I smell the sweet sent of roasted almonds drifting from the nearby park as I crane my neck to look up at the vibrantly painted onion domes of the Church of Our Savior on Spilt Blood.  Our cast has lovingly named it “the Ice Cream Palace” and although I’ve stopped by at least once everyday since we arrived in Saint Petersburg, I’m no less awed by its stunning façade.  


A couple dressed in 17th century clothing poses for photographs with tourists near the exit of the church (for a small fee of course).  They’ve already approached me two or three times during the past ten minutes that I’ve been loitering nearby.  I’m not sure that my attire blends in with their Charles Dickens garb. 


“Hooray, there you are,” I turn to see Chris crossing the street to join me.  We decided to meet here after spending our mornings at different museums.  While she pursued national art at the Russian Museum, I had waltzed through the State Hermitage Museum, the once Winter Palace.  We ducked into a cafe to warm our hands and to plan the rest of our afternoon. 

With coffee in hand, Chris whips out her cell phone, and rings her friend Maya, who has lived in Saint Petersburg for the past four years.  Maya and Chris grew up together in Ohio and joined a Young Artist Program bringing her to Moscow to study opera.  Her program is conducted in the Mariinsky Theatre, established in 1783 by order of Catherine the Great. 

When Chris hangs up with Maya, she excitedly tells me that Maya bought us tickets to the ballet later that night.  Seeing the Russian Ballet is another one of the items on my bucket list.  We agree to meet at the Mariinsky Theatre to get the tickets and to hang out with Maya for a while because she is teaching English later that night and cannot go with us to the ballet.        

Maya instructs us to get on the 22, 27 or 30 bus and ride it until we get to a green and white building.  Easy enough we think.  Well, once we actually get on the bus, things get a bit more complicated.  There are about five-dozen people and their big, fat, fuzzy furs on this bus and they are pretty much completely blocking any view out the window we have.  Panic sets in.  Chris asks the man collecting money with his little fanny pack and orange construction vest.  He doesn’t seem to understand, but clearly really wants to help us out.  The bus lurches to a stop, and we hear on the speaker, “Russian, Russian, Mariinsky, Russian.”  Off we go, leaving poor fanny pack man still in confusion. 

Once we’re safely on the sidewalk, Chris calls Maya and describes our surroundings to her.  Canal to the right and old buildings to the left.  Apparently we got off the bus about three stops too early.  Ah well, a little exercise is always good. 

The first place Maya takes us is a little Irish bar she likes to frequent near the theatre called Shamrock Bar.  We walk downstairs from the street, as it is a bunker-style bar, and enter into the quaint little pub.  Maya insists on buying us vodka shots, and soon we are doing the three traditional Russian toasts: the first to getting together, the second to our parents and the third to love. 


“They get cheesier the more you drink,” Maya tells us.  While she chats up a few Russian men at the bar and orders a few more drinks, Chris and I discuss how we are going to get our friend Dennis to the theatre to join us for the ballet.  While running along the lake a few days before, Dennis twisted his knee and is now sporting a half cast on his right leg.  Since he’s been cooped up in the hotel for a few days now, we figured he could use a good escape.  We give him a call and tell him to take the bus to the theatre.  We promise we’ll be standing right outside to help him hobble to the door.    

Maya returns to the table with the two Russian men in tow. 

“They wanted to meet you guys,” she says.

We begin chatting, through Maya of course who speaks fluent Russian.  The conversation goes like this:

“Russian, Russian, Russian,” one of them says to Maya.

“They’re telling me that I have very beautiful eyes, and I speak Russian very well,” Maya translates.

“Russian, Russian, Russian.”

“Chris, they want you to know that you have gorgeous eyes,” Maya relays to Chris.


“Well don’t I have nice eyes???” I blurt out. 

No translation needed.  Apparently my intonation and body language are universal.

“Russian, Russian, Russian.”

“Megan, they say you look like you should study science,” Maya stammers through fits of giggles.

I guess I should know better than to hope to get hit on when I’m out with stunningly beautiful Chris, and her equally stunning friend Maya. 

After a good laugh, Maya tells the guys we’re on our way out to go shopping, and we part ways.  Maya offers to take us to the pharmacy and act as our translator so we can find the toiletries we’ve been missing.  As we search for moisturizer and hair products at a little shop a little girl in a purple snowsuit toddles by me while knowing on a giant carrot about the size of her arm.  It’s my little prodigy!

After stopping to pick up some water and cookies to snack on in the theatre, we walk through a park to Maya offers to show us where she goes to church “when I’m feeling holy,” as she says.  She tells us we should probably cover our hair with our scarves so we blend in a bit better with the parishioners of St. Nicholas Cathedral. 


The interior of the church looks very different from other European churches I have visited.  Thick columns hold up its low ceilings.  And on every spare inch of wall there is a golden-framed depiction of Mary and Christ.  In front of each of these paintings stands or kneels a person, head bowed in devotional prayer, as they whisper prayers.  Across the room a monk’s chants reverberate, and are echoed by the sweet harmonies of a small choir.  I wander about the church searching for the choir, but find I’m prevented from going too far by a metal chain, portioning off sections of the church.  Maya tells us that this is to allow real parishioners the ease of worshiping without the nuisance of crowds of tourists entering the main area of the church.  She kisses us both goodbye, and promises to meet up with us after the ballet back in the Shamrock.

I wonder in further to the church to get a good look at a certain painting that has caught my eye.  Two older women dressed in black stare me down from a nearby bench, and I back away figuring I was getting a little too close.  But when I turn back around, I see that the metal chain has been reattached, and I’m stuck in the central section of the church.  Thinking that one of the other chains may be open, I wonder along the side.  Nope they’re all back up.  Hmmm….I wonder if it is acceptable to limbo under one of these chains.  Another older woman sees my confusion, lifts the chain and shoos me underneath it. 

I find Chris looking through the collection of idols that are for sale near the exit of the church.  In each of the images, it looks as though Mary is holding a Barbie doll baby Jesus, he’s legs stiff and strait, a permanent, plastic smile on his face. 

We look at our watches, and realize we need to scoot to the theatre to meet Dennis at the bus stop.  We wait outside the theatre for a while, and then inside while looking out the frost ringed window.  People rush by with scarves held to their throats carrying roses or chocolates for dates they’ll meet inside.  No sign of Dennis.  As it gets close to the time the curtain will rise, we decide to leave the ticket at the box office with Dennis’s name on the front. 


“He walks with a limp,” Chris explains to the disinterested woman behind the window, while imitating poor little Dennis.  Hoping that maybe he’s just stuck in traffic we climb the steps to the balcony.  I head to the bathroom, while Chris goes on to find our seats.  After hurriedly peeing (which is next to impossible when you have seven layers on) I rush to the coat check and present my ticket.  She points to right and I head off.  The lady yells at my back in Russian, and as I turn around, I see that she is wildly gesturing that I need to leave my coat at the coat check.  I can hear the orchestra play the prelude of the Giselle score.  I throw my coat over the counter, and look for the nearest open door to the theatre.  In the dark, I stumble to a seat, and then see Chris waving at me across the isle.  The only way to get to her is to go back out the door, and in the next one to my right.  I head out, and a lady blocking the door I need to enter stops me.  She points back the way I came, and wonder back into the dark theatre.  I guess I can meet up with Chris at intermission. 

The theatre is amazingly beautiful.  A brilliant chandelier hangs from the center of the blue ceiling covered in chubby cherubs.  On either side of the stage, private boxes encrusted with white gold are stacked one on top of the other.  Patrons lean over their edges as twig thin ballerinas clip clop in toe shoes across the stage. 


The story of Giselle is a bit ridiculous.  It begins by introducing the beautiful Giselle, a peasant girl who is in love with duke Albrecht of Silesia, although she is unaware of his nobility.  The gamekeeper, Hilarion is also in love with Giselle, and in a fit of jealousy reveals Albrecht causing Giselle to run mad and die.  My sister and I saw this ballet while in Rome a year ago, and having no idea what the story was, made up a plot in our heads that in no way resembled what was actually happening.

During the first act, several cell phones ring, and to my surprise, people answer them and have hushed conversations!  Ok, it’s not alright to take your coat into the theatre with you, but perfectly acceptable to have a full blown conversation with someone during the show?!??

Once the first act concludes, Chris and I meet back up and discuss our thoughts on the show so far.  We both agree that Duke Albrecht and Hilarion would be well played by two guys in our own cast, Greg and Adrian.  We laugh about the idea of them moonlighting in the Russian ballet, and when the orchestra conductor, a shorter man with a limp, walks into the pit to a thunderous applause, Chris jokes and says, “Oh, there’s Dennis.  He was here all along!” 

The curtain rises and as the applause dies down, Chris and I quietly sneak cookies from our shopping bag, not wanting to get yelled at by the angry ladies in the coatroom.  The scene is of Giselle’s grave marker.  Duke Albrecht enters upstage left wearing a long, black cloak.  He then, for what seems like forever, proceeds to slowly develope across the stage towards Giselle’s grave to a very dramatic and mournful ditty.  He eventually reaches the grave, and as the music crescendos he throws off his cape to reveal a silver, sparkly leotard underneath.  Chris and I exchange glances as we suppress our giggles. 

The next scene features Hilarion expressing his grief in a rather spazy pas de deux.  Which awakens the Wilis ghosts, or female ghosts who died before their wedding.  The Wilis ghosts seek revenge for their untimely deaths and fulfill it by dancing Hilarion to death.  This is by far my favorite scene.  Hilarion spazzily prances about the ghosts and then seeks the approval of the Willis Queen by kneeling at her feet.  To which she shakes her head a points back to the dance floor.  “Not fruity enough!  Keep dancing!” she shouts in my inner dialogue.


After Hilarion collapses in exhausted death, Duke Albrecht then has his turn, but is saved by Giselle’s love.  Her act of bravery earns her freedom from the Wilis ghosts, and she returns to her grave to rest in peace. 


When the ballet ends, Chris and I applaud the dancers through the curtain call, and then search the theatre for Dennis.  We wander into a room used by patrons during the intermission.  The tradition is to walk in circles around the room to get the blood flowing in their legs before returning to see the second act.  No sign of Dennis.  In defeat, we head back to the Shamrock to have a nightcap before heading home. 

While sitting at the bar, we are approached by a man with a red twirly mustache who reminds me of Yosimite Sam from Looney Tunes.  We exchange stories, and we find out he is one of the three owners of this bar.  He says that several people who perform at the Mariinsky often come here after performances.  He takes a gander around the room, and points out the principal dancer we just saw perform as Giselle enjoying a drink with friends in the corner. 

Maya eventually joins us and we tell her all about the ballet.  After a while a rather Russian man loudly approaches us, and nuzzles his head into Maya’s neck.  They exchange a few words and then Maya introduces us to him.  He is a friend of hers from the opera theatre.  He plays Papageno in The Magic Flute.  When he pulls out a cigarette, Chris scolds him.

“How can you do that to your voice?” she asks.

“If I don’t smoke, I will end up a tenor,” he says in his thick Russian accent.  He buys us a round of vodka shots, and we swap stories until early in the morning.  In sheer Russian chivalry, he offers to buy us a car home, and we ride in style while starring at starry lights shine through St. Petersburg out our windows.