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June 3, 2006

Rent a Buddy

I hid in my room for the rest of the night and pondered my trip darkly, including a few depressed messages to friends. One of them suggested looking at www.gay.ru – I wasn’t looking for sex, but I went there anyway. Lo and behold, a section on tour guides. This was exactly what the doctor ordered. I called the most likely of them – the one who wasn’t 22. Poor man, I woke him up at 8:30 a.m. – in Europe my body clock shifts to early rising and I have to fight to not get up at 5 a.m.) Nicolay was available and helped salvage the trip.

On Monday, we walked to the Palace Square, down to the Summer Palace and summer gardens and along the Moika and Fontanka. Most importantly, we had lunch, which Nicolay would not have asked about, but as I explained, “If I take you to lunch, I get to eat!” He first asked if I wanted fast food, and I asked for Russian food, something simple. . . Blini? He smiled, and took me to a café that was only a block or two from the Radisson but on the other side of Vladimirsky Prospect crossing Nevsky where I had not gone. It was my first restaurant meal in St. Petersburg – everything else had either been breakfast at the hotel or picking up food at markets and bakeries. By Sunday I had lost the initiative to try and make myself understood in a restaurant. We had chicken and mushroom blinis and I was delighted.

The next day he collected me at the hotel and we walked to the Fortress of St. Peter and Paul to see the cathedral and the walls of the fortress. The all-important lunch (Pelmeni! Broccoli! Hooray, vegetables!) followed at a café right opposite the fortress. Ironically, both this place and the café the day before had English menus – but that didn’t mean they had English speaking staff.

After lunch we went on the Metro. As everyone else reports, it is deep. It takes a few minutes on an elevator to reach the trains. It’s also frequent and fast but it has limited coverage of the center of the city. We got out at Gostiny Dvor to visit first the Kazan Cathedral and then walked to St. Isaac’s, where we said our good byes after looking at the city from the dome. I went on in excellent spirits to visit the Yussopov Palace, only a short walk from my hotel) on my own.

A guide cost a little under $100 for two afternoons, not including lunches, transit and admissions, which added under $40 to the cost. Nicolay’s English is self-taught, and considering that rather good though he would get fatigued at times. He was a good tour guide as well, though his specialty is gay Saint Petersburg and I wasn’t looking to go to clubs, just not to be shown around by someone who thought American men made wonderful husbands. Had I needed someone with more specialized depth in art or architecture I would done more research, but Nicolay was friendly, helpful, considerate, honest and knew the city. I needed a rent-a-buddy and he did a great job.

Posted by Leigh Witchel at June 3, 2006 2:41 AM

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Just managed to surface and thought, "Leigh's supposed to go to Russia. Wonder if he did?" The result is that I just read through your travel postings for this trip. I had the same experience in Budapest - it was just too much effort to got to a "real" restaurant (as opposed to a tourist one) and make myself understood. If I find a restaurant I feel comfortable in, I will return to it obsessively during my stay. So, the real question is, why do we travel alone? Wanna go to Paris with me sometime?

Posted by: Margaret at June 6, 2006 9:17 AM

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