Click your heels Rikki, you’re not in St. Petersburg anymore.

С праздником everyone!

This weekend Astrakhan celebrated  День Города, or a holiday specifically geared to celebrate Astrakhan’s “birth”.  This is an annual holiday, with fireworks, parades, and children’s games.  The people of Astrakhan overcrowd the Volga embankment, walking up and down, playing games, renting bicycles, scooters, and roller skates, drinking and smoking with friends, holding Gasprom balloons and flags, and celebrating the 453rd anniversary of their city.  Friday night I met up with another Fulbright American couple and we wandered down to the embankment to see what was going on.  According to the schedule, there was to be a musical fountain.  Much to our surprise, we ended up with a laser show, coupled with fireworks, and narrated by live classical music.  It was fantastic.  Well, it turns out that Friday was not a celebration of the 453rd anniversary of Astrakhan, but rather the 30th anniversary of Gasprom’s sector in Astrakhan.  Go figure.  However, I must give props to Gasprom for money well spent – at least in that fifteen minutes.  What was unnecessary were the ENORMOUS speakers blaring songs about how Gasprom is so wonderful and how it makes everyone happy, and how the future with Gasprom is SO good; it was a little much.  And the screens with bright flashing lights?  Also unnecessary.  But hey, it is Gasprom’s money to spend as they please.  And I suppose if I was Gasprom I would also be a bit overly excited for my 30th-Astrakhanskii anniversary.  The scene was cool though – I will admit.  See for yourself:

After spending six months or so in St. Petersburg, it became the Russia I was familiar with. Now I’m in a completely different atmosphere, and I have been noticing the differences…

1. Astrakhan has sun!  Right now Piter is cursed with their typical fall rain storms.  I have seen sun almost every day since I first arrived here.  Aside from the occasional rockin’ thunderstorm the weather has been great!  It’s now fall; temperatures have dropped and you can smell fall in the air.  The other day my friend joked that in fall the leaves on the trees are the greenest because in the summer all the trees loose their leaves from the humidity. 

2. Astrakhan is muddy. Very muddy. And thus dusty… when the mud dries. There is mud everywhere and it’s harder here to keep your shoes clean than in Piter. Luckily I have discovered very great shoe cleaning foam spray, and it will be my best friend.

Logic puzzle: can you find the way across?

3. I thought St. Petersburg’s puddles were big…. Oh man, Astrakhan, you have her beat! These things are massive, forcing you to walk five minutes out of your way, climb a tree, and Tarzan to the other side of the road. Astrakhan has no street drainage system. Supposedly this is because the city is below sea level, so they cannot really dig underground. They will never have a drainage system or one of those wonderful things they call METROS, that I miss oh so much. So, instead of the rainwater flowing somewhere, it flows NO where and just sits and hangs out in the road until the sun decides it’s thirsty. Right now, the sun is always thirsty, so we don’t really have too big of problems. However, when December comes along….

Astrakhan’s elevation brings up my next two points as well:

3. Astrakhan’s roads. Russia is infamous for her bad roads, and well, Astrakhan can support this. Riding in an Astrakhan mashrutka is like sitting in a massage chair except that it’s not quite soothing and you almost fall out of your chair every five seconds.

THE ADVANCED LEVEL. For high school students..

Walking the sidewalks takes 20-20 vision and extreme focus. If for one second you may happen to check your phone, or probably your lip stick, and you forget about the crumbling sidewalk beneath your feet, you WILL stumble. Crossing the streets – that’s like Frogger. The pedestrians definitely beat that game. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that game was designed BY a Russian and studied intensely in elementary school. Anyways, the deal with the roads is both the elevation and the climate, more so the climate. From what I heard, there is no sense in fixing or repaving the roads because of the drastic climate change. If they repave it I the summer, the heat causes the tar to bubble and crack. Then, if they have a very cold winter, it will freeze and crack more. So, they don’t really fix the roads.  That being said, they just repaved the road by my old apartment.  I’ll get back to you in June.

4. There are pipes EVERYWHERE. Because they cannot dig deep into the ground, all the pipes are above ground. As Lena said, “they’re really ugly and no one likes them, but there is nothing we can do about it!” Sound like Russia?

5. CATS! In Petersburg, there were a lot of stray animals, but mainly dogs. However there were never so many that I actually reacted with “wow, there’s a LOT of stray animals here.” I think I’ve made that remark to most people I’ve met (perhaps that’s the reason I’m struggling to find friends…). But really, there are so many! During my first stay in the dorms a group of young pups lived out side my back window. I think they were really the dogs of the security shed, but they were reproducing like crazy, so I don’t think they’re actual pets. And the cats, and baby kittens, they’re everywhere! If I wanted to become a crazy cat lady, Astrakhan is the place to go! I asked my roommate, Katya if they were harmful, sick, or anything at all. She said no, they were all fine. She said people feed them, some probably belong to people and just run around outside, play with their cat friends. I would try to sneak one into my dorm room, but the babushka’s watching the front door have reflexes like cats and they see and hear everything.

6. There are no hipsters! This was a sad realization; I love hipsters, especially Russian ones. In Piter, they are everywhere, doing their hipster things. On the streets of Piter you can see some great outfits, hair do’s (lots of dreadlocks!), and hipster graffiti. In Astrakhan the only graffiti is xenophobic and the Astrakhan sub-culture is Central Asian. Granted, this is great in its own way, and I’m very excited at the opportunity to see a mix of Russian and Central Asian cultures, however, with the lack of hipsters comes a lack of photographers, meaning more awkwardness required from me to snap desired photos. My friends told me that Astrakhan used to be a very artsy town, but recently the increase in immigrants, violence, and such has made many move to Piter or Moscow.  (inserts personal opinions here.)   ….AND in terms of style, Astrakhan is strictly Russian. What is Russian style, you may ask? I can’t define it, for it could be the shortest skirt and the tallest heals, and the heels could have velvet bows, or it could be a vertical striped shirt, matched with a horizontal striped skirt, keep in mind they’re both different colors. Or it could be those too-tight of jeans, topped with the sequin cat t-shirt and the 80’s hair scrunchie.

Mashrutka

7. Transportation. It’s not too good in Astrakhan. First, it ends really early, like 9 pm. The only way of getting home after 9 is taxi, foot, or if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who has not drank and has a car. Lots of people have cars here; in fact I would say the majority.  Yet, transportation is always full and running, so maybe not the majority?  I suppose the transportation works for the citizens, but it’s much more complex than Piter’s and it definitely increase the probability of me getting lost. One would think that Astrakhan being a smaller city, it would be much easier to find ones way around. However, if you get lost, you only have one form of transportation-marshrutka. Yes there are buses, and tramvais, but these are not as practical. In Piter there was always a metro, and generally speaking, you were never far from a metro stop.  The lack of a metro means that you’re dependent upon the flow of traffic; which, as Russians really dislike obeying traffic signals, can often be problematic.

two different routes that I accidently took. oops.

The hardest thing about marshrutkas is that the only thing you see from far away is its number and thus, more often than not you don’t know their route. Occasionally when they stop, you can read the route that’s posted on their doors and hop in at the last minute. However, you often miss that prime opportunity for an open seat or the only marshrutka in 20 minutes. So what happens when you get lost? Well, you could possibly end up sitting on a mastrutka for an hour, “touring” the city.  It’s great that they only cost 12 roubles a ride, or the equivalent of about 36 cents.

8. Not just the transportation ends early, it seems that everything in the city closes quite early. Most shops are closed by dusk and the number of people on the street greatly decreases. When I first arrived, it was suggested that I return home by 8, unless escorted. I’ve realized that’s a decent idea. It’s not necessarily dangerous after 8, it’s just really really dark and there’s a lot less people wandering the streets.

9. Finding an apartment. After deciding to rent an apartment in Piter we literally went to one agency, looked at one (maybe a few others?), signed a contract and viola! The apartment was ours. It took us at the most, a week. And, there were plenty of apartments available! I didn’t realize how hard apartment searching in Astrakhan would be. Had I known it would take this long I would have just gotten one right away… A safe bet. I could have had my choice of many, comfortable apartments. However, I moved in with Katya and was planning on staying there until October.  But, as I’ve previously stated, that didn’t quite go as planned. And so, I sat in the car with Lena as we called apartment after apartment and agency after agency. Rented. Rented. Rented. Rented. And, well, that’s it.

9. There are stars?!? and the moon exists?! For months in Saint Petersburg I was unable to see both.  There were beautiful nights; but not the kind they have in West Michigan, where we sit on our balcony admire the sky and count the number of shooting starts.  In Astrakhan, this also exists, though living in the city keeps me from seeing many shooting starts.  However, tonight the big dipper was situated perfectly between the main building of AGU and the one in construction.  The handle of the big dipper perfectly aligned with the roof of AGU’s main building.  It was cool.

Conclusion: Many people here ask me how I like Astrakhan.  This is a trick question.  I normally say, well I like it, it’s fine, but I normally prefer big cities.  I then get one of two responses:  students – yes, we agree, Astrakhan is too small for us and in order to find work we must go to Moscow or Saint Petersburg; and it’s boring here.  There’s nothing to do and no where to go.  adults – we like it a lot here and have no desire to go to Moscow.  Here, in one day you can get many things done, go a lot of places.  In Moscow, you can only do one thing in one day.  It’s quiet here; there are less traffic jams, and it’s more pleasant for us. [I guess I’ll see how I feel in June.]

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