Completely unbeknownst to me, Germany switched to winter time on Sunday. It makes me feel strangely out of control that since all of my devices switched automatically, I didn’t even realize that it had happened. If my friends hadn’t told me about their clubbing adventure the night before (due to which they were awake for the fall back, an experience I’ve never had), I probably would have continued to live my life in total ignorance.

That would have been a problem, though.

Let’s back up for a second. In 2011, Russia decided to stop observing daylight savings. Or rather, they decided to keep summer time eternally–as if that was going to fool anyone. The official reason behind the change was that falling back is too stressful both for livestock and for people. The evidence? The fact that suicide rates in Russia peak during the winter months–which is definitely the result of a slight jog in the continuity of time, and not the result of 6 months of trying to survive without vitamins, sunshine, or physical activity. Right.


Kid 1: “How was the weather this summer?” Kid 2: “I don’t know, I was in school that day.” 

Understandably, then-President Medvedev was ridiculed for this decision both at home and abroad. But three years later (presumably after no change was observed in the rate of humans attempting suicide and cows with seasonal affectedness disorder), it was decided that Russia would instead switch eternally to winter time. So on my birthday in 2014, Russia fell back one last time.

You may recall that Nathan and I were in Russia for 2012-2013. This means not only that the time difference between us and home changed twice while we were in Cher, but also that when I returned to Kazan two years later, that difference was, well, different. Even though Kazan and Cher are in the same time zone, and New York time, thankfully, hasn’t budged.

So that’s a bit of a headache. But that’s not all. While Germany, along with the rest of Europe (except Iceland, a country less prone to self-deception than Russia), does observe daylight savings time, the schedule is offset slightly from the US. So for 49 weeks of the year, I am 6 hours ahead of you. For one week of every year, it’s 5 hours, and for two weeks it’s 7.

I have students in both New York and Kazan that I meet with regularly online, which means that I have to keep all of these changes in mind lest I schedule students on top of each other without realizing or show up for my lesson at the wrong time or charge a student for an illegitimate no-show.

But that’s not even why I’m mad.


I’m mad because at 5:15 PM today, I took this picture out of my window. That black thing that you can hardly see behind the other black things? Yeah, that’s the sky.

It brings this song to mind:

or… Happy Day of German Unity! A day that is celebrated by not going to work, and…well, that’s pretty much it.

But you, being (probably) American, do not have a day off today. So to commemorate the occasion, allow me to introduce you to Zonen-Gaby (“Zone” is (was?) a slang way to refer to East Germany), who once graced the cover of the satirical magazine Titanic. Here’s a little backstory:

“The satirists were chatting about the crude TV shots showing how West Germans distributed bananas among East German citizens who had escaped through Hungary. The grandfather of Titanic, Robert Gernhardt allegedly said, ‘We’ll just show a young woman holding a banana in her hand. Easterner-Gaby in luck.’ Bernd Eilert spun the idea further: ‘And instead of a banana we’ll put a cucumber in her hand.’ Great excitement on the fun front.”


“Easterner Gaby (17) in luck (West Germany): My first banana”


Note: I fact-checked the rumor that there were no bananas or other tropical fruits in the GDR. Apparently there were, but far fewer than in the West, and (of course) unevenly distributed. Per capita banana consumption in the East in the 80s stuck around 2 kg, whereas in the West at the same time people were eating 9 kg of bananas a year. Most of the Eastern bananas would have been concentrated in the cities (read: Berlin and Leipzig), so it is perfectly likely that someone from the country would never have had a banana before.

[Wrote this a month ago, and it’s been stressing me out being on my desktop. I wrote other stuff in Tübingen, too, but since that’s on actual paper, there’s no telling whether you’ll ever see it.]

I’m not generally known for my powers of persuasion, but earlier this year, I made a new personal record when I managed to convince Alexandra (who was living in Boston) to come to Tübingen, Germany and participate in a two-week summer semantics institute with me. Somehow this snowballed from “Come for two or three weeks and hang out” to “Come for two or three weeks and hang out, then bike from Germany to Italy, then go work on a farm in Ghana for half a year.” The phrase “go big or go home” takes on new meaning when perceived through Alexandra’s ears. 

She arrived on Thursday with her beautiful touring bike stuffed into a monstrous cardboard box (wider than the sliding door between customs and arrivals, as we learned), padded with an eclectic array of camping supplies. Originally, our plan had been to reassemble the bike outside the airport (that won’t arouse any suspicions…) and ride home, but she admitted upon arrival that she wasn’t sure that she could transport all the camping gear once she opened the box (some of you may be wondering why she brought more gear than she could carry on a bike tour. Keep wondering.) So we took off on foot, carefully and s-l-o-w-l-y, with her box balanced on the crossbar of my bike. By some miracle, we got it home intact. She immediately tore into the box and started scattering bike components and tools across the front yard of my dorm, and we set about learning how to reassemble a bike (she had had some instruction before leaving Boston; I have never done more than change a tube). As you can expect, a lot went wrong. But eventually we got the thing rideable and started preparing to go for a ride when all of a sudden the sun disappeared from the sky, and it began to pour.

We made up for it on Day 2, spending much of the afternoon meandering around the Tiergarten (a hunting reserve cum park in the center of town) and enjoying playgrounds that probably weren’t designed for people our age, but ought to have been. At some point, Alexandra convinced me to accompany her for a short (about a week) bike tour of…well, at this point, we still don’t know. Lake Constance and the Black Forest? Strasbourg and Alsace? Zürich and surrounding areas? [Added later: we opted for the Black Forest, Freiburg, and Alsace, but that decision was made partly based on which route it was easiest to find a bike map for.]


The Tiergarten spreads in all directions from the Victory Column, stopping at the Reichstag (main government building) and the Brandenburg Gate. Once you’re in, you can completely forget that you’re in the middle of the capital of Germany. Except for when sometimes people get murdered in there.

The problems arose when we discovered that, inexplicably, there is no good transport connecting Berlin to Stuttgart or surrounding areas, where we were headed for the conference. Our options were either an 8-hour trip that would cost about 200 euros a head, or a 13-15-hour trip on the regional trains that would cost a tenth of that. It should be obvious which of these two options a grad student and someone in the beginning of a belated gap year would spring for. The catch: the only cheap route that would get us to the university in time to check into our dorm left shortly after midnight, and no leg of the journey lasted longer than 2 hours. Sleep? Who needs it?

We had a variety of errands to run before catching our train southward: run by a friend’s house, buy some fancy cheese for Alexandra’s uncle (with whom we spent a week in their home in the Netherlands last year, and who was planning to visit us at the institute), and so on—nothing to concern you with. That part was easy. Our zen frame of mind only faltered when, on the way to the station (already running 20 minutes late for a number of reasons), one of Alexandra’s racks buckled under the weight of her panniers (turns out it was installed slightly incorrectly—whoops), and we wound up missing the S-Bahn. She repaired it while I got us some much-needed supper (the Döner guy got a look at all the junk we were hauling and offered to let us sleep in the restaurant after it closed), and then we took off, not at all optimistic that we would make the train.

We did.

It wasn’t easy, though, and it was far from pretty. I have exactly no camping gear, so I had grabbed whatever best suited our needs from my dorm furnishings. Alexandra, for her part, had had to pack simultaneously for two weeks of business and academic things, a fall and winter in Alpine climates, and then the first half of next year in western Africa. It would have been a herculean task even if we had had a decent budget. Which we didn’t, of course, because we’re linguists.

Alexandra’s bike was so weighed down under three panniers, a sleeping bag, and a tarp (to keep that fancy bike out of the rain) that there was almost no room for her on it. As for me, I had a fitted sheet and Ikea blanket clipped into my rear rack, a front basket full of provisions for the train trip (we’re both food people, so they had to be varied and nutritious), and a backpack. Oh, and a large cardboard shipping box containing a violin that I mail-order rented in order to practice in Tübingen (and then mail back and cancel my contract before starting the bike tour—one of my cleverer ideas, as long as it survives the trip) [Added later: it did. Brilliant idea]. That didn’t fit anywhere on my bike, so I did the best I could steering and braking with one hand. From the outside, we looked pitiful, tag-teaming our possessions up and down stairs and on and off trains, since we weren’t physically capable of transporting all our stuff at once unless we were on the bikes. But each surmounted obstacle gave us an intoxicating sense of empowerment, so even huddled on a platform bench at five in the morning eating cheese off of a  Swiss army knife that we could hardly see through bleary eyes, we were having a grand time. High fives abounded.

Contrary to all reasonable expectations, we made our first 4 connections without a hitch, and right now we’re in Lower Bavaria, set to arrive in Stuttgart soon. And from there it’s just one more leg to Tübingen.


As you can see, Alexandra is making the most of her chance to soak up the verdant Bavarian scenery.


Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 11.32.45

Did you know there are coloring books on Google Books? (also, isn’t the bottom picture–which shows the continuum of brain areas responsible for movement of different body parts– kind of terrifying?)


Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 21.35.11.png

I think it’s a UK thing. In any case, what even the trait–I mean, British– may not know is that it’s actually an anglicization of the Dutch “toon,” meaning (it always seems silly to translate Dutch) tune. Source: Urban Dictionary, but originally Conor.

Nathan recently put me in touch with a fiddler we knew from a few years ago, of whom I’ve always been scared for a couple of reasons. First of all, he is ridiculously good. Second of all, last time we talked, he was ridiculously mean. Ok, a little bit mean. Mean enough for me to remember it five years later, anyway. Third of all, just as I had convinced myself that he couldn’t possibly be that bad, cousin Laura (the reason we know him) heard that I was planning to study with him and warned me over Skype not to “take any of his crap.” Aaaand back to square one.

Finally I worked up the courage to contact him. He was (a) super nice, and (b) actually enthusiastic about teaching, which I had been totally unprepared for. We scheduled a trial lesson, and I borrowed my friend’s violin (nothing quite like getting caught in a rainstorm on your bike 2 miles from the train station with 2,000 of a friend’s euros–now available in vintage wood!–strapped to your back) and made the trek to Neukölln. When I arrived, he said it was nice to meet me, and, in the first few minutes of conversation, asked how I had heard about him. There were a couple of things that were funny about this whole situation:

a) We’ve met probably 5 or 6 times before.
b) How did I hear about you? I was dating your guitarist, the cousin of your singer, and I followed your band around for an entire summer. Also, I helped you move into this apartment. Also, that fiddle on your wall? Remember when it went to a stranger for a quarter of a year? Yeah, that was me.
c) His socks were mismatched (pink and turquoise).
d) While I told him about my goals and did the show-me-what-you’ve-got thing you always have to do when you go to a new teacher, he stood in the corner of his studio, eating risotto straight from the pot he’d cooked it in.

Then we got down to work, at which point it became clear that it was totally OK for him to wear strange socks and incorporate elements of haute cuisine and dorm life into his lunch, which he was eating while on the clock–after all, after you reach a certain level of awesomeness, professionalism isn’t necessary anymore (although perhaps don’t throw it out entirely). He’s there.


He asked me what my goals were for the violin, and I said “mastery.” He said he could work with that. 80 minutes into my 60-minute lesson, he had deconstructed everything my professors had ever tried (and failed) to teach me about music theory, with the promise to start reconstructing it next time. One criticism: “why do you start your arpeggios and scales on the tonic [“first note” of the scale]?” Because…it never occurred to me that there would ever be a reason not to, and because in the 13 years of my music education so far, no one ever suggested otherwise. Anyway, we no longer do that, apparently.



Goodbye, things I thought I knew about theory.


This could be the start of a beautiful tutorship–if he remembers who I am next week.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Since I can’t very well borrow Marc’s only fiddle every week, we went together to his music store to rent me a fiddle this morning. Marc warned me that the owner was a bit gruff (No, really? A gruff Berliner?). But my problem with him wound up being of a different kind: the store computer was broken, and rather than taking copious notes or making a rubbing of the credit card or doing any of the other things people in retail normally do when the register dies, he told me to come back another day.

“Well, can’t she at least play a little bit on the fiddle that she’ll be renting?” Good ol’ Marc, always looking out for me. So the owner handed me a fiddle that I would think had been created by Orpheus himself if the label inside hadn’t said otherwise. I asked how much they would charge to buy it, the answer to which isn’t important–the only thing you need to know is that you will never be seeing that fiddle. It’s your loss.

  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

But wait! There’s more! It’s been an action-packed week in musical procrastination land! Marc’s violin teacher’s string quartet played a show in a cosy wine cafe that was called the “Moss Garden Cafe of Culture,” but was sadly lacking in both gardens and mosses. It’s the kind of venue that would be unlikely to survive in any other city–too small to be sustainable unless filled to capacity daily, with the whole operation (including wine, beer, espresso drinks, tapas, Flammkuchen (a sort of flatbread pizza), and salads, and guilt-tripping tips out of the customers for the band) run by just two people. From the perspective of three out of the four tables, a half-wall blocked the first violinist from view.


The program started with some Vivaldi, then moved onto Mozart’s Something in D minor, ending with Dvorak. At that point they announced that the first half of the concert was over, and the second half would commence. This seemed unnecessary until the second half began to unfold (the pieces weren’t announced this time), and I realized that the announcement had been to remove any doubt that the performers had paid their due diligence to the lofty heroes of classical music and were now free to  move on to “fun stuff.”

This usage of the word “fun” drives me up the wall. It simultaneously confirms classical music as stodgy and denies that the genres from which “fun stuff” draws can be serious. Fun does not need to be incorporated into classical music (unless it’s like this, which I am 100% OK with). An orchestra does not have to play Queen to be fun. You know what’s fun? Listening to Queen play Queen. Or listening to any other music you happen to enjoy, whether it’s Glinka or Blink-182.

If it’s fun you’re after, check out Bartok’s “Intermezzo Interrottoa piece that I have never listened to without laughing (although not everyone finds it as beguiling as I do). Or the score, if not the actual piece, 4’33”.  Or the Surprise Symphony (granted, it’s only funny in an 18th-century, been-there-done-that kind of way; for full effect, you have to imagine Haydn sitting off to the side at the premiere, giggling to himself as he waited and watched).

There was originally a whole paragraph here, but I tried to condense it down to the main point so you could get on with your day: when classical ensembles play “popular” music, it often feels like they’re throwing a bone to the uncultured masses. And I understand how someone who doesn’t get anything out of classical music, but who got dragged to the concert on a date might be relieved to hear a familiar tune. But wouldn’t it make more sense for everyone to play the things that suit their instrumentation and experience, and that person can tough it out for a few hours and next time go to their kind of concert? And maybe don’t go out with that person again?

 Of course, sometimes you have to play a certain piece with the instrumentation you’ve got on hand. That’s not what I’m arguing against. Rearrangements are fine, but not if they’re forced. See the whole Wendy Carlos thing for an example of something that is definitely forced and not fine.



The only time when it’s generally acceptable for classical musicians to play Queen is middle school band. Because “We Will Rock You” has four notes, which is four notes too many from your precious offspring who just got their first oboe.


While I’ve always been wary of classical arrangements of non-classical music, it was my college fiddle professor, the concert master of the Nashville Somethingorother, who left jig after reel after jig twitching in a pool of its own blood on the floor, having bludgeoned it to death by aggressively symmetrical triplets and a Puritanical commitment to the downbeat, that cemented my opinion (although her tendency to smatter our lessons with dismissive comments about how technique wasn’t relevant to fiddle playing because “it’s supposed to be grungy” certainly didn’t help). Because how could you fail to realize that what makes this music alive is completely different from what makes your music come alive–except, of course, if you haven’t been listening?
Anyway, because apparently no, we cannot stick to what our instruments were made for and we were trained to play,  the audience endured two 90s love ballads (which were extra amusing because Sarah, Marc’s wife, apparently never learned not to sing along at classical concerts) and two arrangements of Gershwin songs.
The only point at which I almost lost my cool was when faced with three of my music pet peeves at once:

1) the perpetually disappointing European relegation of Gershwin (or any American composer) to the same puny status as a pop ballad that some grad student arranged for strings as a homework assignment

2) ending on a major major 7th chord (Nathan and I have had actual fights [i.e. heated discussions] over his use of this chord*)…

3) …combined with a tremolo. The cheesiest of conclusions, the bowed instrument player’s answer to the rock musician’s fade-out. “We didn’t bother to think of an ending to this piece. What if we just do this until the audience gets the message and leaves?”

I will admit, for all my meckern, the quartet played well, I learned a lot about bowing technique (which is, in fact, of concern to fiddle players) and ensemble communication, and the arrangements were very good for what they were. But at the end of the day, even a well-made herring in a fur coat salad is still salt herring, mayonnaise, and beets.


“Yum!” cried 140 million Russians in unison, along with no one else.


At the end, the musicians filed into the kitchen, then reappeared, tripping over their cases and stands, to calls of “Zugabe! Zugabe!” This is possibly the first time in my life that I’ve seen the encore performed as it was (I think) originally intended. The players came out, bowed, disappeared again, and then came back, and the violinist assured us that we could have an encore, but she didn’t want to impose it on us. Of course, we cried, “yes! yes!” Okay, she said. What would you like to hear again? 

Personally, I really could have gone for the Dvorak, but I think we all knew that that wasn’t going to win. They ended up playing “The Man I Love.” The one with the tremolo.



* There used to be a link here, but I took it out because after going back and listening at not 2 AM, I realized that it was actually not a 7 chord, but rather some kind of 9 chord (??? this is the point where I stopped trying in theory class). At some point I’ll come across a reasonable example of it for you, but since I don’t feel like combing the entire jazz Internet for a suitable video, just go find the piano that you made your kids take lessons on (slash that your parents made you take lessons on) and play C E G B.

It’s been two weeks since I collected the signatures I needed to declare my master’s thesis (which makes it just three short months since the first time I considered declaring…shh, don’t tell). Of course, this is Germany, so Frau M, who is responsible for officially approving my proposal, only sees students for 4 hours a week. Today was the first day that I was free during those windows. You can imagine the lines that sometimes form outside her door–after all, she is the one and only point person not only for my program, but also for…

  • Film studies (PhD)
  • Galician (B.A.)
  • Italian philology (B.A. and M.A.)
  • Catalan (B.A.)
  • Latin American Studies (M.A., PhD)
  • Eastern Europe Studies (M.A.)
  • Philosophy (B.A., M.A., Magister*, PhD)
  • Portugal-BrasilStudies/Portuguese (B.A., M.A.)
  • Romance Literature Studies (M.A.)
  • Spanish Philology (B.A., Magister)
  • Dance studies (PhD)
  • Theater Studies (PhD)

So I showed up early with my book and, lo and behold, was the first in line! A short listen at the door confirmed that she was talking to a colleague, who left about 5 minutes before office hours start. I waited another few minutes. At 9:59 I knocked.

…No answer.

Now, the annoying habits of German bureaucrats are numerous and varied. But one of the worst is that they leave the office door closed all the time, so you never know without eavesdropping whether they’re accepting visitors. If you knock and they want to see you, they will tell you to come in, but they will not raise their voice, and it’s likely that you won’t hear. If you knock and don’t get a response, the following possibilities may apply:

  • they replied and are waiting for you, but you didn’t hear. Soon they will be annoyed with you for wasting their time.
  • they are already meeting with someone. If you knock again or crack the door, they will be annoyed with you for wasting their time and invading their privacy.
  • they are not meeting with anyone, and they like it that way. If you knock again or crack the door, they will be annoyed with you for wasting their time and invading their privacy.
  • they didn’t hear you knock. If you knock again, this process will repeat; if you open the door, they will be annoyed with you for wasting their time and invading their privacy.

So I knocked again. No answer. The girl behind me in line said “Well, then just knock and go in,” which I did.

Frau M raised an eyebrow in my direction.

“The office hours begin at 10:00,” she snapped, not even lifting her pen from the page. I glanced at the clock.


Ohkaaaaaay. I closed the door, pulled out my phone, watched it for 30 seconds until the magic hour struck, and then re-knocked (which really felt like overkill). This time, she answered.


Unfortunately, my thesis is still not declared, because, as Frau M informed me, I have to submit a written request to write my thesis in a language other than German. She then has to approve it, which is interesting, because she doesn’t have to read my thesis; Professors Pulvermüller and Hüning do, and they don’t give a flying flip what language it’s in. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they got through the whole thing without even noticing that it wasn’t in German. Anyway, I still have to write this request. So I go to the computer lab and try to explain the obvious in an unambiguous and respectful way.

“I want to write my thesis in English because it’s dumb not to and there’s no reason I shouldn’t.” backspacebackspacebackspacebackspace.

“English is the lingua franca of the scientific community, and as such…” backspacebackspacebackspacebackspace.

“Fourscore and seven years ago, scholars at leading American and British universities brought forth a subfield…” backspacebackspacebackspacebackspace.

“I hereby request permission to write my master’s thesis in English because all of the research in social neurolinguistics is published in English or in English-language journals. As such, the jargon of the field is in English. Furthermore, as I hope that by writing this work, I will gain the skills needed to engage with experts in the field, it is important to be able to do so in the language used in conferences and presentations. It would be senseless to write the work in German, as doing so would require me to invent entirely new terminology or borrow it from English, which would negatively impact its readability.” Most importantly, writing in German is hard, and writing in English is easy. backspacebackspacebackspacebackspace.

Good enough. Unfortunately, this means my declaration date is pushed back another week, as Frau M won’t have office hours again until Tuesday. Because otherwise, it would be too convenient.


Today, I completed the certification exam in Russian. The sense of accomplishment that comes with having that behind me is tempered somewhat by my tutor’s pointing out two days before the test that I have been mispronouncing the word “certification” for YEARS. “Kate, you know it’s syertifikatsiya and not tsehrtifikatsiya, right?” I did not.

The test falls under that weird category of high-stakes yet unstandardized tests that strike me now as quintessentially German. UNICert is available in most major European languages, and most universities offer at least English, usually more. The levels of the test are standardized (UNICert I corresponds roughly to B1 in the Common European Framework for Reference, UNICert II to B2, III to C1, and IV to C2). But from then on formats vary, and information is sparse.

Still, the UNICert is vastly preferable to my other option for Russian certification, the Test of Russian as Foreign Language. You may remember my frustration with the TORFL level 2, which I took the summer before we moved home from Cherepovets. I wasn’t in a big hurry to repeat the experience if I had another option for leveling up, especially after doing a little reading about the TORFL level 3 online: “As the exam has hardly changed since its creation 25 years ago, it requires skills that may not exactly come in handy in everyday life, such as writing various notes and reports and engaging in nearly obsolete forms of communication. Many have argued that the TORFL exams assess test takers’ foreign language abilities, as well as their analytical and reasoning skills. Teachers joke that not every native Russian-speaker could pass the TRKI-3 or TRKI-4 tests!”

So I signed up and paid my fee (language certifications are free at the university where you study, adding another 100 euros onto the money the FU has cost me by not offering upper-level Russian classes. What nonsense). A few weeks later, my professor sent out the 5 topics for the speaking portion of the exam; three of them were topics we had covered in class over the last 2 years, and we were invited to suggest two more that interested us. At the exam, we would draw two topics and choose one. She advised us to prepare all of them in advance, including a Powerpoint (if desired), so that we could give a 10-minute presentation on-site. She said that we could bring in a list of statistics if we wanted, but no other notes. A week later, she wrote us again to say  that no, we could not use pre-prepared slides (which was fine by me, although I had already made the presentations for three of my topics, which took a few hours of my life I can never get back). Furthermore, she said she had been mistaken about the list of statistics, too: we would have 30 minutes to prepare our presentation on-site, and any notes we made then could be used during the presentation. However, anything that we wrote down in there had to be either from memory or from a monolingual dictionary (which they would provide).

Let me tell you something. These were not easy topics to present from memory. History of the dissolution of the USSR, for instance. Economic federalism and the struggling oil market in Russia. Yuri Gagarin, space education, and Mars One. Lots of facts and figures that I did not have in my head. But we had to do it from memory, so Tonya (the other examinee) and I set about memorizing which republics joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (all the Soviet republics except the Baltics and Georgia), how much of Russia’s economy is dependent on gas production (50%), and, in my case, the names and original languages of Nabokov’s memoirs (Other Shores, Russian, Convincing Proof, Russian, and Speak, Memory, English).

The written portion was scheduled for yesterday from 10:00-16:00, which was the only information we had. We had no idea how many listening samples, how many reading passages, how long we would have to write the essay(s?). You guys. I packed. So. Much. Food. A lovely little salad, some boiled eggs, some pasta, a jar of peanut butter (you never know), an apple, a nectarine, plus a thermos of coffee (thanks, Cary Beth!) and a Mason jar of water. If I failed this exam, it was not going to be because of a caloric deficit.
I arrived about 2 minutes late (train’s fault, not mine) and sat down to see a video clip already loaded. This was the moment of truth: you see, European language exams always have a theme. I don’t really know what the motivation for this is; it does make the test more interesting to take, as each section builds on the information you worked with in the last, but I think that the danger of a student’s outside knowledge/interest in the topic influencing their performance is a more pressing concern than entertainment value. But for some reason, I appear to be the only person who feels this way. Anyway, the video loaded revealed that we would be spending the rest of the day on the topic of space travel. The exam started with a 15-minute clip from the Russian national TV channel about Soviet astronomy; the reading was an article from the website of the Russian space program about Yuri Gagarin; the writing was about Mars One. Standardization was not even a consideration in this exam, apparently.

After each section, I would look up to see Tonya with her arms neatly folded, patiently watching the professor while they both waited for me to finish. She never had to wait long–we were pretty evenly matched in speed. We ended up completing the allegedly 6-hour test in just shy of 2.5 hours. By the time we turned in our essays, the professor had already graded the reading and listening. She was eager to chastise me for one error in arithmetic (“You wrote down the correct dates, but that doesn’t add up to 9 years. Check it again.” There’s a reason I study linguistics).

All in all, Tonya and I both found the test to be easier than expected, and I was all too happy to be home in time to enjoy my portable feast in the comfort of my own room.

That evening, I prepared for the speaking subtest by refreshing my knowledge of probability in order to calculate the chances of drawing a topic that I already knew. Based on my personal experience, I can only recommend this study method: the following morning, I wound up drawing not one, but both of my favorite topics! Then it was off to a room that was empty save for an ancient-looking dictionary and an ancient-looking professor who was to ensure that I didn’t do anything illegal in the 30-minute preparation period.


This is the dictionary we used. It’s one of the more beloved Russian dictionaries (yes, dictionaries are a thing Russians have opinions ab0ut), but it was published in 1949 and was therefore not so helpful on an exam about space. I’m still not sure how to spell “Martian,” which I tried to look up for my essay, and after the dictionary failed me on the speaking test, I had to perform some amazing feats of linguistic gymnastics in order to avoid the term “normal distribution.” 

My topic was the research I had conducted in Kazan; it was nice to have a chance to share it with someone, since it seems a shame that all that work just sits in a pile with unburned DVDs and bits of string in Nathan’s apartment now. It went relatively well, and I enjoyed the discussion, since I rarely get the chance to discuss that project with people who are interested in the topic (unlike my American buddies) but not personally invested in it (unlike my Kazan buddies). Then they asked me to step out while they decided on a grade for me. I opened the door to find a ball of nerves named Tonya standing in the hall, muttering to herself and flipping frantically through a notebook. While we waited, she told me that she was terrified and had studied all day for the speaking section. “But aren’t your parents Ukrainian? Don’t you speak Russian at home?” Well, yes… she replied, but I’m really bad at economics and politics. I gave her this look:


(thanks to Alexandra for the evocative selfie)

In the end, the test was not nearly as traumatic as expected, and I was glad that I hadn’t wasted more time studying harder (that’s the spirit!). To celebrate, I met up with my brewing friends to bottle our last batch of beer, a dubbel that wasn’t nearly as bad as it should have been, given all the things that had gone wrong during its creation. And that’s how “It definitely could have been worse” became the theme of the day.