Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 3: Kaliningrad

This entry is LONG! It covers the Kaliningrad leg of my tour, from June 12 - 18. Those who want to know every detail of my life will find it riveting. The rest of you can scroll through for whatever interests you — for example, pictures of people and places and birds!

June 12, 2019

From Winchester I traveled to London-Heathrow Airport and from there caught a plane to Kaliningrad, with a brief layover in Warsaw.

On my first visit to Kaliningrad (in December 2017), I traveled to and from Gdańsk by bus and stayed only one night. It was a brief but powerful whirlwind that left my heart aching for more.

Some background on my “Russian connection,” because people often ask. I became interested in all things Russian when I was a kid, after reading Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square and Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia: The Last Grand Duchess. This was before the days of Duolingo, otherwise I surely would have started learning the language immediately.

Years later, in 2005 (my first year at the University of Oregon), I heard Regina Spektor’s “Après Moi,” which includes lines in Russian from the poem “February” by Boris Pasternak. The sound of the words mesmerized me. Soon after this, I learned that the U of O had a Russian program. Before committing to the language, I decided to take a Russian literature class. We read a few short stories by Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, selections from Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita, and Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s Sonechka. All of it blew me away. I started listening to a Russian language learning podcast, and over the summer I read as much Russian literature as I could. In the fall, I enrolled in my first Russian course, and finally, in 2018, I graduated with my B.A. in Russian.

Okay, back to the current story.

A few months ago, Vlad (who organized my first show in Kaliningrad) and I started Skyping so we could work on our English and Russian speaking skills, respectively. Vlad radiates kindness and warmth like few people I have met. His general way of being in the world reminds me of the lines from Regina Spektor’s “The Light,” addressing her son and her husband: “You and your daddy, you look like poets / Your eyes are open wide while you are in a dream.” The first time we Skyped, he smiled and said, “I’m so happy to see you. You look good.” Offhand, I can’t recall many (or maybe any) times a straight man has said something like that to me. That’s Vlad.

Airport flowers.

In Kaliningrad-Khrabovo Airport, paper-wrapped bouquets of flowers rotate in vending machines near an island of shops dripping with amber souvenirs.

The previous night, I had played a Sofar show in Chesterblade, a village near Frome, and it was so cold enough inside the heritage farm house you could see your breath. Kaliningrad, on the contrary, was blazing hot from the moment the plane landed. I approached the bus that would take me to the city — less than a dollar for a 40-minute ride. At the door, the driver called out, “Заходите!” (“Come in!”). Worried he’d said “Уходите!” (“Go away!”), I scurried off to a safe distance. Then I approached again, gingerly, and slipped aboard.

On the bus, I stuffed my bomber jacket in my backpack. Still I sweated profusely as I chatted with Vlad on VKontakte and tried to keep my phone alive long enough to coordinate our meeting. The bus crossed the bridge where I’d first met Vlad in 2017, and pulled up to a crowded bus stop. I stumbled out with my bags and Vlad was waiting with open arms to give me a big welcome-to-Kaliningrad hug.

Vlad has his guests select a record to play from his collection. I chose Элла Фитцджеральд — Ella Fitzgerald.

С милым рай и в шалаше — a Russian proverb meaning, “With one’s sweetheart, it’s paradise even in a hut.” Vlad and his basically-brother and sometimes-roommate Seryozha say this to one another, and while they don’t live in a hut per se, they do live in a humble seventh-floor walk-up art studio scattered with paintbrushes, canvases, and minimal amenities. Enormous windows fill the space with light and afford a wonderful view of the river and city.

I stored my luggage up in Vlad’s loft, then climbed back down the ladder with gifts.

In Russia, не принято идти к друзьями в гости с пустыми руками (it isn’t acceptable to go empty-handed to visit friends). I gave Vlad a small packet of granola from Portland along with a book called Speaking American. In our Skype conversations, we had read aloud from a dual-language book called Talking American. I noticed that Talking American was displayed on top of the piano, and Vlad added Speaking American to the arrangement.

(Side note: I cannot fathom the effort it must have taken to move that piano to this building’s seventh floor. I’m guessing it’ll be in that room as long as the building stands.)

Before my sweaty shirt had a chance to dry, Vlad proposed we take a trip to the Baltic Sea and stay the night there in a tent on the beach. I was tired, but I said yes, and soon we were in the car with Volodya and Anya, on our way to Zelenogradsk.

Once there, we went to Spar, a Russian grocery store, and I couldn’t stop smiling because it was all so different from what I’m used to — the products, the packaging, and above all the prices. From an American perspective, everything was dirt cheap.

View of the view from the boardwalk. Not sure why I didn’t try to get the actual sea in the picture.

We strolled along the boardwalk. It was after 10 PM and still not quite dark. I had gone to bed at 1 AM and woken up at 5, and it was starting to hit me. Still, Vlad had an all-important search for beer to complete. It’s illegal for stores to sell alcohol after 10 PM, but that wasn’t about to stop Vlad. The others and I sat on a bench and waited for him. Even at this hour the boardwalk was bustling, and to my amazement there were tons of families with young kids out. Evidently (P)Russians are more laid-back about bedtime than Americans.

In the distance, a long pier glowed with lights that slowly shifted from color to color — red to purple, purple to blue, blue to green. When Vlad returned, we went to the pier, and once there I realized that the lights were underneath, illuminating the water and nighttime swimmers below. Far down the pier, loud club music throbbed. A group of eight or more guys laughed and shouted, climbing onto the railing and jumping into the lit-up water below.

Finally it came time to set up the tents, near a series of quaint wooden swing sets. Vlad rummaged through his backpack and realized our tent was still in his apartment.

It was decided that Vlad and Volodya would find more alcohol while Anya and I set up the tent. Anya balked at this arrangement, not wanting to be left alone with someone who she couldn’t talk to, but Vlad reassured her that she could speak Russian with me. It did turn out to be a challenge at first, but an amusing one. I knew very little of the specialized vocabulary people might use to communicate as they set up a tent — words like “poles,” “stakes,” and “flysheet” — and inflate an air mattress — words like “valve” and “pump”. 

It was a unique bonding experience.

Once we got through the more tricky parts of our job, Anya and I chatted more generally. Eventually we talked about how I’m a morning person, and I learned the Russian word for “lark” — жаворонок.

When Vlad and Volodya returned, they played a few songs on the guitar, and then the four of us — three owls and one lark — went to sleep in our single tent.

June 13, 2019

In the morning, everyone wanted to swim. I resisted, but ultimately gave in to saying yes to life. (I mentioned this and learned that Russians know about the Year of Yes.) I tiptoed into the sea, cringing each time the waves lapped a little higher on my body. The water was freezing cold. My friends asked me how this compared to the Oregon Coast, and I admitted that this water was actually a little warmer.

Find the Mediterranean Gull!

In the water, every hundred yards or so, a line of logs were placed vertically, separating the sea into segments. A dozen Black-headed Gulls perched on the logs nearest us, with one Mediterranean Gull mixed in. Lifer!

Vlad sang some lines from an eerie Doors song called “Bird of Prey,” then played it for me on his phone. I had never heard this song before. (Now it goes through my head all the time.)

We sang it as we packed up. Then we made our way along the boardwalk, where in the light of day I could now see intriguing features such as changing stations, hot corn booths, and a small shed with the word “ЛАЗЕРТАГ” (LASER TAG) on it. (See photo gallery above.)

On the drive back to Kaliningrad, we passed the most glorious fields of lupin. I could hardly believe my eyes. Lupin for days.

While Vlad was at work, I dealt with administrative tasks, practiced and prepared for my shows, and recorded a promo video for Vlad to post. I planned to go get groceries, but just as I got ready to leave, a huge thunderstorm broke out. Slumped so low in a chair that I was nearly horizontal, I must have hovered between sleep and awakeness for hours. Sometimes on tour you just have to accept that there will be weird days like this. Fortunately I hadn’t overbooked myself on this one, so it wasn’t a big deal to spend an afternoon decompressing.

Alex Popov, a friend I’d made on my first visit to Kaliningrad, invited me to the Upper Pond for a public outdoor rehearsal-performance by his friend Ilya Levashov’s band, for which Alex was playing percussion. On the way, we met up with Tatyana Decay, an edgy (in the sense of being avant-garde), artsy young woman whom Vlad had never met but knew from VKontakte. We hurried alongside the pond — which truly must be a lake — and after what felt like an epic quest but mostly amounted to continuing forward along a single path, we finally found the show.

This is an instrumental. I don’t think there’s any singing in this one.

Ilya describes Kellan as “Prussian post-folk,” and the songs are written in a revived Baltic Prussian language. They have a really fun, eclectic sound — here’s a little clip I took. You can also find their first EP, Ukpirms (“the very first” in Prussian), on Soundcloud. (While you’re at it, you can also check out Alex Popov’s neo-folk band, Sunset Wings.)

Good company.

After the performance, we walked to Ilya’s apartment, and eventually the kitchen was stuffed with seven people sitting and chatting, sipping tea and snacking. I marveled at Ilya’s hand-carved recorders, stored as if on display in a rack on the table, gleaming in warm shades of gold, chestnut, and burgundy.

June 14, 2019

Art.

A visit to the Amber Museum in the morning proved as colorful as Ilya’s recorders. I opted for the audio tour, and I have to confess that I retained absolutely nothing from it. Most interesting were the amber inclusions — bits of ancient life trapped and preserved in amber. I hunted around for ornithological inclusions and found exactly one, of a Gastornis feather. I also got this photo of an amber hornet on some amber cheese.

I was starving — not because of the amber cheese, though it certainly couldn’t have helped — so I hailed a Yandex Taxi. (Yandex Taxi is like the Russian Uber. They do also have Uber, but when you take it the drivers automatically know you’re not Russian.) At my destination, I paid the driver in cash, adding, “Сдачи не надо.” When he acted flabbergasted, I asked if I’d said it incorrectly. He told me I’d said it correctly — just no one ever says it.

Packets of tofu.

The vegan restaurant I’d been driven to, sadly, no longer existed. So I went to a tiny natural food store, Компас Здоровья (Health Compass), where I saw such wonders as seitan in jars, tofu in bags, and fancy nut/seed butters ranging from peanut to poppy seed. I bought vegan sausages and hot dogs, bread, vegan cheese, and a product claiming to be borsch crackers.

I squeezed in a bit of music practice, but before I knew it, I was again swept off to the Baltic Sea. It felt so contrary to my fundamental nature to take another leisurely trip like this. Left to my own devices, I work every single day, even in between show days on tours. At home, it takes a superhuman effort from Adam to get me to take a break.

I scrambled to pack some postcards so I could be productive at the sea.

Vlad and I took a bus with Tatyana Decay and another of Vlad’s friends, Axinya Makeeva. Once we reached Zelenogradsk (and made a pit stop at Spar), we set off in search of our campsite. I naively imagined we would camp in the same place we did the first night, but that one took just a few minutes to reach. This time was different. My feet began to ache from hiking on dry, unstable sand. Each step felt like several steps. What began as a lovely little seaside stroll turned into a grueling trek down a seemingly interminable beach.

I asked Vlad how much farther we had to walk. “I think… just five more minutes,” he told me.

Ten minutes later, I asked again, and he said, “Hmm. Maybe two more minutes.”

I couldn’t believe how tired I felt. We were probably walking for less than a half hour, but we were carrying camping gear, bags of food, and a big jug of water.

We watched for the green flash, but alas — no flash.

Finally, finally, we reached our destination, which to me looked no different from the mile of beach we had just passed over.

(I realize I probably sound disgruntled. Truthfully, these are happy memories.)

Vlad the Young Pioneer.

We set up camp. Vlad got a fire going. There was some dancing around to hits of the early 2000s, and then we roasted hot dogs over the fire. It was already dark, but after Axinya set up her tent, she went for the longest swim. Every few minutes I checked through binoculars to make sure she was still alive. When she finally came back, she claimed the water was warm, but I refused to believe it, having taken the plunge just a couple days before.

Shortly before midnight, I brushed my teeth and tucked myself into the tent, stuffing earplugs into my ears. Everyone else stayed up, but I needed something resembling a normal night’s sleep.

June 15, 2019

A few short hours later, the sun came up and I had no hope of sleeping any longer. I’m a lark through and through! I crept outside, trying not to disturb Vlad and Tatyana, and found myself in a small city of tents. Sometime after midnight, other friends of Vlad’s had apparently arrived.

Seryozha sat next to the fire — somehow still burning — looking cheerful as always but a little haggard. He explained that he had burnt his hand in the fire during the night and couldn’t sleep because of the pain. He was keeping the injured hand buried in the sand to try to soothe it.

I asked if he had taken any painkillers, and to my horror, he hadn’t. I tore into my backpack, found my first aid kit, and gave him some Ibuprofen. Unfortunately I didn’t have any burn ointment with me.

He took the Ibuprofen, and we chatted for a while. Eventually the pain lessened enough for him to attempt sleep. He lay down in a tent, leaving the opening unzipped so he hand could stay outside in the sand.

Greater Whitethroat (Серая славка)

Left alone, I climbed up a dune and a patch of trees and shrubs I hoped might be birdy. It wasn’t particularly active, but I did find my first Greater Whitethroat there — though I didn’t actually ID the bird properly till a couple days later. A flock of Mute Swans flew overhead, their wings whistling, and I went back to the campsite to scan the sea. Great Cormorants glided low over the water from time to time, but all was mostly quiet.

White Wagtail on the shores of the Baltic Sea

I sat in the shade of a tent and wrote postcards. My little friend that morning was a White Wagtail who paced urgently around the beach, tail bobbing up and down, tossing sand left and right with their beak.

Someone I didn’t know came out of Seryozha’s tent and introduced himself as Yury. For some reason — maybe the name — I responded in Japanese. Yury went for a brief swim, then back into his tent to sleep.

The morning went on like this, with people emerging sleepily to pee or swim (or possibly both), then returning to their tents. I sat there, somewhat mystified by it all. I felt like I had been dropped into some kind of absurdist play or silent film. The Lark and the Owls.

Вампир.

The tent housing Seryozha and Yury turned out to have another occupant, a young woman named Nastya Rychkova. Another tent held Volodya and Anya, who packed up and left while nearly everyone was napping. 

It was still early in the day, but little by little more people began passing by. Some of them laid out towels or chairs and unfurled giant umbrellas. By 10 o’clock it looked like all those pictures of crowded beaches. This isn’t a sight we ever see in Oregon. What umbrella could withstand the wind?

I took out my own collapsible umbrella and hid under it. I had sunscreen, but since I was categorically opposed to swimming in the freezing water, I figured I might as well save it. Tatyana came outside and sat down next to me, and since she’s even paler than I am, I shared my small patch of shade with her.

I often find it hard to relax and just have fun. Sometimes a lack of clarity creates a barrier for me. In this case, I wasn’t sure how long we planned to stay at the sea. The other day we had gone home almost right away, so today I didn’t want to get too comfortable and then suddenly find out it was time to go. I considered asking Vlad how long we were planning to stay, but he was lying face down on a beach towel, dead to the world. Someone placed some smooth stones on his back, and every once in a while we’d add another one. He’d stir slightly and continue snoozing. (Later, when we were leaving, I noticed that Vlad had a sunburn on his back, with unburnt patches wherever the stones had been.)

Axinya struggles to make it back to her tent.

I finally loosened up when everyone (except Vlad, who was sleeping) started playing a game of Pictionary in the sand. I guessed a couple works of Russian literature correctly, and managed to get someone to figure out Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem.

After hours of everyone but me swimming on and off, someone finally explained to me that the water was indeed much warmer than the other day. Apparently those thunderstorms had something to do with it: the cloud cover had incubated the sea, raising the temperature.

Setting my doubts aside, I slathered my entire body with sunscreen. Then I wove through the people lounging and playing, and the kids whose job it was to pace around yelling “Горячая кукуруза! Горячая кукуруза!” (“Hot corn! Hot corn!”), and marched bravely into the water.

Packing up, or trying to.

It was perfect.

I suppose I can’t be too hard on myself for being so skeptical. What experience do I have with enormous bodies of water undergoing drastic temperature changes overnight?

“This is happiness,” Vlad said deliriously.

In the early afternoon, we packed up all the tents and trekked back into town, passing picturesque banyas and seaside villas. Vlad seemed a little woozy, and I suspected he was dehydrated. Before boarding our train, we hung around a little square by a market. Most everyone had ice cream, and I tried my first kvas (a fermented beverage made from rye bread), which was pretty tasty and refreshing.

On the train, we ended up sitting next to this sandy, surly-seeming shirtless jock. Yury wanted to play some songs, and asked the jock if he minded. The jock shrugged and continued scrolling through his phone and looking frowny.

Lest we forget.

Yury took out his guitar, which suddenly seemed gigantic. As Yury played and sang, I noticed the guitar pressing into the jock’s arm occasionally, and I wondered how pissed this guy — and everyone else — must be. In the US, I don’t think people are generally supportive of music on public transit.

I looked around nervously and was surprised and relieved to see other passengers smiling and nodding appreciatively. But the biggest surprise came during Yury’s next song, when the jock started mouthing the lyrics.

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.

June 16, 2019

I woke up feeling grateful for a full night of sleep. The previous night, Vlad had gone to bed right away and Seryozha and I followed after watching the first part of The Little Golden Calf.

Today would be busy in the ways that come more naturally to me: a little show in the morning, a big show in the evening, and last-minute preparations in between.

Vlad and I hopped on a bus and when we got off, we ran into Yury and Nastya. I thought this was a coincidence, but it turned out I just knew nothing about what was going on. I met Olga, who had arranged this show for us, and we boarded a small bus — like an activity bus — bound for Polessk. I wished I’d brought a book — it turned out to be an hour drive. (I generally have a rule of always bringing a book with me, but sometimes I break it when I feel like I already have a million things with me. This tour taught me more than once that it’s always worth making room for that million-and-first thing, as long as that thing is a book.)

Still, the scenery deserved my attention. And one point when I was distracted by my phone, Vlad told me to look out the window, and waddling alongside the road was a White Stork. After this, I kept my eyes glued to everything passing by.

Walking through Polessk. Note Yury’s cool shirt.
Photo by Olga Popova.

In Polessk (population: 7000, though it seemed almost deserted), we played a concert at a “psychoneurological institution” — basically a residential care facility for adults with various disabilities. (First we stopped at a little grocery store with a dog at the door. See photos.) At the facility, Vlad, Yury, and I took turns playing songs for an enthusiastic audience, and Nastya contributed percussion with tambourine-esque bracelets. Afterwards, everyone wanted to talk to us and take pictures together, which was so sweet and fun. A large group of residents followed us all the way to the gates, waving and calling out farewells as we headed back through town to the bus stop.

Just as we turned the corner, I noticed two birds on a telephone wire. Common Redstarts! A new species for the life list. (No photos, though.)

In the town of Polessk are the ruins of Labiau Castle — Замок Лабиау. We wandered through a desolate courtyard, empty except for a headless statue and a sign that said Центр развития человека — Center for Human Evolution — which everyone thought was funny.

That evening, I played my show at Katarsis. I scarcely dared to hope for it to be as heartwarming as my 2017 show at the same venue. But I needn’t have worried — it proved to be one of the greatest experiences of my career. It’s difficult to identify what sets a show like this apart from others. The audience listened and applauded, as most audiences do. But they seemed more willing to engage, to participate. There was an electric, tangible connection between audience and performer. Moreover (and perhaps somehow a by-product of this connection), it felt like all judgment was suspended — like any imperfections in my performance were either irrelevant or added to the uniqueness of this particular show.

Does the distance an artist has traveled somehow heighten people’s sense of urgency to tune in and be present? Or is it the infrequency of performances that adds value?  Many artists I know strive to play as many nights of the week as possible. Scarcity, though, could be more powerful than ubiquity. 

Huge, huge thanks to Felix Morozov, who took photos and videos of the event!

Video by Felix Morozov. Cover of Весеннее танго (Spring Tango) by Valeriy Milyaev (Валерий Миляев).

Video by Felix Morozov.

Video by Felix Morozov.

Video by Vlad Barabashov.

After the show, so many people lined up to talk about the music and buy CDs and shirts. It brought me so much happiness to spend time with each person: the person whose child drew a picture of me during the show; the person who was so curious about my song Вертишейка (“Wryneck”); the person who especially loved “Overwintered”; the people who wanted to take pictures together. Among the photos that ended up in my possession were those taken with the fantastically mustached Vadim, spritelike Alesya, and super hip Nadya and Nastya (Smirnova, not Rychkova).

When I woke up, there was a tent in the living room.

Back at Vlad’s, a group of us hung out, eating and talking and listening to music. As I fell asleep — before everyone else, of course — I felt overcome by a bittersweet gratitude for this night, this place, and these friends I’d soon have to leave behind.

June 17, 2019

My last full day in Kaliningrad involved an adventure with two almost-total strangers, Nadya and Nastya (Smirnova, not Rychkova). After a quick breakfast, we set out on foot, walking along the Pregolya River. Across the water, there was Kneiphof — Kant Island — and the spire of Königsberg Cathedral.

Hooded Crow. The dome beyond the trees belongs to the historic Jewish orphanage building.

Nadya and Nastya had offered the previous night to accompany me on an excursion to the Curonian Spit — Куршская коса. The Curonian Spit is a narrow, 60-mile long stretch of land — or sand — that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. It spans from Kaliningrad to Lithuania, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

When we got to the bus, the tour guide struggled to find my un-Russian last name on her roster. Finally she located it and waved me aboard, then as an afterthought exclaimed at my name’s strangeness and asked if I was German or what. I was already moving down the aisle of the bus, my back to her, so I just pretended I either didn’t hear or didn’t understand.

We sat in the very back, like mischievous teenagers. Over the tinny intercom, the guide talked on and on about the Curonian Spit and amber. I tried to follow the lecture at first, but quickly became exhausted and let the words blur together. She passed around maps and other visual materials. One of the handouts depicted something that made the three of us grimace, but I have no recollection of what it was.

Our first stop was at Биологическая станция Рыбачий — Rybachy Biological Station, a bird banding station. Senior researcher Anatoly Shapoval led us down a trail into the forest, telling the group about the station. I was the only person with binoculars. We stopped in a clearing where interpretive signs detailed the birds of the area. The English translations made me chuckle — “Rear Birds” instead of “Rare Birds,” “Eruption” instead of “Irruption”. For the bird Сизоворонка (European Roller), the English account was headed with the German “Blauracke”.

I stayed at the edges of the group, watching the Barn Swallows darting around overhead, and a Common Redstart singing from a branch halfway up a pine.

We emerged from the forest and into an open area, then followed Anatoly into a vast system of nets within nets within nets. Inside, a Yellowhammer — Обыкновенная овсянка — fluttered fruitlessly against the soft walls.

One of the innermost nets contained butterflies. While Anatoly talked about butterflies, I stood shielding my face from the glaring sun. A woman in a white linen bucket hat asked me if I needed a hat. It sounded like an offer and not like a general inquiry, so I hurried to reassure her.

Anatoly then led us back into the woods, to a sort of cabin with an open window, like a store at a summer camp. This was the Fringilla Field Station. From the window, Anatoly gave a complete bird banding demonstration. First he showed us the many different band sizes, offering examples of birds that would require each size. Then he retrieved a small bag, from which he produced a tiny songbird.

I started filming at this point, so you can watch it all, following this play-by-play in English: Holding the bird in his hand, Anatoly casually shuffles through some papers. A concerned member of the group asks if this process causes the bird stress, and he says, “Don’t worry. All their lives, birds live under the influence of stress. Without stress, they simply can’t live.” Then, adjusting his grip, he presents the bird as if they are a carnation. He explains that the species isn’t one most people will know the name of, and identifies the bird as a Серая славка — Greater Whitethroat, or Sylvia communis in Latin. Still holding the bird, he begins writing in his log, examining the bird’s eye color and plumage to determine that this is a female. He says that there isn’t a way to tell whether this is a juvenile or an adult, because they have the same plumage. He takes a measurement. Then he explains the importance of fat to a migratory bird who will fly 7800km (4846 miles) to winter in Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. He blows on the bird’s chest to find out how much fat this bird has on her, and writes down “мало” (not much), noting to us that she still has till the end of August (remember, this was June 17th). Last, he explains that it is difficult to weigh a bird without letting them fly away. The solution, we see, is to plop the bird facedown in a cone. Finally, after he records her weight, he warns the “paparazzi” to be prepared, and releases the bird, to everyone’s delight.

Our excursion then took us further along the Curonian Spit, bringing us to the Dancing Forest — Танцующий лес — where the trees twist in spooooky, mysteeerious ways. (It’s very beautiful, really.)

Who gave you permission to dance like that, forest?

While we were there, our guide came up behind us and asked Nastya and Nadya very insistently where their comrade (me) was from, and I couldn’t help but laugh. We told her, and as she walked away she mused again on how she had wondered where on earth my last name could have come from.

Nadya poses, Nastya shoots.

Our last stop was Efa’s Height — Высота Эфа. A boardwalk led us through the trees and gradually upward. Common Chaffinches — Зяблики — serenaded us as we hiked. (Another bird on the life list!) At the height of the Height, a platform gave us views of the Curonian Spit, with the lagoon on one side and the sea on the other. We shared a moment of doubt over which side was the lagoon and which side was the sea. Most importantly, Nastya and Nadya created some glamorous Instagram content.

Photo by Nadya Yarkovich.

Photo by Nadya Yarkovich.

Domovoy and compass.

Before we left this stop, I searched the shop stalls by the entrance for a Christmas ornament. Last Christmas, I went through boxes of old ornaments and determined that almost none of them held any significance to me. I hung up a European Robin ornament from Stonehenge and a caterpillar mascot keychain from the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, and decided to start a new tradition of collecting souvenir ornaments on my tours and other travels. I often admire but pass over cute little trinkets in gift shops, not wanting to clutter up the house with useless stuff. Usually I opt for useful items, or nothing at all. This new tradition would give me an excuse to buy small, inexpensive, purely decorative items. They could occupy space that would have been set aside anyway for Christmas ornaments, and the joy and happy memories they bring me wouldn’t be diluted by blending into the background of everyday life.

White Wagtail in the cemetery.

I found a cute ornamental Домовой — Domovoy, a Slavic household god. When your cat seems to be staring at something invisible, people say they’re looking at the Domovoy. Nadya and Nastya very sweetly bought this ornament for me, as well as a Kaliningrad keychain with a compass — to help me return, they said. ❤️

We returned to Kaliningrad, wandered through an old cemetery, and walked Nastya to her place. Then Nadya and I went to Evropa, a mall, which was exactly like every mall in the world. I wanted to go to some Polish clothing stores. I had really liked Yury’s T-shirts, and when I asked him where he got them he said “a Polish store at Evropa”. I didn’t find any shirts like Yury’s, but I did end up getting a different one. (A month and a half later, I saw a tween wearing the same shirt in Vancouver, BC.)

Eventually, Nastya met us at a Korean restaurant, and afterwards we were reunited with Vlad and Seryozha. Nadya found me a vegan-friendly popsicle that — to my shock while eating it — ended up containing Pop Rocks. Together, the five of us walked to Felix Morozov’s place.

All I knew was that we were visiting Felix, so it was a surprise to me when it turned out to be a tea ceremony. We gathered around a tray on his floor and he passed around some loose tea for each of us to smell. Then (and I don’t remember the exact order of these steps) he splashed hot water in all our little cups, rinsing them out. He steeped the tea. He poured the tea into the little cups with a certain sprezzatura, alternating between all six cups in one continuous pour. After we sipped this tea, he passed around other teas and had different people choose. Again Felix rinsed and steeped and poured. It was all very intimate and elegant. On his computer, selected with me in mind, birdsong played.

At some point Felix handed me a tea to smell, which I did. “Запах,” I murmured as an assessment, even though this just means “smell”. For the next twenty minutes (if not longer) we laughed about this and came up with many examples of circumstances where a person might simply say “запах” and avoid disclosing whether they found it good or bad.

It was the perfect way to spend my last evening in Kaliningrad.

Felix, Nadya, Seryozha, me, Vlad, Nastya. Photo by Felix Morozov.

Felix, Nadya, Seryozha, me, Vlad, Nastya.
Photo by Felix Morozov.

As we left, I expressed my gratitude, and my sadness to be leaving. Knowing the word “грустно” (“sad) but forgetting its noun form грусть (“sadness”), I said “грустность”. (Not an unreasonable way to turn something into a noun in Russian.) “Грустности нет,” Felix kindly informed me. (“There is no ‘sadness’” — meaning this word for ‘sadness’.) But it had also been amusing, like something a child would say. “Грустности нет!” I wailed, pretending to cry.

June 18, 2019

After packing my suitcase, I bestowed Harlequins T-shirts upon Seryozha and Vlad. They had done so much for me, and I wanted them both to have something to remember me by.

Vlad, in turn, searched his bookshelf and gave me an incredibly precious gift: a copy of one of his favorite books from childhood, Незнайка на луне (Dunno on the Moon — Dunno being the story’s know-nothing anti-hero). Inside the cover, a stamp identified the book as being “из книг Барабашова В.” (“from the library of Barabashov V.”). I hardly knew how to respond, except to hug him.

Seryozha, for his part, sent me off with a moving dance performance.

Vlad walked me down the seven flights of stairs to the alley where my taxi was waiting. After a long hug, we said our goodbyes. On the drive to the airport, I fixated on the city passing by, trying to eke more memories out of Kaliningrad. In the airport, I lingered in a gift shop for as long as I could before going through customs and security. And on the plane, I contemplated my calendar on my phone, already plotting my return.


Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 2: Winchester, Ham Wall, & Sofar Frome

On the double-decker bus from my friend Jack’s house to the train station, I sat at the very front on the second floor — or is it the first floor, and you enter on the ground floor? Either way, I watched out the huge front window as we appeared to narrowly avoid colliding with all of London.

Vegan pie and mash and mushy peas!

A hop, skip, and a jump later, I was in Winchester! Reunited with my dear friend Rex, who very graciously played host, tour guide, and roadie for the next few days. We went to a pie-and-mash-and-comic-book shop called Piecaramba!, and I had a delicious vegan pie and mash, and my very first mushy peas. (Which I loved. So minty! So mushy!)

We returned to Winnall Moors, a wonderful place Rex showed me during my first stay in Winchester in December 2017. The entrance recalls to me a Shinto Shrine’s torii gate, which “symbolically marks the transition from the mundane to the sacred” (Wikipedia). The top beam of the gateway is carved with Winnall Moors as you enter and Winchester as you exit, suggesting that the moors, though located within Winchester, are somehow apart from Winchester. A Narnia type arrangement, maybe.

In a tree where, on my last visit, someone had told me to look for a Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo), I again found no buzzard, in spite of it being the perfect place for one. In lieu of a buzzard were two Common Wood-pigeons. This was truly the tour of Wood-pigeons — I don’t know if it’s always like this in June, but there were just tons and tons of them everywhere I went birding, in both the UK and in Russia. In addition to the Wood-pigeons, though, Winnall Moors afforded me glimpses at my first Reed Bunting, Eurasian Reed Warbler, and (most noisily) Sedge Warbler. There were also two Mute Swans with several cygnets, and a funny Eurasian Wren who apparently preferred to sing while seated.

After this, we went for a stroll/hike at Old Winchester Hill, “a chalk hill … surmounted by an Iron Age hill fort and a Bronze Age cemetery” (Wikipedia). We had barely left the parking lot when I saw a Eurasian Kestrel! I think it was at that point that I also saw a Red Kite, but my memory is a little fuzzy. An interesting fern-like plant (possibly a fern, but who knows) was plentiful along the trail to the hill. In contrast, the adjacent forested area had absolutely no groundcover whatsoever.

When we reached the fort/cemetery area, a sign alerted us to the presence of ground nesting birds. If any birds were nesting on the ground, they stayed well hidden while we were there, though we did encounter a Eurasian Magpie, some spectacular Yellowhammers, and my very first Greater Whitethroat. Also present were some Common Swifts, Carrion Crows, Eurasian Blackbirds, and (briefly) a few rosy Eurasian Bullfinches. We also heard the distant call of a Ring-necked Pheasant.

And, of course, there were stunning views of the English countryside, with more shades of green than you can shake a stick at.

Our return route involved some of the deepest and most irregular stairs you can imagine. Let the fact that I took no pictures of these stairs be a testament to the focus required to navigate them.

Poppies of Cheesefoot Head.

We stopped by Cheesefoot Head (“Cheesefoot” pronounced like “Chessfut”), which Wikipedia describes in part as “beauty spot”. As I recall, in December 2017 it was full of Rooks. This time the fields were full of daisies, red poppies, and other wildflowers.

Just in time for sunset, we went to a lookout on St. Giles Hill and enjoyed the view of the city before heading to dinner at Gurkha’s Inn, a restaurant serving Nepalese and Indian food.

In true English fashion, the next day was a rather wet one. I dashed out to Winnall Moors in the morning, where — as in 2017 — a passerby told me, “There’s a buzzard in the dead tree up ahead!” I hustled down the path, quickly realizing that it was farther than I’d initially thought. When I reached the spot with the tree, it was empty. Not even a Wood-pigeon! Birding is about the journey, though, and along the way I saw a Coal Tit, a few exuberant European Robins, and a couple of pretty little Eurasian Blackcaps.

The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty. Not pictured: dead pigeon in the pond. (Though of course I took a photo for Heidi Trudell and her Dead Birds 4 Science! group.)

Rex and I spent the day in a variety of historic locales. First we visited the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, which to this day houses twenty-five men who are “single, widowed or divorced, and over 60 years of age” (Wikipedia). The gardens were beautiful and lush, and the buildings themselves held interesting glimpses at life in medieval England. There was also a dead Wood-pigeon floating in the pond. As for living birds, there were Barn Swallows nesting in whatever little nooks and crannies they nest in, and more curiously, a couple of Eurasian Goldfinches clinging to the flint stone on one of the hospital walls.

Goldfinches perched on the wall.

Monument to “Beware Chalk Pit”.

We then went to the Farley Monument, the burial site of a horse named “Beware Chalk Pit”. The inscription read: “Underneath lies buried a horse, the property of Paulet St. John Esq., that in the month of September 1733 leaped into a chalk pit twenty-five feet deep a-foxhunting with his master on his back and in October 1734 he won the Hunters Plate on Worthy Downs and was rode by his owner and was entered in the name of ‘Beware Chalk Pit’.”

One Skylark skylarking.

While skirting the outside of this very unique monument, I happened to witness a Eurasian Skylark skylarking! That is to say, he was hovering high in the sky above a field and chattering up a storm. (Not exactly a new bird for me, but still exciting. Previously I’d seen Japanese Skylarks, Alauda arvensis japonica — a subspecies of Eurasian Skylark. For now.)

Rather than avoid the rain, we leaned into it, opting to take a walk along the River Itchen. This proved fruitful, as we saw several Gray Wagtails skipping themselves like stones up and down the river.

Rex in the rain!

Our flexible itinerary allowed us to spontaneously jump on board for a tour of Winchester College that happened to be starting as we were passing by. It was really a fantastic tour, and if you find yourself in Winchester I highly recommend it. As an American, when I hear the word “college” I think of university, but in this context a college is for students aged 13-18. The whole place was more like Hogwarts than I could have ever imagined possible, and I found it fascinating from beginning to end. Oh! And at the end, we got to go into the chapel where they filmed Valjean’s death scene in Les Miz!

“sure to blow your mind”

We ended the day with dinner at Wagamama, a British chain serving Japanese-ish cuisine. They had a vegan bowl called “avant gard’n,” created by chef Gaz Oakley and featuring a “vegan egg” that was interesting but very unlike an egg in everything but appearance. (That probably makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy it — I actually really liked the dish! The “egg” was just sort of silly, especially because they played it up so much on the placemats, boasting that it’s “sure to blow your mind”.)

Finally, it was the day of my show in Frome! But first — you can probably guess — we did a bit of sightseeing, immersing ourselves in the tiny, picturesque town of Shaftesbury — most famous for Gold Hill, a street featured in this bread commercial. It was like stepping into a bygone era, an era of unspeakably steep and lumpy roads.

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Shaftesbury Putt-Putt.

Apart from Gold Hill, Rex and I indulged in a substantial audio tour of the ruins of nearby Shaftesbury Abbey. It was a bit like walking through an ancient mini golf course, following numbered placards from one pile of stones to another. Meanwhile, the pre-recorded guide in our handheld audio devices told us what on earth we were looking at. Often his straightforward little lectures were followed by more impassioned performances by a voice actor portraying a nun who lived at the Abbey at the time of its dissolution and demolition. While I can’t recall any of her lines in their entirety, I do remember her hissing the phrase “servants of sin” to describe the people ransacking the Abbey.

Next, we made our pilgrimage to the Ham Wall Nature Reserve — my first close encounter with the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds — similar to the Audubon Society in the US). The RSPB manages the reserve, and from this birder’s perspective they’re doing a damn fine job of it. There’s quite a diversity of paths and habitats — with public art interspersed — and a truly awesome feeder setup behind some blinds at the entrance. I always love it when reserves have feeders. When you combine feeders with excellent habitat, you can see so much! And it’s just nice to have some low-hanging fruit, in case a place isn’t otherwise very active when you happen to be there.

At the feeders there were Eurasian Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, European Goldfinches, European Robins, and at least one Eurasian Collared-dove. One of the feeder highlights was an adorable cluster of juvenile House Sparrows. I also saw a Eurasian Jay, which I’d seen before but only briefly. This, too, was not a lengthy encounter. And thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I have yet to hear a Eurasian Jay make any noise. Eurasian Jays seem to be less in-your-face than the North American jays I’ve seen (California Scrub-jays, Steller’s Jays, and Blue Jays).

As we meandered down a walkway on the edge of the wetlands, I noticed a low booming call that I knew could only be coming from a Great Bittern. From the sound of it, we were practically on top of the bird, but they proved impossible to track down. Instead, on the water, we saw many Great Cormorants and Mallards, as well as Canada Geese, Mute Swans, Tufted Ducks, Gray Herons, one Great Egret, and a family of super cute Little Grebes.

Still, I was bound and determined to find a Great Bittern. I wish I could build the suspense up longer, but just a few minutes later I found one! Hoorah! And shortly after this, a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier swooped by!

Finally, I had heard that there were owls potentially visible from a very remote blind, so I left Rex behind and hustled out to meet my destiny — which ultimately turned out to be some Carrion Crows. But as I speed-walked back to Rex, I FINALLY saw a Common Buzzard!

We spent a few more minutes enjoying the feeders at the entrance, then bid Ham Wall adieu and headed to my Sofar Sounds show in Frome.

Actually, while the show was organized by Sofar Sounds Frome, the venue for this particular show was in the nearby village of Chesterblade, in a heritage stone farmhouse. After some trial and error, we found some signs that ultimately led us to our destination. (The directions would have made complete sense had we been coming from Frome like normal people.) Following the signs down a rustic driveway, we pulled up alongside a gloriously quaint stone building strung with fairy lights.

The very first thing I did in the parking lot was brush my bare leg against a clump of stinging nettles. Welcome to the English countryside!

Of course, from the nettles there was nowhere to go but up. In my tradition of overusing the word “magical” to describe shows, the show was magical. And not just the show, but the whole Sofar experience. Anna-Dina and Ed — the Sofar Frome team leaders — were so welcoming and completely lovely. The farmhouse’s chilly interior was draped with colorful tapestries and furnished with cozy armchairs, sofas, and blankets. The mere presence of Nichola Devine’s harp onstage added an ethereal touch. The green room was divided from the public area with a huge playground parachute.

The audience began to arrive and soon the place was packed. My set came second in the lineup of three artists (the usual Sofar arrangement). It was so calming to listen to the otherworldly violin-playing of Clarice Rarity before my set, and after, the equally exquisite Harpoetry — spoken word and movement with harp accompaniment — of Jodie Jaimes and Nichola Devine.

I played “Sparkbird,” “Overwintered,” “Pompeii,” and “Varied Thrush”. The audience was so kind — including the people sitting on the floor in the very front, even though I know I spat all over them while I was singing!

Afterwards, I had the heartwarming experience of interacting with a number of listeners, one of whom went so far as to compare my music to that of Joanna Newsom! (Thank you, Zoë!!! Such high praise.) I also had the great pleasure of meeting and chatting with Sarah Swales, the photographer for the event, who used to live in Seattle! These four photos were all taken by Sarah:

And then, though it always feels hard to leave such a warm community, it was time to go back to Winchester. I needed to pack and attempt to sleep at least a few hours before the drive to Heathrow and my flight to Kaliningrad, Russia.

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Hopefully at least Rex has made it to the end of this long entry! Rex, how can I ever thank you enough for all the support you have given me? Without you, I would have none of these memories, nor the many that I didn’t manage to fit in to this post. I’m truly, truly grateful. You’re one of a kind!

Till we meet again. ❤️

Look at the Harlequins! Tour, Part 1: London

I scheduled a long, long day for myself when I booked a show in London for the day of my arrival from Portland.

A month later, I sit at home coughing and blowing my nose as I write this blog. Since I left New York a week ago, I’ve been sick — for several days with a fever. I can’t remember ever being sick in June/July. (The only time that comes to mind is when I was born, because I had congenital heart disease. So, I was pretty sick in July when I was 0.)

So, did three weeks of burning the candle at both ends finally catch up to me? Maybe.

But did I have a fantastic tour? YES. Did I live it to the fullest? YES.

Book against standard airport carpet.

Frankly, I maximized the shit out of this tour, and it started even before I left. I found out that you can order books to pick up at the Powell’s airport bookstore, and since my friend Peter’s partner Ocean Vuong’s highly-anticipated novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was hitting bookshelves on the 4th, I decided to select it as my tour reading material.

Ocean’s book was so brand spanking new that it was hand-delivered in a paper bag 30 seconds after I asked for it at the Powell’s counter. (Had I realized they delivered books to the airport one at a time, I might have just picked it up for myself at Powell’s on Hawthorne. On the other hand, three weeks later I saw the book on display in a bookstore at JFK. Butterfly effect? You’re welcome, Ocean.)

As we took off, a Killdeer flew alongside the plane. Bye, Portland!

Birding in Jack’s backyard.

I read a third of Ocean’s book on the plane, and it is a mind-blowingly great novel.

At this point I want to take a moment to thank the person who sat next to me on that direct flight from PDX to Heathrow. I was in the window seat; they had the aisle. They got up at regular intervals to use the restroom, which relieved me of the discomfort of having to ask to be let out, like a dog. I appreciated this.

Ah, London! What a lark! What a plunge! I made it to my friend Jack’s house and hung out in his backyard for a while, watching birds. There I saw my lifer Common Swift, a Eurasian Collared-dove, and some Rose-ringed Parakeets — perhaps some of the same birds I’d seen on my previous European tour in 2017.

Weirdo Victorian megalosaurus.

When Jack got home, we headed to the Crystal Palace area to hang out before my show. At Crystal Palace Park, we saw a collection of bizarre Victorian dinosaur sculptures. Then we navigated a fun/confusing Victorian maze. At the same time, I became reacquainted with a number of Victorian birds — or Eurasian birds, anyway. Most exciting to me were the baby Eurasian Moorhens!

Crystal Palace ruins.

We also walked among the ruins of the Crystal Palace itself, weaving through some kind of fitness boot camp that was taking advantage of some old palace stairs. Life goes on!

Show at the Library of Things. Photo by Jack Kennerley.

My show at the Library of Things went well. My energy was starting to wane, but it was still a lot of fun, and everyone was so sweet. I should play more shows in libraries!

Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley.

The next day, Jack and I braved the drizzle to do lots of fun touristy stuff. We went to Greenwich and saw, first and foremost in my mind, Eurasian Magpies who proved very difficult to photograph. We also went to a 16th century mansion-turned-museum called the Queen’s House, where they had some amazing contemporary artwork by women and people of color juxtaposed with all the typical colonialist stuff. For example, in one room there was a bust entitled Olaudah Equiano: African, Slave, Author, Abolitionist, 1745-97. In another, an enormous painting, Ship of Fools by Kehinde Wiley, occupied almost an entire wall. (From the museum label: “Kehinde Wiley inserts figures from marginalised communities into settings that echo famous paintings of the Western tradition.”) There was also a series of photographs showing diverse young women of Greenwich, a project by Bettina Von Zwhel in response to the Armada portrait of Elizabeth I.

I’m a magpie paparazzx.

We trekked up a hill to the Greenwich Observatory and stood very near the Meridian Line, but not on it because that costs money. (While everyone else in the world admired the view of London from the hill we’d just dragged ourselves up, I finally snapped a pic of a Eurasian Magpie.)

Afterwards, we crossed busy, blue Tower Bridge on foot and scored free tickets to the Tower of London from Jack’s boyfriend Nick. Having been raised on YA/middle grade historical fiction about Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey, I was especially thrilled about this visit.

We’d heard there was a baby raven at the Tower… but we saw this baby pigeon! Even better!

Strolling around the castle grounds, I imagined my Quaker ancestors quaking at the sight of the Tower in the distance as they paddled down the Thames on the raft that would ultimately carry them to the New World. Perhaps they even caught a glimpse of one of the Tower’s six ravens.

One of the six ravens.

“Legend has it,” I told Jack and Nick, “that the kingdom will fall if there are ever fewer than six raisins at the Tower.”

Nick: “Did you say raisins?”

Outside the Charing Cross Theatre.

In the evening, Jack and I went to the penultimate performance of Amour, an under-appreciated Broadway musical I’d been obsessed with in high school. On Broadway it lasted maybe two weeks before being shut down, and its West End debut suffered a similar fate. We originally bought tickets for a performance later in June, but the run was cut short. Thankfully Jack was able to exchange our tickets.

Amour playbill.

As I described in my Instagram post after the show — it was pure magic. Having waited 16 years to see Amour, it was almost too much to handle. I was elated to see how everything was staged, and to hear songs that weren’t on the original Broadway cast recording. I cried at least three times, not because I was sad, but because it was everything my teenage self had dreamed of and more. Afterwards, I met every cast member I could and told them all the same thing: that seeing this show fulfilled a long-held wish, and this memory will be special to me for the rest of my life.

Graylag Geese, or Here Comes Everybody.

On my last day in London before heading to Winchester, Jack and I went to Walthamstow Marshes and Reservoirs. The wind there was just unbelievable. Nonetheless, there were birds aplenty! We saw oodles of Common Swifts feeding over one reservoir, along with at least one Bank Swallow and a couple of Common House-martins. (I think I saw my lifer Common House-martin from Jack’s backyard that morning or the previous day.) Along the rim of the reservoir, I finally saw my first Graylag Geese! Unfortunately they were very friendly, in a way that means people must be feeding them. Boo! Don’t. Feed. The. Waterfowl.

We also saw many Tufted Ducks, Great Cormorants, miscellaneous gulls that I couldn’t identify at a distance (particularly in such a mighty wind). My favorite part was seeing a couple of Eurasian Coots building a nest. One partner remained on the nest while the other one sought and retrieved nesting material. Then they’d help each other place it, which was the cutest thing ever. But most readers won’t have to take my word for it, because I got video!

#MuralOnTheMarsh.

On the way out, we passed by this fantastic #MuralOnTheMarsh. Hoorah for public art! The mural runs along either side of a paved multi-use path and features Gray Herons, Great Cormorants, Great Crested Grebes, Canada Geese, and (for fans of mammals) Red Foxes.

That night I watched “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too” (the Miley Cyrus episode of Black Mirror) with Jack, Nick, and their friend Jésus, over vegan fish and chips. And the next morning, I left for Winchester!

To be continued!