Thursday, October 25, 2012

Let It Rain

Today feels like winter. The last few autumn leaves still cling quivering to their branches, but their compatriots have long since abandoned them in favor of forming a thick slippery mat on the streets below. After one last week of relatively nice and sunny weather, this week has been cold and rainy. Temperatures are hovering around the mid-40s, dropping below freezing at night for the first time, and it all seems much colder when the Celsius thermometer reads six degrees. The sun comes up around 8:30 in the morning, but today there was thick cloud cover and pouring rain, so it stayed black until much later. When it rains here, it rains hard and cold, and the roads are so topographically challenged that small inland seas form in the depressions, up to a foot deep with water. Every Kaliningrader's first line of defense is a good umbrella, carried always, even (especially) when rain seems unlikely. A few of my students tell me that this is supposed to be the coldest winter for twenty years, and I'm not sure whether this is good or bad news. On one hand, snow is eminently preferable to rain, but on the other hand: cold. I suppose if I'm not living in Siberia, I don't get to complain.

Everyone seemed to sense that last weekend was our last chance to enjoy the sun for the next several months, and headed to the sea. The local beach-goer has several options for their coastal destination, from Зеленоградск (Zelonogradsk), about forty minutes by bus almost due north, to Светлогорск (Svetlogorsk) and Янтарный (Yantarny), slightly farther away and to the northwest, and to Балтийск (Baltiysk), west and a little south out on a small peninsula. All are easily reachable from Kaliningrad by frequent bus service and a highly convenient new highway called the Приморское кольцо ("Seaside Ring"), which connects all the above cities and the airport in one big circle.

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On Sunday I decided to join the mad seaside rush and headed for the Baltic beach with a few of my students. When we left Kaliningrad it was sunny. When we reached Zelonogradsk, it was so foggy you could barely see one hundred meters ahead. Determined to show me the beach, we turned northeast out onto the Куршская коса (Curonian Spit), a picturesque geographic oddity and UNESCO Heritage Site. The Spit itself is a long thin stretch of sand dunes and forest reaching 98 kilometers from the Kaliningrad Peninsula to Klaipeda, in Lithuania. The southern half of the Spit is Russian territory, the northern half is Lithuanian. Several towns exist along its length on both sides of the border, although we only ventured as far as Лесной (Lesnoy), since the fog was so thick. On a clear day from a high point, it is supposedly possible to see both the Baltic Sea and the Curonian Lagoon at once.

Once we broke out of the trees along the road, we crossed over a crest of sand dunes and down onto the beach, which is surprisingly sandy and inviting. It's easy to imagine how this is the place to be in summer, when it's warm enough to swim or sunbathe on the shores of the Baltic, but for now I was glad that I brought a warm jacket. My students say that the fog is eerie and atypical, but I am struck by how similar it feels to the Oregon coast. For me, beaches are supposed to be foggy, drizzly, and chilly, even in summer. What I'm not used to are all of the small purple stones washed up along the tide line. Apparently it's possible to find pieces of amber washed up as well, but I was not lucky enough this time.

As of tomorrow, I will have been in Kaliningrad for four weeks already, which seems unbelievable, but the calendar doesn't lie. Now that I have reliable amenities such as a kitchen and working radiator, and am settling into something of a steady schedule, each day is less of a challenge and more of an opportunity. Between my classes, I take time to find new bookstores or wander around new neighborhoods, gradually expanding my knowledge of the city and comfort with its transportation methods. I know where the nearest grocery stores are, and I have my favorite cafe, pizza place, and Uzbek restaurant. Even speaking Russian, while not easier, is not quite as scary, now that I am slightly more confident in my ability to negotiate most everyday interactions with adequacy, if not grammatical precision. I thought I was going to get a lot of Russian practice here, but I speak more English than anything else, either as the language of common denominator amongst my international friends, or to give my students more practice with a native speaker.

Now that my living situation is set up and I can come home to my snug little over-heated babushka-protected общага room at the end of the day, I can afford to appreciate differences in the way certain things are done here, rather than be frustrated by them. The Central Market, for instance, is across the street from my dormitory, and is an overwhelming wonderland of everything from fresh produce to old coins and hand-knitted winter hats. It requires some initiative and a little Russian language to make a successful purchase, but the quality of the fruits alone is worth it.

The трамваи (trams), for another example, date to at least the 1980s and have been repainted as many times as Lenin has been re-embalmed. They run agonizingly slowly on fixed tracks down the middle of the street, much to the consternation of all other drivers, never appear when you need them, and let you out in the middle of traffic (which usually stops for you). At times it's possible to walk to your destination faster than a трамвай will crawl you there. As modes of transportation, they're hardly reliable, but as anachronisms, they're almost charming. The Great Трамвай Irony is only completed by what is either the most desperate business scheme ever, or the most inspired: free wi-fi on all trams. Now it is possible to enjoy the best of Soviet transportation while checking your email at speeds slightly slower than the vehicle itself! Never say Russia is not part of the modern age.

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