Mother Russia

‘Babchenko–here. Your father died…’ [the postman] said breathlessly, handing me a telegram. And right at that moment they gave us the signal to board and the battalion started loading its gear. The other soldiers went past me, clapping me on the back and saying: ‘You’re lucky.’ Instead of going to Grozny I went to Moscow to my dad’s funeral.

My father gave me life twice. If he had died twenty minutes later I would have missed the telegram, boarded the helicopter and died half an hour after that. The helicopter was shot to pieces as it landed in Khankala. The battalion returned a month later. Only forty-two men remained of the ninety-six. That’s how the war was then.
One Soldier’s War

I’ve been reflecting lately on why many of my interests are so macabre. It’s a bit difficult to get to know new normal people and share interests when you spend your free time leafing through The Great Big Book of Horrible Things; when you will happily chat about any time in history where people were suffering and dying (which is, to be fair, all times in history); when your backup topics include infectious disease and radiation poisoning. I suppose I will also happily yammer on about personal development, business, psychology, travel, religion, general history and classical literature, but I have always favored the darker and drearier topics. History is the only real way to learn anything, after all, and the insane complexity of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Third Reich; the Soviet Union take forever to fully absorb. They’re rabbit holes from which you may never reemerge.

I suppose I am overly interested in the “how” and “why” of everything, and the mechanisms by which (bad) ideas (and infectious diseases, for that matter) spread. Communism has always been particularly interesting to me, as I can’t think of a wider-spread worse set of ideas than Communism… and, arguably, some of those belonging to the Catholic church. I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by how Communism works and how it changes people individually, morally, ethically, politically, financially. Communism is so alien, so irrational, so gruesome, it’s a crime scene I’ve been rubbernecking my whole life.

I also have always wondered how people live, and what it feels like to be someone else–to have someone else’s life. I wonder about the way the world is filtered through different people’s eyes. I am pretty interested in horror and gore films as well, and much of it can be explained by the fact that when I think another person may be afraid or grossed out, I am mostly curious. I had a colleague ask me why many horror moves are so frightening to some people and not others, and I told him I believe it’s because religion has such power, even when as adults people don’t believe in God. Satanic movies seem to freak people out the most, because people are raised with a fear of evil. I don’t seem to harbor those kinds of subconscious preconceptions, and have really enjoyed some films, being able to see beyond the superficial style: Martyrs, Antichrist and A Serbian Film come to mind. I’ve met some others over the years who seem to have stripped those preconceptions from their personalities, and they tend to be more interesting to be around, not to mention more curious about the world.

This roundup is a brief return to the Eastern bloc, and the Caucasus.

applebaumBetween East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe. I’ve loved all of Anne Applebaum’s books, and I have one left to read before I’ve read them all. I began with Gulag, which was a pretty meticulous history of the gulag system. Her history of the Holodomor in Ukraine, Red Famine, was also amazing. Between East and West seemed to hearken a bit to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in its structure, and ever since I read that complete freakin’ masterpiece I’ve loved stumbling upon other books written in the same style. Between East and West winds through Kaliningrad, into Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. The Carpathians. I was pretty enamored by this map, which shows Galicia and Ruthenia: both no longer exist as demarcated regions:

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This book is a more leisurely and less meticulously detailed read as it details brief stays in each locale; she meets a series of characters who weave their own experiences into her story. The time frame of this trip is 1991-92, which was chock full of changes in this part of the world, and the people are filled with the uncertainty of their time as well. It paints a pretty dull portrait of a series of pretty dull places, with some interesting historical anecdotes woven in; it was worth reading, but not nearly as illuminating or full of information as her other books. Review which largely speaks this here.

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War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command. This book was mentioned in The Economist, and it piqued my interest enough to read it. The book itself is not good at all; the ideas and the urgency of the message are pertinent regardless. Not sure I would ever recommend this book to anyone, but Europe’s utter unpreparedness to counter a larger threat from Russia is a massive blind spot in modern foreign policy. Review in FT here.

onesoldierswarOne Soldier’s War. I’ve had this book on my Kindle since 2017, and I finally started and finished it. This was a surprisingly incredible book; I loved so many excerpts I’d rather put them in here than say much more. An article/short bio of the author from The Guardian here.

Read excerpts here.

Arctic Dreams

When I was a kid, I counted down to winter. I was fortunate to have spent much of my adolescence in New York state, where those winters are long; and I can’t ever remember being excited for spring. I learned to ski shortly after I could walk, and as an adult, currently taking a hiatus from skiing, the whoosh of skis on hard pack will always hearken back to my youth and young adulthood. Like language fluency, when you learn to ski young, it is as natural as breathing. I loved skiing most on the coldest days, when the trees moaned in the wind chill and my eyes watered if the seal of my goggles was broken… the kind of Northeastern wind that turns your legs lobster red under your ski pants and lets loose a primordial scream from deep in your bone marrow.

After an emotionally trying first year in college, I escaped to Uppsala to earn some cheap credits and visit my mother’s Swedish family. I felt I had grown up in many different worlds: the world of open, kind and adventurous Scandinavians and Italians having entered the US via Paterson, New Jersey; and my father’s coal mining Carpatho-Rusyns, who settled in Northeastern Pennsylvania with the rest of their kind. Slavic people, in my experience, were more fearful; neurotic; insular and wary of the outside world. Their culture was no less rich, and my travels through the former Eastern Bloc are a story for another day. I was also trapped between city and country, born in urban New Jersey but raised in the Catskill Mountains.

It was my mother’s parents who infected me with a travel obsession; the postcards in Swedish and the dinner table prayers; the stories of summers on Lake Mälaren and broader Nordic world; the elephants that adorned my grandparents’ home, many of them brought back from travels abroad, especially from Southeast Asia, where my mother’s father served in WWII. My grandfather died unexpectedly shortly after I arrived in Alaska, and my sister read my eulogy to him in New Jersey. An excerpt,

The shelves of elephants were more significant to my hopes and dreams than any other material possessions I encountered in my youth. Your trinkets from afar—the elephants, the Dala horses, the wicker dragon from Vietnam, all of which rest on shelves of mine here in Girdwood—paved the roads I have traveled in my life, far away and often solo. I loved your adventures, alone and together, around the world. To be a child and to think of India and Vietnam and Germany—to be able to see and touch pieces of those faraway places, to listen to stories—made them real, and within reach.

And so I reached.

Each item, marked with yours and Nana’s human history, gave me hope in traversing the earth for the same knowledge and understanding, to find my place in the world, the same way you had found yours, with each other. Many of these items, tucked away in bags and backpacks and luggage, through wars and business trips and vacations, were brought back with unflagging devotion, over years and decades. I became unsure at times, reflecting on your journeys, which was more important: the departure toward the unknown, or the return to what you really loved.

My years wandering through Scandinavia changed me, as did the Danish and Icelandic professors at BU who took me under their wing and helped me get to where I needed to be, who traded research projects for teaching assistance in their graduate classes. I felt as though I gained some glimpse of who I was, of where I belonged, and all the errant dots slowly connected over the following years. And, down the road, I found myself back in my adolescent hometown, looking north while being whipped by wind chill. Traveling to Ottawa & Toronto, to Newfoundland, to Iceland, Finnish Karelia, to the Yukon. Long weekends I would drive up to Dartmouth College and spend entire days looking through hundreds and thousands of Arctic expedition letters and lantern slides, housed in their incredible Stefansson Collection. I read hundreds of books on the Arctic, on polar expeditions, survival stories, creation myths, Icelandic sagas. I made online penpals of Nenets people in Archangelsk, of archaeologists in Oulu, of Arctic teachers across Canada and Hudson Bay Company historians.

I slowly began accumulating lithographs from Cape Dorset, which cushioned the doubt I felt in ever being able to eek out a life at the right latitude… and I continued to return to the north. I dragged my entire family up the coast of Norway in 2009. Two years earlier, in 2007, I brought my mother to Alaska, and I remember sitting on a boat in Prince William Sound wondering what it would take to live here. I did not believe it was possible. I wanted too many things.

Fast forward to July 2012, the month of thus far the happiest day of my life, pulling out of my parents’ driveway in Pennsylvania to drive to Alaska, car full of whatever I needed for the first few months until the rest of my stuff showed up. I had pretty much shed tears of joy every night before I even flew up for the interview process, knowing full well this was it, I was moving, and this was happening… feeling slightly as though I was being released from a nice enough prison, and my life was about to begin. I’ve been sure of very few things in my life: this was one of those moments. It was time.

I drove to my new home via a slight detour: via Dawson City, ferry across the Yukon River and over the dusty Top of the World Highway into Alaska, to Valdez and across Prince William Sound, crossing the very place I had doubted myself years prior. I thought, car tucked into a little ferry over the Yukon, about the countless stories I had read, in John McPhee’s Coming Into The Country, in the follow-up by Fairbanks writer Dan O’Neill, A Land Gone Lonesome, and have spent these years with a sense of personal triumph punctuated by loving something with so much depth I want to know everything, even all its worst, ugliest parts. Some days here, in Alaska, I wonder what I am doing here after these years, and sometimes daily life is so grim and frustrating… and then I remember all of this.

There is a painting hanging in the Anchorage Museum by Rockwell Kent that sucks me in every time I walk through their Art of the North gallery. And I think back to his work, his books with illustrations which have accompanied my travels: Salamina; North by Northeast; the reproductions of women standing on the Greenlandic shore that hang in my home. I dove into a book today I have been lugging around for a few years and have hesitated to read: Jean Malaurie’s The Last Kings of Thule, and the preface ends with,

When, [with friends] certain scenes that we lived through together were evoked twenty years later, they were relived with infinitely greater intensity than when recalled after only a few months; as if time were needed for “the little sensation”–smell, color, emotion, astonishment–which is inscribed in the groove of memory, to protect one’s recollection of the event.

It was too early for me to have written this book in 1951, but I did not know that then. Curiously enough, great travelers–Humboldt, Jack London, Pere Huc–lived with their memories for years, publishing some of them only late or not at all. One lives with one’s memories–in the proper sense of that phrase–in order to grasp their internal order. The weakness of big travel narratives and reportages very likely derives from the writer’s haste to preserve vivacity at the expense of the deeper internal experience. It is the search for time newly refound that I offer the reader.

I came across this book because Malaurie’s relative was an internet penpal of mine, and a teacher in the Canadian High Arctic. Beginning this book triggered an immense tidal wave of all of these memories. It’s a distinctly human experience to be completely swept up in a long-dormant love and obsession. But as I look around and see stacks of Arctic books; Cape Dorset art and other traces of the north, I realize this obsession has been completely unwavering all these years, and my years in Alaska are years of my life I am the most grateful for. In my time here, I have been to Lake Clark, to Prudhoe Bay; to Dutch Harbor; to Nome and Sitka and so many other beautiful places. I have traveled this state more widely than most people I know, and I fully intend, despite likely having to depart for some time, to rest here indefinitely. I think these days it’s easy to generate content for Instagram, but that simplistic style of travel will never garner today’s feelings. This unflagging curiosity and deep love for high latitudes is a ridiculously large part of who I am, and it’s an overwhelming reality sometimes… and maybe it’s broader than that: the right way to love something, to dive so deep into it it becomes intertwined with your identity and chokes you up intermittently throughout your life. This is just one deep love of mine.

I remember reading in an Arctic novel ages ago that many explorers felt as though once they had crossed over the Arctic Circle, a piece of them was left there in the north forever. A close friend asked me to post, and so this is what I have today. It’s an appropriate post, as he spent a chunk of his own youth exploring the coast of the Hudson Bay, and landed squarely on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, another high latitude wanderer… we seem to find each other here.

The winter! the brightness that blinds you,
   The white land locked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you,
   The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
   The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight, the mystery,
   I’ve bade ’em good-by—but I can’t.
RWS

Czechmate

Oh hi, me again. Just returned from my second year of Brutal Assault. Having sufficiently horrified my coworkers by attending such a festival (‘Brutal Assault? OMG’), and arriving in possession of one Forever 21 panda suit (I pledged to wear a panda suit if we went back for year 2), I’m sad it will be nearly impossible to convince anyone to attend for a third year.

I’ve been to a lot of metalfests; Brutal Assault is my favorite. The disappointment in Diablo Swing Orchestra and Ihsahn canceling was fresh in our minds, but despite the searing heat and smelly campers, it was great. The lineup wasn’t as good as last year, though Arkon Infaustus alone was worth the trip; I chose to fly 10,000 miles to see them without the fast food smelling smog and 100% humidity of Baltimore at Maryland Deathfest. I felt like there were too many people, but I would go again. Just ask. I’m in.

This festival overall is (a) cheap (b) well organized (c) seems to attract metalheads that have grown out of the puking and shoving phase of metal fandom. This year had a bit too many huge metal bands, though I will say even I was charmed by tens of thousands of people tribal-jigging and bellowing ‘rooooots…. bloody roooooots’ at the end of Sepultura’s set.

The venue, Fortress Josefov, is beautiful. 100 Euros, deposited onto your RFID bracelet at the beginning of the festival, will buy you four days of beer and food (and maybe even some merch). The lodging package comes with four-star Eastern bloc accommodations, complete with windows that don’t stay open, questionable carpet stains and shower heads that sear the first few layers off your skin, ensuring you are super clean and fresh for another day of fighting the bourgeoisie. The best thing this hotel has to offer is the incredible disparity between its online photo and real life.

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Overall, there is something special about this country. City-wise, Prague is different than the slowly reforming grey spiritual necropolis I remember from my youth (at 34, I’m a huge fan of acting like I’m as old as time, but what I mean is, this Prague is so different than the city I initially visited in the very early 00s). Albert Camus wrote a lot about Prague, and his portrait is in some ways more the city I think of, although in a more endearing way. Some of us just like to travel to ominous ‘Eastern Europe.’

I will keep my hipster ‘Prague is too touristy’ whining to myself, though friends echoed my complaints this year; more positively, it’s been a pleasure to watch the capital and much of the country grow and prosper. There are vacationers everywhere, although perhaps a few too many who complain that Czechs don’t smile enough (Slavenka Drakulić actually said some funny things about Westerners expecting people in Eastern European countries to smile for no reason). You can buy a beer for less than $2. Prague is rapidly approaching Western Europe for Eastern European prices. The expanding homogeneity of European capitals is pretty lame; the cost is not.

But what makes so-called Czechia different?  The country joined the EU in 2004, alongside the Baltics, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Many of the former Eastern bloc countries are prosperous (some are backsliding, like Poland and Hungary, though those two are regressing in different ways). After a fair amount of time spent in each of these countries, it’s tough to think of one that is doing better. What is it that makes this country so prosperous? Maybe location, sandwiched partly between Germany and Austria. Maybe they are just West enough that they’re better by osmosis. I asked this question to some other people I spoke with, and was told by one person that Czechs are never satisfied with their own performance, which was demonstrated later at the festival when the shuttle admin guy told me that he was happy I liked the festival, but ‘things could be better.’ Maybe it’s just that good ol’ Protestant work ethic seeping over the border.

This blog is not about serving up answers, because I don’t have any, so that’s what I spent some time thinking about. That, and where to get my next plate of schnitzel. I happened to tag along to Český Krumlov before flying home, as well, which was a pretty charming little medieval town, albeit crammed with tour groups for the day (at night, it empties out). The town reminded me in many ways of Salzburg, which will always be superior because they have the Sound of Music Tour. (I’m not kidding: I took that tour twice. In one day).

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And that’s a wrap. Next up on Post-Communist Adventure Travel for Entitled White People: Bosnia and most of the rest of those bloodsoaked, brutal Balkans in September.

Aaand… one finale-worthy meat plate for good measure. Schnitzel has its own tag in this blog, and I expect to utilize it.

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