When the articulate young Russian woman at the St. Petersburg hotel front desk gave me exact directions to a shop a couple blocks behind the hotel that most tourists don't ever find on their own, I knew that I would have my best chance at locating a Russian nativity scene to add to my international collection.
The hotel was color-schemed in a deep red and green brocade on the walls and thick rugs on the floors, which the desk clerk matched so well on purpose I would presume. You might consider it an overstatement as I did. My own room had two walls of red and the other two were green making it rather dark in appearance especially for a climate that is mostly cloudy anyhow. After a day or so, I became rather used to it, and there was something comforting about going to sleep under a red brocade coverlet surrounded by the heaviness of the decor from another century.
I thanked the desk clerk profusely for being so kind, and I assumed the role of a gushy American tourist the likes of which the Russians don't quite understand. She was a petite red-head dyed as so many other Russian women in unnaturally dark shades of browns, blacks or reds and wore her dark green uniform stylishly. There's a formality to Russsian people that distances them from others, and the desk clerk was no different, although she did show an interest in my problem.
I gathered up a couple others from our tour group that were searching for specific items, and we headed out the hotel in the direction of the shop. It was right where the young woman at the front desk said that it would be located, and in fact, it was quite massive in size from the spacious windows stretching a bit down the avenue.
When I opened the front door we were the only customers from my first glance inside. Several clerks came to us eagerly and guided each one of us to where we wanted to look all the while pounding us with one question after another about our United States presidents of the past twenty years. I deferred, and I later found out that the others in my group did pretty much, too. We were all on a shopping mission, and none of us minded lighter conversation. The Russians up to this point on my trip had been guarded, and I was surprised at the sudden openness here. Perhaps, I missed my window of opportunity. I'll never know.
My personal clerk followed me into a room of glass cases filled with nativity scenes and it was there on the bottom shelf that I found just the perfect one. The tiny handcarved faces were so expressive and filled with awe when I took a second look. A Russian artisan created a beautiful piece that would sit on my table for years to come.
The clerk took it apart and wrapped each piece individually in bubblewrap for the long trip home.
With a handshake and a shot of vodka , I left with my friends.