Learning To Dance In St. Petersburg

Flickr, dobrych

Twenty-seven steps. That’s how far I make it from the St. Petersburg train station before I have my first regrets about visiting Russia in January. In those 27 steps, I slip and stumble and soak both my feet and my suitcase as I drag it from puddle to puddle over the slush-covered sidewalks.

When my husband, Dan, and I had decided on this trip, we’d considered that the bitter cold and near-constant darkness of Russia’s winter would make for challenging conditions, but in our excitement – and the warmth of our San Francisco apartment – we’d dismissed those concerns and focused on the dreamy image of walking arm-in-arm on streets blanketed in snow. Now I realize how naïve we’d been in our expectations.

The romantic winter wonderland we’d envisioned is nowhere to be seen. Instead of a soft blanket of snow, the ground is covered in a messy mix of half-melted snow and ice. Massive pools of dirty water span the sidewalks. Oceans have formed in the roads. But still the ice won’t cede its territory. Its jagged peaks surround the sidewalk lakes and rise like islands from the flooded streets. At every intersection, sloping glaciers spread downwards from the curbs into raging rivers of slush.

Over the next few days, other difficulties wear me down. When the sun slowly rises at 10 a.m., it hides behind grey, overcast skies that turn black again by 4 p.m. My internal clock is completely busted and I’m tired all the time. My attempts to decipher Cyrillic names are futile, I’m stressed by the high cost of just about everything and I’m weary of stumbling my way through a painstakingly memorized Russian phrase only to be sidestepped with a single “no” in English in response.

But the biggest challenge remains the one I encountered on those first 27 steps. It’s the simple act of walking.

I feel like a child tottering around in her mother’s shoes. Unable to trust my judgment or my own feet, I’m awed by the people who move with confidence in the slop. While they hurry by, I second-guess each step, in constant fear of landing flat on my back in a pool of foul and freezing water.

Though our sightseeing is slow and awkward, Dan and I manage to conquer most of our “St. Petersburg must-do” list. At Peter and Paul Fortress, the 300-year-old island citadel built to protect the city from a Swedish attack that never came, we inch our way out along a precipice and join the crowds posing for photos with a backdrop of the frozen Neva River and sea-green Winter Palace on the other side. We slip and slide our way down the city’s main drag, Nevsky Prospekt, and quickly learn that if we want to gawk at the displays in shops like Chanel and Louis Vuitton or admire the city’s architectural mix of European and Soviet styles and the grand scale of its buildings and boulevards, we need to stand still. Looking up and walking is a dangerous combination that inevitably sends one of us – usually me – wobbling back and forth on the ice or sinking ankle deep into a pile of slush. So it is with heads down that we dodge icy puddles and oncoming pedestrians, and carefully cross the city’s canals, shuffling up and over some of its 800 bridges in our exploration of the city.

I’m grateful for a break at the busier intersections where the crossings are below ground in walkways that double as shopping arcades lined with vendors selling clothes, food, cigarettes, booze and all manner of tchotchkes to crowds that gather impatiently at each window. When we dip through these passages, weaving between the lines of shop customers, I begin to feel like I’m on equal footing with everyone else, until it’s time to climb slowly up the icy ramp at the other end. It’s always then that a thin, beautiful woman with a ballerina’s body and impossibly tall heels will whisk past me and immediately put an end to those thoughts.

They are everywhere, these lithe women impeccably dressed in sky-high heels, heavy furs and couture clothes with designer bags dangling from their forearms. I try to follow them, scrambling over the ice when they do, stepping into the puddles at the same spots, but it’s no use. Confronted with a great expanse of melted slush, they somehow make it to the other side without a mark on their gleaming leather boots while my own scuffed pair sports several long streaks of mud and I can feel the wet squish of my socks with each step. Faced with the puddle-or-ice decision, I pause like a fool with one foot in mid-air, testing the safest place to set it down, trying here and there in some idiotic version of the Russian hokey-pokey, while these women waltz by with no hesitation.

By our third day in the city, my legs are sore, my neck aches from looking down in constant vigilance against the sidewalk’s perils, and I am angry at myself. Raised in the Midwest, I should be handling this easily, but I’m exhausted, wet, cold and miserable.

Then it starts to rain. Tiny daggers of sleet melt into my hat, dripping down my face and neck, and soaking the faux-fur scarf I had bought from Banana Republic’s Anna Karenina collection in a failed effort to look Russian-chic. The rain keeps coming and the puddles get deeper and the ice gets slicker. In the worst stretches, I hold tightly to Dan as my feet splay out in every direction like Bambi taking his first steps on the frozen pond. The Russian women are unfazed; they simply pull the fur-trimmed hoods of their jackets tighter around their faces. No one on the street carries an umbrella and we can’t find any for sale at the dozen shops we search.

After several blocks, we start looking for a cafe where we can wait out the rain, but I dismiss each one as too expensive or too packed with stylish Russians who will surely judge my disheveled appearance. My hair is a sopping stringy mess, my eyes are ringed with smudged mascara, and my scarf resembles soggy roadkill. I want to tell Dan that I’m exhausted and that I’m mad at myself for letting the weather sour my mood, but looking at him makes me angry. His boots are clean, his face is dry and his wool coat looks like it’s actually repelling the water while mine holds it like a sponge. So instead I blame it all on Dan. It’s his fault I’m miserable. This trip, and the timing of it, was all his idea.

I know that I am being ridiculous and that what I’m saying isn’t true, that I am being petty and ungrateful, acting like a prima donna, standing on a street corner in St. Petersburg complaining about the weather, of all things, but the words just keep pouring out. Then I say the most ridiculous thing of all.

“Life isn’t as easy for me as it is for you,” I tell Dan.

“Oh, really?” he asks. I can’t tell if he’s starting to get angry or if he finds this all slightly amusing, his sopping wet wife berating him at an intersection. I suddenly remember the old quote about how Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except that she did it backwards and in heels. My boots have a flat-bottomed, 2-inch platform wedge with traction tread. They aren’t exactly feminine stilettos, but I feel the principle still applies, so I say the second-most ridiculous thing of all.

“Yes,” I say, “I’m doing everything you are, except I’m in heels! It’s hard! And I’m sick of being the only person who can’t walk in this city!”

Dan glances down at my muddy, clunky boots, and I look away, watching a man hurrying around the corner towards us. Just as he is about to pass, his feet slip out from under him. His legs fly towards the sky as his upper body smacks into the icy sidewalk and he growls a loud “oof!” Before I can react, he is on his feet, hands shoved back in his pockets and head down against the rain, muttering in Russian and speeding off in the other direction.

I look at Dan out of the corner of my eye.

“Well,” he starts and before he can finish I’m laughing because I know exactly what he’s going to say, “you’re not exactly the only person who can’t walk in this city.” He holds out his arms and I let him hug me. My tears mix with the rain on my cheeks even as I fight to stop giggling.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I just…”

“I know,” he interrupts, and then he’s pulling me through a door into a warm hotel lobby. He nudges me towards the lounge with instructions to sit and wait.

I take a seat at the bar and peel off my soggy layers. The room is empty except for a beautiful woman tapping at an iPhone a few seats down. As I self-consciously wring out the ends of my hair and push my matted bangs off my forehead, the bartender appears and sets a steaming cup of whip cream-topped coffee in front of me. Before I can clumsily explain that I didn’t order it, she tells me in English that my husband asked for the Irish coffee.

The woman down the bar leans towards me. “Good husband,” she says with a thick Russian accent, gesturing towards the drink.

“Yes, he is,” I tell her. “I think he knew I needed it.” I fidget with my wet hair. “It’s pretty, uh … bad out there.”

She shrugs.

“I don’t know how you manage it,” I say, taking a big gulp of the hot, boozy coffee. “I’m slipping all over the place on this ice.”

She glances down at my muddy boots and I reflexively try to hide them behind the legs of the barstool. “You have the wrong shoes.” She extends her leg so I can see her stiletto heel and adds, “Heels are better for the ice.”

I shake my head and protest that I’d fall in heels so high. She shrugs again, pays for her drink and click-clacks out of the bar, the staccato rhythm of her heels on the marble echoing after she’s disappeared into the lobby. Dan returns, grinning proudly as he pulls an umbrella out from behind his back with a flourish.

It’s massive, big enough to shelter us both, with a curved wooden handle and the hotel’s name printed all over it in garish, six-inch font. “It doesn’t exactly blend in,” he says, “but it’s free for the day and it’ll keep you dry.”

“It’s perfect,” I tell him. “And I’m sorry.”

“I know,” he says, taking the seat next to me. “How’s the Irish?”

“Also perfect. Exactly what I needed. I want another.”

“Done,” he says. “We’ll relax a little, dry off, warm up, have some food…” he looks towards the floor-to-ceiling window across the room and the crowded sidewalk on the other side, “do some people-watching, laugh at people who fall down…’Oof!’” he adds, imitating the burly Russian man. “Didn’t that make you feel better?”

I roll my eyes at him, but I have to admit that it did.

We sit in the bar for three hours, until my hair is dry and my feet are warm again, and we watch the city go by outside our window. As the streetlights change from red to green a hundred times, pressing play and pause over and over again on the flow of St. Petersburg traffic, I begin to see order in the chaos, a choreographed dance in the streets.

I don’t notice things getting easier over the next few days, but they do. We take our time and I stop trying to keep up with the Russian women. The evening that we have plans for a fancy dinner and a ballet at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, I decide to pull out the high-heeled ankle boots I’ve nearly forgotten about in my suitcase. The heels are far short of the 5 inches I’ve been awed by on the streets, but they’re tall and spiky enough that I’m concerned how they’ll fare on the ice.

We have reservations at the Caviar Bar in the Grand Hotel, one of the oldest luxury hotels in Europe and the first on the continent to have electric lights. As we settle into our corner booth, Dan grabs my hand. “I need to you to promise me something tonight,” he says. “No matter what, don’t do the currency conversion.”

Great, I think, this is going to be expensive. At even the mid-range restaurants, entrees start at 40 dollars, but thanks to my careful control of our cash, we’re still on budget, so I try to do as Dan says and ignore the alarming number of zeros in the menu’s prices.

I play it safe and decide on an overpriced glass of wine and an appetizer portion of the pelmeni, a traditional dish of meat-stuffed dumplings served, like most food in Russia, with a generous portion of sour cream. Dan orders a vodka and caviar sampler – three different shots of premium vodka each matched with a one-ounce portion of caviar.

I do the conversion in my head – it’s 70 dollars for three bites – and then mentally kick myself.

The food comes quickly. My steaming bowl of soft dumplings looks comically large next to the three miniature goblets of vodka and three caviar-topped quarter-sized crackers artfully arranged on Dan’s silver-trimmed plate. We clink glasses and Dan tries the first pairing, nibbling off half of the tiny bite and leaving the same amount of vodka in the glass. A smile spreads across his face and he pushes the plate towards me.

I pick up the tiny frost-covered chalice of vodka, throw back the shot and brace myself for the familiar burn as I reach for the caviar. The caviar twirls over my tongue, its saltiness swirling with the vodka and neutralizing any harshness. There’s still no burn and when I finally stop anticipating it and focus on the taste, I realize … it’s fantastic.

Dan’s staring at me expectantly, a little smirk lifting one corner of his smile. “Well?” he asks.

Instead of answering I reach for the next pairing. Before I raise the glass to my lips, I tell Dan, “I think you’re going to want to order some more.” And we do. Many shots, several ounces of caviar, and a frightening number of zeros later, we finally ask for the bill. I don’t even look at it before sliding it to Dan with instructions to put it on his credit card and never tell me how much it all cost.

The ballet performance is spectacular and the evening is made all the more magical when we step outside afterwards and it’s snowing. It’s barely cold enough to stick on the pavement, but the flakes cling to the candy-colored onion domes of the Church on Spilled Blood and coat the railings of the ornate gilded ironwork of the Teatralny Bridge.

“Well,” Dan says, as I hold his arm and we sidestep a small mountain of ice, “you finally got the weather you wanted.”

“Of course,” I say, “now that we’re leaving. Still, at least it’s not raining anymore.” We break our grip to skirt the edges of a puddle and then rejoin hands at the other end.

“But I thought you loved the rain,” Dan says in mock surprise. “You really seemed to handle it well.” I give him a fake punch in the arm but laugh along with him. We veer left to avoid a sidewalk lake that’s dead-ended our path and Dan steps down the curb and turns to help me. He reaches for my waist and I lock my hands around his forearms as I take a mini-leap across a slushy river into the street.

As we turn forward in unison to walk in the empty road, I notice the difference – not by what’s there at first, but by what’s lacking: the struggle. I realize that for the past few blocks, I haven’t been worried about falling down or looking stupid. I haven’t agonized over whether I was doing it “right” or how I compared to the people around me. I stopped stressing about every step of my journey and actually started enjoying the walk.

Dan stops suddenly and the force of his pull on my hand twirls me clumsily into his arms. We stand for a moment together and I realize that traveling is just like dancing. It’s okay if I’m not perfect at it, if I don’t know all the moves, if I trip or if I’m not exactly graceful. When I stop worrying about those things, give up on the pre-set steps and make up my own moves, I start truly enjoying myself. Besides, I have a partner who will always help steady me when I stumble and pick me up when I fall on my face.

We start walking again and when we hit a patch of black ice, this time it’s Dan who plays the unsteady one; he wobbles once and in an instant, he’s on his back with his legs in the air. Before I can ask if he’s OK, his laughter echoing down the empty street answers for me and as I help him climb to his feet, I’m shocked to realize that the woman in the bar was right – the point of my heel has a purchase on the ice and I feel completely secure.

Traveling – like dancing – might be easier with a great partner, but I’ve got to admit, the right pair of shoes helps too.