Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.

Lomonosov and the Myth of Civilization

I know I said I was going to write about Eurovision, but then this happened, and I have to write about this first:

It all starts with Mikhail Lomonosov. If you haven’t ever heard of Lomonosov, get off my blog, how dare you. Just kidding! I barely knew who he was before I came here (but oh how that was to change). Lomonosov was a pioneering scientist, academic, and poet, who discovered some stuff about Venus, among other things. But, the only reason I had ever heard of him before was because of briefly living in Moscow State University, which is one of two universities in Russia named after the mighty Lomonosov. Guess what the second one is. That’s right! My very own Northern (Arctic) Federal University Named After M. V. Lomonosov! Also known as SAFU. The reason SAFU gets to be named after him is that he was born in Arkhangelsk Oblast. The Homeland of Lomonosov is about an hour and a half drive away from the city of Arkhangelsk.  The story goes that when he was nineteen, having learned everything he could in Arkhangelsk, he walked to Moscow, where he continued his studies and would later found Moscow State University. Arkhangelsk never forgot him, though; there are statues and busts of him everywhere, his face hangs in the entrance of the library and on the airport, and he has a street named after him in the city.

Young Mikhail setting off for Moscow– wasn’t he a cutie?

Anyway, one of my colleagues, another Elena, has a relative who lives in the Homeland of Lomonosov (now, surprisingly, called Lomonosovo), and she offered to take me there last weekend to see the museum. I was delighted. She and her husband picked me up around 10 am, and the sun was low and red on the horizon and made everything just overwhelmingly beautiful.

After stopping in Novodvinsk (a town noted for the distinctive smell that continually emanates from the paper factory) to pick up treats for tea, we went on to Kholmogoryi, the town right across the river from Lomonosovo. There, we met Elena’s nephew Alyosha and his friend at the store, to buy some furniture. Because Elena and her husband have a flatbed truck, they were helping Alyosha transport the furniture from the store to his apartment. They loaded the furniture in the back and Alyosha and his friend and Elena piled into the backseat on top of some sacks of potatoes, and we continued on to the island of Lomonosovo.

After we dropped off the furniture, we went to the museum. It was pretty cool, and I took a couple of pictures there, which you can see more of in my facebook album here. But the most fun part, for me, was getting to hang out with Elena and her family, and hear their stories and jokes, and I felt like it would be rude to be taking pictures of these people I barely knew in their home.

Russia really is full of bears!

One of the things we saw at the museum was a huge display of these just flabberghastingly intricate trinkets carved out of bone—there were tiny boxes and chess sets and carved portraits of Lomonosov, and goblets with Soviet leaders on them, and figurines of bears and birds and fish and deer.

And it turns out that Alyosha actually does the very same kind of carvings! And he teaches classes on how to do them. When we got back to his apartment, he showed me a bunch of things he had carved. First, a game kind of like pick up sticks, except with these exquisite little tools: hammers and vises and pliers carved out of bone, all the size of one of my pinkie knuckles. And he had tiny little jewelry boxes that he’d made that looked just like the ones in the museum. He just kept bringing out more and more, and then he produced a lovely little letter opener and said that I could take it with me if I liked it. I of course accepted the gift, and said I was sorry I didn’t have anything to give him in return. Everyone laughed and Elena explained, “The more you apologize, the more gifts he’ll give you!” After which he proceeded to gift me a little cornucopia in the shape of a Pomor bird called a glukhar. (Glukhar comes from the Russian word for “deaf,” and Elena told me it’s because when they sing their mating song, they can’t hear anything else.)

gifts from Alyosha

So we sat in the living room and drank extraordinarily strong black tea, and ate sandwiches made of salmon and cheese and white bread (sliced “one-handed style,” Elena’s husband joked—because if you cut thin delicate slices, you need one hand to hold it, and one hand to catch the crumbs). And a cake that was absurdly sweet and delicious. Alyosha showed us pictures of his son, and Elena marveled at how much he looks like Alyosha; they talked about the landlord, whose voice you could hear from downstairs, and about the benefits of having a first versus second floor apartment. Before we left, Alyosha copied some movies to a flash drive for his friend to take home with him.

The snow and ice make the road better to drive on, they told me, because it fills in all the horrible potholes.

On the way home, I asked Elena about how she and her husband met. She told me about the traditional gauntlet of trials and tests he had to go through to get to her on their wedding day, and about collecting medicinal herbs for a country-wide competition every year when she was a Young Pioneer back in the Soviet times, in hopes of winning a vacation to the south. I told them about how different Pennsylvania drivers are from Russian drivers, they reminisced about how much worse the roads used to be. They dropped me off at home and I took an exhausted hour-long nap.

It was a great day. But the part I didn’t tell you is the part where there was no bridge to get to the island, and we just drove across the frozen river. There were even road signs for the crossing. And a couple dozen meters away from where the cars cross, there were people just walking back and forth across the river, too. When it’s not winter, there’s a ferry that takes cars to and from the island.

The other part I didn’t tell you is that there’s no running water on the island. After I went to the bathroom at Alyosha’s apartment, for me to wash my hands, he put some water into a pan and then poured it out over my hands into the sink. And the whole time I was on the island, I kept seeing people with little sleds, like the kind that people in Akrhangelsk drag their kids around on, except that they were dragging little tanks of water around. As we left, there was a horse hanging out between two houses, and what you can’t see from the picture is that he’s harnessed to a little sledge that’s loaded with more water tanks.

Back in late October, when it was still relatively warm, our water in the dorm got shut off for a couple of hours once or twice while there were repairs being done on the pipes. In a brief moment of frustration, Łukasz said to me, “Water is civilization, Rutka!” and I agreed with him at the time. But, like, clearly that is not true. It was weird to me because it seemed like no big deal to be washing my hands under water poured from a pot, while at the same time I could recognize that this was not the definition of “civilization” I had been working with. I guess, really, water is a necessity for life, and the way we get it is part of why there are different civilizations, different cultures.

So much I never knew about Groundhog Day!

I couldn’t pass up on the chance to share this bizarre American tradition in my night class today. My Pennsylvania spirit came out full force. And what fodder I got from the Groundhog Day website! I had no idea it was so thorough, so whimsical, so made of awesome. I only had one student, but I had her read the FAQ about Punxsutawney Phil and the Groundhog Day tradition, which includes such gems as

How often is Phil’s prediction correct? 100% of the time, of course!

How many “Phils” have there been over the years? There has only been one Punxsutawney Phil. He has been making predictions for over 125 years!

Punxsutawney Phil gets his longevity from drinking the “elixir of life,” a secret recipe. Phil takes one sip every summer at the Groundhog Picnic and it magically gives him seven more years of life.

Priceless! You never think about how wonderful and hilarious and stupid and treasured your own traditions are until you hold them up to the skepticism and rationality of your Russian students. After we read the FAQ and speculated about the veracity of its writers, we watched this newsclip:

To her credit, my one student expressed just as much skepticism about these reporters’ reactions to Phil as to the Inner Circle’s lavishing praise upon him. In any case, I certainly learned a lot about the history of my own state today, such as the fact that Groundhog Day has been celbrated since 1887! And that it has its origins in Candlemas traditions brought by the first Pennsylvanians (If we can believe anything that site says, that is).

We tried to watch the live stream (seriously, they have a freaking live stream of the events!) at around 3 pm, which would have been 6 am EST, when the festivities supposedly began, but it didn’t work, whether because my Internet was too slow, or there were too many people tuning in. I know a lot of people were probably glued to their computer screens, eager to find out the prediction! Later, I learned that he did indeed see his shadow, so there will be six more weeks of winter. Do you think that applies only to America? Or can I take this as a worldwide prediction? Honestly, I think only six more weeks of winter would be getting off easy up here in the Arctic.

I was slightly ashamed to admit, when a colleague asked, that I have never been to the Groundhog Day festivities myself, even thought Punxsutawney is only, like, two hours away from Greensburg. Someday! It’s on my bucket list! And now that I’ve dealt with -22° (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius, kids!), whatever weather Pennsylvania throws at me in early February should be a breeze.

Coming soon: Eurovision and Dima Bilan!