A Few Things Off My Bucket List

Before I left for Russia in September, I created a short Fulbright Bucket List, in which I brainstormed things I wanted to do before I left Russia. These past two weeks, I have been able to check quite a few items off my list. Here’s a short chronicle of items on my bucket list I’ve conquered so far:

Item #4: Ice-skating without landing myself in a hospital, or worse, finding myself at the hands of a dramatic Russian dentist named Konstantine. Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a year know that last summer while studying in Vladimir, Russia, I was introduced to the Russian medical system after splitting my chin while ice skating. Ever since my fall, I have been nervous about skating again, so I determined to face my fear and make it through at least one round of skating unharmed.  When my friend Elmira and I first set foot on the ice, I was wobbly and stiff, memories of my chin slamming into the ice closer than they had been in over a year. But after about 10 minutes of holding onto the bar, I gingerly started to make my way around the circle, and after about 10 minutes of this, I felt confident enough to have a conversation while skating. Unfortunately, the site won’t let me upload the video Elmira took of me skating, but here is a picture of us after the fact:

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Item #10: Write a poem in Russian

I love poetry, and I have found it fun to play around with it in Russian, even though I probably don’t have a strong enough grasp on word nuances and connotations to be confident that I am saying what I want to say. The first time I attempted poetry in Russian was at the age of 14 in my beginner’s Russian class, where I wrote a sad poem about not getting noticed by the boy I liked (Увидеть меня ещё нельзя). Since then, I haven’t really worked at anything serious, and the last one I wrote was a parody of an Anna Akhmatova poem for one of my friends, which chronicles our memories in Vladimir. Right now, I am teaching a creative writing course at the university, and I had my students write a poem in English. Since writing poetry is especially intimidating in another language, I promised them that if they did the assignment, then I would write a poem in Russian. I decided to write a few lighthearted verses on the torture that is Russian pronunciation, since I needed some catharsis for the frustration that comes with each Russian lesson. As the Russians would say, the poem is “ещё сырое,” or still a draft, but if you read Russian, feel free to read my work in progress:

Русское Произношение

Вы знаете, мои друзья

Какой у вас язык богат

Но знайте, также, ваш язык

Причиняет мне страдать

Русское произношение-

Жестокое мучение

Мягкий ль язык не любит,

Мягкий ть он ненавидеть.

Особенно по магазинам

Когда продавцам я обращаюсь

Язык тормозит, чувствую страх

И, вот, опять, я заикаюсь.

Поэтому, я каждый день,

Когда по улице хожу

Скороговорки глупые

Я повторяю, повторяю.

Однажды я надеюсь говорить без трудностей

без проблем произносить и ни, и ти, и ли,

Но сегодня надо ждать вопрос:

“Девушка, откуда вы!?”

Item #13: Travel to a city I’ve never been to before.

This past weekend, I was so excited to be able to visit my fellow Fulbrighter Hanna, who lives in the neighboring city of Naberezhniye Chelny (try to say that five times fast). Although geographically Elabuga and N. Chelny are close (45 minutes on the bus 🙂 ), each city has a very different culture, due to the fact that whereas Elabuga is pretty much ancient, N. Chelny was built around 60 years ago when the Kamaz car plant was built. N. Chelny has less aesthetic charm than Elabuga due to both its short history and the reasons for which it was built, but despite the lack of apparent beauty, it felt great to be in a larger city again.

The best part about the weekend though, of course had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with who I spent it with. Can I just say that it was a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with another American, to have deep conversations about anything and everything without having to modify our speech, to share stories and find commonalities in our experiences, and perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to share the moment when we saw this Halloween costume of one of Hanna’s students:

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I definitely decided to come on a good weekend, since Hanna was hosting a Halloween party for her students. They spoke excellent English, and we had a wonderful evening eating, toasting each other, playing mafia, and watching a “horror” movie that was hard not to laugh through.

Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn't have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil's horns.
Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn’t have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil’s horns.

Here is a picture of the spread of cakes, pies, and salads that the students treated us to:

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…which brings me to the next thing on my list.

Item# 6: try one of the foods I have avoided thus far while in Russia

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This, my friends, is known as “Herring Under Fur Coat.” This dish is a mouth-boggling layered salad of herring and onion, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and beets. I have nothing against beets, or eggs, or potatoes, but I feel that just about anything is ruined if you add salty fish with crunchy onions. I also don’t hate mayonnaise, but everything in moderation, right? And by the pink glow of the salad, you can tell that moderation was the last thing from this salad maker’s mind. I came, I ate, and I will do my best to never do such a thing again.

I also forced myself to try one of these, but I couldn’t finish it:

Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.
Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.

Note: my goal is not to bash Russian food, since as a whole, I actually prefer Russian food to American. I love the dairy products here, the breads, the cakes and most of the salads, but I still have yet to understand the Russian obsession with both fish and mayonnaise. And of course, one of my favorite aspects of Russian meals is the absolute necessity of tea. Here is a picture of a beautiful pot of tea Hanna and I ordered while we snagged internet at a local cafe.

"Огородны чай," tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.
“Огородны чай,” tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.

Now that I’m back in Elabuga, I already miss Hanna, but there will be certainly more visits to come, since the bus only takes 45 minutes from her stop to my stop! Let the adventures continue.

Russian Barbecue (Шашлык)!

It’s about time for this blog post. I mean, Russians aren’t usually known for their cuisine. They sit around eating borsch, black bread, and caviar on a good day, right? Wrong! This week, I want to shatter the stereotype that Russian food does not taste good. In fact, although I may sound like I traitor to my beloved America, let me tell you a secret: I like Russian food better than American food! Yep, I said it. Russian food (to me) is not only tastier, but perhaps healthier too. Healthier, relatively speaking, that is. One of the things that I appreciate about Russian food is that everything is virtually organic. Meat, fruits, vegetables, and my favorite, dairy, are extremely fresh and are rarely processed. However, Russians have a predilection for adding heaps of fat to anything that would otherwise be considered healthy. Cabbage soup? Ladle some sour cream in! Cucumber and tomato salad? Here’s a gallon of mayonnaise! Couple that with a host mom who is the epitome of Russian gosteprimstvo (hospitality) and you have a recipe for a thirty pound weight gain! In fact, I have never seen anything in America that compares to this Russian brand of  hospitality, that at first, felt like a force feeding. The first week in Vladimir I became used to the questions (after I had eaten a Michael Phelps size meal) “Nadia, why aren’t you eating the candy I bought?” “Why aren’t you eating [insert food]? And my personal favorite, “You can keep your figure in America; here, YOU EAT!”   But although I sometimes complain about the amount and type of foods that I’m fed, in reality, I am loving every minute of it! I mean, since when have I ever had an excuse to eat sour cream by the spoonful? (Yes, I already know two of you who have excused yourself to go throw up after reading that sentence, and yes, that was hyperbole, I haven’t gone there….yet ;).
Anyway, over the next week or so, I want to introduce you all to the delectable Russian food that I have been enjoying this past month.  Here I go- Food #1: Shashlik
Shashlik is more than a food, it is a cultural experience. In the summer, Russians love to spend the day in the countryside cooking finely spiced meat kebabs over a fire. When explaining it to Americans, Russians usually call it a barbeque. Anyway, I got to experience the Russian shashlik experience with my Russian language partner, Alyona, her two friends, and my two American friends Jesse and Cody. We set out to the beautiful Russian countryside around noon with tomatoes, cucumbers, and enough meat to live on for a week. When we got there, we had to overcome a few barriers, as Russian men are the ones who traditionally prepare the shashlik, and Alyona and her friends had never done it before. But with the help of the Jesse and Cody, we finally got the fire started and the meat cooking. And it was delicious! Here are a few more pics of our feast:
This picture doesn’t have anything to do with Shashlik, but I couldn’t resist! We saw this babushka throughout the day leading her goats around the countryside.
I hope this post has at least started to shatter any stereotypes you might have about Russian food. Next up: Breakfast!