We lay them out, side by side, on the grainy-patterned, cream kitchen surface in my parents’ hotel room. Despite my advancing age, I don’t harbour any strong views towards interiors but an open plan kitchen/living room is my first-world vice; the way it unites all within its reach, those who cook, those who eat, those who are glued to sitcoms, those who snooze after Sunday lunch. It is the first thing my eyes scan for snooping in windows of estate agents and it is where I feel most at ease in other homes.
The setup is social gold.
But today, the off-white surface assumes a new role as the judging table, absorbing a more depressing jaundiced tinge courtesy of the dim lighting suspended above it. My ladies were never going to appear their best without the natural light of day to enhance their features but their competitors are in the same position so I make no excuses and stand them proudly next to their Russian sisters.
My Dad leaps up to volunteer as lead judge, moments after my mother affectionately (if rather predictably) vows that all three offerings must be on a par and she wouldn’t possibly be able to distinguish. Ever heard of bias, Mother dear?
As we lift our wooden women, Dad peers at their hair plait formations, rotates them on their axis to inspect the tidiness of their attire, their headscarves shimmering with the change of angle. Without hesitation, he moves them to reflect their ranking in the competition. In third place is the hot pink, brown-eyed girl, her bold colour choices and blonde locks failing to captivate his attention. Supposedly, the fuschia strokes are somewhat streaky and uneven. That they are – but within each sweep of the velveteen brush lay a burst of zeal and a lust for exploration.
In first place is the grape and lime doll, the most gorgeous of the group with a coy smile that suggests she is well aware of it. I had hardly imagined these two colours would complement each other so well and much as I want to convince myself it is her lagoon-blue eyes that propel her to the front, my Dad justifies his decision by describing her overall look as having a “finesse” and “elegance” superior to the other two Matryoshka dolls.
Grumpy at coming last in an arty activity yet again, I wallow in my sore-loser status whilst Pumpkin utters not a word, the silence only accentuating his smugness of taking first yet again. Sister is far less troubled by such trivial games, graciously accepting her silver medal position for the doll she has made as a tribute to our heritage, adorned with the colours of the Indian flag and proud of her long, luscious black braids.
Russian Doll Painting in St Petersburg
I am not one to horde souvenirs in general, as a devout worshipper of the “collect memories over materials” school of thought. However, there are a few notable exceptions to this: firstly if I can support the local handicraft industries with my purchases, secondly if I can invest in something that has a true traditional link to place and thirdly, if I have actually had a hand in creating it. Some of you might remember that on our trip to Japan, Pumpkin found us a plastic food making class in Osaka, which occupied a rainy afternoon in the city in the most quirky way I could have imagined.
Well, for the St Petersburg leg of our recent Russia break, he outdid himself yet again by discovering this Russian Doll Painting Experience and suggesting I might enjoy it. Pumpkin paints as a hobby and has recreated some truly stunning scenes from our travels but it was my look of glee which confirmed to him that this activity was going in our diary.
With a simple email to Elena at Matryoshka Masterclass our booking was finalised. No deposit was required and we paid in cash at the end of the class. We had not made any specific request for a private class but much to our delight, this was what we inadvertently walked into when we booked ourselves the last slot of the day at 5pm.
A honeymooning couple were finishing off their masterpieces, as we arrived and I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a healthy dose of competition breaking up their loved up ambience in the studio. From reading other reviews, it seems as if the group sizes can vary and can be much larger so if you are interested in a more close-knit painting experience, it may be worth enquiring about a private class.
With a background in engineering, Elena always had a passion for painting and branched out into running her own Matryoshka doll painting classes after initially starting out by teaching children her craft. Despite the fact she had spent the whole day teaching back to back classes, the level of help, support and encouragement she gave us never faltered throughout the doll painting class.
There is much more to the decoration of these Matryoshka dolls than I had ever appreciated before this St Petersburg experience so if you think you can come here for a lazy afternoon, think again! The steps take focus and concentration and a certain degree of speed. Spend too long dithering over your colour combinations or whether your doll has blue or brown eyes and you will run out of time, only to be left with a half-naked Matryoshka being shown up by her better-dressed friends.
Furthermore, if you are hoping that your Russian doll will leave the building with the same illustrious shine that you have seen stacked on shelves throughout the country, then you need to ensure you spare adequate time for varnishing. As there were only three of us, Elena helped us all with drying, varnishing and even helped me with certain aspects of decoration such as the flowers (as frankly, an average toddler can paint with more skill than I can so call it cheating if you will but needs must.)
One suggestion that may be worth keeping in mind is to try and have a rough idea of colours you want to use before you arrive, as Elena has numerous different paint shades to choose from and during busier classes, this could end up wasting valuable minutes.
Now before you go complimenting my skills at doll painting (or perhaps that is a tad presumptuous,) I must clarify that certain elements were pre-drawn, such as the eyes and face. We did however paint the body of the dolls from scratch and received instruction from Elena about how to paint on the flowers, plaits and trim of the scarves. I am fully aware if looks like just a string of dots but if you look closely, you will spot the inconsistency between my dots and why I allowed myself a pat on the back, even for the smallest achievements.
St Petersburg is a spectacular city, filled with culture, opulence and world-class ballet but if you have had had your fill of watching the arts, then why not spare a few hours to participate in them instead? You’ll be rewarded with a bespoke Russian doll, a host of laughs and memories and all for less than the cost of many Russian dolls on the market (so long as you can embrace the odd smudged petal and blurred line but we women are increasingly being empowered to celebrate our imperfections and, well, the Matryoshka Russian dolls are no exception!)
Do you like buying local souvenirs on your travels?