It is a relatively calm and stress-free morning as we head to St. Petersburg.
The weather still seemingly against us – a cool, wet, north wind is blowing as we head to the station for our train ride into Russia. Kouvola is as I imagined it to be, a Finnish outpost on the Russian border – bleak and barren, 1950s dull, with a hint of pulp and paper mill in the air. Someone in Helsinki had asked us why we were going to Kouvola – I now understand why.
All in Stride: A Travel Day
The train is about 15 minutes late, but I don’t take that as an omen of things to come. Before when I travelled, these little indicators – late trains, misread maps, or lost tickets – meant that something terrible was about to happen. Now I take this all in stride. The train is not full, but we are surrounded by Finns and Russians and three Japanese gentlemen who look like they are travelling to St. Petersburg for business. We get settled without incident, and John pulls out a New Yorker he has been saving, and I grab a crossword that I have been saving. The green pine and birch forests drift by the train windows as we relax into our seats.
Half an hour into our journey the very jolly gentleman right across from me leans over and asks, in heavily accented Finnish, if I am from Canada. He thought that I must be because he recognized my French accent! I am at a loss for words, firstly because I can’t believe he pegged me so accurately and so quickly, and secondly for the French accent. I politely (because I am a Canadian) say “Why yes, I am, but I don’t have a French accent….” He insists and I am still so dumbfounded that I don’t argue. I discover that he has lived in Canada for 45 years, and he works in construction, roofs, eaves troughs, etc, etc. and that his daughter lives in Whitby, and he resides in Oshawa. The most valuable information exchanged, he explains to me that he is travelling with his wife and his sister, her son, his wife and their daughter. Soon we are all engaged in animated conversation about Canada, politics, Finland, real estate and life in general.
Some Difficult Memories
We also discover that our Finnish/Canadian friend is returning for the first time since he was eight years old to his hometown of Vyborg with his family: About 1/3 of the population of Finland lived in the Karelia Peninsula and were forced to flee in the early 1940s because of the Russian invasion. It remains an emotional and sometimes hotly disputed episode in Finnish history. As we pull into the train station in Vyborg, the sister stands and begins to point out the major landmarks of the quaint town, almost to herself. Soon the family is engaged in their memories and history as the train shudders to a stop, and they wait for their passports which, along with ours, were confiscated at the Finnish/Russian border by, out of a cold-war movie, stereotypical looking, Russian officials.
I feel honoured and somewhat humbled by what I have just witnessed.
Welcome to St. Petersburg
St. Petersburg beckons, and we arrive at the new Ladoga Station at about 2:30. Our guide for this part of the journey, Nico, is waiting for us on the platform. A negotiated taxi ride later, we are in our hotel on a soundless canal in the Kolomna area of the city, a short distance from the St. Nicholas Cathedral and the Mariinsky Theatre. We drop our bags and start our first day in St. Petersburg. We happily cram in all the major sights in about 3 hours of walking around before we take a boat cruise through the Fontanka and Moika rivers, seeing some fantastic architecture and are rewarded at every turn by beautiful examples of Baroque, Imperial and Art Nouveau – some beautifully restored and some just waiting. St. Petersburg is an incredible visual city: everywhere you look you are overwhelmed by the beauty and variety of architecture, history and spectacle. Our eyes drink it all in.
The sun is still high in the sky as we settle into a restaurant opposite the Kazan Cathedral on the Nevskiy Prospekt, where Nico persuades us to toast our arrival in the traditional Russian way – with cold Russian vodka (more, when all is said and done, than is wise), some borscht, and the raucous, Russian daylight/nightlife taking place just outside the restaurant door.