Archive for September, 2009

Language Purgatory

September 26th, 2009

Suzdal ChurchThis will be a short post, as the past few weeks, aside from our day trip to Suzdal, has been relatively quiet. We are preparing to take off on a cruise down south on the Volga river, which promises better weather and the chance to see a lot of Russia. Needless to say we’re all very excited.
We did get the opportunity to visit what is quite possible one of the world’s cutest towns, Suzdal, last week. Suzdal has something like 15 churches/cathedrals/monasteries, all of them in very good condition and very striking. The weather the day we visited was rather dramatic, which just lent everything in Suzdal a very dramatic feel.
I have hit what we jokingly call the language wall (everyone in an immersion environment eventually hits this), where my ability to understand and my ability to respond (all things in Russia being very not equal, it is far easier for me to understand conversation than it is to respond) have finally frustrated me beyond belief. This has also pushed me into what is referred to as “Language Purgatory,” I cannot speak Russian well (the bench mark being a native speaker, of course), and I seem to be forgetting English as well. However, towards the end of this week I’m gradually regaining my Russian skills, and the sun is out today (things are looking up!!).
I’m going to end this post with a few cultural (I use this word loosely) observations that I hope you find amusing:
-How to spot a Russian: They (and there children) are often wearing shirts with English phrases that are either A) Completely nonsensical or B) Surprisingly lewd
-You know you’re on a Russian bus when the maximum capacity is 60 but there are 80 people on the bus
-You also know you’re on a Russian bus when the driver is frequently engaging the emergency brake with his erratic braking
-You know you’re eating lunch in Russia when they yell at you for not eating soup (soup is a traditional lunch time meal, and the woman at our cafeteria has made it very clear that we must have soup).
-Men at the gym are always wearing sandals and what, to many Americans, looks exactly like underwear in lieu of shorts…. But don’t call it underwear, the Russians are very sure they are wearing shorts.
-Everyone thinks your German (I don’t correct them)
-There is no such thing as chicken, pork, or beef in Russia. If you ask what you are eating the response is always, “Meat.” I have also learned it is best not to press the issue, you often don’t want to know what kind of meat it is.
-Russian women are constantly afraid everyone around them is going to catch cold and die… As a consequence they take it upon themselves to dress everyone they can in ridiculously heavy winter clothing when a tshirt would have sufficed.

That’s all for this week! The post-cruise post promises to be exciting, the South should be quite an adventure!

Oh, the Autobus…

September 12th, 2009

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl Typical Dinner babushka-and-sheep

Skimming through my last post I realized I had failed to inform you of the joy that is my daily commute. Because Vladimir is a small city, the only way you can get around is by bus (афтобус) or taxi (такси). I have only been a taxi a few times, but that’s enough to observe that taxi drivers in Russia don’t necessarily have a good sense of which side of the road they should keep the cab on. Which brings us to my favorite, and primary mode of transportation: the bus. And when I say favorite I mean taking the bus will put hair on your chest. I live 30 minutes away from the center of the city, so in order to get to a 9 am class I need to be at the bus stop no later than 8:15, which is, as the Russians love to call it, час пик (rush hour). There is nothing more awful than a crowded Russian bus. The best analogy I can give is imagine being in a tin of sardines (but double the amount of sardines) that’s being shook around. And I use this comparison not only to illustrate how crowded it is, but also the smell. This experience has turned me into a pushier person (you have to be, or, as some of my classmates found out, you’ll miss your stop), but also taught me a lot about smell. I really don’t mean to sound like a jerk (but I’m about to), but the smell can be unbearable. Russian men love their vices (smoking and drinking), especially early in the morning, so it’s not uncommon to be overwhelmed by these smells. If anyone feels like sending me smelling salts, feel free. I’m considering taking a can of Febreeze with me on the bus, and a small saw to cut a hole in the window for ventilation (I’m fairly certain Russia buys a lot of its buses second-hand from Germany, and there are no windows).
Russians are among some of the most frightening drivers you’ll ever encounter, they stop for nothing (including avoiding a head-on collision). Everyone assumes they have the right of way, and only recently has the government implemented a small fine for hitting pedestrians (but only if they’re in crosswalks, otherwise it’s fair game). Already here I have seen somewhere between 6-10 car crashes. It is not at all uncommon for a bus to straddle a lane line for many city blocks, nor is it uncommon for bus drivers to stop their bus (and traffic) to yell at whatever pedestrian or driver has upset them. I have also learned it is best not to laugh when this happens, no one else thinks it’s funny.
Speaking of funny, I haven’t elaborated much about Russian men. Russian men love women, and have no problem shouting so on the street. Two weeks in, I’m beginning to understand some of what is said to me. My favorite thus-far is the 15 year old boy that stands outside the store near my apartment building and every day after class says “Сдравствуйте, Женат” to me (literally: Hello, Wife). I must admit I admire his persistence; but what amuses me more is that fact that Russian men use the formal case when they hit on you, instead of the informal. As I learned last night on the bus, you have nothing to worry about until they start using the informal. Going home on the bus at 11:00 last night there was a (clearly very drunk) man, who sat across from my friend and me. My friend (who has spent time in Russia before) quickly whispered in English, “Whatever you do don’t look him in the eye.” In the next five minutes before my stop he badgered us in Russian with propositions I didn’t fully understand (I do know they were in the informal and not the formal and involved his apartment and alcohol), grabbing our legs and hands trying to get us to look at him. Much to my dismay he got off at the same stop as me, and the badgering and invasion of my physical space continued until he found some other poor woman to bother. He made the kid who shouts “Сдравствуйте, Женат” every day look pretty good.

Funny cultural experiences, we’ve been pretty lucky to have visited a lot of the UNESCO monuments in and around Vladimir already while the weather is still good. Most recently we visited Боголювов Монастырь (literally translates as loved by God) and Храм Прокрова на Нерли (a very small church outside the city limits which they think was the personal church of the Russian prince Andrei Bogolyubsky. Legend has it Andrei Bogolyubsky was riding his horse to his father’s palace in Suzdal when his horse suddenly stopped 11 kilometers outside of Vladimir, in Bogolyubovo. The people here were very generous to Bogolyubsky, giving him almost everything they had. Bogolyubovo later claimed that these people must be loved by God, and established his capital in Vladimir (another legend claims his horse stopped and refused to go any further, so he was forced to establish his capital in Vladimir). Between 1158 and 1165 Andrei built a fortified palace at this same place. Fragments of this palace still stand at what is now a monastery, and not far away is Andrei’s personal church, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl (Храм Прокрова на Нерли). The Russians like to say that Andrei has this church built in memory of his favorite son Izyaslav, who was killed in a battle against the Bulgars (this being said, sadly very little is actually known about either of these monuments).
I plan on returning to these monuments within the next week before the rains begin (Храм Прокрова на Нерли was built on a marsh, and floods every year so you can’t get to it) to really soak them in. It’s one thing to go to a national monument that’s been turned into a museum, but both the monastery and the church are still working, which lends an enormous amount of, and ooze of Russian culture and history. Sadly we were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery or church, but the monastery especially was overwhelming (helped a little by the fact that we went there during a service). The women among us had to wear skirts over our jeans in addition to covering our heads (I have a deep respect for their traditions; however, it was a little upsetting that many of the men wore sweatpants and t-shirts while we were forbidden to show any skin or hair). I think the general conception of Russia is that the Soviets destroyed much of Russia’s culture and history, but this is simply not true. The monastery and church along contain much of their original artwork and hold their own against the best of Europe’s monuments; I encourage you all to visit if you ever get the chance. Not only is visiting these places a cultural experience, but they are incredibly rich with history which any Russian will be happy to share with you (assuming you’re willing to give your Russian a test drive).
I cannot end this post without telling you about Russian home remedies… Within two weeks I’ve already had more experience with home medicine than I care to talk about. Last Friday our group spent the day walking around Vladimir and Bogolyubovo, and after about 6 miles of walking I decided I was going to stay home Friday night. In addition to this fateful mistake (my host mother assumes I must be sick if I don’t want to go out…. It’s going to be a long semester), I had a small cough from inhaling water down the wrong pipe earlier in the day. My host mother observed all this and swept in to rescue me. This rescue included two shots of vodka (I know I’m in the wrong country for this, but I do not drink vodka), followed by a mixture of lemon, sugar, and vinegar “to help it all go down.” I thought this would be it, but then she painted both my throat and the bottoms of my feet with iodine and sent me to bed. Then she woke me up at midnight to do it again (if you think speaking a foreign language is hard, imagine being woken up suddenly by someone trying to explain what they’re doing when you wouldn’t understand it in any language). It also did not help that my feet are incredibly tickelish and I almost kicked her in the face as she tried to apply iodine to them. Just for the record, I was not sick before this experience, but I definitely was afterwards.
Following this unique cultural experience I vowed not to get sick in Russia, and I haven’t, but my host family has found another way to treat me. Those of you who know me know that I have the grace of a baby hippo with vertigo, and Vladimir is just one big Katie trap. Yesterday we were walking to a store which had a small flight of concrete stairs in front with a small awning over the door. Hanging from this awning was a potted flower, on which I of course gave my head a good, solid, smack. Following this smack I lost my balance and managed to summersault backwards down all the stairs. (Amusing side-note: while my American friends freaked out, there was one Russian who actually stepped over me at the bottom of the staircase and kept walking). I’m probably lucky I didn’t break anything; however, when I got home with the trophy bruises my host mother immediately set out painting my bruises with a brownish substance and wrapping me in saran wrap. I wish I could tell you what she painted me with, but it was not in any dictionary I have access to and my host sister did not know the word in English. I’m not sure I want to know anyways. I have also not told her about the massive bruise on my butt from the game of Russian musical chairs we played Tuesday. I don’t think I will either.

This post’s song: Маня by Pep-See. Fun song by a pretty well-loved Russian pop group. In the spirit of fostering international understand there’s even a little Spanish in there too (I’ll let you figure out what it is).

What do you mean your full? You have 5 potatoes and half a cow left.

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.