Russian guide Dima, Jeff Rowe, Alissa Rowe
My goal here is to jump back into my travels of Russia. Not just from the perspective of a subculture, but from the perspective of someone who grew up in Gloucester. A special place in many ways with a culture unto itself, albeit a bit cut off from the world around it. I often feel torn between two worlds; the world I come from, and the world in which I’ve become. I am no longer that kid running through the back yards of Forest Street—that kid whose sole ambition was to get out of Gloucester alive. When I was 12 years old, I was given a gift that would later prove to be my commuter pass to the world. It was the best gift I was ever given. It was a cheap, opaque Mexican guitar. I started playing music at a young age. An age where I knew little about myself, besides my claustrophobic sense of restlessness. I was inspired by punk rock music. By its politics, rage, and loud distortion. Somehow, it felt like a mirror to me. Listening to punk rock may have been the first time I had actually seen myself in a light that I could identify with. With punk rock, I wasn’t the awkward kid trying to assimilate. I no longer felt that I had to deal with the malaise associated with the confining opinions of my little seaport city. I was no longer pledging allegiance to a flag, that in my mind, had destroyed my father like a jack-hammer would a pebble. It was a sense of lawless freedom that I sought, and through this raw sounding music, I was finding it—one chord at a time.
Jeff Rowe performing in a theater in Ukraine
I have many stories to tell that are wrapped up cozily in the expanse of time that it took to get where I am today, which isn’t to say that I’ve achieved some perceived sense of fame or anything like that, it’s to say I’m still here—very much alive. I’ve been fortunate enough to scam my way all around Europe and beyond. I was knowingly using my songs as a conduit for adventure and exploration. The funny part; the real joke of it, is that most of my songs are about Gloucester. So it would seem, while my desire for travel had increased to far off lands, my songs stayed exactly where they started. I sometimes feel like I’m on a ledge, ready to jump into the cooling waters of the unknown, but I’m worried about losing the ballast that ties me to the land. That ballast has been there for so long that I’m afraid to lose it. And these are my songs; the ballast of Gloucester…
“My memory is the history of time” -Charles Olson
The following compilation of stories has been spliced together from two separate trips. Alissa and I have spent a combined six weeks touring through Russia in trains, planes, and hellish cabs. I kept a journal for one of those trips, the rest are memories of a time past, one that I hope to commit to word before it fades into Fantasy. These stories are not on a specific timeline, although some will be back to back, as they happened. I was more hoping to document our trials and tribulations in Russia. All the good, the bad, the awkward, and the scary. For us, that was exactly what they were.
Statue of Dostoevsky in Omsk, Russia
The Russian Speedometer Chronicles
It starts like it always does, with the anxiety of packing and potentially leaving something important behind, besides our lives. It’s always the little things that tend to worry me the most in the final hours before leaving for a tour like this. Did I forget my toothbrush? Did I pack enough underwear? Did I forget something that I’m going to really need or miss? Those little things that will eventually amount to big problems. Double check the luggage before leaving, check it again at the airport, though it certainly wouldn’t matter at that point. Alissa is so much better at this game than I am. She is nothing if not meticulous when it comes to being prepared for a long trip. After all, we’ve had a lot of practice. You would think at this point, with all these tours under my belt, that I would be virtually flawless when it comes to this scenario. You’d be wrong. I am forgetful, sloppy, and borderline childlike at the preparation game—hence the warranted anxiety. We’re leaving for several months of who the fuck knows what, and oddly enough, I feel pretty damn comfortable with that. It’s become second nature, really. Every day brings a new city, new people, and hopefully a good experience. Though, over the years, we’ve learned to trade in the term “good experience”, for just “an experience”. Fewer expectations make for a better time. It’s simple math. Set that bar low enough to come out with a smile. Plus, what’s the worst that could happen? Alissa and I have spent a good chunk of a two year span on tour, learning how to navigate this subculture that we’ve decided to immerse ourselves in. It’s been a great experience, but that’s not to say that we don’t wind up with our noses bloody from time to time. I’ve been touring in punk bands off and on since I was 18, or maybe younger. Truth be told—some of it has been a blur. In many ways, I’ve grown up doing this. It’s never been as constant a thing as it is now, but it’s always played a major role in my life—in my desires to reach far beyond my little island. Don’t get me wrong, Gloucester isn’t even close to being the sole reason for my escapist nature. But it would be a lie to say that my upbringing wasn’t somewhere at the center of my nature; creepy and ever-lurking. The damn place from whence I came is at the core of me, like a scar that you sometimes smile at, but most of the time it’s tucked under a shirt sleeve or a pair of pants. Like it or not, it won’t be going anywhere.
Airports have a sterile, doctor’s office-like feel. Maybe more like a doctor’s office combined with a shopping mall. The ceiling are high, and as is the case with most airports, the amalgamation of footsteps leaves a nervous clutter of sound that reverberates off the cold walls. I actually like airports. If you like people watching—you probably do too. Everyone is coming or going, from wherever to who knows where. I’ve grown to recognize the tentative looks that the commuters wear, brought on by the fleeting moments of being in between destinations. And the relieved looks of those who have clearly just arrived at theirs. It’s the same reason that I like places like Vegas and New Orleans. They give you so much to look at when you’re just a part of the scenery. All you need to do is stand in one place and watch the show unfold. Reality television be damned!
Everyone is looking for something. Whether they find it or not matters little. In the long run, I think it just matters that they were motivated enough to look in the first place. We’ve just spent one month touring throughout Europe and now we’re off to Russia. And when I say Russia, I’m not talking about Moscow and St.Petersburg, I’m talking the real Russia. We’ll certainly be going to the big cities, but we want to see the country for what it is. We’re excited, scared, and more than a little road weary from this last month of touring. Though it may seem luxurious to jump from city to city playing songs, there is very little sleep involved. And I’m not afraid to say that we’ve pretty much been drinking our way through each country. It’s the nature of the beast, really. I mean, we get food, beer, and a place to sleep each night. And personally, I’m not in the business of turning down such hospitality.
Last night we stayed in Freiburg, Delaware, in the US. It was a great end to that leg of tour. Our friend, Christoph, plied us with beer and friendship. Maybe too much beer. I woke up with my head still clinging to the night before. Upon waking, Alissa and I go through our routine of packing up our sleeping bags, taking showers, and eating a quick breakfast. But unlike the past month of mornings, there is a timidity to us. We are taking a flight to Moscow in a few hours and all I can think of is how little I actually know about Russian culture. Honestly, outside of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I’m left with Rocky 4 and Red Dawn. You know, typical American knowledge. Our tour manager for the European leg, Christian, has become like a brother to us. He’s our friend, protector, and translator. I have no idea how his Russian counterpart, Dima, is going to be. That answer will come soon enough. It’s hard to say goodbye to Christian. Alissa and I really do love him. I call him the human chainsaw, due to his unrelenting snoring that would keep us up for at least half of the precious few hours that we had allotted to sleep. The noises that would come from this kind and gentle person stood in defiance of all things related to sleep. But that’s easy to overlook; considering the fact that he just guided us through country after country without major incident. So with a heavy heart and a few tears, we said goodbye to our trusted German companion and say hello to the unknown.
Just looking at the departures board, seeing Moscow in large letters and knowing that it was our destination was a wild notion. Alissa wore a look of wonderment. She really is an amazing person. The very fact that she would uproot her life to travel to these places with me is nothing short of astonishing. The look of adventure in her eyes makes me wonder if she has ever seen the same look in mine. At moments like this, I’m not really sure what my eyes would project. It leaves me thinking that if we could just for one minute see through the eyes of our loved ones… would that be too much? Too much to know, that is. Some things are better left to be rolled around the mind and filed away in the corridors of our memory; to be thought of when we need to feel the warmth of a smile upon our own face.
The flight to Moscow was, in a word, jarring. It started with hearing the pilot speaking to us passengers in his native tongue, which sounded so foreign to us. It was clear that we were the only ones who could not understand what the pilot was saying. And in the middle of the flight, when the frenzied turbulence started, he could have been saying anything on the loudspeaker and we wouldn’t have known a word. This only added to my budding panic. In my head, the pilot was relaying the following messages: “Prepare for emergency landing!”, “We’re going down!”, “Pray to whatever god you think will help you!”, or simply, “We’re fucked!”. In reality, he was probably telling us that we’ll be experiencing some routine turbulence that only scares you as a passenger because you have zero knowledge of what is actually going on. I just kept looking at the other passengers, trying to gauge what they were feeling. But they were stoic and unmoved by the turbulence. It was so bad that Alissa and I thought that it may very well be the end for us. We’ve been on hundreds of flights together and experienced turbulence, but nothing like this. I tried to stay calm, though inside, I was losing it. The last thing I wanted was for Alissa to see fear in my eyes. I felt it would push her over the edge, but in reality, she’s just as tough as I am, if not tougher. We clasped our sweaty hands tight, wet with fear, and tried not to show each other that panic had set in. When we landed, the passengers began to clap. Not just one passenger but all of them. I was feeling a overwhelming sense of relief that we were still among the living. Alissa and I looked at each other, bewildered by the clapping. We thought that we had just witnessed our first cultural difference, besides being seemingly unmoved in the face of potential death. They clap when they land! How different, yet simple. Of course you clap, the pilots have just flown you from one country to another in a glorified missile, defying gravity at a ridiculous speed. Well, in that case, maybe everyone everywhere should clap for their pilots. Hell, it just seems the right thing to do.
We later learned, from Dima of course, that the clapping was not a cultural experience at all. It was because our fellow passengers had also feared for their lives, but Russians are preset to show little to no emotion, even in the face of death. Upon debunking this cultural myth, Dima, who was apparently not too culturally stoic to display his emotions to us, broke out in a bellowing laughter that went on and on. Welcome to Russia, I thought. We were foreign, confused, and more than a little bit scared. As an American, you rarely get to feel this way. The world seems to buckle to the grand notion that the American is the center of the world. They speak our language, despite us putting zero effort into leaning theirs. They put up signs in English to help ease our senile sense of discomfort. They even levy cuisine towards our bland palates. But this was clearly not the case where we had found ourselves. Nope, not in Russia. This would be our first experience in a completely foreign place. A place that would not buckle to American romanticism, nor its entitlement. A place that rivals the unbridled impertinence of nationalism. A place where we would have to lean on each other for the comforts of home. We were—at that moment—all we had.
Jeff Rowe lives on Winter Hill, in Somerville. He grew up in Gloucester and has since traveled the world playing music and collecting memories. He is a brewer by trade and is now in the process of writing a memoir.