You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2005.
May 9th is Victory Day, the day that the Nazis were defeated in Russia, and 2005 is the 60th anniversary. For the past couple of weeks, Victory Day posters and banners have been creeping into public space. It’s unfortunate that I read The Gulag Archipelago so recently, because it makes it difficult not to be kind of cynical about all this, particularly the ones that have pictures of old veterans that say “Thank You, Heroes!” These heroes were treated by Stalin’s regime as expendable at best, and enemies of the state at worst. And now, the few of them that are left can barely survive on their pensions and can’t even ride public transportation for free anymore. Thank you heroes, indeed. It seems to me that all this signage is propaganda intended to stir up some patriotism in people who don’t have much else to feel good about. Not that this kind of crap is unique to Russia — in the U.S. the refrain is “Support Our Troops”, which literally means, “Send them off to some unwinnable war under false pretexts.” Question this and you are obviously an enemy of Freedom(tm).
Words and posters are cheap. Doing the right thing is a lot more complicated.
There’s this one little boy, Kolya, at the kindergarten who almost never utters a word until it’s time to go home, when he starts talking to himself in complete sentences. Even then, when you pose a direct question to him, he’ll just look at you with big blue eyes, mouth slightly agape. He knows what he’s doing, though. I think he’s shy, and doesn’t like the kindergarten, but has it figured out that if he just plays dumb but otherwise behaves himself, no one will make him do anything.
The kids are supposed to say a “password” to get into the classroom, to help them learn their colors. In the doorway between the cloakroom and the main classroom there is a place where we hang a colored rectangle, and we change the color every couple of days. Today when Kolya came in I decided not to let him off the hook. I kept sending him back to the cloakroom until he would admit (that is, just say “da”) that the rectangle was yellow. I didn’t hear him utter a single word the rest of the day. But when he had finished his lunch, washed his hands and was drying them in preparation to get dressed to go home, he put down his towel and said, very clearly, “Vsyo. Ya idu domoi.” (That’s it. I’m going home.) Scoundrel.
Since I seem to have a lot of new readers who probably haven’t felt like reading every post since this one, I’m writing this to bring everyone up to speed and to have something fresh for the “Why Am I In Russia?” link under my photo.
I’ve been living in St. Petersburg since November 2004. This is my second stint here. I spent three months here in the summer of 2002. Back then, I had decided that after studying Russian off and on since the age of 13, it was time I saw Russia for myself. I quit my job in Washington, DC, flew here, took Russian for Foreigners at St. Petersburg State University, and lived in a student dormitory on the Gulf of Finland. It was an interesting, if not always enjoyable, experience that changed my perception of the world in innumerable ways. After exhausting my savings, I went back to Washington. I knew I’d return to Russia at some point, but thought that I might live in Moscow the next time around for a different experience.
In the summer of 2003, I went on a Scandinavian cruise with my extended family which docked in St. Petersburg for two days. This brief visit reminded me how I’d really become rather attached to this romantic, dirty city.
One day in summer 2004, I got a call from my Aunt Kelly. Her employer was offering her a year-long expatriate assignment in St. Petersburg. She said she’d consider it if I could come along with her. Of course I said yes. And so, once again, I packed up my life, quit my job, and came to St. Petersburg.
Since February I’ve been teaching English lessons and working at a British Kindergarten. The “kindergarten” is actually what Americans would call pre-school. I teach the youngest group, the two- and three-year-olds. The kids are mostly Russian, with affluent parents who want their kids to learn English from an early age. My group has 20 kids and I have three co-teachers. We speak to the kids in English as much as possible, and they understand quite well, though most of them don’t do much speaking.
I really like teaching, to my surprise. After years of working nonprofit office jobs, staring at a computer all day, it’s a great change of pace. Teaching runs in my family, so maybe it was inevitable.
Anyway, Aunt Kelly’s one-year assignment is likely to last a bit longer than that, and I’ve agreed to stay on at the kindergarten through June 2006, at which point I can decide about the following academic year. So, my time here is pretty much open-ended, which makes me happy. Russia certainly has its problems, but for now at least, I really like living here.
So that’s what I’m doing in Russia.
I’m sick again. This time it’s a sore throat/cough with a bit of stuffy nose thrown in. I hate this. I’m trying to be more disciplined about taking vitamins and getting enough sleep and washing my hands lots at the kindergarten, but I suppose there’s only so much I can do when I’m constantly being exposed to germs new to my immune system. I suppose the weather’s unpredictability isn’t helping much either. I took some pictures of the snowfall we had a couple of days ago, but the program for uploading photos isn’t working for me for some reason. Suffice it to say, there was actual accumulation of snow on the 21st of April. Ugh.
This evening Aunt Kelly and I jettisoned our original plan of going to IKEA in favor of a relaxing evening at home with a pirate DVD of “Million Dollar Baby”. I was running some errands on my way home when I got a call from Aunt Kelly suggesting that I throw a frozen pizza in the oven if I got home first. As it turned out, I was across the street from a Pizza Hut. I suggested that I just get a pizza and bring it home. I knew this was a very non-Russian thing to do, but, at that moment Pizza Hut and a movie just seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
This was my first time ever getting carry-out pizza in Russia. They actually charge 10 rubles (about 35 cents) extra for the box. They told me to wait 17 minutes. Seventeen, not fifteen or twenty.
When I emerged from the Pizza Hut with my box, a lot of people looked at the box, then looked at me, then looked at the box again. Russians are not known for making significant eye contact with strangers, so this was pretty strange.
I had briefly contemplated taking a taxi home, but I was only one metro stop away, and wasn’t in the mood to haggle over the price of the ride, which would inevitably be outrageous at first, given my accent and the pizza. So I took the metro. Well, it was like being a freaking celebrity. Men held doors open for me, which never happens here. People were doing double takes on the escalator. I was simultaneously amused and embarassed. It was really ostentatious of me.
Kostia says Russians who can afford pizza don’t take the metro. Russia doesn’t have much of a middle class. I mean, there’s a big difference between the cost of a pizza and the cost of a car. In fact, had I taken a taxi it probably would have cost me as much as the pizza. Hence, we can see how bizarre the Russian economy really is.
It snowed yesterday and today. And, now the sun sets so late that sometimes I go to bed before it’s completely dark out. How strange.
Today Alla was giving the kids a lesson about dishes, in Russian of course. We were looking at pictures of a teacup, a mug, and a glass. “All well-brought-up people know that you use different dishes for different things. A teacup is for tea.” Fair enough. “A mug is for milk and water. A glass is for juice.” What?? A mug is for a hot beverage, like coffee, and a glass is for cold beverages like milk, juice, water, and Coca-Cola WITH ICE. Any well-brought-up American knows that!
Really, I don’t think it matters at all, but Alla was going on and on about how there are so many uncultured people drinking beverages from the wrong vessels. Well, I suppose this will help me be a better hostess while living in Russia, in the unlikely event that any well-brought-up people come over. Thank goodness for Alla’s Russian etiquette lessons.
Do any of you have a subscription to ConsumerReports.org? I often find myself wanting to look things up on there, but not often enough to shell out actual dollars for a subscription. Perhaps a friendly reader could do a couple of searches for me?
Just got home from Slantsy, a small town close to the Estonian border. It was quiet and relaxing there. There isn’t much to speak of in the town, though they do have a museum featuring things like scale models of local factories, stuffed local wild animals, and the obligatory Soviet propaganda which these sorts of dusty small museums still retain.
Certain Someone’s family is very sweet and cute and nice. His mom’s a great cook and we were constantly being fed delicious things. I saw very little of his dad, but he ran off to pick me flowers just before the bus pulled away this morning. His grandma just kept patting me on the back and saying “You’re a nice girl. Such a nice girl.” Before we could grow tired of all this pleasantness, we had to head back to St. Petersburg, with an hour and a half added to the journey because of a bus breakdown.
It’s always a bit jarring to be back in a big city after being in a quiet place. I think I’ll do some yoga now.
Well, that sucked — two days of lying in bed with a fever and stomach cramps. Amazing how one can go from feeling normal to completely horrible and back in just a couple of days. This morning I was still pretty shaky and thought I might get trampled in the Metro at rush hour, but this evening felt completely fine on a lovely evening walk. (The weather was perfect today, and it doesn’t get dark til after 9:00 p.m. these days.)
I really have to figure out how to cram more Russian language study into my days. My Russian lesson today was a complete humiliation, and I actually had more time to study this week than usual, owing to my two days lying in bed with little else to do. Am I just to old to develop any new language skills? Do I just not know how to study? Have I consumed so much alcohol in the past 8 years (yes, truly, I didn’t do much drinking until I was 21) that I don’t have any spare brain cells?
I do spend the majority of my time in English-speaking environments, which is bad, but it’s just kind of a fact of life at the moment. Certain Someone and I make efforts to speak in Russian, but always lapse into English after a few sentences, because the scope of our conversations is constrained by the limitations of my Russian (whereas Certain Someone’s English isn’t constrained by a goddamn thing). It’s a vicious cycle. But this weekend I’m going to Certain Someone’s hometown, where I will be required to speak Russian all of the time, so perhaps this will instill some good habits in both of us.
So have a good weekend, all. I’m off to bed again, but this time it’s because it’s actually bedtime, not because I feel like I’m going to die.
I swear, I’d better have the Immune System of Steel after a year or so in Russia. At least this time it’s not a head cold. Yesterday I spent the afternoon shopping for a stylish new shoulder bag, and I was feeling rather fatigued but attributed it to hours of fruitless shoppping, which is bound to make anyone lose their will to live. Then I went to the philharmonic’s box office to get some tickets for later this week, and while standing in line had to hunch over and put my head between my knees to keep from keeling over. Still, I thought I was just tired, so I went to a cafe around the corner for borsch, which should cure anything.
The cafe was on Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main street, and I got to observe several foreign businessmen chatting up their would-be Russian brides. I suppose I should be over it by now, but these scenes never fail to disgust me, all the more so in my woozy state. I had some borsch and even some cake and coffee, but I felt worse and started to get the sort of chills you only get when you have a fever.
Somehow I managed to stumble home and immediately crawled into bed fully clothed, immobile for about six hours. Eventually I got up to pee and take my temperature: 101 Fahrenheit, or 38.5 Centigrade. Ugh.
This morning the fever was gone and I entertained thoughts of having a productive day, but the fever was only a precursor to stomach flu. Ugh again.
Lots of the kids at the kindergarten have been sick lately. You know a kid is sick when a normally bouncy, naughty kid who is a big eater just stares listlessly at his plate. Now I know exactly how they feel.
OK, back to bed.