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.

I’m really Russian through this book

So I wrote last week about how I’ve jumped back on the Russian literature train (the darkest, gloomiest, most morbidly hilarious train there is) and I cannot believe how much I have missed the ride.

(Alas, Wolf Hall has been relegated to the far corner of my bedside table, YET AGAIN. One day Ms. Mantell! One day I will finish your oeuvre.)

But back to the goods.

The Brothers Karamazov is a bloody long novel – my translation is 985 pages long (I’m a sucker for Penguin Classics and will go to my death promoting their superior products), but reading it doesn’t feel like a slog.

It feels like I am blazing through the work – paragraphs and pages flying by in the blink of an eye.

I need to emphasize that this isn’t a bad thing.

In fact, when I say that reading this work reminds me of travelling by train, that wasn’t just my attempt at a heavy handed simile.

As I sit and read, I watch as fantastical landscapes whiz past – bright colours, flashes of light, villages, country sides, peasants, gentry – all stream together, and I have make sure that I don’t get dizzy and lose my place.

Because the book is delirious; it makes me feel delirious.

It’s maddening.

And passionate, and hilarious, and brilliant.

Also, another thing that I seem to have forgotten is just how much Russian people (in particular, Russian men) love, LOVE to soliloquise.

(That is, of course, if I’m to take Dostoevsky’s prose as a truthful representation of 19th century Russian conversations.)

Because goodness gracious do his characters ever enjoy a monologue and a half.

And if they’re not monologuing, they’re falling prey to crazed, impassioned fits.

Sometimes they’re doing both at the same time.

Not that I have any right to call out anyone for their liberal use of hysterics when waxing eloquent on a matter at hand (pot being black et. al.)

HOWEVER, it never fails to leave me breathless and a little exasperated every time Dmitry starts beating his chest, or when old papa Fyodor starts acting like a classless arsehole (or buffoon by his definition.)

But mostly I am just bowled over by the writing. The attention to detail, the tangents, the word play, the physical descriptions of characters, ranging from the lowliest urchin to the highest ranking official – they all enthrall me.

They ravage, they provoke, they inspire.

I’m about a fourth of the way through, and I find myself fidgeting throughout the day, wishing that I could crack open this tome and once again lose myself in the provincial world of Alyosha and his brothers. To relish in their dialogues, their anguishes, their fears.

It also makes me reminisce about my trip to the motherland.

Two weeks gallivanting about St. Petersburg, presenting my writing around town, exploring museums and art galleries, dancing until the wee hours of the morning, eating dinner at midnight, and drinking coffee so strong it would tickle your fingertips.

What about you friends? What are you reading these days? I want to know.

Spokoynoy nochimalyshi!

Lover of the Russian Queen

Holy Toledo.

I honestly cannot believe how crazy this week has been. I thought because I had taken Monday off, the days would magically fly by, and what a far flung fantasy that turned out to be!

Waking up today I was feeling more Forrest Gump, (post-multiple cross country runs) than Flash Gordon:

This morning, as has been the case for the past few days, as soon as our alarm went off, Nymeria announced her arrival in the bedroom by jumping up on the bed, and slathering us with her kitty kisses (and not to mention some very enthusiastic whisker rubs/headbutts.)

Also, our little gal purrs like the mother of all trains. Believe you me – the dream of a few extra minutes of glorious shut eye is resoundingly destroyed what with this fur monster-cum-locomotive, luxuriating next to your ear.

One day I will expire from cuteness overload.

It’s a good thing I’m madly in love with her.

When I dream tonight, I’ll dream of this:

"BED AND BREAKFAST"

The lobby of our “bed and breakfast” looks as though a bomb had gone off only minutes prior to our arrival.  Plaster crumbles off of the walls and coats the exposed concrete floor.  Someone has been painting, but it seems that they have left halfway through the job.  Perhaps to buy more cigarettes, judging from the healthy number of butts that litter the floor.  They have also left their paint splattered socks and a coffee mug half full of coagulated brew.  A stench of ammonia hangs in the air.

We climb the stairs of a building that was built over one hundred years ago, and is only now undergoing cosmetic upgrades.  Our guides from the university tell us that all the structural work was completed after the implosion of the Soviet Union.

Due to the state of the place, I can’t help suspect that Nikolai and Gleb are not really here to help us to rooms, but instead to kill us and make off with our identification and luggage.  The door we stop at looks like the entrance to a bank safe I have seen in every action movie I have ever watched.

Nikolai turns to us as says, “By the way, don’t really expect breakfast.  Bed you can rely on, but I’m pretty sure that sign is lost in translation.”

Right, I nod.

Also, he turns his face closer to mine.  “Did you bring bathroom paper?”

I did, I say.  One roll.

“Every restaurant you go to, get more,” he says.

One morning, during the second week of my trip, Aimee, a young teacher from California asks me if I would like to accompany her to the banya.

Vodka. Nuff said.

We don’t have a workshop to attend and because I have six new mosquito bites and can already smell the alcohol seeping out of my skin, I say yes.  I haven’t exercised once since arriving in St. Petersburg and I figure if I can’t go for a run, I might as well sit in a sweltering sauna and sweat the booze out.

On the walk to the spa, I buy an apple blini.

The building is old, but neat looking with a carved wood banister and great frosted windows.  At the front office we purchase our dried birch branches, cardboard sandals and scratchy luffa sponges.  A young woman with heavy shadowed eyes tells us that level four is the woman’s area.

As we ascend the staircase, we pass numerous elderly men, sprawled out on small benches, with miniscule towels clumsily strewn across their genitals.  Though most look as though they are asleep, we catch many of them eyeing us and we pass by.

Once we enter the woman’s only area, we are greeted by a petite lady, with bleached-blond hair, who sits behind a cluttered desk painting her nails.  She asks us if we are excited for the sauna and when we tell her yes, she expresses delight over the fact that we have chosen her place for our first time.  She hands us each a long, white sheet and a scratchy burlap hat.

Supposedly we are supposed to wear these once inside the sauna; it is a uniform that will protect us against the heat of the room.

(It doesn’t.)

Disregard whatever anyone has ever told you about Russian saunas.  Russian saunas are HOT.

Hotter than hot.

It is a hot that screams, and bites and slaps and stings.   It gets into your mouth, burns down your legs and punches you in the face.  And it is unrelenting.  It is so hot that you can’t just take off your clothes and walk right into one.

I often found myself going to my happy place (aka this picture)

You have to prepare.

This is done by travelling back and forth between the two smaller saunas, located in a different area of the spa.  There is a “dry” sauna (supposedly cooler than the “real” sauna) and a “wet” sauna where you immerse yourself in a warm, slick fog that vaguely smells of freshly-picked lavender.  The contrast between the arid and moist should raise your core temperature to certain degree – that way you won’t immediately expire upon making contact with the debilitating and searing broil that is the banya.

(It doesn’t.)

The sheet that I was given at the front (supposedly to wrap around my body) soaks completely within seconds of my entrance into the “dry” sauna.  I give up and take it off.

I also notice that no one else is wearing the burlap hat I was given. I was told that it works well to keep the body’s core temperature low, but I just feel the Western fool sitting around in a scratchy Gilligan-inspired cap.

We soak our birch branches is a bucket of hot water so they don’t cut us when we start to flagellate each other.  (Flagellate truly being the operative word.)

Finally, we feel as though we are ready to enter the real sauna.  As soon as I walk in, I realize that no one is truly ever ready.

No one.

Okay, so this isn't the woman who beat me up, but they look very similar.

I am then accosted by a seventy-eight year old babushka (I know this because it was the only thing I could actually understand coming out of her mouth was her age) who announces that as it is her birthday, (or at least that is what I think she was saying) and that it is her responsibility to exfoliate my skin with not only my branches, but hers as well.  She flings me down onto a wooden bench with the ease of a man fifty years her junior.

I cry out in pain because the wood is so hot it is literally burning my skin – my most sensitive parts feel as though they are about to pack it in and leave for a less harsh climate.  For the next five minutes (though it seems like five years) I am thwacked from head to toe on both of sides of my body.

Finally, she stops.  “Okay!” she barks.  “Get up and you do your front!”

At first I don’t understand, but she soon rectifies my misunderstanding with a good hard swat across my chest.

Do your front!  She admonishes me.  Do it!

So I do.  I do my front.  I stand there, in the sweltering heat, self-flagellating with a dried birch branch.

My entire body feels as though it is one big blister.

Okay, enough, my drill instructor barks.  Out, out!  She shoos me out of the sauna and into a shower stall.  This may be a little hot, another woman tells me, before they turn on the faucet.  Out pours water fit for a teapot.

One minute, they tell me.  I begin to picture how my death will be transcribed back in Canada.  “Canadian women steamed in Russian bath. Death ruled non-suspicious due to stupid hat.”

Two days later, out at Peterhof, still looking for my sanity.

Just as I reach the point of no return, the water is turned off and I’m shleped across to the room to a whirlpool filled with ice cold water.

“Jump” I’m told.

I do.

As my feverish body makes contact with the frigid expanse of the pool something becomes crystal clear. I suddenly realize why Russian women live so long.

They are made of steel.

Baptized in this fire, they are made of steel.

Postcards from St. Petersburg

Spotlight: Russia

I left for St. Petersburg in June 2007, having won a scholarship to attend a two-week long literary conference. 

With my fledgling Russian backed by a 100-level textbook and a second hand travel guide, I landed in city that has the capacity to enrapture you, shock you – change you – if you give it the chance.

Myself and the great Alexandr Sergeyevich Puskin.

This is a snapshot – one day of my travels:

Nevesky Prospekt is the largest street I have ever seen.

Kazan Cathedral, on Nevesky Prospekt.

It is a six lane free for all, with luxury cars, fold-up minivans, off duty cabs, soviet era trolley cars and the odd, slightly-crazed biker all jockeying for position on the road.

The street is flanked by pink and green palaces, whose thinning paint and rust-stained statues compete for your attention with multi-coloured, cavernous cathedrals, renovated, glistening pharmacies (whose windows advertise the sale of anti-cellulite cream) and extravagantly priced furriers that require a password upon entrance.

On the sidewalks sit the legless ex-soldiers, wearing their cigarette stained army uniforms, silently staring at their skateboards and starving dogs.  I like to walk the two blocks to the bookstore on the corner of Gribeodov Canal, just to stare at the Church of Spilled Blood.  It is a kaleidoscope of grotesque baroque and neoclassical absurdity.

One block of Nevesky Prospekt.

As I make my way to the university, I smile at the dedushka who parks himself outside the twenty-four hour “Kafe haus.”  I have never seen someone play a saw with a violin bow before.  His thick glasses reflect the glare of a neon sign blinking “cigarettes!” from across the street.

I think about buying apple blini from the vendor across the road.

Russia makes me both homesick and brave.  The first time I rode the metro, I was by myself.

This was no mean feat.

Over two million people take this form of transit every day.  At some stations, you can’t see where the trains are coming from, because station doors (which control the the train doors) do not open until the cars come to a complete stop, in order to prevent people from killing themselves on the platforms.

Also, because Peter the Great had his city built smack dab in the middle of a soggy bog land, the station is almost one hundred meters below ground, and when I took a photo at the top of the escalator, I couldn’t see the bottom.

The view from the top of the escalator.

In order to purchase my zheton (fare token) I cue up with what approximately two hundred others.  Our bodies are packed together, and I’m not sure what line I’m standing in.  We are a sea cacophony.

I clutch my rubles so tight that I can’t get the smell of the copper coins out of my skin for almost two days.   Voices buzz and squawk out of every possible channel.  It discombobulates.  Overhead speakers crackle, cell phones yammer, children cry, students gossip.

My roommate Laura told me that she is afraid to descend this far underground, for fear of an earthquake.  She doesn’t want to meet any of the 40,000 Swedish POW’s whose bones act as cement for the St. Petersburg metro, its cars and their tracks.

When I finally make it to the front of the line, the woman behind the (what I think has to be) bullet proof glass looks as though she has been living in her cubicle for the past three days.  Boredom is etched in her face: thin lines crisscross the width of her forehead and a sheer glaze coats the contours of her eyeballs.  Stands of hair spill from her sloppy bun, and her blouse is done up Samedi-Dimanche with the top buttons askew.

Her slightly-parted mouth looks to be stuck permanently in mid-yawn.

“Odna zheton,” I tell her, slipping the money through the tray.  She doesn’t even look at me, as she passes me back one tiny metal token.  I immediately slip it into the slot of the turnstile to my right.  Amazingly I am granted the right to pass.

Next time I’m taking this bus. (Straight to outer space of course)

Visions of large, moustachioed men looming out of invisible corners, interrogation chambers and confessions slips slink back into my subconscious.

It is only now that I realize how hard my heart had been beating; with each breath I take, I can feel it punching again and again against the fabric of my t-shirt.

When the train comes I walk into the car and sit down.  As it begins to move, the sensation of the ride feels the same as back home.  Indeed, everyone around me looks the same as back home.  Everybody is minding their own business and pretending that they cannot see the other passengers, just the same as back home.

However, I count the number of stops until I have to get off because unlike back at home, I cannot understand the station announcer.

She speaks too fast.