Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Learning the Ropes

I showed up at the office today at nine and got to work. Well, really I just took advantage of the quick internet connection to send some emails, publish my blog post, check Facebook, the news, and ESPN. Then I began skimming a book I’ve got on English Grammar as a Second Language--what will likely be an invaluable resource in teaching the professors.

Then I received a phone call from Valeria, one of the assistants in the International Relations office, asking me to come to their office at 1:30 that afternoon to be taken to the office of Information Technology. There I would learn how to edit the English-language version of the university’s website. The meeting was conducted in Russian with Marianna, the head of the office, but I think I understood everything she was telling me despite my lack of technical vocabulary for this sort of thing. But I followed her actions on the screen and should be able to handle it. I’m not sure when they want this project finished, but I suppose I’ll begin working on it tomorrow.

Then into the office came a wonderfully polite and near-fluent English speaking woman named Irina Petrovna. She, it turns out, is the Chair of the ‘Russian Language for Foreigners’ Department, and her office is just around the corner. She was so generous all day, taking me through the whole department to meet the professors, eating lunch with me, and telling me about the university and its operations and history--pretty interesting stuff. For instance, the land on which the university and its many gardens and labs stand (comprising about 60 hectares in the northern part of Moscow) used to belong to the mother of Peter I, aka Peter the Great, the tsar who founded St. Petersburg and turned Russia’s ideology and production westward at the turn of the 18th century. She even explained to me that the ‘Dendrological’ Gardens, or arboretum area, is still actually a natural forest, with most of the original species still roaming wild, such as foxes and hares. She boasted Moscow is the only metropolis in the world with a naturally-standing forest. I’ll certainly take a stroll through there when I have the chance.

Later, Irina Petrovna took myself and Kristyna through the Foreign Languages department to meet professors and even step into a few of the English classes in session. Students are required to take language classes for at least 2 years (at least that’s how I understood it) in order to receive a document or degree of sorts that certifies them to be official translators in their language for their specific agricultural field. Therefore, the students in the agronomy department will study both basic conversational English as well as English for agronomists. Or they may do this in French. Or German. Anyways, Irina Petrovna was very proud to show us off as fluent English speakers, and did not hesitate to simply barge into classrooms, make all the students stand at attention, and introduce us to them. Then she forced the students to ask us each a few questions, and then asked us to say a few words to them in English and in Russian. Today’s classes were all first-year English students (that is, first year at the university level, although they have been taking English in their equivalent of high school for a varied number of years), so they were understandably nervous when asked to talk in front of us. But Irina Petrovna considered it motivational learning for them to know that there are fluent speakers with whom they can converse. I told all the students that once I receive my class schedule, I plan on making some timeslots for conversation hours each week where students can come and chat with me in English. We can also likely watch movies, listen to music, so on and so forth. I’m actually really excited to do this since I will be able to interact with students. I hope they are excited to come!

One funny part of all this was that Irina Petrovna kept introducing me to everyone as a “bachelor from Virginia State University who is a linguist and will be with us for one whole year. Yes? You know where Virginia is?” A few students would nod their heads, and then Irina Petrovna would ask them how many states there are in the US. Of the people that answered, about 60 or 70 percent thought there were 51. The rest said 50. I guess the first bunch were thinking of Washington, D.C.? Or Puerto Rico? I have no idea. Anyways, it was enjoyable, although Kristyna told me later she felt like we were torturing them since their English was not as advanced as the others and Irina Petrovna was forcing them to ask questions as a way to impress us. I told her that it’s just the pecking order here in Russia, and there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it.

After this we had tea and cookies while watching ‘Bruce Almighy’ dubbed in Russian on a television in one of the offices. We had a long conversation in Russian about the weather and what to expect, but I only followed about 30-35% of the conversation. This one guy was speaking very fast and using words I had never heard before, he would speak for so long at a time that there was never an opportunity for me to interrupt and ask him to clarify something. By the time he finished talking I had forgotten all of my questions.

I also met a very interesting man in the office named Francois. He is from Cameroon, but has been here for 7 years teaching and finishing his PhD dissertation. He is married to a Russian woman and has at least one daughter. On top of all of this, he is a pastor at a local Baptist Church (to which he invited Kristyna and myself), his is a diplomat and works in the visa department of the Cameroon embassy, and he also leads conversation groups in English and French at the university, while speaking fluent Russian. He offered to have Kristyna and myself over to dinner, saying he would love for us to meet his family and meet other families through his Church, and he even offered to get us expedited visas to Cameroon if we ever wanted to go! I don’t know how he has time in his days to do everything, especially since he will be defending his dissertation in March. Anyways, he seems like a really great guy and was very excited to meet us.

In the evening, Kristyna and I ventured back into central Moscow. We went to Охотний Ряд, the underground shopping center near Red Square where Kristyna needed to exchange a belt and a t-shirt she bought that were not big enough. Piece of advice if you are ever in Russia: if you buy anything and try to return it, be sure to plan on it taking about 15-20 minutes. The bureaucracy and form-filling-out culture of Russia extends even to merchandise. The cashiers needed to see Kristyna’s passport, visa, immigration card, and registration. Then they filled out about 4 forms by hand, had Kristyna sign them all, and then finally put the money back on her credit card. I will say, however, that I was surprised that the stores accepted credit.

After Охотний Ряд, we went just past the State Historical Museum in at one end of Red Square and entered ГУМ, the state department store, from its end. Don’t let the title ‘department store’ fool you. It’s like department stores in the US, but is rather like a shopping mall with boutique shops. Most everything there is very expensive, but I will say this: ГУМ on the inside is gorgeous. It is three floors high, three levels across, and runs the length of Red Square. There are a ton of shops, most of them very high-end. In the center of ГУМ we even came across a red-roped VIP benefit party filled with people dressed to the nines and several photographers as well as waiters carrying trays of champagne and hors d‘ouevres. Upon closer examination, I realized that everyone was wearing the signal pink ribbon, so it must have been a charity event for breast cancer. Kristyna and I hopped into the food court area where we ate at a Russian cafeteria type place. I had boiled white fish, chicken soup, a pickle, and cranberry juice.

Then, we exited on the other side of ГУМ right beside St. Basil’s Cathedral. I know I already raved about the expansiveness and beauty of Red Square, but humor me please, and allow me to do it once more, this time with a twist. Red Square at night is something entirely different to behold. Spotlights shine from below on the domes of St. Basils as well as up the towers of the State Historical Museum and the walls of the Kremlin, simply adding to the majesty of it all. ГУМ, on the other hand, is outlined completely in what appear to be giant white Christmas lights. And I mean, outlined completely. Every door and every window for about 600 yards across and 50 yards high. It is mystical to behold. I did not have my camera on me tonight, but I will try to get plenty of shots of the square at night---it’s truly enchanting. Plus, there are not many people walking around, and we were lucky with the weather. It was about 10 degrees Celsius, but there was no wind or rain to speak of. So, despite being able to see our breath, it was definitely bearable. I will probably return to praising the beauty of Red Square sometime in the next few months once the snows begin to fall. That’s what I’m really looking forward to seeing.

And with those images of a lit-up Red Square firmly imprinted in our minds, our evening , and day 4 as a whole came to an end.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Complete 180

I’m guilty---I judged the book by its cover, so to speak. Turns out I shouldn’t have spoken so soon. I spent Day 2 exploring part of downtown Moscow on my own. Day 3 was my first day of business, and the university seems like a whole new world now. Here’s how it all went down:

I began Day 2 writing another diary-type entry. Take a look:

It’s 5 AM, and I’ve been up for about 2 hours now after a nice 4-4.5 hour sleep. I definitely thought I would get more sleep seeing as I was wide awake for almost the whole flight over, but that’s jetlag for you. I’ve turned on the television to a music channel so that I feel like I have some company. They keep playing Lady Gaga’s ‘Paparazzi’ which is a very disturbing song…Then there are some crazy Russian dance songs or remixes of American songs with some mad beats. I can dig that. Although I wasn’t about to tell Ilya that I liked dance/house music yesterday, because I’m fairly certain that would have ended our nascent friendship (if I can call it that) on the spot. Anyways, dance music has this power over me that I can’t explain. It helps me to forget things and makes me feel more comfortable.

I’ve spent the last couple hours thinking of what I am going to do today and in what order. It was really stressing me out until I decided to look through my guidebook. Thank goodness I bought that right before I left. I’ve found listings for several internet cafes (one of which supposedly provides free wi-fi), an American Express bank, and a map store. I plan on making these my three big visits today. Best of all, they are all located within walking-distance of each other and Red Square! So, today I will experiment with the metro.

I will probably go to МИР this morning and buy that cell phone first. I think that will make me feel much more comfortable, as long as I can figure out the sim card/calling plan, because then I can at least call Becca from the Fulbright office if I am in trouble or need help around town. Once I get to the internet café, I’ll be sure to check and write down the cell phone numbers of my friends in Moscow and give them a call today, too. Plus, I’d love to write to my parents and try to set up a Skype call soon. I need to hear their voices, and tomorrow (Monday) is Dad’s birthday so if I don’t get a chance to call them tomorrow then it needs to be done today.

Since I’ll be around Red Square today, I’ll probably also stop in ГУМ, the state department store, and take a stroll to see some of the high-priced wonders that have made Moscow the most expensive city in Europe. Also, I’m bound to find a place that sells internet dungles, right?

Now for a recap of how my day went from 7 AM onward:

After a breakfast of bread sliced coarsely with my Swiss Army knife and peanut butter from a spoon with a banana and tea, I set off toward the market area by the metro stop. This area is known as Петровско-Разумовское (Petrovsko-Razumovskoyo), which is also the name of the metro stop. I stopped in МИР and bought the cheapest phone they had--a mall black Samsung--for 942 rubles (about $32 at the current exchange rate). Cell phones don’t work on ‘plans’ here as they do in the US, so you have to buy a sim card from a provider company, and you must charge up your sim card by buying minutes, and this can be done in two ways. First, you may pay at a store that sells the sim cards from your provider, or you can use these little kiosk/terminals that are all around the city and type in your phone number and then insert cash (Russia is nearly entirely a cash economy still, except at very high end restaurants and hotels that except credit cards). Anyways, the little kiosk at МИР where I had the ‘pleasant’ encounter the day before with the young man and woman was closed, so the man who helped me at МИР directed me to another store closer to the metro called Евросеть (Evroset‘). He was very kind and was sure to speak slowly to me and even helped me change the language settings on my phone to English. Anyways, I popped into the store selling sim cards and after a really long wait I finally purchased one by Билайн (Beeline), a provider that was recommended to me for its good coverage and service. The sim card and my initial deposit was 150 rubles, or about $5. I don’t know how long this will last, but we shall see.

Before I continue, I want to explain two things about Russia, illustrated perfectly by my long wait at Евросеть. First, Russian are obsessed with cellular phones. They are a real status symbol. People are always vying to buy the most high-end, fancy-dancy phone on the market. This isn’t like America where everyone seems to be buying the iPhone (although I have seen a few of those around so far). This is a quest to get the most unique and most recently produced models from across the globe. People essentially judge one another and compete with each other based on cell phones. And, they seem to always be on the phone. In this respect, I suppose it resembles America. But without calling plans and everyone operating on a pay-as-you-go system, people charge up their sim cards en masse. So, the stores that sell cards and/or have terminal kiosks located in them are frequently packed with people waiting to use them. This brings me to my next point: queues. The idea of standing in line is anathema to Russians. One must possess a strong will and a strong pair of elbows if you ever want to be served at a store. No matter if you are two feet away from the desk or terminal, someone will likely find a way to get in front of you. Of course, their reasoning is that they are much busier than you and don’t have the time to wait around, but this just leads to one giant problem: a nation where everyone is professedly busier than everyone else, thus lines tend to collapse on themselves. (I will note, however, that I have noticed exceptions to this in grocery stores. Also, if you want to be served by an attendant or salesclerk, the best way is to simply shout at the top of your lungs exactly what you want. It seems that the highest bidder wins---that is, however shouts the loudest.

Now, back to the day. After purchasing the sim card my cell phone was ready to go. That was easy enough. I headed across the street to the metro station and bought a card for 10 rides costing 200 rubles (about $6.67). Like the New York subway system, rides here are a set price no matter where you travel, including transfers to other lines, which is quite a deal because the Moscow metro system is expansive. It is also one of the most efficient in the world, with trains never more than 3 minutes apart--how the Soviets managed to run such an efficient public transportation system while failing miserably in market and production efficiency baffles me. The metro is, however, very crowded usually. I read in one tour book that in any given day it serves more people than the New York subway system and the London Underground COMBINED. WHOA. And, well, I believe it. But the crowds are made bearable by the state of the subway stations and tunnels. From what I have seen so far, they are extremely clean, and the trains, while not new or necessarily as cozy as the Washington system, for example, are clean as well. I have also read and seen photos of certain stations that are renown for their artistic beauty, although I have yet to visit them. The metro system was built in the early decades of the USSR as a sign of technological prowess, but also as a canvas for cultural expression. A handful of systems are decorated with extensive murals and tilework, and some even have huge chandeliers hanging inside the station. I will definitely explore these stations soon. One last note about the metro: it is WAY FAR underground. The escalators that I rode, at least, put any escalators in the DC system (even the longest ones) to shame. I had a few moments of serious vertigo as soon as I got on one of the escalators…

So, I’ll try to be brief about the next two hours of my day. I got off at Чеховская станция (Chekhov station), named after the famous Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov. The Fulbright office is located nearby, so I went to find its location. Across the street from the office is Пушинская площадь (Pushkin Square), where a few fountains and a statue of Russia’s most famous poet and national hero, Alexander Sergeyivich Pushkin stand. This was also my first glimpse of metropolitan Moscow. And it’s amazing. Very wide boulevards, about 6 lanes across, that often run only one way. There are no above-ground cross-walks on these boulevards, so you must travel to certain intersections until you find an underground walkway in order to cross the street. Shops line most of the ground floors of these buildings, which are almost all built in a very classical style but each adjoining building has a different color stone--lots of light and dark grays, pinks, and beiges.

From Pushkin Square I walked toward the map shop to find a better walking map of Moscow, as well as a map of the metro system. Along the way, I came across a massive dark-red stone building with ornate gold-plated decorations of two-headed eagles (Russia’s imperial and modern-state symbol). The building was huge, and it was just…there…right in between other non-descript looking buildings. I wasn’t sure what the building was, but then my eyes wandered across the street. There I saw a another square, in the middle of which was a HUGE statue that I recognized as Юрий Долгоруки (Yurii Dolgoruki, or Yuri ‘Longarms’), a medieval prince and the official founder of Moscow in 1147, when he declared it more of a city rather than a trading post. The statue is of him riding a horse and pointing forward, and was commissioned by the Joseph Stalin in 1947 to commemorate the 800th anniversary of Moscow. I wanted to take photos both of the building and the statue, but I had second thoughts when my eyes drifted to the, oh I don’t know, FIFTY or so policemen patrolling the area. They were both regular охрана (okhrana, or security--in Russia you see them everywhere) as well as lots of ОМОН, or the special forces police, armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and dogs. It was then that I realized that this giant red building must be something important, so I looked in my guidebook and found that it is the Moscow mayor’s office. I’m not sure who the mayor of Moscow is, but he or she has got some pretty sweet digs, and one hell of a security entourage. And in Russia, you never take pictures of official buildings. I mean NEVER. It can be considered a serious offense, akin to espionage, and you can be jailed for it. So, my camera stayed right where it was.

I continued down an alley and passed a small Orthodox church whose service just ended. I had forgotten that it was Sunday and all the services were going on. It was a small glimpse into a religious Russia that has been seriously revived since the end of the Soviet Union. Further down the alley and a few turns later I found the map store and got a great little pocket map. Then I made my way toward the Kremlin. First, though, I wanted to stop at a shopping center just outside the Kremlin walls for a bite to eat and to find that internet café with free wi-fi. The shopping center is called Охотний Ряд and is actually three stories underground. It’s got a ton of shops and boutiques and was very crowded. I headed to the food court area where I got a blini (Russian crepe or pancake) with salmon and a glass of kvas, a Russian staple drink that is like beer in that it goes through a process of fermentation, but it is non-alcoholic. It has a very distinct taste, but one that I cannot describe. Most foreigners hate it. It was my first glass ever, and it wasn’t fantastic, but I won’t say just now that I will never have it again. I then searched for the internet café for about another 45 minutes but sadly never found it. That frustrated me, because I wanted to look up the phone numbers of my friends in downtown Moscow so I could have someone to hang out with.

But, with no success, I decided to leave the shopping center and venture into Red Square. This, my friends, is a place that everyone should visit. I turned one corner, saw the colored onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral at the far end of the square, and lost my breath. Not kidding. I had seen pictures of the square and these iconic spires before, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Red Square is GARGANTUAN. MONOLITHIC. JUST PLAIN BIG. I didn’t expect it to be so. I felt dwarfed. I strolled from one end to the other, passing by Lenin’s Tomb, the mausoleum where the body of Vladimir Lenin is preserved and kept on display, usually accompanied by a long line of people waiting to see it and ‘pay their respects’ to the founder of the USSR. And from what I understand, Lenin’s Tomb is another exception to the ‘Russians-don’t-make-lines-for-nobody’ rule, as this location is sacred to these people, not to mention crawling with police. On this day, however, there was no line, because the Tomb was closed on Sunday (maybe it’s closed Saturdays too---not sure yet). Behind the Tomb are the incredibly high, red stone walls of the Kremlin, within which all the major governmental buildings of the Russian Federation are enclosed. These buildings are all constructed out of a yellow-colored stone with white columns and trimming. Across from the Kremlin is ГУМ, the state department store--also a massively imposing yet classically constructed building. I did not venture in today, although I plan on exploring it soon. At the far end was St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps the most iconic building in all of Russia. And it’s truly lovely to view. Today being Sunday, however, it was crawling with people. The entire square was, in fact. I barely took a step without ducking to get out of the way of someone’s photo opportunity. So, I did not go inside the Cathedral today. I would like to make a day out of Red Square sometime in the future when I can visit the sites without the weekend crowds. Just to the right of St. Basil’s is the giant clock tower and entrance inside the Kremlin’s walls, marked by a massive wooden door, much such as one would have seen in the walls of a medieval castle. Seeing a door that large again reinforces the feeling that you have suddenly been turned into a dwarf upon entering the square. As I turned around to head back in the direction from which I entered the square, I was able to fully take in the other massive structure that completes the enclosure of Red Square. It is the State Historical Museum, another medieval-like structure whose red-brick construction mimics that of the Kremlin walls. With towers and spires, the museum makes me feel like I’ve entered a fantasy world. Perhaps a Hogwarts-esque type place, but more sinister. In my amazement, I failed to take any photos on this day, but have no fear. I’ll be making this trip and walk many more times I am certain, and my own photos will follow, although photos of Red Square are ubiquitous enough online.

Upon leaving Red Square, I went in search of another internet café, but this journey was halted when I found another Евросеть where I could buy an internet dungle to receive wireless internet on my laptop. This was a real adventure, because I barely understood what they were telling me with regard to payment plans and such. After about 25 minutes, I ended up buying a USB-modem by the same provider as my cell phone sim card and putting some money on it. I then sat in a café and tried desperately to get it to work, but it froze my computer about 4 times before I decided to drop it until I got back to my dorm room, and then I set off to find an internet café. Luckily, this time I had some success in an upscale shopping center, and I was able to get the phone numbers of my friends in Moscow. After a couple unsuccessful attempts at calling them, I hopped back on the metro and went home exhausted.

I spent the evening in my room, accompanied only by MTV Russia and a dinner of bread, tomato, tea, and peanut butter. I realized I still did not know the time or place of my meeting Monday morning with the International Relations office, so I knocked on a few doors in search of Ilya, but found only one young woman who looked death-stricken to find some young man knocking on her door. I realized that I had only one way to get in touch with him. On the day of my arrival, I had used Ilya’s cell phone to call Becca, the ETA coordinator in the Moscow Fulbright office, to let her know that I had safely arrived. I used my phone this time to give her a call and ask if she still had his number in her call log. Thankfully, she did, and I was able to reach Ilya to find out that my meeting was scheduled for a little before 10 in the International Relations office, situated in the Ректорат, the main building on campus where most administrators have their offices. It is akin to W&M’s Wren building in importance, but does not host classrooms.

The next day, Day 3:

I showed up at the appointed time and was floored by the majesty of the building’s interior (it’s got a pretty impressive looking exterior, too, although it is made out of an odd pink stone). I checked my coat, a custom in many Russian buildings, and proceeded to the office of International Relations. I should note that the name of this office is misleading for those who attended W&M, and particularly for those who were IR majors like myself. This is not an academic department, but rather a department that deals helps coordinate international cooperation projects dealing with agriculture and such between the university and other institutions of higher learning around the world. It was here that I was introduced to Nina Mikhailovna Demidenko--the woman with whom I had been in contact before my arrival. Now, I thought I had met Nina Mikhailovna on my first day when I registered my passport and visa. Turns out, it was the wrong Nina Mikhailovna. So, this Nina (the real Nina, in my mind), was actually very glad to see me. She also introduced me to Elena, her assistant, who would soon show me around the campus. I was impressed with their hospitality and generosity---this is what I had expected from day one.

After also being briefly introduced to the vice-rector of International Relations--an extremely strict and imposing looking man named Evgeniy Ivanovich Koshkin--and told that I would have a meeting with him shortly about my responsibilities and their expectations for me at the university, Elena showed me around some of the grounds of campus. Elena is a recent graduate from the university, and is very amiable. She was eager to show me the places where I would be spending most of my time, and although she does speak relatively good English, she wanted to speak to me in Russian because she didn’t want to leave anything out. I think she took care to use a fairly basic vocabulary, however, because I had almost no trouble understanding what she was telling me--at least I got the gist of it all.

First, she took me to Шестой корпус (or the ‘6th Academic Building’), where on the third floor of the left wing the Department of Russian Language for Foreigners is located. This is where I will be spending most of my time, even though I am not studying Russian officially. Here is also the Office for International Students, where all foreigners must register their visas and all foreign students attending the university for their PhD are sent to coordinate their studies and topics. Now get this: I get a desk in this office! I totally didn’t anticipate having a desk! I figured I would be working from my dormitory the whole time, but no! I have a desk with an internet connection for my laptop and good working space. I share the office with two women (only one of whom is here at the moment, the other being away on her holiday to her dacha). Through another door which remains open is the office of the dean of this department. The women are very nice and hospitable--offering me apples grown at their dachas--but in typical Russian fashion they shout really loudly when they speak to one another. No matter, though, I have a desk in an office!

Elena then showed me around the Foreign Languages Department where I met a few professors and even a class of young women taking English class. They all giggled when they found out I was a native English speaker and then one of them said in Russian, “Come sit with us!” while giggling and turning her head away. It was cute. Elena and I marched on through the library, where there is a museum of husbandry that I suppose showcases developments in animal-raising techniques. It was closed at the time, though, so I’ll check that out later. Then Elena showed me the cafeteria that I should eat in, which is actually located right behind my dormitory. We then walked back to her office so I could meet with the vice-rector.

He was busy when we arrived, so I sat down with Elena and Nina Mikhailovna for tea and cookies and we discussed a few things. Apparently, I am currently living in what they refer to as the гостиница, or hotel, and I will not be living there full-time. After I go home to extend my visa, I will return to a new room in another very tall, gray concrete, Soviet skyscraper next door which is one of the official dormitories. Okay…

Then, vice-rector Koshkin was prepared to see me. His office was…you guessed it, majestic. Huge. Massive. Artwork hanging on walls, giant windows that opened out onto a beautiful garden with statues, flower beds (called клумба, or kloomba), a fountain, and white-pebble paths. Apparently it is adjoined to the university’s ‘Dendrological’ Gardens, essentially an arboretum. I think it’s pretty expansive, so I’ll check it out later when the weather is not so crummy (by the way, its in the 50s and overcast and drizzling---worse than below freezing and snowing, in my mind). But back to the meeting. We sat on couches and armchairs that squared-in a coffee table and were joined by two other faculty members. It was explained to me (in near perfect English by vice-rector Koshkin) that my responsibilities are as follows: to help train groups of professors from various departments in conversational English to improve their qualifications for international conferences and also help them be qualified to begin teaching Master’s Programs in English, which they hope to begin next year. I will also be working to improve the university’s English-language website and their catalog for international students. The vice-rector told me that I may also be able to interact with students if I choose to hold some extra conversation hours/classes in the evenings, perhaps, but I will have to see what my schedule and workload is like first. Vice-rector Koshkin made it very clear that he expects great results from my work, because he plans on putting the professors through evaluations at the end of the academic year to test their qualifications. Given his imposing and solemn look, I agreed to everything immediately. They are still trying to put together a schedule for my classes, which is difficult seeing as the professors all teach during the day. It looks like my classes will be held at around 3pm onward.

I am a little intimidated by the fact that I will be teaching professors and not students. I don’t know how they will react to being lectured by a young, recently graduated American, but we shall see. Supposedly I may begin as soon as this Friday. Before I can really start making lesson plans, though, I will need to have a couple introductory classes with the professors so I can gauge their current levels of English.

I left the meeting and went back to my office space to start looking through some ESL resources that we were given by Fulbright and also some ESL websites. It was a whole lot of information to look at without knowing what in the world I was going to start with. A daunting task, but one that will hopefully become much easier once my classes begin.

Then I had a huge surprise. Into the office comes a very tall young woman with glasses and short brown hair. She greets us all in Russian and then asks in nearly non-accented and perfect English, “Is Bryan here?” Why yes, yes I am. She introduced herself to me as Kristyna Jungova, a Czech who is studying here for 6 months as part of her PhD. She was told that I would be coming and that she should meet me, since I am the only native English speaker here and she also speaks near-native English. We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet up for dinner that night after I finished some of my work and took a brief nap (I was falling asleep at my desk).

So, at about 7pm Kristyna and I met up outside my dormitory. She told me about her situation here. She had been very lonely since her Russian is about as good as mine (from what I can tell), but she had no one to speak with. Her program is almost entirely independent. She is not taking any formal classes to speak of, so her days have been essentially free. She also encountered some bureaucratic delays in coming here. First, she applied and was accepted for a year-long program, but was notified before her departure date that her stay had been shortened to 6 months. Then, her arrival was delayed, so she didn’t get here until two weeks into the school year. She has been at the university now for two weeks, so she knows her way around the area much better than I do, and offered to take a walk with me and show me around.

We talked about a number of things on the way: the dichotomy of the generous hospitality and the rudeness of the Russians we had met so far, the condition of our respective dormitories and how the kitchens were terrible and did not allow for much in the way of cooking, our language backgrounds, music and movies, our travel, so on and so forth. She took me down one of the main roads running beside the metro station all the way down to the next metro stop, Тимирязевская. It took about 30 minutes to get there, but we stopped along the way at a few stores so she could show me the nearest ATM, a great grocery store where we both bought some goods, another market, and a few other places. We then walked back to her dorm where we were able to throw together a scrappy dinner of couscous and vegetables with bacon added---the bacon made the meal. I think her dormitory is the one I will be moving to when I return from the US. It’s not much different than mine is now, although her room was slightly bigger and had much more closet space. She also went to IKEA (and told me that it takes two buses and a taxi to get there and back) and bought a lot of things to decorate her room to make it feel more like home. Her room did not have any cookware when she arrived or a television, so that makes me think that what I found in my room may have been left here by previous occupants.

Kristyna is also going to start taking some private Russian language and culture classes with a couple professors here, and she offered that I could join her and split the cost. I will likely take her up on it as long as it doesn’t interfere with my work schedule. Oh, and we also finished our dinner in traditional Czech fashion. She broke out a bottle of a famous Czech liquor digestif called Bech-something-or-other. It tastes a lot like Jaegermeister, and apparently is also referred to as ‘toothpaste’ in the Czech Republic for its herby flavors and the tendency for some Czechs to drink it upon waking to ‘freshen their breath’. I’m not too sure about that part.

Anyways, the evening was great and it was wonderful to meet someone with whom I can comfortably speak English and also with whom I can share my gripes. We did a bit of that today. We also talked about taking some trips throughout Russia together. We would both love to see Irkutsk, and although it is a LONG ride train-ride away via the Trans-Siberian, it will hopefully be worth it as long as my schedule permits.

Oh and one more funny story. While Kristyna and I were cooking dinner there was another young man in the kitchen. We introduced ourselves, and it turns out he is from Pakistan and is here currently studying nothing but Russian for a year before he enters the economics department at the university. His Russian was very basic (he only recently arrived) and his English was very difficult to understand. His name is Talal (I think, or maybe Talan). When I said I was from America, he gave me a very strange look. I realized right away we might not hit it off just because of our nationalities, which made me really upset but also wary. Then, our conversation picked up as we discussed a range of thing from prices in Russia to food to this cool phone that he had purchased in Pakistan for a great price because it was made in China. He made some comment about how there are too many Chinese studying here, because they are always where the money is, and that the development and progress rates in China are too high for their own good. Then he asked me if I knew of a certain town in Texas where a few of his friends are studying. I didn’t recognize the name. He then told me that his father worked in the US for four years, but illegally. Our conversation ended when he left the kitchen with his pot of beans and remarked, “He was deported from that country.” I’m not sure how our friendship will be.

So, in short, the last two days were great. I feel much more at home, and hopefully things will only get better from here. And the campus is actually quite beautiful. I will take some photos of it soon and post them when I can. I probably won’t keep writing such long and detailed entries, but I’ve got time on my hands now, so why not? That’s all for now, folks!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Day 1 Recap

I was not planning on sharing this at all, but then I thought: why am I keeping a blog if I don't document what I do and how I feel while I'm abroad? And who would give Tim Bacon any good reading materials if I didn't post everything I do second to second, minute to minute, hour to hour, so on and so forth? So, here it is. I'm about to copy and paste a very long (and I mean VERY long) 'diary' type entry that I wrote on my computer last night about my first 10 hours in Moscow. I have finally managed to get internet on my laptop, albeit extremely slow and unreliable and prone to freezing my computer, but this means I can share with you my thoughts and emotions from yesterday. Please note, however, that my mood has improved CONSIDERABLY on this, day two, of my stay in Russia's capital. When you read the following entry you may think I went borderline suicidal after just 1o hours. While it was possibly the biggest 'oh shit' moment of my life, I did not harbor any such thoughts. And, as I said, today was much better, but I haven't written a story of today yet, so that will have to wait--possibly for a few days since I have my first official meeting with the university tomorrow and I may find myself busy soon. But, without further ado, enjoy my recap of Day 1 in Moscow (for those of you who can get through it all...)

Day 1 -- 26.09.2009

Well, I certainly didn’t expect this. To feel this way, I mean--uncomfortable, lonely, lost, sick. How could I possibly feel like this in a city of over 10 million people and when I was so excited to leave I could not even put it into words? Well, I’ll tell you how. So far, the mythic standoffishness of Russians has drastically outweighed the professed hospitality of these people. Granted, I just met them and it has been less than a day, but here’s a recap of how the day went so far.

I was met at the airport by Ilya, a student/employee at the university. I could not make out whether he was still doing some studying or if he was all done with classes and only working with the department of international relations, which is technically in charge of my stay. After a quick introduction in Russian, he asked me in English how I was---it would be the last English I would hear all day. It would also be the last time I would hear him talk for almost an hour and a half. After exchanging some money at the airport, we went to the parking lot and climbed into a REALLY nice Lexus sedan driven by another young man (unsure if he is also a student, an employee at the university, or simply a friend of Ilya’s). I said hello as I climbed into the back of the car, and all I got in return was a grunt. Then, the music was blasted. Then, my nerves were blasted as he pulled out of the parking and proceeded to drive (although calling it ‘driving’ is generous) over an hour to the university dorm where I am staying. I’ve heard about Russian traffic, and I’ve heard that people often disregard traffic rules in Russia, but I got the distinct impression that our driver was the ONLY one on the road that actually disregarded the laws. He drove at an average speed of 150 km/hr while swerving between cars and trucks that were (surprisingly) following all the rules of the road. Either this guy thought we were privileged, or he does not value his own (nor our) lives. Ilya sat quietly in the shotgun position with my cramped behind him, trying to take in some of the sights along Moscow’s Third Ring Road while also struggling to keep my airline breakfast down. I’ve been in life-threatening, off-the-wall, no-holds-barred traffic before in India, but this honestly felt worse since our driver was the only one living on the edge, thus forcing everyone else to get out of his way or else perish in a great ball of fire. Maybe he was testing the American kid in his backseat? I don’t think so. More likely, he was going to meet up with a few friends after dropping me off and wanted to get there as soon as daredevil-ly possible seeing as he made and answered a total of seven phone calls from friends while pulling his little traffic stunts. When we finally arrived at the dormitory, he actually got my bags out of his trunk for me and shook my hand (‘ok, not so bad,’ I thought). I thanked him for the ride and politely asked his name, expecting that I may be seeing him around more often if he is Ilya’s friend. As soon as I posed the question, though, he turned away, lowered his head, and grunted ‘Alexander’ before jumping into his car and putting the pedal to the metal. So…I don’t think I’ll see him anytime soon. And if I do, he’ll be sure not to acknowledge me. I will say this, though: THANK GOD HE WAS DRIVING A REALLY NICE LEXUS, because without the impressive acceleration that plasters you back against your seat, we never would have been able to fit in all those tiny spaces in between cars that Alexander so nonchalantly swerved in and out of.

But enough griping about the ride. I turned away from the speeding car and was met with another traditional Russian gesture. I was offered a cigarette by Ilya, which I politely declined, which received a smirk and raised eyebrows instead. Ilya proceeded to smoke about 6 cigarettes in the 2.5 hours that we were together. This first one he puffed through fast enough to finish before we walked 30 yards to the entrance of the dormitory. The dorm guard gave us a weird look as we lugged suitcases into the lobby and to the elevator, but who wouldn’t have given us the eye? We were quite the odd couple. Ilya is about my height and build, but with a shaved head and dressed head-to-toe in black, including black leather boots (with neon-yellow shoelaces) and a killer leather biker jacket. He has the image of the stereotypical Russian thug, minus the bulging muscles and about 150 pounds lighter. I, on the other hand, probably looked like a mess. I couldn’t sleep the whole plane ride, leaving me near exhaustion by the time we made it to the dormitory (especially after the white-knuckle car-ride). My eyes were probably still bulging and my face blanched from the fear of said ride. Anyways, we got through the lobby and went up the elevator to the fourth floor. The dormitory, by the way, is an old Soviet-style concrete tower with somewhere around 15 floors. So not only is it charming, but the elevators only work one-way: UP. There are five elevator banks but not one of them is able to go down, so there is one flight of stairs for that task. Once on the fourth floor we met with Nina Mikhailovna--my only contact with the university pre-departure (even that was only 1one email apiece). I guess I expected her to be exuberant, or at least moderately excited about my arrival, seeing as I am coming in here to supposedly do a lot of work on the university’s English department---although even that is not confirmed since I still have no idea of my exact duties. Instead, she walked out of one room, took one look at me and said hello, and then led me into an office where I sat down and she asked my to fill out a form to register my visa. In my exhaustive stupor, I began filling out the form in English until she piped up from across the desk and told me that it had to be in Russian. She said this in Russian, of course, as she said everything else to me, even though I’m pretty much positive she speaks English (and probably very good English to be the coordinator of the International Relations office). So, I apologized and filled out another form in Russian, after which I was given a room key, and a mention was made to a meeting on Monday that I should attend. And then Nina Mikhailovna disappeared. I’m gonna have to get some details on that meeting soon, like, oh I don’t know, WHERE and WHEN and WHAT ARE WE TALKING ABOUT??? But she disappeared before I could even register that we were talking about a meeting. Everything hits me here just a little too late.

Anyways, Ilya and I went up one more floor on the elevator to my room: 529. It’s nothing special, but I wasn’t expecting anything great. Two very very very slender beds (you practically have to sleep on your side--but be very careful not to roll over or you’ll get a face full of floor). One table and chair that serves as a desk, but with no drawers. One closet. A television--not expecting that, although the antenna has been snapped off and is lying on the windowsill, so reception is pretty scratchy. A small refrigerator. An electric tea kettle(!!!!). A teapot. Two bowls, two teacups (but only one saucer), two soup spoons, two forks, and two tiny teaspoons. No knives. A nice big window but with blinds that are practically stuck in the ‘cover-up-the-window’ mode. The bathroom is surprisingly spacious with a sink, bathtub to be used as shower, a cool tropical-aquatic-themed shower curtain, a trashcan, towel hooks, and a toilet. The toilet flushing mechanism, however, does not function properly, and I have to flush it by taking off the water tank cover and lifting up a tube inside the tank. At least it fills itself back up and doesn’t overflow! It’s definitely not worth trying to get a repair done, because I have no idea what that entails and how long it would take, or whether it would cost me anything. So, at least for now, my hand is going in the tank.

After I dropped my bags in my room and took a cursory look around, Ilya and I headed down the street to a cafeteria for lunch. The cafeteria, apparently, belongs to a different university he said--one that specializes in auto-mechanics and economics, I think, but we are allowed to eat there. I had a typically Russian meal: borscht with сметана (the uber-thick sour cream that Russians love), a pea and ham salad with сметана, and buckwheat with a turkey cutlet. I should not have gotten that much, since I wasn’t very hungry and ended up leaving my tray half-full. The quality of the food didn’t help much, though. Along the way to the cafeteria, about a six-minute walk from my dormitory, Ilya passed out a few other campus buildings to me and explained what they were, although I’m not sure I understood all of it: a few more dorms, at least two academic buildings, and a gym with outdoor tennis courts. When I asked him what goes on at the gym, whether people play football (soccer) there, and whether or not it would be possible for me to show up and join in on a game one day, his look back at me was the only response I needed. It was somewhat in the vicinity of disbelieve and incredulity, but I’m still not sure whether that was because he couldn’t believe I would want to exercise (because he made a not-so subliminal point that he certainly did not partake in physical activities), or that he had never heard of someone just walking up to a group of people and asking to join in on a pick-up game. He told me that some guys often play on a field nearby, but it’s just a lousy pick-up game between a bunch of friends. I didn’t tell him that that actually sounded pretty perfect to me…I just let that slide. Instead, I asked him what he did during the weekends, and he replied with a question: “What do I do on the weekends?” as if I was trying to pry into his personal life. I pretended to look bashful and changed the question to: “What do students in general do on the weekends?” He then looked more comfortable but answered with what I am sure would have been the same reply had he answered my first version of the question: “Nothing, really. Sit around and drink beer.” Great... Then he admitted that some students go away for the weekends to the surrounding countryside where some have dachas and can spend time with friends/family away from the city amongst nature--an escape the Russians are famous for making. Anyways, Ilya certainly made it seem that he could not be counted among those who ventured far from his dormitory room on the weekends, which I find really depressing. I guess I won’t plan on spending too many weekends in his company…including this one.

After lunch, we walked very briskly further down the street so he could show me the market area. I could tell by his pace that he wanted to finish his duty of showing me around as soon as possible. We breezed past a slew of рынок stands (outdoor market) all selling cheap clothing, shoes, bags, and jewelry, plus a few food and news stands, before Ilya walked me into the metro stop to show me where to buy a metro ticket. The lobby was bursting with people packed like sardines, so we didn’t even get through the door, but Ilya assured me it was only because it was a weekend, and that besides the rush-hour work times of morning and early evening, it was never this bad. The metro is maybe a 15-minute walk from the dorm, which I thought was great, but Ilya gave me some phrase about how I would probably never want to make this walk and would rarely take the metro. Don’t count on that, buddy. I’m trying to get out and see some of this city!

I followed my queries about the metro with questions about getting a cell phone, sim card, and internet card. I really didn’t understand anything Ilya was explaining to me, which is probably the part of the day that made me feel most uncomfortable. My only way to get in touch with my family and my life back home seemed completely out of my reach unless I could get on the same brainwave as Ilya, which was getting less and less likely as the day progressed. So, I told him I understood and we proceeded to walk home, but not without Ilya first showing me a local grocery store.

This was a highlight. It’s about 12 minutes from the dorm, small but has just about everything I would need at this moment, and I also got a good read on Ilya when we were inside. He showed me around the store and then said it was a good store because they sold not just beer (which is sold almost everywhere in stores here), but cold beer. He proceeded to grab two large cans of beer, a large bag of sugar, and a bag of cookies, and checked out. While in the line, he asked me if people in America were allowed to buy alcohol and then drink in the streets. I said no. He said it was forbidden in Russia, too. We then walked out of the store, around the corner and away from the three imposing охрана (security) guards on the sidewalk, and then Ilya cracked open a can of beer and gulped it down on the walk home, making sure to constantly look over his shoulder to make sure no police were within sight.

During this walk, Ilya asked me what kind of music I listen to in America--always such a difficult question to answer. I enjoy songs from a number of genres, and how can I explain to him that my favorite band, the Counting Crows, is a mix of rock and country and even pop without getting a look of uncomfortable disdain from someone who has surely never heard them and is sure not to enjoy them if he ever does hear them? Anyways, I answered with the generic: “rock music”, and tried to explain that plenty of people in America listen to country music and rap. He nodded and then inquired whether or not I listen to heavy metal. Oh god. I knew it was coming. I said no. Not the answer he wanted to hear. He then asked about hard rock. I tried to make conversation and say that I listened to some of it, particularly what we refer to as “classic rock” in the US. He asked about Led Zeppelin, and I said: “Yeah! Like Led Zeppelin! Or Van Halen?” (no response) “Ummmm, AC/DC?” [PS. Thank you Dad for listening to this music because it may have salvaged the one acquaintance I have so far]. Ilya said he had heard of AC/DC but didn’t really like them. He then named some Finnish metal band that he likes and told me about the time last year they came to Moscow but he couldn’t go to the concert. It sounded like he was still bitter about it. Then he lightened up a bit and said that some British metal band was coming in October and he plans on going. Then he commented on the audience that ‘pop’ music enjoyed, although I wasn’t sure if he was referring directly to American pop music or Russian, or both. He finished his thought with the following (in English!): “It sucks.” That was where that conversation ended.

We then stood outside the entrance to the dormitory so that Ilya could finish his beer before heading in. He asked me if universities in the US sold beer. I said that mine did not because there are so many under-age students and cops rolling around, but that if you were of-age you could buy alcohol off-campus and bring it back to the dorms. He said that no alcohol was allowed in the dorms here, period. Unless, of course, you’re Ilya and just throw it in your backpack on the way home from the store so you can spend your weekends drinking in your room. He also seemed to think that drinking-age laws were meaningless, which I was almost going to agree with him on except I realized I didn’t want to start talking about alcoholism in Russia, which is all I had on my mind as I watched him suck the last drips of that sweet nectar out of its gold can.

We then went inside and took the elevator to the fifth floor where I’m living. I knew that Ilya did not live on this floor, but he didn’t press any other buttons on the keypad, so I figured he was getting out with me and we would continue spending some time together just chatting. Instead, he said goodbye as I got off on the fifth floor, and I abruptly turned around and asked rather meekly what he was doing tomorrow. Once again, he took this as a very personal question, like I was asking him out on a date or something. I clarified and said (trying to hold back the puppy-face look), that I didn’t know what I was doing tomorrow. He just stared at me, so I said that I would probably go buy my cell phone, sim card, and internet card, once again trying to elicit some information as to how this would be possible. He just said something about how he bought all of his at one all-purpose computer/tech store in another part of town where he spends a lot of time. He was NOT interested in offering to take me there or give me directions, so I let the matter drop and told him that if I needed anything I would knock on his door, which is 723...or was it 923? Either way, I think he regretted giving me the room number. I just hope he wasn’t lying to me, since he’s the only person I know and who I can conceivably reach to give me information about this meeting I’m supposed to have on Monday. I also hinted that I might take the metro and check out some of downtown Moscow, to which he replied something like this: “Moscow is not a very pretty city. St. Petersburg is much nicer.” Good to know.

I walked back to my room very downtrodden. I mean, judging from other Fulbrighters’ blogs, their guides and contacts have done quite a job showing them around, befriending them, and introducing them to friends. They have even invited them to their dachas and to weddings, for Pete’s sake! I, on the other hand, get posted to the largest city in the country but get the most disinterested guide I could have imagined. I have heard that the provincial towns are considerably more hospitable in terms of people-to-people relations. Right about now, I’m wishing I was still going to P-K, where I at least know that my contact, Tatyana, was one of the most kind-hearted people I’d ever interacted with, albeit only through email. But I know, I just know that she would have been thrilled upon my arrival!

In my room, I turned on the TV to some ridiculously propagandized version of the Russian History Channel biography on Lavrenty Beria--one of the most cold-hearted men of Stalin’s reign of terror--and started to unpack my bags. After putting most everything away, I grabbed my empty backpack and decided to head out back to the market area to investigate how to go about getting a phone/internet and also do some grocery shopping, since I had a revelation at about 3:30 that I would probably not eat tonight unless I did something about it quickly. So, I retraced my steps back to the рынок and found a small hole-in-the-wall store that dealt with electronic repairs. I was greeted by a nice man who answered my questions about buying a cell phone. They only had two in the store, one of which was a very nice Samsung going for a few 5,500 rubles (no thanks). The other looked like a used Nokia and cost 800 rubles. They also sold sim cards for 150. I told him I didn’t have the money right now and just wanted to see where I could buy one, and that I would come back tomorrow, to which he said something along these lines: “Please! Please come back tomorrow and if we have any other phones to offer I will show them to you!” I thanked him, but left with the feeling that these were phones that were confiscated, found, or somehow acquired illegally. I probably won’t go back tomorrow, but I learned that I’m decent at lying in Russian! I then went back to the grocery store and bought the following for dinner/breakfast tomorrow: two tomatoes, two oranges, six bananas, a small loaf of bread, fruit juice, two waters, a box of black tea, and one of those ‘just-add-hot-water-for-a-sodium-coated-pasta/soup-instant-dinner-with-mystery-meat’ things. That’s going to go down smooth tonight. I asked a young woman who worked there (and yes, she was fairly attractive if you are wondering) where I could get an internet card, but all she had to say was that I could find them wherever I could find a phone. She then recommended a place and pointed down the road, so I asked if it was close, to which she replied: “No, it’s pretty far.” So, it was back to exploring. Thankfully, I found a store called МИР (World, or Peace) that was a Russian version of Best Buy located just behind the grocery store. I walked in and found a new Samsung phone for about 950 rubles (pretty decent) and asked if I could buy a sim card there too. The attendant gave me a once-over and walked me to a kiosk by the entrance where a young woman and man sat with their heads together over a cell phone chatting. They didn’t notice me when I walked up, but I didn’t want to interrupt since I figured it was simply a characteristic of Russian service to finish the conversation before helping a customer. Finally, the man looked up and then the woman asked me what I wanted. I explained my situation and asked if this is where I could buy a sim card. She pointed to her kiosk (which did not say ‘sim card’ or anything of the sort on it) and gave a look like a sixteen-year old ‘Mean Girl’ would give her parents when they ask her a stupid question. I realized that this conversation got off on a bad start, but I stupidly dug myself deeper when I asked how the sim card worked. What I meant was how do I add money to my phone to keep making calls in a pay-as-you-go format. The man continued to stare at me like I just got off the short bus while the woman scoffed and said: “Well, the sim card goes in the phone.” Touche. She had me there. So I tried unsuccessfully to rephrase the question before it finally made sense to her that I wanted to add minutes, and she said (I think) that there are ‘terminals’ (I think she is referring to kiosks) around the city where you can plug in your phone number and then pay with cash to add minutes. Ilya had pointed one of these out to me earlier, so I pretended like I understood her perfectly, but once again said I didn’t have enough money on me now and that I would return tomorrow. It was all too much to digest on the spot.

I then came home, finished unpacking my belongings, laid out my groceries, and began writing while MTV Russia plays on my television. To quote Ilya: “It sucks.” Well, MTV Russia sucks. I’m feeling better since I decided to write my ENTIRE day down.

First on the list tomorrow: buy a cell phone and sim card, and investigate the internet possibility further. I’ll probably go back to the Russian Best Buy, since it seems like a pretty reputable place, although I’m gonna have to put my smart-hat on so I don’t come across like a dunce again. I think I’ll also give the metro a shot tomorrow if it’s not too crowded and try to see some more of Moscow; really I’m just thinking of Red Square…where I’ll hopefully feel more normal and like the tourist I really am right now. I would love to contact my few Fulbright friends in Moscow to meet up with them, but I’ll need both a cell phone and internet to do that, since they posted their cell phone numbers on-line. We’ll see how it works out.

I’ve been writing this for over 2 hours now, so I’m going to make dinner, read, and then pass out. I really hope tomorrow is better, because right now I’m wishing I was still sitting on my parent’s couch watching a Phillies game---a place I was actually eager to vacate just 20 hours ago.

Afterword (written an hour later): I realize that this entry was a super downer. It makes life sound worse than terrible here. In reality, it could be a lot worse. I think I’m just having a hard time because I know I’m going to be here for a very long time, so a failure to connect with people seems like a HUGE setback. It will get better as time goes on, I’m sure. Once I figure out how to use the metro and contact the outside world. And once I begin my duties and meet some colleagues and have students then hopefully things will go more smoothly. It’s just not all going to come at once. Plus, I would feel A LOT more comfortable if I knew what I was doing here! I mean, sure I’m on a Fulbright (which means nothing to the Russians), but I still have NO IDEA what I’m doing! I don’t know what I’m teaching, or IF I’m even teaching. If I knew something, relating to my duties, I would at least be able to occupy my time with some busy work. Instead, I’ve turned to writing depressing, whining entries.

Plus, I watched ‘The Hurt Locker’ on the plane. A great film. Everyone should see it. But not the movie that you want to see if you’re already stressed about something. It really stresses you out, and I didn’t have time to de-stress before getting thrown into the mix in Moscow. So, watch the movie, but be aware of your next step in life.

I also realized that misery loves company. But not only in the traditional sense. This misery would be much easier to handle if someone were sharing it with me.

Quick Note

I'm here safe and sound. But my first day left me feeling VERY uneasy. I don't really feel welcome at my university, so I spent today exploring downtown Moscow on my own to lift my spirits. And it helped, big time. Moscow is an incredible place. Uniquely enchanting. But the people so far are decidedly not.

I'm at an internet cafe and that's all I've got time for now, but will write again soon.

Friday, September 25, 2009

T-minus 24 hours

It came. Finally. The visa came. It took two days of hand-wringing and nervous apprehension, but it finally arrived. Not without one last scare, of course. The FedEx courier dropped the package off at the wrong house, and I had to rely on a kindhearted neighbor from a couple doors down to deliver the package to its rightful destination. Which leaves me thinking: is anything ever going to go smoothly during this trip?

We shall see. I depart tomorrow afternoon at 4:35 from Dulles Airport. I arrive at 10:45 Saturday morning in Moscow. I'll update as soon as I can.

До Москвы!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Less Than A Week (I hope)

I bought my new plane tickets on Friday morning, and if all goes according to plan (that is, if I receive my visa in time), I will be taking off for Moscow this Friday afternoon, September 25, at 4:35 PM. That will put me in Moscow at 10:45 AM on Saturday morning, and I'll hit the ground running from there--except for the week-long return in mid-October.

The main point is: I CAN'T WAIT TO GO!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Plans Take 3

Another call from Moscow yesterday, and another change of plans. Fulbright would like to get me to Russia as soon as possible, and that makes two of us!

The new plan: rather than wait for my new institute to process my documents in two weeks-time, Fulbright has decided that I should apply for a tourist visa and hopefully arrive in-country by the end of next week/weekend. The tourist visa will only last for 30 days, so I will be returning to the US in mid-October with my formal institute invitation in hand and re-apply for a long-term business/work visa. So, if all goes according to plan, I'll be taking off for Russia sometime late next week, returning in mid-October for about a week, and then flying back out to Moscow until next July.

In other news, I have gotten some word on my new institute. It is known as the Russian State Agrarian University named after K.A. Timiryazev (Российский Государственный Аграрный Университет имени К.А. Тимирязева, or, because the Russians love acronyms, РГАУ-МСХА). I still don't know about my course responsibilities or my exact living conditions, but here is the website in case you are at all interested: (English version) or (Russian version).

Also, want to know the real kicker of this whole delay and change-o'-plans thing??? Recently, six volcanoes...count 'em SIX...erupted simultaneously on the Kamchatka peninsula. What?!?!? I could have been there!!!!! Check out some video

Fingers crossed that this visa comes soon!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Change of Plans #2

Dear Sam, (I hope you appreciate that)

Yesterday I received a very ominous email from the Moscow Fulbright office. After reading lines like these, I fell into a state of stressful disrepair:

"The situation has turned in an unexpected direction and we have had to change the plan."
"...sorry for the delay and the frustration you must be feeling--this has been a unique and unfortunate situation."

I spent the day fretting while waiting for a phone call from Moscow. My thoughts were scattered, but the gist was, "What if I've been denied entry and they are taking the grant away from me...what in the world am I going to do?"

The phone finally rang just before 2pm, and I got the following details right off the bat:
-my host university in Kamchatka failed to submit the proper request form to the head institute in Moscow
-the rector in Moscow therefore said that the paperwork cannot be processed
-I am no longer going to Kamchatka

What?!?! (*mini-heart attack*)

-We (the Moscow Fulbright office) have been searching for an alternate post for you

And...? (*a small breath of hope*)

-This has never happened before...
-This is very unique...
-We have found an institution in Moscow that will take you.

WHAAAAAAAAAAT?!?!?! (*trying not to jump around my dining room*)

And so it is.
I only have the bare-bone details right now, and should be receiving more info in the next week, but here is the current update:

-I am being posted to one of the top-15 universities in Russia
-It is an agrarian institute, and one of great repute attended by Russians and foreigners alike hoping to learn the latest in agricultural production
-It is located in the suburbs of Moscow, giving the campus plenty of room to have its own gardens (I am told it approximates an American university campus, and I can't help thinking of some of the nice little gardens at W&M around Blow Hall, the Sundial, and outside the Reves Center)
-It does not really have an English department, but they hope to build one so that Russian and foreign students can take their classes in English together
-And this is where I come in.

While Fulbright and the institute are still working out the details of my responsibilities, it seems like my main duty will be to help establish their English department and improve the qualifications of their professors and students in the English language.


So, how am I feeling about this?
Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a bit disappointed. I mean, I had really geared myself up for a crazy Arctic experience in Kamchatka. And all the work I've done so far preparing for my law classes is for naught.
BUT, I am going to be outside Moscow--a major metropolitan area featuring plenty of amusements not only within the city, but also with easy transportation opportunities to visit dozens of places both inside and outside of Russia. And I have to say, I am interested in seeing if I can't listen in on a few courses on agriculture while I'm there.

So, unfortunately all the jokes about getting mauled by bears and smothered by magma (Clay...) no longer phase me. Now, however, I have to contend with the Moscow Mafia. I guess Russia is like one big game of 'Pick Your Poison".

So, this blog will likely have a very different look soon. 'Volcanic Ice' doesn't make a whole lot of sense anymore.

Also, I'm adopting the Russian tradition of superstition (суеверие, "s00-ye-VER-iye"), and I definitely don't want to count my chickens before they hatch. While I've been told that my paperwork should now be completed in about two-weeks time and I should be able to arrive in-country around October 1, I have been disappointed by the Russian bureaucratic system before. After already being delayed for three weeks, I'm remaining skeptical until I have my visa in-hand. I'll be sure to let you know when that happens.

I'll fill you in with more info about my new institute once I receive it.

And meanwhile, if people want to visit me in Moscow, I would love to have you, so save some money and make some travel plans. Moscow is a helluva lot more accessible than Kamchatka, so don't let me down!