Kak dila, Mamuchka?

In 2007, I entered a short fiction contest through the Walrus magazine. The competition was held in conjunction with a literary seminar series that was run out of Concordia University, and the winner was awarded a full-month scholarship to attend a seminar of their choice.

My submission was a story I had written based on my relationship with my doubles badminton partner Kristy when we were fourteen years old and playing at the junior national level. The piece was choc-a-bloc full of metaphors for sex and featured the best dinner prank one can ever play (ask me about it the next time you see me). To this day it’s one of my favourite stories that I’ve ever written.

I ended up being a finalist, and as such, was awarded a scholarship to take part in a two-week writing seminar in St. Petersburg, that coming July.

I went, and for two and half weeks had one of the craziest, most brilliant, most out of this world adventure a twenty-two-year-old girl possibly could ask for.

I’ve never tired of writing about my trip, and have penned entries about the time that I got beat up by a babushka in the Russian sauna, and about the opulence and depravity of Nevsky Prospekt, and about my heartbreaking hike to the Siege of Leningrad memorial and about how the city’s heart beat has never stopped.

I’ve also written about how, even in Russia, I am always the weirdest dancer in the club.

Which was why I was so excited to return to the city – return to one-half of my ancestral motherland – with my actual mother.

I spent so much of that half-month by myself: visiting museums and memorials; eating at the strangest of restaurants and marching about huge lengths of the city. Most of my cohort was older, and while I blew off every class, they spent their days in tutorials and lectures. It can be incredibly difficult to validate a life-changing moment when no one is around to experience it with you.

I wanted to have someone there to see the beauty and the insanity and the brilliance; the heartbeat that makes this place thrum and thrive and triumph and break.

The only problem being, for the eighteen days that I called this city home, I was able to do as I wished. I could go where I wanted and take the metro when needed. I could explore the marketplace and visit the ballet and philharmonic and wander the canals and drink canned gin and tonics at the banks of the Neva.

This time, we had to explore the city by bus and listen to the same narrative by each tour guide, as they explained that the city was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and Catherine, also a great, hated her son Paul, but really loved her boyfriend Griegory.

And it’s not as thought any of this is bad. To be able to have two days to spend with my mother in a city as dynamic and brilliant as this, is a memory I have tucked deep down into the depths of my heart.

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But I can’t help but be reminded of all of the tales I have heard and read of tourists during the Soviet era: who all stayed at the same hotel, and who all received the same tour, and ate at the same restaurants, and who shopped at the same stores. The omnipresent desire and need to control the narrative, and to define the stories, that return home with the foreigners who come to the city.

The country.

Driving into St. Petersburg from the docks, we passed a monolithic Soviet structure with the letters “Park Hotel” affixed to the top. The dichotomy between the western name, and the communist architecture was jarring. One just might think that the rooms in that structure still bugged, and that the recordings are submitted to Putin for personal screening.

Let’s get super James Bond here, why don’t we?

But I would like to stress how wonderful a time we had in Russia.

We visited Catherine the Great’s summer palace in the village of the Tzars. Old Kate was woman truly after my own heart. A pre-first wave feminist, she was all about educating women and, like her counterpart Victoria, was a total boss when it came to dominating empirical politics – going so far as to have her husband knocked-off, and then totally cock-blocking her son Paul (in the parlance of our times) until his untimely murder (aka accidental strangling.)

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We had a fantastic morning exploring the Hermitage – marveling at the exquisite and completely overdone Winter Palace.

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I absolutely loved being able to show my mum the Peter and Paul Fortress and the Church on Spilled Blood and St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

Plus I got to procure these amazing Russian author nesting dolls.

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They may just be my most favourite things I’ve ever bought.

But mostly I just loved seeing her marvel at it all. I liked talking her through how poorly people were treated during the reign of the Tzars, and how the Siege of Leningrad lasted for 900 days, and how Alexander the II was actually a liberal and a reformer, and if the Decembrists hadn’t blown of his legs things might have unfolded a little differently in this country.

It’s so interesting. Having read so much about what it was like to be a tourist under the Soviet Union, and then to experience something that felt so very similar, despite having lived a markedly different experience, I am again so reminded that no matter how much changes, things definitely do remain the same.

Which is why it’s important to have people you love with whom you can experience these moments.

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Because before I was alone.

And when you’re alone, it feels but a dream.

Always best to start at the beginning

The day after leaving Berlin, we spent a day sailing the Baltic sea.

We were knackered from the first three days of travelling and didn’t wake up until 10 AM. This was a welcome surprise, as it meant I was freed from roaming the ship like a homeless vagabond simply waiting for the sun to rise (and the gym to open.)

That afternoon, I ran and mum practiced yoga and then we met up with our trivia team for another hour of putting all of our strange and extraneous knowledge to good use.

I almost keeled over with laughter as we tried to figure out what animal is thought to represent long life in Korea.

When my mum suggested the duck I knew I was a total goner. Frank from New Jersey, known already for his serious side eye, nearly knocked over his beer. Good thing for gentle Queenslander Wendy, who quickly suggested that it might be the bear.

Turns out that it was the deer all along.

Afterwards, we returned to our room and laughed ourselves silly sharing hilarious stories, including a real doozy from Bath, New Brunswick, wherein on the way to a New Year’s Eve dance at the legion in Woodstock, NB (Bath being too small to have a legion of its own) both my mum’s boots and stockings melted all over her legs, coagulating into one gooey, goopy super pant.

As my mum put it: “Buddy’s heat in his car was all messed up. I kept telling him that I was cold so he kept turning it up. Turns out, he turned it up a little too high. I got out of the car and I had these big, big holes in my pantyhose and this goo all over my legs. I had to take them off and was left with nothing but my melting boots. That guy really liked me too. He kept telling Noreen that he was thrilled to be with me. All I wanted to do was get away from him. He was supposed to be the coolest dude because he had this stupid damn car. I didn’t care at all.”

I am actually crying with laughter just writing this down. Also, should you ever want to know why I am the way that I am, it’s because of this story. Period.

We capped off the day with dinner out on the terrace, drinking white wine and talking with the sommelier, who is a dead ringer for Novak Djokovic – just with better glasses. I am, of course, completely biased, but hey, they were good, good glasses.

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As we snuggled down to sleep, we watched Iceland go up one goal over England, and I swear to goodness, even this far out from the island, I could swear we heard that entire country lose its collective mind.

Alas, that night I was back to the insomnia, and was up at both 1 AM and 4:45 AM. Standing at the rail of our balcony, I let the Baltic wind blow through my hair. Let it whip through my clothes. Let it rip through me, and into my bones.

I watched as the colours of the heavens shifted and blurred; magentas bleeding into royal blues; the yellow of a daisy’s eye; a blossom pink.

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In the silence, everything softens. Everything cools.

Night rolls on, but the light.

It persists.

By 5 AM, the sun was wide awake, breaking through three layers of curtains into our room.

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I again crept outside, and watched it burn a path across the morning seascape.

I have wanted to go to Riga since reading Henning Mankell’s The Dogs of Riga when I was 19 and in my second year of my undergrad. I was taking a Northern European film and literature class and it was the last book on my class syllabus. That year I had read 92 pieces of literature (books, novellas, plays, graphic novels – just for school alone), and by the end of the semester I was burnt out.

The Dogs of Riga was sitting on my bookshelf and I was debating whether or not I would be able to get through the course without cracking it open.

One night, instead of writing a paper of his own, Marc read the entire thing in one sitting. The next morning, the first thing he said to me was, “Babe you really need to read this book.”

And so I did. Also over the course of one day.

It was that book that set off a twelve-year love affair with Mankell. I read, and re-read every Kurt Wallender crime novel, and most of his other fiction.  It was the catalyst for this trip. It is what is taking my mum and I around Northern Europe and into the Russian motherland, as I had passed on my love (and my collection of dog eared paperbacks) to her the last summer I lived in Halifax.

So today we adventured around Riga. We learned about the city and its history, marvelling at the incredible architecture of the new town, and the warmth and magnificence of the old town.

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Did you know that that legend behind Riga’s flag is that in the thirteenth century there was a mortally wounded Lavian warrior who was wrapped in a white sheet? The part of the sheet on which he was lying remained white, but the two edges were stained in his blood. During the next battle his soldiers used the bloodstained sheet as a flag.

The country has been occupied by the Swedes, Germans, Russians (Russian empire) and Soviets (USSR).

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In the fourteenth century, Swedish soldiers hated having to walk from their barracks to the beer brewing district, so they raised money to cut a gate into the city’s walls which would allow them easy access from their homes to the streets of beer.

In 1991, as the country was fighting for its independence, and Soviet tanks were rolling into the old town, the TV station fell, but the radio building stood strong.

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The Russian orthodox church that stands in the city’s Esplanade was a planetarium under Soviet rule.

The building that once housed the Soviet agriculture institute was my favourite thing from the entire day, and is today the Latvian Academy of Sciences.

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We visited the market, and the national opera house, and the museum, and the outdoor market, and the independence monument. We had a delicious lunch in an outdoor square and basked in the late afternoon sunlight as we walked back to the ship.

I would very much like to return to Riga. To meet more of its multilingual inhabitants and learn more of its fascinating history.

Because this city is in my heart.

And its beat is strong.