Back to the (radiant) future!

[n.b., The car in the photograph above was in front of us for the better part of ten miles — Steph would not pass it, actually — on the drive back to Montréal from Potsdam right before I came to Saint Petersburg. Our supposition was that it was coming up to take part in Montréal’s ComicCon. It seems apropos for this post’s title and subject matter]

It’s been a while — almost six months —  since I’ve poked my head up on this blog. It’s been even longer than that — more than eleven months — since I last set foot in the city that is the raison d’être of this whole blog in the first place.

That’s right. I’m back in Saint Petersburg, ready and raring to go for my second round of participating in NYI, teaching another cultural studies seminar — this time on a concept called “Affirmative Negativity” that I will explain in more detail in another post soon — for the bright, eager, and interesting students from all around the world who come to this wonderful, weird place in July to be a part of something that, frankly, I can’t imagine my life without at this point.

So let’s talk a little about how we got here, lit. and fig., shall we?

Back when the snow was still on the ground (and not just in the frozen wastes of northern New York, southern Quebec, and Karelia), it was confirmed that NYI 14 would, indeed, by happening and that I was invited to once again be an instructor. My wife Stephanie and I drove down from Montréal to NYC (well, we drove to Peekskill, NY and took the train to Manhattan from there) in March on a 50% social-50% professional visit that had NYI implications, given that we were visiting with NYI co-director John Bailyn, his wife (and NYI faculty member) Dijana Jelača, their daughter, and my NYI colleague and roommate, Mitja Velikonja, who was visiting from Slovenia and giving a series of talks in New York and New England.

I had the pleasure of attending Mitja’s talk at NYU on graffiti and Yugo-nostalgia, which combined the subjects of his course from last summer and the one he’s teaching this summer. Stephanie hadn’t met Mitja before his talk and we took the chance to catch up/get to know one another afterwards by going for a pint and a rootle through the Strand bookshop on an unseasonably warm and gorgeous early spring day. I also gave a talk on Cold War satire to John’s students out at SUNY Stony Brook, reprising some of what I did during last year’s NYI in an effort to (among other things) recruit some more Stony Brookers for this year’s version. We’ll see if it did any good…

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in Bed-Stuy, about a mile’s walk from John and Dijana’s lovely brownstone, at which we were treated to dinner on one of our nights in the city. At the risk of sounding like an unrepentant gentrifier (I’m not, recognizing that there are some pretty major downs than come with some of the equally major ups of the influx of new people and new money into neighborhoods with distinct ethnic and racial heritages), I was absolutely smitten with it, having not been there since the mid-1990s, when I probably was pretty stupid for wandering around, looking for the block on which most of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was filmed. We had drinks at a great neighborhood bar called Bed-Vyne and then had dinner at a place that absolutely blew us both away, Peaches HotHouse, a place with that bills itself a an “urban country café” and makes food so good we came right back the next night and brought John, Mitja, and NYI staffer Alecia Barbour with us to give them a taste as well. Finding an excuse to go back to NYC simply to have the chance to eat their shrimp po’boy, Nashville-style fried chicken, grits, cornbread, and greens again has pretty much become a daily ritual since that trip.

What does that have to do with why I’m here in Saint Petersburg now? Well, not much, but it was yet another occasion on which food, drink, and work all mixed wonderfully and all of the people involved were specifically ones I met through NYI, so that matters a lot in the end for my conviction that this is how and why I want to live and work. Also, there is apparently now good barbecue in Saint Petersburg, if the advance scouting of Masha is to be trusted (which I have every reason to believe it should be…).

The next four months involved some pre-planning for my course, some arranging of schedules to free up July by setting aside time to work on other things in June and August, and a lot of e-mails back and forth with various NYI friends repeating the mantra “Is it July yet?” (which has also become 3/4ths of a song that I need to finish in the next couple of weeks so that I can debut it at this year’s musical gig, which will be at a new location since 2×12, last year’s venue, sadly closed back in the fall…).

[note: At this point in writing this post, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and called it a night — my first back in the city. That was at 10 o’clock, or early twilight as it is known in St. Petersburg in July. A good, relatively solid six hours of sleep later and I’m awake again at 4 a.m., with almost full sunlight streaming in through the window. Having learned the futility of fighting midnight, jet-lag wakeups, I’ve decided to just get up and read/write a little until I’m sleepy again and then have a snooze until mid-morning, at which point my body will hopefully believe that the past few days have been completely normal.]

So then yesterday (at this point, I suppose it’s technically two days ago, but I’ve only had one sleep, so it feels like yesterday still)…so then on Thursday, let’s call it, I got on a plane around 5:00 in the afternoon in Montréal, just as the airport’s various television screens were showing the final throes of Germany’s inglorious loss to France in the Euro 2016 semifinals. I had been wondering where I was going to watch the final on Sunday in Saint Petersburg if the Germans actually made it to that point (the…um…“fraught” history of German-Russian relations in this city over the course of the past few centuries made me somewhat reticent to be overly jubilant about my rooting interest, should it come to that, though soccer can sometimes make for strangely ahistorical bedfellows, even if only temporarily…). Some questionable handball calls and some ill-timed inability to score goals on the Germans’ part have eliminated the need for me to deal with that particular issue of cross-cultural communication.

My flight to Zurich aboard a gigantic and brand-new Swiss Boeing 777

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…was quite comfortable, though the plane is not quite as big as the inflight tracking program would make it seem…

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Sadly,the vegetarian meals from Hiltl — an amazing restaurant in Zürich at which I ate with my cousin Afra back in 2010 — are only available on Swiss flights originating from Zürich, but I had a tolerable meal, augmented with distinctly Swiss beer…

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…and some timely chocolate.

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I watched Deadpool and 10 Cloverfield Lane during the flight, each of which was amusing diversion, if not earth-shattering. We arrived at 6:15 in the morning, and as I exited the plane, I noticed a man who looked distinctly like legendary jazz bassist Marcus Miller standing sleepily in the arrival area.

photo 2
Trust me, the guy in a black jacket and white t-shirt partially obscured at the right side of this photo is TOTALLY Marcus Miller!

I saw him play along with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten at the International Jazz Festival in Montréal back in 2012 and was blown away, so  I thought about approaching him and offering my esteem, but I had a tiny shred of doubt that it was him (despite the fact that he was wearing his signature pork-pie hat) and that it would totally make sense — both logistically and alphabetically — for him to be shuttling between the jazz festivals in Montréal and Montreux (where, as I later discovered, he was playing that very night — i.e., a few hours ago).

I fussed around in the very clean, very orderly Zürich airport for a few hours until my flight for Saint Petersburg left at 9:15. Having not slept on the overnight flight, I caught a couple of hours of sleep on this one and arrived at Pulkovo in relatively good shape, certainly better than last year, when I confused poor Anna Neva (who I was only meeting for the first time then, mind you…) with my fundamental inability to be functional and get things done, like purchasing a sim-card for my phone. No such problems this time around, as Anya Surovegina met me at the arrivals area with a big smile and hug and we took care of minor logistical issues before she put me in a van heading for the city.

My lack of sleep caught up with me a little during the ride and I spent most of it yawning and looking out the window at the now strangely familiar sights of the ride in along Moskovskiy Prospekt. So many things about this trip are made easier by now having done it twice before — is it really possible that I had never come to this amazing city before April 2014?!? — and it’s fascinating to me how familiar so much of it seems, even as parts of it still get me all turned around. I caught myself mumbling out landmarks, both collective and personal, as we passed them on the drive in, almost as though I was calling them back into existence after mental storage (don’t worry, Saint Petersburg, I am not such a narcissist that I believe you don’t exist without my presence…it’s just an observation of my mental/emotional state during a jet-lagged rekindling of our acquaintance).

While at the airport, Anya had informed me that they were unfortunately not able to get the same apartment as last year for us, a fact that initially had me somewhat downcast, as it was quite a comfortable and sociable place in which I’d felt very much at home. They did manage to find another apartment about a kilometer away from the old one, still on Petrogradsky Island and still fairly close to the same metro-stop and bus-lines. I will admit,though, that my first reaction was disappointment.

Well, my second reaction was jaw-dropped amazement as Masha met me at the flat, just off Bolshoy Prospekt near ulitsa Lenina. It is beyond anything I could have hoped for and made me feel a little guilty for abandoning my disappointment about not getting the one on ulitsa Popova again. Not only is Mitja rooming with me again — along with a linguist from Cornell named Miloje Despić, who will only be here for the first two weeks of NYI — but Steph is also coming over about two weeks after me, so having an inviting space was a high priority. Brothers and sisters, lemme tell ya…this is one inviting space.

It’s a sixth-floor (i.e., top-floor) apartment in a fairly old building, but one that has gotten some renovation work done and, as a result, is in great shape. The building has the narrowest elevator I have ever seen; Masha and I rode it up with my suitcase to save the schlep up the six flights, but that may be the last time I ride it, in the interest of not developing claustrophobia. The elevator may be the only uncomfortable thing about the flat, though, and I already want to write a note of thanks to the English journalist/writer who normally lives in it, but is renting it out to us for the month of NYI.

I mean, look at this place!

I explored it for the better part of the evening as I unpacked and made myself comfortable and I couldn’t find a whole lot about it about which to gripe. I explored the immediate environs briefly on a walk to an ATM to equip myself with some rubles, discovering (among other things…) a little record shop called Totem right across the way that’s going to need considerably more attention at some point when neither my language-skills nor my personality were as wobbly as they were last evening after thirty-plus hours of being mostly awake and a 35%-circumnavigation of the globe.

So now it’s 5:30 a.m. and this is the view out my window…

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The golden spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress is visible as well, off to the south, making for quite the iconic view of the city from this rooftop bower. My plan of tiring myself out with some writing seems to be working, though, so I may head back into slumberland for a couple more hours before starting my Saturday in earnest.

If you’re reading with me again, welcome back. If you’re a new reader or an accidental arrival on these pages, welcome likewise. I can’t promise anything in particular as far as content goes, but I hope it’s at least amusement of a sort for a while.

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3 thoughts on “Back to the (radiant) future!

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