I left Nizhny Novgorod after a 25 hour stay in the city. I had moderated a panel discussion there, having managed not to fall from my squeaky barstool onto the stage, had admired the Kremlin, climbed up to the fortress and down to the water’s edge, encountered a large, well-fed cat with a red neckband that had plopped down right in front of me onto the sidewalk, wanting to be pet, taken my breakfast looking out onto the River Oka, alongside a statue of Lenin that was pointing right at me.
Now, I come back to my senses – I’m good to go.
At the airport, I get out my passport for inspection and, after flipping open the passport book cover with the flying girl with the suitcase and starting to leaf through the dog-eared pages, I begin to think: this travel document of mine, which I was issued 18 years ago, has endured and survived. It’s nearly 20 years old; in two years, I’ll get a new one. All in all, this passport’s alive and kicking. It has survived trips to many cities and airports, rain and other forms of precipitation, as well as one car accident. Not once did it get tossed in a washing machine. I looked at the issue date – June 2003 – and thought about all the things that had happened since then.
18 years add up to an entire life, plenty of time to mature – from birth to entering adulthood and gaining one’s freedom – freedom to leave, to travel, to express yourself. A time span when decisions are made, a time of feelings, of long and short acquaintances with people, landscapes and ideas.
18 years – what do they add up to, and what will remain? Over the next 18 years, what will become important? What precisely makes us human, and which parts of humanity will not fade? How can I recognise, understand and hold on to the universal pattern that lies beyond those short-lived events and news items, or beyond feelings and emotions, that endures as calmly as the landscape that I see through my cabin window, as we gain altitude after taking off? I see darker and lighter green tracts of land, along with the white or silver reflection of a large river – winding off into the distance before splitting in two and then merging again.
My friend Alexey Kokorin, an atmospheric physicist, often mentions that rivers in the northern hemisphere generally flow from north to south, or from south to north, and because of the earth’s rotation they always flow a little off to the side, so to speak. That’s why the left riverbank is always flat, while the right is almost always raised. You can even demonstrate this using an apple. It’s not that easy getting a total view of earth from space – there are photographs, and good photographs at that – but you can’t touch or turn over the earth on a photograph.
Frank Gaudlitz, a German photographic artist, is currently preparing to take a trip through Russia, in a modified UAZ Patriot equipped with a solar panel, a shower, a kitchen, a multi-cooker and two cots. A few days ago, Frank was telling me about a similar trip he took through South America. He often thought about how many of the landscapes had not changed since Alexander von Humboldt beheld them: they looked at him, and he looked back at them.
Many lives, generations, families and nations have come and gone against the backdrop of those landscapes. People have moved, built, destroyed, planted, looked at the mountains, volcanoes and rivers, excavated earth, drew water, and demarcated borders. Frank photographed many people who live there today. And that’s exactly what he will do during his trip through Russia. His South America photobook contains nearly one hundred portraits of people standing self-confidently in their houses or apartments, wearing a wide range of clothing, in different poses, with various hairstyles and totally different personalities.
“Do you remember all of them?” I asked him. “Some, yes, and we are even still in touch; but of course I don’t remember everyone. When you interact with so many people and have travelled to all those places, you have to be able to let go, so that you make room for new experiences,” he replied. I nodded and continued to sip my black tea from a large juice glass – the only glasses that came with his Airbnb apartment. While we were talking, we’d forgotten to take the teabags out – so they steeped too long and were too strong for an evening cup of tea. But our conversation continued. The sound of cars drifted up from Grivtsova Lane. We closed the window, to keep the sounds of the city from interfering with our recording.
We spoke a lot about how to survive in such a diverse world, about ways to understand and make sense of the world’s tangled landscapes, places and stories. Because there’s simply no way to keep all these stories in your head or write them down. But they do make up the fabric of life, from which I – or he – can pick out one thread, keep spinning it for ourselves, or tie special knots with it, so as to show other people and the world: “Here’s what I found, heard, recorded, photographed – that’s how it was. As early as tomorrow, it will have passed.”
Frank will be turning 63 soon. He says this may be his last big trip. In future, he wants to spend more time in his house in Brandenburg, plant a garden, watch the plants he has planted slowly grow and change, embedded in a landscape that itself changes slowly, like when you look out of an airplane window or from an elevation. “Sometimes,” he says, “you have to take pause and stop what you’re doing. Sometimes I read the books of authors I used to love, and I realise that at some point they stop writing things that are of interest for the world; they write instead about their desires and phobias; this is good from a therapeutic standpoint, but it’s just not that interesting for me.”
Three years earlier, also during the summer, I had encountered a different Frank. He was a representative of a German political foundation and had travelled to Saint Petersburg with a group of active senior citizens. They wanted to learn more about the country and the city, in a person-to-person way. I spoke to the group at length about myself, my life at this time, and I spoke about this great personal story that’s not always apparent, but shrouded behind a wall of headlines and news stories. Afterwards, we spent a few hours just the two of us, Frank telling me about his life and me telling him about mine. He, too, was nearly 60. He had been born and raised in the GDR, had worked as a car mechanic, and had tried on several occasions to flee. On his eleventh attempt, he finally succeeded. After arriving in the Federal Republic, he embarked on a new career and started his training as a labour union leader. It was a long journey.
“So how does 40 feel different from 60?” I asked him at the time. He said it was his desire to have a garden, to grow plants, flowers, vegetables and fruit. It’s not so easy noticing small daily changes and keeping an eye on how flowers close their blossoms at night, or when a zucchini suddenly emerges from a bud, or when the first shoots rise up out of the ground and for reasons inexplicable stretch upwards toward the light, outside, into the world.
I think back to the dacha of my childhood, to watering the plants every evening, to the red currant bushes and the apple trees, each of which had a uniquely shaped trunk – I compared them to my relatives’ bodies. In many ways, my conversation with this Frank reminded me of my experiences in California. We had grown tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs, peaches and figs. We picked the high-hanging wild oranges with a special stick. We juiced pomegranates, watched how rapidly the giant sunflowers grew (the birds ate almost all of the seeds) and even managed to grow a mouse melon plant. Today, I no longer have access to a garden; I am, however, moving into a new apartment that looks out onto a green courtyard, and it is close to an apple orchard.
I often think of a poem by W. H. Auden, “Who’s who”. It’s about two worlds, one in which one lives an active life, fighting one’s battles – and another in which one spends calm, reflective time at home, tending one’s garden ….
I was fascinated by this division of life into two worlds – on the one hand, travel, adventure, stepping out onto life’s stage, with lively words and deeds, energy, a spark in one’s eyes, embracing personal change and the world’s ebb and flow. On the other hand, quiet contemplation of garden life, making garden tools, observing how the evening light reflects off the house’s yellow wall, the sleepy mood of early nightfall, with the first stars appearing to an acoustic backdrop of insects, the abandoned road in a small town with small houses, cookie-cutter gardens and parked cars, which all people have abandoned once darkness falls and where the only living creature is the occasional raccoon.
I have always felt attracted to this first world, just like the last work-packed 25 hours in Nizhny Novgorod: lots of people, brief conversations, an auditorium, presentations, phone calls, a stage, dressing rooms, lights, a microphone, not enough hands to get everything done, a little nervous at first but then I start to make jokes and laugh, climb up and down stairs, grab a quick coffee, rush to get my flight, discuss other plans all the way to the airport, organise some other thing, send someone somewhere, jot things down in my planner.
A plane provides the time and space that is needed for a second format – call it a garden format, if you will. A place to lean back, look down at the earth through the cabin window, listen to music you haven’t heard for a long time – and compose this text.
Quite possibly, instead of the two figures in Auden’s poem being two different people, they are one. Where one side is always striving to be the other. Sometimes, the two sides coexist in unified time, and sometimes one is in the past, while the other is in the present. Switching from one to the other is a journey, too. Filled with geographic, botanical and other discoveries.
I hope that Frank’s journey through Russia will be a complete success. I look forward to our conversation a year from now.
About the author:
Angelina Davydova specializes in economic and political aspects of global and Russian climate policy, and has been covering the UN climate negotiations since 2008. She activley writes about the environment and contributes to Russian and international media as a journalist.
Published on February 2, 2022.