Today I took a day off from my business trip to Helsinki to embark on an a cheeky visit to St Petersburg – the so-called “Venice” of Russia.
A few reasons for this self-indulgence.
1) St Petersburg is, by all accounts, a beautiful and historic city, unblemished by two world wars, with an impressive array of museums, galleries and grandiose buildings. A “must see” for a man of culture. And quite a coup for me too.
2) My late father, Eric – a true and loyal communist in his day – always wanted to visit Leningrad, as it was called pre-1989. Not only as a pilgrimage to his slightly left-of-Stalinist politics – which “come the revolution” he was confident would bring a better life for the downtrodden proletariate (he was from Oldham) – but also because of his passion for the under-appreciated music of one Dmitri Shostakovich, who was from this great city. Unfortunately, my dad never quite made it – just as he didn’t quite make the millennium, despite me buying him a millennium countdown calendar complete with a millennium countdown digital clock. You can lead a horse to water….
So, anyway reason enough for me – having carried his genes at least through year 2000 – to complete another particular unfinished symphony for him. Somewhere I have a wood plane of his I keep meaning to restore – but that’s another project.
Having said all of that – the real reason, being honest (forgive me father) – for this escapade, was that 3) visiting one square mile of this ginormous country was all the licence I needed to “scratch it out” on my great scratch map of the world hanging in our dining room. In one stroke – albeit 1000 scratches to come – I could conquer another 20% of the world. And all the more impressive with the added magnification of the Mercator projection.
Not that I’m competitive, but take that, daughter-in-law. That will teach you to take a Baltic cruise and then buy me a scratch map. My only regret is that I didn’t make it when it was yet Leningrad and take the whole of the USSR down with me. I’m really not looking forwards to sailing to Azerbaijan or Ukraine.
And so, booked myself on a 15 hour boat trip from Helsinki to St Petersburg and (as Kennedy said about the moon, which must have been closer) – back.
The woman at the harbour check-in was very helpful. After all she was a Fin. Apparently I had “accidentally” booked a trip there and a trip back, rather than a return trip, which would have been cheaper. More importantly, a return ticket means you can keep the same cabin and leave things in it. So she had kindly adjusted my booking, and, because she could not refund me, upgraded me from to an even more luxurious cabin – which meant a better carpet, a couple of extra square feet and a chair. And she would throw in 6 additional drinks vouchers (nominal value of 5.5 euros each) if I chucked in a Euro of my own. Seemed like a good exchange rate. And I wouldn’t need to carry my pyjamas and slippers in my rucksack round the Shostakovich museum.
I walked away with a veritable pack of small printed cards, the size of train tickets : a boarding card, a departure card, an arrival card, six drinks vouchers, two breakfast vouchers, two dinner vouchers and a get-out-of-Siberia-free card. Plus, a wrist band which entitles me to an indeterminate volume of further fluid intake. The nice lady had booked me in room 6000 – my reputation for inconveniently forgetting my hotel room number clearly preceded me.
From check-in, I strolled through the gate, passport control and security. Just like boarding a plane, with the additional step of having your photo taken with a person dressed in a big orange shrimp suit. That’s the maritime difference. I knew there would be a hidden cost, so I avoided it, to its great disappointment. Call me shellfish.
On board I found room 6000 easily enough – it like a typical university student room, but without the glamour. I unpacked and went for an explore. Yes, we have the usual array of underwhelming restaurants, plastic bars, a glitzy duty-free shop (perfume, vodka and toblerones) and a ball pool. I know where I will be whiling away some of my 15 hours, at least.
I redeemed an indeterminate fraction of my armband collateral for a strong coffee and suddenly felt the familiar rumbling of the engines in the rumbling bowels of the ship. We were on the move. Goodbye Helsinki. Russia is only 15 hours away.
Of course the first thing any self-respecting bloke does when he gets on board a big boat is to walk out on the freezing without a coat and buy a cold beer. I found a bar at the sheltered back of the ship (that will be the stern?) and bought a beer in a plastic container. That’s the beer in a plastic container, not me.
I offered my armband to the very-Russian looking dark haired woman shivering behind the bar. She was unimpressed. “Your armband is not valid at this particular bar” – she announced in a moody Russian accent. So I parted with 3 euros – which seems pretty cheap for a beer, even for a man from Oldham. Three cheers for socialism already, and we had hardly left the capitalist west.
The boat was picking up speed (knots?) and the return walk towards the front (aft?) felt like a walk up a down escalator in a wind tunnel. The wind seemed determined to drink my beer for me. It succeeded.
I remembered my room number – 6000. Now I am back in it. And we just had an announcement in broken English :”Due to bad weather conditions, being on open decks is not recommended”. That’s an invitation, if ever I heard it.
But then, a beep on my phone. At precisely 20.01 on 10th June 2015, it announced “velkommen til Rusland”.
Eat your heart out Eric Bottomley. The itch – and the map – are scratched. I feel a tightening in my throat and a tear forming in my eye. Time to eat some caviar in the buffet with my meal ticket. A time, finally, and a place, at last, to raise a glass to the old man and to the Revolution.