Babushka Lyudmila (whom, you will remember, Vickie and I met on the train) told me that Ukhta is a bol’shaya derevnya: that is, a large village. I was like, wow, 100,000 people, that sounds like a city to me. It’s 10 times the size of the town I grew up in, anyway… how could that be a “large village”?
And then we got there, and I think I have to agree with Babushka Lyudmila. There’s actually one main street. And it’s not like Main St. in my hometown– this is the artery of the city, the place where people walk, the location of most businesses you ever need to visit. It’s also called Prospekt Lenina (I think there’s one of those in every Russian city).
This feels like the kind of place where you see the same people all the time and get to know them at least by face, if not by name. While I’m sure that’s in fact impossible with all 100,000 residents, it’s still the aura the city gives off.
The other aura the city gives off, or at least is giving off right now, is autumn. I’m thrilled about that, since autumn is my favorite, and I was afraid that in moving from Cleveland to Ukhta I’d be moving from summer into winter. But the weather here is late-October-gorgeous: the temperature hangs in the 50s, the air carries the damp smell of leaves and smoke, and the breeze tickles your ear with strains of Tyutchev you only sort-of remember. And sometimes you can even see the sun!
So when people ask me, “Kak vam Ukhta?” (“How do you like Ukhta?”), I have to say I find it very pleasant here. The city is lively and oh my stars so many small children in parkas and adorable hats with ears, my dorm/apartment is spacious and well heated*, the food is good and cheap, and the people are kind and (most importantly) patient.
I also appreciate the feeling that there are no gimmicks in this town. In Petersburg and Moscow, you have to constantly look over your shoulder for salesmen who traffic in the hopes, dreams, and dollars of unsuspecting tourists. In those places, it’s a struggle to find the “real Russia” under the glitz of English-language restaurant menus and matreshki (nesting dolls). But here I have no doubt that, from the minute I walk out of my dorm room in the morning to the moment I return, I’m getting nothing but “real Russia.” The babushki selling pickled beets and cabbage on the sidewalk probably grew the produce at their own dachas, and the marshrutka carrying probably more people than should actually fit in the back of a van is not just there to provide any paying customer with an interesting experience. This is actual life: what might be kitsch elsewhere isn’t here, and even if that means taking techno remixes of Taylor Swift seriously, I’m okay with that.
*Okay, the dorm is way too well heated. Just give me a draught, and I don’t care if I’m going to catch pneumonia: I want some of that autumn air in here. I came to Russia to get AWAY from 90 degrees Fahrenheit.