Saturday, January 28, 2012

Traveling without a destination in mind

OK kids. For those of you keeping score from home, today officially marks the beginning of week two in Moscow. I am here for the semester studying sociology at the Высшая Школа Зкономики (Higher School of Economics) at the National Research University. The past seven days have flown by, and I have much to fill in, but for now I feel that the best course of action is to start with a blow by blow of first impressions and reflect a little on what, exactly, I want to get out of the next twelve weeks.

I left Dulles in DC Thursday January 19, after a grueling and ridiculous Visa mishap. My letter of invitation kept getting delayed due to bureaucratic hurdles and a last minute heads up that I needed to change my passport...the week of Thanksgiving. Great. Long story short, once I had new passport and letter of invitation in hand, I headed to the Russian consulate with my money order in hand and visions of Red Square dancing in my head. Dodge Georgetown traffic, park car, ask security guard to let me in, get back in car, go to correct entrance, park again, go through security, go out of building where security is and into building where visa office is (pant pant pant) and finally arrive to face a rather dour woman who looks rather unimpressed with the efforts I have taken to get the damn visa. After a cursory glance at my paperwork, she points out the million and four things I had filled out incorrectly (ok, just three), and says that I have do reapply online and come back that afternoon.

Oh, and, by the way, that they won't let me into the country until January 24.


Because of the shenanigans that had happened in getting my letter of invitation, I only actually received the letter in hand three days prior to my departure date. There is a five business day waiting period from the day you apply for a visa to get into the country for student visas. Awesome. I am so glad I missed that on the website.

But wait! Good news! I can write a letter of appeal to the Head of the Consulate, and then they MIGHT let me in on the day I am scheduled to touchdown in Moscow, only three business days after I apply.

Fab fiance and I had become a one car household over the Christmas break, and I had to get back to the house to trade off the car so he could drop off some paperwork across DC that afternoon. I zoom back home, grab lunch and fiance, and we head out for visa adventure round duex. After he ran his errand, we zipped over to the Bethesda library and I redid my application, as well as wrote a letter of appeal. I had already had to change my flight once do to the letter of invitation being delayed, which had cost me a pretty penny. On the way back to the Consulate, letter of appeal in hand, we made the judgement call that if I had to change the flight again due to the business day waiting period, we were going to call the trip off. It's been my experience time and again that when things don't line up, even with my best efforts being applied, it's usually not meant to be. This is not to say that I walk through life waiting to have things handed to me. Quite the opposite, I work very, very hard and push for those things that I feel lead to pursue. However, when I have a gut feeling that something is off AND things keep falling through, I have learned that it's better to back off. When I do feel lead to pursue something and have a gut feeling that I am really, really supposed to do it, things generally fall into place far better than I could ever possibly manage on my own. With delay after delay of letter of invitation, changed flights, steep and unexpected costs, and now visa shenanigans, I was beginning to doubt if I was supposed to go.

I had done a lot of soul searching as to whether or not to pursue the opportunity to come to Moscow- weighing almost four months apart from my fiance, friends, dog, playing Aunty Beth to my amazing niece Piper Claire, and workplace fun against the opportunity of a new adventure. Unlike my time in Indonesia and Cambodia, I was heading to Moscow with rather nebulous idea of what, exactly, my reasons were for coming. I went to Cambodia specifically to research policy maker's perceptions of victims of sex trafficking, to Indonesia to practice ethnographic field methods with the ever brilliant Dr. Leslie Dwyer. My decision to go to Moscow had been based much more on "why not?" then on "why". I felt strongly- and still do- that coming to Russia would be an opportunity to gain insight that will help me be a better researcher, and maybe even contribute to spanning gaps in communication and policy priorities once I mature past my current academic larva status. Especially in a world with nuclear weapons, I think it is vital to have people who are trained in conflict resolution who have background understanding of both Russian and American culture. Perhaps I won't ever contribute to such work, but, at the very least, my time in Indonesia and Cambodia has taught me that I will learn as much about myself while abroad as I will about where ever it is that I am visiting. With these musings in my head, I accepted the chance to go and trusted that more would be revealed.

Rushing back to the Consulate three days prior to departure, misgivings about my amorphous motivations ruminated swirled through my mind as I wove through mid afternoon traffic on Wisconsin Avenue. To go or not to go, that was the question. And Olga, the woman at the Consulate who suggested I petition to get into Russia prior to the five day waiting period passed, was about to give me an answer.

Back through traffic, park again, security again, out the door again, into the visa office again, pant pant pant again, and I smile at Olga as I hand her my new and improved visa application and my letter of appeal. Three anxious minutes later, she returned and nodded curtly. "It's a yes."

YES! So, here we go. On to Moscow!

What started out as a bumpy trip prior to departure went surprisingly smoothly given my past experiences with international travel and my proclivity for clumsiness more generally. I ended up having no seat mate in my row, and, with the help of our good friends at Tylenol PM, ended up sleeping sprawled out, Piper style, the entire ten hours to Moscow.

Good thing too, since as soon as I got to the HSE International Dorm I was whisked back out into the cold (less frigid than expected) by the other seven George Mason students who are here studying with me. Destination: International Office. So many firsts happened within the immediate 90 minutes following my arrival: First metro ride (AMAZING- each station is different, and beautiful, and full of art and marble and mosaics AND...the trains run fast and on time and don't wobble so I haven't gotten train sick even once- those of you who know me very well can appreciate the magnitude of this miracle); first hike in the Moscow climate (cold, cold, coldycoldcold); first experience (of many so far) getting lost looking for some office to which HSE has given me crappy directions; and first experience gelling with the other George Mason students. There are eight of us all together, all of whom were selected as fellows to come study at HSE on a Federal Improvement of Post Secondary Education (FIPSE) Grant to foster an exchange between scholars in the US and Russia. Our group dynamics are fantastic- everyone has been really attentive to making sure that the others are accounted for when we go out, no one has a stick up their ass or is oversensitive, and everyone is a really genuinely interesting person (well, I guess I can't really make that call about myself...). Within about 2 hours of being in Moscow, the stress and craziness of getting to Moscow had faded. I was very, very happy.

And very, very cold.

I have tons of fun stories collected in just the past week, but will sign off for now with the following: I have realized over the past week that this trip abroad is going to be very different than my last two adventures overseas. I headed to Cambodia and Indonesia with a specific set of questions, and here the only question I came with was "why exactly am I here?" And I think that has turned out to be a good thing. People are getting to know me, rather than getting to know my research interests. The pressure of having to produce something is off, which has been a little anxiety producing in and of itself (I'm in grad school- aren't I supposed to be stressed out???). Instead, I have been getting to know the other international students, having thought provoking conversations about things I find fascinating (the importance of a united European Union, why Obama is an awesome badass that everyone should love, and how to cultivate an appropriately sheepish demeanor when arriving 10 minutes past the 1am curfew at the dorm. Yes, I am 28 and Yes, I have a curfew now).

The beautiful discovery is that people are being incredibly eager to talk to me about their experiences related to gender, sexual violence, military culture, and war without any prompting. I am just happy to be hanging out with folks, rather than asking questions, and people are starting conversations with me based on what they have overheard me say to professors or to others about my work. Having made a conscious decision to not engage in formal 'fieldwork' or data collection while I am here has had the happy side effect of freeing me up to hear what others want to tell me, rather than what others feel they should respond to me with based on what I want to ask.

Perhaps this should have been an obvious point- that people are going to be more open if you just let the conversation flow, and let go of a specific guideline- but so much of research methods focus on 'extracting' data rather than absorbing what is happening around you. Even when engaging in 'participant observation', in the back of my mind I was always so focused on trying to gather every detail of what was happening that I often missed the genuine human connection element of the interaction.

I am more and more clear about what exactly I want out of this experience. One week in, I am certain that I am committed to 1) learning as much of the language as humanly possible in 12 weeks; 2) traveling as much as possible- because really, you can't put a price tag on saying 'well, when I was in Siberia' at your next dinner party- while still doing well in classes; 3) not freezing to death; and, 4) letting go of outcomes. Perhaps the last goal seems incompatible with the very idea of even setting goals/priorities for while I am here, but I don't think it's incongruent to have things I would like to do while I am here and still be open to surprises.

I have no idea what adventures are about to unfold here, and I am excited about the possibility of the unexpected.

Dressed and ready to go. Bring it on, Moscow.

Language practice fun-time.

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