Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ufa: the Beginning

After a long journey, I am thrilled to be back in Russia and in Ufa! We flew from DC to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Moscow, and Moscow to Ufa -- a solid 48 hours door to door.  

I have two funny travel stories: 

At Domodedovo airport, I was standing in “line” (or a big mass of people) next to a petite German lady who spoke no Russian and a few words of English. She could tell I knew Russian and understood the guards when they yelled “take a step back” (and no one did) so she clung onto me. She began speaking to me in German and I told her I speak English, flashing the navy blue (U.S. Passport). She motioned to whisper something into my ear, I lean down, she cups her mouth and whispers “f@&k,” as if she is a little girl being mischievous, even though that is probably one of the only words she knows.

Then when we were almost at the customs window, the Azerbaijani guy in front of me, who was probably no more than 35 years old, was debating with an Armenian guy who had been chilling near the window and thought he could just sneak on in. At the time, I did not know one was Azerbaijani and the other was Armenian. They were pretty civilized chatting together and agreed that the Armenian would sneak in behind him. I had been waiting for over an hour and was not about to wait longer, and the German lady signaled, “no, we were here” (you didn’t need to know Russian to read the situation). So I said “Sorry, we’ve been waiting.” The Azerbaijani said “so have we, so has everyone.” “Yes, well, in line, you can get behind us please.” “You’re a pretty girl, you can just wait.” (Typical line in this part of the world). I said, “I heard you two talking, and we were next in line, and ladies first, so you can go behind us.” Then the Russian lady behind us, entered “no, you can go behind me.” The Armenian dude said, “well then I’ll have to go behind everyone.” I said “well, ladies first,” playing off of his chauvinism. He then asked me if I was German, and I said I’m an American and showed him the passport. He then shut up and let me go. I smiled and said thank you.  It was only after I passed through customs I realized how gutsy it was to defend my place in line, in Russian, against an Armenian and Azerbaijani. But hey, that’s travel.


We arrived to Ufa at 1:30 in the morning and all sixteen of us were nothing short of exhausted. I took a taxi home and met my host mother standing at the door of our apartment building.

Ufa has the feel of a typical Russian city. It is larger than Vladimir, with a little over a million residents. As the capital of the Bashkir republic, all signs are in Russian and Bashkir, which reminds me of Kazakhstan. The first day, my tutor was supposed to walk me to class, but she is out of town until Sunday so Sasha, the director of the program’s daughter, accompanied me instead. Given that my tutor last summer was never available, I am beginning to think I have really bad luck with tutors. Oh well.

On the flip side, my host family is great. I am used to having eccentric host families and sleeping on small couches in Soviet-era apartments with a toilet that usually needs to be flushed more than once. But this time, I have a full-sized bed and a room with a computer and Internet (granted the computer is from 1996 and I use my own laptop). My previous host mothers have done everything from heal an aching ear with vodka to sing Lady Gaga while cooking. But this time, my host mother is totally normal. In fact, my host parents just moved into this apartment and are in the process of selling their old apartment. They recently renovated the apartment and the dry wall is still visible. They have a spacious kitchen and one bathroom – that is the shower and toilet are in the same room. That is unheard of in this part of the world. Plus, there is a hot water heater on top of the shower so we do not experience the two-week gap of no hot water during the summer when the pipes undergo maintenance. And in the sink, there is a filter and a separate tab for drinking water. THAT IS CRAY CRAY.

And I have a host mother and father – I usually have only a host mother. Renat, the father, works at a hydroelectric factory and Liobov, the mother, is a professor of Russian language and pedagogy at the same university I am studying for two months. This is both of their second marriages. They told me they planned the renovation knowing an American student was coming. So sweet.

Thursday and Friday were pretty uneventful – slept through most of Thursday and had an orientation in the afternoon. Then we had a placement test on Friday and slept Friday afternoon (still overcoming jetlag, as I am 11 hours ahead of EST). Friday evening I had dinner with Renat and Liobov, Renat’s 24-year old son from his first marriage and Tatiana, one of Liobov’s friends and a professor at the university. She is also a character. The son was pretty quiet – he works at a publishing house where they print magazines and newspapers. Renat also has a 26-year old daughter. I enjoyed listening to their banter on everything from the army to studying overseas.

When I woke up Saturday morning, Liobov asked if I wanted to go on an excursion with the parents. They were planning on taking me to museums and cultural sites throughout the city. Liobov called one of her friends who is very knowledgeable about these things to arrange a play-date of sorts. And Renat even broke out his camera during breakfast.

Now, this kind of host family attention is somewhat strange and unprecedented. Usually, the families give me some space and let you do whatever -- at least initially. They rarely make plans for a group outing. But Renat and Liobov decided we would take a trip to the gallery and have an exhibit.  

After lunch, all three of us went to the gallery – a modest storefront with realist style paintings of Ufa’s landscape, with back rooms featuring a gallery of a local Baskhortostani artist. As we walked there, Renat pointed out the first eight-story building in Ufa that was constructed in the 70s, as prior to that all buildings were three- or four-stories high. I acquired quite a few fun facts. At the gallery, we met up with Tatiana and Alessa, a tall, thin, red-head woman and good friend of Liobov who gave us a personal exhibit and explained the symbolism in the Tatar, Soviet-influenced contemporary art.  I found particularly interesting the paintings of the displacement of the Bashkir nomads during the development of Western Siberian oil resources. I’m more familiar with Kazakhstani and Azerbaijani experiences in this respect, but this definitely peaked my interest into exploring this more. Anyone have good book suggestions?

Afterwards, Renat, Liobov, Tatiana, Alessa and I returned home for tea. Rinat complained about contemporary art – how he just doesn’t get it – while Liobov’s friend defended the art as a unique mental and emotional experience. They then discussed the difference between American and Russian comedies, with one of the great Russian comedies being “Ivan Vasilyevich menyaet professiyo” (Ivan Vasilyevich changes professions), a film I watched in Russian class at Georgetown! So I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the conversation. I was then surprised to see they knew Charlie Chaplin better than I did – we (I mean they, with me as a spectator) spent a good twenty minutes impersonating old Charlie Chaplin clips.

I am impressed with how educated and well informed about American culture Renat and Liobov are. During our first dinner together, Liobov told me how she loved Mark Twain and recited one of his short stories of when a man attended a book lecture and approached the lecturer after the event and said “I know a book word-for-word where your speech appears.” The lecturer was stunned and insulted that this person would assume he plagiarized. The man than showed him a dictionary. It took me a minute, but Liobov thought it was hysterical.

Renat also told a joke: an African came to Ufa and said “Ufa has two winters, this (referring to the dry heat of the 90-degree Siberian winter) and winter in December (-30 degrees).” He’s also very Russian – we were walking back from the art gallery and passed an ice cream stand. He asked me if I wanted any and I said no thank you. He responded “gorlo boliit?” (Do you have a soar throat?”). I smiled, as Russians stay away from cold beverages and foods when they have a soar throat.

Anyways, so far, so good. I'm happy to be back in Russia and can't wait to see what adventures Ufa will bring. 

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