Catching Up in Time to Leave

Happy June, you guys! I’m still alive in Russia, and unfortunately also preparing to leave. In just six days I will be leaving Ukhta to see my mom in Moscow (!!!), and we’ll be traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg until the end of June.

I don’t want to leave Ukhta. I know that staying is unsustainable (and also probably something I won’t want after a few more months away from home), but I’ve found people here who I love, and a community that loves me, and honestly, the transition was so much more comfortable than I had ever hoped it to be.

That being said, I also do not want to be a teacher (ever again?), so I have no useful skills that would allow me to stay in Russia. I did tell my friends that if I can get a marriage proposal before next Saturday, I can probably stay, but I feel like only the bravest men can face off against my mother, and I don’t want blood on my hands.

Anyway, I’ve been true garbage at blogging, in part because I’ve been especially busy this semester, in part because I’ve been enjoying being with friends, and in part because this is basically my pattern in blogging/journal-keeping. The tricke-off effect.

But, this has been an interesting semester, and since I don’t want to post every day to catch up (honestly, if I post one more time before I leave it will be a true miracle), I’ll just dump some pictures from the various adventures that have been had this semester.

Syktyvkar (March):

Usinsk (April):

Letka (May):

The weekend in Letka was probably one of my favorite moments of the entire year, and my only blogging regret was not taking the time to write about it comprehensively. Nastya’s parents were absolutely wonderful and the town itself was calm and beautiful and such a great escape from the hustle and bustle of Ukhta. Please note, this is the first recorded mention of the “hustle and bustle of Ukhta.” No proof said hustle and bustle actually exists.

Volgograd (also May):

Miscellaneous Things (All months):

Including: Hanging out with babies, musicals, co-Fulbrighter attachment…

Saying goodbye (some May, some June, terrible no matter the season):

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My adorable high school English Club (and adorable Katie as a bonus)

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(Some of) my equally adorable university English Club. Not pictured: Me weeping five seconds before this picture or me trying to box everything with a pulse.

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What I Eat in a Day (Lent)

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The alpha and omega of my diet, regardless of country.

 

 

…Or an alternative title, blog posts that only serve to stress my mom out for my own personal enjoyment.

If you know me (or better, have ever lived with me), you know I’m not exactly an expert at practicing self-care vis-a-vis eating food regularly. Or eating complete meals. Or remembering to eat. I’d like to say it’s because I’m too busy solving the world’s problems, but honestly I just forget/usually I find eating a waste of time that could be better spent napping.

Believe it or not, these life skills have further deteriorated in Russia, which has been fun. I can only imagine my food schedule if I wasn’t with another Fulbrighter, and especially one that is particularly diligent about making sure I eat. Which I listen to. Sometimes.

Because it’s lent, and I’ve been trying to abstain from meat and dairy as much as possible (it’s tricky in Russia, and dairy sometimes needs to slip in for sanity/dealing with children), my self-preservation skills are similarly a bit paltry. Here’s a look at what I eat most days.

Breakfast:

20160407_113914Assuming I have somewhere to be, I actually eat breakfast in Russia (unlike in the U.S.). Normally, this means yogurt with cereal and the hugest mug of coffee that I own. The past few weeks, it’s meant peanut butter.

Also side note on peanut butter: I actually really hate peanut butter, in the parallel universe that is my American life. It’s too heavy, too sweet, too overwhelming, and basically ruins the base that you’re spreading it on. Not to mention it’s not that good for you, really. In Russian life, it is my lifeblood. Here is some photographic evidence.

Peanut butter on pretzels, peanut butter in honey (Russian honey is the most amazing thing), peanut butter on bread, fruit, more pretzels – it’s everywhere. Don’t take this as a hint – I do not want to see a single jar of peanut butter upon my return. Just lots of kale. In fact, if someone can arrange a welcoming party armed with bouquets of kale and spinach instead of flowers, I’d be eternally grateful.

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love u, pb

This week, breakfast has meant bread+peanut butter+honey+smashed banana, because I’m a 5 year old. It’s delicious, though. Also when I was an actual 5 year old I was way too picky for a breakfast like this (sorry, mom!) Again, note the coffee and the pretzels waiting in the wings. I go through about two bags of pretzels a week. This is because…

Lunch: If I’m not being monitored by Katie/another adult, lunch is almost always pretzels. Pretzels with peanut butter and honey (yeah, I’m a creature of habit), pretzels with chocolate, pretzels plain, etc. I refuse to acknowledge that my constant stomach aches may have to do with the fact that I’m eating basically crackers in lieu of complex meals.

Other things I sometimes eat: A tomato and bread, cucumbers, pirogi of different sorts (cabbage, potato and mushroom, meat if I’m eating meat, etc.) The other day my lunch consisted of 4 apples and 3 tangerines, and I felt like the healthiest person in the world. Also I was hungry that entire day. If I’m being realllly cognizant about, you know, the need to fuel oneself to stay alive, I’ll go to a stolovaya (cafeteria) and buy some macaroni, salad (salad is a loose concept in Russia, where everything is mayonnaise and nothing is green), and sometimes a fish cutlet. I have gone to a stolovaya for lunch twice in the past 3 weeks, for those keeping track at home.

Also sometimes I just skip lunch, like any modern lady on the go.

Tea: The best part of the day. Tea is probably mostly reserved for people who have company over, but I have an unofficial tea party for myself every day because tea is the best thing and chocolate is even better. Also the tea I’ve found here is unparalleled to what I find in the U.S. (also the coffee here is much worse, so I’ve needed to substitute where possible). Tea time consists of tea, chocolate, and pretzels. Sometimes if I have cookies I’ll eat a few of those. Again, hi, I’m an adult that the government selected to live in a foreign country for a year and influence hearts and minds. Basically, this is my excuse during the day to eat junk food.

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Dinner: Dinner is a crapshoot. If I have not fed myself the majority of the day (which happens more often than I’d like to admit), I will dip into a supermarket on the way home and get a garlicky beet salad with some sort of pirog, scarf all of it, then slip into a low-grade food coma for the rest of the evening. If I’m being slightly better, I will dip in to my favorite restaurant, Matreshka, to pick up grechka (buckwheat) with sauteed vegetables, or a honey blinchik (since by then it will have been a few hours since last I had honey), and some sort of soup.

If I’m at a level 3 in self-care, I will still be underfueled but competent enough to boil up some spaghetti with vegetable sauce. Lo, last night’s dinner.

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I’m pretty sure Yiayia used Prego too, right? #no

If I’m a perfect example of adulthood and humanity, which is rare, I’ll make something delicious (like fried rice or roasted broccoli or Mexicanish food) or less impressive (the self-dubbed hobo dinner, which consists of whatever vegetables are about to mold, some rice, and an egg. When in doubt, put an egg on it). Obviously, even these meals are gross/very college-y, but in my defense, teaching is hard and I don’t like to cook with meat, even when it’s not lent.

You Can’t Love it All

It’s been a while (as usual) since I’ve written anything, which is not to say nothing interesting has happened this semester. I’ve taken trips! I’ve gone skiing for the first time! I’ve begun my own course! I’ve fallen in literal pits (I like to think of myself as consistent more than clumsy, thank-you-very-much).

This post isn’t really to make up for any of that, but it is to share some of the things I’ve had to pretend to love (and actually loved, and pretended not to love as much) in the past 6 (almost 7!) months in Russia.

Things Russians Love that I Have to Pretend to Enjoy

  1. Most winter sports. I’ve succumbed to the reality that I will probably never be an effective ice skater/skier/snow bike rider. I mean, once the initial posing and joking is out of the way, sports in wilderness are basically just excuses for me to fall. I can appreciate the beauty of something without appreciating the actual work involved, right?
  2. Nicholas Cage. Apparently he’s not a joke in Russia?
  3. Matthew McConaughey/space movies. This is something I pretended to like for a while in college, too. I just don’t get the appeal of either of these two things, ok? I like Matt Damon and spy movies, which is about the best I can do.
  4. Donald Trump. I definitely don’t pretend to love him, but there have been many conversations during which I mostly just clench my jaw and strain my vision trying not to roll my eyes as some friends describe him as a strong, powerful leader. It makes sense to see that in a foreign country, I totally get it, but I haven’t gone bananas.
  5. Gender norms. It’s really not that bad in Russia, and I think that viewing gender relations internationally with the western conception of feminism and binaries in mind is really misguided/foolish anyway, but I’ve still had a few awkward interactions when doing things that I think are just expressions of being a functional human person. See: The literal dozens of times I’ve played chicken with a man over who would open the door for whom (it’s such an efficiency killer, you guys!)
  6. Mayonaise.
  7. Cured meat.
  8. The combination of both of these things. Also herring under a fur coat is probably not something I would reach for outside of Russia.
  9. Instant coffee. Ok, so I actually acclimated to it faster than I would have ever thought possible (read: I kind of like it), but I’ve also transitioned to drinking a pot of tea a day, so my standards and caffeine expectations are different all around.
  10. Russian pop music. Is it the worst thing ever? No. Is it basically the same rhythm/guitar rift for three minutes straight, no matter the genre, resembling some endless elevator music existence (or 7th ring of hell, take your pick)? Yes.

Things I Probably Should Downplay My Love for:

  1. Puppies. I’ve been reprimanded by friends for petting stray dogs. I just love dogs so much!
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  2. Blini. I don’t want to go back to a world of inferior pancakes, y’all.
  3. Babies in snow suits.
  4. Children speaking in Russian to their parents. Maybe because I can understand everything/it’s adorable?
  5. Russian chocolate. See #2.
  6. Posing in front of everything. Probably to the chagrin of Russians and Katie, my personal photographer, alike. Unfortunately/luckily, there are no pictures of my many failed escapades at winter sports.

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To be fair, this is the step of happiness.

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Making friends where it matters. Outside of a grocery store, with an inanimate object.

More to come soon! And there’s only a 30% chance that’s a lie!

Words on Winter and Wardrobe

Happy March/International Women’s Day!

Let’s ignore the fact that I’ve been basically garbage at posting anything in 2016 (sorry, family! But the calls home are proof enough that I’m alive, right?). It’s March, which honestly, in the North wouldn’t normally be spring (nor would April, really?) but this is a very weird winter. This point has been affirmed both by real live Russian friends and colleagues, and also by your favorite Californian fish in a big North Russian pond. Basically, it’s been very comfortable almost exclusively since I got back to Ukhta a month and a half ago.

To clarify my terms a bit, “very comfortable” is still in the 10s-20s Fahrenheit, but given that I thought it would be more like -20 and -30, this is obscenely comfortable.

I’m actually very acclimated to the 20s, and when the temperature dips above 30, I find myself sweating as if it’s springtime in California. I very rarely wear more than one layer, which is maybe ill-advised but also very rarely necessary. Also, there have been times that I have been warmer and more comfortable outside than either German (a Russian) or Katie (an Ohioan by way of Maryland).

I’ll stop bragging here (although I’m sure this is absolutely fascinating) to explain, briefly, what’s to come in Russian weather (because I’m an expert, duh), and the lessons I’ve learned on outerwear from my deep plunge into subarctic climates.

First of all, mud season is coming, y’all. What is mud season, you might be asking? In Russia (and probably just in places where there is lots of snow), the snow must eventually melt. Mud season, or грязь as it’s known here, is a) gross, and b) dangerous. Gross, because, well…

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This is not Ukhta, but this gives a good indication of it. I’m already ready for my boots to get kind of wrecked in the general muddiness of the weather. Also, dangerous, because often things melt and refreeze several times over the course of a few weeks (maybe it will snow again. Maybe, like this week, there will be a weird hot spell). As a result, things are either really melty or really slippery.

Remember when I fell? Yeah, that was during the October грязь spell. Luckily/hopefully, I’m older and wiser now.

Secondly, day length. The days are getting so long already! And by so long, I mean the sun sets at 5pm, but it is so wonderful. Short days take a really bad toll on every part of you, which I guess as a Californian I was always lucky enough to never realize until this year. When I got back in late January, the sun was already out noticeably longer than in December. I’m already preparing to buy a face mask for when the days are too long (this is especially exciting because a home goods store in town sells face masks with kitschy phrases on them, and we all know I like dumb/kitschy stuff).

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Thirdly, shorter winters are great but also bizarre. I’m not going to go on long about the environmental crisis that is DEFINITELY happening, you guys, but this is not normal. Yes, maybe it’s a quirk in a weather pattern. I have no doubt that next winter will likely be colder than this one (you’re welcome for bringing the sunshine to Ukhta), but in a way, this was a bit of a bummer. I love sunshine. I love things that are not -20 degrees. But as much as the weather has been a welcome surprise, it’s not what I signed up for? I was kind of excited for the cold, to really experience something totally different, and while that happened to some extent, it didn’t happen on the scale I (or most people I talked to) expected. In December, it was freezing, yes, but it was also kind of the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The snow crystallized on the trees and everything looked like it was made of glass and it was mesmerizing and perfect. By January 23rd, when I got back, while there was more snow on the ground than when I’d left, the trees were shedding the winter coat, and now 80% of the trees are back to normal. While that’s good (I like warm weather! I’m not anti-warm weather!), it is also a potent reminder of how quickly the world is changing, physically. And it’s a bit stressful. On the bright side, if weather patterns continue/the world continues to heat up, in 100 years, Ukhta might be primed to be the capital of Russia, who knows.

I’ll end this with some levity. Seven months ago, I was a naive Californian with no clue how to face a Russian winter. Today, I am a naive Californian with a sliiightly better grasp on what works and what doesn’t work in the north. Here is a cool photo explanation.

Scarves: Behold, Week 1 in Russia Vickie, that lovable dummy, who really thought that packing FOUR scarves of this thickness was a wise use of suitcase space. (To be fair, it was kind of like packing tissues).

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So happy. So bright-eyed. So oblivious to actual weather patterns. Luckily, I had exactly one functioning scarf (Thanks, Joanne!) made from something besides maybe-gauze. I have since stocked up, and now understand a) that scarves are the most important thing, especially if you hate hats, and b) the best scarves double as walking-around-your-apartment blankets.

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You may be asking, Vickie, where is your neck?? Exactly.

Coats on coats: Things I have zero regrets about: Buying a fall and a winter coat. Also just buying my winter coat generally. It is the best piece of outerwear I have ever purchased, despite the fact that I receive weekly grimaces of disgust for how ostentatiously green it is in a world full of black and brown fur. It takes a lot to commit to this type of Americanness, you know? ALSO, I’ve seen several people this winter with the same color outerwear as mine since first breaking it out, which only leads me to believe I’ve started a trend. You’re welcome, Ukhtans.

The love between a girl and her coat is a strong one, y’all.

 

Hats: Ugh, Russian wisdom requires always wearing a hat. I hate hats. I actively avoid them, but they are an unfortunate necessity. Here are two pictures of me, one while wearing my hat 100% properly but looking like Andrew, and the other with me looking slightly more like a functioning person but also with frozen hair. I would say it’s a fine balance, but it’s not.

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And finally, enter the balaclava. In maybe the peak of my insanity, I thought it would be hilarious to buy a balaclava when I was shopping in California. I thought my soon-to-be Russian friends and colleagues would giggle and beam with pride at the silly, yet smart, American, who while eschewing fashion trends, could understand the demands of weather.

I basically realized how foolish my purchase was within 5 minutes of buying it. Still packed it, though.

You guys, don’t ever buy a balaclava unless you’re going skiing. And even then, only buy it if your friends also will be wearing balaclavas. And even then, try to get visual confirmation that they will be bringing and wearing their balaclavas out. And even then, don’t wear a balaclava.

I did wear it once, strictly for the jokes (an increasingly expensive venture). I will add that once German saw me with it on, he said, direct quote, “What’s that on your face? Where did you find that? Take that off.”

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I personally don’t think it was thaaat bad.

Anyway, this has been verbose, but just some musings on what weather was while weathering winter/while wearing winter wardrobe.

And the outfit of the year:

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Life Outside of Russia (Winter)

I’ve been back in Ukhta for about 3 weeks after a whirlwind European trip. “Whirlwind European trip” sounds pretentious, but 5 countries in 2 weeks is kind of exactly that (also I never knew how much I could miss my tiny, at times rickety bed in Ukhta even while sleeping on some of the softest European AirBnB beds).

I’m still trying to get through journaling about the total three weeks I spent away from Ukhta (Moscow-Munich-Vienna-Budapest-Oxford/London-St. Petersburg-Moscow), plus trying to make up sleep (traveling is hard, guys! Where’s the world’s tiniest violin?), so here are some pictures, mostly of food, a little bit of people, while I was away.

Also because WordPress enjoys sucking the enjoyment out of every activity (I adjust to problems very well), the majority of these pictures will be on Google because I have been trying for literal weeks to post a blog.

Munich: Mostly beer (Bavaria!), BMWs, Christmas Market, and me trying to grin through what was a 16 hour day of travel the day before, mostly in sweaty, stuffy Russian airports/airplanes (I should write a travel book).

Austria: Snow!, and pastries, wienerschnitzel, the first of many opera houses, the first of many terrifying climbs up to the top of cathedrals, a summer palace, and really great New York Times 36 hours recommendations. Bourgie, I know. That album is here.

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Budapest: Foodventures (constantly), beautiful scenery, bridges, and also feeling like a complete fool for knowing zero Hungarian and being that American tourist. Also probably the most interesting for my historical interests.

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The UK: Finally caught up with Sarah! Went to a football game (I like soccer now?), ate meat pies, tackled London, reunited with my one true love (Chipotle, duh), reunited with my other true love (Katie!), strolled museums, climbed up a few more cathedrals, decided to settle permanently in Bath (or Oxford), deeply fell in love with public transportation in the UK (honestly, in love with public transportation everywhere that’s not the U.S.), and had a generally wonderful time knowing a language fluently.

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My green jacket was the real MVP this trip.

St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg was beautiful, but absolutely freezing. I’m so glad I’m going back in warmer months (when admittedly it will be absolutely humid). Also stupidly thought a stroll along the Neva River (while it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit, while I was wearing one layer of clothing plus a coat), was a good idea. Things that happened: My hair froze for the first time. It is bizarre. Also discovered craft beer, vegetarian food, and pour overs in Russia (ok, fine, I’m bourgie), went to a few art galleries and art museums, caught up with a fellow Fulbrighter, Julia, and experienced creepy Russian men for the first time. Honestly, some of the interactions made me miss small-town Russia life, where the biggest annoyances are babushkas who care too much about hats.

Moscow: Mid-year conference with the other Fulbrighters. I did literally no sightseeing because I could not bother to move anymore after 18 days of sightseeing. Fun to catch up with friends, eat my weight in Georgian food, and share stories of the past five months.

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My only picture from Moscow, no joke.

Katie and I headed back to Ukhta the last day of the conference, and while I was really sad to say goodbye to friends in Moscow and end my vacation, I was also so excited to get back into my routine/sleep forever after traveling. Things not on the roster for future life plans: Roadie to a famous band, nomad, member of the Renaissance fair circuit.

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Home sweet home, and also the cleanest my apartment has ever (and will ever) be

The semester has been going well so far (minus a two week quarantine at some of our schools because of the swine flu) and I’m excited to update more frequently!

 

 

С Новым Годом!!

С Новым Годом!

Happy New Year, y’all! In Russia, the New Year is a much bigger deal than Christmas. On New Year’s Eve, Ded Moroz (Father Frost) and his niece Snegurochka (Snow Maiden, basically. Also my favorite Russian character) go about (on foot, duh) and deliver toys to boys and girls and you get the gist.*

New Year’s is also when people exchange gifts with loved ones, and it’s kind of a mix of New Year’s in the U.S. (New Years’ Rockin’ Eve) and Thanksgiving (i.e. the spectacle of the Thanksgiving Day Parade), and it’s all-around very pleasant. As soon as I started planning for my holidays, I knew that though I wanted to see friends in Europe and the UK, staying in Russia for the New Year, even if I was hanging around Ukhta with friends versus going to a big city, was a must-do.

A few days before New Year’s, we had a holiday party through the university. This included a costume contest, several singing acts (including my boss, Anton, doing a lively lip sync a la Bollywood), a visit from Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (!!!), and a dance party. Definitely not the two-hour pharmacy parties I’m used to.

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Maybe not the best picture, but suffice it to say it was a pretty big deal.

Best of all, it was a chance to spend a little more time with the women in the department before Katie and I set off  for January.

On the 31st, Katie and I went to German’s to start preparing for New Year’s. We cooked over a kilogram of peanut-crusted chicken and Katie made some chocolate chip cookies, and then headed back to the dorm for all of two hours before going back to German’s for a party.

There was So. Much. Food.

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This is half of the food.

Sushi! Chicken! Kolbasa! Pickles! Olives! Pineapple! Salad! Herring under a fur coat! Bread! Caviar and Bread! And… Champagne! Wine! Vodka! Metaxa! (?) Even being Greek I had to admit that maybe 2 kilograms of sushi and 1 kilogram of meat was maaaaaybe too much for 8 people.

We all met up around 10, and watched the New Year’s program, plus watched Putin’s speech (right before midnight). The Russian anthem played and I actually felt so excited. Although preparation for big events makes me fussy (because I am 5), actually celebrating holidays is always so exciting. At midnight, all of the girls wrote their wishes on a slip of paper, lit the paper on fire, dropped the napkin into their champagne and drank their wish. Full disclosure, I definitely choked on my wish, but that’s probably extra lucky.

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Right after we toasted, we went outside to watch fireworks. German had some he wanted to set off, and I chased after him to help. He lit them and ran away, and so did I… and then I fell into the snow. Again, constantly Vickieing. Luckily, years of 4th of July trauma makes me pretty confident regarding proximity to fireworks, even though German was dragging me out of the snow.

We came back in for games of Crocodile (Charades) and Who Am I? (I’m winging it on the actual name of the game).

Also on the agenda: Many, many photoshoots of Russian smiles versus American smiles, watching TV interviews with me and Katie (WHY), yoga (why not?), teaching an impromptu ballet class, kickboxing German, my 6’3 friend (because why not?), along with his friend Andrei (sometimes against him, sometimes with him), s’mores, arm wrestling among everyone, playing Would You Rather, discussing accents (apparently I have a very cute accent, which I guess isn’t the worst thing?), and determining that I’m more Russian than German is.

It was a pretty successful new year.

(Brief interlude for the Russian smile/American smile. I’m starting to get the hang of it, I think. At the very least, I’m good at the Russian bro smile – fist up, look of strength, etc.)

Katie and I got home at 8am, which is later than I ever want to be up again, but it was so much fun. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing next year or the year after, but I really really hope this isn’t my last New Year in Russia – even just hanging out with friends was such a great experience!

Next up: Updates from the road? Who really knows – I’m just hoping I don’t fall asleep before I call a cab to the bus station.

*Excuse the tone in this post – I was running on 5 hours of sleep post-New Years and was trying to crank something out before catching a flight.

‘Tis the Season…

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It is January 1, so technically the season has officially passed (unless you’re going by Old Style Orthodox Calendar! Which for all intents and purposes of this post, I 100% am), but I am majorly overdue on updates, and since I will be out of country for the next few weeks I thought I’d at least review Christmas in Ukhta.

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Despite the general melancholy of my last post, Christmas here went above and beyond my expectations. Again, it is very helpful that we’re in a very small, very welcoming community, so doing things like organizing Christmas concerts are well-received (and well-attended, etc). But all the same, things were absolutely lovely.

On Thursday, Christmas Eve, we had a big concert at our primary school. My kids, second and third form, were fabulous (so were Katie’s, but I had a lot of proud mom moments that day). Here’s video of the second class. I did not teach them that choreography. The Santa Claus part was a total surprise to me. But I will take the credit.

On top of that, the parents (and teachers) performed a version of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. I wore tinsel as a scarf. In other news, I am very cool in Ukhta.

I won’t inundate the post with video clips, but this (along with everything we did during Christmas week) was covered by the news station. Here’s a link to that (it’s toward the end). Also, here’s a screengrab from the video being about as stage-mommy as I ever hope to be.

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After the concert, and after the headmaster of the school gave us huge praise for our work, all the kids rushed up to us for hugs and squeals of “Hoorah!” when they realized we were coming back in January. The primary school can definitely be trying at times, but it was so, so wonderful after that concert.

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The next day was Christmas! Katie made French toast casserole, a tradition in her family, and I rolled out of bed clutching a mug of coffee and barely articulate, a tradition in mine. Because I’m me, I was still cheesy and picked up some decorations for the morning.

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Some rushing around ensued (because that’s the nature of the holidays as I know them), we made it to the Christmas Concert that Katie organized. Last minute, I filled in to do a trio with Katie and her music teacher, Ksenia. Although I have deep chill in most settings, I do get pretty bad stage fright, so I’m not sure how much of an asset I was at the concert, but I did smile a lot (surprise surprise). Here’s a link to one video, and a video below of the concert, too.

Afterward, we had a nice reception with students who performed and the audience, mostly international students. It was really fun, and after a day of some stress and bustling about, it was nice to take a breath and enjoy each other. Felix, the Chair of the IT department, gave us a Christmas gift, and everyone wished us well for the holiday. It was especially nice because holidays are so weird to celebrate far from home.

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Katie and I exchanged gifts in the morning (she gave me dog treats to distribute to the dogs around town, which I’m very excited about; I gave her a blanket, since there are never enough blankets in the world.

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We were still busy that day, and we had a sleepover at our friend Vlada’s house a couple hours after the reception, but the two concerts over two days made for a nice opportunity to mindfully celebrate a holiday we were missing far from home.

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On Toska and Moons

“I must’ve left a thousand times,
But every day begin the same.
‘Cause there’s a small town in my mind –
How can I leave without hurting everyone that made me?

Oh baby, it’s all about the moon…”
(Regina Spektor)

“Toska – noun /ˈtō-skə/ – Russian word roughly translated as sadness, melancholia, lugubriousness.

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”
(Vladimir Nabokov)

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It’s deep December in Ukhta, and I have a few pre-holiday musings on homesickness and also the hopefulness of small things even when you’re far from home.

Ever since the days have begun to shorten, I can feel myself sinking into the winter blues. Luckily, I’m too busy to really ruminate on any of it, and also Russia is still so beautiful and great that it’s easy for me to crawl out of whatever cave I get stuck in (figuratively and literally – around my dorm I mostly just shuffle from room to room with a blanket draped over my head). But it is a nagging feeling that still exists, though it’s not as all-encompassing as I’ve feared.

Mostly, I feel myself getting sad as a side-effect of being frustrated. Maybe I’m frustrated by the constant scolding I get on the street (since I’ve started wearing hats these lectures have subsided). Maybe I’m frustrated by going to the doctor a million times a week (note to self: never ever get injured abroad again.

Usually, honestly, I’m frustrated by things that are happening outside of Russia and how they affect the people I love. After Paris and San Bernardino, I had a pit in my stomach for  a week thinking about the victims, friends similarly abroad in Europe and their safety, friends abroad and at home and their safety as Muslim Americans, acts of retaliation against these communities, insinuations of retaliation by people who are vying to lead the United States, the normalization of bad things in society… you have to admit that abroad or not, November and December made it pretty tricky to not be affected by bad things. Usually, that meant calling home even more than I typically do and checking in with my friends more than I normally do and taking more introvert time than I normally need to just to process everything.

Other factors have exaggerated feelings of being bummed: Literal 5 hour days (why, Russia?), the looming deadlines of six grad school applications, U.S. politics, international politics, current events, the cold, and the fact that I will be away from home for Christmas/New Year’s. Even though we’ve been preparing for it in Ukhta for weeks (months?), complete with Christmas concerts, plural, I think this year’s Christmas exists in my brain as some sort of pretend holiday. This feeling is emphasized by the fact that overwhelmingly, the dominant holiday is the New Year, and Russians don’t celebrate Christmas until 7 January, under the Old-style Orthodox Calendar.

Different factors have also GREATLY tempered feelings of being bummed: Spending a few hours a week at the primary school (however exhausting – the kids are all hilarious), 10,000 English Clubs a week, Russian chocolate, Russian tea, Katie’s existence (again, big ups to Fulbright for putting people in pairs), stupidly frequent calls home, spending time with friends, Billy on the Street, knowing I will see my best friends in 2 weeks (!), the puppy who leapt into my arms to give me a hug last week, dogs generally, the baby who waved at me at the physical therapist, babies generally, etc. Also being an optimist and really easily finding beautiful things in the mundane and funny things in the ordinary has honestly been majorly useful.

This is still, honestly, less homesickness than I experienced at Middlebury (who knew summertime in Vermont would be such an island of angst?), but a few weeks ago I wrote about the beauty of the Arctic. I will still contend that being this far north reveals the insane beauty of remoteness. But sometimes the odd beauty of snow and cold and openness and porcelain white trees twists itself and gives way to a deep longing for what it’s not.

It’s not California, where 50 degrees is considered intolerable (sorry Modestans, but correct me if I’m wrong). It’s not a place where I feel I can communicate easily and social interactions don’t cause me to panic that I will conjugate a verb incorrectly. It’s not spending holidays with family just hanging out, and then fighting with each other and getting annoyed and barely speaking and then coming together for El Rosal the night before we all head our separate ways again, all within 7 days. It’s not the type of annual monotony that I’m accustomed to, but it’s a new kind of monotony that I’m adapting to each day.

And even when things are frustrating, sometimes frustration is less acute when you’re not also dealing with homesickness. That’s kind of how I interpret toska. It’s not so potent because it’s longing for home. It’s a longing for your home coupled with this deep existential angst or frustration and feeling solitary in feeling lost. Yes, I miss home, but I mostly just miss the unnameable comfort of being very angry among people that understand how upset I am just by looking into my eyes, and the comfort of having silence to sit in while also being upset. Katie gets it, which again, I’m deeply grateful for her (this blog is becoming a series of love letters to Katie, I get it).

Today I crawled out of my cave, as I do every Sunday, to go grocery shopping. When I left the store (armed with five yogurts and chocolate, because nutrition and all of that), the moon was out. It was about 2:15pm, but it was such a comforting feeling. I know I’ve been waxing poetic (and political, and everything else), but allow me to go on a little longer.

I feel like a lot of people living abroad right now are feeling the same unplaceable feelings that are kind of homesickness but also culture shock and frustration and exhaustion and euphoria, too, because living abroad is awesome. In spite of all the culture shock, it made the knot in my stomach loosen, just a bit, to look up at the moon and know that in California (and in Maryland, and in Virginia, and in Ohio) my friends and family were sharing that very same moon. Sure, the timing of it was off, but it was a consolation nonetheless. I’m not going home for Christmas, and I won’t be seeing family for another six months.

There are bound to be much more frustrating things in the next six months, and more instances of homesickness, but while we’re theoretically on very different planes, it is such a relief to be sharing a moon, in two small towns 5,435 miles apart.

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This moon was a little later, a few days ago. A little later = 3pm.

 

Lost in Translation

I know, this is title is trite, but bear with me for some fun/horrifying anecdotes from the past week!

To begin/set the scene – I’m not totally illiterate in Russian (thank God), but I’ve been (accurately) describing my abilities as “rusty” since the second I came to Ukhta. Of course they’re getting polished, thanks to living in Russia and also thanks to almost-daily tutoring sessions with my excellent colleague, Nastya, but believe it or not, I’m still privy to a few (many) language mishaps. And just general language mishaps, too.

I started physical therapy this past week! I’ve also been wearing my sling less (not actually a request of the doctor, oops) and I’m starting to feel like a fully fledged person again. I even walk faster than 60% of the babushki on the street, so #progress. Last Tuesday, I met with a physical therapist at a private clinic here, and she determined a general regimen for me. Because it was early/I don’t listen that well anyway/I had to listen in Russian, I wasn’t paying close attention. It’s only my health, after all, right?

The doctor said something about a bath and then mentioned my arm (typing this makes me feel pretty foolish as it is), then said a word that either meant towel or fingers. I was not listening that closely. To make matters worse, I asked her to repeat and then did not pay attention for a second time (Can you guess I’m everyone’s #1 favorite patient?). For non-Russian speakers, the word for towel (pronounced like palatense) and the word for fingers (paltsi) sound fairly similar. When it is 9am, I would say they sound basically the same.

I came home and decided that even though the word bath was definitely bandied about, she probably meant I’d be doing workouts for my arms, via my fingers (it’s amazing what you can rationalize). The next day, I decided to hedge my bets and take a hand towel with me to the physical therapist.

The session started with an arm bath, and I have to say I’ve never felt more smug in my life (despite the fact that the bath was simultaneously delivering microshocks to my arm to stimulate my nerves). I trotted over to part two, only to walk into an actual bathtub. I looked from the tub to my hand towel, and almost burst into tears. For reference, here is what a mineral aromatherapy bath typically looks like:woman-relaxing-bubble-filled-bath-27271371Here is a real photo of me I asked the nurse to take during my aromatherapy bath:
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A fun added component of this was that I was trying very hard not to get my hair wet during this debacle, and almost immediately my foot slipped out from under me and I tumbled under the water. Beauty and grace, as usual.

At least I had my hand towel to dry off my entire body post-bath. Ahh, the luxury of never listening to important instructions!

Another fun anecdote:

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Enter the marshrutka, what would probably be fondly called a kidnapper van in the U.S., but is actually a very convenient (and my main) way of transportation around the town. They run on routes, they’re 25 cents – there’s really nothing horrible about them.

On Saturday, following dinner at a friend’s house, Katie went to a rehearsal for a student ball (she was singing) and I waited at the marshrutka stop to head home. It was 8pm, which in my brain seemed a logical hour for marshrutki to be running.

They were not.

The marshrutki stop especially early on the weekends, which is counterintuitive to what I’m used to, but I guess that’s the entire definition of culture shock. Rather than face the facts and call a cab/a friend to pick me up, I proceeded to wait in freezing weather for 30 minutes hoping maybe something was still running.

A lone marshrutka pulled up and the driver seemed perplexed. He asked where I was going, and because people really are amazing generally, and also because I probably looked soggy and tired, he drove me home. He also only charged me the going rate for marshrutka rides, which is 25 cents, roughly. Although it was kind of terrifying to be in an empty marshrutka (usually there’s a driver and a conductor, and in this one it was just me and the driver, in dead silence interrupted only by my adorably unintelligible Russian) and definitely not something I’d ever do back at home (Alright, fine, I basically hitchhiked home, OK?) the driver really saved me, since I also learned my line between being stubborn and freezing to death is very, very thin.

Other stuff from this week:

Lots of very Russian performances. On Friday, I was invited to their Big Integration Conference, a full day of student presentations on Foreign Languages, Information Technology, Regional Studies, and a bunch of other things. I couldn’t stay for much of the actual research, but it was wonderful. The kids are so talented, and the opportunities available to them to present research and work on one particular topic are so cool. And I was so so impressed by the Foreign Language students – I was trying to imagine myself giving a long presentation in French when I was 16 – there was no way.

 

Also, on Sunday, Katie performed at the student ball, a ballroom dance competition. MORE RUSSIAN DANCES! It was very interesting to have a weekend bookended by such exciting performances, and I was glad to be a part of it! Unfortunately, none of the videos uploaded, but here’s a great shot of Katie (thanks, Russiaphone!)

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Katie looked so nice, but unfortunately my phone made her a beaming black and white blog :/

Basically, lots of moments of culture shock this week, but of course good things too. I introduced my Russian friends to s’mores! They have literally been talking about it ever since, so no amount of incorrectly sized towels or sketchy marshrutka rides could diminish the joy in my heart from that (S’mores make me really patriotic, ok?)

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Things I’m Grateful For…

…and a very, very long-in-coming post due to manic teaching schedules/occasional colds/other plans/bad excuses.

Thanksgiving Day has come and gone in the Russian north, and I think it went pretty well! Because our English Club always meets on Thursdays, Katie and I thought it would just be natural to organize a Thanksgiving Day dinner in place of the typical conversation hour. It offered a good excuse to share an important part of American culture, and it offered us a good excuse to have people to celebrate with us.

Here are some pictures from the event – it was basically a dessert feast, but I’m not one to complain about free cake (and free cake that is still at my fingertips, no less).

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During the Thanksgiving dinner, everyone stood up and said what they were thankful for. Because I am me, I started crying during my maybe-20-second-speech. I’ve written on the blog before about the immense amount of love I’ve found here and the family I feel I’ve been given, and for all of the worrying I did before I left the U.S. that I would be terribly homesick and miserable, this experience has really exceeded my expectations.

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This is Anton, our great supervisor, probably saying how thankful he is that Katie and I exist to hassle him with our dumb inside jokes (or maybe not)

In that same spirit, I thought I’d share some other things I’m thankful for since I’ve been here (and OK, it’s also a good excuse to dump the photos I’ve been sitting on for the past 3 weeks).

1) People to cook with, eat with, talk with, and visit with

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On the menu: Beet salad, mashed potatoes, pickled mushrooms, salo (pig fat), peanut crusted chicken, spinach

We’ve found great friends here who have hosted us in their homes and great opportunities to get to know people better. Universal truths of life:

  • Nothing is as fast a way to solidify a friendship than cooking a meal together.
  • Dinner at someone’s house means a 5-hour affair with chatting/movies/other things
  • No one I’ll ever meet will like spinach as much as me (and in Russia, that universal truth is especially obvious)
  • Monopoly is a boring game no matter what language it’s in.

Probably my favorite meal I’ve cooked with friends in the past few weeks was making avgolemono soup with Lyudmila, who works in the International Department and who is also just a generally wonderful person. It was especially prudent because I was coming off a week of being sick, and there really is no need for medicine if you have chicken broth, lemon, eggs, and rice in your house.

2) The undefinable, weird beauty of living in the Arctic.

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Yes, there are some frustrating things I’m finding in living so far north (see: Olecranon fracture and 8 days in the hospital). And the days have become shorter and shorter, and slightly greyer, so that good daylight, if it happens, only lasts about 5 hours each day. But when it’s a sunny day, or even partly cloudy, there is nothing more beautiful (really, seriously) than the sun shining on the snow, or sunlight stretching out behind some blue-grey clouds and casting a pink light over the sky. Or sunset in Ukhta. It’s really incredible. I’m not one to wax poetic for too long, but really – there is something indescribably beautiful about living here.

3) My job

I honestly didn’t think I’d like teaching so much. I love all of my students and I feel really lucky to be doing the things I’m doing here. Teaching three separate levels of students also offers a lot of flexibility in lesson planning, so while I can be teaching the students at the primary school Thanksgiving songs, I can be simultaneously talking about fashion and trends in the U.S. at the lyceum and explaining my New Year’s plans at the university. It really is a blessing, and the variety is perfect for a multitasker.

On that same vein, here’s another reason I love my job: Complete flexibility in how I choose to teach, including introducing very hip fashion terms to high schoolers (I chose not to teach them the technically-proper term lumbersexual, opting instead for lumberjack. It was hard enough explaining what lumberjacks do). Consensus from the youths: Man-buns: Super attractive. Lumberjack Fashion: Akin to someone from a horror film. (Kids today)

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4) Children Fashion/Dog Fashion in Northern Russia

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I’m definitely not creepy, right?

Do I need to explain? (DOGS WEARING PANTS!) Also the number of times Katie has needed to pull me away from following a stray dog/I’ve needed to step back onto a sidewalk after following a stray dog into traffic is …more than zero times. I’ve even bought a hot dog for a stray once (he was gone by the time I was out, but at least I had lunch?)

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That is a dog in a snowsuit.

5) Cool things to do that are not life-threatening

In addition to endless dinners, I decided to celebrate an exhausting week (8:30 AM days, the horror!) by finally shopping at the main mall here (does it count as Black Friday shopping if you’re in a country that doesn’t have Thanksgiving?) followed by an evening at the pub in town. It was a lot of fun (also Russian fashions/sizes confuse me, so I walked away with a purse and a flash drive, which is maybe one of the more Liz Lemon-y things I’ve done since being in Russia). The pub was really cool, and a bride and groom came with the entire wedding party, which was kind of amazing.

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The bride and her Alice in Wonderland-themed wedding party dancing on a table.

And in small-town Russia revelations – definitely saw 90% of the people I know at this pub on Friday night, but it was fun – Ukhta really reminds me of Modesto.

PS, this bullet point is just an excuse to show a picture of me with a burger the size of my head (and a beer, after shopping on Black Friday – could I be more American?)

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USA! USA!

6) Cheap phones/phone services in Russia

I lost my phone because my life is one big adventure, but luckily buying a new one wasn’t too painful (just annoying). Honestly, worse things happen in life than losing a phone on public transportation, it just serves to make you feel like a fool.

7) A great support system

I’m really lucky for a lot of friendships that have formed since I’ve been here, and of course the main friendship is with Katie. She’s my neighbor, my co-worker, and my friend, and I feel like the past 2.5 months would have been MUCH different without her here. Definitely good personality matching on the part of Fulbright.

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Super composed, as usual.

And with that, hopefully I’ll be back on the ball with posts. Next on my list of things to do in Russia: Introduce every Russian person I see to s’mores (thanks for the care package, Mom!) This is especially important since no Russians were into their initiations to spinach, even with olive oil, garlic, and lemon (Kids today).