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.

Friday, September 19, 2008

3 in 1. Aren't you lucky?

A pleasant surprise

I only drink bottled water in Russia, as water straight from the tap in Piter is not potable, and it tastes really funky even after it’s been boiled (hence a lot of tea drinking). Over the past month (holy cow, I just realized I’ve been here a whole month already!) I’ve collected quite a few bottles in my room, as we don’t have a dumpster in our courtyard, and I usually forget to take them with me when I’m headed in the direction of the nearest trash collection site. On my way to the gym this evening I finally remembered to take all the bottles with me. At the trash site I was met with a wonderful sight: next to the overflowing dumpster were two smaller dumpsters; Petersburg has a recycling program! I wish I’d known earlier; I’ve been putting plastic in with the regular garbage at home. Of course, I can’t say how widespread or effective it is, but the fact that there’s a separate dumpster for paper and one for glass, plastic, and metal is a fantastic start.

Russian Construction Sites

There’s not much anymore that really surprises me in Petersburg, and even if I find something unusual, it typically doesn’t catch me off guard. But twice in the past week I’ve experienced something that both surprised me and cracked me up. It’s Russian construction. The first experience was last weekend; me, Anya, Berney, and another of Anya’s friends were walking down Nevsky Prospekt, approaching Anchikov Bridge, which has been under construction for a couple months now. Saturday, they were resurfacing the sections of the road right where the crosswalks were. But instead of closing one side of the sidewalk at a time, as I would expect in the states, they didn’t close any side at all. Instead, all those masses of people walking down Nevsky just walked right through the construction areas, or around them as best they could. The asphalt was fresh and tarry-smelling, an ominous-looking steamroller backed up and zoomed around with nary a look at the pedestrians scuttling out of the way. In America, that would be a lawsuit waiting to happen.

A similar thing happened today; they were replacing a pipe that runs under the road I walk down to get to the gym. As I approached the construction site, I could see that they’d dug up the sidewalk on either side of the road, so there was no going around. A massive pipe was slung from a crane, blocking the road. Again, at home I would have expected to see a sign at the corner, or something, as warning that it might be best to take a different route. Here, I waited for the workers to swing the pipe mostly out of the way, and scurried across the road and out of the way of a military transport vehicle, which revved its engine menacingly from behind me.

These incidents point to what I consider a paradox in the Russian idea of responsibility (a paradox in Russia? No way!). On the one hand, Russia is a very bureaucratic society, and it can make your head spin to try and figure out who is responsible for what, whom you need to talk to to get something done. The most frustrating (and frequent!) words you will hear here are, “That’s not our area. Go talk to X.” Usually X will send you on to someone else, or back to where you came from in the first place, and it takes a lot of persistence to finally get someone to do something. But on the other hand, pedestrians walking through a construction site are responsible for their own safety and well-being, we’re responsible for getting out of the way of the steamroller. Actually, maybe it’s not such a paradox; after all, the construction workers, just like the bureaucrats, aren’t taking on any more responsibility than they have to. Still, in general, I like this aspect of Russian society, the focus on personal responsibility. No one is looking out for you, no one is following you around taking care of you, telling you your coffee is hot or other equally obvious things. You have to use some common sense.


Russians love dairy. The range of dairy products available in Russia far exceeds the assortment found in the US, and includes sour cream (my favorite brand: Happy Milkman. He’s just so jolly!), kefir, tvorog (farmer’s cheese), a huge variety of both block and spreadable cheeses, milk, ice cream, syrok (cheesecake candy bars), tvorozhok (tvorog with jam or other stuff already mixed in), and butter, among others. The stamp of Russian dairy is its full-fat deliciousness; generally speaking, the less fat there is in a dairy product here, the more expensive it is. The milk I have with my coffee every day is 3.5%; if Galya decides to go “light,” she buys 2.5%.

Yogurt is a relative newcomer to the Russian dairy market and has been wholeheartedly embraced by Russians as a close cousin of the native kefir. My phonetics teacher, Olga Valentinovna, told us that when yogurt first appeared in Russian markets, people called it “oi-gurt,” because there aren’t any Russian words that start with “yog,” and it was hard for them to pronounce. With time, however, Russians have learned to say “yogurt,” and it is now, apparently, one of the healthiest and multi-talented foods available, as evidenced by the plethora of yogurt commercials you will see on any channel, during any show. I have seen commercials for yogurt claiming to lower cholesterol, boost the immune system, regulate digestion, make children grow, and, my favorite, a yogurt called “Beauty” which will save your hair, skin, and nails from aging. Maybe I’ll try that one out, haha. Amazingly, I haven’t yet noticed a yogurt commercial claiming that yogurt will help you lose weight, a major facet of Yoplait’s commercials in the US. Whether or not Russian yogurt can actually do any of the things people claim it can, it is yummy, which is the only criteria by which I judge my bacteria-laden food choices.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

I ate about a pound of farmer's cheese today

But I went to the gym yesterday. That counts for something, right? Right?

Actually, I can barely move today. I went to a class called Body Sculpt. Today I'm definitely feeling sculpted. Ouch. I'm particularly sore from about my lower back down to my knees. Our sculptor, Aleksei, stood in the front of the room, surveying the rows of struggling women and shouting "Keep your back straight! Keep your toes lower than your knee! Elbows high! Just four more - imagine how lovely your popas (bottoms) will be! We all want beautiful popas!" Aerobics is definitely more fun in Russian. I need to learn the names of more body parts.

Despite the fact that I can barely move today, now that I'm all signed up at the gym, I'm committed to getting back to my 5-6 times a week routine. Then I can eat all the farmer's cheese I want. *Insert diabolical laughter*

As I walked home from class today, I tried to think of something really really interesting, insightful, or thought-provoking to write about, but I couldn't come up with anything. Apparently I need culture shock in order to be creative. So here's some random stuff I thought up. If it's boring, I won't be offended if you don't read to the end.

I walk along a really lovely tree-lined branch of the Neva River for part of my route to university. About a week ago, one of the trees burst into red almost overnight. While part of me is a little aghast that the leaves are already turning in early September, this tree is just so beautiful that I can't help but smile every time I see it: one red-leafed tree in a whole row of green ones.

I read somewhere that you only have a certain amount of willpower (although with practice you can increase it). That means if you're using up all your willpower to, for example, stick to a crazy diet, you're more likely to give in to something else that you usually wouldn't do. I think this is true. I'm not sure if it's willpower or what, but it certainly takes a lot more energy to live in Russia and speak Russian all the time. Concurrently, I can't stop eating all the time and I have a hard time doing my homework, even though we don't really have that much (maybe an hour or so a day, if I would just sit down and do it). I'm hoping exercise helps with this, as well as simply being aware that it's happening and doing my best to stay motivated.

It's really chilly here; it's been in the 50s for about a week or so. That's not such a terrible range of temperatures, but there's no heat on anywhere in the city yet, so I end up being cold all day long. They usually turn the heat on in mid-October, but Galya says they're going to turn it on in the next week or so this year. We'll have to see. Till then: sweaters.

Exciting events this week: a trip to the US Consulate, an excursion to watch Chekhov's Uncle Vanya at the European theatre (I've actually seen this production at this theatre before, but it'll be interesting a second time as well. Plus, free!), and an HIV test to get my multi-entry visa.

Sunday several of us went to the opera The Secret Marriage at the Sankt-Peterburg Opera. This is my favorite theatre in this city, and the opera was simply wonderful. It is fantastic to be back in this theatrical city, although I have to admit, I still miss IC theatre. :)

Last Friday several us went to happy hour at Evrasia, a sushi restaurant chain that I spent many afternoons at last time I was in Piter. Wow, have prices gone up. I used to be able to do happy hour for about 150 rubles (~$5). The price of my once-favorite roll has gone from 85 rubles to 245; a half-liter of beer has gone from 60 rubles to 90. Dang. Well, happy hour is still a good deal: everything is two for one. Still, I don't think I'll be going there twice a week like I was in spring 2006.

Well, folks, I miss you all. I've been missing Iowa City a lot the past few days - I get these little waves of wishing I was just at home working a normal job like a normal person. I know homesickness is just a part of getting adjusted to being in Russia again, so I'm doing my best to ride it out.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Keeping the Faith

One of the most immediately visible things one has to adjust to in St. Petersburg is traffic. Moving from Iowa City to any big city would require this adjustment, of course, but Piter is in a league of its own. First of all, this is a 18th/19th century city - at least downtown is - and the streets are simply not wide enough to accommodate the ever-increasing number of cars on the road. This, in turn, leads to traffic jams (or, as they're called in Russian, "corks." Cute, huh?). When the cars finally get moving again, they don't waste any time.

The hurry hurry hurry of traffic in Piter leads to two interesting scenarios: the heart-stopping experience of being in a car and the equally life-threatening task of crossing the street when on foot.

In 2005-06 I rode in a car all of three times the whole year, and two of those times was in a taxi (I'm not counting marshrutki (minibuses) or other forms of surface transportation). This time I've already managed to have two rides in private cars. Driving in Piter is fast: you accelerate quickly, you drive fast, you turn fast, you brake fast and, most important of all, at the last minute. Lane divisions are merely suggestions, and it often seems like four cars are driving abreast where there should only be room for two. Despite all this, accidents seem not to happen nearly as often as I'd expect. I find that the best way to remain calm is to simply remind myself that Petersburg drivers are all used to the flow of traffic in the city, and that they drive the way they do because that's always how they've done it, not because they have any less control over their vehicles than people in Iowa City.

More relevant to my daily life is my interaction as a soft, squishy, flesh-and-blood pedestrian with these wildly zooming plastic and metal boxes. In theory, pedestrians in Russia have the right-of-way; in practice, it's each man for himself. When you've got the green pedestrian light, you still need to watch out for turning cars, which may or may not be watching out for you. The most interesting pedestrian situation I've encountered here is along my route to and from school every day. At the end of Tuchkov Bridge on the Vasilievski Island side there is what one might call a pedestrian crossing. Once in my first days here, I approached this crossing on foot; the light was green in my direction, but there was a green right-turn arrow directing a steady stream of cars across my path. I waited patiently for the right-turn arrow to turn red. After a couple cycles of the light, I realized that the right-turn arrow is always lit, and there is almost always a constant flow of cars turning right. What's a pedestrian to do?

For the first few days, I would wait for a Russian pedestrian to make the first move. If it looked like they weren't about to get creamed, I'd quick step it after them. Safety in numbers (this tactic also works at pedestrian crossings without stoplights). However, I don't always have time to wait around for a Russian to be heading the same direction as me; probably with good reason there's not a lot of pedestrian traffic at this particular intersection. So what do I do now? I look directly at the driver of the quickly-turning car coming towards me and just step into the street. If it looks like s/he's slowing down even a little bit, I keep moving. You just have to remember that they don't actually want to hit you, and have faith that they won't.

The thing is that Russians drive like they do almost everything else in life: they respect assertiveness. If a pedestrian is assertive and steps confidently into the street, on the whole drivers will recognize that and yield. It's the same way with the bureaucracy here: the more assertive you are with clerks, the more likely you are to actually get what you need done. Any sign of a lack of confidence or knowledge of what you're doing is taken to mean that you don't really want whatever it is you're asking for (whether that's getting an internet hookup at home, towels at the banya, or crossing the street). There's a fantastic Russian saying about the law that illustrates this point: "That's forbidden, but if you really want to, then okay" (Нельзя, но если очень хочется, то можно). There's always a way around obstacles.

By the way, I recently saw a great PSA showing a little old lady trying to cross the street at a crosswalk with no stoplight, and none of the speeding cars slow down for her. So there is a campaign to increase public awareness of the need to slow down for those who physically can't be as assertive as I described above, although I'm not sure that it's made much difference so far.

And while I'm thinking about cars, I'd like to mention a small difference (one of many) I've noticed between Russian and American news broadcasts. When they show some kind of big car accident on the news in America, all you ever see are smashed up cars, broken glass, maybe an ambulance. It's all very clean. Galya and I were watching the news last night and there was a piece about really nasty accident on the highway between Piter and Moscow, in which a big semitruck completely obliterated this car. Here's what they showed: the car, which is essentially the ripped apart outline of what was once a car, and in front of the car, a body. Holy cow, they showed footage of the victims. Not something you'd see on American TV. To make it that much more wrenching, they also showed footage of the truck driver sitting in his cab with his head in his hands, clearly completely distraught over what had happened. Whew.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Viniagrettes Follow-up: I’ll have the basalmic


First day of the internship went pretty well. I translated the schedule of events for a seminar from Russian into English. That was pretty fun. And then I helped Alina translate her resume. That was a little trickier – she seemed hesitant to give up some of the Russian characteristics of a resume that simple aren’t a part of English resumes – like birthday and place of birth and hobbies. Also, Russian resumes are focused around nouns, so when you describe what you did at a job, you’d write something like “Preparation of documents for the company president. Management and coordination of a team of three people.” With the American resume focused around verbs (“Created innovative projects; collaborated with team members; produced meeting reports”), it was truly head-spinning to figure out how to restate some of her job activities.

In the future (as in, starting Thursday) I’ll be translating articles for the almanac, The Maecenas. And thank god, cuz they had a translation service do the last issue, and it’s really bad. Everything is understandable, of course, but it all sounds really translated. So I’ll try my hand at it; I hope I can get it to turn out better. Plus this will be a great way to see if translation is something I’d really be interested in doing as a career.


Has been silenced.


As I arrived home after class today, one of them blew me a kiss and waved. Cheeky. I smiled and waved back. I don’t think those boys see girls very much. Galya tells me that only freshmen and sophomores live in the dorm in our courtyard, so they’re all still 17 and 18 and rabbity.

Did you know? Fun food facts.

• What we call a “crisp” in the US (you know, with peaches or apples) in Russia is called a pudding (пуддинг). Also, Galya makes it with pumpkin on the bottom and apples on top. So delicious.

• Even after a large dinner, it is perfectly possible to eat half a watermelon if Galya says “you have to eat it, there’s no room in the fridge.”

• The fat in dairy products is good for you (a syrok, which is like a little cheesecake candy bar that comes in different flavors, is 25% fat). It’s bread that makes you gain weight.

• Dynia (Дыня): the Russian version of cantaloupe. It grows in the Caucuses and is long and oval like a watermelon. The flesh is white instead of orange, and on the first bite, you think you’re actually eating cantaloupe. But then the unique flavor of this late-summer delight takes over, and you can’t really tell anymore that it’s a cantaloupe cousin. Yummy.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Vinaigrettes. Wait, what? Oh, vignettes.

I have made it through the first week of classes. Whew! I think for the most part they’ll be interesting, but they really tired me out this week. It’ll get better as I get settled into a routine. Currently it’s looking like Monday’s going to be a busy day for me: class 9:30-14:00, internship 15:00-19:00, and then elective class 19:30-21:00. But the rest of the week I’ll just have class till 2 every day, and then I’ll be free, so it looks like I’m going to have plenty of time to study, work out, and be social.


On Wednesday Lena, our program coordinator, took me and Berney to meet our boss and coworkers at the InterJournalist Center, where we’ll be doing our internships. It sounds like we’re going to have plenty of serious work to do, and I’m looking forward to getting started. Inna Genadievna, my boss, listed several possible projects for me, including translation work for their bi-monthly journal, making contacts to try to increase distribution of the journal, searching (and applying, perhaps) for grants, and even teaching English. Berney will be involved more with organizing seminars which the center puts on every couple of months or so.

New Friends

Last night Alina and Tanya, our new coworkers, took Berney and I to see various parts of downtown. I’d seen them all before, of course, but driving around for a couple hours really helped me get reoriented and remember where stuff is. Then we spent a couple hours at a newish club called Sochi. Excellent atmosphere. I had the Greek salad. Russian feta cheese has not improved since my last trip here. ;) Alina and Tanya are young and sociable, and I’m really hoping we’ll get to be pretty good friends by the end of the year.

50 Cadets

My apartment building shares a courtyard with a dorm for cadets in some military or aerospace academy (not quite sure which, there are a lot of academies around here). Several times a day a clump of cadets in fatigues traipses through the courtyard on their way to or from class. Usually they march in neat rows, but one thing interferes with their military discipline: they’re replacing some pipes in our courtyard, which means there’s a gigantic trench that cuts through the pavement. To cross the trench, you have to walk over a narrow plank bridge, wide enough for one person. As you can imagine, it takes a bit longer than usual to get all those boys across the courtyard because of the bridge (affectionately called a mostik in Russian, which for some reason I always think of as a “bridge-lette”). Ok, keep this in mind as I go off on what seems like an unrelated tangent.

Today I decided to go running in the park near my building. I fell off the fitness wagon about three weeks before the end of the program in Middlebury, and although Galina’s been feeding me well (steamed veggies and salmon earlier this week, yummy!) and I’ve been trying to watch what I eat, I haven’t been eating as well as I’d like. As today was sunny and warm, I decided that today was the day to get back in the saddle.

[Ok, real tangent: I have to admit to a cookie binge the other night, after the steamed veggies and salmon. 500 grams of chocolate priyaniki. That’s like 3000 calories and 365 grams of carbs. My intestines and eating schedule are still recovering from that stress-induced disaster. The funny thing is, I don’t feel stressed out. At least not to the extent that I did upon my arrival in Piter in 2005. But the fact that I don’t want to do my homework and I find myself wanting to eat all the time, even when I’m not hungry, suggests that I am indeed under some stress. I can only hope that I will get adjusted faster than I did in 2005, when it took until the middle of the spring semester before I was comfortable in Petersburg. Also, I won’t be buying any more bags of cookies. Can’t trust myself to eat just two or three.]

Although jogging is starting to get more popular in Russia, it’s still not really accepted to run on the sidewalks along the streets. Even if people didn’t stare at you like you’re a freak running down the sidewalk, I wouldn’t run on the streets here anyway: too many pedestrians to get around, and the car pollution makes deep breathing both nearly impossible and dangerous for your health. In the park people still look askance at me as I run, but as there are fewer people in the park than on the street, it doesn’t bother me.

I donned my usual exercise attire: hot pink running shorts, a black tank top, and my iPod strapped to my arm. This is definitely not the costume I would wear to try to blend in, but what are you going to do? A woman running in the park already doesn’t blend in, so I may as well wear what’s comfortable. After my jog (5 times around the park jogging and twice walking, and I almost died. I’m so out of shape. Also, is tea really acidic? My stomach felt all burny), I triumphantly returned to my courtyard. To my dismay, my return coincided with the arrival from the other direction of a clump of cadets, who were coming toward me across the mostik. My apartment is on the other side of that bridge; I had no option but to simply wait as all 50 of those boys crossed the bridge in single file. I’m not kidding you, every single one of them looked me over like I was insane, sweaty gym clothes, bare arms and legs, tattoos and all. I’m sure they were just curious, but it was incredibly uncomfortable to just stand there as they filed past, not hiding their stares. I’ve never felt so on display.

This reminds me of something I’ve noticed a lot more this time: Russians are always checking each other out. It’s not really accepted to smile at strangers on the street or even make eye contact, so it seems like they look at each other much more furtively than we might in the US. Last time I was here I was so worried about the possibility of having to interact with another person that I stared at the ground all the time as I walked. This time I’m not afraid to look at people, and I catch them looking at me too. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s so obvious that I’m foreign (not that I care anymore if they know I’m foreign), but I’ve definitely noticed it. I can’t say I’m not doing it too – I check out every pair of women’s shoes that I see coming my way. :)

The Laughing Buddha

Galina has this horrible horrible statue of the happy Buddha that actually laughs. But it’s not pleasant laughter, it’s this blood-curdling maniacal giggle. What’s worse, it laughs at random. I’m not sure what sets it off, but I’ll just be sitting in my room, minding my own business, when this creepy laughter from the other room suddenly breaks the silence. Shudder. Galina said it woke her up the other night, and she was so freaked out that she put it out on the balcony so she wouldn’t hear it the rest of the night. That begs the question: why does she have the damn thing in the first place? Or why doesn’t she take the battery out? The thing has laughed at least half a dozen times since I got home from my jog. Maybe I’ll take the batteries out.

Flash Cards

Except for in Russian Word Formation class, where we were given systematic lists of words to learn, I stopped making and using flashcards to help learn vocabulary ages ago – I found that it took a lot of time to make them, and then I rarely reviewed them. However, I think it might be time to give them another try. I have simply tons of new vocabulary that I’ve written down from class and from life just this week alone, but it’s all so random and unrelated that I don’t think I can learn it just from my little notebook. Also, in the past I’ve gotten away with not reviewing vocabulary very much because I was working to learn high-frequency words. Most words I simply eventually memorized because I heard them in day-to-day speech. Now, however, I’m working to learn lower-frequency words – the kind you find in academic settings and written language, but are unlikely to hear in a normal conversation. That kind of vocabulary is much more difficult to absorb, at least for me. If anyone has any strategies or suggestions, I’d be happy to hear from you. Actually, I’m always happy to hear from you in general. :)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Catch up

Hey folks, it's been a few days. I've gotten busier and, ironically, getting internet access at home has made me lazier about writing blogs. Something about having a computer but no internet was inspiring, like I had nothing else to do, so I'd write. Here's what comes to mind about the last few days:

A. Telephone bureaucracy. Olya, Galina's daughter, and I went to Telekom the other day to sign up for DSL service at home. As it turns out, our telephone is still registered in Galina's mother's name, but Galya's mom has been dead for 10 years! So I have to wait till Olya re-registers the phone in her own name, then we can sign up for DSL. In the meantime I'm going retro: dial-up from a prepaid internet card. It's a lot cheaper than at the internet cafes, but the connection is pretty lame. I probably won't be posting any pictures until I get a more stable and speedy connection.

B. University done Russian-style. My classes started Monday, and everything with my core classes is so far going fine (although I already don't feel like doing my homework, haha). I'm getting readjusted to the Russian method of teaching, which involves a lot more lecture, even in such subjects as Oral Speech, where one would assume we'd have to talk at least a little bit in an hour and a half. Maybe it'll get better as we get into the semester.

In other University done Russian-style news, Saint Petersburg State starts with a few more heaves and gasps than the University of Iowa. Each of us Flagshippers is required to audit a course with Russian students, like a real content course. Theoretically, school started yesterday for all the Russians too, but even as of the first day of school, the course list is not finalized. So a few of us showed up to "Russian Foreign Policy" last night, and it turned out the class doesn't start till next week. Dang. I walked an extra hour and a half in heels. In the rain. For a class that no one bothered to tell us doesn't start till next week.

Today I sat in on "Problems in International Relations and Conflicts." Since it was the first day, all we did was hear the Russian students introduce themselves and then get an overview of the topics that will be covered in the course (a TON of material, and lots of reading. Glad I'm just auditing!). It's interesting to see the little differences between Russian and American classes. For one thing, while Americans write notes to each other during class if they want to communicate, Russians just talk, and often not even very quietly. For another, where an American teacher would hand out a syllabus, our Russian teacher just read us the topics and the questions for each topic (which for me means I have a haphazard and incomplete list, as I did not write fast enough or understand every word she said). I'm still going to sit in on that Foreign Policy class next Monday; we'll have to see which one I like better. The Tuesday class is at a better time, 3:30, but it's three hours long, whereas the Monday class is only an hour and a half, but starts at 7:30 PM, meaning I either stay at the university until pretty late or spend a lot more time in transit between school and home.

C. I need shoe repair terminology. Once I get that terminology, I need to find the nearest shoe repair shop. They have them everywhere here, so it shouldn't be a problem.

D. Anya and I went to Peterhoff on Saturday, where there's a big palace, lots of fountains made of gold, and a really beautiful park/garden. We got all the way there before I remembered/realized that I didn't yet have my Russian student ID (got it today, whew!). As you may or may not know, Russia has a tiered pricing system for museums, theatres, etc. The same applies at Peterhoff. The Russian student price: 50 rubles. The regular Russian price: 150 rubles. The foreigner price: 300 rubles. Yikes. Even for golden fountains, I wasn't about to pay 300 rubles. Having lived in Russia before, I know how this works: I just had Anya go through two different lines and buy two student tickets with her student ID. But then when we got to the gate to give our tickets to the grumpy lady, she asked to see our IDs. I told her I didn't have mine with me, and she told me in no uncertain terms to go buy a full-price ticket. Guess what we did instead? We walked about a kilometer down the way to a secondary entrance with a much less grumpy lady, who merely asked if our IDs were still current, and didn't make us actually show them. We were in! Haha, I love Russia.

E. The remodeling on my room was finally completed on Friday, so I'm all settled into my permanent location now. I like it; I have a lot of plants and a shiny new ceiling. The only thing is it seems like the coldest room in the apartment. Hopefully this won't be a problem once the heat gets turned on.

Okay, at the moment I can't think of anything else. If there's anything in particular you're curious about or would like me to talk about, leave me a comment and I'll be happy to oblige.