After some wonderful vacation time, I’m back at home in Siberia. My flight came in just a touch after two in the morning, and when those sliding doors did their thing at the airport exit, I was rudely welcomed back into the cold. My vacation was wonderful for a number of reasons. First, the obvious: my life changed in a drastic and wonderful way during that trip. But beyond the obvious, the simple connection of meeting with a friend, a loved one, someone familiar, was incredibly warm and comforting.
I love where I am and I love the work I’m doing. I love the students I get to interact with, and I love the things I’m learning, both about teaching and about the world generally. I love exploring. I love seeing new things and places. And in this era when politics, society, and shifting global dynamics increasingly license people to withdraw into their own personal group or clique, I love (and find it more important than ever) to listen and embrace differences. But for all of that, it’s hard to be away from home. It’s hard to miss family, to be connected only when schedules line up and when the Internet signal is strong enough to power Skype of FaceTime.
When we visited together in Paris, Rachael brought gifts from loved ones back home and supplies—including a replacement for my frayed computer power cable. A new cable in Russia cost roughly what the computer cost me in the first place. She took my gifts back home, too, and this simple exchange feels like it’s reinforced an important connection.
The other grand thing about vacation was that last week in the south of France, I actually had my shirt sleeves rolled up. No parka. No jacket, even. My nose got a touch of sunburn while we hiked the Calanques between Cassis and Marseille. I’m ready for the cold again, but it was a nice respite.
Last week, I closed out the vacation with a trip to the Czech Rupblic and two of my favorite places on earth, Prague and Cesky Krumlov. Krumlov is a small town situated at an oxbow meander of the Vltava River. Disregard and lack of upkeep during the Soviet era actually worked to the town’s benefit, as the town’s architecture gives a strikingly in-tact view of renaissance-era architecture and town layout. Gothic and baroque styles are visible, too, making the little town a veritable living museum. When I last visited, the place was fairly sleepy (even in pleasant spring) and still under phases of restoration. This week, the town was crawling with bussed-in tour groups, many of which had reserved and blocked off entire restaurants.
For a few moments, I played the grump: that whole I-discovered-it-before-you-what-are-you-doing-here shtick, but then I found the place I wanted and parked myself in front of a plate of fruit dumplings and had a quick change of heart: the more the better. Other people are exploring. Learning. Seeing. It’s good for the town’s economy, good for the travelers, and I still got my dumplings. Everyone wins, even if I have to wait in line a bit.
Prague. What can I say, even? A professor of mine once told our class everyone should visit Paris in a meaningful lifetime. I responded by writing this. Now, I don’t think it’s got any impact on whether your life is meaningful or not, but if you have the chance, you should see Prague.
And if you do, you should reserve exactly one day for the fairy tale parts—the old town, the castle, the monastery, the obligatory walking tour, and so on and so forth. Them spend the rest of the trip doing regular Czech stuff, because regular Czech stuff is awesome. Go to the Kirov district and walk through artist studios. Drink some of the best coffee in the world. (Paris, I should say, has great café culture, but the coffee itself? Go. To. Prague.) Go to Zizkov and walk through hipster shops and second-hand stores. See plays. See opera performances. See ballets. My box seat for a performance of Le Boheme was the Czech equivalent of $16. And it was powerfully beautiful.
Thursday night, I saw a play in English. Before the show started, the two study abroad girls from NYU struck up a loud conversation with their front-row neighbors, the two study abroad boys from Dartmouth. The three Canadian backpackers in my row started taking bets on how long it would take them to get around to discussing which corporations their parents owned. The winning bet was 45 seconds. For his success, he was granted two Czech lagers and applause from our entire row. The kids down below talked about how they fit into the succession plan, oblivious.
One of the Canadians leaned toward me. I hadn’t spoken yet, so they had no clue where I was from. “Americans, man. Right?”
“Don’t ask me,” I said. “I’m Russian this year.”
The Canadian put up quotation fingers and said "'Russian,' just like those kids are 'Canadian,' right?" I showed him my visa and said, "Actual Russian. "Right on, man. That's hardcore." And this is how I learned that Canadians talk like Californians from the 1990's.
Speaking of the idea of fleeing, this can’t be left unsaid. During my walking tour of Krumlov, there were (among a group of about 20 total travelers) two professors, a doctor, a lawyer, and a copywriter—all of whom have dual U.S.-Czech citizenship.
During the 1960’s an 1970’s, the U.S. experiences “white flight” as middle-class white people abandoned urban cores for the suburbs and turned the U.S. into an even more acutely segregated mess than the Mason-Dixon line had managed. Expats have started calling the next wave of geographical abandonment “bright flight,” and it’s very real. For years, the threat to move to Canada if someone’s political party lost has been a joke. Movies have been made about it, and this year, folks crashed the Canadian immigration Web site after election results became *final. But that was hardly ever to be taken seriously. When, after all, are the loudest of voices ever to be taken seriously? The people who put energy into talking hardly ever have any energy left to do the thing they’ve explained over and over again. But very quietly and very quickly, educated and thoughtful Americans with the ability to do so are leaving the country. These are people who have had the chance to do so before, and they’re finally acting. The ones with the easiest paths have already left. The five people on the Krumlov tour had already put their U.S. houses on the market and had retained sellers to liquidate their U.S.-based possessions. Some of them had always held residences in both countries. Now, they’re going all-in on Europe.
I met several more of these folks in Prague. Teachers and professors, mostly, but doctors, too, afraid of what the American medical system is about to become, and business people who are not interested in taking part of what truly unregulated capitalism could do to the world and its most vulnerable people.
These people aren’t talking. They aren’t posting on Facebook or making jokes over dinner. They’re quietly leaving, and as their numbers mount, we will notice their absence.
The thing that was most noticeable in this group was their nonchalance.
There was no melodrama. They simply wore the attitude explained by one of the professors, who essentially said that she hung in there with America for a couple of decades, and that it’s just not worth the energy anymore.
“There’s good food and nice people over here, and no one’s trying to take over the world. That’s a better life.”
I can certainly get on board with the first two ticks of that sentence. We’ll see where the rest of it goes in the coming months.
In the meantime, it’s back to Novosibirsk, back to work, back to snow, back to Russian lessons, and back to the fun and joy of meeting new people and seeing new places. I’ll take that over a succession plan any day.
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.