I remember the nights I’ve contemplated about taking my love for Russia a notch higher, perusing through language courses, each one making my heart skip a beat realizing that I could really visit the city where Dostoevsky wrote his masterpieces.
I remember trying to come up with a convincing answer when Robin contested the idea of his wife going to Russia alone, in the dead of winter, possibly unable to resist vodka and silly undertakings in a city she had never been too. And the prospect of drunken Russian men harassing me on the streets. I remember the look on his face when we said goodbye in Schiphol, knowing that it was hard for him to let me go on this sort of trip, travelling alone and not being able to spend Christmas with me and our anniversary together.
His worries were not unfounded because late one afternoon, I found myself deep in Pavlovsk Park, running away as fast as I could from two drunken young men who were suspiciously following me. When I was finally safe home, I remember imagining how I could die from hypothermia, buried in deep snow. It is morbid, I know.
I remember sipping tea in a Turkish cafe in Rotterdam, thanking my boss for giving me a two-week break and telling him my little worries about venturing into a country unknown to me. “You know they drink a lot of tea in Russia?” I told him. He was sure I would enjoy it and it’ll make me happy. It did.
I remember the long flight and buying a ridiculously expensive Swiss pen with a camera on board the plane, intending to take obscure photos of places where filming was not allowed. And my arrival at Pulkovo airport, how worried I became when my driver didn’t show up on time, how I struggled with my Russian to ask him where he was and following his instructions to go to the parking lot. And the excruciating conversation we had on the car, mixing English with my Russian.
The very first thing I did when I arrived at my apartment was buy groceries together with my housemate Angelo. It was the first time I was confronted with the difficulty of the Russian language. Despite studying one semester of Russian, I could barely reply to the simple question, “Do you want a plastic bag?” Luckily Angelo was there.
I remember the first time I got lost, in my own “neighbourhood” no less, walking in circles, trudging through deep snow, trying to find my way to the bus stop. In downtown St Petersburg, bus signs are nothing but a small pole with a board that you could hardly see when it is snowing hard. I remember the first bus ride, how I felt like coming from -20 degree temperature and stepping right into a sauna. The heating of these buses are so warm it felt like the tropics.
I love my long walks along the boulevard of the Neva River. There’s a new layer of powdery snow everyday, which makes walking on them so enjoyable, like threading on sand on the beach. One day, the temperature dipped to -25 degrees and it took an enormous amount of effort to go out but the sun was shining and the city looked like a winter fairy tale especially once the sun sets.
I remember looking up all the time and scanning the roofs for dangerous icicles because of a news item about people getting killed by them. Thankfully, the worst that happened to me was falling on ice in front of children. At the same time, I remember how it feels lying down on fresh, powdery snow despite my coat getting wet.
St Petersburg was my first literary trip, following Fyodor Dostoevsky. I visited his old apartment, the Pavlovsk’s Park where some scenes from his book The Idiot was set, his monument in the middle of the city and finally his resting place at Tikhvin Cemetery. Seeing these places made the stories seemed more real to me. I could almost imagine Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) wandering about the city in the brink of losing his mind.
But more than that, I will never forget the old ladies comfortably tucked in their woolen coats beside their portable heaters, their heads buried in books while visitors go around the writer’s apartment/museum. Or the difficult conversation I’ve had with one of them about leaving my bag at the reception.
I’m always satisfied when I go home after a day’s out in the city centre. I remember quarelling with a babushka over change and getting lost several times because I always forget the station where I had to get off. Every metro ride was a different experience in St Petersburg, the stations are deep underground and designed with marvelous ceiling and wall paintings. It’s normal to ride the elevator for several minutes and for the elevator to be stopped by the operator during rush hour when people push their way to the metro.
“I was so happy in St Petersburg. I wish you were with me,” I blurted out once to Robin while we were planing another vacation. “But maybe you were that happy because you were alone,” he said.
He might be right. I was able to fully enjoy St Petersburg because I was alone, alone in discovering things according to my preferences, according to books that we’ve never shared and the intimate childhood dreams that I only knew.
It’s been a while since I’ve travelled alone. Maybe I should go again.
Which place (except your hometown) do you have the fondest memories?