Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning by Leaving

I have immensely enjoyed the opportunities I've had this week to sit down with classmates, old friends and professors who all want to hear about my travels in Eastern Europe. Their questions - whose answers are often "so obvious" to me - have been incredibly insightful and helpful in reminding me how much I actually learned while I was gone. Their reactions to my responses have ranged from utter surprise to indifference, from "I told you so," to "I'm so glad you're still alive!"

I am among only a handful of seniors who still have a meal plan at Belmont's cafeteria, so when I'm not hurriedly trying to finish reading for my next class while munching my veggies, I'm often joined by one of the four other seniors whom I might run into there. These past few days I've eaten a few times with Steven, an accounting major with whom I used to work as a Resident Assistant in one of our dorms.  There couldn't be two more different students at Belmont, but we always seem to get into serious life-planning discussions.  Steven has lived in middle Tennessee his entire life, and would be happy to stay here indefinitely. Tonight I heard the most adventurous statement he's ever made in my presence:  "I might consider moving across the country if I had to."  I first thought I had heard "to another country" and almost fell out of my chair and flung a carrot across the room, but he quickly confirmed that it was across "the country" -- the one and only country worth living in, in his book -- the United States of America.
There's a simple sweetness about Steven's contentedness here; his happy-go-lucky and laid-back personality make him unassuming and easy to be around.  His genuine interest in other people's life and experiences and willingness to listen give us license to be genuine and unworried about being too quickly judged.

My neighborhood church.

Looking at the Admiralty from across the Neva.

Tonight Steven asked, "What was life like in general over there?"
I told him about registering with the city government and the need to re-register with the municipal authorities of a another city, should you visit for more than three days. I talked about the ├╝ber-high cost of living in the big cities; $10 cups of coffee in St. Petersburg; a subway line that is so far underground, it takes five minutes on an escalator to get down there. I told him about the warm, genuine, intelligent people I met and their curiosity about the West.  I even told him about my good friend Yuriy, the photographer with whom I effectively covered most of downtown St. Pete on foot.
Steven stopped me halfway through my first sentences, exclaiming, "...And you want to move back there!?"

I had to think about it for a minute.  "Well, yeah, for a time," I said. "There are a lot of things about life in Russia that I miss."
"You know," I told him, "there are things about every place that I've lived that I miss.  It's like being a little bit homesick for six countries at once.  But I like it that way.  I don't take any day for granted, and I know that I make the most of every day because wherever I am, I live in constant awareness that I won't be in this place for very long."
We were both silent for a minute; the din of students eating and laughing in the background faded out as we both lost ourselves in contemplation.
Finally Steven said, "Wow, that's an interesting way to look at it.  It's like not taking anything for granted because you know you could die any day -- except you're not dying, just leaving.  For all of us that just live here, we get into a routine and sometimes it becomes about just getting through the day."
I completely understand what Steven is saying, and I see the truth in his observation. But to me, what he is describing is a tragic existence.

A canal near the Hermitage.


















"I just couldn't live like that..." Steven went on, "...I couldn't live in a place where there are so many rules and regulations - especially with the government and everything." Another friend I saw this week prefers the safety of America to the many, many (both perceived and real) threats and inconveniences of daily life that expatriates and inhabitants of other countries face. I can't say that I blame her, but I approach life from a completely different angle.  It's a challenge and a game for me -- to see how fast I can adapt to life in another place; how quickly I can fit in seamlessly and be taken for a local; how uncomfortably I can live and still be happy; how many oddities and quirks I can find and embrace in a new culture; how low-maintenance I can become.

Downtown St. Pete.  A big pole falls and no one shows up to put it
back in place.  No orange cones. Nothing.
I actually got stared at while taking this photo,
as if this is an everyday occurrence.

Sometimes it takes a conversation like the ones I had with these friends to realize the logic that underlies our daily actions and attitudes. Sure, I'm aware that every morning I open my eyes, remember where I am, and pick out all the things I want to do that day that I know I can't do anywhere else. I just hadn't taken into consideration the fact that everybody else isn't doing exactly the same thing.
Speaking of taking photos for people...I snapped this shot for my brother
Jared.  It's "his" car - same make, model & color as the one my aunt
gave him as his first car!  And I saw it in Russia!!
For me, leaving and exploring new places and meeting new people is as much about cherishing my old home and friends and past experiences as it is about exuberantly embracing the new.  I remember walking to work every morning in St. Petersburg - 45 minutes in many degrees below zero - and smiling as I thought about all of you. Some of the pictures I took were for me, because I came upon a nice view or some unusual scene that made me laugh; but honestly, most of them were for you. 90% of the time I pulled out my camera because something triggered a memory of one of you and I thought, Oh my, so-and-so would LOVE to see this! 
Now I walk to school every morning - 10 short minutes under the warm Tennessee sun - and think about the community I left in Russia....my wonderful co-workers at the Consulate, my passionate film- and music-loving young friends, the man with no legs who wore black fingerless gloves and scooted around between traffic on a little square board with four wheels, asking for spare change.
Just as traveling introduces you to parts of yourself that you might not have ever otherwise encountered, it also prompts the discovery of your home in a new light and from a new perspective, namely, the perspective of an outsider.

The giant poster reads: "Russia. Land of Opportunity."
Wait...wasn't that America's trademark??

1 comments:

  1. Your philosophy about travel is really amazing. The pictures are AWESOME! Thanks for that short journey! xo

    ReplyDelete

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