On any other day, I would have passed by the spartan, crumbling building without a glance. On this day, however, Viking River Cruises had invited me to visit a Kommunalka, a communal living arrangement that is still practiced by a large percentage of residents in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Across the interior courtyard, a heavy metal door opened onto a gloomy corridor where we groped our way up granite steps chipped and worn from decades of use. At the top, a long, mustard-colored hallway was crammed with makeshift storage cupboards, footlockers, and discarded furniture. We walked single file to the end, which opened onto an L-shaped kitchen and two bathrooms that are shared by residents of the eight apartments on the second floor. Read More
“You’re going to Saint Petersburg? It’s such a beautiful city.”
Everyone I knew who had visited Russia’s second largest city shared this sentiment, and after a few days of wandering the manicured avenues and placid canals, I agreed. Seeking a port and access to European trade, Tsar Peter the Great founded the city in 1703 on a low-lying piece of land at the confluence of the River Neva and the Gulf of Finland. Drawing on city-building techniques he learned during travels in the Netherlands and England, he drained the swamplands by digging a series of concentric canals and raising the elevation of the land on what would eventually become the historic enter of the city. Today, the 18th and 19th century Baroque and neoclassical buildings that line the banks of the canals have earned the city both the nickname “Venice of the North” and designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Freezing rain splashed off the massive stone walls of Belozersky Monastery, pelted my face, and trickled down my neck. I pulled my hood closer and surveyed the leaden surroundings. On my left, the monastery loomed dense and gray, threatening to tip the earth. Ahead of me lay a gray corpse of a lake. The only relief from the monotonous landscape was a stand of birch trees to my right, rising white and stately from a luxurious patch of grass.
“Beautiful, are they not?” remarked my tour guide. “Every spring and summer, we tap the trees for their sap, which is used to make a drink that has curative properties. Some of the sap is even frozen, so we have a supply throughout the winter.”
I had seen dense stands of white Birch trees earlier on my voyage down the Volga-Baltic waterway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. At one point I braved teeth-chattering temperatures to capture photos of flame tipped birches in the setting autumn sun. But as I would discover, to Russians, birches are more than just a pretty picture. Read More
I have come full circle. At the tender age of 17, I fled from my parents house, determined to make my way in the world according to my own rules. Now, 45 years later, I am back home again.
Eight years ago I took a tremendous leap of faith and left my corporate life behind to travel the world and recreate myself as a writer and photographer. I was successful for many reasons. I believe I can do whatever I set out to do, I am fearless, and I have a high tolerance for risk. But undoubtedly what has served me best is the concept of impermanence.
I realize that no two seconds are the same. No two experiences are the same. The molecule that touches my skin one second is a different size, shape, and chemical makeup from the next molecule. Sunshine falling across my face changes according to time and weather. I can never step into the same stream twice, as the volume, currents, and eddies of water change from moment to moment. Indeed, change is the only permanent thing in the universe.
And so, I was prepared for the change when it came. Long ago, I promised my father that I would come back home should he ever need me. That time is now. At 88, his health is declining. With the exception of a few brief trips, I have been living with him in the Chicagoland area for most of this year. Read More
The language of a country is more than the spoken word. Music, dance, theater, art, history, food, and literature combine with language to weave a tapestry that makes every country I visit unique. Though I always try to delve deeply into local cultures, it can be difficult to have those deep, rich experiences that I crave, especially when my time is limited. I was concerned about this when I visited Russia, as my Waterway of the Tsars river cruise with Viking River would only be two weeks long. I need not have worried. Viking took great pains to create experiences that provided unique insight into Russian culture, and nowhere was this more evident than in the rural towns we visited as we sailed the Volga-Baltic Waterway. The video below shows a small sample of the cultural activities we attended in these small rural communities:
Author Miriam Beard, daughter of the American historians Charles A. and Mary R. Beard said, “Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
The longer I travel, the more I realize the truth of this statement. Prior to visiting Paris for the first time, I associated it with the Eiffel Tower and Louvre Museum. After three visits, the City of Light evoked the yeasty aroma of fresh-baked bread from the boulangerie and sipping espresso at sidewalk cafes. Mexico once meant the artificially created tourist island of Cancun. Four and a half months of wandering around the country made Mexico synonymous with its Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns), where families emerge from their houses in the cool of the evening to share the gossip and exchange news. Everywhere I go, a shift happens deep within me as I immerse in the local culture.
Russia was no different. I expected and saw broad boulevards choked with traffic, and immense stark buildings. I visited Red Square and the Kremlin in Moscow, as well as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But by the end of my journey, more than any of the iconic tourist sights, the essence of Russia was defined by its exquisite churches.