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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Maslenitsa is a pagan holiday that occurs during the last week before the Great Lent. You can’t eat anything fun during Great Lent — no meat, no dairy products, no wine, etc. While it is celebrated over the course of week, today we went to a school celebration that combined all the fun activities into one day. Activities such as pillow fighting, sack racing, and sleigh riding! Today is the day where Orthodox Christians will ask God for forgiveness. Depending on how un-orthodox you are, you can also ask God to get rid of the consequences of the preceding Saturday night. Sunday is also the day where they burn the chuchela, a wooden doll, which is supposed to signify the end of winter and the coming of spring. Even though they burned that thing to a crisp, I don’t think that spring is coming anytime soon.

Chuchela pre-burning

Roma took me to his former elementary school, where they hold a Maslenitsa celebration every year. While hordes of children ran around and played the various games they had, we walked around, ate pancakes, and drank tea with cognac. Later, we went dog sledding (yes, again), and they filmed us! I’ll be on TV again, and there will be another terrible interview of me. I can’t speak Russian when I’m nervous. Don’t judge me.

Roma with the Maslentisa horse. This poor horse dragged sled after sled of little Russian children.

Burning. Just a little morbid.

Something that I have noticed: Russians like to hang outside even if it’s cold out. Yes, Ukhta is experiencing an unusual heatwave, and it was a toasty -7 C outside today. That said, I would not rush to label that warm weather, and I often opt not to stay outside for a few hours when it’s below  freezing. However, I have noticed that people here seem to have no problem being out and about when it’s (quite) nippy out. For the longest time, I didn’t understand how they could do that and just assumed that Russians are just naturally immune to the cold. Then, today, I found out the secret to being outside for hours at a time.

Cognac.

Not vodka, but cognac. Tea also works, but cognac gets the job done faster, better, and in a more interesting manner. For example, as Roma and I were casually walking around, one of the women working at the festival handed us tea and cognac. Tea and cognac! And when we were in the woods waiting for our turn to go dog sledding, a mutual friend just whips out her personal bottle of cognac from her purse. In the North, you have to do what you have to do to stay warm. If you don’t want to spend the majority of the year inside because of the cold, bust out that bottle.

This post is going to be mainly pictures with a little text. Some days, I just don’t feel like putting effort into a witty post. Pictures are worth a thousand words, after all.

Last weekend, my friends and I gathered at the local karaoke bar (there is one here, pleasant surprise!) to celebrate Vita’s  birthday (which was New York themed). Judging from this celebration, Russians love their friends, celebrating birthdays hard, and going all out . Case in point, Nadya, Valera, Anesh, Zhenya, and I choreographed a dance and recorded a song to present to the birthday girl. Well, they did the choreographing and singing, I just followed what they did. The birthday dance went so well, that we even did an encore! My friend Valera and I also sang karaoke, but got lukewarm responses. Word to the wise: never sing karaoke after you have been imbibing, you never sound as good as you think you do, and that is a FACT.

So for your viewing pleasure, here is a link to the video of our dance : Birthday Dance

Vadim, me, Sasha, Valera, and Nastya. Why we are standing in front of a Confederate flag, I don't know. I don't know why that flag was even there in the first place. You can see part of my costume here -- I was the empire state building!

Nadya, Vita (the birthday girl), and Anesh

Me and 2 V's. Vadim and Valera. Valera dressed up as Justin Timberlake.

Yesterday was Defender of the Fatherland’s Day, also known as Men’s Day. While it is an important holiday here in Russia, for me, it just meant that I didn’t have to go to work and teach students all day. Since I had absolutely nothing planned for Thursday, my friends and I decided to go dog sledding again. Let me clarify one thing about the dog sled here in Ukhta. It’s not a trained team of dogs, and it’s not even a real sled. The sled itself is made of plastic tubing, and which is only meant for short distances. The dogs themselves don’t even know how to run straight! That said, it’s still pretty awesome to play with adorable huskies and laikis and then ride around on them. 

If I'm not mistaken, the dog's name is Unar and is about two years old.

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Roma and Ursula

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Me, Roma, and Kristina

Vy umeete govorit’ po-russki? Can you speak Russian?

On good days, I speak “Grace,” as my friend Nadya accurately put it. When I speak “Grace,” people manage to understand me, despite my conspicuous American accent. On good days, I make people laugh and Russians see a glimpse of my true sense of humor, not the goofy exterior I have built to cope with not being able to express myself in English. When I speak “Grace,” I’ll pour myself a cup of black, black tea and I’ll express a complex thought to my colleagues or friends, and they will know exactly what I’m trying to say. On these days, I feel confident and sure of myself. I am proud of all the progress that I have made.

On other days, I speak “frustration.” All of a sudden, I have lost the ability to pronounce things correctly. Words that I had thought I knew by heart suddenly draw a blank in my mind. Cases become a jumbled mess, and I embarrassingly correct myself when my friends point out my mistakes. I’ll read a few pages of a book, and realize that while I’ve understood every word, I will have no idea what I actually read. When I speak “frustration,” I see myself at a plateau — six semesters of college Russian and a seven-month study abroad tour in St. Petersburg have landed me here, in a linguistic dead end.

Sometimes I don’t speak at all. Sometimes I remain silent, for fear of looking the fool. I hesitate to speak, because I feel that Russians don’t want to take the time to wait as I try to formulate my thoughts. It’s easier to listen, to laugh, to nod, and to pretend that I belong. On these days, I miss home. I miss my personality, and I wish that people could see who I am, not the boisterous, over-the-top facade that I have created in Russian.

Can you speak Russian? I hesitate to answer. From a purely grammatical point of view, one can say that I speak Russian pretty damn well. I think on the official government scale, I am somewhere around advanced-high to superior. But as we all know, language cannot be viewed in only grammatical terms, and language must be placed in its proper situational context — how language is used in a social setting, in an academic setting, in a professional setting, and so on, and so forth.

Can you speak Russian? I hope to confidently say yes one day. For now though, I will settle for speaking “Grace.”

Apologies for the lack of posts lately. I’ve been busy with fellowship applications, teaching, and every day living, and furthermore, nothing crazy has happened as of late. However, I realized that I’ve never actually described what a typical day like is here in Ukhta. So, for your reading pleasure, this is what an average day of teaching at UGTU is like.

Wake up in the morning (usually not feeling like P-Diddy), drink a big mug of coffee to get my caffeine fix for the day. Scramble my materials and papers together, layer up, and head out to the university, which is only a five-minute walk from my dormitory.

It’s the first class of the day, which is always at 8:30.  I walk into my first-year class, and my students stare back at my with bleary eyes, as if they’re saying “Please don’t speak English with me right now.” I take a deep breath, smile, and ask how they’re doing. No answers. Blank stares. Panic temporarily sets in, but I wave those feelings away, and try again, this time a little sillier. “OKAY,” one student barks. “I…want…to…sleep,” another student mutters in Russian. I pass out vocabulary sheets, go over the words, and begin my lesson on a certain topic. I mime out a lot of words, and my students are slightly amused. I tend to feel like I’m more of a clown than a teacher. Topics covered so far have been American education, music, a little bit of history, sports, subcultures, etc. Typical exercises in class include writing exercises and debates. Some students are very cooperative, some students are very reluctant to speak. The worst is when I’ve used up all my material for the class, only to realize that I still have an hour left. A whole, damned hour. However, after a semester of having this problem, I now have an arsenal of filler material. Simon Says, let me tell you dear Reader, is a great one. Not only do they learn body parts, but it wakes them up. Genius.

My first-year IT students on Thanksgiving.

Class is over, my students head out, and I run to my next class. Same song and dance. More Simon Says. Sometimes the students are angels, sometimes they’re hooligans. I never seem to be prepared for what kind of temperament they will be in. They can either be gung-ho about speaking only English, or they will petulantly whine and ask me to speak in Russian. At this point, I’m beginning to flag, but the tea and the free chocolates in the Foreign Language Department usually tend to do the trick.

Next class — this time, it’s my turn to be the student again. This semester, I’m sitting in on a history of Russian literature class. Sitting in usually turns into sitting in a semi-catatonic state while the teacher talks about the Tatar-Mongol horde, the letter exchange between Ivan the terrible and Andrei Kurbskii, etc etc. I look in dismay at my garbled half-Russian, half-English notes, and realize that they make absolutely no sense, because I only understand about 80% of what’s going on, and miss out on the important 20%. I leave class with a heavily bruised ego, and realize that I have a lot to work on when it comes to my Russian.

Lunch Break. Usually, I play piano during this time, or I’ll gorge on piroshkis. Lately, it’s been the latter. Baked goods filled with boiled condensed milk is always a good idea, right?

Last class, my favorite class. Once a week, I teach a group of translators, and they are an absolute joy to teach. They always have a topic that they want to talk about, and they are the ones who do most of the talking. I just help moderate the discussion by asking them open-ended questions. Last week, we talked about gun laws in America, this week we will be talking about drugs. While the teacher is slightly horrified that they want to talk about weapons and drugs, I’m all for it — if they’re interested in it, and they want to discuss the issues, then why not? We’re mature enough to discuss these topics without dissolving into giggles.

Done for the day, I go home, eat whatever I have in my fridge (usually some form of chocolate, sausage, and cheese. This is why I’ve been gaining so much weight), and prepare for the next day. Rinse and repeat.

I just realized that I’ve been in Russia for four months now. Four months! Some days it feels like i just got here, other days I feel like I’ve been living here forever. Since I’m about halfway into my stay here, I feel that I must explain what this city is. At least, what it means to me, a permanent visitor.

Ukhta, first and foremost, is a northern, provincial city. It is reachable by airplane, but most people choose to take the train, at least part of the way. (Almost every train ride to and from Ukhta has been more than pleasant — locals from the Komi Republic take on the responsibility of feeding me (read: stuffing me to the brim) for the thirty hours it takes to get to the center of Russia.) It is a city surrounded on the outside by birch trees and fresh air, and sustains itself on oil and gas. The importance of those natural resources is powerfully felt here, with Lukoil and Gazprom’s signs displaying prominently in the city and university.

Ukhta is a name that draws disbelief and horror from Russians not living in the area. “You live in Ukhta? But why? Why would you choose to live there?” Even still, other Russians have no idea where it is, or that it even exists. “You live in Ukhta? Where is that?” Ukhta is what I say with pride when I tell people where I’m living and why the hell I decided to come to Russia in the first place.

Ukhta can be a disappointing day at the university, when classes just don’t turn out as planned, or when the turn out at English Club is low. Ukhta can be frustratingly slow, and just doesn’t make any sense sometimes. It’s bitingly cold, its sidewalks are covered by a sheet of dirty ice that is inches thick. I become jealous when I’m with the other Fulbrighters — why couldn’t I have been placed in a bigger city? Why was I sent to the middle of nowhere?


More and more, I appreciate Ukhta for what it has to offer. Ukhta is a city that keeps surprising me and surpassing all my expectations. It’s a serious, heart-rending conversation at 3 am over cognac and coffee, or an impromptu, explosive, student debate in class. It’s an aimless walk along the main street, or an energy-fueled, bass thudding night at the local night club. Ukhta is full of warmth and laughter and a genuine friendliness that I’ve never encountered in my life. Despite being a sleepy little city, there are so many facets to Ukhta that I never thought I’d uncover.

I finally feel settled in here, not like the observant outsider I was for the first half of my grant. I know my way around now, for the most part. I don’t always feel like a bumbling fool when I teach. Here’s to the next five months.

On my train to Moscow, I had the delight of trying samogon for the first time in my life. Delight which quickly turned into discontent and unhappiness. My boisterous train mate, a thickset, unnaturally sweaty man with fingers the size of sausages, boasted that everything he was treating me to was homemade — the vodka, the pig fat, the cucumbers, everything! The degree to which the vodka was homemade, though, meant nothing to me — in my opinion, if the drink feels like ignited gasoline going down your throat, then it is really not worth drinking. At least I can check “trying samogon” off my Russia bucket-list, as well as the few years of my life that tasting that terrible brew probably cost me.

Vladimir

I met up with one of my friends, who’s also on Fulbright, to do a little traveling around Russia. We quickly jumped around two of the Golden Ring cities, Vladimir and Suzdal. We had planned to go to Yaroslavl, but since the bus going to Yaroslavl never showed up, we didn’t make it. We were in Vladimir and Suzdal each for only a day, but since we went during the depths of winter, a day was enough. There are only so many Orthodox churches I can handle before they all start blurring together.

a really old church in Vladimir. This is where we saw Prince Vladimir's hand!!

Highlight of Vladimir: seeing Prince Vladimir’s gnarled hand (he’s a saint, I think, and they have his body on display), and going to Whiskey bar. Lowlights: Accidentally reserving a room at an evangelical hostel and having one of the people there try to convert me. There is only one hostel (Pilgrim Hostel) in all of Vladimir, and it was located inside a church, which I should have immediately taken as a warning sign. The taxi driver also said that there was nothing here but some sort of sect, which was another warning sign I chose to ignore. As my friend and I were sitting in the kitchen drinking coffee, one of the men who was there striked up a conversation and asked what our beliefs were. My friend answered that she was Roman Catholic, and I replied that I was Buddhist. His eyes widened and leaning forward, he immediately began interrogating me about my beliefs, and whether or not I believed in heaven or hell. I politely sat there as he ranted and proselytized, in an attempt to show me the wonders of God and how God saved him, all the while suggesting that Buddhism is wrong, very wrong. Sometimes I wish I was braver, and that I had the ability to clearly and concisely say what I mean in the moment. I wish I could have told him that while I appreciated his concern (being polite here, obviously didn’t), I can think for myself and please don’t try and shove Christianity down my throat, thank you. However, lacking the vocabulary skills and the balls to do so, I just nodded and smiled.

Next, we went to Suzdal, whose ratio of churches to people is a little absurd. Forty seven churches. Forty seven! Does a town really need that many churches?! Suzdal was very cute though, and they had great honey wine.

Inside the Suzdal Kremlin

We ended back in Moscow after two days for the Mid-year Fulbright conference, which was, as usual, amazing. It’s great being surrounded by people who are just as passionate as you are about Russia, and I was very impressed by what people have been doing with their grants. I never ever thought I could be interested by the variants of fertilizer and soil, but one of the Fulbright researchers won me over with her presentation on agriculture in Cheboksary. Other notable presentations were on the political situation in Russia, creative writing in Kamchatka, and tuberculosis in Siberia.

It was very cold in Moscow. The kind of cold that seeps into your bones and doesn't leave. My friend is putting on good face, while I have given up trying to look happy.

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I saw Alec's band, Cruel Mistress, play in Moscow. They're good, check them out!

I have a love/hate relationship with Moscow. I love Moscow for its energy, vibrant feel, the way that people madly rush about. However, I hate Moscow for just exactly that, because the city’s immense size is simply overwhelming, the mass crowds of people are stifling. I’ve never known another city that feels like a prison while being beautiful and exhilarating at the same time. Moscow’s a place that I want to observe more and get to know better, but I don’t know if it’s a place which I can live in for a long period of time. For now, I’m content with just being a tourist.

Next up, Kazan, the last of my travels.

There is absolutely nothing more refreshing than walking outside, having your hair freeze immediately upon opening the door, your eyes tear, those tears then freezing on your face, and in general, feeling as if you are slowly dying.

“Are you cold?” the babushki who work in the dorm ask me as I stumble in from the tundra-like conditions outside, blinded by my fogged up glasses. Shaking off the ice from my hair, I flash them my winning smile (fun fact, Russians love my teeth), and tell them that I’m not cold at all(which is a blatant lie). Then they laugh and tell me that this isn’t the coldest it’s been, in fact, it’s not even very cold, and next week will be in the negative 40’s. My face proceeds to fall, and then I slowly walk up to my room in a quiet and agonizing despair. That’s a peak into what my life has been like for the past week.

Trees literally bend from the weight of the ice and snow. Beautiful, but slightly tragic? No wonder all the literature from here is sad, the cold puts you in a funk.

It’s cold out, and it has been cold since I got here, but now the weather’s dipped into negative temperatures. This past week, it hovered around – 30 C. In fahrenheit, it’s “too damn freezing to be outside.” Young children even get the school day off if it hits a certain temperature! Snow days don’t exist, but Cold days do!

How does one even live in these kinds of temperatures? That’s something I ask people on a daily basis. There’s a general consensus that layers and animal furs are the way to go. I’m tempted to buy some reindeer fur boots to keep my toes warm, but the ~$300 price tag turns me off a bit. I’m generally not a fan of killing animals and then ripping off their skin, because I think it’s tacky, not to mention inhumane. But avoiding frostbite is key, and I’m pretty sure that if PETA lived in the far Russian north, they’d be thinking about buying reindeer boots too.

Пимы -- reindeer boots. Somewhat stylish, but most importantly, very warm.

There are positives to this weather though. When it’s frigid out, the sun tends to shine more. I don’t completely understand the correlation, and I don’t think the locals do either, but in any case, I and my pale skin welcome the extra vitamin-D. I’ll take any rays I can get, even if that means getting some frost-bitten body parts on the way.

Teaching is back in full swing, and I feel much more confident about teaching than I did last semester. Mainly because I have become better at pretending that I know what I’m doing. Half jokes aside, I’m excited for this upcoming semester. I’m in the process of setting up an extra class for my more advanced students, and I’m going to revamp English club (more topics! more games! more fun!) More updates to come.