17 June 2008

This One Goes Out to Amara

I just got back from Pskov and Moscow. I was visiting a Fulbright friend and helping her move from the one city to the other, and that meant I was there for her last few days in Pskov. That was emotionally charged, since leaving involved taking stock of what it's been like, what the place and the people have meant to her and what she in turn has meant to them.

I love Russia and I have no regrets about spending two years here. I really can't imagine myself without this experience, even though I don't think I understand yet in precisely what ways I've changed. That said, there are some things that have been awfully hard about being here, things we've totally failed at. And getting ready to leave – counting our successes and failures, what we're taking with us and leaving behind – underlines them. Amara and I talked about that a lot this weekend.

Our host cities and all the people in them hold a lot of meaning for us, but what are we to them? Guests who came for a while and then left, really. It's sad to think about that in the future sense – imagining ourselves remembering, in the sharp relief of the meaningful, all the Russians we met and worked with and taught and made friends with, and then imagining those people's memories of us, soft and hazy, fond but unimportant. It's selfish, I know. But it's always painful to care more than other people do, and in that sense, we've taken a lot more from Russia than we could give.

But this feeling has relevance in the present, too. I spent a good part of this year trying to just be a normal person, someone who lives in Taganrog the same way other people do. It was only this weekend that I fully realized that that's what I've been trying to do. I also realized that I failed, and that the endeavor was hopeless from the start. If you come to a place for one year, your identity is cast as soon as you get there: you're a guest, a temporary fixture no matter how well you speak the language or know the area. This is all the more true in Russia, which is still relatively inaccessible to foreigners. An American in Paris is not exotic; in Russia, heads turn when you speak English on the street, and that makes you that much more of an outsider.

This exoticness colors every single one of your relationships, and I think that's the hardest thing of all. With the consciousness of you as an American right at the surface, it's hard to build friendships that are based on finer aspects of your identity. American society being obsessed with defining and glorifying individual identity (facebook, blogging, blah blah blah), it's pretty hard for an American used to a whole slew of labels – I-like-folk-rock-and-Dostoevsky-and-knitting-and-college-football-and-I-say-pop-not-soda-and-I-play-this-and-I-study-that – to be stripped down to that one single sticker on the forehead: MADE IN USA. It doesn't feel like much of an identity at all.

That said (and rehashed over and over, along with many other things), we still had some fun this weekend. Pskov is a beautiful city, very Old Russia. And even in bittersweet times, it's a pleasure to enjoy the fruits of a friendship based on something more than shared labels of any type. Thanks, Amara! We ended up on the same flight to Russia, and look what happened. We've been on at least four vacations together, taken dozens of stupid pictures of each other (and of the food we've ordered in various cafes, though that's mostly you), gotten tipsy or more on cheap wine, Baltika Number Nine and absinthe (though that's mostly me), and probably exchanged thousands of text messages in the past ten months alone. In case you didn't know it, I'm really going to miss you next year.

Us in a pedalboat on the Velikaya River. You can sort of see the Pskov kremlin, which ranks up there with the Lake Baikal region (despite being much smaller) as one of my favorite places on earth.

Trinity Cathedral, the church inside the Pskov kremlin, under a threatening sky. It didn't rain on us, though.

Another postcard-y view.

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