The conducted tour of the day ended in Palace Square, St. Petersburg. By the time the tour bus arrived there, it was close to 6:00 p.m. I had another important item on the agenda for the day: a dinner date with Michelle (not her real name).
It had been planned well before I left New York. Soon after I arrived in St. Petersburg, Michelle had called me and reconfirmed it. She had also named a landmark on Nevsky Prospekt as our meeting place. The time we picked for the meeting was 7:00 p.m., which meant that I had more than an hour to kill before meeting her. I decided to saunter down Nevsky Prospekt, enjoying its sights and sounds, again.
When I reached the Kazansky Cathedral, I saw a big crowd lounging in front of its semicircular colonnade. The Kazansky Cathedral, dedicated to Our Lady of Kazan, was built in 1801–1811. Looking at its semicircular front, one could tell that it was modeled on St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, though on a much smaller scale.
Heavily damaged during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, it was renovated and reopened in 1932. But it was reopened not as a cathedral, but as a pro-Marxist museum: The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism. Only in 1992, after the collapse of Communist rule in the Soviet Union, did it once again become a place of worship. It is now one of the leading Russian Orthodox churches in St. Petersburg.
Looking through the church windows, I could see that it was filled with worshipers. I went in, mainly out of curiosity. The evening mass was going on. The atmosphere inside the church was very spiritual, though what was going on at its two entrances was anything but. A brisk sale of candles was going on there. True, the item sold was associated with worship, but the business activity didn’t go well with the atmosphere inside.
“What was the atmosphere like during Communist times?” I asked an elderly man I ran into after I came out of the church.
“Look at it,” he said, pointing at the church building. “Its dilapidated condition is a testament to the Communists’ attitude toward churches. It was kind of abandoned. For some time, they used it as a Marxist museum. There were hardly any worshipers. The few who came did so surreptitiously and offered prayers when nobody was watching.” Plans were underway to renovate the building, he added.
Admiring the crowd outside the church, he continued, “All religious people, whose religiosity had been suppressed all through the years of Communist rule, suddenly found an opportunity to open up. They are now letting loose their religiosity with great fervor.”
His own faith did not suffer any suppression, he said, because he could escape to Paris “at the height of the Communist tyranny.” It had been 10 years since he came back to St. Petersburg. “This is where I belong,” he said.
Two girls were standing outside the cathedral gate, one of them holding a camera. They looked at me, smiled, and said something to each other. When I smiled back, one of them asked me whether I could take a picture of them with the cathedral in the background. I was more than happy to oblige.
While handing back their camera, I asked them “a small favor” in return: a picture of me, with them on either side. They jumped at the suggestion and almost squeezed me between them. The gentleman, whom I had just finished talking with, captured the scene on my camera.
After he left, I engaged the two girls in a brief conversation. They said they were from Moscow. “Are you religious?” I asked.
So-so, the elder of the two indicated with a tilting of her right palm. She had just completed her high school and was preparing to go to college. Before deciding on what subject to major in, she wanted to learn a few languages. “Maybe English, German, and French,” she said. She already spoke adequate English—adequate to keep a conversation going, I mean.
The younger one had two more years to go before finishing high school. The two were neighbors in Moscow and had relatives in St. Petersburg. Their parents told them “to come and enjoy our summer break here.”
I wished them the very best in life, bade them good-bye, and continued my walk on Nevsky Prospekt.
Stop at McDonald’s
When I saw a McDonald’s restaurant, I felt relieved. Not because it symbolized Western-cum-capitalist penetration of what was until recently a Communist country. Even while under Communist rule, St. Petersburg had been the most Westernized of all Russian cities. Going by the presence of McDonald’s and other American fast-food places, it can also be called the most Americanized of all Russian cities. I felt relieved at the sight of McDonald’s for another reason: I badly needed to go to the bathroom.
I walked in. Looking at the crowd inside, I thought to myself, “The fast-food chain may have problem attracting customers back in America. But not in Russia. In Russia, it not only attracts customers in droves, but those whom it does are part of the upper echelon of society.”
To justify my using the bathroom, I decided to buy something. I ordered a small coffee and french fries. Compared with the coffee shops in St. Petersburg I had already visited, McDonald’s was expensive. The customers, most of them youngsters, didn’t seem to mind it. Maybe patronizing McDonald’s was their way of making a statement: that they were part of the Westernized, post-Communist Russia.
Inside the bathroom, I felt a little uneasy when pretty cleaning women walked in with mops and buckets. I looked around to make sure that I was not in the ladies’ room. But I was the only one who felt uneasy when young women came close to our backs and did their job. They didn’t care what was dangling in front of us. I finished my job and got out fast.
I had known that in Communist days, the proletariat did enjoy equal-opportunity employment. I had not known, though, that the gender equality extended to employment in toilets, too. So, if what I witnessed was communism’s contribution to the world, it may not be a bad thing for capitalists to emulate—especially in these days of growing unemployment.
I suddenly realized that I was getting late for my appointment with Michelle. I left McDonald’s and walked fast toward Ekaterinsky Gardens, where she had said she would be waiting for me.
Michelle, a Frenchwoman, lived half the year in St. Petersburg and the other half in London. I first got acquainted with her when my Internet search for an inexpensive place to stay in St. Petersburg took me to her website. It had a place advertised that fit my budget. Since then, I had communicated with her through email and by phone. She was the one who guided me through the process of obtaining a tourist visa to Russia. The process was the most long-winding, and the fee the highest, of all countries I have obtained tourist visas from.
Michelle had told me that, once in St. Petersburg, I would be dealing with a woman by the name of Tania regarding my accommodation. Only after I checked into Tania’s place did I get an idea of the nature of the arrangement between her and Michelle. It became clearer after my meeting with Michelle.
Michelle was computer-savvy, and Tania was not. In return for letting Tania use her website to advertise her bed-and-breakfast facility, Michelle got five percent of what Tania collected from customers like me.
Michelle did a few more things on the side to supplement the income from her main job, which was teaching wealthy Russians English and wealthy Britons French. While in St. Petersburg, she conducted her class in the living room of her two-bedroom apartment. During the months she lived in London, her main income came from offering a crash course in French, mostly to Londoners who were preparing to travel on business to French-speaking countries. She had a two-bedroom apartment in London, too.
During the last conversation I had with Michelle, before leaving New York, she had asked me to keep a couple of hours of one evening free. “We’ll have a drink and a quick bite,” she had told me, and made it a point to add, “We’ll go dutch.”
“I don’t mind, but please make sure that it’s an inexpensive place,” I had told her.
“In St. Petersburg, Men Are in Short Supply”
The place she chose was a favorite haunt of foreigners living in St. Petersburg. She knew many of them by their first names. She said she picked her dates from among those foreigners because, “in St. Petersburg, men are in short supply. There are three women available for every eligible man.” I had no independent verification of it.
“There is a bar nearby where those single women come in the evening,” she continued, “ostensibly to dance, but mainly to have a good time with their picks of the evening. They are not prostitutes. They don’t do it for money. They pay for their drinks. Some of them even buy drinks for their male partners. They just want to have fun. They, like me, are not willing to starve until they find the men of their dreams and settle down. Do you want to go there?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I am very happy with the date I have.”
“But I am going to see another guy later,” she said.
“No problem,” I told her. “I meant that I am enjoying what we are doing now—having an interesting conversation over an inexpensive dinner. Let me know when it’s time for you to go and meet this guy. We’ll call it a night.”
“I would have stayed with you longer,” she said. “This guy called me yesterday. I had slept with him only once before. I felt flattered when he called and said that he wanted to see me this evening.”
I haven’t heard many women speak about their sex life so casually and matter-of-factly as Michelle did. That, too, with a stranger, at their first meeting with him.
“I like your candor,” I told her.
“This is the new me,” she said. “I was not like this before. I was born and brought up as a Catholic, in the south of France. The sexuality in me was so suppressed until I was nineteen. My puritan parents did a wonderful job of that. I was made to feel guilty every time I romantically thought about a guy.”
“When did the epiphany occur?”
“I got married to an asshole when I was nineteen. I spent two miserable years with him. He would have made a good priest. I realized what I was missing in life only after I left my padre husband and moved to Paris. Like you, I enjoy traveling. The more you enjoy this kind of freedom, the more difficult it becomes to settle down with one guy. But I am in no hurry. I am having a good time.”
She suddenly remembered that she had to collect a book she had lent to a Somali girl who would be leaving for her country the next day. The Somali came to St. Petersburg on a scholarship to study Russian and had been living there for a year. “She is waiting for me at a café,” Michelle said. “It is on the way to your bus stop. Let’s go. You will like meeting her.”
A Reformed Somali Girl
I did like meeting her. She spoke with Michelle in Russian and with me in English. She spoke good English. Michelle told me that her Russian was good, too. “She is more fluent than what you would expect from a person who studied it only for one year,” she added.
“Are you from Mogadishu?” I asked the Somali.
“Yes, I am. But things are very hard even in the capital city. Especially for women. There is no effective central government. Until a decade ago, tribal chiefs ruled their respective turfs. Now, Al-Qaeda-type Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the areas that tribal chiefs lost control of. They want us to go back to traditional Islamic ways. And they decide what traditional Islamic ways are. I am going to miss St. Petersburg.” Pointing to the glass of beer in front of her, she added, “This freedom that I am enjoying now, I won’t have it when I go back.”
“Will the loss of freedom extend to the way you dress also?” I asked her. I couldn’t help mentioning dress because she looked very smart in the jeans and T-shirt she was wearing.
“Yes, very much,” she said.
“Will they force you to get into a black tent?” I asked her.
“Black tent?” she repeated the words and burst out laughing. “That’s a good description of it. I am going to use it hereafter. My friends would love to hear it. Yes, they will force me to get into that. They will also do many more stupid things. People who have not known anything else won’t have any problem. It’s people like me who have experienced the difference that are going to suffer.”
I felt sorry for her. “I know many Muslim girls who feel the same way you do,” I told her. “Try to fit in as much as you can and make life trouble-free. As long as you remain modern in your mind, your friends in the West won’t have any problem with what you wear.”
“I will try,” she said after taking a deep breath. “But I am going to get out of that place at the first opportunity I get.”
Michelle, who had been intently listening to our conversation, cut in to say, “I will try to help you.”
“Please do it, Michelle,” I said. “You will not only be saving her, but also saving Islam from those stupid fundamentalists. She is the future of Islam.”
“I hope things work out for you the way you want,” I told the Somali. “I wish you all the best.”
Michelle looked at her watch, and I got the message. The message was that she was getting late for her more exciting experience of the evening.
“I have to leave for Moscow early in the morning,” I said. “Thank you for the very pleasant evening.”
All three of us stood up at the same time. Michelle gave me a hug, and the Somali shook hands with me.
“Are you too shy to hug me?” I asked her.
She blushed. I took the liberty of kissing her on the cheek. I knew she wouldn’t be in any danger because there were no mullahs around watching us. The sweet smile with which she received my kiss confirmed to me that she enjoyed it.
Pointing to the bus stop on the opposite side of the street, Michelle said, “That’s where you get your bus. I know you had a long day. Must be too tired to walk. Better to take a bus.”
It was only a few yards from the bus stop that the Russian mafia had attempted to mug me the day before. The pleasant note on which this day ended cleansed my mind of the bitterness of that experience.
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