A note about Russia before our adventure begins… Lacking the artistic splendor of Italy, the exotic beaches of Hawaii, or the comforts of a Sandals resort in the Caribbean, Russia may seem an unlikely vacation destination. For me (and for many other far more talented writers before me), Russia possesses an air of mystery. The land itself is enormous – one twelfth of the land on earth! Spanning 11 time zones, the geography of this country is every bit as notable as its long and complicated history. I am no authority on Russia or its people so please take my humble musings with a grain of salt – this is Russia as I experienced it.
The Welcome Wagon
Though you think they are a myth, I am one of those rare individuals who truly enjoys air travel. There is something about the exotic cities on the Departures screen and the tiny – albeit inedible – in-flight meals that make me feel the flutter of possibility. I land in St. Petersburg in good spirits and scan the arrivals area for my airport transfer. Holding a sign that reads ‘Ms. Malia Callahan’ is a tall, wiry man in his mid-fifties. I smile, thinking the title is a nice gesture, and make my way over to him.
“Zdrastvuytye,” I say in greeting.
“Zdrastvuytye,” he replies rather seriously. “I am waiting for Ms. Malia Callahan. Are you Ms. Malia Callahan?”
“Yes. I am Ms. Malia Callahan.”
Lowering the sign with a sigh of relief he exclaims, “Oh good! I was hoping you would be you. You know you look just like a Ms. Malia Callahan!”
Though I’m unsure what that means exactly, I find it vaguely flattering…. Or, at the very least, somehow reassuring.
For the next forty minutes Nikolai talks enthusiastically about… well, everything. He talks about his new puppy, the leaky roof in need of repair at his dacha, and wonders how I feel about the U.S. not being on the metric system. (This question he asks gently… almost so as not to embarrass me).
He bemoans Putin and blames media censorship for the current state of affairs (while never specifying which “affairs” he is referring to). How can an uninformed public rally behind another candidate? Nikolai predicts that as I travel east through Siberia I will find Putin’s approval rating to be higher because, unlike his predecessors, Putin frequently visits Siberia.
Nikolai has lived in St. Petersburg his entire life but he is exceptionally well traveled. He asks me to name every country I’ve visited and nods with approval or sighs wistfully as I run through the list.
“I used to be a rolling stone you know! Not anymore. I need to care for other things now. Rolling stone… that’s from a quotation.” He stares out at the road ahead looking a bit sad his roll has slowed. We sit quietly for a moment.
“You know there’s another version of that quotation,” I say, feeling the odd urge to console him. “A rolling stone gathers no moss… and a little moss is a good thing on a man.'”
“Moss?” He adjusts his glasses and falls silent. After a while, I begin to wonder if he doesn’t understand the word. Finally he breaks into a crooked smile and says, “Yes! Moss….. I have moss.”
The van pulls up to my hotel on Nevsky Prospekt, the main road in St. Petersburg. Nikolai unloads my bag from the trunk and, after studying my face closely for a moment, decides I’ll be ‘quite alright in this life’. I wish him good luck with his new puppy and wave goodbye as I head into the hotel.
“Ms. Malia Callahan!” he cries after me. “You must go everywhere! You must! You must go everywhere because everywhere is waiting for you to arrive!” I giggle. It is a ridiculous sentiment and yet, it is one I have always felt to be true.
Nikolai was the first Russian I met in my travels. And he was my favorite.