Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Protest and art

I walked by the Dissenters' March today. Apparently, in Moscow the police beat up and arrested a bunch of people. In St. Petersburg, they arrested a bunch of people as well, but on a smaller scale. What I saw from across the wide Nevsky prospect was a group of 300 or so people (including some parents with young children) hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the shopping center Gostiny Dvor, surrounded by the busloads of policemen. I hung about for a few minutes -- there were lots of onlookers from across the street, including traffic cops and a man with government tags on the windshield of his car -- he was on the phone, perhaps giving orders. A fire engine arrived and parked right next to the protesters. The firemen in full gear unraveled the hose and stood by waiting for the word from the top to unleash the water. I'm not sure what happened next, but according to the reports online, it seems nothing much happened in St. Petersburg except some of the protesters were arrested by the special police. A breakaway protest started nearby, in the square in front of the Winter Palace (that houses the Hermitage), a few dozen of people walked around a commemorative column and chanted slogans. Many of them were arrested as well.

The organizers of the March have promised to gather protests on a 31st of every month that has 31 days. And if Putin has his way, they'll keep getting beaten each time: he said so himself. Here's a Yahoo News article on the matter that translates his quote this way: "You will be beaten upside the head with a truncheon. And that's it." Fun stuff.

I walked by the protest by accident. My friend Polina and I had gone to see the Picasso exhibit at the Hermitage, and I was on my way to meet my parents at their office. The Hermitage owns a few Picassos (I remember the early works, a mandolin and a guitar), but the exhibit was a very special opportunity to see Picasso en masse: an exposition of 280 works from all periods, including sculpture and photographs. It came from the Picasso museum in Paris that is currently being renovated, and was displayed in the main ceremonial halls of the Winter Palace, in the spacious halls around the emperor's throne. Unfortunately, the halls seem to have the same infrastructure as during the emperor's times -- there's no air conditioning or air circulation of any kind. It was hot and stuffy -- and huge crowds of tourists didn't help. I spotted one museum attendant who was fanning herself with an old-fashioned ladies' fan, and asked her what it was like when the temperature in the city climbed to record-breaking heights for three weeks in a row, over 100F.

"Awful," she said. "Just awful. Many of us were having heart problems, and stayed home. The crowds were enormous, and we barely survived the experience."

"I'm sure the heat is damaging the art as well," I said thoughtlessly.

"Art! Everyone cares about art, not about the people who work here!" She pointed out the tactlessness of my statement -- I had spoken from the point of view of a tourist, who associates museums only with the art and not with the people who work there. I rushed to correct my mistake.

"You're right, it must've been much harder on people," I said. "Did anyone get a heat stroke?"

"Mostly people stayed home, they took sick leaves. But," and she came closer to me and lowered her voice to a whisper, "one woman died. One of the cleaning staff."

"From the heat?"

"Yes, this summer."

This was grave news, and I wanted to know more details about the incident, but the attendant went on to talk about what was on her mind. "Art!" she scoffed. "This is not art," she said referring to the Picassos hanging all about the large hall, "this is a bunch of smears."

"You're not a fan?"

"We send abroad good paintings, real art, and they send us this!"

Picasso, it seems, is still challenging and very controversial with many of the locals. Later, Polina and I found a guest book and read some of the notes that previous visitors had left there. By and large, they were very positive, expressions of gratitude and excitement at the opportunity to see so much of Picasso at once. But here and there, people wrote: "This is degenerate art! Picasso should've been examined by the psychiatrists. He's mental" or "Your museum is criminal for bringing this rubbish into the country, the only country where there still remains a tradition of good, realist art." And of course a bunch of curses, variations on "Picasso sucks."

Polina and I enjoyed the exhibit immensely, even though the flow of traffic was not very well marked, and we had to walk six times through one hall and climb several sets of stairs to find all the parts of the exhibit. It was very interesting to see how wildly experimental Picasso's art was from the early 1900 until the mid 1930s, and how in the later years he moved towards minimalism and abstraction. Polina made a fascinating discovery: she pointed to a painting of a vase and a plate with two apples perched on top of the vase, and said: "Later, he would've called this 'Portrait of a woman'." Indeed, every later abstract painting of a woman featured two round balls of various colors, and usually a vase-shaped curve somewhere on the canvas. So do his sculptures. I, a Salinger fan, was on the lookout for the paintings from Picasso's Blue period, but saw only one in one of the far galleries: a painting of an old woman (Celeste?) with one blind eye. I spend a good amount of time in front of it. I wondered if the museum attendant from earlier had seen this painting -- if she thought this, too, was a bunch of smears. That conversation bothered me deeply -- the woman's fierce anger at Picasso in combination with her story about another woman dying from the heat at the museum bother me still. And somehow these experiences are connected with the Dissenters' March I saw later in the day, but I am not sure how yet. To figure this out, I must transform these experiences into fiction.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Meet the Internet

On Friday, I visited with my aunt. For her birthday in May, my parents gave her her first computer, and she's learning how to use the Internet. She wants to be able to use skype, and she was also hoping to shop for books online. I want to help.

I used the Internet for the first time in 1996, at RIT. When I was leaving Russia for the first time, my dad told me that I could send letters to him at the office using fax and this new technology called "electronic mail." He tried to explain to me how it worked, but I stuck index fingers in my ears and said Stop-Stop-Stop, I can't listen to this right now, I don't want to know, too much new information, I don't get it, maybe I'll use fax, but I don't want to know anything about anything else. By this time, I had been using computers for five or six years. I'd played Formula One Grand Prix game and strip poker on our home computer, I knew how to program a growing snake game and asteroids in Basic and Pascal. I had earned a certificate at school qualifying me as a trained "computer operator." Nevertheless, computer was a black box, infinitely breakable, and thus hardly approachable. Every new thing I had to learn about it seemed like too much. Windows was a program I accessed from Norton Commander -- and I didn't really see the point of it. Did our home computer even have a mouse?

The days before my first trip to the US, I was overwhelmed by all the things I had to remember at the time: what to say to the customs officers if they had questions about my student visa, the names of the people who were going to meet me in New York and give me my tickets for the airplane to Rochester, the name and address of my host family in Rochester, the days when I had to show up at RIT for orientation, whom and in what order to contact in case of emergency, etc, etc. Everything seemed complicated and scary. But three days later, I was already emailing my dad from my host family's home computer: "Wow, this electronic mail, how amazing!" And another week later, I had an RIT vax account, and two dozen computers at the library with Netscape Navigator and webcrawler and lycos, and later yahoo, altavista, then metacrawler, google, and the entire history of the web.

Fourteen years later, the Internet seems to have gotten more complex and easier to use at the same time. For one thing, it's way faster. There are online bookstores in Russia and in Russian. But what we used to call "mystery meat" dominates the computer screen. Icons big and small come with either unfamiliar words or no words at all. Letter "S" for skype -- but what does "skype" mean? My aunt, who doesn't know English (she'd studied German), reads it as "scooreh." The only way to remember that this is the program she needs to use to call me is to write it down in a notebook. Letter "E" for Internet Explorer -- at least it says Internet, and this word is familiar enough to get by. Inside skype, it's easy to see where one types a text message (the cursor is blinking there), but how do you send a text? The blue button next to the box with the cursor has no words on it, but only a dialogue bubble with three horizontal lines. How can anyone know that this is a button, anyway?

Some things become clear almost right away: a word underlined in blue is a link, and moves you to another page. But how can you find what you're looking for on a page? There's text and pictures, some of them are flashing, and all of them seem to be located on a page randomly, in no particular order. I explain the menus, the navigation bars, the content field, what information is located where. A page entitled "Theatre Calendar" ends with "September" -- so where is the calendar for September? To get to it, you need to scroll down, I explain, but I don't remember the Russian word for "scroll," and so I say "press on this gray column over there, no not on the arrow part, on the light gray part above the arrow -- it's faster." Dragging and dropping is difficult, because it all goes by in a flash, and you have no idea where you're going to end up.

We go to Ozon.ru -- one of the biggest Russian online bookstores -- and immediately become overwhelmed by advertising that grows to take up the third of the screen. We use the left-hand column to navigate the catalog: books -> literature -> foreign literature -> English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> Contemporary English, Australian and New Zealand Literature -> and, finally, get a listing: Marina Levitskaya "A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian," Tom Stoppard "The Coast of Utopia," Peter Ackroyd "The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein," Joe Dunthorne "Submarine," etc. With the exception of A Short History of Tractors, these are all the books that my aunt has seen in the bookstores around the city. A Short History of Tractors? Really? So this is what the Internet has to offer! No wonder people have been saying all these years that there's nothing on the Internet but trash. And it's so much easier to go to the bookstore!

My aunt is almost ready to cry Stop-Stop-Stop, this is too much, I don't need to know any of this, when I get an idea to show her Wikipedia. Wikipedia is one of the "cleanest" sites I can remember: there are almost no icons or pictures, it's mostly all text. We choose a language, Russian, and search for Handel. My aunt has recently been to a Handel concert, and he's on her mind. There are many Handels on Wikipedia, the program reports, but we're searching for George Frideric, the composer. We press on the blue underlined text and go to the right page. "Now I see why people like the computer so much," my aunt says, "It's talking to me!" This is good: Handel's biography is there, his portrait, a list of all his works. My aunt is particularly interested in Handel's oratorio "Messiah," and we go to the right page -- and voila (if we remember how to get to the bottom of the page), there are music clips there, and we're listening to the arias! The lesson is a success.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Gulf of Finland

St. Petersburg is located at the easternmost end of the long and narrow Gulf of Finland, a shallow appendage of the Baltic sea. On the north, the gulf is bordered by Finland, and on the south by Estonia; the entrance to the gulf is guarded by their capitals -- Helsinki and Tallin. Approximately 400 kilometers or 250 miles separate Helsinki and St. Petersburg, the distance of 40 minutes in flight time. Fifteen minutes to climb to altitude, fiften minutes to land, which leaves about ten minutes in the air. Just enough time for the flight attendands to serve packages of apple juice and pick up the empty cartons.

This was the last leg of my journey yesterday, and I did it twice - after we climbed to altitude and had our juice, the pilot announced that there was a glitch in the navigation computer, a problem that would not affect our flight, but without solving which the plane could not take off again, and this problem could not be fixed in St. Petersburg, but only in Helsinki, and so to Helsinki we were returning. The flight plan monitors hanging above the chairs all throughout the cabin showed our plane making a u-turn right in the middle of the blue triangle formed by Helsinki, Tallin and St. Petersburg.

Finnair planes are supermodern: they are equipped with cameras at the front and the bottom of the craft, allowing the passengers the view of the runway as the plane runs to take off, and then quickly switches to show the trees and the houses under the plane's belly. This was particularly cool a feature on the previous leg of my journey, as we were taking off from JFK airport in New York. The clear skies allowed us to see the cityskape of Queens, and then far into the fields of Connecticut -- before the displays were switched to the flight entertainment program (a wide selection of TV shows and movies, Avatar being the highlight). Watching the runway disappear under the nose of our plane during take off was exhilirating, a feeling not unlike I experience when I fly in my dreams, especially when the camera suddenly switches from the view of the sky and the clouds straight ahead to show the land receding below.

I think this is a great stress relief for those of us who might feel tense or scared during take-off -- take-off becomes a show, the experience looped through the camera eye loses a degree of immediate sensory details (we pay less attention to noises and vibration, and more to the visual experience of it), and acts upon us in much the same way as a videogame or, a better analogy, a 3D ride in an amusement park. The only problem, in Helsinki the cloud cover hangs so low that the second and third times I got to enjoy the view, it only lasted moments before being obscured by white mush.

My parents were shopping the entire time -- all while I took off in Helsinki, turned around over the Finland Gulf, landed back in Helsinki, waited for the computer to be fixed, was moved to another plane, and took off again. My parents went to Lenta, one of the giant local megasupermarkets, and shopped for everything from pears and watermelon and chocolate waffle cakes to dish soap and toilet paper and the new dish drying rack for the country house. And after they picked me up from the airport two hours after my scheduled time of arrival, we went home and had a giant feast. You can only go so far on two small cartons of apple juice for breakfast, and I was starving. We spent the afternoon chatting and reading and watching Volker Schlöndorff's 1984 rendering of Swann's Way, Un Amour de Swann, with Jeremy Irons and Alain Delon -- and not napping. Okay, maybe napping just a little bit.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Travel mode

Once again, I'm staying up all night to pack. This is not just because I didn't make time to pack during the day, but also because it gives me a slight advantage on battling jet lag the first few days in St. Petersburg. I did put the most important things into my purse earlier today -- my passport and itinerary -- earlier, before the delirium set in. Just now I remembered to pull out my small cache of Russian currency (what is the exchange rate these days?). To forget it would not have been a big deal since there are ATMs at the airport and everywhere in the city, but definitely an annoyance. Do I have Euros? My second layover is in Helsinki, a few Euro coins for a cup of coffee would be nice.

I experience lack of sleep as a state of altered consciousness not unlike being drunk on a bottle or two of wine, even to the point of nausea. I don't practice staying up till dawn often anymore, but I do enjoy it whenever I can justify the loss of time the next day. I am so much more aware of my surroundings at night -- dogs barking across the street, cars speeding by on the highway a quarter mile away from the house, the noise of my computer fan. I can almost hear the cogs in my brain rotating slowly: did I pack underwear? did I pack running shoes in case I decide to exercise? did I pack an umbrella? No, I didn't pack an umbrella. Should I? The rain is inevitable (what a strange notion, I haven't seen rain since early June!), but my mom might have a spare I could use, and I can save myself half a pound of luggage.

Packing is always a feat of imagination. They've had a crazy hot summer in St. Petersburg this year, weeks worth of record breaking temperatures. But now google tells me the temperature is in the low sixties, with rain expected every day of the week ahead. Will I need sandals? Jeans jacket or a warmer (and nicer) corduroy? Sweaters? Bathing suit? I would love to get a chance to swim in a country lake this trip, but wishful packing is not likely to guarantee the best results. What about theatre clothes? Should I bring jewelry that I never wear? Oh, alright, I'll bring a dress and a baggieful of earrings. I've brought them on every other trip before, no reason to leave them behind now.

MP3 player! Check.

Can I do with only one novel on this 20-hour, 2-layover trip? I shouldn't pack more books. I have lots of things to read on my computer, and Dave says my plane from New York to Helsinki will come with a power plug.

I've been stuffing my suitcase with food all day -- I'm bringing edible souvenirs this time. Maple syrup. California wine. Fancy chocolates. On the way back, these will hopefully be replaced with books. And maybe a box or two of chocolate muesli. How come chocolate muesli remains an exclusively European know-how? Chocolate granola has become available in the States in the recent years, but chocolate muesli is still nowhere to be found.

Yay blogging -- I have to take with me the contents of my gift drawer, a few random things I've set aside for friends and family during the last few months. A kid toy. A bandanna. More chocolate. What's the point of collecting this stuff, if at the end of the day I forget it at home? Not quite, not this time. This time it's all coming with me. Anything else? Anything else? Maybe. But I'm rambling.

All this chocolate is making me hungry. I have an hour to go before my taxi arrives. Time for breakfast. I'll make it simple: chocolate granola and yogurt.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Mice Might Help

Once, a woman had a son sick with epilepsy. He experienced seven to eight seizures a day. She cured him by brewing several mouse pups (or two to three grown mice) in a half-liter of vodka for one week. She gave her son a tablespoon of this mixture before every meal. Now he no longer has seizures.

Baptize your daughter, and with God in your heart, begin the treatment. Cross the medicine before taking it and bless it with a prayer.

(folk medicine, a recipe from a newspaper cutout posted on a Russian blog, and forwarded to me by my brother).

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I am at a writers conference in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, CA. It's a Wednesday in the middle of the conference week, and we were given the afternoon off. Most people are outside, exploring the surrounding area -- the mountains and the valley. Some are resting in their rooms, some are partying with their housemates and workshop mates, others are reading. I should be doing one of those things, but instead I'm sitting in the empty conference hall, trying to work on non-conference related writing and editing projects. I'm really not doing much; I'm brain-dead. The building has been locked up from the outside, and the sun is setting. The house where I'm staying is two miles away, and I don't have a car. I should leave now before the stars and the bears come out. Why can't I leave?

There's a comfort that comes from being always in front of something -- in front of a computer screen, in front of a book, in front of a sheet of paper. The tasks are stacked up and organized (I've developed a brand new prioritization system last month, at a previous writers conference, and I'm still excited about it) -- it's easy to know what to do next. Outside are pine trees and fir trees and aspen trees -- I can see them in the window from where I'm sitting, but outside there are more of them. And outside I can smell them. Outside, the wind brings whiffs of the musty smell from the creek that runs through the valley, the dry cool air from the mountain peaks, the sweet fragrance of wildflowers. None of this has anything to do with St. Petersburg, even pine trees and daisies are all wrong. I'm tired; this week has been exhilarating, the never-ending conversation about writing and literature is not only a very emotional experience, but challenging in the way it constantly requires me to be able to articulate my emotions. I have been going on very little sleep this week, and the preceding months have been equally rough. All I can see ahead is more work; however creative it is, I experience writing is work.

There is, I suppose, an objective reason for me to be thinking about St. Petersburg -- I'm going there again in a couple of weeks. Thinking of it is partially a comfort; in my mind, I see my aunt's dining room table with stacks of books and a glass bowl full of chocolate bonbons in colorful wrapping, endless cups of tea, and I hear the warm cadences of my aunt's voice. I picture the kitchen of my parents' apartment, and the warm spot between the table and the fridge, by the window and the radiator below the windowsill. I picture myself there, with my parents and my brother all gathered together, or myself alone, reading a book, or looking out of the window at the graffiti-covered walls and the yard of the secondary school, abandoned for the summer. I wish I could stop my thoughts there, in the territory where my memories are so pleasant and comforting. But even this indulgence -- or especially this indulgence, allowing myself to write about St. Petersburg, to blog it -- feels ugly and obsessive. For a long time now, thoughts of St. Petersburg have not been a pleasure without also being a self-flagellation. And I have not done anything wrong.