Russia in Color

Russia is often wrongly stereotyped as a depressing land devoid of color and life. Although the Russian winter is  long and there are definitely periods where the dominant colors are white, brown, and grey, I have found Russia to possess an understated beauty that continues to stun me when I least expect it. I’ve selected fourteen of my favorite photos I have taken since I arrived in September, and if you have never been to Russia, I hope that they will give you a broader picture of the beauty and character this country has to offer! Note: many of these photos have been filtered, i.e. Instagram, but I really haven’t altered them that significantly.

1. Moscow night, September 2013. 

I took this photo from the corner of Red Square to capture the contrast of the jewel-toned sky and church. The building to the far left with the red star on top is the Kremlin.

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2. Feeding swans in Gorkiy Park, Moscow. September 2013.

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3. View from my dormitory porch, Elabuga. October 2013.

4. Wisdom from a Student, Elabuga. October 2013.

I asked my students to write an essay about the differences between higher education in the United States and in Russia. After praising the United States’ use of syllabuses (which my students had never heard of), she contrasted it to the Russian system with the following statement that sums up my 10 year history with this place:

5. Elabuga Institute, Fall 2013.

Built in 1903 complete with a nifty onion dome, this building is arguably one of the coolest looking places to work on earth.

6. Sunset on Kazanskaya Street, Elabuga. Fall 2013.

7. Children playing by the Marina Tsvetaeva monument, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

I took this picture on the morning after one of the first snows, and I loved the excitement and energy that these children exuded.

8. Jumbo snowman outside my dorm, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

9. The Irony of Fate, Elabuga. Winter 2013.

The sign reads “The pharmacy is temporarily closed due to one of the employees being sick.”

10. Winter sunset, Elabuga, 2013.

11. Caviar and Tea, Naberezhniye Chelny. Winter 2014.

12. View from Pushkin Park, Vladimir. Winter 2014.

13. Shooting the breeze, Elabuga. February 2014.

14. “Nyet,” Naberezhniye Chelny. February 2014.

I saw a little boy scribble нет on the frosty window of the bus from Elabuga to Naberezhniye Chelny.

The Land of Seven Fridays

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:

So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we're working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
So, my all girl class really likes Channing Tatum, and we’re working through a unit on film. We had a relay race to see how many adjectives they could think of to describe different actors and characters.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.
In my creative writing class, I gave each student a writing prompt. They were to write for five minutes, then pass their paper to the next student, who would pick up where they left off. What resulted was some pretty funny stories. This one is my favorite, in which a young man finds an envelope full of money, then has to escape from a gangster in a sombrero.

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.

Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex :)
Karin and Hanna relaxing in the hands of the complex 🙂

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.”

Of course.

I forgot.

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.

A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.
A nine foot snowman outside my dorm.

A Few Things Off My Bucket List

Before I left for Russia in September, I created a short Fulbright Bucket List, in which I brainstormed things I wanted to do before I left Russia. These past two weeks, I have been able to check quite a few items off my list. Here’s a short chronicle of items on my bucket list I’ve conquered so far:

Item #4: Ice-skating without landing myself in a hospital, or worse, finding myself at the hands of a dramatic Russian dentist named Konstantine. Those of you who have followed my blog for more than a year know that last summer while studying in Vladimir, Russia, I was introduced to the Russian medical system after splitting my chin while ice skating. Ever since my fall, I have been nervous about skating again, so I determined to face my fear and make it through at least one round of skating unharmed.  When my friend Elmira and I first set foot on the ice, I was wobbly and stiff, memories of my chin slamming into the ice closer than they had been in over a year. But after about 10 minutes of holding onto the bar, I gingerly started to make my way around the circle, and after about 10 minutes of this, I felt confident enough to have a conversation while skating. Unfortunately, the site won’t let me upload the video Elmira took of me skating, but here is a picture of us after the fact:

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Item #10: Write a poem in Russian

I love poetry, and I have found it fun to play around with it in Russian, even though I probably don’t have a strong enough grasp on word nuances and connotations to be confident that I am saying what I want to say. The first time I attempted poetry in Russian was at the age of 14 in my beginner’s Russian class, where I wrote a sad poem about not getting noticed by the boy I liked (Увидеть меня ещё нельзя). Since then, I haven’t really worked at anything serious, and the last one I wrote was a parody of an Anna Akhmatova poem for one of my friends, which chronicles our memories in Vladimir. Right now, I am teaching a creative writing course at the university, and I had my students write a poem in English. Since writing poetry is especially intimidating in another language, I promised them that if they did the assignment, then I would write a poem in Russian. I decided to write a few lighthearted verses on the torture that is Russian pronunciation, since I needed some catharsis for the frustration that comes with each Russian lesson. As the Russians would say, the poem is “ещё сырое,” or still a draft, but if you read Russian, feel free to read my work in progress:

Русское Произношение

Вы знаете, мои друзья

Какой у вас язык богат

Но знайте, также, ваш язык

Причиняет мне страдать

Русское произношение-

Жестокое мучение

Мягкий ль язык не любит,

Мягкий ть он ненавидеть.

Особенно по магазинам

Когда продавцам я обращаюсь

Язык тормозит, чувствую страх

И, вот, опять, я заикаюсь.

Поэтому, я каждый день,

Когда по улице хожу

Скороговорки глупые

Я повторяю, повторяю.

Однажды я надеюсь говорить без трудностей

без проблем произносить и ни, и ти, и ли,

Но сегодня надо ждать вопрос:

“Девушка, откуда вы!?”

Item #13: Travel to a city I’ve never been to before.

This past weekend, I was so excited to be able to visit my fellow Fulbrighter Hanna, who lives in the neighboring city of Naberezhniye Chelny (try to say that five times fast). Although geographically Elabuga and N. Chelny are close (45 minutes on the bus 🙂 ), each city has a very different culture, due to the fact that whereas Elabuga is pretty much ancient, N. Chelny was built around 60 years ago when the Kamaz car plant was built. N. Chelny has less aesthetic charm than Elabuga due to both its short history and the reasons for which it was built, but despite the lack of apparent beauty, it felt great to be in a larger city again.

The best part about the weekend though, of course had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with who I spent it with. Can I just say that it was a breath of fresh air to be able to interact with another American, to have deep conversations about anything and everything without having to modify our speech, to share stories and find commonalities in our experiences, and perhaps most importantly of all, to be able to share the moment when we saw this Halloween costume of one of Hanna’s students:

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I definitely decided to come on a good weekend, since Hanna was hosting a Halloween party for her students. They spoke excellent English, and we had a wonderful evening eating, toasting each other, playing mafia, and watching a “horror” movie that was hard not to laugh through.

Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn't have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil's horns.
Hanna created an elaborate slug costume, which we learned (and will never forget) is called слизняк in Russian. I didn’t have a costume so a student lent me a spare pair of devil’s horns.

Here is a picture of the spread of cakes, pies, and salads that the students treated us to:

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…which brings me to the next thing on my list.

Item# 6: try one of the foods I have avoided thus far while in Russia

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This, my friends, is known as “Herring Under Fur Coat.” This dish is a mouth-boggling layered salad of herring and onion, potatoes, eggs, mayonnaise and beets. I have nothing against beets, or eggs, or potatoes, but I feel that just about anything is ruined if you add salty fish with crunchy onions. I also don’t hate mayonnaise, but everything in moderation, right? And by the pink glow of the salad, you can tell that moderation was the last thing from this salad maker’s mind. I came, I ate, and I will do my best to never do such a thing again.

I also forced myself to try one of these, but I couldn’t finish it:

Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.
Bread, butter with what I think was horseradish, pickles and fish.

Note: my goal is not to bash Russian food, since as a whole, I actually prefer Russian food to American. I love the dairy products here, the breads, the cakes and most of the salads, but I still have yet to understand the Russian obsession with both fish and mayonnaise. And of course, one of my favorite aspects of Russian meals is the absolute necessity of tea. Here is a picture of a beautiful pot of tea Hanna and I ordered while we snagged internet at a local cafe.

"Огородны чай," tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.
“Огородны чай,” tea with mint, apple, cinnamon and strawberry.

Now that I’m back in Elabuga, I already miss Hanna, but there will be certainly more visits to come, since the bus only takes 45 minutes from her stop to my stop! Let the adventures continue.

The Country Where the G.P.S. Scolds You: A Little Post on Cultural Differences

After about a month of being here, I am still finding it hard to adjust in certain ways. I am not yet used to what, through my cultural lens, appears to be unnecessary harshness and scolding. Although on the logical level, I understand that American and Russian communication styles differ greatly, I have still taken the seeming abrasiveness very seriously, avoiding or dreading situations that will involve being scolded. My knee-jerk reaction is to take it all very personally; for example, I still felt upset hours after a marshrutka driver yelled at me when I forgot to close the door to the bus. This was all until I experienced G.P.S a la Russe.

After a restful weekend in the city of Kazan (more about that in a later post), I ordered a charter taxi-van to bring me the 3 hours back to Elabuga. I was the first passenger, so the driver (who used so much slang I had no idea what he was saying) plugged other passengers’ addresses into his G.P.S., and off into the city we went.
So you know how in America, when we make a wrong turn, a robotic but decidedly female voice says, “recalculating”? Well, when the taxi driver decided he knew better than the G.P.S., a slightly less robotic male voice blurted out in an irritated tone, «Зачем отклонились от маршрута!?», “Why did you go off the route!? You must turn at the next left!”

I thought I had misheard; after all, in my mind, there was no possible reason for actually programming scolding into a G.P.S. system. As the driver wove through the city traffic, I listened closely, and heard it again and again. “Why did you go off the route!? Why did you go off the route!?” Just to make completely sure, I typed it into Google on my phone, and sure enough, it yielded lots of results for Russian G.P.S. systems. As the taxi gained more and more passengers, not one Russian seemed to think that the constant scolding was anything but normal. As for me though, I was trying my best not to burst into laughter, both at the absurdity of programming scolding into a GPS system and at the Russians’ non-reaction.

I am sure it will still take me quite a bit more time to get used to the Russian communication style, but at least I am starting to understand it more. My experience with the G.P.S. showed me that Americans and Russians perceive scolding in very different ways. I have yet to understand exactly why scolding plays such a prominent role in Russian communication or how exactly Russians perceive it differently than Americans, but I realize now that I shouldn’t take it personally. So the next time I am scolded and am tempted to hang my head in shame, I’ll remember the irritated voice of Mr. Russian G.P.S. and do my best to crack a wide American smile.

My Almost Arranged Marriage (or the Irony of Fate)

“I am so happy to see you! I need to talk with you about a very important matter.” The elderly woman’s light blue eyes, circled in soft wrinkles, gleamed with urgency. I smiled and felt the characteristic excitement that comes with crossing the barrier of small talk to genuine conversation with a Russian, and I gleefully agreed.

I had met Tatiana in the hotel lobby a few days before; while she was checking into the hotel, she asked me to watch her bags. As soon as I opened my mouth, it became clear to her that I was not Russian. From there I found out that she spoke fluent French, had taught for quite a few years, and was staying for a few days in Moscow before going to visit her family in Israel. Tatiana struck me as eccentric from the beginning; she spoke to me with an intensity and openness that I have not typically experienced the first time I meet a Russian.

Before I reluctantly ended the conversation (two girls from my group were waiting for me), she looked me in the eye and said in a definitive tone, “Just don’t get married while you’re here. I know sexually there might be the attraction, but it is just not enough time to really know a person.”

“I completely agree,” I answered, pleased that she seemed to share my conviction that this year was not the one for romance, at least with a Russian.

“It was wonderful meeting you, and I wish you success.” She smiled at me as we parted.

But as fate would have it, this was not our last meeting…

Skip to two days later, when Tatiana bumps into me and exuberantly invites me to talk with her about a very important matter. My first inclination was to think she was simply lonely and wanted to have tea with a willing listener. Perhaps she would give me advice on teaching; after all, we seemed to have similar cross-cultural interests. Or maybe she was a Mormon who hoped to share her faith with me.

There was no way for me to know that the real reason she wanted to talk with me could be summed up in one word: судьба.

The English translation of the word судьба as “fate,” is a weak definition at best because of the stark contrasts in perception of the word in American and Russian culture. Whereas Americans have the culturally ingrained mindset that our futures can be molded by action and perseverance, the Russian culture emphasizes the role of fate in the paths that our lives take. So although we have the word in our lexicon, we do not attach the spiritual and emotional weight to it that Russians do.

Tatiana and I sat down in the hotel café, where I ordered a black tea and she offered me dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. For thirty minutes, she told me about her life traveling with her military husband, her work as a translator, how she adored France and French people, and how art and culture were integral parts of being an intelligent, educated person. I was entranced by her clear, slow speech, stories gleaming with details, and her love for learning. She even tried to teach me a few phrases in French. About thirty minutes into the conversation, she looked at me with a smile and said, “but you’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”

“Da,” I answered, a subconscious premonition hinting at where this might be going. She started to weave stories of her nephew into her narrative, “a talented artist who graduated with honors, a man who is humble and shy…would you like to see a picture of him?”

Biting my lip, I conceded. I was faced by a decidedly poor picture of an average looking man in his late twenties. He was standing beside a large painting, apparently talking about his work, his eyes turned away from the camera.

“Do you like?” she asked. The Russian way of asking if you like something doesn’t require an object, so it was ambiguous as to if she was asking about him or his painting. Not wanting to offend, I muttered a “da,” and grasped for a tactful way to exit the situation. As if hearing my thoughts, the plump, smiling waitress explained that we needed to leave since others needed to eat and we were only drinking tea.

Tatiana, however, had not made a full case for her nephew Ilya, and invited me to her hotel room. My fascination with the situation outweighed any qualms I had, so I agreed. After following her into her third floor room, Tatiana sat me down and said, “so, have you understood me?”

“Um…You would like me and your nephew to meet?”

“Yes, I knew you were an intelligent girl!”

“I don’t know…” I said weakly, my Russian skills fleeing as my nervousness spiked.

“I just want him to marry an intelligent, well-brought up girl, and I knew you were from the minute I saw you. You see, I just think it might be fate. Why else would I have met you in the hotel lobby that day, then bump into you two days later? It might be судьба.”

Or perhaps it’s because we’re in the same hotel building, I thought smugly, but managed to keep a straight face.

“But I don’t know him,” I said.

“But I know him! He has no problems.”

All this from the woman who had told me not to get married while I was in Russia because it was not enough time to really know someone. But as the Russian saying goes, you can’t outrun fate.

Still, I thought a little Russian bluntness might douse the fire of fate. I explained to her that I was a Christian and that it was very important for me to marry someone who shared my beliefs. This led into a very interesting exchange on religion and its place in the marriage relationship. I was able to explain to her the centrality of Christ in my life, which seemed to surprise her. “You won’t find youth like this in Russia,” she said.

Although she tried to convince me that cross-religious relationships would work (the dashing Ilya was Jewish), she slowly started to get the hint, and two hours after we sat down, we parted amicably. She gave me her number and encouraged me to call her, no doubt counting on fate to bring us together again.

I returned to my hotel room with a smile in my heart, energized by the reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with vast country and its mysterious, beautiful people who are not constrained by the prison of logic and practicality, but who allow room for belief in the unknown, the untouched, the unseen. I can already tell this is going to be a great year.