It has been nearly two weeks since I left Tomsk, and my silence in the intervening time may have led you, Dear Reader, to believe that I had put my blog to bed. However, my “miss list” didn’t seem a fitting way to bid goodbye to my experience as an honorary Томичка. I thought I should at least attempt to chronicle my last week in Tomsk (distant as it now seems to me) and to say what life has been like back in the U.S. I am warning you now that this is a very long post…but it’s my last one, so I think I’ve earned it!
My final week was, obviously, full of farewells, which ranged from nonchalant to humorous to tearful. Some of the goodbyes I felt most acutely were those with people I may not have known very well, but whom I saw every day, like the wonderful ladies who work at the TSPU stolovaya (cafeteria) to the dorm laundrywoman, Galina Ivanovna, a late-middle-aged former pediatrician from Uzbekistan with whom I had many conversations over the course of the year. One of the things that made these farewells sad was the fact that I never expected to see the people again. The apron-and-hair-net-wearing pensioners who run the university bufet (snack bar) where I got my coffee every day were unlikely to have email addresses. I knew only their names, their smiles, and their small talk, and yet they formed an integral part of my Tomsk experience.
Some goodbyes, as I mentioned, were very festive. My friend Olya and her mother, who is Korean but was born in the U.S.S.R., made me a wonderful farewell feast, served Korean-style on a mat on the floor. The final touch was a sparkler candle that fairly terrified Olya’s mom and me when we saw flames approaching from the kitchen.
I also spent leisurely, food-filled evenings with several of my favorite folks in Tomsk, including my friends Irina, Andrey, Olga, and my Uzbek friend Sasha, the cook who invited me into the kitchen of his restaurant for a noodle tutorial. Afterwards, we took a walk by the Tom’ river and watched the sunset.
I spent my last day in Tomsk at Lena’s dacha, which has featured so prominently in my blog in recent weeks, and which I will remember with great fondness for a long time. It was, in many ways, the perfect ending to my time in Russia, as it reminded me of the country’s rural roots and the hospitality and kindness of the Russian people.
The night ended with a peaceful but mosquito-plagued walk down to the creek at the foot of the dacha encampment, tea and cigarettes and ear-splitting early 90’s pop (in typical Russian fashion), and a climb up to the roof to watch distant fireworks through the trees. The fact that the fireworks were in honor of some Orthodox holiday, and not my departure, hardly mattered. Then, just as I thought I was finally ready for my last sleep in the Russian countryside, Lena’s husband Igor hunted me down with a bucket of very cold water, insisted that I needed a shower, and–before I could protest–dumped the bucket over my head. The sound that escaped my lips was certainly something like the call of the wild. “A natural scream,” Lena said with an approving nod, “there’s something good about that.”
Lena and Igor were kind enough to drive me to the airport the next day, where I got slapped with 4000 rubles (my monthly rent) in oversize baggage fees and was unable to feel any nostalgia for the Russian service-with-a-scowl that would soon be a thing of the past for me. I had a long plane flight during which to think about all I had just left behind, but nothing could have prepared me, really, for the transition from this:
Now I have gone, in the space of 10 days, from New York City to Boston to Ithaca, a small city in upstate New York which is home to Cornell University and Max. The six-hour drive from Boston to Ithaca led me to reflect on the rainy landscape, which, aside from the replacement of birch trees with their North American counterparts, looked a lot like Siberia. Since my arrival, I keep seeing things that remind me of Russia, and comparing and contrasting things that don’t. Many things, from Fenway Park to Sears to the faces of the people around me, strike me as very American– and I suppose they are. Yet how strange to return and find that I fit into this society without anyone noticing anything, as if I were feet stepping back into well-worn shoes.
And yet (and there were times I never thought I’d say this) I do miss Russia…at least, some things about it. Mostly, I miss the sense of doing something entirely different from my life up to that point, and the way that a constant feeling of otherness shocked me into a new awareness of the life around me. But it is hard, as my friend Irina aptly pointed out, to live with a kind of double feedback loop forever circling in one’s brain. When you live abroad, she said, it is exhausting, because you have two “loops” going at once: the one that handles the banalities of getting through the day in another country, and the second loop, which is constantly analyzing, trying to understand the surrounding society on a level both general and deeply specific. It is a relief to bid goodbye to that second feedback loop, but it also makes life just a little bit boring.
Coming home has made me realize that I don’t know if I am a person who would prefer to live abroad forever–something tells me I am not. However, I want to travel always, and not to lose that engagement with those parts of the world that I will never understand in my bones, at the deepest level. I feel that way about Russia, certainly. But I will never forget what Irina said to me as she walked me home along a familiar path to my dorm just before I prepared to catch my plane. I looked around at Kartashova Street, the Dzerzjinsky Market, the Triumph convenience store, a fat man with a fat dog, and Irina said, “It’s somehow свой, isn’t it?” (Свой, pronounced svoy, is an impersonal possessive pronoun meaning “one’s own.”) I had to agree, even as I looked on everything we passed with a preemptive sense of loss. Some of it was ugly and dirty; some of it I would not miss. And yet, the fact that, over the course of less than a year, this place on the other side of the world could have come to feel like home was really remarkable. That is how I hope to remember Tomsk–as bewildering, beautiful, occasionally backwards, but full of history and wonderful people–foreign, but somehow свой.