I enjoyed this author's Couchsurfing in Iran so much (see review in PT June 2018) that I was looking forward to this attempt to get under the skin of another inscrutable country. And this book did not disappoint. Wearing his journalistic hat, Stephan Orth wants to understand and explain aspects of Russian society, to delve behind the confusing picture of Russia presented in the western media. Resisting the usual journalistic practice, he doesn't want to focus on politicians, activists, and intellectuals.
Again Orth uses couchsurfing as a way of spending time with "normal people" (though many he meets hardly seem to qualify) all over the former Soviet Union, from the republic of Kalmykia in the Caucasus (the only European region where the majority religion is Buddhism) to a utopian cult community in the Siberian Taiga, whose leader claims to be a reincarnated Christ. Couchsurfing has an astonishing reach: apparently there are 100,000 potential hosts in Moscow alone and an unlikely 165 in the Chechen capital of Grozny. Couchsurfing gives instant access to citizens, and is based on what the author describes as "the mutual gift of time and curiosity."
Many of the sights he sees and the lives he dips into sound desolate. For example Elista, capital of Kalmykia whose ethnic population was exiled for years, has been rebuilt with money but no soul, a "place of no past and no aura." But all the ugliness and travel privations he endures on his ten-week trip are redeemed by the 24 hosts and other people he meets, many with their spirit intact. He visits the Academy of Free Travelers in Astrakhan on the River Volga. A radical travel guru, Anton Krotov, whom the author has met in the past, initiated a scheme whereby travelers can crash free of charge at a low-rent property, as a kind of socialist experiment. Krotov, and probably Orth too, disdains travelers who "just hang around the whole time in cafés and think they're traveling." Certainly this author spends no time hanging around in cafés.
While he is a serious and informed analyst, he also has a keen eye for humor. When he visits a disused diamond mine at Mirny ("asshole of the world") he learns about one diamond that weighed 342.5 carats. "A sensational find deserves a sensational name, so they called the diamond 'The 26th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union'." His short chapter entitled "Flirting for Pros" describes in hilarious detail how he plays it cool in order to attract the attention of a beautiful woman in Simferopol Airport—and utterly fails.
The narrative is punctuated with quirky photos and text boxes. For example one headed "Bouquets" describes the 24-hour florists of Moscow, whose long opening hours are said to be for errant men returning home drunk in the wee small hours and who want to arrive bearing a floral apology. The book is full of such gems that reveal a great deal about a culture.
To Venice with Love: A Midlife Adventure
By Philip Gwynne Jones
Probably no other city in the world has been written about as extensively as Venice. But not many have been written by a middle-aged British couple dissatisfied with their IT jobs, who decide to emigrate to La Serenissima. In fact many of the author's experiences are less than serene, especially during the three-month bureaucratic run-around as they battle to regularize their residency, tax and health care status (as citizens of the European Union). Recounting all the practical steps makes it seem as though anyone with enough determination could achieve the same end.
In order to be able to support themselves, he and his wife reinvent themselves as teachers of English. At first he is horrified to be assigned a class of small children (he and his wife are childless) but by the end his rapport with some of the kids is genuinely touching.
The pleasure of this warts-and-all account of exchanging one life for another arises from the gentle humorous style. The author has a charming self-effacing tone. On learning that Wagner used to send his gondolier out to buy champagne, he reflects that he hopes to be able to afford to do the same some day. "At the moment, I'd be sending him to the supermarket for a 69 cent Tetra Pak of white wine, but one step at a time."
He acknowledges from the beginning that there will be moments when the shine comes off what he dubs "The Venice Project". Setting yourself adrift in your mid-40s is no small decision, and he doesn't minimize the heartbreak involved in decluttering their home in Edinburgh and saying a permanent goodbye to friends and family (especially in view of the subsequent death of his sister). He vividly evokes what a leap of faith the move to Venice is, as well as the sheer hard work involved in settling in another country. However, the food, the concerts, the choirs he joins, the culture (including the artichoke festival that causes him to wonder whether the rock and roll years might be passing him by) constitute rewards aplenty. We are left thinking that they are going to live happily ever after in their adopted home.
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World and Teaching English Abroad, she has also turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes hotel reviews to the Daily Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.