Tuesday, September 25, 2012

7,137 Miles

Traveling across the world is many things, but I wouldn't count comfortable among them. From Portland to Moscow is a trip of some 7,137 miles and eleven time zones. I traversed them in three separate flights, transferring in Chicago and Warsaw with varying degrees of hectic terminal shuffling. There's nothing like waking up halfway over the Atlantic in the middle of the night on a plane where everyone is speaking Polish and realizing that you're on your way to live by yourself in Russia and there's no going back now. There's also nothing like, a few hours and a couple of AC/DC albums later, flying straight into a gilded sunrise at six hundred miles an hour on the grace of nothing but physics and jet fuel.

My life is contained in one forty-nine pound suitcase and a duffel bag, which surprisingly enough both survived the journey on LOT Polish Air. I wish I could say the same for my neck, but apparently my seat was the only one on the entire Boeing 767 that didn't recline. I'm already glad that I ignored my snobbish Portland instincts and brought an umbrella; I'm also already apprehensive that I didn't pack nearly enough curry powder to last for nine months. Since leaving my beloved coffeepot behind in a tearful goodbye, my days have been filled with angry break-up messages in the form of caffeine-withdrawal headaches that no amount of tea rebounding seems able to satisfy. Or maybe that's just the jet lag. Either way, I might kill for twelve ounces of Stumptown right now.

Somehow, thirty-three of us Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) made it to Moscow in one piece. Most of us just graduated from college with a degree in the humanities, have been to Russia at least once before, and have a passable but certainly not expert knowledge of Russian language. All of us share the same fears and uncertainties about what we will encounter in our host cities and the challenges of teaching a language that we speak natively. We seem to be obsessively trying to get to know each other and form a tight group dynamic in the five days of orientation in Moscow, because these will likely be our last American friends for the next several months. In just a few days, all of us will be boarding trains or planes to our thirty-three separate cities scattered across Russia, from the farthest west (Kaliningrad) to the farthest east (Khabarovsk), and from Arkhangelsk in the north to Krasnodar in the south between the Black and Caspian Seas. It's an isolating prospect, but meeting everyone else has been strangely reaffirming, since we all have the same doubts and anxious excitement. I think we are all ready to finally get to our host cities and settle into our new lives.

I don't know what I was expecting about my return to Russia after nearly three years, but it's been surreal. My first Russian conversation was with my cab driver from the airport while we were stuck in Moscow traffic behind a leaning delivery van with a crooked license plate and too much exhaust, and it ranged from IKEA and Korean cars to platypuses and "traffic jams." The last was an English word that, in my delirium, I could only think to explain by likening jam to the kind you put on toast. The cabbie found this hilarious. Then we passed seven nuclear cooling towers, a billboard advertising cheap бизнес-ланч (literally "business lunch," pronounced horridly as "beez-ness laahnch"), and several slower cars by using the right turn lane.

As much as I can't stand being in Moscow for any extended length of time, it has been fun to take the metro again. It wasn't until I pushed open the dangerous swinging doors of Vladykino Station near the hotel and smelled that distinctive metro smell (a mixture of what I imagine to be grease and years of collected mechanical grime, but which probably includes a greater percentage of body odor), I didn't realize how much I'd missed it. There is absolutely nothing like the vertigo-inducing escalator ride down below the river, shuffling through a lofty marble station encrusted with hammers and sickles, packing onto an ancient blue metro train between a lady in six-inch leopard-print spike heels and a pudgy man who hasn't showered in weeks, and then careening off into the tunnels with a rickety death rattle and deafening banshee wail. Imagine all the terror and adrenaline of a wooden roller coaster combined with the claustrophobia of spelunking at rush hour in a city of over eleven million and the aesthetic taste of Stalin's interior decorator, and you'll have something approximating the major metro systems. It's fantastic.

But mostly I'm just plagued by a constant and inescapable sense of deja vu. Whether it's getting a shock every time I look up and see a billboard in Russian instead of English, or having oranges for breakfast cut in the Russian way (thin circular slices) instead of the American (cut in half, or torn in segments), this week has been a bizarre process of half-remembering. I think the sense of strange disconnect comes, not just from the fact that it's been several years since I lived here last, but also from the realization that I am not the same person now as I was then. I am remembering my own past life, but also finding it impossible to just slip into the self that I associate with my time in St Petersburg. This will have to be a new adventure on its own terms, but my brain is a little slow on the uptake.

In Moscow, with love.


  1. okay but seriously, email me your address (when you know it). I can research how likely it is for a 12 oz bag of Stumptown coffee to actually make it from Portland to your new place in Russia.

  2. Thanks for such a great description of the Russian subway. That should be good for at least one good technicolor claustrophobic nightmare.


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