22 Feb 2012
Every time I go home to Memphis, I have in mind a few things I want to lug back to California with me, like my high-school-era art supplies or a pair of goggles left behind in the closet. On my last night at home, I was digging through the closet of my old bedroom looking for the gloriously bright green shoes I wore at my Besfrinn’s wedding, when what should I find but a bag full of pretty little souvenirs I bought during my first trip to Russia. As crazy as it sounds to me, that was nearly ten years ago, when, relatively speaking, I was just a baby. Wow. Holding these things in my hands took me right back to those deliriously happy days, when, starry-eyed and brushing snowflakes off my eyelashes, I wandered the storied streets of St. Petersburg, feeling its history in my bones. I bought these tiny painted churches at the Izmailovsky Market in Moscow, and I remember how I pored over them, telling the artist they were the most beautiful ones I’d ever seen. I bought at least a dozen of them, and I gave them to my parents and my professors. Apparently I kept a few of them for myself. I am so glad I stumbled upon these hidden treasures.
The large ones are the size of a small apricot, and the little ones are as tiny as an olive. They came in these gorgeous handmade boxes, which I love almost as much as the churches themselves. They remind me of the afternoons I spent in Dostoevsky’s last home in St. Petersburg, now converted into an incredible museum, listening to the church bells chime through the frozen air. Little did I know then that I’d be back in a few months’ time as an intern at that very museum, pacing the stone floors that my beloved FMD once trod. Oh, life is so tremendously full of magic.
Few things resonate more strongly in my mind with my time in Russia than the endless cups of tea I drank. It just never got old to come in from the cold, clods of snow and ice on my boots, and sit down at the table to a steaming cup and conversation with my retired oceanographer host mom. I think there is something about the ritual of it which makes itself at home in my heart (see also: coffee!), and in Russia it ranged from spontaneous to thoughtfully elegant. I adored the old metal teacups, fitted with a tiny glass cup inside, always served with a silver spoon for stirring. I bought this one in the ancient city of Pskov, where we spent our first spring days, overcome by the sight of green hills after months of silver frost and snow. I’ll never forget how we raced through the old walls of the city and the fortress, feeling an almost warm breeze in our hair. I am so happy to have this tiny talisman of that day.
I bought these little bast shoes, I think, in Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia. It was -26 degrees on that February day, and we shuffled slowly through the crackling snow and then downed warm glasses of mead inside the ancient fortress wall. The shoes are about the size of thumbnail, and I just fell in love with them. They reminded me of a Pushkin story we’d been reading in my literature class, in which a wealthy princess pretends to be a peasant in order to spend time with the young man she loves. Every morning she dons bast shoes just like these before running out into the forest to pick flowers. There is, of course, a happy ending, which we parsed in a chilly classroom, our lips thawing with the shapes of Russian vowels and consonants.
This little plaque is from the Pskovo-Pechersky Monastery, and it holds one of my most treasured memories. The monastery is still functioning, as it did throughout the Soviet period, and it is gorgeously maintained, the bright blue domes shining with gold stars. Part of the monastery consists of ancient caves, where many saints are buried in the walls. Our director told us not to get our hopes up that we’d be able to go inside, as it’s a bit rare to get a tour of them; he said in the past five years, he’d only been inside once. Somehow, as soon as he said that, I knew we’d be given the chance. A bright and cheerful young monk happened along, gave us all tiny candles, and led us into the cool and narrow passages. It was impossible to see more than an inch in front of me, so I mostly recall the feel of the smooth sand below my feet. It was Easter time in Russia, a truly sacred time, always tied in with the miracle of spring: tiny blades of grass peeping up from under the snow, skies turning bluer every day, relieved of the burden of snow-filled clouds. As we ambled through the caves, the monk bellowed, “Khristos voskrese!” (“Christ is risen!”), and we all joyfully responded, “Vo istinu voskrese!” (“He is risen indeed!”) It would be several years before I learned Old Church Slavic, but now that I understand the ancient grammatical underpinnings, those words mean even more to me.
And no collection would be complete without a map, of course. I bought this little book of postcards from a vendor on Nevsky Prospect, the main avenue of Petersburg. Those domes you see poking into the sky are at Smolny Cathedral, where I studied every day at the attached institute. It amazes me, in retrospect, how much I brought back with me (and believe me, this isn’t even 1/100th of it). I assumed then, as a matter of course, that I’d be back every year or so, for the foreseeable future, and now it’s been almost nine years since my boots trod over that sparkling snow. I’ve gone to other countries, I’ve learned other language (and am still learning them), and a part of me misses Russia so much it’s kind of a fever. And yet, I believe it’s something I always carry with me, something that’s as much a part of me as the hair on my head or the toes on my feet. For that, I am immensely grateful.