St Petersburg, Russia
Every time I told someone I’d be spending the summer in St Petersburg, they told me about the White Nights (Белые ночи). For a month or so around the summer solstice, it never gets dark in Piter because the sun never actually sets. I’ve always thought the idea was kind of romantic – if Dostoevsky has dedicated a whole (albeit short) love story to this phenomenon, it must be something worth noting.
That was, of course, until I slept at two a.m. my first night in Piter, lulled to a false sense of time by the amount of light outside. It was always just slightly too bright to fall asleep. Birds would chirp and dogs would bark with the dawn at four a.m, and I was always indoors and trying to get work done at one a.m anyway. It’s just a lot of daylight, I told myself after my first week here, it’s really nothing spectacular.
I’d had a long, difficult day (and as of writing this post, have been awake for the last twenty-four hours non-stop) plagued with insufficient sleep and Russian vocabulary. Between getting up at seven a.m. after four hours of sleep all week, continually wanting nothing more than a good night’s sleep, and speaking in more Russian than I’d ever spoken continually in my life, I’d been worn down and stretched thin.
I’ve never been so frustrated by the disparity between where I am and where I need to be, or tired by my ability to not understand anything. The thought of giving up crossed my mind so many times this week – the thought that I would never learn to use the right cases or perfective verbs, that the future conditional tense would continue to elude me, that I would never get to where I wanted to be.
Give up, my brain told me on my daily commute, tired by all the foreign sounds it could not piece together – go home.
I was at an underground bar by the banks of the Fontanka River – dark and boozy, with new, dazzling company, pretty sure I would leave before midnight to catch the last metro home. St Petersburg’s bridges get raised between the hours of two and six a.m. every night to let boats pass, and I was sure I’d make it before my bridge went up at 1:30.
Several shots and a couple of whiskey cokes later, while watching the dance floor start to swell with people, I realised I’d not only missed my metro – I wouldn’t make it to the bridge in time.
Give up, my brain told me again. You can’t get home.
We left the bar at two a.m., the sky exactly the shade of blue you see before dawn. Everything was light. I remember being on the phone with G, complaining about being stuck on the main island until our bridge came down for ten minutes again at three a.m., but I don’t remember if the street lamps were on – only that the Fontanka sparkled in what astronomers call civil twilight.
As we passed Palace Square on the way to our bridge, it felt like the entire city was waking up with us at three a.m. The Burger King was full of drunken Russians, Nevsky Prospect was still stuffed and swollen with revellers, and the sun was rising on the Winter Palace.
The rest of the week with its impossibly long and difficult days seemed so far away – I knew only that I was crossing the Palace Bridge in the sunrise. The sun was sleepily rising over the Peter and Paul Fortress. It didn’t matter that I had a vocabulary quiz on Monday, or that the only words I knew in Russian to describe what I was seeing were the words for ‘beautiful’, ‘blue’ and ‘pink’.
I got a text from my father, motivated by our earlier Skype conversation. Keep going, he told me in Chinese, you’re doing a good thing by being there. 为陈家争光，因为我们家族没出过一优秀大学生, he told me.
In so many ways, this is what I came to Petersburg for.
Give up, my brain told me all through the week –
but no, said the white nights.