Some weeks, life puts bloggers in a bind. For me, the last week consisted of two primary event types: the uninteresting (lots of time in airports and on planes) and the un-sharable (two particular good news possibilities that just can’t be made public quite yet).
So, what to write about? I have to start this week’s dispatch by offering a clarification. It seems a number of my Russian friends and colleagues were thrown off a bit by my use of a common American expression for a sudden illness. When I announced that I’d “caught a bug” last week in Kazan, there was a great deal of concern over my well-being, and worry over what sort of poisonous bug had bitten me. So, to my warm and wonderful Russian friends who showed such concern: I’m just fine. I simply fell ill with a virus, and I was fine after a day of rest.
Language can draw a line between a flippant remark and a life-and-death situation, and in a tense era of global and national politics it becomes increasingly important to take care with words, to evaluate meaning and potential audience reaction before speaking or writing a thing. The fine line between an innocuous “bug”—a couple hours of viral discomfort—and a life-threatening sting from a dangerous, literal bug is all a construct of language, and it’s something worth considering. Audience perception, after all, is perhaps the most important component of communication. At the end of the day, my unclear turn of phrase has a net positive result: to prove once again that I’m surrounded by caring, concerned people.
During the last three weeks, I’ve traveled so extensively that I spent less than six total hours in my Novosibirsk flat—and those few hours were spent doing a rushed load of laundry and then napping between flights. Planes, trains, taxis, and buses have dotted the last month, and there are mixed reviews. Taking the Platzcar (third class) on a long-haul train is something I might’ve gotten a kick out of ten years ago. Now? It’s just miserable. Alternating between frigid and boiling, with no room to maneuver or even sit up
First class might’ve been a different story, but those tickets were either booked up or unworldly expensive. I was stuck on an airport transit train for an hour as we sat inexplicably still while later trains from the airport flew by me. I was soundly ripped off by one taxi driver, while another told me all about his dream destinations in America and then tried to hug me. I deflected slightly and gave him that most American of departure greetings: the side-hug. I’ve already covered my bus riding experiences here, so I won’t belabor that point, but when it comes to bus transit in Russia, it is what it is, and you know what you’re getting before you step onboard.
The thing I will most certainly miss is the efficiency of the airports. Nearly two dozen times I’ve taken off from a Russian airport and I can’t recall spending more than ten combined minutes at the ticket counter, bag drop, and security screen. In one instant, I literally purchased my ticket on-site and was inside the security point drinking a coffee and chatting via Skype with family in less than five minutes. It’s not that the screening is any less rigorous. In fact, the equipment is all new and top notch, and the screeners are careful and attentive. They’re just quick and good at their job. At some future date, I can already see myself standing in line with angst as I watch the minutes tick away at O’Hare or JFK, wishing I were back in the good hands of Russian airport security, getting along quickly and efficiently to my destination, without all the unnecessary shouting and attitude-wielding that are so common at American airports.
Last week, I had the opportunity to Skype with some students at my home campus, Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. The first and primary question was a simple yet common one: how’s the food?
In one word, inventive. The western-style food I’ve encountered takes staples like the burger or coffee and adds new wrinkles incessantly. In Moscow last week, I had a burger that included pie-style cherries and filling. It was amazing. I’ve had coffees infused with everything from crushed tea leaves and lavender to popcorn. Traditional Russian foods are often treated the same way, with bold and new flavor combinations abundant. That’s the hallmark I’ve found and that I will always associate with the Russian food I’ve eaten. It’s creative. Sometimes, it doesn’t wind up working, but it’s always welcome, the idea of a creative, hopeful approach to life.
Speaking of questions, I’d like to open up the opportunity for a Question and Answer session at Dispatches From Siberia.
During the last few months, I’ve gotten some interesting questions about my Russia experience via social media and email accounts. Since those were sent to me personally, I wont publish them. But…
Next week will likely be a lot of paperwork, syllabus tweaking, and other miscellaneous odd-jobs as the Russian spring semester opens up next week. So in this moment of pause from bustle on my end, I’d like to invite questions from readers on both sides of the Atlantic: what things do you wonder about life in Siberia as an American in this particular juncture of time, culture, knowledge, and politics? Send me your questions, personal or general, and I’ll answer several of the best ones in next week’s edition of Dispatches from Siberia.
Use the comment tab at the bottom of this page or form or use any of the social media channels available on my “Contact” page. If you’d like to be anonymous, please indicate that in your note; otherwise, I’ll identify question-askers by initials.
I look forward to reading and responding to your questions. In the meantime, I plan to avoid all bugs equally: the flu kind and the biting kind.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.