Second-Class is for Suckers

2nd-class Coupe

I don’t want to return to a second class coupe in a Russian train. Those days are over, thank you. Even without a job, I started springing for a first-class berth. Sometimes I even bought the whole darn thing so that I could travel in peace. The air conditioning helped a bunch, too. Look, it’s like this: I’ve been through the ringer enough. I’ve carried my burdens, I’ve endured my trials, I’ve collected my stories, its’ time to relax now. I can see the same thing out the window as a cheaper ticket. I just get to sleep in coolness and comfort. I’ve earned that.

Gone are the days when I used to buy a second class ticket on an all-night train. I’d cram all my belongings into my assigned space, writhe and wiggle around three other travelers, notice the “he ain’t from around here” scrutiny, and then lie back on my berth sweaty and heart pounding. I had to assess my cabin mates. Will they snore? Will they break out the vodka? Will they talk or just ignore me. Will they smell? I’ve done it enough. I’m done. And once I do complete my assessment, once I do implement all anti-theft procedures, I brace myself for the attempt to actually sleep in this hotbox. This is the last time. I always say. But it never is. But now it is official, it is the very last time.

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Six Years Gone By

Nizhny Novgorod

. . . the capacity to wish and to do – to throw oneself headlong into a bottomless abyss without knowing why or wherefore.

                                                              – Leo Tolstoy

I’m home now.  It’s been six years.  I think I did just what the quote from Leo Tolstoy said above.  People ask me why I did it, but I don’t truly know.  I found something I wanted to do and I acted upon it.  I was too excited to notice the abyss.  Now that I look back on it, I’m thankful I was naïve.  After all, I got away with it in the end.

I moved to Russia on August 23, 2004.  Intel Corporation sent me there to set up a Marketing Center in a regional city called Nizhny Novgorod.  I lived there for nearly five years, quit my job, and then moved to Odessa, Ukraine for just over a year.  I want to tell you about those six years.

I’m really writing this for myself.  That’s the target audience.  I want to record this chapter in my life since it has just ended and I’ve had time to reflect.  If you can tolerate self-indulgence, keep reading.  If not, that’s okay, it’s not for sale anyway. Continue reading

Meeting Strangers

Gorky Sea

I’ve met many interesting strangers in Russia.  The vast majority of the experiences have been very positive.  In 2005, I met a delightful stranger that captures the essence of the “typical” Russian.  I went to the Gorky Sea, a large reservoir outside Nizhny Novgorod, that acted as the regional getaway since Soviet times.  On short notice, hotels are usually full, so locals rent out rooms in their apartments.  Boris negotiated one of these deals, and so we boarded in an infamous Soviet apartment building, our host, an elderly babushka.  Her apartment was big enough to host another couple in the room next to us.  There, a husband and wife, likely in their fifties, settled in for the weekend.  The meeting happened in typical fashion.  They noticed Boris and me speaking English and then fascination bolted out of the gate.  Once introduced as an American, the husband was simply stunned.  He’d never met an American before and was elated.  Again, in typical fashion, he insisted on drinking with me as a sign of welcome and friendship.  His gold teeth shimmered in the dreary room.  Within seconds, I heard the familiar “thump” of a bottle of vodka set on the table and the clinking of the shot glasses.  I feel I’m barely exaggerating that if I met a Russian in the middle of a desert, he’d have that bottle and glasses ready at any moment.  It was Boris’ translation that please me the most.  He said, “I’m not even able to translate how excited this guy is to meet you.”  How can you feel any more welcome than that?  Continue reading

The Garbage

Russian Garbage

While living in Russia, I fought innumerable culture wars, but there was always one that stuck out the most.  One of the first “Dave vs. Russia” battles was my constant frustration with garbage.  Coming from a pristine Portland and moving to Nizhny Novgorod was like the Prince of Bel Air moving in with Sanford and Son.  I don’t think there was anything that incensed me more than the garbage in Russia.  Ask any of my Russian friends.  They’ll roll their eyes, breathe a deep sigh, and say, “yes, that was Dave’s greatest torment.”

My first visit to Nizhny Novgorod was in 2003.  I stayed there for five days, having no idea at the time that I would end up living there for five years. If I only knew!  After touring the city for those days, I built up a simple, succinct testimonial: “Nizhny Novgorod is a shithole.”  Everywhere I went… garbage. Continue reading

Russian Hospitality

matryoshka
Matryoshka

 

Russian hospitality has always impressed me.  There are so many wonderful stories to tell.  I wasn’t sure how I’d be treated as an American once I reached our former Cold War enemy.  Would they look at me suspiciously or with resentment?  It was a cause for concern upon my first visit.

I traveled to Russia three times as a tourist before I moved there for professional purposes.  Each type of purpose provided similar but distinct attributes.  As a tourist, I was lost at sea most of the time.  I didn’t know where I was going frequently and the language barrier was stultifying.  However, whenever I reached even the grimmest of outposts, a Russian seemed to swoop in and rescue me.  Even when the moment wasn’t grim, I experienced tiny yet magnanimous gestures of kindness.  It surprised me honestly, but then again Russia is full of surprises.  It did not take long to dispel the concern of being American in Russia.  In fact, I often received generosity BECAUSE I was American.  I can honestly say that I was treated better as an American in Russia than I was in Germany and the U.K. Continue reading

Bolshaya Pokrovskaya

Bolshaya Pokrovskaya

Bolshaya Pokrovskaya is a pedestrian street about a half-mile long that cuts through the heart of the historical center of the city. In America-speak, it’s the “main drag.” Many a time, I would meet a friend at Gorky Square, walk the length of Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, wind through the Kremlin, and then take the last stretch of the walk down the Embankment walkway. It is a wonderful circuit. For two years, I lived just a half-block off the street, so taking a nice walk was very convenient. I always felt that I lived where all the action was. As a matter of fact, it’s been the source of action for a long time.

Bolshaya Pokrovskaya, which means “Great Intercession,” was named after the Church of the Virgin Mary located at the beginning of the street in Minin and Pozharsky Square. (the church has since been demolished) The street started to take its existing shape in the late 1700’s. Over the years, merchants, nobles, and government officials contributed to its growth and prosperity. Very early on, it became the premier location for the finest shops, homes, and cultural centers. Though it was renamed Sverdlov Street after an influential Communist official during Soviet times, the street largely escaped the “Sovietization” that scarred so many other parts of the city. Once the Soviet Union fell and Russia emerged, Bolshaya Pokrovskaya was back. It limped along feebly for a time until the 2000’s when it was revived. It still has room for improvement, but there is reason for optimism as the Russian economy gradually improves. With the coming of the World Cup in 2018, the money flow into the city can only help make it shine even more. Continue reading

First Time in St. Petersburg

Hermitage Museum

June 20, 2002

Hello everyone, Greetings from St. Petersburg. I have been here for about five days now and have experienced absolute sensory overload. I keep delaying sending an e-mail because there is so much to talk about and so little time to write, but then I keep seeing more and more amazing things. It only makes it harder to summarize what I’ve done. At this point, I’m just going to send this message off the way it is since tomorrow is my last day in this incredible city. St. Petersburg is an amazing place, and, in fact, I would recommend that all of you put it high on your list to visit above many other places in the world. Continue reading