Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas party!

Dear readers,

So my work for the semester is over, apart from a pesky oral exam in Russian literature that I'll have to take on Monday. I've almost recovered my hostage visa (still waiting on a copy of one last train ticket), so I might actually be allowed out of the country. We foreigners are in full holiday-celebration mode. We did Christmas Eve at a friend's apartment and Christmas at mine. We exchanged gifts, baked cakes, cookies, and what not, and I made an extra-large batch of eggnog, which was very delicious. I've substituted out rum/whiskey (way overpriced in Russia) for Russian "Balzam", a sort of spiced, berried liquor that goes well with the spiced nog. We have a lovely tree decked in all sorts of decorations that somehow accumulated over the past few days, along with some really finicky chinese Christmas lights. We put out some socks, cookies, and milk for Santa Clause, and on the first day he just ate the goods without leaving anything. He made up for it last night and slipped us some fancy "Cote d'Or" chocolate.

Up next: a few days of extreme, Russian New Years celebrations.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures.

Merry Christmas to all my loved one back home!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Winter in Tomsk

At long last I've managed to get together an album of pictures of Winter in Tomsk. Pretty beautiful, I think. Here's the link:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Siberian news/blues

Dear faithful readers,

I guess there's not a whole lot to report here. The weather's warmed up, and we've had some wet snow lately that's really starting to pile up. A lot of the little old wooden houses are really starting to look like a cottage out of a fairy tale, with a foot and a half of snow piled on top. Some New Years decorations are starting to come out, my students are starting to panic about "zachet" and the exam week (I won't even pretend to fully understand how zachet is different from exams... it's just before New Years instead of after). I'm doing a unit on Christmas, which is proving to be a lot of fun. My parents sent some Christmas songs for me to show my students, I'm teaching them to sing Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer (including the light bulb/George Washington bits).

I've been pretty exhausted lately. I don't know how it works out this way, but I never manage to get enough sleep and I just keeps adding up. I've been busy with applications, e-mailing professors, and directing my dad on where to send which form for which university. If I get into grad school I'll have buy him a nice present for doing half the work for me. Anyway, I turned in my first application, for Harvard, and now I'm really starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I've talked with my friend Sveta about the possibility of getting a class in American-literature during the next semester. It would be so wonderful to get to do some work that is in any way related to my studies, instead of talking about AIDS, globalization, religious diversity, the financial crisis, global warming, and other natural disasters all the time. My grandfather is currently scouring all sorts of books for the best selections from American literature, which is planning to scan and then transfer to text, so that I can use them in the classroom. Needless to say, I'm pretty excited and grateful.

In other news, today we're organizing a forum on "Englishes", featuring myself, Michael from England, and Cate from Canada. It's shaping up to be very interesting. We're going to cover the history of English, the divergence of the different dialects, grammatical, phonological, and lexical differences, as well as local dialects in each of the countries. We've been preparing a bit, and I think it is just as interesting and surprising for us as it will be for them. If it's a success, we may give the forum at a few of the other universities as well! I'm practicing my NY accent, as well as a handful of different southern ones. I've even brought a recording of an old folk song performed in Cajun French.

We watched Life is Beautiful in our American film club this Sunday, which I had never seen and really enjoyed. The students had a lot to say about the movie, so it worked out well. One guy listed four things he liked, but then added that he didn't like that there was an American flag on the tank that came to liberate the camp. Since it's common knowledge that the USSR won World War II, there should have been a Soviet flag, evidently. This is, of course Hollywood's bias, he explained (Hollywood, Italy). Oh well.

So yeah, I have about a week and a half of work, and then it's a well-deserved vacation for me. I just have to figure out how exactly to sneak into the forest at night to chop myself a "Elochka", since there are no tree farms here.

Best wishes,

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New personal record low

-29.7 degrees Celsius.

I'll keep you posted as winter rears its ugly head.

At -30 your eyelashes turn white and you start to feel a really awful pressure on your forehead and eyes. Also your legs go numb after only a few minutes.

I don't know how all these Russian writers survived in those Siberian camps without heat. JEEZ

Friday, November 28, 2008

Little bits and bytes


What's new here? I had Thanksgiving with the Mormons yesterday, which was great. As it got closer to the holiday, I was missing my family more and more, so I was pretty happy to have some firends to eat and talk with. They are quite an interesting bunch. The younger ones are in "companion" pairs, and they are bound to each other for 2 years, or until they get a transfer slip in the mail. They literally can only be apart in the bathroom! But yeah, a week from Saturday they'll get their new orders in the mail, so some of them might be getting shipped off to a new city in Siberia. We even played a game of risk, although I can never take board games quite so seriously anymore. It was also good in that they live in the North of the city, so I finally had a good opportunity to see a new neighborhood.

I've been teaching Thanksgiving for the past week, and for the students it's kind of boring, but I tell them the whole story just the same. I even make them go around the table and talk about what they're thankful for. Most of them are thankful for the families, their friends, their universities, and so on, but some real wise acres today were being thankful for the table, the floor, the chairs, and other pieces of furniture. Some of them are even thankful for me! I've been giving the best Thanksgiving speeches of my life, which leads me to believe that I have a lot to be thankful for. More than ever, I know what it means to have a loving family and loving friends, and that's pretty great.

All my foreign friends are having birthdays and celebrating them in all sorts of adorable ways. Everyone's getting pretty close by now, so that's nice too. I might even have a chance to rap in the club with a guy from Ghana sometime soon! I'll have to practice.

Grad school applications are still weighing me down, but I've made quite a bit of progress. In fact, I only have 3 personalized sections of my personal statement to go! Then: ENDLESS EDITING. I'm feeling more relaxed about the whole thing, but will be very happy to be done, to just wait and enjoy life.

I'm also just about ready for our break from work. Teaching is fun, and there are a lot of rewarding moments, but the daily grind is getting to me. I am planning a sort of forum on different dialects/accents of English, to which I'm inviting the Canadian Kate and the British guy Michael. I think it should be interesting for the students as well as the native speakers. Anyway, I'm getting pretty excited about the prospect of travelling with some other ETA's around Russia and Europe. I'll probably be leaving Tomsk for Novosibirsk on the 2nd of January or so. There I'll meet Matt and we'll head to Ekaterinburg for Abbie. Next stop: PETERSBURG! Then we're planning about 2 weeks in Europe: Germany, maybe Amsterdam or Paris, Prague. It'll be just what I need, I think. After Europe we'll be back in Moscow for a Fulbright orientation thing. If anyone will be in any of these cities or countries, or nearby, let me know so we can meet up!

Lots of love,

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mormons, Mormons, Mormons!

So, I have a funny story that I'll tell you briefly. A girl from one of the English-speaking clubs asked to interview me for a psychology project, and I said okay, a little nervous that she would think that I stand out as a good candidate for psychiatric research. We met and she took me to some strange building, to the top floor, and unlocked some room that had some flyers about learning English up everywhere. There were a bunch of really unusually religious paintings everywhere, of Jesus and what looked like his clone. At first I thought maybe it could have been Boris and Gleb, this two Russians brothers/princes/saints who were murdered for the thrown, but then figured it wasn't them. I asked why there were two Jesuses, and she explained that one was God the father. I thought it pretty unusual that God was depicted at all, let alone as a perfect double of Jesus, but assumed it was some wacky Russian thing. I did think it was strange that there was one picture of Jesus with what looked like a Native American.

Anyway, so she conducted this endless interivew in Russian. She said it would last one hour but it ended up taking three and a half, with a tea break in the middle (she served some strange, red, flowery tea, explaining that she couldn't drink black or green tea anymore). Anyway, so she asked me a bunch of questions about my life, my childhood, about my feelings, about whether I was every beaten, about how I interact with various people, about what I look for in girls, etc. It was interesting to have a chance to get into some self-reflection, especially in Russian, but I was pretty tired by the end.

But.... towards the end of the interivew, some guy with a beard showed up, and was evidently pretty upset at this girl for using the space. He spoke in English, very naturally, I thought, and with a great American accent. I was impressed at the language skills taught at this place. So they argued, and he eventually agreed to let us continue the interview (I was sitting behind some divider so I only caught a short glimpse of the man), but only on the condition that these two other young guys who had just arrived could wait in the room to make sure there was no trouble. So the older guy left and I heard them refer to him as "Elder Dixon", which I thought was strange. They also kept saying "It wasn't the right way for her to go about doing this, kicking Elder Dixon out, and this guy's not even a member!" Their English was great and the membership business was awfully suspicious.

So we finished the interview, and I finally decided to ask about these strange, English-speaking people. She explained that they're part of a religious organization that rents the space and gives free English lessons. I asked which one, and it turned out that they are Mormons, and Americans to boot!

So that's why there were all these strange pictures of Jesus, God, and some Native Americans. So that's why this poor Russian girl had to reject her heritage and quit drinking normal tea! It all made so much sense!

Here I thought I was the only American in Tomsk, and there are actually six of them, Mormons! I decided to go have chat with them. They thought I was a Russian and asked me where I learned English so well. I told them "in Ohio". They didn't get it at first, but then I explained that I too was an American. They were nice enough, although when we introduced ourselves they wouldn't tell me their first names, only "Elder so-and-so". I thought this a bit odd, but whatever, I'll call them elders if that's what they like. But yeah, they're organizing a Thanksgiving dinner complete with a real turkey and I'm invited. It turns out that one of them lives nearby. I thought of inviting them over for tea or a drink, but they don't drink tea or alcohol, and as they explained, they're not allowed to be out past 9:30. Oh well, at least they won't get mugged.

They were pretty okay guys and even gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon in Russian (there are some great pictures), but I couldn't help but wonder what could drive a Russian to the Mormon faith. After all, I would think that Russians wouldn't be too big on an addition to the bible in which all sorts of miraculous things happen in America. Still, so I have heard, the Mormons attract a lot of Russians with their English lessons and appeal to them in some way that's bringing them members. Evidentally there's even a church here in Tomsk. Also, I hear there's an enormous babtist church that's formed a pretty big congregation. This is all pretty strange to me, but Russia is a surprising place.

But anyway, don't count on this bezbozhnik falling in with these Elders. I would like to hang out with them sometime, though, if they're okay with that. Something tells me they might not be. When I gave them my number they just gave me their businesss card they use to lure Russians to their church. Oh well, I can only hope!



Friday, November 7, 2008


Hello all you Americans,

It's Friday here and I thought I'd update you on some of the latest developments here in Tomsk. Let's see, last Friday, after a few phoney Halloween celebrations with my English clubs (in which many of the students were too bashful to dress up), Dima and I threw a real Halloween party at our apartment. It was a lot of fun, and most of my foreign and Russian friends did manage to come up with costumes. Unfortunately, they also managed to break a lot of our glassware and prevent me from sleeping until 6 in the morning. I was worried about disturbing our neighbors, since we had so many noisy guests, and not surprisingly, on Sunday one lady came to complain about us disturbing her sleep and insisted on my cleaning the entire stairway with a broom and rag. I can understand the horror of being an old Russian woman and having strange, masked Europeans parading around in your stairwell, so I agreed to do so.

The pure chaos that is national holidays in Russia further disturbed my attempts to live a somewhat normal life. This Tuesday we had "The Day of People's Unity and Coming-Together", or something like that. This meant that even on Monday, everything important was closed, even though nobody even really knows what this holiday is (it's supposed to replace an old Soviet holiday on November 7th celebrating the revolution). So I couldn't use the internet, and half the town left for Kazakstan, Altai, Kemerevo, or wherever everyone here is from. It was nice to get a little extra sleep though.

Then came election day. The results were announced when I was in my morning class, so I only heard the news afterwards on the internet. Not really a surprise, even to us living so far away from America. What was most remarkable about election day for me, however, was that a television company called my boss and asked to interview me about the election, about Obama, and about myself as an American living in Tomsk. At first they insisted on conducting this interview in my apartment, and I, of course, said, "No, that won't quite be convenient for me". They agreed to take me to a cafe or a bar. At first I didn't know why it was important that they interview me in a place with a TV, but I soon figured it out. It was pretty funny, how artificial everything is. They had me pretend to walk into the bar (which was almost empty, and they didn't even treat me to dinner), they had me pretend to talk about the elections with the anchorwoman (we were really talking about Petersburg), and they had me pretend to be watching Obama on television (really at this point they were showing Medvedev's speech with Putin looking on).

When I watched the interview on TV, I learned that they had assembled all of this into some hilarious narrative about me, a poor American teacher, not having a TV and desperately making for the bar to learn the results of my country's elections. It sounded really funny on TV in Russian. Anyway, they interviewed me about what kind of president I thought Obama would be and how I felt his election would affect American-Russian relations. It was kind of an interesting conversation, except I had to wince as I watched myself make mistakes in Russian in front of the entire city. All in all, regardless of the fact that they didn't feed me, it was an adventure.

So now it's the weekend, and I am exhausted. I'm about to head home and take a nap, before I go to see Madagascar 2. I think on Saturday we're going to the second house-warming in a row at our friends place. A Swiss and a French friend of mine moved into an apartment and had a novosel'e last weekend. Since then, I hooked them up with a third roommate, a Canadian who recently arrived in Tomsk. Oh! Also a British guy moved to the city last week and is living with this professor of oil-drilling technology. He has never studied Russian before and so is going to get his first earful of it here in Siberia. Both of them are working as English teachers, and so now I have a whole host of English-speaking peers. It's refreshing to speak English every now and again!

Miss you all,

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A sobering encounter

Hello you loyal readers. I had a bit of a bad experience here in this Siberian wonderland. I decided against posting a full account of the event online, but if you're really curious, I can forward you a full account. The long and short of it is I was almost mugged by "gopniki", common cap-wearing, street thugs who stick people up for there cell phones and cash, usually in the more distant neighborhoods. Basically, they demanded my cell phone and cash, I chatted them up a bit, and then, on a split-second jolt of adrenaline, I sprinted after cab. It didn't stop for me, because the driver didn't want a run in with the thugs, and so we ran. We ran and ran. I've never run so quickly. I was on a pretty isolated street, and so I was pretty hard up, but finally I turned down a different street and found a corner store, where the security guard took me in, only to turn me back out onto the street when he suddenly got scared, maybe that the thugs would come give him a hard time for sheltering me. So I ran some more, althought it's possible that the thugs had already run off, fearing that we had called the police. Eventually I landed myself a cab and made it back to my apartment, literally sick with fear and exhaustion. I consoled myself with watermelon, and wheezed all night long from the exertion. So, yes, a pretty bad experience, but it happens everywhere. These criminals seemed particularly inept and unprofessional. Morever, in America, they probably would have had guns. My Russian friends scolded me for walking alone at night, and now I know better. One of my friends was even stuck up for a bunch of balloons she was carrying. She was tough and refused to hand them over, made it away unscathed and without losing a single balloon.

In other news, my financial problems seem to be over. Also, I went to see the Tomsk Tom' play the St. Petersburg Zenit (best team in Russia, featuring international allstar Arshavin), and much to our surprise, it ended in a tie! Hooray!

We've been celebrating Halloween this week, and it's been a lot of fun. I've been realizing just how great this holiday is. I asked the students at the English club to dress up, but most of them were too nervous. Only a couple came in costume. I also had the hardest time tracking down a pumpkin. Finally, after a 3-hour search, I found one, but it is sort of green. When we tried to carve it at the club, it turned out that this pumpkin was in fact a strong, Russian pumpkin, well prepared to weather the Siberian winter. It took fifteen minutes just to get it open, and I still have yet to sufficiently scrape it out. So I will finish the jack-o-lantern at the other English club on Friday. Luckily another girl brought a pumpkin that she had already hollowed out, so she carved it and the students were amazed by it's beauty (once we stuck the candle in). I showed pictures from Halloween at college, and they were pretty impressed by our costumes, especially by Arden's Edward Scissorhands costume.

Also, in the last few days I have become a celebrity. There was a feature about me and the Enghlish club on the Tomsk news site. A photographer was at the club yesterday taking pictures of my stabbing a pumpkin in a surgeon's costume. Evidently these pictures will be a part of an article about me and the club in the newspaper. Then, this morning I received a text saying they were talking about me on the radio. Finally, an hour ago I learned that they want to interview me for Russian television. I am terrified. This interview will, of course, be in Russian, so I will be broadcasted to the entire city, speaking in broken Russian about the English club and maybe Halloween. Great. Just as long as they don't ask me about Georgia, WWII, or Russian girls (the third most common question you get as an American male in Russia is "So what do you think about our girls, eh? Pretty? Prettier than American girls? Eh? Eh?").

So yes, that's what's happening here. A Canadian girl just moved to Tomsk to teach, and I'm excited to meet another representative of the North-American continent. We (myself and the Russians) are all anxiously awaiting the elections, as I'm sure you all are. We'll see what happens!


Monday, October 20, 2008

Plagued by financial woes/Dmitrii Denisovich Strikes Back!

Well, well, well...

The last few days have been some of the most emotionally trying and fatiguing days of my life. Having resolved the issues with Chase blocking my credit card, I thought I could breathe easy and, well, feed myself, pay my landlady. I was terribly wrong. For the past few weeks my credit card has still been acting up, or more specifically, just plain not working. I called chase about once a day to find out what the problem was, and they insisted that they hadn’t blocked the card, and that they had no records of denials at the ATM’s. Basically, I had no choice but to try different ATM’s every day, hoping that they would let me take money. Every once in a while it would work, for some inexplicable reason. Each time I foolishly assumed that my troubles were over, only to find that the next visit to the ATM would end in a humiliating, flashing “YOUR BANK HAS INSTRUCTED US TO DENY YOUR TRANSACTION,” or sometimes, one of about ten Russian variants. It’s hard to describe the despair that I felt. I would spend all day at the office trying to resolve the problem, and because of a lack of time and money, I wouldn’t eat. This only amplified my desperation. I, overreacting and with an empty stomach, imagined myself begging for kopecks on the street, maybe even tinkering out a little “Katyusha” on the guitar (did I mention my landlady gave me a guitar?) for some cash. I wanted out… out, out, out. But really, in Siberia, with no money, there is no out. Luckily, I borrowed some money from my lovely, Belgian roommate and have survived to tell the tale, although right now, I still have only four dollars worth of Rubles at my disposal.

I am optimistic, however, that I will not starve, not perish on one of these increasingly snowy Siberian nights (yes, it already snows every day now, and will be about -14 degrees Celsius tonight. Today, after a few failed trips to some Bankomats (ATM’s) and an endless day of babbling about mass media in the classroom, I called Chase and, much to my delight, was connected to a brilliantly competent representative, who, within seconds, recognized the problem (something a week’s worth of calls did not resolve). Apparently, even though I have a total credit limit of $1,000, my cash-advance limit is only $200. I have been pretty zealous about paying my card off, but it turns out that I can only make a payment every 5 days. Since there are very few opportunities to actually pay with a credit card, I make virtually all of my purchases (and pay my rent, of course) with cash. This all adds up to me waiting out apparently undefined periods of time for chance moments when my card would work. It turns out, however, that this is no voodoo magic. I had to wait for my cash-advance maximum to be paid off, which it turns out, takes longer than possible. This lady is fairly sure that my payment will go through at about midnight my time. Light at the end of the tunnel. Finally I can pay back my roommate and maybe, just maybe, begin to live a normal life once more. With a little foresight, I’ll be able to take out money regularly, in advance, so as not to live on a starvation diet in a constant state of depression. Plus, I found out that I could have been using my credit card all along at the one enormous supermarket in Tomsk that I know accepts credit cards. No more hunger!

This is all speculation, and who knows, maybe it’s naïve to think that this will all be over soon, but I certainly hope so. Despite all of this awful business and my mounting fear that I will not successfully apply to grad school, I’ve managed to have some good times in the past couple of weeks. I had a very successful film screening at the ungodly hour of 11:30 this Sunday morning (my Russian friends were sure nobody would show). I’ve decided that it’s a shame that most Russians only see the Hollywood garbage that we faithfully export every week. The American Center has an excellent selection of movies, in English with English subtitles, and so I thought showing a quality movie might be interesting. I selected Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind, one of my favorite American films of the last ten years. The students came, en masse, and really seemed to like it. As opposed to some of our other discussions, which are usually either one-sided (me talking) or completely off-topic, we had a really great, thorough discussion of the film. The students genuinely wanted to express their reactions to the movie, and even had some serious debates on various issues that I raised. When I suggested that we have these screenings/discussions more often, they were uniformly enthusiastic. Next we’re going to watch Memento (I decided it’d be fun to continue with another film portraying memory loss).

As the title of this post suggests, Dmitrii Denisovich is back in a big way. Last week I sat on my bed to put my shoes on, and it collapsed underneath me. I told my landlady later that day, and she promised to send our good friend, Mr. Fixit. For some reason, he didn’t come for five days, but sure enough, at 7:00 this Saturday night, he called and promised to be on the scene within 10 minutes. Half an hour later he appeared, tool bag in hand. He promised to be done by 8:30 so that I could meet my friends as I had planned. Four hours later we were drinking tea and debating the merits of hot and cold tea (he obviously championing the former). During these four hours he explained all sorts of various tools, screws, bolts, clamps, glues, and I cannot even begin to remember what else. In our operation we explored the verb “bit’” or to beat in each an every one of its conceivable, prefixed forms. We “otbili”, “pribili”, “perebili”, and maybe even “ubili” so many “gvozdiki” that he nearly ran out (sorry, this joke is for Russian-speakers only). Anyway, I am making excellent progress in my studies of Soviet-era plumbing, electrics, and carpentry. Dmitrii Denisovich is a wonderful, kind-hearted, and above all house, astoundingly respectable man, and quite a chatterbox to boot. Also, he still insists that we demand a new TV-cable from our landlady. Maybe I will, just to have the pleasure of his company in the near future.

Well, I’m going to go home and have a nap. I am so very tired. I love you all, that is, especially all of you who are still taking the time to read all this nonsense. I promise to get you some pictures of beautiful, snowy Tomsk as soon as I see fit. Also, I hope my boots get here soon. So cold.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Don't worry, I'm alive and well-fed

For those of you who read my post from last Friday, I wanted to let you know that I am alive, fed, and spending cash like it's my job. She offered to lend me money (I declined, but it's nice to know she was willing to help) and then she and Sveta helped me get to an office phone where I made an international call and sorted everything out with the bank. What a relief. Don't use Chase if you need to go to Russia. They will block your account. Anyway, it was great to have the support of Sveta and Evgeniya Nikolaevna. At one point I was nearly in tears and on the brink of trying to buy a ticket home (not really, but I was upset).

Anyway, my friend Matt, the Fulbrighter living in Novosibirsk, visited this weekend. It was really great, first of all to speak some normal American English, and more importantly, to be able to have a conversation with someone and understand each other so simply and naturally. In another language, it can be so hard to explain yourself, not just because of a lack of words, but because of different cultural experiences. When I was talking to Matt, relating about our teaching experiences, I felt as though I could read his mind, just because I knew so much about the sort of experience he must have been having over there as an American from a similar background. We agreed that Linkin Park is the favorite band of 90% of Russians and that it is not even worth explaining to Russians the concept of being too snobby to listen to mainstream music, let alone too snobby to admit to listening to standard alternative or independent music. These subtleties of the young American mentality cannot be translated into Russian.

Anyway, it was really great to have Matt here, and if it wasn't for a whiney, hung-over Ukrainian girl who complained constantly, the weekend would have been perfect. The weather was incredible. As Matt said, every Russian seemed to sense that Saturday was the last day of somewhat tolerable weather. He was right. Yesterday it was wet, windy, and voobshche merzkaya. Today was the first snow. I knew it was supposed to snow in the next few days, but when I looked out my window this morning I was terrified. For some reason my brain didn't process what my eyes were showing it properly. Something seemed very wrong. Matt and I were saying that we've heard so much about how harsh the winter is going to be, but that we really don't have any concept of what it's going to be like to live in it. It just seems like it will be so inescapably endless. Oh well, we'll see!

Love ya',

Friday, October 10, 2008

The time of troubles...

Dear readers,

Okay, so if any of you are interested in a little update, here it is: I am having more and more problems with Russians and being reliable. People just plain don't show up to appointments and meetings without saying anything, or at best, let you know an hour in advance. It happens all the time.

This issue (about which I was upset yesterday) has been moved to the back-burner. Much to my chagrin, I found out that both my credit card and my bank card have been blocked. Even if you tell your bank that you are going to Russia and not to be suspicious of Russian charges, they don't believe you and block your account just to be safe. Thanks.

I have no money, well, I have less than a dollar in rubles. I finally figured out how to call Chase, and in a 4-minute phone call in which I successfully told a woman my debit-card number, I ran out of money on my phone card. I used up an ammount that would ordinarily have lasted a month. That's it. I'm broke. I have no access to money. I have no access to my phone with which I could theoretically regain access to money. I am very hungry.

I am not kidding.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Scenario for the intro to a movie about my life in Russia

The action takes place in present-day Russia, in an ancient apartment in the downtown area of the capital of a far-flung Siberian region. The camera pans from a shot of a recently remodeled mayor's office, 180 degrees to a tall, young man, sleeping in a comically small bed, an entire foot too short for him. He looks a clown on a tricycle. His blankets have been thrown off the bed over the night, and one foot dangles off the side of the bed.

His alarm sounds. An obnoxious robotic voice alerts our sleeping hero in English, that "It is now 8:55, the temperature is 82 degrees." That is why the blankets are on the floor. Our hero blindly struggles with the alarm clock and finally manages to subdue it. Minutes later, a cell-phone sounds. It is a second alarm, a chirpy little jingle specially selected to start each day off with a bit of inane joy. The effect is not achieved. Our hero lumbers across the room in a stupor to silence the second alarm and finds his way back to bed.

A minute goes by before the phone rings again, this time a different song. Our protagonist sits up straight it bed. This is a phone call and not an alarm. Our hero is visibly puzzled. He hastily stumbles out of bed and over to his phone. The number is not a familiar one. He clears his throat, takes a deep breath, and then answers in hesitant Russian "Allo?" The Russian dialogue is accompanied by occassional English subtitles.

“Allo!” says a woman, and continues in an annoyed, official tone, “I am ……… calling from…… and we would ……. you……. you……?” Our hero frowns. Clearly the woman is speaking to quickly for him to follow. He asks politely, “Could you please repeat that?” “I am…….. calling from the office……… you….. you…………..we do not…… number. May I speak with Aleksandr?” “Ah,” thinks our hero, “a wrong number. Thank God!” “I’m sorry,” he says, “There’s no Aleksandr here. You must have the wrong number.”

He frowns as she insists, “I do not have the wrong number. You are….. need to….. I must………..tell me………………………………………………..Aleksandr….. phone……”. “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand,” our hero stammers. “In what sense?” the woman asks, incredulously. “I don’t understand what you’re saying, I think you have the wrong number.” “I do not have the wrong number….. Aleksandr….you… call…………number.” “Look,” exclaims our hero, clearly losing patience, “if you expect the person you are trying to call to understand what you’re saying, that is, in Russian at the speed at which you are speaking, then you clearly have the wrong number. It’s logic.” The woman hangs up the receiver.

As our hero slowly makes his way to the bathroom to shave, he thinks to himself about all the other lines of reasoning he could have used with the woman. He should have said, he thinks, “Imagine, your phone rings, you are awakened, and it is 7 o’clock in the morning in the capital of some remote country. It’s me on the line. I bark at you in English at an unbelievable speed and insist that you, no matter what you say, are Aleksandr and have some business to discuss with me on the phone. You protest, try to prove to me that you are in fact a foreigner, a Russian woman who clearly has no business to carry out on the phone in English at 7 AM, but I don’t believe you. I have the right number, you are Aleksandr, and it’s very strange that you’re not following our conversation or admitting to being named Aleksandr.” But our hero didn’t say that. Maybe next time he will.


That’s my life folks. Anyway, things are still going well, although I’ve been incredibly, suffocatingly busy. The weekend was nice. Twice I went to this forest near the TPU stadium, and it is so beautiful! There are thousands of birch trees, all of which are a radiant shade of yellow and in contrast to the ever-graying landscape. We went with a big group of foreigners and Russians and played some old, Russian children’s games, while munching on Russian doughnuts and sipping juice. It was quite a lot of fun. We now have gas, and Dima and I have already made one ragingly successful meal together: pan-fried beef, potatoes, peppers, garlic, and onion. It’s so great to eat real food after all that Ramen, bread, and salami. I’ve done a few more English club meetings and am meeting a stifling number of new acquaintances. I can’t even keep track of all the Zhenya’s, Lena’s, Sasha’s, Masha’s, and Pasha’s. I can’t complain, though. I’m living an exciting life and learning a whole lot. Special thanks to my grandpa for writing a four-page response to my post about Russian’s and historical details! It helps to have a little support from back home!

Okay, that’s all for now.

Love ya’,

P.S. Enjoy some more pictures. I've included another shot from my window at sunset, some pictures from the forest, and a frightening picture of what appears to be one of the old, traditional wooden houses, destroyed by a fire (presumably arson). On the fence is written a grave threat, "I will be taking revenge!" If I understand correctly, this house is one of many that have been burned down by arsonists in the name of development, progress, and profit. I saw such a fire on Saturday night. Pretty sad.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Pictures from the war memorial, the soccer game, and my apartment

Here's the link to the full, Facebook album, for those of you who don't have it:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Новоселье (novosel’e) is the Russian word for a housewarming. You move into a new place, get settled in a bit, and then invite friends and family to come celebrate (and maybe even bring some gifts for the house). Dima (Belgian roommate) and I organized a новоселье last Friday, to mark our settling down into our new place. There really is much to celebrate about the move, (I’ve already detailed the perks), and so a whole legion of foreign friends, along with a few Russians, came to congratulate us on the move. Nonetheless, we have a few problems here that have not yet been resolved. The all-capable Dmitrii Denisovich has been under the weather and so has not (unfortunately) come a’ calling. The heat has been turned on, but it turns out that two of our 5 radiators (including the one in my room), do not work. On one, the pipe is even severed. We still don’t have a doorbell (not a big deal), but the biggest problem is that two weeks after moving in, we still do not have gas for the stove. That is, we are living off bread, sticks of meat, cheese, tea, and the Russian equivalent of ramen noodles. For this last of our five main food groups we are endlessly scolded by every Russian we know.
I assure you, however, that Dima and I would be more than willing to eat real food had we the means. It’s not the landlady’s fault. She’s even sent her mother, Rufina Pavlovna (a rare name) to wait for the gas men a handful of times, but to no avail. They won’t come. Rufina Pavlvona does, however, putter about the house cleaning up after me and Dima while we’re at school (much to my embarrassment). This is the same lady who fixed our electricity. Anyway, Dima and I feel like we’re wasting away. I’m sure I’m losing weight. Soon I may resort to eating raw hunks of beef.
Anyway, this moving in of ours is similar, in many ways, to my overall experience here. It has been overwhelming positive with a few helpings of negative. I already growing weary of the Russian style of arranging meetings. In general, plans here are subject to change at any moment. “Yes, your schedule does say Tuesdays at 10:30 in classroom 302 of the main building, and no it might not be there, but we can assure you that it will probably be somewhere in one of the 2 following buildings, almost every time”. In fact, I would say that about 15 percent of the English classes I teach (and I’m only counting the ones with designated locations) actually take place in the indicated classroom. Usually, the best option is to show up to the right building and wander through the hallways until a professor yanks you into the proper classroom. The worst case of this sort of unreliability or just plain laziness is the visa-registration office. Because I moved, I have to change my address on my registration (and pay 400 rubles again). I also have to renew my visa (for some reason they insist on giving you a 3-month visa to start and then require that you renew it for a year almost immediately). Anyway, I found the right office and asked her what I need to do. She found a time for me to return, about 10 days later, and provided that I brought my money, passport, registration, landlady, and some special paperwork regarding the apartment, I could change my registration. So I arranged all of this brought my roommate to boot. We all woke up early, including my landlady who took off work, and we made it to the office for our meeting. Within 5 minutes it was decided that either I didn’t have a contract and would need to leave Russia immediately or I could return with my contract, my money, my passport, my registration, my landlady and the paperwork on Friday. Maybe then she will talk to me. I have my contract now, and may even get to stay later than November. We’ll see. This sort of unpredictability is a normal part of life in Russia. Plans are rarely definite. I’ve found it’s helpful to ask ahead of time “наши планы в силе?” (“are our plans in strength?”). Sometimes or even often it turns out that they are not. Such is life here.
Something else that has been bugging me is what has turned out to be the most burning questions in the minds of most of my students and acquaintances. I’ll say that my experiences with Russians so far have been great. They treat me wonderfully with incredible hospitality and generosity. But I’m really getting the impression that somewhere in Russia there are scores of people who think very poorly of Americans. My Russian friends are always amazed to find out that other Russians have been treating me well. They all want to assure me that they don’t necessarily believe what everyone (especially on television, apparently) says about Americans. “That’s funny,” I think, “I don’t know what they say about us on Russian television”. It turns out that on Russian television, they talk about how stupid Americans are, how little we know about geography, history, and how ridiculous American laws are. Lucky, so say my Russian friends, not everybody believes this. Some have friends who have travelled to America and ascertained that, in fact, not all Americans are stupid. One Russian I met said there’s even a show called “Тупые Американцы,” or “Stupid Americans”. This is something I really don’t understand. I really cannot imagine this sort of program, even on our sleazy television networks. In part, I think we’re too PC for this sort of programming. More importantly, I think we’re less aware about cultural stereotypes than Russians (and oh do they love them). If an American were asked to give a cultural stereotype about Russia, maybe he would say “wearing fur hats” or “playing chess” (“drinking vodka” in the worst case). Anyway, we are far less aware of Russian culture than they think they are of ours. Perhaps this is a fault of ours, not caring to know what people do in other cultures, but at least we don’t sit around watching television shows like “Drunk Russians”. Most of the impressions they have of America are from Hollywood movies, which may account for some of what they consider is stupid American behavior. Still, if I judged Russia based on the Russian movie “Gitler Kaput” that I saw last weekend, I would have a pretty bad impression of Russia.
Anyway, I’m pretty tired of being grateful that not all Russians consider me stupid for being an American. There is one question, however, that I’m asked at least three times a week. I always know when it’s coming, because it’s usually after we’ve already discussed “stupid Americans” and because it’s always at the same part of the conversation. The person will get a clever grin on his face, and at this point I know it’s going to happen: “Now we hear about what you learn in history class. Tell me if it is true what they say, that you are taught that America won World War II. The whole world knows that We, Russia won World War II. Do you think you won World War II?” I’ve already been answering this question for a year, and so I’ve gotten used to answering automatically, “Well, you know, we were allies. There were many fronts in the war, and together, with the help of the rest of the allies, we defeated the Germans. You won on your front and we won on ours”. This rarely satisfies them, and I’ve already grown tired of taking the time to explain the whole thing. Now I’ve resorted to a much cleverer answer that someone (I forget who) suggested when we were at the orientation in Kiev. It is simple and I think true. “It is my opinion that in war, nobody wins. Everyone loses”. Really, if you think about it, Russia, more than anyone else, felt the impact of this war. I don’t remember the exact statistics, but unimaginable numbers of Russians died, both at the front and at home (Petersburg Blockade for instance). The war was a tragedy for everyone involved, no matter how you look at it. How they have decided that WWII was a victory for them alone is beyond me. What I remember hearing in school is that the Russians fought the Germans on their front and we on ours. I have heard it speculated that had we not entered the war on our front, Germany would have had an easy time handling the Russians. This, of course, is speculation. If my memory serves me correctly, the Soviets even had a pact with Hitler that Hitler broke when he invaded Russia. I don’t know if Russia would have remained neutral or fought on the side of the Nazis if Hitler hadn’t attacked, but regardless, I don’t think it’s right to consider Russia the solitary victor of WWII. As you can imagine, this question was an unusual one to answer the first time it was asked, and now that I’ve heard it about 20 times, I’m quite tired of being tested to see if I’m stupid enough to doubt that Russia alone won World War II.
Anyway, so now I know that it must become my mission to prove the competence of the American intellect to as many Russians as possible. I’m starting to think I should start watching a little television to find out what else every citizen in Russia is being told about me. Like I said, however, I have yet to meet a Russian who has treated me badly just because I’m an American. I have had an overwhelmingly positive experience here, but I thought it might be appropriate to show everyone what is apparently common knowledge about Americans. Most interesting, however, is the extent to which this interest in the behavior of people in another country is one-sided. Every Russian is filled with ideas about what life in America is like (some of them, as I am explaining, are wildly unfounded), but I think it is fair to say that very few Americans have ever stopped to ask themselves what Russian people are really like, how they live. When Russians ask me what Americans say about them and whether these stereotypes have turned out to be true, it’s always a little uncomfortable. How can you tell them that your people, far from having a lot of negative things to say, don’t really have anything at all to say about them. Which is worse, I don’t really know.
Well that little thought has exhausted itself. Apart from the whole food situation, things are slowly moving into place. I’ve started the rest of my classes this week, the ones at my main department. At first I had a bad feeling about them. I was told that I would merely be reading texts for people to translate. I felt like this was certainly not me and my education being using to the fullest potential. It turns out that so far, these courses have been very interesting. The students are at the 4th level of a department that specializes in languages alone, and so their English is at an incredible level. I have been amazed by how eloquently these students have been discussing politics (the theme for these two weeks). More incredible was the simultaneous translation itself. These students listen to a paragraph of complicated political material at a somewhat normal speed, reflect for a split second, and then proceed to repeat what I say in well-formed, Russian sentences. Their memory and attention to detail amazes me. As in every classroom in Russia, there’s one student who’s at a level twice as advanced as all the rest. This student might not even be paying attention, and yet when another student fumbles with the translation, she chimes in with a verbatim, idiomatic translation, as if she was reading it off the back of her eyelids (I knew she wasn’t, because I brought the article). I was humbled.
Anyway, I think that’s enough for now. Hopefully the excess of this entry makes up for my not having written in quite a while. Be in touch all of you. I really do love hearing from you.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Photo albums for those of you without Facebook

I've found a way to create links to Facebook photo albums, so that those of you without Facebook can see more than I can post on this blog. Here are the links:

I plan to make some more soon!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A couple pictures from a presentation

Hey all,

I've added some pictures that I took a while ago to previous posts, and here I've included some pictures from meetings of the English club at TGU. Enjoy them! Since I last wrote you, I've been to a soccer game, and I've had a few more adventures with Dmitrii Denisovich, who's currently planning to do "remont", that is repairs, to our whole apartment. He's wonderful. He came and fixed our electrical outlet which was slowly burning up the wall, and he stayed for 3 hours, explaining various particularities of Soviet electrical wiring and coming up with a huge plan for suping up our place. He even plans to get us a new cable for the television, so that every kanal will be as clear as "sport". He recommends the educational programming on "culture". I'll take him up on it I think. Things are going well, though. I'm busy as can be.

More soon!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

First Days of Class

So I’m done with my first week of class. The experience varied very much from group to group. So far, all of my students are in the second year, but each group seems to be on a drastically different level as far as English is concerned. Some have been very bashful and timid, too afraid to speak in front of everyone or in front of me. Others have no problem going on endless tangents or grilling me with all sorts of questions. These groups have been a lot of fun.

As of last week I had been given 8 groups, each of whom I see only once every two weeks. They arranged it this way so that as many students as possible could have interactions with a native speaker. I realized what a big deal this is when one student told me after class, “You’re the first foreigner we’ve ever met.” It’s funny, though, ‘cause I seem to be constantly surrounded by foreigners. Anyway, so far I’ve been doing the same class over and over again. My theme for these two weeks is entertainment, and so I just blab on and on about what’s it’s like to entertain yourself as a young person in America. I tell stories from college, show pictures of my friends, and try to draw them into a comparative discussion of American and Russian entertainment. Depending on the group, this can either be all too easy or impossible.

The students are all (mostly) really great. Even those with lower language skills are genuinely interested in hearing what I have to say and listen attentively. I explain to them what it means to be from a suburban area and then from a rural area and talk about what it’s like to try to amuse yourself in a place where there aren’t so many obvious solutions (Gambier). I try to show them that in a rural place like Kenyon, you often resort to more original forms of entertainment. Usually, by the end of the presentation, they’re thoroughly convinced: my friends and I are unusual. They are often amazed that we have the free time to do all of the things we do. Looking back, I’m kind of amazed too. Then again, I think people at Kenyon tend to squeeze as much as possible into every day.

I also gave a talk at the American Center at TGU, the main state university. The topic was liberal arts education in America and student life. For this reason, it was sort of similar to what I have been teaching in class. I explained to them all of the obvious differences between state and private schools, along with a lot of the values and educational ideals emphasized at liberal arts schools. One of the things I try to emphasize is how drastically different it is to live on a small, isolated campus, to be a separate, academically oriented entity. In Russia, most students live with their parents at home, since it would be way to expensive, not to mention difficult to find an apartment. Only students who were raised very far from the city (and I mean very far… many students explained that they live close to the city… just a quick 400 km train ride away) live in dorms. To live on a small campus with everyone you know, a lot of your professors, and everything you need in your daily life is something totally foreign to Russian students. As a result, the experience of studying in an American college is very, very different.

One thing that’s surprised me about teaching in a Russian classroom is the professors. The first part of the surprise is that they sit in and watch me teach the class. At first I was uncomfortable about this, as I didn’t want to have someone watching me do my job and didn’t want to filter what I was going to say, but it turns out that most of these professors are very young. One I know for sure is only a year older than me. They must be encouraged to teach as they are working on their masters and doctorate. I soon became completely comfortable with them in the room, as I realized they are just as genuinely interested in what I have to say as the students. I’ve even started asking them to introduce themselves like the students. They are curious, ask questions, and are just as enthralled as the students. I know at least one of them has recently spent time in America, doing a work and travel program, and she had some interesting stories to share about American entertainment as well.

So far, organization is not something I’ve found to be typical of a Russian university. Half of my classes so far have been in different places than they were supposed to be (as written on my schedule). On top of that, more and more classes seem to be trickling in, as representatives from countless departments all around the campus slowly get their act together and decide it’s time to pencil me in. At first I was disappointed that I had only been given 4 classes a week, but now it’s turning out that I might have way more classes than expected (that is, more than Fulbright recommends). From the way people have been talking, they seem to think that I should have 9, 90-minute classes a week. This wouldn’t be quite so bad if each building wasn’t 20 minutes away from the next. They also all seem to think that it would be most convenient for me if I have 4 back-to-back classes in one day. I wonder, when am I supposed to eat?

Then there’s the whole business with TGU. Fulbrighters are all recommended to volunteer at the local American Center. The AC in Tomsk happens to be affiliated with the TGU library. I have been there a few times, and they are wonderful. It is through Nataliya Nikolaevna at the AC that I went to make shashlyk, that I went bowling, and now, that I have a wonderful apartment (more on this in a bit). I did the presentation at the AC, and it went very well, except that I spoke very quickly (as I always do), and as one friend reports, even some professors didn’t understand what I was saying. Anyway, the English professors there liked my presentation and have decided that I should start teaching classes there too (I heard this first through a student). At the same time, they decide to offer me free Russian classes at the university (an employee at the AC told me about this offer). It turned out though, that as soon as I met with them and agreed to the free classes, they announced their plans for me to begin working at TGU. I was sort of offended. They had devised a plan to trick me into working for them. They said that because of some Fulbright rules, I couldn’t pay for classes and then couldn’t pay me, so in order to return their gracious favor, I should begin teaching classes for them. Apart from my being offended at this underhandedness and, as of that day, already having a packed schedule, Fulbright strongly warns against volunteering to work at different universities. These local universities compete for Fulbrighters. TGU had the Fulbrighter last year, but this year TPU won the bid. TGU was disappointed and now seems to be trying to steal me away. I have a really bad feeling about it.

Apart from this bad feeling, I’m a little anxious about the sort of work I’ve been assigned in these last two days. As of now, I’ve been asked to conduct 4 separate English clubs, three within TPU and one in TGU. On top of that, both universities want separate monthly presentations. One department of TPU (they divide my total number of working as sparsely as they can amongst every conceivable department of this polytechnic university) wants me to teach one class per week, each time with a different group of students, each time at a different location, and each time at a different time. That is going to be a real pain. On top of that, some of what they want me to do is to just read business and technological texts for the students, because they have few opportunities to hear native speakers. Business and technological English are not exactly my cup of tea, and I really feel like, as a recent graduate of literary and philological programs, I have more to offer than the ability to read. Maybe I can just make some recordings of myself and drop off CD. I had been looking forward to my classes at IMOYAK, which I had convinced myself was the most straightforwardly philological department of the polytechnic university. It turns out that most of the classes they want me to teach there are simultaneous translations classes. This means I read a text while Russian students try to translate what I’m saying and their professors correct them. Not exactly fulfilling work. All in all, I am feeling like I have more to offer than tales from my college days and the ability to read English aloud. I’ll give these classes a shot, but I’m a little disappointed.

Okay, I’ll tell you a bit about my apartment, but this entry’s already 3-pages long, single-spaced. So I decided to move in an apartment downtown with a friend from the dorm. He’s from Belgium, but he has a conspicuously Russian name: Dmitrii Voronov. Anyway, we’re renting the place through my friend at the American center, and so we avoided paying an agency. It’s also been great, because this woman already treats me like a son and wants to be sure that we’re nice and comfortable in the apartment. Th apartment would have been too expensive had I not found a roommate, but now it’s quite affordable by American standards. By Russian standards, it’s unheard of that I should have my own apartment, and I’ve heard an earful from about 5 of the employees from the dorm and a few others, about how what I’m paying is more than their monthly salary. It is true, and I feel a little guilty about it, but I’ve decided that it’s worth it to have a more normal, human existence. I want to live here, to have neighbors who aren’t students, to be able to invite people over, to see what real Russian life is like. I realize that real Russian life for a young person does not involve an apartment, but I’ll just pretend that I live with my parents, and that they’re never home. When I’m in the dorm I can’t help but flash back to my college existence, which was nice, but in a way, not the real world. It’s hard to explain. Anyway, I moved. I signed an agreement in technical Russian that I did not understand, by candlelight, in my own, freezing-cold apartment.

What was that last bit you say? Yes, I moved in and the electricity went out. It flickered on and off all day, and then gave out for the night. My landlady and her son came to fix it to no avail. The city hasn’t turned the heating on yet, and so we couldn’t use our freestanding heaters. It was cold. At that moment, signing the incomprehensible contract with the aid of a candle, I had moment of doubt. I had a day-long series of doubts. These were resolved only when my landlady’s mother came over while I was at the university. This aged, venerable Russian babushka instantly figured out the problem and fixed it. She then waited around in my apartment all day for me to come back so she could tell me. What a woman! Pyotr got scolded for being a man and not knowing how to do it.

So now one problem was solved, but we still had now gas for our gas stove (and oh, were we hungry). The landlady called the gas company to come and change the “balon” as it’s called. So me, a Russian friend, Dima the Belgian, and a whole posse of international students anxiously awaited the gas men. Hours later when they hadn’t come, Natalya Nikolaevna (landlady) decided to call in a specialist, her good friend Dmitrii Denisovich. We waited a few more hours, and the Russian Mr. Fixit arrived. We tinkered, prodded, poked, and conjectured, all to no avail. Dmitrii Denisovich made rounds to all the different neighbors, asking them for gas keys or a bigger wrench, interrogating them about their own ovens, polling them about their preference: gas or electric. The results were mixed: some neighbors insisted on upgrading to electric, others still prefer gas. Some had some wrenches, some had deceased grandfather’s who left the gas keys at the dacha. After Dmitrii Denisovich had finished his recon mission, he resumed his battle with the gas tank. Finally he got it loose and tried the reserve tank. It was also empty. He made a big speech in which he insisted that we beg the landlady for an electric oven, and then tried to fix our doorbell, which had been disconnected because of the obnoxious bird sound that it made. It, however, was broken, and Dmitrii Denisovich took it with him to tinker with at home. He left 3 hours later, and though he didn’t fix anything, we were sure glad that he tried. Hopefully we’ll have gas by Monday, or if Dmitrii Denisovich gets his way, maybe we’ll get an electric stove.

Other than these problems, the apartment is great. It’s very old and so it has high, lofted ceilings and is remarkable spacious in comparison with the later Soviet apartments. I have my own room with a beautiful, old, wooden wardrobe. My bed is two beds in one, but isn’t very comfortable. Dima’s room is somewhat smaller, but has the most incredible collection of Russian literature stacked on a shelf that covers an entire wall. SO BEAUTIFUL. I’m planning to raid it all year long. I’ve now done my second load of laundry, and am so happy that I will soon have clean clothes. We do have a general lack of furniture. Dima and I might look into a writing desk and some extra chairs.

Now I will quickly detail two other stories of interest:

1. I missed Russian class, I arrived late and couldn’t find the classroom (it moves every day). I was stressed and hot, and so I took off my sweater and scarf. As I was leaving the building, and oldish, female professor chased me down. “Young man! Young man! Who’s things are those? Where did you get them? Young man! Whose things are those?” She was accusing me of having stolen somebody’s sweater and scarf. I was really not in the mood and couldn’t think of anything clever to say, so I just said “Mine” and sulked away. Thanks lady.

2. I learned of this story way after the fact, but it is surprising and worth telling. It turns out that our French friend Joan (I don’t know how that’s spelled but it’s not Jean, and it’s a boy) was walking at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on the main street, Prospekt of Lenin, on a Sunday. So this is broad daylight on the busiest street in the city. A girl approached him and started asking him questions, where’s he from, etc. I’m guessing she was flirting. Anyway, all of the sudden, five men jump out and beat him up. They stole his passport, his cell phone, all his money, and left him beaten on the street. One man offered to take him in a cab to the police, but it turned out later that this man was with the other assailers. Somehow, thank God, the police call three days later, saying they tracked the girl down, because she had been using his cell phone. They called back an hour later and said that they had recovered the cell phone, his passport, and his wallet, and that they had caught 3 of the men. Apparently, they’re going to be locked up for years. What an experience. This is his first time abroad, and he almost got sent back. All the Russians I know where just as surprised that this happened in broad daylight on the busiest street. They insist that this sort of thing is a rarity in Tomsk. It is a good lesson for us international students though. We had come to understand Tomsk as a safe place, where, unlike Moscow and Petersburg, you don’t really have to worry. We know now that there are always exceptions.

Okay, hate to end on that note, but I really should wrap this up. I swear I’ll get some more pictures up soon.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Life in Russia: A Comprehensive Guide in Dialogues

There are days in Russia when you hear the distant echo of the carefully scrutinized dialogues and situations from your introductory textbook and think, “Wow… it’s a good thing I learned that.

Please act out the following situations in pairs:

1. You have been invited to a restaurant but learn that most of the cafй’s in town are reservation only. You must go to the cafй in advance to reserve a table for two at 6 o’clock. You have heard that you must pay 500 rubles to secure your table. At the restaurant they are amazed by your foreign name and do not remember to ask you for the money.

2. You have just arrived in Russia and need an apartment. You must call the apartment agencies and describe to them the sort of apartment you need, the location, and your ideal price. Be sure to ask how much they charge for the finding fee.

3. Your Russian friend has invited you to go bowling. Ask him for directions on how to get to the alley, and find out how much money you should bring.

These are pretty basic situations for which the textbook prepares you pretty well. There are, however, some unforeseen variation in day-to-day Russian life

4. You have heard about the harsh Russian winter and decided that you need adequate footwear. Your Iranian friend offers to take you to the street market to find a pair of boots. At the market, you are told by the merchant lady that your shoe size does not exist in Russia and that you should settle for something three sizes too small for $100. Also, the only shoes available are shiny, pointed, leather loafers with a thin layer of fuzz inside. What do you do?

5a. You have arranged to meet a representative from the apartment agency at two outside of a potential apartment to take a look. It is a half an hour later and she has not arrived. You call and she instructs you to enter through the locked door and take a look at the place yourself. You see big piles of filth and trash everywhere. Apparently people just dump their trash out the window. You follow and man through the locked door and see a big pile of what appears to be dog feces in front of the first apartment. You hope it’s not yours. You wander the winding, gloomy stone corridors inspecting the addressless, apartment doors, all of which have holes in them, some of which appear to only be fences. You get lost and worry that you’re going to die in this Soviet-era nightmare of an apartment complex. You go back outside and call the representative, who laughs at your and says something about the internet. Eventually she arrives and lets you in. You wonder through a million scenes of lower-class family toil until you reach a shabby looking apartment with nothing in it. Do you want it? No. Neither does the young couple who’s also waiting inside. The owner is disappointed.

5b. You have been offered an apartment by acquaintance from work, outside of an agency. She offers to show you it at 6:30. You are to meet her next to the biggest wooden ruble in the world. She shoes you the place. It’s incredible. Enormous. Clean. Spacious. Washing machine. Incredible view of the most downtown part of the city. Turns out it’s way too expensive. “Maybe you can find a roommate?” she suggests”. In order to give you the chance to think and show any potential roommates, she gives you the key to hold onto for a while. You start to mull over some likely candidate from your foreign friends, because no Russian college students live in their own apartments. Later it turns out that a Belgian named Dima might just take you up on it. But who will sleep on the couch bed in the main room? Also, there is an incredible library with complete collections of many of your favorite authors. Also, the ladies son is the one who took you bowling in dialogue 2, and he takes the key back the next day.

6. You are preparing a presentation at your local American Center, where you have been asked to give lectures from time to time. The topic is American liberal arts colleges and student life. You go eat shashlyk with the son of the person in charge of the American Center and later friend on the Russian friend site. You arrive at the American Center to establish the time of the presentation and learn that somehow the word got out that you were in a rap group in college. They want you to rap at the end of your presentation about liberal arts education. You’re not sure whether hip hop was one of the original liberal arts but figure you’ll do your best. You get nostalgic and poor some out for your hommies back in America.

7. You are invited to a restaurant/bar on a Saturday evening by your international friends. You are denied at one cafй, where it turns out, yes you do need to make reservations. You are an optimistic young foreigner, and you and your cronies decide to try your luck at another cafй. After an endless wait, everyone enjoys one beer. It is 11:30 and you decide you had better leave to make your midnight curfew. Some Germans invite you to go to a club, but you a select crew of goody-two-shoes decide to hike it home. Unfortunately, the bill takes forever and you are delayed 15 minutes. When you finally arrive home, it is 12:15 AM, past your curfew. You, a Belgian, a Swiss girl, and a Korean girl take a collective gulp and ring the buzzer. A stern, old Russian woman bursts out the door spitting condemnatory remarks. You decide to speak on behave of your friends and explain that you do not yet know how long it takes to walk back from the center. You explain the business about the tip. She’s not having it. “You have come to a foreign country to live. There must be order. I’m going to report you to the Rector. Give me your ID’s. Don’t tell me you tried to make it home in time young man, you always say that”. It really is your first time being late. She accuses your terrified Korean friend of smelling of something. You ask what. She says booze and accuses the poor girl of being drunk. You try to explain that you only had one beer each, that the Korean girl only had half of one. Then you decide to cut your losses and head to bed. You wonder what will become of the Germans. Later the Germans knock on your door and invite you to watch crappy American chick flick dubbed into Russian in your room. You figure, “Why not?”

Yes, yes, these are the situations encountered in everyday Russian life. About a year ago I decided I would like to become an editor for foreign-language textbooks for college students. I figure I should start collecting these sort of situations to better prepare America’s future generations of Russian scholars for real life in Russia.

But really, things are going very well here. I’m meeting more and more people. I’m very excited for my first day of teaching tomorrow. I spent all day preparing for my lectures on entertainment in America and for my presentation on liberal arts colleges and rap. For those of you who would know Sombrero Fallout and are in the neighborhood, I’ll be performing the hit single “Pickles” in its entirety at the American Center in the Scientific Library at 34, Prospekt Lenina. It starts at 4:30! Just kidding, I don’t think you’ll be able to make it. But maybe there’ll be pictures all the same!

From a sweaty internet cafe filled with possessed gamers with love,

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Getting down to business

So the last few days have been good! I found a coat, found some more cheap clothes, found my class, found it boring… all important findings. The class really was kind of dull. The first day was really bad: way too many people, the…. professor… was.. talking… like… this, and the material really did seem to be at an intermediate level. I went back today, and it was a little better, so I’m going to go again tomorrow. I might look into switching to a literature class. I am paying after all.

I got my schedule for my English classes, well, half of them, and I start on Monday. From what I gather, I’m just going to be chatting about my experiences in America. When I asked if I’m supposed to give grades or homework, my boss answered, “You are not here to give grades. You are here to give pleasure!” Interesting work!

The international students had a tour of the candy factory, which turned out to be a lot of fun. We had to buy some funny little feet coverings called “bakhili” at the drug store, as well as a bottle of water. The water didn’t make sense to me at first. So we were there with all the international students from Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, China, Vietnam, Korea, etc, and we suited up in little “Red Star” hats and t-shirts. They ran out of shirts, so I got to wear a big doctor’s smock thing. I got to practice some French and German while we were waiting, which was fun, but then the tour guide announced that since not everybody will understand, she would talk less and we would try more candy.

So we proceeded through these dreary, old corridors, and around every corner was a fresh batch of candy to try. They make over 150 types of candy there, including their famous “Bird’s milk”, and they’ve been in business since the 1800’s. Later I asked if it was always called the “Red Star” plant, and of course, it wasn’t. It was originally named after some Polish guy, but after the revolution, when they decided that the best thing to do with orphans was to let them work in the candy factory, the orphans, ripe with socialist fervor, renamed it “Red Star”. So the story goes. Anyway, I soon found out why we needed water. I ran out pretty quickly and was desperately thirst from all the mounds of candy. There’s also a beer factory we might get to tour. Maybe they’ll recommend that we bring some bar snacks. Well, soon the workers had their break and our tour ended. They showed us some top-secret candy from R&D, including various blatant rip offs of American candies, one of which, “SPRINT”, was stolen from Snickers (even the packaging), only with added energy (taurine, etc) to “improve your mood on a cold Siberian day”.

Well that was an adventure. Later that day, the international crowd invited me to dinner at some shabby but cheap place near the river. It was fun to act as a translator from Russian to German, from German to French, and every possible direction in between. Later, they decided to stop into a bar, and it ended up being the funniest little family establishment. The beer was ridiculously cheap, and they were just about the friendliest people you’d ever meet. They were so impressed by their international patrons that they had us all autograph a piece of paper. We chatted for a long time with the barman, then later played “durak” (only Russian card game, thanks Matt for teaching me) with the proprietress (I’m guessing). It’s turning out that my Russian is serving me pretty well! The barman Nikita told me all kinds of stories about his Grandpa the expert hunter of bears and elk. Later he tried to catch me up in an argument about the current political situation, but I deftly navigated myself into a fairly neutral position and assured him that I wanted nothing more than peace and friendship between our countries. I’ve had a little practice with this question, and I’m learning how to answer it! Anyway, it was a great experience, the whole thing, and I left feeling great about my whole situation (experience for the pouring rain).

Today Sveta (as she’s now called) and my boss spent all day helping me in my quest for an apartment. They worked long and hard, calling, discussing, recalling, answering calls. Finally we got to tour a couple of places. The first was incredible, truly surprising, but a little far away. The second was closer and terrible. My boss seemed to think the owner was an alcoholic and got us out as quickly as possible. The last one was also closer and also not great. Tomorrow we’re going to be able to check some more places out, including a couple that are very close. I’m really hoping they’ll be okay. They’re all priced a little higher than I had hoped, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Well, I’m working on my second week here, and things seem to be getting off the ground. For those of you that have been reading, thanks! Hopefully, I’ll be able to do a better job of keeping in touch once I get my own place. We’ll see!

Love ya’,

Monday, September 8, 2008

Goings on

Well, well, well,

So according to my calculations, I’ve been here at least a week. I now know that internet café’s here are sort of like the DMV in America. It’s really too bad that I fiend the net like a наркоман, that my hands start to shake when I haven’t checked my e-mail in 24 hours, and that I’m like a slobbery, wild-eyed puppy who doesn’t know what to focus on when I actually get my hands on the stuff. That said, I’m looking for an apartment for reasons I’ll explain in a bit, and hopefully I can get the net installed there.

I’ve still been doing almost nothing, and yet there’s not enough time in the day. I wake up and make myself a breakfast of bread cheese and sweet little grapes, take a shower, grab my trusty passport pouch, and hit the road. Speaking of my morning routine, I think I’m going to be just about out of laundry in the next two days, so I might have to confront the cruel desk ladies about our laundry room being locked 24/7. My other option is to sneak into the 4th floor laundry room without being seen by the locals who monopolize it.

So, I’ve decided to get serious about my apartment search. The cockroaches keep making suicide dives at my boiling pot of food. It’s not quite as close to the university as I thought. The curfew is strictly enforced, and I even get grilled if I don’t waive my ID in the face of the ladies at the desk. I also learned that there is a no guests ever policy. I would imagine that in the -40 degree weather it will be nice to have a place to entertain company, so as not to spend the winter singing to the cockroaches in the kitchen. Plus, all the Russians on my hall are planning to evacuate the dorm as soon as they pass some English test. It will cost a little more, but I’m ready to be out of the dorm after 4 years of undergrad.

I start Russian classes tomorrow and still haven’t heard much in the way of when I’ll be teaching what. My contact Svetlana, or Sveta, as I’m now allowed to call her, says she’s going to look into the whole teaching thing tomorrow. I’m pretty excited to get started. I tried to find my Russian class in the wrong building, which I suspect was the subject for that one painting where the staircases go up, down, and upside down. Then I tried the right one, but found only a closet where the map of the building said there should be a hallway leading to 5 more classrooms, including my own. Hopefully I’ll find it tomorrow. I’m interested to see how the classes are. They could be either really helpful or a waste of time and money. Judging from the test, they might be kind of a joke.

I’m slowly managing to meet people. The extremely helpful and hospitable lady from the American Center, after having shipped me off on a very interesting tour of their old-book archives, invited me to go with her son and his friends to the river to make shashlyk (shish-kebobs). This is one of the best old Russian traditions, and I had never been invited, so I was pretty excited, and a little worried about having been forced on these people by their mother. Pyotr and his girlfriend Olya, who’ve both been to America (met their in fact) on work and travel trips, were great. We drove out the Ushaika River (Pyotr just got his license after failing it some incredible number of times and paying dearly for each test) and deliberated for about half an hour on how to get the car through the woods to an ideal place. Finally we chose one and started setting up camp, preparing food, lighting the little portable shashlyk grill (Russian starter fluid leaves much to be desired). Their other friends arrived, including Sasha who wants to move to New York and become a teacher or a post man, and we had a good old time. They even toasted to my birthday, which made up for my having spent my birthday night (the night before) alone. After eating the sashlyk, which was delicious, we tried to make a fire. Apparently some wild looking Russian man with an axe helped them find some firewood, and just a few minutes later, he came over with some nervous looking friends and asked for a ride to the hospital. His arm was hanging out of his socket. He took it pretty well. Pyotr came to the rescue, and, much to the chagrin of Olya “They stole the music!” (the car had been blasting Russian pop into the forest, along with a song that plays about once every fifteen minutes here, “I kissed a girl and I liked it!”).

Pyotr came back and the fire finally got going, but only when we dumped a bunch of trash on it. They regretted not having started the fire that way before (to cook the shashlyk) and I suggested that the little shashlyk stands around the city advertise shashlyk “so vkusom musora”, or “with the taste of trash”. This is probably the first joke I have told in Russian that got a real thunderous bout of laughter (all flavors are advertized in Russia as “with the taste of ___”, including “chips with the taste of crab”).

So I got home and was invited by my neighbor Kolya to watch a movie and drink a beer with the whole section (4 rooms). It turned out that it was the new Batman, which I’ve seen quite a few times. I told them I liked it a lot, but they, somehow, all seemed to be bored to tears with it. They also didn’t know it was 2.5 hours long. I tried to point out some of its merits, but they just weren’t having it. I also explained three times that Gotham was not a real city. They did like the parts with lots of action, and expressed their approval with unanimous cheers of “normal’no”, which literally means “normal”. Really though, if you can get a Russian to agree that something is normal, then that’s something, and so all things considered, normal’no would translate better as “INCREDIBLE!”

Unfortunately, I haven’t had too many chances to speak Russian, but I’ve met with Anya, a friend of Megan’s (former ETA in Tomsk) to do a sort of conversation exchange (we talk half the time in English, have the time in Russian). This has been very helpful, and I hope my conversational Russian will start to improve significantly. Anya is from Seversk, which is north of the city and forbidden to anyone who doesn’t live there, because of the nuclear power plants that are there. It’s fenced off and everything. Still, according to Anya, 120,000 people live there. That’s one place I won’t be able to get a tour of.

Welp, it’s 1 AM, and I’m itching to make a good impression in my first class tomorrow, so I’d better be off to bed. Stay tuned for more updates on my quest for a decent apartment and adequate clothing. I’m also embroiled in a failure of a quest for a used bike. We’ll see where that leads.

Love ya’,

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Old news...

I typed this up a few days ago, but troubles with technology through a wrench in my spokes... more to come when I have the time to jot it down!


Thursday was a victory for me. By Wednesday night I had been getting pretty depressed about not knowing anybody, about not being able to speak Russian as well as I would like, about the internet cafй’s having huge lines and hoards of game addicts, and most of all, about the prospect of spending my birthday alone in a foreign country. I had never really thought about what it means to have all your friends with you for your birthday, but now I’m realizing it’s something I really took for granted.

Anyway, today started and ended on a series of good notes. First, I found a bike store and was told that I might find a cheap used bike on the internet. We’ll see about. Then, I finally found the mega-store “Fud-Siti”, which has everything your average American needs to feel at ease (almost). I got some slippers, a rope to hang my laundry on, and something I have been searching for ever since I first tried it last January: a pomegranate. I’m going to save it for my birthday.

Anyway, I came home and napped, woke up, and set off to take my Russian placement test. On the way I found a clothing store that actually sold things at somewhat decent prices (usually, prices here are absolutely outrageous). I’m going to go back for some sweaters and a jacket. I took the test with some German “specialists” and a nice assortment of other foreigners (French, maybe?). I was happy to find that it was a multiple choice test at a low-intermediate level, so I finished it in about 20 minutes, tried to leave, was instructed to sit back down for a reading test, took that, and then proceeded to the oral section. This turned out to be about 4 questions (where are you from, etc), and then I was told I was “free”. Overall, I’m glad to see my education from Kenyon is at least good for taking entrance tests, if nothing else.

Later, Svetlana introduced me to our boss, who seems really young and has a habit of saying “yes?”. After proctoring a test to some girl who wanted to learn English in order to study in Prague, Svetlana suggested showing me the “Lagernyi Sad”, which might translate to “Camp Garden”, but which is actually a gorgeous forest/WW II memorial. On the other side of the forest is one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen. I’ve heard that the city just drops off into wilderness, but this was ridiculous. There’s a practically panoramic view of the river and surrounding country side. You can see for miles and miles. It’s so still that it looks exactly like a life-size landscape portrait. I’ll get a picture to put up here.

Anyway, I came home in a good mood, met a Vietnamese boy in the kitchen, and on my way back, finally met my Russian neighbors. This is my major victory, as I’ve spent the last few nights in my room, listening to their loud gallivanting a carrying-on, desperately lonely and craving any sort of social interacting. They invited me in, and we talked a bunch, in English and in Russian. They answered the enormous list of questions I had about the mysterious goings-on at the dorm, and even told me that there was a decent and super-cheap cafeteria that I should definitely be going to. Also, there’s a ladder to climb onto the second-story balcony. If you don’t know why this is important, than you must not know that there is a 12 am curfew in most Russian dorms.

So we talked a bunch, and eventually it came up that they were all desperately studying to pass this big English exam they all have next Wednesday. They all study at the university of oil or something. Basically, they’re all planning to be rich oil men. I helped them translate 20 wacky Russian sentences about oil, vapor injections, and 3-D modeling into decent English, and realized what a huge task it is going to be to explain a lot of things to my students, especially articles, which seem to be the universal blight of all Russian students. I joked with one guy who was having trouble, that anywhere he sees some open space, he should insert a “the” just to be safe. This reminds me, apparently I’m going to have introductory and intermediate students instead of advanced. It’ll be a fun adventure but not quite as easy as what was already not going to be easy.

All in all, it was a day of small personal break-throughs that amounted to me not having a large break-down. It was also nice to get a couple of calls from Jackie, my parents, and my brother, who’s just arrived to college. So I’ll get by for the time being, even if getting by means eating my birthday pomegranate in the dorm and day-dreaming about landing myself a bicycle.


P.S. I might get to brush up on some German with the specialists. Their English, like every German with whom I’ve spoken English, is impeccable. How do they do it?