The Professor opened the door to our knock. He was a small, thin man with a sharp pointed nose, twinkling eyes and a humorous mouth.
‘Welcome,’ he said in Russian and English.
There were five Americans, three Russian girls and myself. It was an official trip, the girls there as our guides and interpreters.
The Professor, I put his age at about 65, but he was actually 72, ushered us into his large sitting room. The windows overlooked a small park and gardens, ablaze with flowers, on St Petersburg’s Finland Square. The great edifice of the famous Finland Station, where Lenin had arrived to start the revolution, stood at the end of the street.
We handed over the customary presents, bottles of vodka and a bottle of Scotch, which we had smuggled from the ship under the ever watchful eyes of the guards.
He opened a glass fronted cabinet and produced ten small glasses then opened a bottle of vodka.
‘Everyone drinking?’ he asked.
Three of the Americans refused, an engineer because he was alcoholic, his friend to keep him company and one because he didn’t drink. The Professor nodded slowly and turned to the girls. It is bad manners in Russia not to accept a drink without good reason. He filled my glass to the brim.
‘To international friends and cooperation,’ he said as he raised his glass and drank the vodka in one swallow. I followed suit and flinched as the clear liquid burned its way down my throat
Obviously used to speaking to an audience, he told us that he was a professor of ice. He had spent a year in the Antarctic during International Geophysical Year. Another six months of his life had been spent floating around the North Pole on an ice floe, always studying the formation of ice, its qualities, depth and movement. He spoke of Siberia, where perma-frost never melts more than a foot into the ground, even in mid-summer.
‘But it is rich, this Siberia,’ he said. ‘Underground there is oil, coal, diamonds and in some places, gold. The problem,’ he concluded, ‘is getting it out!’
He had lived in that apartment for 50 years and was there through the great siege.
‘I was sitting here one day when a bomb dropped in the square. It was winter and very cold. The whole building shook and glass cascaded into the room. Then it snowed and remained ten centimetres deep on the floor for a week’
Reluctantly we had to leave this lively old man and I could see the disappointment on his face.
‘Spasebo,’ (Thank you) I said as we shook hands. ‘Da svidanya.’ (Good bye.)
Last to leave, he stopped me at the door. ‘You are learning to speak Russian? Repeat after me.’
‘Ho … cho … wot …ka.’
‘You have just said, ‘Give me Vodka!’ He poured two glasses, gave one to me and toasted. ‘The English!’ He was waving madly at the window, beaming, as our bus carried us away, richer for having met him.
by Terry Took © 2012
Terry Took was born in Yorkshire but has lived in Tynemouth for over 50 years. He spent 45 years in the Merchant Navy which included 27 years as North Sea Pilot. He then spent five years as a lecturer at the Marine Department of South Tyneside College.
He is now an Elder Brother in Trinity House and Marine Director.
If you have any comments or would like to contact Terry then please e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.