A year ago today….

I have been thinking for awhile about gracing my fine Amherst audience with some excerpts from my study abroad experience this past year in Russia. Since today is international cucumber day, I felt it absolutely essential to share with you what I was doing and thinking exactly one year (+8 hours) ago. Thus, I present to you, the cucumber festival.

Today I went to the cucumber festival in Suzdal. The original plan for this free weekend had included a trip to Nizhniy Novgorod, which is the fourth largest city in Russia and apparently a pretty cool place to hang out. Its about 4.5 hours away by train, and while I found the train and bus schedule easily enough, finding lodging was a different story. I have now realized the importance of planning these things far in advance, because with the Internet much farther away than at the tip of my fingers it’s easy to let time fly by and then suddenly be in an organizational pickle (explanation of pun to come)! Nizhniy, which during the Soviet Union was called Gorky, was closed to foreigners and most Russians during the majority of the 20th century. Why, I am not sure. They probably had military secrets there or something. Consequentially, it is rumored that the hotels there do not accommodate foreigners. I don’t believe this, but a friend on my program who was also looking up information read it in a travel blog. I asked my host sister and she waved her hand at me saying it probably wasn’t true.  Either way, we decided not to go and instead embarked on a lovely adventure today to the cucumber festival in Suzdal.

Suzdal on Festival Day!

Cucumbers are a big deal in Russia. This festival is held every year in Suzdal in the old mill town, which is a reconstruction of 18th century peasant life on the outskirts of the city (kind of like colonial Williamsburg). It was similar to a festival of food in the US, but with hundreds of sweaty babushkas showcasing their finest cucumbers, floating in stagnant water in large plumber buckets on the side of the road (the cucumbers not the babushkas). There were lots of other foods, blini(pancakes) and tarts, breads and sashlik among them, and a ton of really cool crafts and handmade goods. Some of you will be receiving commemorative cucumber magnets, necklaces, and ornaments from these skilled craftsmen.

A fine specimen.

Suzdal is located approximately 40 minutes from Vladimir by un-air-conditioned bus jam-packed with mulleted youths and sweaty old women wearing 6 layers of clothing. Luckily, we purchased our tickets early enough that we were seated, but if on the ticket you are listed in место 0, you will be standing the entire time. It was hot and awful, but at least I was sitting (note the foreshadowing)….. When we got there we walked around in the market outside for awhile and then headed to the old mill to see some of the main events, including cucumber puppet shows, poetry, and storytelling along with a few balalaika performances. The highlight of the festival is the annual cucumber liftoff, in which one stuffed cucumber is attached to a bunch of large balloons and sent off into the clear blue sky. It was a very heartfelt and moving moment.

Proud Babushkas selling their wares on the sidewalk.

 

What a large balilaika!

 

Photo-op that I was too embarassed to take advantage of

Suzdal is a relatively small tourist town with a lot of churches and two huge monasteries, but today there were  thousands of people walking the streets. We crossed a rickety wooden bridge controlled by militsia and past rows of toothless Kazaks peddling their shashlik and Kvas. The smell of cooking meat was delicious, but I heeded the words of our director back in Washington who repeated several times, “whatever you do, do NOT eat the street meat.” I’m sure it would have been fine, but the sun was beating down hard today and I would rather not be sick. The festival itself was absolutely ridiculous. Cucumbers everywhere, cucumber everything. People dressed as cucumbers, cucumber hats, cucumber necklaces and toys and ornaments and furniture. It was a sight to behold.

Street Kvas! A fermented beverage made from bread, and loaded into large barrel-trucks such as these.
Will a duel ensue?

 

Cucumber puppets

It was also a fantastic day. I have never had so much fun just walking around at a festival, trying some new and interesting foods and getting a little bit of Russian hilarity. It was probably over 100 degrees outside, but the festival was so pure-hearted and everyone was enjoying themselves so much that I had to stop and ask myself, why? Why is the cucumber festival such a wonderful idea, and why don’t we have something like it in the US? Reason 1: We have bucket loads of rules and regulations about tent sizes and tent placement and food quality and artistic relevance and ticket sales that just put a damper on the fun. Yes it was an economic venture, but at its heart the festival was about the pickles! Reason 2: In America, and particularly in the northeast, I think we take ourselves way too seriously. In the south we have NASCAR and monster trucks etc. that are so ridiculous that they are enjoyable. But in the northeast everything must be clean, neat, and orderly. Take Extravaganja for example, which is a yearly celebration of hippie drug culture on the Amherst town quad. It’s a good time, but the neat organization of tents and events contrasts the unreserved flavor of the theme. The cucumber festival was organized as if happiness and joy threw up on the town of Suzdal. I can’t think of a good word to describe it. Not chaotic in a nervous or distressing way, but more intensely haphazard. Walking around Suzdal I felt kind of like how a 5 year old must feel after a day of playing with every toy he owns, all of them sprawled and thrown in every nook and cranny of his tiny room. He must be pretty darn satisfied, looking at his masterpiece of disaster.

Some loser with produce.

Anyway, it was great. I recommend it to all! On the way home we walked to the decrepit bus station that was 30 minutes away and purchased our tickets…for место 0. It wasn’t too awful, three friends and I standing in the isle at the front of the bus along with 15-20 other zeroes. It wasn’t quite sardine-like, we were packed in more like Oreos: everyone had their personal space bubble and a handrail to hold. But then we made four more stops to pick up passengers on the way. I had a great little spot carved out for myself right past the door, and even as more people came in and inched towards me I held on to my space bubble pretty successfully. Then an evil woman from somewhere behind squeezed her way to the front to ask the bus driver something. I moved to the side, away from my pole (never do this) so that she could lean over and ask, but then she didn’t leave. Thus I was stuck in the middle of the isle, now like a sardine (or more like a floating pickle), WITHOUT ANYTHING TO HOLD ON TO. I am quite aware that some people in America like to pretend that gravity doesn’t affect them, or that they are too cool to hold on in the bus or metro, but they don’t mess around with safety in Russia. That bus driver doesn’t care one ounce if I fall to the floor and am trampled. Yes I was sardined between four different people and thus held up by the presence of those around me, but when you fall on a stranger most of the time they don’t want to catch you. It was a rough 15 minutes, and for a good portion of it I held on to the back pocket of one of my friends, all while glaring at the evil, злая бабушка who stole my spot! She is my enemy number 1 in Russia. I may ask a gypsy to put a curse on her later.

Scary bus station

It drizzled today. It was a brief reprieve from the heat and didn’t last long, but was joyous all the same. I want to say that I can’t take the heat anymore, but since I’m not going anywhere for five months I guess that isn’t true. I am starting to get a little grumpy. I’m dirty and sticky all of the time and have a hard time falling asleep. I also wake up at 7 am drenched in sweat no matter what time I fall asleep. This all may fall under the realm of too much information. I apologize, but my heart so yearns for a breeze, or a cold beverage, or some ice. Or a снегопад.

 

I hope you all enjoyed this blast from the past! I am thankful to be sitting in air-conditioning and speaking English, but I appreciate every memory from my travels abroad. Let me know if you would like more stories from the past (this time with PHOTOS), and I would be happy to oblige!

<3BUNNIES (well, hate bunnies but you know what I mean)