I went downstairs to the reception desk to check on the status of our guide who would drive us to Novgorod, an ancient Russian city first settled around 859 by the Vikings.
The front desk was on the second floor of our six storey hotel in St. Petersburg and was usually crowded with guests, but this morning at eight there was only one guest waiting. The sleepy girl as Linda and I called the receptionist appeared from behind a curtain to the left of the desk. She spoke only a little English and was patient with our limited Russian: hello, goodbye, thank you. Although I was practicing, Linda was braver. Sometimes she got it right, but often she would use the wrong word, saying thank you when she meant to say hello and hello when she meant to say goodbye.
"Yes?" the sleepy girl asked. She seemed to sway a little as if still half asleep. Her hair was slightly knotted above her right ear. I told her I was waiting for our guide to take us to Novgorod. "She is here," she pointed to the small lady seated in the chair to my left. I had seen the woman out of the side of my eye, but after meeting Natalia, our sophisticated Moscow guide, I had assumed this one was a hotel guest, perhaps one who had clogged up the breakfast line that morning taking extra scoops of boiled rice and pickled herring.
The lady stood up and immediately held out her hand for me to shake. "Good," she said, "I thought you would be two gentlemen."
I have sometimes been mistaken for one gentlemen, but never two.
"Sorry?" I said.
She pointed to her mouth to a gap in her teeth where a tooth was missing and said, "I am a little embarrassed by my tooth. That is why I am glad you are not two men."
Her explanation helped only slightly but I left it at that and we headed outside to find Linda.
I guessed she was in her mid-sixties. Her hair looked newly dyed -- a deep brown at the ends, fading to a purple tint around the scalp and roots. Her hounds-tooth print pants were tight revealing the contours of her underpants beneath. As she walked ahead of me to the hotel entrance where I could see Linda waiting outside she pulled her knit sweater down over her hips multiple times.
I introduced Linda and Emma, then we climbed into Emma's compact car. Linda quickly took the back seat which I knew meant she would most likely pass out, head back, mouth open, during the next two hours leaving me to do all the talking.
We took the same route out of St. Petersburg as we'd taken in that early first morning five days ago. Perhaps it was just that there were more cars on the roads at 11 am on a Tuesday, but I found the need to grasp the armrest tightly. I also felt my feet pressing against the floorboard on several occasions as if pushing down on anything -- an imaginary brake lever -- to make us not plow into the car in front of us.
"These drivers," Emma said shaking her head slowly. She turned and smiled at me. I smiled quickly then looked forward to monitor the approaching rear bumper of the car ahead of us.
"They're stopped!" I blurted suddenly when it appeared Emma did not plan to.
It felt odd to blurt this to a stranger, but Emma didn't seem to mind. She braked finally then began her guided tour, pointing to the Lenin statue outside a very Soviet looking grey building.
We talked for a while as we drove out to the main highway that connects St. Petersburg with Moscow. She told us she'd been a university professor, working with engineers as an interpreter. She'd got to travel quite a lot and enjoyed it. She'd lived in Cypress for almost two years and loved it.
"But I don't want to just sit around now, do nothing," she said. " I get to meet wonderful people like you ladies." she said. "But I must try to remember to make the right turn to Novgorod, or we end up in Moscow." She laughed a little revealing the gap in her teeth.
Yes, please pay attention, I begged silently. For the love of God, please pay attention.
She asked what I did for a job. I gave her my usual non-answer. Emma must have picked up on a hint of boredom in my tone because she said instantly that we should move to Russia and open a travel agency.
"You will become very rich. I will help you with contacts. Soon you will be very rich. Okay?" she said. " No problem."
"Really?" I said.
"Yes, no problem." I liked her confidence.
She had a habit of driving slowly in the fast lane. And fast in the slow lanes. Cars and semis blared their horns and cut in front of her, startling her each time.
"Oh!" she gasped. "Look how that guy drives."
I thought maybe there was no fast or slow lane on Russian highways. Maybe you could go any speed you liked in either lane and that was okay.
"Okay, okay I get over," she said and drifted into the right hand lane. I watched the car behind swing out suddenly to avoid her.
The freeway passed though a thick forest of tall thin ash trees. I thought of the stories I'd heard since we arrived of the Siege of Leningrad and imagined troops battling for territory in this forest. I mentioned to Emma how we had visited the Defense and Siege Memorial in St. Petersburg and how sad it was.
"Yes, the Fascists -- and I don't call them Germans, because I have met many lovely Germans -- destroyed much of St. Petersburg. Terrible, very terrible," she said. I figured she'd been born somewhere around the time of the German invasion and must have had relatives who had died during the Siege.
She successfully made the right turn into Novgorod and took city streets toward the ancient Novgorod fortress. Linda emerged from her coma and took out her camera.
"Pay no attention to all this," Emma said waving her hand dismissively at the the dreary outskirts. We passed Soviet era apartments buildings with laundry hanging from rusted balcony railings, statues of Russian fighter jets and tanks. There were banners strung across the road and I wondered if they were in celebration of some event. I'd read that Russians love their celebrations and will find any excuse to have one.
"What do they say?" I asked Emma.
Emma craned her neck and glanced up at the banners to read as we drove past. She read the words aloud:
"Nizhny Novgorod Bank. All kinds of lending for individuals."
She continued reading, craning her neck as we passed below the banners to read every last bit of promotion"...including mortgages and car loans"
Finally we pulled into the parking lot to old fortress. At the far end of the lot were a row of stalls filled with the usual tourist trinkets. I hoped we would park close to these and browse a little before heading into the old city.
"Okay," Emma said. "We are here at last!" She seemed proud of herself. I wondered how many times she missed the exit and headed toward Moscow. She turned off the ignition and set the handbrake.
I looked out the car window. We'd come to a halt at a few feet into the parking lot, directly over a white arrow pointing to actual parking spaces. I noticed Linda was peering out the rear window also. A car pulled up behind us and patiently waited for us to move as Emma reached for her purse and opened the car door.
"Emma, this isn't a parking spot," Linda said at last. I hadn't the heart to dampen her excitement at getting us here.
"Yes, yes it's parking see," she said and pointed to the several dozen other cars lined up in neat rows ahead of us.
"Yes, this is a parking lot, but this" -- Linda tapped on the window and pointed to the cement below the car -- "is not."
The car behind us honked, a short toot of incredulity at Emma's parking choice.
"Well okay," Emma said and put the key back in the ignition. "I move." She drove into an actual parking space and stopped halfway. The hood of the car aligned with the middle of the car to our right.
"Do you think perhaps our guide is blind?" I whispered to Linda as waved her forward from outside the car until she was aligned correctly.
Eventually the car was parked and we headed toward the gift stand to check out the trinkets.
"Do svidaniya! " -- goodbye -- Linda waved abd greeted the woman seated at the stall.
Novgorod turned out to be a huge bust. We walked inside the lovely redbrick walls past the palace towers surrounding the city to find nothing but scaffolding, cement trucks, students spreading cement and laying bricks, mounds of rubble and empty food wrappers the construction works had left behind.
Emma apologized and asked if we'd like to go somewhere else. Linda mentioned another part of the old city on the opposite side of the river Volkhov, but the bridge, too was currently under construction with workers laying a new surface of tar.
I was ready to call it a day. Put my life in Emma's hands and drive back to St. Petersburg but Linda opened her guide book and mentioned a site nearby, the Vitoslavitsy open air museum of wood houses. While we went to the bathroom, Emma asked a local for directions. We returned to find Emma studying a scribbled drawing on a napkin.
"I've got it,"she said. "We go here," she pointed with her finger to a wiggly line the man had drawn, "turn left here, then left here." The final left did not look like a left to me, but more like the man had changed his mind and scratched out the left. But Emma seemed certain it was a left turn.
"Yes," she said running her finger over the scribbled mess,"I can get us there."
We left the parking lot, made a left, and then another left until we found ourselves careening down a dirt road rutted with potholes. Linda's body bouncing up and down in the back seat. I knew this kind blind alley approach to driving drove Linda crazy and I was glad it was Emma at the wheel and not me.
I didn't mind the adventure of heading down a road to see where it might go and from the looks of it Emma didn't mind either. "Oh that's a big hole I hit," she said as the car rocked sharply from side to side. Still she forged on. I held onto the hand rest tightly. The road narrowed further. Tall grasses brushed the car's windows.
"Give me that napkin! " Linda said at last.
We found the open air museum. Emma purchased our tickets requesting the local, non-tourist entrance rate for all three of us.
"Here," she said, handing them to us, "today you are Russians."
The old wooden structures were collected from all over the region and brought to the museum for restoration and repair work. Fortunately for us, they were not still under construction. We walked inside the dark interior of one. I thought, I could live here.
On the drive back to St. Petersburg, I drifted off to sleep in the front seat and awoke just as Emma made a right onto a freeway on ramp. I watched in slow motion and horror as she steered directly toward an oncoming car.
"Oncoming!" I blurted.
"Trust me," she said as she swerved out of the car's path at the very last moment. "I drive seventeen years. No accidents. Not to worry."
I looked to Linda in the backseat. She put her head back down against the seat and closed her eyes. I thought, there is nothing I can do so I closed my eyes too. Images of the day floated through my head. The blue and gold church domes against the sky, the Volkhov river, the sound of the wind blowing through tall thin ash trees.
"If die, today, it will be as a Russian."