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A conversation with Olga Maryamchik

Olga Maryamchik is a University of Pittsburgh social work student who also works as a balloon twister. But her real passion is delving into the intensities of life.

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What do you like about ballooning?
The part I enjoy most is going out into people's environments, interacting with people. Actually I have a triple life. There's no one I know [socially] that sees me do balloons. The balloon part lets me do the other stuff. When people ask me what I do, I say "I talk to people, I collect worlds."

You collect worlds?
I like to see from all perspectives from people I talk to. That's why I want to be a shrink. I'm starting my master's in the fall for social work. And here's where the third part of my life comes in. I come from Russia, born and raised. I came to the U.S. when I was 12 and have been going back and forth to Russia. I've decided I'm going to move back there.

Well, tell me more about that.
Well, people are connected there in some weird way. Not even weird. That's the thing. To me, people are disconnected in America in a weird way.

Are disconnected?
Yes. There's this great wall between everyone. And everyone tries so hard to not invade each other's personal space -- well, that's the complete opposite of Russia. Part of that might be left over from communism, but & everybody shares what little they have, including the negative aspects of life, and the chaos. And that's what I thrive on really, the chaos. It's never boring. & You see people on the subway -- I mean, I'm from St. Petersburg, so I live in a big city -- and there's a ton of people walking the streets at day or night.

St. Petersburg is where Dostoyevsky's novels are set, right? In Crime and Punishment he talks a lot about the moods of St. Petersburg, almost as if St. Petersburg itself is a character.
It's so filled with people's lives that it becomes like a life of its own. The city is constantly moving, constantly giving you some sort of mood or emotion and all the streets are filled with history and all the yards are filled with children and their parents and their family interactions and you feel it all.

The old ladies sit on a bench by your window and you walk past every morning, and they know everything about you, even if you've never said a word to them. They know your life, and they'll sit there and gossip, and that's a part of the city, too. My favorite is you can look out your window at 2 o'clock in the morning, or 5 o'clock in the morning, and there will always be someone walking. People walk everywhere. How do you stay in shape drinking vodka constantly and eating the most fatty foods you can imagine?

Did you move with your entire family to the U.S.?
Yeah, my father and my older sister, they came over here [to a Cleveland suburb] in 1992, because my dad decided that he wanted more options and a more secure future for his kids. And then a year later, me and my mother followed. Then my mom had to go back because her visa expired, so I went back with her after three years in the U.S. I was 15 at the time. And lived there for one-and-a-half years [before returning to the U.S.]. &

I've moved 23 or 24 times. And yeah, I do wish I could stay in one place and call it home. Actually, Squirrel Hill has been a safe ground for me for the past four years & in different apartments of course! Most of the time, I sit in the 61C [Café] and people just come up and start talking.

And that's the same sort of openness that you appreciate about Russia, the interaction in the public sphere?
Right. They'll sit down at my table and tell me their whole life story. I'll give them 45 minutes, not charge them anything [laughs], and they'll go away, maybe, with a little bit lifted off of them.

I think that's a rare thing; a lot of people have the attitude of "Don't bother me with your problems."
The more influences you get from others into yourself, the more you realize what's important to you, and what works for you. & [T]he more worlds you have around you, the richer your own becomes.

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