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.