Dad and I got back from our trip to Ulyanovsk on Friday night. The whole adventure started last Thursday at JFK. I have taken enough flights on Aeroflot in the past six months that I recognize all of the people who work at the check-in counter and at the gate. Furthermore, I recognize the flight attendants. I had three of the same flight attendants on one of my previous flights. Despite the familiar staff, there were some interesting changes. Firstly, Aeroflot now makes the stewardesses wear orange uniforms. I prefer the traditional navy blue. The hammer and sickle doesn’t quite stand out as much on the orange uniforms. Thankfully, the entire crew was busy purchasing alcohol and cigarettes in duty-free before the flight as usual. Secondly, Aeroflot keeps introducing newer Airbus planes on their NYC-Moscow route. On my past flights, the planes were new, but had orange cloth interiors. These even newer Airbuses have blue vinyl seats. Furthermore, the old no smoking lights have been replaced with no technology signs. While waiting for the flight, I was thankful that Aeroflot continues to fly the A330 and has yet to purchase any of the newest Airbuses, the double-decker A380. Note to self- be very careful when picking Lufthansa flights. I guess I wouldn’t have a choice if I flew to Korea, though.
The flight was pleasant and uneventful as always. The only thing to note was that there was a group of people from Costa Rica around us. I guess they were all taking a group trip to Moscow. They unfortunately didn’t seem to speak any English or Russian, much to the annoyance of the stewardesses. The only downside to the flight was that I didn’t sleep at all. Thus, when we arrived in Moscow at around 8AM, I had a long day ahead of me.
We didn’t do too much for the first day. We took Aeroexpress and the metro to the hotel. Then, we checked in. This was wonderful because they gave us champagne. My dad doesn’t drink at all, and thus this first thing I consumed in Russia at all was two glasses of champagne for breakfast. After getting settled in, I took my dad through the Izmailovo Market. Then, we met up with the ever wonderful Oksana at the Fulbright office. We tried to get onto Red Square, but it was closed for a concert/celebration of Moscow/anniversary of the Battle of Borodino.
We took the next day leisurely as well. Besides eating shashlik for breakfast and wandering through the market again, we took a short jaunt through the Izmailovsky Park and then headed off to see our relative, Tatiana Selvinskaya. Dad had always dreamed of meeting his Russian relatives. He had tried to contact them when he was in Moscow many decades ago, but the letter got to them too late and they were unable to meet. Furthermore, he was cautioned because at that time contacting relatives could have gotten them into serious trouble and resulted in questioning from the government. We spent two hours talking about our family and looking at Tatiana’s wonderful paintings. She even offered to give us one the next time that we come, provided we give her more warning before our arrival due to the paperwork needed to take art from the country.
After our meeting with Tatiana, we went to the train station to ride off for our adventures in Ulyanovsk. One great thing happened at the train station. While at a kiosk, I apparently ordered something well enough that the man behind me asked if I had Russian heritage. I told him I did and we had a quick chat about my family leaving during the time of the Civil War. On a side note, a lot of random people in Russia assume that I am from Germany. I don’t know if it’s something about my accent when I speak Russian or just because I look German. Take that Lafayette German professors. You joked that I speak German like a Russian. Now apparently I speak Russian like a German?
On Sunday morning, we finally arrived in Ulyanovsk. I felt like a superstar because a number of people came out to meet us at the train station. I was even given chocolate and homemade blini. As usual, I asked myself why I had left Ulyanovsk in the first place. We were given a ride to the hotel with our personal chauffeur for our stay, George. After our things were in place, Iriny, Dad, and I walked around the center of the city showing him the main sites. We had shashlik for lunch and then dropped dad off at the hotel for a nap while Emory, Iriny, George, and I got caught up.
By the time dad’s nap was over, we had enough time to go to the Lenin Memorial for about an hour. This was interesting. We entered the museum and I got yelled at by a hidden babushka because I had begun to climb the stairs to the second floor, which is where I had purchased my tickets the last time that I was there. The babushka from the first floor, who was hiding in a nook behind the main entrance, mumbled something about that person being on vacation and that I had to buy the tickets from her. She quoted me an outrageous price for foreigners and I somewhat lied and told her that I studied at the university for a discount. Thankfully, she didn’t ask to see my student ID, which I had forgotten at home. Also, it had expired by now. In the end, we got in for 300 rubles and then she handed me three tickets. I was confused and said that there were only two of us, but there were three tickets because each one is for 100 rubles. It’s Russia. Dad was moderately interested in the collection of Lenin vases. Sadly, he wasn’t as interested in the Lenin carpet as I am.
We had a jam-packed day on Monday. We went to the university in the morning where we caught up with people from the international department and from the department that I taught in. I finally picked up my certificate for passing the 2ndlevel of the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language. After spending the morning there and having lunch, dad and I headed back to the center. He took a nap while I headed off to the private language school where Iriny works. I was reunited with everyone from there and was stolen as a guest interviewee for a couple of English lessons. After that was over, I headed back to the hotel to pick up dad. We headed off to Lena’s house for dinner. On the way to Lena’s, we went into the nice Orthodox church for a few minutes. Lena’s house was a real treat. Her husband, Vadim, shot a wild boar on a hunting trip and grilled it for dinner.
He also prepared a camp soup made of potatoes, carrots, and boar that was also spectacular.
The evening was well spent with great friends and food. I’m so thankful for the hospitality that Lena and Vadim always show towards me. Dad was also really excited that evening. One of the best things was a present from Vadim, a Russian paratrooper’s uniform. Finally, I was given a piece of paratrooper memorabilia that was legal for me to own and take out of Russia. Eventually we called it quits to head back for a much needed night’s sleep. For whatever reason, the fire alarm malfunctioned at 2am and woke us up. Good times.
On Tuesday morning, we met up with my Russian teacher and her friend to go to two museums. We saw one exhibit on Japanese dolls in the museum in which Olga works and then we went to the museum of modern architecture. We would have liked to see more, but time was short on Tuesday and we had to head back to the hotel for dad’s nap. That evening, he met with people from the MBA program at the university and gave a lecture to the MBA students, which went very well. He was kept for over an hour of questions and we finally finished after 9PM.
Wednesday was the highlight day of our trip to Ulyanovsk. In the morning, we went to the UAZ factory. It was awesome to walk on the main assembly line and I think dad had fun getting to see and touch the exhibits in the hall of old UAZ vehicles.
After our tour of the factory was done, we walked a block down the street to the UAZ dealership, where one of the MBA students works. We met him the night before and he presented dad with a toy UAZik and said that we could go for a test drive at the dealership. The man himself was in charge of service at the dealership, but he showed us around. It is the oldest UAZ dealership and has been around for over 25 years. He showed us the flagship civilian model, the UAZ Patriot, on the floor.
It’s pretty interesting because it has some nice appointments like heated seats and a USB connection for the radio. Oddly, though, the UAZiki are very out of date. Even the newest civilian model only has front disk brakes. I thought drum brakes went out of favor about 30 years ago. Furthermore, they still use leaf spring suspensions, which were also generally removed from regular passenger vehicles about 40 years ago. Regardless of the technology, I still want an UAZik.
After our adventures at the factory and the dealership, dad once again took a nap. Then, late in the afternoon, George picked us up and took us to the Museum of Aviation. Aside from meeting our family, I think this was the highlight of dad’s trip. He has always loved airplanes. He took flying lessons and joined the Air Force, although his eyesight was too bad for him to fly a plane. He really enjoyed touching the planes and getting to climb into two of them. The Tu-124 was fun to sit in again. There was a lot more leg room than in the current Aeroflot planes and the seats oddly enough had more back support.
The real treat for dad was getting to go into the Tu-144, or the Soviet Concorde. It was truly awesome to sit in the cockpit. You aren’t allowed to do that in the Concorde at the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in NYC. Sadly, I didn’t get any photos in the cockpit because we didn’t pay to take photos at the museum and a guy from the museum was with us the whole time in the plane. George distracted him at one point and I was able to get a blurry photo in the cockpit as we were leaving.
I also took a few photos on the wing on the plane through my jacket pocket.
After our fun at the museum, we headed back to the center for dinner with the girls from the university. Once again, I gorged myself on shashlik. Sadly, all good things must come to an end and Thursday was our last day in Ulyanovsk. In the morning, we went to the university to see a few more people from my department and to wrap things up with the international office. We ended up making an unscheduled visit to the Vice-Rector of the university and to the university museum.
We spent a few hours hanging out at the Smart School with Iriny and everyone else before heading off to the train station. Thankfully we left obscenely early because there was terrible traffic due to a few accidents on the way. We had time to enjoy some ice cream before the train opened up and we could put our things inside. Once again, I felt like a super star as people from the university came to see us off. Sadly, I once again departed my Russian city. Yes, I am extremely possessive and the city of Ulyanovsk is mine as is the State Technical University and its employees and students.
The train arrived on time in Moscow and we headed off to the airport to fly home. I saw toy UAZiki for sale in the airport store. I also sadly saw an Airbus named after Prokofiev. I wish our plane were named after Prokofiev instead of some physicist named I. Frank.
Namely, I wish they played Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights” for the duration of the flight.
I also wish Aeroflot bothered to put Ulyanovsk onto their in flight map. They have many cities in which other Fulbrighters were stationed, including Syktyvkar, but not Ulyanovsk? How can they ignore Leninland?
The flight home was uneventful, although I was slightly surprised that they took the slightly longer route to New York favored by Delta. We flew a little north of Iceland instead of over Iceland and more north over Greenland than usual. We also flew over more of Montreal and came down over the New York Vermont boarder instead of over New England. Is it bad that I know the Aeroflot flight routes? We had a nice approach to Kennedy, though. We went over the Hudson, over the Tappan Zee Bridge, past the George Washington Bridge and banked around Manhattan. We landed well and everyone clapped (tradition on flights with Russian people. Aeroflot wasn’t always a safe airline). Unfortunately, we had to taxi for about 20 minutes because some stupid Alitalia flight took forever to leave the gate.
And, sadly, this was how our adventure ended. Mostly. I also recognized someone on the flight back home. I sat next to her on my flight to JFK in March. She is an American and we spoke on the flight and she told me about how she was in the process of adopting a child from Russia. As we were walking to customs, I saw her and her new son. I congratulated her and she remembered me and asked how I was. It was nice to really end the trip with a sweet moment like that.