29 March 2008

Things (I Think) Russians Do Right: Music Education

I've been thinking about this for a long time. Over Christmas, I met up with Nana and Justin for lunch in Mansfield and, among other things, discussed our adventures living abroad. At one point, Nana asked what it is that Russians really have figured out. She was referring to neat things Russia has that America doesn't; one example she gave from Korea was ondol, or floor heating.

This is a good mental exercise/discussion point when you're living in a foreign culture, since it provides a balance for all the times said culture makes you want to bang your head against a wall. (I know it's not just me; Justin and Nana affectionately(?) refer to Korea as "the land of the 90% solution.") Unfortunately, at the time, I couldn't think of an answer. Not that I don't like Russia, and not that there aren't plenty of neat things about Russian culture. It's just that the technological and consumer innovations I was trying to think of – things like heated floors, online bill payment, parking vouchers for drivers of hybrid cars, or dual-purpose waffle iron/panini grills – aren't exactly Russia's forte. This is not shocking when you consider how recently the country had things like restructuring its entire government and economy on its mind. Plus there's all the bureaucracy, a leech that's been sucking at Russia's potential for efficiency and innovation since at least the time of Gogol.

But let's not dwell on the negative. The point is that you have to think outside the box a bit to come up with them, but there are plenty of enviable ideas that Russians have caught onto and the rest of us haven't. Today, I'll feature one that's near and dear to my heart: music schools.

Russia's system of music education was founded by Anton Rubinstein, as any Russian music school graduate can tell you. Having gotten a peek at it through my balalaika lessons, I think it's a great system. In America, if you want to learn a musical instrument, you either join the school band or orchestra, find someone to give you private lessons, or maybe buy a guitar at a flea market and try to teach yourself. In Russia, though, the musically inclined finish their day at regular elementary and high schools and then, three days a week, head off for a few hours at a public music school. Any good-sized city will have at least one; I think Taganrog has exactly one, while Vladivostok, which also had a college and a conservatory, had at least three or four. (In the villages, you're stuck with whatever they offer at the House of Culture. Sorry.)

The course of study at music school roughly includes your instrument of choice, a secondary instrument (sometimes one in the same family, but usually the piano), performance in the appropriate ensemble (band, orchestra, folk orchestra), ear training, the school choir, and music theory. Just like regular school, you have to show up for class and pass exams. It takes either four or six years to finish music school (I forget, but I think it's six), and when you do, you get a diploma that, among other things, allows you to enter music college, the next level of music education. (The conservatory is the third and final level.) Not everyone finishes music school, which means you get the knowledge (or some of it) but no diploma.

The disadvantage of such a rigorous system is that I think on the whole there are fewer musicians in Russia than in the U.S. system, where it seems like about three-quarters of us scraped away at a violin or made dying cat noises on a clarinet for at least a few years in middle school. The advantage, obviously, is that the average Russian musician is much better and more well-rounded than the average American one. (I didn’t even learn what solfege was until college...) Also, they provide the infrastructure for concerts and competitions for young musicians as well as a venue and means of support for professional concerts and recitals. Therefore, there are more of both the former and the latter than there are in the U.S.

I should also mention that I think, although I'm not entirely sure, that the same kind of system is employed for visual art schools. For sports, it's a little different – something about "Olympic reserve teams" that I don’t entirely understand – but the same concept of total dedication to and complete education in the extracurricular activity of one's choice.

Stay tuned for the next installment of "Things (I Think) Russians Do Right," which will probably be about dachas!

(The parentheses in the title are not meant to indicate uncertainty, but as an acknowledgment that a silly American making pronouncements about what's "good" and "not good" about Russian culture is a bit ridiculous.)

27 March 2008

All Look Same?

Scene: a Russian Orthodox cathedral, sightseeing with the visiting German girl and two Russian babushki. The babushki were buying candles to place in front of the church's icons.
One babushka said: "Girls, are you going to buy candles too?"
The other said, "Of course not! They're Catholics!"
I automatically replied, "I'm not Catholic, I'm Protestant!"
She replied, "Pfft, what's the difference?"
At that, I got a little defensive and said, "There's a big difference!"
She dismissed that with a wave of her hand and the pronouncement, "Well, you're all Catholics to us!"

At first I wanted to write about how annoying that was, even though I know that expressing annoyance at things like that is counterproductive. But I let it sit for a few days and now I feel much less annoyed. However, I'm still a little confused by it.

I understand why the babushka, and Russians in general, go for religious pigeonholing; to most Russians, Orthodoxy is a heritage as much as a belief, and something like 90% of Russians identify as Orthodox even though only a few percent actually practice. So it's understood that giving someone a religious label isn't actually a comment on their personal belief.

I also understand why she, individually, labeled us as Catholics. The Russian popular conception of Christianity is that it's divided into two camps – Orthodoxy and Catholicism. I mentioned this earlier, when people kept referring to "Catholic Christmas." (The funniest thing to me is that Russians often refer to America as a Catholic country, which is pretty ironic when you consider the stigma and labeling of "otherness" historically attached to Catholicism in the U.S.) So her conception of us as "white girls = Christians; non-Russian white girls = Catholics" was reflective of the average Russian view. (Unfortunately, Russians, especially older ones, often seem to forget that not all European-looking people have Christian heritage; that, I think, is the fault of a long history of institutionalized anti-Semitism.)

So what confuses me is why Protestantism is missing from the picture in Russia. I mean, you could argue that very few Americans know anything about Russian Orthodoxy, but I'm not sure it's really a parallel; the Protestant Reformation was a pretty major event in European history. In fact (correct me if I'm wrong), it seems like you couldn't really study European history without learning about the Reformation. Plus, it's not exactly recent news. So how has Russian society apparently failed to notice that it ever happened? Why do Russians seem fuzzy on the idea of what a Protestant even is?

I'm sure this ignorance is partly an effect of Soviet atheism. But it's interesting to ponder why it's manifested itself in this particular way: not uncertainty, but absolute faith in a completely incorrect fact. Then again, maybe that's just human nature.

The last thing the woman said to me still seems kind of rude. That's not so much a Russia thing as a babushka thing, though; since babushki have lived longer than the rest of us, they get to say whatever they want. At least that gives the rest of us something to look forward to about being old!

24 March 2008

Checking in

Yikes, almost a week since my last post! Sorry about that. I'll post something soon.

This is just to say that right now, I love the South. +19 (66F) today, and I got a text message from Amara up north that started with, "So the short-lived but fierce blizzard that we got while I was in the internet cafe..." I'm not anti-winter, but I was struck today by how happy the warm weather makes me feel, and how unpleasant the idea of still having snow on the ground sounds.

I hope it's similarly spring-like wherever you are! And happy (late) Easter to all who celebrated!

18 March 2008

Notes on Underground...ish

I was talking to my mom yesterday and mentioned that I have a paper due this week (for the institute's scientific conference – "Notes on Some Lexical Characteristics of the Emerging Russian Variety of English," a.k.a. BS) as well as a belated St. Patrick's Day lesson/event to plan. "Two deadlines? Sounds like procrastination's in the forecast!" was her reply.

Oh, Mom. You know me all too well. This post is the result of Procrastination Effort #1. (Only #1 because I only just started counting.)

On Saturday's trip to Chaltyr', which was actually a trip to Tanais, we also went to Rostov, since we were practically there anyway. This trip was for the benefit of a German girl who's here doing a three-week internship at the airplane factory and the institute. As our little party (me; Julia, the German girl; the institute's German teacher; the institute's driver; and the driver's 12-year-old daughter, Anya) was strolling in Rostov, talkative young Anya spotted a shop selling hip, punk-ish/Goth-ish clothes. "Hey," she said. "A shop for emos!" Not realizing that the word is a borrowing, she turned to us and said, "Do you know what an emo is? Emo comes from the word 'эмоция' (emotion), and it's these psychos who try to kill themselves."

Ha. If I didn't know what 'emo' meant, that wouldn't leave me with a very clear idea, but I was amused by her 12-year-old's view of the world. Then I started thinking: what exactly is 'emo' in Russia? I know it has a lot of similarities to the American emo subculture (if something that corporately driven and mass produced is really a subculture), but I wonder if there aren't also differences? That is, do these kinds of trends or movements tend to shift between cultures relatively intact, or do they change significantly in transit?

I don't have an answer, because I don't have any emo students or acquaintances to ask or judge by. It would be interesting to find out, though, because in general my impression is that deviation from the norm into a subculture is still a lot less common, and therefore more difficult, in Russian society than in American. As such, it seems like it becomes much more a part of a person's identity; for instance, walking down the street wearing Goth clothes in Russia, you stick out from the crowd more than you do in the U.S., thus subjecting yourself to harsher judgment. And that makes it more of an investment.

There are other differences, too; for one, Russia today is still emerging from a Soviet culture where overt nonconformity was discouraged; for another, Russians generally seem to take their hobbies and lifestyles seriously, adopting much less of a Jack-of-all-trades approach to their free time than Westerners do. A musician is a musician. An athlete is an athlete. Why would you try to be more than one? (Russians are often nonplussed by the fact that I play an instrument, go to fitness classes, and turn out knitted items on a regular basis. Not to mention the blog!) Considering all that, one would think that the kids who get into various subcultures would feel pretty proprietary of them, and that that in turn would lead to innovation.

But this, like the paper I'm supposed to be working on, is kind of BS. I'm no anthropologist.

15 March 2008

Stereotypes are Bad, but Meat is Good!

This post is kind of a hodgepodge.

1. Since it's been almost a week, I'll say that requests for my extra Птица тылобурдо cd are now officially closed. I received three, and based on the three contestants I've decided to go for a drawing rather than a contest to determine who'll get it. I couldn't come up with a Leslie-related contest (possible areas: knitting, Russian, linguistics, music) in which one or another of the contestants wouldn't have an unfair advantage. So, winner, I'll be contacting you as soon as I get around to actually doing the drawing.

2. The recent bane of my existence: a video circling the internet, dubbed into Russian, of Americans being interviewed saying stupid things. ("Where's the Berlin Wall?" "Uh... How the hell should I know?" "How many sides does a triangle have?" "A triangle doesn't have any sides," etc.) I've had three or four Russians bring it up and/or show it to me, and I have the hardest time trying to convince them that Americans aren't actually as dumb as that makes them look, and that we're actually no dumber than Russians are.

A friend, checking that I'm not as dumb as those people: "Ok, then, where is the Berlin Wall?"
Me: "In Berlin. Or it was. They tore it down, so it's really not anywhere anymore."
Him: "Huh. They did? I didn't know that. Good for you."

Not that that proves his dumbness, either. Everyone has questions they're going to look dumb answering. But Russians who don't study English (and many who do) have a very negative, distorted picture of the U.S., and that picture includes the stereotypes that we're all fat and driveling idiots. Most Americans have a distorted picture of Russians, too, but at least Russians don't shoot themselves in the foot by posting videos of themselves wearing fur hats and drinking vodka with a trepak-dancing bear and a hammer-and-sickle flag in ten feet of snow while being oppressed by Evil Dictator Putin. Or videos of themselves saying, "Sitting on a cold floor will make you infertile!" "If Obama is black, that means he's probably stupid!" and other things that we would find as ridiculous/offensive as they find our collective inability to locate Europe on a map.

Anyway, enough ranting. On a lighter note:

3. Today I went to a miraculous place by the name of Чалтырь/Chaltyr'. I had heard it mentioned in passing by my students, who described it as "a village between Rostov and Taganrog" and "Russian Las Vegas." I assumed that the former was true and the latter some kind of joke, but it turns out that they weren't actually poking (too much) fun at it; it's where all the cool Taganrogers go to hang out.

It's an Armenian village that's been around since the time of Catherine the Great. I don't know whether people go there for gambling or quickie weddings, but they do go for shashlyk, which is Caucasian barbecue, marinated, grilled, and served with a sort of ketchupy sauce and fresh onions. Pork is the most traditional, but you can also get chicken, beef, lamb, or even sturgeon shashlyk. It's an adopted Russian staple, a versatile food that can be as delicious eaten off disposable plates in a beer garden as it is served as a holiday meal in a classier, more authentic restaurant. I think it's best when it's part of the ritual of "shashlyking", which consists of decamping to the country for a whole day of grilling and drinking. We did it once in February in Vladivostok; we almost froze to death, but it was amazing.

Anyway, shashlyking may be the most fun meat-grilling experience, but today's shashlyk was by far the tastiest I've ever had. Perfect marinade, perfect grilling, perfect sauce. It was the kind of meal where afterwards you want to just lie down and meditate on all the deliciousness you just ate. I also want to go back to Chaltyr' to go exploring – besides a long strip (Vegas?) of shashlyk joints, it looks like they've got at least one Armenian church, and a couple of stores with Georgian names (I think – unless Armenian uses that same writing system).

4. Finally, tomorrow I'm off to Rostov to give a talk on the 1950's in America, something I know next to nothing about. As I'm sure any grantee can tell you, giving talks on topics you know nothing about is one of the key aspects of the Fulbright experience. At least I have a film – a History Channel documentary – to help me along, and afterwards we're going out for Georgian food. Mmm, bean pies (lobiani) and cheese bread (khachapuri) – more of the Caucasus' little culinary miracles.

10 March 2008

Russian Music Plug/Giveaway

For Women's Day on Saturday, I went to a concert that one of my new students this semester invited me to. It was put on by a group called Птица тылобурдó/Ptitsa tyloburdó, and I ended up really liking them. They're a group of six women from Izhevsk, the capital of the Udmurt Republic, which is a region to the northeast of Moscow.

It's sort of hard to describe their music – they do some traditional Udmurt chants, some other ethnicky music (Russian, Finnish, Russian ethnic minorities), and lot of what they call "ethno-jazz," which I guess isn't a bad description. Much of the latter is based on the poetry of local bards. (A "bard" in the contemporary Russian sense is a poet-songwriter.) They use a lot of interesting percussion instruments, as well as hammered dulcimer, mandolin, bass guitar, and various members of the wood flute/ocarina/recorder family.

Anyway, I ended up getting their cds, and they accidentally gave me two copies of one of them (Пух и перья, their first album), so now I have one to give away! I'm a poor judge of what music people will like, so instead of just making a guess and sending the cd to a friend, I'll provide links to their music:

Птица тылобурдо on last.fm
Птица тылобурдо on poslushai.ru

and you, faithful reader or happenstance blog visitor, can let me know if you're interested. Maybe I'll think of some kind of contest to determine which of the interested parties (and I'm sure there'll be hundreds) gets the cd.

And for those of you who read Russian (or don't read Russian, but like looking at pictures), their website is here.

08 March 2008

Musings on Trash and Democracy

7:30 p.m., Smirnov Street, Taganrog: A woman and her young daughter are riding the tram. The daughter has a small piece of colored paper – an advertisement or somesuch – that she throws on the floor of the tram in typical toddler fashion. Her mother scolds her roundly for throwing it on the floor, picks it up, opens the window of the tram, throws it out the window onto the street, closes the window and sits back down.

I don't understand why Russians care so much about clean floors, but don't seem to care about having clean streets, sidewalks, parks, beaches, lakes or forests. Ok, I take that back. What I really don't understand is why Russians don't appear to make the connection between their individual actions and the condition of the environment in this country, which they are only too happy to complain about. Do Americans only make that connection* because of the government and educational system's concerted efforts to teach us conservation?

Since other things the government tries to teach us don't stick, I think the determining factor is instead our differing perceptions of the impact an individual can have on society and the world. That is, Americans avoid littering for the same reason that they vote, and Russians litter for the same reason that they don't vote.

Voting, of course, is a more complex matter, because it's also influenced by the American assumption that elections will be fair and the Russian assumption that they'll be rigged; on top of that, there's the American assumption that having politician A versus politician B in power will lead to different results, and the Russian assumption that all politicians are equally criminal/ineffective. Obviously, none of these assumptions is universal, but I think they're widespread enough to make a big difference. But are Russians' feelings about democracy specific to the political sphere and caused by actual corruption therein, or are they symptomatic of a larger disbelief in one's power to affect the processes at work in one's country and the world?

Anyway, that's two wordy blog posts in one day, which is really too much. I think I'm going to go for a walk and eat some ice cream. And then throw the wrapper in a trash can.

*By this I'm not saying that Americans never litter – I did Adopt-a-Highway in high school, so I've seen some of the random crap that people throw out of their cars – but I'm sure anyone who's ever been to Russia will agree with me that Americans litter a lot less than Russians do.

Wearing Ritas While Playing the Gomra.

Over the past year or two, as my reading skills have improved in Russian, I've discovered a weird consequence of being able to read both Cyrillic and Latin script without conscious effort: unexpected processing errors when my brain gets confused about what alphabet it's looking at.

In normal situations this doesn't pose a problem, as what language I'm reading is clear to both me and the reading processors in my brain. However, occasionally you come across a stand-alone word that unexpectedly throws you off.

Let's start with an example of an intersection between the two alphabets: the brand name "Puma." Many Russians think (or joke that) it's pronounced "Rita," because Latin p looks like Cyrillic r, and Latin u and m resemble stylized or cursive versions of Cyrillic i and t. (So Рита in print becomes Рита in cursive. Looks just like English puma, right?)

But that's not really a processing error as much as an error in alphabet choice. For an example of my brain's processing problems, let's look at this tape measure:

My brain knows it's American, because I remember getting it in a box from my parents and because there's clear, understandable English written right on it. "Ok," my brain says, breezing past the white and gray text with no problem and getting to the yellow brand name, "we're reading in English!"

I do fine – K-O-M-E-L-O – until we get to that last letter. We're supposed to be reading in English, but that letter looks so much more like a Cyrillic p (п) than any Latin letter that the train derails. I get alarm bells and flashing red error messages, and the word basically refuses to be processed. If you've ever tried to remember what it was like to be really little and able to look at something without reading it, that's what this feels like to me. I can force myself to "sound it out," but I come up with "komelop." I can tell myself it says "komelon," even though I can't read it that way per se. I'm sure if this were a familiar English word – or even if it had a –g on the end to make it look like "come along" – that pesky п/n wouldn't pose a problem. But the way it actually is, I can't look at the word and automatically process it, which feels pretty trippy.

Edited to add: I just noticed that if you cover up the KO, you get 'melon.' Sure enough, if I block out those first two letters, I have no trouble reading the whole thing in English with no alarm bells or error messages or anything.

Today I had another interesting processing experience. I was listening to a domra album on my computer, and I clicked on the picture of the album cover in iTunes.

I glanced at this part of the cover:

I somehow noticed the English text in black before I noticed that Vladimir Yakovlev's name is written in Russian. My eyes traveling upwards from there, I caught the word домра (domra - the g on the album cover is an alternate form of cursive Cyrillic д/d) and got alarm bells going off in my head again. "Ha!" I thought. "Did they really write 'gomra'?!?"

This is interesting because it means that I noticed that the first letter of the word was "wrong" while failing to notice the Cyrillic r in the middle of the word that should have either tipped me off that this is a Russian word or made me think that they wrote "gompa," not "gomra." I guess this goes along with that trick where you can read a scrambled text as long as the first and last letters of each word are in the right place.

(By the way, I don't think putting half the Russian and half the English in each cluster of text is a good graphic design move.)

Relatedly, there have been a couple of interesting posts lately on Language Log about an emerging kind of slang in Russian – words typed in Cyrillic on a Latin keyboard. This amounts to something other than transliteration because, as any Russian student who's had to type an essay in Russian knows, the letters aren't in the same places on Cyrillic and Latin keyboards. Cyrillic f is on Latin a, Cyrillic t is on Latin n, etc. I found this especially interesting because my non-Russian-speaking father recently did the opposite – for Valentine's Day, he typed out "Roses are red / Violets are blue..." with his keyboard in Cyrillic mode and sent me the resulting nonsense. The next Pushkin? No, but an unwitting member of a group of linguistic innovators!

Finally, Happy International Women's Day to my female readers! I hope the day brings you lots of chocolate and flowers and no annoying holiday greetings like, "May you always love and be beloved by men."

03 March 2008

Kind of Useless, but Cool

If you've ever thought, "Gosh, I wish I could send Leslie a free text message!", today is your lucky day. Thanks to my ever-alert neighbor and bandmate Seth, I just found out that you can send me free text messages from your computer! Go here, and if you read Russian, ignore the fact that it says "Moscow/Moscow Region" – it works in the provinces, too.

You can get my number from my facebook profile or by emailing me for it.

In other news, the adorable Dmitri Medvedev (aptly, his last name means something like "Of the Bear," while Putin, I think, has to do with путь/put', 'way/path', a root you can also see in the word спутник/sputnik, 'satellite') was shockingly elected president yesterday. I took the news lying down, as I've been bowled over by some sort of head flu/stomach flu combo bug for the past few days. I'm interested to see what kind of president he'll be, and I hope he'll prove to be not just more adorable, but also a little less aggressive than Putin.

01 March 2008

Sweet Billy Baroo

In class this week we listened to a dialogue in which a character mentions his children, Jasmine and Billy. My students were completely stumped when I asked them what name Billy is short for. I finally gave them the answer, and they were quite incredulous that the name William (which they were all familiar with) could get turned into Billy.

That surprised me; almost every Russian name has a casual form like Billy, and some are just as far away phonetically from their original. As an example, let's look at the class of nicknames formed by (Consonant + Vowel) (CV) + sha:
Masha for Maria,
Dasha for Daria,
Pasha for Pavel,
Misha for Mikhail,
Gosha for Georgii,
Grisha for Grigorii,
Sasha for Aleksandr or Aleksandra,
Alyosha/Lyosha for Aleksei,

Usually – as in the case of Daria/Dasha – the (CV) in the nickname is taken from the stressed syllable in the original name. But sometimes – in the case of Grisha for GriGORii or Lyosha for AlekSEI, for example – the (CV) is not from the stressed syllable, making the nicknames a little harder to connect to their formal forms. A name like Lyosha/Aleksei is further complicated by the fact that the vowel changes, too. Unstressed ye becoming yo under stress is a common alternation in Russian, but not necessarily intuitive to a non-native speaker. So I could imagine that English speakers learning Russian would have trouble deciphering nicknames like Lyosha or Alyona (a form of Yelena), or other vowel changes in names like Ksyusha for Ksenia, Vova for Vladimir, or Toma for Tamara.

But I don't remember ever feeling quite as puzzled about those peculiarities as my students were about William/Billy. Why should that be so? I pondered some more, and eventually noticed that these Russian name quirks are all vowel alterations. Just like we have in Katherine/Kate or James/Jim. Aha! I tried to come up with a Russian 'Billy' – an example wherein the nickname begins with a consonant not found in the original name. I eventually did recall the completely bizarre Shura/Shurik for Aleksandra/Aleksandr, but that was all.

That, I think, must be why my students thought Billy was so weird. I don't have any information on whether vowel alterations are less marked on the whole than consonant alterations, but I suppose not really having one or the other in one's own language's naming traditions would make them seem more unexpected in another language's. Maybe next lesson I'll teach them Peggy for Margaret and Dick for Richard. Those seem weird even to me!

Speaking of names, the subject of middle names has come up several times recently. Russians don't have them, and I've been completely unable to explain why I have a name (or two names, actually) that no one ever calls me by. It's made me stop and think – why do most English speakers have middle names? Does it come from the tradition of giving a saint's name at baptism or confirmation? If so, when did the two practices diverge?

(Ok, I just finished writing this entry, only to have the nickname Zhenya, from Yevgenii or Yevgenia, fly unbidden into my head. (Zh here represents the sound in the middle of the word 'leisure,' a sound that is absent from the original names.) It weakens my argument, but I'll still maintain that consonant alternation happens a lot less in Russian names than in English ones.)