Archive for March, 2010

20 Degrees (F) and Sunny

March 28th, 2010

Ok, so the weather hasn’t been like that all week. In fact we probably got a foot or two of snow between Monday and Wednesday (which didn’t stop people from standing in a line a block long for two days straight to see the bones of an Orthodox saint), and yesterday was rather overcast. But the sight of snow falling still makes me almost as happy as the sight of a bright blue sky, and after a winter of frosty negatives, the current weather really does feel like spring. True, occasionally the pleasant breeze morphs into an icy wind that whips my face and ears…but I’ll take what I can get.

This week has been pretty usual. I gave a presentation on politics to a few groups, trying my best to explain the fundamental beliefs of Democrats and Republicans, the phenomenon of Tea Partiers, and why this health care bill has provoked so much opposition. It is self-evident in America that people will oppose any significant government spending, any increase of government authority in a new realm, and anything related to abortion. But to explain why these particular topics automatically put people on the defensive is quite complicated. It involves a lot of history that we take for granted. It’s especially difficult, too, because I’m never certain how much of what I’m saying is actually comprehensible to them.

My cooking triumphs this week include a magnificent black bean soup (ok, I actually had to use pinto beans…but still awesome) and a garlic soup with noodles and broccoli. I haven’t had broccoli in soooo long! True, I had to buy the frozen kind, but it was still a great pleasure after a long dearth.

Triumphs of literacy include re-reading Catch-22 (<3) and finishing 12 Chairs. I have 30 pages left in that one at the moment and am planning on finding out the ending this afternoon! Oh, and I am also approaching the end of Notebook 36, so I’ll soon be inaugurating the travel notebook that was my going-away gift from Emily Gelfman.  🙂

More next week!

Lost Week

March 21st, 2010

This week I’ve mostly been sitting at home sick, so not much to tell. On Friday I went back to class and we had English film club, where we watched “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I had remembered it as being mediocre, but I was pleasantly surprised and now wish I had the book here with me to flip through and chuckle. Yesterday I ran the UArctic meeting, since Lera couldn’t come, then met with Sveta and went out with some friends. And in an hour or so I’m going skating with them! Woot.

In lieu of a substantial update, here’s a passage from “12 Chairs” (1928, by Ilf and Petrov). You’ll remember that I have mentioned this issue previously.

“In Moscow they like to lock doors.

Thousands of  front  entrances  are  boarded up  from  the inside,  and thousands of citizens find their  way into their apartments through the back door.  The year 1918 has long  since  passed; the concept of a “raid on  the apartment” has long since become something vague; the apartment-house guard, organized  for  purposes  of  security,  has  long  since vanished;  traffic problems are being solved; enormous power stations are being built  and very great scientific discoveries are  being made, but there is  no one to devote his life to studying the problem of the closed door.

Where is the man who  will solve the enigma of  the  cinemas, theatres, and circuses?

Three thousand members of the public have ten minutes in which to enter the  circus through  one  single  doorway,  half  of  which  is closed.  The remaining ten doors designed to accommodate large crowds of people are shut. Who knows why they are shut? It  may be that twenty years  ago  a performing donkey  was stolen from the circus stable and ever since the  management has been walling up convenient entrances and exits in  fear. Or  perhaps at some time  a famous queen  of the air  felt  a draught  and  the closed doors are merely a repercussion of the scene she caused.

The  public is  allowed  into  theatres and  cinemas in  small batches, supposedly to avoid bottlenecks.  It is quite easy to avoid bottlenecks; all you  have  to do is  open  the  numerous  exits.  But  instead of  that  the management  uses  force; the attendants link arms and form a living barrier, and in this way keep the public at bay for at  least half an hour. While the doors, the cherished doors, closed as far back as Peter the Great, are still shut.

Fifteen thousand football fans elated  by  the superb  play  of a crack Moscow team are forced  to squeeze their way to  the tram through a crack so narrow  that  one  lightly  armed  warrior  could  hold  off  forty thousand barbarians supported by two battering rams.”

(Translated from the Russian by John Richardson;

PS Don’t judge the book’s literary merit by this excerpt. I went with the crappy translation I found online rather than doing it myself.


March 14th, 2010

Relating to March 8:

On the weekend prior to the holiday, literally dozens and dozens of buses, vans, and even a couple station wagons showed up in Ukhta and parked on the sidewalks (some continually running their engines) to sell flowers. Now, there is always a truck or two selling milk products out of a small back window parked on my street as well as Lenin St., but the long rows of flower buses were really a sight to see.

On the actual Monday of the holiday, I went in the morning to a sauna (not banya) with Pasha, his mother, and some of their friends. It was similar to my banya experience in Moscow, except we were wearing bathing suits, the sauna is humid (as opposed to the dry banyas), and the pool for intermittent bathing was comfortably lukewarm, as opposed to freezing. But we steamed and swam and beat each other with bunches of birch and fir branches in true Russian form, and of course had tea afterwards. Then I relaxed at home for a while before going to singing (which had been moved from Sunday). We didn’t sing too long before celebrating the holiday with tea, candy, and yummy tvorog cake that Irina had made.

Relating to winter sports:

Well, almost all winter it was too cold to actually engage in any outdoor sports, but now that spring is here, I’ve finally had my first ever skiing experience. Pasha and I went out in the woods last Sunday, and all in all I enjoyed myself. It’s always good to get outside in the fresh air, especially when the temperature is above -10, and to get some exercise. I still prefer walking/hiking and skating to skiing, and I definitely won’t be trying downhill anytime soon. Even on a basically flat surface I fell several times and managed to be, in general, completely graceless. But by the end I was getting the hang of it, and I would be willing to give cross-country another try.

Relating to the ETA Russia Weight Loss Program:

I’ve had to tighten my belt a few times while here, and pants that were snug on me when I bought them a year ago are now baggy. And these fortuitous events have occurred, as I mentioned once before, despite my not making a habit of denying myself the pleasures of beer, lots of tea and snacks, and generally good food whenever I can get it. This medical marvel is the result of two things: first, that my main means of both transportation and entertainment is walking – and these walks are invariably 15-30 minutes (1-2 hours when it’s for fun on weekend afternoons), as opposed to the Wooster norm of 4-8 minutes; and secondly, that I cook (mainly vegetables) for myself instead of having three all-you-can-eat meals a day in the cafeteria. Good thing I don’t know how to cook meat…and that the selection of frozen/pre-prepared meals in Ukhta is not large…and that I have nothing better to do after work than spend an hour or so chopping and cooking veggies.

Relating to advertising:

Saw a billboard recently advertising mattresses. It had a picture of a man wearing only boxers, lying back on a mattress looking pleased with himself. Next to him a woman was sitting in a little nightgown giggling. The text read, “Just sleeping is interesting, too!”

Relating to culture and entertainment:

On Friday we had our traditional party at Vita’s, with all the familiar motifs: drinks, salad, and buterbrody; mixed-up English and Russian; dancing and singing; and discussions of life and gender issues. Good times.

I saw a play on Saturday called “Flight of the Kite”(Полёт воздушного змея), which was a pretty interesting take on life and love, as well as on the relationship between creator/creation and art/life. It was a student production, and I’m not sure who wrote the play – I Googled it and couldn’t find anything – so there were some definite weak points, but I was impressed with the main actors and with a lot of the plot turns. The story begins with two people on a train who decide to write a story about love, “so that everyone will feel good.” However, they have difficulties making things go the way they planned – events and characters keep appearing to derail what seems like a sure thing. In the end, the main hero and main heroine do end up together – sort of – but it’s definitely not what you could call a happy ending.

Relating to students and work:

I had my regular schedule of classes this week, as well as our club meeting, where we discussed crazy US state laws, and a trip to Yarega on Saturday morning. Yarega is a mining settlement about 40 minutes from Ukhta. One of the students in my club is from there, so he took me to meet with the 10th and 11th graders at his school. The meeting’s main goal was to get them interested in studying at UGTU – Anton told them about all the cool opportunities they have at the university, and I just told them about myself and about Fulbright and then answered all of their questions about America. It was quite fun. It’s always nice to see new students because they ask lots of questions and are excited to see me, and then afterwards we drank tea with the headmistress and some teachers and went to see the school’s museum, which has some Komi artifacts and some stuff related to the history of the settlement (which, of course, began as a gulag camp) and the school.

I’ll probably be writing a lot over the next few days. My UArctic paper on Alaska is due tonight, I have to make a presentation on US Politics for tomorrow and one on the Oscars for Tuesday, and I really need to get working on my paper for the conference next month as well…

“Enough of these passions…!”

March 6th, 2010

For some reason I decided to compose this post online and save it as a draft instead of writing it in Word first as I usually do. Of course, when I tried to post it, something inexplicable happened and all of my work disappeared. A lot happened this week, too! So I’ll try to reproduce the entry as best I can…

I have mentioned that I’m reading a book about the Russian Revolution, and a couple days ago I read a passage that relates well to last week’s topic of Russian singularities:

“In Western European countries even the highest degree of freedom of political and economic activity cannot lead to fatal, destructive consequences, for the majority of the population will in no way transgress the established “limits” of freedom – they will always “play by the rules.” However, in Russia complete, unfettered freedom of thought and behavior – that is, to be more exact, not, in essence, freedom (which implies defined borders, the framework of “law”), but a specifically Russian will has burst forth into the void left at almost every substantial weakening of the government’s power and has shocked uninitiated Western societies with unrestrainable Russian uprisings…”

Ladies and gentlemen, Vadim V. Kozhinov (Rossija, Vek XX: 1901-1939: Eksmo Press, 2002; translation mine).

This week began with March 1, the official beginning of Spring in Russia! And indeed, ever since that day we’ve had temperatures of -5 C or above; there’s a spring breeze in the air, and it feels like the long winter is finally ending. That feeling is certain to be illusory, though, and in any case, it’s not very comforting. Accordingly, I need to buy some rubber boots soon in preparation for the horrid swamp that will result from the melting of six months worth of snow.

I’ve been busy again this week, going to classes as usual, visiting Ukhta’s School #3, meeting with Sveta, planning a second try to restart the student English club, and reading poetry. On Tuesday was UGTU’s Poetry Evening in the restaurant on the ground floor of Planeta (the nightclub is on the second floor), and I was invited to read a Byron poem in Russian translation. Marianna read the original English version. The whole thing was pretty interesting and a good example of Russian culture. Russian kids have to memorize poems constantly at school, and reading or writing poetry, I believe, is a much more common hobby here than in the US – even among oil and gas students. Marianna wanted to ask me if Russian people recite poetry differently than Americans, and I said I couldn’t really answer because I had never been to a poetry reading in the US – no, not even at school. (The kids at school #3 also asked me to recite a poem, and I could only do it in Russian, since I haven’t learned any English poems.) Anyway, there were a bunch of students and some faculty and staff at the event, all sitting at long tables and munching on fruit, candy and pastries and drinking fruit juice. The first section of the evening consisted of various sections of students reciting poetry, punctuated by a baroque quartet. The first section was war poems (since it’s almost the 65th anniversary of Victory Day), then they moved on to Pushkin, Blok, Mayakovsky, Akhmatova, foreign poets, and more. After that was a quiz in which I won a book of Russian love poems by identifying a picture of Shakespeare. Then students read some of their own poetry, and some students played their own songs and the songs of Viktor Tsoi. It was fun overall, but really long. It gets tiring listening to poetry in Russian for 3-3.5 hours.

The bookend on the other side of this week is March 8, i.e. International Women’s Day, or the next big Russian holiday, second only to New Year’s. Obviously it’s not actually until Monday, but since we get that day off work, Friday was the day for all the men to congratulate their female colleagues. There was a concert during our lunch hour that was really, really funny. It included United Bit dancers in traditional outfits doing hip hop versions of Komi dances, female department heads singing about their love for Medvedev, Putin, and UGTU’s president, Nikolai Tskhadaya, and the vice-presidents (three sixty-or-so year old men, one of whom looks strikingly like Yoda) singing and marching to an old military song. They also had some students and staff who were really good singers, dancers, and/or actors. It was a very enjoyable midday pick-me-up. After that, the boys in our department brought in cake, fruit, and tea, which we all ate together (though Nadya informs me that had they been properly prepared, they would have brought us flowers, too), and then at 4:30 was the student English club, where we also had cake and juice.

The club went quite well. A small but quality group of students showed up, along with Nadya and I and one professor, who brought EVEN MORE cake and sang us some songs from her own CD about her love of jazz and Ukhta. But we had a pretty good talk about love and dating practices in the US and Russia, and next week we’ll be talking about crazy laws. After the club I hung out with Nadya and Valerii for a bit but went to bed relatively early. Yesterday I met with Sveta, had a UArctic meeting, and saw Alice in Wonderland, which I really enjoyed and hope to see in English someday. Today is singing, and Monday hopefully we’ll celebrate March 8 somehow. But more on that next week.

I put up a few pictures I’ve taken since being back in Ukhta, and some I was tagged in on Russian facebook as well. Check them out!

PS The title is a reference to The Idiot by Dostoevsky. For the full quote, see my Facebook profile.