Peak Summer: June & July

And just like that, summer is circling the drain up here. Weeks of nippy weather and rain seem to signal an early fall for us; and we haven’t had many “falls” to speak of since I moved to Alaska: it goes from being nice to being grey and cold, and a gust of wind blows all the leaves down, and voila! 6 months of winter. August 18 will be my 8th year anniversary in Alaska, and if I had to do it all over again, I would. I’ve made a lot of good choices in my life (and some bad ones, of course)… moving to Alaska was one of the best things I’ve ever done. In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve transitioned from survival to prosperity.

I had intended to hike more broadly, and move around the state more, having canceled all of my domestic and international travel plans. I hiked some; my best (and first) friend in Alaska moved to Idaho with her family last week. Another will likely depart in the fall. It’s been a sad few weeks, truthfully, especially the process of losing my close friend (and hiking partner) to Idaho. My roommate (and often the only other person I see for days at a time) returned to work abroad a month ago. It’s been just me and Fuji lately: at least the dog has been lavished with love and attention (and treats, and bones, and new toys). One of the few drawbacks of the low tourist volume (apart from the economic devastation) is that there are too many bears everywhere. Bears are jerks.

Lots of good, and productive things have happened. I’ve enjoyed my four-day work weeks immensely. I’ve remodeled a lot of my house (in doing so, I’ve learned how to do a lot of shit I didn’t know how to do before), and refinanced at a much lower rate. I registered as a notary after realizing there’s a shortage of them in town. I’ve saved a significant amount of money. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the few friends I have up here. My sister and her husband are still coming to visit next week: it’ll be the first time I’ve seen anyone in my family since December, and likely the last time for many months. Despite the increasing sense that I am entirely alone up here, and despite the state’s grim economic outlook, my appreciation for Alaska has grown. There is still no place I’d rather be than here. A lot of people are leaving: the question for me has been, where would I rather live? And the answer has always been “nowhere.”

I’ve realized I am largely emotionally pandemic-proof: I can partially chalk it up to spending my adult life reading books about Arctic expeditions and the Gulag. My dark curiosities have given present life a richer context. I admit it’s bizarre to envision remaining for an entire winter up here, not going anywhere, existing in the dreary, grey fall: I regularly try to get out of here for the month of November, which is particularly slushy and dull. I miss New York, though I’d venture to say it’s not the same NYC I’ve visited for many weeks annually since I’ve relocated. I hope that when all of this finally fades out that my very deeply loved destinations are not leveled economically. I suppose I hope I am not leveled economically, either. This summer, I’ve missed out on returning to the Caucasus; Brutal Assault; Dead Can Dance in Seattle; numerous other trips, and a lot of work travel. I’ve eaten far fewer oysters and driven many fewer miles. I’ve been here for so long that I actually have begun to miss living out of a bag, but it took me a lot longer to get to this point.

Ultimately as I’ve said before, in the grand scheme of things I am incredibly fortunate: my living situation is wonderful. I live in a place I love. I’ve been able to easily afford keeping my second home vacant all summer so I can go hang out there. I have reliable, close friends, though they are shifting in location. I have an unbelievable level of physical, emotional and financial security that could only be fully appreciated by someone who has spent years with none of those things. I don’t take any of it for granted for a moment.

I’ve read a bit less than is typical, because I’ve been binge-watching stuff on TV and hanging out outside a lot. I watched Netflix’s Hannibal series, which was amazing, as well as Prime’s ZeroZeroZero which was so brutal and violent and well-done, I can’t wait for the next season. My roommate also got me hooked on The Bureau, a French series similar to Homeland. My favorite Netflix series, Dark, released their final season as well, which was incredible.

Leo Tolstoy (Critical Lives) | This is a short and wonderful read. I originally saw a review in The Economist after seeing a ton of copies in my local bookstore (there is a Russian lit fanatic that works there that is likely responsible). It shows Tolstoy as imperfect, but wildly moral, somewhat petulant, sexually troubled and fabulously talented. If any writer has earned the right to be so flawed and tormented, it is Tolstoy. His contribution to Russian literature is quite literally second to none. I don’t know that this would mean much to people who haven’t read him, but it may inspire them to do so. I’d recommend this to anyone interested in Russian lit; it paints a vivid portrait of the atmosphere of his lifetime, and the experiences that shaped and inspired some of the best books ever written.

The Body Keeps The Score | I enjoyed this as well — some parts more than others — and while I read many depressing books, this is one of the most depressing when we look to the future. The book touches on various topics, iterations of PTSD and incest and other things, and refers often to ACE scores, which unsurprisingly also can be used to forecast most peoples’ future outcomes (high ACE scores don’t bode well). I’m not sure there’s much in terms of broad solutions; CBT and EMDR are covered. Review in NY Times here.

The Face of War | This book has been on my list since I read that it was Marie Colvin‘s favorite book, and she carried a copy around with her when she was working on assignments (her story is amazing as well, and her biography was turned into a halfway-decent film, where this book is referred to and displayed on a number of occasions). Gellhorn’s articles and essays span multiple wars; she touches particularly on WWII and Vietnam. These days, and perhaps back then, war reporters, despite being there in the thick of it, were apt to develop not only progressive but simplistic views of war; that said, some are brilliant; many are tormented… all the best ones are deeply passionate, though one could argue passion makes for worse war reporting because it’s too emotional. I’d like to believe there was a time when reporters weren’t all peddling their own personal opinions, but I’m no longer sure that’s the case. Regardless, this was a decent read, I wouldn’t hold it in esteem as high as Colvin did in her life, but Gellhorn and Colvin were both obsessed with the human element of war, and that seems a worthy enough passion to me. Old LA Times review here.

The Other Side (Alfred Kubin) | I came across references to Kubin in Karl Ove’s My Struggle, and had purchased a book of his drawings and his only novel, The Other Side. His drawings are awesome; his book is Kafkaesque, which makes sense, considering I believe he and Kafka were friends. This is a totally bizarre story of a rich guy the main character went to school with who ends up building a whole different world somewhere in Central Asia where nothing “new” can exist (fashion, technology, etc.) People cast off their new-fangled belongings and go live in Victorian squalor… many of them happily, to some degree, though the series of events becomes increasingly dystopian and surreal. The story is very dark and entertaining; I ended up really loving Severin’s Journey into the Dark (another Kafkaesque tale) and this book is similar in style.

And Quiet Flows the Don | I’ve been reading some overlooked gems of Russian lit lately and I’m really happy this was one of them; this is pretty much the Cossack War and Peace. It’s the story of a family of Don Cossacks over a few generations, over a few wars (WWI, Russian Revolution, Russian Civil War) and many trials and tribulations. It’s beautifully written; I snagged a few paragraphs toward the end to share with a few people. I’m currently revisiting The Master and the Margarita, and after that I’ll probably finally read Hadji Murad. Reading and re-reading some of these Russian classics has been a huge comfort for me, and to some degree a welcome break from my Gulag books… that said, winter is Gulag-reading time, and I have a formidable stack of Soviet stuff to read.

Excerpt from And Quiet Flows the Don:

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism | Quillette just posted a review of this book here last week. The review gave a ton of props to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, which was incredible, though all of her books are unbelievably concise and well-researched (Gulag and Red Famine were definitely my favorites.) This is a very different kind of book, written perhaps more for someone who does not know her, and needs a lengthy explanation of her credentials and the guest-lists of her fancy parties. I became a bit tired of reading all of this stuff; she’s clearly well-connected through marriage and career. That said, I gradually began to appreciate the parallels between the life of someone like her, and one of an ordinary person: many of we ordinary people have relationships that have suffered the same fate (though I’ve lost many more to the far left than the far right, but I’ve definitely been disowned by friends who exist on either side). Applebaum covers personal accounts of reporting on/writing about and socializing in Poland; the UK; Hungary and the US. As the review rightfully says, there are few better-qualified people to cover this topic, and it’s a sad story. Twilight of Democracy is an easy read; there are a lot of familiar names if you have any familiarity with what has transpired in Poland and Hungary… not everyone cares much about Central Europe, but these are troubling times for those countries. Wasn’t as interesting of a read as her other stuff, but certainly timely. Anne Applebaum and Masha Gessen are two of my favorite contemporary writers on Eastern Europe/Russia, so I’m looking forward to Gessen’s latest (probably next post).

That’s all for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out another post before summer ends for real, in September. Below, Portage Glacier.

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.

cernigov

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).

cesky

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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