A Week in St. Petersburg

For two decades, during my summer visits to St. Petersburg’s white nights, I would stay in a friend’s apartment, three long Metro stops from the lace ironwork, gold spires and tsarist grandeur of the City center, on the other side of the Neva River from where I grew up.  We would sit on her balcony, drink Chilean wine from a supermarket called Okay and talk through two hours of twilight until the sunrise melted away translucent dusk thin enough to let us read without light.

This summer, when my daughter and my niece decided to tag along, I felt ambivalent.  Of course, I wanted them to see all that history, architecture and art I had so often trumpeted at family gatherings; yet I knew I would have to sacrifice my Russian time of balcony talks and nightly wine with friends.  While I was trying  to decide which was winning – my pride of St. Petersburg or my ungenerous desire to keep it to myself – my daughter and my niece booked their non-refundable tickets to Russia.

On our arrival to Pulkovo International Airport – eight gates for the city of 5,5 million – we found out that, in addition to St. Petersburg’s school graduation festival, the week we chose welcomed the International Economic Forum when heads of state, including Leningrad’s native son Vladimir Putin, descended from all over the world, closing roads and clogging the remaining streets with police-escorted motorcades.  Granted, it was the prime week of white nights and for the graduation fireworks and laser show Mr. Putin had guaranteed a clear sky: clouds not complying with the no rain order would be immediately shot with storm-dispersing chemicals.  I knew I was home.

It took us two and a half hours to get through the city center.  We inched forward in maddening traffic, jammed amid creaky Volgas, gleaming BMWs, and trolley buses wired to electric lines overhead, with a Mercedes SUV in the right lane, in utter desperation, veering onto the sidewalk for a shortcut and honking at pedestrians to get out of the way.

Our hotel turned out to be a four-room St. Petersburg apartment that made me instantly homesick.  It had a faint smell of wool coats and warm tea, the smell of my apartment where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when the city was called Leningrad.  The two connected rooms looked out into a courtyard of cracked asphalt and an island of rickety trees amid unmowed grass – one of the myriad courtyards in Petersburg imprinted in the memory of everyone who was born here.  I thought of my own courtyard, its eyes of windows always protecting me, as the girls made shopping lists from their guidebooks.

They agreed to see the Hermitage, but first we had to stop for lunch at Crocodile, a restaurant my vegan daughter found in her city guide.  Our young waitress seemed to have stepped out of my Soviet youth: adverse to smiling, she sighed and rolled her eyes when we inconvenienced her with questions about the menu.  On the way from the Hermitage, walking back along the Moika Embankment, where in the 1960s I would watch the water rise before an autumn flood and, like every Young Pioneer, hope that my school would cancel classes, we stopped at one of the city’s many Coffee Shops, the only place that served a soy milk latte ($ 8,5 for a medium-sized cup).

The next few days saw us criss-crossing courtyards in search of the guidebook boutiques and the Army and Navy store, purportedly offering an array of the Red Army hats, T-shirts and pins.  All those artifacts were locked along the walls under glass, and it was impossible for the store’s only clerk ensconced behind a counter to understand which of the thousands of badges on display we wanted to see.  My daughter took quick pictures with her Blackberry and, after a five-minute search through inventory, the clerk found a few pins that looked similar and, as we later discovered, had defective clasps.  “And what if we wanted to buy a T-shirt and try it on?” asked my daughter, a Western challenge in her voice.  “Why couldn’t she open the glass for us to see?”  “It’s Russia,” I said gloomily, the words I said more than once since we arrived here.

When we approached the box office to buy hydrofoil tickets ($ 17 one-way) to go to the palaces and fountains of Peterhoff, the cashier refused to sell us a return trip.  “Why?” I asked, forgetting where I was.  “Why?” asked my daughter and niece when I translated what was happening.  “With the Economic Forum we don’t know anything,” said the cashier and shrugged.  In Peterhoff, we joined the line to a closed window where another cashier sat silently and stared into space.  Here they didn’t know anything, either.

Yet, despite the old Leningrad lurking behind the windows of box offices, store counters and restaurants, there is St. Petersburg, old and new, in the freshly painted curved facades overlooking the Neva, stately bridges that open every night to let big ships pass through the city center, and the 12-foot ceilings of old apartments turned into small hotels.  Those windows saw the city’s history: characters from Gogol and Dostoyevsky hurrying along the streets and wars and revolutions that happen here with eerie regularity.  They saw tsars and princesses, crinolined ladies in chestnut curls and counts in horse-drawn carriages, as well as clerks, students and bookkeepers of St. Petersburg, who inhabited its dignified buildings and walked along its streets past the facades marinated for two centuries in the city’s wet, salty air – those who breathed life into stone and gave St. Petersburg its soul.

The day before we left for the U.S., I took my daughter and my niece to where I grew up when the city was called Leningrad.  The courtyard with a new playground was empty: most children were in their dachas, tending reluctantly to their mothers’ patches of cucumbers, shivering on the windy beaches of the Gulf of Finland between the watering and weeding.  My old nursery school with its smells of mothballs and yesterday’s soup is no longer there, but hopscotch squares were still chalked on the asphalt, just as when this used to be my courtyard.  Five poplars, tall and creaky, rose around the playground, tufts of fuzzy seeds floating through the air in a blizzard of summer snow.

Silently, we sat on a bench and looked at the windows of my apartment.  It was, of course, no longer my apartment, or my courtyard, or my city, but I felt its eyes still watching over me.  I thought my girls could feel it, too.  For a week it became their city, just as for a quarter century it had been mine.  I hoped they could sense the soul of those places we had visited – the soul of St. Petersburg – without the residue of the city’s Soviet past.