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.

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