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.