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Hooray! For some reason, I have not been able to access my blog since I returned from Siberia — until now!

That’s right, I was in Siberia! Many many posts are forthcoming about the train, the repeated shattering of my expectations in Kyzyl, the Access camp where I taught, and my reaction to the White Nights of Arkhangelsk upon my return (it wasn’t good)!

For now, have a picture of me with the American Corner conversation club, celebrating the Fourth of July on the beach!

“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.

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.