Saturday, August 26, 2006

Small Talk

The first two weeks have been quite busy. Jet lag is a convenient scapegoat, but even without it, adapting to a new environment can be exhausting. My host family is wonderful. The day I arrived, we had a huge meal and a few neighbors even showed up. I really don't know any Russian but I do understand what "kooshetz!!" means (thank you babushka). This term is usually addressed as a command, often accompanied by emphatic gesturing with a wooden spoon, and means "EAT! Eat, now, and keep eating..." It's said that an empty plate is viewed as a challenge to a Russian hostess and I think this may be true.

The cat meows loudly at me all the time. Supposedly this is a normal part of her adjustment process with new Americans. (my host family has some experience in this matter)

I never realized what an emotional process learning a new language can be. During the first week, we had survival Russian classes. It seems almost everyone else was a Russian major in school so I spent a few days moping around and being exasperated that I couldn't gain fluency in 7 days. (James Bond does NOT make it look this hard) Sitting in the classroom for my one-on-one lessons, I suddenly understood the thought process our students will have when they walk through the door. Hopefully this will help me be a better teacher.

About 2 days into the trip, I decided enough was enough and it was time to start talking. I brought my pocket dictionary to breakfast determined to make conversation. The food is delicious and I flipped through the dictionary, strung some words together in my head and proudly told my host mother "You are a good oven". She burst out laughing; I learned that dictionaries aren't all they're cracked up to be, and that the words for oven and cook are remarkably similar. But hey, I'm trying, right? And the joke kept us going for the rest of the week.

Ou est le Doublevay Say?

Bathrooms are much more utilitarian in Russia. Since everyone lives in a small apartment, the bathroom is similar to a garage or attic and becomes a catch-all for miscellaneous storage. Logical, but it really threw me the first time I walked in. Part of the reason Americans use so much more water than anyone else is probably because of how clean, shiny and fun our bathrooms are to spend time in. You want to take a 30 min shower and fiddle with your new sunscreen and your electric toothbrush in front of the big mirror and the fluffy towels and the candles.

We don't have hot water right now. This is a seasonal, geographically rotating normality. If I understand correctly, much of the pipe/water maintenance is done in the summer when weather conditions are nicest. Certain sections of the city will be without hot water for indeterminate lengths of time. (There are official estimates. Amazingly, these are rarely accurate.) Once work in a section is completed, maintenance moves to the next area, and they get to freeze for awhile.

For the first week, I took cold showers at home, insisting it was no problem as I didn't want my host mother to have to heat a bunch of water on the stove to try to fix it. Invigorating. Remniscent of camping. I even found a mosquito who wanted to keep me company. OK, so I miss my American bathroom.

My shower routine goes like this: I stand in the tub and pick up the detachable shower head. I lean over and rinse just my hair. I shampoo, rinse it out, do sort of a quick general scrub, and jump out of the bathtub. There is a wooden platform stacked on the end of the tub, with 3 or 4 pots sitting on it. So there I am, standing in the bathtub. And I'm trying to wash my hair without running into the pots, or dripping on the floor because there is no shower curtain or anything and if I move my head in the wrong direction it will send water drops flying over the edge onto the floor, and if I move myself in the wrong direction I will run into the pots.

Friday, August 25, 2006


Last Saturday, as part of our Group Bonding experience, we took the morning train to Moscow - the closest major city, it's 2.5hrs by train (faster than driving). Since we have all been there before, no one was in a great hurry to see tourist attractions. August is a peak month for visiting and the crowds in line to see Lenin's tomb proved it.

I visited Moscow once before, in the winter of 1997. It felt very different then. Red Square was more exotic and less touristy. Now, everything has been repainted and looks a little bit too perfect. Moscow is obviously wealthier and much more expensive than I remember, though I have no idea how proportionately this wealth is distributed.

Realizing that we kept bickering about what to do next because our group was too large, we split up to look at different things. Eric and I ended up wandering the city and people-watching, which quickly regressed into looking for park benches to nap on. Several benches, bottles of water and bookstores later, it was time to head back to the train station.

We got there in plenty of time. Really. Despite my sense of direction. Early, even. I haggled with a pirog vendor for some greasy food. We checked the schedule. It began to rain. We walked to the train. It wasn't there.

Departure time approached quickly. We asked for directions - and received 6 different sets. Running through several tunnels, staircases, and side streets - we kept looking for the train but couldn't find it. We began to sprint.

We found the train, but there was a fence in the way. I considered jumping it. At this point we had been running for several minutes. We found a path around the fence, and ran to the train. The doors were closed and it was ready to leave. We pounded on windows and doors begging for someone to help us. We found an open window - and a very suprised man in the restroom. We kept running down the side of the platform. Attracting the attention of a ticket lady, we knocked on the door and held up our tickets. She said something, turned and disappeared. The train began to pull away and the doors were still closed. We banged lounder. The train jerked, stopped, and she opened the door. We slipped in, thanked her and made a long walk, dripping rain and sweat, through the nicest cabin back to the least expensive, where we were all sitting.

A close call, but we made it. 2 more seconds and we would have missed it. A little blurry, but we took a picture to commemorate the moment.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Twas the Night Before

And here I sit, drinking tea since the coffee ran out and wondering what I leave undone.

T Minus ~ 12 hours. Delta flies nonstop to Moscow. Which, depending on your view, may be advantageous. Downside: No layover in Amsterdam. Upside: I have an aisle seat.

I am very conscious of what I pack. I don't want to show up with more clothes than my whole family owns. Jeans, tshirts, a suit, some girly clothes, workout gear for cross-country skiing, running, and the biking club Vladimir supposedly has, warm clothes (whatever they are) and a little black dress so I can crash embassy parties.

There are 6 mosquito bites on my arm and 2 on my toe.
Yesterday, the dog peed on my brand-new, beautiful, red Swiss Army luggage.
My only good jeans are somewhere in the 25 sealed moving boxes decorating the living room.

It is customary to arrive with small gifts when you visit someone. So if you go over for dinner, bring flowers or chocolates. I need something nice to give my family when I get there. I have an MP3 player for my host brother, a small cologne for dad, but I don't know what to get mom yet. (the Victoria's Secret Pink dog?)

The atomic clock at the Naval Observatory says it's late. Time to crash. Love you all, and thanks for the nonstop phone calls between 6 PM and midnight.