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.


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.


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.”


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.




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


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


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





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



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.




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


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


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


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.


House 24Б, my home for nine months.


The metal door that is always unlocked,


the windowsill where I get my mail,


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


And I am home.

I am almost, almost home.

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.



Surprises and Karaoke and Lead Paint

The last month has been one of the fullest and most fun of my life. The two groups of fourth year students I taught last semester came back from student teaching at the end of March, and since then, I’ve been teaching 11 classes a week, which is the heaviest load I’ve had yet. Instead of feeling burdened though by the number of classes though, I’ve felt energized. I’m inspired daily by interactions with my (wonderful! bright! замечательные!) students, I’m gaining confidence as a teacher, and it’s becoming more and more clear that teaching ESL is the path that I want to pursue when I get back to the States. Anyway, here’s a bit of an update on the first month of spring in Tatarstan:

Birthday Surprise

I usually get really sad around my birthday. My mom says that even when I was a kid, like clockwork I would have a mini-existential crisis right around March 31, nostalgically reminiscing on the past year, knowing that once I added a new candle to the cake, I could never go back.This year was no different, in fact, it seemed a little worse, since for some reason, 23 seemed so much older and more concretely adult than 22. No more singing about breakfast at midnight and dressing up like a hipster, I would now be relegated to the ranks of the grown-up who was supposed to have just a little less fun than her 22 year old counterpart and was just that much closer to being an old maid. And dying. You get the idea. I expected to spend by birthday quietly, reflectively, writing about the weight and significance of the new role I would be walking into and analyzing the milestones of the year before, but thankfully for me, my students didn’t allow that.

When I walked into the kafedra(teacher’s office) that morning, I was greeted by enthusiastic congratulations from my colleagues, and was quickly asked, “have you seen the posters? They’re everywhere! Go look, there’s one on the door!” I left the kafedra and turned the corner to see this:





And that was only the beginning. I walked into my classroom to see all my students wearing birthday hats and to hear music playing. They told me that today I was their queen and they had a special ceremony for me. After I sat down on my throne (a chair covered in a pink tablecloth), and had donned a tiara, they began an intricately planned out surprise for me. One of the boys pretended to be a Spanish guitarist and brought me a bouquet of eleven light pink roses (not 12, because even-numbered flowers are considered bad luck), one girl dressed up like a gypsy and read my palm, telling me I would have seven children, one girl presented me a cake in traditional Tatar dress with another girl to interpret her Tatar speech, and finally, they took a student’s oath (to always prepare for class, to be kind to me), and I took a queen’s oath (to always be in a good mood and to not give too much homework). And as if that weren’t enough, they then gave me this mug with a picture of us on it:


It says “Пей сладкий чай, и про нас не забывай!”, or “Drink sweet tea, and don’t forget about us!” (It rhymes in Russian.)


And here they are!

One of the teachers who befriended me from the start, Lenara, also organized a surprise party for me in the kafedra, so right after class I walked into another birthday surprise. Along with tea, chocolate, and piroshki, she served goubadia, which is a Tatar pie filled with rice, raisins, eggs, sweet tvorog (curds), and butter. To an American, it sounds like a strange mixture, but its really growing on me.


Gubadia, Photo Credit: bahetle.com

Karaoke With the Americans

Singing karaoke has been on my bucket list for a while, and what better place to achieve this dream than in a bar on the outskirts of Elabuga with a handful of Americans scattered across the region? Hanna, the organizer, the planner, coordinated my American birthday party, inviting Steve from Samara and Nick from Kazan for the weekend.Image

A stealth shot of the crew coming up to Hanna’s apartment.


The first night, we stayed in Chelny and ate Hanna’s homemade banana bread and plombir, a Russian version of ice cream that is super delicious.

The next day we headed to Elabuga, where we made a pilgrimage to the Devil’s Tower and ate at a surprisingly scrumptious vegetarian cafe. Then we headed to Manhattan, Elabuga’s bowling alley/cafe/entertainment complex, where we had reserved a table in the karaoke bar.

It was awesome.

I think I’m addicted.

I sang “Такого как Путин” with Hanna, translated in English as “A Man Like Putin,” in which a girl lauds Putin’s manly qualities and insists that she needs a man just like him. How’s that for international diplomacy? Steve and I sang Taylor Swift’s “Trouble,” and Nick showed his rapping skills with some Jeezy and 50 Cent.


From left to right: Steve’s arm, Nick, me


Lead Paint 

My birthday was amazing, and in a few short weeks, spring has finally sprung. There is little snow to be seen, and the temperature averages about 55 degrees. But it is Russia, so in the midst of this idyllic blooming, there has to be some kind of health threat to make things interesting, right? On Monday, I walked into the university to be assaulted by the sharp, headache-inducing odor of the whole building being ripped apart. At least that’s what it looked like.




The fumes from the renovations made almost everyone in the university feel sick to varying degrees. I only got a headache, but some students felt so bad they didn’t attend class. Late in the morning all the students were allowed to go home. The next day, however, class resumed as normal with only a slight lessening of the fumes that I am 90% sure are filling our lungs with particles of toxic lead paint. The stairs are powdered with paint, and teachers and students have continued to feel sick.



On day three of the renovations, I began to become seriously concerned about the effects of long-term exposure to the fumes, so I decided to hold my classes outside. None of my students had ever had class outside before, so at first I think it seemed strange to them, but it seemed to catch on alright.Image

Fourth year students from the Department of Foreign Languages


Fourth year students from the Department of Tatar Language and Literature

This week I found out the the Russian word for gazebo is беседка, which has the same root as беседа, the Russian for conversation. A loose translate would be “little place to talk.” And it’s true, conversation classes work really well in this little circle where we can all see each other and easily interact. In many ways, I actually like having class in the gazebo more than in a traditional classroom, and I hope my students feel the same way. It doesn’t look like the noxious renovations will be over anytime soon, and since I want to avoid damaging both my students’ and my health, until further notice, the gazebo, the беседка, will be our classroom!



Dead Poets Society, Russian Style

Before the semester started, I was told that I could teach one course on anything I wanted to. Although the possibility to teach “anything” seems nice at first glance, the vagueness really wasn’t helpful in narrowing down ideas, and I was glad to get advice from other teachers during our Moscow conference on what topic might be a winner. My fellow Fulbrighter Stephen gave me the great idea of modeling my class after The Dead Poets Society, a thought-provoking film in which a teacher played by Robin Williams inspires his students to push past rigid analysis to find the heartbeat of literature while encouraging them to question convention and think for themselves. The film gets its name from an old school tradition that the students resurrect in which they sneak off to a cave in the woods to read poetry.

The class has been both exciting and challenging for me as a teacher. Each week, we read either a short story or poem that is connected to a broad theme, such as “Suffering” with W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” then discuss the piece of literature, its themes, and its implications for our lives. I have really been impressed by this group of students’ desire to discuss these big issues and their ability to express complex thought in a second, or for many who speak Tatar, a third language. My fifth year students are about my age and for the most part have read more American literature than I have, which was intimidating at first, but I have to remind myself that a good teacher should have the attitude of a learner, and I really have learned so much from my students 🙂

The second Americano cameo in this post goes to my beloved neighbor in Naberezhniye Chelny, Hanna, who gave me the idea of hosting a poetry reading at my dorm, which totally fits into this Dead Poets Society frame. I haven’t had students over before, because I don’t have a kitchen or really very many chairs, but, excuses, excuses…how could I not do this? It was the best idea ever.

So, I invited my students over for banana-chocolate chip pancakes fried on my hot plate (which were devoured in minutes) and asked them to each bring a poem, in Russian, English, or Tatar, that they would like to share with the group.

First, a few girls shared some spoken word poetry by Neil Hilborn from the Button Poetry Project, which I had never heard of. It made me want to try my hand at some spoken word.

Most people drank tea out of glasses or used jam jars because I only own 3 mugs.

Next, students shared their favorite Russian poetry, both classic and modern. Some were familiar to me, like Pasternak, Yesenin and Brodsky, but I learned of some new poets such as Severyanin and Poloskova. Although my conversational Russian is pretty good, it was really hard to catch the meaning of most of the Russian poems that were read. One of my students shared some poetry that she had written, and I also shared a few of my poems.

My favorite one of the night was a piece by Boris Pasternak called “February,” which makes an appearance in a few lines of one of my favorite Regina Spektor songs “Apres Moi.” The first verse of the poem has been the perfect soundtrack to the slushy, wet introduction to the Russian spring.

Here is the first verse with a translation:

Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать! 
Писать о феврале навзрыд, 
Пока грохочащая слякоть 
Весною черною горит. 

February. Get ink, shed tears. 
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing, 
While torrential slush that roars 
Burns in the blackness of the spring. (http://www.kulichki.com/poems/Poets/bp/Rus/bp_3.html)

Sveta and her jam-jar mug.

Прекрасный вечер с прекрасными людьми 🙂



Spring’s Not Green Here, But…

Spring’s not green here, but for now, the melting will do.

And though some might consider the in-between a muddy mess, littered, mushy,

I’ll compare it to Oreo pie, confettied, since it means that green exists,

I’ve walked
and walked
in steps of fear

and today is the 3 month mark,


June is closer than I ever thought possible,
haven’t I always lived here?


Haven’t I always lived here, or is time just not as linear as I thought?