Well into my eighth month here in Russia, I'm finding myself thinking more and more in terms of my ever-nearing departure: routine tasks like sorting laundry double as mental preparation for how to pack, my thoughts have begun to veer from the various oddities of domestic life here in Vlad to my inevitable apartment hunt in Berkeley, and I'm still reeling from the realization that I can easily manage a countdown of weeks without the help of any toes!
Strangely enough, Vladivostok meanwhile looks more and more like it did when I first arrived in September. The endlessly frozen Pacific that had been so fixed in the landscape of the city melted seemingly overnight. One day, the stretches of rough ocean ice were dotted with lone fishermen crouching on overturned buckets, nursing beers in one hand and fishing poles in the other. The next, deep blue water rolled on as if the last four months had never happened. The ice cream stands along the boardwalk have re-opened, and the waterfront is teeming anew with high-heeled and mini-skirted teens, giddy kids parading giant, pink balls of cotton candy (I was one of them this weekend), gangs of young sailors, and the occasional wayward policemen enjoying piva rather than patrols. But this time around, I can recognize some of them as my students or friends or co-workers or that grumpy lady from the post office. And in that way, I couldn't feel further removed from those first bewildering days in town.
That, of course, isn't to say that things have begun to make more sense to me as time has passed-- as far as I can tell, one doesn't really understand life here as much as one learns to embrace (or abhor) its raging incongruities. Some anonymous citizens thoughtfully adorn the local bust of Pushkin with fresh carnations year-round, while others (or maybe the very same?) litter the hillside and street below with an absolutely astonishing amount of refuse. People walk casually past a foreign student getting mugged on a busy street in broad daylight without so much as a second glance, but it's a rare day that goes by without some well-intentioned stranger randomly proffering unsolicited advice about everything from that day's wardrobe choice to how to take a proper photograph. On the small strip of beach in the city center, little kids happily chuck empty soda bottles into the water and plant themselves in the sand to dig earnestly not shells but the remains of discarded grocery bags. Mom and dad look on lovingly as their children play.
Utterly incomprehensible to me maybe but not without hope for change? Next month will see yet another set of elections here in Vladivostok-- this time for a new mayor. As far as I know, the last four have been prematurely ousted and/or jailed for a number of crimes-- embezzlement, bribery, the fun never stops! The front runner is (surprisingly? ha.) United Russia's candidate, Pushkaryov, whose catchy slogan "Кто он человек кремля?" ("Who's the Kremlin's man?") says it all. But while the presidential elections saw little more fervor here than that aroused by cheerful teens passing out adorable teddy bear keychains in honor of "Our Medv'ed (bear)," the mayoral campaigns are at least gesturing at some of the issues here in the city. Billboards proclaiming the need for clean beaches, socialized pharmacies, good roads, and functional public transportation are taking center stage-- only its not clear whose campaign (if any) is funding them! In the meantime, election posters are sharing space on buses with proclamations for a city-wide субботник (voluntary unpaid work days initially employed to help rebuild the country after the war) this weekend to clean and beautify the city. My university instituted one yesterday, and as a result campus curbs and trees(...?) now boast a fresh coat of white paint. (The two-year old swastika vandalizing a central building column, however, remains--disturbingly-- undisturbed.)
Last week, I taught a lesson at the American Corner using David Sedaris' 10 Questions from Time. When asked if he, living in Paris/London, missed the U.S., he commented that American culture is so ubiquitous nowadays that there really isn't any occasion to miss it. My students (once we discussed what "ubiquitous" meant) all nodded in earnest agreement-- "Everywhere, everywhere!" And sure enough, lots of folks here are listening to the same top 40 hits, watching the same blockbuster releases, and obsessing over the same celebrities and T.V. programs as people in the States, but I think I've personally found my encounters with "Americanness" here as (or more) surprising and novel than anything else.
A week ago, for example, a bunch of us got together to watch some TV and have dinner... Bizarre, right? Well, okay, how about if that "bunch" included the American Consulate General, his wife, two professional American basketball players, and a handful of other random Anglophones watching the NCAA finals on the CG's couch over some homemade cornbread and chili with all the fixings... all while right in the heart of the Russian Far East, where I can assure you chili and cornbread are far from staple fare! But as we all scratched our heads at the strange informercials that take the place of traditional commercials on the American Forces Network (one emphasizing the importance of never breaking if captured as a POW...), it really struck me how ubiquitous the American presence-- beyond Britney and Brangelina-- really is all around the globe (for better or worse).