Like Clockwork

And then sometimes, everything works. Yesterday was a perfect set-up for a domino-effect spiral into a helpless pit of anxiety and failure, but somehow, miraculously, everything went off without a hitch!

7:45 am I woke up to do my Russian homework.

10:00 am My weekly tutoring session began. I usually walk to my tutor’s house, as it only takes about 20 minutes, but yesterday I left the house late (as usual). Determined not to be late to my lesson yet again, I took a chance on a bus that I was only about 65% sure would get me where I needed to go. It worked. I even arrived almost 3 minutes early!

11:30 am I excused myself from the lesson half an hour earlier than usual, explaining that I had a lot of things to do today. I didn’t feel bad about paying the full amount anyway, though, because technically what I pay should be for two academic hours, or an hour and a half, but she always spends a full two hours with me. I walked to Resurrection Street from her house and hopped on another bus to get to where I was pretty sure there was a kassa to buy train and plane tickets. After withdrawing 10,000 rubles from a nearby ATM (something that in itself was a cause for anxiety) I bought a train ticket to Moscow and a plane ticket back to Arkhangelsk for Victory Day next week. First time buying a Russian train ticket, and first time buying a plane ticket from a kassa, check and check. Next, off to the grocery store to buy ingredients for an American-style trail mix–popcorn, raisins, peanuts, pretzels, M&Ms.

By 12:45 pm I was home, where I made the trail mix, my offering for an event at the library later in the afternoon. And then I made it to the university with enough time to have lunch in the cafeteria.

1:40 pm a faculty meeting in the English department.

Then, at 3:00 pm, I gave a not-terribly-well-prepared lesson on talking on the phone and numbers at the Rescue Service. I also had to cut this lesson short, unfortunately, in order to run home, change my shoes, pick up my snacks, and make it to the library ten minutes late.

5:00 pm At the library, the American Corner was hosting a trivia competition with America-themed questions for local school and university teams. It was a lot of fun to hear the tricky questions that had been submitted. There were a couple even I didn’t know; for example, what the historical figures carved on Mount Rushmore represent to the American nation.

7:30 pm I left the library to head to my last commitment of the day! The snacks I brought to the library were not needed after all, so I had a grocery bag of American goodies to stow in the cloakroom at the most expensive hotel in Arkhangelsk, which is where Nils decided to celebrate his birthday, at the Sky Bar on the top floor, with this view:

Fortunately, Russians are used to people with packets to store (if not doofy foreigners with packets), and it was all fine.

Later, around 10:30 pm, we walked from Sky Bar along the Embankment to a nightclub called Pelikan, which is on a boat. We’d watched the sun slip bright and magenta below the horizon over the river from the restaurant, and this was what the river looked like when we left:

This was such a day that I even managed to explain to the bartender at Pelikan, in Russian, what I wanted in my whiskey sour well enough that it came out basically perfect. When I got home at 2:30 am, I was exhausted. Collapsing into my freshly-made bed was a particular pleasure last night. But I was victorious!

Cafe Sketches

After privately, to myself, deciding that this cafe was my favorite in Arkhangelsk, I realized that it was uncannily similar in service plan and aesthetics to an American cafe. You come in, place your order and pay at the register, then sit, and your coffee is brought to you. If you want something more, you have to go back to the register. No “devushka!” when the waitress ignores you, no waiting for the bill at the end–there’s no ambiguity in the relationship with the waitstaff. Everyone knows their role and performs it well. And, it’s one of the two places where I know what words to say to get the coffee that I actually want. Add to that that they rarely ask if you have exact change, and that the prices are reasonable, and that the service is quick, and that there’s almost always a couch seat free, and that there are photos of zebras and Venice for sale on the walls, and I’m hooked.

But even here, a variety of strange things keep you from ever quite forgetting that you’re not in Kansas.

For example, the men who are served their fruit smoothies in elegant glasses with pink and yellow straws–and actually use the straws, slurping daintily while they talk in posturing grunts about whatever it is men talk about here.

For example, the man who, one rainy Saturday morning, instead of the “Fitness Smoothie” ordered a whole carrot the size of a child’s forearm and sat crunching on it while his girlfriend flicked calculating glances at his eyes, wondering when to ask him when they’re getting married.

For example, the woman in purple who comes in and in a voice too loud for the Arctic, announces to the waitstaff, “Hello, young people!” and then tells them exactly how to do their jobs while they smile and giggle.

For example, the Tree Man, who dresses in long robes, and has flamboyant orange and green tattoos around his eyes and over his clean-shaven head, who comes to the cafe to meet with conservatively dressed people in black jackets and turtlenecks, and whom everyone ignores.

For example, the middle-aged couple, resting from shopping, who sit without taking off their furs and overcoats and wait in silence for their fruit juice to come. The woman purposefully, deliberately swallows her entire drink in one long gulp, sweeping the straw back and forth across the bottom of the glass with her mouth to make sure she’s gotten every last drop, and then sighs deeply, regaining her breath as she stares into space and waits for her husband to finish.

For example, every unmarried young woman dressed in an absurdly glamorous fox-fur vest who sits, one leg elegantly extended, the arch of her foot bent suggestively over six-inch heels, waiting for a coffee that would taste no different in Moscow, without taking off her frosted sunglasses.

For example, a gaggle of almost-middle-aged women dressed in what look to me like middle school Snow Ball gowns, who swarm in to celebrate after a concert of some sort. They dominate the whole cafe, finally settling down to a moderate chatter in one corner. Some of them want salads, calling their order to the queen bee, whose olive green satin gown ends at her ankles to reveal practical black pumps. They’ve brought their own bottle of champagne.

The River is Melting

They say that the Dvina is the soul of Arkhangelsk. And of the things about the city I think are beautiful, the one on which people here agree with me is the Embankment. I went for a walk along the river this evening and found it teeming with the citizens of Arkhangelsk. There were young couples leaning against the wall kissing, old women sitting together on benches, children on bicycles and scooters and rollerblades in front of the eternal flame monument. There were old men gazing pensively into the sky and young hooligans yelling and running around and groups of college students holding hands and avoiding eye contact and young fathers peering incredulously under the hoods of their strollers as they walked alone along the river. There were dads photographing their wives and a whole gang of young guys in black jackets sitting on the playground on the beach drinking beer. There were women with dogs and with children and with boyfriends.

And then there was the river. Further north, closer to the library and the bridge to Solombala, it’s still ice. It’s not the blazing white of winter anymore, but rather a turbulent ice, as multi-colored as the sky above it. It’s steel and grey and white and blue and green and looks like it’s waking up cranky. And then, I rounded a bend to the place where just a few days ago there was a pathway across the river. Today, the sight of open water quickened my heart. I can’t quite explain the hard, explosive emotions that seeing the river like this evokes in me. In some ways, it’s spring, desperate and belated, forcing shoots up through the hard ice of winter and screaming, Run! Dance! Be alive! And in some ways, it’s sadness, to know that the days of skipping out across the frozen water with my neck craned up for the Aurora are over. And in some ways, it’s terror to think that the solid ground that held me up has literally disappeared. Seeing it from the bus window makes me want to get out and run down to the no-longer ice and watch and watch it until the sun sets at 10pm, not to miss a moment of the river’s transformation. It’s fear that time is slipping away.


Last weekend, as I was walking to the library, I came across these pro-gay snowpeople lounging on the ground. I was so glad I had my camera! I’ve been curious and eager for any indication of attitudes towards homosexuality, since I know that Arkhangelsk has a law against “homosexual propaganda,” supposedly to protect children’s morality. The attitude I’ve come across most is tolerance mixed with vague and uncertain discomfort. People have the idea that they should be accepting of other lifestyles, but they don’t want to see or hear about gay people in their lives.

I’m curious how long it was before these snowpeople were destroyed.

It’s That Time of Year

Spring is coming in like the tide, slow and inexorable and in daily waves. Every day for the last week, the temperature has gotten all the way up to about freezing, but every night it drops back to around 5°F, and in the morning, the world is coated in ice and frosty snow again.

Some signs that the coming Spring is closer to us than last Spring:

I’ve noticed some drainage trenches hacked into the inches-thick ice on the sidewalks, I guess in preparation for when things finally start to thaw.

Birds chirping woke me up a few mornings ago. If you close your eyes and forget about the cold, it sounds like Spring at least.

There is a normal amount of light. Even at 7:00pm, it’s still light out. It hasn’t started to get unusually light yet, but you can kind of tell that it’s going in that direction.

A flurry of conference activity is spreading across the length and breadth of Russia. Here in Arkhangelsk, a Barents region conference involving visiting professors from Finland and Norway is currently underway. And I myself will be leaving tomorrow to attend a conference in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, organized by Fulbrighter Cathy Trainor.

The selection of vegetables in the grocery store is not quite as sad as it once was.

Temperature today, March 28: 18°F.

Arctic Skies

Yesterday was an awesome day.

On Monday, I finally got my copy of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green in the mail. I’ve been waiting for it since January, and since before then, when John and Hank started talking about it on their vlogbrothers videos. And yesterday, as we had the day off for International Women’s Day, at last I had time to devote to it. I immersed myself in the book in a way I’ve rarely done since high school, letting it take up my whole life. And really, this book can’t be read any other way. If it doesn’t take you over, you’re not paying attention. I can’t say that it’s been particularly fun or enjoyable to read this book– it runs the whole gamut of emotions, and many of them are unhappy ones.

I forced myself to stop at 8:00, because I could see it was upsetting me, making me angsty and crabby (and not having eaten wasn’t helping). So I decided to go to the grocery store on my own, with Van Morrison plugged into my ears, to cool down. As I was walking along the street, trying to take in the sky’s particular velvety shade of blue, I was startled by a bright orange light to my right. It looked like a street light, but it was a perfect globe shape, unlike any of the streetlamps in Arkhangelsk. “Is that the moon?” I thought. But it couldn’t be! It was too huge, too orange, far, far too bright. The possibility that it was the moon caught my fancy, though, and I veered off course to get closer, to find out. As I approached the end of the street, I became slowly more and more convinced that it was the moon, and not an ad or a man-made light, and the realization, coming upon me slow and uncertain, was like something rising in my throat. It was beautiful. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before; no Pennsylvania harvest moon could compare. I stood at the end of the street for a few minutes, gazing at the full moon in awe. And then I went on to the grocery store.

When I returned, Andrea, the German teacher, was visiting with Łukasz, and they were discussing, among other things, the news of a recent solar storm, which meant the possibility of the Northern Lights appearing. I responded with restrained enthusiasm. Łukasz and Nils and I had walked to the river and along the Embankment for a good hour and a half Tuesday night, in the hopes of glimpsing the Aurora, with no luck. Andrea admitted that though she’s been living here for three years, she has yet to see the lights. I made myself dinner and took a shower, planning to do some school work before going to bed.

I had barely stepped out of the shower, though, when Łukasz cried out, “Aurora!” Dorota, the other Polish teacher, had just called him from the street outside our building to say that she could see the lights! I changed back into jeans, pulled on my snow boots, and mashed a hat over my still wet hair, and we practically ran down the stairs to meet Dorota, staring up at the patches of sky visible between the buildings and street lights, where, lo and behold, a pale grey ghost of Aurora was hanging.

We shortly decided to take a taxi to the Embankment, where it would be darker. We walked out onto the frozen river, craning up at what looked like a greenish gray lunar rainbow arcing over the river, with the moon now fluorescent white, like a spotlight behind us. We moved slowly further out onto the ice, fiddling with the long-exposure settings on our cameras, talking about how cold it was, staring always upwards, watching for any little change. It was quiet and it was not spectacular, but at the same time, it was exactly as I imagined it would be. Just like the photos on the Internet, just like the description in The Golden Compass. Any words I could think of to describe it sounded like something I had read before.

Twice, the pale smudge turned into something like what you see in pictures– green and peach-colored curtains winking and dancing up above. It was like a cosmic, iridescent snake across the sky. It was like God finger-painting. And the whole time, the bitter, hard cold of the exposed river created this dissonance between my body telling me to get inside, to get warm, as soon as possible, and my soul telling me to stay.

And then, when we finally came home, I found out that the Russian representative to the Eurovision Song Contest in May will be a group of babushki from Udmurtia. Can this world get any more wonderful and whimsical than that?

Music at Marfa’s

Марфин Дом

Running down the center of the city, parallel to the main street, is a historical street for pedestrians called Chumbarovka. It’s lined with beautiful old wooden houses, some of them restored, some not, a giant shopping mall, and statues to the fairy-tale writer Pisakhov.

One of the historical buildings is called Marfin Dom, or Marfa’s House. Last night, Liv, Nils and I went to a jazz festival there with Liv’s fellow Norwegian teacher Irina. Now, when I heard “jazz festival,” my first thought was of a sunny summer lawn with a tent in downtown Pittsburgh, and various jazz artists performing a couple songs and then yielding the stage to the next performer. But, knowing that this was indoors, in winter, and, most importantly, in Russia, I knew I didn’t know what to expect. As usual with Russia, though, I didn’t know just how off I was.

For starters, the musicians were over an hour late, so the music didn’t start until after 10pm. We all came inside, paid for our tickets, and moved slowly into the hall, which was so poorly renovated that you could imagine a pre-revolutionary ball was about to begin at any moment, with ladies in gowns whishing in between the pillars, glittering in the chandelier-light. Instead of rows of seats, there were mismatched tables and chairs scattered around; it seemed like a nice place to have a wedding. The four of us sat in somewhat awkward silence while the Russians happily settled themselves around us with bottles of champagne and cognac, shish-kebab, cakes, pastries, and juice boxes bought from a what looked to me like a church bake sale in one of the wings.

One by one, musicians finally ambled up to the front of the room, set up a drum-set, played a few lines on a keyboard, and then at last, a young man with marvelous facial expressions played a whole song on the violin. Then a drummer joined him and the keyboardist. Then a bass. The first man who’d played the piano moved to the second drum set. Another man with a violin showed up, a pleasant, grandfatherly looking man in a comfy green sweatshirt with an embroidered apple on it emblazoned with “NEW YORK.” He was amazing, totally jamming out, making music like nobody’s business. The crowd loved him.

Norwegian grandpa on an electric violin.

It soon became clear they had no plan, and were just making up music as they went along. They naturally moved one another in and out of the spotlight (but only figuratively– there was some very basic lighting aimed at them, but nothing approaching a spotlight), letting each instrument have a solo moment in turn. Several of them sort of shuffled around the stage and backstage areas, hopping from one instrument to another. This man, especially, would sort of appear from the snack table in the middle of a piece and ponder the grand piano for a moment, then put down a finger as if trying it out, play a couple of lines and then wander off again. Then, halfway through the next piece, you’d realize he was at the drums.

People played with their backs to the audience, wandered around the stage, left in the middle of a piece, talked on stage, moved from one drum set to another without stopping… All in all, we counted at least four drummers, three bassists, and four pianists. It was as if Marfa had called them all up individually and said, “Hey, come on over to my place sometime tonight for some drinks. Bring all the musical instruments you own.”

And then the saxophones arrived, and things got angsty. Three different men appeared with saxophones around their necks at some point. They anxiously hoverd on the edges, waiting for the perfect moment to come in, they started out insecure and then gained confidence with beer, they upstaged one another, strutting their egos, stole the spotlight from other musicians, and, at one point, one of them apparently “borrowed” another’s saxophone without asking.

At around midnight, we thought the show was wrapping up, but instead, all the musicians left the stage area and a whole new batch came on. This is where things got really awkward, because where the first group had been just naturally hanging out and playing music, this female duo’s idea of “jazz festival” was similar to my own, and they weren’t expecting a bunch of other people to be wandering around their stage and their songs. It didn’t help that violinist grandpa, the star of the show, left in the middle of their first song, walking between the audience and the musicians, and eliciting a huge and rousing round of applause as he left, totally distracting attention away from the lilting voice of the singer. They kept their cool and kept on playing, but they definitely got the short end of the stick, playing after midnight, when half the audience was headed towards drunk and the other half was sleepy.

It was a little long, and the end was kind of awkward, but I had a great time. The music in the first half was the kind that made me sit up and want to dance along. It was much more relaxing than the concert at the Kirkha last week.