We have a gorgeous view from our room; we overlook the flat roof of the immigration building. As the wind blew and the rain poured, I admired the way the waves of water seemed to dance on the tar paper roofline. Ahhhhhh, the day looks like an adventure.
Our call time for the excursion was even earlier this morning. We had to report at 7:00 a.m. for another ten hour guided mass sojourn to the summer palace of Catherine the Great. Ellie is feeling a bit better, but definitely moody. More than a bit of teen attitude. Grumpy, I mean Grampy, would rather have a case of jock itch than get up to stand outside a palace in the rain, but he gamely agrees to go.
I have to give it to George. Yesterday was a long day, and this day won’t be any better. A guy with a fainter heart would have refused to get up, but here he was. Grouchy as hell, but there. Alternately cajoling and/or threatening my loved ones, they got up, dressed and agreed to do it one more time.
This was the day that I could check one more item off my bucket list. Years ago I read about the Amber Room in Catherine the Great’s palace. She is one of the more remarkable women in history, and when not sending people to their death (like her husband, the Czar) she made some remarkable achievements. I mean, she was Great, right?
Did you know she wasn’t Russian? She was a 14 year old girl of great aristocratic lineage from Germany, but her family had lost all their money. The future czar was a bit odd, but crazy about Prussian (German) soldiers. She sucked it up for the family and married the royal prince. At 14, the same age as my granddaughter, Ellie.
Catherine was smart as a whip and fell in love with Russia. When her husband became czar, she started taking an active role in ruling while her husband spent his time marching soldiers around the parade ground. He loved the Prussian army model so much that he started dressing his human toy soldiers in Prussian uniforms and hanging out with his mistress all the time. This totally alarmed the Russian military leaders. Catherine had given birth to an heir, so if they got rid of the czar, she could rule as regent.
The czar had a bizarre fatal “accident” one night when he just happened to fall on a knife. It was never proven Catherine ordered his death, but she didn’t hesitate to step into the role as regent. Apparently her son was a slow grower, because she ruled for over 30 years. She was incredibly smart and started schools, founded over 200 towns in the first urban planning seen in Russia (possibly Europe), fought wars and built one heck of a palace.
The Amber Room story is pretty cool. The King of Prussia was the original owner of an amazing room made of amber panels. Because amber is petrified pine resin, it has a very low melting temperature. The room took a ton of maintenance because it kept falling apart. It was driving the king nuts, and costing a fortune, so he didn’t want it any longer. What to do with a priceless room made of amber that is a total pain in the royal butt and bank account? Peter the Great came for a visit and admired it. Why not give it to Russia as a totally unique gift – a diplomatic coup, impress the crap out of the unsuspecting czar, and get rid of a never-ending home maintenance money pit.
Long story short, it was a wonder and no complaints on the maintenance problems. Maybe Russia is cold enough that the amber never overheated. Catherine moved it from Pete’s place to her own. For 200 years it was the pride of the palace – until WWII. At some point in the 900 day siege of St. Petersburg (by then re-named Leningrad), poor Catherine’s palace was bombed and looted. Among the stolen treasures was the entire Amber Room, often billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. And it is still missing to this day.
Modern day Germany felt pretty bad about this, and in 2003 replaced the missing panels as a gift to Russia. How could you not want to see a room with such an exciting history? You won’t be seeing any pictures of the room here, cameras are forbidden. I am also sorry to say that I had built up a vision in my head of what it would look like – and it fell quite short. I had regaled Ellie with the tale of the room and when we were there, she looked at me and said “I thought it would be more spectacular.” Sadly, I felt the same way. Don’t get me wrong, it was wonderful and interesting in a rock collecting type of way. But Eighth Wonder of the Worldish? Not quite. Obviously better than the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Cawker City, Kansas (also on my bucket list), but a little bit disappointing. That’s what can happen when you let your imagination get carried away.
Cathy the Great, adopted her in-law’s love of gold, and the palace is filled to the gills. She also adopted a love for young men – right up to her dotage. In fact, she refused to sleep in the palace and had a apartment in the backyard so she could entertain a bit more discreetly.
George had had it well before we finished the palace and opted not to do the garden tour. He waited and met us at the end. We hopped the bus and headed back to town for another authentic Russian lunch. What was on the menu? Chicken salad, beef borscht, beef stroganoff, caviar, champagne, vodka and dessert. The exact same meal as yesterday. We had a heavy bet going that it was at the same restaurant. Today’s guide, Tatiana, whose history of Russian history was formidable, contacted the restaurant early to get me a vegetarian lunch option. George again decided to be vegetarian for the day and we added him to the list. My hopes were not high after yesterday.
Wonder of wonders, it was a different restaurant and the menu was different, as well. We all were served a green salad, a mystery soup nobody could identify (I think it was mushroom), a lamb kabob from southern Russia and ice cream. Instead of a kabob, they gave me boiled broccoli. It went nice with the boiled potatoes and carrots. I’m sure many hospitals and institutions around the world serve a similar meal to trapped patients. But it wasn’t meat!
George’s afternoon yesterday had gone so much better after two champagnes and three vodka shots, so he was up for a repeat performance. He was downright jolly with our table mates. Inevitably, because his world revolves around the latest breaking news of our president, the talk turned to Trump. Oh no, I thought. Don’t let him get started…..let’s just say George has strong views and absolutely knows his views are the only correct views. The British couple across the table happen to love Trump, who they see as a man of action to makes things happen.
Ellie was sitting between us, and I couldn’t reach to kick him – my normal warning to keep him off politics with strangers. Our family has to love us and come back if they want an inheritance. Strangers can be a bit dicey. George loudly proclaimed that Russia was now running our government and it should be a Trump/Putin ticket. Oh dear, the vodka was talking and now we were getting personal to our host country. In desperation I tried to kick George across Ellie and whacked her in the shin. So I took a more obvious route and slugged George in the arm. Our table mate was intrigued and tried to hand George another vodka. I confiscated it, glared at George and suggested another topic would be in order. He tried to look innocent, so I whacked him again and told him that we were IN Russia and maybe this wasn’t the place to start talking about Putin.
George never drinks hard liquor, and this must be why. He had more vodka in two lunches than he has in 36 years. And if I have anything to say about it, it will 36 more years before he has any more. Enough said.
The rest of the afternoon we toured the city in the bus and visited famous landmarks. The most interesting was the Fortress of Peter and Paul. The fortress contains an over the top church where all of the czars are buried from Peter the Great through to the Nicholas II, whose entire family was murdered in the Russian revolution – ending the reign of the Romanov families. There are wonderful stories regarding this place, that I wish I had space to share. This all was fascinating – but even better were the portable toilets for the tourists.
It was a bathroom adventure. I love comparing toilets around the world. Pretty interesting stuff, and you can learn a boatload of crap about the culture of the folks (pun intended). I have to say, the toilets have been pretty mundane on this trip – until now. They apparently took old city busses and converted them to portable toilets. For a mere Euro each, you too can experience the thrill of a lifetime. In Stockholm, I was outraged to pay a euro to pee; today I would have gladly paid another so I could have taken pictures. Sadly, I handed my camera to Ellie before entering, never dreaming what a photo op awaited me.
Up the steps near the back of the bus and there is a woman sitting in a little booth, taking money. No eye contact, no smiles, just a hand sticks out and you put in the cash. She peered intently, as if to verify it wasn’t counterfeit and you were trying to get a free pee. Grunting, she waved me on.
On either side of the bus, there were a great number of low walled (very low) stalls. Each stall had a narrow double swinging set of doors. Like the kind on the old west saloons. The doors rested against the front edge of the toilet. I kid you not, there was absolutely no footroom. If you sat on the toilet, your feet would extend into the aisle, and the doors would be open. There was a picture instructing a person to climb up onto the seat, pull down the pants and perch there in a crouched position and do your business. And remember the low walls? Perching on the seat offered a grand view of your neighbor struggling to remove their pants while crouched on the curved rim of the toilet. And, if you actually managed to do this, the toilet paper was hung behind you on the wall. Try reaching blindly behind yourself, while in a human pretzel position. It is the supreme challenge.
Was I up for this challenge? Well the bottle of water, champagne and soup I had consumed said YES. I was so wishing I had my camera. Here I am with such an opportunity to document the ingenuity of mankind, and I don’t have my camera. You should have seen the looks, on the faces of women, and the squeals. I will never forget it. I was laughing so hard when I realized I couldn’t reach the toilet paper, that I almost fell in the bowl.
I was totally ready to pay another euro so I could document this extraordinary place, but Ellie grabbed me and said the bus was waiting on me. She thought I was demented when I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t explain what I had just seen – and done. George knows my fascination of world toilets and when I told him I had just seen the best of the bunch, he quickly asked me to tell him later. Sure, talk about Putin in a loud voice in a Russian restaurant – no problem; but let me tell about the wonderful toilet bus? You just can’t figure out where they got the term Ugly American…..
We arrived back at our ship, went one last time through the immigration lines and our time was over in Russia. Our guides were good and it was a wonderful two days of adventure. The food could have been better, but that’s what you get on a tour, so no surprises. St Petersburg would be a great place to visit with a visa, and I hope someday to be able to do so before I’m too old to stand in line for hours and climb up on a toilet bowl. Those are memories you just can’t put a price tag on.