Saturday, May 26, 2012

Our first Alternative Spring Break Program


Thanks to David Johnson’s efforts, four undergraduate students from four different schools traveled to Vladimir over their spring vacation (March 3-11, 2012) to do some volunteer work and a lot of “cross-cultural communicating.”  In the States, this sort of activity is often referred to as "service learning."  It is just beginning to catch on in Russia.  
According to Alexei Altonen, Director of Special Projects for the American Home and professor of English at Vladimir State University, more than 30 Russian students hosted, worked with, and/or met with the four American students—and David, who was a full participant in the program--in a variety of settings, including a "pot luck" at the American Home and a cross-country skiing and "banya" adventure.

Below you can read—and see—how the week went from the perspective of one of the American participants—with comments from two of the Russian participants--and a few words from David.  At the end you will find links to some of the extensive local TV coverage of the activities--in Russian of course.

Based on Alexei's own observations and informal feedback from the Russian students he has heard from, as an exercise in cross-cultural interaction, the program was very successful. (See the two Writing Exchange letters below.)  Alexei did caution, however, that in the future we need to be sure that any necessary expenses can be covered from resources specifically designated for the project. (This year Alexei had to use all of the funds earmarked for the Street Ball tournaments in order to finish covering some of the projects expenses.  If anyone would like to contribute to the replenishment of the tournament funds, please contact us.)  Hopefully the “investment” will ultimately contribute to as yet unforeseen benefits.  In other words, with any luck, in addition to its immediate benefits, the project will generate some serendipity.

We especially want those of you who were involved in the project in one way or another to add your thoughts and observations.  And, if you can, please  identify specific people in the photos.

My First Experience in Russia

By Adam Treml, University of Pittsburgh

 “Any time you can walk in somebody else’s shoes, the world is a slightly better place.” -Anthony Bourdain

I am on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean right now headed home to Pittsburgh. For the past week I have seen a little of Moscow and visited a number of places in the central Russian Oblast (region) of Vladimir, but I've spent most of my time in the city of Vladimir. I had signed up for an Alternative Spring Break program organized by Serendipity-Russia which operates the American Home in Vladimir. What follows is a brief description of what we did and what it did to me.

I don’t know where to begin. I’ll be honest, I was a mess on my way to Newark airport before I left for Europe. I remember being on the plane and feeling very upset about leaving home. I just wanted to be back in my comfort zone.  When I finally landed at Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow it started to sink in, I am in RUSSIA for the very first time, this exotic and foreign place that I have become obsessed with over the past couple of years.

I got in about 17 hours earlier than my group mates (Saturday night, while they were set to arrive Sunday afternoon), and I had to navigate the airport by my lonesome. Can you imagine, me, with my very limited Russian, trying to get around one of Russia’s biggest airports and get a hotel for the night!?  It was something, it really was.  Contrary to what one might think, NOT everybody at Sheremetyevo speaks English! I did have to rely on the limited Russian that I knew.  Though I must say it was fun , an experience unto itself. I had planned on using this extra time to travel to the center of Moscow to see Red Square. I had grossly underestimated the energy it took to travel for twenty hours or however long it was. I also did NOT want to travel to the center of the biggest city in Europe by myself at night. Suffice it to say, I did not see Red Square that night!

The Drive to Vladimir
The next day I successfully met up with David Johnson, Instructor of Russian at Vanderbilt University and Coordinator of the Intensive Russian program at Serendipity-Russia's American Home in Vladimir, Jacob, a student from the University of South Carolina, Stephanie, a student at The College of New Jersey, and Laura, a student from Vanderbilt University (who is actually one of David’s students in the Russian program). From Sheremetyevo we drove about 3 hours by van to Vladimir.  On the way we got a taste of some of Moscow's suburbs and the central Russian countryside.  My eyes felt like they were about the size of grapefruits.  Everybody else managed to fall asleep, but I couldn’t.  The whole drive I just sat and observed.  I was in full sponge mode, and I did not exit that mode the entire time I was in Russia

I got my first look at the Russian countryside - woods and snow, small villages and towns, and more woods and more snow for mile after  mile.   It was incredible.  In some ways the view was very similar to the way the Pennsylvania countryside looks after two feet of snow.  But there was something so different about it.  There was a feeling that I’d never had before.  I was starting to feel Russia.  Every road sign, every Russian face, every Russian word, everything made this feeling more intense.  That feeling would keep building and building for the duration of my stay.
Host Family
We finally got to Vladimir in the evening, dropped everybody off at his or her respective host family, and had dinner before turning in.  My host was Natalia, or Natasha (Natash, as I came to call her).  She lives with her parents Elena and Vyachislav.  They were so kind and welcoming, but I could tell that I was just as alien to them as everything in Russia was to me. Our first dinner was a little strange. I tried to muster up words and sentences in Russian, but I found it difficult. I think Vyachislav and Elena wondered why I wasn’t speaking Russian. I was essentially in shock. Everything about my surroundings at the time contributed to this. Luckily, Natasha spoke English very well.  Otherwise, the meals at home would have been a lot more awkward, or at least a lot quieter!  This being said, I was lucky to have the comfort of something that is understood universally – good food. That night’s dinner was the start of an entire week of grotesque over-eating.  Well, I shouldn’t say grotesque, I just ate way more in general that week than I had over the previous couple of months back home.  I loved every second of it.

Vyachislav and Elena

Adam and Natasha
(Natasha is a 5th year student in the Department of English and German at Vladimir State University)

There was never any possibility of starving.

The next morning we woke up, went to the American Home, had a Russian lesson, and toured the building.  On the way to the American Home the feeling of being in Russia intensified.  Taking the bus, looking at everybody’s faces, seeing all of the signs in Russian everywhere I looked, being with Natasha, it all contributed to the feeling of intense culture shock.  I think "culture awe” is a better term for what I felt and am still feeling. I finally was experiencing true immersion.

Russian lesson at the American Home

With one of their Russian tutors
L-R: Jacob, Laura, Tanya Akimova, Stephanie, Adam

The Youth Center and New Friends
After the Russian lesson we went to the Youth Health and Education Center, which would be the location of our work project for the week, and had lunch. The Youth Health and Education Center functions as a place where troubled, or simply just restless youth can go for after school activities and, if needed, some counseling and other types of assistance. After lunch we started in on the week’s main task: helping to fix up a big, rundown, room so that it could be used as a multi-purpose room. It was here that I first met Vova (Vladimir) and Olya (Olga), two good Russian friends during my stay.  They are students at the local university, as were all the kids we met and hung out with throughout the week. I was assigned to those two as a team to work on the room. Our initial meeting got off to a funny start.  I think the first thing Olya said to me was, “Do Americans smoke cigarettes?”  To this I replied, “Yes, Americans smoke cigarettes.”  This was the start of a revelation or sorts for Vova, Olya, and Ulyana (with whom I also became friends). Their views of American young people were somewhat distorted. Up to this point, they had only met a hand full of young Americans, and they were not sure if we did similar things to occupy our time here in the States.  Throughout the week both sides got a chance to find out much more about the way young people live in Russian and America.  I wasn’t exactly sure how young people in Russia would view or receive us Americans. Like most people we met, they were very warm and very welcoming; which I think was reassuring for the Americans, myself included.

The bus

Removing the window sill - Jacob, Volodya (Vova), 3rd year student in the Department of English and German, David



Jacob and Kate, third year Department of English and German student

TV Interviews
During that first day, we were bombarded by camera and reporter crews from something like four different local TV stations.  We were all interviewed and put on the evening news. I even gave a shout out (in Russian) to Mom! They were very interested in why American kids would come to the sleepy city of Vladimir in the heart of Russia to volunteer their time and energy.  Volunteering is not something that is very common in Russia, and it was difficult for them to understand why we would come half way across the globe at significant personal expense to work for free.

One of the many TV interviews - with Laura in this case

See the links to several video broadcasts at the end of this material.

Dinner with Russians
That night some of the university students took us Americans out for dinner and drinks.  I had my first taste of Russian beef tongue.  With mushrooms and onions and cheese; man was it good. It seemed like every day I had the opportunity to eat something unique to the American palate.

It also seemed like every day we met new students from the university.  Most of them spoke English pretty well. Vova's English is so good that he literally speaks it with a clear British accent.  I kid you not.  I enjoyed listening to him talk.

On Tuesday, while Russian construction workers were installing lighting and a suspended (or "drop") ceiling, and plastering the walls, we had what was essentially a press conference at the local volunteer center--a very new city-sponsored organization.  It seemed like all of the local TV stations were there once again, and we Americans were asked all kinds of questions about our experiences so far in Vladimir, our work there, and our impressions of the city and of the country.  Everyone there seemed to be genuinely glad to have us as guests.  It made me feel very good.


More TV coverage - and discussion at the new City Administration Volunteer Center


Directly after that we hopped on a bus to a local combined primary and secondary school, School #36.  We were given a brief presentation about the school's history and functions.  After that we were essentially put on display in the front of a classroom filled with about 60 kids and teachers for a question and answer session.  It was wonderful.  They were all so eager to pick our brains about American culture, music, tradition, and life.  For most of them it was the first time they’d ever seen Americans.  You should have seen the looks on their faces.  After we finished a lot of them rushed up to us with more questions and a slew of little gifts for us (some of which had been handmade for our visit), saying things like “please stay” and “come back again when you can” and so on.  I experienced a feeling of love and welcoming that I’d never really experienced before.  It was truly an incredible experience.  

In the corridor at School #36

Pondering a question

After the formal discussion: gifts, comments, and questions

Photographing for posterity

After that we went back to the Youth Center and watched a presentation that some of the local foster kids put on for their foster families.  It was very nice.  The mothers and fathers of the families all got gifts afterwards.  It was a very warm atmosphere, and I very much enjoyed being present for it.

On Wednesday we had a guided tour of Vladimir.  We walked the city and had a chance to spend some time at Vladimir’s famous sites, namely the Assumption Cathedral and the Golden Gates.  The Assumption Cathedral is literally almost 900 years old and since its inception has never ceased to hold services. It was indescribable.  I had never seen anything like it before in my life.  And, needless to say, the feeling of Russia and all that came with it was growing ever stronger.

Touring Vladimir - Golden Gates in the background
L-R: Alexei Altonen, Laura, Adam, Stephanie, Jacob

Assumption Cathedral

“Razgulyai” Performance 
After our tour we went to the theater Razgulyai to see a play of sorts that presented traditional Russian folk music and dance.  What a trip this was.  I was really dragging when we got to the theater and, to be frank, was not exactly looking forward to watching a folk music and dance performance.  It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to experience the folk culture; I was simply extremely tired.  That changed as soon as the show started.  It was so entertaining.  The costumes were stunning, and the songs and the dances were so much fun to watch.  The women that performed were mesmerizing: stunningly beautiful Russian women who knew exactly how to work a crowd.  I don’t think I’ve ever been winked at or waved to more times in the course of 2 hours than I was at the Razgulyai Theater.  We were in the front row and TWICE they pulled me up on stage to participate in the dancing and celebration. The first thing I did each time was whisper to the woman who took me on stage, “Yah ni khorosho govoryu po-russkii, govoritye mnye po-angliiski, pozhalusta!” This means “I don’t speak Russian well, please speak to me in English!” The kind female performer pointed to a girl (another performer) holding a handkerchief and said “girl.”  I chased the girl around the stage while dodging in and out of a large ring of people holding hands and dancing round and round in a circle.  This, thankfully, was what I was supposed to do.  The second time I pranced around the stage, locked in arms with one of the female performers (who also happened to be one of the most beautiful Russian women I’ve ever seen) only to be sat down on a bench, front and center, in a theater full of people.  RAZ, DVA, TRI!! (ONE, TWO, THREE) and bam!  She planted a big wet kiss on my cheek.  Can you imagine the smile on my face?  I didn’t wash the lipstick off for hours. That performance was so much fun – I had the biggest, cheesiest smile on my face the entire time!
Of course he will follow me....

David demonstrating what to do - or maybe what not to do...

After that a large group of us (the Americans and a bunch of the university students) went out for food and drink.  We got home late that night but, despite the hour, Elena was waiting up for me, as she did just about every night, with a table just about full of classic Russian fare.  Blini (crepe-like pancakes) with mushrooms from the forest, bread with ikra (Russian caviar) and tea.

The next day was a special day for me (everyday was, but this one was in particular).  This was the day that we took our trip to Suzdal’, also one of the oldest places in Russia.  Suzdal’ is a small town of about 11,000 people.  It contains something like 50 churches, 12 cathedrals, and one giant monastery.  I have never seen any place like Suzdal’ before in my life.  The churches, outdoor markets, history, little cafes, all of it was so new and exciting. We had a chance to visit one of Suzdal’s oldest and most storied churches.  While we were inside, we had an opportunity to listen to a choir sing a traditional hymn.  It was a stereotypical old Slavic sounding hymn.  Something happened to me when I sat in this place and listened to what sounded like angels.  I don’t believe in Christianity and I’m no more Christian after this experience than I was before I went to Suzdal’ that day.  But, there was something about the experience, about being in an ancient place of worship steeped in culture and history, the sound of the choir, the snow on the ground, and the smells in the air.  It was at this time that the feeling of Russia was at its most intense.  I could feel Russia in my bones. Tears welled up in my eyes as I sat there and absorbed everything.  I didn’t cry, but I don’t think I’ve ever been affected like I was that day by anything else in my life.  There have only been a handful of times in my life when I could “feel history.” I’ve felt history in America, but nothing like I did when I was in Suzdal’. I’ve never been in such an old place.   Immediately after listening to the choral group we walked outside to hear the hourly ringing of the bells.  It took about 30 minutes, even after we left the church, for me to gather my composure again.  I had never experienced anything like it before. Words really can’t even come close to describing the feeling I had.

Suzdal Kremlin


After Suzdal’ a large group met at the American home for a “pot-luck” dinner. We had sweets (pastries) and tea and then played Russian games. It was a nice bonding experience for everyone I think.

American Home "Pot Luck"

American Home "Pot Luck"

Food & Conversation

Playing a game (On the right: Galya Antonen, Director of the American Home)

Friday was good for a number of reasons.  We finished our work at the Youth Center.  It was very satisfying to see the room that we started with transformed into something functional.




Russians and Americans in the finished room

Ice skating

After finishing work, I went back to Natasha’s apartment for a quick nap, and then to the local rink for a skate with some of the university students.  The skates weren’t great (rentals, so you can’t expect much) but it felt really, really good to get on the ice again. I hadn’t been on the ice in a while. After skating was one of the best parts of my trip. I FINALLY, FINALLY met Galina Yurienva Kovtun.  Galya and I have been Skype pals for about two years now. She reached out to me via Facebook (thanks Zuckerburg) because she wanted an English speaker to help her with her language studies, and she knew that I was studying Russian. We’ve been helping each other with language and building a friendship ever since. When I found out that I’d be visiting Russia, we made plans to meet. She and a friend of hers came in from Moscow and met my trusty guide, Julia, and me outside the entrance to the train station. What a surreal situation it was to finally met her in person, standing and breathing and living right in front of me. We were as giddy as school kids on a snow day. Her friend, Robert, a Czech  the same age as us, was great. He speaks fantastic Russian and fantastic English and was able to translate when Galya and I needed him to. From the train station the four of us went to a cafĂ© in the center of town and ate and drank and carried on. What a surreal experience. We parted ways afterwards with plans to meet Sunday in Moscow. I still had not yet been to Red Square.

Saturday was also a very special day – what a dose of Russian culture!  Like I said, the whole thing was special, but Saturday was one for the ages.  We, with some of the university students, took a trip to the Russian countryside.  We went for a cross country ski. We began by crossing a frozen lake, then going up a hill, through a couple of fields, through some woods and back again to the starting point.  It was quite refreshing.  The wilderness in Russia is truly something to behold.  The woods and the snow are so beautiful.  There is a certain catharsis to be had in nature anywhere in the world.  Russia’s unspoiled landscape is especially suited for this.  It felt very, very good to breath cold, crisp air.  

Adam, Laura, and Jacob (still standing...)

The majestic Russian fields and forest

After our ski, we went to the BANYA!  The banya belonged to one of the university student’s family.  In other words, it was a private, not a public facility.  Going to the banya is not only a tradition in Russia, it is an institution.  For those that don’t know, a banya is essentially a sweat room.  Hot coals are prepared to generate substantial heat.  There are different levels of seating--the higher you go, the hotter it gets.  But the banya is so much more than simply a sweat room.  It is a whole experience with a special ritual.  We undressed, took a towel to sit on, and went into the heated room.  Man, it must have been over 150 degrees at the top tier.  In minutes we were all covered in dripping sweat.  After sufficiently sweating, I ran outside into the Russian winter, flung my towel off and jumped stark naked into a giant mound of untouched snow!  This is what you are supposed to do--in fact, what the Russians insist you have to do.  After spending a few moments in the stinging, yet revitalizing snow, I ran back inside.  The feeling that overcame my body was one of euphoria, catharsis, and purification.  It felt so good.  The process was repeated once more by the fellows, and then the girls went in for a good sweat.  

Banya: Adam, David, and Jacob (they are wearing towels)

Some of the girls

Meanwhile, marinated chicken had been slow cooking outside over hot coals, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers had been prepared.  


The boys feasted and then joined the ladies for a good sweat.  What a bonding experience it was.  I was told that “everybody is equal when they are naked” and it’s true.  After about twenty more minutes at the top level, and successfully sweating more than I ever have before, Laura looked over at me and said, “You ready?” “Let’s do it,” I said, RAZ, DVA, TRI!  And out the door we ran, flinging our towels to the side, and leaping into the snow mound letting out screams of joy and excitement that I’m sure could be heard all over the village.  It’s quite a feeling when your overheated, literally steaming body hits frozen water.  

After these shenanigans, we all sat down to enjoy more chicken and vegetables.  We pretty much finished off all the food. Wow, what a feeling your body has after a day like that!  The banya, like I said, is not just a room.  The banya reflects everything that we did from the time we finished skiing to the time we returned to our host families that day.  Try running naked into the snow at an American sauna.  That of course wouldn't fly--but Russia isn't America!

Another Folk Concert and Goodbyes
After the banya we went home, collected ourselves, and headed to a theater to see a different traditional Russian folk performance.  This was similar to the first, but was more formal--no one from the audience was dragged on stage.  The apparent goal of the performance was to showcase traditional Russian folk music and dance rather than generate laughter. It was more formal than the Razgulyai performance, but it was just as festive. It was great.  

The highly regarded Vladimir Folk Ensemble Rus

The highly regarded Vladimir Folk Ensemble Rus

We had balcony seats, front row.  I could feel the richness and vibrancy of Russian culture and tradition.  I could sense this richness the whole time, really, but these performers really knew how to capture it.  After the performance, in a private room in the theater, Alexei Leovich (Altonen), our fantastic program coordinator, professor of English at the university, Director of Special Projects for the American Home, and all around Renaissance man, had some champagne and gifts for us (the Americans), as this was our last night in Vladimir.  

After a toast and some goodbyes (we weren’t going to see Alexei or his wife, Galina, the Director of the American Home, before we departed), we went home for dinner with our respective host families.  In my case, we sat down for the only time as a full family.  This included  Natasha, her mother, Elena, her father, Vyachislav, and Svetlana, Natasha’s older sister who was visiting from Petersburg. Natasha was the only one in the family who spoke even a word of English.  It was nice to have someone there to translate the things that I couldn’t understand--my Russian had improved over the course of the week, but I still have a lifetime’s worth of learning ahead of me.

Dinner was fantastic – smoked fish, sausage, and cabbage stuffed with meat. And of course, tea and sweets (or pastries) afterwards.  It was a lovely end to my time in Vladimir.

The next morning we were up at 4 am, ready to rock and roll back to Sheremetyevo.  The others all had to catch an early flight, but my flight didn't leave until 8 pm.

At the airport in Moscow

This gave me some time to see Red Square. I took the Aeroexpress train, which goes from the airport strait to Belorusskaya Station in the heart of Moscow. At Belorusskaya I met Galya (Skype partner), my tour guide for the day (and thank god too, I don’t know how I would have navigated the Moscow metro (subway) system without a native speaker). From there we met Robert for lunch at the Czech house, a kind of club with a restaurant and hotel and other amenities especially for Czech natives. After beer and food, Galya and I parted ways with Robert (he was on his lunch break) and took the Metro to Red Square. From the time I stepped off of the airport train at Belorusskaya station I could feel that intensity again that had been developing over the course of the trip. I could feel Russia, but not in the same way that I felt it in Suzdal’ or Vladimir. Suzdal’ is the countryside and Vladimir is provincial Russia. This was the urban jungle, and I was right in the middle of it. Moscow is staggeringly big. I mean just massive. I got that same kind of Wild-West type feel that I get when I’m in Manhattan. That realization that at ANY hour of the day or night, wonderful, terrible, strange, and bizarre things are happening in the cracks and crevasses of the city. But it wasn’t exactly like the feeling that Manhattan gives me, it was something unique unto itself. Galya and I were like kids in a candy shop. She is not from Moscow, she is from Omsk (hundreds of miles away in Siberia), and the atmosphere of Moscow was just as exciting for her as it was for me. We got off the metro, ascended up the stairs, and right before me was the sign: Revolution Square (Ploshchad' Revolutsii)--just a short distance from Red Square (Krasnaya Ploshchad'). I felt like I was in a dream. We went up to the gates of the square and I could see the tips of the spires of Saint Basils Cathedral. My heart was beating out of my chest; I mean my heart was pumping me full of adrenaline.  I felt like I could have ripped a phone book in half.  We walked a  little further--and there we were, on Red Square! It was all there -- the multicolored St. Basil's Cathedral, the Kremlin, GUM (the massive pre-Soviet department store across Red Square from the Kremlin and one of the most expensive shopping destinations in the world), Lenin’s Tomb, and, on the other side of the Kremlin wall, the seat of the Russian government--all of it. I just could not believe my eyes.  When you hear lectures on and read about a place and become passionately interested in its history, you can create a vivid picture of it in your head. But there is no way that this preconceived notion can ever capture the real thing – the magnitude and complexity of it all. When you finally arrive, and the experience is so overwhelmingly more than you could have ever imagined, it really does something to you. Even just thinking about it now, I can still feel those things that I felt that day.

The airport train

Adam & Galya on Red Square

I haven’t slept a wink on this flight.  I've spent the whole time writing and reflecting and looking at pictures and reflecting some more.  My first time in Russia had more of an impact on me than I could have possibly anticipated in advance.  I got a chance to see how differently people live.  But the more I saw how people live in Russia, the more I realized how much alike we all are in so many ways. I can tell you one thing for sure; the thing that probably has affected me most is not Moscow, not Red Square, not the countryside, but Vladimir and the things I experienced there. I felt more alive there than I have ever felt before. My heart and soul are still in that strange and beautiful city, with those people who helped to create one of the best times of my life. Thank you, you know exactly who you are.


Letter from Writing Exchange participant, Ulyana Azanova, a 4th yr. student in the Dept. of English and German at Vladimir State University.  Her American partner, Will Murawski, is a senior at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania majoring in International Relations and Modern Languages and Literature.  (As chance would have it, Will was selected as one of the 2012-13 American Home English program teachers--as was Adam Treml.)


Last week turned out to be one of the best things that happened to me for the last two years probably. A group of American volunteers came to Russia to spend a week here and help to fix up a room in the Youth Center in Vladimir. I was so lucky to be the  host for one of the American students. A nineteen year old girl named Laura was my guest for a week.

At first I was extremely nervous and at the same time excited because I didn’t know what to expect. Finally on Sunday, March 4, I met my guest. She was very tired after a long flight and I didn’t dare to disturb her by talking constantly about everything. I made up her bed, and she fell asleep almost immediately.

The night was very weird because my mother woke me up at 4 a.m. and told me that my guest was walking around her room in circles. I went there and it turned out that she just slept as long as she could, woke up and couldn’t go back to sleep. That was a bit strange but understandable.

The next day was gorgeous. I walked Laura to the American Home. This is an organization where Russians, both kids and adults, can study English with the help of native-speaker teachers.  Our guests studied Russian there. After the lesson they went to the Youth Center accompanied by a group of our 3rd year English major students. I joined them a bit later. I saw the Americans working and thought that they are very brave people to come to work here in winter and pay for it two thousand dollars. All our TV reporters from every local channel came there to interview the American students. My girl was interviewed 4 times and once even in Russian. That was a real challenge for her because she was made to paint the wall and speak Russian simultaneously! Could you do that? After that we went downtown and our guests were impressed by the difference of prices in different cafes. The week passed like one moment. We visited so many places and experienced a lot! We were in Suzdal. It is a very ancient and rich for sightseeing city. We had a small party in the American Home and I played a couple of songs. That was very exciting!

Ulyana is on the right

Then on Saturday we went to a Russian banya – it is a kind of sauna but very, very hot! Very Russian! On Sunday morning Laura left.

I miss her lots and lots! I am going to visit the US in the summer. I know I shall do it. I gave a promise and I’m not going to break it.

By Ksenia Nazarova, a 4th year student in the Dept. of English and German -- sent to her Writing Exchange partner, Julia Broadsky,  Lafayette College

In this letter I want to tell you about my new American friends.

Last week, four American students studying Russian paid us a visit. As soon as they got an opportunity to go to Russia they decided to go for it. They spent a whole week here living with the families of my classmates. The main purpose of their visit here was to work as volunteers.  They were very busy during their stay, going to various concerts, visiting organizations, and talking to Russian people in both Russian and English.  
A few months before their visit, when my friends and I were trying to come up with ways to entertain our American visitors, I suggested a trip to our family's bathhouse (banya).  My father built the banya himself in the village we live in. I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity for our visitors to experience a traditional Russian banya, where people cleanse themselves ( It is a cleansing ritual  that takes place in the hot room. The heat in the banya comes from rocks heated in a stove. In the banya your skin gets heated well above its normal temperature. In response, your body begins sweating profusely to keep yourself cool.  To keep clothes from being soaked with sweat, you typically have just a towel wrapped around you.)
( It is a cleansing ritual  that takes place in the hot room. The heat in the banya comes from rocks heated in a stove. In the banya your skin gets heated well above its normal temperature. In response, your body begins sweating profusely to keep yourself cool.  To prevent clothes from being soaked with sweat, the banya is typically used with towels.)
We ended up taking them there on their last full day in Russia. We went on Saturday, a couple of days before I had met them. They told me that they were afraid of going to the banya because for them it was something new and quite unknown.

The weather was wonderful.  It was still cold but the day was so bright and sunny. We were delighted to be able to spend some time outside in the fresh air. I showed them my village: the forest, a frozen lake. The scenery was gorgeous. All of this made a good impression on them. Before our "banya adventure," we went skiing in the forest. Jacob, from South Carolina, was so funny to watch. He had gone skiing only once in his life--and that was when he was much younger.  He kept falling down, each time sinking into the still deep snow.

Jacob was determined - but Laura showed him no pity...

When we became tired and cold we decided to go to the banya to warm up, grill some chicken, and, of course, drink vodka. (Our American friends liked vodka very much!).

The time we spent in the banya was great! It was very hot there, and after a while we were covered with sweat. When we felt that we were too hot, we jumped into the snow. I was responsible for grilling the chicken, so I was outside and several times saw happy Americans running out of the banya, jumping into the snow, and running quickly back.

We ate, drank, talked about Russia and the U.S., and were very happy. When the time came for them to go, I was very upset. They were sad too--they didn’t want to leave the village, they didn’t even want to leave Russia. Laura said that this week was the happiest of her life. And I may say that that day was a very happy day for me as well.

David Johnson's Comments

David Johnson

David initiated this program, recruited the American students, and participated fully in the program in Vladimir.

Alexei and the American Home staff once again exceeded everyone’s high expectations, in this case, for the 2012 Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Program. In addition to arranging our volunteer work at the Vladimir Youth Health and Education Center (YHEC), organizing Russian lessons and cultural excursions and guided tours in Vladimir and nearby Suzdal, Alexei provided numerous opportunities for all of us to engage in meaningful, personal/ cultural exchanges with young Russians. Several groups of his university students played especially important roles in facilitating these times of intercultural communication.

Laura, Stephanie, Jacob, and Adam, students from four different universities in the United States, were equally impressive. Their openness to new challenges, willingness to embrace every aspect of the ASB project, insatiable interest in Russia, and intercultural communication skills made a major contribution to the week's success.

In just seven days we scoured, sanded, primed and painted a large room at the YHEC, participated in five hours of Russian language classes, visited key historic and cultural sites in Vladimir and Suzdal, attended two folk concert performances, skied in the countryside, enjoyed an afternoon banya, sang songs and played silly games, all while interacting and becoming good friends with Alexei’s marvelous students and other Russians.

It was a fantastic week of community service, exploration, intercultural conversations, and fun!

NOTE: David taught English at the AH from 2001 to 2004.  After that he worked for a year in Moscow.  Returning to the States, he earned a Masters degree in Russian Language, Linguistics, and Literature from the University of Arizona

He teaches first through third year Russian at Vanderbilt University where he also coordinates the Russian group at Vanderbilt's language immersion residence hall.  In addition, he is the coordinator for the University of Arizona's summer Russian program in St. Petersburg.

 In the American Home organization, he is the Coordinator of the Intensive Russian program.  And, with Alexei Altonen in Vladimir, he manages the Writing Exchange program--among other things.  (David is an integral part of the American Home team!)

Video broadcasts on the American Home's 2012 Alternative Spring break project:
     - Vladimir TV 6:


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