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?

Saturday, September 6, 2008


I typed something for you all and put it on my Flash Drive, but it seems to have disappeared, so I'm going to try to find it when I get home. Eeks! The theme of the post was having a great day, so you can try to imagine what that might entail until I tell you.

Missed you all on my birthday!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

From Tomsk

Well I made it in on Sunday. Svetlana from the department was there at the airport to meet me (bright and early) and had a cab drop me off at my dorm. The dorm is for foreigners, is about 10 stories tall, and is pretty luxurious as far as Russian dorms go. I have a fridge, a microwave, a tv, some shelves, a desk, and sheets that almost cover the bed that I can almost fit on. I have a little subdivision «Секция» where 3 or 5 other people live (I can’t decide), all of whom speak Russian way better than me. For some reason I have feeling way too shy to talk to talk to anyone around the dorm, but maybe eventually I’ll make some friends. I asked this administrative lady at the university about the cockroaches in the kitchen, and she said it was because of the Chinese students. My eyes bulged and she apologized and said that they make a lot of food and leave it out.

Anyway, so I passed out for 7 hours and when I woke up, I realized I had nothing I needed to survive: no food, no towel, no soap, no utensils, no plates, no card for my phone… I could go on and on. Anyway, I went out to see the city and try to track down the things I needed to get me through the night. My host contact Svetlana, who, by the way, speaks great English, was skeptical about my being able to find a SIM-card for my phone, which surprised me (since they’re sold on every corner in every Russian city I’ve ever been in), but I found a million stores selling them. I had to go back to my dorm before I could actually get one, since I didn’t remember my address. I wandered around tracking down the necessities: a plate, a bowl, a mug, a fork, a spoon (I later accidentally threw the utensils down the trash shoot and had to go find new ones). Yesterday I even got a pot and a pan to make pelmeni and who knows what else in the future.

The city is pretty gorgeous as you can no doubt tell from the pictures. Coming in from the airport the landscape changes from deserted wilderness (dark, dark forests) to large city in a matter of seconds. Still, even in the city there’s lots of vegetation and plenty of parks that look as dense as the forest surrounding it. When I first set off into the city it seemed a little desolate, but then I wandered over towards the main drag (the Prospekt of Lenin) and was amazed at everything that was available. Luckily I had studied a bit of Tomsk geography on the internet before arriving, so I had an easy time of getting around, at least on the main streets. I’ve figured out that the #3 bus gets me everywhere I’ve needed to go so far.

Evidently I’m going to be taking some Russian classes, but not yet, and it’s not really clear when I’ll actually start teaching English (supposedly it can be as late as October), so really, I have nothing to do yet. I’ve gone from buying the bare necessities to starting to consider some clothes that I might need, including new shoes (I’m thinking I need to pointy Russian-man shoes, to fit in), but they don’t have a lot in my size, which, as I learned last summer, is 48. I found a couple of pirated mp3 cd’s (4 bucks for the complete collection of any group you can find). I took home the complete Leningrad and the complete Kino but might go back for Snoop Dog and a few others. I really need to start buying some more substantive food and things to make it with, but finding it for a good price isn’t always easy. In short, I’m still finding my way, but I’m getting very good at spending money.
Today I stopped into the American Center, which is in the middle of the huge library of TGU (the other big university in town), and once I explained my way past the surprisingly formidable security checkpoint, I slowly made my way to the center.

When I introduced myself as the new American in town, I got the whole she-bang. The lady explained all about the center and told all kinds of stories about Megan, the former Fulbright ETA who evidently made a pretty big impression on everyone here. She showed me their video collection, which I think will come in handy, and let me browse their American literature section. She then insisted on showing me all the reading rooms in the building, setting up a tour of the historical books for me, showing me the section on Russian art, and getting me a little pass so I can come back. It was nice to get to see what seems to be a pretty great resource, but I was detained so long that I was late in meeting Svetlana to go get my registration.
When I got there she was talking to the French “Specialist”. I forgot to say that my official title here is “Specialist”. Not bad. I think I’ll get it put on my “Vizitka” (business card, if only I could see Anatolii the doctor with that kind of vizitka to give out!). Anyway, I confused the French girl for a Russian student, because she was speaking in English me. Oh well!

I got my passport , migration card, and brand-new registration from a lady at the university and now can say that I officially exist in the Russian Federation. Great!

Well, I’m going to crack open one of the books I just got at «Академкнига» and round myself up some dinner. I’ll post this whenever I get my hands on some internet. Enjoy the pictures. I will have included a few from Moscow and a few from Tomsk. I’m going to try to find a good place to post more than 5 pictures at a time for you all to admire.

That’s all for now,