Friday, January 28, 2005

I really, really enjoy following David McDuff down the memory lane - from the Russian Studies department at a British university and on to the Soviet Union, a decade or so before I was born: Going Back 1, Going Back 2 and Going Back 3.

This Sunday, we are leaving St. Petersburg after spending two years here (even though Mishah told me yesterday, with some jealousy, that I had spent at least half a year out of these two in Kyiv). I'm paralyzed with fear - the fear of another move, yet another transition. So, here's a passage from David's account of his summer 1966 trip to the Soviet Union, with a stopover in Leningrad - the passage that has helped me to relax a little, reminding me that I'll always be able to re-visit St. Pete through other people's memories, and through the nicer ones of my own, too:

That summer we didn’t stay in hotels, but slept in a tent we’d taken with us, striking camp at official State campsites whose locations were entered on our visas, together with the obligatory time of arrival at each site. We started with a week in Leningrad, then drove to Novgorod and Kalinin, followed by a week in Moscow, then to Kharkov and Kiev, and finally out of the USSR via Vinnitsa and Chernovitsy, into Romania – four weeks in the Soviet Union in all. In general, at first we were surprised at how “normal” everything seemed – the weather was warm and sunny, the streets and thoroughfares of Leningrad looked much like those of any European city, and it was only when we got out of the car and gazed at the actual texture of the place – the strangely rough, unmodernized surfaces of the roads and buildings, the dust that blew everywhere, the absence of commercial advertising, the old-fashioned look of people’s clothes – that we realized we were in another world from the one we were used to. Even so, during those first days I think we were so pleased to have reached our destination that we didn’t really notice much of this – my memories are mainly of visits to the Hermitage and other museums, to the Petergof Palace and park, of walks along the Neva embankment, and so on. For us, it was almost like being back in Vienna or Copenhagen – or even Edinburgh. We stayed at the campsite at Repino, about 40 km from the centre of Leningrad, on the Gulf of Finland – the pre-Soviet name of the place was Kuokkala, and the whole environment had a thoroughly Finnish atmosphere, with birch and fir trees. We travelled to Leningrad by electric train, and returned in the evenings to the campsite, with its two sections – an international one, for Western tourists, and a “Soviet” one, mainly for Russians and a few tourists from the Baltic states. We soon got used to this division, and the way in which towards evening it usually broke down, when the holidaymakers from the “Russian” side of the site – who slept not in tents of their own, but in large, communal marquees provided by the camp, would come and visit the “Western” side, bringing vodka and fruit which they exchanged for Western cigarettes and items of clothing, especially blue jeans. We also got acquainted with some of the other Western tourists – couples from Canada and Australia in large “dormobiles” and trucks, an intrepid American solo traveller in a VW Beetle, groups of French and Germans in cars, hardly any British at all.

I'm looking forward to David's next installments.

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