Sunday, April 26, 2015

St. Pete and Me

I became who I am because of Russia.

That is to say: the study of the language in college, and then later actually studying Russian here in Russia, had a profound impact on the person I eventually grew into.

For a myriad of reasons, it doesn’t make sense that I ever would have chosen to study Russian in college. I started out as a biology major, but I changed my major after a spectacular screw up in chemistry lab dropped me to my knees in despair. As a science major, I only needed two years of language on my transcript, which I could have easily completed in just one short quarter of Spanish.

But I was also part of a small “Humanities Honors Program,” which purported to admit a select few immensely talented writers and thinkers in freshman year. Oh, and they also invited me to join – probably because my insanely smart big brother had himself completed the same program, at the same university, with honors. Possibly also because the head of my high school called them up and tricked them into thinking I was myself somewhat gifted.

Whatever. I was invited to join the program, and that very first year at school, we had all sorts of meetings with all sorts of professors whose job seemed to be to remind us at every turn that we were the best of the best, the smartest of the smart, not allowed to fail, head and shoulders above the other freshmen. We all wrote that down in our notes.

As a member of the program, I was assigned an advisor, himself a department head, and one spring day he summoned me to his office to select next year’s course work. (I was still a biology major and had to fit those classes around these ones, while still getting enough credits to graduate with a degree in something specific.)

He pointed out that I needed to start my language requirement, and he noted that while I could quickly finish up with a few weeks of Spanish, I’d be better off spending two years studying French, or even German, because those languages were much more valuable in the wide world of Humanities.

I considered that briefly, but then remembered that while in high school, I’d read Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and had become enamored of Russian literature. I’d also seen a Russian dictionary back in high school and flipped through it, enthralled by the odd letters - a code in need of breaking. So I asked him: what about Russian?

He waved his hand dismissively: no. Russian, he explained, was simply too hard. I’d never learn it. Waste of time. Better to tackle something doable, like German.

I don’t remember if I asked him this out loud. But I remember thinking: you’ve spent the whole year telling me I’m one of the smartest people here. And now you’re telling me I’m too dumb for Russian? Why offer it, then, if even the smart kids can’t do it?

I do remember he was irritated with my response, however it came out. And I do remember that I enrolled in Russian, almost just to spite him. You think I can’t learn it? Watch me.

Turns out he was right. I couldn’t learn it. It’s not that Russian was too hard, exactly. But it was hard enough, and I was too busy flitting between Biology seminars, writing workshops, English literature groups and the ballet studio to really buckle down and study cases, declensions, sentence structures, vocabulary…

I coasted. I was a solidly average Russian student. Okay, maybe low-to-mid-average. But I had fun in there, with Sam and Michele and a few other quirky smart kids. Russian set us apart, and we sort of reveled in that.

I probably would have quit when my two years were up. But then they announced a semester-long study program in Leningrad, in the Soviet Union. Only two students would be selected from each campus in the UC system, and we’d all travel together to Leningrad in the fall. For some reason my parents didn’t straight up say no when I said I wanted to apply, and so I did.  To this day, I don’t know how I was selected for one of the two spots. But I was.

So off I flew to Leningrad with my classmate Masha and a handful of other UC students. We lived in a dorm behind Kazanskii Sobor and we went to classes all day long. Evenings were free to do homework or roam the city.

We shared living space with students from Africa, Vietnam and other random countries across the globe. We all lined up in the cafeteria to get our meals together – Russian dishes like kasha and borsch, all floating murkily in big metal canisters.

On the first big state holiday after I arrived, the cafeteria was closed all day, as were most of the meager little shops and restaurants in town. But my Russian was still pretty bad, or else I wasn’t listening when they announced the closure. I spent the day walking hungrily across the city, looking for something, anything, to eat. Everything was closed. Masha and I finally found a babushka selling potatoes, which we brought home and cooked on our little dorm room hot plate.

I paid more attention after that.

Four months flew by. My Russian got better, but not great. I was usually the worst student in any given class. I packed on 15 pounds from all of the cafeteria meals and Soviet ice cream. I once got knocked down the steps by a security guard outside a major hotel – when I tried to walk in the hotel, speaking Russian, he mistook me for a Russian prostitute (who knew “regular” girls didn’t frequent that hotel in the evening?). I was pissed, but I was also kind of proud – was my accent really good enough to pass for a Russian? Masha and I regularly snuck into nice restaurants to steal their toilet paper – in those days the paper was hard to find, and the rolls were nailed to the walls so you couldn’t remove them, but we painstakingly unrolled the paper and then re-rolled it, stashing it in our purses for later use.

I returned to California with a new respect for the Russian language. Instead of quitting, I switched my major to Russian and finally – finally! – settled down and really worked.

It was the first time, with the possible exception of Mr. Herroon’s 9th grade algebra class, that I actually worked as hard as I could to get the best grades I could. I took it seriously and I worked at it. I still had to fit in ballet and literature and writing (no more biology or chemistry though!), but I finally figured out how to do it: how to balance all of those things and a part time job, too.

I grew up.

That was so, so many years ago.  Since then, I’ve gotten married, had kids, held down jobs, paid a mortgage. I’ve studied Chinese and Arabic and Armenian. I’ve hailed cabs and visited emergency rooms in multiple countries. I can barely remember that scared kid who squinted into the sun on the tarmac in Leningrad, wondering what was about to happen to me.

We went back to Leningrad – or, as it is known now, St. Petersburg – with my parents and my kids last week. I haven’t been there in well over 20 years.

It was just so strange, starting with the train ride there – a clean, high-speed train that took just 4 hours to get there from Moscow, as opposed to the rickety 9-hour overnight trains of my youth.

My dorm was still there behind Kazanskii Sobor, still painted a dull seaweed green with a coating of dust around the window sills. But there was a bright shiny Starbucks just across the way. Some of the streets looked familiar; others, not so much. I couldn’t find the little Georgian restaurant that used to be tucked into a nearby basement – the place where I first learned to love greasy, cheesy khachapuri. I did see the sign for Chaika – a western style pub we used to frequent when we were desperate for something that tasted like home. But though the sign was there, the restaurant itself was long gone. 

The Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood was as beautiful as ever on the outside, and now you can even go inside! It was closed to the public when last I was there. We went to the Hermitage – still enormous, amazing, endless.

We were only there for two short nights, but it was long enough to remember what I loved about the city. It has an amazing spirit, this city that held the Nazis off during a 900-day siege. The canals, the wedding-cake buildings, the river, the literary references on every block. It’s the most beautiful city in Russia – and one of the prettiest in all of Europe.

I hope we get a chance to go back again before our tour here is up.

My parents outside the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood

Plus kids...

Inside the restored church.

Kids on canal.

Throne room in the Hermitage.

The czar's library.

Catherine the Great's sleigh. One of them, anyway.

That door behind us is made of tortoiseshell and other exotic things.

Outside the Hermitage.

My old dorm. Bet it still reeks of cabbage. I have some great memories of that place, though.
More pictures to follow.


Please. Write your own stuff.