Dec 30, 2010

Возрождение (Waiting in America)

This spring, I'm returning to Russia after sobering up for almost three years. I expect much to be different about this trip, much to be the same, and all to be more interesting than the interim, during which I've been sitting at home checking for new comments on the blog. I'm headed to the Caucasus, Russia's mountainous South, far from the idyllic and icebound Siberia of blog-entries past. I'm sure there will be a post about the city and the region, so stay tuned. Before that, though, there will be one about why I'm writing this from America, instead of from Russia.

Returning to Russia is like reuniting with an old friend who doesn't care about you. I'll elaborate in my next post, but for now, just take my word for it. So I thought I'd take this chance to answer a question that Americans and Russians alike have asked me, particularly when faced with the less pleasant aspects of the former USSR.

Why Russia? Russians ask this of every foreign student, and after a long stay, we've all got our automatic responses, which usually follow a simple formula: some aspect attracted us to Russia, and the deeper we explored, the less we wanted to leave. Russia hooks people - be it the literature, the history, the language, the cuisine - something made us curious, and each answer we found exposed us to new questions. If asked to elaborate, nearly all the foreign students I studied with (Finns, Germans and Koreans among them) cite an abstract and inexplicable force that compels us to the country. This in particular surprised me - the truth is, I've never known exactly why I'm so drawn to Russia, but to see other foreigners with the same feeling somehow justified it. Russia is unlike any place I've known, and without visiting it yourself, even the finest blog on the internet can't convey exactly why. I can't claim that my ever-growing passion for Russia has roots in its literature, or history, or any other of the country's many facets. So while I'm stuck stateside, I thought I'd explore how I came to Russia to begin with. This is a story that may or may not shed some light.

~~~

In the hills where I grew up, and particularly at home, a lot went unsaid. Even when mom and dad fought, it was done mostly in hushed tones, each little salvo just loud enough for the two of them to hear. When it was like this, my brother and sister and I sat straight-backed around the dinner table, locking our gazes on our plates and silverware, which we would scrape and clang against each other to fill the space left by our parents' fierce silence. So when I was 13, and I heard them yelling through the walls several nights in a row, I knew something was changing, and that it somehow had to do with me. By that time, my sister was married off, and my brother was already working underground, 16 years old, coming home with black hands and not a whole lot to say. Mom was as proud of them as dad was ashamed. That's how they came to fight about me, and we all suspected dad wouldn't lose the third time.

One day after the fighting had stopped, mom had me wait out on the porch after the whistle blew. I knew not to ask why, and although dad wouldn't pull up for another twenty minutes, I sat out there and waited. There was a bare bulb strung from the rafter, and the smoke and fog of the town always gave it a rainbow-colored halo. As a kid the bulb fascinated me, I'd stare and squint my eyes to play with the colors, and found myself doing the same that night, exhaling towards the bulb and watching the halo shine and spin, and then dissipate with my breath. By that age, though, I knew that halo was the only spot of color in the whole coal-blackened town. When dad showed up, he stood on the top step for a long time watching me, and blowing smoke from his cigarette around the bulb as we both prepared for the talk.

The whole affair didn't take long. Before he said a word, his eyes were tearing up (but only from the soot, as always in these moments), and he spoke softly out of deference to my mom. He'd won the fight, but he knew that mining was in her blood as much as it was in his, and she hated to think he was steering me away. She stayed above ground, though, and as Daniel was already learning, the romance of the work suffocates 500 feet down the chute. When he had blinked back the moisture in his eyes, he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, "stay out of the mines, Joey. Don't spend a day underground. Get serious about your schoolwork." And he meant right then, that night, not a moment later. All that, though, went unsaid. Anyway I listened, and that's how I ended up at Bowdoin, and my Russian classes were really interesting so I stuck with it.

~~~

Okay, I admit it - this post isn't about what attracts me to Russia. It's to keep me busy while I wait for the Russians to get my forms in order. They've dropped the ball, and failed to complete the necessary paperwork for my visa before their New Year's vacation, which as you'll remember, means I won't be getting it for a while. The guy who should be arranging my official invitation is probably neck-deep in a frozen river right now, atoning for the sin of not arranging my official invitation when he should have. So his hands and his soul are clean, but alas, I'm still waiting here in West Virginia. I mean Maine.