October 19, 2008

Petersburg the Great

Apologies for the lack of posts. Everything seems to be moving at whirlwind-pace, leaving little time for reflection. While my academic schedule here isn’t that busy, day-to-day living is mentally intense (in the best way possible). It seems hard to believe that I’ve already been here over a month!

I’ve had a lot of trouble keeping in touch for a lot of reasons. First, I forget! I’m having a lot of fun exploring and, understandably, become so immersed in the world of Petersburg that I sort of forget about home. Sorry, M & D. Second, I am always so exhausted when I finally make it home that sleeping or doing homework always seems to take precedence over writing a blog post. To illustrate, what our program director deems “a short walk” translates into two kilometers of walking–far from a 15-minute walk. I’m also in a special circumstance because I live pretty far from the center of the city and not very close to the metro.* A walk to the Hermitage, where we have class every Monday, takes me a good hour at a fairly brisk pace.

I will say, though, that walking has really opened my eyes to the city. In the beginning, I was a little thrown off in my expectations of Saint Petersburg. Looking back, I’m not all too sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t pastel palaces and huge streets. Maybe it was the Petersburg of Gogol and Dostoevsky. Maybe it was the post-Soviet Petersburg of the nineties.

The scale of Petersburg is astounding. The buildings, while not tall compared to New York, are immense, horizontal structures which seem to eternally stretch down the long avenues. The squares (ploschads) are huge as well. The scale of everything here becomes isolating because it is so very grand. One can really see that Petersburg was designed to be a capital. And, on top of that, there is almost always traffic, since almost everyone has a car. Human existence seems to be an afterthought.

But, as I’ve discovered, the city has its beautiful sides as well—but not because of the palaces or grand boulevards, but because of its quieter side: the canals and rivers. I can only hope that this is what was in Peter the Great’s head when he was designing Petersburg. (He based the city plan on Amsterdam; although, unlike Amsterdam, the canals are almost never used.) The canal streets are still and quiet–a refreshing break from the frenzied buzzing of streets like Nevsky, where you have to blast your iPod to drown out the horns and yelling.

When I’m lucky and the weather’s good, reflections of the pink and yellow pastel palaces play in the rough cold water of the canals. It’s then that the canals come alive, in their own quiet and humble way. Walking along the canals I always pass couples, prying babushkas, rowdy groups of tweens, and solitary old men fishing. While I’ve come to appreciate the tsars’ efforts to make every corner of the city positively Baroque, I relish my quiet walks down the canals, far away from the bustle of the major palace streets.

*I later discovered that most foreign students lived much further away. I was lucky!