Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Russian party at Sashas Studio

My old Sculpture Teacher turned 55 and had a party last weekend at his studio

close call


Unfortunately the temperature has fluctuated and at times it rises above freezing. This along with the enormous vehicular congestion and lack of emissions regulations makes for a lot of black sludge. This in turn covers stubborn black ice, which laces the ground unevenly. With precarious steps I work my way across the street looking both ways many times as the cars don’t bother slowing down in this anti litigious society. I realize halfway to school I forgot to bring my second drawing for the student exhibition today and resign myself to the return journey and a late start at sculpture. Being tired and a bit despondent at the notion of trekking an extra 30 minutes through the treacherous unsalted streets, I wonder how many old ladies have broken their hips this week. Just as I finish this thought I see a man with a peg leg hobbling down the road, not a prosthetic but a wooden peg. I half expect to see an eye patch, but just think “there go I but for the grace of. . .” just then I’m interrupted by the sliding sound of rubber on ice and then a crunch of metal and a moment later I process what I just saw. A bicyclist was hit and run over. He lies entangled in gears and spokes. The back tire looks like a huge dirty potato chip and I think the car went over his leg too. I go to help him up and stop, realizing I can’t communicate with him, can’t call an ambulance, and wouldn’t know how to say anything except “Excuse me, this man very bad.” If I could. Luckily others more suited to assist come to the man’s aid. I see the peg leg man looking too and wonder if he’s thinking “there go I but for the grace of . . .” I’m already late so I head home and get my drawing. When I come back to the spot I’m very relieved to see the bicyclist standing and talking to the motorist.

Sneek (Snow)


The past two weeks have begun the cold. It has crept into my bones slowly, dropping a degree or two each day. I pass a few canals along the way to school each day and I’ve been waiting to see how long the ducks will continue to paddle in them. First, only the narrow sections of the canals froze over. The surface was speckled with imprints from fallen leaves and webbed feet. Trotting over the bridge to cross the Neva (the largest canal – really a river) each morning, I look across the water and see fast approaching icebergs elbowing each other as they rush like the busy commuters above. A few days later the burgs have mended their differences and stitched themselves together like a patchwork quilt with varying shades of off white and blue-green. It snows 5 days straight sometimes with huge clumps of cold fluff drifting past our window as we sculpt. It covers the tops of the leafless tree branches and ornate black iron gates around the school giving beautiful contrast to an already exquisitely designed block. Our school is mammoth. Stalwart and stout it stand a full square block overlooking the Neva with two now strangely snow covered sphinxes as sentries. I’ve been told they are actually from Egypt. On my way back I see the Neva once more. With all the new snow it looks less like a quilt and more like potatoes Gratin. Yes, when it’s cold I eat even more.

Monday, November 12, 2007

First Night

Sept 20th 2007

Last night I arrived without a hitch to the Saint Petersburg airport, but was very stubborn getting to the apartment. I spent an hour and a half harassing many people to try to get either a phone card or internet access and a plug. All I got was a plug and nice lady who let me use her phone to call Katya the old friend of my Russian sculpture teacher who I'm staying with. Then refusing to pay $150 dollars for a cab (they think we're all wealthy) I got on the wrong bus with my bags and then refusing to take a $75 dollar cab after the bus I got on the metro during rush hour and walked for another hour from the metro to Katya's place. She was very worried because it took me almost 5 hours to get there from when I called her at the airport. Ah well, I saved money and felt triumphant. I'm tired though. She is very kind. I'm sleeping in her studio which is cold at night but long underwear helps. She cooked lots of yummy chops and mashed potatoes and potato pancakes with jam from berries they picked at their Dacha. Delish.

Today I'm trying to find the reform Synagogue here and to get my phone activated. I bought an electric toothbrush too. I figure I'll try to counteract the pack a day of cigarettes and exhaust I'm breathing. Despite the smell of sulpher in the water and the grey sky, I'm very happy. I feel like I'm finally home.


THe first person I actually met upon entering Katya's house wasn't Katya or Misha or their Babushka aunt it was Cusia. An enormous under bite with one glistening yellowed tooth propping up his oversized jowls, Cusia came a runnin when that door was opened. Immediately Katya's warm smile broke into a snarl much like Cusia's and she began yelling at him a slew of curses I have yet to learn along with one word I knew, "Sabaka." She told me not to worry about him he was not used to strangers and didn't like English very much. With deep guttural growls he was forced back into her room only to launch himself into the door with a loud clatter as the glass panes in the frame shook against Cusia's significant body weight. I began wondering if Cusia was Russian for Kujo?

He is a British bulldog who as it turns out is very sweet. Cusia now nestles his haunches in my lap when I come home and awaits a good back scratch which always elicits a kind of purr much like a cat if the cat were mated with a bullfrog. At night though when I stagger to the toilet and walk past Katya's room I hear the inevitable heavy footfalls of a good guard dog speeding towards the door, then Katya screaming "Cuzia nyet!" and his head slamming full force into the wooden door. I'll miss this abode and Cusia most of all.

Making Friends

Well, success so far. I found the Congregation. At first the guard wouldn't let me in but I found a window and did jumping jacks until someone noticed me and came outside and explained it was only the stupid americansky. I went into a very large complex surrounded by walls and cameras (felt a little like entering Israel) and discovered about 12 people sitting in heated debate about what I'll never know. A nice guy in his 20's spoke English and offered me a Kipah which I accepted gladly. Then conversation ended and we went into another room with a makeshift Bimah and a number of chairs arranged in rows. The Rabbi asked me my Hebrew name and my parents names. My Hebrew name? Jim I guess. More people arrived because this was the actual service ending Shabbat. A nice mix of ages and very friendly. One grizzled man spoke to me in Russian, then Hebrew, then Yiddish and finally when I had repeated 3 times I didn't understand in Russian (my most practiced phrase) he took my hand, beamed at me and said very loudly and slowly like to a child Sha-lom. Then he sat down.
The room filled. I became uncomfortably warm as my wool undergarments weren't meant for a heated space like this. As I wiped the sweat gathering in my beard I heard my "Hebrew name" being called and realized with horror I was meant to go up and read from the Torah. I stood up cursing my long underwear and dripped my way to the Rabbi. THis was my bar mitzvah all over again. Luckily I was wrong. I was only to read the blessings before and after the torah portion. The Rabbi smiled and whispered not to worry; the Hebrew was transliterated below, but then caught himself. The Cyrillic below it was harder for me than the Hebrew. I muddled through it remembering some of the singsong and went back to my seat only to stand and sweat for 2 hours as we read close to 40 pages of Hebrew and Russian together. I was excited to learn I could follow along in both languages without too much difficulty(of course with very little comprehension), only loosing my place when I paused to pull my collar forward and let the heat from my now drenched chest rise and prevent my collapse.

Afterwards I met Eliana an exquisitely beautiful girl who speaks Russian English and Spanish fluently. She was shy at first being only 7 years old but warmed as I showed her the animated clip I made of the kids from the Brooklyn Synagogue the week before. At first she wouldn't speak. I tried English and spanish. Finally she spoke English in a heavy Russian accent and her mother shot her a glance and the accent slipped away into a Boston accent. Her father the Bostonian worked at the American consulate and her Russian mother was a "cross cultural and life coach" which gave me the creeps for some reason. They were very kind though and after hearing my story they asked to see my work and introduced me to another artist there from Muchina the rival and far more modern art school here in Saint Petersburg. I am now working with her to develop an art curriculum for the religious school. She makes beautiful calligraphy in Hebrew, but is having trouble finding a proper teacher because she lacks balls. I'm formulating a plan to go with her to the Orthodox community with copies of her work. If they're not all idiots someone there will see her talent should not go undeveloped because of her sex. There's another part to that story which involves Katya the woman I'm staying with but that's for later.

Stay tuned for more adventures including getting blood drawn, going to the wrong bathroom after trying so hard to avoid it, and being sober in the wrong place at the wrong time.

P.S. God bless America for bringing so many Citibanks and McDonalds to Russia. One for withdrawals and one for deposits.

Made In China

The course I’m in now is not the first year of the academy. Instead it is an intensive year to prepare me for the battery of tests at the end of the year which will decide who enters the Academy. This prep course uses the same teachers as the regular school but is focused on honing basic skills and weeding out those who are not up to snuff. It also generates 100% of the funding for the school since it’s free for all Russians who are accepted. Before perestroika there were very few foreigners and the school was funded by the state. I have a feeling Putin will eventually reinstate this policy as much of his decision making is bringing Russia to the good/bad old days. The prep course is split into Russians and foreigners so I don’t spend my days will locals. Instead The Chinese monopolize the majority of my daily interactions. There are 3 or 4 sections with between 20 and 30 students in each. There are approximately 100 students in total in the prep course. There are maximum 20 spots available for these students in the regular school so you would think the competition would be very high and going in I thought the Chinese would be more advanced than me and more disciplined. There is a strong artistic connection between China and Russia and many of the teachers here go to Russian regularly to teach and to work on commissions. I assumed the Chinese would be well versed in the Russian Classical tradition, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Because they are the primary source of revenue they let anyone come into the foreign student prep course. The Russian prep course is far more competitive it I’ve been told. Here’s a description of the first day of school.

The first day we gathered in a room and I noticed more white faces than I anticipated. Of 30 students 6 weren’t Asian. The other 2 or 3 sections are entirely Asian with the vast majority from China many fewer from Taiwan and fewer still from Korea. The Koreans are the worst off. There is a Chinese translator and enough of the English speakers speak and understand enough Russian to translate for each other, but the Koreans must struggle with the little English they and the Russian teachers share and learn their Russian very quickly.

The Chinese don’t speak enough English for me to know any of them very well, but I’ve looked a lot at their drawing. I draw with them 2 hours a day in the same room 12 of us shared last summer. Now there are thirty. The teachers only get to each student about every 3 days because there are so many of us. In the regular school this also happens because despite the smaller class size the teachers come twice maybe 3 times a week. They look, give comments and the students are expected to work on what they’re told to do until the teacher returns to check on their progress. In our prep course we have two teachers. One is Vladimer Alexandravitch the drawing teacher I had the last two summers. He is a rotund man who works and speaks at a feverish pace carrying a handkerchief at all times to dry his bald sweating head. He can draw like a monster and I’ve seen him accomplish what I couldn’t do in 18 hours in a few minutes. He is He keeps an orderly studio and demands full attention scolding students for talking or listening to walkman or even drinking water while he’s there. He has a clear method and a stern effective teaching style that I take to well. He is something of a celebrity teacher here. He has Repin’s old studio as his own to work in and usually teaches 5th year students. This means he is in a consistent state of disappointment and frustration as he struggles to teach us the basic assumptions his normal students have had for probably 10 years already. He works hard though and tirelessly repeats himself, which has helped my Russian. When asked last summer how we Americans compared to his Russian students he said he had three kind of students: the kind you have to tell only once and they immediate do what he says, the kind who must be told over and over and over and still they just don’t seem to get it, and finally us.

He comes only every other day, sharing his teaching responsibilities with another drawing professor twice his age. This one has all white hair and a white mustache, slight of build and gentle in nature. When he first saw my drawing he said nothing for a long time and I expected him to take my pencil and simply show me what was wrong, but instead he told me everything has form even the clouds and that I had to keep this in mind when drawing and he left. I was a bit crest-fallen not because I wanted praise but because I wanted more precise direction. However I realized that I had been drawing tentatively anticipating the teachers castigating stare and hadn’t made enough decisions myself for him to correct. He was essentially telling me to be brave and find the volume in my drawing it was still less concrete than even a cloud.

It’s nice to have two teachers and generally they steer you to the same conclusions but occasionally they have completely different preferences and end up fighting with each other on your page. One tells me my compositions have the head too big and the next day the other teacher asks me why it’s so small.

There is a big range but they almost all share the same strengths and weaknesses just in varying degrees. They have the devil’s patience when it comes to shading and detail work, but they don’t consider the big picture much. The first few days we were sketching in order to create a good composition and the Chinese did it because they were told to, but almost none of them used it when beginning their real drawing. We are all drawing plaster casts of heads from famous sculptures and theirs were relatively haphazardly placed on the page and from different angles than their sketches. One kid was drawing his head way at the top of the page because he was tall and didn’t bother to raise the easel to the proper height. Like many he had a very heavy hand and drew very dark effectively equalizing all the shadow tones and flattening his drawing. I knew what was coming.
Anyway when he saw the results of this tall Chinese student’s drawing of Apollo’s plaster bust set in extremely heavy pencil and crowded into he top of the page I recognized the familiar roll of the eyes and deep sigh. after the flurry of “what the – is this?” type questions Vladimer Alexandravitch took the strange rubbery eraser they use here called formaplast and rubbed the whole thing out. He then redrew a sketch in a more appropriate compositional space on the page with proper lights and darks of the big forms. And so it went for many of them. They seemed to ignore much of the feedback they got and went right ahead in their comfort zone of tiny detail all done with the same intensity. In some ways I think they have more to unlearn than learn. Details are seductive and far easier to render than the whole form, but if they are in the wrong place or drawn without any tonal relationship to the whole drawing then the artist is wasting their time and this is the great challenge for us all: to avoid wasting time and do what we know we must do in the proper order from large to small. As the teacher often says when I too slather the eyes in a drawing with heavy soft 6b graphite, “In a house do you build the windows before the walls?” I meekly shake my head in agreement and hand over the formaplast wishing farewell to the last 6 hours or work.

In sculpture I have lucked out. There are only 6 of us and so we all get to see the teacher whenever he comes. He is excellent as are all the teachers. Hilariously blunt. Quotes include (translated loosely from the Russian and hand gestures I understand “She is a young woman [pointing to the motionless model] why did you make a babushka?” “Ah today you made a balloon sculpture with no edges and little air.” Then he makes a the sound of a balloon popping and the air hissing out of it as he points vigorously to the deflated sculpture. When first seeing Gabriella’s who tends toward harsh overly modeled features exaggerated in proportion and size,” Please more likeness to the delicate young woman in front of you and less of Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Like many Russian men you can smell the testosterone in the room when he enters, but really he’s a fantastic sculpture and if not patient an honest and thorough teacher. Unlike the drawing class where the Chinese have some skills that are more refined than my own I’m being reminded only what not to do from my classmates in sculpture and I usually know what the teacher will tell them. Still he has such a solid sense of anatomy and such a sure hand, it’s a real pleasure to watch him repair our work.

The first day of drawing included the normal rush to find a good vantage point of the subject. I found a nice ¾ view with enough room to move back a few feet from my easel(a luxury in this packed room). Next to me is Zhi a very friendly Chinese kid with more English than most. He looks like a teenager to me with a fair bit of pubescent acne and long spars black hairs growing in strange configurations around his upper lip and jaw. He speaks Chinese, Russian, and English with the rhythm of a car with a bum starter, tripping over hard consonants and after multiple failed attempts finally sputtering out long phrases with little to no pauses between words. It doesn’t stop him though and he practices Russian with great determination. He is in my Russian class and I hear him often making a strange gargling sound, which confounded me until I realized he was practicing his rolling Russian R. The language is hard enough for English or French speakers, but the Chinese don’t have the same set of phonemes to work. I still have trouble distinguishing hard and soft “sh” sounds, but the Chinese can’t even distinguish between L/ R or B /T/ D sounds in Russian. It makes me appreciate how much steeper my climb towards fluency could be. Unfortunately Zhi also has many nervous ticks and we stand inches away from each other when drawing. If he’s not cracking his neck, or jerking his elbow sometimes quite close to my face, he is always making this uncontrollable sound. It’s a deep resonant guttural clearing of the throat followed by an even more intense snort. He has no control of it and practices this set of utterances at least 3 times a minute with no predictable rhythm. A little like Chinese water torture. However I’ve grown to like him. He is very sweet and works hard to keep peace between the fiery Sicilian French girl and the Chinese she finds disgusting. Also at some point the bald drawing teacher looked at Zhi’s impossibly black shading and just shook his head in disgust and moved on. Zhi waited and went to the teacher with such pleading eyes and innocently furrowed brow that when he said “P P Prease prease t t t terr me howicanmakeitbetter” the teacher who understood not a word took pity and went to work with the eraser.

“My life has become a pencil” - Iliya

My roommate. A good kid. One foot in Amyereeka and one in Ruski land. We met at Bridgeview in Queens 3 years ago and he traveled here with me two summer's ago. He also went through the prep course I'm now in last year and was accepted into the first year of the Academy. Because of this he knows the ropes and had helped me tremendously not only through his russian skills but his navigational skills through the murky waters of the school's interpretation of administration. He’s known what he wants to be for longer than most and he’s got the talent and drive and brains to not only attain great technical ability, but to maintain his artistic identity on the face of enormous institutional pressure to conform to “tradition”. As my understanding of the Repin Academy has become more nuanced I see some of its flaws and pitfalls as well as obvious benefits. Ilya is in the painting department so he knows their particular bias. It seems two generations ago there was a teacher who is now quite old. This painter taught most of the teachers who now work at the Academy and he taught not only a skill set but a style of painting which is rather drab and flat and a real break from the work I love best from the academies painting department which was around the turn of the century which I think was when Russia really began finding its own voice artistically. At any rate I don’t know what the biases are in the sculpture department, but I’m keeping a look out for them and reminding myself to trust my own voice before blindly following directions.

The Euro

-a young woman whose mother is French and father is Sicilian. She is the one I spend the most time with because we share Sculpture class and Russian class, which both meet 3 hours a day. I wasn’t sure we’d see her again after the first day, but she has stuck it through despite being near tears regularly. Unfortunately, she had little to no understanding of what she was getting herself into and is constantly appalled by the “Russian way” of doing things. I find it difficult to keep my patience with her, but I reacted similarly 2 years ago and keep reminding myself of that.

-the one armed Frenchman. Highly insecure, self denigrating and fast-talking. He came 3 months before the end of last year and so didn’t finish the prep course and is repeating it. He speaks passable Russian and has been wonderfully helpful as a translator. He’s young and I think very lonely. His poor self-image is maybe due to one of his arms which hangs mostly unused from his shoulder from a car accident many years ago. Its difficult not to stare at it especially when he wears a t-shirt. He can only move his pinky and bend slightly at the elbow. The musculature slims to almost nothing from the elbow to the wrist, which displays the complicated bone structure of the forearm as it twists with his movements. I gave up trying not to stare and asked him about it. He says he would do sculpture if he had the use of both arms. He’s kind. I hope he finds a girl friend. He lives with the Chinese in the dorm, which I haven’t visited but sounds very cramped much like a youth hostel.

is a woman from Vienna. Tall, lanky, with a sharp nose adorned with what look like bifocles from the fifties, she wears all black and is quite talkative with a strong command of English. She is the intellectual type who I learned during our first lunch does two hours of yoga each morning from 4 to 6, eats only raw food and prefers rain to sunshine. I thought she was in the wrong country until I heard the last part. I’m a little wary of vegetarians, but beggars can’t be choosers and she is very smart and has a Russian grandmother so understands but cannot speak Russian. We stand next to each other in drawing and she translates. It seems she has read a lot about art but practiced very little. She is a beginner and so I give her pointers when I can. To her credit she has already improved in the first two weeks, but she is still in over her head and she knows it. She talks of leaving already, but I hope she will stay. She told me the art school she graduated from in Vienna taught her no skills and the head master and head mistress got married and are now both undergoing sex operations and photographing the process for their next installation piece. No comment except to say I feel I choose the right foreign country to study art.

is Dutch and went through the prep course last year, but also hadn’t done any art before that and so didn’t pass the test. He is 37 and it shows by comparison to the average late teens early twenties of the rest of the class. He has a determined and realistic outlook taking most adversity in stride. He lives here with his Russian girlfriend and works extraordinarily hard. His Russian is quite good and even his drawing is passable especially for one year. He has an aggressive side which he has harnessed well. He used to ride motorcycles and box.

Is from Estonia, which has less than a tenth the population of NYC. He’s 19, but with a good head on his shoulders. He has studied Russian and been to Russia enough to know what to expect. I like him and talk with him about politics and life in Estonia. Since it was taken over during Soviet time he has a good understanding of Russian culture from that era.

Getting blood tests

So despite having to get blood work done before I arrived as part of the visa application, the man at the foreign student office told me to go the hospital and have it done again. I guess they’re worried about what might happen in the airplane lavatory. After a lot of hand waving and pointing at various spots on my map, I headed to what I realized later was a maternity ward. With myriad entrances the first problem was figuring out which door to choose. One of the signs had a word that sounded like diabetes so I went where it pointed and got lucky. I was greeted by many young Asians talking quickly and holding cotton to their folded forearms. This was a good indication as the vast majority of my classmates will be Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean. A kind woman took my coat at the coat check and remarked at the Velcro loop on the inner neck lining chuckling as she slid it over a rusty hook. What the joke was I’ll never know. I saw lines forming so I got on one. After watching a woman pull out a wad of many thousands of dollars worth of rubbles and fork it over I figured I was probably in the wrong line and sure enough the woman at the counter motioned to the adjacent counter and asked a question over and over a little slower and louder each time. I began sweating and gave her my passport smiling pathetically at the line which had doubled behind me during her monologue. I realized I needed to use the bathroom too, adding even more urgency to the interaction. She nodded at the computer, passed me my passport, and pointed to the back of the other line. 45 minutes later and 800 rubles poorer I had gotten through both lines again and had a piece of paper and a general direction a guard had given me. That’s $32 American and I realized now why I had to do this redundant test. I saw other young people with similar slips of paper waiting outside one office so I sat with them. I saw that they all had plastic bags over their shoes and wondered where I should get mine. I went back to the kind lady at the coat check with the Velcro joke and pointed to my feet and said Gudyea or where? She pulled out two balled up pieces of plastic from under the counter and asked for 5 rubles which I gave her. Back in the waiting area all the young people had left so I went into the office. The woman shook her head and spoke curtly, but took pity on me when I told her I didn’t speak Russian very well. I realized later that this was during her break. She took my blood and I sat back down at which point my bladder announced it was time to find a toilet. With no Mcdonald’s in this hospital I wasn’t sure what to do. There was one door with a “W” on it. It had to be water closet and not women, but only women were going in and out. I looked down the halls and realized there were no men. In fact most of the women were well into their third trimesters. Desperate to relieve myself but equally desperate not to be thrown out for being a pervert I saw a familiar woman. It was the coat checker. I pointed to the room and at me and asked “mushina?” man? She shrugged and said “canueshna nyet?” Thanks to Pimsler this one I knew. “Why not?” So waiting to see women leave and after peeking into a surprisingly clean empty room I ventured past the “W”. There were two stalls and two sinks. The stalls had full doors so I figured this was coed after all.

I went into one stall, peeled off my long johns and stuffed them into my backpack. When I came out I heard someone in the other stall. As I was washing my hands a wman in her 40s or 50s opened the stall door and looked at me. Her face went from white to red and the hands started waving and so many consonants flew from her mouth and at such speed I was speechless. Finally I gave her my usual I’m sorry I’m a stupid American speech and she frowned and gave a dimissive humph. Ah well one day I’ll be able to string all those consonants together too.


Katya and Misha just came over to our house for dinner. I roasted two chickens of course. It was difficult buying only two. The woman at the market kept saying “tree moznya?” (Three maybe?) And went so far as to plunk a third one down on the scale. “Nyet, dva prejalsta.” I said at least four times before she finally relented. The potatoes and onions were harder. I waited on a long line with many annoyed people my temperature rising as usual, my sweat mixing with the soil covering the potatos and onions. As I got close to the register I noticed there was no scale and I guessed what was coming. The teller gave me that look I’m so familiar with at this point. A mixture of exhasperation, disgust, and sheer disregard. Then the usual flurry of angry clucking and pointing. Off the line I went with my bags of potatos and onions dripping dirt behind me. Then there was another line just to use the scale, which luckily had pictures on it next to the words. Finally back on the previous line at which point the woman gave me a knowing smirk, and nodded a kind of agreement with each printed label I had stuck to my filthy potatoes and onions.

It was so nice to have company for dinner. I roasted the chickens over potatoes, onions, and carrots and used all the spices I brought from home. We started with the usual plates of cheese, ham, and smoked salmon. I made a salad with finely diced cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and radishes. For desert: juicy ripe pears and plums, although Katya preferred cheese bread and honey with her tea and cigarettes. It was rewarding to be able to be the host after being their guest for so long. They told us stories about their days in the academy and a bit about some of the teachers there now who they know. Misha recalled his childhood when Saint Petersburg was much colder and his mother slathered goose fat on his face to protect it from the wind. I asked if he could smell the goose fat and if it didn’t make him hungry all day. Katya liked that one and broke into one of her laughing coughing fits between cigarettes. We finished off the night with Cognac and cigars and that satisfied smile of a full belly and the afterglow of a house warming.

My Host Family


Realizing I preferred not to live alone even for 10 days before my English/Russian speaking roommate arrives, I arranged with my sculpture teacher to stay with her old friend. After weeks of nudging her, she finally called Katya in Saint Petersburg during a break in class and after 10 minutes told me it was all set. I had a place for sure in her son’s old room. She knew just when my flight was arriving and would be waiting for me with hot borsht. Also she told me not to bother speaking with Katya directly as everything was decided. When I did decide to call and first spoke to Katya from NYC a few days before I arrived she said immediately upon realizing who I was “Are you here?! Now?! No? Oh good, when will you come? Really? This Friday! Hmm. . . This may be problem, but Don’t worry”

When I arrived wearing only jeans and a tee-shirt of the first Russian astronaut (I know Matt I just couldn’t return it) she was not only horrified at my late arrival from the airport but at my miniscule attire. “You will die of cold and sick!” Whisking me inside she introduced me to 2 men from Serbia who were staying until Monday(in the her son’s old room). As it turns out one of the men was searching for the grave of his grandfather who’s name I didn’t catch. He was born in the late 1800’s and was a naval officer who chose the colors of the Russian flag. This Serbian man had met with a number of biographers of his grandfather, but none could agree on where or even when he died. It struck a chord in me though as part of this relocation is about finding my own roots. At any rate until Monday I would be sleeping in Katya’s art studio. I also met her husband Misha who warned me with a laugh at my clothing that “Best to sleep with 2 shirts. You will wake very cold.”

Katya is an embroiderer and her studio is near her apartment. After eating delicious borsht as promised I was taken to the studio a few blocks away and given 4 keys: a magnetic one for the downstairs that looks like a round watch battery on a piece of plastic and 3 others that look like keys looked a hundred years ago. Saint Petersburg is always it seems this mix of ancient and modern. Every house has at least two doors to keep out the draft and often a pad lock for good measure. She showed me to my bed past various wooden looms, wondrous strips of gold and silver ribbons, and hundreds of multicolored threads spooled from cotton, wool, and silk. Arabesque designs and posters of Persian patterns hung scattered across the room yellowed into a camouflage with the dingy walls. I loved it. She led me to a wall covered by a large Persian rug, which folded down covering the bed. It was surprisingly comfortable. If anyone has been to my mother’s apartment you know I felt right at home.

Katya has an interesting background. Half Jewish/ half “Russian” which means Christian. Her parents are both artists. Her mother’s painted ceramic tiles adorn every room in her house and are very reminiscent of Chagall with jesters and horned animals flying about in each frame. Her father was a figurative sculptor and her grand father was one Perez Markish a very well known Yiddish poet, contemporary and close friend of Chagall himself and Picasso as it turns out. Unfortunately Stalin murdered him in 1952 along with a number of other Jewish intellectuals in a well-known massacre.

Tomorrow is Sukkot a time when Jews build the Sukka a roofless dwelling to remind them of the makeshift homes Jews lived in during the Exodus story. Like most Jewish holidays it is an amalgamation of customs layered over the years and has come to include an invitation to ones ancestors to reside in the dwelling. I have spent many hours talking with Katya about her past and she told me of a symbol made by a monk a few centuries past. It is a menorah with a cross growing from its central branch. This it seems is Katya’s image of herself and as such she worries that she will not be accepted in the Jewish community with a Christian parent. However she did three years ago find a red haired Rabbi at the Orthodox Synagogue only blocks from her studio who agreed to help her find a Hebrew text to embroider on a triptych she has been working on for years. This Rabbi knew of her grandfather and promised to pray for him every year. I’m determined to go back and find the red haired Rabbi. I thought I’d try to entice her to Sukkot as a way to invite her grandfather into the dwelling but she demurred. My new plan is to introduce her to Anna the Hebrew calligraphist I met at the reform Synagogue and have them both go find the red haired Rabbi to see if he wouldn’t make an exception to the rules and teach Anna to develop her considerable talents. I think the do gooder in Katya will bite. Both she and Misha her husband are involved in an alternative political party and have just voted Kasparov the chess master of all people as their candidate to run against Putin. Misha told me he met him 2 days ago – Kasparov that is.