A Trip to Ulyanovsk

Posted: September 20, 2016 in Uncategorized
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Last Monday night, I hopped on a train to Ulyanovsk. I was invited to participate in the 5th Youth Innovation Forum there and give a presentation about American history and culture. As usual, I rode in 2nd Class, or Kupe, the four person cabin. For the first time ever, I had the last car on the platform in Kazan Station, which meant that I was in the first car of the train when it arrived in Ulyanovsk. I didn’t have the worst cabin mates of my life—that would be the man who drank over half a liter of vodka and puked a mixture of vodka and canned beef tongue partially on me and my bed in the middle of the night—but it also wasn’t the best experience I’ve had. My cabin included a young couple and their six month old baby, who cried a bit from time to time. They also created a minor disturbance in that they were not traveling all the way to Ulyanovsk. Instead, they got off at some stop at 4AM. The good news was that after they left, I had the cabin to myself and peace and quiet until I arrived in Ulyanovsk, where I was met at the station by my former student and good friend Natasha.

A second class kupe in a Russian train. Russian trains are actually really, really nice.

A second class kupe in a Russian train. Russian trains are actually really, really nice.

Natasha was originally going to borrow her father’s car, but there was a scheduling issue, so we got a cab to the hotel together. The Politech was very nice and paid for my accommodations in the Hotel Venets for the duration of my stay. Our cab driver was the most stereotypical Russian gopnik in a track suit with a mullet and a Lada.

Our gopnik taxi driver.

Our gopnik taxi driver.

Although he did not check me in, one of my former students, Aleksei, was working at the reception desk. We had a quick chat together the next day, as he was super busy when I arrived. Natasha headed off to work, and I went to drop my things in the room before catching the marshrutka to the Politech. I immediately felt like I had returned home when I entered the third korpus and entered the office of the International Department to greet my friends. After some quick catching up and discussion of the schedule for the next few days, I headed up to my old department office, the kafedra, on the third floor. The Applied Linguistics Department staff were excited to see me, and they all hugged me and asked how I was doing and whatnot. We had a good, quick chat about surviving life in Moscow and Russian dormitories, and they told me to come back whenever I wanted to, as the office is still my home.

It's like I never left.

It’s like I never left.

After my brief coffee break in the kafedra, I went back down to the International Department to say that I was heading back to the center and would be in the hotel lobby at the directed time for dinner. I was told to go into the neighboring office to say hello to the boss of the International Department, Pavel Borisovich, who bear hugged me and said that he was super happy to see me back. He then excitedly led me out of the office by the arm to show me the redone cafeteria across the hall, as well as a display of Soviet scientific equipment, including a glass thermometer that was good to 500 degrees, presumably Celsius.

With a few hours to kill, I headed back to the center to see my friend Iriny at the Smart School of foreign languages. She made me a delightful and much needed cup of coffee, and we quickly caught up before I sat in on an individual lesson with a young high school student. After that, I had enough time to head back to the hotel and drop off some things before heading to dinner.

There was a major group of administrators, professors, and students from the University of Darmstadt also attending the forum because there has been an exchange between Darmstadt and the Politech for 19 years. For dinner, we went to the Chinese restaurant in the city, Phoenix. I was seated with a group of mostly masters students from the University of Darmstadt, and spent most of my night attempting to remember how to speak German. While abroad, I can generally only think or speak in one language or the other. They would say something, and my automatic responses would come out in Russian, such as saying Da instead of Ja or Schto instead of Was. The food was relatively good, though there was one unidentified dish on the table, which I stupidly tried. It turns out that it was some sort of pig’s ear. It wasn’t the worst thing that I had eaten, but it also was not something I would wish to try again. It was a smoky and salty mixture of jello and cartilage.

Pig's ear.

Pig’s ear.

As the night progressed, our table ran out of both white and red wine. For reasons we could not understand, we were not allowed to have more wine, but the tables next to us still had wine. Undeterred, we switched to drinking vodka.

On Wednesday morning, I woke up and had breakfast with the German students in the hotel. We then waited around quite some time for our bus to the university for the opening ceremony of the forum. The governor, Sergei Ivanovich Morozov, spoke at the opening as did the rector of the university and some people from Darmstadt. I had to give a quick speech in Russian, in which I thanked everyone and called them my friends and said that I sincerely think of Ulyanovsk as my favorite city in Russia. Provided this link works, you should be able to watch it here. I was met with widespread cheers. After the opening, a number of people asked to take photos with me.

Some new fans.

Some new fans.

I was supposed to go to lunch with the Germans, but I noticed two UAZiki from the museum outside of the university. I asked the man from the factory if I could sit in one, the amphibious one, and he said I could. I also asked if there would be a possibility to go for a ride, at least from the front of the university to the road, and he told me that I would have to ask one of the drivers from the factory, who would be arriving later. So I stood around for fifteen minutes making small talk with the guy from the factory. I offered him a Marlboro Red, which he gladly accepted. When the driver showed up, I asked if I could ride with him and he said I could go to the main road, basically a few hundred feet at most. The ride was fun nonetheless, and I gave the driver a few cigarettes as thanks.

Riding in an amphibious UAZik!

Riding in an amphibious UAZik!

After my joyride, I went back to the center for a food crawl of Shawarman, the best shawarma in both Ulyanovsk and Russia, and Donut Family, a new donut chain in town that’s owned by an acquaintance. The food binge was acceptable, because after it, I had a two hour practice with my old Taekwondo Club. I’m still amazed by Russian hospitality, and how warmly I’m greeted at my old gym.

Ulyanovsk Club Tiger and my wonderful trainer Natalia Vladimirovna.

Ulyanovsk Club Tiger and my wonderful trainer Natalia Vladimirovna.

On Thursday morning I gave my lecture on American history and culture. The lecture hall was packed, and I think it went fairly well. It was actually standing room only. Thursday was also an interesting day because the new Fulbright ETA arrived. I felt bad, because they made her come to my lecture.

My selfie skills suck, but I think people liked the lecture.

My selfie skills suck, but I think people liked the lecture.

After being mobbed for photos after the lecture, the Fulbright ETA and I were led to the university restaurant complex for lunch. We were supposed to eat with the German students, but for various reasons that fell through, and we were invited to have lunch in the VIP room with the important faculty and administrators of Darmstadt and the Politech. Thankfully I was seated next to the Fulbrighter and Ekaterina Petrovna, my former department head, who is now also a dean. Between the many toasts, she and I were able to catch up a bit, and I was told to come to the kafedra for another mini-party the next day.

Lunch in the VIP room. The president of the University of Darmstadt was sitting across from me.

Lunch in the VIP room. The president of the University of Darmstadt was sitting across from me.

Friday morning I went back to the university for the closing ceremony for the forum. I was super excited to see the emcee of the event, my former next door neighbor Vadim. He is finishing up his master’s degree at the Politech at the moment. It was nice to catch up with him briefly. After the ceremony, there was a break before lunch, so a German from Darmstadt named Alex and I took a walk along the overlook of the Volga next to the university. At lunch, we were in the VIP room again, but with a smaller group of people including Pavel Borisovich, Yura, and Katya Glukhova. Lunch was good, but once again filled with many toasts. Pavel Borisovich toasted me, so then I had to give a toast to my Russian family and second home at the Politech.

After lunch, I ran to Magnit to buy a cake to bring to a party in the kafedra. It was partially held in honor of teacher’s birthday and partially in my honor. Before the festivities could begin, I was told to go speak with the first year students in English while the teacher had a cup of tea. Eventually, I was released back to the kafedra and Ekaterina Petrovna finished her class as we could have some time together.

Best department head ever.

Best department head ever.

They told me what their students thought of my lecture. “We learned that Susan likes pelmeni and Russian Standard.” Finally, they asked if I wanted to come back and teach for the department again. Over the weekend, I was offered four different jobs in Ulyanovsk, so it’s good to know that there’s always a plan B for my life.

Ain't no party like a kafedra party.

Ain’t no party like a kafedra party.

Later in the evening, I went up to the Venets rooftop bar with Alex from Darmstadt and Nastya, a student from Samara who was attending the forum. Life was good in the bar until a very drunk man came in with his wife and ordered a bottle of vodka. He sat at the table behind us and shouted to everyone that we should pay attention, and that this was his wife. He overheard us speaking English and then shooed me over in the booth to sit down at our table. He then began to arm wrestle Alex while saying that his name is Genghis Kahn and that he was a member of the Russian Duma, as well as a member of the White Guard. He was quite the colorful fellow.

Russia vs. Germany again.

Russia vs. Germany again.

Saturday was another packed day. I visited my friend Masha at her apartment in the southern part of the city and had lunch with her. I then raced back to the Venets to meet my Russian teacher, Marina Sergeevna. We strolled around the bank of the Volga a bit before buying a cake and heading down to see her friend Olga a museum where we caught up over tea and cake. After an all too brief visit there, I headed to the house of my adoptive Russian family, Lena and Vadim, where we were joined by Iriny, Nastya, and Werner, teachers at Smart. We had some barbeque sausages, and Vadim showed me how to make tea in a real samovar.

Om-nom-nom.

Om-nom-nom.

Apparently the best fuel is pinecones.

The real Russia.

The real Russia.

Vadim also showed me how to make my own shotgun shell, which I then fired from a shotgun through the window. I also got to hold his Dragunov rifle, and was told that we can fire it at the range the next time that I’m in Ulyanovsk.

Dragunov for the win.

Dragunov for the win.

I managed to sleep off most of the previous night’s activities to wake up and pack my bag. I had been given two bottles of samogon from different people as well as a very fancy bottle of vodka from the Politech. It was a struggle, but I managed to fit everything into my bags and to check out in time to meet Iriny at Coffee Bean for some caffeine. We also went to a bakery and got some very good ginger cookies before strolling around the Lenin Memorial for a few minutes. I then went back to the Venets to meet my good friends from the International Department for lunch.

Some of the coolest and nicest and most awesome people in the whole world.

Some of the coolest and nicest and most awesome people in the whole world.

After I bid goodbye to them, I met Werner and we went off to get a drink together. The first two bars we tried were closed, so we wound up in the newer Irish pub called Harrats, where we hung out for about an hour. Then we walked back to the hotel, where I was met by Natasha. Natasha and I were going to take a taxi to her parent’s place and grab her dad’s car, but I was met by Anna, who asked me to take two things on the train with me to her brother in Moscow. So then her husband Yura drove us to Natasha’s place. There, I had a quick nice meal with her parents and sister before Natasha took us to a part for a quick walk before taking me to the train.

Somehow luck really wasn’t on my side, and my compartment had a two month old baby, her parents, and a man of about 35 in it. The young couple was actually very sweet, and we had a very nice conversation at night and in the morning. I’m actually quite glad that I got to ride with them.

I was met at the train by Anna’s brother, who picked up the bags from me, and escorted me to the metro, where he paid for my ride in exchange for delivering the stuff for him. I then dropped me things off in the dormitory and went to the passport office to hand in my documents for my multi-entry visa. I’m now grounded in Moscow for a month until I get the new visa. Life was better in Ulyanovsk, where I know the governor, who once got me a new multi-entry visa in an hour.

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Comments
  1. Hannah Estifanos says:

    The video of you speaking is fantastic – especially because it sounds like there is theme music playing as you walk onstage.

    Also, sounds like the students got the really important words of wisdom you had to share – пельмени и Русский стандарт очень вкусно!

  2. makes me very nostalgic of my own second home, Ulyanovsk! Thanks for writing this blog!

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