23 July 2008

Course Packed: Ingrid Bengis, Metro Stop Dostoevsky (Sophomore Year)

Part of a short series on the books I loved in college.

The summer after my senior year in high school I was lucky enough to go to Russia on a student exchange where I lived with a host family, studied the language and visited probably every historical site in St. Petersburg and many in Moscow. I entered Russia with no expectation of what I might find, and was often conflicted about what I saw -- a place that by all accounts had come so far in terms of its development but was completely alien to any place I'd lived or visited before.

As I continued to study Russian in school I found that the book METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY best represented the divide I felt between Russians and visitors, particularly Western visitors. Author Ingrid Bengis is Russian but was born in America and writes about her visits there (mostly to St. Petersburg) in the '90s, including the staggering changes she saw around her. But most of those are "read" through her Russian friend "B," who is experiencing the changes in Russian society at the time firsthand. But "B" and Ingrid have their differences too, and the way their relationship goes sour mirrors, I think, where dialogue between Americans and Russians can kind of break down over very simple discussions.

Bengis found that in a country she was expecting to find very home-like, every little thing, from getting a job to finding an apartment, became a huge struggle despite her fluency in Russian and comfort with the culture. I don't want to draw the parallel too closely but I think that heading off to college can be sometimes like living in a foreign country, where you have to re-learn (or, let's face it, learn) everything you need in order to succeed. By sophomore year I was feeling a little better about those basic life processes but sometimes I still feel like I'm playing at an adult, as Bengis in a sense played at being Russian. (I even have that feeling now sometimes, even at 24!) It's that disconnect between where you are at the moment and where you would like to be that can drive you forward or drive you crazy.

Read a short excerpt from METRO STOP DOSTOEVSKY here.

Earlier: Max Frankel, THE TIMES OF MY LIFE AND MY LIFE WITH THE TIMES (Freshman Year)

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