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The “Song of the Princess”

IMG_7832On our way out to the Adachi Museum of Art in the Tottori Prefecture, our guide began talking about how the founder had made his money in the building industry, progressing to the most auspicious manner in which to situate a house; she said that homeowners often consult a fortune-teller before building.  From there she explained that bathrooms are always built on the north or west sides of the house.

Then the fun began.

Apparently, a number of years ago, unsettling numbers of elderly people would go to the bathroom at night, especially during the winter, and die there.  This was a great source of horror and puzzlement to the Japanese, since in America, Canada and France (among other places) this did not happen.  So engineers were sent out worldwide to search for possible solutions.

When they returned with their findings, there was some confusion in that while France had bidets, the U.S. and Canada did not, and in all of those countries, elderly people did not die in such great numbers, bidets notwithstanding. Eventually, it was determined that the toilet seats needed to be heated in order to keep older people from dying in the bathrooms. This was done, and the seat’s heat level cannot be changed.

However, it is not proper that Japanese women be heard making any sort of sound during their visits to the bathroom, so an option was added to the toilet called “flushing sound”, which does not actually flush the toilet but makes the correct sounds.  Some of the toilets also play a song rather than making the water-running sound; this is known as “The Song of the Princess”.

Some years later, it was found that the men working on their feet for eight hours as employees of large manufacturing companies (Toyota, for instance) developed painful hemorrhoids.  The toilet engineers went back to work.  They developed an additional function to the toilet where water could be sprayed in such a fashion as to alleviate the suffering.  However, the water needed to be the correct temperature, necessitating a great deal of testing.

Now Japanese bathrooms feature an almost intimidating array of choices on a panel set into the wall next to the toilet, ranging from services such as bidet to light spray and full spray, including, of course, the “song of the princess.”

On the way back from the art museum, Mom asked our guide why we hadn’t seen many dogs and cats in Japan.  The answer was that dogs are walked at certain times of the day, morning and evening, then kept in kennels; they are not allowed to roam at will under any circumstances.

From there, we progressed to dog names.  She said that once the Westerners came, many of their dogs had names that sounded like “Spotty” to Japanese ears.  This, pronounced with her charming accent, sounded suspiciously like “potty”, setting us all off again.  The crowning moment came when she mentioned that the newest and most favorite Japanese dog name was “John”.

She looked around at the convulsed passengers and asked, “Why are you all laughing?”


A Walking Tour of Moscow

Iconic St. BasilSome places here in Moscow are just easier to reach on foot.  For today we dispensed with the bus and set off, our first stop the Kremlin.

As it was a Saturday, the streets were crowded, even more so once we reached a long park-like area in front of the Kremlin.  Somewhere a loudspeaker shouted in Russian, so Anna explained that it was a children’s Christmas party, where the parents dropped off their children and the youngsters were treated to films, and other entertainments and at the end given a gift to take home with them.  The party began outside the walls and ended inside.

There was a long line to get into the Kremlin, and as we stood there in meek, properly polite American style, many of the Russians clearly felt that lines were just like other rules, to be ignored.  One of the things we had noticed during our travels was this utter indifference to rules, whether it be parking, going though security scanners (the only exception being boarding the train in St. Petersburg, and even then we did not have to remove watches or belts) or lines.  Not, mind you, that it mattered, since we were all getting in at some point, right?  All the same, though, it was annoying.  The security at the Kremlin, manned by young and very stern-faced officers, required us to set our handbags in a tray whilst passing through the scanner.  Anna warned us not to make fun or joke on our way through.  Somehow I ended up being the first of us to reach the security checkpoint, and, very intimidated, pointed to my watch in a mute request to ask if I needed to take it off.  The officer flung out a hand as I began to remove my handbag to put it on the tray and snapped, “Go!  Go!”  I went.

I’m not certain if the interior of the Kremlin is, at first glance, disconcerting because of the years of stories we heard about it or if it’s because there is an aura of secrets kept and held throughout long centuries and to the present day; this place is still the Russian seat of power; even after Peter the Great moved the capital to St. Petersburg the tsars were all crowned in Moscow.  It was not until 1955 that the public was allowed in to visit the museums and cathedrals.  Our group was subdued as we walked across a wide snow-covered expanse of brick roadway to look across the river.  Even Anna’s voice, on the headset, was softer.

Our first stop was in a square with a number of Orthodox cathedrals.  Between the Revolution and the Soviet era these were turned into museums.  Although most are still museums, one or two have resumed their original function.  The Assumption Cathedral, its foundations laid in 1326, is one of those in which services are now held; the men were required to remove their hats and it was suggested that the women cover their heads (most of us had scarves anyhow, so it was easy to comply).  The next cathedral, the Archangel’s Cathedral dates its foundations to 1333, although the present-day building was not constructed until 1505 and 1508.  Our final cathedral was the Annunciation Cathedral, once reserved for the Tsars, and a bridge spanned the distance between the Kremlin and cathedral.  It no longer exists.

In the square was the most enormous Christmas tree I had ever seen, and Anna told us that once the children had finished with their party, they walked around and around the tree until a parent or guardian collected them; she said that in over 40 years of this they had never lost a child.  Our tour was a little complicated by the need to see things and also dodge the huge crowds.  We passed through a guarded gate and into a sort of plaza, on the other side of which is the Kremlin Military School.  Nonchalantly swinging long white batons, uniformed officers patrolled that plaza, blowing warning blasts on whistles if anyone dared step off the pathway.  We saw the world’s largest cannon (the Tsar Cannon), which had been created in 1568, only fired once and then never used, since it was too heavy to use in actual battle.  On the way down to The Armoury, we passed the world’s largest bell (the Tsar Bell), which had never been used because when it was cast in 1735 it remained in the moulding pit and in 1737 a fire broke out in the pit.  In an attempt to put out the fire, cold water fell on the bell, causing it not only to crack but an 11.5 ton piece fell off (the bell itself weighs 202 tons).

Saving the best for last, we joined the line for the Armoury Chamber.  Here, once again, we encountered the Russian disregard for lines; as we reached the door a young man inserted himself into our group, a real problem because our entry tickets were for a specific time and a specific number of entrants.  At the door, one of the attendants counted us, but I suppose it could be considered obnoxious when she started to count the young man and I said he wasn’t a part of our group.  Unleashing a torrent of Russian, she pushed him back through the doorway and gestured the rest of us inside.  And interestingly enough, he just stood outside with a big grin on his face.  It was weird.

The Armoury Chamber is an astonishing treasure house containing such items as the diplomatic gifts from visiting dignitaries over the centuries, ancient state regalia (they even have a pair of Peter the Great’s jackboots, which he himself made — and they are enormous.  I’d estimate they are as tall as I), including coronation clothing.  There is one vast room devoted to horse-drawn carriages and sledges, preceded by ceremonial horse harness modeled by actual taxidermy-preserved horses.

Even hurrying, this entire process took almost four hours, and we were ready for lunch.  Red Square had been turned into one giant street fair for the holidays, with booths and music and throngs of excited people; it was with difficulty (and due to the vigilance of Anne and McKenna!) that we managed to emerge with our group intact in front of the Goudenov Restaurant.  This was another traditional Russian meal in a domed room, served quickly and efficiently by a staff garbed in traditional costumes; there was very little time between courses.

After lunch came the visit to St. Basil’s Cathedral.  Some of us preferred not to take the shortcut through the state historical department store but instead enjoyed the chilly air to meet the others in front of the cathedral.  Snow fell lightly, even as it had done since we embarked on our journey, punctuated by the sounds and music from the carnival.

This cathedral actually consists of 10 chapels and was originally commissioned by Ivan the Terrible (we were told that the Russian word is actually closer to “fearsome”) to mark the capture of Kazan from the Mongol hordes in 1552.  Completed in 1560, it is now a museum, although a yearly service is held on the Day of Intercession in October.  During restoration work in the 1970s a wooden staircase was discovered in the walls and it’s now used to gain access to the very center of the cathedral.  The spiraling stairs are not for the faint of heart, being at least a foot or more in height, with no railing, but it’s worth the climb.  At the top, we were met by a group of four men who performed a rich and resoundingly beautiful a capella piece that amply demonstrated the excellent acoustics (yes, they were selling their CDs and yes, I bought them).

With time running out, we gathered on one of the porches and decided to go ahead and take the subway tour of the Soviet-era train stations.  Begun in the 1930s, this was the USSR’s largest civilian construction project, with a mind-bending blend of Baroque, Classicism, and Soviet Realism, among others.  The hallway between each train platform is elaborate, with mosaics, stained glass, marble, bas-reliefs, bronze statues and each station is different.  Talk about extraordinary!  It was very much a fabulous ending to a day filled with marvels.

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Moscow, Day 1

Locks on Wedding Ring BridgeSome days are just a blur.  Hopefully no one will hold it against me if I have trouble recounting this one in a meaningful and worthy fashion.

We met Anna at 9:00 A.M. in the hotel lobby for a bus tour of Moscow.  It was dark, but of course that’s normal for this time of year.  The fairyland of lights we’d seen from the 12th floor of the hotel turned out to be Red Square, the Kremlin and a number of busy streets with stores “decked in holiday style”.

The Moscow River meanders through the heart of the city, crossed by innumerable bridges.  Many of the streets are one-way only, so to reach one going the way you want to go, you end up going blocks out of your way (a bit like San Francisco, only much more complicated) and even crossing bridges once or twice.

Our first photo stop was across the river from the Kremlin (more on that in the next post), where blocks of ice floated down the river and created a mosaic of reflections with the fortress.  Originally the Kremlin walls were whitewashed, but after the Revolution the whitewash was not renewed, mostly in order for the red color to enhance the message of solidarity.

From there we drove in circuitous fashion to the 16th century convent of Novodevichy, encircled by high walls.  Founded in 1524 by Tsar Vasily III, it more resembles a fortress than a convent, with 20 towers around its perimeters.  Because of the prestigious founder, many high-born women “took the veil” and lived there.  It was, however, also used as a prison, some of the more notable prisoners being Peter the Great’s half-sister and first wife.  It is also the burial place for many of Russia’s authors, playwrights, poets, actors, political figures and scientists, among whom are Chekhov, Khrushchev, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, to name a few (more than 27,000 are entombed within the walls).  As the bus pulled up to the curb, it began to snow heavily, with large flakes drifting lazily down from the leaden sky.  Anna asked if we still wanted to get out of the bus to take photos and received a unanimous affirmative.

It was enchanting, crossing the snowy park, a true winter wonderland with snowflakes that truly did stay on one’s “nose and eyelashes”.  A number of Moscovites walked their dogs, one spaniel clad not only in what resembled green pajamas but little boots as well, a red ball carried in its mouth.  Nor was it a bitter cold.  We were all reluctant to get back on the bus.

One of the many things we saw was a giant ship sculpture with a figure on it that was originally commissioned by a country in South America (I don’t remember which one, sorry) to commemorate Christopher Columbus.  When the sculpture was nearly finished, the country changed its mind so the sculptor very cleverly changed the figure to resemble Peter the Great and presented it to Moscow.

Our next stop was on the hill in front of the very prestigious Moscow State University, with a view all across the city, and of the 1980 Summer Olympics Complex (which, if you remember your history, the U.S. and 64 other countries boycotted in protest against the Soviet war in Afghanistan).  These Olympics were also the first held in any of the eastern bloc of countries.

The final stop before lunch was at the Tretyakov Gallery.  Pavel Tretyakov came from an ancient but not particularly wealthy line of merchants, and began dabbling in art collection, though without the financial resources to purchase the works of the more popular artists.  As his wealth increased, he set down the rule that “money should serve better purposes than just be wasted for everyday needs”, that “living conditions should never allow a person to live idle”.  He worked hard during his life and what time he took was with his family, a large and by all accounts loving group.  He also worried about what would happen to his collection after his death, fearing that succeeding generations would sell off the art he had so carefully collected, and managed to donate it to the city of Moscow during a time when the city was actually open to such donations.  This was another fabulous collection of Russian artists little known to the western world at the time but now even more valuable.

On the way back to meet our bus, we crossed the “love locks” bridge (see photo).  This is a fairly new tradition, wherein a bride and groom will purchase a lock, decorate it, take it to this bridge across the Vodootvodny Canal and attach it to one of the iron “trees” marching across the center.  They then have their photo taken whilst throwing the key into the canal.  The railings at the sides of the bridge are a stylized, interlocking pattern of wedding rings.  As the trees fill up, they are moved to one side of the canal and replaced with empty ones (as a matter of fact when traveling in Paris during the summer of 2011, we came across this lock mystery, which is now explained).  One of the locks was almost as large as I!

Lunch at the Turandot Restaurant was amazing, not only because of the food (we all agreed that this was the best borscht we had ever eaten), but because of the setting.  The site originally belonged to a minor scion of the nobility and did not fare well during the Revolution or World War II.  It was eventually purchased and restored at someone’s great personal expense, for the circular interior was a masterpiece of columns and ironwork and gold leaf.

We finished our city tour in time to return to the hotel; some of my fellow travelers had secured tickets to “The Nutcracker” at the Bolshoi.  Not I, I must confess, the tickets were over $450 U.S.!  I opted instead for a quiet evening and a couple of glasses of wine at the bar.


St. Petersburg to Moscow

P1060089Today was a travel day.  Larissa escorted those of us who were to continue the Russian adventure (by heading down to Moscow) from the hotel to the train station.  We felt as if we were parting from a family member when at last she left us well settled on the train.  She herself said she needed to leave or she would start crying.

This train is a new, high-speed service between St. Petersburg and Moscow; rather than an all day or all night trip, one arrives in around 4 hours.

Our new guide, Anna (AH-nah) met us at the Moscow train station, where it was definitely colder than in St. Petersburg … no more marine benefit, maybe?  Anna introduced us to Moscow as we drove to our new hotel.  The city was founded mid 12th century.  The word “kremlin” means fort, and the first kremlin was founded on a hill above the city.  Kremlins were rebuilt as invasions and fires forced first defense then, in times of peace, expansion.  Due to this, the entire inner and historical center of Moscow is now a series of ring roads.

At the hotel we were greeted in traditional Russian fashion, with tiny glasses of vodka and an elaborate bread loaf with a small reservoir of salt in the center.  One breaks off a piece of bread, dips it in the salt and eats it to symbolize friendship.

The hotel itself is a marvel of technology and comfort.  One of my fellow travelers leaned over during our check in and whispered, “How did they let us in here?”  Yes, it’s that elegant and … well … fancy.  I arrived at my room and opened the door to be greeted with a touchpad rather than a light switch.  One taps the symbol in the center to turn on the lights.  There are also, as I eventually discovered, icons for housekeeping service and “Do not Disturb”, both of which turn on lights outside the door: red for “Do not Disturb” and yellow for “Housekeeping”.

Of course, one of the first things I managed to do was to break the curtains.  As it was dark, I wanted to close them.  I tugged on the left side and nothing happened.  I looked for that old fashioned string-and-pulley thing behind each side.  Nothing.  Okay, some hotels have those little rods one catches hold of and drags to close the curtains.  Nothing.  So I tugged on the right side.  The curtains jumped off the rod and started sagging.  Horrified, I was looking around for something to stand on so as to fix them when my doorbell (doorbell, yes, apparently this place doesn’t run to such plebian things as rapping one’s knuckles against the entry panel) sounded.  Another fancy amenity … bed turn-down service.  I pointed to the curtains and apologized.  The young woman went over to the control panel set into one of the drawers in the bedside stand (yes, there is one on each side of the bed, and it’s the same as by the entry door) and pushed a button.  The curtains began to close.  Well, okay, the left side began to close.  I apologized again, feeling very stupid.  She said something in Russian, went over and pulled the right side across and took her leave before I could further apologize.

Our dinner was at the hotel on the 12th floor.  I knew I’d better come clean about my faux pas, so as soon as one of our two amazing escorts came along I pulled her aside and explained.  Fortunately, she was a lot calmer about it than I, and promised to let me know if there were any damages filed.  Whew (I hope).

I had no desire to share the fact that it was my birthday.  Anne and McKenna knew, and also (being awesome people) had promised they wouldn’t make it public.  (In fact, Anne sneaked me a completely unexpected gift as we sat down, a wholly wonderful and necessary Stanford scarf with a darling card.)

The hotel, however, having discovered that fact from my passport during check-in, had different ideas.  No sooner had we been served dessert than the entire staff of the restaurant showed up with an exquisitely beautiful tiny cake (see photo at top).  They sang “Happy Birthday” in English, gave me a bag with a card and gift in it that turned out to be a stuffed version of the hotel logo, a lion (which we immediately christened “Carlton”) and then sang “Happy Birthday” in Russian.  I think I liked it better in Russian.


Russian Museum & Yusupov Palace

Bathing a Horse, 1905Here I am, my last full day in St. Petersburg, and it seems as if I’ve just arrived.  This has been an unbelievable whirlwind of a tour, with a group of people I liked more and more as we all got to know one another.

We had our last lecture, as always fascinating not only by the quality of the subject but by the sheer ability of our lecturer to share that information in a clever and succinct style.

The morning’s excursion was to the Russian Art Museum, another vast and beautiful palace near the Mariinsky Theatre.  Although it had rained all night (not snowed, darn it!) and continued to do so, the sidewalks were very slippery, and most of us performed a sort of cautious step, slide and windmilling arms dance up to the entrance.  I learned that bare sidewalk and slush are perfectly safe to walk on but nothing else is, unless you can see there’s been salt applied, and even then it’s no guarantee.  The walk was punctuated by shouts of “Whoa!” “Aaaaah!” and “Are you all right?” with quick hands flying out to steady the skidding person.

As it is school holidays, the museum was very busy.  We turned over our coats and struggled up the stairs, trying to stay together.  From the outset, the travel/study program had provided very excellent headsets with wireless receivers so that we could hear our guide clearly, and we learned to keep up with her, since if we didn’t, the transmission cut out and failed.

The tour began with the icons, some from the 12th century.  Larissa explained that icons were always painted without dimension, because they were meant to be a sort of veil between the holy spiritual world and the secular world.

Beautifully laid out, the museum traces the history of Russian art, all clearly labeled in Russian (Cyrillic, not Latin) and English.  As always seemed to be the case, we had an immense amount of art to cover and very little time to do so.  We progressed from icons all the way through Russian impressionists, to modern art (I guess I’m old-fashioned, but a black circle on a field of white is not fascinating nor … dare I say … something I consider “art”).  We ended at the period of Soviet art, most of which was well done and evocative of the era; one, entitled “Queue”, showed a line of women, with some men, standing in a line that went off out of sight.

After, there were three options.  Some of us wanted to continue shopping, some to eat and a few wanted to go back to the hotel and rest before the final excursion.  I, of course, elected to shop.

Getting from the museum to the shop took us through a small park (yes, it was still raining) with the same hazardous icy conditions.  Inside the shop was nice and warm, too warm, as always.  Eventually others from our group straggled in and wandered around.  I acquired a few more souvenirs and decided to take a walk to cool off.  The fresh air felt good and the precipitation wavered between rain and large fat snowflakes.  Halfway down the sidewalk I realized I might not have made the best choice of exercise, because not only was it just as slippery but I now had several bags of souvenirs, some of which would not take kindly to crashing down with me.  I turned back, slipping, sliding and sloshing through puddles at intersections.

Our final stop was Yusupov Palace, a place that has gone down in infamy thanks to the fact that it was the site of Rasputin’s murder in 1916.  The Yusupov family allegedly descended from the 10th century Tatars and originally followed the Islamic faith.  Some centuries later, they converted to the Russian Orthodox faith and legend has it that they were then cursed by this decision, so that only one child of each generation would survive to produce the next generation.  And so it has proved to this day.  Yet each year they became wealthier and wealthier, so that by the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were arguable the wealthiest family in Russia.

In 1916 Felix Yusupov, the only surviving heir (his older brother had died in a duel at age 26) bought his place in history for his part in the assassination of Rasputin.

I won’t go into the entire story here, since it’s pretty common knowledge that Rasputin was poisoned (potassium cyanide), shot and left for dead, rediscovered (by Felix) to be still alive and after trying to strangle Felix released him and crawled up the stairs to escape, after which he was shot three more times and beaten.  What actually killed him was being thrown into the river in front of the palace, where he drowned.

We began our tour with the coat check and tarp-and-elastic shoes, bought our photography permits, and descended into the world of Rasputin’s murder.  There are two rooms to see, the drawing room where four of the conspirators are recreated as wax figures and the upstairs dining room where Prince Felix and Rasputin ate, their own wax figures lending an eerie sort of fascination to the room.

We passed through the wine cellars and into the main part of the palace, leaving behind the darkness of death and legend and stepping into the palace entrance, with its grand staircase.

Here was the home of generations of Yusupovs, and I couldn’t help but feel a bit of perplexity that the tour started with the sordid murder story and ended in the privileged light and air of Russian aristocracy.  That said, the palace is a beautiful thing, another that survived the carnage of the 20th century mostly intact.  There is a lovely theater, and during World War II a shell crashed into the Prince’s box but didn’t explode.  Two extraordinarily brave men carefully pried it out, cautiously managed to get it down the stairs and into the courtyard, where a deep hole had been dug.  It was then set off and the resulting explosion shattered all the windows, but the theater and most of the palace was saved.

One of the rooms I found most fascinating was the library, with its rows of glassed-in bookshelves and beautifully preserved books … and a fascinating story.  Knowing that the Bolsheviks were seizing palaces and their contents, Prince Felix stashed some of the most valuable items in hidden rooms, one in the library and another under the billiard table in the next room.  Sadly, these rooms were discovered and the contents pillaged.  When the Prince fled to France, he was only allowed to keep two Rembrandts and some small pieces of jewellery.  His bad fortune did not end there, because when he attempted to sell the paintings he received nothing even close to their true value, so he and his family lived in much reduced circumstances.

Our farewell dinner, at the Stroganoff (Stroganov) Palace, echoed with excellent food and camaraderie and the inevitable sadness that results from the end of such a mutual and powerful experience.

Some of us, however, are going to spend the next three nights in Moscow.

Stay tuned.

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Traditional Russian Lunch and a Troika

TroikaI need hardly say that most of us were very grateful for the fact that our January 1st expedition did not begin until noon.  In point of fact, when I went down for breakfast at 8:30, not only was I the first person down there but remained the only person in the room for the entire meal.

Today was another ride out to Pushkin, for a traditional Russian lunch and entertainment, then a troika ride through the woods near Paul’s Summer Palace.

It was a remarkably chipper group gathered in the lobby, with few hollow eyes from the previous night’s festivities.  I did hear some of the stories (which I will not reproduce here) about our group; nothing scary or rude, just … well … inevitable.

And today it was raining.  Not snowing.

Our guide, Larissa, who has been with us the entire time, is an amazing woman.  She grew up under the Soviet regime and worked as a guide for Intourist until perestroika intervened and changed Russia again.  She has told us, over the days, many stories of Russia during that time and now.  One of the first things she said was that when she was a child she was taught how wonderful the Revolution was for Russia.  Now the history books make light of it.  So, as she put it, “Russia is one of those places where the past is as uncertain as the future”.

On the way out to Pushkin (this the the third day in a row we have gone out there, and yesterday we were out there twice: once to visit Paul’s Summer Palace and secondly for the Tsar’s Ball), she told more stories. We passed a number of giant factories, and she told us that Ford, Toyota and Hyundai now manufacture cars in Russia.  The Russian car, the Lada, is still made as well, and many people buy them because they are much less expensive than the imports.  Indeed, most of the cars I have seen here of ancient vintage; models long out of date in the U.S.  Ladas are, however, notoriously unreliable.  One of the jokes made about them is. “Do you know why there is a rear window heater in a Lada?” “No, why?” “To keep your hands warm while you are pushing it.”

One of our fellows had asked if, because she worked for Intourist, she was a spy.  She said that after each day she was asked to go to a room and write a report on the people in her group, admitting that she couldn’t think of anything to write about save for what happened, such as “we toured the Hermitage and I took them back to the hotel”.  Apparently her superiors though she needed to write more about her groups, but she said she couldn’t think of what to write, and before it became a serious issue perestroika happened and Intourist became a thing of the past.

As we made the turn to take us to the restaurant for lunch (the Podvorya/Terem Restaurant where, apparently, Putin celebrated a birthday) we also approached a railway crossing.  A guard came out and lowered the barrier, preventing us from crossing, while the lights flashed their back-and-forth red warning.  We sat here for almost 20 minutes, with no train in sight, and finally the guard came out and raised the barrier.  While the bus lumbered across the tracks I looked both ways.  No train.

The restaurant is built of giant timbers, in traditional Russian style. Inside it is rather stark, with bare rafters and one large room, with two smaller rooms to the right and a sort of loft with more tables near the kitchen door.  A long table, running the length of the first room, easily accommodated our group of 26.

I won’t go into the sort of food description as with the Tsar’s Ball, but did have the good fortune to sit at the same table as Larissa, who described each dish as it was served.  Rich, hearty and delicious is all I will say.

And we had musical entertainment; two (well, I know that’s not what they are called but) accordions and a balalaika.  The first song was “Jingle Bells” (sung in Russian) … remember that it’s still the Christmas season here (it’s 7 January).  One of the accordion players, seated right across from me, a great bear of a man, kept eyeing me (and he was making quite an amusing show of playing that I couldn’t help laughing).  After playing a set, the musicians retired.  Another course was served.  The musicians returned, this time with the addition of a tambourine and an instrument called a treschyotka that is essentially (according to Larissa) a noisemaker.  This time the set included “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” (no singing, though), ending with “Lara’s Theme”.  The waiters and cook, captivated by this entertainment, gathered around the kitchen door and watched.  Again the musicians retired.  Another course was served and this time when the musicians returned they passed out two kinds of treshchyotka, one that hangs round your neck and one hand-held one.  So we got to join in the last set (and I was delighted to be one of those chosen; the cord dropped round my neck before I could even ask).

At the end of the meal, the musicians returned, this time offering for sale the treschyotka and a sort of painted Russian ocarina.  Acting on a request from one of my brothers, I acquired the treschyotka.

As I stood in the gift shop, waiting to purchase a couple of items, the big Russian accordion player came over and said, very carefully, “you very beautiful woman” and put an arm around me.  My fellow travelers thought this hilarious so wanted to take our photo.  Not to be shy, my new friend kissed me on the cheek just as the photo was snapped.  I scrambled for one of my few words of Russian and thanked him as we reclaimed our coats and went out into the rainy afternoon.

I have always wanted to ride in a troika.  Ideally, through a snowy forest.  Well, the forest still had snow but it was still raining.  The first two sleighs were pulled by only one horse, and I managed not to get in those, because down the snowy lane came a beautiful, dream-fulfilling troika.  Never mind that the seats were wet.  Never mind that the blankets for our knees were wet.  I was riding in a troika.  We jogged through the woods, waving at our friends in the other sleighs and at the children who watched us go by.  Since Paul’s Summer Palace was closed for the New Year’s holiday, we had it all to ourselves as we drove into the courtyard and turned around, heading back.

What a wonderful way to end the day!

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The Tsar’s Ball

Catherine's PalaceNo other outing on this trip provided me with such an exquisite blend of anticipation and horror as this one.  Imagine, if you can, passing from 2012 to 2013 at Catherine’s fully restored Palace out in Pushkin, complete with a six-course meal and entertainment such as opera and ballet excerpts, never mind a welcome reception with champagne and hors d’oeuvres … anticipation.  Add in “black tie” and you have the horror.  I just don’t dress like that.  I don’t even have clothing that is black-tie worthy (jeans and a t-shirt and, if possible bare feet or flip-flops, that’s me).   What I did have, thanks to a recent family wedding, was a pair of long loose black trousers with tiny glitters, a long sleeved top with more glittery stuff and … in a moment of madness, I purchased a pair of black high-heeled UGGS boots (the heels being something else with which I have little to no experience).  I did practice with the boots before departure, the first time at my daughter’s birthday dinner, where I caused much entertainment by wobbling and mincing about.  My daughter demonstrated how to walk properly.  “You lead with your hips,” she told me. “It’s much easier.” I watched her demonstrate the walk.  She looked like a model, with a long free stride.  However, I am not 22, I am about to be 57, and my hips don’t know how to do that any longer.

After dressing and (gasp!) donning makeup, I joined my fellow travelers with a great deal of trepidation. To my relief, no one seemed to find my version of “black tie” too plebian.  I did regret the tiny size of the one evening bag I possess, forcing me to leave my camera at the hotel. As it was, my iPhone almost didn’t fit.

Our bus was the first one to leave, and we had a police escort.  I’d noticed him as he stood by the bus door chatting with the driver; a large burly man with the classic Russian fur hat with its police symbol affixed to the center and wearing a very intimidating uniform with a double breast of buttons.  Police cars over here are quite small, of an indeterminate gray, and they are often parked to one side at the center of an intersection, not impeding the flow of traffic but providing a very clear warning to offenders.  He led us through St. Petersburg’s crowded New Year’s Eve streets with deliberation, only the red light flashing, and now and then a squirt of warning (not a siren, that sort of loud frog-blurt used as a warning such as I’ve heard fire trucks use at home).

And we were the first to arrive.  A red carpet, laid across the snow, led us upwards.  The moment we began to descend the bus steps, a brass band stationed at a landing near the palace entrance burst into a fanfare.  It continued as we approached the entrance before the band broke off momentarily, rearranged themselves by the door, and resumed.

I am not sure, yet, how to describe this event; I may never be able to find words appropriate enough.

Once inside the door, our attention was caught by a pair of lovely ballerinas standing en pointe halfway up a staircase.  They swept graceful gesture of welcome, poised against the dark background of the ancient stairs.  White-gloved and uniformed servers waited to the left side to take our coats.  To the right waited another line of similarly clad servers at the open door of an antechamber and bearing trays of champagne, juices, water and hors d’oeuvres of exquisite appearance (I might have to use that word a lot here, so please forgive me in advance).

The white panels of the antechamber shone with gold leaf, while a string quartet poured out music and were shortly joined by the staircase ballerinas.  More and more guests arrived; apparently this is one of the top New Year’s Eve events and I was told that more than two hundred were expected.  Watching the arrivals, I saw long glittering gowns, an entire parade of Japanese women guests in embroidered kimonos complete with obi, while all the men provided a discreetly dark background of elegance.

It was about this time I realized I had managed to lose the envelope in which I had my invitation and table number.  Although it hadn’t fit in my evening bag, I distinctly remembered having brought it with me from the bus, but before I had a chance to panic, one of my fellow travelers came up to me and said she’d seen me drop it and rescued it for me.  I was immensely grateful to hear this, but since it had been checked with her coat I could only hope that my memory was correct in that I had been assigned to Table 9.

Following a signal I did not see, our party was neatly ushered out of the antechamber and led up the stairs by a guide, who led us down a corridor with each door framed in gold, so that it looked as though the corridor had no end, rather like the tricks lesser places use mirrors to accomplish.  To the right, tall windows looked out upon a snow-covered plaza with a tall tree glowing with bands of blue and silver lights.  To the right were a series of drawing rooms, several with performers.  The first held two ballerinas, their only accompaniment a shaggy-haired flutist.  Later on we encountered a gentleman playing an early 18th-century clavichord.  Our guide told us that as many times as she has been here, she has never seen it open, much less played.  The next room took us into legend.

During World War II, the summer palaces were occupied by the Germans.  In Catherine’s Place was a room known as “The Amber Room”, the only ornamentation on its walls being amber, used not only as a sort of wallpaper but as pictures and frames.  When the Germans were driven out, the Amber Room and its contents disappeared, never to be seen again.  During the restoration of the palace, with the help of many private donors, the room was recreated.  Photography, especially flash photography, is not allowed.  Tonight was the lone exception.  So we took our tour group photo, complete with Stanford banner, in that room, although we’re still not sure how our escort managed to produce that thing from her tiny evening bag.

The corridor ended in the Throne Room, a vast, glittering room with mirrors and candles and stunning amounts of gold leaf on the walls.  Another of my fellow travelers, who looked quite elegant in his dark suit, leaned over and said in my ear, “this makes me feel distinctly middle class.”  Heck, I felt like a serf.

There was a balalaika orchestra to the left of a stage, and to the right, what amounted to a small symphony orchestra.  At least twenty tables with snowy white cloths and an intimidating array of silverware and glasses lay in a careful pattern at the center of the room.  Each table was guarded by a server in white double-breasted, gold buttoned jacket, dark pants, and white gloves.  It was open seating at our table (and my erratic memory served me well, for I took a place at Table 9 and no one threw me out, although I did have a bad moment when one of the coordinators came up to me and asked if I was Beverly Nasson; I can understand the confusion because the invitation was issued to MR. Honore Hillman so I’m sure they were expecting a man).  We gradually arranged ourselves while the balalaika and symphony orchestras took turns.

At the risk of boring everyone, I am going to set out the menu.

First Course: Paté of Foie Gras with Porto Jelly, served on Honey Bread

Second Course: Black and Red Caviar, served with Warm Blinis, Eggs, Onion and Smetana Sour Cream on Ice

Third Course: Steamed Black Cod, served with Zucchini Galette and Spiny Lobster Sauce

Fourth Course: Champagne and Grapefruit Granité

Fifth Course: Lamb Ribs served with Glazed Carrots and Demi-Glace Sauce

Sixth Course: Coconut Dacquoise with Mango Soufflé and Blackberry Sauce

Finished off by coffee and tea, served with an assortment of Petits Fours

Between and during each course the stage produced performances by opera singers, solo and duet, ballet selections, an enchanting children’s choir with one member so small he looked more like five than his probable age of eight or so and another who spent the entire performance watching the conductor with the intensity of someone about to sink and awaiting a lifeline, and an extraordinary group of musicians and dancers dressed in traditional garb who produced gape-worthy acrobatics.

One of the things I noticed about the service was that a long line of servers came out with the current course and not until all servers had gathered around the table was that course served to the guests.

After the first course and the performance for that course, the lights dimmed.  Four buglers and a drummer, dressed in costumes exactly like those of fairy-tale tin solders, marched out and sounded a fanfare that stunned the room into silence.  Into the darkness of the room came the line of servers, each bearing a tray with an ice sculpture of a sturgeon, a dish with dry ice that wreathed the sculpture with smoky tendrils, a candle shimmering tenuous light throughout, and two bowls of caviar, one red and one black.  You can imagine the effect.

After the Grainté, the lights dimmed again and a bell rang out, tapping in the New Year with powerful yet delicate hammer blows. We all rose, grabbed a glass of champagne and toasted 2013.  It was honestly one of the most profound and beautiful moments I have ever experienced.

I am ashamed to admit that I did not stay for the sixth course.  Not because of excess alcohol consumption but out of sheer exhaustion.  The bus brought us back and I tumbled into bed at 3:00 A.M.

A blessed and precious 2013 to you all.