Sunday July 1, 2012 – Birodbizhan

The evening we arrived, a large man came to the conceirge and asked for ice in English. She didn’t understand, and he wandered away before I could find my phrasebook. Later we saw him wandering the pedestrianized mall in a t-shirt, shorts and bare feet. Another mark of a foreigner, as Russians know how dirty their sidewalks are and would never take their shoes off outside. I asked him if he’d found ice and he said he hadn’t, and he needed it for his daughter who’d just bumped her head. We ran into him a few times over the weekend, and it emerged that he was from the US and had come to Birodbizhan to adopt a child.

This struck M. and I as odd: why travel all the way to Siberia for that? Later we ran into him in the hotel, and he introduced us to a couple from New York and another woman from Toronto who lived in Montreal. Again, all were there to adopt children. Curiouser and curiouser. But I began to put it together when I was introduced to the woman from Montreal, who had a Jewish last name. Rather than asking me a generic tourist question – “How did you get here?” or “Where are you going?” – she asked, “What’s your last name?”

I told her and she replied, “No, I’ve never heard of it.” She’d lived in Toronto, obviously knew the Jewish community there and assumed that, since I was in Birodbizhan, I was a part of Toronto’s Jews too. And it was clear to me, being blessed with not-bad Jewdar, that the other couple, from New York, were Jewish too.

I saw one of the girls, playing on the lap of the nearby second floor concierge and speaking Russian to her. “Poor girl,” the Jewish woman from Montreal said, “It’s good she gets to speak Russian, she’s already traumatized enough.” She meant by the adoption process. The only reason I could figure out why all they’d all come was to adopt Jewish children. If you want a white child you can just go to Romania. But there are still 2000 Jews left in Birodbizhan, and perhaps some of them are orphaned. Or the adoption agents claim they’re Jewish so they’ll get adopted, as life in America must seem pretty glamorous compared to life in Birodbizhan.

But I didn’t mind life in Birodbizhan. It was a comfortable little town, and not so isolated as one might think. The mall next to the hotel had a Jewish watchmaker (again, going by last name) who cleaned the last of the Baikal forest swamp-water from the inside of my watch and joked in English, “Give me an American dollar.” The majority of the rest of the merchants were Chinese – indeed, the Chinese border was only 80 kms away. I bought a t-shirt and had to bargain the Chinese merchant down from $30 to $14 – just the fact that I had to haggle made it a Chinese, rather than Russian experience. Outside I noticed that the buildings fronting the shopping precinct all had reflective gold windows, also a Chinese trait. Chinese merchants had come to provide cheap goods to the Russians, as well as the buildings to sell those cheap goods in.

We went for dinner twice at Felicia’s, an Italian restaurant with decent thin-crust pizza, pasta and pictures of celebrities on the wall: Adriano Celentano, Robert De Niro, Sofi (no a) Loren, all signed in silver, in the same handwriting. And on the Sunday, we walked around the town.

Here’s the old main street that the Soviets built in the 1930s. A wide avenue with pretty bauhaus or classical style buildings housing the synagogue, publishers and administrative buildings. Not bad for the middle of a swamp:

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A more recent sports club – Man United, Chelsea, The Mighty Ducks?

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Even in Siberia:

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This is typical of Soviet-era blocks in most of the cities I saw. Again, I don’t mean to say the Soviets built horrible buildings. Those apartments are vastly better than the wooden shacks they replaced. But you’d crumble too, if you hadn’t been maintained for over 20 years:

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Note the fancy piping on the fish:

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It’s mayonnaise. So much mayonnaise.

We walked straight down one of the main streets, possibly Lenin St. Soon enough we came to a working factory:

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I can’t tell if these are old or new. They could have been made recently and left in the rain, but I liked the effect of a row of brown. The barbed wire is because I’m taking this over a concrete wall:

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A rare brick-mosaic hammer-and-sickle on Victory Factory:

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Nikto (Remember?) the heroes, nikto the heroines. I liked this before-and-now poster:

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We saw this walking back along another, parallel main road, past Russian men and teens having beers, and women walking by with shopping.

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I thought it was significant that the Soviets designed exercise and sport facilities into their living areas – there was another one a couple hundred meters behind this one, too. But no one maintains them.

The local university, built in Soviet times:

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It was presumably the source of the anarchist sticker I saw, plus a hopefully-left-wing demonstration poster that I could read “Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya” on, but which featured a picture a stone statue of a warrior defending a child – not left-wing imagery I’m used to.

I must say, as a recent arts graduate, this wall-sculpture made me feel a little more worthwhile. Reading, writing, acting and music don’t get that kind of institutionalized respect in Canada:

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Oi! The happy Jews:

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That night our train was to leave at 8:30pm, and I prepared beforehand by buying beer and water at a nearby grocery store. All the water behind the counter looked fizzy; I tried to get still water by pointing at the bottle, going “Ffffshhh” and waggling my fingers like bubbles rising and then saying “Nyet”, but it didn’t work. I was able to laugh at my own ridiculousness and got a smile from the shopclerk, at least.

I was prepared to enjoy the imported, Czech, brown Kozel beers I bought, until I got to the train station and put the plastic bag containing the beer on a bench. The bag immediately slid out an opening at seat level onto the floor and the bottles smashed, spreading beer everywhere. The security guard looked concerned, but when I looked even more concerned he said, “OK, OK” and gestured that I didn’t have to worry about it. But I felt badly making cleaning staff deal with my mess. A Russian family was nearby and a fat teenager gestured my way and laughed excitedly. The supervisor woman, who had watched the event from her nearby desk, came over and passed me a straw broom, and I swept up the glass fragments and beer while she held the metal dustcatcher. M. said I was gender-bending by cleaning in public. The janitor arrived, gestured that she’d take over and mopped up the rest. I said Spasiba as genuinely as I could, and she didn’t hear; the supervisor made an open-palm gesture towards me, so she turned around and I repeated it. “Pashalste”, she replied, as if it didn’t matter. But it did; I’d made a large mess and I’d lost my beer.

We trudged to the platform for 8:30, no train arrived, and we trudged back in. I was studying signs in Cyrillic on the arrivals board, turned around without having understood anything, and another traveller – a guy in new adidas – handed me a piece of paper, with our train number and 22:30 written on it. I thanked him profusely and he winked at me. This was much better than jumping at every announcement, since neither M. nor myself understood what they were saying. We went to the rail cafe and had 8% lager, which always passes the time well. We eventually met another family who told us the train would be even later – I don’t think we got on till close to 11pm. This was a cheaper train, so it was full of younger people and men in flip-flops. The train lady (sorry, she has a real job title, I just can’t remember it) shut the bathroom just as I was about to use it – after some uncomprehending exchanges she just locked the door and signalled 10 on her fingers, meaning it’d be open again in 10 minutes. I figured it was because we were coming into a station. 45 minutes later, we’d left, she’d gotten everyone’s tickets, given everyone bedsheets wrapped in plastic, and opened it up again. Again, my usual response – I smiled sincerely at her helping me.

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