have you heard? part two

Once upon a time, I went to St. Petersburg to study for a semester. In May (which by now also counts as “once upon a time”), I had a chance to go back.

St. Petersburg is lovely in late May. Even the cooler days were not that cold, and the whole city is blooming with lilacs. But before I talk about that, I want to tell you how I got there.

Flying out of Ukhta is super expensive, because there’s only one airline that flies from there, and lots of rich businessmen who need to fly… you don’t even need an economics degree to see how that works. So I took a bus to Syktyvkar, and then flew from there.

But friends. While late May in St. Petersburg is lovely, in Komi Republic it is pretty dystopian. By that I mean it can be fifty degrees Fahrenheit, but the air is still swarming with aggressive little vampire-bugs (I would say “mosquitos,” but I have a feeling they’re not the same mosquitos we have here) that will bite your face and hands and feet till you look like a smallpox patient. For this very reason, I was happy to leave for a while… unfortunately, the mosquitos also thought they might leave town.

The bus left at 11pm, so when they shut the doors, closing in 12 passengers and 20 mosquitos, it was too dark to properly squash anything that landed on me. So I sat in mild misery, waiting to be let out.

Then we stopped at Emva for a rest in the middle. It was now 1am. At this stop, we had some others join our happy caravan. And I don’t mean people. No, this time, when they closed the doors, they trapped in 12 passengers and 200 mosquitos, buzzing, whining, feasting on whoever would sit still (we were all sitting still). Luckily, I had some bug spray with me. Unluckily, I forgot to spray my feet, and the mosquitos lost no time dining through my socks.

The mosquitos then followed me from the bus to the airport, and from the airport onto the airplane. When I arrived in St. Petersburg at 7am, barely having slept (see: mosquitos), somewhat crazed, with matted hair and airplane-dirty clothes, I was ready for a shower and a nap, but I had a whole day ahead of me until I could get into my hostel. So I left my bags at the hostel’s front desk and head out for my stay-awake-until-bedtime adventure. It was kind of chilly that day, so I spent a lot of it hopping from one cafe to another. But I also got to see my tutor, Polina, from my Petersburg semester… and my professor/thesis advisor from Notre Dame, who was there with a class group! (I now regret not getting pictures with them, oops.) Polina and I had Georgian food, which I recommend to everyone.

 

Day two was slightly warmer and entirely empty. I had, I think, zero personal human contact all day. I considered going to a concert, but opted out in favor of loafing around the botanical gardens for hours, and then to Stockmann to buy Western grocery products for my friends in Ukhta (basically, marshmallows and maple syrup).

 

Day three meant church (the same one I attended when I studied there … people remembered me) and lunch with my friend Masha. Masha and I had Georgian food, which I again recommend to everyone. Then I skirted off to another park where I could be alone with the clover and the dandelions, and in this one I could walk on the grass! So I did. Barefoot, of course. And then I made a clover crown. (The vegetation in St. Petersburg is much more similar to that in Ohio than that in Ukhta… all the same weeds as home.)

 

Day four was my attempt at being a tourist. I got Soviet-style doughnuts from my favorite place on Bol’shaya Konyushennaya, walked around the Summer Garden with my professor, and then went to the Russian Museum. While in the Russian Museum, I ran into Dana, a fellow Fulbrighter! I’d make a joke about Russia being smaller than we think, but it is actually big. So the fact that I was walking past the entrance at the exact moment Dana was walking in seems like some kind of Providence. After dinner, I got to see my friends Ashley and Jamin for tea, which meant being in the presence of American parenting for the first time in a long time. This was the warmest day, and this was also the day I became my most American self, at one point carrying four water bottles in my bag, to a total capacity of 3.25 liters.

 

Day five was lovely: I ate Georgian food for lunch (go to your nearest Georgian restaurant, do not pass Go, do not collect $200), and then I headed out to visit my friends Brian and Kandice. We spent a nice afternoon together, debriefing their last years in Russia and my experiences in Ukhta, making chocolate chip cookies, and eating salmon and broccoli for dinner (all of which was so good for my soul, bless them).

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Something with lamb and potatoes. SO GOOD.

Overall, a success of a trip. I loved seeing old friends again, wandering parks by myself, and … wait for it … eating Georgian food. Also, thanks to a cold snap in Komi, the trip back was much less mosquito-y! I’ll be back again soon.

so that musical…

Hello everybody… guess where I am right now? Yes, I’m home already, and Yes, that means I didn’t actually post anything for the last two weeks of my program. But don’t worry, the posts will still come. I have lots more to talk about, including:

  • the musical I was in (that’s what this post is for)
  • my trip to St. Petersburg
  • wrapping up classes
  • saying goodbye to literally everyone
  • reentry

…just be prepared to wait a little between posts.

So, the musical. As you may remember, I was talked into participating in a musical by my friend Ksenia, the director of USTU’s vocal studio. I say “talked into,” because I actually wasn’t as enthusiastic about saying “yes” to this project as I usually am. Because I am not an actress, and I am certainly no good substitute for Stevie Wonder.

Oh yes, that’s right, the musical was based on original translations of Stevie Wonder songs into Russian.

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“Wonderful World”: There were posters up all over the place… with my face on them!

Rehearsals started in February, as Ksenia arranged vocals. 90% of rehearsals at this time were the background vocalists learning weird harmonies and trying to sing them tightly and together.

Then, at some point, we introduced acting to the mix. That went… interestingly.

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At rehearsal: me and my love interest, can’t you tell by our body language?

As we drew near to the time of the show, everything got crazy. We realized just how unprepared we were, the director started to actually despair that Gerar and I would ever act like the besotten young couple we were supposed to be, and the musical director started to wonder if she shouldn’t have spent more time teaching us to sway our hips convincingly while singing backup. But, in the end, of course, everything went off just fine…

Fine enough, in fact, that the rector (who had been unavailable for the university’s first ever musical… something about a basketball tournament in St. Petersburg…) requested a repeat. And because he’s the rector, we complied.

I was gone in St. Petersburg for the whole week between the two performances, meaning I missed the rehearsals in between, but stress? What’s that? I was super chill about the second performance, and I enjoyed it a lot more than the first. This is partly because the temperature in the hall was about 70 degrees F as opposed to the 85 it had been during the first run (and if you’ve ever performed in a fleece Snuggie under stage lights in an 85 degree room, you know exactly how uncomfortable the first performance was).

I’ve attached here a few pictures of me from the second performance, but if you want to browse more, check this link.

 

We ended up getting good press, and overall, I’d say a success for the American in the far north, and an even bigger success for my costars who had actual classes/exams going on the whole time.

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And, most importantly, I came out of it with a few more friends and a lot more memories.

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things I wish I’d known: may

May is over, and I have set a new record for bad blogging habits! I have a lot of posts in mind, including that one I’ve been promising about the musical I’m in, so hopefully you’ll be seeing those trickle out in the days to come. However, I will warn you: I have 10 days left in Ukhta, and I don’t plan on spending any time in front of the computer that I could be spending elsewhere.

So without further ado, this month, I wish I’d known…

  1. that May does not exist. Everything you plan to do in May may not actually happen. You will get to the end of the month and not remember it at all.
  2. that there are exactly three weeks when it is pleasant to be outside, because about that long after the snow melts/mud evaporates, the mosquitoes come out. Take advantage of these three weeks.
  3. how dastardly bloodthirsty Russian mosquitoes are. My. Goodness. Douse yourself in bugspray before you leave the house.
  4. that Russian pharmacists don’t know what hydrocortisone is, so bring your own, for those places you didn’t douse in bugspray.
  5. that your musical isn’t over until the rector says it’s over. (i.e. you think you only have one performance, but don’t count on it — remember about Russians and planning things in advance?)
  6. that fill-in-the-blank questions with multiple choice on the final exam doesn’t mean your students will be any less stressed or any more successful. Therefore have only short answers and oral testing…?
  7. that you may not actually want to leave town in May, so plan your travel for those weird fall/winter months when you had no work and no friends and no sunlight.
  8. that it’s 100% possible to sleep through white nights if your curtains are decent. All curtains in Ukhta are decent. Never fear.
  9. that a watch is super necessary up here, because telling time by daylight literally doesn’t work at all.
  10. that everything ends really quickly. Do laundry in advance.

a more southerly part of nowhere

A few weeks ago (oops, I’m a bad blogger), Vickie and I went with our colleague and Fulbright-alumna-friend Nastya to a charming little fairy-tale village called Letka. She grew up there, and her parents still live in her childhood home.

Friends, I love Letka. I love Nastya’s parents. I love everything about the place.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.

First we had to get to Letka. This involved four hours on a bus from Ukhta to Syktyvkar, and then three hours in a car from Syktyvkar to Letka. It turns out we went about 600km almost directly south, landing us parallel with Vologda and halfway to Kazan (see, Russia isn’t THAT big…)

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The trip there was actually not all that fun, because I was sitting next to a man who was drinking beer the whole trip and invading my American-personal-space-bubble. But my mood wasn’t down for too long, because on arriving to Letka (at 9:30pm), we were greeted with a homemade dinner, tea, and a trip to the banya.

Yes, the banya.

Nastya’s parents (Aunt Masha and Uncle Vova, as we were to call them) have their own house, and their own banya. A banya is kind of like a sauna, but it serves for recreation, shower-substitute, and also literally steaming yourself like a piece of chicken. While beating yourself with a bundle of birch branches.

 

We woke up on Saturday to a breakfast of blini. Then we went to the school (the same one where Nastya studied!) and lead a few English lessons there. Apparently we’re awesome teachers, because after the lesson we were asked for autographs and about a half million pictures (none of which I ever saw again).

 

Then we wandered around town, taking in the sights and the variable weather…

 

Then we went to this neat event that I can’t even figure out how to name. Basically, each class (2-3 classes per grade) did a sort of military performance, involving marching and sing-shouting some rhythmic song. It made Vickie and me feel very patriotic. Afterwards, we took several million more pictures.

 

My personal favorite part of Saturday might have been the thunderstorm. It’s been ages since I’ve been in a thunderstorm, and I love them a whole lot. It was pouring up down and sideways for a while, and then it cleared in time for a gorgeous post-storm twilight.

The whole time, I had Tyutchev’s poem running through my head… Attached below with a really stupid translation, sorry Tyutchev, and sorry everybody else.

Люблю грозу в начале мая,
Когда весенний, первый гром,
как бы резвяся и играя,
Грохочет в небе голубом.

Гремят раскаты молодые,
Вот дождик брызнул, пыль летит,
Повисли перлы дождевые,
И солнце нити золотит.

С горы бежит поток проворный,
В лесу не молкнет птичий гам,
И гам лесной и шум нагорный –
Все вторит весело громам.

Ты скажешь: ветреная Геба,
Кормя Зевесова орла,
Громокипящий кубок с неба,
Смеясь, на землю пролила.

I love a storm in early May…
The first great thunder-clap of spring,
As if to frolic and to play,
Loudly in the blue sky rings.

The newborn peals resound, and dust
Begins to fly, shower-sprayed,
And on the threads small pearls of rain
Turn golden in the sun’s bright rays.

From mountains nimble streamiets run,
And forest birds sustain their song.
In forest song and mountain sound,
The thunder’s clap is echoed on.

You might say: tempestuous Hebe,
When feeding the great bird of Zeus,
Took the effervescing cup,
And on the earth its streams let loose.

 

On Sunday, we had to say goodbye 😦 But we were treated on our way out with more Russian hospitality in the form of more food than any mortal could hope to eat, along with fresh milk from their neighbor’s cow.

In conclusion: love Letka, probably going to retire there, hope that’s okay with everybody.

ukhta’s dancing monkeys, part two

Every once in a while, Vickie and I have a week when it is very clear that we are the go-tos for all English language showcases in Ukhta, and also that we are mostly incapable of saying no. Last week was one of those weeks.

It all started when Svetlana (the director of the elementary school) asked us to perform a song in English at the end of their English Day program. Seemed simple enough. The song was technically a part of the fourth-graders’ skit, but they didn’t have enough time to learn it, and Vickie and I are the dancing monkeys, so… we agreed. We decided to ignore the fact that both of us were sick and sounded more like dying monkeys than dancing ones.

Then, three days before the performance, one of my fourth graders got sick. He would have to miss his debut as the Ass in the skit, “The Bremen-town Musicians.” This was a pity, as he is literally the most Nick Bottom-like child I have ever met, and the Shakespeare nerd in me was really tickled by the coincidence. This was also a pity as it meant that Svetlana needed to find a replacement for him. Do you see where this is going?

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“Woe is me! What am I to do? I am old, and weak. Where shall I go?”

I only got the script about 24 hours before the performance and failed to memorize it to my own satisfaction, so I ended up writing key words on my hand in blue pen right before I went onstage. These words remained on my hand for about four days, reminding me of the time my students got to call me “Ass” for a whole day.

Later that day, Vickie and I got to sit on the jury for a foreign-language scientific conference. It was interesting, because the purpose of the conference was not to discuss one topic/group of topics, but for students to present literally anything in English. So the presentations were widely varied, both in theme and in quality. The room was deathly hot, so we opened the window, despite cries from the teachers that this would result in us catching colds (we already had colds, we just wanted to breathe).

…This, however, means that when a day later I missed class to work on a last-minute conference presentation, the teachers all nodded their heads wisely to the effect of, “We knew she would get sick with all those open windows!” (Even though, again, the reason I missed class was to work on a paper, not because I was sick. That’s a silly reason to miss class.)

Oh right, did I mention I was invited to participate in USTU’s conference on educating international students? I heard about the conference on Monday. It was to happen on Thursday. It was to happen in Russian on Thursday. But what was I supposed to say, “no”? Ha! This word is not in my vocabulary!

Tuesday I chose a theme (flexible, conversational lessons as a means of motivating language students). Wednesday I chose a title (О развитии интереса учащихся к изучению иностранного языка). Wednesday night/Thursday morning I wrote my speech. Thursday afternoon I showed up to the conference, listened to several people talk well over their 5-7 minute limit, and finally gave my presentation (not reading the paper with my speech printed, because nobody else did… oops) in a different section, because we ran out of time in the first.

It ended up going well, and I think it gave some hope to the teachers I was talking to… that maybe, one day, their students too could get up and half-improv a last-minute conference presentation in Russian. Even if mine wasn’t super exciting, or my ideas weren’t totally new to them, the very fact that a fifth-year Russian student can actually speak Russian was encouraging. And for that I’m glad I said yes 🙂

Join me next time on “Katie Says Yes and Performs on Stage” for a discussion of her big-stage debut… a musical!

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The tension. The chemistry. The drama. (I’m a bad actress.) (But at least I have good posture.)

things I wish I’d known: april

This month went even faster than last month… is that possible? But I can’t deny the passage of time, because somehow all the snow is melted, and the ground is starting to warm up, and there’s grass in some places, and dandelions in others (never thought I’d be so happy to see dandelions), and also the sky doesn’t get all the way dark till ~11pm, and also it starts getting light again at ~1am (what is this place). Every day feels a little bit warmer, a little bit longer, a little bit closer to the end, a little bit further away from the beginning.

All that drama aside, here’s what I learned this month, that I wish I’d known earlier:

  1. that it does get warm in Ukhta, and I should bring clothing appropriate to sunny and 60s.
  2. that there are nice grassy fields in Ukhta, and I should bring clothing appropriate to frolicking/grass-sitting.
  3. that reading an email is not the same thing as replying to it, no matter how it seems at the time (apologies to everyone who has been victim of this).
  4. how absurdly hot it is in Russian trains, especially on the top bunk in platzkart. Get the bottom bunk.
  5. that some schools do still carry on the hiring process into May, so not having applications finished in February is not a reason to stress out.
  6. that the ice here turns to mud when it melts, which then turns into sand when it dries, creating a South-Africa-like effect of dust blowing everywhere.
  7. that I won’t want to travel the last month of my grant, so I should get all that out of the way in the first semester, before I put down roots here.
  8. how seriously Russians take the idea of walking around barefoot/in socks as a potential cause of illness (even if this walking takes place exclusively indoors). This is a fact that can be used to comic effect, unless I am in fact sick, in which case they will tell me it’s because I walked barefoot, even though it’s probably because I was sharing hot recycled air with fifty people and zero circulation on a train for 11 hours.
  9. that potatoes can, in fact, go (very) bad in the space of 10 days, even in a dark cool cupboard… and this is, in fact, the source of that fish smell I keep smelling.
  10. that it’s really embarrassing when my friends are playing keep-it-up and I’m incapable of keeping-it-up, so I should probably take gym class more seriously (this is a “wish I’d known 15 years ago” thing, sorry if it’s not too relevant to any of you).
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Going shoeless where no one can see me and tell me I’m going to get sick… also imagining I live in the prairie

on the rails again

This week, Vickie and I went to Ukhta State Technical University’s “filial” (partner university? satellite campus?) in Usinsk. This is pronounced Oo-sin-sk (only two syllables, but separated for easier reading). Usinsk is… tiny. Like, we walked from the center to the edge in about 20 minutes. We drove around the entire city (all four streets) in about 30 minutes. But it’s also quite cute, and there’s a nice forest. There’s also a nice 600-student, single-building university, which is the actual reason we went: to teach! (It’s almost like that’s our job or something.)

But first, I want to talk about the going… the train.

Last time Vickie and I took the train, you’ll remember, it was a 32-hour ride from Moscow to Ukhta, about 96 hours after entering the country. We had a nice (only mildly traumatic, and maximally sedated) experience in kupe (4-person private cabin).

This time, we had a nice (still only mildly traumatic, although less sedated) experience in platzkart (open, barracks-style car). We took the fast train there (10 hours) and the slow train back (12 hours).

The Good: Lots of time to sleep, no creepy guys in our immediate vicinity, no drunk people anywhere we could tell. …And, on the way back, our neighbor from the dormitory was just a few bunks down from us!

The Bad: SO HOT. I can’t even describe it. Okay fine, it was only 80 degrees F, but there was literally no movement of air, and a whole lot of people… especially on the top bunk, breathing isn’t really a thing that happens. Also, we had one cabin-mate whose snore resembled the revv of a chainsaw. So the “lots of time to sleep” didn’t exactly translate into “sleep.”

The Amusing: “Katie, the bathroom is so great!! It has toilet paper.” –Standards.

Once in the city, we got settled into our apartment-hotel. I have no pictures, sorry, but I can give you the Good, Bad, and Amusing of it…

The Good: Beds! Hot shower! Functional kitchen!

The Bad: Have you ever seen The Irony of Fate? …yeah. The first night we spent about 30 minutes trying to find the right place, then about 15 trying to get the key to work in the door when we’d found it. Turns out we were still in the wrong building. I at that point was mildly feverish with a headache and sore throat, and Vickie also had a migraine, and we were carrying ~7kg of groceries, and basically we were a sight to be seen.

The Amusing: Trying to leave a note for our roommates telling them they could help themselves to our pasta… while slightly delirious and with no good sense of Russian whatsoever.

We had classes with the university students…

The Good: My class on Wednesday had only eight students, so we could play games, and they could all have a chance to talk!

The Bad: Only two of the eight wanted to talk. Too bad for the others, because I didn’t take a 10-hour ride in a fiery furnace just to watch people stare silently at me for two hours.

The Amusing: At the English Club meeting on Tuesday, Vickie and I started (as usual) in English. This was met with much and vocal protest, and pleas to answer their questions in Russian. We, receiving affirmation from the authorities there, did so. We heard later that the students had complained that they “expected us to speak English with them, but we only spoke Russian the whole time!” Okay.

We also got to see some of the dostoprimechatel’nosti (tourist sights) of the town.

The Good: Nice weather, flowers, an interesting tour guide (hi Olga!)

The Bad: I was sick the whole time and carrying an enormous backpack for part of it, so I was kind of grumpy.

The Amusing: Can we just talk about the mosquito monument?

Among the other dostoprimechatel’nosti, we got to see the forest in Usinsk. The idea was, I think, to take a nice, brisk walk… which turned into more of a run/quick tramp for us. But we lived. And the forest is beautiful.

The Good: Beautiful nature, beautiful dog.

The Bad: Vickie falling into the snow, my feet freezing.

The Amusing: Yeah, that hole in the ice? Olga literally went swimming in it, then we walked for another 45 minutes.

All in all, good trip. But now I need to go take some NyQuil and catch up on sleep. (…And consider packing ice and an oxygen tank next time I take a Russian train.)