I'm back from St Petersburg where I had a great and highly productive, though foot-wearying time. I did a lot of walking.
I was warned about muggers and crime in general. But actually the city did the opposite of mug me. It was extremely generous to me and gave me far more than I could have hoped for.
For example, on the very first day, as I stepped out into rain from the international terminal, looking for the No. 13 bus to take me to Moskovskaya metro station, I was accosted by a Russian guy, loaded up with his own luggage. When he discovered I couldn't speak Russian he switched to perfect English, to tell me that I was waiting at the wrong no 13 stop. So he took me to the right No 13 stop, got me on the bus and negotiated with the conductress on my behalf. The fare was something like 25 roubles and the smallest note I had was 500. This didn't seem to worry her, though she was a bit taken aback by how wet the note was. I had been holding it in my hand in the rain for a few seconds and it had got drenched.
Andrey, my new Russian friend, escorted me on to the right metro train, even donated a metro token to me, and made sure I got off at the right stop. The hotel information from expedia.com was completely misleading, and if I'd followed that, rather than Andrey, I would have got very lost, bewildered and fraught. (Reminds me, I must write to them correcting their info.)
Andrey and I met up a couple of days later and he took me on a walking tour of the northern part of the city, taking in the Peter and Paul fortress and Kammeniy Island.
Andrey had lived in the States for 12 years and in London for one. He'd come back to look after his 85 year old mother, leaving his wife and a good job in London. The future seems uncertain for him, but he was in no doubt that the right thing for him to do was to be close to his Mum now that she needs him.
Other highlights, in brief:
The young BA stewardess announcing our arrival at St Petersburg with: "Welcome to Leningrad." "She said Leningrad!" cried the Russian woman on the aisle seat of my row, her face equally amazed and amused.
Seeing Chris Eubank - yes, I'm sure it was him - strolling down the Nevsky Prospect in his best togs, grinning at everyone in a 'so-do-you-recognise-me?' kind of way.
Taking 247 photos. I'll post a few here if I get a chance.
Going to the Dostoevsky museum, paying homage to the great man. I had a quiet moment with his ghost. We talked a few things over, writer to writer. There were things I needed to say to him. I think he's cool.
Hearing the a capello quartet singing in the Yusupov Palace. Afterwards, when all the other tourists had cleared the hall, I bought a CD, as a present for Rachel. The guy gave me a little private show, to demonstrate the acoustics of the room. In the process, demonstrating his incredible vocal range, which went from high falsetto to basso profundo.
Meeting a very convivial and Russophile American gentleman called Robert, who spoke perfect Russian and had many great stories of Russia during the Soviet era, which was when he first visited as a student. It was then he met and married his Russian wife, while they were both in their twenties.
Quite a different story to the loud American gentleman on the row behind me who announced loudly to the whole plane that he was coming to Russia to find a wife. He didn't want the kind of wife who goes out to work, he said. But one who would stay at home and look after the family (what family would that be?). That's why he was attracted to Russian girls, he said. Looking at him in the toilet queue, I just wasn't sure any Russian girls would be attracted to him.
The weather was great - apart from that spot of rain on the first day. I came back tanned and exhausted. As well as inspired.
On an entirely unrelated note, I've added a link to Siobhan Curham's website. Siobhan hosted a reading I did for the writers' group in Hillingdon and has written a number of books. Here's how she describes her work: "Are you sick of formulaic 'chick lit', with tired plots involving two dimmensional characters who live in Notting Hill, work in PR, have a token gay friend and spend their lives drowning in a sea of chardonnay whilst they wait for Mr Right to throw them a lifeline? As a writer of commercial women's fiction I try to offer something a little grittier - 'real' women (and men) dealing with real issues and above all taking control of their own lives."
Check out the very funny character blogs she's got going on her website.