Friday, February 4, 2011


So, I tend to be dismissive of people who blog about their lives - I find it a little self-important. I'm particularly rude, at least in my head, about travel blogs. I feel peoples' tendency to overestimate the uniqueness of their own insights and experiences is magnified when they travel. I'm especially suspicious of almost anyone who writes in English about the former USSR, because they, of course, can't possibly "get it." I find myself viewing any observation such a person makes as cheesy, condescending, mean spirited– when of course the very same observation on my part would reflect nothing less than a finely honed eye for human behavior and an undying love for the place of my upbringing. Naturally, to my friends who had proper Russian upbringings, many of my observations, albeit the same ones they might make, are illegitimate. And so on and so on. I'm not convinced that anything other than sheer arrogance is motivating me to write this, but I may manage to convince myself as I go along.

Journal entry from 1/22 or 22.01:

I have made it to Bishkek, my promised land.
It is every bit as quiet as I remembered; every bit as free of distractions.
It also feels meaner. Much, much dirtier than I remember. I knew I was coming in winter; I knew it would be greyer and likely coated at times in only a thin dingy layer of snow- that part is no surprise. But the extent of the dinge is a bit of a shock. The day I came we walked past a set of evergreens that had an unhealthy greyness to them. I stopped and rubbed a cluster of needles with my fingers, and sure enough, a layer of black soot came off.
Peoples' faces look the way Muscovites' faces would on grimy winter days- either faintly anxious, or mildly pissed off. I forget that while people in the former USSR rarely complain about the weather, it affects peoples' personability very noticeably.
All this is not to say that the grass looks greener on the other side (i.e. in the US). It still looks greener here. Covered with a good layer of dust, yes, but still greener.

My flight to Moscow boarded late. Takeoff was further delayed by a drunk guy who, in fine Aeroflot tradition, tried to bring several large suitcases on board and acted insulted when he was asked to go back and check them. At this point he was confronted about his compromised sobriety. "You see, I'm really not a drinker at all," he insisted. "I haven't drunk for four whole months!" At some point in his exchange with the stewardesses, a wine bottle in the plastic bag he was carrying shattered, dripping purple on the floor. A tall, pretty West Indian member of airport staff showed up from somewhere. She escorted him off the plane with a big-sisterly gesture. "Support Putin," he called, as he disappeared from view.

I was seated across the aisle from a newborn and a toddler, and next to a chatty, unaccompanied six year-old. The stewardesses referred to the latter, who I believe was named Katya, as their heroine, and came around constantly to check she had enough to eat? drink? warm enough? why aren't you asleep? They'd also clearly unpacked some of her stuffed animals as soon as she boarded and arranged them with great care, only to have her ignore them completely.

I couldn't watch our descent into Moscow–that descent I fantasize about– the way I'd hoped, since I was seated in the middle of the plane. I got a few small glimpses of the sun glinting off the silver roofs of the cottages. It was 2 pm when we landed. "The temperature is -10 degrees and the weather is good," the captain announced. We stepped off the plane into a glistening land of white tiling, high ceilings, and all-glass walls. I looked around at my fellow travelers in dismay, half hoping to catch the eye of someone who could tell me what was going on- had Sheremetevo really forsaken its mission to be the world's most depressing airport? I went through transit security, where a young woman felt around my belt. "Skinny, skinny!" she said, pinching me affectionately. The babushka manning the x-ray belt asked me what the long canister in my backpack was (coffee), but cheerfully waved me through when I offered to show it to her. I lingered a bit in front of the glass wall, looking out at the wall of fir forest beyond the landing strips, and wondered if I should maybe buy into the whole Putin's Russia thing.

I marched towards the old terminal, hoping to find comfort in its 10-foot can-covered ceilings and impoverished soil color scheme. I felt cheated to find the coffee cans on the ceiling had been removed, and a fair amount of light was now streaming through. Light and all, it was now the "fuck you" terminal where those making connections to China and Central Asia were doomed to epic waits. With me in the waiting area was the family across the aisle from me on my JFK flight- the ones with the newborn girl, an adorable and singularly out-of-it looking boy toddler, and a ten-ish year old girl who appeared to be basically in charge of the operation. They were joined from Moscow by grandparents who took turns rocking and cooing to the womb-sick newborn. On the bench next to me was an American girl, her soul, by the looks of it, drained by the travel process, and a cheerful Kyrygz-American college kid who seemed to have adopted her.

The ten-hour wait went surprisingly quickly. In the months before my departure, I had pictured boarding as a triumphant occasion. Instead it was fast and unceremonious. The boarding announcements were resigned, matter-of-fact, and rather unclear, as if to give passengers who had lost their nerve– or fallen asleep on the departure lounge benches– the option of staying behind. I was seated behind the big family on this flight. At one point Dad stuck a diaper on the head of the toddler to make him look like he was wearing a crown. Otherwise, the flight was grim. After my July 2009 stay in Kyrgyzstan, the country had been synonymous for me with extreme gentleness, and with childhood memories of a quiet, sleepy Moscow. My first impression then had been that the people looked like throwbacks to the USSR circa 1990- solemn, characterful, and sincere. Perhaps it was that I had flown through the current Moscow and gotten a sense of physical health, kindness, and intelligence that had little to do with the congested cesspool of brainless commercialism and cultural chauvinism that it had morphed into in my memory– and Bishkek no longer seemed like a uniquely magical place.  But for whatever reason, people now looked to me like they were stuck, not in a time of fewer distractions and more sober values, but in situations of scant opportunities and poor health.

Also contributing to the flight’s grimness was my realization that I had no cash, and therefore no way to pay for my visa. Fortunately the customs officer, a wide-eyed young man, allowed me to leave my bags while I ran to the bank machine. I ran into my dad at the gate, who fronted me the money. After hearing reports of nasty customs officials in Bishkek, I got my visa with no trouble. [In general, I find that when traveling alone in the former USSR, i.e. not with my dad, who goes out of his way to be surly to officials, things seem to go remarkably smoothly for me. Of course there are notable exceptions, like the time a bad-tempered customs lady made preparations to throw me off a train in the dead of night, in winter, at the Ukrainian-Russian border. But it’s more fun to ignore these exceptions, as well as the obvious handiness of my color scheme, in favor of the narrative that I am simply beloved throughout the post-Soviet space.]

I came back out and met D and Big V, and we drove into town. The Turkish Airways flight from Istanbul hung in the sky in front of us, apparently having forgotten where to go. We stopped at the store for kefir, ryazhenka, tvorog, and other wonderful milk products I hadn’t seen for a while. At home we had yummy kasha with market honey. Full. Zzzzz.

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