Russia, Little Things, And Not Knowing What To Say – Travel Notes
The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.
Based on my last three visits to Russia, it takes about two weeks of being in the country before a deep depression starts to settle somewhere behind my eyes. This coupled with general existential dread and a knot in my stomach.
Last time I visited was five years ago, a full year before I started this blog. The upside of not having a creative platform at the time was that I did not feel the pressure for conscious processing. This time I do, and it hurts my brain. So, perhaps, you will forgive my silence over the last little while. Some of you have enjoyed the photos I posted – photos do not require as much thought or as much commentary, as blog posts do.
The easy way out would be simply waiting. I know that my creative juices will flow as soon as I am back to Canada, and back to my routine – in fact, even the long set of flights TO Canada often proves productive. Yet, it would be just that – an easy way out.
So, here I sit, staring at my screen, and admiring every single author and writer who managed to continue writing here, in the land of contrasts and inconsistencies, where the air is too thick with conspiracy and bureaucracy, yet too thin to actually breathe.
It’s nothing BIG, you see. It’s the little things. Little drops of misery that over time, turn into Chinese torture.
Few years back, I spent three weeks in Israel, taking a post-graduate course at the University of Jerusalem. I loved it. People were friendly, and gregarious. Food was fantastic. The sights were overflowing with history. Yet… there were also guns. Everywhere. Armed guards at every doorway. Large machine guns flung over the shoulder of scrawny soldiers on the bus. My bag was scanned and searched at every entrance – to the library, to the store, to the market. I could not wait to go back to Canada, and NOT be searched as I entered the mall. Little things.
Here are a few from the last three weeks:
Enjoying the sound of street performers in the Palace Square in St. Petersburg, I realize that the guy sitting on the cobblestones next to me is sniffing glue in a plastic bag. This IS the backdrop of Russian romanticism. The pink lighting illuminates the square. The performers delight the crowd. The glue guy cheers, making a peace sign with one hand, and holding on to the bag of glue with the other.
I drop by a supermarket to pick up some food for breakfast. The doors open, and two 13-year old boys walk out, grasping a large bottle of vodka between themselves. Of course, they could be buying it for their father. One could hope.
Someone throws a stone at me, while I walk down the street. As I turn around, I see a couple of guys giggling. I yell at them Russian style. My hand where the stone hit stings. I notice a desperate desire to get into a fight. That’s new. [After I mention the incident to my grandfather, he first makes sure I am ok, then looks me up and down. “Were you walking around like this?”, he asks. I am wearing a pair of Lululemon tights and a sleeveless tank. “Yes”, I shrug. I was coming from the gym.”That’s what I thought”, he nods, seemingly satisfied. “You look a little different that other girls, so that’s why”. Right. That makes sense.]
A woman in her thirties struggles, bringing a stroller up the stairs from the subway station. I pause, and offer to help. She shakes her head without meeting my eye, and clutches the stroller tighter. I feel as guilty, as if I tried to kidnap her child.
All the windows on the ground floor have bars to prevent break-ins. The air conditioning units are carefully placed in barred cages, because otherwise they would be stolen also.
I trip over the broken up pavement of the courtyard where my grandmother lives, and almost fall, finally finding my footing. A woman walking towards me does not meet my eye, and carefully changes her trajectory, as to walk around me. I AM fine. Thanks for asking.
My aunt tells me that during elections, her and her coworkers are told which candidates to vote for. Sometimes, they are required to vote in advanced polls, in which case they are to write a letter, indicating that they are on vacation on the actual vote day, to get permission to vote in advance.
My uncle talks about pay cuts across the country. People are paid less for the same amount of work, yet, each employee had to write an official letter, requesting the decrease in salary. So the paperwork would be in order.
Final exams at a university – students are required to purchase the book authored by the professor, and bring a copy to the exam, as proof of purchase. Those who do, get a pass without any questions asked. In another manifestation of this alternate reality, the professor simply announces the grading scheme before the final exam takes place: 300 rubles for a “C” grade, 400 rubles for a “B”, and 500 rubles for an “A”.
The polite and sensitive Canadian in me (it only takes a trip to Russia to realize that I have one) is deeply hurt, when I get yelled at at the post office. I cry at a cafe, dropping tears in my okroshka.
Italian’s passport and visa are thoroughly examined on his way out of the country. The silent border patrol officer does not utter a single word, as he considers each page, each letter. With a magnifying glass.