Saturday, August 06, 2011

part four.

(See part one, part two, and part three).

It is July of 2011 and I am 31 years old. I am back in Russia after an absence of twelve years, longer than I meant to leave. Our ship has left Moscow behind, heading up through a series of canals and locks and rivers that will lead us northwards, to St. Petersburg. We pass clusters of dachas tucked into birch forests, swimmers resting on grassy riverbanks, and sunburned vacationers fishing hopefully on the rocks. We stop in Uglich, Goritsy, Kizhi, Petrozavodsk, Svir-Stroi. There is a kind of music to these names. These are places I've never visited before, so there are no old memories there. We cross Lake Onega, and then Lake Ladoga, the largest lake in Europe. In the middle of the night, we reach the point where the Neva River joins the southern tip of Lake Ladoga; we are almost to St. Petersburg.

The city seems so much bigger, now. It has sprawled out in all directions, like a drop of ink on wet paper. But the metro stations are the same, dim subterranean cathedrals of marble. The real shock is Nevsky Prospekt; all the shops are new. The café where I drank mineral water and ate buterbrod as a student has gone. The Hermitage is bigger, more labyrinthine than before, or so it seems, the rooms packed with tourists herded here and there by flag-wielding guides. Outside, long lines of people wait in the bright sunlight of the square. Only the grand staircase is as I remember, and the rooms of Rembrandts, Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, Picassos and Matisses. Peterhof, too, all golden fountains in light-dappled green parks, is much the same, only with more people. The slippers they make you wear in the palaces are disposable now; the famed Amber Room at the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo has finally been restored. And everywhere, more people, more tour buses, brass bands playing national anthems of various countries.

Nostalgia is dangerous; it makes it hard for you to see clearly the time and place of the present, so blinded you are by the past. I am not 19, or 13. I am 31. I don't speak Russian anymore, only understanding enough to nod my head when kindly museum docents speak to me, or to translate tombstones of famous people for my mother. The Russia I see now is in a constant state of renovation, repair, rebuilding, more busloads of tourists arriving every minute. There are 24-hour supermarkets and florist shops and fast-food outlets everywhere you look. But then I turn the corner into an old street and find the carved stone façades of buildings, with their lace-like wrought-iron ornaments, still beautiful. In the parks, allées of linden trees cast a soft, cool, green shade across the paths, as they have for a hundred years, two hundred, three hundred. It is the city I loved twelve years ago, and it always will be.

I'll be back. I won't wait twelve years, the next time.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

part three.

(Read part one and part two).

It is July of 2011 and I am 31 years old. I arrive in Moscow to find that the airport is bigger and newer than I remember. I am here to meet my mother for a river cruise; some friends had invited her to join their college reunion, and I am tagging along. Our cruise ship is a far cry from the one I took twelve years ago; like everything else, it, too, is bigger and newer. The chocolates on the pillow are dark and smooth, much finer than anything I'd seen during my previous trips. Mom arrives, and we have a late dinner; gone is the black bread and the tiny water glasses and the miniscule paper napkins. The world has changed.

In the morning we head out to tour the city. On the way I see a billboard for the techno-pop duo Ruki Vverh, who we'd listened to avidly back in college; in October there will be a 15-year-anniversary concert. Fifteen years? Are we really that old? Yes, we are. The traffic is immense, the boulevards packed with cars. There are luxury vehicles and mid-range cars and SUVs, cars of all makes and models. Later someone tells us that the number 1 car in Russia is the Ford Focus, although there are still plenty of the boxy old Ladas. We arrive at Red Square in the blinding sunlight, St. Basil's Cathedral looking much as I remember it. A little smaller now, perhaps. A line of people snakes all the way down one side of the square and past the State Historical Museum. They are waiting to visit Vladimir Lenin in his red-and-black mausoleum; he only sees visitors three or four days a week, from 10am to 2pm, something like that.

Everywhere there are people, more people, still more people, tour groups with their radio receivers and flags and matching badges. I'm one of these tourists this time, not a student, and it is a strange feeling to be herded about and coddled with air-conditioning and four-course lunches and dinners. Everything is bigger. Everything has the air of being just-renovated or rebuilt or in the process of being renovated or rebuilt. The Communist-era Hotel Intourist where we stayed last time has been torn down and replaced by a Ritz-Carlton which will run you approximately $2,000 a night. The exchange rate is not much more, about 28 rubles to the dollar; in 1999 it was about 26 rubles to the dollar - but everything costs at least four times as much, now.

One morning, we walk through the Novodevichy Cemetary in the pouring rain, and I find Bulgakov's grave again. No roses today, but I take another photo, in focus, this time. I stand on Sparrow Hills, for the third time now, and look down on the changing city below, new buildings springing up everywhere like toadstools after a storm. We take the metro and I find that the escalators no longer seem to move as swiftly as I remember. At the Tolstoy museum, a unexpectedly cheerful docent at the door chatters away; to my shame my Russian is mostly forgotten and I am not sure what she is telling us. But her smiling kindness is a far cry from the grim babushkas who guarded the museums a generation ago. Our last morning in Moscow, we head to the Tretyakov Gallery and rush through the art-filled rooms at a brisk trot. I am not ready to leave yet; I wish I had a few more days. But there is more awaiting us, and it's time to go...follow me, my reader, and only me!*

to be continued...

*from The Master and Margarita.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

part two.

(Read part one first).

It is June of 1999 and I am a month shy of my 19th birthday when I arrive in St. Petersburg. I have a year of Russian classes under my belt, but as it turns out my host-mother does not understand me any more than I understand her. I know enough to get around the metro system and to buy mineral water and piroshky at the university snack bar. We have language classes during the week and group excursions all over, but there is still plenty of time on our own. How thrilling it is to be on my own in St. Petersburg! Our first night in the city we wind up at a rock concert held in a former church, performed by a metal cover band called Tequila Jazz. After the smoky darkness of the concert the sky outside is still shockingly bright: these are the White Nights of early summer, when the sun never quite sets.

The last of the lilacs are in bloom, lilacs and lilies-of-the-valley, and old babushkas sell bunches of flowers outside the metro stations. Their sweet fragrance floats deep down the escalators, drawing you back up to the light. In the afternoons after class we head out to wander up and down Nevskii Prospekt, hanging out in cafés or museums or in green parks dappled with sunlight and shade. The air is full of linden pollen, which makes me sneeze. We go to Peterhof and are dazzled by the golden fountains, and see the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, many rooms still undergoing restoration. It is the bicentennial of Pushkin’s birth, and he is being fêted everywhere.

We take a weekend cruise to Valaam, first taking a taxi to the St. Petersburg port terminal. It is a terrifying drive down Nevskii Prospekt, my friends and I clutching each other as the taxi driver careens down the avenue, blaring the soundtracks to various Quentin Tarantino films. The river-boat is filled with locals, the cabins are tiny, and the food is bad. At night there is a disco, and we dance and drink until dawn; one fellow student is nearly seduced by a waitress keen to get on with this American stranger. Bleary-eyed and mosquito-bitten, we wander around Valaam Island and its beautiful monastery and church. On the way home, I stay up late into the night and watch the sky remain filled with light, as we sail past riverbanks crowded with birch forests. My professor points out the remains of a fort on a small island where the Neva river joins Lake Ladoga. “It’s called ‘The Nut,’ because it was hard to crack…”

Another weekend we take the night-train to Moscow and stay in the Intourist hotel, a short walk from Red Square. Our room reminds me of a train compartment, two hard couch-like beds on either side of a narrow space. The food is a little better this time around, and there are more Western shops in the GUM shopping arcade. The juice is still only orange in color but not flavor, although the glasses are slightly larger and the juice somewhat more chilled. We go up to Sparrow Hills, looking out over Moscow with the towering Stalin-Gothic Moscow University at our backs. I think about Bulgakov’s master and his Margarita saying goodbye to earthly life forever, on this very same spot, some seventy years before. At the Novodevichy Cementary I buy two red roses and lay them at Bulgakov’s grave.

In St. Petersburg, everything is so flat and the nights so bright and the palaces so colorful and endless, there is a sense of unreality, as if you've walked into a nineteenth-century painting. It feels like a stage set, placed at the edge of the earth by Peter the Great nearly three hundred years before. The Gulf of Finland seems to drop off into space; it almost makes you believe the world really is flat. I walk around the city early in the morning, when the Palace Square is still quite empty, with my camera and my notebook, trying to fix it in my memory for all time. I am in love with this city in a way I will never love anyplace else, because I am young, and because I feel free for the first time in my life. I will come back, I think to myself.

Monday, August 01, 2011

part one.

It is August of 1993 and I am thirteen years old. I come to Moscow for a month on a school exchange program, and my host meets me at the airport with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. Her family has a car, which is rare, and a vast four-room apartment, which is equally rare. There is no elevator, and we walk up slippery dark stairs to the cozy warmth of their high-ceilinged flat. Tanya is nearly fluent in English, as is her father, an executive at Aeroflot, the Russian airline. They have lived abroad. They have a vast collection of movies on tape, which is unheard-of. Tanya’s mother is a wonderful cook who serves a full breakfast and multi-course lunches and dinners, which always end with homemade fruit Jell-o. One day at lunch I absently eat all the olives, which are hard to come by in those days, and Tanya scolds me for my greediness.

In restaurants, everywhere the food is the same: tomato-and-cucumber salad, black bread and butter, unidentifiable meat with fried potatoes or rice, watery soups, and ice cream. My fellow students and I are perplexed by the tiny triangular one-ply paper napkins, the lack of ice, and the breakfast juice which is orange in color but not exactly in flavor, served in tiny glasses that we downed in one swallow. We buy Fanta or Coke in glass bottles at streetside kiosks, or ice-cream bars. The Mars ice cream bar is a thing of wonder. We go to the recently opened MacDonalds, bigger than any MacDonalds I have ever seen, and eat Big Macs, which I never have at home. One afternoon we head out to Gorky Park and buy shashlik from a man with a primitive little barbecue stand and go on all the amusement park rides. The roller-coaster cars have seatbelts like the ones on airplanes but no other restraints.

One weekend we head out to Vladimir and Suzdal, and see the beautiful white Church of the Intercession, which rises from a riverbank surrounded by lush, green fields. In a restaurant filled with wood paneling our teachers and some of the older students drink a roughly pleasant Georgian wine, which I am allowed to sip. Another weekend we take the night-train to St. Petersburg and stay in a grim Soviet-era hotel with bare rooms and dim lightbulbs and a cockroach in the bathroom. In the lobby we encounter a very, very drunk Finnish man, the drunkest man I’ve ever seen. It is cheap to take a train or ferry to St. Petersburg from Finland, and cheap to drink yourself into a stupor.

In the palaces we wear felt slippers over our sneakers, which make it fun to slide around on the parquet floors. At the museums we see groups of schoolchildren quietly sitting on the floor as their teachers tell them about the paintings. I haven’t learned any Russian, but I can puzzle out a few words here and there. This does not help much when I get lost on the metro, when everyone else gets out and I get left behind. Tanya is in tears by the time they find me at the next stop. The metro stations are like underground palaces, dimly lit and elaborate with marble and gilt and tile. The escalators seem endless, even though they are very, very fast.

The golden month slips by, and we return home. A few weeks later there is an attempted political coup against Boris Yeltsin, who retaliates by dissolving his government. I turn to the news and see that the Russian White House is in flames. Only weeks before I had driven by that same White House. Some time later I get a letter from Tanya. “Everything is as it was before…I suppose we will know the truth of what happened only after a hundred years…”