Dear Foundation Members, Fellows, Colleagues, and Parties Yet Unknown:
While it would be unfair to say I’ve lost my way in this quarter, it would be likewise unfair to say that the last three months abroad have been teeming with new teams and hockey possibilities. Instead I’ve had a substantial number of cultural excursions and encounters with bizarre circumstances and continuing healthy doses of Slavic hospitality.
Many kilometers of railway and road have passed behind me since my last report. From Tallinn I headed back through Riga and Vilnius, and the stage from Vilnius to Warsaw involved an unconscionably bumpy ten-hour bus ride and a stubborn driver who wouldn’t relenquish the key to the locked onboard bathroom. Suffice to say the ending of that story was not a happy one.
I returned to Gdansk to a warm welcome mixed with good-natured Polish profanity and numerous “where the hell have you beens?”. I decided to do all the Baltics instead of the five-day tour of duty I’d initially planned in Lithuania largely because, even though my Gdansk team wanted me to stay on for the whole season, certain league regulations barred my participation. So though I had a lot of great cultural experiences in the Baltics, my Baltic tour was, on retrospect and chiefly from a hockey perspective, a failed scouting mission.
In my many miscellaneous trips back and forth between Krakow and Gdansk to play for my respective old teams, I realized at some point that it was time for me to leave Poland. To this day I’m not sure if this came to me as epiphany or by gradual enlightenment, but I became aware that Poland had become something of a second home to me. The food was good, the people were generous and hospitable, I had people I considered my friends in five cities, I’d played ample hockey, I’d learned a substantial bit of the language—I’d even managed to find Ania, my Polish girlfriend. In conclusion, I was far, far too comfortable to consider myself any kind of hardcore Watson fellow. Something had to be done about this predicament. After getting some travel arrangements in order, only a few connection voyages between Poland, Belarus, and points south lay between me and resuming the great journey. So I got my visa and accommodation paperwork in order for Belarus and took a sidetrip to Poznan, Poland with Ania.
On this fateful trip I had what was only the first of many forms of hijinx or hooplah (read: adversity) this quarter. While in Poznan, I received a rather alarming email about the pending termination of my debit card due to “suspicious transactions.” I sent panicked emails to all applicable parties, but my pleas were largely ignored, since my card stopped working at ATMs the next day. Ania was also travelling on a budget, and though she subsidized my existence for a couple of days, the money ran out. We realized our collective destitution on the morning we were planning to return to Warszawa, at the train station. When Ania tried to withdraw money from the ATM for our tickets, it wouldn’t even give her a scant 20 zloty and kept making dreadful beeping noises and flashing bright “insufficient funds” screens at us. It was at that moment I realized we were screwed. With a whopping eight zloty of collected wealth, we went to the internet café and I had a tiny last resort idea, since I’d tried every conceivable pin code on my backup bank card (the pin for which I’d smartly forgotten). I tried the Polish train service’s website, and they’d just recently introduced online ticket purchasing. On a whim, I tried my card number, even though I didn’t have the physical object with me. I had melted it, cut it to pieces, and threw the pieces in five different trashcans out of frustration the previous day. Thanks to my mother’s capacity to remember important random numbers, which I mercifully inherited, I recalled my debit card number and hoped against hope I could buy a ticket online. For reasons that defied explanation, it worked. We got back to Warszawa with little incident, and in the process I discovered it’s a weird sort of rush to be stuck in a strange city in a foreign country with absolutely no accessible liquid assets to my name. Rush though it was, it wasn't something I especially want to repeat.
After a lovely few days with Ania's family, I headed to the wilds of Belarus. I don't think I could have possibly anticipated exactly how wild it would be, though. The border crossing was hijink-free, and my first impressions of Belarus were snow-covered and poorly lit. The first thing I noticed were how empty and spotlessly clean the streets of Brest were, even at 22:00 on a Saturday night. I found my hotel with relatively little incident and turned on the television just in time for the compulsory airing of the national anthem that begins and ends the broadcast day. This was only the first manifestation of the rampant nationalist propaganda which comprises about 55% of advertising in Belarus. Lukashenko's iron fist was glaringly apparent from the very first. The view from my room in Brest was so post-Soviet it hurt; a beautiful green orthodox church in the foreground and a looming, graceless hot water production station, smokestack and all, looming in the background. And it was still snowing. Though I had plenty of observations about Belarus in general and Brest in particular, they're lengthy and ill-suited for something of quarterly report length. The most succinct one I can recall with immediacy is the following:
This place is too entrenched in its old lifestyle to move truly forward, and too heavily invested in new things for the old, decayed vestiges to be objects of actual belief. And yet it's all still there: the statue of Lenin, the “glory to heroes” war monument, the red star on the front gate of the army depot, the nationalist billboards, the compulsory sign-off airing of the national anthem...it's like trying to make a complete, sensible, single image with pieces from three different puzzles. It's like Russia, only without as much bloodthirsty venture capitalism and an (un?)healthy dose of pre-Glasnost USSR. It's poverty-stricken, polluted, perplexing, and completely fascinating. (Journal, v.II, p. 65)
Needless to say with only a one-week visa, finding a hockey team wasn't even on the menu. But Belarus was easily the strangest and most compelling of any country on my journey so far, even though I only spent a week there. The perplexing contrast between Belarus' communist past, its dictatorial present, and its continuing efforts to compete in a capitalist market were even beyond my experiences in Moscow. Although I had to pay through the nose to go ($130 for the visa, 30 Euro/night in the cheapest hotel available), it was incredibly rewarding. At this point in the quarter, perhaps moreso than at any point prior, I realized that even though this trip is hockey-oriented, if I spend one hundred and twenty percent of my energies seeking available teams and thereby skip a destination simply because there's no hockey there, I'll miss out on really once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences. Such was the case with Belarus. When I learned that I could only afford a week in Belarus, I considered not going since I wouldn't be...fulfilling the one-year plan, as it were. But now, especially considering recently depreciating diplomatic relations between the United States and Belarus, I realize I did the right thing. News indicates that Belarus is not an exceptionally safe place for Americans anymore, and the State Department is seriously considering moving Belarus from its “be careful” list to its “you can't go here without permission” list. No more than three weeks after I departed Minsk, news started coming in and I realized that it might be a very long time before things cool off, so I was ostensibly one of the last few American tourists in Belarus before things got bad.
What would seem to be my final return to Krakow (this year, at least) was built around the arrival of two friends from the states, Cris and Whitney. In my year of expatriation, I've gotten remarkably okay with being by myself in odd situations and just making friends as I go along. Cris and Whitney, however, reminded me that there are a substantial number of people back home who still miss and care about me. Though this reminder was helpful to have, it gave me the first tiny twinges of longing for home since my first baby steps in Prague, practically, with the exception of a couple of bad hair days. I was frankly a little worried I'd return to the US and be disillusioned with my surroundings and have some inverse culture shock. It could still happen, but the more I think about my “touchstones” from home, the things I think about from time to time (e.g. Dr. Pepper, Waffle House, and the million other small things that comprise my quaint southern sensibilities), the more I'm looking forward to going back home. But this feeling is likewise accompanied by an increasing sense of urgency here in Eastern Europe; with each passing day I become more aware of how little time I have left and the utter necessity of seeing and soaking in as much as I can in the time given me. I think it really hit home when I rescheduled my plane ticket. Last July I thought this year would be essentially interminable (in a good way). Now, however, I'm in an emotionally exalted state that lies somewhere between frantic desire to play more hockey and complete the rest of my itinerary in two months, nostalgia for everywhere I've been and everyone I've met, and a growing hunger for home.
After my final, final, final game in Krakow, hockey dried up. I returned to L'viv as a stopover on the way to Kiev to spend Ukrainian Easter with Ania's Polish relatives. It was great, although vodka with dinner (a Ukrainian staple) struck me as a little odd. The similarities Ukrainian Easter shares with Polish Christmas really surprised me. The cakey pre-meal good luck bread, the chicken in gelatin, and the soups were nearly identical to their Polish Christmas counterparts. I'd be curious to know if the Easter customs are different further east in Ukraine, since L'viv was once a Polish city. I suppose I'll just have to go back to Ukraine in the future and find out.
Kiev is a beautiful city; it's also the most expensive place I've been on this trip. The cheapest accommodation was twenty Euros per night, and though I'd been having an email dialog with a team, I chose the fiscally conservative route and moved on, since my daily expenditures in Kiev were approximately two and a half to three times my per diem.
Before my arrival in Bucharest this morning, my most recent stop had been Chisinau, Moldova, which I only planned as an intermittent stay. It's the poorest country in Europe, though life in the center of Chisinau is normal enough, with the chickens walking main sidestreets excepted. It gave the city a certain quirky charm. Though hockey was absent, I skated twice in the inflatable temporary dome rink and taught people how to stop, which was interesting since I didn't really know the correct Russian verbs. I gestured a lot and filled in the blanks with what Russian I could provide. I drew a little crowd, even. And now I'm in Bucharest, home of the first reliable internet I've had in weeks—hence the tardiness of the report. I have several emails in hockey limbo presently, so I'll hopefully have upcoming opportunities to play in Romania and then Bulgaria. In the meantime, I've started teaching myself Romanian and seeing the same regiment of museums and concerts to make the most of my time and maximize cultural absorption.
So how to sum up a quarter that has been an objective disappointment on the bases of my initial hockey-oriented goals? I summarize it thus: I knew going into the year that there would be more hockey some places than others. The season is winding down and now, as I head south, I'll have to reprioritize and seek roller hockey with stronger emphasis. Again, rule number one: flexibility is the key to a successful Watson year. Furthermore, though the hockey was lacking this quarter, the conversations and international bonds I've developed have continued to flourish. As mentioned, a maniacal focus on “the game and only the game” would cause me to miss a hoard of valuable cultural opportunities (e.g. Belarus, Ukrainian easter). So the disappointment...isn't, really.
With nine months gone, I am beginning to draw comparisons between who I was when I left and who I am now, analyzing what's changed and what's remained the same. For instance, I've shed a lot of my ideas of “necessary” amenity. The first time I had to stay up all night waiting for a train, to describe me as “irritated” would have been a grotesque understatement. By contrast, due to delays, cancellations, or simply to save money, I've done it seven times this quarter. I suppose from a different perspective, I've realized the patience, tolerance, and strength being alone in strange and inconvenient circumstances requires. Obviously I've acquired some things as well--not the least of which are my broadened Slavic language skills.
From a wider viewpoint, I've also acquired a deepened sense of pride for my origins and a more nuanced understanding of my role not just as a citizen of the world, but as a miniature American ambassador. I've never received as much vituperation for my nationality as I have this year, but under this intense international scrutiny I've acquired a deepened love for my country and the principles on which it was founded. Please don't read the above statement as some brand of rabid nationalism; in my interactions with people from all over the world, I've come to understand America's role in the international sphere in much greater detail. Finally, despite my language acquisitions, hockey/cultural adventures, and growing comprehension of my role not just as a traveler but as a potential future diplomat, these three quarters so far have shaped me into something approaching a completely self-reliant individual who can deal with most given circumstances, no matter how off-the-wall they may be. I suppose that's been an overarching personal goal for my proposal from the very beginning, but I don't think I could have ever thought far enough ahead to write it down as such from the inception of the Blades and Rails project. So through transit hassles, sickness, money problems, and hockey droughts, I'm still reaching, still learning about lands, peoples, and languages. And I know if I keep sending the emails, laying siege on the rinks and barging into the locker rooms, fortune will find me. In the meantime, I can't waste a moment. And on that note, I'll see you on the Mountain in July, because Bucharest beckons.
Best wishes and sincerest thanks to all involved.
Joshua Brandon Harris, V.9.MMVIII