NYI in September (and in Montréal/Potsdam…)

Although the unofficial rallying cry for some of us among the NYI faculty and staff has become “Is it July yet?” there are moments throughout the year that refurbish the connections among various subsets of the people I’ve come to know and to care for a great deal via my trips to St. Petersburg. Obviously, the vast majority of these take place in the electronic realm, whether via e-mail or occasionally video…

(this, by the way, is one of the most wonderful things friends have ever done for me…and I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a lot of good friends in my life, mind you.)

All of those means of keeping in touch and maintaining immensely meaningful friendships are quite important, but there are also the occasional moments where circumstance actually puts us in the same places at the same time (like last spring in NYC) and one such moment just concluded, which was a quite nice surprise that came together on pretty short notice.

My NYI colleague Kathi Wiedlack and her partner Masha Neufeld both were in Toronto (where Masha is doing research at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and had some time during which they wanted to come to Montréal for a visit. Initially, we had also tried to make some plans for Kathi to give presentations on her book, Queer Feminist Punk: An Anti-Social History, but the combination of the short timeframe and the early stage of the semester (when planning at academic institutions consists mostly of panicked coping, rather than skilled improvisation) scuttled that hope fairly quickly. Nevertheless, they came to stay with us in Montréal for four nights — Thursday through Sunday — during which time we managed to do quite a bit of rambling about in the city to give them a sense of things.

They arrived late on Thursday, having taken the Megabus from Toronto, which (as is its usual habit) was about an hour late in arriving. Still, for the price and for the WiFi en route, it’s not a bad trip, though the long day of travel along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence had them pretty wiped out and they fell asleep almost immediately after being greeted at the door by the curious dogs.

On Friday, we took an extended ramble through the city, starting up on the Plateau at the Drawn and Quarterly bookshop, where we dropped a bit of cash on some excellent reading material, but also where Kathi promptly sold a couple of copies of her book, which I don’t think are going to take long to be snapped up by D + Q’s clientele.

They immediately set her book out on a display table, amidst some pretty great company.

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After that, we ambled further down the Plateau to a pair of Montréal institutions, St. Viateur Bagel

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…and the Dieu du Ciel brewpub for a bit of refreshment in the form of food and drink. A subway ride later, we were back home for a mellow Friday night in Pointe Saint-Charles, punctuated by a dinner of rotis from our phenomenal neighborhood Jamaican place, Boom-J’s.

Saturday began with a trip to the Musee des Beaux-Arts for their long-awaited show on the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. I saw the controversial show of his that made the rounds of the United States back when I was a freshman in college at Boston University in the fall of 1990, so it was interesting to revisit some of those same pieces in twenty-six years later in a context that was almost entirely devoid of the controversy that marked that earlier show at the ICA in Boston. After a meandering trip back home afterwards, we rested up to prepare for dinner at one of our favorite places to eat in a city filled with good choices, East Africa. They most certainly did not disappoint and we had a lovely dinner, accompanied by a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the commonalities and differences from our various backgrounds in Austria, Russia, Germany, Canada, and the U.S. We dropped Masha and Kathi off at Katacombes for a punk show, but they showed up back at the house about ninety minutes later, having been unable to get in for lack of ID (a pretty rare occurrence in Montréal…).

On Sunday, we started slowly, beginning with brunch at Ma Tante Quiche, where Steph is working until she begins school again in January. From there, we headed up to the city again, this time to take in the view from the belvedere atop Mont-Royal.

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Kathi and Masha headed off down the western slope of the mountain to explore the city some more and I drove back to the apartment to get some reading and writing done in preparation for the work-week. By the time they got in at around 9:30 that evening, the day had been well-spent by everyone and a mellow evening ensued.

On Monday, we packed up the car fairly early and Masha, Kathi, and I (along the Gogol and Frances, the dogs) made the two-hour drive down to Potsdam, where we had managed to get quite a busy schedule of talks and readings set up for both of them, thanks to the goodness and curiosity of several of my SUNY Potsdam colleagues. We arrived around 1 and had some lunch before I went off to walk the dogs and Masha and Kathi put the finishing touches on their first pair of presentations.

Around 3:00, we left for campus and I dropped them off with my wonderful colleague, Christine Doran, who heads up the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at SUNY Potsdam, while I took care of some business around the department. At 4:00, we made our way over to the Center for Diversity, where Kathi gave an hour-long talk on her book to a group of students and faculty before taking questions and comments for another thirty minutes.

After a ninety-minute break for dinner and mental restoration, we were at it again at 7:00 in the same space. This time, Masha and Kathi gave a joint presentation about a forthcoming article in which they discuss a 2005 song entitled “Люди Инвалиды” (“Disabled People” in literal English translation, but “Dangerous and Moving” on the English version of the album) by the Russian musical duo t.A.T.u. in the context of comparative disability studies.

Although the crowd for this talk was smaller — Monday night in September is a tough gig anywhere, but especially in Potsdam — but still very engaged and they gave a great, nuanced presentation that generated some excellent discussion afterwards.photo-3

By the time they were done, it had been a pretty long day, so we went back to the house and called it a night fairly early, especially with an early start planned for a busy Tuesday.

I had three classes to teach on Tuesday, so I left for campus around 9:00 in the morning, having given Kathi and Masha directions to campus. it was a lovely, unseasonably warm day, so the fifteen-minute walk from my house to campus was a nice preamble to their joint presentation in Christine’s Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course at 11:00. They presented some of their experiences as academics, activists, and researchers for a group of about twenty-five students in that class, in the process presenting them with a very different and very compelling model of how one can walk the walk in a variety of environments that are still not as welcoming to the putative “other” (whether in terms of gender, sexual orientation, nationality, race, etc.) as they believe themselves to be.

They headed back out in the wild world of Potsdam, NY after their presentation and I headed back into the classroom for my two afternoon courses. The last obligation of theirs on campus was a talk by Kathi at 7:00 p.m. on the subject of the Marvel Comics character of the Black Widow, and how her changing representation through the years is indicative of certain attitudes about Russian/Soviet identity in American culture.

I had specifically requested this talk after seeing Kathi give an earlier version of it at NYI this summer…

…and the reprise did not disappoint in the least.

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An eager group of students representing several departments showed up, as did a number of faculty, and Kathi’s one-hour talk stimulated a discussion afterwards that could have gone on well into the evening had we not had to cut it off after about forty-five minutes. Kathi, Masha, and I went out to a local watering-hole afterwards, accompanied by my friend and colleague, Jim Donahue, where we continued the conversation until about 11:00 p.m.

On Wednesday morning, Masha and Kathi got a small taste of Adriondack living as we went to the beach in Hannawa Falls (just south of Potsdam) for a morning swim with the dogs…

…prior to taking them to Cornwall, Ontario to catch the train back to Toronto. The absurdly warm September we’ve had meant that the water was still quite tolerable, even in late September (long after swimming season has usually ended for those not graced will full-body fur…). After the swim, we packed up the car for the thirty-minute drive to just across the border, where we said our goodbyes (for now) and put them on the train heading west.

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All in all, it was a nice chance to spend some time with a couple of very bright, very interesting, very kind people and I’m extremely grateful to everyone who participated to make it possible for them to interact with students and faculty at SUNY Potsdam. A little taste-spoon of NYI in September can certainly help make the long stretch until it’s July again tolerable. Hopefully, there are some more such moments in the offing…

 

 

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Back in North America

So our stay as temporary Frankfurters actually ended up being extended by about twenty-four hours, thanks to Lufthansa’s policy of overbooking flights and then offering fairly amazing compensation packages in return (though they are apparently required to do this by E.U. law, not the goodness of their hearts).

When we went to our gate on Tuesday afternoon after six hours of trundling around the airport, snacking, napping, and wondering about whether this awkward juxtaposition of magazine covers in the newsstand was intentional or not…

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…we were informed that they were looking for volunteers to spend the night in Frankfurt and be placed on flights tomorrow in exchange for a paid hotel room, vouchers for meals in the airport and at the hotel, and 600 Euros each. Since that translated into about the money each of us spent during our time in Saint Petersburg, it was already a pretty enticing deal. Throw on top of that the fact that we hadn’t slept at all that day and were still facing an eight-hour flight to Montreal at that point, the thought of being able to check into a hotel with a comfy bed and a shower was almost equally as alluring.

We called back to Montréal to check that Steph’s mother could watch the dogs for another day and then accepted the offer. Within about two hours, all the requisite paperwork was done and we had taken the shuttle to the nearby InterCity Hotel, a rather nondescript but perfectly comfortable lodging for the night.

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A shower, a nap, some reading, a dinner (on Lufthansa’s dime), and then a little more reading was the sum total of our adventure. We could have gone into Frankfurt, but between the persistent drizzle…

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…and our pretty advanced state of exhaustion, we just enjoyed the comfort of the bed instead.

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After a solid nine-hour sleep, we got up and enjoyed the breakfast buffet…

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…before packing up and heading back to the airport for our flight to Toronto. Sadly, we did not get the opportunity to avail ourselves of the hotel’s absurdly named snack-bar before we left.

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If you’re wondering what a Frankfurt hotel is doing with a snack-bar named after an iconic Berlin landmark, it could possibly be chalked up to the fact that the memorial to the Berlin Airlift (Die Luftbrücke in German) is just next-door to the hotel, so that might explain it.

We had about ten Euros left on our vouchers from the day before, so we went back to the Goethe café, where our waiter from yesterday — a very sweet fellow named Mayu — did a double-take at seeing us again. Sitting at Goethe’s back this time…

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…we had an apple strudel, a cappuccino, and one last hummingbird-themed German beer…

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…before bidding our farewells to Frankfurt (though not before a brief temptation when it was announced at the gate that this flight was also overbooked and seeking volunteers to spend the night, etc….).

The flight to Toronto was uneventful, if a bit tedious. It seemed as though England was drifting off towards the northeast a bit as we flew over it…

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…though that my only have been a post-Brexit satirical impulse working through my brain. We made our own little festival of quirky films starring Colin Farrell out of the movie selections, watching The Lobster and In Bruges, back to back before napping a bit in the final hour or so before arriving back in Canada. We made a quick transit that involved going through customs and claiming our bags (which, happily, made it back to us with no problems) just long enough to schlep them through the terminal to the connecting flight drop-off area. An hour’s wait and we were aboard our short flight to Montréal. I slept through most of it, while Steph watched Purple Rainor at least the musical performance portion of it, since life and our flight are/were too short to put up with Prince’s acting skills (no offense, man…R.I.P.).

We got picked up at the airport by Steph’s mother, who drove us back to her house for a happy reunion with the dogs, after which we drove back to our house in the city for an equally happy reunion with the cats. By 11 p.m. we were unpacked and exhausted, but surrounded by all our critters again and collapsed into bed, having completed a longer-than-expected but all-in-all fairly easy (and financially rewarding) crossing of the Atlantic.

With that, NYI officially ended for me, though I still have many tales to tell here and many photos to share, so don’t tune out just yet!

We are temporary Frankfurters

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When you got to Pulkovo airport in Saint Petersburg at 3:30 in the morning after a (mostly) lovely last night in the city (the ninety-minute wait for a cab with all our stuff in the entryway of our building was a mild irritant in an otherwise excellent day), sit around that airport for an hour before half-snoozing through the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Frankfurt and then catch an hour’s snooze in a relatively deserted early-morning arrivals hall in Terminal C in the massive and generally buzzing Frankfurt airport…

…well, by god, you damn well deserve a good German pilsener, even if it is only 9 in the morning and you’ve still got five more hours to sit around in the airport before your eight-hour flight on Montréal leaves.

This, at least, appears to be the philosophy we have adopted under our circumstances. We’d thought about maybe going into Frankfurt to pass some of our layover time, as one can catch a ten-minute train right to the city center, but it’s raining fairly steadily and we’re both pretty exhausted, physically and mentally, so snoozing on the long and armrest-free (take note, airport designers who seem aggressively hostile to travelers’ comfort!) benches.

Frankfurt’s not necessarily the most comfortable or coherent airport in the world, but it’s also far from the bottom of the list and we pulled up seats at the Goethe Café, where we had an early-morning coffee, sausage, and beer back in April 2014, when we first visited Saint Petersburg together. IMG_9991

The powers-that-be appear to have rotated Goethe so that he faces towards the giant Bayer pharmaceuticals sign not instead of turning his back on it as was the case in 2014. In any case, he watched over us as we hoisted a cold half-liter of good Licher Pils and devoured a breakfast of hard-rolls and croissant (me) and Bavarian weisswurst and a pretzel (Steph). We’ve got abstract plans to find a strudel before our flight starts boarding in about an hour, but I’m not sure where we’ll find the room for that in our stomachs, especially since they’ll likely serve us lunch on the plane within an hour of getting airborne at 2:00.

My brain is pretty wishy-washy from lack of sleep, so I won’t attempt any kind of composition any more gripping than this for the time being. I need to go through the literally thousands of photos that both Steph and I took and find some good ones that give a clear sense of what our week together there consisted of. Once I’ve got that done, I’ll start telling some more tales of NYI 2016.

Until then, auf Wiedersehen und Prost!

Getting close to the end…

It’s been an absolutely wonderful and jam-packed last few days, all of which I will at some point recap on here, I suppose, but just not now. We basically haven’t slowed down much since Sunday night (ergo, a full week ago) and that’s caught up a bit with us today, I think. We went for a trip out to the Udel’naya flea-market this late morning, right after Mitja joined the ranks of the already departed. It was a pretty muggy day, so we didn’t stay too long and caught an afternoon nap before heading up to Shtolle for some coffee and a bit of delicious Russian fruit pie.

We’ve been lazing about the apartment ever since, with the exception of weathering a pretty spectacular thunderstorm that rolled through at around 6:30, and we’re probably going out for a late dinner at the exceptionally tasty Georgian restaurant around the corner from the apartment.

It’s fairly shocking that we board a plane back toward North America in less than 36 hours from now, but it’s been an absolutely full twenty-four days (for me) and ten days (for Steph), so there’s no major moping going on. Saint Petersburg is still a place I love dearly and there are a lot of people here, both itinerant and permanent that I hope remain a part of my life for as long as I draw breath.

There have been some unexpected challenges this year and that has made for an experience that is in some ways quite different from last year. I sort of alluded to them in an earlier post and that’s all I can say about them, so let’s just leave it at that. On the whole, though, it’s still an experience for which I am immensely grateful and which I hope to be able to continue having for some time to come. There are very few stretches of time in my working life that have felt as fully integrated and meaningful (if also wildly improvised at moments…) as these past two NYIs and I hope that what others get out of my efforts here is even a shadow of what I get out of it in return. I can’t flatter myself that it’s equal, though people tell me nice things and that admittedly feels pretty good.

With Stephanie here for the last few weeks this year, I’ve been less inclined to write on this blog and more inclined to go out and experience some of the things we did before again as well as find some new experiences. She’s also had a ton of new people to meet and interact with and that takes a lot of energy even when it’s fun, as it has overwhelmingly has been. We’re both pretty gassed, though, and it shows in today’s pace.

We’ve got some last-day running about to do tomorrow early in the day and then we need to pack and move out of the apartment (we’ll be stashing our stuff at John and Dijana’s for the evening until our 3 a.m. taxi to the airport arrives) before going out for one last evening of Petersburgian delights — a lecture, some drinks, perhaps one last glance of the bridges opening in the midnight hours — before our long transit back across the Atlantic on Tuesday. I’ll write out some of my thoughts and chronicles over the course of the next few weeks, but I don’t know that the quantity of posts will be like that of last year. For whatever reason, I’ve felt less like writing about this year’s, not because there’s been less about which to write, but mostly because I haven’t had the same inclination to burn the midnight oil in the good Russian writerly tradition. When I have had such time, I’ve largely been working on Maurice’s memoir, which has been good work, but time-consuming.

In short, don’t read anything into the fact that you’ve not been (compared to last year’s logorrhea) been reading anything. I’ll likely get to it in my own time, but it simply hasn’t happened yet, that’s all. Perhaps during out seven-hour layover in Frankfurt on Tuesday morning/afternoon, I’ll find the time to hammer out some prose to at least get the chronicle up through the second week, if not a bit further. Until we meet again, dear readers/friends…

A photo-essay with some annotations (Part I)

So I promised to run down some of the daily events that have happened since my last chronological entry. I don’t have time or inclination right now to do that in a fully narrative manner, so this post is going to be pretty heavily pictorial and I’ll augment that with a few explanatory captions and such to give some sense of flow from one image to the next.

Saturday, I rested and edited Maurice’s book, as already detailed.

On Sunday, I took it easy and ran some errands in the morning and early afternoon until about 3, when Miloje and I walked down to the Marsovo Pole (Fields of Mars), where the annual first-weekend picnic was being held. As was the case last year, it involved some sitting around in the grass chatting, some light and fairly clandestine vodka-sipping (thanks to the surprisingly sneaky Tanja), and the usual game of Frisbee, for which Russian students’ enthusiasm seems endless…

From the Field of Mars, two groups of us piled into cabs and made our way across the Troitsky Bridge back to Petrogradsky Island and right back to the same building (though not the same venue) where we heard Chernaya Rechka on Tuesday night. This time, we went to a rooftop bar with a stage, where a ska/funk/salsa group with the rather unlikely name of Markscheider Kunst was playing. John is apparently friends with the singer/guitarist, who he described as a “classic SPb lumbersexual,” a description that proved true when the band took the stage in the full sunlight of 8:30 p.m.

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About eight to ten faculty/staff and a few students made the trip and danced (yours truly included, by the way!) throughout the roughly two-hour high energy set that the band put out. Again, their audience clearly loved them and it was a really fun environment for a show up there among the seagulls and midnight sunbeams on the roof across from the Botanical Garden.

Xhercis and Nikolay showed their stuff, in public this time…

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…as did John…

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…and pretty much everyone else in the venue.

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Afterwards, there was a little hanging out in the odd little dugout we had claimed for NYI upon arriving…

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…before I went home at around 10:30 to get ready for Monday, which was, after all, a school day.

My fourth class-meeting generally went well, though as was the case last year, the second week seems to start with something of a lull. The adrenaline of the first week has worn off for most of the students by then and the immensity of their workload (coupled with the immensity of their exploration of the city) seems to catch up with them to some extent for the first couple of days of the second week, making Cog- and Cult-Fest on Wednesday not just fun, but a necessary recharge day.

Our faculty boat-ride around the city was scheduled for tonight. Actually, it had originally been scheduled for last Thursday, but a bad — and ultimately inaccurate — forecast scared us off that night in favor of this one. It had been pissing rain for much of the day until late afternoon, so it was nice to see the dry and clearing evening that greeted the three of us as Mitja, Miloje, and I (not necessarily in that order)…

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…headed out of the apartment for the walk down Kamennoostrovsky, across the Troitsky, and down the embankment towards the Hermitage, where the quai from which our boat would leave was docked. We grabbed a small bottle of vodka — “White Shark” brand…

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…which promised to be both “luxury” and “platinum” despite its 240 RUB price-tag — and some snacks to contribute to the collective hoard before getting to the boat. The sunset backlighting Peter and Paul Fortress that greeted us as we arrived at the dock was spectacular, and Masha joked that her slightly late arrival was due to her still working on getting the sunset arranged until the last minute (something I wouldn’t doubt in the least).

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We milled around on the embankment for a while…

…until it was time to board the little vessel Тартуга.

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As was the case last year, the boat went slowly down the Fontanka and around to the Moika, and we all gawked and chatted and stuffed our faces with various Russian junk-foods and wine, trying at the same time not to be decapitated by the bridges. Then, John arranged for a second leg of the trip, this time taking an entirely new (for me) path out into the main channel of the Neva…

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…past the soccer stadium to the top of Petrogradsky Island and back around past the television tower and the Blade-Runner-esque landscape of half-built condos, office buildings and hyper-modern bridges that has proliferated there.

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We finished up by passing the restored version of the cruiser Aurora, from which the symbolic first shot of the 1917 October Revolution was fired…

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…before heading back to our berth and calling it a night around 1:15 a.m. The three of us made it back to the Troitsky Bridge before it opened and got home around 2:00.

(I’ll stop here so all these loading photos don’t overload your browser. Part II follows soon.)

 

 

[UPDATED] In case you find yourself in Saint Petersburg on Thursday…

UPDATE: If you want to see actual footage from this show, some good folks have put video up on the Internet. For example, there’s almost 70 minutes of footage from the two lengthy sets that I played in 30-plus degree (Celsius) temperatures to a wonderfully responsive audience of mostly NYI-ers.

The video starts with some slower songs (and some off-key singing — ugh — as I got warmed-up), but the second half is really upbeat and rowdy as the Twinberry (as good as advertised/expected, by the way) got to flowing!

There are also a few other snippets out there on the Web, including this wonderful moment from an encore set later in the evening. I was way past my rehearsed material and when some students asked for a Nirvana sing, I started goofily playing “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but had to confess that I no longer remembered the lyrics. Undaunted, four young NYI-ers pulled out their phones, looked up the lyrics and proceeded to harmonize the vocal on the stop. Ergo, The Four Cobainettes were born!

As was the case last year, the whole thing was once again an absolute blast. Thanks to Anna Neva for putting it all together, thanks to 2,5 Men for letting us play there until the wee hours of the morning, and thanks to everyone who came and sang along on a sweaty, smiley evening.

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Here’s the event page on VK that Anna Neva made.

And here’s the schedule for the rest of the week at 2,5 Men, the venue at which I’ll be playing.

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Please note, I had nothing to do with their website’s scheme for advertising their shavermi with what appear to be Suicide Girls, but I am curious about the local beer they seem to have just put on tap (and which I hope will still be around on Thursday night).

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The Bakunin Brewery beers I had last year were all quite good, so this one piques my curiosity quite a lot.

8:30 on Thursday at Vosstaniye 25. Don’t be late!

The bubble

I’ve known it fully both times I’ve been here: NYI is a bubble, one of the loveliest I have ever had the pleasure of residing inside. What I wrote last year still stands:

I’m not being stupid, I promise. I know better than to believe that a single hipster-ish art-café is a bulwark against tyranny and stupidity and poverty and all the other ills that plague a society. The last thing I want to suggest that if only a city reaches critical mass of artisanal cupcakes, then everything will be hunky-dory. I’m not.

But what I am saying is that there are people, a lot of them, that I’ve encountered in this city who aren’t just doing it either the old way or the acceptable new way (i.e., hyper-capitalism of the chain-store variety). That gives me hope. I want to play some music for them tonight and I want to talk with them after the show and for a long time to come, because I like them in general a lot more than I like their counterparts.

If anything the bubble-effect of NYI and of Saint Petersburg in general has been more pronounced this year by the sheer awfulness of the news from the world outside here. Of course, it was likely just as bad and just as bloody last year, but somehow I don’t recall the barrage of bad news being so constant.

The day I left it was the shooting in Minnesota, right on the heels of the shooting in Baton Rouge. The day I arrived, it was the shootings in Dallas. Not long after that it was the truck that drove into the crowd in Nice, then it was the insurrection (or whatever) in Turkey, and then the shootings in the mall in Munich. And Donald Trump is considerably more likely to be elected president of the United States than he ever has been. In the midst of that, we of course had all the other less media-saturated death, disease, and destruction that still pervades so much of this world that it seems (and is, in so many ways) absurd to focus so extensively and at times exclusively on acts like those listed above. Other than this sentence, I will not even begin to point out what willful head-in-the-sandery it is to worry about what Kim Kardashian West said to or about Taylor Swift or whether Tom Brady will appeal his suspension for deflating footballs.

So as I spend this month in Saint Petersburg taking long walks around a beautiful, curious, sometimes ragged city or engaging in free-floating conversations about all sort of interesting topics with interesting people or listening to great musicians (amateur and professional) play for whoever will listen or taking midnight boat-rides around the canals of the city or any of the other wonderful things that happen as part of NYI, its never far from my mind that being in this comparatively carefree state is a privilege, one for which I am so grateful and that I hope to share with as many people as possible in one form or another.

Whether it’s geopolitics, or academic shortsightedness, or bureaucratic meddling, there are so many invisible hands that threaten the existence of this program. The work that the entire NYI staff does to navigate the various Scyllas and Charybdises that could shutter this program is largely invisible to those of us who only show up at the start of July and leave a few weeks later after what basically constitutes the best possible working vacation (for my particular tastes and interests, anyways). Especially since Stephanie arrived a few days ago, my life feels so very integrated when I’m here living this life, but it always somehow comes back to the sense that this is a very temporary and very fragile little microcosm in which we live for a month.

There’s something a bit unreal the parts of Saint Petersburg with which I generally interact. I’ve gone out into the exterior of the city a couple of times and it’s a far cry from from the myriad Versace, MaxMara, and Рив Гош shops that line both sides of such main streets as Bol’shoy Prospekt or Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt on Petrogradsky Island in the neighborhoods where I lived this year and last.

I teach my classes in the room of a former palace that has marble walls, a chandelier, and gilt painting on the ceilings, but when I came here for the first time two years ago, I taught a class at a university that one entered by walking into a building that could have been straight out of Belize City and in a classroom whose sole redeeming feature was a group of exceptionally bright and curious students.

I walk past the Hermitage, the Admiralty, the Rostral Columns, Peter and Paul Fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and countless dozens of lesser known sites and sights every day to the point that they become almost ordinary (though no less spectacular), and hardly even notice the broken-down cars, puddles of piss, and broken beer-bottles that dot the sidewalks and street-gutters (as they do in so many cities around the world…).

Especially since the current political situation has devalued the ruble so precipitously, I have the financial strength to be able to live pretty much without a care in regard to how much money I spend. I’ve been here for almost twenty days and have hardly lived like a monk (anything but, actually…) and have still only spent about $600 on my living expenses. That rate will surely go up a bit during the last week, especially since Steph and I will be off doing more things together, but the comparable expense of a month in Germany or Belgium or Canada would put a much more grievous dent in my bank-account. Simply put, I don’t have many immediate worries while I’m here other than to make sure that I’m prepared for my classes, that I’m available to my students, and that I can remember on any given day what time all the lectures, classes, film screenings, musical performances, etc. I want to attend are starting. That’s beyond remarkable…it verges on utopian.

And, again, I know that. I know that utopia is both the ou-topos (the “no-place”) and the eu-topos (the “good-place”). It’s not that NYI and Saint Petersburg don’t exist, it’s just that the version of life that I get to lead while I’m here probably doesn’t bear a lot of relation to what life is generally like for people here and I try to make very sure I don’t make any kind of stupid generalizations about what it is (or isn’t) to live here based on my limited and glorious samplings.

Well…the bubble got a little bit of a dent in it this year, possibly a pretty significant one. It’s not actually anything that sours me on NYI or on the city, the country, the people, or anything else on a macro-scale (except, perhaps, humanity in general), it’s more a case of being pulled entirely out of the buffer that I normally feel separating me while I’m here from the mundane ignorance, pettiness, selfishness, and violence that is all-too-common in our everyday lives.

Because of a desire to maintain both the privacy of those involved and because of the ethical/legal obligation to maintain confidentiality, I can’t and won’t write about it in any detail, but suffice it to say there has been an incident of a character that happens all too often in education settings, regardless whether they are in Potsdam, NY or Saint Petersburg, Russia. In fact, I have had to deal with very similar situations before back at SUNY Potsdam and hardly have a colleague anywhere around the world who hasn’t told me the same things about their experience at their schools (a fact that is beyond dismaying). As I said, I can’t and won’t talk about it in further detail, other than to note that it didn’t happen to me directly, but I ended up being fairly involved in handling the repercussions of it because of the circumstances. It’s taken up a fair amount of my time and my mental energies over the past couple of days. It’s been resolved — at least the immediate implications thereof — for the time being, but there will be various waves of consequence potentially ranging from ripple to tsunami for some people.

As I say, it hasn’t ruined the experience but it has actually brought home with even more clarity the sense of sanctity with which I have approached my two trips here. That sense may very well have been somewhat overblown, so one of the few good things to come of what has taken place over the last few days is a recalibration of my own perspective on what it is I (and we collectively) are doing here. I don’t want to say my idealism about the enterprise has been damaged (I don’t think it has and if I didn’t have a pretty ludicrous store of that, I would have left academia looooooooooong ago…) and my respect and love for a lot of people has actually gone way up as a result, even as it has all but vanished for a few others. Such, I suppose is the way of things outside the bubble, and I certainly know this dynamic all to0 well from other places and communities in which I have lived and work. That this one lasted undamaged for as long as it did might actually be a testament to its value rather than a sign that it is now somehow corrupted or irreparably harmed.

 

UPDATED: She’s getting so close!

[UPDATE, 7:50 p.m. — She’s here. And she’s asleep, which isn’t surprising after making the crossing. All is good, though, and like the rest of us, she’s pretty pleased with the accommodations here on top of the world at Bol’shoy Prospekt. Headed out to Serzh’s art-opening/party this evening in a bit, then tomorrow is our apartment-party, so the update I promised beyond this one may not be happening just yet, dear reader.]

Inbound

Stephanie’s plane is currently over Gdansk, about ninety minutes from touching down in Saint Petersburg. I’ve got to go to work now, but if everything goes according to plan, she’ll be arriving at the Bobrinsky just before the start of my class today. Jet-lag is sure to put her to sleep early this evening, so I’ll update further on her journey as well as my last few days once she’s deep in slumber (probably about 10 p.m., I’d guesstimate from my own experience two weeks ago).

 

Новый сладостный стиль

The title of this post is a direct borrowing from the title of a novel by one of my all-time favorite novelists, the criminally under-read (outside Russia, that is) Vasily Aksyonov. His novel, Novyi sladostnyi stil’ (The New Sweet Style) came out in English translation while I was in graduate school in 2000, and Aksyonov was still living in emigration (since the country that forced him out, the USSR, no longer existed by that point, I suppose it wasn’t really exile any more…) in suburban Washington, D.C. I loved the book so much that I attempted to write him an e-mail at what appeared to be his George Mason University e-mail accounton the occasion of what an encyclopedia entry told me was his birthday. Thanks to my obsessive retention of electronic data, I still have this absurd missive:

Happy birthday, Vasily Pavlovich. I think I have a couple of minutes
before it is too late to be appropriate. 

I spent the better part of the day finishing Novyi sladostnyi stil' in
order to properly thank you on your birthday for writing it. It is a
wondrous book that brought me a great amount of joy in reading it, not 
the least of which being the realization that your skills as a writer 
are at their peak.

I have been a great admirer of your work for almost ten years now (I was
introduced to Ozhog and Ostrov krym by a Russian professor in
Arkansas, of all places) and am in the process of writing a dissertation
on satirical fiction during the Cold War in which your work from the 1970s
and 80s figures prominently. I realized late last week (while flipping
through an almanac of Russian literature) that your birthday was coming
soon and wanted to take the opportunity to wish you continued health and
inspiration for many years to come.

I hope this message does not seem toadying. I merely wish to express my
gratitude to an artist (you) whose work I admire very much. _N.s.s._ moved
me like few other works in recent years have. To be frank, it provided
several happy days in the midst of an otherwise dreary month of
orientation meetings and preparation for teaching. Thank you again and
good luck with your courses this semester (I saw the listing on the GMU
web-page while looking for your e-mail address and am envious of your
students...the modernism seminar especially sounds wonderful).

iskrenne Vash,

        Derek Maus

Oh, you absurd thing, twentysomething Derek. It goes without saying that Aksyonov did not reply to my message and in the grand scheme of things, I can hardly say I’m surprised. It did not diminish my esteem for that book of his or for his work in general. He’s widely available in English translation and in Russian and should definitely still be read by anyone with an appreciation for good literature.

Anyway, I’m not here to write about Aksyonov, though. Instead, I want to give an overview of how the last week of this sweet style of life here at NYI has consisted of over the past week or so since my last extended entry about the particulars.

Last Wednesday, I had the second meeting of my seminar ad the first one that lasted the full 90 minutes. I went in for the start of the class-day, though, and sat in again on both Mitja’s graffiti class and Kathu’s punk-rock class to see how those were going and to generate some thoughts for further overlaps. Once my class started at 4:00, we had a fairly free-ranging discussion of how and why the concept of negation functions as an idealized goal in some religions and philosophies (e.g., the Buddhist/Hindu/Jainist conception of Nirvana as “blowing out” the fires of passion, hate, and, ignorance and ending the cycle of rebirth) that laid the groundwork for the gradual narrowing of our frame of reference in subsequent classes to the political, the aesthetic, and finally the personal.

After class, I found myself happily in the company of a couple of wonderfully bright and friendly linguists I had befriended last year — Masha and Tanya — and we added a couple more folks — my student Julia from Potsdam and my friend/student Jon from Minnesota/Moscow — to make up a party to travel over to “The Idiot” restaurant for drinks and dinner. We ended up having a great time there over zakuski, beers, and a meal, apparently getting so boisterous that one extremely fussy woman at a nearby table came over and gave us one of the most elaborate and passive-aggressive shushings that I have ever been privy to — “I am from California [subtext: originally from Russia, but I don’t claim it any more] and my son has just graduated from Santa Clara [subtext, unknown to her: he had just been making really ham-handed passes at Julia, Masha, and Tanya outside on the street when the three of them had gone out for a cigarette] and now I am here visiting my friend of fifty years and we cannot hear ourselves speak because you are all so loud [subtext: we may have been — though I doubt it — and we had been there for at least an hour before they arrived]. You need to talk at about 20% of the volume you currently are.” Thankfully, we were pretty much done anyway, so we paid our bill, made sure to get in a few fairly voluble and snarky comments before leaving and then split up to head home around 10 p.m.

Given that it is, of course, still brilliantly light out at that hour this time of year in Saint Petersburg, I decided to walk all the way back to the apartment and take in the lovely evening scenery that almost always accompanies such a choice. A few highlights:

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Peter and Paul Fortress, a frequent photographic/photogenic subject.

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The Rostral columns on the Strelka at the tip of Vasilievsky Island.

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And the sunset sky over the rooftops of Petrograskaya Storona.

It was a nice walk and a good way to get to know my neighborhood for this year a little better. I had my headphones in and attached to my iPod Nano (an ancient piece of technology by contemporary standards) and soundtracked the walk with a sampling of music that I hadn’t heard in a while, which was kind of nice in its own right. I got home around 11 and read/wrote for a few hours before turning in.

I didn’t have much formal to do on Thursday morning, so I once again made myself an omelet with cheese and smoked trout for breakfast and ate it out on the sun-drenched terrace before putting on a large pot of coffee and working on the manuscript of Maurice’s memoir until mid-afternoon, when went into campus on Thursday to hear my colleague/roommate Miloje gave a talk…

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…on some aspects of his linguistic work on Slavic languages, most of which, frankly, went way over my head. The linguists who participate in NYI are among the absolute best in their fields and the conversations that take place among them usually are in a realm of expertise that is far beyond my dilletantish ken. Miloje’s was no different, though with the help of a couple of people sitting near me, I got enough occasional clarifications to at least not be totally lost in the points he was making about how and why negative imperatives (i.e., phrases like “Do not eat that apple!” as opposed to “Eat that apple!”) are formed in numerous Slavic languages. It’s not something I’m likely to be dropping into conversation any time soon, but from the vigorous conversation that followed among the members of the audience, there was definitely interest in what he had to say.

He and some others were heading out afterwards to get dinner, but I was inclined for a more sedate evening and made my way back to the apartment after a stop at the grocery store, cooked up something simple for my evening’s repast and plopped down in my favorite nook in the living room to do some reading and writing in preparation for tomorrow’s classes. I also started putting together something of a set-list for this year’s musical gig…

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…which Anna Neva (a.k.a., the Manager) was wonderful enough to arrange for me at a local bar called 2,5 Men. It’s a real shame that last year’s venue, 2×12, closed — and the general consensus among the NYI crowd was that smoothie-bar and florist that took its place at Fligel’ are really not serving the needs of the community nearly as well! — but this new place is literally right across the road from Fligel’ and looks like it will be a great place to play. I think maybe some others will “sit in” during the show this year as well, so it ought to be quite a lot of fun, even if I’m not yet sure exactly what I’m going to play.

Friday was another class day for me, and I had intended to go in early for Mitja’s and Kathi’s courses, but there was some pretty foul weather in the area during the morning and early afternoon, so I tried to wait it out as best I could. By 2:30, I had no choice and had to catch a bus in the pouring rain. By the time I got to the Admiralty building, it wasn’t raining any more, but there was a thunderstorm in the area that was dropping lightning bolts about every thirty seconds or so and the flat, water-covered environment of Saint Petersburg really makes thunder crack and rumble pretty amazingly.

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While I was taking the photo above, one bolt in particular struck very close while I was still near the square between the Winter Palace and the Hermitage and when I looked back, almost everyone in the square was flat on the ground like it was a “duck-and-cover” drill from the Cold War. Moreover, the loud thunder set every car alarm in the area off, so I got to see dozens of uniformed officers come streaming out of the Admiralty at once to point their keys towards their luxury cars parked near the building.

The storm didn’t stop the indefatigable flood of young brides and grooms taking pictures out in the city, though. These two continued walking around under the trees with their photographer, taking photos every fifty meters or so even as the flashes and rumbles went off all around.

The risk of electrocution by lightning in a metal carriage was clearly no barrier to the formalized expression of love that seems to be de rigeur among young Russian newlyweds.

I got to campus with a few minutes to spare, my shirt soaked equally from the rain getting in under the lip of my umbrella and from the sweat that the humidity was drawing out of me. Our classroom was pretty thick, but I threw open the enormous windows to get a breeze and proceeded to lead a discussion on Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “Negative Freedom” (also called “Negative Liberties”) that Anna Neva captured on “film”:

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It seemed to go pretty well, but by 5:30 it was clear that we were all at the end of a long day as well as the end of a long week and I sent the students on their merry way.

There was a lecture/demonstration by my colleagues Nikolay Karkov, a very interesting political philosopher who teaches at SUNY Cortland, and his partner Xhercis Mendez, who is moving to Michigan State’s Philosophy and African American and African Studies programs this fall from Cal State-Fullerton. They talked about the history and development of Caribbean dance styles and then demonstrated three of those styles for the students and faculty, getting a pretty significant proportion of them to get up and participate. I was inclined to, but a short, fitful night’s sleep last night and the general exhaustion from the opening week was starting to catch up with me in that humid room and I simply couldn’t muster the wherewithal to join in. Those who did, definitely got a good lesson, as Nikolay and Xhercis really know how to cut a rug.

By 8:00 it was time to catch a bus over to Fligel’ for the traditional first-Friday gathering there. I rode over with Jon Rawski and Tim Portice, an extremely nice guy who I was only meeting for the first time. He teaches Russian-language courses to American students in a program that runs parallel to NYI and is a professor at Middlebury during the academic year. We chatted and swapped Vermont/northern New York stories on the bus and on the walk up Vosstaniye to Fligel’, where about a dozen or so other NYI-ers had arrived. With 2×12 out of the picture, the options were somewhat diminished, though. We stuck it out for a couple of hours, though, getting beers and some food — quite a tasty шаверма (the Russian take on shawarma) at the remaining bar, Vilka. Around 10, though, they had a band coming on, meaning that anyone who wanted a drink to bring back into the courtyard would also have to pay the cover, which didn’t seem likely to happen.

However, it turned out that NYI’s resident technical-guru, Dima, was also spinning records over at Дюны on Ligovsky, where we had gone to see the Great Revivers in the pouring rain last year. Today’s weather had gone from storms in the morning to gorgeous clear skies, though, so this seemed like a perfect change of venue. We piled into cabs and made the five-minute trip with ease and within half an hour, a full-on NYI dance-party had ensued, with Dima manning the turntables (he’s in the black hat on the left)…

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…Masha and Anna N. being the pioneers onto the dance-floor, showing everyone how to throw their hands in the air and such…

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…the occasional clown/accordionist and roving violinist adding some Russian color to the proceedings…

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…the vintage copy of Golden Axe (a late-’80s stand-up video game that I barely recall from my misspent youth) flashing out bafflingly semi-literate English-language mythos for the bar-patrons waiting in line for beers…

…and finally a full-on NYI takeover…

Dancing at Dyuny

I was pretty spent, but not so much that I couldn’t make it until about 12:45, when I packed up and hiked back over to Ploshchad Vosstaniye to catch a long, slow bus back to Petrogradskaya Storona. I got in at about 1:45 and was asleep the second my head hit the pillow.

Saturday has already been covered for the most part, so I’ll call this entry complete here and pick up with Sunday and Monday in the next installment. Cog- and Cult-Fest are calling me and I should get myself into the city for them now!

 

Already nearing the midway point…

That lovely two-part sensation of time both fleeting and moving very slowly at the same time is upon me right now. I usually associate it very strongly with the best experiences in my life so I suppose that must be a pretty good thing in and of itself. When I try to mentally estimate how long ago it was that I was jet-laggedly trying to make my way through the Zürich airport on the way here or when exactly it was that I was walking around the apartment in which I currently sit for the first time with my jaw hitting the floor and the gut feeling that I get would be something along the order of months, if not even a year.

Of course, that’s nonsense…it was eleven days ago and I know that quite well. But the other part of the sensation expresses that thought as “OH MY GOD, ELEVEN DAYS HAVE ALREADY PASSED AND I HAVEN’T EVEN DONE X, Y, OR Z YET!!!!!!!” This is also nonsense, but then there is a richness and vibrancy to the daily passage of life in this idealized version of Saint Petersburg life that sort of makes one want to never leave the little bubble that forms. When confronted with the compelling information that the bubble will invariably and bureaucratically burst on August 2, it makes for a sort of frenzied reaction that, frankly, I don’t find helpful at all. It’s certainly counter-productive to enjoying the moments at hand and there are so many of those — even the quiet days of sitting in the nook and writing like Saturday.

It’s been a pretty busy calendar, both professional and social since last week, when I last gave an update on the day-to-day affairs of the NYI. My class has already met four times, which is half its allotment of meetings, remarkably enough. The second week is comparatively light for the MWF classes because of the “Cog- and Cult-Fest” that takes place tomorrow…and to which I am very much looking forward based on my experience there last year. It was actually one of my favorite days of last year because it really was a chance to see a representative sampling of all the things toward which the people who take part in NYI are applying their ample intellectual talents.

All of our students are bright and motivated, but the students who come here from Russia are just breathtakingly good — for a lot of logistical and cultural reasons that aren’t indicative of superiority or inferiority, but rather just the simple fact that there really are fairly different parameters at work for the Russian and non-Russian students in the school. The fact that they tend to be slightly older that their peers, especially among the American students (most of whom are between 19 and 22, i.e., the typical age for an American undergraduate) and that they tend to have had a considerably more intense educational experience seems to set them apart a bit, as does the fact that many (though far from all) of them are advanced undergraduates, graduate students, or in a few cases even junior faculty.

I actually only have two American students among the thirty-two students in my class, one of whom is a former student of mine at SUNY Potsdam whose parents were émigrés from the Soviet Union (which explains why she speaks Russian fluently…), and the other one of whom is a native Minnesotan but also has spent considerable time in Russia, both in school and living/working here. They are somewhat unusual, though, among the American student (and faculty, for that matter) contingent in their bilingual fluency and that makes a big difference (I think). Many of the Russian students are very shy and self-deprecating about their English skills, but they have no reason to be from what I’ve seen of their written work and from the conversations I’ve had with them in both the classroom and outside of it.

The wildly busy schedule — most of the students are taking five simultaneous courses over the three weeks — makes for something of a whirlwind academic experience, but my experience with it last year suggests that it pays many more dividends in the weeks and months after NYI as during the time we’re all in residence together here in Saint Petersburg. Yesterday (the first Monday of the second week) seems to perpetually be something of a low-tide day, I suspect because everybody is sort of feeling the effects of not only burning the candle at both ends for the first week but also buying a couple more candles and burning them as well. It’s a lot, there’s no two ways about it, and that’s even before you add in the hyperstimulation of being in Saint Petersburg and navigating the city’s byways and attractions. I honestly sometimes don’t know how they do it…I’m in my mid-forties, have a lifetime of international travel and academic trial/tribulation in my experiential toolkit, speak and read Russian enough to get around (though far from fluently…), and still feel somewhat overwhelmed at times, though mostly in the wonderful way that suggests pushing through an unnecessary mental limit.

So the relative laxity of this second week is a good built-in recharging mechanism for everyone. It’s actually not that much of a functional diminishment of either work or play, but it feels like one and that’s very valuable. I’m heading into the school soon for a lecture and a film, but today is a pretty light day for me by design to keep from wiping myself out unnecessarily. We were out until about 2:00 in the morning last night on the annual faculty boat-ride, about which I wrote last year, and I’ll write about that (and show some pretty amazing photos from the different path we took this time around!) later this evening probably. A number of the faculty also went to the Fields of Mars for a picnic/frisbee session on Sunday afternoon, followed by a trip back to Petrogradsky Island to see a great ska/funk/cumbia/etc. band called Markscheider Kunst play a super high-energy show at a quirky rooftop venue in the same building where we saw Chernaya Rechka last week. So I’ve upped my quotient of out-and-abouting considerably since my recovery day on Saturday; when coupled with an insanely humid — and, thus, disproportionately draining — pair of bus-rides into and home from school yesterday (I have never felt mugginess like in this city, even when the temperatures are pretty moderate, as they were yesterday), I’m keeping it pretty simple today.

Moreover, Stephanie arrives on Friday and I’m so excited that she’s coming back here after two-plus years away. We had a pretty amazing time here in April 2014 (including getting engaged over cold medicine and horseradish vodka at the Gogol restaurant)…

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…and now that I feel like I know the city better (and we won’t be staying out on one of its outermost edges), it’s going to be a lot of fun re-exploring places we went then and finding some new ones together as well. I also can’t wait to introduce her to all the NYI folks and vice versa.

Anyway, that’s still a couple of days away. Now, to get put together and head into the city.

пока, y’all.