mort09 May 12th, 2010
So last Sunday was my friend Larissa’s 30th birthday. Like Vita’s birthday in February, we spent the day at the university relaxation center Krokhal. We all got on the bus around 11 and, despite signs saying it was strictly prohibited, immediately opened up bottles of champagne and cognac and began passing them around. Upon arrival, the men set about moving tables and setting up the sound system and grill, the women began arranging food on plates, and the kids ran off to play tag and look at the river. The rest of the day passed in the expected way – the kids played, the adults ate, drank, toasted, and danced. Our house also had a banya, so I “steamed” with Nadya. On the bus home, the men sang drinking songs the whole way, and I could see the driver laughing at them in the rearview mirror. Pictures of this fun day are up on Picasa.
In Russia, if kids want to learn to play an instrument or sing, they go to music school. Music school is like an addition to regular school – you go in the afternoons a certain number of times a week, you learn to play an instrument and sing and I think stuff about music theory and history too. You have exams at the end of the semester and you get grades just like in regular school. I had already been to one concert at the music school, and I went to another one this past Monday. It was the ten-year anniversary of the boys’ choir that my friend Oleg is in. Not only did boys’ choirs of various ages sing, but some of the boys also played instruments, and for a few songs they were joined by an alum of the school who is now an opera singer. Man who can sing opera = sexy no matter what. The other coolest part of the program was the kid who played the balalaika. He won a regional contest in Syktyvkar. I had never seen a balalaika played in real life before, and I was really amazed by all the different fingering techniques that can make 3 strings sound so rich.
The real event of this week, however, was my trip to Moscow. After English club on Friday, I hopped on a train to Syktyvkar. I took an overnight ride that got me into the city at 6 AM, where I took a taxi to the airport to catch my 7:40 flight. It’s much cheaper to fly to Moscow from Syktyvkar than Ukhta, and I didn’t have time for the 30-hour train, which explains my unusual transportation choices. I didn’t sleep very well on the train because of the white nights. It gets dark here now around 8 or 9, but unbeknownst to me it has begun to get light again at about 2 or 3 am. Maybe because of the lack of sleep I was extremely confused by Syktyvkar’s tiny airport, but everything went smoothly on the flight and getting into Moscow. I dropped my stuff at Emily, Thaddeus (both Fulbright researchers), and Ben’s (English teacher from England) apartment and went out for a delicious Georgian lunch with Alisa (Fulbright researcher and my friend from study abroad) and then to Novodevichy cemetery to check out the graves of famous writers. Emily met us there after her tutoring appointment, and we looked around the grounds of the monastery (which are absolutely gorgeous) before going out to dinner. In general, I was more enthralled by the beauty of Moscow than ever before. When I left Ukhta there were almost no leaves on the trees and the weather was cool and rainy. In Moscow, it was hot and sunny, and the entire city was bursting with leaves and flowers. We got dinner at a vegetarian restaurant called Avocado (another wonder of Moscow – in Ukhta there are neither vegetarian restaurants nor avocados) and went to see a surrealist play about men and women based sort of on Joyce’s Ulysses. I probably would have understood it better if I had read Ulysses, but I enjoyed the violent choreography and beautiful singing. After the play we did not stop but went straight to a party at Emily’s friend Courtney’s apartment. The attendees were mostly expat journalists, but also included a Russian-born American who works for Eli Lilly (and speaks better American than Russian), a born-and-raised Muscovite with an American father, and an ethnic Russian from Uzbekistan who teaches Russian to foreigners. We walked back to the apartment at 3 am, and I collapsed into a dead sleep until 8:00 Sunday morning.
Emily, Thad, and I got up early to try to get good spots for the Victory Day Parade, but alas, the security officers were way ahead of us. We couldn’t get any farther than Pushkin Square, so we stood around there waiting for about an hour and a half for the parade to start. When it did, we were again disappointed. It seemed badly organized, with tanks and trucks going first one way, then the other, stopping and starting and speeding up at random. There was no music and no soldiers – I guess those were reserved for the special people on Red Square. The planes were pretty cool though. After the parade we met up with Alisa, Bryan (Moscow ETA), Nicky (Belgorod ETA), Ben, & co. and basically lounged: went for tea and lunch, lay out at Patriarch Ponds, saw an army band playing on the street, ate ice cream, and went out for dinner. After dinner it was getting seriously windy and beginning to thunder and lightning, so Alisa and Bryan left while the rest of us went back to the apartment. Since it looked like rain we decided to stay in and have mead and wine instead of going to see the fireworks. When they started, though, we discovered we could see them from the balcony, so we got to watch after all. Finally, we watched Date Night (quite funny) and went to bed.
On Monday Emily, Nicky, and I slept in and then went to Izmailovsky market for gifts and souvenirs. After the market, we met up with Alisa for a banya outing. The banya near my old apartment that we had been to before was closed, so we trekked out to the famous Sanduny banya, which was really fancy and fun. Who knew sitting in a ridiculously hot, humid room, getting drenched in your own sweat, rinsing it off with freezing cold tubs of water, snacking, and repeating could be so pleasant? The banya kind of takes the energy out of you, but we were determined to make the most of our (mine and Nicky’s) last night in Moscow. We got bliny from Teremok (like a fast food stand) for the last time and said good-bye to Nicky, who had a train to catch, and then Emily, Alisa, Thaddeus, Bryan and I went out for beers at an English pub.
The next morning I had to get up early to catch my plane back to Syktyvkar, and then I had the afternoon to wander around there before catching my overnight train back to Ukhta. I figured this would be a convenient way to see the capital of the Komi republic without making an extra trip or staying there too long. To my surprise, I found Syktyvkar just as hot and sunny as Moscow and got really sweaty and sunburned wandering aimlessly around town. Syktyvkar is bigger and slightly nicer than Ukhta, but all in all there’s not much exciting there. I looked around, went to a couple cafes (one of which is in the tallest building in Komi and had a good view – my friend Valerii recommended it to me), and sat for several hours reading and listening to my iPod in one of the many little parks in town. The train ride back was uneventful, and I got into Ukhta this morning at 6 and began preparing for my 10:00 class. Ukhta has also gotten hot and sunny, which makes it extremely stuffy in my apartment, since they still have the heat on. Elena Filippovna says they might turn it off at the end of May, but that this weather is unusual and likely won’t last. Right now I have both fortochki (the top parts of the windows) open and it’s not helping. But the good news is there is now a little bit of green in Ukhta – tiny leaves are appearing on the trees.
Pictures from my trip (and videos of the parade) are on Facebook, not Picasa. If you don’t have Facebook and would like to see them, let me know and I’ll send you a link.