Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Last night was the Christmas/New Years celebration with the English students of Lingva, so a few other Americans doing missionary work in the city joined me to talk about our traditions, sing a few carols, and screen 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'. The students had even set up a fake 6-foot Christmas tree (or елка) in the middle of the room.
Then one Russian student had a few songs she wanted to sing. I had been told of her wonderful voice well in advance, so I thought it would be lovely to hear. I just didn't anticipate the genre of songs she enjoyed: very bad classic electro-pop. Her performance was capped-off by a memorable finale of ABBA's "Happy New Year". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcLMH8pwusw
She addressed everyone, "I think you all know this next song, so lets gather around the tree and sing together." I glanced suspiciously at the other Americans in the room, but we nonetheless stood, joined hands around the tree, and began walking in a circle while the young woman conveyed to us her passion for all things ABBA. None of us Americans knew the song, but the Russians were certainly into it, raising their hands high up in the air each time the phrase 'Happy New Year' was sung.
I learned one important lesson that evening: ABBA's song is four and a half minutes too long.
Monday, December 28, 2009
For the last two days I have noticed something very strange. There have been two chairs in my hallway, always occupied by people, although the people seem to change every few hours. They carry on conversations from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the sounds travel up and down the hall, penetrating the wooden doors and paper-thin walls that make up our rooms.
Last night, I returned home from a day of exploring the Novodevichy monastery and cemetery, and passed two women, one old and one young, seated in these chairs with a young man hovering over them, carrying on some sort of animated conversation. An hour or so passed in my room, and then I emerged to go boil some water in preparation for my pasta dinner. I stepped out of my room to find the hallway absolutely frigid. The people were still there, just a few doors down from me, now wearing their winter coats but still engaged in their talk.
I turned two corners and arrived at the kitchen to find the window wide open and the curtains blowing inward toward the stove tops. It was below freezing outside, so whoever decided to open the window was clearly not thinking straight. I closed the window and turned around to find the kind дежурная (woman-on-duty) standing in the doorway. She exclaimed my name and rushed in to start a conversation, as she always does when she sees me, although I only understand every 4th word that comes out of her mouth.
She asked me if the people in the hallway were bothering me. I said no. Just as I was about to ask what they were doing there, however, she preempted my question and launched into an explanation:
There was a man in the room who had a very poor back; something about severe spinal pain. The family had called in the help of a local shaman to cure him, and they were using the room as a hospital bed. She rolled her eyes, telling me that she was a 'believer', but that even this stretched her own spiritual-mental limits. She then composed herself and said, "But, what's most important, is that you believe."
So, I am now living in the midst of shaman-believers (and a shaman)...in the dormitory of the Moscow Agricultural Academy. This is such a strange place.
A shot from the monastery.
Friday, December 25, 2009
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
My class yesterday evening was abruptly stopped at 6:25 by an elderly professor who said, "We must stop class. We have something to celebrate. The dean is coming."
All of the other professors proceeded to clear the table of their papers and dictionaries and lay out paper-placemats, napkins, and plastic plates, cups, and utensils. Then out came dishes of sliced salami, cheese, bread, mandarins, and a huge cake. The dean entered the room, gave me a big smile and a handshake, and then out came a big bottle of cognac.
As it turned out, it was the elderly professor's 74th birthday. Seventy-four! (The current male life expectancy in Russia is 61.) I have a great deal of respect for this professor. He has already served his term as the dean of the Economics department (giving way to the current dean), is one of two faculty members at the university who is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the chairman of an organization he created relating to Russia and CIS agro-economic issues, and speaks fluent Tartar, Russian, Kazakh, and Uzbek, along with a healthy knowledge of German and English. A life to be jealous of, for sure.
It quickly became evident how much the other professors in the room respect him, as well. In typical Russian fashion, each person stood and gave a toast in honor of the celebrated septuagenarian. They waxed poetic about the man's numerous accomplishments, his intangible contributions to their own personal success, and showered him with wishes of good health and even more success in the years to come. Of course, this meant that in typical Russian fashion, you had to throw back your drink after each one of these toasts. After about 8 cognac-toasts, I had my fill.
The dean then taught me a few key phrases in Tartar (his native language): "Zhakhnim!" means "Let's drink!" and "baseballdravos" means "We can!". Following this, he invited me to the faculty party on Friday. Then, he decided that I will join him for a trip to the sauna on Saturday. Finally, he promised to find me a wife here in Russia so that I would never leave and could continue teaching his professors. I'll go along with the party, perhaps even the sauna. But the wife? How do I politely say 'no' when they won't stop stressing to me the beauty and homemaking capabilities of their women?
The best part: this is the third time I've had a party with this group of Economics professors in the last month. And another one has a birthday next week... They're a jolly bunch.
Sunday, December 20, 2009
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
My role as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant ('assistant' should read 'professor' in most cases), should be to help people with conversational English and American cultural studies. As I explained long ago, however, my sudden re-posting to Moscow changed my teaching responsibilities to fit my new university's needs, and now I am teaching English grammar to agricultural professors. In other words, I am spending hours teaching myself my own grammar and then passing it on to these professors.
This tends to be a difficult and often quite boring task, especially since these individuals are not by and large excited about being forced by the university to learn English, especially at this stage in their careers. And grammar is...well, grammar. It's difficult to teach. It's often very boring. And it involves a lot of monotonous exercises to ensure that word order and verb conjugations are followed according to the numerous rules and their even more numerous exceptions.
But today I had a good laugh while working on a 'Present Tense Verb Practice' worksheet I designed for my students. After asking them to formulate a question in the present continuous tense using a word prompt and provide an answer to this question, I found myself nearly on the floor laughing while most of the professors stared at me awkwardly. Here's what happened.
The prompt: Why / they / to sit / on the floor
Question: Why are they sitting on the floor?
Answer: They are sitting on the floor because they are Japanese.
Maybe you had to be there? But if you could have heard how the young woman struggled to pronounce her answer and the very serious look on her face, it would have tickled you, too.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
It's time for a change of face; hence, the new template. Why? Because the Moscow winter has finally arrived and completely transformed life in the city. Beginning yesterday, temperatures plummeted to -20 Celsius.
I have a few things for which I can be thankful in this weather, however.
1. It gives me personal 'bragging' rights for having survived the coldest days of my life.
2. It gave me a great reason to buy a real Russian fur hat (raccoon) and wool-lined boots.
3. The icy coldness has chased away the omnipresent cloud cover, leaving Moscow shining under a bright blue sky. The sun is finally visible, although it does not rise above a 45-degree angle with the ground, and only shines for about 7-8 hours a day.
4. This weather also helps me understand why Russian food is so fattening, and why they love to eat sweets. It provides a high-calorie diet to help their bodies survive the cold. Thus, I no longer feel guilty eating as many fattening foods as possible, especially because the cold weather makes you very hungry. And most of them are really tasty.
Of course, it's not all peachy. There's reason behind the phrase: "bitter cold".
1. Temperatures in the -20s bring windchills hovering around -35 C. See, the problem with Moscow winter is not the actual raw temperature--it's the wind due to the city's humid climate. I've read that even in the -40/-50 C weather in Siberia, the climate is dry, which makes going outside bearable, if not even pleasant (depending on your definition of 'pleasant'). It can be a very different story here in Moscow.
2. The winds have snuck in through the side of my window, dropping the temperature of my room to the mid-60s F. Luckily, I have three wool blankets on my bed, but it sure makes it difficult to get out of bed in the morning and leave my cocoon.
3. Any extended walk outdoors quickly turns into a nightmare, especially when in wide-open spaces, which unfortunately happen to be the most picturesque and charming locales of the city. The wind seeps in through any crack in your clothing, and soon you can't feel your ears, hands, or toes. The solution: don't stand still. Run around every few minutes. And you can't be self-conscious about it; even the Russians do it. Also, if you don't have a wind-proof jacket...fughetaboutit.
4. I've been suffering from an eye infection for the past 5 weeks or so, which has inhibited my ability to wear my contact lenses. Wearing glasses in this weather, however, is NOT recommended. The moment you step out of the cold into the metro, a store, or a restaurant, you immediately go blind. Glasses fog up instantaneously and you are left stumbling ahead, holding your arms out in front of you, and wondering where the person addressing you is standing.
5. The snow that fell last week has not disappeared completely, but has rather become compacted into a couple inches of ice on walkways. My 'winter wipeout' count is currently only at 1, but it was a rough one...and there were a lot of people there to see it.
6. Ice has also formed on the inside of all tram, trolley, and bus windows. This is not a case of simple fogging that can be wiped away with your hand. This is ice, meaning it can only be tackled by scraping with your nails if you want to be able to look outside and make sure you don't miss your stop.
All in all, however, I like this weather. A lot. The cold really refreshes you. And the crisp blue skies and bright sunshine aren't too bad, either.
Friday, December 11, 2009
No doubt everyone has now heard about the devastating fire in the 'Lame Horse' nightclub in Perm last weekend that has left 141 people dead and another 89 still hospitalized suffering from smoke inhalation and injuries related to the stampede of people attempting to escape the flames. The source of the disaster: fireworks. Fireworks set off inside the nightclub to celebrate it's 8 year anniversary. Subsequent investigations have found that the nightclub's fire escapes were not up to code, and this has led to a wave of resignations among the local fire department and even the local government in Perm.
But it has also sparked a nationwide interest in fire code regulations. Hence, my university has taken its own steps to prevent similar mishaps. Well, really just one step: they have labeled the fire escapes.
This still leaves one major problem. All of the fire escapes are locked.
There is one such stairwell right next to my door at the end of the hallway, and it features a nice-sized padlock. Now, however, there is a sign telling me where I can find the key to this lock! It is located in a room all the way on the other side of the building (although still on the 5th floor). This door to this room, however, is only open 8 hours each day. Otherwise, the key to this room (in order to reach the key to the fire escape door) is located in the main office on the floor below.
The only other way out of my dormitory is by way of the main staircase, which is also located all the way at the other end of the hallway from my room. The elevators in my dormitory--in a superb example of intelligent Soviet design--do not go down, and they only go up from the lobby. Therefore, from any floor in the dormitory, from the fourth all the way to the sixteenth, the only way to reach the exit is down one set of stairs, which dead-ends on the second floor. To reach the lobby from this point, you must walk all the way across the second floor to another set of stairs. (I should point out that the third floor is completely boarded up and impassible. Don't ask me why.)
Where the main staircase dead-ends on the second floor is another gate that is padlocked shut (the second fire escape). As of two days ago, however, this fire escape has been freshly labeled in red paint, "Emergency Exit," and a sign generously explains the location of the key to this padlock--again to be found in an office down the hall whose door is unlocked only during working hours.
Do people really value human life here?
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
Yesterday I gave a short photo-presentation to my group of Advanced English professors about my study-abroad experience in India in 2007. I told them the story of the elephant charge while on a safari in Karnataka. They loved it. Then, this morning, I received an email from one of the professors:
The Moscow winter has finally arrived. And this time it’s here to stay…I hope.
The last snowfall was over two weeks ago, and since then the city has been experiencing a serious December heat wave of 5-6 degrees Celsius. Yesterday, however, just as the East Coast back home got hit with a serious snowstorm, the temperature thousands of miles away in Moscow dipped to 5 below. Snow has been falling steadily all day today, and who knows when it will stop?
Yesterday also just happened to be the day that I took a trip to Kolomna---a small, old village a few hours south of Moscow---to explore the city’s old Kremlin. After a two-hour outdoor walking tour in the subzero weather with whipping winds (no snow, though), I was left wondering if I would ever feel my toes again. I could not hold my camera viewfinder up to my eye without shaking---hence the below-average pictures I ended up with. The day was nonetheless fascinating, as I got my first real taste of not only the Russian winter, but also another glimpse of an old Russian medieval town.
Not only have we reached the P.O.N.R. in terms of the weather, but I may have crossed the same barrier in my mentality toward Moscow. The city captured my heart late last week when I took a stroll downtown to Patriarch Ponds (this should sound familiar to anyone who has read Bulgakov’s classic, “Master and Margarita”). It is a small park with a walkway, benches, a playground, a huge statue of Mikhail Bulgakov and even an upscale restaurant surrounding the pond. The streets leading to Patriarch Ponds seem to be pulled right out of Paris. Narrow lanes with tall, neo-classical buildings towering over them, in the basements of which stand bakeries, restaurants, wine bars, boutiques, and the like (all extremely expensive, in the true Paris fashion). I walked through the 3 square-block area for two hours---and made a detour to the Bulgakov house museum where he wrote his classic---taking in the sights that warmed my heart. Finally--the romance of Moscow. If only I could wrap the overhead tram lines with Christmas lights.
This secluded Wonderland is located just two streets over from Thaddeus’ apartment.
Also, however 'harsh' the winters are here, Moscow is beautiful with snow. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Any self-respecting baseball fan out there is familiar with the above quote. Jack Buck’s call of Kirk Gibson’s improbable, pitch-hit, game-winning home run in the opener of the 1988 World Series is timeless. So is the tradition of the Russian theater. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Buck’s quote immediately popped into my mind after I saw a modern Russian rendition of Shakespeare’s timeless “Romeo & Juliet” on Thursday night?
Well, yes. It is a wonder. Why? Because the show was terrible.
Granted, Shakespeare is difficult. Even when read and performed in the original English, the antiquity of his work presents challenges to the modern actor that only the most skilled can overcome without looking and sounding like an ass. I suppose that’s why it’s quite chic to modernize and reinterpret these classics. But I left the Moscow Dramatic Theater named after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin not quite able to fathom just how badly this troupe missed the point.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an absolute stickler. While I adore the classicism of Big Will’s pieces, there is some merit and intrigue in a modern interpretation. There have even been some good ones---West Side Story, for example. Hell, even ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ was bearable. But this…this was in a whole ’nother ballpark. This was in the realm of the performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that I took part in during my freshman year at W&M. After 8 years of doing theater, this would prove to be my last show. Why? One reason was that the modern interpretation pursued by our director was, in a word, bullshit. It killed the art for me.
Let me break down what didn’t work in last night’s play:
1. The set. The set was two PVC-pipe jungle gyms on either side of the stage with plexi-glass panels on hinges (whose swinging motions resembled those of the far-too-heavy swinging doors leading into and out of Moscow metro stations--a real hazard to one’s safety). These two constructions represented the homes of the Capulets and the Montagues, respectively. What they mostly served as, however, were gymnastics bars for all the actors to perform stunts on. Stunts in Romeo & Juliet?
2. Hoola-hoops. There was a big party at the Capulet household in the first act where everyone was dancing with pink hoola-hoops. These objects made repeat appearances throughout the show, including at the point of Mercutio’s death, when he grabbed the stack of hoops and tossed them through the air before collapsing offstage. Dramatic.
3. Peeing on stage: At one point Mercutio comes on stage with Romeo and begins joking around with him. One of the jokes ends in him on all-fours, lifting his leg and mimicking a male dog peeing. He holds has a hand-held water bladder, which he then squeezes for full effect, “peeing” all over Romeo. He later does the same thing to Juliet’s nanny.
4. Music. I could go and on for this one. First, there is beat-boxing and fake rapping at one point. There is a blast of a gong between each scene. Indian drum-music was used extensively in the first act. French café music featuring accordions and violins is the music of choice in the second act. There is a completely unnecessary ballet scene with Romeo and Juliet dancing in all-black sport underwear (i.e. Juliet in nothing but a sport bra and underwear) around an art-deco grandfather clock, and the accompanying music is a duet of two men’s voices saying “You could go, You could go, You could go Around, Around, Around” in accented English.
But the real winner in the music category was the use of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Lasagna”--an atrocious parody of the already-atrocious “La Bamba”. The director made the unfortunate decision to use this song not once, but TWICE, including in the fight scene that ends in the fatal wounding of Mercutio. If you’re curious as to what a song about Lasagna sounds like, check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ps1oYsvlEzI
Now imagine this song being played twice during Romeo & Juliet. WTF.
You may think that perhaps I missed the point. Perhaps I was lost in the translation? Maybe I missed the humor?
Bad is bad is bad is bad, in Russian and in Old English.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
I got a taste of Russian hooliganism last night at my first professional Russian hockey game. Спартак (Spartak) played host to ЦСКА (the Red Army Team) in a match of cross-town rivals. These are two of the Moscow hockey triumvirate, the third being the esteemed (and so far in the season better) Динамо squad (Dynamo). After two lead changes, a penalty shot goal (see image below), and some really intense cheering, the game ended in 3-2 victory for the home team--my new favorite team (I bought a hat!)
While the КХЛ (Continental Hockey League of Russia and various former Soviet Republics) is the second-best in the world, there are obvious differences between the level of play here and that of the NHL. Surprisingly, it seems as though penalties are much more wont to be given over here, and therefore there is little checking. The extent of the physicality on the ice comes in the form of light shoves and swatting at each other's sticks. The real physicality, however, can be found in the bleachers.
I attended the game with my suitemate from Middlebury and fellow Fulbrighter, Thaddeus--an avid hockey player and fan from Wisconsin--and his friend Jenny (who studied with him at Midd's Russian School this past summer) and Jenny's friend Lily (studying abroad in Moscow from Tufts). We got what we thought were going to be GREAT seats--front row, rink-side just to the right of one of the goals. The presence of the opponents' bench and the low height of the glass, however, provided a little bit of an obstruction...no wonder the seats were left when we bought our tickets. We also happened to be one seating-section over from the 'Spartak fan' section---a riotous group with non-stop cheers, ranging from the benign "RED, WHITE!" (Spartak's colors) to more pointed chants involving insults to ЦСКА's pride (and perhaps mothers, too). We were even graced with a splendid rendition of "WE WILL, WE WILL, F*** YOU!" sung in poor English accents to the tune of Queen while flipping the bird to the opposite side of the rink where the ЦСКА fans were positioned. I was all for doing The Wave, but I don't think it would have gotten very far.
Here are a couple more shots from the game.
Even the young ones get into it.
On a completely unrelated note, I neglected to write of an earlier excursion I took to the small village of Aleksandrovskaya located about 2 hours outside of Moscow. Here is situated Aleksandrovskaya Sloboda--a small walled-in complex, that, as far as I can understand, was the capital of Ivan the Terrible's oprichnaya--his private security forces. In Russian history, the oprichnaya are feared and infamous for wearing black robes from head to toe, traveling by black horses, and sporting the symbols of a broom and a dog--one for 'cleaning' and one for 'aggression' (thanks to Prof. Corney for his unforgettable lectures). Inside the walls stand several whitewashed churches, tall spires, a nunnery that is still in use, and even a building featuring the rooms where Ivan the Terrible would sleep, eat, and torture his subjects during his stays in the Sloboda. Although I had a really hard time understanding our guide, I was nonetheless impressed by the village. It provided a great small-scale example of an old Russian medieval village--something I am sure to see much more of as I make my way around the Golden Ring in the near future.
Here are some photos from that trip:
I should note that this trip to Aleksandrovskaya Sloboda also brought good fortune. It was the first day I had seen the sun in three weeks.
And finally, I'm sure some of you may be wondering how I spent my Thanksgiving in Moscow? Well, the answer is simple: in style. I received an invitation to attend a feast at the Ambassador's House with other Americans who are currently here on study-programs, and some Russians who either studied abroad in the US or who are employed by the Fulbright office in Moscow. I think it goes without saying: the house is gorgeous. The food was spectacular. The company was lovely. The ambassador is a great guy. But I still missed home. Again, some photos:
P.S. At last, I got around to uploading almost all of the photos I have taken so far during my stay in Russia to my Picassa site. The URL is http://picasaweb.google.com/bryan.terrill
Here you can see more from all of these events I described.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Tonight I managed to do something for the first time since my arrival in Russia.
I have not had any success figuring out how to use the gym at the university. No one here seems to be of any help, whatsoever. I am beginning to wonder if anyone here uses it. Or if inside the building labeled 'спортскомплекс' is any sort of 'sports complex' at all...
Well, tonight I finished teaching at about 7pm and walked outside into the balmy 6 degree weather with just a spritz of rain. "This is it," I decided. "Now is my chance."
I speed-walked home, threw down my bag and changed into my sweats. I didn't even need to put on my beloved spandex. Six degrees is a HEATWAVE. I plugged into my iPod and ran down the five flights of stairs and out the door into the great unknown that was my path for the evening.
I began down Лиственничная Аллея, which is a pedestrian-only street that spans nearly the entirety of the university's campus. It is lined with trees, academic buildings, a couple of ponds, and fields where students get hands-on training for their agricultural studies. This sounds like a very picturesque scene, but trust me, it is only so in a very Soviet sense. Nonetheless, it's about as picturesque as things get around here, especially in the 'burbs.
Anyways, the 'alley' goes for about a mile, but by the time I reached the far end of the street, reality hit me like a brick to the chest. The lack of exercise since coming to Russia has really taken its toll. I haven't been on a serious run in over two months. And I could feel it in every part of my body.
Thankfully, I managed to make the return jog without collapsing, and even stopped to have a nice chat (albeit between heaving breaths) with the vice-rector of International Relations as he was on his way home.
I have since spent the last few hours making a spaghetti dinner, wasting time on YouTube finding clips of The Office to make me feel more at home, and doing my dishes in the bathtub.
Speaking of home, some strange things have been happening lately.
First, listening to my iPod on shuffle has resulted in an abnormally high proportion of Christmas songs. Hearing these songs tends to make me really sad, as I begin to realize that this will be the first Christmas that I have not been at home with my family. I usually skip the songs because I don't like the feeling they give me, but tonight I listened to a jammin' Transiberian Orchestra rendition of 'O Come All Ye Faithful.' It was nice.
Second, I gave a presentation (three times) to students studying English in the Lingva department here last week about New York City. The idea was to introduce them to an exciting part of the US, and it also gave me an excuse to play Sinatra's "Theme from New York, New York" and the new "Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys (both of which they loved, except for the one super-long-haired boy in the 1st year who prefers heavy metal). I covered the distinct nature of each of the buroughs, the subway system, shopping in NYC, and interesting facts about the city (many thanks to my sister for all the info and photos she sent me). Of course, I could not get around talking about 9/11, the Twin Towers, Ground Zero, and the impact this had on NYC and America. In the middle of explaining what I saw when I visited Ground Zero several years after the attacks, I began to get choked up. Seriously choked up...enough to force me to pause for a few seconds. It was strange. Even on the day it happened, which I remember so well (sitting in Ms Truesdell's 9th grade World History class when we got the news and the TV was turned on...never to be turned off for the next three days), I never once cried. I don't even remember my eyes getting teary. Nor when I saw Ground Zero in person. But there was something strangely revealing and sobering about describing this event to foreigners who have no idea what it was like to watch this footage as it happened and to be an American on that day. As I attempted to describe just how horrible a day it was in our history, I nearly lost it. I suppose the strongest connections to your homeland are forged when you are thousands of miles away.
I've got a few more stories and some photos to share, but I think those can wait for another post, hopefully not too far off in the future. But I've got an early morning tomorrow.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Well, I have at long last been officially 'Russified.' Initiated. Christened. Re-born, even.
I spent Friday night in the company of two new Russian friends, Julia and Alyosha, and a new PhD student from Slovakia, Kinga.
The plan: hand-make pelmeni (Russian meat dumplings) at Alyosha's house and watch a classic Russian comedy, "Служебный роман."
The outcome: five-and-a-half hours of making dough, pulverizing meat and vegetables, wrapping this meat/veggie concoction in little circles of dough, boiling the pelmeni, eating the pelmeni along with smoked fish from the Far East, taking 4 (or was it 5?) vodka shots, only getting through 15 minutes of the film, watching Russian comedy skits online, looking at Alyosha's photos of an expedition he took to the Russian Far East, and sprinting home through the rain to make the 1 am dormitory curfew just as security was locking the door.
Julia is a third-year Lingva student to whom I give presentations, and through her I met her friend Aleksei (Alyosha) who is quite a character. His sense of humor is right out of my own backyard, and so far we have a really great budding friendship. He also happened to take a trip to Kamchatka and the Commander Islands last summer to research the Arctic fox population, and he knows of my new-found obsession with getting to the Far East after the debacle with my university in P-K. He enthusiastically showed me photos of wildlife from his trip: pictures of brown bears taken from a distance of 20 meters, four different whale species (orca, sperm, humpback, and southern--of which there are believed to only be about 30 living in the world) that swam up to their boat and even performed jumping spectacles for them, puffins, arctic foxes, sea lions, fur seals, and more. He even showed me a video he took at the summit of a mountain on the Commander Islands where the wind was so strong that he could lean into it at a 45 degree angle and remain 'afloat'. Needless to say, I got really jealous, but spent the whole time awestruck.
Alyosha and Julia have proven invaluable friends so far---always willing to take me out somewhere and keep me company. So far we have plans to go to museums, go bowling, to the theater, and more.
Saturday night I met up with my other new friend, Miriam, whom I met at Thaddeus' Halloween party, and who is also an English teacher at a school in another Moscow suburb. She was heading out with some other teachers on her program for drinks downtown and invited me to go along. They were all Brits (except Miriam, who has a mixed-heritage background of India, Canada, England, and Scotland and her friend Lisa from North Dakota), and I felt like I was in a proper pub for most of the night. It was great fun, and interesting to speak with people who have a similar job and who can offer me plenty of advice.
Finally, I'm feeling at home.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
"Город спитe!" ("City, sleep!")
This was the cry I heard from 11pm to 2am last Friday night, emitted from the 12-year old girl sitting on the lower bunk of the train cabin across the aisle from me.
I was on my way to Belgorod for my first out-of-Moscow experience since arriving in Russia, and I just happened to be in a train wagon FULL of young children, probably returning home from an excursion to the capital. The four-bunk enclave next to me was occupied by four young girls--obviously the ringleaders of the class--who decided to have a night-long game of Mafia with the rest of their classmates. Their teachers, of course, thought nothing of telling them to keep the noise level down after the lights were turned out just before 11pm, and I did not really have the courage to ask them to keep it down when my level of Russian would make me appear to be only half their age. So, I endured until about 2, when my bunkmate--a young man on his way between work and family--finally decided to give them an earful. The little boys of the class, who had earlier made a big show bragging about how they had just gulped down energy drinks at 11:30pm, sulked back to their camps. Finally, I could sleep.
At least, I could sleep until the train pulled into the Belgorod station at 7:32am, exactly the time advertised on the ticket. (I still can't get over the efficiency of mass-rail transit in Russia.) Belgorod, located a few dozen miles from the Ukrainian border, is a small city which contrasts sharply with Moscow. Unlike the capital, old Belgorod was demolished in WWII as a consequence of heavy armored battles between the Germans and Russians. It's current architecture is mostly that of modernity (albeit oftentimes a Soviet idea of modernity), but the numerous and humorous brass statues that make their appearances around the city and the young trees that line the sidewalks make for an entirely different atmosphere than Moscow.
I was traveling to Belgorod to visit my friend and fellow Fulbright ETA, Nicky, who is teaching at BelGU, or Belgorod State University. After meeting me at the train station (and perking my sleepy-self up with a chocolate bar and orange), we strolled along the main streets of the city toward her university. After asking me about my first impressions of her much-smaller-than-mine city, I immediately responded, "It's clean. It's really clean." And I wasn't kidding. Compared to Moscow, the Belgorod streets looked like they were hosed down and power-brushed by zamboni street-cleaners on the hour, every hour. Nicky laughed and remarked that cleanliness is what all outsiders say upon arriving in Belgorod, and it is exactly this trait of which Belgorod-ians are most proud.
Upon arriving at her super-modern university (at least when compared to mine), we began walking across a bridge located outside the front doors of her dormitory. The bridge is covered in padlocks, and on each one the names of a newly-married couple and their date of marriage is engraved. According to modern Belgorod tradition, there are 7 (I think) places in the city that each newlywed couple must visit, and on this bridge, it is good luck to leave a lock. Some say that the bridge will collapse one day soon because of all the extra weight...I wouldn't be surprised.
It was on the bridge that we ran into Igor, an IT employee at BelGU and a private English student of Nicky's. He invited us to his office for tea and snacks, and after about 3 hours of broken conversation in English and dramatic storytelling in Russian, he guided us to the 'Winter Garden,' or greenhouse on the sixth floor of the building. Not only did this garden feature plants from around the world, but also fish, birds, and reptiles (including a boa constrictor). It was pretty impressive. We also visited Nicky's departmental office and met a few of her colleagues. Naturally, I was asked my impressions of their city and university. I unashamedly pronounced: "Clean and modern." They were pleased to hear that.
Then we met Nicky's German friend Suzanne outside the university. Suzanne is also in Belgorod on a very similar program as the Fulbright ETA, although she teaches German and is in the midst of organizing a massive conference for all of her colleagues from around Russia to showcase the program and help build upon it for the future. Suzanne also speaks flawless English, and it was in her apartment that I spent Saturday night, as Nicky's dormitory was under a 'no-guest quarantine' policy thanks to the swine flu scare (as is my dorm and most others around Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia from what I gather).
The rest of my more or less day-and-a-half in Belgorod was spent exploring the city sights. We strolled through the main market to pick up fruits and vegetables for dinner. We walked along and across a quaint river that runs through the city. We saw the exhibits in the Belgorod Regional Museum, which ranged from soil and stuffed-wildlife samples (my kinda thing!) to Jurassic period flint samples, all the way through to Soviet-era sport memorabilia. We took a 'night hike' up the 383 (or somewhere thereabouts) stairs that lead to the top of a hill which overlooks the city to see it lit up at night. The hill itself has fallen victim to many a construction project, so new apartment buildings and businesses line the top of it, but there is also an impressive statue of Prince Vladimir. Old Vlad's contribution to Russian history was the wholesale adoption and enforcement of Orthodox Christianity from Constantinople to Kievan Rus' in 988 A.D.---some may even consider him the man behind the Russian Empire, as his choice of Orthodoxy to reign in paganism led to the first comprehensive territory across the land.
Perhaps the querkiest thing happened within the last three hours of my departure back to Moscow on Sunday night. Nicky and I were sitting in her favorite coffee shop (the chic "Coffee Bean" attached to the Art Museum) playing a makeshift game of dominoes while Suzanne worked on her conference planning, and in walked one of Nicky's English students. She came right up to say hello and then told us that she met another American in the city, and he was on his way to the coffee shop as we spoke. Sure enough, a few minutes later a tall brown-haired (definitely non-Russian) looking man walked into the shop and introduced himself as Joe.
Joe is a hockey player, and has been traveling around the world playing in different leagues since his adolescence. Having made his way through the US (he is originally from Long Island but lived in Seattle for a time), Canada, Italy, and China (where he played in Shanghai), he had finally come to Russia. Joe had just finished a stint with a team in Samara before his agent gave him the news that he would be transfered to the Belgorod team on a possible two-year contract. He said he loved Russia so far, but he didn't speak a word of the language. Well, almost no words. He went up to the bar to order a black tea (чай черный, or 'chai chorniy'), but his variant was a nonchalant 'chai chairny.' After ordering, he came back to our table to tell us of his success at being understood by the barrista, and then remarked that those are the only two words of Russian he would ever need to speak: "Chai chairny, brother. That's all you need to know." I gave Joe my phone number in case his team ever travels up to Moscow. I hope to treat him to some more tea, just to see the reaction of a not-so-friendly Muscovite.
My time in Belgorod was super. It was great to see how another Fulbright ETA lives and the differences between cities, universities, students and friends. But I was hit hard by reality once I arrived back in Moscow early Monday morning. Cold, misty, and most visible of all after Belgorod--dirty. Classes went relatively well on Monday and Tuesday, but I struggled through class on Wednesday with my non-responsive group of professors. But, the evening picked-up, as I led an 'excursion' of Lingva students to the movies to see '500 Days of Summer,' which I found playing in English with Russian subtitles at a theater downtown. I saw this movie in September before leaving for Russia, and jumped at the chance to see it again. Thankfully, the students also really enjoyed it. We finished the evening with a midnight walk through a park before returning home just before the dormitories closed at 1am.
Needless to say, I'm a little sleepy today. Guess I need some of that chai chairny, brother.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Everyone here looks at me funny.
Is it my clothes? I don’t have a black pleather or down jacket, so maybe that’s it.
Is it my face? I’m trying my best to adopt the oft-expressionless glare, but my nodding-and-tight-lipped-smiling-upon-making-eye-contact tendency is a dead giveaway.
Is it my hair? I am devoid of a mullet or shaved head, so that may have to change. On second thought, no it doesn't.
Is it that my eyes always seem to be bloodshot? I blame my new contact lens solution, or maybe its just the dirt.
Or am I imagining all of this? Probably not. I do give off the ‘sore thumb’ vibe here.
As far as I'm concerned, however, the real sore thumbs are those wearing surgical masks against swine flu. Check this out. http://www.rferl.org/content/Swine_Flu_Fear_Leads_To_Designer_Masks_In_Kazakhstan/1802846.html
Also, I butchered a fried chicken yesterday. It became part of my 11 pm dinner.
Monday, November 2, 2009
Halloween morning in Moscow brought the second day of snow in a row. I woke up to see specks falling from the sky, and I bundled up against the cold (futilely) and did my best not to slip on the sheets and puddles of ice as I walked outside. It’s -1 degrees Celsius outside constantly now. And everyone keeps telling me that this is ‘summer’ weather.
I gave five presentations about Halloween to students and professors alike this last week--they seem fascinated by the whole idea of dressing up and eating candy. And the more I talked about it, the more excited I got to celebrate it. My friend and fellow Fulbrighter/Middlebury suitemate, Thaddeus, hosted a Halloween party at his apartment in downtown Moscow which he shares with two other Fulbrighters, Emily and Sasha, and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. On Halloween morning, one of my second-year Linva students, Sveta, took me to a costume shop where I bought a Sherlock Holmes-type hat to go along with my sports coat and tie (all on top of my long underwear, of course). I even made a pipe out of paper to top the costume off. Although it was kind of sad that the only thing I had to buy to look like Sherlock Holmes was a hat...do I really dress that old-fashioned?
The party was a blast. I got to spend it with fellow English-speakers and met a few very interesting people, including another English teacher from Scotland/Canada/India/England and an American from North Dakota working for a pair of companies in Moscow. I hope to run into them again sometime and someplace in the future…it was great being able to joke around and have people laugh because they actually understand you.
Tonight, Monday night, I will be screening the classic ‘Hocus Pocus’ for all the Lingva students, and then we will have a Halloween party of our own featuring American songs (once again, the singing!) and hopefully some food. One guy, Alex, even offered to bring in a pumpkin for me to carve. It’s been a while since I’ve done that, but I’ll give it a go!
On Friday morning I was taken on an excursion by Irina Petrovna and another professor in the Russian as a Foreign Language department, along with several other foreign students and a professor (5 ethnic Uighur Chinese and an Iranian family of 3). We rode the trolleybus and metro to Sokolniki Park (Falcon Park), which is situated on the old hunting grounds of the tsar. Of course, rather than leave the park in its most natural form, the Soviets laid down cement paths throughout the area in addition to big exhibition pavilions and funhouses/carnival attractions for children, which are of course closed down in this weather and instead give the appearance of a horror film set. As for the paths, no cement can withstand the cold conditions of Moscow unscathed, and so most of them are cracked and potholed.
But, we were not there to critique the park’s construction. We were going to see the exhibits in the pavilions. Right now, there is a special exhibit on world calligraphy, which I found fascinating. And talk about a contrast between the appearance of the park outside and the interior of this pavilion/museum. It is super modern inside. A white, minimalist design set-off by blue lights and wide open spaces between exhibit-cubes. White roses and sculptures tastefully placed throughout the pavilion, in addition to telescopes--the reasoning was as such: there was a motif that the art of calligraphy comes from the heart and travels through the soul, thus becoming a ’higher’ or ’universal’ art. In one room in the center of the first floor of the pavilion was a fireplace, above which was a work of art that consisted of a golden 3-D heart emerging from a red background. If you stood in front of this piece and looked straight ahead, you would be led to a free-standing staircase. At the top of this staircase was one small room in which was placed an example of ancient Hebrew calligraphy found near Mt. Sinai. This was supposed to represent the soul. Then, if you went up to the second floor of the pavilion you could see a few posters on the ceiling above this free-standing ’soul room’. Looking through a telescope, you could see that the posters showed Earth and the planets--a representation of the universe and our small role within it. Strange? Yes. But nonetheless done tastefully? Yes.
Sunday, November 1, 2009
(Written Wednesday, October 28)
This entry’s alternate title: “The Five F-sounding Things---Family, Fun, Food, Philosophy and Phillies”
On Saturday, October 17 I received a gift. The gift of a respite from Moscow. It had only been three weeks, but life in Moscow to this point had been quite oppressive. The ‘big city attitude’ is pervasive here--many people act with little regard for others, rudeness seems to be the characteristic of choice, and the weather…oh, the weather. Despite the acts of kindness I had witnessed and been a recipient of, I needed a break.
Ironically enough, my thanks for this sanity-saving trip actually go out to the one thing that has angered me the most so far about my time here--the Russian bureaucracy. The bureaucracy’s way of disrupting the simplest things and making everything half as efficient as it should be actually paved the way for my return. I had been in Russia on a tourist visa after the big bureaucratic mix-up with my university in Kamchatka and the rushed decision to place me in my current Moscow university. Tourist visas only last 30 days and cannot be extended, thus forcing me to return to the US to apply for a long-term student visa (but even this can only have a maximum 90-day length, so I have to extend it for a fee once back in Moscow).
So, after three weeks of breaking-in and finally finding something resembling a rhythm in Moscow, my rhythm was disrupted by a ten-and-a-half hour flight home next to a screaming infant from Ulan-Ude (just north of the Mongolian border relatively close to Lake Baikal in Siberia) who had just been adopted by an American couple. On top of this, the terrible head-cold I picked up in Moscow was still plaguing me. I thought I would be escaping the miserable weather of Moscow, but the day I returned to the US was a day of only 45 F and rain…what happened to this world? Thankfully, this would soon change into a stretch of 75 F and sunny, a world and a half away from what I had been living with in Russia.
I spent the first few days with family (my sister Lauren even came down from NYC to visit) and sleeping off my jetlag and my cold. And of course, I took advantage of every opportunity to watch American football and baseball---as long as I could stay awake, that is. I could not have asked for a better time to come home, as I was able to watch the Phillies top the Dodgers for the second straight year to win the NL pennant. It’s just too bad that I’m not around to watch them defend their World Series title, but I receive updates every morning from my Dad! I also feasted on some great food that I had really been craving: namely, meat. It’s near impossible to cook meat in my dormitory kitchen, and any meat products I have tried in my cafeteria have been supremely disappointing and often leave me either picking bone chunks out of my teeth or questioning the actual nature of ‘said meat’. (BTW, thanks Genny for showing me Elevation Burger. That place rocks my socks.)
It also just so happened that a week after I arrived back in the US was Homecoming at W&M. Talk about good luck. Even though I received my visa just five days after returning to the US, I decided to stick around for another five so I could go down to Williamsburg and see friends and professors. The best part of it all: I only told a handful of people about my return and my intention to head down to the College. For the rest, it was a big surprise. And I got some people really good: Paige and Tim--you‘ll probably never pick up a phone call from me again. Lamonster--I wish I could have done something a little more dramatic, but your tears were enough for me. Welle--if only Clay hadn’t blown it (but I still love you, Clay). Hunt 2nd girls & Colleen--what a treat to see you at the football game. Paulie--try not to tackle me next time I see you, okay? (just kidding, it was the best tackle ever) And to everyone--it was just really darn good to see you all.
Of course, I also have to mention how lucky I was to return to the States at just the right time to see ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ with Genny and Kelley. What a treat. I had been so distraught when I first learned that I would miss its release in theaters by going to Russia, but once again, I have reason to send the omnipresent Russian bureaucracy a ‘thank you’ card and box of chocolates. Maybe with the following phrase written inside: “Aw, that was my favorite arm!” Genius.
I had an unreal time back in the US. Despite my mind still being half in Moscow thinking about (and sort of dreading) having to return, I truly enjoyed myself through and through. It was, as Paige so aptly put, a ‘bonkers’ week(end). But, while speaking with everyone about my time in Russia so far, my mind kept forming the phrase, “So far so sh*tty”. It was honestly how I felt. Being in the company of people that you love so much, realizing what you left behind, and wishing you could bring everyone back with you left me with a feeling of desperation, loneliness, and deep pessimism about the remainder of my time in Moscow. Compared to Williamsburg, my area of Moscow is a super depressing place. But I also received some great words of encouragement from everyone.
I have since returned to Moscow, once again suffering from jetlag, and have come to live by the following:
THIS IS AN ADVENTURE, SILLY. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EVERYTHING.
From now on, I will have more fun in my classes. From now on, I won’t put so much pressure on myself when working with the professors; after all, I’m not a professional teacher, nor is it my job to be one. From now on, I will do my best to accept every invitation from people to travel throughout Moscow and beyond. From now on, I will explore everything. And perhaps most exciting to me right now: from now on, I will try to learn as much as I can about agriculture while posted at this university. It may just lead me somewhere in the future.
Friday, October 16, 2009
1. Kind ol' Vladimir Ilyich.
I have no idea what this guy's actual job is. He works (I think) as some sort of administrator in the Lingva (international language) department, which is the department through which I give all of my presentations to the English-learning students on Wed-Fri nights. His desk is in the main office, where there is a second desk for other professors stopping in to use the computer, a large table on which sit many books of language instruction, a REALLY nice flat-screen TV (no idea why it's there seeing as the department doesn't even have projectors or computers that were made after 1995), and several electric tea kettles and a cupboard full of dozens of teacups, tea, coffee, and cookies.
I go to this office to rest between lectures, and he always welcomes me with open arms. He does not speak a word of English, but speaks very slow Russian for me. He sits me down, makes me a cup of tea, and sometimes gives me an entire unopened box of moon-pies to take home for snacking on. When I asked him where the bathroom was (after my fourth cup of tea the other night), he insisted on taking me by the arm and walking me through the maze of hallways about 200 yards away to point it out to me.
There are also always students in the office chatting with him, drinking tea, eating cookies, or watching tv. The students generally know who I am and they also stop and speak with me--some in Russian, some in English. I really like the atmosphere in the office, and I really like kind ol' Vladimir Ilyich.
2. Anna Voronina.
Anna is one of the professors that I teach in the intermediate group. She is in the economics department and works specifically on agricultural economic forecasting. She is probably about 35 years old and actually knows a good deal of English (maybe she should be in the advanced group). In class, she sometimes give me looks like: "I already know all of this..." and "This seems dumb." She is almost always the first one to answer my questions (even if they are not posed to her), although when she does answer them, her grammar is often far from correct...so I'm keeping her in the intermediate class.
Last night's class got to be visibly challenging for me at one point because one of the professors was being very difficult and others did not seem to understand what I spent the previous hour talking about even though they did not ask any questions when I asked if everything was clear.
After class, Anna came up to me completely on her own volition and asked if she could speak to me for a minute. She looked very serious, as she normally does, and I was expecting her to ask to be moved to the advanced class or to tell me to do things differently (and to be honest, I would not have been surprised if either of these was the case, and I would have even welcomed suggestions).
However, Anna wanted to sympathize with me. She wanted to give me words of encouragement. She said that I was doing a great job, and that she and everyone else in the class understand how difficult it is to teach for the first time. She even said that she could only imagine how hard it was working with people so much older than I. She told me not to pay attention to the fact that many of them talk amongst themselves in Russian during the class---that it is simply them trying to explain to one another the concepts I am covering. She assured me that I was making things interesting and they were not bored. She even said it was a relief for all of them to be able to 'switch places' for 6 hours a week and sit and listen to lectures rather than deliver them.
THEN, she invited me to join her and her family whenever I wanted to be shown around Moscow and beyond. She said that she knows it must be hard in a new country, and that if I ever needed anything or wanted to go on an excursion with her family, I could simply ask. So ask I shall.
3. Dmitry and Timur.
Dmitry and Timur re two second-year Lingva students that I give presentations to on Thursday nights. Last night, after what I felt was a disastrous class with the economics professors and after a cup of tea and two moon-pies with Vladimir Ilyich, I went to give a presentation on the American South to this group of students. It was a KILLER presentation. They loved it. I loved giving it. STELLAR. I didn't even get home to eat dinner until 10pm.
Afterwards, several students came up to me to thank me for my energy and my presentation. Dmitry, gave me his 'business card' and invited me to visit his home village and his family outside of Moscow. His father is an army translator and his mother is an English teacher. He said we could take a weekend trip to his village to meet his family and we could speak both in English and Russian. He was very excited to have me over. I just don't know when I can manage it. I get so many invitations for weekend trips that all my weekends from now until July will be filled within a couple more weeks...
Then Timur came up to speak with me. I had met Timur the week before, and was immediately struck by his appearance and demeanor. He wears very very very baggy clothing. Jeans that hang well below his backside and massive sweatshirts with 'Air Jordan' logos. I asked him if he plays basketball, and he said "No, but it gives me pleasure to watch it" (I should note here that Russians don't have a colloquial equivalent to 'enjoy'...so their anglicized versions of this phrase sound quite strange). Well, last night Timur had a giant smile on his face after the presentation and wanted to talk to me about music. I had covered rock & roll and its evolution from Elvis to Jimi Hendrix to Aerosmith, etc. and I made a big deal about Woodstock. Timur thought it was awesome. Then, he commented that I sounded sick, and asked me what I was doing to feel better. I said drinking lots of tea with honey, and was really impressed. He explained to me that honey is a part of Russia's tradition, and I had to explain to him that in America it was not taken quite as seriously...it was a real shame to him. Then we talked a bit about the American education system, which he also found fascinating.
Dmitry and Timur and two cool guys.
I got a lot of other invitations from other kind people, including one to a reggae festival (what three girls believed to be the equivalent of Woodstock in Russia). The funny thing was that one of the girls was the same who asked me about 'war reinactors' in the US...she then gave me a 15-minute explanation that she just got into this reinactment gig and has already done 'shows' depicting the 1812 Russian victory over Napoleon at Borodino and then a WWII show where she was the nurse for a mortar team. Interesting, but kind.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
I'm quickly learning how unaccustomed I am to Russian weather. I have come down with a real head cold, but luckily Russians have a particular trait that turns each and every one of them into worried mothers at the first sign of sickness. I can't count on my fingers the number of people who have given me advice or brought me some kind of remedy to help me feel better.
Here are the highlights of what I have so far received:
-Boxes and bags of chocolates and sweets. Apparently chocolate is good for a healthy mind. When Elvira surprisingly remarked that I had not devoured the entire box of 30+ chocolates that she had given me only 3 days before, I told her that I did not have a real sweet-tooth. She encouraged me to eat them all (what, right now?!), but then said that my abstinence from the whole box was probably the reason I had such nice teeth. I'm not convinced that I do in fact have such a nice set of pearly-whites, but by Russian standards, I'm a dental phenomenon.
-A very strong liquor from the Chuvash republic (not sure how that's spelled), which is Elvira's homeland. She mixed me a drink of this liquor, which tastes like Jaegermeister or some other aperitif of thick consistency, put in about 3 spoonfuls of homemade honey (also from Elvira), and hot water. It was awful.
-Some type of clear-liquid cough medicine, which Elvira insists needs to be taken four or five times a day and administered as such: one teaspoon of the medicine and about two or three teaspoons of hot water. Mixed with the water, the whole concoction becomes a milky-white color. Again, awful.
-Herbs and other greenery which Elvira insists need to be boiled and then left in water for about a day before the water is drunk. I'm not sure about this. It looks like a bunch of branches and leaves she picked up off the ground...I've decided to leave it alone, because if it gives off any kind of scent or tastes anything like the previous two remedies, I want no part of it.
-Elvira insists that I wrap my head and throat with a scarf while I sleep. I find this unnecessary, since they finally turned on the central heating in the dormitory and now I feel like a pig on a roasting stick every night as I try to fall asleep.
-The aforementioned jar of homemade honey from Elvira. She says that her father is a beekeeper in the Chuvash republic, and she herself donned the beekeeper suit not too long ago to extract this particular batch of honey. Now this one I can deal with. It's delicious. She and Leila recommended that I eat a spoonful every morning when I wake up, and I do...I also put it in my tea and my oatmeal every morning. But just the other day Leila tells me in Russian: "You shouldn't go outside for two hours after eating honey since it weakens your immune system." Great, now she tells me. No wonder I got sick!!!!
-Leila also presented me with a special expensive bottle of mineral water from Germany found in only the most upscale grocery stores in Moscow. She says this is the only water she drinks and that is very good for your health. It tastes like water.
Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate the fact that I have people who are concerned and looking out for me, but when I'm sick I prefer to be left alone so I can rest. So when Elvira came knocking at 9:30pm last night to administer these various remedies and to show me an entire photo album of her family, it was not exactly what I had in mind for a 'healing process'. But, such is the Russian psyche, and I'm learning to live with it.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I realize I've been entirely negligent about putting up some photos of my new surroundings. To be honest, I haven't taken many so far, but here is a sampling of some of my favorites:
Here is my Soviet style dormitory. I live on the fifth-floor on the opposite side of the building.
Here a photo of my bedroom. At the foot
of my bed is my closet, which doesn't open all the way thanks to the bed. The mattress is just skinny enough to fit one person, and thin enough to ensure that you wake up with bedspring marks in your back. My desk (a table) is next to the bed.
This is the State Historical Museum which lies at one end of Red
Square directly across from St. Basil's Cathedral. It is a super impressive building, and the museum's collection is really impressive.
St. Basil's Cathedral. Likely the most recognizable symbol not only in Moscow, but in all of Russia. It is actually nine small churches inside of one cathedral, the grandest of which was built to commemorate Ivan the Terrible's capture of Kazan in 1552 from the Mongol Khanate.
On the left is one of the grand
pavilions in VDNKh, the park built to host all exhibitions and celebrations of Soviet agriculture and economics. The park is still used for such exhibitions, and when I visited there was a lot of tractor equipment there...
Here is one view from Ismailova Park, a gigantic bizarre of kitschy Russian and Soviet goods, mostly made just for souvenirs and therefore outrageously overpriced for their quality. It stands amongst these facades of medieval castles and such...not sure if these are replications of actual structures that stood here way back when or just for show. But nonetheless fun.
And finally...my favorite piece. This painting stood in one of the aisles of Ismailova Park. I only wish it had been for sale. I would have traded all the matroshka dolls in the world for this baby.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Phew, it’s been a while since I updated the ol’ blog. So much has happened this last week that I’ve found myself without any time to get down to what’s really important…that is, helping Tim Bacon procrastinate (I do love you, Tim, believe me). So, without any further ado, I bring you a series of anecdotes to summarize my previous week--week 2 if you’re keeping track--in Moscow. I know it’s long, but I promise this entry is worth reading, at least in my mind (I‘ve put an asterisk next to the anecdotes that are most amusing or interesting if you don't have time for all).
*The Russian Law Ain’t Nothing to Mess With
The overwhelming story of this week has been my illegal residence in Moscow. After a mix-up (lost in translation, you might say) with the authorities at my dormitory, I did not receive my official registration that proves that I am allowed to be in Moscow. If one is stopped without proper documentation in Russia, you could really be in some deep sh*t. Like getting detained. Fined. Deported. Not fun stuff. So, there I was for almost two whole weeks without proper documents. I was really stressed out, to say the least. After being bounced from office to office and only understanding a handful of what was said to me in very rapid official-sounding Russian, the International Office at the university stepped in and got everything sorted out. Thank goodness. I’m finally here legally, at least for the next week before I go home to get a new visa and have to repeat the entire registration process over again…
*Uncle Sam in Moscow
This past Monday and Tuesday was our Fulbright in-country orientation. Fulbright paid for all ETAs and research grantees living outside of Moscow (and there are a lot) to fly to the capital for a brief respite and some presentations on the Russian economy, political climate, security issues, and also to learn about the services provided by the English Language Office at the US Embassy and the American Center in Moscow.
The U.S. Embassy is a very impressive complex. You enter, after many security checks, through a courtyard in which stands a statue of John Adams---the first American ambassador to Russia. The interior of the embassy is spotless, and we were even shown to the massive recreation area where there is a fully-stocked gym, swimming pool, and basketball/volleyball court. This is, of course, after passing by the food court, barber shop, movie rental shop, souvenir shop…like a small village inside the embassy.
The ETAs were also shown the ELO (English Language Office) where we absolutely RAIDED the bookshelves for materials to use in class. The people who worked there were extremely kind and said we could help ourselves to anything (and we did) while providing us plastic bags in which to carry back our treasures. One of them even broke out some red caviar for us to try which one of the language officers had just brought back from…KAMCHATKA! It was so good that it made me a little sad.
Evenings were spent in the company of the other ETAs, and they were good evenings, to say the least. We bought foodstuffs from local grocery stores and returned to the Holiday Inn where we were being put up (very nice Holiday Inn in Moscow, I recommend it) for feasts in our rooms. Of course, there was also vodka involved and lots of great laughs. We even bought a melon from a street vendor who was beside himself when he found out we were Americans. He threw up his hands and shouted: “Barack Obama!” and made some reference to how George W. Bush should be hung. We felt a little uneasy after that last comment, but then he made it up to us by offering us free plums from his home region in the Caucasus. Delicious plums.
*Touristy Things with Americans
Of course, the presentations were of the least importance to most of us Fulbrighters. With the ETAs all back together again for the first time since our D.C. Orientation in July, it was bound to be a weekend of romping around Moscow. And it was. Most people arrived on Saturday, and we spent the weekend doing all the touristy things:
1) We woke up early on Sunday to visit THE mausoleum and see the mummified body of Vladimir Lenin. CREEPIEST EXPERIENCE EVER. Hands-down. After waiting in line and depositing all of our bags, mobile phones, cameras, etc in a booth (for a price, of course) we walked through a metal detector and then along the red walls of the Kremlin and the graves of many Soviet leaders and heroes. Of course, it is said that you had to kill at least 1000 people to have the honor of being buried there. Next, you entered the mausoleum itself. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s made of all-black marble with minimum lighting. It’s like a maze. You try your best to keep your eyes on the person in front of you while simultaneously watching the ground so you don’t trip. There are guards posted at every corner who “SSHH!” you as loud as possible if you make even the tiniest squeak. They yip and yap at you if you put your hands in your pockets for fear that you have a camera or some sort of device that will cause damage to the Father of the USSR. After several twists and turns, you arrive at the display area. Lenin’s body is preserved in a glass case in the center of the room. Spotlights shine on him. His skin is waxen and he wears a black suit and tie. His lower body is covered in a blanket. Flowers surround him inside the case. It is said that it may not be his real body anymore. You walk up a small set of stairs to a platform where you can look down on him, then down another set of stairs on your way out. The whole experience takes about 1 minute. It’s freakin’ weird.
2) We entered St. Basil’s Cathedral. Really amazing. It’s actually nine small churches (hence the nine onion-domes) inside one building, constructed to commemorate Ivan IV (The Terrible) and his success in recapturing Kazan back in the 1500s, I think. The walls of every room are adorned with paintings, even in the hallways. The first room that you enter is the grave of St. Basil himself, and it the most impressive of all the rooms, with murals, icons, and a golden chandelier. The main church (the one that specifically commemorates the Battle for Kazan is very high and also impressive. It was kind of one of those surreal moments when you can’t believe that after having seen photos of this building for so long and studied the history behind it and surrounding it, you are finally and actually inside of it. But perhaps even more breath-taking than the interior is the view that it allows over Red Square. Truly a sight to behold.
3) We went into the State Historical Museum which lies directly across Red Square from St. Basil’s. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how large the museum was and didn’t give ourselves enough time to see the whole thing, especially since we paid to also see the current special exhibit on the golden treasures of the imperial Kremlin, and it was remarkable. We spent so much time in those couple of rooms marveling at how beautiful their treasures were that we had to race through the rest of the museum in order to meet up with some other people at another location. After seeing the treasures, it’s no wonder that the people revolted against the Romanovs…much like the treasures at Versailles seem to validate the French Revolution. But, we also saw a great exhibit on Bulgarian iconic art and what we did see of the imperial wardrobes and armory were very impressive.
4) The Tretyakovskaya Gallery. The largest collection of Russian art in the world. One word: WOW. Again, we didn’t have enough time to see the whole thing (we kept coming across new rooms and exhibits), but I will surely be going back to this one. The art was beautiful. And I saw so many paintings that I recognized from textbooks or had read about during my time in the Russian Studies Program at W&M…it was unreal.
Hard Knock Life.
I think I’ve already made it clear that I’m teaching professors. Not students, but rather people in the age range of 35-55. This is not easy. In fact, it kind of sucks. I was looking forward to interacting with students at the university---people within 10 years of my own age. But alas, I’m stuck with people who are rather set in their ways. In other words, they are, on the whole, not very interested in learning English (they are being forced into this program by the vice-rector), and they are DEFINITELY not interested in learning English from someone less than half their own age. The number of eye-rolls and smirks I’ve received during class is getting out of control. I’m trying to make things interesting for them by discussing issues of concern in their fields, but I’m having a hard time finding articles we can discuss on soil science that I even remotely understand.
A Sigh of Relief.
There has, however, been some good news on the class front. I administered a test to all 50 or so professors who would be included in my ‘program’ (even though I’m totally not qualified to issue any sort of such test or judge the results) and then split up the professors into five groups. At first, I had two Beginner groups---about 7 members of these groups had absolutely NO experience in English whatsoever, and they displayed this fact in a variety of ways. They either 1) stood up and walked out about 10 minutes into the hour-long test period without saying a word, 2) came up to me and explained in very rapid Russian that they did not know any English but rather spoke fluent German or Kazakh as a second language, or 3) sat through the entire hour (I suppose to be polite?) and then handed me a blank grammar test and a written explanation about their insufficient English skills. I also had 2 groups of Intermediate speakers and one group of advanced.
I sent in the test results and my groupings to the vice-rectors office along with a note of concern---I am not in any way qualified to teach English from the ground-up. I am not a professionally-trained grammar instructor, and quite frankly, it’s impossible to get anyone in those two beginner groups to fluent lecture-level English in just 8 months. Thankfully, the vice-rector agreed, and decided to scrap those two groups. So now I’m only teaching three groups of professors: the advanced group meets once-a-week on Monday night for three hours, and the two intermediate groups meet twice a week (Tues/Thurs and Wed/Fri) for three hours each. It takes a lot of pressure off my shoulders.
Young People DO Exist in Russia!
I have also been lucky enough to get to meet a bunch of the students studying in the Lingva faculty here at the university. That is, they are taking specialized courses in English in the foreign language department. They take these classes for three years, so there are three groups of them: 1st year, 2nd year, and…you guessed it, 3rd year. I met most of them by way of ‘shuttle’. In other words, Irina Petrovna, a very dear woman who is an English professor and who runs the Russian Language for Foreigners department, literally shuttled me around from classroom to classroom interrupting the students’ studies so I could speak for 10-20 minutes about why I am at the university and what I would like to do with them. So, I have now scheduled English ‘conversation hours’ three nights a week at 8PM with the three levels of students (Wed for 3rd year, Thurs for 2nd year, and Fri for 1st year). I have held two of these meetings so far, and they have been wildly successful, drawing about 25 students per meeting (on a Friday night, no less) so they could hear a presentation and see photos of myself, my home, W&M, etc and then sing an American song together.
Russians Love to Sing Songs.
There is a custom and a tradition in Russia to sing together. On any occasion, or perhaps on no occasion at all. There is simply a love of song and dance. Children are taught songs of the people (folk songs, if you will), and they stick with them for life. So, naturally, I am expected to present an American song at each of my conversation hours for all the students to sing together. I like this custom. A lot.
*The Interests of Said “Young People” in Russia Having to do with the US of A
All W&M-ers will rejoice to know that I decided to teach the students a country song as a stereotypical introduction of American music styles, and I chose none other than our beloved ‘Wagon Wheel’ by OCMS. The Russkies LOVED it.
When I asked the students what things they are interested in concerning America so I could prepare for future presentations, I got a wide range of responses. Things as general and yet complex as American music styles (Eminem and Beyonce seem pretty popular among the youth here---and Beyonce is coming to Moscow on November 2 so GET YOUT TICKETS NOW!), literature (a few of them even cited Hemingway’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and I think I fell in love with them from that moment on), and American stereotypes seem to be the favorites. I did, however, get a couple really weird requests:
*At one point I asked what sort of sports people were interested in. Most laughed and groaned when I said I played baseball, exclaiming that the rules were too complicated and that I would have to explain it to them. But one young woman said: DARTS. Not kidding. “I am interesting in darts” were her exact words. My eyebrows went up as I said “Darts?! You mean, like, throwing darts?” (as I mimicked the action). “Yes,” she replied, “I am interesting in darts.” Whoa. A whole presentation on darts? Well, I’ll see what I can do.
*The one that takes the cake, however, has to be “Please tell us about reinactors in America.” I thought I misunderstood her. “Reinactors? You mean, people who wear costumes of war uniforms and reinact battles?” “Yes.” What planet is this young woman from? I chuckled and said, that I could easily do such a presentation, because my university is very old and located on and near old battlefields of the Revolutionary War, and there were lots of reinactors around my campus. Stupid, stupid me. Why did I say that? She got really excited (as did a lot of other people), so now I have to do that. But what in the world do I talk about for a whole hour?
*A Lack of Culture.
During my ‘shuttle’ session between classes, one of the professors (an extremely nice young man with very good English skills named Andrei Victorovich) asked me what I found most shocking about Russia so far. I pretended not to know what to say, but he saw right through me and blurted out: “The unhappy faces. The rude appearance of people.” “Well, yes, I suppose that is a bit of a shock,” I replied. I explained to him and the class that in America people often smile and ask one another how they are doing (even if it is simply superficial and out of courtesy). No such custom exists in Russia. If you are not well-acquainted with someone, then you avoid eye contact with them altogether. If you do make eye contact with someone unknown to you, then there seems to be an immediate suspicion of your intentions and you get what I call the ‘death-frown’ or the ‘death-stare’. The students all laughed and smiled at me (I guess we’re on good terms now), and Andrei said something about the very hostile nature of Russians. I wanted to be polite and said that I didn’t necessarily think it was hostility (at least not all the time), but rather simply a part of their ingrained culture. His reply: “Or lack of culture.”
Never thought I would hear that from a Russian.
An Invitation to Walk.
After meeting and befriending a Russian, whether it is a student or the odd professor, they often invite you to do something so that you can chat and get to know one another better. This usually consists of sitting around and drinking tea and eating sweets, cookies, and fruit. But I have also noticed that Russians love to walk. Anywhere. For any length of time. In any weather. Simply to walk. I have been invited on several such walks (and have unfortunately had to reschedule some do to illness and/or over-booking for the sheer number of walking invitations), and they have all been enjoyable. Students have offered to take me to galleries in Moscow, others through Red Square, others to parks, more to museums. I commented on this tradition to one of my walking companions and was told that Russians simply love to be outdoors. I dig that. I just have to get used to taking a leisurely stroll while straining not only my Russian skills but my senses in the face of the near-freezing winds that are already frequenting the Moscow area.
Door-to-Door Visits and Hospitality
In the same vein as walking invitations, some Russians are legitimately and eagerly curious to get to know you as a foreigner, perhaps especially as an American--a people of whom many have been brought up to be suspicious. Last Thursday night, at about 10pm (my night was definitely winding down and I was about to go to sleep), I got a knock on my door. Standing outside were two women, one of whom I recognized from the English testing a couple days before. She introduced herself as Elvira and then introduced her friend, Leila, who was here visiting her but was to be returning soon to her home out by the Urals. They asked if they could stop by my room again in about 20 minutes to chat and get to know one another. I said “Yes, of course,” but kind of regretted my decision since I was so tired.
But, about half-an-hour later they came back all dressed-up and commented that they were a bit surprised to see me still wearing my sweatshirt…I guess I was supposed to don my Sunday-bests for this get-together. I asked them if they wanted tea, and Elvira said to me that in Russia, you don’t ask if people want tea---it’s simply customary, and that I should have already had it brewed and ready for their arrival. I apologized, but they laughed and took about three boxes of chocolates out of their bags and began arranging everything on my desk, regardless of where my papers and computer were laying. They said that they just wanted to get to know me better and learn about my culture and so forth, which was very endearing. We spent about an hour and a half chatting in Russian. I didn’t realize how the time had flown by. They are both very kind and in the days since have proven to be very genuine people, bringing me home-made honey, more chocolates, grapes, meats, maps of the city, and even two editions of a Russian magazine that Leila works on that is all about wine. She even autographed it for me!
Friday evening, Leila even prepared soup for me and Elvira brought some baked potatoes for a feast in my room. Then they came with me to my conversation hour and offered to show me around the Agricultural Exhibition at VDNKh (the park of Soviet Economic Achievements) on Sunday.
*Personal Space, a Non-Concept in Russia.
I was warned about this before I arrived: Russians don’t have the same ideas about personal space as we do in America. Let me put it this way, if you and one Russian were to board a completely empty metro car, there is about a 1/3 chance that this other person will stand or sit RIGHT NEXT TO YOU. Like it’s no big deal that there is still 500 cubic feet of fresh air surrounding us.
Here’s another anecdote about personal space in the Moscow metro, and I’m not making this one up---it’s also the thing I have found to be the most funny in Russia so far. The seats in the metro cars are like those in the NY Subway---benches with their backs to the wall so as to face one-another. This provides for standing room in the aisles between the benches, but also lots of space by the doors. Well, in Russia, if all the seats are taken, and there is plenty of standing room by the door, people will nonetheless decide to stand directly in front of someone seated on the bench. So picture this (an experience I have endured many times thus far): a man enters the metro car, looks around for a good spot to plant his feet---and there is plenty of space, let me tell you---but he decides to make himself at home right in front of you, so that his crotch is literally a foot away from your eyeballs, directly in your line of sight. There is nowhere else for you to look. So, I simply close my eyes and pretend to be asleep. But you can’t get it out of your mind.
Leila, the 33-year old woman who is friends with Elvira, loves to talk. I appreciate it, because it helps practice my Russian and she keeps me company at a time when I don’t know too many other people. She is legitimately interested in learning about me and my home while also very excited to help me improve my Russian and learn about her country. But again, the personal space thing. When she talks to you, she wants to be right in your face. And I mean all up in it. Oh well, at least I get to speak with someone.
*VDNKh and the Space Museum
Two of the young women who are in one of my intermediate classes (Baya and Tanya---they are both graduate students in the Ecology department) asked me the other day if I had any Russian friends. I said that I didn’t really have any yet and that it has been difficult to meet the students since I’m teaching mostly professors. Following in the Russian vein of inviting someone to walk, they asked if they could take me to the space museum on Saturday. THE SPACE MUSEUM!!!!!!!!! UM, YES!!!!!!!!!!!!! So, we met up and took a variety of transportation (tram, metro, and monorail) to go about three miles to VDNKh, a expo-center built in Soviet times as an homage to the USSR’s economic achievements. Located just outside the grounds of VDNKh is the Russian Museum of Cosmonauts, the equivalent of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum--one of my favorites. Despite there being some ‘scavenger hunt’ special and having about 20,000 kids running around with clipboards, the museum was really fascinating. Displays and statues about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, and even the bodies of the two dogs that the Soviets first sent into space (the first living things every in orbit), in stuffed-form. The displays of rockets is quite overwhelming, but still very interesting.
Tanya and Baya then took me to an Italian restaurant where Tanya used to work for pizza and tea. I was supposed to meet my friend Thaddeus at his apartment at 7pm to watch the Russia v. Germany soccer match, but couldn’t turn down a meal with my two student/graduate/friends. They had been so nice all day and I really enjoyed their company. I didn’t take into consideration, however, that Russian meals entail an entire evening of conversation. We shared only one tiny pizza, but we spent about three hours talking about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize (what?), the Vietnam War, and movies. The whole day/evening was conducted in Russian---despite them being my English students and them really needing to practice their English, I decided that since we were not in class it would be a relief for them to be able to use their own language, not to mention an opportunity for me to practice Russian. It proved to be quite successful. Needless to say, however, I never made it over to Thaddeus’ place.
The next morning (Sunday) I was again taken to VDNKh by Leila to be shown the agricultural expo that is happening right now. It was a lot of tractor equipment. Hey, whatever floats your boat. But, the park area itself is magnificent. Two gigantic fountains. Some very impressively-constructed archways and expo buildings with recognizably Soviet statues, including the ubiquitous Lenin statue in front of the main hall. A makeshift amusement park is also there (at least for this weekend), and lots of food vendors (shashliks--or kebabs, blinis--or pancakes, freshly grilled corn on the cob, popcorn, and sweet and salty almonds). I went into one particular building that featured crafts from Karelia in the north of Russia. These included tapestry-like weaves and woodwork that were very beautiful. Definitely a place I’ll return for some keepsakes.
*IKEA: Celebrating 10 Years in Russia
So one of the real benefits of being in Moscow is that there are some Western conveniences. Despite my dormitory being an old Soviet-style concrete beast with little redeeming qualities (although they did finally turn the central heating on so I no longer wake up like a popsicle), I do have the advantage of being able to shop for some things to make life a bit easier. Enter, IKEA. What a godsend. Kristyna, the Czech PhD student had already been there once and promised to take me so I could buy some pots/pans, etc for my room. We decided to leave around 10am so I could be back around 2pm for a meeting with the vice-rector’s office and to prepare for class later that evening. She said it would only take about 40 minutes via trolleybus and autobus to get there and another 40 to get back.
5 HOURS LATER I finally returned to campus. And I only spent about 30 minutes in the store. Moscow traffic struck again. But, I did come back with the following goodies: a 3-piece set of pots, one pan, one bowl, two plates, three specialty kitchen knives, a set of plastic kitchen utensils (spatula, tongs, etc.), three magazine-rack-paper-holder-things, a cutting board, a cork plate for hot dishes, a desk-lamp with light bulb, 8 clothes hangers, and a power strip----all for about 60 bucks. Good day? Yes.
*Random Friends I Have Made
Besides the numerous students I have exchanged contact information with, I have also befriended a few people who I see on a regular basis:
1) The soup lady. She works at the school cafeteria where I eat lunch every weekday. At first I thought she was more like the soup Nazi of ‘Seinfeld’ fame. She didn’t like how long it took me to figure out what I wanted, but after three days realized it was because I didn’t know what anything was. Now she smiles really widely when she sees me, asks what I’ll be having today, and gives me an extra generous portion. She knows I like the borscht.
2) Akhmed from Syria. He works at a local food stand close to the metro serving lavash with meat--a Middle Eastern burrito-like concoction with veggies, meat, and sour cream wrapped in a thick bread. He smiles at me when I walk by now.
3) Ali the meat guy. This man works behind the meat counter at the local grocery store that I go to most often. I ordered some salami the other day and I mispronounced one word and he immediately asked me where I was from. I timidly said America, and he looked shocked. He asked me what I was doing in that part of Moscow…was I studying? I said I was the new English teacher and the agriculture university. He looked surprised and asked me my name. I told him, and then asked his. He gave me a big smile and said “Ali Ali, like Muhammad Ali” while boxing the air in front of him. I laughed and he kept on smiling. I told him I would be back later and he told me to enjoy the salami.
It's Monday morning now, and I have dragged myself out of bed with a terrible head-cold only to find the weather outside absolutely miserable. What feels like freezing rain and wind strong enough to nearly knock over a young woman carrying groceries who I passed on my way to the office. It's 11am and the sky is a dark enough gray to make it seem like 7pm.
When I got to the office, one of the women turned on the light which hangs above my desk and one of the lightbulbs exploded right out of it's socket and came crashing and smashing down onto the desk right next to me in a hundred pieces. I think it's high time I get out of here. Just five more days and I'm on a plane.
So that’s my last week in a nutshell. It was a pretty big nut.