In 1995 and then in 1997, I spent part of the summer in Saint Petersburg, Russia. I stayed with two different families in the buildings next to Metro Station Pionerskaya on the outside of town (one of the buildings in the back of this picture might well be one I stayed in, but I really don’t know, since they all looked alike):
Russia was in the middle of hyperinflation, and the various state-owned enterprises were being looted from the top and the bottom. The dad in the first host family I stayed with (the mom was somewhat elusively “on vacation” for the full five weeks) was a genial engineer in some undisclosed military-related factory who hadn’t been paid in several months, and would bring home boxes of electrical gadgets (solenoids and wires and clamps and so on) which he’d hock in one of the open air markets for a little bit of money; I assume that, along with the hundred or two I was paying to stay in their apartment, this was all the money that they had coming in, which was why we ate just chicken soup and bread and tea with sugar for a month. (I’d get shawarma or a poppy roll for myself most days when I went out to my language classes– I was 16 and hungry.) There was also a 22 year old daughter with a lined, careworn face who lived at home and who was visited regularly by a handsome and flashily if absurdly dressed boyfriend, in a different matching set of Adidas’ warmups and new brand-name sneakers each time; one time he brought a fancy new video camera to show off and maybe he gave the family some money, too. I assumed he was somehow involved with the black market, whatever that meant now that markets were in theory all liberalized and communism was in theory gone. (The apartment was still paid for by the state, as was electricity and the three or four hours a day of hot water service. Capitalism isn’t an overnight thing.) Maybe the boyfriend worked for one of the mobsters whose chauffeurs sat in parked Mercedes Benzes outside of the GudBurger, a German fast food chain, while their bosses talked inside, down on Nevsky Prospekt in the historical center of town. I didn’t know.
The host dad would make a big pot of soup early in the morning, make sure I knew where to find it, and then would leave for a day or two, to work or try to sell the things he was bringing back from the factory. (The old Communist-era joke, that the workers pretend to work and the state pretends to pay, had been replaced by a state that didn’t even pretend.) The 22-year old daughter would check on me to make sure I was eating enough, and constantly check if I wanted to drink some tea. My Russian was pretty bad, and I found it tiring to talk all day with people who had to slow and simplify their speech to baby talk to make themselves understood, so when I came home from class or from wandering around by myself through the 18th century downtown, I’d lie on the bed and read Russian novels in English, pretending that this was somehow making good use of the chance to be in another country. Eventually, I bought a cheap plastic guitar from a guy in another of the open air markets and would sit on the bed and practice it instead.
It was the “White Nights,” the time of the year when the sun never quite sets at St. Petersburg’s latitude, so no one was sleeping much, and it would be three in the morning and you could still hear and see, in the half-twilight like a cloudy afternoon, groups of men sitting on benches in the courtyard in the center of the groups of apartment buildings, drinking and talking, drinking and talking. The end of communism had meant the end of the government liquor monopoly, and so cheap vodka was very, very cheap, and the old-looking-but-probably-not-that-old men with a few days stubble on their face had presumably given up pretending to work and were now part of the generation that was drinking themselves to death. One of the only commercials on the family’s TV that I could understand was for the hilariously-titled Booz, a combination of vodka with various sweetened flavors that came in a can and for which the advertisement consisted of two guys who looked (and more-or-less behaved) like a Russian version of Cheech and Chong and simply acted falling-down drunk for the 30 seconds of the ad. That I could understand.
Downtown, everyone seemed exultant with the season, full of the brief life of 24-hour daylight. I remember several times waiting to get into a metro station, the entrance to which was blocked by teenagers making out like they’d just come back from war.
Some of the other American students in my program– they were all juniors in college, so four years older than me– were also taking the opportunity to drink a lot that summer, although mostly in the fake Irish Pub downtown rather than on the courtyard benches. Most of the other students were serious, with decent-enough language skills. They went with their host families strawberry picking or mushroom picking or to the banya, Old Mother Russia stuff. The program would take us on tours of the tsars’ palaces, museums, and on a two-day trip to Moscow where, on the way back, I made the mistake of brushing my teeth with the water on the train. I got a high fever and would wrap myself in the blankets in the room back by Metro Station Pionerskaya, freezing and dizzy. The host sister with the careworn face would come in to check on me and bring me tea, and a day or two later the fever broke in a matter of minutes in which the sheets were suddenly soaked with sweat; a month or two later I noticed one lock of my hair had turned white.
I went home and wrote some lies about the trip on my college applications, which may or may not have made the difference to make up for my spotty high school grades. But this is all true, at least as I remember.