I 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 Indeed, most of the cars I have seen here of ancient vintage; models long out of date in the U.S. Ladas are, however, notoriously unreliable.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!