Snapshot: St. Petersburg

By: Hannah Festle
Sewing Machine factory turned bookstore, the glass dome sticking
three stories up, the inside stuffed with books and stationary and
tourists and racks of candy and foreign treats, with overpriced jars
of peanut butter that I bought without hesitation. That was where
I found the prints of cityscapes that I took home to my sister, and
where I said goodbye to everyone the night of the boat tour in
May, our last night together—upstairs, in the room with children’s
puzzles and games, near the line for the bathroom. Goodbye to
Meredith and Madison and Jennifer—we didn’t talk to each other
again, probably all knew that we wouldn’t, but pretended that we
would as we hugged and spoke English in the middle of the store.
Today I saw someone wearing a fur coat. Today the sidewalks
were not shoveled and there was ice everywhere. Today someone
talked about setting us up with conversation partners, today someone
talked about teaching English, and today my host mom said
I should take trolleybus 15 home, but I was scared, so I took the
metro even though it was so far away.
That’s what strikes me—the memory of the unusual, and the
place where it disappears from my notes. I try to find the place
where I recognized that half the women on any given metro car
wore fur, where I stopped noticing it as something special. Where
did I realize that the sidewalks were not shoveled or salted—where
did I start to pick my way across the mounded ice like everyone
else, without thinking? The closest I can find it is with people—
the night we, the American students, had a mixer with Russian students
in a café, speed-dating style, to find our future conversation
partner, I wrote about everyone I remembered. Later, a few names
would appear again as they became the main characters in my life.
I wrote pages when I met the people I would teach English to,
two little girls and the mother of the younger one, and eventually
it faded to taught the children again.
But even with those, I can’t
find the places where the unusual fades to the regular—where
I was scared to get home before my host mom
turns to got home,
made tea, watched last night’s NBC News on my laptop without
headphones while I ate the dinner host mom left for me in the
fridge.
It’s strange, the way memory works. There are people on this
campus who fade together into a shapeless mass until I meet
them—then, one face among them sticks out as special. The people
I met on Welcome Weekend have become, four years later, fixtures, or not-fixtures—the dorm shower that I hated the first night
has become just
the shower. When I lived out my first few days in
St. Petersburg last year, I saw it through a haze of fear, but when
I look at it now, I can see myself encountering the elements of the
next four months for the first time.
We arrived in Pulkovo airport on a Thursday, or maybe it had
turned to Friday by then. We, the thirty-one Americans, had come
by different flights, but the majority of us had ended up on the
same propeller plane transfer from Helsinki. We met a few Russian
students who were helping the program coordinators in the
Starbucks of the airport—Katya was among them, tall and brown-
haired. When we had the costume ball at the end of the semester,
in the big hall at Smolny, with the pale peach walls and white trim,
the huge windows, she would be in our group of American and
Russian girls still dancing as the guys lost interest. We would get
lost in Moscow with her, trying to find the museum where we had
a tour, as the late-March snow pattered down.
We introduced ourselves, strangers then—this long before we
could identify a new piece of clothing on someone as
new
and not
one of the few things brought from home. We went to the hotel by
bus and got our roommates for the weekend. Mine was Nina—we
talked, briefly, about whether I knew the girl from her high school
who had gone to my college—I did, but not well. Later, we would
teach English together, twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, in
the basement office of an apartment building near the Marble Palace,
near the center of the city. I would know her as well as any of
us knew each other, by the end. We drank beer when we checked
the English grammar in an essay and walked back to the metro,
buzzed, talking about Trump and whether or not we were afraid
after the terrorist attack in April.
We ate in the hotel dining room with the other exchange students,
still moving fluidly at the tables before groups formed—the
ones who started going to clubs right away, and the ones who did
not. Eventually those two groups stopped speaking to each other.
None of us knew how it happened, but it was fast and it stung. A
group of us, a mix of the two sets, went on the first night to Lenta,
a store with glowing yellow letters near the hotel, something
like a Walmart-Target-Sam’s Club mix, if a combination of those
stores sold ice skates and had stalls to buy a cell phone or to trade
money. I would go to different Lenta branches again—for gloves,
for a blanket, for soap, to put money on my burner cell phone. I
found other places near the end. I learned how to go to the bank to
deal with the phone, and started going to the cosmetics store near
the bus stop closest to my apartment—more frightening because it
was smaller, but only the first time I went in.
We took a bus tour. We went from Pulkovo up Moscovsky
Prospeckt into the city, where apartments with cracked, flat faces
lined the street—stores on the first floor, homes above. We passed
the apartment where I lived for those four months—number seventy,
yellow, above the grocery store, next to the bank, directly
across from the Frunzenskaya metro station. Later, that would be
among my favorite phrases stansiya metro Frunzenskaya, as the
doors banged open—because the announcement meant I was finally
home. It was a quiet station, shaped like a low, domed colosseum, with
red tiled walls and mosaics inside. The metro stations
were all beautiful—palaces of the people, something lovely to
see when it was gray and cold outside. Frunzenskaya didn’t rival
Avtovo with the crystal columns or Chernyshevskaya with the
chandeliers, but it was beautiful. Not many people got off there. It
felt different than the others because of that—I fell once, slipped
getting out, and people stopped.
The bus tour took us to the highlights of the city—they were a
blur then, and I didn’t know where we were. It would take weeks
to find some of those places again—Trinity Cathedral, with the
blue domes and gold stars, and the Strelka, the tip of Vasilyevsky
Island. We drove past Sadovaya, the neighborhood where
Crime and Punishment
was set, with jumbled crosswalks and old,
hard-working buildings. I thought it was the most beautiful place
in the city, and I went there sometimes just to see it, and again
on my last day when the sky was black with clouds. We saw the
outside of the Hermitage, the palace-turned-museum, green and
white and gold, where I went five times, once just to look at the
ornate rooms the art was in. We saw sky-blue Smolny Cathedral,
with the surrounding blue buildings, formerly a convent, now
a branch of St. Petersburg State University. We had class there,
every day, knew the stone hall where our rooms were, the
double-desks and drafty, deep-set windows. Potted plants sat in the
windowsills. The woman at the coat check desk gave me the same
claim number almost every day, just by chance, and she started to
laugh about it—I didn’t know what she said, but I knew the tone,
and we smiled at it when she gave me number three. These places
meant nothing to me then, and I felt nothing but outward admiration,
still untouched.
On Sunday night, we met our host families. We waited in our
seminar room near evening, the one with the U-shaped tables
where we had learned about cultural sensitivity and taken our language
tests. I was one of the first to leave. Ira, the main coordinator, was tall
and young, with short dark hair. Later, she would
take us to the banya and slap a group of girls with birch leaves in
the steam room, which was so hot that sweat ran off of us from
the moment we walked in, till we had to run out and jump into the
ice-cold pool, naked because no one had brought a swimsuit to
Russia in February.
She came to get me in the seminar room, me and maybe Aiden,
a math major who had taken three years of Russian, with brown
hair and heavy snow boots like mine. I would spend Friday after
-noons with her, during the long break between classes, eating in
the cafeteria with the tiny metal tables. I went to Spasa Na Kravi
with her, the Church on the Spilled Blood with the onion domes,
every inch covered in gold and mosaics. That would have been the
first weekend. I went there two or three times, always in different
groups, but I saw the outside in detail, up close, every Thursday,
as I ran through the cobblestoned area surrounding the it to get to
English tutoring. The day I thought that it was an inconvenience
of a building, I had to stop running while I fought back the urge
to laugh.
 The host families were there for a reception of their own, wait
-ing in a room across the lobby, with tall windows looking out over
a gray parking lot. Someone else took Aiden to find her host, and
Ira took me to mine—Marina Vasilyevna, tall and dyed-blonde,
sixty-ish, round-faced, wearing a brown fur coat, beaming. She
hugged me when we met. The day I left in May, she helped me
put my suitcase in the Uber and hugged me hard, and I fought
back tears on the way to Pulkovo. When she got home, usually
after me, she had a particular heavy sigh as she stopped to take
her shoes off in the hall. If I asked first how her day had been, she
would say
fine, or
normal, which would be the expected way to
answer in Russian—
how are you, I am fine.
If she asked first, and
I said
good, I would see her smile, and she would round her day
up to
good, or to a smiled
okay. She was an engineer, or had been
an engineer and now did something else. She had a daughter and
two grandchildren, a girl and a boy, who lived in Germany. I heard
her Skype them almost every night when she made dinner, laugh
-ing—I knew their voices by the end.
Marina Vasilyevna didn’t have a car, and took me to her friend,
who had driven her over—Natalia was the only part of her name
that I caught, and she was shorter, dark-haired, wore a black fur
coat. She was just meeting her student, a red-haired boy named
Jacob who had told us to call him
Yasha
—the Russian equivalent
of
Jake. Half the group had made fun of him for it, behind his
back, and even I had thought it was a little much—presumptuous,
somehow, like he was trying too hard—but I got it as I heard my
name transliterated into Russian—Khana—as Marina Vasilyevna
told me to come. I would have liked to have chosen something I
could pronounce.
Outside, it snowed lightly, and the parking lot was caked with
ice, thick and gray. Natalia never stopped talking, loud—she and
Marina Vasilyevna laughed off and on as we reached her car, small
and dark red. Yasha started to talk as we put his bags in the trunk,
and went around the side. His Russian wasn’t easy, punctuated
by um and long hesitations, but knowing that he understood well
enough to try to join in scared me. Later, I abandoned trying to un
-derstand full sentences, and I abandoned concern with accent and
I gave up being afraid. My Russian was broken, but it was enough
to say
one ticket, please, student, international student, enough to
communicate when I did or did not understand, to thank the guides
in the Marble Palace who brought me the English brochures or
pulled me off to let me see through the doorways of rooms that
were temporarily shut, to ask the guides in the Rumyantsev Man
-sion what rooms my ticket meant I could go into. Once a woman
and her husband stopped me on the street to ask where the Russian
Museum was—excited to hear a sentence I understood and knew
the answer to, I whipped around and promptly forgot the word for
left. I said
it’s that way and not to the right, a little sheepishly, but
I had at least pointed them to the side of the yellow building. They
were close.
In the car, my bag was shoved into the seat behind the driver,
half sitting up—I sat next to it, Marina Vasilyevna on my right.
Natalia drove; Yasha rode by her, still making an effort as they
kept talking, kept laughing—there was a frantic edge to how he
spoke. I tried to listen. There were no words I recognized, not
it or she—nothing but yes, which Marina Vasilyevna said off and on
as Natalia did most of the talking. She drove fast in the snow. The
sky was white. She and Marina Vasilyevna made no move to put
on seatbelts, so Yasha and I didn’t, either—I felt strangely loose in
the backseat, wedged in as I was. Yasha stopped trying to talk, fell
silent in the front—maybe he ran out of energy, or things to say, or
stopped understanding. Natalia talked. Marina Vasilyevna agreed,
yes, yes, yes, and sometimes looked sideways and smiled at me,
her eyes crinkling. I smiled back.
They dropped us off on the street outside a yellow apartment
building, on the road I recognized from the bus tour. We pulled
my suitcase out onto the wet sidewalk, caked with more gray ice.
Later, I would know this area. I would know what to buy in the
grocery store under our apartment, which seemed to have noth
-ing recognizable as food the first day I went in. I would go for
the same things on repeat—syrok, dense, sweet cheese dipped in
chocolate; sushki, round, unsalted pretzels good with peanut but
-ter; the containers of not-at-all-spicy Chinese food, in the refrig
-erated section with the sandwiches I didn’t like. The cashiers in
green aprons would recognize me as the American who just barely
understood them—they would never make small talk but would
turn the screen with the price to face me, which I never saw them
do with anyone else. In April, when I went to Moscow and then to
Kirov, took the train back to Ladozhskaya Station and the metro
back to Frunzenskaya, I would think
I’m so glad to be home
as I limped up the stairs.
But in the moment, I saw nothing—rain, ice, a building. The ice-
caked path between the stores, back to the courtyard, where there
were parked, snow-dusted cars that looked like they had spent the
better part of their existence in the Soviet Union. The red metal
door, so cold that frost grew on it. The stone steps and wrought-
iron railing inside, the wires running thickly above the doors that
didn’t match. It looked grim. It would always look grim.
We went up two flights of stairs, each carrying one half of my
suitcase. Her door was on the right—they were all different, on
the landing. Hers light, yellowish wood, paneled, with a metal
doorknob that didn’t turn. She unlocked it with two keys almost
the length of my hand, long and shiny metal. There was a space
inside, then another door—then the hall with two rooms on the
right, a bathroom on the left, and the kitchen at the end, receding
into darkness. My room was the living room: there was a fold
-ed-out sofa, a desk-table between the two windows, a TV stand
and glass-fronted bookshelf with the translated works of Shake
-speare and Jack London, an upright piano, and a metal clothes
rack. I tried to say that it was a beautiful room, but I was nervous
and might have said
apartment
or corner
or red, because all the
words that started with k
sounded alike to me. She said that she
would make dinner and call me when it was done.
I cried when she left. It looked too big, like everything was too
far apart. The clothes rack with the wire hangers was sparse and
empty; the windows were high and cold. Later, I loved watching
people in the icy courtyard. I drank tea and wrote in that room. To
-wards the end, when the ice and the walking and insufficient shoes
had taken a toll, and all my joints ached and it hurt to take a step,
the sofa-bed became comfortable.
In the morning, she took me to the metro—told me what words
to say to buy tokens, showed me a map on the wall, and made
me practice holding my purse against my chest so no one could
steal it. Frunzenskaya was on the blue line—then Technologich
-esky Institut, a transfer point with red. We got off there, where it
was more crowded, and waited for Natalia to bring Yasha to us.
He was of limited importance after this day—he was in the other
set of students, and my host mom only asked after him once. But
for that morning, he was a comfort when we got on the crowded
car. I watched the doors slam, and saw my own reflection for a
moment before I grabbed for a bar to hold on to. By the middle of
February, I would be able to stand without holding anything. By
the end of February, I would take trolleybus 15 home from Smol
-ny, and stand staring out the rain-speckled windows after I knew it
was time to give up my seat, usually about five stops in, when the
bus got crowded. If traffic was bad, I could get off near Technolog
-ichesky Institut—mounded with flowers in April, after the bomb
went off on our blue line, between there and Sadovaya—and walk
home before the bus got there.
There are not places where those things appear in my notebook,
the intangible part of the experience. Details shift and change as
the extraordinary became something I could understand. These are
the memories that have held me—the memories of starting to un
-derstand a place, and of becoming—foreign as I was, even by the
end—a regular there.

***
hannah feustle is a senior Creative Writing and English double major
from Baldwin, MD. She studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia, in spring
2017. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing.

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