18 November 2004

Cures for homesickness

I have just returned from two and a half weeks in Russia, most of which I spent in the town of Elektrostal. I arrived just over ten years after my very first visit to Elektrostal, in October 1994, during the visit that Bill Wagoner and I made to gather information and impressions on possible Friends United Meeting service in Russia.

Since 1994, I have visited Elektrostal every year except 1995, sometimes more than once. Although not far from Moscow (an hour and ten minutes by train; over twice that long by car in rush hour), it is a bit off the beaten path, on a railroad spur off the main line to Nizhni Novgorod. As a center of military and nuclear industry, it was a closed city during the Soviet years.

Sergei and Larisa Kazantsev's New Humanities Institute on Mir and Radio Streets, just north of the city hall, is one of the city's bright spots. This Institute is one of my homes away from home, along with Friend Natalia Grigorievna Fedorchenko's Phoenix Lyceum and and Center for College Preparation, located further north on Karl Marx Street. In both places, tea and good conversation, and English classes with curious and energetic young people, provide at least a temporary cure for homesickness.

Up to the current year, the businesses of Elektrostal have been pretty much home grown, as far as I could see. Along with the little grocery stores and household-goods stores that serve almost every significant grouping of apartment buildings and are mostly in the same spaces as their Soviet-era predecessors, more recent entries in the town's business life have included real estate firms, private minibus services, and the video arcade parlors that have sprung up everywhere in the last year or two.

View from my window.

Although I'd heard rumors for years, I found myself unprepared for the mixed feelings I had when I saw, right from my eighth-floor $8/night hostel window, a McDonald's restaurant right there on Yalagin Street, "my" street in Elektrostal. On the one hand, I had to smile -- leave it to McDonald's to find even this out-of-the-way industrial town. I knew that I would be welcome within its golden precincts, I would get polite service and predictable food, I could close my eyes, inhale the french-fry incense, and the miles (er, kilometers) separating me from home might briefly melt away.

There was another feeling, too. "They" had found "my" safe little city, "they" had violated its innocence, "they" were out to Americanize even this stolid, utilitarian, brick and cinderblock outpost of Soviet planning. I was no longer solely responsible for defining to the Elektrostal people what "American" meant.

If the availability of McDonald's was, in the end, not sufficient to help me out in my struggles with homesickness, my near-daily Internet sessions often made me feel even worse. Cheerful e-mails often just reinforced the reality of my distance from the dear people who wrote them.

But technology did help me another way. On a last-minute impulse, I had packed the DVD of Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the documentary/performance account of the Motown studio band, the Funk Brothers. If you want to take a piece of America with you, a piece of which you need not be ashamed, this DVD is worth many times its weight in double cheeseburgers. It's not terribly complete as a documentary (some criticize its lack of depth on the corporate side of Motown, for example), but if it had crossed every documentary T there would have been less time for those wonderful musicians to perform, which is what they do so well in this film.

The sound is excellent, doing full justice to the musicians' enthusiastic reunion sessions; the editing is superb, and the performers chosen for the vocals on all the tracks are just right. Bootsy Collins is delightfully over the top with "Cool Jerk" and "Do You Love Me?" while Meshell Ndegeocello is beautifully restrained in "You've Really Got a Hold on Me." Other performers seem equally well matched to the material - Joan Osborne, Gerald Levert, Ben Harper, Chaka Khan, Montell Jordan. The Funk Brothers demonstrate musicianship and creativity that somehow remind me of an America I don't have to explain or apologize for overseas.

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