Thursday, July 8, 2010

Postcard from Nizhny Novgorod

Russia's fourth largest city doesn't feel like a city at all. Nizhny Novgorod features cobblestoned streets, an active pedestrian corridor, and a three-story building profile at best. Oh, it also features children on sluggish ponies and a woman who carries an owl down the street. If not for all that open-air wildlife, it might feel more like Madison, or Galway -- certainly more like a small European town than a sizable Russian metropolis. We slowed our pace and breathed more easily. It was that kind of place.

We were there to meet with graduates of the State Higher School of Economics and learn about their development projects in the region. The city had certainly seen better days -- a struggling economy has hit Russia, as it has so many other places -- but I fell in love with Nizhny's shabby charms. I also fell in love with its microbrewery, where we were treated to lunch, and despite a full afternoon ahead of scheduled meetings, encouraged to enjoy a beer of our choice (I picked a rich, heady stout, which was served in a mug the size of a lunchbox).

That night, after a group dinner at a restaurant so uniquely appointed you're actually prohibited from taking pictures there, Nastya and Lev tried to rally folks for a digestive walk through town. One by one, early-bird Americans and convivial Russians alike, declined their invitation.

What the hell? I thought. When will I be in Russia again? When else will I receive such an earnest request? Off I went with two new friends and thick language barriers between us, just the evening air to glue us together.

The night was the perfect temperature, where you can feel the breeze on every hair of your skin but you don't quite need a sweater. The moon was clear over the steep hill we walked to reach the center of town, where women's heels clicked against stone pavers and people streamed in and out of restaurants and cafes. We ended up in a local tavern, and after the vodka we'd shared at dinner and a petite beer (I know my limits) at the bar, we loosened up and made our best attempts at communication. I have no idea if any of us truly understood the stories being told across that table, but we laughed deep, gutteral belly laughs, and we flirted a little, the way you do when you realize this is life, happening to me, this very second.

We left the bar after midnight, only to discover dark, deserted streets - it was Monday, and a work night for the area -- where we'd hoped to find a cab for the four miles back to the hotel. No luck.

With quick thinking and an uncharacteristic take-charge attitude, Lev flagged down the first car he saw, negotiated with the driver in Russian, and Nastya and I hopped in the back seat while Lev took the front. This will be a great story if I live to tell it, I thought. I'd basically just hitchhiked in Russia without speaking a word of the language except 'hello' and 'thank you,' which wouldn't have served me well in a worst-case scenario. I asked Nastya if this was common practice, and though I had to try out several different synonyms for 'common,' she finally replied, "Quite usual. Yes. Just not to do alone."

Sure enough, after a nice, smooth ride, we were safely back at the hotel. Lev handed the driver a few bills and exchanged pleasantries with him.

I realize I'm a person who needs to learn to say No. I tend to be overprogrammed, and I hate to let people down. But I'm also someone who needs an occasional Yes in my back pocket, especially to those things I tend to resist: spontaneity, late nights, situations beyond my control. My Yes served me well in Nizhny Novgorod.


leslie said...

one of your best, Christy. I loved this post!

tracy said...

I love the line "this is life, happening to me, at this very second"! It absolutely captures that heightened sense of awareness in a moment. What did Douglas Coupland call it, an "earth moment"?