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!  

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