Thursday, October 25, 2012

Let It Rain

Today feels like winter. The last few autumn leaves still cling quivering to their branches, but their compatriots have long since abandoned them in favor of forming a thick slippery mat on the streets below. After one last week of relatively nice and sunny weather, this week has been cold and rainy. Temperatures are hovering around the mid-40s, dropping below freezing at night for the first time, and it all seems much colder when the Celsius thermometer reads six degrees. The sun comes up around 8:30 in the morning, but today there was thick cloud cover and pouring rain, so it stayed black until much later. When it rains here, it rains hard and cold, and the roads are so topographically challenged that small inland seas form in the depressions, up to a foot deep with water. Every Kaliningrader's first line of defense is a good umbrella, carried always, even (especially) when rain seems unlikely. A few of my students tell me that this is supposed to be the coldest winter for twenty years, and I'm not sure whether this is good or bad news. On one hand, snow is eminently preferable to rain, but on the other hand: cold. I suppose if I'm not living in Siberia, I don't get to complain.

Everyone seemed to sense that last weekend was our last chance to enjoy the sun for the next several months, and headed to the sea. The local beach-goer has several options for their coastal destination, from Зеленоградск (Zelonogradsk), about forty minutes by bus almost due north, to Светлогорск (Svetlogorsk) and Янтарный (Yantarny), slightly farther away and to the northwest, and to Балтийск (Baltiysk), west and a little south out on a small peninsula. All are easily reachable from Kaliningrad by frequent bus service and a highly convenient new highway called the Приморское кольцо ("Seaside Ring"), which connects all the above cities and the airport in one big circle.

View Larger Map

On Sunday I decided to join the mad seaside rush and headed for the Baltic beach with a few of my students. When we left Kaliningrad it was sunny. When we reached Zelonogradsk, it was so foggy you could barely see one hundred meters ahead. Determined to show me the beach, we turned northeast out onto the Куршская коса (Curonian Spit), a picturesque geographic oddity and UNESCO Heritage Site. The Spit itself is a long thin stretch of sand dunes and forest reaching 98 kilometers from the Kaliningrad Peninsula to Klaipeda, in Lithuania. The southern half of the Spit is Russian territory, the northern half is Lithuanian. Several towns exist along its length on both sides of the border, although we only ventured as far as Лесной (Lesnoy), since the fog was so thick. On a clear day from a high point, it is supposedly possible to see both the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon at once.

Once we broke out of the trees along the road, we crossed over a crest of sand dunes and down onto the beach, which is surprisingly sandy and inviting. It's easy to imagine how this is the place to be in summer, when it's warm enough to swim or sunbathe on the shores of the Baltic, but for now I was glad that I brought a warm jacket. My students say that the fog is eerie and atypical, but I am struck by how similar it feels to the Oregon coast. For me, beaches are supposed to be foggy, drizzly, and chilly, even in summer. What I'm not used to are all of the small purple stones washed up along the tide line. Apparently it's possible to find pieces of amber washed up as well, but I was not lucky enough this time.

As of tomorrow, I will have been in Kaliningrad for four weeks already, which seems unbelievable, but the calendar doesn't lie. Now that I have reliable amenities such as a kitchen and working radiator, and am settling into something of a steady schedule, each day is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity. Between my classes, I take time to find new bookstores or wander around new neighborhoods, gradually expanding my knowledge of the city and comfort with its transportation methods. I know where the nearest grocery stores are, and I have my favorite cafe, pizza place, and Uzbek restaurant. Even speaking Russian, while not easier, is not quite as scary, now that I am slightly more confident in my ability to negotiate most everyday interactions with adequacy, if not grammatical precision. I thought I was going to get a lot of Russian practice here, but I speak more English than anything else, either as the language of common denominator amongst my international friends, or to give my students more practice with a native speaker.

Now that my living situation is set up and I can come home to my snug little over-heated babushka-protected общага room at the end of the day, I can afford to appreciate differences in the way certain things are done here, rather than be frustrated by them. The Central Market, for instance, is across the street from my dormitory, and is an overwhelming wonderland of everything from fresh produce to old coins and hand-knitted winter hats. It requires some initiative and a little Russian language to make a successful purchase, but the quality of the fruits alone is worth it.

The трамваи (trams), for another example, date to at least the 1980s and have been repainted as many times as Lenin has been re-embalmed. They run agonizingly slowly on fixed tracks down the middle of the street, much to the consternation of all other drivers, never appear when you need them, and let you out in the middle of traffic (which usually stops for you). At times it's possible to walk to your destination faster than a трамвай will crawl you there. As modes of transportation, they're hardly reliable, but as anachronisms, they're almost charming. The Great Трамвай Irony is only completed by what is either the most desperate business scheme ever, or the most inspired: free wi-fi on all trams. Now it is possible to enjoy the best of Soviet transportation while checking your email at speeds slightly slower than the vehicle itself! Never say Russia is not part of the modern age.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Shortcut to Mushrooms

First, I would like to thank everyone who offered support and concern for my well-being last week. I am pleased to announce that we now have working toilets, sinks, and showers on our floor, and the kitchen is to all appearances close behind. I have also managed to acquire, in whatever ways one does, such prized possessions as a mirror, electric kettle, and (miracle of miracles) a French press and bag of ground coffee, which wouldn't impress any true west coaster, but which has earned my personal reverence on the level of something approaching the Holy Grail. Together with a wonderful cadre of eclectic friends who have done much to take the edge off the disorientation and shock of finding myself very far from home, I am starting to fill in the details on the map of Kaliningrad in my head. Every day adds another cafe, market, or bus line to my geographic repertoire, and my phone's contact list is expanding correspondingly. I suppose this is what adjustment feels like.

Besides vodka and football riots, there are few activities more stereotypically Russian than mushroom hunting, unless you combine both vodka and football riots. Fortunately, last weekend I had the pleasure of participating in a peaceful fungus harvest, rather than a Bacchic brawl, and can now cross the former off my long Russian bucket list. Given the damp weather recently -- by recently, I mean all year, and by damp, I mean rain that makes Portland look dry -- it seemed like a good autumn for mushrooms, so I tagged along with some of my international colleagues out into the slightly soggy countryside.

Калининградская область, the surrounding province also by the name of Kaliningrad, is roughly the size of Connecticut. The city of Kaliningrad is by far the largest urban center within the exclave's borders, but several smaller towns are scattered across the region, connected by a network of roads in varying stages of repair. From our centrally-located dorm, we pass through Kaliningrad's outer ring of fortifications, which circumscribes the city in a connect-the-dots of twelve major and several minor German forts (visiting them all is also on the list). Before 1945, this northwest road was called Reichsstraße 143, connecting Königsberg to the seaside town of Rauschen (now Светлогорск, Svetlogorsk). Today it goes by the less grandiose name of A192, although sections of it are still lined with rows of oaks that predate the war, and are apparently known locally as "the last soldiers of the Wehrmacht." Large trees seem a dangerous way to mark a road, but I have to admit that the way they frame the fields and arch overhead in hues of gold and rust is impressive against the October sky.

In the general vicinity of Переславское (Pereslavskoe, German Drugehnen), we turn off the main road and pile out of Nikita's black Volga, a car so deliciously classic that I may have been having Cold War spy daydreams for most of the trip. The experts among us have deemed this particular patch of woods a likely mushroom habitat, and I try to avoid the worst patches of mud as I look around. I am used to the evergreen forests of Eastern Oregon, full of hanging lichens and granite outcroppings. In contrast, the trees here are mostly deciduous, just starting to turn their autumn colors, and they form a delicate stamp against the overcast light filtering through from above. For the moment, the rain is holding off, and we stand at the bottom of a small hill, looking upwards and listening for the calls of fungi.

The problem with mushrooms is that they all look the same. The other problem with mushrooms is that some of them will kill you. Our experts describe to the rest of us what types we are looking for, and I try to absorb this information, although I suspect that if we leave here with mushrooms today, they will not have been found by me. We set off up the hill, and I train my eyes on the ground. At first I see nothing but the springy mat of leaves underfoot, but then something whitish and dome-shaped catches my eye. "Is this a good one?" I ask. It is not. It has a red stem, which is apparently a poisonous attribute. We move on, but now I see mushrooms everywhere! Yellow ones, red ones, puffy ones, shelf-like ones, ones with spots, and ones that ooze a milky white sporific substance if you squeeze them. I leave most of them alone.

What a wonderful snack this slug must have had before crawling six inches
to the upper left and departing from this world.

As we traverse up the hill, we spread out, each deep in our own fungal pursuits. Stooping along the ground, I begin noticing large depressions in the terrain, three to four feet deep, some of them unusually rectangular. They're trenches from the Second World War, Nikola explains matter of factly, and points to a shallow ditch winding off into the brush. The deeper square holes were dug deliberately, the rounded ones are probably craters from exploding shells. I think I stare at him in shock for a few seconds and then mutter a string of expletives because I have no idea what else to say. Perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I am, but I came here looking for mushrooms, not the war. The war does not belong here in my Sunday afternoon, and I don't know what to do now that it's all around me.

I cannot go back to picking mushrooms after that. All I can see are the holes pock-marking the hillside amidst the birdsong, and I climb down inside one to see how it feels. The forest is just as light and open as before, just as full of springy moss and autumn leaves, but now there is something else woven into the woods and it prickles the back of my neck. My imagination is already digging the trenches down as they must once have been, raw and muddy gashes in the hillside, full of men to whom I cannot give their own faces. A lifetime of literature and war movies supply the acrid smell of gunpowder and the shrieks of shells in the night, splintering the trees around me and throwing clods of earth into the air. Then suddenly I am back, it is noon, and a light mist is beginning to filter through the leaves. All is silent, all is peaceful; there is no one here but us.

It is surely a strange juxtaposition of such violence and such tranquility, between looking for enemy targets and looking for mushrooms. But even the shock of finding the war on this quiet hillside is self-evident, and I try to poke a bit deeper into the landscape. I feel dislocated, like I am the ghost here, the one who doesn't belong. Is this my history? We have no battlefields like this in the west of America, nothing to which I can connect this experience. Civil War graveyards belong to the other side of the Mississippi, and the sites of Native American confrontations with the U.S. cavalry are marked more by their obscurity than their importance. The closest thing I can relate this to is the occasional World War II concrete gun mount in the rainforest along the Oregon coast, but those defensive legacies are nothing like this. These foxholes are personal -- men dug them, and men perhaps died in them. Even the serenity of the woods and the abundance of plant life seems to confirm that there is nothing industrial about this. The war looms so large in our memory, in cinematic battlefields and tanks rolling along European rivers to the swell of violins. This bears no resemblance to that. Here, the trees are close, the trench zigzags in a strangely intimate way, and it is all too easy to imagine crawling from one hole to another in the dark, they are that close.

I am afraid of sounding trite, afraid of appropriating experiences that I have no claim to, of imposing my own American conceptions of the war on this place, of fetishizing this landscape with my own desire to have a profound experience. The dead cannot speak for themselves, and I have no right to put words in their mouths, although I am doing so merely by trying to give them faces. I don't know what happened here. I don't know what the people in these holes might have thought, might have felt. I don't know what this place meant to them, or how they might wish it to be remembered. I am afraid that my very act of imagining them here bears little resemblance to who they were, and does more of a disservice than a commemorative one. I am afraid to take some meaning away from here that is artificial, a product of what I want to see, and not of what is. I am just here to pick mushrooms.

How we remember is powerful. I suppose that is the lesson I must take away. Of course there is no true meaning to this place besides what we ascribe to it. It is just a forest, filled with trees and shrubs and mushrooms. Every person who has ever walked or died here has had their own experience of it, and mine is precisely as valid as theirs. Our experiences and the stories we tell about them become history, whether or not they bear any resemblance to what may have happened in a place and time. This is not my land and this is not my war, but I am here now, in October 2012, and this is the story I am telling about it.

When we reconvene for hot tea at the car, even the experts among us have not managed to find many mushrooms of the edible variety, but we all agree that it was nice to get out of the city.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Culture Shock, or Life in the Shadow of the House of Soviets

I came to Kaliningrad because, eleven months ago when I was making these decisions, it seemed convenient. I should have known Russia has a way of turning convenience on its ass. But then I was on the cusp of graduating from college, a history student with dim employment prospects in an anti-intellectual economy, still too footloose to consider grad school an immediate option. A year abroad is an acceptable way to stall for time, and if it comes with a living stipend and the ability to slap Senator J. William Fulbright's esteemed surname on my resume, then so much the better.

I expected it to be hard. I did not expect my dorm to be under so-called renovations, more closely resembling a post-apocalyptic nine story bomb shelter than a living accommodation. Muscling my suitcase through a front door that is half off its hinges and propped up by a pile of debris, past gaping holes where entire windows are missing, letting in cold October gusts and drifts of acrid construction dust, I decide risking the lift is worth it. On the floors above, furniture is heaped in corners, along with refrigerators from the seventies and dis-installed toilets with cracked lids, lying on their sides. Amongst the mess is the occasional load of laundry, drying on a rack and presumably acquiring a fresh coat of plaster dust, mute signs of life somehow only emphasizing the desolation of their surroundings.

The babushka who guards my floor, a generic member of that class of solid, rectangular Soviet women who survived the last lord knows how many years in this place and paid a heavy price for it, tells me on arrival, "There is no shower, toilet, or kitchen that work on this floor." The bathrooms and kitchen, I later learn, are a floor above, the showers, two floors below, for men on odd numbered days, women on even ones. It takes me two days to find matches with which to light the ancient gas stove in the kitchen, and even then the trek up the cold staircase in order to heat water for dehydrated mashed potatoes is barely worth it. I subsist on a diet of cheese, bread, yogurt, tea cookies, and apples -- none of which require cooking, but which do manage to make me feel disgusting after a week without a real meal. Rumors say the construction will be finished in two weeks, but that they said the same thing a month ago. It's just like camping, I tell myself. Camping for nine months. At least I have a bed and electricity.

For the first few days, I concern myself with acquiring the basic necessities to sustain life: drinkable water, a can opener, soy sauce, toilet paper, city map, cell phone service. Each small victory feels grotesquely satisfying, to problems that would be mundane errands back home. The language and cultural barriers, combined with the unfamiliarity of the city and the constant stress of having no one to ultimately rely upon but myself make every new problem seem like one more boulder in an insurmountably high mountain. The constant pressure is exhausting, not having any idea where to find an international calling card for purchase, let alone where the right kind of store might even be located in the city.

Most of all, the relentless need for self-reliance is grinding at best, and cause for blind panic in the darker hours of the night. Although I have friends here if I really need help, for the day-to-day challenges of buying groceries or negotiating the city, I am on my own. There is no one to hold my hand and speak Russian for me in the market or at the university. And when I return to the dorm at night, tired and irritable, ready to give up and do something easy, the babushka is still speaking Russian to me, the toilets are still not working, and I still have to find a calling card tomorrow or the next day. I can never give up and let someone else take over because there is no one else, and when I wake up in the morning to the sound of what is either a jackhammer or an elephantine dentist's drill on the wall above my head, I am still in Russia and nothing is easier. Earplugs turn out to be the best thing I brought with me.

When the beige walls of my room get too oppressive, I take long walks around the city listening to hard rock because I need to feel a little rebellious, but the urban landscape brings a bleak vocabulary of its own. Identical Soviet tenement blocks from the sixties crumble mutely into the streets below, forming concrete mazes with muddy sidewalks running between them, an abandoned tricycle standing in the weeds beneath a windowed balcony. Grey presides, relieved by newer brown or yellow buildings in better repair, or by the even rarer red brick survivor of the Second World War. Those German buildings look even more lost here than I do. Above it all presides the hulking House of Soviets, that gap-toothed broken-windowed behemoth, an ironically unintentional monument to the lavish inefficiency, empty aesthetic, and heavy-handed autocracy that defined the worst aspects of the Soviet regime.

My friends here are the other foreigners with whom I live under the babushka's iron gaze: international students on the floor below, international teachers on my floor. I don't know what Baltic tide washed us all up in this place, but it has been churning for a long time. Königsberg was once a Hanseatic trading hub and the capital of mighty Prussia; Kaliningrad is Europe's forgotten shore, where the flotsam and jetsam accumulates. Even the Russians are recent arrivals to this city, although almost seventy years have long since blurred those lines. Whatever currents brought us all here, I am glad I am not alone.

In the evening, we have a party to celebrate the arrival of two Italian visitors, friends of a Lithuanian colleague across the hall. I slice tomatoes and sneak pieces of bread with pesto while guests arrive, Russian students of Lithuanian, mostly. In the unfinished bathroom we are using for counter space, others chop onions and garlic, while the Italians are upstairs cooking three pots of pasta on the rickety stove. Although construction debris is piled in the corners and we have to brush plaster off the extra chairs, the room is comfortable and lively, and I realize how much I've missed this easy companionship. The weight of my surroundings lifts under the wholesome sincerity of the people who have welcomed me into their lives with an open candor and kindness that we lack in America. I have spent the last two weeks remembering how grey and difficult Eastern Europe is, and forgotten to remember how warm and generous it is behind metal doors.

The Italians return bearing exquisite pasta, and for a while all I can hear is the sound of forks on plates amid murmurs of awed appreciation. When we have gorged ourselves on starch and there is no more wine to pour in our tiny plastic cups, Fanni produces a guitar and we spend several minutes trying to think of a song that everyone might know. Frère Jacques seems like a possibility, and we manage to pool our knowledge of its English, French, German, Hungarian, and Polish versions, although none of us know the Russian words despite it being the only language we all have in common. There are about six different languages going on in different corners of the room, and yet somehow we all manage to communicate. It is an unfamiliar polyglot experience for me, and I feel self-conscious knowing just two languages, one of them only passably. Eventually, the Italians take control of the guitar, and we spend several hours singing and dancing until the babushka tells us to be quiet sometime before two in the morning.

I came here expecting to see ghosts. A side effect, I thought, of research before arrival, was knowing too much about a city's past, and not enough about its present. Since 1255, this place has been many things to many people: crusader castle, feudal farmland, Junker capital, center of liberal Enlightenment, Nazi bastion, firebombed ruins, secret Soviet naval base, Special Economic Zone, and today, window or black hole to Europe, depending on who you talk to. The old foundations of Königsberg, a city long since buried under meters of reinforced concrete, are still down there somewhere. I see the brick walls of Prussian basements in the muddy-bottomed construction ditches where they are laying in new pipe.

My inner historian is fascinated, but the rest of me is more ambivalent. The House of Soviets stands more or less where the Prussian castle used to be before its ruins were dynamited in the sixties. I don't particularly enjoy looking at the current concrete leviathan, nor do I approve of what it represents, but aesthetics and preservationist instincts aside, I wouldn't argue that the castle stood for much better. Königsberg was the capital of the conservative Junkers, a reactionary and despotic class of its own. There is a reason why the National Socialists had such strong support in this city, and surely if ghosts wave flags, then black swastikas are flying beside red stars from rooftops that no longer exist.

Walking home in the evening between my Croatian friend and his Hungarian wife, we pass the Soviet tank mounted in the square outside our dorm, a war memorial that children climb on today. I say that when I first arrived and saw the tank, I just laughed. They say that when they first saw it, they almost cried. I don't know how to express the feeling that here, the two can be the same.

For the most part, the ghosts keep to themselves; Kaliningrad's streets are too full of the living for them to come down from their graves. New Russian buildings made of glass are rising downtown, and modern cars park on the sidewalks. I have no idea what the hell I'm doing here, but I am doing it. I am, after all, a denizen of today, and not of the past. Although one day I may wave a pale flag of my own, for now, I know I will be okay. Because if this city has one presiding theme over the centuries, it is that, despite obstacles far more serious than any I will likely face, life goes on.