Taking a step back

After weeks with my brain, body and heart going in different directions, and different paces, I think I’m almost realigned.

During my final few weeks in the US – the fraught, busy days in New York; the harried few days in Mass – I had no choice but to sublimate any deep thought going on. If I stopped to think, I could not possibly have gotten through all the goodbyes, never mind packed my bag properly.

Walking home after having dinner at Zoom Cafe a few days ago, I felt that I had stepped back in time to when I was new in Budapest, trying not to look too American while earnestly trying to learn the language and culture. For the most part, since I moved back to the US from Budapest, I’ve been vacationing in hot and/or tropical climes – the Caribbean, Africa, SE Asia. If I happened to go to Europe, it was to visit friends or family in Budapest, London, Hamburg, Greece. So being here in Europe, as a tourist, embarking on this weird experiment…it’s familiar.

In the two days since my dad left, I’ve been taking meditative wanders through the gritty yet trash-free streets, reacquainting myself with European rhythms. And there’s no question that this is a European city, albeit with unambiguous Russian flavor.

Nearly everyone – the women especially – is impeccably dressed in fashionable tailored coats and high heels. The friezes, gargolyes, mouldings and other detail of the 17th- and 18th-century architecture cause unabashed gawking, my days ending with a stiff neck and sore shutter-button finger. Though the cars have gotten bigger since the teeny Fiats and so on from my first trip to Europe, they are still smaller than American cars, the better to navigate the narrow alleys of the old city…and to triple-park on the sidewalks and the side of the road.

And then there are the Russian elements: the impossible, 5-inch spike heels. The cheap mini-mini skirts and too-tight backless rayon blouses.  And the mullets! Dirt-colored boy mullets. Purple girl mullets. I won’t be surprised to see a poodle dog mullet. And from the people on the street, the well-dressed old ladies (not quite babushkas) guarding the rooms of the museums, the Russian-Asian cashier at the 24-hour shops…nothing but cold stares. These looks – the passive eyes, the set of the mouth – are far from emotionless or bored. They betray some sort of underlying hostility, almost aggression. Before I leave Russia, I hope to be able to find the right words to describe them.

Then again, the smiles and kindness that I have experienced seem all the more delightful for having been hard won.  Though of course, I am naturally suspicious of over-friendliness…those with a smile on their face and a hand in your wallet.

My sauerkraut and sausage is here. More in a bit…

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