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)…
…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.