Poland confused me.

What with it being located between Russia and “Western” Europe, and what with my latest experience being in Russia, and what with my experience in the Balkans pretty much directly south, I was expecting Poland to be sort of like a cleaner, more compact version of Russia. But when I arrived and Łuki started showing me around his town and nearby Lublin, I began to scratch my proverbial head.

“It’s kind of like… Southern California?” I ventured, as we walked through the more recently developed part of his neighborhood. The scrubby vegetation, bright flora, beating sun, and luxurious-looking tile-roofed villas added up. But the humidity, the small wheat fields in between luxury villas, and the Catholic churches on every corner did not. “Or maybe Spain?”

Wandering through the Old Town in Lublin, Łuki told me it’s been compared to Italy architecturally, but the bright pink and green facades contrasted with my mental image of Italy as a more gray and beige stone kind of place. Plus, Lublin has more spires than cupolas.

Hearing that Poland feels itself caught between the “east” of Russia and the “west” of Germany is confusing when for most of its history, Russia has grappled with an identity caught between the “east” of Asia and the “west” of Europe. And Poland is part of Europe, right? Central Europe? Eastern Europe? A former satellite state?

If Germans and even people from western Poland look on the infrastructure of eastern Poland with disdain, the autobahns must be paved with gold. Lublin’s grocery stores are just as small as in Arkhangelsk, but the potatoes are scrubbed clean and the fruit is plentiful and unmarked. The people are friendly and cheerful, but they size each other up on the street with what an American might call nosiness or even suspicion.

Finally, I gave up on trying to compare Poland to things and just enjoyed my time with Łukasz. Gently sloping hills, gorgeous lush green forests, ancient oak trees, herds of wild ponies: these things don’t need to be on a map to be beautiful. There will be plenty of time to try and understand Poland once I’m done trying to understand Russia.


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.

Popping My Banya Cherry

At one point over the weekend in Ufa, I found myself lying belly down on a wooden bench, face inches from a burning hot brick wall, in a steamy room, stark naked, being beaten with birch branches.

This is the culmination of a certain piece of Russian culture I had heard about, evaluated in passing, and decided was not for me: the banya. But, the power of peer pressure and the comfort of my Fulbright friends, combined with the isolation of our private banya at the country cabin, and of course a little wine, made me cave, and I stripped down with six other girls to round up a couple more Russian Soul points [(c) Randi Leyshon].

The banya is kind of like a sauna, in that there’s a stove with heated stones, and you pour water over them to produce steam. It’s not like a sauna in that you’re completely naked with people you may or may not know well. And you follow the sweating with dousing yourself in cold water and/or rolling naked in the snow. And you get beaten with birch branches called veniki to get your circulation flowing and maybe to clear your pores? I’m not real clear on the purpose: as I said, I haven’t researched this deeply. Prior to last weekend, my only exposure to the inside of a banya came from one of the opening scenes of the film Burnt by the Sun:

I’ve picked up bits and pieces of banya culture from living here. My grocery store sells birch branches and hats for the banya. I know some of my Fulbright colleagues go to the banya with their fellow teachers and even with their students. Some people do wear towels or bathing suits, depending on how public the banya is. Any time it comes up in conversation with a group of Russians, they tell me that they go once a week with their friends. (Though I recently met a student who told me she doesn’t like going to the banya because it makes her light-headed).

I don’t think the banya will become a regular part of my life here in Russia, but I’m glad I tried it. And I’m glad I tried it with Americans. Maybe that makes the experience less “authentic” or whatever, but it’s authentic to the way I’m experiencing Russia. I’m not a Russian, and I’m never going to be. I’ll always be an American in Russia, for better or for worse. But while the American perspective certainly affects the way I see Russia, being in Russia is also affecting the way I see America, and Americans.

I can think of few circumstances in America in which I’d be comfortable getting down to birthday suits with a bunch of people I’ve only met a few times. Even skinny dipping in Paradise Pond back at Smith never happened for me. Maybe it’s those pesky Puritan forefathers shaking their fingers at the taboo of nudity. Maybe it’s media-reinforced insecurities about my body. Maybe it’s American individualism making me overvalue my personal space. But here, in Russia, the nakedness wasn’t weird. It just was. And after I was done being beaten, I got up and beat my friend in return, and then we went back to the domik for tea and water to rehydrate.

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.

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.

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.