The 2011-2012 academic year swelled and heaved like the belly of a wooly babushka: sometimes full, jolly, and content, other times deflated, empty, and sagging. The end was more on the droopy side. I started staying home and complaining about the internet more (always a bad move, I know) and just feeling uninspired. It was one of those nasty cycles, whereby winter-induced laziness only worsened my lack of inspiration. It wasn’t quite “тоска,” (toska) this quintessentially Russian concept of a sort of empty longing for something intangible, a heavy, sticky, swampy boredom of the soul, but it felt close. The snow, which usually reflects the sun and flicks glitters of inspiration into your heart every morning, chose to reflect our soggy spirits:
We were all thoroughly grayed out. 150 shades of grey. Greyscale. Stuck in the grey zone of mediocrity that smells like moldy towels. Cheap cigarette ash -grey. Canadian and Britishly spelled gray. Earl Grey. Peter the Grey -t.
There were nuggets of great times in between, though!
Olga Anatolevna, my host and boss and the most extraordinary human in Khanty-Mansiysk, as well as two students and I all went to Yaroslavl’ to attend a conference for English teachers and translators. That was invigorating. I felt like this:
There were countless presentations, and the vast majority were really interesting and bursting with enthusiasm and potential. One woman spoke of methods to teach English and ASL (American Sign Language) to deaf students. Because the Russian sign language is different, her work was helping her students (from children to adults) to connect with new communities and lifestyles around the world. (Life for a disabled Russian is incredibly difficult. There are an alarmingly few number of resources for physically handicapped Russians – apartments and buildings often lack elevators (even those that have them often have only steps to get into the first floor), generally no ramps for boarding public transportation. For learning or developmental disabilities, the schools that do exist are few and far apart, and typically there is a cost burden as well.) There was a brilliant translator who spoke of her 10+ years translating novels. She was sharply charismatic, sported short, pumpkin pie colored hair, and a long nose that had a bump for every obstacle she’s had to overcome. She was funny and loved the expression, “it’s not his cup of tea,” using it about as many times in her hour-long presentation as I would drink cups of tea in a day. Thomas Santos, such a vivacious, theatrical speaker, could talk about the nuances of toothpick manufacturing for two hours and would end up with an Oscar, two marriage proposals, and a gilded subway stop in his honor by the end of it. Olga Anatolevna and I did a nice little presentation on the importance of film title translations. I did a lot of talking for it, but you can at least check out the bare slides here.
Basically, the titles were often purposely mistranslated, we found more often than not for marketing purposes. We liked some of the titles, which were adjusted to keep puns or proverbs and the like, but many others were just absurd. (Bridesmaids was “translated” to Bachelorette Party in Vegas and a movie about a bunch of greedy real estate agents, Glengarry Glen Harris, was “translated” to Americans, to name just two.) One fascinating presentation by a Russian professor of English/ educational administrator looked at the controversial new Russian college-level standardized state examinations, the госы. They are based on a western model of testing that has not been matching up with Russian educational culture at all, effectively deepening the rift in Russia’s ongoing Europe or Asia? identity crisis. I think her slides were fascinating. Overgeneralized for sure, but show a sharp contrast in views. If you can’t read the slides in the small picture, click to enlarge.
And oh, the certificates that were handed out! Certificates of participation, certificates validating that you gave a presentation, certificates proving that you shared the same air as the near godly Thomas Santos, certificates confirming that you are indeed a human being, certificates confirming that the certificate before it was legitimate. Notarized and stamped, often a gold seal was involved.
As for the city itself, Yaroslavl was bursting at the seams with those springtime feelings. Yaroslavl’ day was sunshiny and proud, fresh grads, dressed in their preschool uniforms (a definitive Lolita feel), promenades with preposterously tall fountains and heroic classical music.
Another great moment was a night fishing trip back in Khanty. It hadn’t quite become White Nights yet, but it was close; the sky wouldn’t darken, it just vacillated between varying shades of pink and purple like an etherial lava lamp. We drank and laughed in cameo gear and caught some fish and slept in bug spray clouds.
Toured a few schools in the area – a charter elementary school and the Center for Gifted Children of the North. They were fantastic! The two schools were beautiful – modern, clean, spacious, full of plants, classrooms were nice. Given, I only toured the schools they wanted me to tour, and while I’m sure there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes (like there is all over the world), what I did see of them made an excellent impression. There are a lot of townsfolk that don’t care about, or don’t even like, Khanty-Mansiysk, but the generation that is being raised under new circumstances and in these new facilities has a very different opinion, and understandably so! There were a lot of numbers being thrown about – # students won awards, # teachers per student, # hours of ###% quality education per week. I was able to see these places thanks to Rafel, an American fellow working for the State Department (in Education) who came by to check out KhM. The attention was comically over the top – itineraries with gold embossed stamps, giant vases of glossy flowers hectically brought out, classrooms and students alike fine-tuned, buffed, and sculpted. All for the show, taken down upon his departure.
We also had a closing photoshoot with the mammoths and other prehistoric rulers of the Khanties.
Also, a quick nod to the city planner / architect of Khanty-Mansiysk. Practicality and accessibility are not always the number one concerns.
The year tapered off anti-climactically with reduced attendance and reduced enthusiasm (both on my part and my students’). The second to last day, I had a going-away barbecue, where I gathered my students and friends for one mass goodbye fest. We were all having a jolly time, until one particularly sardonic friend brought me a sneakily delicious cranberry самагонь (moonshine, basically) after which I proceeded to remember nothing of the rest of the night. Allegedly, there was a period of incurable sobbing on my part, which, after first being embarrassed hearing about it the next day, was actually a relief: despite the grayness of the ending, I thankfully still had the capacity for human emotions! That was reassuring. The next morning was this: a stringy hangover, a blurry packing rush, a disastrous attempt to mail 20 lbs of aging Soviet books home (and, guess what!!! two months later, they arrived on my porch!!), a stream of guests and tea. By the end of the day, my shoulders hung as worn out and indifferently as the yellowing fire escape map on the door. I crunched in handful of hours of sleep and, in an indifferent daze, indifferently boarded the plane.
Fell asleep for long enough for my unbrushed teeth to grow a five o’clock fuzz, and woke up on the cement-and-volcano-cloaked peninsula of Kamchatka.