One of the true joys I get out of travel is being able to connect the places I visit to one another. For many the Southern United States and Eastern Europe might as well be on different planets. And that’s ok—they are, after all, on opposite sides of this all-too-large world we live in. As if that were not enough, I also acknowledge that Knoxville, Tennessee specifically may not sound as exotic as Tallinn, Estonia or Sofia, Bulgaria or anywhere in between, for that matter. But I hope to bridge that gap if only for a few minutes.
On Sunday morning I went for a walk in downtown Knoxville for a few hours. I wandered through the perfect tourist spot that is Market Square—complete with a Cormac McCarthy quote embedded in the granite—and purchased some suitably “southern” University of Tennessee gear (a substitute for a soccer jersey) at the Mast General Store, before heading towards the campus.
While aimlessly wandering down Cumberland Ave (I didn’t care that those driving by may have thought I was on a walk of shame) I found myself in World’s Fair Park. Despite the cold temperature I felt strangely at home in the park, and when I came upon the statue of Sergei Rachmaninoff (who played his last concert seventy-one years ago at the University of Tennessee, by the way) I realized why. It felt like I was squarely in Eastern Europe. Forget the beautiful campus that screams “America” just meters away, forget the discarded red solo cups and cans of Natural Ice that dotted the sidewalks; just focus on the statue—built by Victor Bokarov of Russia—and the puddles that have formed at its base, the rail road tracks and the Sunsphere rising into the grey sky in the background. In this moment, standing in the mist, I could be nowhere but an Eastern European capital. And that is not—necessarily—a bad thing.
Underneath that cloudy sky I reflected on the places I have been and the places I will go, ultimately realizing that one does not need go to exotic locales to feel the thrill of travel within oneself. In fact, Tennessee and Eastern Europe are not really that far apart. Think, for a moment, of what the American South is—or was. Essentially, it was a resource rich periphery for the industrial north. It was mainly about control of the South’s agricultural land—not about slavery, despite what some historians may tell you—that the American Civil War was fought. And what was Eastern Europe? In addition to being a buffer to Western European expansion, it was also an agricultural breadbasket for the Soviet Union. So how far apart are Knoxville and Kiev, really?
The name University of Tennessee’s sports team—the Volunteers—can serve as an example. It comes from the fact that Tennessee provided an unprecedented number of volunteer soldiers to both the war of 1812 and the Mexican-American war (http://www.utk.edu/aboutut/traditions/). The university itself was also not immune to war, it once served as a hospital for Confederate troops during the US civil war (https://www.utk.edu/aboutut/history/). All just a few small things I learned in one drizzly early spring morning in Knoxville.