30 March 2007

The View from Vlad 4: Sportivnaya

I've realized that the idea of my blog as a reference for travelers to Vladivostok isn't the most realistic, but I think there's a lot in this city that's worth writing about, even if none of my readers will ever see it up close. So I've decided to continue the "View from Vlad" entries. Here's the latest.

Where you go to buy your groceries in Russia seems to vary from city to city, and even among neighborhoods within a city. The choices include Western-style supermarkets; продукты/produkty, which are similar to American convenience stores in size; kiosks on the street that specialize in one type of item; and the рынок/rynok, or market. The rynok can be open-air or indoors, but as a rule it'll be comprised of a selection of kiosks ranging from simple counters to various sizes of tent to veritable grocery stores in a big box that folds open into a sort of concession stand-like apparatus. Besides groceries, you can find housewares, appliances, dishes, vinyl flooring, silk flowers, clothes, shoes, makeup, books, CDs and DVDs, and almost anything else you can imagine at a rynok.

In expensive Vladivostok, the rynok is your best bet in terms of price for groceries, and once you learn how the rynok is laid out, you can get almost everything there you could get at a grocery store with only slightly more effort. There are several rynki to choose from – see the list at the end of this entry – but the best is Спортивная/Sportivnaya.

Sportivnaya is big enough that I'm pretty sure I still haven't seen the whole thing, though I've been there several times, and it's a microcosm of everything a market can and should be. You can find Russian babushki selling homemade pickles and berry preserves, young Central Asian men with dried fruit or Uzbek bread, and whole Chinese families running miniature emporia of imported vegetables and Asian prepackaged foods (and, quite literally, 5-pound bags of MSG). Long roofed-in rows of kiosks feature cheap clothing – they're a haven for knockoffs of every designer and brand you can imagine, from Vivienne Westwood to Gap, and all of last season's best styles. Another section of the market includes not only the aforementioned Chinese groceries (the place to buy vegetables in the dead of winter), but cheap, delicious and popular Chinese cafes with owners who lean out the front door as you walk by to invite you in. If you don't feel like eating in the cafes, you can buy shawerma, corn on the cob or sugared fruit on a stick from vendors clustered among the housewares and clothing kiosks. Almost any seller will be friendly to you if you're polite to them and offer an unexpected спасибо, до свидания! ("Thank you, goodbye!") as you leave, but you can also be as pushy as you want: haggling is the expected norm in the non-grocery sections.

As for ambiance, it doesn't get any more "authentic" than Sportivnaya (where "authentic" = "crappy"). Sportivnaya is so named because it's built around the walls of an old athletic stadium. The stadium is located in one of the ugliest, most industrial parts of Vladivostok, and it's crumbling – take a peek inside when you're on one of the endzone sides to get a good look at the disintegrating concrete, rotting wooden bleachers and pothole-scarred field absolutely packed with junky-looking market stalls, dumpsters, and wads of filthy tarpaulin. This setting, added to the general dirt and disorder inherent to markets, makes a trip to Sportivnaya on a cold, rainy day worth your while just for the deep sense of gloom it'll induce. (Don't try to pretend that you weren't hoping for a little deep gloominess on your trip to Russia. If you weren't looking for melancholy, you'd be in the Mediterranean.)

Slogging through the mud of the market, dodging cascades of water as vendors poke broom handles at the tarps hanging over the walkways, fingers and toes numb with cold – I wouldn't call it the post-Soviet equivalent of standing in the bread line, but it's a misery of the same kind, the kind that makes it seem like the best thing that's ever happened to you when you finally make your purchase and the middle-aged bread lady starts up a friendly conversation about the weather, or the guy selling dried fruit tells you to forget about the extra four rubles as you dig in vain for pocket change. It makes coming home to your little Soviet apartment with your purchases and starting up dinner with your roommate seem like its own reward for your sufferings. Therein, I think, lies the reason I love the market so much – at its best, it's bright and exciting and bustling and commercial, and at its worst, it makes you feel glad to turn toward the rest of humanity to find relief from the miseries it inflicts, and provides you with a ready-made throng of humanity to turn to.

Right, so I might be getting a little too pseudo-philosophical with that (it was rainy when we went to the market this weekend, can you tell?), but at any rate, the market in bad weather is just what the doctor ordered on days when you want to taste a little bit of dark, Dostoevskian Russian existence. For those less intrepid, Sportivnaya on a sunny day is considerably more enjoyable (in the traditional sense of the word). And it's really the best place to take care of all of your shopping needs, whether you suddenly feel a hankering for fried silkworms (I think that's what they are?) or realize that you'll never make it through the winter without a hat handknitted out of dog-hair yarn (I know for sure, because I asked).

The promised list of rynki, for the wayward traveler:
1. Спортивная/Sportivnaya, at the bus stop of the same name, one stop beyond the bus station Луговая.
2. Центральный Рынок/Central'ny Rynok at the bus stop Комарова/Komarova, intersection of улица Комарова and Океанский проспект. Features a small row of booths "for pensioners," which allows you to support a worthy cause (if you don't know about the plight of pensioners in Russia, just ask) while buying delicious dacha-grown vegetables and herbs.
3. Центральная площадь/Central'naya ploshchad' (Central Square), at the bus stop Центр. Right in the center of town, but the market is only there on Thursdays and Fridays, and it disappears during the colder months.
4. Первая Речка/Pervaya Rechka, at the bus stop of the same name on Океанский Проспект. A combination rynok/torgovy kompleks.
5. Вторая Речка/Vtoraya Rechka. I don't know what the bus stop is called, but get on a bus bound for the north reaches of town and get off after you've gone over the big bridge and you see signs out the left window of the bus that say "Рынок." It's almost as big as Sportivnaya.
6. Некрасовская/Nekrasovskaya. That might not actually be the name of the market, but it's at the bus stop of that name, two stops beyond Первая Речка (#4). Smallish and indoors.
7. For wimps or those who need 24-hour service, there's a 24-hour grocery store right in the center of town, about 25 yards up Океанский Проспект/Okeanskii Prospekt from the central square.
8. For the really, really wimpy – e.g. those who can't live without Swedish ice cream, cheesecake from Texas, French sugars infused with lavender and rose petals, balsamic vinegar, pesto or real Heinz ketchup – check out the гипермаркет/hypermarket on Okeanskii at the bus stop Дальпресс/Dal'press. You won't be disappointed, although you might go broke feeding yourself.

23 March 2007

A glut of posts

The reason for the current glut of posts is that I'm preparing to take the State Test of Russian as a Foreign Language, Level 2 (a passing score allows you to enter grad school in Russia - not that I'm planning on doing that) on Tuesday, and, just like when I had to study for things in college, I'm procrastinating like crazy. In case you wanted to know. Anyway, this is the last one for now.

It's that time of year again (for me, anyway) – the time to figure out what I'm doing next academic year. In the midst of my angst about re-applying to stay here teaching for another year (as in, angst about whether I should do so or not), I've discovered that just as it's easy to say that you want to stay another year in Russia when you're sitting at home in America, it's easy to say that you want to come home to America when you feel like you have all the time in the world left in Russia. And in both cases, a change in perspective can change your opinion quite fast.

This was precipitated by being waitlisted for grant renewal, as well as by receiving an email today about the Russian summer camps we're all supposed to work at, which informed me that I've been assigned (pending agreement on my part) to spend most of June in Ulan-Ude. Being waitlisted is kind of crappy, obviously, but it was the other email that really made me realize how little time I have left here. Don't get me wrong, I am over the moon about getting to go to Ulan-Ude (don't know where it is? look it up, and it will become clear why I'm over the moon about it), but looking at the dates of the camp and the date I want to be home by and the current date just really underlined the fact that I only have a little more than two months left in Vlad.

Can you believe it? I sure can't.


I'm not going to make any grand pronouncements about spring being here, because I know it could change its mind at any time (and indeed, they're promising snow for tomorrow), but let's say that spring has at least popped its head in to say hello. This week the snow from our blizzard finally melted enough for Vlad traffic to return to normal (that is, there are at least a few minutes every day without traffic jams). And yesterday it was so warm that there were people on the street other than me not wearing hats (Russians, for a cold-dwelling people, are surprisingly neurotic about keeping warm, especially keeping one's head warm). Today, for the first time in a very long time, I ditched my fur-lined (completely fur-lined, not just around the tops) Russian knee-high boots for tennis shoes and rediscovered how much faster I can walk without high heels, which was glorious. And it's sunny and breezy and bright out, and the melting snow makes steam rise from the sidewalks and the moisture in the air makes mists gather at the tops of the higher hills, and it just feels like spring! So in honor of the coming of spring, I've posted the third View from Vlad entry below, which I may have actually written a few weeks ago and forgotten to post (sorry).

The View from Vlad 3: Приморский Кондитер/Primorskii Konditer/The Primorskii Candy Company

If my Women's Day experience was any indication, Russian women must all either be resigned to gaining a couple of kilos every March, or they must be doing something with their chocolates other than eating them. As I sat pondering this and steadily consuming bonbons, it occurred to me that I hadn't written about the candy factory. It occurred to me at that particular moment because one of the boxes was of a candy called Птичье молоко/ptich'ye moloko/Bird's Milk. It's not a local invention – you can get it all over Russia – but it's apparently a local favorite. I've had several Vladivostokians (?) insist that it's the best and that I absolutely have to try it.

Although it's clearly supposed to sound dainty and magical, the name "bird's milk" weirds me out a little bit, especially since the box features a big, scary green hummingbird. The candy itself consists of rectangular blocks of this sort of gelatin/marshmallow hybrid (made with agar-agar) in almond, rum and lemon flavors, coated in the waxy chocolate glaze they use on all Russian candy. To be honest, though I suspect this is heresy, I don't think it's that great. But when I got the Women's Day box, I hid it in the freezer with the rest of the Women's Day candy (to prevent overconsumption – it didn't work), which caused the accidental discovery that the weird, slightly slimy texture is greatly improved by freezing.

Right, so that's ptich'ye moloko. Which brings us, in its roundabout way, to View from Vlad #3 – the candy factory!! It surprised me that Vladivostok has its own candy factory. Or at least that the candy factory is right in the center of town. In fact, when the wind is right and the factory's really cranking 'em out, a wonderful smell reminiscent of chocolate chip cookies fills the air downtown, overpowering even the diesel fumes from the buses. Mmm.

I suppose this isn't much of a "View from Vlad" entry, because I don't even know whether you can get tours of the factory, but you can walk by and enjoy the smell at any rate, and I do know that there's a retail store attached to it ("Престиж/Prestige," at 56 Aleutskaya, right before it curves around to meet Okeanskii). It seems to be quite a popular store, and more important, the women who work there are polite even when you speak Russian badly. Visitors to Vlad should definitely get some authentic Vlad-made, Vlad-themed candies to take back home with them (since our nesting dolls are imported from Nizhny Novgorod and I strongly suspect that the seashells with "Vladivostok" pasted on them secretly come from China). There's the "Capital of Primorye" box, the "Nighttime Vladivostok" box with an appropriate nighttime panoramic view of the city, the "Primorye" box with seaside scenes ("Primorye" means "maritime"), and the "Lord of the Taiga" box, which features a cheesy painting of a Siberian tiger.

As for the quality of the candy, this is Russian candy for everyday consumption, which Americans seem to have divided opinions about. I like it, though. At any rate, most of the standards of the Russian candy repertoire – Красная шапочка (Little Red Riding Hood), Мишка на севере (Bear Cub of the North), Белочка (Squirrel) – are made there, as well as some others that I haven't seen elsewhere, all variations on the ubiquitous theme of either firm cocoa nougat or waffle cookies covered in the aforementioned glaze. My favorite is Сладкоёжка, unremarkable save for the fact that its name is a goofy play on the word for "sweet tooth" (it turns into "sweet-hedgehog"), and the wrapper features a hedgehog, my favorite animal, playing a balalaika, my favorite Russian folk instrument.

15 March 2007

My first-ever translation gig

One of the most interesting things I'm doing right now is translating letters from Russian into English for one of my evening students.

Pause for a second and think about that. What are some of the reasons a Russian woman who's taking free evening English classes might need letters translated into English?

If you guessed, "because she's a mail-order bride," you would be correct! Or rather, she's going to be a mail-order bride, if it all works out.

So in addition to my duties as an English teacher, I'm now serving as the one tenuous link between two souls forced apart by a language barrier (and a cultural barrier, and several thousand miles), since she doesn't speak English and he doesn't speak Russian. Yes, there's already a 'he,' one 'he,' in this situation. Apparently they've been communicating for some time through the mail-order bride agency, which presumably offers translation services, but she recently had a falling out with this agency, by which I mean she got tired of having to pay a lot of bribes. That's where I enter the scene. From what I've gleaned from the letters, they're now at the stage of planning to actually meet.

Needless to say, this is an interesting vantage point. Translating people's personal letters is, quite frankly, kind of awkward work. On the one hand, I have plenty of cultural bias against mail-order brides (or rather, against the guys who order them), like most of you probably do, which makes me constantly question the character and/or intentions of this guy "I'm" writing to – is he a sleaze-ball? A misogynist? A psycho? Abusive, alcoholic, egomaniacal? On the other hand, I know enough about the subject (we watched a touching-but-sad documentary about a couple in upstate New York in third-year Russian) that I can imagine this man as simply lonely and awkward, or interested in Russian culture, or really hoping for a chance at true love, or just a regular guy in hundreds of other ways. Besides, it's hard not to root for the love you're helping to foster.

So, wanting this to work out (at least half the time), I want Valeria's letters to be successful. Therein lies the problem of the translator, or at least this translator: do I stick to the task and go word-for-word, or do I embellish where I think more explanation is needed, leave out the parts I think might be off-putting – in short, make it more like the kind of love letter I would write?

Obviously, omitting large chunks or adding my own thoughts isn't fair to Valeria, who has no clue what I'm writing, or to the man, who presumably takes my letters to be accurate representations of what Valeria wrote. And it's not like I'm a certified expert in affaires du coeur anyway. But where does one draw the line between translating what's actually on the page and translating what one perceives to be the spirit of the letter? I've already decided to stay out of the romantic parts – if Valeria wants to sign her letter "hugs and kisses," it's certainly not up to me to decide whether Mark'll go for that or not, even though it's much less smarmy-sounding in Russian than in English – but it becomes an especially sticky problem when there are bigger cultural differences involved. Is it my prerogative to explain situations that Valeria writes about familiarly, if I can guess that Mark won't be familiar with them?

More specifically, can I vouch for Valeria's character, for the difficulties she claims she's having with her passport and visa, for the bribes she says she had to pay the agency - which could easily sound like whining or scheming to someone unfamiliar with Russia? Am I the referee here? Or is a translator just a vessel for transmitting ideas from one code into another? I haven't quite figured that out yet.

(I'll keep you updated in non-privacy violating ways if anything happens. And of course, their names have been changed.)

12 March 2007

Moving adventures, or Katy and the Big Snow

Ok, here is the promised post about my new apartment and our big snowstorm etc. And just so you know, I've already regained my sense of humor about many of the things mentioned in this post (which I wrote on Friday night).

Let me give you some advice. Maybe this advice will seem obvious to you, but for some reason, it wasn't obvious to me, and on the off chance that some poor soul can learn from my mistake, I'm passing it on. Ok, are you ready? Here it is:

Never, ever make the decision to move into an apartment under the following conditions:
1) you don't have access to a car to move your things;
2) they're forecasting the blizzard of the century to hit the day after you sign the lease; and
3) you live in the Bad Traffic Capital of the World, a title which, if it exists, must surely be held by Vladivostok. If such a title doesn't exist, it does now, and I hereby confer it on Vladivostok.

I think that's all I'm going to say about the general mayhem that ensues when you try to find an apartment in Vladivostok (mostly because the wounds are still too fresh for me to write about it with any sense of humor), and just offer this brief recap before returning to the issues of traffic and the blizzard: I decided in January that I wanted to move out of the convenient-but-exorbitantly-expensive dormitory, and after much strife, I found someone I'd be willing to share an apartment with, and we found a relatively centrally-located apartment we could actually afford, no small feat in Vlad's real estate market. We did this, incidentally, by promising to teach our landlady English and French (my roommate is French) in exchange for reduced rent. Now that the lease is signed, I'm hoping the landlady will forget all about this agreement. Pictures and stories about the apartment will come later, when I regain my sense of humor about, among other things, the fact that we only have one bed and the fact that I now live a 40-minute walk away from work (as compared to my one-point-five minute walk when I lived in the dormitory).

So on Sunday/Monday we were hit with the blizzard of the century. Or so they say, anyway. I'd guess it's accurate, because I've never seen so much snow in a city before. I'm a poor judge of snow depth, and it drifted a lot, but I'm sure we got a foot and a half minimum. Probably two feet. If that doesn't sound like much, then it was more than two feet. Because when I say "blizzard of the century," I don't mean the century that's only seven years old. I mean Vladivostok hasn't seen this much snow in a hundred years.

Imagine this scene: The sidewalks of Svetlanskaya, one of Vlad's main thoroughfares, are covered in two feet of uncleared snow. The street itself vaguely resembles a really nice ski slope – several inches of packed powder – thanks to all the cars that are driving on it. Or sitting on it, more accurately. Incidentally, Vlad has more cars per capita than any other city in Russia, thanks to our proximity to Japan and status as a commercial port. And I think Vlad residents have some kind of Pavlovian response to snow that causes them to all get into their cars and drive around aimlessly, because that's the only explanation for the sheer volume of vehicles on the road. Anyway, these vehicles are at a standstill, because even under the best conditions Vlad's streets are laid out in such a way that the city is one giant traffic jam for about 8 hours of every 24. They're being passed by hordes and hordes of pedestrians walking in the street.

On Monday morning, I was one of those pedestrians. (Why, I don't know, since we obviously didn't have any classes at the university. I guess the Pavlovian response to snow got me as well.) I found this mass exodus amusing enough that it allowed me to have a sense of humor about the fact that if I hadn't signed that lease, I wouldn't be walking two miles to work. Briefly, anyway; that was another thing I quickly lost my sense of humor about, because pedestrians walking in the street and cars sitting in traffic jams became the theme of the week. I'm tempted to applaud the city administration for at least bringing plows out to clear some of the snow off the roads, because they didn't do that for our last blizzard, but on the other hand, shouldn't we expect a bit more than that? Maybe not, since we currently don't have a mayor – he was arrested on embezzlement charges, or maybe misuse of funds. Something to do with money. At any rate, the city is a disaster. Residents claim that this happens every time it snows, because of a combination of poor planning, unfamiliarity with snow (Vlad's usually pretty dry in the winter, I'm told), and the city's innumerable steep hills. But they also claim it's never been this bad.

So as of today, there's still snow everywhere, although it's increasingly in eight-foot piles instead of a two-foot blanket. (Funny scene: an entire phys ed class at the Pacific State University of Economics forced outside with snow shovels, halfheartedly clearing the sidewalk in front of their main academic building.) There's still a constant citywide traffic jam – in fact, I think traffic has gotten progressively worse throughout the week, maybe because the roads are clearer and more people think it's safe to drive. Despite the number of cars on the road, no one seems to be actually getting anywhere – our Wednesday night volunteer English class was canceled, and even on Friday I had a total of six out of eighteen students. The buses, overcrowded even on normal days, are so stuffed with people that I decided early in the week that the physical stress of walking to work and back, even on snowy, slushy sidewalks, is far preferable to the emotional stress of wedging myself into a sardine can, traveling at a pace of three blocks an hour, and fighting my way toward the doors in the hope that I can situate myself properly to be forcefully expelled from the bus with minimal bodily injury when the doors open at my stop. So far my knee agrees with me, as it's hardly put up a complaint against all the walking. Thank you, knee. You are being good to me.

Needless to say, all this has put a damper on my moving plans – since the taxis that are running at all are price-gouging, and there's no room on the bus for boxes or bags, my stuff has been making its way very, very slowly from the dorm to the apartment. But I'm almost done, except for a problematic suitcase full of books and a pair of no-longer-necessary crutches. They might have to wait another week or two.

So, in conclusion, here's a slightly more useful list of advice for travelers to Vladivostok:
1) If it snows, don't leave your hotel or apartment. For, like, a week. It doesn't matter if you have somewhere to be – no one else is going to be there, either.
2) If you must leave your dwelling, wear waterproof boots and avoid buses at all costs. Or if you need to take the bus and it's between 8 am and 8 pm, allow two and a half hours for the ride, if the ride is more than half a mile. If the ride is less than half a mile, what's wrong with you? You should be walking.
3) If you need a taxi, call at least two hours in advance.

Ok, I think that's all. In closing (for real this time), happy belated International Women's Day to all you women out there! It's quite a big deal in the former Soviet Union, and in addition to giving us a day off of work yesterday (inasmuch as anyone was working this week anyway), it's supplied me with several boxes of chocolate (apparently the traditional Women's Day gift for platonic or professional relationships). So as a holiday, I approve.

11 March 2007

Блин! (and an unintentional phonetics lesson)

I wrote a post (two posts, actually) last weekend, and failed to post them for several reasons, not the least of which was that on Sunday/Monday we were hit with the Blizzard of the Century. Then I wrote another one yesterday, and somehow failed to put it on my flash drive to convey it to the internet center. Blin!* Anyway, maybe I'll post it tomorrow or something. So, just checking in to reassure you that I've dug my way out of the snow and everything's normal here. Or as normal as it can be in a city that's been turned on its head (besides the blizzard, our mayor was just arrested).

By the way, I fixed the pictures from the last post, so they aren't so huge. Now they'll fit on the page and it shouldn't take as long to load.

*Blin (pronounced 'bleen') means 'pancake,' and is my favorite mild oath in Russian. It translates to something like 'shoot' or 'darn.' It's very satisfying to say; this is a little dorky, but I think it has something to do with the way you can really build up oral pressure before a bilabial stop (the 'b') and forcefully expel the sound. Also, it has a soft l, and I love soft l. Soft l is a very hard sound for Americans to make, because we don't have it in American English. Try making an 'l' with your tongue pulled back a bit and really mashed against the roof of your mouth; that's (approximately) soft l. I like it because it's fun to make, and because after taking phonetics, I can make it almost perfectly (although when I'm actually speaking Russian I tend to forget to use it).