I was in the Franz Snyders Hall of still life paintings in the Hermitage when I heard that voice,
"This is the only place you can see that fish. We eradicated the species through 300 years."
The voice belonged to a shabby, middle-aged man dressed in a worn vested suite over the sweater and winter boots. A branch with green leaves stuck out of his pocket.
"A starving scientist like you," continued the stranger, "could theorize that this indigenous Russian fish found its way to the Dutch fishery, where Snyders spotted it. Some Russian aristocrat bought the painting with his beloved fish and brought it back for us to see now what we had lost."
"How do you know I am a scientist?" I asked.
"So I am right about hunger? You visit this hall of food for the third time. Also, you are curious beyond fear. Everyone else left when I started talking. I detect a faint smell of alcohol. Compulsive drunkards do not frequent this place though. Thus you could be a scientist or a medical student. Medical students prefer nudity. Ergo, you are a scientist. Let's continue our discussion in Saigon."
Saigon was the street name for the only cafe in the city with decent coffee and unlimited time to stay. We proceeded to the smoky corner, where I was introduced to the Immortals. Long ago such people were called the vagants, the free scholarly spirits. They were artists, painters, actors and dancers, who spent their days working in obscure theaters, restoring old churches or teaching children in small studios. Some were aspiring writers or activists like my mentor who called himself the St.Petersburg Ghost of Greenpeace.
"I plant trees," he explained to me. "They call me crazy but I don't care. We do what we consider right. That's why we seldom have scientists here. They are too self-confident, too deterministic therefore mediocre. Look how they are running away from religion. Whereas science and religion are connected through love. Ivan Pavlov knew that when he converted back to Christianity. You seem open-minded. But for you to become an apprentice we need something more tangible. Do you have anything to offer?
I offered my daily supply of free milk coming from the chemistry research lab. They needed it. St. Petersburg takes its toll on the needy. Most of them avoided the mandatory city police dwelling registration by renting rooms in communal apartments or in the slums. None of them had steady income and they never complained about anything. Instead they spent their time talking and learning, sharing views and theories, continuously challenging their minds like databases in a vivid environment of imagination. In the Northern Palmyra this is accomplished by walking.
Our tours were never-ending discoveries. We would pay a visit to the Gorokhovaya Street, the first headquarters of the Soviet Secret Police. From that place the river of blood and tears made its way to the back entrance of Smolny where Kirov was murdered and proceeded waywardly throughout the country, peppering the territory with Big Houses, the gates to Hell. The milestone for the city historical gates and basements would be the gates of Michailovsky Castle where Paul the First was killed and Dostoevsky studied engineering. The small gate on the Katherine's Channel would mark the place where Sofia Perovskaya signaled to blow up the Csar Alexander II. From there it was not far to an abandoned basement, the former Stray Dog poets' cabaret, frequented by Anna Akhmatova when she was young and in love.
To sing we would gather at the place of our music guru, the fat dame with voice thick from heavy smoking. Zongs would be correct definition, with their origin in German urban ballads, enriched by a Russian sense of profound sadness. The guru lady accompanied the guitars on the piano and improvised, asking us for the topics. I was complimented once for finding a poem good enough to become a zong. There were also movies and theater. One night it would be a barely lit culture house hall with an amateur company staging a Ionesco drama. On another night we would go to a study auditorium, with showing of "The Mirror" by Tarkovsky or "Amarcord" by Fellini.
We argued passionately. Controversy was as natural as an iceberg stuck under the Palace Bridge in May. We discussed science, arts, religion, nature, history, social issues, but never politics or money. In the dim light of Saigon or in the icy room with window looking at the brick wall we dissected Chayanov's agricultural society theories and Stanislavsky acting system. It was teamwork in its finest, cemented by the perception that mere facts mean nothing without the touch of heart. That subjectivity, that individual bias developed the human wisdom. We talked with Van Gogh, danced with Isidora Duncan, drank with Byron and Edgar Poe. It takes time to fall in love with the process. And when it happens the apprenticeship is over.
My research assignment ended. One night I rose quietly in the middle of a heated debate and left for the railway station. There I boarded a carriage and sat in the dark until the train started to move. I looked out at the platform and saw them standing with guitars in their hands, singing the farewell song under the silver streams. Same song I heard ten years later, on that dreadful night when I was leaving the country for good, "Again I am leaving you, my love and my destiny. I am smiling at you, please, don't cry..."
In the US I watched the series about an Immortal Highlander and imagined the Gathering. No beheading, no blood, no struggle for power; just wisdom shared and songs beside the fire. Forever, forever.