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: