A Semester in St. Petersburg
Picture eleven at night. Except “night” has become an arbitrary, meaningless word. The sun hangs by the horizon’s edge, dangling the false promise of darkness over the head of the city. In a few hours it will dip below the edge of the world and rise back up, the sky deepening to a blue without ever surrendering into the embrace of black night. It has been weeks since there has been any sort of true darkness, since you could go to sleep under a blanket of stars. The White Nights steal your sleep like a mischievous imp, begging you to come out and play before the eternal darkness of winter takes over. Staring out of a window on the eighth floor of a sixteen story monolithic concrete block, from a room that always smells faintly of dill, you can see the edge of the Gulf of Finland. You have forgotten what it means to feel comfortable. Living in someone else’s house, in someone else’s country, your tongue stumbling over someone else’s language, your body is your only home. Comfort is cage; you learn to do things that make you uncomfortable. You will never know the ways your body can move if you never try to stretch.
By the time autumn sweeps over the city and the trees abandon their leaves, you’ve ridden the subway so often that you can perfectly imitate the intonation of the voice that comes droning over the intercom (astarozhna, dveri zakrivaytsa). You’ve learned how not to smile, how to avoid eye contact with people on the subway or the street. You don’t know them and they don’t know you; they’ll leave you alone if you grant them that courtesy. The last thing you want is to attract attention and run the risk of drunk men following you home, yelling for the “americanka” (American girl) to come hang out with them (like it happened to me).
You learn how to control and become yourself in a world where you are the only thing you have the tiniest control over. (The bus will be forty minutes late, and you will be late to school even though you woke up early that day. The metro car breaks at a different stop and you don’t know how to get home. There is no such thing a peanut butter or good coffee. Make the best with what you can get. A drunk conductor will hit on you while you are the only one on the bus, get off as soon as you can and find a new way home). As a girl you should be constantly aware of your surroundings and yourself (though I fell short on that one, once not noticing a dead body on the metro until some other Reedies pointed it out to me.)
In winter thick ice on old pavements turns a modern city into a dangerous skating rink, a battle to stay on your feet with every step. Don’t walk close to the buildings, the icicles looming over the sidewalks are bigger and stronger than you and can kill you. The never-ending light of summer is reversed into a perpetual blackness. The sun “rises” at ten, “sets” at four, although the period in between is so grey it is hard call it a day. Your grasp on the flow of time begins to slip. Days of -10 Celsius begin to feel warm as your body gets used to the arctic air and wind, a coldness that steals your breath and makes you wonder why in God’s name Peter the Great built this city here, if not to torture the Russian people for eternity.
On a dark, cold night you get lost walking home from a friend’s apartment (a Russian friend, a musician, who happily welcomes you into her world and laughs when you think that it’s strange that her shower is next to the sink in the communal kitchen), but there above the tops of buildings peeks the top of Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, and suddenly you feel safe, protected. Its domed top will always guide you home.
The buildings and streets reflect a history that America can only imagine, the scars of revolution and war and blockade. You are tiny.
You are tiny, but in your inescapable smallness you are hard, secure.
Suddenly vaulted back to the Reed College library, in a little town with no great spires, no domes or monuments to lead you home, your smallness feels bigger than all of Portland. Now too big to fit into your old chair in the new pit, you can’t help but wonder, “What the fuck am I doing here?”