i was in a park in leningrad. i don't know the name of the park; all i know is that it was near the neva river. i don't read russian, let alone speak it. i had been walking for hours, i was tired, i hadn't been home in a long time, and i missed my dog. i was feeling lonely and immensely sorry for myself.
i had just come from finland, where i had been working for two weeks. the day before i had taken the train from turku, where i had been staying, to helsinki, and then to leningrad. later that night i would take the night train to petrozavodsk, where i would spend another 10 days or so, doing research. and then i had another three days in finland before i could fly home.
the train from helsinki to leningrad was packed with people who were much savvier than i was: they all carried food. bags of fresh bananas, and oranges, and chocolate bars, and bottles of mineral water, and sandwiches, and cans of strong finnish beer. i had assumed there would be a snack car on the train; i was wrong. as the seven-hour trip wore on, i got hungrier and hungrier. each car had a samovar at one end, and glasses for tea. i drank glass after glass of tea.
we chugged through the finnish countryside, passing golden fields of rapeseed and neat train stations that had been freshly painted. on the platforms, planters bloomed with petunias and geraniums. everything looked neat and orderly and clean.
when we crossed the border into russia, the geography changed. the fields were uncultivated; the grass grew wild and high. we passed stations with broken concrete platforms and station houses with peeling paint, topped by a red star. at one stop, i watched a man crawl out of the weeds toward the tracks, a bottle clutched in one hand.
by the time we got to leningrad, i was ravenous. somehow, i found my hotel--the Hotel Moskva--and set out in search of food. it was just past midsummer, and though it was nearly 9 p.m., it was still quite light out. the restaurant in my hotel was closed; the cafe was closed as well. so i started up the street, knowing i couldn't veer too far off course because i couldn't read the street signs and i was afraid of getting lost.
a few blocks away, three teenage boys ran up. "change money? change money?" they asked. now, how did they know i was american? my Nikes? or my clueless look?
"no," i said. "but i'm hungry. do you know where i can find something to eat?"
they didn't, and they crossed the street and walked away. but soon they were back, quite excited. "do you like milk?" they asked.
milk? sure. "follow us!"
they took me down one side street and then down another, to where a man was unloading triangular cartons of milk from the back of a small truck. i had some Finnmarks left, and i traded a few for a carton apiece.
i took a big long swig....buttermilk! the thick, sour taste nearly made me gag. but i was hungry, and i drank it. the boys looked delighted. i gave them each a couple of Finnmarks for their help, and they led me back to my hotel.
the next day, i walked for hours, waiting for evening, when i could head to the train station. i ended up in a park that had a graveyard at one end. the graves were mostly of heroes of what the russians call the Great Patriotic War and we call World War II. the markers had their faces engraved on them, and red stars. they looked well-tended. I wandered over and sat down on a bench. the thought of spending another two weeks away from home felt overwhelming. i had no one to talk to. i coudln't even read a newspaper.
up the path came two stout women in headscarves. they had dogs with them--dogs that lay politely at their feet as the women sat down on a bench and began to chat.
i decided to walk over and, using sign language and the only russian phrase i knew (Без перевода, which means "excuse me,"), make it clear i wanted to pet the dogs. maybe i could play with them--toss a tennis ball, watch them run. i missed Toby so much.
i got up and walked over. "Без перевода," i said. the women looked up, startled. they were wearing aprons over flowered dresses, and one of them held a large walking stick. up close, the dogs no longer looked appealing. they had red eyes, and one of them had a badly torn ear, maybe from a fight. at my approach they leaped up and barked.
the woman gave them a sharp hit with her stick and yelled. the dogs lay down again, but watched me, growling ominously. the women turned to me and let loose with a stream of russian words. i have no idea what they were saying; russian is a harsh language, and it sounded like they were yelling.
"Без перевода," i said again, and walked back to my bench. i sat down and stared out at the late June afternoon, and i began to cry. i had a 12-hour train ride ahead of me to Karelia, and two more weeks before i would be home.
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