Spring in St. Petersburg came suddenly — almost all at once.
Maslenitsa was in mid-February, an ancient Slavic holiday with both Pagan and Christian roots meant to mark the coming of Spring. In February though, Spring still seemed a long way off. My fingers froze in my pockets as I walked around a Maslenitsa celebration on Yelagin Island. The snow was deep then, so deep it seemed impossible to me that it would ever melt. There were stores of it built up around trees and covering fields. Since I only ever saw blankets of snow and ice where parks would be, it almost felt like I’d forgotten what grass looked like.
Then came March and with it the supposed first day of Spring. But the weather did not listen to the calendar’s dictates and the cold continued. We looked around at the snow and wondered if the thaw would ever come as promised. We waited.
Sometime in late March, I left my house without checking the weather and was surprised by un-frozen water falling from the sky. The rain had come from nowhere and was happily upon us. It flooded some streets to nearly half up a car’s wheel. The air was cool and wet and Spring in St. Petersburg was apparent.
There are a few things one should know about St. Petersburg in Spring. And by a few things, I mean only one main thing that takes many forms: wetness. It comes from the ground and from the sky. The ice melting into small ponds in the streets or in parks. Some sort of precipitation from the sky. Snow, rain, or mokri sneg (literally translated to ‘wet snow’). The icicles dripping from the tops of buildings onto your shoulders and head. The sounds your feet make are no longer the crunching of snow, but now the splashing of muddy water.
Petersburg blooms in spring. As the cold lifts, a whole new world is unveiled. The puddles have the same effect as well-placed mirrors in a palace: they make the space expand. In the pooled reflections one can see the tops of buildings and the tips of trees so that Petersburg goes on forever in this mirrored ground. The pastels of the city center brighten and the sun shines when the rain isn’t falling so that one can lift their head.
I hadn’t realized until Spring came to St. Petersburg how much time I’d spent looking at the ground or else turtled-up in my jacket so as to stop the wind and biting-air from stinging my cheeks. Now, in this new warmth, I look up. I can walk alongside the flowing Neva, the frozen-surface of which I’d walked across just a month ago. Now the ice is broken up in the center to allow boats to pass. Things are opening and it’s not just the ice of the river. The bridges are beginning to split and lift at night, a sign of summer coming. The days are growing longer and not a few times I’ve woken early from the sun coming in through the curtains. This is a telltale sign of St. Petersburg’s famous White Nights which will start sometime at the end of May or in June.
Due to the light lingering longer into the night, I’ve been able to stay out in the city for longer exploring areas I hadn’t seen before. Now that the weather is warmer, I don’t have to seek shelter inside cafes and museums. After a few months of studying the interiors of Petersburg, I get to see the exteriors. The architecture and the colors of downtown. I can wander far from the main streets like Nevsky and see some of the smaller streets. I don’t fear the wind near the water and can walk along the various canals winding through the city.
It seems I’m not the only one enjoying the weather. With Spring come the tourists. The streets are flooded with people. In parks there are dogs (some with small rain boots) and kids running and splashing about. Before, when we Americans first arrived in Russia, we all marveled at how little the Russians seemed to smile. But now, things are changing. I can hear laughter on the street and see teeth flashing through up-turned lips. The Russian-winter hibernation has ended.
While it is true that the colors are brighter in the sun, there is also an element of grime that the clouds had previously covered up. I’ve seen dirt on the buildings I hadn’t seen before and cigarettes littering the ground at a higher frequency. They’d been hidden under snow all winter frozen in the time capsule of ice.. But this mess won’t stay long. It is as if the whole city were taking part in a massive clean-up operation to ready the city for the influx of tourists. Every day the snow melts a bit more to reveal a new layer of months old trash and everyday people can be seen in the streets with brooms sweeping away at the cigarette butts and abandoned plastic bags. I’ve seen painters come out to touch up the buildings and they’ve brought out the nicer trams and metro cars to welcome the tourists. Little by little the ground is turning from white, to brown, to green.
In a city famous for its gardens, this could not be a more exciting time. I keep my eyes on the branches waiting for them to fill with leaves. Until I can stroll through the gardens in full bloom, I’ve been strolling around prospects and avenues and watching the Russian people change like the city itself.
The children, now free of their constricting winter coats ride scooters through the street. I’ve observed that in Russia, scooters are more popular than skateboards and have watched teens do tricks by the metro — jumps and spins and hops. The bikers, too, are taking advantage of the nearly iceless paths. Little by little the Russians are revealing themselves to me… quite literally. Their taking off their gloves, their hats, their boots!
The happiness of the season only grew recently with Easter, a big holiday for the Russian Orthodox Church. My host mom and I boiled eggs and decorated them with heat-shrinking wrap. We ate the traditional Easter cake and I went as a guest for a small Easter feast to a friend’s house where we talked about the differences in our Easter traditions. In America, we hide little plastic eggs and send the children searching, but here they take eggs and hit them against each other. Whoever’s egg cracks, loses. Though egg smashing isn’t my ‘thing,’ I’m happy to have had the pleasure of celebrating a familiar holiday in an unfamiliar place.
After the meal I walked home and took a detour to lengthen my walk. The sun is shining and the season’s changes have made my own love for this city bloom.