The Taste of the City. Novosibirsk

 Can the capital of Siberia to become an attraction for foreign tourists?  05/30/2014, 20:46

Elena Stern
translator and teacher of German
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The Taste of the City. Novosibirsk
Photography by Sergei Mordvinov

Last summer in the then-Ukrainian Crimea, as we struggled to squeeze through yet another thick crowd of tourists from the Vorontsov Palace to the mirror lakes in Vorontsov Park, my five year old son asked me, «Mum, why there are no tourists in Novosibirsk?»

Indeed, the lone traveller, wheeling along a suitcase, the Chinese or Japanese crowds and well-groomed German pensioners with faces frozen in an expression of adolescent enthusiasm are not an everyday part of the local landscape.

In Novosibirsk, there are no drawbridges, no white nights and no unique lakes. There are no palaces lying around, except for the Sibir Ice Palace arena. We don’t have the charm of Tomsk’s wooden architecture , nor the baroque of Omsk — we don’t have anything to present to the world as traditional tourist bait.

Conditions for attracting idly wandering gawkers haven’t developed in our city naturally. Scientific conferences — all right. Business forums? As much as you like. Cultural festivals? No problem. Somehow, we don’t notice that we actually do have tourists. They’re just special ones. On business. Because without business there’s no reason to roam around Siberia. Isn’t this a reason for the city to stop being ashamed of its youthfulness? As they say, youth is a shortcoming that passes over the years.

I’ve worked as a translator at so many various events, the quantity of which has just skyrocketed since the opening of a Goethe Institute office in Novosibirsk. Widely promoted exhibitions at the Novosibirsk Expocentre also supply a certain audience. The city’s history and scale amazed all its German guests. The contemporary history of a city on the world-famous «Transsib».

We travel by «railway», while Germans take the «Trans-Siberian», or even the «legendary Trans-Siberian Express». See the difference? No? That’s just it!

We live in a golden city, but seeing as no one’s told us that it’s golden, we locals don’t pay any attention.

Our railway is nothing special. Well, the station looks all right, pretty flash. Well, they put the Opera and Ballet Theatre on a box of chocolates. They put the Chapel of St. Nicholas on magnets too, but we haven’t got anything else to show foreign tourists.

I’ll venture to share my experience. Let’s start with the fact that not all guests are equal. Yes, yes. Really, if it’s the city’s destiny to be young and brash, then we have to continue in the same manner. And understand that we can’t count on groups of mass tourists. On the other hand, we have the advantage of hospitality. This, incidentally, is now a trend in world tourism — showing around small groups of travellers who found out something about the city in advance, and want to get this «something» with love from the hands and mouths of local guides. In other words, «non-idleness», preparedness and an active life position are important characteristics of the «correct Novosibirsk foreign tourist».

Believe me, all the Germans I got to work with read about our city before their trip, at least on Wikipedia. True, it isn’t the most rousing information — in keeping with our pessimistic attitude regarding the development of tourism in Novosibirsk.

The overall objective of the Siberian Seasons festival is to develop fusion of the arts and culture on a new level, using both innovative and traditional musical material

Flat. Boring. Unrousing. Wikipedia probably isn’t supposed to rouse though. «But I can,» I once thought. And wrote a long article entitled «Novosibirsk as a project of three generations of Russian intellectuals» in one small regional German magazine. My guests, printed article in hand, arrived from the same region of Germany where it went out. Quite inspired by their meeting with such an amazing city. Which I personally, without excess patriotic fervour, sincerely believe Novosibirsk to be.

They came for the Siberian Seasons contemporary music festival, which was held for the fourth year running under the motto «Surprise me». And the festival surprised my guests. So much so that they had to wipe away tears when Natalia Baginskaya on the organ and Margarita Auns on the clarinet played a duet in the conservatory, then again as Roman Stolyar improvised with Rafael Sudan on the piano. Honestly, the beauty of this concert made it possible not to notice the shabby walls of the concert hall. I say that without any flag-waving patriotism too. The emotions of my German friends were strong and authentic.

Next we went to the Novosibirsk Music Academy. Who in our city knows that only in Novosibirsk, and nowhere else in the country, there’s a viola d’amore department?

What on earth is that? Who really needs it, this viola d’amore, in the era of music Babylon with torrents and playlists? Except department head Yuri Mazchenko. And his students. And the Germans who came to listen to him. And another hundred Germans that went to a concert given by one of the school’s students in Germany when he was there visiting one of our former compatriots, who by coincidence once studied with the rector at the conservatory. She was the one to convince my German friends that it’s worth going to the Siberian Seasons festival.

Our Opera Theatre traditionally stuns Germans. Because of its size, to begin with. I traditionally explain that it’s the largest theatre in Russia. And that the Bolshoi [meaning «big»] in Moscow just has a big name. I don’t know what the planners were thinking when they designed a theatre for 2,500 people in Novosibirsk, which in the 1920s had a population of 250,000. Dreamers. Starry-eyed dreamers. But what would we do without them today?

Next, the theatre’s interior («bombastisch», i.e. «sensational», enthusiastically said my super-intelligent German guest, a music critic by education and chairperson of one of the Germany’s many cultural societies — Vereins) and the level of production are what amaze visitors. In order to let this happen, I had to buy tickets more than a month in advance, and even then, there were only about 15 available places in the hall when I ordered tickets for the premiere of La Traviata. So we fulfil the precepts of those 1920s dreamers and intellectuals by going to the theatre. To be amazed. To be inspired.

Invariably, Germans at the Opera Theatre are surprised that children come to the performances. In Germany, first of all, going to the opera is very expensive. And secondly, German children don’t go and see classic productions. They usually feel classical music to be a burden. So we can be proud not only of Gagarin, once the first man in space, but also of our children, and their parents and teachers, who to this difficult day in the 21st century familiarise the next generation with the classics.

Children amazed Germans at every turn: at an exhibition in the House of Scientists, at the music academy, and at the Old Mill animation studio, where teachers helped year four pupils from a local «innovative school» to make a cartoon about Novosibirsk along with my guests.

Then my Germans didn’t want to leave the Akademgorodok museum/apartment created by Nastya Bliznyuk-Beznosova, daughter of German Beznosov, founder of legendary club «Under the Integral». So great was the charm of Nastya, her museum and the collection of vintage clothing in which my guests saw hats and blouses worn by their mothers in the 40s. Why shouldn’t they come across a «Made in Vienna» hat in Novosibirsk? Or Kahla porcelain cups with a design from their youth?

Generally, my German friends, of retirement age according to their passports but very young at heart, endlessly stumbled on their childhoods in Novosibirsk. Our city has somehow unwittingly taken and preserved the things that Europe has left behind. Do you know what the Germans liked travelling in most of all? Taxis, of course, are comfortable, the metro isn’t too bad either, but our trolleybuses won their hearts. Plain, old ones. Because it was like their childhood, when winters were still snowy in Germany and sparks from the overhead wires would flash against the white background.

On the last day, we looked for gifts and souvenirs. Any tourist worth their salt, even an individual one, rather than a mass group, looks for tangible evidence of their stays here and there. One guest was constantly trying to find painted wooden eggs. I had a think about how to explain the futility of her endeavours, and said that Novosibirsk isn’t like Suzdal and other traditional Russian touristy things. Novosibirsk is like German Bauhaus.

For us, coming to Novosibirsk in large numbers from villages where nothing has ever been heard of Bauhaus, buildings in the style of constructivism are not something worthy of attention.

But the argument acted on the Germans instantly. Because it really is strange to look for a painted egg from Bauhaus.

To make up for that, we almost emptied the seed shop. A few years ago, a mutual German acquaintance bought some tomato, cucumber and pepper seeds in Irkutsk, which he visited at the invitation of pianist Denis Matsuev. He planted them in his tiny kitchen garden, and our vegetables, meant for much more severe conditions than in North Rhine-Westphalia, produced a magnificent yield. And the taste was very different from what is sold at German markets. The Siberian tomato craze has seized many in the town. I personally attended a demonstration of agricultural achievements by the chairperson of one «Verein». You should have seen the excitement in his eyes. The excitement of this man alone was enough to infect an entire German town with love for Russia and Siberia. And now there’s me too. And my friends. I’m now thinking about what to do with those tomatoes. Arrange a festival of Siberian tomatoes from Germany? I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. Or if it’s necessary. In these harsh times.

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