The name does not translate now, but in Russian her name looks like this: Айгуль. Aygul’ was my host-mom in Kazan’, although she is not very old so maybe she was more like a host sister, or a host cousin, I don’t know. Aygul’ is Tatar. (Kazan’ is the capitol of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia). She said that when she was young, she only knew the Tatar language until she was three, and then she started learning Russian. Now she knows Russian better than she knows Tatar. She told me a bit about the Tatar language and that it is similar to English because adjectives and nouns don’t really have genders. However, I think that is the extent of their similarities. In the Tatar language, my host mom says they change the meaning of a sentence not by changing the ends of adjectives and verbs for cases, but by adding prepositions on the end. So if you had a sentence that you wanted to say something about undoing something, you would have a preposition for doing, and then another one for undoing that would change the meaning of the sentence.
Aygul’ also studies English and Arabic. She is doing very well with her English I must say, I used to help her with her English homework while I was there. She said that in Russia if you want a good job, you need to know English as well as a language from the Middle East, and that is why she is studying these languages. She told me a bit about the Arabic language. Apparently for every letter of the alphabet there are four ways to write it, and how you write it depends on where it is located in the word. For example, a letter written at the beginning of the word will be written differently from the same letter located close to the end of the word. Aygul’ said that she wants to move somewhere warmer someday, and that is another reason she is learning Arabic.
I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at Aygul’s house, and I was tired, the first thing she taught me was Russian slang. I am sure my professor would have been thrilled had she known. One conversation I had with Aygul’ either over tea or at the dinner table was about stereotypes. One stereotype that Russians know about themselves is that bears walk around on the streets in Russia. Of course this is not something that actually happens. The Russian’s response to this is that they don’t have streets for the bears to walk around on. The bears just walk. It is really hard to keep streets in good condition in Russia. When I was there for two months in the summer, I saw the fastest road construction I have ever seen in my life. I mean I know our road workers dawdle around in the United States, but this was ridiculous. The workers try to get everything done in the summer because the winter is too cold and the ground is too frozen to accomplish anything. The joke that Russia doesn’t have roads for the bears to walk on has an element of truth in it. The roads used to be just areas of dirt that cars would drive on. When I was studying in Kazan’ I went with my host mom to her parents’ house on other side of Tatarstan, and on the way we passed by some road construction. The cars drove around all over these dirt hills to avoid the road construction because at the time there was no road to drive on.
Another interesting thing that can be seen when driving on the roads in Russia outside of the city, that my host mom pointed out to me are the trees. On the sides of roads in Russia, (probably in other countries too) they plant a row of trees on each side of the road because the tall trees help prevent the wind from blowing the snow onto the road, since their winters get really snowy. I will study abroad in St. Petersburg this coming year, and my host mom said that I should come visit her because St. Petersburg doesn’t have real Russian winters. The city of St. Petersburg is built on a swamp, and it is right by some water, so the winter is more wet than snowy. Apparently in Kazan it gets colder and snowier than St. Petersburg even though it is further south, probably because Kazan’ is not located by water (although it does have a few rivers).
I did a few activities with my host mom that I believe were unique from activities that other people in the program had access to. One weekend my host mom took me to her parents’ house as I already mentioned. I know some of my friends got to go to their family’s Dachas. Aygul’ doesn’t have a Dacha, but I think going to her parents’ house was more interesting for me. Her mother has a garden, and in this garden I had the opportunity to try three berries I had never had before, at least in their original berry form. The first berries I tried were gooseberries. They are sort of an almost transparent light-green berry with bright green veins in them. Most people don’t like them because they are a bit sour, but the once I had were very good. The second berries I tried were currents. Currents come in red, black and white, and I had the opportunity to try the red and the black ones. In the garden they grew the black ones and used them to make jam. I tried the red ones because their neighbor grew them close enough to the fence that Aygul’ was able to pick some for me to try. Apparently the red ones are more popular than the black, but I liked the black better. Both tasted strange to me since I had not had them before. Currents are very popular in Russia because they are easy to grow, and I believe cheap to buy. In addition, people like to use the berries to make compote. Compote is a juice that is made by boiling berries in water to extract their juices, and adding sugar (or not) to taste. I believe most people just grow them at their Dachas. The third berry I tried I did not like at all. I don’t know what it was called because the name did not sound familiar, even when translated to English. I just know that it was small and red and grew on a tree. My host mom’s mother makes jam from these berries, and it is actually very difficult because each one has a small pit. The jam is also very health for you (or maybe the berries are, and the jam is too as a result) and has many vitamins in it. I had the chance to try the jam too, and although I did not mind the flavor, I could not stand the small when the container was sitting open on the table while I was trying to enjoy my tea.
(If you don’t know, a Dacha is a sort of Russian summer home. Usually families will spend some weekends there in the summer when the weather is nice. I heard from my friends who visited their family’s dachas that most of the time spent there is in the garden, so it is not the most interesting place to be. The name Dacha comes from the Russian verb dat’, which means to give. These houses were given this name because the pieces of land that are used for Dachas were gifted to families from the government during the Soviet period).
At Aygul’s parent’s house I had the occasion to try Russian Banya for the first time. Her parents have a private Banya, so it was a very nice first experience. It is their version of a sauna. Usually people do it naked, but I chose to wear a swimsuit for my first try. Let me say first, when I have been in saunas before, I absolutely hate them. You can barely breathe, and all you do is sweat while you sit on a bench that someone definitely sweated on before you. Banya is different. Part of the Banya experience is to hit each other with wet branches that have been placed over very hot stones. You do it quickly so as not to burn the other person of course and there is also a technique to it. I remember sometimes the branch would be used to sprinkle water over me, and other times water would just be dumped over me. I don’t know how to use the branches in Russian Banya properly, my host mom did it for me, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.
Another thing I did when I stayed with Aygul’s Parents, was to visit a Russian forest with them. We went with the intention of picking wild strawberries to make jam with, but in the place we ended up the berries were picked clean. Instead we sat under a tree on a blanket as it began to rain, and ate slices of a melon that they brought with them. The forest was so beautiful. I didn’t bring my camera with me there, but I don’t think a camera could have captured its beauty.
The weekend before I went with my host mom to her parents’ house, some of her friends came over to her flat and we sewed dolls. It has been a while since I have sewn that much by hand because usually I only sew when I am at home, so I was definitely a bit rusty and slow. My host mom said that we would make this doll together and it could be one of my souvenirs from Kazan’. My host mom had me choose the hair color from a few different balls of yarn. My options were orange, bright pink and coral. My host mom hand a ball of blonde colored yarn sitting right next to her, but she did not offer it to me as an option for hair. I was very confused why my doll could not have natural colored hair. In the end I chose the coral colored yarn, and it actually looks okay. My doll travels with me, but I have not named her yet. When I do, I will give her a Tatar name since I made her in Tatarstan.