The Final Frontier

Well that’s it. I have officially made it back to the land of the free. So I suppose I’ll fill you in on my last two weeks in Russia.

When I last left off, I was preparing to take my Test of Russian as a Foreign Language exam. It was a tough exam—including 7 hours of testing in grammar, reading, listening, writing, and speaking over two days. I took the Certificate Level 3, which qualifies one to study in Master’s and PhD programs in Russian universities in all disciplines except linguistics or to work in Russia in any sphere (including translator, diplomat, manager, or teaching Russian at an elementary level). I’m proud to announce that I passed my exam! My Russian has improved a great deal in the last year, and it will be nice to have a certificate with some stamps to prove it.

My penultimate weekend in Ulan-Ude did not disappoint. On Friday, we had a semi-rainy day, which of course led to unreasonable flooding. I found myself wading barefoot through a knee-deep ocean covering the Arbat, watching as some people scaled walls to avoid the puddle while others plunged right through unfazed—high heels and all. Everyone was in high spirits, laughing at themselves for getting caught in the rain and enjoying the ridiculousness of the situation.

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On Saturday I met up with some of the women from Moms’ Club. And on Sunday, I attempted to have a calm, solitary day shopping for last-minute presents and souvenirs—but alas, I can’t even by yak socks in Ulan-Ude without making new friends. The sales-babushka was super-impressed by my foreignness and started bragging about me to all her customers. This resulted in me making two new friends in the shop and spending the entire afternoon гулять-ing with them and eating Shenakhenskie buuzy.

On Monday, I was invited to a real Russian dacha with a couple Moms’ Club moms and babies. We caught a train to the village in the morning and spent the whole day cooking grilled vegetables and fish, watering the garden, and drinking tea. We even hiked down to a cold mountain stream. The food, the company, the nature—I was so glad to have this traditional Russian dacha experience as part of my Russian adventure!

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From Tuesday until Friday, I went with the Institute of Linguistics and Intercultural Communication to Maksimikha. It seemed only fitting that my last week in Buryatia, like my first, be spent at Lake Baikal. This was my chance to bid farewell to my favorite lake—and it was a sneak peak glimpse of summertime Baikal, which is Baikal at its finest. I never cease to be amazed by the dynamic beauty of this lake—how it’s ever changing, ever different, always teeming with powerful energy and life. Over these three days, I experienced Baikal in ways that fall, winter, and spring just don’t allow. I was at Baikal, around Baikal, on Baikal, over Baikal, with Baikal, under Baikal, in Baikal. It was a tremendous trip.

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I got to put my boating expertise to the test, as we were able to rent rowboats and paddleboats to take out on the lake. We went on countless hikes through the woods and along the shore. We had a bonfire and made shashlyki and were fed fine food from the base’s cafeteria. We played volleyball and durak and table tennis. We sat on the beach under jackets and blankets. I even went swimming in Baikal.

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Yes, it was freezing.

Cold doesn’t even begin to describe the temperature of Baikal in June—when I remember that just two months ago, the whole lake was buried beneath over a meter of solid ice. But this was my last shot to swim in Baikal. It’d have been a sin not to swim. Plus, I seem to have developed a tolerance for the cold—as well as for the reckless, the somewhat-stupid, the extreme. I wasn’t alone, either. Nearly everyone plucked up the nerve, waded out into the water, and made the ice-cold plunge—if only to go running straight back to shore to dive under a towel. On the last evening, several of us went to the sauna, after which we escaped the heat by diving off the dock into Baikal’s midnight waters. What can I say? Life in Russia can get extreme.

One day, a few of us hired a speedboat to take us for a ride out to Svyatoy Nos—Holy Nose peninsula. It was about a two hour trip in total, but it took all day to soak in all the sights and impressions and wonder of it all. Baikal is absolutely stunning, and the water is pristine. The lake’s surface is like a mirror—the same shining blue of the sunny Siberian sky, a perfect reflection of shore and heavens. Out on the lake, we could clearly see the stones on the bottom—some 200 meters below. All around us in the distance, nerpas (Baikal’s endemic seals) were surfacing to breathe and sunning themselves on rocks. I even drank a glass of sparkling clear Baikal—probably tastier and less dangerous than drinking from my faucet regardless of seal poop and omul.

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group baikal nerpa

And of course, Baikal brings out the philosophical side of people. Even though I feel perfectly comfortable keeping up in Russian these days, I was relatively quiet for much of the trip—preferring to listen and to soak up the nature and energy. But there was plenty of interesting conversation to go around—from religion to revolutions and civil wars and slavery and feminism and politically correctness. But eventually it was time to say goodbye to Baikal, to get back onto our bus, and head back to the city.

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With only two days remaining in Ulan-Ude, I was on a tight schedule. On Saturday, after some extreme super-packing and cleaning, I hosted my goodbye party—which was not as wild and crazy as the previous ones have been (and was missing a couple key players), but which suited me just fine and was a lovely evening. And on Sunday, I was on a tight schedule, running around to make meetings with everyone I knew while trying to squeeze in some last-minute buuzy. The whole while, I had to deal with the thought that this was my last day—my last marshrutka, my last glimpse of Lenin head, my last everything. And that was sad.

On Monday morning, I was packed into my last taxi and shipped to the airport for what I thought was going to be a 30-hour journey home. To my great dismay, I arrived to a surprisingly empty airport with just a few people milling around in confusion and no open registration desks and the departures board listing the next flight as 4PM to Irkutsk. Turns out my flight had a huge delay—as in a 14-hour delay that would undoubtedly make me miss my next three flights. This put me in the uncomfortable predicament of having no idea of how I would get home. I started waiting in line to speak with an Aeroflot representative feeling lonely and confused and lost, and the tears started coming.

But then help arrived. Four of my friends showed up a few minutes later to see me off and say goodbye. We waited in line and spent the whole day trying to work everything out. Aeroflot ended up putting us up in Hotel Buryatia for the day (the real Soviet deal with a Soviet fridge, a Soviet bath, a toilet that didn’t work, and a key ring that could easily kill a man with a good clobber) but said “there was nothing they could do” to help me change my flights to get home. Eventually, we got through to Scandinavian Airlines, who were happy to rearrange my intinerary for me without a problem. Once that was sorted out, I was able to enjoy this extra second last day in Ulan-Ude. My friends stayed with me all day, and we had a nice time—I really wouldn’t have survived without them! Two of them (and their brothers, commissioned to help me—a complete stranger– with my heavy bags) even saw me to the airport and through security for my 2:40AM flight.

It ended up taking a whole 48 hours (6 of which I spent unsuccessfully playing Find Snowden in Moscow’s Sheremetevo airport), but I eventually found my way to Detroit, where my family was waiting for me. This has been the greatest year of my life. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to have had all these wonderful, unforgettable adventures and met all these wonderful, unforgettable people. So thank you, Fulbright, for making this happen. And thank you, Buryatia, for taking such good care of me!

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Siberian Summer

It’s officially summertime in Siberia. It came rather suddenly—vegetation and flowers and kvass stands and bouncy castles and swarms of flies sprang up overnight, it seems. We had a glorious thunderstorm last week, crowds of lazy people descend upon the streets and parks for strolls, and I get slightly more sunburnt every time I go outside. At least once a week, there’s some kind of holiday (last week was Buryatia’s 90th Anniversary, the first day of summer, Children’s Day, and some kind of summer sport festival, and tomorrow is Russia Day– but I can’t seem to muster up much holiday spirit when they happen so frequently). Also, it’s hot.

Unfortunately, summer means departure, and I’m still not sure if I’m ready to leave. In the last couple weeks, I’ve bid farewell to two of my friends returning to Europe—and in addition to the pain of goodbyes, I had a glimpse into my own not-so-distant future, when I’ll have my own goodbye party, condense my whole life into a 20-kilogram suitcase, make one final trip to the airport, wave goodbye to dear friends, and leave Ulan-Ude behind.

I still have almost two weeks into which I can squeeze all sorts of experiences and adventures—and the time looks to be jam-packed—with the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language, with a possible visit to Arshan, with one last trip to Lake Baikal, with last-minute meetings with friends, with who-knows-what-else-will-pop-up. The blog will probably take a back-seat until I’m bored back at home. We’ll see. For now, I leave you with two images of my Siberian summer thus far.

An old Buryat man is walking with his two young grandsons. I don’t pay them much attention. Suddenly, I hear, “Нельзя! Фуууу!” (“Don’t—ewwwwww!). I look up to see one little boy clutching a dandelion. His brother is smiling: “Язык желтый,” he giggles. The boy with the flower sticks out his yellow tongue.

I’m walking in the park with a group of friends, eating ice cream and talking, when a wild babushka approaches (complete with flowered headscarf and death-glare). She stops short, directly in front of us, stares right at one of my friends and says, “Ой, дура!” for no apparent reason (“oy, idiot!”) and keeps walking, occasionally stopping to throw us a scathing look.

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goodbye nici goodbye pia group

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Return to St. Petersburg

When I last saw Piter, he was buried under four feet of snow, swallowed by what seemed to be an eternal darkness. Today he stands proud, his 310 years of history and beauty glinting and shining in the late-spring sun and the almost-White Nights. For me, Piter is a city of adventure—the fond memories of old adventures, the promise of adventures to come. But, whether you find yourself in the grandest of cities or the plainest of them all, it is inevitably people who define your time there, who give your visit meaning and life. With no lack of beauty, adventure, and wonderful people, this latest visit to St. Petersburg did not disappoint.

As Pia and I boarded the marshrutka from the airport, memories of my semester in Piter came flooding back, as did that familiar sense of wonder and awe. This trip felt like a homecoming to me. And indeed, I did pay a visit to my first Russian home. Though nearly three years have passed, and some landmarks have changed (new Coffee House, a secondhand shop replacing a furniture boutique, and the eerie absence of the Primorskaya dog pack), I easily found my way home. My reunion with my host family was warm and touching. It gave me a sense of stability knowing that, however much my life has changed in the last couple years, this has stayed the same. I can still talk to my babushka, and we can still bond over tea and TV, and she’ll still quiz me on the founding of St. Petersburg, and she still has tapochki for me. Before I left, my host mother commented, “Ты же смелая девушка.” This acknowledgment brought me joy—pride at how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown in the last three years. For I’m not sure if my host mom remembers, but her last bit of wisdom for me when we last met, her parting advice, was “Надо быть смелее.” Indeed, I’ve been working on being braver (as in more confident, less shy), and it’s nice to know that I’ve had some success.

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In Piter this time of year—during these lazy warm spring days that stretch out into almost-White nights—all you want to do is гулять. Stroll along the rivers and canals, traipse up and down Nevsky Prospect from the Hermitage to Ploshad Vostaniya, wander through Mikhailovsky park and the Summer Garden and Mars field, listen to all the street musicians on 7th Line, go up on the rooftops and enjoy the city from above.

(The roof did actually happen, by the way. Nice Piter tradition. Any adventure that begins with the precursor, “This, of course, is really stupid, but…” is bound to go well)

piter roof

By luck, we were in the city for День Города (City Day)—so it turned out that the date of Piter’s founding was not imprinted on my memory for naught. After a weekend of festivities, there was a huge concert on Palace Square on Sunday evening. I gathered with thousands of others to watch as Russia’s biggest opera stars, accompanied by St. Petersburg’s philharmonic opera, performed a collection of the world’s best opera songs. After a couple hours of stunning opera, there was a dance showcase, followed by a jazz concert. Never in my life did I think I would ever be swing dancing and belting out “It’s a Wonderful World” in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace!

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It’s a trap!!!: On Saturday night, Pia dragged me to Circus Club for a Trap Party (kidding, I went willingly… though not without a sense of skepticism and anxiety). I had no idea what “trap” is, but Pia said something about hip-hop and dub-step and American style. When we got there, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. People were dressed weird, weird, weird! And by weird, I mean they would look basically normal in the US. Lots of baseball caps. Lots of guys with their pants falling down. And lots and lots of hipsters! I hadn’t seen a single hipster in over 8 months, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them, but Piter is hipster central, and they all made an appearance at the Trap Party. There was a particularly fascinating Hipster Barkeep to keep me entertained (as in, I was completely absorbed in the Adventures of  Hipster Barkeep: Hipster Barkeep chats up Trap Girl—she’s not interested—and Hipster Barkeep tells Trap Guy to pull his pants up, and Hipster Barkeep does a high-five). Also of note was a bizarre plethora of backpacks. Up to this point, the only backpacks I’d seen in Russia belonged exclusively to foreigners; but for some reason, all the hipsters in the club were wearing fat backpacks. I guess that makes tourists the real hipsters: we liked backpacks before they were cool.

Anyway, the Trap Party was a lot more fun than I expected it to be. Perhaps since everyone was pretending to be American, the atmosphere felt a lot more familiar and comfortable to me than clubs usually do. The music was interesting, the dancing was fun, and we even met some fun people. Even in St. Petersburg, teeming with tourists and students and businessmen and immigrants and all sorts of visitors from abroad, Russians are still fascinated by foreigners, it seems (though when I learned that our new friends were only 18, I sure felt like an old lady!).

It’s hard for me to believe that we spent a whole week in St. Petersburg without setting foot in a single museum or church, but the great outdoors and more-than-great company we found more than made up for it. As I mentioned before, it’s the people you meet that define your adventures, and we met a great deal of the kindest, warmest, most fun-loving people. Without them—our little St. Petersburg family—our time in Piter would not have been nearly as special.

First and foremost, there were our roommates: a 35-year-old engineer from Chelyabinsk who often joined us on our wanderings (even if that meant spending 4 hours shopping for clothes and makeup) and became to us like a dear teddy bear; and a St. Petersburg student living at the hostel sort of long-term who loved to joke and make fun of us but would have been incredibly bored and lonely without us. The hostel staff also seemed to become rather fond of us—sometimes openly and sometimes under the guise of surly indifference infused with passive suggestions that we stay and translate and eat shashlik. The other hostel guests ranged from massive groups of children to reclusive foreigners to a traveling saxophonist and a loquacious and rather batty artist.

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Whether it was cooking and dining together or venturing out on excursions or watching films or keeping each other company while waiting around all day for a certain someone to finally wake up or just talking and joking late into the night, we did everything together, and we grew really close. These people made our time memorable, and in the end, it was surprisingly hard to leave them behind.

But all adventures eventually must come to an end, so soon it was time to say goodbye to Pia and to our St. Petersburg family and return to my Ulan-Ude family. And if you can believe it (because I surely can’t), I only have three weeks remaining here!

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Life’s Absurdities

A sense of humor can get you through just about anything. When living abroad, especially in Russia, the ability to laugh is often what keeps you grounded and optimistic. So I thought I’d share with you a few of the ways I get my chuckles around here, a few of life’s absurdities. This is how I laugh the day away in the merry old land of Russia.

"Please Litter"

“Please Litter”

 

Hot Water: If you’re reading this blog, you probably have easy access to hot water in your home. You probably even take this for granted. You might be surprised to learn that in Russia—a member of the G8—city-wide hot-water shut-offs are a yearly tradition, sometimes for weeks at a time. Every year, come spring or summer, many Russian cities perform maintenance on the centralized hot-water system that provides hot water to all citizens. This includes the 12 million people living in Moscow and—a little more close to home—the unsuspecting American girl living in Ulan-Ude. I discovered this proud tradition after getting off a stinky Russian train, wanting nothing more than a hot shower and never imagining that anything could come between me and my one true desire. I was wondering what on earth I could have done to break my sink and shower at such a crucial moment of stinkitude—only to find out that, no, this is completely normal. It’s only for “several days,” I was reassured reassured—and then we get to keep hot water all the way until June 17 (followed by 3 weeks of no hot water)! Meanwhile, I just had to suck it up and take the coldest shower of my life. I’ve had my fair share of cold showers, but nothing can compare to the cold of Siberia’s pipes in early spring. Yes, to be honest, the prospect of stepping in my shower over the next few days was a source of misery and woe—but now that hot water has been turned back on, it’s something to laugh at. The complete normality of something that, until a week ago, seemed completely barbaric… Черный юмор, maybe, but юмор nonetheless.

Russian pun!!!

Russian pun!!!

Trans-avant-garde: I’m a girl who loves her theatre. So how could I pass up an invitation to the Youth Art Theater? Wooster introduced me to some weird, weird stuff—but nothing could have prepared me for “Skin of a Philosopher.” The registration process should have tipped me off, I think. I had to call a number—and I was assigned an “Ausweiss number” that was to be presented, along with the last 4 digits of my phone number, in order to gain entrance to the performance. Ok, fine, codes and passwords.

I walked into the theater lobby, and this is what I saw: clusters of people milling about wearing creepy horned red and black masks, a brochure containing 6 detailed bullet-points on the “Rules for being a participant” of the performance by this “trans-avantgarde” theatrical group, and a masked man at a desk demanding, “Ausweiss number?” in an extremely sinister voice (I mean, the voice of Satan himself). I turned on my heel and walked right out of there. Too weird for me, I reasoned with myself. But, halfway down the street back to the bus stop, I managed to talk myself out of chickening out. I went back to the theater, told the scary man my Ausweiss number, and was given a mask of my own—along with a home-made sign on a stick that said “108.”

Frightened as I was, I was committed. And this is what I learned: trans-avant-garde theatre is apparently a genre where the audience wears masks and get into fierce philosophical debates with the actors during the performance, and people representing supermarket chains bumble around wordlessly on stage, after which random props with whimsical names (such as “the revolutionary spirit” or “a mother’s love and tenderness”) are auctioned off to the audience. Honestly, the only thing I understood from this performance was the “report” on philosophical theory. Technically, I knew one of the performers, but the masks didn’t help me recognize him. I left half-way through the auction. Too weird for me.

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Chinese Fire: By now, I’ve spun a number of yarns about my Chinese neighbor. From the burglary of my favorite kitchen appliances to thunderous late-night laundering to the presence of four whole stinking fish on the counter for days on end, there’s always something with this guy. This latest installment, however, really takes the proverbial cake. On Friday night, he was up to his usual shenanigans of late-night Chinese-food-cooking. Three gallons of soup at 11PM? Whatever, I don’t question this guy anymore. Three hours later, at 2AM,  nature’s call drew me from my slumber. As I made my way to the bathroom, I started to notice a couple things. First: loud angry Russian men shouting and running up and down our corridor. And second: the smell of smoke. Long story short, our kitchen was on fire. Now the whole building smells like smoke, and there’s a bowl full of burnt Chinese soup “cooling off” on our balcony. Scary at the time—but now this makes for a funny story (though now the sound of Chinese coming from the kitchen has a whole new menacing quality to it).

the nicest (or creepiest?) mirror in the world: it's possible that a millionaire is looking at you

the nicest (or creepiest?) mirror in the world: it’s possible that a millionaire is looking at you

Looking back at what I’ve written, I realize that this looks like a whole lot of black humor. But I really don’t see it that way—it’s a matter of perspective. I have hot water again, and I didn’t die in a kitchen fire. Life is great! It’s also absurd and I like to laugh at it. I’ve had some real honest-to-goodness laughs at life this week, but maybe the darker ones make for the best blog material. Anyway, I’ll end on a cheery note. Ulan-Ude’s Mormon missionaries have an English Club, and they invited me to come visit this week. At the end of the meeting, during which I spoke both English and Russian, a number of people—Americans and Russians—asked me how long I’ve been learning English. I don’t know if this is a testament to my mad Russian skillz or my declining English ones—or if I REALLY just look REALLY Russian.

Also among this week’s accomplishments: I played Russian “Taboo” with Russians and did not totally suck!

how to use a marshrutka: "Want to get out? Scream!"

how to use a marshrutka: “Want to get out? Scream!”

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Far East and Back Again

If St. Petersburg is magnificent and Ulan-Ude is charming and soulful, then Vladivostok can only be described as cool. It’s hard to put my finger on it, but something about the nice houses and the unique naval presence and the impressive bridges and skateboarders and gorgeous weather and the seaside gave me the impression of a very “cool” city. I even saw joggers (there’s a first for everything in Russia!). What struck me the most, though, was that, while I was almost as far east as east goes—right on the border with North Korea, a quick skip away from Japan, quite close to China—Vladivostok felt a lot less “Eastern” than Ulan-Ude. It was like I went from the center of Asia back into Russia.

doesn't get much more Russian than that

doesn’t get much more Russian than that

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fake Apple stores and tigers. obviously, this place is cool

fake Apple stores and tigers. obviously, this place is cool

This may be the result of a few too many viewings of The Little Mermaid, but I have a special connection with large bodies of water. Pretty rivers, the Great Lakes, Baikal, the Pacific Ocean—my soul just comes alive in the presence of all this water. Vladivostok is a beautiful city with so much to see and do, and I could never tire of exploring or just staring out at the sea.

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We visited a number of harbors and bays—including Russia’s Pacific Fleet, commercial and trade ships, and Sportivnaya harbor full of paddleboats and vacationers. We saw countless monuments to the military and navy, to World War II and to the Civil War. We went on a submarine. We visited the Vladivostok Fortress Museum, where we got to climb around on the fortress walls and tanks and artillery. We climbed up a big hill and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city. We visited the “Oceanarium,” where I fell in love with an octopus. Sunday was Orthodox Easter, and we attended an Easter Parade and a public mass on the main square. We ate a delicious Easter cake. I tried sushi for the very first time. We had ice cream on the pier, and I got my first sunburn of the season. We went out to Russian Island and wandered around for hours without finding whatever it is we were supposed to visit but completely enthralled in the nature, and we hitchhiked our way back to the bus stop. We visited a lighthouse at sunset. We met some wonderful and interesting people and enjoyed some excellent conversation. And it was all so, so, so marine, so beautiful, so inspiring, so perfect.

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After three days, though, it was time to move on. We boarded a train to Khabarovsk—a mere 12 hours overnight. On the train Nici, Anja, and I met a 65-year-old old man who was very excited to see foreigners for the first time in his life. He even called his wife to brag about us, saying she’d never believe he met an American, an Austrian, and a Swiss girl on the train. He was on his way to visit his father’s grave one last time before he died, he said. He was very interesting to talk to, though he seemed to have some extreme mood swings that were hard to keep up with. One moment he’s fuming that Americans get all the credit for putting the first man on the moon or blaming the US for the destruction that was the fall of the Soviet Union, and the next he was buying us chocolate and calling us his relatives and thanking the US for saving Russia from Japan in World War II.

Khabarovsk was a little underwhelming after Vladivostok, but still a very nice city. We had only one day to explore, but there didn’t seem to be much in the way of tourist attractions. Big hills, pretty churches, a beautiful river, very interesting and extensive museum, lots of pretty parks, and a “Monument to Nature” (aka tree garden) where I could hug trees to my heart’s content. In the evening, we made our way to the airport to catch our flight to Irkutsk.

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We arrived in Irkutsk just in time for May 9th—Victory Day, one of Russia’s most beloved holidays, and certainly its most poignantly emotional one. World War II may have been a world war, but Russia suffered the greatest losses and remembers it the most: every city has at least one memorial to the Great Patriotic War, always decked out in flowers. And every city celebrates with a big parade.

It was a beautiful morning in Irkutsk, temperatures quickly climbing to 21 degrees Celsius, orange and yellow flags flapping in the breeze. Cute little old men wandered about decked out in their old uniforms, medals glittering proudly on their chests. The crowds gathered around Kirov Square sporting orange and black ribbons. We’d been informed that the parade would start at 9, but we stood there for two hours just waiting as the crowds closed in tightly around us. Other than the little kids and babushkas, I was the smallest one in the crowd, with an eyeful of backs and shoulders, though I was only three rows back. I couldn’t move my arms, and the crowds were squeezing the breath out of me. There was a baby’s butt in my face, sitting on his father’s shoulders. But just as the parade was beginning, I managed to find a foothold on a curb—to hoist myself up and let the densely packed crowd support me against gravity. From there, I could see through the curves of people’s necks. Marchers marching, drummers drumming, speakers speaking, snipers sniping, shooters shooting. It was an impressive display of military might—complete with a car-chase and a tank battle and even some hand-to-hand combat. At the end, all the children dashed to collect shells like the spoils of a militant piñata.

Later that afternoon and the next day, we followed a walking excursion of Irkutsk’s historical sites. This was my third visit to Irkutsk, but the first time in pleasant weather, and it is a pretty city. Our desire to see a nerpa brought us to a seal show at the “Nerpanarium,” which was downright depressing and made me want to cry. But that was to be expected, I guess…no good can come from a nerpa in a giant bathtub.

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By the time evening came, I was more than ready to head home. A fleeting eight-hour train ride put us right back in Ulan-Ude. And so ended this trans-Siberian adventure.

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Trans-Siberia– Part One: The Crazy Train

10 days. 90 hours travel time. 4,832 miles. Countless precious memories. An adventure this big and this grand requires at least a couple installments to do it justice. So I’ll begin at the beginning: three days on a Russian train.

After a juicy hamburger (my first in over seven months—I was hoping to compensate for three days of instant noodles), my friends and I boarded our train to Vladivostok.

The time spent on the train, though at times painfully dull and far from comfortable, was undoubtedly the most memorable part of our adventure. The train operates in its own little universe, completely independent of the world around it. Officially, schedules operate on Moscow time, while each passenger thinks in terms of his or her “local” time, but really, there is no time. And endless time. Upon boarding the train, each passenger undergoes a personal transformation. Gone are the high heels and fancy clothes—suddenly it’s socially acceptable to appear outside in a bright yellow shirt, orange shorts, tie-dye socks, and lime-green tapochki. Gone too are the reserved “street faces” and all boundaries between people. Boarding the train, you join the train world, and the bonds of train community are pretty tight.

Nici and I were traveling in a kupe (a compartment with four beds and a small table) with a Russian man named Maxim. The first afternoon, we didn’t see much of Maxim—he spent all his time hanging in his brother’s compartment next door, only popping in occasionally to grab a beer. But that evening, when he was getting some hot water, the train conductor apparently asked him how the foreign girls were doing. “What foreigners?” As soon as he realized his kupe-mates were foreigners (and not, as he had suspected, Russian girls practicing their English), he stopped in to introduce himself and his brother Vitaly. After that, we became best friends, of course.

I have never been in less of a hurry than I was on the train. Three whole days with absolutely nothing to do, nowhere to be, no obligations. It’s the ultimate form of forced relaxation. Days were spent reading War and Peace in Russian, writing the Train Diaries, napping, and listening to music, but mostly I just stared out the window and let time slip by with the beautiful Siberian countryside. Surely, this must be the most beautiful way to get from point A to point B.

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Even the madness takes time. But its eventual coming is all but inevitable. Maddening beauty, maddening boredom and restlessness, maddeningly close quarters—plus, of course, a dollop of Russian crazy. Slowly but surely, the madness will come. Soon, a half-hour talking about facial tissues can send you into fits uncontrollable laughter, you could burst into song at any minute, and suddenly “Shower-Donalds” is the funniest restaurant name ever, and the highlight of your life is the next 15-minute stop, where you can cluster on the platform and soak up the fresh air and sunshine.

just a taste of the crazy

just a taste of the crazy

The evenings were time for bonding with Maxim and Vitaly. And by “bonding,” of course, I mean drinking. Strictly speaking, vodka is forbidden on Russian trains. But that never stopped anyone. To my great amusement, our train conductor was running a black-market booze operation from under Nici’s bed. So we were well-supplied with Russian vodka. With nothing better to do, the four of us consumed an ungodly amount of vodka—something tells me my liver would not have survived the entire six-day trip from Moscow to Vladivostok.

vodkatrain

The last day was a struggle. We were all restless and bored out of our minds, sick of sitting, sick of standing, sick of lying. Also just sick—though Maxim assured us that it was those “damn Chinese noodles” that made us sick, not the vodka. But the final morning was full of hopeful anticipation. Everyone waited eagerly in the hall as the ocean passed by and slowly turned into a city. People shed their train clothes and became real people again—the transformation was alarming. It was just so strange to see people in pants and shoes! Finally, at 10:30AM on May 4, we pulled into Vladivostok—and with a rushed “счастливо!” our best friends Maxim and Vitaly were gone forever.

Images: Waking up to a smelly fish-head on the table. Watching Maksim and Vitaly eat an entire bag of hard-boiled eggs that had been sitting in the hot, hot train for over 24 hours. Being scolded on multiple occasions for not putting enough sugar in my tea. A plate of fresh pelmeny, courtesy of Maksim and Vitaly. A mirror with the caption “It’s possible a millionaire is looking at you.” Learning how to play Durak. Our conductors telling me to find a Russian husband. A shirt that said “Who this he?” Vitaly’s cackle. Maxim’s incessant “ё-моё!” A really awkward declaration of love. Watching Siberia burn.

Join me next time for our adventures in Russia’s Far East!

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My New Secret Identity

I am about to embark on a Trans-Siberian adventure. Unlike the previous 7 months of Siberian adventures, this adventure starting Wednesday will be a lot more trans. Over the course of 10 days, I will travel over 2800 miles and visit three different Russian cities. Three days on a train will put me in Vladivostok. They call this city the “Russian San Francisco,” but I’ve never been to the American one, so the comparison will be lost on me. It’s a huge port city, there’s a fancy bridge, and I’ll get my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. I’ll even be able to see Sarah Palin’s house. I’ll be sure to give a wave. After a few days in Vlad, I’ll train it to Khabarovsk (the second largest city in Russia’s Far East) for a day. From there, I’ll fly to Irkutsk. After a couple days, the train will take me back home. And then this blog will be abuzz with all sorts of adventures to share—as opposed to these stale tales of my sedentary life in Ulan-Ude.

Not that I think my life here is stale! I’m enjoying life as much as ever. I just find it difficult to develop material for this blog—somehow I doubt anyone wants to read about eating ketchup-pizza or baking snickerdoodles or going outside without a coat or the city-wide spring cleaning initiative (which, as far as I can tell, involves burning everything and then painting everything else white). Other than teaching class in a room full of scary-looking machinery and translating at Mormon church, my life’s been pretty calm this week. The glorious weather has made my wanderings of the city much more pleasant, and I’ve even discovered a new favorite spot. It’s a quiet place, a solitary place, just a bit off the beaten path. None of your guidebooks and travel websites will recommend it, and none of my friends here ever mentioned it either, but it’s a really nice place to stumble upon. Right near the Central Market, way up on a hill, just past the Geser statue, along the bank of the river, I came across a memorial in honor of the founding of Ulan-Ude city.

I’ll post some pictures at the end, but for now I thought I’d shake things up a bit by writing something in Russian.

Одним из самых сложных вопросов моей жизни “по-русский” является вопрос о самовыражение. Есть такая загадка: “если я– это я, то ты– это ты. Если мы– это мы, то и я– это я. Но если я– не я, то и мы не мы. Ведь если ты– не ты, то и я не я.” Hа мой взгляд, это значит, что все существование относительное, совершенно зависимое от контекста. Даже личность. С самого начала когда я приехала, я боролась с загадкой относительности личности и идентичности. Язык представляет важную часть идентичности человека– как он общается, как он выражает себя, как он представляет себя другим. И мне пришлось в голову, что может быть я другой человек на русском языке.

Ариэль– это английский-говорящая девушка. Как можно перенести саму сущность на другой язык? Переводится ли личность? Я не так думаю. Обычно, нет прямого, буквального перевода таких моментов как юмор, сильная эмоция, и ушлые особенности человека. Все по-другому. При таких моментах, мне иногда кажется, что-то не так.

Стало легче, разумеется. Мой русский язык улучшался. Все вокруг меня идет на русском, я окружилась русским, я слушаю русский, и– главное– пользуюсь русским. Мне даже снится на русском! Я стала более уверенной– язык как-будто “расслабился” (если этот выражение имеет значение на русском…). Я больше не боюсь ошибок. Я уверена, что я могу общаться в любой ситуации, найти слова, выразить идеи. Понять и быть понятной. Смотри-ка, я пишу блог на русском! Вот это достижение!

Но все-таки остается эта загадка отностительности личности. Кого я выражаю, когда я выражаю себя? Я– это я на русском? Я считаю что мой русский язык выражает другую сущность чем мой английский язык выражает. Но может быть эта новая, другая сущность– это также я. Может быть есть два меня? Две разные (но все-таки похожие) личности, мирно сосуществующие в одном человеке. И вот доказательство о том, что я действительно усиливалась в Улан-Удэ– я ведь удваивалась!

And even if Google Translate still left you wondering, I think you probably get what I mean. Some things just aren’t meant to translate exactly, and perhaps personality is one of them.

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