Friday, August 10, 2012

Playing host on the East Coast

NYC. The best way to see the concrete jungle is through the fresh eyes of a visitor from afar
In July of 2012, almost exactly 20 years after I moved to the States, I finally hosted one of my dearest friends from Russia on American soil for the first time.

Finally! Hooray!
I have known Oksana since before either of us could talk.

And even back then it was clear who was the girly-girl and who was the tomboy.
Our mothers basically put us in the same sand box, and we have been friends ever since. Though she lives in Moscow and I lived in a different city, and later - on the other side of the world entirely, we summered together at our grandmothers' in Chaplygin practically every year of our lives. We have very different lives, she and I, and along these diverging trajectories there had been periods of growing apart, long (if unintentional) radio silences that lasted years, but whenever we inevitably got back in touch, it was as if no time at all had elapsed. And so it continues to this day. We have had a unique opportunity to watch each other grow and mature in different cultures, but, we've remained dear friends. Which is why it's always bummed me out; I've visited her in Russia countless times, yet she had never once been to the US! Not for lack of desire, of course, it's just not easy for a Russian to come to America as a tourist. When we finally learned that all the bureaucracy was taken care of, all permissions granted, and all travel arrangements secured, there was no describing how deliriously excited we both were!

We met, of course, in New York.

just down from the sky, about to head back up, to the top of the Rockefeller

on our first night, view from the top of the Rock
I had been to New York so many times, but always as an American. And as an American, you experience your country through that lens. You just do: you're blind to some things, because they're not within the purview of your experience. It's easy to marvel at the grandeur of Gotham, and enjoy (or not) its frantic pace, but walk the same route with a visitor from abroad, and the city opens up to you in a whole new way. Every minute is filled with unexpected discoveries (she didn't know peanut butter existed!), comical breakdowns (I translated "shaved ice" into Russian literally, and caused a small uproar), and observations about facets of our daily life that we simply don't notice.

Hiline Park
Strolling through the beautiful Hiline Park

It was, in a way, a live sociological experiment, where she discovered a whole new world, and I got new insights into everything that was native to me.

We did the expedited version of NYC's highlights in our short time there: Central Park and Times Square, SoHo and Greenwich Village, Battery Park and a drink at the View in Marriott Marquis. We saw the museums too, but only from the outside: lines at the Guggenheim and the Met resembled marriage-level commitments on those days, and we chose to allocate our time more wisely.

street musicians in SoHo
art (or vandalism?) on New York City streets.
Battery Park on a nice, sunny day.
Central Park - a cloudy stroll.
watching someone experience Times Square for the first time is a tourist attraction in itself.
A drink at the View, Marriott Marquis
On Sunday, we changed lives by helping the Russians discover "brunch". It was the subject of much discussion and deliberation. In the end, everyone concluded that it was a terrific idea with immediate applicability back home. Thus, "zavbed" was born. For once, a literal translation worked out beautifully.
One of those above-mentioned comic moments happened when I asked Oksana about typical breakfast foods in Russia. She found the idea of typical anything foods to be completely queer. Breakfast, lunch, dinner - apparently you just eat whatever's on hand. "I guess having tea is pretty typical at breakfast?" she said after the commotion died down.

In Soviet Russia, mealtime decides on you.

After New York, we drove to Cape Cod, where we met up with my sister, cousin, and some friends.

Beer, chowdah, and baked beans - on the waterfront, of course!

Hotels were hard to come by in the high season, so as always, AirBnB came to the rescue. We rented rooms in a lovely Cape style house in a quiet, wooded area of Harwich, with a cozy back yard overflowing with flowers, and an outdoor shower.

home away from home on the Cape

water biking in the marshlands. So green, peaceful, and quiet.
Ah... the National Seashore. Tiny Massachusetts's mighty arm! Forever making a muscle to buffer Cape Cod Bay against Atlantic currents. "The Cape" holds a very special place in the hearts of every Massachusetts resident, past and present. I would love to dedicate a proper post to it someday. The neat, pastel-colored shingles of Cape homes, the rolling sand dunes in long, wispy grass, the crisp, salty air and endless marshlands - all evoke a nostalgia in me reserved only for the notions of home. I extolled the Cape's virtues to Oksana long before her visit, and played it up so much, she decided to add a night to our stay.

It was still just a one full day stay, with half day bookends on either end, but the weather was gorgeous, the sea was gentle, and it was a welcome break to decompress after the run on the senses that is New York.

History! On our way to Boston, a stop at The Mayflower II - a perfect replica of the ship that brought the first pilgrims to Plymouth .
We dropped our guests off in Boston, where we left them in the capable hands of my family to continue their excursion, while we returned home to the Lone Star State. Their adventure did not end there, of course. The East Coast is but a sliver of the American experience, and what better way to get a completely different angle on it, than to come to Texas?

And so, for the second half of the trip, it was time to exchange the erratic weather of East Coast summer for the immutable sunshine of Austin. The maples and oaks for palm trees and cacti. The beans for the brisket. The... you get the idea.

Yes, we brought them to Texas. In August. Taking 100F to the face was a bit of a shock for poor, porcelain-skinned Oksana, understandably. Luckily, summertime in Austin takes place in the water, and there's no shortage of activities to help you make your toes pruny.

Barton Springs pool -  a solid bet year round, a bonafide life-saver in August.
A lazy float down the Guadalupe is what rocks my tubes.
Richard Nixo... err... my sister, enjoying an afternoon float in New Braunfels.

A day on lake Travis spent in style aboard a gorgeous vessel. :)
such drunky. much giddy.

Not sure what's happening here, but looks fun.
When I think of the word "perfect", temperature of Lake Travis in the summer comes to mind.

a bike tour of Austin
Oyster Landing - Austin's favorite lakeside hangout spot - so empty on a Monday morning!
When all else fails - jump in the pool!
...or in Hamilton Pool, much more impressive.
Hamilton Pool - the result of a collapsed cave - one of Austin area's most beloved and best known swimming holes.

We finished things off in a Hill Country winery overlooking the verdant hills, where Texas feels - just a little - like Tuscan countryside.

It was our last evening together, and it was all a little bitter sweet. We had waited so long for this visit, and now it was coming to an end. We sipped our wine in the hush stillness of late afternoon, going over the whirlwind of the last 2 weeks.

For Oksana, the biggest surprise was how open and social and approachable Americans are compared to Russians. She had a hard time believing that the checkout clerks at Whole Foods were just casually chatting with us at the register as they scanned our stuff. She wondered if they were especially trained to do that. Strangers casually making conversation with other strangers is something that's very foreign to a Russian. That stuff does not fly in the motherland. Though she understood that there was no depth to these exchanges, they constitute a social norm, but don't indicate authenticity or goodwill. In fact, Oksana found it difficult to meaningfully connect with Americans, not because of her limited English, but rather the manic and less than genuine way in which they engaged her. Overall, though, she had a very positive opinion of Americans.

She noted how streamlined and optimized everything is for consumerism. Everyone wants your money, and everyone extracts it in quick, well-oiled, and extremely efficient way. Oh, everything is done to ensure the consumer is happy, but before you know it, you've spent way more than you meant to. Some examples that illustrate this, and highlight the difference with Russia, are:

* a restaurant accurately telling you how long you will have to wait for a table;
* restaurants and bars accepting multiple forms of payment from one party (splitting the bill);
* the lighting, display, and general level of aesthetic consideration in presenting goods for sale (especially in grocery stores)
* ubiquitous use of credit cards

By the way, these people did not bring a SINGLE CREDIT CARD with them on the trip, which caused considerable headaches at hotel check in in New York. I never thought to mention it, but to them, credit cards are something financially irresponsible people use, so they came with giant wads of cash instead. Much more subtle.

It was a fascinating, eye opening experience having someone unfamiliar with Western culture explore bits of America with us. Everyone learned a lot from the experience, I am certain. And I can't wait for my next lesson. Come back and visit me soon, friend!

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