Tuesday, December 29, 2009

ABBA is alive and well in Moscow, unfortunately.

Last night was the Christmas/New Years celebration with the English students of Lingva, so a few other Americans doing missionary work in the city joined me to talk about our traditions, sing a few carols, and screen 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'. The students had even set up a fake 6-foot Christmas tree (or елка) in the middle of the room.

Then one Russian student had a few songs she wanted to sing. I had been told of her wonderful voice well in advance, so I thought it would be lovely to hear. I just didn't anticipate the genre of songs she enjoyed: very bad classic electro-pop. Her performance was capped-off by a memorable finale of ABBA's "Happy New Year". http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcLMH8pwusw

She addressed everyone, "I think you all know this next song, so lets gather around the tree and sing together." I glanced suspiciously at the other Americans in the room, but we nonetheless stood, joined hands around the tree, and began walking in a circle while the young woman conveyed to us her passion for all things ABBA. None of us Americans knew the song, but the Russians were certainly into it, raising their hands high up in the air each time the phrase 'Happy New Year' was sung.

I learned one important lesson that evening: ABBA's song is four and a half minutes too long.

Monday, December 28, 2009

There is a shaman among us.

For the last two days I have noticed something very strange. There have been two chairs in my hallway, always occupied by people, although the people seem to change every few hours. They carry on conversations from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the sounds travel up and down the hall, penetrating the wooden doors and paper-thin walls that make up our rooms.

Last night, I returned home from a day of exploring the Novodevichy monastery and cemetery, and passed two women, one old and one young, seated in these chairs with a young man hovering over them, carrying on some sort of animated conversation. An hour or so passed in my room, and then I emerged to go boil some water in preparation for my pasta dinner. I stepped out of my room to find the hallway absolutely frigid. The people were still there, just a few doors down from me, now wearing their winter coats but still engaged in their talk.

I turned two corners and arrived at the kitchen to find the window wide open and the curtains blowing inward toward the stove tops. It was below freezing outside, so whoever decided to open the window was clearly not thinking straight. I closed the window and turned around to find the kind дежурная (woman-on-duty) standing in the doorway. She exclaimed my name and rushed in to start a conversation, as she always does when she sees me, although I only understand every 4th word that comes out of her mouth.

She asked me if the people in the hallway were bothering me. I said no. Just as I was about to ask what they were doing there, however, she preempted my question and launched into an explanation:

There was a man in the room who had a very poor back; something about severe spinal pain. The family had called in the help of a local shaman to cure him, and they were using the room as a hospital bed. She rolled her eyes, telling me that she was a 'believer', but that even this stretched her own spiritual-mental limits. She then composed herself and said, "But, what's most important, is that you believe."

So, I am now living in the midst of shaman-believers (and a shaman)...in the dormitory of the Moscow Agricultural Academy. This is such a strange place.

A shot from the monastery.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Happy Holidays From Moscow!

Brought to you by Volkswagen.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Lesson in Celebrating a Life Well-lived

My class yesterday evening was abruptly stopped at 6:25 by an elderly professor who said, "We must stop class. We have something to celebrate. The dean is coming."

All of the other professors proceeded to clear the table of their papers and dictionaries and lay out paper-placemats, napkins, and plastic plates, cups, and utensils. Then out came dishes of sliced salami, cheese, bread, mandarins, and a huge cake. The dean entered the room, gave me a big smile and a handshake, and then out came a big bottle of cognac.

As it turned out, it was the elderly professor's 74th birthday. Seventy-four! (The current male life expectancy in Russia is 61.) I have a great deal of respect for this professor. He has already served his term as the dean of the Economics department (giving way to the current dean), is one of two faculty members at the university who is a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is the chairman of an organization he created relating to Russia and CIS agro-economic issues, and speaks fluent Tartar, Russian, Kazakh, and Uzbek, along with a healthy knowledge of German and English. A life to be jealous of, for sure.

It quickly became evident how much the other professors in the room respect him, as well. In typical Russian fashion, each person stood and gave a toast in honor of the celebrated septuagenarian. They waxed poetic about the man's numerous accomplishments, his intangible contributions to their own personal success, and showered him with wishes of good health and even more success in the years to come. Of course, this meant that in typical Russian fashion, you had to throw back your drink after each one of these toasts. After about 8 cognac-toasts, I had my fill.

The dean then taught me a few key phrases in Tartar (his native language): "Zhakhnim!" means "Let's drink!" and "baseballdravos" means "We can!". Following this, he invited me to the faculty party on Friday. Then, he decided that I will join him for a trip to the sauna on Saturday. Finally, he promised to find me a wife here in Russia so that I would never leave and could continue teaching his professors. I'll go along with the party, perhaps even the sauna. But the wife? How do I politely say 'no' when they won't stop stressing to me the beauty and homemaking capabilities of their women?

The best part: this is the third time I've had a party with this group of Economics professors in the last month. And another one has a birthday next week... They're a jolly bunch.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just In Case You Were Wondering...


You cannot lower your anchor in a frozen river.
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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Lighter Point of Teaching Grammar

My role as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant ('assistant' should read 'professor' in most cases), should be to help people with conversational English and American cultural studies. As I explained long ago, however, my sudden re-posting to Moscow changed my teaching responsibilities to fit my new university's needs, and now I am teaching English grammar to agricultural professors. In other words, I am spending hours teaching myself my own grammar and then passing it on to these professors.

This tends to be a difficult and often quite boring task, especially since these individuals are not by and large excited about being forced by the university to learn English, especially at this stage in their careers. And grammar is...well, grammar. It's difficult to teach. It's often very boring. And it involves a lot of monotonous exercises to ensure that word order and verb conjugations are followed according to the numerous rules and their even more numerous exceptions.

But today I had a good laugh while working on a 'Present Tense Verb Practice' worksheet I designed for my students. After asking them to formulate a question in the present continuous tense using a word prompt and provide an answer to this question, I found myself nearly on the floor laughing while most of the professors stared at me awkwardly. Here's what happened.

The prompt: Why / they / to sit / on the floor

Question: Why are they sitting on the floor?

Answer: They are sitting on the floor because they are Japanese.

Maybe you had to be there? But if you could have heard how the young woman struggled to pronounce her answer and the very serious look on her face, it would have tickled you, too.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

My Ice Age

It's time for a change of face; hence, the new template. Why? Because the Moscow winter has finally arrived and completely transformed life in the city. Beginning yesterday, temperatures plummeted to -20 Celsius.

I have a few things for which I can be thankful in this weather, however.

1. It gives me personal 'bragging' rights for having survived the coldest days of my life.

2. It gave me a great reason to buy a real Russian fur hat (raccoon) and wool-lined boots.

3. The icy coldness has chased away the omnipresent cloud cover, leaving Moscow shining under a bright blue sky. The sun is finally visible, although it does not rise above a 45-degree angle with the ground, and only shines for about 7-8 hours a day.

4. This weather also helps me understand why Russian food is so fattening, and why they love to eat sweets. It provides a high-calorie diet to help their bodies survive the cold. Thus, I no longer feel guilty eating as many fattening foods as possible, especially because the cold weather makes you very hungry. And most of them are really tasty.

Of course, it's not all peachy. There's reason behind the phrase: "bitter cold".

1. Temperatures in the -20s bring windchills hovering around -35 C. See, the problem with Moscow winter is not the actual raw temperature--it's the wind due to the city's humid climate. I've read that even in the -40/-50 C weather in Siberia, the climate is dry, which makes going outside bearable, if not even pleasant (depending on your definition of 'pleasant'). It can be a very different story here in Moscow.

2. The winds have snuck in through the side of my window, dropping the temperature of my room to the mid-60s F. Luckily, I have three wool blankets on my bed, but it sure makes it difficult to get out of bed in the morning and leave my cocoon.

3. Any extended walk outdoors quickly turns into a nightmare, especially when in wide-open spaces, which unfortunately happen to be the most picturesque and charming locales of the city. The wind seeps in through any crack in your clothing, and soon you can't feel your ears, hands, or toes. The solution: don't stand still. Run around every few minutes. And you can't be self-conscious about it; even the Russians do it. Also, if you don't have a wind-proof jacket...fughetaboutit.

4. I've been suffering from an eye infection for the past 5 weeks or so, which has inhibited my ability to wear my contact lenses. Wearing glasses in this weather, however, is NOT recommended. The moment you step out of the cold into the metro, a store, or a restaurant, you immediately go blind. Glasses fog up instantaneously and you are left stumbling ahead, holding your arms out in front of you, and wondering where the person addressing you is standing.

5. The snow that fell last week has not disappeared completely, but has rather become compacted into a couple inches of ice on walkways. My 'winter wipeout' count is currently only at 1, but it was a rough one...and there were a lot of people there to see it.

6. Ice has also formed on the inside of all tram, trolley, and bus windows. This is not a case of simple fogging that can be wiped away with your hand. This is ice, meaning it can only be tackled by scraping with your nails if you want to be able to look outside and make sure you don't miss your stop.

All in all, however, I like this weather. A lot. The cold really refreshes you. And the crisp blue skies and bright sunshine aren't too bad, either.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Lesson Learned?

No doubt everyone has now heard about the devastating fire in the 'Lame Horse' nightclub in Perm last weekend that has left 141 people dead and another 89 still hospitalized suffering from smoke inhalation and injuries related to the stampede of people attempting to escape the flames. The source of the disaster: fireworks. Fireworks set off inside the nightclub to celebrate it's 8 year anniversary. Subsequent investigations have found that the nightclub's fire escapes were not up to code, and this has led to a wave of resignations among the local fire department and even the local government in Perm.

But it has also sparked a nationwide interest in fire code regulations. Hence, my university has taken its own steps to prevent similar mishaps. Well, really just one step: they have labeled the fire escapes.

This still leaves one major problem. All of the fire escapes are locked.

There is one such stairwell right next to my door at the end of the hallway, and it features a nice-sized padlock. Now, however, there is a sign telling me where I can find the key to this lock! It is located in a room all the way on the other side of the building (although still on the 5th floor). This door to this room, however, is only open 8 hours each day. Otherwise, the key to this room (in order to reach the key to the fire escape door) is located in the main office on the floor below.

The only other way out of my dormitory is by way of the main staircase, which is also located all the way at the other end of the hallway from my room. The elevators in my dormitory--in a superb example of intelligent Soviet design--do not go down, and they only go up from the lobby. Therefore, from any floor in the dormitory, from the fourth all the way to the sixteenth, the only way to reach the exit is down one set of stairs, which dead-ends on the second floor. To reach the lobby from this point, you must walk all the way across the second floor to another set of stairs. (I should point out that the third floor is completely boarded up and impassible. Don't ask me why.)

Where the main staircase dead-ends on the second floor is another gate that is padlocked shut (the second fire escape). As of two days ago, however, this fire escape has been freshly labeled in red paint, "Emergency Exit," and a sign generously explains the location of the key to this padlock--again to be found in an office down the hall whose door is unlocked only during working hours.
Do people really value human life here?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Note to Self

Don't ever forget your scarf when venturing outside into the Moscow winter.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

This is the joke.

Yesterday I gave a short photo-presentation to my group of Advanced English professors about my study-abroad experience in India in 2007. I told them the story of the elephant charge while on a safari in Karnataka. They loved it. Then, this morning, I received an email from one of the professors:

"Thank you very much for your story about India. I was very impressed by the story about elephants. May be you will meet the bear in snowy Russian wood? This is the joke. It is more pleasant to meet the bear in the Moscow zoo.
I wish you interesting and productive week."


The Point of No Return

The Moscow winter has finally arrived. And this time it’s here to stay…I hope.

The last snowfall was over two weeks ago, and since then the city has been experiencing a serious December heat wave of 5-6 degrees Celsius. Yesterday, however, just as the East Coast back home got hit with a serious snowstorm, the temperature thousands of miles away in Moscow dipped to 5 below. Snow has been falling steadily all day today, and who knows when it will stop?

Yesterday also just happened to be the day that I took a trip to Kolomna---a small, old village a few hours south of Moscow---to explore the city’s old Kremlin. After a two-hour outdoor walking tour in the subzero weather with whipping winds (no snow, though), I was left wondering if I would ever feel my toes again. I could not hold my camera viewfinder up to my eye without shaking---hence the below-average pictures I ended up with. The day was nonetheless fascinating, as I got my first real taste of not only the Russian winter, but also another glimpse of an old Russian medieval town.

Not only have we reached the P.O.N.R. in terms of the weather, but I may have crossed the same barrier in my mentality toward Moscow. The city captured my heart late last week when I took a stroll downtown to Patriarch Ponds (this should sound familiar to anyone who has read Bulgakov’s classic, “Master and Margarita”). It is a small park with a walkway, benches, a playground, a huge statue of Mikhail Bulgakov and even an upscale restaurant surrounding the pond. The streets leading to Patriarch Ponds seem to be pulled right out of Paris. Narrow lanes with tall, neo-classical buildings towering over them, in the basements of which stand bakeries, restaurants, wine bars, boutiques, and the like (all extremely expensive, in the true Paris fashion). I walked through the 3 square-block area for two hours---and made a detour to the Bulgakov house museum where he wrote his classic---taking in the sights that warmed my heart. Finally--the romance of Moscow. If only I could wrap the overhead tram lines with Christmas lights.

This secluded Wonderland is located just two streets over from Thaddeus’ apartment.

Damn him.

Also, however 'harsh' the winters are here, Moscow is beautiful with snow. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

"I don't believe what I just saw!"

Any self-respecting baseball fan out there is familiar with the above quote. Jack Buck’s call of Kirk Gibson’s improbable, pitch-hit, game-winning home run in the opener of the 1988 World Series is timeless. So is the tradition of the Russian theater. Is it any wonder, therefore, that Buck’s quote immediately popped into my mind after I saw a modern Russian rendition of Shakespeare’s timeless “Romeo & Juliet” on Thursday night?

Well, yes. It is a wonder. Why? Because the show was terrible.

Granted, Shakespeare is difficult. Even when read and performed in the original English, the antiquity of his work presents challenges to the modern actor that only the most skilled can overcome without looking and sounding like an ass. I suppose that’s why it’s quite chic to modernize and reinterpret these classics. But I left the Moscow Dramatic Theater named after Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin not quite able to fathom just how badly this troupe missed the point.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an absolute stickler. While I adore the classicism of Big Will’s pieces, there is some merit and intrigue in a modern interpretation. There have even been some good ones---West Side Story, for example. Hell, even ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ was bearable. But this…this was in a whole ’nother ballpark. This was in the realm of the performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that I took part in during my freshman year at W&M. After 8 years of doing theater, this would prove to be my last show. Why? One reason was that the modern interpretation pursued by our director was, in a word, bullshit. It killed the art for me.

Let me break down what didn’t work in last night’s play:

1. The set. The set was two PVC-pipe jungle gyms on either side of the stage with plexi-glass panels on hinges (whose swinging motions resembled those of the far-too-heavy swinging doors leading into and out of Moscow metro stations--a real hazard to one’s safety). These two constructions represented the homes of the Capulets and the Montagues, respectively. What they mostly served as, however, were gymnastics bars for all the actors to perform stunts on. Stunts in Romeo & Juliet?

2. Hoola-hoops. There was a big party at the Capulet household in the first act where everyone was dancing with pink hoola-hoops. These objects made repeat appearances throughout the show, including at the point of Mercutio’s death, when he grabbed the stack of hoops and tossed them through the air before collapsing offstage. Dramatic.

3. Peeing on stage: At one point Mercutio comes on stage with Romeo and begins joking around with him. One of the jokes ends in him on all-fours, lifting his leg and mimicking a male dog peeing. He holds has a hand-held water bladder, which he then squeezes for full effect, “peeing” all over Romeo. He later does the same thing to Juliet’s nanny.

4. Music. I could go and on for this one. First, there is beat-boxing and fake rapping at one point. There is a blast of a gong between each scene. Indian drum-music was used extensively in the first act. French café music featuring accordions and violins is the music of choice in the second act. There is a completely unnecessary ballet scene with Romeo and Juliet dancing in all-black sport underwear (i.e. Juliet in nothing but a sport bra and underwear) around an art-deco grandfather clock, and the accompanying music is a duet of two men’s voices saying “You could go, You could go, You could go Around, Around, Around” in accented English.
But the real winner in the music category was the use of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Lasagna”--an atrocious parody of the already-atrocious “La Bamba”. The director made the unfortunate decision to use this song not once, but TWICE, including in the fight scene that ends in the fatal wounding of Mercutio. If you’re curious as to what a song about Lasagna sounds like, check it out at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ps1oYsvlEzI
Now imagine this song being played twice during Romeo & Juliet. WTF.

You may think that perhaps I missed the point. Perhaps I was lost in the translation? Maybe I missed the humor?


Bad is bad is bad is bad, in Russian and in Old English.