Friday, October 16, 2009

I like kind people. They are kind.

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 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' 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 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

Some Choice Photos

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 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

Weekend Update with Bryan Terrill

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.

This morning.

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.