On Thursday I took my time getting myself together and decided to splurge on a taxi to the airport for my flight to Stavropol. The alternative was to walk to the train station (about fifteen minutes) and then take the light rail to the airport. I have no excuse for not taking the cheaper (and probably faster) route. I was just goddamn lazy.
It was my first time at Domodedovo airport and I was a little disoriented. Airports are disorienting! I guess I was surprised at this fact because I’m used to waltzing in to Sheremetyevo like a pro, smugly scoffing at the confused masses. I found S7 (my airline) and got in line. It was at this point that I realized that I had become a racist.
Stavropol, the location of the second half of my conference, is in Russia’s North Caucasus, a region surrounded by Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, regions that have been war-torn in the recent past. Stavropol hasn’t seen any war at all, but, to my American eyes, the men standing in line for my plane looked like the men I’d seen on the news doing the warring. Many of them were speaking languages unfamiliar to me. And I flinched when one of them asked me a simple question. It was then that I saw how the years of news coverage and outright anti-Caucasus propaganda had affected me. It’s unpleasant realizing you’ve internalized hateful messages and I instantly felt ashamed.
I stopped for a quite bite of surprisingly tasty Spaghetti Carbonara before making my way to the gate. In my mind I had somehow gotten the impression that I’d be flying to Stavropol alone and would have to take a taxi to my hotel, meeting up with the other conference-goers somehow. But that wasn’t the case at all—at the gate I recognized several people from the Moscow conference and I was immediately enveloped in a ruckus of excited activity.
Sharif was there and immediately started talking about how he was bringing a huge pot of plov with us to Stavropol. Another woman shot back at him, “Oh sure, you’ve been talking about the so-called plov of you for years! Don’t believe him. I’ve been hearing about this plov for ages.” Sharif insisted that, yes, indeed, he had brought plov. Sergei, the conference organizer confirmed this, so I smiled and said, ‘Of course!” but inside I suspected they were having me on. Who would bring a pot of food on a plane and why?
We landed in Stavropol and it turned out that even more of the people on the plane were conference-goers than I realized. While we waited for our bags I sussed out that we had folks from Finland, Romania, Japan, Viet Nam, Turkey, and Brazil. I got to talking to one guy who turned out to be Canadian by way of Finland. What a motley bunch we were.
Outside the airport we were immediately surrounded by dense fog, so I couldn’t see anything around me at all. We packed onto our bus and our driver sorted out which people were going to which hotel while we all talked about why we were there. Everyone was there because of Sergei, the conference organizer. They had all met him at some point in the past and he had arranged for us all to join him for this Magical Mystery Tour. This is the fifth year of Sergei’s conference, and it has been wildly successful. Most of the people seemed to at least slightly know each other but everyone warmly welcomed me. I felt a little bit like an imposter since I’m no longer an academic, but they all seemed to accept me nonetheless. My seatmate in the bus wiped the interior fog off the windows so we could take a peek at the landscape, but all we saw was more fog on the outside of the window.
Arriving at the hotel, we were given an hour until we would be taken to an art gallery. I nearly didn’t go because I was feeling tired and somewhat anxious about meeting all these new people. Luckily, this was one of those times that I forced myself to just do it. We got to the gallery and we were met by Vitali Semyonovich, the head of the Geography department, which is hosting our conference. He warmly invited us into the gallery, which was filled with tables and chairs ready for a banquet! A talkative lady led us around the gallery, showing us how the paintings all reflected the landscape there in Stavropol (something we couldn’t judge at all because we hadn’t seen the land-, or any, -scape). She also pointed out which of the paintings had been donated by Mikhail Gorbachev, a Stavropol native. Then a jazz saxophonist began to play, accompanied by a piano.
We all sat down to dinner and guests started in on a series of toasts in honor of the many prestigious researchers in our group.
There were so many starters that I had trouble deciding, so I settled on some sausage sandwiches and cucumbers, eventually moving on to fruit. And then someone sat a plate in front of me containing…plov! Indeed, Sharif had brought his own plov all the way from Moscow to serve to all of us…I mean, there were at least thirty of us. I don’t know how he made so much and I really don’t know how it traveled on the plane, but there it was. And it was delicious. Anytime someone asked Sharif what the difference between Tajik and Uzbek plov was, Sharif would wink and say, “A Tajik made it, so it is Tajik plov!”
We got a little lubricated with the wine and then Sharif scared the pants off of me. He told me that I needed to make a toast because it would make Sergei look good. Oh no, I groaned….but the Japanese man had just made a toast! “Yes, “ explained Sharif, “but you are an American, which is a special kind of guest, so you need to get up and say something. I’ll go tell Vitali Semyonovich.”
My brain scrambled, trying to think of what I was going to say. Vitali introduced me. The Canadian-by-way-of-Finland sitting next to me explained that I needed to go stand next to Vitaly at the head table. WHY DIDN’T I WEAR A NICER SKIRT???? I just thought this was a little foot tour of an art gallery. I started with thanking them for inviting me, and for making me feel welcome. I explained how it was good to be among such intelligent colleagues and that I loved Russia. And then I thanked them again for inviting me. After I ran back to my seat, I was quietly told that I needed to go back up there and individually toast everyone at the head table, including Vitaly Semyonovich, who had apparently just been left standing with his drink outstretched while I scooted away. Sigh. Someday I will learn this all.
Sharif cried out for another “photo session,” and then we made our way home in the fog. Although others went for beers, I collapsed into my bed. This was going to be one hell of a conference.