Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day for him, as clearly as a mountain valley.” — Walter Benjamin
It starts on the plane. Flying from Dallas to London, a screen sits on the back of my seat. As we move, a small animated airplane makes its way along a red line stretching from America to Europe. The map of the globe spins around the plane and I can no longer tell what is up and what is down. I realize that all my life the atlases in the backs of books and the maps hanging on walls of classrooms have shown America in the center. Canada always lays atop us and Mexico forever hangs below. But America, always, is right in the center as if the globe could be oriented no other way.
So it is strange of course to see the maps in my Russian classroom with Russia taking America’s place as the center. I must calibrate. Up and down change. I feel as a young Copernicus discovering that the earth is, in fact, not the center of the universe — that actually, we are just one of a great many planets spinning around the sun. And though of course I’ve always known that America is not the literal center of the world, I have always seen it naturally as such. Absorbed by my own life, as so many of us are, I forget people on other continents going about their lives believing their country is also the center.
We live according to the maps presented to us. Mine just happened to have US at the center. My internal compass oriented itself to my surroundings and now its arm is spinning as if it lost the magnet which told North from South. But this is just part of travel: the reorientation of our minds, our bodies, and our perceptions.
Of course, aside from the metaphorical, there is also the physically disorienting aspect of travel. As Petersburg for most of the year has thick cloud cover, the sun is often hard to locate. Further, as in every big city, the light pollution makes stars impossible to see. So here we live without these natural tools of navigation.
Out the window of my homestay apartment, I can see buildings on the facades of which they’ve painted sunrises. These artificial stripes of sun are Eastwardly and the smoke billowing from industrial towers give them a sort of artificial cloud cover too. These man-made directional signs remind me of two statues in Catherine’s Summer Palace in Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo). One, on the East, depicts a child just waking up. The other, on the West, is of a child falling asleep. They were there to help the residents orient themselves in times of poor visibility.
I, like those residents, have been rendered spatially challenged in this country and look for new ways to find myself. I can wander the streets for hours without the loosest grasp on where I started. This is in part a result of St. Petersburg’s layout. The first planned city in Russia, Saint Petersburg was built in ‘ensembles’ and from building to building there is little difference in style. The details separating baroque, petrine baroque, and classicism/neoclassicism are hard to spot without an intense study of architectural design. The statues give little help to any traveller who thinks all monuments of men on horses look the same. There is the Monument to Nicholas I (Nicholas on a Horse), the famous Bronze Horseman (Tsar Peter I on a horse), the four men with horses on the edges of Anichkov Bridge, and above an arch entering Palace Square is a whole crowd of horses which seem to be galloping off into thin air. Without a keen eye for sculpture and historical knowledge these statues may start to blend together. They indicate direction less than a Petersburgian equestrian predilection.
The city is large and the more one explores it, the more infinite it seems. The effect of those nearly identical buildings makes walking through Petersburg at times like walking through a mirror maze. Streets appear that seem new but on second thought could be familiar. At times you can find entrances to courtyards behind buildings which lead to smaller shops and stairs descending downward into various restaurants and cafes.
Then there is the water, which always saves me. The Neva flows through various channels in the city. For me, locating it is like finding moss on a rock in the forest. It is through the water, too, that I realized how long it has been since I’ve seen a horizon that did not end in a building.
I was crossing a bridge to Yelagin Island when I looked to the right. I could see a great expanse of water that ended in a sort of cloud. “That’s the Gulf of Finland,” my friend informed me. I immediately felt a bit lighter. There is a certain heaviness in always being surrounded by buildings and people. The city looms over us at times. It made sense to me in that moment why, besides practical and economic reasons, so many big cities are built on the water. Looking out over a limitless sea, the city can be forgotten if only for a second.
It is a familiar feeling. Like looking out on Lake Michigan in Chicago or at the Atlantic from New York, the relief I felt looking off at that sliver of The Gulf of Finland made me realize how completely a city can swallow you. You become engulfed and forget there are limits to this infinite maze you call home.
And this is a maze of the most unexpected kind. There is no chance to settle before something throws you through a loop.
I will oddly always associate my time in this country with the smell of shawarma in the biting cold. The scent of this Levantine cuisine never fails to catch me off guard as it wafts from one of the many shawarma stands. How out of place it is! But in a country where things seem so constantly out of place, the out of place becomes the normal. My friends and I simply say “Well, it’s Russia,” whenever we encounter a new complexity or seemingly senseless thing. We have resigned to Russia’s surprises and await them on our toes.
The smoke of hookah in my lungs, the taste of instant coffee, of Georgian khinkali, of borscht and kasha, of KFC — all of it swirls together in the roaring wind of Russia. And I’ve no way to make sense of this strange cultural mash-up so all I can do is lean back and enjoy it. I’ll go home with a pile of brochures, coupons, and ticket stubs and wonder how to make sense of it. I prepare myself for a reorientation everyday, wrap up tight, and step out the door ready and hoping to lose myself anew.