Jazz Bridge Journal Post #11:Big City

Posted on December 21, 2011

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When the sun rises on Vladivostok, I realize that, as lovely as Khabarovsk is, it is kind of a backwater compared to Vladivostok.  I’m very much reminded of the experience of going from Portland to Seattle.  Not just because it sits on a bay as opposed to a river, like Khabarovsk, but, because, while Khabarovsk is a city, Vladivostok is a CITY.

The first thing that gives this impression is the line of grand old European-looking buildings that line the main boulevard.  They are taller and of older pedigree than the buildings in Khabarovsk.  Seeing them, I feel like I could be in Chicago or Vienna, or Embassy Row on the upper east side of New York.

We drive by a “Royal Burger,” with a big picture of what looks like an actual hamburger, something we haven’t seen since we left the states.  Our guide and interpreter Zhenya, the cultural affairs assistant at the US consulate tells us that the man who started it really, really wanted to open an McDonalds, but it is difficult to keep the food quality standards sufficiently high to maintain a franchise such as this, not least because of the distance the ingredients must travel to get here.   So he started his own chain, and it is pretty good, she says, “a real American style burger.”

She tells us there are only three American chains in Vladivostok: Cinnabons, which I was also surprised to see in Khabarovsk, Subway (not recommended, for the above mentioned food quality reasons), and Baskin Robbins.  I guess keeping ice cream frozen in this part of the world is not so much of a challenge.

Vladivostok is called Russia’s eastern gateway.  But id doesn’t look like the Far East.  She says that the stereotype people have of this city is that it is overrun with Chinese.  But that is not at all true.

The second thing is the huge, half-completed suspension bridge that towers out over the bay.  It too dwarfs anything in Khabarovsk.  It is a big project.  They have only been working on it for about a year.  It is the kind of impressive infrastructure project that big cities seem to use to establish a signature, or an identity.

The third thing is the traffic.  I’m used to dense highway traffic of the kind we experience trying to go west on Hwy 26 after work.  I’ve driven in the 8-lane bumper to bumper parking lots they call freeways in California.  I’ve even sat parked for 45 minutes at a time trying to get out beyond the ring road the surrounds Berlin.  But the gridlock in downtown Vladivostok was something entirely new to me.  First of all it never changed from 8 am, when we saw it out the windows of the train, to 5 pm when we left the hotel to go to our concert.  Every main street was a sea of cars inching along, merging, or trying to, from all directions.  There were not so much lanes of traffic, but throngs of traffic, which individual cars tried to bully their way through like someone pushing to get to the front of a ticket queue. This is made more frustrating by the traffic pattern of one-way streets that requires you to drive in a six-block circle to reach a building you can see from the rear window of your car when you get in it.  Needless to say, the frustration level of this kind of congestion lends itself to a less than courteous driving style, of which we saw numerous examples.  It is also pretty clear that jaywalking in this city would be an act bordering on suicidal.  We saw some folks do it though, almost hit a couple ourselves.

We had an 11:30 appointment at the American consulate.  The consul general is a very warm and friendly black woman named Sylvia Reed Curren.  She is a lifetime diplomat with 25 years in the state department.  This is her fourth Russian speaking station, having been posted in Moscow, Turkmenistan, and another city I can’t remember. Her relaxed, casual demeanor and unaccented English is a welcome respite from the bustling formality of the past week.   She thanks us for coming, tells us a bit about the region her consulate serves, which is the largest by land area in the world.  I asked her if she could tell us from her perspective the most important thing we offer to our Russian friends.  She said to just be ourselves, just show them what Americans are really like.  This sounds like the usual State department answer, but also seems true.  She tells us that this is “The American Season” in Russia, and “Russian Season” in the U.S., with cultural events and exchanges and projects all over each country.  This is the first we’ve heard of it.

Zhenya tells us that they have projects coming up in February and March.  In February an African-American jazz singer named Ty Stephens, who lives in Japan is bringing a group to perform in several cities in the region.  Funny thing is I think I worked with him when I lived in New York.  March is some kind of educational fair promoting American Universities and colleges in the region.  We talk about how it is very challenging for Russians who are interested in studying in the states to figure out how to do it.  The ways that you get into college are so different in each country.  It makes me wonder how many more foreign students we might get if we could clarify the process.

Our liaison Zhenya is responsible for all these things happening.  Like most consulates these days, they have hardly any budget ,so they have to partner,  as they are doing with us.  The Philharmonic of Vladivostok is covering our travel and hotel.  The consulate is buying us lunch and dinner.  (And just like the state of Oregon, they don’t pay for alcohol.  Makes me smile as I recall explaining this very thing to faculty search candidates that we have hosted in Portland.)  So Zhenya works ridiculously hard long days. The overtime, she says, is “voluntary.”  Like Vladimir Sidarov in Khabarovsk and Sergei Melnik in our party, she has to be both Russian and American, negotiating our expectations, and their realities.  It is hard enough to negotiate that divide on a personal level, I can’t imagine having to do it on an official level as well. She is a master at it.  And according to our drummer Alan Jones, she is a miracle worker who can walk on water.

Alan lost his phone on the train.

Our night on the Trans-Siberian went very well all things considered.  It is a fantastic train. New, well appointed.  I could definitely see doing the whole 7-day trip from Moscow to Vlad.  The only challenges would be where to eat and how to shower.   Anyway, Alan woke up with a migraine-something to do with the change in air pressure.   Anyway in the bustle of getting all the bags and ourselves off the train, he left his iphone on the shelf over his berth.  We discovered this when we got to the hotel, about an hour after the train arrived.  The typical Russian discussion that ensued was a bit too much for Alan who, rather unwisely, since the hotel staff still had our passports, started to strike out for the train station on his own.  Sergei chased him down and it was settled that he and Zhenya and the driver would go back.  He was gone for about an hour and a half.

To hear Alan tell it, Zhenya then led them through a veritable jungle of bureaucracy, uniformed police and transit officials, locked doors, empty buildings.   At every road-block she would make a call, or find another official, or knock on another door, sometimes backtracking, but always moving them closer to getting the phone.  He said they must have walked four miles.  Ultimately they wound up in the train depot, a building a dozen blocks away from the train station where they keep the trains when they are out of services.  And low and behold, the phone, which was still on the train, was presented to him.

Amazing.  Not just because Alan got his phone back, but because Zhenya didn’t give up-for an hour and a half.  I can’t figure out which aspect this episode best illustrates.

Russian reality: I mean it’s kind of weird that the phone was still where he left it. It hadn’t been stolen.  It hadn’t been dumped in some far away lost and found.  I hadn’t been removed by cleaning people.  Any of these outcomes I would have expected in the states.

American expectations:  Despite all the important things that might be happening in Vladivostok, the phone needed to be found.  I don’t fault Alan at all.  I would have felt the same way.  It does seem typically American way to think though. I wonder if a Russian person would have insisted or persisted on such a personal quest.  I’ll have to ask Zhenya.

Looking out at the Bay in Vladivostok

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