It was the middle of summer, less than a week before school ended for the long holidays. I was about thirteen years old, sat in assembly, the other kids in my year shuffling and shifting around, not really listening, impatient to get outside in the rare sunshine. A girl from the sixth form was giving a presentation about the school her family had all built together in Africa.
I don’t remember where that school was now. I don’t even remember that girl’s name. All I remember is that the second I learnt about international volunteering, it was all I wanted to do.
I was nineteen before I got the chance. I’d spent the last three years volunteering in charity shops, frustrated that I couldn’t make a bigger difference, longing to have the money and the freedom to go somewhere else and really do something. That was all I wanted: it wasn’t about the travel at all. In fact, as a teenager, I was more than a little bit of a homebird. In the end, I chose Russia because I’m rubbish with heat and, out of the long list of places my chosen organisation offered, it was the only cold one. All the amazing things there are to see in Russia and I chose it because of the weather! It seems so extraordinary now.
As my departure date got closer, I became more and more passionate about volunteering in Russia in particular. I’ll write about my volunteering experiences in another post, but suffice to say, if you’ve ever seen one of those documentaries on eastern European orphanages, you know what’s coming.
But still, it was about those orphanages. It was about making a difference. I had a hankering to see St Petersburg, remembering that I had adored the film Anastasia as a child and feeling like it would be a bit silly to fly all those miles and see nothing more than the city I was volunteering in, but that was literally it.
The weekend after I arrived, I found myself on a twelve-hour train journey to – where else? St Petersburg. The longer we spent on the train, the more excited I got. One of my fellow volunteers, Brittany, had sold everything – her car, her phone, her television, you name it – and taken as many part time jobs as she could to fund her way around the world. We spent the journey talking about some of the amazing places she had been and a whole new world was opened up to me. Before Russia, I could never have imagined that there were people who actually just spent their lives travelling to different places, without a job, without a home. Two years later and I am weeks away from being one of those people.
More than that, my childhood love for Russia was flowing back to me in spades. I suddenly remembered how I had watched Anastasia on constant repeat, three or four times a day, until the video tape wore out and my mother hid the television. I had (briefly although earnestly, in typical seven-year-old style) decided to become an archaeologist, even though I could barely spell the word, so that I personally could find and verify the remains of the Romanovs (bearing in mind this was before the days of the internet and when my biggest source of information was Disney films). I spent months daydreaming about where Anastasia could be and what would happen if she was found and restored to the throne. Waiting to arrive in St Petersburg was like waiting to greet my seven-year-old self and all of her wonderful daydreams.
We arrived early in the morning into what was genuinely the most incredible place I have ever seen. “St Petersburg is more beautiful than Venice,” the Russian man in the bunk opposite told me proudly. “And it has more canals.”
Even the most normal of buildings have elaborate architecture
Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood – so big you can’t even get it into one straight photograph
The canals thing didn’t really impress me too much considering my home city of Birmingham apparently also has more canals than Venice and it’s probably the ugliest place I’ve ever seen (sorry, fellow Brummies), but he was right. We stepped off the train and even from that platform (bearing in mind that in Europe, the train station is often located in the worst part of the city) I could see that every inch of St Petersburg was built with purpose. Every single building, from the banks to the museums to the corner shops, looked like it had been built by the same designer. Nothing was incongruous. Even the crumbling, abandoned buildings were nicer than many of the newest ones in England. Everywhere I looked, there were golden-gilded onion domes (“candles to God,” my volunteer coordinator told me later), statues and fountains holding up porches over normal front doors – even the street lamps were stunning.
Even the smallest churches have onion domes
Fountains at Peterhof
Our hotel was taking a while to sort out both of the rooms so we all piled into the Charlie’s, the only guy of the group, to wait. I sat on the windowsill, staring out at the rain (have I mentioned that I love rain? Nothing else could have made me feel more at home). We all fulfilled a few stereotypes by updating our travel journals and then I sat back in that window, reading Pride & Prejudice (my favourite book – it goes everywhere with me) and occasionally stopping to just stare out into the world below.
Sitting in the hotel window and the view later in the night
I thought I couldn’t possibly be any more in love with the place, but the best was yet to come.
We took one of those ridiculously cheesy and ridiculously awesome tour buses, scrambling up to the top deck to get the best view. I nearly fell over the rail more than a few times, straining to take photos as we whizzed past landmarks. The earphone commentary informed us that the greatest love of Tsar Nicholas II’s life, one of the most talented ballerinas Russia had ever known, had been brutally killed in St Petersburg during the rise of communism – and also that the Romanovs once owned a pet elephant. Once we had driven around once, we went around again and got off at every stop. I couldn’t believe the exquisite detail every single church was absolutely full of, every square inch painted and bejewelled, each window designed so the light will fall right onto the open Bible below. Brittany whisked me off to the Dostoevsky Museum – his house perfectly preserved, right down to his bowler hat on the table (albeit covered by a glass case now), his pen and paper ready on the desk in front of a window whose view has apparently not changed in all these intervening years. Everything I saw and heard was straight out of a fairytale.
Bride fulfilling the Russian tradition of having her wedding photos taken at all the local landmarks – visiting Russia is like playing Spot the Bride.
Just one of the elaborate orthodox churches
Tourists at the Winter Palace
Later, we got hungry in the middle of the night so we wandered around the city trying to find a likely looking takeaway. In the end, we stumbled upon a window that claimed (according to Brittany, who was the only one of us who actually knew any decent Russian – mine was pretty much limited to “there are cockroaches in my bed!” thanks to the ubiquitous Lonely Planet phrasebook) they sold cheap pizza inside. It actually turned out to be a ridiculously fancy restaurant, complete with white walls, white chairs, white tablecloths and a white grand piano where someone was playing the Beatles (apparently it’s a universal thing). They inexplicably gave us our takeaway pizza in a rather less fancy black bin bag and sent us on our way.
We joked afterwards that there must have been something in that pizza, but in reality, I think we were all genuinely just deliriously happy. I have never bonded with a set of people so quickly in my life and there we were, brand new friends on the biggest adventure of our lives (or of my life, at least), thrown into this incredible city together, eating amazing pizza and singing Anastasia songs out of the hotel window at bewildered Russians below. Charlie flopped down on the floor, using the pizza bin bag as a pillow, and declared, “I am in love with everything tonight.”
So were we all.
And that was it. Suddenly, it was just as much about the travel and the experience as it was about the volunteering. That was the moment when I knew that I would never be able to give this up.
When did you first realise that travel was going to become a part of your life?