Dec 14, 2007

Денег не будет (On superstition)

Enjoy today's post, everyone - I'm headed west for over a month, leaving tomorrow, and it's gonna get awfully quiet here on the blog. And "west" is a relative term, so don't expect any visits.

Today's story, believe it or not, takes place in Russia:

Like most days, yesterday I ate dinner. My señora and I were talking about transportation and directions and weather again, over a bowl of god knows what. Not important really, so assume it was some combination of fat and salt. But in addition, there was bread on the table, and delicious raspberry jam. So after powering my way through some of the fat-salt, I reached for the jam, and started to spread it on my bread. Pretty standard, right? But I noticed that Natalya was staring at my hands, and paused. Then she said "What are you doing?? You're like a two-year-old!"

And I said, "your mother told me the exact same thing a few weeks ago! Why?!" (It's true, she really did, though I think it was "four-year-old"). She said that sweet always comes last, and you can't mix it with salty, especially if your drink is sweet. And we were drinking kompot, which if you've been reading closely, you know means "aguas de frutas." So jam, at that point in the meal, was out of the question.

Three months ago, I'd have rolled right over, taken note of the new rule, and shut my mouth. Not today, though... today I'm a new man. So I said to myself, "You know what, Djjjozef? You know Russian well enough to defend yourself. This is your chance!"

So you know what I did? I looked her right in the eye, pointed my finger and said "You listen here, pinko - If we'd bought every crazy theory you Russians have spat out over the years, I'd still be in Maine right now, toiling away on the kolkhoz with 10000 of my closest comrades, waiting for instructions from Moscow. And you'd like that, wouldn't you!" Then I slammed my red, white and blue fist down on the table, and took a huge bite of my bread, jam and all.


Alright fine, I don't speak Russian that well. Yet. But I did say, "why can't I eat bread and jam with dinner?" I might have even said it without a mistake, maybe. As it turns out, in the Russian parallel universe, you have to eat sweet last at dinner, because its easier on your system and you'll sleep better. At other meals its not as important. Also, you have to begin eating with a fork, but if your at home, you can then transition to the spoon, which allows you to eat more efficiently, but is too crude for restaurants or other peoples' homes. When you're a guest, you have to eat only with the fork and knife, except for chicken, which you can eat with your hands, but only after you've eaten the easiest parts with silverware. Tea, of course, you drink all the time everywhere, but you can't have honey in your tea in the morning, because its dangerous to go out in the Siberian cold with honey in your system, for reasons I didn't quite understand. And although you might think that the sweetness of honey before bed might keep you up, its not true, because "believe it or not, there's no sugar in honey."

So today's lesson, is that Russians fall on the superstitious side of the spectrum. I've been yelled at for taking the trash out at night, because it condemns you to money-problems. I've been yelled at for talking across the doorway, because it condemns the whole household to arguments. I've walked through cold, deep snow, in order to keep a safe distance from a cat with black spots. Not even black, by our american standards, but with some black trim. And wanna hear my favorite? In Russia, you can't whistle indoors, 'cause its just plain bad luck. That in itself isn't too weird, so keep reading.

I'd actually read about that superstition before I got here, so I tried to be careful, but a few weeks in I got caught. After that, though, I never did it... when Natalya was around. And in the mornings, when I was on my own, I would whistle alllll the best American songs I could think of, whistle and whistle to my freedom-loving heart's content. But Nina Nikolaevna, who lives next door and is a friend of my babushka, had been listening through our soviet-made, mass-produced, paper-thin walls... and one day, she broke the news to my babushka. Then i got yelled at again. You can't fool these people!

So I sat down with the babushka to sort out all the rules. We talked a long time, too, 'cause there's no shortage of them. I'm not to shake hands in gloves, even with friends, even on the street in the cold, because thats just downright impolite. I'm never to give an even number of flowers to anyone, that's only for funerals. When drinking, don't drink without food, don't pour into a glass while its in your hand, and once a bottle is opened, you have to finish it. And don't put the empty bottle on the table. Presumably because it doesn't leave enough room for more, fuller bottles, but thats just my guess. Never point with your finger (use your whole hand), never sit at the corner of the table if you're unmarried, especially for girls. Don't photograph your baby for the first few months, and hide it from strangers for much longer. Girls aren't allows to sit on stone, or generally anything cold - they'll go sterile. But everyone knows that.

So that was an unusually large dose of culture. And I even joined in the conversation, and said "am I allowed to open an umbrella indoors? In America it's bad luck." I thought she'd find that pretty interesting. Right?

And she looked at me, completely serious, as she had been the whole time... and said "Djjjjjozef, how do you dry it, if you can't open it indoors?"

and I said "you know... that's a good question."

and she said... and I promise I'm not putting words in her mouth.... "Djjjjjjjjjjjjozef, that doesn't make sense. You need to open an umbrella indoors, to dry it. It's a reality of modern life."

Touché, communist. That doesn't make sense.


So it's my last entry for a while. I'm headed west, on the trans-Siberian railroad, for a crazily long voyage across a crazily enormous country. I'm stopping in mountainous Ekaterinburg (translation: Denver) and historic Kazan (translation: ...whichever American city has all the beautiful old mosques and all the turkic/mongolian/muslim people in it). Then I briefly escape to Copenhagen, then another train (whoo-hoo) to Stockholm, and then back where I came from. Moscow for new years, then the train to St. Petersburg. And I just might run into some family members in the process. I'm particularly excited for that, of course... not just because they speak English, but also because they're my family.

Then, I take the train back, and I just might bypass Irkutsk and head all the way to the Pacific ocean, to Vladivostok. I've got a month and a half off... so life is pretty good. From Vladivostok, its only a short bus ride to North Korea for my official 'guided' tour, then I turn around and ride the rails back back to Irkutsk, my Siberian home-away-from-home. In all... I think I might spend a full two weeks sitting on a train. As you might guess, I'm very, very, very excited, and i'm sure there will be enough amazingness/unforseen disasters to write a semester's worth of blogs when I come back. Things are looking up for Djjjjozef, that's for sure.


Half of our group is headed home today or tomorrow. One of them invited us out to see Lake Baikal, 'for their last time.' And I realized... that I would not be ready to leave Russia yet. Our all-knowing program orientation packet said, that after three or four months, when the langauge/culture shock really start to fade... there's a good long period of euphoria/comfort. I think I'm there now - Russia feels more or less like home at the moment. More or less. It helps that the square in the center of the city has a million amazing ice sculptures/igloos/slides for kids and silly Americans who don't know the slides are for kids. And there are lights and new years trees (translation: godless communist christmas trees) everywhere.

There were times this month, when i felt I'd really had enough culture, and I was only sticking around to learn langauge. But that's passed... now that classes are over, I get to reflect on the whole semester, and the final, official opinion is really, really positive. I don't know how it happened, but Russia stole my camera, and my heart, at the same exact time!

And, so says the pamphlet, right around april or may my morale will come crashing down, just in time for me to come home to all of you, broken and silent. So things are going according to plan.


So thank you all for reading, and stick around for Semester Number Two: THE VENGEANCE. If you thought you knew Russia, think again. Spring 2008 will have twice the gut-wrenching suspense, twice the window-rattling action, twice the mind-blowing special effects. Our hero will brave the coldest months in the world's most distant, infamous outpost, and show these reds what Americans are made of. He'll find newer, harder words to mispronounce, memorize even longer lists of verbs, eat more tvorog then he once thought possible, and write even bigger paragraphs about his weekends for class.

And who knows.... he might even find true love. Of course, she would have to be deaf and/or desperate to leave, but anything can happen in this crazy foreign land. It's the must-read event of ... yeah alright it probably won't be all that different. But nobody is forcing you to read it, pal.

And also, don't make any phone calls, mom - one of the destinations on my travel list wasn't for real.

Nov 23, 2007

Конокрадство! (On prejudice)

"Some customs and attitudes differ from ours, and it is possible to offend someone unintentionally. You will also sometimes be offended by the behavior or comments of Russians. Be aware, that prejudices that exist in America (against blacks, against gays and lesbians, against asians, against Jews, etc.) are common in Russian culture, and are spoken of much more openly."
-Our program orientation packet

Is everybody ready? Let's play "Pick that Problem-Minority!"

Question 1: Last weekend at the dacha, I was drinking a glass of Kompot (translation: Aguas de Frutas) , and asked an unnamed person where the grapes came from. This unnamed person, busy cleaning dishes and possibly hard of hearing, misheard me. See in Russian, the word for "grapes," as it turns out, sounds a lot like the word for "horse-thief." It's true, look it up. Anyway, the unnamed person quickly dropped what she was doing to give me a little lesson in culture. She stared me right in the eye, waved a finger and said "Horse-theft! And you know who commits it more often than not?

A member of which of the following ethnic groups is most likely to "walk onto your kolkhoz (collective farm) and take your horse?"

A) Jews
B) Cossacks
C) Chechens
D) Gypsies
E) Uzbeks

no looking ahead now!

Answer: D) Gypsies. As our expert explained, "Gypsies can't live without horses. Take cows, too, even if you tie them up." And then she demonstrated with a washcloth, how to tie the horses legs together, and then tie it to a post, so that they can't be so easily stolen.

Question 2: A few weeks ago at the dacha, an unnamed person asked me to help support a bunch of metal bars, while an Uzbek neighbor welded them together. But I was under strict orders not to say anything of substance to the Uzbek. See, Uzbeks have " particularly long tongues," as the saying goes here. And the unnamed person didn't want my terrible secret to leak out... that I'm not from these parts. Better to say that I am from a neighboring republic, and not from Europe or America.

As far as people from Uzbekistan are concerned, from which former Soviet Republic do I hail?

A) Ukraine
B) Estonia
C) Latvia
D) Kazakhstan
E) Georgia

Answer: C) My name is Danil, and I'm from Riga, Latvia. I'm here on exchange to study Russian language and government. My father was born in Russia, but moved to Latvia during his term in the Red Army. And if my accent sounds funny, it's because my family lived in East Germany for a long time, and I speak German, too.

Question 3: Which group, oddly enough, doesn't seem to bother a certain unnamed person, as they have all picked up and left?

A) Jews
B) Germans
C) Eskimos
D) Georgians
E) Cubans

Answer: A) Jews. In the 80's and 90's, when people were given greater freedom to travel abroad, all of the Jews returned to their motherland, in Israel.

Question 4: A number of Russians have expressed to me a certain fondness for the weatherman on Channel Three, Sfera (translation: Telemundo!). At the dacha, when the weather report comes on, the family gathers around to watch.

What trait makes this particular weather man a local hero? Is he

A) Black
B) White

Answer: A) He's black! Look at him! And he speaks Russian fluently, like one of us! Must've moved here from Africa, back in the '70s or something. Do ya hear, how he speaks Russian? Look at him!

Question 5: Talking to an unnamed person over dinner, I asked why Russians don't seem to have any interest in travelling to Mongolia. The conversation then expanded into a discussion of culture in general. When I stated an interest in the culture of a certain country, the response was "what culture? They herd sheep."

Which of the following groups never did get around to developing a culture?

A) Mongols
B) Kazakhs
C) Chinese
D) Kyrgyz
E) Buryats

Answer: Trick question! All five. This unnamed person then pulled the corners of his/her eyes back for emphasis, and continued to spread sour cream on my already-buttered bread.


Thanks for playing, everyone. If you didn't cheat, the scoring works like this:

0 correct answers: You're a latter-day Martin Luther King. The quiz was difficult for you, as the multiple-choice answers were completely without meaning. You withhold all judgement until you've met a person, and recognize only one, beautifully-diverse human race.

1 correct answer: If I still remember my math, that is the most likely result, statistically speaking. You might as well have not taken the quiz, since your result isn't conclusive. You may be particularly accepting, or just as likely, didn't pay attention, didn't take the time to answer, can't read, or just picked whichever ethnic group had the funniest-sounding name.

2-3 correct answers: You may be a well-read person, or may have some experience in this part of the world. You are familiar with stereotypes, but know not to always believe them.

4 correct answers: Maybe you had a racist grandparent or something, or some past experience may have encouraged racial/ethnic bias in you. You also may be a really lucky guesser.

5 correct answers: Молодец, ты получил пятёрку, и наверное с лёгкостью. Поздравляю!


Reflections: Russia is a very confusing place. Inside run-down looking buildings here, buried away in some dirty corner of the city, you find beautiful theaters and museums. Drunks on the bus here talk to you about literature and poetry. People will pin the blame of all the world's ills on your country, but treat you with respect and kindness, maybe even more than they would another Russian. It just seems like for me, and probably all people in my situations... nothing is as it seems, and its really hard to get your bearings. But just as often as you have unexpected tragedies and complications... which is often... you find such pleasant surprises.

Recently I've been wondering, how things will seem when i get home. Sometimes I worry they'll be dull and overly structured. There's a certain freedom here, it seems, that we don't have... Every day there are all sorts of puzzles you have to navigate through, and Russians seem to take great joy in figuring them out. You have to bend rules, ask for the help of others, and improvise a whole lot more than we do at home. And when Russians solve all these puzzles, that's when they seem to smile the most. I'm slowly understanding more and more, how America, to a Russian, could seem like a pretty oppressive and dull place.

But I'm not Russian, so I'm sure I'll adapt just fine back home. Theres no shortage of things I miss, and there's no shortage of things I still want to see and do in the US of A... so don't worry, I'll be around. I may miss that aspect of living here, though. It can definitely be a whole lot of fun.


But wait! There's more. Yesterday, I got a little too comfortable, and paid a very, very huge price. I was at a bus stop in the city, around 10, headed home after our thanksgiving dinner. Myself and two others from our group were talking to a few Russians, who were taking the same bus home. On the bus, they continued to talk, which should have raised my suspicions, but didn't. To make a long story short, one of them stole my camera, and all of my pictures. I didn't realize until i was home.

The camera itself, of course, was expensive, and particularly valuable to me. Photography has become much more important to me these past few years, and I've been putting a lot of work into taking the pictures I want. and like i said, with the camera, went my pictures. I was going to send my memory card home in three weeks over the break for safekeeping. I was gathering funny graffiti from all over the city, pictures of my food, my apartment, the dacha, the family, the weather... pictures from Mongolia, from my three trips to Baikal, from my trips out into the country. The city itself, everything, all of it gone. And last night I was so distraught over it, I couldn't sleep, and when i did, I had a dream about Russian hooligan kids breaking into the apartment. I felt like all the beautiful things I'd seen and done were gone, and I was left with all the crime and problems of Russia. It sucked, and continues to suck.

But life goes on. And lucky me, I have a whole extra semester after this one. I hope you enjoyed my roller-coaster of a blog entry. It's a sample, of the roller coaster of living here. And I felt I needed to write a lot, since I did go about three weeks without a word.

Question: Do I brave the communication/bureaucratic nightmare of reporting my stolen camera to the police? My professors all said yes. Of course I won't see the camera again... but I feel like maybe, if they get enough reports of funny goings-on at that bus stop, they make check it out... arrest themselves some hooligans. In which case it would be worth it.

Nov 7, 2007

Кочевая жизнь джозефа (On Mongolia)

I couldn't have said it better myself.

This billboard was outside our hostel in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where i spent the last week. And the whole experience was too awesome for words, so I've decided not to try and describe it, at all. But suffice to say, Mongolia... really is a place where all of my dreams got happiness. And after my story, I'll try my best to prove it with pretty pictures.

But first, a story: Remember in my last entry, how I described my plans for Mongolia? How ten kids from our group, all dedicated members of Rotary International, were going to Ulan Bator, to stay with host-families from the Rotary branch there? And that the club would pick us up from the train station, give us tours fo the city, and then take us out on the steppe on a four-day excursion? And the whole thing would be an international bridge-building mission? Yeah I don't remember that either. But somehow, that was the message passed on to the Rotary Club of Ulan Bator. This story is a thriller-mystery, with all sorts of twists and turns and international intrigue, so stick around.

What happened was, four other kids and I bought train tickets to Mongolia, with no real plans, other than to stay in a hostel and spend a few nights on the steppe/in the desert. An acquaintance of mine here named Olya, who I met at the two Rotary meetings I went to for some reason, also wanted to go to Mongolia. So we agreed to meet sometime and have dinner.

So I was sitting in the hostel, and I got a call from Olya, who said the Rotary Club was having dinner, and invited me to join. I'd eaten already, but i agreed, and she said somebody would come pick me up. Except instead of somebody, it was two drivers, driving two huge vans. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached them. The one driver who spoke Russian asked me where the other nine club members were. And I said "...nine club members..... well... I'm only here with four kids, who are at a karaoke bar now, and I'm pretty sure they don't even know what Rotary Club is." And he got this real perplexed look... and drove me to the restaurant alone.

When I got there, I found at least fifteen pairs of Mongolian and Russian eyes fixed on me, staring with that same perplexed look the driver had. And Olya, with a look of embarassment/disappointment. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached the table... And when I sat down, Olya asked where the others were. She speaks English, kinda. So I said in English, "Olya, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
So that's when the president of Rotary Mongolia started yelling at me. He told me all about the plans I had made with them, the home-stays, the tourist outings, how I said I'd meet all the members, etc etc.... and I tried my best to translate into Russian, "Look, whoever you are, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." But I guess it didn't translate, because he spent the entire dinner telling me, in a calmer voice, how much time he had spent organizing for my group. And I kept telling him, these Rotary members in my group don't even exist, and that I had no idea what went wrong. They had really planned a big welcome... they even ordered a full sheep's head for me. And I'm not making that up... in Mongolia, the honored guest really does get the head of the sheep.

Anyway... I looked to Olya for some explanation. That's when she stabbed me, right in my foreign back. She looked at me, all disappointed, and scolded me in Russian. "Djjjjozef.... If you don't understand something at the meetings, you need to say something."

Now, I speak Russian well enough to know, that at those meetings, nobody said a word to me, and nobody talked about these big plans for Mongolia. But I didn't speak Russian well enough to defend myself there at dinner, so I just laughed and apologized. And I spoke Mongolian well enough to know that ten Mongolians were sitting around me in a circle, looking at me and talking about me... but not well enough to say I didn't want any more sheep-head. It was clear that Olya had made some huge mistake, and decided it was easier to blame the guy who can't speak the language, than to take responsbility. That's the point


When I got back to Irkutsk, after a whole week of practicing my angry rant I'd give to Olya, I talked to a girl in our group who's babushka connected me with Rotary in the first place. Apparently, it was actually this babushka who had made most of the plans for our group, and it wasn't all Olya's fault. So I actually don't get to give the angry rant, and the only lasting impact is that the president of Rotary Mongolia considers me a thoughtless and selfish person. But I guess I can live with that.


Pretty pictures, enjoy!

Traditionally, Mongolians worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky. And it's true... the sky there is really, really blue and huge and impressive. This is one of ten thousand scenic spots on the steppe. Also, note the traditional dwelling, the round, felt-walled Ger (translation: Yurt (translation: Tipi)). We spent three nights in different Gers. And some guy told us that 60% of the population still lives in them. But they're nomads, so i bet the census isn't all that accurate.

There are animals everywhere on the steppe. Horses and cows, and sheep, and goats, and yaks, and the occasional camel-herd. And all of them are really long-haired and winterized already. One morning we woke up, and these sheep, along with about 200 others, had amassed outside our Ger.

The nice thing about taking pictures in Mongolia, is that the background makes every picture look really epic and beautiful. And camels are kinda epic and beautiful as it is. From a distance.

In reality, camels are the stupidest, ugliest, most unpleasant animals on the planet. And they bite, and spit, and scream, and look like they're just slapped together from a bin of leftover animal-parts.

Steppe, with snow, and sun. It is a really alien landscape... and impressive in its endlessness. Next time you're in the area, definitely stop by. It's worth it.


I guess I'll write the 'reflections' part, if i have to. Mongolia was really amazing. It was a disadvantage not to speak the language, for sure, and so our experience could only be so deep.... but everybody had an amazing time. The city there is lively and colorful, the people know how to smile, and the food has flavor, instead of fat with sugar on top. And so when we had to leave... we were all pretty unhappy about it. Russia seemed really gray, and cold, and unhappy and dark, and we all had to spend the whole train ride catching up on work. Also, we'd been speaking english, so our Russian was all out of shape.

But then... amazingly... Russia kinda took me back with open arms. The weather was sunny and warm, and my babushka was really happy to see me. I gave her a few gifts I'd picked up, and we had a very lively conversation, which i actually understood. In class, we had way less work than we expected, and even the bus driver was really outgoing and talkative and friendly. In retrospect he was probably drunk, but the whole day just went perfectly, and now I'm really happy to be in Russia. Of course, it's still that same pattern of waves, and I just happen to be on top of one now... so stay tuned. I'm not completely fooled... the next crazy, probably unpleasant experience is right around the corner...


Question: When and where in your life, have you really felt your dreams get happiness? Describe what the place looked like, and why it was so special to you. Your answer should be 2-3 paragraphs long, and typed.

This was the suction-packed train-beef I ate for dinner on the ride back to Irkutsk, courtesy of Mongolain Railways. I got sick at least three times on that trip, although i still say the food was better than in Russia. And these might be the most exotic viruses I ever contract, so I'm trying to enjoy them.

Oct 25, 2007

Фотки! (Photo collection, Lake Baikal and Buryatia)

It occured to me, that I haven't really told any of you anything about anything here in Russia. I keep getting questions like, "where are you living?" and "are you taking classes?" and "do you speak russian?" So i decided its time to do some catching up. Or rather, decided its time to write the stuff that travel blogs are actually supposed to talk about.

But that's boring. So instead, I'm just gonna write that stuff as fast as possible, and attach lots of pretty pictures.

I live in an apartment with a single, working woman who's proably around 55 years old. I take five classes here, all in Russian with Russian professors, but taught only to stupid foreigners. The classes are Russian Grammar, Russian Speech, Baikal Studies, History of Siberia, and 20th Century Russian History in Film.

I travel to school and around the city on miniature buses that recklessly weave in and out of traffic, although now that there's snow, I opt for the slightly more sane, actual bus. I eat butter all day, and wear a leather jacket so people don't stare at me. I take balalaika lessons but don't understand the teacher, and I think I'm in the local Rotary club, but i don't understand the meetings. I might do some work at an orphanage in the city, but i don't know where it is, and can't communicate with the children.

I also travel around in my free time. To the east, there is a republic called Buryatia. The Buryats are for the most part Tibetan Buddhists, of Mongolian descent, and smile a lot more than your average Russian. Not quite as far to the east is Lake Baikal, the beautiful-est, natural-est, cool-est place on earth. To the south is Mongolia. I'm going there tomorrow, and coming back in two weeks. And to the north is endless, frozen nothingness, probably really scenic, completely inaccessible, and crawling with bears, and I think tigers, too. Straight down is America.

Also, I've been experiencing all sorts of important personal and intellectual growth, but that stuff is private, so mind your own business.

And enjoy these pictures:

This was on our trip around Buryatia, in the capital Ulan-Udey. It's the world's largest iron head, or something like that. Its hard to tell from this picture, but they gave Lenin more asiatic facial features, so the Buryats would identify with him better.

Buddhism is the most colorful religion of all, by far. This is me, and a bunch of other people, outside what i think is called a Datsan. There are tons of them, almost all built in the last 15 years. I guess communists didn't like religion or something.

This is some bridge somewhere. Steppe, too, and mountains. And a river. See the river?

In the hotel in Ulan-Udey, we lived on the 3nd floor.

This is in a village somewhere. I didn't expect to spend so much time in villages, but it seems like I'm always there. Which is really awesome usually. It just occured to me that i might be charged per megabyte here, as well as time... oh god lets hope not.

Baikal. Beach, and taiga, and behind it steppe, and huge mountains with snow, and a gigantic, crystal clear lake that you can safely drink out of. And later you'll see cliffs. My heart still belongs to Lake Michigan, of course, but... these days, its mostly out of pity.

Sea-cows. They don't know how lucky they are...

The name of this tree was the first word i knew in Russian, but not English. Then I looked it up. It's a larch. They're everywhere, and some guy on the street told me its the only tree with needles that come off in the fall. And they turn a golden yellow color, and there are huge stands of them that I didn't photograph 'cause it wasn't sunny, but look really nice anyway. And there's this weird chewable gum-like stuff that comes from them, too. And the old woman who sold it to me on the side of the highway said it was good for my teeth somehow.

Moderately scenic.

I didn't put these photos in any order, but this is a nice conclusion. Just wait for winter, when the lake freezes.

As for me, I'm off to Mongolia for the next 11 days or so. And I'm late for my balalaika lesson. And i really hope these pictures aren't going to cost me my bus fare home.

Oct 12, 2007

Безопасность в России (On Safety in Russia)

Due to a number of complaints/concerns from the reader-base... I decided to write a short entry about my own safety here, so as to calm all the worries.

As you may or may not have heard, in different countries, there are sometimes different laws, social standards and customs than there are in America. Weird but true, I know. And so as a foreigner, life is a terrifying minefield of potential embarassment and trouble, all the time, except maybe when I'm sleeping.

But don't worry! Everything is okay, and today I'm officially promising to be extra super careful from now on. Our program gave us a very good list of places to avoid, comments/conversations not to have, and people not to mingle with. And of course, I always follow those instructions carefully. But I understand why my blog has people worried. I've talked to all the worried parties separately, so i won't get into details, but here's the deal. From now on... if any of you see anything on the blog that concerns you, tell me and I'll delete it right away. But also, I'm going to be even more careful about sarcasm and generalizations, on the blog, and of course in my actual life here.

After all... I'm actually really enjoying my time here... and although i haven't done a proper entry about it yet, I'm pretty sure I'm living in the most culture-rich country in the whole world. I'm trying real hard to take it all in, although of course that isn't quite possible. And I definitely don't want it to seem like I'm just sitting here laughing at everyone and everything around me.

Or rather... I am trying to laugh at everything around me, but in the sense of "laughter is the best medicine, and will keep me from going nuts," not "hahahahaha, why can't these crazy people just be more like americans??"

So that's the deal. I'm sorry to anybody who's been worried, and I hope this'll be the last time it comes up.

And life goes on! So stick around for the next entry, it's going to be more interesting than anything you've ever read in your life. It'll shock you, it'll make you laugh, it'll make you cry, and the pictures I post will be on the cover of every photography journal in the hemisphere. The story will twist in and out of several brilliantly intertwined motifs, each infinitely deep and thought-provoking. The reflections will make you not just think about me, but take a look inward, at yourselves, reviving a sense of passion and fascination with your world that you haven't felt since childhood. And the question will keep you up at night, bouncing off the inner walls of your mind, forcing you to question even the most solid foundations of your worldview.

I'd write it now, but I have to go memorize the names of all the different farm animals, and the sounds they make. It's a homework assignment.


Question: Where did pigeons live, before there were cities? And what did they eat, before there was garbage?

Oct 9, 2007

Собачье сало (On the Chinese)

Oh oh, I have another story!

So, I was at the Dacha last weekend, working in the garden.

Actually, let me backtrack. They told us in orientation, that the concept of 'politicaly correct' does not exist here, and to be prepared for comments that we might consider racist or offensive. And man, is it true, every day. I guess it doesn't harm anybody; I can count the number of blacks and hispanics I've seen here on one finger. And he was at the airport in Moscow, maybe he just took the wrong flight or something.

Anyway, I was at the Dacha, working in the garden, and noticed that Ninel was working on one of the fences all day. First, she was shoveling dirt along the bottom of it, and then she started to stack up old wood and sheet metal along it. So I walked over, to ask her what she was up to.

See, a few weeks ago, a new dog wandered into the dacha. We named him Lyova, and we all like him a whole lot, but he's got a habit of running away. So I figured that Ninel was trying to keep the dog from getting out. She told me, that she didn't mind if he ran away, because he always wandered back. But the neighbors on the other side of that particular fence were Chinese, she explained, and she just wanted to make sure Lyova didn't get eaten before he had a chance to come home. True story.


Моя первая двойка (On school and settling in)

Well, I found the answer to my first question, about the Russians going to space before us. Education here... is a real serious matter. While our astronauts were enjoying nap time in kindergarten, the Russians were still awake playing Math-blaster. And when all the kids in my astronomy 101 class last year ditched, 'cause we wanted to play in the snow, I'm sure some young cosmonaut was already putting on his space-helmet. They really, really don't mess around over here.

Example: (and also, our story this week): I'm taking a class on the history of Siberia. We learned last week about Ermak, bold Cossack warrior/Russian folk hero, who was the first to claim land for the Tsar in Siberia. He braved the Urals in the winter, sailed into unknown lands, conquered the savage mongols, etc etc. Yeah, I hadn't heard of him either. The point is, our professor clearly had a special place in her heart for him. But since this is still the 1500's, not much was actually known about his personal life. And we got an assignment, to 'create a biography' for Ermak, to write about his youth and his time in Siberia.

And so I thought to myself, "Отлично! What an opportunity to make a good first impression!" and got to work on my creative writing project. I pored over the dictionary, invented a whole back-story, and even got into his family issues. I also drew a picture, in the style of the ones in our textbook.

My story went like this: Ermak's brother was a fierce warrior, the size of five men, famous throughout the land, etc. And so the Tsar hired him for the job, and he gathered up forty of his most courageous soldiers. But his overbearing mother had a different idea. See, she never let him travel or conquer without his whiny little brother, Ermak. Ermak was weak and lazy, and spent most of his days cleaning around the fort, and reading and writing stories. A thinker, not a do-er. So anyway, they all set off for Siberia, and had all their great battles and adventures, while Ermak sat in the boat, fishing and writing fictional accounts of his own heroism.

Subtitle: "Ermak hides behind a tree." Those are Mongols with the bows and arrows... the Cossaks are on stick-horses.

And when the Siberian winters and natives killed off the last of the Cossack warriors, Ermak's mom came and picked him up. And then back in Moscow, he turned in all his bogus stories to the Tsar, and went home to sleep.

This is me with my paper. In Russian, a big green"2" means "D." And get this... you don't even get bonus points for illustrations. Sure they got into space first... but I'll bet our astronauts have higher self-esteem, and all know that they're special in their own, unique way.
So as it turns out, the culture here is a little bit different than at home. About a week ago, I had a four or five day period of silence, when I felt like I'd never heard the language before in my life. Spent some time lying around the apartment, listening to good old-fashioned American music, and otherwise felt terrible. But nothing serious, it did pass. After that, I had a period of crazy rapid learning, so again... like every week... things are going according to plan.
And I'm starting to get a sense of how culture gets absorbed, one tiny bit at a time. Every day, I see a handful of things that don't happen at home... and they get filed away in my brain. For instance... Russians make use of stuff that we would consider trash. I guess thats the most obvious of cultural realizations... that Americans are kinda a little bit wasteful. But yeah.. I see Ninel dragging stuff around the garden using ragged old tarps, or Viktor fixing his brick oven with some scrap metal and a hammer, etc. And after an entire year... I can see how the things that appeal to me might seep into my brain. And of course, there are the less pretty things. The neighbors have been doing some real serious fighting, very very often, which is pretty tough to listen to through the walls sometimes. Ninel told me her life story, about the 30's, and the war, and the periods of hunger, and so forth. And so I also get that, a million comments and thoughts and stories, that will eventually build into a good picture of why Russia is the way it is.
It's still a long, long way off... but at the moment, it feels like it should all add up to something pretty new and important, if I make it through the year. And the odds in Vegas are better now than ever. Of course, it all looks different every day, depending on how many times i make a fool of myself trying to talk to people. But at the moment, things are good, I'm learning, and today we had our first snowfall. So the show goes on.

Wanna see my impression of a Russian?

This week's question: I don't really like the 'question' part all that much, and don't think it adds anything, so should I stop doing it?

Sep 26, 2007

Я поправлюсь, ты поправишся, он поправится... (On Russian cuisine, part 1)

Here's a little bit of cultural insight for ya. The Russian verb "to improve" is the same as the verb for "to put on weight." And maaannnn, have I been improving. I'm not sure if I already mentioned this, but my babushka was very, very dissatisfied with my weight when I arrived. And every five days or so since then, she's put me on the scale, to see if I'm any better prepared for winter. So today's story is not really a story, so much as an overview of my menu at home. I've had requests to talk more about my home life, so here goes.

Because my babushka goes to work before i wake up, she makes breakfast and leaves it in the kitchen for me. Every morning in bed, I get to imagine what's waiting for me on the table. Sometimes its butter, sometimes cookies, sometimes salami....

Sugar for my tea, chocolate cookies, heavily buttered bread with salami, crackers, and tvorog (translation: something white, very rich and sweet, probably from a cow, but i can't guarantee it, and i think with sour cream on top of it).

Yeah so up there i was just kidding, its always butter, cookies, and salami, and a variety of other fattening-agents. So I make the bed and get dressed, and sit down to a cup of tea (with sugar), some thickly-spread butter with some bread and salami on it, a tall stack of cookies, and an even taller glass of 7.1% milk. And I eat as much as i can, I really do... I know she'll be really happy if i put on a few kilograms (that's right, metric. Talk about culture!) Usually, I have to devise some kind of scheme to sneak the food back into the refrigerator, such that she won't notice, or flush that extra spoonfull of tvorog down the toilet. 'cause i'm sure she checks the trash.

Look closely, I wasn't kidding about the percentage. Also, I have no idea what language this is. And note the ever-present bag of cake-cookie-things.

Of course, I'm the same exact weight I've always been, 55 kilograms on the dot. But as the year progresses, I'm going to keep you posted with pictures like this one:

This view is getting awfully familiar.

I'm exaggerating; there has been some variety. One time, I found two chopped up hot dogs on a pile of buttered noodles. And at the dacha, I actually ate... well I won't ruin it. It'll be this week's activity for all of you. Here's a picture of it...

Hint: you can ride this animal to the store, to buy sausage made out of it.

So here's your task. Go to some online translation site (i recommend, and copy and paste "конь колбаса." And to the one of you that speaks russian... I know that isn't proper grammar, but the translation site didn't understand it otherwise. And to the one of you that will probably be outraged/disgusted by this, I promise I didn't enjoy it!

So that's my menu. And, for obvious reasons... its actually delicious. All the food here is natural/organic/whatever you want to call it, and so the milk and butter taste a lot better, and i don't feel as sick as you'd expect. But that may just be the result of a lifetime of eating tons of butter and bread.


Deliciousness aside, I hate this country and everybody in it.

Not really. but the culture definitely has me shocked, more than in past posts. I'm feeling all the various emotions that the program warned me about. I know its all part of the cultural learning process, and so far I haven't felt any real despair... but I'm definitely noticing some unpleasant/weird side effects. For example, patriotism, where there was no patriotism before.

Earlier in the day, I had had some confusing interactions with my babushka, and it was really hard to tell if she was angry at me or not. She didn't seem to be responding to anything i said, and otherwise just seemed unusually unhappy. That happens a lot here... but i'll get used to it. anyway, that happened, and my language skills are definitely at a low point, and so all of Russia didn't seem all that great.

So I was on the bus on the way back from my balalaika lesson (seriously) yesterday, and I looked at the moon. It was full, and bright, but otherwise looked almost exactly like the moon we see at home. But I felt this weird swell of patriotic pride in my heart, about how we landed there before the Russians could. I thought about how deflating it must have been for them, and how inspiring for the rest of us, and I was all of a sudden ready to pin that flag on my backpack. And even more than that, it felt like some kind of personal victory over every other person on the bus, as if they all get depressed every night when the moon rises, and even more this night, because they somehow knew there was an American with them.

So that was odd. And like I said, I don't speak russian, at all. But tomorrow I embark on a six-day tour of the neighboring buddhist/mongol region, and so i'll be properly immersed, and doing fun exciting things, for almost a whole week. And then... its already been more than a month, and soon I should be on my way. So to summarize, don't get too worried yet, parents. Everything is going according to plan.

Eat it, commies!

Sep 13, 2007

На даче (On the Dacha)

If there's one stereotype about the Russians that has proven 100% true... it's that they're all a bunch of uncivilized, drunken peasants with a backwards and corrupt political system, and otherwise have absolutely no redeeming qualities.

Just kidding! The culture shock is, as of yet, not too terrible. I'm not ready to put on my headphones and pin an American flag on my backpack, but I don't exactly jump out of bed in the morning, either. But more on that in the reflections section.


Also, as the Russians say, "at the possession of me now is an address " (translation mine). So if anybody wants to send me a package, or more accurately, send a package to whichever Russian postal worker gets his hands on it first, it's

Middlebury College School in Russia
Joseph Kellner
Irkutskii Gosudarstvennyi Universitet
ul. Karla Marksa, 1
Irkutsk 664003

That's it, the final change. I hope it works. I've seen a package successfully mailed to this address from the U.S. so it should be fine.


So here it is, my second entry in already my second week, here in the second world. Like always, a story, some reflections, and a question you can try and answer. Although for the record, nobody really answered the first one except my dad, and a vast majority of the comments were from Roberta.

Last weekend, we had four days off, and so I went with my babushka (translation:senorita) to the dacha (translation:rancho). Actually, I went to Lake Baikal first, and it was the most beautiful place ever, and we did all sorts of fun exciting stuff, but that isn't my story. Also, a side note.... I realized that i took the wrong camera cord, so there won't be any pictures for a while.

(Editor's note: Obviously, that is no longer the case.)

So yeah, I went to the dacha, which is a house out in the country that somehow most russians seem to own. I think I heard it was encouraged back in the Soviet days for some reason, but I'm not sure. Dachas can be anything from a rustic shack with a little garden, to a huge estate on the black sea. Ours is something in between; a house, and a pretty big, really awesome garden. When we arrived there, my babushka's mother, age 77, was crawling in the garden in the rain, wearing a flowered dress and a woven hat (translation: sombrero), digging potatoes out of the ground. She's the main character in my story.

She was.... the best, most stereotypical old russian woman in the whole country, I'm sure of it. First of all, she was born in 1930, and so her childhood was all Stalin, all the time. In russian history, we learned that a common first name from that era was "Ninel," but i didn't believe it (look closely, it's 'Lenin' backwards). But alas, it was true. And so Ninel Alexandrovna got up from the garden to greet me, and since my babushka works during the day, I spent most of the next three days with her.

There isn't a central story, really, but just a collection of things that had me laughing when she wasn't around. First of all, once i get my camera situation sorted out, I have a video of her chasing a dog away from the house, yelling at it and feebly hitting it with a broom. I spent almost the whole weekend working in the garden, digging out potatoes, watering, digging holes, pulling weeds, etc. And she taught me all the words for everything, except... and maybe i just don't understand the language yet... but every word she taught me seemed to be some cutesy, old-woman variation on the real thing. Like for instance, a carrot is a 'markov,' but she called them "markovki." and a potato is kartoshka, but she called them 'kartoshinki." Maybe its only funny if you hear it.
Little did I know, I was digging up my dinner for the next 8 months.

Working alongside me was Viktor, some guy with a country accent so heavy i couldn't understand him, and at least two empty slots per actual tooth in his mouth. He was always smoking/offering me papirosi, which are like cigarettes, except theres dirt and glass and who knows what else mixed in with the tobacco. He lived in a tiny shack next to the house, I'm not sure if he was family or what. But he could dig a whole lot faster than me, and seemed pretty happy with his life; he smiled a ton more than anybody in the city. And every night he would drop by for soup from Ninel, and a ration of samagon (keep reading).

When we weren't in the garden, Ninel Alexandrovna was shoving food in my face. I had caught a cold, and then gone swimming in the frigid lake, and so she was pretty disappointed in me. She gave me soup and fresh vegetables, and salami and buttered bread, plus a bunch of pills from a box i couldn't read, and eventually, the final cure for everything, samagon. Samagon is what they drink to unwind in the country, sometimes its homemade, sometimes not. You drink it unless you have to drive, in which case you stick to the vodka. Luckily mine wasn't homemade, it was in a real bottle, and the only thing I could read on the label was the huge "80%." She drank it like water, but after two glasses I looked up "that's enough" in the dictionary. It was... absolutely disgusting. Every few minutes during the meal, she leaned reallll close to me, and said "Don't. tell. anybody... Secret! Understand? Secret!" I think she was trying to hide her own drinking from her daughter, not mine, but I didn't want to ask.


The whole weekend was great, and Lake Baikal is everything people say it is. I'm going back this next weekend, and I'm sure I'll be there a lot. Once the camera works, expect pictures. For now, google it. Its an amazing place.

It was nice to get out of the city, and it was the first time, oddly enough, that I actually felt like I was in Russia. In Moscow, a few kids went from our hotel to see Red Square, but i was asleep at the time. They came back and said they really felt like they'd arrived... and I wished i had gone. But last weekend while I was pulling up all those potatoes, listening to Viktor and Ninel argue about gardening, I definitely realized I was here. That was a neat feeling. And there were rolling hills and birch trees in all directions, and every garden had somebody, or a family, working in it. and the weather is amazing here, I hear i accidentally picked one of the sunniest places in russia.
But culture shock. Just like jet lag... I thought i could beat it with intellectual will, but definitely not the case. Its crept up on me, and I've had a handful of 'symptoms' they warned us about. first of all, mood swings... as I write this now, I guess im on the 'manic' side of things (can you tell?), but it can change really fast. Usually, two or three times per day, it swings. And the language still isn't coming. Apparently, it comes in fits and starts, and i should expect long periods when i don't feel anything... but it'd be nice to have at least one period of learning under my belt. I guess over the weekend I learned how to say "to water, to dig, potato, pepper, cucumber, to replant, cabbage, shovel," etc. etc. .... but thats just vocabulary; I still can't string sentences together very easily.

Its getting less fun to ask for directions and buy things from shops, and there's a fair amount of homesickness, too. nothing crippling, yet, but visiting the bridge in the woods in northbrook, or eating a lobster in maine, both sound pretty wonderful right now.

I feel like highs and lows are such a normal part of everyone's life here, that they don't notice. If I had to make one uninformed generalization about russia... the whole country, and all the people, seem to be so familiar with extremes of all sorts. And I'm not. but that's why middlebury sent me email after email about culture shock before i got here. And in all honesty, it isn't all that bad. and of course there's a whole lot to learn. maybe itll get worse, probably... but right now, I haven't had any real desperation, or regret, or anything like that. And I have a routine, I know how to get home, when to study, etc., which helps a ton. Every night when i get back, I put on my topachki (awesome russian slippers) and flanel pants, eat way too much for dinner, watch russian soap operas with my babushka, and study. so things aren't so bad.

Then again... its still 75 and sunny every day. That'll change, fast.


This week's question: Will I weather the culture shock, and emerge on the other side with a new, more balanced, healthy outlook on life... will I snap and, as middlebury put it in the pamphlet, "ether give up entirely and return home, or stay, but permanently hate the country and its people."

The odds in Vegas are 5:1 that I'll snap, but that was last week, I didn't have time to check today.

"Hey pal, you're the oddball here, not me."

Sep 2, 2007

Введение (Introduction)

I figure that description should keep out everybody but people I actually know. But don't be fooled! This actually is my blog from Irkutsk, which will be updated every some-amount-of-time, depending on many unknown things that will be sorted out by an unknown date. Sorry that's all I can say now. Also, sorry that this first post doesn't have pictures, I forgot my camera.

I don't have much time for this post. But here's my tentative plan for the blog. Each entry will have some pictures, a few stories, some thoughts and reflections and observations (you can skip that part if you want, but i won't consider you a real friend anymore), and a question at the end. You can think about the question, and then post responses, since i think there's some sort of comment section, if I know blogs. which i don't, since i just started this one five minutes ago, and most of the buttons I've pressed along the way have been in russian, which by the way i don't speak.

Anyway, my post.

They told us to 'expect the unexpected' here... and of course that has proven true to an extent that i never thought possible. example: (also, the story section of the blog): On the flight from moscow to Irkutsk, we flew overnight, so everybody was asleep and/or miserable and completely out of it. So we landed in some city that had mountains all around, lots of rivers, pine trees, etc.... looked like your average siberian city. So myself and two others from our group got off the plane and went to a bus that was waiting to take us to the terminal. but i noticed that all the trucks and equipment said 'Ulan-Udey,' instead of Irkutsk. That's a different city... the capital of a buddhist region east of irkutsk. So i thought it was weird, but i asked some guy in the best russian i could, and he said... at least, I thought he said, "oh yeah, thats where all the equipment was made." made sense to me. kinda. in retrospect its definitely not what he said. Since we were actually in Ulan-Udey.

So the three of us walk into the airport, which is one dirty, smoke-filled room with a couple crumbling communist mosaics and kiosks selling booze and M&Ms, and looked around for the others. and they weren't there... and so we got a bit concerned. I asked some guy, "this may be an odd question, but where am I right now?" and he said Ulan-Udey. so... we waited around a bit longer. no others. and no phones of course, nothing. so we just stayed there at the airport, walking in circles, eating M&Ms, and trying our best to understand how this could have possibly happened.

I know, it just looks like some room at some airport.

After about twenty or thirty minutes the others showed up. I guess the bus that was trucking them to and from the airplanes had mechanical problems or something. maybe it got lost. I asked somebody but i had no idea what their answer meant. There had been bad weather in irkutsk, but the pilot had done a bad job of telling the passengers. or maybe we just didn't understand it when he said it. that kinda happens a lot.

Oh, also another good story. since i can't really understand what people say, like waitresses or police, I usually just say "same for me" as the person who answered a question before me, instead of my own thought. so it puts a lot of trust in the people next to me. And my flight was a dinner-flight, and so i ended up eating the fish-dinner. it was.... well you can assume what it was like. never again.


Thoughts and observations. Well... I'm pretty overwhelmed right now. The city seems completely chaotic, though im sure that will get better with time. my babushka (translation: senorita) seems nice, and very talkative. she stuffs so much food down my throat its incredible. we've had orientation for the past two days, touring the city, learning the rules, how to handle different situations, etc. we've also learned a lot about culture shock, since its particularly rough in these parts apparently. They say that the trip usually starts with euphoria, when every little thing seems amazing and exciting, and even really unpleasant details seem quaint or fun. and then it all turns on you, into depression and resentment... and after a while you adjust and level out. I can already see how that can happen. Right now, it seems like a great old time, to live in a crumbling old apartment building with huge iron doors. all the food is interesting, but i know that will get bad first. I'll be hand-washing my clothes, and using a bathroom that is almost too small to close the door once im inside, and ill be living with a very attentive, protective old woman in a very small space for a very long time. all of that sounds great right now... but come back around in a bit and see the conclusion!

Of course its all intimidating. I know I'll come out all grown up and healthy on the other side, having made a lot of progress on a lot of personal goals of mine.... and anybody who knows me well might understand why this will all be good for me, and how I ended up here in the first place. That is, aside from just being interested in russia and the language, which of course i still am. maybe its the euphoria talking, but this place is fascinating.

In today's Russia, it seems like Lenin himself is trying to sell me appliances.

its hard to say how ill grow from all of it... but im sure it will be in a real good direction. And I know ill have a better view of the world outside the one i know, so thats good.

I'm not sure what ive wrtten about in this entry, really, since im rushing. I have to catch a Marshrutka, which are like, these mini-van type things that drive a million miles an hour through crowds of pedestrians to get me home. They run all the time, but its hard to get on them. you have to yell at the driver to find out where its going, and yesterday our director shoved an old woman out of the way to get me a spot. and... I'm not sure i have that in me.



this week's question: How is it possible, that a country like this... where I have to shove old women out of the way to get on a bus, and where the grocery store is a baffling ordeal with three different check-out counters you need to go to, and everybody seems resigned to the fact that life makes no sense.... how did they put a person into space before we did?

pictures to come. stay tuned.


an update, the next day: two things. one... i need to do a better job of immersing myself, so this definitely won't be too frequent. less than weekly, probably more than monthly, but time will tell. I find myself thinking in english, which does me very little good here. I was at the drug store today buying allergy pills, and when the pharmacist was telling me about the side effects and possibly dependance i can get, i understood about 10% of it.... so that has to change.

second thing. i dont actually have to hand wash my clothes! i found a laundry machine, in the kitchen, that was disguised as a table with a cutting board on it. so thats good news.
The Irkutsk central market. I don't have any good pictures of the city, because when it was all new and exciting, I was too terrified of being mugged to take my time and take good pictures. That passed, though. So more to come.