Friday, September 29, 2006

Burning Bright

Yesterday during my Russian lesson I read a dialogue about a cat named "Taiga". Thinking I was smart, I figured the cat was named after its wild counterpart the tiger. But no. The cat is named for "taiga", the forest in Siberia where summer temperatures exceed 100 F and winter digits hit -80 F.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

I scream

You scream. Today I made brownies for our teachers meeting and they were a big success (Dad, thanks for the mix). After the meeting, I met with 3 of my students (girls) for a trip to Baskin Robbins, where I had one scoop of mango and one of some other kind of fruit. In Russia, you can order a pot of tea at Baskin Robbins and purchase small tea cakes to go with it. The tea and the ice cream were delicious. The girls wanted to know what was different about Baskin Robbins in Russia and America. I told them their Baskin Robbins was nicer. We looked at photos of each other, watched people walking outside, and talked about what movies and books we like. I was so excited to have my very own social event outside of work. It made my life in Vladimir more real but I'm still partly in transition limbo. I'm beginning to understand more of what I hear, but I can't say much yet.


Last Saturday, our students were invited to the American Home to play American football and watch a movie. 5 or 6 of my students came along with many others. One of my older students was happy just to sit in the leaves and watch. She is an overworked perfectionist, so I was glad to see her having fun.

I played photographer at the beginning, but then disappeared upstairs to get my darn paper written. One down, 7 to go... (grad school's taking a year longer than it was supposed to)

Monday, September 25, 2006

Why Vladimir is Beautiful

Many of you have asked what Russia looks like. You wonder if the landscape is bleak and desolate, or rugged and mountainous. Right now we are in the midst of a gorgeous Indian summer. Here are some reasons why I think this is a beautiful city.

Sunday, September 24, 2006


The name of a nearby town which makes me think of bubble baths. Suzdal is famous for its churches and cucumbers, and I had the opportunity to experience both on our day-trip. We went to my favorite museum ever, an architectural one that was all outdoors and consisted of wooden churches, peasant and rich man huts and windmills, some of which were very old. The most amazing thing is that they didn't use any nails in the construction.

At lunchtime, we walked around looking for a nearby restaurant, and instead encountered a group of elderly peddlers intent on selling us cucumbers. Their own individual versions of pickling-in-progress cucumbers. Since we were clearly a large group of American students, we lost the argument, and bought 2 or 3 different kinds.

That day, Suzdal was having a festival (I think it was their city day). We walked the streets, looked at souvenirs and bought ice cream. Then we decided to ride one of those carnival rides. The kind that looks really fun but maybe doesn't meet OSHA standards or whoever governs that stuff. Our ride appeared to be set of van seats chained and duct taped to a frame, that flipped and spun you upside down. Eric and I convinced each other it was a good idea to ride it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Class Act

By the end of the first day of teaching, we were all exhausted. Getting everything ready, working until 9 PM and trying to figure out who our students were and what we were doing took its toll. We were supposed to have a post-teaching meeting to talk about how it went. I was in no mood for a meeting. I wanted to go home, eat and sleep.

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled into the dining room to see it set with a huge feast for all the teachers - a celebration in honor of the first day. Alexi proclaimed "you launched it!" and we all ate dinner and toasted each other. I loved it. I was so impressed. I can't imagine anything like that happening back home.

After dinner, I picked up a broom to help clear crumbs from the floor. Alexi, with his camera ever at the ready, snapped a quick photo shouting "1920s Housewife in the Kitchen" and lauging uproariously.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Getting to Know You

Every year we decorate the classrooms with a certain theme. This year, we decorated them according to different decades in American history. The eras we chose: the 20s, 50s, 60s, and 80s. (Our central classroom was themed after Ellis Island). Bob and I were in charge of the 20s, so our classroom was titled "The Speakeasy" and covered with references to Prohibition, women's suffrage, Lindbergh's flight, flappers, zoot suits, art deco, expatriate authors and absinthe in Paris, the Harlem Renaissance and big band jazz/swing/Duke Ellington, and Black Tuesday.

This theme carried over into our introductory skits for the students. On the first day of class, teachers traditionally perform some sort of skit to explain to the students who we are and which class we will be teaching. At the beginning we told the students that this year, the American Home had a time machine and we would travel through different decades to find teachers. Representing the 1920s, I dressed up as a flapper, and Bob and I walked out and danced to some big band music for all the students. Our first audience loved it, and began cheering and clapping. Other groups were quiter but I think they all liked it, and we definitely had fun.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sweet Saxophone

The other weekend, we attended a jazz festival in honor of city day (the city celebrates its birthday with a big street festival full of ice cream, balloons and various forms of entertainment). The group that played travels here infrequently from Moscow, and Galya bought all the teachers tickets as a gift. They were very good and I really enjoyed listening to them. They played a lot of big band music, which was entertaining in light of my being a flapper for our school skit, and they also adapted Russian classics like "Song of the Volga Boatmen" to jazz. I wish you could have been there. Duke Ellington was present, among others. It was a big night.


On Saturday, we made
the long-awaited, eagerly-anticipated trek to Tanya's dacha, just outside the city, for a picnic/barbeque. It was really, really cold. I say this as a Californian/Georgian/whatever. I had to wear long underwear. And a hat and gloves and scarf. And boots. And a sweater. And a jacket. It was crazy. I really can't picture sub-zero temperatures.

We cooked some delicious shashlik, ate grapes, tomatoes, spicy string cheese and squares of lavash wrapped with (I think) feta and maybe cilantro inside - accompanied by some mulled wine. We went on a short excursia to the hollowed out remnant of an old church, and walked around the woods looking at a big dry spot that used to be a lake and anything else we came across. We stepped carefully across a short plank over a small stream. Between the mulled wine, my being sick, and the cold, I opted to go back inside the dacha and sleep while everyone else drank tea and played basketball.

It was a good weekend and I was happy to be outdoors.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The American Home Exposed

I know what you are thinking. You want to know where exactly I work. You are a little confused. Something about a school in Russia and English classes. You're afraid there are Chechen rebels running around. You are not really sure what, precisely, I am doing here. (see I can read minds)

Let me put your fears at ease.

To your left is a lovely photo of the American Home. This is where we work/live/teach/argue/play. This is not a Russian school. It is a private organization run by a professor in Illinois, and what we will do on a given day is sometimes as much a mystery to us as it is to you.

On a basic level, we teach English, yes ~400 students a semester, with many more on a waiting list if we only had the space and staff to teach more classes. The ages, capabilites and motivations of our students are very different. In one class, my youngest student can't be much more than 9 yrs and my oldest is in his mid 40s. Many adults and university students want to improve their English to help in their job or to study abroad.

But we also help with local projects and tourism. This weekend a group of visitors arrived from Illinois to have tea with us. They all support and helped to create the American Home and wanted to learn about us and why we came to Russia. They brought gifts, important ones: coffee and peanut butter :) A few weeks ago, two of our teachers went to a local auto parts company to voiceover a commercial they were filming. On the weekend, a few more teachers played basketball on the "American team" in a local tournament. Today, 2 TV stations and a newspaper stopped by to interview Americans for a retrospective on 9/11. A few weeks ago, we met with a group of students attending an English language camp to discuss American culture. You never know what will happen next.

We end up becoming involved in our students' lives. You're the teacher, but for many, you're also their "american friend" which has certain bragging rights. Your students will invite you out to go walking and do things with them, which is not a bad way to learn more about Vladimir or Russia.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Lucky Birch Tree

Last Saturday, we took the train to Nizhny Novgorod (aka Gorky). The city girl in me was midly homesick. Nizhny is bigger than Vladimir, but small enough to be more managable than Moscow. The weather was perfect and we walked all around the city. On the side of a hill grows a lucky birch tree. When a couple gets married, the groom (I think it's always the groom) climbs the tree and ties a ribbon on it - the higher you can place it, the more luck you will have. Here is one lucky gentleman who succeeded in making the trip.

Friday, September 01, 2006


I had 2 packages at the post office. When you have a package, they send you a slip so you know it's there. You show up with your passport to claim it. The post office is several blocks down the street. It was a nice day so I decided to walk. I couldn't find the post office at first, so I walked in circles for a bit. Once I found it, I realized the slip I needed to claim my package was at school. So I walked back.

I returned to the post office an hour later to find there were 10 minutes left in their afternoon break. Breaks are very serious in Russia. There is no evading someone's scheduled break. The package lady put the boxes on a scale and said something. I thought she was asking for money - if you don't pick up your mail right away, they charge you for storage, and I was running a few days late - so I pulled out my wallet, and she laughed. After some pantomime I was able to understand that she was reciting the weight so I knew it matched the customs form and that the package had not been disturbed in transit.

Concerned about the weight of the boxes, she tied string around them so they'd be easier to carry. Balancing both in my arms, I found them awkward, not because of weight so much as my short arms. I walked back to school, recieving many odd stares. I don't think women normally carry anything here. Probably not boxes that reach above their head.

Excited to be close to the school, I crossed the street at a green pedestrian light, not really looking around since I had the right of way - to the great fury of a Russian fire truck barreling down the road (honking when it saw me but not making any noise before that).

My parents, bless them, sent us enough red pens for the entire school year, in addition to any items mentioned in the "Teacher Handbook" that I had not packed, including extra nylons and a scientific calculator. Plus some very cool Pioneer keychains to hand out to my students. All the essentials of life...

First Day of School

Olga with her flowers

Not my school. "Regular" school. The first day of class in Russia is celebratory - almost a holiday. Turned out in their finest, even young children wear suits and students bring flowers for their teachers. My host mother is a school teacher so I got to watch the first day festivities. The beginning was very solemn, with 2 serious young women flanking a serious young man who carried the Russian flag around a circle of students, stopping at center stage where they stood, immobile, for the rest of the ceremony. Parents and grandparents came to watch the show.

Students took turns singing, speaking, parading in groups according to their class year, and passing out flowers. Someone asked if I was new, and I wasn't sure if they meant parent or student, but I simply said "yes" and moved before they asked more questions. I followed my host mother to her class and listened to her explain that I was an American, staying at her house and that I didn't speak Russian :)

When I was growing up, my mother sent us to school with flowers. This gesture was not always understood by other students, or our teacher.


Another Russian custom (practiced in other countries, too) is the removal of your shoes upon entry into a house or apartment. Street shoes are replaced by Russian house slippers called tapochki. In winter especially they are important because streets are so dirty and you trek snow everywhere. They come in various colors, styles and levels of quality ranging from sporty plastic Adidas types to girly glittery to soft and fuzzy or plain and simple.

An outing to the local "mall" became a group effort To Help Nicole, OfNonDiminuitive MetatarsalsWhoCannotSpeakRussian, Find Tapochki. It took a couple of stores, but I finally found a beautiful blue pair made in Kiev, Ukraine - my very own, they have flowers and are supposed to last a few years if I take care of them (we shall see what survives the winter).