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.