A Walk on the Edge – Galina Liou

A Walk On the Edge
Galina Liou


9 degrees below freezing, sunny but cold. I finally get to see The Bridge from a shorter distance…the longest bridge in Canada, as well as the longest bridge in the world, crossing ice-covered water. There is not much traffic on the bridge, but the sound of trucks can still be heard from afar.

I try to picture the scene when Northumberland Strait is fully covered with ice…I try to be as calm as the Island now, yet the waves of my thoughts are bringing me back to Saint Petersburg, Russia, where I have stayed for the longest time besides my home island and Prince Edward Island. I guess part of me is still there, as in my dreams I keep wandering in their resplendent cathedrals and palaces. Endlessly. I remember taking the bus from the dormitory to the State University at the corner of Vasilyevsky Ostrov (It is an Island!). The most glorious historic and cultural heritage of Russian Empire is just a bridge away from the University. After class I often spent the whole afternoon strolling around the Winter Palace Garden, climbing to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral for the million-dollar view of the city, being amazed by the countless collections of Winter Palace and other museums, or just being immersed in the exotic ambience.

The year I stayed in Vasilyevsky Island was an eye-opening experience for me – the humble dorm on Shevchenko Street had students from all over the world, which one could tell from the scent of communal kitchens during busy lunch hours and the various parties nearly every night. I will never forget the first time I tried to cook a meal for myself using a gas stove with the help from a boy from Iceland. A couple from Egypt often invited me for dinner. A PhD student from Gaza living across the hallway often came to me telling her stories about wars, showing me the book she wrote with Vladimir Putin’s recommendation preface on it. The friends I hung out with the most in the dorm were Henna, a musician from Finland, and her roommate Aga, a professor teaches Slavic languages in Belgium. Me and Henna exchanged music and movies. She told me stories about Sammi people, playing Mari Boine to me and asking me to see her friends when she knew that I was going on a brief trip to Czech Republic (This makes me recall a walk on Kampa Island in Prague!)

Speaking of “Islandness”, or a sense of island, I vaguely remember a night where there was an outdoor laser light show projected on Kunstkamera and Palace Bridge that connects the Island with Palace Square and Admiralty. Tens of thousands of people rushed onto the Bridge and the nearby streets, some of them even climbing up to landposts. I could see no laser light, only people, a sea of people. I ended up being caught up on the other side of the Bridge and had to stay overnight at my friend’s place till next morning, as all the bridges leading to Vasilyevsky Island were drawn by night. I had not felt so insecure for a long time, and after that night I always made sure that I was on the right side of the Bridge.

That year’s winter in Saint Petersburg was recorded to be the coldest one in 60 years. I remember a night walking to visit my friend who lived in another University dorm on Korablestroitelei Street, a dull building complex facing the Gulf of Finland similar to those buildings featured in the classic Russian New Year’s Movie The Irony of Fate. It was 25 degrees below zero, but to my surprise there were quite a few people who thought it was good weather, I saw some riding snowmobiles on the frozen water. Earlier that day on the newspaper cover I had seen people playing hockey on the frozen River Neva with the Winter Palace as their background…A trip down to memory lane…Thanks to Peter the Great’s urban planning of building the city like ‘Venice of the North’, I guess I have unconsciously done more island hops than I expected when I got around in Saint Petersburg (Hare Island, Petrogradsky Island, Kretovskiy Island, Kotlin Island). Islands had a lure to me, I was always curious to see what was on there, and to listen to their stories.

A Taiwanese friend who studied in the Russian Academy of Arts could stare at one single painting, especially those by the Russian realist Ilya Repin, for a whole afternoon and go back to the same painting the next day over and over again. He taught me how to appreciate art. I do not remember all the things he taught me, but I recall vividly one day when I strolled through the galleries of a museum, when suddenly some mysterious moonlight beams shone forth from a painting, reaching the entire exhibition hall. Then I think I understood why my friend could spend his whole day (and his whole life) appreciating, drawing paintings and teaching art. Because the painting I was seeing then was just too mesmerizing. I can imagine how the painter wanted to preserve the moonlight using all his heart and soul, and he really succeeded.

The sound of waves drags me back to reality. I guess we are all like migratory birds, gather briefly on Vasilyevsky Ostrov, and then continue the journey of our lives. I only hope that all the friends and encounters along the way are doing well. I hope someday we will meet again, and I will be sharing the stories of this Island with them, here, where I have found a sense of space, a sense of time, and…a sense of home.

Are you also struck by Arkhip Kuindzhi’s Moonlight Night on the Dnieper (1880), the same way you are by the artworks of PEI artist Ashley Anne Clark?

Galina Liou is a Graduate Student in the Master of Arts in Island Studies program at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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