I Can See Russia From My Stateroom
By Carol L. Bowman
Part II—A Russian Tea Party
Rather than touring more buildings, twelve ship passengers opted to visit a Russian family’s home for tea. Means of transportation, the Metro! Using a city’s subway system always makes me feel ‘like one of the locals.’ We met our ‘minder’ early upon exit from immigration. While she waited for the other guests, my husband, eager to bend the rules, begged her to let us stroll down to our coveted Church of Assumption, unaccompanied!
Young, neatly groomed and speaking flawless English, she eyed us cautiously then gave the go ahead. “Well, okay, but promise to return in exactly 20 minutes so that we can proceed to the Metro.” Like two little kids who had been allowed to stay up past bedtime, we skipped down the promenade toward the church. Seeing it up close and feeling the raised relief, my husband shouted, “We’re doing a forbidden thing.” He was ecstatic.
The Metro station displayed vestiges of the Soviet Era with plaques of hammer and sickle. Two sets of almost vertical escalators took us into the bowels of St. Petersburg. Graffiti-free walls, marble statues and art graced the interior. We rode a vintage line with well-maintained cars packed with riders. I loved mingling with the people. They seemed no different than us: Struggling to get to work, to feed their families, to live their lives in peace.
Within 30 minutes, we stood in front of a modest apartment building where Natasha and Boris lived in a third-floor flat. I realized that years ago Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon characters had these same names. The stairs seemed drab and dark, but a potted geranium in the window at level two gave the space life. Waiting to welcome us on the landing, Natasha held a squirming bull dog in her arms, while her young 4-year old daughter Marsha, peeked from behind her mother’s skirt. Marsha said in English. “We’ve been waiting for you. Come in.”
Ushered into a cozy but crowded room, we took places at clothed tables set with unmatched antique tea cups and hand-painted porcelain dessert plates. Home-made marmalade and stacks of freshly griddled Russian blintzes graced each table. I gave Marsha a woven pouch filled with caramels, both made in Mexico where I live. Eyes wide, she put the purse strap over her head and danced back and forth, stroking her unique gift. “She’s never had a bag or candy from Mexico before,” said Natasha. I asked about the family’s ability to speak English. “From pre-school on, English instruction is mandated,” Natasha said with pride.
The five-room flat provides housing for Natasha’s entire nuclear family. Each member or couple is assigned one room of the apartment. We happened to be having tea in a space which doubled as the bedroom of Marsha’s grandmother.
“During the Communist era, five different families occupied this one flat,” said Boris. “We are fortunate to now have it for our family alone.” Both described the normal ups and downs of Russian life. Weekly activities swirl around Natasha’s job at an international hotel, Boris’ career at the local shipyard and the 10-year old son’s obsession with playing soccer. They struggle with mounting costs of everyday goods and high taxes.
I asked if they thought the United States and Russia would ever be allies rather than adversaries. Boris suggested that there are two schools of thought on this subject−‘perhaps and never.’ Their main concern is the family’s well-being, they only watch the news once a month, and they rarely discuss politics.
Natasha described the family’s sanctuary from every day issues- their weekend retreats at their dacha. “It doesn’t have indoor plumbing or any amenities except electricity. We must bring everything that we need when we go, but it has given our family a connection with nature and a place to grow vegetables. We love it.” I thought back to my first glimpse of Russia days ago.
They commented on one state policy they find hard to accept. In the winter, which comes swiftly around early October, the government controls the heat to these residential apartment buildings. There must be three consecutive days when the outside temperature falls below 8° C (46.4° F) before any warm steam flows. “We wear a lot of coats,” said Natasha.
We affectionately embraced our new Russian ‘friends’ at departure time. Ascending from the depths of the subway station, we emerged onto a bustling St. Petersburg Square. Larisa, our ‘guide’ saw the eagerness on her charges’ faces. “Go, explore, feel the excitement of the street, take a picture with the statue of Dostoyevsky. Meet me here on the corner in 30 minutes,” she said. I rushed over to hug her.