The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

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Part 14: Homeward Bound

August 7, 1993

Well, folks, we've come to the final edition of the Taiga Home Companion. In less than 12 hours I will be answering the tedious questions of an impudent Heathrow passport control officer, trying to convince him that I have no secret desire to stay in Britain and become a public charge, but in fact want to get off of his soggy island as soon as possible to spend four idyllic days in Paris, before returning to the UK just in time to catch a flight back to the States.

As my time here runs out, I've been frantically trying to spend each moment wisely, to do the things I'd always put off, especially now that it has stopped raining. On Tuesday I went back to St. Petersburg, where I spent another wonderful day. And on Wednesday I actually went inside the Kremlin buildings for the first time and saw the Faberge eggs. Ooh. (In the afternoon I saw the Moscow version of the Matisse show that had been in New York. I hear it was smaller, because American museums wisely refrained from sending all but one picture here, but it was still magnificent.)

The Russians call it a "chimodanoye nastroyennie," a suitcase mood. That period before a departure when one's attention is so focused on the next place that it is hard to even manage oneself in one's present location. It is difficult for me to sit here and write about Moscow, when all my thoughts are elsewhere. But I will try.

I trust that the regular readers of this bulletin will not have cause to ask me, "so, how was it?" But what of people who have not heard from or seen me in half a year? How can I sum up the past six months?

I don't even know where I have been. God knows I have not immersed myself in Russia. American colleagues, American friends, English-language newspapers, the BBC, hard-currency groceries, McDonald's, Asian cooking, and, very importantly, e-mail have all separated me from Russian daily life. I have only gone native to a literally superficial level: windbreaker, haircut, and mud. And pretty much every time I say Russia I really mean Moscow, since I have travelled so little in this vast country.

On the other hand, I have at most brushed shoulders with the true denizens of the enclave. The US embassy staff who, after five months, take their first ride on the metro and return to the compound to tell their friends what it was like. The businessman who gets driven from Western-managed hotel to Western company's office and back. The student who comes here to study language, and ends up not knowing basic Metro terminology and goes around without any rubles in his wallet because he pays for everything in dollars. I've met some of these people, and their lives are as foreign and mysterious to me as those of the average Muscovite.

If those more detached expats are living in a half-world between the West and Russia, I have perhaps been living in a three-quarters world. Sufficiently out of touch with Russia to be a bit embarrassed to tell strangers about myself, without having the salary to afford to cocoon of the Radisson. I am returning home with neither the insight of the anthropologist nor the profit of the investor.

So what the hell have I been doing in the past half-year? Is there a name for it? Is it a valid experience? Something I should be proud of, or ashamed of?

It would help if I remembered why I came here. I think I have the reasons written down somewhere, but I think that somewhere is in Washington. But I can say that I consider this trip, this interlude, to have been a success, for right now I feel that I am in better shape to take on the world than I was six months ago. I feel less intimidated by foreign languages, more understanings of the strengths and pitfalls of international news coverage, and a bit wiser aboput how people actually get jobs in this world (contacts).

In general, I feel far more optimistic about the next few months or years than I did in February. Much of that feeling comes from the fact that I am greatly looking forward to the job I have lined up for the fall, but I don't want to talk about that until I have put down absolutely everything I want to say about Moscow. Already, you see, the temptation is to move on, to bury the corpse without an autopsy.

But maybe you can't perform an autopsy while the body is still warm. In our final meeting today, Lyudmilla told me that only after I had been in the States for a couple of weeks would I know how I truly felt about Russia, and she slyly predicts that I will want to come right back. Hey, I know people that has happened to.

But in my weird three-quarters world, I don't know how I feel. Never much of a sentimentalist, I doubt that I'll go screaming around my backyard at home, pining for the birch trees. (Sorry for the pun.)

On the other hand, the bitterness about this place that I know characterized some of my earlier letters has softened a bit. Some people are very polite, even friendly; when, on rare occasions, the sun does shine, parts of the city can look quite attractive; and a Yeltsin decree has allowed people to continue using old bills up to 10 rubles, making everyday commerce possible again. Of course, one of the rules about Russia is that when things improve they don't stay improved, but since I'm about to leave I'll give the country the benefit of the doubt.

The city has, as I hoped, provided some fresh unpleasantries to ease my departure. Paratroopers' Day, another military holiday where a bunch of veterans wander around the city getting drunk and starting fights. The trash chute is clogged again, at least up to the fourth floor; I haven't looked any further. And someone's dog took a dump several days ago on the staircase landing, and it's still there. Did I mention the Russian preference for big dogs?

OK, enough. Now I surrender myself to thoughts of the future. I now officially am making public my schedule for the rest of the year. August 13 - October 2: Six weeks of more-or-less vacation in Washington. October 3 - December 11: Travel in Bulgaria and Poland, with stops in Istanbul and Prague, as a researcher for the 5th edition of Frommer's Eastern Europe on $30 a Day. December 12 - 31: Polish up the manuscript before sending it to Frommer's.

Yeah, I'm back in the saddle as a guide book writer. It's a job I wouldn't have wanted a year ago, when I was a bit more fiercely loyal to Let's Go and hadn't taken down my standards a notch or two during several bitter months of job hunting. And it's a job I would not have been qualified for six months ago, before I acquired the basic conversational Russian and the Eastern European savvy that are among my chief credentials for the job. But now I have the job and am thrilled with it; I don't think there is another job in the world that I would rather do. I've been cooped up here for too long; I want to get back to a part of the world where you can get on a train or bus and be somewhere else in a few hours, not a few days. And as for the countries I have been assigned, they are smack in the middle of a part of Europe I don't know at all, and they are also places where my hard-earned Russian will be very useful.

Perhaps to an outsider it seems that I am travelling a lot, but I am surrounded by people as young as I, who have been here longer and many more places besides. They're based in Moscow, but they come back with tales of Siberia, Kazakhstan, Finland, Vladivostok, and Japan, Ian has not only been most everywhere in Poland, he speaks a fair amount of Polish. And Ellen, a new addition to the Guardian staff, lived in Bulgaria for two or three years. So compared to them, I'm just beginning to catch up.

I guess you could say I have fallen in with a fast crowd, whose passports are as marked up as a junkie's forearm and who are always in search of a stronger thrill, a more exotic locale. But if the habit of travel is more expensive than more traditional narcotics, at least the prostitution that pays for it--in my case sniffing around a few Black Sea beach resorts for the benefit of the Frommer's readership--is far less painful.

But first things first. Having become again a professional traveller, I look forward with unqualified eagerness to my busman's holiday: six weeks at home.

Signing off from Moscow,

Oh, I need somebody to love me.
I need somebody to carry me
Home, to San Francisco
And bury my body there.

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