Tuesday, February 10, 2015
reading and listening and strangers and historical perspective
i just finished the last book of ken follett's century trilogy. i know they were novels, but as historical fiction, i feel like they gave me a more personal take on the sweeping history of the 20th century and a greater understanding of things like the cuban missile crisis and the fall of the berlin wall. literature can do that, as can 20+ years to reflect on the events. it struck me that it's very hard to know the meaning of things immediately after they happen. or even a decade after. i think we are definitely still struggling to make sense of september 11, 2001. and i think our round-the-clock style of news doesn't do us any favors. the nature of today's media means that analysis must begin immediately, before we even really know what's happening and i think it's diminishing the human race. we can't possibly know the meaning of things without reflecting on them. but that certainly doesn't stop the relentless talking heads on television. makes me glad i pretty much only watch netflix and hbo nordic these days (plus my guilty pleasure of a few programs on tlc).
i've also been listening to as many of the strangers podcasts as are available on iTunes. they are filled with stories that make me long for more stories. stories of people who were strangers to one another, strangers to themselves, and then strangers no more. since the host is danish and refers to that fact quite often, i feel a strange connection with her that makes me wonder if it borders on stalkerish. she's been in my country a little bit longer than i've been in hers and she is at times as bewildered by the US as i am by denmark. she seems like someone i'd love to invite over to dinner.
this listening, coupled with reading the edge of eternity got me thinking about marina ivanovna, the very soviet-style russian teacher i had at iowa back in the early 90s. she struck fear in our hearts - using public humiliation as her main motivator. that works for me, i must admit, so despite how tough she was, i quite liked her. she lived in russian house, a big old house on a tree-lined iowa city street where a bunch of russian majors lived - kind of a sorority/fraternity house for slavic geeks. and i wonder what she made of it all? so weird that i never wondered that at the time - i thought of her as a teacher, not as a person. i think we all did with teachers at some point in our lives - being surprised at seeing them outside of school with their families or just mowing their lawn or something entirely normal. it seemed so strange that they were just ordinary people, living ordinary lives.
but here was marina ivanovna, a professor from moscow university who must have lived her entire life under the soviet system, plopped down in iowa city, just as the soviet union was dissolving. it must have been so bewildering and overwhelming in many ways - the nature of the students, the abundance of consumer goods, the informality of it all. i wonder what she made of it and whether she had aching moments of homesickness or whether she felt so fortunate to be there. what did she think? did she find it all so strange? was she happy or frustrated or overwhelmed or puzzled? she was probably all of those things at different moments, just like i am here in denmark, even after all of these years.
we can all feel like strangers at times, even when we live in our own cultures, but it is magnified when we live abroad. i guess all we can do is keep telling stories to try to make sense of it all, and remember to be patient, because it may take the vantage point of years before it does indeed begin to make sense.