ST. PETERSBURG – Priests chanting. Incense burning. Believers bowing their heads and making the sign of the cross. I wandered into Nikolsky Cathedral and watched a week night service.
I was on a scouting trip to the Mariinsky Theatre and I was trying to figure out how to walk to Metro after the ballet. I took a detour and followed people into this stunning ice blue church.
Latecomers ducked under the chain separating the faithful from the visitors. Paintings of saints were framed in gold. Priests wore ruby red robes with gold trimmings. A choir off to the side backed up priests as they chanted their prayers. Then, the faithful lined up to kiss the priests hand and receive a blessing. One man in a trench coat had a huge bouquet of white flowers. He chatted with the priest as if they were college buddies.
Like my other experiences in houses of worship, there’s something mystical and powerful about listening to a religious service in a language other than English. Forget about context and history. I’m listening with my heart and adding my silent prayers to the chanting, bowing and incense.
At the Mariinsky Theatre, I shared a box with a man from Cleveland who was on a 4-month couch surfing tour of Europe. He said he was trying to go down to Istanbul and Casablanca. He also plans on meeting his brother in Copenhagen.
Spartacus was his first ballet. Ever.
I was also sitting with a couple from Australia. The gentleman was from Bogota, Columbia, and his wife grew-up in St. Petersburg. They met when he was studying in St. Petersburg in the early 1980s.
Their daughters speak English, Spanish and a little Russian.
They say some things have changed since Soviet times….others, especially the bureaucracy, remains the same.
The Columbian said he remembered stores being full with people determined to buy food from a dwindling supply. In 2010, shopping is no big deal in St. Petersburg. He said the colorful, historic buildings looked the same to him.
His wife said she could see a difference in building maintenance. She said she thought everyone took it for granted that all streets, sidewalks and buildings were kept in good condition in the 1980s. In 2010, she sees more public spaces neglected.
“The Mariinsky Theatre is the same,” she said. “It’s Russia.”
Her husband said I should see Columbian ballet shows.
“They’re just as good as the Russians,” he said. “They have hips.”
Then, the couple asked me: “How is Obama doing?”