This week my dad posted a video to my Facebook wall. Tender Moments Caught on Russian Dash Cams is a collection of videos from the dash cameras many Russians have mounted in their cars. My dad felt that the video was heartwarming, and many comments lauded the compassion and kindness of Russians. Watching the video did take me back, but to a different set of memories.
It was just about eighteen years ago that I landed in St. Petersburg, fourteen years old and wide eyed.
We first bunked with another expat family who quickly showed my mom the ropes. Finding food wasn't as simple as going to a grocery store. Rather, there were markets, and street peddlers and tiny wooden doors near your ankles where you knocked and then called in "white" or "brown," hoping bread was available.
Our hosts left for a furlough and we were left in their apartment with lofty ceilings, and a view into the courtyard.
One day I went with my mother to the market by the metro. I don't remember the stop now, but it was central. My mother would remember.
We were shopping, rehearsing "2 kilos potatoes" in Russian under our breath, I'm sure. English was not an option, so the Russian we'd learned before coming, along with our charades tricks were all we had.
I saw an elderly man reach out his hand and take an orange from a vendor's table, while the vendor was otherwise engaged. Or was it a youthful man?
The vendor turned on him, as if he had a sixth sense for pilfering, and set to beating the old (young?) man viciously. The beaten man fell to the ground, and the vendor continued to punch and kick him where he lay.
I was terrified. It was just an orange. I was just fourteen and had never been hungry. I was just fourteen and had never seen violence. I think there was blood.
Our diet consisted mostly of bread, Edam cheese (we collected the red waxy coating and formed it into people and sculptures, it softened with the warmth of our fingers), pasta, potatoes, and tomatoes. On the corners, near the metro, stood babushkas, shrivelled grannies with faces like wrinkled dates, and gnarled hands clutching forest-foraged berries offered in newspaper cones. Glassy red berries the size of coffee beans, with a translucent skin that popped a flood of tartness in the mouth. Plump raspberries always had one or two bleeding, crushed against the newspaper. In the winter there might be hazelnuts.
The newspaper cones held the most wonderful treats; they went down heavy in the stomach when I thought about that little granny taking the train to the countryside to search for them in the brambles, carrying them carefully home, to be my afternoon snack.
Living in Russia was the first time I understood that it could be hard to live in the world.
In the video you can see strangers helping the aged across the street. You can see strangers rescuing wandering, naked children, fallen invalids, and lost animals. I see a place where I first saw life in peril, and a thinning of the divide between life and death.
I am reminded of the pale grey light in winter, and the rain, and the immense snow and cold. I remember the crunch of boots under my casement window, and the last drunken songs ringing out around two a.m. before the street grew quiet. I remember hearing the stories, all winter long, of men falling into snowdrifts drunk, and never rising again, of homeless people, freezing in the snow.
I was terrified most all the time. I think that is okay.
I know there is beauty in Russia, and I saw that as well. Watching this video brought me back to that feeling of peril, of danger, of uncertainty, and how it looked and felt to my fourteen year old self. It is good to remember.