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.

No comments:

Post a Comment