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."


Berta said...

I need your address. case. And I don't know what to do with that. Let me know when you check it out with someone.

Sounds like you had a really nice weekend. I'm glad you have an escape of sorts there, and that the people seem to be reaching out to you.

It also seems like you are taking the culture shock in stride, or at least as much as possible.

And I have a new theory in response to your question: that you will ride it out there, and that you will have an appreciation for Russian and American culture, but that you will question aspects of both.

If I could do that cool google wink smiley, I would.

Looking forward to your next post.

j.ezzi said...

Joey!! I'm so glad you have a blog, and can't wait until you can get pictures posted too. I'm not too worried about culture shock, it'll happen, but I think that you're so aware of it that you'll be able to remove yourself from it to some degree. It would be much worse if you went into this all happy-go-lucky, thinking everything would be hunky-dory, and the culture shock just snuck-up-on-you (I ran out of hyphenated phrases). You'll be fine.

We miss you here.


Daniel said...

Joey! I hope you are checking your gmail, because I just wrote you an email. (get it? email rhymes with gmail) If you aren't, let me know so I can blog-post you from now on, but I miss you, and keep on fighting the good fight. That means nothing. Goodbye. See you in December!

Adam said...

Vegas odds be damned, I say that you'll make do extremely well and come to enjoy everything about Russia. That wouldn't surprise me at all. Especially the language, which you'll master much more quickly than you think.

I'm glad to hear it's going well. Keep the stories coming.

Helene said...

I think you should give up and come home. sound good?

beth said...

well! i responded to your post last night! where is it!? as i said then, are you attempting to SHAME me into making public comments? if so, i love your insiteful, informative, amusing,introspective and educational posts. being the shy, quiet mother i am, i'll mostly remain a refusnik. it's nothing personal, so keep these posts coming!

p.s. if you made it through all those 7th grade bar mitzvahs, you can make it though a year in siberia.

beth said...

p.s. never mind. found my original post. AND,
insightful. i knew that.

Jacques said...

Joey, got your contact through one of your fans, a senior one that is.
Good friend, and if you want a change of scenery perhaps you can join me for a trip in the Sahara desert next lakes, trees, or potatoe garden.. and babhuskas hidd behind burkas but a nice country nevertheless..
See you in person some day, be safe.

Annie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Annie said...

I owe you an email, which will arrive soon. In the meantime I leave you with a question:

If a 'carrot' is a 'markov' and a 'little, cute carrot' is a 'markovki', am I, Markovna, a female carrot?

Berta said...

I really dig the cow with stream pic.

Gabriel Newcomer said...

u are as insightfull as ever joey.. hope this message finds you well.. I believe that you fiend for knowlede, and unlike most people use that knowledge to further ur goals and dreams.. There is an unlimited amount of insight into a world that has been closed off to almost all americans for a really long time. im sure the insights u gather and the struggle u endure will make u even more of the amazingly intricate person you are. much love and respect for everything u are doing. its scary to be alone.... i know... but keep going and im sure ull get what u wanted too out of this experience.. if not more.. love u joey