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.

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