T for Tom

…But It Doesn’t Get In The Way

Posted in Europe by johnsontoms on January 29, 2013

Travel – (v; int) 1. To go on or as if on a trip or tour : journey.


Go your own way.  Go far into the night, go until the day lights and the streets fill and the signs read languages that you cannot read back.  It doesn’t get in the way.

Travel.  Travel to places on the map you vaguely recall.  Travel to corners of countries where information is hard to find, convenience doesn’t exist, and getting around takes time.  The time it takes will give you something to learn, something to see, and each challenge can be broken up by a good meal, a hard drink, and night of sleep.  It doesn’t get in the way.

I got lost once knowing where I was.  Recently.  Walking through St. Petersburg it took me two days to learn that “туалет” was pronounced the same as “toilet.”  For all the places I’ve been so far and all the things I’ve done I’ve gotten by with a strength of English and a dirge of Spanish, Deutsche, and the occasional “hellos” in many languages.  But there, in Russia, nothing would save me.  But it didn’t get in the way.   No amount of planning could’ve prepared me for how foreign it truly would be, in the streets, in the shops, in the restaurants, in the tramcars and taxis and museums and tobacco stops and cocktail bars.  But it doesn’t get in the way.

Throughout Europe its common to speak English, the language having been taught in a majority of the schools for a generation or so now.  It’s not still uncommon to run into people who do not know English, but the running bet is safest that anyone my age can carry my conversation with ease.  It’s a bit damning, to be honest.  To have crossed the Atlantic and learned nothing of the language of these people, to eat their food, know their women, drink their beer, watch their sports, and still… only English.  But it doesn’t get in the way.  It’s never stopped me from trying, and at times I’ve sat down to learn a little bit of Deutsche and Estonian and brush up on my Spanish.  It helps when the hard looks of “you don’t know any other language?” cross their faces.  But even after six months living in Germany I get relaxed – of all the nations here in the European Union, Germany is by far the most educated in the English language.  On their street signs, on their trains, in their bars, in the voices of the people – it’s the language of their business.  Probably for American occupation until twenty years ago do we have this to thank, but idea is still: “you haven’t learned Deutsche yet?”  It never got in the way.

So I went to Russia.  I went there and was taken back like catching a bullet.  “How the fuck am I going to get anywhere?” I asked myself.  Luckily I was making friends and got to know a few good people who were willing to help me out and make the time go by in the presence of something familiar.  Because at first it was… frightening.  I had to for the first time ask myself, “what the fuck am I going to do?”  I wondered if I would find food easily, find drinks, be able to take a taxi, understand the metro system, do anything.  Here in Germany, if one had a brief grasp of the basic words and street signs, it would be easy to at least guess the way around.  But with words like “вход в музей,“ “10,00 с человека” and “Кожаное пальто” there is no guessing.  There is no fucking way to get even close to the meaning of the words.  I had to window shop for any inclination of what was inside.  But it didn’t get in my way.

Once I got used to the idea of knowing nothing, it was like starting over.  What does the letter “___” sound like?  How is this letter pronounced?  Learning the alphabet at age 26.  One by one and sound by sound until at least I could pronounce some words on the sign, regardless of whether I knew the meaning.  As the letters came together, so too did some of the words.  It became comical by the third day when I realized that certain English words were simply homonyms in Cyrillic, and that “ресторан [restaurants]” were actually everywhere.  And once I knew where the food was I could go in.  Sure, I was reduced to a madman’s folly, pointing and uttering the few words of numbers that I knew.  “один [ah-DEEN], два [dvah], три [tree], четыре [che-TYH-ree]” [one, two, three, four, respectively] and answering yes and no with “Да [da]” and “Нет [nyet].”  It was humiliating and I loved it.

Because there’s something about Russia.  It’s huge and it’s freezing, but it doesn’t get in the way.  The sidewalks and streets are so large that very easily throughout the five days I spent in St. Petersburg a team of sweepers and trucks kept everything brushed and dry.  And it was necessary because the snow never stopped.  It is true that it was January 7 through January 11 but it is also true that it snowed everyday, and sometimes never stopped.  I was expecting to see lots of snow, lots of ice, to feel chilled to the bone, but I didn’t know what it would look like and feel like until I was there.  The moment came during my visit to the Hermitage Museum, the beautiful Winter Palace of the royal family that was erected in the 18th century and sits in the middle of town just across from the fortress along the Neva River.  Inside the Hermitage I was enjoying refuge from the cold while touring the illustrious halls of royal artifacts, imperial dressings, and historical data amongst the unending flow of paintings of everything from Peter the Great to the death of Christ to a fishing market on a Saturday afternoon depicted by Peter Paul Rubens.  The halls were winding, the things inside were blinding, but in the end it was the sight unseen that had me exit.  Toward the north corner midway through the Hermitage I passed a window that looked outside.  I saw nothing but white and was startled at first, not knowing what I was looking at.  I realized in short order that the Neva, which I had not seen this far up yet, was indeed frozen thick over with blocks of ice for a stretch wider and longer than a quarter mile.  From my side of Vasileyevsky Island the water was still flowing, nearer to the delta where the water broke into the sea.  But here where the islands all met, the waters were still, callous and rocky like the surface of the moon, cold and white like the tundra.  This was tundra.  And to get out to it, to be near it, to see what such a thing looked like for the first time in my life meant to get out there into the cold once more and walk over the Trinity Bridge, the famous drawbridge in the middle town, to stand there with the wind whipping my hair and freezing my fingers, to slip in the ice on the bridge trying to lean over the ledge and see how thick the mighty water could get in temperatures below -10° C – it got real thick.  Jagged pieces of ice taller than myself were sticking up from the ice shelf, a collage of chunks that had over the previous weeks frozen up and broken free and smashed together again to form a floor that no man could easily walk.  And as I studied the ice, mesmerized by its rough palette, its exotic formations, its foreign sights, the snow began to fall.  And fall and fall and pick up and fall and fall and get stuck in my hair and stick to my neck and blow nearly sideways as the blizzard picked up.  Planning to walk to the fortress next, a half-mile away, I was undeterred by the cold because it didn’t get in the way.

With the proper coat and pair of gloves I wasn’t stopped from sloshing in the growing floor of snow in sidewalks which only caused problems on staircases that hadn’t yet been fully swept, making instead a slope better suited for sledding than walking.  First passing the Rostral Columns, then the Stock Exchange, and then again over a bridge before crossing into the tip of the Peter & Paul Fortress to see for the first time where the city started.  St. Petersburg after all had been founded to be the imperial city of Russia, the source of its beauty and wealth, the center of its attraction, the heart of Mother Russia.  And so planning, it was decreed that the city would be seen from the tops of the fortress fanning out along all sides of the Neva, tall, glorious, fantastic.  By the time I had made it to the fortress walls I had been outside in this blizzard, some -15° C with increasing snowfall, for nearly two hours.  But it didn’t get in the way.  I never even wore my hat, choosing instead to feel the wind blow through my hair and kick the ice off my head where it got stuck.  And coming now to the walls along the river I paid my 35 rubles and walked onto the roof to see the famous panoramic.  Breathtaking.  Inspiring, really.  The stretch of river here was a quarter-mile wide, but it didn’t bend either for nearly a half-mile stretch of which the fortress was situated in the middle, looking book left and right where the city faded away into the snow over the bridges that dotted the river and connected the islands.  The buildings that were five-stories high, each of them, all of them, all along the river forming a singular stretch that spanned for miles of grand palaces and picaresque storefronts, painted in various swaths of yellow and green and red according to their centuries-old tax code, but just barely a sight to be seen now through the winter, as if Manhattan were seen from across a Hudson River that had been stretched to three times its normal width.

Here for the first time I did not only see the expanse of this city, but I felt it.  It began to sink in just how large the city, the country, the people could be and was.  The largest country in the world would need an even larger city to be its beacon for the people, to be its center of attention.  And just under 300 years old, there now were some 7-million people living within its limits, scattered across the islands and throughout the channels, around the parks and into the forests that line the cities limits on the northern and western stretches, the pine woods that grow up in a place as cold and far north as St. Petersburg.  But it didn’t get in the way.  For 7-million people I never fought for space.  For 7-million people I never got locked out for space.  For 7-million people I was never overcrowded, never confined, never locked in and crunched up, anywhere, doing anything.  The metro handled the thousands of people that crossed its doors ever ten minutes, the buses were large enough and numerous enough to handle the hundreds of people waiting on the sides of the street, the lanes of the roads wide enough to handle the hundreds of cars that now dotted the landscape, the surprising majority of those cars made up of American vehicles, large trucks and cargo carrying vehicles.  The restaurants were everywhere and could handle the eating public, the sidewalks wide enough to hold the people that walked hand-in-hand up and down Nevsky Prospekt to do their shopping, casual dining, and carry on in the merry lives.  Just as easily I could stroll through the Alexander Park on the north of town and hop on the Metro at Gorkovskaya to arrive five kilometers south in the middle of Dostoevskaya just ten minutes later.  The ease with which I could get around the city of 7-million people would blow your mind, to come from such a place where trains and cabs are the only choice and even they take half an hour.  Here, the city was built to hold its occupants and serve them well.

But that’s probably the closest it comes to serving them in some way.  The largest relic of the Soviet era I experienced came in the form of the attitude of the people.  It’s hard to explain, but it is in a way a sense of defeat.  The ideas of change and combative choice seem not only irrelevant and impossible but unreal and nonexistent, a myth not to be explored.  The friends I made were great, do not be confused.  They were happy, and willing to help.  There was a spirit of comfort and cohesion that existed within them, in a way that I couldn’t see in other places.  They were readily available to help anyone out, anyone but their own selves.  This I think is the reason for their helpfulness – they know that everyone is struggling.  If I asked them what their plans were and if they were happy, the response was overwhelmingly “what am I to do?”  You couldn’t change jobs or move around?  “How am I going to do that?”  Do you feel like you’ve been thrown into a system you can’t beat?  Again, “what am I to do?”  The sense of oppression and control that existed (and may still exist) from the Soviet era pervaded their entire sense of being.  It was as if they had been through the bottom pits of hell and emerged to be thankful for the opportunity even in the smallest way to live in some way with a bit of comfort, even if it was slightly predetermined.  As if they were told at a young age what their direction would be, and having been shown an alternative much worse, they are happy to carry on in the line of their fathers before them and their fathers before them.  “What are they to do?”  I’m not sure.  But in a lot of ways, it doesn’t get in the way.  Still, it has come far enough that they are afforded to live with their own pleasures in the forms of their lives.  Bookstores are not censored, radios air freely, the newspapers present most of the news.  They have the opportunity to at least live and eat as the first world does, with comfort, not in fear of death.  Only maybe for fear of the government do they act timidly.  But now with the opportunity to at least have some discretion over the things they do, it creates a compromise.  Let the government do as it does, and leave me to do as I do.  Only when the two worlds collide, “what are they to do?”

There is a strange bit of pride that exists within it.  The have come out on the other side of the communist era, still intact, still together as a Russian people, and now living well, there is something to hold as victory within an identity.  This pride manifested itself to me in the funniest and the most obvious of places.  In each restaurant and at each Metro station and in any part of the city where I was struggling to communicate in Russian what my intentions and desires were, there was a Russian behind me that said, every time and without failure, “Welcome to Russia!”  It was both heartwarming and unwelcoming at the same time, happily warm yet sarcastic, and it happened literally every time.  I’m not sure how long that has been going for in Russia, but the presence of the phrase “Welcome to Russia” implies more and anything but “welcome.”  Or, even if I am welcome, “welcome to a country like no other,” or “welcome to the only place that matters.”  But, it doesn’t get in the way.  I never felt threatened, I never felt at danger, and I was never so severely mocked that I had to change plans or sit somewhere else.  No, it was simple that – I was in Russia.  I was somewhere I had never been.

I love going places I’ve never been. There’s no more thrilling, satisfying, fulfilling experience in the world than to travel.  To have put together a piece of life that has worked hard enough, fought hard enough, waited long enough to travel to some place of desire, some location of fancy, some town of whimsy, or even just to another part of the state.  To obtain the freedom to travel by whatever means is truly serene when in the moments of our possessed transference to another reality, which is often the feeling when in such foreign locales.  All the things that could go wrong, all the money spent, the time wasted, the flights planned, the taxis ridden, the hotels slept, the immense hours of go here and go there, all these things are nothing to the times I have when walking calmly, strolling pleasantly, finally and at once amongst a citizenry and populace that to me is new, different, exotic, enigmatic.  The experience is dogmatic, in more ways than any god ever showed me.  For all its problems, it’s the only way I could’ve learned the things I know, grown the way I have, educated myself further without the confines of lecture.

It’s the north that does it for me.  I’ve been there now in the spring and in the winter, and at both times it is equally beautiful.  By north of course I mean far north into the Baltic States.  I was going back to Estonia.  I have a good reason to go back and a good reason to stay there.  Every time I leave my heart stays back also.  Such a wonderful country with such wonderful people, and every day I spend there is a gift on earth.  Being so close to St. Petersburg there I had no choice but to exercise the chance at Russia.  Being so close to St. Petersburg also explains a large part of the Estonian experience.

The funny thing about every country, at least here in Europe, is that a great source of their pride is manufactured by reflecting it upon their neighbors.  The Estonians are, for once and hopefully finally, free of Russia.  Or free from Russia.  For the greater part of the last 150 years until the fall of the Soviet Union, Estonia was in occupation by either Russian or German forces.  It’s really not fair either, being such a small country of just 1.4-million people.  There are more people than that in the city limits of Dallas, Texas, and Dallas is hardly a noteworthy city.  But take those people and spread them out over a country as large as North Carolina.  There’s a sense of victory, a sense of belonging on their own, a sense of being independent, and they strive to attain their stability through their own narrative.  It does also make you wonder if they ever thank anyone for their freedom, given that 1.4-million people would hardly be able to overthrow the Russian government on their own.  But it doesn’t matter if they did, and it doesn’t get in the way.  Similar to the helpfulness of the Russian people who see that everyone needs help, the Estonians are proud to be helpful for the sake that are free to be helpful, finally.  In spite of their own opinions of their selves, they are nice people.  Beautiful people also.  Each and every one of them glows.  It may be that irrepressible European spirit, the embodiment of living that gets Europeans outside and together, unlike the American spirit that separates and individualizes us.  And I think that’s the point I’m trying to making.

Because that’s the only thing that gets in the way.  Somehow and in spite of our freedoms we’ve chosen to separate ourselves from the rest of the world, physically, emotionally, spiritually, ideologically, and live in a shell away from all the “bad things that happen out there.”  America is not candyland.  But for some reason we think there is no better place and that each other country is filled with something subhuman, some facsimile of the modern man.  But we are wrong.

There are beautiful people out there with bodies just like ours (bodies that are often less fat than ours; Europeans don’t really know what fat people look like, though over 50% of Americans are considered “out of shape”).  There are intelligent people studying the same courses as us.  There are hardworking people plowing farms and erecting buildings just like us.  A lot of them still go to church (though not as many claim to be religious like Americans), and they still get drunk on the weekends and fuck.  They drive cars, pay taxes, and do all the things that we all do and all hate together, and it doesn’t get in the way.

Everyone drinks Coca-Cola.

But until you get out there, you won’t know it.  You won’t know if you could find love until you go looking for it, even just by leaving your own backyard.  America is a large country after all, a huge expanse of land.  From one side to the next is a different mode of living, in the same way that moving from Latvia to France would be entirely different.  But until you go, you’ll never know.  You’ll only know what you’re taught and that’s things that are entirely wrong, entirely unproven, largely mythical and typical and horribly untrue.  It gets in the way.

It gets in the way of traveling, makes you feel like it’s unnecessary to move.  It gets in the way, makes you care less for the water over the earth that feeds the soil that feeds the birds that fly in the sky that drops the rain that nourishes the grasses that feed the deer that feed the lions that sleep in the trees that shade the human beings that only until a few thousand years ago lived equally with the plants and animals within the system, this system of earth living.

You’ll just never understand anything of the world until you see it.

You’ll just never understand anything of the world until you see it.

You just have to see it.

You just have to see it.