24 October 2008

To market, to market

I learn a lot about Russia every day. After all, that's what they pay me to do (by which I mean give me student loans to do). But occasionally I learn something so surprising that I feel the need to share it here. Today was one of those days; in Central Asian history lecture we learned that markets (in the sense of bazaars) didn't really exist in Soviet Russia until the mid-'80's!

This was shocking to me because markets were so much a part of my daily life in Russia. Longtime readers with nothing better to fill their brains with might remember my post about Sportivnaya market in Vladivostok; I'm pretty sure I also mentioned, at some point, the ever-changing bounty of local fruit at Taganrog's central market. I used grocery stores, too, but markets were my go-to place for almost everything from twine to cabbages to houseplants. My Russian friends encouraged market shopping, and most of them had their own particular market skill sets and habits. It never occurred to me that all of that sprung up (or was revived) just in the last 20 years.

(Geeky note: markets appeared in Soviet Central Asia, which had a more ingrained bazaar tradition and was also farther from the watchful eye of Moscow, much earlier, pretty much in the '60's when the Soviet agricultural program really tanked and the state started giving out private plots of land (dacha land) for independent subsistence agriculture.)

04 October 2008

Monk Sighting!

Remember my fascination with Orthodox monks? Well, I came across the link to a story about one today:
Wall Street Trader Becomes a Monk.

Putting salvation aside and looking at it from a purely secular/selfish standpoint, I think he made the right choice. I've never heard anything good about the lives of investment bankers and Wall Street types (well, except that they make a ton of money), but living in a 12th-century monastery and tending to a herd of cheese-producing buffalo sounds awesome. Smelly, yes, but awesome.

(P.S. - I notice he let them photograph him.)

26 September 2008

Things I Lost and Am Finding Again: My Native Tongue

Preparing to come home from Russia, I was in a mood to focus largely on the things I was going to lose upon leaving. Unsurprising. But once I got here, I was taken by surprise in rediscovering things I had lost by leaving the U.S. and am now regaining.

I was afraid that coming back to the U.S. would mean losing my Russian self and everything I had gained while I was there, reverting to being the same person I was two years ago when I set off. That, of course, didn't happen; experience has left its mark on me, and being in the U.S. doesn't erase that. Instead, it lets me keep what I've found and pick up the pieces I shed when I left. There were aspects of my personality, it turns out, that really did get lost in Russia.

One of those aspects was language. In Russia, I began to lose hold of the ways I define myself through language. I'm not a particularly eloquent speaker, but I'm a linguistic creature nonetheless. I really enjoy playing with language, appropriating language, observing the way my lexicon and manner of speaking changes depending on who I'm talking to, crafting written sentences to convey what I mean in the loveliest way possible. Speaking Russian all the time and speaking English primarily to non-native speakers really ties your hands linguistically. My Russian is not as expressive or varied as my English, and my English-to-Russians is not as expressive or varied as my English-to-Americans. Of course, I had my (few) American friends and this blog, but I was still speaking "as myself" in English much, much less than I do every day here.

I bet that's one of the reasons Seth and I were good friends (or much better friends, anyway, than two such different people would likely have been if we had met in the U.S.); we could talk to each other in a way that we couldn't really talk to anyone else. Usually that phrase is code for "we could divulge all our secrets and hopes and fears to each other," but here I actually mean it literally. We could bring out our full lexicon, constructions, mannerisms, humor, intonation, slang, cultural references – in short, all the tools in our linguistic toolbelts - and know we were being understood.

(Seth and I had different approaches to how we used English with Russians; from what I saw of his interactions with them, he kept on using those tools even when he wasn't understood, while I used a kind of pruned-back, twiggy English, shorn of markers of my unique idiolect. I can't say which approach is better, really, although I'm inclined to say that I went too far.)

Anyway, I've been generally dazzled by how bright, deep and complex the linguistic milieu is in my native land. I get to use all the tools in my toolbelt all the time now, and (to mix metaphors) my serves are almost always returned. I now draw immense pleasure from things like writing academic papers and from the way conversation flows in a group of people. I miss speaking Russian - sometimes a little, sometimes a lot - but I'm pleasantly surprised by how much donning my native language makes me feel like I'm in my own skin again.

25 September 2008

Guilt/nostalgia post

I feel really bad all of a sudden that I've just abandoned this blog. It would be nice to continue writing, but I'm not sure how realistic that is, since life is very busy at the moment. On the one hand, I'm sure I could make myself write something a couple of times a month, at least until I run out of backlogged stuff to say about Russia. On the other, I dislike infrequently-updated blogs as a matter of principle, and I don't particularly want to be the owner of one.

But then again, that sentiment itself is a bit outdated, since I appear to be the only person left in the world who checks the blogs she follows by clicking on them one by one from a bookmarked list. If my updates are fed directly to you by RSS (I'll come clean - I don't even know what RSS is. Yeah, I'll read about it sometime, but not until I'm done reading about Turkistan in 1916), why's it matter if I hardly ever update?

31 August 2008

Free time po-russki and po-amerikanski

This is, perhaps, the first in a series of posts on what it's been like to come back to the U.S.

The nice thing about hanging out with my Russian friends is that we never got smashed. We drank, of course, but getting falling-down drunk was never the goal. This might be surprising to Americans who think of Russians as big drinkers. There certainly is a widespread and firmly entrenched culture of drinking in Russia, but the flip-side of the country's huge alcohol problem is that there's also a pretty strong stigma attached to overdrinking, especially among members of the intellectual classes, and particularly the younger generations. I knew several young Russian guys who just didn't drink at all. When you're constantly seeing how it ruins people's lives, I guess that's a logical choice to make. (I'm not saying this to contrast with the crazy, drunken crowd I run with in the U.S., since I don't, really - but U.S. college/young adult drinking culture is disturbing, and it's nice that it's not really there in Russia.)

The other nice thing about my Russian friends is that hanging out didn't usually involve spending a lot of money. I can count the number of times I went out to restaurants with Russians on the fingers of one hand. The same for clubs, although that's partly just because I don't really like clubbing. (But even most Russians who like to go out dancing only do it occasionally, because it is expensive.) Russians hang out at each other's homes, and whenever the weather's good, they walk around. It now seems completely natural to me to just meet up with friends and wander aimlessly around streets, parks and beaches; it's weird to think that Americans just don't do that, and that *I* never did that before a couple of years ago.

On the other hand, the nice thing about being with American friends again is that Americans tend to have much fuller social calendars than Russians do. To be fair, this could be partly because I'm in a big city, while I was in the provinces in Russia. But Americans seem to like to have some kind of scheduled social event (lunch with a friend, drinks after work, a concert, a play, a museum, a cookout, the zoo...) practically every day, and certainly every weekend. I had forgotten about that. It's a bit overwhelming, in a way, but also really fun.