“I hear that you call pigeons ‘flying rats,’” my tutor, Tanya, said to me as we navigated through the crowds on Nevskii Prospekt – she with the confident steps of a natural Petersburgian, me with the internal clumsiness of an outsider. Pace-for-pace I stroll along with the crush of people, cycling out of the Metro escalator onto the hot summer square. Despite my sidewalk affectations, the thrill of “trying to keep up” remains, coaxing and volatile and hidden somewhere in the deep and indistinguishable distance between my footsteps and Tanya’s. A flock of flying rats flew off at the approach of a car. Their wings slapped together, thwacking distinctly above the din of the crowd.
“But we love them here. We feed them, our golubchiki.”
I didn’t quite know how to cognize America’s relationship to pigeons.
“That’s true,” I said, “I guess it’s because they carry diseases, like rats.” This is something that happens frequently, it seems, when you find yourself a stranger in a strange land: in moments both trivial and significant, you explore differences, find similarities, and are left with contradictions.
“Ah-h,” Tanya replied, “Do you think they’re going to bite you? I suppose our image is a poetic, not a practical one.” “Well, we feed them, too,” I thought, but, unable to expand, simply nodded in agreement. I couldn’t reconcile where one cultural sensibility ended and the other began. Feeding pigeons is poetic, isn’t it? How else could I comprehend my earlier impulse to photograph two old women tossing bread to those birds – limping about courageously, like generals, too unconscious to be greedy? I had seen those old women just yesterday, on the edge of a lake that marks the Eastern edge of Piskariovskoye Memorial Cemetery. The surface of the lake was shimmering with feathery poplar seeds that gather seasonally in the Petersburg air like summer snow; poplar pukh is the kind of thing you try to photograph, but inevitably disappears into the frame.
I had seen those women, now busy with the pigeons, laying flowers on mossy graves. It all seemed connected: a lonely, peaceful gesture. I didn’t know how to tell Tanya I understood.
Like an artist unseen beyond the frame, sometimes I want to be invisible – weightless in the world. Observing. But life abroad demands something else: contact. Russians ask you who you are and how you see the world, whether it’s about pigeons or food or God. (Sometimes, it’s all three: “I’m not sure how it is for you, but throwing bread away is nearly a sin for us in Russia. Even if it goes bad, we feed it to the pigeons,” my generous host, Nina Vasilevna, once told me over tea as we planned our weekend groceries.) I often find myself wondering: how is it for us? For me? These are not easy questions to answer. Even the premise of self-definition, much less “national character,” can be hard to swallow. But then again, one might claim that dodging generalization in favor of individual(istic) nuance is itself an American trait; and that the dogged insistence on the reality of definition (as well as difference) is recognizably Russian. However you spin it, self-reflection seems inevitable; the lens you’ve directed outward toward this country and the landscape and the experiences that fill it bends its reflection backward, including you in its frame. And there you are.
Tanya led me to a neighborhood that spirals out around the Vladimirskaya Metro station; we passed a row of women in knitted vests peddling flowers, mushrooms, and berries – a series of colors and sounds that lined the sidewalk. As the colors ended and the crosswalk emerged, my gaze lifted naturally to the left; an iron staircase fell into the ground, descending into the entrance of Dostoevsky’s apartment. “Oh!” I said, “I’ve been here before!” My mental map of the city was filling out, like spilt ink spreading across a table. One explored area merged with another, and I felt a surge of satisfaction. But Tanya was already halfway across the street.
I tore myself away from this newly discovered familiarity, which felt like a juncture of temporalities: if I trace the thread back to “the beginning,” Dostoevsky – now slumping as a statue in a ponderous pose around the corner from where I stood – is the reason I’m in Russia. Or, more accurately, a catalyst to a series of reasons. My adolescent encounter with the novelist turned out to be a thread indeed: I started tugging at it, and a whole country fell in my lap. Or rather, I fell into it.
Tanya and I reached our destination; a café, tastefully decorated like the Far East. It was our first meeting as tutor and tutee, a component of our program that pairs students with younger native speakers as a way to make contact and conversation. We chatted over tea (something I suddenly can’t live without) – about literature, mostly; Tanya was asking me about current American novelists. With our check, we received “fortunes” written in dark ink on rice paper cut into shapely patterns and accompanied by a piece of chocolate. Both our fortunes came in the form of literary quotations, mine from Jonathan Safran Foer, Tanya’s from Turgenev. We laughed, unsure if we received exactly what we should have, American to American, Russian to Russian, or indeed just the opposite.
I lost the rice paper, and only vaguely remember the quote – something about the durability of love. In trying to recall just what portentous words I let slip past my attention, I came across this surprisingly appropriate quote, taken from an imagined dialogue in Foer’s Everything is Illuminated:
“I want to express myself.
The same is true for me.
I’m looking for my voice.
It’s in your mouth.’”
Against the background of difference, of self- and other- exploration, and of course, of language – this brilliant conceptual snapshot means quite a lot. Like so many things, I feel compelled to simply put a frame around it and let it speak for itself, hoping something from my own experience might also be transmitted along with it.
Navigating language and cultural barriers, it can often feel like you’re walled off from other people, even in those moments when you realize that you’re all navigating the same waters and chasing the same basic desires: I want to express myself; the same is true for me. All of this brings to mind the image of a pinball, bouncing between internal life – what you want to express, what you can’t express – and external life – the outside world you find yourself in, learn from, and makes you who you are. Somewhere in that pinball’s movement, there you are.
Tanya and I parted ways, and I set out for home. Nina Vasilevna and I needed to pack for the beach trip we had planned for the next day. Sunday’s morning heat rose with the sun and we, along with the rest of Petersburg, fled to the shore. After an hour on the packed electrichka train, we reached the Gulf of Finland, visible through the archway of a late 19th century sanatoriia (a “spa” of sorts, built on the premise of the life-giving, curative power of fresh air.) We found our spot, spread our towels on the sand, and while I modestly applied sunscreen to my face before undressing, Nina Vasilevna was already stripped down to her bikini, halfway into the Gulf and laughing with pleasure at the coolness of the water. I laughed along with her, in genuine delight from afar.
Later, when Nina Vasilevna and I laid down on our towels, which formed a “V” in the sand, so that our heads nearly touched at the bottom point and our legs splayed our in different directions under the sun. Nina Vasilevna suggested that I pull my top over my head in order to fully benefit from the healing effects of the sun and the fresh air. I continued to laugh, only now a bit nervously.
“Nyet, spasibo,” I said. She was lying on her stomach, talking to me with her face pressed against the ground. Thinking I didn’t understand why the sun was good for me, or how to make the most of it, Nina Vasilevna explained. And seeing that I could not heed her advice on my own, she reached over, happily and lazily, to help me lift my top: “snimai, snimai, snimai” (up, up, up!) she mumbled through her efforts, fighting against an oncoming nap. Even as I flatly (and might I add successfully) refused, my nervousness completely disappeared and I burst out laughing like I hadn’t in a long time.
On our way home, sand-filled and tired after train rides and metro crowds, we darted across a small park where golubchiki were gathering, pecking at dried-up puddles of water on the sidewalk. “Smotri,” Nina Vasilevna pointed down at them, “the pigeons are thirsty. That means it’s about to rain.”
It’s not that I could tell you why pigeon-thirst predicts rain, or that I recognized something familiar in what Nina Vasilevna was saying. All the same, I understood.
I smiled at the ground, and we reached our doorstop just as thunder clapped in the sky.
By: Jennifer Flaherty
Term: Summer 2013