Monday, December 22, 2008

Get Real

It's been a few weeks since I posted anything to this blog, and for my own sake as much as yours, gentle reader, I should summarize what's been happening since my last entry.

I should mention, by the way, that I haven't been avoiding my blogging responsibilities by choice. Things were going just wonderfully here, and I was all set to write a big blog entry about how I had somehow dodged all the small pitfalls that other anthropologists complain of when they begin their fieldwork.  What luck! 

But then, a little over a week ago, without any warning whatsoever, my brand new laptop died. Remember that laptop that I was sent by a certain company as a replacement for the machine that they lost failed to repair over the course of a month? Yeah. I'm not kidding either. This company's flagship machine--loaded with their state-of-the-art technology--, this beautiful baby computer suffered the microelectronic equivalent of SIDS after just one month.

To be clear, we're not talking about some minor inconvenience like, say, a hard drive failure, or a screen that stops working. This is more like a bad motherboard. I've talked with the company's tech support staff via e-mail and long-distance/Skype/conference-call, and after describing the computer's symptoms they replied that it sounded like a serious hardware failure and asked if I could please send it in for repair... from Russia... at my expense.


So there I was, an academic in Moscow without a computer (which for 21st century scholars is kind of like being a drug addict without a fix). But I realized that most anthropologists don't have the luxury of computers and gadgets in their fieldsites, so why was I complaining? Who was I to wimper about a stupid computer when I've got the things that really matter: a roof over my head, a great research project, and my health?

And of course, as soon as I felt thankful for these things, I saw them each crumple before my eyes. The apartment in which I'm living suffered a minor flood when the upstairs neighbors left the water running in their bathroom tub, filling the air with vapour that smells suspiciously like the twelve inches or so of late Soviet-era flooring, insulation, dirt, dust, and mold that you might find between two levels of an apartment building in Moscow.  No big deal, I thought.  I mean, after all, the same sort of thing happened to me in my apartment not long ago in the states.  This stuff happens. And then a couple of days later, I started to feel as though a sheet of fabric softener had somehow been stuffed down my windpipe without my notice. At first I didn't think much about it, but after about 24 hours I was coughing violently and feeling as if my sinuses were attempting to escape their captivity behind my face through my eye sockets. Naturally, my optimism about my research began to take a tumble at this point as well.

That was about a week ago.  Things are a bit better now: I've got a new computer (thanks to ridiculously generous support from two readers of this blog who will go unnamed); I was able to get all my notes off of the old machine's hard drive; I'll be sending my old computer back home with an American I met recently; my health is improving thanks to lots of Russian soup; and as for my research, well, it's at least interesting.

After all, how can you NOT find this interesting?

This is a spot on the Old Arbat, a fairly famous Moscow street and tourist destination.  It's not insignificant as cultural real estate.  The Arbat is a great place to take a stroll.  There are some lovely buildings, there are no cars, you'll find artists and musicians and performers everywhere... And here we have, on the right, a statue dedicated to Bulat Okudzhava, one of the pioneers (if you'll excuse the term) of Russian bardic song.  And on the left, standing only a few feet from the revered Mr. Okudzhava, is a large cow.  Not just any cow, actually: this is the mascot (or the mas-cow?... the Mos-cow?...) for a chain of restaurants called "Mu-Mu".

I can't quite explain how well this image represents my impression of contemporary Moscow.  It's not just that the ridiculous and sublime live side by side -- that could be said about the world in general.  Nor is it just that the artifacts of the Soviet past and the post-Soviet present stand side by side.   It's something more about how the past and present don't seem to be able to take one another seriously, despite genuine efforts to the contrary.  This goes beyond nostalgia or irony.  This is... this is...

This is a statue of a cow standing next to a statue of Bulat Okudzhava.  

I feel like at this point, a real ethnographer would know how to read such an image. I don't.  But I'm hoping that since I'm experiencing some of the problems that real ethnographers encounter, perhaps soon I'll begin to think like one as well.


Anonymous said...

i find it interesting that you should find a statue of a cow in moscow when they were ALL over your "Home" city in the last couple of years.

eerie, perhaps.

May the Ghost of Christmas Past be with you as you mooove into your new role as ethnographer.

Anonymous from The North Side

Anonymous said...

Hello. And Bye.