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.

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