A Bilbao on Siberia’s Edge?
That’s the name of a recent New York Times piece about the city of Perm, Russia. I read it just when I was booking tickets on the Trans-Siberian, and I thought, what the hell. I’ll check it out. I found myself some nice young women to stay with on Couch Surfing and I showed up in their fair city last Friday morning.
Nadya and Lyuba, both wonderful. Nadya spoke a far superior level of English to Lyuba and I spent more time with her. She picked me up at the train station and we immediately set out on a walking tour of the city. On Couch Surfing, she’d asked what I wanted to see in Perm and I mentioned the New York Times piece.
“I read the piece you’re talking about. We will see modern art today.”
I couldn’t argue, so I agreed, and thought it sounded fun. What ensued was several hours of a long walking tour around the city, her in high heels, while she pointed out every instance of art she knew of to me, the tourist interested in the city’s creative side.
We arrived at a statue of a mermaid in chains. It was kind of morbid. I cocked an eyebrow at her. She looked at me sideways, as if to say, isn’t this what you want to see?
“It’s modern art,” she said brusquely, and that was explanation enough for me, and we moved on.
Next to a cat fashioned out of odds and ends of scrap metal and building materials. I didn’t mind it, but didn’t really get it, and asked her what she thought.
“Anna-Marie, I do not understand these things. It’s modern art. Perm is full of it,” she said, and onward we walked.
Finally, arriving at the region’s governmental capital building, I was perplexed to see a series of red stick men dotted around the building on its steps, roof, seemingly standing guard out front, and so on.
“Oh,” I said. “This must be part of last week’s celebration you were talking about.”
“No,” she replied, exasperated with me. “It’s modern art.”
And we moved on. I stopped asking dumb questions.
The next day we took a road trip out of the city in Nadya’s Fiat. Her mother came along, so it was Lyuba and I in the back seat. We suffered through monosyllabic conversations until we came to a traffic circle. I squinted into the middle part, which looked like a park with some bushes.
“Are those trees? Special trees to Perm?”
“No,” replied Lyuba, and visibly struggled while she looked for words. “It’s art.” Then, finding the precise word, she exclaimed, “it’s modern art!”