Not Much Time for Sleep!

It’s amazing how much can happen in a week here! Here’s a quick update on what has been going on in Tatarstan.

Weekend in Kazan

Last weekend, I was invited to Kazan(the largest city in Tatarstan) by the daughter of a teacher at the Institute, who works there as an English teacher and completed her master’s degree in TESOL in the states. Kamila and I hit it off right away, and Iwehad a wonderful weekend exploring the city, drinking tea, and discussing all things language related. Kamila took me to Театр Юного Зрителя, (The Theater of the Young Spectator,) where we saw a comedy called, “Здравствуйте, Я Ваша Тётя” (“Hello, I’m Your Aunt.”) This play was reminiscent of Mrs. Doubtfire: Set in late 19th or early 20th century England, two love-struck young men ask their friend to dress up like a woman so that they can invite two girls over without a chaperone. What results is a hilarious and disastrous chain of events.

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The next day, Camilla took me to the museum of Soviet Life, which showcased realia from the institution of the U.S.S.R. until its dissolution. Let’s just say the star of the show was Lenin. Here are some pictures from the museum:

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“The Truth About American Diplomats”

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From a Soviet textbook: “Our Motherland, the U.S.S.R.”

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I learned that chewing gum was a status symbol in the Soviet Union, because it was so hard to come by.

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“Soviet Woman”

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“Soviet Pioneer Uniform”

After we left the museum, it was time for me to return to Kazan, and other than the irritated GPS that yelled at you if you made a wrong turn and the driver deciding it was a good idea to race through the breakdown lane on occasion, the trip back was uneventful.

Overcoming My Fear

One of the girls I met at the local English Club, Elmira, has been kindly helping me with my Russian once or twice a week. One day, we stopped by a store to get some water, and she noticed right away how nervous I got when I approached the store workers. “Why do you get so scared?” she said. “Then you stutter and they can’t understand you! They’re just people, just like you.”

It’s true, although I’ve studied Russian for quite a few years and can carry on conversation fairly easily with people I know, there always seems to be a barrier when I approach people in stores or cafes. My heart starts beating quickly and my tongue decides to have a seizure. I asked Elmira then, if we could go out one day and just go up to as many people as possible in an attempt to overcome my fear. She agreed, and on Tuesday, we went to the market for an adventure.

First, I went to a market to try to find a hat and gloves, and I managed to talk to the woman without too much trouble. Next, she took me to a fast food place which served a Tatarstani treat.

“You have Big Mac, we have сосиска в тесте (fried dough covered hot dogs). You haven’t been to Tatarstan until you’ve tried one.” She told me what to say, and when I ordered, the woman actually smiled at me and asked me where I was from, then started to make conversation. So not everyone is scary. We went to a few more stores, and my fear started to dissipate. I still get nervous and I know it will be a process, but I am so thankful that Elmira took the time to help me fight my fear.

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Eating сосиска в тесте in front of Elabuga’s “Big Ben”

Explaining America to Russian History Students

The next day, I had another opportunity to use my Russian, as I was invited into a history class to share about my country. In true Russian style, I wasn’t told exactly what I needed to prepare until the morning of, which resulted in lots of frantic Googling and Wikipedia searches. I may be American, but I am not an encyclopedia!

After presenting on the symbolism in our flag and great seal, students asked me questions about my country. Questions ranged from the American economic system to family relationships, and I did my best to answer them as truthfully as I could with my non-native handle of Russian. Some questions, such as those about American family relationships and why I decided to come to Russia, were easy to answer in Russian because they were not sensitive issues. However, I found that when asked questions about Americans’ view of President Obama and President Putin, it was hard to answer both diplomatically and truthfully. Concerning President Obama, I brought up that his approval ratings had dropped since he became president, and that a large percentage of Americans were not satisfied with how he acted concerning Syria.

And whn they asked me about Putin, and I felt a little cornered. The history teacher asked me, “so, what do Americans think about Putin? Because, you see, we love our President.” So really, what was I supposed to say to that? I said something to the effect of that Americans respect Putin, but of course there will always be tension between the two countries because we are both powerful and want to hold the number one spot. Then to dispel the tension, I tried to bring in some humor, fumbling for words to try to explain the funny memes we have on Facebook that portray Putin as a strong, “most interesting man in the world” type. I didn’t do very well at explaining this, and when this article came out the next day reporting on my presentation, it said that “Americans consider Putin a ‘superhero.'” Ok, so not exactly what I wanted to say; sorry America! Also, in the article, they put in some things that I never said, for example, that all American homes have an American flag. So here’s the link if you’d like to put it into an online translator and read it, but don’t take everything as my definitive view 🙂

http://kpfu.ru/main_page?p_cid=61095&p_sub=6207

Overall, it was a great experience to answer students’ questions about America. People in Elabuga are very enthusiastic about meeting an American, because unlike in larger cities, for many, I am the first American they have ever met. The local news will be interviewing me on Monday as well, so I will make sure to keep you up to date on that.

Girls Night Out

Finally, my week ended with some girls from my advanced class inviting me out to a café. Most of them are only a year younger than me, so it feels a little strange to be their teacher. It was great to be able to hang out with them outside of the classroom in a more relaxed environment. They were determined to speak English the whole time, which didn’t seem difficult, since their English is already excellent. After pizza, coffee, and desert, we strolled around the city, at which one point, two college guys started to follow us in their car. While walking down the sidewalk, they put their car in reverse and went backwards, trying to talk to us, for at least 10 minutes. They were persistent and would not give up, but we felt safe, since there were about 10 of us. Russian guys seem to be much more forward than American guys. But can you blame them? Look how beautiful all the girls in my class are:

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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.

A Drunken Perspective

A throwback to my time in Nizhniy Novgorod three years ago. It’s interesting to reflect on the perspectives I held then and how I have grown…

From the moment I first landed on Slavic soil, everything in Russia had seemed full of novelty. Washing clothes in my dorm’s scummy tub wasn’t gross; it was adventurous. Russian cigarette smoke didn’t make me cough; it spiced the air with culture. Even being forbidden to flush toilet paper was somehow exotic.

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View from the upper section of Nizhniy Novgorod

So when a drunken man stumbled into our sleeping car on the way to Moscow, I wasn’t surprised that I felt the same childlike excitement. The over-friendly man took a seat across from my friend Kelly and me and scooted close to my messily bearded friends Mitchel and Andrew (for some reason they had made a pact to spend the whole semester without the luxury of a razor.) Andrei, as he introduced himself, was thirtyish, with sandy blonde hair, nondescript eyes and foggy glasses. If this were Boston, I might have felt repulsion, pity, or even fear. But instead, I felt like a little girl at the zoo, sensing her skin prickle at a lion’s roar but knowing that the bars of a cage ensured her safety.  Somehow, I had persuaded myself that this was a different world, a Narnia, where nothing could actually go wrong. Well, at least I could get away with things that I couldn’t in America. I could go on sketchy amusement park rides without my father’s resistance. I could zoom around town in an overstuffed car without wearing a seatbelt. I could strip down without shame in a communal bath house. So I could certainly make friends with a drunken man on a train. I became very friendly.

Sadly though, my friends didn’t share my excitement. At Andrei’s sudden arrival, Mitchel’s blue eyes flashed with an overzealous annoyance. Andrew seemed amused, but only yawningly, perhaps enjoying Mitchel’s discomfort. They clearly didn’t understand that this wasn’t just a drunken man, this was a drunken Russian man! How could they not see that we were in for a treat? Mitchel’s eyes bugged out in frustration, Andrew leaned back in boredom, Kelly took the role of cautious observer, but I was on the edge of my seat. To my delight, after ten minutes of listening to Andrei’s jolly blabber, he was ready to tell us his life story.

“Do you know why I’m going to Moscow?” Andrei’s eyes glinted, confident that he was the charmingest Don Juan this side of Mt.Elbrus. “I’m going to meet my love!” He breathed ecstatically. I leaned in closer.

“Well, you see, I am married.” He paused. “But it doesn’t matter! It’s love!” My eyes went wide in surprise and delight. If I’d looked at my reflection in the dirty, Soviet-era window, I’m sure I would have seen a girl grinning like a child eating birthday cake, the joy in the sugary messiness of the night staining my face. This was not adultery; this was not real. This was just a story, and we were now extras in Andrei’s epic of a tryst. Wasn’t this why I had fallen in love with Russia? Every day was an adventure, filled with intriguing characters that gave me stories that could be told and retold when I was back in boring old America. Encouraged by our silence, Andrei then launched into a poetical diatribe on the meaning of love. I struggled to keep a straight face as I translated his words to my disgruntled friends. At this rate, this story was going to make my top five.

“Drink with me, my friends!” he cheered, clearly planning to take advantage of the train’s food service.

“No,” we declined, motioning refusal with our hands. I tried to explain our refusal, excited to see how well I could communicate in my third grade Russian.

“I usually don’t drink, so I don’t want to risk getting drunk right now.”

He leered at me knowingly. “You’re just afraid to fall in love with us.” I giggled. What he could have meant by his Gollum-like assertion was a mystery, but I gleefully etched it into my mind, adding it to the file that stored the antics of my favorite Russian characters.

“We have to get him out of here!” Mitchel growled.  No, please no! I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

“I’ll have three beers,” Andrei ordered the train attendant.

“Remember, we said we are not going to drink with you!” Mitchel retorted in his Tennessee twang.

“No,” he said, incredulous. “They are all for me!” Andrei explained. Mitchel rolled his eyes. I grinned, adding the quote to Andrei’s budding character résumé. Our enigmatic professor Harley, who had grown up Amish and lived as an expat in Bulgaria for a number of years, came upon our saloon scene. The seventy year old man with his ever-present black beret and love for cats was famous for his unpredictable constancy. It was his paradox of character that made him so intriguing; the more he talked about himself, the less we knew, and it always seemed he was slightly smirking at us with his mysterious old eyes. His reaction to our plight was signature Harley. Mitchel silently begged our professor for help with desperate eyes.  But with a conspiratorial smirk, he started to make conversation with our new friend. After a few minutes, with the mischievous gait of an adolescent boy, he kept on walking through the train, leaving us to fend for ourselves.

The rest of the night played out just as I had hoped, with Andrei resisting Mitchel’s pleas to leave and his tales continuing and the account getting juicier and juicier. Late that night, Andrei finally left our cabin, leaving three green beer bottles and a memory that I can now see was loudly caricatured by my craving for novelty. This character, this piece of entertainment, had bills to pay and work to do and a wife that he had hurt.

And in my ecstatic grabbing at a Russian adventure, I had simplified him into a cartoon character, colorful but flat.

I didn’t see him as a human, but as an extra in my own personal plotline.

I hadn’t thought about Andrei’s poor wife, married to a drunk who was running off with another woman.

And I certainly hadn’t thought that Andrei too, might be a hurting, lonely man.

I wonder what Andrei is doing right now. Maybe he’s sneaking off on another escapade with his secret lover. Maybe he’s late for work, nursing a hangover from too much vodka the night before. But maybe, just maybe, he’s at a bar, telling his friends the story of the stupid but amusing Americans he once met on a train to Moscow.