Friday, March 15, 2013

A Reflection on Our Final Goodbyes

After having been back in the states for several days now and getting back into the groove of things and finishing up my last days of college, I have been thinking a lot back to our final goodbyes with those in the Vytegra community. I am recollecting how we were inundated with hugs, handshakes and smiles from our friends from school no. 2 and our program partners. I found it incredible that such a strong bond could have been made with people who hardly speak the same language as us, and I know from this experience that love and friendship truly have no boundaries. I found these lengthened goodbyes so heartfelt and genuine, and it made me sad that people don’t behave that way in the United States when saying their final goodbyes to others without it being superficial. I could see just from how long they took to part from us how much our presence means to them. I can tell our visit to Vytegra is that one disruption a year in their tiny, provincial town life that they must look forward to very much. 

What I am looking most forward to now is keeping in touch with my new Russian friends, and perhaps even getting their addresses so I can send them letters (I have always thought that writing letters was a much more, traditional, old-fashioned, and more meaningful means of communication than simply email or using social media). I have already begun to talk to some of my new friends, and perhaps now I have a bit more time to get to know their desires, their opinions, and their plans after high school to understand what they want out of life. I think what I’ll come to find is my new Russian friends will most likely want what I want: a stable future, a close group of friends that can be trusted and confided in, and a place that feels like home. I am so happy that I was able to connect with this group of people, and I can say that I have become even more motivated to learn Russian so that I can communicate with them even further. I think my realizing that my Russian friends and I most likely want the same things out of life holds a very important implication: no matter how interconnected the world becomes, no matter how much Russia advances or becomes modernized, and no matter how quickly the Russian Heartland might wither away one day …the people that I met are always going to want the same things. And at that, those things are always simple things. Not fancy cars, flashy clothes or Ipads. Not anything material. Despite their community being so underfunded, they never once asked us for anything, in fact they showered US with gifts. All they wanted from us is friendship and good memories to last them, which is exactly what I think they received. And it’s what I wanted and received as well.  

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

here is the video of the singing at the monastery that I promised forever ago... watch it on YouTube for 1080p HD. enjoy!

Our trip to the villages surrounding Vytegra gave us a view of the Russian Heartland I think we were all expecting. Here you could clearly see the paradigms of stagnation, isolation, and timelessness. The dilapidated wooden houses, the cold landscape of almost pure white, and the overall lack of people echoed everything I had pictured about the Russian Heartland prior to our trip. 

That being said, I think I speak for everyone in the group when I say that our excursion to the villages was incredibly enjoyable and satisfying. First of all, we got to ride on a one-horse open sleigh through the village. This was a very COLD experience, but I still felt like laughing all the way. Even Mallory got over her fear of horses and joined us (see photo below). We also were joined by some friendly dogs who enjoyed chasing our sleigh and every car that happened to pass on the road, which was not a large number. After our sleigh ride we got a tour of the local library, which had a small exhibit of antiques and traditional artifacts from the area. The library was very small, but you could tell that it was very valuable to the locals. Finally, we had a delicious tea in the company of a couple beautiful бабушки (babuushkas, for those who don't speak Russian). The cooked us delicious блини (blini), which are like Russia's version of crepes, and other delicious pastries with homemade jam. I don't think I could've eaten any more than I did, but just writing about it makes me hungry again. The babuuskas were incredibly nice and lively, and it was obvious that they enjoyed our company overwhelmingly. Its no secret that they don't get many foreign guests to entertain. They were brought to tears when it was time for us to leave, which became no easy task. I could have sat and had two or three more cups of tea from the Russian samovar and attempted to eat more blini, but we were on a schedule of course. 

All in all, I loved our trip to the villages. It gave us a first-hand look at what life is like for the locals. I was pleasantly surprised that in such a cold, harsh environment like a northern Russian village we were still able to find so much warmth. 

Rural Russia

If you are looking for authentic cuisine, regional arts and crafts and traditional Russian hospitality, you will never find it in St. Petersburg or Moscow. Only in small villages like Makachova will you be welcomed into a peasant’s house by the babushkas to enjoy tea straight from a samovar along with traditional Russian pancakes, pastries and piroshky and be given to eat until you can have no more. In short, a visitor to the heartland becomes a member of the family when he is seated at the dining table
            Despite the challenges and the lack of resources, the Russian heartland continues to produce talent. When we visited the babushkas in Makachova, we met a little girl who attends the village school. Her name was Olesei I believe and she was no older than 6 years of age. She had just begun her first year of English classes. Alina was showing her cards with simple English phrases on them. Olesei not only pronounced the phrases in almost perfect English, but she was able to learn and to recite them quickly. When I asked her to count up to ten in English, she was able to do so with confidence. It is people like Olesei in my opinion that will determine the fate of the heartland.
            And lastly, another important moment for me was when we together with the Russians recited poetry in front of the village school administration as we celebrated the 8th of March or international women’s day. Before that, Jake and I had stayed behind with the 11th grade Russian teacher and her class. I remember she asked me whether I thought Russian was hard to learn, to which I replied: русский язык сложный но красивый or Russian is a complex language but a beautiful one. After our poetry recital, the teacher replied that although English was a complicated tongue, it too was nevertheless deep and rich in meaning like Russian. It was amazing that even though perhaps we could hardly understand the words, the mere rhythm and rhyme of the poems were enough to touch the strings of our hearts and unite us at deeper level. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Departing Thoughts from Russia

I knew it would be difficult leaving Russia before I had even arrived in Vytegra. At a stop at a cafe on the trip there, I walked around a nearby dilapidated building out of curiosity and to clear my head; the thoughts I expressed then showed how and to what extent being in a completely new environment had affected me. I felt an undeniable connection to this place, whether it was the surrounding forests that evoked nostalgic images of my home, Northern Michigan, my ancestral roots in Eastern Europe, the mini-course I had taken in preparation for the trip, or all of these working and interacting with each other. The fact that I could recognize this so early in the trip only foreshadowed the degree to which the rest of my experience in Russia would transform me.

Alexander-Svirsky Monastery

During the first half of the ASB trip, I was an empty cultural vessel, being filled up continuously with novel experiences including exotic sights, interesting interactions with Russians, and in a literal sense with all of the delicious food. The reflection sessions and blog posts could only begin to arrange, combine, and unfold my deeper feelings about what I was going through, and fortunately allowed me to do so at least to an extent. Only until the last few days did I actually begin to truly look introspectively to see if the Adam that went into the trip was the same Adam that came out. If anything is evident from my writings and pictures, the answer to that question is evident: a different Adam emerged. I was forced to not only confront how I dealt with new experiences, but also how to reconcile them with the person that I was, which was not always easy, and sometimes came with great difficulty. Out of this came the idea that no matter where our lives takes us, we always carry our own personalities, beliefs, and attitudes that guide how we go about new situations, which is something that should not be forsaken, but recognized and confronted to get the most out of your personal experience. Once I came to this conclusion, I was able to appraise the rest of my Russia trip in a more holistic way, seeing where I may have done things differently and what I really did appreciate.

Russia managed to extract from me what no other experience has thus far, and that is something I will always carry with me. It really is a place of purity, elegance, beauty, and truth, and I may never again find a place with all of these qualities in such great proportions. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Russian hospitality

I have never felt so welcomed anywhere in my entire life as I did in provincial Russia. The hospitality our entire group was met with was almost overwhelming and entirely unlike anything that I think could be found in the United States. The people we volunteered for, the students, and the villagers we met were always excited to see us and went out of their way to make us comfortable. While we did not get a long time to interact with the students we met in Vytegra, they left a lasting impression on me. On only our second meeting, they hugged each of us individually in greeting and to say goodbye. Our final goodbye on the last night was difficult for everyone and there were many promises of visiting each other, and while we really barely knew each other it still seemed fitting. Despite the fact that our sphere of communication was limited to the small overlap where our Russian and their English met, it was not necessary to know every single word we might want to say in order to make personal connections. We had a snowball fight with them on our first night, which was a fun bonding experience that required essentially no words at all.
We were presented with gifts from nearly everyone we met, which we had been told before the trip that this was something to expect, but I was still surprised by how often it actually happened. Nearly everyone we met, from students to the hotel to the town administration had some sort of gift for our group. They had even planned ahead of time to help celebrate Women’s Day on the 8th of March for all the women in our group, and we all got scarves, chocolate, and flowers (the picture below is of me holding my flowers at our Women's Day celebration). Even the smallest of gifts that I was given touched me because it was obvious that these people cared and had been looking forward to our arrival for a long time and wanted to make our visit as wonderful as possible. This trip has left a lasting impression on me of the genuine hospitality of the Russian people.

Overcoming the language barrier

Some people feel satisfied with their knowledge when they solve a particularly difficult math problem, and others when they write a good paper. For me, there is no feeling quite as rewarding academic-wise as overcoming a language barrier. My passion for languages and specifically for Russian serves me well in this country, especially in the heartland because hardly anyone here speaks good English. Volunteering in the local museum in Vytegra has been an incredibly rewarding experience because of how challenging it has been. On our second day of volunteering, we were sent to the museum without a translator and had to figure it out ourselves, otherwise we would not have been able to do what was needed. This pushed me to come out of my comfort zone of only using simple phrases that I knew were correct in order to communicate with the woman for whom I was working. Even though I was self-conscious of making mistakes when speaking, I had no choice but to try. This type of challenge is the only way to really learn a foreign language, and I’m glad that I got the opportunity to have to push myself by being forced to figure it out.

Hanging out with some of the local high school-age kids is also helping to improve my Russian skills and learn more about Russian culture at the same time. While they do all study English in school, they prefer to speak Russian with us when not in class, and are always willing and eager to help us get our point across. The most rewarding part of overcoming our difficulties with communication was that even though our conversations consisted of cobbling together my limited Russian with a few English words and certainly not a whole lot of grammatically correct speaking, we still became friends.