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In honor of the upcoming Mother’s Day, this is the first in a series of four stories about the four generations of women in my family. 

Mosaic

The old mosaic factory is located at 2A, 3rd Lane, Vassilievsky Island in St.Petersburg, Russia. It is a formidable, mustard-colored structure which, even in its run-down and decrepit state, is still imposing. In its heyday, it generated enough glass to line the entire St.Isaac Cathedral, and later provided the mosaic to decorate several key metro stations in St.Petersburg. As it stands now, the graffitied walls facing inside the Academichesky Garden harken to better days, in the early 20th century, when the factory was at its peak operation.

Twenty five years ago, already languishing from disuse, the factory observed with bemusement the children playing in the sand box nearby, and watched as two little girls would pick their way through the piles of sand and debris that now occupied its back yard, in search of shiny, sleek pieces of colorful glass. Those girls, Liza and I, walked in the garden with our mama, and relished the chance to poke around behind the factory. The excitement of that pursuit is as pungent within me now as fresh paint on a bench or a railing. Within the dusty, trodden earth and grit, we would rummage with our sticks or fingers, pricking them sometimes on that distinguishable, rough edge where bit of stone met bit of glass; colored pieces of it – striped, aquamarine blue, cosmic black, even lipstick red or lava orange.

The mosaic left-overs were the treasure of all treasures, the highlight of our day. Yes, there was the thrill of the hunt, but more than that was the thrill of possibility. Locked inside those little squares were ornate sand castles, flying carpets for miniature plastic toys, bargaining chips to obtain other desirables from the obstinate sister, and pretties to add to our own mosaic collection (all secure in our coat pocket).

Looking back, the mosaic factory on 3rd Lane planted a seed in Liza: a fascination with colored glass which blossomed, decades later, into a near-obsession with stained glass windows. Liza learned to make them, treat them, design and mold them. In a way, they molded her too.

One day, after doing our rounds over the familiar mounds, mama and Liza and I headed towards the other end of the garden, flanked by a building belonging to the Russian Academy of Fine Arts. There was an outside stairwell heading down into the basement, and above it a low, slanted sheet-metal roof that, when climbed, provided access to the high windows of the first floor. Naturally, I clambered up on that roof and peeked inside. Inside, expanding below the ground level and up into the high, vaulted ceilings was a sculpting studio.

Transfixed by the majesty of large-scale wooden carcasses, drying clay torsos and busts on pedestals, I squished my nose against the glass and stared. Shortly I caught the eye of a young sculptor massaging a great hulk of sculpting potential. He smiled and waved at me. Timidly, I waved back. He winked and beckoned me to come visit. I turned to mama and told her that there’s a man inside who’s inviting us to go in. Since she couldn’t even see into the studio, she was curious to know what was in there, so, with two girls in tow, she walked around the back of the building and we showed ourselves in.

The sculptor had black, thick curly hair and muscular hands that he wiped on his apron before introducing himself. We were all wide eyes and eager ears, and he was a gracious host who told the three of us about what they do there, and how sculpting works. For larger pieces you first have to make a skeleton that you will then stick the clay on. For smaller pieces, you can mount them on a heavy board and shape them with your fingers, but sometimes you have to carve out the interior, if it’s a head, for example, because then the firing will be quicker and smoother. If you’re working with a harder medium like bronze, you have to create a mold first. To do this you make the object out of wax, then encase it in clay which should harden, then you melt the wax out of the clay and pour in the bronze, and finally, once the bronze cools off, you break the mold and you have the finished piece. This he told us, and much more in the half an hour or so that we spent, mesmerized, in the studio.

Eventually it was time to go, and we promised to come back and visit him, though we never did. Shortly after, we moved to a different part of town, and then to America, and I have not often visited that alleyway of my memory. But I do think of it now, and realize that the mosaic factory and the unexpected, chance encounter with the sculptor planted in me the relentless drive to look for the sacred among the profane. And over the years, that search has always yielded results; the profane has been  generous with me.

 

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Palace Square 2

Palace Square, St.Petersburg

When I visited Moscow and St. Petersburg last month, I saw more people in a span of a week than I did in a span of a year here in the States. While most folks who live in large cities groan at the thought of navigating through throngs of human bodies on the way to and from work and accept as a necessary evil the crowded living conditions in Russia’s two largest cities, I was relishing the experience of being there among them.

In Moscow I stayed with family friends who lived in an apartment on the 18th floor of a giant 25-story cement block, hundreds of which proliferate on the outskirts of the capital. My friend bemoaned his living situation, comparing the residents of the building to ants living in an anthill: small, cramped, impersonal, insignificant. But I was warmed by the thought of being surrounded by other people, hearing them living out their lives all around us, above us – clanking of the pipes (someone fixing his faucet), next to us – doors opening and shutting (a mother bringing in groceries and her baby). In the morning if the shower water suddenly ran cold, I knew I was battling over it with the gal across the hall whose bathroom was just on the other side of the wall. It was heartwarming and silly to think, “Ah, bet you’re just waking up too, getting ready to go to work…or maybe to school…” After a few more spurts of HOT!! and COLD!!, I’d turn off the shower, thinking happily, “Well, I’m on vacation and I don’t need to shower that badly anyway. You can have the hot water…”

Riding on the metro was quite an adventure as well. During post-work evening hours we’d pile into the train cars so tightly that when the car would take off with a jerk, we wouldn’t even need to steady ourselves by holding on. There was literally no place to sway, much less to fall. I thought that it was nice that people here were getting a lot of human contact – the whole thing contrasted sharply to life in America, where you can easily go a whole day without touching anyone, without seeing them or smelling them. And yet, even through my giddiness I understood that physical proximity did not warrant emotional closeness. In fact, as I’d try to read the many blank expressions of faces inches away from my own on that train, quite the opposite seemed true.

In St. Petersburg another friend took me and my grandma for a ride through town. As they chatted in the front seat, I mostly listened and soaked in the sights. Looking out, I felt a tug of curiosity and a sense of kinship luring me outside to explore the streets, to paint them, to stroll along them and discover half-abandoned playgrounds, dilapidated squares, warm, inviting cafes and lots and lots of people. There was that tug, but there was also a feeling strangeness, foreignness, hostility, almost. Or at least of an oppressive sort of indifference. People bustled down the streets, in cars and trams, crammed in those same metro cars where they stood like jellied sardines packed into one big mass, but totally isolated from each other.

It turned out that because people were forced into physical proximity, they made a deliberate effort to not connect, to ignore each other, to not meet another person’s eye, certainly not to smile. Maybe it was for their own protection, after all, engaging with hundreds of people every day is fatiguing. Maybe it was because they had grown so accustomed to the crowds, that they perceived them not as individual people in a group, but as part of the city-scape, as integral and inanimate as an obelisk, a lamppost, a bridge.

Whatever the reason, each person weaving in and out of the crowded street was moving through his own, personal space where no one else existed. If their destination was a meeting with another person (date with a girlfriend in a coffee shop, father picking up his kids from school), they still moved through that personal space and there was no chance that this route, this parallel universe, would intersect with any other. There was no chance for serendipitous encounters, unexpected conversations with strangers, random acts of kindness. As such, the city I beheld from inside the car seemed a lonely place.

Perhaps this is characteristic of all large cities. But I felt it particularly strongly in Russia.

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