Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The kindness of strangers

HH and I went to Russia in late September. We took a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow and it was more than I ever expected it to be - both the cruise and the experience.

When we returned a friend asked what was the best thing, and I was stumped. There were so many best things so where do you start? The Hermitage, which has been on my bucket list forever? Catherine's Palace? The Kremlin? Red Square with St. Basil's Cathedral? I just couldn't pin down one thing. Then I started processing photos and knew what was the best thing about the entire trip. Bear with me; I'll get there.

On our first full day on the ship we went to the Hermitage; it was one of the package of tours included in the fare. We decided to extract ourselves from the group once we were in the door, though, because I wanted to be free to roam and not be herded. It was marvelous. We wandered at will and had just decided to rejoin the group for the bus trip back when I saw a small placard for a special Vermeer exhibit. Well, don't ask me twice. Also, HH remembered being at the Hermitage years ago and entering a gallery to find Rembrandts set up on easels all over the space. Not fastened to the walls, not secured with motion sensors, just loose on easels. So between the Vermeer and the possibility of finding the Rembrandt room I went to the ticket counter and paid for admission again because we'd exited the turnstile and the admission ticket is good for one entry only. If I remember correctly, it was 600 rubles, less than $10. They really need to charge more.

But first, let's dispense with The Hermitage in general. I always thought it was pronounced Hermitaj, like the Taj Mahal, but it, in fact, is pronounced like the word that indicates a shelter, a refuge. The current building - a greatly truncated version is shown below - is the fourth iteration of the Winter Palace. It eventually became one of the largest and oldest museums in the world under the eclectic collection policies of Catherine the Great, who is said to have initiated her collections based more on quantity than quality.

A very small portion of the line waiting to get in is in the lower right of the photo, three-fourths of which was Chinese tourists.

The place is so huge it's impossible to get all of any one room in a photo. The next photo is a tiny portion of the landing after the first flight of stairs. I thought of how OSHA would go crazy when I saw a housekeeper vacuuming the red carpet on the stairs, trailing the cord willy-nilly, with tourists going up and down, looking everywhere but where they were going.

In no particular order, mostly because I didn't take notes, I present a minuscule percentage of the grandeur of The Hermitage.

Here's a little bit of individual works of art. 

Sleeping Ariadne by Paolo Andrea Triscornia, purchased by the museum in 1798

Psyche in a Faint by Pietro Tenerani, ca 18th-19th century

Carrying the Cross, the Crucifixion, the Lamentation, early 16th century

Normally, paintings are my thing. I love them, especially in the religious art genre. I have some photos of them but a couple of different things really caught my eye this time, one of them being mosaics. These tiles are mere slivers, less than a quarter inch. I've never seen a collection of fine mosaics like these anywhere.

The following mosaic shows a skewed perspective. This is a round tabletop and the artist compensated by making foreground objects lean inward. Brilliant. I couldn't get the whole image, just these two slices.

Beautiful Sky of Italy by Michelangelo Barberi, 1846

Temple in Tivoli by Giacomo Raffaelli, ca 1817

The following five photos are sections of the same tabletop. Again, it was too big, probably three by five feet, to put all in one photo. Unfortunately I don't have the artist's name. Everything you see is mosaic, including the geometric border. It's a masterpiece.

The final mosaic piece here is this column from Italy, 13th century

The most abused art here is wooden inlaid flooring. There are no carpets down in high traffic areas and booties are not required as they are at other museums.  Our guides were disgusted that protective booties are not given out at the entrance. But aren't they exquisite?

Now back to the Vermeer. We asked guard after guard how to find it because the museum is a maze and apparently we're not good mazers. (A note about the guards. In the days HH remembers, women called babushkas guarded the galleries. They were sour, unfriendly people, not prone to help. The guards these days are more approachable; I think we encountered only one who must have been a holdover from the Soviet days.) We finally we found the one Vermeer on exhibit, The Geographer, but what a delight. Because photographs were not allowed, I don't have one, but that's ok. I stood there for the longest time, completely enchanted. HH was not similarly enchanted and was wandering off, looking for the Rembrandts.

There are only 34 paintings firmly attributed to Vermeer, so this one allowed me to see another 3% of his work, in addition to others I've seen elsewhere. How terrifically wonderful, but still not the best thing that happened.

We did find the Rembrandt room and at least to me, it was a disappointment. They weren't on the easels HH remembered but hung traditionally on walls. The gallery was dark except where paintings had sunlight pouring in on them, they were in great need of restoration, and there was even a window open! for ventilation. I didn't take one photo.

Because we missed the bus back to the ship and because that evening we were to attend a performance of Swan Lake nearby (which we would have gotten to via another bus from the ship), we needed to make sure we knew how to get there, so we went to the museum's information desk. Olga was on duty and thankfully speaks fluent English, a good thing because the extent of my Russian vocabulary is da, nyet, spasibo, and dobroye utro (yes, no, thank you, and good morning). Limited, but I was surprised to see how far spasibo got me. When I just looked it up to check the spelling, I realize I'd mistakenly pronounced it with an a at the end the entire time I was in Russia. Maybe that's why the dour Russian look lightened up whenever I said it: maybe spaciba actually means something like, How ya doin', sailor?

Olga spent a lot of time with us, showing us on the map where to walk, what side of the street to walk on, which bridge to cross, and where to turn to get to the theater, and also suggested a couple of places to stop for dinner. Finally she said it was getting close to her quitting time and she would walk us to the restaurant.

We decided on a place called 1001 Nights, with Mediterranean food. Not only did she take us there, with commentary along the way about the buildings we were passing, her education, and her life pre- and post-Soviet rule, she took us inside, spoke with the wait staff who didn't speak any English, and made sure we were settled before she left. We asked her to join us, but the following day was her day off and she wanted to go home, which made the time she took to make sure we didn't get lost even more valuable. I'm always struck by the kindness of strangers.

This is a building we passed; it's the "New Hermitage," the roof held up by 15-foot granite Atlases that date to the mid-1800s.

And here is the charming, cave-like 1001 Nights restaurant in St. Petersburg.

Unbelievably, neither of us remembers exactly what this was. I usually take a photo of the menu but not this time. We think it had rice, walnuts, olives, tomatoes, pomegranate seeds, soft cheese, and we don't know what else. It was pretty and it was good.

We also ordered caviar on toast. I'd never had it before but once again, when in Rome... And I loved it. It tasted like the sea. I'll never forget that first bite.

HH ordered some kind of cake with ice cream,

and I had hot brandied cherries with ice cream.

As we were finishing, the waitress brought a phone to our table and when I took it, Olga was calling from her home. She was concerned that we would be late for the ballet if we walked from the restaurant and wanted us to make sure to get a cab, and to let us know how much we should pay for it. She then spoke with the waitress, who ordered the cab and asked us to stay inside until it came. She would not let us go out until the cabbie called to say he was there.

Here are another two views, this time of the lobby of the restaurant while we were waiting for the cab.

When the call came, the waitress walked us out, put us in the cab, and spoke to the driver. All I could say was spasibo and give her a hug.

This experience, with two people who didn't know us from Adam, who couldn't do anything for them other than to say thank you, who showed us so much kindness... I will never forget this generosity. They are the best things I experienced in Russia in the ten days we were there.


Thought of the day:

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted. ~ Aesop


  1. It does always seem to be the people we remember best! Kindness translates regardless of locale or native tongue. What a delightful memory.

  2. I agree, that's what we remember best, and they can be the most pleasant surprises.

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