Wednesday, December 17, 2008

I'm outta here

I leave in 24 hours for Georgia. Eep!

I've been running around trying to get things done before I go. The time crunch has forced me into linguistic situations I've been avoiding all semester, like taking my shoes in to get the heels fixed, and riding a marshrutka (minibus) all by myself to a place I've never been before... sounds elementary, but I've been ridiculously afraid of doing that since... always! Because it involves talking to the bus driver. I know, dumb, right? So yay me.

I should still have some email access from Georgia, but I'm not sure how much blog updating I'll be able to do. I'll be sure to take careful notes on my experiences, however, and give you all a probably much too full update when I get back to Russia.

If I don't get to say it later, Happy New Year!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Good news! I DON'T hate Russia!

Well, finals are finally over, and though I can’t completely relax yet – we still have presentations on Monday and language testing Tuesday and Wednesday – I’m feeling much better about everything. Now that I’ve taken my exams, I sort of feel like I might have even learned something this semester! In the spirit of good moods, I feel like I have something I need to put down in writing, lest I forget again next time I come to Russia.

I’ve tried to avoid complaining too much on this blog, both because complaining is boring to read and because I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. Plus, it doesn’t really help me feel better all that much. But I have to admit, mostly to my future self, who will want to idealize Piter, I’ve been pretty miserable most of this semester, for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them are out of my control – 18-hour nights, for example. Some of them have been within my control, like averaging only 4 hours of sleep a night this entire semester – something I’ve never done to myself before, and something I never hope to do again. Some factors combined to send my control-freak, perfectionist personality into a tailspin – lack of control over my diet and resultant weight gain (6% milk?! Come ON! That’s half-and-half!), lack of motivation to study (fueled in part by lack of sleep), not having a regular gym schedule, and in general feeling like my Russian was stagnating – maybe not getting worse, but surely not improving. Accustomed to being optimistic, positive, and generally in good spirits, I was not prepared for the waves of total negativity that repeatedly bowled me over this semester. I spent entire walks to school hating everything around me; entire weekends I avoided studying by daydreaming about shopping at HyVee and cooking non-Russian food in my own kitchen. So many days I just wanted to tell Russia to f*** off, and go home and copy tapes at the Center for Media Production and live a normal, English-speaking, American life. For all that, I’ve only cried once. Instead of complaining on the blog, I tried to write about interesting occurrences. When it got really tough, I stopped writing altogether. (Regular readers may have noticed.)

I don’t remember feeling this way in 2005. It’s entirely possible that this is exactly how I felt then too, but my brain wisely forgot how awful the first few months were in favor of remembering how great the last few were. Nonetheless, I think a few things contributed to the differences between 2005 and 2008. For one thing, I actually knew and understood Russian when I arrived this year. In 2005, I think I connected a lot of my negative feelings with not understanding what was going on around me; when my language improved, my self-confidence soared, and so did my mood. This year, I erroneously expected that having prior knowledge of Russian and of Petersburg would make getting used to living here a piece of cake. In fact, I think it’s had the opposite effect – I’ve been more disappointed by how long it’s taken to adjust simply because I thought it would take no time at all.

So other than as a word of warning to myself, why am I telling you all this now? Because, dear friends, for the last week or two this feeling has been fading, and today, despite having to take two of my hardest finals, was simply a wonderful day. It was one of those days that reminded me why I love Russia, Russians, and particularly Petersburg. It was one of those days that’s gotten me thinking about ways I could extend my stay in Piter for a year or so – and it’s worthy of mention that I’ve having such thoughts in the dark, dead of winter, not in the carefree, eternal light of summer!

What was today such a great day? Simple – the human connection. At my internship today we had an organization-wide meeting (i.e. all eight of us gathered in one room) to discuss the Winter issue of our journal, The Russian Mæcenas, which just came out. Our head editor, Arkady Yakovlevich, spoke very kindly about everyone’s contributions to the journal; in my case, the translations for the English pages. The president of our organization, Inna Germanovna, also expressed her approval of my work this fall. What was important to me was not the compliments, although it’s always nice to hear positive feedback about one’s work – what was important was that they made me feel like an integral part of the collective. It made me want to do more to help the journal get on its feet; it made me want to find a way to continue working with the InterJournalist Center in the future – even if that means sending translations by email from the US.

After work I went to my elective course – the last one for me this semester, although Russians have one more week of class. After class I thanked Viktor Stepanovich for allowing us to listen to his lectures, and he insisted that we return in the spring to hear other history courses. I think I may take him up on that.

Then two of our classmates, Vasya and Seryozha, took me and Berney out for beer. While much of the evening was spent listening to Vasya talk (born with the gift of gab – but good listening comprehension practice for me), it was also interspersed with toasts to international friendships and to history (which brought us together). Seryozha walked me home (well, to the metro) afterwards, and we had a really nice conversation. I was overwhelmed by the feeling of acceptance I got from these guys – despite my imperfect Russian, they were still interested in hanging out with me. That may sound like a weird thing for me to find so touching, but I can’t describe how difficult it is to meet people who are actually interested in working through the language barrier to get to know me. While in English I’m Miss Outgoing, in Russian, it takes a lot more time and effort for me to come out of my shell; sometimes I just don’t know what to say to start or continue a conversation.

In short, I’m finding my place in Piter, and it makes me want to stay. I was really troubled for a while by the idea that my love for this city last time had somehow been a fluke, but it turns out it just took some time to find it again. It’s a wonderful feeling!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Thanksgiving Shenanigans

Happy belated Thanksgiving wishes to everyone; I hope you all got to spend time with your loved ones and stuff yourselves silly. I had a full and fun Thanksgiving break. We were lucky enough to have Thursday and Friday off from school. Thursday I did nothing all day except go shopping for feast supplies. I was disappointed to learn that they were all out of turkeys at the OK Hypermarket (literally, they’d sold out. Guess all the other Americans in Piter beat me to the punch). But I got a chicken instead, which was more appropriately sized for my family anyway. Friday I went to the American Councils Thanksgiving Feast, which ended up being about five of us from Flagship plus Zhenya, one of our awesome tutors, a few very young Russians who studied abroad in the US last year, and the American Councils staff (also Russians, except the director). We had KFC. I ate a chicken breast. Can you believe it? Nearly five years of pretty solid vegetarianism, and the first chicken I eat is KFC. Good grief. Anyway, after the feast the Flagship guys, me, and Zhenya went to play pool. Kennon kicked all of our butts. It was so fun, I think it should become a new Thanksgiving tradition. Thanksgiving pool. Yeah.

Saturday the fun began at home. I cooked all day, making pumpkin pie, that potato casserole with the frosted flakes on top, roast chicken, turkey breasts (Galya found them and insisted on adding them to the feast, so that everything would be done right. What a sweetie!), stuffing, and deviled eggs. Everything turned out a little… Russian. For example, I had to use butter to make the pie crust, and make the pie in a springform pan instead of a regular pie pan, so when I put the pie in the oven, some of the crust melted off and the apartment was filled with smoke from burning crust all day. Oops. Also, the pumpkin was not the convenient pureed stuff you get in the can, but an actual gourd. It didn’t puree as well as I’d have liked (Galya’s blender, while it looks pretty fancy, is actually pretty wimpy), so the consistency was a little off. But hey, we had pumpkin pie! For the potato casserole I had to approximate my own cream of mushroom soup (Galya insisted on adding more mushrooms than I really wanted, all the time saying “but they’re tiny, you need more of them”), and I ended up not baking it long enough, so the potatoes were just a hair on the crunchy side. Meh, it was still tasty. Besides, what are you supposed to do when the oven settings are labeled 1 through 8 rather than with actual temperatures? Even Galya’s recipes are given for “hot” “medium” and “low” oven. Sheesh. The stuffing, however, turned out splendidly.

Galya and I were joined by Kira, Nadya, and Galya’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. Adding the Russian tradition of toasting at meals, we all raised our shot-glasses of home-brewed rowan berry vodka and took turns saying what we were thankful for. Zhenya, the always inquisitive son-in-law, kept asking, “So, you’re giving thanks to the Indians, right?” With Kira present, he had a new American to grill, so Kira spent a lot of time answering questions about earthquakes in California (where she’s from), whether people wear sombreros in California, and about her impressions of Petersburg and Russian people. Zhenya’s reaction to the pumpkin pie also cracked me up: he said that as long as he didn’t think about the fact that it was pumpkin, it was very delicious – but the idea of a pie made from a vegetable freaked him out.

In all I had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend. I’ve got a few pictures up here if you’d like to see the feast for yourself.

I haven’t been updating the blog of late because I’ve been feeling very overwhelmed by everything I have going on here. I haven’t been sleeping much, but I can’t seem to get anything done either. I’m finding it much more “important” to go to the movies with Nadya or to concerts at the brand new Marinsky Concert Hall with Jay. The lack of sunlight is really depressing; I’m in school literally from dawn to dusk. Yesterday I ended up not going to class because I was so exhausted; I slept till 2, then slept another 8 hours last night straight through. I’m feeling a lot better today. I have finals next week; Monday the 15th I have to give a presentation on my elective course (which I haven’t finished writing yet), and on the 16th and 17th we have language testing. Blargh. Just gotta hold out for a couple more weeks, then I’ll have three weeks off.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Military Space Academy and a Nighttime Encounter with a Muzhik

Admittedly, when I first moved into Number 3 Petrovksy Lane, I was a bit unnerved by the columns of uniformed boys marching up and down the street all the time, cadets at the Military Space Academy. With time, however, I’ve grown to appreciate the constant presence of the cadets. For one, I always feel pretty safe walking down Krasny Kursant Street, the main road I walk on to get to the metro, to the gym, and home from my internship. I feel fairly confident that if I needed help, I could turn to a cadet, and he’d help me out – or at least not make the situation worse. And then there’s the always amusing situations that arise when a cadet decides to talk to me (okay, so there’s only been one such situation so far, but who knows what the future holds?). Today I discovered another reason I like living amongst the cadets: the Military Space Academy campus takes up several long blocks of Krasny Kursant Street, and the sidewalks along all those blocks were swept immaculately clean of the snow that’s been falling for the past few days. It was nice to take a break for a couple blocks from skidding over and trudging through the slippery, slushy, half-packed, half-loose snowy mush that covers all the rest of the sidewalks in this city.

On Saturday the streets were still clean; it didn’t start snowing heavily till early Sunday morning. Saturday evening much of our American group and several Russian friends gathered in a club downtown to celebrate the birthdays of Kennon and Andrew (a few pictures here). After a beer, some hearty laughter over Mark’s gift to Andrew (a pair of “stud undies” with a 4-foot long tube for his… well, you know), and a couple dances to the live rockabilly-blues band Forrest Gump, I headed home, arriving at Chkalovskaya metro station around 11:30 or 11:45 PM. Not that late, right? Usually I feel fine on the 10-15 minute walk home from the metro, but for some reason, I felt really uneasy walking home Saturday night. First I had to walk through a group of four guys that eyed me in a disconcerting way, then I walked past another group of them clustered around a beer kiosk. That was all on Chkalovsky Prospekt, and I thought that once I got to Krasny Kursant Street, I’d feel better. But the fun didn’t stop there.

A middle-aged muzhik (i.e. lower-class working fellow, not very educated, reeking of beer, and swearing every other word) approaches me, saying “Devushka, devushka,” to get my attention. He’s right in the middle of my path; I stop about six feet away. He’s been in a fight.

“What?” I say.
“Devushka, do you know how to get to [names some street, but I don’t catch which one]?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You can get to the metro if you go to the corner and turn left.”
“Don’t you see, they ^%#*@ beat me up, look at my #*!@# eye @#!^&$.”
“So what?” I say, with intonation that says What do you expect me to do about it?
“Can’t you take me there?” he pleads, stepping closer. I can smell stale domestic beer on his breath. His eye does look kind of bad. I back away, into the street. My path to home is now clear, if I need to run. I curse inwardly; there isn’t a damned cadet in sight – I bet they have a curfew or something. I’m wondering if the two guys I passed near the corner were still there, and if they’d come running if I screamed.
“No,” I say.
“Are you afraid?” he asks.
“Yes, I am. Please don’t come any nearer.”
“Can’t you just take me there yourself? Look at my eye &#!@%.” I back away further. “You’re afraid.”
“Of course I’m afraid! I’m sorry, I can’t take you. The metro is right around the corner. I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t,” I say, and turn towards home. I walk quickly and don’t look back, finally feeling safe again when the heavy steel door to my stairwell locks behind me.

I tell this story not to freak anyone out at home – overall I still feel safe in my neighborhood – but because this encounter got me thinking about the rather horrible position that muzhik was in. It’s possible the whole request for help was a sham intended to get me into a position where he could take advantage of me in some way. But it’s much more likely that he was actually in need of help. He’d clearly been drinking –every muzhik drinks, often starting early in the morning. He’d clearly gotten into a scuffle with someone, and whether it was something he’d started or if he’d gotten mugged or whatever, I have no way of knowing. But there he was, with no one to turn to. To approach another man could get him into a situation worse than the one he’d just gotten out of – you never know what a man here might do if he thinks he can turn a situation to his advantage (I realize that sounds like gross overgeneralization, and perhaps it is, but in Petersburg, at night, I feel like it’s a case of “better safe than sorry,” and I avoid men like the plague). So the muzhik’s alternative is to turn to a woman for help, who, like me, is more likely than not to be afraid of him. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that he intended me no harm; that he really just needed some help getting to a medical facility or his brother’s house or something like that. But I just couldn’t risk it – just as almost any woman here wouldn’t risk it. And my reaction to his request has got me thinking about how no one trusts anyone anymore – if you’re not свой, “one’s own,” then you’re чужой, “other” – and I’m not going to risk anything to help you. It’s one of the unfortunate realities of living in a large urban area. I hope that muzhik got the help he needed, even without my assistance.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Russian Mindset Stole my Lunch

I used to eat lunch relatively frequently at this vegetarian café I like, Troitsky Most. This café offered two “quick lunch” options: the three-course business lunch for 169 rubles (about $7), or, for 103 rubles (about $4) you could get the “fitness” lunch: the salad of the day, some kind of soup, a grain/pasta dish, and a glass of juice. “Fitness” was a great deal, and wildly popular – just about everyone who went into the café around lunchtime ordered it.

They’ve done away with my fitness lunch.

Further, the fact that they did away with the fitness lunch gave me an insight into the Russian mindset. This is just an idea, so please feel free to argue with me.

I in no way pretend to be a business expert, but it seems to me that if a business has hit on a popular idea, it should do its best to develop and promote that idea – “the people have spoken” and all that. In the case of “fitness,” I think the owners of this café were unhappy with the fact that everyone ordered the 103-ruble lunch instead of the 169-ruble lunch. In America, it seems to me, business owners would look at that and try to do something either to increase sales of the 103-ruble lunch even further, or to make the more expensive lunch more attractive, or perhaps eliminate the less-frequently-ordered 169-ruble lunch. However, in the top-down tradition of Russia, the café has decided to try to force people to order the 169-ruble lunch by simply eliminating the more popular 103-ruble lunch. They’re banking on the fact that people are probably used to going there for lunch and aren’t going to stop just because the cheap lunch is no longer being offered. They’re probably right in that regard, although I’m no longer going to make a special trip all the way to that café anymore; there are cafés closer to school. But I really think their approach to this problem reflects Russia’s long history of strong, centralized power and reform imposed from above that often directly contradicts what the people are saying they want or need. Since this is what people expect to happen, they’ve stopped complaining about such changes and just say, “Well, what can you do?”

Tell me if my idea makes sense or if I sound like a crazy who’s just bitter about losing a cheap vegetarian meal.


Of all the hardships that come with living this far north, one concession that we get is the sunrise. I saw a sunrise this morning that moved me almost to tears. Gold, orange, charcoal-gray clouds glowing pink on their undersides - the entire eastern sky was awash in colors - and not just colors, but light! - that only nature can produce, and most of the world rushed by, not even noticing. I understand now what artists have been trying to capture all this time. I feel very lucky to live in a part of the city where the sunrise is visible for the first leg of my walk to school, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see more sunrises in just the past three months than I have in the rest of my entire life.

Ticket Office

The remnants of Soviet culture in Russia are disappearing more and more quickly as time passes. Neon signs beckon passers-by into high-end clothing stores, sex shops, and sushi bars. Brightly lit supermarkets and hypermarkets (the Russian take on Walmart) are slowly but surely replacing hole-in-the-wall grocery stores, where all the products are behind the counter and you have to talk with at least one and usually three or four surly attendants to get your groceries. Even just since three years ago, you can break a 1000 ruble note at most places without dirty looks from the cashier or needing to open your wallet and show that no, you really don’t have any smaller bills (although they still ask for change to round out the total). Stores are well-stocked. Babushki are still dressed in long, drab coats and clunky boots, but anyone under 55 is always dressed to the nines. Foreign cars fill the streets. And I even saw two separate joggers this morning. However, one place still evokes images of the bygone Soviet state: the railroad ticket office.

I buy my tickets at the main office on Canal Griboedova, not because it’s terribly convenient anymore, but because that’s where I’ve always gone, and I know exactly where it’s located. A 30-foot tall, majestic gate in the shape of an on-coming train opens to the main doors, which opens into a gigantic room. 47 ticket booths, their cashiers safely sealed behind glass windows, line both walls of the room, set into alcoves. Benches for the weary and elderly are set up along the alcoves; train schedules hang on the walls outside the alcoves, arranged according to station.

I went to the ticket office today to exchange my train ticket. I decided to get to Kiev via Moscow, thus completely avoiding Belarus; this will be much cheaper and much less of a hassle than getting a $177 transit visa.

When I went to this office a week or so ago at 3 in the afternoon, there was almost no one there. Today, however, at the exact same time, the place was a zoo. Why? Because you can only buy train tickets 45 days in advance, and New Years now falls into that time period. Everyone is getting their holiday travels in order. Only about a third of the 47 booths were open, and each of them had a line out the door. However, Russian lines do not work the way American lines do; in fact, they’re usually not lines at all. To join a line, you approach the clump of people that look like they’re waiting for the same booth, and ask “Who’s last?” Someone among that clump will raise their hand, and then you say, “I’m behind you.” You are then free to walk away, say, to double check the train schedule, and your place will be saved. Lines are complicated by the fact that many people will reserve places in more than one line (sometimes with the help of a friend), and then just watch to see which line moves faster. So there’s the potential to approach a booth that looks like it doesn’t have many people waiting, but actually end up much farther back in the line than you expected.

Today I approached Booth 47 and asked “Who’s last?” Apathetic eyes stared wearily up at me from the benches; none of them were last. A man in line pointed to the guy behind him, and I said, “You’re last? Okay, I’m behind you.” Suddenly an overweight, huffy woman in her late 50s scurried over from another line and started scolding me, “What do you mean, you’re behind him? I’m behind him, young lady! How dare you try to cut! How could you even think such a thing possible?” She then proceeded to point out the exact order of people in line. I’m like, “Okay, lady, chill out. I did ask who was last. If you are last, then I’ll be behind you.” A woman in the line for booth 45 kept barging in and telling those who approached exactly where they would be in the line, which rather set me on edge, for some reason. I felt like telling her to get her nose out of our business and occupy herself with her own line, but I didn’t say anything.

Choosing a line at the ticket office is further complicated by the cashier’s breaks, which are displayed on a card in her (always a her) window. Every two hours, she gets a ten-minute break, and invariably that break comes exactly when you get to the front of the line. When that happens, there’s nothing to do but wait for ten minutes till she comes back (unless you have a friend in another line who gets to the window faster). Today I lucked out and got to the window just before my cashier’s 4:00 break.

As it turns out, you can’t return a train ticket at booth 47, only at booth 21. So I bought my new tickets first, on the № 55 to Moscow, then on the № 41 to Kiev (I’ll have a 6 hour layover; I’m planning to hit up the Tretyakovsky Gallery). Then I found booth 21, where the cashier was also on a 4:00 break. However, I was first in line, so I wasn’t too worried about waiting. A middle-aged man joined the line behind me; I commiserated as he remorsefully explained that he’d just bought this ticket three hours ago, and now had to change it, and at a 50% loss at that, as he was returning the ticket within 8 hours of departure. Loathe to fight the crush at the regular ticket booths to purchase the ticket he wanted instead, he decided it would be okay to join the line at booth 20, ostensibly reserved for members of the military and disabled persons (later, a woman approached the growing crowd at booth 20 and grumbled loudly, “What, is this how they serve the disabled here, with lines??”).

In all, I spent 1473.1 rubles and 1 hour in lines and got 1227.6 rubles back; the roughly $10 plus time is definitely a better deal than the Belarusian visa. I’m a little bummed that this change means I won’t have any time to see Kiev between my flights and trains, but I won’t have to stay in a hostel either, which is nice. Next Wednesday I’ll be within the 45 day window to buy my return tickets; since we’ve got Thursday and Friday off for Thanksgiving, I’m hoping to get to the ticket office early on Thursday morning to avoid the crowd.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Hooray, I've officially gotten the go ahead on my trip to Georgia from Lena, our program coordinator. She said that other than passport control possibly being rude when they see Georgian stamps in my passport on my way back into Russia, they basically can't do anything. Whew!

Just a few loose ends to wrap up - I have to find out if I need a transit visa to go through Belarus on the train (though we'll probably be asleep as we go pass through) and get a return train ticket. I need to borrow a smaller suitcase from someone; I could probably fill one of my big ones for a three week trip, but I don't want to lug it all over creation by myself. Did that on the way to Middlebury, and it sucked.

Addendum 15/11/2008: So it turns out I need a transit visa to go through Belarus. For a double-entry (there and back), it's $177. Dang it! Still, glad I figured this out now and not a day before leaving; the State Department travel site mentions cases of people getting kicked off the train at the border for not having the proper documents. Cripes!

Oh, yeah, and before I leave, I should probably keep studying, take my finals, and do better on my language tests than I did in August. :)

This is funny:

Odobrenie = approval.
Udobrenie = fertilizer.

Good idea not to get these words confused - it could lead to awkwardness. Ha.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Regular Life Update

Life continues to hum along here in Petersburg. It appears I’ve lucked out two trips in a row; this fall has been unseasonably warm. Last week the temperature hovered around freezing for a couple days, but then it warmed up again; other than that little dip in temperature, it’s been consistently around 6-10 degrees Celsius since the beginning of October. It has continued to get darker, however (global warming can’t help with that one). Yesterday and today I noticed especially that I’m now leaving the apartment at 8:30 or 8:45 in pre-dawn gloom – not completely dark, but not light either. It’s that time of day when it’s really hard to see, because your eyes don’t know whether to adjust to light or dark. Sunset is currently around 4:30.

I’ve got about a month of classes left this semester. I’m surprised at how quickly the fall semester has flown by. I seem to remember fall of 2005 dragging on for ages and ages, which was probably related to me not understanding much going on around me all the time. It’s been an easier adjustment this time. I don’t feel like I’m making leaps and bounds in my language gain, which is a little discouraging, but all the same, there is definitely improvement. This week and next week I have tests in all of my classes, which sure is a lot of fun. I’m feeling a bit more prepared this time around; last time I took all my tests right after missing two days of class from being sick, and I was definitely not ready.

I’ve got my trip to Georgia over winter break all booked up, although I do have to talk to my program coordinator tomorrow to double-check that it’s really, really okay for me to go. I’ll be taking the train to Kiev, Ukraine, spending the night in a hostel, and flying from Kiev to Batumi the next day. I’ll do the same in reverse on the way back. I sure hope she doesn’t say “no” now, as I have all my tickets already except for one (my train ticket back from Kiev; as train tickets can only be purchased 45 days in advance, I have to wait till the end of November). I’m hoping that by going through Ukraine I can avoid any potential problems at the border, particularly on the way back (knock on wood).

In more banal news, Kira and I went to a jewelry expo on Sunday, and I bought a lovely pair of pearl earrings and a ring to match. There was so much to look at and choose from, it was hard to narrow it down, but I’m happy with what I decided on. Then yesterday I bought the pair of jeans I’ve been eyeing for a couple weeks. I bought the size that fit me three weeks ago when I tried them on, and discovered upon donning them again that I’ve managed to gain significantly around my middle in the interval, despite my efforts at the gym. Nothing like a pair of Russian jeans (made in China) to give a girl a weight complex. I’ve decided that part of my overeating problem stems from the fact that my stomach (the digestive organ itself) is all stretched out from eating so much all the time, so I eat more than I need to before getting full. I’m making an effort to shrink it back down again to a reasonable size by only eating little bits at a time, and eating really slowly.

Today was my friend Nadya’s birthday. She invited several of her friends to Café Zoom (been there before – love the atmosphere). I saw my old acquaintance Katya for the first time since I got here; she didn’t know that I was in Piter, and she was so surprised to see me that she didn’t calm down for about ten minutes. We all played a pretty fun game in which each person composes a line in a poem, but can only see two of the lines written previously. Kind of like mad libs. We ended up with eight or so pretty funny poems. Other than the game, conversation was a little stilted; it was one of those parties where the only person in common is the birthday girl, and no one else knows each other. But I had a good time, and made plans to get together with Katya and Nadya on Saturday.

To end somewhat randomly, here’s a funny quote from phonetics class a couple weeks ago, right after our week-long break, that shows what a few months in Russia does to people:

Olga Valentinovna: Well, the first day back from break is always tough, but don’t worry, soon we’ll all… (pause)

Students, in unison: Die?

Olga Valentinovna: (Laughs) Good grief, I was going to say “rest over winter break.”

Feeling guilt, but doing nothing

The poor and disabled of Russia have a rough life, to put it mildly. Retirees receive laughable pensions, and as a result of the economic turmoil in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of them have nothing saved – their savings simply turned into nothing. Babushki with no one left to take care of them – those unfortunate enough to outlive their loved ones – often take to the streets to beg. A whole line of them stands outside Vladimirski Cathedral; more hardcore babushki kneel on a piece of cardboard, bowing to the earth and praying all day on the frozen sidewalks as the world hurries by. Veterans missing arms and legs in various degrees – in one case, both legs at the hip and both arms below the elbow – also line the sidewalks and metro tunnels.

More able-bodied people looking to earn some money take to selling things in the metro. Lugging a gym bag full of good, the vendor enters at one end of a metro car and gives a loud spiel proclaiming the advantages of buying whatever products they’re selling – usually road maps, pens, passport covers, DVDs and the like. They then slowly walk the length of the car, and if anyone wants to buy something, they flag the vendor down. At the station, the vendor runs to the next car and starts the process again.

All of these people – the praying babushki, the limbless, stonefaced veterans, the metro merchants – give me mixed feelings. It is outrageous that they have no alternative but to beg – the elderly gave their all to the Soviet Union, but in their old age their country has abandoned them. Those veterans fought wars that they did not chose and paid a steep price – parts of their body, without which they are unlikely to be able to find work after they return home. Again, the government here does little to support those who fought for it. As far as the metro merchants go, I have deep respect for their entrepreneurial spirit; it’s a tough job, and the profits are probably meager, but at least they’re doing what they can to make it. All the same, despite the outrage and shame I feel as I pass beggars, I never give any of them anything. I justify this to myself by saying “I can’t save them all, I’m just a poor student, tomorrow they’ll be hungry again anyway…” Pretty pathetic arguments, I know, but they usually dull my sense of guilt just enough to get me by. But the other day on the metro, I felt true shame.

A young man with a pronounced limp (cerebral palsy?) and an overpowering stutter got on my car to sell band-aids at 10 for 10 rubles. Clearly, anyone buying band-aids from this guy didn’t actually need band-aids (you can get a whole box for 40 rubles), they just wanted to help him out. This wasn’t begging, but it was about as close as you could get. He can’t possibly sell enough band-aids in a day to live on. And yet I still didn’t buy any. I stood there feeling an awful mix of shame and pity, and I didn’t buy any band-aids. I wanted the next stop to come as quickly as possible so I could forget about him. I realize this makes me to some degree a bad person. I want there to be a real solution, one that will take care of the neediest people in this society and give them back their dignity. I just don’t know what that solution is.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A few more pics

I added some more pictures from around town to this album.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Russian Pick-up

Walking home along Red Cadet Street. A cadet with a chirpy tenor voice starts talking to me:

Cadet: You are wearing astonishing perfume. It wafted over me as I approached from behind you. (continues in this vein, I catch something about "masculine" and "aroma.")
Me: . . . (weak smile. I'm confused. What does he mean, masculine aroma? I'm not even wearing perfume.)
Cadet: Oh, and you have a lovely smile too.
Me: . . .
Cadet: What's the deal, don't you know how to speak Russian?
Me: I know how.
Cadet: Oh, wonderful. Hooray! The girl speaks Russian.
Me: . . .
Cadet: Will you be turning here or going straight?
Me: Going straight.
Cadet: Okay then, have a good one.
Me: You too, see ya.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Russian Take on Things

Hey Everyone, apologies for the long silence. As I’m getting more and more comfortable and settled in here, I’m finding it easier to concentrate on homework, working out, etc – which means less time for blogging, since blogging is often a means of putting off doing what needs to be done. Also, not very interesting to blog about the fact that “today I did my homework and went to the gym. That’s what I did yesterday too, and what I will do tomorrow.” Luckily, by the end of the week I managed to have a couple adventures.

Russian Halloween. Russians don’t celebrate Halloween, really. A few bars and restaurants downtown have Halloween parties, but it’s more because it’s exotic and a reason to throw a party than a real tradition. I decided it would be fun to have Nadya and Kira over to carve pumpkins and watch Mr. Vampire – our own mini pumpkin-carving party, like the one I usually attend in Iowa City. But no matter where I looked, I could not find a pumpkin! Well, that’s not completely true – some stores had chunks of pumpkin for sale, but not whole ones; some stores had whole pumpkins, but they were of a different variety, too long and narrow to be appropriate for carving. I finally found some pumpkins of the right shape and roughly the right color at the market, but they were 100 rubles a kilogram! Even the smallest, not-even-carvable pumpkins cost around $8; for one carving-sized pumpkin it probably would have been close to $20. So I gave up on the pumpkin carving idea. Nadya and Kira came over and ate guacamole I’d made and had tea and watched the news (which practically counts as a horror film). My friend Rezo later noted that having tea is a pretty boring way to celebrate a holiday. Have to say I agree, but it was fun to hang out with Nadya and Kira anyway.

Russian Bureaucracy. As students of the Special Department of Philology at Saint Petersburg State University, we are entitled to receive the student discount on transportation. This involves getting a special card with a magnetic strip, which is scanned to ride the metro and simply displayed to ride all surface transportation. For 450 rubles a month, you get 70 metro rides and unlimited bus/trolleybus/tramcar rides – that’s about the cost of 23 rides at full price. Pretty good deal, huh? Enter the bureaucracy. You only have to buy this card once, and then it can be recharged at any metro ticket window. But to get the card, you have to go to a particular office near the Primorskaya metro station in the last four or five business days of the month. Kira and I decided to go get our cards on Friday, the last day of October. After wandering around a bit and asking for directions, we found the office we needed. There were signs everywhere about needing a document from the bank showing that we’d paid for the card there (since they don’t handle money at this office), so we left and walked about ten minutes to the bank. At the bank, it turned out that you first needed to get a different piece of paper from the office, fill it out and bring it with you to the bank. So we walked back to the office, where we discovered that while Kira’s info was in their system, mine was not, although our dean’s office had sent all the students’ information at the same time. That means I’m SOL for November. It almost seems pointless to get a card for December, as I’m planning to travel over winter break and will only be in the city for half a month. I won’t get back to Petersburg till too late in January to pay for a January pass, so the earliest I will have a student transportation card will be February. Sigh. Anyway, I walked with Kira back to the bank, where she paid for her card, and then we walked back to the office again to get the card. The whole process took the better part of 2 hours. At least I got some exercise.

Russian Planning. In a similar bureaucratic vein, our class schedule this week is all messed up. Tuesday is National Unity Day – a day off. To give everyone a three-day weekend, Monday’s classes were to be moved to Saturday, and then we’d have Sunday-Monday-Tuesday off. But our teachers couldn’t make it on Saturday, so instead we get a four-day weekend this week (right after our week-long break. Great planning, huh?), but we’ll make up those classes next Saturday, meaning next week we get a one-day weekend. Lame-o.

Russian Recital. Last night I went to an author’s reading, Russian (or Soviet?) style. Ludmila Petrushevskaya, author and playwright, absurdist. I have to say, her readings didn’t really inspire me to read any of her works. Her presentation cycled between readings from her books, which I often didn’t understand because of the dialects she used, showing cartoons that she herself had composed and produced, and her singing songs she’d translated from French. There were a lot of young people there who laughed at all the funny places, making me feel stupid for not getting the jokes. The kid next to me kept chuckling to himself, nodding vigorously at what Petrushevskaya said, and even quietly finishing her sentences for her when she paused in the middle of a sentence. Obviously a fan. But he had bad breath. I hate that, when you have to sit next to someone whose bad breath keeps wafting over you for three hours. Anyway. I did like one cartoon she did, in which Tolstoy tries to give his wife’s pince-nez to Chekhov, although I don’t understood why he wanted to do that. And the singing made me impatient. So I can’t say it was the most entertaining way to pass a Saturday evening, but I’m glad I’ve now experienced a творческий вечер (recital).

English-speakers in Russia. On the whole, I tend to avoid other native English-speakers in Russia. If I hear someone speaking English on the street or in the metro, I try to avoid looking like I speak English (I know, how exactly does one do that?). Part of it is that tourist behavior often embarrasses me, whether it’s talking too loudly, eating on the metro, just looking completely lost in general, or other culturally inappropriate behaviors. I know it’s not their fault, and that it’s good that they’ve come to take a look at Russia, but nonetheless I am mortified by the idea that someone might think I’m with them, or see them and think that all Americans act like that. At the recital last night a British man and American woman, students in their 20s, were sitting behind me speaking English. It was driving me batty, but I can’t really explain why. They were talking about fairy tales, their purposes and America’s lack of original fairy tales. I think it’s because no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but listen to English if I hear it – it is so effortless to understand what they’re saying that there’s no way to block it out.

This blog ended up being much more negative than I intended. It is possible that I only consider something in Russia an “adventure” if it has a negative outcome. So to end on a positive note, I worked out for three hours yesterday! Today the sun is shining, and I’m going to go for a walk in the park!

In the Park

I’m sitting on a bench in a wooded park on and island about a mile from my apartment. It’s a rare November day – not a cloud in the sky. It’s pretty chilly – I regret leaving the apartment without a scarf – but the sun warms my face and the wind is calm here – it’s not so bad.

From the river flowing lazily by in front of me come the calls of ducks and seagulls. An excited child shouts, “There are ducks there, Mama! Ducks! Ducks!” In the very far distance I can hear the roar of traffic, but otherwise I could almost forget I’m in the middle of a city of 5 million people.

A three-man rowboat glides silently by, the dip and drip of the oars just barely audible from across the water.

Further in on this island there is an even bigger park, with paths, carnival rides, popcorn and balloons for sale, even paddleboat rentals in the summer. There you’ll encounter cyclists and rollerbladers, grandmothers and young mothers with baby carriages, groups of kids chasing each other around. Three years ago it was 10 rubles to get in. It’s probably 20 rubles now; I haven’t bothered to find out. That park also has loudspeakers all along the paths that blast music constantly – I much prefer the ducks and gulls and the chirps of smaller birds.

The air here is absolutely crisp and fresh. I want to bottle it up to breathe later on my walks to school, where the exhaust of hundreds of idling cars stuck in constant traffic jams renders the air toxic.

A long wooden bridge connects Krestovsky Island, where I am now, with Petrovsky Island, along which I walked to get here. The park across the street (and the river) from my house is on Petrovsky island. By comparison with the Petrograd Side, where I live, or Vasilievsky Island, where I study, these islands are miniscule. I walked almost the whole length of Petrovsky in about 10 minutes along its main (and practically only) road. I didn’t see any cars, just the No. 14 bus. I could have been on some side street in an industrial area of Des Moines.

A man just sat down next to me on this bench, open bottle of beer in hand. He stares at the ground and smokes a cigarette. He makes a phone call to some guy he’s apparently waiting to arrive by vehicle (all of that information came from a single word on my guy’s end of the conversation: «доехал». The ending tells me he was talking to a man, the prefix indicates arrival/ attainment of a goal, and the root signifies travel by vehicle. I love Russian). He speaks quietly. I appreciate that about Russians.

I know that by tomorrow it will probably be cloudy and rainy again. Our consistent +10C weather has started to feel colder, though the temperature itself has remained constant. They keep promising snow, but so fair there’s no delivery. Today I’m just enjoying the weather we’ve got.

Friday, October 24, 2008


I’ve found the solution to my time-management issues: all I need to do to get everything done that I want to get done is not go to class. Haha.

Seriously, I’ve had this week off from school, and it’s been exactly what I needed. I still went to my internship and my history class, but those activities weren’t nearly so draining as usual. I’ve slept till 10 every day, when the sun finally wakes me up (sunrise is about 9 AM right now, I think, though I’m not sure, since I haven’t been up to see it rise!). Efforts to rise earlier have been fruitless, although admittedly I haven’t tried too hard. I’m not really looking forward to getting up at 7 or 7:30 again starting Monday. Funny how that seems so early now, when I’ve spent the last year or so getting up at 5 AM no problem.

I made a trip to the Consulate today to mail my absentee ballot (sure hope they count my vote!). I didn’t bother to go through all the security to go inside; I just gave the envelope to the Russian security guard out front (hope he passed it on!). I found it rather ironic that I held in my hand an envelope labeled “secret ballot” and the guard immediately asked, “Who did you vote for, if it’s not a secret?” Oh, how I love Russia.

This trip to the Consulate demonstrated one of the difficulties of living in a big city: travel time. The actual act of dropping off my ballot took all of five minutes, but getting from my apartment to the Consulate and then from the Consulate to Palace Square, where I met a friend for a visit to the Hermitage, took an hour and a half. And each of those locations is in the “center” of the city! Sometimes I miss Iowa City’s cozy downtown - drunken freshmen and all.

After wandering the Hermitage for about an hour and a half, we went to a free piano concert at my university, given by Galina Zhugova, who graduated from the Conservatory here. Man is that girl talented! She played Bach, Chopin, and Khachaturyan. It was lovely. Russian moment: when someone’s cell phone rang near the beginning of the second act, Galina glared and shook her head disapprovingly. Seems small, but it’s a big cultural difference; an American performer would more than likely ignore the ring, or at least not react to it.

Abrupt end to a hastily and lazily composed post.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Книжный червь = Bookworm = Alli

Well, it took me a whole month, but I did it! I have finished reading my very first novel in Russian! 383 pages! In RUSSIAN! Yes, there were moments when I only vaguely understood what was happening, particularly since I completely abandoned the dictionary for the last 100 pages or so. And okay, Boris Akunin’s Altyn-tolobas (I can’t translate the title; it’s not even a real word in Russian. I think it means “treasure chest” or something like that in Tatar) isn’t exactly High Literature, but I bet I could write a pretty meaty analysis of it, if I were of the mind to, and as they say in the College of Education, whatever gets ‘em reading, right? I seriously got into this book. The past few days I’ve read for two or three hours at a time (about 30-40 pages each time), which is more than I’ve ever read in Russian at one sitting before. My one complaint is one I’ve raised with English literature as well: detective thriller novels do not a romance make. I wish Akunin hadn’t bothered trying to squeeze in a love story – it didn’t work at all. I don’t know why I can suspend disbelief when it comes to a historian getting caught up in mafia warfare in Moscow in the mid-ninties as he seeks the long-lost, possibly mythical library of Ivan the Terrible, but not when he falls in love with the journalistka who helps him escape from a contract killer. Just my sticking point, I guess. :)

So what next? I’m tempted to dive right into the next “Nicholas Fandorin” book – there are three or four in the series that starts with Altyn-tolobas. I had initially planned to alternate between contemporary and classic literature, and I can definitely see value in attempting one of the classics. However, I’d hate to lose my momentum in a heavy, difficult book. And we’re already planning to read more classics in my lit class before the end of the semester, in the form of short stories or novellas by Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Zoshchenko. So maybe I’ll start another Akunin novel for my free reading, so that pleasure reading will remain pleasurable and will actually be an inviting, relaxing activity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The English language is seriously missing out without the Genitive case

I’ve been doing a fair amount of translating since I got here, both for my internship and “on the side.” So far I’ve translated journalistic interviews and informative articles, and I’m currently working on an advertisement for tractors (I know, isn’t that funny?). All of these texts have been written in business-official language (rather than conversational or academic), which has given me some good practice with more formal language. All official language in Russian is marked by extensive use of the passive voice, meaning lots of past passive participles (the company was founded by so-and-so, rather than so-and-so founded the company) and lots and lots of genitive case (we researched all the areas available for rent for the production of tractors of model X). Sometimes there will be five or six words in a row in genitive, which directly translated results in a lot of “ofs” in a row. It involves a lot of messing around with word order and grammar structure in order to get a sentence like that to sound natural in English, and I suddenly find myself rather confused about English prepositions that never used to give me any trouble. So sometimes I think it would just be easier (and involve way fewer prepositions) if English simply had a genitive case.

This blog post might just win a prize for being the nerdiest one I’ve written so far.

And while I’m talking about translating, can I just mention how scary it is to be learning in real-world settings? Holy cow. It’s one thing to translate in class, where your mistakes just show your weak areas and you have multiple opportunities to get feedback and fix your work. It’s another thing entirely when you are looked to as an expert of the English language (eep!) and your translations will be published, recorded, or otherwise set down for history, mistakes and all. I mean, this tractor translation is full of really specific terminology that I’m not entirely confident I know even in English. What if I’ve got it all wrong? And since they don’t know English, or at least not well enough to translate for themselves, who’s going to check if I’ve completely misunderstood something? I mean, how do I know that одноконтурный пневмопривод тормозов прицепа really means “single-contour pneumatic actuator of the trailer brakes?” What’s a single-contour pneumatic actuator anyway? Ahhhhh!

I think I should switch to translating children’s books.

I’m writing this blog in pieces as I work on this translation. I have to say, this tractor sounds pretty impressive. If I were a farmer, I would mortgage the farm to buy one. Plus I want all the add-ons: the seeder, the plow, the cultivator, the disc harrow...

I’m a dork.

Can I just say, thank GOD for the Abbyy Lingvo Russian-English Dictionary’s expansive set of agriculture-related entries? I have no idea where else I’d be able to find “disc harrow” or “cultivator,” and as this translation is due rather soon, I’d have gone into panic mode if it had turned out that more than half the words I need weren’t in the dictionary, cuz I’m pretty sure my Russian friends don’t know the names of tractor parts in English any better than I know them in Russian.

Okay, finished! Good to know I can do a three page translation about tractors in about 4 hours. This will help me judge whether I want to take on future “side projects.” Hope this post wasn’t completely pointless and boring for you.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I've been bad about taking photographs this trip, but here's what I've taken so far:

Trip with Anya to Peterhoff in August

Really random stuff around town

Trip to a decrepit fortress at Schisselburg

Culture shock is like...

Okay, so I want to make clear that I’m doing a lot better already, and my readjustment to life in Petersburg is coming along swimmingly. However, I came up with what I consider a pretty decent and widely-understandable metaphor or parallel or whatever to culture shock, and I wanted to share it with you.

Culture shock is like learning to drive a car.

As kids, we watched from the passenger seats as our parents drove us around. It didn’t look that hard. And while they were driving, we were free to play with the radio, fight with our siblings, eat Happy Meals, and stare out the window.

Being the kid in the passenger seat is like living in your own country. Your native language is like the driving parent – when communication isn’t a problem, you can focus on lots of stuff at once, like work, school, going to the gym, hanging out with friends, etc. Everything is safe and comfortable; you know the driving parent is going to make sure you don’t crash, so even when a big or unexpected event comes up, you’re totally able to handle it.

Then you turn fourteen (or fifteen, or whenever it is now), and it’s your turn in the driver’s seat. Behind the wheel, you suddenly realize that there’s a lot more to think about when you’re driving than you thought. You’ve got to watch your speed, check your mirrors, use your turn signals, be aware of the other cars around you, stay in your lane, watch for kids running into the street, navigate to your destination, apply the right amount of pressure to each of the pedals so you don’t accelerate or brake too quickly (or too slowly), and take note of traffic signs and signals – plus you still want to do all those other things you used to do from the passenger seat. On the driver’s side for the first time, it suddenly is a lot harder to change the radio station without veering out of your lane, eat your Happy Meal without missing your turn, or fight with your sister without rear-ending the car that stops short in front of you. Plus, only a few of the other drivers on the road even know that you’re new to this game; everyone else expects you to drive like an expert, and they express confusion, condescension, mirth, or even rage if you goof up.

This is like moving to Russia. A huge amount of your attention and energy is directed towards language use and development – activities that require very little energy when operating in your native language. Then, there are all these differences between Russia and America, some little, some bigger, that you have to pay attention to, just like you have to watch your speed and all that in the car. Each of these differences taken on its own is no big deal, but unfortunately you can’t drive and only pay attention to your speed, you have to pay attention to everything else to. And as the little, no-big-deal differences pile up, it can suddenly get very overwhelming. (Mini-metaphor side note: you know that game Spot 10 Differences Between These Pictures? That’s what the little differences are like. On the surface, everything in the new culture looks basically the same as at home. Maybe one or two of the differences pop out at you right away. But with time, all ten differences become glaringly obvious, and you wonder how you ever thought the two pictures looked alike.) While you’re busy trying to accommodate all the new things you have to pay attention to in the driver’s seat, including trying to convince all the other, native, drivers that you know what you’re doing, there’s simply no time, energy, or attention left for everything you used to get to do with ease in the passenger’s seat – going to the gym, eating healthfully, doing homework, etc. Thus, in addition to the stress of paying attention to all the elements of driving/living in a different culture, there is the added stress of feeling frustrated about not being able to do all the things you used to be able to do without a problem.

But all is not lost! As all more-experienced drivers know, driving becomes automatic with time. With some miles under your belt, it gets to be no big deal to stay in your lane or watch your mirrors – you just do it naturally. You even are able to do more complicated driving tasks, like setting the cruise control, and you have the windshield wiper settings memorized so you know exactly how many clicks you need to turn the switch to get the exact wiper speed you want. You know exactly how much to break and when to reapply the gas to turn a corner smoothly, and you can judge the speeds of other cars on the interstate to know when to change lanes. In addition to being able to handle these more nuanced tasks, you also have more attention to devote to changing the radio or eating your French fries.

This is precisely what happens when you move abroad. With time, all the little differences that seemed glaring at first sort of melt into the background, and it doesn’t require any energy or attention to deal with them – they’ve become automated. Pointy shoes and mullets stop seeming like such strange fashion choices, you get used to being the only woman at the gym not wearing spandex, and you wouldn’t dream of going to someone’s house without a gift in hand. As language skills improve, you can handle a wider variety of more difficult situations (I saw this in myself a lot last time around – absolutely huge language and psychological gains were visible in activities such as buying train tickets [an onerous task], buying theatre tickets, or arguing for the Russian student price when they didn’t want to give it to me because I was a foreigner). When all these activities are humming along smoothly, changing the radio (going to the gym) and eating your French fries (or not, since you’ve gained 10 pounds during the adjustment period, ha) is much easier – you can even drive with one hand, no problem.

In the end, being behind the wheel, or living in your new country, starts to feel natural. It feels like home. You know the roads, you know how to handle your vehicle, many of the native drivers take you for one of their own, and you’ve got friends in the passenger seats pointing out new places of interest to stop at along the way. Sure, you could go back to the US and let your native language drive again – life is always going to be easier in the passenger seat than behind the wheel (though suddenly, after having been behind the wheel for a few months, you notice some very odd things about how your native language drives once you’re back in the passenger seat. The radio plays too loud, the driver screams “But I had the right of way!” when someone cuts him off – in other words, shortcomings in your own culture become apparent). It’s really not so bad being in the driver’s seat; in fact, it’s pretty empowering.

Readers who have lived or are living abroad – what do you think? Is this an accurate parallel?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Passports and Police

Pete brought up some excellent questions regarding passport checks and how to act around cops in his comment to my last post. Thanks Pete! I try my best to explain things that might not be familiar to my readers at home, but sometimes I forget about day-to-day things that have become second nature for me here. I was going to answer in a reply comment, but then I realized I had enough to say to warrant a separate post.

First, a word about ID in Russia. The identification document of choice is the passport. Russians have two passports: the first is a domestic passport, which has the same identifying function as our state-issued IDs/ drivers licenses do, and additionally functions as a record of marriages, divorces, children, etc (funny side note: there’s only room for five marriage stamps and five divorce stamps on the “marital status” pages. Apparently you have to get extra pages added if you need more than five marriages!). Russians get a new domestic passport at 16, 25, 45, and, I think, 65, though I'm not sure about that last one. The second passport is the one they use to travel abroad, which is more like a passport as we understand it. Not all Russians have the second passport, but every Russian over the age of 16 has the first.

The problem with being a foreigner in Russia is that the bureaucracy to getting your documents “in order” is about five miles thick, and involves getting an invitation from an institution that is willing to be held responsible for your behavior (in our case, the university), filling out a migration card upon entry into the country (and a new one is needed every time you cross the border), and registering your passport at the host institution within three business days of arriving. Since the last time I was here, the rules have changed, and your passport has to be re-registered each time you leave and return to the city, even if you just go to Moscow for the weekend – a huge nuisance if you do any traveling at all. Each of these steps results in another piece of paper or stamp that has to be kept with your passport at all times. In our case, we have the extra step of giving up our passports for a whole month in order to get multi-entry visas (all entered Russia on a single-entry visa that is good till mid-November. Trying to get multi-entry visas from the States is hugely expensive and time-consuming). So they take your passport and give you a piece of paper called a spravka: on one side is a photocopy of the information page and single-entry visa from your passport; on the other is a document that says “This fully replaces so-and-so’s passport until such-and-such a date.” Legally, this is the only document we need while our visas are being processed. In practice, however, it does not always work the way it ought to. For example, one of the members of our group couldn’t pick up a package at the post office with her spravka; they would only give it to her when she presented her original passport. Pain in the butt, but a part of life here.

As passports are the only acceptable form of ID here, it is a perfectly normal part of any exchange with a cop for him to ask you for your passport. In fact, document checks are SOP for the cops here; they can ask you for your documents without giving any reason at all, and you have to show them. This applies particularly to young men, as the cops are always on the lookout for fellows who are dodging their requirement to serve in the army (and there are a lot of such young men; the army is a horrible place to be here. Disgraceful hazing practices, terrible food, poor living conditions; the army is in a shambles. I’m talking about regular enlisted, not officers – military academies are still fairly prestigious places to attend). Unfortunately, there’s a lot of shameless profiling that goes on – anyone who does not look ethnically Russian (read: anyone with dark hair and eyes and darker skin) is ten times as likely to be stopped for a document check. As for women – a document check is sometimes just a pick-up. Gross, huh?

Corruption is wide-spread among the police force in Russia, and you definitely have to play it cool here, as cops make up their own rules about what behavior should be "fined" - it's an easy way for them to put some cash in their own pockets. Fines can range from a thousand rubles or so (about $40) to whatever you have in your wallet, so it’s best not to keep all of your cash in one place. Their favorite “fineable” transgression: your documents aren’t in order. If they try to fine you for that, you have to feel out the situation a little bit, perhaps state firmly that they are in fact in order, and show them where on your documents it is written as such. However, arguing like that can go two ways – they’ll either give up on you as an easy shakedown, or they’ll drag you down to the station, which you really don't want. I think it's best to play respectful, pay the fine/bribe, and get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

I know it sounds scary, but really, I've only had about three encounters with the cops in all the time I've been in Russia (twice last trip and once so far this trip), and none of them have resulted in a fine. Although you see people in uniform everywhere here, they don't often concern themselves with me – I don’t fit the profile. I'm afraid the same isn't true for one of my classmates, who is of Chinese heritage, and who has been stopped and fined twice already for his documents "not being in order" (totally false). Most of the time if you keep your head low and walk like you know where you’re going (even if you don’t), they won’t bother you.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Encounter with the DPS

DPS is the subdivision of the police force that is responsible for road safety and traffic control (that’s Дорожная Патрульная Служба). A “DPSnik” (day-pay-es-neek) is almost always standing on the corner of the Tuchkov Bridge, flipping the switches that control the traffic lights in an attempt to minimize jams. As you may recall from my previous traffic-related post, the cars coming off the bridge have a green right-turn light all the time – in nearly two months of crossing at that intersection, I’ve never seen it turn red.

I was walking home today and crossed the street on a green light. As usual, to get across the snake of right-turning cars (in the direction I was walking, the last lane I had to cross, rather than the first, as it is on the way to school), I just had to sort of jump in front of one to make him stop. Normally, this evokes no reaction from the DPSnik at the controls, but the guy standing there today, who I’d never seen before, waved me down and asked for my passport. I gave him my spravka, an official document which fully replaces my passport while my multi-entry visa is being formulated. He asked me why I crossed on the red, did I want to get hit by a car? Seeing by my spravka that I’m from the US, he said “Oh, you’re an American? You sure don’t act like one – Americans usually have respect for the law.” He then proceeded to explain to me that the island in the middle of the road is designed specifically for pedestrians to wait on if they can’t make it across the street before the light turns red. He sent me on my way with an “All the best.”

A few points.

1. Perhaps this is his first day at Tuchkov Bridge, and he doesn’t know that the turn arrow never turns red. But in the direction I was walking, the light was green, and it was green all the way across the street. I know it was green, because I really don’t have a death wish, and I watch the stoplight all the way across the street.

2. My ability to speak Russian is inversely related to the stress level of a situation. I was suddenly befuddled about what prefix I needed for my verb of motion to indicate “when I stepped into the street,” and completely mangled all noun endings. Blargh.

3. It doesn’t really matter how well I speak Russian, it’s really pointless to argue with a DPSnik, or any cop for that matter. Arguing will just result in a fine. However, as you all probably know, when I know I’m right, it’s very hard for me to let things go. In this case, it’s probably a good thing that I got tongue-tied, or else I would have dug myself into a hole.

3a. I do respect the law, and I resent the implication from a Russian that I don’t. Since when has the average Russian given a fig about the rule of law? Stereotyping and prejudice on my part? Yes. Still resent the insult. Later, I thought of a good comeback: «Видимо, я обрусила» (“Apparently, I’ve Russified”). Almost certainly a good thing that I was too flustered to come up with that at the time.

4. The whole interaction probably took less than a minute, but it took me the rest of my walk home to calm down afterwards. I was annoyed at myself for being upset, since in the end no harm was done (no fine even!), but I hate it when people are condescending to me. Also, since I’m still adjusting to Russia, I think it’s a lot harder to roll with the punches – especially when they come out of the blue.

So I’ve had my first encounter with the cops without a guy nearby (last time I lived here the cops only stopped me when I was with guys, who are much more likely to be stopped in general). I’m trying to have a sense of humor about it – I bet informing the scofflaw Amerikanka about the purpose of the island in the middle of the road was the highlight of that DPSnik’s day. It’s probably really boring standing there flipping traffic light switches all day. Tonight he’ll go home to a wife who nags him about how he doesn’t make enough money and they don’t have nice things, drink beer in front of the TV for four hours, and then go to bed, after which he’ll have to get up and do it all again. Flip. Green in this direction. Flip. Green in that direction.

Flip. Wait.

Flip. Wait.

Flip. Wait.

I feel better already.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


On Thursdays at about a quarter to six, I say goodbye to my coworkers at the Interjournalist Center and head over to the history department, conveniently located just a couple blocks from my internship, to attend my elective seminar, “Social Movement and Political Thought” («Общественное движение и политическая мысль»). As I am auditing, and thus not threatened by the specter of a high-pressure oral exam at the end of the semester, I am free to get what I can out of the lectures without worrying about what I’m missing (which, if I do say so myself, isn’t much. What a thrill to know I can understand a real lecture meant for real Russians!).

Our class is composed of six Russians, me, and Berney. I don’t know our classmates very well yet, but they are sociable and friendly, and I hope to get a chance to know them better before the end of the semester. We sit around a long table in a small, stuffy room with green walls and a weird plant on the table. Our teacher, Viktor Stepanovich Brachev, is the absolute picture of the absent-minded history professor: silver-haired, with bent-up glasses he half-cocks to the side to read his scribbly notes, always in a suit and carrying an umbrella. A thick stack of indecipherable, hand-written notes comprises the material for his lectures; each lecture is separated by a section of that slick, colored advertising paper that comes in the middle of newspapers. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect he’s been lecturing from the same set of notes since long before the fall of the Soviet Union. Viktor Stepanovich is missing two neighboring teeth on the bottom and the one right above them on top, giving him just the faintest lisp (and, oddly, giving me a little window to the rich phonetic opportunity of seeing exactly where a native Russian’s tongue is located when they produce certain sounds).

I am surprised and pleased to report that I don’t find these lectures boring in the least. For one thing, Viktor Stepanovich clearly knows his material and clearly cares deeply about it, and thus injects that little bit of life into his lectures that can quickly disappear when a lecturer is bored with his subject. Additionally, his very manner of lecturing cracks me up. I’ll try to demonstrate:

“Tonight we will be discussing Aleksander Nikolaevich Radishchev, Aleksander Nikolaevich Radishchev, Aleksander Nikolaevich Radishchev. He was an important what? A Mason. There’s nothing very surprising in this, everyone was a Mason back then [Note: also nothing surprising since we’ve been talking about the Masons for a month now]. If you went into a university in the Soviet Union, every professor was a what? A communist. A member of the party. There is nothing surprising about this, it was completely normal. You were either in the party or in Kommsomol. In the same way, Radishchev was a Mason….

“Radischev was a what? A radical. Lenin called him the first what? Revolutionary. The first revolutionary, the first revolutionary. And he was an aristocrat! Thus he was the first revolutionary aristocrat, revolutionary aristocrat, who was a radical Mason, a radical Mason, a radical Mason.”

I wish you could hear the intonation that goes along with all that repetition. Believe me, it’s hilarious. It might seem like it would be tedious to listen to an hour and a half of such speech, but it doesn’t bother me as much as I’d expect. Sometimes the repetition, particularly of names, helps me take notes, as I don’t always catch names the first time around. And when it comes down to it, Viktor Stepanovich is simply telling a story, which I find the most engaging and appealing way to study history.

In fact, that is one aspect of the Russian education system that I am growing to appreciate more and more. Russians are raised and educated as orators; from their earliest days in school, their knowledge of a subject is evaluated based on how much they can talk about it, organizing their ideas clearly and logically. This makes them very good at retelling information clearly and logically, and I am always surprised at how much the Russians I know can say about various subjects; they are extremely comfortable with the oral presentation format. By the time they themselves become teachers, they are truly master orators. Having grown up in a culture that clearly values critical thinking over information recall, I used to be highly skeptical of the Russian model of education. While I still maintain that the Russian education system (and, by extension, whole society) could benefit from an injection of critical thinking and dialogue in the classroom, I have really grown to appreciate the ability to recall information and present it in a pleasant and engaging manner, particularly as fact recall and oral presentations are not my personal strong suits.

In a particularly amusing digression this evening, Viktor Stepanovich related the tale of having to pay a bribe to get on an airplane to Ukraine, for which there were “no tickets” (during the Brezhnev era). He was extremely nervous, having never bribed anyone before, and having been, after all, well-raised to always be honest. The bribe went down without a hitch; the biggest surprise of all was the discovery that the plane was nearly empty! They flew together, five or six people in the whole plane, to Ukriane, to Ukraine, to Ukraine. Thus Viktor Stepanovich explained how he could empathize with the hero of Radishchev’s book Travel from Petersburg to Moscow, in which the hero must pay a bribe of 20 kopeks to get fresh horses at the way-station.

Stay tuned for next week’s installment of Social Movement and Political Thought. I know I will!


My positive focus this week: It's been sunny every single day, except Monday morning, when I saw that awesome rainbow, and then walked to school in the rain without an umbrella. It hasn't exactly been warm, but I'll take sunny over warm any day. I have the added bonus of seeing the sunrise on my walk to school - it's absolutely gorgeous glancing off the Neva River as I walk over Tuchkov Bridge. I'm hoping that my sunrise walks will continue at least through next week, after which the sun will probably start coming up after I'm over the bridge (after which it's hidden from view by buildings). By the beginning of November, I anticipate the sun to be just coming up as I arrive at school, and then full darkness till mid-morning, when I'll be in class. So for now, I'm really enjoying the cloudlessness of this usually-shrouded city.

Sunday was one of those perfect fall days that you only get two or three of each year: dazzlingly sunny, temperature around +10 Celsius, no wind. Galya's daughter Olga, her husband Zhenya, and son Tyoma swept me off to Pavlovsk, a suburb of Petersburg, Sunday afternoon, where we spent several hours wandering around the huge park there. It was indescribably beautiful: all the leaves shimmering gold, the air clean and refreshing; I was in the best mood I've been in in a while here. I absolutely adore Olga and her family, and I wish we got to spend more time together.

Despite the clement weather, I've been utterly exhausted all this week. I keep reminding myself that this will pass and that it's a part of adjusting to living in a new place, but man is it hard to be patient. I go to class and to my internship, and only with extreme effort finish my homework every day. I have yet to take my shoes to get repaired (it would take me all of 20 minutes to walk to the place and drop them off) or iron my wrinkly clothes (which I've just been not wearing), and I didn't make time to go get a student transportation pass before turning in my passport to get a multi-entry visa, so I'll be paying full price for another month. Don't even ask about the gym; I haven't been since Saturday, even though I intend to go every evening. I'm just too pooped! It's all the more frustrating when I compare what I do here to what I do at home-- full-time school, 20 or 30 hours a week at work, gym, groceries, cooking, socializing. You just get so much more done when you're 100% comfortable in your surroundings. But I'll get there. I have a week-long break from class the week after next; since our passports are stuck somewhere in the Russian bureaucracy right now and we can't go anywhere, I'm planning on sleeping in every day, and then checking out various museums that I haven't made time for yet.

I know I'm complaining a lot lately, and I'm sorry about that, but for what it's worth, I really do see that I'm making progress in getting adjusted. For example, last week I was utterly incapable of doing anything - I didn't do any homework, and instead just laid around writing pages-long letters to friends in English or spacing off. I passed my exams in every class only by miraculous intervention (proof that my fuzzy brain must be picking up something here, I didn't do nearly as badly as I thought I would, considering I did literally NO review for any of my tests - but not as well as I'd have liked either). This week, even though I'm still too tired to do as much as I want, I feel much more focused. I've been able to get started on homework at a reasonable time, as well as focus on my work for an hour or two at a time. I've gotten my homework done every day - including phonetics, which is a big accomplishment, as I've spent the entire last month not doing my phonetics homework at all (this evoked deep feelings of shame, as I really really like my phonetics teacher). I know that with a little more time, getting my homework done will not seem like such a monumental feat, and I'll be able to turn my focus to things like getting to the gym at least 4 times a week and fixing my horrendous eating patterns here (which involves eating very little during the day and about a billion calories in the evening. Not healthy!).

Hope all is well at home. Just a month till the elections! I'm still waiting for my absentee ballot to arrive... not that they count the votes from abroad anyway, unless the race is really close, but I really want to fulfill my civic duty.

Also, I've been reading a lot about the economic crisis. Can someone please tell me what this means for day-to-day life in America? Just reading the NY Times I'm not getting a very clear picture of how what's going on in the financial world is affecting regular people.

Monday, October 6, 2008


The air shimmers gold.
Rainbow gleams bright, arching o'er.
Sunrise walk to school.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A "blargh" week

Fall arrived in St. Petersburg this week. In the course of just a few days, most of the leaves have turned yellow and are falling fast. We’ve had some pretty nasty fall storms, but it hasn’t completely clouded up yet, and with the temperature hovering around 10 C, being outside is still pleasant. October is when I start to notice that the days in Petersburg are significantly shorter than they ought to be—sunrise this week was around 8:30 AM (when I leave for school), and Thursday I walked home in near-darkness at 7:30 PM after my history class. By November I’ll be walking to and from school in darkness every day, and that will continue until mid-March. Wish me luck.

This was a really tough week. I spent the first half of it in bed with the flu, and the second half taking tests in all my classes. I think I did okay on most of the tests, but they left me feeling like I definitely am not doing enough studying here. Wednesday and Thursday I was getting really down on myself—I felt like a faker, that I didn’t deserve to be here because I’m not taking it seriously enough, and every time I heard other students use a new word or phrase we were supposed to have learned but I hadn’t, I felt sure that I was the weakest student here, and that I’d never master Russian beyond the level I’m already at. The ire I directed at myself then turned outwards as well, and every part of Russia that I don’t like or will never get used to, from women’s fashion to food to traffic patterns – things I usually shake my head and laugh at or grin and bear – suddenly seemed so intolerable that I couldn’t believe I’d ever liked this place. Why didn’t I stay home and get a teaching job like most of my classmates?

Last time I was in Russia my resident director suggested to all of us that when we’re feeling low about being in Russia, we should write down a list of five things we liked in Russia. As of Thursday, I couldn’t think of one thing I liked. I’m not exaggerating. This is probably the lowest point I’ve had in Russia this time around. It was made worse by this idea I had that everything was going to be easier this time, that culture shock would be minimal since I’d been here before. So when culture shock hit me anyway, it was twice as bad because I thought I should be immune, and I kept beating up on myself for not just “dealing with it.”

I’m feeling better now. I’m not going to say everything is 100% hunky dory, but I also don’t feel like absolutely everything in Russia sucks, so that must be progress. Several things have helped.

First of all, I talked to my classmates here, and it turns out that everyone is having troubles concentrating on studying or adjusting in other ways. We are all a bunch of perfectionists and control freaks, and our expectations for ourselves are really high. It is so good to know that it’s not just me.

Second, I’ve decided to scope out nearby cafes as potential study spots (where’s cheapest? where’s less smoky?), as working at home is fruitless—I just don’t get started, I find a million things to distract me, and it’s not a good use of my time. Ironically, I might end up spending a lot of time at McDonald’s—there’s no smoking there, and my tutor says it’s pretty quiet on the second floor.

Third, I am exceedingly delighted to report that I have begun reading in Russian for pleasure. Okay, so it might not sound like much, but believe me, it’s a huge step—it means I’m finally developing enough fluency to enjoy reading again. If you’re looking up every other word on a page and it takes two hours to read 5 pages, it’s not fun, it’s work. I have found a book I really like and am chugging along at about 10 pages an hour—and I’m only looking up 2-3 words per page, sometimes less. I love reading so much, and it always felt like there was something missing when I couldn’t read fluently in Russian. The fact that I can now, and that it’s only going to get better with practice, makes me feel really good about my language progress.

The other day on the way to school I thought up what I consider a good metaphor for language learning. Imagine you’re climbing up the down escalator in the metro. You climb and climb and climb, but it takes a ton of work to get even just a little bit higher on the escalator. Maybe you’ve climbed a whole mile already, but you’ve only moved about 10 feet up, and if you stop for even a second you’re right back where you started. That’s what it feels like to learn Russian. The problem is, we focus too much on how high we’ve managed to climb (the 10 feet), and forget to notice how many steps we’ve actually taken (about 200). Those steps are important—they represent a lot of work! And I think we also forget to look behind us once in a while, and see how far we’ve climbed after all. The top of the escalator is still pretty far away—but so is the bottom.

On Friday I literally saw the silver lining, and it cheered me up considerably. It was cloudy as I walked to school, but not with the low-hanging, gloomy gray storm clouds that had blanketed the city on Wednesday and Thursday, but higher, fluffier, the kind of clouds that give you a little room to breathe. The sun rises over Vladimirskii Cathedral, and although I couldn’t see the sun itself, several clouds over the cathedral burned bright gold. It was just so beautiful. The image of those clouds is now on my list of things I like about Russia.

So, I’m going to start fresh with the coming week. I hope I can find a place to focus on homework, keep going to the gym every day (also skipped that all this week, which probably didn’t help my mood), and, if I’m really doing well, curb my stress eating. One step at a time, and I’ll be happy to be in Russia again.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Russian Homeopathy

I came down with the flu over the weekend, which is really lame. I spent yesterday and today in bed, shivering under piles of blankets and aching. Pity me.

I have to say, I have really lucked out with my host mom. She has not tried to cure me by using any of the traditional Russian remedies: I have not been forced to eat entire heads of garlic, nor sleep next to a plate of sliced onion, nor drink suspicious teas. However, she just got back from an excursion to a monastery near the border with Estonia over the weekend, and she did force me to drink some holy water she brought back. Good thing I’m not a vampire.

And speaking of water, I’ve been drinking so much tea the past couple of days made with tap water that I’ve now got stomach woes to accompany my flu woes. I want my mama.

On the upside, it’s been sunny for a whole week.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Two Concerts, Two Causes, One Deaf Alli

Thursday night I went to see one of my favorite Russian bands, Pilot, with my friend Anya and her mom. Tickets were an amazingly cheap 150 rubles ($6!). The catch? Pilot was the headliner at an anti-drugs and alcohol festival. That meant a dry concert (I’ve never seen Pilot without piva [beer] before) and fairly corny anti-drug videos between each of the bands (including the classic, “I became a heroin addict after trying pot”). I don’t remember the name of the first band that played, but they were awful. The mediocre singer had some sort of blanket he kept wrapping around himself like a cape. Weird. Then Raznye Lyudi and Dekabr played, and they were both pretty good. Pilot played two sets. During the first they played songs from their new album, which seems like it’s going to be a little soft and floaty in comparison to their older albums (though I’m planning to buy it anyway). The second set was all old songs and was the best part of the night for me. It was so great to know all the songs already—last time I saw Pilot play, I had just started listening to them, so I didn’t know much of the music yet. I love that feeling when you and a few thousand Russian youths are all screaming along to favorite songs together.

I found the anti-drug message a little overwhelming, if sincere. I also had a little culture shock moment at how often God came up in the pleas to not do drugs. However, I have to applaud the concert organizers’ marketing campaign. The vast majority of drug users in Piter are teenagers. How do you get a few thousand teenagers to come to an anti-drug rally? Give them their favorite band for an unbelievably low price (Pilot is probably the most successful band in Petersburg, if not in all of Russia, among people under 25). Among all the appeals from the adults that came on stage, I found the brief entreaty of Pilot’s singer Ilya Chyort most appropriate and the most likely to be taken to heart: “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life [cheers from the crowd]. But if you find yourself addicted to drugs or alcohol, I just ask that you tell someone. Go to your friend and say ‘Bro, help me. I can’t fix this on my own.’ Because there are people who want to help you.” Good job, Ilya.

Friday evening I went to see DDT with Kennon and Berney. DDT are aging and awesome; they’ve been playing for at least 25 years. I couldn’t believe how full the stadium was. There were even more people than at Pilot the night before (same venue). I’m sure there were at least 5000 people, which means DDT made a real killing on tickets, which went for 500 or 1000 rubles a pop. This time around I didn’t know all the words; I haven’t been listening to DDT nonstop for the past 3 years like Pilot. However, every Russian there did know all the words, and it was really inspiring to see and hear so many fans all singing at once. DDT seems to span generations; there were middle-aged folks there, people in their 20s, and even some kids with their parents learning to be DDT fans from a young age. Awesome.

Like the anti-drug festival, DDT’s concert had a message. The theme of the concert was “Don’t Shoot,” and was all about Russia’s relationship with Georgia. To show solidarity with the various groups involved in the conflict, special guests included a band from Georgia, a band from South Ossetia, and a band from Ukraine (who’s not involved in the Georgia conflict, but with whom tensions are rising in Russia). Rather than have any of these bands be an “opener,” each played a mini-set between ½ hour long sets of DDT, which I thought worked well; it gave DDT a chance to take a break but kept the audience entertained. God also made an appearance at this concert in the form of a deacon from the Orthodox church, who made the claim that anyone who sits in front of the TV and revels in the war coverage and cheers on soldiers who are killing people is just as guilty as if they killed someone themselves. Yikes. He said a lot more than that, but I don’t remember already. Mostly I thought it was really odd to have a clergyman speak at a rock concert.

The ringing in my ears tells me I should give them a little break from live rock music. Televizor is playing October 17 (another 500 ruble ticket. Dang!) and Aria November 8. Hopefully by then I’ll be able to hear again.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The sunny side of life

Written 23.09.2008 on the banks of the Malaya Neva River.

It's amazing what a little sun can do for your mood. On average, there are 75 sunny days in Petersburg in a year and we've had 2 (count em, 2) in a row. Yesterday I had my internship all afternoon, so I didn't get a chance to enjoy the sun much, but today I got out of class at 2:30 and I'm taking full advantage.

Today I walked home from school slower than usually and always on the sunnier side of the street. I slung my coat over my bag and rolled up the sleeves of my sweater - more skin exposure means more Vitamins D and K production. As I got closer to home, I couldn't bear the idea of sitting inside on an afternoon like this, so I stopped along the banks of the Malaya Neva River and found a sunny place to sit, where I'm now writing this blog entry in my little black notebook. It's fairly quiet here, the roar of the roads dampened by the trees in the park across the river from me. The river flows listlessly by, lazily carrying fronds of water plants and discarded bread bags further downstream. Eventually they'll reach the Gulf of Finland. An occasional breeze, warm and light, helps turn pages in my textbook for me. Indian Summer has arrived.

In Russian Indian Summer is called "Women's Summer" (Бабье лето). Back when all Russians were farmers, the women were too busy working in the fields and getting the harvest in to enjoy the summer. But by the time Indian Summer arrived at the end of September, they had more time to relax; Women's Summer was the only time women got to enjoy nice weather.

Women's Summer truly is a phenomenon - just a few days ago I was decked out in sweater and scarf and longjohns; today my sleeves are rolled up and I'm wishing I hadn't worn pantyhose; my legs are hot! There's no way of knowing how long this unbelievable weather will last; this could be the last day of it, or it could go on for another two weeks (I'm rooting for 2 weeks!). In a northern climate, you quickly learn not to take any nice day for granted - I for one am planning to spend every available, sunny moment on the banks of this river.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

My classes

I realized last night that I haven’t written anything about my classes yet. As class time occupies a significant portion of my day, I’ll give you a quick run down.

Fall semester I have class five days a week. Our group is split into two sections of 6 students (plus Berney, who’s doing his own thing), with whom we have all our classes. Every day Monday through Thursday we have two classes which run an hour and a half apiece, followed by a 45-minute one-on-one tutoring session and lunch. Twice a week I have phonetics, literature, and oral language practice. Once a week I have composition and grammar. Fridays are a bit different: the first period is listening practice, but it’s optional, so if I want to sleep an extra hour on Fridays I can. Second period is a language and culture class (unfortunately not optional), which our professors take turns leading and which covers a variety of topics. So far we’ve learned about the Christianization of Russia by Prince Vladimir, speech etiquette, and theatre in Petersburg. After Language and Culture we are either free, or we have an excursion, depending on the week.

Phonetics – some of you may remember that I hated this class last time I was in Russia. Olga Valentinovna is proof that the teacher makes or breaks a class – I absolutely love phonetics with her. She’s young, has a quick and dry sense of humor, and effectively explains how we need to form our mouths to make sounds that we don’t make in English. The class is a nice mix of theory, practice, and off-topic but interesting conversations about tangentially related things. I don’t do my homework as thoroughly as I should, but I’m continuing to work on this, because the more I can automatize phonetics, the better my accent will get without even trying during regular conversation.

Literature – Jamiliya Ruzmamatovna is another stupendous teacher. She doesn’t much care to follow the book we have and often brings in materials of her own for us to work on, particularly poetry (and thank goodness. Our textbook was written so that we discuss the same topic in all our classes for two weeks at a time. While this is an excellent way to ensure we’re hearing the same new words over and over, it can get to be a little much). Russian literature classes differ from American ones in that the teacher asks for our interpretations much less frequently, one might even say never, and instead tells us what each metaphor, symbol, or allusion means. In some respects this is actually helpful, because we don’t have the literary background to catch all the references in the texts we read. However, it’s more passive than I’m used to and has taken some adjustment. On the up side, Jamiliya Ruzmamatovna, I think, would not be opposed to hearing our opinions, if we ever decided to express them.

Oral Speech Practice – Our teacher, Irina Mikhailovna, has a finely nuanced understanding of the Russian language, and is adept at explaining differences between closely related words (for example, this week she explained when to use нет места and when to use нет мест). We get plenty of speaking time, although I still feel at times that she talks more than we do – an irony in a speech practice class. I write down more new vocabulary in this class than in any other, and I have no idea how I’m actually going to learn it all, but I’ll try.

Grammar – This class is unfortunately a bit of a disappointment. For one thing, once a week is not enough grammar for me; I tend to lose track of what we’re working on between classes. Secondly, our teacher, Kira Anatolievna, is amazingly smart, but she’s 72 years old at still teaches like she did forty years ago, using lots of grammar jargon that I’m not comfortable with even in English. She wrote the grammar sections of our textbook, and they unfortunately make little sense to me because of all the jargon. For example, our homework for Tuesday involves familiarizing ourselves with some abstractly stated grammar rules, and then somehow magically knowing from those rules how to change sample sentences provided so that they’re grammatical. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds. So far I’ve simply resorted to looking in the dictionary, but that doesn’t always help, since the dictionary doesn’t always list all the different cases a verb can take. On the up side, Kira Anatolievna doesn’t collect homework (we discuss it in class. I think she can’t see very well, so it’s hard for her to read our handwriting), so any befuddlement on my part is not going to result in a bad homework grade. But basically I would prefer more grammar the way it was taught in Middlebury: focused on syntax, with a new structure explained and then exercises given for practice. Although it’s not the most interesting way to learn, it is effective for me, as I found several times over the course of the summer that I’d use the sentence structures we were working on in class in my conversations. Thus far here, I’m not even sure what exactly we’re working on in grammar.

Writing – Thus far this class has been devoted to teaching us how to write various documents. Russia loves bureaucracy: have a request? Write a document. Have a complaint? Write a document. Want to officially thank someone for something? Write a document. Without a document, nothing will get done. We’ve also spent some time looking at the stylistic fine points of business, academic, and creative writing. Darya Vladimirovna is kind but intimidating – she doesn’t hesitate to tell you when you’re wrong, and demands preciseness in answers (a good trait, but frustrating when you’re already doing the best you can to describe what you want to say because you don’t actually know the words you need).

Tutoring – I work with Olga, and our sessions are different all the time. We’ve spent some time working on day-to-day vocabulary I need (like shoe repair vocabulary), a lot of time on phonetics, and often work from materials she brings in for me based on things we’ve talked about. It’s much more formal than my tutoring from Nadya was; in effect, Nadya was paid to hang out with me, while Olga is much more in a teaching role. Doing one-on-one after three hours of class can be a bit exhausting, particularly if Olga decides we should work on phonetics on Wednesday, when I have phonetics right before tutoring (my tongue just can’t handle the workout!). But it’s a fantastic opportunity to get my individual questions answered and to focus on areas I feel need more work (I know tomorrow I’ll be taking my grammar questions to Olga – I really have no idea what my assignment is asking me to do!).

So that’s about it. Throw in an internship Monday and Thursday afternoons and my elective class Thursday evening, and aerobics classes at the gym all other evenings (there’s a great language learning opportunity – I have no idea what my work out instructors are shouting at us about half the time), and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of how I spend my time here. Other than the fact that it’s all in Russian, it’s not that different from home, actually.