I think it’s fine to have feelings. I think it’s great. I think fine feelings are great too, those feelings that are so thin that when they pile up on each other it’s hard to “see” them as individual feelings; instead they seem like one head of feeling-hair. I have a lot of fine feelings, but some of the finest feelings in my life have come from leaving places I’ve become attached to. How do you describe how all of a sudden even the flight of a small black bird across a hazy and polluted sky seems like a memory worth holding on to? I want to see everything in Krasnoyarsk, all of a sudden; I want to walk circles around downtown all day; I want to step on every patch of dust and dirt and compare them all in detail; I want to get on every bus (if only just to get rid of all the coins I have); I want to find every construction site and think about how my final memory of it will always be a construction site and never a completed building. I want to sit in front of a blank wall and not get up until I’ve figured out exactly how a year can pass, exactly how twelve months go by, when it seemed like upon arrival in Krasnoyarsk that time would never pass, I would always have it. I don’t know what those feelings are, really. I can sort them according to three sources, though: sadness about leaving, appreciation of what I had here, and curiosity about the future. I can take these three sections of finer feelings and braid them into one: attachment to Krasnoyarsk. I knew this would happen.
I’m not actually a paleontologist, but I’m also not an English teacher anymore. Last Friday was my final day of work at the kindergarten, but since we went on a field trip on Friday, I taught my final lesson on Thursday. Last week’s theme was dinosaurs, so I taught a lesson about paleontology.
One of the students in my group got very sick a week or so ago, so there have been very few kids coming to the kindergarten recently. In the summer there are fewer kids to begin with, so I was teaching lessons to three or four five-year-olds last week.
Anyway, on Thursday we had our “role play” lesson, which is a nice deviation from the usual lesson structure, so I decided we would all become paleontologists. First I taught the kids a bunch of vocabulary words, using flashcards and pictures and discussion questions (okay, “discussion” is a bit of a generous term for broken sentences of broken English shared among Russian five-year-olds), building on what we learned in our fossil-themed lesson on Tuesday. Then I played a song called “I Am A Paleontologist” by They Might Be Giants, and since we (finally!) have wifi at the kindergarten I was able to show the kids the accompanying video on YouTube, which they loved. We learned some of the words and tried to sing along. Next, I had the kids close their eyes and imagine dinosaurs roaming Earth. Then I asked them to pretend they were paleontologists digging up fossils and bones of these very same dinosaurs. Then they opened their eyes and drew pictures of what they had imagined, and I asked them questions using the target vocabulary. Kids love to draw. Kids are great.
Lastly, we dug for dinosaur bones. Before the lesson, I had filled some containers with sand, burying pieces of a small model dinosaur skeleton inside. We used shovels (cups), brushes (paintbrushes), and picks (plastic knives for clay) to dig through the sand (luckily it had rained the night before so the sand in the sandbox I took the sand from was damp and rather solid) and find the bones. We took turns digging for a minute or so. I thought the kids might be impatient and sift through the sand impatiently and find all the bones in thirty seconds, but they took their paleontology seriously, scooping sand out the container carefully and reminding each other that they would break the bones if they were too hasty. They even brushed every last grain of sand off the plastic bones with the paintbrushes before carefully assembling the skeleton.
One girl asked me to play the paleontologist song over and over, which was awesome because I thought I was the only person who likes to listen to the same song on repeat for hours on end.
Overall, it was probably the best lesson I taught in my entire year at the kindergarten. My second-best lesson was probably my first lesson back after my vacation, a lesson about picnics. A teacher I work closely with, who happened to be present for most of this picnic lesson, told me afterwards that she was impressed by how I’d grown as a teacher. I didn’t expect words like this to make me feel as good as they felt (mostly because I didn’t expect to hear them (mostly because I didn’t expect to grow this much as a teacher (mostly because I didn’t think it was incredibly valuable for me to improve as a teacher (I was wrong)))), but ultimately they did make me feel good, especially because my next job will be very different from anything I’ve done before, and now when I worry about never being able to adapt to it I can think about how much I learned after just one year as a teacher — and I have decades to build a career in anything I want (within reason, I guess (it’s too late to become an astrophysicist, I think (unfortunately))). I now feel more prepared to enter a job that is new and confusing. I feel more prepared to learn on the job and improve and become a whatever-it-is-I-will-become.
I am leaving Russia in three days. I am freaking out.
A more appropriate title for this post would be “Summer In The Cities,” since I just returned from an eighteen-day vacation-within-a-yearlong-vacation that brought me to nine European cities, six friends, and four family members. But this is a blog about my time in Siberia, and it didn’t even feel like summer over there, anyway, so I’ll stick with the Lovin’ Spoonful song. (That said, I had a great time traveling.)
It is definitely summer in Krasnoyarsk, though. The temperature soared to 95 degrees today, which means I’ve experienced 120 different temperatures in the past eleven months, just in one city — and that’s just according to thermometers, not taking into account windchill and intense sunlight. Unfortunately, the days are getting shorter, but there’s still a sliver of light on the horizon past midnight. Before I left for my trip (on the longest day of the year, actually) the sky never got completely dark between sunset and sunrise. It was nothing like the white nights in St. Petersburg, but it was impressive all the same. Exposed to all this extra sunlight, Krasnoyarsk has erupted into a city of untamed green space, just like I remember it when I arrived nearly a year ago. Grass grows tall and uncut, and tree branches are weighed down with leaves so they often hang low over sidewalks. The air even smells green to me — that hot, humid, hazy smell you smell if a breeze is kind enough to blow by.
People are outside. They are rollerblading and riding bikes (but not like they do in Germany). They are taking walks and posing for pictures on giant tree trunks washed up on the shore of the Yenisei. They are wading in the river with their dogs. They are pushing their babies in strollers. Men are walking around with their shirts unbuttoned all the way. Women are wearing amazingly high heels (how? how??). Well, that’s all I’ll say about Russian fashion…
I haven’t been to work in a little over a month (hey, America, are you taking notes? why are you so stingy with vacation time?) so I have no updates regarding the little creatures in my life. I do miss them, but tomorrow I’ll be back.
In five weeks I’ll be home, but I’m not exactly processing that information at the moment.
My five- and six-year-old students’ new favorite game is Simon Says. Sometimes we play it at the end of our morning exercises, with no losers and everyone playing the whole time as a fun way of moving our bodies; sometimes, though, we play it as an actual game, and kids who mess up have to sit down. A few weeks ago I told my class that we would be playing without losers, and a couple kids protested, wanting to play an actual game. So I asked: “Who wants to play with losers?” The majority of the kids screamed their approval, so we started playing.
Strike one, kindergarten teacher. Strike one.
It’s so easy to think that, because these kids are so young, if one or two of them disagree with the majority it’s not a big deal, that they’ll just forget about it instantly, that they don’t actually have solid opinions founded on actual desires. Basically, it’s easy to forget they’re actual people.
So, anyway, we started playing without me realizing that I’d made a mistake. One student, V, messed up quickly. I told him (smiling, but still) that he lost and had to sit down. He just stood there and his eyes got huge and his little hands clenched into fists and all of a sudden he was crying and he stomped off to a corner.
We played a couple more rounds of the game, but I couldn’t stop glancing nervously at V. I ended the game early and told the kids to line up, and then I went over to V. I asked him why he was crying, and he answered (in English, impressively), “You asked if we wanted to play with losers and I said I didn’t want to, but we played with losers anyway!”
I was a quiet kid in school. I’m still a quiet kid. Why did I listen to what the loud majority wanted and not check to make sure every child wanted to play with losers? In theory, I shouldn’t do things like this, as a quiet-kid-turned-somewhat-quiet-adult. It wouldn’t have been a big deal to play without losers; why couldn’t I have checked to make sure none of the kids were uncomfortable?
It was a typical case of overlooking quiet, well behaved kids because louder kids overpower them. Avoiding this is difficult, but it’s well worth the effort.
A week ago, we (B, S (old college friend, new to Krasnoyarsk), and I) moved to a new apartment. This meant trading our place between Akademgorodok and the center of the city for one actually in the center; surrendering sunsets over Vetluzhanka (an outer region of the city) for sunsets over Kopylova (a street linking downtown to not-downtown); and having to transfer all our belongings across the city — but all in all moving was a fantastic idea and a great success.
The move also meant ditching the 38 bus (aka the lonesome crowded bus) as part of my to-and-from-work routine. The bus I take now, the 83, is almost always a full-sized bus (unlike the 38, which was small (and very often crowded)). Unlike the 38, it is large enough to accommodate its passengers and it runs frequently. My new bus stop is about ten minutes closer to my apartment than my old bus stop was to my old place. Commuting to work is now much more convenient.
You know that feeling when something inconvenient or annoying but not actually harmful is about to come to an end and you begin to feel strangely attached to it? Well, that’s what I felt during my last trip on the 38, my stomach lurching as the bus bumped along and entered Akademgorodok. I used to recognize a lot of faces on the 38; what’s going to happen to these people now that I won’t be seeing them anymore? What’s going to happen to that jolly-looking woman with the short black hair? The young guy with the Bjorn Borg bag who always fell asleep in the back of the bus? The hip couple with the cool glasses? The guy who looked like David Byrne?
In the mornings, the 83 bus doesn’t have many passengers, despite its bigger size. Everyone is all spread apart with tons of empty space separating them; this is so unlike the 38. Loneliness on the 83 is a much more traditional loneliness than loneliness on the 38.
I like almost everything about living in the center of the city. Our apartment is very nice: it’s comfortable and bright, and it has huge windowsills that are perfect for sitting on (what more could I ask for?). Everything feels different here in this unfamiliar apartment, but enough feels exactly the same — I still walk around on the same streets when I go for walks downtown, I still eat the same food, I still have the same job (and the commute takes the same amount of time) — that it was, overall, an effortless transition.
Today I spent the entire afternoon downtown and discovered that Krasnoyarsk has been transformed. I took a bus from work into the city, emerging after 40 minutes into a fully mature spring afternoon featuring yellow sunlight, blue skies, sidewalks full of people, and that smell of everything coming back to life.
It was unusually warm for early April, over 60 degrees F. The sun’s rays were like spotlights; they pushed all traces of the frozen winter aside and illuminated the intricate-and-occasionally-crumbling facades and balconies of the city, throwing nooks and crannies along sloping rooftops into deep shadowy contrast. I swear this stuff wasn’t there a month ago.
Windows were thrown open and the goings-on inside stores, restaurants, and conference-like halls were left to spill onto the stone sidewalks. Groups of teenagers gathered in a park, playing guitar and dancing. People of all ages devoured ice cream on sticks. The city seemed touched by life: permission to become a true city, active and smiling and focused on being outdoors, had been granted by the sun’s energy.
Everyone walking on the city streets looked beautiful, their limbs carrying them easily over the no-longer-slippery sidewalks, their torsos freed from their nearly identical fur-coat coverings, their long hair flowing uncovered by hats for the first time in months. For some reason short-sleeved coats are in style this spring and I can’t understand that but I don’t even care.
My bus home got stuck in traffic and I didn’t care about that either. I stood opposite the doors, and every time they opened to scoop up more passengers and deposit others I felt the spring breeze, hardly warmer or cooler than the comfortable air already surrounding me.
The winter definitely had its own charm, but it could never bring this city to life like an unusually warm spring day. Everyone looks alive and waiting for summer.
A few weeks ago I was stuck on a crowded bus home from work when my phone rang. It was M. “We’re in Russia,” he said, as I stuck my phone between my ear and my shoulder and grabbed a handrail to keep from falling over. “You’re right,” I answered, regaining my balance. “Is that all?” I added. He answered with a “yeah” and we hung up and I got off the bus and walked home.
Sometimes it is really strange to think that I signed up to spend a year of my life in Siberia. Russia is a complicated country. Its history is intriguing, but this history produced a frustrating twenty-first-century country, especially from a Westerner’s point of view. Russia moves slowly and often in directions many of us (again, Westerners) see as strange or confusing or wrong.
Krasnoyarsk itself is a nice city, supposedly one of the nicest in Siberia. There is natural beauty outside the city and there are places here I enjoy visiting, but it’s not the St. Petersburg of my gilded dreams. (I feel very attached to it nonetheless, though, because I am a very sentimental person.)
When I was in Petersburg, most of my impressions came from aesthetics. They came from long walks on long days with extremely long sunsets. Everything was beautiful, even when it was run down, and I deemed the city interesting based on museums, art galleries, stores, parks, restaurants, and bars that I popped in and out of briefly over the course of two quick months.
My time in Krasnoyarsk has been drastically different. The walks are still long, but the days are shorter, the aesthetic is completely different, and the places I frequent are different. But I live here and I work here; I don’t feel such a rush to do exciting things all the time because I only have two months, like I did in Petersburg. And this is good, because there are significantly fewer exciting things to do in a small city in the middle of Siberia than there are in St. Petersburg.
But I rarely think about that because I live here and I have friends here and we find fun things to do all the time anyway, and I have a job here and I go to work and go to the grocery store on the way home and then walk the same way home every day. I live here. I exist here. I am more than just a pin on a map here. What reminds me of that? What makes me happy to be alive here?
The real joy of being here comes from the struggle of learning Russian. Although my confidence in my language ability has risen and dropped — nearly as routinely as the mountains across the Yenisei River as the eye scans the horizon — I’m certain my actual ability to speak Russian has improved drastically since I arrived here over seven months ago. Especially with the addition of a handful of Russian friends to my life — the type of friends that were so desired but so difficult to attain on study abroad, which are now pretty much my only options when it comes to new friends — my Russian is growing in all sorts of directions. (Let’s just say the Russian I hear with my friends is much more colorful than the Russian I learn in class.)
Every day when I wake up I am presented with the challenge of learning Russian. The challenge hits me in the face with the cold morning air every time I leave my apartment building. It greets me on mornings when I’m feeling optimistic, and on mornings when I’m feeling pessimistic it’s ringing annoyingly in my ear along with my alarm clock. It’s always there, even when I stay in my apartment for an entire frigid Sunday, because now that I have Russian friends I have Russian messages to answer on the computer and on my phone.
This challenge stifled me nearly three years ago, when I was in St. Petersburg. It stifled me seven months ago when I arrived in Krasnoyarsk. It stifled me today when I was in the supermarket and the cashier asked me for one-hundred rubles and forty kopecks and I gave her one-hundred forty rubles by mistake. But it stifles me so rarely now, even when it poses difficulties. (It stifled me today in the supermarket mainly because the cashier was annoying about it and embarrassed me.)
The difficulties are challenging, but I’m beginning to think that rewarding and desired challenge is what keeps people’s minds fresh and focused. (I think I always thought this all along, and this is why I can’t wrap my head around the idea of using natural intelligence as an excuse for not being curious about any sort of challenging development of the brain (be it book learning or keeping up with current events or teaching yourself programming languages (or, hey, spoken languages)) because you’re smart and can get by without that stuff. (You knew people like that in college, right?))
The end goal of a challenging experience (mine hypothetically being speaking Russian fluently (which I, unfortunately, will not be able to do by the time I leave (why didn’t I just continue studying Spanish!?))) is not all that makes people happy; it’s also the learning process, which poses challenges that build confidence (even while they occasionally break down confidence (like in the supermarket today)) and security in one’s self, that do this.
I’ve felt all of those improvements especially strongly since January. Even though the future still scares me (this doesn’t go away, does it?), the present is a place where I feel very comfortable and very much alive.
Title adapted from a line from a Lucksmiths song. The actual line is: “Dive in, the summer is good to be alive in,” so maybe I’ll use it as a title again in a few months.