October 11, 2010

Quitting time in St. Petersburg

Dana and I left Moscow's Leningradsky station at 12:30 am on the overnight train to St. Petersburg. Our tiny compartment was comfortable enough, but I didn't sleep because I didn't want to miss anything, so I leaned my head against the window and watched eight eerie hours of dense, black forest roll by, pine near Moscow, birch as we neared St. Petersburg. The only signs of human activity were the occasional dim lights inside train stations at which we did not stop, and drab, concrete energy complexes tucked up dirt roads carved into the woods.

When we got to "Peter" we jumped right into a full day of sightseeing, and by early evening I was ready to retreat to our 9th-floor room at the Novotel Hotel off Nevsky Prospekt, Peter's most famous boulevard, and go to sleep.

But two things conspired to make that impossible: the construction site outside our window and the midnight sun. July in St. Petersburg brings 11 pm sunsets.

Our room looked directly onto a new building going up next door, and we were eye to eye with the men building it. They took no notice of us, focusing on their banging and hoisting, stopping every so often to sit on a pile of wood for a smoke or a snack. It was 7 pm, and they showed no sign of stopping.

At 8:30, the sun still blazing, I watched a welder make arcs of sparks, adjusting his long metal mask as he worked. At 9, a crane on the roof hoisted a big concrete slab into the air, leaving it suspended for a half hour before dropping it into place.

When would they quit? When would I be able to sleep?

About 10pm some of the men started to pack up and leave. The sun was still high enough to light up patches of yellow paint on the steel beams.

At 10:30 nine workers remained, including the crane operator, who finally climbed down from his cab perched on the new concrete rooftop 150 feet above the street. I watched a young guy place a few more steel rods into a wall frame. Then, final rod planted, he looked out over the sun-burnished city, his orange hard hat aglow and his tanned skin bright brown under his denim coveralls, and picked up his toolbelt and the t-shirt he'd removed hours ago when the sun was hot. Four hardhatted guys sat on a beam, talking. Three cement makers in maroon cotton coats maneuvered a wheelbarrow with fresh mixture across the roof.

The seated workers and cement mixers showed no sign of leaving.

Utter exhaustion knocked me out at 11 pm. There were still men on the roof, still banging and hammering and talking. Still building.

I woke at dawn to the sound of construction. I think men had worked on that roof all through the night.