Lately, Mark and I have had opportunity to do lots of exciting Chuvash things.  Most recently, I was a respondent at a conference on Chuvash history to a paper entitled “The Sociocultural Dynamic of the Chuvash Ethnos, 18th-20th Centuries.”  I can’t really say how it went, because I was hoping to infuriate the audience with my devastating critique of linear notions of progress but succeeded only in getting kissed on the hand by my fellow respondent, a 50-some year old scholar.  “I didn’t know Americans could be so beautiful,” he said to Mark.  “She has the eyes of a biblical martyr.”  And then to me, “Are you Jewish?” There was lots of discussion after my paper, but I couldn’t understand half the comments because they were in Chuvash.

The next day of the conference started off with a talk from a craniologist.  She had measured skulls of the “Chuvash type” and the “Tatar type” and compared them to the skulls of people from the great medieval Volga Bulgar civilization, thereby determining that the rightful descendants of the Bulgars are the Chuvash.  This is a matter of heated debate and great identity-creating importance around here.  I think ever since Hitler craniology has been pretty much discredited in Western academia, but it is alive and well in Russia, apparently.

Research is going alright, though.  Lately it has involved taking lots of pictures of the first Chuvash newspaper and reading the articles with my handy Chuvash tutor, who is an endless source of pickled things and a great informant on Cheboksary academic gossip.  “That Khuzangai who teaches philology is the son of Peder Khuzangai the famous Chuvash poet, and just like his father he’s such a smart man.  Unfortunately, he is partial to that thing all Russian men love,” she says, and pauses woefully.  “Vodka?”  I query, and she nods her head again, ever so woefully.  She knows who is married to whom, who is having an affair with whom, who is good friends with the new university director and can get you favors from him, whose spouse is dying of what kind of cancer, etc., etc., etc.  Here is the newspaper:

This is the Easter 1906 edition, so the headline reads, “Christ is Risen!”  The script looks like Russian, but actually it’s the modified Cyrillic that is still used for Chuvash.

Mark and I also recently attended the Chuvash opera NarspiNarspi is the most famous Chuvash poem and it was written around 1908 by Konstantin Ivanov, who was under 20 at the time and seems to have been reading a lot of Lermontov.  It has the perfect plot for an opera, including dancing villagers:

a young beautiful bride forced to marry a cruel old man for money, leaving behind her poverty-stricken young lover:

a huge Chuvash wedding, including pagan prayers,

(I’m pretty sure Chuvash worship didn’t actually look like this, but it certainly does make for a highly theatrical scene)

and the tragic simultaneous death of the two unhappy lovers:

And in closing, one non-Chuvash thing I couldn’t resist.  Mark just looked so spiffy in his plaid and tweed for the opera.



I awoke with a start on December 1. A wispy breeze blew through the tiny space of the bedroom window that we keep cracked at night because our apartment gets about 100 degrees if we don’t. “Christmastime,” it whispered. I heeded the call. Jumping out of bed, I did what anyone would do to begin the festive season:

My love for Charlie Brown Christmas, both the movie and its soundtrack, and hence all things poignant and melancholy, knows literally no bounds. Literally. That is, from the period of Dec. 1 – Christmas, after which I’ll happily tear out my beard if someone could stop the incessantly catchy, jazzy jams from constantly running through my mind, after all’s been celebrated and conspiring by the fire has properly taken place. (If you could scroll over that little picture and see the amount of plays of that album, you’d understand.) Our only Christmas albums that made it over to Russia were Charlie and Sufjan Steven’s five-volume extravaganza, which I always sort of hated, until this year, when it served as a welcome respite from the mournful major-7th chords of Vince Guaraldi’s holiday masterpiece. Amy Grant’s Home for Christmas, which ranks #2 on my list of all-time greatest holiday albums, was sorely missed this year.

If you’re an American in Russia, Christmas comes but twice a year, December 25 and Russian Orthodox Christmas, January 7. And before you ask me if it was a white Christmas, I’ll let this hilarious photo speak for itself.

The first round took place in Kazan, with our good friends Lee and Ross, as well as Lee’s girlfriend, L., who was joining us here in Russia for a month. The first thing we had to do was buy those last minute presents for each other at the outdoor market. It was extremely cold that day, Dec. 24, so not only were we in a hurry to get them presents before Christmas morning sun smiled over the Kazan skyline, but also just to get back inside. Here’s L&L speed-shopping.

The festivities continued. We sang songs, played backgammon, hugged, and drank the last bottle we had left of Georgian wine (it’s not available in Russia these days) and had loads of laughs. Finally, after staying up until about 3 watching “A Christmas Story” (another tradition that cannot be passed up), the blessed morning came. In lieu of a real Christmas tree this year, L., a bonafide artist, made this beauty from pages of fashion magazines. Lee was Santa this year.

L. and Claire couldn’t wait to open ’em! Hurry up and distribute, Lee!

Ross got sweets!!

After it was all said, done and eaten, Lee and I managed to stand up from our Christmas stupor for a little goofing off. Here we’re modeling.

It was a very special and memorable Christmas round 1, and it was great to be back in Kazan again with our buddies. Claire loves Kazan in the wintertime:

Back home, we started to gear up for our own, family Christmas. We decided to celebrate it with the Russians this year. But there is, of course, another holiday before January 7. The biggest in Russia–New Year’s. In Soviet times, in an official effort to secularize, people weren’t allowed to celebrate church holidays (you can find old Soviet posters (ask Claire) that say, ‘Down with not working on Church holidays’), so instead of simply taking out the meaning over a long period of time, like in the West, they just decided to switch it to the nearest secular holiday. It still sticks. All of the Christmas trees and decorations here are actually “New Years’ Trees” and “New Years’ Santas and Reindeer.” Sort of weird, but we celebrated a little anyway with a nice spread.

The discerning blog reader will notice that that is indeed “Soviet” champagne, and yes, we did have to share it with the rest of our floor. ZING.

Also, we had caviar. I LOVE caviar.

We indulged that night and watched the rom-com tragedy 500 Days of Summer, which, while sprinkled with funny or clever bits here and there (mostly stolen from other such indie-type films) was dumb dumb dumb. Claire disagrees, but she’s not writing this post, is she.

At last, Christmas round 2 arrived. It was glorious. The main attraction was the big party at church on Christmas Sunday afternoon, where we played games, sang songs (with our lovely little youth group choir) in English and Russian, had a play, and of course, forgot our camera. I’m sure someone there was taking pictures, so if you ask us to see them someday, we’ll show you if we get some copies.

Cheboksary is known nationwide by two of my favorite things, beer and candy. “Akkond” is far and away the most popular candy producer. They say it’s even sold in Brighton Beach, a very Russian neighborhood in Brooklyn. Only one of those things is an appropriate stocking stuffer, both in terms of size and content. Thus, the stocking spoils.

We got carol’d! Here’s Fr. A. with the illustrious youth group choir that we love, who stopped by unannounced, to our delight. We spend a lot of time with these great people. They sang Russian Christmas carols that were really beautiful, as well as a Russian rendition of Silent Night. We chimed in a little on that one.

Our Christmas adventures finally came to an end, and thankfully, so did the music. We leave you with the First Roosien Family Christmas Photo.

Merry Christmas, everybody!


Mark and I apologize sincerely for the long hiatus.  We purchased an internet plan that gives us 2 gig per month of high-speed internet and then reverts to dial-up speed for the remainder of the month.  (Remember the Stone Age that was AOL?  Imagine the equivalent… but while growing up in Central Asia.  Our Cheboksary internet is comparable to that for most of the month.)

The ironic thing is that the girl who sold us this internet plan promised we’d “never” use up 3 gig per month, “Only if we spent all day online.”  I suppose this girl never downloads pictures, uploads pictures, watches videos, etc.  Our YouTube-ing, Skype-ing, Facebooking, blogging, etc. habits have ruined us.

That said, Mark and I had a wonderful holiday season.  There are so many things to tell you all that we’ll have to split it into a few posts!

The first stirring of the holidays occurred a few days before Western Christmas, when the school where we’ve been volunteering held a Christmas festival in our honor (and also for three European high-schoolers who are here for the year: two from Germany, one from France).  V.D., the English teacher we work with, is an, ahem, enthusiastic middle-aged woman.  Usually, what she wants happens, with the assistance of a couple unsolicited cafeteria pizzas, a couple boxes of chocolates, and a great deal of talking.  (We’re volunteering in her classroom, after all.)  Her English is alright, although she doesn’t understand much we say (she chalks it up to difference in dialect), and likes to use the word “so-called.”  “Let us have a so-called Christmas party,” she said, and behold, the Christmas party came to be.  Half an hour before the so-called party, V.D. “telephoned” us and asked if we wouldn’t mind wearing some so-called costumes: Mark was to be Santa Claus, and I was to be the Snow Maiden, Santa Claus’s hot granddaughter (she comes from a work by the famous Russian playwright Nikolai Ostrovsky).

I wrote an article about Santa Claus in the Soviet Union ages ago when I still went to my crazy online school.  While I am slightly less naive now about “democracy,” I stand by my old thesis: Santa culture is a remarkable index of the level of Westernization.  This Santa wore red, which greatly disturbed one of the Germans.  He saw it as evidence of globalization, and he was probably right.

V.D. is to my right in this picture.  Check out that platinum-blond coiffed hair.  Yes, V.D. is a woman who gets things done.  And a very endearing woman, in her own way.

Other highlights of the festival included dried bread rings (just barely visible in the photo below), a comparison of “Western” with Russian Christmas customs from our good friend T., and a fake traditional Chuvash dance:

After the New Year, in anticipation of the upcoming Russian Christmas, Mark and I took a day trip to the St. Seraphim-Diveevo monastery.  It’s one of the most important religious sites in Russia because of its association with the much-beloved saint St. Seraphim.  One of the most popular items available at this monastery is croutons – yes, unflavored bits of dried black bread – cooked in St. Seraphim’s pot.  They’re actually rather delicious, and quite an ascetical food, if you think about it.  St. Seraphim’s relics are kept in the main church of the monastery:

If you turn 90 degrees from the above view, you see this.  Unfortunately, the view is sullied by the huge vehicles that were there to truck out the several feet of snow we got that day:

Although St. Seraphim helped found the monastery, he didn’t actually live there. In keeping with his famous utterance, “Achieve inner peace, and thousands around you will be saved,” he lived as a hermit for many years in a nearby forest and received visitors there.  He is said to have made friends with the local bears. T., I. and I paused for a picture in front of the lovely snowy forest where he lived:

A spring near his (no longer accessible) hut is said to have sprung up for his sake, and people still come there to bathe in the spring and take huge jugs of its waters for drinking. This is the spring, with an intrepid outside bather:

More modest visitors undress and bathe in the little huts, which reach only to the surface of the water.  Bathers dunk themselves three times.  The first time, it was so cold I felt like I would never come up from the water again.  By the third time, I felt like I was dipping in a hot tub.  When I got out, it felt like the air in the hut (which was in reality below freezing) was heated like a sauna.  It took a couple hours to warm my toes to their normal state, but I felt great: I don’t know if you can actually feel your blood vessels, but I certainly felt like mine had gotten a good cleaning.

Mark told me to make sure to say that he, too, dipped in the spring, “so he wouldn’t seem like a sissy.”

Expect more updates very soon from my (non-sissy) other half.  To close, one more picture of us at the monastery:

Wherever you go, there you are, as they say. But this year the adage did not hold true, for on our Thanksgiving, if not just for a few short hours, America was truly incarnate in the Russian north.

Our spirits were high. We had been planning for weeks, collecting supplies (rolling pins, baking powder–which is really difficult to find here–pumpkins…) and arranging an All-American Thanksgiving Day Bash with our good friends Ross (who you’ve met before) and Lee (who was ironically and unfortunately in TURKEY (the country) on that day) from Kazan, and whatever other guests would happen to join in the feast with us. We all had to work and study on the real Thanksgiving so we arranged for it to happen the following Saturday.

And boy, did we prepare:

A pumpkin, mercilessly carved and hacked, would become a delicious pie:

And dough, kneaded with precision and care,

would become beautiful golden brown buttery rolls:

At last, our guests arrived (Ross, it should be added, came early and helped with the cookin’). Thanksgiving is about sharing, as everybody knows, and it was our pleasure to share our home and food with our great friends, Ross, R and N. We also gave R and N their first exposure to the American miracle that is the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, which was, as I recall, played on repeat all day long, as is meet.

Claire was very proud of our (read: mostly her) hard work. Even enough to wait for a few pictures before we devoured the spoils.

After a couple of attempts, I realized that my intensive Russian language study has been impinging on the practice of a more pragmatic, every day skill–cutting meat (pumpkins, on the other hand, as you saw, I have down to a science after having not a few country halloweens in my day). So once again, our main meat man, R, swooped to the rescue, knife in hand.

Last but not least, the obligatory close-up of me with the pies and the authentic Tatar “Chak-Chak” brought in from Kazan.

The rest of the day, as you may expect, was spent sleeping, digesting, eating (and repeating). We also debuted a couple guitar/fiddle American bluegrass songs (and an Irish one for good luck) we’ve been working on, the last of which, our favorite, (Wednesday Night Waltz) had the desired effect of lulling its listener off to the land of nod. What a day it truly was.


Mark and I decided our dorm was a bit too boring to deserve a post of its own, so we decided to spice this topic up with a demonstration of the Mark’s healthy new habits.  “I’m so much healthier since being married,” said Mark to me the other day as we were going to bed.  “I eat three square meals a day, I sleep eight hours a night, and I floss.”  Mark’s three square meals, of course, are the result of my love of cooking; his eight hours a night are the result of my wimpiness, and his flossing is the result of many weeks of nagging.  (Post-root canal and crown Claire is a rabid flossing activist, and a much less avid drinker of black tea with sweetened condensed milk).  In short, some people say their wives have shaved years off their life, but our case is quite the opposite: I’m sure I’ve already added, oh, a decade to Mark’s expected life span.

Now, without further ado, our humble abode:

Here note the piles of books with no shelves.  We have rather sparse furnishing here.

See the thing draped in blue with a blinking red light?  That’s our TV. V.M., the shrill-voiced dorm manager, was appalled to discover that the original TV that came with the room didn’t work.  We told her a couple weeks after we’d arrived, and she shrieked, “We need to get you a TV right away!  You’re wasting away with boredom!”  Thus ensued a long series of TV repairmen who did nothing but turn the TV on, fiddle with the remote, change the channels, disturb our reading time, and finally conclude that yes, the TV didn’t work. Finally they just got us a new one. Occasionally we turn it on and watch a bit of America’s Next Top Model, dubbed into Russian, or virulent lectures against liberation theology, or appallingly racist Channel 1 News (against Central Asians, that is), but mostly we leave it like this, under my scarf.  Someday I’d like to wear that scarf for once, but for now, it’s doing its job well.

Also note the water jug under the table.  The tap water here is undrinkable, so Mark’s chore is to go fetch water from the stand down the street.   There is no washing machine in our dorm, and no laundromat nearby, so our other unusual chore is handwashing all the laundry.

This is our sitting area.  We used to have another potted plant, but I think we killed it.

All clean in the bedroom!  Look at those pearly whites!

Love, Claire

Without further ado, a post about the city we live in: Cheboksary, the Autonomous Republic of Chuvashia, Russian Federation if you want to be all official about it. It’s a nice little town of about 400,000 and it even (as you can see) has a “Makdonoldz.” Actually, it reminds me quite a bit of my home town, Grand Rapids, also a small city on a river with lots of deciduous trees. We had a really lovely fall this year, one of the prettiest I’ve seen.

The woods here in Chuvashia have nothing short of mystical status. The Chuvash people were largely animist before they converted to Orthodoxy (and sometimes after, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy), and trees, especially birches, were dwelling places of gods and spirits. I’d like to think that they were friendly gods, since the woods themselves are so beautiful, but they were probably closer to those sneaky tree spies in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Most of the old Chuvash gods were pretty evil and vindictive, or at least sort of petty.

Our crib, dorm number 5. It has its own coat of arms, I noticed the other day, with lions and the name of the bus stop written in it. Imagine having a bus stop on your coat of arms–a little demoralizing. But we like it. Except this weekend, when the plumbing was “broken” and the halls smelled like roadkill, and today the mechanics came to fix it and had to peel back the linoleum to access the trapdoor to the basement. And oh yeah, the trapdoor which is conveniently located IN OUR LIVING ROOM.

All the other pictures of Claire here are small, so here’s a bigger one. And by gum, even after all of our married life, she’s still my girl. If you look close enough, you can see the sunflower seed shell that I boyishly planted in her hair. That’s the mighty Volga River, by the way, which runs east on the northern border of the city.

This ugly excuse for a statue is now on every map, postcard and website of Cheboksary. Built about 5 or 6 years ago, it’s called something weird and new-agey like the “mother of all peoples” or the “mother of us all” or the “mother-creator.” It’s also modeled after the former president(of Chuvashia)’s own mother, which is really creepy. This statue, by the way, is universally disliked by Cheboksarians (and their guests, as you can see). That’s me embracing all peoples, too, but with a smile. The Russians have a great word for ugly: “byezobrazny,” which literally means “without form.”

This is our lovely church. It’s from the mid-late 18th century, which in Russia is basically brand new, but for perspective, that was Declaration of Independence era. Pretty dang venerable. It was reopened in 1990 after being something like a storage barn in Soviet times. Note the distinctive tower which seems to be a typical central Russian architectural feature for that period.

So, when can we expect you?


On our recent trip to Moscow, Mark and I were invited by an old Petersburg friend of mine to visit an exhibit of contemporary Russian iconography. We were really pleasantly surprised at the kind of creativity-within-a-tradition that the exhibit highlighted, and I liked that most of the icons had been borrowed from a local church – a gallery seems to be sort of an unnatural environment. Our favorite, I think, was an iconographer named Eiteneier. He often used an expressive “deformation” of his figures, which was reminiscent of the Old Russian iconography that we ended up seeing the following day. This one’s of King David:

Some of his icons also used really unusual color schemes, like a curious icon of St. Olga we saw, or this one of St. George, with the curious bird motifs that he likes to use:

The other iconographers’ work was fascinating too.  We liked this icon of Christ by Chernyi:

The more unusual ones included this tapestry of St. George:

This stone carving of the Mother of God mourning the crucified Christ, which I thought was really lovely:

And a number of these unusual icons made of colored sand.  The color scheme is extremely unusual and the facial features are almost indistinguishable (I wonder what Florensky would say), and it’s almost impossible to figure out what’s depicted from up close – you have to stand way across the other room to figure it out. There was quite some debate regarding these in the exhibit’s guest book.  This one is of the Last Supper.

All these pictures come from the exhibit website I’ve linked to above.