Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Canned Alaska

Couchsurfing is brilliant  – it offers, on the occasion, instant friend-like folks in every town you visit.

Kandalaksha was no exception.

I felt welcomed into the realms of this small northern town quite quickly in the hospitality of Irina. Not only was I the first Couchsurfer she had hosted, I was also the first American she had ever met.

Like other Russians before her had figured out, she identified that I was not your “typical American” - and certainly not like the Americans she had seen on TV, which was all she pretty much knew of my side of the world.

In the same way, she was not a typical Russian. I could sense pangs of wanderlust, but the obligations towards the family and their influence rang pretty strong in her life. It considered very noble to save up for your retirement in Russia and her mother was quite adament that she do that. Irina also wasn't too keen on being in Kandalaksha. The day I came had been her last day at work and the next day was her first day of freedom. She was disatisfied with her Kandalaksha life. There is a huge lack of young folks (young adults – 20s and 30s) here because, once you hit that age, there's not much for you. Almost anyone with ambition leaves. Irina had left for a while to St. Petersburg where she has friends and “a life” but returned to her childhood town for personal reasons (most likely family). However, it was time for her to move back to St. Petersburg. I'm excited for her upcoming move.

Talking to Irina opened my eyes up even more to Russian culture.

I'm slowly starting to understand typical family dynamics and slipping into daily Russian rituals.

I was thrilled when, after I arrived, she asked if I wanted a shower or a bath. I totally wanted a bath. She drew the bath for me and not only was it a hot bath, it was a bubble bath. She also let me wash all my clothes. I scrubbed myself clean and, for the first time in a year and 3 months, used shampoo. My hair hated it. I appologized and gave it a good rinse in vinegar and promised not to subject it to such treatment again.

We stayed up until around 2 AM together. Then, I saw she had Skype and asked if I could call my brother. She understood completely (Russians like families, as noted above) and I got to Skype with Ian Hubert which was awesome! I really miss that guy. Not a “need to go back” miss. Just sort of a, “golly, I wish we could go fora walk” missing.

The next day I woke up to learn that Lukas had texted her to say we would be meeting up at 11 AM. We had breakfast and he showed up with some of Alexander's belongings he had left in Lukas' car. We (they) tried to find a way to ship them. Shipping things isn't as easy in Russia as the postal system is pretty sketch.

A highlight of the morning is when we made our way down to the bay, by the mouth of the river. I love finding water or mountains wherever I go and water trips have become something of a ritual in Russia.

I learned that here, people fed the seals just like some people feed pigeons. People would come down and throw fish for them. Irina said that back in the day, the seals were so used to humans that you could come and hug them. However, there homeless population started to eat the seals and the seals figured it out and left for a while. Now, though, they're starting to come back.

Lukas and Irina chatted away in Russian and I skittered up and down the rocks on my own. Normally I try to listen, but it felt like I wasn't even there. I sort of felt like my host had been hijacked from me. That was fine, I just didn't feel like sticking around. Once we arrived back into town, I told them I wanted to go for a walk alone and felt liberated. Irina and Lukas are great, but I felt like I was a kid being toted around without any clue of what was happening. This was my day in Kandalaksha and I figured I should take advantage of it.

I did that thing I do called “walking around.”

I had to pee. I peed between two sheds. I like Russia because I feel like I can pee anywhere where people are not. I don't know if that's true, but it's a liberating idea because public toilets are not frequent even though my bladder is as full as ever.

Another side road took me by the river, up by the shops, and through a series of flats. The soviet apartments reigned over the landscape, making the skyline, as prevelantly as ever. I admired the attempts at individualism and personalization in each balcony on one of the buildings.

When I got back to Irina's flat (building 11), she was there but Lukas had left for Finland. She welcomed me back in with a cup of tea and lunch (buckwheat, corn, and sausages) – but not in that order. Food always comes first. Tea second.

We hung out. Went out for a 2-hour walk with the misson of finding a map of Russia and beans. Finding a map of Russia is a lot harder than you might imagined. I had already explored 10 shops in Vologda looking for one. We saw a small stationary/book shop and asked. The lady told us there wasn't any but upon further inspection, we found one for 120 rubels ($4). At the grocery store I got pinto beans that I could later turn into unfriend refried beans.

Back home, hung out, she served me up some of her mother's fish soup which was amazing. I didn't know I liked fish soup. Now I know it's lovely and want to have it every day (or at least a few times a month).

We discussed many things.

One thing I've learned in Russia is that it's not so simple to travel when you're Russian. As an American, I can go most places without a visa if I'm staying for under 2-6 months. I can go to places like Norway on a whim, so long as I can prove that I have the cash to support myself and intend to leave on time. If you're a Russian, though, you need a visa. To get a visa to America, I've heard a number of variations on the hoops you have to jump through. Olga (CS Host #6) had to go to be interviewed in St. Petersburg before they would give her a visa. She had to prove that her English was good enough. Irina filled me in that it's easiest to get a visa if you prove you had money – and also, being married will increase your chances. They want to make sure, once again, that you'll have reason to return back to Russia and not stick around America illegally. While it was not a piece of cake to get my visa to Russia, it wasn't that bad – just a form or two and a couple hundred bucks (which would be a lot for a Russian in some towns where the average wage is below $700 a month).

I think I finally was asleep by 2 AM, a bit earlier than the night before.

The next morning was just as it needed to be. We went for an hour long walk in the afternoon down to the river. All the meanwhile, I was getting to know Irina better and vice versa. I learned more of the relationship between Russia and Turkey and started to understand why so many of my CS hosts had been to Turkey and loved it there – Turkey is one of the few countries that Russians can visit without a visa.

One other thing I've found fascinating is learning about the first experiences of my CS hosts in western Europe. Sveta (Host # 7) talked to me about the culture shock she experienced her first time in Beligum. When raised in Russia and after living here your entire life, I guess you expect the constant frowns to be the norm. I can only imagine what it's like the first time you go some place else and the people smile and sometimes even greet each other on the street. How do you prepare a Russian for that. “You're going to go to another country and the strangers will be nice to you.”

During the walk, we saw a lot of urban decay, a lot of crumbling buildings, and a lot of trash. We also saw a lot of birdhouses and tires that had been painted, cut up, and used as decorations. Kandalaksha definitely isn't a tourist town (just like Apatity). They're towns where Russian people live and do Russian things. People are not expecting to see an American in Kandalaksha. There is no real reason to come and no draw. It's a town on a map. For me, this is the Russia I want to see.

After packing up, it was just a 20 minute walk to the train station. I was grateful she walked me all the way there. In fact, I'm grateful for everything Irina did to make me feel at home in Kandalaksha.

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