Light doesn't die this high up. [[But then, light doesn't die where I'm going, either, not at this time of the year.->white nights]]
But here and now, light only fades into deep orange to outline the horizon, rolls west as a plane flies northeast away from it, towards the Atlantic Ocean.
I imagine the light outside the plane cold and impenetrable. Crisscross webs of lights, [[gray gaps of lakes, seen from far above->google maps]]. No clouds except the ones gathering near the horizon.
Hours pass. The lights below fade out, and then there is only forest and impending black [[ocean->history]].
Still the bloodred horizon, though. Still the light.
[[The time of arrival in Saint Petersburg, Russia, is 6:30 AM.->arrival]][[Saint Petersburg->history]] is located on the very border of the Arctic Circle, and on late nights in June, it doesn't get dark. White light shines through thin curtains far into one's attempts to fall asleep.
In winter, the only daylight that breaks is a thin gray sort. And I'm awake at three in the morning, having climbed into the [[windowsill->windowsill]] to watch the still-living streets below me, and wondering if the near-total absense of darkness or light is easier to live through.
[[Not until the light doesn't act the way it's supposed to do you realize the degree to which light impacts time.->time]][[On late nights in the Saint Petersburg apartment->white nights]], I pull up Google Satelite and zoom out. The streets of St. Petersburg get smaller, the land I stand on divides into islands and canals, and then I'm looking at landsmasses instead.The Neva is traced back to Ladoga Lake, which it flows from at massive speeds; the lake itself is huge, just as the Neva weaves across and empties into the Gulf of Finland, then the Baltic Sea, and and at last the Atlantic Ocean.
Back home, can I drop the Street View figure on the street outside my grandmother's apartment on Vasielevsky Island and move the mouse to look up at it. Preserved, even when everything else is gone; this is the nature of a city that is, in some way, important. But if I trace the canals weaving out from Lake Ladoga, follow the unpaved country roads to the countryside of the Leningrad Oblast, there's a point in which you see the Google Street View cars stop and turn back. [[The line between mappable and unmappable territory.->canal]]It was wanting a fleet that built St. Petersburg.
[[Peter the Great->magnet]] was a King with European ambitions; he'd worked in shipyards, watched the grand fleets of the eighteenth century with light in his eyes, and then come back and ordered the building of a city [[on the banks of the Neva River.->google maps]]
Divine right bends the universe. Monarchic will bends the universe. [[Building a city on swampy, unstable ground->subway]] is hard work. But the nature of a king's civic desires is that any task can be done if you throw enough people at it.
My knowledge of my own city's history is sparse, and mainly amounts to dunking on czars. I make a note, each time I learn or remember or re-remember a historical fact, to text my friend who's studying Russian history about it; most of the time, though, the impulse gets lost in the [[time difference->time]].Stepping onto the streets of Saint Petersburg is unsettling. I feel as if at any moment somebody might point at me and cry "Impostor!", as if there is some kind of intrinsic American-ness to me, determinable at a glance.
Or maybe it's not that. Maybe it's not even being scared of committing [[a horrific social faux pas->brother]], though that's part of it. Maybe I'm scared of forgetting, or more specifically scared of not remembering. That the five years I spent living here have no impact on my sense of self at all; that walking the streets of this city will be like speaking to a stranger. Because every memory of this city that slips away from me is one less claim I have to Russian identity.
[[The question of memory feels like a test.->remember]]When the light gets to me, or when my parents are out reuniting with friends they haven’t seen for ten years and I can’t sleep, I climb up into the windowsill of their room. This sill is still wide enough, after all these years, to accommodate my whole body if I sit with my knees slightly bent and my body pressed parallel against the glass.
I sat in the same position fourteen years ago, staring at the cars below me drive at reckless speeds, watch well-dressed women walk towards the [[river->neva]]. Listen to the web of noise they make to fight back against the simple, quiet, impersonal night. Feel the outside air coming in, not as cool as I wish it was. Sometimes this is where I sit when I’m calling a [[friend from home->time]].
From this vantage point, looking out across Vasielevsky Island and across the river towards the mainland, I can see a faint gleam of light shine off from the golden dome of Saint Isaac's cathedral.The Admiralteyskaya station in Russia's St. Petersburg Metro system is 86 meters belowground; any higher, and the soil would not stand solid. Any higher, and the station would be vulnerable to a flooding [[river->neva]]
In any city, I like subways. I like to watch the people around them; I like to look at their architecture. I like crowded public spaces, the normal ones, the ones where I know I'd be if I lived in this city. There is no way to study a resident of Saint Petersburg if I'm watching someone photograph the [[Nevsky Prospect->nevsky1]], but if I'm watching a grimfaced woman speak on her phone, if I'm reading a man's foul-mouthed English-language novelty T-Shirt, I feel as if I'm gaining an insight.
And the stations are beautiful, from the grandiose halls of the 1940s stations to the newer, sleeker [[Sportivnaya->mosaic]].
There is something else, too. When I first hear the automated voice say, "Careful, the doors are closing. The next station is...", [[I realize I have carried it around in my head for all the time that I've not set foot in St. Petersburg.->identity]]But even in the confines of the city, I could not look up the interior of my grandmother's apartment on Google Maps. [[Each time we take down, pack up, throw away an item,->throwing]], we are changing the landscape of that space. And each time there's something we fail to keep, every time I fail to photograph the item we fail to keep, I am in effect the same Google Maps car, which has gone far enough down a stretch of empty road that few people will ever think about, let alone look up.
This is fine. This is necessary. There must be things that we forget, to make [[the things we remember->remember]] more important. There must be things we lose. There must be things we lose.
[[I sit in the windowsill, trying to make sure I keep the view from it. From this particular vantage point, after all, I will never see it again.->windowsill]]There's a photograph I have back home. It is possible that seeing a photograph and encoding it into a personal landscape is not the same as [[remembering->remember]], [[but there are some photographs that have existed long enough for this to not matter.->identity]]
I’m wearing a funny winter jumpsuit, sitting on my dad’s shoulders. He’s standing on the University Embankment and the sky behind him lingers on the edge of what might be dusk, or a storm, or just a St. Petersburg winter's characteristic absence of [[light->white nights]]. He’s wearing a leather jacket and the same blue sweater that, sixteen years later, I would pilfer from my grandmother’s dresser. Pale blue ice-laden water is stirred by the wind behind him.
I stand now, on the embankment, and [[I take pictures of my own. A ten PM sunset, every bridge, every skyline, every sky.->photography]] I watch the crowds, watch well-dressed girls my age take pictures, [[wonder if I blend in with them.->brother]]Since living here, I don't remember much about St. Petersburg. But I remember something. I remember three things, which feels like enough.
[[The windowsill.->windowsill]]There's seven hours of time between St. Petersburg time and Eastern Standard. It means I watch a livestream of my best friend's high school graduation at two in the morning, which is not so late, at the end of the day, because the light has wrecked my sleep schedule anyway.
It means I'll send a text at the end of the night, only to read a response while waking up at noon the next morning.Like: [["Omg check it out this was just hanging out in the vasilevsky island metro station."->mosaic]]
Or, [["my brother just addressed a waiter with the informal pronoun and i want to die."->brother]]
Or, [["I am texting you from the Nevsky Prospect, and it sucks!"->nevsky1]]
And then, [["I changed my mind about the nevsky, it's much nicer at night."->nevsky2]]There's a magnet hanging off my fridge in which a cartoon Peter the Great stands knee-deep in a flood, [[the newly-built city->history]] behind him. "How long has it been raining in Petersburg?" he asks a fish. The fish replies, "Since 1703!", says the fish, which doesn't make any sense at all, because Peter the Great was <i>there</i>, building the damn thing.
St. Petersburg adopts its shitty weather, dour moods, the darkness of its winters and the miserable reputation these get, and makes it all into the kinds of souvenir-shop injokes I scoff and move on from in America, but the kinds I value here, actually laugh at. (A frequent giftshop slogan: a dour man stands in the rain, captioned, [["From St. Petersburg with apathy and indifference."->time]]
I want, so badly, to be laughing with these jokes; I want so badly to say, yes, I'm a Saint Petersburg resident somewhere.
[[(It is mortifying, even to myself, to want to prove something so badly.)->brother]]
Still, I like looking at the silly Peter the Great magnet, just as I like wearing [[the old college sweater of my father's that I salvaged from a dresser,->throwing]], just as I like holding [[an unused metro token in my hand->subway]].
[[To hold is a kind of keeping.->whatskept]]The Nevsky would be beautiful, maybe, if it were not filled with people. The Nevsky would be beautiful, if I did not have to cross it to get somewhere else.
I am not immune to tourism, [[much as I would sometimes like to be->subway]]. The glittering insides of St. Isaac's cathedral give me a new affection for [[the faraway glint of its dome->windowsill]]; I walk through the Hermitage Museum for hours and feel desperately unhappy with the knowledge that I will not ever be able to traverse every room, that it would take me all my life to try.
But I don't like this busy street. It's not the crowds; a crowded [[subway car->subway]], the [[University Embankment->neva]], all these things matter to me and will most likely matter forever.
I don't know what it is. Maybe it's an internal rebellion against the importance; maybe it's the wrong confluence of factors. A resistance to feeling emotions about things I feel like I'm supposed to feel emotions about, in the same way I'm aware that New Yorkers hate Times Square.
[[At any rate, I find out later that I'm not entirely immune to the Nevsky, anyway.->nevsky2]][[A voice in your head->subway]], [[pictures you've made into memories->neva]], [[a magnet on your fridge->magnet]].
People say it about places. "St. Petersburg is a part of me." But what does that mean?
[[What's kept?->whatskept]]What's kept? When we're leaving, when it's lost, [[when memory fades->remember]] and [[photographs are forgotten->photography]] and [[souvenirs vanish into the backs of desk drawers->magnet]], what's kept?
Not that the web of interconnected memories we carry inside us does not matter, not that we don't take photographs for a reason, not that it does not matter to hold a physical remnant of a place that means something to you – that might <i>be</i> you, even, whatever that means.
Is there something else left, though? [[Something else entirely?->somethingelse2]]My friend Lexi is studying Russian, and minoring in Classical Studies. And so when I see a mosaic depicting the Greek gods in the brand new Sportivnaya metro station, I text her a picture immediately.
The Sportivnaya is entered on the mainland and [[reaches far, far down into the earth->subway]], on the steepest escalator I've ever seen, until it lets you cross under the Neva and into the Vasieliostrovskaya station. The notion of the water pressing down above me reminds me, absurdly, of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel back home.
All I need to do is to study a map, all I need is a metro token (the physicality of it is foreign in my hand; [[I make sure I keep one when we go home->magnet]]; and I could go anywhere. [[Back home, to sit on the windowsill and watch the sky stay bright->windowsill]]; Russian has two second-person pronouns. <i>Vy</i> is used to address any set of multiple people, any stranger or acquaintance, any authority figure, any adult if you're a child; <i>ty</i> is for talking to close family members, for children, for equals, for friends.
St. Petersburg's rules for it are somewhat more stringent than they are elsewhere in Russian. Another word for this is "famously repressed", or "stuffy", or "just generally insufferable".
Regardless, when my brother says, "Could you pour me more water?" to a waiter and uses the informal second-person, I freeze and stare across him in horror, even as the waiter – immersed in a culture in which this is bizarre and unthinkable – doesn't even notice, assuming he is speaking to someone else.
[[I let it sound funny when I text a friend under the table.->time]] In the moment, I was angry. As if to think: I am trying so hard. I have been trying so hard. How can you not care? How can you have this little to prove?
If I last lived in Russia at five - if I have room to worry about [[remembering->arrival]], he last lived there at one, and does not have any room to worry at all. He is simply allowed to live with the fact that he is <i>from</i> Russia, but not <i>of</i> it. [[Whatever being of it means.->identity]]
I cannot be him. [[There's things I can't bear to lose, and whatever complex I have about this is inextricably tied in with them.->whatslost]]
Is it a kind of freedom, though, to not have to wonder where you stand?I concede to the world at large, or the friend on the other end of the text, or whoever might be listening, that the Nevsky is more beautiful at night.
It is made so by air rushing by you from the open window of a too-fast taxi. When I realize this, it's one of my last nights in town, and my eyes are wet with the impact of wind, or by the knowledge that [[this will end->whatslost]]. That the traffic is thinning out, that the Palace Bridge is being crossed, the lights' reflections in the Neva being witnesssed, that the bridge will be raised a few hours from now to let through the freight ships and come back together in the morning, and that I'll never see the bridges raise across a bright St. Petersburg, which is fine, because there's many things I won't see, but each thing I don't see, or don't [[remember]], or don't [[photograph->photography]], [[and lose, and lose, and lose->whatslost]].Some old clothes are kept (I grab an old college sweatshirt of my dad's.) Some photos. (We pack away boxes and boxes of my grandfather's slide collection, even the landscape.) Some books. (Pushkin criticism. Dovlatov anecdotes. Tove Jansson's <i>Moomins</i>.)
A kind of [[souvenir->magnet]].
But I watch my mom go through letters from friends she hasn’t seen in years, printed-out emails from my dad, diaries she doesn’t remember writing in. Some she snaps a picture of, a rare few she puts on the take with us pile, but most she rereads and then drops into one of the many trashbags that have spent the last two weeks overtaking the apartment. “If I haven’t read them in fifteen years, I didn’t need them that badly,” she says. This is a kind of letting go I have never been capable of.
And even so, I let my future's memories of the present fly by undocumented, leave them to piece it together from [[texts to friends->time]] and [[pictures->photography]] and fickle, unreliable memory.
[[Always, something is lost.->whatslost]]What's lost? [[When the drive over the Palace Bridge ends, what's lost?->nevsky2]] [[When I lose whatever battle I'm fighting against cultural norms I'm pretending to be a part of, what's lost?->brother]] [[When the trashbags in the apartment are carried away one-by-one, when family heirlooms are sold or discarded or packed away, what is it that we're losing?->throwing]] [[When the sun starts settting earlier and earlier, until it barely manages to rise, what remains?->white nights]]
Is it a kind of identity? Is it a kind of memory?
[[Is it something else altogether?->somethingelse]]A photograph is a kind of [[souvenir->magnet]], except when it isn't, except it is.
Most of my pictures from the trip — poor-quality phone camera stock — don’t spark any artistic interest. But I still smile helplessly when I see them - picture after picture of chandeliers and of ceilings, of the river, of emptying streets, [[of the view from my grandmother's apartment window->windowsill]], and - over and over again - the sky.
My pictures carry in them, somehow, the person I was in St. Petersburg. An insider-outsider, a tourist who wasn’t really a tourist. A documenter of ordinary things turned extraordinary; someone who has to believe in documentation, [[because they don't know what else there is.->whatslost]]
A photograph is a kind of souvenir. [[A photograph is a kind of keeping.->whatskept]]Is it the hope we lose, maybe, that anything will ever be the same again?
Sitting on the windowsill, I watch a faint hint of light shine off from St. Isaac's cathedral, and I know there's hundreds of houses in this city where you can see this dome or or some other view - a better view – the full dome, instead of this blocked glimpse, or a view down to the river, or a fullscale skyline.
There's hundreds of other views. Hundreds of other windowsills. But none of them are this one.
[[END.]]Is it the hope we keep, maybe, to come back, to re-experience or to recreate?
A version of me that comes back, adult and confident, and walks to the river by themselves, a version that speaks Russian confidently within the million spaces of the city that I have not seen yet.
This apartment would have been forever sold, but there's a hope we keep that there's one like it where I'd get to stay, with a cramped kitchen and bookshelves upon laden bookshelves, a million things to go through that you don't have to throw away.
At one in the morning, I’d walk out toward the river and watch the Palace Bridge open for freight ships to pass by in the night. The Hermitage would light up, the river would whisper beneath our feet. The sky would be blue-white.
When I got back, the brightness of the light and the weight of centuries would leave me unable to sleep, and so I'd climb onto a windowsill, not this one but one much like it.
Outside, a final glimmer of light would shine off from the far-off dome of St. Isaac’s cathedral.