Thursday was allotted to a day trip to Samara. This journey is around two hours on the bus.. nap time! Sergei’s intentions were for me to go there and have a college student, Kseniya bring me to various organizations; however, it turned out far from that, and I expressed my gratitude for the mini-vacation.
Ksenia met me at the bus station and we immediately transferred to a bus, on which we sat for what seemed like forty-five minutes. We finally arrived at Ksenia’s university. She explained that the university is quite new, less than twenty years. It was founded by a business man in the city, who in order to gain perspective and emulate its system, travelled throughout Europe before opening the university. It was a much nicer building than many of the other educational institutions I’ve been in, and you could definitely tell it was newer than most.
The entry way was surrounded by students on a smoke break, girls in high heels (it’s a staple), and a plethora of dark-toned jackets. We snuck past the ferocious-looking old ladies guarding the door and into a foyer where we deposited our jackets. Coat checks are everywhere here, from the university to any concert hall, and most museums.
Young girls checked their pocket mirrors and couples sat on the nearby couches in extremely close proximity. A group of students were waiting in line outside a classroom. It was exam day, and one by one the students will enter the classroom and orally explain a topic or issue from their lectures to their teacher; however, many of the schools and universities are trying to adopt a more Westernized system, with written exams consisting of multiple choice questions, though the students always joke that the transition is not going so well. We trekked up to the fourth floor and sat for a while in a department office, drinking tea and trying Ukrainian chocolate while waiting for the next break between lessons.
I then met a group of students who are part of Ksenia’s student organization, a youth student group at the university. Most of them are younger than her, she being 22, and them 17 or 18, all recently knighted into the academic world. The students started by explaining their organization: lead by students who are working at creating student-based events and helping other students discover ways to get involved. Ksenia actually heads this organization, and plans on continuing working with the group even after she finishes university in June. A tech guy setting up a projector interrupted us mid-conversation, and then again a professor and his class, so we moved to a different room. Here, we enjoyed chocolate and tea as our conversation transformed into a comparison of American and Russian culture and their favorite hobbies.
After a few hours, Anton picked us up in is silver Lada and starting driving us around town. I was under the impression that Anton and Ksenia were good friends, and maybe even dating, as I thought he made a joke about waiting for her to get done with college for marriage, but it turns out that was only the second time Ksenia had ever met Anton. Ksenia had asked her roommate if her brother could take us around (because he’s really cute, she said), but he had to work, so her roommate sent Anton to us instead. Anton swerved through the streets of Samara in an attempt to avoid trolley tracks, pot holes, and people while him and Ksenia pressed me with questions like: “what are you looking for in a guy?”. Anton was shy and yet curious, Ksenia smart and strong-willed, and her and I continued that particular conversation later while waiting for my bus back to Tolyatti.
We cruised around the different parks and buildings Samara has to offer, walked along the embankment, enjoyed a pedestrian streets with shops and restaurants and settled into a café where Anton ordered blinis (Russian pancakes), only to be told they were out. While being sold out of something is never a shocker in Russia, to be sold of blinis is pretty much sacrilegious. He settled for mozzarella sticks instead.
At four o’clock, not wanting to leave such a bustling and lively city, I jumped on the bus back to Tolyatti.
I have to interrupt with the following excellent picture. It’s great for many reasons. I get countless praises on my smile and I’m often asked why we smile so much, reminding me of the time the old woman in the Astrakhan park asked me if my teeth were fake. When I’m asked for any differences between Russia and America, that’s often my first go-to comparison to break the ice, as everyone always laughs. Also, it’s interesting to note that the Russians get so confused when I explain that we don’t have domestic passports. In Russia, you have both a domestic and international passport. Your domestic one contains all your personal information and is stamped when you move, or get married, or divorced, have kids, change jobs, etc. Their international one is obviously just that. As I try to explain to Russians how we have social security numbers, and cards, but that you don’t need your card and I lost mine but know my number.. “Well what happens when you die?” Russians ask the best questions.
Back to business: Friday was my last day of “official events”. In the morning, I accompanied Sergei to his place of work, a sector of the mayor office, and met his boss, Marina. Waiting for her in her office I admired her view, which practically overlooked the Volga. She expressed how much better it was before the forest practically burned down in entirety in 2010.
Marina was glimmering in a gold, shimmering dress, matched with wooden earring engraved with Parisian scenes, and nails of pale blue. We had a long conversation about the workings of the government, her particular job, and the role of various people in the office. Each local government is separated into various sectors occupying different buildings throughout the city. This particular building, and what Marina was in charge of, is home to the Youth Programs. Marina signed at least five documents while I was there, scanning over them briefly before the flick of her wrist sealed the deal. She joked: “this is nothing, normally we have many many more.”
After leaving Marina, I went to an organization called “Fund of Tolyatti”. The woman with who I talked to, Elvira, is twenty-five, vibrant, and even younger at heart; Valeri, my original tour guide also joined us, as he is one of the primary volunteers and student leaders aiding in the facilitation of these projects. This private fund plays a few different roles in the development of youth programs.
First, they help create and maintain a bank of volunteers, so that when needed, they can reach out to as many as possible. Secondly, they receive a nice lump sum from the government each year. With this money, they hold open grant application for various student-led projects. Here, Valeri, and others are presented with various projects and they select winning organizations and/or groups to whom a certain amount of money will be allotted. These compromise mainly short-term projects that should be realized with six months. Last year, they funded a two-day “Comic Con” event and Valeri showed me a student-created, but extremely professional, video of the program’s highlights; the event will take place again this year. Elvira explained that often projects are initially funded by their organization, then become independent entities that operate annually or bi-annually. Of course eventually Elvira and I moved onto to stories of our time abroad; Elvira had recently attended a fundraising conference in the US, and she also participated in the work and study program while in university.
Valeri and I then drove, pretty much across the street, to an evening event. Again, I really should read my own schedule with more detail, and again, I should realize when something is a loanword from English. But again, I failed. What I thought was a Russian acronym for something (almost everything on my schedule was), turned out to be exactly what was written: Miss. Meaning, Miss TGU. Meaning, a beauty pageant featuring students from the local university. I cringed. Valeri also cringed. I felt bad that he some how got roped into attending it with me. As we were met by Sasha and other students, I learned that these programs almost always go until 11 PM. It was only 6:30. After waiting approximately one hour for the program to start (Is it like that in America? Haha no way. We’re always on time, especially for events like this), it finally took off with a big musical number that included young girls parading the stage. The first competition was actually really interesting: the girls were paired with designers and together they had chosen different dresses decorated in a sort of Old Rus’ style, modernized through flowing dresses made of silk with beautiful patterns of printed flowers. The competition started with the designers showing off their own garb, followed by the contestants in their dresses. If only I could find a store that sold some of the garments they were wearing – some were outrageous, but others were simply adorable and I definitely had a place in my closet for them.
The rest of the competition was as expected. The girls read poems, then they sang or danced, they wore wedding dresses, and swimsuits, and high heels.. lots of high high heels.
After awhile it was just getting old, and boring, and there were continuous advertisements first shown on screen, then read aloud by the hosts. I got yelled at by one of those ferocious old women I mentioned above: “Why are you wearing your outerwear inside?!” I gave her a bewildered look – even if I could understand her, and looked down at myself. Sasha, Valeria, and Valya in unison: “She came in that way.” “Oh. Fine.” And that was it. I looked at Sasha, who was also wearing his blazer, and asked him why no one ever questions him. He also made me (practically dragged me), to the local TV reporters, who then asked me some questions. I tried my hardest to keep my serious Russian face, but it was difficult with Sasha mouthing at me things to say, and me also despising these types of events. So I echoed what we had talked about earlier:
“All the women are beautiful in their own way.”
I’ll end my time in Tolyatti with friends, and share with you this great piece of graffiti, painted in the entry way of a archetypical Russian residence, in which resides the youth of Tolyatti today, with their hopes, their dreams, their pains, and their pleasures.