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Driving into St Petersburg from the airport, I realised why the Russian language looks and sounds so Russian: it has no vowels. Or so it seems.
I looked it up and it appears there’s no “u” or “i”, a glottal deficit richly compensated for by a superabundance of new consonants.
“But wait,” cries a naysayer. “I think ‘3’ is a vowel in Russian!”
Too late. For this brief trip I’ve decided to be linguistically ignorant, and once a person chooses ignorance it’s almost impossible to lure them back to truth. Thusly, I spent my 24 hours in St Petersburg wilfully illiterate, able only to read logos and the occasional patch of English. But here’s the thing — and this is a dark, truthful confession, and I know it sounds terrible — but illiteracy is actually kind of a nice feeling. You don’t get so stressed out about things. Urban clutter turns into wallpaper. Your brain feels leaner and smoother. I kind of recommend it.
St Petersburg is a gorgeous city, its canal-side buildings the colour of cotton candy faintly dusted with soot. It’s also filled with Russians visiting from the sticks, from all of those tiny little villages along dirt roads that you see as you fly over the country. Everyone there is justifiably proud of the place, and this trip was smack in the middle of peak tourist season. The air was warm and dry and breezy, and everybody was in a party mood — the longest day of the year but for one day. Stands everywhere were rife with hyper-butch Putin T-shirts: Putin with wolves, with jets, with missiles . . . It’s hard to imagine a T-shirt with Angela Merkel looking buff in sunglasses while wrestling a brown bear. Or is it?
Important to know about downtown St Petersburg: nobody jaywalks here. You jaywalk, you die. Imagine replacing the Champs-Elysées with a six-lane stretch of Interstate from somewhere within Tony Soprano’s New Jersey and you have an accurate description of traffic on Nevsky Prospekt. Russian drivers go as fast as they can and are pitiless when confronting pedestrians but, as everyone has agreed to agree to this system, it works well, in its own way. Even on the canals, thugs on jet skis zigzag along, spraying the clueless with water from their wake. It’s a blast to watch. We truly are a wretched species.
At the hotel I checked in and organised a quick massage to repair a right trapezius muscle in flames as a result of a vengeful hotel pillow in Berlin. Ten minutes later, up in the sports centre, I had it kneaded by 1992 Olympic deadlifting contender Olga Traktorovna, serenaded by a balalaika version of “The Windmills of Your Mind”, followed by an ethnically instrumented array of Burt Bacharach songs from the 1960s. In my mind I time-travelled back to the early 1970s, learning to play piano with songs like “Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head”. I was trying to figure out if my life in 2016 had turned out exactly the way I thought it would — and I send myself a psychic thought message back in time: 2016 will be kind of random, Doug, but it will also be OK.
A friend had warned me about taking a tour of anything in Russia as the Russians have an unslakeable thirst to convert almost any experience into a factory tour.
Oh pshaw, said I. I was very much anticipating my visit to the Hermitage museum but the city was so full of tourists that I hoped the queue wouldn’t be too insane.
OK. So, in 1983 I was attending art school in Japan, in Hokkaido, home of the indigenous Ainu people. Back then, before DNA analysis, it was a mystery where these people originated from. Urban legends were rife (“They’re blonde, just like Farrah Fawcett!”) and their total population always erred on the side of fewer rather than more (“I think maybe 150?”; “I don’t know — 30?”; “I heard 10, tops”). So one Tuesday morning I was stoked to drive to Sapporo’s Ainu cultural centre. It was cold and dry and the parking lot was empty. By the front gate was the biggest Coke vending machine I’d ever seen and, oddest of all, it was the first place in Japan where I actually saw litter.
The woman at the ticket window was polishing her nails like a Las Vegas divorcée, and, in my heart, I knew something was wrong here. My host, Mrs Takahashi, had a back-and-forth with the divorcée and I could understand only half of what was said. She then turned around to tell me that the park was closed.
“But there’s a sign right here that says OPEN.”
“Well, what’s the problem then?”
A pause. “It turns out the Ainu have all gone shopping in Tokyo.”
“Wait — you mean an entire race of people are in one airplane and if that plane crashes then a statistically significant chunk of an entire race of people is lost?”
This is all to say that the Hermitage was closed when I got there: Monday! Thank you once again, museum gods! I’ll see you next in New York, where you and I always have fun together.