Mar 5, 2011

Кавказский Дневник (Caucasian journal, part 1)

Thoughts and observations on life in the Russian Federation, as recorded by Djozef Kellner during his travels in the North Caucasus:

  • More people are killed by ice in Russia than in all other Northern countries combined.  Did you know that?  Well I don't know that either, but if it isn't true I'll eat my hat.

I hope I'm right, because I'm not sure I can digest that much fur at once. In Irkutsk in the springtime, pedestrians looked like bobblehead dolls, bouncing between watching their feet on the never-salted sidewalk and watching the skies.  Maikop hasn't had the same volume of snow, and the buildings tend to be shorter, so the risk is a little smaller, but holy god you can't imagine the sound when one of those ice blocks falls from a roof onto the concrete.  If you get a bunch of snow dumped on your head and down your coat, you take a deep breath, cross yourself and go home immediately.  Maikop is far, far safer than Irkutsk, but I can't get too cocky.  It's not just my fighting Chechen neighbors who might deal me a devastating blow to the head.

  • Water-drinking is a corrosive foreign practice, to be crushed at every opportunity by Russia's women. The basic principle, I would argue misconception, is that water isn't hot, and 'has nothing in it,' and is therefore of no use to the organism. As far as they're concerned, tea is such an improvement to water that water has been rendered obsolete. If the Russians had succeeded in building their utopia, they'd have cut out the middle man, and tea would come straight out of the faucet. Alas, that would mean that thousands of Soviet workers in thousands of identical Soviet tea-kettle factories would lose their jobs, which is, incidentally, why communism doesn't work.   I was lying in bed sick and had poured myself a glass of water. Elena Ivanovna's mom came in to check on me, and, while happily conversing about something completely unrelated, picked up my water glass and dumped into a potted plant next to the bookshelf. Then she replaced it with tea and jam. She treated that glass of water like it was some sort of trap, set by somebody else, that I was about to unwittingly fall into. By clearing Russia of such traps, the babushki keep it safe for future generations.

  • In Russia, there is no national consensus on passing on the sidewalk - which side one passes on depends only on the will of each individual Russian, his own judgment and the dictates of his conscience. I'm not the first foreigner to observe this phenomenon, though Russians categorically deny its existence. We enlightened Westerners know to default to the right side. Russians defy any such convention, and in that way, are maybe freer than we are. The cost of this minor liberation is that, after an often-needless series of evasive maneuvers and sidesteps, the walker with a weaker will can end up ankle-deep in snow, when there was more than enough sidewalk space for both people. That is, incidentally, why capitalism doesn't work.

  • Russians don't know anything.  Okay, I'm just upset because I've been sick and need sleep, I'll qualify that.  Young Russians don't know anything about their local geography.  It is totally futile to ask any question that involves the cardinal directions; there was no reason for me to even memorize them.  One girl, who worked at the bookstore and sold me my map, had the audacity to mark Dormitory 3 on it.  Complete opposite side of town from its actual location, and for the first few days, I got terribly lost whenever I tried to navigate by my map, or by those useless foreign constructs, North, East, South and West.

  • Related observation: babushki usually know which crash taxi goes where, but if they don't, they'll consult with six other babushki at the bus stop until they have a definitive answer.  Problem is, it's only definitive in the babushka frame of reference, not in any absolute sense.  That is to say, a panel of seven babushki put me on the wrong bus.  And not just that - I hadn't slept in two days, and like I said before, I had a fever of 116 degrees. When I got out in roughly the right region, an even greater shock awaited me.  Another self-assured babushka, without the benefit of a babushka-panel, told me just as definitively that the dormitory I'm looking for does not exist in Maikop.  Huge, nine-story student housing for AGU in the Cheremushki neighborhood?  We don't have any like that.  She was so confident, I believed her.  If you haven't lived in Russia, you probably can't imagine my surprise.  And not just surprise, but my sense of loss.  All my stuff was there, my camera, my lesson plans, plus my phone numbers fo I could call the dean and get a new place.  So like always, I said "I understand, thanks!" and gave her my most genuine babushka-smile, and then, looking at the sun, headed East towards my dormitory on the West side of town.  I don't have a great internal compass, but I have great faith in the external compass which was also, shockingly, not reading correctly thanks to the girl at the bookstore.  By the way, this is not an exaggeration or a tall tale, I want to be clear about that.  A young couple turned me around and told me how to get home.  It was five or six blocks away.


Life is good, my health is fully recovered, and I've moved out of my nest at Elena's house back to Dormitory 3, which is now heated and comfortable.  My Russian is in shameful disrepair, and I've been disappointed and stressed about it, but I'm studying and reading, and striking up conversations about topics I don't care about, with people I have no business talking to, just to get experience.  Sometimes I'll ask three people the same question, just to practice the sentence, which requires a bit of acting on my part to look genuine.  I have temporary neighbors in the dorm, minor Russian celebrities who are here to compete in a national comedy show called KVN.  They're very friendly, and one of them is a history teacher, so I spend all my time talking to him and counting how many cigarettes he sucks down per hour.  We played poker last night, which was great.  There, I blogged.  Happy?  That's my life.  I rushed through this, because I only have nine minutes of internet left.

Elena's parents continue to take care of me, invite me to dinner, and make sure I'm alive and well.  Hopefully I'll write more about them, but my for now, I'm reiterating my request that you thank them in the comments section.  I only had one taker last time.


Carrie said...

You look seriously frightening in that picture. I suspect it would even scare Vladimir. Just sayin'...

Adam said...

I for one thank Elena's parents for protecting you from such base forms of hydration as water.

Elena said...

I am glad you are navigating Maikop bravely. On American Slavists' listserve forum we just discussed how the idea of north, south, east and west is alien to Russians when they give directions! I think it is because unlike Americans we are not a drivers nation - there are designated people to take us places and we don't care where on the map they fall.

beth said...

THANK YOU, Elena's parents! It would be my pleasure to return the favor, any time, and help Elena with anything at all.

Angela said...

Сzпасибо за то, что заботиться о DJozef... Российская любезность

geoff said...

Большое спасибо Елене и родителям Елены и семье для того, чтобы обращаться к Джою и помощи восстановить его здоровье. Ваша замечательная доброта и великодушие превышали весь язык.

geoff said...
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