Dancing With the Bear
An On-line Book by Liam Guilar
Presented by the Idaho State Univ. Outdoor Program. Designed & edited by Ron Watters.
Text and photographs © 1999 Liam Guilar and used by permission (see permission notes).
OUR GUIDE APPEARED in the doorway of our compartment and introduced himself. I felt obscurely cheated. We had slept the night through and consequently seen nothing of the landscape.
I have read glowing descriptions of St. Petersburg, the Venice of the North, describing it as one of the world's beautiful cities. I remember the rain: the grey Baltic rain, cold and persistent, and the gypsy beggars, with their dirty children and their outstretched hands. I remember the pale grey water of the Neva, and the crowds in the Hermitage, the beautiful paintings in the Russian Museum, the Museum of Ethnography, and one of the best evenings I had in Russia.
Our guide's English was not good. We tried to work out our program for the day, but he was worried that he had not been given enough money. We offered to pay our way into the Hermitage out of our own pockets, but he didn't seem to understand. So much of our ability to understand is based on assumption and prediction, and for our English speaking Russians the lack of grammatical structure in our speech, and the vagueness of the expressions we habitually used made understanding a miracle. Mark had asked Olga; "Did you go to university?" "Oh yes," she had replied, "I have many friends here. I used to visit them regularly."
I found myself translating Mark into basic English, which was ridiculous because he speaks perfectly sensible English, but our guide still seemed bemused by it all. It took us nearly half an hour to get through to him that Mark had a bad cold and wanted to get rid of it. While he went off to consult a neighbour we watched the television.
Turning the television on while guests appear is a Russian habit we would encounter again in Tashkent. This time it gave us some much needed amusement. We began with a children's program in which a boy with an explosion of green hair, a rather pretty girl of about twelve and a fat bald man with a parrot on his shoulder introduced snippets of cartoons.
We watched Winnie the Pooh walking along singing the Winnie the Pooh song in Russian, and then switched channels to watch a ludicrous looking man singing a driveling song. Not knowing the words was a relief. So was not watching him so we turned over and found a munch and crunch show. A blind vole like animal was munching in close up on a variety of living things. A huge grasshopper lost a leg, which the predator continued to eat until the grasshopper decided to move on. Then it munched on the grasshopper's head.
Back to the music channel. A polite R&B band played to a small group of Springsteen lookalikes who were grinding away self consciously on a small dance floor. Close up they looked embarrassed, from a distance they looked silly. The finale was set in a swimming pool, The band, wearing swimming costumes, stood up to their waists in the water and played while the singer swam around trying not to swallow any water.
This was followed by some kind of cops and robbers show in which all the actors had obviously studied in the American soap opera school of facial tics. In this style of acting the actor conveys the powerful emotions coursing through his or her veins with a variety of rapid but infinitesimal movements of the lips and eyes. Remembering that Victor's daughter had got the sulks because she couldn't watch Chances while we were having dinner, we decided that the Russians were following the American and Australian example of reducing all television to the sub moronic level, where stories that would never be published if they were written down are turned into highly expensive and highly praised "drama".
We decided it was time to explore.
Cold grey Neva: its bridges hidden in the slanting rain, as we picked our way between the water filled potholes and negotiated the inevitable umbrella war. Baltic sea rain: it was below ten degrees C, with a strong gusting wind. The city was far more European than Moscow, it felt much more settled, lacking the bustling sense of constant improvisation that made Moscow fascinating.
We entered a pharmacy trying to find something for Mark's cold. Three condoms cost 195 roubles, or approximately 20 cents. But they wouldn't cure his cold. There was a strange randomness to the display cabinets; shampoo sat beside packets of western drugs, each with a hand written label which seemed to suggest that the exhibit on display was the only one in the shop.
The rain was still heavy and cold as we dripped to the Hermitage. There was no queue outside, but inside was heaving with damp humanity. We queued to get rid of coats and bags, and then queued for tickets. Our guide insisted he buy them at the Russian price, claiming he disagreed with this overt squeezing of foreigners. Although we only scratched the surface of the Hermitage's many rooms it was a disappointing experience, but oddly in keeping with the rest of our Russian stay: We had got lost looking for the statue of Marx in the world's capital of Marxism, found the "Museum of our National Achievement" devoted to American cars and now we managed to spend a morning in one of the world's greatest art galleries without seeing any art. I still don't know how we achieved this.
The museum of Ethnography had a sign up saying "Closed. Saturday/day off." which was confusing at the time as it wasn't Saturday. So we strode back out into the rain and went to the Russian museum, tired and cold and damp, and fast approaching the point where the sight of another bloody painting or silver goblet was going to drive us both nuts.
Our guide tried his trick of getting us in at Russian prices, despite our offer to pay, and we were stopped at the top of the stairs by the lady whose job it was to stop people like us getting in at the wrong price. A policeman loitered nearby. These people are not Russian she said. Our guide argued. The lady was adamant. Wait here he said, disappeared down the stairs and returned with a Snickers bar which he slid into the woman's hand. She smiled as though the whole thing was a great joke and waved us in.
"Your faces did not change when we talk," said our guide. So we made a mental note to practise facial twitching and steeled ourselves for another display of dreary paintings.
Once we'd got in, we saw some fine pictures. Three stick in my mind; the first, The Bronze Serpent, because it was the biggest painting I have ever seen. Mark and I spent some time seated opposite it, speculating how we could get it in to our living rooms. The next was a picture showing a group of cossacks sending a letter to the sultan. Their faces were splendid in their variety like a similar piece called Barge Haulers on the Volga. But the piece I remember most, the second painting I've ever seen which I would like to buy, is called Russian Knight at the Crossroads. It seemed appropriately fatalistic for a kayaking expedition. A shaggy Knight sits on a small, long maned pony, lumbered with all the accoutrements of battle, staring at the sign post which looks more like a gravestone than anything else. To the right; death, to the left; death. He sticks in my mind, as does the caption to the Cossacks. "Cossacks Writhing a mosking letter." It was the first of many Blodwynisms, although we didn't know then that that was what they were called.
It was only much later that I realised that I knew absolutely nothing
about Russian painters. My informant, a lady I met on the plane on
the way home, pointed out that whereas music is easily moved around and
performed, paintings aren't and need advocates. Go find the paintings
of Repin. The man was a genius of faces.
We stayed in St. Petersburg with Sergei. He works with computers and makes about a hundred a month. His wife, an "economist"( who was on holiday in Moscow with their daughter) makes about 70. (How much you earn is a topic which occurs in almost every conversation with Russians.) By his own admission he was not poor. His flat has two TV's, a remote controlled VCR, a tape deck and a personal computer. But he could not afford a car, and had a picture of one taped to his fridge. My dream he said. A new car would cost between ten and twenty thousand dollars. A new flat would cost him twenty thousand. He says he is not crying, but he knows how hard life can be in Russia.
Walking through yet another subway we had stopped to listen to a group of acoustic musicians. One played the largest balalaika I have ever seen. It must have been three or four feet across the base. (Either that or it was being played by a midget). "Kazak music", Said Sergei, nodding, "I know this song." He threw some coins into the hat, and we wandered on. "I have guitar," he said, as though testing an idea by articulating it, "it is old guitar, not good guitar."
"No," I said, having played it while he was out buying bread for his sick neighbour. "It is good guitar."
He stopped and looked at me as though my martian disguise had finally
slipped and he glimpsed a recognisable human being beneath it. "You
play guitar?" It was impossible to tell if he was excited by the thought
or struggling with his English.
He left us alone to go and buy some cognac, and returned with two bottles and his friend, Ulya, who offered to cook dinner. We had an odd, excellent meal, and at about nine o'clock he produced the guitar and we swapped songs. While I was playing I heard strange, nostalgic, mouth organ music, and turned to see Mark, who had produced one from his pocket, playing along.
After that the evening simply got better. I was in the Bear's bedroom swapping songs with him. It was better than dancing, which I do extremely badly, having two left feet and all the physical grace of a tinned salmon. It was something I had wanted to do, and Sergei, who had apologised for not being a sportsman any more, and had seemed at a loss as to how he should deal with two international sportsmen of Mark and my standing (his English wasn't good) seemed to grow into the smoke filled evening, finding confidence in his ability to perform old Russian folk songs, and modern Russian songs that reminded me of Jacques Brel and the French tradition of night club singers.
Alcohol and smoke and memories. It is in moments like this that the random elements of your life fit together and your history seems to have some kind of unity. With little talent or ability I have swapped songs in dingy student digs, in elegant French sitting rooms, in smoky British pubs where the boys were so loud you couldn't hear a note that you played, and around campfires on four different continents. The memory plays tricks, the hands follow, and I was enthusiastically thumping out The Drunken Sailor. I hadn't played it since the night before my wedding. It was about to become the theme song for the expedition.
Enter Igor, with bananas. In our honour they talked English. Igor exuded an aggressive friendliness. He insisted I speak Russian and set out to teach me the history and grammar of the Russian language in less than half an hour. He had the knee in the balls approach to teaching and brutalised my attempts. Without actually grabbing me by the throat and shaking me when I got things wrong he destroyed any desire I had to experiment with Russian in his company. I wondered, abstractly, if he thought his own English was so good, but resisted the urge to pick him to pieces. So we drank cognac and sang songs in the intervals between Igor's stories which got longer as the night wore on, and then the soup arrived.
It was sometime later that Sergei began to sing a song I thought I recognised as The Carnival is over. It wasn't. It was the song of Stenza Razin, Cossack bandit and folk hero. The phrase had been running through my head all the time I had been in Moscow. Now the tune took hold and stuck.
Ulya and Igor had to leave. The bridges across the Neva are raised at
night, cutting off one side of the city from the other. Igor offered Ulya
a lift home. But how can I repay you she said.
Sergei, who was gently drunk, seemed to be in imminent danger of a bad attack of the miseries, so we kept him company in the kitchen while he smoked one more cigarette and we all drank one more glass of cognac, because it is bad luck or bad manners to put the lid back on the bottle.
And there are those in both our countries who would put us in uniforms and have us try to kill each other.
Next morning, nailed by cognac, I wondered if my headache was a genuine
piece of Expedition Suffering, but decided against it. I met Sergei staggering
out of the bathroom. "It is too early Liam. Go back to bed." I couldn't.
I picked up the guitar and tried the folk baroque approach to waltzing
matilda. "Liam," said the bleary voice, "It is too early. Go back to sleep."
Ulya arrived while we struggled with breakfast. She had agreed to accompany us for the day, but I suspect that Sergei wanted some moral support. While he wandered along talking with her, Mark and I strolled behind them and talked about boating. It wasn't a subject either of us had broached up to that point. I knew I would paddle better on a long trip like this one than on weekend raids on local rivers back home, but the last time Mark and I had paddled together on any serious water I had paddled so badly I felt totally unqualified to be there or to be talking about paddling with someone of his skill.
The museum of Ethnography, in Saint Petersburg, gets my vote as one of the best Museums I've been in, and I have visited lots of them. For once everything was placed in a context. The only place we'd seen comparable in Moscow was the Boya-Romanov Museum which is really little more than an old house, carefully preserved, but in which you can actually imagine the lives of the people who lived in it. This is what's missing from museums like the Armoury. The cup, for all its sophistication, is really an irrelevance. Its the hand that made it, and the lips that drank from it, that are of importance. Instead of cases full of things with labels, the exhibits in the museum of ethnography; clothes, tools, even a crazy boat, were arranged in displays which demonstrated their use. A family group sat in a yurt, another fished in a frozen waste, a man in a fishskin suit waited patiently for something to bite on his line. The fact that many of the things we saw in Central Asia looked as though they should have been in the museum made it all the better. For once I didn't feel guilty dragging Mark around a museum, as we peered into tents and stared at woodwork, marveled at fish skin suits, and saw a Shaman's outfit which was worth the price of admission.
Feeling much better, we left in search of coffee. We were always in search of coffee, and ended up in a park, eating sandwiches which Tanya had made for us before we left Moscow. As we had walked towards the Winter Palace the day before we had seen the beggars preparing to go to work, and now they lurked around the park, arms outstretched. Emotional warfare; the thin faced, dirty children with wide, imploring eyes, professional beggars, growing up in the family tradition, not the crippled and old in the subway. While Olga had always walked on, Sergei always dug into his pockets. Judging by the reaction of the other people in the park, on a good day, I figured the begging family made more than Sergei did in a month.
Not far from Peter the Great's house was the cruiser Aurora. The ship that has the gun that fired the shot that started the revolution was memorable for a number of reasons. Along the jetty there was a street market, selling, amongst other things, Icons, Police and Army hats, and what purported to be KGB identification papers. We went to the ship, which is just another warship, with absurdly steep stairs leading into small rooms with absurdly low doors. But it does have the gun that fired the shot that signaled the start of the revolution.
While we were there a wedding party arrived, the bride in white, the man in a sailor's uniform. They posed on the rail of the ship that has etc, and then moved back to the quay side to eat chocolate out of foil paper and drink from paper cups in the back of the bridal car. It seemed muted and sad; the usual self-conscious wedding day smiles for the photographer made more so by the staring tourists and the grey water and the rain.
In Moscow the married couples lay a wreath by the flame of the unknown soldier on their wedding day. Most of the people we spoke to seemed to have a low opinion of Russian Marriage. Even the ones that lasted seemed to do so through indifference rather than anything else. The girls are brought up to want to marry and have children, it's cultural programming, but the men seemed to get bored quickly. Perhaps it's the cramped living conditions, the general apathy and boredom, the expectation that, sooner or later, everything falls apart, but one in three marriages end in divorce.
Many men have mistresses. Their attitude was summed up in one story we heard. The man was embracing his wife, and carried away by his passion began murmuring the wrong name. Angrily she fought her way free of him and screamed: "You've been having an affair. I knew you were going to Moscow to see another woman."
"Why not," shrugged her husband, "I'm a free man aren't I."
Having said all this, according to The Australian's advertising, nearly one in two Australian marriages end in divorce so too much should not be read into the Russian statistics. Given the cramped conditions they live in, the fact that two out of three survive is amazing.
Our last stop was the Peter and Paul fortress. As bored as we were by now with architectural wonders; bored is the wrong word, we had exhausted our ability to admire and we were getting itchy to go paddling, the cathedral is stunningly beautiful. But our guide wanted to hurry on, and "Pardon me, I do not know the word." He flipped through my dictionary. "Ah. Here. I want to do Hooliganism."
Hooliganism consisted of ignoring the no entry signs. Climbing the stairs up the fortress walls, we walked along the green metal roof of the fortress. This gave us good views of the city and the river, or would have if I'd felt inclined to take my eyes off my feet. A Cossack band played frenetically happy music on the slip way and the wind ruffled the Neva. In winter people break the ice to swim in the river. And perched precariously on the wall, I thought how truly Russian or guide's attitude to the rules are. There are so many rules, so many written and unwritten laws, that I suspect you'd go nuts trying to keep them all. So you ignore them and do what you want to do, until the rules snap back and try to eat you. Then you try to talk or bribe your way out, and if you can't do either, you shrug fatalistically, and cop what ever's coming. It's a lesson I should have learnt then. It would have saved me much confusion later on.
We went back to Sergei's, had another evening meal that couldn't be beat, another bottle or two of cognac, and sang some more songs, then left for the train.
As we strode along the platform I saw a well dressed man staggering along with a half empty bottle of cinzano. I had still not got used to the sight of business types in the early stages of public drunkenness. Thankfully we would be insulated from all this on our return journey.
I was wrong, we were in a four berth cabin, and the drunk with the Cinzano bottle, now empty, was to be our companion. A heavy, full faced man with an expensive leather jacket, he asked curiously if we were American, and then, on hearing we were from Australia, sat up on his bunk. "Really. You are truly from Australia." I knew how the martians would feel when they landed. "Truly, you're from mars. But you're not green." His wife dreamed of going to Australia because she had heard that there were no women there and that Australian men would like real wives. Were there women in Australia, and were they better than Russian women? I deferred to Mark, who is single and can therefore speak with authority on this subject.
Our Russian, who didn't introduce himself, was interested, in our reaction to his country. I was reminded of the question I kept being asked when I was travelling in America. "Tell me which do you prefer? Britain or America." I remember Martin briefing me before I entered the Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole; "What ever you do, don't say Britain."
We tried to discuss our reaction as coherently as anyone can with someone speaking a foreign language after they've drunk a bottle of Cinzano. Sympathy was inadequate and any expression of it sounded trite. It seemed to me that Russia was caught between a painful past and an uncertain future, between Communism and coke a cola. I could not deny his country was in a mess, and I could not deny that I felt they were throwing the baby out with the bath water. If the communist state was brutal and dangerously stupid, it was at least, in theory, dedicated to looking after its people. Replacing it with a doctrine of self centred greed seemed like swapping syphilis for AIDS and calling it progress.
For me, he said, it is sad. We have an expression, he clenched his fist and flexed a bicep, the strength of the people of Russia. But now? Where is the strength of the Russian people? Where is the strength that pushed back Napoleon, where is the strength that held on to Stalingrad and Leningrad and won the battle at Kutz. I have a friend who is a brilliant mathematician, he has been invited to America to talk to their academics. He can't go. Why? Because this brilliant man earns forty dollars a month. I spend that much in a day. Today, I go to St. Petersburg to see my East German friend. She is a lady, I like to show her round, take taxis, go to restaurants... And you know what, the Americans invest in Russia. He laughed. I think they are stupid. And I am manager of American company.
Capitalism, he said...I don't know where it goes. I think we need a strong man in charge. Another Stalin... he seemed to consider the idea, then as I wasn't going to say anything, seemed to lose track of it.... but tell me, Australian women, they like to fuck?
I deferred him to Mark, who was either asleep or pretending to be so, and fell asleep thinking about Australian women, or one in particular.
Next morning we longingly eyed the muffins and yoghurt and tea cups
on the table, but not knowing if it was free or if we had to pay for it
or if it all belonged to the morose Russian in the top bunk, we left it
End of Chapter
7 . . .
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