“A Russian soul”

No, no…not me. I very much love this city and the people I’ve come to know in it, but I would never be so bold as to assign myself a Русская душа. That’s a term that comes with some pretty serious connotations at various points in time and space in Russian culture and even though I’ve studied this place for a couple of decades, have now visited Saint Petersburg for a total of nearly two months over the course of three years, and absolutely feel at home here while I’m in residence, I am in no way qualified to be bestowing such titles, least of all on myself.

No, the person to whom the title of this post pertains is pictured in the photo at the top of it: Maurice Kenny. That photo is from June of 2012, when he and I went together on a series of poetry readings (and, in my case, a series of introductions to poetry readings) that took us from Munich to Regensburg to Prague to Berlin and finally to Namur in Belgium (though he and I went our separate ways in Liége just prior to that).

In the photo, we are sitting on a train in the Munich Hauptbahnhof, waiting for it to leave for Regensburg. We had arrived about thirty-six hours prior to this moment and hadn’t slept for many of them, partly because of jet-lag and partly because Air France had managed to lose our luggage in transit and had only managed to get it to us about two hours before we were scheduled to move on to Regensburg. We found a little store that advertised itself as a “hip-hop shop” but was largely a clearinghouse for remaindered off-brand clothing and purchased some hoodies and hats to supplement the white t-shirts that Air France provided for us as a stopgap until our luggage arrived. What Maurice has on — a “Zoo York” zip-up hoodie and a Yankees ballcap — is so far from his usual attire that it makes me chuckle to see him in it now.

During the time we were underslept and poorly dressed, Maurice had also delivered a virtuosic reading and discussion of his poetry to students and faculty at the University of Munich and we had gone on a somewhat extended, caffeine-fueled amble through the city center that by complete accident ended up in a gallery that happened to be displaying Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” in front of which Maurice parked himself for a solid ten minutes.

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By the time Air France dropped our bags off at our hotel, we were exhausted and could barely crawl into the cab to the train station to move on to our next destination. I got Maurice onto the train. Seeing that we had another twenty minutes or so before it moved off, I left him thumbing through the onboard magazine and went out into the station to see if I could find anything that we could eat during our two-hour ride to Regensburg. As it turned out, I found a luscious pile of cherries for sale at a fruit stand and the white plastic bag you see on the table in front of Maurice is filled with them. Reader, we ate the entire bag (probably at least a kilo) during the trip, coming back to life with each infusion of dark, red sweetness. In nearly fifteen years of good memories from our friendship, this one is among my absolute favorites.

Maurice has been very much on my mind while I’ve been here in Saint Petersburg this time. He was last year, too, but there was a major difference when I was here last year: he was still alive. Maurice died at the age of 86 this past April, a passing that was something of a relief after protracted struggles with a number of physical ailments that had severely reduced a man who at one point in his life spent entire years at a time riding Greyhound buses around North America, giving readings of his poetry in every corner of the continent. Though it was undoubtedly a mercy for his suffering to end, I find that only now have I fully realized that it’s impossible for me to e-mail him a photograph of the pigeon-perch/statue of Pushkin…

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…or any of the other writers immortalized in bronze or stone or wood throughout this hyper-literary city.

I must have done so a hundred times last summer and each time I got back a brief note from him…

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…indicating his happiness to travel vicariously to a country in which his work had been published in translation, but to which he never got the opportunity to travel.

So…about that “Russian soul” of his. That comment originates from my colleague Polly Gannon’s class during last year’s NYI. She was teaching a course on poetry and one of the class-meetings was an “open mic” session…

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…at which everyone was invited to read some work of poetry that they found especially poignant, beautiful, etc. I took the opportunity to bring and share Maurice’s poem “Wild Strawberries,” which is wonderful in its own right but also written with a style and vocabulary that would be readily accessible to pretty much any one of our students, regardless of their command of English poetic idiom (which is generally fantastic, mind you).

“Wild Strawberry”

For Helene

And I rode the Greyhound down to Brooklyn
where I sit now eating woody strawberries
grown on the backs of Mexican farmers
imported from the fields of their hands
juices without color or sweetness

my wild blood berries of spring meadows
sucked by June bees and protected by hawks
have stained my face and honeyed
my tongue…healed the sorrow in my flesh

vines crawl across the grassy floor
of the north, scatter to the world
seeking the light of the sun and innocent
tap of rain to feed the roots
and bud small white flowers that in June
will burst fruit and announce spring
when wolf will drop winter fur
and wrens will break the egg

my blood, blood berries that brought laughter
and the ache in the stooped back that vied
with dandelions for the plucking,
and the winds nourished our youth and herald
iris, corn and summer melon

we fought bluebirds for the seeds
armed against garter snakes, field mice;
won the battle with the burning sun
which blinded our eyes and froze our hands
to the vines and the earth where knees knelt
and we laughed in the morning dew like worms
and grubs; we scented age and wisdom

my mother wrapped the wounds of the world
with a sassafras poultice and we ate
wild berries with their juices running
down the roofs of our mouths and our joy

I sat here in Brooklyn eating Mexican
berries which I did not pick, nor do
I know the hands which did, nor their stories…
January snow falls, listen…

The students really seemed to enjoy the poem and I could hardly contain my excitement when one of them compared his work to Sergei Esenin’s and another to Anton Chekhov’s, saying “He has a very Russian soul, this poet.” As I recall, I sent Maurice an e-mail reporting this comment before that class was finished (my apologies to anyone whose poem I missed out on while typing it…) because I knew how touched and flattered he would be by that assessment. He not only knew his poetic history but also deeply felt his poetic affinities, and was both humbled and giddy to be appreciated within a culture that takes its poetry much more seriously to this day than the United States ever has.

Sadly, I can’t make any such report back to him this year, but I’ve been able to communicate with him still in a way. You see, he left behind an absolute trove of writing upon his death, including several manuscripts that were already in various stages of the publication process. The most pressing of these is actually a lengthy memoir entitled Angry Rain, which covers the first four decades of his life.

The manuscript, currently under contract for publication by SUNY Press, was finished and had been reviewed and provisionally accepted, but it still needed a lot of cleanup and revision based on the comments made by the press’s outside reviewers and by the editorial staff. In the last few months of his life, Maurice worked with his two wonderful students assistants on trying to get some of these changes made; likewise, he and I went through the manuscript on a couple of occasions, clarifying some points and adding/removing some material where appropriate. It was, however, very much still a collection of thoughts, reflections, and commentaries rather than a fully integrated story of his early life and development as a poet and a person.

Happily, the external reviewers from the press recognized the diamonds within the rough, rather than just rejecting it out of hand because of its somewhat haphazard state. Looking at the manuscript now, I have a much better sense of just how bad his health had become…he was desperately trying to get his thoughts down on paper before they slipped away from him and made few of the persnickety — as one would expect from an accomplished poet — decisions about style and usage that were his hallmark in his professional writing.

It has been a labor of love (and, honestly, part of my way of abstractly processing the grief I’ve felt at his absence) since mid-May for me. I’ve been working in painstaking fashion through the entire 225-plus-page manuscript and performing the often-difficult task of reworking it as a story without changing it substantively. Thankfully, I knew his voice when it was at the impressive peak of its power and can make reasonable and defensible decisions about how he would likely phrase his ideas. We worked together on several written projects and I even published an interview with him a few years after I met him (an occasion that marked the first time he really let me into some of the deeper caverns inside his immensely complicated mind…) I’ve moved entire chapters, cut sentences from the last page and moved them to the front, lifted passages from one section and grafted them onto a stray clause from a hundred pages later and come to know this book better than I know any of my own writing. In the process of doing so, I have also revisited the friend I knew so well and for nearly a third of my life (though only for about a sixth of his…).

Yesterday was Saturday, the first real day “off” that I’ve had since last Saturday (which was my body-acclimatization day). It was a really fun, really energetic first week, about which I will have more to write later, but I was also pretty mentally and physically drained, especially after a strangely difficult night of sleep on Thursday/Friday. Mitja had invited me to accompany him and a group of students out to what looked like (and turned out to be, from Mitja’s report) a pretty amazing museum of street art in a still-working factory out on the eastern edge of the city, but I had to reluctantly decline the invitation in favor of a “mental-health day.”

What that day actually ended up consisting of was working on his manuscript while sitting  in the lovely nook in the corner of this apartment’s living room…

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…with a cup of coffee (and later a cup of tea…and later a glass of beer). As much as I love the terrace, with its views and its sunshiny breakfasts, I think if I could take one small part of the space-time continuum from this apartment and put it into a pouch to take back home with me, it would be this little corner. There are pigeons on the roof right outside the window, the sounds and smells of communal life coming through the open window (along, it must be said, with the occasional mosquito…), and a constant view of the inconstant Saint Petersburg sky. During the twelve or so hours I sat and worked on the book — with a couple of excursions out into the sunny afternoon/evening for groceries and a stretch of the legs — the day went from pouring rain, to brilliant blue sky, to a dusky evening sky in which fireworks were going off back towards the city center, to as close to pitch-darkness as one can get in mid-July here, and finally back to a significant glimmer of sunlight off in the northeast as I wrapped up a chapter around 2 a.m.

It was a good way to spend the day, even if it pretty much could have taken place (physically, at least) just about anywhere. Metaphysically, though, I think it needed to take place right here and right now. Maurice’s Russian-Mohawk-Irish-Seneca-American-frequently mistaken for Jewish soul insisted upon it and if I learned anything from my years of friendship with him it is not to argue with him about such matters. I’ve got a couple more days’ worth of work left on it, but I’d like to get it done while I’m here as a tribute both to him and to the city.

In closing, let me just add one of the poems that he wrote after our trip to Prague in 2012. I was fortunate enough to see him read it a few times in public and it always moved the audience immensely; it seems very pertinent in the wake of the awful things that have happened in Nice and Turkey just in the time I’ve been here. The print version of his poem will have to suffice.

“Židovské muzeum v Praze (Prague Jewish Museum”

We’d been hunting Kafka for days…
sun burning and street stones
fire to flip flop sandals. We found his
cemetery and stood silent in awe of this
incredible artist who had long kept
our brains to his words. His favorite
café was gone from the street, but we bought
postcards and a book or two in the Kafka shop
and spent time in the dark museum.

Under
light rain we stood for tickets to the Museum
and fear rose to what we would find.
Antiquity for sure, but not expecting
Sitting Bull’s name on the wall, nor Geronimo’s,
nor Chief Hendricks, or Roman Nose, never
Crazy Horse or Big Foot or Rain-in-the-Face.
There on the walls I saw Red Jacket, Gowane,
and name after name after name: Native
men and women who struggled against church
and government to live peacefully in their
country. Big Foot and Yellow Bird, Gladys
Bissonette, Roman Nose, and these names
went on ad infinitum.

For every Weitzmann carved
into the walls of this ancient synagogue
there was a Rokwaho, a John Mohawk,
a Diane Decorah or Diane Burns, Ellen
Moves Camp, a Sally Benedict, a Jim Welch,
a Black Kettle. I stood at the railing shaking
in terror, sobbing in horror for the souls
behind all names, children, babes in arms
burnt in an oven or on the blade of an army
bayonet. For every Schwartz suffocating in a gas
chamber…the name written on the Temple walls
of this ancient tomb…there were Native
names painted on the buffalo robe calendars:
Pedro Bissonette – Lakota drunk in a NYC
gutter who went home to fight for his people
now sleeps in an unmarked grave at Wounded
Knee, or Chief Pontiac – assassinated
for protecting his home and children.
Manny (Papago) – shot on Tucson bar steps
by seven white boys who don’t like Indians
or Jews, or Blacks or Gays or Chinks
or big noses, small feet or rich
lands, or poems by Peter Blue Cloud,
or Hillary Cooper’s beautiful wife who
escaped Auschwitz to the Adirondacks:
Ginsberg, Levertov, Steinberg, Hauser…
names etched into books of the century’s
horror, madness; names like Little Belly,
Young King, Phillip Deere…oh! glory, hundreds
of thousands, millions remembered,
ignored, wiped from the earth: Loveman
or Lorne Simon.

I stood at the rail
angry, ashamed of what humans have
inflicted on their own species; hate
wasted when love and understanding
is infinitely less expensive. Huxley’s
Roman Circus prevails, Kafka’s world
we should fear, Hitler/Custer’s stand
on corners of every city, each town
flourishing in this wide world.
Jesus, even though you may not be the son
of God we welcome you back to earth.

When I was a mere boy of nine I chased
ice trucks for slivers of ice on hot
afternoons, lagged behind fruit/vegetable
wagons hoping I might grab a grape/berry.
One of my favorite games to play was follow
Ol’ Sam’s (he had no other names but Ol’
and Sam) rag wagon as he sullenly shouted:
“Ol’ rags, ol’ shoes, ol’ black suits.” My mom
always thought he was a gypsy and would
steal us and drag us into the rags, later
sell us. Oh little do we know of other folks.

Recently I re-read Orwell’s famous blast,
warning of the future to come. It came!
Waits here among us. Huxley’s
Circus is stronger and “soma” has worked
its way into every brain and dream,
the sheer thought of which should be
a nightmare as the merry-go-round
whirls and whirls us into blindness

I shall weep for the Jew
and I shall weep for the Native,
and all the poor bastards, peoples
hated and slaughtered. I shall weep
for Lazarus as I weep for Black Elk,
Audre Lorde, the young Chinese
student who faced the China tank.

I shall continue until my day
is dark and my night is new
with moon. For we shall suffer
and I shall weep for us all.

Niá:wen and ó:nen, my friend.

 

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More pictures of Tuesday’s show

Because her camera (and her photographic eye) are both way better than mine, I thought I’d show a few of Anna Neva’s photos from the show by Chernaya Rechka and Black Candies from Tuesday night.

All 46 photos from her album can be directly accessed by this link.

Some highlights…

Sun, Storm, and Sound

Day two of the NYI felt like the first one where my body and mind were attuned to the local time. Finally slept through the night without a three-hour gap in the middle from 4 to 7 a.m. The rhythm that I fell into last year quite naturally feels very much like a productive and comfortable one to me, and the schedule of obligations that I have very much fits into it. I stay up late — 2 a.m. or so — most nights and then wake up between 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. This morning was on the far end of that scale, making my meal of smoked trout, cheese, and cherry tomato omelet a brunch instead of a breakfast. It was still bright, lovely sunshine as I soaked in some rays and looked out over the city…

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…but storm-clouds were building out in the Gulf of Finland already that were scheduled to arrive in the early afternoon.

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I didn’t have any responsibilities as far as class was concerned today and I didn’t need to be on campus until 4, when my colleague Ulises Mejias was giving a lecture on digital humanities; therefore, I got to spend a leisurely early afternoon, taking advantage of the good weather to sit outside and read a little bit, both for class and for pleasure. I went inside at one point to refill my coffee and by the time I walked to the kitchen and back, a massive cloud had covered the sun and big drops of rain were starting to spatter down. I quickly grabbed by book and went inside about thirty seconds before a massive flash and thunderclap went off nearly simultaneously. For about five minutes, our neighborhood was at the epicenter of a tremendous electrical storm and downpour, with bolts of lightning quite visibly striking chimneys and church-spires all around the immediate vicinity. Our sixth-floor vista was rather fortuitous, pointing in exactly the right direction for the light-show (sadly, I couldn’t capture a clear image of it…)

The storms came and went for a couple of hours, but the skies cleared again around 3, so I hustled down to the bus-stop and made my way into the center of the city, packed with people (both locals and visitors) in the midday rush. After about fifteen minutes of sitting nearly still in traffic, sweating my shirt through inside the steamy bus, I hopped out near the Admiralty and walked the remaining 1.5 kilometers to the Bobrinsky Palace, arriving just in time for the start of Ulises’s quite interesting overview of the pros and cons of digital humanities as they are currently defined. He got a good, wide-ranging conversation going afterwards, which is one of my favorite parts of NYI.

The Russian students especially are not shy in offering comments during such discussions and are seemingly not — for better or worse — as concerned with others’ perceptions of them when they speak up. I spoke for a while after the presentation with one of the students who spoke most eloquently, a Polish Ph.D student in linguistics named Krystyna Kułak, who made some really poignant comparisons between Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy and the way the contemporary academy fetishizes data gathered without preliminary questions to organize the input: “We know that the answer is ’42’ but don’t have a clue about how and why that relates to the ‘meaning of the universe.'”

After the lecture, there was a screening of Harold and Maude, a movie I must have seen ten times by now but can always find reasons to watch again. It was interesting to watch it with an audience composed mostly of non-Americans. In so many ways, it feels like a film of a very specific time and place — Nixonian America — so hearing the reactions from a group of bright, sensitive people with little direct or indirect experience of that time and place was fascinating.

After the movie, I hopped into a cab with Anna N., Anya S., and Masha and we drove over to a little club called Bar Les (the “Forest Bar”), across the street from the Botanical Garden and just around the corner from the apartment in which I lived last summer. We were meeting Mitja and Katharina there for a punk/New Wave show by a well-regarded band called Черная речка (“Black River”) and two other opening acts.

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We got there just as the second band — Black Candies — was going on, got ourselves some beers at the bar and settled in to take in the scene and rock out to the music. Black Candies was a four-piece band with an absolutely fiery, tiny woman on guitar and vocals; Mitja described her as “Joan Jett about forty years ago…and if she was Russian” and that’s a pretty good comparison. They played for about five songs/twenty minutes and had the fifty or so people in the room rocking out.

It was kind of strange to be out at a show, especially a punk show, with bright sunlight streaming in through the windows, but that’s pretty much unavoidable at this time of year in Saint Petersburg, since the sun doesn’t go below the horizon until about 11 and there’s still twilight until well after midnight. It got a little more dark by the time the headliner was finishing up, but it was a way sunnier place that most of the dark clubs in which I’ve seen similar shows in the U.S. and Canada.

Speaking of the headliners, they are a three-piece dynamo of a band that put on a fantastic show. Moreover, they were absolutely beloved by the hundred and twenty or so rabid fans who packed into the club for the show. They sound a little like Sonic Youth, a little like the early Cure, and a lot like themselves. They played probably twenty songs in a single, sweaty set that lasted about ninety minutes.

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Some observations…

—>  Russian mosh-pits are not to be trifled with (though they also definitely uphold the benevolent tradition of being decent to each other — i.e., not punching, not elbowing, and picking each other up quickly if someone gets knocked over — as they smash into each other). The stage-divers were equally intense, including this guy, who leaped off the amps off the side of the stage…

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…and this woman (I think it was the singer from Black Candies, but I’m not sure) who climbed across shoulders for a good three minutes before finally dropping back to the ground.

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—>  This was absolutely the best-dressed and classiest crowd of punks I’ve ever seen. As I noted last year, Saint Petersburg is very much a city of conspicuous and conscious display, and the crowd here — explicitly anti-fascist, explicitly counter-cultural, and explicitly rebellious — still put their own spin on that display. This woman, with amazing floral tattoos all the way down one arm and half the other, was also dressed to the nines in a way that was one-third Casablanca, one-third Bettie Page, and one third-haute couture

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Not all the ink that I saw in this crowd or that I have seen in this generally heavily-tattooed city was this well-done, but there’s a lot of really remarkable body modification on display all over the place).

—>  The band itself was treated with a kind of love and reverence that was really unique in my experience of punk shows. Seeing how Fugazi’s fans idolized them in the late 1980s at shows I went to back in Little Rock within my teenage punk scene

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…was one thing, but not only did this crowd sing along with seemingly all the songs from all over the bar, but five or even ten people would crowd around the singer’s mike and sing the lyrics along with him in a way that was such an awesome punk intrusion/homage.

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None of the people visible on stage in the photo above — taken during the middle of a song, mind you — are members of the band, at least not in a formal way. But their participation was clearly welcomed and made for a great environment, as opposed to many moments like this that I’ve seen in North America, where a fan coming across the monitors to be a part of the show ends up being all about them making their presence now. This was participation in and amplification of what the band was doing, not interruption or distraction from it.

They invariably knocked the mike over getting onto or off the stage and, equally invariably, one of the hardest-looking guys in the crowd would oh-so-gingerly set the mike stand back in front of the singer like he was touching up the paint on a mural in the Sistine Chapel, making sure not to bump it into the singer. I have never seen a crowd so intense in their adoration of a band, especially not at a show this active and energetic. I loved every second of it.

—>  Mitja and I were probably the two oldest people in the place (though far from the only members of the over-thirty set) but I never got the feeling that we were out of place. I wish I had gotten this as video instead of as a still image, but Mitja and I bounced and bobbed throughout the show…

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…deciding (wisely, I think) though the eschew the areas closer to the stage, where the bodies were flying around pretty hot and heavy.

Once the band finished, the crowd filed out pretty quickly (the room was stiflingly humid by then, so I suspect just getting some air was a pretty high priority for most of them). We stayed after and talked with the band a little in a patois of English and Russian; they were friends with one of Anna N.’s friends, a fellow who goes by the name Pasha Chikamoto and who is a mainstay in the antifa punk scene in the city of Kirov. They were only selling their new album on cassettes and I don’t have anything to play them back on, so I will content myself with getting the digital version from their Bandcamp site. It was an all-around great show and a great DIY scene.

The five of us — Masha, Anna N., Katharina, Mitja, and me — walked back towards the apartment (and towards the Metro), gushing about the show and generally trading notes on the music scenes that each of us grew up with in Russia, Austria, Slovenia, and Arkansas. Interesting overlaps and differences, to be sure, but a great crew for the evening in all respects. Anna snapped a picture of us while we waited for a light to change on Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt and I think it looks wonderfully like a band photo for a nonexistent band.

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Mitja and I tossed back a glass of vodka before he called it a night and I stayed up for another forty-five minutes or so talking with Miloje about the show and continuing our discussion from yesterday’s walk home. By about 2:15 a.m., I was wiped out and fell into bed with a mild ringing in my ears and another great Saint Petersburg musical experience in my back-pocket.

And…we’re off!

So I wrote about the opening-day festivities last year and today’s experience was not radically different, except for the fact that I was now in the “grizzled veteran” camp as opposed to the “starry-eyed newbie” contingent. There are not, of course, actual divisions made along these lines, but it’s real easy to tell who falls into which category simply by the degree to which one is comfortable with their plan for the first day.

Last year, I spent the better part of the opening day in the staff room busily making fine-tunings to my syllabus, my course materials, and pretty much every aspect of the plan I had devised for my course. This wasn’t because I hadn’t put any thought into it until then, but mostly because my conception of what I was getting into in no way matched up with what’s actually happening here. As I wrote before, NYI is a pretty unique and amazing experience as far as educational environments go, and it confounds most of the conventional understandings that one brings, pretty much regardless of where and how those experiences were developed. The conversations I have had over the past couple of days with some of my new first-time colleagues are very similar to ones I was having at this point last year and I hope I can be at least half as useful to them as my colleagues were to me .

Sunday was my last day alone in the flat and I awoke for the first time around 4:30 and bumbled around for a couple of hours before falling asleep again until 10:00 or so, when I got up and made myself a breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomato and smoked Lapp trout. I finished it off with a big pot of coffee and cherries, which I enjoyed in the bright sunshine on the terrace while sorting through various e-mails.

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I have lovely, sunny spaces in which to work on my back-porch in Montréal and in my sunroom in Potsdam, but somehow, this just seems like the lap of luxury, basking in the Baltic sunshine and looking out over the roofs of Petrogradsky Island at the monumental spires and cupolas of the city.

The sunny day briefly turned a little stormy, as is common in this city of Seattle-like climate. The flatness of the area, especially when viewed from six stories up, really emphasizes the impression that storm-clouds make, even at a distance.

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The storms passed close…

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…but never unleashed any of their fury on my immediate neighborhood. They did, however, drive the mosquitoes down to my level, so I hustled inside and continued my work indoors, waiting for Mitja’s scheduled mid-afternoon arrival.

We had a lovely group dinner/opening meeting at Café Botanika again and I had a chance to renew acquaintances with a number of friends from last year as well as to meet some of the new people as well. Mitja arrived from the airport about two hours before the dinner started and we caught up a bit and shared a beer as I gave him the grand tour of the apartment prior to catching a cab into the city. Our third roommate, Miloje, arrived during dinner and seems like a nice, interesting guy. He has a seventeen-month-old daughter back home in Ithaca, NY, which helps explain why he’s only staying for two weeks instead of the full time. Like both me and Mitja, he too was blown away by our accommodations and it seems like we have a good crew in that space. With Miloje having jet-lag and Mitja just being wiped out after leaving his house in Ljubljana at 4:30 in the morning, it was a pretty early night for both of them. We watched the first half of the Portugal-France European Cup final before both of them retired, while I watched it to its bitter, somewhat anticlimactic end before calling it a night in the twilight of 12:30 a.m.

This morning began with a relatively early 8 a.m. wake up, shower, and breakfast before the three of us caught a bus to the city center and then made the twenty-five-minute walk from the Admiralty to the Bobrinsky Palace, where the NYI is once again headquartered this year. We got to know Miloje a little more as we made the trip and arrived not long before the opening ceremony began. After the speeches by dignitaries from St. Petersburg State University and SUNY Stony Brook (the two sponsors of NYI)…

…John Bailyn went through a bunch of logistical details about the next three weeks and all the faculty members who were present introduced themselves to all of the students (as a group, of course…not individually).

Once the opening was done, everyone dispersed for the first meetings of classes. Every course meets on both the first and last day of NYI, whereas the schedules for the rest of the time alternate between Tu/Th and M/W/F schedules. I’ve got the last slot — 4:00 to 5:30 — on the MWF schedule this year, which means I don’t have to come in until later in the day when I’m teaching if I don’t want to.

However, after visiting the first meeting of both Mitja’s course on graffiti…

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…and Katharina Wiedlack‘s course on punk-rock, I suspect I’ll probably be making it in pretty regularly to attend more of those, as they’re both doing really interesting things. Moreover, they’re doing interesting things that have some very compelling overlaps with what I’m doing in my course (as is the case with Tanja Petrović‘s course on humor and politics), and we’ve got several students in common, so it would be helpful to know precisely what they’re all covering in class in order to set up a few more opportunities for my students to synthesize their work across multiple courses.

Speaking of my course, I had the first meeting of that one today too, and despite being a relatively new topic for me (at least in terms of explicitly framing an inquiry in terms of “affirmative negativity”…a lot of the things I’ve written about related to satire obviously work in this context to some extent) I thought it went pretty well. I have more than thirty students — twice as many as last year, which is both encouraging and a little daunting — again ranging from very young to almost my age and from college sophomores to advanced graduate students. I have students from Iran, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and the U.S. (including one student who I had in class at SUNY Potsdam and who is in the country of her parents’ origin for the first time in her life, a pretty neat bonus for her on top of the foundational NYI experience…).

Here’s the description of the course with which I cast the net that ended up bringing in this throng of students:

In English, the word “negativity” lacks connotations that would readily associate it with productive or empowering discourses. On the surface, this is perhaps an unsurprising observation, given that grammatical and/or conceptual negation is a trait of exclusionary or marginalizing discourses in many, if not most, languages/cultures – e.g. “homelessness” or “statelessness”; the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC); the various “counter-revolutionary activities” punished using Article 58 of the Soviet penal code; medieval Christian associations of the Devil with “negative consciousness.”

However, there are also variety of cultural discourses that use linguistic and conceptual negation as a form of assertive and affirmative self-definition. Instead of being a discourse of being excluded by an externally originating negative definition, this is an inclusive practice of self-identifying through conscious negation of a normative or otherwise empowered concept. In essence, this seminar will examine what differences (if any) we can discern between self- and group-identifications that originate with a rhetorical and/or political act of negation and those that are founded on more straightforward affirmations. Basically, the we’re going to ponder the broad question of whether there is a difference between calling oneself “not-X” instead of “Y”?

A sampling of some forms of affirmative negativity that might come up at greater length during our discussions. You are also welcome, possibly even expected, to generate your own examples.

—-> Apophatic forms of theology, in which god and/or divine nature is defined exclusively by what he/she/it is not; also, Taoism, Buddhism, and other religions/philosophies that emphasize “non-being” and/or “non-attachment”

—-> Political neutrality, with special attention given to the “Non-Aligned Movement” that originated during the Cold War as an alternative to the “Third World”; similarly, the U.N.’s “Group of 77,” which excludes most of Europe, North America, and Australia

—-> Anarchism, including that of Mikhail Bakunin; Isaiah Berlin’s concept of “negative liberty,” which defines freedom in terms of the absence of external obstacles or restraints

—-> Dissidence, particularly in the Soviet context; also, anti-fa(scist) resistance movements

—-> “Queer” sexual identity discourses that seek to reclim and repurpose a word previously used heteronormatively as an exclusionary slur; also, asexuality as a category wholly outside the conventional sexual paradigm

—-> Racial/ethnic identity conceptualizations like “people of color” that define a solidarity predicated on non-whiteness

—-> Abstinence as an identity marker, whether from alcohol, tobacco, sex, etc.

—-> Veganism, a practice of consumption defined at least as much by what is not consumed as by what is

—-> Canadian self-conceptions that are explicitly grounded in being “not-American”; correspondingly, Quebecois self-conceptions grounded in being “non-Canadian”; even more correspondingly, First Nations self-conceptions grounded in being “non-European”

—-> Atheism (belief in no divine power) and agnosticism (disbelief in any particular divinity)

—-> Musical forms such as jazz, punk-rock, and hip-hop that (in their earliest phases, at least) celebrated nonconformity to aesthetic and soci(et)al norms

—-> Paul Goodman’s anatomy of silence as a means of aesthetic expression; John Cage’s famous musical composition 4’33”; Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square”

—-> And, of course, the “Alley of St. Petersburg’s Not-Disinterested Residents” (Аллея небезразличных петербуржцев) in the St. Petersburg Botanical Garden

It’s complicated and simultaneously simple to the point of being obvious, as demonstrated by the fact that we began with the question, “Why do we even have negation in our languages?” a question that Umberto Eco implied in his famous linguistic essay on “Edenic language,” in which he posited that the first word-concept (“a”)  must almost surely have been followed by the second word concept (“not-a”) in whatever language was spoken in the Garden of Eden (metaphorically speaking, of course…). Although there was some puzzlement evident on a few faces — something I learned last year should in no way be interpreted as incomprehension or frustration — there were also a pretty significant number of the students who were already prepared to engage in some fairly wide-ranging discussion about the implication of the difference between identifying oneself with a straighforwardly positive phrase — e.g., “I am a man” — a negative phrase — e.g., “I am not a woman” — or a doubly negative phrase — e.g., “I am not not-a-woman” (which is, of course, awkward and ungrammatical in English, but can still impart meaning in certain contexts).

The nice thing about this course is there are literally no fixed endpoints for our discussions; I don’t necessarily want or need them to go anywhere in particular over the course of the next three weeks and my experience from last year suggests to me that this will actually allow us to go a lot more places that we otherwise would. So much of the benefit from this kind of set-up seems likely to come weeks, months, possibly even years after the hectic and intense classroom time we share during this brief time in Saint Petersburg, so I really designed this course to allow for a much more philosophical, open-ended and improvisational structure than I would normally do. In a nutshell, it is not my usual course structure (see what I did there?), but I think it’s going to work better for that very reason. I hope so anyway.

Oh, and this is the classroom in which all this takes place.

Did I mention that the building in which the NYI is held is a former palace belonging to one of Catherine the Great’s illegitimate sons? Because it totally is, and you can see it in some of the better-appointed classrooms, like the one I’m teaching in (pictured above), which has fifteen-foot ceilings and chandeliers, among other things.

Nice. Humid (like all of SPb), but nice.

I stuck around for two more classes and the champagne toast/get-together in the courtyard of the palace before heading home around 8:30 with Miloje. We walked back along the tree-lined boulevards that run the length of the southern bank of the Neva (well, one block behind the bank…) and he told about a couple of interesting observations from linguistic morphology (his specialty) that might be of use to my class. For example, with only a few exceptions — unforgettable, unmistakble, unselfish — the prefix un- can only be used to negate adjectives that are generally positive. Note, you can negate “happy” into “unhappy” but not “sad” into “unsad” or “angry” into “unangry.” Similarly, you can negate “pleasant” into “unpleasant” but not “vile” into “unvile” or “miserable” into “unmiserable.” Obviously you can say any of these words and be understood, but the sheer awkwardness of saying “unbad” drives home his observation’s accuracy. The actual reasons for this development aren’t entirely clear, but they’re quite interesting to speculate about and we did a good bit of that as we walked back to the Winter Palace, where we caught the bus that took us back the remainder of the way to our apartment in the heart of the Petrogradsky District.

I had some dinner and a quick run through the shower to take off the day’s sweat that always seems to build up the hyper-moist environment of the city, regardless of the temperature and then settled in to write this post. My roommates have both called it a night already, so I won’t bother them by taking advantage of the fortuitous discovery that I made last night…

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…and which will help me get ready for this year’s edition of my Saint Petersburg gig, which Anna Neva has already arranged for Thursday, July 28. After the fun I had last year, this is once again the icing on the cake for me as far as the whole NYI experience goes, and it will be even better for me this time around because Steph will be here by then and has never actually seen me perform on stage before. That fact alone might give me more stage-fright that I’ve felt since I was a teenager, but I’m looking forward to it. Between that and repeating the kvartirnik we had last year, I’ll need to get in some practice to get my fingers back into playing shape…just not tonight. Let sleeping ex-Yugoslavians lie.

Speaking of which, during this morning’s opening session, we also reprised last year’s “reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia” photograph…

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…in which I (who apparently can only wear this purple shirt for such occasions) am allowed to be an honorary Balkan, representing Quebec (which at times seems quite inclined to ditch the rest of Canada in its own quixotic form of “Quexit”).

The cast of characters changed slightly — with Dijana and Mitja being the only other holdovers besides me…

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…but the real camaraderie engendered by faux-nationalism is a vast improvement on the phenomenon we’re gently mocking. As was the case when I went to Slovenia and Croatia back in 2010 during my Fulbright to Austria, all of the people I’ve met through NYI who have a connection to the former Yugoslavia are kind, brilliant, and warm people, a fact that makes the awfulness of what happened there because of other less kind, less brilliant, and less warm people all the more sad…and all the more of a motivation for not allowing anything similar to happen in the places where I live.

The people I’ve met at NYI remind me of something I already believed but which bears repeating over and over as a mantra against the worse impulses of the world: there is nothing inherently good or evil about any country or culture, just as there is nothing inherently good or evil in any one person. I believe we all have the capability for acts of great compassion and for acts of maddening foulness, but we have to learn how to choose them (something admittedly made more difficult by circumstance for many people, but ultimately still possible for anyone with even the most barely functioning faculties of reason and empathy). There are things in every culture that can be distorted, perverted, and destroyed in the service of bigotry, narcissism, and ignorance and with the disturbing news that’s been drifting across the Atlantic in the past few days out of Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, it gets harder and harder not to feel like something terribly diseased has taken a deep root in American culture. In the face of such awfulness, it feels even more imperative to find an to cultivate common ground with everyone here, regardless of where they’re from or who they are. In my experience, one is rarely afforded such unambiguous opportunities to practice humanity, so I intend to do so to my fullest possible abilities.

We’ll see where that leads, but after one day, it’s pretty invigorating.

Back to the (radiant) future!

[n.b., The car in the photograph above was in front of us for the better part of ten miles — Steph would not pass it, actually — on the drive back to Montréal from Potsdam right before I came to Saint Petersburg. Our supposition was that it was coming up to take part in Montréal’s ComicCon. It seems apropos for this post’s title and subject matter]

It’s been a while — almost six months —  since I’ve poked my head up on this blog. It’s been even longer than that — more than eleven months — since I last set foot in the city that is the raison d’être of this whole blog in the first place.

That’s right. I’m back in Saint Petersburg, ready and raring to go for my second round of participating in NYI, teaching another cultural studies seminar — this time on a concept called “Affirmative Negativity” that I will explain in more detail in another post soon — for the bright, eager, and interesting students from all around the world who come to this wonderful, weird place in July to be a part of something that, frankly, I can’t imagine my life without at this point.

So let’s talk a little about how we got here, lit. and fig., shall we?

Back when the snow was still on the ground (and not just in the frozen wastes of northern New York, southern Quebec, and Karelia), it was confirmed that NYI 14 would, indeed, by happening and that I was invited to once again be an instructor. My wife Stephanie and I drove down from Montréal to NYC (well, we drove to Peekskill, NY and took the train to Manhattan from there) in March on a 50% social-50% professional visit that had NYI implications, given that we were visiting with NYI co-director John Bailyn, his wife (and NYI faculty member) Dijana Jelača, their daughter, and my NYI colleague and roommate, Mitja Velikonja, who was visiting from Slovenia and giving a series of talks in New York and New England.

I had the pleasure of attending Mitja’s talk at NYU on graffiti and Yugo-nostalgia, which combined the subjects of his course from last summer and the one he’s teaching this summer. Stephanie hadn’t met Mitja before his talk and we took the chance to catch up/get to know one another afterwards by going for a pint and a rootle through the Strand bookshop on an unseasonably warm and gorgeous early spring day. I also gave a talk on Cold War satire to John’s students out at SUNY Stony Brook, reprising some of what I did during last year’s NYI in an effort to (among other things) recruit some more Stony Brookers for this year’s version. We’ll see if it did any good…

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment in Bed-Stuy, about a mile’s walk from John and Dijana’s lovely brownstone, at which we were treated to dinner on one of our nights in the city. At the risk of sounding like an unrepentant gentrifier (I’m not, recognizing that there are some pretty major downs than come with some of the equally major ups of the influx of new people and new money into neighborhoods with distinct ethnic and racial heritages), I was absolutely smitten with it, having not been there since the mid-1990s, when I probably was pretty stupid for wandering around, looking for the block on which most of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was filmed. We had drinks at a great neighborhood bar called Bed-Vyne and then had dinner at a place that absolutely blew us both away, Peaches HotHouse, a place with that bills itself a an “urban country café” and makes food so good we came right back the next night and brought John, Mitja, and NYI staffer Alecia Barbour with us to give them a taste as well. Finding an excuse to go back to NYC simply to have the chance to eat their shrimp po’boy, Nashville-style fried chicken, grits, cornbread, and greens again has pretty much become a daily ritual since that trip.

What does that have to do with why I’m here in Saint Petersburg now? Well, not much, but it was yet another occasion on which food, drink, and work all mixed wonderfully and all of the people involved were specifically ones I met through NYI, so that matters a lot in the end for my conviction that this is how and why I want to live and work. Also, there is apparently now good barbecue in Saint Petersburg, if the advance scouting of Masha is to be trusted (which I have every reason to believe it should be…).

The next four months involved some pre-planning for my course, some arranging of schedules to free up July by setting aside time to work on other things in June and August, and a lot of e-mails back and forth with various NYI friends repeating the mantra “Is it July yet?” (which has also become 3/4ths of a song that I need to finish in the next couple of weeks so that I can debut it at this year’s musical gig, which will be at a new location since 2×12, last year’s venue, sadly closed back in the fall…).

[note: At this point in writing this post, I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer and called it a night — my first back in the city. That was at 10 o’clock, or early twilight as it is known in St. Petersburg in July. A good, relatively solid six hours of sleep later and I’m awake again at 4 a.m., with almost full sunlight streaming in through the window. Having learned the futility of fighting midnight, jet-lag wakeups, I’ve decided to just get up and read/write a little until I’m sleepy again and then have a snooze until mid-morning, at which point my body will hopefully believe that the past few days have been completely normal.]

So then yesterday (at this point, I suppose it’s technically two days ago, but I’ve only had one sleep, so it feels like yesterday still)…so then on Thursday, let’s call it, I got on a plane around 5:00 in the afternoon in Montréal, just as the airport’s various television screens were showing the final throes of Germany’s inglorious loss to France in the Euro 2016 semifinals. I had been wondering where I was going to watch the final on Sunday in Saint Petersburg if the Germans actually made it to that point (the…um…“fraught” history of German-Russian relations in this city over the course of the past few centuries made me somewhat reticent to be overly jubilant about my rooting interest, should it come to that, though soccer can sometimes make for strangely ahistorical bedfellows, even if only temporarily…). Some questionable handball calls and some ill-timed inability to score goals on the Germans’ part have eliminated the need for me to deal with that particular issue of cross-cultural communication.

My flight to Zurich aboard a gigantic and brand-new Swiss Boeing 777

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…was quite comfortable, though the plane is not quite as big as the inflight tracking program would make it seem…

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Sadly,the vegetarian meals from Hiltl — an amazing restaurant in Zürich at which I ate with my cousin Afra back in 2010 — are only available on Swiss flights originating from Zürich, but I had a tolerable meal, augmented with distinctly Swiss beer…

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…and some timely chocolate.

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I watched Deadpool and 10 Cloverfield Lane during the flight, each of which was amusing diversion, if not earth-shattering. We arrived at 6:15 in the morning, and as I exited the plane, I noticed a man who looked distinctly like legendary jazz bassist Marcus Miller standing sleepily in the arrival area.

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Trust me, the guy in a black jacket and white t-shirt partially obscured at the right side of this photo is TOTALLY Marcus Miller!

I saw him play along with Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten at the International Jazz Festival in Montréal back in 2012 and was blown away, so  I thought about approaching him and offering my esteem, but I had a tiny shred of doubt that it was him (despite the fact that he was wearing his signature pork-pie hat) and that it would totally make sense — both logistically and alphabetically — for him to be shuttling between the jazz festivals in Montréal and Montreux (where, as I later discovered, he was playing that very night — i.e., a few hours ago).

I fussed around in the very clean, very orderly Zürich airport for a few hours until my flight for Saint Petersburg left at 9:15. Having not slept on the overnight flight, I caught a couple of hours of sleep on this one and arrived at Pulkovo in relatively good shape, certainly better than last year, when I confused poor Anna Neva (who I was only meeting for the first time then, mind you…) with my fundamental inability to be functional and get things done, like purchasing a sim-card for my phone. No such problems this time around, as Anya Surovegina met me at the arrivals area with a big smile and hug and we took care of minor logistical issues before she put me in a van heading for the city.

My lack of sleep caught up with me a little during the ride and I spent most of it yawning and looking out the window at the now strangely familiar sights of the ride in along Moskovskiy Prospekt. So many things about this trip are made easier by now having done it twice before — is it really possible that I had never come to this amazing city before April 2014?!? — and it’s fascinating to me how familiar so much of it seems, even as parts of it still get me all turned around. I caught myself mumbling out landmarks, both collective and personal, as we passed them on the drive in, almost as though I was calling them back into existence after mental storage (don’t worry, Saint Petersburg, I am not such a narcissist that I believe you don’t exist without my presence…it’s just an observation of my mental/emotional state during a jet-lagged rekindling of our acquaintance).

While at the airport, Anya had informed me that they were unfortunately not able to get the same apartment as last year for us, a fact that initially had me somewhat downcast, as it was quite a comfortable and sociable place in which I’d felt very much at home. They did manage to find another apartment about a kilometer away from the old one, still on Petrogradsky Island and still fairly close to the same metro-stop and bus-lines. I will admit,though, that my first reaction was disappointment.

Well, my second reaction was jaw-dropped amazement as Masha met me at the flat, just off Bolshoy Prospekt near ulitsa Lenina. It is beyond anything I could have hoped for and made me feel a little guilty for abandoning my disappointment about not getting the one on ulitsa Popova again. Not only is Mitja rooming with me again — along with a linguist from Cornell named Miloje Despić, who will only be here for the first two weeks of NYI — but Steph is also coming over about two weeks after me, so having an inviting space was a high priority. Brothers and sisters, lemme tell ya…this is one inviting space.

It’s a sixth-floor (i.e., top-floor) apartment in a fairly old building, but one that has gotten some renovation work done and, as a result, is in great shape. The building has the narrowest elevator I have ever seen; Masha and I rode it up with my suitcase to save the schlep up the six flights, but that may be the last time I ride it, in the interest of not developing claustrophobia. The elevator may be the only uncomfortable thing about the flat, though, and I already want to write a note of thanks to the English journalist/writer who normally lives in it, but is renting it out to us for the month of NYI.

I mean, look at this place!

I explored it for the better part of the evening as I unpacked and made myself comfortable and I couldn’t find a whole lot about it about which to gripe. I explored the immediate environs briefly on a walk to an ATM to equip myself with some rubles, discovering (among other things…) a little record shop called Totem right across the way that’s going to need considerably more attention at some point when neither my language-skills nor my personality were as wobbly as they were last evening after thirty-plus hours of being mostly awake and a 35%-circumnavigation of the globe.

So now it’s 5:30 a.m. and this is the view out my window…

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The golden spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress is visible as well, off to the south, making for quite the iconic view of the city from this rooftop bower. My plan of tiring myself out with some writing seems to be working, though, so I may head back into slumberland for a couple more hours before starting my Saturday in earnest.

If you’re reading with me again, welcome back. If you’re a new reader or an accidental arrival on these pages, welcome likewise. I can’t promise anything in particular as far as content goes, but I hope it’s at least amusement of a sort for a while.

A momentary mid-winter reappearance…

This won’t be long, as there’s nothing to report yet regarding the summer 2016 version of NYI and whether I will be invited to take part in it. I’ve got my fingers crossed to the point of losing blood-flow and have been letting some ideas for possible courses percolate in the back of my mind as I work on finishing a book manuscript about Percival Everett (which will definitely NOT be the subject of a seminar, as much as I love his work…) and start up another semester at SUNY Potsdam with the usual load of four courses, plus five (!) independent studies with wonderfully motivated students who want to go above and beyond the usual curriculum they are offered (who am I to say no to THAT!?!?).

Anyway, the point of this post is not to talk about me, but to post a link to the wonderful animation work of one of my NYI friends/students/colleagues Serzh Kirchano, who has posted “Wabbaland Universe,” a four-minute film on Vimeo.

It’s pretty wonderful stuff, so have a look if you’re not already in the loop about this.

Back into radio silence now.

How to make two days really count (Part III)

The final installment of this series is also sort of the final installment of this summer, a meeting of almost parallel lines that come to a point two days from now when the summer ends and the fall semester at SUNY Potsdam begins again, with its 125 students in four courses (one fifty-student section of Introduction to Literature, two sections of Patterns of Literature, and one section of a new course I’ve just developed on Alternate Histories), its seemingly endless stream of “Welcome Back — Here’s Something We Need You to Do for Us” e-mails from every office on campus, and its death-by-a-thousand-papercuts opening week in which nothing quite works like it should and everything from the simple to the intricate requires three forms to be submitted to four offices in five copies that are deliverable to only one person, who happens to be out sick with the flu and due back on Labor Day, on which classes do meet, but all campus offices are closed (go ahead, make sense of that one…).

As much as I love the energy of a new semester — especially the fall semester, when a lot of students are just starting their higher educational experiences/loan-accumulation process — I have to confess that I also get drained by the sheer volume (and, frequently, the attendant uselessness) of the micromanagement tasks that are imposed on us as faculty during this time. It really steals a lot of the vitality and joy out of the opening week of the semester, and that’s a shame. After fifteen years of doing this, I tend to keep my distance from campus as much as possible until the absolute last minute, simply because I know that being there before that will invariably involve getting sucked into something for which I neither have time nor inclination.

So let me hearken back to August 1, 2015 — a mere four weeks ago that simultaneously feels like it might have been four years ago — which was the Saturday just after NYI concluded and just before my departure from Saint Petersburg the next day.

As had been the case with each of the Saturdays I spent in the city, the weather cooperated marvelously for this, my last full day in the city, with clear skies and comfortable temperatures in the 24 degrees Celsius/75 degrees Fahrenheit range. The only firm plans I had for the day were to meet up with several of the NYI staff at Кофе на кухне (Kofe na Kukhne), the unofficial staff/faculty lounge for NYI and a super-comfortable coffee-shop/hangout on the Fontanka. That wasn’t until mid-afternoon, though, so I had the morning and the early afternoon available to me for ambling.

I had intentionally taken a very long walk home all the way from the Bobrinsky Palace back to our apartment on the previous Wednesday evening with the express purpose of making sure I got in one more leisurely, unrushed stroll past some of the beauties of the city. My only task for that evening was to rehearse for my gig the next night and that was only going to take about two hours, so I knew I had plenty of time for the walk, which takes an hour at a brisk pace and anywhere from twice to three times as long if one meanders and takes a lot of pictures, as I am prone to do.

It had been pouring rain for much of that day and still was sprinkling when I began walking, but it cleared up quite magnificently as I got to the center of the city, affording me once again some beautiful early evening (i.e., 8 p.m.) light pouring down on the city’s monumental architecture around Palace Square, Nevsky Prospekt, the Hermitage, and the Admiralty, with the added bonus of a backdrop of dark grey clouds for contrast…

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I looped around to the Moika and got a quintessentially “Venice of the North” view down that river…

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…before retracing my midnight steps of the previous week and crossing over to Vasilievsky Island and then Petrogradsky Island and heading up toward Petrovsky Stadium, where the beloved hometown soccer team ФК «Зенит» plays its home matches (for now, at least until the boondoggle of a stadium being built both for the 2018 World Cup and for Zenit’s future matches is finished…)…

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…where I turned northeast toward the apartment and zigzagged through the neighborhood…

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…as the evening turned to twilight.

Thanks to this lengthy stroll and the one on the previous night’s walk home, I didn’t feel particularly obliged to spend a lot of Saturday collecting new impressions. I had a couple of places I wanted to stop in the center of the city — a book fair being held in the courtyard of Михайловский замок (Saint Michael’s Castle) and a funky-looking record-shop on the Moika, where I figured I could pick up some music that would serve as a proper memento for my trip (more on that in a moment).

I had one last leisurely breakfast in the apartment, making coffee in the lovely old Italian espresso-maker whose functioning I finally mastered during the last week of my stay and cooking up some scrambled eggs and salmon with the remainder of the smoked fish that remained from our party the previous weekend. I started folding and arranging a few things for packing later in the day, but wasn’t physically or emotionally ready just yet to actually place anything into suitcases and headed out into the beautiful weather a little after noon.

I walked down the length of Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt and across the Troitsky Bridge one last time in getting to the book-fair, which consisted of several stalls that featured some antiquarian dealers, some guidebook and souvenir dealers of new books and a massive selection of books featuring works from the Russian State Museum (of which the Saint Michael’s Castle is a part). There was also a talk of some sort happening at a stage nearby, though I can’t say I paid much attention to it. Having already picked up a fairly heavy art-book — the catalogue of this show — during my previous Sunday’s visit to the museum, I didn’t feel very inclined to add another heavy book to my luggage and walked on after about thirty minutes of milling about in the stalls.

I made my way over to the Moika and found the “Vinyl House” record shop tucked away into a tiny two-story space and went inside to rummage through the friendly, chatty proprietor’s amazing stock of records. Stephanie and I took a trip earlier in the summer through the American South and one of the places we stopped was the wonderful Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, Tennessee, and I was really searching for something that would tie this trip and that trip together.

Consider that item found. I found an original pressing of Isaac Hayes’s 1971 album, Black Moses, complete with its remarkable and somewhat sacrilegious six-part, cross-shaped fold-out of Isaac as Black Moses:

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I had great fun unfurling this later in the afternoon at Kofe na Kukhne, as the potential subversive power of the image really takes on all sorts of different resonances forty-four years and several thousand miles from its origins on the banks of the Mississippi. I almost don’t want to admit what I paid for it; even with the heady 62 rubles per dollar exchange rate working in my favor (and absolutely crushing the finances of non-billionaire Russians, a fact I found it nearly impossible to ignore every time I was calculating my negligible expenses in my head…), it was considerably more than I had paid for any musical artifact that wasn’t an instrument in my lifetime. Still, both as a work of musical art and as an artifact that would stimulate good memories of me from the entire summer of traveling, it was well worth it.

I stopped into a couple more small bookshops on the way to Kofe na Kukhne, specifically looking for some things by a simultaneously clever and slightly kitschy cat-themed artist whose work Stephanie and I had seen the previous year at the Cat Republic. I found some of her cats-as-artists magnets for sale along with various other small-scale (and, thus, readily packable into already overstuffed luggage!) mementos…

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Hardly true, but funny nevertheless…

…and loaded myself up with them in fifty-ruble increments.

My mercantile tasks completed, I walked four doors down from the last bookshop of my tour to Kofe na Kuchne, where I found Mitja sunning himself on a bench outside. We went inside to get a table and a coffee and await the gradual arrival of various members of the NYI crew. What ensued was one of my favorite “events” of the entire three weeks, a kind of impromptu “salon” of sorts that featured about fifteen people in all coming and going over the course of three hours, during which we talked…

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I believe this was the peak population of the afternoon, when we had about twelve people around a table intended for about six

…laughed…

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We should all be so lucky as to be able to laugh like Masha does…

…played some chess (when in Russia, after all)…

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John B. and Serj engaged in a game that eventually ended in a cheerful stalemate

…made a little art…

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Anya N.’s “courtroom”-style rendering of the afternoon

…celebrated Polly’s birthday…

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…and generally passed the time just being in the company of remarkably good people with nothing else to do but enjoy it. The time-telescope set in again just in time and you could have told me we spent a week in there and I would have believed you. As it turned out, it was actually only about 6:30 in the evening when Mitja and I left to go back to the apartment so that he could get his luggage ready to go. He had an early morning flight back to Slovenia and, as such, needed to be on the other side of the bridges so that he could get to the airport; therefore, he was leaving at around 10:00 to go to John Bailyn’s apartment, where the cab to the airport would pick him up around 2 in the morning.

Before that, however, we had one last gift coming to us thanks to Anna Neva’s seemingly inexhaustible reservoir of interesting locations to visit, and this one was right around the corner from our apartment. At around 8, the two Annas, Masha, Julia, Brad, and Miriam all showed up in front of the apartment and we walked three blocks over to a building directly across from the entrance to the Botanical Garden, up five flights of stairs to yet another rooftop bar called Botaniqué, which had an amazing 270-degree view across the rooftops of the city…

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…a well-stocked bar serving good drinks (both boozy and not-boozy)…

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…spacious tables to accommodate our continued rambling conversations from the afternoon…

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…and a pretty solid DJ spinning funk and soul music to boot!

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We managed to keep Mitja there for an hour past his intended departure time, late enough to see the lights on the television tower start to sparkle behind him as sunset finished around 11:00…

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…but we did finally have to pack him into a cab bound for the other side the river and say goodbye, at least until next year (or, in my case, possibly April, when he’s coming to the U.S. for a visit and I can hopefully make plans to see him or even bring him up to Potsdam for a talk!).

My own goodbye to this group of folks took place not long thereafter, once we had all walked back to the apartment. I still needed to pack the rest of my things and so we exchanged one last round of hugs and farewells out on the street before I made my way upstairs to get everything ready to for my departure, less than ten hours into the future at that point.

As I said when starting this series of three posts, there were a lot of options that came to mind initially about how those last two days could have been spent. As it turned out, they were almost perfect and most of that just had to do with the company I was able to keep during that time. By far the best part of this experience (and there were plenty of good ones to choose from, mind you…) was getting to make a group of friends the likes of these. When one feels not just a little pang of remorse at leaving, but genuine sadness that such a remarkable idyll has to end (or at least go on a 48-week hiatus, I suppose…), it is a clear sign that the experience has reached a very deep part of one’s being.

I was happy to be going home to what is a very happy and very fulfilling life (I am a very fortunate person and all the more grateful for that good fortune after these twenty-two days…) but it would be untrue to say that I wasn’t trying my hardest to figure out how these two parts of my life could be permanently intertwined as I packed the rest of my things at midnight on that Sunday morning. But a little bit of Zen must have entered into my consciousness at that point, because I gave up that struggle before my head hit the pillow, realizing that the proper goal was not to try to put this moment or this experience into amber for the rest of time, but to carry the positive effects it had on me forward. It’s never been easier to keep in touch with people in the far-flung reaches of the world (as this very blog proves to me) and I fully to keep those lines of communication open until I get the chance to resume the conversations of August 1, 2015 in person over a fresh cup of tea or coffee at some point down the line. In the mean time, there’s e-mail and there’s lots of other things to be discussed and to be pondered and to be done in the here and now.

Right now, those things include getting ready to start teaching again on Monday morning, a privilege that I will not allow to get occluded by the frustrations and petty irritations of modern academic life. I’m not sure how often I will be adding new posts to this blog in the near future (I don’t want it to turn into another blog about academia, of which there are more than enough out there, both good and bad), but as the various stages of preparation for NYI number 14 in July 2016 get going, I will probably have some thoughts to share about my (hopeful) participation therein. There may also be unscheduled occasions on which things I saw, did, or learned while on this midsummer’s journey have some effect on me that merits sharing with a wider audience. If you’re interested, feel free to subscribe (there are links on the right side of this page that allow you to do so) and you’ll be automatically notified if and when such posts appear.

Until then, dear readers, I’ve got syllabi to finish and a wedding to prepare for in less than a month, so I’ll have plenty to keep me busy.

пока for now, but let’s not be strangers, eh?

How to make two days really count (Part II)

This will probably end up being more of an annotated photomontage, given that I’ve pretty much described Fligel’ and 2×12 extensively in other posts already, so if you’re here more for the pictures than for the words, you’ll be in luck!

Anyway, on Friday after the closing ceremony and subsequent buffet, I sort of vacillated between going back to the apartment and dropping off my things or just heading straight over to Fligel’ with a large group of students and faculty who were going there straight from the Bobrinsky. When Mitja offered to carry some of the stuff I had with me back to the apartment, my decision was made and I got on a fairly crowded bus with a crew of about twenty NYI people and we made our way to Ploshchad’ Vosstaniye and then walked the six or so blocks up to Fligel and took our spots in the courtyard after once again taking advantage of the excellent beer selection at 2×12.

There was a wedding party going on at the bar across the way that featured a pretty good band playing some very odd covers (not because the songs they were covering — such as A-Ha’s “Take on Me” or James Brown’s “So Good (I Got You)” — were strange, but because they were doing so with a collection of instruments not usually used in such covers (e.g., the accordion that the white-shirted fellow bending over at the right side of the picture below is playing).

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They provided some unexpected musical accompaniment for the first part of the evening, which involved a lot of “So now that class is over, I’ve got some questions I was hesitant to ask…” conversations with several of my students. Of course, many of those questions were precisely ones I wish they HAD asked in class, but there is still a pretty powerful impulse within a lot of the Russian students (a trait I noticed in Austria as well, when I taught there) not to look “foolish” in class in front of their peers, and since actively speaking in class is much less of an expectation than in North America, there’s a kind of built-in safeguard for a lot of them that tends to be discarded once in the “safety” of an informal, post-submission-of-grades gathering. For next year, I will definitely try to figure out more ways to get them to drop this barrier sooner, as the stuff we talked about during these final couple of hours was (for me, at least) as fascinating as anything we did during the course of the three weeks.

Once the band quit, a tiny member of the wedding party briefly and shyly took her place at the drum-kit…

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…until she was whisked away by an adult, who needn’t have worried as the little green-chiffoned girl was pretty hesitant to actually hit the drums with the sticks, even if her facial expression totally betrayed the fact that she really wanted to.

There was definitely a celebratory mood among the folks there, but you could also tell that almost everyone had reached a point where the pace of the previous three weeks had caught up with them. Now that the only thing left to do for most people was to pack up and to depart (some were already doing so early the next morning!), there was some considerable bittersweetness to the evening, as each person’s exit for the night also tended to mean their exit from the scene of NYI 2015 (hopefully only a temporary absence to be rectified in July of next year). There were a lot of smiles, but there were also a lot of tired faces behind those smiles and what had been a pretty vigorous and vibrant crowd at 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30 faded to a small handful of people by 12:30. I had one final pint, took some pictures with people I likely wouldn’t see again for a while…

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Me, with Maria A. and Masha E., a pair of hardcore NYI veterans from multiple years with whom I shared conversations on multiple occasions during our three weeks together. Maria studies the performance artist Marina Abramovic in Moscow and NYC and Masha is a linguist studying sign language for her doctorate at NYU.

…before deciding around 1:00 in the morning that I was going to walk back to the Admiralteyskaya metro station well before its 3 a.m. shut-down time in order to get back across to Petrogradsky Island while the bridges were up.

The walk from Fligel’ to Admiralteyskaya took me past a number of places that I had frequented during my time in the city, whether it was John B.’s apartment, the Georgian restaurant where I shared dinner and conversation with Ast, the Russian State Museum where Masha S. and I passed a portion of a Sunday afternoon looking at some of the beautiful things in their contemporary collection such as the amazing work of the woefully under-appreciated Pavel Filonov…

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…or various other pieces of sculptural…

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…ceramic…

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…or two-dimensional loveliness.

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I passed Gogol’s statue again in the middle of the night and stopped to give him a parting nod…

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…before emerging onto Nevsky Prospekt just in time for a gorgeous (and somehow Gogolian, even though no witches flew by while perched on the backs of seminary students that I could see…) view of the moon emerging from the clouds over Kazan Cathedral.

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I was so fortunate with this timing, as the moon poked through the clouds for barely a minute and a half during the whole walk, but it happened to be the ninety seconds during which I was positioned right there for these shots (along with about seventy other people who stopped on the sidewalk to take the same picture).

I walked the remaining kilometer or so to the Metro and made the five-minute ride over to Sportivnaya station in the company of perhaps thirty or so other riders. There were only two of us in the car I was in, myself and a young lady playing the part of Dorothy in the Saint Petersburg midnight version of The Wizard of Oz.

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Her golden-toed shoes against the gold-flecked floor of the subway-car (which in that moment resembled a star-field, with even the upper left portion of the photo sort of morphing into the Crab Nebula instead of a somewhat sketchy stain/burn-mark…) made me imagine for a moment that she was in charge of making the bridges go up as she tapped her toes together, saying “нет места, как доманет места, как доманет места, как дома!

I came up to street-level again around 2:00 and I walked up a mostly empty Bolshoy Prospekt to Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt, passing a sign that seemed to be offering me some affirmation for my general sense of well-being (I mean “Soul Fitness” by the way, not the “Pink Rabbit” sign on the bottom, which is advertising a chain of fairly louche adult novelty stores that are all over the city)…

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I got in to the apartment around 2:30, with the sky starting to lighten ever so slightly already, and climbed into bed for my next-to-last sleep in Saint Petersburg.

The third installment in this series will cover the великолепный субботу/splendid Saturday that served as the bookend for the one that started my time in the city.

A brief culinary interlude

So I was wondering how — or indeed if — I was going to be able to survive the interim between now and my next trip to Russia without having access to some of the more delectable (and occasionally decadent) bits of Russian cuisine that I got hooked on.

Well, Potsdam is probably going to be a bit of a challenge; despite the fact that Maxim Gorky lived relatively near here in the early 1900s and Solzhenitsyn famously lived a state to the east during his Cold War exile, the effects of Russian culture on this part of the world have been fairly minimal, birch-forests notwithstanding. Ergo, there aren’t any places that I have found that even carry decent pickles á la russe, much less more complicated Russian products.

Fortunately, that problem does not extend to Montréal, which has a large enough Russian-speaking émigré population (70,000 by a recent estimate) that it not only has several of its own Russian-language newspapers and a couple of Russian-language bookstores, but also a Russian grocery store that just happened to relocate from the Plateau to less than a kilometer from our house! Oh happy coincidence!

I went to Vova (don’t let the “Patisserie” in the title on Yelp fool you, it is a full-service grocery in its new location) this past week on an expedition and found a lot of wonderful things that I had become accustomed to in Saint Petersburg, some in Canadian translation (i.e., Russian-style products made in Canada) and some imported directly from the source. While I can’t find any actual chechil like that we got at Sytny Rynok for our party, I did find an excellent surrogate that will get me through until I can get a shipment from these guys to see if it passes muster.

However, they did have authentic творог (tvorog, a Russian “farmer’s cheese” or cottage cheese), which meant that I could try my hand at making syrniki, which both Steph and I have craved incessantly after having them on our first visit to Saint Petersburg. I found what looked like a good recipe online, got some additional advice (partly in Russian, partly in French, partly in English) from the kindly proprietor of Vova and hustled home to surprise Stephanie after a long day of work with a bit of Russia brought back to the West.

Here’s the end result.

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They weren’t exactly what I remember, but they were a lot closer than I thought I was going to get, especially for a first attempt. I can’t wait to try again, especially when there’s a larger group of people to whom I can serve them. Eating that many between the two of us is a bit of a chore as they are pretty dense.

Next (over the next few weeks/months), visits to La Caverne, L’Ermitage, Restaurant Rasputin (odd choice or a food-oriented business, given Rasputin’s history with being poisoned), and Le Georgia!

How to make two days really count (Part I)

After the absolute rush of Thursday night, I knew it was going to be especially tough to come back down to earth for my last few days in Saint Petersburg. I won’t lie, it was jarring to realize when I woke up on Friday morning that I was under fifty hours left before my flight departed for Helsinki and beyond. I had that kind of insane feeling that in my experience marks a very good trip to a previously unfamiliar place, which is the recognition that one doesn’t even remotely have enough time left to a) do all of the things one had planned to do and b) revisit all of the places about which one noted and remarked “I’d like to go back there at some point” but had yet to do so.

On my first visit to Saint Petersburg in April 2014, our tour guide Virineya (who wonderfully ended up being one of my students in the satire seminar this summer) told us that if one spent only one minute looking at each piece of art on display in the Hermitage, it would take eleven years to see them all. I felt much the same way about the number of things I still wanted to pack into my last two full days in the city, but as I do not have access to a TARDIS, I figured I was either going to have to ration my hours somewhat judiciously or exhaust myself running from point to point in the city to get to and from various things that I still wanted to check off my list.

As it turned out, I didn’t do either of those things…and I am happy as a clam because of it.

Allow me to explain.

My last class was scheduled to meet at around 4:00 in the afternoon on Friday, after which an all-school closing ceremony was scheduled, at which students and faculty would receive completion certificates for the program and at which we would also be presenting the staff with gifts of appreciation for their incredible work on our collective and individual behalf. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating, I have never seen a crew of people who are better at their jobs than this bunch are, not just in terms of the skill with which they perform the day-to-day tasks involved with their work…

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…but also the incredible warmth and patience with which they do their work (and which they extend to us in friendship and genuine collegiality even after working hours, whether in showing us hidden-away rooftop tea-houses…

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…or taking us to Intelligent Flea Markets on Saturday mornings).

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The standard thing to do is to pass the hat among the faculty and come up with a substantial sum of cash to divide among the eleven folks who make our lives easier. John and his co-director Anna Maslennikova (who I did not meet, as she couldn’t attend this year) do a great job of fund-raising in order to make sure that all of them get paid for their work, but he also freely acknowledged that he can’t pay them nearly what he’d like to (or what they’d get for comparable work in the U.S.), so a little something extra at the end of the week is not only a kind gesture of appreciation, it’s also a straightforwardly practical augmentation of the remuneration that they receive for their work.

I volunteered to take up the collection and to distribute it to everyone at the closing ceremony, but (as a devoted lover of books and literature), I also wanted to customize the gift a bit, so I started my Friday by going to the local branch of Буквоед (Bukvoed, lit. “Book-eater”) and browsing through their selection of novels for a book for each of them that I thought would delight, entertain, and amuse (they all seem to have “enlighten” pretty much taken care of already, so I won’t deign to claim any role in that regard…).

Although there are certainly some gaps in translation from English into Russian — a phenomenon that is fifty times worse in reverse, by the way, despite the magnificent work of Polly Gannon and others (as demonstrated by the fact that 35 titles in a year constitutes a bumper crop) — I was rather pleasantly surprised by what was available in translation as well as in the original Russian and managed to find a sampling of classic and contemporary satires that I could mix and match to what I knew of each staff member’s tastes, sensibilities, and experience. John B. made me quite happy — even as he somewhat burst my bubble — by suggesting that most of the staff was likely to have read almost everything I got already, since that just confirmed my impression that I was dealing with voracious readers. I hope I managed to find some gaps in their past reading or that they swapped with each other freely to find those gaps where my prognostications failed to.

While I was out, I did a little more gift-shopping for things to bring back with me, hitting some places in the neighborhood that I had been cataloging over the course of the past twenty days. It was raining fairly steadily and I had a bag of books with me that didn’t really need to get too wet, so I made my way back home before too long to get myself ready to go to the Bobrinsky for the last time (for this year, at least…).

My last class meeting was a bittersweet moment, to be sure. The students, having already received their grades for all their courses and having already met all four of their other courses that day, were pretty mentally exhausted, but still impressed me with a fairly elaborate and complex discussion of Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story. I’m not sure everybody managed to get through all of it (only one of the students was reading the book in his/her first language, remember, and none of them were only taking my course) but we still had a conversation that involved most of the students and really reinforced for me the notion that their minds were still doing considerable calisthenics even as their faces and bodies were drooping somewhat from the combination of a strenuous three weeks, the mild melancholia of impending departure, and the gobsmacking humidity (I can only imagine how brutal it is when the temperatures are more in line with the seasonal norms…).

We wrapped up class at about 5:15 and I ran over to the staff room to get my pile of books and envelopes to bring over to the closing ceremony. Mitja handed me the flowers he had bought as his symbolic accompaniment to each staffers’ gift and the tired but smiling faculty started populating the front rows of the auditorium as the tired but smiling students filled in the remainder of the room.

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The ceremony itself (captured in this wonderful slideshow) featured some oratory, first by one of the sponsors of the program from SPbSU, then from John, and finally in the form of “unscripted emotional remarks” (as they were called in the program) by students, some of which were truly touching in their occasionally awkward but always sincere gratitude for the whole three weeks. The presentation of the completion/survival certificates was next, complete with the public mangling of Russian names by non-Russian speakers (an especially devious, yet light-hearted trick that is apparently a staple of the ceremony dating back many years…) and lots of staffers running around the spacious “Kinozal” (film-viewing hall) collecting students’ signatures in exchange for their certificates.

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The faculty received their/our certificates after that, followed by my handing out of the books/flowers/envelopes to each of the staffers. It’s amazing that twenty days prior to this, the only one of them I knew at all — other than in an e-mail conversation or two pertaining to preparatory business — was Julia V., who made so much time for Stephanie and me when we were here in April 2014. After three weeks of co-working and friendship, though, I can’t imagine how or why I would want to have a life without them in it.

Although I became closer friends with some of them than with others, I can’t overstate the degree to which every single one of them set an example of how I’d like to approach my work and my life with more grace, more compassion, more patience, and more smiling…all while remaining completely unflappable in the face of frustrations, setbacks, passive-aggressive b.s., and all other sorts of provocations. These folks are not blithely agreeable and congenial automatons; these are some of the most competent and thoughtful people with whom I have ever worked and I hope to have chances for a long time to come to be of some service to each and every one of them that puts a dent in the karmic debt I feel like I owe them all.

I need to be clear about this; they were not our “helpers” or our “support staff” or our “administrative assistants”…they were the absolute lifeblood of the program, every bit as much as the students and faculty (perhaps the students were the erythrocytes, the faculty were the leukocytes, and the staff were the platelets — which, I suppose makes John the plasma — of that NYI lifeblood).

I’ve never been one who likes to take advantage of (or, for that matter, acknowledge) hierarchical structures of authority, even (perhaps especially) when I am in the upper reaches thereof. This probably explains why I have never enlisted in the military, but it also makes my choice of employment a curious one, given the profusion of intermediary managers, ranks, and other little divisive structures that pervade academia and only seem to be getting worse with time. I’m not at all opposed to authority and accountability, I just am generally opposed to vertical forms thereof, as opposed to horizontal ones, because the former seem absolutely riddled with unnecessary and unproductive validation of narcissistic abuse, the Peter Principle, and “tall poppy syndrome,” all of which are things I believe the world could do with less of.

NYI has a vertical structure of sorts, but you’d never know it because of the way it runs, which actually maximizes the effectiveness of horizontal forms of collaboration and mutual empowerment. If there’s one thing that I want to take back home with me from this whole experience, it is precisely that, because it absolutely validates not only my preferred way of doing things (in which I am not accountable only to those “superior” to me and not to those “inferior” to me or to my peers), but it seems like a mindset that will help weather the general malaise that seems to be afflicting higher education in these straitened economic times, especially those outposts at the margins of academe (which, I stress, is not necessarily a bad place to be, given the lunacy of many of the places striving to reach the top) like SUNY Potsdam.

So I will remember the good feelings of the party in the beautiful rotunda of the Bobrisnky, at which everyone involved with the program got one last chance to talk together and to take photos together, all while chowing down on delicious Russian pirozhki and drinking a glass or two of champagne!

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NYI goes to town on the buffet table!
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Masha (l.) and Miriam (r., from Tarragona in Catalunya/Spain) share una risa at the end-of-NYI party
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In a moment of ironic nostalgia and possibly non-ironic cosmopolitanism, I got recruited to represent either Quebec or Arkansas (or both) as an honorary member of “Post-Yugoslavia” in this photo. Everyone else hails from one (or more, in some cases) of the contemporary states that make up the former Yugoslavia, but they were missing a Macedonian, so I was inserted as a placeholder. Fair enough. I was pretty touched by the gesture, mildly champagne-induced though it was.

That’s enough for now, I suppose. I should probably get back to getting my syllabi ready for the start of the fall semester, which is only two weeks away as of tomorrow. Part II of this series will detail my last extended evening out on the town, including another good long trek home (albeit not after bridge-closing hours this time…) and Part III will cover the absolutely wonderful lazy Saturday with friends that punctuated the whole trip in the best possible way. Until then!