In 1991, I lived in the 17th arrondissement in Paris, near the rue Leningrad. One day, some municipal workers came along and crossed out the name on the street signs with crosses made of masking tape, and put up new street signs underneath: rue St. Petersburg. In true French tradition, the people in the neighborhood formally protested, saying that this was a royal pain in the ass, and that the name shouldn’t change. After all, Place Stalingrad hadn’t become Place Volgagrad. The response of the municipality was that Place Stalingrad was named after the battle, whereas the rue Leningrad was named after the city, which was obvious by looking at the streets around it, which are all named after European cities (rue de Turin, rue Madrid, etc.). The fight went on for about as long as the battle itself had lasted, but in this case the local inhabitants lost. The street was renamed.

I remember at the time thinking how easy it was to change history, and wanting to go to St. Petersburg before it changed yet again.

St. Petersburg was built by the will of a strange man, Peter the Great, who decided that Russia should become more “European.” Recently, I finally got to visit the city, where I had the good fortune to be shown around by a local lady named Ana.

“When Peter came here, the weather was nice. He was very lucky. But he didn’t know what the weather is usually like.”

“The weather’s nice today.”

“You are lucky, too. He saw an eagle fly overhead; this was good sign. He decided to build the city here.”

Personally, I think he made a good choice. But, of course, I don’t have to live there in the winter.

St. Petersburg is a magnificent place. The broad Neva River flows through it, and it is graced by delightful little canals. On the major streets, the buildings are beautiful: shades of green and yellow, with white trim. According to a number of people I spoke to, the city didn’t look quite so stunning a few years ago, but Putin cleaned it up to prepare for the G8 summit that took place there in July 2006. I suppose you couldn’t very well allow old Peter the Great’s ghost to contemplate a meeting of the world’s economic powers in his very own city while paint peeled off the walls. I couldn’t help but notice that when I went down some of the more out-of-the-way streets, the greens and yellows of the building facades gave way to a uniform gray-brown grime, and the streets—where crumbling old Ladas were parked next to obscenely expensive Bentleys—boasted potholes that would put Manhattan to shame … all in all, more typically Russian.

If you stick to the more touristy areas, though, you won’t be disappointed. There is, of course, the Hermitage, the contents of which can be amply studied in more informative travelogues. Take a gander, though, at the enormous square on the south side of the Hermitage, Dvortsovaya Square. Russians are good at making whoppingly big central squares—witness Red Square in Moscow. Dvortsovaya is in a league of its own, though, and is actually prettier (although it lacks St. Basil’s Cathedral). In the center is the Alexander Column, with all kinds of Roman imagery that I won’t get into, and around it are people rollerblading. Russians don’t allow cars on their whopping squares (except for official-looking black cars, which go wherever they damn well please).

On the other side of the Hermitage is the river, upon which I had the good fortune of taking a dinner cruise with a whole bunch of Russians. Caviar with blini and vodka on the Neva … life can get worse than that.

You’ll probably do all that anyway, but I also strongly suggest that you hang out some in Dekabristov Square, where there’s a great bronze statue. The statue itself is worth a look—Pushkin wrote about it. (You’ll hear a lot about Pushkin in St. Petersburg.) It depicts Peter the Great on a rearing horse, dominating a pinnacle of stone. It is supposed to be the only equestrian statue in the world with a horse supported by only two legs, but you should be warned that Russians have a tendency to tell you that whatever Russian thing you’re looking at is the only one of its kind.

Anyway, the thing about Dekabristov Square is not only the statue; it’s the weddings, and the four-piece horn band that lingers near the statue. Local couples come to this square after their wedding to have pictures taken. On any given day, even during the week, when the weather (which is, effectively, lousy most of the time) is OK, the square is pretty much flooded with wedding parties. You’ll find white-clad brides, milling drunken guests, and one formally dressed man with a blue sash. There’s one in every wedding party. He is the best man, and his job is apparently to pour champagne for anyone who shows up with anything that can contain liquid. Take a cup with you.

Near the statue is the horn band, which zeros in on passing wedding parties and plays pretty much anything they want in return for a few rubles. Their versatility was astounding—in fact, it was more impressive than their actual talent, and I simply had to get to know them.

The leader of the band was named Alexander, and I was thrilled to learn that he spoke English. Or, rather, that he could communicate more or less in something that sounded like English.

“American! You are American! And you are French, too, yes? Friendship with Russia, France—America is big!” And he threw his arms widely to the side to demonstrate just how big. Since one of his arms was equipped with a trombone, this nearly killed one of the smaller members of a passing wedding party, but nothing phases Russians.

“And you are musician, too, you say? What music?”

When I explained that I had previously been in a rock band, and that we had made an album, he immediately brought his trombone to his lips and played … get ready … “Smoke on the Water.” Deep Purple was wise not to include a trombone in the band.

“And listen this, too!” After which, he played the “Marseillaise,” which sounded a little better than “Smoke on the Water” but wasn’t quite as stirring as the scene in Casablanca.

It turned out that Alexander was only a part-time musician. “Rest of time, I am officer in Russian navy,” at which point he snapped to attention, trombone at the ready, and gave me a crisp salute, which I did not return, since I was too busy laughing. He immediately laughed, too, and slapped me on the back. Still hurts.

“Listen, you can help me with green card, yes?” I explained that I really didn’t think I could help him with a green card, but he asked for my telephone number anyway. Now, I’ve always made it a policy not to give out my phone number to Russian sailors, so I took his instead. I must confess that I haven’t given him a call yet.

St. Petersburg is beautiful, but it’s the conversations that make the visit. Aside from my conversation with Alexander the Naval Trombone Player, there was the conversation with Ana about leaders. I have always been surprised at the general Russian attitude toward Gorbachev (hate him) as compared to Putin (like him), which is so very different from the attitude in the West.

“Russians want strong leaders. Putin is strong leader, Gorbachev was weak.”

“And so Putin is loved?”

“No, he is hated. Pushkin said Russians will always hate those who rule them, but we want to be ruled. No one can be an effective leader and be loved.”

I cited Jefferson, one of the most beloved rulers of the United States, who was, and still is, deeply loved.

“How long did he rule?”

“Eight years.”

“Pfffff! This is nothing.”

All this discussed on the wide banks of the Neva.

And then there was my discussion with Peter, who was also in St. Petersburg while I was there. Peter is a Slovakian friend with whom I’ve had the pleasure of sharing many a long discussion in many a city. In 2004, I watched the Czech Republic lose to Greece in a European Football Championship match while in a sports bar in Moscow with Peter, who was the only person there supporting the Czechs. Interesting evening.

In St. Petersburg, Peter and I took a long, leisurely walk along the Nevsky Prospekt, St. Petersburg’s equivalent of the Champs Élysées. The street is a broad avenue: a river of light, enticing and entrancing. As we strolled through the milling crowd (there is always a crowd), our conversation drifted back to the 1980s, when he was a university student in Bratislava, now the capital of Slovakia. Throughout the ’80s, I watched events in Eastern Europe, wondering what would happen. When student protests began in Prague, and then, in 1989, in Bratislava, so many of us waited anxiously. He was in the midst of the protesters, afraid but excited at the idea of change. We talked about our lives before: what he had learned as a child about us, and what I had learned as a child about them, although, of course, his “us” had been my “them,” and vice versa. It was a fascinating conversation to have in Eastern Europe. I remember a discussion like this in Budapest, in 1992. I was talking with a Czech and a Pole about the early ’80s and the Solidarity movement. The Pole explained that he had been in the army then, stationed in the south, and that in his unit they discussed what they would do if ever they were ordered to march on Gdansk … or what they would do if the Czech army came over the border. The Czech looked at him wide-eyed and said that, at the time, he had been in the Czech army, and they had had the same conversations: what would they do if they were ordered to cross into Poland? The two men looked at each other, across a barroom table this time instead of a border, and then smiled and ordered something more to drink.

Forgive me a moment’s reflection here, but this is what traveling can do for you: it can break down the “us” and the “them,” it can cut through all the bullshit we learn secondhand from those we respect but who themselves don’t really know what they’re talking about. Traveling can open windows on to a wide world, because once you start swimming around in it, you realize that the world is both far more vast and far smaller than you thought. It can even throw a few trombone-playing sailors across your path, and, from time to time, a Pushkin, or a czar, or, better, a friend.