I had been in Russia less than 24 hours when I realized that the overused maxim—“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”—would be particularly applicable to this trip. I was told the first day’s jaunt to the Hermitage was delayed for an hour or more because of the added chaos in St. Petersburg traffic caused by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit combined with the White Nights marathon snaking through the city. Or apparently the memory of Hillary’s visit was still causing traffic snares, because while my little tour group was standing around, Madam Secretary had apparently left town two days before. We did see some marathon runners, though, and were amazed that our trip to the Hermitage ended on schedule despite the crowds.
Back on board the boat and having informed the crew that I was vegetarian (because remaining vegan would clearly be too much of a hassle given the conversations I’d already had with the staff about whether I ate fish or chicken on my vegetarian regimen), my lunch looked to be stereotypical Russian fare: two boiled potatoes with a side of “fresh-frozen” vegetables. While downing that meal, I had plenty of time to consider our tour guide’s story of her youth in the Soviet system. Her mother had force-fed her black caviar “for health,” having obtained it from a food-industry worker who had access and by trading excess fabric from her day job. I thought about what I might be able to barter for some herbs to sprinkle on my potatoes.
Boating toward Moscow reminds me of Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning, a story about hapless tourists in Myanmar who have no idea they have been kidnapped. Snaking down the Volga, watching forest after forest, we are removed from the world, removed from the news. Shepherded by our tour guides, we see what someone wants us to see. Then we board the boat once again for many long hours. Floating down these lakes and rivers from St. Petersburg to the capital, just looking at the sky and the scenery, I learn what Russian life is like: waiting for winter to come, and survival.
© by Lori Tripoli