Copenhagen Feels Like Home. St. Petersburg? Not so Much (National Post June 11, 2008)

Barbara Kay, National Post 

Published: Wednesday, June 11, 2008

THE BALTIC SEA -Woody Allen once had me in stitches with a memorable riff about visiting another planet. He was astonished to find a mirror image of our own world, inhabited by beings resembling humans in every respect. Except one: "It's exactly like Earth, only they drink their Dr Pepper warm."

Funny. And yet it spoke to me ?

My husband Ronny and I know that we should want to visit places as disparate as possible from Canada. But our low tolerance for physical, linguistic or cultural challenges generally trumps the lure of any destinations involving precautionary inoculations, temperature extremes, special visas, or lists of potentially offensive gestures to memorize.

One must occasionally venture forth, however. To ensure that every day on a trip at least begins and ends in circumstances of relaxed vigilance, we pseudo-travel on cruise ships. I'm writing this on one right now, sitting on the ship's promenade and gazing out at a tranquil, sparkling Baltic Sea -- without a thought to pickpockets, disease-bearing mosquitoes or the whereabouts of a clean, queue-free WC.

A cruise ship? I know you disdainful real travelers wouldn't be caught dead on a cruise ship. But you see, that's one of my many anxieties, and by no means the worst -- me or Ronny being caught dead travelling, I mean -- and it is comforting that the personnel on these floating nurseries, the Super Nannies of the travel world, would know just what to do in that, as in every other negative eventuality.

The Baltic Sea cruise offers a perfect balance of familiarity and strangeness. For familiarity, you can't beat Scandinavia: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki and Oslo -- small populations, big spaces -- all remind one of Canada. Everyone is polite and friendly (in beautiful English), but not too friendly. Just like us! Even the landscape is the same as ours, just differently arranged.

There are certain warm-Dr Pepper differences: In Copenhagen, for example, the McDonald's and Burger Kings look exactly like ours, but don't serve breakfast; after-dinner cheese plates are accompanied by diced pork jelly, chopped red onions, stone ground mustard and rum to pour over the cheese (!); they put whipped cream and jam on top of ice cream cones; and hotdogs are vertically stuffed into short Frenchbread tubes that come midway up the dog, so only the bottom half has mustard on it. Puzzling, but benign.

St. Petersburg was the trip's two-day highlight. For awe, yes. For the delights of familiarity, nyet.

Neither words nor pictures can adequately convey the magnificence of the Hermitage and the czars' and czarinas' palaces, their priceless baroque furnishings and extravagantly sculpted grounds. These outsized monuments to cupidity, narcissism and the czars' pathological obsession with one-upping European royalty throw the viewer into aesthetic overload. Two solid days of exposure stagger the imagination, but -- given the history behind all this obscene opulence-- sickens the soul.

The cruel and stupid czars and communist tyrants are gone, but the insecurities and controlling impulses remain. Putin's residence is, tellingly, a magnificent former palace, commandeered and refurbished to czornographic standards with the familiar Russian goal of intimidating Western peers. (What does this say about our penny-pinching around 24 Sussex? Our obsession with self-effacement is morally charming, but equally inappropriate.)

Even the lame humour of our gently melancholy tour guide bore witness to the default gloom and anxiety of ordinary Russian life: "Here in St. Petersburg is nine months wyinter and three months dyisappointment," and "Weyll, dyear ladiss and gintlemen, now you have seen the magnyificent territories of Peterhof, plizz do not be late to the tour bus after your small purchases, yes? Or perhyaps I will be sent to Sibyeria and tortured ?"

A few years ago, we voted Tommy Douglas, the father of medicare, the "greatest Canadian." The Danes one-upped us: In 2004, by a wide margin -- Nobel scientist Niels Bohr came second -- they voted Hans Christian Andersen, a writer of fairy tales for children, the "Greatest Dane." Other Scandinavian cities show off their composers and sculptors -- Helsinki's Sibelius, Oslo's Vigelands -- to visitors. These healthy countries radiate positive vibes.

But as for Russia's tourist-directed "greats" -- the megalomaniacal Peter, Catherine and company -- you real travellers can have them and their material wonders. Russia is truly an alien planet to me, its sad or surly inhabitants too inclined to view suffering and endurance through a sentimental lens for my comfort. I'd willingly return to drink happy Scandinavia's warmDr Pepper again, but henceforth lugubrious, willfully feudal Russia and this pseudo-traveller will be ships that pass in the night.