Walking Home, Significant Details

There are less than two weeks to go, and the lack of time concentrates significance into every step. The sounds, colors, smells of this little city, unknown at this time last year, are now dear, родной.

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The familiarity that nine months creates can lull me into not noticing, but the knowledge that 14 blocks of 24 hours is all that separates me from another world wakes me up to savor, to store up memories of the small and significant.

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The call to prayer can be heard from the mosque, deep, throaty Arabic, unintelligible except for the haunting, guttural, drawn-out cry of “Allah, Allah.”

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The dust sneaks inside my shoes with each step, and I remember a friend’s advice: don’t take pictures only of what is considered conventionally beautiful, because then you objectify the place, the experience, rob it of its grit and character.

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I know I won’t see windows like this when I get home,

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and I will see cats, but not on every corner, wild and afraid.

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The white marshrutka, the ubiquitous, sometimes scary, but mostly dependable transport will be something I miss.

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I’ll also miss the colors, where I come from we usually prefer the not-so-bright.

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I will, however, be glad to be able to sit on a bench in the winter without being told that I have just ruined any chance of having children.

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I’ll miss being surprised by where the sidewalk ends.

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And I’ve come to enjoy my dusty walks to the store to buy 5 liter jugs of water and bread, cucumbers and tomatoes.

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And then there is the red fire tower, my landmark, telling me that I’m almost home.

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And my favorite bus stop, where a 4 or 5 bus will drop me off right in front of my dorm, my arms full of bags of milk and pelmeni and candied ginger.

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House 24Б, my home for nine months.

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The metal door that is always unlocked,

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the windowsill where I get my mail,

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the sign that warns non-dorm dwellers to stay out, which is mostly for show.

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And I am home.

I am almost, almost home.

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Return to Vladimir

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, mostly because I’ve been sick the whole month of May 😦 Allergies in Elabuga hit me hard, and what started out at seasonal sneezing and itchy eyes turned into a full-blown bronchitis-y sickness that drove me to antibiotics and laying in bed for four days straight. Thanks to Hanna’s z-pack and the help of a doctor back home, I was able to avoid going to the hospital here and recreating my experience with Konstantine the dentist.

Now that I’m feeling better, the end of my time in Tatarstan seems closer than ever. Today marks the first day of June, which means I can say that I will be going home this month. This is both exciting and bittersweet. Although I am ready to go home, this semester has been a time of deepening the relationships that I made when I first got here, and I know there are so many people that I am going to miss. I want to continue this train of thought, but first, I can’t forget to recount Hanna’s and my adventures in Vladimir at the beginning of May right before I got sick.

Vladimir has held a very special place in my heart since I studied there through the Critical Language Scholarship in 2012. Through some “coincidental” acquaintances (nothing is ever coincidental in His kingdom), I was able to get involved in a local church, and some really special friendships developed. I remember my summer there as a time of hope and adventure and growth, and I will take every opportunity I can to go back and visit the special people that made my summer so meaningful.

As most things happen in Russia, our plans to Vladimir were made fairly last minute. With some hastily bought e-tickets and backpacks stuffed with clothes and chak-chak, Hanna and I flew to Moscow from Tatarstan at 6:00 am, where we would meet our крутая program officer Marina and catch a train to Vladimir. We ate Georgian cheese bread and гуляли without a care and thought we had plenty of time to make our train at Kurskiy Voksal.

Marina, me, and Hanna outside of Kievskiy Vokzal in Moscow.

Hanna and I made it to Kurskiy Vokzal (the train station) with at least 30 minutes to find our train. Moscow train stations are usually easy to navigate, but Kurskiy was a different story. We walked into the buzzing atrium of chaos to find no information about our train’s platform on any of the many screens. What began as leisurely scanning the screens quickly grew into a panicked search as the minutes ticked by. With less than fifteen minutes to find our train, we were running up and down platforms, frantically begging passersby for this seemingly nonexistent information. The first man we asked looked at me and said “Eto tupik!” Assuming that this word shared the same root as the word “tupoy,” which means dullwitted, I thought he was calling me stupid for not being able to find the train, which didn’t help my mood. More running. Allergies and humidity and a heavy backpack made me feel like I was running through marshmallow fluff. Ten minutes was now all we had. We ran up to the main platform and addressed a policeman with a bull-dog face, who addressed Colonel Sanders’ younger brother (Hanna’s observation 🙂 ). Colonel Sanders’ younger brother was surprisingly smiley for a Russian man, and joyfully pointed toward a distant platform. “This is tupik, girls. You still have five minutes!” With a heavily breathed bolshoye spasiba, we were off, sprinting through that marshmallow fluff toward a distant yellow train. We made it to a turnstile where the women on duty kindly let us through without a problem when they saw our red-faced distress. “Just say your last name, girls, and go!” With a “Miller!” and a “Johnson!” we were sprinting toward wagon number 6. We made it. We actually made it. At 3:15, 3 minutes before the train was to leave, we stepped onto a peaceful, almost domestic scene of children eating ice cream and mothers chatting and a guy playing his guitar. The train began to move, and we were headed toward Vladimir. Victory. Adrenaline. We both agreed we hadn’t had that much fun in a long, long time. Thus began our adventures.

On the train writing about our just-making the train with a feather pen that lasted for about 5 lines.

When we got to Vladimir, we took a bus to the hostel I had booked. The only problem was that the hostel didn’t actually exist. Although the website had looked a little fishy, (the last review had been written in 2012, and there was a notice about not ordering online because they were moving locations), I received e-mail confirmation of our reservation. The address of the hostel turned out to be a very regular apartment, and every other hostel I called was booked due to the busy holiday weekend. This is where my friend Masha came to the rescue. Masha is one of the wonderful people I met through the church in 2012, and I was already planning on visiting with her the next day. She works at a hostel that is located inside the church building, and although the hostel was already full, she spoke to the director for us and they let us spend two nights in the church library!

The next day, Masha and her brother Daniel came with us on a picnic to my favorite place in all of Russia, the Church Pokrova Na Nerli. This church was built in the 12th century and stands on a small hill in the middle of a field that has a small path that leads to it. Some have described the walk as a pilgrimage, and I would agree 🙂

 

In the early spring, the field is flooded and you have to take a boat to get to the church. It is at once simple and picturesque, earthy and magical. Here is a picture that Hanna took that will do much more justice that my words could:

I was also able to buy my mom a beautiful shawl for Mother’s Day at the beginning of the field:

The next day, Hanna, Amanda (another Fulbrighter) and I met up with Bethany, the girl who had originally connected me with the church. She and her fiance, Oleg, who I had gotten to know during CLS, invited us to a shashlik in the countryside in honor of their friend Zhenya’s birthday. On the way to Mordysh, which sounds so much like Mordor, Bethany and Oleg stopped the car to show us a very out-of-place sign:

“Welcome of Detroit.”  I would have thought we were in America if it weren’t for the grammatical mistake.

While the guys prepared shashlik, the girls chopped cheese, kielbasa, and veggies:

After eating enough to last us for a week, we were invited to use the banya, which is a true Russian experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Russian banya, it is basically like a sauna, except much more humid and almost hot enough to make a Maine girl faint. You go in with your comrades, where you chat, beat each other with aromatic branches, and sweat. If you stay hydrated and take frequent breaks, it is a very refreshing experience.

After the girls got done in the banya, the guys wanted to make more shashkik, so we roasted meat and laughed while the sun set.

Vladimir, I will return. I love you too much not to.

 

 

Learning Tatar

Although Tatarstan is politically a part of the Russian Federation, I am constantly reminded that at the same time, it is a country and culture all its own. Beautiful mosques share the scene with Orthodox churches, Tatar delicacies such as chak-chak and mantiy are served just as often as  borsch and kasha, and most exciting for a language lover, the beautiful yet still-unintelligible sounds of Tatar can be heard alongside Russian on the street, on the radio, and (yikes) even in my classroom.

Tatarstan May Finally Get Lyrics For Its Anthem

The Flag of Tatarstan*The green represents Islam, the red, Russia, and the white line, the peace between the Muslim Tatar majority and the Russian minority.

Over half of the population did not learn Russian as their first language, but rather acquired it in their early years at school while continuing to speak Tatar at home. This bilingual balancing act, although the norm for many teachers and students I’ve talked to, has made a huge impression on me. I find it amazing to watch those at my university speed through a phone conversation in Tatar, answer someone in Russian, then address me in English. When I found out I would be living in Tatarstan for 9 months, I made it my goal to at least learn the basics of Tatar while I was here, and I’ve finally had the time to devote to the study of this difficult yet fascinating language.

Altay-what?

To give you an idea of just how different Tatar is from English, take a look at this wonderful little tree diagram of the world’s language families. Although the Foreign Service Institute ranks Russian as of higher difficulty to learn for an English speaker than the Romance languages, what many people don’t realize is that English and Russian are actually in the same language family, Indo-European. Although there are significant linguistic differences between the two, there are actually more similarities than you might think. But Tatar, oh Tatar…Tatar isn’t even in the same language family as English. At the bottom of the diagram, you’ll see a tiny little branch reaching to the left: this represents the Altaic family, of which the most familiar language is Turkish.

Photo Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

Chart Credit: http://bashapedia.pbworks.com/w/page/13960889/Language%20Families

What this means for the language learner beginning from an Indo-European frame of reference is that he has to open his mind to a extremely different way of processing language both grammatically and phonetically. A difficult task, but so far it’s been as fun as it has been frustrating.

Take out that IPA chart and get cracking!

The sounds of Tatar have been more difficult to produce than I expected, since when I first arrived and I was taught how to count to 5, I was praised on how good my accent was. This was due to a few phonemes that exist both in English and Tatar that are not found in Russian, such as [ae], the vowel sound found in “bad,” “cat,” etc. Note, this [ae] sound is written as ә, which was confusing at first.

But as I’ve analyzed the phonemic inventory more closely, it’s become clear that Tatar has sounds I’ve never attempted to make before, except perhaps in Dr. Bird’s phonetics class 🙂  The language is written in Cyrillic, but because there are sounds that do not occur in Russian, there are the added letters:

һ (close to an English h.)

ө (close to the vowel sound in the British “bird,” “word.”)

ә (a as in “back,” “cat,”)

ү (an “oo” sound pronounced further back than the English version.)

ң (ng as in “sing.”)

җ (in between j in “Johnson” and zh in “rouge.”)

These extra letters though, do not represent all of the different sounds. For example, what is written in Cyrillic as г (g) can be pronounced two different ways. Most difficult for me so far has been producing a sound that is close to the English k, but is pronounced further back. In linguistic terms, English the English k ([k])requires you to touch your velum with the back of your tongue, but in Tatar, the k, realized as [q] is often produced by touching the back of your tongue to the uvula. When I hear native speakers do it, it sounds like a k with a popping noise. And that is just one sound out of many; I won’t even get started on vowel harmony.

Let’s Agglutinate!

Although the phonetics of Tatar are difficult, the core of the difficulty for a speaker of an Indo-European language comes in making the mental transition from an inflected grammatical system  to a system of agglutination. In college, we learned the definition of agglutinative by remembering that in these languages, grammatical components and words were glued together (And if I remember correctly, both “glue” and “agglutinative” share the same root.) Both inflected and agglutinative languages use affixes to express grammar, but agglutinative languages are different in that you take a root word and keep stacking suffixes on the end until the word is about a page long. An exaggeration, of course, but that’s what it seems like to a beginner.  Prefixes and prepositions do not exist in an agglutinative languages, but their functions are rather expressed in suffixes that must be added in a specific order. One nice thing about agglutinative languages though, is that a morpheme codes for just one meaning, rather than many, like in Russian. For example, in Tatar, the suffix -ка always denotes that a noun is the direct object, whereas the Russian  -у can denote masculine dative case, feminine accusative case, or even prepositional case.

Here’s an example of this agglutinative magic:

English: In my books

Russian: В моих книгах

Tatar: book: китап (kitap),  plural morpheme: лар (lar), possessive morpheme: ым (iym), time/locational case: да (da)

Order of agglutination: root+plural morpheme+possessive morpheme+case morpheme=

китабларымда (kitablariymda)= in my books

As you can see, what is expressed by three words in both English and Russian is expressed in Tatar in one long, complex word. The system of verbs is similarly complicated, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of understanding Tatar grammar. However, I am happy to say that I have learned quite a few new words and phrases to balance out the intensity of learning grammar. My strategy has been similar to it was when I started Russian, in a word: songs. When I decided I wanted to speak Russia, I printed out song lyrics, translated them, then listened to the songs and practiced them over and over. This was great for pronunciation, memorization, and was much more enjoyable than slaving over a textbook. In addition to learning some basic phrases, such as “исәнмесез” (isanmesez, hello), “рәхмәт” (rakhmat, thank you), and “әйдә” (ayda), I’ve been listening to and translating a simple song with to broaden my vocabulary and become familiar with the phraseology and grammar. It’s already working: today I found this Tatar music video and I was able to pick out the phrases: “You are my love,” and “you are my destiny.” Give it a listen if you’re curious as to how Tatar sounds. Well, that’s it for now! Сау булыгыз! (sau bulighiz, goodbye!)

*Flag of Tatarstan credit: http://kazantimes.com/politics/tatarstan-may-finally-get-lyrics-for-its-anthem/ 

Russia in Color

Russia is often wrongly stereotyped as a depressing land devoid of color and life. Although the Russian winter is  long and there are definitely periods where the dominant colors are white, brown, and grey, I have found Russia to possess an understated beauty that continues to stun me when I least expect it. I’ve selected fourteen of my favorite photos I have taken since I arrived in September, and if you have never been to Russia, I hope that they will give you a broader picture of the beauty and character this country has to offer! Note: many of these photos have been filtered, i.e. Instagram, but I really haven’t altered them that significantly.

1. Moscow night, September 2013. 

I took this photo from the corner of Red Square to capture the contrast of the jewel-toned sky and church. The building to the far left with the red star on top is the Kremlin.

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2. Feeding swans in Gorkiy Park, Moscow. September 2013.

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3. View from my dormitory porch, Elabuga. October 2013.

4. Wisdom from a Student, Elabuga. October 2013.

I asked my students to write an essay about the differences between higher education in the United States and in Russia. After praising the United States’ use of syllabuses (which my students had never heard of), she contrasted it to the Russian system with the following statement that sums up my 10 year history with this place:

5. Elabuga Institute, Fall 2013.

Built in 1903 complete with a nifty onion dome, this building is arguably one of the coolest looking places to work on earth.

6. Sunset on Kazanskaya Street, Elabuga. Fall 2013.

7. Children playing by the Marina Tsvetaeva monument, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

I took this picture on the morning after one of the first snows, and I loved the excitement and energy that these children exuded.

8. Jumbo snowman outside my dorm, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

9. The Irony of Fate, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

The sign reads “The pharmacy is temporarily closed due to one of the employees being sick.”

10. Winter sunset, Elabuga, 2013.

11. Caviar and Tea, Naberezhniye Chelny. Winter 2014.

12. View from Pushkin Park, Vladimir. Winter 2014.

13. Shooting the breeze, Elabuga. February 2014.

14. “Nyet,” Naberezhniye Chelny. February 2014.

I saw a little boy scribble нет on the frosty window of the bus from Elabuga to Naberezhniye Chelny.

If the Master and Margarita had a Sequel

Last night, I finally hit the halfway mark in the first full-length classic I have attempted to read in the original, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita! (Well, I actually attempted The Brothers Karamazov last summer, but that turned out to be way above my level at the time.)

Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010
Portrait of Mikhail Bulgakov, graffiti from the stairwell of the Bulgakov House, photo taken December, 2010

I first became enamored with the book back in 2010 when we read it in my literature class in Nizhniy Novgorod. It grabbed me from the first page with it’s deliciously creepy opening scene in 1930s Moscow where an eccentric “intourist” named Woland argues with two atheists against their claim that Jesus never existed, then predicts that one will die by getting his head cut off, which happens not an hour later when he slips on sunflower seed oil and falls in front of a tramvai.

It soon becomes clear that this foreign visitor is none other than Satan, who has come to Moscow with an eclectic entourage, including a talking black cat and a tall, skinny man in a checkered suit and a broken pince nez, to drastically change the lives of the city’s intelligentsia.  This story-line is successfully braided with the tale of a brilliant writer, “the Master,” and his lover Margarita, and the Master’s novel itself, which imagines the last days of a Jesus-based character Yeshua Ha-Notzri and his hearing before Pontius Pilate.

Although this book is extremely entertaining from a surface-level reading, it becomes even more intriguing when you delve into the layers of philosophy and criticism of Stalinist Russia that make up the meat of the novel. It is no surprise then that The Master and Margarita wasn’t published in the U.S.S.R. until 25 years after Bulgakov wrote it, and even then, 12% of it was censored!

"Manuscripts don't burn." A famous line from the novel.
“Manuscripts don’t burn.” A famous line from the novel.

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So while I won’t give any spoilers to the book (which I do recommend you read!), I will share a few reasons why I think that if The Master and Margarita had a sequel, it would be set in Elabuga. One of the reasons the novel stands alone is that Bulgakov found the sweet spot between fantasy and reality, (what literature nerds would call magical realism) to the point where the strange events that the Devil brings to Moscow seem chillingly feasible. I have found this little town in Tatarstan strangely mirrors the feel of the masterpiece. On one hand, as some have said, Elabuga is “the realest place on earth,” but at the same time, I often encounter little mysteries that make me feel like I’m in a fairy tale, sometimes wondering if Woland will step out from behind a tree and start talking to me.

Here are a few of my Elabuga experiences that have kept me on my toes:

Mystery #1: Woland’s distant cousin?

The novel opens up with the “intourist” Professor Woland, (Satan) predicting that Berlioz, head of a literature firm, will have his head cut off, and that his companion, Ivan, a poet who writes under the pseudonym Бездомный, or “homeless,” will find himself in a mental institution. While conversing, Woland gives the men his business card. I had a strange conversation in the lunchroom at my university with a guy I like to call “Woland’s distant cousin.”He even had gold crowns on his right teeth, like Woland. After finding out I was an American, he called me an “intourist,” the reference so common during Soviet times, then he used the word бездомный (homeless) in conversation. Finally, he started telling me about a Bulgarian Professor Lozanov, whom he had studied English under during the Soviet Union. The method was very intense, he said, for the first four months, you were allowed no visual aids or texts, you simply had to learn by hearing and remembering. The last five months of the the nine month program, however, you were given books. Then, he looked at me with a strange smile on his face and said,

“the thing is, it was so intense, that after that year under Lozanov, everyone in my group died except me.”

My eyes went wide, not sure if he was joking. He kept up his broad smile, his gold crowns shining, and said “yes, I’m the only survivor.” And then, to top things off, he handed me this business card:

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This professor had basically covered chapter 1: gold crowns, business card, “intourist,” бездомный, and last but not least, death/mental overload.

Intrigued by this Lozanov fellow, I googled him and found almost everything this professor said about him to be true; his nationality, his methodology, the time period. The only thing I couldn’t find was information about a whole cohort of Soviets dying after a year with him. But as a Russian friend of mine said, “maybe it was secret information, and he accidentally spilled it.”

Mystery #2: The singing opera man

Around November, I started to hear this strange noise from inside my dorm room at random times. The sound would usually go on for periods of ten to twenty minutes straight, and sounded like a cross between an old-man singing opera and a ghostly moan. In November, everything in Elabuga seemed weird to me, and I think I just subconsciously accepted it as one of the quirks of my new surroundings. I didn’t tell anybody about it for over a month, and when I finally did, I realized how crazy I sounded. I mean, really? The ghost of an old man singing opera?

The sound continued, and around mid-December I had come up with a brilliant theory: it was the call to prayer from the mosque about 3/4 of a mile away from my dorm. After all, hadn’t I heard the call to prayer once in one of my classes, seeing how two of my girls closed their eyes and began to pray. An hour after that class, while walking home, I heard the opera voice not too far from the mosque.

But none of it really made any sense. I could still hear it loudly and clearly from the inside of my dorm room, a good 15 minute walk away from the mosque. One evening a friend came over who is also Muslim and she heard the sound. “What is that!?” she asked, scared.

I shrugged my shoulders. “I hear it every day.”

“If I were you, I would be scared to go to sleep at night!” She then assured me that it was most DEFINITELY not coming from the mosque. The next week, I heard it while I was outside of the dorm, the sound more resonant than I had ever heard it. I quickly grabbed my phone and began to record the sound, crunching through the snow, trying to find where it was coming from. I couldn’t tell if if was emanating from my dorm, or from another building that surrounds the mini-courtyard.

The audio file is as far as I’ve come in my little  investigation. No Russians I have asked have any idea where the noise could be coming from, and they seem to be just as intrigued as me.

And finally: The Devil’s Tower

This place makes me want to write books.

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So it’s not exactly a “mystery,” per se, but it’s a really mysterious place, and with The Master and Margarita‘s obsession with the use of any form of the word чёрт, or “devil,” the Devil’s Tower would fit right into the narrative.

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This sign tells us that the area surrounding the Devil’s Tower was inhabited in the “Early Iron Age” (7th-8th centuries), and that at the end of the 10th century the Bulgars built a military fortress. The tower with white-stoned citadels is the only remnant of the Volga Bulgars during the pre-Mongolian period. Archaeological and  architectural research has found a building on this site that is the remains of a fortress-mosque, built no later than the 12th century.

The view from the Devil’s Tower is a breathtaking panorama of wintry Elabuga life: against the backdrop of forest green and white, today I saw the tiny figure of a man ice-fishing in the Toima River, a man and babushka strolling down the slippery street far below, and beyond, the colorful churches and buildings of Kazanskaya Street. So in spite of all the strangeness and mysteries and unpredictability of this town, well, probably because of them, I’m really starting to feel a connection to this place. Whereas last semester, I was just trying to keep my head above water, now I have time to think and reflect and actually enjoy this town that is so very Russian, yet has a personality all it’s own.

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