Borscht, Blintzes, Ballerinas, and a Near-Death Experience

by Dina Lyuber

     My husband Roman and I were both born in the former Soviet Union. I moved to Canada when I was still in diapers; he spent his childhood in Leningrad before moving to the States. Neither of us had been back since, but after we’d met and married, we decided to go back to the USSR (as the song goes) – though the Soviet Union no longer existed, and neither did Leningrad. We were returning to St. Petersburg in Russia, and name changes aside, that meant a return to our roots, our long-ago home.


My in-laws still had contacts in the country, and we were offered free accommodation in a private medical clinic just off of the Fontanka Canal, across from the Summer Garden and minutes away from the bustling Nevsky Prospect. The clinic was housed in a Baroque-style building decorated with reliefs and statues of winged angels. Inside, the corridor was dim and narrow, permeated by a medicinal smell. A large kindly woman showed us to the spare room in the basement. There was a modest bathroom in the hallway. The water running from the taps had a brownish tint. There was a fold-out couch to sleep on and a good-sized kitchen. It wasn’t a bad space, but it was cold. It was August, and I was freezing. 

We spent the first days of our two-week trip rambling through the city. We never took taxis or buses, but padded down the wet sidewalks and absorbed the fresh-air smell wafting from the Neva river.


We bought books. We walked through the wide Summer Garden and sat on benches next to statues of Hercules and Spinoza, beneath crinkling trees in autumn, flipping through our literature and enjoying the pale sunlight on the leaf-blown pathways. We stopped frequently at cafes for snacks of blintzes stuffed with meat and cottage cheese. We ate homespun meals of hot borscht with garlic and dark rye, beef tongue with horseradish, perogies with great dollops of sour cream. I consumed platefuls of dranikis (potato pancakes) and thought of my grandmother standing in the kitchen, flipping batch after batch of pancakes onto a plate, telling me to eat the ones at the bottom first as they are less hot. 

 

After a full day of walking, we returned, exhausted to our room in the bowels of the clinic. After-hours, it was deserted and the lights turned off, the ghosts of its bourgeois pre-revolutionary owners still sweeping the inky hallways. There were no heat controls, and the old-fashioned radiators were nothing but stumps along the walls. Finally, I resorted to boiling pots of water to keep warm, reasoning that the steam was sure to raise the temperature by a few degrees. I wrapped myself in an itchy woollen quilt and drank mugs of boiling-hot black tea. 

One evening, we saw Swan Lake at the famous Mariinski Theatre. We sat close enough for me to hear the soft thump of the dancers’ feet as they landed on the worn stage. It was dusk when we left. Rows of taxis lined the exit, and we took the closest one. Roman told the driver our destination. I was drowsy, and let my gaze roam over the grey-black streets. I never did have any sense of direction, but Roman noticed we were heading the wrong way. “You’re going to the Fontanka?” he asked, as the taxi pulled up to a sinister-looking alleyway. A dog barked at us behind a chain-linked fence. 


“This isn’t your destination?” asked the driver. The exchange was in Russian. We were, after all, Russian ourselves. Apparently, we had not blended in with the locals as much as we had thought. “I was told to pick up some foreigners and bring them here,” the driver explained. His voice rose to the verge of panic. “You are not those foreigners? You did not book this taxi?”

“No,” I stammered. Then, weakly, I added, “We are not foreigners.”

“We just needed a taxi,” Roman explained. “There were a lot of them outside…” 

The driver was on his radio in minutes, negotiating with the dispatcher, swearing robustly under his breath. “I need to go back,” he said finally. “I need to go back and get the foreigners who originally ordered this taxi.”

“Back to the theatre!” I said, “But can’t you take us home first?”

“No, no! They’ve already been waiting too long.” The taxi backed up and sped back to theatre, where the driver unceremoniously dumped us at the curb. 

The long line of taxis had by now dissipated, and we were alone in the encroaching darkness. It was too far and too late to walk back to our clinic, but what choice did we have? I limped alongside Roman in my heels as they air grew cooler. We spotted a small cab at the edge of an alleyway and ran toward it. The taxi was small, but the driver was huge. He towered over his little car, a cigarette hanging loosely from his mouth. 

“Can you take us to the Fontanka, across from the Summer Gardens?” asked Roman. 

The man shrugged. He had a wide torso and thick arms that hung heavy at his sides. Somehow, he squeezed himself into the driver’s seat, and we followed. He shot out of the alley, came to an abrupt halt behind a smattering of traffic, took a sharp left, and careened down a street that was much too narrow. Swaying in that tiny taxi-cab as it hurtled forward at 150km/hour, I knew that I was going to die. I knew it with utter certainty, and I gripped the seat and squeezed my eyes shut in preparation for the horrible impact of a car crash.

I was genuinely surprised when the car stopped in front of our now-familiar lodgings. I stumbled out, gasping great lung-fulls of cool air while Roman paid the driver. We felt our way through the dark clinic, and I fell into bed with my heart pulsing with death and ballerinas.  

 

Dina Lyuber is an ESL Teacher and freelance writer with an English degree from the University of Calgary. She got her start teaching English while living in Japan and South Korea. She now lives in Canada with her husband and two small children. 

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