The Lesson I Learned from
Three Russian Teenagers

By M. P. PRABHAKARAN
  

  A tourist boat cruising through one of the canals in St. Petersburg. Canals with buildings and greeneries on both sides add to the beauty of St. Petersburg, and hence its nickname the “Venice of the North.” The city is a collection of 42 islands, linked, as of 1975, by 342 bridges. Before the first permanent bridge was built by Czar Nicholas I, in 1850, people used boats to travel from one island to another. Now boats, like the one above, also take tourists on pleasure cruises through various canals in the city.


July 21, 2009—Tuesday
  
I was the only passenger on the early-morning bus that took me to Helsinki’s central train station. As I approached the arch-shaped front of Rautatieasema Jarnvägsstation—that’s how the station’s name is written at its entrance—I said to myself, “No, this won’t be my final good-bye to Helsinki.” Thanks to the wonderful time I had with my friend Martine, Helsinki has become a place I would love to go back to again and again.

The train to St. Petersburg had not pulled in yet. On the platform, I ran into an American couple. The first question the woman asked me, soon after we exchanged “good mornings,” was: “Which part of India do you come from?”

At 6:30 in the morning, in a place where Indians are a rarity, any Indian would find a question like that very cheering. “So, you have been to India, eh,” I said in reply.

“Yes,” the man said, “our last vacation was spent in India. It was a little over a year ago.”

When I told them that I was born and brought up in Kerala, their faces lit up. “That’s where we had the most enjoyable time,” the woman said.

At that point, the train trundled in. The board in front of it read "pietari st,” which I took to mean St. Petersburg, my next destination. The seats allocated to the American couple and me were in separate cars. I was disappointed that I couldn’t continue my conversation with them.

The disappointment vanished, though, as soon as a young Finnish woman came and sat by my side and started talking. A dancer by profession, she was going to St. Petersburg to take a one-week refresher course in Russian dance.

“Ballet?” I asked her.

“No, it has more to do with body movements than actual dancing.” She used the Russian word for that art form. I didn’t get it.

As the train crossed the border between Finland and Russia, a few Russian immigration officials came and checked our passports. Another one came and took away the passports. That made me nervous. When you are in a foreign country, the one document you always want to cling to is your passport. You get nervous once it is taken away from you. Doesn’t matter that the person who took it is an immigration official. As long as he or she is out of sight, you have reason to worry.

Seeing the worried look on my face, the Finnish dancer said, “You will get it back.”

There was another reason for my worry. I had nothing in writing to prove that my passport was with a Russian official. A few minutes later, to my relief, a few officials returned with all the passports and started giving them back, one by one. They identified each passenger by looking at his or her face and then at the person’s picture in the passport. Fortunately, I was carrying my recently renewed passport, which had my latest picture. Had I been carrying the old passport, issued nearly ten years before, the Russian officials would have been justified in suspecting some foul play on my part. The old passport had my picture with a head full of hair. The person the Russian officials were looking at was completely bald. The transformation was not gradual. It happened fast, in a two-year period.

“There could be a better way to identify the owner of the passport,” I told the Finnish lady.

“Russians are known for their lengthy and rigid bureaucratic procedures,” she said.

“Yes, I got a taste of it while applying for the visa to come here. The instructions and application form posted online were of no use. When I went to the Russian consulate in New York, with the application form duly filled in, meticulously following all the instructions, I was told that the form and the online instructions were outdated. They gave me a new set of forms to fill in and asked me to go back the next day. Have you been to Bangkok? The visa is stamped on arrival, with no questions asked. No wonder tourists from all over the world flock to countries like Thailand.”

“I don’t think things will ever be that easy in Russia,” she said. Then she looked out and fell into a pensive mood. Pointing to the wooded areas the train passed through, she added, “All this was part of Finland once upon a time. The Russians grabbed it from us.” She fell silent again. After a minute or so, she added, “We would rather forget all that now.”

I wondered what her reaction would be if I asked her about the Swedish occupation of her whole country before the Russians grabbed parts of it. On second thoughts, I decided not to open that can of worms.

Thanks to my chance meeting with her, locating the bed-and-breakfast place in St. Petersburg, where I was going to stay, became easy. Her Russian friend, who had come to receive her at the train station in St. Petersburg, was familiar with the whole city and its suburbs. As soon as I was intriduced to her by my Finnish acquaintance, I showed her the address of the place. The Russian told me that I had to take the metro. “We are going in the same direction,” she added.

I was happy to note that she spoke good English. She helped me buy the token for the metro. While getting on the train, she said, “You have to get off at the third stop.”

I was so immersed in conversation with the two ladies that I forgot to count the metro stops we passed. When the train reached the station where I had to get off, the Russian said, “This is your stop,” and pushed me toward the door. The train was crowded.

While getting off, I shouted through the din, “Come to my bed-and-breakfast place in the evening. I will treat you to the best Russian vodka.”

“We’ll see,” they shouted back and waved good-bye to me.

Innocent Giggles and Mannerisms

Once I came out of the subway station, I was almost lost. With all the street names written only in Russian, it was impossible for me to figure out which street to take. I approached three students who were standing at the entrance to the subway. They were conducting some kind of survey among passengers who had just got off the train. The fact that they spoke no English did not stand in the way of their wanting to help me. I showed them the telephone number of the bed-and-breakfast place and indicated, using my own sign language, that I had to call that number. One of them, a smart-looking boy in a three-piece suit, readily sprang into action.

While he was busy on his cellphone, I tried to engage his two friends in conversation. Pretty girls in their teens, they said something in Russian and kept giggling. Though I didn’t understand a word of what they said, their innocent giggles and mannerisms endeared them to me. As soon as their friend got the owner of the bed-and-breakfast place on the line, he handed me his cellphone and gestured to me to talk into it.

Before leaving New York, I had spoken with Tania, the owner, twice. A retired schoolteacher, she spoke fairly good English. The boy had already told her exactly where I was standing. As soon as she heard me say hello, she said, “You are facing Ligovsky Prospekt. Turn to your right on that avenue and keep walking. When you reach the corner of Ligovsky and Svechnoi Street, you will see a blond woman, one meter and forty-five centimeters tall, smiling at you. See you in fifteen minutes.”

I didn’t know how to express my gratitude to the three youngsters. I handed the cell phone back to the boy and gave him a hug. Then I put my arms around all three and held them close to me. The boy just smiled, but the girls couldn’t control their giggles. I was getting emotional, too. “The future of Russia is safe in your hands,” I told them. “Thanks a million for your help.”

I knew they didn’t understand anything I said, except the word Russia, but I couldn’t hold back what came straight from my heart. The girls kept on giggling, and the young man said something in Russian. All three faces exuded joy. I figured out that they were happy that they were able to help me out.

Reluctantly, I released them from my grip and walked toward Ligovsky Prospekt, saying to myself, “Language is no barrier if people have the desire to help one another. What these three Russian teenagers have done is a reaffirmation of that basic principle in human relations.”

With a heart filled with joy, and with the smiling faces of three bubbly youngsters before my mind’s eye, I kept walking. I knew my destination was the intersection of two streets, where a blond woman would be smiling at me. The names of the cross-streets I was passing by didn’t mean anything to me. They were all written in Russian. The same was the case with the description that Tania had given of her height. Being so used to feet and inches, I was not able to readily gauge her height, which she had given in meters and centimeters.

I knew, however, that she wouldn’t have any problem recognizing me. Nobody would have any problem recognizing the only Indian walking on a street in a Russian city. The moment Tania spotted me, she started grinning. “This way,” she said.

I had not expected a Russian woman to be so tiny.

She led me into an old building with a rickety wooden staircase. We walked up two flights and reached her two-bedroom apartment. When I booked the place online two months earlier, I had no way of knowing the condition of the apartment and the nature of Tania’s operation. The condition of the apartment left much to be desired. But then, I couldn’t have asked for more for the money I was prepared to pay. I had settled for the cheapest I found online.

Illegal Operation

In time, I learned that bed-and-breakfast places like this one were many in St. Petersburg. Strictly speaking, they were illegal, but the authorities looked the other way when people with limited income supplemented it in this manner.

Tania had bought her apartment from the State when the offer came after the collapse of Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. In Communist days, accommodations were given free to the needy, but even the needy had to wait for long to get them. The demand always exceeded the supply, and who got what from the State was always determined by the capacity of the claimant to grease the palm of the bureaucrat or the party official dealing with the claim. Very often, both positions were held by the same individual.

Tania let her alcoholic ex-husband continue to stay in the place after their divorce. She did it out of humanitarian consideration: “His pension was not sufficient even to buy his booze.”

She occupied one of the two bedrooms and rented out the other to budget-conscious travelers like me. Her ex-husband used the living room and slept on the couch. On days the extra bedroom was not rented out, she let him use it. Once in a while, when she was financially tight, she rented out both bedrooms. On those occasions, she shipped her ex-husband to her mother’s place and occupied the living-room couch herself. “I have to do it to make ends meet,” Tania told me. “The pension that I get as a retired schoolteacher is not sufficient to maintain even the simple life I am living.”

I felt happy that I was able to help her in a small way.

​​

(Published on October 4, 2016, This is a slightly edited version of Chapter 7 from the author's recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World – II: What I Learned from My Thirty-Day European Odyssey. The book is available online at amazon.com, xlibris.com and prabhakarantravels.com, and at Barnes and Noble.)

(Comments from readers are welcome. Send your comments to
letters@eastwestinquirer.com)