27 September 2006

In over my head...

I just had my second balalaika lesson. It went alright in general, but near the end of the lesson, disaster (?) struck. Bear in mind that this whole conversation is in Russian; my teacher, Natasha, doesn't speak any English.

N: So, are you in Vladivostok to study Russian?
L: No, no, I'm an English teacher.
N: Oh, I see.
Her eyes start to twinkle. She glances over at her son, a boy of about seven who she brings to the lessons for reasons I don't entirely understand.
N: Say, I have an idea. How about instead of you paying me money for the lessons, I can teach you balalaika, and you can teach Slava English?

I swear, in that moment, my life flashed before my eyes.

I don't consider myself a pushover (note: I readily admit there might be a bit of delusion in my self-perception), but I often find that in Russian, my hands (and tongue) are tied. I could think of a million reasons why this type of in-kind payment is a bad idea: I have virtually no pedagogical training and the training I do have has nothing to do with little kids; if Natasha isn't satisfied with my teaching - or if I decide I don't want to teach the kid but do want to keep learning the balalaika - the situation could get awkward very quickly; planning lessons is very time-consuming; I'm not sure how this kind of work jives with my grant agreement; etc. Unfortunately, I was struck more or less dumb - not exactly because I can't say these things in Russian, but just because it seems the combination of (awkward situation) + (foreign language) leaves me unable to function normally. Someday maybe I'll tell you about Djanik, the guy I met in the grocery store who ended up professing his undying love for me via text-message. But that's another story; the sum of today's story is that I'm teaching Slava his first English lesson next Wednesday and all I can do is laugh at myself and pray that it all turns out ok.

Something good did come out of the lesson, though: Natasha and I picked out a song for me to study, and the first one she suggested was the TETRIS THEME SONG. If any of you know how much I love Tetris, you will realize how exciting this is for me.

24 September 2006

Last (Moscow) Picture Post

Sadly, we’ve come to the end of the Moscow pictures. But on my list of goals for October is a photo tour of Vladivostok, so hopefully I’ll be getting out with my camera for a few hours one of these days and can show you the results.

Anyway, these pictures are from when four of us went to VVTs (ВВЦ – Всероссийский Выставкий(?) Центр), the All-Russia Exhibition Center. VVTs is basically a huge fairground. It was built in Soviet times, and it consists of a big midway that's surrounded by seventy 'pavilions' (they looked more like 'buildings' to me) that represent all the ethnicities and nationalities of the Soviet Union. So there's a Karelian pavilion, an Armenian pavilion, a Georgian pavilion, a Buryat pavilion, and many others. The center now houses all sorts of exhibitions – on the schedule I saw, there was a teen fashion show and a home and garden show coming up – and it's also generally a good place to walk (or rent rollerblades), eat at outdoor cafes, do a little shopping (at least a few of the pavilions now have stores in them), ride carnival rides, and enjoy the sights. The pictures really explain it better than I can.

First, here's the entrance. Notice the crowning glory: members of the victorious proletariat holding up a sheaf of wheat from the Soviet Union's bounteous fields. Hooray!
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Second (although actually this is before the entrance), a monument to Soviet aerospace achievements. It's really tall and shiny. At the bottom, there's a mural of all the people – from signal operators to engineers to astronauts to Lenin – who made space flight possible. There's also a lot of grafitti. I guess not everyone's into aerospace achievements.
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I don't know who this guy is, but he seems to be enjoying the view.
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This is the golden fountain of women of different nationalities (all in traditional garb).
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Look, ma, I'm a pilot! There was an old Aeroflot plane there that you could go in and explore. You could even walk out on the wings. My comrades (who were lucky enough to not have to fly to their host cities like I did) made a lot of jokes about how it was the only time you'd catch them on a Russian domestic carrier, how it was probably the safest plane in Russia, etc. Har har.
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There was also a rocket ship! You weren't supposed to explore this one, but one member of our group who shall remain nameless scaled the support beams and explored it anyway, with a group of young Russian dudes. Then the cops drove by and we had to lay low. Then we met a Russian guy, and we all went on the Ferris wheel. The view there was nice, but unfortunately the glare on the windows prevented good pictures.
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Obligatory 'art photo' - A rocket, a plane, a bike.
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One last picture: some army guys feeding the pigeons outside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. It would have been even better if the shot had included the monk who was also photographing the soldiers. But maybe it's for the better – he probably would have yelled at me.
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21 September 2006

What do you do with a drunken sailor?

The answer is "schmooze," at least some of the time. A Navy ship, the USS Chancellorsville, is here for the week, and being government-sponsored if not exactly government-employed, L and I were invited to a reception on deck for consulate people and important Russians (and also, incidentally, several of my students, who were serving as student-interpreters for the sailors). We both almost fainted with joy when we saw the:

1. Mozzarella sticks,
2. Chocolate chip cookies, and
3. Open bar,

although we lamented the fact that the ship didn't turn up in November or so, when we're REALLY missing all the unhealthy American food you can't get here. But hopefully the pint(s) of Guinness and multiple types of fried appetizers I sampled will hold me over until Christmas. I smuggled several cookies home in my purse. :)

Anyway, the sailors were all really drunk by the end (and some unfortunate guys who had had lunch on a Russian ship were drunk even at the beginning, having apparently ingested about a liter of vodka each). All I can say is that so far, Russian men are truly no match for American sailors in terms of sketchiness. Even the captain was drunk (and behaving in a very drunken manner)! But to their credit, most of them were really quite nice, and I even got a mini-tour of the ship. I just hope my poor students were able to resist their romantic advances - they (my students) don't do much to dispell the myth that all Russian women are blonde and beautiful, which is perhaps not an advantage in the company of sailors.

17 September 2006

"He was my first love, but we split up because he was a gold digger."

So, it’s been a while. It’s been a busy week for me – my first week teaching! – and internet complications (as in, sometimes it doesn’t work, even at the internet café) made it even harder for me to find the time, energy and money to get online. So now that it’s finally the weekend, here’s an update!

1. Teaching. It’s hard. I like it and am especially excited about getting to know my students better, but it’s more stressful and wearing than I expected. I’m teaching fourth-year students, which is not what I expected, so it’s more difficult to feel like our class time is really valuable to them than it would be if they were beginners or intermediate-level students. I think I had this idealistic vision that after every class I would walk away feeling like I had done a lot to improve my students’ ability to speak English. That’s not really how it works – partly because they’re so advanced already, and I think partly because that’s just not how it ever works – and that’s hard to adjust to. Other challenges are feeling out exactly what my role is, as an “authority figure” who’s so obviously almost the same age as my students (most are 20 or 21); and just getting used to being on the other side of the teacher’s desk. For example, silences that I would likely have just accepted or ignored as a student now seem deafening and awkward and a problem that is a) my fault and b) my job to fix. Whew. I’m guessing I’ll get better at this at some point.

2. Q: How is living in the university dorm in present-day Vladivostok like living in “Little House in the Taiga?”
A: There’s no hot water! And there won’t be until October, because the city shuts it off in the summer to conserve energy. So I take pioneer-style baths that involve boiling a lot of water pot by pot and filling a small tub with it, then using my sole saucepan to pour water from the tub onto myself. The only difference is that the tub is Rubbermaid and the water gets boiled in an electric kettle. And Maw and Paw and Laura and Mary and baby Jack don’t all have to share the water.

The tub does triple duty as my bath reservoir, dishpan and laundry tub. Yesterday the following exchange took place:
Anya, pointing to a bath pouf floating with the dirty pots and pans: Is that for the dishes?
Leslie: Oh, no, that’s my bath pouf. I wonder how it got in the dishwasher?
Anya says this is an indication that I have the right attitude about life in Russia.

3. On Wednesday there was a ‘holiday’ for all the foreign students and teachers at DVGU. It was the most amazing, hilarious, touching, totally Russian thing I’ve ever seen. They herded us all into this auditorium and kicked off the celebration with the playing of the international students’ anthem (Gaudeamus Igitur – ring any bells, Yalies?), followed by speeches from the director of the International Department, the rector of the university, the director of the Oriental Institute, the director of the Russian School, and other luminaries. Each one gushed about how great it was to have foreigners here and how welcome we were, etc., but the best part was the bizarre cross between fanfare music and lounge music that literally blared from the speakers as each person entered and left the stage. That and the fact that the vast majority of people in the auditorium had no idea what any of the speeches were about, because so many are beginning Russian students.
After that, we were treated to performances by a Russian folk dance group and a group of folk singers, all DVGU students. It rapidly became apparent that these were only the opening acts to a full-blown variety show that ended up including dance troupes in white bodysuits, Mardi Gras/Vegas dancer dresses and Tarzan attire, singing groups in sailor outfits (two), songs in English and Chinese as well as Russian, an accordion performance, and this incredible jump-rope dance troupe whose performance was worthy of America’s Got Talent. (Any Slavs reading this? The girls yikked as they jumped.) The show culminated in a stirring rendition of the DVGU student song, Я иду в ДВГУ. ("I go to DVGU.") To call this song godawful would be to give it too much credit; it was the cheesiest, peppiest, poppiest, most canned-sounding jingle I've ever heard. In short, AMAZING. I've decided to learn all the words; for now, I just go around singing ДВГУ, ты просто класс! and ДВГУ, ты лучше всех! under my breath. ("DVGU, you're just so cool!" and "DVGU, you're the best of all!") If you ask me, Yale could use a few songs like that.

4. News in brief: I got the package of books my mom sent me (along with a birthday card from Doug – thanks, Doug!) and much excited squealing ensued over the fact that there was a cookbook in it. We made banana-nut pancakes last night in celebration. This week a Navy ship is visiting V-stok, and L and I get to go to a fancy consulate reception on deck and participate in the Navy volunteer project at a local children’s hospital alongside the sailors. I’m considering volunteering as an English teacher at an adult-education program at the local Catholic church. I’m starting balalaika lessons on Wednesday. I met a Russian girl who studied abroad in Mt. Gilead, Ohio during high school. Next Saturday we might go to a kindergarten with Anya and play with kids and teach them English. I’m coming home for Christmas.

Yep, I think that’s all for now. Oh! One more thing. I now have an address. It’s more practical to send letters to me directly than to the State Dept., so if you want to send stuff, email me and I’ll give you the details.


PS - The title of this post is a line from a dialogue written by one of my students after we learned new vocabulary in the "American Dating and Romance" lesson.
PPS - There's another new post! Keep scrolling down. I actually wrote it almost a week ago, but couldn't get it posted until today. Enjoy the pictures!

12 September 2006

Picture Post 2!

Here are some pictures of the famed Novodevichy convent (famous at least because it’s where the nun yelled at me):
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And here are some pictures of the legitimately-famous-but-completely-underwhelming Moscow Kremlin. Cannons commemorating the victory over Napoleon:
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A view of the steeple with the star on it (it’s famous here, but I can’t remember whether it is in the US):
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And the tsar’s cannon, which is HUGE:
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And, for fun, here’s a picture of the trolleybus we rode for an hour or more. Moscow is laid out as a series of nested rings, and one of these – the Garden Ring (which has no gardens, by the way) is now a major thoroughfare. One very hot day in early August, four of us decided that taking a trolleybus around the Garden Ring would be a good way to see the city. It wasn’t. It was just hot and slow. We did get to see a few of Stalin’s Seven Sisters (huge Gothic skyscrapers built in the ‘50’s – some of the most menacing-looking buildings I’ve ever seen, which I guess is suitable for something Stalin thought up), but overall it wasn’t worth it, and we jumped ship two-thirds of the way around the Ring. One of the Seven Sisters is in the background of this picture:
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07 September 2006

Picture post!

Picture post!!!

Since I’ve finally found an internet center that allows me to use my flash card, I have Moscow pictures to show you! There are quite a few, so I’ll do it in a few different posts. Today I’ll show you my pictures from our trip to Yaroslavl, Kostroma and Ples, even though that was actually at the end of our time in Moscow.

First, a somewhat hazy view of the Volga:
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This little spit of land was somehow important to the city, so there are fountains there, which you can see, and 996 – Yaroslavl’s age – spelled out in flowers, which you can’t see.

Now some cupolas! No old Russian city is complete without cupolas.
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Here’s me in the bell tower of the monastery with some different cupolas.
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It’s hard to see in this small picture, but the thing on top of the spire is a bear with an axe, the symbol of Yaroslavl.
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And here’s the same tower viewed through a window in the bell tower.
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It was Kostroma’s “city day,” a holiday celebrating the founding of the city. There was a concert and fireworks and stuff, and I came across these little guys (presumably out for the festivities?) in the park.
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Lenin looks more like Lenin than I look like Lenin (I think that’s a good thing). This monument has a funny history: it was started in 1914 as a monument to the tsars, but then WWI came along and work was halted. After the war came the revolution, of course, and there was no longer any need for a monument to the tsars. The half-finished monument sat around for several years more until Lenin croaked in 1924. Kostroma, jumping at the chance to be the first city with a monument to Lenin, melted down the half-finished statues of tsars and made a statue of Lenin instead.

This is what Ples looked like:
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This is what my jeans pocket looks like. (After several hours you just get tired of listening to Russian and can no longer process anything the tour guide says. And you start playing with your camera.)
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For Denise, this is a picture of the sign to the Levitan museum. The big word at the bottom is “Levitan” (except it’s in the genitive case, so it has an A on the end).
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05 September 2006

Все хорошо, что хорошо кончается

Vladivostok sits on a collection of hills that slope down to the bay. The main part of the city is on the mainland, but is surrounded by water on two sides because of the shape of the piece of land it's on. There are also two regions of the city that are on peninsulas that stick out at odd angles, forming smaller bays and inlets (including Golden Horn Bay – бухта золотой рог – which for some reason you hear about more than the others, even though I can't see anything special about it). I really like coastal cities, and Vladivostok seems especially nice because with all the hills you can find yourself in the middle of the city and turn around and find that you have a beautiful view of the bay and the mountains that lie on the other side.

The hills are otherwise not that great, since it means a lot of uphill climbing (which I can now attest – from personal experience – is actually easier than going downhill if you're wearing high heels and the hill is steep). I've done a lot of walking so far, including a two-hour jaunt yesterday in search of the American Corner that was eerily reminiscent of my attempt to find the Center for International Mail in Moscow. (I never did find it, at least not before I gave up and came home.) An acquaintance who was here last semester mentioned that, like most Russian cities, Vlad seems a lot smaller than an American counterpart of a similar size would (600 to 700 thousand people). In a way, he was right, because the downtown area takes up maybe 6 to 9 city blocks – so, not much bigger than New Haven's. But unlike other Russian cities I've seen, Vladivostok has a huge, massive, sprawling collection of "bedroom districts" (as they're called in Russian); that is, places where people actually live, with fewer stores (although there certainly are stores), more markets, and lower prices than the center. Maybe I just haven't noticed how extensive the "bedroom districts" are in other Russian cities, since I've only really been through as a tourist (except Moscow and Petersburg, which are in a class by themselves anyway). But man. I could have an hour-long commute to the university every morning if I wanted to. And if the university would permit me to live that far out (but that's another story).

As for the feel of the city, I've decided that at least economically, "Little Moscow" would be an apt name for Vladivostok. The two cities both seem to be showing the same pattern of economic growth (Russia is on a big economic upswing right now): lots of shiny new buildings downtown, construction of luxury high-rises and an explosion of new upscale stores (Vlad has a Bang and Olafsson – isn't that ridiculously expensive???) that the general populace can't even begin to afford yet. So in general, a lot of high-end growth and not much improvement for the middle (aka poor) class. I guess this is what one might expect if the country's economic growth is coming from oil or, in Vlad's case, probably a lot of black market smuggling money. (That's just a guess; I'm no economist and I don't really know what goes on here on that front, beyond what I've heard from other Americans.)

I wouldn't call Vladivostok flashy by any means, although there are several of the aforementioned clean and shiny new buildings downtown, and new brick sidewalks (with mosaics of fish, anchors and sailboats in them – how cute is that?). I was worried that the city would be ugly, since it was only founded a hundred and twenty years ago as an outpost town – not the kind of ancient, monastery-ridden Russian town I'm used to. But there are a bunch of lovely turn-of-the-century buildings around, and I've hardly missed all the onion domes! In general the city feels very open – nice wide streets winding around all the hills, plus the constant views of the sea, and we've been having sunny, breezy weather that makes it nice to be outdoors. Of course there's also the obligatory ugly, crumbling Soviet architecture, especially in the huge apartment buildings in the bedroom districts, but hey, it wouldn't be a Russian city without a lot of dirty gray concrete!

So in case you're wondering what I've been doing, the answer is, "not much." Both L (the other Fulbrighter) and I have been sort of sitting around waiting for people to get around to helping us during the flurry of beginning-of-term busyness. I have a meeting tomorrow with teachers from the Institute for Foreign Languages and my first class is on Friday! I'll be teaching English conversation to fourth-year students (translators, teachers of English, and general philologists). That should be exciting. I also learned at the consulate today that I'll be able to do some work at the American Corner – in fact, L and I are going to do a guest lecture there at the end of September! – and the English Language Fellow (an Embassy program) who's here wants me to help her set up an English Writing Center. Sounds like I'll have plenty on my plate in a little while!

Also, today I bought a hot pot, two carrots and a pepper, and some cashews at the market. I almost bought galoshes, too, but decided I didn't want to carry them home.

02 September 2006

Vladivostok, I'm yours.

Hello, world! In case anyone thought I was dead, I am not. See, for the last few days my only internet has been at a sketchy internet cafe where opening the Blogger site causes the computer to freeze. But now I'm at a different internet cafe where Blogger seems to work, but Gmail doesn't.

Anyway, I am in Vladivostok now, and have been since Thursday morning (Wednesday afternoon for most of you). I could tell you how things have been going, but suffice it to say that I'd rather not. Instead I think I'll just cross my fingers that they get better soon so I can give you a more favorable update.

Also, I would like to описать the city soon, since it's really interesting, but my internet time grows short, so that will have to wait for another post as well. For now I'll just call it a "post-Soviet Reykjavik" (that's a good thing) and leave it at that.