At Home in the Abyss

I’m home again, in Greensburg, PA, after an eventful final month in Russia and one week in Poland.

Endings like this, more or less arbitrary cut-off dates for a certain chapter of your life, are something I’ve become used to with the academic calendar running my life for the last 17 years. But this is the first time that the end date hasn’t come coupled with a start date for something new. For the first time in my life, I have nothing in front of me– nothing but a wide expanse of possibility.

In the weeks building up to my departure from Arkhangelsk, that nothingness was terrifying and immobilizing. I spent the endless, pale nights sleeplessly searching for job openings either far above or far below my eligibility for them. The school year was over, and I had no schedule of classes to give me a semblance of structure. Just like the September before I arrived in Russia, I was suspended, waiting for the deadline before the next thing began. In the absence of constructive patterns, I fell into destructive habits and made exactly zero progress towards a job or graduate school or anything at all.

And then I went to Poland, and everything changed. Sitting beside the rushing waters of the Sopot River, I realized (if only momentarily) that life is like the river. I am sitting at one point on the river and to me it seems like a fixed object of noise and light and smell and beauty. But really, the water is hurrying by without rest. Even though to me it seems like my whole life is concentrated on the decisions I make now, really the decisions are secondary and no one point is more important than the others; my life will happen regardless of the decisions I make.

And then, I missed my flight from Warsaw and had to buy another one, and my small pot of buffer money was effectively eliminated. And my beloved car Toby broke down irreparably a few days before my arrival home. And I still don’t have a job.

And somehow this has freed me from the anxiety of feeling I had to produce a next thing before the current one ended. Now there is no current and there is no next. There isn’t anything now. But I feel at ease, serene even, shockingly unterrified by the lack of structure and certainty in my life at the moment. Even though I can already sense the hairline fractures in that serenity, for now, I’m letting myself hang out in this idea: My life has a direction that transcends the academic calendar and the framework of my ambition; I need to just open myself up to the opportunities that will lead me the way I’m meant to go; and certain themes and passions and interests and people and places will continue to pop up in my life regardless of whether I feel them at work there.

The End of an Era

Warning: This post contains excessive angst and self-indulgent, privileged musings.

Łukasz left this morning.

The emotional buildup to this point on my part has been spectacular. A combination of anxiety about my presentation Saturday on American multiculturalism at the library, an inability to sleep due to the encroaching white nights, and almost absurdist self-reflection, it culminated last night in a midnight river tinged with sunset that was so beautiful it made me want to cry.

In addition to being Łukasz’s last night in Arkhangelsk, last night was the Night of the Museum, during which, for the low price of 300 rubles, you could come and go to most of the city’s museums from 9pm to 2am. I met up with a couple of friends around 9 and we hopped from place to place enjoying the usual exhibits, along with random musical and artistic performances and activities. It was awesome! There were so many people enjoying the museums, and each other’s company, and food and music and laughter.

After I got home a little after 2, Łukasz and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, reflecting on our time together, planning my visit to Poland in August, smoking on the fire escape, and eating braided cheese. (I don’t usually smoke with Łuki, but I made an exception this once.)

A few hours of sleep, and then I saw him off to the car that would take him to the airport, and went back to bed until noon. This afternoon, I took a much-needed day off for reflection and coffee. After about two hours in my favorite cafe, writing in my journal until my pen literally ran out of ink, I wasn’t ready to go home. I walked to a bookstore in the center of town, where I got excited by authors’ names and the titles and covers of Russian novels, and bought new pens. I also bought a book called Here, They Kill on Tuesdays, partly because the cover was intriguing, and partly because when I read the first page, I could understand almost all of it, and it made me smile with surprise.

And then I walked to the river, talking to myself under my breath.

A few days ago, this thought crossed my mind: “I haven’t been missing English lately, like I used to in the first few months.” False! I apparently have really missed speaking in English in a natural way, not for the purposes of teaching it. I walked along the river for over an hour, having a conversation with myself about the nature of time and relationships and nostalgia and the purpose of living. I am quite the conversationalist, if I do say so myself.

My reality here in Arkhangelsk has forced me to grapple with the idea that I am not able to accurately predict how I will feel about something in the future, what will make me happy in the future. Of course, I am happy here in Arkhangelsk, but that happiness hasn’t come easily, and it hasn’t been the unconditional joy I experienced on finding out I’d won the Fulbright. Nothing is simple for more than one day.

This preoccupation makes it difficult to decide what to do next. Should I focus on immediate gratification, on finding a job that will give me the financial security and creature comforts I crave? Or should I pursue higher education and work experience that will lead to a future career that will more fully satisfy my desire for intellectual stimulation and creativity? Even if I “take a year off to figure out what I want to do next,” I can’t take a year off from life. Shouldn’t I try to enjoy and appreciate everything I do, regardless of whether it seems to be leading to some future goal? Doesn’t aiming towards goals set you up for disappointment when achieving those goals doesn’t turn out to be what you expected?

I rode the bus home from the Solombala bridge with an inconsolable, wailing baby. His mother kept trying to distract him from his anguish by pointing out the pretty buildings and cars and people outside on the street. But, he could be quieted for only a moment before the bus hurdled past, reminding him of the impermanence of all good things, and he resumed his bawling.

Things I Don’t Talk About

There are certain traps I’ve fallen into when I lived abroad before, certain cycles and topics of conversation that took hold and controlled the way I communicated with my friends and family back home. I’ve made a concerted effort this time around not to let that happen.

We all knew graduating from college would mean changes for our friendships. But, being the farthest away in geography, time, and culture of my group of friends puts me in a unique position. I get enough of being unique here, though, as (usually) the only American in Arkhangelsk. In order to keep the conversations as normal as possible, here is a brief enumeration of the things I don’t talk about with my friends:

What time is it there? The conversation about how late it is in Russia already, and how weird it is that we’re communicating across time and how awkward it is to find a time to talk is only interesting once. As soon as I got to Russia, I installed a panel of clocks across the top of my computer desktop, one for each time zone that contains someone I love, and I refer to them regularly when I start chatting with someone, to orient myself to what part of the day my friend is at, and how long I might expect them to be able to stick around. I don’t mind if they ask me what time it is, but I try to keep that line of questioning to a minimum.

How’s the weather? This is not an interesting conversation in person, and it’s not interesting online either. Unless the cold is having a dramatic impact on my mood or my life today, I don’t want to spend 20 minutes talking about it. Yes, -22°F is cold, and yes, there’s still snow on the ground in mid April, but, look, I didn’t expect it to be in the 70s and sunny in the Arcitc. It also gives me neither pleasure nor jealousy to hear about how unseasonably warm it is in Pennsylvania. I would rather hear about the heat with your new boyfriend ;)

нуфр ерфе ыщ екгу Woops, I left my keyboard in Russian! This happens a lot. Sometimes I’ll google a Russian article or look up a word in the online dictionary, and then switch back to facebook to chat with someone, and initially type some Cyrillic gibberish when was supposed to say “hahaha.” It’s amusing the first time, but after that it only looks like me showing off how multicultural I am. I try to pay attention when I’m chatting, and correct my keyboard before I hit enter.

I miss you. This is a tough one. Because, yes, a lot of my time is spent missing my friends. But if all we talk about it how much we miss each other, the friendship stagnates. I think this is going to be the biggest challenge for friendship as our generation gets older. We became close when we were physically close, living across the street from each other, taking classes and eating meals and going out together every single day. And now we’re all far apart, and I’m far from everyone.

Even if I had stayed in the States, though, my socialization efforts would be flung far and wide across the Internet. Instead of mass texts to my college friends about where we’ll meet for dinner, I’m having individual conversations in slow-motion across multiple platforms and multiple time zones and states. While several friends have stayed in or gone back to Northampton, I have friends now in New Orleans,  New York, and Copenhagen.

The way we’re keeping in touch and communicating is changing rapidly. All communication is long-distance these days, and long-distance communication is faster and closer and easier than it ever was before. Even when I’m home, I text with my friends in town multiple times a day, to check in, to clarify when we’re meeting up next, to share a funny story. We’re geographically close, but our communication happens in the ether. And here, in Russia, it’s not uncommon to find myself switching between different platforms to talk to different people at the same time. I’ll chat with Shanna and Wei on gchat while they’re at work, and Andrew and Kait on facebook between their classes. Mom and Esther on skype once a month or so, and Dad via email maybe once a week. It’s all so easy, so simple, so close — everyone is just a click away. But maintaining all those relationships to the extent that they existed when we were all together is simply impossible, and the big social challenge of our generation will be learning how to be friends with spaces in between.


Ahh! Oh no! I was so busy writing about culturally enriching experiences I forgot to commemorate the arbitrary timeline marker of one year since I received my Fulbright acceptance letter!

Yes, dear readers, it was one year and one day ago today that my life was changed forever, that I learned I would be moving to Russia for ten months. On April 8, 2011, I wrote in my journal, “I got the Fulbright. I feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you that, because I doubt there will ever be a future me who will have forgotten that this happened. But I suppose there might be a future me who will have forgotten the giddy, emotional euphoria of today.”

What a wise young thing I was! Indeed there have been many days since then that I’ve felt something less than euphoria at being here. Minus two weeks home at Christmas, I’ve been living in Russia for six months and six days, the longest I’ve spent abroad my whole life, and the farthest from home. These signposts, these firsts, are usually how I measure my life, how I remember things. Before or after my first kiss? Before or after my parents’ divorce? Before or after I left for college?

But this time, somehow, the time and distance have slipped away like nothing. The impact started on the first day this time, and has decreased, or normalized, or numbed, or matured, or whatever, every subsequent day since. And euphoria has evolved into an even, reasoned contentment at the general direction of my life.

The Northern Dvina on April 7.

The Internet Resists Simplicity (for once)

Being a well-informed citizen of the world is fucking depressing.

I’ve been on an information binge the last few days, starting with the Russian elections, and leading me on a ramblingly broad and superficially upsetting rampage across the Internet from institutional racism to rape culture to sweat shops in China to the financial crisis in Greece and the imminent collapse of the Eurozone, and back to reflection on my own experience with what is in many ways a frustrating educational system in Russia.

Somewhere in there last night, a Phillip DeFranco show sent me to the Kony 2012 video that is going viral on the Internet right now. It’s a very well-produced and moving video aimed at raising awareness about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan guerrilla leader who’s become infamous for turning children into soldiers and sex slaves.

A story like that can’t but make you want to do something, but something about the video made me uncomfortable. Maybe it was the filmmaker exploiting the emotional impact of explaining the situation to his young son, on film. Maybe it was the implication that the only way this problem could ever be solved was with the help of the U.S. government. Or the assertion that Kony’s only motivation is to maintain his power. (It can’t possibly be that simple. Nothing is that simple.) Maybe it was just the sickly sweet earnestness of the filmmaker’s voice.

But, you know what, I’m used to earnestness on YouTube. I love the earnestness on YouTube. It’s no secret I am a fervent disciple of the Internet way of the future. I love the sincerity of Dan Brown’s conversations with his viewers. I love the power of communities like Nerdfighteria, which orchestrates a goodwill takeover of YouTube once a year with the Project for Awesome to advocate for charities that individuals find worthwhile.

So, turning to the vlogbrothers, I watched John’s latest video about the history of Syria, which attempted to briefly contextualize the current situation. As always, it was a really good, compact, informational video, and John left us with the non-rhetorical question, “Should the U.S. help in Syria? And if so, how?”

With my as yet unclear thoughts about the Kony 2012 project, and the phrase “cultural imperialism” buzzing in my head from a recent conversation with a fellow Fulbrighter, and Russian criticisms of U.S. intervention in Libya all in the background, I scrolled to the comments, more out of curiosity about what others had written than because I had a coherent comment of my own to add. Half the comments were about Kony 2012. The whole comments section had been appropriated into a debate about whether it was good or right for Kony 2012 supporters to propagate their cause on this other video, devolving into a dick-measuring contest over who had the worse bad guy, the worse crimes against humanity.

Both Hank and John had already responded in their usual complexly imaginative way. They pointed out the fact that this has been an issue for much longer than the few days this video has been on the Internet’s radar, and that the transparency and honesty of the organization that made the video (Invisible Children) is in question. And Philip DeFranco’s video from today points out even more problems with the way the video presents the issue.

Part of me is overwhelmed by energy at this latest manifestation of the power of the Internet and of virtual communities that strive for real world impact. But part of me is left with a bad taste in my mouth, thinking this is at best western paternalism, and at worst an imperialistic military action condoned by a mass that is really an activist few. Hasn’t the U.S. done enough meddling in the world? The actions of Joseph Kony are crimes against that part of culture that we all share, against a human sense of justice that [should] transcend history and state lines. But he’s not the only bad guy in this situation.

In the end, though (not that this is the end), the power of the Internet and the multiplicity of the conversations there has transcended the simplicity of the story told in the original video. In just one day, the conversation has shifted to include examining the U.S.’s military history in Uganda and elsewhere and a more complex picture of the broader political situation in Uganda. Maybe this movement can have a positive impact after all.


Edit: Just to be clear, Kony is not actually in Uganda anymore. There is more, better-researched criticism of the movement here, at Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

A Year Abroad

The thing is, Russia isn’t anything like what I expected it to be.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I was talking to my friend Robin today about her upcoming very first trip outside the country, and she told me that while she was looking forward to it, she honestly wasn’t that excited about it. It reminded me of how I wasn’t actually that excited before going to Moscow that first time in 2009. People would find out I was going to Russia and say, “Oh WOW, you must be so excited!” And I would answer, my cool, nonchalant, world-traveled answer, “Yeah, it’ll be an adventure.” I’d been to Eastern Europe. I’d been to foreign capitals. This was an excellent language-learning and cultural opportunity, and I knew it would be interesting and fun, but I had no idea how fundamentally life-changing it would be.

When I got the Fulbright, after making a tearful first phone call to my dad, I called my mom, and I remember, after telling her, “I have so many emotions!!!!” that she asked, “Are they all good emotions?” And I was confused for a moment. How could anything possibly be negative about this moment, about this experience, this accomplishment? But moving to Russia has demanded more of me emotionally, personally, linguistically, than I ever imagined. It’s demanded that I leave behind my everyday in America, and live the everyday in Russia–not just the glorious architecture of Moscow, not just the beauty of sunny stands of birch-trees dripping with folk history, not just the charmed moments of forging deeply personal friendships over the whimsy and travails of Russia. I have to also live the inexplicably stinky shower and the unpredictable water shut-offs, the cryptic negotiations with colleagues and weekly strained dialogues with people who’ve lived here their whole lives. The grumpy grocery store cashiers aren’t a novelty anymore; they’re a daily minor demon.

Living in Russia has made me realize how much I value living in America. Don’t get me wrong. I love Russia. I love the challenge of living here, and I love how much it makes me think about myself and my assumptions and my world and my language, every single day. But it’s a challenge, a hurdle, an experience, still. It’s a much more complex experience than the five weeks of heady bliss back in 2009, but it’s still an experience, a trip, a year, in a whole life that will always call America home.

That summer, the evening before I left for Moscow, I saw Guggenheim Grotto for the second time in St. Clair Park in Greensburg, and their song “Cold Truth” has become one of my many theme songs up here in the Arctic:

Hey Maria, I’ve been thinking, been thinking about moving… far away ‘cross the sea, maybe, somewhere cold and magnificent.

A Russian Conspiracy

I get more and more convinced all the time that communication has less to do with vocabulary and grammar than it does with concentration and a sort of mutual conspiracy to understand.

Exhibit A: When Łukasz came to this country in September, he didn’t even know the alphabet. Now he speaks Russian about as well as I do. But regardless of that, we were having conversations about the morals of marriage and the meaning of life and international politics from day one. It took forever, and it still takes a long time sometimes, but because of the necessity to pay exquisite attention to language, we’ve been able to disagree much more strongly, without hating each other, than if all we had to pay attention to was the content. Apart from this, though, our daily, domestic communication relies much more on context and a kind of complex web of inside jokes than it does on actual words. We have a dozen nicknames in three languages for various characters in our lives (which I won’t share here). There are certain words we always say in only one language, such as “plant” in English, and “resaca” [hangover] in Spanish, “miłych snów” [sweet dreams] in Polish, and “ерунда!” [nonsense] in Russian; and certain things we always indicate with sound effects, such as the need to waterproof our boots [“kshhhh”].

Exhibit B: I’ve started a weekly conversation club at the American Corner at the library in town. It’s been going on for a couple of weeks now, and there’s one man who comes every time. His name is Nikolay, and his English is basic at best. The second week I was there, it was just me and him, and in our hour-long conversation we covered a wide range of topics. He told me what he thinks about the conservatism of the Arkhangelsk region, and he explained to me the island communities across the river from mainland Arkhangelsk. Specifically, how people travel between the islands and the mainland when there are no bridges. Some ships still pass through the area, despite the frozen river and dramatically decreased industry, and they carve gashes through the solid ice. When the coast is clear, however, special crossing guards lay down wooden planks over the open water and people walk across between the islands and the mainland. Gaps in Nikolay’s English training include “crossing guards,” “planks,” “break,” and the past tense in general. But with the help of a map of Arkhangelsk and some creative gesturing, he managed to communicate all of this and more.

Sometimes I get frustrated in my conversations with Russians, because I feel like they’re not giving me the time or space to make the elaborate allegories I need to express myself abstractly. To be fair, usually I’m having these conversations in a context where time is limited and information has to change hands. But sometimes I wish someone would take the time to concentrate on me the way I have to concentrate all the time to understand anyone. But maybe that’s the point of the Fulbright. It’s forcing me to concentrate by taking me out of my linguistic comfort zone,  forcing me to live in a world where I and my American ideas and words aren’t the center of attention.

That’s the concentration part, but there has to be the second element, the conspiracy. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea of communication as conspiracy. Both parties have to concentrate equally  for real communication to happen. And to some extent it has to be in secret; concentration requires blocking out all distractions, in the environment and inside your own head. When I think about what con-spire means–“breathing together”–I think it makes even more sense. Real communication can’t happen without breathing the same air, experiencing the same context. This is what I miss most about talking with Americans, not the language fluency itself–many of my students and the other foreign teachers here speak English beautifully– it’s the cultural context that puts us in cahoots automatically. Łukasz and I have built our own context in our apartment, and as I learn more about Arkhangelsk and gain more experience in living here, I come closer to a point where I can where I can enter this Russian context. Though improving my vocabulary wouldn’t hurt.