This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.
As has been the case in recent weeks particularly but during most of the trip, much of the week was spent hunched over my laptop, plowing forward on a seemingly unending list of projects. I’m editing old stories, writing new ones, reading student drafts, planning essays, finishing forms and paperwork, fin It’s a fine line to walk: there are things that need to be done in order to serve my students or finish the research and writing that the Fulbright program has invested in, but the program has also invested in experience and connection, so I have to guard against holing myself up for too long. And certainly, I want to make sure that I soak up every moment, every observation, ever experience and conversation I can while I’ve got the opportunity to be here.
Maybe the biggest sign that my brain is preparing to turn the page and resume thinking and acting American came as I began typing out this blog. Just a few minutes ago, I heard a loud series of rhythmic pops outside. I stepped to my window and looked down, expecting to see a shootout. Turns out, it was fireworks, and I had to remind myself I’m not in a place where half the population walks around strapped.
Last Friday, I got a chance to speak to another large gathering at the Novosibirsk State Regional Scientific Library. One thing that has absolutely impressed me in Novosibirsk is the enthusiastic and consistent turnout for academic and intellectual events of all sorts, from public lectures and book signings to artistic performance, installation openings, theatre, film and more. The library has hosted me twice and I’ll have a chance to begin my move into my final week in Novosibirsk with one more event there, when I present a reading from my own work on 25 May.
For this session, I spoke about ways in which Siberia and my native land, the American Rust Belt compare and contrast. The question and answer session alone stretched on for just shy of an hour, and the crowd was engaged, thoughtful, and curious—the best sort of crowd for such an event. I had an impromptu dinner with a group of inquisitive students afterward, as we continued to discuss the social, cultural, and political histories and debates at work in each of our own regions. It’s always a pleasure to get a chance to talk to interested crowds about writing, but this discussion was unique. It offered a chance to have a conversation about home and the very similar things that word means to folks from opposite sides of the world. That’s a special sort of experience to have, and one that will leave a lasting memory.
And then: an experience of an entirely different sort. On Tuesday, I took a trip to the northeast side of the city for a concert by an Irish band called God is an Astronaut. The music was entirely instrumental—not just the headliner, but the opening band as well. The sound was in the vein of American band Explosions in the Sky (perhaps most famous for their contributions to the soundtrack of Friday Night Lights) and groundbreaking Canadian rock orchestra Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
I’ve been to a couple small shows in Russia, but nothing like this, with north of a thousand people in the audience. It was a wonderful yet strange experience all around, but intensely interesting. The venue doors didn’t open until the first band was already working through its second song. I can’t help but wonder how those guys felt, stepping on stage at the appointed starting time and beginning their set, knowing the thousand people who had paid to see them were outside in the cold, lined up and yet to even be frisked. As we filtered in, we figured they were still working a sound check, but no: it was the performance.
Now, I have to say this is a nice contrast to club shows in the U.S., which can sometimes being an hour or more after their advertised beginning time. But it would’ve been nice to be allowed inside before they began playing. Who knows the reason: perhaps there was a glitch or a missing employee or some other problem—or perhaps it’s normal that door time is also show time.
The venue doubles as both a concert hall and a nightclub, and they had the lighting show to back up the club aspect. Powerful lights and a spectacular show punctuated the music. The only problem: the lights started overhearing the band’s gear, so that by the end of the show they were bypassing amplifiers altogether and plugging straight into the soundboard. The band was more gracious than most would have been. They apologized profusely for the malfunctions, even though it was actually someone else’s rig ruining their gear, and thus their livelihood. That was very Irish of them, by which I mean polite and humble. The show and its confluence of cultures—the band walking in English, the crowd shouting back in a blend of English and Russian—was a nice way to begin the bridge into the final segment of my Russian adventure, since my second-longest trip abroad was to Ireland, a six-month jaunt a few years back. I feel really honored and lucky to have been able to spend time in two places with such different cultural, social, and geographic atmospheres and yet a shared sense of the value and beauty of literature.
Next week, once a few more of my projects are ticked off, I’ve got a last little bit of traveling to do, and I’m very much looking forward to sharing stories and images that I come across during that trip.
Until then, it’s very literally back to the books.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.