Week 1: “Irkutsk is a lot like Detroit”

Posted: September 11, 2009 in Иркутск
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First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

First sight of Siberia, a few minutes before landing in Irkutsk.

Moscow seems completely manageable compared to a week in Irkutsk. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great little spot on the map, which, needless to say, I never would have found or wanted to visit if it weren’t for this program. Not that there’s any American comparison, but still–think: a nice downtown with the character of a skyscraper-less Boston, add in some Easter pastel-colored paint and the advertising flare of Tokyo, the traffic of Manhattan (times five), and the outskirts of any typically creepy-after-dark of any urban area (thus the Detroit comparison), and you’ve got Irkutsk.

But all that was pretty darn well kept a secret until we (I speak of my two Middlebury comrades Romany and Patrick) got in over our heads here. We flew in last Saturday morning, met three smiling women at the gates that would be our host moms, better described by “khozyaika” (a landlady, house manager, etc. …who does amazing cooking and generally makes everything okay at the end of the day), and set off for what would be home for 10 months. I live on Kostycheva Street on the side of the river opposite the center, just a 10 minute ride from the International Department (the Mezhfak) of IGU.

After our on-site orientation at Elizabeth’s apartment just off the main pedestrian walkway, which they actually built to house the administrators of the KGB back in the day, we set off on a week of confused bus rides, awkward conversations asking directions, missed meetings, and a slew of other new “experiences,” I’ll say, too many to enumerate. Of course, mixed in there were also some making friends, learning new things, and, not to forget, realizing that summer was officially over 1) with two days of overcast weather and rain, and 2) with the start of the new school year.

Right now, we’re each taking the same 5 classes with each other, that is, it’s only us 3 Americans in the same 5 classes at the Mezhfak. We have “Practical” Grammar, Speaking and Writing Practice, Russian Literature, Post-Soviet History, and Baikal-o-studies (had to do the literal translation of the word on the last one; to clarify, that’s the study of Lake Baikal just upstream). All of the classes, as any, have their ups and downs, and after just a week, I’d say we’re all pretty comfortable with the lectures and homework. Discussion we’re working on, obviously.

When they say the city is a history museum, after only being here a week with limited time for random wandering about, they really have a point. The city stems off of the water of the Angara River with little wooden houses with the most beautiful woodwork and multi-colored paints that are scattered throughout the modernized areas. Then there is the actual downtown on the north/east bank, which also includes some pretty old buildings, a lot of which definitely cropped up in the decades surrounding the turn of the 19th century along with the Trans-Siberian Railroad’s opening. All of the high-rise apartment buildings that make up the western side of the Angara’s skyline are the still very alive and working remnants of Soviet-built concrete housing. There are cranes scattered everywhere, building new and modern apartment buildings, working on the bridges and dam, being used in the industrial work of the city, and so on.

Looking ahead… Tomorrow we leave for an overnight trip to Baikal, which includes a 20 km hike on day 2. Next week we’ll be starting to visit mainstream courses in different departments, since we’ll each be dropping one of the 5 classes to semi-participate in a real Russian university class for Midd credit. I’m still working on getting a wireless Internet connection at home. And lastly, I’ll eventually get the guts to take the huge clunkin’ camera out for a day to get some pics of the place—but don’t count on too many of those great National Geographic photos with an old person longingly looking into the camera. If I ever came by one, I’d be lucky to escape without being scolded, though maybe not very loudly, with all the Russian severity you could stand, if not without a broken camera, too.

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