By: Grace, NSLI-Y Russia, Academic Year 2013-2014

Tsiferblat cafe in the heart of Kazan is the kind of secret that everyone knows about. It's tucked out of the way, on the top floor loft-area of a bland office building, with no signs visible from the street to proclaim it's existence. There’s a reason for this: all the food, coffee and tea are free. Instead, you pay for time. When you arrive, a barista writes your name and arrival time on a chalkboard and you pick out a vintage clock from a cabinet. It’s two rubles a minute for the first thirty minutes, and then one ruble a minute after that. Thirty rubles is approximately one dollar, so depending on how long you hang out and how many lattes you drink, it can be a good deal.

Tsiferblat typically attracts a young, artistic and internationally-minded crowd. I remember my first visit in September 2013: a crowd of young Germans chattered away behind me while I had a conversation in Russlish with a purple haired pre-med student named Adele. We're still friends! In one corner, a blue upright piano is rarely left unoccupied for long, and a few guitars are strewn about. On the radio is a mix of old jazz classics and mid century rock. If the noise is too much, there are a few side rooms set aside for reading and studying.

Another purpose for the side rooms is the classes. Various groups, ranging in purpose from literary discussion to French conversation, meet in them every day of the week. The first one I attended was an English Conversation Club with some other NSLI-Y students. I think they were a little confused when half a dozen American students arrived to speak English, but we made some friends and got in some good Russian practice amid a discussion of 9/11 from a Russian point of view. Fascinating.

Later on in the year, when my Russian had improved, a friend and I started an English Game Night. At first, we only had a few takers. We would play simple word guessing games and get to know each other. After a couple weeks, a dozen and more people came of all different ages and experience levels! We broke into the new set of “Apples to Apples,” which turned out to be a smashing success. It was fun to explain some of the more obscure pop culture references!

Most people don't assign a physical location to their comfort zone, but Tsiferblat was just that for me. More than a common setting of my time in Russia, it actually came to symbolize it in many ways. It was there that I met with some of my greatest friends, celebrated my 19th birthday, learned to make my first latte, beat a Russian at chess, and finally took on a more substantial role in the community by leading one of the clubs. In short, it was my niche: a place to belong.