Posts Tagged ‘Snow’

"Art belongs to the people," says Lenin. On the UU Opera House

Russians have a word (“trevoga”) for the spiritual qualms that you experience before traveling until you’re safely seated on your train/plane seat. I call it stress. Whatever it is, I feel it.

The day of our departure, I went straight from classes to my internship, and then straight to choir rehearsal, leaving early around 8 p.m. to inhale my dinner, grab my things (packed the day before), and run to meet Ryan at the station to catch our 9:40 overnight train to Ulan-Ude. The guidebook says it’s nickname is “UU,” but I’ve never heard that in real life. (Prophesy from the future: more “the guidebook was wrong” moments to come).

Regardless, we got in at 6 a.m. and bought the last of our train tickets (the ticket lady in Irkutsk had advised us to hold off on getting a few of them, since better seats opened up in the end).

MISTAKE ONE: Not booking the hotel. (more…)


1st semester: were told our grammar was "dirty." 2nd semester, were offered the "Clean Grammar" text.

In grammar class, we are learning about how using passive voice and impersonal expressions is a good thing. In the Russian language, you are supposed to put the blame on an invisible, mystical (neuter gendered) something. The Star Wars “Force,” if you will. (And no, it’s not God, for God is male in the Russian language).

For example: don’t say, “I’m cold,” but rather, “[Mystical neuter something] is cold to me.” Likewise, not “I didn’t finish my homework,” but “[Mystical neuter something] didn’t let it get done for me to finish the homework.”

(Get more facts–there’s no pun in that–about Russian grammar from a colleague in Yaroslavl on her blog. Otherwise, my life story (of sorts) is continued below.)

This was supposed to be the week that we got settled in to our firmed-up schedules and caught up on work. (But this assumption was wrong. More proof that when you “A S S (of) U (&) M E” in Russia, you just get it handed back to you.) (more…)

To properly describe my experience in the realm of the Russian “holiday season,” if such a concept actually exists as a period defined apart from the general conception of everyday life in this country, then I should go back to my Thanksgiving holiday here.

Walking out of a delightful evening of intercultural dialogue (conversation over wine with Russians) on the last Thursday of November, passing the central market, my cohorts and I noticed that within the past few hours, a gargantuan “Happy New Year’s” light-up sign with accompanying fir garlands had been hung on the face of the main shopping mall. That may have made my Thanksgiving more complete than the sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie had.

I don’t consider myself a total minion of the U.S. of Consumerism Culture that I left behind in order to spend the holidays abroad. But, I won’t lie, the probably coincidental Black Friday start of the Russian end-of-the-year shopping season with the Irkutsk central market’s sign-hanging and Christmas-tree construction really did touch my little heart, somewhere between my conviction that Christmas is the “Season for Giving” and my capacity to get an adrenaline rush when I see big red signs including the symbols “-” and “%.”

Thanks to the Soviet reconstruction of, well, everything, (more…)

I’ll blame my lack of posting on a few things. First, wrapping up finals season always comes with alternating bouts of productivity and extreme laziness, meaning that when I was working, I was burning the midnight oil, and when I wasn’t working, I really wasn’t. Second, Ryan got into Irkutsk two weeks ago, so between showing him Russia, making sure he knew where to go around the city and how to get there, and trying to keep him entertained, that’s occupied me, too. Finally, it’s Christmastime, which I’ve been preparing for with great anticipation (!). Check my next post for that.

But, having Ryan here to show around the streets of Irkutsk (he’s been clinging to my Irkutsk-Detroit analogy as an explanation for many of his discoveries) has been fun to one, see what I’ve learned since I got here almost four months ago equally bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and two, to revisit and expand my knowledge about a few aspects of the life and culture I’ve been living.

Russian America. Our Buryatia trip hadn’t completely run down Midd’s budget for excursions for our Irkutsk group, so Elizabeth organized a van tour around Irkutsk two weeks ago after our classes. The theme of the tour was “Russian America and Irkutsk;” to give the appropriate history lesson (parts of which are from our Baikal studies learnings, parts from the tour). . . .


As far as I’ve been keeping track on the weather report, last week’s temperatures included the lowest low I’ve seen thus far (-28 deg. C.) and the highest high I’ve seen since it’s frozen (-3 deg. C.).

Although autumn officially still has about a month to go, the magic of the Russian cold has been out and ambling about the streets of Irkutsk for a good month now.

The sidewalks are frozen in what looks like will be the same ice and snow for the next 4-5 months. People slip and fall with notable frequency; people generally don’t stop to help. A small hill across the courtyard beneath my fourth-story window already has a long, worn-in track of ice from kids’ (and the neighborhood drunks’, by night, I’ve seen) sliding down on sleds, cardboard scraps, and behinds.

Ice slides are the thing here–none of that snow-sledding nonsense of the less adventurous.

This includes the production of the season: Public Transportation On Ice. After all, Gogol said, “What kind of Russian doesn’t like fast rides!”


Admittedly, I felt the down-points of the “culture shock” wave more than I expected–the frustration of little inconveniences, getting on wrong busses, the language barrier, missing home and Middlebury–, but, I’m still reeling on how great of a week this turned out to be.

Baikal adventure no. 1
Last Saturday, the Midd group, along with our coordinator and four of her friends from GBT (more on that below) met at the Irkutsk dock on the Angara river in the strangely suburbia-looking Solnechni district. After an hour-long boat ride along the Angara to Lake Baikal, with a stop in town of Listviyanka (the Baikal destination for the Russian nouveaux riches), we found ourselves in the isolated village of Bolshie Koty, named after the wooden shoes made in the town for miners on Baikal.

We filled the rest of the day with an easy hike to the top of a small mountain on one side of the village, a chilly plunge into Baikal (40 deg. F), cooking and eating a chicken stew for dinner, our first Russian sauna (banya) complete with veniki (dried birch branches soaked in water that you beat on each other), all wrapped up with tea and word games (all the more fun in Russian…) into the night.

koty hiking baikal1

In contrast to city life in Irkutsk, the peacefulness of the lake struck both the first timers and the natives. The first night, Patrick and I took a walk down to the lake, which by that time had become noisy with the waves from far-off winds crashing into the rocky shore. Apart from the few bright, white street lights in Koty, all you could see was the layers of pure black across the lake.

The next morning, we set off on a 20 km hike back to Listviyanka along the shore trail, and then through the mountains. The weekend reflection time was much appreciated, as was the social time with actually Russian (!) friends (Zhanna, Zhenya, Katya, and Ulyana), especially as us three Americans had been practically quarantined in the same classroom all week, leaving little time to venture out socially.

We had lunch on the shore, sipped out of the world’s largest natural drinkable water source and proceeded to walk through a 30-minute, slightly unnerving storm, traipsing along the cliffs above the lake with our packs. Then we got a little bit lost, but then found. Coming down off the mountain, we had an hour to spare in Listviyanka before the last bus to Irkutsk left.

While wandering around the market and getting pushed around by the small and unexpectedly solid, sturdy babushkas (lit. grandma’s, but really, any elderly and, consequently, very respected woman in Russia), the scent of fresh-caught and cooked omul’ (a fish indigenous to Baikal known for its strong fishy smell) lured Romany and I to split one. A well-spent 50 rubles to end a well-spent day.

boots P1013804_2 P1013810_2

Time to play, finally
Now getting into the swing of what is admittedly a comparatively low-stress academic “regime” at the IGU Mezhfak, we’re able to focus more of our efforts on getting to know people. Tuesday night, we three Americans met up with three of the girls from the hike for a walk across the center and a night hanging out in one of Irkutsk’s many pizza cafes (imagine McDonald’s, minus the American food, plus Russian food, plus pizza, but leaving the all-ages clientele and kid’s playset in place).

Wednesday evening, Romany and I met our friend Nelli from Petersburg and her friend Katya in the center to play “Bolshoi (big) tennis” (to distinguish it from table tennis apparently) on Grand Boulevard Karl Marx. The grandiose verbiage slightly misled me too: though I have yet to find too much more empirical evidence, this result seems typical of Russian labels for events and festivals in general. The courts, rackets, and balls were probably as old as Karly Marx himself, but it was still a good time, if not just a nominal workout.

Thursday, Romany and I again met to go to the GBT (Great Baikal Trail, BBT in Russian) meeting at the Natural Museum of Irkutsk. Elizabeth volunteers with the organization and had turned us on to it: the group organizes summer and winter projects to Baikal where international participants build trails that will eventually circumnavigate the lake’s shores. The goal of their efforts is to attract eco-minded tourism to experience the lake for all it’s natural magnificence, thereby increasing social initiative to preserve it.

After being welcomed in at the meeting as soon as I’d stepped foot in the door with a handshake, a seat, and tea and sweets, it was clear the group, consisting of young, energetic, and fun people, would be a great place to find some good volunteer, outdoorsy, and social opportunities, all in one. We’d planned on helping them clean up a trail just outside the city today, but they’d finished by the time we were getting ready to go this morning. Next time.

Last night, Nelli got together a group of the international students at our faculty to go see Final Destination 4 (all the better dubbed in Russian): her, her Russian friend Ira, Romany, me, an Italian named Fritz, and 8 Germans. Thirteen people total. To see one of the Final Destination series movies (the basic premise/plot: the “hero” sees how everyone is going to die, they die without fail, and every one is dead at the very bloody, Hamletesque end). That should have been our first signal.

The second signal should have been the fact that around 4:30, really strong winds (i.e. bus-overturning winds, as per the local news) and rain and then snow started, and continued all night. But, after obliging the (typically blasé) thriller-turned-comedy, the lively company distracted everyone from keeping an eye on the time.

Then we realized the busses were done (11 p.m.). Then the wait for a cab was more than an hour. Then half of the German delegation wanted to go a club. Then Nelli, our fearless (Russian) leader seemed like she was having a break-down. . . .

Eventually, after 15-20 minutes of walking up and down slush-covered, muddy, unlit, 11:30-at-night streets of Irkutsk in the wind and snow of the season’s first storm (with me dressed in my hood-less jacket and Sperry’s loafers), we found 3 cabs to get us home, and by midnight, were home safe and sound, though slightly moist and cold.

Lessons learned: Wear more clothes. Taxis, shared, are cheap. Autumn may in fact be a phenomenon unique to Vermont. This year will be great.

The two and a half weeks I’ve spent at home so far have been nothing but relaxing as I prepare for a summer of what I’m expecting will be plenty of hard work. (Not that it  won’t be a great time, too.) 

In addition to getting some work done on the computer (setting up this blog, uploading pictures from the semester, weeding through some 500 old emails on my Gmail account), I’ve got to spend some quality time with old friends, catching up and saying goodbye. I’ve spent a good deal of time with Adi Amato; and most of that time has been poolside at five resorts (and counting) around the Phoenix area.

On Memorial Day weekend, she, Nikki Stevenson, and I decided to slip in to the pool at resort #1 (yes, I’m keeping their names on the DL on purpose). Since they had a wristband system, and we were found out almost as soon as we got there, we drove about a mile and a half to resort #2 and spent the rest of the afternoon there. Pictures here, here, and on my Flickr feed. We did resort #3 on Wednesday, which was uneventful and thus, perfect. Resort #4 today also had a wristband system, so we ended up finding our favorite resort out of all of them, Resort #5. This place not only had a great pool and plenty of cushioned lounge chairs, but they also came by from time to time to serve frozen grapes, fresh strawberries, iced towelettes, and ice water with citrus slices to their guests laying out in the scorching desert sun. So thoughtful. Freeloading? Yes. Worth every minute of it? Without a doubt. We have plans for a Resort #6 on Sunday. Plan B for Sunday is to go back to Resort #5. Not a half-bad last resort, now, is it? 

(We also decided it would make a great premise for an NBC sitcom, The Resorters, à la Tina Fey’s 30 Rock. Thoughts? before I send in the script for a pilot episode?)

Lounging around the pool with the moneyed of Phoenix, at the recommendation of my political philosophy professor, Kateri Carmola, I’ve been reading Snow by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 2004 (reviews here from The New Yorker and the Times). For one, it’s been a fascinating read, in that I’ve gotten glimpse of the “West v. Islam” conflict on the fringes of that battlefront, that is, in Turkey, a nation whose identity seems as schizophrenic as Russia’s is, since Turkey is also a country caught halfway between the Occident and Orient.

On the level of literature, however, Snow is a beautifully written novel, and I admire translator Maureen Freely’s totally refined skill in loyally transferring that aesthetic to the Anglophone reader. After reading an article of hers from The Washington Post about her work on the novel, I appreciate this artistry even more. (Speaking of, click here for an article by one of my best friends from Midd interning at the Post. Go Cathy!) 

In the book, Ka, the protagonist, visits Kars, a border town he lived in before political exile, as he seeks to negotiate his identities as poet and as politician. This is a question of identity, education, career choice, etc. of mine, too, and relaxedly mulling it over while reading Snow in the ceaseless Arizona sunshine has been all I could ask for on my vacation before running off to Russia.