Green Frog Cafe

"Living in nature, listening to the rain, Green Frog Cafe, that's where I want to be. The hemlocks are green, the creek is tricklin, there's geese on the pond, the forest sighs. Green Frog Cafe that's where I want to be, home of my soul, spirit of the mountains." Ruminations of Rhona McMahan

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Where to go, Japan vs. Russia

I was asked the other day about where I would go if I were choosing between 2 weeks in Russia or two weeks in Japan. My immediate reaction was that I would go to Japan, since I have been in Russia three times already, and I have never been to Japan. I thought the marginal learning for me would be greater from a time in Japan that it would be from additional time in Russia.

Of course I am almost 63 years old, and if I am going to see any part of Asia I had better get going. I have been moderately interested in Japan for many years, largely through my professional interest in international business. I have studied various aspects of management in Japan, I have read intensely about cultural characteristics of the business culture in Japan, I have read a few novels by Japanese writers, and I have seen some Japanese movies. I even flew Japan Airlines to Brazil and back, and the in-flight movie was "The Last Samurai," which may have been filmed in Japan, and certaionly had some Japanese actors in it.

The negative for me with respect to traveling in Japan is that I do not speak Japanese, and do not expect to learn how to in this lifetime. One of my current housemates is Japanese, and I am learning more about the country every day as we converse. Still, I dislike being in a country where I am totally clueless about the language.

Russia, on the other hand, is a country which I have visited previously, and is a country where I have had several of the most memorable moments in my life. I have also studied the language for about four years total in my lifetime, and even qualified in Russian for one of my two required languages (the other was French). I have taken many courses about Russia, and have read many books of Russia literature, history, and economics. I have taught management to many Russians, both in the US and in Russia. I have had reasonably close friends who were Russian. I have always wanted to live for an extended period in Russia, and I have always wanted to take the trans-Siberian railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok.

I originally studied Russian as an undergraduate at Northwestern because I felt that more Americans should learn the language in order to break down the barriers of the Cold War. I suppose this motivation seems quaint and a bit archaic, but that was the way I was in my youth.

I was a great success in my first trip to Russia, in 1961 at the age of 19. I took a Baltic steamer from Stockholm where (I had been an AIESEC trainee over the summer) to Turko-Abo in Finland. I took a bus to Helsinki, stayed a night or two in a youth hostel, and caught the train to Leningrad (now again St. Petersburg). In Leningrad I picked up my rental car from Inturist, saw the sights with my (presumably) designated NKVD monitor, and set off for Novgorod. Along the way I took the wrong road, and drove an entire day in the wrong direction, went through a car breakdown, drown for hours in the black darkness through the Russia countryside, and was eventually stopped by a roadblock in my honor on the outskirts of Novgorod. After several hours of interrogation I was released to proceed, having signed a statement testifying to the criminal act of being on the wrong road. As I proceeded to Kalinin and Moscow I knew that I was being shadowed, but I also knew that if I requested a guide at the Inturist offices I would usually get a lovely young woman to lead me around. Eventually I got out of Moscow after my mother wired me some money to pay off my rental car, and made it back to Paris. Later, back in Evanston, the CIA came around and reviewed all of my pictures and "information."

On my second trip to Russia I was wined and dined by the former/transitional communist nomenclatura members fosuing on learning western management approaches. Eventually we embarked on a cruise from Moscow to St. Petersburg through the rivers, lakes, and canals. During this cruise we gave lectures on management, visited heretofor closed monasteries along the way, drank huge quantities of vodka while smoking cigarettes and eating mushrooms in our cabins at night. In the middle of it all the world came that Gorbachev had been overthrown, and we went through several days of tense uncertainty until he was reinstated with the help of Yeltsin. Some of my American colleaugues totally freaked out over this, but I was calm. I figured that I would finally become fluent in Russia if I were interred, but then who would want me. I was very popular with people during this experience too, which occurred in my early 40's ata time when I was highly androgenous.

The third trip was with my friend Cheryl in 1995, as the guest of the Women's Organization of Russia, funded by a grant from the British Council. We went to a city named Vladimir, former home of Ivan the Terrible, and the place where he unfortunately killed his son. The trip was in the midst of winter, and I got to experience the cold and snow of Russia, several hundred kilometers north of Moscow. We had some memorable parties, as only Russian parties can be, I I ended up with all the women in a sauna, where everyone stimulated everyone else with birth branches applied smartly on the back.

As I write this the prospect of a trip across Siberia is becoming more enticing. I would need a month rather than two weeks without question. It would be fascinating to see Russia again now that oligarchic capitalism has been implanted, and the country is well launched in a new direction. I would have four points of observation: 1961, 1991, 1995, and 2005.

What would be the utility of such a trip? At this point in my life I have no illusions that much would come from a trip to either Japan or Russia in a professional sense, although if I were younger I would definitely go for Russia because of my long experience and background and interest in the country. One might say that Russia is less important than it once was. After all, it is smaller than Brazil from a population standpoint, and smaller than Mexico from an economic standpoint. But as the thirst of the US economy for oil intensifies, Russia has a new weapon which ultimately puts them right up at the top of the heap in world power and influence.

So maybe I would opt for Russia after all. I wonder if they still have caviar freely available for foreigners. There are always vices to think about.


Post a Comment

<< Home