The City in the Wilderness

Cutting to the chase in this post. This is a picture of me about 50 feet away from the geographical center of the city of Nizhny Novgorod, the fifth most populated city in the Russian Federation.

Yes, that is what looks like a thousand miles of wilderness behind me. In front of me is a beautiful street with museums and other historic buildings with lovely Greekish stone carvings, but across the river, there’s…just…nothing. We talked about the concept of простор in one of our Russian Concepts class. простор translates as wilderness or open/free space. No people, no civilization, nothing. The closest thing to this that we have in America that I can think of is the middle part of the drive between Utah and Arizona (although maybe I only remember so much nothing there because I make the trip several times a year) or perhaps the northern part of states near the Canada border. (Actually Canada probably has this concept down pretty well, too.) But the idea, as far as I can tell, is that there’s still a ton of uncivilized wilderness (thousands and thousands of square miles) right alongside all the modernized, bustling cities. It’s really a strange concept, but this city illustrates it perfectly. This picture was taken pretty close to the Kremlin, the ancient fortress the city was built around, and I guess everyone only built in one direction (across another river, so crossing water wasn’t that big of a deterrent). I don’t know exactly what to make of this part of Russia. It’s almost a testament to the futility of civilization or the power of nature. No matter how old a people or a civilization, they still are intruders on the barren and dangerous wilderness that rules the land. But civilization is expanding every day, for better or for worse. Maybe one day, all of Russia will be either bustling city or geometrically roped off and carefully preserved State Parks. What then? What will be lost along with this concept of простор?


Death of a Babushka

Last week, I almost ran into a coffin walking into the building. I opened the iron outer door quickly because it was dark outside and ran past the dark landing, where it stood. It’s funny that I even recognized it; there must be something about that slant of wood, narrowing as it reaches the floor, ingrained into the subconscious after too many vampire movies. I caught a quick glimpse of the telling slant and shivered. I wished that I were brave enough to go back and see if it was really a coffin, but I admit, I totally chickened out. No worry though, because I saw it the next day leaning up against the outside of the building under the ramada. A real coffin, alright.

When I saw it, I was even more surprised that I had recognized it. Pick patterned fabric, white frills, a golden cross, a tinsel wreath, and a photo. And I immediately had several questions:

1. Why was the coffin pink? Did the woman pictured on the front pick it out before she died or did one of her grandchildren or something? It seemed to match the design of apartments in Ukraine I saw. I’ve never thought much of the design taste of Russian babushkas; their homes make me feel a little claustrophobic and anxious.

2. Did she have somebody when she died? Children? Grandchildren? Probably not a husband. There are so many babushkas here because so many men died in the world war. (Some scholars estimate that 50 million people died in the Soviet Union between 1905 and 1945.) There are a lot of widows in this country. Who found her?

3. Why was her coffin on the front porch? Was there a funeral parlor who came by and checked porches every week? Why was she out there all by herself? And where was she destined to end up? Did the neighbors think this was strange or was it just the way things were done?

The coffin was gone when I left for school the next day. Must have been a scheduled pick up. Maybe I’ll ask Irina and see if she knows anything. Because I’m very curious about it all.

My Peanut Butter and Finding Russian Chocolates

My peanut butter is chocolate.

Explanation: our professor told us before we came to decide what our “peanut butter” was, meaning what item we would really want and would remind us of home in Russia but we wouldn’t be able to buy there. For a lot of people, it’s peanut butter. For me, it’s not. (If anyone reading this does not know, I’m allergic to peanuts and all tree nuts, which I’ve been told is generally tragic, but only makes me sad because I can’t have hazelnut chocolate on a regular basis which is really delicious.) When I came to Russia, I packed a small bags of Rolos, two milk chocolate Dove bars, and two bags of Dove Bliss chocolates (which really are as good as they sound) to act as my peanut butter (and a giant ziploc baggy of glodfish crackers, but that is not important to this post). I’ve learned from experience that it can be difficult to find European chocolate without any traces of nuts (especially hazelnuts). Really, that Dove chocolate helped a lot in the…adjusting phase…of the first two weeks. But I also have this goal to find delicious European/Russian chocolate to bring home. Cue story 1:

Last week, my host mother Irina told me about this little local candy store in the city. It’s across the street from the grocery store where we usually buy lunch (another story about that store in a minute), and I’ve been there three times in the past week. The first time I asked the candy counter lady for their most delicious chocolate candy without nuts. I got a handful of little dark chocolate eggs with colored, flavored (I always want to spell this word like the British…) centers. One of the three flavors is strawberry (I think), and I have no idea about the others. One might be lilac, but that might just be a placebo flavor granted by the light purple color. The other one is green, so I don’t even know what to think about it. Regardless of the official flavors, they are delicious, and I plan to buy a kilogram (which sounds like a good amount, even though I don’t know exactly how much chocolate this is) of them to bring home and pop them into the water bottles that I also want to pack home to save space. (I have a collection of about a dozen 1.5 liter water bottles which are rather thin and tall and convenient. The chocolates just barely fit inside them. What a way to save space!) Yesterday, I asked the candy counter lady to try a handful of nutless chocolates, which took more explaining than I thought it would. I ended up with 5 different sorts and tried them with varying results:

1. I expected the first one I tried to be aerated chocolate (based on the bouncy hand motions the candy counter lady made), but it was actually thinly coated marshmallow (which makes a lot more sense thinking back on the hand motions). That is, I think it was marshmallow, still not entirely sure. It may have been some sort of cheese; one never can tell with Russian cheese. It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great either.

2. The second one I tried was creme brule flavored. The chocolate tasted a little too cooked for me, but it’s Becky’s favorite chocolate, so it must just be me.

3. The third one I tried had a white “soft iris” center and was generally confusing.

4. This one was very rich, cocoa-dusted chocolate that Kaye loved but, alas, that I turned out to be allergic to. I think it was the whey powder.

5. This was a cognac truffle, which I’m pretty sure means it had a small amount of alcohol in it, which is a shame because it was actually my favorite taste (very filling, sophisticated, rich, and a little bitter), which is also a shame because I was allergic to this one too. Also probably the whey powder. It was almost worth it, since it was a very slight reaction. Actually, it might be a good diet plan: one truffle around lunch time every day, which will make me effectively lose my appetite until dinnertime! (Totally joking; I could never actually skip lunch intentionally.)

I’ll probably go back to the store late this week and ask for another round of trial chocolates (I’m a glutton for punishment I guess). I hope the candy counter people aren’t annoyed with me yet for only buying a few of many kinds of chocolates.

And now for the promised grocery store story, also dealing with chocolate, which is a nice segue, don’t you think? I found this absolutely divine brand of dark-chocolate glazed dried fruits. I’ve tried cherry and mango, and they make my previous chocolate quest failures worth it. I’ll be bringing a bunch of these back to the states too. Also, at this store today I tried buckwheat, macaroni, and salad for lunch, being rather tired of cheese and bread. I have also decided that Russian mayonnaise is better than whatever I’ve been eating in the states. And I successfully asked a store manager today (in Russian) if the store had small packets of mayonnaise, and I didn’t even have to repeat myself. Really, it’s all about the small victories. Like my own, hard-earned mayonnaise for my salad at lunch.

Tomorrow we’re taking a trip to a little village call Cemonov (or something like that; my Russian-English transliteration skills are somewhat confused). We spent our culture class today discussing the artisans that live there and their special artistic styles. Especially their beautiful dishware. Especially their spoons. I’m super excited! You probably gathered from my first post (sub-titled “Salmon and Spoons”) that spoons are kind of a big deal. In fact, I just bought a wooden spoon for my husband’s birthday on Sunday that he can cook with. I hope to find a set of beautiful, Russian decorated spoons. Pictures to come soon! Until then, here’s a hilarious random picture of a t-shirt James found while second-hand shopping with Kaye and I.

In case you can’t read it, the bottom says “I can see Russia from my igloo.” And that’s Sarah Palin. In Russia. Isn’t that just the greatest?

Also, here’s me with an owl.

Robbed in Russia: Case No. 370708

“On the 5th of May, an unknown third party stole broke into the apartment I was staying at and stole valuables.” That’s the first sentence of a statement I had to sign at a police station today. Well, a translation of the first sentence, which was, of course, written in Russian. I had to go to the station today to verify my statement with a translator because I have the “right to give evidence in my native language.” Or something like that. Really, the story isn’t as exciting as it sounds. My basic statement went something like this:

  • I left for a class field trip to the museum at about 10:00. I thought about taking my money belt, but it was uncomfortable and awkward. I knew I wouldn’t be buying anything and I wouldn’t be gone for very long, so I decided to leave it home. I threw it on my bed as I ran out the door because, like usual, I was running a little late. This becomes important, and slightly ironic, later.
  • I returned home at 2:30. It was the first time that I was able to easily unlock the door with my key (the doors are really different over here, okay?), so I distinctly remember hearing the two clicks as the deadbolts slid back. No one else was home, and I went to my room and got on my computer.
  • At about 2:40, Irina got home, and Anna got home a little after her. Irina came into my room and asked me if I’d been looking through the bookcase in the living room. There was a mess on the floor around it, magazines and random boxes strewn around. I told them it wasn’t me, they said it wasn’t them either, and Irina went to check the valuables and realized that their gold jewelry had been stolen.
  • Irina asked me if they’d taken anything from me, and I went to check my money belt. It was still on the bed where I’d left it, but all the cash was gone: 2,000 rubles and about 100 US dollars. They’d left my credit card, which had been right next to the money, and didn’t take my laptop either, which I had left on the desk. Really, I consider myself lucky that the thief was only looking for untraceable things; it could have been so much worse.

Okay, my actual statement had none of the personal commentary, but that’s the story. It’s rather ironic that we got robbed the one day I left my money belt at home, where I figured it would be safe. After realizing we were robbed, Irina called the police. Over the next few hours, about 8 officers showed up. One dusted the apartment with a black powder looking for fingerprints. One dressed in blue and grey camouflage brought in a German Shepherd to sniff around (I have no idea why). A blonde officer, who I later learned was a Senior Lieutenant, asked the neighbors what had happened. The (somewhat hairy and very pot-bellied) man in apartment 35 answered their persistent knocking in just boxer shorts and said, “Can I have a minute?,” which seems like it’s something that should be (and probably is) in a TV detective/crime show. She asked Irina and Anna several questions while I waited outside on the cement landing and the dusting officer took my fingerprints.

Funny side story: after I’d been fingerprinted and was sitting out on a bench on the stair landing, this crazy old babushka came upstairs. She was wearing a neon yellow headband and a red shirt with cats on it that said “Fun!” She ambled all the way to the top landing and started banging at an apartment and yelling at someone named Svet to open the door. After a few moments of silence, she walked back downstairs, only to return about five minutes later to do the same thing. This happened three or four times, and on the last trip that I saw she sat down beside me and started talking to me. I have absolutely no idea what she was saying (she was a mumbler…but I think I heard the phrase “50 years,” so maybe she was talking about whoever lived in the apartment), so I just sat and smiled and nodded until Irina called me inside.

I had to give my statement to the blonde officer, who didn’t speak English. No one did in fact, which was a problem, since the first person at the scene of the crime most definitely did not speak Russian. With Anna and a dictionary we managed to get a statement out, but the police wanted me to come in today and verify it with a professional translator. (Everything, in fact, was accurate, except that they had assumed that I was single. When I told the blonde officer today that I was married she looked really surprised and said, “Really?! Good job.” Umm, thanks?

Some of my classmates were super excited to hear that I got to go to a Russian police station as a purely innocent person and wanted to know all about it (especially if the translator spoke with an American or British accent [And I just realized that Anna asked me the same question today…curious. Anyway, the accent was definitely American, but our Phonetics professor has a British accent when she speaks English, which is endlessly amusing]). The building was super old, but that’s to be expected. I sat in two chairs while I was there: 1) a hair-covered-blanket-covered chair (I have no idea how to punctuate that. The chair was covered with a blanket that was covered in hair. Make sense?). You could see the wood through the moth-eaten cloth covering the arms, and 2) a folding chair with the back punched out, just a nice metal bar across the top. The walls were painted nicely though, a bright turquoise on the first floor and a light gold on floors 2-4. The officer who questioned me was the same blonde officer from the first day. The translator was a young-looking woman named Kate. She had a dark bob and really lovely amber eyes (which is odd because I almost never notice eye color unless I’m specifically looking for it.

Altogether, I was impressed with the Russian police. They’d already ran comparisons on the fingerprints and identified some that weren’t mine, Anna’a, or Irina’s. They also had cut the lock out of the old door once we got a new one (apparently the whole door was the problem and had to be replaced, not just the lock) to find out how the thief broke in and entered (this was a fun conversation, mostly because the words for “lock” and “castle” are only differentiated by an accent, so I spent a few sentences wondering why we were suddenly talking about castles. [I also accidentally told Anna today that I was glad it was cold because that meant all the squids were dead. But there will be time for amusing Russian language mishaps later; I digress]). I had to sign about twenty things saying that I had been told about the investigation and my rights to remain silent and not testify against myself or my husband and waive the right of a translator and receive about 5,000 rubles if they found the thief and other things. I have no illusions that I will ever see my money again, but I appreciated the effort. I imagine that it’s very similar to the way American police stations are run.

Three interesting/random things I noticed at the police station:

  1. The most Russian thing about the place was a poster on the wall with a picture of Putin. Under it were the words “Putin also wasn’t always the president.” Not a great translation, but basically saying that everyone has to start somewhere; we can’t all be presidents at once. I’m still confused at how the general population sees Putin, but I thought it was interesting.
  2. Opposite the picture of Putin was a picture of a raccoon standing on its hind legs holding a kitten. The caption underneath read “And you’ve lost your little cat!” I think. I’m so confused about this picture. Especially because the kitten may or may not have had a raccoon tail; I couldn’t tell. I wish I had asked about it.
  3. There was a collection of Nesquick bunny stickers on the filing cabinet. A bunch were duplicates. I couldn’t help but notice that three poses had only 1 sticker, one pose had 2  stickers, one pose had 3 stickers, one pose had 4 stickers, and one pose had 5 stickers. 17 stickers all together. I don’t even know what to think about those

Here’s a terrible picture of me outside the police station. Yep, impressive building, I know.


Today I almost tested my recently claimed skills of being able to get home from anywhere in Nizhny. I caught a bus at about 5:00 that I’ve only taken two or three times before (and one of those times ended with me on the wrong side of the Oka River in the lower, industrial section of Nizhny). It was rush hour, and I was glad to get a seat, so I wouldn’t have to stand and hold onto those bacteria ridden bus bars. But, because it was late and I only got approximately five hours of sleep last night, I fell asleep leaning against the window. I woke up almost half an hour later with no idea where I was and a new, unfamiliar crew of people on the bus with me. I had a moment of terror, but then I pulled out my atlas (remember, this action deserves lightsaber-unsheathing-esque awe [I guess one doesn’t actually unsheath a lightsaber. Activiate maybe? Or can we turn the word “blade” into a verb meaning “to turn on the blade for (e.g. a lightsaber)”? Alright, it’s settled: lightsaber-blading-esque awe]) and found where I was in about two minutes. Sorry for the anticlimactic ending of that sentence. Actually, sorry for that whole sentence; it got a little out of hand. I kept myself awake the rest of the trip by tracking the bus’s progress and planning what I would do if the bus didn’t go the way I wanted it to. There was a happy, uneventful ending though, and I got off about 6 stops later.

Now, on to the main theme of this post. I’ve discovered that, decoratively, Russia doesn’t remind me of Ukraine as much as I thought it would. When I was in Ukraine, everything was Januarily damp, cold, icy, and grey. It seemed like every building was concrete, pockmarked, or haphazardly painted over in bland colors. Not very enticing to say the least. So I was more than a little surprised to see the violent jumble of colors and glitter and shine that permeated the rooms inside. The apartments were tiny but chock-full of glittering, glass figurines, glitter-edged flowers, and brightly woven blankets. The orphanage had all sorts of colored pictures, painted banners, and tinsely garlands hung everywhere. The general lack of adherence to basic design principles made me feel slightly claustrophobic at first, but the longer I was there, the more I realized that the decoration was as good a combatant against the dreary outside as I could think of. In Russia, or at least here in Nizhny, the insides aren’t quite so blatantly cheering. The apartments I’ve seen tend to follow a more modern design template: less is more. Even with the tiny apartments, they put their negative space on display. But the outsides of the buildings are just the same. Ancient concrete apartment buildings with narrow concrete stairways.

One one of my first days here, I walked through some underground tunnels near a train station. Tunnels under the streets are  used as pedestrian crosswalks for places that have a lot of foot traffic; I saw them in Kiev as well. Most of the tunnels that I’ve seen have tiny shops lining the walls selling everything from wallets to tulips and magazines to watches. These particular tunnels were too short to merit a thriving underground market, but had a life of their own. The walls, instead of being made of drab concrete, were covered with marble tiles, and great, square marble pillars lined the center of the walkway. I was surprised by the grace of the place, at the attempted eloquence that was only marred by giant, colorful letters of graffiti scrawled everywhere. I saw it, and I laughed. It was so Russian. So New York. So big city. Here was something chosen for more than mere efficiency, for a glimmer of class or beauty, and the city had taken it and made the tunnels its own. It almost mocked the effort of the builders: “Why try to be what you’re not?” The walls just oozed culture and life. (Granted, I couldn’t actually read anything written, so it might have been terrible and distracting, but I was just captivated by graffiti as an art form.)

On a slight tangent, there’s an interesting wall that I pass every day on my way to the university. There’s a lot of graffiti in Russian but just one phrase in English: “GOD MADE ME FUNKY.” Why yes, English-speaking Nizhny-Novgorodite (that word works better in Russian), God probably did make you funky. Although I cannot help but wonder if that word means what you think it means.

Anyway, a week or so later, I passed through the same marble tunnels I was just talking about, and the graffiti was gone. But so was the sight of the marble tiles. Someone had covered all of the painted walls with mundane, off-white paint. You could still see the bottom-most layer of marble tile. No one had graffitied that low, so the painters had no reason to cover it. It stood as a weak testament to what had shown before. It shocked me how much more of a crime this painting seemed to me. After all, the graffiti artists were destroying what was never theirs, violating the planned beauty of a place. And now it was their fault that this wall now looked like any other. But I was more angry at the workers with their white paint. How lazy of them, to merely paint over what could have been scrubbed off. How dare they hide the flavorful culture of the underground? Imagine if every graffitied surface in New York City were painted over. Brick and cement and sandstone and asphalt and marble and cinder block, all reduced to the same off-white, solid color. And, soon enough I’m sure, new graffiti would color the new canvas. And maybe it’s this inevitability that really bothers me: that the graffiti will show up again, and it might as well be on classy marble instead of boring paint. It’s the inefficient treating of a symptom instead of targeting the disease that ruffles my feathers. The fact that the ineffciency also manages to hide the history and culture and life and art of a place, no matter how lowbrow, also irks me. Sure, the government has covered this batch of painted words with its temporary solution, but at the cost of walls of marble.

Maps and Independence

Well, I’ve been in Nizhny for over three weeks, and I finally feel like I could get dropped off almost anywhere in the city and find my way home in a few hours (not that I’ll be trying it anytime soon). In the past few weeks, I have asked strange Russian girls where I was and how to get home, been asked by strange Russian boys where the “something” university was, lost my jacket on a marshrutka (a really small bus, which will definitely have its own blog post soon), asked several busy bus drivers if they had seen my lost jacket, told a busy bus driver that he had not given me the correct change, and chanted to myself at least a hundred times the grammatically correct way to ask for directions to somewhere. Plus, I have an atlas. Really, that last sentence deserves as much awe as if I had just said, “Plus, I have a lightsaber.” It’s saved me countless times and causes gasps of astonishment and looks of jealously every time I pull it out of my backpack. Or, at least, it did for the first week. Everyone’s used to it by now. Sort of like how everbody’s used to the weapons in Star Wars after about five minutes.

There’s certainly something to be said for independence in a big city. This past Sunday, I traveled up to the city center by myself, wearing a pencil skirt and red lipstick like any proper Russian girl. I got on the right bus, put my 20 rubles on the carpeted dashboard for the driver, took the ticket and change he offered, took somebody else’s offered change and got them a ticket, got off on the right stop after signalling the driver, attempted the 15-minute walk to our meeting place, got somewhat lost after realizing I’d left my atlas at home, realized that I knew exactly how to ask for directions to the square I needed to get to in grammatically correct Russian, got myself unlost, and arrived at the bus stop with the other students just as the bus was pulling up to the curb. And the whole time I was so content with everything, just thrilled to death to be walking the streets in confident strides in Russia. Even when I was lost, I was happy. I didn’t have to stand around with a group of five confused, American students and take a poll on who thought which way was best (which causes me irrational amounts of stress and happens quite frequently). I just went where I wanted, not needing to stop and question anything. Apparently, it’s not just Russians that stress me out, but Americans too. Sometimes independence is just easier. Although, just today, I led an expedition to Fantastika, a large mall a little outside of the city center. My host sister, Anna, drew me a map this morning and wrote me up a list of bus numbers and after classes we were off! It was quite fun actually, especially since I didn’t get us lost. We all went shopping, and I bought two shirts and a cardigan/jacket/thing. And looked longingly at hundreds of shoes that were hundreds of dollars. No matter how adorable, I just can’t  justify spending a hundred dollars on a pair of heels. Even if they are fancy-shmancy Russian heels. I did spend almost three dollars at a place that translates at “World of Pizza” on a slice of Danish pizza (which tasted suspiciously like Hawaiian pizza with bologna) and “Super Lasagna” (which was basically cold lasagna with too many mushrooms (and that’s ridiculous because I love mushrooms)).

But I digress. It’s good to feel almost at home here, and it’s always the little things. Like going into a store and asking the lady behind the counter for a bottle of water and having her ask you if you want carbonated or non-carbonated. And understanding the question. Like having someone ask you for directions because they think you speak Russian, which means that you don’t look incredibly obviously like an American. Like knowing that cashiers always ask if you want a bag because it costs a tenth of a ruble. Like knowing what new foods you like (tvorog) and what new foods you don’t like (fish eggs. blech!). Maybe in the next few weeks I’ll get more of chance to go exploring around the city. There’s a candy store I’ve heard of that sells souvenirs, and a restaurant called “Broadway Pizza” that my host mother recommended to me (although I’m not sure if it’s because they sell good pizza or because I’m American and am bound to love a place called “Broadway”). Oh the possibilities!

Just for funsies, here’s two pictures of the mall I visited today.

Potted Pants

Potted Pants


Indoor Sunbathing

The Wishing Wall

This is the wishing wall. Actually, it’s a wall of the Leaning Tower of Kazan, the Söyembikä Tower. This tower is listed on Wikipedia’s page of “List of Leaning Towers” alongside the Leaning Tower of Piza. Our tour guide told us that there is a common belief in Kazan that those who place their hands on the tower and speak their wish to the wall will see it fulfilled. I can’t find anything on Google to support that claim, but I made a wish there, so I’m claiming it as my own wishful myth if nothing else.

It was a calming experience, a moment of peace that matched the spirit of the half-dozen cathedrals and mosques that we saw today. I only worry about two things: (1) I didn’t say my wish out loud, and speaking it aloud may have been part of the tradition. I thought it very clearly, but years of playground threats have somehow covered my wishes with silence. “If you tell anyone your wish, it will never come true!” I wonder where this idea got started, that sharing a dream makes it un-come-truable. Wouldn’t it be the opposite? Wouldn’t having a second mind seeing the same vision bring it that much closer to reality? But maybe sharing a wish makes it something more like a goal, which is much more tangible and less romantic and can never “come true” no matter how hard you try but can only be “achieved.” (2) I gave my wish a time limit for it to come true. The story of the wall says nothing about this, but wishing with a deadline in mind just seems like bad form in general. One shouldn’t presume to ask specifics from the already too generous but vaguely interpreting cosmos. The same hesitancy is also often said of praying, I think. But our mortals minds are bound by time, bound by the future more than we imagine. We plan, schedule, figure, reckon, guess, and mistake. I don’t know if that tendency to plan a wish coming true into my timetable should be chastised or not.

One last thought: this side of the wall forms an obtuse angle with the ground; the building is leaning away from us. The guide led us to this wall, and I didn’t get a chance to ask if it was just this wall where the wishing happened. And why this wall? Why press against the tower in the direction it’s already falling? I find more symbolism in the idea of holding the wall up, of the memory of a thousand hands somehow defying gravity and stone, especially since this tower has lasted for centuries. But maybe there’s something to be said for accepting time and gravity and all the inevitables. But then why do the people pressing offer up their irrational, weightless, wafting dreams, so far from the reach of gravity? I find it all very curious.