The Grass is Green Wherever I Am
“Some people say home is where you come from. I disagree. I believe it’s a place you need to find; it’s scattered and you must pick pieces of it up along the way.” - Katie Kacvinsky
Last May I visited Alabama and Siberia. My cousin got married in Alabama and it was lovely. I caught a glimpse of the life I was promised as a child, the lifestyle I was born into and the structure that was taken away from me as I grew up experiencing and loving the deepest corners of the world. Freedom, routine, stability, predictability, selfless friendship, simplicity. These few words and many more can be used to describe how I lived and what I saw during those three days. They were, up until that moment, what I didn't even know I craved.
I was surrounded by music and swing-dancing and prayer and a community of 400 people that attended the wedding. In my Dusty Rose dress in line with the other girls I felt like I was playing dress-up, pretending to play a part in an American wedding movie, or the episode of a classic family sitcom where the show's main characters are finally getting married.
The church ceremony was beyond beautiful. I blubbered my way down the aisle, through the priest’s words and along to the songs that echoed through my marble and stained glass surroundings. Reaching out to squeeze the hands of my new friends, we gushed and cheered as the beautiful bride walked toward us.
The backyard reception was trimmed with leafy garlands and a small fountain that lightly sprayed droplets at you as you passed by. We very quickly threw our shoes to the side and ran out onto the dance-floor, smiles glued to our faces as the talented young band played a jazzy variation of classics. I took sloppy pictures with people I didn’t know and slurped down handfuls of watermelon, the bright pink juice dripping out the corner of my mouth and staining a perfect line down the front of my dress.
Strangers joked and laughed with me asking if I was ‘The Cousin from Russia' and why I spoke such good English. I tried to explain my situation to them but quickly gave up and decided their imagined version of my life would probably humor them more than the real thing.
I wanted to cry the whole time. I was so joyful that my mind felt truly at peace. Nothing else in the world mattered except for each moment surrounding me, like feeling carpet under my toes, and better yet, walking outside barefoot (“Gasssssssp! Outside?! Barefoot?!” Exclaims every Russian who ever lived). An hour in the country and I was already bringing things out to the car without even taking the time to slip my shoes back on. Feeling the grass squinch between my toes felt like millions of dollars’ worth of therapy in one brief instant. Even better was the strange pain of stepping out onto the gravel driveway, the tiny pebbles sharply poking at the bottoms of my heels. I hesitated half-way, looking around me, the way a child does in anticipation of punishment. No one scolded me, no one glared at me like I was insane, nor lectured me on how dirty the ground was or that I would catch my death. Instead, quickly following behind, my aunt ran out with a cardboard box to pop in the trunk, and yep, you guessed it, she was barefoot.
About 2 seconds post landing after a 10 hour flight and 20 hour travel day, I was thrown into a bridesmaids dress and propped like a mannequin in front of three folds of mirrors in Miss Betty's Seamstress Shop. Everything about the southern drawl in her voice felt warm and fuzzy. Trying not to fall down from exhaustion, I yawned and nodded as she poked and pinned the hem of my dress and told me she'd been praying for good weather and then went on to tell me about her daughter's trip to Hawaii. I wanted to hug this woman.
The night before the wedding rehearsal was superbly simple, in the most perfect sense of the word. There was a bonfire and too many marshmallows (paired with graham crackers and numerous squares of melted Hershey's, of course). There was open-mouthed laughter and mosquitoes and plastic cups filled to the brim with very sweet, very weak white wine. I was forgetting altogether that I had a life across the globe until late at night, when everyone would be falling asleep and I would start to miss my bed, as most do when they're on vacation, and my life, my country and the comfort of being at home. Then, well, then I would wake up to those new friendships and the luxurious abundance of contentment and remember this was some of the stuff I feel I've missed out on my whole life.
When I was there, I felt completely normal. Yes, I was in a constant state of culture shock in my own nation, disgusted by the simple consumerist behavior. I found the mundane redundancy of strip-malls and fast-food chains distasteful, and dismayed that there were no architectural art forms or history to look at, but I knew these were mostly my thoughts convincing me not to love a place I was not allowed to get attached to.
The place didn't do much for me. No, the place I could live without. Oбойдусь. It was that feeling that caught me and swept me up like a huge rope fishing-net as I kicked and flopped about, trying to flip back into the water and into the waves of safety,
When all around me was lovely beyond words and emotion, I was Jonesing for the habits which would someday be dropped and left behind. I never knew what a complicated place my head was until after those few southern days.
Six days later I went to Siberia.
I'm sure I don't have to spell out that the contrast between my two summer destinations is the height of paradox. Not many may have ever explicitly stated the opposite of Alabama: it’s not as simple as hot or cold, left or right, down or up, but if Alabama were to have one, Siberia would most definitely be its antagonist.
We flew into Irkutsk, the closest main city to Lake Baikal and one of the largest in Siberia. Flying from Moscow to Irkutsk means flying for five hours and jumping ahead five time zones. The plane was clearly full of village-folk who had never been taught to stand in a proper line — highly ironic since I'm sure the main part of their daily routine for years was standing in line waiting for whatever item was being sold that day.
Everything about the city felt extremely cozy to me: the slow pace of life, the greenery, the familiar churches, the brightly painted historical old houses, the dauntingly industrial Soviet mega-buildings, the banks of the wide river lifted by crumbling rocks and cement blocks, the piles of sunflower-seed shells and saliva left on the ground underneath a squeaky bench and kiosk after kiosk (ahh yes, kiosks! What a lovely sight to see these again!). Dozens of 'typical young families' (the wife in high heels, the husband carrying her purse for her and their young toddler) slowly strolled past us. Old couples danced in the center of the park and middle-aged women enjoyed an ice cream treat on each street corner of simple vanilla that never melts paired with a soggy checkered 'cup' cone.
I walked by familiar remnants of a Moscow from 15 years ago before all the change and glitz and glam. The historic city center was paved with outdoor cafes, their summer verandas decorated with billowy curtains and a warm breeze. Young girls walked arm in arm, the way only true Russian friends embrace one another, not engaging in gossip nor chit-chat, but in true, unadulterated, discussion from one soul to the other.
We hopped into a car and along the road to Baikal, I glanced out my window at hills littered with towering birch trees. The rich taiga powerfully stared back at me as if saying, 'just wait until you see what I can do in the winter.' The peeling white bark guided the vast path to the lake in a way so ominous it created the illusion that I was the only person to ever reach this plateau of cold earth.
Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, containing roughly 20% of the world's unfrozen fresh water. It is also the world's deepest lake and an important stop along the Trans-Siberian Railway. It has a feature spread of text and photographs in every Russian language book and always pops up in those articles titled 'Wonders of the East,' or 'Gems of Russia,' or 'The Pearl of Siberia.’ Near the water, old cream colored paint chipped off the concrete walkways.
We got out of the car and entered a 'village' (just a few wooden домики) sprinkled along the main road. Ancient boats rested idle with no life preservers as a pudgy and frowny-faced middle-aged woman unhappily advertised tours around the lake. One rocky dirt road led up a steep hill through the 'neighborhood.' Facades of bright green and turquoise and white lacey trim outlined dusty window panes and lots of dogs barked. Smoke sifted up and off into the distance and over the mountain up ahead. Colorful t-shirts hung out on a line to dry and old gold-teethed men wearing rubbery/plastic тапочки sold smoked and dried fish, a delicacy of the region.
This was the amazing Lake Baikal we had heard so much about? It was a place with zero infrastructure, a mediocre view and one Porta Potty for every tourist who visited. Вот тебе 'великая страна.' I left my breath there and looked out into the scenery as I did the bland roads of Alabama. I enjoyed the feeling and the emotion of the place even though I did not have much to say about its outward appeal or aesthetic.
We enjoyed a delectable lunch of perfectly grilled shashlik and plov and smiled as sales ladies guessed we were туристы из Москвы. We walked through the town to see what else we could find and didn't talk much. The sun never really came out. We glanced up and down to see what each small home could offer and discovered a giant wooden sign outside a shack advertising a 'zoo.' We paid a few rubles to stare at a bear sleeping in a cage the size of my overcrowded closet. It was all so simple, so ironically mundane and I did not feel out of place for a second of it.
At the end of the day, when we returned to the small city of Irkutsk with all of its nuances and similarities with 'home,' all I could think of was how much I loved it there. I adored the way the old busses creaked and squealed as they turned each street corner, how there was a giant statue of Lenin in the old town square; and how obvious it was to me that the locals lived a peaceful lifestyle. I didn't pause for too long to think about where I had been a mere 7 days ago, but if I did, it was to realize I was so happy in the present moment that I didn't ever want to leave or go back.
In my world, the grass is not always greener on the other side. In fact, often, it is the exact opposite. My existence consists of two worlds and whatever yard my bare or wool-socked feet are standing in. I’m not interested in what kind of drought they're having on the other side — lawns with weeds and brown spots and cracked soil. Where I am, each blade between my toes is almost neon with how saturated green it is. For while traipsing through the familiar roads of either Alabama or Siberia, I think about how much I love it there, how much the rest doesn't matter, how much I'll never leave even if the other side reels me back in like an old creaky fishing rod and how maddeningly confusing it all is. I am blinded by the green. Part of me will always miss the other side. Always, just not enough.
*туристы из Москвы: “tourists from Moscow”
Oбойдусь: “I can live without it”
Домики: “small village houses”
Вот тебе 'великая страна.': a saying roughly meaning "here's a great country for you." In this form it is sarcastic, kind of mocking how 'great' this country is when there aren't even public toilets, etc. It is a play on a typical saying of how Russia is a 'Great Country'