Shades of Gray: Mixing Light and Dark in St. Petersburg, Russia | My Family Travels

For some, it’s a place; for others, an idea. Whether tangible or not, everyone has a home, and everyone can speak proudly of its attractions and appeal to visitors.

I have two. There is the home I was born with – the townhouse in a quiet suburb in California; and there is the home I discovered – the cramped apartment in the beautiful, tumultuous, scarred, apathetic, vibrant city that is St. Petersburg, Russia.

For me, the difference between travel and tourism is embracing all parts of a place, not just those that paint it in a rose-tinted light. During my two-week stay there, I experienced St. Petersburg’s flaws as well as its beauty. I took the route of travel rather than tourism, a decision that allowed me to call the city my home, and one that I recommend for anyone wishing to experience a place, not just see it.

St. Petersburg’s most unforgettable trait is its architecture. Even the simple act of taking a walk down the Nevsky Prospect, the most famous street in the city, left me with soreness from craning my neck to appreciate every detail of the intricate moldings, statues, and other works of art that decorate every building, from stores to government offices to apartment buildings. Furthermore, St. Petersburg is known as the “Venice of the North,” and for good reason: the city is home to numerous rivers and canals, and a trip along them by boat opens up a whole new world of decorative bridges, street views, and urban beauty.

St. Petersburg holds the title of “cultural center of Russia”, and in this, it does not disappoint. The city is home to the Hermitage, one of the world’s premier art museums, which stuns visitors from the start with the vastness of its collection. The Hermitage contains works of art that span every time period and location known to man, from contemporary sculpture to Chinese tapestry to ancient Egyptian sarcophagi to Renaissance paintings. Adding to the beauty of the collection is the architecture; the museum is housed in the former Winter Palace of the royal family, and demonstrates the opulence and magnificence one would expect of a czar. Marble floors, thirty-foot vaulted ceilings, crystal chandeliers, ballrooms decorated in gold leaf, and every luxury imaginable create feelings of awe that are hard to hold back.

These descriptions beautifully illustrate one part of St. Petersburg: the part meant to please. However, living with a family friend in her apartment allowed me to experience daily life in St. Petersburg, life that is not always picture-perfect. Many apartment complexes outside the city center are small, dirty, and constantly smell of mold. Poverty and pollution are rife, evidence of a city still recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union only two decades before. Yet even among these troubled experiences, I was able to find joy and feel at home in the simple acts of cooking in the sunlit kitchen or sharing tea with family.

Knowing a place is like knowing a person. You can’t truly know or deeply understand until you’ve seen everything – the good and the bad, the beauty and the ugliness. I loved the beauty in St. Petersburg, yes; but only when I accepted the city as a whole, only when I embraced its darkness along with its light, did I truly come to call it my home. The world is painted in shades of gray, and St. Petersburg’s gray is one that I will carry with me even on the brightest of days in a quiet suburb in California.

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