The Russian National Sport: Qualifying Round at the Hermitage

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The river side of the Winter Palace and Hermitage: The correct side to enter from.

Nobody gets out of bed until around eleven, it’s a rainy day and that helps us all enjoy the extra sleep.  We decided that the Hermitage would be the place to visit today, but now we will only have a few hours to explore something that friends have advised me to spend a few days visiting.  The Hermitage is the truly amazing and extensive art gallery and museum that resides in two adjoining buildings; the old Winter Palace and the Hermitage itself.  The three of us head for the city whilst Alisha makes for work to try and finish something off before meeting us for dinner.  The journey into the city doesn’t take long and we find ourselves approaching the Winter Palace filled with anticipation of the experience.

I’m staring at the strangest statue atop an enormous column in the middle of Palace Square.  It’s an angel carrying an enormous cross, but it appears to have no head.  Who would build a headless angel memorial? What significance that could possibly have?  I’ve never heard of this before in any kind of icon   Maybe it’s some saint who got beheaded while….ummm…carrying a huge cross.  Okay, maybe not.  Maybe it’s some Russian Orthodox symbolism at work, who needs a head when you’ve got faith?  I’m almost disappointed when we move past it walking towards the Hermitage entrance and the head appears, bowed deeply.  Apparently this forty-seven metre tall, six hundred tonne monolith was the largest free standing monument in the world for some time and probably still is the largest one carved from stone.  It was placed there after the Napoleonic wars as a ‘gift’ from the Russian people to the Tsar Alexander I.  More recently this square also heralded the start of the 1917 revolution.  The storming of the Winter Palace marked the first of ‘Seven Days that Changed the World’ as the famous book puts it.  However, there’s no reminder of that history standing here in Palace square.  The huge mobs of hungry Russian peasants and workers are replaced with throngs of tourists and locals surging around the Hermitage entrance.  A few young people have set up easels and are painting the square from different views while another couple are dressed as Peter the Great and his wife to hustle tourists for the photo opportunity.  We move to join the queue of people buying tickets.

If you arrive on a sleigh, you skip the queue.

Russia has long been known for its sporting prowess, but there are some sports that have been overlooked by the outside world for too long.  It’s time to cast a light on the true Russian national sport; queuing.  They love it, they’re bloody good at it and they take every opportunity to practice a little.  I think if three Russians stand in a line, more will join instinctively to have a chance to receive whatever is at the end of it.  I think Australia had better start funding our athletes before this quiet sport takes over the world by storm.  The queue here is about three or four people wide and moving very slowly as each small group passes into the building and the ticket office inside.  After about forty minutes of training to make the first Australian entry to the Russian national sporting festival, we finally make it to the door.  Having waited another few minutes to actually pass through the hallowed gateway, we’re inside the building with just ten more metres to reach the end of the event at the two ticket windows.

I then notice another ‘Kassa’ sign that suggests if I leave the queue and venture ten metres in a different direction, there are two separate ticket offices.  I ponder this for a while.  Why would everyone queue only for the two visible ones?  Why was no-one else even walking over to check the validity of this sign?  Surely the other two windows would be closed in line with the well established Russian principles of customer service:
1.    There cannot be enough people serving.  There can be enough serving windows, but they should be largely closed.
2.    The transaction process must be difficult and should preferably involve some form to be filled in with a pen.
3.    There must be insatiable demand for any service provided combined with a complete lack of desire on the part of the workers to perform the service.
I’m with Don and Lari, so I take the crazy leap of faith and walk around the corner expecting confirmation of the principles.  I find two perfectly operational ticket windows with just a few people waiting at each one.  I read the signs to see if these are special purpose windows, I was already familiar with that trick of Russian service by now.  They will place a decoy window with someone doing nothing behind it.  You can only do one thing at this window, but whatever that one thing is, it will not be what you want and they will be unable to do anything else under any circumstances.  However, that isn’t true here; they are absolutely identical to the other windows in every way.  Well, except for one small detail; they lack the hundred and fifty odd people waiting to use them.

This is when I notice that people entering from the river side are just strolling up to these windows, joining the very short queue and getting tickets very quickly.  Filled with rage at my own stupidity in succumbing to the herd mentality, I quickly apprise my friends of the situation and we skip around the corner to get our tickets in less than two minutes.  I now understand that waiting for the train tickets to be delivered yesterday was simply another aspect of the Russian training program for this new event.  There are also summer and winter variations of the gentle sport of queueing; sweating and freezing.  Myself and my two friends are now, I think, at the top of the amateur league in queuing Russian style; but only in the summer sport.  I’m seeking a government grant to revisit in winter to continue my training; after all, Australians have to be the very best in every sport

These fun preliminaries aside, we ditch our bags and head to join the tour of the diamond exhibition that’s currently open.  This involves an English speaking guide showing us through a special, heavily guarded, part of the Hermitage that holds…..well…. a lot of diamonds.  It comprises a host of bejewelled gifts for the imperial family from a number of countries as well as some of their more expensive personal trinkets.  It includes some paper thin crafted gold jewellery that I’ve never seen equalled before, along with beautifully sculptured metalwork with fine filigree details of grape vines and fruit.  The presents from Iranian royalty are the most exquisitely extravagant.  Swords encrusted with precious gemstones and diamonds, whole outfits threaded with gold and gemstones that are all overwhelming.  The exhibition is truly beautiful and I’m sure inconceivably priceless.

Alexander the Grouse fighting them damn Persians

After exiting from the onslaught of riches, we decide that the best approach to our short time inside the Hermitage will be to try and enjoy every room in the Winter Palace and try to visit as much as we can elsewhere.   This begins an almost timeless afternoon where the three of us separate and rejoin randomly over time.  Don disappears while we’re exploring a room full of white marble statues and Lari and I don’t even notice for three more rooms.  Each room absorbs your attention quietly and divinely.  In one room a finely detailed silver partridge sits in an equally detailed tree inside a metal cage.  Another room has been painted with hundreds of frescoed stories in the style of a similar room in the Vatican.

It was apparently created as a competition piece.  We pose with statues, form a dancing procession on a staircase and duck and weave through the busy throngs of people.  Lari and I find Don somewhere later babbling about a throne room.  We haven’t seen it, so the three of us spend our time looking for it again in-between the corridors and rooms filled with tapestry and paintings, statues and lamplights, crystal, wood, malachite and marble. 

Thrones and fabulous marble staircases feature more than once and it’s during this whirlwind tour I appreciate more and more what my other friends had meant by spending more time.  It’s possible to fly through most of the rooms of the hermitage buildings and the winter palace in the space of a few hours, but there are so many places you could happily stay and savour for days.  This is especially true during summer with natural light playing across the wooden floors, furniture and rooms.  Once again I feel I would have to learn to paint to capture anything of the spirit of this city, I don’t think photographs can ever make it feel the same.

I’m not a pheasant plucker, I’m a pheasant plucker’s wife.  I’m only plucking pheasants it’s a pheasant plucking life.

A voice announces that the Hermitage is closing while we’re busy making a pass through the galleries of past masters and then more modern offerings.  Perhaps the speed of our visit made me miss things, but the only art on display that really captured me was a wooden sculpture of a woman falling off a chair.  The clash of bodies in motion set into permanent suspension by the wood is an addictive revelation. 
The detail was perfect and you somehow believed that this unfortunate soul had been transformed into wood by an ancient creature with mystical powers.  We are quite lost in the maze of rooms and corridors and end up being herded out by the museum staff, eager to go home themselves.  We finally make it back to the familiar opening rooms near the entrance and enjoy passing by the white marble statues before emerging back into normality

Athena with some hot lesbos action

The atmosphere inside the Hermitage certainly feels like some parallel world, even when you can look out of the windows and see the boats on the Neva and people on the street; it still feels separate.  I wonder if I’ll get a chance to spend more time in there as I retrieve my jacket and we pause by the souvenir shops.  Don ends up buying a framed print of a picture he particularly liked.  It’s a rectangle more than half a metre across and half a metre wide that is sure to become an amusing burden.  He does always tend to live for the moment and relish them as they flow irrevocably past; life without too much concern for the future.  We exit the Hermitage feeling hungry and looking for instant gratification.

I bet she likes to ‘Club the Lobster’ all night long
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