On Parks And Grandparents

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One of those rare Sundays I have off, and those rarer Sundays Sasha is working, and one of the rarest Sundays in November that’s truly sunny, I decided to put my dirt boots on and go off to wander around Golders Hill Park and Inverforth House, a beautiful Edwardian mansion with The Pergola, The Hill Garden and the reflection pool hidden behind it.

My boots are still bearing the dirt from Gower Peninsula, the surroundings of Salisbury Cathedral and the city of Bath, after our motorcycle adventure through Surrey, Wiltshire, Somerset and Southern Wales last summer. Having survived days of 100 mph on highways through blinding sun and pouring rain, the suede boots had to adopt a modest life of forest walks and after-dark weekend shopping. I feel that after carrying me through the most uncomfortable weather conditions and most beautiful sights of the United Kingdom, they deserve at least a little quality retirement time in the quiet of Golders Green.

Walking past the tennis courts and the deer enclosure in Golders Hill Park, I felt very nostalgic of the long gone summer. How many tennis games could have been played there? How many picnics could have been enjoyed under the cherry blossom? How many sunny mornings did I miss, hiding from the warm bedroom sun under a duvet, sleeping in? And how desperate for sunshine I am now, walking through muddy woods and mushy grass in mid-November, rushing to catch the last rays of sun before it sets at quarter to five…

Just like with new years resolutions (barely half of which I managed to accomplish this year), I decided to promise myself that next summer I wouldn’t waste a single sunny day on any indoor bullshit. That probably guarantees that I’ll only miss half of them.

Last time Sasha and I went to The Hill Gardens together, we met someone interesting. A stoned man in a T-shirt, tied above his belly button, swayed his hips past us, his harem trousers hanging too low. He had no coat on, and, wrapped in a hoodie and a wind-proof jacket, it made me shiver to look at him. He slowly walked around the garden, touching flowers and plants, and water in the pool as if he was an autumn forest nymph putting the earth to sleep before winter. I envied him in his oblivion. I especially envy him today, when the garden is full of yelling children, pensioners arguing about architecture and an astonishing amount of Russians. You see it’s hard to explain to other people that this is my secret garden and I would like to have it all to myself. For some reason they all decided to spend their Sunday not in front of the TV with popcorn and pizza, but in the park, running, talking, playing with their children, taking pictures and enjoying the beautiful weather. What a bizarre lot!

So I hid behind the last pages of ‘The Great Gatsby’ in a sunny corner by the reflection pool and read away, trying to pretend not to understand what the two Russian guys on a bench next to me were talking about.

When the book came to a rather tragic point, I found myself among elegantly dressed elderly Jewish couples and rosy-cheeked post-Sunday-lunch families. They continued into The Pergola, leaving me behind to enjoy the warmth of the last rays of sun, absorbing into my skin and my black winter coat. I close my eyes for a moment, and in the orange imprint of the sun on my eyelids, shining through the silhouettes of pine trees, I can visualize myself walking a park with my grandparents. Perhaps, it’s the appearance of F.S. Fitzgerald’s Mr Gatz, and the illusion of his son. Perhaps, it’s just the time of year when one thinks of the past and tries to make sense of it in the present.

My father’s parents, since I can remember, have always lived in the town of Pushkin (Tsarskoe Selo), 20 min drive from St.Petersburg. Back in the early 90-s when I was growing in the city, it was a popular place for well-off people to have a country house, as well as a getaway for retired people who wanted to live close to nature yet in a cultured environment. There were shops, theatres, museums and churches. My grandparents both retired rather young, and lived in a small carpeted flat on the 9th floor of a redbrick apartment block. Today this building seems rather insignificant, but then it seemed like a skyscraper to me. I spent first 6 years of my life in the wilderness of Far East of Russia, where there are Siberian tigers in the forests, and giant crabs in the sea. When it snowed there, you often had to dig your own way out of the house.  There weren’t many skyscrapers there.

When we permanently moved back to St.Petersburg, where I was born in 1986, I was rather wild. Not in a sense that I didn’t know how to use a fork and knife or that I picked my nose. My parents took my education very seriously, and although I might have been driven to my kindergarten in a military truck with neither seatbelts nor, in fact, a roof, and was fed bear due to deficiency of beef on the market – I was a very eager little pupil and a well-behaved girl. I mean wild quite literally. When we returned back to civilization in 1992, I would get extremely fascinated with most simple things one could imagine. Like rubbish bins. My mother still remembers with a bit of embarrassment, how I used to peek inside every bin we passed by.

Underground never stopped fascinating me. I still love its smell of tar and – unlike my husband with his wild imagination about other people’s skin and hair particles blowing in your face – even the tube wind. I feel that there is something very romantic, and even cinematic about it – it almost makes one want to move in slow motion as if in a black-and-white film…

We lived in central, historical part of St.Petersburg – Vasilyevsky Island, separated from the rest of the city by the Palace Bridge, leading to the Winter Palace (The Hermitage Museum), with its highlights in the St.Petersburg State University, former building of The Twelve Collegia, Kunstkamera museum, the two sphinxes on the University Embankment, the fire of the Rastral Columns – there was a lot for an 8-year-old girl to be fascinated by. We lived on the fourth floor of a beautiful but worn out 19-th century building with huge ceilings. Even that fourth floor then seemed to me miles away from earth. I was used to being close to the earth, and earth – not pavement! I think we even had chickens and grew our own potatoes at some point of our Far-East retreat. And here were paved streets of Classical and Baroque architecture, underground stations with mosaic and chandeliers, and of course most interesting bins!

My grandparents’ 9th floor seemed like the tallest building in the whole world, and I was terrified of going out onto the balcony on my own – the floor was slightly tilted and the bars were so few – I felt like I would just slip down and fall on top of the little ant-people down there. I am still mildly scared of heights – I can climb a tall tree, but it would take hours to get me to come down.

It wasn’t, however, a very interesting building and being so young I was very picky in my architectural tastes.  My grandparents lived only 10-15 min walk from the Catherine Park and the Summer Palace, the Lyceum, where Alexandr Pushkin studied, and the Alexander Palace with its English garden. Those places truly left me breathless. Since my parents were, of course, incredibly concerned about my health in the city, they encouraged my trips to visit grandparents and spend time outdoors in the parks. And I loved those trips!

My grandmother and I would mostly spend time together wandering around in the Catherine Park, feeding ducks and swans with bread in summer and squirrels with sunflower seeds in winter. Wild squirrels with luxurious tails! In summer we would sometimes swim or go rent a little boat. She would tell me about her life, about the times when my father was little, about how different everything was now, and how she wished she could undo some things. As I started growing up, she would also teach me about every new health and beauty trend there was – cleansing diets and the good of sauna, eye gymnastics, honey-based food supplements, using green tea as a skin tonic, cold showers, even basic acupuncture. If I went for a walk in the park with her today, she would probably tell me about the dangers of gluten.

That could explain why by the age of 19 I was running every other day and survived mostly on fat-free yoghurt, rye bread and whole oatmeal, vegetables, smoked salmon and boiled chicken breast. I refused butter, sugar, fried or processed food, and I was nearly obsessed with exercise. That, perhaps, was a little extreme, but I still retain some of the healthy habits and beauty tricks I learned from my grandmother. For a very brief period of my life, and never too often, but only every now and then, I probably had a perfect granddaughter-grandmother relationship. We never really got close enough to be friends, I never thought of asking for her wise advice, and never felt like sharing something very personal with her, but my grandmother must have played a rather important role in my life, by teaching me to love and indulge in nature and take care of my own body. It’s just the emotional barrier, and the differences in values and beliefs that we never managed to overcome.

My grandfather, on the other hand, has always been a mystery figure to me. His attitude towards other people, his harshness and strange sense of humour, his golden teeth and thick, long, well-carved fingers, and his strange way of speaking in broken sentences – confused me as a child. I think I might have even been a little scared of him, because my grandmother was. It was quite clear that he was the boss, and she did everything possible to please him. I think it must have been very strange to me to see such a clear division of power in a family, since the relationship between my parents seemed much more equal and modern. I always felt awkward talking to him, and sometimes couldn’t quite understand what he was saying. So we didn’t talk very much.

A significant development in our grandchild-grandparents history happened when I was about 6. We were sitting on a sofa together, and my grandfather suddenly told me he was too young to be called a grandfather. That from now on I had to call him by his first name, Vova (Vladimir). It seemed strange and unfair to be calling him Vova and continue calling my grandmother Grandma. So grandmother became Galya. Galya and Vova.

One moment I remember clearly is when Vova asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I can’t remember what I replied, but most likely I wanted to be a dancer at that age. He told me that it was silly, and that I should become an interpreter and take him to America.

The walks in the park, when the whole family would gather, were always very nice. Picnics with Galya’s blini, hot tea and my mom’s warm sandwiches. I think I was even allowed a glass of ‘Sovetskoe’ champagne a couple of times. After a long walk, when we came back home, everyone would go for a nap, and I would feel incredibly bored with being by myself after just seeing the most beautiful winter forest and the arches of the Cameron Gallery.

We haven’t gone for walks in the park for many years now. Occasionally, I see my grandparents at my parents’ datcha, 100 km from St.Petersburg, when I come to visit. It feels like a burden to spend time with them, because they don’t know much about my life now, and we never talk or write to each other. There should really be a lot to talk about when we only see each other once a year, but there isn’t. We don’t really know each other as grown-ups, and we seem to speak different languages.

It feels warm to think about them now though. About them when they were younger and happier, and when Galya was very proud when people thought she was my mother, that’s how young she looked. And when she would get tipsy from one glass of sweet red wine and make a toast to love – that’s the only toast she ever makes.

Perhaps it even isn’t a coincidence that I have now become so passionate about translating work.

Perhaps, our minds at a certain stage, as they continue to explore and be amazed, start to digest and interpret all they have soaked up. Sometimes what you need it to place them in the right environment – like this one, by the pool reflecting the cool rays of setting November sun, on a bench devoted to someone’s grandmother.

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