Saturday, August 30, 2008

I love Russia!

It worked! I got the money back! It was waiting for me at the desk. I'm so happy, so enamored with the Russian people! I really can't believe my luck!

Lesson learned


So I’ve had some adventures in Moscow. On our first day we went to the Embassy and met with a lot of advisors and representatives of various departments, which, apart from being very tiring after a night of train-travel, was pretty interesting. The US Ambassador’s wife even approached us (she, a former Fulbrighter) and invited us to “the residence” at some point. We hear d a lot of interesting things from various briefings and left in a bit of a daze.

That night I met Zeke, an old friend my summer abroad in Petersburg. He has been working for the Moscow times this past year and it was great to catch up. The next day we stopped into the American center and then to the Fulbright office. We took care of some official business and then were set loose into the city. I desperately needed to exchange some money (I was told to bring a lot of cash and so needed to change it all to Rubles eventually). I was nervous about the street exchanges, but heard you don’t have to pay as big of fees as at a bank, so after visiting Red Square and wandering towards Arbat with some friends, I finally chose a decent looking exchange with a door for security and a good rate.

I had calculated how much I should get in exchange for $1,300 (31,850 Rubles) and thought I was in good shape. The lady told me that amount, counted out the 850, and pulled the rest out of the machine. I, stupidly, was afraid to stay in the little room too long and get scolded, so I went back outside and put of counting my money until later. Also, I didn’t get a receipt and didn’t think about it until later. I enjoyed a nice afternoon and some shuarma on Novyi Arbat and went home with a sense of achievement (having exchanged my currency).

After folding some laundry, I remembered to count the money I had gotten, and much to my surprise, I was 5,000 Rubles short. That’s $205. As you can imagine, I went into shock. How stupid of me not to have counted the money, not to have asked for a receipt. I have an obvious accent and a foreign look. It would be so easy to rip me off. If I had noticed that I’d been short-changed, she could have apologized and given me the right amount, otherwise, I have no proof, the police would do nothing, and she’d walk away with $200. I was an idiot. I eventually found some friends to consult. Everyone agreed, the situation was grim. I could go to the police and maybe get a passport check and pay a bribe to get my documents back. I could go back to the lady and be sworn at to no avail. Basically, I had no options. Finally, I decided to go ask the ladies at the hotel desk for advice.

They were wonderful. They heard me out, asked for all the financial details, explained that nobody should ever go to an exchange in an underground tunnel (banks charge fees, but are secure and give receipts)… they told me that yes, going to the police would be useless. Finally, they said that my once chance was to go back and hope that it was an honest person making an honest mistake, and that she’d rectify it. Even then, I had no proof. The situation was pretty hopeless. Nonetheless, they recommended that I try, and even reminded me of the word for “receipt”, which any native-English speaker might forget in favor of a word that means “recipe” or “prescription”, none of which would have helped me. When they asked where in Russia I was headed and heard Tomsk, they smiled sweetly and promised that nothing like this would ever happen in Tomsk. This warmed my heart greatly.

Finally, I asked some friends, and they agreed to accompany me for courage. I decided that the reason I was in this mess was that I was too afraid to talk to people, too afraid to say that I needed a minute to count my money. This was a lesson I needed to learn. Talking to the hotel ladies gave me the confidence I needed to realize that I can speak some Russian, that I can express myself, and that the only way to thrive in another country is to have what it takes to actually talk to people.

With my friends’ help I prepared some tactics. I’d appeal to her as if I assumed it was a mistake, say that I am sure she is an honest person, that I was foolish not to have counted, that I certainly had no evidence, and that I really just wanted to make sure there was no way to settle things. We, my friends, the ladies, at the desk, and I, were all sure, however, that I had been had, that I was a stupid foreigner in a wild metropolis, and that I had walked into an obvious trap.

I buzzed at the door and was allowed in. “Were you working here at 5?” I asked. “Yeah, so? She answered, pretty hostilely. “Do you remember me?” “No, can I help you?” I fumbled, “I know people make mistakes, everyone makes mistakes.” She looked puzzled. “I came in here and gave you $1300. You should have given me…” I really started to fumble. I was nervous, forgot numbers, stuttered, apologized. Finally, she realized I was really worked up, calmed me down, and asked me to explain. I did and she did the calculations, figured out how much I should have received and how much I did. It all added up. I didn’t know what would happen.

To my amazement, I started to sense real sympathy. This person I took for a swindler really felt for me. She said there couldn’t have been a mistake, that the machine counted the money, etc. Finally, she asked me to come back the next day. I told her I was leaving for Tomsk and that I might not be able to. I asked what she could do tomorrow that she couldn’t now. She explained that she could call the bank and find out if there was a problem with the numbers, and if there was, give me the money the next day. When I told her it’d be hard to make it, she got agitated, begged me to understand that she was also in a bind, that it was a legal issue and so on. I understood that she really wanted to make things right. Eventually she called her boss, explained the situation, and when told that she couldn’t just hand out $5,000 Rubles, pleaded that he understand that I was on my way out of the city and couldn’t come back. Nothing came of the phone call, and we started talking again.

I told her I could try to come back, and she said that I absolutely need to, that she would be there, and that she would look into it for me.

I was amazed. I came there feeling cheated, feeling disillusioned with the country I had devoted so much time and energy into studying, feeling like I wanted to at least vent my frustrations on this lady in a perexod ( can’t really translate). What I found was a real person, sympathetic, caring, real. I really believe her. If she had really taken my money and faked that performance, then she is a talented enough actress to deserve it. I’m going to go back tomorrow, and maybe somehow I’ll get my money back. If not, I don’t even think I’ll be that upset. If nothing else I have a renewed faith in people, in the Russian people, in everything I thought I loved about this country. If nothing else I learned that to get by here, to learn anything, I’m going to have to stop being so nervous and self-conscious and actually talk to people. That’s what I’m here for, after all. If nothing else, I have at least a little bit of renewed faith in myself (obvious counting blunder aside), that I have managed to pick up a bit of Russian in the last few years.

We’ll see what happens tomorrow. Regardless, I have an expensive cab-ride to the airport at 7:30, and my flight to Siberia leaves just before midnight. Despite the stress of this misadventure, I’m really excited to finally get to see my home for a year.

More to come,


PS, I've posted some more pictures from Kiev

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Hello again,

We've been pretty busy, and I haven't had much time to update. I just got to Moscow after a 13 hr train ride with a character names Anatolii about whom I'll tell you in a bit. Kiev was beautiful and the people were great. We didn't see a whole lot of it, since we were busy and only really knew the main streets. We left and, sadly, said goodbye to about half our ETA's, who are stuck in a plush Kiev apartment (or flying back to the US, as the case may be) because of visa troubles. I'm going to miss some new friends a lot, but I'll see 'em in Moscow in January, if not sooner.

So the man in the train...

Before we set off, a very drunk man hugged our director and said something to him. As I was getting on, our director warned me to avoid the creepy guy who he had been talking to. As luck would have it, he was in my cabin.

He was pretty drunk. He shoed the mother and daughter out of the cabin so he could change into his shorts and, as I found out, so we could drink some vodka. He was too drunk to fold his pants or find his shorts. He forced tons of food on me, including some delicious pirozhki with berries and an ernormous, nasty tomato that exploded onto my pants and stained them. The mother was (with good reason) noticeably concerned for her daughter's safety. The daughter was cute and seemed used to dealing with characters like this guy.

So after he had fed me and forced a few shots of vodka down my throat, he pulled me aside to watch the sunset and talk about the universality of love and people, how there should be no boarders, how we should all live together in harmony, because people were all the same everywhere. It was a nice speech and I agreed. He wished God to be with me (as a doctor, he specified) about 20 times. He couldn't remember my name and wanted my business card. I didn't have one so I wrote my name on a napkin for him a couple hours later. He was either too drunk to read or couldn't, so the lady had to fill out his migration card for him and I had to write down his name and phone number when he wanted me to have it (in case I got sick, he swears he's a doctor (not a vrach, the Russian word for a doctor). He claims to have treated Pope John Paul the II's best friend and that he was going to treat the Pope, but that he died before he could. He says he didn't want to make a bad impression, but that he would sober up and be a real doctor again when he got to Moscow.

When I told him about my Ukrainian great-grand-father, he said he real relatives came from Kazahkstahn. I thought he was calling me a liar, but apparently there was a big migration a long time ago. He also read my fortune and said that two girls have deceived me (been unfaithful). Interesting news!

Anyway, it was a long and interesting train ride. He laughed, told stories of friends, cried (really), apologized to the girl for crying. He said this was him being weak, that he had a lot of pain in his soul, but that he used to be a strong man, used to read, write poetry, stuy karate, play instruments, all sorts of things. All in all, it was an interesting experience, pretty sad, but altogether telling. He was really a kind old man, full of good intentions and love for his fellow man. I don't know that I'll be calling him up, however.

That's all for now. I leave for Tomsk on Saturday night. More stories to come!


Friday, August 22, 2008

More tank pictures...

Tank demonstrations escalate. These have nothing on the videos Becca took of Tanks rolling by at night. A parade of increasingly enormous vehicles and missiles. We'll see what happens on Independence Day on Sunday

Thursday, August 21, 2008

(more pictures)

Live from Kiev

Hello all,

I've been in Kiev for a few days and have finally gotten some reliable internet. The city is gorgeous, and the people, for the most part are especially friendly. We've seen a little recreation of a traditional Ukrainian village that was interesting. Since my great-grandfather moved from a village probably not-unlike this one, I felt a sort of connection (maybe phony) to the area, and it was neat to imagine that it was somehow akin to my "rodina".

On the second night we made a picnic in this little park between two streets, bread, cheese, and beers. An ETA brought his banjo and, to our luck, we lured ourselves a real, live Ukrainian guy named Sasha. He ended up staying for about 4 hours, and we had some great conversation. I was glad to see that my conversation skills aren't as rusty as I had feared, and was, with a few exceptions, happy to find this Ukrainian to a friendly, enthusiastic, and pleasant person.

Fast forward through some classes and adventures with vicious mosquitoes, street noise, a broken AC, and late-insomnia, and I'll tell you about yesterday afternoon and evening. We took the metro to a tourist market (about ten cents a ride, wow), and walked up a pretty hill to inspect their collections of dolls, rusty rubbish, thimbles, and traditional wooden maces. I wanted to grab some Ukrainian memorabilia for my dad, but my luggage is exactly at the max of 20 kg for domestic flights, and so I cannot afford to accumulate anything. We saw some beautiful churches, a neat tram, and then stopped into the local MAKDONALDS for a shake. A beggar girl with cheeseburger in hand asked for some cash, and our friend hooked her up with an American dollar. She said "PHFLANKS" in English, cheeseburger flying forth from her mouth, and returned minutes later with a milkshake. Talk amongst yourselves.

I was luck enough to meet up with a friend who had been teaching English for a year, along with another American teacher and 3 of his Ukrainian students. It was a whole lot of fun, and I even got some good insight into what teaching English in Russia is probably going to be like. I hope to meet up with the friend again, and maybe even get a picture to show our mutual friend back home (Emily Whalen, if you happen to be reading this).

We had some homework for today and have been examining some fine ESL materials all day long, and now we're free to blog, facebook, and get some grub. Becca Dash, a Kenyon grad, is in charge of the orientation and is pencilling in a dinner with me (things are not going well with visa's and everyone's got a lot of stress to deal with). It turns out that the new officer in charge of Russian Fulbright's is another Kenyon grad from '95 or so. Small world.

Anyway, I'm going to check into putting some pictures up here. If not, there should be some on facebook. More to come.