30-Minute Writing Sketches in Sochi

PART 3. SOCHI

Episode 8. A Morning in Central Sochi, 11.03am, April 22

Three days ago, excited for this final leg of the trip I got back to the sea. A long bus ride from Esto- Sadok took me to Sochi, the Russian Black Sea pearl, the country’s unofficial summer capital, the city that epitomizes a sea holiday in the minds of a lot of fellow Russians. Just as with my first seaside destination on this trip (Adler), there are multiple versions as to the origin of the word Sochi. There is a river called in the same way whose name originated from Ubikhian, which is a dead language belonging to the Abkhazian and Adygean language family. According to one of the versions, it might have meant «by the sea». Through a sequence of linguistic transformations the word ended up being as we know it today. Sochi doesn’t sound very Russian and is famously grammatically misused by a lot of speakers who instinctively decline it as a plural noun (with a typical -i ending), which it is not. 

During the Caucasian War in the mid-19th century this area was a fort. It was only in the early 1900s that the city’s identity as the country’s future largest resort was forging when the first resort Caucasian Riviera (a nod to the French one) opened in 1909. Even though this place has been a city for only around a century, when I first arrived three days ago, it hit me with its buzz. I instantly felt energized by that urban vibe which I thought I had been missing somehow over the last two weeks. Can I call myself a city person? All I know is that growing up in a small place, which we would jokingly call «neither a city, nor a village», I dreamt of living in a city. Back then the region’s capital where I have been living for the past 15 years now would have been fine by me. But having been to a lot of cities around the world, after all these years I am still struggling to define where exactly I would love to live without fantasizing about other places. I am enchanted by the chic ambiance of Nice. I miss that intoxicating sense of happiness I felt in San Francisco. I often dream of roaming the alley of historic streets of Rome again. I am longing for a solo trip to Paris to get to know it on a more intimate level this time. I would write a whole book about the complexity of New York if only I was not overwhelmed by the number of those already written… Anyway, I am not sure which of these cities I wouldpick for living. Am I yet to discover my perfect match one day..? 

Due to its geographic position, central Sochi might be a bit steep but yet not too strenuous for walking around. Or does looking up at all the various lush palm trees make climbing up seem a lot easier..? I am staying in a guest house in a non-touristy area, just a moderately steep climb from what used to be called Stalin Avenue and is now known as Kurortniy Avenue, which is indicative of the city’s Soviet and recreational identity. On my way down to the sea there is a famous Sanatorium Svetlana (which is a popular Russian female name) founded in the early 1900s. It was in this area that people who later launched a project that would see this place develop into a resort built their summer houses.Looking at the city’s Soviet street names and architecture, I am wondering if it had to give up some of its former Caucasean identity in the process of its transformation…

Sanatoriums, which are a big part of Russia’s cultural or rather social identity, are a Soviet legacy. This period in thecountry’s history evokes nostalgia in our ancestors, the feeling that despite being born in the Soviet Union, our generation finds hard to comprehend. Apart from an alleged sense of security, one of the perks of the Soviet social system was that some workers were sent to sanatoriums for free as a way for them to regain strength and improve health. I have none of my grandparents to tell me more about what living in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century was like. If I had, I would have documented some of those memories. I just wish I had discovered my love for interviewing while any of them was still there… At least I know that working in a factory in the 1960s, my late grandfather on Mum’s side went to a sanatorium in Baku, Azerbaijan. Being there did wonders for his leg and he came home no longer using his walking stick. 

Yesterday his granddaughter travelled further along Kurortniy Avenue to experience the iconic abandoned sanatorium named after Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a Georgian Bolshevik. It was built in the 1930s in a record time period. This opulent complex covering the area of 16 hectars magestically overlooking the Black Sea was originally designed for accommodating miners and offered a range of different treatments. Despite having no memory of living in the Soviet Union, I was utterly impressed by the imposing beauty of the place. Imagine experiencing it as an average Soviet worker… To me, it was like walking back in time wishing the dead could come alive and talk… How did those workers feel being here during this hugely complex historic period..? Despite crowds of people taking pictures, the place, which got officially closed ten years ago, felt lifeless and deteriorating on a closer look. I did manage to find a perfect spot for some contemplation and a few pictures, of course… Seeing a Lenin statue amidst the lush palm trees was one of the most surreal things of this trip — an homage to the communist past with a subtropical twist… I would certainly love to roam this area more if I ever return… I also got to experience a pure culinary delight on my way back at a legendary Soviet-style canteen famous for its chebureki. This is a traditional Crimean Tatar dish which is a kind of a crescent-shaped pastry filled with ground meat. It is essential to the Soviet and now Russian culinary identity. 

The Sanatorium Ordzhonikidze
A Lenin statue amidst the subtropic greenery

I have decided (quite naively for a 32-year old) that the country’s summer capital could read my mind and reward me with a few sunny days to finish off my trip. At this point I feel that my spiritual rehabilitation has had its effect and I amfinally reconnecting with my old self. Seeing a few operating sanatoriums walking around Adler and Sochi, I can say I wouldn’t like to be treated in one because dealing with doctors would be the last thing I would want during a holiday. At the end of the day, I am Russian who has been lucky to have travelled the world a bit but not Soviet… I want my freedom while travelling, I thrive on it to the point of feeling healed. Seeing some of my selfies I took here in Sochi, Mum mentioned I have got some of my American smile back. That is definitely a part of me that has been so hard to restore since I returned almost three years ago… When I look at that 29-year old girl on the other side of the Atlantic smiling at me from countless pictures, I understand how stupid she was questioning her own beauty… Even though this formerly popular chatup line about Russian women being one of the most beautiful ones in the world is more a thing of the past now, we did grow up under a certain amount of pressure. I have spent all of my life focusing on developing my intelligence and leaving being beautiful to others. But how is beauty measured anyway? Even though I tend not to believe men screaming «Hello, beautiful!» at me, I would agree with those Caucasean men saying that in their distinct accent on a few occasions here in Sochi. It is not up to them to decide that for sure, but sometimes it is great to be reminded of your female powers (in a not too intrusive way). I am no longer in my 20s, but the atmosphere of the city did give me that glow making me feel younger inside than I did confined to my room back home during the lockdown. How old is really old anyway? What I resent the Soviet regime for is creating certain scripts that our ancestors expected us to live by achieving certain things at a certain age. Luckily, we are no longer in the Soviet Union with its «five-year plan» and deadlines to meet. As turbulent as the modern Russia is, I am happy to see my life less scripted than that of my grandparents and parents… 

Those palm trees do make me happy!
The area around another sanatorium

Now it is my fourth day here in Sochi and I have secured myself a lovely spot overlooking the legendary building of the Sochi Sea Port where I can enjoy a postcard view of the Russia’s main all-year resort. This port built in the 1950s is like a channel connecting this only subtropical part of the cold and rough nation with much warmer maritime ones across the sea. The figures on the building’s neoclassical columns are peering into the depth of the sea. The spire punching the sky somehow reminds me of the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the Danube in Budapest. Lush palm trees, glamorous yachts and high-rise hotels project a carefree allure, a vibe so different from the one in Adler and Esto-Sadok. All of this brings out the sensual side of me. When I walk these streets, I ignore somewhat unhappy young Mums with kids, grannies trying to discipline their offsprings. They all seem killers of this vibe. As a single lady with no such issues to deal with I just look away. At the end of the day, each city is a canvas that we pick our own way of processing… I choose to focus on the playfulness of this Russian resort the way I see it now during the shoulder season. Being here you feel so plugged into the world stopping to listen to another street performer, to stare at a beautiful shop window, totouch and smell some of those lush trees. That glamour of the Russian Riviera depicted in iconic Soviet films gets to me here… For a moment I feel I am in Limassol, Cyprus and its beautiful marina… 

Even though this pandemic has created a feeling of the iron curtain being pulled back on us, the people walking this area are somewhat different from those I can see in black and white photos from the 1960-70s in front of me. In the recent decades more and more Russians have been travelling outside the country and have gotten to feel some other vibes of other places. So can we learn to stroll along the promenade in a carefree fashion like all those people in warmer countries and make Sochi seem like a somewhat foreign seaside resort? The port is also a popular photoshoot spot — it is nice to watch people creating their own unique snap of this sunny day here in central Sochi. 

I have just finished teaching a class and before it I had my breakfast enjoying a cup of Americano and a fabulous raspberry-pistachio cake. This coffee shop is named Frida after the famous Frida Kahlo, a Mexican wonder woman. She was looking at me from everywhere — cushions, chairs, walls as if begging me to carry on my work despite eyebrows raised along the way. Hers definitely speak volumes of her strong personality. I know how sometimes calling yourself creative is being dismissed by some as pure laziness to engage in real work. They all say the same about us, people in Humanities. The prevalence of STEM jobs in the global market is leaving us feeling unnecessary indeed. Somehow being in this place has inspired me to keep forging my own path no matter how discouraging and frustrating it might feel. I guess having to rush through my breakfast to start a morning class is the price I, a woman in Humanities, pay for my independence, which having my own disposable income is.

When I finish this session, I am going to explore more of the pedestrian part of the city centre away from the sea but lined up with palm trees. I mainly see Mums and kids everywhere and what about romance…? There are hardly any couples around. Those screaming kids definitely ruin the sensual vibe. After all, being child-friendly is what the city aspires to be. What about being one for singles as well? I guess I still have to find this perfect place for me. For now I can just live in the moment savoring the breezy, carefree, playful vibe… And of course, being able to treat myself to a lovely lunch at a Georgian restaurant is another perk of my independence… Have a wonderful afternoon, Sochi! 

Episode 9. My Last Afternoon in Central Sochi, 1.58pm, April 23

This morning I took a shortcut through a park on my way down to the sea. Being experimental and exploring new routes is a sure sign I am getting used to navigating this place, which I think is becoming my favorite on this trip. Yesterday I walked around the area away from the sea promenade to investigate more of the city’s identity. Muralswhich can be found around some of the central streets have been really instrumental in this. Unlike some graffitis that might seem arrogant public acts of self-expression potentially disrupting the urban aesthetics, these art paintings seemrepresentative of the whole nation. There are faces of famous military commanders setting the tone for the most «sacred» holiday, which is Victory Day celebrated on May 9. This day marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in what we call the Great Patriotic War. Others feature famous Soviet football players back from when we had reasons to be proud of our national team…

There was one specific mural that I went in search of. This is the one featuring the characters of a legendary Soviet comedy called The Diamond Arm. Some of the scenes of this 1969 masterpiece were shot here in the Sea Port of Sochi as well as in a restaurant where I had dinner on my first evening in the city. Along with a few scholars examining identity, I think that films are a very insightful way of exploring a nation’s character. As a translator, I don’t think any colleague would be able to make what our DNA memory seems to grasp perfectly comprehensible to foreigners. I wish I could put into words what exactly this is that makes me laugh and marvel at the quality of screenwriting every time I watch this old-time classics, which is basically on every national holiday. This is when this film is shown on TV along with a few other Soviet films. It seems that each line from The Diamond Arm has become a catchphrase casually used by Russians in a variety of conversations. I feel proud to be old enough to get all these references and to have been exposed to something different from those Russian films released these days… 

The Diamond Arm graffiti
A patriotic graffiti

I continued my exploration of the city centre by visiting the city’s oldest coffee house with an Italian name and the interior evocative of the Italian Risorgimento — I guess that is the closest to Italy we can get for now… The pedestrian Navaginskaya Street lined up with palm trees reminded me that it was the closest I could get to California for now as well… Yes, it was a pleasant change from lots of busy highways in the city as well… I walked a bit further to get to Riviera Park. I didn’t find it particularly impressive except for a restored building of the house of Vasiliy Khludov, a merchant who contributed to shaping the city’s resort identity. My final stop was the Sochi Arboretum for which I walked back to my hotel area. I had doubts about whether I needed to visit as I had already been to the Southern Cultures Park in Adler. But as it was so close to my guest house with its birds seemingly singing right next to my door, I paid a visit. By that point I had been tired of walking, but I knew there would be no time the following day. My first stop was the gorgeous villa Nadezhda (a popular Russian female name also meaning «hope») with its terraced gardens, which also reminded me of Italy. I wish Mum would agree to come down here to find out how close all these lush green trees she has never seen are to home… Again, even not being as fond of plants as Mum, I loved standing up here glaring down into the Black Sea appreciating how many palm trees I have surrounding me. Well, for now my thirst forthem has been quenched on this trip… After walking around and taking pictures of sakuras, magnolias and more palm trees, I was ready to go back down to the sea to see my last but one sunset here in Sochi… 

The Sochi Arboretum

Today I have been teaching the whole morning which started off windy and chilly. I hope that my students don’t hate me for showing them this view I have from a bench in this small park overlooking the sea. Over these past two weeks and a half, I have had to stress out about how I was going to fit work into my time here. There have been a few technical issues related to teaching from the street. I should have probably tried that gazebo a bit further on the right, but I don’t think I would have had any luck keeping it all to myself. I don’t believe now that the world has gone digital, the learning and teaching environment is so important any more. I can say that the best classes I have had were outside a conventional classroom and the most interesting individuals I have worked with were not those from university. I am still struggling whether I should refer to all the people I have been teaching as students or clients. This is a two-way interaction as in the process of our collaboration (that’s what I love calling it), I have been learning about all kinds of areas such as IT, Physics, Medicine, Architecture, Law, Metrology, Real Estate, Banking, Marketing, Archaeology… I am really grateful for the opportunity to go on this trip to work outside a traditional setting… Despite a few obvious perks, our field is getting growingly competitive and saturated making a transition to self-employment not easy at all. So, being able to have a change of scene has been really important for my mental health. I am not a believer in psychotherapy as I think that those of us struggling with mental health issues just have to learn to live with them. All I know is that being as what some scientists refer to as «highly sensitive» people, we have to admit our vulnerability and make an extra effort to take care of our mental well-being. My own personal psychotherapy is travelling and writing… 

One of the downsides of this type of job is that sometimes my schedule changes the last minute. Just like it did now meaning that in an hour I will be teaching my last class on this workation. It is an absolutely relaxing sunny afternoon here in Sochi. Sitting by the sea I am thinking about slow living and simple pleasures in life. Even though I tend to feel anxious at times, I love to take things at my own pace without being rushed to deliver on time and meet tight deadlines. Even though lounging in the sun letting it kiss my skin sounds amazing, it makes working a tiny bit more challenging… I am definitely not excited about working from the comfort of my room back home knowing that I could well be here with a sea breeze blowing into my face and dishevelling my hair. I don’t mind the smell of fresh paint and lack of vacant benches or having to run around to hide from the music blaring from yet another street performer. It is funny how some passers-by joining me on a bench while I was working instantly went away. I hope that hearing me speak English didn’t scare them away. I guess teaching this international language is how you can feel like a foreigner or at least a strange person in your own country… 

I love the colors of the sea today – they somehow remind me of the pristinely azure colors of the Meditarranean in Nice, the city I am going to pay tribute to later this afternoon when I head to a bakery under the same name for what will most probably be my last dessert here in Sochi (what a milestone!). After this last class I am going to a fish restaurant a short walk from here. I am not a fish person but as I am by the Black Sea, I have to eat the local fish which is called red mullet or surmullet in English. Now that Sochi has mostly been kind to me weatherwise, I finally feel like trying some local wine. Actually, despite not being a sucker for seafood, I have already had some fabulous mussels twice in a place that I found out about on Instagram. This taste also took me back to the other seas I have been lucky to see… 

What I don’t mind either is the awkward structure of a restaurant called Platforma built right in the water which is somewhat obstructing the view. It is being put final touches to just in time for the high season. The azure, dark muddy and emerald green are pleasing my senses this afternoon. The wild trees radiate a sense of wilderness as if perched on top of a cliff even though they are just a bit uphill. It is a lot of fun looking for various places to peer into the sea just to be genuinely surprised every time. The sea has this power to take your breath away whenever you lay your eyes on it. I am not sure about the intensity of this power on people who have lived here for a while, though. After the start of all the craziness related to the pandemic, a huge number of people have moved down to this region. But why do they come here for the sea just to complain of how they don’t get to see it more than a couple of times a month – just like that family whose story popped up on my newsfeed..? It is totally beyond me and I don’t think I am ready to take the same leap of faith as they did to even begin to understand…

In about two hours I will be absolutely free to enjoy my last evening (and sunset!) here in Sochi. This time tomorrow I will be arriving home and needless to say, as much as I appreciate having a home to return to, that’s the last thing I would like to do. These past 16 days have gone by in a flash leaving me incredulous that the pandemic and the restrictions have done nothing to stop me from yearning to travel and explore. The only difference is that I have to do it in my own country now. Well, looking at the bright side, I have been doing what few fellow Russians must have even thought of — writing about Russia in Russia in English… 

Episode 10. The Last Morning in Central Sochi, 7.52am, April 24

I started saying goodbye to the Greater Sochi area yesterday while sipping on some local wine and eating smoked cheese on the terrace of my guest house. It was kind of romantic to be watching the Sochi TV tower being lit up in a variety of colors. It reminded me of the World Trade Center in New York lit up in Pride colors in June. I remember thinking of how I would never get to see anything like that back in Russia… I didn’t know the reason for this particularcolor display (other than marking the last night of my trip, of course). On this rainy morning I am finishing my travel journaling sitting beneath a massive palm tree next to a famous cafe called «By the Palm Tree». As there are no articles in Russian, I am not quite sure as to which one I am supposed to use in this name. Given the size of this palm tree, the definite article seems the better option. 

It has been very special being in one of the few places in this country where there are palm trees, those tokens of subtropical heat. Just fantasizing and reminiscing about them warms our hearts during brutal Russian winters. The moment I saw this tree for the first time in Adler 16 days ago, I knew my trip had officially started. Of course, you can have your own house palm tree anywhere in the world, but seeing it growing like this is a totally different feeling. Of course, we have to ignore the fact that some of these palm trees we see in abundance all over the area must have been brought from other lands. They have been a major draw of this destination for at least a century and are even depicted in the city’s flag. Our relationship and a degree of attachment to these trees are in a way determined by our national identity. I remember how amazed my friend from Papua New Guinea was by my excitement to see them on our trip to California. To her, those gigantic palm trees felt like home on the other end of the Pacific while to me, they were a reminder of how far I was from mine… My friend remembered that trip as well when I sent her a picture of that palm tree I am now sitting beneath and I showed her some more during our video call three days ago. It is amazing how these lifeless trees are capable of keeping human connections alive and bringing back shared memories despite thousands of miles between us. 

I am sitting looking at the sea which is pretty calm despite a slight drizzle. Whenever you are leaving a place, you secretly wish it is not a sunny day because you would hate to miss out on one especially given that there haven’t been too many during my 16 days here. I hope these raindrops will not damage my laptop so I will have to keep this post a bit shorter than intended. Well, I have actually moved myself away from the rain to a covered bench so that now I am technically not beneath the tree but just like the cafe — by it. Those palm trees and the sea might get you dreaming about places like Bali. Just like during my first writing session, I remembered this remote island again. I guess thosestalls with Bali-inspired street food I saw on my way show how Sochi aspires to be a place where you can live a dream of many freelancing with a glass of cocktail in your hand. I am not sure this is a scene that will become typical here in the Krasnodar Region, but all I know is that given the state of the current labor market, more people will be able to make this dream a reality. I have been embracing being a freelancer for the last few years and I have no idea how long I will be able to stay one. Now this option definitely sounds even more appealing as this lifestyle seems to suit me. I am a kind of person that thrives on changes which don’t push me too far from my comfort zone but yet far enough to give methat intense feeling of being alive. That has definitely been a refreshing period after the insanity caused by what is referred to as the global pandemic when a lot of like-minded people had what we love most — travelling — snatched from us.

As I said to a student/client a few days ago, I do believe travelling is a privilege and I can’t be complaining knowing so many poor souls out there are struggling to make it through a day. But of course having travelled once, you can’t let go of this newfound addiction and not being able to get any gratification definitely takes its emotional toll. As I said before, this global frenzy hasn’t been able to restrict my desire to explore. Before this trip, I had been wondering if I could be the same traveller again after such a long period of «dry spell», though. Turns out, I can and I am still me. Thatcurious, invigorated self I have been displaying on this trip is the real me after all. I still love my own companyv as well as reflecting on things around and inside me, contemplating myself and my multiple identitities, my job, which is English teaching. 

As for the latter, having spent almost ten years in the field, I don’t feel I have been much in touch with this language lately. It might not have to do with me not watching Netflix or reading while here as I normally do back home. I guess these milestones tend to leave us questioning our previous career choices and reflecting about the future ones. And of course, the soundscape of home hasn’t been conducive to reinforcing my connection with English either. If domestic travelling becomes «a thing», will people be less willing to learn English leaving me with no opportunity to pursue thisfreelancing path..? This might be a possibility — a scary and an intimidating one. Where will it leave me and my cosmopolitan self..? The comfort of uninterrupted mutual understanding of the language as well as small nuances of the reality and landscape inspired by centuries of shared knowledge of shared history haven’t been conducive to making me feel as if I was in another country either. All we know is that a wind of change is blowing strongly into our faces and we are going to have to face whatever comes our way… 

It is peaceful and quiet by this palm tree this Saturday morning. There are hardly any people around except a few ladies having breakfast at the cafe (they must be staff members as it is still closed). The sight of a cup of coffee made me crave one even more. Hopefully I will get my coffee fix a bit later this morning before I head to the airport to catch a flight back home. Well, I have some work to do after I arrrive, but before I get to it, I will have to rest to help me through a sort of a transitional phase between two different realities. I can now smell the coffee too — along with the massive palm tree and the quiet sea it makes for a perfect serene morning scene. The birds are chirping — unlike myself, they don’t have to worry about the rain. It is nice I can wear my heavier jacket so that I don’t have to worry trying to make room for it in my suitcase stuffed with packs of Matsesta tea, some sweets and a Sochi palm tree kit I got yesterday to bring back home. Hopefully I will get some wine at the airport. I keep forgetting the name of Stalin’s favorite I tasted on my trip to Abkhazia two weeks ago, but I will try to get it. I am not aspiring to have anything in common with this infamous person, but truth be told, I liked it as well. It is Kindzmarauli, by the way. I will have to pronounce the name of this Georgian wine a few times to practise saying it to a shop assistant I guess … It should take me a while to process this bizarre mix of somewhat repressing and yet nostalgic Soviet past and dreams of a modern glitz here in central Sochi along with many other things I have encountered on this trip… 

“I Love Sochi” sign

Now I feel I am ready to say goodbye to the Greater Sochi. All of my three locations have been great in their own waydespite my originally low expectations. This has been a wonderful escape and I hope I will be able to afford more of those in the future as I pursue my freelance path offering a degree of freedom and flexibility further. I also hope I will continue with these writing sessions somewhere else in Russia as well… Goodbye and see you one day, Greater Sochi – hopefully not too long from now and under more certain circumstances. 

Navaginskaya Street at night
The last morning in Sochi

30-Minute Writing Sketches in Esto-Sadok

PART 2. ESTO-SADOK

Episode 5. A Mid-Afternoon in the Mountains, Esto-Sadok, 2.55pm, April 17

The first morning in Esto-Sadok-Sadok

I am sitting here in my cozy apartment watching the Western Caucasus mountains working magic of their own. My building looks somewhat like a Swiss mountain chalet offering awe-inspiring views of the Aibga Ridge from each of the apartments. Trying to take it in from mine, even after two days up here, I still can’t articulate how I feel about this natural landscape I have never been properly exposed to before except while travelling on the other side of the Atlantic or flying over the Swiss Alps. I think I need to let the mountains just work their magic on my feelings and sensations. In the meantime all I can do is admire the view and breathe this air. 

I am in Esto-Sadok («Estonian garden» in English), a village lying around 50 km away from Adler, with the population of around 1,000. It was founded in 1866 by settlers from Estonia which was part of the Russian Empire at the time. This place was left deserted following the Caucasian War (also known as the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus). After wandering around for some time, a bunch of Estonians started a new life here along with some Greeks residing in the neighboring area. Estonian influence is somewhat present to this day as a short walk from my «chalet» is a house of Anton Hansen Tammsaare, a famous Estonian writer who found this place therapeutic for his tuberculosis. So, the topics of wandering around and writing are also poignant up in Esto-Sadok, which is now a mountain resort situated around 700m above the sea level. 

My Apartment Building

Yesterday I was able to meet the mountains up close and personal when I took a cable car to get to the Rosa Peak (2320 m above the sea level). It was quite an adjustment for my body as I felt a bit quizzy going up. But those jaw-dropping and breathtaking views were totally worth it. It seems like I have reached some intimacy with the Caucasus mountains. Being up there felt like stepping back in time as the mountains were entirely covered with snow making me feel a bit awkward wearing my pink sneakers trying to keep my balance on the slippery surface. I was scared of stepping too close to the edge which almost felt like one into eternity. It was thanks to a nice female skier who asked me to take a picture of her that I now have one of me posing against a one-million dollar view of the raw natural beauty. Skiing is such a mystery to me. «How do you do that?» I asked looking at this woman with all that impressive glamorous ski gear, gracefully gliding along the snow on her pink board. «Well, I’ve been skiing since childhood», she said shrugging her shoulders. There are multiple ways to spend your childhood I guess. I wonder if that child throwing tantrums in the cable car on my way up here begging his parents to take him back to the hotel is going to learn to ski one day as well… I, for one, knew close to nothing about skiing and hotels growing up in the post-Soviet Russia… It is really amazing how much our childhoods shape our later lives… 

Going up
Up High in the Mountains
The majestic beauty of the Rosa Peak

I was happy though I was here contemplating that frightening eternity safely far from the edge and the slippery surface. It felt as if I was taking a peek at the place I wasn’t even meant to see if it wasn’t for that cable car that brought me all the way up here. I wish I had known I would experience all these magical feelings being up here back at high school in Geography classes that were taught by one of the craziest teachers I had ever known. I am so happy that physical maps showing endless mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, oceans, etc. (or to me simply meaningless dots) that she made me hate didn’t put me off travelling and yearning to explore those places for real later in life.

On my way back down I visited the cozy Mountain Olympic village (around 1500 m above the sea level also referred to as Rosa Plateau). It had a distinct European feel lined up with multiple international flags in the centre (which seemed a bit ironic with overseas travelling hardly possible). Of course, I couldn’t help taking a moment to contemplate the majestic mountain views while getting a steaming cup of the famous tea from Krasnaya Polyana («Red Glade» in English). That was the original name of this settlement (Kbaade in Adygean) that the place had before the Caucasian war meant. According to another version, it was named so by the Greek settlers who saw the ground in the area colored with reddish leaves in fall. 

The Olympic Mountain Village

As I am sipping on another cup of Krasnaya Polyana tea I got back in Adler, I am witnessing a mix of fog and snow circulating around the mountain tops making them hardly visible at times. It looks as if there is a big sauna up there with smoke uncontrollably moving in different directions. I wish I was more knowledgeable about physical processes unravelling in front of me — was I even taught about them back at school? Compared to the sea, that is another type of a landscape which projects a sense of magical transcendence. It might have to do with mountains as if hanging right above us, making them seem so close and approachable and yet so far away. Unlike on the coast where all the colors can be clearly seen merging and intersecting, it is harder to play a painter up here because mountains are about momentum, unreachable grandeur… 

I have just opened my window to let some mountain air in. I don’t know much about the science behind it, but I was explained that due to a more significant level of diffusion at high altitudes, the air up here feels different from what we are used to living in congested cities. As a result, you become more sensitive to a whole variety of smells (quite the opposite from the major COVID symptom reported by a great number of infected individuals). You feel as if your nose has been awakened making smells feel more acute: alluring aftershave, gasoline, barbecue grilled by a Caucasean cook… Such a vibrant smellscape! The sounds somehow get muffled and less distinct, but these multiple smells hit your nose really hard. Of course, cars in my area might offset the medicinal properties of this air because just as everywhere in the country, there are way too many of them. Ah, I can’t even register rapid movements of fog above the mountains. How much do we willingly miss in an instant second by choosing to look down at our phones/computers rather than up there..? 

This whole area is an idyllic retreat that makes me brood over the famous Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov and other less famous ones who contemplated the bizarre magic of the Caucasus. I learned about some of them from exhibition stands at My Russia Ethnographic Park in Rosa Khutor, a famous resort that hosted the alpine skiing events during the 2014 Olympics. There as well as here in Esto-Sadok it is hard to say where exactly you are — in a village, a town, a resort? The place certainly owes a chunk of its identity to the mountains. All these acute smell sensations also bring out a variety of thoughts and reflections on bigger things such as who we are and why we were brought to this planet; our natural instincts are experiencing a sort of awakening as well. Or is it just the feeling of being on holiday solo when you are often confined to your own inner thoughts that pop up in your mind? As I was typing this, I must have missed another big circular movement as one of the three mountains is only visible now and who knows if it will still be there before I finish this sentence… No, nothing much has changed — as if I have been able to get it under control. Even though my feet are touching the warmth on my kitchen floor, it is hard not to feel cold looking at that all that snow up there. 

Just as with the sea, I wonder how much of this area will be tamed and taken over by humans just to be devoured by a money-making machine in the attempt to generate revenues? When it comes to architecture, as I said, I see a distinctchalet-style here with a certain Russian twist. There must be a degree of consistency to this disorganized chaos of buildings as they all make sense together working for the common goal of generating a mountain vacation vibe. The whole place also serves as a recharge from the main action happening up in the mountains. I feel like a cheat as I am only safely observing instead of sweating in the mountains. 

The highest mountain on the left is totally gone leaving only a vague image of a smaller one in front of me. The smokemerges seamlessly into the sky as if it was the sky itself. When will it choose to open up all of the mountains to our view? It is like a girl having trouble making up her mind about what to wear tossing all the clothes on top of her bed after trying them on. Next thing you know she will be trying on another item just to toss it just like she did all the previous ones… Or is it a cover that the mountains feel like putting on today to protect themselves from my intrusive vision as if they were an innocent girl? 

I can see a patch of what looks like a forest — I wonder how many ecosystems are covered in layers and layers of outfits up there? On the left it might seem there were never any mountains at all — just some grey space — what a master of disguise! The right one which seems well visible and exposed to the view gives it all away. So does a tiny fragment on the left, which looks like like that toe sticking out stopping you feeling all cozy and comfy tucked in your blanket. The cloud above matches the dark cement grey of the mountains with its subtle grey and black. 

There are more patches of snow with more smoke coming out. Who chose the shape — was that a random natural chisel? Watching this, I am being transported into the Borghese Gallery in Rome where I was absolutely flabbergastedby how sculptures were capable of making me feel… Two waves of smoke are coming out from both sides like a dragon with a huge mouth threatening to devour whatever is in its path. Is there a perfect skiing path on top? I guess it will not be possible but it looks like a perfectly designed route for skiing down to me. Easy for me to say, isn’t it? 

For skiiers it might seem I am talking total nonsense but I am just an observer, probably a bit out of place, just like in Las Vegas where I did no gambling (except betting and instantly losing $5). According to the notices in my building there is no walking around in your skiing equipment. Well, I haven’t brought any… Smoke is coming out again as if the show is about to begin and the crowds are about to explode into a roar as the star of the night comes onto the stage.

Another thing reminding me of my time in Las Vegas is a casino right across the road. There is a tacky billboard flashing right on the left. There is a much bigger one I can only see from outside showing Dima Bilan, a famous Russian singer coming from the Caucasus. I am not a fan but knowing he will be performing in a few days just across the road makes me remember his show, the last one I attended before freedom became something we need to reclaim. Seeing him live, I thought he was a definition of a crazy creative spirit (I am not sure if this is down to his Caucasean roots). I played some of his songs yesterday evening. I love listening to tracks which are old enough to take me back in time — they are not always the best ones and nor are some of those memories they bring back, but this transportive magic is indisputable. Anyway, there is no problem with music in the mountains … Ah, there is a very thick layer of snow on the highest moutain — is it being distributed on top like hairspray? There is almost no smoke on the right — has it evaporated? 

The casino and a billboard advertising a Dima Bilan concert

After I finish this session, even though I am not here to ski, I would love to indulge in an après-ski activity and check out a sauna or we call it баня (banya) in Russian. I love how the sound of après meaning «after» in French takes me back to France or the multilingual Switzerland as well as the time when I was eager to continue learning this language of romance. Have I deserved some relaxation despite not skiing? I have been working and it is Saturday so soaking in a steam room should help me to focus on releasing the tension. Even though banyas are a huge part of the Russian cultural identity, I have only had this private and intimate experience once before. Is it going to have any impact on my senses and make my sensations more acute? I have finally noticed some construction happening — is the identity of the place still in the making? The wind is moving the branches of some remote trees. A bold tree on the left is motionless only with its branch tops making slight movements…. Anyway, let the show go on – I need to pack my swimming suit and go let the banya steam work its magic on my mind and body. 

Episode 6. A Morning in the Mountains, 9.10am, Esto-Sadok, April 18

Accompanied by the magnificent view of the Aibga Ridge, I have just enjoyed a lovely sweet breakfast of Sochi-style pakhlava and another cup of Matsesta tea. There are a few variations in the way this honey dessert dating back to the Ottoman Empire is made and pronounced in different nations. In Russia we call it in the exact same way as they do in Azerbaijan, Armenia and Uzbekistan. If you find yourself in Turkey, where it is called baklava, your world will never be the same. As I am still quite far from the famous Hafiz Mustafa shop in Istanbul where I had the most delicious variation of this dessert, I had pretty low expectations of the one I have just eaten. But it was its name that caught my attention. Was that a good marketing tool? I later found out that what is referred to as «Sochi-style» pakhlava is a traditional Azerbaijani type of this dessert that might have been called after the city. The bottom line is that this pakhlava didn’t rock my world the way that Turkish baklava did and nor did the one I had in Cyprus, which is the closest to Greece that together with Turkey claims baklava. But it certainly got me thinking that it is in the border region like this that we get to reflect on culinary identities of nations. What really amazes me is how much the one of this country seems to have been shaped by the neighbors in the East rather than the West. 

As it is my day off work, I can take time to contemplate and reflect on the scene around me. Compared to yesterdaymid-afternoon, the mountains look a lot more peaceful and serene against the cloudy sky. But they still project a sense of grandeur. There is no smoke show this morning as there seems to be hardly any motion, except for a couple of workers laying the roof of a building on my left. It makes you wonder about the prospects the future holds for the real-estate market in the area. If I ever come again (don’t we always want to revisit places while we are still there?), I might see a couple of new buildings amidst these mountains. 

The highest one never fails to win a battle for your attention. There are no words to even describe its shape that makes it look superior compared to the other three ones visible from my window. Its top looks as if it has got inflated. I wish I was more knowledgeable about the geological processes which might have contributed to shaping these natural structures that now leave us in absolute awe. I guess more needs to be known in order for us to fully appreciate this natural wonder. The snow-white of the mountains now seems to be blended in with the black of the ground as if some patches of mud have been splashed randomly all over the mountains. The sun has just tried to struggle through the clouds, but now we are back to the grey landscape which, by the looks of it, is sure to persist throughout this Sunday.

Actually, I am contemplating my honey dessert yet again because I can see a bee creeping on my window sill. It might have flown from the country’s largest apiaries in Krasnaya Polyana where Caucasian bees are busy making mountain honey. This organic product must have been a substantial part of the diet of those wandering Estonians who came here in the late 19th century. Knowing how much the identity of the area is shaped by these buzzing creatures, I choose not to close my my window because I want to examine this one at a safe distance. Just look at how dignified and notthreatening at all it is! I will never grow to love honey (except in desserts) but I definitely have a new appreciation for it now.

There is a pool in front of one of the houses on my left. It must be wonderful to swim here in the nicer weather contemplating, reflecting and peering at the mountains. My yesteday’s interaction with water had an amazing revitalizing effect on my body. This act of self-care left me with a light carefree feeling circling throughout my whole body. It is funny how we tend to become less self-conscious walking around in our swimming suits once we are totally engaged with whatever makes us put them on: either on a beach or here in a banya. In fact, I had the entire place all to myself at the price of a public visit. Even though I wouldn’t have been scared to have to share this experience with others, I still have a long way to go when it comes to accepting myself the way I am and embracing the whole body positivity philosophy, which might have its extremes. Ironically, growing up in a nation where due to the lingering effect of what we call the Great Patriotic War, women significantly outnumber men, we often have females that we love the most teaching us to hate ourselves. As we grow older, we have to become more self-sufficient in order to be able to tell ourselves we are enough. Why strive for perfection in the world with so many tasty pakhlavas/baklavas to try…? I am still uncertain about how much the feminist movement is shaping my identity as a woman. I am still not sure even how to embrace my gender identity without compromising my personal and professional ones… I am happy to see that as women we are learning to stand our ground and live life on our terms. I only have one and only sister and I don’t think I can call any other woman one, but as females we need to be supportive instead of bringing each other down in a fight for men who might not be even worth our time. I think that female solo travellers (including myself) are sending a strong message to the world or at least to our country, which still has a long way to go in promoting gender equality. At least some people (hopefully including men) start to realize that misogyny and patriarchy have to be done away with. After my banya session, I shamelessly treated myself to a nutritious suvlaki, which is a nod to the Greek influence in the area. It was different from the one I had in Cyprus, but again, I would never allow myself to miss out on a culinary delight and I don’t hate myself for that. 

The banya

Unfortunately, as it was intensely cloudy and even drizzling, during my private banya experience I had no view of the mountains but I could still feel their imposing presence. Even when they seem «stolen» by the darkness of the night, you can smell their effect in the air. Yesterday I was tempted by alluring smells of mulled wine which got accentuated by the moisture caused by a recent rain in Gorki Gorod. This is another ski resort whose promenade looks so much like Nikolskaya Street adjacent to Red Square in Moscow. It has been ages since I went to the capital so I walked it up and down a dozen times to enjoy the lights and some people-watching. Now I feel like coming to try some of this wine on my last night here tomorrow despite mostly trying teas and juices during my time here. It didn’t have to do with me as a solo female traveller having to be extra aware of my surroundings – I just didn’t feel like it. But the friendly vibe of the area strangely took me back to a Christmas market in Ghent (Belgium) where people were congregating to enjoy each other’s company instead of drinking recklessly and starting fights. Of course, this type of a vibe is not typical outside Russian ski resorts , but I enjoyed it nonetheless.There is still a tiny bit of hope for some sunshine today as some white spots are lining up in the sky. The green of the forest down below is yellowish but with a promising spring-like brightness. The white tree on the right must smell fabulous. As it is in a private land plot, I don’t think I can get a chance to see if I am right. In Gorki Gorod I smelled some pink magnolias which are still in bloom but felt nothing. Obviously, nothing beats those alluring men’s perfumes and mulled wine… 

The birds are singing — I can distinctely hear their songs in the early hours of each morning. Actually waking up at 6 or 7 has become not a big deal here but wait till I return home… I’ve just had a glimpse of a train at a distance some minutes ago — that reminds me I will be reuniting with the sea in central Sochi tomorrow. Some men are still hard at work laying the roof. As tedious and demanding as this job is, in this growingly insecure world they can be sure there will be jobs for them here in the foreseeable future. But job market trends are so unpredictable, because just a couple of years ago, being a freelance teacher working and travelling in my own country was something I’d never thought I would be doing, but here I am… Writing and journaling my days here in English is less surprising but it is even more important for my language skills given that I am in Russia and there is no other way of using this international languageanywhere except for work.

A bird has just flown by — perhaps it is in a rush to get some breakfast. I have already had mine, but it would be great to complete my morning ritual by washing it down with a steaming cup of coffee somewhere on my way to Krasnaya Polyana which I have yet to explore on my last full day here in the mountains. Despite its poetic name («Red Glade» in English) for Russians this premium resort is associated with rather ostentatious homes owned by the government members. But all I know is that I will be heading in the opposite direction from the one I have been taking in the last three days. May all of us (regardless of our social status) have a beautiful Sunday enjoying the air with a high concentration of multiple smelling particles and an unobstructed view of the mountains – who knows how long it will last before they get «stolen» or hidden by swirling twists of smoke again…

Episode 7. My Last Morning in the Mountains, 8.05am, Esto-Sadok, April 19

On this grey Monday morning I am sitting in my kitchen watching the spectacle up on the mountain tops for one last time. Just about ten minutes ago, the visibility was much better giving me some fresh vivid ideas for this entry. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to last as a thick fog is covering the mountains as if the curtain is about to fall marking the official end of the mountain part of my adventure. Honestly, I think I’ve had my fair share of the mountains over the last four days and made a proper acquitance with them – now I am all ready to head back down to the sea. 

Reflecting on my visit to Krasnaya Polyana yesterday, I should say it was somewhat disappointing. On my way there I found myself in the middle of a highway looking for a pedestrian path. It is at these points of solo trips that you might wish you were not alone. But getting through these little awkward moments gives you extra something to smile about back home. Being a pedestrian in this country might make you feel alienated and lonely at times as more and more people are choosing to get a car, which for a lot of them seems more about showing off their wealth or pretending to be rich rather than just getting around more easily. After what felt like an eternity of walking with cars zipping by, I was so happy to see a jogger who was brave enough to jump over the railing to get to that pedestrian path. Watching him do that so easily gave me the courage to do exactly the same. Well, before even reaching the centre, I decided I was not walking back to Esto-Sadok from here… 

Except for one of the central streets commemorating the Defenders of the Caucasus, Krasnaya Polyana seemed absolutely not pedestrian-friendly. Trying to find my way around while looking at all these cottages felt like trespassing on a private territory. I thought I have seen the mountains from various angles, but there is something about the position of Krasnaya Polyana that made them look even more breathtaking than ever. Looking between all those private buildings I didn’t even expect the view I got to be so amazing. It is great those rich home owners can’t block the mountains from our vision. Even though this landscape obviously still had something to surprise me with, I wouldn’t opt for staying any longer knowing that about 50 km away there is the Black Sea waiting for me to rest my eyes of its shimmering palette of colors again. 

Krasnaya Polyana (Red Glade)

Getting to my lunch spot in one of Russia’s 100 top restaurants was quite an adventure as well. I didn’t mind a slightly steep walk up but at some point I found myself literally having to jump over a small but menacingly flowing creek to get there. A few Caucasean men reassured me that I was on the right track. Well, I was already cursing the notoriously bad Russian service wondering why on Earth someone would build a fancy restaurant in such a location. After walking along the edge of the creek for a bit, I didn’t muster the courage to walk any further and thought I would just cancel my reservation. But a moment later I changed my mind and decided to take a detour despite my map telling me that I would be walking in the opposite direction. In spite of my passionate love for travelling, I am not an adventurous spirit, but I couldn’t reconcile with the thought of walking all this way here just to return to where I started. A few minutes later I was so amazed to see that I had made it. I walked into the restaurant sweating and panting but feeling happy I had made a reservation because a few people without one were being put on the waiting list. I ended up getting seated in a corner table inside the restaurant instead of the terrace. I hope in the future restaurants (especially of this calibre) would be more accommodating of solo visitors’ needs because more and more people these days are choosing to eat out alone. Watching the majestic familiar view of the mountains through the glass window during my lunch I heard a song which went like this «I am the mountains, I am the sea». I thought it perfectly captured my time here trying to navigate between two natural wonders getting an equal taste of both… After enjoying the mountains from a few more unexpected angles, I got a taxi back to Esto-Sadok. 

The view from the restaurant

From there I walked the much more pedestrian-friendly path to Rosa Khutor in the rain. Do I need to say that being here almost on my own (except for a few random passers-by) added a dramatic touch to my last evening here in the mountains…? I took a while to take in the postcard view of the Rosa Khutor City Hall Building. I have seen the view a lot of times on TV and in those cards I have sent to fellow postcrossers around the world. After sending and receiving more than a thousand cards, I don’t find this card-exchanging hobby as exciting as a few years ago, but I am probably one of the last generations who grew up without the Internet so we are still sentimental about cards, physical books, audio cassettes as tokens of the past… This square might look a bit tacky and touristy but at that moment it reminded me of Venice and St.Petersburg at the same time. The Mzymta River flowing across the area reminded me of canals and dark mysteries these two waterfront cities with incredibly complex histories hold… It wouldn’t stop raining on my way back to Esto-Sadok and I had to look for a shelter at a shopping centre in Gorki Gorod where the smell of mulled wine wasn’t as distinct as the night before as if blocked by the moisture of the rain… 

Gorky Gorod
The Rosa Khutor City Hall

It is drizzling this morning as well and this might not be a perfect day to spend either in the sea or the mountains. But I think I love the former in the rain better. I can now see only the highest peak and another blurry one at a distance, the other two tops are completely hidden. I am convinced that the view will look different in the days to come for anyone taking the time to look up. It seems as if there were mountains on top of one another. An intense smoke below is covering the dark yellow and emerald green of the trees. 

I might return one day but I guess it might have to require me trying to learn how to ski in order to take my relationship with the mountains up to the next level – or would that be too early..? Again, I might have not gotten 100% out of my four days here by not skiing. But at least I have gotten to breathe and contemplate the incredible physical properties of this air – that was what I originally intended to come here for. Walking the streets yesterday, I realized how the presence of the mountains is visible even when the evening darkness has already settled in and the rain is dripping. They are certainly felt in the air! So will breathing back down by the sea feel different..?

The birds are singing their customary song just as on each of my mornings here. Instead of skiing today, holidaymakersmight have to indulge in less mountain-centered activities such as drinking at bars, shopping, soaking in banyas, gambling, etc. I can assume everyone finds their own way of keeping busy even while not skiing. Surely, I am not the only one taking it easy with the mountains not sweating it out up in the slopes… 

The view of the mountains hasn’t changed much since I started. So probably it’s time to let the them be and prepare for the performance of the day. I can now safely say I have seen and breathed the mountains here in the Western Caucasus. From now on, I will secretly smile to myself whenever I hear any reference to the place and the artwork it has inspired. Spending time here solo has been truly soul-enriching. How could it have been any different when it is only you and your thoughts and reflections circled by the mountains..? 

Thank you very much, the Caucasus mountains – I will never forget you. But I am in need of the sea to be able to process you more profoundly. Goodbye, all the four mountains (only two are now visible), the mystic fog, the yellow and green trees as well as the blooming white tree on the right!  Rest assured you will be perpetuated on this computer screen and imprinted in my mind for years to come. Thanks and goodbye for now, Esto-Sadok!

30-Minute Writing Sketches in Adler

INTRODUCTION

Throughout the eight years of my travelling career, I have been struggling to find a perfect way to document the countless memories I have made. Normally it would take me months to actually sit myself down and write some detailed reflections on the things I did and saw. But I knew I probably shouldn’t have waited for so long, because inevitably as time goes on, some feelings and emotions (no matter how strong and intense) tend to evaporate. 

On this first post-pandemic trip, after 1.5 years of mostly staying within the confines of my home, I decided to do things a bit differently. Over 2.5 weeks I spent workationing (working and travelling) in Adler, Esto-Sadok and Sochi (or the Greater Sochi area) of Krasnodar Region, Southern Russia, I gave myself 30 minutes to write about whatever the current surroundings made me think about (simply describing what I saw or giving in to deeper reflections on a random range of topics). 

Here is how I got inspired to do that. During the year I spent doing my research at an American university, I was able to attend a Creative Non-Fiction course. The professor would start each class by giving the students a thought-provoking prompt that would encourage them to «get something on the page», which they only had 15 minutes for. I thought that doubling this time frame would work great and would not lead to me spending all of my workation time on my computer. As much as I love writing and contemplating, I didn’t want to end up writing throughout the whole limited time I had in each of these three places.

By using my landscapes (which were all stunningly beautiful and stimulating) as my writing prompts, I also set out to practise mindfulness. I know how we tend to get distracted from experiencing all the beauty we see by trying to capture the memory of it by taking way too many pictures. For these writing sessions, I decided to choose just a few per post so that whoever is going to read these sketches will have more left to their imagination. 

There was no system or consistency as to when and where those writing sessions took place. I wrote whenever I had time in between work and wherever I happened to have my computer with me. Of course, sometimes I chose those places on purpose especially after a few days of getting to know them. 

With these sketches I am hoping to inspire people to travel mindfully and suggest writing as a way of enhancing these experiences that we all seem so much more appreciative of now. I decided not to publish those pieces raw so they were a bit edited and polished. Even though the final product ended up taking more than the original 30 minutes, I hope these sketches have still managed to capture the raw inspiration and amazement that we feel once we get back home from another jourrney in ways that my previous writings might have not. 

As an experiment, I have also decided to include the audio version of each episode I recorded back home. 

So, I hope you enjoy the results of my morning, afternoon and evening writing sessions in the sea, mountains and the sea again. Keep travelling and writing! 

PART 1. ADLER

Episode 1. A Morning by the Sea (7.56am, April 13, Adler, Krasnodar Region, Russia)

This is a morning so many people entertaining the idea of becoming (full or part-time) writers might be really inspired by. I am currently writing this swaying on these white swings overlooking the Black Sea. As I see, you are actually supposed to pay to rent one, but as it is a shoulder season, they are totally free to use — what a bliss! Again, these are not the kind of swings reminding me of my childhood in the South-Eastern Russia but are rather a nod to more remote, exotic, warmer places such as Bali, for instance. There you could pose for a glamorous photo (aren’t more people growing into Instagram maniacs these days?) or do some freelance work sipping on your cocktails (isn’t that what people picture thinking about freelancers and writers?). The only difference is that these swings are in Adler (Адлер),the southernmost city on the Russian Black Sea coast. Where I am is an easy walk from the 2014 Olympic Games sites and the border with Abkhazia, a partially recognized state lying between Russia and Georgia. There are multiple versions as to the origin of the word Adler depending on who inhabited the area at different periods. Artlar meant «a harbour» in the Abkhazian language (or some even say it comes from an Iranian group language, which is quite surprising). The place was later renamed into Adler, which is «an eagle» in German. All we know is that movement and mixing of tribes and individuals living here in the mouth of the Mzymta River resulted in intricate linguistic riddles like this one. Don’t we still have this urge to move around these days as more of us are choosing to become freelancers to be able to experience nomadism and vagabonding or simply working and travelling at the same time? 

Going back to writing aspirations, here comes a (probably cliche) line I have been dreaming of typing for so long— I can hear the waves crashing against the shore … Well, creaking of my swings which might need fixing (just like those from my childhood) is the only audible interruption to this perfect scene. Apart from describing the sounds, I wish I were a painter in order to artistically mix colors and make this landscape in front of me come alive on canvas. But the tool any aspiring writer like myself has instead are words.  I hope that I am able to try to make this landscape come alive on paper (or rather the screen of my computer, my one and only travelling companion on this trip). It is hard to do any landscape justice using words, though, but let me say the sea looks like a very subtle alliance of light blue and green. It still seems like words don’t suffice, because whenever I looked at the sea working its color magic through my previous five days here, I couldn’t help thinking about a famous Russian painter Ivan Aivazovskiy every Russian remembers from their school art classes. Of course, I am not in Feodosia which lies in Crimea, the region that inspired his countless seascapes, and again I am nothing of a painter, but that was still the same Black Sea he had in front of him, right? Don’t we all have an urge to be more creative when we are at the sea coast or at least to remember those who were really good at capturing its beauty with whatever tools they had available? What is beyond any doubt is the potential of this scene to bring out the artistic side of us that we might have been hiding and to reignite that creative spark. 

The closer you are, the easier it is for the sea air to penetrate your lungs with its moist iodine smell which is always a sure sign to your senses that there is a sea nearby. On this windy morning I have chosen to position myself safely far away from the sea which is getting even more menacing by minute. As I progress into my early morning writing session, its waves are crashing against the shore more aggressively and persistently as if begging for an aspiring artist’s attention. 

For some reason, doves are one of the few living creatures (apart from some human early birds) making up my current landscape. We would typically expect seagulls to make the scene look like a stereotypical film shot. By the way, this Adler beach is called Чайка, which means «a seagull». Well, now I have detected a dog sleeping right next to theneighboring swings which are creaking even more annoyingly than mine driven by the wind. 

Don’t we all feel exposed to the world of our own innermost thoughts on the seacoast, this grand immensity that we can’t help staring at and contemplating? Unlike kids who mainly see it as a playground to splash and generally have fun in, as adults we feel our relationship with seas evolving. What is this body of water to an educated adult who has had the privilege of seeing a few seas while travelling? We see them not only as carriers of water flows and homes to seacreatures (some of them eventually find their way onto our plates) but also as bridges between nations and cultures and thus generators of cash flow, too. As I am sitting here contemplating which way I would go from here to reach Turkey, Bulgaria or other Black Sea nations I haven’t visited yet, I am not only reflecting on the past travels and planning possible news ones, but I also can’t help thinking about how the geographical position of this place reinforces its economic ties with other regions and lands. That is hardly what I had contemplated during my high-school Geography classes when I hadn’t even got to see any sea yet… In fact, I didn’t until I was 24.

Now I can hear footsteps of another dog approaching and it is standing right to the left sniffing for some food. Sorry, doggie, I have nothing to share with you after my breakfast of a strawberry doughnut I got from a chain supermarket store (that is what I eat when I get nostalgic about the U.S.) and a glass of locally grown tea (coming from the one of world’s northernmost Matsesta plantations lying around 40 km from here). Now I seem to see a seagull soaring over the sea in its solitude. Is there any law behind how these feathered creatures choose to spend their time — alone or in a flock? Now there is a female runner (I don’t think I would dare to recreate this seaside dream — at least now). But when I get older, I would definitely love to be that senior lady taking a leisurely promenade along the coast, the wind rustling through her short blond hair… 

Fifteen minutes later it is just me and four more empty swings with the same dog still asleep next to one of them. I am swaying a bit – probably to get the creative juices flowing. 

These same swings a day before. I am now sitting on the ones on the right

Whatever orchestrates those waves crashing against a wooden pier is doing a great job as they seem perfectly choreographed. I wouldn’t want to be standing on that pier on my left where I was after 10pm yesterday night as now it is getting ruthlessly flooded in another sway of this improvised dance. There are two more spectators joining me and other two are starting their exercise routine by the sea. The woman on my left is listening to her music — is it really necessary as it muffles the sound of the main performance that we are all here to watch totally for free? As we are still in a kind of a pandemic, I can see a man on the left wearing a mask. There was one lying on the stairs on my right yesterday evening but it is now gone. 

This brings me again to the role of the sea in generating money (not travelling amidst this kind of a pandemic). We all pay to come here so probably this sea performance is not free after all..? Anyway, it is mind-boggling to think of the amount of money even this particular sea strip has generated since a former seaside village became a sea resort (in the 1960s). How much more will it yet produce as tourists from all across the country come here once this current scene changes for a warmer one? As charter flights to Turkey, Russia’s most favorite seaside destination, have been suspended, this region will definitely see more travellers from across the nation flock here during the summertime. I am pretty happy I am experiencing the place at a much more affordable price. It is not so cold after all as there are sun rays warming me from my left and I can now see a stone on my ring sparkling a bit and my skin looks more tanned from Thursday when I got my first proper dose of vitamin D here. Now there is some golden sparkle on the sea as well and its green looks more like unfiltered water (I have been taking extra precautions not to get poisoned on it as the quality of local water is notoriously bad). There is a dove taking a walk and now it is gone somewhere under the pier… 

How much have humans tamed the sea? These piers raised above the water are a way of us saying that we are somewhat in control of this mass. A white seagull has just catapulted right into the sea like an underwater rocket. It was International Day of Human Space Flight yesterday commemorating the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin and his first journey into outer space, hence the reference. This same dove has performed an effortless dance of its own. Three more are flying in the direction of the Abhazian border. Are birds social? Are there introverts and extroverts among them? Two more are chasing one another — that looks pretty extrovert to me!

It is time to wrap up my morning writing (or painting?) session as it is 8.27 and I am teaching a class at 9. Would I have to religiously and meticilously edit this piece or will I leave it as it is? I think by too much editing I might paint over the colors of this light blue, green and subtly gold Tuesday morning I have been trying to perpetuate during these 30 minutes…

Now there are a few women taking pictures. It makes me wonder how many have been taken and yet will be. It is great we are going to have a reminder of an unusually cold early April when coming here to Russia’s only subtropical region, we were expecting to be wearing something lighter than our jackets and hoodies. After 30 minutes of enjoying the scene, I feel my fingers shiver a bit (should I have put on my gloves which I have in my suitcase and did Aivazovskiy’s fingers shiver as well?). My left hip is experiencing a contrasting warm feeling radiating around it. Some other dogs are interrupting the end of my creative process as they are in the middle of a fight barking furiously. The man on my left is no longer wearing his mask, but now he has sunglasses on instead. I can’t and don’t need to wear mine as I am wearingmy regular eyeglasses as without them at least 50% (I am not good with numbers, though) of the colors of this morning scene would be blurred by my slowly decreasing vision). No, this is not a human I thought for a moment I had seen in the sea and luckily, a dog has just passed by as I have no treats to share with this one either.

A swirling water move is a final brushstroke to this scene and I am ready to start my class and get on with my freelancing (no cocktails in view — I will actually head back to my hotel room for this as I am worried about the sound and this student might not be as keen on listening to the sound of waves crashing against the shore as I am). Have a great Tuesday, Adler. I am trying not to contemplate the origin of the name too much as I really need to go…

Episode 2. My Last Evening in Adler (April 13, 5.32pm)

The picture I can see from this wooden bench I am positioned on has gained a shade of playful pink which matches the color of my sneakers. I know that for sure as I am sitting with my feet up on a stone plate bringing them a bit closer to the horizon. Well, honestly, even after ten years of being a translator for an architectural journal, I am struggling with what exactly to call this structure in either language I know…

The waves have been unforgivingly rough today (definitely the most intense in these last five days). Scooters are hugely popular here and honestly, I am a bit tired of trying to be extra cautious not to be run over by one. So, sort of ignoring this popular means of transportation parked on my right, I will choose to focus on the increasingly blurry silhouette of a mountain instead. Actually, I have come to this exact spot on purpose. I am close (but not too much so that I could get a nice full view) to one of the country’s oldest operational lighthouses built in 1898. It looks very low-key and somewhat deteriorating, but anyway the night before I spent a good ten or fifteen minutes staring at its beacon shining every few seconds against the dark sky. A cliche thought of this being a humble sign of hope amidst the immensity of the sea wouldn’t leave me… 

The Adler lighthouse

Just as yesterday, a radio station called relax.fm is playing from loudspeakers. I don’t think I can hear it distinctly asthere are people out and about. The night before one of the tracks that wouldn’t leave me either was one called Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton. At that moment my mind wouldn’t think of heaven as a euphemism for everyone’s final destination (anyway, I would like to think we will all continue travelling forever even when hope for salvation is no longer there). Instead heaven seemed to me a quiet idyllic place where you could spend eternity listening to the sounds of waves crashing against the shore. This pensive serene song was a perfect background symphony to the majestic seawhich does and will always dominate this soundscape day and night and hasn’t it for ages? I have heard this track by the famous English guitarist and singer countless times, but I will never forget listening to it standing almost on my own (except for a couple enjoying a romantic moment on a neighboring bench) with his soft voice acting as a back vocalist for the Black Sea. I have been having a kind of dilemma when it comes to music and the sea. We can think of tons of tracks we would like to listen to while sitting on the coast, but I am somewhat happy yesterday I had one chosen for me by this radio station. Even though I have some tunes in mind that would be perfect for this scene, I haven’t listened to any here yet. As solo travellers, we find it easy to unplug from the surroundings by burying our ears in music. But aren’t we going to miss out on the whole sensual experience of the sea by allowing ourselves only to see it? As I have chosen to let the sea dominate my soundscape during the whole time we have together, I’d rather listen to some music in my earphones back at my hotel… 

Imagine listening to “Tears in Heaven” watching this…

So, on my right there is the mountain Akhun (Ахун) I only got to see clearly on my fourth day here as it is obviously not distinguishable behind the clouds and in the dark. That was exactly when I would walk this area during my first days – we often seem to do little justice to places right next door. It is astounding to think that here we are surrounded by two mountains — Akhun and the awe-inspiring Caucasus.The one I am closer to now looks smaller and less imposing, but it reminds me of my brief trip to Japan and its iconic Mount Fuji I didn’t get to see. What also mentally takes me back to this mysterious and impenetrable land is the sakura season that is happening there now. I have also enjoyed some blossoming here in Adler in the Southern Cultures Park founded in the early 1900s. I am still trying to remember the names of some of the flowers which can be seen there. I took tons of photos for Mum during my visit, because unlike me, she is good at not only observing plants but also growing them. Seeing those pink flowers (matching my sneakers as well as my jacket) reminded me of cherry blossoms I got to see on a one day road trip from Northern New Jersey down to Washington DC with a group of wonderful international friends three years ago. But it was good (especially after 1.5 years of not travelling at all) to partake in this ritual accompanied by a bunch of fellow Russians as well. 

The Southern Cultures Park

I have just seen what looks like a seagull (yes, I am still at the beach called Seagull) flying shyly in the sky just to disappear into the vastness of the sea. Strangely, this got me thinking about where we are positioned in this grand seascape. I mean, are we present on its edges as tiny meaningless dots going out and about or are we literally out of this picture, spectators in an art gallery trying to make out what is there in front of us? If artists ever created 3D experiences of places to be seen live and online (have they already?), everyone around the globe would be able to join in the excitement me and other shivering strangers are feeling strolling along the promenade in anticipation of the golden hour. There is a promise of one as I see a hint of pink on the right. It looks like sparkling splashes of champagne casually spilled at a cocktail party – knowing that champagne sold all across the country is produced in this region might have inspired the comparison.

Plunged into a foggy mass of dull blue grey clouds, the mountain on my right is getting even more blurred. There is a cute red dog sneaking right beneath my feet which are still perched on top of the that structure I don’t know a proper name for. A father is throwing his toddler up into the air and a flock of birds is flying right above them. Don’t we humans find our own unique way of getting into this perfectly natural picture after all..? The color of the hour is dirty grey blue and a tiny bit of flirty pink. There are lights strung on a cafe roof looking kind of cozy. A child is screaming and another quiet one is checking out the seafront. The levels of our curiosity and marvel at the scene must be pretty equal. My hands are freezing (I don’t have gloves with me again). I think I will continue my stroll a bit further and have some quick dinner before my evening work session. Hopefully I will get to see the golden hour before my class. Have a nice evening, Adler! 

Episode 3. My Last Morning in Adler, April 14, 7.58am

Here I am sitting on the exact same white swings as this time yesterday. It is sad to be leaving this place as I feel I might bedeveloping a new routine: waking up super early (without grumbling and complaining), grabbing some breakfast in my room washing it down with a steaming glass of Matsesta tea just to finally get down here to say hello to the sea. 

Throughout my week here in Adler, whenever I saw this seascape emerging right from around the corner of my hotel, I was anticipating something new, something different from the night before. Needless to say, the sea never failed to suprise me. Its capacity to change colors with a dazzling degree of variation is absolutely incredidle. It is truly fascinating how unlike in technology, a set of options in store is boundless. 

Today the seascape looks a lot calmer with warm shades of blue and green seamlessly merging with the sky, which holds a promise of some sunshine later today. There is a woman taking pictures further away from the pier. The sea is a wonderful photo model, indeed. Observers and admirers will never stop obsessively photographing it. Of course, this compulsiveness sometimes takes away from the whole experience making us glance at it through the lens of our cameras instead of actually being emotionally engaged with the sea.

There are tiny birds running around — starlings (I had to look this name up, to be honest). Somehow I associate these with Russia and no wonder I didn’t know the English name for them. I think I have just seen a few seagulls as well. Do they always wait for a storm to go away to make an appearance? In this state the sea seems quieter and less stimulating to the senses leaving us with nothing but a feeling of tranquility and disbelief that it was the same sea yesterday drenched in the rain. The polished water surface seems tamed and shiny as if someone has just ironed it. There are some bruise-colored clouds on the left though, which means that we might be in for some nasty weather as well. I am wondering which side is going to win — luckily, for now the quiet, light blue and green part seems to be taking the lead. There are some birds chirping at a distance – they are a good reminder it is spring which hasn’t been assertive enough yet. Despite my general pessimism and one more cloud hanging above my head on the left, I feel it will be a much brighter day worth staying a few extra hours for. 

Today I am heading up to the mountains and I know I will be missing the sea unless the former succeed in winning me over. Unlike the sea, I can’t yet articulate how I feel about mountains – sometimes they charm me with their majesty (like in New Hampshire where I got the closest look of them ever), other times they frighten me with their sheer size and an image of something unknown they project. After five days up in the Caucasus, I will go back down to reunite with the sea in Sochi and I hope my feelings about these both natural wonders will be more clear. 

Hearing the sea making elegant low sounds makes me feel nothing but quiet but also ashamed at any alarming thoughts occasionally creeping in (does it have to do with me working and travelling at the same time?). The sun is shining a bit more assertively on my left shoulder. There is a light green rainbow circling the sea – I wonder whether this is an illusion. After a few days of clouds and rains, any signs of calmness seem more like lull before another storm. The sky doesn’t fail to suprise and dazzle either. I see different shades of blue – a very pronounced one on my left and a much more subtle one right in front of me. Given family history, I might be somewhat color-blind but with this landscape offering itself to my vision, I am capable of reading deeply into it as if it was a novel that I am intending to analyze for hidden messages and sentiments. 

The sun is getting even more assertive by minute making me sure in the knowledge it will be a glorious day indeed. It might be a lull before the storm – I don’t care as I am about to give in to another natural power up in the mountains later today. There is a cute dog on a leash running around, which makes me miss my cat back home. Someone I know (who actually suggested we got that cat) once mentioned that life could be so changeable that despite being a happily single cat lover, I might see myself being married and getting a dog someday. Well, the being married part still sounds ridiculous to me but I think I might consider adopting a dog someday. It would be nice to walk mine just like that along the sea coast – and I would have no issues doing it alone. 

Hoping for a fine day ahead, I am finishing this morning sketch and am ready to head for a final long walk along the coast to observe more colors the sea and the sky have in their palette to dazzle me with.

Episode 4. My Last Afternoon in Adler, 1.32pm, near the Russia-Abkhazia border

I think I have a perfect spot for my last sketch from Adler, my very own «place of power» I discovered on my first walk here six days ago. Imeretinskiy Boardwalk is a lovely area that is so nice for a promenade due to a newly renovated surfacing. There used to be swamps inhabited by mosquitos that caused massive outbreaks of malaria lasting on and off for decades till the disease was contained in the 1950s. These days we can hardly picture this area looking so different a few decades ago as we can see California-like pieces of real estate alluringly lining up one of Russia’s most glamorous promenades. While here, you can’t help but think of how much it reminds you of Los Angeles, Nice and other glorious tourist playgrounds. It is so suprisingly pleasant that here Russians seem to be more relaxed and smiley than common stereotypes give us credit for. 

Reaching the edge of this boardwalk six days ago, I don’t think I was ready for the exquisitely majestic beauty I was about to see right in front of me. As I saw the azur (I knew it wasn’t Nice!) water of the Black Sea surrounded by majestic mountains, I allowed myself to shed a tear… I knew I was going to see both the sea and the mountains on this trip — but together like that? I certainly didn’t see that coming. I didn’t mind my joy and bewilderment ruining my eye makeup which I think I might have forgotten how to wear over more than a year of restrictions and lockdowns in the attempt to contain a questionable invisible enemy. What was more scary was that I thought this whole uncertainty might have made my feelings go numb. But it was such a relief to find out I am still me and as all of my previous trips have shown, it is easy for beauty of any sort to leave me speechless. That was what happened on that late afternoon… So I savoured the moment and felt no shame in being vulnerable. I was just happy that no restrictions are capable of stopping me from crying those happy tears… 

So I knew for my final writing session I had to make it to this exact place. There were no more tears every time I came here over these last five days, but memories of being emotionally caught up in that moment of experiencing this perfect alliance of the sea and the mountains made it special every time. This place doesn’t just call for creativity, it simply demands it with a vigour of a persistent Caucasean man who doesn’t take no for an answer. Not that these advances are always pleasant, but creation isn’t supposed to be an easy ride and sometimes (unlike with men from anywhere in the globe) we are better off just giving in to see what comes out. 

What I see on my left (my neck might start hurting a bit from constantly looking that way) seems like a range of mountains hiding one behind another. Actually I was right about the weather forecast in the morning and today has been all bright and sunny so far — a perfect day in Adler and sadly my last one before I hopefully get lulled into a tranquil sleep oblivious to the world up in the mountains. I am not sure what the weather up there will be like, because those clouds up above make for a sharp contrast to what I see on my right where the central Adler and my now former hotel is. I have just texted my Mum saying that the closer you get to Abkhazia, the more fabulous and pristine the sea colors look like. It is ironic that here with another country just across the river Psou, you have to remind yourself you are actually in Russia. As huge as this country is, there is some kind of consistency about how various places and landscapes look like. And yes, we have to be in places like this one to remind us that this country actually has borders! I visited Abkhazia, a partially recognized republic which is just on the other side of that fence on my left, on a day trip a few days ago. I can say it was distinctively different despite being tailored for Russian tourists that local people seem to be heavily dependent on. I kept getting the feeling that as is often the case in tourism, there is an underlying motive behind the smiles (and multiple flirtatious looks). All of these food tastings seemed too much (even though the wines and cheeses were really good). Of course, the awe-inspiring mountain views as well as countless waterfalls I experienced on my jeep tour gave me a proper taste of what the Caucasus is in a way that no literature which largely seem to romanticize it never could. 

As a foreign language teacher with a perhaps unhealthy interest in anything «foreign», of course I am still left wondering about what is behind this border. This is human nature to be extra tempted by what is behind the fence, something that has us cranking our necks trying to get a closer look. This is where Russian will be spoken with a hardly distinguishable foreign accent, signs will be bilingual. As a linguist I am also on the lookout for such transformations and here you don’t have to go far to experience them. Also being interested in identity construction and language policy, I can’t help contemplating how these border regions are a place of conflict, ambiguity and of course, identity negotiation. Local people’s national and linguistic identities would certainly depend on political alliances of the current leaders. Of course, it is the case everywhere but in a region straddled between two bigger states this struggle must be even more real and tangible.

Abkhazia and a sign in three languages: Abkhazian, Russian and English

A wineyard in Abkhazia
Trying to capture some national character
Lake Ritsa, Abkhazia

Also, as a translator for an architectural journal interested in observing how buildings are employed to manifest and communicate identities, I can safely say now that the surroundings across the border send a different message than what I see here in Imeretinskiy Boardwalk. So much taxpayers’ money went into creating the latter in the run up for the 2014 Winter Olympics. I am actually pretty ambivalent about the Fisht Olympic Stadium which hosted the opening and closing ceremony of the Games. The name for this place comes from the Adygean language meaning «white head». Mount Fisht that the stadium was named after lies in the western Caucasus Mountains. I am going to see it for the last time once I start walking back towards my hotel. Honestly, I decided to refer to it as an «egg». Somehow, it is so much more out of place here than all of these fancy establishments. I always experience conflicting feelings looking at famous gigantic architectural structures like that in my country and unlike Red Square in Moscow, this one doesn’t really make me patriotic… I am not going to go into how I feel about this country hosting one of the most expensive Olympic Games in history — I am mainly here to recharge my batteries after experiencing the consequences of recent political decisions. So enough politics for this afternoon… 

Imeretinskiy Boardwalk

Turning back to linguistics (which I know is so intrinsically related to politics), I am acutely aware of my currentsoundscape and sometimes this is the only thing especially in this newly constructed part of the coast reminding me that I am actually in Russia. This feeling is both conflicting and comforting as sometimes it feels it is too much detail but also, it makes you feel linguistically at home, with no danger of a little turn of the phrase misinterpreted and misunderstood. You are hardly likely to be asked this pesky question «Where are you from?», because most people soaking in this sun in the Black Sea coast are mostly originally from somewhere in this country or a few neighboring ones. These occasionally result in a degree of variety to the place’s soundscape as throughout my time in Adler I have occasionally heard some Caucasean languages being spoken. Of course, I have had people speak Russian to me with that very familiar Caucasean accent as well. Well, I will have to admit that it has certain connotations for Russians especially coming from men (yes, those same ones who won’t take no for an answer). It has been a butt of jokes in multiple comedy shows. Here we go again – it is hard to speak about the relationship between Russia and the whole Caucasus region without getting political… 

I feel the sun warming my body which has been a bit overwhelmed by the rainy and cloudy weather of the last few days. I count my blessings of course and can’t complain but again that is pervasive human nature making me wish this beautiful day had come at least a couple of days earlier. This strip looks somewhat secluded compared to the rest of the boardwalk because from here once you get to the fence, all you can do is start walking back. Probably not everyone makes it all the way out here, but that is what makes it much more special as a place of power and solitude. Thesewords capture my current state. I feel pretty self-sufficient so there is no urge to start a conversation with anyone, whichI find super productive for contemplation and reflection. This is what we introverts do best… 

Walking back

My hands are a bit chilly because I am super close to the water, but this sensation balances out the sun which I still need to get used to. The mountain range is now partly hidden by a mist. This looks like a life of its own up there. I will make sure I stay long enough to indulge in the vibe of anticipation with lots of alluring colors before I go up there. I think the sky has a beautiful surprise in store this evening. After the rain, the sun always shines. I think with all that irritating chill in the last few days, we have deserved a day like this, the one I will certainly remember. 

I am going to head back all the way to my hotel area (taking lots of farewell photos) and to get my dinner at a Georgian restaurant where I couldn’t get a table a few days ago. Well, I think for now mountains can wait and will forgive me for taking my time to enjoy and savor a glorious sunset. 

Thank you so much, Adler! You have been nice despite the mostly chilly weather. I have to leave in a few hours because as my fridge magnet from New Hampshire says, «Mountains are calling and I must go». But not before I see the sunset of course, that is. I hope I will be back, thanks again! 

The last sunset in Adler

Food… and Some Aftertaste of Belarus

A rise of travel food shows is indicative of a renewed appreciation for culinary experiences to help visitors get in touch with a local culture. One day is not enough to treat yourself to a whole range of flavors and my Russian palette knew what to expect from the culinary scene of Minsk. Russians love the exquisite quality of the Belarusian food produce. People with a vague sense of nostalgia for the Soviet Union believe that it is due to higher production standards dating back to this era -in Belarus they seem to be complied with up to this day. Along with the search for linguistic and architectural symbolism, I started craving for a more tangible piece of the Belarusian national identity, i.e., potato pancakes (драники).

Even though this is not distinctively foreign food (it is a popular dish back home), in Russia we think of it as a staple of the Belarusian cuisine. This was why I was hoping to find these potato pancakes distinctively tastier here, in their homeland. I guess in that part of the former Soviet Union, or even the whole Eastern Europe for that matter, we all love our potatoes. But it is incredible how they offer enough culinary space for our distinct national identities. For a taste of Belarusian potato pancakes I decided to go to a traditional local restaurant in Independence Avenue that I had chosen based on the largely positive reviews.

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This is where I had my potato pancakes (драники). By the way, the name of the restaurant is written in Belarusian, which makes sense

Its interior was adorned with traditional towels so I could enjoy another display of the country’s national identity. The waiters were also wearing national costumes. This place might have seemed like a tourist trap, but I could feel a genuine touch of our Slavic hospitality here. I had my драники served with мачанка(honestly I’d never heard this word before), which is a traditional Belarusian stew made with meat. On this somewhat chilly day pork ribs would be perfect for keeping me warm. I decided to wash the calorie-rich dish down with a glass of local beer. I remember tasting one of the best beers in my life here in Minsk six years ago. I have been to quite a few places since but very few beers I’ve had matched up (so far). When my perfectly Instagrammable dish arrived, I had to do what actually hurdles mindfulness – I took multiple photos of my meal to send home and posted one on my Instagram. I was on my own so the only way for me to share my excitement with a larger world was to disconnect from the one around. I couldn’t wait to give the food a try – my lunch was beautifully filling and tasty. The Belarusian national identity seemed more distinct now with those deliciously and uniquely made potatoes! The beer was OK, but I guess at that particular moment I didn’t feel like having another glass.

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An Instagram moment

My elaborate architectural walk left me no time for a proper dinner – I could have tried the famous potato pancakes at another restaurant as virtually every place had them on the menu. All I had time for was to grab a coffee at a lovely place in Independence Avenue. I didn’t see as many coffee shops as I had expected in a place so close to the European Union, though. For my chocolate fix I popped out into a confectionery shop selling the produce by the Kommunarka Factory, one of the largest manufacturers of confectionery in Belarus. My Mum’s internship in Minsk was also in the food industry, but it was a bread-manufacturing enterprise. The sensual smell of freshly made chocolate made me imagine I was up for an ultimate Willy Wonka experience. I got a few bars for my family members and myself.

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I had to make sure I got this chocolate. It is a Belarusian twist on the legendary Soviet Alenka chocolate that every Russian knows well

There was also a coffee shop here and it looked very busy and somewhat chaotic. I was hoping to sit at one of these tables overlooking the night lights of Independence Avenue and reminisce about leisurely coffee breaks on my European travels as well as numerous conversations over a steaming cup with fascinating people on the other side of the Atlantic. Also, it would be another pensive moment enjoying being alone together and contemplate our own thoughts and ideas with some other solo visitors. But it wasn’t meant to happen as before I knew it, the last vacant table got occupied. I was still clinging to the hope of grabbing a seat while I was making my order of ginger hot chocolate and an éclair. While I was watching my hot chocolate being made, I was thinking of Christmas gingerbread till I could smell actual ginger being added to the mix. It jerked me back to my first cold days in the U.S. when a roommate suggested me eating ginger for my cold. Even though I come from a country which is known for extremely cold temperatures, up until then I hadn’t been aware of the medicinal properties of ginger. But while on the other side of the Atlantic, whenever I had similar symptoms, I forced myself to have some ginger tea. Here in Minsk my coffee experience was somewhat rushed as I gulped my steaming cup standing, which I wasn’t sure was completely acceptable. It would have certainly been in numerous coffee shops in the Penn Station area in NYC where I had my long-awaited morning coffees to give me energy after a commune into the City. For my cheese fix I checked out an airport duty-free store where I got some imported cheese from France, Poland and Lithuania at a very reasonable price – I think a few Russians lining up behind me did as well. As I had some time to kill before boarding, I had my final taste of the Belarusian food at an airport café. I had a sandwich with some locally made mozzarella that I washed down with another glass of beer. I grabbed a few bottles to bring back home as well. I spent my final hour in Belarus mindfully enjoying my food and beer and toasting the Slavic food and hospitality!

 

 

P.S.

Well, on this trip to Minsk I have accomplished my goals of contemplating the language(s), architecture and food, which I hope might give my travel writing a new direction. What I did fail though was to describe my adventures on a reasonable amount of pages – sorry about that! I guess at least it shows how one doesn’t have to go too far or be away for too long to come back home with a sizeable story to tell. Of course, it’s much more interesting to explore somewhere at least indistinctly different from home. The feeling of landing back in your bed after a day abroad is too surreal to miss out on!

As COVID-19 restrictions haven’t been lifted yet, a lot of us are now turning into storytellers engrossed in our own mix of memories. On May 9 I remembered Belarus again. This is when we celebrate the defeat of the Nazi Germany in the post-Soviet space. Due to the growing COVID-19 threat, the Russian government chose not to have a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the glorious victory, meanwhile the Belarusian authorities decided to go through with the Victory Day celebrations. I don’t think I am not in support of either of these moves. It might have been difficult to find a way to handle this holiday which has such a “sacred” status in this part of the world- the costs we paid for this victory were tragically immense. But I have to admit that watching this parade in central Minsk being broadcast on a Belarusian TV channel made me contemplate not only our ongoing disagreements but also the shared history. Even though it was being celebrated under the red-and-green flag, it struck an emotional chord leaving me feeling happy that regardless of the global health crisis OUR victory has been honored…  Our ancestors were strong enough to rebuild the country and at times renegotiate their own identities following the unprecedented devastation of what we refer to as the Great Patriotic War. I hope now we owe it to them to find a minuscule of strength in us to get back to normality. Once we do that, more travel stories will certainly follow…

The Last Trip of 2019 (Minsk)

Could someone like me – a linguist and a traveler– have asked for a better way to wave goodbye to 2019 than suddenly getting a chance to go on a little trip? With only one day at my disposal, I could have chosen to enjoy a quick break exploring more of the beauty and glory of our capital city. Sounds pretty amazing, right? There are tons of absolutely wonderful things you can do in Moscow. But too much work and self-reflection pushed me into being a bit more adventurous. That was when I remembered my quick trip in 2013. Have you ever travelled abroad for a day and got back home a little over 24 hours later? That was exactly what I did back then. Instead of taking two trains and spending a total of 20 hours on the road, this time two short flights were all it took me to get to a neighboring country – not foreign enough for a Russian to have to get a visa, but still different enough from Moscow to please both a linguist and a traveler.

As someone teaching and attempting to do language research, I knew on this trip I would be able to reflect on the uniting and divisive power of Russian (my mother tongue) as well as to ponder on emerging national identities in what used to be the immense Soviet Union (my country of birth). In the attempt to become a more mindful traveler, I was also hoping to treat my eyes to an engaging mix of the Soviet and European architecture and my palette to familiar but remotely foreign food. Sounds like too much for a day, right? Well, in a nutshell, that was exactly what I had enough time to do in mid-December in the capital city of Belarus. That trip was also short enough for an aspiring writer to describe on a reasonable number of pages. Also, with this story I am going to wrap up 2019 hoping for more work, self-reflection and a few engaging trips in 2020!

That was how I conceived the beginning of my Minsk story if I had got to write it in 2019. I’ve read a few books on travel writing telling me how powerful those opening lines and paragraphs should be to draw my readers in. This hook wasn’t meant to come about in 2019… So, as I am writing this in 2020 already, I am being reminded of how life has a way of changing our agendas, travelling plans, story beginnings and so much more. About two months ago those first news reports on the rapidly spreading virus didn’t disrupt my life at all. A few weeks later, scaremongering in the media culminated into a mix of confusion and despair. Finally, it all seemed disturbingly real as so many trips (including my own) had got called off and whole countries (including those I was hoping to travel to later this year) had gone into lockdown. As reports of growing numbers of people affected by the virus kept coming in, travelling was already the last thing on almost everyone’s minds. I think the moment I knew I had to start this travel piece was when my own country had got shut down. Amidst the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, I am starting to realize that my own quick trip to Belarus would be off the table now. Sadly, we have been isolated not only inside our national borders but also inside our own homes for a while now. Anyway, I would like to think of that last trip of 2019 as only my latest one. I just don’t want to give in to panic and call it the last opportunity I’ve ever had to travel!

Of course, like a drug that one can never go off, travelling has a way of giving us withdrawal symptoms. As it is no longer our choice whether to go anywhere or not, it might feel as if we had never set foot too far from our homes. With this story I am also going to remind myself (and a few readers if I am lucky) that travelling is a privilege. In order to celebrate the fact I’ve had it multiple times, I might finally get to write about all those trips I’d had before the day I boarded a plane for Minsk, Belarus. Just about 20 hours later I was to land back into the comfort on my own bed…

Unlike a lot of places in the world, travelling to Belarus is a breeze for a Russian thanks to the Commonwealth between our countries launched in 1996. Even though you are actually travelling outside Russia, there is no need to worry about getting a visa or forgetting your foreign passport at home. Well, in Russia we all have a “domestic” passport and a “foreign” one for travelling overseas. The only issue I had on my way was finding the security-check point (there is a special entrance for those travelling to Belarus which took me a while to locate). After I had finally made it to my gate, there was some time to do what any traveler loves – people-watching. As crowds of passengers around me were lining up for their flights, without even looking at the flashing flight information screens, I could see and hear that a lot of people weren’t probably going anywhere outside of what used to be the immense Soviet Union. In fact, my country of birth only lasted till I was around 3 years old. In 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as if in the attempt to piece together whatever was left of that shattered glass. Certainly over the years there have been disputes about the membership in the organization as some states were not willing to join or withdrew their participation later. Despite a few wedges between all of our nations that are still tangible to this day, there is some sense of commonality that explains why people from the CIS countries who might look and sound different are quite familiar rather than foreign to a Russian. I might get to one of these countries one day as most of them don’t require a visa either – that for sure would make for another story!

Nice. Jour 5

Bonjour! Our last quite regular morning in Nice started with some decisions to make on what to do that day. We could go to the neighbouring Monaco or spend the entire day exploring more of Nice. That was the opening day of the European Football Championship here in France and we thought it might get chaotic with traffic and we’d already been in the fairytale-like Monaco so we opted for a day here in Nice. Refraining to see the royal splendour of Monaco – just like that…

Place Massena had already got decorated for today and looked even more beautiful on that perfect sunny morning. I had another cheeky wet walk through the cascades in Le Jardin Albert-I seeing more locals casually strolling or reading newspapers. A beautiful morning in the South of France! We felt instantly part of it as we went to the Apollo fountain and realized that the world-famous Cours Saleya market we saw a sign for was just around the corner. In 1897 the first wholesale flower market in the world was opened here. Before we checked it out, we dropped in one of the shops along the coast selling some small gifts and perfume. Our noses were in need of a souvenir de Nice as well as our vision and mind as they nurture each other collaboratively.

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After we’d dropped off our purchases whose enticing smells did a great job inflaming our sensations back at the hotel, it was time to see the market and breathe the smell of Nice more profoundly. Yes, there’s a post-office just at the entrance and I have a few cards to post! It was very interesting to do something locals would do and try my limited French that certainly gave me away but it wasn’t meant not to. The market itself was a life-size landscape blooming with overwhelmingly gaudy colours of flowers of all sorts. I wish I could get some to give Mum who is hugely fond of any sort or shape of floral elegance. I’d rather just admire them than make an effort planting them. The air was infiltrated with the smell of lavender that put a very romantically scented touch on the pile of my memories to inspire me to decorate my room in the Provence style.

That felt more like a morning of a character of some medieval novel going through their routine grocery shopping. Markets are immense parts of a local culture. Food on sale was plentiful as well. Apricots, apples, cheeses… I couldn’t resist trying a local speciality that has to be eaten here in Cours Saleya. That was typical street food of Nice called Socca – a hot pancake seasoned with paper baked on coals. The one I got was huge but my sister wasn’t willing to try it as well so I had it all to myself! It was very substantial as street food is meant to be! Being here made me wish I could once step out of my house, get myself to this market, buy some fresh ingredients from one of these people I would definitely know by now and cook something very nice back home. We love to dream while travelling! These Provencial dreams infiltrate our mind just as lavender does our senses!

We decided to get back to explore the largest Orthodox Church outside Russia that was here in Nice away from the city centre. For that we had to go back to the Avenue Jean Médecin and walk to the railway station (Gare de Nice-Ville). We stayed for one night in this area on our first time here. Of course this part of the city wasn’t too fancy and there were some suspicious-looking people walking by. It was a bit tricky to find this area and we could see more apartment buildings and obviously non-French people here. There were signs for the church but it wasn’t in our view. The afternoon was getting very hot but we kept walking this less attractive part of Nice. Eventually we did find what is actually now part of our country’s property and it looked so much like Russia. I knew I would be there the following day and wasn’t keen on that but I wanted to experience what it would be like to see it here. The Russian nobility had a good taste for holiday destinations. It was easy to be a patriot from here I guess.

There was a monument to Tsar Nicholas II and some more busts. It felt a bit cynical to be here for a Russian. We didn’t feel like entering the church as we would expect we would find a lot of fellow Russians there and might get some looks from them. This is what I find very oppressing about the Orthodox religion.

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We just basked in the sun instead and walked back to Promenade des Anglais. We didn’t want any more homeland to this afternoon in Nice. We stopped by for another rest in a park with huge palm trees where my sister didn’t feel like staying long due to a group of homeless people nearby. Well, we were getting spoiled as back home we wouldn’t even take any notice of these people who weren’t being disorderly. Just around the corner we came across another reminder of Russia that was a grocery shop with a matreshka at the entrance. Our people are notorious for being bad at adapting to their foreign surroundings…

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It was time for lunch. We went a bit extravagant and chose a place overlooking the Mediterranean. I ordered some gnocchi (dumplings) that I had been happy to try in Rome. We found a bottle of wine at the astounding 600 euros on the menu! The wine we were having that afternoon was a whole lot cheaper! It was a very pleasurable afternoon we spent watching people coming and going before it was about to get more chaotic in the evening. My sister took advantage of free bread they offer here and asked for a few helpings. It was quite challenging to catch the waiter’s eye (whom she found particularly handsome and I agreed) and we wondered if there had been anyone trying to leave without paying their bill as it was so easy to get lost just into the next corner. Was that something that crossed only Russian minds…?

Afterwards we sat a while at the coast and I was sad this time tomorrow I would be back home and there would be no more imposing view of the Hotel Negresco dominating our vision. We sat pensively playing with stones and throwing them into the sea as we watched a very caring father taking his older son (a future male beauty) for a swim. It wasn’t hot enough for that, but the boy didn’t mind and neither did he say anything when his father left him all alone to obviously take the younger boy to use the bathroom. We had to discreetly take a picture of this cute young man. A lot of these handsome men seem to make excellent fathers! We watched some more kids playing in the playgrounds put up to celebrate the start of the Football Championship and we had no doubt that the only loud child would be Russian and he was! They might need these handsome fathers that a lot of them sadly don’t have… As we kept walking, we came across our Belgian colleague with a suitcase in his hand and he instantly recognized us. He would break a lot of hearts back in Russia…

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We went back to the hotel for a bit to refresh as the streets were getting filled. In the elevator we came across another male beauty I wish I had been far enough to take a photo but he was just too close in this tiny isolated space. It’s a shame I couldn’t broadcast this image to people back home – they would be very jealous! They would be anyway if they knew how much handsomeness I had been exposed to throughout the course of my stay here in Nice. I’m very skeptical of people saying that looks don’t matter that much. In Russia it sounds more like a consolation as one might end up single forever (which is deemed as a major failure in our country) if they make this a prominent criterion in choosing a partner. But what is wrong in wanting beauty in your life – just seeing a smile on a handsome face is enough to light up the soul with that flirty life-boosting spark! Humans crave and thus gravitate to beauty in all of its shapes and forms. I guess girls like myself who have very handsome fathers and their romantic and sensitive minds from them tend to romanticize male beauty. So excusez-moi if there have been too many accounts of niçoise males on this trip. This is one thing I’ll always be on the lookout for even when I’m old and grey as those ladies I saw at the restaurant the day before (as long as my eyes can see and my soul get inflamed).

As we got back to the promenade area, we thought it was a perfect time to climb the Castle Hill (Colline de Chateau) and the adjoining Castle Park (Parc du Chateau) and get a closeup of postcard views of Nice showing the Bay of Angels (La Baie des Anges). That was a rather sweaty walk up but we kept stopping to get different perspectives on the view and each time what we saw was purely splendid! There is no more castle here as it was destroyed in 1705 as ordered by Louis XVI. The view I got took my breath away and stole a huge segment of my memory to be stored there forever! Wow! We were about to take a picture of us here when we saw a man rushing towards us. We thought something was wrong but he turned out to be eager to take a picture of us and thought we were English!

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As we went down, we saw French people waving national flags and getting ready for the game. We decided we would stay in the beach and hear the reactions from there enjoying our pique-nique of fruit and wine. There were so many airplanes in the sky that evening and I was standing with my feet in the water watching one gliding by – romantique! France won that night and we did get to watch the final minutes of the game on a large screen in Place Massena and I got joined by a French man providing very emotional comments and the only thing I understood was a French swear word and something we would call “core vocabulary”.

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As I was finishing on my sister’s sandwich, I got a few looks from people in a festive crowd and admired watching a group of young men admiring young girls walking by – that’s what it was originally supposed to be and all got twisted in the process. I was high-fived by a guy in the crowd and it was fun! No one got disorderly and the police presence was very significant. I couldn’t get enough of our final night here. I’d got used to hanging out in this squire every night sipping on my coffee and people-watching breathing this revitalizing Mediterranean air… I congratulated the hotel receptionist and his handsome friend on their win! It’s amazing how sport brings people together. I miss you already, Nice! Bonne nuit!

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My capital

The way to the dream wasn’t going to be a short one… First we needed to take a train to Moscow which is about 500km away from Voronezh. In the capital we would meet our travelling guide and the rest of the tourists who would join us on our journey. We would then set on a train trip from Moscow to the city of Brest, Belarus which would take us about 14 hours. This is where our coach trip would get underway. If all went as planned, then we would cross the Belarus-Poland border and… would actually be in the dream (i.e. in Europe)…

Actually for me the trip started as we got on a train to Moscow… This was when it finally dawned on me that that was it, there was no way back and what seemed an alluring dream, then a beautiful plan was now my reality… It felt really scary to get on the road, to feel the way travellers do, experience life in the way they do… As I was looking at my city through the windows of the train, I was wondering whether I would be ever coming back again… It wasn’t that I felt homesick before I actually left but the thought of going on such an extensive trip for the first time ever was incredibly overwhelming… Maybe in moments like these you really need to be secure in the knowledge that there is a place where you belong and you would definetely be back whatever trips and journeys life takes you on… Anyway, firsts always feel scary and cause one to think in quirky ways…

I always feel uncomfortable and quirky on trains (which might effect my thinking as well)… I was on a sleeping car only a couple of times and I knew this could well be my least favourite part of the trip… I just hate to be on a sleeper with a bunch of other people… It feels much like an invasion of privacy (in Russia we don’t make much of it, though) with all these people going about their daily routine in the space of a small sleeping car… It might look like the Big Brother Show or something… It’s just something I can’t explain because even though I’m not used to having a lot of space to myself in my day-to-day life, being on a train and sharing this space with other people makes me sick… More like emotionally sick with me having to watch these people and them watching me… It just makes you wonder how fate works bringing together all these different people travelling for their own different reasons… It feels like so many lives and fates are cluttered here… Were we all really meant to be at the same time in the same place like that?

So our trip officially started as the train set in motion… The only thing I like about trains is to hear the sound of a train’s wheels touching the rails… This rumbling sound alone is so serene and calm and so Russian to me… (I know it should be pretty much the same in the rest of the world)… So here we were listening to this sound and basically doing nothing apart from playing cards (this is what Russians do if we have some time to kill time on a train…). I was getting my head around how on earth I was going to sleep on this terrible, revoltingly pristine lining on this bunk bed a countless number of people had laid in… On the plus side, I knew I was this one trip away from coming back to Moscow… It’s been a long long time and I was eager to experience my capital again… I was on a brief visit there about twelve years which was actually the only trip I had been on… So coming back to Moscow was like revisiting this time (not that I miss it but I just enjoy letting my brain take me down a memory lane which is always an interesting and in a way self-indulging experience) and see how the city had changed or I had changed in the way I see it… Lying on a bunk bed felt like lying under the train itself with the wheels beating in my temple… I was tossing and turning and let my imagination take me far far away, to all these places where a dream becomes a reality, where I see, feel, hear in a new way… I was wondering where exactly we were as the train took us further and further away… I need to remind myself that I was still in Russia and my actual trip hadn’t started yet… But our country is so big and diverse that travelling from its one end to the other would be a journey in itself and who knows – it might even teach one to see, hear, feel differently… I might someday find that out but only after I get this dream of mine come true. I was certain I would change in the process…

As a matter of fact, a trip to Moscow might feel as a trip abroad for some. It’s a fact that a capital and all its grandeur and magnificence don’t really sum up the country… Neither does Moscow sum up Russia… If Moscow is the heart of Russia, it means that it has so much more different kinds of blood pumping through it thus making it work with twice as much effort… This is how I see this difference between Moscow and the rest of Russia… It’s like Russia on an exaggerated scale blended with glamour, prosperity and pursue for the dream of prosperity for thousands of people coming here daily… I know it’s wrong to begrudge Moscovites their right to take this place for granted because it makes us seem truly provincial and makes them treat us in a patronizing way but it’s something that we can’t help really…

This is how I felt as I got off the train after a sleepless night and started taking in the capital and listening to the big heart of Russia beating with twice as much effort. I was ready to experience new things and even my bag that was heavy as much as I tried to empty it of all the things that I decided I could do without as I was packing back home did not stop me from feeling all these emotions… To my disappointment, things seemed the same as I left them back at home – people, streets, even the overcast sky seemed to follow us all the way from Voronezh…

I was terrified about the trip on the Metro (underground or tube depending on where you are in the world). We don’t have it here in Voronezh and the thought of travelling from home to work which seems so habitual to many people in the world was overwhelming…. But it wasn’t that bad after all and I even managed to do some people watching and wondered whether they could say that we were not locals or not and whether I could guess which of them were locals…. It was again fate bringing people from different background and sometimes places together in the same space… The Metro proved to be a quick and comfortable (something we are not used to here) way of travelling which took us to the centre of the big heart of Russia… I felt like the grandeur and beauty of Russia’s large heritage was within an easy reach as we were approaching the building of the Bolshoy theatre and seeing to the monument to Karl Marx on the way (which I remembered seeing in a travel guide book when I was small).

 

It felt like some opera music was about to play with people in fancy clothes and big smiles appearing from everywhere to get swept away by the power of art… I wanted to take a mental picture of everything – fountains, people, the vibe of the early morning capital.

I felt my heart trembling as I saw a glimpse of the Red Square from far away. This is sure the place not to be missed if you are in Moscow. It’s like travelling to London without seeing the Big Ben. The hotel where top celebrities stay at, the building of the Duma – everything felt surreal… The highlight of the trip was definitely the Red Square. The word “Red” means “beautiful” in old Russian. I virtually had to hold my breath before actually stepping in on the Square… It was like getting ready to take a dip into the ocean of emotions… Standing there I could actually feel the sound of blood pumping through the heart of Russia… It’s the image of Russia that we are grown up… It’s not the Russia that we see through our windows, it’s the Russia as an entity, as something massive both politically and geographically. It’s the place we remember from historical footages where so many crucial decisions were announced to the whole country listening in…

And, of course, it is the place for Victory Day parades with soldiers rumbling across Red Square bringing together people with a living memory of the devastating war and the emotions of people like myself who were lucky enough to be spared the sufferings of the time. There was so much history there that it made me want to cry… As I was walking down the square, I felt like it was a safe place to feel proud to be Russian and embrace a Russian in me. I felt privileged to be standing there and to be a sort of a memory card connected to all the variety of the feelings ranging from joy to sorrow felt here, all the events taking place here. It was a vague feeling but intense enough to make me emotional and say to my sister and friend who didn’t seem to be as impressed as me “Look around you!”. I felt incredibly proud to see all those people from around the world (especially from Asia) taking a guided tour of the square. I couldn’t believe that all these people came such a long way to experience the capital. It was incredible to look at their faces, hear them speak other languages. I knew I would be like one of those tourists the next day if (fingers crossed) I arrive safely in Poland. I had a feeling that here (in what I had to remember what was my own country) my first international got to a good start. It felt like Russia on the grandeur scale with me suffocating with history and seeing Russia the way people in the rest of the world see it. It was an iconic image of Russia. It was like a mirage to me which I felt physically. I wanted to come up to these foreigners and say “Love or hate it, this is Russia. We are ready to share it with you!”. I really felt like sharing just the way I’m sharing my feelings now…

I remember throwing a coin near the monument to Zhukov when I was to Moscow twelve years ago to come here again… And I did… I remember taking pictures of these places on our old photo camera which is now history… A lot has changed in the city itself or it’s rather me and my perception of the world around that changed…

I have one more thing to remind me of Moscow… It’s my Cheburashka T-shirt. Cheburashka is a character in a very popular Soviet cartoon. I have several Cheburashka toys at home as well. Cheburashka always brings out a child in me. And it was how I felt in Moscow, like a child who was so excited to see, feel, hear things…

It was an emotional day in Moscow and I think that it really got me ready for what would be my first trip abroad… It made my feelings more acute, enhanced my vision (the contact lenses were on of course). I was longing for more and said goodbye to Moscow only to come back here again as I got on the train to Brest… It was all REAL…