Saturday, 8 August 2009

To the Hermitage by Ambulance (or, Russian Hospitality)

No, this is not the screen adaptation of a Malcolm Bradbury novel starring George Clooney, but a true and faithful account of how the Impster and I came to be travelling in St Petersburg last Thursday somewhat unconventionally.

With flashing lights and a masterful U-turn, our ambulance driver swings across four lanes of traffic to drop us at the bank of the River Neva so that we might make the next hydrofoil for our day's sightseeing at Peterhof. I offer him many spasiba's, and he kisses me warmly on both cheeks and pats the Impster’s head. Konstantine is my proof that Russians make powerful allies. If they're on your side, they can make things happen and will stop at nothing to help you overcome a predicament.

As a random pregnant tourist with a toddler, however, most Russians wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire (never mind give you a hand with your pushchair). Russian cities are not child-friendly affairs. To attempt them with an infant leaves one exposed to the view that as a mother, one is at best eccentric, and at worst unfit for purpose. Lifts, highchairs, pushchair ramps, baby-changing facilities, and (it slowly dawned on me) children under the age of eight are nowhere to be seen in St Petersburg. And as the week went on, I had a creeping suspicion that mothers might actually be banned from the city centre. For one thing, the women living here of child-bearing age are intimidatingly svelte (possibly as a result of the unpardonable cuisine creating a kind of national Cabbage Soup Diet.)

For another, they have clever ways of making sure children don’t interfere with their cultural tourism, as I discovered when I went to the Russian Museum and was told that only disabled people could use the lifts. To be honest, I’d had better days than last Wednesday, redeemed only by the prospect of seeing a fantastic collection of Kandinsky’s. So to discover that the House of Culture was denying me access, put me in a magnificent rage (‘f-ing Revolution’ etc etc). But the good Book advises to, ‘Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil’, and being in a pretty murderous temper, I head for the House of God. Unfortunately, St Isaac's Cathedral is closed on a Wednesday. (This is the city that simultaneously made one of its cathedrals the museum of atheism and religion for a time, which is possibly an indication that it shouldn’t be relied upon exactly for nurturing spiritual wellbeing.) In the end I did what any oppressed English mother would do, and contemplated a fag and a McDonald's. But on my way I stumbled across St Petersburg’s answer to The Dorchester, which went a considerable way to lifting my spirits (plus, the Impster still got her chicken nuggets, chips and a toy, because you can order absolutely anything there).

And now, somewhat in the manner of Ronnie Corbett, let me return to the matter of the ambulance. On Monday morning, dear K wakes up feeling, as Withnail would have it, 'unusual'. By Tuesday morning he is off-puttingly pukey and shaking uncontrollably, so I think it best to call a doctor (all the time privately convinced he shouldn’t have had ice in his drink the previous day). Two hours later he’s in surgery with a nearly-ruptured appendix, and I’m harbouring visions of a theatre equipped with vodka anaesthetic and a hacksaw. Turns out we’re in the poshest hospital in the city, and after a brief sojourn in intensive care, K ends up in a private room with en suite, river view, telly, fridge and no hyperactive toddler - so is marginally better off than me. And one can't but admire the Russian method of convalescence, his room being furthermore agreeably furnished with six wine glasses and six shot glasses (not a water glass in sight).

Here he resides at the current time, visa expired, regrettably unable to leave the country due to a faux pas on my part. All I did was to call BA to try to get him upgraded on the return flight. Admittedly I may have laid it on a bit thick, but how was I to know they would take it into their heads that he was unfit for travel?

It's been a curious week all in all. On Monday my brother had his gallbladder removed, on Tuesday K was relieved of his appendix, and on Wednesday I began to wonder how many other expendable organs we might be housing. Perhaps in California one could plausibly sell the idea of getting rid of a few, as a new surgical weight-loss method?

Anyway, being so posh, this hospital does a good line in English-speaking guardian angels. Dear Olga pities my lone-mother-in-St-Petersburg experience so much that she insists upon ambulance transportation to help the Impster and me get about (the charge for an ambulance is £250 an hour, so she can easily find one hanging about the place). A Russian on a mission will go to any lengths.

A few nights earlier, Madonna has come to St Petersburg to do a gig in Palace Square. We get accidentally caught up in the hordes of fans, and then caught in the torrential downpour which follows (Russian rain is really something else). Next day, as Dimitri is driving me to the hospital, he tells me how the authorities tried to break up the rain clouds by shooting things into the sky. Can you believe that? I know Madonna can be, well, prima-donnaish, but they actually tried to move the rain for her. My friends, that’s Russian hospitality for you.