I have been to Venice Beach, California where time has stopped in some permanently wacky version of the counterculture 1960s. It endures, a skeevy, riotous caricature of a moment in time, forever preserved.
And I have been to The Venice of the North, the city of canals now called St. Petersburg in Russia. It is the definition of endurance, a city that has been named, renamed, governed, re-governed, under siege, freed, economically upended, and through it all it is still there.
It wasn't St. Petersburg when I was there. It was Leningrad.
I was a student in 1969, spending a summer semester at a university in the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War. The Vietnam war was in full force. The space race was on with the Soviet Union, and while I was there that summer Americans made the historic first landing on the moon.
It was the tensest of times. It was the most exhilarating of times.
Jason of Garden in a City reminded me of that long ago summer with his post on visiting his son in St. Petersburg. And Nadezda of Nadezda's Northern Garden has rekindled my memories with all of her posts of St. Petersburg that show a beautiful city and gardens.
When I was there it had a remnant of aged greatness, but it was a stark and Communist-gray sort of place. World War II was a memory, but not that distant -- only 25 years earlier, still vivid to middle aged and older people living there -- and the war in Leningrad had been devastating and unimaginable. There were no men visible on the streets of the city, at least no older men of the generation that had been decimated by the war. Babushkas and younger women drove the buses, cleaned the streets, ran the shops. There were no men.
There are hundreds of bridges crossing the river and canals, and in summer, when the sun barely sets in this northern city, the sight of dozens of drawbridges over the Neva River opening up their arms in the softly lit middle of the night to let the boat traffic pass was haunting. Unsettling, though, with sunshine illuminating the emptiness of the sleeping city at 3 in the morning.
In 1969 there was color and beauty in the historic buildings like the Hermitage. But the city itself was a gray, blocky looking place, a Soviet city with functional signs that told you where stores and shops were, but had no need to advertise. There were no brands, no clamor of signage on stores and no competition for your business. There were few goods to buy anyway.
. . . behind their Communist blankness, they were delightful individuals, proud of their city, stoic about their history, welcoming to hopelessly naive strangers like myself, and utterly gracious. I met a man on the tram, and he invited me home to his apartment.
I was 19. Whose mother lets a 19 year old go to a place like Communist Russia, where an obvious lack of any mature sense would allow her to get picked up on the tram by a strange man? Or worse? What was I thinking then? But I went with him, met his wife and child, had a truly wonderful meal in their tiny apartment, and had an experience that our official student tour guides would never have allowed.
And that was not the only experience -- we all constantly escaped our strict government assigned student group guides and met people, talked with them, exchanged books they couldn't buy, found out more about the world we were visiting, and even argued with them about our way versus their political system, something that would have made our government chaperones apoplectic.
But we never did get to meet any of the North Vietnamese students living on the dorm floor just below ours. American students were assigned different times in the dining hall, and there were guards at the stairwells to their floor. It was the Soviet Union, after all, and we were at war with our host country's guests.
It was a rewarding several months, and I loved the people we met, the beauty of a historically rich city, and the learning experience at the university. But it was also a claustrophobic and confining experience.
At that time Soviet news was so strictly monitored that I felt not just homesick for my own culture, but cut off from the world. I wanted a Coke so badly. I wanted news of the world, not propaganda.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, we knew it was happening, we knew the world was watching but we got no news. The American students in our dorm huddled around a radio and listened to Voice of America broadcasts about it. There was no official news of this historic event. The Soviet Union attempted to jam the VOA broadcasts.
And yet the next day, and for days after, walking down a street in Leningrad we were greeted by passersby with shouts of congratulations, Поздравляю!! People knew all about it, they could easily tell by our dress that we were Americans, and they were genuinely excited for us. They congratulated us! That has always been one of the most moving memories of my time in that strange and different place.
How glad I am that a couple of the gardening blogs I follow have brought back those memories from 43 years ago. And now, reading those posts, St. Petersburg does not seem so strange or different at all.
It is not going to disappear as its watery sister Venice in Italy may do. It is not frozen in an artificial era like hippy Venice Beach. The Venice of the North has changed dramatically, but it has endured with grace.
I have no pictures from my trip so long ago. The pictures here are from Wikipedia. We did not compulsively take pictures in those pre-digital days, and besides, I was young and thought I was way too cool to go around looking like a tourist. Traveling light, with no money for a good camera or film or photo prints, my whole trip was unrecorded. I regret that.