Monday, March 12, 2018

A Tourist in St. Petersburg

It is indisputable that St. Petersburg and Moscow share a number of elements in their tourism and nature as tourist destinations. Logically, the two cities, being coveted as the cultural and historical centers of the world’s largest country, esteemed as ultimate destinations for ambitious locals as well, are home to the monuments and cultural fixtures most coveted by international visitors as well. This is immediately discernable upon arrival. Although numerous in Moscow as well, tourists for the most part, at least in the spaces I find myself regularly frequenting, are usually noticeable in great number only around those most well known and coveted of places - the Red Square, the Bolshoy, and other areas of the center that feature most highly in the lists and itineraries of Eyewitness Guides and Lonely Planet.

My impression is that the touristic presence in St. Petersburg can be felt much more universally throughout the city. Everywhere we go, annoyingly persistent would-be guides advertising cruises on the Neva or excursion to the palaces outside the city follow and follow, undeterred by our obvious disinterest. English, among other languages, is much more heard and seen, lining the menus of most every restaurant we visit. There seems to be a difference even in the most frequently used touristic languages; while in Moscow, just about everything seems to be printed in Russian, English, and Chinese, here I find myself noticing much more Italian and Finnish. And I suppose it makes sense that in this “Window onto Europe,” perhaps a bit more accessible both logistically, bureaucratically, and culturally to such groups of people, would reflect those conveniences in the demographics of its visitors as a result.

The discernable European fixation is not lost on me. Living in Moscow, since my arrival I’ve found myself musing upon the fact that the city combines many styles and architectural appearances that I’ve seen both in post-Soviet Baku and medieval western Europe alike. In St. Petersburg, on the other hand, the architecture tends very heavily towards the latter, boasting delicate mauve, magenta, and sky blue shades on buildings that in style could have easily been plopped here by magic, transported from my mother’s Italian hometown. The European connection even, at least based upon my own personal observations and experiences, seems to extend to the inhabitants’ cultural tendencies as well. It feels as though people smile more freely on the streets, aren’t usually so stoic or even aggressive from the get-go in business or service transactions, and live their lives at a measurably slower pace than chaotic and ever-moving Moscow. Far fewer people pass each other in a huff on the sidewalks or when crossing the road; bumping into each other, which is essentially a prerequisite of going outside in Moscow, is far less frequent; and even the pace of movement is sprinkled with a slight dash of Mediterranean ease and joie de vivre.

The difference in my own behavior on this voyage compared to the makeshift home I have created in Moscow is rooted in the fundamentally distinct experience. Compared to three months of everyday life, replete with concerns beyond wandering and observing, these three days are quite intense in their planned nature, the amount of amazingly beautiful things seen and done, and the harsh tingling in my feet and calves after full days of walking all around this urban pride of Peter the Great. Whenever asked to pick which I like better between St. Petersburg and Moscow, my knee-jerk reaction, based on some of the observations I’ve mentioned, as well as the sheer enchantment I felt with its beauty and connecting first hand with the fascinating history that first drew me towards the Russian language as a small child. But perhaps this somewhat idealistic bias, in a sense, remains unsorted. It would likely take a comparable experience of longer-term settlement within the rhythms and cycles that define St. Petersburg, building a relationship like the one I now have with Moscow, to truly be able to say I like it better with a fully informed and balanced perspective.

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