What Happens in Petersburg Stays in Petersburg: a.k.a. Konstantine’s Creation Part 2

          There I stood, with a tearstained face and glass of vodka in my hand.
           No, it’s not what you think.
           The vodka wasn’t there to wash away my sorrows, but to wash my ugly, purple, infected wound. Appetizing, I know.  I thought that I had surely sucked out all possible drama from my misadventure on the ice, but I was wrong.
My wound was healing fine. After five days, it looked as beautiful as a gash on the chin can. After five days, an excellent surgeon I know was convinced that the stitches needed to come out. After five days, the dentist at my favorite dilapidated Russian clinic assured me that it was much too early to rid me of my blue beard.
          And on the seventh day, I did not rest.
           The Friday morning I went to the Dostoevsky Museum marked my week anniversary of waking up with stubble on my chin. In the morning, I noticed that my stiches and the wound around it looked slightly different. I went to a pharmacy, bought what I thought was antibiotic ointment, and thought everything was fine. But later in the day, my friend Shelby noticed that my wound had turned purple and was swelling. I went to another pharmacy, explained my symptoms to a pharmacist, and she gave me bacitracin. At dinner, I showed my friend Cody, who, after looking at it, was pretty sure I needed to get right on antibiotics. So I went to another pharmacy and tried to get antibiotics, but she assured me I didn’t need them. (All this was great language practice!) As the night went on, the creepy purple swelling got worse, and I began to worry. I Skyped my parents with a picture of my chin and upon seeing it, they thought I might be in danger. The stitches need to come out, they said. Even if had to call a friend to take them out. Even if I had to do it myself. Every tragic ending to my story went through my head. What if the infection spreads and I die? What if? What if?
         “Try to pull the thread and see if you can see the knot.” My Mom instructed me from the other side of the globe. At this point it was almost one in the morning and I was sitting on the bathroom floor, with the computer at my feet, a pitiful mess.
“Okay, I’ll try!” I stood up, looked in the mirror, and pulled on one of the threads protruding like hair from a witch’s wart. As I pulled, the wound started to bleed and I saw the skin pulling away. Squamish shivers washed over me like a score of spiders and I lost it. “I can’t do it!” I wailed. I sat on the floor and started breathing hard, crying, and hyperventilating. At this point my poor roommate Shelby was trying to give me privacy while reading a book outside the hotel room. When she came back in and saw me in my disheveled state, my parents talked with her and she went to get help. Before I knew it, four Americans and a Russian were standing around me, trying to comfort me. One was so nice she handed me a glass of water to calm me down. I wondered why she gave me so little as I brought the cup to my lips.
          “Don’t drink it! It’s vodka!” She hadn’t brought me water to calm my nerves, but vodka to sterilize the wound. Long story short, I ended up traveling through St. Petersburg   at three in the morning with Shelby and my R.D. in a valiant attempt to get my stitches the heck out! This clinic was much nicer than the one in Vladimir, and the doctors spoke English, albeit a very bookish, not quite-actually-spoken-English. I was sure they would take the stitches out. But no! The doc gave me amoxicillin and called it good. And that meant I had to return to my beloved Konstantine…
          Upon returning from Petersburg, I dreaded my meeting with Konstantine, the dentist who I remembered as an overbearing, intimidating caricature of Russian male chauvinism. But Tuesday night I gathered my strength and returned to that lovely hovel that housed so many memories. And I received the surprise of my life.
          “Nadyushka, come in!” Konstantine smiled at me as if we were old friends, using the diminutive form of my Russian name that is the equivalent of “Hopie.” The tension in my body relaxed as I leaned back and bared my chin. “It looks beautiful! You’ll hardly have a scar!” After five minutes of pulling, snipping, and calling me solnishka (sunshine), I was finished. “If you need anything, here’s my number.” He gave his number to my Resident Director. “I’ll be waiting for you next year,” he said, smiling. “I hope not,” I answered. “Just as a guest, don’t fall again.” I left the clinic in awe at the doctor’s transformed mood and euphoric that my fiasco with the Russian medical system was finally over. As I took the bus home, I was sure I was the happiest girl in the world. The wound is healing wonderfully, but nonetheless, I’ll have a souvenir scar that will tattoo this experience forever on my face. And I’m actually kind of excited about it.

Stitches, Barbarians, and Konstantine the Dentist

I had to get stitches last night. From a Russian dentist.
Déjà vu Moskva!
It all started when I decided to do something I haven’t had much luck with before- ice skating. Many of you will remember that my last night in Moscow two years ago, I almost sent myself to the hospital skating on Red Square. Now this was only my second time on skates, and lost in conversation with my friend Andrew and a little too confident in my meager abilities, I fell. And I fell hard. I supermanned across the ice, ribs crashing against the cold, hard ground. Somehow though, the adrenaline kept me going, and I continued to skate for another half an hour, falling about every thirty seconds. 
After the adrenaline of the vivid Moscow night wore off, I began to feel the effects of my falls, stiffly sitting on a hotel bed, ribs screaming. Every breath shot sharp, raspy pain through my body, but somehow, I managed to drag myself to the airport and back to the U.S. (after of course a detour through New Jersey after getting on the wrong plane in Germany).
Pride Goeth Before the Fall
Well anyway, I’m beginning to think that this skating thing just isn’t for me. Last night, some friends and I decided to go skating at an indoor rink near the center of the city. It was only 100 rubles ($3.00) for both tickets and rental skates, so what did we have to lose? (“Teeth” and “blood” did not go through my head as two of the possibilities)
The first few minutes were fine. It took me a while to get my footing- my skates were a little big, and remember, this was my third time ever skating. My friend Cody, on the other hand, was a master of the ice. Skating backwards, skating on one leg, jumping and landing with ease, I could barely believe he hadn’t played ice hockey in school. Feeling it was about time to showcase my adventurousness, I asked him to teach me an easy trick. That was my mistake. “Easy” is not a word in my skating lexicon. He showed me how to turn backwards while skating, and I rashly followed suit. And
Head first, my chin took all the impact of the cold, hard ice. In shock, I picked myself up, instinctively trying to assure myself that I was okay. Teeth. Check. Legs. Fine. And then I saw it. Drops of crimson blood splattered all over the frosty rink. Cody steadied me and led me off the ice, after which I was whisked away to a special room for impulsive and clumsy people like me. A nurse sat me down in front of a sink and told me to wash up. By now it was clear that I was bleeding from my chin, a nice trail of blood splattered from the door to the sink where I now sat. She put a temporary bandage under my chin and told me that I absolutely needed to get stitches now! At this point, it didn’t hurt, and I didn’t want to go get stitches, so Cody and I left the rink almost nonchalantly. We sat down on a bench and ate CCCP ice cream pops while waiting for my RD to pick us up and take us to the hospital. At this point, I could barely stop laughing. The absurdity of the situation mixed with the effects of a hard hit to the head made me a little loopy. I was filled with that displaced adrenaline you get when you watch an suspenseful movie but you know everything will eventually end happily. And I still had my teeth. That was enough of a happy ending for me. I’m no masochist, but there was something strangely fun about the whole incident.
Konstantine the Dentist
Cori, our Resident Director picked us up in taxi that then brought us to a drab, grey, dare I say, sketchy building. After searching through a maze of hallways, we finally found the registration desk.
“You need to go downstairs, to the dentist. He opens at 8:00.”
 What? The dentist? I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a doctor in the U.S. of A. stitch someone up. We waited over an hour until he came. He, young, thirtyish, with a greasy, slicked back blonde ponytail, sparse mustache and uneven skin. He opened the door to his office and commanded me to come in. When my R.D. and her assitant tried to come in with me he began to yell at them. “Only the patient is allowed to come in! No one else!” His loud, forceful voice was the last thing I needed to hear. They tried to make a case for me. “She’s American. She can’t speak Russian well. She needs someone to translate.”
No! I don’t make these rules, but I have to follow them. Only the patient!” He must have been a drill sergeant in another life. So I went in. By myself. To Mr. Scary Dentist.
He sat me down in a medical chair that gave me an excellent view of the mold colored paint, peeling in huge chips off the wall. This was definitely not the newest facility, to say the very least. “What happened?” He barked. My Russian began to revert from the current third grade level to po-toddler-ski.
“I-I was skating, and, and, I fell,” I stuttered.
 “If you don’t know how to skate, then don’t skate!” Not one to mince words. Just people. “Let’s take a look.” He took the bandage off my chin and nodded his head. “You need stitches.”
 “Do I really need to? Is there any other way?” I asked.
“No, you must get stitches. Объ-я-за-тель-но!  Ab-so-lute-ly nec-ess-ar-y! He pounded out each syllable like a hammer on nail.” I gulped and sat back as he prepared the numbing shot. And somehow, he started to soften up. Relatively speaking, that is. “So, where are you from?” he asked, a little gentler this time.
“I, I study in, in Massachusetts.”
“Oh, I have a nephew there.” He made conversation with me for a few minutes, probably trying to distract me from the two shots of anesthesia to the underside of my chin. And then he got out the needle. Myth or not, I’ve heard horror stories of reused needles in Russian hospitals, and although these stories probably stem from the Soviet Era, I didn’t want to risk getting AIDS. And that’s when I asked the fatal question.
“Is the needle new and clean?”
He looked at me, clearly offended.
 “You just saw me take it out! We’re not barbarians here, you know!” Point taken. I shut up and let him do his dentist magic. Three stitches later, I was done. Sigh of relief. Then, thankfully, he let my R.D. in to hear his orders. Not recommendations. Orders. His voice became firm, loud and commanding again. “You must follow my orders! If you don’t, you’re not going to get better! You’ll only get better if you do exactly what I say!” He prescribed me antibiotics and some antibacterial liquid, and in the meantime, became very friendly with my R.D. He started to chat with her, smiled, and introduced himself. “My name is Konstantine. But to you, Kost!”  And then, the best part of the night. He stood up from his desk, turned definitively toward his medical closet, and proclaimed “To hell with the government!” He grabbed a huge glass bottle of some yellow liquid, and gave it to me. Government medicine he apparently wasn’t supposed to give out. He seemed pleased with his little act of rebellion as he said goodbye to us and ordered me to come back in 10 days to get the stitches out. 
So that was my adventure last night. Skating, falling, and having an eccentric, imposing, and yet somehow charismatic Russian dentist named Konstantine sew me up and give me government issue medicine under the table. There’s definitely never a dull moment in this country that I love. And now, here I am, typing from my old host family’s 9th floor apartment in Nizhniy Novgorod. I arrived at 9:30 this evening and I spent the night catching up with them, drinking chai with raspberry vareniye (jam), sharing pictures to chronicle the past few years, and reminiscing about our very special time together. Life is beautiful. 

Running in Russia (and other gifts)

         This week has been hard. Extremely hard.  Language wise, I’ve been extremely frustrated, and physically, I’ve been exhausted. Being the perfectionist I am, I’ve been a little bit too hard on myself this week about my progress.  Classes have been going well, but they have been extremely challenging. I know that my language skills have improved since I got here, but it can be really hard to be objective about one’s own improvement.
        This week I started running. I normally hate running. But, with the motivation of a friend (thanks Jesse!) I decided to give it a try, at least three days a week. We found a track right between our house (we live on the same street) and meet there at 7 to run for 30 minutes before school. And at first, I didn’t really like it. I wasn’t surprised. But I was surprised on our second day of running by an early morning epiphany. As I ran around the track for the umpteenth time, feet thudding to the beat of my beloved Russian techno pop, it hit me:
       I am living my dream.
       I looked up at the sun peeking through the clouds and realized I was staring straight into a Russian sky. I looked around me and saw the Soviet era apartments, the neon painted jungle gym and the crackling sidewalk and I was struck by the fact that I was actually here. And every step I take here, every lap I run here, is a gift. The steady beat of my well-worn music now filled me with an almost magical exhilaration. The songs that I spent hours translating in my room, pining away for a return ticket to Russia now provided the soundtrack for this long-awaited adventure. And I’m pretty sure that a runner’s high has nothing on what I felt.
      And that’s only one of the gifts that running has brought me this week. This Tuesday, I was able to get connected with a church! And how is running connected, you ask? Well, I was able to get contact information from a friend’s sister who lived in Vladimir of a church she was involved with, and my friend Shelby and I set off to find the church, hoping to make the 7:00 youth group. But, after no avtobuses came and we missed the street we were supposed to take walking on foot, we realized we were running out of time. So we ran. I, in my uncomfortable flats and skinny jeans and Shelby, in her dress and backpack, heavy with her laptop. We ran, and ran, and ran, and finally reached a landmark close to the church. We were sweaty and out of breath, but we made it on time. And it was so worth it. The youth pastor welcomed us into the group and made us feel so at home. We sang a few songs, some which I actually knew in Russian from my church in Krasnodar, began studying the book of Mark, and then walked around town and chatted. The people there were so genuine and I am so thankful I was able to connect with this youth group.
      So yes, linguistically, this week has been hard. Extremely hard. Yet each and every moment has been a gift from God. I am so thankful for this passion He has put in my heart for Russia, and even when the going gets tough, I can look to Him in anticipation for the next step of this crazy, beautiful adventure. In three short weeks, I have already formed relationships with amazing people, both American and Russian, grown in my linguistic confidence, and had more adventures (and delicious food) than should be legal. And I’m beginning to see the gift in every step. Yes, even in running;)

Russian Barbecue (Шашлык)!

It’s about time for this blog post. I mean, Russians aren’t usually known for their cuisine. They sit around eating borsch, black bread, and caviar on a good day, right? Wrong! This week, I want to shatter the stereotype that Russian food does not taste good. In fact, although I may sound like I traitor to my beloved America, let me tell you a secret: I like Russian food better than American food! Yep, I said it. Russian food (to me) is not only tastier, but perhaps healthier too. Healthier, relatively speaking, that is. One of the things that I appreciate about Russian food is that everything is virtually organic. Meat, fruits, vegetables, and my favorite, dairy, are extremely fresh and are rarely processed. However, Russians have a predilection for adding heaps of fat to anything that would otherwise be considered healthy. Cabbage soup? Ladle some sour cream in! Cucumber and tomato salad? Here’s a gallon of mayonnaise! Couple that with a host mom who is the epitome of Russian gosteprimstvo (hospitality) and you have a recipe for a thirty pound weight gain! In fact, I have never seen anything in America that compares to this Russian brand of  hospitality, that at first, felt like a force feeding. The first week in Vladimir I became used to the questions (after I had eaten a Michael Phelps size meal) “Nadia, why aren’t you eating the candy I bought?” “Why aren’t you eating [insert food]? And my personal favorite, “You can keep your figure in America; here, YOU EAT!”   But although I sometimes complain about the amount and type of foods that I’m fed, in reality, I am loving every minute of it! I mean, since when have I ever had an excuse to eat sour cream by the spoonful? (Yes, I already know two of you who have excused yourself to go throw up after reading that sentence, and yes, that was hyperbole, I haven’t gone there….yet ;).
Anyway, over the next week or so, I want to introduce you all to the delectable Russian food that I have been enjoying this past month.  Here I go- Food #1: Shashlik
Shashlik is more than a food, it is a cultural experience. In the summer, Russians love to spend the day in the countryside cooking finely spiced meat kebabs over a fire. When explaining it to Americans, Russians usually call it a barbeque. Anyway, I got to experience the Russian shashlik experience with my Russian language partner, Alyona, her two friends, and my two American friends Jesse and Cody. We set out to the beautiful Russian countryside around noon with tomatoes, cucumbers, and enough meat to live on for a week. When we got there, we had to overcome a few barriers, as Russian men are the ones who traditionally prepare the shashlik, and Alyona and her friends had never done it before. But with the help of the Jesse and Cody, we finally got the fire started and the meat cooking. And it was delicious! Here are a few more pics of our feast:
This picture doesn’t have anything to do with Shashlik, but I couldn’t resist! We saw this babushka throughout the day leading her goats around the countryside.
I hope this post has at least started to shatter any stereotypes you might have about Russian food. Next up: Breakfast!

First Week in Vladimir

        I have been taking classes at the KORA Russian Language Institute for a week now and I LOVE IT! I am taking six subjects, which are all taught in Russian: Grammar, Russian Literature, Russian History/Historical Linguistics, Russian Phonetics, Speech Practice, and Mass Media, which consists of reading and presenting on Russian news articles. Each of my teachers is excellent and clearly loves his or her job.
       On Saturday, we signed our language pledge, which entailed that we speak only Russian on campus, on excursions, and with our host families. This has been one of the most frustrating, yet exciting challenges I have ever undertaken. Like I mentioned in my last post, now that I can only speak Russian, I realize just how little I know. But at the same time, I am astounded by the improvement in my listening skills after only being here one week. I have been pretty hard on myself this week after realizing just how far I have to go before reaching fluency, but as I reflect on my short time here, I feel encouraged when I note the many small linguistic victories I’ve had.
       I’ve asked for directions and actually understood the person answering me.
       I have been able to understandwhat is going on in my classes.
       I’ve been able to (for the most part) understand tour guides, teachers, and my language partner.
       I listened to the radio and understood what they were talking about (it was an interview with a psychic advertising his séances)
       Yes, my victory for the week has definitely centered around understanding. No, my tongue still doesn’t want to cooperate, but I am encouraged as every day the world around me opens up more and more as I adjust to the cadence of a new language.
       In addition to classes, we’ve been given the unique opportunity of working with a Russian language partner, someone our age who helps us with our language on a more informal basis. I have had such a great time so far with my language partner, Alyona.
        Alyona worked in America last summer through a Work and Travel Program and shares my love of peanut butter and Dunkin Donuts. Last week, she and her friend Zhenya took me on a picnic in the beautiful Russian countryside outside of Vladimir. So far, this is one of my favorite parts of being here, and I’m really looking forward to getting to know Alyona and her friends better.
        Finally, today we went on an excursion to my favorite church in all of Mother Russia, the Church Pokrova Na Nerli. Built in 1165, this church is rich with generations and generation of history. Set in the unspeakably peaceful, pristine Russian countryside, it has a magical feeling that speaks of centuries past while seeming frozen in time.
This first week in Vladimir has been challenging and exciting, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the summer unfolds. Da Svidaniya!