Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana
416 pages, $13.95
As a 21-year-old exchange student in Russia, Stephanie Elizondo Griest found herself lost and bedazzled by the labyrinthine Moscow Metro one day and decided to approach an elderly subway worker for help. The babushka—old woman—looked her up and down and asked where she was from. “Texas,” she replied, a response that was all-but-guaranteed to provoke still more questions, as Griest would later recall in Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana:
“You’re from where?”
“Texas, It’s in America. Now how do I get to the train station?”
“You’re an American?”
“An American?” she repeated. By this point, she had risen from her stool and opened the door. A lapel pin of Lenin gleamed from the collar of her navy blue uniform.
“Da. I need the train to Nizhnii Novgorod. Which way do I go?”
Rather than reply, she wrapped her short arms around my neck.
“American! Leave my country! Get out of Russia!” she cried as she proceeded to shake me. She had shrunk so much in the latter years of her life, she barely came up to my shoulders, but her grip was strong and firm.
I covered her wrinkled wrists with my hands and met her livid gaze. Never before had I been held accountable for what I represented.
Now 30, Stephanie Elizondo Griest is a brave young woman and an even braver young writer, who has taken on one of the oldest stories in the world—the myth of the ancient wanderer who crosses oceans, climbs mountains, and travels thousands of miles only to discover that the true journey lies elsewhere—and given it a new spin. The journey begins in the spring of 1992, when she is a high school senior in Corpus Christi having nightmares about being washed-up at 25 and “getting plastered in the Taco Bell parking lot for fun.”
I had to get the hell out of Corpus Christi. Wanderlust pumped through my veins: My great-great-uncle Jake was a hobo who saw the countryside with his legs dangling over the edge of a freight train; my dad drummed his way around the world with a U.S. Navy band. I too wanted to be a rambler, a wanderer, a nomad …
Enthralled by a CNN correspondent at a journalism conference, she takes his advice and studies Russian at the University of Texas at Austin, arriving in Moscow in 1996. “I was just looking for some excitement,” she writes. “I didn’t really care what happened, as long as it was interesting.”
That it was. Griest (Elizondo is her mother’s maiden name, which the author adopted as her own middle name) immerses herself in the daily life of ordinary Russians and quickly adapts to the rule-of-thumb for proper partying: Buy one more bottle of vodka than the total number of guests. To further escape the ex-pat scene, she volunteers at a children’s shelter, and some of the best writing in Around the Bloc is the quick sketches she delivers of her young charges, including Kostia, a five-year-old huligan-in-the-making, and Maxim, a diminutive nine-year-old with traces of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Heartsick over a Colombian boyfriend who wanders in and out of her life at odd intervals, she soon finds a Russian boyfriend. Not just any Russian boyfriend, but a former soldier who years before had slit his wrists to avoid doing radiation clean-up duty after the disaster at Chernobyl. Alternating between tender and oafish, attentive and aloof, Andrei has one thing going for him that distinguishes him from many of his contemporaries: He refuses to work for the mob. He does, however, have a friend named Kiril, who is in a panic after failing to pull off a $10,000 contract killing. Meanwhile, Griest’s friend Nadezdha, whom she first met at UT, reveals that her brother has been missing for several years, presumably a victim of what Russians refer to as bizness, black bizness. Then one night Nadeszhda also disappears and Griest learns that she has gone to do bizness in Turkey and Spain. “No one in this country has ever gotten rich ethically,” says Andrei.
“My greatest obstacle in understanding Russia,” Griest is moved to write, “was neither cultural nor linguistic. It was my own naivete.” Nevertheless, she manages to leave Moscow with her naivete relatively intact. Sensing that she had somehow missed out by arriving in Russia too late—after the collapse of Communism and after the initial optimism about life in post-Soviet Russia had faded, she decides to go to China. “I wanted to go where the Revolution prospered and Former Times [as Russians refer to the Soviet era] was the present,” she explains.
Obtaining a coveted journalism fellowship, she arrives in Beijing to spend a year polishing the prose of an English-language magazine published by the Chinese Communist Party. It would be, she reasoned, an opportunity to experience censorship and a state propaganda machine firsthand. It would also be an opportunity to feed a few fantasies “about slipping subversive messages through the iron bars of prison cells and witnessing dissidence in action.”
Alas, it would not be an auspicious beginning. On her first day of work, Griest tries to impress her colleagues by ordering something tasty, yet suitable for her vegetarian regimen, in Mandarin. She announces that she would like to chi doufu, to eat tofu, prompting a fit of giggles from everyone at the table. Later one of her colleagues takes her aside and explains that saying you like to chi doufu means that you enjoy giving oral sex. Eventually she recovers from her linguistic lapse; vegetarianism goes by the wayside.
Between 1996 and 2000, Griest traveled to more than 20 countries, from the Eastern “bloc” and former Soviet Union to China, Mongolia, Vietnam, Turkey, Colombia—where she looked up the old boyfriend—and Cuba, where she witnessed the end of the millennium and the height of Elián madness. Along the way she spent time in Austin, working for the Associated Press, covering the Legislature and Governor George W. Bush, which must indeed have seemed like a rather strange interlude. And then one day it all happened just as she had feared years before: She was 25, with no job, living with her parents in Corpus. But she was also beginning the first of what would become many, many drafts of a book that eventually became less of a travelogue and more of a travel/memoir as it slowly and painfully evolved into Around the Bloc.
As someone who thinks that nirvana is a 10-hour Brazilian bus ride, I can’t help but love this book. Griest is a chatty, intrepid traveler who has woven her own coming-of-age story against the backdrop of three world capitals and the drama of three complex societies. She has also written a classic, profoundly American story of loss of innocence—Never before had I been held accountable for what I represented. Nevertheless, the book’s subtitle—”My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana—” is a bit of a misnomer. Her trip to Cuba via Mexico takes about two weeks, time enough for a few adventures, but mighty thin to qualify as “My Life in Havana.”
And yet those chapters on Havana seem to fulfill another purpose. After years of struggling with other languages and other cultures, Griest returns from her Cuba trip determined to learn Spanish and to unravel the complicated family history that she has only had time to outline in this book. “And now,” she concludes:
I want to speak the tongue of my ancestors—not just to make idle conversation, but to tell my tías a funny story, to soothe a frightened child, to philosophize, to sing, to pray. “I want my grandchildren to be transfixed by my fingertips, singed and callused from heating up tortillas. I want to be able to call myself a Chicana in any crowd—and believe it.
So, basically I traveled tens of thousands of miles to appreciate what had been in my block all along. But it probably would not have seemed this rich if I hadn’t taken the long road.
*Everything will be cool. What one of Griest’s Russian friends tells her on her second-to-the-last night in Moscow: “Soon you are going to be home in Corpus, near the ocean. Vcyo budet klassno.”