It’s funny what things you remember from high school and what you forget. Everyone has wildly different things that stick in their minds based upon interests, their emotional state at the time, what is relevant to their teenage world or maybe due to that magical gift some teachers have in making certain topics seem riveting.
I loved English, even classical poetry and I can still see, feel and smell the class room as our rotund, eccentric, fascinating, deeply read Armenian teacher Mr Ejmekian wandered up and down taking about poetry. Almost lost in his own world talking to himself and we were just a vaguely registered presence in the room.
He was the one that brought Keats to life. At first I remember doing the teenage boy scoff at this soppy, namby pamby, “how sad is life” dribble that we were forced to study. Then slowly it started to make sense – and the enjoyment followed. So I can still quote certain lines of Keats when required and as I entered the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and walked into a room filled with ancient Grecian urns…well good old Keats jumped me from behind and laughed. “See….” he said “…told you so.”
Ode on a Grecian Urn is one of his most famous poems. He spends several stanzas going on and on about this urn from ancient Greece. He gets SO lost in its beauty that all of time and truth becomes clear.
Now I always wanted to get as carried away as Keats but it always struck me as a little over board. Its an urn. A jug with pictures on it. Beautiful yes (in an old thing kind of way) but it’s still a jug.
So I stood in the Greek room of the St Petersburg Hermitage Museum, stared hard at the urn in front of me…..and nothing came. I laughed to myself and went on my way. No Grecian Urn flash of universal understanding today.
So we wandered on. Mel and I split up so at least one of us at a time could go at a slow pace – while the other tended to more immediate children’s needs. Tired feet, hunger, toilets, boredom, a mind numbing over bombardment with excessive grandeur.
I took the girls and we went searching for things that I thought would pop their corks but knowing full well that this was all a bit too much for them. They listened intently to horror stories of medieval torture. Stared hard at St Peter being crucified upside down. They were pretty impressed with the gold covered armoury hall and loved the real live 3000 year old Egyptian mummy. They even had a sense of awe and interest when I led them towards Da Vinci’s Madonna and Child. I think Leonardo not I can claim responsibility for instilling a sense of wonder in them – but they went pretty quiet and reverent when they stood merely 30cm away from a living breathing work by Da Vinci. Ellie even later excitedly pointed out Michelangelo’s Crouching Boy to Mel as they made their way around again.
But my initial sense was overwhelming frustration. I had an adults desire to see everything I could possibly lay my eyes on. Though I was acutely aware that this is not the kid’s idea of a good time. So I felt rushed, pressured and found us walking swiftly past thousands of years of gobsmacking displays of human creativity. The pinnacle of human craftsmanship – check. A Rubens – check. A Rembrandt – check. Picasso – check.
Yet for their age and overwhelm – the girls were inspiring. I was the frustrated one. They walked and walked and walked and never once let out anything more than “My feet are a bit tired….”. But as soon as that was said they would see something that would energise them a little again. So when just before “handover” we made it to the October Staircase (where the Bolsheviks ran up with their pitchforks and guns in the 1917 Russian Revolution) they were playing and energised by what they were seeing.
Because for a little mind it must be just overload. I know this because for my mind it was total overload. It was too much. Too much richness to possibly take in. Things were too big, too grand, too elaborate, too ornate. So I found myself gliding past these rooms of unfathomable grandeur with barely a glance.
So when I went off on my own I tried my best to slow down. I walked slower, I looked closer, I went back to certain pieces after reading their history and slowly things started to seem more real.
And then, suddenly, standing at the top of a staircase that was encircled with nameless marble statues…I had my Keats moment.
I was standing there looking at one specific statue that took my fancy (the cover photo). And I stopped and just looked hard. You could see inside its mouth. You could see individual teeth. I looked closely at it and veins and sinews in the feet started to become clear. Closer again and I could make out the carved cuticles in the big toe of one foot. I got lost in the foot of one statue, in one hall, in one wing in one small part of the Hermitage.
And my mind jumped from this big toe out to the ridiculously ornate cathedral two rooms back and somehow they were in different universes but also somehow the same thing. And I could feel the sculptor chiseling away at the cuticle in the big toe and I could feel their utter dedication to perfection and I could feel this big toe being a symbol of their life’s work.
And it was ace.
So I sat there for a while and smiled and I thought of Keats and I thought of all the art I missed in my whirlwind tour of the Hermitage – but it was OK. I couldn’t possibly do this all justice – so I won’t try. But I did see the staggering effort that one person put into one toe of one statue. I don’t even know their name or the name of the sculpture – but somehow that doesn’t matter. It was sheer human mastery and it hit me.
So whoever you were – thank you.
I wandered out into the brisk St Petersburg air to meet Mel and the girls. A little slower, a little calmer. A little more content with having seen what I could and letting the rest be. There is only so much one little mind can take in….and Europe has just started.
So help me Keats.