Today is a good day in our lives to commit to memory. By that I mean, remembering this day as1/11/11 makes it easy to remember what our lives were like on this date. I suppose I could have started out the new year this way on 1/1/11, but I was busy digesting mochi.
With this mnemonic device, I actually remember well the day July 7, 1977 or 7/7/77. I was 20 years old and mid-point in my summer studying at Leningrad State University between my junior and senior years in college. These were the good ole/bad ole Soviet days when incoming letters were opened and delivered censored (evidenced by pages missing or holes cut out with scissors). Some letters were intercepted and not delivered at all. Some probably simply got lost along the way. We were told that the only phone was the “director's” (I think probably like a dean), and that the kind of circumstance which would merit a phone call on behalf of someone like me, one of the few international students not from a Soviet bloc country, would be to tell the State Department that I had died – that sort of level of urgency. Given today's Internet-based connectivity, it is impossible to describe the complete sense of isolation I felt from the rest of the world, and from home. The Iron Curtain felt quite real and solid.
By this point of the term, I was having to remind myself how much I had wanted to go to Leningrad, and how hard I had worked to get there. I was the first student from UC Irvine who had ever been accepted to this program, having scored high enough on both written and oral tests, and I left home excited to have my first chance to pass through a bit of Europe on my way to Leningrad and back.
But when I arrived, I was intimidated by the other American students, who mostly had studied Russian in prep schools back east, also spoke other languages quite fluently, and already had studied abroad someplace else in Europe. Besides being awed by east coast preppies, the armed guards at the airport were scary and the dezhurnaya old ladies in our dormitory stairways were grumpy. The water in the showers straight out of the Bay of Finland was freezing cold, the mosquitoes were the size of divebombers, and our clothes were musty without the benefit of washing machines and dryers. The schoolwork was difficult, the workload demanding; my brain was going to explode trying to remember all the vocabulary and complex Russian grammatical rules. We all were stressed, hungry for decent food, and homesick.
In the evening of 7/7/77, one of my four roommates read aloud from a letter she had just received from her mother. Her mother had sent this letter practically as my roommate had departed for it to have arrived by then. She wondered if it would arrive before 7/7/77, as she hoped her daughter would write her back on that day, so they would have a record of what she was then thinking and experiencing.
We composed a group reply. Anything negative in the letter would have doomed it to censorship, so we were forced into an exercise not unlike “My Favorite Things.” And this is what I remember.
I remember loving the view of the Winter Palace and the “white night” sky backlighting the bridges opening over the River Neva from our dorm window. Seeing the golden spire of Peter and Paul Fortress under a double rainbow (the watercolor shown was a gift from my parents when they visited years later, not realizing when they selected it how fond I am of this city landmark). Loving the hot homemade piroshki sold by babushki standing on the Nevsky Prospect street corners. The thrill of ordering ice cream by the gram in the ice cream stores, visiting the sites which Dostoevsky incorporated into “Crime and Punishment,” hearing a bus driver recite Pushkin's entire “Bronze Horseman” poem from memory. Walking along the Embankment. Wandering through rooms and rooms of art in the Hermitage. Seeing my first ballet – “Sleeping Beauty” – and first opera – “The Barber of Seville” (sung in Russian, so I was actually able to understand some of it). The pastels of the Rastrelli architecture. The violets that bloomed underfoot along the sidewalks in the parks. Nina Petrovna in the stolovaya university cafeteria who called me her malenkaya little one and gave me an extra ladle of kasha in the morning because she wanted to fatten me up. Wondering what happened to Podgorny when one day when we saw his photo had been torn off the wall.
So for 1/11/11, I’ll remember marveling at how much I learned besides Russian that summer of 7/7/77 in what is now St. Petersburg. How glad I am that at work, almost every day, in curriculum meetings, thesis committees, academic long-range planning sessions, or student advisement, I am surrounded by liberal arts concepts. Whether someone is quoting “The Tempest” or Foucault, I am immersed in the “life of the mind” which I now realize I had that first glimpse of that challenging, fulfilling Leningrad summer.
Note to self: on 11/11/11 this November, write more of the things I love about this life now. The perspective is truly worth it.