Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Shape of a Beginning

Kaliningrad is a mystery. Founded by the Teutonic Knights in 1255 and christened Königsberg, it was a major regional trading hub, the capital where the Prussian kings were crowned, a bulwark of Germany, center of Nazism, and top-secret Soviet naval base. Today it is none of those things. It is an exclave, an isolated chunk of Russia separated from the motherland by now-independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Both the city and province of Kaliningrad perch atop Poland and cling to one of the few things that has not changed over the centuries: the Baltic Sea. Kaliningrad is neither European nor Russian proper, German nor Soviet, civilized nor despotic. Perhaps it is all of the above.

I am not so arrogant as to imagine that spending nine months in a city is enough to know its soul, but I am curious enough to try. I am a historian by training, a traveler by circumstance, and a writer by disposition. I expect this blog will reflect all of those. After all, what is an answer if it does not include a bit of history and mythology, poetry and literature, economics, philosophy, fine art, politics, recipes, and the grime on my boots? My research question is a simple one. What is Kaliningrad, and what does it mean to live there now?

In place of an introduction, you'll have to make do with this. I am an Oregonian by birth and residency, in recent and distinguished possession of a Bachelor of Arts degree from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. My major course of study was history, with minors in political economy and Russian language. There is no good reason why I decided to study Russian in college, except that I watched too many Cold War-era submarine movies in my adolescence and was bored with high school French. I studied abroad in St Petersburg, Russia, for four months in 2010, and while Piter is the kind of city dreams are made of, I am ready for a new adventure. My sense of humor and intellectual inclinations will have to make themselves apparent with time and words.

My travel and living expenses are being funded by a grant from the Fulbright program to promote mutual understanding between Americans and the rest of the world. Specifically, I will be an English Teaching Assistant at Immanuel Kant Baltic Federal University, in Kaliningrad, Russia for the 2012-2013 academic year. As for my more particular duties, I doubt I'll know them until I arrive in mid-September.

Until then, I languish at home, making packing lists, frequenting English-language libraries while I still can, and eating the last Tillamook extra-sharp cheddar cheese for what will soon be several thousand miles. Is there a word for preemptive nostalgia? I have it for Mexican food and my cats.

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