Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"A Credentialed Tourist": Part One of an International Travel Diary From a Guest Blogger

Keeping a blog is partly a way to let people know what you're up to, so it helps if you're up to interesting things, which mostly I'm not. Mostly I'm watching DVDs, listening to music, and staving off the problems that attend constant low-level anxiety. I do know people who are up to interesting things, though, and that's why, a while back, I promised to have guests post something from time to time. It even happened once. Every four months isn't quite what I had in mind, but here we are again. This is the first of a two-part post (the other will follow before too long) by Jim Rutman, a friend of mine, an Eastern European raconteur and, despite his deep humility about it, a hell of a basketball player. This past summer, for the first time since leaving as a six-year-old, Jim traveled to his birthplace, Kiev, with his family:
The (re)discovering of family roots and the places that sit atop them has become a wholesomely middle class enterprise –- a moveable thanksgiving writ a little larger than the confines of the familiar hearth will allow; a commendable adventure on behalf of (or in defense of) the beleaguered family unit.

My own family unit (parents, sister, me) undertook such a trip to Kiev this past summer, bringing along couriered gifts and packed tightly ourselves with the anxiety and circumscribed wonder that naturally accompanies an unexpected return to a far off, carefully preserved Home.

The loving upkeep of nostalgic nuances is a rite linked closely to the Russian soul (with italics, caps or quotes generally accompanying that last, signal word).

Equal parts nationalistic inheritance, family obligation/burden and social tool, the appreciation and careful wielding of sentiment is a cultural must. When my parents bundled our modest hopes and possessions in the now familiar manner of many other Russian-Jewish refuseniks in the fall of ’79, they did so with the understanding that the Kiev they knew exclusively for the first forty years of their lives was to be legally renounced, reflected upon but never revisited. Even after restrictions on returning were lifted after the dissolution of the USSR in ’91, we had never seriously contemplated a visit. At first, we wanted to requite the Soviet system’s disdain for refugees like us with our own, secure in the belief that the decision to leave was profoundly right. But after independence, and the passage of sufficient time, the poetic separation of a distant, cordoned off existence felt dramatically appropriate and soothing against our always tentative new identities.

And yet there we were, standing shoulder to sentimentally illuminated shoulder with a pessimistic but hopeful throng of beery Ukrainian futbal fans shoved into Independence Square, nervously eyeing the under-sized JumboTron broadcasting a heavily pixelated image of the improbable World Cup quarterfinal meeting between Italy and Ukraine (making its first tournament appearance). As we emerged from the cozy basement of a local "traditional" fast-food chain and into the energized night, the opportunities to create new and vital sentiments were immediately and undeniably apparent. And so my father vigorously videotaped, and my sister photographed, and my mother patiently scanned the masses and we knew, beyond all question, that we were on vacation back where we’d started.

From the unprepossessing airport to the unremarkable but somewhat despairing route into Kiev, the urge to record living family history was great. We were back in a place we’d conclusively left nearly 27 years ago, in circumstances so different from the present that even a formidable passage of time failed to convincingly account for the changes. Being on high alert for Significance at all times is taxing. But my family was up for the challenge.

Of course there were qualitative differences in our dispositions and expectations as we were guided by a distant cousin to her perfectly western Volkswagen in the dusty, irregular and miniscule parking lot at Boryspil Intl. Airport. My parents were returning to a receded but profoundly familiar past, in a drastically altered present, ready to compare and contrast with the resiliently fond and forgiving attitude that had been nurtured in the suburbs of Northeast Ohio. Their initial adult identities had been forged in this vast, under-regarded capital, and they seemed prepared to reserve judgment during a re-encounter with streets and friends who had been relegated to photo albums.

My sister had nine years to make and store impressions of our birthplace, so she arrived on a sunny June day with a far more refined perspective than a mere six years permitted me. I was a credentialed tourist, hoping to sniff out a few landmark particulars from what I accurately expected would be a sea of newness.



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