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.

17 August 2008

Belated Home Post

I can't believe I've been home for two weeks and haven't written anything! I still have a few things left to say before I close up shop (I can't think of any reason to continue this blog from the exotic locale of Washington, DC, my new home). I will try to post them soon, although I've been quite busy lately with moving to DC and will soon be even busier with graduate school. Hang tight and check back when you happen to think of it!

31 July 2008

Only in Russia

My pilgrimage to Patriarch's Ponds was part of the self-guided "Walking Tour of Literary Moscow" suggested by my travel guide. I decided to do at least the part of the tour that I hadn't already seen on other trips to Moscow, and this is what I encountered:

(Please note the date - Thursday, July 31.)

Gogol Memorial Rooms - closed for repairs
Church Gogol attended - closed for lunch
Lermontov House-Museum - closed for unknown reasons
Church Pushkin got married in - SUCCESS!
Gorky House-Museum - closed on the last Thursday of every month
Aleksei Tolstoy Apartment-Museum - SUCCESS #2! I don't really care about Aleksei Tolstoy (note: not the author of War and Peace - that was Lev Tolstoy), but the museum worker was really nice and took me on a private guided tour.
Chekhov House-Museum (really wanted to see it since I've been living in Chekhovland all year) - closed on the last day of every month
Patriarch's Ponds - SUCCESS #3! Hard to screw up visiting a public park, really.
Bulgakov apartment-museum - SUCCESS #4! Very cool little museum, run privately, with lots of artwork, costume sketches, movie clips, etc. related to Bulgakov's works. And a live black cat. And a mailbox where you can put a letter to the Master. And tons of visitors! Not that surprising, I guess, since "Master and Margarita" is the favorite book of about 80% of young Russians I've talked to.

Then I decided to go to the Sakharov Center, a human rights research center/library/museum named for Andrei Sakharov, the Soviet physicist/human rights activist. Alas, it is closed in July, as the workers are all on vacation.

To review, that's six strikes, but I think it's even more impressive that each one was a strike for a different reason. It was still a nice tour, since many of the buildings were interesting to look at from the outside, and going to all of those museums would have been museum overdose anyway. But I've decided to go back to the Chekhov museum and the Sakharov center tomorrow, since (barring any unpleasant surprises) they should both be open.

Горы, солнце, пихты, песни и тайги / Mountains, sun, fir trees, songs, and the taiga

I doubt anyone uses this blog to check up on whether I'm alive or not, but in case you were wondering, I am.

I'm in Moscow now and am starting my extended leave of absence from Russia (a.k.a. moving home for grad school) on Saturday. I think if I could really grasp that I'm leaving, I'd be crying a lot, but happily for myself and everyone else, I only sort of half-grasp it, so I just kind of mope around. We'll see what Saturday morning is like, though.

Siberia (the reason for my extended silence) was AMAZING. The risk that I will run away and live on the shores of Baikal forever is now even higher than it was last year after Ulan Ude. I have tons of impressions from the trip (do we say that in English? I feel like maybe only Russians and Americans who have been in Russia for too long say that), which unfortunately makes it hard to write about, but I promise that I will. And there will be pictures. :)

But for now, I'm off on a little pilgrimage (read: two stops on the metro) to Patriarch's Ponds, the setting for the opening scene of Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita," which I finished reading yesterday... in Russian. It's the longest work I've read in Russian so far, at 413 pages. Gold star for me!

10 July 2008

On the 4:40 p.m. Commuter Train to Rostov.

I would like to write about how hard it is to be leaving Taganrog, but I have no idea what words to use.

07 July 2008

Best Going-Away Present Ever

From Lydia Arkadievna, the institute's Latin teacher (they make the law students take Latin).

A scarf. Actually from the 1980 Olympics. !!!! I can hardly believe she was willing to part with it. Needless to say, I love it. Late Soviet kitsch is a guilty pleasure of mine.

Oh, my colleagues are so nice to me! I will miss them.

(She also gave me a little calendar with Orthodox icons on it. It has all the fast days marked... I haven't counted, but at first glance it looks like the Orthodox devout spend more time fasting than not fasting. In fact, they're supposed to be fasting right now. Happy St. Peter Fast, everyone. June 23 to July 11.)

Aina's Beetless Borscht

This is partly just for my reference, but I get a fair number of hits from people looking for borscht recipes, so I thought I'd post it here. I went over to my friend Aina's the other day and found her making borscht for her brothers. "If it's borscht, shouldn't it have beets in it?" I asked. "It can, but it doesn't have to," she replied. To Aina and to many Russians, borscht means 'cabbage soup,' not necessarily 'beet soup', as Americans tend to think.

This is all quite approximate. Russians aren't nearly as recipe-obsessed as Americans are; for example, I remember one of my classes laughing out loud at the fact that our recipes tell us to preheat our ovens, and my Russian girl friends often have to hide their skepticism of my ability to cook, since I appear to require instructions that are, to them, far too specific. Anyway, for soup, amounts don't really matter as long as you don't oversalt it.

Start by peeling and slicing three or four potatoes (Aina cuts them in half lengthwise, and then slices each half widthwise into centimeter-thick slices) and shredding a whole head of cabbage. Take a tablespoon or so of dried mint (she does this for her Turkmen father; mint is apparently prominent in Turkmen cuisine) and use your hands to mix it and some salt to taste into the shredded cabbage.

Put the cabbage and potatoes to boil in a 5-liter pot with broth for at least 15 minutes. Aina used meat broth, but no meat. I'm pretty sure any kind of broth would do. I didn't see how much she had in there, but it was enough so that the broth and the cabbage mixture combined almost filled the pot.

Meanwhile, grate a carrot with the large holes of a grater and chop an onion; put them in a pan with some vegetable oil over medium-low heat and get to work chopping three or four tomatoes. Add those to the pan, along with a spoonful of tomato paste for color; bring the pan contents (now quite liquid because of the tomatoes) to a boil while chopping some garlic to taste. Add everything to the soup pot. Now chop some fresh parsley and dill (maybe about half a cup chopped) and add that, along with some more salt. Let everything simmer for a minute or two more, and your borscht is done. Serve with a dollop of sour cream or mayonnaise in each bowl.

P.S. It seemed weird to me that Russians eat soup in the summer, but with some bread and a salad of chopped tomatoes/cucumbers/parsley/dill (ubiquitous in Russia from May to October) it made a nice, fairly light dinner. And it's quick, if you've got the broth on hand already.

04 July 2008

One Thing I'd Like to Fix About Russia

I know, it's not my place. Still.

I was hanging out with my friend Aleksei the other night when out of the blue he said, "Remember Andryusha?"

"Which Andryusha? The one who lived with you while he was looking for an apartment this spring?"


"Yes, why?"

"He died last week."

"Are you serious?!?"

"Yeah. They had his funeral two days ago."

"What happened?!"

"Car accident. There was a drunk driver, and he had been drinking too, and the other guy swerved and he swerved to miss him and slammed into a pole. It was the day Russia beat the Netherlands."

"That's terrible! I don't even know what to say!"

"I know. I was totally shocked when I found out, too. The worst part is, he was just unlucky. I was in an accident on the highway, we were going 100 kph and the other people were too, and I got out with nothing but a scratch on my leg. But he died. If his car had had airbags, he'd probably still be alive. (pause) And if he'd been wearing a seatbelt, I'm positive he'd have made it."


I only met Andrei once or twice, but it was still shocking to be blindsided by that. It's hard to grasp how someone who was totally alive the last time you saw him, who had, as they say, his whole life in front of him (he was 22), could have suddenly just ceased to exist. And I feel terrible for him, for having his life cut so short, and for his family and friends. But the worst part is that this kind of stupid crap happens all too often in Russia. Almost 40,000 Russians a year die in traffic accidents. That needs to change. I once looked up the number for the U.S. and I believe it's somewhat similar, but we've got more than twice Russia's population, and I'm sure our number of cars per capita is much, much higher.

So many Russians, especially men, just don't wear seatbelts. Ever. How many taxi drivers have I watched put on their seatbelt as we approach the customs checkpoint at the edge of town and then unfasten it again as soon as we're past? Seriously, guys. The seatbelt isn't that uncomfortable, and the highway from Taganrog to Rostov in most places doesn't even have a center line or clearly defined shoulders. What's the point of risking it?

I won't even get into the traffic laws and people's tendency to follow them, except to say that it's one thing about Russia that most Western visitors seem to find legitimately shocking. I've been in cars that have hit 100 kph on city streets, 200 meters from a stop sign. Why? Because it's badass to drive that way, and if you get caught, you can give the policeman a hundred rubles and get off scot-free. (For the record, I do not ride with people who drive that way more than once.)

Judging by my friends and acquaintances, drunk driving isn't quite as common in Russia as I originally believed, but it's certainly not nearly as actively stigmatized as it is in the U.S. You can lay the blame on Andrei for driving under the influence – or for not wearing a seatbelt, for that matter, but how many of us would be doing the same thing if they hadn't beaten it into us how dangerous and stupid it is? We are lucky, my friends. They teach us to wear our seatbelts and they punish us when we do stupid things on the road. They sell us cars with airbags in them. They keep our roads in relatively safe condition. That's not what Aleksei meant when he said Andryusha was "just unlucky," but that's how I take it.

01 July 2008

Это всё, что останется после меня*

*This is all that will remain after me.

I moved out of my apartment yesterday. I've got ten more days here, but now that I'm living out of my suitcases in the institute's guesthouse, it really feels like the beginning of the end.

Goodbye, gas stove. You were a kasha-boiling and chocolate chip cookie-baking workhorse. Goodbye, window that required masking tape, caulk and strips of furniture foam to keep the drafts out this winter.

Goodbye, Khrushchev–era fridge with the contact paper coming off. I'm sorry I only defrosted your freezer box at the very end of our relationship. I say "relationship" because, for a machine so ugly and disgusting, I really grew to love you.

Goodbye, world's most comfortable fold-out bed/couch. Your winning combination of squishy soft foam cushions and reliably supportive wooden planks has earned a special place in my heart that no future mattress will ever steal.

Goodbye, living room/bedroom/home office/balalaika studio rolled into one. Goodbye, wardrobe with the video game stickers on it. Goodbye, curtain that is all that remains of the world's greatest Draft Dodger. Goodbye, hideous carpet and green wood-print linoleum. Goodbye, sewing machine table-turned-desk.

Goodbye, best views of Taganrog in the whole city. Goodbye, roofs and treetops, park, sea, factory smokestacks, wheat fields, road to Rostov and, on extremely clear days, Rostov itself.

Goodbye, entryway.

Goodbye, first real apartment.

Also, as today is July 1st: goodbye, Fulbright. We had a good two years.

29 June 2008

Быть – или не быть? Таков вопрос.

I went to a production of Hamlet yesterday in Rostov. It was a new ballet set to music by Shostakovich, and despite harboring no great love for Shostakovich, I really enjoyed it. I looked around on the English internet for stuff about it and couldn't find anything, so I translated these two articles I found on the Russian internet, for anyone who's interested in this sort of thing. (I could also share my thoughts, but I'm pretty inept at analyzing ballet. Mostly I just sit there and look at the dancing and listen to the music and feel happy inside.)

From "Rossiiskaya gazeta – Nedelya: Yug Rossii" No. 4678, 5 June 2008.

New Ballet "Hamlet" to Music of Shostakovich Premieres Tomorrow at Rostov State Musical Theater

This is a full-scale two-act show. The modern choreography, the musical material, the sets and costumes – everything has been put together masterfully. Even the most conservative audiences are sure to appreciate the unusual completeness of this unique ballet and the artistic courage of the troupe performing it.

The setting of the ballet is not medieval Denmark, but the 1930's-1950's, when Shostakovich himself lived and composed.

"The musical fabric of the ballet is composed of fragments of Shostakovich's First, Fifth and Tenth Symphonies, his musical score to the [Soviet] film version of Hamlet, and a few of his other works," explained Vyacheslav Kushchev, the artistic director of the theater. "Musical director and conductor Aleksandr Goncharov worked hard to shape these fragments into a musical whole."

For the leader of the Bolshoi Theater's ballet troupe, Yuri Klevtsov, "Hamlet" was something of a debut; not only does he dance the role of Claudius, but it's also his first time working as the assistant to the balletmeister-producer. Two other soloists from the Bolshoi join Rostov's company for the show: Viktoria Litvinova in the role of Gertrude and Aleksandr Smolyaninov as Hamlet.

From "Ekspert-Yug" Number 11, 9 June 2008

In Rostov an unprecedented event has taken place: they've put on a ballet of Hamlet to the music of Shostakovich.

Aleksei Fadeyechev, the head balletmeister of the Rostov State Musical Theater and a holder of the title "People's Artist of Russia," took upon himself several years ago a worthy, but difficult task: to find in Rostov, a city where dance as a performing art had always been somewhat amateur, a home for world-class ballet. And now the patient cultivation of his own school of ballet has begun to bear fruit. The premiere of the ballet Hamlet in Rostov should be a new source of local artistic pride. It clearly dismisses the common stereotypes of the city – slick economic resourcefulness, an overly easygoing character, devotion to popular culture. Rostov has a chance at becoming the theatrical capital of the Russian South; the only serious competition is from Krasnodar, with its ballet "school" led by Yuri Grigorovich.

The new reading of Hamlet uses the Stalinist period as a backdrop: marching, uniform-clad children; benevolently-smiling dictators; the hero – a true maximalist and romantic – struggling not to lose himself. The show leads the audience into a harmoniously constructed reality in which classical dance is "diluted" with Modernist eccentricity and spare, harsh scenery. At a press conference Fadeyechev promised journalists a "cruel Hamlet." If we consider that Ophelia hangs herself in full view of the audience at the very climax of the show, and that the ballet opens and closes on a funeral bier, maybe he's right. However, the general impression is not one of cruelty. The ballet is, in essence, a classic production of the 20th century – the summation of an entire epoch and an attestation to an already-mature tradition.

(A long interview with Fadeyechev followed. It didn't seem worthwhile to translate it.)

I did something Russian and took pictures even though we weren't allowed to take pictures. Obviously, they're not the greatest, but at least you can see the super-cool Stalinist-looking set:

27 June 2008

This Entry Rated R for Foul Language

It's all Russian foul language, but still. You've been warned.

I went out last night, briefly, for the Russia vs. Spain semi-final of the Euro Cup soccer tournament. (Russia lost.) By the time I went out at 10 p.m. (45 minutes before the match started), the streets were packed with people waving Russian flags, wearing white, blue and red face paint, drinking and generally making merry. Almost every car had a Russian flag waving out the window, and many of the drivers were honking madly as they drove down Taganrog's main street. "You wouldn't see anything like this in America!" one of the guys I was with exclaimed.

[Actually, it kind of bothers me when people who have never been to America say things like that. How would he know? Amara and I once made a list of Things Russians Think Are Uniquely Russian But Aren't, such as mittens and birch trees. But that's another story.]

Anyway, I think he's right that sports hooliganism with a patriotic tinge is something you don't really see in America; maybe that's because we don't participate in very many international competitions – except the Olympics, which somehow don't seem that conducive to drunken rioting – or because our internal rivalries (college basketball, NFL, MLB, etc.) take up all our energy. Either way, I don't regret our lack of sports patriotism or feel jealous when I see Russia's. It's a bit too much like nationalism (the bad kind) for my taste.

Still, it was interesting to be out in the streets, and in the huge crowd gathered around an outdoor café's projector screen where we ended up. I only stayed through the first half because I couldn't see anything and the cigarette smoke was nauseating, but it was still interesting to observe. The cheers people were shouting may have been the most amusing part. Apparently the lack of cheerleading in European football culture has been sorely felt.

Worst cheer:
Olé, olé olé olé,
Rossiya vperyod!

(Rossiya vperyod means "Russia – forward!" and is the equivalent of "Go, Russia!!!" But you don't need to speak Russian to see that syllabically, it doesn't quite fit in the space that would normally hold two more "olés.")

Most obvious cheer:
Nuzhen gol! Nuzhen gol!
("We need a goal! We need a goal!" I can't really fault them, though, since we have the same kind of thing: "We, we want, a touchdown, Bulldogs! We, we want, a touchdown!")

Other cheers:
Pobeda nasha –
Ispaniya parasha!
("Victory is ours – Spain is a toilet!" And not just any toilet - a parasha is a prison toilet, basically just a foul hole or bucket in the corner of the cell.)

Rossiya vperyod, Ispaniya sosyot!
("Go, Russia! Spain sucks!" I wonder if this is a calque from English?)

The dirtiest, which I couldn't help but giggle at, was simply a mass chant:
na khui! na khui! na khui!
It was started up whenever the Spanish team or coach was being shown. Khui (which sounds almost exactly like 'hooey') is the dirtiest of Russian dirty words, which is why it made me giggle. Literally it refers to a certain male reproductive organ, but, like English swear words, it can really mean any number of things. The above sentiment means something like "Go to hell!" or "F*** you!"

Anyway, I think I'm glad I went home at the half. Being stuck in the middle of a crowd of disappointed/angry drunk Russian guys at one in the morning wouldn't have been my idea of fun.

25 June 2008

I Am Foreign, Not Stupid

I was talking to a Russian acquaintance yesterday, recounting my story about the train mishap on the way to Pskov. I concluded by saying that "living in a foreign country is no good for people with an overdeveloped sense of personal pride." And how - last night after returning home from buying train tickets, I was standing outside my entryway talking to a girl who lives a few floors below me, when someone dumped AN ENTIRE BUCKET OF WATER on me from one of the apartment balconies. My ticket got wet, my copy of Master and Margarita got wet, the inside of my purse got wet, and of course I myself was absolutely drenched.

I don't really like the girl I was talking to - it's not a story worth getting into, but suffice to say that she's rude and disrespectful. When she "discovered" me in April she spent a week calling me nonstop in order to show me off to her friends, and giving my number to lots of teenage boys. Of course I ignored her calls once I figured out what was going on. Anyway, I suspect she was involved in the water-dumping. She and the crowd of friends she was with laughed heartily. Being rather shocked, I laughed, too, and did my best to pretend that I wasn't mad. I just said, "If you find out who that was, tell them I said thanks," and left.

Anyway. The title of this post is from a comment my friend Rita made on Rosa's personal page about her adventures and misadventures this summer in Cambridge (the link is not to Rosa's personal page, but to her candy blog). Sometimes I wish I had a t-shirt that said "I Am Foreign, Not Stupid" in huge letters. Obviously it's something you encounter in any country - all of us, if we're not careful about it, tend to treat people who speak with an accent or who don't understand the system as if they were a little slow. It's natural, I guess, and sometimes helpful. It's been good for me, anyway, to have to swallow my pride again and again; you can't exactly shout something like "You people have NO IDEA how smart I am!", no matter how much you want to. And it's been good for me to come to terms with the fact that people really do mean well when they ask me things like, "Can you figure out how to save my number on your cellphone?" or "Have you ever been to the train station? Can you get there yourself? Do you need help getting a tram?"

But with this girl and her adolescent friends it goes beyond that. They don't seem to have any dislike for me personally or for Americans in general - just the idea that foreigners are too dull-witted to notice or be offended when you're laughing at them. Of course, it's not worth getting upset about. If anything, I should feel bad for them, right?

24 June 2008

Recovering English Teacher

On Friday I had my last class.

Or actually, I had my last class on Thursday morning, because my Thursday afternoon and Friday morning crews did not show up. Not with a bang, but a whimper, I guess. (I don't blame them, I blame our institute's crazy and convoluted class/exam schedule.)

Yesterday I had my last department meeting, where I provided the champagne and cake and my coworkers provided me with this guy:

Hand-painted Cossack porcelain is pretty famous around here; this is a Cossack porcelain Cossack. The best thing about him is that he's actually a flask (the foam on his mug of beer comes off, revealing a spout). I'm not sure why this was the gift they selected for me – as far as I recall, I was usually sober at work – but I absolutely love him nonetheless.

What all this means, of course, is that I'm done being a Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages.* Forever, if I so choose. I tried to jump for joy as discreetly as possible. It's been a fun two years of teaching (most of the time), but it's definitely not the career path for me.

*One of the little things I find unappealing and/or laughable about this profession: certain terminology-minded English teachers apparently got really into political correctness. It's potentially insulting to the intelligence of your polyglot students to call it "English as a Second Language," and "English as a Foreign Language" has negative connotations of "otherness," inappropriate in our global village. You can't just call yourself an English teacher, either, because that means something totally different most of the time.

20 June 2008

The Great Train Robbery, or How Not to Plan a Trip: Continued Again

Part One: Some Bad Decisions On My Part

Part Two: Disaster Strikes

Part Three: No Action Film is Complete Without a Car Chase

Finally, at about 12:20, the train arrives at the appointed stop. I say goodbye to Viktor, the ticket lady, and everyone else who poked their nose into the affair. The girl and I get off. She seems pretty uninterested in me, but nonetheless immediately lassoes her boyfriend, who is waiting for her at the station, and makes him summon up a cab. By stroke of luck or magic, a cab comes rolling into this dusty little village within approximately forty-five seconds. Girl and boyfriend deposit me in the cab, for which I thank them profusely.

Here the journey could have become unpleasant, since Russian taxi rides usually are, but God apparently loves a fool and therefore granted me the only good cab driver in all of Rostov Oblast. He (the driver, not God) immediately grasps the gravity of the situation and promises to get me there on time. An Armenian from one of the outlying Rostov villages, he proves chatty, funny, and not opposed to the idea of me wearing a seatbelt (a great rarity among Russian cab drivers). We talk about politics, the Armenian language in Armenia and Russia, money. He does not rebuke me for not leaving earlier. We get caught in traffic (it turns out Pervomaiskaya is actually inside Rostov, just not downtown. Rostov is perpetually congested). Seeing that I'm getting antsy, he tells me exactly how much farther we have to go (four hundred meters). We finally pull into the station parking lot at 12:52. "Thank you so much! You saved me!" I gush as I hand him his four hundred rubles ($16). "You're not saved yet! Now go get your ticket!" he laughs before he speeds away.

I run into the station. There's no line at the ticket window. This is such a rarity that I'm convinced some higher power really is looking out for me. The ticket window girl, who does not have a bouffant, squints at my wrinkled computer printout. "Wow, why are you so late?!?" she exclaims. "That's a really long story!" I puff. She does not ask for details, but prints me a ticket in under two minutes. Gold star for ticket window girl!

So, in the end I reached the train at exactly one o'clock, with seven minutes to spare. If you want, you can pretend I defused a bomb MacGyver-style and captured the terrorists who planted it in those seven minutes, instead of standing outside my car and talking to Amara on the phone in loud English, thus earning the suspicion of my wagon's conductor (and breaking the ticket-lady rule I set for myself at the end of Part Two).

Anyway, that's all, fade to credits. Happy end, just like Hollywood! It was kind of fun, in retrospect. I haven’t had an "Is it Russia, or is it me?" moment in a long time, much less an entire adventure.

Stop! Grammar Time!

Last fall I wrote about an interesting construction in Russian where a preposition appears to govern nominative case:

что за + noun-NOM.

Yesterday I encountered a piece of the puzzle I didn't even think to look for before. In the present tense, this construction lacks an overt verb, since Russian is null-copula in the present (copula refers to the form of the verb to be that connects a subject and complement; null-copula means you leave it out).

However! In the past tense, to be shows up in Russian, and brings verb agreement with it. Yesterday I said:

Я не знаю, что было за задача.
Ya ne znayu chto bylo za zadacha
I NEG know what was-3sg.-neuter PREP task.
"I don't know what the assignment was."

Without even thinking about it, I put was in its neuter form. Russian past tense verbs are marked for gender and number, and the neuter is what you use a) if the subject of the sentence is neuter, like okno "window", and b) in subjectless constructions. In this case, I chose the neuter form to make the verb agree with chto ("what").

But I was soon corrected. Apparently the past-tense verb should get feminine morphology here. That means it agrees with zadacha (f.) "task," not with chto (n.). This is meaningful because nouns that are inside prepositional phrases are not supposed to be able to govern the verb. That is, the verb isn't supposed to be able to agree with them.

Faced with this additional evidence, I'd say it looks more and more like:
a) the prepositional phrase here is actually "za chto," not "za zadacha," but it's been flipped around and become "chto za." Although the preposition coming after the noun is, as far as I know, totally anomalous for modern Russian.
b) za isn't actually functioning as a preposition at all.

I'm not sure which analysis I'm in favor of. The second strikes me as awfully... I don't know, sloppy, or something. The first is so weird, though. However, I have encountered, once or twice, mirror-image noun phrases of the common pattern [noun-NOM noun-GEN], where the genitive is used to denote "of the" or "of a." For example, "apple-GEN core-NOM"/"of an apple the core" instead of "core-NOM apple-GEN"/"the core of an apple." I made that example up off the top of my head and I don't know if it's useable; I haven't encountered this construction frequently enough to really understand where it's used.

(For Russian speakers: I'm not referring to that alternate genitive where you say "мамино яблоко" ("Mom's apple") instead of "яблоко мамы" ("the apple of Mom"). It was definitely the regular genitive, and definitely flipped.)

Also, in certain instances (e.g. on a menu), we encounter noun phrases where the noun comes ahead of the adjective that modifies it: сок яблочный (juice apple(adj.)) instead of the standard яблочный сок (apple(adj.) juice).

The existence of these flip-flops, even if they are only written forms (I don't think I've ever heard anyone say either one), makes me wonder if a flip-flopped "za chto" is possible.

Ugh, in writing this, I really can't believe how much syntax terminology I've just completely forgotten. The concepts are still (mostly) there, but I just don't remember how to talk about them. Maybe I'll re-read my old syntax textbook when I get home.

Despite forgotten terminology, I'm apparently still a language geek, as I had to make myself cut a bunch of irrelevant stuff out of this post: a paragraph on subjectless constructions, a paragraph on various Russian expressions of ownership, a paragraph on the genitive of negation, and a paragraph on gender identity in the GULAG and verbal morphology choices. Good grief, Leslie.

19 June 2008

The Great Train Robbery, or How Not to Plan a Trip: Continued

Part One: Some Bad Decisions On My Part

Part Two: Disaster Strikes

"What do you mean, Pervomaisk?" she responds. "You probably want to go to Rostov," and hands me a forty-eight ruble Rostov ticket and two rubles change. She's half started walking away when I stammer out, "No, I need to go to Pervomaisk. That's where my train leaves from."

"Well, we don't go to Pervomaisk. This train goes the western route to Rostov. Didn't you see that on the schedule in the station? You should read the schedule before you get on the train."

I don't really remember how this happened, but within approximately thirty seconds it became clear to everyone in the entire car that I needed to be at Pervomaisk by one o'clock and was now trapped on a train that was not going to get me there. Within the next thirty seconds, at least half of them had informed me, one at a time, that I ought to have left earlier.

The ticket lady was singularly unhelpful; she quickly vanished. Not knowing what to do, I planted my forehead against the train window, closed my eyes and tried to think. At this point, the guy next to me (Viktor from Stavropol, I will be forever in your debt!) said, "Excuse me... I'm not from around here, but what I'd do is get off at a station before Pervomaisk and see if you can't take a taxi from there. Obviously if you go all the way to Rostov and then trace back, you won't make it. But, I mean, I'm not from this region..."

"I'm not even from this COUNTRY!" I wail.

"I know. I can hear your accent," he replies. (Thanks, Viktor.)

Seeing that Viktor is nice enough to help the stupid foreign girl, my other neighbors perk up and offer up the name of the station where the western and southern routes to Rostov separate: that's where I should get off. I call Amara and inform her that I'm not going to make it to Pskov, ever. I am mostly joking. We work out that, in any case, I have until 7 p.m. tomorrow to reach Moscow, since that's when my Moscow-Pskov train leaves. So I can catch a different train if I have to, or even the 5 a.m. plane. Everything will be ok. Expensive, maybe, but ok.

I hang up and try to do some reading. I can't concentrate. Viktor, either seeing my distress or just interested in chatting with cute-but-stupid foreign girls, starts up a conversation which distracts me enough to keep me from crying. I learn that he graduated from college in 2006, works with computers, and was visiting a friend in Taganrog while on business in Rostov. He asks if I like Russia. ("Yes, except the trains," I say.) He reminisces about some Peace Corps Americans who lived in Stavropol in the nineties and refused to wear hats when it was cold. We joke that Taganrog does not follow the laws of Euclidean geometry; he got lost on his visit and was instructed to "follow Chekhov street til it intersects with Alexandrovskaya, which runs parallel." (Taganrog's main streets radiate from a single point, then bend to become parallel with each other.)

Eventually the ticket-lady wanders back and, apparently in a more helpful mood, explains where I should go to find a taxi once I get off. She also mentions, in case this hadn't already occurred to me, that I should have left earlier. I forgive her for this, however, when she leaves again and comes back with a girl who's getting off at the same place I am. (Note to self: ticket ladies wield great power. Get on their good side.)

Will Boris and Natasha get away with their dastardly plan? Will MacGyver fish the paperclip out of his pocket in time to defuse the bomb? Are we all just doomed? Find out tomorrow in Part Three: No Action Film is Complete Without a Car Chase!

18 June 2008

The Great Train Robbery, or How Not to Plan a Trip

That last post reminds me why I was taking a taxi to the train station in Rostov in the first place. (This was on my way to Pskov, in case that wasn't clear.) Basically, it's a story that involves me being stupid several times over, which is perfect blog fodder, no? I'll tell this story in three parts, because it's long.

Part One: Some Bad Decisions On My Part

First, I wait too long to buy my tickets and have to choose a train to Moscow that I don't usually take. This train leaves not from Rostov's main station, but from a station called Pervomaiskaya ("First of May").

I find out where Pervomaiskaya is from people at my place of work, which is pretty much the only smart thing I manage to do. It's a stop on the electric train route from Taganrog to Rostov, so all I have to do is take the electric train to Rostov and get off when they say "Pervomaiskaya". Simple.

So, my departure date rolls around. My Pervomaisk-Moscow train leaves at 1:07 p.m. By the time I get up, shower, and eat breakfast, I've long since missed the 8 a.m. electric train (electrichka) to Rostov; this leaves me the 10 a.m. express or the 11 a.m. non-express, which reaches the main Rostov station at 12:45. Clearly, I should take the express, but I don't move fast enough, and anyway, I realize that if it's an express, it might not even stop at Pervomaiskaya. And if the non-express gets all the way to Rostov by 12:45, it should get to Pervomaiskaya before that. I'll be fine.

I get to the Taganrog train station at 10:30 a.m., after stupidly taking a tram (slow) instead of a bus (fast) to get there. I delude myself into thinking that I have enough time to stand in line and get a paper ticket for Pervomaisk-Moscow (I bought my tickets online, but you absolutely must have a paper ticket to board the train) before catching the electrichka. There are four people in line front of me. Four people, thirty minutes. Ok. I stand calmly. After about three minutes I start tapping my foot. I start glancing at the clock twice a minute. I whisper mild Russian curses under my breath as the woman at the window fishes two birth certificates out of her purse to buy children's tickets for her kids. Nothing helps. Twenty minutes have passed. I text Amara: "I hate Russia. And I hate train stations. OF COURSE one ticket window is closed and the other is manned by a mentally deficient two-toed sloth masquerading as a woman with a bouffant." This takes two text messages to send, which goes against my text-messaging principles, but I don't care.

Four minutes before the electrichka is due to arrive, I jump ship. I'll have to get my paper ticket at Pervomaiskaya. I am praying that it actually has a ticket window and isn't some dusty half-station, nothing but a platform and a concrete enclosure with broken benches, rotting trash and stray dogs.

I get on the train and sit by a bookish-looking guy about my age. This is also actually a good move, although I don't know that yet. The ticket lady comes around.

"To Pervomaisk, please," I say politely, forking over a fifty-ruble note.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two: Disaster Strikes!

Вова, знаешь, я люблю тебя...

So I heard this song in Pskov and then again on the train home. I was struck by the choice of the name Vova, which is convenient because it sounds similar enough to the word "love" (lyubov') to make for easy lyric-writing. But it's also short for Vladimir. As in... Putin? The song goes something like this:

Vova, you know, I love you.
I don't need anything else.
I love you, and that's the best way
To always be under your power.

Vova, I'm ready to run into a burning hut,
Or stop a wild horse,
Just so that you'd come back again –
That will be happiness!

Upon hearing it, with the references to "power" and "coming back again" (which is exactly what the Putinophiles hope Putin will do after he cools his heels for four years in the office of the Prime Minister), I asked the Russian we were with whether she thought it was about Putin. She said no. I'm not so sure, though, and from a quick Google search, at least a few Russian bloggers agree with me. Ha.

I wonder if the group's next hit will be about Dima? Actually, that would be a good idea; if they wrote the lyrics right, it could serve as a thinly-veiled reference both to Medvedev and to bemulleted pop star Dima Bilan, who's earned the status of national hero (well, sort of) for having brought Russia its first-ever victory at Eurovision last month.


That reminds me, the taxi driver who drove me to the train station in Rostov told me this joke about Putin and Medvedev:

So, after Medvedev is elected, Putin informs him that he's going to bestow on him his car, a Volga. Medvedev, who does not own a car, is rather excited about this. He eagerly takes the keys, opens the door and sits in the driver's seat, whereupon he notices that something is missing. "Where's the steering wheel?" he asks Putin.

"Oh, this?" Putin replies, holding up the wheel. "Don't you worry about that. I'm going to be the one doing the steering."

Yeah, more dark than funny. (The part about Medvedev not owning a car is a reference to the fact that when the candidates for president were disclosing their personal assets, his statement claimed he didn't own a car. Makes you look like a man of the people, you know? Of course, it turned out that his wife owned a Porsche or something.)

The taxi driver was mad that I refused to tell him a joke about Bush in return. I wanted to, but I couldn't think of one...

17 June 2008

This One Goes Out to Amara

I just got back from Pskov and Moscow. I was visiting a Fulbright friend and helping her move from the one city to the other, and that meant I was there for her last few days in Pskov. That was emotionally charged, since leaving involved taking stock of what it's been like, what the place and the people have meant to her and what she in turn has meant to them.

I love Russia and I have no regrets about spending two years here. I really can't imagine myself without this experience, even though I don't think I understand yet in precisely what ways I've changed. That said, there are some things that have been awfully hard about being here, things we've totally failed at. And getting ready to leave – counting our successes and failures, what we're taking with us and leaving behind – underlines them. Amara and I talked about that a lot this weekend.

Our host cities and all the people in them hold a lot of meaning for us, but what are we to them? Guests who came for a while and then left, really. It's sad to think about that in the future sense – imagining ourselves remembering, in the sharp relief of the meaningful, all the Russians we met and worked with and taught and made friends with, and then imagining those people's memories of us, soft and hazy, fond but unimportant. It's selfish, I know. But it's always painful to care more than other people do, and in that sense, we've taken a lot more from Russia than we could give.

But this feeling has relevance in the present, too. I spent a good part of this year trying to just be a normal person, someone who lives in Taganrog the same way other people do. It was only this weekend that I fully realized that that's what I've been trying to do. I also realized that I failed, and that the endeavor was hopeless from the start. If you come to a place for one year, your identity is cast as soon as you get there: you're a guest, a temporary fixture no matter how well you speak the language or know the area. This is all the more true in Russia, which is still relatively inaccessible to foreigners. An American in Paris is not exotic; in Russia, heads turn when you speak English on the street, and that makes you that much more of an outsider.

This exoticness colors every single one of your relationships, and I think that's the hardest thing of all. With the consciousness of you as an American right at the surface, it's hard to build friendships that are based on finer aspects of your identity. American society being obsessed with defining and glorifying individual identity (facebook, blogging, blah blah blah), it's pretty hard for an American used to a whole slew of labels – I-like-folk-rock-and-Dostoevsky-and-knitting-and-college-football-and-I-say-pop-not-soda-and-I-play-this-and-I-study-that – to be stripped down to that one single sticker on the forehead: MADE IN USA. It doesn't feel like much of an identity at all.

That said (and rehashed over and over, along with many other things), we still had some fun this weekend. Pskov is a beautiful city, very Old Russia. And even in bittersweet times, it's a pleasure to enjoy the fruits of a friendship based on something more than shared labels of any type. Thanks, Amara! We ended up on the same flight to Russia, and look what happened. We've been on at least four vacations together, taken dozens of stupid pictures of each other (and of the food we've ordered in various cafes, though that's mostly you), gotten tipsy or more on cheap wine, Baltika Number Nine and absinthe (though that's mostly me), and probably exchanged thousands of text messages in the past ten months alone. In case you didn't know it, I'm really going to miss you next year.

Us in a pedalboat on the Velikaya River. You can sort of see the Pskov kremlin, which ranks up there with the Lake Baikal region (despite being much smaller) as one of my favorite places on earth.

Trinity Cathedral, the church inside the Pskov kremlin, under a threatening sky. It didn't rain on us, though.

Another postcard-y view.

11 June 2008

More on Happy Ends

Since comments are not exactly pouring in, I will just tell you the reason I think the Russian "kheppi end", borrowed from English "happy end," is weird. It's because, at least in my dialect of English, one rarely says "happy end;" it's much more common to talk about happy endings. So it's odd that Russian didn't borrow that form. Seems relevant that end and ending mean almost the same thing; that they don't mean exactly the same thing (and they don't, I think) is a fine enough point that it doesn't interfere with understanding.

But how and why did that –ing get lost? Did the common appearance of the words (written) "THE END" (not "THE ENDING") at the end of films, stories and plays have some influence on it? Or maybe it was influenced by the relative cognitive difficulties of dealing with nouns that have verbal morphology on them? (I know, I should know what they're called. Gerundives? Anyway, Russian doesn't have them.)

Or is this just another of the many lexical differences between British and American English that have made me look dumb so many times in the last two years? (Seriously. You have no idea how many there are until you go about correcting what you perceive to be errors in Russians' English, only to find out that they're actually speaking correct British English.)

09 June 2008

Внимание, уважаемые пассажиры!

Posting just for the sake of having more posts is dumb. Good thing that's not what I'm doing. ;) What I am doing is directing your attention to the addition of a new blog to my links list ("Friends and Acquaintances") – YPMBluegrass, four of my college friends documenting their summer in Louisville, Kentucky. They're band friends, so you know they're crazy in the best possible way. Check it out if you know them, or maybe even if you don't!

To make this post not-completely-non-Russia-related, have I mentioned that the symbol @ in Russian (called a "sobaka," meaning "dog" – looks a bit like a dog chasing its tail, though I don't know if that's where the name comes from) isn't interpreted as a stand-in for "at"? Russians tend to read it almost the same way we read "e" (as in email, e-card, e-book), meaning something like "pertaining to the internet." So I've gotten my students good and confused before by writing things like "class will be @ 4 p.m." on the board. Complete nonsense! Crazy American.

Post Number 170 Is Still Not About Yalta

Yesterday I learned the phrase солнечный зайчик/solnechny zaichik, which translates as the rather cloying "sunny bunny." This was the name of our relay team at the institute picnic I went on. I understood the "bunny" part, since we had two bunnies on our team ("bunny" being one of an inexhaustible store of Russian terms of endearment for small children), but what's with the "sunny"? Since there's a Zveri song with the same name, I began to suspect that it might actually mean something, and asked my advisor, who replied, "You know... like a spot of light from a mirror or something."

This probably isn't quite into the realm of Whorf and Sapir, but I had trouble grasping that definition, and am still having trouble clearly defining the phenomenon, apparently because it's something we don't have a name for in English. From her description, the spot of light you can throw onto a wall if you angle your watch face the right way is definitely a sunny bunny. But is the focused sunlight you can get from a magnifying glass also a sunny bunny? Is the spot of light on the floor from the sun shining through curtains? What about the patterns of light on the floor of a swimming pool? The spots from a disco ball? Those circles of light you sometimes get in a photograph where the sun is shining brightly?

A Google search for "solnechny zaichik" turned up photos (unsurprisingly), but also several pop songs and even a movie. It just feels cognitively weird, I guess, that this phenomenon or range of phenomena that I (and probably most other English speakers) rarely think about and have certainly never missed having a name for is so much closer to the surface of the Russian consciousness, simply because it has a name.

Also: I couldn't figure out why it was called a sunny bunny, until someone explained that it hops around like a bunny. Duh.

At least now the title of the Zveri song makes sense. Which brings me to another point: in this song, there's a line, "я хочу как в кино; там всегда хэппи энд/ya khochu kak v kino; tam vsegda kheppi end", which means "I want it to be like in the movies, where there's always a happy end." Kheppi end is a Russification of the English happy end, and one that's widespread enough to turn up in regular speech; I've heard, for example, "Она ищет своего хэппи энд"/"Ona ishchet svoyevo kheppi end"/"She's looking for her 'happy end.'" Meaning she's looking for happily ever after.

Without saying why I think it's weird, let me ask: does it strike anyone else as weird? If so, why?

07 June 2008

Post Number 169

Yes, I give myself an F for the getting-to-two-hundred-posts experiment. Four days with no posts is not a good way to start out, especially since I've got less than two months left here.

So, here is a post that's just about what's going on in my life, in case you were interested:
1. Teaching. Our semester goes until FOREVER. Russian schools and (it seems) almost every other university in the entire Russian Federation have finished their school years, but we haven't. I teach, technically, until June 21.
2. Why 'technically?' Partly because my students are all writing their term papers and studying for exams, so they show up to class, shall we say, intermittently. And also because I'm supposed to start working at an Embassy-sponsored summer camp in nearby Novocherkassk on June 16th. Technically.
3. Again with the 'technically?' Yes. Because a) I haven't heard anything at all from this camp so far, which leads me to suspect that it might not be happening. And b) on June 16th I'll be in Moscow.
4. I'm going on a(nother) trip! It's a trip to Pskov to see Amara/help her move to Moscow. She landed a great job there, which is awesome. But also sad, because it means she won't be in DC to goof off with me.
5. DC, right. Georgetown starts in late August. I'll be there for my birthday, probably doing fun things like choosing classes, moving into an apartment, maybe obtaining furniture. Perhaps I'll celebrate the same way I celebrated my third birthday, which is by going to IKEA and playing in the ball pit.
6. All the rigamarole of moving to DC is going to have to happen quickly, because I'm not coming home until early August. Why? The Great Baikal Trail. I've dreamed of working on it for as long as I've known about it, and now I'm going to! Baikal is pretty much my favorite place on earth, and in the process of getting there I might get to go back to Ulan-Ude, where I worked last summer. So I'm pretty excited!
7. That's in the second half of July, so the first half is wide open. Haven't really figured out what I'll be doing, but hopefully it'll involve some traveling, since I won't have an apartment in Taganrog anymore. Possibilities: Elista, Trans-Siberian out to Baikal, Petersburg (for the sixth time... unlike Moscow, it's a city I can't really get enough of). Moldova was a possibility, but now that I've promised not to leave the country again, I guess it's not.
8. Balalaika. In case anyone was worried, the lessons are still going strong. I was forced to perform last night at our institute's Russian Language Party (yes, again with the language-themed parties), which was well received despite my less-than-perfect performance of "Play, My Bagpipes" and "Hey, Get Home, All You Gossipy Women!" (Russian folk songs... no, I didn't know Russians had bagpipes, either). I guess foreign-girl-playing-Russian-folk-instrument is pretty much always going to be well received. Anyway, Mikhail Semyonovich has deemed my folk repertoire sufficiently large, and we've moved on to balalaika transcriptions of classical repertoire (a sonata by Paganini and a minuet by Boccherini that I guarantee you'd recognize if you heard it). Much harder than folk music, but also a lot of fun.

I guess that's all for now. Note to self: write about Yalta, and Taganrog's street names.

03 June 2008


Other Blogger users will know that your Blogger account page tells you how many posts are in your blog and when the last one was published. Mine? 167, last published June 2.

I'm not really neurotic about round numbers, but wouldn't it be nice to get to 200 before I leave Russia? I doubt I can do it, but I'm going to try. I'm generally a fan of blogs that update frequently anyway, and would like my blog to be That Kind of Blog.

Without further ado, let us whisk ourselves away to the far-off village of Sambek, the pearl of Rostov Oblast. (Well, far-off for you. It's probably five to eight kilometers away from me.)

This backlit beauty is "Родина–Мать/Rodina–Mat'/Homeland-Mother", and I'll give you three guesses as to which war she's a monument to. She stands in all her Socialist-Realist glory in Sambek, accompanied by an eternal flame that doesn't burn and concrete tablets listing all the soldiers from the village who died in the war. There were a lot, as the Sambek heights were the site of the battle that (I believe) pushed the Germans out of the peninsula Taganrog sits on. My friend Sasha, who lives in Sambek, has a whole collection of mortar shells and even a bayonet and a helmet he's found over the years in and around his family's yard.

I went to Sambek on Saturday to go v shashliki (yet again) with Sasha and some of his friends. After our meat-grilling adventures were over, we wandered around the village for a bit. After a very rustic bathroom stop at one of our party's homesteads (indoor plumbing? what for?), they took me to Rodina–Mat', because it's the only interesting place to go in the whole village (pop. 3000). Sasha remarked that it's sad that there's nowhere for young people to go to hang out or anything. "Isn't there a cafe or anything?" I asked. Sasha explained that no, there's no cafe, and no shops besides little mini-mart grocery stores here and there. I then asked, rather foolishly, if everyone in the village either works in Taganrog or Rostov like his friends (computer programmers) do. "Some do," he answered, "but most work on the collective farm."

The collective farm? Seriously?

In theory, I knew that there are still collective farms in Rostov Oblast, but I was still somehow surprised to encounter face-to-face the "collective farm and attached village" socioeconomic plan. How does it work? Who owns the farm? How did the transition from socialism to capitalism affect it? I wish I knew the answers to those questions.

It's tempting to look at the sleepy little village and say that nothing's changed there in a half a century. But that's not true, and I think it's more interesting to think about what has changed. (Hmm, I sense another trip to the library coming on.)

02 June 2008

Unfortunately, I haven't found one that goes to the Land of Make-Believe

I had a very bad day today. It involved the Russian migration authorities. Actually, this year has seen a high ratio of bad days caused by the Russian migration authorities to bad days caused by any other factor at all. Fortunately, I'm not leaving the country again until I actually leave the country (semi-permanently), so this should be the last of them.

Anyway, I should have known it would be a bad day when I got on the tram this morning, handed my ten-ruble note to the conductor, and received only three rubles change. Seven rubles?!? It was five just last week! That's a 40% increase! So much for Taganrog's claim to the cheapest public transport in the Russian Federation. (For reference, the exchange rate is about 23.7 rubles to the dollar, so five rubles is about 21 cents and seven rubles is 30 cents.)

I don't know if we actually had the cheapest public transport; there are probably other cities whose trams and buses only cost five rubles. But you'd be hard pressed to find a ride for less than that, and it's usually more; in Rostov it's seven and in Vladivostok it was eight. I might be wrong, but I think it's actually nine(!) in Pskov. I've never ridden a tram in Moscow, but I hear you have to sell your firstborn child to get on. And that's after you've already taken out a second mortgage so you could ride the metro. (I think a metro ride is 21 rubles now. They seem to raise the price about once a month.)

So this post isn't a complete whine-fest, let's add trams to the list of things I will miss about Russia. Really, public transportation in general. Even small cities have extensive, cheap public transport systems, including buses, mini-buses, trams and trolleys. I think trams are my favorite, and not just because they're fun to ride. First of all, you never have to worry about getting stuck in traffic (although in Vladivostok that was not the case, because the streets were so crowded that people drove on the tram tracks all the time). Plus the routes are very predictable, they're more spacious than buses, and you don't have to shout at the driver to stop at your stop like in a mini-bus.

Sometimes on holidays they decorate the newer trams in Taganrog's fleet (there are three of them, shiny red and white with gray upholstery, tinted windows and orange handrails inside) with bouquets of balloons. It's always very exciting when they do that; I've actually seen pedestrians ooh and ahh as they clank by. Not surprising – I mean, everyone wants to ride the Party Tram!

My English dictionary doesn't give a clear distinction between trams and trolleys. In Russian, both are powered by cables, but a троллейбус/trolleibus runs on the street, while a трамвай/tramvai runs on rails.

29 May 2008

Humphrey Bogart in The Yaltese Falcon

Neither my parents nor I can apparently get enough of Yaltese falcon jokes. I'm not even sure why it's so funny, but it is.

Anyway, this is a cheater picture post, because I'm tired and have a lot of laundry and stuff I should do instead of writing about Yalta. So, here are some pictures that sort of sum up the trip, about which I'll write in more detail later.

The view from our hotel room balcony.

Livadia Palace, site of the Yalta conference.

Looking down from Ai-Petri ("St. Peter" in Greek), the peak that overlooks Greater Yalta.

The city boardwalk/beach.

22 May 2008

Not to Be Confused with Malta

We interrupt the planning for tomorrow's Poetry Party (whose idea was it to have a poetry party? Seriously. Wait, was that me? Oh, yeah. Good one. For future reference, poetry and partying mix almost as well as short legs and those ankle-strap heels that are so fashionable this season. Russians seem to be oblivious in both of these cases, though, throwing Pushkin-themed raves and wearing inappropriate footwear with reckless abandon.) Ok, that train of thought derailed in the parentheses. Let's start again: We interrupt the planning for tomorrow's Poetry Party to procrastinate, and also to share the good news/brag that I get to go to Yalta next week!!!

My oft-mentioned neighbor Seth is done teaching and is going to Yalta, and he invited me to come along! The powers that be, though annoyed that this means I'll have to de-register and re-register my visa again and miss two days of class, admitted that this is not an opportunity to be wasted, and gave me their blessing. My students are, of course, heartbroken, but I think they'll live, since they immediately started making plans to go sunbathing during our canceled Monday lesson.

You may remember Yalta as the site of that one conference they had at the end of World War II, or the setting for Chekhov's famous short story Дама с собачкой/The Lady with the Lap-Dog, or as a sanatorium-resort town for invalids dying of tuberculosis, like Chekhov himself. It's also a nice place to hang out, with lots of beaches and mountains. It also has wars, or at least one, and Tatars.

PS – It's also in Ukraine! It's not super-Ukrainian, since it was actually part of Russia until some bureaucrat's pen slipped during the Khrushchev era, but still. I've never been to Ukraine.

20 May 2008

Survival of the Fittest?

Lately I've been thinking about the ways I've changed in response to Russia, Russians and Russian, and wondering what's going to happen to the habits and beliefs I've acquired when I move back home. Only time will tell, of course, but in order to avoid thinking too seriously about it and making myself sad, I put together a silly little list of ways in which Russia has influenced me and failed to influence me. In no particular order:

Adapted: Eat salo (salted pork-back fat... like bacon, but just the fat) and beet-based dishes with pleasure.
Didn't adapt: Still refuse to touch caviar and jellied meat.

Adapted: Drink all soft drinks at room temperature.
Didn't adapt: Still require a drink with my meal instead of after.

Adapted: Wore a hat every time I went outside from November 1 to mid-March.
Didn't adapt: Still started wearing flip-flops at the first sign of spring.

Adapted: Think nothing of wearing the same outfit two days in a row.
Didn't adapt: Still can't bring myself to wear gold lamé, see-through shirts, or plaids and florals together.

Adapted: Put on makeup anytime I leave the apartment, even if I'm just popping into the grocery store.
Didn't adapt: Don't own any lipstick in shade #048 Bubble Gum Pink.

Adapted: Don't sit at the corner of tables, because it's bad luck.
Didn't adapt: Still sit on cold surfaces, because I know it's not going to make me sick or infertile.

Adapted: Consider just strolling around downtown not only a legitimate form of hanging out, but the platonic ideal.
Didn't adapt: Still have no desire to go nightclubbing. Ever.

Adapted: Automatically ask "Who's last in line?" and say, "Ok, I'm behind you" to whoever replies when I encounter a clump of people who look like they might be waiting for something I would like to be waiting for.
Didn't adapt: Still only rarely work up the nerve to yell at people who cut in front of me. (Although Amara can attest to my one moment of glory in Murmansk, when I said, "Excuse me, young man, you don't have the right to cut in front of us!" Unfortunately, it turned out that he technically did have the right to cut in front of us, but I won't go into that.)

Adapted: Developed an appreciation for Kino and DDT.
Didn't adapt: Still hate Alla Pugacheva.

Adapted: Never (ok, rarely) smile to myself or do anything other than stare stonily ahead as I walk down the street.
Didn't adapt: Still say "thank you" to cashiers in stores when they're not expecting it.

Adapted: No longer offer to pay if I go to a café with a guy, even if it's clearly not a date.
Didn't adapt: Still feel bad about it every time.

Adapted: Let guys open doors for me; automatically walk through open doors ahead of whatever guy I might be with.
Didn't adapt: Still hold doors open for other people (which is weird because I'm a girl).

Adapted: Allow (albeit grudgingly) male students to take care of all classroom affairs involving the moving of furniture or the use of electronic equipment.
Didn’t adapt: Still cringe when people refer to women as "the weaker sex."

Adapted: Automatically suspect anyone with a lot of money of having obtained it dishonestly. (This one really weirds me out.)
Didn't adapt: Don't automatically suspect everyone from the Caucasus to behave dishonestly.

Adapted: Sympathize with nostalgia for the Soviet era, especially among the older generations.
Didn't adapt: Still believe in democracy.

Obviously, I'm kind of dealing in stereotypes here (although I would like to note that in class today, two of my six students were wearing see-through shirts). Don't take any of it too seriously. In other news, yay for Russian sports! Zenith, the Petersburg team, won some important soccer thing last week (not EuroCup, but something like that), and the day before yesterday the Russian hockey team won the world ice hockey championship!

17 May 2008

A Russian Holiday

On Victory Day I went в шашлыки/v shashliki (barbecuing) with a friend and some of her friends. We drove out into the countryside and found a spot by a pond near the village of Troitskoye ("Trinity"). "Do you do this in America? Just drive out into the country and find a good spot for a picnic?" one of our drivers asked. "Not really," I replied, and tried to explain how property ownership in the U.S. means you kind of have to find a place that's actually designated as public, like a park or campground. He seemed surprised, but also enormously pleased to have found an area in which, in his view, Russia one-ups the U.S. And I agree that at the very least, it's nice not to feel like you're probably trespassing if you walk through a field or build a bonfire on a beach.

On the subject of drivers, I was a little worried, because my experience has been that Russians are more ok with driving after drinking than Americans are, and since it was a holiday, of course we were going to drink. (An older American I was discussing it with holds that our stigmatization of it, like our aversion to littering, is something that's been beaten into us only in the last fifty years or so.) But neither of our company who were driving drank anything at all, much to my relief. I didn't know how I would have gotten home otherwise.

And on the subject of drinking, two things: one, there's this whole demographic of tough-guy eighteen-year-old boys who don't seem to really like me (largely, I think, because I'm American; in this case, also because Aina, the friend I was with, got mad at them when they swore in front of me, and not swearing eliminates about 90% of their means of personal expression). This doesn't really bother me, but whatever. But I discovered that, as if by magic, they really warm up to me if I take a shot of vodka. Ha. (Not that I'm going to take to the bottle to make people like me, but it's sort of a neat party trick...)

Second, it turns out that the spot we were occupying was kept up, if not exactly owned, by a guy who lives by the pond in a little shack with no running water. He keeps people from fishing in the pond, although whether that's under orders from someone who actually owns the pond is unclear. Anyway, we paid our due to him by listening to him recite poetry, playing checkers with him, and of course sharing our chicken and beer. In return, he helped us chop firewood and gave us some stools. At the end, he brought out a huge bottle of home-brewed vodka and proposed a toast with the men – "to veterans, for Victory Day!" The guys who drank with him took one whiff of their shots, waited til he wasn't looking, and poured them out on the grass behind them. I later managed to get hold of the bottle, and understood why – the stuff smelled like nail-polish remover. Hmm, "harmful or fatal if swallowed"?

Anyway, he asked me to take his picture with his favorite puppy (he had several wandering around), which is really the whole point of this post:


Sorry, again, for the general lack of posts in the past week or so. All I can think about when I think about writing is that I'm leaving soon, and that's not something I'm really ready to write about. I'll try to do better, though! If you're particularly hungry for more of my adventures – and who wouldn't be? – my neighbor Seth posted some pictures from our day at the horseraces a few weeks ago. (Pictures that *I* took, albeit with his camera.)

09 May 2008

Victory Day number two

На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
И вдовы на них не рыдают,
К ним кто-то приносит букеты цветов,
И Вечный огонь зажигают.

Здесь раньше вставала земля на дыбы,
А нынче - гранитные плиты.
Здесь нет ни одной персональной судьбы -
Все судьбы в единую слиты.

А в Вечном огне виден вспыхнувший танк,
Горящие русские хаты,
Горящий Смоленск и горящий рейхстаг,
Горящее сердце солдата.

У братских могил нет заплаканных вдов -
Сюда ходят люди покрепче.
На братских могилах не ставят крестов,
Но разве от этого легче?..

There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves;
And there are no sobbing widows.
There are only bouquets of flowers
And the fire of the Eternal Flame.

First they were marked by mounds of dirt,
And later by granite tablets.
Here there's no "individual fate" –
For here, all of our fates ran together.

And in the Eternal Flame are the flames of the tanks,
The burning peasant huts,
Burning Smolensk, the burning Reichstag,
And the burning hearts of the soldiers.

There are no sobbing widows at soldiers' mass graves –
We who come here are stronger than that.
There are no crosses on soldiers' mass graves –
But does that make it any easier?

Vladimir Vysotsky, 1964

(It's a song. The translation, somewhat loose, is mine.)

May 9th, День Победы/Den' Pobedy/Victory Day, is one of the most important holidays – probably the most important holiday, in the official view – of the year in Russia. I wrote about it last year as well, when I celebrated the occasion primarily by having a long, emotional conversation (well, more of a monologue, really, with me playing the role of the audience) with an elderly neighbor of Laura's.

I've spent a lot more time this year thinking and talking about World War II than I did last year. The memory of World War II was important in Vladivostok – caring about World War II is a requirement of morally correct Russian citizens, the same way, perhaps, that loving democracy or freedom of speech is a requirement of morally correct American citizens. Maybe. It's hard to find parallels, since our societies are so different. Anyway, people in Vladivostok care about World War II. The city history museum and the museum of the Pacific Fleet both have significant floor space devoted to it (like every museum in Russia, basically), and the city, like all Soviet cities, is littered with monuments – one to the naval ships that were lost, one to the civilian ships that were lost, the requisite eternal flame (every city has an eternal flame devoted to the war), etc.

But the main front wasn't there, and you can definitely tell once you've lived where the front was. Taganrog was occupied by the Nazis for a year or so, I believe; we have monuments to the teenaged partisans (which has a different meaning in Russian than in English) that participated in the Taganrog underground, plaques on buildings around town that were used as Nazi military headquarters and hospitals and such, and huge Socialist-Realist monuments in the villages around Taganrog where the front lines were. Furthermore, almost everyone seems to have a relative (or several, usually) who fought. I've heard stories from two or three people whose parents or grandparents fought at Stalingrad; unsurprising, since Stalingrad (now Volgograd) isn't that far away, but still strangely jarring, since it and the siege of Leningrad are the only WWII battles I'm really familiar with anymore (although I made a great salt-dough map of Iwo Jima in eighth grade). In short, the inherited memory of the war seems much stronger here than it was in Vladivostok. The kind of story I heard last year from the elderly neighbor turns out to be a genre in its own right; telling family stories about the war is a beloved pastime this time of year, one that's only becoming more important as the generation of veterans that Soviet schoolchildren used to present with flowers and gifts of thanks slowly disappears.

Strangely, there's no end of hand-wringing about the fact that the veterans are dying, especially among older Russians. I mean, I sort of understand it – people know the younger generations will eventually forget the war, and since the war loomed so large in their consciousness, that seems almost criminally irresponsible of them, not to mention dangerous. The trope that "we must remember, so that it never happens again," one that's probably been around as long as people have been doing horrible things to each other (so, always), is one that gets invoked a lot. How exactly Russians remembering their victory over the Nazis will prevent Nazism from returning is, I think, a question best left unasked. No point being too irreverent when you're a guest in a foreign land. But it's not like the fact that it was "the Greatest Generation" can be expected to prevent it from dying...

Anyway, in the same vein, I hear again and again how indifferent young people are to the war; but I've never actually found a young person who was indifferent. In the last few years, a new fad has emerged of tying "St. George ribbons" to your clothes, car antenna (to slightly weird effect if your car is a German, Italian or Japanese model), or purse. They're like the Russian version of those damn car-magnet-ribbon-thingies, except (so far) less annoying. They hand them out everywhere; at schools, the post office, the city government building, etc. They're meant as a symbol of remembrance, reverence and thanks. And the only students I have who don't wear them avoid doing so because they don't think it's right to wear a medal you didn't earn. (The Order of St. George was a tsarist military honor, and the ribbons are called St. George ribbons because they're the same black-and-orange striped pattern as the ribbon the Order hung on.) I don't agree with that logic, but nonetheless, their hearts are in the right place. Maybe I just have unusually upstanding students, though, and the young hooligans who refuse to give up their bus seats to veterans really do exist.

One of the most interesting things to me is that Russians often adamantly insist that the reason they care so much about the war is that it touched Russia to a much greater degree than America. That is most certainly true, especially in terms of human loss. The USSR won, but not without being almost totally crushed. But (and I can't take credit for this idea) the war's place in the Russian consciousness is also hugely influenced by the fact that the Soviet victory was seen and used by the government as the proof of the pudding – the pudding being the Revolution. Finally, it gave the Soviet people something very real to be proud of, and giving people something to be proud of (and investing time and money to make sure they are proud of it) is a good way to placate and control them. So the government did just that, and ideology eventually became habit.

I've had some interesting conversations with other Americans (by which I mean Amara) who think that the Russian obsession with the war is unhealthy. After thinking about that for a long time, I'm still not sure what I think. It certainly looks a bit silly at times, and sometimes harmfully so (witness relations between Estonia and Russia; last year, riots broke out in Tallinn and a PR volcano erupted in Moscow when the Estonians moved a statue of the "Soviet liberator" (who they justifiably call the "Soviet occupier") from central Tallinn to a cemetery on the edge of the city). However, I think it's still almost totally natural, government encouragement or no; when you're 23, it can be hard to remember that 60-odd years is not very long to get over such a tragedy, especially one that touched almost every single family in the country. I think the process of forgetting will be painful; unfortunate in some ways and helpful in others; and, in the end, totally natural. But the fact that it's a lot farther along in the U.S. than here doesn't really bother me.

Whoa, long post. I could write a lot (yeah, even more) about this. Maybe I'll get to in grad school?

05 May 2008

Spring Cleaning

I really like Russian cemeteries. I go for walks in one of the local ones sometimes, because it's quiet and green. (Is that weird?) Lately my walks have been less solitary than usual, because of an interesting Russian spring custom: after Easter, one should go to the graves of one's departed family members and have a "rememberance" (my somewhat awkward translation of поминки/pominki).

Like the Easter food I mentioned before, this formerly-religious tradition is a bit muddled. I've heard that it should take place nine days after Easter, that it should take place seven days after Easter; that it can take place any time from the Saturday to the Tuesday after Easter, and that the nine-day tradition is specific to Taganrog (it's not – it was the same in Vladivostok); I've also heard several different explanations for why it happens when it does. At any rate, it happens sometime around now, and both practicing and non-practicing Orthodox seem to participate.

Pominki, as I've been given to understand them, consist of drinking and eating to the memory of the deceased and leaving a little food and drink behind for them to enjoy. Besides happening every year after Easter, pominki happen right after the funeral (at home, not graveside like the Easter pominki); on the third, ninth and fortieth days after a death; six months after a death; and yearly on the anniversary of a death.

The yearly anniversary pominki don't have to be fancy; I recently had my first exposure to Orthodox funeral tradition when one of my colleagues brought in some little cakes and laid them out in our department office for the first anniversary of her mother's death. Whenever someone asked why they were there, she (or whoever was around) would explain; the person who had asked would then take a cake and say, "Царство небесное Татьяне"/"Tsarstvo nebesnoye Tat'yane," or "The heavenly kingdom for Tatyana," Tatyana being her mother's name. (I might have gotten the grammar on that slightly wrong, since it didn't seem polite to enquire about it, but the general idea is right.)

Anyway, the Easter pominki are a little more elaborate than that, but nowadays the most important thing about them seems to be that they're a chance to take care of your loved ones' graves. Significant grave maintenance is made necessary by several aspects of Russian cemeteries; first, Soviet-era gravestones tend to be made of painted metal, which requires frequent retouching; second, many plots are actually tiny fenced-in gardens – and even if they're not fenced in, lots of grave markers consist of both a headstone and a long, narrow flowerbox planted with real perennials, which obviously need to be tended; third, I've never really thought about who does the mowing and weeding and raking and the like in U.S. cemeteries, but whoever it is, they don't seem to have a comparable service in Russia, so it's up to you to do all that for your relatives' plots.

People try to do all that before the actual pominki, though, so for the past few weeks the cemetery has been full of people wielding rakes and spades and buckets of paint. A couple of babushki selling garish silk flowers and wreaths have even appeared outside the gates.

Some pictures of Taganrog's Old Cemetery:

The standard Soviet citizen's grave. Many are painted blue (because it's the color of heaven), but this one just got a fresh coat of green. The trend nowadays, though, is much more toward the granite (marble?) gravestones that are common in the United States.

Veterans got a star – the symbol of Soviet military power.

There are lots of rather makeshift-looking crosses, I assume because if you wanted to place a cross during the Soviet era, you had to make one yourself.

The typical fenced-in plot, which is often complete with a little bench and table for pominki.

A typical flowerbed-gravestone, which clearly shows three things: the common heaven-blue paint; how people do the paint job themselves; and how crosses were added onto the standard-issue Soviet gravemarkers. (It says "Tikhonov Vladimir M--- (I can't make out that word). 13.10.1910-15/XI 70. We love and remember you, your children.")

The church in the old cemetery.

All in all, I think yearly pominki are a nice tradition, although I can see where it could be a big burden when you're the only relative left in town and you've got eight or nine graves to take care of in different cemeteries.