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.