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Listen, I gotta tell all you Russophiles out there that if you ever wanted to try living in Russia for awhile but weren’t sure if you could find a job, wonder no more. I’m working more than full-time at this point, and am always being asked to teach more lessons. The many language schools in St. Petersburg are always desparate for native speakers of English. The pay is good by Russian standards, certainly enough to live on.
Most language schools don’t offer more than an hourly wage, but my employer has sponsored my visa and given me health insurance (though for the time being I’m keeping my international health insurance too).
All you have to do is get yourself here. So buy a plane ticket, get a visa somehow, and come take some of this work off my hands. If you want more specific advice, just ask me.
Busy week. Worked lots. Co-teacher Johannes became a dad on Monday. He’ll be away from the kindergarten all next week, which means work will get even more exhausting. Yesterday was a good day at the kindergarten, though. The kids were making me proud by remembering and using lots of English words.
Went to see a Russian musical on Wednesday, Yunona i Avos’. It involved lots of pyrotechnics and weird costumes and dancing. Musicals in general are not my cup of tea. OK, let’s be honest, I can’t stand musicals. But seeing a Russian one, just this once, was OK for the experience.
Today Kostia, his brother Igor, and Igor’s friend Marina went on an excursion to look at some bison. Real North American bison, in a pen in a forest about 20 kilometers outside St. Petersburg. They were nice.
As a published commentator on Russian weddings, I suppose it was high time I actually attended one. On Friday, Kostia served best man at the wedding of one of his university roommates. I would have enjoyed the festivities a whole lot more if I had been dressed more warmly and comfortably, but one should look all glamorous at a Russian wedding, even if it isn’t your own, so I spent a day shivering in a sleeveless dress and shawl, and found myself underdressed the next day in Staraya Ladoga, where it turns out a turtleneck sweater and leather jacket aren’t enough to keep you warm on a sunny September afternoon. From now until next May, it’s going to be hats, mittens, and at least three layers, lest I get any more sore throats or runny noses.
But anyway. Here’s the overview of the day.
11.20. Arrive at the wedding palace. Meet up with other guests. After awhile a Soviet-bureaucrat-looking middle-aged woman announces that everyone for the 11.40 wedding should go into one of the waiting rooms. I meet Pasha, one of Kostia’s friends from college, and his very sweet girlfriend Olga. Waiting in the waiting room I have time to look around at the wedding palace and see that it really IS a palace. Very elaborate in the St. Petersburg style. I suppose a bride could imagine that she is a princess in this place, but for the assembly-line way the weddings are conducted.
12.00 or so… We are invited upstairs by the bureaucrat lady. We form two lines along a carpet in a hallway. The doors on either side of the hallway open and the bureaucrat lady announces the beginning of Vanya and Olga’s ceremony. We go into a room with chairs on either side. A fairy godmother stands at the front, dressed in lavender, with a kind of intentional calm and pleasantness on her face which must be assisted by pharmeceuticals. I mean, she has to do this same thing over and over, day in and day out.
The ceremony is mercifully short compared to American weddings. The fairy godmother doesn’t know anything about the couple, she just says some pre-prepared stuff and then the couple says “Da” and they sign a document, and the best man and maid of honor sign the document, and then it’s over. We line up to congratulate the bride and groom.
12.30 ish… We go out into the stairway and wait some more while the insane wedding photographer photographs the couple and parents and honor attendants in various positions. Then we go outside and wait in the freezing cold while he takes some more pictures inside. We’re supposed to throw rice and small change at the couple when they emerge from the palace. But they don’t come out for a long time. Finally we go back into the building for awhile so the insane photographer can finish his thing without us freezing. Finally we go back outside the couple comes out, we throw shit at them and open champagne bottles.
At this point I lose track of time… Now is the part where the couple and wedding party go to various places around the city to lay flowers, drink champagne, and take pictures. As the girlfriend of the best man, I am somehow entitled to ride in the limousine, rather than in the marshrutka that has been hired. So we go to the Strelka, the Bronze Horseman, and the Hermitage, being herded by the insane photographer and freezing in each location. Also we are hungry, so we eat the wedding candy.
The limo departs and Kostia and I are downgraded to the marshrutka. We are to head to the bride’s hometown, Staraya Ladoga, founded 1250 years ago, the first capital of Russia. It’s about 120 kilometers away; not that far. But first you have to get out of the city, a feat which is hampered by rush-hour traffic and the fact that we were following another car whose driver had no idea of the most efficient way to get out of the city. I mean, I’ve lived here, well, if you total it all up, a year, and I could have gotten us out of the city twice as fast as this guy.
Anyway. We get to Staraya Ladoga around 7:30 p.m. We do some more waiting in the chilly outdoors for the bride and groom to arrive at the reception restaurant. When they get there, they each take a bite of a big round bread, and the bride tosses the bouquet, which her mom happens to catch. I should mention that the bride’s mom is like super nice and outgoing and excited about this whole thing, almost frighteningly so.
We go inside and start on the salads and alcohol. And, The Wedding Entertainer. This is apparently a Russian cultural institution, and he isn’t simply a DJ-slash-one-man-band. He organizes games and dance contests, exhorts people to make toasts, and generally keeps the party going by force. In a certain way it’s a nice idea, but it’s also a little much.
Around 10 p.m. I was ready to fall asleep, but the main course wasn’t served until 10:30 or so, when most people had already stuffed themselves with appetizers and were super drunk. Finally, though not before I managed to have an emotional meltdown from exhaustion, the party was over, and we went to a nearby hotel, where Kostia and I shared a room with two of his other university roommates, one of whom puked spectacularly in the middle of the night, though to his credit, he cleaned it up before anyone besides me noticed. I busted his cover the next morning.
We slept late, went to the bride’s mom’s house for breakfast, took a walk through the very lovely little town, and had a shashlik cookout on the river bank. There the groom’s cousin approached me and said “Is it true? You’re a real American?” I said, “Uh, I guess so.” He asked me a whole bunch of questions. In St. Petersburg I don’t often run into people who’ve never met a foreigner before, so it was pretty amusing. There were times throughout the two days that I did feel like the token foreigner, though.
Anyway, the question of the day was, how were we getting back to St. Petersburg? Missing several opportunities to catch a ride, Kostia and I and a few others wound up getting driven to a nearby town to catch a commuter train back. Only, we missed our train by seven minutes and had to hang out for another two and a half hours. Then we got to spend two hours in the freezing electrichka, at the end of which I was tired and cold and cranky and had a sore throat and headache. Kostia and I got home and I took the hottest shower ever, officially inaugurated radiator season in the apartment, and slept for eleven hours.
That was my first Russian wedding.
Three things have happened to me in the last week that indicate my increasing integration into Russian society. Today my registration for my new work visa was finally completed, and with it I got a list of local hospitals and clinics I can go to with my health insurance. Employer’s health insurance! In Russia! According to this list, I can even go to a birthing house free of charge, though in the unlikely event that I were about to have a baby, I still think I’d make a run for the Finnish border.
Last week I signed up for a discount card at Maxidom, a housewares and home improvements store similar to the American chain Home Depot. Not that I shop there all that frequently, but the card was offered to me, so why not? I filled out the application, and when I submitted it, the woman at the information desk was like, “Patronymic?” “I don’t have one,” I said sheepishly. But my dad’s name is Gregory, which can be Russified to Grigory, so I could use Grigorevna. But… should someone named Megan Case have a patronymic?
All right, the last and most significant evidence of my Russification is that I went for a walk in the woods in a skirt and boots (knee-high, leather, and black, with small heels — not hiking boots). It wasn’t a planned trip to the forest, it just kind of happened, and that’s what I was wearing. I often see women in bucolic settings dressed as if they’re going to a formal or something, that’s Russian fashion for you. So now I’ve been inappropriately attired in the forest as well.
Russians have a lot of superstitions, erm, ideas, about health. Most of them are like old wives’ tales or things your grandma might have told you. On the whole they can’t hurt, but I usually find them unnecessary, and find it really irritating when a Russian scolds me like a child for not observing them. I’m not the only one who feels this way — check out this episode of Everyone Drunk But Me.
Frozen Ovaries. Women are not supposed to sit on the bare ground or on concrete or a rock because it will freeze their ovaries. I think a variation of this belief concerns the kidneys.
Wet Feet. We had a major scandal at the kindergarten last spring when my English co-teacher and I took some of the kids out for a walk in a light rain. Some of the kids ran straight for the puddles and got their socks and trousers wet. The walk was about fifteen minutes long and we changed the kids’ clothes, as we always do, when we went inside. Well, one mother was so upset that we allowed her son’s ankles to get wet that she screamed at one of our Russian co-teachers for about fifteen minutes and threatened to destroy her if her son got sick. Her son did not get sick. Then we had to suffer a lecture from another co-worker about how we failed in our responsiblity as teachers. The way I see it, the bad judgment on our part was not that we let the kids get wet, but that we didn’t realize how serious this not-getting-wet thing is in Russian culture.
Plastic Booties. As I mentioned in this post, they make you put plastic booties on over your shoes in museums, health clinics, and even in our own kindergarten if you don’t have inside shoes with you. Now, in general I like the Russian practice of removing shoes and donning slippers in a house — it’s cozy and nice to be able to walk around on clean floors. Only, floors aren’t usually clean. Watch any cleaning lady and you’ll see she’s mopping with dirty water and a filthy mop. Plastic booties may cut down on the amount of grit, but c’mon, try some clean water and disinfectant cleanser, eh?
Milk. This one is courtesy of Aunt Kelly. Apparently it is written into Russian labor law that people who work with hazardous chemicals or fumes have to be offered milk to drink every day. Milk is supposed to have properties that leach the hazardous chemicals out of the body. Depending on how the cows are raised, though, the milk itself might contain hazardous chemicals.
Honey and Jam. Apparently these can cure the common cold. I don’t think it’s true, but they’re yummy anyway so I don’t mind too much.
Skvoznyak. When work started back up at the kindergarten in August, I was cleaning a classroom while a co-worker was revarnishing chairs. It was a nice warm day and I opened an additional window to let out the varnish fumes. My co-worker gave me a long lecture on the dangers of the cross-breeze, or skvoznyak. How a draft in a room, especially on a warm day, is more dangerous to your health than, say, a gust of wind outdoors, I don’t know. But even Kostia, a very rational-minded person, is convinced that the skvoznyak is the cause of runny noses.
I catch colds and feel physically crappy more frequently in Russia than I did in the US. Mostly I attribute this to being in constant contact with small kids, and not being accustomed to the viruses circulating on this side of the pond. But maybe I should take these health superstitions a little more seriously. Or maybe Russia just needs some disinfectant cleanser and a little elbow grease. Both are in short supply, from what I’ve seen.
I have all of these Ideas for things I want to write about, but working 8:30-5 at the kindergarten, plus teaching other lessons, plus trying to have a life, has me flat-out exhausted. I’ll try this weekend, I promise.
Kindergarten is great, though. Three-year-olds rock.
Klaas made it into the Russian press during his one-week visit. He’s in a photo of the Mitki Olympics in this week’s Moskovsky Komsomolyets v Pitere. Kostia’s brother’s arm also appears in the photo.
Today was the second annual Mitki Olympics. What are the Mitki, you ask? One source defines them this way:
Mitki are the artistic union of mostly St-Petersburg artists, writers,
poets, cool guys which have many common features such as love to
alcoholic beverages and animals, active peacefulness, talking using
quotes from most famous Russian movies and much much more.
Basically, the Mitki are bohemians in a rather non-bohemian city. I think in the beginning they were kind of regarded as pathetic losers, but twenty years on they’re sort of a St. Petersburg institution. They kind of reminded me of old hippies in the US, Ann Arborites in particular. I felt very cozy amongst them, and I don’t often feel cozy in groups of Russians.
Right. The Mitki Olympics. The events were:
1. The Stocking Throw. Throw a nylon stocking as far as you can. Tying knots is forbidden, but other sorts of twisting and rolling are OK. The farthest throw: 11 meters 40. Kostia’s brother Igor came in second at 11 meters 20.
2. Bicycle Race. Ride a bicycle as slowly as you can.
3. Arm Wrestling.
4. Checker Flicking. Opponents line up ten checkers and take turns flicking their checkers across the board. The object is to knock the opponent’s checkers off while keeping their own on the board. The first one to have all their checkers go off the board loses.
There were actual prizes and things. I participated in events 1, 3, and 5, but didn’t place in any. I sustained an injury in the tug-of-war when I was knocked to the ground and Klaas fell on top of me. I have a lovely scrape on my right hand and probably some other bruises. So cool.
After an entirely lazy June and July, and a busy but fun August, this has been one of the most random and exhausting weeks in recent memory. After getting a new Russian visa and returning from Helsinki, I thought things were pretty much in order for the new school year at the kindergarten. Not so.
First of all, I got a call from the kindergarten saying that I would be teaching in a different class than the one I’d been preparing for — the 3-year-olds rather than the 4-year-olds. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, it’s a good thing, because they did it to honor my request to increase my hours at the kindergarten, and half the kids in the new group are ones I worked with last year and really like. On the other hand, I’d already been preparing for weeks to teach in the other group, I had lessons planned and a really good rapport going with my co-teachers. I like my new co-teacher a lot too, but we only had one day to kind of get our act together and plan for the new year. Our other co-teacher, actually the head teacher, is out sick recovering from an operation for two weeks. So we’re two inexperienced teachers trying to organize a nursery school class ourselves.
Secondly, when I went to the head office of the language school to register my visa on Wednesday, we discovered that I hadn’t gotten a migration card at the border when I returned from Helsinki. They always give you a migration card, and this time they didn’t, and I didn’t think to ask for one. Without this card, you can’t register your visa, and you have to register your visa within three days of arriving in the country. The only way to resolve this problem was to go back to the border immediately and get one, which is a two-hour trip each way. Luckily Aunt Kelly’s assistant was willing to drive me. We went to Vyborg, spent an hour or so persuading the bureaucrats in the train station to give me a migration card, then had to drive one of the guys home, an extra 30 kilometers, because we had caused him to miss his train home.
So much for having a calm evening before the first day of school. I had been looking forward to going out to dinner with Aunt Kelly and our friend Klaas, who’s visiting from Germany. Wednesday evening was shot because of the Vyborg adventure, but we went out on Thursday, after my exhausting first day of school. I have to say the kids are great, though. Only a couple of really naughty ones. Three-year-olds are the best. Old enough to communicate and do lots of things on their own, young enough to be very cuddly and sweet.
Friday was also exhausting, and in the middle of the day the head office of the language school called and said I had to run across town RIGHT THEN to put my signature on a piece of paper for my visa registration. So I had to drop everything and haul ass, then haul it right back.
So I’ve sort of been in this hyper-adrenaline state for the past four days, which makes one feel pretty exhausted. This weekend we are keeping busy because of Klaas, but all I really want to do is vegetate. I feel guilty though. Tonight is the second night in a row that I promised Klaas we’d go out to a club, and I just didn’t have the energy to do it. I’m getting so old.