A Chapter Ends

In less than 24 hours, I will be back in the United States.

I can’t believe how quickly four months went by. I am not ready to leave Russia, but I don’t think I will ever be ready to leave. In truth, it feels as much like leaving home as going home.

My time here has been incredible, thanks, in large part, to my wonderful host family. Of course I have also met many other people who have been kind to me beyond belief. The Irkutsk region is beautiful, with beautiful people. Every person should come here, step into the waters of Lake Baikal, have tea and talk with a Russian, eat the fresh fruits and vegetables, and breathe the fresh air. To say that it’s a life-changing experience is an understatement.

To all the people I’ve met here, to Russia, to Irkutsk, to Baikal: I miss you already. I will see you soon. I still have much to see in Russia, and I will be back.

But for now, onward to the United States I go.

Леоновский Бриз

On 10 July, I arrived at a camp on Lake Baikal. (It was actually just across the lake from where I was earlier with my host family.) The camp was called “Леоновский Бриз” and was a camp for children who study at Леонова Школа, where Masha goes to school. I was to teach English for 10 days to a group of almost 50 kids with the help of a Russian named Pavel Sergeyvich (Pasha), who spoke nearly fluent English. When I was introduced to the camp as an American, I was met with a lot of “Really?” “It is true?” and “Cool!” Apparently, all it takes is being American to instantly befriend Russian children.

 Fortunately, this camp was much less work than the camp in Bratsk. Mostly, I got to hike the hills around Baikal, lie on the beach, and hang out with some awesome Russian kids. The kids ranged in age from six to sixteen, which made for a very interesting mix. It was a bit tricky sometimes to switch back and forth between teaching very low-level English and considerably higher-level English, but between Pasha and I we managed just fine. The camp was split into three groups by age.

The youngest kids were "The Invincible Scorpions." Ina Ivanovna, Pasha, and I were in charge of them.

The youngest kids were “The Invincible Scorpions.” Ina Ivanovna, Pasha, and I were in charge of them.

"Forest Pals," the second-oldest group.

“Forest Pals,” the second-oldest group.

"Dinosaurs," the oldest group.

“Dinosaurs,” the oldest group.

They made me a dinosaur! (Most of the kids thought my name was Ellen at the beginning of the camp. Close enough.)

They made me a dinosaur! (Most of the kids thought my name was Ellen at the beginning of the camp. Close enough.)

We all arrived at the camp in the late afternoon after driving five hours from Irkutsk. The first day was mostly taken up by getting settled and playing on the beach. I think it’s amazing how little it takes to keep children amused and occupied for hours. All you have to do is take them to the beach; you don’t even have to worry about them drowning, because all they’ll do is sit and dig holes in the sand.

The beach near the camp, complete with fake palm trees.

The beach near the camp, complete with fake palm trees.

Later, we all went for a hike into the hills surrounding the camp. It was pretty cold at the top, but the view was still beautiful, even with the thick fog.

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At night, there was a “disco” which just consisted of our DJ (yes, the camp had its very own DJ) playing music while the children just stood around, cold and unsure. The kids enjoyed the later discos more, especially when the DJ played the Macarena.

The second day started out very cold, so we didn’t go to the beach. We had English lessons with all of the children, though. I met little Ilya, the youngest camper and the son of the camp doctor. We talked for a little bit, but then he told me he had important work to do in his laboratory. Later, I asked him how the lab work was going. “Oh, it’s very simple.” But then he explained that he was really more of a musician, and demonstrated by banging out some sort of rhythm on the walls and playing the “balalaika” on his ribs. By 17:00 it had warmed up a lot, and we went for a different hike. The highlight of the hike was little Ilya finding “dinosaur” (cow) bones, and going on about how they should be in a musem. Ilya and a few of the other kids also gave me rocks as presents.

Ilya, contestant for the world's cutest kid, and his dinosaur bones.

Ilya, contestant for the world’s cutest kid, and his dinosaur bones.

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Baikal

Baikal

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That's Olkhon!

That’s Olkhon!

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At night, there was a talent show, and the staff (including me) also prepared a dance to perform. Some of the kids are incredibly good dancers. The most memorable moment, however, was when four of the youngest girls sang and danced to the song “О боже какой мужчина!” the chorus of which goes like this: О боже какой мужчина! Я хочу от тебя сына. И я хочу от тебя дочку, и дочка, и дочка! (Oh god, what a man! I want to have a son with you! And I want to have a daughter with you, and a daughter, and a daughter!) I think it’s safe to say that they didn’t really understand what they were singing, but all of the adults and older kids, of course, found it hilarious. After the talent show, we had a campfire. All of the kids were really disappointed that there were no sosiski (the closest thing Russia has to hot dogs).

On the third day, I went to a seal show with the younger kids which featured two Baikal seals. It was really cool. The seals danced, sang, jumped, painted a picture, and even did some math. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures. Later, we went to the beach again. I played Durak (“Fool,” a Russian card game) with Pasha and Danil, one of the younger kids. Danil always likes to count to ten for me in English, but he forgets the number eight every time. After dinner, the kids performed other dances that they had choreographed earlier in the day. At night there was a campfire, this time with sosiski.

The next day, the main events were lapta and a game called “Diversion.” Pasha explained lapta to me as Russian baseball, but much simpler. I watched the game and, as far as I could tell, the only similarty between lapta and baseball is that they both require hitting a ball with a bat. I watched the whole game but still didn’t understand the rules. Diversion is a game that the kids love. There are ten “диверсанты” (“diversanti,” people who create a diversion) and the rest of the camp is security. The диверсанты have to try to create a diversion in order to steal several objects from the camp, and security has to try to protect the camp by catching the диверсанты. The game is played late at night, when it’s dark.

On the fifth day, I went with a group of fourteen kids to a large cave near Baikal called мечта (day dream). It was, of course, very beautiful there, and the cave was very cool (in both meanings of the word cool).

Near the entrance of the cave.

Where we were dropped off, just a short walk from the cave.

Beautiful Baikal.

Beautiful Baikal.

These people have the right idea!

These people have the right idea!

"Don't litter!"

“Don’t litter!”

Near the entrance of the cave.

Near the entrance of the cave.

Most of the group near the cave entrance.

Most of the group near the cave entrance.

Of course, every day was usually filled with teaching English, going to the beach (as long as it was warm enough), going for a hike, and playing various sports. In addition to lapta, the kids also love to play a sport called pioneer ball. In pioneer ball, you play with a volleyball and a volleyball net, but instead of hitting the ball, you just throw and catch it. Pasha described it as “light volleyball.” I played with the kids a few times; I found it pretty boring, but at least the kids found it incredibly entertaining. Ilya continued to find dinosaur bones and give me “presents” (more rocks). A few more kids started giving me rocks, and a few girls coloured pictures for me. One of the other counsellors commented that I could fill an aquarium with all of the rocks I got, but I definitely wasn’t planning on bringing them home.

There were many more memorable moments in the camp. One day after dinner, we all went on a hike to “Snake Rock,” where we cooked omul, a very delicious fish endemic to Baikal, over a campfire. During this hike, I was given too many rock presents to take back to the camp and a crown of flowers that one of the other counsellors made.

Ilya, being adorable as usual.

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Ilya, being adorable as usual.

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Ilya and his mother, Olga Nikolaevna, the camp's doctor.

Ilya and his mother, Olga Nikolaevna, the camp’s doctor.

The camp director, Anna Vladimirovna, and one of the loveliest campers, Polina.

The camp director, Anna Vladimirovna, and one of the loveliest campers, Polina.

Ina Ivanova and the crown of flowers she made for me.

Ina Ivanova and the crown of flowers she made for me.

Anna Vladimirovna and her daughter, Alisa.

Dasha, another contestant for the world's cutest kid, giving me rocks.

Dasha, another contestant for the world’s cutest kid, giving me rocks.

Rock presents!

Rock presents!

More rock presents.

More rock presents.

Katya, another very lovely camper, building a rock pyramid.

Katya, another very lovely camper, building a rock pyramid.

All of my rock presents, Katya's pyramid, and Ilya building his own pyramid. (He was building a pyramid because I wouldn't let him destroy Katya's and he wanted to destroy a pyramid.)

All of my rock presents, Katya’s pyramid, and Ilya building his own pyramid. (He was building a pyramid because I wouldn’t let him destroy Katya’s and he wanted to destroy a pyramid.)

On our way back from the bank to eat our omul.

On our way back from the bank to eat our omul.

The sun goes down at about 11 here.

The sun goes down at about 11 here.

Omul, sushki, and that face.

Omul, sushki, and that face.

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Gathered around the campfire to get omul.

Тhere was a “Pioneer Day,” where all of the counsellors were Soviet Pioneers for the day, and the kids competed in sports competitions to see who would also get to become Pioneers. Next, there was English Day, which, of course, was the hardest day for me. All of our usual daily activities were translated into English and the kids were encouraged to speak only in English. Of course, that was not at all possible, and many of the kids didn’t put any effort into speaking in English. But some of the kids did go out of their way to talk to me in English and asked me to translate a million random words. It was great.

The last full day of the camp included a fair. The other counsellors dressed up as gypsies and ran different activities.

Cup mixing game.

Cup mixing game.

Darts.

Darts.

Some kind of strength game.

Some kind of strength game.

Fortune telling.

Fortune telling.

Cards. They were playing a strange version of 21.

Cards. They were playing a strange version of 21.

Roulette! Sort of.

Roulette! Sort of.

"Selling" bubbles, hair ties, and other small toys.

“Selling” bubbles, hair ties, and other small toys.

"Russian wedding."

“Russian wedding.”

Stuffed animal auction.

After the fair was the closing concert.

A dance with Victoria Sergeyvna and Marina Nikolaevna.

A dance with Victoria Sergeyvna and Marina Nikolaevna.

A really funny dance by some of the older boys.

A really funny dance by some of the older boys.

A skit by some of the counsellors.

A funny skit by some of the counsellors.

By this time, I had been asked by every staff member (and many of the kids) at least once to stay longer, so I decided to stay an extra three days. I wish I could have stayed longer. I was offered a job teaching English at the school full time, but I think that will have to wait.

An extra three days wasn’t long enough. Then again, staying another week until the end of the camp wouldn’t have been long enough. Nevertheless, it was an incredible experience, and I met some amazing people and some fantastic kids. I’m going to miss them, and I’m going to miss Baikal. They will have to live on in my memory, pictures, and videos until I come back again.

I'm going to miss them so much.

The group.

Various Wanderings

My Russian language classes just finished on Friday, so I suddenly have a lot more free time!

Friday and Saturday were dedicated to (mostly aimless) walking about the city and exploring with my friend Brittany. I see the beauty of this city every day, but I’ve never really posted much of what I see. So, here it is. Some of it, anyway.

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This park is right across the street from the university.

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That’s some sort of state building. I can’t remember what it is exactly, but it’s of some importance to East Siberia.

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Well, at least at some point it was the state bank of the USSR.

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Some gorgeous building. I’ve got no idea what it is.

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Ditto.

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One of the theatres of Irkutsk. To the left (out of the picture) is the Philharmonic, where I saw the folk music concert.

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Apparently I’ve got a thing for fountains.

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The statue of Lenin, which, of course, sits at the intersection of Lenin St and Karl Marx St.

 Brittany and I walked down from the centre of the city to the bank of the Angara.

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Statue of Emperor Alexander III, looking very imperial.

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He was feeding the seagulls, but they all flew away as soon as I walked up. ):

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Now that’s it’s summer, there are a lot of games and things for children along the bank.

On Saturday, we went to the art museum. It was really interesting and varied; the museum had really old pieces, both Russian and foreign, some really old Russian icons, some classic Chinese art, and modern Russian art. The lighting in the museum was really weird, though. It was pretty dark inside, but the sun through the windows cast a really nasty glare on pretty much everything. Anyway, not only was viewing made a bit more difficult, but any pictures I tried to take sucked. Sorry! ):

After the museum, we headed to Lenin St Coffee. It’s one of the two Starbucks rip-offs in Irkutsk. (Fun fact: the other one is called Lapsha New York, and Brittany and I actually went in there a few days ago. Their menu says: “Lapsha New York: Manhattan, New York, Stepana Razina St.” Lapsha New York doesn’t actually exist in Manhattan or New York City. Just on Stepana Razina St, Irkutsk.)

Lapsha New York's logo is exactly this, but with a cup of steaming coffee/a bowl of noodles in the centre (I can't tell which).

Lapsha New York’s logo is exactly this, but with a cup of steaming coffee/a bowl of noodles in the centre (I can’t tell which).

We left Lenin St Coffee to walk around some more. We found a really cool outdoor restaurant called Uzbekistan and ordered some shashlik (delicious Russian kebabs), plov, and a hookah. I’m not sure why it’s called Uzbekistan, because it seemed to have nothing to do with Uzbekistan, but nevertheless it was a very cool place. We plan on getting a group to return there tomorrow.

On Sunday, I was feeling pretty lazy and didn’t do much. I did go with my host family to the bank of the Angara again. We walked around, and Dima and Masha got to ride on Segways. (My host mother asked what they were called in English. I told her Segways. “What does ‘seg’ mean?”)

On Wednesday, I will be leaving bright and early to go on another trip to Baikal with my host family. It should be a blast! I’m not sure if I’ll be able to blog while I’m there, but if I can I will.

As a final note, my host mother just told me that my Russian has improved a lot since I came here. That made me happy. Just thought I’d share.

I hope everyone is having a lovely summer so far.

I’ve Been Slacking

I’m so sorry for the lack of posts lately! I was in class or studying for my exam a lot (not exactly exciting reading material), and then I go pretty sick for a few days when I was going to write a post. Anyway, everything’s hunky-dory now, and I have afternoons free to explore the city more! (Which means more posts!)

I’ll catch you up on what I’ve been doing lately:

The most exciting thing to happen recently was definitely the arrival of Professor Bidoshi to Irkutsk. And she brought me peanut butter, which is almost as exciting! I made my professor and my host family discover the joys of peanut butter. They all made comments like, “Peanut butter? I’ve heard of it… What is it again?” and “That’s a lot of calories.” However, everyone enjoyed it and I got to eat apples and peanut butter, so all is well. Anyway. I met up with Professor Bidoshi the day after she arrived here. It was incredibly hot and humid, so we decided to find a café where we could cool off. We managed to find a café with air conditioning on our first try, sat inside, and ate ice cream. It was very welcome relief, and it was great to see Professor Bidoshi on the other side of the world. Since then, we have met up one other time. We went on a wild search for a vegetarian restaurant, but couldn’t find it. And, of course, everyone who we asked looked at us like we were crazy. Of course they didn’t know where it was, they had never even heard of it. Who wants to eat at a vegetarian restaurant? In the end, we settled for pizza. (It was actually the best pizza I’ve had in Russia. In general, the pizza here is very strange.)

I went with my host family to see Monster University last weekend. It was fantastic! If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. It’s very funny. 

Now that it’s warmed up in the city, a few people have been selling kittens (and puppies, but that’s less important) in Central Market. I have a cuteness attack every time I see them. Gram, beware… I might just take them all home.

In more recent news, I went on an excursion to Lake Baikal (specifically Listvyanka) on Saturday. First, we stopped at Taltsy, at the Wooden Architecture Museum. It was really cool! Most of the buildings there were original–just disassembled and then reassembled at the site of the museum–though they had almost all been restored to some extent.

Russian section

The Russian section.

Gate tower (left) and church (right).

Gate tower (left) and church (right).

The gate tower is original, but the corner towers and fence were built to show what it looked like earlier.

The gate tower is original, but the corner towers and fence were built to show what it looked like earlier.

The inside of the church.

The inside of the church.

Old Russian village games: walking on stilts and beating each other with sacks.

Old Russian village games: walking on stilts and beating each other with sacks.

Our guide, about to demonstrate proper beating technique...

Our guide, about to demonstrate proper beating technique…

...and proper stilt-walking technique. Sort of.

…and proper stilt-walking technique. Sort of.

A parish school.

A parish school.

The Buryat section.

The Buryat section.

The Buryat section. It's right on the Angara!

The Buryat section. It’s right on the Angara!

A Western Buryat yurt.

A Western Buryat yurt.

Women's side.

Women’s side.

Men's side.

Men’s side.

The fire pit was always at the centre of the yurt. You were only allowed to walk clockwise around the fire, because fire was sacred.

The fire pit was always at the centre of the yurt. You were only allowed to walk clockwise around the fire, because fire was sacred to Buryati. If you walked around the fire counter-clockwise, you were considered a witch, especially if you were a woman.

After Taltsy, we continued on to where the Angara meets Lake Baikal. Of course, although it was beautifully warm and sunny just twenty minutes earlier at Taltsy, as soon as we got to Baikal, it was foggy and cold.

The mouth of the Angara. The little speck in the water at the left-hand side of the photo is Shaman Rock.

The mouth of the Angara. The little speck in the water at the left-hand side of the photo is Shaman Rock.

From there, we went across the street to the Lake Baikal History Museum. It was really interesting. Part of the museum was an aquarium that houses various kinds of fish from Baikal, strange-looking carrion crustaceans, and Baikal seals!

Baikal is huge! You can see Olkhon at the middle-ish of the lake.

Baikal is huge! You can see Olkhon at the middle-ish of the lake.

Weird crustaceans.

Weird crustaceans.

It's a seal! They were really hard to photograph.

It’s a seal! They were really hard to photograph. But they were so cute!

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After the history museum, we headed to Listvyanka. There, we walked through the souvenir stands and ate a lunch of omul and plov. Since it was so foggy, there was no visibility over Baikal, and I didn’t get any pictures by the bank.

Some funny-looking shaman souvenirs.

Some funny-looking shaman souvenirs.

Souvenirs. Listvyanka is a very touristy place!

Souvenirs. Listvyanka is a very touristy place!

Plov! It's delicious. Rice with veggies and meat.

Plov! It’s delicious. Rice with veggies and meat.

The fish market in Listvyanka. Hot, smoked omul is one of the best things on the planet.

The fish market in Listvyanka. Hot, smoked omul is one of the best things on the planet.

To end the day, we went to the Church of Saint Nicholas. Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of travellers; it seemed fitting. As we were driving, our guide’s mother (who came along and was very, very sweet) joked that the sun would come out as soon as we left. Of course, as soon as we got out of the car at the church–about five minutes later–it was sunny and warm again. So it goes in Siberia.

The Church of Saint Nicholas.

The Church of Saint Nicholas.

The inside of the church was even more beautiful than the outside, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures. We arrived at the church just as the 5:00 PM services had started. As it is an orthodox church, women are all required to cover their heads and wear long skirts. Two girls at the entrance of the church were handing out wraps and head scarves for the women who didn’t dress accordingly. The service itself was really beautiful as well. I can’t explain what it was like in a way that will convey that, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to trust me on that point.

Saturday also just so happened to be День Молодёжи (Youth Day) in Russia. I swear there really is a holiday for everything here. It’s fantastic. There was a concert in Irkutsk to celebrate, so when we got back, we all decided to go. It was incredibly amusing.

The red-suited guys kept coming up and dancing behind every band as they played. It was quite amusing.

The red-suited guys kept coming up and dancing behind every band as they played. It was quite amusing.

This girl actually had an incredible voice!

This girl actually had an incredible voice!

I don't think I can say anything more than the picture already says. They were a dance/techno music group, by the way.

I don’t think I can say anything more than the picture already says. They were a dance/techno music group, by the way.

This keyboardist was so amusing to watch. I don't know if he was drunk or just having the time of his life. Or both.

This keyboardist was so amusing to watch. I don’t know if he was drunk or just having the time of his life. Or both. Also the name of the group was Pineapple Express.

The main act: Pizza.

The main act: Pizza.

On Sunday, another American, Brittany, and I went to a café that Professor Bidoshi recommended. It was called White Crow, which apparently is the Russian equivalent of black sheep. It was an amazing café! I had actually given up hope of finding a good café in Irkutsk with good coffee, but this was better than anything I had hoped to find. Their tea was absolutely incredible as well. (I got sweet orange rooibos. Their tea comes in a huge French press, so Brittany and I shared five or six delicious cups of tea for under $3.00. Not too bad at all!) By the time I got home, it was 11:00 PM. I had just sat down to finish my homework when my host family came home. Olga told me that I had to keep her company and have a beer with her. I didn’t finish my homework.

I had an incredible weekend, and am looking forward to having more to share soon. I promise I won’t slack so much again.

Tom’s Last Day

Today was my friend Tom’s last day in Russia. To celebrate his last day, he invited some friends to go bowling for a couple hours. I arrived about fifteen minutes early, and the bowling alley was right on the bank of the Angara, so I decided to go on a little walk to pass the time.

The bowling alley was right where Svetlana had taken me earlier when she showed me the Angara, but the bank was much different now. Now the Angara is much greener and full of people, as Svetlana had promised me it would be come summer.

12 April

12 April

16 June

16 June

 I also saw a small fair across the river and a performance consisting of drummers and dancers.

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As I continued my walk, two guys called out for me to take their picture.

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As you may be able to tell, the guy on the right never stopped talking. I’m not sure if it was my accent or my camera that gave it away, but he asked if I was a foreigner. I said yes, and he asked me where I was from. When I told him I was American, he got really excited. He told me about a hundred times that he loves Americans, especially Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie.

“My friend speaks English! Speak to her!” His friend didn’t want to speak to me.

He told me that they were from Chechnya, and asked me to take a picture of his shirt.

He was a very proud Chechnyan.

He was a very proud Chechnyan. (Sorry about the bit of lens flare!)

“Do you have a boyfriend? No? Here! He can be your boyfriend!” His friend just looked like he would rather be anywhere else. He asked which of the two of them was more handsome. I told him that they were both handsome, but he pressed to know which one I liked better. I told him I liked his friend better.

At some point, I guess he decided that he would make a more suitable boyfriend than his friend. The conversation shifted a bit. He told me how much he loved American women, and how much he wanted to go to America. He asked me to take him to America, give him my number, and to add him on VKontakte (Russia’s version of Facebook). When I politely declined all three offers, he didn’t seem at all deterred. He just kept saying, “Let’s go!” although I’m not sure where we were supposed to be going. I told him that I had to meet my friends and left.

Bowling was a great time. Once again, I was absolutely terrible. Tom told me that the secret to bowling was to knock down all the pins. If only I had known earlier!

After bowling, I went with a few friends to eat pozi. It was, of course, delicious. After we ate, we walked back through Central Market. I noticed a man having trouble pushing a large and clearly very heavy cart of vegetables. I asked him if he wanted help, but it sounded like he said no, so I started to walk away. He then ran up to our group and pointed out one of the males to help him. Afterward, he gave me two tiny cucumbers for “my golden heart.”

Today was a lovely, cucumber-filled day. However, in the next two weeks, I will have fifty hours worth of individual Russian lessons (three or four-and-a-half hours a day, every day from Monday-Saturday). I will be kept very busy, but I am sure I will learn a lot of Russian in a very short period of time!