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.

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!

Timeline

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.