Regular readers (as if!) might recall the concept of flâneuring around a city, namely going for a random walk, taking the first right, then the first left, next right etc, an idea given to me the other day by someone on the conference circuit in Shanghai. The word flâneur was coined by Baudelaire meaning a random stroller. Being such an evocative language French has a wonderful word for hiking – randonée – which sounds similar to random. Anyway, a couple of weeks back after the breakfast of a lifetime in the opulent surroundings of the Grand Hotel Europe in St Petersburg I went on my first random walk, and it was marvelous.
The hotel is world class, scene of countless movies, and, lucky for me, I’ll be back there in six weeks. It was quite a drag to take myself out of its luxurious embrace but keen to break my flâneur duck and walk off all that sour cream with the caviar I headed out onto a cobbled street lined with black, tinted windows Mercedez and took my first right and then first left, adhering to the random rules.
As luck would have it this simple act takes me onto one of the most famous, glorious streets in all of Russia – and indeed Europe – Nevsky Prospect, a commercial throughfare dotted with glorious historic buildings, the heart of the city commissioned by Peter the Great. It’s a wide street, as so many are here, and to get to my next right down Sadovanya Street I have to pass under a subway, littered with tourist stalls.
The right side of Sadovanya Street is lined by a light yellow colonnaded building. Part of the joys of being here in summer are the jaw dropping, revealing sights on every pavement, the local women, especially nearer the richer centre of town, strutting around in very little. Repeatedly I find my head craning around in amazement as one beautiful creature, all cheekbones and endless legs, follows another.
I cross the road to take the next road on the left by the Calvin Klein Jeans store. How times have changed here since my only other visit, back in the latter days of Yeltsin in 1998. The city centre is clearly richer, brands fight for position and there’s way more cars and consequently traffic. The upside of all of this is that the ancient buildings are in better shape than before and there are less overt signs of tramps and beggars. I take the left down a small diagonal road, Krilova Street.
At the end I take a right onto Ostrovskoga Square. Gorgeous yellow palisades abound and there’s a large theatre with statues peering from the walls ahead. Peter the Great insisted on painting so many buildings such wonderful pastel colours to get over the monotony of the bleak Russian winters. To my left is an inviting leafy park but I’m sticking to the rules like I’m the Dice Man or something and the rules say to go right here. After a couple more turns around the square I’m onto a boulevard, symmetrically designed with more yellow colonnaded giant buildings on either side. It’s a quiet part of town, at least it is on the Wednesday morning I drop by.
It really is a stunning city – my first equal fave alongside La Paz in Bolivia, though they are both very different. Bah humbug to all this Venice of the North crap. St Petersburg is a city in its own right and beyond comparison.
A bridge up ahead across a river looks tantalizingly out of reach according to my new random code, until I look more carefully at the way there – left, right, left as proscribed does indeed take me to the 18th century bridge, left around a roundabout, right along the water and left onto the bridge; dark storm clouds the only impediment to the otherwise picture postcard 360 degree view.
Afterwards, it’s a right along the water on Poutanki Street, the day beginning to warm up.
Up ahead a sign clearly states the next left is a dead end but the code dictates left. I take it regardless. The street is packed tight with large deep yellow and pink edifices. A lengthy queue of swarthy men waits for some government office to open.
It begins to rain. Bugger. Why didn’t I bring my swanky hotel umbrella with me?
It isn’t a dead end. There is no premature death of my first random walk. I can make out a bus crossing a road in the distance, 500 metres or so ahead.
I turn right through some grimy housing complex. Russian techno music blares out of one window, a number of neighbouring panes are cracked. The paint on the walls is peeling. This is more like the St P of yore.
A man in overalls walks towards me carrying a large rusty scythe. I take a left onto Djamvulu Street. A 50-year-old lies sprawled on the street, shitfaced. A comrade comes and yanks him up. He can’t walk straight. In fact, he can’t walk at all, quickly squatting back down, his capped head resting on his trembling knee.
Russia holds many demographic records, not all good. For instance, no place on earth has a greater disparity between male and female life expectancy than here – 13 years being the gap. Why? Alcohol. The average male lives for just 53 years in this country. 53, for Christ’s sake! The average vodka consumption in the population – the average of everyone that is, including babies – is 50 bottles a year. On my previous trip to Russia, I wrote about an especially alcoholic morning of toasts and clinking of shot glasses in Vladivostok. One of the characters in that particular chapter of my life was dead a month after I met him, his liver pickled like kimchi.
On a street corner my eyes alight on a poster for some scantily clad buxom young things – the Troika bar. Ads for sleaze in this town are commonplace. A typical walk in the city centre will involve turning down five or six business cards for escorts.
I take a right onto Zagorodny Street, past the Jazz Philharmonic Hall. I check what’s on in the evening – Konstantin Mamonov on sax, niiiice. Perhaps I’ll go and check him out. (I don’t – vodka and a nightclub put paid to that cultural idea).
Turning left I pass a supermarket and inhale the sweet smell of fresh fruit. An ad on a bus shelter exhorts youngsters to sign up for a glorious career in the navy.
My next right is into a park – ahead of me the yellow glow of a McDonald’s sign juts out. I can’t help but think of the Economist’s great way of tracking global currencies – the Big Mac Index, how prices of Ronald McDonald’s most famous offering compare to home soil in the US. Russia has been hit hard by the downturn. Oil and gas comprise 90% of the Russian economy. All fine ‘n dandy during most of this decade when demand from abroad has been booming and prices sky rocketing. Come the downturn though and the appetite for gas, especially from Europe, has dropped, as too have the prices for oil and gas. The curse of being an energy economy – a phenomenon well known through out the world – has come home to roost, the ruble dropping off quicker than Lidia’s sequined robe at the Troika Bar 300 metres behind me.
At the entrance to the park an old man reads the local paper pinned to a shelter for all to read communally just like in China.
A monolithic ugly 1960s concrete theatre sits in the middle of the park. The commies sure didn’t have the design aesthetic of the tsars.
Taking a left in the park I reflect on my less stressed eardrums. It’s nice to be away from the groan of the incessant traffic momentarily.
The roar quickly returns though as I take a right onto a busy main road called Marata. There’s little to commend it, which has been a rarity on the walk thus far. As I jot this thought down I almost walk into a muddy puddle, sidestepping in somewhat theatric fashion at the last moment. I pass a dodgy DVD shop. The illicit DVD trade is a mainstay of the Russian mafia, and one who’s supply chain I am interested in covering at some point, albeit at arm’s length so no mafia lead is inserted at high speed into the back of my head. It’s a rotten place to be a journo here, just like in China too.
There’s train tracks at the end of the road. It takes me back to 1998 again and how I arrived in this great city, drinking vodka with Russian sailors on a train ushering in my 21st birthday. Yesterday I turned 32. The rolling stock looks just as old now, while I have definitely aged too – grey hair on my temples beginning to take root, a 36 waist now, rather than those svelte 32 or 34 days.
I head left onto another grimy, drab road walking parallel with the tracks. Two ladies on little ponies clip clop past.
The day before a concierge at the über flash hotel had produced a map saying everything I needed to see was “here” – drawing a neat, tight circle around the hotel. “It’s all within 15 minutes walk,” he had said. What he said is true in that the centre is the spruced up, most stunning part of town but this randonnée gives me another point of view.
An old man in a black leather coat shuffles ahead of me, stops, looks up, turns around, grunts, his vivid blue eyes looking dazed. He’s walking the wrong way. I’m just walking the random way.
An Asiatic women walks past, weighed down with her daily groceries. Her presence is a reminder of the vastness of this nation that straddles two continents and takes up to ten hours to cross by plane, and God knows how long by road given the pathetic Russian infrastructure whereby there are no motorways outside of St Petersburg or Moscow.
Turning right, I walk alongside a waterway and under a bridge, train tracks overhead. Looking down, the water sure is murky. Russia suffers from appalling environmental mismanagement. A couple of dilapidated factories in the distance might explain the toxic H2O.
I’m now well clear of the glitz and glamour of central St P and into the industrial suburbs and still rather thirsty.
A dumpy woman with bright red hair walks past. Her green tshirt says amusingly: “Don’t bother. I’m not drunk enough.” Having dabbled in the tshirt business myself, my imaginary riposte tshirt would read: “Don’t bother. I’m not blind yet.” I chuckle to myself at my mean sense of humour and carry on.
A left over a bridge and a right along the same waterway, a sign telling me it’s the Obvodnoya Canal. I think I can guess where I am on the map that is burning a hole in my pocket but until I stop I cannot look at it – that’s a rule I just made up to add to the randomness.
Still, the end comes quickly, my thirst winning the argument. Two thirds of the way down the street I see the magical sign KAΦE. Time for a coffee and a sit down. It’s basic inside but I spy the all important espresso machine and plonk myself down. Amid the formica the back wall laughingly has a photographic wallpaper of a grand old library full of mock shelves stuffed full of leather bound tomes. Everywhere in this great city has delusions of grandeur.
The middle-aged bufoned proprietress shows me exactly where I am on the map; essentially in the bottom centimetre of the central map due south of the hotel. It’s been a great hour and three quarter stroll.
I must have walked along 50 to 60 streets to get to this coffee shop yet to get back takes just three throughfares and 40 minutes.