At 11 pm these days looking west from the Hermitage to the Vasilevsky Island, you can still see the silverlight from the famous "White Nights" of this northern metropolis. This was pretty much the sight which we had for our memorable gala-dinner from the balcony of Vladimir Palace during our closing ceremony. And in the inside it didn't look ugly either.
I fell in love with this city in 2002 when I spent three weeks here to learn Russian and stay with my Russian family. Now coming back for our EO European/African Conference, I realized that a lot had changed (the Church of the Saviour on Blood was fortunately still in place :-)
Apart from that, most remarkably, while in 2002 you could still have dinner with the cosy feeling of paying "Eastern prices", you would now have an Eastern dinner paying entirely Western prices. Not to mention property, where the going rate for the square meter in the centre ranges from US-$ 30,000 to 40,000. Overall, the magnificence of the city stands in even better splendour as it was refurbished for its 300 year celebration after being founded in 1703 by Peter the Great.
Our hosts from EO St. Petersburg under the leadership of Steve Caron, Sergey Vykhodtsev, Christian Courbois, Dmitry Agarunov (Moscow) together with the event-expertise from the EO staff brought together a real "Once in a Lifetime Experience", something EO is rigorously dedicated to. The event was a perfect mix of learning sessions, dine-arounds, social events and came – thanks to a compact group of around 50 people from 26 chapters – with strong personal bonding. Our Grand Hotel Europe as the venue in itself was a living piece of Russian history.
From the learning side, the first day started with a panel of our St. Petersburg chapter sharing their stories how they started off in the "Wild East" 15 years ago getting kidnapped, held for ransom, smuggling US-$ 1.5 mn in an old car with their head of security carrying a machine gun, smuggling valuable dogs in the plane to Beijing etc. (I thought I had seen and heard a lot in India, but these stories are all petty-theft against the environment when the Soviet Union transformed itself a sort of "kiosk capitalism"). We had a fantastic session with marketing guru Thomas Gad, author of 4D-Branding where the 4 dimensions stand for functional, mental, social and spiritual, like here exemplified on the world famous brand "Red Bull":
What I always perceive particularly inspiring is when we have senior EO members sharing their experience like Mark Moses did on "Overcoming Adversity in Business and Life". His story carried enormous "goose pimple"-factor with his best friend severely betraying him in business, the office getting on fire, his child suffering from a brain tumour, yet Mark still keeping head above the mud, growing even bigger and condensing his experience in tangible learnings with great take-home value for others.
On the event side, our friends in the "Venice of the North" were able to pull some magic strings which allowed us to do something which is usually completely out of reach: a private tour in the incomparable Hermitage in the night hours when the museum was already closed to the public. It was a very memorable opportunity to immerse in the beauty of the art collection comprising reminiscence of Russian history and Western artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt or Van Gogh whose last picture before his suicide at the age of 37, "Thatched Cottages" is part of the collection.
Ah, and there was Vodka, and even more Vodka. As a good rule, keep drinking only Vodka, it will have its certain effect, but you won't have a headache the next day. By contrast, a very bad idea is mixing champagne with beer and Vodka. (I was oblivious of the latter and had to pay a bitter price after the first night out). So repeat after me: Vodka alone = good, Vodka in da mix = bad.
And last but not least, I met my family again, it was a warm-hearted reunion from the very first moment, as if I had departed 6 days ago and not 6 years ago. As the habit goes, Igor (=the father) and I had put a "a few" kilogram on, Ira (=the mother) is still as elegant as she always used to be and little Ksusha (=the sister) was a baby and will have her first school day on September 1st. Especially Ksusha overtook me big time: 6 years ago I was much better in Russian than her, and now the scenario has entirely reversed.
And, yes, of course, there was Vodka again. (Only Vodka = good.) And as the Russian bear had been on our plate in the shape of sausage in the restaurant Zver, we felt obliged to toast him in a respectful way, too.
The entire picture set of the journey, by the way, is here on my Flickr-Account. St. Petersburg is one of these place you have to see before you die. Even more as there are two opportunities to see two totally different faces of the city. In summer with the white nights where the sun sets at 1 am and rises at 4 am, where the skirts of the girls parading on Nevsky Prospect are pretty short, and in winter when the sun rises at 11 am and sets at 3 pm, when the temperature drops to minus 30° C, where thick furs are covering those same girls, theatres as well as operas are in full swing and Vodka is the fuel to provide both warmth and happiness.
Spasibo (=thank you), to EO St. Petersburg of having us and giving us the truthful hospitality which only a Slavic heart can convey.