Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Челябинск (Chelyabinsk)

I'm still in Russia, having been in Челябинск (Chelyabinsk) these last two weeks.

Chelyabinsk is about 1600 kilometers due east of Moscow, deep into the main body of the huge Russian landmass. This is considered Asia since the city lies just over a hundred kilometers east of the Ural Mountains, the arbitrary eastern limit of Europe.

The other day at a small store here, when the cashier saw that I needed my friend Anya to translate the amount I owed, she asked Anya, “Where is he from?”
“What’s he doing here?”
“Traveling,” Anya responded, not feeling particularly obliged to be any more detailed.
“Traveling here?!” the cashier asked with an incredulous look.

No foreigner, I suppose, would venture this deep into Russia without good reason. I do have one, however. Great friends.

I’ve often said that my friendship with Sveta, whom I met in Virginia in March of 2004, is truly one of the 10 best things that have ever happened in my life. What the other nine are, I’ve never bothered to define other than my daughter clearly being the first.

Through my friendship with Sveta, so many good things have happened in my life, be they other new friends, experiences, or places. Is it coincidence or relevant that the extreme contentment of these last four years of my life have also been the years I’ve known Sveta? She always brings such spontaneity, energy, and exuberance into anything.

Some of those blessings are my past and present experiences here in Chelyabinsk, Russia, where Sveta grew up. When she returned to visit her family in January 2005, I joined her and was delighted to feel as welcomed into the fold as if I’d been adopted. It was here that I met and became such good friends with all her family, particularly her older sister Anya, who is fluent in English.

(I must pause to comment how lucky I’ve been throughout the world in being the beneficiary of the linguistic abilities of so many others. My feeble attempts in studying various languages over the years…partially successful in a few, laughably hopeless in others…is in some measure an expression of my gratitude.)

Odd as it may sound for someone who’s been leisurely wandering around the world for a few years, lately I felt like I’ve needed a vacation of sorts. What I’ve really wanted to do is just sit still for a while. I’ve been doing so much here and there since the Clipper Ventures race ended in Liverpool early last July. Right now, then, I am so very happy to have been doing very little of significance here during these weeks in Chelyabinsk, other than enjoying these old friends and even new ones.

When I met Zhenya in Italy last July where she was competing in the World Hanggliding Championships, she was almost speechless when she learned I’d actually been to her hometown of Chelyabinsk. I suppose it would be like an American meeting a Russian while in Europe who'd been to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. It's a major city, yes, but not a place many venture without a specific reason.

Zhenya and I got to share some time here over these last two weeks as well.

I've been staying with Ludmila, Sveta and Anya's mother, who doesn’t speak much English but we've still had such a great time together. I've learned more Russian from her these last two weeks than from all the time I've spent over the years with all my other Russian friends combined. She and I will sit at her kitchen table, each with our Russian/American dictionary in one hand and a shot glass in the other, talking about different issues while we thumb through our dictionaries for the appropriate word. Now and then we'll try to come up with new toasts for which we can take a shot of vodka (“Never more than three per evening,” is our mutually agreed upon rule).

The first toast is always to one’s health and the third is always to love, leaving the second as the only opportunity for creativity. Our most common toasts are to her granddaughter (Sveta's daughter) and to friendship (be it personal or Russian/American).

I’ve never been particularly fond of anything as strong as vodka and even less fond of drinking something by throwing it down my throat, but I’ve found that between all the shots I’ve downed between my time this month in Moscow, Velikiy Dvor, and now Chelyabinsk, I actually have grown almost fond of the bitter, tangy taste of Vodka that you can experience if you sip it very slowly.

If only I could get them to let me sip it slowly to enjoy it.

It’s been a sublimely beautiful time here for me, one that has evolved in a different sort of way from how this summer’s other adventures have unfolded. It’s been peaceful, quiet, relaxing, loving, spiritual, and uplifting in a way hard to describe. At one extreme, I've joined Anya and her friends out in the city one night while some of them practiced their mildly illegal art of "fireshow" on an empty plaza.

On the other end of the scale, I've joined almost every class that Anya has taught in her yoga studio since I've been here. We've also spent much time together as a family, enjoying simple domestic pleasures such making pelmini, a Russian kind of ravioli.

As in 2005, we drove out to nearby Lake Tourgoyak where we immersed ourselves in the pleasures of being in the beautiful countryside. There we joined other friends in a full afternoon of enjoying a true Russian banya; a sauna that includes repeating cycles of soaking up the heat, being worked over with gathered bunches of birch twigs, then taking a dip into a frigid lake.

Even though it’s only late September here, light snow flurries fell on our faces during our banya experience. The time of year also made walks through the forest colorful and breathtaking.

Time's up. On Sunday, October 5th, I'm finally going back to the States, a country in which I haven't resided for a full three years.

Chelyabinsk 2005 and 2008