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.

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