We consider ourselves fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit Russia for the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014. A major portion of the venue along the Black Sea was devoted to showcasing its host country’s diverse regions, ethnicities and cultures in a fascinating conglomeration of displays and interactive activities.
Our visit only served to whet our appetite to discover even more about this vast, enigmatic country, which spans two hemispheres and is bordered by two great oceans and fourteen other nations.
Our Russia bucket list contains several specific experiences we’d still like to have – the Trans-Siberian Railway, a river cruise down the Volga – and destinations we’d like to explore in depth: St Petersburg and Lake Baikal.
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The reality is these dreams may never come to fruition. Similarly, others who have not yet been to Russia may never get the chance, either. This is why I heartily recommend “Destination Russia. A ship and a cat in the tundra and other extra-ordinary encounters”. Fresh off a successful run in its native Italian language, this newly translated version demonstrates the best aspects of travel writing.
Authors Fabio Bertino and Roberta Melchiorre have created a portrait of Mother Russia using a series of vignettes that deeply resonate. Their memoir rings true on several levels.
The format of this book contributes to its authenticity in a number of ways. First, by presenting stories of individual encounters in exactly the way travels are remembered, the separate stories not only stand alone, but also together create a greater whole.
Secondly, the depth and breadth of the authors’ experiences throughout the country spans east and west, north and south. Not content to confine themselves to St. Petersburg or Moscow, to which the typical visitor might travel, their experiences range from the urban to the remote.
Within that context, we are treated to the details of everyday life. We learn how people are dressed, the geography of their surroundings, and what they eat.
These vivid descriptions brought back memories of our own: dishes served up cafeteria style three times per day in the restaurant of our Sochi guesthouse, Pete googling a picture of a fried egg to show the cook what he wanted – Russians there eat the same things for breakfast as they do for other meals.
Just as the plaza might be the meeting place on Mallorca or in Cartagena, or the apotek might be where you encounter your neighbors out picking up cigarettes or something to drink in Scandinavia, the description of the ubiquitous Russian magazin evoked encounters we had in the suburbs of Tallinn and near the Adler beachfront in Sochi.
The most engaging parts of the book are the descriptions of individual Russians. These convey the intensity and heart that so captivated us during our visit. Just as we were, the authors were warmly welcomed and at times, solicitously cared for. This should be reassuring to travelers who may be on the fence about visiting.
Primarily, Destination Russia is compelling because of the skill in which its portraits are painted. Individuals come to life in their milieus, and become part of the greater Russian landscape, as well. From this, the reader gets an impression analogous to the country itself.
English speaking readers will be charmed by the linguistic quirks that occur in this translation from the original Italian. This aspect lends a layer of authenticity such as you might experience with a good friend telling you these stories over dinner and a nice bottle of wine or two.
Get this book not just because you’re curious about Russia, but to enjoy the kind of engaging storytelling you’d get from a friend you trust. Even if you never visit Russia, after reading Destination Russia you’ll feel like you know it in living color.