26 October 2011

I Ain't No Stranger

A few weeks ago I mentioned reading David McCullough's The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.  I've always loved visiting Paris--my first memories of the city are our arrival from an ocean crossing on the S.S. United States at age 10, via Le Havre, on our way to grandparents in Stuttgart and Oslo--and so it wasn't hard for me to close my eyes and imagine the life of an American expatriate. In 1977, I went from Oslo to Paris the long way--by train and ship, via Bodø, Narvik, Kiruna, and Stockholm. By the time I crawled off the train in Paris, it was a relief to be back in a familiar place. In Paris, I walked for hours and hours, just as McCullough's American visitors did, and in much the same places. I experienced some of the same intoxicating experiences of galleries, architecture, culture, delicious tastes, and, above all, books.

Our expanding high-rise development, seen from
across what remains of the Yalagin Field.
My September visit to Paris, which combined Russian visa formalities with seeing our son Luke, brought back those memories of half a lifetime ago and more. Too soon, the visit came to an end. I got on an Air France plane to Moscow, took the Aeroexpress train from the airport to Belorussky train station, took the Moscow circle line metro to Kursky train station on the east side. There I found my green elektrichka commuter train to ride most of the rest of the way home. The slow elektrichka gave me more time to read McCullough's book. Before long, I was at Fryazevo station, from where I could take a bus the rest of the way to our apartment in Elektrostal. I greeted the cats and threw my keys on the kitchen table, turned on the computer, and before long was working on the next day's lesson plans. (Judy was still in the USA.) That evening, I continued reading The Greater Journey.

Laugh if you want, but it wasn't until the following evening, as I was hauling a bag of groceries and a 10-kg box of kitty litter through our courtyard, cutting between the benches full of moms watching their kids on the playground equipment, that it hit me: Aren't I an expat, too? Hmm, I thought to myself as I glanced at the very utilitarian high-rises surrounding the courtyard, if I'm an expat, where's that romantic payoff?

Downtown Elektrostal's new cultural and entertainment center,
named Park Plaza. (Literally. Парк Плаза.) Yes, that's Lenin.
At our building's metal front door, I put down the box of kitty litter, and rubbed the indentations that its narrow plastic handle had made in my fingers. As I got out the magnetic key to the door, my thoughts continued: That's just it. The best thing about our life here is that there is no romantic payoff!! This is where we live. These are our neighbors, our cats, our home.

A couple of days ago, in a conversation with two Friends at the Ukrainian hotel where our gathering of Russian-speaking Friends was going on, I was describing some aspect of the friendly rivalry between the neighboring towns of Elektrostal and Noginsk. As I said, "Our town has ...", one of the others said, "Johan, it's really your town, isn't it?"

I know well enough that thirteen years of annual visits followed by four years of residence [eventually 10 years] does not qualify me as an insider. When we lived in Richmond, Indiana, we sometimes got the feeling that the only way to qualify as a genuine Richmond insider was to graduate from Richmond High. Elektrostal is even more problematic, in a way -- for many decades it was a closed city. Russians without special passes were not allowed to enter the city, never mind foreigners. Even now, older people who catch Judy and me speaking English in public will sometimes look startled.

And we're definitely still Americans. Part of our utility as teachers here, after all, is that we are carrying a foreign language and culture. (The Russian term for a "native speaker" is literally a "language carrier.") We have Russian art on our walls, but not only. We listen to Russian music in our home, but not only.... (This evening, washing dishes, I was listening to Muddy Waters singing "Rock Me"--the title of this blog post is from that song--and Otis Redding singing "I've Been Loving You Too Long." I couldn't exist very long without access to this music!) We could never claim our home to be typically Russian.

But from my point of view, normalcy is now Elektrostal. Dixie isn't a nickname for a region of the USA, it's the name of the grocery store across the street. We filter our water without thinking twice about it. If the bus has no conductor, we too participate in the chain of hands passing the fares to the driver. We know what old-timers still call our bus stop ("Dairy") even though the dairy goods store has long since disappeared and the stop has been renamed. We've entered the barter economy--I gave four free English lessons to a technician's teenage daughter in return for getting our refrigerator repaired. There's so much we don't know, but we've learned that almost all our apparent dilemmas will eventually be solved through someone's unexpected kindness.

My German grandparents and their only child spent the first half of the 20th century in Japan. The Norwegian side of my family has included its fair share of world-roaming sailors, and now half of it seems to have moved to the USA or Canada anyway. There are times I have a sort of ghost-nostalgia for what it would have been like to be truly rooted in one place. (Why is it that the tears start to flow when I catch a glimpse of Norway from an airplane en route from Atlanta to Moscow?) But then I remind myself that it's all on the same gorgeous planet.

The Very Worst Missionary has a similar epiphany, maybe, but instead of countries, it's denominations.

In Salem, Oregon, Brandon Filbert draws on Anthony Bloom to explain--and encourage--praying without ceasing.

A fascinating interview with Jean Vanier on his friendship with Henri Nouwen--many thanks to Sarah Baldwin for the reference.

Rebecca Solnit writes "... to a Dead Man about the Occupation of Hope."

"Qaddafi Dies; Should It Matter How?"

Just installed the latest version of Ubuntu (11.10) on the computer on which I'm working now. Installation was much smoother than the previous version. The "Unity" desktop (see my earlier comments here) functions way better now; the awkwardnesses have mostly been removed. For someone who simply likes things to look good and work well, this is a great version. However, for someone who likes to play with the desktop design and behavior, you're out of luck (unless you're a true programmer)--this version has almost no capacity for adjustment. About all you can do is add shortcuts to the desktop, change the wallpaper, and adjust the screen-lock time. There's no screensaver, no window animations or other special effects.

These two guys make me (dare I say it?) proud to be American. (Come back next week for the regularly-scheduled blues.)


Jeremy Mott said...

Hello Friends,
I admit it. I too am proud, or at least, glad, to be an American. (I can't be anythng else, I suppose, since almost all my ancestors on both sides were here even in colonial days.)
The U.S.A. has done many terrible things, especially in recent years; so why I am glad.?
The U.S. and its predecessor colonies were leaders in religious freedom, and in rights for women. My country was late in abolishing slavery, but it did so, albeit at the cost of a terrible civil war.
Until the past century, the U.S. welcomed immmigrants (When I was a boy, I memorized Emma Lazarus' great sonnet, The New Colossus.)
Above all, when it was evident that Reconstuction had not really ended slavery, a group of radicals, blacks and whites, mostly led by pacifists, formed a new Revolution----the civil rights movement, which ended second-class citizenship, once and for all).
The war in Vietnam was ended under strong citizen pressure, though at a terrible price.
The U.S.A. has borders thousands of miles long with Canada and Mexico; but has not had a war against Canada since 1814, or against Mexico since 1849. There is now the beginning of citizen pressure to end our enormous worldwide empire. Despite two world wars, and a long period of Cold War and "war on
terrorism," as a practical matter our freedoms of speech, press, and religion survive.
A small community of Friends in the U.S.A. had a lot to do with making many, even most, of these things happen, from 1655 (the Flushing Remonstrance) to 1957 (the Letter from Birmingham Jail).
We Friends really worked---and I hope we will continue to work---at making the world a better place.
There is no shortage of ways to do this. Action, not talk, is needed.

Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

Jeremy Mott said ....
And that's not all. Sometimes silence is much more needed than either talk or action. Quakers should know thia, I suppose.
I also must say that American music, especially folk music and blues, has been my delight since childhood. And look at what the blues has done: it has spread all over the world, along with with its progeny, jazz and rock-and-roll. And consider American poetry----the works of Whitman and Whittier (both Quaker poets in their different ways)----the Paterson poets, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, also the other beatnik poets like Ferlinghetti and Rexroth. Almost all this music and poetry is magnificent---and raw.
Perhaps, unlike Russians, we Americans are still uncivilized. But I think that we do fairly well when one considers that.
Peace, Jeremy Mott