Tuesday, July 5, 2011

August 7th, 2010


She is getting ready in the bathroom, a bathroom with bleached white towels and those shower curtains that bow out from the shower so they seem larger than they really are, while I’m posing in front of the floor-length mirror in the room of the TraveLodge I had booked for an end-of-the-summer getaway. The small box that I’d been carrying in my bag since Thursday wasn’t so small in my pocket and was just too... obvious.

“So are we set about having a Mexican picnic on the beach?” I asked.

“Sounds good to me.”

She has a way of doing her hair and makeup anytime she leaves the house that makes me certain I have at least five more minutes to figure out just how to get this little wooden box to Ocean Park without her noticing it. For now the in-the-pocket option isn’t panning out, so I pick up my messenger bag I bought for my study abroad trip to Spain in 2005.

“Should I pack your sweatshirt for the evening? I bet the evening will be chilly.”

“Yeah. Thanks, baby boo.” I don’t know where Baby Boo came from, but I like it. I put a long sleeve t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a pamphlet about things to see in San Diego into the bag. She walks out of the bathroom just as I’m pulling my hand out of the side pocket where I decided to keep the box. I’m certain she won’t be surprised. I’m positive she knows exactly what I’m planning.

Last night, just before going to sleep, just to be sure, I asked, “You’re going to marry me one day, right?” She looked back at me and with conviction said, “I will.”

The taco place is small. It reminds me more of an outdoor only Dairy Queen, painted orange and yellow and housing three blue picnic tables under a tin awning. It does have three indoor tables, though I don’t imagine many people use them. The weather in San Diego is unwaveringly nice. This Saturday late afternoon is no different, the 78 degrees being a welcome break from the oppressive 100+ heat of the Phoenix Valley. We order our two burritos, one seafood, the other steak, and as we wait for the two-man staff to assemble our dinner fare, I notice the anxiety mounting bit by bit. I have the ring, but I’m not sure I have the words. I couldn’t just blurt it out. Would I be kneeling? I reassure myself that the act of asking is more important than any of the particulars. With the burritos in hand, and us heading back to the car, I still don’t have it all planned. It would come.

We had plotted out the course to the beach before leaving the hotel, and so we make quick work of finding Ocean Park. We park in a large lot next to a small amusement park with a ferris wheel and a decent sized roller coaster. I am not paying too much attention to the commotion and the lights, though, and instead am making small talk, trying to seem normal.

“Man, those burritos smell good.” I can’t stop thinking about the red and white wooden box buried in my bag.

We get out of the car, basking again in the cool air. She pulls out the sweatshirts and we are so pleased to be standing on a beach in August wearing the warmest clothing we brought. The burritos are fantastic, hefty and messy and entirely too much food. The seagulls approach hesitantly at first, and then more boldly as we toss them pieces of tortilla, rice and mixed meats. With our stomachs full and the seagulls satisfied, we decide to take a walk in the sand.

She is so beautiful, walking out toward the water, smiling back at me, giggling when I tell her she should get closer to the breaking waves. Somehow she becomes even more beautiful as the waves catch her being too ambitious, splashing both her legs and soaking her pants. Her face lights up with shock and delight and we both laugh.

“Come on, let’s sit for a while,” I suggest.

We spread out the old green striped Mexican blanket I bought in high school and draw in close to each other. The winds are up and the cool weather we had reveled in has turned closer to chilly. The sun is sinking low toward the horizon and the sky has passed from shades of blue to a primarily pink palette of colors. The waves crash in a steady but irregular rhythm, one right after the other.

“Do you remember when we first met?” I ask.

“Of course,” she replies. “I met you at the train station the first time you came to Petropavlovsk.”

I remind her how crazy that first arrival had been for me and admit that I don’t remember meeting her then. She feigns hurt feelings and vows to never talk to me again. I love proving her wrong.

“What about that first Thanksgiving?” I ask, hoping to get the conversation on to moments we could both recall clearly. We reminisce about how I played the guitar with all my “loud American friends” and how I taught her how to use an iPod. I remind her that I was her human sled as well, and I reason that our violent embrace -- as she tackled me and we careened down the snow covered hill -- was our first hug.

“And how long did it take you to decide to kiss me?” she asks with an eyebrow raised. We recount that evening from our different perspectives, and I explain that I had wanted to kiss her all afternoon but had waited till everyone was in bed.
“I was hoping you would kiss me too, but I went to bed thinking you had missed your chance,” she says.

“But I kept lying there in bed thinking that I would regret it if I didn’t kiss you goodnight.” I had crept across the big room filled with sleeping Peace Corps Volunteers and given her a goodnight kiss. It was exciting and sweet and put a perfect end to a perfect day.

We make our way from that momentous kiss to our first months of dating. We talk about how we stayed out late with friends and how I would always walk her home, taking the long way around the block in order to spend a few more minutes together. She reminds me about how we almost called it off before she went to the US for her second year at Arizona State. We both knew long distance would be hard, but she had said she wanted to try. How would we know if it would work or not if we didn’t give it a go?

Sitting on the beach now, we marvel at the fact that we used to be able to go a week without talking to each other, catching up for only an hour every weekend on Skype. Now we can hardly get through a day apart. I know it is time. The conversation is inching toward the point I need. I want to tell her how I never want to go a day without her again, that I want to be with her the rest of my life.

“You know,” I start, “back then I knew that I loved you.” Does she know what was coming next?

“But after this last year of being with you, I’ve learned just how much I love you.” I lean back and reach into the bag to pull out that red and white box.

“I know that this next year is going to be full of changes.” I hug the box to my hip out of view from her.

“But I know that whatever we do and wherever we go I want to be there with you.” I pull out the box.

“So I was wanting to ask you a question.” The box is open and her eyes have widened considerably.

“Will you marry me?”

The pause that follows is infinitely long. Her eyes are on the ring and mine are on her. She shows surprise (maybe she wasn’t expecting it?) followed by a pleading look and asks, “Are you sure?”

“Yes.” I reassure her and lift the ring up toward her.

“It’s so beautiful.” She is talking about the ring, but I still have no answer. The waves crash again and the pauses between them seem like hours.

“So, will you?”

She says yes.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

life changes

It has been an eventful holiday season for me after moving back to the States from Kazakhstan in late November. Re-adjusting to life back here hasn’t been too hard or too overwhelming, partly because my life in Petropavlovsk wasn’t too extremely different than my life here, but also because I have been thoroughly enjoying the things here that I had missed while living abroad. In an abbreviated, annotated fashion, I give to you the last month and a half of my life:

  • Celebrated Thanksgiving with my extended family in Murray – Montgomery family reunions are always entertaining.
  • Ushered at my younger brother's wedding (welcoming Sarah Katherine into the Montgomery family) – Highlights: Stephen’s “I will always antagonize you” vows followed by a pinkie promise and a dip-kiss.
  • Took my girlfriend to Paris... Tennessee – When she flew in to Nashville, she struck up a conversation with a man from Paris. Gulmira exclaimed, “Wow, you don’t even have a French accent!”
  • Gained 10 pounds - Did you know they have coffee-flavored Frosties!?!
  • Sifted through all my stuff I left at home when I left for the Peace Corps in 2007 – Why in the world did I hang on to all those old clothes?
  • Drove to Atlanta to visit my grandparents and Atlanta friends
  • Flew to Phoenix for a job interview at a private school – Carney Sandoe, a teaching placement organization, referred me to this position starting in January. The school paid for my flights, a rental car, and a night in a hotel.
  • Got a job at that school – After a teaching observation and a couple interviews, they offered me a position teaching Spanish to 7th, 8th and 10th graders for 60% time and salary.
  • Rented a room in a house with two housemates, Chris and Francesca. Chris’s aunt owns the house, and he is a Math and French teacher at a public school in South Phoenix. Francesca is a full-time nursing student and waitress from Sardinia, Italy.
  • Went back to Murray to get ready to move to Phoenix, packed what I could fit into a duffel bag. Luckily, that included 5 hangers, a Frisbee and a Ping Pong paddle.
  • Drove to Atlanta to visit the grandparents
  • Totaled my dad's van on I-85 in Atlanta – a Ford Explorer ahead of us blew out their back left tire and swerved into our lane and stopped. We stopped too, but not before ramming into the back of them. None of the eight people involved were hurt, which is a miracle considering what could have happened.
  • Drove to Charlotte to visit Michael and Sarah – Eight people and three dogs for three days… Awesome.
  • Drove to Cleveland to celebrate New Year's with my college friends – My friend from college and his wife who live in Raleigh were going up in their new Honda Fit, and took Gulmira and me with them. We danced and ate and rang in the new year with class and style. Lots of class and style.
  • Flew to Phoenix to start work on the 4th – Loaded my duffle bag and guitar on the plane and left the snow and the cold of Ohio. Got off the plane in 70 degree weather.
  • Bought a mattress set and bedroom furniture – Does that mean I’m grown up?
  • Bought a 2009 Toyota Corolla – Well, as I understand it, I’m borrowing it from the bank for six years at $300 a month…
  • Taught Spanish I and II for two weeks at Tesseract School. Check it out.
  • Drove to Flagstaff to welcome Mike, my Peace Corps site mate, back home – Just 2 hours north and 5,800 feet higher, three feet of snow lay unmelted from a storm over a week ago.
Right now I’m getting ready to fly to Atlanta for a memorial service to celebrate the life of my grandmother Margaret Montgomery, who passed away on Monday at the age of 88. She will be missed dearly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Operation Baltica

Phase II: Baltic States

Day 10: Latvia

If I had known that November 18th was Latvian Independence Day (from the first Soviet occupation following WWI) I would have rearranged my travel in order to spend that day in Riga. Riga is a nice old city on the Daugava River near the Baltic Sea, and again I had no more than a day and a half to see as much as I could. My cell phone has officially stopped working with the exception of telling me the time, so when Gunars sent me a text message saying that he would be an hour late and would be waiting outside the bus station in his car, I didn't receive it. After a cup of bus station coffee, a bus station pastry and several unsuccessful attempts to use a bus station pay phone, I finally got Gunars on the phone. He eventually picked me up with his girlfriend, Gunta and took me to his place. His apartment, located a few miles across the river in a gated complex, was spacious and clean and I was again lucky to have a nice futon with clean sheets, internet access and a friendly host.

We stayed in his apartment for a few hours before going out to see Staro Riga, a weeklong light festival. Serving as both a kickoff for the winter season and a celebration of Latvian independence, the festival consists of a series of light displays and art exhibits which create a walking tour of the old part of Riga. Gunars pointed out the churches, old museums and buildings along the cobble-stone streets as we followed a map from one exhibit to another. Once we had seen enough, we went to McDonald's to get some dinner. I had a McFeast, a new sandwich served on rye bread in the Baltic States. Dark bread is very popular here, so it makes sense that Micky-Deez would incorporate it into a burger. That night we hung out for a while at the apartment before going to bed.

Gunars is a website designer and entrepreneur. He specializes in making difficult web-based applications, but he and his partner Vilnus are starting an expansion of a rental search engine they created. While I was there they asked me for advice about what domain name they should use. Rentpoint.com, rentalcentral.com and rentmama.com were among the top choices. He smiles easily and tells the occasional joke. He and his friends speak English, but only he seemed eager to speak with me. Most of my time there was spent listening to them speak in Latvian. My language acquisition goal set in Estonia isn't going too well. Forty hours in a country just isn't long enough. Nevertheless, paldies = thank you, zils = blue.

Day 11: Latvia

We slept in, something that doesn't happen too often anymore. Gunars had cooked a breakfast of eggs, dark bread and cheese, and we chatted about his website over breakfast. He gave me directions to the train station which would take me downtown, but upon setting out to the station I decided to walk the whole way. It took about an hour to get to the center, a nice walk that took me over two bridges and through a few residential neighborhoods. I arrived at the old city where the streets began to narrow and the road turned to bricks and I decided to stop at a candy store. I bought some halva (sweet sunflower seeds mashed into a dry paste) and a local chocolate bar I had seen advertised the night before. I stashed my sweets and made my way to the bazaar. As Gunars had described, there are parts of Riga that are predominantly Russian and those that are Latvian. This bazaar was more Russian, and I was relieved to be able to understand and be understood again. I bought some Latvian postcards and found a café where I could eat my halva and read my book.

I've been reading “A Woman in Amber,” given to me by the Admin Officer at Peace Corps before I left Almaty. It is about a woman who grew up in Latvia and survived the mess of WWII. The history of the area is tragic and convoluted, as Latvia was occupied at times by both German and Russian armies. The Germans brutally executed Jews and other nationalities, while the Russians raped and pillaged their way across the country. Both countries called themselves liberators to the Latvians who had been happily independent. The memoir story has taught me a lot about the war, and draws a lot of attention to the attitude most Latvians today hold toward the Soviet Union. I've reached the point in the book where the narrator has arrived at a British-operated Displaced Persons Camp and is preparing to emigrate to America. It is fitting that I am going through a similar trip after a long time away. Not that I suffered through a war. I did go to the museum in Riga devoted to the Occupation of Latvia by the Russians, and it brought to life the stories told in “A Woman in Amber.” It also gave me another reason to not support the annual Victory Day parades held in the streets of Russia and Kazakhstan. As the military personnel march around the city squares, I can't help feeling that they are proud of all the atrocities committed in the war. Oh well...

I only stayed in the old center for a couple of hours before walking back to Gunars' place, but before I left I decided to take a stroll through the part I had seen last night during the light festival. I walked along the old narrow streets, just walking and looking around, when I started to pass a restaurant with Norah Jones wafting out the front door. Now, I had already planned my food for the day, and was happy to make dinner with Gunars and his friends at his apartment, but the drizzle of rain and Miss Jones' soothing voice changed my plans. I was coaxed into the cozy cellar restaurant which smelled of Italian food and aromatic candles. I couldn't resist. I sat for an hour with my book, a beer and a steaming bowl of rich and flavorful vegetarian pasta. It was, without a doubt, a great way to wrap up an afternoon in the old city.

Back at Gunars', we bought supplies for a Latvian Independence Day celebration including pelmeni and local beers. They suggested I buy a local specialty liqueur called Riga Balsam, and I gladly complied. We ate, watched Latvian soap operas, I played the guitar, we played Uno and then watched YouTube videos for a few hours. They showed me clips from the Sun Festival, a choir-singing festival all across the Baltic States that happens every four years. 2013, anyone?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Operation Baltica

Phase II: The Baltic States

Day 9: Tallinn, Estonia

My host is incredible. I was a little nervous when no one was at the station to meet me, but I'm a patient guy, and decided I could wait as long as I needed. I stood around just waiting for about thirty minutes before I realized I needed to be proactive in case no one came to meet me at all. My phone wouldn't let me send messages, so all I could do was wait. I bought my train ticket to Riga and changed my roubles to kroons.

I studied a map of Estonia on the wall for a while, trying to get my bearings, until this group of four bald guys with bad teeth and dirty blackish fingernails came up to me. They grunt something I don't understand in my direction and I ignored them. They didn't look in the least bit friendly or hospitable, so I didn't want to encourage an interaction. One stepped a bit closer and grunted again, this time I could tell they were words, and although I had no clue what they meant, they seemed less unfriendly than the first attempt. So I leaned toward him and ask politely, "English?" "WERYUFROM?" he grunts. I respond with a nod, "America." He puffs up his chest and grins, showing off his handful of nasty teeth. He pounds his fist on the wall map, squarely on an island of the western coast of Estonia - "Saaremaa!" I nodded again, not knowing if he was challenging me to whip out my own wall-sized map and puff and grunt, or just welcoming me with a geography lesson. I didn't particularly want to stick around to find out.

I found an internet cafe, figuring I could email my host or find another one or a hostel if needed. I ate a meat pie and drank a beer while waiting for the CouchSurfing website to load. Before I could send anyone a message, Erkki comes in, all hugs and apologies. He apologized for the mix-up with the arrival time (he had thought it was an hour later), and for the cold weather and the cafe's "pathetic" lack of free wireless internet. "Disrespectful, really."

Once in the car, my Estonian education officially begins. I find out that: Estonians are most closely related to Finns, with a long (10,000+ years) history of living in the same place. They share cousin languages, though Estonians apparently talk faster and live generally more active lifestyles. The Finns are known for being sluggish, depressed and drunk. Some parts of Estonia, Erkki says, are filled with absolutely crazy people who have carried on Viking traditions of aggressive machismo, complete with fighting and drinking heavily. Estonia has for a long time been known for having the cruelest Vikings in the area, most of them from a small island called "Saaremaa." "I actually met a guy in the bus station from Saaremaa," I interrupt Erkki to share. "Oh, yeah?" He seems genuinely surprised. "Was he crazy?" I told him about the encounter with the guys and the map and he confirmed that they are exactly the type of guys Estonia is/was famous for. I can only speculate what would have happened if I had stayed to chat with them. In my brief encounter I guess that there are two possible outcomes, a brawl or a wedding proposition. I can imagine that if I had grunted back and bear-hugged the man and invited him to go drink a beer or something stronger, he would have found a possible wife for me. On the other hand, if I had grunted back and puffed up my chest to show him Americans are real men and can whoop anyone anywhere, he and his pals would have gladly agreed me to prove me wrong.

Normal Estonians, not the ones on Saaremaa, Erkki continues, are traditionally pagan nature-loving people, though we passed a 600-year-old Catholic monastery on the way to his house. The most common religious affiliation these days is Lutheran, though Estonia is the least religious country of the EU, the fact of which Erkki owes to their traditional pagan beliefs. The flag is a simple three horizontal stripes: blue on top, black in the middle, and white on the bottom, which Erkki explains represents sky, earth and purity of heart.

We stopped by the store for some birch branches and beer for the sauna which would serve as our evening entertainment. Erkki lives with his 70-year-old retired parents in a beautifully square two story house with big windows looking out at the fir trees surrounding it. He designed the house himself, as he is a 41-year-old successful free-lance architect/designer. He speaks English in an educated, sophisticated manner, though his parents are more comfortable in Russian, so we speak that the most. They speak Estonian to each other. Everyone over twenty grew up speaking Russian in school and tends to know it better than English, whereas younger people (like the guy who sold me my meat pie) prefer English to Russian.

We had a great evening of chatting, sweating and hitting each other with birch branches in the sauna while sampling the different local specialty beers.

Operation Baltica

Beginning of Phase II: The Baltic States

Day 8: A Pause in Narva

The tiredness hasn’t gone away. I slept six hours and got up early to catch a bus to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. We rode for two hours to the border, sat for a half hour or so at each border customs gate and now we’re at a stop in the Estonian town of Narva.

I think my writing so far has been sporadtic, brief and mainly about what we did and when we did it. I do want to remember the concrete events and details that I know will be forgotten if I don’t chronicle them. But now that I have caught up in the journal and can momentarily write in the present tense until I get to Tallinn in 3 hours, I can fill some important gaps about how I’m feeling. Other than the happiness and exhaustion that comes with speed-sightseeing with a good friend, I haven’t written much about that. The week with Bryan couldn’t have been better. We whipped the trip together out of no more than three conversations and two months’ notice. It was liberating not to tell Peace Corps when and where I would be each night.

Also, this week was like a practice of how it will be catching up with people I haven’t seen in a long time. It had been a while since I had spent any time with someone who knew me pre-Peace Corps, and I could already notice my tendency to talk on and on about KZ. In Russia with Bryan, most of the things I had to say were culturally relevant as things in Russia basically work the same as KZ, but I know that won’t be the case at home. I’ll want to take over the spotlight with my stories and experiences because, let’s face it, I like it (I’m the one posting my thoughts on the Internet, right?). Also, I don’t know what else to talk about. With my future very unclear, my recent past is all I have to talk about. 90% of my conversations with Story started with “In Kazakhstan…”

Moscow and Saint Pete also helped me ease into the luxuries I’m sure would overwhelm me at home. Things like ice and salad dressing, debit cards and customer service…it’s been a while. I’ve been getting a little bit a day, which is probably much healthier than all at once. Maybe I won’t be too overwhelmed as I gradually head to Poland. A week from today I will be home. And they still haven’t taken my horse meat.

Day 8: Estonia

I physically breathed a huge sigh of relief when I made it out of Kazakhstan and Russia with no visa issues or long conferences over the validity of my passport. I mean, not once in my two years did I pay a bribe or get punched in the face. That’s real success if you ask me.

This next week is a week of celebration, adventure and education. Firstly, I’m ready for a vacation. A vacation from work, Peace Corps and other people… a vacation for me. This will be a gulp of air before going to the welcoming party and relatives waiting for me at home. Secondly, I don’t know ANYTHING about the countries I’m visiting. I just now am able to say which cities belong to which countries in my itinerary. I’m also planning to stay with strangers. CouchSurfing.org has made it possible/easy/even safe to travel and stay in someone’s house for free. It puts the internet to use as a tool connecting people in a positive, mutually beneficial way. Both the host and the traveler get a chance to really meet and connect with a person from a different culture and background, while the traveler gets to know a real local person. I’m also looking forward to learning some of the language in each place, so let’s start with Estonian. Repeat after me: Alkoholipood. The first sign that I saw and understood what it meant, Pood means store (and it’s PO-OD, not pood like I poo-ed my pants). I chuckled regardless. Other phrases I learned were Tere (hello), Tere Hommikust (Good Morning) and Tanan (Thank you). And my host gave me plenty of reasons to say Tanan...

Operation Baltica

End of Phase I: Russia

Day 7: Brooding Authors and Big Macs

We fought through aching heads and muscles the next morning to get out of the hostel on our last day in St. Pete. Story had a 10pm train to Moscow and we still had things on the list. We started with a trip to the bazaar and souvenir stands for some presents and keepsakes. I got a bag to put some of my stuff in for Story to check through to Raleigh. My load became much lighter and he was able to buy more gifts to bring home. He would then mail the bag to me once he gets home.

A second stop at the ILI café sounded like a good idea. Beer, borsht and goluptsi (stuffed cabbage rolls) were just the thing we needed to warm us up and settle our heads and stomachs from our adventures on the Neva the night before. We went then to the hostel to pack our things before hitting the town one last time. Up to the Neva, Winter Palace and Rock-Out Angel, over to the vacant Summer Gardens and the park with the eternal flame for the 1917 revolutionaries, and finally down to the Christ on Spilled Blood Cathedral. With its multi-colored and multi-textured domes and brightly tiled mosaics, this symbol of St. Pete is one of the prettiest buildings we’ve seen in Russia. We decided to skip the $10 admission fee and settle for a lap around the outside. We got some great pictures, including a guy in a 17th century costume talking on a cell phone.

Our last stop on the agenda was Dostoevsky’s house, now a museum in the area of the city called Literary Petersburg. Although the outside of the house itself was being renovated and therefore wrapped in plastic, the interior was interesting enough. The museum included some of his notes, original pressings of his books, and a brief history of St. Pete itself. We found a statue of Dostoevsky brooding outside on a pedestal and Story was pleased to take a picture beside his favorite author.

One last walk to the hostel and we were off to the train station. We had agreed to meet Marina and her friends at a restaurant nearby, but in our crazy schedule of running around town, I had forgotten to write down the address. We assumed it was within a block of the station, and so decided to go there and just ask around. In the next half hour we walked four or five blocks in two different directions before realizing that the restaurant was just too far away for us to get there and back to the train before it took off. Unfortunately we had to stand the girls up without being able to call and explain. Fortunately, we found a McDonald’s where Story and I had Big Macs for dinner. It was so good. I’m gonna get so fat when I go home. I saw Story off at the station, bidding farewell to a great friend that would come to a strange country for a November vacation with an old pal. It really was an epic, unforgettable week.

I headed back to the hostel to try to catch up on journaling and emailing, but I just passed out. I was tired.