Museum Visits–Making Them Sticky


I’ve been spending a lot of time in museums lately.  A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The praise for this newest addition to the Smithsonian has been sky high, and it isn’t hyperbole to say the museum is spectacular.  By now, people know when they visit that their tour will start on the underground floors and progress in a spiral through 500 years of history—starting with the slave trade, traveling through all of American history, and ending on the top floors with a celebration of African-American accomplishments and triumph.  As a friend of mine who was with me that day said, “You are sick to your stomach, then tearful, and then you feel like dancing.”

The Museum is huge, vast in its scope, deep in its detail. I started by taking notes of things I didn’t know, not realizing I could take pictures on my phone (of most exhibits). But by the time I reached Jefferson, I couldn’t take notes anymore. There was simply too much information. I took a few pictures, but even that mode of recording information was inadequate to the task. I kept going, through the Civil War, through Reconstruction, through early 20th century. And then I reached the Civil Rights movement–the time period I remember, know something about personally.  And still, the explosion of information overwhelmed me. There was so much I didn’t know.


Aware that I wouldn’t be back for a long time, I wanted to take everything in, skip nothing, but museum fatigue set in. I’d already spent five hours and only had a little time left. I’d been admonished not to miss the top floors, so in my remaining hour, that’s where I headed. Thank goodness, for even though I skimmed the exhibits there, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the jubilation at the top.

When teachers take their students to museums, they usually don’t have six hours–even if the field trip is to Washington D.C. and they’re staying several days.  Maybe brevity is a good thing because museum fatigue (a real phenomenon–not just a term I made up) would set in well before the six hours I stayed.

Coming away from a museum like this one with an overall impression (as in my friend’s summation about revulsion, empathy, and joy) is important in itself, of course. Context matters. But to make the memory “sticky,” it’s important to personalize the experience in some way.  If you’ve ever been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., you remember how visitors receive an identity card when they enter. At the end of their visit, they find out what happened to the person they’ve become as they’ve experienced the Holocaust.

This isn’t possible in the African-American History Museum–slave records are incomplete and depersonalized and the time span (500 years) is too long for this same strategy–but objects,  events, and even concepts can become personal.  Here are some ways that can be done–for this museum or any other.

  1. If you’re doing a study of African-American history in your classroom ahead of time, have each student choose a specific event, a particular individual, or an important topic to “specialize” in. Then, at the Museum, the student’s mission will be to find the exhibit where that event or that individual or that topic is depicted. The task will be to pause for a significant amount of time in front of it (or interact with it) and take notes, even pictures (if pictures are allowed).Upon returning to the classroom, students report out–orally or in writing–about “their” exhibit. What new information was learned? What displays or pictures or graphics brought the information to life? Was it covered more deeply–or less so–than the student had covered it? How did it relate to exhibits around it? Were there other events or people that were similar?                                                                                                                                      bombing-of-birmingham-church
  2. If you’re not studying African-American history ahead of time, go to the Museum website ( before you visit the Museum itself.  Have students click on Museum Collections and choose an area of interest.  Objects in the collection are cataloged by topic, date, place, name and object type. By expanding the information on any one of the thousands of items in the collection, students can see if that item is on display and the location of the object in the Museum. To make this more than a scavenger hunt, have the student prepare an oral or written report on exactly what the item was, how it was used, to whom it belonged and how it was situated in the exhibit. In other words, ask them to explain the context of the item.

One of the most successful museum visits I ever made with students was to an exhibit in 2001 to the Indianapolis Museum to see “Gifts to the Czars,” a collection of dazzling items that had been brought to the Russian czars by ambassadors from around the world from 1500 to 1700. The items were treasures from the Armory Museum in Moscow. I brought students to this museum to prepare them for reading Animal Farm–to contrast the opulence and luxury of palace life with the squalor and deprivation peasants faced in pre-Revolutionary Russia. No amount of my say-so was as effective in conveying the richness of the Russian Empire as the bejeweled gold and silver pieces, the inlaid and encrusted objects that were taken as mere gifts to the czars.  

3. At the Museum, I asked students to find one object in the exhibit that intrigued them, pause in front of it for at least 5 minutes, and with words and sketches, capture the detail they saw.  In the collection: sabers and swords, shields, textiles, horse trappings, an empirical eagle with a tray for holding the czar’s crown, a Baroque basin, serving dishes and wall decorations. Something of interest for everyone.  The temptation today would be to take a cell phone picture, but it is the 5 minutes of close visual inspection that made the assignment work. Five minutes is an awfully long time for a 9th grader, but the longer they looked, the more they saw. The follow-up to this assignment was a creative writing piece, based on the known facts, and a map showing the route the ambassador would have taken from his home–say, Istanbul or Stockholm–to Moscow at that time. 

A similar activity could be done in any museum, but the temptation to take a cell phone shot and move on would have to be overcome. As I recall, I had to approach the 5-minute rule as a challenge to my students. Could they do it: Hold still for 5 minutes? (Click here for the original assignment.)

A side note: When a few of those same students went to Russia with me a year or so later, we visited the Armory Museum.  Some of the items they’d identified were back on display there. Students who found “their” object were genuinely excited!


In any event, the point is this: To heighten the impact of a museum visit, find a way for the students to identify with the exhibit you are taking them to see.  Years later–and even on the spot–the time spent in any museum can be just a blur, but if the student–or the teacher–heads into it with a personalizing assignment in mind, that at least will stick–long after the overall impression has faded.

What is Russia?

The Sochi Olympics have me thinking about the summers when I took students to Russia on an exchange program. The kids–in their twenties now–are thinking about those days, too. I know because they’ve been reconnecting on Facebook and emailing me. We are all acquainted with the unfinished public buildings, the difficulties of getting around, the stray dogs, and the other objects of humor so glibly reported on in the press. We know very well the dark side of Russian history. But more deeply than any of that, we know that what we took away from our experiences ten years ago would last all our lives. See what that was:

“What is Russia? Provide a brief definition.”

It sounded like an exam question. Alina, one of the Russian students, asked it at the end of our three-week exchange with students at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum. No one took it for a quiz at all; nevertheless, the American students reflected before they replied.  What came to my mind as I waited for their responses was Churchill’s remark: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

But the students weren’t hampered by such long-ago images as they articulated their impressions. Anna and Hillary responded first and simultaneously.

“History,” they said.

Indeed, we had experienced the history of Russia throughout P1000702our visit. The Pskov town fortress dates back to the 11th century; that year, in fact, Pskov was celebrating its 1100th birthday. Pskov was its own principality until 1510 when it surrendered its ancient veche, or assembly, and came under the control of Moscow. We visited Pechory, a monastery on the Estonian border where Ivan the Terrible decapitated the Father Superior, Cornelius, whom he supposed to be a traitor, and watched his head roll down the cobblestone walk. The Empress Elizabeth abandoned her carriage on a visit to Pechory—it’s still on display along that same steep walk. And in the caves of Pechory, Orthodox monks hid from the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War. We hiked at Izborsk, a nearby fortress that dates back to 1232. Here we waded in a stream whose waters, according to local legend, promise health or wealth or beauty, your choice to wish for.

“Is it only me, or is Russia beautiful?” Kate wrote in our group journal in praise of Izborsk.

We spent an afternoon at Peterhof, the summer palace of Peter the Great. We strolled—and stopped to stare incredulously at Peter’s four magnificent water cascades, each more elaborate than the next, and at the palaces of Marly, Monplaisir, Hermitage, and the Grand Palace itself. We watched children play on the trick stones that Peter designed for children. Little ones, sometimes holding their parents’ hands, ran back and forth in the fountains, pretending to avoid the spots that triggered hidden sprays, hoping to be doused, shrieking excitedly when they were. Some of the students posed in the fountains—under umbrellas. We dipped our hands in the Gulf of Finland and heard from our guide about Peter’s war on the Swedes that culminated in victory in 1709. We could see St. Petersburg, the city Peter built to be his new capital, in the distance across the water.

Later, we toured St. Petersburg itself and had a look at the Russia I, II, III Posters 014famous statue of Peter the Great, the Bronze Horseman. The custom in Russia is for brides and grooms to lay flowers at the bases of historical monuments. While we were there, two couples laid flowers at Peter’s feet. We saw the incredible Church of the Stained Blood, built by Tsar AlexanderIII to honor his father, AlexanderII, who had been assassinated in that very place in 1881.  We walked around St.Isaac’s Cathedral, where the city’s treasures were hidden from the Nazis—we could see the attackers’ bullet holes in the monolithic columns. We were glad to learn the Nazis had never penetrated the building.

Of course we stopped at the WinterPalace, now the famous HermitageMuseum. The grandeur and size of the Hermitage amazed us. Our guide said that it would take eight hours a day for eight years to see everything. We had two hours. At the Hermitage, we split into pairs, each couple making a beeline for the period or style of art that they found most appealing. Some visited the Impressionists; others took in the Flemish painting. Two pairs went to the Egyptian exhibit. Nikita, one of the Russian students, translated the exhibit signs for us when our skills in deciphering Cyrillic failed. We saw clay vessels, fragments of cloth, an actual mummy, and a sarcophagus opened to display the case within the case.

“Look!” exclaimed Ashley. “It’s just like a matryoshka doll, only vertical!”

Nikita smiled.

“Russia is ornate,” said Allie. “Even the railings have detail.”

She was referring to the railings our tour guide had pointed out along one of the bridges in St. Petersburg, but the imperial architecture, the interiors of the monasteries, the carvings in walls along the city streets, the gates between buildings, even the doors to business establishments are ornate. When we saw the Armory collection in Moscow, we understood “ornate” even better. Robes, wedding dresses, vessels of all kinds, chargers for serving food, plates, chalices, crosses and Bible covers, even the Tsars’ carriages have been preserved through the centuries.

“Preservation,” Ashley added. “It’s not just one person or small group; everyone values the past and is keeping it alive.”

In Pushkin Hills, we saw the ongoing excavation of a church that had burned to the ground after the Soviets took power, and we observed the restoration of a monastery, now a convent for Orthodox nuns, at Elizarovo. In fact, the students had helped with both projects. Under the direction of a well-known archeologist, they’d removed the first layer of turf in a small area at the church site. At Elizarovo, they’d painted window frames, hoed in the monastery’s garden, and washed some of the double-hung cloirestory windows that were caked with whitewash and dust from rebuilding efforts. St.Basil’s in Moscow was partially covered with scaffolding, as were churches in Pskov. In St. Petersburg, spruced up in celebration of its 300th anniversary, we saw, through a window into a less public side of the Hermitage, a stash of renovation materials and a faded green wall that had yet to be repainted to match the façade.

“Russia is culture.” Melissa turned in her seat to explain her impression. “It’s the national dress and the folk songs and dances.”

On the first full day in Russia the students had been invited to School #26, a magnet school for the arts, to attend a performance by a folk music ensemble, a group of select high school students. The students played traditional instruments— wooden spoons, the balalaika, the tambourine—and invited our young men to join the Russian girls who were singing on stage in traditional costumes. Back at the Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, the music and dance teachers taught the Americans some Russian folk songs and dances. Later still, the Americans and their Russian friends learned more folklore at the regional museum where they attended a Russian tea party, the table dominated by an enormous samovar, and participated in songs and dances that were led by a member of a local folk music troupe who was dressed in a colorful sarafan.

“Children,” was my answer. I’d noticed, of course, that most adults in Russian towns wore dark colors—a defense against dust and the expense of dry cleaning—but in contrast, all of a sudden I’d see a child who looked like a bright yellow chick or a big blue gumdrop holding onto her mother or grandmother’s hand. And the hats! All the small children wore wonderful hats—blue velour with yellow stripes, pink or beige straw hats with decorative satin rose petals, denim hats with daisies embroidered on the brims—and I longed for a telephoto lens to snap their pictures unaware.

Then Clinton offered this definition: “It’s hospitality,” he said. “Anything I needed or wanted was provided for me.” When we first arrived in Pskov, spilling giddily off the train and into the arms of the Russian families whom we’d so eagerly looked forward to seeing, some of the parents apologized because their apartment buildings were currently without hot water. Our students took the announcement of cold showers in stride, but their Russian mothers heated water for them daily, and two of the parents, who worked at a local hotel, made arrangements for the “unfortunate” ones to shower there occasionally!

The mothers opened their cupboards and refrigerators to the American students, cooking special Russia dinners for them and searching out foods that would suit American palates. “Eat, eat,” they constantly urged, and while we could never satisfy their need to fill us full, we ate heartily and learned to love certain foods especially. Everyone loved blini, served with sour cream, jam, honey, or just plain butter.  Some students liked the borscht and most liked a Georgian specialty, cheburek, which the students ate regularly at a café on Oktvabrskii Street. Russian pizza and the incredibly beautiful pastries were “hits,” and everyone loved the chocolate, too. Almost everyone developed a fondness for tea and the rituals surrounding it, and it wasn’t unusual to find an American student ordering tea at lunch or in mid-afternoon. The most popular food item of all, however, was the incomparable Russian ice cream. Again and again we visited the booth by the bus stop where a “scoop ice cream” vendor presented an ever-changing selection of flavors.

The Russian families—the parents and the students—extended themselves in every way, in many cases giving up bedrooms so the American students could have a room of their own. The families helped us with telephone calls, with the Internet café, with changing money. They bought bus passes for us in advance of our visit and showed us how to ride like Russians (jump on quickly, show the pass later) lest we be left curbside, waiting in a non-existent line to board. They took us shopping in town and over and over again to “the market.”

Russia? “It’s my second home,” pronounced Karen, and she wasn’t thinking just of the hospitality that had been extended to all of us by our families or of occasions like a trip we’d taken to Sacha’s family’s dacha. As had happened for the Russian students in the United States, all of the Russian parents brought the American students “into the family,” and soon the adjective Russian disappeared when our students referred to them.

Karen meant, too, what we all had come to understand: that the relationships we’d formed and the friends we had made defined our Russian experience more significantly than anything material, anything historical, or anything cultural ever could. During our three weeks, there had been official welcomes from the school principal, from teachers who had prepared special lessons for us, from the Chairman of the city Duma and from the Vice-Mayor of Pskov. There had been formal interactions with the professors and students at the Pskov Pedagogical Institute. All of them were important, but none made as indelible an impression as did the commonplace, often spontaneous, social activities that transpired between the brothers and sisters, between the Americans and their host families.

Allie and Anna cooked a spaghetti dinner together for their host families, and Karen and Melissa made spiced chicken for theirs. Yulia and Karen, whose birthdays are at the end of May, had a birthday party and invited the others. Irina’s mother, who works at a hospital, took Jolene along one day—an impromptu “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” A large group, accompanied by the teachers and Sasha’s father, went to a disco one night. The students danced together and found no differences in style that they couldn’t absorb. Even the music, half in English and half in Russian, bridged the potential divide.

Our Farewell Party at Alina’s family dacha lasted from late afternoon until the teenagers’ curfew at 11:00. The back yard was a sea of purple lupine, gathered from an adjacent field and stashed in buckets everywhere. Plastic chairs and café tables with umbrellas, rented from town by the parents, were sprinkled about the yard. Volleyball, croquet, and even a karaoke machine provided entertainment, and the fare was the ever-popular shashlik.

When the games were over and the meal was done, when we’d finished with gifts and speeches, lead teacher “Mrs. Irina” introduced the culminating activity. She distributed a handful of colored embroidery thread to each student and teacher and invited the recipients to separate the strands and tie the strings around the wrists of the people to whom they’d like to say a specific “thank-you.” Of course, the tears started as each student and all of the teachers approached each other and the parents to privately convey their thanks.

In the end, each person’s wrist was encircled with a wide, colorful band made of the individual strands. “What is Russia?” Alina’s unintentional quiz question had helped us focus our thoughts about our visit to Russia. Ashley remarked at the end of the discussion that Russia is like the Hermitage. “You could never see it all,” she said.

We agreed with her, but still, we realized we would come home from our three-week visit with fresh, joyful, and positive impressions of the country. There is no mystery, puzzle, or enigma in this. Our idea of Russia, outlined by the history and culture we were shown, has been colored brightly and deeply by the friendships and love that our exchange created. And, like the thick bands upon our wrists, woven of single strands of gratitude, so the idea we have of Russia is all of these impressions together, impressions for which we are grateful still to our many Russian friends.

An Education in the Russian Outdoors

Summer is here, and in the summer especially, I think again about the academic exchanges with a secondary school in Russia that I led some years ago.  I especially remember a hike I took one Sunday when my American students were all at their host families’ dachas for the day. Call this post an American teacher in an outdoor Russian classroom. I learned a lot–not just about history and biology and geography–but about relaxation, camaraderie, and low-tech, no-fuss trekking. Please, can I do it again?

My colleague Tatyana proposed that we go on a hike. “Let’s go to Izborsk,” she suggested. “We’ll have a picnic by the lake.”

Her friend Sasha, an aerobics instructor and part-time construction worker, volunteered to be our guide. Sasha hiked often with his two sons, and even though he and his family were leaving on vacation in just a few days, he welcomed the chance to take visiting Americans to the Russian countryside he knows well.

Besides, Sasha was thinking about conducting formal tours of the Izborsk region where we would hike. Here was a chance to try out the route with some visitors from afar.

The trip he had in mind would take us through conifer forests and along a glacial valley in the Izborsk region of the Russian province of Pskov. Putin had visited the fortress at Izborsk when he first was a candidate for President, and for three successive years, my students and I had also visited this historic site.The fortress was built in the 14th century and served as a defense post for the entire Pskov region. It overlooks the Valley of Snakes, a hilly, green terrain with sparkling streams and icy glacial lakes, a landscape that is much more inviting than its name would suggest.

Would we be able to do 15 kilometers in a day?

Of course! Didn’t I hike regularly in America? I most certainly didn’t want to miss this opportunity even though I hadn’t brought proper boots or moisture-wicking socks or thinsulate garb or any of the other specialized gear American hikers deem absolutely necessary for a trouble-free hike.

My friend Tatyana and my colleague Rahul were ready, too. Sasha said we would start at a point north of the fortress and walk towards it all day, stopping only for lunch. I envisioned 15 kilometers of “Davai!  Davai!” (Come on! Come on!) and Sasha at us with a whip so we’d reach Izborsk in time to catch the evening bus back to Pskov.

I was concerned about the amount of food Tatyana was packing. In my experience, packing light was important so that you didn’t wear out from the weight on your back. Tatyana put apples and strawberries, cookies and blue cheese on the kitchen counter, and then she produced a bottle of wine. She said that Sasha was bringing one, too. I was to make ham and cheese sandwiches. “Make four,” she said. “We’ll treat the others.”

No granola bars. No freeze-dried food. No attempt to minimize the weight or pack food that couldn’t be crushed. And wine on a trip like that?  We’d all be too loggy to move. But I made the sandwiches and contributed two chocolate bars to the pile and let it be.

Since neither Tatyana nor Sasha owned a car, we planned to take the bus towards Pechory, a small town on the Estonian border. We’d get off at one of the bus stops that appear, isolated and unexpected, all along the highways in Russia and then take off into the woods. It was a wet, gray morning, the day of our departure, and we waited and waited at the bus stop under Sasha’s dripping umbrella.

A taxi driver approached us and asked if we wanted to hire his services. We said we’d wait for the bus. A second taxi did the same. Four hundred rubles for 35 kilometers. That was only $3-$4 for each of us. No, we were waiting for the bus.

We stood in the drizzle for another twenty minutes until finally someone remembered the bus schedule was different on the weekends. There wouldn’t be a bus for another hour.

So that was how it was that we went by taxi to our wilderness hike.

Our driver flew down the pitted asphalt highway and eventually turned onto a sandy road. He dropped us at the edge of a pine forest in the middle of nowhere. If I’d been blindfolded and helicoptered in, I would have thought I was in the north woods of Wisconsin. Pine and spruce towered above me on all sides; lush mosses and sprawling ground cover blanketed every part of the forest floor.

We struck off into the forest on an old logging road. Sasha carried his umbrella inside a rolled-up pad that was about the size of a bedroll. I had no idea what the pad was for, but I stopped wondering when he began talking about what was around us—for example, Icelandic moss.  “It makes a good cure for pulmonary ailments,” he said, and told us he treats his own son’s asthma with it. He gave us the instructions for making a medicinal tea from the dry grey moss, and Rahul put a clump in his pack.

Sasha pointed out bottlebrush (the same ancient plant which we know in the American West as Mormon Tea), and remarked that it’s good for digestion.  A plant called Mother/Mother-in-Law whose broad leaves are cold and smooth on one side and warm and fuzzy on the other side is a coagulant and can be used to staunch bleeding. “It was used for bandages during the Great Patriotic War,” Sasha said.

Remnants of trenches and a bomb crater from that war, now thickly covered with moss, ran alongside the road we were traveling. Fighting had been heavy in the Pskov region as the Soviets tried to hold back the Germans on their march to Leningrad. Later in the day Sasha picked a piece of badly rusted barbed wire, an artifact from the war.

A mile or so into the walk, we came across a young couple, Misha and Natalia, sitting at a picnic table in front of an old farm building. They had made a summer cottage—a dacha—from an abandoned barn. One day they too were hiking in the woods and discovered this building, a two-story structure of limestone bricks on the first floor, and weathered logs on the second. They’d tracked down the owner, who said there had originally been seven buildings on this property, but the barn was all that was left of the farm. They welcomed us to go inside their house, and Rahul and I did. Downstairs, they’d created a cozy kitchen with a small table, cupboards and shelves, and a wood stove.  Colorful baskets hung from the rafters; a bicycle was stored in the corner. Upstairs, four short beds were positioned along the papered wall and there were even lace curtains at the windows. A long table in the middle served as a nightstand.

Tatyana and Sasha stayed outside and talked with the couple  while Rahul and I explored. When we rejoined them, Sasha was describing a kayaking adventure he was planning for July. Perhaps Misha would like to join? Misha had been fishing in nearby LakeMalski and showed us his catch, 4-5 fish in a net bag. They offered us tea, which we declined, but insisted we take some of the pickles Misha’s mother had made that were in a jar on the ground by the corner of the table.

The path from their house led to a wide stream, several feet deep, and a bridge that had been fashioned of skinned pine logs lashed together lengthwise. Fortunately, there was a rickety log handrail as well because the logs were slippery. We had to step sideways to avoid sliding off into the water. It was the toughest part of the trip so far, and it wasn’t so difficult that we didn’t stop to take pictures of ourselves standing on the bridge.

The trees around us began to change from conifers to deciduous varieties and soon we came to the edge of LakeMalski, and sunshine and shadow dappled the vista. An osprey lifted into the air as we drew near. My feet, already damp from the morning, were soon soaking wet from the marshy ground.

An apple tree about five feet high was growing along the path; one hundred yards farther, there was another one. Sasha speculated that they had grown from the seeds of apple cores that hikers had tossed aside. Rahul asked if they’d bear fruit, and that led to a discussion of grafting and then a demonstration, not on the apple trees, but on some other specimen of which there was an abundance.

Suddenly, at our feet was a small bird hopping along the path in front of us. A tit, we thought, who’d fallen from the nest or was making early attempts at flight. Rahul moved ahead of the bird, and it hopped forward right onto the top of his tennis shoe. We could hear the mother screaming at us from wood’s edge. The bird hopped into the grass, and we walked on, coming soon to our destined lunch spot.

Sasha immediately began a fire. As soon as it was going, he took a coffee can and a dozen small potatoes from his pack, positioned the potatoes in a pile in the fire, and put the coffee can over them. While they steamed, I explored the lake’s edge. I photographed wild iris among the tall reeds and watched white gulls swoop and dive and float on the water. When I came back to the fire, Sasha had snails and frogs to show me. The coloring on the frogs was different than North American species, but the behaviors were the same—they squirmed and jumped and mostly outmanuevered even Sasha.

The sun warmed us, a gentle breeze kept bugs away, and the sparkling blue of the lake matched the incongruous brilliant blue domes of an ancient monastery across the lake. It was a restful sight.

I collected wildflowers from the field for a bouquet for our “table” while Tatyana and Sasha and Rahul unrolled Sasha’s mysterious pad and laid out our lunch. From Sasha, steaming potatoes and fresh herbs from his dacha—parsley, green onions, and dill—served as the Russians do, as whole foods. Tatyana unpacked our fruit, blue cheese, sandwiches, and chocolate; and Rahul contributed leftover homemade pizza. On a side plate, the dill pickles from Misha and Natalia glistened in the sun, and in the center of everything were the two bottles of wine, one red and one white. I wondered how we could eat and drink it all, but we did—every bit—sitting on the ground, lingering over the wine and food, talking for at least an hour about the tourist industry in Russia and whether people would come to Russia for expeditions like this one today.

“People would pay,” I remarked, “for a day like this.”

While we ate, my shoes and socks dried. Sasha had hung the shoes on stakes rammed into the ground at the fire’s edge, and the socks were ingeniously pinned on sticks like marshmallows and roasted over the fire.

The wine, of course, made us sleepy, so before we left, I shamelessly napped while Sasha went for a swim. We left Tatyana and Rahul to pick up from the picnic. Then we doused the fire, left more firewood stacked for the next hikers, and resumed our walk toward Izborsk.

We climbed us the high glacial hill above the camp site and walked for some time along the ridge overlooking the long, narrow lake. Then we descended again and walked through fields on a rutted road that once had served now abandoned farms. The fields waved with waist high grasses, the scene interrupted by occasional clumps of wild strawberry and wild rose.

We passed through a tiny old village whose weathered wooden houses and broken barns slumped in the afternoon sun.  Few people were about, but lace curtains at windows and vegetables growing in gardens provided evidence that this cluster of buildings, surely at least 100 years old, had occupants. In fact, the probable denizens passed us a half hour later, tired people, men and women, walking toward homeward from Izborsk with their arms full.

We had taken a 20-minute break by the side of a stream just off the path. An old mill had once stood there; Tatyana washed her face in the clear water that tumbled down over the rocks in the stream and those that remained of the mill’s foundation.  Trash littered this wayside, so we built another fire and burned the candy wrappers and plastic bags. Someone had dug a pit for empty water bottles, and we threw those we found into the pit.

The fortress of Izborsk loomed on the horizon. It must have been intimidating to approaching armies, this high stone wall studded with towers and turrets with their keyhole openings. It’s imposing even today. We walked past the church overlooking the SnakeValley, past the cemetery behind it, and past the waterfalls of Izborsk that superstition says offer wealth, or health, or beauty to those who drink the waters. We walked into the fortress itself and then away from it, away from the roadside restaurant where Putin dined, away from the babushkas selling their woolen socks, woven baskets, and ceramic plates, and through the village of Izborsk.

It was as if we’d been transported to another century. A horse-drawn cart carrying villagers from one spot to another came up behind us and passed us on the lane. On one side of the cart, a shapeless old woman in a dusty dress was perched, her legs, in woolen stockings though this was June, hung over the side. A man on the other side of the cart was her mirror image. We passed a backyard chicken coop and fed leftover bread from the picnic to the rooster and his bevy of hens. The wooden houses all had gardens attached; an old woman in a scarf and heavy sweater sat on a stool outside one house, scrubbing vegetables. In another front yard, another woman, bundled up in a scarf and jacket as older Russian women keep themselves, sat straight on a bench, her feet firmly on the ground, conversing with a younger woman, not so heavily clothed. In villages throughout Russia, life goes on this way, in sharp contrast to city life where tall slim girls in form-fitting clothes stride down the sidewalks in stiletto heels and men assertively drive cars, smoke cigarettes, and talk incessantly on cell phones.

We were pleasantly tired when we boarded the bus for Pskov. Rahul summed up the experience of the day: “A picnic you have to get to,” he called it.

Sasha’s dreams of becoming an expedition guide didn’t seem far-fetched.

“Yes, people would pay,” I told him again. “People would pay for a day like we just spent. A little history, a little biology, a glimpse of life a century ago, and just enough exertion to feel good.”

A picnic you have to get to, but an experience you’d never forget.

The Bus to Friendship

Today, a former student, one of my Russia Travelers (kids I took to Russia 10 years ago) and I met together as colleagues in the same middle school. She, working with kids; I, working with teachers. We got to talking about our trip together years ago, and I told her I was working on another essay about those weeks we spent together so very far from home. I spent many hours, during those years of the exchange, preparing the kids for those trips. We talked about cultural adjustments they’d have to make…about differences in values…about similarities in matters of the heart. My students had no idea that their teacher was learning to cross cultures, too… 

When I traveled in Russia, the loss of independence was the hardest adjustment I had to make.

As the coordinator of an exchange program, I expected to travel about on my own to the school, to the market, to the restaurants my students frequented, and to the parks where they played.  After a few days of riding the bus with Irina, the host teacher, I was ready to travel alone.

But Irina was not convinced.

The trick to riding the bus in Russia is to push your way on like everyone else. In a crowded bus, your body is not your own, and personal space is only in your mind. You have to accept intimate contact with strangers. Courtesy demands that you remain silent or at least quiet in your conversation if you are with someone else. You have to be wary of pickpockets (I was told) and conscious of older people who deserve the seats. That sometimes means hanging on to overhead bars, or in really crowded situations, allowing yourself to be supported by the individuals packed in around you. You hang onto nothing in these situations and grab for the bar when the bus stops so you won’t be swept away by those who are exiting.

The conductor, usually a matron, pushes through the crowd asking to see passes and selling tickets to those without them. She makes eye contact with each individual, gives a brief nod when you hold up your pass, and for those who don’t have a pass, she somehow accepts money and even makes change as the bus lurches along. She never forgets a face, so there’s no danger of her asking twice to see your pass or overcharging you for your ride—but she’s ever on the alert for freeloaders.

Irina could see I knew the drill, but she still wouldn’t let me ride alone. “I can’t let you do that,” was all she would say.

Then one day I needed to meet my students at an hour that was inconvenient for her; she was forced to let me go.

I received strict instructions: Bus #17 from her stop straight to Lenin Square.

Bus #17 came. I boarded a nearly empty vehicle and took a seat on the right so I’d be sure to see the stops. At first, everything was normal. Then the bus pulled into a parking lot I’d never seen before, and everyone else got off. I sat there until the conductor gestured that I, too, had to leave.

I won’t say I wasn’t anxious. I realized that even if I asked for help, people wouldn’t understand me—and I wouldn’t understand them. So for just a minute, I considered that Irina might be right.

Then I noticed that the people on my bus had moved to a spot at the front of the lot and were standing there, waiting. The conductor and the driver had gone into a building that looked like a shed.  Other buses entered the lot; the same thing happened.

It was a shift change!  Sure enough, another #17 bus came along, and I climbed on. The bus resumed the usual route, and I met with my students, as planned.

As a matter of pride, I didn’t tell Irina about this incident. Besides, I was afraid that if I revealed even a moment of anxiety, I’d never be on my own again.

By the second year of the exchange, the Russian teachers with whom I stayed had accepted the fact that I could and would ride the bus alone.

One day I met Irina for an afternoon of shopping.  At the conclusion of our time together, she put me on Bus #1 to “Kristy,” the area at the edge of town where I was living. I had been told to take Bus #4, but Irina assured me that #1 went to Kristy, too—she used to live there herself. We parted, and I rode Bus #1 down Octobrisky Street toward the bridge I knew the bus would cross on its way out of town.

Just before the bridge, the bus unexpectedly turned. I noticed the deviation immediately and, with a sinking feeling, watched the buildings go by. A few blocks later, the bus stopped at the railroad station and everyone got off.

I approached the conductor.  “Kristy?”

She replied in sentences I didn’t understand, wrote #4 on a piece of paper, and gestured toward the corner where #1 had unexpectedly turned.

My moment of panic was short-lived. I would walk to that corner, catch the right bus, and continue my journey.

Just then, a taxi pulled up and I heard a familiar voice call my name.

It was Irina. She had read a sign on the side of the bus as it pulled away that indicated the route had changed. Concerned that I would be frightened and not know what to do, she had found a taxi and pursued me to the railroad station. That is when I understood at last the depth of her concern for me. I surrendered my pride, climbed into the taxi, and we laughed together all the way to the corner.

I learned later that the name of that corner bus stop is “Friendship.”  Fitting, because that is the place where I gave up my obstinate insistence upon independence—truly an American trait—and understood the motive behind her guardianship. That was the moment real friendship began.

Russian Mother

The holiday season is just about over. I’ve ingested my weight in cookies and confections, yet when someone urges another delicacy upon me, it’s impossible to say no. It’s cultural habit to urge calories upon friends and family in December, and indulging in culinary decadence has reminded me of another time and place in my life when eating too much was more or less an expectation, one I had to help my American students understand, too. We were together in Russia, ten years ago…   

I told them to just say “No.”

Politely, but “No.”

It didn’t do any good.

Their Russian mothers continued to heap food upon my students’ plates and ask again and again, “Wouldn’t you like more?”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“Don’t you want something to eat?”

“Kushai! Kushai!”  they implored.  In English, “Eat! Eat!”

In preparing my American students for their three-week stay in Russian homes, I had explained that the Russian mothers would associate food with well-being and the serving of it with hospitality—indeed, their own mothers had done the same when the Russian teenagers had visited us in Indiana. Still, saying “No” and stonewalling the urgent pleas of the Russian mothers was easier to imagine than do. My students struggled, and so did I, with hospitality that seemed to have no end.

In Russian homes, mothers serve the food at the table—even ladling it onto the fathers’ plates. We couldn’t help ourselves to small portions and thus strategically leave room for more. In fact, the mothers more often than not served the Americans giant portions to begin with and gave their own children the smaller portion sizes that are the rule in Russia. Perhaps they had heard that Americans’ plates are generally heaped, but probably not. The over-sized helpings were more an expression of generosity than cultural accommodation.

We tried saying “No, thank you” in Russian: Nyet, spasebo. That didn’t work. We tried “I’m full.” Ya sita.  It produced the opposite effect:

“Wouldn’t you like some more meat?”

We learned Russian slang for “I’m full. Ya ne slon. “I’m not an elephant.” That didn’t work either.

In fact, mealtime became a kind of battle of wills. The mothers, worrying and kind, urged more and more food upon the students, tempting them with packaged wafer cakes, elegant confections from the city bakery, peach juice and pineapple juice, and the incredibly smooth chocolate that is so hard to resist. The students begged, pleaded, shook their heads, held their stomachs in mock pain, and tried every Russian phrase they knew to say, politely, “Enough.”

It was the same for me, and I got nowhere, too. The teachers told me that the mothers were concerned. The kids weren’t eating. It wasn’t that they didn’t eat specific foods. No, the meat and potatoes were familiar and the desserts were delicious. The Russian “salads”—mixes of diced vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats or seafoods, all held together with mayonnaise—were tasty.  The trouble, the mothers said, was that the students weren’t eating enough.

I used such moments as opportunities to instruct my own hosts in American eating habits.  “We usually mean it when we say no,” I explained. “The kids will eat when they’re hungry. Don’t worry about them. Don’t worry about me.”

But they all did continue to worry. It became a kind of a joke, eventually, although sometimes it produced irritation. I began to dread meals. My waistline was thickening and I was usually still full from the previous repast—and yet, out of politeness I couldn’t completely resist, and out of gluttony I couldn’t pass up the desserts at all.

“Irina,” I said to my good friend, the teacher I stayed with the first time I brought a group of students to Russia, “you’ve been to my home in America. You know I don’t eat such big dinners. I don’t usually eat seconds.”

She nodded.

“In fact,” I said, “How did you get enough to eat at my house? I didn’t keep asking you if you wanted more.”

“I knew you’d ask only once,” she said knowingly. “I knew to take seconds the first time they were offered.”

I just shook my head.

Two summers later, Irina, her daughter Anna, and her daughter’s friend, Olga, met me at “Lavitsa,” a restaurant  that specializes in the delicate pastel cakes and mouth-watering chocolate tortes created at the city bakery. Displayed in splendor in a glass case at the entrance, the cakes tantalize customers who enter intending just a cup of tea. I’d “saved up” for this occasion and was in a dither choosing.

“I remember you like the one called cappuccino,” Irina said.

“Yes, that’s right, I do. Let’s order that. And how about Anna and Olga?”

“Oh, nothing for us,” they replied.

I arched an eyebrow. Skinny teenage girls. They should eat something, I thought.

When the waitress brought our cakes with the requisite teaspoons for eating dessert, my slice was as big as the Ritz. By comparison, Irina’s was small. And Anna and Olga had nothing.

I took the situation in hand.

Dve lozhki, I said to the waitress. She brought me two more spoons. I gave them to Anna and Olga and pushed my plate in their direction.

“No, no,” they said in chorus. “No, thank you.”

And then I heard myself say it.

“Kushai, kushai.”

My tone was urgent.

I jiggled the plate again and nudged it another inch across the table. “Kushai! Kushai!”  I repeated.

Irina looked at me and shook her head. I had become a Russian mother.


Do not eliminate hunger in this world. Do not. Hunger motivates.

I am not talking, of course, about literal food. I am talking about that burning in the brain that propels a person forward in the relentless pursuit of whatever he or she wants to achieve. That kind of hunger—or drive, if you will—is indispensible in the quest for knowledge.

For several years some years ago, I took students from my high school, McCutcheon, to Russia. We spent time in a Russian secondary school, even though it was June, because national exams were given across the country at the end of that summer month. We entered the school by mounting crumbling cement steps. Inside, cracked and curling linoleum covered the floor of the lobby; classrooms were equipped with cheap laminate desks, pitted window-sized blackboards, and old rags that served as erasers. The Pskov Humanitarian Lyceum, a top academic school in the region, was characteristic of Soviet-style school construction, and the accoutrements in the classrooms were common across the country. The Russian teenagers who hosted my students on those academic exchanges ten years ago were my students’ age but a year ahead of them in school. They spoke English, which they had been studying since they were seven, fluently; we struggled with the Cyrillic alphabet and elementary phrases like “Good morning” and “Good-bye.” They knew more about American history than we did, and the American students knew no Russian history at all. The Russian students were well acquainted with many American artists, musicians, and writers, but we had never even heard of Pushkin, their beloved, legendary poet.

What did these Russian students want? A better lifestyle than what they were living in Russia then. They had heard about the American standard of living, read about the material possessions that made us seem rich and that made our lives comfortable, and had seen it all for themselves when they finally came to America—and they hungered for it. They knew that education was what they needed to win a place at Russian universities, to complete a course of study and graduate, and to find the kind of work that would being them closer to our kind of comfort and prosperity.

I brought their teachers erasers for the blackboards, and for the students I brought pencils and pens with McCutcheon logos. I could not bring them new and shining schools. I did not need to.

Situated in Isiolo, Kenya, the last outpost before the long stretch of Sahara desert to the north, the Isiolo School for the Deaf is an aggregation of board shacks without windows, set in the middle of an open field: not on a foundation, not on a platform, but on bare ground that becomes mud in the rainy season. Cracks between the boards admit some light to the inside. When I was there, I saw children sitting tall in straight back chairs at wooden desks scarred from years of hard use, children from eight to fourteen, raising their hands excitedly, rapidly finger spelling answers in the air, signing the words they knew. At lunchtime, the students sat on the grass in a set-aside area under a roof to protect themselves, in rain or shine, from sudden downpours and the searing African sun. Their lunch, cooked in a vat, was rice and sometimes beans. There was no electricity at night, only a lucky few had mosquito nets, and the only clothes the children owned, they were wearing. No books, no paper, no pens, but exuberance and pride marked the children’s demeanor.

What were they without? Language. These children were born deaf or had lost their hearing at an early age. They were the lucky ones, deaf children whose parents had brought them from homes all over Kenya to attend this boarding school, to learn some language, to learn some method of communication. Language would bring them some measure of civility in the life of isolation that stretched ahead of them like the long, dry desert to the north.

I brought them alphabet banners for the classroom and a “Spill and Spell” game with hands etched into the sides of the dice to illustrate a, b, c in the manual alphabet. You would think I had brought the moon. Later, students at McCutcheon raised the money to electrify the school. Now the students could sign to each other in the night; they could continue to learn even after the sun went down.

In rural Rwanda, the scene of genocide not so many years ago, families in poor communities struggle to educate their children. For most children, secondary education is out of the question because the school fees are too steep. Secondary school students need to pay tuition to attend boarding schools. They must buy uniforms, purchase books, and sometimes carry mattresses with them to schools in remote locations. But in a few primary schools, an American organization, Every Child is My Child, has promised the elementary students a high school education if they study hard and pass the entrance exams—and they are driven to learn. Their classrooms are brick, not board, but there are no posters on the walls, no books, and few visual aids —just a teacher, a blackboard, copy books and pencils. The students write everything they hear from their teachers and everything they see on the board in their copy books—and they study what they have written. Against all odds, they are on grade level with students in the United States. And they are hungry to learn more. Hands wave in the air, answers fly in French and English and Kinyarwandan , and shy smiles cross the children’s faces when their responses are correct.

What do these students want? An education. I brought paper rulers and protractors—disposable learning aids gathered up after standardized tests—and National Geographic maps of Africa. I could not begin to equip their classrooms, and I could not feed their hunger. Only they could do that.

The hunger of all these children, the burning desire to learn that all of them have felt, has been essential to their achievement. Their desire comes from within—not from buildings equipped with the latest technology, not from the resources of their governments, not even from great teachers, but from within themselves.

We eat because we are hungry; we achieve success for the same reason. We have to do more than just want whatever we dream for ourselves. We have to burn to have it and then put our heads down and drill through the dark to attain it. “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way,” said Les Brown, an American businessman and motivational speaker. He may have been talking about material success—I have no idea—but his point applies. Drive—the motivating force that makes a person, or a team, or even a country “go the distance”—is a hunger that is fed from within.