Tuesday, September 20, 2011

"Happy Birthday to Irkukst, and Other Stories," by Rose Boyle, age 10

    I have decided to start approaching this blog as a diary, or more correctly a one-sided correspondence (which by the way, most of my correspondences are.) Previously, I edited a lot and wait to write until I had some kind of complete-thought about the goings on of my life in Irkutsk. Hindsight imposes some sort of structure on our days, and without this structure, its hard for me to write well. My former approach of waiting for the structure to appear culminated in only one blog entry, though, so now I'm going to try another avenue. Hopefully, I can keep up with this thing better now.
          First of all, I would like to make it clear that I did not, in fact, sing "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" to a group of strangers in a Moscow Airport. That was a merely a joke-lie told in the hopes of impressing (with my easy wit and charm) the mysteriously gray-haired twenty-something-year-old boy who I sometimes see walking around Temple's campus. I'm sorry if I disappointed you, believers (A.K.A,  Mom.) To make it up to you, I promise a private performance--for you and two loved ones--of "I'm My Own Grandpa," from the 1996 oscar nominated film, The Stupids, starring Tom Arnold. As an added bonus, I will also wear a straw boater and paisley tie to complete the aesthetic.
          Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I'll fill you in on some of the latest deets on my trip abroad. Wednesday, Irkutsk celebrated its 350th anniversary, and the scene was awesome. The closest thing I could probably compare it to is St. Patrick's Day back home. Everyone was rolling around with beers; the kids had balloons; and the pedestrians (which were many) wished each other "Sprazdnikom" (Happy Holiday) as they passed by. If you know how rarely people in Russia smile at, speak to, acknowledge the existence of, believe in the existence of strangers, you realize what a special occasion this was. 
          The roads were all blocked off for the even. In the day, there were pony rides (minus the plastic bags hanging from the animal's posterior region--why no one thought of this detail is beyond me. On the other hand, if there are no toilet seats in the ladies bathrooms, why should anyone expect people to accommodate the digestive needs of miniature horses?), and at night there was a huge concert. Everyone was packed in pretty tight, and I wish I could explain in this blog how wonderful it felt to be dancing amidst thousands of strangers to the Russian-accented versions of Disney hits ("Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" was actually part of the program) that came from a large, well-lit stage on a beautiful night in September, where everyone could feel the same electricity and warmth that shot around the center city square, but no one tried to mention it, for fear of breaking the spell. I really wish I could describe it. I just can't.
          Afterward everyone in the city center walked over to the waterfront, where there was a fireworks display. I sat with some friends in the Veterans Memorial Park, which is a place that feels eerie and sweet and sacred to me for more than one reason. On the one hand, in the center of it burns an eternal flame commemorating the fallen of World War Two ("Our Great Patriotic War," as the Russians call it). This alone is moving in its own way, but in addition to this, the park is nearby to the site of what was formerly one of the largest cathedrals in Irkutsk. In 1932, the "Cultural Preservation Society"  (or some similarly absurd name) decided it would be best to explode the building. The church was so large that even after the debris was leveled, the ground where it stood was still a meter higher than the surrounding area. Its debris is still lies beneath the Administrative building that has replaced it, and also the Veteran's Park behind. (Its things like this that make me realize I have absolutely no clue what these people have been through. Imagine seeing a church exploded to prove a point.)
          At any rate, I sat in this park and prayed for the soldiers of WWII commemorated here. I prayed for their families, their loved ones. I prayed for the church, for its congregation, for anyone who was left heartbroken while watching it explode, and soon the display began.
           I love fireworks. I love crowded nights, full of warm bodies huddled together under the heavy hood of darkness. I love the cold, and I love the hint of early autumn. All of these things leave me with a sense of bittersweetness, regardless of how good the display, how sweet the air, and how pleasant the company. So just try to imagine the aggregate effect of all of these causes at once. Now imagine it was the most beautiful firework display I've ever seen in my life. You can't, can you? I knew you couldn't. 
          When I got in, my host mother was still awake doing work. She made me hot tea and we chatted for about an hour. I forget about what, but I remember that the conversation only contributed to the sentimentality I was already indulging in.(If you know me and what a sentimental old fool I am, then by now you can probably imagine that I was swimming in a pool of my own tears, showering flower petals on the floor on the way leading up to my bedroom, and somehow, simultaneously blaring some song about a woman coping with her mother's death from nowhere in particular because it seemed like the appropriate soundtrack for my life at the moment.) After spending some time cleaning up the mess of rose petals and water caused by your imagination, I drifted easily off to sleep, trying to save in my memories the smell, the colors, the texture of this time in my life because when I am eighty-three, I will be the only one who knew it ever existed, no matter how many times I will try to describe it to my snarky grandkids.

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