We walked hand-in-hand, wondering aloud to each other, “When was this built? What do you think that sign says? What was this place like just before the fall of the Soviet Union?” It was the first time in three days in St. Petersburg that we had actually just wandered around. We had been going at break-neck pace so Rick could research and update his guidebook chapters. Finally enjoying a leisurely stroll along Nevsky Prospekt was a welcome breath of fresh air.
Changing pace from researcher-mode to traveler-mode allowed us the chance to see and do things we’d otherwise miss. With cameras at the ready, we lingered in front of elaborate storefronts and lollygagged across statue-adorned bridges. We moved slowly in the fast city. Well-heeled, nouveaux-riche Russians strode confidently with iPhones in hand. No-neck thugs walked three-abreast–bullies ruling their bit of sidewalk and assuming others would move out of their way (and they did). Bicycles, beat-up Ladas (tiny Soviet Union-era cars), trolleybuses, and ramshackle mini-buses sped down the avenue. Thankfully, I recognized the Cyrillic transliteration of “Stop”.
About to enjoy a much-needed coffee break, I saw a petite old lady resting against a wall. It seemed liked everyone was passing her by without a single glance. Although it must have been 80 degrees, this elderly and frail babushka was cloaked in a heavy sweater and covered her head with a faded scarf. Was she resting from the heat? Was she waiting for a loved one? Was she a beggar? I had to stop. I asked Rick if he thought she was OK. As we both turned back to look at her, a no-neck approached her rapidly, and I stiffened. But then I saw him hand her a piece of fruit. She accepted it gratefully, he walked away, and she leaned wearily back against the wall.
“We should check on her,” I said. Rick agreed but let me go alone. Maybe she reminded me of my late grandmother. Maybe I was craving human contact in this country that still felt impersonal to me. Whatever it was, something strong drew me to her. I wanted to know: was she homeless, hungry, sad, scared, tired, or lost. I wanted to make sure that she was all right. I needed to.
She was so tiny. I’m barely 5’2” and I towered over her.
“Dobryy den’!” She titled her head, looking towards me inquisitively. I greeted her once more and asked, “Kak dela (how are you)?” As I waited for her response, I marveled at the softness in her glance and the crinkles on her face. I wondered how old she was. She must have been well into her 70s–old enough to have lived through the horrific 900-day Siege of Leningrad, the thrill of Sputnik, the chaotic fall of the Soviet Union, the dawn of Russian democracy, the rough and tumble birth of capitalism here (which cruelly left the older generation–her generation–behind), and the rise of Putin and the oligarchs.
When she replied, I could tell by the inflection in her voice that is was a question. Not knowing what to tell her, I simply placed my hands on my chest and said, “Amerikanskiy.” “Amerikanskiy?” she asked. “Da! Amerikanskiy!”
A light bulb went on for her, and it looked as though it were illuminating her from within. Suddenly her eyes got even warmer. She was filled with energy and began telling me some kind of story. Without pause, the words tumbled from her mouth, and I watched her expressions intently to try to grasp any clue as to what she was telling me. For several minutes, I watched her furrow her brow, look longingly in the distance, and grimace at painful recollections. She looked at me both gently and piercingly, as if forcing my understanding. Clearly something terrible had happened. I wanted to respond but didn’t know how. She must have seen the concern on my face, but she continued on with her story. She needed to share it with this American.
As she recounted more of the tale, she gripped my hand began smiling broadly. Repeatedly and fervently now, I heard, “Oh!…Amerika!….Oh!….Amerikanskiy!” Had she met Americans before? Had they helped her out of whatever trauma had occurred? Was she talking about the past or was she referring now to me? This fragile, one-armed babushka–so seemingly by-passed by the modern bustle–let out sighs of joy and gratitude every time she mentioned America, and my heart melted a little more with every smile I saw on her face.
Here we were, standing next to a wall on a Nevsky Prospect sidewalk. Two complete strangers from two very different worlds sharing an intimate and precious moment. We may not have been able to comprehend each other’s languages, but in that space and time with my dear babushka, I think we both somehow understood each other on a much deeper level.
I knew I couldn’t stay much longer, and I didn’t know what I could do for her, but I reached into my pocket, took out the 300 rubles I had (about $10) and gave it to her. She tried to refuse, but I said, “Pozhalusta. Please.” She started to cry. I started to cry. We held hands and then she hugged me. I gave her a kiss on the forehead. She told me, “Spasiba (thank you).” We hugged tightly once more and parted ways.
I thought I was going to be the one to help out a poor, little old lady. Turns out, she’s the one who helped me. She gave me the most memorable experience of my entire two-month trip. No museum, no church, no tour, no meal could ever compare to the way this woman made me feel–connected with a slice of humanity that I would otherwise never have known existed. Travel is so many things, but it is nothing without the connections we make with the people we meet–even when your common vocabulary is ten words. Whenever I think back to memories of St. Petersburg, it’ll be that smiling face set in wrinkles and shaded by a faded scarf that I’ll remember most vividly and fondly.