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Dispatches From Siberia #35.2: St. Petersburg Travel Log, Day One

Dispatches From Siberia #35.2: St. Petersburg Travel Log, Day One

I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it.

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

Dispatches From Siberia #35.1: Greetings From St. Petersburg

I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.

Dispatches From Siberia #20: Points Of No Return

Dispatches From Siberia #20: Points Of No Return

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.    

Dispatches From Siberia #19: Ikea Kitchens and Hand-Made Homes

Dispatches From Siberia #19: Ikea Kitchens and Hand-Made Homes

My weeks seem to be settling in to a bit of a pattern: an exciting week, followed by a calm one full of work. This week was the calm one, but there were still a few chances to explore.

Notably: I had dinner in an Ikea display.

Yes, full-on, 500 Days of Summer-style, except there was actual food.

One of Novosibirsk’s major western-style malls was spurned by a prospective tenant after a large space had already been cleared. Instead of leaving a big chuck of the mall vacant, Ikea—an anchor tenant in the complex—rented the space and set up an innovative spot called место есть, literally “There is Space.” There is a stage and an area for regional experts to give lectures and workshops on all sorts of topics, a bookshop, a café, and a small shop that sells Ikea branded packaged foods. But the really interesting part of the space is that they’ve set up a series of functioning kitchens and dining rooms. Groups can reserve the spaces (for free!), bring their own food along, and spend time cooking, trying out Ikea gear, and dining, all just one velvet rope away from the curious public.

It struck me as a particularly great idea in a city with a large youth population and lots of flats that don’t have huge areas in which to entertain. If you’re going to have a dinner party, why not have it in an Ikea display? There were four or five different areas—of which ours was the least extravagant. But the touch-screen stoves, the new cabinet models, and the Ikea cookware were fun to explore while a small group of colleagues and friends hung out in the middle of a giant shopping mall. To cap the whole deal off, they gave each of us a coupon on the way out. What a thoughtful marketing idea, while also offering the store’s customers a chance to interact in a cool, new way. 

Perhaps my most educational opportunity of the week was a trip to the left bank of Novosibirsk to explore the world of Russian single-family housing. In many western countries, a stand-alone house is widely regarded as a socially desirable thing. In many eastern countries, having a flat, condo, or apartment is the more prestigious option, because of the convenience it provides. But that wasn’t the interesting part of the trek, which was extremely cold

A handmade house next to what westerners might view as a more traditional structure.

A handmade house next to what westerners might view as a more traditional structure.

Myself and a past Fulbright grantee who is back in Novosibirsk this week visiting some friends were guided by an activist who monitors building practices. He’s also built his own house, and he took us on a walk through the suburbs. In addition to touring us through a fairly new Russian Orthodox church, he spent several (very cold) hours showing us the way found materials are often incorporated into homes.

I often see folks of a couple of particular political ideologies arguing for the dissolution of “regulations” in all their various and sundry forms. If one wants to see the end result of a regulation-free marketplace, the Russian building process is Exhibit A. In residential neighborhoods, a person purchases or rents property, a city employee comes and draws a red line on the ground indicating the allowable building site, and then the builder has at it.

A variety of housing styles in a west Novosibirsk suburb.

A variety of housing styles in a west Novosibirsk suburb.

Want to make your house out of used railroad ties? Have at it. (We saw several.) Don’t want—or can’t afford—shingles for the roof? Buy a skein of expired vinyl previously used as a billboard and tack it to the roofboards. We saw homes roofed by a cola ad, a deodorant ad, and maybe most interesting, an old lingerie billboard. We saw sites where three different levels were built in three different areas from three different materials. One home was made from scraps of old furniture. Next door to it was a modern, three story home that would have fit into any major American city’s suburbs. Many of the builders handle their own electricity and plumbing, whether or not they’ve got any training. Often, the building is a process of trial and error. Our host explained that he came across a problem while running electric in his own home. The available wires wouldn’t work with the energy-efficient sockets and bulbs he’d installed. The problem, it turned out, was that too much energy was being diverted to the indicator light on the wall switch—the one that lights up to show that the power is on. He cut into the wire casing, cut the wire that led to the indicator light, and his fixtures began to work.

While trial and error worked in that instance, it had failed the community more broadly. As he showed us around his house-in-progress, a backhoe worked outside, dismantling the road. Not too long ago, the community’s pipes needed replaced. Instead of buying pipes, a few residents decided they could handle it more cheaply by building and installing their own water pipe. I’m still a little foggy on the details of how this transpired, and the process by which a couple of guys make their own municipal water pipe, but the end result was that the neighborhood’s water supply this week consisted of buckets full of melted snow.

This house combines found materials and commercially available construction components.

This house combines found materials and commercially available construction components.

With no particular building regulations in place, no one second-guessed the idea. When the pipe collapsed this week, the self-installation of the self-built pipe left residents with another problem: there were no manholes to allow access that would allow workers to isolate the problem area. In the end, about a third of the street was ultimately dug up over the course of the last week, until the water started flowing just as we were about to leave the home.

Are we overregulated in the States? Maybe—but it’s at least debatable. My tour on Thursday, though, left a resounding image of what happens when folks are left totally to their own devices. Let’s just say regulations aren’t necessarily as evil as folks sometimes try to portray them. For reasons of safety, comfort, or in some cases, the common good of the community, some common guidelines are a very, very nice thing to have around. Trust me.

Next week, I’m back to some adventure: I’ll travel around the region for a few days before heading to Moscow for a conference the following week.

Between now and then, I get yet another holiday: the Gregorian calendar, still used by some segments of the Russian population, provides a second New Year this Saturday, so technically I still haven’t broken any resolutions.

 

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views reflected in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program. 

Dispatches From Siberia #18: My Snow Day Was Better Than Yours

Dispatches From Siberia #18: My Snow Day Was Better Than Yours

I started this week by ringing in the new year at a party in an abandoned Soviet-era metro station/bunker and finished it up with a snowball fight on top of a frozen sea. In between, I was able to have my first unscripted, reactive conversations during Russian lessons, I thumped out the first 12,000 words of a new book, and finally got tickets to see the Novosibirsk professional hockey team play. It’s been a good new year.

As the end of 2016 approached, I saw a distinct trend online: an incredibly high percentage of friends posted sentiments to this general effect: “I know I’m supposed to think 2016 was miserable, but it was actually a pretty good year for me because…” And then the obligatory addendum: “But, don’t get me wrong, it was still a bad year because politics happened and people died and so on.”

I’ll offer the same addendum. Some awful things happened. All over the world, good people died, bad people had success, worse people treated others poorly, and the protestors of the poor treatment were ignored and met with more ugly behavior. But the trend of people having quietly good years under this backdrop is hopeful. Because at the end of the day, most of has have control of nothing more than our own quiet lives. I’m of the opinion that our job as humans on this earth is primarily to be as good to each other when we’re able, to resist and attack evil at every opportunity, and to work together toward these ends when possible. I wish that my sphere of influence were larger. I wish I were in charge of producing a list of presidential cabinet nominees, and that I were in charge of determining whether the people with whom I share a national identity were capable of being racists, criminals, or generally bad people. I think I’d make some pretty reasonable decisions on those fronts, but unfortunately, I don’t get to.

What I do get to do is interact with the great people I love, and to engage in work that I hope will inspire other people to make better choices about the concepts listed above.

Simply, I refuse to be bullied into adopting the idea that personal misery is a badge of honor. I plan to do what good I can for as many people as I’m able, to engage in my work in a way that lifts up as many people as possible and encourages them to be loving and gracious, and to resist panicking about the things I can’t change. That’s been my mode of operation so far in 2017, and it’s yielded new friends, professional success, and new possibilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t find complaints and faults with the world around me and even my community. But for me, personally, the collective handwringing at which so many of us have become so skilled just isn’t effective enough any longer. I’ll spend this year, and hopefully those after it, working to be the best human I can be and producing the best work I can in hopes of helping others to become better, too.

Hockey at the Novosibirsk Ice Palace.

Hockey at the Novosibirsk Ice Palace.

The hockey game I witnessed Tuesday afternoon was particularly interesting, partially because of the opponent. Novosibirsk defeated Yaroslalvl Locomotiv in a shootout. If Locomotiv sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because of a devastating event. They team’s players, coaches, and support staff were killed in a 2011 plane crash, eerily similar to the 1970 crash of the football team’s plane for which my home campus, Marshall University, is so well known. Similar to the NCAA’s relaxation of some rules to help the MU team get back on its feet, the Kontinental Hockey League relaxed some rules about foreign players, and Yaroslavl is once again a national powerhouse and a national symbol of a team working to overcome adversity.

Preparing the arsenal for a snowball fight. There is a lake underneath for four feet of compressed snow and foot of ice that support me.

Preparing the arsenal for a snowball fight. There is a lake underneath for four feet of compressed snow and foot of ice that support me.

On Thursday, I got to spend some time withFulbright alumnus who returned to Novosibirsk to visit friends, faculty, and students from his time in the community. A group of us trekked to the Ob Sea, an enormous man-made lake south of central Novosibirsk. We spent a couple of hours walking on the frozen sea, engaging in some pretty compelling snowball fights, and generally enjoying the season. Playing in six-foot-deep snowdrifts might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but when there’s been snow on the ground nonstop since mid-October, you’re eventually forced to make a decision about the world of powdery white around you: sulk in your room or learn to enjoy it. I think the attached photos should give you a pretty good idea of which direction I chose on that question.

Tomorrow is Russian Christmas. One of the Russian customs I’ve taken to heart is the way that parents teach their children to interact with the holiday.

Children at the "Gallery Novosibirsk" shopping center visit Ded Moroz and regale hime with poems for the New Year and Christmas.

Children at the "Gallery Novosibirsk" shopping center visit Ded Moroz and regale hime with poems for the New Year and Christmas.

Russian parents take their children to see Ded Moroz (Russian Santa, essentially) just like America parents, but with one notable difference. Instead of the children presenting a list of wants and demands, the children recite a poem as a gift to Ded Moroz—often one that they’ve composed themselves. Then, they accept whatever he gives them with gratitude.

Now, certainly I understand the origin of the Santa wish list: it’s a great way for parents to gather information about what their kids want. But what a great lesson to teach. Give before you ever expect anything in turn, and be grateful whenever something unearned comes your way. Also, the tradition doubles as one big, national poetry workshop, and you simply can’t go wrong with that.

Next week: more hockey, more writing and—wait for it—more snow.

Fulbright Disclaimer: the views represented in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

 

Dispatches from Siberia # 17: People Who Made the Year Bright

Dispatches from Siberia # 17: People Who Made the Year Bright

A little kindness, I learned, goes a long way, especially concerning the people who serve others all day. Throughout all my travels and my moves, some of the most wonderful people I’ve met have been in the service industry. Hostel managers and clerks from my travels around Europe. A Starbucks barista who became a friend, a band mate and will be a groomsman for me in a few months. The cleaning guys at the newspaper office. These are the people I’ve connected with most and learned the most from over the years, and the same holds true in Novosibirsk.

Dispatches From Siberia #16: The Physics of Staying Upright on Ice

Ever wonder why Russians have a reputation for strength in the sciences? My best guess, based on personal experience, is that they’ve got to use so much science every day to navigate and survive.

Everyone is an amateur astronomer, interpreting the evening skies, understanding the atmospheric conditions that cause them, and predicting what the wind, the clouds, and—most importantly—the temperature will do.

Everyone is a chemist, sorting out which foods and which drinks at which temperatures are good and bad for the body, which reactions will be beneficial, and which can leave one on their back upon an operating table. Drinking hot beverages outside for example, is a no-go: the hot liquid expands throat tissue and welcomes in all sorts of unpleasant reactions, vascular responses, and various other circumstances, most of which sound connected to doctor’s offices. Carry your coffee outside, sure—but don’t sip it until you’re safely indoors.

The strategies for walking effectively on snow-topped ice are as numerous as they are intricate.

The strategies for walking effectively on snow-topped ice are as numerous as they are intricate.

But physics: that’s the big one. Walking in winter is a six-month, active dissertation in controlling the body with and against the laws of physics. Walking on ice is all about momentum. Adjusting the speed of ascent and descent. Never, never, never stopping if it can be helped. Calculating for the grade of a sidewalk and keeping those critical changes in speed as gradual as possible. Between the entrance to my flat and the bus stop that connects me to the rest of Novosibirsk, there is a pair of parallel sidewalks. One sloped gradually downward, hugging the edge of a narrow street. The other remains flat until a flight of stairs at one end, which leads up to the bus stop. Before the ice, my formative experience as a (very slow) cross-country runner taught me to take the ramp: the diagonal would slightly decrease my workload. Once the ice came, it was a different story: take the stairs and get on flat ground as quickly as possible. The slope means a battle with physics, all the way up or all the way down, depending on the time of day. When someone walks slowly in front of you, there are calculations to be made. Can you pass the walker without one or both persons winding up on the ground? How much is the slow-walking person swerving? How much will you have to speed up or slow down, and how quickly?

It’s more math than I’m comfortable with, frankly, but it’s critical for staying upright.

There are other problem solving tools, too. Shoes with a sharp right angle in the heel are useful: if you strike heel-first, there’s some grip against the ice. There’s also the most critical tool, eternal vigilance. Anything that looks smooth is a bad idea. Anything that looks soft might get you 20-inches deep into a snowdrift. When I played basketball, coaches taught us to defend by keeping our eye always on the ball. The offensive player, after all, can’t go anywhere without first moving the ball. In Russia, you take a similar approach to the ground. Anything you might run into is likely connected to the ground. You can identify people by their feet, signs by their posts, bins by their base, buildings by their footers. There’s no reason to look up. Look away from the ice ground you’re trying to walk, most likely you’ll wind up on your back.

So, like for me during the past few weeks has boiled down to these two critical rules: physics is your friends, and never look up.

Of course, there’s a third option: stay inside.

When the temperature looks like this, staying inside is a good option.

When the temperature looks like this, staying inside is a good option.

I’ve done a lot of that lately, too, especially as the temperature hovers around negative 30, Celsius.

When I’ve gotten out and about lately, it’s been largely work related. The first group of the Siberian Writers Workshop had their final meetings this week. They’ll have some time to revise their wonderful stories before submitting final portfolios, but their work was brave, bold, and exciting this semester. I’m looking for ward to reading their polished work, and also to meeting additional groups of students during the spring term.

An image from Novosibirsk State University's press release recapping the Horizons of Journalism Conference, which included students from Russia, China, and Central Asia.

An image from Novosibirsk State University's press release recapping the Horizons of Journalism Conference, which included students from Russia, China, and Central Asia.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak with a large group of students at a journalism conference, and we discussed the modes of storytelling in fiction, journalistic nonfiction, and in plain, simple daily interaction. One of my fellow presenters, a lecturer at Novosibirsk State University, invited me to come to the school’s campus in Akademgorodok to speak with some geologists who are studying English in order to broaden their professional possibilities. In addition to speaking with them about language and American culture, I was privileged to judge their end-of semester group projects. A couple of the groups finished neck-and-neck, and so there was only one logical way to solve it: dance contest. It was awesome to connect with some students, but perhaps even more exciting to watch students from an intensive and prestigious university cutting loose a little bit at the end of a long term and a high-pressure presentation situation. It reminded me—and I hope reinforced to them—that no matter how serious your pursuits, there’s always room for a little fun.

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Department of State.

Dispatches From Siberia #15: A Week of Words

Dispatches From Siberia #15: A Week of Words

You know how sometimes you have a week that starts so disastrously you wish you could hide away in your room for a week and emerge in time to re-do the whole thing seven days later? The nice thing about having a grant in creative writing is that this sort of thing is actually encouraged, and I took full advantage this week.

Dispatches from Siberia #13: Vacation's Over

Dispatches from Siberia #13: Vacation's Over

For a few moments, I played the grump: that whole I-discovered-it-before-you-what-are-you-doing-here shtick, but then I found the place I wanted and parked myself in front of a plate of fruit dumplings and had a quick change of heart: the more the better. Other people are exploring. Learning. Seeing. It’s good for the town’s economy, good for the travelers, and I still got my dumplings. Everyone wins, even if I have to wait in line a bit.

Dispatches From Siberia #10: Opposing Views

Dispatches From Siberia #10: Opposing Views

This is not a political blog, and so I won't discuss how I feel about how the week unfolded in my nation of origin.but politics shape the ways in which people from different cultures interact, and those interactions are part of my experience here.

I unplugged from social media before the election and avoided news sites once the votes started to come in. Years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about an experiment I conducted concerning the ubiquity of major sporting events in America. I refused to watch the NCAA basketball championship that year, and I unplugged my modem and told my close friends not to tell me any results. I wanted to know how long an American could go without learning the result of a major competition. The answer was about 12 hours, at which time a colleague with no regard for sports walked up and launched into a critique of the losing team’s clock management.

However ubiquitous sports are in America, American politics get a bigger reaction across the globe. When I tried the same trick this week, it was about five hours after the results were announced that a student walked up to me with pity on her face. I was on my way to a Russian lesson, and she was on her way to the bus.

“I don't understand,” she said. "Here, we have no real choice but you—you can have any leader, and you choose the liar who hates.”

“That's the thing about democracy,” I told her. “It reflects the character of people, and character is fluid. Right now, it looks like this is our character. 

She shook her head. "I don't believe it."

I shrugged, as I suppose a lot of people all over the planet did all the way through the election cycle. "A lot of people are kind, but only sometimes—they haven't learned how to be kind to people who look and act and think differently.”

“I'm glad you're not one of those, she said. Then she went to her bus and I went to study verb cases.

A couple hours ago, I landed at the airport in Krasnoyarsk, an overnight stopover on my way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. I turned down a couple of cab drivers on the way to the bus stand, and the accent gave me away. A man dressed in camouflage and a litany of logos for countries and armies that no longer exist walked up to me, beaming. He congratulated me on America’s great day of liberation. He told me that together, his president and America’s new chief executive would grab the world by the throats. I smiled politely and told him to have a nice trip, while internally, I figured it would be a great success if they could restrict themselves to simply grabbing necks from here on out.

So there you have it: the cosmopolitan view and the rural view.The intellectual view and the emotional view. The curious and and the forceful. Two people, one country, utterly opposite impressions of how the world can and should look.

Sound familiar?

And of course, this week more than ever, the Fulbright disclaimer is apt:
The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Department of State. 

Dispatches From Siberia #9: An Evening at the Ballet

Dispatches From Siberia #9: An Evening at the Ballet

When the notice came that I’d be spending nine month in Russia, it took a few moments to settle in. Once I got past the initial shock, one of my first coherent thoughts went something like this: “I’m going to stand in the middle of Red Square. I’m going to get fat on borscht. I’m going to see the Nutcracker in Russia.”

Dispatches From Siberia #6: In Which Everyone Asks Whether I'm Alright

Dispatches From Siberia #6: In Which Everyone Asks Whether I'm Alright

About twenty minutes into last night's performance of Anna Karenina: The Musical, a troupe of professional ice dancers rollerbladed onto the stage for a choreographed routine in which they weaved in and out of rolling benches and foot-bound dancers. In the corner, a rapping conductor in a leather waistcoat narrated, while crepe paper snowflakes fluttered from the rafters. Immense digital video boards behind the stage gave a richer visual image of snow meeting the surface of a frozen lake. Down in the orchestra box, the band pulsed energy into the Moscow Operetta Theater: a combination of driving electric bass, and one of the most articulated bassoon lines one could imagine. Later, peasants with sickles would mix traditional Russian dance with elements of American break dancing. A laser show sliced through the constantly moving backdrop, and the intensely talented singers repeatedly put goosebumps on the arms of audience members. It was manic, intense—and actually quite true (and respectful) to Tolstoy's text. Babushkas and teenagers clapped along with the music, from the somber and ominous opening, all the way through the final scene, in which Anna sang herself into the path of an oncoming train.

The cast of Anna Karenina: The Musical

The cast of Anna Karenina: The Musical

I left the theater with that tremendous buzz one feels when they've just encountered something spectacular. You've felt it before: maybe an incredible meal, a sight you've waited years to see. A first kiss, maybe, or something spectacular and unexpected that came from nowhere—that blindsided you with excellence or beauty or power or pure, innovative brilliance. The feeling of encountering something that you know you'll never experience in quite the same way, ever again. A truly singular moment. As I stepped outside, Moscow was glowing. One of the two-ton, glowing red glass stars from the Kremlin was visible just over the near skyline. A sprinkling of actual snow fell. The air was crisp and cool but comfortable. It was a dream.

Then, I turned on my phone.

The world, that phone told me, was on the brink of hell.

Except that it wasn't. And it isn't.

Through Facebook and Twitter feeds, I read that Russia has called the families of its diplomats home, that relationships between our countries have deteriorated beyond the depths of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That 40 million people have been evacuated in the face of a coming war. That in the Middle East, planes with their reds, whites, and blues configured into different patterns are flying ever closer to each other, with ever more ominous cargo loads.

Thing is: none of this is exactly true.

Pieces of this are true, but they're uneventful little shreds that would get a shrug or an eye roll instead of a page click, if stated in their most strictly true form. But we live in a world that revolves around page clicks. The (patently false) rumor that Russia has called home the families of its diplomats in preparation for war actually started to circulate the Internet in the early afternoon (local time) Wednesday. At that moment, I happened to be in the middle of Moscow traffic, seated in the back row of a van full of a dozen Fulbright scholars and program staff, on our way to the U.S. Embassy for an introduction to the consular services available to us while we're here. If the world really was on the brink of war, I don't imagine we would've arrived to find a group of American soldiers tossing beanbags at plywood targets in the embassy courtyard. I won't dignify the British tabloids that initially passed along this information by providing a link, but it's easy enough to find if you really want to. I'll admit that it got my pulse up for a few minutes. But a few moments of investigating the source material led to a simple understanding that in this instance, the truth had been pummeled into submission. Here's a more reasonable explanation, as offered by Snopes.com. Simply put: Russian social and political elites—much like their America, British, Saudi, German, and Chinese counterparts—love to send their children abroad to study at prestigious universities. An official merely suggested (as has happened in past instances, both in Russia and in all the above listed nations) that perhaps one should educate one's children in one's home country. Not unreasonable. But our click bait culture quickly twists that entirely logical suggestion into the brink of mutual destruction.

How NOT to execute global diplomacy: export all your worst ideas.

How NOT to execute global diplomacy: export all your worst ideas.

Reporters in both countries do it. Readers in both countries lap it up.

The evacuation of millions? It's a drill, one that takes place every year. No evacuation, just emergency preparedness. Security is a very real thing here, and it's taken seriously. Malls have metal detectors and guards at every entrance. Most shops and restaurants have security. Where the U.S. Has countered threats of globalized misbehavior through digital means, Russia has taken a more visible approach, utilizing drills and in-person security.

At least three British newspapers would gladly cite this photo as proof that bears have overrun the souvenir shops of downtown Moscow. 

At least three British newspapers would gladly cite this photo as proof that bears have overrun the souvenir shops of downtown Moscow. 

There is a gas mask in the dresser drawer at my hotel. I'm sure if I posted a picture of it, and enough folks shared it, some tabloid or another would use it as proof of some impending calamity. Then a reputable source would pick it up, salivating at the double-benefit: they get the clicks, but there's also plausible deniability to pass off on their source once the threat proves untrue. This is how the bulk of news organizations work now—mainstream or otherwise. I started my writing career as a reporter. Let's just say I'm glad I took up teaching when I did.

Are there very real tensions between our nations? Absolutely, and they require attention and gravity. Panicking about poorly written, half-baked online reporting? Save your blood pressure and go back to arguing about whether Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. It's more productive, I promise—and that's not saying much.

Politics—domestic and international—have become sports rather than occasions for sober consideration. Maybe we never had sober consideration—but never have we been so loud of a cheering mob when it comes to global affairs. The U.S. Election is case in point. From my vantage, the whole thing seems to have turned into an exercise in arguing or complaining or grandstanding or executing some other personal agenda more than actually treating elections as a tool for corporate and personal growth of the individuals who comprise a nation.

And that's a shame.

During the 1992 presidential election, I remember sitting in the back of the car as my parents drove home from voting.

“Who'd you pick?” I asked.

“That's personal,” my mom said. “You don't tell people who you vote for. You just do what you think is best.”

Boy, has it become decidedly un-personal. It's identity. It's status. It's a marker of intellect or toughness or regional pride. It's opportunism. It's everything except an introspective, personal choice about governance.

Increasingly, we use digital platforms to treat global politics the same.

And if we don't stop making up fake conflicts in the name of being titillated—in the name of having something to share with an OMG! precursor—we're eventually going to talk ourselves into an actual conflict.

So, what's really happening in Moscow today?

What's happening in Moscow? No troop parades. Just buskers hauling in some tips.

What's happening in Moscow? No troop parades. Just buskers hauling in some tips.

In the corner of this coffee shop, a couple of kids are playing guitars. The lady across the table is practicing English with her daughter, using a well-worn textbook. Two tourists are picking out which mug to buy. On the sidewalk, a bigger group of tourists are pointing at restaurant possibilities. Next to them, a man plays the flute for tips, and he's making a killing. A girl in the corner of the shop is eating a piece of cake with her eyes closed and the most complete look of satisfaction that could possibly wash over a human face. The barsitas are playing a game, trying to say latte in the accent they guess belongs to the customer. They're not doing very well, and everyone is laughing.

Across town, parents are watching their children ice skate on a rink set up inside a shopping mall. And the cast is gearing up for another night of Anna Karenina, while another thousand audience members are not yet ready for the transformationally brilliant thing they're about to see.

The people of central Moscow, right now, are doing normal everyday things. Just like you are.

The thing here—and the thing we must always remember, regardless of what headlines say, regardless of which assumptions get baked into opinions—is that most people everywhere are loving, peaceful, friendly humans who just want to teach their children well and work hard and sleep comfortably at night. That's all.

A crisp evening in central Moscow.

A crisp evening in central Moscow.

As mentioned above, this particular dispatch comes not from Siberia, but from the center of Moscow. After in-country Fulbright orientation on Wednesday, I had the opportunity to stay on in the capitol for a couple of extra days, interviewing potential participants in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with dozens of bright, motivated young teachers who have dedicated themselves to the teaching and learning of languages, both Russian and English. The best way to get a true understanding for the heart of a culture is to listen to its teachers tell their stories, and there were some spectacular stories during the last two days from people who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of their students, present and future. The future of Russia is in remarkably good hands with these bright, engaged educators moving up the ranks, full of ambition and energy. Many of these folks will be on their way to the U.S. this coming fall, and I dearly hope they'll be treated with the kind of vigorous warmth and overflowing kindness their countrymen and countrywomen have provided to me.

Proof that I'm alive and well here in Moscow.

Proof that I'm alive and well here in Moscow.

Some folks have written this week to ask whether I'm alright and whether I feel safe. I can say that unequivocally, I feel welcomed by a nation full of kind, thoughtful people who are full of the curiosity I value so dearly; full of hope for great days, weeks, and years ahead; full of love for each other and for the beauty and challenge that is life. I feel safe, warm, enriched, and happy, and I hope that when all of us see the fear-mongering reports that will undoubtedly continue to criss-cross the globe in the coming weeks and months, that my dear friends on both sides of this fragile planet will think of each other as the loving and optimistic, cheerful and good people that we all are.  

Now that I've proven I'm alive and well, I'll keep things that way by following the most important rule--the weekly Fulbright disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.

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Dispatches from Siberia #4: Winter Is Coming (And Everyone Loves to Say So.)

Dispatches from Siberia #4: Winter Is Coming (And Everyone Loves to Say So.)

"Winter is Coming!" and then a pause until I nod and acknowledge that, yes, I know the show--that I understand. Over and over again, this conversation has happened. It hasn't gotten old yet, but it's getting a bit realistic. The primary catchphrase of the Game of Thrones television series is big deal here, precisely because winter really is coming. Quickly. 

I always imagined it would take a blizzard to put a Russian into a parka. There was no reason for this assumption, but it just seemed logical: a historical reputation for hardiness, the prevalence of cold, the fact that most humans hate bundling up until it's absolutely necessary. Those ideas got shattered earlier this week when I walked to the university office to run a few errands. Wearing a T-shirt under a wool cardigan, I was warned by no less than four colleagues that I ought to have a scarf on, and probably a hat as well. It was 55 degrees at the time.

This blog seeks to provide perspective. Speaking of which: does it seem we have a bit of a leaning situation going on here?

This blog seeks to provide perspective. Speaking of which: does it seem we have a bit of a leaning situation going on here?

This is still shorts and short-sleeve weather for most folks at home, I wanted to say. I didn't though: one of my resolutions before boarding the plane to Moscow was that I would avoid at every possible juncture the opportunity to become needlessly comparative. You know--the person who always says: yeah, but back home we... More listening, less explaining, I decided (a good philosophy all the time, not just when traveling). So I nodded and said thanks for the advice. I have a couple of scarfs, and I'll use them. Hats, too. I'm just not quite ready to give in to them. Not during the daytime at least. But that 55-degree afternoon? It turned into a 28-degree night. So, they had a point: if my visit to the office required the normal commute home to the city center, I would've run into night, and therefore a deep chill. In reality, all I had to do was walk back across the street, which left me safely ensconced in my flat before the temperature took a cliff-dive. The next morning, my phone told me it was 26 degrees. "Well, that escalated quickly," I mumbled, but by the middle of the morning, it was back to cardigan temperatures and sunshine. 

Before I left West Virginia, I heard more than a few people gasp as soon as the word Siberia came out of my mouth, mostly on the account of the assumed snow. As the last paragraph indicates, it's about to get cold here, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. But I've gotten a handful of notes from other researchers in Russia, proclaiming jealousy of the sunshine-laden photos I've posted on social media. Siberia, it turns out, is a veritable paradise of sun and pleasant temperatures. At least for the moment. And yet, many people are bundled like it's mid-winter. As I write this, it's Friday afternoon and I've got two windows propped open. At the bus stop below, at least half the students and all the ladies with shopping bags from the nearby store are in puffy parkas with hood up and hats on. Some wear gloves. There are a few in snow boots, even though there have been only two instances of precipitation in the last month. Where I had imagined a toughness with respect to the weather, the reality is thoughtful preparation.

My Internet connection was set up this week, and I very much hope these two had something to do with it.

My Internet connection was set up this week, and I very much hope these two had something to do with it.

Of course, pragmatic as life looks in the daytime, the evening will shake things up. After my Russian lesson this afternoon, I'll catch a bus to the city center, where a theatre is in the third day of an American film festival. Netflix and Hulu don't work here for licensing reasons. Pandora and Spotify are null for the same reason. So, I make it a point to enjoy entertainment in English when it comes. I fully expect that when I arrive in the center, I'll see the same thing everyone sees in every city: waiting outside the dozen nightclubs of Novosibirsk, the teenagers will have forsaken their daytime coats for short dresses and T-shirts. Because if there's one thing that can be counted on in every culture, the kids will put party before health. 

Aside from the weather, my attention has turned to preparing for workshop classes, which begin next week, and the continued struggle of my own Russian lessons--one of the most humbling, frustrating experiences of my life. The struggle to remember subtle differences in letters. The conflation of sounds. The vocabulary that eludes me at every turn. But there is hope. Following Tuesday's two-and-a-half hour session with multiple teachers, I proceeded directly to the pizza place where I'd struggled mightily through an order the week prior. With no English and no pointing, I managed to order a large pepperoni to go. The same girl who was so patient but so confused a week ago clapped this time. She actually applauded, right there at the counter. Bored eaters looked up with scrunched brows and shaking heads. This should've made me feel like a child, but it was a victory. Learning to connect with a person on their terms is one of the most valuable and essential skills a human can possess, and this experience of struggling every day to communicate, to accomplish the most menial of tasks--it's letting me approach live moment-by-moment with greater nuance and greater appreciation for the people around me. Whether they've worn their scarf or not. 

Russian lessons: lots of strife and the occasional small victory.

Russian lessons: lots of strife and the occasional small victory.

Next week, the primary work of my fellowship begins: the students have been selected and my merry band of burgeoning creative writers will meet for the first time. I can't wait to hear the stories they bring with them. Until then, I leave you with the immortal words of the Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.