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For those readers who haven’t spent time in the U.S., “This American Life” is a radio program on National Public Radio of random, cute, and quirky stories from all over the country. It’s one of the nice things about America. But this post isn’t about that, I just like how it sounds.

The reverse-culture shock of visiting the US after two years away has mostly to do with things like the propaganda about the war in Iraq, and how much religion pervades daily life here. Some examples:

1. TV ad sponsored by some right-wing PAC trying to shore up public support for the war in Iraq, featuring disabled soldiers and bereaved mothers. “We are winning on the ground in Iraq; if we give up now everything we’ve sacrificed will have been for nothing; remember, THEY attacked US on 9/11”. WHO attacked us on 9/11? Iraq? And I’m sorry about your losses, I truly am, but they were for nothing, because this war was started on false pretenses and it is unwinnable.

2. Ad for the US Army I was subjected to before seeing the Simpsons movie last night. Pure propaganda. Made me want to throw up.

3. Young woman on a game show repeatedly kissing the cross around her neck and thanking god before and after each and every answer. Honestly, if there was a god, wouldn’t s/he have better things to do than worry about how some ditzy girl was performing on The Power of 10? Apparently so, because she only won $1000.

4. The anti-abortion protesters with their crosses outside my hometown Planned Parenthood who inspired me to stop the car, march in there, and donate $50. If you want to save lives, folks, go protest the war in Iraq. And another thing? By providing birth control and counseling to women, Planned Parenthood prevents abortions too.

But it’s not all bad here. At the moment I’m at taking advantage of the free wireless at the Bagel Grove, which sells free trade coffee, and, judging from their newsstand, more New York Times than USA Today or the local paper. The community bulletin board is covered with ads for local crunchy causes. And I just had cream cheese and lox and capers on a salt bagel. Mmm.

After a lot of meaningful conversations, academic and non-, and a lot of drinking (and, I must admit, cigarettes), I left Falun on Saturday morning (thanks again to Lenka & Dima, Elena & Andreas for your hospitality), had lunch in Stockholm with Vilhelm and Josa, took the ferry to Helsinki (this time in a cabin, which wasn’t so much better for sleeping than a bench, but it wasn’t so much more expensive either) took a bus to Helsinki airport, nearly managed to resist the Moomin Shop, flew to Heathrow with a spectacular view of central London on the descent, started to come down with a cold (probably thanks to the cigarettes, this always happens when I smoke, which is good I guess, keeps me from smoking more than a couple of times a year), then flew to JFK. British Airways was nice; tasty food and separate TV screens for each seat where you can choose your own movies. I watched Goodbye Bafana. I’m not sure what I think about it. Considering that it was a movie about Nelson Mandela’s prison guard, the character development wasn’t very deep.

After asking me the standard questions, the guy at passport control said “Are you all right?” I guess I must have looked tired or grumpy or something. Or maybe I had my Russian poker face on. In Russia I have to remind myself not to smile too much in public to avoid looking foreign; here it’s the opposite.

So here I am in the U.S., if being in the airport counts as being in a country. I realize now that I missed coastal America’s diversity; I didn’t miss being surrounded by American accents, even if I have one myself. 

My flight to upstate New York isn’t until 9am, so I broke down and paid for wireless internet to get me through the night. With this cold and sleep deprivation, I’m going to be a wreck by the time I get to my dad’s house.  

I hope you all have enjoyed my flurry of Russia blogging during the past week or so, since I’ll be out of Russia for a few weeks. I’m currently in Sweden. I’m going to the US on Sunday (arriving Monday) and will be there for two weeks. I haven’t set foot in my native land in two years, so that should be weird.

It’s weird being back in Falun, too. I think my subconscious persuaded me that our year in Sweden was all a dream once we got back to St. Petersburg, but here I am, back at our university, with my coursemates, critiquing each other’s work for the last time. It’s been said a million times before, but it’s funny how people and places become a part of you. It was exactly a year ago that we arrived here, the same warm sunny August weather, and those memories seem simultaneously fresh and distant.

A week and a half ago Kostia and I and several friends went to Vyborg for their annual film festival. Vyborg is in the Finnish border region and was for a large part of its history a Finnish town. Although I’ve passed through Vyborg many times in the past few years en route to Finland, it’s been exactly 5 years since I actually played the tourist there.

The thing that suprised me most is that it hasn’t changed much in 5 years – while St. Petersburg has been getting cleaner and shinier and better by leaps and bounds, Vyborg still looks dirty and run-down. I can’t really understand it, since that place gets tons of tourism, both domestic and international – and a lot of Finnish euros go there. They have a lot of really special architecture and it’s just going to hell. With a bit of paint, it could really be a historical fantasy village. There are a few bright spots which showcase its potential:

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Less glamorous are the Sea Port, this passport control point, and the forlorn-looking cobblestone streets:

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The graffiti in Vyborg seemed more interesting than average. They must have some clever teenagers there.

The first one, on the side of a church, reads: “There is no god! Church is a cult.”

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On Thursday, wandering around the Petrograd Side, I discovered a library for the blind. Russian infrastructure doesn’t tend to be very accomodating of handicapping conditions, so I was pleasantly suprised to find it.


I guess not everybody gets it right away. The note above the bell says “LIBRARY FOR !!!THE BLIND!!!”


Yesterday Kostia and I walked to the 300 Years to St. Petersburg park. We stood in a long line of teenagers at the nearby grocery shop to get some canned cocktails for our stroll. I said that they should have called the shop “Puberty”, rather than the microbrewery I wrote about a few posts back. When we got to the park, we saw this painted on the sidewalk near the entrance:


“For those going swimming, the addresses of the infectious disease hospitals are on” (Actually that’s a pretty cool site, I just had a look at it.) The graffiti artist is referring to the fact that only one of the city’s 25 beaches is currently considered safe to swim at.

We weren’t planning to swim, so we weren’t deterred by that, but we were deterred by some rather ominous clouds that were rolling in. We decided to abandon the stroll in the park and head to the Mercury shopping mall. You can see the ominous clouds in the picture below, as well as one of Kostia’s favorite buildings, an example of wacky early-post-Soviet architecture:


We waited out the storm in Mercury, then headed home. On the way, I noticed that the sign for the gas/petrol station behind the mall hardly had any Russian words on it.


If I were Lyudmila Verbitskaya, I’d be more concerned about something like this than about yokels pronouncing words wrong. Not that I like those “language purity” types either, but I mean, this sign is not in a tourist area, and it’s not even bilingual, it’s monolingual English — are people expected to speak foreign languages (and read different alphabets) in order to fill their tank and get a hot dog in their own country? Down with American cultural imperialism!

There’s a series of ads in the St. Petersburg metro announcing “Let’s speak Russian PROPERLY!” followed by a number of words which are often mispronounced. Russian can be difficult to learn NOT because it has a different alphabet (so stop asking me that question already, random people) but because it has a “highly synthetic morphology” – the endings of verbs, nouns, and adjectives change for things like gender, number, and syntactic function. This is a pain to learn, but even once you get a grasp of all the rules, the stress of the word can shift when a different ending is applied, and although there supposedly are rules for this, there are only like four super nerdy linguists who actually know them. Knowing where the dictionary-correct stress in a word falls is difficult not only for Russian-as-a-second-language learners, but even some native speakers who don’t come from intelligentsia families. Fortunately, one woman has taken it upon herself to correct us all. I present Lyudmila Verbitskaya, “one of the authors of the book Let’s Speak Properly, rector of St. Petersburg State University, and distinguished citizen of St. Petersburg”:


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I’m all for speaking languages properly when possible, and I certainly cringe when I hear native English speakers consistently making dumb mistakes, but something about these posters and their assertion that “a problem demanding the participation of all residents of Russia and especially Saint Petersburg is the preservation of the Russian literary language” is just… annoying. Annoying like your high school grammar teacher was annoying even if you were a good student of grammar, because of her self-righteousness. I mean, look at this close-up – didn’t you have a teacher just like her that you couldn’t stand?


I’ve translated another of Kostia’s stories. Well, non-fiction really. The original can be found here.

by A. Kostia
translated from the Russian by Megan Case

Mama was born a year and a half after the war, in a hastily-built hut on a dirt foundation. Her first childhood memory is of a lazy fat cockroach crawling in the half-darkness on the log wall.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been taking a lot of pictures lately. Here are some random shots. More to come.

View from our stairwell. They’re furiously finishing a new kindergarten and just installed all this new playground equipment:


Scouts getting on the bus for an excursion:


This truck is always parked in the same place and I see it every morning from the bus on the way to the metro. Somehow seeing these sonorous, evocative words “Golden Toast” in my native language is comforting and makes my morning more cheerful: 


This psychologist comes highly recommended, apparently:


Public service posters. 1) A clean city starts from your window. 2) Choose Education: Choose the Future. 3) In a clean city – healthy children!


Underage drinking anyone?


I imagine the owners of this microbrewery were looking for a play on the word “pub”, and just pawed through their dictionary till they found one, without checking with any English speakers.

Next week I go back to Sweden to “defend” my master’s thesis and criticize the theses of other people in my program. Then I’ll be finished for real and I’ll be a Master of European Political Sociology. 

I got my first master’s degree in 1997, then had 10 years of happily not being a student. Kostia and I went to Sweden to study more as an excuse to go to Sweden than to study, but we did take our programmes seriously. At times I thought that maybe I should do a PhD after all, since I like that reading and writing and thinking thing. But now, after finishing another master’s thesis, I’m really relieved not to have that student feeling of having an assignment hanging over my head. I don’t think I could live with a dissertation hanging over my head for years. And then, of course, what does the world need another PhD in the social sciences for? It doesn’t. And what would I do if I actually finished the thing? I have several friends in academia and I am not at all interested in participating in that particular rat race (or any rat race, for that matter). No, I think I ought to just do another master’s degree in another 10 years.

My eyes are going to pop out from computer usage, so I will just report that the thesis has been turned in. I’m not happy with it, but that goes without saying. The important thing is that it’s done for now.

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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August 2007