|Jeannie Ferber's Adventures in Vladimir|
|Written by Jeannie Ferber, Summer,2003|
Jeannie Ferber of New Hampshire, co-author of "Make a hole in the Fence", (available at www.peacefleece.com) is now in Russia at language school in the ancient city of Vladimir.
Gilman's Corner June 9, 2003
The journey now begins, but not the story. The story began eight winters ago. I spent that winter sitting nights in the garret of a far-off New England home reading a history of Russia. The snow storms that year filled the fields and blanketed the homes as the chapters raced on. By the end of winter, the storms of the dramatic tome had also run their course, and out of it all no story or character stood out more than Vladimir of Rus (1053-1125). It was one of those stories that so reach beyond the ordinary that you find yourself making a note of it, or copying it verbatim -- apparently for no other reason than the intuition that those things that transcend the ordinary are reassuring to something deep inside us and will be needed again. And so I wrote down the following in a diary where occasionally over the years it would come to light to captivate my attention once again:
Vladimir was the grandson of Yaroslav the Wise, whose vast kingdom was said to have attained the heights of civilization. Under Yaroslav the Wise, Russia was a land where peace reigned, the arts thrived, and the poor were cared for in some of the first known public welfare programs. It was a land where neither capital nor corporeal punishment was practiced. Yaroslav's grandson Vladimir became the last of the great ancient princes, establishing his capital in the north and leaving to his sons not his wealth -- but his wisdom. In his last will and testament he wrote:
"Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. . . . Without fear do a man's work, my sons, as God sets it before you. If I suffered no ill from war, from wild beasts, from flood, or from falling from my horse, then surely none can harm you . . . the protection of God is fairer than the protection of man." It is said that what was really destroyed when Batu Kahn and the Golden Horde (the Tatars) sacked the ancient capital, and for two long centuries ruled the land, were the chivalrous values that had once marked its promise.
Now eight years after the words were scrawled in a small cloth diary, I find myself leaving for the ancient city of Vladimir which will be my home for next two months as I study Russian language, literature, and history at the Center for Russian Studies at the University of Vladimir. This unimaginable opportunity came about thanks to the kindness of both Bryn Mawr College and The American Councils of International Education. But nothing in our work happens without the incredible friends who help us. The few clothes I've packed are stealing precious space from all their gifts that have once again filled my suitcase. I'll go with a dozen pair of handmade mittens as well as a handmade quilt, children's toys and picture books, small photo albums and music cassettes. These are the things that become the heart and soul of each journey and make each journey anything but the story of one person. If I could find a way to write and do away with the word "I," I would gladly do it. But there it is again, and since it would make for painfully labored prose otherwise, we'll have to put up with it. Still, I go off knowing that I wouldn't be going without the help and support of many, many gentle, kind souls.
And now, as Russians say, "I wait with impatience" the days ahead. -JF
Vladimir, Russia June 20, 2003
It is a long way from the garret of the small cape in a woods in northern New Hampshire where I began this diary just one week ago to the flat in which I sit and write these words. We journeyed some 7000 miles over the course of 28 hours to our distination of Vladimir, where we will study Russian language, history and literature for the next 2 months. We are 10 -- 5 men and 5 women. Our classes will consist of 2 groups of 3 students each and 1 group of four students. Our teachers, 5 in number, have already proven to be astonishingly talented and dedicated. There will be more on them and our class work in the next letter.
Now you must know what it is like to live in Vladimir. People have been meeting at its Golden Gates for more than 1000 years. The colors that fill the streets are uniquely Russian: deep yellows, deep peaches, and a shade of blue that is almost impossible to describe, but unforgettable once you've seen it. It is said that you cannot really understand or know Russia until you can "feel" its music, art, literature and soul. And here all four are concentrated with wonderful intensity and beauty. Off the main road, Bolshoi Moskovskaya, the small back streets twist and turn, rise and fall gently over the land. The wooden houses slope accordingly and obligingly as if they would blow over in a strong wind. Yet, they are as calm and stable as plump, kindly babushki (grandmothers) wearing their patterned aprons and little lace collars. Accordingly, the "wooden lace" that adorns the windows and doorways and rooftops (edges) give each home a "face" of its own. Yes, the faces are worn and weathered -- but there is no shame in that -- only wisdom and experience. The windows, of course, are filled with plants, perched cats, and jars of pickles and jams.
I live about a mile from the Language Institute -- a pleasant walk which begins by descending 3 flights of stairs (ours is a small, old apartment building), walking through a tree filled courtyard and out to a main road which you follow until the low apartment buildings turn once again into clusters of old wooden homes. Then a footpath turns to the right, down a hill, through a small patch of woods and up a hill on the top of which sits the Institute. The hillside has stone steps built into the side of it (98 to be exact) and the entrance of the school has 15 more. My classes are on the 3rd floor of the school in room #308 -- or a total of 233 (staircase) steps door to door.
In other words, after a long day at school it is, fortunately, a downhill walk home (about a mile in total) until I reach the 3 flights of stairs that take me up to flat #24. Number 24 is glorious to be sure and impossible to describe in that everything deserves to be described at once. When the door opens each day after school, it is opened by both my Russian babushka (grandmother) and dedushka (grandfather) as I will refer to them in this diary. They stand side by side with beaming, welcoming smiles. You could not know two more dear, kindly people. At their feet sit the kitten, Koti, his older half-brother, Chornichki, and the wise long-haired "senior statesman" Karl Marx, or Max for short. This routine happens everyday; and everyday, as cats do everywhere, they begin to investigate my parcels: the sack filled with fresh bread, fruit and eggs from the market; my increasingly heavy book bag, and most off all, they wait to see if I've brought home a small bottle of water. If that is the case, they wait impatiently for me to finish it so that they may play with the cap. We live in two rooms, each with its own little plant filled balcony (which more accurately should be described as a small green house.) The rooms are separated by an entrance way at the end of which is the small colorful kitchen which deserves a chapter of its own in this diary.
Every room except the kitchen holds floor to ceiling bookshelves, each of which hold more books than they were designed to hold, stuffed this way and that as are all bookshelves that are greatly used! The books in the flat are more than 5000. Already my babushka and dedushka have stacked the small writing table where I work each night with books that are specifically needful for me: histories of Russia, a massive, magnificent dictionary, and endless literature books. I couldn't possible survive my classes without being able to pour over these at night.
Where there are not bookshelves, each vacant space holds a painting, hung gallery style (one on top of another), with the exception that here at home each painting hangs slightly crooked as befits such a lived-in home. The old chairs are draped with wonderful faded fabrics, none of which go together which makes the rooms even more delightful. Each room has a divan, the back of which folds down to become a bed. I sleep with the kitten (after all, it was his bed first) and wake surrounded by books and to a room filled with light from the green house balcony. That is, now it is light 22 out of 24 hours. That, for me, only adds to the magic of Russia.
Vladimir, Russia June 22, 2003
Our classrooms are sparse, but far from dull. The lower half of the walls are a soft shade of blue and the upper a soft white. With the exception of the blackboard that fills the front wall of the room, the walls remain as if just freshly painted -- that is, with nothing on them. Only 3 of the 30 wooden desks in room #307 are occupied each day. Here Carrie, Jason and I are under the close supervision (emphasis on close) of Larissa Victorovna, our primary instructor. To speak to her (or to any of our instructors) we raise our hands, address her by her first name and patrionomic (her father's first name), say the formal form of "please" followed by our question. The formality is a form of respect but it is always returned by great warmth and caring. In short, our teachers have won both our hearts and our respect.
We begin promptly at 9:00 am. Each day we have 2 hours of grammar and 2 hours of reading (both analysis and reading aloud). Then the last class of the day rotates Monday thru Friday between history, literature, phonetics, Russian culture, and finally journalism (the current press). We have a 10 minute break for tea each morning collecting around small tables in a room on the first floor where you pay 2 rubles (about 3 cents) for a cup of tea with sugar, or 1 ruble for a cup without. It is drawn from a huge old brass samovar in the middle of the room. Before our last class in the afternoon we go to yet another room on the first floor where we get our dinner. (Russians eat their main meal in the early afternoon.)
Classes are held Monday thru Thursday at the Institute, with Friday being a "field day" with classes at museums and historic sites. That day our total group of 10 students study together. The students couldn't be more wonderful. We have a close, caring relationship with one another, which is both special and fortunate. (As I write it is about 11 pm Sunday evening. I'm sitting in my room amongst all these glorious bookshelves overstuffed with scientific tomes as well as Pasternak and Pushkin. Suddenly I realized I was hearing something strangely familiar. Only slowly however, I realize what it is. Babushka and Dedushka (Grandmother and Grandfather) are sitting together in the kitchen listening to their bright red radio, vintage late 1950s. Frank Sinatra is crooning some old love song. They are probably holding hands.)
Our teachers are astonishingly talented, not to mention dedicated. Teaching has almost a "religious" dimension or depth to it, so reverenced is learning here. As a result, you feel hugely motivated to study. It is a pity you were not here last Thursday for our literature class. We are diving into portion's of Pushkin's classic "Eugene Onegin". The teacher read it to us as if she were performing on stage. We then struggled to imitate her, alternating between reading the text and responding to questions about its meaning. Then she played a portion of the opera so we could hear the words sung -- a brilliant way for us to feel even more of its meaning.
It was only in the kitchen this morning, however, that the verses truly came alive. We sat around the table for nearly 2 hours reading it aloud and Grandfather's face glowed the whole time like a young boy's as he delighted in the poem's beauty. As he read the last lines, his voice fell to a poignant whisper and Grandmother and I hung on every word. Poorly translated the sense of it is --
"How sadly to me comes your appearing Spring, yes Spring -- the time of love. Everything that rejoices in love Everything that exults and shines Has become to me languor and strife. Long since my soul has passed away But will EVERYTHING to it seem dull and gray?
In the open question of the last line a deeply Russian sense comes through that in life the soul is everything and despite everything there is something in us that will not consent to utter darkness. It is now almost midnight (I write at home in a diary and then visit an internet cafe to send the diary). Grandmother has gone to bed, but Grandfather sits in the kitchen alone listening to a deeply moving symphony.
Vladimir, RussiaJune 26, 2003
It cannot be said that Russians do not have a sense of humor. For example. Yesterday we ended our reading class with an excerpt from a scientific journal. It was about the importance of laughter to your health. Laughter, apparently, not only exercises your facial muscles and increases your intake of oxygen but, according to the report, it makes your head happy. And, of course, there's nothing like a happy head filled with air. However, the true humor of all this might not be readily apparent to you if you've never had the opportunity to conjugate numerals in Russian.
That is, following this scientifical revelation, Tatyana Mikhailovna then quickly commenced a two hour class on conjugating ordinal and cardinal numbers in all their uses and forms -- otherwise known as an exercise in pure frustration. The medicinal value of pure frustration, however, was not discussed in this class, though to ease our pain Tatyana Mikhailovna encouragingly remarked that even President Putin relies upon his speech writers to write out the actual conjugated words (for the numbers) in his speeches, rather than the numerals themselves so that he does not make an absolute fool of himself before the Duma. We, unfortunately, have no such speech writers.
One student, however, particularly deft at math (if not in speech writing) figured out during the class that there are at least 63 different ways to conjugate numbers depending on their use and combination. Reading his note secreted to me under our desks, and not being mathematically inclined, I sat wondering, instead, (if the truth were known) if even Russians can speak Russian fluently? But then again, how are any of us to know?
Tatyana Mikhailovna then proceeded to ask us various questions of practical worth, employing the use of numerals: "Jason, please tell us at what trolly bus stop you get off, at what stall you buy cabbage, and how many babushki (grandmothers) it takes to run a rinok (an outdoor market)?"
Jason, being the smartest in the class answered unflinchingly, "I travel 4 stops and get off at the 5th. On Mondays and Wednesdays you can buy cabbage at the 3rd stall on the left providing it's not raining. Before the 1990s (here Jason was trying to impress us, because in Russian you say, in the one thousand nine hundred ninties) babushki were not allowed to run the markets. However, today as few as two babushki can run any market providing they are wearing large aprons with large pockets and have brought their kerchiefs with them." (Their approns are to carry all the vegetables to the market, the kerchiefs to wrap their rubles in, and their pockets to keep their earnings safe. That is, unlike Russian banks, the pockets of babushki have no holes.)
Then, that which I greatly feared came upon me. Tatyana Mikhailovna turned to me and asked in what apartment I live and how many flights of stairs I ascend and descend to and from the apartment. This may not seem like a terribly difficult question to you, however, living in flat #24 is an altogether different matter, for to say "4" in the prepositional case requires making a sound that at first resembles a fog horn on an ocean going vessel and ends with a sound similar to what one makes when you stub your toe. Furthermore, while I happen to ascend the same number of steps to the apartment as I descend each day, in Russia you ascend in the prepositional case and descend in the genative. This makes descending all the more difficult as the genative case is the more complex.
As I pondered my predicament, feeling somewhat poorly at that moment (it had been a long day already), I drew upon the scientific research of Russian doctors of humor (PhD) and said, "As to which apartment I live in, I live in a very beautiful apartment and reach my room by climbing the oak tree beneath my balcony window."
Tatyana Mikhailovna then greatly exercised her facial muscles and dismissed us for dinner, after which our heads were once again happy and our stomachs full.
Vladimir, Russia July 1, 2003
If you were to walk down these streets with me, or even through the market -- my favorite place besides flat 24 where I just discovered a 40 volume set of Tolstoy on the upper shelf this morning; if you were to go into the shops and buildings, or sit here in the kitchen with me as I write, I cannot guarantee that you would like it. Many come here and leave disappointed. So I will try to explain why Russia doesn't disappoint me.
The streets filled with funny old cars and trucks don't disappoint me. They remind me instead of humorous old Russian movies and have a "merry" air to them, as they say here. The kitchens filled with old refrigerators, vintage radios, and tables covered with plactic plaid coverlets don't disappoint me either. There is a spirit about these kitchens that can revive even the most hardened soul.
It is not a case of trying to "politely appreciate" apartments decorated in 21 shades of brown, or to politely "look past" the rundown buildings. Rather, they say very little about life. They virtually matter not at all. But I understand it may be hard to believe that.
So what does matter here? It is the dimension to life just past the buildings -- and not hard at all to see really. That is, here what you FEEL is far more concrete than what you see.
Take, for example, the elderly man standing outside in the rain yesterday near to where I go to exchange dollars into rubles. He had on a dapper wool tweed cap and jacket that had, like a dear friend, kept him warm many seasons. He held himself erect and proudly and so I will assume they were his best clothes in which to stand on the street and sell his flowers. He had two large bunches of peonies yesterday: one dark red and one white. Many people walked by never seeing his truly pleasant face beneath the trim cap. He tidied up his flowers every so often so they would be the most pleasing to anyone who noticed -- regardless of whether or not they bought them. They were there to touch the soul, after all, and that is why they mattered. Somehow he understood as I approached him that the deep red peonies had found a home and so he smiled broadly and nodded. That smile, you understand, was a gift in the rain. In other words, it momentarily stopped the rain.
"For Babushka," I said.
"Twenty rubles (60 cents)" he answered approvingly in a soft voice as he pulled them out of the white plastic bucket and fluffed them up for me. (Later I was sorry that I didn't buy the white ones. They were 50 rubles, 30 rubles more than the red ones. There was one more blossom and the aroma, he said -- putting them under my nose -- was far more fragrant. He was right.) Nonetheless, he was already wrapping the red ones in a bit of paper. He smiled again, "Be in good health, dyevochka." (An affection term for "young woman")
"And you," I replied smiling broadly on that street that moments before had no such smiles.
But why tell you this story? It is simply because his well-worn clothes are not what matters. His apartment is not what matters -- or his income. He matters. That is, life itself matters greatly here. (The aroma of flowers, if you will.) And here, without lots of things, life is astonishingly undiminished.
Such people as the flower vender return each night to their little tattered appartments and listen to symphonies or poetry being read on any number of radio stations. With such rich souls they do not feel the least poor and would be surprised if you thought them so. They sit around the table talking intimately with each other late into the night -- but never about things. They talk about life. Even more, they participate in the warmth of it -- even in the rain or in dingy apartments.
And if, during one of those conversations, someone gets up to get the pear or the peach bought that day in the market, -- if you did not understand how expensive that pear was to buy and what a rare treat it was, then your heart would not be so moved when it was divided up and shared with you -- a stranger. Then watch. There is a good chance that the bell will ring and a neighbor will appear at the door at that very moment. A chair will be pulled up to the table. With sheer unreserved joy the pear's owner will take his slice of pear and put it before the neighbor and "enjoy it" as much as if he were eating it himself. He goes to bed that night with a very full spirit, in other words.
It turned out to be fortuitous to have come upon that little man who tended to his peonies like daughters. When I got home, a minor crisis had befallen flat 24.
"What on earth happend?!" I asked quickly.
"Koti prapall. . ." came the sad reply. The kitten had fallen out of the window. (We live on the 3rd floor remember and the windows here don't have screens.)
"Are you sure?!"
They nodded sorrowfully. "You know how he loved to hang out over the edge. He was probably batting at a fly" added Dedushka. "Come see."
They led me by the hand into my room and out to the balcony/greenhouse. Sure enough the window was wide open. I pulled over a little stool, climbed up, and leaned out to see if I could see him below.
"Don't worry! I'll go down and find him. Cat's always land on their feet and with all the rain the weeds are nice and thick. Don't worry. Don't worry."
Dyedushka leaned out the window so I could get my bearings from below, but Koti was nowhere to be found. Passersby joined the search. Suddenly we heard the kitten. Everyone paused. He cried again and, as if in prayer, I looked up only to see the kitten in the other window watching us with great curiosity.
When I returned to the apartment Babushka had already started to make dinner. Pulling the cloth off the large kitchen basket, the kitten jumped out having had a lovely nap all afternoon on top of the potatoes. Once again all was well in flat 24. We ate our dinner and enjoyed the flowers.
After dinner we sat for awhile listening to a cassette of Odkudzhava. He is one of the most loved Russian "bards". He sang his songs through all the years of Stalin, Khrushev and Brezhnev. The songs are all about life. He captured it on scraps of paper which he and his guitar felt deeply. The last song on the cassette was about his beloved Arbat. (The famous street in Moscow where the best of Russian poets, artists and musicians have gathered forever to feed each other's souls.) Odkudzhava sings to her (the Arbat) like a lover. And then, like a warm current on the summer air, she begins to answer back in the voice of a single violin played with haunting beauty. They answer one another rather than singing together, the violin weaving a poignant reply in and around his feelings.
This is the Russia that doesn't disappointment me. You have to understand much about life to write something so utterly moving.
Vladimir, Russia July 5, 2003
To continue where we left off, on the other hand, if life here didn't strike you as humorous, it could be no doubt frustrating. Take for example keeping the flat clean. It is no simple task even with the smallest flat. No matter how often you clean, somehow everything is always covered with a fine layer of grime. Because of Babushka's and Dedushka's age (as well as their long years of contributing their knowledge, skill and energies to improving Vladimir and preserving its history and culture) it is not unusual for neighbors to appear at the door for the sole purpose of helping Babushka clean the flat.
Babushka was not home yesterday when Ina Alexandrovna appeared at the door wearing her favorite pale rose skirt and jacket with her white lace-collar blouse. I apologized that I did not have time to sit and have tea with her as I had too much homework. She understood completely. I returned to my room while she changed her clothes and set about cleaning. (Here you wear your good clothes to be out and about on the street and then change into "home clothes".) While you normally don't change your clothes at your neighbor's, since Ina Alexandrovna was here to clean, I soon heard her rumaging around in the hallway wardrobe looking for one of Babushka's baggy shifts.
The afternoon went on and I thought it might be nice to reemerge and thank Ina Alexandrovna for all her kind help. As I opened my door there she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the hallway floor! When she saw my surprise she simply replied, "I'm only happy to do it. We've been friends, after all, for more than 40 years." And thus, I didn't have the heart to tell her that she had mistaken one of my best dresses for one of Babushka's baggy home dresses.
It's true, you have to be prepared for anything here -- especially at breakfast. While I normally couldn't imagine eating pickled mushrooms and cabbage and onions for breakfast, it could be much worse, really. One of my fellow students found chunks of salted fish waiting for her on her plate the other morning. She chose to start with the dry bread. Halfway through her 4th piece the phone rang. As her Babushka went into the next room to answer it, quick as a flash she lept up from the table and emptied her plate out the window. I don't know what floor she lives on, but in any case when she went off to school, 3 cats were huddled at the scene of the crime, two of which, as she told it, were licking the third one's head -- though this last detail I can't attest to.
I can, however, attest to the fact that Russia is still capable of producing not only salt fish and mushrooms for breakfast, but fairy tales most any day of the week. As you know, we have weekly excursions. Three weeks ago we had the priviledge of watching a Russian artist -- one of those who paints those magical, magnificent little lacquer boxes. We had the priviledge of watching him work and then listening to a couple hour lecture on the history of the boxes, the art itself, and the techniques that go into making and painting the boxes themselves. He makes all his own paints AND brushes -- demonstrating both for us. Then he announced that the following week he would teach us how to paint either a pin or a very small box.
The following week we were each given either a plain black box or pin. He then produced endless examples (pencil drawings) of possible subject matter from famous fairy tales which I so wish you could have seen. They were simply incredible.
We first prepared our pins or boxes by rubbing layer after layer of sand over them until the surface was coarse and dull, and now bore the color of sand. We then labored to draw ("copy") his work on a small blank piece of paper. It wasn't long before we all were ready to give up. Yet our artist cajoled us and encouraged us to keep trying. "Of course you can do it! Just try! You have to try harder that's all!"
With an instrument that resembled a very large needle our sad little drawings were transferred to the pins. When the paper was removed, the etched image remained in the coarse, sandy surface -- though even more pathetic than the pencil drawings.
We then began to mix our paints, our hopes rallying slightly at the thought that maybe a miracle still might happen and the paint would somehow produce something amazing on that dull little surface that had just an hour before held such hope! We were wrong. Yet our artist was relentless. "Why are you discouraged? Keep going! It will all come out right in the end. This is Russia!"
He gathered our utterly pathetic little pins and boxes at the end of the day saying he would buff them and put a layer of lacquer on them and they would look much better. We all had the same thought: "Why waste your expensive lacquer?" Nonetheless, he was truly a kind man and we thanked him profusely.
This week our excursion fell on the 4th of July and so our teachers told us we could have the morning off but that we should meet at noon and wear nice clothes -- our best.
When we arrived they were all smiles. "Happy Independence Day" they intoned in English producing ice cream cones for each of us. As it turned out the ice cream cones had nothing to do with the requirement to wear our best clothes. Rather, we then set off for the Historical Museum -- a truly beautiful old building in the center of town. After a glorious tour we were met at the broad carpeted staircase leading to the 3rd floor by a man and woman dressed in ballroom attire of 100 years ago. In grand style we were led to the ballroom where a renactment of a Russian ball was put on (faithful in every detail to what Tolstoy decribes in War and Peace.) It was wonderful -- especially the final dance in which we were each led out on the dance floor to waltz.
When we returned to the institute, our teachers gave us the final surprise. They laid them in our hands and we all fell silent -- utterly speechless. The artist had taken each of our pins or boxes, and using what was there had transformed them into works of art which sparked with wonder and beauty. (I will show you mine of course when I get home.)
What a fairy tale.
Moscow, Russia Sunday, July 13
We drove through Moscow in an absolute downpour. In minutes the roads here and there had turned into lakes with cars stranded in the middle. It was 4:40 pm when the train station was at last in sight. I didn't realize my train was due to leave in 20 minutes. I thought I had an hour and 20 minutes. The station was a sea of people and only then as we stood at the back of the line did we realize that I now had only 10 minutes to make my train. The next train back to Vladimir was at midnight and I'd have a 40 minute walk home from the station.
Anatoly pushed his way to the front of the line while Nikolai yelled, "People! Friends!! We have to help this little American! She speaks no Russian and is traveling all alone. She's on the verge of tears as she is about to miss her train. Give way!"
Even I thought his little speech was rather touching and only then realized he was talking about me. The people drew back quite as dramatically as the Red Sea. Galina had her arm around me as if I were an invalid. I smiled weakly not quite knowing the role I was supposed to play. The ticket now in hand we broke into a dead run leaving the bewildered masses behind.
I got to my compartment and couldn't get the window open. I was trying to say my last heartfelt words to my friends but they didn't understand. I didn't want them to wait as Galina and little Olga were already crying. (Partings with my Russian friends are always difficult as we are very close and our meetings few.) I grabbed my notebook and frantically began to write in huge letters. The train had begun to pull away. I pressed the paper to the window. They ran along beside and read the words aloud: "All will be well. I love you."
The "All will be well" has become our way of saying, "We'll meet again."
Soon after we pulled out of Moscow the woman conductor appeared at my compartment with a cup of tea and a bar of chocolate and in a mothering tone told me there was no need to cry. I had seen Nikolai and Anatoly talking to her on the platform. Now I understand why.
We've traveled about an hour and have just stopped in Petushkin to let passengers on. I now have about 2 hours in which to write you. There is nothing but endless woods outside my window and a bright evening sun illuminating the landscape. These fields have carried everyone from princes to knights, to Tartar warriors across them, leaving a sad, complex history behind.
On Friday, Nikolai and another good friend, Masood, had been due to come get me by car for a long weekend in Moscow. Plans for the car fell through at the last minute so they set off for the train station. On weekends seats on all the trains are scarce because everyone is going to their dachas. Learning there were no seats left to Vladimir, and that the train was due to leave in minutes, Nikolai and Masood made a mad dash out on the platform and yelled up to one of the conductors: "Mwe zaeetc!" We're rabbits! (It means. We need to hop on the train. OK?) The train was already moving. The conductor shook her head yes and they leaped on.
There's nothing dishonest about this. It simply means the conductor knows the "rabbits" need to get somewhere badly and, furthermore, that the "rabbits" know there are always 2 vacant seats: one for the conductor and her assistant. Once on the train, the rabbits pay the normal price for the seats and all is well.
When I got to the train station in Vladimir I had no idea where I should wait to meet them. I saw people coming and going up and down an escalator that no longer worked. A bridge from the escalator over the tracks led to the outdoor platform.
"Can I wait up there?" I asked the little man selling tickets to go through the gate and up the escalator that no longer worked. He shook his head no but I didn't understand what he said after that.
I tried again. "If I buy a ticket?" He shook his head kindly despite the fact that the answer was still no. The train from Moscow had just arrived and my face must have look desperate. He sighed deeply, put his little metal card on the gate so it opened automatically and pushed me through. "Hurry devochka! Up the stairs, to the left. You'll find them. Don't worry!" (Only after I learned that I was at the departute gates rather than the arrival gates.)
I got to Nikolai and Masood just as they were climbing the stairs to the bridge and thus our adventure began. We were due to meet 3 of my fellow students, as well as our American director, at a small cafe on Bolshoi Moskova across from the monument of Yaroslav the Wise. It was a good choice. The monument is big enough that I knew that even I could find it, and indeed I led them to the cafe as if I'd lived here all my life.
Nikolai and Masood had made the hurculean effort to get here, as the opportunity to meet with these young students meant everything to them. They had never met young Americans and they were filled with hope, questions and expectations. Most of all, they wanted to know what had brought these young people here to learn Russian and take part in their Russia.
I knew what would follow, but still, it was better than I could have hoped for. Nikolai and Masood ordered enough food for 40 and we were there long enough to eat for 40. The conversation and our short time together with the students was both thoughtful and warm, everyone taking a genuine interest in the other. We drank enough tea to reenact the Boston tea party and then Nikolai and Masood insisted that we walk each student to their respective homes. For us, it meant about a 2 hour walk all told -- still we all held up and said our last goodbyes at midnight.
Because Nikolai and Masood had insisted on paying for everyone's dinner, they now didn't have enough money for a hotel room. So we walked to my house, collected my things and made our way back to the train station to return to Moscow together. The next train left at 2 in the morning. Not wanting to wait, we proceeded outside to where a group of men were gathered with their cars. By some miracle we found a man with an extremely nice car (by Russian standards) who, with a jolly laugh, agreed to take us all the way to Moscow (a 3 hour ride). We set off revelling in our good fortune. But, of course, Russia is not Russia without at least one adventure.
We drove about an hour when suddenly we came upon a massive traffic jam. Emphasis on massive. As far as your eye can see, cars were at a dead halt each way 4 across (meaning on the road as well as on the shoulders). Our driver switched off the engine and hopped out to see what was up. Soon we learned that they were doing repairs on the road and that we'd have a 2 hour wait before the road would open again. But remember, this is Russia and waiting is no problem. We switched on the little light in the car, turned on the radio and I pulled out a handful of small "reserve presents" I always bring with me to Russia for just such occasions. (A flashlight key chain for our driver, two beautiful pens for Nikolai and Masood, and a bar of chocolate to split between us.) We laughed and sang and the time passed rather pleasantly. By 5 am we were in Moscow and spent yesterday and today with several good friends. And that is really the point of this letter. Yes, there are always inconviences in Russia. But that's not nearly as important as how everyone takes care of one another -- when together and even when apart.
The conductress has been faithful to her promise to Nikolai and Anatoly. She has just arrived to say we will be in Vladimir in 5 minutes and that I should now gather my things. It is a warm, clear evening here. I can see children playing in the streets. It will be a pleasant walk home.
We left early Saturday morning for Suzdal -- one of the oldest and most beautiful towns in Russia. (Just speak the name and every good Russian sighs.) There wasn't a cloud in the sky and the newly paved road stretched out before us as if eager for us to reach our destination. Suzdal was long ago a major trading center along the route from Finland to Turkey. Though it remained small, it was one of the wealthiest towns in Russia where merchants grew rich trading everything from rugs to furs, and jewelry to cucumbers. We, in fact, were here for their annual Cucumber Festival -- which is not only utterly Russian, but simply wonderful.
First however, we had a tour of the Spaso-Yevemeev Monastery -- one of seven monastery cloisters, though the Spaso-Yevemeev is now only a museum. It has served in turn as monastery, stronghold, and prison for over 300 years. Catherine II first used it as a prison for "politicals" as did eventually Stalin.
At one time there were over 170 churches in Suzdal built by the various rich merchants as a status symbol of their wealth, but supposedly as a sign of their love for God. Today 44 churches remain in use -- no small thing in a town far smaller than Concord, NH.
We had a fabulous guide who was more than adept at doing things right. As a result, we were able to enter a small chapel (at her request) where 4 monks sang to us as only Russian monks can do. It is as if they have found a way to use voices not their own. It never fails to move me to the core from their very first breath.
From there we went into the main courtyard where the incredible monastery bells were played high above us. There were at least 20 of them. The courtyard was packed with people who stood as still as statues until the last note slipped away. I don't know if the bells rang during the years the monastery served as part prison, but if they did, they must have been more than a little comforting.
Once you leave the monastery, the hustle and bustle of the town meet you on every side. Though, being a festival day, the town was unusally filled with musicians, singers, and dancers. I took one classic photo of an elderly man sitting in the shade of a tree playing an accordian that had obviously long held a primary place in his arms. He smiled at me pleasantly and cooperatively as if he knew you were waiting to see his photo.
Not only accordians, but flutes, recorders, balilaikas and guitars filled the air -- as did the aroma of shashlik (Russian barbeque). Each year the price of souveniers dramatically go up and, as they were particularly high here, we hurried by the colorful, tempting stalls to the center of the square where singers and dancers were performing on a small stage. They were dressed in wonderful costumes (clothes from the late 1700s I would say) and had the attention of the entire town. Their voices were fabulous and the energy endless. The men danced as effortlessly as marianettes, leaping high into the air, kicking their legs above their heads and the next minute out to the side from that classic deep knee position. It didn't hurt at all, of course, that they were incredibly handsome.
By the end of the day we were exhausted but left still left very (very) reluctantly. The musicians were still performing, the merchants still doing a brisk business, and the crowds settling in for a late night.
The bus home left us off at the city gates which meant about a 40 minute walk home for me. As it was right on my way, I decided to go to the one large modern store in town to see if I could buy Babushka and Dedushka a walkman. Early on I introduced them to mine, which they both use with no little enjoyment.
I couldn't find a walkman, so I got them a small "boom box" instead. I will give it to them my last night here. And that is coming all too soon. This week is our last full week of classes and next week exams. After that we leave for St. Petersburg for 3 days followed by a 7 day trip down the Volga River back to Moscow.
There is so much I haven't written about and so much I still don't know how to write about. And once again it is already late. Babushka is still washing clothes in the bathroom and Dedushka and a neighbor are having tea in the kitchen.
I have come to love the soft bright light that fills the summer night skies. Children play in the small garden beneath my window until 11 most every night. Their parents look on contentedly, in no rush, it seems, to "be doing something else." You are very conscious of family here. Cars still being a luxury, familes walk together everywhere. I have caught myself sighing more than once at the sight of not only little children, but older ones, tenderly and unselfconsciously holding their parents' hands.
July 22, 2003 "The kitchen"
I have so far learned the most Russian in the kitchen. Perhaps that's not an altogether fair statement, but it's very true. And that is thanks to Irina Grigorovna and Vladimir Aleksaeevich. Although for simplicity's sake I have referred to them as Babushka and Dedushka, they are anything but simple. Vladimir Aleksaeevich was a nuclear physicist and Irina Grigorovna one of the most respected professors of literature in Moscow -- hence the 5000+ books in flat 24. (You wrote to ask me if I had exaggerated the figure and the answer is, not at all. The bookshelves are floor to ceiling in each room and the books are 2 deep. That is, behind the row of books your eyes see is yet another row hidden from view. For example. I thought I had discovered a 40 volume set of all of Tolstoy's writings, only to learn that volumes 41-90 lay behind them.)
We have lived very contentedly here together in the kitchen of flat 24. I will miss terribly reading Tolstoy, Chekov and Bunin together. Even more, I will miss the look on Irina Grigorovna's face while Vladimir Aleksaeevich recites Pushkin by heart and reads Pasternak's poetry "as if for the last time" as they say here. At the end of Dr. Zhivago is a collection of perhaps 50 poems, the first of which is called "Hamlet". It is so moving in Russian that I am attempting to memorize it. We sat glued to our chairs one night as Irina Grigorovna went on at length over that one poem. It is as perfect a use of words as the Bible -- and equally penetrating. Likewise, Dr. Zhivago itself is astonishingly powerful and profound simply because it too is completely autobiographical -- that is, the unvarnished truth of Russia is shared freely and deeply. Pasternak was utterly but painfully devoted to one Olga -- his lover for many years. She was largely to thank for the beauty and depth of his writing as well as its publication. When the Communist Party refused to allow Dr. Zhivago to be published, she secretted it into Italy for publication. When the book appeared in print, a "black raven" (the black cars the KGB used to "collect" people) appeared at her door late one night. She returned only after 5 long years in prison. The sentence naturally took a huge toll on Pasternak whose health declined rapidly after that. Olga still remained devoted to him and his writing after his death. Needless to say, she is "Lara" in Dr. Zhivago.
But this is the least of what I want to say in this letter.
In school I conjugate verbs and struggle to properly pronounce the words. But here in flat 24 they have taught me to read the meaning. This, more than anything, has increased my grasp of the language and improved my pronunciation. This has brought everything alive -- as meaning in life always does.
And that is what happens to life in a Russian kitchen. It is where you "take care of" meaning. Seven thousand miles is a long way to travel to sit in a kitchen, but here I inevitably find the Russia I come here for. It reminds me of the last scene in the 1950s film "Repentance". An old woman is walking down the road trying to find her way, as if she's returning only after many years away. It is now post-Stalinist Russia and so she goes to the door of a house in the village and asks the young woman who opens it: "Is this the road to the Church?" The young woman answers, "Grandmother, the Church is no longer there." The old woman stares at her uncomprehendingly and asks, "What good is the road if it's not to the Church?"
It is important to understand that here where organized religion still holds little meaning, if not outright skepticism and distrust; still, there is a deep and conscious respect for that something "higher than us". Indeed, it answers for the richest moments here and the timeless works of art -- be that Russia's music, art or literature -- or such scenes in movies. And so things that consciously touch, if not awaken fully, that miraculous "spirit in man" are consciously cared for here. And the kitchen is the place that makes room for them in everyday life. It is an unconventional church, but not lacking in the least of the best of it.
I am very conscious of the fact, in case you are wondering, that when I am living here it is not entirely "real life". That is, I have for these weeks left behind the demands of everyday life -- like earning a living and keeping house. Yet, even after I am gone, Irina Grigorovna and Vladimir Aleksaeevich will sit in the kitchen listening to symphonies. They will smile at one another like newlyweds even when I am gone. They will continue to "care for meaning" here in flat 24.
Vladimir, Russia July 25, 2003
I will leave Vladimir with many scenes etched in my memory -- not the least of which is what it is like to walk each day down these hot, dusty streets laden with daily life. People walking, walking, walking. After all, you must get to where you are going regardless of whether it's pouring rain, or whether you are tired, old, or not feeling all that well on any given day. You have one foot that must be put in front of the other.
You have only to walk to the market once and buy enough food for a day or two for a family of 3 like we are -- a half kilo of potatoes, a large head of cabbage, a good size chunk of meat, 2 cartons of juice, a bottle of milk (the large green kind that the babushki lug from their farms each morning), and 2 loaves of bread -- to feel differently about life. I didn't realize how demanding it can be just to live. The walk home from the market (with heavy parcels at least) is more than 30 minutes -- it is a lifetime if you live here. That is, it is every day with those heavy sacks hanging from your arms like lead weights.
I will leave Vladimir having keenly felt the weight of life here -- but more importantly the warmth. I am so glad to be able to say this to you. You have wondered -- and I too -- if "my Russia" is what it is because there is always one of my Russian friends at my side. But now I know of a certainty that this is not so. I am glad that just once I have lived here on my own and everywhere, without exception, met with kindness, caring, thoughtfulness and sheer generosity of spirit. More than anything I wish you yourself could see and feel this. I have tried several times without success (that is, in the end I have not sent the letters) to write you about the little things that have conveyed so much life. But the words just don't convey it no matter how many times I try to describe it. And I am very sorry about that. Maybe I will try one more time. They are such small things, but they have given so much life. Just when you feel the most tired, for instance, you suddenly look up to see a young girl carrying a gorgeous bouquet of fresh flowers. The weight of your packages forgotten, you carry her innocence all the way home.
July 26, 2003 A birch grove just beyond Bogolubova
It was a perfectly Russian day. I waited in the center of Sobornaya Square in the shade of Prince Vladimir Monomach's monument. On the rise up from the Square is the famed Uspensky Sobor (cathedral). Here some of the most consequential days in Russian history were played out.
The church, some 900 years old, contains original Andre Rublev frescoes and icons. I stared intently at the steep hillside trying to imagine the families taking refuge inside the massive church as the Tatars thundered up the rise on horseback. They came by the hundreds. The massive church walls were impenetrable, but not the windows. Once broken through, fire balls were hurled into the dark depths. Less than half of the icons survived and none of the people. Thus began 300 years of Tatar rule.
The dark horses ringing the square now stood idly by awaiting tourists -- their manes wonderously hooked in triangular patterns like crochetted shawls. A troika (a cart pulled by 3 horses) rounded the flower bed, its bells ringing out playfully, when I heard my name called.
Galina and Anatoly leaped out of their shiny new car and smothered me with hugs despite the heat. They had driven no less than 3 hours pounding over the hot, slow road from Moscow to spend the day with me. With a laugh, they flipped open the trunk filled to the brim with everything needed to do shashlik -- including a little wooden table and 3 small canvas stools. Touched by their amazing kindness I simply sighed. They understood and hugged me again. We jumped into the car and sped merrily up the road toward Bogolubova. Just beyond Bogolubova everything -- everything -- but land and sky is left behind. The deep green fields rippled in the breeze jostling fluffy white clouds up and down the horizon "on their knees". In the distance a stand of birch trees appeared like a remote island -- cool and inviting. The question was, how to get there? After a mile or two, a dirt road appeared on our left heading in that general direction. We dipped down off the main road and up on to the dirt road now looking for evidence of tire tracks anywhere on our left. Finally we spotted two rows of flattened grass with occasional dirt patches heading toward the grove. We followed these for less than a mile until we had reached it. We circled the grove slowly until there on our right was an opening and two more faint strips of flattened grass. (At least we imagined that a car had once traversed there.)
Galina and I got out and walked ahead of the car looking for unexpected holes or other such hazards. The deeper we got into the grove, the less evidence there was of the tire tracks, but the more beautiful our surroundings became. When the car couldn't go any farther, we found ourselves in an absolutely perfect place. A small circle of soft deep grass lay just ahead of us -- as if placed there (or suddenly appearing) just for this most Russian of traditions. Anatoly and I headed off to gather sticks while Galina set up the little wooden table exactly in the center of the circle.
By the time we returned, the trunk was empty and a small feast of tomatoes, cucumbers, bread, hard boiled eggs, boiled potatoes, apples, cherries, black berries and sausage laid before us. Anatoly made a small fire, on either end of which were 2 sticks with forked tops. Two long heavier sticks were laid lengthwise across these and then skewers with huge chunks of beef laid crosswise across these. The whole process of doing shashlik in a cool, deep Russian wood is not quite real. You never loose the feeling of feeling that you've somehow gotten into one of Tolstoy's or Turgenev's stories -- though you never understand in Russia quite how you get to the places you get to. None of them, that is, have "marked roads". They appear before you only to "disappear" as soon as you leave.
I went off to collect a small bouquet of wild daisies and Queen Ann's Lace, only to stumble upon a patch of lupin. Galina was waiting with a bottle of water into which the flowers were carefully arranged and placed in the center of our little wooden "alter" in this amazing wood. The table, along with birch trees, were sprinkled with small bright "drops" of afternoon sun. The air beneath the slender, soaring birches was fresh and sweet, and the breeze cool, despite the oppressive heat that lay in the fields beyond.
There was no need to hurry, no need to think about anything but being together and being in such a "volshebnik" (magical) place, as they say. Lunch properly "done in," we managed to find a small clean cloth sack and headed off through the woods to collect mushrooms: tall red top ones, small tan ones, broad flat white ones, and absolutely enormous golden ones shaped like jelly fish. This, you understand, is quintessential Russia. You cannot get more Russian than shashlik and mushrooms. Our only regret was that none of our other friends were there with us. Our sack half filled, we returned to the little table in the circle in the grove to have tea, and the sweets I had brought along with me.
The day ended far, far too soon. When we reached the main road we looked back one last time.
Vladimir, Russia July 31, 2003
As I write, I am sitting beneath the oak trees that lead to Dimitre Sobor (cathedral). It is perhaps the most intriguing and little known of Vladimir's cathedrals. It is small and exquisite on the outside and hidden from view on the inside. Built in 1193, this was the church of the oldest princes of Rus (as Russia was once called) and common people were not allowed inside. Even today, it is never open to residents or tourists. None of the people I know here have ever seen the inside.
To my amazement, no more than 30 minutes ago I looked up to see the right half of the huge arched oak door swung open and a young couple standing before a second inner black wrought iron gate peering in. I quickly gathered my things and started through the oak grove and up the rise only to find the young couple were gone, but that the outer door was still open. Standing silently before the ornate grating, I peered in at the silent walls and vaulted ceiling. The inside was filled with a soft light streaming in from the small windows in the dome. Scaffolding filled the cloisters and tools lay on the ground next to fragments of ancient carved stones excavated from a hole, freshly dug, at the back.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of singing. A most tender hymn (there is no other word for it) softly filled the air and rose to the light. It was incredibly reverent and beautiful. "Who is here?" I thought in amazement. And how did they get in? The thought no sooner spoke itself to me when the gate swung open of its own accord! -- blown by a puff of wind.
The next thing I knew I was stepping quickly inside through the shadows along the wall. There to my right I suddenly spotted the young couple. It was they who were singing. They were not aware that I was there and I didn't dare make a sound for fear of their stopping. I irresistibly looked up to see a very young man standing before a now faint, though stunning, frescoe -- restoring it. He was working with a brush as fine as a small string. He too had paused to listen. The hymn ended and he looked down on me first and then on the young couple but said nothing. With his gaze, the young couple realized they were not alone and turned around with a start.
I mouthed the words "Cpaceba vam" (thank you) and smiled. Relieved, they returned the smile and motioned to me to go back and close the gate so we wouldn't be discovered. I did so and returned. They continued singing and I watched with reverence the young man again at work. I don't know how much time elapsed but the impulse came to leave. We no sooner got to the outside and back under the oaks when a guard appeared who, astonished, saw the open gate, but not us.
The couple were seminary students from Tiblisi. They gave me an icon from their church, smiled, touched their hearts, and disappeared over the hillside and down toward the river. Not long after two young bare chested men, one clean shaven (the one I had seen at work) and another with a thick bark brown beard, brushes in hand, left the church, locking the door once more, and headed home to supper.
Only now it dawns on me that I was standing in a place where all the most famed ancient princes of Rus stood: Vladimir I, Yaroslav the Wise, and Vladimir Monamach. Forgive me, it is the only day I have not taken my camera with me.
The last from Vladimir July 31, 2003
This, most likely, will be the last letter I'll be able to send. We just finshed writing our exams today, the tourists have arrived, and Baturina Ulitsa (street) -- where all summer they have been laying new water pipes -- reopened this morning. And when a road opens, it is time to move on. Thus tonight at 10pm we will leave for St. Petersburg. We will be there 3 days and then 7 more traveling down the Volga River back to Moscow and then home.
But now there is still time to say farewell to Vladimir. I climbed the 98 steps up to the institute for the last time today. Yet another whole letter should be written about what it has meant to study here. And I never even told you about all of our excursions -- to the day care center or the home for special needs children; to the bread factory or to "Vladimir Central," one of Russia's most infamous prisons. We had to turn over our passports upon entering and were then locked behind no less than 8 gates if I remember correctly. And then there are the skies. But how do you describe the sky? I know it's not possible, but somehow the skies here are more enormous than any I've ever seen, as are the clouds.
We wrote our exams yesterday from 9am until 4pm with one 30 minute break. Afterwards we gathered with the teachers for a celebration at the Georgian restaurant next to the red brick historical museum. The dinner went from 7 until 10 pm with some 13 courses brought out in between our singing and dancing folk (group) dances, and exchanging presents. The highlight of the evening was a specially prepared dance program. An incredible young Georgian man dressed in fabulous traditional garb, leaped and twirled and flew through the air like a blown leaf. When he took his final leap, landing on his knees for his final bow, we lept to our feet cheering and applauding as wildly as his dancing. It was an unforgettable evening -- as has been this whole experience.
I gathered my few belongings today and already it is time to leave. Irina Grigorovna made a fresh batch of piroshki (sweet bread rolls filled with jam) for me to eat on the train tomorrow morning. I will buy tea at the market on my way to the station. Before I go out the door, we will all sit silently together for a minute or two in my room -- and old an "unbreakable" Russian tradition so that on my way all will go as it should. Only just now I have realized that I will not be sleeping in my narrow little bed tonight, nor will I awake here tomorrow among these faded cloth volumes. It is better not to think about it.
August 17, 2003 Gilman's Corner
It has proven to be far more difficult to end the diary than it was to begin it. I've been home barely 3 days and already Russia seems so far away. The neighbor's rooster keeps crowing in the yard, as if to constantly remind me where I am. How quickly those vivid days in Vladimir are no more, but have crossed over that line and become a memory.
Needless to say, the experience was wonderful. The classes were wonderful, the excursions were wonderful, the market was wonderful, the people were wonderful. And they have all left their mark on me. I've learned a tremendous amount of Russian, of course, but that's the least of what I've learned. You go to Russia to learn about life. I feel very fortunate, of course -- but again I suddenly feel awkward writing about me. I would love for you to have had the experience I've had. I mean that sincerely. Then again, maybe you're just as glad it was mine!
Given how tired I am, I only now realize how demanding the days were. Life is definitely harder in Russia -- harder to get anywhere, harder to keep yourself, your clothes, your home clean; harder to accomplish the simplest things. I'm glad to have left the inescapable grit of the streets behind, as well as the sadly appalling amounts of litter. There is, as well, a subtle tension you find yourself carrying with you everywhere you go along with your required papers: your passport, your visa, your student card and, most recently, a new migration card that gives you the right to travel outside your home city. It is nice to have left those strangely oppressive small scraps of paper behind. So then, how is it so easy to be happy there? What is it about the market, the people, the nights in the kitchen, the music of Odkudjava? What is it about Russia that you don't find here? I wish I knew. When I find out, I'll write the last page of the diary.
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