russia

September Newsletter: What a Lark!

Happy September!

Your free demo this month is...

IMG_20190615_054643.jpg

“What a Lark!”
Sign up to receive the song!
(Each month I send a free secret demo like this to my subscribers — you also get access to all the past songs I’ve sent out!)
(keep reading for more info on the song)


In August, I decided to take a little more time to breathe. I dug into some good books, played a couple shows at Hotel RL in Olympia, Washington, worked on recording demos, and wrote a huge blog post about my time in Kaliningrad on my tour back in June.

The song I’m sharing this month — “What a Lark!” — was inspired by my morning at the Baltic Sea on June 15th, which you can read about in the aforementioned blog post. I started writing it in London on my friend Jack’s piano, spent some time pondering over my audio notes in New York, then finished it up in Portland.

I was camping on the beach at the Baltic Sea with my Kaliningrad friends, absolutely all of whom are night owls. I, on the contrary, am a total lark. I managed to stay up until midnight the night before, and when I woke at dawn, everyone seemed to be just getting to bed. Unable to sleep in daylight even with an eye mask, I crawled out of the tent and greeted the morning.

I found myself in a small city of tents.

Everyone’s in Tent City
Sound asleep

The fire from the previous night was still burning, and my friend Seryozha sat next to it, staring into the middle distance. He’d arrived after I went to bed, and at some point burnt his hand in the fire. Now he couldn’t sleep because of the pain. He didn’t have painkillers, so he was soothing the injury by keeping his hand buried in the sand.

I gave him some Ibuprofen, and eventually he tried to get some more sleep. He retreated into his tent but left his arm hanging out and his hand buried.

In his absence, I watched a White Wagtail pecking through the sand, flinging it back and forth.

White Wagtail on the shores of
The Baltic Sea
Sifting through the sand
Wagtail, are you wagging at me?

I mused on my lark-ness, busily writing postcards as everyone slept. I thought about my constant need for clarity — “beautiful clarity,” to borrow a phrase from Russian poet Mikhail Kuzmin. What was the plan for the day? When would I find out the plan? What time would everyone wake up? What all did I need to be ready for?

I thought a lot about my Kaliningrad friends. It’s strange to become so immersed in a community (not to mention a language and a culture) for a week, then to leave it all behind. Sitting alone on the beach, I marveled at the depth of my emotional connection to these people whose lives are so different from mine. I knew that there was nothing remotely similar waiting for me at home in Portland.

Most of the people in this tight-knit group met one another through theater. As morning progressed, individuals made entrances and exits: emerging from a tent, saying good morning, going for a quick swim, finding a place to pee, going back in the tent to continue sleeping. The action passed by like a dream, or an absurdist play about time. I couldn’t figure out what it all meant, but I knew that it was somehow beautiful, and that I would sorely miss being a part of it.

Actors in a play

Actors in a play

Besides vocals, this recording includes piano, an additional keyboard voice, an ambient synth pad, and cello. As always, remember — this is a work in progress!

Thank you so much for letting me share new songs with you, and the stories behind the songs. And remember, I always like hearing from folks! You can email me, or reach out on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Take care,
Stephan

Shows

September 14 - Hotel RL, Olympia, WA
September 28 - Sofar Sounds, Boston, MA
September 30 - Areté Venue and Gallery, New York City, NY
October 23 - McMenamins White Eagle Saloon, Portland, OR
November 25 - Yotsuya Tenmado Comfort, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
November 26 - K.D. Hapon, Nagoya, Japan
November 28 - PEPPERLAND, Okayama, Japan
November 29 - LIVE rise SHUNAN, Shunan, Japan
December 2 - Graf, Fukuoka, Japan
December 4 - Risin’, Saga, Japan
December 5 or 6 - TBA, Ibusuki, Japan
December 9 - HOME, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan

PS Do you want me to come to your city? Tell me and I’ll try to make it happen! (I don’t always know where people want me to go…) Also, if you’re curious about hosting a concert, it’s easier than you might think! Especially if you're in the US or Canada. Piece of cake.

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.


Helsinki, Saint Petersburg, Napoli & Beyond

(Before my memory fails me completely, I want to try to finish my account of the 2017 Europe tour. Shortly after my last post (way back in February!), I left for Japan, and the blog fell by the wayside. But it’s never too late for now!)

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

Selfie in front of some rainbow stairs leading up from a beach in Morocco.

December 10

After Malmö, Sweden, the next stop on my whirlwind tour was Helsinki, Finland. After a short train ride and a short plane ride and another short train ride, I wound up at Helsinki Central Station. I wandered around in a stupor, wanting to make the most of my one day there but feeling too exhausted to do anything. I had written down several sights I wanted to try seeing, but they were all too far away. I wouldn’t have time to see them before the show.

In the end, I decided the best idea would be to go for a walk.

I walked through Kaisaniemi Park, admiring the public art and withered roses. The Botanical Garden appealed to me but I couldn’t find a way in.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Botanical Garden as seen from Kaisaniemi Park. I stuck my camera through the fence to get an unobstructed view.

Then I went in a store called Music Hunter and got my dad a vintage button with “Great Balls of Fire” on it along with a piano, flames, and little flashing red lights.

I found the front of the Botanical Garden and realized you had to pay to get in, which wouldn’t have made sense for how little time I had. Instead I spent a long time loitering outside and watching a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. I’d only seen a couple of them once before, in Oregon, where they’re rare, so this was an exciting encounter.

My camera died and I guessed it was time to move on.

At Elisavet’s, preparations for the show were underway. It ended up being a huge potluck with tons of people from the Couchsurfing community and beyond — including Rhienna Guedry and her partner, who are also from Oregon.

I wish I had written about this sooner or taken more notes so I could say more about it! I played an hour or so of songs, and everyone was so kind. But the details are a blur… I do remember that I ate very well, and that the keyboard was a nice one.

December 11

After a few hours of sleep, I had to slip out quietly and head back to Helsinki Central Station. From there, I boarded the train that would take me, like Lenin before me, to Finland Station in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Fast forward past a fairly uninteresting train ride in the dark, followed by a nerve-wrecking border check, and bam, I arrived!

IMG_3421.JPG

Ah, Saint Petersburg. For so many years I’d longed to visit you.

And to be honest, it ended up being a mixed bag. Too much time zone hopping and too little sleep had left me frazzled, and the absence of anything resembling normal daylight took an additional toll.

I was also starving.

Fortunately, I had lots of rubles from my show in Kaliningrad, and I knew how to use them.

I took a cab to Veggie Box, a tiny vegan eatery in an adorable village of (apparently stackable) boxes stuffed into some sort of alley/courtyard situation.

On the way to the venue, I saw Moscow Station, Nevsky Prospekt, and the monument to Aleksandr Pushkin. A tunnel-ish passageway led me to the courtyard where Etobar (literally “this is bar”) was located.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

The bar at the end of the tunnel.

Etobar was a cool, jazzy sort of place, though they were playing a strange twangy version of the Scissor Sisters’ “I Don’t Feel Like Dancing” when I arrived.

I got acquainted with the bartender and a guitarist named Anatoliy Garkin while I waited for my show time. It was fun speaking Russian with them — I felt fairly competent, which was nice.

Evgeny, the person who organized this show for me, arrived from work a little after I started. The show was going well until I was in the middle of “The Sound Narrows”.

I wrote this song when I first met Adam — my partner of almost 6 years, if you’re out of the loop — and I was feeling especially homesick and sentimental at this point in the trip. So it was particularly jarring when my heartfelt performance was interrupted by a man who came up, laid a hand on my shoulder, and told me to stop.

“Блюз играешь?” he slurred rudely. (“Do you play blues?” with the informal “you”.)

I gaped at him, speechless, and he took the opportunity to push me off the piano bench. He sat down, struck a chord, and began to croon an old blues classic — “Let It Be”.

Anatoliy, whom I had met earlier, made a beeline to this usurper of the stage and confronted the man. Nevertheless the man persisted, and when Anatoliy tried to remove him by force, the man spun around and the microphone toppled over. I backed up to the bar and watched anxiously as they pushed each other around. The mic was down but the merch table still hung in the balance.

In rushed the manager, who broke them up before it could come to blows. In the midst of this, I met Evgeny, who assured me that it would all be okay, and the man was just drunk.

Once the man was back in his seat, the manager approached me and ordered me to go back and keep playing.

My jaw dropped again. “Is it safe to?” I asked Evgeny. (The manager had already zipped away.)

Hesitantly, I returned to the piano and resumed playing, but I sang timidly, almost in a whisper. It was a huge relief when I finally made it to the end of my set.

A more pleasant memory from the evening was when a woman came up to me after the show and thanked me for playing, telling me that it was her birthday and my show had been a wonderful birthday concert. She handed me one of my Incredible Distance postcards, where she had written a sweet note. I still have it, and I’m still grateful when I read her kind words.

The next two days were spent exploring Saint Petersburg. One enormous highlight was the former residence of the great poet Anna Akhmatova (see her work “Requiem” — I haven’t read this translation, however). Perhaps most special of all was the chance to see the angel in Palace Square and visit the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.

When I was 13 years old, I was hugely into Scholastic’s Dear America and Royal Diaries series. Carolyn Meyer’s Anastasia introduced me to the Romanovs and the Russian Revolution. The next year, I got my nerdy little hands on an advance reading copy of Gloria Whelan’s Angel on the Square, and that “absorbing saga” solidified my interest in all things Russian. To see the angel on the square, at Christmastime no less, was a childhood dream come true.

The angel on the square.

The angel on the square.

December 15

After three days in Saint Petersburg, I met up with my friend Jack in Italy. We trekked around Rome for a day, saw everything you’d expect us to see, visited some Catacombs, then headed to Napoli, where we ate the most amazing pizza for basically every meal. (In between meals, I scarfed down many of Italy’s shockingly easy-to-find vegan croissants.)

On the morning of my show in Napoli, we took a trip to Pompeii, which was incredibly cool. (If you go, I do recommend taking a guided tour, just because they can tell you so much about what you’re seeing. When you guide yourself — at Pompeii or anywhere — it’s too easy to skim the placards or brochures and miss lots of not-to-be-missed things.)

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

An ass that won’t quit, no matter how great the catastrophe.

I started writing my song “Pompeii” — the first single from Look at the Harlequins! — years and years ago, probably around 2010. (I have so many song ideas that I just haven’t gotten around to…) I guess visiting Pompeii got the old song fragment floating around in my head again, because it was one of the next few songs I wrote after all my winter touring.

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

The stage is set. Which pillow would you choose?

Back in Napoli, Jack and I found the venue (after finding more pizza), which was a sort of community center. This show was organized by Luca of the Napoli Couchsurfing Group. He put together such a special event, and I had such a lovely time with everyone. There were so many sweet moments… Getting to speak Russian with a woman named Regina who was visiting from Venice… performing “Limits” with Jack in the audience (I wrote the song after Jack stayed with me and Adam in Eugene — it was the first song I’d written in three years)... everyone snapping along to “Sparkbird”…

The evening came to a close, and that show in Napoli ended up being the last one of the tour, though others had been planned. From Italy, Jack and I went on to France, where my show in Marseille turned out to be a logistical impossibility. Instead, we visited museums. We hiked through the Calanques National Park. We found a park with a pond full of nutria.

We parted ways there, Jack heading back to London and me going to Morocco. My shows in Morocco also fell through, in part because I fell in a huge hole — but I should save that story to tell at future shows.

I ended up back in London, where the tour had begun nearly a month before. I went to a vegan Christmas market, had my first London theater experience (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), and ate a Christmas eve pub meal with Jack and his family.

I stayed Christmas Eve at an airport hotel. On Christmas morning, I walked from my room straight to the airport, then sat on a bench writing a few last postcards before boarding my plane back to the US. When I arrived ten hours later, it was Christmas morning again.

Kaliningrad: сердце тёплое

December 5

The distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad isn't incredible — a drive of approximately 115 miles (or 185 km) — but the bus from Gdansk to Kaliningrad runs only once daily and departs at 6:00 AM.

My previous day had started, impossibly, at 3:00 AM (GMT) in Winchester, UK, and ended around midnight (CET). Thus had begun a week of burning the candle from both ends every single day: waking up before 5:00 or 6:00 AM, spending the first half of the day on planes and trains, navigating completely unfamiliar cities, sightseeing for a couple hours when possible, getting acquainted with the next concert's hosts, setting up for the show, performing, being present with the people who had so graciously given me their time and attention and other resources, then finally trying to sleep for 5 hours before waking up and doing it all again.

Oh, and eating. I must have eaten at least a few times.

Touring is exhausting, especially for an independent musician. Support independent musicians. Share their music, buy their merch. If something they wrote is important to you, write to them and tell them.

Okay, back to the travelog.

Before leaving Iza and Ola's flat, I neglected to refill my water bottle, so I had only a few sips to last me the entire trip to Kaliningrad. And while it should only take 2 and a half hours to cover the distance between Gdansk and Kaliningrad, there's no telling how long you might spend at the border.

Before we reached the border between Poland and Russia, the driver gave us an opportunity to use a restroom and do five minutes of duty-free shopping. I searched desperately for water and found none.

We got back on the bus, drove to a checkpoint, and the driver locked the bathroom. (Apparently this is the rule, the bathroom has to be locked and unoccupied throughout the whole border-crossing process.) An official boarded the bus and strolled down the aisle, collecting everyone's passports into a stack and then leaving the bus with them. After several minutes, an official (the same one?) returned and asked who the American was, and I sheepishly raised my hand. My passport was given back to me, sort of separately from all the others for some reason.

Everyone then had to drag themselves and their checked luggage into a sad little building. The interior had the brittle, jaundiced quality of ancient Tupperware. The lighting seemed to be off, and other than us bus passengers, the room appeared to be abandoned. There were some little booths and flap turnstiles in the middle, separating us from a derelict baggage scanner. I glanced around a little less than hopefully. No drinking fountain.

We were a loose, sleepy group, until an official woke us up with an order to get back behind a line that no one had noticed. He then asked who the American was, and I once again identified myself, reluctantly. He gestured for me to follow him, and briskly we passed through the flap turnstile, at which point he spun around and, aghast, told me to go back through it.

I returned to the other side and stood there, waiting to be called forward, and then heard a knock-knock-knock to my right. A tight-lipped official withdrew her hand from the glass of her booth, which was so dark as to appear unoccupied. She took my passport and thumbed through it, then held it up in front of her and instructed me to face her squarely. Her eyes moved from my photo to me, back and forth a few times. She spent some time typing on her computer, and asked me a few questions about why I was visiting Kaliningrad. Then, at last, she stamped my passport and sent me through the turnstile.

Another official had emerged from somewhere to operate the baggage scanner and, inevitably, conduct a more thorough inspection of my bag. The items under particular scrutiny were my little box of business cards, and another small box of tour magnets.

Finally, I was allowed to move on to the post-inspection waiting area. There was a beverage machine, but it served nothing but coffee. I was parched, but I was also overheated and I don't drink coffee. In lieu of liquid refreshment, I figured I could at least wait for my bus in the refreshing wintry air.

A few seconds after I went outside, men in ushankas were chastising me and ordering me back into the building I'd just escaped from. Sulking, I headed inside. I was comforted when various fellow passengers attempted the same thing and were also reprimanded.

An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

An ushanka-wearing Russian border control officer stands outside a small office building.

When I reached the city, I was supposed to take a bus to meet Vlad, who organized my show in Kaliningrad. I didn't know how to buy a ticket, but I got on a bus and hoped for the best.

I didn't see anywhere to buy a ticket. Maybe it was necessary to buy a ticket from a machine before taking the bus? I just stood there on the bus, not knowing what to do and hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble. (In Gdansk, some jerk ticket inspector on a train made me pay him approximately $30 USD when I had the wrong kind of ticket, even though the ticket itself cost only a couple dollars.) A middle-aged woman wearing some sort of official-looking bag noticed me and approached me, and I realized with relief that you just buy your ticket directly from such a person. It's a very laid-back system. If you need a minute to find your money, she just sits down and waits, or she comes back to you later. If you need change, she makes change.

It was a pleasant experience, but I missed my stop. I crossed (ridiculously wide) Leninskiy Prospekt and caught a bus heading in the opposite direction. Yet again, I missed my stop. At this point, I decided to walk to meet Vlad. While trying to find him, I saw some Eurasian Jays (having previously seen only one, very briefly, in Karuizawa, Japan), some European Blackbirds, and — most excitingly — my very first Hooded Crows. They were pecking around in the grass on Kant Island (a.k.a. Kneiphof or Остров Канта).

 I finally met Vlad — an incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented person with so many incredibly sweet, thoughtful, talented friends. We chatted as he led me to the flat of his friend Liliya (who is, I think, an oceanographer), where I would stay that night. I glanced around the courtyard and tried to soak it all in: the overcast sky, the puddles, the assorted cars parked haphazardly on dirt among sparse, bare trees, the shack bearing the graffiti “ПРОСТИ МЕНЯ! Я ЛЮБЛЮ ТЕБЯ!!!”

Once in Liliya’s flat, I finally quenched my thirst, gulping down a glass of water and refilling it immediately. Liliya kindly offered to make me some vegan food, undoubtedly saving my life. There in the kitchen, Vlad played his song “Сердце безголовое” (“Headless heart”), as Liliya cooked and I sat mesmerized.

Vladislav Barabashov plays his song "Сердце безголовое," as he did in Lilya's apartment.

After we ate, Vlad gave me a walking tour of Kaliningrad. Many people I met lamented the dreary weather and said, “Kaliningrad is beautiful in summer.” I found Kaliningrad to be beautiful even in the drizzle. But coming from Oregon, I knew exactly what they meant — I say the same thing about Eugene.

Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

Kaliningrad and some Black-headed Gulls, with Königsberg Cathedral shrouded in mist.

We walked alongside the river — which was teeming with Black-headed Gulls, particularly near the bridges — and encountered one of Vlad’s friends. Not long after this, we ran into another friend. Both times, he gave them a big hug in his big coat. As we walked on, he said, “Usually people shake hands, but when I see someone I know, I like to hug them.” We talked about the show, and he said he hoped the evening would be тёплый — literally, warm, or in this case, heartwarming.

We crossed the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост), which leads to Kant Island. This is one of those bridges that everyone puts romantic padlocks on.

I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

I happened to notice a declaration of queer love on the Honeymoon Bridge (Медовый мост).

The island itself used to be the site of a town, and the university where Kant taught, but most of it (and the city of Königsberg in general) was destroyed in World War II. Königsberg Cathedral was left in ruins nearly half a century and was only reconstructed in the 1990s.

Königsberg Cathedral.

Königsberg Cathedral.

In front of the cathedral, I saw my first Russian stray dog. The dog looked dead, but was only sleeping. I asked Vlad where the dog's human was, and he told me this was a независимая собака, an independent dog.

Независимая собака.

Независимая собака.

We walked on and I was excited to see Дом Советов — The House of Soviets, a hideous work of brutalist architecture that the Soviets built to replace Königsberg Castle. It was constructed between 1970 and 2005 and has never been used for any purpose whatsoever.

The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

The House of Soviets, a.k.a. the Monster or "buried robot".

Eventually, it was time to go to Катарсис (Katarsis) to get ready for the show. We transported ourselves and Liliya's keyboard in an enormous taxi van that Vlad called a "minivan". 

Katarsis was a cozy, intimate little independent bookstore, café, and performance space. I'm so grateful to Vlad for finding such a perfect venue for my show, and for organizing it. And I mustn't forget his friends and family. Elisaveta, Vlad's wife, made adorable tickets, and Rita also helped a lot with setting up. Everyone was so wonderful.

The show went amazingly well. I think it was one of the best shows I've ever played. The audience was so enthusiastic and appreciative. I felt an unfamiliar nervousness when I was playing "Japanese Garden": I was going to be singing in Russian for an entire audience of Russian people. I focused on performing the song like I normally would, and the English and French sections breezed by. Then, suddenly, the moment of truth (или момент правды) was upon me.

It was hard not to smile, and then it was hard not to laugh, while I was singing. I've played "Japanese Garden" hundreds of times, but this was so different. I could feel the audience's responsiveness to the Russian lyrics, then I could hear them laughing when I sang, "Относительно дополнительной сосновой шишки—" ("With respect to the additional pinecone—"). It must have been so bizarre to hear Russian lyrics written and sung by a non-native Russian speaker — especially the kind of lyrics I write. 

At the end of the concert, Vlad came on stage and whispered to me that he would speak to the audience and then, if it was okay with me, I would play one more song. I stood at the side of the stage as he talked, and I smiled, and I only sort of listened because I was in that strange fugue state of the performance. When it was time, I returned to the piano and played "A Person," and then, embarrassingly but hilariously, Vlad informed me that he had told them I was going to play "Japanese Garden" for a second time.

During this encore performance, people clapped along with the Russian section. After the show, there were so many people to meet and talk to, and every single one of them was so sweet. Throughout it all, I felt euphoric. Vlad and I agreed that it was, as he had hoped, a heartwarming show.

And then it was time to pack everything up; and then we were squeezing into a taxi; and then Sergey was carrying the keyboard up the flights of stairs to Liliya's flat; and then Liliya was cooking again, but this time for half a dozen people.

As Liliya graciously, inexplicably prepared food for everyone, Vlad and Evgeny (and Sergey, briefly) played several songs. I felt like I had been accepted into an elite underground singer-songwriter salon.

Vlad plays a song.

When Evgeny played «Молитва Франсуа Вийона» ("The Prayer of François Villon"), even I was able to sing a few words.

Дай же ты всем понемногу,
И не забудь про меня.
Дай же ты всем понемногу
И не забудь пpо меня...

With warm hearts, we said our goodbyes. I had only just met all these people, but it felt like a reunion. I had only just met them, and already it was time to give hugs and say goodbye.

I brushed my teeth in the bathroom, using the tub as a sink, like Liliya and Vlad had explained to me. Then I crawled into my foldout sofa bed. I was exhausted, so exhausted that it was difficult to sleep.

A few short hours later, it was time to wake up. Thanks to Liliya, the eternal source of nourishment, I tried my first ever persimmon. Liliya called the taxi, and I realized with gratitude that she and Sergey were coming to the station to see me off. The taxi arrived, and the driver was like a character from a movie — my memory is too foggy for a physical description, but suffice it to say that when he opened the trunk of the car, he produced a gnarly stick to keep it propped open while I put my suitcase inside.

I wanted to stay here in this strange, fascinating place. I wanted to spend more time with these friendly, creative people; I wanted to hear all their songs. I wanted the taxi to turn around, or at least slow down. Instead, we arrived at the station too quickly, found my bus too quickly, and too quickly it took me and my warm, achy heart away from Kaliningrad.

 

At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)

At Katarsis, before my show. (Vlad, me, Rita, Elisaveta.)