Barry Fagin

Colorado Springs Gazette, 7-9-09




Whatís the deal with me and President Barack Obama? First, he wouldnít be inaugurated until Iíd left for Russia. Then he refused to come to Russia until the day I left. Was it something I said?

 I landed at Denver International Airport about 20 hours before sending this to The Gazette. Flying west across the ocean means I gained eight hours on my deadline, which I promptly lost sleeping fitfully on the flight from Frankfurt. So it goes.

 How do you sum up six months living and working in another country in 700 sleep-deprived words or less? The answer is: You donít.

 Somebody said that when it comes to foreign countries, there are two kinds of experts: Those whoíve lived there for 20 years, and those whoíve lived there for 20 minutes.

 I was in St. Petersburg for six months, somewhere in the middle. So Iím not really an expert on anything. I just tried to be a good teacher to my students, an entertaining speaker to my audiences, a good friend to my friends, and hopefully represent America well.

 Some of you may remember my previous visit to St. Petersburg back in 2001. I wasnít a regular writer for The Gazette then, just a few pieces here and there.

 Itís interesting to go back and compare my notes from then and now. Back then, the Twin Towers fell the day before my first class. How the world has changed since.

 I spent much of the previous week packing and saying goodbye. There was a lot of packing to do, and a lot of goodbyes to be said. A last Friday night Sabbath meal with a group of friends from the synagogue. A jazz cruise out to the Gulf of Finland, courtesy of a piano-playing colleague. Dinners, parties and toasts. Lots and lots of toasts.

 I know itís a cliché, but language really is the key to people. Speaking another language and using it to communicate with people changes you, in ways that you donít always appreciate. Itís not exactly like youíre a different person, itís more like youíre a deeper person. I think thatíll be true with me long after my Russian has faded away.

 Travel has that effect even if you donít speak another language. Seeing and experiencing life in another part of the world both broadens and deepens you. Americaís immigrants understand this better than anyone. From the other side, I understand it a little better now.

 All the same, traveling alone for so long was in hindsight not a great idea. Iíve missed my wife, who endured a similar absence back in 2001. No more, dear, I promise.

 I missed my kids, who were in grade school back then and are in college now. Skype makes the separation a little more bearable, but itís no substitute for the real thing.

 Itís also increased my admiration for our men and women in uniform, who deploy for far longer than a mere six months and under far worse conditions. To do so while leaving a spouse and family behind has to be very, very tough. For all of us whom you serve, thank you.

 And of course in addition to my family, I missed America. I missed America for the same reasons so many of my Russian students and friends admire her, and us. Our boundless optimism, our can-do attitude, our ideals of individual freedom and liberty in law. The alert, look-you-in-the-eye handshake you get when you first meet someone, the contagious enthusiasm, the passion with which we do things, all these seem much more striking to me now. More striking, and more precious.

 There are plenty of other things Iíll no longer take for granted. For example, I see it gets dark here at night. What a concept! Should make sleeping a little easier.

 To all those whoíve enjoyed reading about life in St. Petersburg these past few weeks, thank you for thinking these pieces worthy of your time.

 Now that Iím stateside, itíll be back to politics and Big Ideas for a while, so weíre probably apt to disagree a bit more. But I hope youíll bear with me; thatís what makes all this worthwhile.

 So itís do svidanya to St. Petersburg, and privyet to, well, who knows. In any case, itís good to be back.