Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Memory. Petersburg.

I fell asleep thinking of all the places I love most in the world, and I dreamed of St. Petersburg. Of standing on the top of St. Peter's Cathedral and looking down at the city sprawled beneath us, a mosaic of canals and candy-colored palaces. In the distance great apartment blocks of concrete loomed like guardians over a vault of precious jewels. You are so far north that at times it feels like you are at the edge of the world. I dreamt of walking down Nevsky Prospekt, that main thoroughfare which on maps seems to bisect the city like a spine, a bundle of cords branching out into the explosion of nerves that form the city's streets. And I dreamt of the food.

My first experience with Russian food came in the mid-eighties at the Russian Tea Room, which was not particularly Russian (as far as I recall) save for the decor and the caviar they offered. For dessert I would always have their Creme Russe, which is more French than Russian, but then the food of the Russian aristocrats was created by French chefs imported from Paris. In the nineties we would go to the Russian restaurant near the Pike Place Market (now it is a little French café, one of my favorite places in Seattle) for homey foods like borsch and kotlety (rather like large oblong meatballs) or stuffed cabbage rolls, or beef stroganoff over kasha. Now when I have a craving for borsch I make it myself, huge pots of magenta soup thick with vegetables and rich with the flavor of beef. Sometimes I flip through my cookbooks to ease the longing for those lost times and as I read the recipes I can almost taste the foods they describe.

In 1993 I found myself in Moscow in the summer haze of August. There was home cooking, which was delightful (breakfasts of oatmeal and pastries and yogurts and coffee, which I was not allowed at home, lunches that began with soup and ended with jello made with fresh fruit, and simple dinners; on my last night my host family served roast duck with apples, a beautiful dish which I have not had since). Aside from that there was the somewhat dismal food we found in restaurants and hotels, unappetizing meat, bland rice, and the inevitable cucumber-and-tomato salad. I grew to hate tomatoes and cucumbers. There was a depressing monotony to the meals eaten during our various excursions. But aside from the lovely cooking at home (and the many, many Mars ice cream bars we consumed) I remember eating cabbage piroshky on the night train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and buying shashlyk from a stall in the park. I think it was beef, but we were never quite sure. (It is all a distant memory now).

Years passed, and I found myself in Petersburg during the White Nights of June, when the sun never quite goes down. We were housed in homestays, which provided breakfast and dinner (eggs and sausage, oatmeal, fried potatoes for breakfast, some kind of meat and more fried potatoes, or kasha, a tomato-and-cucumber salad for dinner. One memorable day I managed to have fried potatoes at every single meal), but we were responsible for our own lunch and other snacks. We would go have blini at that cafeteria on Nevsky, or cross the street to that café that had little marble-topped tables and eat buterbrod, open-faced sandwiches of smoked salmon on dark slices of bread spread with butter. We went there to drink cappucino and nibble on ice cream cones in the afternoons. At the dusty grocery stores presided over by grim-faced babushkas (those be-kerchiefed elderly ladies who guarded museums and shops and market stalls) we would buy crackers and bottled water and boxes of cherry juice which stained our lips and tongues bright red. (I have not tasted cherry juice since. Some things belong to a time and place that cannot be regained).

Some days M. and I would eat in the university cafeteria - borsch, stuffed cabbage, kasha (it was cheap and reasonably good, or at least, not terrible), or we would buy piroshki at the cart which sold bottled water and gum - yeasty rolls stuffed with mushrooms or cabbage. At that time it was 26 rubles to the dollar, and a piroshky cost 3 rubles (according to the meticulous notes I made of my daily expenses). Two made an excellent lunch. We would walk to a park and eat in the grass, watching all the young people around us, the old women strolling along. M. was from one of the Carolinas (North or South, I forget which), beautiful and intelligent and grown-up and with a warm Southern drawl. I was not yet nineteen, and she was the same age I am today, twenty-six. There is a photograph I took of her during one of our afternoons in the park. The light falls gently across her face as she gazes at something I can't see. I wonder where she is now.

Later, back home, I would buy piroshki from a little place near the University of Washington and eat it, reading a book, leaning against one of the many trees on campus. They are the perfect picnic food, meat or vegetables (sometimes with cheese) neatly wrapped in a soft dough and baked. I love piroshky partly because they are so good, but also because when I eat them I think about my Russian days, as I also do when I listen to techno music, or the techno-y Russian pop music we played nonstop. I will not be that person again, but the memories remain.

I dreamt that I was in Petersburg again. We lay on the sun-dappled grass under the trees in the park and talked for hours in the wavering golden afternoon light.

In Petersburg we'll meet again... (so begins the poem by Mandelstam).

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