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.

8 comments:

  1. Ella. This sounds like an amazing experience and I am jealous that you are getting to live something totally different and unexpected. I'm glad you are finding friends and I look forward to reading your blog. You are a brilliant writer! Oh, and you should post more photos. I'm curious to see the inside of your dorm! Hope all continues to go well! И получайте удовольствие! (Not sure if I wrote that correctly...)

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  2. I already wrote you somewhere that you don't have to accept things as they are up there. Demand better living conditions! Complain to the Moscow Fulbright office! Your dorm floor is absolutely unacceptable and I never heard about the fulbrighters' living in such conditions.
    Tatiana

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  3. Mom here, thanking Tatiana, clinging to the good stuff and trying not to worry. I want to know more about Babushkas. If old and ugly are inevitable, then having Babushka power seems like a good payoff. Who pays the Babushkas? They seem both frightening and reassuring at the same time.

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  4. I read this aloud to Mel, and she laughed in all the right places (including my mispronunciation of Russian words) and we both agreed that you're a fantastic writer.

    I hope your dorm renovations are finished soon! At least it makes good writing material, eh?

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  5. Wow, beautifully written. Really, really good. I can commiserate with your exhaustion at always speaking Russian, I've been wanting to have a conversation with a real-life (i.e. not via skype) native speaker for a while now. Luckily, my living situation is not nearly as bad as yours (and reading this post makes me all the more thankful for that). Anyway, really powerful stuff you're writing; looking forward to future posts!

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  6. Great writing! I love it.
    Reading this, I remembered how we felt a year ago, when we just came here. But don't worry. There's so many adventures waiting for you in this surreal city. Once, all this will be precious knowledge.
    People who left the dorm last year and went back to their WE homes, write to me about some kind of awkward Kcity nostalgia... This is a strong experience which will change you forever. In a good way, because that's the only possible way to go, even without showers... By the way, shower will be finished next week, the latest info from babushka. Keep on writing!Niko.

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  7. well done, I echo the comments.

    think of the witty conversation pieces you can drop while sipping vodka martinis at all those future faculty get-togethers.

    or

    think of all the witty comebacks you'll have when your future kids are complaining that the circus was such a disappointment, or hey it's raining I don't want to go camping...

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