George Saunders

Am writing this from a crowded e-mail-by-the-hour facility in St. Petersburg, where I’ll be teaching for the next two weeks in the Russia Literary Seminar. A guy is hanging a door behind me, and a young Russian-Asian couple is surfing for photos of Salma Hayek and Alicia Silverstone with great care and love, as if looking at wedding rings.

Started my day yesterday somewhere over the Atlantic, on an Air France flight, next to a strange loving couple … him sickly and irritable, her consoling and enabling, even when he found fault with the way she was trying to help him. But then toward the end of the flight, a sweet moment where he cracked her up by performing some shtick in baby talk, they cuddled, as the onboard televison showed that we were passing over Scotland.

Missed my connecting flight in Paris. My first time in France. Learned that the French are a polite and extremely good-looking people who give almost exclusively wrong information. When sent to the wrong location, one must take a very slow bus driven by a kindly driver of almost Zen detachment. After arriving at the wrong location, one must take the same bus back to the original location, but before doing that, one must wait with many sweltering others behind a door which only opens, electronically, and only when the bus arrives. This door cannot be opened manually, but if one tries, one will be corrected politely, by another great-looking person.

Finally got an Aeroflot flight to St. Petersburg. Russian airplanes have lime-green seats, as in Brady Bunch green. Was so tired and delirious by this time, with all that trying to open unopenable doors, that I imagined/hallucinated the following song coming over the PA, to the tune of the Brady Bunch theme:

Here’s the storyOf your airplane pilotWho was bombing ChechnyaOnly months ago …

Once in the airport, more mayhem: We could only fill out the form for our Lost Luggage if we had a certain stamp on our Customs Forms, which our Customs Guy had forgotten to give us. And he was now with the other Customs Guys in the back room, drinking tea, which seemed to enrage the one remaining Customs Person, who was a Customs Lady, and who seemed, soon, to hate us, since the Customs Guy was gone. The Lost Luggage Lady was insistent: We could not fill out the Lost Luggage Form until we had the Necessary Customs Stamp. So, using candy, I charmed the Lost Luggage Lady to such an extent that she went out and cursed the Customs Lady, who responded by hating us even more and even more adamantly refusing to help us.

But soon, within three hours or so, we were on our way, happily driving into the heart of St. Petersburg, pass some poor old drunk passed out on the sidewalk with his pants around his ankles. A less-drunk guy stopped to help, attempting to put the first guy’s pants to rights, but no, and he walked away sadly shaking his head and wiping his hands on his own pants.

Ruined, or at least under-attended splendor all around, but also real joy. In my hotel lobby, wild teen smokers, all dressed up and strutting.

Had dinner at weird Rococo MTV cafe … three stout Russian pancakes with creamy cheese.

Last night was right out of Russian lit: moans, some guy slamming his car hood seven times at 3 a.m., this sound, ghostly/dovelike from somewhere in the hotel: BLEAU. BLEAU. BLEEAAUU. In the morning, wild bird sounds from the single tree in the courtyard, which, after all the night sounds, were like a flute after extensive farting.

Well-rested now and ready to go … more tomorrow.