscow Union of Journalists. Twelve American journalists worked in newsrooms in Moscow while 12 Russians worked in the United States. (Two worked at the Miami Herald, for instance.)

In St. Petersburg, which Russians call Petersburg or Peter for short — not St. Pete — I met up with reporter Ryan Maye Handy of the Colorado Springs Gazette, who spent a year living here while in college. She invited me to meet the family she stayed with while in the city.

We brought Champagne and shuffled through ice and snow before hooking into a drab apartment building. We climbed the stairs to the third floor, where we were greeted by Ryan's host mother, a glorious and affectionate woman who spoke little English but has hosted American students for years.

She ushered us into the apartment, a remarkably small flat that couldn't be more than 700 square feet, and pushed us toward the kitchen. The table had been set for five people, and smoked fish and black bread, tomatoes and an empty bowl sprinkled with dill already had been set out.

The American student staying with the family soon joined us, as did the husband of the family, a man in his 70s with puffs of white hair and a low rumbling voice. With my limited Russian, I could understand much of what the wife said. The husband, not a chance. She filled the bowls with borscht, Russia's traditional beet soup, and the cups with Champagne. Not long after, one of their sons, their daughter-in-law and 14-month-old grandson Sascha marched through the door.

Somehow we all squeezed into the kitchen.

She served a Russian version of meatballs — kotletti — next, with a potato puree that didn't quite taste like potatoes. About that time, a second son arrived, and, out of Champagne, we turned to an Estonian liquor, Vana Tallinn.

The conversation mixed between English and Russian, talking about old girlfriends, the weather and work. The two sons ran a loan business where they promised money quickly in exchange for collateral — usually a car or a house.

I asked the brothers if they ask what the money's for.

"We do not care," they said almost in unison. They also own 26 cars now, they said.

The first bottle of Estonian liquor led to a second, followed by pastries and chocolates and tea.

After saying goodbye to the family, son Andrei Shatilov agreed to take Ryan and me out. We started at a place called Gamma bar on Nevsky Prospect — the city's actual central street — where we smoked hookah, had a beer and a whiskey. It's Sunday, so it's slow, Andrei said. So we move to a bar where the "weird people" hang out, he said.

Lomonosov, around the corner, felt like a cross between the Emerald Bar and Mandarin Hide back in Florida's St. Petersburg. The music was good and the mix of people entertaining. A pitcher of Jameson and Coke (why you would mix the two, I don't know) cost about $20, and people danced on the table that divided the main room of the bar.

Two, or three, or maybe four pitchers later, it's 4 a.m.

(An important note: Except in the winter, the city raises its bridges overnight for boats to pass, and the Metros stop running shortly after midnight. That means you need to be on your island, or you can get stuck. For me it was winter and the rivers were near-frozen, so that wasn't a problem.)

I slid out of the bar and started for the hotel. But I got lost and didn't wind up in the lobby until after 6 a.m. The hotel receptionist asked if I wanted eggs, sausage or something else for breakfast. I mumbled something and headed for my room.

The metro is lunging due north, past stations named Pionerskaya and Ozerki. The crowd has substantially thinned by the time the doors open at Parnas station.

I walk out of the station into a small parking lot ringed with a few stores. Across a major road, a series of new high-rise apartments is rising from the ground.

I need to head to the right, or east, to reach Central Avenue. I start walking and quickly realize the sidewalk is gone, replaced by a well-worn path cut through the snow.

To the right is a series of smokestacks. To the left, a rundown cafeteria in a building chipping away to oblivion.

I have to walk across a series of wooden pallets to continue. I hear them creak and crack, and move a little quicker.

Central Avenue should be right across the street now.

It's a dirt road, I think. Or at the least it's not much of a road, covered in slush and bordered by snow piles. Men are walking down the middle in thick blue work pants and jackets. Their faces are dirty, and they're carrying lunch buckets.

It's at this point I'm certain my The Irony of Fate story is not going to end in hilarity or love.

Severely out of place, I give the road a quick once-over, pivot 180 degrees and start the 10-minute walk to the metro station.

All the way from Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In my haste, I forgot to take a picture.

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at [email protected]

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