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Tomorrow’s the kids’ last day of Kindergarten for the year. I also found out today that it’s my last day for the year too. Originally they had told me that all the teachers would be working until June 15, doing cleanup and maintenance on the building, and that we all got a month of paid vacation in the summer. Well, just yesterday they decided that only applied to teachers who had contracts for the current full academic year. Since I only started in March, I didn’t have a contract. So that’s a month and a half of salary I had been budgeting for that I won’t be getting. So I’ve got to find some new students to teach, which shouldn’t be too hard, but still.
Anyway, since you won’t be hearing kindergarten stories for the next three months, I’ll tell a few now.
Today Lyova came in, crying and crying for no apparent reason. He’s a sensitive kid who just takes things really hard and cries a lot, but he’s a really good and sweet kid too. I have a tendency to cry for no apparent reason when I drink too much red wine, so I can relate. Anyway, Dima was watching this spectacle in the cloakroom as he was changing his clothes, and he kept asking why Lyova was crying, and I kept saying I didn’t know. Finally he said “Ya znayu, pochemy Lyova plachet. On ne hochet razdevat’sa. A ya lyblu razdevat’sa!” “I know why Lyova is crying. He doesn’t want to get undressed. But I love to get undressed!” Funny enough, but even funnier when you consider how long it takes to persuade Dima to get undressed some days.
Kirill is another super-funny, super-smart, super-sweet kid. He likes to parrot things back to you in his little Russian-accented voice. If I say “Take your shoes off, Kiryusha,” he says, with an impish grin, “Take your shoes off, Myegan.” Anyway, today he discovered how pleasant it is to pet my famous velour trousers, and he said, out of the blue, “Hubba hubba.” I asked him where he heard that, and he claimed he heard it on the radio in the car. Then he said something about his uncle. I don’t know, but it was random and funny.
Soooo… I got held up at knifepoint yesterday afternoon.
I was on my way to my eight-year-old student’s house, and the guy followed me into the building and into the elevator, pushed the button for the floor below the one I had pushed, and when the doors closed, pulled out a knife and demanded my mobile phone, in an oddly apologetic tone of voice. It took me a moment to actually see what was going on, because it was dark in the elevator and it had been bright outside.
I know you’re supposed to give muggers what they want to avoid physical harm, but my reaction in the confusion of the moment was to refuse. Just then, the elevator doors opened, and I dashed out and rang every buzzer on the door leading to the hall. The guy was like, “What do you mean, ‘no’?” as the elevator doors shut on him.
Worried that he might try to come back before someone from the hall could answer their door, I went to the stairwell and thought for a minute. He knew which floor I was going to — would he try to meet me up there? Would he wait for me downstairs? Would he try the stairwell too? I decided to call Vanya’s so that they could be ready to open the door for me when I got to the floor.
I took the stairs the rest of the way up, and Vanya’s grandma let me in and was very sympathetic. She came in with something to drink which I understood was to calm my nerves, and at first I thought it was a shot, but when I drank it it reminded me of some herbal medicines I used to take when I was more of a hippie. Maybe it was like Rescue Remedy, which I used to hear other hippies talk about all the time, though I never really understood exactly what it was for. Anyway, it was effective.
It was a pretty scary experience, but I wasn’t harmed and I didn’t even lose anything. Frankly, I’ve been pretty lucky, having spent a total over 9 months of my life in St. Petersburg and having been pickpocketed only once prior to this. I’ve heard some much more serious horror stories. For that matter, I lived in sketchy neighborhoods of Washington, DC, for five years and never had anything bad happen to me, though I heard some serious horror stories there as well.
Today I’ll write down all the numbers in my mobile phone, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. And, as Kostia said, never ever ride the lift with men I don’t know.
1. Leave me a comment saying, “Interview me.”
2. I will respond by asking you five questions. I get to pick the questions.
3. You will post the answers to your blog/journal/website.
4. You will include this explanation and an offer to interview someone else in the same post.
5. When others comment asking to be interviewed, you will ask them five questions.
Karpalo asked me the following:
1) Is there something that you feel is better in Russia than in the U.S.?
Sure, there are lots of things, though unfortunately I think many of them might change as Russia develops economically. For instance, public transportation, while not always clean or comfortable, can get you anywhere pretty efficiently and cheaply. But as people’s economic situations improve, Russia will become more car-dependent like other western countries, though probably never to the extent that the US is.
Relationships between parents and kids seem to be a lot less antagonistic here than in the US. I get the sense that Russian teenagers are given a lot more latitude to do the things that teenagers like to do, and they seem a lot happier than their American counterparts. Many Russians live with their parents until well into their 20s out of economic necessity, so I guess it’s pretty important not to hate each other too much.
2) What is the biggest problem in the world today in your opinion?
Where to begin? It’s hard to say that one thing is more important than another; single-issue activists always seem to be very short-sighted to me. How can one be worried about, say, gay rights but not poverty? Having said that, I think environmental issues are primary, because if we render the planet unfit for human habitation, all the other issues are irrelevant.
3) What’s best in your life right now?
I’m enjoying an extended period of contentedness and well-being these days. My life is remarkably free of stress, owing largely to not having to worry about living expenses and many of the little annoying details of life, since my aunt and her employer take care of that stuff at the moment. My job is not only meaningful and worthwhile, which most of my previous jobs have been, but actually interesting and fun most days, which most of my previous jobs haven’t been. My, erm, social life is a lot busier than I would have expected after living in a foreign city for only six months, thanks in part to Certain Someone and his very cool circle of friends.
4)If you could never return to the U.S., where would you choose to live?
Finland, of course! Or maybe Sweden. :-) But there are a lot of places that interest me that I haven’t been to yet, so I can’t say for sure.
5) Who is your oldest friend?
Depends on what you mean by “oldest” and “friend”, I guess. :-) I don’t keep in touch with anyone from childhood or high school. I keep in touch with a few college friends, but there are a few housemates from graduate school that I really make an effort to communicate with and even visit sometimes. Of these, Hugh, mathematician and Canadian poet, is probably tops.
My friend who is the oldest is Bernard, who is 75 now, I think.
On Monday I was helping Dima get dressed to go outside to play, and he said “thank you” for something (I forget what), only it came out as “fank you”, as it often does when Russians say it. “Dima,” I said, “stick your tongue out and say “THHHank you”. He furrowed his brow, kind of attempted it, and then said “Po-russki — FANK you.” (In Russian, it’s FANK you.) I had to admit he had a point.
The same day, there was quite a disagreement over a helium balloon shaped like a shark, which Tima brought. When he came in I said, “Ooh, a shark!” which some of the kids picked up on immediately, and started saying “Shark!” But others were insisting that it was an “akula”. I tried explaining, in both languages, that one was Russian, one English, and both words were correct, but the debate raged on. I’m not sure why. They know both the English and the Russian words for lots of different animals, and it doesn’t seem to trouble them. I suppose a shark is something so special that there can only be one word for it in a three-year-old’s heart.
Yesterday I was teaching Vanya, the 8-year-old who has individual lessons twice a week. We were talking about different professions, and came across the word “cowboy” in the textbook. Vanya jumped up and found a picture he had drawn of a guy in a big hat with a gun. “Oh, so you know about cowboys already!” I said. Vanya said, “Yes but it’s not cowboy, it’s COVboy.”
OK, forgive me, the following story sounds like it’s right out of Reader’s Digest or “The Family Circus”, but I swear it really happened.
Last week the native anglophone kid in our class at the kindergarten brought in a toy mobile phone. During free play time, I noticed him animatedly talking into it. He saw that I was looking at him, covered the mouthpiece with his hand and said, “I’m talking to my manager.”
He went on to tell me that his manager was supposed to pick him up but didn’t know how to get to the kindergarten. He got back on the phone, saying, “So you take a left, and then go around a corner…”
For some reason my internet connection at home has been slow a lot lately. Like, painfully, impossibly slow. I wonder if the building’s security guards are taking up all the bandwith by downloading porn films or something.
It’s May 13 and buds are only just appearing on the trees. Everyone tells me this is an unusually cold spring. I just hope it gets warm before it gets cold again.
In the irony department, in the last week or two posters have appeared in the subway advertising “Bolshoi Brat” — the Russian version of the TV show Big Brother. Everything comes full circle.
Monday was Victory Day, and Kostia and I observed it thoroughly, traversing central St. Petersburg three and a half times on foot. The Victory Day parade was pretty moving, at least when the veterans marched by with their medals pinned to their chests and the crowd chanted “SPA-SI-BO!” (thank you). But, because it’s impossible to separate the victory in WWII from the legacy of Stalin and the Soviet Union, there was a lot of hammer-and-sickle stuff around that was earnest rather than kitchy. A lot of recent polls indicate that Russian public opinion contains a lot of disturbing revisionist history.
Anyway, after the parade I baked a Victory Cake (using an egg- and milk-free recipe developed during WWII), and Kostia and I met up with several friends to eat it, drink Soviet brand champagne, and watch the fireworks on the embankment of the Neva. The fireworks show was one of the best I’ve ever seen. After that we all went to a bar called Dacha, where an American DJ was spinning a most excellent mix of songs I’d forgotten about. Yes, it was a well-spent holiday.
Just a few weeks left before British Kindergarten ends for the summer. It dawned on me recently that ever since I finished grad school, I’d been telling myself that I needed to get a job with an academic schedule, and now I’ve finally got one. I’ll probably teach some private English lessons this summer, but mostly I’m going to spend more time on my Russian, travel a bit, and spend the White Nights staying up late, getting drunk, and sleeping in, because, well, I can. Yes, I do know how freaking lucky I am. No one can say that I don’t fully appreciate my good fortune.
So in Russia, the government can just shift around the days of the week if it wants. Next Monday is the aforementioned Victory Day, and just last week it was decided that it should be a four-day weekend rather than a three-day weekend. So we get Tuesday off, but since Tuesday isn’t a holiday, we have to work the following Saturday to make up for it. WTF? A three-day weekend is good enough for me, especially if having a four-day weekend means you basically get NO weekend the next week.
They did the same thing for International Women’s Day. It was on a Tuesday, so they made the preceding Saturday a work day and Monday became the day off instead.
This is something that I could never imagine happening in the US, either that a Saturday could become a regular business day, or that the government could announce it just a couple weeks before the fact. This is partly because more Americans have a lot of disposable income and make travel plans in advance – you can’t just move the Saturday spontaneously, that will fuck up everyone’s Priceline package deals! Russians are a lot more flexible though, and anyone who is planning to go anywhere this weekend or next is probably taking the electrichka (suburban train) to their dacha to plant the vegetables they’ll survive on this summer, and, well, you certainly don’t have to buy electrichka tickets too far in advance.
I find it easier to speak Russian when drunk. Russian’s a complicated language, difficult to speak properly, but drinking makes me feel less self-conscious about it. Maybe I’m not the only one who feels that way, and that’s why alcoholism is so prevalent in Russia.
Mom: It’s chilly and rainy here.
Me: Here too. It’s barely above freezing.
Mom: Fahrenheit or Celsius?