Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole

The second I climbed out of bed this morning, I knew today would be a rough day in Petersburg. My feet and knees still ached from all the walking I did yesterday. Just wandering around the hostel and standing in the shower made me grunt and groan like a tired old lady. Youth certainly doesn't last long, does it?

But today was my last day in Russia, the very end of my trip, and I was determined to make the most of it. So I took the metro to Nevskyi Prospekt and continued my free tour of the city, in spite of my throbbing leg pain, in spite of almost 90-degree heat and glaring sunshine. And with the right mindset, I was able to enjoy it all. It only takes a few minutes of sitting on a park bench beneath the imposing grandeur of the Admiralty or a few seconds of listening to a street musician squeeze folk songs from an accordion to forget my wretched feet and lose myself in the greater experience of St. Petersburg.

One of my more interesting encounters today was with a pair of tourists who stopped me near St. Isaac's Cathedral and, with a crippling accent in Russian that offended even my ears, asked me: "Excuse me... do you know... what time?" I told them in Russian what time it was, to which they responded with blank stares, trying to puzzle out what I had said. So I repeated the time in English. At this, the young couple went into ecstasies.

They were newlyweds from Vermont on their honeymoon, and for some reason, they had expected everyone in St. Petersburg to speak English. They were so overjoyed to hear my American accent that they practically wanted to kidnap me and take me with them as a personal translator and tour guide. So I sat with them for half an hour, going over maps, pointing out cheap places to eat, giving them instructions on how to ride the metro, suggesting which sights they absolutely had to see and which weren't worth the time or money.

It struck me then how well I have come to know St. Petersburg and how lost I would have been without knowing the language as well as I do. Throughout the trip, I have been kicking myself for being so clumsy at Russian, feeling like even after three years of learning the language I still know nothing. But now I realize I've been hard on myself. I speak Russian pretty well. I would still hesitate to call myself a fluent speaker, but really what I'm lacking is productive vocabulary, coming up with the words I want to say when I want to say them. I understand what's said to me so clearly that often, when remembering a conversation later, I have a difficult time believing it wasn't all spoken in English.

And without that, at least, this would have been an entirely different trip—most likely, a tale of increasing frustration and decreasing sanity as I discover how important being able to understand and communicate really is, much like the couple from Vermont had discovered.

Soon after we parted, I headed back to the hostel, gathered my things, and made my way to the airport. To get there from the hostel, I had to take two lines on the metro and a city bus while carrying all my luggage, which altogether took almost an hour and a half. Surprisingly, this wasn't as bad as it sounds. The metro wasn't busy, so I got to sit down; I took breaks when I was tired and didn't stress out about it. I got to the airport early enough to kick back, rest my long-suffering feet, and read a the first couple chapters of Alice in Wonderland. So, not bad at all. I only spent 42 rubles to get to the airport (about $1.50), very cheap compared to the 800 or more ($26+) I would have had to pay for a taxi from the hostel.

As my plane lifted off, I watched St. Petersburg growing smaller and smaller in the window. It seems so different now than it did a month ago when I first landed. Or rather, I seem so different now. It's not that I've changed all that much; it's that I have learned so much in the past month that I see everything differently. I learned new places, new people, new food, new customs and routines, new words and phrases and sounds. I learned the differences between a rural city and the glubinka, between Russians and Veps, between young and old, native and foreign.

But even more than that, I learned about myself. I've been told that the best way to get to know someone is to travel with them, and traveling by myself, I have come to know myself like never before. And with this knowledge comes confidence. Confidence in my ability to adapt to new and uncomfortable situations. Confidence in my Russian skills. Confidence in knowing that I can get all the way to Russia, through the biggest cities and the deepest interiors of the countryside, all by myself. I can choose and conduct my own research, formulate my own English lesson plans, and arrange day trips as I please. And when I'm done with it all, I can get myself back home.

Perhaps this is the most important thing I gained from this experience (though admittedly, I'm dying to go through the material I collected on the Veps people). I feel older, calmer, more capable. And with a suitcase full of souvenirs, a camera full of pictures, and 30-some completed Veps attitude surveys, I've gotten a lot out of this trip.

Now I'm sitting in the airport in Helsinki again, where I will spend the night. My flight leaves at 7:30 tomorrow morning, so I picked out a comfy lounge chair next to a power outlet and made it my own. There is free wifi, and I have plenty of movies and books to keep me busy if I can't sleep.

Tomorrow, I fly to Chicago with a short stop in Paris, and from Chicago I take the train back to Ann Arbor. This is the last night I will spend abroad, the last night of my trip. My head is dizzy with impressions. The situation is made even more surreal by the bouncing Finnish language, surrounding me on all sides, and the white night skies of Helsinki. It's like my own adventure in wonderland, and soon, it too will come to a close and seem like it was nothing more than a dream. And what a strange and wonderful dream it's been.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Sunburned in St. Petersburg

I arrived in Petersburg around 7 o'clock this morning, thoroughly shaken by a long night on the road. How I managed to hail a taxi and tell the driver the address of my hostel, I have no idea. But I made it there with all my things, which included the world's heaviest suitcase, packed with a month's worth of gifts and a personal library about the Veps people.

Of course, check-in at the hostel wasn't until 1 p.m., so I just dropped off the majority of my things and wandered back out into the city to try to think up something to do with myself for the next five and a half hours.

What I actually did with myself remains a mystery to me. The part of today before I finally got to take a shower is all a blur of sore feet, greasy hair, and fleeting impressions of buildings and rivers. I took a lot of pictures, so I must have had a decent time. But as soon as it was near 1 o'clock, I headed straight back to the hostel to shower.

When and where did this happen?

I love hot showers. Somehow, ten minutes of hot water on my face corrected everything ten hours on a bus had done to zombify me this morning. Resurrected, I headed out into Petersburg for round two.

First, however, I had solve the small matter of my heavy suitcase. I am certain it exceeds airline weight limits, which would mean paying a hefty fee at the airport. Also, I can't drag the thing myself further than fifteen feet without taking a break, which would make it difficult to get to the airport from the hostel without hiring a taxi. I would probably have to hire yet another cab in Chicago to transfer me from the airport to the train station, rather than dragging the monstrosity with me onto the city trains. Which means money, lots of money.

So I gathered all the books and heaviest presents and went to the post office to mail them to myself. I didn't anticipate how expensive it would be (nearly $40!), although it is probably still cheaper and certainly simpler than the ordeal I would face taking them all in my suitcase. In the process, I befriended most of the workers in the post office, who sympathized with my ridiculous plight and goofy accent. When I was in need of a return address in Petersburg to write on the packages, some random post office customer offered hers. We exchanged phone numbers in case something goes wrong, and she told me she was proud of me, for some reason.

I had thought this kind of unsolicited hospitality was only found in the provinces, but even in Petersburg the locals are willing to bend over backwards to help me out, all just because I try my darnedest to patch a few sentences together in their language.

Anyway, after spending way more money at the post office that I had expected, suddenly all my plans for enjoying Petersburg seemed excessive. A trip outside the city to Peterhof, paying bus fare and steep admission fees at the fountains? Not gonna happen. Attending a performance at the Mariinsky Theater, paying twice the normal ticket price because I'm a foreigner? Heavens no.

I decided to enjoy what I could of Petersburg for free, which meant looking at attractions from a distance, taking pictures, and walking. Lots and lots of walking. It was hot and sunny all day, so I sunburned to a medium-well. With the help of Google maps, I estimate I walked around 5 miles this evening alone (this morning is excluded, since I have no clue where I went and how I got there). I walked across three islands, and when my feet finally refused to go any further, I took the metro back to my hostel. The total cost for my evening in St. Petersburg: 135 rubles (22 for the metro, 113 for dinner at a cheap cafe). That's about $4.50.

It's too bad I don't have pictures of the beautiful fountains at Peterhof or a ticket stub from the Mariinsky to take home with me. But I did gain another souvenir that's easy to carry—my sunburn. And my feet, at least, know where I've been.

Tomorrow, I'll likely do the same thing. My flight leaves St. Petersburg at 6:50 p.m., which means I have to figure out something to do all day so I don't go crazy waiting. At this point, it is difficult to psych myself up for another day here. As soon as I left Vytegra, my mindset changed to "homeward bound," and suddenly, having free time in a beautiful, historic city seems like punishment, an unnecessary detour.

But maybe I'll feel more enthusiastic after a good night's sleep in a bed, instead of curled up in a bus seat. I'm glad to spend the extra time here, if only just for the hot shower and soft bed before starting my long journey home tomorrow.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Bye Bye, Vytegra

I woke up early this morning, feverishly conscious that today was my last day in Vytegra and feeling like I had mountains of work to accomplish in very little time. Like a tornado, I attacked my bedroom, packing, organizing, folding, repacking. Then all of a sudden, at 10 a.m., I was done. I had packed up everything, finished and sealed up, 11 hours before my bus was set to depart.

Luckily, the sun was out again today, so I was able to pass the majority of this time outdoors. In the process of running errands, like buying snacks and dramamine for the 10-hour bus ride to Petersburg, I ran into about 3/4 of my acquaintances in Vytegra, who were also out running errands in the nice weather. Some of them were people I see everyday; some I hadn't seen since my very first week here. They were all sad to hear I was leaving and promised to come to the bus station to see me off.

Today being Monday, most everybody I knew had to rush off to work, so my last day was a tad lonely. I walked to the city's northern border and contemplated the landscape there. It was all trees and grass, just like rural Michigan, but it was somehow quieter, a deeper sense of isolation. Or perhaps I was projecting my own feelings onto the countryside. Being the only American living out here, one of very few foreigners, and not quite fluently speaking the language, I have been inescapably conspicuous to the locals, yet entirely distant from them.

Yes, it's definitely time to come home.

When I got tired of walking, I soaked my feet in the cool river and finally finished reading Heart of Darkness. That's where one of my students, Elya, discovered me. She told me she wanted to meet me at the station too, in order to say "bye bye." I have a feeling that, to Russians, the phrase "bye bye" sounds terrifically funny, because they almost always snicker when they say it. I even started to giggle at it. The sounds of my own language amuse me now.

When I got home, Ruslan was waiting for me. I had thought I offended him last night (I should be so lucky), but he acted as naturally as ever—that is, gloomy and untalkative. But I actually enjoyed his company. When he demanded that I tell him "something interesting," I decided to practice making snarky remarks at him, like, "It's interesting how boring you are today, Ruslan." Apparently, this was all he wanted in the first place, because we spent the next hour making wisecracks about each other and having a wonderful time. Fun guy, that Ruslan.

We were only interrupted by the arrival of Tamara Pavlovna and dear old Uncle Venya, who had come to throw me a small going-away party and escort me to the bus station. It couldn't have come off more perfectly. Venya recited a poem he wrote about our travels through the glubinka—I'll have to post it when I get the chance to translate it. It was quite funny and well-written (as best as I can tell). The four of us reminisced about my various adventures in Vytegra and beyond. It was a fantastic way to look back on my trip.

We celebrated for about an hour. I only wish Nina Evgenyevna had been there to give me a proper sendoff. I had tried to wake her, but she had gone to a funeral in the morning, which in Russia apparently means the poor 60-year-old woman was bound to come home screaming drunk. So we let her sleep it off. Too bad; she was an excellent hostess. I would have liked to hug her goodbye.

By the time we got to the bus station, a small crowd had already gathered there to send me on my way. Ivan and Marisha, all of Nina Evgenyevna's friends and family whom I'd met, our neighbors, workers from the museum and the Children's Craft House I worked with during my internship, a Veps woman I met doing my research. If I hadn't been so overwhelmed by it all, I would have taken a picture. It would have been the perfect memento—every aspect of my trip smashed onto one bus platform.

But we were running late, and I had to quickly board the bus, leaving barely enough time to say goodbye to everyone. Just as we were about the leave, my student Elya came running onto the bus to give me a hug. The last words I spoke in Vytegra before I left were in English, addressed to her: "Bye bye." Then we took off.

So now I'm bouncing violently on my way to Petersburg, the dear city of Vytegra some 100 km behind me. I have finished everything I had intended to do there—internship, research, language practice—and so much more. Yet it seems almost unfair that I have to leave, that these people will go on living their lives and I will go on living mine, thousands of miles apart. I hope I will come here again and attempt to pay back some of the hospitality they've shown me. Someday. When I have enough money and a stomach of steel to deal with these roads.

Onward to Petersburg.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Wind Down

Unfortunately, yesterday's beach-friendly weather was too good to last, and I've spent most of today trapped inside by rain and attempting to hide from my neighbor, Ruslan. He dropped by the first time today at 9 o'clock, shortly after I had woken up, and made it impossible for me to get anything done in preparation for my tutoring sessions with Elya and Sasha.

I entirely don't understand why Ruslan keeps coming to visit me. He drops by, but has nothing to talk about, so just sits next to me in silence. Every so often he'll say, “Tell me something interesting.” As if an interesting, well-phrased story in Russian was sitting on the tip of my tongue, and I was only waiting for an invitation to dazzle him with my second-language conversational prowess. My typical response: “Umm.”

If I actually do try to start a conversation with him, he gets frustrated waiting for me to finish my sentence and interrupts me, incorrectly guessing what I was trying to say and forcing me to repeat myself several times until I give up entirely. When he talks, he is absolutely merciless in his choice of vocabulary and refuses to slow down or rephrase anything if I don't understand. Yesterday he asked me to explain to him the system by which people obtain licenses to drive different types of vehicles in America. Yeah, while I do that, why don't you go fetch me a cup of snow from the top of Mt. Everest.

So I've stopped trying to talk to Ruslan, and in general I behave as rudely toward him as I can to get him to leave. Ruslan tells me he doesn't like me when I'm grumpy, and that I'm always grumpy, yet he keeps coming over, untalkative and unrelenting, waiting for me to tell him “something interesting.” I'm certain he is as bored with me as I am with him. Yet he is always here. Suffice it to say, there are some types of people out here I just don't understand.

Of course, not everyone here is as frustrating for me as Ruslan. The majority of people I've met are interesting to talk to, patient with my still-developing language skills, and sensitive to when I have better things to do than sit around trying to entertain them. And then there's Ruslan.

There's always Ruslan.

The bright spots in my day were my lessons with Sasha and Elya. Today is my second-to-last day in Vytegra, and these were therefore my last sessions with them, so it was bittersweet. Elya brought me a gift on her flash drive: an audio book of the Master and Margarita in Russian (she didn't even know that it's one of my very favorite books). At the end of our hour together, she made a short speech about how glad she was that I agreed to be her tutor and that I've helped her so much with English. She just about made me cry.

Sasha, whom I've been tutoring longer, was even harder to part from. Earlier this week, I had designed a special lesson on the theme of Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery in America. I read her an article about his life and showed her various video clips on the internet, everything from documentaries to Family Guy. Then we read “O Captain! My Captain!” and discussed how it related to Lincoln's assassination. She followed this all astonishingly well and really seemed to enjoy it, but when we got to what I thought would be the most interesting part of the lesson, comparing Abraham Lincoln to Russian history (in particular, to tsar Alexander II, who also emancipated the slave class in Russia and was also assassinated), Sasha had confessed she knew nothing about it.

But today, she surprised me by coming fully prepared to talk about that part of Russian history. It seems she had spent the last couple days researching the theme, wanting to impress me. She practically gave me an entire history lesson on 19th century Russia. At the end, she recited a poem about Alexander II from memory. Then she told me she was sad to lose her first American friend. Oh, how I'll miss these students! They're geniuses, both of them.

As soon as Sasha left, Ruslan showed up again. He can see my house from his apartment window, so he knows when I'm home and when I'm not busy. He came in, turned on the Twilight movie that was premiering on TV dubbed in Russian, and waited for me to entertain him. When I complained that I was bored of just sitting around, he told me to watch the movie, because I'm a girl and girls like Twilight. So I chased him out of the house and locked the door. Nobody makes me watch Twilight.

So I had a rather uneventful day to bring my trip to a close. All my work is officially finished; I have done everything I came here to do and a whole lot more. I even finally learned how to get rid of people (yelling and pointing at the door works in any language). Tomorrow evening, I leave Vytegra. So soon. Finally.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Youth Day

Today was the perfect recipe for relaxation in Russia: it was Saturday, it was 85 degrees and sunny, and it was the Russian national holiday of Youth Day. This means that Vytegra had a lot of partying to do.

I was woken up this morning by my phone ringing. It was Tamara Pavlovna, inviting me to go to the beach with her and her husband “to relax.” At this, I sprang to life and ran out to buy a swimsuit. I had to go to several different shops to do this, but with the help of Sasha, whom I ran into at the market, I finally found one that fit.

On my way back home, I ran into Ivan and Marisha, who were also out buying swimsuits. They invited me to go swimming at their dacha (cabin in the country), but I had to decline, since I had already agreed to go with Tamara Pavlovna. Too bad. I would have liked to see a dacha and to hang out with people my own age.

By the time I got home and made certain that my new swimsuit did indeed fit, Tamara Pavlovna and her husband had already come to pick me up. We rattled down the awful country roads for forty minutes, until there was suddenly a clearing in the trees, and the stunning Lake Onega opened before us. I am always impressed by how beautiful lakes are in the sunshine, their blue waves glittering as far as the eye can see.

On the beach, Tamara Pavlovna told me not to be scared of the water, that I didn't have to go out very far if I wasn't a strong swimmer, and if it was too cold I didn't have to go all the way under. I smirked and dove right in. I grew up on a lake. The water was a little cold, but nothing I'm not used to. And after you swim out twenty or thirty feet, the rocky lake bed turns to sand. It was a refreshing swim.

By the time I got tired of swimming, Tamara Pavlovna and her husband had found a spot on the beach that wasn't crawling with people and mosquitoes. They laid out a picnic while I stretched out in the sunshine to dry off. And as far as picnics go, this one knocked the socks off any that I've been a party to. We had smoked fish, salad, potatoes, fresh fruit and vegetables, cookies, and, of course, tea. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't drunk it myself. On the beach, in almost 90 degree heat, they put together a campfire and boiled water for tea. It's official: Russians will drink tea anytime, anywhere.

Даже на пляже (even on the beach)

Right as we finished eating, a cloud appeared overhead. I had just enough time to say, “I think it's going to rain,” before the rain started. We made a run for the car, and by the time we had packed in all our picnic supplies and climbed in the car ourselves, the rain stopped. Oh, Russia.

So we got home a little earlier than expected, which gave me enough time to take a nap before the festivities started in town. For Youth Day, the city hosts a free movie, a multi-band rock concert, and dancing at the club late into the night. Several times throughout the day, strangers on the street wished me a happy holiday, just because I'm part of the youth. It was a good day to be a young person in Russia.

Originally, Ivan and Marisha had invited me to go to the celebration with them, but at the last minute, they had decided to stay at their dacha instead. So I went to the concert by myself, hoping I would recognize someone there. No such luck. Everyone at the concert looked so gloomy that I started to feel gloomy myself. The only people having fun were the middle-aged men who had come just to get embarrassingly drunk, take off their shirts, and dance wildly in the square in front of the band.

Now I understand why Ivan and Marisha decided to stay at their dacha. The weather was nice, so at the dacha, they could relax peacefully and in good company. At the planned celebration, however, there was nothing to do but watch half the population get drunk while the other half—the underaged crowd the holiday was supposed to be for—stood around impatiently, most likely counting the days till they would be old enough to drink alcohol themselves. There was no place for the teens to dance with all the drunk old people thrashing around. What a shining example to set for the youth of the country. No wonder alcoholism is rampant here.

Disappointed, I went back home. When I walked in the door, Nina Evgenyevna told me that Ruslan, the neighbor I had made friends with, had dropped by asking about me. Apparently, he was angry I hadn't taken him with me. No sooner had she told me this than Ruslan himself walked in the door, having seen me come home from his apartment. He chastised me for going without him, gave me chocolate, and ushered me out the door again to go back to the holiday.

My second round at the festivities was about as exciting as the first. The concert had ended, and now everyone was dancing in the square to loud Russian pop music remixed with a techno beat. Ruslan and I stood at the edge, just watching. It was too loud to talk, but Ruslan obviously had no interest in dancing. Three times while we stood there, teenagers from the local schools approached me, saying they recognized me, and asked me to come dance with them. I would have gone (it would have been a lot more fun than standing around), but Ruslan was there, looming protectively by my shoulder, refusing to do anything but watch other people dance. So we stood in silence until our feet hurt and went back home.

Today, I saw the good and the bad of how Russians relax. The good half is the way they enjoy nice weather, stretching out on the beach and bringing tons and tons of food. I could get used to long afternoons of swimming, picnics, and beach naps. But the bad half—drinking excessively in public, right in front of teenagers and even little children—makes me downright angry. If the weather is nice tomorrow, I may go to Ivan and Marisha's dacha, or I may go to the beach with some of the girls who had wanted me to dance with them. Just as long as there is no more public drunkenness and no more surly, do-nothing Ruslan to deal with, I'll be happy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Home Away From Home

In spite of predictions of rain for the rest of the week, today was sunny and 75 degrees, and it seems like the whole city spilled out onto the streets to enjoy the weather, myself included. With only a few days left in Vytegra, my trip is winding down and my time is my own, so I spent it outdoors in the sunshine with everyone else in the city who didn't have to work.

Adding to this was a large group of tourists who came to Vytegra for the day. They traveled in mobs from museum to museum, from the Sretensky Cathedral to the Soviet-era submarine, dropping litter, getting lost, and in general being a nuisance.

When some of the tourists stopped me to ask for directions, and I was actually able to explain how to get where they wanted to go, I started to realize how Vytegra has come to feel like a home to me. I know where things are located, which stores are open around the clock, the names of people from different organizations, which cafes are cheaper and have friendlier staff. I even get impatient with out-of-towners. To all outward appearances, I'm a local—until I open my mouth and garble a few words in my silly American accent, that is.

At some point in the morning, I noticed a mother and teenage girl wandering around the cathedral yard, looking lost. Feeling indulgent, I asked them if they were trying to find the entrance to the bell tower. They were, so I showed them where it was and decided on a whim to go check it out myself. I'd already been up there, but this time the weather was nicer, and I was able to take pictures.

Afterward, at lunch, I was introduced to a totally different aspect of life in Vytegra I'd never noticed before. The cafe I normally eat at was closed "due to reasons" (their sign didn't say which reasons), so I went to a different restaurant not far away. Despite it being lunchtime and the streets being full of people, this restaurant was completely empty. The food was delicious, almost exactly the same as at the cafe that was closed, so I could think of no reason why they had no other customers.

Later, Sasha, one of the students I tutor in English, explained it to me. When I told her where I had eaten lunch, she wrinkled her face and exclaimed, "How can you eat their food?" I told her I thought it tasted fine. She shook her head. "No, I mean, how can you eat their food?"

Evidently, the restaurant I had eaten at was run by Caucasians, immigrants from the Caucasus region. Muslims, most likely. Sasha had nothing good to say about them. They come from far away, she told me, and take all the best jobs. They are rich and stingy, dark-skinned and ugly. We don't like them.

Before this, I wouldn't have pegged Sasha as being prejudiced. In fact, at our last lesson, she told me how embarrassed she was by white supremacist groups in Russia, that such racists make their country look bad, and it is wrong to think some people are better than others because of the color of their skin. So I was shocked to hear her so quickly dismiss a whole race of people.

But when she explained further, I started to understand. Sasha's father works for Caucasians. She says that he works long hard hours for them and hardly gets paid a dime, while they sit back and get rich. It seems that the immigrant Caucasian population has formed something like a merchant class here, moving in from the south and running obviously profitable businesses while native Vytegorians (Vytegorites?) struggle to find jobs. So to Sasha (and to a lot of others here), the Caucasians symbolize greed, and she has learned to resent them as a unit based on the position they have taken in society.

This is the first time I felt any sort of racial tension in Russia. I do remember seeing at the open-air marketplace that a couple of the stands were run by women with black scarves wrapped around their heads (Russian women tend to wear more colorful headscarves if they choose to wear one), and a friend of mine warned me to be careful talking to them. Perhaps she only meant that they drive a tough bargain.

Even so, I'm saddened to see racial resentment in this quiet little city. I had heard a lot about problems in Chechnya, in the Caucasus region, in Georgia and so on. But I thought that here, so far removed in the north, people could live peacefully with each other as one. Of course, that was just naivete. Fairy tales, as Ruslan said. Anywhere you go, people will make up reasons to hate one another.

Having learned this, I see Vytegra somehow as a different city. Not necessarily worse—rather, more real, more lifelike. Just like in any city in the U.S., you can find people who are racist, small-minded, willfully ignorant. You can find them here too.

Thus I came to realize that I'm not a local, like I had felt this morning. I'm just a well-informed visitor who can carry out a short conversation in Russian. Many of the nuances of life in Vytegra and in Russia in general are still lost on me, and they will likely remain that way.

Part of me wants to seek out a Caucasian family and get to know them, to find out what their lives are really like, but I only have three days left in Vytegra. This trip was about the Veps people. If I want to find out about Caucasian peoples across Russia, I guess I'll just have to make a separate trip.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Between Babuski and Schoolkids

Perhaps the one thing lacking in my trip up to this point has been contact with people my own age (I'm 20). I have sat and reminisced with elderly women, and I have joked and played with schoolchildren, but I haven't just hung out with young adults like me. The closest I had come is the two students I now tutor in English, who are 15 and 16, and they constantly prove what a difference 4 years in age can make by saying things like, "Yeah, there's drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, and whatever... but the biggest problem for teens in Russia is parents. Parents are the worst. They just don't understand anything."

Honestly, I never really had any hope of finding anyone my own age, because the fact of the matter is, in Vytegra, there really isn't anyone my age. As soon as kids graduate high school at 17, they flee to the big cities in search of higher education, jobs, and modern conveniences. Between the ages of 17 and 30, there is a noticeable gap in the population here, as in most of rural Russia. So I gave up on making friends my own age.

Until last night. Out of nowhere, I got a call from Ivan, who drove our van to Oshta toward the beginning of the month. He (age 29) and his wife Marisha (age 24?) wanted to take me to the nearby Andoma Mountains and "hang out." So I agreed. They picked me up around 8 p.m., blasting loud rock music from their modern, German-made car, and we hurtled down the winding roads at 150 km/h (90 mph?) into the countryside.

They showed me the training school for the M.Ch.S. (Ministry of Emergency Situations) where Marisha is studying to become an accountant. They also train firemen, paramedics, and soldiers there. It was an interesting sight, especially since I gathered that access there is somewhat restricted. The guard at the gate was reluctant to let us in so late at night until he heard I was American; then he insisted that I go take a look.

From there, we went to the Andoma Mountains, which defy description. The picture below hardly even does it justice. We sat on the cliff overlooking Lake Onega and talked about absolutely everything within my vocabulary and a few things outside my vocabulary that could be explained by gesturing wildly. We even told jokes. It was nice to relax with people I could so easily relate to, even if they were still a bit older than me.

Ivan and Marisha dropped me off back home after midnight and promised we'll hang out again. And after the rough roads, I fell asleep instantly.

Today I was similarly surprised. After spending the bulk of the day translating at the Children's Craft House, I came home to find I had a guest, Ruslan. He had been invited by Nina Evgenyevna, who had sensed that I wanted to hang out with people closer to my own age. Ruslan is 27, so still a bit older, but he was also very easy to relate to.

We spent a good chunk of the evening at his parent's apartment playing Modern Warfare 2 (in Russian) on his computer, while he struggled to explain to me what on earth I was supposed to be doing. We laughed uproariously at my constant blundering. I kept accidentally shooting at the soldiers on my own side. But to be fair, I'm bad at video games in English, so I was bound to fail in a different language.

At his mother's insistence, Ruslan also showed me pictures of Chechnya, where he had been deployed in the army and from which he has only recently returned. It was the only time during the evening he stopped smiling and cracking jokes. I tried to ask him what it was like there, but he did not want to talk about it. All he would say was, "Everything you have ever heard about Chechnya is a fairytale." And that was that. I guess it's better to leave war to the video games.

So it's been a busy couple days, but I'm happy that I'm finally making friends here. Unfortunately, I leave Vytegra Monday evening, so that doesn't leave a lot of time for hanging out. Of course, there's always email, and I finally broke down and registered for Vkontakte (Russian Facebook). Thanks to the internet, at least, I can keep my new friends.