I think when I get home, the hardest thing to adjust to is going to be having free time. I always have work to do (which Nathan is getting tired of), and when I do have free time, there is literally always someone who wants or needs to get together. It’s pleasant, in an I-can-sleep-when-I’m-dead kind of way.

On Saturday, I went to Kaduj with some Sashas from the PR department. This is the music festival I may have told you about–the one that Anna pitched to me a few weeks ago as an all-Russia folk music ensemble competition. Well, after several miscommunications that were mainly my fault and inconvenienced those who were trying to help me (oops), I met the Sashas at the bus station, and we took off. Kaduj is a village (about 13,000 people–apparently a Russian village is larger than I thought) about an hour from Cherepovets, and there’s not much there. Almost immediately after taking our seats in the back row of the bus, the girl sitting in our row with us got very excited about my Americanness. She’s a student at the university (Biology) who lives in Kaduj. She wound up coming to the festival with us.

When we got off the bus, we had to take a city bus to the actual festival location. THe second we got off the bus, a balalaika appeared out of nowhere, and we discovered that about 8 of our traveling companions were members of a choir that was going to perform at the festival! So we were serenaded by chastushki all the way to the front door of the festival!

Chastushki, as far as I can tell, are the only important singing style in this area of Russia. They’re the Russian equivalent of the limerick–a short poem, usually about 4 lines, sung to a I-IV-V-I chord progression that’s quite pleasing for the first 20 minutes you listen to it, and is about some humorous topic that usually involves cheating on one’s spouse (hilarious, I know). They also often satirize current events.

We don’t really have social music anymore– musicmaking can be social, but only if you’re part of the exclusive group of people who can play well. If you don’t show some sort of talent, then no one wants to listen to you flounder around on the piano; they’d rather you stick to what you’re good at, i.e. iTunes. Similarly, we place high value on a good singing voice, but if you can’t sing purdy, then you’d better not sing at all–except in the car. Far away. By yourself.

Chastushki are quite different. Although I sat for many hours on Saturday and listened to them being sung by costumed and smiling performers, they weren’t really alive in that context. It seems that they’re meant to be improvised, either by non-musicians or by musicians, as a social activity. If you gave me a balalaika and five minutes, I could provide accompaniment for an entire evening of chastushki. So you invite some friends over for dinner, and then after dinner you need something to do while you sit around and wait for the teapots’ inevitable transformation into bottles of vodka. Someone pulls out a garmon’ (a small type of accordion–more on this in a minute) or balalaika and starts strumming, and suddenly every person at the table is coming up with little jokes to set to song. Personally, I think this sounds like the ideal way to spend an evening.

The thing about accordions is that Americans don’t get them. We spend as much time as possible trying to avoid them (except for the few enlightened ones), and therefore have only one word for them. Disparaging jokes are inevitable whenever a wild accordion appears (unless its player is wearing a beret and you’re in France or Italy; then everything–and I do mean everything–becomes “quaint”, “Old World”, or, my least favorite, “European”, whatever that means). I imagine someday the words for “accordion,” “bagpipe,” and “Yoko Ono” will all merge into one word that describes anything reedy and unpleasant.

The Russians have a very different relationship with accordions, although most of them would probably think I’m strange for saying so. I don’t know anyone who plays the accordion, and yet every single Russian seems to be able to identify several types of accordion on sight or sound. And God help you if you misidentify one. Even in English, they consistently correct me for calling accordions “accordions.” Sometimes Russians have difficulty accepting that languages have more words for the things that are important to them, and that to English-speakers, accordions simply are not important.

For your benefit, dear reader, I will now give you a crash course in different types of accordions–I mean, hand-held, bellows-operated, metal-reeded instruments.


This is an accordeon. It has a piano and is rather large. They’re not very popular now, because button accordions are more efficient to play on than keyboard accordions.


This is a bajan. It is approximately the size of a newborn elephant. My accordion (the one that sort of belongs to the Sewanee Slavs) is a bajan. There are two types of bajans, called B-system and C-system. The difference is in the buttons on the left-hand side (in this picture–when you play, they’re on the right). The C-system is essentially the B-system turned inside out.


















The garmon’ is a small button accordion. The two rows of white buttons contain all the possible chords and harmony notes that the instrument can play. As you can see, it’s fairly limited, especially in comparison to the 120 left-hand buttons on the bayan.

The garmoshka is similar to our concertina. Although it’s very small and has even fewer buttons than the garmon’ (its name, by the way, means “little garmon'” and could be applied to a real garmon’ if you really loved it a lot), its reeds are multidirectional, which means that when you press a button and compress the bellows, you get a different note than if you were to press that same button and expand the bellows. It also means it’s ridiculously hard to play. I imagine that middle-school garmoshka concerts are even worse than that time our 8th-grade oboists decided to perform an oboe quintet.

After going to “master classes” (mysteriously, the Russian word not for master classes, but for demonstrations) in making Vologda lace and birch-bark crafts and listening to two and a half hours of chastushki, we decided it was time to head home. Now, I had been planning to go home by the 4:00  bus, but when we got to Kaduj, we discovered that the 4:00 bus doesn’t exist on weekends. So we planned to take the 5:00. Got to the station, asked for tickets, and discovered that for exactly no reason, the 5:00 wasn’t running today. So we plopped down and pulled out our snacks, only to see a big bus labeled “Cherepovets” pull into the station. The driver came in and asked us whether we were going to Cherepovets. We affirmed this excitedly and were disappointed when he responded with a curt nod as he walked away. We proceeded to spend the next hour sitting in the station and watching the bus we were supposed to be on go nowhere at all.

On the bright side, a cat adopted me:

Coonskin the Cat.

When we finally got home, we had a wonderful Thanksgiving, complete with pumpkin pie, stuffing, beautiful chickens, and Miracle on 34th Street. We also played a game where Russians and native English speakers go to another room, teach each other an idiom in their languages, and then come back and share.

Right, that’s all the time I have for stories. After two remarkably unadventurous days off, I actually have to go to work.