A Snowy Sojourn to Ulyanovsk

Posted: November 8, 2016 in Uncategorized
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A few hours ago, my train arrived back in Moscow from Ulyanovsk. I left over a week ago, last Friday night, on the train to Ulyanovsk. This time around, I had a travel companion in my kupe with me, my friend and former student Natasha. She had been in Moscow for a few days to see a concert, and we decided to head to Ulyanovsk together. As I was tired from working in the archive and she was tired from the concert, we fell asleep pretty early into the evening, and the two other men in the compartment with us didn’t talk to us much. On Saturday morning, we woke up in Ulyanovsk and took a taxi from the station together. We dropped Natasha off at work, and then I went to the hotel to check in and change and shower. The taxi itself was pretty cool. Russia’s equivalent of Google, Yandex, has its own taxi service that is also app based, like Uber or Lyft. Yandex Taxi has been in Moscow for a while, and just opened up in Ulyanovsk about a week or two before I arrived. The application is fast and reliable, and my rides with Yandex taxi were probably the only ones I’ve taken in a Russian taxi that had an actual meter and did not have a broken windshield.

I went to sleep in fall and woke up in winter in Ulyanovsk.

I went to sleep in fall and woke up in winter in Ulyanovsk.

I spent much of Saturday afternoon preparing for a camp that I went to, more on that later, and relaxing before meeting the new Politech Fulbrighter for dinner at a noodle place called Mister Doodls. Apparently, lo mein style noodles have finally appeared in Russia, or at least in the provinces. The place offered a few different types of noodle dishes with various meats and sauces, and there was a choice of four kinds of noodles as well as how spicy the noodles would be.

After noodles, we then went to Gonzo bar. We were enjoying ourselves, being fairly conspicuous Americans having drinks at the bar. At one point, a drunk Russian guy came in and sat next to us. Eventually, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could speak with us and if we spoke Russian. I said he could talk to us. He asked why we were here, and I explained that I had a Fulbright and that Katie has it now. He said he wanted to talk to us because he saw that we both have glasses and that his daughter has some vision problems, and that she might go blind. He was clearly there to drink his problems away, and quickly got off of topic. He told us that he was in the mafia and that he is respected in Ulyanovsk. He proceeded to show us how he was missing part of a finger on his left hand and how half of the fingers on that hand didn’t work. As long as we were with him, nothing would happen to us. He would make sure that we were ok. He was clearly creeping us out, and we kept looking to the bartenders for help, but they just acted like everything was normal. The guy’s name was Andrei, which he told us, but was reinforced when he wanted to show us a photo of his dog on his phone and had issues with the touch screen. He angrily threw his phone onto the floor, and was only slightly scolded by the bartenders who said, “Why, Andryusha?” One waitress picked up his phone, and she handed it to the one bartender who turned it on and said that it was working just fine. When we finally to go out while he smoked, he said that he was respected and known at the bar and that he would talk to security and have us kicked out if we didn’t go out with him, and that we would regret our decision. Thankfully, he eventually left to smoke and we quickly paid and left the bar while he was distracted while talking to a waitress. While he left, we asked the bartender what was going on, and they said not to worry about him, that it was just Andryusha being Andryusha. We decided we had enough of him bothering us, so we left for the bar next door.

The scary mafioso.

The scary mafioso.

We chatted about life in Ulyanovsk and teaching at the Politech. The night was fun because there was a live band that played some good songs, including a fun cover of Skyfal, which led to a conversation about the best Bonds and best Bond films. We had to leave fairly because of the 11:00 curfew at the dorms. We tried to get Katie a Yandex taxi, but there weren’t any cabs reporting on the app. I then told her that we needed to walk a block or so down the road, to a street where there are generally always cabs at night. There was indeed a cab there, and Katie told me that it was good to know me because I know all of the important people and tricks to living in Ulyanovsk.

On Sunday I headed to the SMART school for the real purpose of my visit, which was to be a counselor at an English language camp through Friday morning. A woman who had I not met before named Yulia was giving us a ride to the camp in her car. Also with us was a guy from Bangladesh named Rakib, who I also didn’t know. Finally, I was reunited with Stas, who was a kid at the first camp I worked at and now a counselor, and my good friend Egor, aka George. The entire ride to the camp was accompanied with a soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s newest album. Eventually, we arrived at Aleksandrovskaya Slaboda, a resort outside of Novy Gorod.

Stas tried to take over the role of driver from Yulia.

Stas tried to take over the role of driver from Yulia.

We got to the camp and put our things in the cabins, which we were assigned to. I was in cabin 25, and was supposed to share my room with Lena and Nastya. In the evening, we prepared some events for the next day at the camp and tested out a roll playing, murder mystery game. I was a priest and had to accuse a witch of using black magic and of being the killer. Sadly, they don’t tell you how to say words like that in Russian class, but I was able to call her a witch and say that she was the anti-Christ. After the game, some of us headed off to sleep while others prepared different things for the next day.

Paradise in the Russian woods.

Paradise in the Russian woods.

After breakfast, the kids started to arrive, and chaos ensued at the camp as usual. Each of the counselors was assigned to a specific group. My group was C-1, or 7th and 8th graders. They were assigned to live with another group of younger teens in Cabin 22, which Stas had to live in and was completely in charge of. However,  during free time, I also had to report to Cabin 22 and make sure everything was in order, not on fire, and to usher the kids off to meals, lessons, or events. Over the course of the four days, I had lessons which each group of children, ranging from ages 8 to 16, at least once. For the younger children, I ended up talking about myself and America, first in English, and then I would repeat my sentences in Russian. With the teenagers, we did cultural lessons almost completely in English. At times, I would ask them how to say certain things in Russian, and they offered me a few more slang phrases to add to my repertoire.

All the best counselors.

All the best counselors.

The camp was fantastic. The resort was really fancy, and I didn’t want to leave my magical cabin or clean and modern shower behind. The food at the camp was good at some times, and other times it was terrible, but I was given three meals a day that I did not have to cook myself, so I was not complaining. I also had fun playing video games with my campers in our cabin. Apparently, Russian teens find it cool when you can beat them at Mortal Kombat. As usual, I didn’t sleep much at the camp, and was exhausted from essentially non-stop 14 hour days. Each day, I had either four or five lessons with the kids of an hour each. We also had events such as quests, game nights, and dances.

A super Soviet breakfast.

A super Soviet breakfast.

On Friday morning, we woke up for the last breakfast at the camp, and then kids either took buses back to Ulyanovsk, or were met by their parents. After most of the kids were sent off, my group was allowed to drive back to the city. This was easier said than done. The first step was to push Yulia’s car out of the snow, and up a few hills on the camp road until we got to the main road. As we had summer tires and the snow had been pretty heavy the night before, Yulia and company were making some dark Russian humor about how it was good that she and I were wearing hats, because they would keep our brains some spilling all over the road.

With Stas and Rakib.

With Stas and Rakib.

About ninety minutes after leaving the camp, we crossed over the new bridge and dropped George off at his house, then Yulia dropped me and Rakib off near the school. Rakib and I went to the school to hang out with Iriny for a while. She was supposed to have had a lesson that day, but a few of her students didn’t show up, so we had free time to catch up about her recent trip to India, drink some tea, and walk into the city center. On the way, I saw my former neighbor Vadim, and then we went to explore TsUM a little. Many Russian cities have a TsUM, which was a Soviet created acronym that stands for Central Universal Store. Back when I lived in Ulyanovsk, TsUM was a somewhat crumbling specimen of Soviet architecture, but over the past few years it has been completely renovated. It is now full of trendy, modern stores including a noodle shop and café.

Pretty soon after walking to the center with Rakib and Iriny, I met my friend Natasha for coffee.

Goofing around in Ulyanovsk, as usual.

Goofing around in Ulyanovsk, as usual.

George eventually showed up with his car, and we went off to get shashlyk at our favorite place in Ulyanovsk. While waiting in line for food, I felt a tap on my shoulder and was incredibly pleased to see my former neighbor Dayanch from the dormitory. He was there with his wife, and we chatted for a bit while waiting for our food. Although the shashlychnaya has some of the best food in the city, it is not a great place to sit and eat. There are just tables in a more or less enclosed structure that has no heat. As it was cold and snowing, George and I ate in his car.

I want all of the meat.

I want all of the meat.

We then rode around a bit, and eventually wound up at Aquamall and a French created equivalent of Costco. We killed time there, then headed back to the center where we picked up Iriny and my bag from Smart. George then dropped us off at her apartment, by way of the store. He went to leave his car at home and join us for a night of home cooked Indian food, drinks, and catching up. George left around mid-night and then I stayed at Iriny’s for the night.

I woke up around 9AM, and Iriny made me a breakfast of Indian sandwiches before I walked about a mile to Natasha’s school, where I grabbed the keys to her apartment, where I would be spending the night and taking care of her cat Kevin while she went to Samara to see a different concert. I walked back to Iriny’s, where we chatted more, until she had to leave for work. We then walked to Natasha’s, which was nearby, and I basically napped for a few hours before meeting Iriny. Thankfully, Kevin was well behaved and let me sleep without problems. I then got up, showered, and met Iriny at TsUM. Shortly after, George came with his car to pick us up. We stopped to get shawarma before driving back to Ashan again. We spent a while at Ashan, then we dropped off Iriny at her apartment and George dropped me off at Natasha’s, where I went to bed around 10:00.

Mercifully, Kevin let me sleep until 9:30 before he woke me up. I made some breakfast, packed up my stuff, and took at taxi to the Venets, where I checked in and dropped off my stuff. I then ventured into the city to walk around for a few hours. I was about to walk to the shashlychnaya again, but decided to try a burger from a food truck called Good Burger. None of the burgers had explanations, and I settled on ordering the namesake burger. Plus, what self-respecting child of the 90s wouldn’t order a Good Burger when given a chance? To my surprise, the burger came with beets on it. It was perhaps the most Russian burger ever, and it was very delicious.

Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger.

Welcome to Good Burger, home of the Good Burger.

I took a stroll down to the end of Goncharova, the main street, to the war memorial. There are some large sign boards around the memorial, and they were displaying some ultra-nationalistic slogans cheering for the Day of National Unity as well as “We Need a Great Russia!” Eventually, I wound up at my old haunt Coffee Bean for a coffee with Iriny, who waited with me for George to arrive. They said goodbye, because George had to drive back to his aviation university in Buguruslan, where he is studying to become a pilot. George and I drove off for a bit. He got a shawarma for the road before dropping me off at the hotel, where I killed some time before dinner. Natasha came a few hours before dinner to get the keys to her apartment. I also called Olga from the museum and my former Russian teacher Marina Sergeevna to set up a meeting the next day with someone who had previously worked in the Ulyanovsk archives. I then took the tramvai to Natasha’s apartment and then we walk across the bridge over the Sviyaga river to Aquamall, where we got dinner at an American themed bar called Yankee Bar. There was a live band that was pretty good. My chicken parm was decent, but very Russian with the addition of dill.

Chicken parm should not come with dill. Nor should there be croutons in it either.

Chicken parm should not come with dill. Nor should there be croutons in it either.

On Monday, met with the archive guy, who gave me really useful information for my topic and will help me do further dissertation research in Ulyanovsk. When I return, I need to get books from a store that is delightfully named “The Palace of Books.” And, on another super positive note, it seems that I will need to do some research at the local automotive factory, UAZ!

From the museum, I headed quickly up to the Politech to say hello to everyone there. I walked into Office 102, and Masha told Pavel Borisovich, the head of the international department, that I was there. He came out of his off, bear hugged me, picked me up, and spun me around. The entire office was in shock that I got such a reaction from Pavel Borisovich. We had tea and chatted quickly, and he yelled at me for not having come by sooner or told him that I was coming to Ulyanovsk. The whole trip, indeed, had been a short notice trip for the purpose of me coming to help out at the language camp at Smart.

Politech in a snowstorm!

Politech in a snowstorm!

After speaking with Pavel Borisovich, I briefly headed up to the kafedra to briefly say hello there. I finally got a chance to see Olga Anatolievna, one of the German teachers, and the two of us caught up briefly. I then ventured back to 104, and rode to Yura’s place with him. Anna cooked a lovely dinner of potatoes and mushrooms as well as zapekanka, a tvorog (cottage cheese esque) based dessert. We chatted a bit and had fun before I took a taxi to the train station. I had to leave earlier than usual because of the bad weather. We also had to allow extra time to swing by the Venets to get my bag.

The taxi ride was in a Lada Priora with a broken windshield. The car was also having massive electrical problems. I’m not sure if the lights were working or not, because he kept turning them on and off, and at a few red lights, he turned the car on and off. We also had to stop for gas at one point.

I got to the train station with plenty of time to spare, and had three nice compartment mates. One was a lady of roughly 60. There were also two men, one of about 40 who got off at Ryazan at 5:30 AM, and another of about 55. The 55 year old guy engaged me in conversation, as did the woman, in the morning. The woman complained about having been visiting her son in Ulyanovsk. She is from Moscow, and her son moved to Ulyanovsk with his wife, who comes from Ulyanovsk, to raise his family. Her one daughter lives in Moscow, and her other daughter moved to Quebec with her French husband, who she met at university in Moscow. The woman kept complaining about her children not having enough grand children, and thought that it was weird that I am not married at 27. She then went on a tirade about kids these days.

Sadly all good things must come to an end.

Sadly all good things must come to an end.

And so concludes another trip to Lenin’s home town. Tomorrow it’s back to the military archive for me.

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