Russia-Arrival In Archangelsk-Tours-Concerts-Performances

January 19, 2006 It was after 1 am when I fell into bed and slept like a log. Around 9:30 am, Irena said it was -38° Celsius and to dress warmly. Outside her kitchen window I could see the windows of other apartment buildings frosted over. I wondered if our window looked like that? She loaned me a long fur coat and a matching warm fur hat and mittens lined with fur and a woolen scarf which made me look like a fine Russian lady. The taxi was waiting for us downstairs, but there was bad news waiting also. Pipes had broken during the night from the freezing cold, ours would be one of the buildings without central heat until it could be repaired. When temperatures fall below -45 degrees, the gas “freezes” becoming a solid and heat cannot be pumped into apartments, homes and schools. Irina was so concerned about me. I assured her I would be fine. Irina had an electric heater that we turned on periodically. She was afraid to keep it on all night for fear of starting a fire or using too much electricity. We drove through the city with me taking in all the sights and sounds until we came to the school. This was the coldest day of the year so far! Students were not coming because of the severity of the weather, but teachers were required to be present. I would be telling stories to the teachers gathered in a classroom. As we walked up the stairs I noticed the building was old and the wooden floors painted reminding me so much of the schools in Louisiana before the hurricane.

I told two stories and the teachers were with me every step of the way, as, the first about girls and their teachers from Africa and the second my favorite story from Austria, “Two Stars”. When we were finished they asked me many questions about American schools and policies. What fun we had! Then came a surprise: chocolates, special Russian holiday gingerbread cookies, bubbling champagne and hot tea had been set out in another room! One woman in the group, a former student at the school and now a teacher, sung delightful Russian folk songs while another woman danced! Such fun and laughter! The principal then gave me “Nas Derovya” doll for good luck, and a school calendar and button! Then Irina’s twin brother, Alexei called to say he was outside and drove us to a lovely outdoor museum. On the way, he stopped for vodka made from klugva berries and a bread stuffed with fish. I drank the red klugva vodka and felt a jolt of energy course through my body! Irina’s brother called me Electric Woman as I began peeling about four layers of clothing down to my silk undershirt! I was dripping with sweat and it was so warm the steam made ice on the windows of the car!!! I never laughed so hard with my new Russian family!

Then I got the best compliment of all—I would be invited to the Russian meeting, not the International one for foreigners, because I had true Russian spirit. They even invited me to jump in the frozen river in honor of Epiphany a famous popular Russian holiday celebrating Baptism! I told them about swimming in the Gulf of Mexico on the coldest day of the year, but thought I’d better pass on swimming in the frozen North Dvina River. The thought sobered me and I began dressing again just thinking about the icy river! Brrr! Seriously, the weather has not bothered me in the least. I am so warm in spirit and friendship that I am warmed to the very core!

Irina prepared smoked sardine sandwiches with cheese, garlic and mayo accompanied by a noodle broth and layered cake filled with a creamy curd and cottage cheese. Scrumptious. We listened to music, sang and shared more Russian stories about Baba Yaga, Nas Derovya and Ivan Durak, stories of simpleton Jack ilk. Irina and I decided we are reunited sisters. Irina teaches at the local college and plays piano and also accompanies professional concert singers and other musicians. She even worked at the Philharmonic for several years! She has traveled the world and visited the United States ten times! I met Irina through storyteller, Judith Wynhausen, who helped to arrange this leg of my journey when she found out I had been invited to Europe!

January 20, 2006

The day began with news of another storytelling cancellation, there would be no school today either, but there is a scant possibility students will come out on Saturday for classes. Irina had heard me singing during my storytelling and wanted me to practice to participate in a upcoming concert with one of her students in the concert hall!!! So we practiced. At first it was more like pulling teeth as Irina wanted me to warm up my voice in a specific way. Such technical instructions were not for me. She’d stop every few minutes to correct my singing, instructing me to sing high using my diaphragm, sing as if I was surprised all the time, Ahhhhh! Ohhhhh! Smile continuously, hold your head this way, use your voice so you feel supported, etc, but I was not accustomed to this manner and suggested I sing some Negro spirituals to warm up my voice. It is my secret to having a good speaking voice. I usually warm up my voice in the car on the way to the performance by singing songs with great feeling and depth and rehearsing my program. When Irina heard the songs I sung she said I did exactly what she wanted perfectly natural and my voice was ready to sing. The phone rang in the middle of practicing. Irina’s friend Marina would pick us up in a half hour to take me sightseeing and shopping!

We drove around the city as Irina pointed out Archangelsk most interesting and famous landmarks. We stopped at several churches and even took a picture underneath a huge billboard picturing Marina’s daughter. We drove down the road running along the River Dvina and it was frozen solid stopping to take pictures again near the new cathedral being built. Afterwards we went to a shop that sold souvenirs and I bought the usual souvenirs for folks back home. Marina dropped us at the Chinese Restaurant and Irina and I had a feast! There was a delicious broccoli and mushroom dish, followed by Manchurian meatballs with vegetables, a little smaller than our meatball hor’ doerve, but tasty never the less, a dish called the King’s favorite meat which was a type of spicy pepper steak and a yummy baked Halibut fish! We got a to go box for the left-overs and walked to the Marfin Dome for the opening of a special piano competition called Angelina Zagvozdina. She was the best music teacher in Archangelsk for many years. Irina’s niece, Erina was in town on vacation from the conservatory and had been invited to participate! The formal affair was lovely and Erina played grandly! I watched Irina watching her niece play and I could see her obvious pride as her chest swelled and her head inched higher and higher while her niece played! Afterwards we toured the Marfin Dome museum looking at a new exhibit of quilts, and a display featuring a miniature likeness of the city as well as numerous paintings. Erina came up to join us and I liked her instantly. Aside from being perfectly gorgeous, she is only 23 years old and already well on her way to being an accomplished pianist! Irina gave her some money and suggested she buy chocolate ice cream for me for the party to be held later that night at Alexei’s house.

Meeting Mozart We took a taxi over to the German church and watched as Hans dressed as Mozart and others dressed in period costumes came out to play piano accompanied by a singer, Tatiana, and a flutist, both former students of Irina’s! The performance had been choreographed and amazingly like the previous competition was packed with people. I marveled how these people continued with life in spite of the weather’s severity. In America, our performances and competitions would surely have been postponed.

Even getting a taxi was an ordeal in this weather. I on the other hand was unfazed by the weather warmed from Irina’s fur coat, hat and mittens. My upper torso stayed snug and warm beneath my four layers under the coat and three layers of socks and tights and fur lined boots kept my feet heated. As long as I kept my face from getting cold which I easily accomplished with a long woolen scarf draped around my head and holding a bunched up piece of the fabric in front of my mouth I had no problem. In all honesty, I do not like cold weather and have been most uncomfortable in the past when I’ve experienced minor coldness. Here in Russia, I felt quite at home, knowing exactly what to do to protect myself from the cold and feeling every bit at home here as I have in Louisiana. It was as if my entire life had prepared me for just such a adventure and even though we walked around in the cold it was amazing to me how relaxed and comfortable I felt. My sinuses gave me no challenges and I felt so healthy and hearty! Elsewhere Russia is not faring well in this cold. People cannot keep warm, there are many accidents preventing homes from being heated properly, crops are damaged, cars will not start and accidents are prevalent, and people are dying. We must keep the people of Russia in our prayers.

After the performance, Irina tried calling unsuccessfully for a taxi. Finally we began walking. Once we were on the main street, a taxi pulled over not more than five minutes later and drove us to her brother’s home. The taxi driver wanted double his usual fare, but Irina cleverly told him she only had enough money for a round trip of $50 rubles both ways and had already spent the first half. He wasn’t happy, but he accepted it. Irina’s brother, Alexei, lives in a high rise building on the main highway of the city. Luba, his significant other and his daughter Erena prepared a sumptious feast. Beets prepared with plums and nuts, my favorite, chicken salad with tangerines, thick slices of roast beef, canned pickles, tea, peach juice, fresh bread, Klugva vodka, champagne, a curd cake with whipped cream and chocolate ice cream.

Love-Russian Style After dinner Irina asked me to sing for them, while she accompanied me on the piano. I was glad we had practiced earlier in the day, because the performance went well beyond my expectations. I could see Irina was pleased. What I hadn’t expected was Alexei’s outpouring of feelings. We sat in the kitchen drinking more vodka when Alexei decided he wanted to play and sing for me. When Irena took over the piano again playing a Russian folksong, Alexei grabbed me and swung me into a waltz step with him!

By the end of the evening, Alexei was proclaiming his love for me. Oh oh! Time for a gentle apology and letting him know I was definitely involved with someone else. I also expressed my discomfort with his overtures as he already had a loving companion who had cooked a delicious meal for us and was even now caring for their grandchild. I went further explaining that the women in the Moscow airport, Lada and Venera told me that Russian men were insensitive louts drinking vodka and generally uncaring about their women, preferring to run after younger women. As the evening came to a close, Alexei walked us downstairs for our taxi waiting to take us back to Irina’s home and was glad for her company. Were I in Luba’s shoes, I’d find his behavior even more intolerable. Irina hastened to tell me he didn’t mean it that way, but he was very sincere, even calling the next morning (which Irina said was most unusual) to wish me a pleasant journey and to offer his services for repairing my house. I told him I would have to pay him for his services and he took offense. C’est la vie!

I stayed up talking to Irina late into the night and fell asleep somewhere around 3am. Morning came fast and quick. Irina prepared a delicious breakfast of eggs sprinkled with cheese, toast and berries jam and a type of muesli yogurt with little pieces of nut in it. Time to pack for my return flight to St. Petersburg later that evening. After such an eventful day yesterday, I was grateful for the time indoors. Irina had cooked some fresh mushrooms she’d found in the woods. They were the best mushrooms I’d ever tasted! She also made a Russian soup, more beet salad, pickles and tomatoes and our left over Halibut from the Chinese Restaurant the day before. We left home around 3pm and did some souvenir shopping. I found a delightful pair of slippers for my mother that looked so magical I bought them immediately. I bought boots for my daughter, Russian chocolates for friends and more money from the ATM to pay for my overloaded luggage before dashing to the airport. I hated to say goodbye to Irina and lingered as long as I could before the final boarding call. I felt like I had just inherited a whole new family and having just met them I had to leave again. I took comfort in the fact that I’d be seeing them again in September!

I met a Dutch man with an excellent sense of humor who spoke fluent English during the flight to Moscow. He kept me in stitches the whole time. Once in Moscow, familiar with the drill, the transfer went without a hitch and I was befriended by a young Russian man who spoke fluent English. He finagled a taxi for us at half price I’d paid during my first trip to St. Petersburg. Promising to keep in touch he went on to a party. I returned to the same luxurious hotel and was directed to a wonderful restaurant in the next block. The chocolate mousse with a light flaky pastry inside was exquisite and capped off a delicious meal. I can’t tell you the names of anything I ate because I pointed at the buffet style food directing the waitress to serve what I desired since neither of us understood the other’s language. First came a delicious spicy lentil soup that tasted as if the beans had been pureed. Then a cabbage and cucumber salad followed along with a dish my mother could have easily prepared. It was made with chunks of beef, peas, and rice. I couldn’t believe I ate it all! I made my way back to the hotel and turned in for the night. Up at dawn I went swimming, showered and ate breakfast. This time, I snorfed down the breakfast bar tasting much of what was offered before checking out my return flight to Finland.

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