Through other eyes

I haven't posted anything in a very long time, and while I could write two posts now, instead I'm going to write a single very long post. 

Since writing my last post, two big things have happened: I had two visitors, and spring started in earnest. 

In March my friend Lily came to visit. She's currently working as an auxiliar, or teaching assistant, in Galicia, a region in the north-west of Spain. She lives in a city called Santiago de Compostela and you can read her blog here. She decided way back in the autumn that she wanted to come visit, so the trip had been in the planning phases for a while, and it was a little surreal for her to actually come. Delightfully surreal. The very first night Lily was here, we went out for cocktails and to see a Fulbright researcher I know play jazz piano, and we ended up befriending and going out dancing with a very drunk but very amusing Russian who had spent much of his life in the U.S. and swore like a sailor. That should give you some idea of the general flavor of her visit - there were plenty of cultural things during the day, and plenty of going out and drinking at night. Conveniently, one of my non-Russian friends was having a party whose guest list ended up including a good chunk of the foreigners and Russians I'm friends with here, so it was a good chance for Lily to meet a lot of people that I know and like. 

Then at the beginning of April, my boyfriend Sam came to visit. This was also something we had been planning for a long time, and it was absolutely amazing to have him here. We did lots of cultural things, including going to plenty of museums. He's also a much bigger beer nerd than I am, so we made sure to drink plenty of local craft beer. I even took him to the art-centre where I volunteer, Art-Centre Pushkinskaya-10, for an exhibit opening. We even almost got in trouble for helping to put up posters advertising a new exhibition. The reason is a little complicated: the exhibit focused on flyers,which in Russian culture refers to a very specific genre of paper advertisements that are semi-legally posted around the city. What makes a flyer a flyer is that it's on cheap, colored paper, has black lettering, and usually has almost no visual interest or decoration. Most of them advertise prostitutes and just have a name and a phone number, but one can also find flyers for maintenance work, apartments, pest control... all sorts of things. The posters promoting the exhibit were designed to look like flyers for prostitutes until you actually read the text and saw that it was an art exhibit. Sam and I went with the artist, my boss (who was the curator for the exhibit), and another volunteer to put up these promotional posters, and some young, militarily-clean-cut (though not uniformed) guys saw the posters, came up to the artist, and started scolding her because they thought she was putting up advertisements for an actual prostitute. My boss tried to explain to them that it was an advertisement for an art exhibit, and tried to convince them to come to the art center to see the exhibit, but they didn't believe that there was a separate exhibit, and just kept saying that the flyers themselves were not art.

Luckily this encounter didn't escalate, but it did remind me that the kinds of hip, artsy things I tend to do in St. Petersburg (and to some extent in Pushkin, although there's less of it in Pushkin) are still at the margins of mainstream culture in Russia. It can be hard to remember, because there is so much hip stuff in St. Petersburg. Both Lily and Sam commented on it. Lily said something I really liked shortly before she left. She said she hadn't been sure what to expect because she'd heard a lot of not-so-great stuff from me last semester, but that her experience as a tourist ended up being really positive, and that it seemed like there was a lot of cool stuff to do in Petersburg. I think that gets to a truth that I have very much experienced in Russia: there's a lot of cool stuff going on that you can go out and be part of, but outside of those discrete events, day to day life can be a really exhausting slog. 

One of the other things Sam and I did while he was here was go out to Gatchina, a small town outside of St. Petersburg, about 2 towns over from Pushkin. We actually took the elektrichka there from St. Petersburg, partly because Sam really wanted to take a Russian train. 

 

Gatchina Park 

Ducks at Gatchina Park 

Ducks at Gatchina Park 

Gatchina Palace. It was originally built to be a hunting lodge for the Tsar, and Gatchina Park was the grounds upon which the hunt would take place. Since it was a hunting lodge, the outside is much less adorned than the outside of the Catherine Palace or Winter Palace; it was supposed to look rustic. The palace was burned by the Nazis during World War II, and much of it has yet to be restored. The part that is restored has beautiful parquet floors. Part of the unrestored portion of the palace is actually open to visitors, which I thought was very cool as a counterpoint to someplace like the Catherine Palace, which was also severely damaged during the war but has now been largely restored. 

The inside of a Russian elektrichka. Elektrichka is short for "elektronniy poezd", which means "electric train". They're the suburban/commuter trains of Russia... but also somewhat of a cultural icon. 

This may look like a cup of water, but it's actually a cup of BIRCH SAP. It was delicious, and apparently also has a lot of health benefits. 

 

Other than my visitors, the other big thing that happened is that spring has started. The weather went from being cool and rainy to suddenly being brilliantly sunny and warm. In some ways I'm happy, and in other ways it's made me kind of homesick. Spring and summer are two of my favorite times in Chicago. Spring is full of good memories of Spring Quarter, which was always my favorite time in college. As I write this, Scav Hunt is happening at UChicago, and missing it feels like a cosmic sign of adulthood. Having to seriously start planning my job hunt also feels like a strong marker of adulthood. 

I was somewhat surprised at how little both Lily and Sam were shocked by Russia. They both said that in some ways it was different from other parts of Europe they'd been too, but there were also a lot of things that were the same. I find myself feeling so alienated from Russia, so alien to Russia, that I sort of expected the uninitiated to be astounded by the difference. Sometimes I wonder if, as much as living here is supposed to be about adapting to Russian culture, what I'm really learning is the extent to which I'm not sure I can (or, to be honest, want to) adapt. The superficial things don't seem that different--there are tons of cool cafes and bars, interesting events, convenient grocery stores. It's the deeper things, things like attitudes towards work or looks that I'm not sure I could come around to. I've written about some of this before, in the context of my university/my housing issues last semester, and I've been thinking about it again because of the change in weather. Spring and summer are a time when usually I like to experiment with different outfits, wear things that push the boundaries of taste a little more. I realized the other day that I don't feel comfortable doing that here, because of the way it will affect people's impression of me. I'm even a little nervous about wearing dresses without pantyhose (all girls here wear pantyhose), but I hate pantyhose so I'm going to just forge ahead with that one. It's the subtle things like that that make me feel the most foreign, the most out of place, and I think those are hard to pick up on if you're just spending a week or two in St. Petersburg as a tourist. 

My mom loves quoting the line from the Grateful Dead song "Box of Rain" that goes "Such a long long time to be gone/And a short time to be there." Sometimes I go on trips and it really feels that way, like I'm gone forever but I'm not in the place for enough time. I was talking to a friend in my cohort on Skype yesterday and she was expressing that very sentiment, that she felt like she'd been gone so long, but there was still so much she wanted to do in Russia and she wasn't sure if she'd have time. I just don't feel that way here. I feel like I've been gone a long time, and I feel like I've been here a long time, and even though I know that I don't have that much time left, the days still seem to go by slowly. It's not a bad thing, especially when I'm having good days. It just is.