Thursday, February 19, 2009

Pictures/too lazy to blog about the rest of the trip/an exciting encounter with the local artists' community

So here are all of my pictures from Europe:


St. Petersburg:


Berlin I & II:

Prague I & II:


So, after you're done admiring all of these pictures, you can read on. So I left off somewhere in Berlin, and I think I'm going to leave it there. You get get a lot of the story from the pictures and descriptions if you're interested, and if you're really interested, I recommend reading Abbichka or Matt's blogs or asking me yourself.

So I've been back in Tomsk for about three weeks now. I've been loving it. It's so nice to stay put for a bit. I missed all of my friends here and the city itself. I even missed the weather. St. Petersburg and Moscow were so damp and gross. Tomsk, despite the -40 degree weather, is dry and predictable, no rain, not so much wind, etc. It's nice to be back in my cute little apartment living my cute little Siberian life. Only, after Amsterdam, I really, really want a bicycle. We'll see.

So what I really want to tell you about is the most exciting thing that's happened to me since I've been back. This Sunday I was asked to lead a special Valentine's Day film discussion at the American Center, the film selection, You've Got Mail. Woohoo! But, on the way out, after paying a 1.5 ruble fine at the garderobe for my coat hook thingy being ripped, I stepped outside and set my books and notebooks on the ground to put my hat on. Up comes this Russian woman with huge bag of books. She says, "That's no way to treat books!" I answer, "No, you see, I set the books on my notebook." She accepts my explanation and starts chatting me up. She says, "Today's my Birthday!" and I answer "Congratulations!" (I was not being a jerk, this is what you're supposed to say in Russian). So she says, "Do you like the theater?" "Yes." "Do you like Chekhov?" "Yes." "Well then let's go!" ("poekhali!"-an emphasis on the fact that we'll be taking a bus). I, in a silly mood from watching a romantic comedy and discussing it with a bunch of Russian twenty-year-olds, agree, "Poekhali!" She gives me a little plastic bag for my books and thrusts all of hers into my arms. So she drags me into the Pushkin library. We hop on a bus and we're off!

We're late. The coat check's full. We dump our stuff in some other room. She seems to know everybody, and everybody seems to know her. The place is packed, mostly with the over-seventy crowd. She keeps pushing passed people and dragging me along, explaining to everyone that she met "this young man" on the street. Eventually she finds us a spot sitting on these big foam children's toys. After 10 minutes of enjoying traditional Moscow gypsy songs, an elderly man starting complaining that his wife couldn't see over my big head, so I sat down. I couldn't see anything, but the music was great. There were all kinds of theatrical poetry readings and dances and witty speeches. This lady, Natasha is her name, kept taking pictures of me and giggling to some friends. Some old women kept murmuring things like "complete shamelessness!" and "no conscience whatsoever", in reference to my friend. She could care less. She was having a ball on her birthday with a young American chaperon.

When the thing ended, I was planning to thank her and make an exit, but she had different plans. She kept insisting on photographing me with different people, introducing me to friends. Only gradually did I realize that the people she was introducing me to were no ordinary Russians. It turned out that they were all silver-haired and celebrated artists, writers, sculptors, poets, musicians, and actors! They were reciting their poetry to me, showing me their artwork, inviting me exhibitions and readings, discussion 19th century literature, musing about meetings with my favorites 20th-century poets. It was incredible! After a whole lot of schmoozing, they invited me to have tea for Natasha's (and another man's... Lev Nikolaevich (not Tolstoy)) birthdays. In Russia, tea can actually mean sandwiches, wine, candy, and vodka. In this case, it did. There was no tea. So I sat for a couple hours with what turned out to be some writers'/artists' society called "Chekhov's Fridays". They were so charming and interesting. Reading each others' poetry, chatting about old friends, giving each other various gifts (always books except for one present, for Natasha: Sex Shampoo).

It was quite a bit of fun. I met the sculptor of this really famous "baby in a cabbage" sculpture that's in front of the maternity ward. He kept trying to give toasts but was really offended when no one would listen. One lady swore that she never drinks vodka (as she did shot after shot), and by the end she was trying her hand at French, telling me "Tu belle". I suggested that she try "tu es beaux", but she gave up and spilled a 2-liter of Pepsi on me instead. Lev Nikolaevich, a writer with what looked like a Soviet writers guild pin, recited a New Years text-message poem he had received this year, and then begged me to sing "Oh Susannah" with him. We did. He decided to start attending my English club and, since then, has! On the way out, one artist lady was drunkenly complaining about this other "outsider guy" who was tagging a long but who doesn't have any talent or "do anything". I was worried she'd find me out as another nothing-doer. I could never figure out who Natasha was. Apparently she owns or runs the Tomsk Gostinnyi Dvor, which is a pretty big deal. As far as I could tell, she somehow assembled this whole group. She gave a big speech about having met each and every one of the people seated at the table at different points, just on the street. She loves meeting new people, talking to them, learning about them. She just plain loves life, she says, and I believe her. She's a pretty fun lady.

Anyway, so yesterday I get a call from my pal Lev Nikolaevich, saying he's coming to my English club and that he wants me to swing by a studio of his friend. I say, "sure!" but am a bit nervous. He came to my club and got in a fight with this lady who is learning English (as of the past 8 months), because her son is living in Canada. She claimed that all American music teachers and professors are actually Russian. Lev Nikolaevich countered that "Mr. Armstrong and the other American jazz musicians are wonderful!" A good point.

So we hopped on a tram and headed of to his friends apartment/studio. Lev Nikolaevich, a pensioner, didn't have to pay, but, generous as he is, he paid my five-ruble fare. We arrived, and much to my surprise, his friend is the world-famous Leontii Andreevich Usov! The first thing I sought out when I arrived to Tomsk is this incredible, hilarious sculpture of Chekhov (see my first or second blog post for the picture). It is his work! He's had exhibitions all over Russia, Europe, and the world. Putin and Gorbochev have his works at the homes. He even has a picture of Gorby visiting his studio! My good friend Lev Nikolaevich has a diploma stating that he served as the hand model for the statue, and another poet there served as the foot-model. We had bread and tea, and then Usov took me over to show me his work. His studio is filled with beautiful wooden (birch and cedar) sculptures of famous literary figures and characters. It was all so life-like, light-hearted and beautiful! Search on the internet for his work. It's just incredible. He has a book published of his sketches of famous Tomsk personalities: "Tomskians through the eyes of Usov". He did a sketch of me in this style and gave it to me as a gift. I was star-struck. We talked literature and art, politics and travel. It was such a rewarding experience. He's headed to Moscow for a bit, but I'm invited back (they thought I should have brought a camera to take pictures and I agree). Man, what a day!

Time to rush to class!