Once upon a time, in the very north-west of Russia…
This is fairy-tale country. This is the land of silver birches and vast lakes and peace. There is not a single car to be heard – only briefly, as we wander along the sandy shore, a mountain bike with a primitive motor grumbles past us across the uneven ground. The air is clear and fresh and lifts your spirits the moment you step onto the platform an hour’s distance from St Petersburg.
We took the train from Finland Station (famed for Lenin’s arrival there almost a century ago) and sat squeezed onto plastic orange seats facing each other. The carriage became more and more crowded as we slowly made our way north, exchanging the grey cityscape for countryside on a scale unrivalled in England. I tried to sleep while the others played a Russian word game, but every now and then I was distracted by Saul shaking with laughter beside me at the surreal nature of the journey: the merchandising and the folk songs and the people.
Sveta, the owner of the dacha and long-time friend of my hostess, Svetlana, was a stereotypical Russian grandmother: stout, kind and controlling. Her husband built the dacha, she told us as she showed us round the garden, proudly pointing out the ‘beautiful flowers’ to Iona and me (ignoring Saul) and feeding us tiny apples straight from the tree. And there beyond the greenhouse was the banya, a Russian sauna in which it is compulsory to strip naked and whip each other. For better or worse, we did not experience this national delight.
The CD player was brought outside and Tchaikovsky in all his majesty was followed by rather questionable Russian pop: we were told under no uncertain terms to dance, and so we did, wondering if this was real or whether it was, indeed, a bizarre fairy-tale. Sveta clapped her hands in delight.
She had studied English at school, she explained, and every now and then would present a strongly accented English word such as ‘cake’ or ‘blackberry’ for us to admire, as if it were the real thing. Of course, we did also experience the real thing: she plied us with green tea and little pies called pirozhki made in a portable old-fashioned oven and wafer-cakes and homemade jam. We ate together outside, and Saul, Iona and I pretended to know what the Russians were talking about (Brexit was attempted, but soon dismissed).
Finally, she produced the collection of little fabric dolls that she had made by hand with incredible attention to detail: a clown, a Russian woman and girl in traditional dress, an angel, and even Alice in Wonderland.
We arrived back at the station an hour too early and waited, shivering and longing to sleep, as the sky darkened and the mosquitoes feasted on any exposed skin. The train, when it finally arrived, was thankfully not the crowded and entertaining petty-retail experience of the morning, but carried us smoothly back to the city of the tsars.