Since adding a local instance of WordPress two years ago, Middlebury students, faculty and staff have created hundreds of blogs. Every semester classes use our learning management system, Segue, to conduct online discussions.

MiddLab won't replace or replicate this activity. We don't want to build a single application that everyone needs to sign into and discuss their research. Rather, MiddLab will provide an aggregate view of the conversations occurring online relating to Middlebury course and project work.

To kick us off, here's a blogroll of some popular and interesting Middlebury and MIIS authors.

If I only spoke in Russian for a year... (5)
If I only spoke in Russian for a year...

I’m back…kind of. Plus: Choir performance!

Sat, 04/17/2010 - 6:12am

I’m sorry for being away. But here’s something exciting to make up for it!..

Listen and watch “Beryozovye sny” (“Dreams of Birches”) and another choral piece performed by my choir at the 2010 Student Spring Festival today.

Can you find me below!? Answer posted at the end, along with a video of the first one, and the sound file of the second one.

Basically, I’ve been really busy. Six hours of choir practice a week, ten hours at my internship, and the workload of two mainstream Russian literature courses are my excuses. I think my host family thinks I have disappeared. This is not actually true, but they kind of look at me all dazed when I come back home after my three 11-hour days (Tues-Thurs) in a row, not understanding what I’ve been doing.

The good news is, that I feel like I’m within a good weekend-long lurch, so to say, of catching up totally, meaning I can get back to some blogging and keeping you all in the loop. I realize I have yet to talk about Severobaikalsk, the second half of spring break, and life here generally.

The even better news is, as I realized first while typing an email to Ben in Italy yesterday, that I’ve accomplished what I came here to do: I wanted to come abroad for a year to learn how to “live like a local” in a crazy, far-out place, and in my short moments of reflection, I realize that I’ve kind of built my life in a place, where the fact that it’s a mid-sized city in the middle of Siberia doesn’t make that much of a psychological difference.

This being the case, I’m crazy antsy to get out of here and get back home. It looks like I’ll hit St. Petersburg for 2 days, visit Ashley, Nick, and Zach in Yaroslavl for 2 days, and then fly on home on May 30. So hope to see you all in Arizona May 31!

I’m the third one from the right on the top row. Yes, we are wearing red bow-ties. So great.

Also, cool fact: on SoundCloud.com, the site where the sound files are hosted, you can make a comment that’s timed with a spot in the track, so if you hear something you like, comment on it–in time! Just click on the thin bar below the sound-wave.

Spring Break (Days 4-5): Far-Eastbound

Thu, 04/01/2010 - 1:39am

Our longest ride of the week–40 hours–came next: Chita to Khabarovsk on the Irkutsk-Vladivostok train. Most of our wagon-mates were on ’til the end of the line. More notably, nearly a third of the car consisted of a band of Uzbek migrant workers.

They were spread out through the car, but it seemed that the “main” guy was one of the two sitting across from us, since the others came to him for tea, bread, etc., for which it seemed they had pooled their money together.

Most of them had made the early spring journey from Central Asia to the Far East coast to work during the warm, shipping season before. The main guy/our neighbor told us that he owned a grocery shop back home with several employees, but still needed the extra money from summer work–a fate to which he seemed to measuredly resigned.

Ryan got suckered in to giving a fairly long English lesson (i.e. translating words from Russian to English) for a really eager guy who was planning on eventually taking English lessons, but neither of us was brave enough to try Uzbek (or Kazakh, Tajik, or any of the others they spoke) –getting their names was difficult enough.

Otherwise, “poyezd yest’ poyezd” (“the train’s the train”): sleep, eat, read, repeat.

But. There’s usually one lady that pushes the beer/juice/ramen/fresh pirozhki cart back and forth the entire journey. This one, the job was divided up between two awesome women.

There was a buxom, slightly made-up, kind woman who strode into the cart every 30 minutes carrying a tray of fresh pirozhki and pigs-in-a-blanket. With a flick of the wrist she unveiled the tray’s contents, usually with a fairly creative salesman line. For instance: “Mmm. Hot, fresh pirozhki –just like me!” or “Oooh! What pirooozheshki I have!”

The duty involving slightly more manual labor (namely, pulling the waist-high beverage cart) was carried out by a short, headscarf-clad, Buryat lady. She, too, employed an equally entertaining dose of attitude in her work: when asked if she had a pad of paper, or even a piece, she stopped, cast an evil eye at the asker, and mumbled as she walked on, “What do you think I’m pullin’ a concillary shop here?”

Ohh, Russian Railways.

Spring Break (Days 2-3): Chita rocks

Wed, 03/31/2010 - 1:38am

Commemorative monument to Chita's founding in 1653 (other pictures at end of post).

If they made shirts that said “I <3 Chita,” I would buy one and wear it all the time.

‘NICE’ & ‘TRAIN’. Two words that up to now I hadn’t considered being utterable in the same sentence. Nevertheless. The train was nice (that is, from Ulan-Ude to Chita). Relatively speaking, of course.

Yes, the Russian men still smelled, and the beds were still 6 inches too short for my legs, which, hanging out into the aisle, no matter, people walked through as if they weren’t there at all. But, the windows were able to be opened, and the wagon was clearly not of Soviet production (a personal first). We took off from our UU hotel at 4 a.m. (in an 80 ruble taxi!), slept ’til midday, ate, and began to see the outskirts of Chita a few hours later, around 5 p.m. local time.

Coming in from the west on the south side of the Chita River, you see the city stretches along the north bank, as if back into time: the more recent industrial smokestacks from the middle of last century–the last suggestion of economic development in most Siberian, Soviet-expanded cities–stand like bookends of the city-timeline at its westernmost limits. The colorful paints and woodwork of the dark-stained izby (traditional Russian houses) dot the horizon of concrete 5- to 10-story apartment high-rises, which lead eastward to the smorgasbord of a city center, a mix of centuries-old onion domes and a handful of gaudy, glass-gilded hotel resorts.

So exciting!

SETTLED IN, AT LAST. The train station was euphorically bustling with the arrival of the Moscow train and the impending departure of another. Perhaps it was just the pleasantly positive (+3 deg. C.) temperature (at last!).

In comparison with the hotel-search fiasco of Ulan-Ude, our walking three blocks up, three blocks over, and into the Forestry School Dorms (which housed the appropriately named Hotel [read: hostel] “Taiga”) to receive a two-bed private room for $40 for a day and a half was beautifully simple. The refrigerator, water boiler, teacups, TV, and comfy beds and pillows were just the icing on the cake.

After a mostly unsuccessful attempt to track down a few of the guidebook-recommended (to cite my source: Lonely Planet, Russia. ed. Simon Richmond. 5th ed. Lonely Planet Publications Pty Ltd, 2009: Footscray, Australia) cafés, we noted the joint Subway and Baskin Robbins, complete with budget-priced menu and free WiFi.

Yes, a total sell-out as far as culture experience goes, but we were hungry. But, I’d argue that our coming across the, as labeled in the guidebook, “Huge Green Tube” (bottom of post) might have redeemed us.

WHAT TIME IS IT? When we “fell back” in the fall, I told you about how babushkas, a decade later, are still upset about the government-imposed daylight savings time on account of its disrupting their biological rhythms. Since the rest of the country “sprang ahead” without telling Ryan nor I on Sunday, I’m kind of on their side now.

We got up at what we thought was 9 a.m. to go track down the Catholic church that the Internet had slightly hinted was located at address x about 100 years ago. Worth a shot, right?

Approaching the given address and only seeing an Orthodox church with its own Palm Sunday service letting out, we asked a babushka for help. She directed us to the other side of town. Not really sure how much further we had to go until we’d see the so-called “Old Bridge” (not shown in the guidebook), I asked another nice-looking lady preparing to cross the street.

Good choice.

AWWW!! She was amazing. She practically grabbed us, totally forgetting about where she was going, to take us to the trolley stop a few blocks away and to wait with us there. Then she remembered that it was a different stop, and walked us there too. On the way, she told us about her work directing a university athletics program. She recommended the Decembrists Museum. She said it was “the Petersburgers’ fault” that the streets were straight and made sense (but “in the good meaning of ‘fault'”).

Passing one of the administrative buildings of Chitinskii Province, she pointed out, “This one, the Japanese POWs built for us. Good fellows (molodsty). Not like any of that Chinese construction!” A convivial laugh together ensued.

She set us on the right trolley bus, and Ryan and I found the church with no further problems. We walked in, around what we thought was 10 a.m., and two guys sitting there told us that mass started at noon.

Thinking we had two hours to kill, we walked around that side of town, hit the market (so close to China!), wandered through a few clothes shops just opening up, and made our way back 15 minutes before (when we thought) mass started.

If my foreshadowing hasn’t been explicit enough, we were late by an hour, but since the church’s lenten devotion, which they said after mass, kept us there for more than an hour extra, I felt like Jesus was probably okay with my ignorance to the Russian government’s messing with time (and not telling me about it).

The sights from the rest of the day:

  • A synagogue, mosque, and the Orthodox church the Decembrists built for themselves. Some residents use this as reasoning to call Chita the “Jerusalem of Siberia,” apparently. We had a conversation with a few of friendly worshippers at the mosque, who said we could come in and take pictures, but then disappeared for ten minutes; given the fact we were an hour behind, we left.
  • Decembrist’s museum (housed in their old church). It was obviously a Soviet put-together museum: one icon in the entire place (despite the fact that, again, it was in an old church) and there were lots of anti-tsar poems and comics and generally romanticizing, pro-revolutionary propaganda. Though, despite the obvious Marxist influence, I was actually taken by the manuscripts, artifacts, deathbed love letters, execution and hard-labor orders signed by the Nicholas I, chants mocking the tsar that the revolutionaries wrote for their kids, and secret society rules and member charters, written in the hand of the Decembrists themselves.
  • The parliament building of the short-lived (less than a year) Far East Republic, which Chitan socialists founded shortly after the 1905 October Manifesto. Nothing but a building, but a testament to the multi-faceted history of the region: Chingis Khan was born here; Buryats, Mongols, and Chinese inhabited the region; the Russians came and took over along with their Cossacks; the Decembrist women came and “civilized” the place; and the White Army held out here against the Bolsheviks almost longer than anywhere else.
  • Chitinskii Province History Museum. Another really well-put together (by Marxist historians) museum, with great natural history exhibits of Siberia’s rocks and animals (nothing too new), ethnographic exhibits (complete with mini Buddhist datsan), and an outrageously outdated, one-sided, and chauvinistic display on the two world wars. There was a veteran that kind of browsed past the bulk of the museum to get to that display to show his grandson: cute, but again, one-sided.

Passing by the gold-topped, baby-blue Assumption Cathedral (noted for its general beauty, plus the perfectly symmetrical floorplan, uncharacteristic of Orthodox churches) next to the train station was our last stop before grabbing dinner. We chose a Ukrainian restaurant, which turned out great: good baklazhani (an eggplant-veggie mix), a pork-bacon-and-cheese heart-attack-on-a-plate dish, and assorted vareniki (ravioli-type dumplings filled with meat, cabbage, potatoes, cheese, berries, poppy-seeds–in different ones).

After a last ice cream at Baskin Robbins and a nap, Ryan and I headed out the door at 3 to catch our two-day train to Khabarovsk.

The verdict on Chita: sooo good. Clean, wide streets; beautiful buildings at every turn representing the region’s super-rich, like, oligarch-rich history; nice people (for the most part …it could have just been the good weather, too); good museums; good hostel. Not too much to complain about. I’m impressed, despite the Lonely Planet diagnosis:

…the city might be considered one of Siberia’s more appealing. Sadly, each attractive area is a little too diffuse to make the overall impact particularly memorable.


Spring Break (Day 1): ‘Trevoga’ redeemed in U.U.

Sun, 03/28/2010 - 5:18am

"Art belongs to the people," says Lenin. On the UU Opera House

Russians have a word (“trevoga”) for the spiritual qualms that you experience before traveling until you’re safely seated on your train/plane seat. I call it stress. Whatever it is, I feel it.

The day of our departure, I went straight from classes to my internship, and then straight to choir rehearsal, leaving early around 8 p.m. to inhale my dinner, grab my things (packed the day before), and run to meet Ryan at the station to catch our 9:40 overnight train to Ulan-Ude. The guidebook says it’s nickname is “UU,” but I’ve never heard that in real life. (Prophesy from the future: more “the guidebook was wrong” moments to come).

Regardless, we got in at 6 a.m. and bought the last of our train tickets (the ticket lady in Irkutsk had advised us to hold off on getting a few of them, since better seats opened up in the end).

MISTAKE ONE: Not booking the hotel. We spent the first hour in Ulan-Ude walking around the center’s five or so hotels, finding that only the most expensive were available. Luckily, the first hotel/the one we wanted (we’d stayed there in the fall on our Midd expedition) let us drop our bags there while we waited to see if a room opened/did our sightseeing. Though we also lucked out, since a room opened up by midday, we learned our lesson and decided to call ahead to the other hotels to make reservations.

Too bad that all the phone numbers online and in the guidebook are bad…

BREAKFAST & MORNING SIGHTS. I had a cocktail glass of oatmeal (I’d say “a bowl of” oatmeal, except it was actually served in a cocktail glass…) and a kettle of green-colored Earl Grey tea at a Marco Polo cafe, whose advertised “Free WiFi” was neither free, nor functioning. Too bad Russian MTV doesn’t make up for disappointments like that.

Ryan and I saw the head (i.e. the Wizard of Oz looking, somewhat cross-eyed, largest head of Lenin in the world –built to celebrate his 100th b-day in 1970). Walked past the opera house (Soviet stars and emblems at every chance –engraved with the wisdom of a Lenin quote “Art…”). Walked through the arch (constructed in 1891 to celebrate a military victory against neighboring China, total rip-off of Napoleon’s in Paris) about a hundred times, at that, searching for an ATM, and then an Internet connection, then this marshrutka, then that one…

‘…WEATHER OUTSIDE IS FRIGHTFUL…’ The snow steadily fell all day, and since we didn’t have a hotel yet and weren’t necessarily up for traipsing about the snowy, forested acres of the architectural-ethongraphic museum that I’d seen in the fall, we decided to keep our cultural exploration to indoor museums.

  • History: Lenin and company were held at bay within the walls of the Buddist-style building of the largely ethnographic museum. The only display open was a collection of 400-year old Buddhist manuscripts, icons, statues, and medial diagrams (rather graphic for the eyes used to Western medicine). There were also jars of dragon bone, wolf tongue, elephant skin, dried raven blood, and other Harry Potter potion ingredients. If I’d known the German words for these animal-body-part combinations, I’d have clued in the German tour group next to us, who was making do with a tour guide (“Tell them this…. Did you tell them that?”) and confused-looking translator (“Und das ist…”).
  • “Literature”: After we spent 20 minutes searching for the Literature History Museum along Victory Street (banner read, “Praise to the people who is victorious!”), we finally found the well kept-up wooden house with the right address. Except that museum had been traded out with about 3 different ones since the guide book’s publication, and now housed a small, but nice exhibit of a Polish dude’s drawings of Buryatia and the handcrafts from the youth-senior cultural center.
  • Nature: I justified my 30 rubles ($1.00) with accidentally walking into the kids exhibit with random almost-loose (as in, the glass had disappeared from all the aquarium frontings) reptiles and a monkey (all getting along in perfect Soviet harmony), and then a to-scale model of Baikal, which gave me a visual (at long last) of the lake’s relative dimensions. Usually, Aleksandr Pavlovich (Baikal Studies teacher) usually just drew a slanted “V” on the board to represent the lake’s walls….

NOMADS & THE BURYAT IRISH. The Mongolian restaurant we found was good, nice service, and the right price for the sampling of all my faves (irony?) from my trip in October to Ulan-Baatar.

Ryan and I had seen an “Irish” “Pub” earlier in the day, so we thought we’d give it a whirl for a last, after-dinner drink. On-tap Guinness plus Russian guys and Buryat girls dressed in britches and the green-white-and-orange were entertainment enough until it was time to go back to the hotel to pack for our train to Chita.

Ulan-Ude, with wider streets, kinder population, and slightly improved traffic, despite the winter weather, was a great break from Irkutsk on day one. We were sad to leave, happy with what we’d got done and seen, but as I’m reflecting in retrospect from Chita’s Baskin Robbins’ WiFi (Chita entry coming from Khabarovsk in 2-3 days upon arrival), I can say that Ulan-Ude was nothing compared with what’ll be a great rest of our “spring” break.

A half month of vacation. Updates soon.

Thu, 03/25/2010 - 5:07am

Spring is coming... slowly.

I don’t know why (and neither does our coordinator), but Midd decided to give us half a month of vacation: our trip to Severobaikalsk (posts coming soon) and an 11-day spring break.

Two weeks in between–just enough to recover from the first trip and getting ready for the second–have left me stressed a bit, and busy: classes, choir, internship (see post on my site-resume), and craziness in general.

So, I’m more than happy that within a few hours I’ll be on a train to Ulan Ude, Chita, Khabarovsk, and Vladivostok for a week and a half of relaxation, with some playing catch-up squeezed in there.

I promise posts on Severobaikalsk and the rest of March, plus photos and updates while on the road, as much as Internet time allows.