By: Alexa Vujaklija
“But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.”
— Thomas Wolfe
For all of my adolescence I lived in downtown Moscow. Not in a Russian apartment. Not in a neighborhood. Not with European or Russian appliances. In the rawest choice of words, you could say I "grew up behind a brick wall" to some extent. That is not to say I was intentionally—emotionally, physically or otherwise--closed off from the country and the culture that surrounded me, it just means that I was living in a quasi-American "safe" and cushy world in the heart of Moscow, that was literally surrounded by a faded orange brick wall.
Although prestigious words and phrases such as diplomat, embassy compound, ambassador, American soil, were often thrown around within these walls, such pomp and circumstance didn't make them look any prettier than those of a prison camp. In my "childhood phase" there (around the time when I was 11-13 years old), I walked around outside barefoot a lot, played baseball and tag on a bright green field with all of the other kids regardless of their age, I swung on the playground and loved when the days would become endless in the summertime--hours and hours of extra sunlight meant more dirt between my toes, and more “adventurous” walks underneath the blossoming crab-apple trees.
From sixth through eighth grade, my best friend lived in the apartment right next to mine. We lived so close that one time we thought it would be funny to count exactly how many steps it would take to get from her door to mine. We wanted the shortest amount possible of course, so these were looooong, exaggerated hops, and while I don't remember the exact number...I do remember it being quite an ordeal.
"Fun" was making faces at the security cameras--taking silly advantage of the fact that we very well may have been watched at all times--mocking community flyers that covered up old cork boards, sneaking out to sit on a bright blue and orange gym floor, and directing and starring in our own comical, movies.
We would steal scooters and bikes...whatever was lying around, just as a quick means of transportation from one side of the compound to the other. We would buy an absurd amount of junk to snack on, all items not sold on the local economy: Welch's Grape Soda, Funyuns, 3 Musketeers bars, Chex Mix, Cap'n Crunch...etc--all for an outrageous price.
I remember one time I had the day off from school so I went down to the cafeteria in my pajamas and had breakfast at some unmentionable hour in the afternoon, un-showered, hair un-brushed...I presumably had it in my mind that anywhere I walked within those walls was just some sort of extension of my own living room. My dad walked by on the way to a meeting not without shooting me an infuriated glare that said, "are you crazy? the ambassador could walk by at any moment, go put some shoes on."
I don't think I realized how unique my circumstances were until much, much later. I thought it was normal that when you moved to a new place, furniture was already in each room of the house...furniture sets that weren't yours, but that just happened to include a few matching pieces from your previous homes. I thought nothing of just running over next door to use NASA's oven on Thanksgiving when you didn't have any more room in your own. I thought it was routine that after unpacking, people would come to hang up all of your pictures where requested, and they would take away any extra pieces that just didn't seem to have a place--secondary bedside tables; one too many lamps.
As I grew older, these routines just turned into entering each other's houses without ever knocking--come to think of it, I don't ever remember locking my front door...ever. Barbecues on the field on that one rare sunny day to say goodbye to Summer, or hello to [late] Spring. Movie nights, sneaking booze out of our parents' liquor cabinets, and covering for each other when we were supposed to be at each other’s' houses instead of out wherever we really were. Waking up in the middle of the night to find them casually heating up a frozen pizza in your oven. Sitting on countertops and eating a lot of pasta, sleeping in my own bed only when absolutely necessary, but more often than not spending nights with my designated little sister. As soon as either one of us came home from a trip, regardless of flight length, travel time, or jetlag impact, we were there, straight off the plane, watching fashion documentaries, falling sleep, talking about our fears or stealing an item of clothing from one another, making collages and conducting art projects for absolutely no reason. In a way the whole thing was a sort of freakish, surreal, Twilight Zone-y version of “Small Town America,” but where people moved every year and you were actually in Russia.
As time went by, the norm was still the norm. Nothing much really changed except the entirety of my surroundings. I was still walking along the same path over and over again as if in a giant hamster wheel, going in one direction and yet not going anywhere at all. And somehow the world within these brick walls never felt too small for me. Growing into the new phases of my life I began to realize that I had overstayed my welcome...in a world of two-year tours, it was a place of coming and going. New eras ending as quickly as they had begun. I found myself spending time in the same old apartments, but.... different people lived in them now. Moving trucks pulled up to each doorway and vacated the premises swiftly and promptly...every doorway except mine. New faces quickly took the place of old ones....and in some extreme cases, the new faces became the old ones again...ones belonging to families who had come back to live for a second or third tour. I was the only constant in a world of change.
Returning after college was no different--bizarre, yet comforting. I think the weirdest part of it all is that within the act of "coming home," the place you are returning to is always exactly the same. No matter what people tell you about coming home, trust me...the place will always be the same. Sure, the chipped paint may have been touched up, and new flowers may have been planted in the garden, and strange new people may have taken over the job titles in familiar offices, but the true essence of the place is never-changing. I whole-heartedly believe that...about any place anyone has ever called home.
And yet...not a single thing is the same...except for that essence. No one recognizes you. It's like coming back home after college but instead of all your family friends saying, "it's nice to see you!" they say "it's nice to meet you." The offices run the same way, business is conducted as usual, but the name plates on the cubicles aren't ones you recognize. The cashier at the store asks to see your ID even though you're buying the same Chex Mix you've been buying every day for seven years.
The moment I stepped past security and onto the concrete of this familiar place I immediately took on a George Bailey-esque role--invisible to all around me, watching my hometown operate as if I had never been there at all.... just waiting for the snow to start up again and for a bell to ring.
And so here I sit...at the old picnic table, under the same tree where I used to do my homework, now with pen and paper in hand just trying to figure out what in the world to do and where in the world I belong. I look up directly into the window of my bedroom where some strange little girl now sleeps.
I grab my spiffy work clothes: my nicest heels, a pair of freshly ironed pants, to go sit in an office within the very same halls my pajama-d legs once strolled through. I sit through lengthy newcomers’ orientations and learn of the "harsh realities" of living in this country and how to properly conduct myself within these walls and without. Battling an unavoidable eye-roll, I listen to advice, I nod, I smile at pompous--albeit kind—know it alls and "experts" giving me directions and explaining how the business in this ominous building works--the building in which I happened to grow into the person that I am today.
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