Desperate to escape South Texas, Stephanie Elizondo Griest dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent. So she headed to Russia looking for some excitement--commencing what would become a four-year, twelve-nation Communist bloc tour that shattered her preconceived notions of the "Evil Empire."
In Around the Bloc, Griest relates her experiences as a volunteer at a children's shelter in Moscow, a propaganda polisher at the office of the Chinese Communist Party's English-language mouthpiece in Beijing, and a belly dancer among the rumba queens of Havana. She falls in love with an ex-soldier who narrowly avoided radiation cleanup duties at Chernobyl, hangs out with Cuban hip-hop artists, and comes to difficult realizations about the meaning of democracy.
is the absorbing story of a young journalist driven by a desire to witness the effects of Communism. Along the way, she learns the Russian mathematical equation for buying dinner-party vodka (one bottle per guest, plus an extra), stumbles upon Beijing's underground gay scene, marches with 100,000 mothers demanding Eli�n Gonz�lez's return to Cuba, and gains a new appreciation for the Mexican culture she left behind.
When Griest was a high school senior in Texas, a CNN correspondent told her that if she wanted a globe-hopping career like his, she should learn Russian. Four years later, she went to Moscow and spent a semester at a linguistic institute, beginning a four-year period of travel (1996-2000) to 12 nations, including much of the former Soviet bloc and Communist China and Cuba. Readers will quickly intuit just how little of Griest's adventures made it into this account, as a two-month Central Asian trek gets a single sentence and Eastern Europe falls completely by the wayside. But there's little opportunity to regret what's missing because of the captivating stories that Griest does choose to tell. From the sight of an old woman stealing canned goods from a shopper who'd passed out in a Moscow grocery to the aggressive banter of Havana black marketers, Griest has a journalist's eye for compelling detail. Her youthful romantic attraction to "the Revolution" is slightly less attractive, at times treating the largely defeated Communist movement as almost exotic, and naive daydreams about matters like the "damn good loving" she might find from angst-ridden Beijing men can occasionally induce winces. But she doesn't flinch from depicting the brutal effects of authoritarianism and economic decline, or how her experiences hastened her political and emotional maturity. Though still raw in places, Griest's writing shows great promise; she may wind up joining Tom Bissell (Chasing the Sea) in the vanguard of a new generation of travel writers.
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 08, 2004
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Excerpt from Around the Bloc by Stephanie Elizondo Griest
1. Moscow Manifesto
FROM EACH ACCORDING TO HIS ABILITIES, TO EACH ACCORDING TO HIS NEEDS.
They say the first rule of traveling is packing only what you can carry for half a mile at a dead run. I had every intention of doing this back home in Texas, but my barest essentials filled two huge suitcases and a potbellied backpack. While I could not actually carry all seventy pounds of my luggage, I could push and shove it for small distances. So that's what I did at Sheremetyevo Airport, from passport control to baggage claim to customs. Beyond the exit gate was a mob of onlookers who exuded my first whiffs of Moscow: a scent of equal parts vodka and sausage, leather and tobacco, sweat and strife. For one brief moment, the crowd's collective attention focused on me, taking in my lumberjack hiking boots, Michelin man down coat, and wire-rimmed glasses. "Inostranka," they murmured my nickname for the next half year. Foreign girl. Then the beefy guys in tracksuits and gold chains turned back to their cell phones, the fashionable girls--impeccably dressed in floor-length furs, knee-high riding boots, and fluffy hats--lit up another round of slender cigarettes, and everyone else resumed their stoic stances. I navigated in, around, and through them and emerged smelling vaguely of sausages.
Seeing no other place to sit in the concourse, I plopped down on the floor beside my fortress of luggage to wait for the other exchange students in my group. Within an instant, an ancient woman was hovering over me. She wore thick woolen tights beneath her layers of housedresses and hand-knit sweaters; her silver hair was covered with a brightly colored kerchief. Russians call these walking, talking historical artifacts babushki, or grandmothers. When I grinned at her, she latched on to my forearm with an iron grip and plucked me up. "The ground is too cold to sit on. You'll freeze your ovaries," she scolded, then shuffled away so I could ponder the damage done to my unborn children.
Five bleary-eyed Texans soon joined me. Gerad, who was returning for his second semester, ventured outside to look for the van scheduled to meet us at noon. The rest of us--who hadn't slept in thirty-two hours--collapsed in a heap. After an hour had passed, I joined Gerad in the parking lot. "Where do you think our driver is?"
"Passed out on the couch at the dorm," he replied, then pulled out a wad of rubles and handed me a 10,000 note. "Why don't you call Nadezhda?"
Nadezhda was the Muscovite I'd befriended two years before, during her exchange program at my university in Texas. When we'd talked earlier that week, she'd promised to meet me at either the airport or the dormitory, depending on her work schedule. She'd know what to do--if I could find her. I wandered back inside the airport and found a smoky room with a row of plastic red phones stacked atop a counter. Transactions appeared to go through a sour-faced woman seated behind a desk, so I got in line behind three burly men with olive skin and five o'clock shadows. When one cordially asked how to call T'bilisi, the operator glowered. "The instructions are written on the wall! Can't you read?"
The Georgians mumbled their apologies and ambled over to the phones. Then the woman set her ice-pick eyes on me. I dropped the 10,000-ruble note on her desk and darted off to the nearest phone before she could yell. True to her word, the instructions were pasted on the plexiglass partition, but I couldn't decipher more than two consecutive words. Hoping for the best, I simply picked up the receiver and dialed Nadezhda's work number. A woman answered after a few rings.