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.

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.

Gender Roles in Russia. For real this time.

I noticed a lot of search terms bringing people to my blog are “gender roles in Russia” and I imagine people weren’t too happy to find just my snarky post about Nestle chocolate when they were probably looking for real information. So I thought I would do a real post about gender roles in Russia.

Now, this is based entirely upon my observations and interactions with individual people, so maybe I shouldn’t be generalizing. But I have come across a couple of attitudes multiple times, and I think the differences from what I grew up with are worth noting.

Marriage is only for producing children. This argument is used against gay marriage in particular, but in general, there’s an idea that it’s horrible to get married and not have any children. Perhaps this attitude appears to originate from the demographic crisis of the last twenty years and the government encouragement to make Russian babies, but I think it probably has its roots in the long and powerful religious history of Russia. It’s a stance that goes against how I’ve come to approach marriage after four years at Smith. Being confronted with this view that is, to me, radically different, has been a thought-provoking experience, and probably deserves a whole post to itself.

I would abandon my career to make a home and have kids if I fell in love with someone.” I’ve heard this so many times from students who are intelligent, driven, talented young women.

Men should pay for everything at a restaurant, even for his girlfriend’s friends. A “real man” is one who can pay for expensive gifts and make his girl feel and look like a queen.

As a corollary to the above: I recently overheard a discussion in another teacher’s English class. The question was, “Does being at the top of your group in school or university mean you’ll have success later in life?” One girl answered with a story about a classmate from school who had been “Not stupid, but just lazy” and had been at the bottom of their group. After they graduated, this girl married a rich man, and now she has everything she wants. So, her bad grades in school didn’t keep her from being successful.

On the other hand, Pomor women historically ran the household while their husbands were away at sea. This is what people tell me to point out the unique egalitarianism of the North and the Pomor region. It comes along with the proud reminder that serfdom never existed in the North.

“I’m not against homosexuals, but… they shouldn’t show themselves on the street or in public places where children might see them.” Sexuality should stay in the bedroom. Arguing that not seeing gay people throughout the last forty years didn’t prevent people from being homosexual now doesn’t make an impact.

Men sitting together on the couch side of the table in a cafe, or drinking juice from straws, or wearing purple paisley shirts, is totally normal. So propagandizing homosexuality is illegal, but the markers of gay culture are quite different, apparently.

It’s okay to be inappropriate to a young woman in a public place. Especially if she’s a foreigner. Man, if she’s a foreigner, she’s just asking for creepy old men to pester her. I’ve already had unwanted attention from two men twice as old as me here at the hotel. But in addition to that, I had a super sleazy old man on the bus last week make some totally inappropriate suggestions, after warning me not to marry a Russian man because he would only want me for my money and citizenship. When we came to his stop and he asked if he could kiss me, the girl sitting in front of us half turned around and just laughed. Fortunately, turning away and a stern, “Thank you, no,” dissuaded him, but it could have gone much worse.

Of course, not all my interactions with Russian men have been negative. I get along really well with the retired navy man who works the desk every third night, and enjoy hearing updates about his medical history. My male colleagues and the men who come to my conversation club at the library are for the most part gentlemanly and genuinely interested in hearing what I have to say. And most of my students who are boys are courteous and attentive.

This is just a sampling of my experiences with gender relations here, but I think they give the beginnings of a picture of how expectations and norms are different. And how my own assumptions are so heavily immersed in American culture and in the subculture of activist/queer/liberal arts feminism. It definitely makes for an interesting vantage point from which to read articles like this one about the political “war on women” being waged in the States right now.


The surprises just don’t end. I went out to dinner tonight with Nils, Liv, Rune, and another professor visiting from Norway. When we came back and went to the front desk to get our keys, mine came with some gifties.

One I was expecting: my receipt from paying my rent this afternoon. One I wasn’t expecting but was delighted to get: a package notice! And one was completely out of the blue: a bar of chocolate.

It was left for me by a guest named “Vadim.” Vadim and I met in the kitchen last night, while we were both boiling pelmeni. We had the conversation I have with almost everyone I meet in the kitchen, which consists of a short-term guest asking me if the water is okay to drink, and me responding, “In principle… but the taste is unpleasant.” I finished my pelmeni first, and as I left, I said to him, “priyatnovo appetita,” which means approximately “bon appetit” and which Russians say to each other when they’re beginning a meal. He looked surprised but said it back to me.

When I came back from the grocery store later that evening with a jug of drinking water, he was sitting in the front lobby and asked me why I’d bought water when there was a bubbler in the kitchen. I was feeling particularly confident in my Russian skills and responded in my best self-assured devushka voice, “That’s only for coffee and tea. It’s written there. Didn’t you see it?”

It seems every time Łukasz leaves town I get unwanted attention from male guests. In January there was a man named “Eduard” who had come for a weekend from some town way up north to take a test of some sort. He had never met an American before and wanted me to visit him and told me that polar bears came to his city in the spring. He also wanted me to come out to an unknown bar with him and an unspecified number of his unknown friends who had already drunk an unknown amount of beer.

Our favorite night watchman, the navy man, who was on duty tonight, told me that this Vadim character wants to talk to me in English. We’ll see how things go. Łukasz gets back from St. Petersburg in a week.

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.

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.


I went to the emergency response headquarters of Arkhangelsk today!

The call center workers are studying English in order to be able to respond to foreigners, and they got in contact with the English department at the university, to see if there were a native speaker who could help them out — that’s me! Today I met an Ira, three Olgas and an Anna, and they showed me around the headquarters, from the new rescue truck that they can’t use yet because it’s Czech and has to be outfitted for the severe weather in Arkhangelsk, to the rooms with bunk beds for the rescuers and firefighters to use during their twelve-hour shifts, to the honest-to-god fireman’s pole they use to get down to the trucks, to the canine unit and the rather excitable dogs who help find missing people.

It was awesome. They were all kind of shy and slow to speak as they were showing me around with their well-prepared speeches and notecards about their various units. But then we went up to the classroom and drank tea and ate candy and they asked me about America and about what other countries I’ve been to, and I asked them about what kinds of calls they get most often, how many days of vacation they get per year (40), and how many calls they get from foreigners. The answer was one. They’ve gotten one call from a foreigner ever. His phone was out of money, so the only number he could call was the emergency number, and he called to ask how to fix his phone. He spoke English, but his English was just as bad as the girl who answered the phone. So. I’m not sure why exactly they’re taking English lessons through the rescue service, but I’m not going to complain. They were all really nice and fun and I can’t wait to go back next month!