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Literature on repeat

News of the recent passing of Bennett Lamond, one of my favourite and best English Lit professors, in combination with a particularly inspiring weekend full of theatre, spoken word, impulse book buying, and intense reading, caused me to think about the combinations of words that stick. All the snippets of literature that go floating through my head regularly. I always supposed they weren’t necessarily the most significant ones – I have a terrible brain for memorisation that doesn’t involve music, even of things I love – but then I also have to wonder why it is they’ve stuck if they’re not.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he said
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun
God damn it, you’ve got to be kind

Many of these things, aside from Gatsby, I couldn’t tell you in detail about why I loved them to start with. Or exactly what happens in the course of the story. Or even what all the characters names are. I need to read it all again. But you don’t need a perfect memory to know a thing meant something. Was important. Is important. And when I read it again it will no doubt grow in that.

April is the cruelest month
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds
Olives and wax

The parts that make a whole. Or the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Whatever you subscribe to. All of these things planted themselves in college or before. I’ve surely done at least as much or more reading in the decade since I was an undergraduate than I had in the ten years before, but there are no lines from this more recent time that chum me to work in the morning or pop into my head while I shower.

In Xanadu did Kublai Khan a stately pleasure dome decree
Something rotten in the state of Denmark
Look upon my works, ye mighty and despair! Nothing beside remains

If you look at pictures of me from high school and pictures of me today, you’d barely know the difference aside from a few grey hairs. I am always jeans and a t-shirt and trainers, even when I wear nice vintage dresses. My dance shoes are flat, and when my dress shoes are not, I feel more fake than fancy. I prefer to be as close to the ground as nature intended, which is still pretty far.

Harry Potter is important to me but not a single passage sticks with me in the way the first word of Beowulf or the last few lines of Ozymandias do. The way we prepare to tell all great stories and the way all things must end.

Hwæt. (So.)
So we beat on
So it goes

Russian trains

Russian trains! One of the main points of this trip, and all in all, pretty nice. Clean, safe, on time, largely comfortable, affordable. What more could you really ask? Most of my trips were just overnight with a few hours on either end, but I had one 48 hour stretch booked as well as one 8-hour daytime trip. For the former, which was my trip from Yekaterinburg to Irkutsk, I booked one of the nicest fast trains, the #2 Rossiya that goes from Moscow to Vladivostok. And for the latter, Irkutsk to Ulan-Ude – during the day in order to see Lake Baikal in all its glory – I booked my only 3rd class leg since I wouldn’t be doing any overnight sleeping. It turns out 3rd class on that train was even more comfortable than 2nd on the Ulan-Ude to Ulaanbaatar train, so the whole dormitory on wheels thing wasn’t really a problem.

I was actually looking forward to all the various trip lengths and classes for different reasons. But much as I was longing for the experience of 3 days, 2 nights on a single train (mostly in order to read and think forever without option), I have to say now I’ve done it, I can check that off the life list and not do it again.

Sleeping on a train, in itself, is actually pretty nice. You get rocked to sleep and the noises aren’t all that bothersome. It’s the temperature they keep the cars that kept me up. It’s ridiculous but I kept thinking of how impossible I found it to sleep in Africa because of the temperature. In Russia it’s somewhere around -20 to -30 outside but on most of the trains I was on, especially overnight, it can get up to 29C! Way. Too. Hot. The train I took for the Russia/Mongolia border crossing was actually freezing, but it was a super old school train and it seems I’d been spoiled up to that point. No matter though. That was also the first one I met any other English speaking foreign tourists on – LOADS of them – so it was good fun.

So. The heat was the main discomfort issue. But it doesn’t actually matter if you don’t sleep much because you’re also not moving around or using much energy. I didn’t even go to the restaurant car on the 48 hour trip, so I walked only back and forth between the toilets and the samovar at opposite ends of the carriage.

And tea. My god. You think the British like tea. I drank enough tea in 48 hours to keep the British Empire running from roughly 1908 to 1911. I guess this is because Russians love tea and there’s no fresh cold drinking water on the train, so, ENDLESS TEA. I actually had to stay off the tea (and any liquid at all) on the border crossing train because they lock the toilets until all the checks are done and that may well be the most terrifying part of this entire trip for me. No joke. (I survived.)

While drinking all that tea, staring out the window at the opposing temperatures of the beautiful Siberian winter confirmed to me that coming at this time of year was the best decision. I know even the Russians think I’m batty for wanting to be here now instead of summer. I’m sure it’s beautiful in summer, but I also think it probably looks a lot like the Scottish highlands. This kind of winter, however, we definitely don’t get. So why not see something different?

Anyway, as mentioned, One of the main things I was looking forward to was allllll the reading time. And that has been great. I devoured Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance by Christopher McDougall (of Born to Run fame), which was pretty much the PERFECT book for this trip. It had adventure and travel and science and all sorts! I loved it, and it has also given me plenty of ideas on how to take better care of myself. And trust my feet more. (Or rather, my balance.)

I also read Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia (recommended by Drama Professor Extraordinaire, Jason) which was a great thing for when I couldn’t actually speak to people, because David Greene had the advantage of an interpreter where I did not. So at least I could read people’s stories if I couldn’t get some firsthand. That book also firmed up a lot of the separation I feel from America now though. Particularly when Greene is talking about the connection he feels with a particular Russian couple that has a similar lifestyle to his and his wife’s, the only difference being he and his wife don’t live in a society they see as ‘ill’.

And this is where my ‘REALLY, WHAT?’ flags went up. All through this book, he’s highlighting the problems in Russian society and government, and none of them are minor things. However, there’s an air here and in many other things I’ve read and heard that America (and other Western countries for that matter) is so healthy that they simply don’t have an equivalent problem set. And on that I call complete and utter bullshit. America may not have the SAME problems as Russia, but it has some pretty freakin’ big ones it can’t seem to solve for the life of itself (*ahem* gun control, healthcare, women’s health, ETC), and this is again what makes me feel we’re all more alike than we want to admit.

The other thing that struck me was the bit on Putin’s New York Times op-ed response to Obama’s comments that the US helping by taking military action in Syria is one of the things that makes the US different and exceptional. Putin said, well actually, it’s kind of dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional. And Putin is not a man I’d agree with on most things, but when it comes to countries’ own views of themselves, I think he’s right. Seeing yourself as a great country is all right. Seeing yourself as The Greatest country is not. (And on this, David Greene seems to be thinking in my direction.)

I don’t have a whole lot of personal commentary on Putin. Some of the Russians I met dislike him. Some of them felt he pulled the country out of a few dark holes despite not necessarily agreeing with everything he does. He’s a politician, and politicians aren’t perfect. But even the ones you disagree with are capable of sense. In any case, things could always be better no matter where you live. Just because American problems don’t match Russian ones doesn’t mean the US is somehow better or more extraordinary. And Russia is not the horrendous, scary place that some people would like to think. People are lovely here! Things work! Bears are not roaming the streets! It’s just not the same as the Established Western Democracy you’re used to.

ANYWAY. I unfortunately did not get to discuss most of this with any Russians on any trains, because of what I think the hardest part of being on the trains for so long was – the language barrier. I didn’t run into other English-speaking traveling adventurer types on the  trains until my train that took me out of Russia. Most people I encountered didn’t speak much or any English. This is obviously totally fine and I don’t expect anyone to be speaking my language, but it does cut any conversational potential quite short.

It’s very nice to try to find out who people are and where they’re traveling to, but it’s pretty hard to go much further than that. And that’s what got to me in the end. I’m cool with being quiet when I’m by myself for long periods of time, but to be among people who are having great conversations and unable to join in just feels extra isolating. I was so happy to meet people in the hostels in Irkutsk and in Listvyanka that spoke English I probably talked way more than I normally do. Hopefully I didn’t drive them totally nuts. On balance though, I’m glad I didn’t have a trip full of only English-speaking travelers, because that would be fairly bland in terms of a foreign experience.

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

Last sunset on Russia (from the train, of course).

Setting off

I am on my first of many, many trains. For the time being, this means my stomach has stopped going all flipped. I have my passport. I have a lot of chocolate (host gifts). I have what I think is probably just enough money in the bank.

I suspect I have too much stuff, but I also have a bag that is bigger than it looks, Mary Poppins style. There was a plan to do a big post on packing and how I conquered it, but I don’t feel I actually conquered anything – just barely managed more like. Perhaps once I’ve been away a few weeks I’ll hit my stride with being master of my luggage. For now I just hope I put everything in sensible places.

Chaos, more or less.

Believe it or not, most of this is on my back.

I’ve loaded my Kindle up with stuff, which I’m quite excited about. And in my first hour on the train I got through the third quarter of a book I started reading IN THE SUMMER. I’ve not had that kind of idle time since then. I am perhaps disproportionately excited about this.

Here’s what’s in store so far:

  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain – Oliver Sacks
  • Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Everest Disaster – Jon Krakauer
  • The Once and Future King – T.H. White
  • Sunset Song (A Scots Quair) – Lewis Grassic Gibbon
  • Natural Born Heroes: The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance – Christopher McDougall
  • Midnight in Siberia: A Train Journey into the Heart of Russia – David Greene

The book I’m finishing is Trumpet by Jackie Kay, and I also have War and Peace and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, because of course I do.

Edinburgh has gone mild on the weather for the past few days, which has provided a good few  late-night walks home, Arthur’s Seat and the Crags silhouetted against the clear, nearly-full-moon-lit sky. I’ve eaten and drank in the best pubs in the city. I’ve danced with all my friends. I’ve had lots of cake. Mim has already won future flatmate of the century by rescuing me with a functioning washing machine two days before I left. Kristina bought me the most stylin’ wooden Scandinavian travel mug in the city. I had a good cuddle with a puppy before leaving the keys on the table.

There is nothing here to stay away from. It’s much easier to leave when you have all of that to come home to.

But just to give me a little shove on my way, once I got to Waverley, the heavens opened up and dumped all the water they could find. I narrowly escaped a soaking, but being in the station was like going through a car wash in a car with a very high, zigzagged sunroof.

I suspect that’s Edinburgh being all ‘I’ll bust out the good stuff when you come home, now eat your overpriced M&S salad and git outta here.’

englandracingby

There are sheep in this picture, they’re just a bit blurry.

So I’m on my way. I ate my overpriced salad and then enjoyed an equally overpriced cup of train tea while watching England roll by in the low winter sun. Then I FINISHED that book.

I did try to post this from the train, but I’d like to point out that Virgin Trains were offering fully free WiFi in standard class today. For the ridiculous reason that it’s Black Friday, which has been adopted by the UK for, I don’t know, Capitalism. I have so many issues with this, including the fact that the WiFi basically was not working because I assume it wasn’t prepared to handle everyone using it for free. Whatever. At the very least, we could officially get in on Thanksgiving if they’re going to foist made-up American shopping holidays on us.

In any case, I can survive without interweb connections and resolved to upload later. I arrived at Kings Cross at 5 and it was already dark and a bit misty from the humidity of the rain outside. I walked nearly the full length of the platform since my carriage was at the back, which I kind of love because it gives me more time to think about Harry Potter, which I always do when I come in to Kings Cross.

In the books, the station is a sort of arena for transition and major decisions, which isn’t anything profound, but I do always think about it when I arrive or depart there. It certainly seemed even more appropriate today than it normally does.

Platform I'm-Going-To-Russia.

Platform I’m-Going-To-Russia.