I’ll let you in on a secret. For years I yearned to visit St Petersburg – not for the Hermitage art collection, or Russian ballet – but to buy an amber necklace.
I realised Russia was the place for amber because I’d been to Moscow, spying it in all its siren splendour. Unfortunately, by the time I spotted it, a dozen babushkas dolls for various relatives, and a fake fur coat for myself, had already siphoned off my holiday finances.
Incidentally, the fur coat would later inspire someone to remark that the Devlins were getting above themselves. That was a triumphant day – we waited centuries for the opportunity to get above ourselves.
Year after year, I fantasised about aristocratic chokers at proletariat prices. The problem was finding a reason to go there which didn’t include admitting the real one. It left me looking, well, shallow.
From time to time I hinted about Russia to David, my partner, but he was luke-warm. Until one day I heard St Petersburg was celebrating its tri-centenary with special deals in hotels. He caved in immediately. Cheap offers from five-star hotels always outweigh minor considerations about whether you actually want to visit a city.
On the first morning, en route to the breakfast buffet, the edge of my glance brushed against something iridescent in a glass case. I turned my head. I stopped. I retraced my steps.
It was amber, calling to me.
‘Let’s look at it after breakfast,’ said David – alert, even then, to a certain fanaticism in my bearing. Before I could answer, three Russian women propelled me at high speed into the hotel shop. Seconds later, amber dripped from everywhere but my nose.
The quest for the perfect piece of amber was under way.
‘What do you think?’ I asked David. He claimed each item was equally gorgeous, furtively checking his watch in case we missed breakfast. That was no good. I wanted the most opulent necklace, not an equally opulent one.
That morning set the pattern for our holiday. We inspected amber jewellery the length and breadth of St Petersburg. I even had a sneaky fitting-on session when supposedly buying postcards in the
Hermitage souvenir shop.
Amber is fossilised tree sap, by the way. Recycling has never looked so alluring. Mind you, I like the ancient Greeks’ description: they called amber slivers of hardened sun, while Sophocles said it was formed from the tears of fantastic birds.
To tell you the truth it was a relief, finally, to hit upon my favourite necklace. Even I had begun to grasp that this was bordering on obsession. Imagine if I kept finding ever-more magnificent versions – it would be sensory overload.
We were admiring a World War II street plaque when the mists of indecision cleared, and I knew which necklace, among the many under consideration, was meant to come home with me.
By the way, the plaque read: ‘Citizens! At times of military bombardment, this side of the street is most dangerous!’ We stayed where we were, walking on the wild side, as amber necklaces shimmered in my mind.
David returned to the hotel, while I detoured to buy The One. But talk about a malign twist of fate. I had my bag snatched just feet away from my target. ‘Destiny is toying with me,’ I moaned, in an explosion of Russian fatalism. Back I staggered to our room: rouble-less, necklace-less.
But the gloomy Dostoevksy would never have written our ending. David went straight to the shop and bought the choker. Then to celebrate, he swept me off to the ballet – a final flourish of extravagance at a euro a ticket; him in his last clean shirt, me going native in amber.
With no translation, I’m not sure which ballet we saw, though it included a mechanical elephant if that helps with identification.
It didn’t matter. We loved it. We’d have loved it even more if it lasted two hours instead of three, but Russians value bang for their buck (which they prefer to the rouble).
Afterwards, we strolled hand in hand through the White Night of a summer’s evening, smiling at the potholes, smiling at the boarded-up shop fronts, smiling at St Petersburg.
Which had finally delivered on the perfect amber necklace – and cured me of shopping trips disguised as cultural tourism.
Though just the other day, some jade caught my eye, and I fell to musing on how cheap it would be to buy in China...