Behind the Urals

This is my documentation of my upcoming year in Ekaterinburg, Russia. You know, a place to keep track of all the vodka shots, give the play-by-play of the bear fights, assure my parents that I am still alive, and hopefully keep in touch with all of you.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

And now, for the reflections...

Well this is it. It is 7:00 am and I am sitting in my trusty little blue and white kitchen, cup of coffee in hand, looking out at the gray Russian sky and thankful that I will be escaping before fall really gets a chance to settle into the Urals.

I woke up on my hammock bed to the sound of the hot water fighting its way through the pipes [which sounds frighteningly similar to machine guns] and blaring techno music in the courtyard. In other words, I woke as I do every other morning here at dorm #6. I tried to lay still and drift back to dreams of America, but it was too late—I am too excited about coming home and too anxious about my upcoming cross-continental travels to trick myself back to sleep. And thus, here I am, sitting in this [surprisingly clean at the present moment] kitchen, reflecting on the past year.

Just as I was at a loss for words while I was writing up my Fulbright final report last week, I am for once silenced as I stare at the computer screen this morning. What was this year? How can I sum it up in one page? A success? A struggle? Somewhere in between, perhaps? Despite my best efforts at setting realistic expectations, I certainly arrived last August with grandiose notions of all that I could do in a year: from mastering the Russian language to working my ass off for the women of Russia to somehow seeing all of this massive country. If there is one thing that Russia does well, it is quickly and efficiently bringing one back down to earth and disillusioning the idealists. My goals were quite soon cut down into more realistic, bite size pieces. Throughout the year, I worked on this language that I will never speak fluently with various levels of effort and success. Perhaps that best thing that I can say about that is during my last weekend in Kalinovo, I spoke Russian continuously without grasping or stumbling for words and without a massive headache by Sunday evening. I know that I will never sound eloquent, but I believe there is something to say for simply being understood.

And the women of Russia? I am leaving them in about the same position that they were when I came. And after a year of observing and dabbling in the Russian non-profit world, I think this is probably as it should be. I can support, I can help where help is genuinely needed, I can offer stories of American successes and struggles, but at the end of the day, this is ultimately their fight to fight. I now understand the overwhelming complexities of domestic violence in a country like Russia and I am awestruck with the respect that I hold for women like the founders of Ekaterina, who choose to devote their lives to battling the problem despite these intimidating odds against them. They are brave, they understand the incredibly long road ahead of them, they keep their spirits high and light despite it, and they are damn good at what they do, even on the days when it feels like throwing a single stone into an ocean. Many of my favorite moments from this year happened while watching these women in action: from listening to Anya regularly counsel women over the phone with such ease and experience to watching Olga Nikolaevna take on the stereotypes of some stubborn policeman or lawyer at a training session, irony brewing in her beautiful black eyes all the while. It is in this area of my Fulbright experience that I had to most seriously rework my goals and plans, but it is consequently where I learned the most. I am returning to America with new ideas about our role in organizations like Ekaterina and with problems like domestic violence [that’s a whole separate conversation for those of you who are interested]. If anything, I am proud simply to have volunteered for an entire year. I got the opportunity to regularly explain the amazing concept that is American volunteerism and to show that I, indeed, considered it a privilege to get to spend a year in the Urals volunteering. I will be able to continue my relationship with Ekaterina by doing things like translating and database fun online and I look forward to learning how these women will progress with their work as time goes on.

And seeing all of Russia? Well, that was certainly an unrealistic expectation, but for the time being, I have seen enough. I look forward to someday returning to Russia, to visiting the friends that I have come to love so well and to perhaps again try to tackle the problems I just discussed, only with more experience and resources at my disposal. But for the present moment, I am inexplicably excited to land on American soil, to walk off of the plane and hear all those loud voices booming in the airport, to walk by the McDonald’s and Pizza Hut and Starbucks, to smile at the man who will serve me my first cup of to-go coffee and be smiled back at for the first time in a year and to think to myself “ah, родина”.

And yet I cannot end this last entry there, because here I am still sitting in this kitchen, trying to figure out how I am going to walk away from this dorm that I so fiercely hate and love. I can confidently say that I will not miss the water turning on and off and brown, nor the pipes freezing and sending me into near hypothermia, nor Artyem, our neighbor who has a lovely habit of boiling meat cutlets in his underwear in the shared kitchen. But what success we have had in turning a fading Soviet dorm into a home and an odd mix of international students into a family! Where would I be this year if it were not for Jen, Josefina, and Midori? Probably curled in the fetal position on the curb somewhere, crying and cold. These girls have made this experience worthwhile and, in the words of Midori, they have been my Russia. An American Christian missionary, an American fliberal feminist, an outspoken Swedish writer, and the self-described most-untypical Japanese girl in the world. Yes, we were an odd bunch and that is what has made our family so fantastic. This is undoubtedly what I will miss the most: laying in Jen’s bed with Midori, passing hours with meaningful and meaningless conversations; listening to Josefina and Midori argue through the thin walls and catching the moment when the bickering transitions into laughter; moving back and forth between Biblical analysis and feminist theory with Jen, both of us convinced that there are countless similarities in our respective professions; drinking beer and playing cribbage on the ironing board with Jen on the days when Russia got the best of us; and all those amazing days when the four of us managed to gather somewhere together, be it the road home from the university or the ski slopes or right here in this kitchen. I will miss the laughter, I will miss Russians’ confused faces while watching us interact, I will miss turning to watch Midori’s face after Josefina makes some ridiculous comment, and I will miss the comradery of all of us trying to tackle and survive Russia together.

This self-indulgent reflection has gone for far too long and the sun has managed to work its way through the clouds in the meantime. I am off to enjoy my last three days in the Urals. I cannot wait to see all of you soon—email and call and let me know where you will be in September! Thank you all for listening and reading this year, as well as for supporting me with letters and emails and phone calls and packages : ) I never could have made it without you.

Signing off from Russia,

Byeeetsy Hoooooody [as I am known in this part of the world]

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Summer Fun

I have been sitting around Ekaterinburg for the last couple weeks and trying to figure out how to chronicle my summer adventures. I guess we can just jump right in:

After getting back from my travels with Midori way back in June, I started to tackle the next task on my summer to-do list: teaching at orientation sessions for FLEX students—Russian high school students who are leaving for America for a year-long cultural exchange program. I taught at 2 sessions that each included about 35 15-year-old Russian munchkins who had amazing English skills and who were very excited about their upcoming trip. The hilarity involved in teaching about American culture and life from a Russian perspective is unimaginable. We talked about everything from culture shock to host families to the fact that Americans don’t always take off their shoes indoors and can get offended if you are late [this one I took particular pleasure in describing to a Russian audience]. It was a great opportunity to get to do fun “American” things with these energetic kids, such as teaching them to throw a Frisbee or starting every lesson with some sort of icebreaker or energizer, which—to kids who have been educated in the formal Russian system—was both very bizarre and fun. Perhaps my favorite moment was when John, the director of the program in Ekaterinburg, looked up at the “new words” list on the wall of my classroom, and saw that we had written only “ethnocentrism” and “barn”. Enough said.

I finished up the FLEX fun on July 3rd and on July 4th I was already back on the train. This time I was headed to Ufa, where I worked as a volunteer for an English camp that is sponsored by the US embassy in Moscow. This camp had about 100 kids with varying levels of English. The camp is modeled like an American day camp, which meant that every day I got to teach something like “English through sports” [yes, we learned baseball!] or “English through arts and crafts,” etc. Although at times both challenging and exhausting, it was an amazing and hilarious experience. After my Concordia Language Villages experiences, it was fun to be a guest native speaker at an English camp, to teach the kids English songs and phrases and words, and just to be surrounded by cute little munchkins with so much energy and who are so excited to get to practice their English with “a real American.”

While in Ufa, I lived with a host family—namely, Gulnara, the director of the camp. She was wonderful! She is 25 and has perhaps the best English I have ever heard in Russia. She and her family took me in for the 2 weeks that I was there and made sure that I got all the possible cultural excursions while I was in Bashkir [the republic that Ufa is located in]. We got to go camping one weekend and for the first [and to date the only] time all summer, I got to go swimming! We camped at a lake that was at the bottom of these gorgeous mountains. For a girl who is accustomed to the relatively flatlands of the Midwest, it was unbelievable. I swam in a lake with a clay bottom for the first time and I spent hours just laying on a raft, looking up at the hills and mountains in awe. During the weekend festivities, I taught the entire crew to throw an American football, instantly gaining the respect of the Russian men, who were quite confused as to why a GIRL could throw a spiral and they couldn’t.

After Ufa, I came back to Ekat for a few days and then hopped on a plane to St. Petersburg, where I met Jodi Wu for the next adventure! She and I spent 10 eventful days in St. Petersburg and another week in Prague. While Petersburg will never lose its place in my heart, I think that Jodi best summed up our stay there by saying “It was at once so amazing and so awful.” Russia was in tourist season, which meant long lines everywhere, which was, of course, matched with that outstanding customer service that the country is so famous for. In the course of the week, I got into a verbal fight with a customer service agent at the Hermitage, Jodi was screamed at by a middle-aged Russian woman on a marshutka, and we both witnessed a museum worker punch/shove a female Australian tourist. Russia, in short, was not at its best. Nevertheless, we had fun. We saw an amazingly dramatic ballet at the Marinskii, took a detour to Novgorod [one of my favorite Russian cities], and got to watch the Rolling Stones do a sound check outside the Hermitage.

From Petersburg we flew to Prague, where we spent five amazing days relaxing in what I would now call European luxury. We got to stay with Heather Keyes, which was for me an amazing Bemidji connection and who showed us outstanding hospitality. From castles to concerts to churches to a tour of a 14th century mine, this trip was full of beauty. The city is truly gorgeous and I must admit, I think I had goose bumps when we first walked down the cobblestone streets and looked up at the main castle in the distance. We, of course, also indulged in the famous Czech beer, along with dumplings and sausages and lots of meat and gravy. Although filled to the brim with tourists, the city manages to supply enough tiny outdoor cafes to always have an open table for anyone looking for beer or coffee, which Jodi and I took advantage of every day.

And now I am here, at this place that I will only call “home” for another week. I have been doing a little work for the crisis center, enjoying time with Jen and her sister who is visiting from Minnesota, and reflecting on what has been an amazing year. More on those reflections to come in the next [last!] blog. For now, know that I am so excited to come home and can’t wait to see so many of the faces that I have missed so much this past year!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Белые Ночи

White nights are met by rainy mornings
where Petersburg is calm and quiet—
at least in the courtyard outside my window
where the only sound is a single broom sweeping the pavement.
The city pretends that this gray is darkness,
a pause in the perpetual illumination,
and we all sleep a little longer
and move slightly slower when we
finally throw the covers off,
thankful for this sacred moment of shade.

White nights and I am wandering the city
with my newfound soul mate.
We sit on a bench in Летний Сад
and stare at those strolling by,
seeing who can spot the Americans first
[this leads to lengthy conversation about white socks]
and analyzing the romantic relationships
that are developing on the surrounding benches.
Across the path the aging trees are weaving
a pattern of thin black lines that stand out
against the constant twilight.
The grass—almost glowing green—is growing wildly,
trying to catch the trees and never coming close.
And all the while behind the park’s tiny canal
cars are speeding by
rushing to the river for the evening’s holiday.

White nights and I am on top of St. Isaac’s
watching the rain pour onto a distant district.
The tourists are frantically circling the dome
snapping photos that can never hope to frame
this beauty.
Midori and I sit against the rail
and watch the sun walk along the horizon.
She marvels at the European buildings
falling towards each other with age and grace
and I fix my eyes on the naval columns
aglow with flame and glory
on Russia’s Independence Day.
The city creaks and groans and prepares for the rain.

White nights and we move inside St. Isaac’s to wait out the rain.
It is late and the massive church is nearly empty.
One tour group moves slowly from highlight to highlight
and we rest on benches as far from them as possible.
We watch an old woman
(dressed in house clothes complete with
a tattered scarf tied over her hair)
spray the plants on the altar with water,
carefully crossing herself each time.
Midori says her mom wrote that
she never pushed religion upon her
and trusted she’d find it when it was time.
“But Buddhists don’t believe that God is
going to save us,” she adds,
glancing up at the huge golden crucifixion
hanging above us.
We stand to leave
and our footsteps echo off of the marble pillars.

White nights and suddenly everything is sacred.
I walk home slowly along the river
with my now fading soul mate at my side
and the sun trailing behind us.
I am in love
with the bubbly, beautiful girl next to me
who came into my life like an unannounced hurricane
that somehow created order and hope
with screams and laughter and lots of ice cream.
with this city in June
with all the trees overflowing with green
and with the way the sunlight falls
softly onto the buildings at midnight.

So that's the romantic version of the trip that Midori and I just took to Petersburg and Petrozavodsk. In between the beautiful views, we had 6 nights on the train over the course of 10 days, many excellent meals with Ludmila (my former host mother), a quick tour of Duluth's sister city, a run-in with a Santa Claus look alike, and many more memorable moments.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Two Great May Holidays: Victory Day and…My Birthday

So far, these have been the two highlights of May and I thought I’d take a little time today to share them here.

May 9th is Victory Day. All usual cynicism aside, Victory Day is a big deal in Russia. I would argue that Russians continue to pay significantly more attention to the Second World War than most Americans do. There are legitimate reasons for it: officially, 20 million Russians died in the war. They fought on their own soil and like in any country with war, there were tremendous hardships, including a 900 day blockade of St. Petersburg. And then there are the 3000 Soviet and now Russian movies made to remind us, constantly, about the war. Not to mention all the babushki. At any rate, all of this means that across the nation, Victory Day is a huge celebration—in every city, there are tanks, there are soldiers, there are fireworks. The day usually begins with a morning parade and ends, as far as I could tell, with lots of alcohol.

I was hesitant about going to the Victory Day parade with our international crew, mainly because—ironically—Victory Day in Russia has become a place where skinheads express their negative opinions towards foreigners, sometimes relatively “peacefully” [such as a group of people screaming “go home Yankees” at a parade that Jen attended in Petersburg a couple years ago] and sometimes more violently. But Ekaterinburg is exceptional in being a relatively peaceful and safe Russian town and thus, at 9:45 am on May 9th, I found myself standing atop a crowded tank (#344) on the square of 1905, anxiously awaiting the start of the 62nd Victory Day Parade. The scene was amazing: all around the square there were groups of soldiers in uniform standing also awaiting the start of the big day. Little kids were climbing all over the tanks as if they were trees and women in 3 inch stilettos were carefully climbing up onto the tanks for a better view. In the background, the Lenin statue calmly watched over the entire square. It was Soviet, it was Russian, and it was unreal.

And then the clock struck ten and the excitement truly began. Basically what happens is that two main generals (at least I think that’s who they were) ride around the square standing up in convertible Volgas. There are all sorts of official phrases said through a loud speaker—the best part by far is when the general rides around to greet and congratulate each individual group of soldiers with the victory. There is a scripted conversation that is repeated about 20 times as the general drives from group to group, the highlight being when the soldiers all together scream “Uuuuraaaa!” (which is Russian “Hooooraaaay!). From atop our tank, we participated in the cheer, somewhat to the dismay of the spectators around us. Our Russian friends sang the national anthem and everyone watched in excitement as all the soldiers marched around the square. There were veterans, cadets, and everything in between.

That was it. Afterwards, we carefully climbed off our tank [only after several rounds of pictures] and meandered around the crowded square. If you passed a veteran in the crowd, it was appropriate to congratulate him with the victory, which we proudly did in our accented Russian. There were also lots of booths selling “fair food” including cotton candy and something called “soldier kasha” that we were not brave enough to try out. From this moment on, the main focus of the day seemed to switch over to alcohol for a good percentage of the crowd, which perhaps means it is a good point to transition to my birthday.

At the end of May 16, Midori turned to me and said “I think it’s been a very Russian day.” That might be the best way of summing up my birthday, besides saying that it was an absolutely excellent day.

We started early—I woke up to pancakes and a festively decorated kitchen, compliments of Jen. After a relaxing morning, Midori, Jen, and I hopped on the trolleybus and headed towards…EUROPE’S BIGGEST INDOOR WATERPARK! [Or so claim most Russians in Ekaterinburg]. In the words of Jen “now I really want to Europe’s smallest waterpark.” At any rate, we enjoyed 3 solid hours of 30 degrees Celcius, which was my main request for the day. We also learned [not surprisingly] that Russian safety standards and waterpark engineering skills are…well…less than impressive. For example, I [foolishly, in retrospect] chose “The Black Hole” as my first waterslide. Well, at some point in the black hole I noticed that I didn’t seem to be moving at all. And so, keeping my claustrophobia under control as best I could, I crawled for 3 minutes through utter darkness until I finally reached the huge drop off that shot me out into the pool. It was frightening, to say the least. There were also two grown and intoxicated men having an inner-tube fight on the lazy river for almost the entire time we were there. Nevertheless, it was a great time—we even got to sit in a sauna that was 120 degrees C, at which point Midori exclaimed “This is the first time I’ve been warm since I came to Russia!”.

After that adventure, we headed across the street to the movie theater, where we watched Человек-Паук (Spiderman 3). Even this proved to be a uniquely Russian experience. Despite the fact that it was 3:00 pm, there was an intoxicated couple in front of us who walked into the theater with a glass tumbler full of vodka [that they had ordered at, yes, the theater’s concession stand]. We were worried that they would be out of control, but once the movie started, the woman stopped screaming “Max! What’s going on?” and they pretty much calmed down. Halfway through the movie, the sound went out and at about the same time, Max’s tumbler of vodka caught up with him. He bent over in his seat, leading his girlfriend to start screaming [in that lovely loud, drunkenly slurred voice] “Max, what’s wrong with you? Max?!” [Max тебе плохо, что ли?]. The family sitting behind us got up at this point…but apparently only to report the sound problem and not the drunken mess in front of us. That was okay, because after Max finished vomiting his vodka onto the movie theater floor, the girlfriend smacked him across the face and the couple abruptly left. All the while good and evil were going at it on the screen behind them.

Despite that excitement, the movie was excellent as well. Jen and I spent half the time watching Spiderman and the other half watching Midori, who was like a 3-year-old watching their favorite cartoon—she didn’t even notice the drama between Max and his girlfriend!

In the evening, we had a gathering of international students with cake and coffee. Around this time I also found out that Russian style is to just drop by with gifts without warning, which might be my new favorite cultural difference : ) Misha brought Cadburry chocolates and Sergei and Alfina brought about 20 roses. All in all, it was a wonderful day. It was great to hear from so many of you on the day—thank you for all the messages!

One more point of business: to answer the question that is running around out there, I am coming home in early September. It’s not official yet and it is going to take some serious maneuvering through the Russian visa system [though I must say, if there is one thing this year has taught me, it’s how to effectively tightrope walk through the tangled system of Russian bureaucracy], but that’s what I am shooting for. I will keep you all updated. And in the meantime, there is a big summer of traveling adventures coming up—but more about that in the next blog : )

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Falling In Line/Strutting My Stuff

Since arriving to Russia in August and beginning the long process of cultural adjustment, I have had a constant question in my mind about when it is necessary to follow Russian cultural standards and when it is appropriate and perhaps necessary to protect my American self. The question is constant largely because the relevant moments are generally ordinary and mundane: can I answer my cell phone in class? do I need to wear a hat today? what do I want for dinner tonight? I came here concerned about being culturally sensitive, but soon realized that I also need to make sure that I find times and places for my Americanness as well…and the balancing act of doing so has become my journey is cultural assimilation.

In the last month, this question has suddenly become more apparent and defined in my behavior. And thus the title of this entry: in many aspects of my ordinary life here, I have spent the last month either almost entirely assimilating or completely rebelling—in between these two options right now there seems to be little room for common ground.

I first noticed this development when a few things about myself unexpectedly “russified.” First, in the course of a three-day trip to Izhevsk, I started to like two staples of Russian life that I swore I would NEVER like: instant coffee [forgive me] and carbonated water. I honestly don’t know what happened—it was as if all the sudden the radiation had gone to my head and what before had tasted disgusting was now wonderful. That same week, I found myself craving grechka [buckwheat] and regularly cleaning the dirt off of my shoes and the bottom of my jeans without complaint. While walking on the street, I noticed that for the most part, I have stopped smiling and I don’t usually apologize when I push past people to get onto a crowded bus. To top it all off, when walking into the university a couple weeks ago, I saw my friend Polina and said hi. She looked really confused as she said hello back—later in the day, she told me that she hadn’t recognized me because I “looked so Russian.” I spent the rest of the day trying to decide if I should be flattered or seriously reconsidering my recent wardrobe choices.

Now, this last week, I first recognized the flipside of this dichotomy. The weather has taken a balmy turn here, so much so that even most of the mud has disappeared and/or turned to dust. As a result, I have been running often, despite the fact that I turn more heads per capita than perhaps if Lenin himself was walking down the street. Because of this attention, I used to feel self-conscious and avoid running except within the safety of parks, where only old grandmothers and tiny children can mock me. But something has changed recently: perhaps emboldened by my Wolfmother/Ani Difranco music mix, I smile at the people staring at me. I smirk at the groups of young men who make rude remarks as I run pass them, confident that I can outrun them if necessary, especially considering most of them are usually about two packs of cigarettes and four beers into the day by the time they see me. I ignore the concerned comments that I should probably put a hat on and I wonder to myself how all the women who are still wearing fur coats are not passing out from heat exhaustion. And after the run, like the exercise-addicted American that I still am, I feel great, reenergized, and ready to tackle the massive to-do list that I created for myself before I hit the streets.

These little changes cross into all the everyday aspects of my life, like fashion, food, and my daily routine. Right now, America and Russia are going punch for punch and they each seem to be winning their own sets of battles. The other day I wore a sweatshirt on the street for the first time in months, but the next day I spent 30 minutes trying to match my scarf, hat, coat, shoes, and purse for a presentation where I was going to probably going to remove the first three items at the coat check before I even saw anyone who might care about how I looked. While cultural assimilation seemed to be an overwhelming process in September and October, right now it somehow feels natural. I think that I am unconsciously boiling myself down to the essential and deciding, in an odd form of spring cleaning, what behaviors can be thrown out and what are here to stay for good. I’m not sure what will be left in the end: a loud and still overly political American, no doubt, but perhaps one with a mean face, a strange wardrobe complete with a hat to match every outfit, and an odd affection for techno music [just kidding! that last one will never happen].

[For those of you who are wondering, life in general is going great here. Work is plugging along, with the biggest news being that the first version of the database for Crisis Center Ekaterina launched last week. My parents visited and managed to survive and even enjoy (or so I am told) all the wonders and challenges that the Urals have to offer in the muddy month of March. At school, I am busy with a whole new round of presentations about America, as well as the production of a Russian play where all the parts are going to be played by foreigners. And, in between all that, I have been enjoying the spring both in the city and the country, and trying to make the most in the last few months with my crazy (but wonderful) Russian/international community].

Friday, March 02, 2007

I would like to congratulate you with spring!

Well, it is March 2nd and here in the Urals, Russians claim that spring has started. I have spent the last three days trying to argue that spring does not start on March 1, but on March 20 (and, for the love of god, it certainly doesn't start on March 1 in Russia), but my cries have mostly fallen on deaf ears. Incidentally, Russians like to congratulate each other with spring, as though we as a people have somehow willed the season upon ourselves. Thus, I would like to wish all of you a happy spring :) (I must admit that despite my protests, we have indeed reached a monumental high of -2 C today).

I am at long last back in Ekaterinburg and settling into a good working and studying routine. The most exciting news is that at long last my work with Ekaterina [the women's crisis center] has taken off. The key ingredient turned out to be my secret nerdiness [or not so secret, as I'm sure some of you are thinking], in this case, my past experience with building computer databases. After one afternoon of observing Anya and Nadezhda's very elaborate system of post-it notes that they use to track clients who call the crisis line, I offered to help them set up a basic computer database. Well, to make a long story short, they jumped and after many months of twiddling my thumbs with regards to the crisis center work, I am finally sitting with more work than I could have asked for. It is an exciting development, especially because nearly none of the NGOs that I know of in provincial Russia use databases. In other words, if I am able to pull this off, it could make an actual improvement in the work that Ekaterina does. In the meantime, I have fallen in love with the women who work at the center and have been having lots of fun getting to better know them and their histories with this type of activism.

I have also found a local family center that I started volunteering with. I am going to help out Larisa Leonova [the director] with some grant-writing/basic fundraising. She is also looking to get more involved in training sessions/consultations for women who have experienced domestic violence. From a couple tea and cookies sessions with her, I have learned that right now Ekaterina is the ONLY organization within a city of 2 million that works at all on the problem of domestic violence. With that in mind, I am excited about the opportunity to hopefully help her find funding to get some similar programs up and running in a different area of town. We'll see...

That's the biggest news from here. Other short updates:
  • On February 9th, we celebrated Midori's 21st birthday with a skiing extravaganza! Josefina, Jen, Midori, Misha, and I all trekked out to the outskirts of town, strapped on some skis, and hit the "slopes." It was Midori's first time on skis and despite some fights with the Russian ski lift [which ultimately resulted in some serious frostbite], she had a blast. She also got to make her first snow angel and participate in some serious snow fights. Pictures from the crazy day are up on the facebook.
  • I made the Russian news again :) It was at the American Center again, this time Danai and I were making lots of valentines with members of the community [ie little kids and grandmothers who braved the cold for the promise of American crafts]. We are becoming quite the celebrities in town, which basically means that the mean salespeople are either much nicer to me now [because Americans, let's be real, are so cool] or even meaner to me [because clearly I'm a spy]. At any rate, I think this is my 15 minutes of fame and I'm not quite sure how I feel about the fact that it's being used up in the Urals of Russia.
  • After six months of living only within the borders of Russia, I took a short vacation to England last week! Although it feels great to be back in Ekat now, it felt amazing to spend a week relaxing in all sorts of Western comforts, from lattes to clean streets/trains/stores to smiling waitresses to food with spices [beyond salt, pepper, and sour cream, that is].
    In contrast to Russia, it actually is spring there and I spent a good portion of the week blinking and not believing my eyes when I saw all the green. In short, I fell in love with the city and it was a great trip.
Next week, I have plans to visit a teacher's house for the first time (Midori, Jen, Josefina, and I have all been invited over for tea and pancakes!), celebrate my first International Women's Day with the lovely women of Ekaterina, and take a day trip to visit an orphanage. Hopefully I'll get around to putting up the results of all those adventures shortly after they occur. I hope you are all doing well and enjoying whatever version of spring you find yourself in!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Day in the Life of a Foreigner in Moscow

On February 1st, I woke up in a hostel on “Starii Arbat” and was surprised to discover that the sun was shining in my eyes. After three long days of sitting in a chair at the Fulbright midyear conference, my body reacted to the sun with one thought: ice-skating. I sent out the word to the Fulbrighters still in town and at 2:00 pm I met Dan, Lauren, and Julia to go ice skating in Gorkii Park. I had heard that it was a huge skating area; what I didn’t know was that they flood all the paths in the gigantic park. You can literally skate/stroll through the entire park. It was sooooo cool. We rented skates and went exploring through the park, which was so large that we barely made it through the entire park in the hour we were there. What’s more, there was a blue sky and happy, smiling Russians on skates: some played hockey, some were on dates, and some were just gossiping in the park with their friends. There are still, of course, kiosks in the park, so you can buy—well—whatever you want while you skate. We determined that what we wanted was beer and we spent the last 15 minutes skating with Nevskoe Pivo in hand.

After skating, Dan, Julia, and I rolled over to another metro stop to meet Liza [another community service Fulbrighter] for a belated birthday celebration. We went to a café that Julia had found earlier that week—it was underground and only had room for about 10 tables. All the food that you could order was sitting out in dishes on the bar—you could point out what you wanted and the woman at the bar would dish you up a portion and then throw it in the microwave for a few minutes. They also had Baltika 8 [my favorite beer in Russia] on tap, which I have never found anywhere else. We sat and talked loudly, scaring off what seemed to be the café’s main customers: old men eating chocolate and drinking cognac. They were so inspiring that we decided to do the same and thus we sat for another hour, sipping cognac and eating miniature chocolate bars, until we realized that we were late for our next event, meeting Liza’s friend Misha at his art gallery. Off we rushed again.

While walking to the gallery, Misha informed us that he needed to impress someone at the opening with his language skills and therefore we should speak only English with him there. After he introduced us 4 times not as Betsy, Liza, Dan, and Julia but merely as his “American friends,” we understood that we were invited primarily to be pimped out as Americans. A common occurrence in Russia? Certainly. But this time we decided to give Misha a run for his money. Standing in the middle of a room filled with grotesque art and with plastic cups of wine in hand, the four of us somehow ended up in an hour and a half discussion/argument/fight about abortion. We succeeded in offending each other at various moments and in almost shouting every few minutes. In the process, we shocked all the Russians around us, who were unacquainted with the typical American style of political discourse. Misha several times tried to change the topic unsuccessfully—in short, I don’t think we’ll be invited back as token Americans again.

Not ready to end the night yet, we continued onto an underground bar called “Agi”. It had a bookstore and a cobblestone floor and dimly lit tables. A “retro-dance band” was playing, complete with a piano, fiddle, bass, and a woman with Marilyn Monroe blonde hair and red lipstick playing on the accordion in the center of the stage. The music made me feel like I should be dancing on the streets of Paris or Chicago in the spring. While Dan danced with Liza, I ordered up the birthday margaritas. We sat for an hour, sipping our drinks and listening to the music, calm after the storm at the art gallery. We went home on the last metro car and when I got to my stop, I rode the 7-story escalator completely alone for the first time, making the day seem entirely surreal. For me, it belonged in a Hemingway novel but somehow ended up in my life. Moscow has overpriced hotels and crabby, crooked taxi drivers, but it also has skating parks, grungy cafes, and now a few pages of my journal.