Photo courtesy of the author
Khabarovsk prepares for the annual Ice Fantasy festival.
Bags, Babushka And Bivayet
by John Michael Flynn
Mid-September, 2015, at one of two baggage carousels at Novy airport in Khabarovsk, capital city of Russia’s Far East, the baggage claims room, a damp dimly lit space under a low ceiling, teeming with new arrivals. Family, friends and taxi drivers must wait nearby in another room. Multiple flights have arrived simultaneously to pack this mid-sized airport. Its décor smacks of the 50s era. Not grim, not remarkable either. I feel jittery and fatigued, yet my flight from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport took only eight hours. A week before, I’d left from Dulles in Washington, DC, for my new job as a Teaching Fellow and an orientation with the US State Department. For a while, time won’t matter. My bodily functions will adjust to a 14-hour difference, dictating much of my patterns. I’ve brought Melatonin, re-set my phone and watch.
Baggage claim at Novy airport in Khabarovsk
I’m worried about my bags. To use baggage as an excuse for one’s behavior strikes me as mendaciously self-serving, yet many people do. Psychiatrists grow wealthy helping others deconstruct what such baggage may mean. We all carry some, yet how many confront their baggage by accumulating more, not less? Would a turn at minimalism make them feel better? Speaking of feelings, I’m watching one of anxious uncertainty develop among the travelers around me, nearly all Russian. This happens wherever a wait must occur. Why? Do these Russians travel with their most valued possessions? Do I? It’s easy to forget that, eventually, tickets get issued, most lost bags get found, taxis arrive. For me, the most consistently infuriating element regarding travel is learning again it’s short-sighted to depend on Google maps without a paper map as back-up. Only fools rely on technology more than their own wits. No paucity of fools, I’m afraid.
The patience required of any new arrival often means the rise of a palpable unsettling edginess that, as I observe Russians, I’ll hazard to define as one of the Asian elements in their delightfully complex character, notably when those Russians are older, from the Soviet era, meaning they trust the past is unpredictable and the future not worth worrying about. Russian travelers from that generation saw trains full of family members leave the station, never to return.
In Moscow, I stayed at the People’s Hostel, one toilet on each floor at the end of a narrow hall. My roommate was also a Fellow, Paul, assigned to Kazan. I hadn’t been in Moscow since the summer of ‘93. Paul had been there in the 70s, having majored in German and Russian at Georgetown. He speaks Russian with competence and flair. We agreed Moscow had changed. For me, it had grown too big, expensive and loud. Though visiting Anton Chekov’s house again, along with Red Square, brought moments of joy. We spent a week at meetings, jet-lagged, digesting an excess of information. We were treated to a visit to the office of an American consul, an erudite gentleman who asked if we agreed with the opinion of author Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies at NYU and Princeton, who, in a nutshell, believes U.S. policy toward Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union has failed and is still failing. At the time, I doubted many Obama voters believed that. I still do. The consul told us that as much as he respected Mr. Cohen’s dedication to the study of Russia, he disagreed with him, convinced American policy had succeeded. America was numero uno and preparing for the inevitable brink of a new Cold War, its hand forced by Vladimir Putin. Really? In this age of diluted humanism, one Napoleonic gentleman, height five-foot-eight (my height and short), holds that much power?
No, sorry. Yet neither Paul nor I expressed opinions. We discussed this issue later in private, both disagreeing with any imminent Cold War, and both seeing Putin, in spite of Western hype to demean him, as good for Russia. In short, agreeing with Professor Cohen placed us squarely in an unpatriotic minority. We’d have to keep our pie-holes shut since we’d be living in Russia and representing the US government. What I believe to this day is that a peaceful evolution in the relationship between both countries is possible and worth developing, but the US military-industrial complex prefers to demonize Putin as a way to sell arms and send soldiers to Eastern Europe. Putin’s argument regarding Western expansion of NATO, despite a treaty agreement not to expand, is valid. So which is the more imperial power?
We left that office feeling discouraged, although one day at lunch we pleased two of the embassy’s cafeteria workers by speaking intelligible Russian to them, disproving all Americans are adamantly monolingual. That embassy, described in Nelson Demille’s 1988 novel The Charm School, is massive, abuzz with suspicion, home to out-of-touch elitist government lackeys, and ultimately a popcorn feast that leaves one’s craw feeling empty.
Dehydrated, constipated, stiff in the neck, I look around Novy airport and spot travelers who appear to suffer similar discomforts. I like knowing we share these. The room isn’t heated well. Yet none appear cold. I’ve learned that from November to March there are seldom temps in Khabarovsk above zero Celsius. Highs reach about 18 Fahrenheit and it’s not unusual for lows to dip to 26 below zero Fahrenheit with gusting winds off the Amur River year-round. In the city’s favor, there’s a steady eastern sun, but I might consider Fargo a warmer alternative.
There’s no shortage of testy jockeying for position around the two baggage carousels. The wall of bodies surrounding them appears so dense that if, as newcomer, I don’t assert myself into position, I won’t see my bags when they wobble past on the belt. It’s a shrill conveyor, creaky steel wheels vibrating, filling the room, making it difficult to hear. I worry my bags will be stolen. Why? Estimating how frigid it will get, it’s not like I’ve packed anything appropriate enough for the weather. I’m coming from central Virginia, where winter isn’t that mean. I’d been to Moscow and Saint Petersburg when working for the Peace Corps in Moldova during the early 90s, but this is my first trek to Russia’s Far East. I suspect my bags, no matter how carefully filled, don’t hold what I’ll need. The American-made chocolates, coins and whiskey I’ve brought as gifts might be lost, but as Russians say: bivayet. It happens.
As bags get claimed, the mob will thin. Mine will be easier to see. I bought them second-hand at a Goodwill store. A painter friend, Mary, striped them both in chevrons of orange and yellow acrylic. One’s a tiger and one’s a bumblebee. Can’t be missed. So where does this worry about losing them come from? Have I forgotten that everything can be replaced? I’m lying to myself when thinking this journey will be about re-invention. I’ve brought two suitcases worth of my old self with me and for a moment I’m tempted to walk out of the airport empty-handed, completely honest about starting from scratch.
But I don’t. I lack the courage. I watch Russian travelers who know how to labor as teams in this enterprise of arriving. The largest among four men, unshaven in jeans and black hooded sweatshirt, elbows his way in among the bodies. He grabs a bag as it comes, hoists it overhead without fear of injuring anyone and then passes it to another man who quickly finds floor space and begins to create a stack which a third man keeps an eye on. A fourth man corners a taxi driver who hurries to his cab to move it closer to the exit door.
These Russians are skilled at this. I’m not. I’ll endure the severest of nagging pains in order to feel more comfortable, as long as I can do it myself. I’m ferociously proud of my independence. I appreciate help, but I prefer to think I don’t need it. Inconveniences won’t stop me as long as I’m claiming territory for what I’ve deemed necessary, namely not anything I want others to handle as I achieve the ultimate travel reward of breezing out of airport or station and into a cab, knowing all is in place. In this way, I’m ridiculously American and not unlike the man that comic George Carlin describes in his routine lampooning how the whole point of living is to find new ways to get rid of your stuff so that you can buy more stuff.
The Russians I already know, both in Moldova, Ukraine, and in an immigrant community in America where I taught English for many years, don’t suffer this problem. I believe many aren’t satisfied unless they’ve endured misery to a point beyond reason. The more teeth-gritting, impulse-abating tension in the misery, the better. Whether it’s trudging in layers of outer wear over steep icy streets with both gloved hands gripping bags full of groceries and the wind gusting sleet into their eyes, or a commute twice a day in a crowded bus over bumpy roads through desolate urban landscapes. All fine and endurable as long as they allow themselves the right to complain about it once at home. These Russians friends have often appeared to me unwilling to accept a needed sense of competency and self-actualization unless they’ve conquered constant aching annoyances and a looming fear of the universe collapsing around them. In short, they’ve got to earn it. They take pride in their stamina.
I wonder what the new Russians I meet and befriend will be like. I think of these differences between the Russian and American character – and I present them, of course, as generalizations and opinion. The Russian travelers around me show more patience than I believe I’m capable of. In the 90s, I stood with them in long lines to mail a package or buy bread. Americans, as well, endure such lines, but they do so unwillingly, often griping about it. Americans think to themselves: there is something wrong here, this is not how it’s supposed to be. Russians think: there is something right here because everything is pretty much screwed up. So be it. Bivayet.
Tribulations can bring out a remarkably placid tolerance in Russians, many of whom are also prone to thinking: here we go again, Mother Russia is at least consistent. They don’t expect things to function smoothly, without waits, snags and inconsiderate treatment by those who perform the thankless low-paying work of logistical processing. They compete for their place in line, and they feel it’s their right and privilege to complain. Americans do the same, but Americans might try to talk to a manager who could speed up minions or else discuss with the boss ways to streamline an inefficient process. An American manager will listen respectfully, though there’s no guarantee of action. To sage Russian ears, the idea of customer service still sounds a tinny note, almost a capitulation to a fantasy. However, they like seeing it.
In my mid-fifties, I know how to clam up and not sound disapproval. This took years of living in a variety of places, having been raised in a place where residents won’t even blink as they tell you point-blank to piss in your Corn Flakes. I was also raised to believe the customer is always right. Some American customers will make phone calls to higher-ups and keep vows to never shop this store or fly that airline again. It’s comforting, after all, to get frustration off one’s chest. The difference is that for an American, an illusion of rights as a paying customer exists as consolation. Russians are far too pragmatic for such illusions. They accept that discomforting surprises define life anywhere. They occasionally confront discomforts publicly, sounding their ire, but mostly they grin and bear it while waiting in line, unconcerned with any Occidental demand for personal space, though unlike the Chinese they won’t nudge you along, poking you in the back.
All such impressions of Russians, in themselves a form of baggage, are of little value to me as I wait. I have two issues concerning me now. The first is pronouncing correctly the city I’ll be residing in. I mutter it under my breath. The second is realizing that the sun-drenched lassitude of summer is history. I feel drained, sleep-deprived, fearful that winter will begin soon and I won’t be ready. This fear is more baggage. It’s about 40 Fahrenheit, yet I see no fur coats or hats. On the afternoon I left Virginia, it was a humid 95 F and still baseball season.
Weariness takes control and I teeter, dyspeptic and bloated. I learn there’s no public toilet in baggage claims. I’m now one grumpy middle-aged Yank, spleen about to burst. No point in whining. No wheeled carts either, no room for them, and no space to swing big suitcases off the carousel and on to the floor without cuffing someone in the head. I spot one of my suitcases rattling past. It’s the tiger. I can’t get to it. I must wait. Three more times it appears before I abandon diplomacy and lunge between two young men in front of me, shoving them aside. I try to grab my bag. I miss and push it so it twists on the belt, doesn’t slide off, bobs along until disappearing from view.
Anxiety grows. What am I afraid of? Can’t I just exit, naked to the world, find the people who have agreed to meet me here? During the fifth time the suitcase comes around, fed up with the two young men in front of me, I revert to hooking my left leg in front of one pair of legs, turn my torso in a half-pivot and drive my hips outward and force a young man’s body backwards the way a basketball player boxes out for a rebound. This allows enough space. With precise timing, I drive both arms, lift my heavy suitcase and swing it around overhead. One young man sees that bulky second-hand Samsonite with its tiger stripes, and he ducks, cursing at me. I’ve nearly taken his head off. I should care, but I don’t. I need a toilet. The young buck will get over it. One suitcase at my feet. One more to go.
Twenty minutes later, I perform the same box-out routine, but it’s not the same young man. It’s a bosomy, sturdy babushka. Next to her stands a lanky boy, perhaps her son, handsome in his military uniform. Next to him stands his wife or lover, also in uniform. They’re a lovely couple, but they don’t move when I lunge for my suitcase. They don’t even acknowledge my presence; they’re more recalcitrant than the young men who occupied the space prior to them. I’ve got to earn their respect.
I will not be denied my baggage. Saying good riddance to courtly Virginia politeness, I swing my elbows and nearly strike the young man’s chin. I drive one end of my second suitcase into the babushka’s stomach. I really make her feel it. She grunts but refuses to budge. What surprises me is that she hasn’t shouted. It’s as if, for a moment, I’ve not only shocked her, but I’ve garnered her esteem.
I may be wrong. Though the babushka took the blow silently, she’s apple-cheeked and has begun sounding choice bits of profanity. It dawns on me that I’ve been mistakenly viewing this experience as an exercise in cunning. I must embrace it, instead, as roller derby. I add some baggage, like an onion layer, by remembering to apply this to my next arrival.
At last, I have my two bags in hand, wheeling them along. I can leave baggage claims to find a toilet. However, during the jostle around the carousel, I misplaced my tear-off baggage claim ticket stub. I need it. Here in Russia, rules are obeyed, or else. The female official won’t let me through. I argue in my worst Russian. I’m childish, grumpy and impolite as I show her my name and address in English on tags tied to each suitcase handle. This just stiffens her resolve. Do I think because I’m American that I’m above the rules? It’s only when she sees the line of surly travelers swelling behind me that she scowls and sounds a litany of curses, insulting me as a stupid foreigner as she lets me pass.
This may be my first contact with the new Cold War the consul was so certain about, the one I will possibly fight each day. It will have nothing to do with ICBMs and NATO treaties. Knowing I’ve deserved them, I take the woman’s curses in stride. They’re karmic payback for the way I treated the babushka. Having failed Diplomacy 101, I’m not off to a memorable start. Well, nobody’s perfect. Bivayet. I must toughen my hide, lower expectations of myself and others and remember baggage is not vital. Toilets are. None of me in this incarnation will return when I finish my fellowship. In the big picture, what matters is not what I take from any experience to fill my suitcase, but what I empty from it and leave behind.
Ice Festival in Khabarovsk
About the author:
John Michael Flynn was the 2017 Writer in Residence at Carl Sandburg’s home, Connemara, in North Carolina. In 2015 he completed a one-year English Language Fellowship through the US State Department in Khabarovsk, Russia. Poetry collections include Restless Vanishings, and Keepers Meet Questing Eyes, from Leaf Garden Press (www.leafgarden.blogspot.com), and Blackbird Once Wild Now Tame, translated from the Romanian of Nicolae Dabija. He’s published three collections of short stories, his most recent, Off To The Next Wherever, from Fomite Books (www.fomitepress.com). He teaches at TED University in Ankara, Turkey. Visit him at www.basilrosa.com.