It’s raining in Odessa today and we’re tying up loose ends before finally boarding the ferry to Batumi, Georgia tomorrow night. The last three months were startlingly settled: after months of moving around, we arrived in Odessa with our bikes dismantled and thick winter coats slung over our bags. We took to our Odessite flat like bears hibernating in the Ural Mountains we had just left behind and it was with a groggy sort of blinking wonder that we began cleaning out our bags, oiling our chains, and saying good-byes in our unexpected winter home this past week.
On a long trip, there are moments which seem, unexpectedly, like chapters ending. Leaving Odessa marks the end of a chapter which began with an idea to ride our bikes eastwards from Switzerland and culminated, about a year later, in a confused departure from Bashkortostan, Russia, westwards by train into Ukraine.
We didn’t plan a lot before leaving for our trip, but we planned on heading east through Russia. The border to Russia marked the boundary of our previous experience travelling in eastern Europe, and became our imagined frontier to the unknown east. Everyone had something to say about it:
-Russland? A pedestrain laughed in southern Germany, during our first week, -Das ist aber weit!
-Russland? Passt auf!
-Big Russia, our acquaintences in Kaliningrad smiled, -Oh yes, I hope you meet nice people in Big Russia! In August last year, we stood at the border between Finland and Big Russia and I felt my stomach drop at the thought that the country in front of our noses stretched all the way to the Pacific. What was it that I had expected of Russia until then? I don’t remember! By the time we rode into Big Russia, our imagined east had already been reshaped into something new by the many impressions, stories and encounters which dotted our route.
I remember an evening in Mölbitz, a tiny village in Sachsen, Germany. It was evening when we stopped for a break in the middle of town, and a middle-aged man carrying a dachsund-race trophy home invited us for fried eggs and beer. Showing us his property, he described each structure as pre- or post-DDR. That evening we sat goggle-eyed in his son’s garage, a few doors down, surrounded by a lifetime’s collection of memorabilia. Below a banner proclaiming in German: 'We strengthen our socialist republic!' and a yellowed map of the DDR, R--- played Hotel California for us and told us his own stories about life before and after ‚the turn.’
Such encounters became representative for those to come: over and over we were invited briefly into the narratives of the lives of people we met, and their stories all corresponded in one moment at least; at the end of the 1980s everything had shifted; stories about the Soviet Union and the post-soviet 90’s abounded:
-After the turn, we moved and my parents began working at --------------.
-That factory's been abandoned since the turn.
-Thing's were different in those days, we didn't have to think about fighting for jobs like we do now.
-I had to study something to get a job, but I didn’t know what so I got my (truck-) drivers’ license.
-I had always wanted to go to America, to listen to rock and roll. Suddenly the door was open to the west!
-The economy collapsed, and my parents lost everything. We’d never been poor, but suddenly we were.
In Estonia, our host nodded toward the next house and told us how the old woman living there was all alone: –Her son went to Russia 30 years ago and never came back. A few days later, a battered Volga appeared in the neighbor’s driveway and out stepped a man: the lost son had arrived for her seventieth birthday from Russia! What kind of feeling must he have had, returning to an Estonia which he had only ever known as part of the Soviet Union?
These stories interpunctuated our daily rides through landscapes dotted with soviet-era infrastructure, much of it abandoned. We’d planned on meeting the east in Russia, but there it was, or there were the traces of it, just a short ride from Basel, encapsulated in the many structures and memories of the former Soviet Union and firmly interwoven with the (‚western’) present. In the context of these encounters, the thought of going to Russia took on shape as myriad new questions about the Soviet and the post-Soviet experiences, in the east block and Russia.
All these stories, encounters, and traces told us of identities which had been shaped by shifting alliances with an ‚east’ and a ‚west.’ But where and what the east was, or still is, became a question with a thousand different answers. More and more our curious, sometimes presumptuous, look to the east was mirrored back at us: -What is the east? We wondered, and the east shrugged: -What is the west?
In some ways Russia’s position as our eastern frontier had been usurped by all the other easts we met on the way. Yet entering Russia, we had indeed crossed a frontier of some kind, one that became clearest of all in the way that people talked about the other side: The word Europe rang like a bell in the mouths of the people we were talking to on the road. Europe, the mystical land to the west, the place where the future lies! And sometimes it fell like a slap: Europe, the liberals from the west with their newfangled ideas! The capitalist west! We used to have ideals, we used to talk – now we just buy things!
We crossed the Russian border for the first time in Kaliningrad. There, we learned about ‚Evrorement’: -Evro for Euro, -remont for –renovation. Evroremont is a (predominantly Russian) interior architecture style which is mainly defined by its decorative layered ceilings, faintly reminiscent of 19th-century European interiors. Evroremont stands for something progressive and worldly in Kaliningrad and in other parts of Russia. It aligns itself not with Europe itself, but with a picture of Europe as filtered through a Russian lense.
In St. Petersburg, a young man explained proudly to us how Europeans have become soft because of all the bike lanes in their countries, but not the Russians:
-Every Russian knows two little lines on the ground won’t save you from an oncoming car! You can’t trust a bike lane to save you. You have to be on your toes - you have to be alert to survive here!
I would have liked to victoriously show him the freshly painted bike lanes all over Ufa, the Russian city in Bashkortostan we arrived in a month and 3000 eastern kilometers later! And yet, if Europe is not its bike lanes, I'm no closer to naming what it is.
Also in St. Petersburg, we fell in with a group of young Russian artists with whom we seemed to share so many ideas they could have been our friends back in Switzerland. We ate croissants and drank Italian coffee, and reminisced about the ride into the city. A day before reaching St. Petersburg we’d stopped in Traktornoe, where we sat in front of the only store in the crumbling village, immobilized by the foreignness of the place, with its rutted, dusty roads, flaming trash cans, packs of housecats gone feral and drunk men teetering home on squeaking bicycles. I felt sure that we’d entered our own worst imaginings of the Russian east.
In every country, our experiences in villages were completely contrasting to our experience in cities. So much so that this question of east and west, which dogged us throughout our trip to, into and back out of Russia, could easily be replaced by another pair: urban and rural. Is it the bike lanes that give the idea of Europe form? Or the historical interiors? Or the croissants? Tell it to R--- in his garage in Mölbitz! Or is it the political border of the EU? Then who were the young, liberal, internationally-oriented Russian artists we were speaking to in St. Petersburg, if not Europeans?
The transition between east and west is a fluid and a finnicky one, and it belongs as much to current political borders and alliances as to their historical traces; as much to the perceptions of the individuals inhabiting a place as to the quirks of the market which moves commodities from place to place (or prohibits them from moving further); perhaps not quite as much to do with the population of a settlement as its geographical location, but still a good deal. Maybe the better question is not –Where is the east or –Where is the west? but -Where do we get our pictures of the east and of the west from?
For many of the people we met, an imagined threat seemed to loom from the east –meaning, wherever was directly east of where we were right then. It’s easy to imagine an east-west continuum into which we can position ourselves, to forget that these terms shift and re-center on every person who takes them in their mouth. With terms like these we try to say a lot, when in fact, they only speak for the views that our own singular standpoints offer...
In Odessa, we had the chance to stop travelling for long enough to digest some of the impressions we collected in the previous months, and it’s with a whole new array of expectations, hopes, and fears that we head out of Europe and into Central and Eastern Asia this year. And it’s wonderful to know we can only meet something next to which our fuzzy imaginings will pale in comparison.
During our first week on the road in Germany, on a stiflingly hot May day, we stopped to dunk our heads in a fountain in a small town. Some kids were playing in the water and a little boy asked us,
-Wohin fährt ihr? -Where are you going?
-Nach Russland, -To Russia, we answered. He paused and then answered,
-Schön, dass ihr verreisen könnt! -Nice that you can travel!
That's what I'm thinking now, as we get ready to start again.