Love Will Flash
by EDITH VIAU
People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about.
— Anton Chekhov
The main difference between Saint Petersburg and Moscow subways is that people allow themselves to sleep in the former. I am starting my second month in Russia, and was visiting for a long weekend the city formerly known as Petrograd with a group of young American mathematicians. Autumn was mostly rainy. I did not have rain boots, only a big, sturdy pair of hiking boots; I had not brought my sleeping bag. The nights are cold. I write verses with a debutante's rhyme scheme, things like "white nights / black knights" ; I was getting better at reading between the ever-so-tight-but-diplomatic Russian lines.
During the ride we pass time telling stories from our sometimes rebellious teenage years, gossiping about the crushes some of the boys have on Russian girls. A Russian boy or man has yet to flirt with me; it will come many weeks later in the university cafeteria. His name is Andreii. As I was studying with another classmate for an algebra exam, he made eye contact from across the room before coming to sit with us. When prompted to tell us about his origins, he said "I am from Siberia" as if he had escaped from someone terrible. He did not speak much, his eyes were telling everything; as one of the babushkas once told me, "boy flirt with words; men seduce with looking; real man love with actions." Andreii, Andreii. It is easier to come across living stereotypes than I first thought.
I do not remember much from our arrival, only that it was late and everyone was tired from the train ride. We had met people working in marketing and shared vodka and cookies, as is the custom. In our couchette cabin, there is enough space for four people: two on the banquette, two on unfoldable beds. The sleep is sparse; I am granted the top bed. We hold tickets with our name in Cyrillic on them, small visas to Nowhere-Fast, Thank You.
Taking the subway, we go down at Maïakovskaya SStation, remarkable for the closed platform where I wait for the train without having visual access to the wagons - exactly like one waits for the elevator. The doors make a loud sound when the wagon is in the station, opening and closing on the passengers. It looks as if the city was feeding itself with fresh humans in some weird trade. Outside the station, I notice Gotan Projet publicity for an oncoming show. It is not the first time I am surprised that lesser-known western music groups are advertised. In an hurry to cross the street I lazily take a picture of the ad, pressed by the rest of the group to keep up with the schedule.
At some point during any long-term travel you will start thinking about the real reasons you wanted to leave and visit some new place. So many forces are trying to keep us at home, lovingly waiting for something to happen; so many other forces are pushing us outside, asking us what a life worth living is. In the delicate adventure that living abroad really is, most people will experience a feeling akin to uselessness. Why did one decided to spend so much time, money, efforts in getting acquainted with a faraway land is a question best answered in a fast-travelling train to a sunny place, not on top of a small wooden bridge on the nth rainy day.
The first place we visit upon our arrival in Saint Petersburg is the Moika Palace, built by a French architect during the 18th century. Once the primary residence of the Yusopov, a prominent noble family, the Palace is full of hidden rooms, necessary to any intrigue worth investigating. Walking through underground passageways, I am soon lured into daydreaming, as the lonely child I once was; I start fantasizing about being Olga or Anastasia or Elizaveta from some far eastern Russian land, about to lose my innocence by witnessing the assassination of Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, a well-known mystic raised to the rank of adviser to the Russian Imperial family. The year is 1916. Was he poisoned, was he shot? Was his influence over the Tsarina important enough to be feared? The event is still under inquiry. Only when we exit the palace am I snapped back into the XXIth century by cars, vans and smartphones.
Strolling besides the Neva as the sun is rising from behind the clouds, our guide explains that Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great with the goal of making it the most beautiful city of Russia. As we reach the Kazan Cathedral, she tells with a certain vibrato anecdotes related to attending the church with her grandmother; how disappointed she was when one of her grandson abandoned his career as an organist in order to join the Army; how confused her native village was when the communists changed the local church to a community counter, canceling masses and religious rituals.
As the rest of the group gazes at the heavily decorated walls, she tells me about how, at some point, the only difference between Orthodox and Catholics was their way of crossing themselves, calling it "the balkanization of religion", in reference to ongoing national conflicts in the Balkans area. When she asks about the state of religion in the west I prefer to keep to myself, for I am not comfortable discussing such things yet.
Walking our way to a nearby restaurant, I fail at describing the weather, for English and French both lack words describing the ways that the sun reflects on still fresh rain. Our guide tries to come up with something Russian, but it is always too long for me to remember and pronounced correctly. Surrounded by slightly more humble, always full of intricate sculpted details, always elegant neoclassical buildings, I measure in light sentiments and in heavy bricks how far away I am from Montreal.
Maybe that if I knew less about the real Paris, I would not be afraid of ridicule by saying anachronistic things such as, "This neighborhood made me feel as if I was an Orthodox Amélie Poulain", as if Montmartre could happen anywhere between the 18th and the 19th century, between New York and Petrograd; as if Europe was just this big piece of land where most people were white and most buildings were old. Maybe I could forget the large amount of concrete, brutalist buildings encountered on my way from the airport.
But I saw too much of the rest of the world to make such comparisons.
Once more my perception of time is altered as I am considering things in retrospect: there is a coffee on the corner of the street called Gorsky Station, a name that happens to be the family name of Andreii, who I have yet to meet. When so many things worth telling about happens at the same time, as it is often the case in the travel life, it can be difficult to remember the rightful chronological order. At some point in Russia the internal calendar of my camera was resetted, making this task an impossible one. Trying to figure out what pictures were taking where and when, I will go through many of them with Andreii: "Ah, the Gorsky Station. Wonderful coffee of course, it is my uncle's." Andreii Panovich Gorsky, he repeats, as I try to recall the usual Russian declinaison of names and patronyms — the exact thing that makes any Russian novel seems to be about one hundred and then some characters, when it is only that everyone goes by ten different names at least.
When I say that I can speak Russian, but not that much, or not that well, it is often as a way of protecting the real thing, as a poor jeweler would lie about having real Fabergé eggs or some renamed diamond of some sort, trying to keep foreign investors at bay. "No sir, I sold it this morning, someone from Kazakhstan, I have forgotten their name, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa," they would say.
"No sir, I do not speak Russian, albeit slowly, and rustily, or just enough to order a meal, I sold all my books, I have only kept the translated versions," I would have explained if one was to make an inquisition into my library. Learning another language is akin to acquiring a second skin, except you cannot withdraw from it as easily; it tends to stick around. Certain languages come with a personality attached to it or at least, a different way of being, of expressing oneself. Since you do not know the rules quite well, or not yet, you experience a certain sense of freedom, unaware of the mistakes that your teachers are dearfuly trying to correct.
Learning another language is also — maybe more importantly — learning a culture, a set of assumptions about right and wrong, a new way of communicating. In my first Spanish class there was a francophone girl who was afraid of ever eating dessert in Spain because the word for cat is "gato", pronounced the same way as "gâteau" in French, which in return is the word for "cake." Problems that seldom occur when you are not polyglot in some way.
"When learning a new language, you need to choose two out of the three following things: reading, writing, speaking. It is especially true of alphabetless languages," Katia, one of my wisest, well-traveled friends, once said. I picked up a Russian grammar book in Moscow that was unconsciously full of double entendres, in an attempt at making sense out of these train-wreck-long words and sentences. Never getting over how funny it is that "Russian lost the duel" when you both know about cases in grammar and dueling in sports, I soon ended up quoting some of its nerdiest puns in my letters to home, hoping that they would appreciate them better than my American roommates. They did not.
Learning Russian is daunting at best. With all the ever-so-slight differences of pronunciation between the three or four different ch- sounds, the exceedingly high number of b's, some of them whose mere existence is to indicate if the letter following must be said the hard way or the soft way, and how to exactly end up words depending on the case, the gender and the number, I stopped studying and decided that was it for me.
I knew French, I knew English, I knew the basics to three other languages — I could get by without becoming stellar at Russian. I knew enough of languages that are not languages, like science, like mathematics, like being courteous and nice, I could get by. And in some way, this soft, coy, respectful silence in which I then passed most of my time in Russia made me more Russian than my well-learned roommates, for Russians know a lot about the relative importance of the omertà.
I do not have memories of using Russian to get by in Saint Petersburg, since I was always with the rest of the mathematics students and our guides. Visiting the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, whose whole art collection can be viewed in three years standing for two minutes in front of each piece, I do not follow exactly the same path as the rest of the group. Passing by sculptures, I note with diligence how coincidental it is that the Canova's Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss is currently being restored: earlier that morning I had written a long letter home, discussing similar subjects of self-abnegation and sacrifice in the name of love. As I then had the habit of doing, I end the letter with a Pushkin quote: "I’ll be drunk with harmony again /Or will weep over my visions / And it’s possible, at my sorrowful decline / Love will flash with a parting smile."
We walk through rooms with enough mirrors and gold on their walls and chandeliers dangling from the ceiling to be dance halls. Once again I am some princess whose naïveté forces the hostess to be accountable for my good words and my worst faux-pas, as lords or princes waltz with me. He makes me notice subtle changes of rhythm, how many candles there are in each chandelier — do I think it means something? Am I of the opinion that this is indeed a wonderful evening in my custom gown, or do I want to stay in my jeans and sweater? Janis, the most responsible member of our group, pulls me into the next room and out of my fantasies, scorning me with "You should know better than this" and other much needed ridicularities.
In the surrounding gardens, we pass a hidden fountain that sprays unknowledgeable passersby. It reminds me of a superstitious high school acquaintance who was always careful not to get wet in any form when in company of people with whom he would not consider a close association. I open my umbrella, avoiding any droplet, keeping myself safe from any similarly false assumption.
On Saturday night we go out to a sushi and pizza restaurant-bar. It is one of the non-natural mix of food and activities that can easily be found in Russia, having decided to just try and blend all that can be blended instead of only making the right mixes publicly available. The chairs are slightly too big and I do not feel at ease, the loud music making any discussion an adventure in comprehension. The two girls that are guiding us are making jokes and explaining Russian nightlife to my comrades; I am not able to grasp the valuable information for I am exhausted. Before midnight has even rung I am on my way to our youth hostel.
We leave Saint Petersburg early on Sunday in order to be back in time for our classes in Moscow. In the train, I leave my thoughts free to wander as we pass forests, villages and factories. I am at the point where I forget why I decided to visit Russia, why I uprooted myself once more to visit some unfamiliar land. Trapped by the feeling that I just spent three days fast pacing between monuments that are generally deemed worthy of being pictured with, without having the time to really appreciate any of them, I have trouble remembering that visiting a city is not the same as opening a book about it, that smells, weather and accents are not graspable in movies, that all of this will later come together and make sense, even if it now seems too disparate to even be called a collection of Russian souvenirs.
In an effort to convince myself that these are valuable memories, I go through my purse trying to find my notebook and soon start to draw my surroundings. The shaking of the train making this a perilous activity, I switch to picture-taking, photographing things that then seem boring but will soon make up for interesting nostalgia: a half-eaten chips bag, the general layout of our cabin, soviet-era industrial installations. Touching the cold wagon inside wall, I do my best to feel the present as much as possible, knowing how slight are the chances of ever coming back. Goodbye, Saint Petersburg, spasiba for everything.
"Relief" - The Dodos (mp3)
"The Current" - The Dodos (mp3)
"Confidence" - The Dodos (mp3)
The fifth album from The Dodos is entitled Carrier, and it will be released on August 27th from Polyvinyl Records.