Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Piter, Past and Present

Last weekend I took the train up to St. Petersburg, which was both the first time I’d been on a train since the Trans-Siberian last spring, and my first time in Petersburg since the summer of 2014. Even though Moscow will always be my one true Russian love, Piter holds a special place in my heart—it was my point of entry into Russia eleven years ago. But in the many years since I first visited the Motherland, I’ve changed and it’s changed.

In 2005, you could buy a pack of cigarettes for 8 rubles (25 cents at the time), English was nowhere to be found on the menus and metro signs, McDonald’s was the only establishment with Wi-Fi, and Putin was in the Kremlin (okay, not everything has changed). As for me, I was a deaf mute who didn’t always guess right when I entered public restrooms, I carried my rubles in my bra to avoid being robbed, I was so cheap that I frequented an internet café whose clientele mostly consisted of men watching porn, and I had a crush on the president of Russia (that one’s still a little true, if I’m being perfectly honest).

I don’t think the Aperol Spritz had made it to Russia in 2005 either

Because I can’t quite let go of the past, I decided that my impromptu trip to Piter should be accompanied by an impromptu attempt to get in touch with my former host sister. I hadn’t seen Larisa since a chance meeting in Helsinki a decade ago, but her email address and last name have changed since then. Luckily, I’m almost as good at tracking people down as the KGB, and Larisa and I were Facebook messaging by the time I’d boarded my night train to Petersburg. We spent the day together on Saturday, and I got to meet her kids and see her new apartment. We also reminisced about our last night together in 2005, when I taught her how to bake a lemon meringue pie. This was a true feat since I’d never baked a pie before, plus I had to measure everything with a teacup and and bake our masterpiece in a frying pan.

Larisa and me in 2005

Larisa and me looking far less awkward in 2016

Before Larisa dropped me off at the metro, we drove by our old apartment. It looked exactly the same, and I half expected to see my 20-year-old self walk out. She wouldn’t have been able to say anything in Russian other than “I don’t speak Russian,” had not yet figured out that the hours of writing she did to keep herself entertained without internet were going to morph into something much bigger, and she certainly wouldn’t have expected to see herself on that same street eleven years later. Alas, my past self was only present in my head that day.

To round out my time-warped weekend, I spent my last night hanging out in a former communal apartment with a group of Russians, two of whom currently live in Austin. The kommunalka was located in a decrepit old building that was once a grand hotel. It probably should be condemned by now, but I’m glad it wasn’t so I could observe its faded glory. You could feel the ghosts of Tsarist Russia in the high ceilings and elegant stairways, and see the failed ideals of the Soviet Union in the stained and sagging bathroom and sink-less kitchen, both of which are still shared by six different tenants today. With the White Nights in full effect, it was easy to lose track of time and slip into the surreal world that is St. Petersburg in the summer.

Petersburg at 3 a.m.

I wasn’t quite ready to leave St. Petersburg on Sunday, and I’m going to be even less ready to leave Russia in five weeks. I hope there’s a future iteration of myself sitting across the café from me right now, laughing at the very idea that I might not be back. If history is any indication, Russia isn’t rid of me yet.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Cold Water for Days

I moved into the apartment I’ll be renting for the summer on June 1. When I picked up the keys from the girl moving out, I made sure to ask one very specific question: “When is your hot water being turned off?” This might seem odd, but it’s part and parcel of a Russian summer.

Russia’s hot water system dates back to Soviet times, and serves as an annual reminder of Soviet inefficiency. For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, the pipes need to be serviced and tested every year, which can only be done by shutting off the hot water. Throughout the summer months, Moscow neighborhoods lose their hot water in ten-day waves—and it turned out mine was scheduled to go off just as I moved into my new place.

Cute infographics to distract me from the cold days ahead

When I told my friend Keary about my predicament, he offered up his shower, but I waved off his generosity and said, “No, I’m going to do this like a real Russian. Ten days of cold showers! It’ll build fortitude.”

“Are you kidding? Russians are smart enough to shower at friends’ houses or boil water for baths.”

Keary’s assertion was corroborated by a Russian friend—she just spent ten days commuting to her parents’ summer cottage for showers—but I insisted on freezing my way through this. I wasn’t as enthused about my plan when it came time for my first cold shower—even less so when the hallway light blew out, tripped the circuit breaker, and left my whole apartment in darkness. Nonetheless, I turned on my iPhone flashlight, propped it up outside the shower, and began spraying cold water and profanities around the bathroom.

My cold showers got less painful as I built up a tolerance over the next few days, but then the weather took an unpleasant turn. Sunday brought unrelenting rain, and I had to go to the banya to warm up. Yesterday I skipped showering altogether and made myself a pot of green borshch instead. But I couldn’t avoid a shower this morning, even with outside temperatures hovering around 45°F. I arrived at Russian classes wet, shivering, and grumbling about the water shut-off.

“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” said my teacher. “They used to shut off the hot water for a whole month. Ten days is nothing!”

So much for building Russian fortitude—I’ve got nothing on Nina Vasilevna.