I gadded on the river quay watching the last ferries of the day come in and the night restaurant cruises get ready to leave the peer. The loudspeakers played a silly jingle after every repetition of a commercial announcement that sounded like a jammed record. It sounded so Eighties that it reached a comical effect, and every time the deep male voice finished his words and the music played, I smiled to myself. Some modern Russian music has a retro taste, and so has the fashion.
Nearby, a bunch of lads were taking turns to dive into the river from the high concrete embankment: they got a running start then jumped into the void, sometimes achieving beautiful headlong plunges. Some fairground attractions were mounted in the space around a fountain, and a few children were riding the merry-go-round while that catchy tune provided a soundtrack that faded in the distance.
Behind me the monumental riverbank buildings continued the ideal line that led down from the railway station until it stopped at the even more monumental watercourse of the Volga. I looked back at my day during which I had visited the old German settlement of Zarepta, then wandered off into the heart of a residential district of tall buildings until I found myself in front of the arch that marked the start of the Volga-Don canal, just at the time when an enormous barge was negotiating the passage. I later walked past a semi-abandoned cultural centre cum theatre which rose from a waste platform of concrete slabs.
After the last days of intense activity I was feeling as exhausted as that wrecked urban landscape, but the delightful rays of the setting sun seemed to bring me a bit of relief. On the faraway opposite bank desert sandy beaches materialised the image of a perfect summer day. Things would be very different in Saint Petersburg, 35 hours by train and 1,500 km away. Feeling for my wallet, I made sure I was still the holder of a ticket for my second longest train ride to the former northern capital, starting at one past midnight.
Things would be very different in Saint Petersburg, 35 hours by train and 1,500 km away.
The Russian trains I had used until then were not a paragon of high-speed travel – not the faster elektrichka, but diesel engines that pulled a 15 carriage convoy travelling at an average rate of 40 or 50 km per hour with long stops at major stations. Buying a train ticket was never a quick affair, either. I might be the third in the line, but the wait protracted interminably and I got the impression that people stood in front of a patient teller without even knowing where they wanted to travel to and asked for counselling. In comparison I was always the quickest. I handed a slip of paper with my destination, departure time and price of my seat so that the clerk just had to issue the ticket. The procedure was drawn long only by the required registration of the passengers' identification and the final careful reading out of the ticket data.
Nearly two days later I woke up as we approached a different town in a different climate. The initially overcast sky soon cleared up to discover solid blue with white and grey clouds drifting picturesquely across. The first afternoon of exploration let me realise how big the city centre was, and simply how beautiful. The second day took me to the Hermitage museum where I wondered about the sense of visiting such an enormous collections of art in one day. But I just had to blame myself for coming out depleted of all physical and mental energy, the challenge being too great, the art treasures too many, the time span covered too long, my artistic culture too little. I felt helpless and unfulfilled.
I spent a sleepless night tormented by mosquitoes. I granted myself a quiet morning, chatting over breakfast with an Australian who was also probably suffering from a bout of solitude in a country where without knowing the language you cannot expect much interaction with the locals. I just twisted the knife when I wanted to hire a city bike I found a website with instructions only in Russian which put me off altogether. At least the delightful summer garden was a place of bliss where the fortunes of the day seemed to reverse. Adults and children strolled in the alleys lined by perfectly trimmed hedges and enlivened by exquisite fountains. Beauty was a perfect cure to my ills.