a big beautiful mess


Let me tell you a story about the marvelous serendipity and strange Russian magic of the world I’m living in.

When I bought my plane ticket to come to Russia, it was far far cheaper to buy a round-trip flight than one-way, so I chose a return date at random (December 20), and bought the ticket, not expecting to use the return. But when Esther and I realized how expensive it would actually be to spend the holidays in Spain, and when I realized how much I missed my family and my home, I decided to use that return flight after all. I made the decision, and felt all of a sudden much better about being here, and about planning for the future, for next semester.

The next step was to buy a flight to Moscow, because my return flight was only from Moscow to Pittsburgh. There were, unfortunately, no flights on the morning of December 20 that would get me to Moscow in time to catch the flight to Pittsburgh, so I had to arrange to arrive the day before. Elena told me that would be better anyway, because you never know what the weather will be like, and the flight might get moved or canceled. So, I booked the flight, and the same hostel I stayed at last time, and asked my friend Jason if he wanted to get dinner on the night I’d be in Moscow.

Jason, in the meantime, was undergoing some serious re-thinking of his life. He’s been doing research in Moscow for his PhD, but having a really bad time with it, and apparently an existential crisis into the mix. A few weeks later, he announced to me and the world that he was leaving Moscow early and not returning, but instead switching his PhD from Soviet to American history. Russia’s a place that changes lives, and not always in the way you expect. Chatting on facebook that night, he told me that he had a flight home on December 20, and that he was going to use it. A pause. I asked him what his flight number was. And unimaginable as it seems, we are on the same flight home that we never meant to use. I moved my seat online, so that we get to sit next to each other for the ten hours between 1pm in Moscow and 3pm in New York.

The last time Jason and I flew home from Moscow together, the circumstances were very different. It was summer. I was in love. Leaving Moscow was breaking my heart, and I was standing on the edge of a chasm of change whose bottom I still haven’t reached. This time, it’s winter, and my feelings are much more complicated. I am slowly starting to love this place, but being here has also reminded me just how much I love and value and need everything and everyone I’ve left back home, back in America. I’m in the middle, or maybe just at the beginning still, of a great adventure, and this time, I know precisely when I’m coming back to Russia. And I know that I still have another seven months of Russia ahead of me.

The whimsy of this coincidence makes me think about the fairy tale that my life has become. I live in the Russian Arctic, a mysterious land where the daylight sneaks in sheepishly at 10 am and slinks out again at 4 pm, if we’re lucky. The people in this world all speak at least two languages, and sometimes three or four, without batting an eye. I carry my own drinking water and sometimes when I’m pensive I walk along the banks of a half-frozen river and watch the lights from the other shore. I speak Russian every day with my Polish roommate. I hang out with people from Norway, the Netherlands, Finland, and Germany. I have the kind of life where my passport is my most important possession, where taking off for a different continent for two weeks is relatively easy. I communicate with people in four different time zones through a mysterious network of sparks and invisible connections which allows me to see their thoughts and sometimes their faces.

Sometimes, when I’m busy thinking about how many layers of clothes I need to wear, or about exactly how many hours of daylight there were today, or about how on earth I’m going to put into Russian the idea that I don’t know where to leave the names of the people who passed their test in American English early, or about whether we need to buy more drinking water…. it can come as a surprise to remember again just how incredibly privileged I am to be able to live this life. What boon did I perform in a former life to be allowed not only to live in Russia, but also to come back to America for Christmas? But the decision to take full advantage of that privilege and come home has shifted my perspective, and I am (almost) more excited to come back to Russia than I am to go home for two weeks. Tomorrow, I take to the skies again, with my suitcase full of birds of happiness.


  1. 18 December 2011    

    This is beautifully written and has a lot of the same thoughts that I’ve got about being in France/coming back for the holidays. As I was landing in Newark yesterday and didn’t see the large French fields dotted with spots of buildings (usually containing a prominent beautiful church) and was instead greeted with the New Jersey Turnpike and factories, I realized that even though I love Jersey, it just isn’t my home anymore. It’s amazing how much time away can make you realize things that you just wouldn’t have been able to otherwise- and is also definitely a very privileged thing.

    Anyway, I hope you have a good flight and an amazing time back, while you’re in the good ol’ U S of A!

    • 18 December 2011    

      Thanks, Jamie. I’ll let you know after I land if I’m to the point of not seeing PA as home; I doubt it though.

  2. 18 December 2011    

    This is beautiful, Ruth!! Have a great time at home =)

    • 18 December 2011    

      Thanks, Juliana!! :)

  3. 18 December 2011    

    This is so much better put than I could ever attempt. Same here, but I leave Moscow the 23rd. Have a wonderful time at home! Let me know what your January plans are, I’ll be traveling around Russia for most of the month.

  4. 21 December 2011    

    This gave me goosebumps. I love you oodles and oodles, Ruth!

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