Tuesday, October 1, 2013

A run in St. Petersburg: Breaking from routine

             ST. PETERSBURG, Russia – I wonder sometimes about routines, about how they develop and how it’s possible to have several. At home, my routines include just about everything from how I pack my backpack to preparing meals to cleaning up at night. I even brush my teeth in the same pattern, twice a day.

When I travel, I adhere to another set of routines: the packing of my carry-on suitcase; the mix of work (writing or editing) and fun (reading or watching a film) on a plane; and writing emails on my Blackberry during the short breaks in between meetings.

When it comes to running, I feel like I have a split personality. At home, I run early, sometimes at 5 a.m. I set out almost exactly 30 minutes after I get up. I have certain set routes. (When I go on a different route, it seems to take much more effort.) On the road, though, I run whenever possible. It could be soon after arriving at the hotel. Or I could go when there’s an opening in the middle of the day. And almost every run is a new route; finding my way doesn’t seem to bother me a bit.

At home, I am rigid; on the road, flexible. Maybe my routines on the road are simply a matter of taking advantage of time. But why can’t I do the same at home? At home, my routines both give me comfort (peace of mind in establishing a known rhythm of a day) and restriction (there’s almost no way I’ll run at the spur of a moment.) On the road, I’m free.

I was just in St. Petersburg, and after a meeting, I found out that I had exactly one hour before  our group were going to dinner. I wasted no time. I ran up the stairs in our boutique hotel, changed in my room (called the Bangkok Room for its Thai motif), and was out the door. I turned north along one of St. Petersburg’s many canals.

We had the luck of being here in fall, and the temperature was about 60 degrees. It was 6 p.m. with still another three hours of light, and the sun felt soft and warm as I headed toward the old part of the city.

Guidebooks call the city the Venice of Russia for its canals, and it was easy to trace a run along them. They criss-cross every four blocks or so, and I found myself going up and down foot bridges like an old goat might. If sun fell on the canal path, I followed it, turning every few blocks or so.

I had wanted to come to St. Petersburg since I was in high school in the town of Springfield, Vermont, a place also dominated by water: The Black River ran through the town, and machine-tool shops were built along its very edge. In high school, I wrote a paper about Leningrad, then the city’s name, relying heavily on a National Geographic article as my source. I still remember the beautiful pictures of the city; it was described as a gem behind the Iron Curtain and I wondered whether I would ever have the chance to see such veiled beauty. And so it was especially thrilling to me to have a stolen hour in this city, turning corners and seeing architectural wonders that were just pictures in a magazine to me before.  

I ran past cathedrals, the statue of Alexander the Great, the Hermitage Museum. I stood by the main waterway that ran through the city, the Neva River, and marveled at what was all around me.

 The park along the Neva stretched for blocks. Couples posed for cameras in front of the statues. Two kids wrestled in the grass. Four women wearing head scarves and black abayas averted their eyes from me, perhaps because of my bare legs. It was a splendid late afternoon in St. Petersburg, and I couldn’t quite believe my good fortune to be in the middle of it.

I looked at my watch. I had been out 25 minutes. With 25 minutes to get back, that gave me just 10 minutes to shower and change. I reluctantly left the river and the majestic buildings from another era, and started running back along the canals, scooting in and out of traffic at crosswalks, a little extra spring in my well-traveled legs, so happy to have had a break from routine in a city I had dreamed of.