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.