Almost two months into study abroad in Russia, my friends and I have reached a third phase of interaction with the world around us. The first was exploratory. Everything was novel then, and we wanted to make sweeping pronouncements based on minimal stimuli. It was a time when our preconceptions fought for survival against the contradictions of the world around us. At the time, even the smallest social gestures – buying metro tickets, asking for directions, et cetera – elicited fundamental panic. As we grew accustomed to the basics of life here, we sought to make it comfortable for ourselves. We found sources for vegetables – fairly rare in a food culture in which vegetarians are treated with curiosity – and settled on a café near our host institution in which to get our work done. With each step we have become citizens, not of our host society, but of the streetscape.
Finally, I sense the dawn of a new phase. I am not sure what it contains, but the feeling of crossing a threshold is exciting. For some time now, “Russia is not real,” has become our joke, our watchword, and our anthem. It’s a knowing nod to the uncanny sense we feel when our comfort with life in the Federation is upset by an unexpected culture clash. The phrase is a wink at our disoriented sense of time’s passage – when the month-and-a-half of our residence in Peter is felt to have passed over either the course of years or minutes, but certainly not months. More than all of these feelings, this phrase is the recognition of home’s memory having receded to the peephole of social media and phone calls – and the accompanying sublimation of notions of status and normalcy by which we felt moored to our world. Although we may still feel disoriented, the sense that our personal life here may finally feel real has begun to arrive.
Meanwhile, the landscape of the former imperial capital remains as gently surreal as always. Saint Petersburg exists in these parallel worlds that do not make sense together. It is both a historic, regal city and one scarred by the forced modesty of Soviet modernism. It is a city of life’s beauty as reflected in the words of Pushkin and Dostoevsky, while remaining the city “built on bones” and drenched in the blood of revolutions. However, perhaps most immediately, it is a city that exists separately indoors and outdoors. The buildings of St. Petersburg are built of thick stone, creating a very literal boundary between quite metaphorical worlds. Once ensconced in one of Peter’s cozy and incredibly-themed cafes, one could spend a lifetime without noting its passage. There is also a culture of lingering. Staff do not bother clients whose tabs were settled hours ago, and drinking tea endlessly is ordinary. Furthermore, many cafés and restaurants snake rooms together through entire building blocks, expanding a modest facade into a warren of coziness. I am often shocked when entering buildings whose entrances are modest and uniform, but whose interiors are loaded with weighty marble staircases, crystal chandeliers, and ornate crown moldings dating back to the Romanovs. To summarize even an evening out, one must resort to statements so paradoxical as to make one sound either insane, or in love, or both. Perhaps, in all our tumult, we are.