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While I was teaching in St. Petersburg, Russia…
The weekend between classes I went to see the city accompanied by my guide. We walked to the Winter Palace (photo attached) with a slight detour through the Palace Square, site of many historic events—including the October Revolution of 1917. The Winter Palace was the royal residence during the era of the Russian Monarchs (1731-1917). Today, it is part of the massive Hermitage Museum, housing the largest art collection in the world. (As suggested by the movie The Monuments Men, controversy has emerged regarding a number of objects at the Hermitage, allegedly taken from Germany at the end of World War II.) Within two hours I saw works by Leonardo da Vinci (Madonna with Child), Michelangelo (The Crouching Boy), Rembrandt (The Return of the Prodigal and The Sacrifice of Isaac), Rubens (Descent from the Cross), Monet (Woman in the Garden), and Van Gogh (Cottages with Thatch-Roofs)—just to name a few. To be honest, before I left for St. Petersburg I was unaware of the Hermitage. So it more than qualifies as the third big surprise of my trip.
On Sunday we visited the Peter and Paul Cathedral (built from 1701-1733). The Cathedral’s bell tower and spire reach four hundred and six feet into the air, with an angel holding a cross at the top (see the picture). In St. Petersburg, the cathedral spire rule dictates that no building in the center of the city may be taller than the cathedral. As a result, I found an inner city of apartments, offices, hotels, and federal buildings as flat as a pancake across the top; all reaching up to, but not daring to go higher than the cathedral spire. Inside the cathedral, I walked by the crypts of Russia’s Tsars, including Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the ashes of the last imperial family who were killed in 1918 and only recently reinterred in the cathedral.
The cathedral sits within the Peter and Paul Fortress (constructed a bit later in 1706-1740). After serving its original purpose, it was converted into a political prison that held such prisoners as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lenin’s brother. I walked through the Nevsky Gate to the Neva River, a short passageway in the fortress that was the last stop for political prisoners on their way to Siberia. What must it have felt like to pass through this gate, look across the river to the Winter Palace, and know this was my last day in civilization? Throughout my time in St. Petersburg, I was immersed in a deep history of which I was ignorant. I’m sure we covered the main events back in school, but that was too long ago for me. And after all, only in a place does the story of a people come to life. I admit that parts of my experience were unsettling: members of the army were on guard everywhere I went, every store had a strong, tough looking man watching the customers, and no stranger would ever allow me to open the door for them. They refused my offer of West Texas kindness and insisted that I go through the door first. I suppose years of suspicion have their effects.
I wanted to see more—and did, despite another surprise that I should have seen coming. Back in Texas, Abilene is home of the famous five minute rush hour. Almost everyone owns a car or a truck (or both) and no one would ever consider walking if they could take their car. The five million residents of St. Petersburg, however, depend on public transportation (e.g., the subway, buses) and most of all, their own two feet. So, when my guide took me to the Hermitage Museum, she assured me that it was a short distance that we could easily walk. So, we marched in stride over a mile to the museum. And after walking throughout the Hermitage for two hours, we took a variation of the same route back. The next day another “short trip” to the Peter and Paul Cathedral was a mile and a quarter each way. Step after step after step: the fourth big surprise of my trip.
My hosts were so accommodating that I did not want to ask for anything special. My goal was to fit into the culture, not demand that Russian culture be reshaped to fit me. One day the lunch menu for students and staff featured a traditional Russian dish that—at best tasted like lukewarm beer poured over noodles. It was awful and all I could do to choke it down, cleaning my bowl. The class broke into spontaneous applause—congratulating me and telling me that most visiting faculty take one bite and ask for something else to eat. I didn’t know. My stomach churned as I laughed with them. And while I did feel good about myself, I also learned that while ignorance may be bliss, in Russia it tastes like lukewarm beer poured over noodles.
Should my friends in Russia ever read these pages they’ll be mortified and deeply apologetic. But the blame is on me—all on me: not for what they did or didn’t do, but for what I didn’t tell them about my foot. Nor did I raise concern when my foot began to dictate my movement, especially in the evenings of the second week when I was alone. I did my best not to limp or show any sign of pain around the students or staff. I could have told them—and probably should have told them. I just didn’t want to call attention to myself. Silence, your true name is pride.
My last full day in Russia, we visited the gardens of the Summer Palace—a trip that required a short cab ride (hallelujah!). This weekend, however, President Boris Yeltsin was visiting at the Konstantinovsky Palace alongside the road leading to the Summer Palace. So our drive featured even more snarled traffic and another important lesson: taking a taxi in St. Petersburg is an act of faith. On the one hand, taxi drivers regard traffic signs as mere suggestions: if the feeling hits you, try driving at this speed, if not, just go as fast as you can and as for stoplights—“udachi” (good luck!).And yet, I never saw an accident, which I can only attribute to everyone following the same unspoken rules of the road (including the same hand gestures, a truly universal language). Most traffic problems could have been resolved with an annual safety inspection of the cabs, significantly reducing their number. On our trip to the Summer Palace, we rode in an overloaded minivan that featured a flyaway sliding door. The entire way out my guide held the door in place so that no one would be hurled out of the van.
The destination, however, made the trip worth all the danger heroically faced by my guide—and me: if she had lost her grip, I would’ve tried to save her. From the street, we walked about two hundred yards through the upper garden, past fountains and statues on a path leading to the Summer Palace. Then we took a right turn, went around the Palace, and stepped into the lower garden—a site that merits double recognition as the fifth and sixth big surprise of my trip.The lower garden is enormous: thirty acres of fountains, pools, statuary, flower gardens, shrubbery, and manicured trees—all constructed on the French model of Versailles. In the center, a canal runs from the Gulf of Finland (and the Black Sea) to steps that lead up into the Palace and the enormous water fountains of the Grand Cascade, shooting sixty-five feet into the air (see photos attached to this and the next paragraph and the featured image above). On either side of the canal a labyrinth of gravel paths divides the lower garden into large symmetrical spaces.
Even more impressive, the fountains were engineered in the eighteenth century—destroyed by a flood in 1770 and rebuilt by Catherine the Great—all without the aid of any mechanical pumps (then or now). Instead, a gravity-fed water system flows underground through thirteen and a half miles of wooden pipes to over one hundred fountains. The further we walked, the more my mind thought of all the peasants who lived and died building what only the nobility could enjoy until 1905 (with restrictions), finally opening to the general public in 1945.
The garden’s grandeur, however, was my final undoing. As we followed the gravel trails crossing and crisscrossing the thirty acres, the fatigue and pain in my left foot forced me to slow down. We took time to rest here and there. But I refused to give in or stop. I knew this would most likely be the only time I got to be in this place, and I didn’t want to miss anything. By the time we reached the pier extending into the Gulf of Finland, I was noticeably limping, so my guide suggested a water taxi from the end of the pier back into town, the best idea I’d ever heard. We walked out on the pier toward the ticket booth, but no one was there. In fact, all the water taxis were tied to the pier. I sat down on a bench while my guide went to talk to the young men near the boats. She came back with bad news: because President Yeltsin was staying on the coast, all water-traffic was closed.
I turned and looked back: the walk through the lower garden, around the Palace, and through the upper garden to the taxi station had to be the definition of “to infinity and beyond!” In reality, it’s about half a mile. Even so, somewhere on this final walk on my final day in Russia, I made a decision that may have changed the course of my life.
The next morning I bought last-minute gifts at the airport and boarded a flight for Dallas. I settled into my seat, took two pain pills and watched three movies—two of which I can’t remember at all. Here’s all I knew to be true: if I was to continue traveling and speaking, or to simply live an active lifestyle, I needed help. So, immediately after I returned home, I set an appointment with Doctor B—, told him about my time in Russia, and my anxiety for the fall semester and future speaking commitments. We scheduled surgery for July 19 (2007), four days after my forty-fifth birthday—a date that will forever live as a question mark in my life.
—to be continued–
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton)
*Regarding Audio Links or Podcasts: please excuse 1) my Russian pronunciations (e.g., “Serbia” should be “Siberia”) and 2) the quality of my recording (it is improving!). For complete links to Story Day podcasts, see the new menu item at the top of this page: A Fire in My Bones (Audio Links).