Irkutsk Day

September 18, 2011


First off, let me apologize again for the long stretch in between posts. Reasons given: More problems with internet (hopefully finally settled for good), and days here, for whatever reason, seem to only be about five hours long. So much to write about, but I’ll stick to one topic here.

Last Wednesday was Day of the City, which sounds bad in English so I’ll call it Irkutsk Day. The celebration commemorated the city’s 350th year of existence with several events in the center of the city, including variety shows, concerts, and a special day-long traffic jam.

I know it might be trite, but this officer just looked so Russian, I had to put the picture up.

The three of us in the Middlebury program decided to spend the day (classes were cancelled) with our new Russian friends Dasha, Masha, Sasha (not making this up), Yana and Nastya—a different Nastya, for those of you who know the beloved former TA. We started the day by strolling through a historical park at the city center, where log cabins house working post offices and where blacksmiths stand on the street and hammer molten hot pieces of metal. The feeling of being pulled back in time on the city’s 350th birthday was a fitting one, and to be amongst the crowd when they released hundreds of balloons and opened the gates for us to enter was a celebration in itself.

Unfortunately, it was very cold, and after spending a few hours outside we spent the next few looking for an open table in a café or restaurant in the city center. As one can imagine, everyone wanted out of the chilly wind. The best spot we found was a corner of a small convenience store, where we stood happily with cups of tea in our hands. Around this time is when a series of new faces continued to stream in and out of our group; another Nastya came and left, along with a boy whose name I didn’t catch, and at some point Yulia taggled along and Yana and Nastya and Sasha left. This will become important later in the story.

Our grad student Mark in front of a manhole cover that reads "Irkutsk 350 years."

We met up with our coordinator Will in the city center after some time, and together watched the tail end of the main concert. Upon arrival, the singers were terrible, but soon the entertainment vastly improved, with Irkutsk State University’s national-champion variety-hour crew as emcee (they very recently won a television show that seems to be a team-style combination of Last Comic Standing, Dancing With the Stars and America’s Got Talent). The end of the party was not a bang, but a somber fizzle of consecutive speeches by a senator, some talking head from Medvedev’s cabinet, the mayor (the most charismatic of the bunch), and a handful of local heroes from Soviet times. Favorite quote of the whole thing: “Irkutsk lived, lives, and will live.” A similar phrase regarding the immortality of Lenin is ironically plastered onto his mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square.

After the show, Will took us all to a nearby Chinese restaurant, where we were given a private room, given the size of the group. This really only served as a designated foreigner’s area, however, and every 10 to 15 minutes or so someone from elsewhere in the restaurant would come in to look at us as though getting a private glimpse at the zoo’s newest exhibit. Will, we Midd kids, Dasha and Masha ate; Yulia asked if it was ok to smoke at the table, and order a few drinks for herself. She talked to Masha quite a bit, but tended to keep quiet otherwise. At one point I pulled some Bolivian money out of my wallet to show Dasha, who studies Spanish, and Yulia asked me a few questions about what South America is like. This, I need to highlight, was the extent of our getting to know each other. I should also note that I didn’t actually know her name at any point during these events, or those that later transpired.

It was late, and Masha and Dasha called a cab to go home, and invited me along, as I live right across the road from Dasha. Yulia said she did too, and the four of us drove off to Universitetskii, while the others took a bus in the other direction. I was the first to get out, and gave Dasha some money to pay the fare. When I closed the door, I noticed Yulia had gotten out as well, and had started to walk. I caught up with her, and told her how funny it was that she lived nearby. Where exactly, I asked. She said she didn’t know. With the conversation thus killed, I offered to walk in her direction; she mumbled something about the Russian Soul and traced my footsteps. I realize how fictional that may sound, but it is what it is.

We got to my corridor entrance. Dumbfounded, I asked her which room she lived in here while I pulled out my keys and opened the door. With no answer, I stopped, and turned around. You don’t live here, do you, I said stupidly. She said give me thirty seconds, wrapped herself around me, and without warning started to cry.

That got weird fast, and I didn’t know what to do, so I told her again that I would walk her home. She stopped hugging me, and pinning me up against the wall, kissed me on the mouth! As funny or fantastical as this all may sound, my only reaction was confused fear: to be in a situation in which you think you have control, and you think you know what is going on, and then to have the carpet swept from under your feet can be really frightening. Instead of asking her outside, I more or less dragged her to the corner. When she followed me back home, I said good night as politely as possible from the other side of the cracked corridor entrance door, and watched to make sure she’d go home for good this time.

I can’t say that this ruined my holiday, although as my follow Irkutian Ben could attest (I called him immediately), I was quite shaken up by the concluding events, and didn’t fall asleep until the early morning. Unmentioned great parts of the day: standing in front of the central fountains after midnight, eating kopcherniy cyr, a type of salty string-cheese that, despite being delicious, kind of looks like spaghetti-shaped gray matter; watching the fireworks burst over the city lights (the yellowing affects of which unfortunately resulting in a string of terrible photographs); and deepening our friendships with those we were with. It’s great to finally have good friends here, it really does make every day out here worth it.

Just as a side note: I realize that I’ve slammed two doors in two faces at the end of the last two posts. I can’t say I ever remember doing such a thing before, but out here you do what you have to do to protect yourself from the crazies. I’m also hoping this isn’t a harbinger for the year to come.

Here are some of my favorite photos that I wanted in my last post. As is evident, they are favorites for different reasons.

Omul, one of Baikal's many prizes, being dried and sold at a market on shore.

A man and his gun on Baikal. This photo seems to encapsulate the many reasons why concealed weapons just don't seem to be a problem in Russia like they are in the US.

The sun on the lake. A true wonder of the world.


5 Responses to “Irkutsk Day”

  1. Nate, you and the ladies! I’m only going to say, that I did tell you so 🙂

  2. Daniel Lee said

    AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH. Even in Russia you do so well with the women.

    Congrats…though I wonder how other parties might feel about this encounter. Great to read another post. keep it up. I also love the gun photo. It feels rather “Texany” to me.

    • nateinsiberia said

      I had a feeling you’d leave a little something about both the occurrence and the photo. I thought it particularly Texany myself, and though I don’t usually think of you when I see large domestic weaponry, I did think you would enjoy this one especially. Glad to see you’re still reading.

  3. HOLLAmasta5000 said

    hahaha damn son usually they cry after you kiss them, no? watd she look like?

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