How I spent my summer vacation, part 2: The first time I went to St. Petersburg in 2003, it was with friends from Dallas on the occasion of the city’s 300th birthday. We timed it so we’d be there during the summer solstice so we could really experience the northern hemisphere’s “white nights.”

We lived like vampires. With no sundown to denote the start of the end of day, we simply carried on, fueled by sunlight and vodka, until 5 a.m. when we emerged from the disco near our rented apartment squinting at the milky, pinkish sky. The one day we allocated for official sight-seeing, it rained. And Russian summer is akin to winter in Texas. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

This time, we were luckier. It was still cold but we had sunshine. And I was traveling with my parents and uncle and aunt, so the conscious hours were during the day. We had a tour guide who could explain to us what we were looking at at the Hermitage. (Multi-lingual signs are still a rarity in Russia.)

Russia’s czars ruled their empire from St. Petersburg and the city reeks in royal opulence, which reminded my family of the maharaja palaces in India. Though the communists loathed the czars and all that the White Russians stood for, it is surprising that they didn’t raze these buildings, opting instead to keep them as museums. Our guide simply explained, “Well, Lenin was a learned man.”

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