Sybil Pretious travels take her not just to Russia but to the story of a survivor from a major historic event
“Be present in all things and thankful for all things.” Maya Angelou
Sometimes I have turned off the radio during lockdown — too many people complaining, not enough dwelling on their blessings. I preferred to take my attitude from my tenacious, pioneering parents, survivors from holocausts, long sieges and other disasters much worse than this one. It reminded me of one of the people I met on my travels.
In 2007, I travelled to Russia — a wonderful place for adventure — and plumped for a homestay in St Petersburg. This is not a travelogue, just a snippet of admiration for survivors.
On the flight, I sat next to a trainee travel agent.
“You are travelling to Russia on your own?” she queried.
I confirmed the fact.
“Do you speak Russian?”
“Do you have family or friends here?”
She had asked me how old I was and on gaining that information she just shook her head. This was not the kind of older traveller she was expecting to deal with in future.
In a rather decrepit taxi, I arrived at the homestay. You stayed with a family who provided a room, two meals and local knowledge. The apartment was situated in an enormous unpainted concrete building with a forbidding exterior. The taxi driver hollered, his face pointing to the upper stories. A face barely reaching the top of the balcony peered over and called back in Russian.
A diminutive woman who looked childlike in stature came out of the heavy entrance door. We traded greetings. She spoke English.
I followed upwards and finally she produced an enormous bunch with giant keys. She unlocked the door. We went up some steps. The same procedure again twice more. I began to wonder if this was a castle in the air. After unlocking the final door, we were in the flat and the doors firmly locked behind us. I had to follow this procedure every time I went out. I settled in a large bedroom. She later called me for tea and special Russian cake.
With initial polite enquiries over, she began her story.
“When I was only two, my family was in the Siege of Leningrad.”I was very quiet. My attention was total. I knew that the siege in 1941 had lasted for almost three years — 872 days to be exact. Almost two million people lost their lives. I couldn’t imagine the hardships they would have gone through.
“Very soon our water was rationed, the thirst was awful. We had just this much bread (she put the tips of her thumb and forefinger touching in a circle) for one day. It was the coldest winter. We threw everything we had into the fires to keep warm – clothes, furniture, instruments, ornaments. Our family had only one iron bed left. Every family was the same and we had to support each other. It was so hard.”
I was silent. Now I could understand why she was so small. Her growth had been stunted by lack of nourishment in her early years, but her spirit was indomitable. A lesson indeed.
She went on,
“But now our Government try to give survivors from the siege compensation in money and also a trip to anywhere in Europe every year.”
I didn’t like to say that I thought nothing could compensate for what she had been through, but she was grateful and loved visiting Italy.
I learnt so much more about Perestroika which she did not approve of but that is not pertinent to this story. It was just to remind myself to count my blessings daily.
Sybil Pretious writes mainly memoir pieces reflecting her varied life in many countries. Lessons in life are woven into her writing encouraging risk-taking and an appreciation of different cultures.
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