Crossed

Russell Valentino

Our editor-in-chief, Russell Valentino, has just returned from a trip across Eurasia via ferry, plane, and Trans-Siberian Railway. Here a brief final reflection on crossing.

Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg. Sitting on a bench inside the six-story Shopping Centre Nevsky, I am again speechless, not so much this time from the contrast in time as from the one in place. Here it’s sleek, hyper modern. Leave town in just about any direction and who knows. Petersburg’s had another makeover, in some spots, as in this, by taking down entire buildings, moving all the people out, and putting up new ones just with the old facades in place, to make way for the large shiny spaces of contemporary commerce. “Business centers” sprout in high-rise mushroom patches just across the Neva. Sushi restaurants, pasta sushi restaurants, souvenir shops, and book stores line the streets. Banks are everywhere in the city center. I’ve never seen so many in one place (though in a few days, I’ll see more – in Moscow). Last night I was taken to dinner by friends to a newish restaurant overlooking Kazan Cathedral, with enormous windows, Asian fusion cuisine, a balcony for receptions. I can’t help recalling Fedya’s comment in the train when the two of us were looking out at a nothing of a village in the middle of a nowhere just west of Irkutsk: “Man is the kind of swine that can get used to living just about anywhere.” Russia is a mess, just not here.

One late afternoon a week before, I was sitting in the hall to write because I didn’t want to bother my compartment mates. I had a notebook on my lap and was looking out the window when one of the passengers from the end of our wagon came up, tapped me on the shoulder, and said something I didn’t catch. Then he pointed out the windows on the other side of the train, and there was Lake Baikal. He had never spoken to me before that, but he knew I was there and that I’d be interested to know what was on the other side of the train. Indeed I was. The night before, a woman from the next compartment with whom I had also not spoken had approached to let me know that she had reassured the other passengers about me. Reassured? Yes, she said, they were concerned about my taking so many pictures and writing in my notebook. “I told them you’re just interested,” she said, encouraging me to reassure her, too.

Those who were not too shy often asked what I was doing out here, what was interesting to me about being in this place that they apparently found at the very least uninteresting, at worst perhaps shameful. A driver in Vladivostok had asked me, as if looking for an outsider’s corroboration, “Is this a bad road?” There was a pea-soup fog of dust outside the windows, gravel flying from the trucks ahead, people congregating in threes in fours on the non-shoulder next to bus stops that I wouldn’t have ever guessed existed amid the piles of debris there, half-completed pedestrian overpasses with iron rebar sticking out like makeshift TV antennas, and cars darting left and right to avoid the holes. This went on for twenty-five kilometers. “Yes,” I said, “it is.”

I suppose one of the answers I could have given them was “because of you, to learn about you.” You encounter people differently when you’re on the road. At home you rarely have time to look, take an interest, let them talk to you. Of course, that would have made them even more self-conscious, so I didn’t say it. When my son Peter was a baby, we were returning from a road trip to Chicago one evening where we had been at the zoo, and he’d asked where we were going now. “Home,” my wife had said, thinking he would be happy, but he wasn’t. “Chigao tokoro ni ikitai,” he’d told her (in his mother tongue) – I want to go somewhere else. That, too, or something like it, could have been my response. This home of theirs was a “chigao tokoro” – somewhere else – to me.

When I told my friend Ksenia Golubovich, a former International Writing Program participant whom I later met between a bank and a pasta-sushi restaurant in Moscow, about my trip and about the question that didn’t seem to have a good answer, she immediately cut to the chase, and reminded me that “travel for its own sake is always a search for God.” Don’t you just love Russians?

In his Travels in Siberia, Ian Frazer writes that sometimes you travel when you can. He’s of course saying more than what the phrase seems to mean at first. For twenty years ago it wasn’t possible to travel to certain parts of Siberia, for political reasons, and twenty years from now it may be impossible to travel there again, for climatological ones.

From Petersburg I took the super-efficient Sapsan (stress on the "an"), which got me to Moscow at a high-speed sprint in three and a half hours. A mere five years ago all that was available was the eight-hour train, usually overnight, but now Sapsans run five or six times a day, making it possible for city-to-city commuters, who work in one and live in the other. It was filled with new Russian business people on their phones constantly. I didn’t talk with anyone.

But then during three days talking translation with colleagues at a conference at the Russian State Humanities University, I had the chance to think through a thought I’d had on the train: that translation is also a kind of crossing, only with something in your arms or better, strapped to your back, ombu-style, all wrapped up snug, babbling nonsense in your ear as you place each foot down on the path in front, careful not to jiggle too much. One day soon you’ll put it down on its own two feet to see if it can walk.

The Russians weren’t the only ones who asked me what I was doing out there. One of the voices in my head has asked this question, too. To him I’ve been slowly formulating an answer about how I’m researching a book about crossing, from one shore to another, one country to another, especially about the mixing of cultures, languages, religions, customs that takes place as a result of such physical moves, the crossings of blood, race, art. I’m thinking of mixture rather than mosaic, bastardization rather than purity. Living together as calm, healthy muts. And I think of Frazer’s phrase about traveling when you can and decide that that is only a small part of this, and that sometimes you have to travel, if you can, in order to purge yourself of past wrongs done to others, reevaluate your choices and weigh your options for the future, like after you’ve just finished a big project and are thinking about what to do next, or when a beloved person in your life has died, or when you’re turning forty, fifty, sixty, or some other significant base-ten number. And so I’ve been crossing, and looking at crossing, and all in all I think it’s a pretty good metaphor, the same as metaphor, and much more than metaphor, too.

A big thank you to Professor Natalya Reinhold for inviting me to talk at the Department of Translation and Translation Studies at the Russian State Humanities University, where the paths of dozens of translators, carriers and creators of culture worldwide, crossed last week. And also to my friend Viktoria Tikhonova, who helped me again to see, as she does every time I see her, why I’ve spent so many years of my life learning to cross in Russia.