What Big Eyes

img_3751In one of the little towns on our Waterways of the Czars tour of Russia, we visit an actual school, where one is struck by the disparities: 800 children, ages six to seventeen, gather five days a week in a building that looks to have been built by a team of inebriates wearing blindfolds. There aren’t a lot of right angles, in other words, and many of the lintels seem to slant and dip. And yet, the curriculum appears to run circles around our typical courses of study.

Here on the left and below, a typical classroom, not at all fancy, as you can see.


And yet our Russian tour guide has this to say about the curriculum, “The pupil’s courses are compulsory, yes?

“They study the Physics, the Chemistry, the Mathematics, the Literatures.

“All children are also studying the English beginning in Fifth grade and in high school are adding a second foreign language to that, either French to German, yes.’

My guess, based on information we have so far exchanged in the last week?  That of the 25 well-fed Yanks stuffed into these slender desks not a one speaks or understands Russian. We are spotless in our ignorance.

Next, we file into a small auditorium which I suspect also serves as lunchroom and gym as the auditorium did in my own 1960s elementary school. (We called it the Cafetorium, in my mind a wonderfully jaunty, sort of Jetson-ish Space Age name. ) Here, three young girls in peasant garb sing us a lengthy folk song, during which, at regular intervals the music calls for periodic vocal yips which the girls dutifully provide even as their faces remain bland. They also swing little wooden gadgets back and forth that look like miniature venetian blinds and make the kind of clattering sound you might get on tossing a handful of Scrabble tiles down a set of stairs. The girls sing, yip and clatter for a good five minutes before bowing, shyly and adorably, and hurrying off the stage, offer us the chance to buy fanciful cloth dolls which both the boy and girl students have themselves sewn.

The dolls are female dolls, all with voluminous skirts and THIS one, we are told, is Little Red Riding Hood. But one has only to upend her, toss back her skirts and – whoops! – here under the ruffles of her petticoats is the child’s own grand-mama,  of ‘What Big Eyes You Have’ fame! She has spectacles and grey hair covered by a babushka. Another flip of the wrist, yet more tumbling and here appears the head of the Big Bad Wolf in all his ferocity!

Many of our group buy one. I do not, I think because as a child in the long ago Ozzie and Harriet years I had the American version of this doll which always unsettled me.

On our way out of the schoolhouse, we pass a handmade poster honoring a young graduate of this school who, serving the Russian army, was killed in Chechnya. In this portrait, dressed in his new uniform, he gazes manfully at the camera and we study his gaze. His story, carefully inked in block writing around his image, remains a mystery to us however, as people who can neither speak nor read the language of this country.

As we depart the school building, small and antiquated looking as it is with the cords for its electronics stretching from here to there in a way that no stateside Fire Marshall would allow, I get the feeling that these 800 children have minds far more fully furnished than our own minds here in the ‘Like Me, Buy Me, Like Me’ west.

And it comes to me at the door that perhaps the reversible doll unsettles me still not for any Freudian beast-under-the-skirts reason but because it reminds me uncomfortably of the ostrich, who also hides his head so as not to acknowledge what he does not wish to acknowledge.

russan wolf doll


That’s MISTER Jackass to You

fullsizeoutput_446cHeard onboard ship as four individuals find themselves lingering for a moment in a stateroom corridor:

Passenger One, pleasantly, after introductions: So what is your husband’s name?

Passenger Two: Jackass.

Passenger One, not having heard quite right:  I’m sorry? You say your husband isn’t traveling with you?

Passenger Two:  Nah Jackass left me years ago for his secretary.

Merry laughter all around.

Chilly Naked Guys

have a shower! peterhofThese are some pictures from our day in Peterhof, where the Czar called Peter spent large chunks of his downtime.

NO DOWNTIME FOR US though in our forced march through his palace, where an hour into the tour I began to feel like a bite of salami getting ushered through an alimentary canal by the ceaseless process known as peristalsis.

June or no June, the day was cold: So cold that even our native-born tour guide shivered. “We pass our year in two ways here in Russia,” he’d told us on the coach that brought us here. “Nine months of anticipation followed by three months of disappointment!” Then the coach stopped and out we all got, while a three-man combo of Russian men in Brezhnev-style hats played highly whimsical renditions of God Save the Queen, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and When the Saints Go Marching in.

Thus we did that: We went marching in, filing like school children past kiosks full of winter clothes, which I was delighted to come upon, since 50 yarsd into out trek, the stems of my earrings were carrying the cold straight into my bloodstream via the tender mussel-like lobes of my ears.

I bought this red stretchy ‘ring of bunny-fur for a mere 341 rubles – or six bucks.

by the bay of Finland

After the palace tour, our own small party of four decided to walk all the way to the property’s edge where a stiff wind straight off the Gulf of Finland parted and re-parted our hair for us.

Still there was great beauty both inside and out: a world of gold if you like gold, and fountains shooting off at regular intervals. Here’s another chilly gold guy at a different part of the fountain:


We’d been turned loose on the grounds, see, literally driven out of the palace in point of fact for a chilly 90 minutes. Then, just near the end of that hour-and-a-half, the sky turned the color you see here and a fine stinging rain gave us all facials.

St. Petersburg weather

It was great though, of course it was great. It was the Day Three of our Russian tour, and our final day in the environs of St. Petersburg, the haunted city known called Leningrad during the Soviet years.

On Foreign Soil

I’ve always thought I’d like to go to Russia, to visit the famous Hermitage, and walk where czars walked, and contemplate the mysteries of an entirely unfamiliar alphabet….

And now here I am in St. Petersburg which seems a lot like Venice in that it consists of so many islands. I should say that WE, meaning my mate and I and two good friends are in St. Petersburg where, just at present, the thermometer stands at 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Where snow sifted down from the sky when the ballet got out last night.

That fact alone felt unfamiliar: that and the fact the sun could still be shining this brightly at half-past nine at night. See?


It almost feels mythical, this St. Petersburg, where first snow and then a stinging sideways hail could be seen collecting on the shoulders of my ill-chosen wardrobe.

A man I assumed to be a veteran stood, one leg of his trousers pinned up to reveal his missing limb, outside the amazing Catherine Palace. He was hoping to sell us a picture of the lady of the house herself, Catherine the First, who, in the official 1810 portraiture, bears a strong resemblance to Danny DeVito in the Taxi years.

I saw a lot on our first day here, not just the on-legged vet but also apartment buildings of a decided bleakness, like this fully tenanted one, half fixed up and half not.


Later that morning I saw stunning old statuary, like these two guys with their impressive six-packs outside the world-famous Hermitage Museum.


Art celebrates nature and that much is for sure – both Youthful Nature, like this woman supporting this guy lounging around with his hand on his hip…


…and also Nature in Decay, like the mummy I stood by for a long time, free at last of all his Ace bandages and naked as an unwrapped present. He looked like a slice of overcooked bacon grinning with his 3,000-year-old teeth.

I have much to learn on this trip and already I know one thing is truer than true: Art outlasts nature, as this stunning bit of clockwork shows.



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