Wednesday, June 21, 2006

otyezd (n. departure)

More on the blog? Why I make these promises is beyond me. No, of course I haven't put more on the blog. I've filled out forms, applications, handwritten letters to university rectors I am unlikely ever to meet. I've endured a long conversation with our dean's assistant in which she queried why, on the 12 or 15 past occasions we journeyed outside Irkutsk, we never asked for permission. I have hunted for maps, finding only one in all of Irkutsk for the Sakha Republic. I bought a stove. I have had my fire-mangled boots mended expertly by a man from the Caucasus.
What I have done in the last week I could go on and on about. What I haven't, you may have noticed. There was wrestling, in a paddock in driving rain, and at the very end of the wrestling there were eagle dances, where the victor wheels around the ring in a manner that is somehow both dignified and puncy. I've posted pictures, but for an account of some truly ludicrous mismatches you'll have to wait another day. There was a wedding, which I've alluded to and was planning to recap. Instead you'll have to settle for the knowledge that for both K and I, no future matrimonials we attend will be complete without a bear. There is the terrifying news that, after an unwilling encounter at the football, I'm now greeted enthusiastically whenever I run into Irkutsk's dozen or so white supremacists on the street. Yep, I'm in with the skinheads.

Enough to say, we leave tomorrow on an ambitious trip to the north. As far as possible, we hope to travel the river Lena, currently in flood but otherwise navigable in theory from a few dozen kilometres west of Baikal to the sea. More than that, we know very little. There won't be blogging until we return to Irkutsk, probably near the beginning of September. Stay good. Perhaps we'll bring you back a reindeer.

Monday, June 19, 2006

living here in Allentown

I trekked all the way to the Angarsky bridge yesterday with my camera, only to find they'd painted over the bit of graffiti I was looking for. It appeared a couple of weeks ago in huge black letters, with hooks at the end of some of the letters like they do with 'Metallica'. It just read 'Billy Joel'. Yep, here in Siberia the kids are alright.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

kanikuly (pl n. school or university holidays)

University classes are over, which on the one hand means I do not have to spend three hours of my morning debating in a foreign language whether it is important to be wealthy, and on the other hand means I no longer get to see my middle-aged Korean classmate Mung Koo defend why it is important to be wealthy.
Travel plans are afoot, but I won't post them here after
what happened last time, except to say: north. We're hoping to leave in just over a week. In the meantime I shall try to get more on the blog, which may prove difficult with my twin commitments of cooking twice a week and keeping up with the World Cup (Russian: chempionat mira po futbolu). A side note on that subject: after an incident on Saturday K and I have laid some ground rules for the World Cup, which is spread over three channels here with the time difference compensated for by replays in daylight hours.

Rule 1: we will no longer watch England games in the same room, particularly when I am watching and K is in front of the laptop with a full cup of tea.
Rule 2: if we overlook rule 1, we shall nevertheless respect each other's right to either shout during the football, or to be so unprepared for shouting during the football as to spill tea all over the laptop, whichever of these is our poison. This applies even if we have to buy a new keyboard.
Rule 3: we shall not attribute blame.

We think as a couple these rules will make us stronger.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

dyelat pakupky (grocery shopping)

dyen goroda (city day)

I am no economist, but I think it is possible that Irkutsk's entire municipal budget is spent on prazdniks. The smell of beer and burning sulfur had barely dissipated after Victory Day when Dyen Gorada (city day) was upon us. Posters were strung down Karl Marx Street and along Lenin Street, flower gardens laid, emergency trips made for salted fish and moonshine. Irkutyanins gathered to toast the 345th anniversary of their town.
Normally Kathy and I are all for anniversaries, especially
arbitrary and disputed ones. Sadly for us, City Day fell the day after we attended a wedding in which the first and last vodka toasts were 14 hours apart. We watched on television, alternating civic pride with stomach cramps.
The day kicked off with chess. Irkutyanins like to ease their way into these things. Following the chess was sand sculpture on the Island of Youth, which may not actually be an island but does have a bandstand and cheap cigarettes. The sculptors were apparently not hindered by all the broken glass. On Kirov Square a little later the mayor gave a speech on doing our bit to keep Irkutsk nice. I personally vowed to smash my vodka bottle less often on the Island of Youth. The mayor handed over to breakdancers.
The climactic event was I think my favourite, held on a small square of sand near the Lokomotiv Stadium. Irkutsk is for 7-8 months of the year a wintry Siberian city. It is more than 3000km from the nearest ocean. And this is why to me there is a streak of genius in marking its anniversary with beach volleyball.
Before you go making plans for future years, it's important to note there are some chronological distinctions so far as City Day is concerned. Last week's 345th anniversary refers to the founding of Irkutsk, as a Cossack fortress against the uncooperative Buryats in 1661. There is also the date on which Irkutsk was officially designated a town, which has in the past also been commemorated on City Day. This explains why Irkutsk celebrated its 300th anniversary in 1986, and presumably will toast its 350th in five years time and again in 2036. I hope this doesn't confuse anybody. Sculpt on, Irkutyanins!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

kozyol (billy goat); koza (she goat); kozlyonok (kid)

Have I mentioned our goats very much? They seemed to appear around our student hostel some time in autumn. We would pass them as we came home and would each break from our tasks - human and goaty - to look at each other. We wondered where they came from - if they were wild or owned - and why they always seemed to graze together, but never two days in the same location. Were they being very slowly followed? They wondered if we were too fast-moving to be chewed.
When autumn ended the goats vanished. Weeds shrank and disappeared beneath snow. Discarded refrigerator parts went ungnawed. We worried. We imagined the spring turning up four white carcasses, frozen jaws still clamped around bits of old piping. We kept an eye out around the fur stalls, hoping not to see four wiry new hides.
The winter was long and goatless. The day they returned, just a few weeks ago, was a song to my heart. They have reproduced in the winter, perhaps fortified by the nutrients in our bathroom plumbing. Now that the nights are warm and long they are out most evenings, imparting to their three new kids the basics of goatlife: the butting, the gnawing, how to put your forefeet onto a fence to properly strip the paint from the upper railing. We've resumed our little standoffs, this time with a mutual respect that comes from each having survived the winter. I appreciate their right to companionship. They know I'm not to be eaten. Death to saplings!

Monday, June 12, 2006

Saturday afternoon at the hippodrome

Friday, June 02, 2006

otoplyenyeh (n. heating)

The hot water came back on this morning, which was nice, as it had been six days and frankly, Kathy was beginning to turn. Before I go further I will say this: I understand municipal plumbing is not everybody's Audrey Tautou and albinos, but it has begun to interest me. And I think I've said before: there are websites for you people.

As with the regular heating, the hot water for all of Irkutsk is piped from the same plant. It's somewhere in the bowels of the city and staffed, I like to think, by tiny men in dungarees and Lenin masks. I am willing to accept there may not be dungarees.
Essentially, what this means is that the water for our morning shower is coal-heated sometime in the night by very tiny revolutionaries. It thunders through thickly insulated pipes and only after many miles and several hours, when the informercials (channel gorad) and pornography (RenTV) are ending, does it arrive steaming in our bathtub.
Because of the river and the problems with the cold, many of the pipes in Irkutsk run above ground. I think this has a certain grungy charm, but you may not agree if you do not like enormous rusting tubes snaking over your cityscape. Pipelines run under bridges, alongside the footpaths and even up and over the road.
Perhaps the main upshot of having all your water heated in the same place is that it puts everyone in the same boat - literally, except about the boat. You know when your water is going off because they announce it on the news. They don't need to tell you when the water is back on, because your pipes shriek and burble, as they did this morning, as though they are a contestant on
narodny artist. But they do tell you, to be sure. And everyone gets very excited. And there is civic bonding.
Every July, we are told, Irkutsk pays tribute to it's stinky cossack forefathers* by going three weeks without hot water. I think this could be our generation's blitz.

*probably not really the reason