Friday, August 31, 2012

Peter, Isaac and Prejudice

So we went to Peterhof, which I had been to before, and which was absolutely breathtaking. There's not that much more about it than that to say. Nature, fountains, gold, palaces, BEAUTY.

Today we went to St. Isaac's Cathedral in the center of St. P, which was actually closed the last time I was here but was open this time and was really cool. We did not go inside on the little guided tour but we went to the top, which was really beautiful. It was a stunning view of the entire city, 360 degrees because you can walk around it, and the weather was really nice today so that was fantastic just to relax and take in some sweeping, huge-scale views of just the prettiest damn city on the planet! :)

Today, Derek and I had the pleasure of accompanying chancellor Block (who was visiting along with several other UCLA faculty members) to the airport. Right on the edge of the river, Chancellor Block climbs into a taxi cab being driven by a man who does not speak a word of English and, without saying a word, in the back two seats enter two men with short hair, black jackets, jeans, and heavy-duty work shoes on - his body guards... or so it seemed to Professor David MacFadyen (UCLA) and any other Russian spectators who were outside the SPSU campus service entrance at around 2pm today. On the ride to the airport, our conversation was pretty much restricted to the Chancellor, discussing his time in Russia and our impressions, our living situations, and the program we are currently studying with. Maybe about 15 or 20 minutes into the drive, the driver decides to turn the volume of the radio, currently playing some sports recap and store report, up to an almost deafening volume. High enough that communication between Block (in the front passenger seat) and us (in the back seats) becomes extremely difficult. Derek and I do our absolute best to keep up with what the Chancellor is saying and we tactfully guess how to answer his questions, which we only knew were questions because we could hear the intonation shift in his voice, but it becomes nearly imposible. (Sorry if you're reading this right now by the way Chancellor :( ) I think we manage pretty well when, just as spontaneously as the first shift, the driver turns the volume back down and we continue our conversation as before. The drive really was not that bad, it didn't last particularly long, we got to the airport, escorted him inside, made sure he passed through the first metal detector alright and, essentially, sent him on his way. You may still be out there on a plane somewhere.... *back to the audience* he seemed like a veteran traveler and was pretty confident in his ability to get where he needed to go so I am not too worried.

The ride back, with only the cool kids, was kind of different. Immediately upon getting back into the taxi, it becomes clear that the driver is pretty cool. He starts right in with gregarious and witty banter, which is nice and gets us smiling. Then he starts to go a little crazy, he says some nice stuff about some stuff (mostly girls - russian) and some not so nice stuff about some stuff (mostly girls - american) and at one point hits a mental block (that's a shout out to you dad) and just stays silent trying to physically force this word out for like 20-30 seconds. Not to mention, this entire time he is either texting on his phone as he is driving or pulling up pictures of his daughter and her son to show us. Also, he has a gps unit that is connected to the taxi dispatch center which let out a decently loud (because it was plugged into the car stereo) beep when it updated the list of possible assignments and then would sound like someone SLAMMING on a typewriter when it would download the details of a job. So basically, here we were, the driver was texting with 1 hand and turning the steering wheel/shifting gears (a manual of course) with the other hand, screaming about girls, his gps on full blast "ching ching ching, ching ching ching, ching ching ching", and all the while, he would roll my window up every time I tried to roll it down without saying anything. It was a little chaotic :( But he took us where we wanted to go, took a little tip (thank you UCLA) and then went on his way. He was a pretty happy and nice guy

Ok so my dinner is waiting for me - chunks of chicken wrapped in bacon, meatballs, and potatoes (yeah... im in heaven) and I am pretty tired so I am going to go but I want to say at least one.... philosophical thing before I go:

At our orientation we were told an anecdote about how someone was in Russia once and they were sitting with their legs crossed on the metro late at night and an old woman actually came up to him and said "Uh... we don't sit like that here!" Now anyone that has been to Russia can totally imagine a little Russian grandma saying that, the interesting part to me is that Russia has all these little customs and ways of doing things that everyone knows and that if you do not do, everyone immediately knows you are a foreigner (for better or for worse). In the US, we don't really have an equivalent of that. I think we are so used to seeing and being around people from so many different backgrounds, from different countries and cultures that there isn't really anything I could think of that would make someone immediately and indefinitely stand out as a foreigner (except maybe a dude in capris....). They dont quite have that level of cultural diversity here and, if they do, they choose to ignore it. It's nothing big, volatile, or major but something interesting, that you can do a single action here and everyone will know you are a foreigner while holding your chopsticks wrong, not giving your place to an old woman on a bus, nothing can or would really do the same in the US.

Lastly, I played around with a few photos I took at Peterhof and St Isaac's (here) and uploaded a good amount of photos to my facebook, which I assume you all have.

Later guys :)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Sky - A Great Dark Beauty

Lets see.

For starters, I would like to talk about the sky, mostly about how unbelievably pretty it is. Yeah yeah so maybe I am just a child of San Francisco but this grey, overcast-ness is just making my heart SOAR (thats a shout out to you mom ;) ). Yeah so people like my host family and various people at orientation incessantly warn me about how difficult life is going to become when the sun goes away for an extended period of time (btw this is not supposed to be a shout out to you, seabolt :( ) and how depressing the overcast weather and ran can be and I always assure them that is isn't going to be an issue. "Yeah yeah," they say, "you just don't understand it yet." In reality, I am sitting here writing on my blog and bragging about I am here:

and not in California anymore. Oh man, it is so pretty here! ok anyway, so the reason I am talking about the sky in the first place is because I overheard someone today talking about the sky and they compared the "expansive, dark, cold and grey" Russian sky to "the cold black heart" of the average Russian. Yeah it was a joke, and it was pretty funny but, at the same time, I dunno, it's not really that true. I know that is the stereotype but, ok lemme try to stay focused here:

Derek and I, yesterday, were in this big mall in the center of the city (it's called The Gallery) and we were just walking around, wasting sometime before heading out to meet with a friend. While we were going up an escalator and I was looking around I realized that if you took any average American and put them smack dab in the middle of the mall... they, most likely, would not even be able to tell that they weren't in America anymore. To my right was a Timberland store, to my left was an electronics/sony store, an authorized Apple reseller on the floor above us. All the signs in english. Of course all the people were speaking russian and not english but, the cleanliness and the decor and quality of the building, it was on par with any mall in the us I've ever been to. Furthermore, there are definitely people on the street who are willing to help you, people on the street who will pick up a metro token that an old lady drops and even, and this is pretty common, people that hold the really heavy metro doors open for the people behind them and even look back (you know, that courtesy glance that everyone does) to make sure that the next person catches the door before it knocks them over on the back swing.

Also, to pretend that there are not people in the US that would not respond to someone with an accent approaching them with, "stupid foreigner, get out of here!" is simply wrong, in my opinion. I remember being in the play The Foreigner in high school and playing the bigoted antagonist Owen Musser (I'm not sure on the spelling of the last name), who a character very much based in reality. It is probably accurate that there are simply more people in the US that would be more receptive to talking to strangers on the street and what not, but it definitely does exist in Russia.

When I was still relatively young in my Russian education, and only new only a couple real Russians, I thought that I was lucky and just happened to have met the 3 Russians that are interested in the world, that are not bigoted and close-minded, and that recognize the existence of other people and cultures. Obviously, that was a pretty stupid assumption and now it's really being driven home that such people are all over Russia, as they are all over the US.

My host mother was telling me today, as we were watching the news during dinner (which was incredibly amazing tasting, as always!!!!!!) about how she read a Russian translation of the Koran to find out "what these muslims are all about." Her opinions were extremely open minded, especially for being an entirely soviet woman who thinks that women who stop working to become housewives are "weak" and who yells at the teapot "what are you yelling about, I'm coming! *10 seconds go bye and she doesn't move* Shut up I said I'm coming!"

I have started listening to music on my commute to school, which makes it about 1000 times easier and faster feeling. I had another moment that was reminiscent of America last night when I was coming back from a bar. It was around midnight and I was waiting for a bus next to the metro station I get off at. I remember, for some reason, all of a sudden feeling: "damn, I feel so much safer here than I feel in my car at the Jack in the Box on telegraph in Oakland at midnight". I don't know why exactly. Maybe it was the fact that there were still old women out, maybe it was the woman with her young boy walking about of the super market across the street but whatever it was, I just felt completely safe and secure and unthreatened by my surroundings. 

My host mother was telling me about their dacha (summer house), its pretty far up north, in Karelia, so she said they dont go during cuz its too cold.... like -50 she said.... omg. she told me they were going to try and organize something to take me up there and show me how vegetables actually grow and how much work it is to pull them out of the ground or off a tree or from where ever those ghastly green things come from. The pictures she has shown me, both of the scenery and the 3lb. mushrooms they grow (yeah... THREE POUNDS! omg) look absolutely beautiful and I really hope we are able to make it out there.

Tomorrow we have a day off and several of us Americans are going to peterhof:
which has got to be one of the prettiest places in the world. I have been there before but I will still probably want to talk about it again and will definitely share the pictures. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

First Impressions and Re-acclamation

Well, I’m here. Safe and sound. I got here a couple days agobut didn’t have internet access at home until today so I wasn’t able to post.From now on, it will be every other day most likely.

My living situation: I live with a husband and wife, both ofwhom are very well educated, hard working, and accomplished. They have threesons, who all live separately with their own families, none of whom I have metyet. My apartment is pretty far from the center of the city and my universitybut it is in a very nice neighborhood. The apartment building itself is in asmall complex of 3 or 4 buildings, which are all located inside a park, meaningI walk off the street and through the edge of this park to get to the complex.That being the case, it is quiet, green, and peaceful outside my apartment. Theclosest metro station is a nice 30 minute walk from my apartment so I amquickly getting used to the Russian bus system. The apartment itself is verynice, big, clean, nice appliances – granted that means a nice dish washer,fridge, and washing machine because no one uses dryers. I have a nicebed, bigger than any I have ever had at home or in any of the apartments in LAI have lived in :P with memory foam pillows. I also have a cute little desk anda dresser/closet for my clothes. All my furniture was built by one of my hostbrothers, who apparently is a talented carpenter.

Ok, that’s enough about that, lets get to the good stuff!

I don’t want to generalize too much or start to makesocietal conclusions based on my limited experience but I thought of somethingat least acutely interesting on the metro yesterday. My host mother (I willcall her Galina Alekseevna… cuz that’s her name) and I were taking the metrodowntown and there was this guy, I would put him at around mid thirties, whogot on the metro car and started playing the accordion. He was playing someupbeat Russian folk song, nothing too recognizable but definitely fast-pacedand uplifting. He slowly walked through the car playing and looking down andentwined in the fingers of his left hand was a black plastic shopping bag.Pretty much to everyone there, it was obvious that he was asking for money and,according to the stereotype and even things that I know I have said and writtenin the past, one would expect everyone to not make eye contact with the guy,not even look at him, and pretty much just completely ignore him. However, thiswas not entirely the case.

I witnessed a fleeting lapse in the “cold in public” aspect of Russian culture as many people on the car looked at, multiple peoplecomplimented him commented to someone they were with about how nice the musicsounded, and several people gave him money. Galina Alekseevna, when we waswalking past us, took money out of her purse and put it in his bag and told me,“some people have means, and some people don’t.” After we got to our stop, Ispent about 10 hours in the city before heading back on the metro and seeingthe same guy still walking up and down each car on the same line.

I think what this symbolized to me is the sentiment that: a)people in Russia are not always cold and silent and bitter when out inpublic or on the street and b) there is this emergence, or the beginning of anemergence, of a middle class, who has enough money to live comfortably andafford some luxuries and even has enough disposable income to give money to aman playing the accordion on the metro (granted, giving some money here andthere is not a particularly large expense, but the mentality that you are justgiving money away not only to someone you do not know but also just a person,potentially homeless, on a random metro car breaks the norm).

That reminds me of the OPI (oral proficiency interview) Itook in Washington DC before coming here, during which the tester asked me:“What do you think about the fact that American culture is everywhere but mostother places’ cultures are not in America? Do you think we are approaching onemega-culture that draws mainly from American principles?” Because she asked methat question, I hesitated when telling that story above to say that theRussain culture seems more western or more American, or that Galine Alexseevnaacted like an American. I didn’t really know how to answer the question on theOPI and I am still not sure how I would answer. There is no doubt that peopleon the street looking at each other evokes an image of American culture, butyou cannot overlook the fact that it is a Russian variant of ourculture. I don’t know, I need to think about it more and observe more stuffbefore I say anything too concrete, so I will report back.

Ok, before I go, I will throw in one other little, “typical Russian” anecdote. At the airport, all the students got split into two groupsand then we all got on one of two buses and were taken to our host families oneby one. On my bus, we stopped to drop one girl off but her mother was not onthe street yet (our host parents came down to the street to meet us). As thestudent was waiting for her host mother to come down, we saw a very blatantdrug deal happen. It all went down very stereotypically – one guy was standing,leaning against a building smoking a cigarette, two other guys, looking aroundconstantly as they walked, approached him and mumbled something has they lookedat the ground. The dealer, still leaning with his back against the wall, lookedto the left and then to the right, put his right hand in his pocket, took out asmall plastic bag, accepted the money from one of the pedestrians with his lefthand, and then put the plastic bag directly in the pedestrians pocket. Theinteresting part was that before the two pedestrians had a chance to walk away,they were approached by someone. While the deal had been going on (which was atotal of maybe about 30 seconds) the host mother of my classmate had come downhowever, due to the fact that the girl had brought 4 suitcases of stuff withher, her and her host mother couldn’t move all the luggage by themselves.Almost immediately after the drug deal was over, the host mother walked over tothe three guys (pretty much completely oblivious to what they had been doing,or maybe she knew and just didn’t care) and with barely saying a word,essentially ordered the “young men” to help her and my classmate bring theluggage up to her apartment. Needless to say, the dealer and his customers werea little surprised but, regardless, accompanied her back to where the luggagewas standing. What followed was a beautiful scene of the host mother and hernew “daughter” walking to their apartment chatting, completely empty handed,and the three men from the street following behind them carrying/wheeling 4gigantic pink suitcases. Everyone on the bus was watching and the driver (a Russian) laughed, “That’s Russia.”

I will add some pictures when I sync them to my computer

Till next time!  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Washington DC and Orientation


Here I am again for a pre-departure orientation for another trip to Russia. I have decided to keep this blog up for the duration of my trip (9 months) and, while thinking about what I am going to say, chose to approach this blog from a particular direction.

I plan on posting once every few days or, in rare cases, everyday. I am going to do my best to discuss things that many americans do not know about russia or may not quite understand. I have, obviously, talked to various different friends, family members, and colleagues about my travels and it almost instantaneously becomes apparent that the average american does not really know that much, if anything, about russia. Most importantly, I spent a large part of the summer with one friend and a decent amount of time with his family and he would always imitate a russian accent and recite comedic stereotypical anecdotes about "soviet life." The stories were usually pretty funny and I definitely did not take any offense from them but, at one point during a conversation with his sister, she mentioned how she would not want to visit russia because everything seemed depressing/scary/shady/etc. I can COMPLETELY understand where she was coming from and why she would be hesitant, as a normal american, to travel or visit or really have any desire to go to russia.

Naturally, I am pretty biased (positively towards russia), but regardless of that, I aim to either break or at least bring to light certain stereotypes and misconceptions many americans have of russia and russian culture.

It would be easy enough to fill this blog, as the year goes on, with stories of how crazy or unbelievable or stereotypically "soviet" random experiences I have but, I have realized, it would be more dynamic for me to portray the less talked about, incredible and universal aspects of russia that I always seem to leave out when telling my friends at home about the scary stray dogs or the drunk airplane pilots.

I will also aim to provide a decent amount of pictures to go along with my posts and try and be as less wordy as possible (hard for me). Feel free to comment or ask any questions and I will be happy to respond and answer them to the best of my ability.

Orientation is going well. After working for the UCLA Center for World Languages all summer, I can really appreciate the time and effort that gets put into organizing welcome packets and folders with various pieces of paper in them (that's for you Agazit :P). We leave tomorrow in the middle of the day so the next time I see this blog will be on the other side!

Thanks everyone for taking a look and I hope you enjoy it :)