I've been going to a lot of talks lately, as well as mentally organizing a reading list for myself, and the combination of these things (especially since I'm currently re-reading The Master and Margerita
) has made me think a lot about when I was in Russia and how hungry I was there for comprehensible words, especially in the early days.
For example, there was a terrible weekly English-language paper called The St. Petersburg Times
that was distributed near my school (and at which, incidentally, my friend Sabrina was a copy-editor for a time; the only one they paid!). It was so poorly written that under normal circumstances I would never have given it a second chance. However, when I originally decamped for foreign shores, I figured that I should bring very limited English-language reading materials to encourage myself to read - and thus learn - more Russian. Of course, I wolfed down the novel I brought with me in the first week or two, and from there on out I was scrounging for scraps; the The St. Petersburg Times
was a regular and welcome addition to my fare (if you want an example of how low I sunk, I did at one point read The Devil Wears Prada
in a single night).
In the midst of this, a strange thing occured that for some reason resonated with my homesickness, my desire for anything written down that I could easily understand (in any language), and the sort of dizzy circus that Russia occasionally makes of your mind.
My friend Roxanne was in St. Petersburg at the same time as me, and on her birthday she invited me out to the theatre with her. After seeing an amusing but peculiar version of Don Juan
(starring, for anyone in the know about teleseriali, some guy from Brigada
! Girls ran onstage and gave him tons of flowers! His co-star was dressed as a giant chicken throughout and we never knew why!) we decided to go back to Rox's erstwhile apartment and toast her new year.
However, Rox was in the middle of moving from one dorm to another, and thus the apartment she was staying in wasn't hers; the guys who lived there were a funny mix of ex-pats, who called and said they were at a bar down the block when we arrived with vodka. They said they'd be right by, and instructed us to wait at the courtyard gate. As we stood there, on a dark sidestreet looking somewhat fancy in our theatre clothes and laughing about the show (really! a giant chicken!), three men(/boys/manboys) approached us; two circled away from us, and one walked straight in our direction, holding a white piece of paper forward in his hand at near-eye level.
Somehow, without knowing in any way what was going on, Roxanne and I both suddenly assumed that the boy was holding a chloroformed cloth, and that he was going to knock us out and do god knows what. We back up against the gate, but didn't have much time to react before he was right there.
As it turned out, he was holding out a paper explaining that he was deaf and dumb, and asking us for a handout. Now, I've seen people do this in America, but in Russia it's a pretty well-known scam; one guy distracts you with his pity plea, and his cohorts suavely pick your pockets. The strange thing was, although he was practically laughing and almost certainly lying, his friends didn't make any attempt to get anywhere near us. As I've said, we were on a dark side street, alone. If the operation had miraculously been legit, or
if they'd been trying to rob us, it would have made sense for the other guys to at least come near to us. But they didn't.
I left this situation with a weird taste in my mouth for several reasons: partially, it was unsettling to think I was about to be chloroformed. But then, the misinterpretation, the misinformation, was so very strange. We felt danger for the wrong reasons, the boy with the paper was lying, and the mini-heist or trick or whatever it was was pulled off so poorly. What was it that we didn't understand?
Finally, I remember being somewhat relieved that I could read the piece of paper. In the midst of that bizarre, even if imagined, danger, I still had a conscious desire to consume and hold onto language. It grounded me.
And now, for no particular reason, but because I wanted to include a picture, here is Reynold's 'Self Portrait as a Deaf Man'