Yesterday, I started writing a post I was calling “Free Time.” It began like this:
One thing missing from these blog posts is any mention of sight-seeing or shopping. This is not an oversight. There actually hasn’t been any. One of the byproducts of our busy schedule has been a lack of time to just relax. We have not actually had a single day with out one or more often than not, multiple performances. This, in addition to the challenges of language, transportation and customs is wearing a little thin now.
This state of affairs is probably due to me as much as anyone. Way back in the planning stages of this trip, Sergei told me that it would be jam-packed ten days. At the time this seemed like an ok thing. Given our purpose as cultural ambassadors, and the fact that most of us are seasoned professional performers, I probably said something like “bring it on.” After all, how many opportunities might we have to do this work? But even ambassadors need some down time.
However, I’m pleased to say that dark mood was transformed by that most American of activities- shopping.
For two hours yesterday morning, my host Yefgeny drove Inna Makhaddinova and I around the city looking for gifts and souvenirs for friends and family back home. It was an enlightening two hours.
1. There is no such thing as Russian Legos.
Legos are bigger than mere nations or cultures. I realized this when I walked into the toy store that we drove ten minutes to get to in order to fulfill my seven-year old son’s one and only task for me in Russia- bring back Russian legos. My heart sank when I turned the corner and saw the same mountain of Lego boxes I see in the Fred Meyer in Portland. Same pictures, same English names, same Star Wars, same Harry Potter, same Nijago. Globalization became more than a mere word for me at that moment.
2. Branding and merchandising is not a universal activity
My second request was for a kid’s jersey or t-shirt with a Russian logo of some kind. When I went to Norway I brought Malcolm home a Norwegian soccer outfit. I bought it from a random street kiosk near the train station. This would be a fine substitute for the Legos, I thought. A look around the rest of the toy store, which also had kid’s clothes, revealed nothing. After some conversation, we drove to a nearby sporting goods store, which in contrast to the U.Ss was about the size of a 7-11. Still nothing.
Embarrassed by the amount of our limited time I was taking up, I was ready to throw in the towel. However, Yefgeni had one more suggestion, the sports arena. Thinking that it was highly unlikely that the gift shop in a sports arena would be open at 11:15 on a Monday morning, I nevertheless went along. I was right, there was no gift shop in the hockey arena. However, across the street, there was a big sign CCM, which, although I don’t know what it means, I have seen on Russian hockey uniforms. Turns out we struck gold- ahuge sporting goods store selling all kinds of hockey gear. Only problem was it didn’t open for another ½ hour. Nevertheless Yefgeni knocked on the door. An employee walks by, points at the hours clearly marked there. And gives us the look that in any country says “can’t read the sign?”
Yefgeni continues knocking. Another employee walks by, and another. He keeps knocking. I fail to see the point. Finally an employee comes to open the door. Yefgeni talks briefly with her. Inna explains to me that he said we are from out of town, and we are leaving today and something about should I call the manager? (He doesn’t know the manager)
Anyway, somehow it works. She comes back, and lets us in the store. Just us, not the 3 or 4 other Russian people also standing outside waiting for the store to open.
I go in and get Malcolm a jersey, scarf and the best looking winter hat ever, all with big logos of the Khabarovsky Amur’s, the number one hockey team in Russia. And I think:
Try pulling that off at Walmart!
3. Souvenirs are satisfying.
I have never been a collector or purchaser of souvenirs. Maybe it is a byproduct of primarily travelling as a working musician. The memories I collected were the concerts played, people met, walks taken, camaraderie shared and stories brought home from unique or challenging adventures on the road.
But I feel very happy buying souvenirs from this trip. It seems appropriate to remember the friendships and share connections made here with my friends and family back home through trinkets, ornaments, and fridge magnets. I suspect this is because, contrary to most of my touring and travelling, I am not here for myself alone. That I’m here at all is due to the hopes and hard work of many individuals. So I feel the desire to show my appreciation. I think it also may have something to do with my perception of how I am seen here. Yes, I am a musician here, and a performer, but I feel like I’m not stuck with that stereotype. I don’t have to play a role. I feel like the people I’ve met here would be just as warm and open, and treat me the same way even if I weren’t here performing. As far as I can tell I am the only black man in the entire Russian Far East. And I feel like family. That is a memory worth remembering.