Wednesday, October 10, 2012

AROUND THE BLOC by Stephanie Elizondo Griest

Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana is an exuberant, energetic, informative, and entertaining account of Stephanie Elizondo Griest’s travels:  she spent a year studying in Russia, another year working as a journalist at a Chinese newspaper, and vacationed for a few days in Cuba.

The author’s first book, Around the Bloc is divided into three sections, by country.  We get to peek into the daily lives of Russian students.  We learn that when they party, young Russians consume an astonishing amount of vodka.

We also get to hear this unprocessed world view from Russians themselves.  Nadezhda—the author’s friend, at the time—said, “All Russian women do is try to look good for men.”  An acquaintance said, “Here, it is very difficult to live.”  Karina, a Russian woman, said, “You American feminists are always fighting for the right to work, but we’re sick of it!”

My favorite moment in Russia is Griest’s confrontation with Misha, a twenty-something man she met at a party.  Misha liked U2, the music band—“They are the only American group I can stand”—but he hated America, based on films and TV he’d seen.  He said, “It’s crap, just like everything else from that country.”

Griest valiantly defended the United States:  “I’m the first to criticize my country’s cultural exports, but, somehow, hearing it from him ticked me off. ‘You don’t know s--- about my country!’ ”  She ends this exchange by writing, “Determined to have the last word, I screamed:  ‘And U2 are Irish, not American, you idiot!’ as he headed out the door.”

But if each traveler is a mini-ambassador for his or her country, then Griest was a good one: she was sensitive when necessary (as in China, when the chief editor criticized her at length, she humbly accepted without comment) and feisty, if unduly challenged (as with Misha).   She drank a cocktail of “snake blood” at a farewell banquet in China.  She declined, however,  a Cuban woman’s offer to buy the jeans Griest was wearing.

In China, cultures were at odds.  At times, very subtly.  For example, when the chief editor, Lao Chen, requested that Griest work at the  newspaper on a weekend she had planned to spend on vacation.  Several times, Griest said she’d made other plans.  Several times Lao Chen said, “So think about it, and let me know”—or words to that effect.  She did not realize this was a request she should not refuse.

My guess is that of the three countries, Cuba was the most thought-provoking for the author.  She said as much after Armando, perceptive and self-assured, said:  “So why don’t you speak Spanish if your mother is Mexican?”  This question raised an issue the author has probably wrestled with all of her life.  She explained that her mother had been taunted over her accent while growing up.  Griest’s mother chose to spare her children this embarrassment by speaking to them in English, with little or no Spanish.

The chapters in which the author discussed her family history were, for me, the most compelling, the most moving.

Moreover, with typical American openness, she exposed a couple of her personal issues:  for example, an ex-boyfriend she still carried a torch for.

Anyone interested in life in Russia or China or Cuba—or travel in general—will enjoy reading Around the Bloc.   The author revealed herself with a frankness that might embarrass the cows her ex-boyfriend used to milk in Colombia—which adds to the book’s value.  When she described a cabdriver in Cuba who was happy to remain in his homeland, she did not judge him.

Around the Bloc  is an engaging, fascinating, must-read with just enough historical information so as not to be boring.

--Yolanda A.  Reid


Copyright © 2008-2012  by Y.A. Reid

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