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…with the help of some Tinkoff beer, that just because my co-worker/supervisor is insane and people on the metro at rush hour act like animals instead of human beings and the Russian government likes giving a hard time to people with business visas so we have to reregister our passports every time we re-enter the country which makes planning a simple weekend trip to Finland a pain in the ass, that humanity is not completely hopeless.

Oh yeah, and then there was a small bunch of elderly people standing outside of Gostiniy Dvor holding pro-Stalin signs. I mean, really. Could you imagine pro-Hitler signs in Germany? All y’all who think that everything changed in Russia after the fall of the USSR and that everyone was just waiting for Freedom(tm) and capitalism and Pizza Hut, well, the world’s a lot more complicated than that.

And then there are all those things that have a more indirect impact on me, like the fact that the US has an idiot warmonger president and that the environment is totally fucked and humanity has about 50 more years to live… better go get another beer, because I don’t feel like I can do a goddamn thing about it.

Sorry for the gloom but it’s just that sort of a day.

So like, I should be planning tomorrow’s lesson for the second graders and typing up the script for the kindergarten class holiday play and doing something or other to promote the charity auction to benefit the orphans, and I could also be editing Kostia’s translation of one of his most popular short stories, but I don’t want to do anything. It’s like being a student again — having a crapload of homework to do but really only wanting to goof off. Fortunately the only thing really at stake here is a painful hour and a half with the schoolkids if I don’t have a solid lesson plan.

Is this interesting to you? No? OK, I’ll tell a kindergarten story. One of my favorite students, Kirill, is really clever and has a very dry sense of humor for a three-year-old. He also gets irritated very easily, though it’s hard to take him seriously because he takes himself so seriously and he’s only a meter tall. He frequently uses the words доволен and недоволен — pleased and displeased — to describe himself, which sounds as odd in Russian as it would coming from an Anglophone toddler. He’s usually displeased when he wakes up from nap. Today after nap he was displeased that I was helping him get dressed, “because that means that you think I’m little”. No, Kiryusha, it means I don’t want your mom to get irritated that we don’t dress you properly. I guess we teachers should lay off the “big kids can do everything by themselves” rhetoric a bit.

Speaking of getting kids dressed, Russophiles who’ve never spent any time with Russian kids should know this interesting detail: Whenever the weather is below 10 degrees Celsius, all Russian children wear tights, or колготки, under whatever else they’re wearing. Yes, boys wear tights. The first time I saw a boy wearing tights last winter I thought it was bizarre, but I quickly realized the necessity of it. I’ve sort of taken to dressing myself like a Russian child to keep warm and often wear tights under my trousers. It really helps.

Another weekend gone. When do I get to catch up on sleep and shake this cold that’s been plaguing me for the past week and a half?

This weekend Kostia’s parents were visiting him and so I hung out with all of them. Kostia’s poor dad was forced to lug jars and jars of jam and mushrooms, a sack of potatoes, and other fresh meat and vegetables on a three-hour bus ride and then on to the metro, all so Kostia’s mom could start cooking up a storm the second she got to the apartment. Kostia had planned to take them out to dinner, but this wasn’t allowed. We did manage to get them to a cafe and to one of the new multiplexes in one of the fancy new shopping malls to see “Perviye Posle Boga” – a new World War II submarine movie. It was pretty good.

My Russian IS getting better. I understood most of the movie AND was able to make nice small talk with the parents for several hours while Kostia was off teaching a lesson.

All right, I’m going to get all novice-teacher-cheesy on you. One of the second-graders, Anya, drew this.

Explaining the origins and meaning of Thanksgiving to eight-year-olds who’ve never heard of it was quite an amusing exercise. Especially when you want to keep it simple and not too morbid and not pretend like the pilgrims and Native Americans were best friends. God only knows what ideas they took away from the lesson.

It was only after I wrote my last post that I fully recognized the phenomenon of the Middle-Aged Russian Woman. Sometimes it feels like everywhere you go in Russia, there’s a woman over 40 ready to scold you for something. In museums, coat checks, the Metro, offices, supermarkets, you’re bound to get yelled at for doing something wrong.

Adults just don’t talk to one another that way in the US, even those with a yawning age gap between them. Well, maybe sometimes it happens, but it’s an aberration, not the norm.

This doesn’t seem to faze Russians. They grow up with it. They never take it personally. I try not to take it personally, but sometimes I would like to get through a day without being made to feel like an idiot.

Today at work between the hours of 8:35 and 11:10 a.m. I got scolded by several MARW (well, mostly one in particular) for:

-Having snow on my hat after coming inside from a blizzard;
-Allowing children to play freely with a dollhouse during free play time yesterday (we are supposed to guide their play so that they learn how to play properly);
-Incorrectly filling out a reimbursement form in which I indicated the amount owed to me with a positive rather than a negative number;
-Distributing a child’s birthday party treats among the other children’s lockers one at a time rather than two at a time (i.e. I was planning to put in all the Kinder Surprises first and then the Chupa Chups, but doing it that way is obviously improper since something will be forgotten);
-Taking a moment to fill out the attendance register while heading to the music lesson (there were already four teachers in the music room with the class and my presence has previously not been obligatory);
-Not holding my arms stiffly enough when making a circle holding hands in music lesson;
-Looking peeved after the last admonishment.

At that point I couldn’t take it anymore, and seeing as I had already considered taking a sick day on account of my sore throat, and since we had an extra teacher on duty today, I decided it was time to go home. I know it’s super bad to leave work in a huff, but I didn’t want to be irrationally angry in front of the children.

So on Monday I’m going to have to mend some fences and generally learn how to stop being a sensitive American wimp and take it like a Russian.

I moved to St. Petersburg a year ago today. Of course, if you add in the time I spent here in 2002, I could have said I’d spent a year of my life here as of a few months ago, but that’s not how anniversaries work, is it.

November 17, 2004 was the date of the first snowfall last year, and today we had a bit of a surprise snowfall too. We’d had snow almost a month ago, but it warmed up after that and it’s been autumnal til now.

When a year feels like it went by fast, well, that means you’re getting old, right? I also find myself saying things to my students like, “When I was your age, I liked/didn’t like/whatever…” What a horror, as they say in Russian.

When I arrived last year I figured that a year was what I needed to become fully fluent in Russian. My Russian has improved tons and tons, but I still have a lot of difficulty expressing myself the way I’d like to. Furthermore, I’m not really sure what fluency is anymore. It’s not like there’s a line you cross. I know plenty of people who express themselves quite well in very imperfect English. Are they fluent? I don’t know.

Sometimes Petersburg life makes me feel weary — the dirt, the grim faces, the middle-aged women scolding one all the time, the darkness this time of year, not to mention the universal challenges of being a foreigner anyplace. But I was perpetually dissatisfied with my American life too, and on the whole I think I’m happier here than I ever was there. I’m more suited for teaching than for office work, and while it pains me to have to get up early every day rather than having a flex schedule, I really like working at the kindergarten.

These “challenges of being a foreigner” keep life interesting — how boring is it to be in your home country and be able to walk into a business establishment and communicate your needs without having to worry about how to say it or whether what you want is even possible? Furthermore, speaking a language imperfectly makes it much easier to tune out the banal conversations of the people next to you on the bus or the advertisements on the radio. You may think I’m joking, but this really does give you a lot more mental space, I swear.

I like it that you can go to certain parts of St. Petersburg and there’s nothing to interfere with you imagining that it’s a completely different period of time. There are intersections and alleys, still untouched by 24-hour minimarkets, casinos, and pricey boutiques, that could be from 1890, or 1925, or 1970. The ubiquitous young military officers in their shabby old-fashioned coats, while horrible in principle, enhance this image as well.

There are dozens of other observations that pass through my head each day. Maybe I’ll eventually write them all down. Probably not though.

Saw a super movie yesterday – Perviye Na Lunye. It’s a brand-new Russian mockumentary of a Soviet moon landing in 1938. Mixing modern-day “interviews”, supposed archival KGB footage and real historic images, it looks just like a real documentary, except that it couldn’t possibly be true. It’s completely deadpan and totally hilarious.

I don’t know when it will make it to art-house theaters outside of Russia, but when it does, you must go.

This month, the St. Petersburg Metro is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Well, maybe “celebrating” is too strong a word, since I haven’t managed to find any websites about the event in English or Russian, except for this one. But there are posters and banners in the Metro, and there will be a special exhibit at the City Museum.

The most noticable thing they’re doing to commemorate the anniversary is that they’ve replaced the familiar announcer’s voice with the voices of four Petersburg TV personalities. Two of them sound nice, two of them not so nice. But overall, I like the idea.

I think that after the anniversary is over they should experiment with different voices to keep things interesting:

– Kids, because it would be cute;

– Foreigners, not ’cause I want to do it or anything. I think they should get some people with really strong accents, like the people in my high school Russian class who didn’t give a fuck about phonetics;

– The drunks who hang out at the end of my street;

– Stephen Hawking’s computer;

– Parrots.

Other ideas?

if you care about such things

The kindergarten is going to do something really cool — a charity auction to benefit the orphanages of Vasilyevsky Island (the part of town the kindergarten is in). Radical lefty activism it isn’t, but I’m excited to have an outlet for my American do-gooder impulses and a way to assuage my guilt over teaching only the most affluent kids in St. Petersburg. Russians aren’t much into charity stuff, so I was really pleasantly surprised when I was told about it.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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November 2005