Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

25 Jul 2001, 4:16 a.m.


Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2001 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Dmitry Sklyarov news has been rather hard to find on the morning news program "Vesti" for the past two days. Blah blah blah, earthquake in Pakistan, raising of the Kursk, Macedonia riots. Tell me about Dmitry! Maybe I need to venture into the world of newspapers, which are much harder to comprehend, what with the lack of pretty pictures.

The title takes the word for "what" and tries to go "Clueless" with it. I tried and it didn't work, back on the train here to St. Petersburg, a few days back. I'm still working on my Solovki travelogue.

I finally saw some proof of Linuxness the other day -- for the first time that I can recall, I saw a fella walking along Nyevskii Prospekt in a shirt with a penguin and a SUSE logo on it.

I've seen some people who, just physically, remind me of my friends back in the US, especially Seth, Darin, Alexei, and Ed Cruz, the brother of my friend Ana. A picture on some ad on a banner near my metro station has this character who looks like a demoniac Ed Cruz. It's rather disturbing. As well, about a week ago, I swore I saw Ann, my old Russian teacher, in the stairwell at the university...but it wasn't her. At least there would have been some rhyme and/or reason to her presence, as opposed to, say, Ed Cruz's. He's an English teacher at a high school back in Stockton.

I had a conversation with John the other day in which he had the gall to call me relatively well-adjusted. Apparently, he knows a demographic that is wildly more mentally off-balance than I am, back in the United States. If I've had well-meaning and intelligent parents, and two or more cultures battling it out for my soul, and a heck of a lot of moving-around and introspection, I mean, sure, maybe I have forced myself to become a little clearheaded, but I think too much to be contented. Voltaire wrote quite a bit about this, especially in Candide and in a short story about the Hindu priest wracked with doubt and his ignorant, contented washerwoman. Can't recall the name.

I still haven't recovered from being told by my family all the time, during the vast part of my life before college, that I was the bookish intelligent one (as opposed to my "smart," social sister) and that I had no common sense. Certainly I am incredibly sensitive now whenever I feel that I've "done the wrong thing," broken some protocol that I didn't know about. There are thousands of rituals -- say, camping, and dealing with pets -- that most Americans my age just know because their friends and families helped socialize them, and sometimes I feel as though I'll never catch up. Being a person is a skill, like Russian or judo or sewing or swimming, and I don't expect to routinize it any time soon.

Perhaps more pleasant topics are in order.

My family had a little saying, when I was younger. "Act your age, not your shoe size." Did anyone else's family say that, too?

It was amazing, the first day back from the Solovki Islands, because I could wear t-shirts and pants/shorts that exposed skin without feeling vulnerable to some raging menace of biting insects. The mosquito bites still itch. Yes, Mom, I'm using lotion and so on.

Yesterday in Russian Press class, after we discussed the Solovki trip and I found that the teacher had heard nothing about Sklyarov, we attempted to learn about the history of Yugoslavia. This reminded me of last year's US Presidential debates, in which then-Vice President Gore made a funny face and used an odd voice to say that the Balkans are "where World War One STAR-ted." If you recall those debates, you may also have independently arrived at my witticism that Gore's main point, in the first debate, was that he would put the wealthiest one percent in a lockbox. I'm still laughing at that now.

Did you know that there is some language indigenous to the Balkans -- perhaps Serbo-Croation? -- in which not only is there a singular and plural, but a DOUBLE tense? Yes! It does happen a little bit in Russian that one must decline something differently, sometimes, if one mentions two of something. But in this language, always! One, two, many. Imagine if it were even worse! Imagine single, double, triple, plural! That would be the anti-Esperanto, I guess. Sort of a human INTERCAL?

In reading news, I finished the book of Guy de Maupassant short stories. Earlier, I had finished The Great Gatsby (which strongly reminded me of Mr. Hatch and eleventh-grade English class, in which I first read the book) and Lady Chatterley's Lover. I'll be talking about Fitzgerald and Lawrence in my Real Soon Now Solovki travlogue.

My sister will be glad to note that I no longer find Dave my favorite movie. I'm getting too old for that particular work of fantasy. Perhaps what I used to find harmless fantasy I now think of as searingly bitter.

My host mother, Vera, is very good to me. And she's very glad that I take an interest in the Blockade of Leningrad that occurred during the Second World War, or, if you prefer, the Great Patriotic War for the Fatherland. I've been to the mass-graves cemetery, I've borrowed her copy of The Nine Hundred Days and read it, I've heard her mention the people who left from her apartment and apartment building for the war and never came back. She believes that I don't really need to go on the Blockade Museum excursion this Saturday. Maybe I'll ask my Resident Director to excuse me from the outing on the excuse that I've been there, done that, got the despair.

Which reminds me: "I went to a real Russian banya [bathhouse] and all I took off was this lousy t-shirt."

The trains I've been on recently, and the metro, remind me of the film Save the Last Dance and one of its few less predictable motifs, which was the association of train wheels with a sense of inevitable tragedy. But then this morning I saw a Starburst ad featuring the Russian metro (the Moscow and Piter ones look the same to the extent featured in the commercial) and that was incongruous, and perhaps tragic in a different way. I'd like my Old World Charm with All the Amenities of Home, please -- Cosmopolitan with Character. I don't want to see Starburst ads in St. Petersburg! I paid thousands of dollars to come to Russia! The nagging inauthenticity of my experience, brought on by this double-edged sword of globalization, moves me to be a MixMaster of Metaphor and get all Gatsby-esque, pouring my hopes and passions into yearning for some purity that never was.

I'm going to go see where Pavlov worked now.

Originally published by Sumana Harihareswara at