First Impressions

    • Petersburg’s cold air comprises of poetic verses and brush strokes. That’s not quite so apparent when struggling with closing an umbrella while opening up the door to a coffee shop’s warm pastry atmosphere. The efficient cashier raises his eyes as I shrug my wet hoodie from my head and try to order that weird M-something untranslatable-berry–flavored latte on the almost-gone summer menu. I fiddle with my money for 3 minutes longer than necessary: cash is the preferred system of transactions in Russia, and exact cash, to the ruble. I had only 500 on me. Big bills are always scoffed at with an annoyed, “Do you have the exact amount?” This cashier raised eyebrows even higher, gave my order, and looked at me one last time with this odd look that I’ve received before. Often times that look is accompanied by a, “Where are you from?” that tries to understand why this girl looks like anyone else but speaks with an obvious foreign accent. To say the least, the latte was nice.
    • To quickly explain my story – why I’m here – (I’m not a Russian major, what am I doing in St. Petersburg?!) – I was born in Minsk, Belarus, that tiny little Eastern European country above Ukraine, under the Baltics, and left of Russia – the one that everyone routinely forgets about. I grew up in the States, but my family wanted me and my brother to speak to our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins on the other side of the globe, so we upkept the language in the household. For all this Russian-speaking household’s effort, I still speak at a third-grade level, write in print, read only out loud, forming the words on my lips. That feeling of linguistic inadequacy – especially in comparison to my academic English – spurred me to Russia. I want to get my Russian fluency, which is at a comfortable conversational level, reach the level of my English, in which I can argue a point, write without spelling mistakes, and read without consciously trying.
    • Another reason for my study abroad here is more personal. Like many immigrant children, I spent summers in the home country with relatives. The Moscow apartments of my grandparents and aunts and uncles always mediated my relationship to Russia; they showed me the land that they knew. With every visit, a part of me grew to crave a deeper, more personal relationship to Russia without my family acting as a middle man – hence St. Petersburg, commonly known to locals as “Piter,” to pensioners as “Leningrad,” to the Internet as “SPb.” The Northern Capital. Far enough away from Moscow that I am not expected for dinner, but close enough to feel like I’m safe. It’s a fair compromise.
    • But logistics aren’t the only reason I chose St. Petersburg. It’s not only the Northern Capital of Russia, but also the cultural and intellectual one. I grew up on stories of the Soviet education system (that makes me appreciate the liberal arts curriculum so much more!) and have always been curious about that different style of pedagogy that I had never experienced. So check – intellectual capital. St. Petersburg also has the reputation of the best theaters, the most amazing façades, the most pristine museums. Lay on top of that Westernized Imperial Russian glamour a modern, fresh hipsterism. A 18th century columned façade with a sign that says, in very visually-pleasing English, “Bake Me Up” – a quintessential image of trendy SPb. My proud film major self gleefully takes in the artistic atmosphere and poetic rhythm of the city’s grandeur and style.
    • For that I’m so glad to be here – wide-open eyes to take in the beauty, constantly out and about on the streets to feel the cold humid atmosphere. I try to walk a couple kilometers every day. The wind pierces through, almost no matter what jacket I wear. This is especially true when out on the canals and waterways, crossing a bridge. I once had to walk from Primorskaya station on the north end of the Vasilievsky Island all the way down to the Theater Square on foot, 3 am to 5 am, the city mostly silent. Seeing the bright-lit bridge lower itself from its 1:25 to 4:55 am position down — the Finnish winds replaced with the fresh river ones – quiet from the complete lack of Saturday 5am traffic. I never felt that still beautiful silence of a usually active city that acutely before. The murky waters of the Neva River under the bridge rolled quietly as I struggled home. The last riverside view of the sky had a teal sliver of sunrise sky through the heavy dark cover of clouds. The poetry.
    • Some Spb history: St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 when Peter the 1st, Russia’s stringent Westernizer, ship connoisseur, odd-item collector, and future spearhead decided to use the marshlands and delta of the Neva River spilling into the Finnish gulf as Russia’s first warm-water port. The capitol of the Russian empire moved to this newly-christened St. Petersburg, with the aristocracy following their liege’s footsteps. Peter’s descendants kept the location, and generations of aristocracy, complete with their legions of poets, artists, intellectuals, wandered the streets of SPb in search of the next, difficult-to-decipher Russian Truth. My host mom forced me out of the house the first couple weeks, before the cold Finnish winds crossed St. Petersburg and forced me into my warmest sweaters (and it’s just September). In her words: “You Must Trek through the Summer Garden before it gets too cold. Puskin took walks there…. In his slippers…” I did take a walk in the Summer Garden. It functions as a gorgeous green hedges and clean towering trees interspersed with nearly 100 motionless marble statues. The Summer Garden has recently been restored – the marble’s clean, the gazes of the statues contemporaneously vacant instead of age-old. Alexander Pushkin, the most prolific Russian poet, the man that Russians say “is our everything” – he saw them new, like this. If he found his genius here, if he wrote the greatest verses of the Russian language from these statues and this greenery, then I can walk in his steps. Hopefully his insightful genius will leave its mark on me over the course of the semester. After all, “Pushkin is our everything.”
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