To the Finland Station
[another cheese sandwich] [also, a kind of primal scene]
Of course, it wasn't anything like that, or even like that.
I had taken the Moscow sleeper to Helsinki. Embarked at Petersburg. I saw the sun rise from the train, as we rolled through a blasted landscape -- all the trees had been cut down -- punctured by the occasional long-abandoned monastery or, more frequently, clusters of tin-roofed shacks. I was in the top bunk. A couple slept below.
Here I am in Russia, I thought. This is Russia.
That's what it was, perhaps is, all about for me, that slight shift in point of view -- and the infinitely generative mistake contained within it. Here I am ... This is. And the moves that follow: Are you? You, really? And, where? Is it?
(There's a joke here, about dialects and dialectics. Not to mention dielectrics. Damned if I can find it, though.)
Anyway, to specify: I -- if it was "I", if one can say "I" -- was on my way to the border. At Vyborg, police would board the train. There'd be traffic in passports and visas. I had euros, rubles -- and a fistful of dollars, if it came to that. I wondered about the language in which the border transaction would occur. Last time, it had been in Russian. Mine had been passable, a thoroughly convertible currency, and I'd gotten some obscure extra cultural credit for speaking it. This time, I wasn't sure. (I am never sure, at these moments, if my language will be good enough, as if the currency on my tongue might be petrodollar or worthless paper or something in between, according to an exchange rate over which, strangely, I feel I have no control.) I stared at my passport, at the visa that had taken so much to procure. After days without documents in Petersburg, days in which I wondered whether my payment of a "passport tax" -- which the hotel had required, in American dollars, along with the surrender of my passport -- was actually going to be enough, I was just relieved to have the passport back. Not that I knew, in any significant way, who I was. Not that anything on my passport could tell me. Still, I could write my own name in Cyrillic. If it was mine. If it came to that. Would it come to that? How to tell?
I was on the border, and still making prison art.
Below me, the man and the woman woke slowly. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and adjusted the pretty scarf at her neck. He shrugged into his coat. They were shy with each other, and oblivious of me. Are marriages the same the world over? They discussed her sister, his father, family matters, all the while speaking gently to one other, almost formally, as if courtesy were everything. Perhaps it is. When they finally noticed me, I spoke in haltingly in Russian, to show I had not understood what I'd overheard. This was important. A courtesy, also. But I'd screwed myself, in a way, because now I could not speak more fluent Russian to the border police.
I now wonder if this was not perhaps the most artful thing I'd done on the whole trip.
I had Osip Mandelstam on the brain. ... I am suddenly transitionless ... He died in a gulag, an imprisoned artist who managed somehow not to make prison art. A freedom he took, illicitly, and paid for - what currency - with his life. No dawn trains for him, no reliable velocity taking him across the border, out of the country. No dull, sweet conversation waking him up, either. Instead, just ambivalent wishing for a place in which to have a conversation of, I think, a different sort: We shall meet again in Petersburg, as though there we'd buried the sun, and for the first time, speak the word, the sacred meaningless one...
[for extra credit, tell me what's right and wrong, at once, about the title of this post. hint: prepositions of motion can be very hard to translate into russian]