Life in Petrozavodsk is beautiful in many ways, and exhausting in so many other.
Days pass by, feeling as though you don’t really do much, but yet they’re so fulfilling you fall into a bed of exhaustion each night.
Wednesday, I attended a film competition at a local high school (Lycée No. 1) on the other side of the city. The competition was hosted by another sub-program of Doroga called “Me and Society”, the sister program of “First Step into Society.” In small groups from different schools, 5-7th graders created short films that analyzed various problems existing in youth societies. The students chose issues such as emotional drama, cheating, misbehavior, apathy towards education, and rudeness amongst friends.
As we watched the videos I attempted to take notes and remember which video belonged to which school and group. At the end, each group was given a prize for participating in the competition. I gave out two “special” prizes for films I liked the most. The first one I named, “American Style”; I gave this to a group of boys who filmed an indie-style clip about love and suicide. The videographer never shows the boys face; it’s filmed in an abandoned run-down building, with dark hues and sharp contrasts. The boy (Mark) gets a message on his iphone and the camera quickly zooms in. It’s his girlfriend, stating that she wants to break up with him. Without responding or showing any visible emotion, he walks up two flights of cement stairs layered with graffiti, and flings himself out the window. One word flashes on the screen: “Why?” I was transfixed throughout the entire two minutes, which seemed like hours, and throughly impressed with their young abilities to juxtaposition such color, music, and light to such a strong issue. The film was very much a prototype of the new youth movement in film and music, also extremely prevalent in Karelia, home to some of the strongest youth artistic movements.
The second award I named “Future Hollywood Actors” and I gave this to another group, whose lead actor did an excellent job expressing his emotions and playing the role. The others in the film also played great supporting roles and suppressed much laughter and emotion, not withstanding the hilarity of the film.
Wednesday night was the arrival of Phil, another SEE Fellow, who will be joining me here in Petrozavodsk for the next few days.
Thursday morning, Phil and I took the long way to the Center, walking around the embankment. Phil lent me his way too expensive camera, which I held nervously, and taught me a few basics in photography, since I am an amateur who utilizes the wonderful features on her iphone. The embankment was windy and cold, greatly varying the temperate days I just enjoyed earlier this week.
We arrive at the Center to a plethora of young students waiting outside the door. Sasha arrives, letting the chaos flow into Doroga’s office. The lesson is НАНОЧЕМОДАН or NANO-SUITCASE. He immediately begins his lesson, grabbing a large metal-looking (but probably plastic) container, on which was written “Science in a Box”. Sasha adds mystery by holding the box up, describing it and vaguely alluding to its contents. The students crowd around eagerly, whispering to one another.
“Nano – what does this mean?” Asks Sasha, writing the word on the board. The students guess; some get it wrong, some right. Sasha explains the meaning, spelling out a few examples.
He then slowly opens the box as the students exclaim, “WOW!” “WOAH….” Sasha shows them all the contents of the box, a bunch of small articles used to demonstrate various science experiments with the aim of explaining, or attempting to dabble lightly on the deep subject of nano-technology. They won’t be covering all of the objects today, just a few to get started.
The first object is a ball of putty. Sasha starts by explaining the object a bit, then passes it to one of the young boys and tells him to pull the putty apart. The boy abides, creating a long string, “WOW! It doesn’t even break!” The others exclaim. Sasha rolls the putty into a ball and places it on the suitcase. He then takes some magnets out of the box, showing them visibly to the kids. Taking one magnet, he places it on top of the pile of putty, all the while explaining the magnets and asking the kids what will happen. Upon the release of his hand, the magnet sinks into the pile of putty. The kids erupt into commotion, gathering closer to see this magic in action; they take out their cameras and phones to photograph the event. Sasha, meanwhile, is asking them why, and how this phenomena is possible. One student gives a detailed answer; Sasha congratulates him and continues the boy’s explanation on magnets, showing each student in the circle.
“Okay everyone take one step back.” They all abide. “Now stay there. See how everything is visible to everyone now?”
Sasha’s next experiment includes some magnets and a Ferromagnetic liquid. He fills an empty cap with the liquid.
“Okay, what will happen if I place the magnet into this liquid?” He asks the group.
“It will splash ALL over!”
“It won’t do anything…”
“It will splash up, around the magnet!”
“It will create waves!”
“What if I tell you,” Sasha continues, “That I’m going to place the magnet under the cap?”
“It will make a puddle!”
“It will scatter and create a ring around the magnet!”
“Let’s just see…” says Sasha with a bright smile. As he places the magnet under the cap, the liquid in it begins to crystalize into a round ball and then form small spikes.
“It’s like a porcupine!!”
The kids shout out exclamations as Sasha shows off the cap around the circle. They were extremely enthralled, with one kid shoving his camera close up to the cap to video everything. Sasha goes through an explanation, asking the kids for their questions, probing for answers, which he promptly received. He then moved onto another experiment regarding solar energy; the kids’ excitement didn’t wane.
After the lesson, I ask the teacher if one of the students will sit for a small interview with Phil about the lesson. Immediately this boy volunteers and I enthusiastically respond and reach out to take him. “No, you don’t need to,” says the teacher, “He won’t answer appropriately, take this girl instead.” Laughing, I agree and bring the young girl, Sophia, to our “interview station”. We ask her a few questions, and she answers shyly, but ran away obviously excited that we ‘chose’ her.
Phil and I then joined in on an activity for the program “First Step into Society.” The 3rd and 4th graders at different schools, who have been earning “money” for the past few months by participating in events, were now able to use their money in an auction. The items up for bid included lots of chocolate, board games, pencils and notebooks, as well as a few special prizes from me (Crayola coloring books and other English language games).
The bidding begins, with a female volunteer acting as auctioneer, a young volunteer, Anton, counting money and handing out prizes, and Sasha with the authoritative mallet. The kids are screaming in excitement, amped up by the host, and collaborating in their groups as to how they’ll spend their money.
A packet of Angry Bird notebooks come up. “No no, don’t.” says a girl to one of her friends, stopping her from bidding on them.
Groups of friends try to outbid kids from another schools in a fight for a Petrozavodsk puzzle. It goes for $95. The female hair ties go for $9. Another game comes up and the screams intensify. $83. They’re all so excited.
Anton clutches tightly to the prizes as he counts the kids’ money, making sure they’re paying the correct amount. One young girl slams the money on the table and grabs the prize with a wink. A priming attitude. These girls are rolling in prizes, pretty much filling up the cover of the piano: an American card game, M&Ms, Chocopuffs, notebooks, candies, these girls are straight gamers and totally seriously about winning what they want.
Another box of Chocopuffs comes up; the kids quickly vault out of their seats, yet it only goes for $22. Oh no, Milky Ways.. the girls up front stop at $77; their stash must be depleting. Yet it seems that the kids keep pulling money of the their pockets. Perhaps they’re just running out of steam. The tables are still loaded with prizes.
Phil pointed out a young girl, continuously squinting at the stage. He zooms in on his camera, “she needs glasses.. really badly.” Shortly after, one group of students leaves the auction; thus this girl and her group move right up to the front row. An adorable blonde wearing a skirt over her jeans, as she’s trying to count out her money, I realize she’s greatly struggling to separate and keep track of what she has. I go up and encourage her, then, as a small favor, I go and check out the remaining prizes. “There’s only candy left.” I relate, as though I’m a spy, gathering information from the enemy. The auctioneer holds up Mars Bars, “Go, go!” I tell them. She’s nervous as the bidding is taking place, turning her back to the stage and clasping her hands together. They win the candy. Another candy comes up shortly after. She’s squinting at the stage and shouting, “40! 40!” She stomps her feet in excitement as the auctioneer counts down, “Going once, going twice, SOLD!” “YESSSSS!” she shouts and throws her hands in the air.
We finish our Thursday with a 6 PM meeting/lecture with some college-aged students who are part of the volunteer club. We were both exhausted, so speech in general was difficult. I fought through a presentation on American culture and norms, while Phil took a few pictures and then his eyes started to glaze over as he scanned through the days’ photos. We managed to survive until 8 PM and were so grateful for Kiril, one of the students who attended the round table, for offering us a ride home. At least I was able to get a few more shots of the building architecture and artwork, which I find so amazing.
Friday, Phil and I are up and ready more early than usual (especially for my own schedule), and we head out of the city to meet Sasha for a youth day camp. We hop in a taxi with him and Katya, who is also coming along to assist, and drive out of the city into the middle of nowhere Nature-ville.
We pull up to this enclosed group of buildings, most of them completely Soviet and abandoned, overlooking this beautiful lake, still frozen over with winter’s remnants. Standing alone at the base of the lake is a newly-built wooden building called Matkachi. This building was built in cooperation with the Karelian government, along with funds from the EU and in connection with Finland. In fact, since the place has opened in just October, there have already been mixed camps, with an abundance more in the planning.
Sasha welcomes the group and sits them in a circle. He immediately introduces Phil and me, and a plethora of English phrases are mumbled amongst friends. Sasha then runs through the three main rules of the today’s camp:
1) Listen and pay attention; don’t talk when someone else is talking (technically two, but you know, they’re connected so it counts as one)
2) Clean up after yourself. We are in nature, and the nature we are in is beautiful and clean so keep it that way. Sasha goes on to tell some jokes, about how normal people eat, and not normal people pig out. If you want to pig out, he says, go into the kitchen, but no matter what, clean up after yourself. The kids are giggling and chuckling, but they get the point. They repeat together: “Those who eat quietly get more in the future.”
3) Safety: be careful, it’s slippery out. And it is.. really really slippery; a bed of ice. He jokes about a tour of the sewage system and warns them not to go behind the building or they just might get such a tour. All the kids laugh again. Sasha is vibrant, capturing their attention and getting his messages across without negativity.
After this lecture he transfers into another discussion on safety: “If you see a strange man walking around this place you must ignore him. Simply say ‘Hi, I’m going to get my teacher.’ Then you walk away quickly and effectively. Do you understand?” My interest perked immediately, though I was more curious as to whether this man truly existed, or if it was simply a test for the children. Either way, Sasha is extremely serious. He repeats himself again. Then he turns and asks Phil if he can pretend that he is an unfamiliar man so the kids can practice.
Phil plays the part perfectly, though turning a serious conversation into a giggle-fest (he deserved the giggles, however).
They all fail the task, and Sasha is sure to make them aware of this. So Sasha then tries again. The kids shake his hand, then walk away, going to their teacher. Sasha says, “You failed again. Why would you shake his hand? You’d all be gonners by now.” Turning back on his serious face, he again repeats what they need to do if they encounter a stranger, then provides them with various situations, discussing how they would handle them.
The kids then get a tour of the facilities; it’s their first time there. They wander through the kitchen, as Sasha explains how at the extended camp there will be a long table where groups of students will practice cooking. Pictures of the building process cover the walls of the meeting room. A series of posters in a youthful style line the corridor of the dormitory rooms.
Sasha sends the kids down the hall, “Who can tell me first how many people can stay here at once?” The kids take off, sprinting down the hall, opening doors left and right, counting beds and attempting to add them up.
The group begins their game. Four kids from the group are chosen as captains to pick teams. As the kids got picked off and ran to their teams’ corner, the remaining kids, as always, became more and more nervous; left was a girl and a chubbier boy. One captain call out the boy’s name, “Igor!” His friend next to him hits his arm, “What are you doing? Are you an idiot or something?” insinuating that Igor should not have been picked and he was better off picking the girl.
Then the moment was over; everyone had been evenly disbursed and Sasha started to explain the game. He would take one person from each group and together they would hide a few “prizes” outside and draw a map of the area to explain where they were hidden. In the meantime, the other members of the group would gather and create their own “codes”. The codes would be given to the ‘hiders’, who would then write a message in the code to tell their teams where the prizes were hidden. They would give the message to their team, who along with the map had to solve the code and find the prize. Sasha elaborated, “If you write in just simple language, everyone will know. You must find a code that only your team understands!”
The game got started, and the kids discussed what kind of code they would create while the captains and Sasha got dressed and headed outside to hide. Some of the kids actively participated, drawing pictographs or some illegible symbols slightly resembling Armenian. Others pushed and shoved each other, danced, or floated between groups chatting with their friends.
The captains returned and Sasha caged them up in a dorm room, so they couldn’t cheat and give their teammates hints. As the codes were exchanged the kids started pushing, yelling, “Let’s go!!” “Hurry up!!” “We know where it is!!” as the mom’s called out, “Put on your jacket!” “Don’t forget your scarf!!”
They took off running outside, sliding on the icy ground communicating with each other through shouts and gestures.
“Look here!” “We already tried that!” “What’d you guys find?” “Ughhhhh, you’re way behind, we’ve already been there, there was NOTHING!” “WE FOUND IT!!!” screams one team. Sasha announces, “You have ONE minute left”, and the kids continue scrambling, looking between trees and jumping through abandoned windows. I stopped by Sasha, congratulating him on the success of the game and the enthusiasm of the kids. He elaborates:
“These quests are a great way to get kids going… they come to an unknown place and suddenly they know it.”
After the scavenger hunt, Sasha sat the kids back in a big circle and demands silence. Out of his pocket he suddenly pulls an empty candy wrapper. The silence that ensued couldn’t be cut with a knife. “I found this on the ground. What is it?” He asks. There’s no response. “Why is it so hard not to put this in your pocket and bring it back here to throw away? Hm?” He continues as the kids start to bow their heads and fiddle with their clothes. A few look at each other quizzically. “Why do you think you can just throw it on the ground? Didn’t we just discuss why and how important it is to keep this place clean?” More silence. “Who can put this where it belongs?” he asks. A brave boy stands up and approaches Sasha, taking the wrapper out of his hand. He marches over to the garbage, stomping his feet a bit, and throws the wrapper away. “I’m sorry I had to do that,” Sasha apologizes to the group, ” And also to those of you who weren’t guilty. But it needed to be done.”
The second activity for the day was a competition called “Berendey”, based off a character from a Russian tale. It’s an exam on nature: different kinds of trees, flowers, plants, animals, important instruments used to measure the diameters of trees, the history of ecology, and a few geographical questions. Some of the students placed themselves at tables, while the few who didn’t participate went with Sasha. I joined Phil outside to set up his camera for the solar eclipse.
Phil snaps some amazing pictures of the eclipse, which we can only view through his camera. Our feet freeze. We round up the kids, so they can witness the eclipse and they take turns checking out the moon and sun through Phil’s lens. “Wowwww…” “Cool!!” “That’s amazing!”
We take lots of selfies (one they start they never stop). They comment on Phil’s camera and complain about how bad their phones are. We take a few more selfies then go in for tea and a warm up.
After another game and more running around, it’s time to head back to town. The kids enjoyed the afternoon and visibly didn’t want to leave.
Sasha waited until the mumbling ended, demanding their attention. “So, we’ll meet again next Thursday for the “First Step Into Society” meeting. You guys think about what you’d like to do. And I’ll think about different activities. You’ll plan half, and I’ll plan the other. Agreed?” “Agreed!” They chimed in unison.
The kids hopped onto a rickety old bus. Phil, Sasha and I walked down a dirt road into the nearest village to catch a taxi back into the city. A day full of fresh air and astronomical phenomenon is a successful day indeed.