Poland confused me.

What with it being located between Russia and “Western” Europe, and what with my latest experience being in Russia, and what with my experience in the Balkans pretty much directly south, I was expecting Poland to be sort of like a cleaner, more compact version of Russia. But when I arrived and Łuki started showing me around his town and nearby Lublin, I began to scratch my proverbial head.

“It’s kind of like… Southern California?” I ventured, as we walked through the more recently developed part of his neighborhood. The scrubby vegetation, bright flora, beating sun, and luxurious-looking tile-roofed villas added up. But the humidity, the small wheat fields in between luxury villas, and the Catholic churches on every corner did not. “Or maybe Spain?”

Wandering through the Old Town in Lublin, Łuki told me it’s been compared to Italy architecturally, but the bright pink and green facades contrasted with my mental image of Italy as a more gray and beige stone kind of place. Plus, Lublin has more spires than cupolas.

Hearing that Poland feels itself caught between the “east” of Russia and the “west” of Germany is confusing when for most of its history, Russia has grappled with an identity caught between the “east” of Asia and the “west” of Europe. And Poland is part of Europe, right? Central Europe? Eastern Europe? A former satellite state?

If Germans and even people from western Poland look on the infrastructure of eastern Poland with disdain, the autobahns must be paved with gold. Lublin’s grocery stores are just as small as in Arkhangelsk, but the potatoes are scrubbed clean and the fruit is plentiful and unmarked. The people are friendly and cheerful, but they size each other up on the street with what an American might call nosiness or even suspicion.

Finally, I gave up on trying to compare Poland to things and just enjoyed my time with Łukasz. Gently sloping hills, gorgeous lush green forests, ancient oak trees, herds of wild ponies: these things don’t need to be on a map to be beautiful. There will be plenty of time to try and understand Poland once I’m done trying to understand Russia.

Bags of Milk

Something I’ve never mentioned before, much to my shock and amazement, is the fact that sometimes, in Russia, milk is sold in bags.

I’ve never been able to rationalize this on any level. Liquids should just not go in bags. The end. Liquid goes in jars or cartons or bottles or cans, or sometimes, on rare occasions, in barrels, but not in bags.

I was in the grocery store this evening, puttering forlornly over the baked goods section, when I noticed a subtle line of tiny milk puddles on the floor. I soon traced the trail to a nearby cart, overseen by a beautiful blonde Russian woman with turquoise eye shadow. She was taking her shopping very seriously, but not seriously enough to notice the fact that her bag of milk was dripping all over the floor. I chose to ignore it, often the best course of action for a foreigner confronted with cultural differences in a new country.

Some ten minutes later, I found myself in the check-out line, two customers behind the lady of the drippy milk bag. She had blazed a trail all over the store, leaving little happy milk puddles in her wake, like those dotted lines from the Family Circus. She was still oblivious, even as she dumped the offending bag onto the conveyor belt. I watched with a sense of mounting doom as the bag slowly ringed itself in a halo of milk, approaching nearer and nearer to one of the crankiest cashiers in all of Sigma (according to experience).

And then a miracle happened. The cashier picked up the drippy bag, took in what had transpired, asked the woman if she still wanted it, while deftly folding the milk bag into another plastic bag. The customer declined, the cashier instructed her to get another of the same product. By the time the customer returned, the cashier had finished ringing everything else up. It all went by like clockwork, as if rehearsed down to the second.

And then I think about what would happen if this same situation occurred in some sort of parallel-universe America where milk is sold in bags, and it makes me sad that I’m going home soon.

“No one speaks English and everything’s broken.”

Love, true love, is more enduring than a summer fling. Love demands that you confront all the good and bad of the one you love and accept the whole for what it is. Love takes time and commitment and forgiveness. After living in Russia for almost eight months, I can say that I love this country.

But love does not exclude bafflement and complaint. And there are some things that just baffle me about Russia.

Exhibit A: I’ve been informed by the hotel staff that the hot water will be turned off sometime in the next week, probably. Nobody quite knows exactly when it’ll be turned off, but the whole city loses its hot water for a week or so at one time. Then, later, each neighborhood in turn will be without hot water for a second time. They have to repair pipes in preparation for next winter. Obviously. This happens all across Russia, and I knew that before I came. I’m prepared to deal with it, but, like, seriously?

Exhibit B: Our university building is undergoing remont. Remont is a wonderful Russian word for pretty much any kind of repair or maintenance or reconstruction or remodeling. You can remont your purse or your tires or your apartment or the roads. The first and second floors of our building have slowly been remonted over the last few months, and it’s been noisy and dusty, but we’ve all put up with it because it’s necessary. Except now it comes to the third floor, where it directly affects the people I work with. The English department has moved to a much smaller room across the hall, and all the other department offices have moved as well, who knows where to. Fine. But today, come to find out that remont will be going on on the fourth floor at the same time! When teachers ask the main office where they can hold their classes, the wonderfully competent girls there say, “We don’t know. There are no rooms.” Drama! Excitement!

Exhibit C: On Monday, I went to plug in my cell phone to recharge it, only to find that my charger cord had been torn in half and the end with the plug into the phone was missing altogether. Who could be the culprit? A rodent of some sort? Vigorous vacuuming? Careless installment of surveillance equipment to keep tabs on us foreigners? Who knows. Fortunately, buying a new cord only cost around $5 and was accomplished without any of the relevant vocabulary on my part.

That’s the kind of week I’m having.

The title of this post is taken from the song “Tom Traubert´s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)” by Tom Waits.

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.

The Serenity of Anxiety

I leave for Moscow tomorrow. On a train. The only other time I’ve been on a train in Russia, my ticket was bought and my hand held by my study abroad program directors.

Minor freak out about my debit card not working at the ATM averted when I got home and checked online, to realize that I just had to transfer some funds.

Good thing I have beer.

I used to pride myself on being a light packer. Now I just talk about how I used to pride myself on being a light packer.

Like Clockwork

And then sometimes, everything works. Yesterday was a perfect set-up for a domino-effect spiral into a helpless pit of anxiety and failure, but somehow, miraculously, everything went off without a hitch!

7:45 am I woke up to do my Russian homework.

10:00 am My weekly tutoring session began. I usually walk to my tutor’s house, as it only takes about 20 minutes, but yesterday I left the house late (as usual). Determined not to be late to my lesson yet again, I took a chance on a bus that I was only about 65% sure would get me where I needed to go. It worked. I even arrived almost 3 minutes early!

11:30 am I excused myself from the lesson half an hour earlier than usual, explaining that I had a lot of things to do today. I didn’t feel bad about paying the full amount anyway, though, because technically what I pay should be for two academic hours, or an hour and a half, but she always spends a full two hours with me. I walked to Resurrection Street from her house and hopped on another bus to get to where I was pretty sure there was a kassa to buy train and plane tickets. After withdrawing 10,000 rubles from a nearby ATM (something that in itself was a cause for anxiety) I bought a train ticket to Moscow and a plane ticket back to Arkhangelsk for Victory Day next week. First time buying a Russian train ticket, and first time buying a plane ticket from a kassa, check and check. Next, off to the grocery store to buy ingredients for an American-style trail mix–popcorn, raisins, peanuts, pretzels, M&Ms.

By 12:45 pm I was home, where I made the trail mix, my offering for an event at the library later in the afternoon. And then I made it to the university with enough time to have lunch in the cafeteria.

1:40 pm a faculty meeting in the English department.

Then, at 3:00 pm, I gave a not-terribly-well-prepared lesson on talking on the phone and numbers at the Rescue Service. I also had to cut this lesson short, unfortunately, in order to run home, change my shoes, pick up my snacks, and make it to the library ten minutes late.

5:00 pm At the library, the American Corner was hosting a trivia competition with America-themed questions for local school and university teams. It was a lot of fun to hear the tricky questions that had been submitted. There were a couple even I didn’t know; for example, what the historical figures carved on Mount Rushmore represent to the American nation.

7:30 pm I left the library to head to my last commitment of the day! The snacks I brought to the library were not needed after all, so I had a grocery bag of American goodies to stow in the cloakroom at the most expensive hotel in Arkhangelsk, which is where Nils decided to celebrate his birthday, at the Sky Bar on the top floor, with this view:

Fortunately, Russians are used to people with packets to store (if not doofy foreigners with packets), and it was all fine.

Later, around 10:30 pm, we walked from Sky Bar along the Embankment to a nightclub called Pelikan, which is on a boat. We’d watched the sun slip bright and magenta below the horizon over the river from the restaurant, and this was what the river looked like when we left:

This was such a day that I even managed to explain to the bartender at Pelikan, in Russian, what I wanted in my whiskey sour well enough that it came out basically perfect. When I got home at 2:30 am, I was exhausted. Collapsing into my freshly-made bed was a particular pleasure last night. But I was victorious!