A Little Synagogue, A Little Shopping: St. Petersburg

by Rachel on October 31, 2009

The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg

On our third day in St. Petersburg our local cousin served as our mini-bus guide. Mini-buses were everywhere in St. Petersburg, filled with all sorts of tourists, none of them Americans. Rather, they were filled with small town Russians, in to see the Big City, and a smattering of Europeans, and Middle Easterners, but nary an American in sight. My cousin was itching to take us to her Synagogue, renovated with money graciously donated by a Jewish family from New York. The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg was a beautiful, quite spiritual place and according to our tour guide was the third largest Synagogue in Europe (I’m not sure if this was referring to square footage, or membership). The ceilings were spectacular. We saw our fair share of remarkable ceilings during that summer. When one is touring churches, synagogues and palaces one often has to remind oneself to look up. Gorgeous, ornate, intricate designs are everywhere, but particularly UP, tucked into carved crannies and looming large on cross beams.

The Ceiling of the Grand Choral Synagogue

After our morning relishing the glory of the Grand Choral Synagogue we felt it fitting to engage in some blatant consumerism. It is all a balance: a little time in the presence of the divine, a little time shopping for trinkets – our approach to travel in a nutshell. “Souvenir Shops” are ever present in Russia and they all have exactly the same merchandise: lacquer boxes, hand carved chess sets, etchings, dolls, amber, embroidery and post cards. The particular shop we visited hadn’t been my cousin’s first choice but she lost out in a battle of wills with the mini-van driver. Once through with shopping the driver let my cousin (whom he believed was our paid guide) in on a professional secret – the drivers and guides receive kickbacks from the shops for bringing in clients. They get paid a fee whether the tourists buy anything or not, and they get 20% of all purchases. My cousin was horrified to hear this and turned over her ill-gotten gains as soon as we got back to our hotel. This explained our NOT requested “rest-stop” on our first day in St. Petersburg. Guide Masha took us into a Souvenir Shop, explaining that they had free coffee and clean restrooms, and also a FEE for her (well, she left that part out). Masha’s take that day must have been quite substantial, as my husband had purchased an expensive chess set and military hats for the boys.

And speaking of the boys, all of them, well, they were pooped. Vacations can be exhausting, and our three-week non-stop jam-packed museum, church, synagogue, palace, shop, park, Russia-fest was one of the most tiring holidays we’ve ever had. My husband, sons, and father thought it best to spend this particular afternoon horizontal. We, the girls (my sister, cousin and I), put on our best shopping shoes and hoofed it to Nevsky Prospekt. The prominent shopping street in St. Petersburg, it teems with tourists, souvenir shops (all paying a handsome fee to tour guides for herding in their unknowing clientele), and a large number of mid-range stores peddling everything from chocolate, to handbags to shoes. I hesitate to use the word “crap” to describe the offerings, but Rodeo Drive it is not. Let’s just say that most Russians would give their eyeteeth to shop for pretty much anything in the U.S. There is little draw for the reverse. A lovely looking chocolate shop, which was selling all sorts of exotic looking cocoa products, tempted us. Being that I am a card-carrying chocoholic and all of my known relatives belong to the same illustrious group, I went forth with my Mastercard and bought a wide sampling of the offerings. Here is my theory, if you’ve never been to Belgium, France, Switzerland, or America AND you’ve never sampled sweets made in those fine chocolate producing lands, Russian chocolate is fine, even some might say, good. However, if you’ve ever, and I stress the use of the word ever, tasted any chocolate made outside of the former USSR, and you go on a chocolate buying spree on Nevsky Prospekt, you’ll find yourself back in your hotel tearing open your purchases only to find that the product inside is wax, not a taste sensation, and you’ll be tempted to take a match to it and set it on fire.

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