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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

string cheese

So, there’s this cheese they have here in Arkhangelsk (and I guess probably other parts of Russia, but I’d never seen it before coming here). I don’t know what it’s called, but it looks like this:

And it goes really good with beer. We got some at the Cuban restaurant with Dad and Nils and Liv last week, and when Dad tasted it, his reaction was, “This is cheese?” It’s incredibly salty and smoky, and tastes more like beef jerky than like cheese. But I love it, and now I have some of my very own! We’ll see how long it lasts…

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.

Russian Men

In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday was Defenders of the Fatherland Day here in Russia. The holiday was originally the Day of the Red Army and Navy, but the name was changed sometime after the end of the Soviet Union. These days, it’s celebrated more informally as a kind of “Men’s Day,” as a counterpart to International Women’s Day on March 8. But attitudes are mixed about this. When I mentioned that “Men’s Day” was coming up to my all-female class, several of them immediately corrected me–“Noooo, it’s only for men in the army!”

On the other hand, these posters appeared in the halls at the university the day before:

“To our dear boys, lads, guys, men and mAns!!!! We want to wish you a happy February 23 and say that we value and love you very much!!! –Your girls.”

[The last word for men, “muzkYki” is misspelled, with the wrong letter capitalized. I feel like I’m missing something.]

And then there was this one:

“Happy holiday, our dear defenders! To you happiness, robust health, and great victory in every undertaking!”

Łukasz received a text from a female colleague wishing him, and I quote, “valor and steadfastness.” Oh, and I got him a little cat figurine, because I know he’s obsessed with cats.

Grocery stores sold cards that entreated their recipients to be like rocks, real men, striving to live up to the example of the great defenders of the fatherland. I took the opportunity to endear myself to the night watchmen with chocolate. One of them, Valentin Ilich, is a Navy man (like my grandpa!) and remembers everything, and loves to tell you about it. When I went to present him with a bar of chocolate printed with St. George slaying the dragon, he was watching a ceremony of some sort on TV, which involved singing of patriotic songs and a woman saying things about the qualities of men in between each act. But Valentin Ilich immediately got to his feet and happily recounted to me his visit to the widow of his former captain, to commemorate the holiday. He and his wife brought her photographs and a book about the veterans that her husband appeared in, and chocolates and flowers. Half an hour later, I came back to my room edified and happy, but not any less bemused by this funny holiday.