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Hooray! For some reason, I have not been able to access my blog since I returned from Siberia — until now!

That’s right, I was in Siberia! Many many posts are forthcoming about the train, the repeated shattering of my expectations in Kyzyl, the Access camp where I taught, and my reaction to the White Nights of Arkhangelsk upon my return (it wasn’t good)!

For now, have a picture of me with the American Corner conversation club, celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach!

What is Moscow?

I’m going to Moscow again tomorrow, for the Fulbright mid-year enrichment seminar. Just one more thing, in addition to the Christmas vacation, to fool me into thinking this is really the halfway point, even though I have twice as much time left as I’ve already done. As of my last visit to Moscow (just a one-night stopover on my way back to America, but it still counts because I left the airport, saw the city, had dinner with some friends), I have been to Moscow more times than any other international city. I’ve still spent more time total in Madrid, but I feel like the frequency of my visits to Moscow is somehow significant. This is one of the more miraculous parts of my life, that I’m able to go to Moscow, the most amazing, beautiful, confusing, mysterious, magical, enigmatic, intimidating city in the world, once a month, almost at a moment’s notice, no big deal.

I’ve been trying to come up with some functional symbolic story to explain my relationship to Moscow, because it would be really useful to me right now to be able to explain my relationship to anything in Russia. My first time in Moscow, I fell in love, and I fell hard and fast, like a victim of organized crime being thrown into a river with cinderblocks chained  to her feet. In my second visit, the mermaids in the bottom of the river found me and used their mer-magic to let me breathe under water. It wasn’t a perfect solution: I was still stuck to the cinder blocks, and water is not my natural habitat, so I can survive, I can breathe, but it’s not comfortable, it’s not natural. On my third visit, I gained the tools to get myself free from the cinder blocks, and I drifted back to the sky, wet and cold and with the spell broken and choking for air and treading water on the unstill surface. And on my fourth visit, a little boat picked me up and took me home.

Except that this doesn’t take into account the coming and going from Moscow. So maybe Moscow is like a birdcage I’m tied to by my heartstrings, and no matter how far I stretch the strings and how far I fly away, I always come back to Moscow. But now I feel I’m stretching the metaphor. I need different stories for each visit. Moscow somehow remains separate from my experience in Russia as a whole, even though Moscow is the reason I’m here. Let me try again.

My first time in Moscow, the city was a miracle, a dream, a song, a giant springy blanket that tossed me up and down and always caught me in an impossibly massive, taut embrace. I was lost and confused but I was delighted and distracted and I was flying.

The second time, I was there for the Fulbright orientation, and Moscow was solid and tall and gray and hard and distant and full of magic fairy dust sprinkled on its labyrinthine floors, breadcrumb trails that led to secret hidden trick cupboards of surprise ignored by the parts of the city that looked like a city. Moscow was like Gormenghast, so big and old that things could live and love and die inside it without ever attracting the attention of the city.

The third time, when I went to pick up my diplomatic pouch, at Thanksgiving, Moscow was a prison, a leave of absence from the front in a cold, dark barracks lit with Christmas lights, full of tunnels burrowed by American ex-pats and larded with turkey and cognac and faded photographs of the things I missed. I was a stowaway hiding out between offensive maneuvers.

The fourth time, Moscow was a springboard, a halfway house, a resting place where it’s impossible to rest, between the front and home, a port where I could resupply but not go ashore, a brief perch between the ground and the mountaintop.

Describing Moscow is not possible. Moscow is a prehistoric beast. Moscow is the reason, the purpose, the root, and the destination, the result, the proof. Moscow is a city and a kingdom and a house and homelessness and a dream and a nightmare all at once. Moscow is a celebrity cocaine orgy, magnificent and excessive and debaucherous and illegal, but you know they’ll get away with it anyway. Moscow is something you admire and aspire to and also fear and recoil from, something you could get lost in forever and forget that there was ever anything else. Moscow is amnesia. Moscow is Neverwhere and Stardust. Moscow is indifferent to you while also providing for all your needs, but for a price. Moscow is the queen ant.

And on the eve of this next journey to Moscow, it occurs to me that this might be the last time I go there during my Fulbright. This might be the last time I go there for a very long time. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Christmas reflections

Christmas break has always been a kind of check-in moment for me. No matter how far or how long I’m away from home, I’ve always been here for Christmas, always slept in absurdly late, always written an unusually long and pensive entry in my journal on Christmas Day, after all the presents are opened and Dad’s treasure hunt is solved. I never thought about it before, but those kinds of things are meaningful to me; the first Christmas away from home will be something just as new and strange and life-changing as Russia. Or maybe not life-changing, but a marker of how my life has changed. And my life has certainly changed a lot, but not enough that I don’t come home for Christmas.

While I’ve been here, I’ve been enjoying some of the cultural things I missed about America:

I got my hair cut and was able to explain to the lady exactly what I wanted, ask questions, clarify, and have a conversation that we both understood.

Driving! I love driving so much, and being in my car.

I went to the grocery store with Andrew today, and I just TOOK a bag, without even asking, and they didn’t make me pay for it!

Paying for a $3.45 hot chocolate at Starbucks with a $10 bill and not getting yelled at for not having exact change. I think I may have taken advantage of this a little too much, because now I have just piles of American change that I’m not going to be able to use for seven months. I guess that’s what I have a piggy bank for.

Hit all the major food needs: cheesy corn at Mom’s last night, Yuengling, pizza, macaroni and cheese out of a box, Eat N Park multiple times, tiny marshmallows shaped like snowmen. Oh yeah.

aMERRYca!

One of the things I never missed about America is the super-saturation of Christmas spirit in the month and a half leading up to Christmas. And I know, I know, everybody complains about how Christmas carols start way too early in the stores, but look, I have to be a Typical American in some way, right? I’m supposed to be representing all of us. (Except that doesn’t really count, because the Russians complain about how early New Years decorations go up, too.) But the pre-holiday cheer is much more humane in Russia than in the States. Of course, there were decorations way earlier, as I mentioned back in October, but as far as I’m concerned, those decorations are much more classy and actually attractive than the red-and-green gaudiness we usually get in America. I went into a Dunkin Donuts the other day, and all the employees were dressed up as elves. One woman had candy canes dangling from her glasses. Why, America? WHY? But the biggest difference is in the music piped into commercial establishments. In America, we have the constant recycling of a few dozen old Christmas tunes over and over and over again. In Russia, the music is the same as it always is. I like this.

And I think that part of why I like to keep the cheer at bay for as long as possible is that without family, it’s just annoying. It’s not meaningful. As soon as I got home to Greensburg, I turned on the Christmas cheer full blast. Esther and Dad and I went out to Domasky’s to cut down a fresh Christmas tree. Back at Mom’s, I played our five Christmas CDs pretty much as constantly as Esther would let me. I baked gingerbread cookies and Esther and I decorated them. I made hot chocolate. I wrapped presents and even went shopping a tiny bit, even though I thought I’d bought everything I needed in Russia. (I ended up mostly buying clothes for myself.)

Sitting around the tree opening presents with Mom and Esther on Christmas Eve, a mere three days after my return, I felt at just the right level of holiday cheer. And the next day, as Christmas Day came to an end, Esther and Dad and I lit the Yule log from last year, and settled in to watch the flames, to the accompaniment of Bing Crosby in the background. It was just about as idyllic a Christmas moment as you could ask for. But by the time Bing was done, so were we. I think five days of highly-concentrated Christmas spirit with Mom and Esther and Dad is just about as much as I ever care for.

Because the real Christmas spirit doesn’t come from the shopping and the decorations and the music. Even when I was at Smith, still in America, I managed to avoid the December holiday commercialism pretty well, whether because of the hipster atmosphere of avoidance of the mainstream or because I was just so lazy that I never wanted to walk down to the CVS. I can appreciate Russian holiday culture, I can love to be with my college friends, but it’s being home with my family and doing things the same way we’ve done them for almost ten years that gives me that warm, cinnamony, Christmas feeling. So, okay, I could’ve just told you to go read How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for the same end effect, but I’m pretty sure the Grinch never went to Russia. So.

Blue Skies

I keep telling people that the darkness in Arkhangelsk isn’t nearly as difficult as I had feared, and that is true. But when I got to Moscow on Monday and took the train from the airport to the city, I realized it was the first time I had seen blue sky in a month, and I gave myself a headache staring unblinking up at the sky for the whole half hour ride. It was beautiful! And then, when I arrived at the hostel at 4 pm, it was still daylight! And that was beautiful, too.

День Благодарения

Nils, me, Zhenya, Sveta, Nastya

Yesterday the “Club of American Culture” celebrated Thanksgiving– which turned out to be just me; Elena Petrovna; Nils, the Dutch teacher from upstairs; Zhenya, one of the high school kids I met at the library a couple of weeks ago; and two university students. If anybody is in need of half a pre-cooked chicken and willing to pay postage, I can hook you up.

It was a nice little party, all told. We ate chicken and then went straight to dessert! I made Linda Lang-Gun’s famous sweet potatoes, except that the sweet potatoes were pumpkin instead. Considering that I’d never cooked this before, and that I’d never cooked pumpkin before, and that I started cooking just two hours before I was supposed to meet Elena Petrovna at the university, and that I had to measure out the dry ingredients in increments of 15 mL with a tablespoon, and that the brown sugar I bought turned out to be in rock-hard chunks that I had to melt in the microwave with butter, it came out magnificently! Actually, even disregarding all those things, it came out magnificently. After eating, we made hand turkeys and watched some Charlie Brown, in true American childhood fashion, and we all told what we were thankful for. And then the conversation drifted from comparisons of traditions in our various cultures to talk about the university, to how many languages and countries Nils and I have under our belts, to Zhenya’s 2,500 km car trip across Europe, to the weather. Always the weather.

I think that my attitude shift regarding the club needs to go a step further. I want to keep hanging out and chatting and making connections like we did last night, but without stressing out about chicken beforehand.