After ten days in Russia, I haven't seen Rocky Balboa, any military parades, or bears. Well, three bears, but they were polar bears, in the zoo, splashing each other while children clapped. From news sources back at home, I read that American political candidates have spent the better part of my time here arguing about how good or bad Russia is. I can tell you from the field that it's both and neither, but for very few of the reasons those two folks have prattled about. For the next nine months, as I work on a handful of projects through the Fulbright Scholar Program, I'll do my very best to peel back the onion (dome) skin of this vast and wonderful place through weekly dispatches right here, on the blog/news page of brooksrexroat.com.
Week one was a whirlwind, and in order to avoid burying the lede, let's start with this: I saw a Liger. She's in the picture to the right, and she's an amazing, powerful beast. This afternoon, in fact, I strolled around the sprawling Novosibirsk Zoo and saw all manner of other cats and exotic bison-cousins and rodents and antler-butting deers from about every corner of the globe. What struck me, though, is that the
animals that often get ignored--or not even included in collections back in the states--were the ones that earned the grandest crowds. Raccoons. Skunks. Bobcats. These were among the big hits (well, aside from the aforementioned polar bears, but really, how could anyone on any continent avoid loving polar bears?) This has been a microcosm for the trip so far: what I've noticed most vividly is that in every corner of the globe, people are curious about what they don't know. Sometimes this curiosity descends into snipey political barbs. Sometimes, though, it leads to conversation and learning. That's what I'm here to do.
But let's step back for a second. After some tough goodbyes, I flew out of Columbus, Ohio on 31 August and had a chance to tool around New York City for a few hours during a layover. Good coffee and an outstanding burger seemed like perfect ways to bid farewell to the States for the better part of a year. After nine hours in the air, the entrance into Russia was surprisingly simple. Partially because to the rigid, time-consuming, and somewhat intimidating visa application process, the border control agents had everything they needed, pasted right into my passport. Finding my hotel, though, was a beast. The metro system was simple from the get-go, thanks to my iPad and brilliant offline tools like Yandex and 2GIS. But those same tools got a little creative once I hit the surface: while dragging a year's worth of stuff behind me in two crammed suitcases, I was sent through alleyways and then through the middle of buildings--more than once, my instructions called for passage through someone's backyard. All told, I spent the better part of four hours covering about a kilometer of ground.
Moscow was incredible, and I very much look forward to returning and exploring at as my work duties and writing calendar allow. From amazing cafes that compete to put the most creative new ingredients into their coffee blends and the splendid museum of a subway system and the abject beauty of the streetscape, it's one of the most breathtaking cities I've encountered. Once the luggage was ditched, in fact, one of my favorite things to do during my four days there was to simple wander around and get lost: to watch the light play on spires and pitched roofs, Stalinkas and storefronts. The underground, hipster food scene is strong, and if you circle off the touristy squares, the homegrown boutique clothiers are full of striking, fresh fashion that I'll never afford, but certainly loved sifting through the racks as the perfectly-suited clerks followed me step-for step, attentive, I imagine, for all sorts of reasons.
Sunday night, it seems the entire tourist population vacated Moscow all at once, and all from Domodedovo Airport. Shoulder. To. Shoulder. All night. On the S7 flight (Russia's Allegiant or RyanAir, essentially), it was instantly clear that Russians aren't so...shall we say sensitive about certain image types as folks might be back home. Case in point, the airline's safety manual. We'll just leave that here for your own conclusions, but I can almost sense the reaching of a thousand fingers toward Facebook ranting posture as I prepare to tap the "Post" button. But the way images are constructed and used in our cultures is one of those interesting differences that I'll enjoy exploring and observing.
I arrived in Novosibirsk, Siberia's Capitol, early Monday morning, and was met by my University liaison and astoundingly kind host, Olesya Valger. During the next couple of days, she helped me set up phone service, get me acclimated in the foreign language department at Novosibirsk State Pedagogical University, and find a wonderful flat. By Wednesday, though, I was beat. The jet lag, the language barrier, the nightclub that had been below my hotel Monday and Tuesday night, blaring dance music until 6 a.m.--I have to say that it got overwhelming for a little bit. That's both good and bad news. It's bad news, because I'm a fairly seasoned traveler, and there was a speck in my mind that thought I could breeze through the process seamlessly from start to finish without any frustration. That was silly of me, frankly, and a little bit arrogant. What's good about it, though, is that it was manageable this time around. I've had two extended stays in foreign countries: a six-month stay in Ireland back in 2010, and then a monthlong stay in France as a member of the 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Carmargo Fellow class in Cassis, France. During both stints, there was a clear and evident moment when I sat down, put my head in my hands, and said, "What have I done?" For all the amazing things that happened during those trips, travel is a thing that brings stress. To swing around to the good side of my mini breakdown: it was better this time. Much better. Travel --and exploration of all sorts--is a practiced and learned skill. You get better at it. You learn from mistakes. You learn to smile when things go wrong, because something absolutely profound or beautiful might become the end result. Mostly, though, what I've learned in my trips and travels is that when you get a chance to see an incredible place up close--even when it gets hard--you smile. Because someday, three or seven, or seventeen years down the line, you'll pine for that moment.
In this moment, I'm in one of Novosibirsk's tremendous coffee shops. This one is called Akademie Coffee, and it specializes in single-origin coffees with half a dozen different preparation methods. It's one of more than twenty young, hip cafes in the city, and I look forward to methodically working my way through them, one cold Siberian day after the next, and then I'll work my way right back through the list, just to make sure I haven't forgotten any spots or blends. If you haven't picked up on it, I'm a bit of a coffee fiend, and Russia's burgeoning third-wave coffeehouse culture has my full attention right now.
In the weeks that follow, I'll get more specific than in this overview: I'll outline the exciting course I'm getting to try and the great teammates who are putting it on with me and helping to measure the results. I'll explain how I got here in the first place, and just what fascinates me so much about this country. I'll detail my struggles with language, as I work to get past what has turned out to be an even more elementary understanding than I thought when I got onto the plane. And mostly, I'll pass along the wonderful things and moments that others are kind enough to share with me. In the meantime, here's one more beautiful thing. Come back and see me next week, bears or no.