Visiting an Illusion

I came to know a city last week that I have dreamed about for years. St. Petersburg, in my imagination, was a city of golden domes and glossy nesting dolls. Of ballet and vodka and rosy cheeks. The name itself is regal, and I imagined St. Petersburg as the twinkling setting of every fairy tale I loved as a child.

St. Petersburg was our entrance to Russia. Russia, a shadowy mammoth of a country, and St. Petersburg its glittering eye, or a gleaming tooth that shows through a smile. Except that smiles don’t come very easily here, I soon discovered. At the Finlyandski train station, we used apps and the Cyrillic alphabet to buy metro tickets and join the stream of Peterburgstys descending deep into the belly of the city on a long escalator. The machine, a conveyor belt for humans, felt solidly made under my feet, but old. A uniformed woman at the bottom sat in a small glass box, watching the faces of rush hour gliding up and down. So many faces! Where did they go once we made it to the street?

I didn’t know that St. Petersburg is full of canals. The canals are spanned by low bridges. The sidewalks are made of large chunks of smooth rock. From any bridge, any sidewalk, I could look up and see the gold painted domes of a cathedral looming over the low blocks of buildings. In early October, the parks are still green. The plazas are monumental. The obelisks are tall. The traffic is bad. St. Petersburg is grand and golden against the cloudy sky, not the enchanted city I had imagined. It’s starker, more solemn, and no longer a figment of my imagination.

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