Archive for May, 2010


May 29th, 2010

Last Sunday I went to the dacha with a student named Natasha. She and her dad picked me up at 11 and we drove out. One of the things that makes dacha culture viable in Russia is the abundance of undeveloped land. Only twenty minutes from Ukhta, there are forests untouched by industry. Natasha’s family, it seems, is hardcore about their dacha. Her dad told me how their land had just been a bog when he bought it, and they dug trenches around it to drain the soil so that they could build their house and plant the garden. The house is made of bricks and wood and has two rooms and a porch on the ground floor and an as-yet-unfinished upper level. The porch is for storage of rubber boots, hoses, blankets, etc. and also has a fridge and a sink whose tap is attached to a pump from their well. The first room is a small kitchen, where the big brick wood-burning oven for heating the house is located. It also serves as a stove. The second room is the living and sleeping room, with two futons, a TV, and a record player. Theirs is definitely one of the nicer dachas and they seem to work hard on it. Natasha said they began building the house 15 years ago. Their garden is also beautiful. It has 10 different sections where they grow flowers, garlic, cucumbers, tomatoes, and various herbs that I don’t know the names of. They also built a banya, which I will talk about later.

Natasha and I first went to gather the leaves of some berry plants to make tea with. After drinking the tea, we went for a longer walk in the woods. The forest is all birch and fir trees, and the ground is mossy and spongy. In some places it is a downright bog, and you have to choose your steps carefully. Natasha said one of her friends sank up to her waist last spring. After our walk, we made chicken shashlyk on the mangal (like a grill) and ate it with cucumbers, tomatoes, and green garlic stalks. Natasha played some songs on her guitar and I attempted to sing along (восьмиклассница-а-а-а-а), and then we went to the banya.  The banya just has a small front room with some wooden benches, hooks for your robe, and a door that leads into the steam room. The steam room also has wooden benches, along with a metal oven filled with hot stones, a couple plastic tubs, and a tank for cold water. There was also a thermometer, which was at 90 C when we went in the first time and down to 80 C by the time we left. Natasha said her father likes it at about 120, but her mother can’t stand more than 60. 90 is pretty hot, but I think the banya in Moscow was hotter the first time we went in.

The next day I went on an excursion with Natasha, one of her groupmates, Tanya, and their geology teacher, Nina. We went out to Vetlosyan, a suburb where Tanya lives, and hiked up to a quarry, where Nina showed us the view and talked a little about the mining. Then we hiked out to another hill where there is a huge Lenin head and another great view. Nina had to leave at that point, but Natasha, Tanya and I continued our walk across the hill we were on and then out of town to a second quarry which is now filled with water and has become a popular swimming spot. We took the bus back to Ukhta and ate vareniki (dumplings) and salads at a Ukrainian restaurant, then walked out to the river and followed it past the edge of town to a wide field where it begins to curl like a slinky. We found some horses in a neighboring field and spent a while taking pictures of them, then walked back to town and took the bus back to my dorm, where I got to rest my aching feet. It was a fun day, though. I love seeing new places, especially ones that are so close to the familiar, and these were things I could never have found on my own.

Wednesday night I went to my friend Oleg’s apartment and we made bliny. He used his secret recipe and I showed off my flipping skills that I learned from my French host dad back in high school. After we had stuffed ourselves, we were wondering what to do next when Oleg decided to bust out the karaoke machine. Approximately the next three hours were spent singing at the top of our lungs. I don’t know what the neighbors thought. We sang all of the Russian songs on the disc that I knew (about three or four), but mostly focused on the foreign songs. Although both of us knew a lot of the English songs, we found that the places where our knowledge overlapped were surprisingly few. There were about 20 or 30 Beatles songs on the list, of which Oleg knew only 2, and he didn’t know any Rolling Stones, Elton John, Diana Ross, or Beach Boys. I, on the other hand, only know a little Boney M, and no songs by Joy, Europe, or many other groups I don’t remember. We each spent a lot of time exclaiming over the other’s lack of culture, but it was fun.  I also got a free taxi ride home! When I arrived at my door, I tried to pay with a 100 ruble bill (taxi rides within Ukhta cost 50-60 rubles, i.e. less than $2), but the driver said he didn’t have change. I said I had no other bills, so he said, “Well, you can just pay later.” “What? How later? Who should I pay?” “Just pay later.” “Ok….bye.” I had to call Oleg to make sure I really did get a free ride and wasn’t expected to pay the cab company somehow.

On Thursday it basically rained all day and got cold. My apartment is freezing lately. It’s not so bad except when I wake up in the morning I really don’t want to get out of bed, and sometimes I don’t have hot water (they’re turning it off for good on June 1). But all my winter clothes are coming in handy again for chilling at home, where it’s colder than it is outside. That night we went to see Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which was pretty amusing for being so ridiculous.

Friday we had planned to play baseball again at English club, but not many people came and it was still kind of cold and wet out, so we just played card games and looked at pictures instead. Hopefully we’ll play baseball on Sunday. Later that night (around 11), a whole group of us went to Planeta to have one last party before Nadya left. She and her family left for vacation in Turkey tonight and won’t be back before I leave. I got to break out my new summer dress, and we hung out, drank, talked and danced. I finally decided to leave at about 4 am, and it was kind of surreal walking home at that time when it’s 50 degrees and completely light out. Today I walked around Ukhta and Sosnogorsk with Masha all day and saw Nadya off at the train station in the evening.

This week I finished another book, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nußknacker und Mausekönig (the basis for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet), which I bought in Germany because it had a pretty cover. It was fun to read and surprisingly easy for me to understand, since it was written in 19th-century German, and I’d heard that Hoffmann is absolutely insane. I guess this is one of his more normal stories, though. I’m now  reading some novellas by Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote The Master and Margarita, which I read earlier this year.

I leave Ukhta next Sunday! Ahhh!

Russia vs. USA

May 22nd, 2010

This week I helped a fourth-year public relations group with their final presentations (and sang songs with them as a part of it), played word games with another group, saw Robin Hood (not that impressive), showed Hairspray at our last English film club, and bought a ticket out of Ukhta. Exams start at the end of next week, so students are busy preparing, and I don’t have much to do. My ticket is a 24-hour train ride from Ukhta to Cherepovets leaving on June 6. There is an English Access Camp for kids in Cherepovets where I’ll be helping out for a week, after which it’s a relatively short train ride to St. Petersburg and further adventures. As I’ve been thinking about leaving, I’ve prepared a partial list of things I’ll miss about living here and things I am looking forward to at home.

Things I’ll miss about Ukhta:

my friends

Russian soup and salad lunches

tvorog, pirozhki, sukhariki (little hard flavored croutons for eating with beer), and gren’ki

constant tea-drinking

low-stress job

spacious apartment

being able to walk anywhere in town

minor cultural/linguistic mishaps and awkwardness

speaking Russian

seeing new places

late addition: dachas and banyas 🙂

Things I’m looking forward to in America:

seeing friends and family

Mexican, Chinese, and Indian food

Chex Mix (the ultimate American beer food)

a more demanding job (I hope)

having an oven

real coffee

ease of communication

clean restrooms with toilet paper and soap

cleaner, better roads

the rest of my clothes and books that I left at home

good wine

A Komi Village by Boat, Train, and Marshrutka

May 17th, 2010

Last week, as you know, was a short one for me. I got back from Moscow Wednesday morning and continued with my regular lessons from there. On Friday, since the weather was so nice, the English Club decided to play baseball. We played in a courtyard between apartment buildings, which, despite the dog poop, uneven ground, long, dry, grass, and small area, worked out pretty well. One of the boys in the club supplied a baseball and another had bats, but we had no gloves. The bats were homemade and very short, but everyone hit the ball successfully despite that. It took a while to explain the rules and the point of the game – and I tried not to get into the more complicated nuances. Even so, I think some of them still didn’t fully get it while we were playing, but we had a good time and it seems everyone is eager to repeat the experience. It was a lot of fun for me, too, since I haven’t played baseball in a long time. Everyone has got the hang of the batting and running parts by now, but next time we definitely need to work on our infield skills. There are some pictures of our game on Picasa.

After the baseball club, I went out walking with a bunch of friends. We just strolled around town, drinking beer, talking, and eating cheese, until past midnight. This is the major form of entertainment in summer. After that I slept in until ten on Saturday morning in preparation for a long day. During the day I just relaxed, went shopping and walked around a bit, and then I had some lovely Skype appointments, after which I chilled and tried to sleep for a bit before my next big adventure: a Komi village north of Ukhta.

At midnight a student named Inessa picked me up to go to the train station, and she and I, along with Evgenii, one of her groupmates from the university (in Russia university students are organized into “groups” with whom they have all their classes for all five years), two English teachers, and their kids, traveled to a Komi village called Sizyabsk. The way there was an adventure in itself. Our train left around 1:30 am. Since we were on it for only about 2 hours, our tickets didn’t come with sheets, but we lay down and got a little sleep in anyway through the snoring and the breaking dawn. By 3:30, when we arrived in Irael’, it was light out.

In Irael’ we hopped into a private marshrutka (converted van) for another two-hour trip. From what I saw of Irael’, it is a pretty depressing place. It’s difficult to believe that people actually live there – all the buildings seem run-down and abandoned – and although it’s only a 2-hour train ride from Ukhta, it seems completely isolated. From the time we left until we got to our destination, Izhma, we didn’t see anything except forest and a couple wood grouse (my first sight of this bird). The view was pretty constant the whole way there, but whenever we got to the top of a hill, the forest was a beautiful sight – mostly birch trees with new, fluffy light green leaves, interspersed with darker firs. About halfway we met another marshrutka coming our way, and our driver pulled slightly to the side and stopped. At first I thought he was just letting the other van pass, which seemed silly since the road was plenty wide, but then the other van pulled up and stopped facing us. The drivers got out and lit up cigarettes in the road. I asked Inessa if they were going to switch vans and each go back to their starting points, but she said no, the stop was “just because.” They finished talking and smoking, got back in their vans, and we continued.

Izhma was a much more attractive town than Irael’. It is the district capital, on the river Izhma, and there were lots of well-kept-up, colorful private houses there. However, we didn’t see much of the town at this point; we were just driven to the river, which we were to boat across. There, another marshrutka took us through a neighboring village, where we got out and took pictures with some of the older buildings, and into Sizyabsk. Sizyabsk is a village of about 2,000 people on the river Izhma (here’s a map showing the relation of Sizyabsk to Ukhta). It’s quite pretty, full of old, colorful Russian-style wooden buildings, and when I was there it was quite bright and sunny (though the strong, icy wind kept up all day). I noticed on our way back the contrast between the dirty Ukhta river and the deep blue, sparkling Izhma. In the village there were horses, cows, and dogs wandering free all over the place, and every house had a vegetable garden.

Starting with our marshrutka driver from Irael’, Inessa spoke Komi with everyone we met. Although she grew up in a different village on the Pechora river not too far away, her grandmother lives in Sizyabsk and she knows everyone there. Inessa’s first language and the one she speaks with her family is Komi – she only learned Russian when she started school. In the villages, Komi is the everyday language, and elderly people speak very broken and halting Russian. The Komi language is in decline – young people often move away from the villages when they grow up, and if they marry someone who doesn’t speak Komi, they are not likely to pass the language on to their kids. However, it makes me happy to know that there are places in the Republic where Komi is actively used, and it was cool for me to get a chance to hear it. Komi isn’t in the Indo-European language family (which includes the most common Western languages – Germanic ones (like English, German, and Norwegian), Romance (French, Spanish…), and Slavic (Russian, Bulgarian,…)), but the Finno-Ugric family, which includes Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian. These languages all have crazy complicated grammars – Komi has 16 cases! I could understand a little of what they were saying because the northern dialect of Komi includes a bunch of Russian words, but mostly I was lost.

In Sizyabsk, we looked at a couple museums of Komi artifacts and had tea with Komi bread in a chum (like a teepee). Unfortunately, the chum owners’ two reindeer had died of some disease, so we didn’t get to see them! Very sad. We also walked around and saw beautiful views of the river and the place where they make boots, purses, decorations, etc. out of deer skin and fur.  A little before noon we left and took the boat back to Izhma for lunch. We went to a cute little Soviet cafeteria in a hotel, where we were all served their lunch items for the day – a potato-pea soup, and breaded meat patty with buckwheat and sauce.  We strolled around Izhma and saw its attractions (of which there are pictures) for a couple hours before catching the marshrutka and train home. I slept most of the way in the van, but this time we were in the general car on the train, which means that instead of each person being assigned a bunk, people sit (theoretically) three to a bunk, as on benches. However, seats aren’t assigned, and apparently they don’t even count how many tickets they sell, so our car was quite full, and I was squished with three other people on a side bunk with the window frame jutting into my back. It wasn’t so comfy to sit like that for three hours, but since I couldn’t sleep, I made some good progress in my book.

I finished Fugitives and Refugees a few days ago and am now reading Solo on Underwood. Solo on IBM. by Sergei Dovlatov. We read his book of short stories, Suitcase, during my post-study abroad seminar with Professor Sokol’s husband Yuri Vladimirovich, and I really enjoyed it. Dovlatov has a dry sense of humor, and his book was the first one that I thought really effectively got across to me the problem not just with the Soviet government, but with communism more generally – basically, that it makes individuality and personality superfluous. Anyway, when I was shopping for Russian literature in January I was looking at a few of his other books, and Alisa recommended Solo to me. It’s just a series of short, funny anecdotes about Dovlatov and his friends. For example:

“My brother’s wife said, ‘Boris is in a terrible state. You’re both drunks. But your situation is better. You can drink for a day. Three days. A week. And then you don’t drink for a month. You get down to business, write. With Boris everything is different. He drinks every day, and besides that he goes on binges.’”

I got home Sunday night around 9:30, had a shower and a light dinner, and happily went to bed.

There will be pictures up on Picasa later today. Oh, and if you want a more detailed and lyrical account of our banya outing in Moscow, check out Nicky’s blog entry on the subject.

День Победы

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.

С праздничком!

May 2nd, 2010

Monday of this week I went to Natasha’s apartment with Irina for tea. Natasha and Irina are from my singing class – I talked about them earlier in this post. It was nice to see where Natasha lives, and she is incredibly sweet. She set a beautiful table in her 5- or 6-year-old son’s room (which had a piano, a chemistry set, a big Periodic Table, and a map of the world on the wall) and we drank tea and ate a delicious cake that she baked. Then we decided to do crafts – Natasha and Irina are really into crafts. So we all made beaded tea light candle holders.

On Tuesday I went to see Swan Lake at the Culture Palace. It wasn’t a big city production by any means, but it was fun to watch, especially since I’ve never been to a ballet before in my life. Apparently the two leads are married – the man is from Ukhta and the woman is from Japan. She danced beautifully, and I also really enjoyed the jester. I have to admit, though, that I spent a lot of time during the performance thinking about Center Stage (“News flash: there’s more to being a great dancer than perfect technique.” “Oh yeah? Try dancing Swan Lake without it.”).

Also on Tuesday, this is always one of my favorite moments with a new class:

“Did you have a boyfriend in the United States?”


“And he let you go to Russia!?”

Friday we watched Saved with the English film club. People seemed to enjoy it but said that it was completely different from any Russian film (which was part of the reason I wanted to show it). They said that Russians just don’t make movies about religion. At least not modern religious movements, I guess.

On Saturday I went again to Yarega (one of Ukhta’s industrial settlement “suburbs”) to visit Zhenya and her family (I was also there on Easter). It was quite fun to sit around talking to her, her mom, and her mom’s friend (also named Zhenya) who was visiting from Minsk about moving to foreign countries, visas and citizenship, and feminism. Husbands and boyfriends are usually more possessive here (see above quote), and Zhenya (from Minsk) was also complaining about how she works 11 hours a day (her husband only works 5-8) and still has to come home and cook dinner and clean because the men (her son is 18) refuse to do it.

The past couple weeks everyone has been doing “subbotniki.” The word comes from “subbota,” which means “Saturday,” but none of the subbotniki I’ve heard about so far have been on Saturdays. Basically, at any place where you live, work, or study, you are assigned a day to go out with a group and clean up around the building. So people have been out in droves lately shoveling snow, raking away leaves, grass, sticks, and trash, painting curbs and the bottoms of trees white (apparently it repels bugs), and burning grass (so that new, green grass can grow in before summer ends).

This Saturday was Labor Day, and next Monday, May 9, is Victory Day! I’m heading to Moscow for the weekend to see friends and the big parade, so I’ll write about that when I return on the 12th.