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Tag Archives: victory day
5/9/09 – 23:30
“Write what you know” is probably one of the oldest clichés in creative circles. But in an unfamiliar city in a strange country speaking a language I can barely grasp, I don’t know a whole lot.
I know that today was Victory Day, День Победы, and that I glimpsed through the cracks in a wall of children perched on their parents’ shoulders a parade of military vehicles rumble by. I know that the children were excited to see the Katyusha rockets on their launchers pass through Dvortsovaya Square. I know that I heard hundreds—perhaps thousands, I couldn’t see very well—of soldiers in the square shout and react in unison to commands given from the podium, a martial Russian show for a day of Soviet military success.
Victory Day, I’m told, celebrates the Nazi German capitulation to Soviet forces in Berlin. Leningrad, as St. Petersburg was then called, bore a heavy burden during the conflict because the Nazis encircled it, choking it but never taking its streets. For its strangulation—the starvation and deprivation its residents endured—it is called a Hero City.
Many of Leningrad’s heroes were out today, wearing their military uniforms heavy with medals. They’re an old and dying generation, just as American veterans of the Second World War are, but I do not know their stories. I couldn’t really ask them; my language skills just aren’t there.
The jet lag has been conquered, sort of. It’s 7:30 p.m., and I’m exhausted.
In the interest of brevity, I’m going to list some of today’s accomplishments. You’ll notice that a lot of them involve purchases; talking with people in Russian is tough.
- Rode the metro to downtown St. Petersburg to watch the Victory Day parade.
- Bought lunch (but the menu was in English and Russian).
- Bought a surge protector.
- Bought water from a vendor on the street.
More later, but for now, it’s time to get out and get some coffee in the interest of the continuing flight against jet lag.
5/8/09 – 23:00
A short flight over the Gulf of Finland, a deep blue bordered on all sides by green, set the scenic backdrop for our arrival in St. Petersburg. As we came over the city, its pervasive grayness—a slightly outmoded industrial quality—filled the hazy air. Power lines, massive apartment blocks, and factory complexes stretched through my field of view as the plane descended to Polkovo airport on the city’s outskirts.
On deplaning, we were greeted by a short, stern-faced man who said nothing as he pointed his temperature gun at each of us; no “Welcome to Russia” here, but thankfully, no swine flu either.
Past customs, the mood lightened considerably as we were met by Саша (Sasha), our Russian discussion instructor from first semester. From there, we threw our bags into a small truck with a green-canvas-covered bed and settled into a white mix between a van and a bus for our ride to Капитанская Улица (Kapitanskaya Street), situated right on the Gulf of Finland.
As we drove, St. Petersburg came into focus as a city, it’s character clearly unbounded by the industrial grayness that I saw from above. We passed a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a giant statue of Lenin, whose name the city once bore. Monuments to Tsars and Soviet soldiers filled the centers of enormous circles that seemed to give the traffic—everything from old Ladas to modern Porsches and Toyotas, and even a few American cars—some semblance of order.
Numerous supermarkets, markets, drug stores, convenience stores, clothing stores, and sundry other shops lined the streets, their gaudy signs advertrising their wares, and often, their 24/7 schedules. We strained to decipher the letters on some of the fleeting signs, and painstakingly sounded-out cyrillic filled the bus-van, accompanied, sometimes, by cheers marking the recognition of a remembered vocabulary word. Frequently though, the names were comfortably familar; Кафе (café), суши (sushi) and бар (bar) were only the tip of the iceberg.
But the city, what little of it we explored in our first hours in Russia, hummed to a beat distinct from anything that might be suggested by superficial sign similarities.
Shopping for food was a fascinating, and humbling, experience. Tomato sauce, of the kind we are so used to in America, was impossible to find at the supermarket we went to. Also missing were spices, crackers beyond a single brand, and all the many styles of granola bar that are ubiquitous at home.
Eggs are packed 10 to a carton—strange.
The checkout aisle marked our first linguistic challenge. As the cashier rang up our bread, cheese, pasta, and massive jugs of water, she asked us if we wanted bags. We quickly declined, only to realize a few seconds later what we had done. Bags being an unfamilar word to us, we couldn’t figure out how to ask for them, except by pointing to one after the cashier had finished ringing us up.
Plastic bags (пакеты – a word I will not soon forget) cost six rubles, the cashier snarled. She waved away Tom’s 100 ruble bill, demanding exact change. The phrase «I just arrived and only have large bills» not being a part of our vocabulary, Tom dug around and handed the cashier a coin that said 5 and another that said 1. Her annoyance visibly increased at being handed a ruble and five kopecks, the cashier finally, mercifully, accepted Tom’s 100 ruble bill (worth, roughly, $3), and doled out all 94 rubles in change, pissed as hell. We quickly shoved our purchases into the bag and escaped, chastened and nervous for future shopping encounters.
Pre-planning vocabulary became the order of the day for our other big purchase – a map of the city. Fortunately, the vendor in the magazine stall was more understanding of our limited Russian skills, and the smoothness of this exchange provided a much-need confidence boost. Tom also managed to buy a memory card reader from an electronics kiosk located in, of all places, a pet shop.
Tomorrow, to wipe out jet lag, we plan to get up around 8 a.m., in plenty of time to go watch the Victory Day parade through the city center.