The writing group I’m part of has an ‘Around The World In 52 Weeks’ activity, where each week we are given a different country and can write any or all of the following: a short story, a poem, an essay, an activity (quiz, crossword, word search, madlib). It’s a fun exercise, and it encourages writing.
Well, this week, the country is Russia. I’ve been waiting for this one. I visited there in the summer of 1992, with my school. It was the best holiday I ever had (I should add, apart from my honeymoon in New York!). So I have wanted to write a personal essay about my holiday for a long time. My problem is the word limit is 1,000 max. And I have so much more to say than 1,000 words. So I’ve written about St Petersburg and an introduction to Moscow, and I will write more in the next few days.
Here is the first part of my essay:
I must point out, it was twenty-five years ago, so my memory has a few holes in it. Add to the distance that time has created, the fact that it was my first holiday without my parents, and Russia has lots of Vodka. So, as I said, maybe a few holes.
A strange destination for a school trip; Russia. The old Soviet Union had fallen the previous year, making it an ideal time to visit the country. My parents were hesitant, but all my friends had signed up, so I did, too.
Firstly, the plane journey scared the bejeezus out of me. I hate flying. As we prepared to take off, my teacher, Mr Allnutt, sat one side of me and my friend Wendy sat the other. Mr Allnutt gave me his glass of Vodka to try to calm my nerves (surely, not the act of an entirely responsible teacher), and he and Wendy held my hands until we were in the sky.
We landed in St Petersburg around four hours later. The first thing that surprised me was how warm the air was when we disembarked. I expected snow and shivering, but it was at least as warm as the UK.
The first night in our hotel, we made friends with some kids the same age as us, from Newcastle. The whole night, we chatted and played cards, and not a single wink of sleep was had by any of us. The next day, our teachers were met with a host of bleary-eyed, bad-tempered teenagers. Breakfast didn’t help. Caviar cascaded on our plates, and half-stale bread and rubbery cheese sat next to it. One mouthful of caviar, and I knew breakfast wasn’t going to happen.
Our first day trip was to the Hermitage. We pulled into the car park, in front of the most opulent building I’d ever seen. It oozed wealth, and I imagined the emperors who had lived there in the past. The real shock came when we left the bus. Within seconds, we were swamped with women and children who looked like they hadn’t eaten in weeks. I couldn’t compute how such poverty could live alongside such grotesque wealth.
The Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum were incredible. Lots of gold and green, marble and granite. Paintings from all kinds of famous painters. We left, soaked in culture. We went for a walk along the side of the river, where many vendors sold things like paintings, jewellery, and fur hats. Once again, I ended up in shock. One man had a dancing bear on a chain, with a whip in his hand. I felt sick. To this day, the memory of that poor creature haunts me. The look of resignation in its eyes.
That first night, a trip had been arranged to the Bolshoi Ballet. More wealth and gold. By this point, I hadn’t slept in nearly forty-eight hours and I’d eaten next to nothing (dinner had been more caviar, bread and cheese). I was a vegetarian, and this was a concept Russians didn’t really understand. Meets like llama and reindeer were laid out on our table on the same plate as the bread and cheese.
Every one of my group of friends fell asleep within a few minutes of taking our seats. After being scolded by our teacher at half time, we all tried to stay awake for the second half, and I did get to see some of it. But sleep kept tugging at my eyelids. So I really can’t say whether the ballet was good.
We took the metro system back to our hotel, and—guess what?—more opulence! Their stations were all designed like they were royal palaces. A surreal experience.
The following day, we took a trip along the river, ending up at an ice cream parlour. My mouth watered at the thought. Finally, something I could eat! The riverboat was fantastic. A great way to see the Hermitage in all its glory. The ice cream was not fantastic. More of a sludge than ice cream. The only way I can describe the taste is: bizarre. Now, I’m not normally a fussy eater, but here I was with another food I couldn’t eat. I thought of the packet of digestive biscuits in my suitcase my Mum packed.
From St Petersburg, we took the overnight sleeper train to Moscow. It was so exciting. We could lean out the windows and feel the breeze on our hands. I loved the sleeper train. Not all our party felt the same. Five people were robbed during the night. Although we all had our own—tiny—carriages that only just held two bunk beds each, five people had money taken while they were sleeping.
Red Square is both beautiful and terrifying. St Basil’s Cathedral is breathtaking. But, the constant presence of scary-looking soldiers, the constant marching and changing of the guards was something I never experienced before.
At the time, Lenin’s embalmed body lay in his mausoleum. Our teachers thought it a good idea to take us to see this dead body. As it happens, the body wasn’t scary. I’m not convinced it even was Lenin’s body. But the guards inside the tomb . . . wow, they were terrifying. At one point, one of the boys in our group put his hand in his pocket, and they grabbed him and pressed him up against the wall. The rest of us didn’t dare move as we circled the body. It felt good to get back outside, where the air was clean and death didn’t intrude on it.