Thursday morning, it struck me. My time in Russia is rapidly closing. I got an email asking me to start thinking about book orders for my fall courses. I made plans for an out-of-town trip, understanding that my window to travel around Russia is rapidly closing. I had lunch in a favorite spot and wondered how many more times I’ll get the opportunity to go there, to greet the hostess in strained Russian, and then to order and start working on a story while the grill is fired up and my food begins its path to awesomeness.
My students from the fall held a public reading of the work they produced. Since our course is the only institutionalized, university-level creative writing instruction that anyone seems to know of in Russia, it was kind of like the national MFA thesis presentation. That got emotional, too: hearing the work these students produced and knowing the path their work took from that first draft into some pretty spectacular fiction was a wonderful moment. I couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished, or more excited for what they will do in the future—not to mention the community of writers that has started to build within just a few short months.
There’s a little sentimentality in all this, and an equal amount of panic. There’s so much I still want to do, to see, to write, to eat, to teach, and to learn. And I’ll have to weave all that in with rapidly approaching goodbyes to the kind and wonderful people I’ve met. I’m trying to take this realization more as a call to action than a prelude to sad departures, but it’s hard to do one without the other lingering nearby.
To compound the sentimentality, my parents are in the process of selling their home, meaning that between now and my arrival in the states, the last pieces of my adolescence will be unceremoniously packed into boxes and stacked in a storage facility somewhere on the east side of Cincinnati. This is one of the great problems and complexities of humanity, of course: the ever-present feeling of being stuck dead in the center of what’s passed already and what comes next. I’ll inhabit that complexity with fullness over the next nine weeks, and I look forward to whatever it might produce.
Regular readers of this blog will know that Russian ground transport has been the bane of my existence, while air transport has been an utter delight.
This week, I actually had a fun bus experience. To most Americans (and probably most Russians) that will sound like quite the oxymoron. One such encounter amused me in brand new ways. On city buses, there’s generally a konduktor, someone who walks around the salon—the main bus compartment—and takes money or swipes transit cards, handing over little paper tickets in return. As I’ve mentioned before, individual bus owners and companies of various sizes contract with the city to cover certain routes. Every company has a different type of ticket and a slightly different procedure. Thursday afternoon, I jumped onto one of the most rickety buses I’ve seen in Novosibirsk. Windows were cracked, the sign displaying the route was half-fastened, flapping in the breeze. One of the wheels moved in an odd pattern, as if it had been struck from the side by another vehicle. But onboard, the konduktor was riding in style. The only reserved spot on the bus belongs to the conductor, who usually reserves it with something akin to a blanket or a small stadium seat. This lady had a leather massage chair strapped to her seat in the front of the bus. And in between stops, she was definitely using the massage function, tapping at the remote control while she talked on the phone. This might seem like a pretty small thing, but look at it this way: this is a thankless job, in which one spends their (usually her) day writhing between tight-packed passengers, collecting money from irritated travelers who wish they were moving much faster. The exchanges are frequently wordless, particularly when it comes to the word thanks. And yet this lady was making the work her own, making the most of it, getting whatever comfort she could out of something that seems like it could universally called an unpleasant job.
And then, I looked up at the wall of the bus, where a flat screen monitor showed that most wonderful of visages: the Russian Public Transportation Public Service Announcement Roll. This isn’t an official title of any sort, but it feels like it should be capitalized. This is basically a stream of silent PSAs that play constantly during one’s trip. In one classic, a bully seems primed to win the heart of a young woman when he shoves the PSA hero out of line in the school canteen. But the hero has a plan. The next day, when the bully pulls his Vespa up to the front door of the school to pick her up, the hero shows up on a high-stepping horse. They ride off together. The lesson ostensibly has something to do with brains over bullying, though I like to see it as more of an anti-scooter ad. I love scooters, but I feel like that would be a more interesting service announcement to make: buy your spoiled kid a scooter, and his date will definitely be stolen by a high-stepping horse. Now, where the kid kept the horse all day during school, or how the boy got out of class early enough to fetch it are beyond me, but sometimes, you just have to look beyond the plot holes and appreciate the art.
In another classic, an attractive woman is talking to a clearly of-age set of men, who seem artistic and are engaged in some park bench guitaring. She’s feeling it, until one of them pulls out a beer and takes a sip. The girl then sees a preppy guy approaching. Thank goodness she’s saved from the beer drinkers! The two rollerblade off into the park, and the guitar players are left to cry into their very small beer bottle.
One film is just dramatically cropped footage of exploded propane tanks, which cascade by with the intensity of a mid 1990s driver’s ed crash compilation video.
In one, a little girl offers a young man fruit. Instead, he spends the day eating random ethnic foods. At the end of the day, he’s doubled-over in stomach pain when the girl returns with a tangerine, which apparently makes everything alright. It’s obviously about healthy eating, but methinks I doth detect a cultural subtext at work.
Finally, there’s a slow-motion soccer game in which a young woman’s attention is stolen (any themes developing here?) from a pair of guys who have just tried their first cigarette. They can’t compete with the flowing mane and goal scoring skills of a dude who looks to be at least 10 years older than the other actors. No rollerblades this time, but the same general effect. These videos are solid gold: they’re the lone thing that keeps me going as the bus fills up, the conductor shoves her way through the mass of bodies, and my face gets shoved up against the window for the dozenth time. Because eventually, that little girl is going to come back with that healthy little tangerine, and much like the actor’s burrito-induced stomach ache, all will be made well.
The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.