kball11 September 1st, 2009
I said I wanted to be somewhere where no one speaks English, and let me assure you, no one speaks English (this is not entirely true, I’m sure, but they don’t want to speak English with me). My interactions in English in the past week alone have been incredibly limited, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to put Russian aside briefly. A combination of lingering jetlag (it took us 10 hours by plane followed by another 5 on a bus to get to Vladimir), constant excitement, and fatigue from constantly thinking and speaking in Russian has left me pretty exhausted.
I am living with a family of three women, a grandmother (Galiena), her daughter (Oksana), and Oksana’s daughter (Vika). All are extremely kind and I cannot express how warmly they have received what I perceive to be one of the most awkward Americans ever (namely, myself). Their apartment is modest by American standards, and almost every room has a second purpose (I think every bedroom but mine also serves as a sitting room). And in a truly welcoming fashion, the local government has turned off the hot water in my neighborhood. My host mother has persisted in boiling water for a bath, but today I insisted on a cold shower (she’s now convinced I’m going to catch my death of cold and keeps asking me what she should tell my mother when I die). But I got my cold shower, and I can assure you that you have not had a cold shower until you have had a cold shower in Russia.
My experience with food thus far has been interesting, but for the most part very good. While my host mother and grandmother cannot eat sugar, they have no problem loading me up. The other day my host mother gave me cake for breakfast (that’s right Mom, cake), and for two days in a row she has been very insistent on trying to give me some sort of Russian ice cream for breakfast with my Бутерброд (bread with butter, cheese, and cold sausage). I have thus far avoided ice cream before 9 in the morning.
While for the most part my experience with Russian cuisine has been mild, I can say I’m fairly certain I ate hedgehog. My host sister told me, in Russian and in English, that the dish was called hedgehog. And then she told me that their neighbor raises hedgehogs. It was very good, but I’m not so sure I can do it again if they remind me what I’m eating.
The food has all been very good, but there is so much of it!!! I do not know how Russian women stay so skinny when their mothers give them enough food for a sizeable American family. Luckily, I know how to say I can’t eat anymore in Russian (this doesn’t stop my host family from trying their best to give me more). Some of my classmates are not so fortunate as to bridge this language barrier and have been forced to eat everything that’s set in front of them (refusing in English doesn’t do much).
I am happy to say my language skills extend past the dinner table, and I have thus far been able to navigate around the city (I did get lost once and had to have my host sister come find me among the maze of Soviet-era apartment buildings). I have been able to make simple purchases, ask for directions, order food (with some help), and I even asked for our bill at the bar today! Don’t be surprised when I say bar, it does not mean that every day after class finishes the American students head straight for beer (пиво). Most bars sell a lot more than alcohol (for instance today I had bleeni, a Russian pancake, and tea), and this particular bar happens to be the only place in Vladimir with reliable internet. This weekend we went to an internet café hoping to inform our family and friends in America that we were indeed not dead. But instead we were told “It’s Sunday, the internet is not working. Maybe come back in a week or two and it might work again.”
Phones in Russia have also been frustrating. While some of us have been able to buy phones/SIM cards, the majority of us have not been able to buy anything from Russian cell phone companies because we aren’t registered in the city yet (the Russian government really likes to know where you are). We’ll have our registration documents by the end of the week, but this did mean giving up our passports and Visas in exchange for a photo copy while the local government processes our registration papers. While this is perfectly legal, and the police in Vladimir generally aren’t as bad as in St. Petersburg or Moscow, we were told to be very careful. You want to avoid interactions with the Russian police (милиция) at all costs. Thanks to a long period in the Soviet Union when the police were only able to feed their family through bribes (the government couldn’t pay them), police in Russia are very corrupt. Being a foreigner makes you an especially attractive target, and if the police do ask to see your documents (it’s illegal not to carry them with you), you often cannot get them back without paying a substantial bribe. Not to mention it’s not unheard of for police to throw camera-happy tourists in jail for being spies.
I have been pleasantly surprised that my language skills are better than I gave them credit for, but it is still incredibly frustrating to communicate in Russian. The best thing you can do is turn your English brain off, if you try to translate every English word you know into Russian you quickly become aware of how little you know. If you stop thinking in English (also not easy to do) it becomes slightly less frustrating. And the more Russian you speak the more you give Russians the opportunity to critique you (and who would want to deprive them of that privilege?).
Russian criticism (and I say with all honesty they do this in the most loving way) extends far beyond language. While all the women in my host family were thrilled that I wore high heels and makeup, they have had no problem critiquing my outfit or my hair. And I do not mean a simple, “Oh, you’re wearing that?” Yesterday my babushka took one look at my shoes and said “No. You can’t go out in those.” And off I went to make sure my outfit met babushka’s approval.
While it helps me fit in, the problem with wearing heels and makeup is the male attention it gets. While I don’t think I’m ever in danger, Russian men are much aggressive than American men. They have no problem shouting exactly what they’re thinking to you on the street (luckily I have thus far not understood most of it). The upside to this is it’s an excellent opportunity to pretend to be a Russian woman, who are incredibly frigid in response. My street face (Russians never smile at strangers and look pretty grumpy all the time) is excellent (and yes Mom, it just might freeze that way), but I definitely need to work on the slang employed by so many of these women when telling said Russian men exactly where they to stick it. For this reason, I have great admiration for Russian women. While gender roles are perhaps a little outdated in Russia, I can safely assure you that you do not want to upset a Russian woman. Your ears will be burning for weeks, it’s really quite impressive. And as I observed on the bus this morning, sometimes they throw rocks.
All in all living in Vladimir is like living on another planet, but I like this planet. Everything here has strong roots in history and culture, from the way the women behave to Russian holidays (of which there are many). As a Russian friend told us yesterday in attempt to prepare us for the upcoming city holiday, Vladimir Day, “Russians like to celebrate more than other people. Maybe, you could say, they like to celebrate a little too much.” Being the prudent (read: sort of really scared of putting myself in a stupid situation) type I think I’ll happily observe the upcoming holiday (праздник) with the my American peers. And you can bet you’ll hear about that one next post.
This post’s song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Because pretty much every Russian loves Billy.