Friday, October 29, 2010

St. Petersburg 101 (Part 2)

Last week in this space I related impressions we had on a recent visit to St. Petersburg, Russia. In that brief report, the focus was on the place and the sights we saw. In this outing I'll try and get less physical and more personal, in talking about the people in general and one set of encounters in particular.

Whenever you travel, you have to remember that, like Blanche DuBois, you depend on the kindness of strangers. And by and large all we met were friendly and helpful. True, the old babushkas working the registers in the little grocery stores or selling tokens in the Metro (for 22 rubles each, about 73 cents) had an attitude that anything other than exact change was an insult. But beyond that, mime and pointing and a few words of pidgin Russian managed to get us food, directions, admission and the occasional fresh "peeshka" or donut covered in sugar.

But without a doubt our most memorable encounters were two evenings spent with our son's host family. While he is studying in St. Petersburg for the fall semester, they provide him a room and 2 meals a day. They have accepted him warmly and eased his transition into the culture, for which we are very grateful. So when we were planning our trip, we suggested to him that we would love to thank them by buying them dinner at a local restaurant.

They accepted the invitation and made reservations at a homey Georgian place. Dinner was a fun and lively affair (and delicious as well), and we were taken when halfway through they invited us to join them several nights later in their flat for a home cooked meal. It's the kind of encounter that no organized tour can ever hope to duplicate.

Elena is a private teacher of English, while Andrei works in advertising. Her English is excellent, while he understands more than he speaks. Their daughter Nastia (short for Anastasia) and her boyfriend Igor are both students, she in psychology and he in computers and art, and both had a far better grasp of our tongue then we did of theirs.

Their flat was small, three rooms plus a kitchen and bathroom. Like many Russians they have a dacha about an hour out of the city, though it has no heat and is very rustic. It does have apple trees which provided fruit for the wonderful tart Elena made to accompany the borscht, vodka, wine and tea we shared around the table in their living room. To us they seemed typically middle class, and indeed by the end of the evening we lamented the fact we didn't live closer to one another.

Our conversations went in fits and starts, as we shifted topics and languages, with plenty of sidetracks to translate both literal words and cultural ideas. They talked with pride about the history of their country, and the hardships in particular the people of St. Petersburg endured during the war, a memory still surprisingly fresh. They lamented how the police are corrupt and not to be trusted, and marveled as to how our experience in the US is so radically different. We talked about how money and power drive governments and actions, though they have all but given up hope that they have any impact on theirs, while we take it as an article of faith that we have a say in ours.

They have a skewed view of the U.S., driven by the images they see in American films and videos, and have a hard time understanding our diversity and openness. That said, it is their dream to visit this country, particularly New York and the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, visa issues make it exceedingly difficult for  individual Russians to come just to tour.

But our time together was also filled with shared experiences as much as pointing out contrasting cultures. Andrei, who has a background as a musician, was encouraged by Elena to sing a haunting Russian folk song. He then played the piano in their apartment, as did their daughter and our older son. We looked at family photos and swapped recipes: she told me how to make the apple tart we enjoyed, and my wife gave them recipes for chili. And we struggled to explain what a marshmallow was, and why in its Fluff form it tastes great on the peanut butter we all love.

It's hard and probably foolish to extrapolate from this individual encounter to anything beyond what it was: a gathering of two families from different cultures and countries and the search for common ground. But we found just that. And as big as the world is, it reminded us that it can be a small place, and we do best when we treat it as such.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hopes someday to host Elena, Andrei and Nastia in his home. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer. 

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