Kazan


Sorry, folks, cleaning out the draft folder again. You know how it goes. WRITTEN IN … PROBABLY THE MOSCOW AIRPORT.

Cherepovets in a few sentences: Got sick, didn’t do much, talked with friends, somehow got roped into teaching 3 classes at Nathan’s school, finally got a decent bowl of lagman, the soup I’d been dreaming of since forever.

On the train out of Cher, I was finally able to get a platzkartnyy ticket, so there was no risk of repeating the Cauldron of Horrors from my last train trip. The night passed without incident, and in the morning I finally got to have hot water (was too lazy to get tea) out of the lovely train cup, along with a potato pie (which turns out to be less depressing than I’d thought).

We arrived in Moscow around 9:30 AM, which is to say, just after sunrise, and I made a beeline for my hostel–the same one that I’d put Nathan in when I was in Moscow for my Fulbright training week. Once I’d gotten my stuff stowed, these were my goals for the day:

  1. Coffee.
  2. Find a guidebook of Tbilisi
  3. Visit the Tretyakov Gallery
  4. Visit Dostoevsky Metro Station
  5. Talk to a Russian one last time 😦
  6. Use the groceries I bought in Cher (who’s a smart thrifty cookie? This guy!) to make food for today and tomorrow.
  7. Change Rubles for Georgian Lari.

 

  1. Coming out of the hostel, I turned in the general direction of Red Square. After a block, I saw a giant, tarp-covered scaffolding with an underpass on the sidewalk. It looked familiar. Was it possible that this was the same construction site that was here when Nathan and I arrived in September 2012? Shouldn’t they have made… any progress at all?

Nope. It was the same. And I knew what that meant: Giant bookstore just on the other side. Having been failed by the bookstores of Kazan, Ekaterinburg and Cherepovets, my last shot at getting a Tbilisi guidebook in a language I could understand lay just beyond that facade. As I was entering the underpass, I saw this:

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That’s the logo of my beloved cafe in Kazan! A place of affordable coffee (if you drink it fast–in Kazan, Tsiferblat (do I spell it differently every time?) costs 2 rubles a minute, or about 2 dollars an hour; in Moscow, it’s 3 r/min– and friendly Russians, plus some interesting stuff to look at! And here I had been about to resign myself to one of those depressing knock-off Starbucks chains (Coffee Mak, Mak Coffee, Coffee Max, Coffee House, to name a few).

First things first. Went to the bookstore and picked up the only guidebook for Georgia  I could find. It’s called “Tbilisi in a week” and is probably fine for what it is, but what it is is not what I wanted. It has 7 walking tour routes, plus a very brief history of Georgia and an equally cursory introduction to the food. The routes are well-explained and have good information about all of the sites they pass, but it’s just not what I need when I travel. Anyway, it’s what I have, so there you go.

I discovered the disappointing truth of my new purchase while sitting in Tsiferblat with a coffee made for me by the bubbly “helper,” Masha (they don’t call them waiters at Tsiferblat–and you also can’t “order”– only “request”). Checking out of there, I loaded up my GPS and set off for the Tretyakov Gallery, which, once I finally found it, was surprisingly worthwhile (quoth the philistine).

I was pleased to see a whole room of the work of Vereshchagin, a native of Cherepovets who, based on his work, had the same dream that most natives of Cherepovets have: to leave. All of his work portrays images far from Russia or at the outskirts of the (then-)Russian Empire.

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Then I discovered Perov, with whom I had not been familiar, but who was apparently the original social justice warrior-painter. I love that he gives his paintings such bland, innocuous titles, but implies (not so subtlely) critique in the paintings themselves.

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“The Unequal Marriage”

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“A troika of apprentices fetching water” (or something like that)

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“Stopping to drink tea near Moscow”

And, of course, there were works by more famous Russians like Repin.

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The English title of this one is allegedly “Unexpected Visitors,” but a more exact translation is “They weren’t waiting.”

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I was reading not too long ago online that we shouldn’t call “Ivan the Terrible” by that name–that a better translation is “Formidable.” But “terrible” seems like a pretty OK name for someone who killed two of his sons and had his sister locked up in a monastery…

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…which she, obviously, was thrilled about.

In conclusion, the Tretyakov Gallery was $3 very well spent.

Then it was off to Dostoevskaya, because I had apparently decided that I needed some art with my art. This is a fairly new metro station that made big news a few years ago when the murals inside were revealed. Predictably, they depict scenes from Dostoevsky’s work, and some people were scandalized by the unsoftened portrayal of violent scenes, including suicide, which, you may remember, are kind of what Dostoevsky is known for.

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I mean, really. Did we expect a book called “Crime and Punishment” to be all fun and games?

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I love that the murals wrap around the columns so you don’t have to be (in fact, can’t be) standing directly in front of them to get the whole picture. It’s a stroke of genius for metro station art.

Well, y’all, this is where the conclusion normally goes, but really, it was one afternoon 5 months ago, so I have no idea what else happened that day. Someday I’ll be through the backlog (although Nathan still hasn’t sent me the scans of my travel journal from Georgia, which I left in KY, so I guess we still have that to deal with).

  1. There is no currency exchange at Domodedovo International Airport.

  2. Since Domodedovo mostly serves Russia and former Soviet republics, if you have citizenship from another country, there is no line to stand in at customs. Walk right up to the counter.

  3. An older Kyrgyz man and I made friends on the metro to the airport. He was flying home to visit family. He wanted to hang out at the airport. I thoguht that sounded like not the most fun, so I didn’t take his calls, but I was glad for the encounter.

  4. At the airport cafe, I ordered a large Americano. It was four ounces (standard for a cappuccino is 6, so an Americano should be at least that). A small came in an espresso cup. Not sure I managed not to laugh in the barista’s face, but I did try.

  5. At immigration, they give you a complimentary bottle of wine.

  6. Georgians prefer walking in the street to walking on sidewalks, even when sidewalks are available. You can cross at crosswalks, but you can also cross anywhere else, and the cars stop for you at about the same 2% rate regardless.

  7. When I first arrived, I felt like I was back in Spain or Malta. With time, I realized that actually I was just confused by the fact that the weather is mild here, and people organize their lives accordingly. You dry your clothes outside. People (especially men) gather on random street corners to chat. There’s dead, brown grass everywhere.

  8. Georgia is poorer than I’d expected. Lots of homeless people. Lots of “massage parlors.” Most of the residential buildings are actively crumbling. Heating and insulation are not a thing. Holes in floors, holes in sidewalks, holes in walls. I guess I never thought about the fact that they have very little in the way of natural resources, and this area of the country is probably not as blessed by the tourist industry as the ski resorts in the north and the beach resorts in the west.

I love coffee shops. I mean, I love coffee, too, but better than that (unless the coffee is really good) is their role as the common venue for people to sit around and work on things, have meetings, go on dates, read books, write books, play bad concerts. I especially love bored baristas who like to chat, like the one I found on my last full day in Ekaterinburg.

Coffee Me.” It’s not a great name, but it’ll do in a pinch. Coffee that’s never known life as a dissolvable powder – that’s my goal. I step inside, noting a blanket of frost on the inside door jamb. “Zdravstvuyte! Chto-nibud’ zhelaete?” Would I like anything? I love that question, new to the Russian discursive landscape. It’s so English. We’re always asking inane questions or making bland observations, expecting our listeners to sift through and read between the lines. Can I get you anything else? = Get a move on. My shift ends in 15 minutes. She’s got such spirit. = If she makes it through college without getting knocked up, it will be a miracle. Bless your heart. = Get off my porch.

This cafe is really more of a glorified closet. Exposed-brick walls, a cramped bar, and exactly one tiny table, shoved into the corner with two narrow chairs, which is one chair too many.

The barista is uncharacteristically patient. And smiley. What’s happening? Where am I?

Could I have a coffee and a – um, that thing? What is that, a börek?“ I point at one of the only items left in the pastry case.

I don’t know what that is… it’s filled with cheese. It’s good.”

Only in Russia can you sell something without knowing what it even is.

It is good. But here I am with this pastry and surprisingly large coffee, sitting at the only table, with the barista just standing there, bored. So we get to chatting. She asks where I’m from, and then is pleased with the answer, as she studies English and Spanish at Ekaterinburg State University. I consider asking her if she knows my friend (who graduated from that program 2 years ago and now studies with me in Berlin), but figure she probably doesn’t, and it’s dumb to ask. She’s been to Kazan before– she says it was hard to adjust when she got back to Ekaterinburg, because everything in Kazan is so clean. I recommend that she come to Cherepovets anytime she needs a pick-me-up – Ekaterinburg is not as well-maintained as Kazan, it’s true, but it’s still above-average. And it couldn’t be the cleanest– after all, the slogan of the city sanitation services is “We keep the city cleaner.” Not clean—just cleaner. Rule of thumb: don’t oversell yourself.

We keep chatting, and I’m very pleased to have a new friend-ish in Ekaterinburg. I won’t be here long enough to establish a good barista-coffee-drinker relationship, but that’s OK. It’s a start.

You know all those fun things you would probably take your exchange student to do if you had one? Ice skating, skiing, visiting local points of interest, visiting friends and family together? Well, my host family decided to start doing those things the very day after I left. First they went skiing.

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Then they went ice skating with Sasha’s sister, who was frequently talked about, but whom I never met.

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This is my favorite snow game.

 

How come we never did any of these things together? I would have invited them, but they were always complaining about their health and never mentioned any interest in winter sports, so I didn’t bother. Better luck next winter.

Although we didn’t ever go on adventures, we did go to the Raif Monastery my last weekend in Kazan. We weren’t there long — they had just come to get some holy water, and it was too cold to stay and poke around — but we were there long enough to get the only photos I have of my Russian babushka.

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WRITTEN ON THE TRAIN FROM EKATERINBURG TO VOLOGDA/CHEREPOVETS

Ekaterinburg was my first time couchsurfing solo. I was a little nervous, but wound up finding a host who I thought was worth the extra stress. Her name is Eva, and although she lived, as the Germans say, am Arsch der Welt (in a remote location), we had a great time in the boonies. In fact, I ended up spending more time at the apartment with her and her boyfriend than I did in town.

The first day, she told me to come “whenever.” I came around 11 AM, figuring that that would give them time to do their morning thing and give them the option of hanging out with me or sending me back into the world after I got my stuff settled.

They wanted to hang out—or at least, Eva did. Kostya, her boyfriend, seemed rather peeved about my existence, although he became more pleasant as time went on. Presumably his unfriendly beginning was the result of bad timing on my part. Well, perhaps that and the fact that I was kind of a zombie when I arrived, not having slept on the train and having arrived at 6 AM.

When I first got there, Eva decided to take a shower. Kostja was blowing up stuff on the computer, so I pulled out a stack of word jumbles (thanks, Mom! I take them everywhere!) and arranged myself on the couch in such a fashion that I could fall asleep and make it look like an accident. I did fall asleep at some point and woke up to the sound of Kostya’s chair scooching back. So when he got up, he did not see me sleeping, but did see me lying there, staring blankly into the nothingness. He went to Eva, who was still in the shower, and, underestimating either my hearing or my Russian comprehension, demanded, “She’s just lying there not moving. It’s creepy! Why is she doing that!?”

Since it was a little early to creep out my host, I got up, and the three of us played some board games that, in an unprecendented glitch of the universe, I didn’t lose (I didn’t win, either, but you know).

The next day, I went into the city, but it was cold—like, really cold—so I mostly floated from cafe to cafe. I also took a four-hour bus tour of the continental border, the Church on Blood, and so on, which was worth it even if the tour itself was unremarkable. But there are pictures on Facebook, and there’s not really much to write about that, so I won’t waste your time.

As this little adventure winds up to a close, I am finally getting around to typing up my actual physical travel journal. As a result, posts will continue to be jumbled for the next little bit. If I remember, I’ll put a little note at the beginning of each to help you out, like this:

WRITTEN IN CHEREPOVETS

If Vologda is just as pretty as I remembered, Cherepovets is just a little bit dirtier. And also just as great.

Last night, I went to my friend Artyom’s birthday party. He has moved to St. Petersburg, so it was basically the only chance we would have to meet this trip. He told me the cafe’s address and promised that there would be lots of socializing and karaoke (ha yeah right).

When I arrived, I immediately realized something was wrong: Artyom was in the cloakroom with his parents. Wait, is this a family affair? We’re not that close. This is weird. Oh, if only I had known.

I had my coat taken off by his father and got a warm hug from his mom before proceeding into the banquet hall of this club, because this wasn’t just any birthday – it was his thirtieth, and the entire family was in attendance, including his aunts, uncles, cousins, niece and nephew, and grandmother, who lives down in the Caucasus. This is way more than I signed up for.

Now, I am no dummy. So when we sat down at the table (in Russian fashion, as at the conference I wrote about a month or so ago, laden with sliced fruit, sausages, cheeses, salads, and bread, all in addition to the actual meal), I specificially sat two seats down from Artyom’s seat at the head, so that (a) I wouldn’t be accidentally taking a seat of honor (if such a thing exists in Russia), and (b) it could not be deduced that we were a couple.

Too late.

You see, Artyom is 30 and single, which is unfathomable in a country where most of my peers are already raising toddlers. So of course I, the only unmarried young female in attendance (other than his six-year-old niece), was immediately taken to be his boo thang. I was not immediately aware that this was what was happening; the realization came in waves. First, I was told to move to the seat next to the head of the table. His aunt kept looking at me with dewy eyes (STOP THAT) when there was a lull in the conversation. By the end of the night his grandmothers were leaning across the table to tell me “Don’t let him go,” and how he’s a “good boy—doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink” and to give me advice on long distance relationships. I didn’t bother telling them that I’m kind of a pro at that.

Artyom‘s mother emceed the party, and she was full of games. Even the games conspired to rush along our non-relationship: there was the game where you have to kiss the person to your right (guess who was on my right?) and pass it up the table. The grannies opposite me beat us, thank goodness. So we redid it– now you have to kiss twice. Grannies again. Three times (is this a joke?). Grannies for the win! There were various dancing competitions (my usual argument of “I’m American, we don’t dance!” fell on deaf ears). There was an Artyom-themed limerick game similar to the one on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. There was a simple competition, designed to let everyone win at least one piece of candy, where the mother gave awards to the person who had known Artyom the longest/shortest (that’s me), and so on.

Through all of this ridulosity, Artyom neither encouraged nor discouraged the fawning of the matriarchs. Aware of the possibility that Artyom had invited me not only as a friend, but as a beard (a fake signfiicant other that helps keep a closeted queer person closeted), I also chose not to say anything – after all, there are few more in need of allies than the Russian LGBT community, and I got a good story out of the experience.

Artyom and I met for sushi without his wedding committee the next day (my last Russian sushi! Never again will it cost $2, and never again will soy sauce and ginger be sold separately!), and although he didn’t offer an explanation, it was clear that I didn’t need to “be careful with him,” as my Russian friends had warned me (granted, I already knew that). It was totally normal. Plus, I learned the process for faking a certificate of unfitness to work (is there a better word for that?) so that one can, for example, go to one’s hometown for one’s birthday, even if one is a teacher and it is a school day. Artyom was shocked that in the US we generally just call and say we’re sick, no paperwork required (right? I feel like that’s right, but I don’t know if I’ve ever been sick enough to miss work). I pointed out that if it’s that easy to fake the paperwork in Russia, then it’s clearly unnecessary. He couldn’t disagree.

And that is the story of how I left Russia with two marriage proposals in my pocket, neither from the eligible bachelors themselves.

Note: Sorry the last few posts have been out of order. I don’t think it’s that hard to keep track of, but still, it’s poor form, if there is such a thing as form in blogging. I believe in you.

 

My inauspicious last day in Ekaterinburg took a steep decline when I got on the train and opened my compartment door to see a 10-year-old girl dabbing her nose with a crumpled tissue, and a woman wearing one of those masks you see in news reports about Beijing pollution. Some toxic-looking green liquid was sitting in the teaglass on the table next to some medicines and a box of antibacterial wet wipes. What’s more, whereas I was sure that I had booked a bottom bunk for this leg, the patients were occupying both bottom bunks, which meant that I had no table to eat at and would have to spend the entire 25 hours in bed. Perhaps this was for the better, though — I hoped that being up above them would keep some of the germs at bay.

A few minutes before the train left, the father came in, also sick, and laid his newspaper on the bunk opposite me,  deflating my “germs stay on the bottom level” theory. He brought with him a Boston terrier that would spend the remainder of the 25-hour trip in apparent gastric distress.
I came up with a couple of escape routes, but neither would pan out.  First, I asked the provodnitsa if there was an empty spot in another car, and she said there wasn’t. So I toughed it out for the night, doing my best not to breathe in the flu-and-dog-flatulence-scented air, until the morning, when I took off for the restaurant car exactly at opening time. I was unprepared for the junction between the two cars, which consisted of a few overlapping sheets of metal that flapped up and down and wiggled back and forth as the train moved. On either side through gaps big enough to fit a very unlucky person’s lower leg, I could see the snow-dusted railroad ties racing by. I conjured up an image of Yoshi and leapt across the death trap, finally taking a seat in the deserted restaurant car. Not thirty seconds had passed when I heard a voice.
Attendant: Devushka! (“Young lady,” standard form of address for any woman under the age of, say, 70)
Me: Da?
Attendant: What are you doing here?
Me: This is the restaurant car, isn’t it? I’m visiting the restaurant car.
Attendant: Well, what do you want?
Me (I had hoped to be able to just sit without ordering anything, as I have done on American trains and as Nathan has done on Russian ones): Could I have some tea?
Attendant: No, our tea’s expensive! 100 rubles–I mean 50 rubles!
note: I am not making this up. She literally wouldn’t sell me her own wares because they were priced too high. I can’t even…
 
Me: Well, can’t I just sit while no one’s here?
Attendant: No, you can’t “just sit.” Rolls eyes and walks away. 
 
So I returned to my car and spent the entire day watching Season 6 of Friends while trying to minimize cardiovascular activity.
When we finally arrived in Vologda around 10 PM, I sort of staggered-fell-catapulted off the train with my suitcase (which somehow got heavy again, even though I didn’t add anything…?) and high-tailed it to a pharmacy, where I encountered — you probably guessed it — a comically unhelpful pharmacist.
It was cold, but beautiful: especially under the bright lights at the station, the miniscule snow/ice particles glittered, evoking my favorite Russian poem, which I will attempt to translate a bit later.
Anyway. I dragged my bags down the road into town (in general, I find that it’s easier to just walk than to try to decipher the bus system of an unfamiliar Russian city), arriving at the hostel moments before my nose would have fallen off from the cold. The hostel was surprisingly normal–the first of its kind in Vologda, and for 400 rubles ($5.10) a night, I was thrilled with it. Nice central area, lots of books, knives and plates in the kitchen, and just one other person in my room. 2×2 Hostel– check it out if you’re ever in the area.
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The next morning, I woke up early and allowed myself a few hours of wandering before hopping on the bus to Cherepovets. From then on, everything except my health was markedly better.
“Белеет ночь. Деревья сквера…”
Valeriy Yakovlevich Bryusev
The night was white. The trees in the square
Rose up above the mossy ground.
And there, beyond the rooftops, the chimaera-moon
Bathed the heights in light.
And in the phosphorescent glow
A pale world of wonders unfolded:
Houses stand like little carvings
The vaulted heavens hang like a curtain.
Like the decorations of fairies,
The trees stretch towards the moon.
And someone is standing in the deserted square,
Their hands raised on high. 

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