The final chapter of the long-winded St. Petersburg series: Soviet donuts, missiles on main streets, and an encore at the opera.
The final chapter of the long-winded St. Petersburg series: Soviet donuts, missiles on main streets, and an encore at the opera.
With a horde of end-of trip activities the last few weeks, there's a massive backlog of blogging material. The catch-up starts today with continuation of the Saint Petersburg travel log.
I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it.
I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.
This week's Dispatch From Siberia examines the important impact of small changes on the creative process, and considers the global ramifications of an American media company's disturbing process of downsizing.
This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.
Winter is receding from Siberia, which is a great duality. At eye level, it’s heavenly. The air is warming, the coats are turning to jackets, and sometimes just sweaters or even shirts. It feels blissful. It looks blissful. The sun is out, and the days are longer, the breezes gentler, and the people are bright and animated. At ground level, though, it’s a different story.
These days, America’s once-favorite sport is just a human video game with expensive snacks between innings. So this week as baseball season began in America, I didn’t regal my Russian friends and colleagues with stories of the games virtues, because frankly, I’m not sure it’s got any left.
Thursday morning, it struck me. My time in Russia is rapidly closing. I got an email asking me to start thinking about book orders for my fall courses. I made plans for an out-of-town trip, understanding that my window to travel around Russia is rapidly closing. I had lunch in a favorite spot and wondered how many more times I’ll get the opportunity to go there, to greet the hostess in strained Russian, and then to order and start working on a story while the grill is fired up and my food begins its path to awesomeness.
My students from the fall held a public reading of the work they produced. Since our course is the only institutionalized, university-level creative writing instruction that anyone seems to know of in Russia, it was kind of like the national MFA thesis presentation. That got emotional, too: hearing the work these students produced and knowing the path their work took from that first draft into some pretty spectacular fiction was a wonderful moment. I couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished, or more excited for what they will do in the future—not to mention the community of writers that has started to build within just a few short months.
There’s a little sentimentality in all this, and an equal amount of panic. There’s so much I still want to do, to see, to write, to eat, to teach, and to learn. And I’ll have to weave all that in with rapidly approaching goodbyes to the kind and wonderful people I’ve met. I’m trying to take this realization more as a call to action than a prelude to sad departures, but it’s hard to do one without the other lingering nearby.
To compound the sentimentality, my parents are in the process of selling their home, meaning that between now and my arrival in the states, the last pieces of my adolescence will be unceremoniously packed into boxes and stacked in a storage facility somewhere on the east side of Cincinnati. This is one of the great problems and complexities of humanity, of course: the ever-present feeling of being stuck dead in the center of what’s passed already and what comes next. I’ll inhabit that complexity with fullness over the next nine weeks, and I look forward to whatever it might produce.
Regular readers of this blog will know that Russian ground transport has been the bane of my existence, while air transport has been an utter delight.
This week, I actually had a fun bus experience. To most Americans (and probably most Russians) that will sound like quite the oxymoron. One such encounter amused me in brand new ways. On city buses, there’s generally a konduktor, someone who walks around the salon—the main bus compartment—and takes money or swipes transit cards, handing over little paper tickets in return. As I’ve mentioned before, individual bus owners and companies of various sizes contract with the city to cover certain routes. Every company has a different type of ticket and a slightly different procedure. Thursday afternoon, I jumped onto one of the most rickety buses I’ve seen in Novosibirsk. Windows were cracked, the sign displaying the route was half-fastened, flapping in the breeze. One of the wheels moved in an odd pattern, as if it had been struck from the side by another vehicle. But onboard, the konduktor was riding in style. The only reserved spot on the bus belongs to the conductor, who usually reserves it with something akin to a blanket or a small stadium seat. This lady had a leather massage chair strapped to her seat in the front of the bus. And in between stops, she was definitely using the massage function, tapping at the remote control while she talked on the phone. This might seem like a pretty small thing, but look at it this way: this is a thankless job, in which one spends their (usually her) day writhing between tight-packed passengers, collecting money from irritated travelers who wish they were moving much faster. The exchanges are frequently wordless, particularly when it comes to the word thanks. And yet this lady was making the work her own, making the most of it, getting whatever comfort she could out of something that seems like it could universally called an unpleasant job.
And then, I looked up at the wall of the bus, where a flat screen monitor showed that most wonderful of visages: the Russian Public Transportation Public Service Announcement Roll. This isn’t an official title of any sort, but it feels like it should be capitalized. This is basically a stream of silent PSAs that play constantly during one’s trip. In one classic, a bully seems primed to win the heart of a young woman when he shoves the PSA hero out of line in the school canteen. But the hero has a plan. The next day, when the bully pulls his Vespa up to the front door of the school to pick her up, the hero shows up on a high-stepping horse. They ride off together. The lesson ostensibly has something to do with brains over bullying, though I like to see it as more of an anti-scooter ad. I love scooters, but I feel like that would be a more interesting service announcement to make: buy your spoiled kid a scooter, and his date will definitely be stolen by a high-stepping horse. Now, where the kid kept the horse all day during school, or how the boy got out of class early enough to fetch it are beyond me, but sometimes, you just have to look beyond the plot holes and appreciate the art.
In another classic, an attractive woman is talking to a clearly of-age set of men, who seem artistic and are engaged in some park bench guitaring. She’s feeling it, until one of them pulls out a beer and takes a sip. The girl then sees a preppy guy approaching. Thank goodness she’s saved from the beer drinkers! The two rollerblade off into the park, and the guitar players are left to cry into their very small beer bottle.
One film is just dramatically cropped footage of exploded propane tanks, which cascade by with the intensity of a mid 1990s driver’s ed crash compilation video.
In one, a little girl offers a young man fruit. Instead, he spends the day eating random ethnic foods. At the end of the day, he’s doubled-over in stomach pain when the girl returns with a tangerine, which apparently makes everything alright. It’s obviously about healthy eating, but methinks I doth detect a cultural subtext at work.
Finally, there’s a slow-motion soccer game in which a young woman’s attention is stolen (any themes developing here?) from a pair of guys who have just tried their first cigarette. They can’t compete with the flowing mane and goal scoring skills of a dude who looks to be at least 10 years older than the other actors. No rollerblades this time, but the same general effect. These videos are solid gold: they’re the lone thing that keeps me going as the bus fills up, the conductor shoves her way through the mass of bodies, and my face gets shoved up against the window for the dozenth time. Because eventually, that little girl is going to come back with that healthy little tangerine, and much like the actor’s burrito-induced stomach ache, all will be made well.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
This week's Dispatch outlines the birth of an observation-based short story and the ways in which real-life encounters can affect art.
This week's blog features the cultural importance of a well-cooked steak--and the process of ordering it.
Money can be as tough to translate as language, if not more so: with currency exchanges, cultural norms, and value discrepancies, cash fluency is a moving target.
A special, mid-week Dispatch From Siberia in honor of International Women's Day.
Showing your city to others is a great way to learn about how you interact with it. Last week, a pair of fellow Fulbrighters based a few hours north accompanied a group of students to Novosibirsk. In between the group’s scheduled tour of the zoo and attendance at the opera, we met up and I got a chance to show some colleagues around my adopted city.
The time constraints led us to stay in the city center, where we checked out the famous teal constructivist-style train station, took a stroll down the city’s primary pedestrian street, and had a late lunch. If this sounds more relaxed than exciting, that’s sort of the point.
The quick tour, just a couple hours including food, made me appreciative that I’ve gotten to know Novosibirsk as an inhabitant and not as a tourist. As a tourist, I would have been underwhelmed. Frankly, there’s not a ton to do in the walkable center. There is certainly good food, and the aforementioned zoo and theatre undoubtedly make up a hefty percentage of the trip for many foreign visitors, because these are the most accessible interesting places. But to really appreciate the city, it takes a deeper dive—and most of the more interesting places are far-flung enough that a short-span tourist would likely never find them—or would spend the whole trip traveling back and forth between a very limited number of actual sites. The Monument of Glory, for example, takes less than an hour to see and appreciate, but the trip there—between public transit and the walks between bus or metro stops—would eat up half a day and perhaps more if the traveller was just getting her or his bearings in the town. Akademgorodok, which is listed in nearly every tourist guide as one of the most interesting spots in Novosibirsk, can take well over ahour to reach from the city center, depending on traffic and bus connections. A visit to the City of Academics would take nearly a full day from a traveler’s Novosibirsk itinerary.
Other cities I’ve visited, such as Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, and Ekaterinburg, have more centralized, walkable zones filled with the key touristic sites. There was plenty to do during a couple of days, and the sites were clustered close enough together to be easily reachable. Did I miss some things in those cities? Absolutely. But these smaller and more compact cities are friendlier for those just stopping through. I feel like I got to enjoy the very best of those interesting places in a way I might not have been able to do on a quick breeze
It’s harder to do that in Novosibirsk, and so I’m glad I’ve gotten to dive deep into this place.
So, which genuine, authentic Siberian restaurant did I take the visiting scholars to? Well, the Mexican restaurant, obviously. Listen: both colleagues live and work in Tomsk, which is about four hours away and a third the size of Novosibirsk. With plenty of authentic regional food available in Tomsk, we opted for a different flavor: something familiar.
The steak fajitas were a hit, and the burrito appeared to be solid. I can also vouch for the queso (which is spicy, rich, and full of mildly cooked red peppers) even though no one partook during this particular lunch. The cheesecake, I hear, was take-or-leaveable, but sometimes when you haven’t had cheesecake in months, you see it on the menu and you have to try.
When travelling for a brief time, it’s worthwhile to spend as many meals as possible enjoying local cuisine, but when you live in a foreign land for an extended time, it’s okay to go for a little flavor of home now and then. Sometimes—don’t judge me—that even means a trip to KFC.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned some of the lessons I’ve learned in Siberia. One of those included avoiding hot beverages when the temperature plummets, and a couple of readers have asked for clarification. So, without further ado, here is my vastly oversimplified version of the science: basically, when you drink hot liquid such as coffee or tea, the tissue in your mouth and throat expand, in much the same way ones pores open during a warm shower. The next cold breath, then, injects brutally cold air deep into your throat tissue. Not a pleasant thought, right? Here’s another example: think about how asphalt expands and contracts in changing weather. Add some moisture to the mix, and by the time all the havoc’s done, you get a street full of potholes. This is why no one walks around Siberia with a cup of fresh coffee when the temperature hits negative thirty: they’ve got no interest in a throat full of potholes.
On that cheery note, we’ll wrap up for the week. Next time, I’ll have some stories about spring classes, currency exchanges, and whatever other blissful mayhem I run across in the meantime.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
The merciful thing about very big guys, and very drunk guys, and especially very big, very drunk guys, is that they telegraph their punches like crazy.
A new job, a writing rut and a touch of insomnia, plus a reader question about learning the Russian language, in this week's Dispatches From Siberia.
Readers asked and I answered--something I'll continue to do weekly as part of the Dispatches From Siberia Blog. Read the first batch here:
This week, Dispatches From Siberia opens up for questions: what do you want to know about life for an American in the Siberian capital during winter?
This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter.
No matter which flavors and sights might escape me as I leave one town for the next, there’s always a next, wonderful place waiting with a new batch of kind, curious, and giving people.