Friday, September 28, 2007

The Russia Diaries


I. Dad and Mom,

So, Russia. How to describe a place I do not know...

I'm sitting in a bar and have not had my cigarette, yet. This doesn't mean that I have not had a cigarette today, but I have not had a cigarette at this table. I am stealing a moment on the wireless at the local bar and the night is coming on fast. It never really gets dark here so the night isn't known by its difference from the day: a little less of the weather and a little more of the culture perhaps, but nothing to do with light and dark.

Petersburg is a funny place for culture: it doesn't exactly have one. The amusements are nice: the hermitage, the canals, the museums, the Maryinsky theater, (I still have not gone to the ballet, though it's become generally known, through our traditional night club outings, that I am a dancer.) I've fallen in love, I've fallen in and out of the best conversations I've had in a while and I've had several affairs with men I probably shouldn't have been with. The street is dark and uneven: sometimes paved, sometimes cobbled, always pitted and, so I am told; Petersburg is a city where everyone looks at his or her feet. My first few days in Petersburg were spent tripping over the architecture. Broad Venetian buildings that loom for miles, extending half a city block and sometimes further, oftentimes much further. No one seems to notice, or perhaps they do, but they never look. No one stops walking to stare, as I do, at the height of a city rising directly from the street but never into the sky.

In Petersburg the streets are lined by a pastel blockade: some strange Ur-Disney aesthetic where everything is real in spite of its fantastic appearance. The avenues look like nicely decorated cakes: yellow, blue, pink and green, anything opulent and unnecessary in a city of five million people where most of the population lives on little more than 1000 rubles a month. But those aren't the people you see. The people, the women, walking along Nevsky Prospekt are tall, blonde and shadowed in small tops and large sunglasses. They walk quickly in a gaggle or alone, scowling in the way that beautiful women can: as if the day is too much and the men and the tourists, a ubiquitous annoyance, are their own daily obstacles of esteem. Most people in Petersburg carry a growl on their face that either ignores or is caused by the city's performative excess. The drop into capitalism has been a hard one and not everyone is caught up to or comfortable with the exchange. In the bars and restaurants it's not unusual to wait for an hour to order and another to get your food, half of which is forgotten or mistook for something else, but delivered without apology or the other familiar appurtenances of the American service industry. If you speak English don't expect anyone to speak back. Even if they know it, which most do not, they don't care and prefer to avoid accommodating tourists, upon whom the city is almost entirely reliant. The bar I most often frequent, an imitation of an English pub directly across from the Herzen Inn, where the program offices are located, serves cheap Russian beer at expensive European prices. Still, the beer is better than anything I've had in the States and the location is generally acknowledged as the hub of the program's social scene. I spend most of my time here, in one corner or another writing, talking, smoking, drinking and bitching at the end of the night when the bill comes and the waitresses, waiting together at the end of the bar, glare for payment.

Don't misunderstand: all of this that I'm telling you is the city's particular charm. The Russians are mean, the showers are always cold and when they aren't they drip rusted water that can only be used as an exfoliant. No one speaks English and everyone drinks and smokes far too much, but this is what you wanted. This is why you came. You want to see Raskolnikov; you want to see Akaki Akakiavich. And though you might see him, and you will see where he killed the old woman you also see the giant Coca-Cola sign smiling over Kazansky Cathedral. The neon lights dancing across the Peter and Paul Fortress and the bridge opening over the Neva at night, which all the boats greet and the Russians applaud because it is beautiful and it opens to let you through.

Around the city's downtown most all of the buildings have been or are undergoing renovation. Celebrating Petersburg's three-hundredth year anniversary the city is dressing up for the tourists and pushing a lot of the locals out. Every morning the street is washed with strange hunchbacked-trucks and the few people wandering or going to work, (no one really gets up or goes out before 11 am,) freckle the street in a scarcity that can only really be known from the mid-afternoon throng of Nevsky when the hot naked avenue is crushed by a crowd rivaling Madison at Christmas.

Those buildings not yet 'made new' are crumbling and have a romantic decrepitude that I have always wanted for a city. Not a city I live in, perhaps, but one, like Petersburg, which I can visit, appreciate and leave. The whole city feels like a novel and arguments often flare concerning Petersburg's birthing of literature or the birthing of Petersburg by her authors. No one has yet decided which is which and why, but as far as I can tell the distinction is important.

The city bursts into light early with a dawn that never rises but suddenly appears, reflecting off the Fontanka in hours that ignore the traditional dim and fade of the sky. For this reason I have not bought nor do I miss wearing a watch: it doesn't make any sense anyways, and so the irrationality of the place hovers in an overcast that never really dissipates. You go to bed when you are tired and you wake when the light happens to catch your eye through the blind. Either way there is no schedule it is just time, after all, and somehow the sky is able to digest this too, and so maybe you wake from the dogs barking at rival packs or the screaming of the feral cats, who do not mind people or their brooms, but continue to proliferate in a gorgeous wild bloom.

Regardless, you're in St. Petersburg and having the time of your life.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007
St. Petersburg, Russia
The Office

II. Dear Mom and Dad,

Everyday in Russia I look forward to my mid-afternoon beer and cigarette at the Office, (the local bar I was telling you about earlier.) The day moves away from me in a wash of smoke and American pop music and I sit here trying to work, but never doing the work I have to do. Instead I write to you, read poetry books that the man, the poet, (my poet,) left for me and think about how tired I have grown after my near three weeks here. I am exhausted, but I have grown vampirous: feeding off the life of the people around me. Last night my god friend left: back to Canada. I think I miss him. I think when I think too much I can miss anyone, but I do think that I miss him. The bar is less smoky than usual, and last night and today, (my inevitable focus of the next day’s, today’s, musings,) were so strange that I don’t think I can accurately recount them.

To begin, last night was just drunk and emotional. I not only said goodbye to a man who became, through all the disproportionate Petersburgian odds, a very dear friend, but I said goodbye to my teacher—an amazing woman and quite possibly my next poetic kindred.

My friend was holed up in his room with a nasty case of food poisoning, and as he said, he thought it fitting that the day before he left Russia he puked up everything left in his body: the past three weeks. Saying goodbye was hard, he was wonderful and I think I have experienced this city more through the people than the place. But it’s all a confluence isn’t it? The people, the place, we’re not even Russian, but we’ve all been touched, and that’s Russian: the effect of the city. He was, well, Dad you would love him. He’s a journalist for a Canadian newspaper: The Globe in Toronto, he’s Jewish (that’s for you Mom) and he was…no bullshit (I think that one’s for me).

My teacher, Katie Peterson, is so smart, so…so smart: a serious contender. She hates Russia and she likes me. It’s nice. She teaches at an all-male college called Deep Springs. Have you ever heard of it? Apparently it’s a post high school pre-college kind of thing: four teachers, two years in the middle of the desert. She’s the only woman at the college and she’s fierce. Last night she was drunker than I think I have ever seen anyone: (let me revise that: any adult that I knew and did not think of as a drunk, which was probably why she was so drunk in the first place!) collapsed on the sidewalk with two students, one very much interested in her in a non-platonic, non-poetry class sort of way, and I was, maybe, a bit uncomfortable, a bit worried for her, and a bit preoccupied: (that would be the boy up in his room, gorgeous and sick, and very much not mine.) She got home all right: another boy, not mine, but interested as far as I can tell, was caring for her and he’s a good one too; but at this point he and his interests are, for me, very much beside the point.

Today my roommate, Debbie, and I went to the Kunstkamera: a museum founded by Peter I full of anthropological curiosities and, if you can believe this, dead babies. The museum itself: three large rooms full of life-size statues positioned for display in ‘culturally relevant’ positions, (Eskimos with spears, hunting; Somali witch doctors shaking spiritual instruments; and Geisha’s being beautifully demure) is something of a curiosity itself. Most of the students came back with the appropriate PC response of shock and horror, Debbie and I were at times hysterical and entirely entranced: imagining what it would have been like, when the museum first opened, to have seen all of this: so different from anything Russian, so different from anything decorously Venetian. Apparently Peter I was something of an aesthete: a product of a European education he was called “The Great Reformer” and only wanted to modernize a nation that he saw as terribly backward and superstitious. Walking through the museum I thought of him as the Enlightenment personified: a rebellious teenage boy ashamed of his parents’ home. It was just a coincidence that his parents’ home was the largest country in the world and now Petersburg is very much heir to his embarrassment. Since its founding Petersburg has fought with Russia: the people, the peasants, the vodka, the superstitions, this place is magical, but it is so other, so different from Europe it must have driven him crazy. When he was younger Peter left Russia for Germany and Holland and Italy, he studied medicine and excelled in the curiosities and progressive knowledge of the European Academy, the Kunstkamera is a collection of what Peter found interesting, relevant and progressive in Europe. I thought it funny how now the aspects of Europe that Peter found worth preserving and displaying, not even exhibiting but actively propagandizing on the benefits of this museums collection as a counterforce to the religious zeal and xenophobia of the people, are somehow parochial somehow so terribly immature and obvious.

In the bar there’s a Rugby game on TV and American Rock n’ Roll on the speakers: everything from the Chilly Peppers to Springsteen, from Clapton to Cake. The beer is expensive ($4) in a city where you can get a dinner from anywhere between two dollars and ten. But this is an English pub off of Nevsky, and for the past nine years (the duration the program’s been running) they’ve gotten used to North American tourists and North American money. This does not mean, however, that they’ve developed North American sensibilities in the service industry: they’re rude as shit, but at this point I expect it and fight back a little: testament, I suppose to old habits (sorry Dad.) On the TV the commercials sell a Russian form of Viagra, Old Spice, beer and, as I don’t speak Russian, what I believe is a digestive aid. The demographic is clearly men. I’ve been told that most, if not all, of the money is dirty so the men who have it (and in this country it is definitely men) are interested in sex, power and more money. Thankfully, capitalism has this particular demographic, and its fantasies, down so it’s an easy sell. Nothing terribly impressive about the ads, except, perhaps, for their outrageous lack of sophistication. Nothing is subtle here, and most of the advertisements are reminiscent of used car ads with an 80’s graphic flare for neon and superimposed images. Everything looks like it’s shouting at you: a palimpsest of Time Square on a crumbling, now new, now old, copy of old Europe. But the hydra-headed result of Petersburg is never boring; disorienting, maybe, but never dull.

Sunday, July 8, 2007
St. Petersburg, Russia
The Office

III. Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, it’s 12:19 and I’m back at the Office. Supposedly I’m writing/working on my play, but that’s not exactly happening, now is it? I’ve been working on this play all day today and I can’t even think my way into it anymore.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The Office

IV. Dear Mom and Dad,

This morning I’m at Zoom: the local coffee-house that is more Brooklyn than St. Petersburg, but has WiFi and good food and supremely better service than anything else around here. I’m supposed to be writing my play and guess what I’m not doing! I didn’t get any sleep last night: I’m developing a pretty bad smoker’s cough and I think I need to stop. Today’s project: STOP SMOKING! At least until my next beer….

V. Dear Mom and Dad,

The night before the night before last night I got so wasted on vodka I couldn’t stand. I’m fine now, but the entirety of my body feels bruised. I suspect I had something close to 15 shots of vodka (don’t worry, Dad, it was free—or maybe, Mom, don’t worry I threw it all up.) The experience was less than revelatory but I lost a day and am in, what I suspect to be, deep shit with my producer: the play is still not done! He says he needs it by the fifteenth; I have said, in no uncertain terms by not replying to his e-mail, “I’m in Russia, fuck off,” or so I suspect he took it as such. Have I told you I’m exhausted, and now I am to go to Prague: this depresses the hell out of me.

Both of you will be glad to know, I am sure, that through this program I have had not one, not two, not three, but four job offers and potential employers/places of employment in the tri-state area. I don’t know how this will affect Macey n’ Bob: alone in Minnesota with a supposed roomie/stripper (that would be me, your daughter) on her way in a new/old BMW? Maybe a clean(er) Honda? Well, either way (and between us, either car, but preferably the latter: a girl can dream) it doesn’t look good for the trio of ex-Santa Fe’ers. The city, a place I thought irrevocably dull, dead, and destroyed is now seemingly (from Russia, anyways) full of possibility. I’m trying not to bank on anything, but I thought you would both enjoy the idea of me as worker.

There is a woman in the city named Fay and she wants me to start a theater company with her; she also happens to be the dean of students at a college in the city and she says she can get me a job teaching freshman composition if all else fails; another woman named Anne wants me to teach at the Little Red School House (have you heard of it?); another woman Libby, the editor of a new lit mag, the St. Petersburg Review, has already hired me…I guess. So I’ve had a reasonably good time, and I think I will return to a very different New York…I hope, anyways.

When I get back home I believe I have something of a choice: either I become an adult and stay in the city, pursue these job offers and delve into the New York literary scene; or, I can stay a kid: move to Mineapolis/St. Paul become a waitress, bum around Europe with Bob and Macey and generally, I don’t know, be a kid…. I’m totally confused. Any ideas? I don’t know what to do.

Tonight is our last night in Petersburg and we are taking a midnight boat ride through the city’s canals and out onto the Neva. It will be beautiful and sad and I am mournful. I’ve spent the past two weeks wanting my experience to come to a close and now that it has I am sad. I guess this is expected, but still it is surprising in its own lethargic way. I’m in Zoom and it’s too hot so I’m leaving. The Office will be louder, smoggier and more expensive, but in some ways I can’t imagine writing this letter, or spending my last few hours on my computer anywhere else.

I’m in the Office now and I just got some pictures of the night (the drunken night) in question. They’re fun and I’m sure you guys will enjoy looking at them. The Office is filling up and for the first time since I’ve been here the patrons are not SLS’ers: they’re locals! Go figure, this place is actually Russian. I’m in Russia. I was invited to a gallery party with a few friends of mine earlier and I can’t go, or I don’t want to, or I’m just too tired. Of course on my last day here (last real day) I meet some nice friendly Russians and I don’t want to pursue it. Instead I am going out to dinner with my roommate and some others at 9 at a Georgian place that is cheap and good. I was supposed to go to a huge gathering at an Armenian place called Kilikia but when the time came I couldn’t. So here I am, at the bar with nothing to say.

I think I’m going to sign off. I can’t think of much else to say. This trip feels like it is at an end, but…there will be Prague and then more writing, more lovers(?), more of the same…different…I don’t know.

Friday, July 13, 2007

...“To not touch your skin, isn’t that why I sing…. I can’t help myself I’ve got to see you again.”

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