As I write this, I sit in the center of Kazan, Russia, in the front window of a coffee shop named after an oil well. On the café’s sound system, an American band called the Decemberists sings about the charge of the light brigade—which happened in the middle of a war fought over the rights of religious, social, and political minorities. In Russia, this week is the celebration of Jesus’ baptism. It’s also the hundredth anniversary of the Russian revolution, in which the actual Decembrists (spelled differently than the band) took part. Back at home in the U.S., a man is about to place his hand on a bible after spending the last year repudiating with equal fervor the teachings of both Jesus and Lenin. My goodness, how we humans chase our tails: around and around and around we go, every generation left with a new chance to solve the problems its parents already fixed or to break again the things its grandparents broke once before.
Many will write about the significance of today in America, and I’ll leave those words to wiser and more eloquent people. The one thing I will say as my nation of birth transfers administrative power is that it’s been an absolute honor to be a part of the Fulbright Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State, during the era in which John F. Kerry led that department. Secretary Kerry is a man of character, faith, patience, reason, vision, and intellect, a combination increasingly shuttered out of the decision-making processes of nations across the world. As we enter a new global era of reactionary, emotion-based administration, I will always be grateful to have worked in a capacity tangential to Secretary Kerry, and I will always be grateful for the broad-ranging impact of his broad ranging service to the nation, the world, and to individual human beings.
I’ve traveled this week, and it’s been a week of sentiment. There are a few reasons for that. First, my trip to Russia hit its midpoint in the middle of the week, which means I’m now on the downslope of my time in this fascinating land. I dearly hope I’ll return again, years down the line, but it’s unlikely I’ll ever again have the chance for such an extended visit. The logistics of time drawing onward struck me a little bit this week.
Solo travels are often pensive for me anyway: lots of time walking means plenty of time to think, dream, imagine, and remember. It means an unencumbered mind, and lots of opportunity to get lots in ideas. One of those ideas that particularly impacted me was the two-edged sword of the sorts of travel I’ve done. While I’ve certainly checked out my share of capitals and tourist sites, a good deal of my exploration has come in places other westerners might not encounter. On one hand, this has been fantastic. I’ve gotten willingly lots in the dingy, industrial parts of Prague, the places so far from the shadow of delicate red spires that notour guide would ever mention it, let alone send people that direction. I’ve walked through the shells of buildings left behind in the formerly closed Soviet city of Liepaja, Latvia. I’ve drank coffee in cavernous basements under Odessa, survived harrowing taxi rides through Chisinau, and taught a couple of Slovenian kids how to properly throw the American football they were shot-putting toward each other in a Ljubljana park.
Here’s the thing: I’m never going to make it back to any of these places. Dublin and London are nice, but it’s hard to get sentimental about them. I can sacrifice the quality of meals I eat for a couple months, save up, and go visit again. But these far-flung places I’ve gotten to encounter, they’re one-time shots.
And so on Wednesday evening, I found myself walking one last time down the pedestrian promenade of Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, growing sentimental at the fact that I would never be there again. It was one of those moments where you look good and hard over your shoulder one more time before descending the slick stairway into the metro station. Very cinematic, both in scope and feeling. But a little strange, too. After all, I’d spent a grand total of two-and-a-half days there. My time there wasn’t some major cog in my life, even though there were a pair of communications that could prove to be life-adjusting.
It was simply a nice city with some good food, and there I was, growing sad as I prepared to leave it behind. That’s the prize and the cost of difficult travel. You see parts of the world that are one-time encounters. You see places, speak with people, eat soups and cakes and drink juices and coffees that you’ll never be able to replicate, no matter how dearly you want to.
And so the experience grows even more powerful as its ramifications grow evident while the trip is still ongoing. That tension between joy and the desire to hold onto something fleeting is such a hard, beautiful, gutting, and transformative part of being human.
That’s why I’ll never quit traveling—even if it means a few wistful stairwell gazes.
Nizhny itself was a combination of gorgeous and grit: beautiful churches, statues, and a stunning kremlin staggered between industrial complexes and tired suburbs.
I traveled to Kazan via the Trans Siberian Railroad, which was an experience. Cramped into a third-class, upper bunk for nine hours, comfort wasn’t part of the deal. Tonight, I have 16 more hours on the train en route to Ekaterinburg, and so I’ll get into greater train detail next week. Kazan itself has been interesting: there is a heavy Islamic influence here, and so the onion domed churches are interspersed with the minarets of mosques. The food has been brilliant. While Nizhny certainly wins the title of Russia’s dessert capital, the soups and meats in Kazan are exotic and wildly flavorful. The people are, too, and kind—which is the one common theme in all these far-flung places. No matter which flavors and sights might escape me as I leave one town for the next, there’s always a next, wonderful place waiting with a new batch of kind, curious, and giving people.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.