“Go on, just give her the tickets and walk through. Don’t say anything; now is not the time to practise your Russian. Don’t look in their eyes, they’ll know you’re not from here. For the love of God, don’t smile!” said Vlad, shoving me towards the lady holding court at the turnstile of the Mariinsky Theatre.
After going to such great effort to buy us ballet tickets at Russian prices, there was no way he was going to let me spoil it all with my overly expressive English face. After a week in St Petersburg, I was getting used to this drill. To get a ticket at Russian prices, you needed to show a Russian passport. Vlad would disappear for any period up to twenty minutes, visiting separate ticket booths in turn, before returning with a smile on his face, and four heavily reduced tickets in his hand. Previously, the tickets had always remained firmly with him, but now it was my turn.
I turned to see him heading for the exit, obviously not keen to witness whatever chaos was about to ensue. Fortunately, there was no way I was going to let my face spoil it either. Stern face on, cheekbones at the ready, I pushed forward. The cheekbones obviously did the trick. After being shouted at by only three people (the average for most of our Russian experiences was closer to five, and since starting to learn Russian I have discovered that they were probably being incredibly polite), we were ushered through the cloak room, around a corner and into our seats just as the lights went down.
As a first ballet experience, going to the Mariinsky Theatre is hard to beat. I wasn’t sure if ballet was going to be my thing, but we were all enraptured by the performance of Don Quixote. Even if my suspicions had been confirmed, I would have been perfectly happy to spend three hours gazing up at the incredible painted ceiling and at the gilded boxes surrounding us.
Two intervals provided the ideal opportunity to people watch, take pictures of the theatre and buy programmes. Thankfully we only needed to pretend to be Russian as we went in. The lady selling the programmes was obviously a little suspicious of our language skills when they involved holding up a number of fingers and getting our pajalstas and spasibas all mixed up. If she was curious about why we were buying programmes written entirely in Russian, she didn’t mention it.
After the show, we left the Mariinsky Theatre with raindrops falling gently on our heads, and walked back towards the communist era behemoth that was the Hotel Moscow, our residence for the week. I looked around this magical city of contrasts, the old and the new, the Russian and the European, the Soviet and the Imperial, wondering what new adventures would be coming our way tomorrow, and I fell a little bit more in love with the place.