Thursday, March 25, 2010

Robert Rozhdestvensky

Okay, due to the popular demand, and because I'm fascinated by all the possible interpretations of what seems so straightforward to me, here's my translation of Robert Rozhdestvensky's poem. I'm making this as literal as I can and trying not to let my biases affect me. (I am using the text here as my source material.) I'm preserving the original line breaks and punctuation (wherever it makes sense).

Do you see how this poem reinforces patriarchal stereotypes (even though the speaker apparently asserts his weak position -- or, I should say 'performs' weakness)? Or do think it's more complicated? (Of course, it's more complicated -- the poem betrays an underlying problem of masculinity in post-WWII Soviet Union, where the model of masculinity is changing rapidly, and drinking and womanizing become the main ways for men to perform their masculinity.. I think this poem also fulfills this function, a creative way to assert masculinity..) I am also interested in thinking about the ways this poem reads today in English -- sans the complicated Soviet context. Can it be read as subversive (of patriarchal stereotypes) today?

Please, be
And then will I gift you
a miracle,
                  no problem.
And then I will grow tall --
                              grow big,
will become special.
From a burning house I will carry
still sleepy.
I will dare to do everything unknown,
everything reckless --
will throw myself into the sea,
and will rescue you!..
My heart will demand this of me,
my heart
                   will demand this...
But in fact you are
stronger than me,
and more secure!
You yourself
                     are ready to rescue others
from a deep sadness,
you are not afraid of
                              the swish of a blizzard,
or of a crackling fire.
You won't lose your way,
                                  you won't drown,
you won't amass.
You won't cry
                       and you won't moan,
if you wish not to.
You will become gentle
                                  and you will become flighty,
if you wish it...
For me to be with you,
so secure,
is difficult --
Even if in pretense,
                                  even if for a moment --
I'm asking you,
                               timidly, --
help me
to believe in myself,
become weaker.


Here's one more poem, just to show that the speaker is earnest in his desires. Sixteen years later, it seems that he's found the kind of relationship he was looking for:

"Resound, Love!" (The original text is here.)

I love you, my prize.
I love you, my dawn.
If you don't believe me, try me, --
I will do it all!

Mountains and seas I will cross for you,
The rainbow in the steppe I will light for you,
The mystery of the blue stars I will open for you,
Resound in me, my love!
I sing about how I love you,
I think about how I love you,
I know only one thing, that I love you,
Resound in me, my love!

My life has changed its course,
There had not been such spacious days,
I see you and I become a hundred times
Taller and stronger!

I live only by your smile,
Only by your breath I live.
If this is a dream, then let this dream
Become reality!

Mountains and seas I will cross for you,
The rainbow in the steppe I will light for you,
The mystery of the blue stars I will open for you,
Resound in me, my love!
I sing about how I love you,
I think about how I love you,
I know only one thing, that I love you,
Resound in me, my love!


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Characters not people

There's a new Jim Shepard interview out there, and here's a preview of it. From this excerpt, it sounds like this interview is particularly successful in bringing across Shepard's singular conversational voice, analytical and chatty at the same time. Where do I get the journal?

I've been reading all kinds of random stuff this week: an essay on abstract and concrete concepts of class (from Andrew Sayer's "The Moral Significance of Class"); a 1979 novella by a Soviet author, Galina Shcherbakova (who died a few days ago); Danzy Senna's "Caucasia"; a few pieces from Tin House's collection of translated contemporary Russian stories, "Rasskazy" (only three or four left -- and then I'm going to write a review of it); the most recent issue of the Paris Review and the AWP journal. Blogs, from one of which I learned that Tim O'Brian thinks that writers these days don't pay enough attention to sentences. Shcherbakova's novella, "You couldn't even see it in your dreams" ("Вам и не снилось") was made into a hugely popular movie in 1981, one of my favorites as a teenager. I had never even known that the movie was based on a literary source, and I can only imagine the joy that my 17-year old self would've experienced upon this discovery. My primary emotion reading this today is extreme discomfort.. I cannot approach it as a model reader, and approaching it as a critic seems completely futile. It would be as absurd as trying to criticize ghosts.

In terms of narrative theory, I'm continuing to think about characters, people on paper, or Homo Factus, as E.M. Forster called them. Suzanne Keen quotes the words of a novelist Jill Paton Walsh: "You can't put actual people into books, because you don't know enough about them." This seems paradoxical, because how can you know anything about fictional characters that don't even exist? Keen explains this further: "Unlike Homo Sapiens, Homo Fictus possesses a mind and feelings that can be rendered accessible to readers of narrative fiction." (59). Her main point in this chapter is to show "the profound difference between real people and fictional characters." (57-8).

The difference is, indeed, profound, but the more I think about it, the more confused I get. Yes, real people are essentially unknowable -- I have no access to anyone's thoughts or feelings except my own (and even that is questionable). Fictional characters are abstractions, they are simplified to a series of traits. The problem is, they exist not only on paper but in the minds of the real people, who tend to interpret the thoughts and feelings of fictional characters in vastly different ways -- and ways that sometimes have very little to do with words on paper. Thinking about this as a writer is even more confusing. Because the minute I create a fictional character on paper, I create this fictional character in my mind -- that is, I alter paper and self at the same instance.

Ontological confusion aside, the practical aspects of this are fairly simple. Sure, fictional characters behave by a series of rules vastly different from those that apply to real people. And the more "real" a character "feels," the more strict and conventional the rules usually are. Moreover, these rules change with time according to our changing tastes (epics to novels, for example) and to our changing understanding of self (and also changing it in the process). The rules (the craft, the technical) are the easiest stuff to learn and to imitate, although they too become daunting because of their number and contradictory nature.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Counterfactual speculations

Okay, now that I'm not traveling, I can go back to my Narrative theory blogging. I'm rereading the chapter of Suzanne Keen's book entitled "People on Paper," where she talks about broad issues related to character. The central questions she asks introducing this discussion about "substantial hypothetical beings" (Baruch Hochman's term for characters) go like this:

"How broad a range of responses to character can be addressed within a formal analysis? Can counterfactual speculations about what characters might have done or said in extratextual situations ever contribute to a formal discussion of character?"

These questions reminded me of an argument I've gotten into recently on a Russian feminist community blog. It's a very lively community, and it's very easy to get sucked into a very intense argument, so I usually try to stay away from it -- but I do get involved sometimes when the discussion turns from activism to literary criticism. In this case, I responded to a post about Soviet texts that reinforced gender stereotypes by posting a poem by a well known Soviet author, Robert Rozhdestvensky. In this poem, the speaker addresses a woman and literally asks her to become weaker so that he would have a chance to be strong and rescue her. "Please, be weaker," he asks his lady, "And then I will grow taller, larger, will become special. I will carry you, still drowsy, out of the burning house" and "I will jump into the sea ... to rescue you." The poem goes on. The way I see it, the speaker basically asks his lady to drown ("at least in pretense") so that he could have a chance to play hero. I interpret this poem unambiguously as reinforcing patriarchal stereotypes on gender roles.

Another community member (she identified herself as a woman) refused to see my point -- she believed that the poem goes against the grain of the patriarchal stereotype in that it represents a strong female character -- and proceeded to engage me in a very involved argument. My opponent interpreted the speaker as an inherently weak man and the woman he was addressing as a dominating and oppressive figure who basically crushed his every wish. In many lines of the blog argument, it became clear that my opponent had an entire alternative narrative constructed in her mind: the speaker and his addressee were a couple on the verge of a breakup, and he would be forced to leave her if she didn't change. He was a weakling and admitting to it, and he thought she was perfect, and he was begging her to stop being so perfect because while she was perfect, he was no match for her.

None of these things were a part of the text: in the poem itself, it's not even clear whether the speaker and the woman he's addressing are romantically involved. The speaker doesn't attribute qualitative judgements neither to himself nor to his addressee (nowhere in the poem does he say that he thinks she's perfect). This story is entirely countertextual, it exists not on the page but in the mind of my opponent. All that we know about the two is best summarized in the speaker's opening request to his lady: "Please, be weaker."

I finally ended the argument by repeatedly asking my opponent to support her argument with textual references -- which she couldn't do, and so the argument fizzled out. But perhaps this is unfortunate, because the more insidious problem lies not in the fact that my opponent created this counterfactual legend in her mind, but the content of her legend itself. And this point I didn't have the patience to address: even according to my opponent's legend, the woman's strength is still her weakness, insofar as it's still unacceptable within the dimensions of this couple's relationship. This woman's perfection is still her failure and it fits very nicely within the patriarchal norms, built along the lines of the neat binary oppositions, strong -- weak, man -- woman, always privileging the strong man.

Monday, March 15, 2010

SPb to SF

In the last few days of the trip, tiredness has caught up with me. Party on Friday went late with good conversation, lots of wine, and some drama. Woke up late Sat, left the house after dark, drove aimlessly around the city. I fell asleep at the movies (Looking for Eric at Dom Kino) and slipped into a loud argument with my mom for no good reason (she used the word "conspiracy" in reference to Soviet literature and I thought the word didn't fit). Later, my friend Masha visited again, and showed more pictures from her trips to Volkhov, Staraja Ladoga, Novaja Ladoga, and other historical towns and monasteries north of St. Petersburg. Photos filled with general longing. More travel?

Couldn't focus enough to blog, joined twitter instead (as bowlga). Am I now partaking of it all?

After my friend Johnnie kindly dropped us off at the airport at 3:30 am on Saturday night, collapsed on the airplane and slept for 2,5 hours till Frankfurt. Woke up in Frankfurt, went through more security (although no passport control), slept for 12 hours on the plane till San Francisco. Small interruptions. Food, Poets&Writers magazine, An Education (it could've been very good, but wasn't), finished watching "Inglorious Basterds." This movie has to be studied in detail for the subtle ways Tarantino creates tension. He relies on genre forms and music for sure, but that doesn't explain all of it. Why is it when a man simply washes his face, I'm expecting him to turn around and start shooting?

When we arrived in SF, it was sunny and bright and very warm. Took a nap till 5 pm; still couldn't stay up past 9 pm.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Bestuzhevskaya ulitsa

Yesterday was a bright, sunny day and everyone we met seemed happy and optimistic, and today it's snowing again, and the traitorous black ice is getting buried under a fresh layer of snow. In the winter, St. Petersburg becomes impassable for older people who have brittle bones and difficulty walking. Slippery roads, heavy shoes and coats, tall apartment buildings with no elevators, drivers who don't stop for pedestrians, it all adds up to the fact that in the winter most older people try to stay at home as much as possible and leave the house only when absolutely necessary. When I tell the story in the US, it's hard to believe, but three of my grandparents did not leave their apartments for the last ten years of their lives. Yesterday, my aunt Maya specifically asked me to make sure that next time I visit would be in the summer, late spring or early fall, when she doesn't have to wear her winter coat.

A visit to Maya's is always a very sentimental one for me: my parents lived with her during the first years of their marriage, and her apartment is connected with my earliest memories. Today, it's hard to imagine how three adults and two children fit into the two small rooms completely packed with books. Maya had one of the rooms, and the four of us shared another. My brother and I slept in a bunk bed, separated from my parents' bed by a tall bookshelf. I went to kindergarten, while my mom stayed home with my baby brother. I had two friends in kindergarten, a boy I was in love with, Alesha (my parents teased me for years about him by repeating the songs I used to sing about how I was in love with him) and a girl named Vera, who I stayed in touch with because her family also had a dacha near ours. Vera is now a musician and lives in Texas and we are Facebook friends.

For me, this was the idyllic time of my life: I had three adults who spent time with me around the clock and competed for the right to read me fairy tales; my grandparents came for short visits and brought gifts and sweet things; my brother was very young and I could play with him, but I didn't have to be responsible for him; as I was growing up and becoming more independent, I was allowed to play in the yard with my friends. I was completely oblivious to the fact that my parents were unhappy, that the adults were fighting with each other, that living together was very difficult on them. My little world collapsed one winter when I was five years old, when after a two-week stay at a hospital (I went in for an investigation, did I have asthma or didn't I? and then caught pneumonia at the hospital and had to stay there), my parents brought me home -- but not to Maya's place, all the way across town instead, to my mother's parents' apartment. All of our things were there already, including our bunk bed and books.

My parents moved while I was at the hospital! Without giving me any kind of warning! I can only imagine the kind of screaming and shouting I did when I understood the finality of it; I could not forgive them for years; at least, not until three years later, when the six of us (with my grandparents) moved again -- and then I carried the grudge for that. After that, every trip to Maya's -- forty minutes on the subway and thirty on the bus number 107, past the Leningrad Metallichesky Factory where my dad worked, past the boulevard studded with pylons carrying high voltage power lines near where my cousin Paul lived, exit by the large supermarket, walk by my old kindergarten where I had been so happy with Alesha and Vera -- every trip has always been a return to the lost paradise, where it is always warm, where books, food, and love are always plentiful.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Three Borises

Yesterday my parents introduced me to three legendary figures of St. Petersburg counter-culture -- three Borises, Boris Ivanov, Boris Ostanin and Boris Roginsky -- writers, essayists, publishers, editors, who work together and separately in various magazines and presses. The two older men (Boris Ivanov is 82 years old) and Boris Ostanin are famous as the founders of the first independent literary prize in Soviet Union -- in 1978, they established "Andrei Bely Prize," named after a very famous avant-garde Russian writer of the 1910s and 20s. The prize existed outside of the Soviet literary establishment (outside the official Writers' Union) and the award amounted to a bottle of vodka, an apple, and a single ruble.

In addition to the prize, Boris Ivanov and Boris Ostanin published the samizdat magazine "Chasi" or "Hours"; and yesterday Boris Ivanov told us: "In 1990 the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union accepted the order about the freedom of press, the very next day, I decided to close the magazine." In a way, they saw their mission completed and did not need to participate in the later proliferation of small presses and publishing houses. They resurrected the Andrei Bely Prize a few years later, when in 1996 and 1997 it became apparent that Eltsin and Perestroika-era government was not succeeding in creating a civic society, a society that is based on the citizens' participation in the public institutions. This inability of the public to control the follow-through of the government actions they see as the main problem of the contemporary Russian society. I can see their viewpoint (although I see some problems with it), and their dedication to the independent literary process is inspiring.

What is also very interesting about all three of them, but especially Boris Ostanin and the younger Boris, Roginsky, is their degree of familiarity with Western culture, contemporary literature, philosophy, and theory. Boris Ostanin (whose university degree is in mathematics) has translated to Russian the works of Jean Genet, Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Carlos Castaneda, and in our conversation he quoted Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Boris Roginsky has written his dissertation on the tragic in the work of Alfred Hitchcock; he also is an author of many essays of literary and political criticism.

It was truly a privilege to meet these men in person, to drink tea with them, and to hope that maybe I can somehow work with them in the future. We'll see about that.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


My cousin Lena says that there aren't "good" or "bad" schools in St. Petersburg, there are "prestigious" and "not prestigious."

Schools are a problem: to make sure their kids get into a "good" (i.e. the most prestigious) school, the most motivated parents spend the night of April 1st (the day when the paperwork is due) in line to the principal's office. At least, this is how the urban legend goes.

One 6 year old we know is incredibly busy: after kindergarten (administratively, kindergarten is more like daycare, practically it's more like school -- they do math, reading, music, gym, spelling, etc) she goes to dance classes twice a week, music school three times a week, handwriting classes twice a week, and classes that prepare her to pass her school entrance exams three times a week. She couldn't fit us into her schedule, so we met her 3-month old sister instead.

My 12-year old cousin Mark does only one thing after school: swim practice (he plays water polo). This takes him about 5 hours 5 or 6 days a week. Swim practice itself is only 3 hours: they swim a few laps and then practice playing. It takes him an hour to get to the pool -- he takes public transport to get there from school, and more than an hour to get back (usually one of his parents or grandparents comes to pick him up.) He gets home at 9:30 pm and then has to do homework for school (school usually starts at 9:15 am). Mark says that other kids on his water polo team also manage to fit music and chess lessons into their schedule.

Every newborn baby in Russia gets prescribed massage. They say it helps to improve "muscle tone" in babies. Massage makes babies stronger and more relaxed at the same time.

Russian words are very long! So my cousin Misha at the age of two years and three months has developed his own strategy: he pronounces the ends of words. "Danya" for "do svidanya" (good bye), "eba" for "khleba" (give me some bread), "ina" for "mashina" (car). His grandfather Tolya he calls "deda Olya" (grandpa Olya), so when his mother introduced me as "tetya Olya" (aunt Olya), little Misha was extremely confused.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Sport orienteering

My grandfather Ilya (Elijah) -- my father's father -- was the youngest of four children, he had one brother and two sisters. The oldest was his brother Abram, born in 1908 (I think). He was an officer in the Red Army, a colonel at the end of his career (I believe). In 1944 and 1945 he was a commander of a garrison in a Bulgarian town of Plovdiv after the Red Army took it over from the Nazis.

Abram and his wife Alexandra died a long time before I was born, and I never met them and only know a few family stories about them. I know their three children: Tatiana, Vladimir and Natalia -- and their children and grandchildren. The youngest, Natalia, was the first to immigrate to Israel back in the 1980s. Tatiana, a criminal lawyer during the Soviet times, followed in her footsteps at the end of the 1990s. We met both of them and Tatiana's daughter Sonya in Haifa earlier this year. Tatiana still visits St. Petersburg quite frequently and has business and property here. Natalia, on the other hand, has never been back. Vladimir and his wife Anna stayed in St. Petersburg, along with their daughter Ira, husband Maxim and granddaughters Katya and Natasha.

When we visited yesterday, Vladimir and Anna told us a very cute story about how they first met. After Vladimir graduated from a university in St. Petersburg (he went to the same school as my dad, but ten years earlier), he was sent to work in the Ural mountains (the city of Sverdlovsk -- now Yekaterinburg). He worked in some sort of a factory (this wasn't a part of the story, so I don't know what he did for work), but on top of it he had a hobby: sport orienteering. And coincidentally so did Anna, a Sverdlovsk native; she had entered her first night-time orienteering competition that year. The teams gathered somewhere in the woods, were given flashlights and maps, and were sent on a trek to a pre-specified location. Anna did not go very far: soon, she fell into a swamp. By the time she managed to get out of the mud, the precious time past, and the competition was lost. So she trekked back to the base and went to a spring to wash her boots. She cursed loudly as she worked: "What kind of an idiot invented orienteering at night? What the hell is the point of it?" For Vladimir, this was not his first competition, so he was used to the ordeal. He was also at the spring, cleaning his boots. So when he overheard her curses by the spring, he liked them so much, he decided to talk to her.

He proposed to her after she'd invited him to her house once and fried some potatoes and onions for him. Anna is a famous cook -- as we had a chance to attest yesterday eating her pirozhki and apple pie.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dad's birthday

The big event yesterday was my dad's 60th birthday party. It was hosted at the Mukhina Art Academy downtown St. Petersburg, in a neo-Renaissance style hall with painted ceilings and vaulted arches. The guests included my dad's childhood friends, some of whom he knows from 6 and 7 years old, his coworkers and business partners, his more recent friends. We came from all over the world, the US, England, France, Israel, different parts of Russia like Taganrog, Ufa, Moscow.

My mom had been sick with cold all week, two days ago she had to spend a whole day in bed to try to get better. During the party, she kept drinking cognac as a "cure" and to keep warm (the neo-Renaissance hall had no heating). She and my brother and my cousin Masha and many friends and family members participated in the celebration by performing songs and poems in honor of the hero of the day. Usually, Russian (Soviet-style) parties like this are organized by a "tamada" -- a host whose job is to "create the atmosphere" and to pass the microphone from one guest to another as each of them gets up to say (or sing) a toast. "Tamada" is a Georgian word and concept, and there's a fascinating article on Wikipedia that explains the history and the Georgian tradition. Of course, the Russian (Soviet) take on this is somewhat different.

My dad's party didn't use a tamada -- they had to use a professional theatrical director. The guests were too creative for simple toasts, as each one composed a poem, a song or a brief theatrical performance. There was a sketch about the government officials trying to decide how much pension my dad deserved (60 is retirement age for men in Russia); my cousin Masha, my dad, and my brother sang opera and show tunes; my mom channeled a famous poet to read a humorous poem of her own composing; a group of architects from Ufa presented my dad an Australian didgeridoo -- an intricately made long horn -- and tried to play it. In between the toasts, there was an audio-video presentation, arranged from pictures and voice over of my mom and dad telling the stories about their first meeting and different parts of my dad's biography and their life together. On top of everything else, there was lots of food and some dancing.

For me, the event was very emotional. I got to see some of my parents friends whom I remember very well from my childhood but had not seen in ten or more years. Also, many of our relatives were there and even though I was able to exchange only a few words with each of them, I was trying to schedule follow up meetings for the rest of the week. I was also trying to translate the gist of some of the toasts to Dave -- I didn't do a very good job of it; I cannot pay attention to more than one thing at the same time. I did a bit better trying to help Dave to communicate with some of the guests who wanted to ask him about his trip to China or work in the US.

Neither Dave nor I really participated in any of the singing or speech making of the evening. We could've -- we had been given the opportunity to contribute, but we just weren't up to the task. In San Francisco, it was simply too hard to visualize what kind of material would be appropriate for the evening, and by the time we got here, it was already too late and we had too many other plans to come up with anything creative. I regret it, but only slightly -- I'm glad I didn't have to worry about performing and could be all there and make the most out of the brief conversations I had with everyone. I could lead the applause and yell Bravo after every performance. I got to see my dad enjoying every minute of it. That was probably the best part of it all.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Masha's yurt

My friend Masha can do it all. She can diagnose and repair cars, she can rebuild apartments and country houses, install new and repair old Soviet style electrical wiring, compile topological maps of archeological digs, and fix up old computers; she has had medical training, and is just about to graduate from university with a degree in structural engineering. About three years ago, she participated in a two-month long archeological expedition to Mongolia, where her team worked on unearthing remains of a burial grounds in the steppe. She brought back stories of Buddhist nomadic tribal lifestyle, recipes for making a carcass of meat last for weeks without refrigeration, stories of surviving flooding in the steppe.

During her trip to Mongolia, Masha has established a good working relationship with a team of St. Petersburg archeologists, and for the last two years has been working with them full time. There are several large scale archeological digs going on in St. Petersburg at this time, and Masha has helped to do it all: to excavate and clean artifacts, to document the progress of the digging by measuring and mapping the terrain, to compile budgets and to reconcile paper maps with computer based models. Lately, her work has been forcing her to spend many hours a day in front of a computer screen, and she complains: "I have a bad back," she says, "and this computer work is killing me. I could never have a sedimentary lifestyle, I need to be doing active physical labor all the time." So when her archeological team took over two basement rooms for storage and planning purposes, Masha took over the job of installing a ventilation system. The team had been thinking of subcontracting the job, but when they priced it out, it turned out they couldn't afford to hire anyone. So Masha bought all the necessary parts and put in a couple of 16 hour days to lay the piping and install equipment on her own -- on top of all the other jobs she had to do that day.

When Masha came back from Mongolia, she brought back a bunch of stories and photographs with her; and when I saw her a few months after her trip, she also gave me a souvenir: a tiny model of a yurt made of camel wool. There's a little leather door in the yurt, and when you lift it you can see that the yurt is painted on the inside with miniature furniture. I love picturing myself living inside the yurt -- it brings back to me my childhood dream of sharing a house with Masha and Inna; for years, I dreamed of the possibility of living in a tiny little house that would be only large enough to provide space for me and all of my friends underneath the same roof. As we get older, it becomes so much easier to dismiss these dreams as childish and silly (not the least of the reasons being that all of us have learned the hard way that living together is hard work and can ruin the best of friendships), but I do not want to let them go so easily. These dreams of life in complete union with my friends is probably what keeps bringing me back to St. Petersburg year after year -- and now it is also what makes me long to come back to San Francisco. The yurt is perfect because I can just fold it up and bring it with me.

Dave's blog about new experiences yesterday is here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Old structures and new

All foreigners staying in Russia for more than three days must register with the local authorities. About two years ago, the country has adopted a simplified procedure for registering visitors who choose to stay in private homes (hotels have a different procedure, much simpler on the visitor): now the foreigners and their hosts don't need to go to the local police offices and stand in line there, but can register at the post office. The "simplified" procedure requires the host to fill out a very long form by hand twice, then to fill out a short form twice, then to buy and fill out a special envelope, then to make Xerox copies of the visitor's passport, visa, migration card, also to make a copy of the host's passport. All of these documents get stamped and put in that special envelope that is then mailed to the administration of the neighborhood where the host is registered. If you know what you're doing, the procedure is not particularly difficult -- but that's a big "if."

The last time I tried to register Dave in my parents' apartment, it took me two hours to collect all of these necessary pieces of information and to fill out all of the forms (crossing out letters and numbers is not allowed -- every time you make an error you have to start from the beginning). The last time, we went to the post office in the center of the city, a very busy one with the perpetual long line of people waiting for service, and every time we'd stand in line, they would give us one new piece of information (go get the Xerox copies), and then we'd stand in line again and they would give us another piece of information (go make the second copy of the short form). This time, I stupidly forgot my passport at home and so we had to spend the better part of the day in the subway, going back to my neighborhood to pick it up and then coming back downtown to hang out with friends in the evening. But altogether, the experience was not nearly as traumatic because we ended up going to the local post office in my neighborhood, where the woman who worked with us wasn't in a rush and she spoke to me with kindly condescension (oh, so you filled out only one copy of the short form? what, you don't want to keep a copy of it for your own records?). It also helped that this time I had a better idea of what I was doing and was at least partially prepared for the ordeal.

We had dinner with my friends Polina and Kostya at a French restaurant, and then visited my brother's photo studio, Monochrome Loft. The idea behind this business is to rent out space to professional photographers who can make use of the studio's excellent natural light as well as high end lighting equipment that they've installed. Monochrome Loft also hosts lectures and events; on Monday nights my brother teaches yoga to a rapidly growing group of students. The studio is a large space downtown St. Petersburg, capable of hosting several different photo sessions at the same time. My brother (whose name is also Kostya) and his partners have done a great job remodeling: they preserved the texture of the bricks underneath the layer of white paint, laid new wooden floors, paneled the extremely high ceilings, installed new windows. They opened for business in January, and the opening party was a huge success (see video below), and things have been thriving ever since.

Monochrome Loft is thinking of establishing a residency program for visiting photographers; and they already have a relationship with a nearby hostel to provide living accommodations. So if you know any photographers who might be interested in using a modern studio space in St. Petersburg and teaching some guest lectures, please get in touch :)

Dave's account of Friday's events is surprisingly similar.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Airport traffic

My cousin Paul is a lawyer who specializes in a very new and unusual area: copyright protection law. There are not nearly as many barriers to entry into the law career in Russia as there are in the US: it's a one university degree thing, and one can start practicing at 20 or 22, while still in school. My cousin is not yet 30, but he's worked in the legal departments of several different companies in St. Petersburg and in Moscow. About two years ago he started working for the St. Petersburg offices of a Swedish law firm. This fall he applied and was accepted into an masters' degree program in copyright law in Stockholm university, so that now he's learning everything about the way copyright laws work in the European Union (very differently from the way they work in the US, sometimes completely conflicting in the basics).

The masters' program is targeted specifically for working professionals. The seminars take place on weekends, every other weekend. The bulk of the work comes from independent research and writing assignments, group projects in assembling and delivering presentations. Many of the students reside in Stockholm for the duration, but my cousin is choosing to combine his education with continuing his practice back in St. Petersburg. This means that every two weeks he has to fly to Stockholm and back, using the cheapest most direct flights. Luckily, prices for airfare in Europe are very reasonable; nevertheless, his itinerary is rather strenuous. He flies out of St. Petersburg airport on Thursday nights and travels to Riga, Latvia, where he spends the night. In the morning he takes a direct flight to Stockholm, and then comes back to St. Petersburg on Sunday evenings. Every time he brings back stories of adventures, school and travel related. One of the recurrent thrills of the trip is that the airplane that takes him to Riga is a 40-seat propeller powered one. The noises that it makes are apparently vastly different from the jet engine noises and it takes time until one grows comfortable hearing them at take off.

So yesterday was another school weekend Thursday night, and cousin Paul was off to Riga. His propellers were powered up and ready to go at around 9:40 pm -- and at the same time, Dave's plane from Helsinki was going in for landing. Things came together well last night, and the timing was so perfect that my friends Johnnie and Tanya and I were able to see off cousin Paul and meet Dave with just enough time in between to drive to the nearest mall for a sushi supper. Everything went off without a hitch even despite the fact that earlier in the day it snowed heavily. In the evening, the skies were clear and the airport traffic running ahead of schedule. So much so that Dave reports leaving Helsinki at least half an hour late and he still arrived to St. Petersburg on time. The only thing we missed (getting too enthusiastic about sushi) was seeing the wings of cousin Paul's propeller plane as it took off.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taste of snow

Over the years of these trips back to St. Petersburg, I've become an excellent observer of the workings of my own memory. I've been collecting a catalog of certain small things that make me flash to the world of my childhood--and beyond. Trips now remind me of previous trips. My past is never something that's literally behind me; I visualize it more as a reference library, from which I can pull out volumes at will. Certain volumes are more useful than others. Others catch my attention for no apparent reason. The library is cataloged neither based on a chronological order nor on any kind of the alphabet, using, for example, the names of the people my memories are associated with, but based on a complicated emotional signature of each individual memory.

The rain yesterday became ice today, and then midday it snowed again so that when I came out of the apartment building around 5 pm, most of the paths were iced over underneath the fresh layer of snow. Apparently, this pattern has been reoccurring for some days, because on some paths the ice was several inches deep and chunky. Most paths are strewn with sand and salt, but some are not. Walking is a rather slow and precarious business. Both sides of the path are walls of several feet of snow. In certain particularly narrow areas you might get stuck behind the more cautious walkers and need to slow down. Slowing down is good: I finally get off my cell phone and get a chance to look around. Immediately, I remember a ritual: eating several handfuls of fresh white snow on the way home from school. You get so hot running down these paths, bundled up as you are inside a padded coat, a sweater, a shirt and an undershirt. You're sweating even though it's below zero--a perfect recipe for a head cold.

But the heat is not why you eat snow. You eat snow the way you eat everything: you consume the world through its smell and taste and texture. You eat breakfast, dinner and supper, you drink tea and eat jam and biscuits. You eat fruit of the trees and you eat vegetables that grow in your garden. You eat green grass in the spring and acorns in the fall. You make whistles out of inedible acacia pods and you get your nose yellow in the pollen of dandelions. You chew on the bark of spruce twigs while playing card games with friends and you use pine needles as toothpicks. You poke holes in the birch tree with a knife and you suck on the juice of it. In the winter, you get your tongue stuck to the frozen metal railing outside of your apartment building because you are curious to see what white frost tastes like. In the summer, a mosquito flies into your mouth and you're disturbed by swallowing the thing that was so alive a moment ago but it doesn't really taste like anything. When it's windy, you open your mouth and try to taste the wind. When it's raining, you stick your tongue out and you try to catch raindrops with it.

I haven't felt the spring in the air yet (and don't talk to me about astronomical spring that starts only at the end of March--spring is a state of mind); but I have tasted the snow. There was some crisp in it even though it was heavy with water, a touch of sweetness and a clean smooth aftertaste. There was no sediment in it that comes from drinking boiled or filtered chlorinated water. The cleanliness is deceptive, of course: the snow has absorbed all kinds of pollution on its way down, it has absorbed even more as it was lying there in the yard by a very busy street. I wouldn't recommend city snow for a drink of choice, but it's very refreshing in small doses.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

"Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900 to 1920: Art, Life and Culture in Russia's Silver Age"

A review and an interview with the author of a potentially fascinating book on Russia's "Silver Age":

Sounds like a decent introductory text -- although in the theory of "why silver age" at the turn of the century, I would go to contemporary Marxist theory first and European modernism second before I would plunge into the Apocalypse theories and religion. But I guess the Apocalypse might better reflect the way thinking of the individual artists at the time.

Short trip to St. Petersburg

A straightforward eighteen hour trip from San Francisco to St. Petersburg is decidedly too short. Here's my list of things to do on the plane:

To read
-- 1 novel
-- 1 short story collection
-- 1 history book
-- 3 literary magazines
-- 1 Narrative submission
-- a friend's manuscript

To write
-- 5 letters
-- revise first draft of an English language short story
-- revise Nth draft of my Russian language manuscript

I've read the novel (Alejo Carpentier's "The Kingdom of This World"). I've read one story in one of the lit mags (Paris Review). I've read the Narrative submission. I wrote zero letters. I did finish revising the first draft of a long short story I'm currently calling "Criminals." I got maybe three hours of sleep total. I had 3 meals and a Haagen-Dazs during my layover in Frankfurt. And this is 18 hours? I guess I've also read a couple of newspaper articles saved in my browser. And also a part of Frankfurter Allgemeine (imagine a paper with a full-length book review on the back cover! -- Jonathan Safran Foer's new book).

I was also going to shop for a science fiction novel in German at the airport in Frankfurt, but couldn't find a decent store and then decided against buying some other random novel in German. I can do this on the trip back. I am not sure I actually saw any sci fi at that bookstore, at least not anything other than the German translations of Harry Potter and Twilight books, and I don't know if these technically count as sci fi.

St. Petersburg is cold and wet -- just the way I left it back in October. The only difference is the giant piles of blackened, melting snow everywhere along the roads. The dirt in St. Petersburg is never more apparent as in March after a nice snowy winter, when the slush runs soot black and it's impossible to walk outside without getting mud on your clothes. But the smell of spring is in the air -- and while my sense of smell has been spoiled by the perpetual spring of San Francisco, and so far I smell nothing but exhaust fumes here, -- the spring is usually the time of general elation and unrealistic hopes. It's a good time.