"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." ~Anton Chekhov
The spring chapter of my St-Petersburg journey was a time of sharing. The city experienced a stunning transformation as greenery returned to the gardens and nights turned white, streets regained the leisure of outside mingling, and festivals congregated folks seeking sunshine, the touch of music, art and heartwarming smiles. St-Petersburgians are light worshipers; the gloomy atmosphere of the winter months tends to generate a somber tone in the conversations, a feeling of being warmth-deprived, a yearning for the soothing months of summer and the days spent at the дача (dacha). Witnessing nights being translucent and inhabiting in a constant state of light was a bit disconcerting, I must admit, but the continuity of days seem endless, as they were the possibilities.
Documentary by Насти Самущенко
Welcoming loved ones to St-Petersburg somehow redefined my perceptions as cultural passenger, allowed me to develop a deeper sense of belonging, and to practice the awareness of being local in relation to my visitors from afar. What is our perception as foreigners traveling in a given city? How does a foreigner passing-by relate to the culture of a new city? The practice of traveling is multifaceted and possesses an intrinsic element of wandering. People travel for the most part with the purpose to reach a particular destination, in which case wandering is not desirable; however, one can travel with the intention to let destinations and experiences come to oneself by allowing wandering and embracing unexpected paths in the journey. Traveling with intention implies paying attention to cultural nuances that often escape the eye of the tourist, be willing to perceive differences and recognize their value, noticing the new reality not filtered trough the lens of the native culture. Sharing is inherent to traveling with intention, and the most compelling way to bond emotionally, to connect intellectually, to let oneself exist in the co-ownership of experiences; it is an act that requires trust, and involves thinking collectively, feeling communal, negotiating boundaries and finding a safe space to freely express oneself while honoring the community spirit.
I am grateful for the opportunity to walk the streets of St-Petersburg hand in hand with those who were seduced by the idea of traveling to Russia, joining my sabbatical voyage, and discovering the wonders of such complex society. Contemplating the city in a new light through the lens of my visitors prompted me to reflect once more on the learning that occurred through the course of the previous months spent in delightful solitude or in the rewarding company of Russian youth. The reflection came this time accompanied by deep nostalgia facing the proximity of my departure. I realize that the most compelling lessons I learned this past year were ignited by conversations I had with students at the university, cafés, museums, outdoor spaces, and the stories we built together. They trusted me to speak from their heart, to listen with intention, to share personal feelings, diverse opinions without the fear of being judged. I was not alone in my journey of discovering, they offered me a rich variety of opportunities to approach the Russian idiosyncrasy and immerse in its intricate social paths.
Spring found me also in Moscow. Words fall short to express the vertigo I experienced when I walked on the Красная Площадь (Red Square), and witness the overwhelming grandeur of the Кремль (Kremlin); the memory of my grandfather more vivid than ever, stories from his exile in Russia coming alive, commemorative music of old glories filling the air. Moscow's architecture offers the visitor a window into Soviet times. The power that the Kremlin exudes is intentional; never before I heard buildings speaking that loudly, never before architecture was so overpowering. It is a massive fortitude overlooking the Москва-река (Moskva River), and it is composed of emblematic buildings such the Государственный Исторический музей (State Historical Museum), the ГУМ (State Department Store), the Собор Василия Блаженного (Cathedral of Saint Basil), and Мавзолей Ленина (Lenin’s Mausoleum). The atmosphere in the square feels solemn; stone walls that witnessed the transformation of a nation; walls that still today are contentious, tensions with a different name transpiring the red brick. Moscow does not embrace you with pastel-colored palaces and charming canals, Moscow is determined, audacious, controversial, a world city. Moscow was home of many heroes, including my grandfather, and while I only had the chance to flirt with it for a bit, I am ecstatic for this brief encounter.