Monday, January 24, 2011

The City and the Country

I lived in Prague for a while in the 90s, back when it was a favorite spot for American college grads dreaming of Bohemian greatness. Once or twice I even attended their open mic nights, at which Henry Miller wannabes would read aloud rancid poetry to similarly minded aesthetes bankrolled by daddy. Years later I still remember my pain, if not the content of what I heard- except for the first line of one mediocre song:

Texas is like Russia- big and hopeless.

At the time I’d never been to Texas, but even so the comparison seemed ridiculous. What could J.R. Ewing and V.I. Lenin have in common?

Since then however I have travelled widely in both places and I find that when I am roaming around Texas I am often reminded of Russia- and not simply because out west there is an Odessa, while near Houston there’s a little Moscow.

No, I get this sense of Russia when I am in tiny places that have no obvious connection to the birthplace of the great Dima Bilan. This past weekend for instance I was walking around a place called Bertram, a tiny town divided in two by train tracks and the freeway. I’ve no idea what people do in Bertram, although farming probably has something to do with it. Some of the buildings date back to the Old West; most of the time it’s very hot. And yet, there it was: the whiff of Russia…

Am I hallucinating? I wondered. I started listing differences, to test this sense of similarity. I noted that in Bertram there are no concrete high rises, whereas even small Russian towns tend to have a few grim blocks. The deep blue sky overhead is more reminiscent of Kazakhstan than Russia. There are no chickens pecking about in yards… although there a few dogs in the street. The cars in Bertram are a thousand times better than the cars in provincial Russian towns.  And almost every street corner ends with a church, whether Methodist, Catholic, Lutheran or some other denomination. Russian towns by contrast are usually dominated by one or two massive Orthodox cathedrals while ‘sects’ such as the Baptists are often forced to meet in private homes due to restrictive laws on ‘foreign’ religions.

At that point I realized the differences were almost endless.

Alright, I thought, so what are the similarities? A certain shabbiness, perhaps? Walking around, I noticed an absence of new construction, and the presence of wreckage. One building had collapsed, although the outhouse was still standing. Garage doors hung open, exposing interiors filled to the brim with junk. As in provincial Russia, a lack of money required people to maintain an infrastructure that had not been built to last. Even so, conditions in Russia are unquestionably more severe.

And it was then that I realized perhaps this sense of Russia wasn’t in the buildings so much as in the atmosphere. There was an air of abandonment in Bertram that I recognized from Smolensk, Tatarstan and Siberia. I don’t mean that the town was abandoned, of course, it isn’t- but the life that goes on there seemed somehow severed from the life of the cities.

Yes, I thought, that’s it! Texas is like Russia, in that there are colossal cities, and then little islands of people dotted about the place, at a great remove from the center. They see that other world on the TV, but for the most part they live according to different patterns and rhythms. This vastness and sense of isolation is why both Texas and Russia make ideal homes for messianic cults. It’s easy to declare yourself Jesus when you can escape into the wilderness with your followers and live free from interference.

And yet: Bertram is barely thirty minutes north of Austin. So was this sense of separation an illusion, the overheated frothing of a hyper active imagination? I’m not so sure. Anyone who has ridden the train southbound out of Moscow will be familiar with the weird sense that at some point the city doesn’t just stop, but that you’ve entered another world, operating according to different rules, where people have very different expectations of life. It doesn’t take long; twenty minutes maybe, and at that point Moscow is closer to Saint Petersburg than it is to the people living in the Moscow Region. Close neighbors lead parallel lives- the city is not interested in them; they are skeptical of the city.

Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, I don’t know. It’s probably not even valid to ask the question. What I do know is that I like to cross that invisible line that marks the beginning of the other world as often as I can. But I always return home again.

First published 3/12/2010