Note: From August, 2016 to June, 2017, author and educator Brooks Rexroat lived and worked in Novosibirsk, Russian Federation as a Fulbright Scholar in creative writing. Originally designed to chronicle the author’s time abroad, Dispatches From Siberia now examines the questions, challenges, and epiphanies of returning home after a life-changing trip.
A year ago today, I was trekking through the snow-piled backstreets of Novosibirsk, Siberia. Three months of continuous sub-freezing temperatures and consistent snow had glazed the city—including roads and sidewalks—with a meter or more of compressed ice, atop which we drove, walked, slid, and helped each other up. Not once in the six frozen months of my nine-month Siberian residency did I note a school, business, or government office shut by weather.
Last night, with the temperature hovering just above sixty degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius), I received in rapid succession a phone call and a text, explaining that the university where I teach and the public school system where I coach would be cancelled the following day, in anticipation of bad weather.
I laughed at each.
But not for long.
More than anything, I was excited for the first significant snowfall I’d seen and felt since leaving Russia. Aside from a few flakes in West Virginia on Christmas Eve and a dusting on the ground the next day at my folks’ home in Ohio, I hadn’t seen a speck of it since the stubborn last ice hunks of Novosibirsk melted off, sometime in late April. Instead of bunkering down in the apartment, I de-iced my Volkswagen and headed out to enjoy the frosty day and to remember the blessed cold and familiar white ground I’ve missed in the aftermath of my trip.
Owensboro Kentucky was, in large part, a ghost town. The few vehicles on the road were either creeping along with exorbitant caution, or plowing past everyone, honking and spraying snow slurry on their neighbors’ windshields.
Ah, America: the land of opposing forces, from politics to driving technique.
As I drove, and then plunked myself down in a nearly empty café that would be bustling any other day at the onset of lunch hour, I couldn’t help thinking of the ways in which Siberia came to its most alive state in the depths of storm: the way the people walked with huddled purpose, the way the bus drivers skirted the line between efficient delivery mechanisms and daredevil lunatics.
The circumstances, of course, are entirely different. Siberians understand the snow, the physics of staying upright on ice, the methods and techniques of surviving brutal temperatures and shrugging off slick surfaces. Kentuckians, as it turns out, are not.
Part of the difference stems from lack of practice. That’s something that’s been hard in coming home. I grew to love the snow, the cold, the consistency of the days. I miss it, and miss it dearly. Practice with snowy, cold weather can do a lot for one’s development as a human: it teaches patience, care, precision, teamwork, preparation, thoughtfulness. A good battle with the elements every now and then can be good for the body, mind, and soul. And I miss it.
A larger reason, though, is the fundamental mode of transportation. In my new Kentucky home, I can’t get anywhere without driving. Anywhere. The trash compactor at our apartment complex is a good kilometer of meandering twists from our door and requires a drive. Public transport—even if we relied on it—couldn’t get us to a fraction of the places necessary to comfortably function. My Russian students, despite the piled snow, had it easy: they could step out their doors and take a short walk to a transport station—bus or metro—and get anywhere useful in the town. It might take a while and the bus might be crowded, but I would arrive.
The sense of rampant, overeager individuality that so limits America and Americans runs far deeper than the handful of drivers who imagine their oversized pick-up trucks give them license to run the rest of us down.
It comes in spacing ourselves out, prioritizing land over community. It comes in inverted ideas over land value—in America, single-owner homes are heavily favored by those with the physical means, while in Russia, the conveniences and connections of a high-rise apartment block—even if it’s old—are still dearly desired. It comes in our vapid avoidance of investment in community transportation, at least outside our largest cities, which have resigned to its necessity.
On that trek through frozen Novosibirsk with an American (a previous Fulbright Scholar still living and working in Russia who had returned for a visit to his former home) and our Russian guide Mikhail, we were examining building techniques in the suburbs. Our guide, a well-known activist particularly invested in safe zoning and building requirements, pointed out numerous styles and formats of building, some safe and painstakingly crafted and others, well, not so much. Most of the homes were constructed of found (and sometimes incongruent) materials, but it was the macro view rather than the micro the caught my attention. Stepping back and examining the neighborhoods as a whole, they looked shockingly different from the rest of the Russia I'd encountered. Most of the homes looked like they’d been torn straight from the design book of a Midwestern American subdivision.
These suburbs, Mikhail explained, were home to some of the poorest people in the city, but also some of the most ambitious and industrious. He showed us his own home, which his family had built by hand.
There was pride in a job well done, and it was inspiring. But a look around the neighborhood showed something more ominous: the desire of a certain set of Siberians to live a life that at least looks and feels like America.
This morning, it took nothing more than a quick duck out into an American snow day to remind me that perhaps that’s not the greatest plan. Perhaps Americans should look to become a bit more Siberian.
I survived the snow and made it home, then sat down at my desk where my familiar beige matryoshka doll smiled at me as I sat before my window to write, just like it had each day in Russia. For the first blissful time since returning home, I opened the blinds and saw the gorgeous tone of light that only comes when the sun reflects of a snow-covered earth. As much as that light warmed my spirit, the stillness, the lack of life outside saddened me and I could not help but pine a bit for my old perch, the window of my warm flat high above bustling Vybornaya Street.
Brooks Rexroat is the author of Thrift Store Coats (coming this April from Orson’s Publishing) and Pine Gap (due in 2018 from Peasantry Press.) Reach him on Twitter, Facebook, or at email@example.com