I didn’t know what to expect when I opted to cruise through the Baltic Sea. All I knew was that I would have a once in a lifetime chance to see Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Denmark, and Russia. When my mother let me know that it would be our next adventure, I excitedly began to do my research. We would have more than enough time in Copenhagen and I already knew the fashion stores that I wanted to visit before we even left for the airport. On my research expedition, somehow, I stumbled on racial relations in Russia often involving the incoming and diverse university students. I shrugged it off, packed my bags and set out.
When we arrived to Russia, we were told to be well spoken at customs and to have everything in hand. I stood in line to officially enter the country with my passport and with my usual curly fro peaking at least three inches from my head. It was a usual style for me that I was comfortable wearing after fully accepting the natural hair revolution. The attendant reviewing my documentation paused when I came to the window and glanced at me with wide eyes. She looked down at my passport (in which I sported butt length Senegalese twists) and looked back up at me. I turned around to see if I had missed the point and met eyes with her again. She slowly released a smile, a smile she had not previously shown, and lifted her hand to give me a thumbs up. “I like your hair,” she said. She closed my passport and welcomed me to Russia. We were officially the only black people in St. Petersburg for the next few days. Well, at least for as far as the eye could see.
Travel + Leisure released a list of the world’s most unfriendly cities and to my surprise, St. Petersburg made the list at number three. Yes, it even beat out our previous New York City. I must give it to St. Petersburg though. Their entire city bleeds with historical pride and cultural arts. It also possesses a unique gloom that I have never felt in any other city. Each night, however, was filled with artsy excitement from a grand folk concert in an elaborate gallery to architectural beauty scattered across the city. If you’d like a preview of the traditional folk concert we attended, you can enjoy this Russian Folk Songs and Dance playlist on Spotify.
We chose to tour the city by double-decker bus and of course, with an opportunity like that, I need a top view to truly see the city from a lofty perspective. With my larger than life hair floating in the Russian afternoon wind, I noticed a child spotted me as the bus turned down a quiet street. The young child stopped, pointed up, at what could only be me and my hair, and tugged on his mother to share the observation. I looked away and went back to Google. Search: Are there black people in Russia? It sounds like a foolish assumption to make over such minor reactions but I had to know. I had not seen a single person with brown skin for two days and I was beginning to feel .. different. I found that while Russia does indeed have people of color, the population is no where comparable to my hometown of Dallas. In many of the responses from locals assuring tourists that the city was safe for all people to explore, a few offered disclaimers that you will always have people who hold on to not-so-appropriate feelings when encountered with unknown people.
We made our way to Saint Basil’s Cathedral to visit the “famous colorful building” you see in all of the pictures. It is truly as spectacular as you can imagine and the colors are more vibrant than life! Throngs of people gathered around taking as many pictures as possible before getting shoved off the sidewalk by the next touring crowd. We walked down a beautiful square venturing to stores nearby but was soon approached by a woman who could hardly speak English but successfully waved us down for photos. Yes, photos with us. She, too, glazed up at us with a happy smile deep in our faces and completely in awe by our ethnicity. I can’t be mad and I must admit that for a moment there, I felt exotic.
When we were on our way out of the city and setting onward for our next destination we hit the tourist trap. Aisles of souvenirs saturated our interest back to our cruise ship and who can resist? While purchasing a ushanka, a young man, no older than 21 years old approached me. What began as small talk quickly turned into close proximity inquiries. “Where are you from?” he asked leaning in just inches from my face. “You are very, very beautiful. You have a unique face,” he added. I blushed and looked around for my mother who I hoped was witnessing the strange encounter. I kindly answered his questions and tried to compensate for his extra steps closer to me. He wasn’t the only one. Another man, while he didn’t comment on my “beauty,” offered notable attention to my differences.
All in all, I can’t say that St. Petersburg was my favorite destination and to put it kindly, I totally get why this landed on the list for the world’s unfriendly cities. I did not have a directly unfriendly encounter but I did have consistent encounters that make you walk away thinking, “what just happened?” It’s one of those destinations you never forget but probably wouldn’t pay to do it again.