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The Satiating Conclusion to “Adventures in Avoidance”
Last week, we began exploring the dangers of avoidance through the author’s reminisces of his first hours on Russian soil. This is Part Two of that story…
Having been in St. Petersburg a mere few hours, I was beginning to feel confined in my host mother Nina’s apartment. Not being able to communicate with her, nor understand the television shows she watched, I figured the best use of my time was to get out and see a bit of the city. “I’m going out to get some water,” I attempted to say, although I’m sure it was more like “Water” with me pointing to the door.
Nina kindly closed the door behind me, wishing me well. Having freed myself of the struggle of miscommunication, I exhaled a sigh of relief. My nostrils and lungs filled quickly, however, with the dank air of the 180 year-old building. Like so much of St. Petersburg at the time, it was badly in need of renovation, far-removed from its former glory. The mosaic work in the entryway, and its proximity to the main artery of the city, Nevsky Prospekt, testified that this was once home to the well-to-do.
Once on the street in the drab courtyard below, I began to realize I would soon again need to utilize my limited Russian to procure my much-needed bottle of water. I began rehearsing in my mind how that conversation would go, much like I would later when riding public transportation. “Vy ne vyhodite?” I’d repeat, again and again, silently to myself. “Are you exiting now?” was the polite way of requesting someone to step aside to allow you to pass on a crowded bus or trolley. Tension would rise within me, as I delayed as long as possible to trouble someone else to move, yet worried that I might wait too long and miss my stop. No matter how long I waited and how many times I practiced, “Vy ne vyhodite?” never came out as pristinely as I imagined, sounding more akin to someone gargling mouthwash, or at best, speaking with a mouth full of marbles.
Frenziedly repeating to myself the Russian equivalent of “I’d like some water, please”, I exited the courtyard onto Ulitsa Marata, one of the many tributaries that fed Nevsky Prospekt. It was nearing the tail end of the White Nights, so although it must have been nearly 8 pm, it was as bright as midday outside. I paused for a moment, looking left, then right, finally turning in the direction of the main thoroughfare. It was not long before I came upon a laryok (pronounced lar-yoke), which were ubiquitous in the nascent free-market economic sphere of post-Soviet Russia. Many were no bigger than a modern-day Port-O-Potty, yet packed in sundry items like a Ben Franklin. Bottled water, vodka, beer, chewing gum, cigarettes (often sold individually), matches, and assorted candy bars, including Snickers, were common finds.
The beauty of the laryok was that (most) everything for sale was exhibited in the window. This was at times a godsend for the language impaired, as often all you had to do was point to what you wanted and say “Give me, please…” However, if the laryok was stuffed to the gills, as many were, there was no possibility of the person inside being able to see what exactly you were pointing to. Indeed, often the only point of contact with the person working was through a very small window.
Approaching the laryok, my stomach began to tighten. I spent a moment ostensibly perusing the offerings, all the while avoiding the inevitable: I… must… speak… Russian. The attendant did me a favor, however, by offering brusquely, “What do you want?” “I’d like water, please,” I stammered in response. Again, a tense and unpleasant pause ensued. “What had I done wrong?” I asked myself. And once more, a quixotic expression enveloped my interlocutor. This is the discomfort of a stranger in a strange land.
“What do you want?” she asked in confusion. “Wa-TER”, I responded. “Ya hochu vah-DOO!” Perplexion. Still, we were apparently no closer to my goal. It was beginning to look like I’d need to boil my beverages, or drink Coke all month long. And then, the clouds parted. Her body relaxed, and the woman smiled. “VOH-du!” she exhaled. “You want WA-ter!” This time, a more minor gaffe on my part, stressing the wrong syllable, had been to blame for our confusion. But soon enough, the long-awaited water was mine, and I retreated, half-defeated, back to the confines of my bunker-like bedroom.
So many memories in such a short time. And I still had yet to meet Anya…