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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The Dragon’s Horde

By: Mikayla Meyers
Dublin is a dragon and on my first night, I rode atop its
head. Pairs of feet still stained with United States soil
flitted across slick cobblestone streets. The night hung
as a black curtain above warm lights—string lights strewn across
street alleys, lamp lights, storefront signs, pub lights. The air
tasted sweet with an earthy metallic. Street music reverberated
between brick and called me over to stay awhile. But there was too
much to hear, too much to see, and the body of the dragon curved
on. We skipped down the streets, a flock of wild, adrenaline eyes
and parched lips. Air-weary travelers, the pub lights lured us in to
music and drink. Once we tired of one, we rushed the streets in
search of another, and another;
The International Bar, Temple Bar,
The Hairy Lemon.
Our hearts were insatiable. After two drinks,
the dragon called me back to its streets. This time, alone. I found
my way back to the music and stood in place for a while to feel
the moist air settle on my cheeks. The first night is what I pictured
it would be like, but it was only night, and I had yet to see Dublin
under the scrutiny of day.
In daylight, the hypnosis of city lights is quieted. The city
becomes something new altogether. In the daylight, I realized that
Dublin is a dragon.
Let me elaborate.
Its body, scales of uneven cobblestone, snake and glide beneath
the untrained feet of a visitor. As feet walk on and familiarity is
lost, the body bends below and guides one street into another, and
another, and another, until bearing has returned. Webbed spines
fray along its jaw, and when the wind blows past, tight and quick,
it makes music. Dusted with bar-light stars and dew from misty
rain, Dublin’s flesh shimmers. It is a dragon with a 120-meter-long
lance for a heart. This lance has many names:
The Spire, The Monument of Light.
The lance has a magic about it.
Light never ceases to shine from its peak. It is the vision of one, unified
Dublin. Butas most hearts are, this one is still conflicted.
Dublin has scars over old wounds. It has notches in its bones from bullets. Their
remnants stare back, blasted into the pillars of the General Post
Office, a building that sits along the dragon’s spine: O’Connell
Street Lower.
If Dublin is a dragon, then what might be its horde? I say “horde”
and not “hoard” because this dragon collects live things. They sit
in heavy jackets and thin jeans on O’Connell Bridge and the ends
of Ha’penny Bridge. Their sleeping bags gather by storefronts and
crosswalks. One man sits and reads from dawn till dusk every day,
another woman asks tirelessly for just enough euros to rent a
hostel room for the night. They take turns with a tub of chalk and
write poetry on the sidewalk.
They write;
Some people look down on me
Because I am Homeless
But who are they to judge
For I bleed blood and
I breathe the same air
So! How can anyone judge
For no one in life is…
—and it sits unfinished in the minds of passersby. They only
looked because suddenly, the concrete was colorful beneath their
feet.
Splitting between the scales are buildings as spikes, meticulously
groomed at a maximum of 60 meters high. The buildings are
full—fit to burst, leaving its horde to camp in the streets. In the
cold and mist of December 2017, the dragon counted 2,385
children in its horde. It counted 3,712 adults and 1,028 families. The
horde continues to swell.
I ventured this dragon alone often. My tastes had changed.
Before, I had preferred a second mind around as back-up in case
my own failed. But in Dublin, I found a comfort in being lost. It
helped slow my world down. It taught me to walk with purpose in
the present, instead of rushing to something in my future. When I
slowed down, the city felt like a dream—real, yet just beyond my
comprehension. Lost, I met with beings from the dragon’s living
horde. Some were on feet consumed by a nervous pacing. Some
sat coiled in their sleeping bags, staring a week into the future. At
the crosswalk by Christ Church Cathedral, a woman rushed to me,
her hair thin and oily, her eyes red from exhaustion.
“Spare some euros please, please, spare some euros please!
Please!”
My response was robotic, trained; it was all I knew.
I’m sorry,
I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
“Just enough for a hostel for the night, please! My father is in the
hospital and I have to visit him, please, only enough for the night!”
I’m sorry,
I have no cash on me.
I’m sorry.
She heard me. She nodded and continued past without a word.
Before Dublin was a dragon, it was a tiger. Crisp businessmen
with eyes trained towards a new frontier brought their dreams to
Ireland. They expanded their companies on Irish soil and watched
as the country’s capital flourished. Ireland became the
Celtic Tiger.
Its citizens, for the first time in a long time, felt secure. They
felt fearless as they shopped in stores, ate out in restaurants, made
down payments on houses yet to be built. The Celtic Tiger assured
its people that they and their spending were immortal, even as the
nation’s economy began to stagger under the weight of progress. It
was a denial that led the nation into a crippling recession. Houses
now sit vacant, cold, unobtainable to the people who then found
themselves scraping for some semblance of stability. When the
Celtic Tiger fell, Dublin resurrected as a dragon with a currency of
its own—a horde in the thousands.
At the corner of Parnell Square is a garden. A long pool of water
stretches down the garden and out at the sides in the shape of a
cross. Flowers bloom when in season, and the grass on the risen
earth is a striking green year-round. At the head of the cross, up a
small climb of stairs, is a monument. At its base are three human
bodies sculpted to appear to be clothed in loose cloth. They are
thin, dejected. The first, a man, lays close to the earth as if near
impact from a fall. The second, a man who looks like the same man
from before, but only at the start of the fall; as if rewound in time.
The third is a woman. She stands the tallest yet leans faintly to the
left. Forming from the backs of all three is a flock of large birds
taking flight. This garden is the Garden of Remembrance, and it
commemorates the lives of those who died amidst the struggle for
Irish freedom. The monument, atop its perch at the head of the
garden, shows the Irish people rising from the ashes of their past.
This garden is surrounded by a fence and locked at nightfall.
Next to the fence, a tent sits pitched into the grass, and clothes
hang haphazardly from a tree to dry.
I was not a stranger to the city at night, but I preferred it during
the day. I made 20-minute trips by bus from Dublin City
University to the city center in front of Trinity College. From noon
until late evening, I wandered the body of the dragon with no real
purpose or direction. In the back of my mind, all I was searching
for were sights, music, and a cup of coffee somewhere hidden
from the rush of jaywalking feet and double decker buses. A handful
of those evenings in the city, I came across the same man.
His hair was grey and ruffled, his beard sticky but not unkempt.
The clothes he wore were stained and torn. His skin looked faded,
wax-like. His eyes stared past everything—past the buildings, the
dumpster, past my body walking by. When I came across him,
he would mumble under his breath—caught in a heated argument
with himself and a phantom that sat not far from his own lips. One
evening, something about him had changed. That evening, he was
pacing feverishly back and forth between the curb of the street and
a locked storefront gate.
“No… No… No!… No…No! No!” He shouted, shaking his
hands like they were crawling with something. I kept moving. I
knew the man as well as a frequent stranger could know him. I
was used to passing him quickly. A step before passing him, he
lifted his arms and bellowed, “I’m not scared of you! I’m not
fucking scared of you! Come fight me, I’m not scared! Fight me!” He
crashed his body into the storefront gate and punched it with a
sharp hook. The gate echoed a light rattle but did not give way. It
was a sudden aggression that startled me. Where my feet should
have sped, they halted, frozen. I looked, but only for a moment.
He seemed to understand that the gate was metal, and he was only
flesh. The man went back to mumbling and leaned against the gate
in defeat. I walked on.
Dublin tries to hide its horde behind the Leprechaun Museum,
behind a bus tour, behind a Carroll’s gift shop on every street.
They sit, invisible, a few yards away from where people stand
daily with smiles on their faces, holding out pamphlets about
angels. Every so often, someone will notice a piece of the scattered
horde along the street. They will bring them a warm cup of coffee,
crouch down, and have a nice chat as if the day was warm and
home was waiting for them both. It is in those small moments that
you can see them smile. Their eyes are glossed from loss of sleep,
but the conversation brings a redness back to their cheeks.
Dublin is a dragon whose scales look different from afar. They
reflect like a mirror, and we see only what we feel we ought to see.
In case you were wondering: yes, I did drink Guinness; yes, I did
go to the pubs; yes, I went to the Guinness Storehouse; but I tire of
responding to an image of the dragon from across the sea. Dublin
is a vibrant city. There are stomping feet in its pubs, music in its
streets, and art blooming in bookstores and studios. Dublin’s body
is old, but its breath is young and changing. And yet, the horde is
still there: living things waiting for the warm season and counting
their euros to pay off a hostel room for the night. The horde does
not always look like defeated bodies strewn across the streets.
When they find themselves with 2.70 euros, sometimes, they take
the bus. Their children return from school to a hotel room shared
amongst two, three, four others. Dublin is a dragon with hypnotic,
fiery nighttime eyes, and with a horde ever swelling.

 

 

 

***
mikayla meyers is a 3rd-year Creative Writing, English Literature,
and Publishing & Editing major. She is from Frederick, Maryland and had
the pleasure of studying abroad for a semester in Dublin, Ireland. After
graduating, she would like to pursue hand book binding and book restoration.