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. The slow bleed of melting snow piles, combined with the sludge of normal soil and six months’ worth of spreading sand over the building snowpack that helped walkers and drivers keep their grip have turned the ground into a puddle-ridden gob of slimy obstacles--often of ndeterminate depth.
I’ve been assured this will dry, eventually, but there are no signs of that yet. It’s a constant choice, then: stare down at the mess and try to avoid whatever grime you can, or look up, enjoy the beauty, and try your best to scrub up once you’ve arrived at your destination.
My solution so far has been a very Russian one—a very practical one: it all depends on what shoes I’m wearing.
Yesterday, I had lunch at a steakhouse (business lunch discounts are prevalent, so lunch is the time to visit all the places that charge more than you’d rather pay come dinner time). The coat man, who occupies a nicely appointed room to the left of the main entrance, rarely bothered to move from his spot at the counter. And yet, even as he knows fewer and fewer people are walking into the restaurant with coats to deposit, he dutifully waits without sitting or complaining, making disappointed facial expressions or otherwise reacting. He just stands and waits, in case.
I wonder what will happen in a few weeks: whether he has summer employment, or whether the restaurant will shift him over to some other duty—or if he’s simply in line to be out of luck and employment until the snow clouds return.
During the time it took for my food to arrive, I wrote a quite short story about such a man—I thought it made a perfect vessel through which to show the impact of unavoidable passage of time.
The same man has been there every time I’ve visited the restaurant, and despite his obvious work to retain the dignity and detail of the position, I couldn’t help noting how very sad he seemed. His face and general carriage were precisely the same as I’d seen on every other visit, but there was an implicit sadness. I’ll wonder what became of him, long after the season has finished changing.
I took a fast visit to the university town of Tomsk this week. The town is more compressed and compact than Novosibirsk, but young and vibrant, full of energy and innovation. This atmosphere, which seems present across Siberia, led me to the idea for a lecture I’ll present later today, comparing the American Rust Belt with Siberia. Both are the victims of names that come with some baggage, and even though the systems that created them did so with very different motivations, both regions wound up dotted with single-industry towns that were unstoppable at their peak but decimated when the industry busted. Both regions are also home to incredible, youth-driven “maker” movements, in which young people take advantage of cheap property in previously undesirable locations and build thriving communities based on culinary and craft creations—movements that are re-shaping cities and helping to remove long-held stigmas. The project excited me so much, that I put off building a PowerPoint until the last minute, instead sort of stumbling into the composition of the first quarter of a book on the topic. I’m hoping to have a full draft finished by the time I return to the U.S. in June.
Before I checked out a neighboring city, I explored a bit closer to home by visiting the Novosibirsk circus. Circuses operate differently here than I’m used to. In the U.S., there are a couple of large circus productions which tour the country, stopping to present a couple of shows for a community before moving on to the next town. The largest of those, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, will hold its final shows next month after deciding earlier this year to shut down operations. A couple of smaller, regional operations work on the same model, touring within smaller geographic spheres.
In Russia, each town of a certain size has its own dedicated circus building, and a production company. Much like the opera house or symphony, the stationary operation changes performances throughout the year. This month’s, for example, was a water-themed show, with everything from dancing seals and canoeing clowns to synchronized swimming and trapeze performance above a pool of water.
The performance was packed, and the performers were tremendous. The building was old but it served its function—well except for maybe the restrooms. I understand the festive, shiny nature of circuses, but without getting into any of the hundreds of detailed and specific reasons why it’s a poor choice, let’s just all agree the mirrored ceilings in the men’s room need to get replaced. Aside from that little hiccup, though, the experience was an absolute joy.
There’s nothing quite like a circus to revitalize a wide-eyed and wondrous view of the world. The contortionists and acrobats showed how far the limits of the human body can be stretched. The clowns are a nice reminder that sometimes, we’ve got to stop taking ourselves so seriously and enjoy the goofy thing that is life. And though I respect everyone who works on behalf of animal rights, no one will ever convince me those seals are having anything short of a blast as they balance on a fin while nudging a beach ball skyward with their nose.
As all this happened around me this week, it was a good reminder: there are gross puddles on the ground and wonder in the world if you look for it. So put on some shoes that you don’t mind ruining and keep your eyes up—soak it all in and live.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.