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.
Around the Bloc 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 Elián González’s return to Cuba, and gains a new appreciation for the Mexican culture she left behind. (from Amazon)
I had this book on my TBR wishlist for who knows how long, so long I can’t even remember why I put it on there in the first place. But I’m glad I did, because Around the Bloc is a fun travel memoir with rather unusual countries featured, narrated by a spunky woman who seems really fun herself.
Around the Bloc focuses on three countries that I don’t think get a lot of travel memoir coverage, unless maybe I’ve just not been reading the right books over the past few months. Russia, China and Cuba have at least two things in common: they were or still are communist countries, and Stephanie Elizondo Griest visited all three in her early twenties. The nice thing about her visits is that she stayed a while in each countries and got to know the people living there, so her memoir is chock full of interesting people and places. Russia especially is described in detail– SEG went at a time when things were changing from Old to New, so it’s very interesting to read about the old folks doing things as they’ve always done them, in that stereotypical Silk Stockings Russian way, and the new folks trying to figure out how to be Russian and capitalist without becoming straight-up Americans.
The only thing that really annoyed me was how SEG never went deeper into an analysis of the politics of the countries she visited, nor her own reactions and actions to those politics. For instance, when she went to China she expected to quickly win over the confidence of the locals (within a week or two, she said) who would then happily invite her into their secret underground anti-communist communities and she’d be a part of the resistance, etc. From the tone I could tell she knew it was a stupid expectation from her point of view of NOW, ten years after she went to China, but I wanted something more from her.
I wanted her to do more self-analysis, talk about why she thought she’d be of any use to the “resistance” in the first place, why she thought she’d be included in the resistance, what she thought she could bring to the resistance except maybe emotional support. I wanted to know why she wanted to join the resistance in the first place– what were her feelings towards communism and communist countries’ politics, anyway? I think maybe SEG was trying to keep any talk about what communism is actually like to the people that live(d) with it, so she’d quote her friends and what they thought about certain issues, etc. And that’s fine, that’s actually a really good way to talk about things that you don’t have firsthand knowledge or experience about. But Around the Bloc is also a travel narrative, which means it’s focused on SEG’s personal life, so I think more inclusion of what she thought herself about certain things would have been absolutely fine.
As it is, Around the Bloc is a travel narrative with an emphasis on how a capitalist reacts to communism, with some research into the history of communist countries, and a little bit of personal reflection mostly related to interpersonal relationships. I enjoyed it, even if it didn’t go as far into the political side of things as I wanted, and I think if you’re interested in China, Russia or Cube you’d enjoy it, too. SEG writes with an upbeat, friendly voice, so even if she disappointed me a bit I have to forgive her because the rest of the book is so much fun!
Read: June 14-16, 2010