there and back

words & images nathan goldstone

It was early February when I found myself on the first of many flights back to Siberia. I was taking classes at Irkutsk State University and had scheduled my return for the start of what, back home, would have been called the spring semester. Weather reports in Irkutsk claimed -10 Fahrenheit, thirty degrees warmer than previous days. As we taxied from the gate at Domodedovo, I plucked a week-old Economist from the bag beneath my seat, settling in for the six-hour flight east. Try as I might, my eyes kept skipping over the lines. I had a question for myself, a simple one that, to most readers, would appear to have been answered long before I ever got on one flight to Siberia, let alone two: What am I doing?

Such thoughts hadn’t troubled me before. Places were new, studying at the university was intriguing and exciting, and I felt a drive to understand the culture and mindset of the city’s inhabitants. In a word, I’d had the thoughts of an outsider, peering into the local reality through the glass barricade of policies and presumptions that dictate an American student’s life abroad.

Flying through the icy night on an empty plane from Moscow to the end of line, however, brought the lonely feeling of going back. Not back to anything in particular, and not going in reverse, although elements of both were there. Just back. This feeling usually hit me flying from school to Wisconsin for winter break. Call it home.

My time between semesters maintained Siberia, as both a land of mystery and a place to be discovered, as an odd focal point, grounding my various experiences and stringing them together into a kind of veiled plot that eventually led to my return. While visiting friends and loved ones, I found Siberia everywhere. In Ireland and Italy, men and women donning the typical earflap ushanka hats strolled the city streets. In Budapest, the Danube strangely resembled the Angara in its icy lapping, and in Austria the mountain lakes looked like little Baikals. Taking a break from Russian literature, I picked up Haruki Murakami’s trilogy 1Q84, only to find extensive passages from Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, and in Prague discovered Steinbeck’s travel log from when he himself traipsed across the USSR with Robert Capa.

I’d left the Murakami books in Prague where I finished them, but there was something in one of them that had kept me thinking. While reading Sakhalin Island, the main character wonders why the famous Chekhov, by that time slowly and secretly succumbing to tuberculosis, would give up a lavish lifestyle in St. Petersburg to live among the Siberian natives. “Perhaps Chekhov himself did not understand why he had to go, Tengo surmised. He just had to go.”

This is the best answer I have found for myself as to why I had to go back. Out there, life is hard. Warmth and color do not exist in wide arrays outside one’s cramped apartment, the people are often visibly desperate for something, and there is always the looming sense that this is it—that the boundaries of one’s life are contained within a winter’s day, and there is no better existence on the horizon.

I can’t explain how a place like this can make me come back. A part of me, perhaps still looking through that glass, would like to think that I’d made it to another pole of our existence, that I had crawled up to the edge, the icy wind threatening to blow me from my precipice, stuck my head below the bottom of the overhang supporting me and stared humanity right in its craggy face.

But that’s not it. I was still a student abroad, which meant that living there was a privilege that I could afford. Affected metaphors aside, I don’t really know why I went again, but I just had to. It wasn’t home, it isn’t; the comparison is so far off that it doesn’t even make sense to me in the negative. But, if you take away family, it holds the same reason for returning, whatever that may be. And isn’t that enough?

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