28 October 2007

Dorky Music Moment

I was pretty surprised when my balalaika teacher said on Friday that we were going to practice flagellato. In turn, he was pretty surprised that I didn't appear to know what flagellato was. When he showed me, I realized that I did know what flagellato was – the problem is that we don't use the Italian word for it. This happens a lot: he's always asking me silly questions like, "Do you know what forte and piano mean?," because Russian and English don't borrow all of the same music terms from Italian, and it's hard to know which ones will be shared by the two languages. Anyway, flagellato is playing on the harmonics!

In this context, harmonics are the special spots on a string where, if you apply a light touch (not pressing the string all the way down like you do to play a normal note) and pluck just so, a high-pitched "ghost note" will sound. To explain rather vaguely, they have to do with dividing the string into even ratios like 1:1 or 1:3. (Yeah, physics was never my favorite subject.) Bassists use harmonics to tune their instruments, since you can get the same harmonic note by touching different spots on different strings. That way, you can tune your A and D strings to each other by playing a harmonic A on both of them and matching the pitch.

So the exciting thing here is that there's a balalaika technique called "artificial harmonics." The only "natural" harmonics you can reliably get on a balalaika are octaves and fifths above the open string – others exist, just like on any length of taut string, but they're hard to coax out. Not to be deterred from playing entire melodies on harmonics, enterprising balalaechniki came up with an alternative wherein instead of using your left hand to divide the open string into the proper ratio and your right hand to pluck, you finger any ordinary note with your left hand, touch the string at the octave of that note with the index finger of your right hand, and pluck with your right thumb. Voila! Harmonics of any note you please! Maybe physics should be my favorite subject!

26 October 2007

Выступление и наказание, часть 2–я

So I get to the conference and the woman in charge greets Seth and introduces herself to me.
"You'll be presenting in English, right?" she asks.
"Yes," I say.
"Ok," she replies, and turns to Seth. "And you - you'll be presenting in Russian, I hope?"

Now, she clearly has no reason to assume that I don't speak Russian, especially since she knows Seth does and we both have the same position. (Potential reason(?): I look like I'm twelve. This is an ongoing theme in my life. I forgot to mention that when Amara and I went to the Chekhov museum, they tried to sell me a high school student ticket.) But since this is what I wanted, I don't complain. In fact, I do a little inner cartwheel that things turned out so well on the English-presenting front and take my seat.

BUT, I should know better than to ever think anything is going well until it's over and all danger of anything going wrong is completely past. (This is kind of a Russian attitude - I mean, we're talking a culture where you aren't supposed to celebrate anyone's birthday even one day in advance, in case they die before their real birthday.) I get up to the podium and this woman introduces me... and then says that she'll be translating for me.

GRR! If she had said that when I walked in, I would have told her I'd do it in Russian and brought my Russian notes up to the podium. But she didn't, so I didn't. I got through it fine, and in fact it was way better than my last translating experience, but I've learned my lesson: from this day forward, I will always ask what the working language of the conference is before I write my whole presentation in English.


Today it's a dark, rainy, gray day, the kind we've been having for about two weeks straight now. It's perfect for setting that nice gloomy autumnal mood, but I'm getting a little tired of it. Maybe that's partly because the radiator in my apartment doesn't really seem to work unless I drain all the smelly brown radiator-water (and accumulated air - does it accumulate air because they turn our water off every night at midnight?) out of it every day. AWESOME.

Also, yesterday's class: one student. Today's class: one student. English club: three students (two of whom were the students from yesterday's and today's classes). Tomorrow's class: being Saturday, one student *if* I'm lucky. I don't mind one-on-one work, but sometimes, especially on gloomy days like today, I wonder just who I'm here for.

Anyway, it's balalaika lesson time, which is bound to cheer me up even though I have to walk through the rain to get there! (I know, I shouldn't say that until all chance that my balalaika lesson will somehow kill me has passed.)


Edited, 8pm, for content and to add that the balalaika lesson did cheer me up. In fact, it was a great lesson. Take that, gloomy day!

25 October 2007

Bыступление и наказание

(That title doesn't translate at all – it means "presentation and punishment." But in Russian, "presentation/vystuplenie" sounds almost exactly like "crime/prestuplenie" - get it?)

Since starting out as an ETA, I've had to get up in front of people and talk more times than I can count. Maybe that seems obvious, since – duh – I'm a teacher, but even if you take out all the lessons I've led, I've still made at least two dozen presentations. There was the time I had to present my senior project research to the phonetics department at DVGU and ended up getting drunk on Soviet champagne beforehand (no, it's really called Soviet champagne); the time I had to speak about Emily Dickinson at a poetry reading; the times (four) I've had to give "Welcome to the World of English" speeches to students or prospective students; the times (two, once in English and once in Russian) I've had to talk about my Iceland research at scientific conferences; the time I had to give a surprise lecture to local English teachers on English grammar (I did not talk about English grammar – I still wouldn't know a gerundive if it bit me); the time I had to talk about American Fulbright programs for Russians... the list goes on and on.

That was one of the things that scared me most about Fulbright – we went to the orientation before coming to Russia, and returning grantees talked about having to make stuff up about Che Guevara or the mortgage system like it was no big deal, and everyone else seemed to think it was no big deal, but I felt sure that I would rather be poked relentlessly with sharp objects than have to stand up in front of people and talk about something I didn't feel qualified to talk about. This begs the question of whether I was really the right choice for English Teaching Assistant, but now that I'm a safe fourteen months in, I think it's a moot point.

And besides, teaching pretty much squishes that fear response within a few weeks (although I still have days every now and then where I just don't feel like my lesson plan is solid enough and I consider running and locking myself in the teachers' bathroom), so by now I'm so used to getting up and talking in front of people that I actually volunteer to do it. Take tomorrow, for example. I am going to Rostov, purely out of the goodness of my heart (ok, and the promise of McBreakfast), to speak at a conference on improving Russian higher education in the humanities based on American standards.

This is something I actually am qualified to talk about, at least sort of, since I know plenty about both American and Russian higher education. So where's the problem? Umm, the problem is that I'm lazy and didn't start writing the Russian version of my presentation until today. About the time I got to the third paragraph (1.5 hours in) and realized that I just don't know how to translate "grade point average" (either words or concept) and had already used the same phrase for "to give a grade" four times in two sentences, I texted Seth and asked him to tell them I had come down with malaria. He responded: "Give the talk in English and they will love it."

Hmm. Why didn't I think of that? I guess now that I've given two talks in Russian more or less successfully, I feel like I have to do it in Russian. Amara confirmed this when I complained to her of my translating woes: "If you have time, do it in Russian!" she texted back. Crap. On the one hand, I feel like she's right – nothing makes you feel lamer than being the only person at the entire conference who doesn't present in Russian, even if you are one of only two foreigners present. But on the other hand, I can't say nearly as much in 10 minutes of Russian as I can in 10 minutes of English, what I do say will have lots of mistakes in it, presenting in Russian means standing there reading from my notes while presenting in English does not, and I can't express myself clearly in Russian, at least on the issue of the American grading system. (I can definitely express myself clearly on the issue of drivers who don't stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, as that guy in the green Volga found out today.) So, is it really worth the ego stroke of being able to say that I speak Russian well enough to present at a conference, if I actually... don't?

I'll let you know when I decide. Trouble is, I just remembered that there is one bad thing that can happen if I show up and refuse to give the talk in Russian: they could assign me a translator on the fly. That happened to me once before. She knew more about Emily Dickinson than I did, or thought she did, so she kept embellishing what I was saying and saying things in Russian that I had wanted to be my next sentence in English. It was SO horrible. So I think I'll at least make some notes I could stumble through in Russian, in case of emergency. And now, I'm going to go give myself a gold star for wasting half an hour writing this instead of working on those notes.

20 October 2007

In memoriam, etc.

Let's have a moment of silence for my long hair (may it rest in peace on the floor of the big barbershop in the sky). Yes, it's the anniversary of my most drastic and worst haircut ever; those of you who were reading my blog last year might remember this haircut. If you reread that old post, ignore the part where I said I liked it. I was just being optimistic. It was a TERRIBLE haircut, and I spent the better part of the year growing it out. Fortunately, the true low point of the style came in late November, when I was unable to walk and didn't care what I looked like.

But by now, I can look back on it all with amusement (the haircut, not the broken leg), and I celebrated the anniversary yesterday by getting a trim. Perhaps fittingly, this trim was basically a version of the haircut Laura suggested I get on that fateful day last year, when I didn't listen to her and instead asked the stylist to copy a cut I had seen on a model in a knitting magazine (lesson learned: get knitting patterns, not haircuts, from knitting magazines). So now my hair is as short as possible in the back without resorting to razors (I articulated this desire at the salon by saying "as short as possible without bzzz bzzz" – not fluent, but effective communication), angling down to chin length in the front. Nice.

On to other things: the Moldovan wine last night was good. It was homemade, and I don't know if it wasn't fully fermented, or just weaker than regular wine, but it tasted like more of a grape juice/wine hybrid than straight-up wine. Good thing, too, since they kept pouring me more and more.

Finally: Amara's visit was wonderful! It's hard to say what the best part was, but I think the part that I was most surprised about was our trip to Tanais. It's a really interesting little dig/museum, we got to interact with a drunk old guy who thought we were Russian (I brought out my Ukrainian alter-ego, Olesya, again; Amara became Tamara→Toma→Tomochka, although not by choice), the sun finally came out after hiding all week, we met some friendly stray puppies at the train station, and the train ride back to the city along the coast was beautiful.

The dig site. Excavated walls from the Greek settlement 3rd century BCE – 5th century CE (this part being from the 2nd or 3rd century CE).

Not an excavated tower – just a reconstruction – but it shows how nice the weather got.

Some impressions of the rest of the week:
Rostov: Georgian food and Updike read-alongs!
Azov: Rain. Cold. Mammoth skeleton! Misbehaving Russian child. Drunk women stealing begonias from city gardens! Old fort walls!
Taganrog: Chekhov-palooza! Silly seaside photo shoot, discovery of a delicious Chinese restaurant.
Boris Moiseev: Is this guy for real? Heart-shaped Russian flags. "Live sound" that clearly was not live. His parting benediction: "May you always be happy and loved during this short, beautiful word: life. And as for me, I will continue to get down on my knees and pray to God that not one bitch (!) ever keep us from living, loving, singing and dancing." Umm? ...Definitely worth the price of admission, though.

19 October 2007

Take a deep breath and repeat: "Your problem is not my problem."

For Pete's sake, I should have taken up the domra... What is it with people wanting English lessons in exchange for balalaika lessons?

Not my teacher, Mikhail Semyonovich, of course. I can't imagine he'd have any use for English. But he seems to have told a colleague of his that I'd tutor her grown son, who works with computers and wants to "perfect his spoken English."

I did my best to politely explain that according to the terms of my grant, I'm not allowed to earn money. Why did I say that? It's true, but what I should have said was that I am not interested in spending my free time doing the same thing I do with my non-free time, which is also the truth. Of course, when faced with the money problem, he came up with the solution that this colleague will pay for my balalaika lessons in exchange for the English lessons. Déjà vu, anyone? At least I wouldn't have to teach him Spiderman vocabulary and play endless games with his Scooby Doo trading cards like my last balalaika-exchange student (God willing).

Right now I'm just mad, because his reaction to my refusal seemed to indicate that he has indeed already told this colleague that I'll do it. (Well, your problem is not my problem, Mikhail Semyonovich!) And I'm determined that when I meet this woman at a balalaika concert next Wednesday, I'll say no. No more letting people co-opt my free time because I don't know how to say no.

Anyway, off to drown my anger in Moldovan wine at the home of one of my students, who is half Moldovan and half Turkmen.

13 October 2007

Fulbright Reunion!!

This might not really be blog-worthy, but I'm just so excited: Amara's here to visit!

It all started sometime last month, when posters for an upcoming Boris Moiseev concert started appearing around Taganrog. I knew nothing about Boris Moiseev beyond what Amara, a true Russian pop culture maven (I think she knows the lyrics to more Russian pop songs than I do American ones), had told me. Which is that he's really flamboyant and pretty cheesy, as you can kind of see from his website even if you don't read Cyrillic.

Since Amara and I text back and forth all the time (we're pretty good friends, since we were both here last year; plus text messages are really cheap), I soon mentioned to her that he was coming, and joked that she should come visit and we could go to the concert together.

To my surprise, she took me seriously, and despite the hurdle of the concert being on a Wednesday instead of a weekend, she decided to make the trip. She got into Rostov today, where I'll meet up with her and Seth, and tomorrow we'll all head to Azov, a fortress-town built by the Turks to keep the Russians off the Black Sea (thanks, Lonely Planet). I come back tomorrow evening, and she'll come down on Monday after my classes are done and we'll see the Taganrog sites, including the Chekhov family house-museum and general store-museum I haven't been to yet, and Tanais, a Scythian/Greek archaeological dig not far from here. And then on Wednesday we'll go to the concert!

When I told my colleagues that I was going to a Boris Moiseev concert, they were pretty horrified. I try not to do too many things that make them think I have no common sense (it's hard - not because I lack common sense, but because the definition of common sense is often culturally determined), but I think that might have been one. As mentioned before, being gay is not OK in Russia. Apparently last time he gave a concert here, the local Cossacks protested. I kind of hope that happens again; I'll be sure to have my camera with me.

Anyway, just thought I'd share what's going on in my life. :) Off to Rostov!

12 October 2007

How Much Is Voting Worth?

I think many people would agree that the right to vote is pretty valuable. If we're talking in terms of societies, maybe it's priceless. Certainly plenty of human lives have been lost over it. If we're talking in terms of individuals, well, I'm sure almost anyone could be bought, depending on the price and who's doing the buying. (Would you take ten million dollars if the only condition was that you could never vote in a government election again?)

But in this case, we're not talking about the right to vote. We're talking about how &%*@ long it takes for mail to get to Russia and how expensive DHL is.

Sadly, Congressman Paul Gillmor, my district's representative, passed away last month, leaving a vacancy in the House. We're having a special election in December to fill the spot, and I would like to vote in it. That requires three steps:

1) Getting my signed absentee ballot request to the Board of Elections.
2) The Board of Elections getting an absentee ballot back to me.
3) Getting the filled-out ballot back to the Board of Elections.

Simple, yes, but assuming we do it all on the up-and-up and don't have my mom forge any signatures or vote for me (probably a good idea, since my voting materials inform me that electoral fraud is a fifth-degree felony), that's a lot of mailing back and forth. My options appear to be air mail, which can take about a month, and DHL, which takes three days but costs more than 1900 rubles (about 80 bucks). The lady at the post office told me today that I can also use the Russian Postal Service's "very expensive" Express Mail, but I was previously told that that was only for mailing stuff within Russia, and when I asked her if I could really use it to send something to the U.S., she didn't answer me. I'll have to investigate that further.

Anyway, I have plenty of time before the ballots are even available, so I sent the ballot request by regular air mail, which cost 95 cents. Even I'm not too cheap for that. The plan for step two is to have the ballot sent to my house and DHL'ed to me by my parents. It has to be back at the Board of Elections 10 days after the election, and the absentee ballots are released 15 days before the election, so if it gets here in four days (11 days before the election), I have 22 days to get it in. Still not enough time for air mail to be safe, but plenty of time for DHL.

And now that I think about it, my parents have Power of Attorney for me while I'm gone, so maybe they actually could legally vote for me. AND I just remembered that for federal elections, you can just do a write-in ballot at the embassy, which would probably require going to Moscow but would at least mean spending a lot of money on a train ticket to a city that's fun to visit instead of just spending a lot of money, period. I'll have to look into that.

In any case, I'd like to know – would you shell out $160.95 to vote?

09 October 2007

A Linguistic Puzzle, or Cockiness Ill Becomes Me

Sorry to everyone who thinks this post is boring, which may well be everyone.

A few years ago in my introductory syntax course, we were learning about government and binding.

(What that is exactly isn't important; just know that it has partly to do with cases and noun declension. My readers will be familiar with noun declension if they've studied Russian, Latin, German, or any other language where you have to memorize a bunch of different noun endings.)

Anyway, we learned that one universal linguistic principle is that verbs and prepositions can never govern nominative case. Nominative case is the ending the noun has when it's the subject of the sentence, but the object of a verb or preposition can never be in nominative case. (That is, in the phrase "to give a gift," gift can't be nominative; ditto for house in the phrase "in the house.")

It was only later that I learned that you can't always trust "universal linguistic principles," and with two years of Russian under my belt at the time (that is, enough time to know nothing but still believe you know everything), I was pretty dubious when a grad student – a native speaker of Russian – raised her hand in class and said that in Russian there are prepositions that govern nominative case.

I won't share exactly what I thought of this declaration; suffice it to say that it was neither very charitable nor very wise. And I got my comeuppance, so to speak, in the form of this puzzling construction, which has been a thorn in my side for the past six months or so:

Что за невоспитанный мальчик?
Chto za nevospitanny mal'chik
What PREP ill-bred-NOM little boy-NOM
What's with this ill-bred little boy? or Why is this little boy behaving so badly?

I overheard a mother saying this to her misbehaving son on the bus last spring in Vladivostok. (His crime: trying to pull his wool hat off.) Despite the fact that I've heard the construction many times since, I still can't quite put my finger on what it means, so that gloss might not be quite right. But it sure looks like the preposition za (which has several meanings, such as "behind," "beyond," "to," "for") is governing a noun phrase in the nominative. But prepositions CAN'T govern nominative!

One solution is that za is actually governing chto ("what"), which has the same form in nominative and accusative case. In that case, "ill-bred little boy" is the subject of the sentence and the word order is highly unusual. But I've never come across another instance in Russian of a preposition following rather than preceding the noun it governs. (Doesn't a language have to be head-initial for that to happen? My syntax is rather rusty.)

Another solution is that I'm mishearing it, and that grad student was talking about a different construction.

If anyone has an insight, I would be happy to hear it. Russian native speaker linguists (here I am looking at Michael, who may or may not read this)? People who like syntax more than I do?

As a side note, воспитание/upbringing (like the oft-cited ремонт/renovations) is a word that gets a lot more airtime in Russian than in English, and seems to have much deeper and wider roots in the cultural soil. I'll try to write about it sometime if I can make it into an interesting post.

Вот что я люблю

McDonald's: looks the same inside as a nicer American McDonald's. Yes, you have to pay for the ketchup (ten rubles, about 40 cents), but it is American ketchup rather than Russian. Yes, there are "local-market" foods, at least at breakfast, and they're blinchiki. Yes, there are Happy Meals, and they appear to come with the same toys as American Happy Meals. I don't really know how much McDonald's costs in the U.S., but here, my Egg and Cheese McMuffin, hash brown, ketchup and coffee was 122 rubles, or $4.91.

It was pretty McTasty.

For big-city folk, McDonald's seems pretty run-of-the-mill, though (as my Petersburg host mom said) perceived as classier than it is in the U.S. But for many Russians it's apparently still a novelty and a big treat, since a tourist agency ad I saw on the trolley today offered three exciting attractions on its trips to Novocherkassk – a visit to the cathedral, admittance to the museum of Cossack history, and – a stop at McDonald's!! Same for tour agencies in Vladivostok advertising trips to Harbin, China, if I remember correctly.

06 October 2007

Billions and Billions Served

By my count, I've been in Russia for a total of almost exactly a year: one week the first time, on tour with my college concert band; one month the second time, studying with the Yale Summer Program in Petersburg; nine months of last academic year (for an eleven-month grant... stupid leg); and seven weeks so far on this grant.

Tomorrow (drumroll, please), I go to Russian McDonald's for the first time.

Ok, it's not that big of a deal, but I think it's kind of funny. I'm not a big McDonald's fan in the U.S. (despite what many of my students think, which is that all Americans eat fast food all the time; considering what they see of mass-exported American culture, I really can't fault them for thinking so. But I will try to convince them otherwise by feeding them homemade cookies). I've had several chances to go to McDonald's here that I've passed up. Surprisingly, we didn't have one in Vlad, though we did have a joint called "Magic Burger" – or just "Burger," in the local parlance – which I regrettably never visited. But there are McDonald's aplenty in Moscow and Petersburg, and even, as I learned a few weeks ago, in the not-very-big Cossack capital of Novocherkassk. (I'll blog about that trip eventually.) I also hear tell that there's a very attractive one in Sochi, complete with palm trees.

Anyway, I'm going to Rostov-on-Don tomorrow to give a presentation on my Fulbright experience at the American Corner library (which I'm currently procrastinating on by writing this post). Seth, my Rostov cohort, has promised a trip to McDonald's beforehand for McBreakfast. McAwesome! I'm not even really sure what to expect of this little blended-culture adventure. Will it look like American McDonald's inside? Will it be as classy as my host mom in Petersburg always said Russian McDonald's is? What will the local-market dishes be – hearty soups, maybe? Blinchiki and kasha? Do they have Happy Meals, and if so, what kind of toys do they come with? And do you have to pay extra for the ketchup packets like you do in most Russian restaurants? I'll be sure to report back.

02 October 2007

Do you like puppets?

The Kremlin does.

Because that link will soon vanish (thanks for being stingy, Moscow Times):
Putin has announced his intention to run for the State Duma (Parliament) in December's elections, and also mentioned that he might become Prime Minister when his second term as president ends early next year. (The presidential elections should be in March.)
Background: like in the U.S., Russian presidents can only serve for two terms. Well, almost like the U.S. - they can only serve two consecutive terms, meaning that in four years Putin can run again. But since the Russian government seems to think changing the constitution is about as serious as changing one's socks, for a long time no one was really convinced that Putin was actually going to give up power. So, this is good news because the constitution is going to remain intact, but bad news because - well, see the title of the post. I could write more about this, but to be honest, I'm a little scared to. Especially after reading A Russian Diary (review forthcoming, if I ever find the time to finish the last twenty pages or so).

(This next part is a tiny bit more controversial than what I usually offer on this blog. Just to warn you.)
Also, I was disappointed in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation when I read today that one of their slogans is "Better Red than Light Blue." In Russian, "goluboi/light blue" is a slang term for homosexual. The article I was reading went on to explain, "this slogan refers to the light blue color of the United Russia (Putin's party) flag, and not at all what our readers were probably thinking." Umm, correct me if I'm wrong, but if all of your readers make the same association, then the association is there. I don't know why I would expect a political party in Russia - where gay rights lag far behind gay rights in the U.S. and most of Europe - to be above a hurtful double entendre that would probably still be acceptable in many circles in America. But it still disappointed me.