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The hardest part about traveling is “moving on.” In some ways, having to leave for the next city every 4 or 5 days was both a blessing and a curse for me. When leaving cities that had left a deeper impression on me, and friends who had become more than just acquaintances, my bags seemed especially heavy as I lifted them back up onto the train. At the same time, moving on provided me with a new start in a new city, and a good block of time (sometimes 12 hrs, sometimes 40!) to gather my thoughts, reflect on the 4-day marathon I had just experienced, and prepare myself mentally for the next city.
In the U.S., we are not accustomed to train travel, and so we don’t often experience the tearful train platform parting, waving farewell with handkerchiefs out the windows like the olden days. I suppose that since we are a new country, and particularly an entrepreneurial country which gave rise to the likes of Henry Ford and Howard Hughes, the train had only a short lifetime in the US as a the primary means of transportation before being eclipsed by the automobile and plane. As I reflected on the train in American history, a series of images came to my head, wafting from my middle school textbooks and favorite movies: a lithograph of Civil War recruits packed in a train, waving out the windows to New York as they left for the war, (or were they WWI doughboys?), a picture of men in suits reading newspapers in a black and white 1920’s Pullman sleeping car, professional baseball players from “The Natural” playing cards in a cigar smoke-filled restaurant car on route to their next game.
Instead of train platforms, American movies usually stage their tearful farewells and reunitings at the airport terminal, or on the road, with a rolling image of the car driving out into the sunset to “see about a girl.”
Yet, there is nothing quite like a farewell on a train platform. At an airport, one must bid farewell frustratingly prematurely in the departure process, at the beginning of the line for the security check. This is then followed by the awkward 15 minute period of periodically looking back and using primitive sign language to communicate as you snake through the line to the metal detectors. The “final goodbye” is usually anticlimactically big wave thrown over your head as you struggle to stuff your feet back into your shoes, hold your pants up as you thread your belt through, and avoid the other passengers who are doing the same thing. Then you get to sit for another hour in the terminal, knowing that your loved one, your family, your friends, are standing literally on the other side of the wall, and maybe like you, are reading a newspaper, or grabbing a coffee at the Starbucks before they leave.
Although the train represented a leap forward in the march of industrialization, and the mechanization of the natural (e.g. “the Iron Horse”), its advent came at a much simpler time, a slower time. As a result the train platform farewell is much more of a natural, human process. It does not separate you unnaturally from your loved ones with security zones and walls. Nor does it pull out of the driveway in a cloud of dust. Instead, it allows you to stand with your company, hug them, speak about the weather, speak about anything, about the next time you will return. In Russia, no doubt someone will hand you yet another “packet” (plastic bag) of food and goodies for the road, or, like they did in Irkutsk, a last-minute gift, a token for you to remember their city by. This time on the platform ends at the gentle (or not so gentle) order of the conductor, “Time to board!” Finally relinquishing your place on the platform, you walk up the metal-grated stairs, and give a final wave from the top of the stairs. But soon you find a place at an open window, where you continue your conversation, albeit more publicly. For Russians, this final stage tends not to be an emotional farewell, but a humorous one, with witty phrases flying back and forth between the group on the platform, and the person departing. As an American, sometimes I did not know what to say, having already said goodbye enough times to more than fill the quota required for an extended Russian farewell. A part of me felt awkward standing there, looking at my friends on the platform, and they standing and looking at me, even for the mere 10 minutes as the train prepares to embark.
But I think that this is what we all want, what we all need for closure. After all, why do we call our friends on the plane and feel an urge to speak with them until the very moment they are told to turn off all electronics? I suppose we wish we could somehow just see them, and be with them all the way until takeoff, until the moment we really must part ways. How odd is it then to stand and look out at the people who came to say goodbye, even if we have nothing more to say? Must there always be something to say? What is more natural than to be able to see, to reach out to touch the hands of those who have come to say farewell, even if it is done in silence?
The final hug, the final wave, the final call, the progression leading to the final hiss and clunk, and the slight jolt as the brakes are released, and the train begins to roll forward. At first you do not even notice that you are moving, until you realize that your friends are walking ever so slightly to keep up with your window. The final call of farewell, as loud as you dare to shout without disturbing your new neighbors, some of whom who are also standing at the windows. For some, no one has come to say goodbye, and simply stand and look out at the station passing by the windows. Others stand in white t-shirts, fidgeting with a pack of cigarettes they hope to smoke as soon as the train exits the city proper. Walking back to my compartment, scenes from the other compartments flash out from behind partially-closed doors: a family making itself at home with a full spread of bread, juice, and kielbasa on its small table, solitary travelers lying down on their bed with a magazine, their back propped up against the wall, the sounds of crying babies and toddlers, older babushkas lying on their sides like sleeping whales. I finally reach my own compartment, step in, nod to my neighbors, and pull out my journal to write.
On my last night in Irkutsk, o. Alexander was kind enough to take me out for dinner with some of the other youth to a Chinese restaurant. In Russia, Chinese food isn’t as common as it is in the US, and not as popular as other ethnic foods, such as Japanese or Middle Eastern shawerma. While there are certainly plenty of Chinese restaurants, especially in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, they tend to be high-end, and not the kind of 350 sq. foot hole in the wall that pounds out delivery after delivery of General Gao’s chicken and pork fried rice for cramming college students.
In Siberia, however, the Chinese restaurants are more common, for obvious reasons. And unlike our Americanized Chinese menus, this Chinese food is much closer to what you might find in China itself. When I saw the menu, and later, the food itself, I immediately thought that this is clearly not Chinese food! I assumed that the restaurant was owned by some Russians who were trying their best at recreating what Russians tend to associate with Chinese cuisine. (Later, I would visit Beijing, Harbin, and Tianjin, China, and discover that, in fact, Chinese food in China was much different than what we get in the USA. I then would realize that the restaurant in Irkutsk was not a sloppy attempt at Chinafication, but in fact the real deal.) While I would be forced to give up my initial assumption about the Russification, or should I say, the Siberiafication, of the Chinese food, I would not have to do the same concerning the “ambience” of the restaurant.
During the Soviet Union, going out to a restaurant was a much bigger deal than in the US. Restaurants tended to have live music, dancing, and drinks, and were a bit like what restaurant/lounges were in the US in the 20s and 30s, a place to spend an evening eating, dancing, and having fun. The whole experience was itself an interactive performance. At the other end of the eating spectrum, it is easy to find “fast food” on the street (shawermas, pirozhki, tea) which you can buy at little stands either right on the street, or inside quick-assembled 20 by 20 box walk-thru’s.
The difference between the US and Russia in this regard, is what is in between those ends of the spectrum. In America, the food-stands on the street began to develop into something more like a sit-down restaurant: street-stands expanded into diners, McDonalds, Friendlys, etc. And with the latest iteration of chains (Applebee’s, Chili’s, and TGIF) it is relatively easy and affordable for American families to have a family dining experience outside the home. In addition to those American eateries, because of America’s ethnic diversity, there still are plenty of Chinese, Italian, Greek, and Japanese places to choose from.
In Russia, the development of this middle-class dining experience happened much later. To some degree this is actually a good thing, because the institution of cooking and eating at home have remained much stronger, not watered down as they are in the US by pizza delivery and drive-thrus. However, in addition to the numerous Japanese places in Russia today, there is a growing number of “buffet-chains” which offer traditional Russian food at decent prices. But after you walk through the buffet line, it is up to you to find a place to sit amidst the crowds of teenagers who seem to perpetually be there.
This Chinese restaurant was a clear descendant of the Soviet-style restaurant tradition. Instead of hearing the faint strings of a Chinese national instrument, we heard the pounding euro-techno/pop from the dance floor in the next room over. From my position at our table, I could see the flashing lights illuminating the uniquely Russian dancing moves of the middle-aged women who felt compelled to dance after their Chinese dinner. I can’t understand how anyone wouldn’t want to take a nap, let alone dance, after eating a full Chinese dinner. Maybe they don’t use MSG in Russia.
During our meal, my ear caught the word “Amerika” from one of the songs from the next room. Listening more closely, all I could make out was something about “Strategic Aviation” and the US. Fr. Alexander noticed me listening with a confused look on my face, and leaned over and said, “This is the song about the USSR Strategic Aviation Command! It was a hit back in the 80’s!” At that, I could only sit back and smile, and be thankful for the unique dining experience that is the Russian Restaurant.
After ringing the bells, Vanya had to hurry off to a choir rehearsal for his church. While he considered himself primarily a bell-ringer, it was not the sole way that he served the church. In the meantime, Miron offered to drive me to visit a few churches that were a little bit outside the city.
The first church we visited was one of those church “centers” that was far from being simply a church on the corner. Next to the quaint, wooden church, was another 2-story wooden building that housed the full-time elementary school, and the lending library that was available seven days a week for the parish. On the grounds in front of the church were small gardens not simply filled with flowers, but seemed to be a community vegetable and herb garden. Behind the church was a small pond, and two small chapels that stood atop the springs which had supplied the pond with its waters for many years.
This parish had been one of the first parishes that Miron had started attending, and one that had become a home for him as he began to be more interested in Orthodoxy. Even after years away from the parish, as he attended the seminary in Tobolsk, and while other responsibilities even now kept him at other parishes in the city, Miron clearly enjoyed coming back to the place which had embraced him when he had been searching.
We then drove to another church nearby, which, like St. Sergius’s parish, was set amidst a set of 5-story apartment buildings. Had I not known that were going to visit another church, I might have mistaken the building for something else. A large silver cupola stood at the end of a long, warehouse-like building, as if it had been a granary or storage silo at some point. The building itself was in poor condition, and the grounds around the building reminded me of a neglected vacant lot.
Miron told me that up until the 1920’s this entire property, including the land on which the apartment buildings stood, had belonged to a small monastery, which possessed a humble church and living quarters for the monks. In the 1920’s, the monastery had been seized by the authorities, blown up, and the bricks had been used to build the buildings that now stood in its place. The House of God replaced by houses for the super-men.
In recent years, they had renovated one of the warehouses on the property, and established a parish on the grounds of the former monastery. This was not necessarily the “feel-good” restoration event that one might imagine. Miron reminded me of the difficulties of navigating the city government bureaucracy, of overcoming the NIMBY opposition from neighbors fearful that the entire property would be returned to the church, and even the extreme cases of violence. Apparently, a few years prior, a beloved pastor in the Irkutsk oblast had been randomly targeted and murdered by a Hari Krishna cultist. The brutal murder had taken place during a service.
Yet, even through all this adversity and difficulty, the exploitations of human weakness by the Evil One, the church steadily grows. A small parish on the outskirts of the city continued to flourish and lead young people like Miron back to God. A former rocker had discovered the beauty of church bells, and started a school for young bell-ringers to rediscover this ancient tradition. The church before me had literally risen from the ashes of its former monastery. And all the while behind the parish by the pond, the springs continue to flow.
As we exited the bell-tower where the bell-ringing school was located, I took a deep breath and it all in, the cool autumn air, the golden leaves, and the patient pines which ringed the park where the church was located. Simple scenes of life greeted me, people strolling through the park, others sitting on benches, an autumn wedding party walking with bottles of champagne to the next photo location.
In a foreign country, or perhaps it is something unique to Russia, simple events, phrases, scenes seem to take on a deeper poignancy. Perhaps because the routine and familiarity of life at home is replaced by a newness of sound and smell, you are “de-familiarized” from even the most simple aspects of daily life, allowing you to approach everything from cell-phones to bathrooms anew, as if you had been born the day before.
Of course, “defamiliarization” is not an idea foreign to the Russians…because it was invented by them. In a 1917 essay entitled “Art as Device,” the Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the word “ostranenie” to describe how poetic language differs from prose, both in form and in purpose. He wrote that prose language is simple, direct, and is for the purpose of conveying knowledge quickly, whereas poetic language intentionally is not simple, is not direct, and purposely hopes to cause the audience a delayed perception and understanding of its words.
“The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object; the object is not important.”
The idea of defamiliarization explains the logic of 6th graders reading Shakespeare, of ee cummings’ unique phrasing, and even illogical contemporary art. Each of these things, whether it be a random assortment of words, or archaic phrasing, or a black square on a wall, make us stop, reconsider our surroundings, see simple things anew, as if for the first time.
Sometimes even words themselves, upon closer inspection, seem “enstranged” or foreign. Perhaps amidst the pages of an older book, or in a font that slightly changes the proportions of its printed letters, words can amaze with their sudden strangeness.
Soil. S oi l
Feat. Fea t
Heighten. H e i g hten
And then one thinks, how did these words become so common-place, so natural, when if one examines them closely, they seem so strange, so random an assortment of letters.
For me, Russia is a defamiliarization of life. When you arrive at the airport, and even already at the layover, the language begins to shift, not simply in form, but also in intonation, sound, intensity, emotion. The faces, the public culture of silence and introspection on public transportation, the arrangement and architecture of the buildings, the smell of the cars, the sounds of the street, the sharp divergence in dress, the unique and open conception of time, the different rituals of tea, chocolate and never-ending evenings and conversations. All of these things are not fundamentally new, the faces are human, the cars are cars, the buildings stand in similar proportion and structure, the tea is tea. But the sum of all the slight differences and novelties surrounding things that seem to be familiar, defamiliarize us from the world, and redirect our eye in a new light.
Perhaps Russia only has that effect on me, because of my personal connection to Russia, and its language and culture. Perhaps some French-American Jacques Smith might have an analogous experience if he returned to his ancestral Paris for the first time.
But perhaps Russia is unique in this respect. Externally, Russia seems familiar to the visiting European or American, it is not some sort of exotic Oriental India or China. But this external familiarity is fleeting, for beneath, Russia is a land of contradictions, beautifully irrational and unpredictable. As Winston Churchill said in the oft-quoted phrase, “It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” The final part of that quotation, which is often left out, remarks, “but perhaps there is a key.” That final phrase perfectly captures our false sense of comfort, our apparent familiarity with European Russia, our optimism that “perhaps there is a key,” that perhaps Russia is not so different after all. But thankfully for us, it is.
And so, as I stood at the doors of the church, and looked out upon the common scene of a day in the park, it seemed completely new to me, unfamiliar, and strikingly alive. My eyes immediately leapt to the young woman leaning over her stroller, tending to her baby; to the teenage couple glumly sitting next to each other on the public bench, the girl reaching over to play with her boyfriend’s hair, perhaps trying to smooth over or ignore the cause for their adolescent dis-connect; to the newly-wed couple and their wedding party gleefully breaking the silence of the garden, and the indulgent groom waiting for new wife to exhaust her desire to pose for the cameras on her big day. How quickly we outgrow strollers and run to our adolescent calling to be a rebel without a cause. And how quickly we are brought back to the stroller, without even realizing that he have returned to where we had begun.
I guess we do not recognize it because it is no longer familiar to our eyes.
While I certainly felt like a million bucks tolling the bass bells out over the city of Irkutsk, and even trying my hand at ringing the trills, I realized that I was only a temporary guest in the small and tight-knit community of bell-ringers in Russia. After ringing the bells with the boys at St. Harlampi’s church, I met up with Miron, whom I had met at the Youth Discussion at St. Sergius’s church the night before. Miron had finished the Tobolsk Seminary, and though he had not yet become a priest, he was very active in Orthodox Youth activities, and a great person.
Without knowing of my morning adventure with the bells, we drove to the beautiful church of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God, to visit with his bell-ringer friend, Vanya. The church was fully constructed, but was still being frescoed on the inside, and was waiting to install the bells into the bell-tower. Its exterior colors of brick red and sky blue quickly caught my eye from the road, as did its Byzantine-influenced architecture, with its numerous short and round cupolas cascading down as if from on high. On the inside, the frescoes are perhaps more beautiful because they are incomplete, as they allow a cross-sectional view of the writing of the icons. Saints, parables from the bible, and glorious angels adorn every inch of the walls, either in crisp color, or in the preparatory black and white pencil and shading, perhaps just as striking as the full-color icons.
Once again, we walked up narrow steps to a bell-tower under construction, where they were busy preparing for the installation of the new bells, including a very large 4.5 ton bell, to be one of the largest in all of Irkutsk. Following Miron under and over wooden timbers, hand-made wooden ladders, and cables, we finally came to Vanya, the man directing the bell-arrangement of the construction process.
Vanya was a tall man, not much older than me, in fact, he was most likely only 22 or 23. His face was distinctly Siberian, or at least something that differed from what you might usually see in European Russia. He was one of the top bell-ringers in the city of Irkutsk, and a teacher in the school of bell-ringing which they had recently established for beginners. Like the other bell-ringers I would meet along my travels, in Tyumen, Moscow, etc., it seemed as if they all knew each other, as if they had been to all the same festivals, and were busy exchanging rhythms and riffs on the internet. This highly elite group of creative individuals was the caretakers of an ancient tradition as well as the innovators of its newest forms, with the bells of an entire country at their fingertips.
When I arrived in Irkutsk, I only had been in contact with one person, Fr. Alexander, with whom I had only exchanged a few emails. After only a few days, I had seen the reconstruction of a new church first-hand, swam in Baikal, visited the place where Admiral Kolchak had been executed, and looked across the city from some of its highest perches. And here I was, driving with Vanya and Miron, two guys who seemed as if they were my old friends, to the beautiful little wooden church of Blessed Xenia, the Saint in whose honor my home church is dedicated. With time, and after many experiences like this, I would realize that no matter how much I tried to plan, and arrange, and call ahead, my journey would have a wonderful life of its own, beyond my control. After visiting the small chapel to St. John of Kronstadt in the basement, and venerating the icons in the main part of this beautiful wooden church, we soon found ourselves in a familiar location: the bells.
Watching Vanya ring was more than just watching someone ring the bells. I could see the years of practice which governed the small, but controlled movements of his hands and arms. I heard the strains of a previous life, the overtones and driving rhythms of his old punk rock band coming through. And I felt his pure joy and love for bells, with his reverence and interest in even the smallest, humblest, and simply-strung sets of a small church St. Xenia’s. Perhaps this joy had arisen at a crossroads in his life. Perhaps that sound of the bells had interrupted at a crucial moment in his life. After all he, like the others around the country, were not from the mainstream, were not necessarily raised in the church, or from the large family of an Orthodox priest. But he, like others, had come to their time to choose in life, and had chosen Bells. And they had brought him to the Church and to God.