Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.
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Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.
A long-delayed dispatch from my final month in Siberia, in which I realized (sort of) a childhood goal of running an overseas race in a team USA jersey.
The final chapter of the long-winded St. Petersburg series: Soviet donuts, missiles on main streets, and an encore at the opera.
With a horde of end-of trip activities the last few weeks, there's a massive backlog of blogging material. The catch-up starts today with continuation of the Saint Petersburg travel log.
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.
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.
The merciful thing about very big guys, and very drunk guys, and especially very big, very drunk guys, is that they telegraph their punches like crazy.
A new job, a writing rut and a touch of insomnia, plus a reader question about learning the Russian language, in this week's Dispatches From Siberia.
Readers asked and I answered--something I'll continue to do weekly as part of the Dispatches From Siberia Blog. Read the first batch here:
This week, Dispatches From Siberia opens up for questions: what do you want to know about life for an American in the Siberian capital during winter?
This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Farewell, John Glenn, and Godspeed to the rest of us, who might follow in some small part of your orbit.
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.
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.
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.