What’s In My Shower?

I’ve been watching YouTube makeup tutorials this evening, because apparently I’m now the kind of person who does that. So, I thought I would riff off of that into a blog format and show you What’s In My Shower! Mostly this is on my mind because, in the midst of my job-application and oh-my-god-I’m-leaving-in-two-weeks frenzy, the hot water is gone again.

The basic process is that you heat up water on the stove or in my case with electric tea kettles and then mix it with the cold water that still comes in great abundance from the tap. I didn’t have to deal with the autumn round of hot water shutoffs, so I never went to the trouble of buying myself a proper basin or a pouring device with a handle. And then the first time I had to deal with the hot water being off was the day before I left for Siberia. So I had to really improvise at the last minute, as so often happens in Russia! The first time I did this, I used a paring knife to cut off the tops of two old empty five liter water jugs, like so:

However, it turns out that when you pour boiling water into one of these, this is what happens:

So, I ended up using a casserole dish for the hot water, pouring cold water into my plastic jugs first, and mixing in the hot later. I used a small soup bowl to scoop up a little hot water and then let cold run into it from the tap until it mixed to an agreeable temperature, before pouring it over myself.

All in all, it wasn’t as bad or, more importantly, as time-consuming as I had thought it would be. It just takes a little creativity. And the discipline to carefully check each bowlful with your hand so you don’t accidentally throw a bowl of scalding water over yourself… like I did last night.

Anyway, just a short post tonight. I have to go take a shower.

Bags of Milk

Something I’ve never mentioned before, much to my shock and amazement, is the fact that sometimes, in Russia, milk is sold in bags.

I’ve never been able to rationalize this on any level. Liquids should just not go in bags. The end. Liquid goes in jars or cartons or bottles or cans, or sometimes, on rare occasions, in barrels, but not in bags.

I was in the grocery store this evening, puttering forlornly over the baked goods section, when I noticed a subtle line of tiny milk puddles on the floor. I soon traced the trail to a nearby cart, overseen by a beautiful blonde Russian woman with turquoise eye shadow. She was taking her shopping very seriously, but not seriously enough to notice the fact that her bag of milk was dripping all over the floor. I chose to ignore it, often the best course of action for a foreigner confronted with cultural differences in a new country.

Some ten minutes later, I found myself in the check-out line, two customers behind the lady of the drippy milk bag. She had blazed a trail all over the store, leaving little happy milk puddles in her wake, like those dotted lines from the Family Circus. She was still oblivious, even as she dumped the offending bag onto the conveyor belt. I watched with a sense of mounting doom as the bag slowly ringed itself in a halo of milk, approaching nearer and nearer to one of the crankiest cashiers in all of Sigma (according to experience).

And then a miracle happened. The cashier picked up the drippy bag, took in what had transpired, asked the woman if she still wanted it, while deftly folding the milk bag into another plastic bag. The customer declined, the cashier instructed her to get another of the same product. By the time the customer returned, the cashier had finished ringing everything else up. It all went by like clockwork, as if rehearsed down to the second.

And then I think about what would happen if this same situation occurred in some sort of parallel-universe America where milk is sold in bags, and it makes me sad that I’m going home soon.

Advice for Americans and other foreigners traveling long-distance on Russian trains.

As I mentioned, I was recently in Siberia, specifically in Kyzyl, the capital of the Tuva Republic. But before I can tell you about Kyzyl, I have to tell you how I got there. I took the train! This (obviously) makes me an expert on Russian long-distance trains, so I will share my wisdom with the rest of the world.

Accommodations.

Russian trains have three “classes”: In platskart, there are no doors and something like 60 people sleep on bunks together and share one bathroom. Kupe has separate compartments with four bunks each and a lockable door. And Luxe is fancier, but I’ve never been in it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like.

For my trip, I was in platskart for one day from Arkhangelsk to Moscow, and then kupe from Moscow to Abakan, for three days. There are pros and cons to kupe. There’s slightly more privacy, and if you find three friends to travel with you, you have a lot of security, because you can lock yourselves in. But, when it comes to being a young woman traveling alone, some say it’s better to go platskart, because that way there are more people around. You never know who might get locked into that kupe with you.

I was traveling alone half the way, until my colleague Anita joined up and occupied the other lower bunk of the kupe for the last two days. I had no problems in either platskart or kupe.

With all options, you get bed linens and a towel with which to create a tiny little domestic cubby on your bunk for however long the train will be home.

Food.

My first train experience, a short 24-hour jaunt to Moscow back in May, was not very pleasant, mostly because I was unprepared in the food department. The Siberian Adventure was much better.

Apart from my suitcase, I had a backpack stuffed with provisions, and never had to visit the restaurant car. I took with me: several liters of water, three apples, dried apricots, a package of smoked braided cheese, three baked pastry thingies, half a loaf of bread, sliced gouda cheese and salami (which was still okay, if a little greasy, after three days unrefrigerated), two packages instant mashed potatoes, two packages instant soup, cookies, crackers, a carton of juice, and a bunch of tea bags. Perhaps someday I’ll be skilled enough to bring pickles, packages of smoked salmon, jars of mayonnaise, and whole baked chickens, like real Russians.

I brought my own mug, utensils, an extra towel, and a package of paper napkins, after observing the super-prepared people in the bunks across from me in platskart on my way to Moscow last time.

The most important thing to know is that there is an unlimited supply of free hot water, which you get from a large, industrial-looking samovar tank at the head of the car, near the conductor’s compartment. So, you can make tea, instant coffee, and any other instant food to your heart’s content. You can also buy tea or coffee from the conductor for 15 rubles, and it comes in the wonderful, classic Russian train cups.

Hygiene.

Two words: Baby Wipes.

The biggest difference between Russian and American trains (apart from the fact that Russian trains are always on time) is that on Russian trains there are no showers. Russians carry moist towelettes around the way Americans might carry hand sanitizer, and I had taken to carrying them myself—but I am so glad I had a whole package of proper baby wipes with me on the train. It’s amazing how one or two of those, appropriately applied, can make you feel fresh and clean in the morning.

Also, while hot water is limitless, toilet paper might not be, so I suggest you bring your own. Basically, spend as little time in the bathroom as possible.

Finally, someone suggested a headscarf, and it was quite effective at helping me forget how unwashed my hair was after three days.

Entertainment.

Four days is a long time to sit in a confined space alone. I recommend enjoying the scenery, but there’s only so many hours of scenery one can handle in a day.

I brought more than I ended up using in terms of diversions, but that’s better than the alternative. I read A Clockwork Orange, which I’d been meaning to read since my first year of college, and which I enjoyed a lot less than I was expecting to. I also brought a Russian magazine and a book, and my dictionary, with the noble idea of working on my language on the train, but that didn’t pan out.

And of course I made sure to have my iPod fully charged before I left. There are a few electrical outlets in each train car, but it’s probably better to plan not to have to use them. My best decision was the suggestion from Randi (of course) to splurge on downloading the audiobook of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. It turned out to be really interesting and helped get me in the mood for my adventure.

The only thing I wish I’d brought is a map of Russia with the train route on it. The train stops pretty frequently, especially before actually getting to Siberia, and I kept wondering, How far have we gone? Have we crossed the Urals? Are we actually in Siberia yet? Where the hell are we?

After a while, though, I got used to it, and just enjoyed the rocking of the train and standing at the window in the corridor to catch an afternoon breeze in the heat of midday.

“No one speaks English and everything’s broken.”

Love, true love, is more enduring than a summer fling. Love demands that you confront all the good and bad of the one you love and accept the whole for what it is. Love takes time and commitment and forgiveness. After living in Russia for almost eight months, I can say that I love this country.

But love does not exclude bafflement and complaint. And there are some things that just baffle me about Russia.

Exhibit A: I’ve been informed by the hotel staff that the hot water will be turned off sometime in the next week, probably. Nobody quite knows exactly when it’ll be turned off, but the whole city loses its hot water for a week or so at one time. Then, later, each neighborhood in turn will be without hot water for a second time. They have to repair pipes in preparation for next winter. Obviously. This happens all across Russia, and I knew that before I came. I’m prepared to deal with it, but, like, seriously?

Exhibit B: Our university building is undergoing remont. Remont is a wonderful Russian word for pretty much any kind of repair or maintenance or reconstruction or remodeling. You can remont your purse or your tires or your apartment or the roads. The first and second floors of our building have slowly been remonted over the last few months, and it’s been noisy and dusty, but we’ve all put up with it because it’s necessary. Except now it comes to the third floor, where it directly affects the people I work with. The English department has moved to a much smaller room across the hall, and all the other department offices have moved as well, who knows where to. Fine. But today, come to find out that remont will be going on on the fourth floor at the same time! When teachers ask the main office where they can hold their classes, the wonderfully competent girls there say, “We don’t know. There are no rooms.” Drama! Excitement!

Exhibit C: On Monday, I went to plug in my cell phone to recharge it, only to find that my charger cord had been torn in half and the end with the plug into the phone was missing altogether. Who could be the culprit? A rodent of some sort? Vigorous vacuuming? Careless installment of surveillance equipment to keep tabs on us foreigners? Who knows. Fortunately, buying a new cord only cost around $5 and was accomplished without any of the relevant vocabulary on my part.

That’s the kind of week I’m having.

The title of this post is taken from the song “Tom Traubert´s Blues (Four Sheets To The Wind In Copenhagen)” by Tom Waits.

The End of an Era

Warning: This post contains excessive angst and self-indulgent, privileged musings.

Łukasz left this morning.

The emotional buildup to this point on my part has been spectacular. A combination of anxiety about my presentation Saturday on American multiculturalism at the library, an inability to sleep due to the encroaching white nights, and almost absurdist self-reflection, it culminated last night in a midnight river tinged with sunset that was so beautiful it made me want to cry.

In addition to being Łukasz’s last night in Arkhangelsk, last night was the Night of the Museum, during which, for the low price of 300 rubles, you could come and go to most of the city’s museums from 9pm to 2am. I met up with a couple of friends around 9 and we hopped from place to place enjoying the usual exhibits, along with random musical and artistic performances and activities. It was awesome! There were so many people enjoying the museums, and each other’s company, and food and music and laughter.

After I got home a little after 2, Łukasz and I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning, reflecting on our time together, planning my visit to Poland in August, smoking on the fire escape, and eating braided cheese. (I don’t usually smoke with Łuki, but I made an exception this once.)

A few hours of sleep, and then I saw him off to the car that would take him to the airport, and went back to bed until noon. This afternoon, I took a much-needed day off for reflection and coffee. After about two hours in my favorite cafe, writing in my journal until my pen literally ran out of ink, I wasn’t ready to go home. I walked to a bookstore in the center of town, where I got excited by authors’ names and the titles and covers of Russian novels, and bought new pens. I also bought a book called Here, They Kill on Tuesdays, partly because the cover was intriguing, and partly because when I read the first page, I could understand almost all of it, and it made me smile with surprise.

And then I walked to the river, talking to myself under my breath.

A few days ago, this thought crossed my mind: “I haven’t been missing English lately, like I used to in the first few months.” False! I apparently have really missed speaking in English in a natural way, not for the purposes of teaching it. I walked along the river for over an hour, having a conversation with myself about the nature of time and relationships and nostalgia and the purpose of living. I am quite the conversationalist, if I do say so myself.

My reality here in Arkhangelsk has forced me to grapple with the idea that I am not able to accurately predict how I will feel about something in the future, what will make me happy in the future. Of course, I am happy here in Arkhangelsk, but that happiness hasn’t come easily, and it hasn’t been the unconditional joy I experienced on finding out I’d won the Fulbright. Nothing is simple for more than one day.

This preoccupation makes it difficult to decide what to do next. Should I focus on immediate gratification, on finding a job that will give me the financial security and creature comforts I crave? Or should I pursue higher education and work experience that will lead to a future career that will more fully satisfy my desire for intellectual stimulation and creativity? Even if I “take a year off to figure out what I want to do next,” I can’t take a year off from life. Shouldn’t I try to enjoy and appreciate everything I do, regardless of whether it seems to be leading to some future goal? Doesn’t aiming towards goals set you up for disappointment when achieving those goals doesn’t turn out to be what you expected?

I rode the bus home from the Solombala bridge with an inconsolable, wailing baby. His mother kept trying to distract him from his anguish by pointing out the pretty buildings and cars and people outside on the street. But, he could be quieted for only a moment before the bus hurdled past, reminding him of the impermanence of all good things, and he resumed his bawling.

Victory

I want to write a good and thoughtful post about my last-minute trip to Moscow this week for Victory Day, and about the huge gaping hole in American knowledge of World War II from the “eastern” perspective, and about how there were red carnations left at a bust of Stalin in the Museum of the Great Patriotic War, and about patriotism and honor and memory, and about the Russian sentiment that the U.S. didn’t win the war at all, and about listening to Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” with my second years students.

But I’m so distracted by the fact that the sky is still the slatey gray blue of dusk outside and it’s 11:30 pm. The dark of winter was heavy and oppressive, but the light of summer feels ominous and paranoid and unnatural, and I don’t like it.

So, I leave you with Juliana’s posts about Moscow and about Victory Day, because she tells the story perfectly. And with the Wikipedia article about the “Eastern Front,” which is what “Great Patriotic War” redirects to, go figure.

The Serenity of Anxiety

I leave for Moscow tomorrow. On a train. The only other time I’ve been on a train in Russia, my ticket was bought and my hand held by my study abroad program directors.

Minor freak out about my debit card not working at the ATM averted when I got home and checked online, to realize that I just had to transfer some funds.

Good thing I have beer.

I used to pride myself on being a light packer. Now I just talk about how I used to pride myself on being a light packer.