St. Pete’s, or rather, Leningrad

It was June 1998. The train ride was non eventful. The only outstanding memory was of a 40-something Russian man talking without end. In retrospect I see me, big curly hair and big eyes with a smile as big as the sun in a country that never smiles, plus a default of being nice to just about everyone, of course he talked his brains out to me. About Sebastopol, about the naval ships he was interested in, about every thing about him. And I figured it was good Russian practice, but after a couple hours I was tired of his face, his voice and his naval ships. I sized him up, nice leather jacket, nice pants, handsome face. Ratty looking bag, no belt, ratty shoes. He’s poor like he rest of us, he’s just in his Sunday best for his train ride to St. Petes.  Had my own thoughts really become so Russian?

Once again, I was to meet someone I had never met before at a train station in a town I had never been in. This time it was a guy my age named Dan, a musician. Getting off the train, the station was packed. I had no idea what to look for except Lyudmila said he had purple hair. “That shouldn’t be hard to find,” I thought. But ultimately I had to stand there in the Poezdy Vokzal for about 15 minutes, thinking of a contingency plan in case Mr. Purple Hair didn’t show up. It started to rain.

Like a bird he swooped down though, asked “Are you Andrea?” “Yes, you must be Dan” “Yes,”. He took my bag and walked silently and I had to walk double time to keep up with him. Subways and buses and streets and sidewalks and mud later, we arrived at a building with an apartment with a female, though I had been told that he was divorced.

On one level all the normal things were happening. I was shown where to sleep on the couch, my bags assembled, I washed my hands, we drank tea and they smoked. I worried about what I looked like, if I was imposing and what this next 3 to 4 days was going to be like. On another level there was tremendous tension. Between him and her. A chill filled the space between them. I felt like a burden. I felt like an elephant in the room, taking up more space in their lives right now than either of them wanted, and I just started to want to go away from there.

We had some food at some point, but I was still starving, which is how I felt for pretty much that whole trip. I began to think they were all hungry, that it was the way to be there. At about 9, after the whole train ride with Mr. Sebastopol in the leather jacket talking about naval ships, I was very very tired. Dan said a friend of his was coming over that night and really wanted me to be awake. Dan left. I was alone with the woman. She had nothing to say to me really, even though she seemed like she wanted to be nice. Aaagh. I hated these situations. The life of a visitor.

His friend came over around midnite.  I also offended Dan’s friend, who was likewise offending me. He was trying to understand what would make me come to Russia and in the process, I felt that he was inferring there was something wrong with me. Well of course there was something wrong with me, who would come to Russia voluntarily and hand a government agency the keys to their life for 2 years? But I didn’t want some strange man that I didn’t know pointing this out, so I believe I pointed out that he was some variety of an out of work actor. That was when I offended him.

I was walked all around St. Petes, non stop, for 8 hours one day. I felt like a tourist foot soldier, obeying orders to shoot pictures. Dan and the female were clearly not enjoying each other. He insulted her regularly and I was beginning to feel that he was a jerk. There was a lot going on there, a story which included a divorce and a 3-year old child. At some point early in the trip, they stood outside a Metro busstop and argued for about 45 minutes. I was to just wait. I considered escape. Unfortunately, hostels are not prolific in Russia, and on a Peace Corps salary, I could hardly afford the Intourist places.

So I stood and I waited for their argument to resolve. The time that I had spent with them up to this point, someone well-known had won a soccer match and had set the whole city alight with excitement. It had the feeling of a place on the brink of being out of control that night, as we waited for metro after metro, all totally packed. Inside the cars you could see people being passed over heads. Inside the station you could hear the roar coming from far away, rushing toward you until it was on top of you and everyone near you was hooting and hollering. And then it passed forward.

Russians that I knew had never acted this way, St. Pete’s was different.

That same night, we went out at midnite, when it was just beginning to consider getting dark. Dan had brought a sharpie and drew faces on to shadow figures on posters advertising a performance.  I remember, for the first time in a couple years, I felt my age, twenty-six.

Aside from walking around a lot that night, we went to a show.

When the second band played, the lead singer was someone we had already met with the night before… a certain Igor, one I mentioned earlier. The band was huge, full horn section and at least one person playing every instrument. The lead guy looked like a madman, in a clear plastic jacket and a t-shirt he kept trying to rip off with no success. The band was a complete surprise, was hilarious, inappropriate and totally unique. So there between an unhappy Dan and his unhappy female friend, full of Russian street food, during white nights, a black marker in my pocket we listened to Leningrad. These are 2 songs that they played that night.

Lubov and Lyuba

From that point, when Dan found out I liked Leningrad, he left the female and took me to his music studio. He showed me a very messy room, a mattress with no sheets and told me to sleep there. I was pretty uncomfortable. I stared out the window till morning, which looked the same as midnite because it was White Nights. Dan had given up speaking English to me, we spoke in my lousy Russian.

I did my own thing while he did the things he wanted to do. The chill and tension dissipated. Dan turned charming. At night, we would meet up with his crazy artist friends and even if it was nothing very exciting that we did, they were all characters that were very new to me, and places I had never been. And they were my age, which in an of itself was completely novel. And the sun lingered on the horizon for so long at night, that even if precisely nothing was happening, it was still just strange enough to be something I would never forget.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Fitèna says:

    I loved the part wher you get to give poor Dan a face! Great post! Russia sounds like fun 🙂 Hope you get back in one piece, eardrums and all unharmed!Fitèna

  2. Jenelle says:

    I think it is so amazing you had a chance to go abroad and see how the other side lives. You tell a great story.

  3. suleyman says:

    Have you ever read “Crime and Punishment”? Cause that’s what I think of when I read this.Leningrad (the band) reminds me of a few things. It sounds like Tom Waits, Glen Miller, and the English Beat coming together for a jam session in Siberia. It also reminds me of the Pogues a lot, too, particularly their earlier stuff.-Suley

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