The Russian Messenger

September 2, 2013

After weeks of preparing my visa, which consisted of visiting and submitting paperwork to various different bureaucratic institutes and dealing with the worst clerks imaginable, the border crossing was quite painless. The difference between Finland and Russia was stark, the change plainly noticeable even while rocketing by at 220km/h on the high speed train. The fields and houses at first were well-kept and orderly, the property was clearly delineated. At some point after Vainikkala, people were hanging out dangerously (by Finnish standards) close to the tracks, accessed through holes in the poorly-maintained fence, fires were burning in makeshift pits next to stations, men were dangling fishing lines from bridges. I felt like I was back in Serbia. The same frame of mind permeates more than just the Balkans. Arriving in St. Petersburg was again a similar feeling: The dilapidated structures, the taxi drivers and trinket-sellers hawking their wares, and the air itself weighing heavy.

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I had not fully committed to the idea of spending a night out on the town by the time I found Belgrad, or at least a bar which shared the name. There was a foosball table front and center. This bar was clearly the place for me. I ordered a beer and made myself comfortable next to the foosball table, which was at the time occupied by some fairly decent players. I was invited to play, and in spite of the table’s design (it was a Garlando) I evidently made a good impression as I was called back to the table a number of times by the best player there. The gesture itself took some getting used to: I was approached by a stern-looking man (different every time) who uttered something unintelligible and waved me toward the table. At the table there was an occupied side, players waiting. On the opposite side was my partner, standing next to a conspicuous gap on the offensive rods. Evidently my team mate nor the opposing players spoke any English, so the communication that ensued was largely gestural and contextual. I learned their rules somewhat quickly, or at least relied on their grunted input in situations I wasn’t clear on.

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The next day I spent wandering around the city in search of a belt buckle. Before I left, I noticed a store in Kruununhaka with a display case full of interesting belt buckles, many of which appealed to me. I refrained from buying one thinking that my altogether relatively-new belt buckle had many years of life left in it. In a serendipitous turn for the worse, the buckle failed irreparably the morning after I arrived in Russia. My quest, nativized into a readily-understandable discourse by my Russian friend, was met with confusion and a much-repeated retort of something like “Why don’t you just buy a new belt?” Clearly not the point… I have a perfectly functional belt with a single component in need of replacement, but apparently even Perestroika couldn’t maintain that distinction. My translating friend is also a teacher of Russian and English, and she was teaching a beginner level English course that night. I decided to join her and see if my native English sensibilities could be of service. The class was a lot of fun, the students’ initial reluctance to participate eventually thawed and they saw themselves asking me various questions, in stilted and awkward English, about life in America, Russian women, and borscht. While only a fleeting interaction, I hope my being there provided even a little support in the ever-laborious slog of language-learning for them.

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The following two days were spent with a fellow student from the language program in Vaasa that I was meant to attend in July and some of her friends. Our traveling styles differed drastically, and the change took quite a bit of getting used to. However, it was because of her that I ended up going to the Hermitage and Petergof at all. Without her insistence I surely would have stood outside each for 10 minutes and then convinced myself that I had seen enough and moved on; now at least I can say that I have legitimately experienced them. The night before my departure had auspicious plans, from the first rumblings of them I was fairly certain that they were not going to be to my liking. First and foremost, I don’t like planning evening outings around timelines; I’d much rather let the fluidity of the night do what it does. However, logistically, St. Petersburg is a difficult city, most of the city’s many bascule bridges open some time around midnight, and remain that way until the early morning. With that said, before inviting others out we had to be sure that we had the resolve to stay out until the bridges closed at around 0600. I don’t have a problem staying out that late if I’m in an environment that I’m comfortable with, <hipster> like an underground bass music event </hipster>. The club we went to was anything but, the bouncers were wearing ski masks and urban camouflage, plastic party lights and disco balls shown through the windows upstairs, and blaring Euro Trance was leaking from the drafty entrance. The only respite to this doomed night was that the club was right next door to Belgrad, the bar I went to the first night. I tried to pull a Cherokee Fadeaway, and at first I thought I was successful. I went to the bathroom, and simply couldn’t will myself back to the dancefloor, so I took a sharp left, descended the stairs, and was let out into the night. I proceeded to Belgrad and played a few games of foosball until I received a barrage of phone calls. Note to self: The Cherokee Fade does not work well with Russian guests. All in all, it was no damage that couldn’t be undone by a good night’s rest. We all had lunch the following morning and they saw me off at the train station.

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Now that I’m back in the land of belt buckles, I’ll set my sights on procuring one tomorrow morning. It’s good to be back.

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