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Weather

I seem to have really good luck with Russia’s weather. I came from one of the chilliest summers ever to a scorching 134 F (in the sun, and this is according to one of the babushkas who works in the dorm, so I don’t know how accurate the measurement is). Last Sunday, after the post-farewell-party train ride from hell (never ever ride a train hungover), I arrived in Elista. It’s the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia, but it’s still a fairly small city — it’s got the same population as Ukhta, and I would say that it’s just more stretched out than Ukhta is.

Seven Days Pagoda in the center of Elista

I haven’t been here for long, and I’m only staying until Tuesday, but it’s a nice change of scenery. The mix of Asia and Europe here is aesthetically pleasing to the eye. At least, more pleasing than ugly, squat khrushchevki buildings that clustered the streets of Ukhta. Also, unlike the Komi Republic, I definitely feel that I am in an ethnic republic here — most people are Kalmyk here, and Russians are the minority. The Kalmyk people, in case you didn’t know, are related to Mongolians. Some of my friends back in Ukhta joked, “You’re going to finally be with your people!” Humor aside, I do fit in quite well here. No one stares at me, and it’s only when I begin to speak Russian do people give me funny looks.

Buddha. in honor of the Dalai Lama.

What’s most fascinating to me is the Buddhist culture here. Kalmykia is the only Buddhist region in Europe (Sibera and whatever is east of the Urals is considered to be Asia), and they practice Tibetan Buddhism. The Dalai Lama has even been here quite a few times, and the people here recognize him as their spiritual leader. While I’m technically a Buddhist, I’m a rather terrible one, so I look forward to checking out the temple some more while I’m here. It’s not the same branch of Buddhism that my family practices, but it’s worth exploring anyway.

The largest Buddhist temple in Europe

There are only a few downsides to being here. The first being that it is ungodly hot, and there’s no escape from the heat. The school is unbearably stuffy, and the poor kids sit there weakly fanning themselves as I make half-hearted attempts to teach them English. They’re good sports about the heat though — I’m not, mainly because I’m a wimp and I hate sitting in my own sweat. The second would be that since most of the college students here are busy, none of them want to hang out with me, which makes me feel rather alone. I have, however, befriended some people from Benin and Congo in the adjacent dormitory, so not all is terrible.

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Imagine a beautiful spring day in the States — the sun is shining, the grass is green, the locals are out and about in t-shirts and shorts. Daffodils curl out onto the sidewalks and the cherry blossoms have bloomed. It’s warm, sunny, and overall, just a good day to be alive.

The cherry blossom festival in Washington, DC. 2012 marks the centennial of the cherry blossom!

Now take that wonderful, blissfully happy spring day and add an icy cold front to it. It’s no longer 20 C, but 0 C! Then, dump slushy, brown ice everywhere. Throw some dirty snow on top of that. And then, to top it all off, sprinkle the sidewalks with lots and lots of dog shit. In Russia, you don’t have to clean up after your pooch’s waste, which is fine in the winter, because everything is hidden by the pristine snow. But when that snow begins to melt, one is greeted with the pleasant surprise of walking around in dog poop. And ankle deep mud. Fun!

This is how I feel when I walk around Ukhta -- defeated and unbelievably dirty.

So yes, I am a little unhappy about “spring” here in Ukhta. In fact, I wouldn’t even begin to call it spring. I think the term “muddy winter” fits better. Complaints aside, I am happy that it is no longer -30 C, and that the sun has been brilliantly shining almost everyday. I think I’m even getting a little tan!

In other news, my mom is coming to St. Petersburg! I remember how, two years ago, we watched the movie Eastern Promises, which is about the Russian mafia in England. In hindsight, it was a terrible movie to watch right before I was going to go abroad to Russia for the first time ever. There’s an infamous scene in the movie where Viggo Mortenson’s character is sitting in the banya, absolutely butt-naked. Then, all of a sudden, there’s a knife fight! And lots of blood! And extremely violent murder! My mom watched in absolute horror as she was probably picturing me being gutted in the stomach in a Russian bathhouse. Now, I have the chance to show her Russia’s most beautiful city in all its splendor and prove to her that it’s not all fur hats and naked knife fights.

What not to do in a banya -- get in a knife fight with Viggo Mortenson, because he WILL kick your ass. And then proceed to kill you.

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.

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.

I’m in the midst of preparing for war with a brutal and unrelenting opponent. A venerable foe most notable for defeating the Swedes during the Great Northern War and for decimating the French army during 1812. The enemy, dear Reader, is the Russian winter.

Apparently, this isn't even really winter yet.

The locals really love telling me how cold it’s going to be, probably because they like the reaction they get from me. I’m cold here, dammit, and I’m going to be cold until May. To give you a taste of the lovely weather here, last week was apparently “balmy,” with one day being above 0 C! The sun also has been “rising” around 9, and setting around 3:40. I use quotation marks to denote that the sun doesn’t actually rise — it’s more like the day becomes grey, and then it becomes dark. Love it.

So how am I gearing up for the six-month war ahead of me? By putting on a nice layer of fat. It’s the best protection against the frigid, negative temperatures! I can’t even help fattening up for winter. For example, I’m usually not too keen on Russian salads — a salad should be bursting with crisp, fresh vegetables, not bursting with meat, potatoes, and mayonnaise (don’t get me started on the dill). But with winter well under way, I find myself craving these “salads.” As well as sour cream and cookies. My colleagues in the Foreign Language Department help me in preparing for winter by feeding me candy. I tried to refuse candy from the French teacher one day, and she responded in a very grave manner: “You need to eat this to stay warm. It’s cold out.” How do I say no to that?

Salad Olivier: the epitome of a Russian salad (despite the fact that it was created by a Frenchman). Ingredients include cubed bologna, peas, potatoes, carrots, dill, and mayonnaise. Photo credit: everydayrussian.com

In my own defense, my scale says I’m 56 kg in the morning. My scale also might be broken, but that’s a different matter.

Yesterday was a high of -15 C. In fahrenheit, that’s “too goddamn cold for the beginning of November.” Winter is here, and has been here for over a week now, with the first real snowfall at the end of October. I asked my students when winter would end, and they told me it would end in May. I then died a little on the inside.

The river has frozen over. Soon, it'll be just like another icy sidewalk.

I really don’t know how people live here. The sun rarely comes out, and when it does, there’s only sun for a few hours in the day. It’s 9:40 am now, and the sun is finally completely up. Then, it proceeds to get dark around 4:30. That’s the working day, which means that people rarely see daylight. If only Russia followed daylights saving time like the rest of the world.  Since winter’s just begun, the days are only going to get shorter and shorter.

In addition to having no sun, it’s also cold here. Really, really cold. I feel the need to use an expletive here just to underscore how cold it is. Wisconsin is a balmy, tropical paradise compared to Ukhta. The roads, sidewalks, and stairs are like mini, unwanted ice-rinks. And everything just freezes. Trying to open a car door is an adventure — it might open with a lot of pulling, or it might not. Oh Russia.

This woman feeds the pigeons all the time. Thanks to her, Ukhta's pigeon population is thriving.

Despite the icy and frigid weather, I am enjoying it here. Teaching is going well. There are students who have no interest in learning English, but for the most part, the students are eager and willing to hear about American culture and then share a little bit about Russian culture. With the more advanced students, I’ve been teaching a little bit of history and politics. With the first and second year students, it’s more routine stuff: housing, education, etc. I still don’t have much of a schedule — I go to the foreign language department and wait for teachers to invite me. From my understanding, they want all the students to see and hear a native speaker of English. So I’ve got a bunch of students, and I only know a few groups. Researching has been temporarily shoved on the back burner, but I’m heading over to the city library today to see what they’ve got. The archives are, from what I’m told, off-limits. They don’t want people meddling around in those, I guess.