First Person

Night Swimming in St. Petersburg

An excerpt from the author’s new book, Where Bears Roam the Streets

Book jacket courtesy of Harper Collins CanadaHarper Collins Canada

You can’t call a summer night in St. Petersburg, Russia, night. You can, but you’ll be lying. They call them white nights, but that’s a lie too. They’re not night, and they’re not white. Usually, at the darkest point, they’re a purplish hue. I’d seen that colour before my first trip there. I’d seen it in oil floating on the surface of water, and on the back of a skink.

One of these so-called white nights in the summer of 1999, I was crossing the bridge along Nevsky Prospekt at around three in the morning when I heard a splashing in the Griboyedov Canal below. I was with a Canadian woman, also a tourist there for the same writers’ conference. Jennifer seemed inclined to have an affair with pretty much anyone except me. So, naturally, I was drawn to her. We hurried across the street and hung over the edge of the bridge as the splashing came closer. There was a group of drunk tourist-boat captains on a dock looking toward the tunnel and cheering. Boats were moored to the dock in a chain stretching across the canal.

A swimmer appeared, moving at tremendous speed under Nevsky Prospekt. He passed between two of the moored boats and in one motion emerged out of the black water onto the dock, where the ship captains cheered. The men patted him on the back and passed him a bottle of beer. Just fifty metres beyond him, the golden domes of the kaleidoscopic Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood reflected the skink-back light of the night sky.

Jennifer was entranced by him. I was too. The mere fact that he was brave enough to swim in that water impressed me. We had heard that the Russian mafia disposed of bodies in the canals. Raskolnikov wandered the banks of this canal in Crime and Punishment, contemplating the murder of the pawnbroker in water the colour and depth of the pupil of an eye. This canal in particular repulsed Dostoevsky, and he referred to it as a ditch.

Later, Igor would tell me that, before jumping in, he had been drinking with the captains: “I wanted to be sober, and thought to swim a little bit. I thought, like, it would help. Basically, I didn’t realize I was under Nevsky Prospekt. But then I realized it and swam back.”

Jennifer and I walked around the corner to what had quickly become our favourite late night haunt, the twenty-four-hour fast-food joint Laima. Gaudy orange paint on the walls clashed with the blue neon glow of the cursive “Лайма” signage. A chandelier not unlike one I’d seen earlier that day in the Hermitage hung from the vaulted white ceiling. The waitresses wore Alice-era diner uniforms complete with nurse hats. The service industry in Russia was still in its embryonic stage and a foreigner, especially one who didn’t speak a word of Russian, could be sure to absorb only abuse and indifference. But I had inscribed on a piece of paper the phonetic approximation of the words that conjured up my default meal: kartoshka s gribami (potatoes with mushrooms). I read them out loud. I mangled them. The waitress balked. She left the counter for a while and talked with one of her colleagues, leaning against the kitchen wall and chewing gum like cud. After a while she returned to give me another shot.

Jennifer and I sat on the patio to wait for our food and have beers.

It was three-thirty in the morning. The twenty-however-many hours of light in the city had short-circuited my circadian rhythms. My body no longer required sleep, only vodka and potatoes with mushrooms. The locals experience something similar this time of year. Giddiness reigns. Russian Ladas—muscular Pintos—screamed by on Nevsky Prospekt blasting techno. The Nevsky Prospekt sidewalks were packed, everyone hailing gypsy cabs and making out and ordering sausages from the food vendors and taking photos in front of the Kazan Cathedral—where the nose in Nikolai Gogol’s nineteenth-century short story “The Nose” stopped in for a morning service, where the czars used to marry before the Soviets turned it into the Museum of Atheism, and which is now, after the fall of the Soviet Union, an important Orthodox church again. Prostitutes left the bar Marstal, where the czars used to stable their horses, arm in arm with foreigners and Russia’s new rich. Armour-plated police cars trolled the side streets looking for drunken foreigners to whom they could charge “fines.” Bands of military men who looked like fourteen-year-old boys marched in their blue berets and epaulettes and striped navy shirts. Teenage girls galloped their horses along the Griboyedov, swigging from bottles of beer, and offering rides to children in the square in front of the otherworldly onion-domed Church of the Saviour on the Spilt Blood, which was built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated after abolishing serfdom in Russia two years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Across the canal from where we sat was the five-storey Singer Sewing Machine building, originally constructed in 1904, home to the American consulate a few years prior to World War II and later home to the Soviet Writers’ Union. At the top of the Singer building was a glass globe where, one of the local poets would later tell me, writers used to take their dates to make out, looking down on this whole scene, including what at this particular moment would be a sauced me, a drunk tourist on the Laima patio not knowing any of this.

Before I arrived in St. Petersburg, I didn’t know a word of Russian. I had never been outside North America before. I didn’t know that Leningrad, after Lenin, had been the name of St. Petersburg before perestroika, and that before the Revolution it had been Petrograd, after Peter the Great. Any vague points of familiarity with Russia came from the movies Reds and Red October and Red Heat and Red Dawn. With regard to Russian politics, I had a mild curiosity about the strange mark on Gorbachev’s head. About Russians in general, I knew next to nothing. I have never been one to underestimate my own ignorance, as I have proven to myself time and time again that my capacity in this regard is limitless. My cup runneth over. But by the time I arrived in Russia, I did have some vague expectations of the place, gleaned almost completely from Gogol’s “The Nose” and Turgenev’s “First Love” and a couple of other stories. At least I’d gleaned something about the scenery and about a certain kind of character that I might expect to meet there—a sadistic barber…

But I didn’t have anyone like Igor even remotely in mind.

I’d discovered Russian billiards, and I was babbling about it to Jennifer, who clearly didn’t care. “And the balls,” I said, “are literally the size of grapefruits. And they’re all white. And they barely fit in the pockets, and the table, the goddamn table, it’s like the size of the former Soviet Union itself…”

She was using the side of her fork to scrape the mushroom sauce off her plate and nodding her head when a voice behind her said, “You like Russian billiards? ” The voice belonged to the guy whom we saw climb out of the Griboyedov Canal. He was sitting at the table behind us, still damp, drinking a beer, a black cylindrical case propped against the wall next to him.

“I do,” I said. “I mean, I haven’t played. But I saw it. I’ve seen some people play it. I have no idea. I haven’t played. I don’t…”

He smiled. “This is real pool game,” he said. He extended his hand to Jennifer. Then, reaching across the table to shake mine, he said, “Igor.” No matter what cultural sensitivity program you graduated from, it’s impossible to suppress amusement when this name is said with this accent by a dude like this.

He invited us to a nearby pool hall, and while I was apprehensive, Jennifer immediately agreed. We walked down the canal to a place called Panda, just at the other end of the block by the short Bank Bridge, which was guarded by four massive griffin statues, two on each side.

Inside, the scene was part David Lynch and part Jean-Luc Godard: A stunning bartender surrounded by some other stunning women. Some gangster-looking guys cracking these huge white balls back and forth with sticks the size of cane poles on massive green billiard tables. There was a claw machine with stuffed-animal prizes for ten rubles. A small TV mounted on the wall pumped out music videos, and we had to shout to hear one another. We heard Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” in English, followed by Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” in Spanish, followed by Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” in Ukrainian, which I think was supposed to be a joke. This was the song you heard all over St. Petersburg in the summer of 1999, one version or another, no matter if you were in a club or sitting at a beer garden or in a gypsy cab driven by a sixty-year-old man.

We had some beers, and I peeked into a side room lined with electronic slot machines. A cleaning lady stood there, and it took a moment to realize that she was asleep, propped up by her mop, which was a rag wrapped around a two-by-four attached to a broomstick.

Igor had a little black nylon glove that fit over his index finger and thumb to cut friction. He schooled me for a few games. When it comes to Russian billiards, most people play either Moscow Pyramid or Amerikanka (which means “American girl”). The balls are sixty-two millimetres in diameter and the pockets are sixty-four millimetres. It means you’re either dead-on or the ball bounces out. Igor tried to teach me an essential Russian billiards shot in which you carom the cue ball into the pocket off another ball. It required completely counterintuitive angle and spin, and I couldn’t make it happen.

A guy wearing a black leather jacket came in with a group of four beggars. Igor nodded at the guy and they shook hands. Then the guy went to the bar and negotiated with the stunning bartender for a moment. He bought the beggars beer and left them.

Igor told me that each beggar on Nevsky Prospect owes a cut to some mafia, and this is their reward for a good day.

“Now, we will have our reward for good day,” he said.

We all went to the bar, where the stunning bartender and her two stunning friends were sitting. Igor ordered three hundred grams of vodka (fifty grams, a shot, for each of us) and six glasses. The bartender filled a carafe of vodka. Igor tapped a glass each in front of me, Jennifer, the stunning bartender, her two stunning friends, and, finally, himself.

The vodka, straight from the freezer, poured thick as syrup. It was nearly six in the morning, and Igor showed no signs of slowing. So I was relieved when he said, “I’m sorry, guys. After this I must sleep for work tomorrow.” He turned to me: “I will call you in two days and show you Russian banya.”

We did the shots. We thanked him. I doubted I’d ever hear from him again after this. The white sun blazed in through the Panda windows.

Jeff Parker is the author of Where Bears Roam the Streets: A Russian Journal, published by Harper Collins Canada in June 2014. His earlier works include a novel, The Ovenman, and the short story collection The Taste of Penny.

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