[Written yesterday, posted today]

For those of you who don’t cook, a reduction is when you simmer something delicious–usually wine or Balsamic vinegar–to about twice the usual potency.

This boat ride has turned out to be a combination of all that is funny, charming, frustrating, and absurd about Russia, all super-concentrated and spread along a 1000-km stretch of the Volga, which is in itself as Russian as it gets.

We were, shall we say, lightheartedly apprehensive in the day leading up to our departure (before that we were in Germany and too preoccupied loving that to worry about anything else). If in the States you get what you pay for, and in Germany you get what you pay for minus a deposit on recyclables, then in Russia you get what the administration perceives you to have paid for, minus whatever it arbitrarily decides you don’t deserve. So needless to say, five-day, third-class “cruise” reservation threatened to leave us two of my least favorite things: hungry and wet. 

Our cabin is on the lowest deck, and as we were being led down to it I couldn’t help but remember the fate of the lower-class passengers on the Titanic. We have two lovely, larger-than-expected portholes through which we watch the world go by when the deck is cold or chairless (the crew seems to have been unprepared for the eventuality that more than 10 people would want to be on the deck at a time). The fixings on the beds are cause for amusement. I was quite at a loss as to what to do with the duvet cover, the only linen issued to me, the hole in which was too small to allow it to double as a sleeping bag, but whose body was too narrow to accommodate the fuzzy blanket that came on the bed. I wound up using the duvet as a mattress cover, forgoing the uncased pillow (whose dun hue and cottage cheese texture suggested that it was older than I), and trying my best to feign ignorance of the sanitary condition of the blanket. Nathan, never one to bother with worries as trivial as sleeping accessories, concerned himself with a more pressing issue: a rerun of some or other NCAA basketball championship. Louisville won, I’m sure.

Passengers are not issued schedules or booklets of information about the destinations we visit; rather, this information is disseminated over a “radio” in each room which, like Orwellian telescreens, can be turned down but not off. It’s tolerable as long as the box is used only for announcements, but as we pulled away from the dock in Cherepovets, we made a truly distressing discovery: when the announcer is silent and it is not a prescribed sleeping time (14:30-15:30 and 23:00-6:00 or 8:00), Golden Oldies of the USSR blare, their half-voiced, minor warblings wtih oom-pah guitar accompaniment. A more charming convention is that as you pull into each city, the radio plays a “popular” song about that city. I wonder what they played for Cherepovets–probably the Vologda song

It is our fourth and final day, and while Nathan has spent the time enraptured alternately by the availability of a mostly-functioning grand piano and the simple fact that he’s on a boat, I have taken more time to warm up to our home-away-from-land. This is primarily because the boat had many of the same qualities that made the camp this summer so intolerable: infrequent and less-than-palatable food, a rigid yet strangely empty schedule, limited mobility, and non-potable water (even the water from the boiler designated for drinking is a shade of yellow alarmingly similar to that of the Volga itself). But after a day or so, these problems became manageable or were eliminated by purchasing some provisions and a good book.

Weather-wise, it feels a bit like moving back in time: when we left Cherepovets, fall was starting in all its cold, rainy glory. As we’ve moved southward, we have continued to see the trees yellowing, but the temperatures have gone back up to a comfortable 26ish degrees, and the sky is dotted with what Nathan calls “cartoon clouds”. We also, remarkably, have seen hills here, some of the first we’ve seen in Russia. If we docked and walked inland, it wouldn’t be hard to think that we were in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Speaking of hills, yesterday we visited the first destination on our route that we would like to return to: Nizhniy Novgorod, which is situated on a huge hill overlooking the junction of the Volga and Oka rivers. Due partly to this hill and partly to the city’s initially slow cultural development, it has survived more or less intact since the 13th century, despite the damage done by various Turkic invaders in surrounding areas. In Soviet times it was home to a massive artillery factory that was more productive than every factory in Germany combined (source: Wikipedia. So shoot me). Naturally, it was a closed city, under such high security that even street maps were not available in the city until the 1970s. I had assumed that closed cities would tend to be even grayer and more cubist than regular Soviet cities, but Nizhniy is beautiful, varigated, at times even recalling the architecture of St Petersburg or the Arbat in Moscow.

On a different note, while I was out of the room (at a bayan-accompanied sing-along with some of our plumper and wrinklier shipmates), Nathan ate all our food, including the sandwich I had stolen from the kitchen to tide me over between a very depressing breakfast (rice kasha and coffee) and a late lunch. He has earned himself the nickname “Omninommer.”