Nine months is the perfectly wrong amount of time to spend someplace. You just settle into a groove and then it’s time to leave. I feel like I belong here in Belgorod. I really do. It’s when I’m out on the street that I sense this most acutely. I unexpectedly run into people I know. I see the same cats in the same corners day after day. I’ve even been here long enough to watch the city change. The Museum of Folk Culture relocated—just like they told me they would on my first visit. My street alone has seen one construction project completed and another begun. The park next to my building has shrunk during my stay, gobbled up by bulldozers and protective fencing. Multiple cafés have closed and new ones have opened. The Belgorod Twittersphere is familiar enough to me now that I can tell in advance when there’s going to be a shitstorm of sick burns. I get this place and I feel like it gets me.
But there are still new things to discover here. For example, I got to meet radio announcer Alexander Serduk, who had me appear on his call-in show. Every caller welcomed me to the city and wished that our two countries could have better relations. <sigh> From your mouths to god’s ears, Belgoroders! Alexander showed me around the station, where they keep retro equipment from the old days. He also showed me where a colleague of his had hammered nails into a board with his bare hands. Tough guys over there at the radio.
Then some colleagues came from Moscow and Finland for a conference on migration. They gave a few lectures at the university and then we all piled into a gazelle to go to the University’s recreation center in Nezhegol. (I gave an impromptu tour along the way, pointing out “our” various landmarks
and their history.) I don’t even know what you would call this place in English as we simply have no equivalent. A retreat center, maybe? It’s a place where University staff and students can go for group recreational purposes. It’s on an enormous territory, with a river, tennis courts, and lots and lots of fake rocks. We spent the night, ate a bunch of fish, possibly drank some vodka, and carried on our conference in the morning. Alexander Serduk from the radio joined us. We even used the banya, but I’ve been forbidden from posting the photos. Ok, maybe the one where we’re all outside the banya would be ok.
In the evening we all got on the train to Moscow.
My colleagues were headed home, but I was meeting my Tucson friend, Mamta, in Moscow for her first trip to Russia. We saw Moscow and Petersburg and then guess what we did on our third day in Petersburg?
We got to know Belgorod better by meeting up with Boris Nikitashov, who was there finishing up his bachelor’s degree at St. Petersburg State University. He kindly showed us the finest drinking establishments in Petersburg. Or the cheapest. One of the two. We hung out with him until the wee hours of the morning telling Mamta all about Belgorod’s fascination with mayonnaise. A few days later we met up with him again to look at some art and sample some molecular gastronomy. Because I’m an idiot, I didn’t take any photos of Boris, just his dessert. But they’re pretty similar, really: interesting, surprising, yet comfortingly familiar.
When I got back to Belgorod, my friend Olga showed me part of the University I had never seen before: the Winter Garden. Winter, because it is a hothouse located on the top floor, where cacti and palm trees grow year round. I felt so calm and joyful when I entered the garden; I wish I had known about it in the winter when I was depressed. I think a few quiet hours here every week, hanging out with the ducks and the parrots, could have really helped me.
On Saturday I went on a long bike ride with my friend’s husband, Oleg. We stopped on the way there at Oleg’s pivnaya. Now, I have known about pivnayas for quite some time, but being a woman, it’s not really a place to visit on your own. Pivnayas are beer stores, where you buy beer on tap poured into a plastic bottle. Naturally, these places also sell all variety of salty snacks to go with your beer: potato chips, dried, salted fish, calamari, etc. I figured these places are for buying beer and snacks and then taking them home to enjoy. Turns out, they often have simple rooms in the back where patrons watch football on the television while enjoying the provisions offered for sale. While Oleg got our bottles filled up with beer (kvas for me–I was riding an unfamiliar route on an unfamiliar bicycle), I talked to a regular there. He said it’s like a little family. Everyone there is a regular. It’s all men, but sometimes someone’s wife will show up for a beer or two. “The key,” this man said, “is to not develop a dependence on it.” Ok, sure, it’s important not to become an alcoholic. But the way he said it made me think he really meant the whole package– the people, the beer, the football– rather than just the alcohol. It’s hard not to become dependent on this social circle. I’ve got a bar that I go to at home, I’m a regular there, so I get it. You want to see your people and you want to feel close to them. But if you have to drink to feel that closeness, it’s maybe not so good. I certainly know that if they had pivnayas in the United States, that my friends and I would be there instead of our beloved Che’s Lounge.
Later we caught the creation of the world’s largest stew at Belgorod’s Grill-Fest. I have no idea how it tasted, but it certainly was large, as you can see from the photos. I got interviewed on TV again and I tangled up my tongue talking about how much I love Belgorod’s food. I love it all, except maybe the mayonnaise. How will I get by back at home?
In my ideal fantasy world, I would summer here in Belgorod, taking little trips into the countryside for swimming and picnics. I would hone my mushroom- and berry-picking skills, heading back to Tucson only when the weather turned cold. It would be like I could live two different lives. Is it in any way possible to turn this fantasy into reality?
There has to be a word for the feeling of wanting to go home and wanting to stay in equal amounts. Portuguese has a word that means, basically, “nostalgia in advance.” They call it saudade.