The low point hits at 7:30 in the morning as I trudge through the sliding doors of Russia’s ubiquitous 24-hour Sem’ya grocery store, and slide my duffle bag off my shoulder. Beside it I set down my large, plastic bag full of the books I plan to send home, and struggle to pull the strap of my messenger bag over my hood. The weather outside is not cold, at least, but it is wet, and after slipping on the sidewalk I am feeling a little sore and more thoroughly dampened than even an hour of lugging my bags through drizzly streets could account for. I am tired from two nights of sleep on the train, and it is still fairly early. After a long and exhausting search, I have found my hostel only for it to be locked. Now I am standing in the grocery store just for an excuse to be indoors, for a chance to set my bags down, and with the faint hope that a cashier could direct me to a café which would be open. Altogether, I am a pretty forlorn sight.
Things began well. I arrived at the train station as expected, and there were clear signs pointing me to the metro. I love subways, and even got to feel good about helping an old lady get her luggage down the stairs. The metro token threw my for a loop at first, because I shoved it in my wallet thinking it was a ruble, and then thought the ticket lady hadn’t given me a ticket. But I caught my train right away, got off at just the right stop, and straight away bought a map of St. Petersburg from a stand at the station so that I would know where I was. So far, I was feeling pretty confident. Laura Lynch, World Traveler, has everything pretty much covered. Map in hand, I stepped forth from the subway and had my first glimpse of St. Petersburg.
Being not yet 7:00am, it was still dark. The streets were wet, but the temperature wasn’t all that cold. A drizzle of half-frozen rain misted the view causing street lamps and headlights to scatter yellow light everywhere. I picked a direction, hoping it was correct, and began to walk. My duffle bag was heavy and I had a bag full of books in one hand, as well as my messenger bag. Altogether, it was a burdensome, but all I wanted was a place to sit down, drink some tea, and maybe pop online for an hour or two until I could expect my hostel to be open. At first, I thought it wouldn’t be all that difficult. There were lots of cars on the street, and shop lights seemed to be on, and I figured that if there were this many people on the street, surely there would be cafés open to serve them. But a block or two later, my bags were beginning to weigh me down, and none of the shops with lit windows seemed to be open. Fortunately, from my map I could see that I was heading in a general direction toward my hostel, so I thought I’d continue. If I found a café on the way, so much the better; if I got to my hostel and found it open so much the best. Worst case scenario, the hostel would be closed, but at least I’d know where it was.
This proved to be not a bad plan. The walk seemed long, mostly because of all my bags, but I found the section of street it was meant to be on sooner than I had hoped. I had trouble finding the place, as the sign was less than obvious. My first attempt led me through an open door marked “hostel Yes” into an empty stairwell. Something told me this wasn’t the right place, and double-checking the sign I decided it meant the hostel was called “Yes”. I wasn’t comfortable hanging around in an empty stairwell easily accessible from the street, so I headed out again, and a little further along found my own hostel. It was locked. I decided it was too early to expect it to be open anyway, and resorted to my original plan of finding a café.
By now, however, I am growing a little miserable. Why can’t I find anywhere that is open? I catch sight of the tell-tale “24 часа” sign above a Sem’ya down the street, and am filled with hope and relief. There is no way I can while away the next hour and a half inside a grocery store, but I head towards it nonetheless with this vague idea I can find help there.
So there I am, damp, chilled, tired, stumbling through Russian to ask help from a grocery clerk. “Can you tell me please where there is a café which is open?” I ask. It takes a few tries before she understands me, and then she shakes her head. Disappointed, I decide there is nothing left but to pick up my bags and head for the hotel where I am meant to meet Bob and Becca in a few hours’ time. Maybe they will let me sit in the lobby. But the walk is over a kilometer, and with all my luggage, it seems daunting.
And then, help arrived.
“What does she need?” a young man is asking the cashier.
“I’m looking for a café that is open,” I say.
“A café?” he asks me. “For breakfast?”
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
“Ok,” he says, “follow me. I will show you.”
I know some of you are thinking “Oh no, Laura, don’t follow strangers.” My reasoning is this: the chances I should just happen to encounter a psychopath in a grocery store at 7:30 in the morning have got to be significantly less than encountering someone helpful enough to point me in the right direction for breakfast. At least, I like to believe I live in that sort of world.
We step outside, and right away my Russian friend offers to carry my bag. Or rather, he tells me to pass it to him, because Russians have this thing about not letting women carry anything they don’t have to, or even hang up their own coats in a restaurant. He probably meant my duffle bag, but I would have felt guilty dumping it on him right away, so instead I pass him my books. They are the result of a recent shopping spree I took at the bookstore, where I bought over a dozen copies of Russian classics for under $80. I plan to send them home with various family members. Added to that pile are copies of another book I decided I didn’t need to have with me, a box of candies Tatiana Petrovna thrust at me as I headed out the door (“for New Year’s”), and a monstrous history tome called “A People’s Tragedy” which I am borrowing from an Edinburgh coursemate. All of this makes for a substantial amount to carry, and I am glad to be relieved of them. We walk to the corner, and he points across the street. “There’s a café just there”, he says.
“I know,” I reply, “but it’s closed.”
“Alright,” he says. “I know of one this way.” We begin walking, and he asks me where I’m from. He nods when I say I’m from America, and seems to take it in stride. In Perm, saying I am American has resulted in people wanting to shake my hand, take pictures with me, or practice their English. My friend doesn’t seem to speak any English though, because he continues to ask me standard questions in Russian about how I like St. Petersburg, and how I came to be here. As we approach the next corner, he pulls out his cell phone to check the time. “Wait here,” he says, along with something else I don’t quite catch, but which sounds like “yolka”. A Yolka (ёлка) is a Christmas tree, only Russians put it up for New Year’s. They’re a pretty big thing, but still, I’m not sure why he needs to run off to look after his Christmas tree right away. I must look confused, because he says “I’ll be back in five minutes, can you keep an eye on my bags?” I say sure. He pauses again. “Are you thirsty?” he says, pulling a box of juice which he has clearly just purchased at the store from one of his bags. “No, no, that’s alright,” I say. “I have water.” I pull out my water bottle to show him, and he nods. “Five minutes”, he says, and runs off.
Sure enough, he is back five minutes later. In his hand he is carrying a plastic bag with plastic pine branches sticking out of it. “Yolka”, he says, pointing to them by way of explanation. This time, he picks up my duffle bag right away, as well as his own collection of plastic bags, and we head on down the street. I am only carrying my bag of books and my messenger bag, but when he sees me shift my book bags from on hand to another, he decides even this is too much for me. “Pass them here,” he says, “my bags are light.” I expect he means to trade, but he doesn’t pass me any of his bags, he just keeps walking down the road, carrying my duffle bag, my massive collection of books, his groceries, and his bag of plastic pine branches. The bags are heavy though, and when we reach the place he is looking for, he is clearly relieved.
Only it’s closed.
By now it is 8:10, and the sign says it won’t open till 8:30. He is a bit annoyed and apologetic, but I say it’s just fine. It’s only twenty minutes after all; I can wait. I expect him to head about his day now that he has seen me to the restaurant, but he seems to feel that his mission isn’t accomplished until I’m well and truly settled, and there’s something more on his mind. He asks me for my name, and says his is Ilya. “What time did you say your train was?” he asks me.
“It was at 6:11,” I say.
“This evening?” he asks.
“No, no, I arrived just this morning,” I say, realizing that something has been miss-communicated. I had mentioned I was in St. Petersburg to meet my brother and his wife, and he asks me how long I will be in St. Petersburg. I say till the 5th of January, so he asks if I have a Russian phone, and we exchange numbers.
“You’re going to meet your brother after this?” he asks. “Your brother is Russian? He will meet you here?”
“No, I will meet him at the hotel,” I say.
“Your brother speaks Russian?” he asks.
“No, but he says he can make it to the hotel,” I say.
Ilya does not seem satisfied. I have pulled my map out to see what street I am on, and he asks to see how far I will have to walk to get to the hotel. He clearly does not think I can make it there with all my bags, and I feel inclined to agree. “You are all staying there?” he asks, and I say no, I am staying at a hostel, only it wasn’t open. He asks if I have the number, and then proceeds to call the hostel for me. “They’re open now,” he says, and then checks his wallet. He says he needs to find a cash machine, tells me he’ll be back in five minutes, and goes sprinting off.
Five minutes later, Ilya is back and has ordered a taxi. We pile everything into the trunk, and Ilya directs the taxi driver where to go. He won’t let me pay for it. We get let out at the corner, and Ilya initially makes the same mistake I did with “Hostel Yes”, but I show him the right door, and he has the novel idea of ringing the doorbell. We are let in to a clean, friendly hallway, where Ilya proceeds to chat to the guy at the reception desk for a minute. As soon as he sees that everything is in order with my reservation, he decides to head out. “Thank you so much” I say, feeling like it is entirely inadequate. Ilya makes nothing of it. We hug farewell, and he heads out the door. The friendly guy at the reception desk helps me finish checking in, and then shows me where to go. As I reach for my bags, I realize one of them isn’t mine. Fortunately, I have Ilya’s number. I call him up.
“Hello, Laura? Is everything in order?” he asks me.
“Yes, Thank you, but you forgot your yolka”, I reply.