Feb 28, 2011

Человек и Мир (Return to Russia)

Let's play pictionary!  I'm going to tell a story, and you have to fill in the missing words, based on the pictures I upload in their place. 

After my Portland send-off by

I rode the bus to Boston, where United Airlines was kind enough to cancel my flight, pay for my hotel, and thus, help me relax before my trip.  I won't get into the details of the cancelation, but I went in an out of a lot of airport terminals.  I got three of those much-hyped TSA full-body massages, which were nice, but they missed all sorts of tension in my hands, feet and neck.  I figured that a lifetime of studying Russia will radiate me plenty, so I didn't need the extra doses stateside.    I finally got on my Austrian Airlines flight to Dulles, where I learned all about Austrian culture from the screen on the seatback in front of me. They showed me a 20-second film loop that alternated between glamour shots of a 767 flying over the Alps, and footage of a woman in peasant dress hauling huge wheels of cheese into a cellar.  Seems very nice there.

From Dulles, I finally departed from

I fell asleep over Newfoundland with the sun behind us, and woke up over Germany with presumably the same sun right in front of us.  At first I panicked, because the pilot should have known to fly out of the sun, but we somehow still landed safely in

Then I flew my last leg to Krasnodar, and was picked up at the airport by two of the university's students, Katia and Zarema, who accompanied me for the drive from Krasnodar to Maikop. To you, that's about the same distance as a drive from Orёl to Kursk, maybe 100 miles as the MiG flies.  Once we arrived, they showed me to Dormitory 3.  After three days of travel, I had finally arrived in


I won't detail my living conditions here, so just assume that they are opulent.  I will relay one story.  Katia and Zarema, on the drive to Maikop, chatted with me (in very good English) about travel around the Caucasus.  They told me which republics were safe, which were unstable, and which ones I should visit, which oddly enough didn't align perfectly with the first category.  Then, they told me to be prepared - all nine of the floors in my dorm are occupied by students in the "sports" department.  I didn't know that you could major in sports, and I asked what kind of kids they were.  Zarema said, "well, they're all from the republics we just told you not to go to."  And then I asked, "what sports are we talking about?" and Katia said, in English, "fighting."

So I unpacked my things, learned how to open all three ancient locks between me and the fire escape, sparred a little bit with my Chechen neighbor Artur, and fell right asleep.  That's right, fell right asleep.  This is maybe the most importan lesson you'll learn on this blog - I beat jetlag.  I did it with my innovative three-pronged approach (adjusting my sleep schedule ahead of time, staying hydrated, and not being a little pansy), and you can too.  I slept very well the first few nights.


I wrote this entry a week ago.  A lot has happened since.  For example, we celebrated Day of the Defender of the Fatherland, the world's second manliest holiday after Boxing Day.  I spent the entire day coughing and sneezing on the couch, while my professor's mom brought me tea and cookies.  Don't tell any men. 

Actually, in my defense, and in defense of my fatherland, I got really sick.  That's the big story, and the reason this entry is late. I got really, really sick, with flu, and then I had a fever for four days and the disease spread to my everything.  Some terrible combination of factors contributed to a very serious case of it.  One factor was my dorm room.  The university is really forward-thinking, and they have all sorts of green-energy initiatives going on the student dorms - for instance, to save energy, they stopped heating my room.  And to save glass, instead of a double or single pane window, they installed a 9/10 pane window, which hasn't even made it to America yet.  Basically it's a pane of glass, except it only covers 9/10 of the hole in the wall made for it.  Jetlag may have played a role, but I like to think not.  By far the biggest factor, though, was that at some point I came into contact with the flu.  In fact, that's always the biggest factor when people get flu.  So I got flu.  At one point, my fever was so high that every time I closed my eyes, I heard three Turkish men engaging in a conversation about the Qu'ran, only I couldn't make out every word, because I was listening from underwater.  Then I'd open my eyes, orient myself in reality, and decide that was not really happening.  As soon as I closed them, though, I was underwater again, listening to the same Turks have the same conversation about the Qu'ran.  Two hours of that.  My fever was 39.2 degrees celcius, which I converted to Farenheit by hand at the time.  112 degrees.  But things got better.  Much, much better.

At this critical juncture, the wonderful, generous, hospitable parents of Elena Ivanovna, my Russian professor/Russian inspiration, invited me to move to their home to get well.  Elena Ivanovna is from Maikop (that's how I found this job), and her parents, as well as her sister and brother-in-law, live in the city.  I will speak more of her (and definitely more of Maikop) in the future.  Anyway, her parents, risking their own health, took me in, gave me a room, fed me, called the school for me, conversed with me, and otherwise took a terrible situation and made it quite like home.  After 4 days, I still had a fever, so they took me to their doctor, who (get ready for your public shaming, America) saw me for free, and prescribed 6 different antibiotics, anti-virals, throat sprays, etc. which cost a total of $50.  I'm still not 100% back to health, but well on my way.  Everybody thank Elena's parents in the comment section; they took what could have been a real nightmare, and made it very comfortable for me.  I can't express my gratitutde enough, not in English, and certainly not in Russian.

So I'm just going to post this without much review, and write the other entries I've already prepared later.   As for my 'ongoing themes,' the graduate school one has ended.  I got rejected everywhere else.  Harvard sent me a polite form-letter rejection, and I didn't really want to go there anyway, but to save face I'm going to pretend it was an acceptance and politely decline.  If they write back, I'll post the exchange here.  Stay tuned to learn about Maikop and the Adyghe people, Russian economics, and how I almost got my bell rung by a giant chunk of falling ice.  Actually that's the whole story.  Could've easily killed me; didn't. 

Feb 11, 2011

Эпилог (7/6?)

After the great upheaval of the Russian Civil War, but before the great upheaval of Stalin's counter-revolution, there was a great upheaval in the Soviet Union.  The arts - suppressed before and after the 1920's - saw an unprecedented flourishing in that decade, unleashed by the iconoclastic spirit of the Revolution.  Everything new was in vogue, and great strides were made in literature, film, animation, music, and any other art form I can't think of right now. But the Russians have a saying:  "What goes up, must not go up."  In the winter of Stalinism, the arts, like the political system, entered a deep freeze.  Stalin's 'socialist realism' became the only permissible artistic style, and the government effectively silenced any artists who dared deviate from that norm.  "Formalism," the Stalinist term for anything interesting, was ruthlessly suppressed.

The point of this story is that Stalin, like any human being among us, was not without his redeeming qualities.  This blog has, in my opinion, deviated too far from its original vision, and this period of waiting in Maine has obviously driven me to stylistic extremes.  I promise that from now on, I will try to return the blog to form.  That is, tell stories, reflect on Russia, reflect on my own adjustment and anxiety, and then leave room for comments from friends and family and other readers.


The FedEx man with my passport and visa arrived today, and I will fly out on Monday.  Two small notes:

1) The ongoing theme I was trying to introduce about grad school was cut tragically short.  A few nights ago, I was accepted to my top choice school, and have already sent my forms in.  That school, if you'll recall from this post, was the College of Tropical Agriculture at University of Hawai'i - Manoa.  For those of you who actually know me, this paragraph is mostly true; grad school question is resolved.
2) Much, much more importantly, my little pageview scheme with the 'loading' picture exceeded my wildest expectations.  Thanks to Google Analytics, I know that the average reader hit 'refresh' between 3 and 4 times before moving on.

How do you say "sucker" in Russian?  I'll find out in three days and tell you.

Feb 8, 2011

Спасибо за посещение! (6/6)

I'm sure you all noticed the re-design, with it's luxurious mahogany backdrop and the clip-art picture of an old map. You may not have noticed, though, the blog's newest feature. It counts how many pageviews I get! So today, each of you visited my blog at least six times, and if you fell for my little "refresh to see the pictures" gimmick, maybe 9 or 10 times. Same with the link to the West Virginia entry, thought I could wring another one or two out that way. Thanks for playing!

Please refresh your browser, though it only seems to register if you wait a few seconds first. I'll see you in Russia!

Среднее время по Майкопу (5/6)

I leave this Monday. I'll be traveling by bus from my West Virginia home to Boston-Logan, then flying to Washington Dulles, then to Vienna, and surprisingly, miraculously, directly to Krasnodar in the Caucasus. For the aviators out there, that's BOS to IAD to VIE to (the perhaps lesser-known) KRR.

In the mean time, I'm reading Anna Karenina, because not unlike Anna herself, the cumulative weight of guilt in my life (in my case, for being a student of Russia and not reading Anna Karenina) was pulling me inexorably towards suicide on the railroad tracks. Or to adapt for today's readers, suicide on the runway at KRR. It's something of a race to the finish - I'm reading at record speed, so that I might bring those 4 pounds of culture to Russia in my heart and mind, instead of in my suitcase.

I'm also adjusting my sleep schedule to Maikop time, in a daring experiment to conquer jetlag. In past trips, I've tried to do it by sheer force of intellect, but alas, that don't work. This time, I'm going to bed earlier and earlier, so that I'll comfortably wake up at 4:00 the morning I leave, or noon in Maikop. I'll tell you how it goes.

I challenge any of you to find the common thread that links all of these miniature posts. Like a prizefighter, I've written circles around all of you, each blow only registering once I've moved on to the next.

Жди меня - я вернусь. (4/6)

I'm returning to Russia.

This trip will take me far from my old home in Irkutsk which, oddly enough, will take me much closer to home. I'm teaching English in the city of Maikop, in the Republic of Adygea, located in the fertile, warm, less mountainous part of Caucasus region. This position arose from the tireless efforts of my Bowdoin Russian professor, and the equally tireless efforts of countless Russian bureaucrats.

I realize that you readers may have a few associations with the Caucasus, particularly my concerned parents, so I'll take this opportunity to address them head-on. Yes it's beautiful there, but it's also economically significant, thanks to its rich soils and temperate climate. No, you can't always ski there, but it is the site of the 2014 Olympic Games (in Sochi). Yes, the Caucasus figures prominently in the works and lives of many great Russian writers, including Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy.

Now that that's settled, a little on my life there. As far as 'recurring themes' go, you can expect lots of insight into dormitory living, Russian-style. I don't know much about it, other than it will surely be distinct from American-style. There are actually a lot of things I don't know about this job - what I'll be teaching, how often, how I'll be living, where I'll be eating, what I'll be paid - but I am slowly gathering these details before Monday when I depart. I've written several emails on these points over the past four months, and once the weight of my questions finally overwhelmed the dean at the university, she sent this long-overdue elucidation:


"Уважаемый Джозеф!
Рада что Вы получили приглашение. Мы постараемся встретить Вас в Краснодаре. Жить Вы будите [sic] в общежитии 3."
"Dear Joseph!
I'm glad you received your invitation. We will try to meet you in Krasnodar. You will be living in dormitory 3."


Then, she gave me a list of documents they needed from me, including proof of current employment (quit my job to go to Russia) and a copy of my diploma (lost it).

So there you have it. I hope you'll learn as much about Maikop and the Caucasus as I hoped you learned about Irkutsk and Siberia.

My last task is getting there.

Аспирантура (3/6)

I applied to graduate school.

Sometime in the months of Mart or Aprel (just warming up the ol' Russian), I'll be getting word from three different graduate programs, and will tell you all the news. If you know me, you can share in my joys or sorrows, and if you just read the blog, you can feign an interest in the comments section. In applying, I tried to hedge my bets, apply to a variety of programs in a variety of locations, and otherwise give myself some options for the coming years. I'll be awaiting word from

1) University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I applied to the Professional Golf Management program, a subdivision of their Center for Grassland Studies,
2) Oxford University's Department of Atomic and Laser Physics, and
3) The University of Tromsø, in northern Norway, where I applied for a Master's in Telemedicine and E-Health.

For any of the three, I'm hoping to incorporate my Russian and apply the topics to a Russian framework. That's the challenge and the joy of grad school - you really do chart your own course. All the programs I've applied to, though, are pretty selective, so I really don't know what to expect. Don't count your chickens before they come home to roost, as the Russians say.

All those plans, of course, hinge on my fluency in Russian, which is ultimately the reason I'm returning. To that end, follow the hyperlink to learn a bit about this newest trip to Russia.

Feb 7, 2011


Hey guys, I don't have HIV!

Russia has the world's highest growth rate of HIV. Lots of people don't know that, but you're not one of them. In order to receive certain types of visas (including the second work visa I'll apply for in March, when my first visa expires...), a foreigner needs to have official documentation that he or she is HIV-negative. I called a testing center back in Illinois, and the whole process took about 30 minutes from phone call to band-aid. The only remarkable part of the experience, I think, was the tone of the guy scheduling my appointment. He was much more somber about the whole affair than I would have liked. When I called, I didn't think I had HIV, but by the time I got off the phone, I wasn't so sure. Mostly, it was how he signed off. Instead of "good bye" or "thank you," I got "good luck."

Before that point, I preferred to think it wasn't about luck, but anyway, I got lucky.

For some reason Blogger doesn't like my image, but I found if you hit 'refresh' a few times it may work.

Some of these mini-entries today will introduce ongoing themes for the blog, stories that will probably develop over the course of the semester (i.e. waiting on word from grad schools). I'm hoping that this particular story does not develop over the course of the semester. Read on.

Пролог (1/6)

In the Moscow suburb of Kolomenskoe, in the middle of the 17th century, Tsar Alexis I ordered the construction of an elaborate wooden palace to serve as the royal family's summer residence. The palace is no longer standing - it was abandoned when Peter the Great moved the court to St. Petersburg - but its legacy, as well as the buildings that survived it, have earned the site a UNESCO World Heritage designation. Alexis's palace had over 250 rooms, but was built without a single nail, hook, or saw.

This one is my most ambitious, most creative, most genre-defying and groundbreaking blog entry to date. Like the palace at Kolomenskoe, I've painstakingly planned every detail before writing a single word. The interaction between structure and narrative will produce a sum much bigger than its parts. When you read the last of these six miniature entries, having followed the various currents of the intermediate ones, a logical whole will form as if from nowhere, and you may feel compelled to re-read from the beginning. In fact, I encourage you to do just that.

I know what you're thinking - it must be dull sitting in Maine waiting for my passport to come back from the consulate. It's alright I guess. Follow this link to Part 2.