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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.

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