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.

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/ 

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.

The Realest Day on Earth

On a bone-biting, rainy day back in October, the millennium-old Elabuga received a new tag line that I have no doubt will go down in the annals of Russian history. No sooner did Nick, one of my fellow teachers, arrive in his future residence in Kazan than his hosts dragged him off for a weekend to a little town which turned out to be a hybrid of traditional Russian and Tatar soul and mysterious Slavic eccentricity. Nick told our Thanksgiving clan that as he hiked through the countryside in freezing rain, Elabuga made an unforgettable impression on him. Then and there, Nick christened Elabuga “the realest place on earth.”

Nick’s description of Elabuga has really stuck with me, because in just a few words, it describes the town’s effects better than I could in five pages of narrative. Something about this place, with its simultaneous raw intensity and idyllic quaintness, leaves an impression on you that you can barely describe in any other way than just “real.” If I seem vague, it’s because it’s a “realness” that can’t be described, but needs to be experienced (hint hint: I’d love to have visitors!). Since our get-together in Thanksgiving, our quasi-Tatarstan кружок (circle) has used Nick’s tag line to both humorously and seriously refer to any and everything that goes down in little old Elabuga… which brings me to last Tuesday, what I like to call the realest day on earth.

For the first time in my life, I went skiing.

I know what you’re thinking: “Did she end up in the hospital? Did she run over a babushka?” Well, my friends, I’m happy to say I didn’t do either, but I will say that quite a few babushkas actually showed me up with their skiing skills, and that I did have a few head-on encounters with the snow.

The adventure started when Ksyusha, a woman from the English club, invited me to go skiing on Russian Christmas (January 7th). Feeling a little stir-crazy and missing physical exercise, I quickly agreed. We went with a motley group of high-schoolers, college-age guys who were clearly very sportivniye, and a few thirty-something women. I started out a little wobbly, but was surprised that I didn’t fall right away. I actually did considerably the first half of the forest trek, since there were few steep hills that I had to go up; it was mostly little dips that even someone with my experience could handle. We reached красная гора (Red Mountain), which boasted a beautiful view of a frozen lake and miles of field.

Here we drank tea, ate hazelnut chocolate to give us an energy boost, and took a bunch of photos. The three Russian guys, who had been shy before, even began to warm up to me, one suggesting that they should all pose around me for a picture of “three bears and an American.”

It’s good they warmed up to me, because they basically had to carry me back to our starting point. It all began when I couldn’t get my skis on. Before I knew it, I had two good-looking Russian guys trying in vain to connect my big feet to the skis. After what seemed like five minutes, they finally succeeded in hooking my feet in, and we were off.

It was right about now that I started falling. A lot. And whereas before, I was with two girls from English club and could discretely pick myself up, now I had three guys behind me, simultaneously making me nervous with their presence and ready to pick me up every time I fell. There were three especially memorable moments from our trip back. First, two babushkas were skiing right toward me; I didn’t have the talent to turn away in time, and they barely missed me. Instead of ignoring it, one of the guys starts yelling at the babushkas, telling them “it’s not your road,” and “can’t you see she’s bad at this!” Thanks for the confidence boost, buddy.

Secondly, after struggling for five minutes to get up a hill (after falling on my face as the guys tried to pull me by my ski poles, and after being instructed by a middle-aged Russian man), this babushka flies right past me and conquers the hill as if it were nothing. If I learned one thing that day, it’s that you should not underestimate the babushka.

Finally, and perhaps most embarrassing, I found myself before an even larger hill that there was no way I could climb. This time, one of the guys had to hold my hand while the other skied both our weight and pulled me by my ski pole. The awkward “ride” seemed to go on for hours. Overall though, I had a great time, and the guys were good sports about helping me get through my first time on skis. They also gave me the benefit of the doubt, noting that the skis I had rented bore the number 13. And most importantly, I didn’t hurt myself before my long-awaited trip to the land of the Britons.

My knights in shining ski gear

After our skiing adventure, I stopped at the store for food (where the security guard now knows me and told me in English “good day!”), then met Hanna at the bus stop for a snow hike to the Devil’s Tower. The Devil’s Tower, or Чёртово Городище, is one of Elabuga’s claims to fame, a mysterious lookout surviving from Volga Bulgaria that is thought to date from the 12th century. Of course, most of the tower is a reconstruction, but if I’m not mistaken, it still has some of the stones from the original.

The view is breathtaking, and it is definitely a place I’m looking forward to frequenting once the weather gets a bit warmer.

Hanna and I made sure to bring the necessities for a snow-hike in the realest place on earth. TEA!!!

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.