Apr 27, 2011

Кавказский Дневник (Caucasian journal, part 2)

 Thoughts and observations on life in the Russian Federation, as recorded by Djozef Kellner during his travels in the North Caucasus (Part 2):


If they made a "sounds of Russia" tape to lull homesick Russian émigrés to sleep, one sound would be that of sheet metal falling from great heights.  Another might be the sound a huge, unseen dog makes when it hurls itself at a solid iron gate, just at the moment you walk past on the other side.  To foreigners the two might seem indistinguishable, but just as with language, one learns to differentiate similar sounds with time and repeated exposure.  Besides, the latter sound is invariably followed by the sound of an unseen babushka scolding the dog.  Other sounds on the tape might include the slamming of a crash taxi door, followed by the driver sullenly muttering 'don't slam the door' to himself, or the voices of a hundred consecutive men asking if you have a cigarette. 


Whoever you are, there isn't a single Russian female who isn't personally concerned with your health.  Even if she's a rebellious, Westward-looking teen who spits on everything Russian and only listens to electro-house progressive, she still thinks you should drink more tea, eat more garlic, and put on your hat.  When I called in sick one day at work, the next day I got ten informal prescriptions from ten informal doctors, each one unique from, and more effective than, all the others.  Like I said, this phenomenon, unlike many I discuss here, is totally without exception.  It even compelled my black widow neighbor to break her two month vow of silence.  I was refilling my water bottle from the tap in the kitchen, as I had several times a day for the past two months, when she broke in and said "I don't advise drinking that water.  Bad for your health."  I looked at her, and then back at the pale yellow water pooling at the bottom of my bottle, and gave my best Russian attempt at "ya gotta tell me these things sooner."  But I spoke in vain - she had already slinked back to her room forever.  


The little green man in the crosswalk-lights in Russia leads a much more colorful life than his American counterpart.  In our sterile, homogeneous 'walk' signals, he's always perfectly upright, walking at a measured clip, looking straight ahead until his motionless, straight-backed, unfeeling red alter-ego tags in.  In Russia, the glass is installed at all variety of angles, each of which lends the green man a unique, expressive pose.  For instance, here he is at the corner of Gogol and May First Street.  In this instance, he's a gregarious pedestrian surprised to see a friend while crossing the street.  He's stopped in his tracks, leaned his weight on his back foot, and extended his hand before going in for the handshake and the embrace: 

Here he's facing a dilemma familiar to all Russians - it's wet outside, there are deep, broad puddles in the crosswalk, but straying outside the lines might result in a fine.  He's carefully lifting his knee almost to his waist, leaning back for balance, and preparing to stretch or leap over an obstacle.  Also, note here that he's walking in the opposite direction.

Here he is on the corner of Gogol and Proletarian Street, crossing to get to the central market.  Clearly, he's been unwinding in the Russian style, maybe with the friend he met on May First Street.  Disoriented and rapidly losing motor control, he's failed to put enough weight into his step, and is about to topple over backwards:

I tried to photograph him at the corner of Pushkin and Zhukov, where he's leaned way forward, full-out sprinting to get out of the way of a speeding bus, but I wasn't fast enough.  Even his usually-stoic red twin gets a little more animated than back home.  Sometimes he's got that same rigid, American posture, but other times he's leaning slightly, resting one leg or the other while waiting for the light to change.  And his life can take dramatic, unexpected turns too.  Here I caught him turned sideways, floating in microgravity during a trip into space.

Sorry for the poor quality.  For obvious reasons, I couldn't photograph him from the center of the crosswalk.

Almost all food in any Russian market or shop is "local," "organic," "farm-fresh," and all those other things we Americans pay top dollar for.  To Russia's great credit, it doesn't have the mass producing, mass shipping, gasoline-intensive, stamped-and-plastic-wrapped food infrastructure that we do.  Furthermore, for foreigners almost all foodstuffs are affordable, often less than half the price we'd pay at home for arguably worse-quality food.  Indeed, the real price isn't paid in rubles.  The trouble is that any given food item is either a vitamin-rich, all-natural, probiotic "whole" food, or it was all of those things, but now just tastes "pro-biotic" because it's spoiled.  On the whole, it's still probably better than the pasteurized, factory-efficient American model.  But it can be a delicate dance, and a few weeks ago I missed a step, drank a bottle of expired kefir, and spent a long night wishing I had never even put the shoes on.  And that wasn't the end of it.  Two days later, I had a dream where I was in my dad's kitchen in Illinois, and my friend Leo told me not to drink Kefir too long after the production date on the carton.  Thanks.

So far, I've avoided "food" entries, because I dedicated so much space to Russian cuisine already in Irkutsk.  No sense eating a dead horse, right?  On the other hand, I've been collecting photographs and discovering new, exciting, occasionally disgusting dishes here too, so maybe a full food entry isn't out of the question.  Stay tuned.


The blog has gotten bloggier and bloggier, as blogs are wont to do.  If you'll take a look at the top of the page on the right, you'll see the newest feature - an email-subscription widget.  My longtime tech-supporter and blog guru Carrie pointed out that mass-emailing to announce a blog post makes no sense, something akin to sending handwritten letters to announce a forthcoming email.  I always felt that it made no sense, but couldn't figure out an alternative.  Now there is one.  Turns out I just needed to create a feed, or burn my feed, or feed my HTML, or some other high-tech garbage I know nothing about.  Eventually I did figure it out, so please subscribe at the top of the page, because there will be no future email-notifications.

Also, while adventuring in the "Help" section of Blogger, I learned what those little buttons do under each post.  The ones that have the Facebook logo, the Twitter logo, etc.  Turns out, those buttons allow you to share the blog on Facebook, Twitter, etc.  I'm not telling you what you should or should't do, but do that.  Pick a post you liked, share it somewhere, and help promote international understanding between Russia and the English-speaking world.  Also, it will help me - if ten thousand people read the blog, I think Google sends me a check for two or three dollars in the mail.  Or maybe they even send it electronically, who knows.  

Apr 20, 2011

Дар Божий (On the English language)

Talented people have a tendency to deny the existence of talent.  When we marvel at the creations of artists, or admire the grace of athletes, or otherwise watch in awe of some miraculous human gift, the talented party usually cites hard work and dedication, rather than innate ability.  We've all heard, "practice makes perfect," "anybody can learn to ______," and other condolences from our superiors.  I've never bought it, of course.  I could catch ten thousand speeding basketballs, and I'd never lose that fear of jamming my finger.  It's been there since the first time I played.  If I had practiced every day after school, grades 1-12, and even if by senior year I had made the varsity team, it wouldn't mean I was talented at basketball.  In college, where they pass the ball even faster, I'd still have been afraid of jamming my finger.  I'm not an athlete, and I don't need to hear Michael Jordan tell me that 'anything is possible,' if I only believe.  I've always known that was bogus, but recently, I even found proof.  That is, I realized that I too have innate talent - talent that even the greatest basketball player (in Russia) could never aspire to. 

I've been completely fluent in English for as long as I can remember.  There's no time in my life that I ever thought, "I'm not smart enough to speak English," and I never sat at home and practiced, either.  And it's not thanks to some superhuman work ethic, or fortunate circumstances, or any other excuse a talented person like me might give to make you feel better.  Here's how I see it - if one person can design a beautiful, acoustically flawless concert hall, he probably can't build a violin worth playing inside it.  A different person, with different talents, will build that violin, and a third will be on stage playing it.  The point is, we all have unique gifts, so there's no sense downplaying them.  Continuing with our example of the violinist, my gift is that I could describe the concert in English without any foreign accent, and usually without mistakes.  Mozart himself couldn't have done that. 

My last major entry was about my second-favorite language, Russian.  This one is about my first favorite, English. 


This entry will also explain what I'm actually doing here in Maikop. In my capacity as some-dude-who-speaks-English, I got a position as a visiting professor (my words, not theirs) in the foreign language department at Adyghea State University.  I teach conversational English to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-year university students.  I may not be raking in the Yaroslavls (translation: benjamins), but the value of such work can't be measured in rubles and cents.  Aside from the loftier goal of eliminating the Russian language, it's been pretty fun to invent lesson plans, and the students generally respond well to my classes.  My groups are 80% females, 18% former-Soviet-Union-males, and 2% random Nigerian dudes who ended up in Russia for reasons they invariably can't explain.  Even stranger, they are taking a full courseload of English classes, even though English is their native language.  I would write a thousand words about the absurdity of their situation, but I actually have a picture that saves me the trouble. This is my native-English-speaker-English-student Idu, in his characteristic state of bafflement, competing at the "English olympiad" phonetics competition.

Bonus picture: This is me and other teachers on the jury that day, exhibiting that famous Russian enthusiasm:

Each week I have a new theme, with an associated list of new vocabulary.  For instance, one week the students wanted the theme of 'education,' so I took a small creative leap and taught them about Pink Floyd.  Another time, I was fed up the England-centric curriculum, and even more, with the affection my students seemed to have for that country

so I did a two-part theme called 'road trip around America.'  I drew this map:

and gave them some good old American vocabulary, like what it means to 'circle the wagons' and 'shoot from the hip,' and why the tumbleweed is our most cherished national symbol.  Click on the map (or any picture here) for full detail.  Elena Ivanovna's little niece Lena helped with the drawings - she drew the simplistic, childish Rockies, while I drew the much more nuanced, rolling Appalachians.  The saguaro cactus was mine, but I told my students it was Lena's.  Vice versa for the Canadian flag.


It was only after a few months of teaching that I had my revelation about my gift.  Turns out, for all my complaining about Russian, English is really, really difficult, especially for those without my innate ability (for example, all of my students).  As we saw in my previous post, verbs of motion torment foreign students of Russian.  But we English-speakers have our revenge.  You may have noticed that Russians will often mangle and/or neglect English articles ("a," "an," and "the").  That's because Russian has no articles.  After a particularly hard crash, you might hear a crash-taxi driver say "I need to buy windshield for taxi."  At the store, in English, he would have to say "a windshield for a taxi," because the merchant has many windshields and doesn't care which taxi.  However, at home, if his wife saw him carrying the new windshield, he might say "I bought the windshield for the taxi" - it's one, specific windshield, for the one taxi that the wife knows he drives.

And sometimes, the rules make no sense at all - you go to the hospital, no matter which hospital it is.  On the other hand, you don't go to the prison or a prison, you just go to prison.  This challenge, like many in language, manifests itself best in graffiti:

I don't know what "SRS" refers to, but I do know that that definite article doesn't belong there.

This one is on my building, and maybe even more puzzling.  For reasons I could never explain in Russian to a  Russian hooligan, 'the' cannot stand alone, and whatever message he was trying to convey is totally lost in translation.  In fact, if we translate this into Russian, the result would literally be nothing.  There is a slight chance he's making some abstract commentary about the emptiness of Western society or something. If so, he's actually demonstrating an extremely advanced and nuanced understanding of English.  But I doubt that.

Another bit of torture for Russians relates to English tenses.  For example, try finding a Russian who could say

"In college, I would still have been afraid of jamming my finger."  That's the past future conditional perfective progressive tense... or something like that.  I'm not really sure, I never learned it.  Again, innate gift.  Or here's another:

"Had I known what "konina" meant, I would not have eaten the horse-sausage."  Past future conditional negative continuous tense, I think.  The point is, Russian has three tenses - past, present, future, and then a simple conditional.  In English, there are twelve, and the conditional, and in each of these, a foreigner has to place many small, strange words in just the correct order, as seen in my italicized examples.  Not easy.

The whole point of this entry, by the way, is to showcase the following picture.  Two weeks ago, I celebrated the 24th birthday.  Elena Ivanovna's parents secretly told their neighbor, who then secretly told her daughter, who then sent me a congratulatory text message like she had remembered my birthday all along.  But unbeknownst to her,  tense problems turned her well-meaning gesture into this surprisingly backhanded birthday wish:

Hey thanks.


I am deeply sorry for the long delay - almost three weeks between posts.  It won't happen again.  I've actually got a bunch already written, I just haven't had time to post pictures, which requires a separate trip to an internet-cafe every time.  I've also been ailing on and off, so I got some blood tests done.  The only thing they found was an unusually large concentration of Polonium-210, but luckily the half-life is only 138 days.  For those of you less inclined towards math, that means I'll be 31/32 fine in only 690 days.  And I'll be home in less than half of one half-life, where an American doctor can take a look at it.  I'll see you all then, but keep reading the blog in the meantime.  And send me emails.  And leave comments.

Editor's note: Russia is the greatest place ever.  I published this twenty minutes ago at an internet cafe, and then walked to the library where I could use the free internet to write emails.  It's raining and cold outside, but in the three blocks between the cafe and the library, I stumbled upon an enormous crowd of people, holding umbrellas, gathered around a huge temporary stage.  There was a full brass band with two giant tubas, playing celebratory marches, and an endless line of cars with bike racks, including four from the Moldavian Cycling Federation.  Apparently, the crowd had gathered to watch the end of some race... all those babushki must be big cycling fans?  I feel like every time I'm tired, or ill, or not paying attention to my surroundings, something surreal and often whimsical happens in this country.  One time in Irkutsk, I struggled home on one of the Siberian-cold January days, and right outside my building somebody had dumped a huge pile of coconut shells.  And when I saw it, I froze, and I must have stared at it for five minutes, trying to pin down the subtle difference between Russian reality and my reality.  Of course I never figured it out.  All I know is, Russians rarely think this stuff is strange.

Apr 12, 2011

С днём космонавтики! (Happy Cosmonautics Day!)

It's that time of the year again.  Today, April 12th, in accordance with Article 1.1 of the Law of the Russian Federation "On Days of Military Glory and Commemorative Dates in Russia," the former Soviet Union + Joey once again celebrates Cosmonautics Day.  I'm not sure if I made a big deal of this last time around, but Cosmonautics Day is my favorite holiday of all, and has been ever since I learned about it in Russian 101.  April 12th was the date that Yuri Gagarin, first man in space, became the first man in space. This year's celebration is even more awesome than usual, because it's the 50-year anniversary of Gagarin's historic flight.

In honor of Colonel Gagarin, chief engineer Sergei Korolev, Laika the space-dog, and all other heroes of the Soviet space program, I present this photograph of the world's first interplanetary station wagon - the Mitsubishi Space Wagon.

Click on the picture, or any picture on the blog, for a full-size version.  Happy Cosmonautics Day!

Apr 5, 2011

Примирение (On Russian language, part 2)

So I dropped in to the post office with a simple task - to prepay the postage for a parcel with a stated value.    I said three words, and I was on my way.  How, you ask, is that possible?  Well, it's possible because I said it in Russian.

Sorry about the sideways one.  And on that first picture, you have to search a little bit, but there's a verb "to prepay the postage (on)," just a bit up from the bottom.  The reason I included the entire page is because, incidentally, that is the single most useless passage in my entire dictionary, stretching from "photostat machine" to "Francium," and featuring such go-to standards as "yaws," "Thracian," and "phrasemongering."

But as the Russians say, 'that to the matter does not relate (translation mine)'.  Mostly, I wanted to show those two postage-related terms to highlight the surprising economy, and strangeness, of Russian language.  I've played this game before - in this entry from Irkutsk, I've already written a comprehensive, and if I can say so, definitive introduction to Russian language, which requires no elaboration or updating.  On the other hand, I'm in Russia again, and the whole 'language' thing still comes up a lot.  Today's entry is about language, too.

It's been three years of globalization since I wrote that old entry, but alas, Russians still speak Russian.  And they're zealots about it, too - casual conversations are in Russian, letters and books are in Russian, and even when they want to speak to a foreigner, they still use Russian exclusively.  And when they have symposia and conferences, and people write and present papers?  Russian.  This last unpleasant reality affected me personally a week ago.  The foreign language department held a "English Olympiad," in which students competed in phonetics and grammar contests, and then wrapped it up with a big round table conference with the theme "Tolerance in Pedagogy," for which I presented a short historical paper.  You might notice that my paper has nothing to do with the theme "Tolerance in Pedagogy" - they changed the theme after I started writing it, totally not my fault.  My paper was about Barack Obama.  While I was reading to the conference, I trusted my camera to a Russian friend of mine, which is always a gamble. She took a few photographs, practically identical, but increasingly zoomed in on my head until I'm too blurry to be recognized.  Here are the first two in the series:

This is the part where I'm dazzling them with my bilingual eloquence, pounding my fist on the lectern to drive home some shocking revelation.  Maybe the part were I said "Barack Obama was born in 1961."

This is the part where, after everybody has left, and the lights have gone dark, and the country has moved on, and I alone remain, speaking my piece whether or not the world wants to hear it.

I read for about fifteen minutes, and I'd even say I read pretty well.  The paper discussed how Barack Obama, born to this world amid the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement, carried the torch of Martin Luther King, and before him Lincoln, all the way to the highest office in the land.  And in doing so, how he unified a divided populace under his banner of mutual understanding and respect, and as a nation, how we finally found our more perfect Union.  Threw in a "post-racial society" here, a "justice is colorblind" there, a few amber waves of grain, pretty standard.  It wasn't a total fluff-piece - in the conclusion I did mention how that was only for a few weeks, and everything is a mess.  I structured the paper that way so that it would fill the entire fifteen minutes, and so I could learn a few new Russian words along the way.  So even though ultimately, the moral foundation of the United States is crumbling, eaten away by greed and vanity and venomous politics, at least Barack Obama taught me how to say "reconciliation" in Russian.  Primirenie.  Four more years!

Returning to the topic of language, the above exemplifies my biggest problem in Russian, one that has plagued me since I expressed my first halfway-intelligent thought in Irkutsk.  What's happened is that my Russian has developed along academic lines, in academic settings - my grammar is more or less sound (if I put in the effort), and my vocabulary is weighted towards the "reconciliation" and the "mutual understanding" side of the spectrum.  Sounds good, right?  Problem is, if I use too many 'college-level' words, Russians assume I'm some kind of savant who can taste prime numbers, and never has to hear a Russian word twice.  Then, whatever they say next is invariably too complicated for me to understand, and I stare at them like an idiot until they grasp the situation.  In general, I speak a lot better with teachers than I do with fellow students, whose colloquial speech I have trouble following.

The worst stories are the ones that involve "verbs of motion," a particularly baffling corner of Russian grammar.  It's unfortunate, because those are the stories that sympathetic Russians assume are the simplest, because the idea is simple - dog ran across the road, crash taxi crashed, pedestrian ran for his life.  But it comes out as a huge string of prefixes, suffixes, and roots that no foreigner could possibly decipher in time for the punch line.  So every time, I wait for the end, assume that something unfortunate happened related to transport, and then I laugh, because hey, that's funny.  That fools 'em maybe 50% of the time.

So as the Russians say, 'the process continues' (translation mine).  Americans might say that, too.  The process continues.  After an initial language-shock (downgraded from the full culture-shock last time around), I've started to pick up some of what I'd lost, which is making life even more enjoyable than it already was.  I'm only here for another two months, so I can't afford to complain too much.  There have been two small hiccups recently, one stemming from an overdose of antibiotics when I had flu, and resulting in something I will not discuss in any forum, public of private.  The second hiccup was actually a bit worse (hiccups are often that way), but I won't discuss that incident any more than I already have with this sentence.  Hopefully that's enough to put all your minds at ease.  God willing, it is already mostly resolved.  That was a hint.

I'm really, really hoping for nicer weather, so I can head into the mountains and take in some local natural beauty.  I'm in the Caucasus, but so far, my experience has been limited to Maikop, while there is a great wealth of culture, history, and scenery in the surrounding regions.  The larger region does tend to be moderately, mildly explosive at times, so options are slightly limited.  Still, I hope my experience here, and as a result, my blog, will broaden a bit before I leave in June.  I've also got some dacha work ahead of me, a favorite pasttime from Irkutsk that I'm eager to start again.  All that and more, coming soon.  Stay tuned.  

And leave comments, I got a grand total of zero last time around.