“Ya ne znayu.”
That phrase–“I don’t know”– is one that’s leaving my mouth a lot these days. Several times when I’ve been asked for directions. Already! Sometimes I even know vaguely where the place is, having recently passed it– the metro, or the large public library– but don’t feel confident enough to try and explain it. Geez, people, get a map. It’s been serving me pretty well.
Except, of course, when I couldn’t find my apartment and walked around carrying a huge bag of groceries and a five-liter bottle of water for about an hour in probably a one kilometer radius.
It’s hard to explain in words or even pictures the extent of the Soviet housing project of Primorskaya, my neighborhood on the Vasilevsky Island. (By the way, the geography goes, basically– Saint Petersburg center, then the Neva to the west, then Vasilevsky, then the Gulf of Finland– virtually in my backyard– then you’re in Helsinki).
When the taxi from the airport pulled up to my building, I have to say I was a tad taken aback by its frankly ghastly exterior. These USSR bungalows are a huge sprawl of buildings, called “doms,” or houses, that look very much the same and each encircle a children’s play area that also looks very much the same.
Once I can figure out how to ask, I’d like to find out about these buildings’ history, what it may have been like to live in them in Soviet times.
I was relieved to find that once past dezhornaya–the old woman who lives at the front desk of the Russian apartment building– up the creaky elevator and through three locks to my apartment, the place was cozy and impeccably clean. In many ways, it resembles any apartment in France, with the rush of plumbing from neighbor’s apartments, the washing machine but no dryer, the tiny dishwasher– what we consider inconveniences as Americans, but are just part of life in most of the developed world.
It seems to be a theme here that beauty is always a stone’s through from shabbiness– or perhaps it’s more apt the other way around. It’s said that Saint Petersburg is unlike the rest of Russia, a sort of central jewel of culture and history in a country that is so vast geographically and culturally It seems, though, that the city itself is divided. There is the downtown area with all the incredible sights–
And then in the evening, the Primorskaya metro escalators are teeming with Russians going home to Vasilevsky.
Welcome to the island.
On the other hand, there is definitely something of a neighborhood feel – this is where real Russian families live…they play with their kids in the playgrounds and wait for the bus to work and get their shoes repaired and all the rest of it, like an urban suburb. And there are such essentials as the aptyeka (pharmacy), zoomagazin (pet store), and supermarket (actually just shelves of liquor) in easy distance, which is nice to know, should I ever need any of these amenities.
Unlike in France, it is very easy to get anything you might need here. Groceries of all types, clothes, shoes, electronics, office supplies, etc. are all a few paces away. Except nail polish remover. That I have had some trouble with.
As it is with anywhere, though, the longer you spend somewhere the more you discover. Even on Vasilevsky there are glimpses of charm and grace, even if you have to look a little harder.