Posted in Travel

From Madison to Москва́

I love maps. I love history. I love Europe. Sophomore year in college I found a class that combined all three. The class examined the geographical and historical rise (and sometimes fall) of Europe’s capital cities. It was no surprise that I loved this class, too.

(Author: Ssolbergj and Wadim)

When I signed up, I had no idea that each class would transport me back to being five years old and sitting in my living room watching the screen in awe as my parents showed their friends the slides of their recent trip to London or Germany or somewhere else in Europe. That’s right. A majority of the class was a slide show of Europe’s beautiful capital cities. I was in heaven. I didn’t understand how this was a legitimate course. Better yet, I wanted to have a job where I got to travel all over Europe “in the name of research” and then talk about the places I visited while showing slides to an audience.

As if things couldn’t get any better, the class had a Part II complementary course the following semester. I signed up ASAP. It was during this term that the class went behind the Iron Curtain and into Russia. The professor had gone to visit his son, who had been attending Moscow State University, and he was very eager to share the photos. My interest in Russia hadn’t been sparked yet so I retained little from that particular lecture.

My thoughts were more focused on how I was amazed that Moscow was a place his son wanted to study, I wondered about the difficulty of getting a visa to go there, and how he, my professor, had been able to enter the country as a non-student. I knew little about Russia, but with the wall having come down only eleven years prior, I figured the country wouldn’t be too thrilled with letting Americans in just yet. I really had no idea. Rocky IV was still my only connection to the country. Sadly, I wasn’t interested in finding out more.

Four years later, I was finally interested in finding out more about Russia, and I was in-country to do it. For instance, I didn’t know Moscow had hills. On my first day in town a tour took my group to the top of Sparrow Hills in the southwest part of the city where we could overlook the whole of Moscow. I was trying to find all seven “wedding cake” buildings scattered throughout the city. To my right was a the ski jump built in 1953. In front of me, across the river, was the Luzhniki Stadium, where the open and closing ceremonies to the 1980 summer Olympics were held. To my left were distant views of the Kremlin. Behind me was a building for Moscow State University. As I turned to look at it, I felt I had seen it before. But how? When? Where?

The shot the Professor and I both took.

Then it hit me – the historical geography class! The slide came to my mind. In the slide the professor is taking a picture of his son with this building behind him. I was standing in practically the same area as my professor when he took his picture. I had to snap the same shot, of course.

I hadn’t thought of that course in a really long time. I began to recall my thoughts about Russia I had that day in lecture. I had learned so much since then, having taken such an interest in the history and culture of the country. I had thought at the time that what the professor did in going to Moscow was so special, and there I was in Moscow doing something special, too. I had come a long way from that lecture hall in Madison.

Posted in Travel

To Russia, With Love

Sometimes you are just going along in your life when something new comes your way and little do you know that a new path, a new interest will eventually take you somewhere you really never thought of going before. For me, that something new was a book and my new path led me to Russia.

The first Russian book I owned was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. But this wasn’t THE book. I most likely bought this book because I wanted to read one of literature’s classics. I don’t remember buying it. I just remember it being thick, descriptive, with lots of notes in the back and way too many diminutive names to remember. I know that I finished the book in the summer of 2004 when Oprah had it as one of her book club books and I know, somehow, that it took four years to complete, so by counting backwards I must have bought the book in 2000. This book was abandoned about an eighth of the way through and six months in.

It wasn’t until some time between six months and four years when I was perusing the rather pitiful travel narrative section of a bookstore that I found THE book that would lead me in a new direction. The book was Metro Stop Dostoevsky: Travels in Russian Time by Ingrid Bengis. This book I devoured. I remember being transported to this place and time I had never been nor knew much about and being spellbound by Ms. Bengis’s storytelling. My first peek at a modern Russia compared to Anna’s.

From here I really got into the Romanovs and the Anastasia conspiracies of her surviving her family’s murder in 1918. I read both historical fiction and non-fiction of their kidnapping and murder with some pretty flimsy writing on the conspiracies mixed in.

Then I decided to give Anna Karenina another shot. And four years after I started the book, I finished. Anna’s storyline was far from my favorite as I found her rather annoying, but I was captivated by Levin’s story. And, sadly, I had found out the ending prior to getting there myself. But, I enjoyed the book and took pride in completing my first major piece of Russian literature. War and Peace here I come – ha!

Russia, prior to all this, had been the team the US beat in the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and had produced an ice-cold machine of a contender in my favorite of the ‘Rocky’ film franchise (gotta love the blatant, in-your-face Cold War commentary in that film). It was now a place of such rich culture and history.

Russia wasn’t really on my travel radar as in I never actually thought I’d go there. Why not, I’m not sure. But then when I was in London studying for my Masters, mere months after finishing Anna Karenina, I came across an opportunity to go to St. Petersburg and Moscow for a week over my term break. I couldn’t pass that up.

The process to get into Russia was definitely a process and is another post on its own. And once I got there – wow – it was amazing (again another post)! There I was in a country I never thought I’d ever visit nor thought I’d be fascinated by and loving it. All thanks to a book.