Living in another language means constant work. The easy part of living is gone — I don’t mean modern conveniences or cable TV, but the native understanding of every cultural and social and linguistic message you receive, consciously and unconsciously. In another language, your brain has to devote a chunk of its time and energy to constantly translating those exhausting messages, and it goes like this: “Is he standing close to me on this train because it’s culturally appropriate or because he’s weird? If he’s weird, is he criminally weird or just a creep? Is that person looking at me because she can’t believe this guy is standing so close to me and she’s waiting for me to react, or because she’s trying to see the advertisement behind me? Do I say ‘excuse me’ when cutting in front of someone to get off the train, or ‘pardon me’? How long is it OK to stand and look at the map before I look like a tourist? If I get lost, who is it appropriate to talk to?”
That tiresome monologue is from 30 seconds during a ride on the Metro. It’s like a sump pump running quietly in a basement — it deals with an overflow of information and is always in danger of being swamped.
Hanging out with expats sometimes helped. Great friendships are born in the shared experience of living in Crazytown, and people I never would have known in the U.S. became like family through alcohol, fear and the shared experience. But spending all your time with other expats becomes incestuous — everyone wants to date each other, or at least drink too much and come on to each other, and after awhile you discover you’ve gone three or four days without speaking Russian, and that feels pointless.
English-language books were like water in the desert. We traded and loaned them out, and when new people arrived, we asked quickly what books they had brought. Reading abroad was more than enjoyment or even escape; it was a total immersion into something Not Here. I wallowed in easy, light books with warm, comfortable plots and bright writing (The Shell Seekers, Winter’s Tale), and charged my English with the restorative words of Possession. I read some books because there was nothing else to read, and in some cases that was good (Tale of Two Cities, White Swans, Name of the Father) and in some, not so good (an inexplicably huge batch of Clive Cussler novels brought by a newspaper consultant who advised laying off half the staff, and who dribbled out of his mouth at a lunch with the U.S. consul general).
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be there. But the constant low-level grind of the possibility of being faced with a situation where you had absolutely no idea how to deal with it was so pervasive that it was a relief to take a break when one could.
It wasn’t just the people. St. Petersburg is built on rivers and canals. There are no parts of town built on a sensible grid. Even in the suburbs, the blocks are laid against the compass and I often found the sun rising in what I felt was my magnetic north. Near the top of the world, the sun rises at odd times anyway, and at strange places in the sky, adding to the general background confusion: “Is it OK that the sun is rising over there, or should I mention it to somebody? And I’m pretty sure that this road was running north-south last week — now that it’s east-west, is this a problem?”
There some parts of St. Petersburg where the buildings are made of red or tan brick. The roads in those parts of town are wide and empty. Even though these neighborhoods are near the center of the city, no trams and few buses run there. They are padding between the cultural downtown and the beautiful leafy first-ring suburbs, full of empty storefronts and communal apartments. Traffic is sporadic; it’s hard to find a car to drive you there, or pick you up when you’re done.
Because it is apparently useless, the neighborhood is full of surprises. A blank window might be, on the inside, a fully stocked pharmacy where one can buy contact solution and European tampons. A doorway could lead to an invitation-only restaurant. When I was there, it was also the home of the St. Petersburg Lions, the city’s professional baseball team.
It was little more than a back lot, but the grass was well-kept and the pitcher’s mound carefully raked. The road ran along the first-base side, then angled away down a canal. The third-base line was backed by the side of a brick building, about five stories high, dull red and pleasant against the green grass and blue sky. The outfield was lined with scrubby bushes and trees that the outfielders hunted through for balls at the end of scrimmages. There was a backstop, and a set of bleachers for girlfriends and skeptical passersby.
The Lions never played a regulation game there. They played their home games 500 miles away in Moscow because the team could not afford to pay for the improvements to bring their field up to regulation. Their colors were gold and green. They got no money for playing.
By the time I’d discovered the Lions, I wasn’t quite as homesick as I had been. It was my first summer in a city I had seen only in winter, and I had fallen in love with it. I had found some friends and gotten used to my job. When I went to the weekday games, I pretended I was reporting on the team, calling it to expat attention, and I did in fact write a couple of articles about it.
Since other teams didn’t come to St. Petersburg to play, the Lions had to make do with split-squad scrimmages against themselves or, if they were lucky, youth teams from the United States. They relied on the goodwill of these teams for equipment and uniforms, although sometimes they would scrape together enough cash to buy a case of balls from a European team.
It was like any town-ball team. Sometimes players couldn’t make it because their car had broken down or they had to work. Some were obviously more dedicated than others. Some had found, whether learned or felt, that easy grace that comes to natural ballplayers more than other athletes. They played at single-A level, but with flashes of intuition. If boys in Russia are raised on any sport, they are raised on hockey, and the cultural understanding of baseball — the leisure, the connotations of a fleeting summer, the trite and true coming-of-age undertones that run through the game — are absent from the players here.
But ballplayers in Russian are like ballplayers anywhere. Zhenya was a grinning, easygoing catcher who chatted up the infield and was almost always screwing around. Behind the mask he kept up a stream of jokes and insults, and after awhile the outfielders would yell at him to knock it off.
Sasha was a silent, lonely, hulking figure at first base. He rarely smiled but took the throws for the outs patiently and with ease. His range wasn’t outstanding but he could scoop them up. It was understood that his wife was sick and money was especially tight for him, and he missed practice more than the others because he couldn’t afford to take time off work. When he played, you could see it was his escape.
Sergei, more often Seryoga, carried himself like an officer and laid down bunts with military precision. He played center field in a matter-of-fact way, as if it were his duty to be an outfielder, and the other players deferred to him — when he told Zhenya to shut up, Zhenya shut up.
I made friends with Dmitry, the shortstop. He was in his early 20s and had played hockey all his life. He was short, bandy-legged, and one of the more effortless shortstops I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have the speed or quickness to make it in any league, but he played the game like he was born to it. “I played goalie, so I’m not afraid of the ball,” he told me once, and it was a good enough quote I used it in a story. “Some guys, when the ball is hit, they’re afraid of it, and they jump away or close their eyes. But me? I’m used to it.”
He would walk me to the Metro station (or, if I’d been playing hooky, back to work) after games, and he would call me at home to talk about baseball. Once, during a game, he came off the bench to sit with me and discuss strategy; he almost missed his at-bat, earning a snarl from the coach.
One afternoon Dmitry called me at home to talk about a bat a visiting team had brought. “It was made for me,” he said, as if he’d come straight out of “The Natural.” “You know how sometimes you put on a pair of jeans, and you KNOW they were made for you? That’s how this bat was. It was beautiful. Oh, Katya, I can’t even tell you. There are no words.”
The overheated sump pump at the bottom of my mind slowed and quieted when I watched their practices and games. The pitcher’s mound was 18.45 meters from home, and the bases were 27.5 meters apart, but it was closer than translation — it was simply a different measurement of the same thing. Watching baseball in Russia was like running into a dead friend in a dream — it filled me with delight even as I knew it was not quite how it was supposed to be, and then sadness came when I realized it would soon be over.
Because every game must end, of course. And when it did, it ended like it does in America: You are sitting under the summer sun, heckling the players and drinking a beer and there are no demands on you, nothing you have to do until the good-natured regret of lengthening shadows and a full scorecard begins to wash through the afternoon. The sump pump kicked into gear again. I was brought back to where the baseball cap I wore almost everywhere was cause for strangers to stare and openly mock, where only one of my few expat friends was an American, and anyway, he was a hockey freak.