My most vivid memory of Saint Petersburg is this:
Listen. The cold sun glares at me as I walk along the Fontanka embankment. I walk southwest to where the canal meets the Neva, and then turn around and walk back on the other side. I keep my gaze fixed straight ahead and step in time to the music in my ears. The grey of the streets and the buildings blends with the blue of the sky where the white light of the sun rubs them together. As a woman, I stick out with my flat shoes and casual clothes, but I’m stopped and asked for directions anyway. I’ve been here long enough, have been walking around long enough, to often answer.
I walked a lot. I walked from school to where I assisted English classes to where I DJed at a club to meet friends at various chain cafes to where I stayed. At the time, it was a compulsion, almost. I didn’t know what else to do and I did not want to be anywhere. Walking was being alone, it was creating a space for myself with my music, floating through the public but detached, aloof, closed.
Specific sites were ignored for whatever streets I knew I could follow and not get lost on. But I walked through courtyards that struck me more than any palaces. They had a story I could relate to somehow, some way. They spoke to me and did not affront me with their grandiosity as men with piss-wet pants lay and old women prostrated themselves on the sidewalk before them. The contrasts frightened me. I was stabbed to the core. Fellow students drank in bars as I sat with them counting my cash and choosing the cheapest drink on the menu. I let myself withdraw from the frivolity and the laughter. I couldn’t.
Discomfort dogged me where I stayed. Resentment at my hosts for picking on my misunderstandings and American accent spun into resentment of myself: what are my struggles when they survived the Siege of Leningrad? So I turned this fury outward again, wishing I could spit at the people lining Nevsky as Victory Day approached with posters of Сталин, наш герой—Stalin, our hero. People pushed me on the tram, on the metro, as I waited for friends in front of the bookstore. Move, girl, they said. Pushed me to the side like everything else, away.
I looked at everyone else through a sheet of glass. I couldn’t quite make contact. Maybe it was language, maybe it was my disturbance—or should it have been labeled political awareness? I was apart from those who were having a good time, and I was apart from those who were truly suffering, or who had across history. Ghosts following me batted at my head, “you don’t deserve sadness.” As I lay with my upper body spread across the kitchen table, my hosts, ghosts in their own way, repeated: “you haven’t seen life, you don’t deserve sadness, don’t drink.” I would retreat to my room and, where no one could see me, place my fingers on my throat in the shape of a gun.
The conclusion came to me: I’m weak. I should be having a great time, this is a special period of my life, and yet. Undeserving. Unattractive in my gloom. Unwanted. The sunset grabbed onto the sky for extra time as the May days lengthened. I walked down the embankment, flowers for my hosts, the blokadnitsi, in hand as fireworks burst over the rooftops in celebration of ending a period of death that really did not end. There was a group of men at a corner by my house who stuck their cell phones in my face and took photos as my hands shot up, blocking them, blocking them all.
Disturbance reverberated in me, and why? I increasingly separated from others because they didn’t have it. The annoying it, that made me half a second too slow to smile, that oozed from me and polluted everything. Perhaps it was my novelty, but a Russian group of friends continued to invite me to events and I was grateful in a way, as I glided along with them like a shadow, watching. Or maybe a black hole, absorbing.
As the days grew lighter, as the sun became sharper, nearly all of the novelty from the slushy and dusky winter of my arrival had worn off. I packed my bags as the semester ended unable to comprehend my exact feelings about leaving. In the early morning, the moist air sat heavy and cool on my shoulders I sat across from the statue of Pushkin waiting for my bus to Helsinki.
Months later, in the village pub, one of my professors looked at me very earnestly, with a caring that I could rely on, and said, “since you’ve returned from study abroad, you’re so much more confident. You just don’t care what others think anymore.” And though, at that time, it wasn’t yet fully true, maybe the battering had hardened me somewhat. But there were still raw wounds. Every so often over the years, a scab will break and there’s an open pit beneath it, and I can tumble in. Russia did not give me that, but it did scrape off a scab.
Throwing oneself around the earth has implications. If done well, it can be molding. One can absorb and learn and be better, only there’s much of this world that is harsh and if you face it and draw it in under your skin, and if you have that pit where it may fall – there’s that.