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.

Advice for Americans and other foreigners traveling long-distance on Russian trains.

As I mentioned, I was recently in Siberia, specifically in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. But before I can tell you about Kyzyl, I have to tell you how I got there. I took the train! This (obviously) makes me an expert on Russian long-distance trains, so I will share my wisdom with the rest of the world.

Accommodations.

Russian trains have three “classes”: In platskart, there are no doors and something like 60 people sleep on bunks together and share one bathroom. Kupe has separate compartments with four bunks each and a lockable door. And Luxe is fancier, but I’ve never been in it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like.

For my trip, I was in platskart for one day from Arkhangelsk to Moscow, and then kupe from Moscow to Abakan, for three days. There are pros and cons to kupe. There’s slightly more privacy, and if you find three friends to travel with you, you have a lot of security, because you can lock yourselves in. But, when it comes to being a young woman traveling alone, some say it’s better to go platskart, because that way there are more people around. You never know who might get locked into that kupe with you.

I was traveling alone half the way, until my colleague Anita joined up and occupied the other lower bunk of the kupe for the last two days. I had no problems in either platskart or kupe.

With all options, you get bed linens and a towel with which to create a tiny little domestic cubby on your bunk for however long the train will be home.

Food.

My first train experience, a short 24-hour jaunt to Moscow back in May, was not very pleasant, mostly because I was unprepared in the food department. The Siberian Adventure was much better.

Apart from my suitcase, I had a backpack stuffed with provisions, and never had to visit the restaurant car. I took with me: several liters of water, three apples, dried apricots, a package of smoked braided cheese, three baked pastry thingies, half a loaf of bread, sliced gouda cheese and salami (which was still okay, if a little greasy, after three days unrefrigerated), two packages instant mashed potatoes, two packages instant soup, cookies, crackers, a carton of juice, and a bunch of tea bags. Perhaps someday I’ll be skilled enough to bring pickles, packages of smoked salmon, jars of mayonnaise, and whole baked chickens, like real Russians.

I brought my own mug, utensils, an extra towel, and a package of paper napkins, after observing the super-prepared people in the bunks across from me in platskart on my way to Moscow last time.

The most important thing to know is that there is an unlimited supply of free hot water, which you get from a large, industrial-looking samovar tank at the head of the car, near the conductor’s compartment. So, you can make tea, instant coffee, and any other instant food to your heart’s content. You can also buy tea or coffee from the conductor for 15 rubles, and it comes in the wonderful, classic Russian train cups.

Hygiene.

Two words: Baby Wipes.

The biggest difference between Russian and American trains (apart from the fact that Russian trains are always on time) is that on Russian trains there are no showers. Russians carry moist towelettes around the way Americans might carry hand sanitizer, and I had taken to carrying them myself—but I am so glad I had a whole package of proper baby wipes with me on the train. It’s amazing how one or two of those, appropriately applied, can make you feel fresh and clean in the morning.

Also, while hot water is limitless, toilet paper might not be, so I suggest you bring your own. Basically, spend as little time in the bathroom as possible.

Finally, someone suggested a headscarf, and it was quite effective at helping me forget how unwashed my hair was after three days.

Entertainment.

Four days is a long time to sit in a confined space alone. I recommend enjoying the scenery, but there’s only so many hours of scenery one can handle in a day.

I brought more than I ended up using in terms of diversions, but that’s better than the alternative. I read A Clockwork Orange, which I’d been meaning to read since my first year of college, and which I enjoyed a lot less than I was expecting to. I also brought a Russian magazine and a book, and my dictionary, with the noble idea of working on my language on the train, but that didn’t pan out.

And of course I made sure to have my iPod fully charged before I left. There are a few electrical outlets in each train car, but it’s probably better to plan not to have to use them. My best decision was the suggestion from Randi (of course) to splurge on downloading the audiobook of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. It turned out to be really interesting and helped get me in the mood for my adventure.

The only thing I wish I’d brought is a map of Russia with the train route on it. The train stops pretty frequently, especially before actually getting to Siberia, and I kept wondering, How far have we gone? Have we crossed the Urals? Are we actually in Siberia yet? Where the hell are we?

After a while, though, I got used to it, and just enjoyed the rocking of the train and standing at the window in the corridor to catch an afternoon breeze in the heat of midday.

Contact

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!

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.

A Smorgasbord of Awesome

Last weekend, I went to a Fulbright conference in Ufa organized by my colleague and friend Cathy. It was a fantabulous time, about which more later, but it was also great to see another part of Russia, and to be surprised yet again.

Salavat Yulyayev, the hero of Bashkortostan.

I went to Ufa knowing only two things about it:

1. It is the capital of the ethnic Republic of Bashkortostan. (The Soviet Union had a bunch of ethnic autonomous republics and Soviet Socialist Republics, and some of them were part of Russia and some of them weren’t. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet Socialist Republics like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan gained independence, but autonomous republics like Bashkortostan and the Jewish autonomous okrug remained part of Russia.)

2. It has a population of 1 million people.

I arrived on a flight from Moscow with two other Fulbright friends, Randi and Rikki, who stayed in the same host family with me. We were picked up from the airport in Ufa by a guy named Ramil, from the American Corner, and driven past folding hills and beautiful, new houses with roofs in bright green and red and blue. There was sun and deciduous trees and highways with guardrails.

I know I have a tendency to compare cities to Pittsburgh (see: Bilbao, Arkhangelsk), but I do think Ufa is analogous to Pittsburgh in the way it compares to the capitals. If St. Petersburg is Los Angeles, the city of glamour and beauty that tourists flock to; and Moscow is New York, the monstrous, magnificent metropolis; then Ufa is Pittsburgh, the midsize, unassuming, clean city that’s definitely a city but also livable, with room to breathe.

But there the similarity ends. We only got to see Ufa for three days (and one of those days was spent in a “Base of Active Rest” outside the city), but the Ufa that we saw was a smorgasbord of awesome. Our experience would have been impossible as tourists, or even as a single Fulbrighter visiting Cathy. Our concentration of American-ness gained us access to the very coolest bits of Ufa.

We got a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of Bashkortostan with a guide who treated us like five-year-olds, in the best way possible, and learned that Bashkortostan is famous for its honey. We met the man who wrote the Bashkir national anthem and he played it for us on the piano. We went to a bar called Pab Bob’s and located on Karl Marx Street. We got a private performance by students at the Rudolf Nureyev Choreographic School. We spent a night at a cabin in the countryside singing, drinking, speaking Russklish, visiting the banya, roasting marshmallows, and taking leisurely walks to the river. Back in Ufa, we watched a play in Bashkir, with Russian translations piped to us by headphones. We tried a drink of fermented horse milk. We made friends and haggled over taxi fares. It was all over far too soon.

For more pictures, check out my album on facebook.

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.