Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Post-Apocalyptic Wasteland to 18th Century Monastery

Twenty minutes later, smoldering piles of garbage, heaps of junk metal, and scrawny vegetation gave way again to a deeper forest, which then emerged into a vast gray landscape, flat on all sides. Power lines strung along the track were followed by a broad and poorly paved highway, with low gray structures crouching along either side of our route, ready to pounce on any unsuspecting foreign trolley passenger who made the mistake of traveling so far away from the safety of the city center. I could see nothing but sadness and desolation stretching interminably toward the horizon. Another quarter of an hour passed, and most of my companions drifted toward their respective destinations, leaving only the most melancholic and fatalistic of us on the clattering car.

It was time to take my life back into my own hands, and alight from the obviously doomed vehicle, come what may.

(Am I being too dramatic?)

I yanked the rusty chain and the trolley shuddered to a halt in the middle of an intersection, between a vacant lot, a blown out apartment building, and a gas station where one hunched man stood cynically next to a pump, looking at it as though he was almost totally convinced that no gas would come out were he to try the button.

Ah, my stop!

I half expected a pack of rabid dogs to emerge from an uncapped sewer to maul me on the spot, but I tentatively stepped onto the gravel and remained miraculously intact. The trolley groaned back into locomotion and moved slowly away from me, and I am convinced I heard someone snicker maliciously as it did so. The old gas station patron watched me, unimpressed, and a truck of indeterminate age and functionality drove slowly past, its driver glaring in my direction. I considered walking away, but thought better of allowing the tracks* out of my sight. I stayed put, convinced that complete stillness would protect me from a crazed Russian mobster's senseless wrath, until I saw a dark shape on the horizon. I could hear it before I could recognize it visually, but I knew what it was, and my heart leapt with a joy that could not be compared to anything but the feeling that damsels must have when they are tied to railroad tracks and Dudley Doright appears.

What did the trolley say? Where was it going? All I knew was that it was away from The Nothing and toward what I hoped would prove to be Saint Petersburg or any other populated civilian center.

Maybe it was just my overwhelming sense of relief, but I swear that the ride back was shorter, the weather was sunnier, and my fellow passengers were some of the loveliest and most lighthearted Russians I have ever shared transit with. Perhaps they had all narrowly avoided the Russian equivalent of the Grim Reaper** as well.

To celebrate my survival I went directly to Alexander Nevsky monastery to pay my respects to the patron saint of Piti and thank him for sparing my tiny insignificant life. One of my alltime favorite Tsars, Peter the Great, built the complex in 1710 in honor of a battle that took place in a totally different location. It is surrounded on all sides by a river and canals, and has a gorgeous garden, necropolis, and extremely clean public restrooms inside.

(That is more like it)

Truly a fabulous place to eat three or for mayonnaise salads and reflect on near-death experiences. I made the mistake, however, of trying to walk around outside the protective wall after my exploration of the grounds, throwing myself into a situation confronting speeding cars, evil-looking auto dumps, collapsing industrial buildings, and an undeniable lack of any sort of navigable pedestrian embankment. The city certainly has its less picturesque aspects, and I seem to have a knack for finding them.

That night, after an evening of the most gracious Russian hospitality I could dream of, I was invited to take my understanding of Russian nightlife to a whole new level at a real live Russian rockabilly bar, where being American would finally work to my advantage***!


*That would potentially lead me back to civilization?

**Known in Russian as "The Very Grim Reaper."

***I think.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Curiosity and Danger on the Outskirts of Piti: Not Even Lenin Can Save Me Now

I sent the morning wandering in the neighborhood on Petrogradskaya Island in a vain search for two elusive vintage stores. While they proved to be nonexistent, I found many other intriguing specimens during while on the hunt. I took the metro* for the first time, and upon leaving I almost immediately stumbled upon a nearly hidden bookstore that felt like it was the entrance to a wormhole leading to some more serious, literary past. Beyond stacks of Russian books that obviously had no meaning to me was a little cafe nestled amongst a forest of hanging and potted plants. Scratchy jazz wafted toward me from an unknown source, and elderly Russian intelligentsia types sat around tiny round tables muttering in low tones to each other. A younger generation of bibliophiles had propped laptops amongst their thick volumes and notes, and conducted very important sounding conversations. The aged proprietress, wrapped in a shawl, told me that the meal was only for her librarian staff, but that she could give me an espresso and a slice of freshly baked cake if I wanted. This pleased me greatly, so I sat and happily enjoyed a warm apple lemon coffee cake with black current sauce while poring over small prints by contemporary Russian artists, vintage photographs, and Russian cartoons. I selected some pen and ink drawings, a sketch of a hedgehog, some Victorian children's portraits, and old propaganda posters** and tucked them away, feeling like I had stumbled upon a priceless treasure trove and been told to take a handful of my favorite gems.

Wile wandering the neighborhood I also found a tiny sewing and craft store filled from floor to ceiling with buttons, zippers, and ribbons, with a sour old woman perched on a stool guarding her wares. I was the only other person in the shop, and her beady glare assured me that any sudden movement on my part would most certainly spell my doom. I also found more beautiful hand painted signs, such as this one.

(I promise you that a garage door so cute as this does not exist anywhere in the US)

Finally even my dogged optimism failed and I accepted that I would not be purchasing any second hand Soviet fashions that day, so I settled on another form of entertainment: buying many more salads with the highest mayonnaise to other ingredients ratio as possible. Armed with three saucy dishes, I wandered down a cobbled street in search of a friendly outdoor eating area. Suddenly, around a corner came an adorable little antique tram.

(A streetcar named desire?)

I was overcome with an uncontrollable desire to ride this tram to it's mysterious destination, so I hopped on. It seemed like a fantastic way to have a little adventure and see an unknown part of the city, with a built in escape plan in the form of a railroad track leading back to the city center. After crossing a canal, the tram rumbled happily along the sunny streets, slowly passing Piti's northern train station, Finlandskaya***. It slowly passed pedestrian filled squares, and manicured parks. I felt very good about my spur-of-the-moment decision. 

Until the route changed.

After a sharp left turn my little tram plunged into a wild, overgrown forested area that looked like it had at one point been Soviet car factory, then a junk yard, finally being reclaimed by the elements. Among scraggly trees and half buried car parts, gypsy camps had sprouted and clusters of steely-eyed young men sat around smoldering campfires smoking rolled cigarettes and staring at the tram. They looked resentful of the disturbance we caused them, and as though they wouldn't bat an eye at the proposition of taking over the tram, holding us ransom, and becoming the self-righteous villains in a slow moving yet terrifying revolutionary film.

I put my iPad away.


*Ten times more user-friendly than Moscow's, with helpful hints and pleasant greetings posted all over the modern and well-lit stations, in Russian and - gasp! - English. Plus fares are paid with brass tokens, which I find very quaint.

**Some of which I have framed and have become part of my growing wall of tribute to global kitsch, or "glitsch." Please spread this term, as the new globalized hipster buzzword. Many thanks.

***Finlandskaya station is the historic location where Lenin gave his first speech upon returning to Russia from seventeen years in exile, speaking to his supporters en masse from the roof of his armored train car. A very exciting moment in Russian train history to be sure.