Yesterday, my Russian teacher taught me that you can describe a person who is constantly changing his mind and plans as someone who “has seven Fridays in a week.” As she explained the phrase in detail, I (perhaps smugly) smiled at how this simple little phrase so precisely encapsulates Russian culture. If I have learned one thing about staying sane in this country in my three month stay, it is to hold plans loosely, because they probably will change at the very last minute. I can’t say that this check-list making, syllabus-loving girl has become comfortable with knowing that her Monday could turn into a Tuesday and then possibly a Friday, but I will say that living in a culture of ambiguity and uncertainty is helping me to grow past my fear of not being in control. The last few weeks have highlighted this lack of control, as last minute events and assignments have been shoveled on me, heavy and thick like the snow that now blankets Elabuga. I am doing my best to observe how Russians approach this aspect of their culture and have been trying to follow suit, bundling up in alternating layers of preparation and flexibility, then stepping out to face the cold, windy, but sometimes glittery elements.
The last few weeks have been filled with events and experiences that all have this common thread of expectations being shattered and last minute decisions directing the show. Here’s a bit of an update for you all on life in the land of seven Fridays.
I’m a Director?
As a girl who grew up with a magician for a father, theater is in my blood, and I was excited to have the chance to put on a short play with my fourth year students. The dean has been asking me to be active with students outside my classes, so I thought that a little, low-key event would be a great way to start out. In my last post, I mentioned my embarrassing likeness to Chekhov’s Chervyakov in his story “The Death of a Government Clerk,” but what I didn’t tell you was that this story resonated with me so much that, three years ago, I adapted it into a play for a theater group I was in. I took an English translation of the story, put the lines to rhyme, and voila, had a ten minute comedy about a man who worries himself to death. I decided that this would be a fun play for my students to try out.
The day of the play, I walked in to the classroom where my students were to perform to find a bright-eyed journalist interviewing my students alongside a cameraman outfitted with all the clunky equipment any good paparazzi should own. The journalist quickly grabbed me and started a list of rapid fire questions in Russian. “Why did you choose this play?” “Why did you start studying Russian?” “How do Russian students differ from American students?” I answered as well as I could under the circumstances, but with a microphone in my face and a camera greedily surveying my every move, I definitely reverted to a bit of Russian 101, making mistakes that I thought I had left in the previous decade.
But there was little time to think about my Russian; before I knew it I had switched to English, standing on a stage before forty Russian students, extemporaneously speaking about Chekhov’s influence on American literature. Those of you who know me will understand just how big a step this was, since any sort of public presentation, let alone off the cuff speeches, have been in both my “afraid of” and “not good at” boxes. But in these past three months, I have found myself doing things I swore I would never do. I think that when one’s daily reality changes dramatically, in some senses it is easier to put oneself in a role that had been mentally off-limits in the home culture. Back in America, as I said, I had created boxes for myself that dictated what I could and couldn’t do. Here, my identity is more fluid, without those comfortable boxes holding me in place, and though sometimes I feel less anchored, the change in reality has created space for me to do things I never thought I was capable of.
Anyway, my speech went relatively well and my students did great, although I missed most of the performance because the journalist wouldn’t stop asking me questions… After the program ended I was given a bouquet of flowers and people started congratulating me as if I had directed the latest production of Phantom of the Opera. I took the congratulations numbly, confused and amused by the fanfare.
The next day, a woman at the local English Club excitedly told me that I had been on TV and sent me the link. And sure enough, there was a five minute story about this new teacher-director-author, showcasing an interview with my students and me, framing the play as a masterpiece.
My students and I after the play. Here is the link to the news story. Start at 7:50.
I’m a Teacher?
Although I am almost three months into it, it still feels strange, and almost wrong, for me to be in the role of teacher rather than student, especially since my students are almost my age. In America, I would never be considered qualified to autonomously teach 3 college classes. The responsibility is truly overwhelming, and most days I feel like an 8 year old girl “playing” teacher.
I really do enjoy what I’m doing, but so often, even though I plan and put thought into lessons, I feel disorganized and chaotic, fearing that I’m not actually being helpful to the students. Also, concerning curriculum, I thought I had understood what I was supposed to teach, but last week the head of the department informed me that students were supposed to read 500 pages a semester, and that I was supposed to have assigned them an individual reading book. I had heard of “individual reading,” but no one had told me about the minimum page requirement, so I had assigned them A Christmas Carol (100 pages :D). So the next period, I had to assign them all a 250 page book to read by the end of the semester. I thought my students would be upset, but they seemed nonplussed and accepted it in stride. I guessed I shouldn’t have been surprised; after all, they have 20 years more experience than I do in this culture.
Thankfully, I was able to talk to a very helpful teacher who eased my fears a bit by giving me some details on exams and curriculum, but then came the next “Friday.”
“And by the way,” she said, “today is the last day of your course in creative writing.”
“Oh, really?” I answered calmly, but the phrase that has become my constant companion threatened to surface:
“Why did no one tell me about this!?”
If she had not casually mentioned it, I would have had no idea that my creative writing class was not indeed a full semester course. Sigh.
So yes, navigating the unwritten rules of Russian academic culture and expectations has been trying, but if I approach teaching with the right perspective, these are really peripheral issues that should not steal my energy and joy. It is the students that I am here for, and it is the students that encourage me not to become disillusioned in these transitions from student to teacher, college life to work world. Here are a few pictures of some of the fun things we’ve been doing in class:
I’m in America?
Navigating the land with seven Fridays can really run you down, and I’ve found that the best medicine for culture-fatigue is interaction with those from one’s home culture. This is why I was so thankful to celebrate Thanksgiving with four other Fulbrighters. Nick, who works at a sports institute in Kazan, hosted us at his luxurious dormitory. And no, “luxurious” is not a sarcastic barb; Nick’s living space is truly like a hotel. The complex he lives in was built in 2010 and houses Russian student athletes. It has very tight security, and not only did Nick have to go through round after round of bureaucracy to secure us rooms, but we had to go through two checkpoints to get in.
Our two days in Kazan almost created the illusion that we had gone back to America. We savored each day slowly, exploring the city, laughing into the early hours of the morning, eating good food. Because of the limited cooking equipment we had, we actually started cooking our Thanksgiving meal (complete with a chicken that we lovingly dubbed “turkey”) at 7:30 in the evening and ate our dessert of apple pie and ice cream around 2:00 in the morning.
Feeling refreshed and ready to take on December, we parted ways, but of course, right outside the comfort of our American bubble lurked another “Friday.”The day before we left Kazan, I mustered up my courage and ordered a taxi for me and Hanna. Three months ago I never would have attempted it, but I’m at the point now where successfully talking on the phone in Russian gives me something akin to a runner’s high. The woman on the other line understood me and said a driver would come get us at 3:00…And yes, you guessed the punch line: 3:00 came and went, and no taxi was to be found. I called the taxi company, and the woman seemed surprised that the driver was not there, saying that she would call him “to find out what’s up.” She sounded like she was going to kick butt, but when I called her back twenty minutes later she said, “it turns out that… he left without you.”
This is Russia.
Thankfully, she called another cab, and an hour and a half later, we got into our ride home. But our trip would not be complete without an authentic exemplar of Russian masculinity. A guy our age climbed into the front seat with three bottles of beer, presumably having already drunk one, and started talking to us. At first, his questions were normal, acceptable, but after his second bottle of beer, he asked us, no, demanded of us over and over that we go to the club or café with him. These invitations alternated with his telling us “enough speaking in English! I can’t understand what you’re saying.” After our third refusal, he grumbled that we were too serious and finally passed out in the front seat…
Now that I’ve been back in Elabuga for about a week, I am beginning to think that of all the cities I’ve been in Russia, Elabuga embodies this concept of seven Fridays the best, both in its outer world and in my inner life. I am constantly changing my mind about this town. Some days I feel sharply homesick and beaten down by trying to function in a culture so different from my own. Elabuga itself can be an intimidating place; it is small, close-knit, and hard to break into. But some days, when I feel just about ready to give up, Elabuga changes my mind and hints of the romance that once drew me to Russia, enchanting me with glittery snow in the wind, life-size gingerbread houses and snow laden pines, with the smile of a jolly old man feeding hungry kitties, with the laughter of students and with the gift of homemade honey from a Russian teacher. You definitely have to look for the magic more, but it’s there.