A Smorgasbord of Awesome

Last weekend, I went to a Fulbright conference in Ufa organized by my colleague and friend Cathy. It was a fantabulous time, about which more later, but it was also great to see another part of Russia, and to be surprised yet again.

Salavat Yulyayev, the hero of Bashkortostan.

I went to Ufa knowing only two things about it:

1. It is the capital of the ethnic Republic of Bashkortostan. (The Soviet Union had a bunch of ethnic autonomous republics and Soviet Socialist Republics, and some of them were part of Russia and some of them weren’t. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Soviet Socialist Republics like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan gained independence, but autonomous republics like Bashkortostan and the Jewish autonomous okrug remained part of Russia.)

2. It has a population of 1 million people.

I arrived on a flight from Moscow with two other Fulbright friends, Randi and Rikki, who stayed in the same host family with me. We were picked up from the airport in Ufa by a guy named Ramil, from the American Corner, and driven past folding hills and beautiful, new houses with roofs in bright green and red and blue. There was sun and deciduous trees and highways with guardrails.

I know I have a tendency to compare cities to Pittsburgh (see: Bilbao, Arkhangelsk), but I do think Ufa is analogous to Pittsburgh in the way it compares to the capitals. If St. Petersburg is Los Angeles, the city of glamour and beauty that tourists flock to; and Moscow is New York, the monstrous, magnificent metropolis; then Ufa is Pittsburgh, the midsize, unassuming, clean city that’s definitely a city but also livable, with room to breathe.

But there the similarity ends. We only got to see Ufa for three days (and one of those days was spent in a “Base of Active Rest” outside the city), but the Ufa that we saw was a smorgasbord of awesome. Our experience would have been impossible as tourists, or even as a single Fulbrighter visiting Cathy. Our concentration of American-ness gained us access to the very coolest bits of Ufa.

We got a whirlwind tour of the National Museum of Bashkortostan with a guide who treated us like five-year-olds, in the best way possible, and learned that Bashkortostan is famous for its honey. We met the man who wrote the Bashkir national anthem and he played it for us on the piano. We went to a bar called Pab Bob’s and located on Karl Marx Street. We got a private performance by students at the Rudolf Nureyev Choreographic School. We spent a night at a cabin in the countryside singing, drinking, speaking Russklish, visiting the banya, roasting marshmallows, and taking leisurely walks to the river. Back in Ufa, we watched a play in Bashkir, with Russian translations piped to us by headphones. We tried a drink of fermented horse milk. We made friends and haggled over taxi fares. It was all over far too soon.

For more pictures, check out my album on facebook.

Dad Comes North

My dad visited me last week, and it was wonderful to see him, as always. “Inspiration” is not quite the right word for him, so much as “motivation” or “reason” or “root.” He took me out of America for the first time, when I was 9, to Madrid. That trip caused me to study Spanish, and ultimately to return to Madrid for a semester when I was 20. He took me with him on his Fulbright to Montenegro when I was 15, and that trip in many ways directed my path in college, to Russian, to Moscow, to follow in his Fulbrighter footsteps. His influence on me is something I’ve been privileged to take for granted, because his cosmopolitan attitudes and assumptions have pervaded my upbringing since I was very small. Seeing him here in Arkhangelsk, getting to be the reason for his first trip to Russia, was a wonderful opportunity to take a closer look at the motivations and purposes in my life.

We had a good balance of us-time and of spreading the Fulbright Word. Beyond my own personal story, the mission of the Fulbright has been more fully fulfilled between the two of us than I’ve been able to even begin in my five months here. My being here facilitated him connecting with another history professor here, and, hopefully will result in their students connecting and sharing their different understandings of World War II. Dad lectured at the American Corner and at the university, and also had time to chat one-on-one with some of the professors from my department.

And then he went home. I think that is such an important part of the Fulbright. It’s something I bring up every time I try to explain myself to people, when Russian and American stereotypes inevitably come up. I’m not here to preach America, to convert anyone. I’m here to teach about America to those who are interested. But my contract requires me to return to the U.S. I’m also here to learn about Russia, and take that knowledge back to America, to give Americans a more complex and nuanced image of Russians.

For me, Dad represents that constant seeking out of new experiences, new knowledge, new culture. But he also represents home, the going back and putting that knowledge into the American context and using it to inform a more well-rounded American perspective.

A Year Abroad

The thing is, Russia isn’t anything like what I expected it to be.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I was talking to my friend Robin today about her upcoming very first trip outside the country, and she told me that while she was looking forward to it, she honestly wasn’t that excited about it. It reminded me of how I wasn’t actually that excited before going to Moscow that first time in 2009. People would find out I was going to Russia and say, “Oh WOW, you must be so excited!” And I would answer, my cool, nonchalant, world-traveled answer, “Yeah, it’ll be an adventure.” I’d been to Eastern Europe. I’d been to foreign capitals. This was an excellent language-learning and cultural opportunity, and I knew it would be interesting and fun, but I had no idea how fundamentally life-changing it would be.

When I got the Fulbright, after making a tearful first phone call to my dad, I called my mom, and I remember, after telling her, “I have so many emotions!!!!” that she asked, “Are they all good emotions?” And I was confused for a moment. How could anything possibly be negative about this moment, about this experience, this accomplishment? But moving to Russia has demanded more of me emotionally, personally, linguistically, than I ever imagined. It’s demanded that I leave behind my everyday in America, and live the everyday in Russia–not just the glorious architecture of Moscow, not just the beauty of sunny stands of birch-trees dripping with folk history, not just the charmed moments of forging deeply personal friendships over the whimsy and travails of Russia. I have to also live the inexplicably stinky shower and the unpredictable water shut-offs, the cryptic negotiations with colleagues and weekly strained dialogues with people who’ve lived here their whole lives. The grumpy grocery store cashiers aren’t a novelty anymore; they’re a daily minor demon.

Living in Russia has made me realize how much I value living in America. Don’t get me wrong. I love Russia. I love the challenge of living here, and I love how much it makes me think about myself and my assumptions and my world and my language, every single day. But it’s a challenge, a hurdle, an experience, still. It’s a much more complex experience than the five weeks of heady bliss back in 2009, but it’s still an experience, a trip, a year, in a whole life that will always call America home.

That summer, the evening before I left for Moscow, I saw Guggenheim Grotto for the second time in St. Clair Park in Greensburg, and their song “Cold Truth” has become one of my many theme songs up here in the Arctic:

Hey Maria, I’ve been thinking, been thinking about moving… far away ‘cross the sea, maybe, somewhere cold and magnificent.

Three-Day Weekend – One Day Off

I had a busy, busy weekend, and now I’m sick.

the Kirkha, a former Lutheran church that's now a concert hall

On Friday, I went to a fantastically unique and kind of weird concert, again at the former Lutheran church. It was a truly multi-cultural concert. First, a quartet from Norway played a few classical pieces. Then, the headliner of the show, a Norwegian soprano, joined them in just a bedazzlement of drama. She wore a long red gown under a floor-length midnight teal robe with a high collar and gigantic sparkling red earrings, her short hair slicked back over her head. She also sang magnificently.

The next piece was a new work by a Norwegian composer, who actually came to conduct it as well. It was performed by the Norwegian quartet, a Russian string ensemble, three Russian traditional folk singers, the Norwegian soprano, and a Nenets soloist. The Nenets are a Russian indigenous people. The Norwegian part of the composition was very dischordant and clashed with the traditional Russian and Nenets singing dramatically. It was interesting and I would recommend it, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it.

Then, on Saturday, there was a particularly interesting conversation club at Dobrolyubova. It was advertised as a “conversation club for adults,” and so there was a wide variety of people from the community, from a dentist to an engineer to a philosopher. The conversation was about Russian culture, and whether it exists or not, and why the rest of the world doesn’t know anything about it. Some people cited Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky, and Chekhov as the only Russian culture. Some said that culture is what you do every day, and it’s not that much different in Russia from anywhere else. One man said that it was too personal for him to talk about in public. Another said that most Russian culture was destroyed during the Soviet times. Then, the suggestion arose that it was impossible to talk about Russian culture while in Russia, that one had to leave the country to be able to talk about it objectively, to be able to compare it with other cultures. Again and again, they mentioned the tension of being positioned between East and West, between China and Germany, the idea that Russian culture could never reconcile itself to that geographic contrast. It was fascinating to hear all these very strong, differing opinions, but it was also very stressful to be at the center of this very complex conversation that I felt both responsible for and unqualified to direct.

And then, on Sunday, I went to the Maslenitsa celebration on Solombala island with Nikolay from the conversation club and Łukasz! Maslenitsa is the Russian version of Mardis Gras, the festival right before Lent begins where you eat a lot of blini and butter and other delicious things. I took a ton of pictures, and you can check them out on my facebook album here.

I was meant to substitute teach some classes today for another teacher, but I felt so miserable last night that I called off and slept for twelve hours instead.

A Russian Conspiracy

I get more and more convinced all the time that communication has less to do with vocabulary and grammar than it does with concentration and a sort of mutual conspiracy to understand.

Exhibit A: When Łukasz came to this country in September, he didn’t even know the alphabet. Now he speaks Russian about as well as I do. But regardless of that, we were having conversations about the morals of marriage and the meaning of life and international politics from day one. It took forever, and it still takes a long time sometimes, but because of the necessity to pay exquisite attention to language, we’ve been able to disagree much more strongly, without hating each other, than if all we had to pay attention to was the content. Apart from this, though, our daily, domestic communication relies much more on context and a kind of complex web of inside jokes than it does on actual words. We have a dozen nicknames in three languages for various characters in our lives (which I won’t share here). There are certain words we always say in only one language, such as “plant” in English, and “resaca” [hangover] in Spanish, “miłych snów” [sweet dreams] in Polish, and “ерунда!” [nonsense] in Russian; and certain things we always indicate with sound effects, such as the need to waterproof our boots [“kshhhh”].

Exhibit B: I’ve started a weekly conversation club at the American Corner at the library in town. It’s been going on for a couple of weeks now, and there’s one man who comes every time. His name is Nikolay, and his English is basic at best. The second week I was there, it was just me and him, and in our hour-long conversation we covered a wide range of topics. He told me what he thinks about the conservatism of the Arkhangelsk region, and he explained to me the island communities across the river from mainland Arkhangelsk. Specifically, how people travel between the islands and the mainland when there are no bridges. Some ships still pass through the area, despite the frozen river and dramatically decreased industry, and they carve gashes through the solid ice. When the coast is clear, however, special crossing guards lay down wooden planks over the open water and people walk across between the islands and the mainland. Gaps in Nikolay’s English training include “crossing guards,” “planks,” “break,” and the past tense in general. But with the help of a map of Arkhangelsk and some creative gesturing, he managed to communicate all of this and more.

Sometimes I get frustrated in my conversations with Russians, because I feel like they’re not giving me the time or space to make the elaborate allegories I need to express myself abstractly. To be fair, usually I’m having these conversations in a context where time is limited and information has to change hands. But sometimes I wish someone would take the time to concentrate on me the way I have to concentrate all the time to understand anyone. But maybe that’s the point of the Fulbright. It’s forcing me to concentrate by taking me out of my linguistic comfort zone,  forcing me to live in a world where I and my American ideas and words aren’t the center of attention.

That’s the concentration part, but there has to be the second element, the conspiracy. The more I think about it, the more I like this idea of communication as conspiracy. Both parties have to concentrate equally  for real communication to happen. And to some extent it has to be in secret; concentration requires blocking out all distractions, in the environment and inside your own head. When I think about what con-spire means–“breathing together”–I think it makes even more sense. Real communication can’t happen without breathing the same air, experiencing the same context. This is what I miss most about talking with Americans, not the language fluency itself–many of my students and the other foreign teachers here speak English beautifully– it’s the cultural context that puts us in cahoots automatically. Łukasz and I have built our own context in our apartment, and as I learn more about Arkhangelsk and gain more experience in living here, I come closer to a point where I can where I can enter this Russian context. Though improving my vocabulary wouldn’t hurt.

Winter comes to Russia

Well, as usual, Moscow was a wonderful experience. As not usual, I was happy to leave. I think it says something when, after a long, busy, exciting, tiring weekend in the big city, all I wanted to do was be back home in my bed in Arkhangelsk.

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with Randi, Juliana, and Xirsti. I got back in touch with the Russia Bug through them, and I am determined to subscribe to the Randianne Leyshon Russia devotional regimen for the rest of the time I’m here. We talked about our different relationships with Russia– an intense romance, a childhood dream, a marriage. All these crazy metaphors help me to put it into perspective. There’s no way this thing will make sense in real life. The four of us did things like eating at a Thai restaurant and not caring when they spoke to us in English. We went to Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts, Randi and I wandered Old Arbat together, Juliana and I stayed up late talking, Xirsti painted my fingernails. It was good.

Apart from the rejuvenation of personal friendships, the conference itself was amazing. Being surrounded by all these other Fulbrighters who are passionate about Russia, but more importantly, about what they’re doing, was so energizing and exciting! There was Peter Sigrist, who is the first person I’ve met to share my love of Soviet block housing. The difference is, he’s able to explain it, and in fact, the green spaces and courtyards around these apartment blocks is what his research project is on. And I met Julia Phillips, who’s doing a creative writing project in Kamchatka, hanging out with babushki and asking them about their lives, recording their stories. And then there was Ellen Bastian, whose energy and rapid-fire, articulate talk had us riveted throughout her whole presentation; we never knew how interested we were in fertilizer.

Living in Arkhangelsk has been much more personally challenging than I anticipated. But there’s still a reason I’m here. There’s a reason I fell in love with Russia, even if I can’t put it into words, and the things I fell in love with — the block housing, the cranes and constant remont, speaking to a suspension between decay and revitalization, the weighty sense of history, the extremes, the juxtaposition of the ancient and the western, the sky — are still things I love. And being around all these people who are so in touch with their own reasons for loving Russia makes me even more determined to get back in touch with mine.

I’m against the whole popular cult of New Years’ Resolutions, but I try to set myself goals all the time, and revise my goals when it seems necessary. I’ve set myself some goals for the second half of my time here, to reframe my experience by new knowledge, by keeping in mind the attitudes and passions and energy I absorbed at the conference this weekend. I’ve tried to set goals that are small-scale, realistic for me, and that will make a concrete impact on my time and well-being here. Here are some of them.

  • Speak more English with my colleagues, and more Russian with everybody.
  • Write comics, draw more, upload webcomics.
  • Write postcards.
  • Spend more time at coffee shops in town. There are some really good ones!
  • Read for leisure. I’m working on The Catcher in the Rye right now.
  • Read about Russia, inform myself about the history and art and culture that I’ve blindly gotten into this long-term relationship with.
  • Read in Russian.
  • Watch movies. I’ve already watched Dogville, V for Vendetta, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the first being a movie recommended by my students, and the latter two being movies I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time. Next up is Citizen Kane.
  • Go to the library at least once a week.

Now that I’m back in Arkhangelsk, it seems winter has come finally. On the bus today, on the way to a student’s birthday party, an enthusiastic lady on the radio was excited to announce that it was finally down at -16°C [about 3°F]. Meanwhile for some of my fellow ETAs in Siberia, it’s been -50° [does it really matter whether it’s C or F?] for weeks. I’m happy, though, because it’s finally cold enough that the cloud cover has disappeared. The sky was blue and bright today, and when I got home from the birthday party in the dark at 9pm, there was Orion, leaning over the rooftops outside my dorm building. It feels good to have him back.