In his article “Siberia II” in last week’s New Yorker, Ian Frazier packs his readers into his dilapidated van, and takes them for a ride across Siberia. He describes the numerous places he visited on his summer-long trek in August, 2001, including Irkutsk, the Paris of Russia, its famous Lake Baikal, which, as Frazier describes, “reflects like an optical instrument and responds to changes in the weather so sensitively that it seems like a part of the sky rather than of the land,” and Birobidzhan – “a swamp in the middle of nowhere,” which, in the nineteen-twenties and thirties under Stalin, was an attempted Jewish homeland, occupied by many thousands of Jews, including Americans, and which now has a Jewish population of less than four percent.
His description of a detour to one city in particular, Blagoveshchensk , which means “annunciation,” and which is separated from the Chinese city of Heihe only by the Amur river, across which pagodas are visible, struck me as particularly poignant. He writes: “The benign and hopeful sunniness of Blagoveshchensk reminded me somehow of Palo Alto, California. Blagoveshchensk and other Amur River cities could be the Golden East, as California was the Golden West. Or maybe this notion was just my homesick imagination.” Now, I have been living in Palo Alto, CA for almost five years, and must admit that I’ve never perceived its sunniness as “benign and hopeful.” Its predictable weather – a few months of chilly rain in the “winter,” followed, and preceded by, months and months of humid-less bright sunny days – has struck me as lacking diversity, even oppressive.
Instead of appreciating where I am, I’ve found myself missing, irrationally, the places I’ve lived before. I come to appreciate each place I have lived only when I have moved away. When I lived in Frankfurt, Germany, my neighborhood reminded me of Jerusalem’s German colony, and my apartment, with its bathroom light-switch outside the bathroom, and its trisim – Israeli shutters – made me feel immediately, albeit ironically, at home. When I moved from Frankfurt to Boston, the Charles River reminded me of the Main; I would bike around it, experiencing Frankfurt’s body of water for the first time. Palo Alto’s tree-lined streets, which seem constantly to be shedding their crunchy leaves, no matter the season, make me miss the glorious New England autumn. And the Bay Area’s clusters of Eucalyptus trees and their perfumed aura make my heart yearn, desperately, for Jerusalem.
Frazier’s piece struck a chord in me, because it affirmed that, perhaps, for the rest of my life, the places I live will remind me of the homes I’ve once had, and, especially, the homes of my childhood. And yet, these very homes, surrounded by their light and smells, will be the childhood homes, the soul-homes, of my children. One day, they will be travelling somewhere, and, like Frazier, will yearn for the “sun and blue sky and reddish-gold tint” of their first home in Northern California, their “mother-home,” which, to their mother, is a foreign land.