Monday, August 29, 2005

I find a sleazy mushroom

Grilling Shashlik

Faded Frescoes in the Old Church

The Old Church from a distance

The Old Church near the Dacha

The Sleazy Mushroom and other adventures

Part I: Vecherinka

Friday, after work, K invited us to her apartment for a small vecherinka (party). K is one of the two teachers who worked at the AH last year, and this year she has her own apartment instead of living with a host family. Her little Russian apartment is adorable. The kitchen is seafoam, and the other room is peach. It is substantially bigger than both apartments I had in San Diego, not to mention considerably cheaper, and honestly, I am kind of lusting after it simply for its colors. It was a very jolly party, full of much laughter and inebriation, and since I promised not to post any compromising photos, you do not get the pleasure of laughing at all the absurd pictures I took.

When leaving the party (we left around 1am), we decided to take a marshrutka home. Marshrutki are minivans which travel the same routes as the buses and trolleybuses, although they run 24hrs/day (while the buses do not), and they are a little more expensive. You also often (especially at night) have to tell them where you wish to disembark in order for them to stop. Now, B does not speak very much Russian, and she was also very tired, and perhaps somewhat boozy. She did not think that she could tell the marshrutka driver where to stop, so I said I would ride with her and then just walk back to my apartment (her bus stop is two blocks from mine, which is not far, although they are rather lengthy blocks). Anyhow, B and I were the last two of our group to leave the marshrutka. Sitting next to the driver were a man and a woman, both of whom were completely hammered, who seemed to be friends of the driver. Anyhow, the drunken man started asking me where B and I needed to get off. I told him that we wanted the second bus stop from where we were (which was true), and he asked me, Pechugin or Ludmila? These are the names of the bus stops, but hell if I knew what either was called, so I simply repeated that I needed to stop at the second stop. He was way too drunk to understand that I was not a native of Vladimir and therefore had no clue as to the name of any bus stop. The drunken fellow continued to ask me all sorts of things, none of which I understood because he was slurring his words and making no sense. Luckily the driver understood me perfectly and stopped at the correct stop (which turned out to be Pechugin, so now we know).

B and I got out of the marshrutka, and the drunken fellow shouted something after us. I do not know what he shouted, but it definitely seemed to give the wrong impression to three men (possibly drunk, definitely carrying beers) who were on the sidewalk by the bus stop, and they immediately began trying to convince us to go wherever they were going. We simply ignored them, and began walking quickly away. Anyway, B and I should really have turned left at the bus stop, but instead we turned right. We realized our mistake within seconds, but the three sketchy dudes were behind us, and we did not want to turn around and walk right back into their willing arms or anything. So we ended up making a long detour around the entire block, but we did manage to circumnavigate the creepy men and get B back to her apartment.

Then, of course, it was time for me to walk home. I made it nearly most of the way without any problems, although as I approached my building, a young man began walking next to me. He tried to talk to me, saying devushka, devushka, blah, blah, blah. (Devushka means girl, but here is used as a form of address, sort of like Miss). I could not understand what he was saying, although this was probably because I was very intent on simply ignoring him. I think that at one point he told me not to be afraid, but I continued ignoring him. There is a 24 hour market sort of below my apartment, and I made a beeline for it. I figured if he continued to follow me, that would be a safe(ish) place to go. Luckily, he gave up before I reached it, and I was able to make it back to my apartment in peace. So that was my Friday night adventure.

Part II: The Dacha

Saturday morning, we all met at 10:00 at the AH (by I mean American teachers and Russian staff), and we drove about an hour out into the countryside to a dacha. The dacha was owned by T, one of the two Russian teachers who works for the AH. For Russians, having a dacha is somewhat analogous to having a cabin in the mountains or a condo at the beach, although it seems that more Russians have dachas than Americans have vacation homes. This might be because most Russians live in apartments in cities, instead of in homes in the suburbs like so many Americans. The dacha experience was wonderful, and I would love to have one. Or live at one. Like I said, we drove about an hour out into the countryside, where there were huge open fields, small rivers and the occasional forest. It was very peaceful, and the air was incredibly clean and fresh. Additionally, this was yet another perfect day weather-wise, with temperatures in the lower 70s, and bright blue sky without a cloud in sight.

The dacha is within walking distance of a small, spring-fed river, so we walked down to it, and explored. We also ventured a little ways into a nearby forest, and I picked a mushroom. Mushroom picking is an art over here, and Russians seem able to tell immediately whether or not a mushroom is safe or poisonous. You know how in the US, people often have secret places to hunt or fish? I have also been told that here, when people find a good mushroom picking spot, they guard the secret of its location as best they can in much the same way. I suppose that since I only found one measly mushroom, I should not be so pleased with myself, especially since it is not like one can simply cook one mushroom. Anyway, the mushroom I found was called (I think) a maslyonka, and it was edible. The shroom itself was very sticky, and when I commented on this, Galina told me that when you cook this kind of mushroom, it becomes very slimy. Well, actually what she said (after consulting with Alexei) was that it becomes sleazy, so we got to explain that while a slimy person can be called sleazy, a mushroom can only be referred to as slimy.

The dacha was located in this teeny-tiny village (although village is far too big of a word), where there were about ten dachas and the remains of an Orthodox church. (I was told the name of this area, but unfortunately I cannot remember it at all.) T’s husband told me that this used to be a very big village, and that there were many, many people (thus the need for a big church), but that when the Soviet Union was created, the people all left to go to Vladimir (and other cities) to work in the factories, and the village died out. Now, I have quite a fascination with old, abandoned buildings (this is absolutely my mother’s fault), and I have a tendency to try and get inside of them and take pictures. I found this church very fascinating. It had reached that state of decay where there were trees growing up through the roof, and I thought it was quite picturesque. Several of us tried to get inside, but the doors were all fastened shut fairly well. We could open them enough to see inside, but not wide enough to squeeze in ourselves. I stuck my hand (holding my camera) in through the crack and shot some pictures. Later I was surprised to discover that in these images I could see the faded remains of old frescoes on the walls!

At the dacha itself, most of the people spent a lot of time playing frisbee, volleyball, or tossing an American football. (I would like to mention that J is incredibly impressive with the football.) I, being the as uninterested in sports as I am, spent a lot of the time lying on a blanket in the shade, which was actually quite wonderful. Male B played a lot on his guitar, and when he was not playing, we had some cheesy Russian pop going. And, of course, we grilled shashlik. The word shashlik is related to shishkabob, and normally, when one orders shashlik at a restaurant or from a vendor, it comes out as a meat on a stick kabob. When you grill shashlik for around 17 people, you do it in these metal things (which I really do not know how to describe, although that is possibly because I am really tired), wherein you can cook a lot of meat all at once. We had shashlik with a dish of smoked eggplant and tomatoes and garlic (all freshly smoked that day), and both were fantastically delicious.

Now, at a picnic in the US, you have to worry about ants and flies. In Russia, the problem is bees. Well, I call these things bees, although I think they are more along the lines of yellowjackets, as they when they sting you, they do not leave you with a stinger embedded in your skin. How do I know this? Sigh. Well, ever since we have been in Russia, there have been bees everywhere. This must be the year of the bee or something, because apparently the problem last year was mosquitoes. In the US, bees are cause to panic. Here, they are so ubiquitous and commonplace, that for the most part, one simply ignores them as one would ignore houseflies. It had taken me a while to get over the initial American reaction of Beeeee! Aaaack!, and I was doing fairly well at ignoring them until one of the yellowjackasses stung me in the hand during our dacha picnic. It was very strange, because my hand did not swell up or anything, and there was only a tiny white spot marking where I had been stung, but man did it sting! My whole hand was stinging within seconds. The Russians decided that the best course of action was to pour salt on my hand and then have me press the leaf of some unknown plant onto the spot. That helped almost immediately. The stinging died down, although my hand throbbed for about an hour or so after.

Part III: Making a Movie

On Sunday we had yet another activity planned for us. Sunday was the day we (as a group) visited each others apartments and videotaped them, for the purpose of making a small movie to send to friends and family back in the US. It was a fun, if long, day, and it was nice to be able to see where everyone lived, and to see different parts of Vladimir. I now know essentially where VEMZ is located, and it is a damn long way away from anywhere I might normally be. Sigh. I will be getting to know the Number 7 Trolleybus very, very well. I also now know how to find FAKEL, which is supposedly a great market for buying things like shoes and coats. I should really stay away from that place, but you know I will not be able to! Most apartments where the other teachers live are very much like my apartment, although B lives in a mansion. Her apartment is new, and two stories, with a beautiful staircase winding up to the second floor, and all of the rooms are huge. That apartment is bigger than my mom’s house in the US! Needless to say, her host family is an anomaly among the city of Vladimir. Most Russians live in small apartments like the one I share with Nina M. Some of you know that I tend to get carsick very easily, and unfortunately, taking various trolleybuses from one place to another all over Vladimir, all day long, without any lunch, did not sit well with my body, and I was feeling pretty crappy by the end of the day. Sigh.

The good weather that we have been having is not going to last. I checked the weather channel today, and learned that as of Wednesday it is going to start raining a good bit, with lows in the 40s and highs in the low 60s or upper 50s. I felt like I should be out enjoying the wonderful weather while it lasts, but after my stomach got to feeling all motionsick, I ended up simply returning home to take a nap. Sigh. Winter is coming.

Friday, August 26, 2005

My Russian textbook has some weird images...

I've gotten a bit carried away with this space thing.

My Russia Face

The following is a comment from Baty Landis, one of the authors of the Lonely Planet guide to Russia and Belarus, 3rd edition.

Women are very likely to be followed and propositioned; I encountered this especially in Moscow. Eye contact is enough of an invitation for many men. Men in cars, on foot, in the subway, are all potential threats. Although I do not think the threat itself is very severe, it was certainly disconcerting for the first few days, until I had developed my hardened face.

I do not think I would call it a threat, and I have not experienced any problems whatsoever in my two weeks thus far. (I will say that five years ago, while living in St. Petersburg, I was once offered 100 rubles for my services, but that was the only time I received any unpleasant attention from a stranger.) However, I do know what Landis means when she mentions her face. This is definitely something that I had perfected during my last trip to Russia, although I am currently rebuilding it. For most of my life, I have lived in the American South, land of polite niceties to strangers. I am really only qualified to talk about the American South, and while I have been told that behavior changes as one moves Northward, I do not really know this from experience. But this is how things are in the South (and in San Diego, too). You do not walk down the street and say hello to everyone, regardless of whether you know them or not; however, if you do happen to make eye contact with a perfect stranger, acknowledging the eye contact connection through a smile or a nod is perfectly acceptable, and in some places even expected. Here, you do not do that. During my first few days, I found myself making eye contact with strangers on the street or the trolleybus. They may very well have been staring at me because despite my mild attempts to Russify my dress, I still do not conform with the standard here (see my post from yesterday). Anyhow, I would lock eyes with people, and then feel the American (Southern?) urge to smile or shrug or something. Of course, this did not get any sort of response from the Russians, who no doubt simply thought I was a bit odd. I have definitely been working on my , which is a bit hardened and introverted, if that makes sense. The goal is to give off the impression that even if I am staring at you, I am not actually looking at you; that just happened to be the direction in which my eyes wandered. It is a very fixed and sort of expression. Not that Russians are in any way unfriendly; they simply do not waste time with polite nothings to absolute strangers.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

VEMZ, Fems and Astronauts

Part I: VEMZ

I know I have not written in a while, but I see no point in giving you all a blow by blow account of things which most of you will find really boring, and all week we have essentially just been doing teacher training seminars. (Useful, but hardly prime blogging material!) The main thing of note that I have to share is this: I will be teaching one of my classes at VEMZ, the Vladimir Electric Motor Factory (the Russian word for factory is zavod, thus VEMZ not VEMF). This is a small international company, and they are looking to train their employees in business English in order to make the company more competitive in the global sector. I will (most likely) be teaching VEMZ employees with very, very low levels of English, although these will be adults who are all interested in learning English for the purpose of furthering their careers. I find the fact that I will be teaching at VEMZ to be very exciting for some reason. Plus I think it is interesting how I was selected for this task. K taught one class at VEMZ last year, so she is going back to teach there again this year (we are offering two classes at VEMZ), and they needed to pick one other teacher to do the other class. Other than K, only Male B, B and I have actually worked before, other than things like summer and part time jobs. The others have all just graduated from college. And Male B and B have worked as teachers, so I’m the closest we have to someone with experience in the business world. So, twice a week I will be teaching VEMZ employees business English. 

Part II: My Feminist Attitude

I was walking down Bolshaya Moskovskaya (the main street) today at lunch time with my American coworkers, and we were discussing the clothing habits of Russian women. Russian women generally tend to dress nicer than American women. I suppose I should qualify what I mean. Today, I was wearing a nice pair of jeans, and a cute little top under a fitted black cotton sweater (for warmth when I was outside). I was also wearing sneakers. Everything I was wearing was clean, and nothing was wrinkled or ripped or in any way sloppy. This would be a perfectly acceptable and rather average outfit for a woman in her mid twenties in America. Over here, that outfit is definitely a little too casual for leaving the house. If I chose to replace my very comfortable sneakers with pointy toed heels (currently very popular here), I would definitely stand a chance of being mistaken for a Russian. If I exchanged the jeans for skin tight pants or a short skirt, and perhaps a diaphanous top, then I would fit right in. Additionally, If I were to dress more like I were, say, going to the theater on a daily basis, I might also fit in a little better. In addition to more clothing, the average woman (under 40) on the street here definitely has a lot more of the sexpot look going than the average American woman. I do not think that this is a sign of Russian women necessarily taking better care of their appearance, it simply has a lot to do with style and with what is accepted. (Ex: In the US if you are planning to wear a skin tight white top made of a thin material, you wear a white bra under it. I have seen a lot skin tight white (or simply see through) tops without any bras underneath. Think of the typical reaction people in the US would have to a woman wearing this getup and going to the grocery store, or to work, or to visit friends. No one here has that reaction; it is simply the style. They probably wonder why we are all so covered up. (I dressed a lot more like a typical young Russian woman the last time I was here, although even then I never got into displaying my nipples in public. I definitely have a culture induced impediment to that built into my brain.)

But back to my walk down Bolshaya Moscovskaya. We were walking along, commenting on how the Russian women all dress very nicely and obviously put a lot of care into their appearance, and talking about how uncomfortable it must be to walk for long distances in those pointy toed high heeled shoes, when one of the guys (this is a group of Americans, remember), made a comment that it is generally a lot harder for women all over the world, because we are in general expected to put a lot more into our appearance than men are. I agree, women all over the world are expected to put a lot of time and effort into clothing, hair and makeup, whereas men are generally not held to any standard of appearance. Anyhow, at this point, one of the other American dudes (who is a very nice guy; I’m not trying to bash him online or anything) stated very matter of factly that it is not just in clothing; women have it a lot harder in general. I was wondering where he was going with this, but unfortunately he did not take the conversation in a turn I particularly liked. He said something along the lines of: I mean, if a woman works, she has two shifts. When she comes home from work, then she has to cook and clean and do all that stuff. I gave him one of my looks. I could not help it. (I have never been a recipient of one of my looks, obviously, but I have been told that I can make some very telling facial expressions.)

I decided not to comment. Did I really want to end up getting into what could very well become a heated argument in English while walking down a provincial Russian street? No. (Some of the group had a small anti-American incident the other day, so we have been trying to be as unobtrusively American as possible.) However, later in the afternoon, while we were in the teachers office, working on lesson plans, he brought it up: So I checked, just to make sure I understood him. Did he really mean that if husband and wife were both working full time, when they came home at the end of the day, the dude could plop down in front of the TV while the woman had to make him dinner and clean the house? At this point, two of the other American (female) teachers joined in, and we asked him if he were married, and he and his wife worked, would HE sit on the couch and watch TV while she waited on him hand and foot. At this point he began to waffle. Like I said, he is a nice guy. I do not think he wanted to piss us off. And I also do not really think he had ever thought about it too much before. (He did not know how to use the AH washer/dryer because when he was in college, he was one of those people who brought dirty laundry home to mom.) He never did give a straight answer on whether or not he would help in the housework if he were married.

Part III: Welcome to Cape Canaveral

The AH has five classrooms. Each year, the teachers decide on themes for each of the classrooms, and then decorate them in accordance with the theme. Each room then gets a kitschy name, and everyone then refers to the classroom by its name instead of by a number or something. Anyhow, we were told to come up with ideas for names/themes. I decided to think about the attic classroom. Last year they named it the treehouse, because it is up high. What else is up high? Well, you know I’m a bit of a space nut. Space is up there. Anyhow, we decided that the attic would be Cape Canaveral, and that I would decorate it. I am having way too much fun with this. The reason why I made that sitcom promo thing yesterday, was that I was working on Cape Canaveral decorations. I have actually made each headshot into a head inside a helmet on a space suit, to go all over the ceiling. I am way too proud of this; I am such a geek. I totally will post photos when the project is finished. (And for anyone who might be interested, the other rooms are: Haight-Ashbury, Hollywood Blvd, Pennsylvania Ave, and Main St. We could not come up with a space related street, so we simply used Cape Canaveral.)

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

it's like a sitcom promo

J, M, Y, Me, K, B, G, Male B
The American Home Teachers
(click picture to enlarge)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Inside a Moscow Metro station

Me in Red Square

St. Basil's Cathedral

A Saturday Trip To Moscow

Saturday was a very long day. I got up before six, and left the apartment at 6:30. Before I left, Nina M told me that because of the wind, the temperature was 7 degrees (Celsius). I of course, had (have!) no idea what 7 degrees Celsius relates to in Fahrenheit, although as the day before had been somewhat nippy at 14 C, I assumed that meant cold. But, the last time I was in Russia, I learned that anything above 0 C was tolerable. Back in the US I am a bit of a wuss when it comes to the cold, but here there simply is no room for that. If it is above freezing, I should not complain. Hmmmm, watch me complain now. Let me set the record straight by saying that 7 C is pretty damn chilly, especially when you are not really dressed for it. I knew that it was going to get into the upper 60s and lower 70s (Fahrenheit) in Moscow, and I had no desire to be lugging about all sorts of sweaters and coats and such. So, I was really rather under-dressed for the 7 C weather that faced me when I left my apartment. As a result, I ended up getting on the wrong trolleybus (intentionally, in the hope that it might end up where I needed to go, or at least get me closer), because I had no desire to stand on the side of the road waiting for the correct bus to come along. I ended up having to hoof it the last few blocks to the train station, but at least the movement kept me warm. The train, of course, was the opposite; the heat was cranked up to an unbearable level so that it felt like Florida in there!

Anyhow, we arrived in Moscow a little after 10:00am, and immediately hopped on the metro in search of a certain bookstore. Our Russian teachers had described a specific bookstore wherein we were each supposed to purchase specific textbooks for our Russian language studies. Unfortunately, while we found a bookstore at the appropriate location, it was a new bookstore, which was not nearly as into selling textbooks as its predecessor. We decided to visit Dom Knigi (a large and well known bookstore, located in another part of Moscow) later on in the day, and then walked to Gorky Park. I should mention here that it was yet another absolutely perfect day. The sky was bright blue, without any clouds, and the temperature was right on the cusp between cool and warm. In other words, wonderful!

The purpose in going to Gorky Park was not to go to GP itself, we merely needed to cut through GP to get to the other side. Unfortunately, entrance to GP costs money, and even though 50 rubles is less than two dollars, I do not like the idea of paying an entry fee simply to use a shortcut. But, I was not the leader of our group, and the decision making was not up to me. I have heard GP described as the Russian Disneyland, although anyone visiting GP with those expectations will be sorely disappointed. I would describe it as more of the Russian equivalent to a county fair. The park does in fact have things that I would be willing to bet came from retired US county fairs, such as fair-type booths and rides, as well as small rollercoasters, although I do not think that I am brave enough to ride on any of them! (Due to equipment quality, not the type of ride.) To me, the most interesting thing in the park is Buran, the Russian space shuttle. It looks a lot like the US space shuttle (someone obviously sold them the plans). I think (I need to refresh my memory of this, to make sure) that the Russians launched it once and then simply decided that it was a waste of money. They opted for cheaper methods of getting people and equipment to and from space, and parked Buran in GP, as a nifty tourist attraction. Unfortunately, the section of GP where Buran is located was closed, so we did not get to go in it or anything, although we did get to see it from a distance, and I took several pictures.

The purpose of our walk through GP was, as I mentioned, a shortcut. We needed to get to a spot where we could catch a boat down the Moscow River to Red Square. The boat ride took about thirty minutes, and cost about $6.50 or so, and I highly recommend this ride to anyone visiting in the seasons when the Moscow River is flowing. The views along the ride are beautiful and interesting, especially when the Kremlin and St. Basil’s come into view. After the boat ride, we walked around Red Square. I took many, many photos of St. Basil’s Cathedral (which they have freshly repainted, making it look even more like some candy coated fairytale castle), several of which turned out quite well. Lenin was closed for the day, so we did not get to see him in the flesh. I did not mind (I have seen him before. Looks like you would expect: Lenin, but dead.), although I think that several members of the group were quite disappointed. In the Red Square area you can now pay to have your photograph taken with a look alike of Lenin, Marx, Tsar Nicholas II, or Ivan the Terrible. I do not recall that being an option last time around. It was somewhat tempting to pose with Lenin, although I did not want to be that much of a tourist!

After Red Square, we walked a little through the Alexandrovsky Garden, which is located very close to Red Square. In both Red Square and the Alexandrovsky Garden we saw many wedding parties. Wedding traditions in Russia are very different from in the US, and I must say that I prefer the Russian way of doing things. First, you go to the official wedding place (I am not sure what it is called), where you are officially married. Then, you, your new spouse and all of your friends and family walk about the city (often while drinking champagne or other booze products) and take pictures in front of all of the well known landmarks of the city. Of course, they still seem to shell out the big bucks for the ridiculous and ubiquitous poofy white dress, but the whole wedding atmosphere seems substantially more laid back and fun than traditional American weddings which are simply stressful ordeals. For myself and the rest of the Americans in my group, it has seemed odd when every Friday and Saturday there are all these brides, running about the cities!

Anyhow, after leaving the Alexandrovsky Garden, we walked to the Arbat (an area known for artists and musicians, many of whom were dissidents during the Soviet period, and which has many shops and cafes... and which is, of course, popular with the tourists), where we had lunch and then walked to Dom Knigi to buy our Russian textbooks. Y and I are using the same book, and I must admit that it seems rather intimidating to me, as the entire book is in Russian. There are no English language explanations of anything. I expect that my Russian class will be quite challenging. But our individual Russian lessons will not begin for a few weeks, so I get to wait and see.

After leaving Dom Knigi, we were all fairly exhausted. We had done a lot of walking and were ready to sit for a while. Unfortunately, it was not yet time for our train, so instead we sat in a park across the street from the Bolshoi Theater (currently closed for restorations) in front of a very large statue of Marx, resting and chatting until it was time to go to our train.

One of my favorite things about Moscow (and St. Petersburg) is its Metro (subway) system. The stations are incredible. Created as palaces for the people, they feature statues, carvings, mosaics, paintings, chandeliers, and all sorts of other fanciness that would most certainly not be featured in your average public transportation station elsewhere. Before coming to Russia this time around, I decided that I was definitely going to make sure I took pictures inside the metro stations, but that is easier said than done. Since you have to use a flash, as soon as you take the picture everyone in the station knows you have done it, and they all turn to stare (glower) at you. It was somewhat embarrassing. I only got one picture.

Friday, August 19, 2005

A Sad, Homeless Kitten

A View of the Cathedrals

City of Cats

Part I: The Town Ruled by Cats

You all know that I love cats. On one hand I am excited that the city seems bursting with friendly felines, but on the other hand it simply breaks my heart. Today (during a break between seminars and testing) I decided to go for a walk. I had read that the road that parallels Bolshaya Moscovskaya (the main street of Vladimir) to the south leads to a good view of the Uspenski Sobor (Assumption Cathedral) from a distance. I walked to the end of the road, and was met first with a tangle of brush. I could see the golden domes of the Uspenski Sobor gleaming through the leaves, but I had to do a bit of climbing and precarious leaning to take some good pictures. (And I did get some excellent shots, by the way. I will try and post one if I have time.) This spot (off the end of Georgievsnaya Ulitsa, I think) would make an excellent spot for cheesy tourist shots if only the brush was trimmed. If I were the mayor or tourism director of the city, I would most definitely clear this spot out and post signs. But as it was, it was just me, clambering through the brush with my camera. And, of course, there were the cats.

K, one of our two lead teachers, and who spent last year teaching at the AH as well, has a theory that the city of Vladimir is ruled by cats. They are everywhere, and at times it is almost creepy. Initially, it was actually creepy. There I was, up on this stone ledge, leaning awkwardly through the brush in order to snap some photos... I turn around, and there are cats everywhere. At least six of them, perhaps more. They were not afraid of me, although they also did not seem very interested in me either - especially when they realized I was not going to feed them. They all vanished into an opening under a nearby building. No doubt to hold a meeting of their Secret Feline Government. I decided to head back to the main street. On my way, I encountered a teeny tiny little fuzzball. The fuzzball uncurled itself and formed an adorable, if incredibly dirty kitten. When I know I cannot take in a cat, I try my hardest not to pet strays, but this one was just so cute that I could not help myself. It responded enthusiastically to having its head rubbed, so I sat down on the step next to it... and the little thing promptly climbed up into my lap and began to purr. I sat there for a long time. A couple of people walked by, and either entered or exited nearby apartment buildings. I asked if it was their cat, but no one claimed it. Like I said, it was very dirty, and underneath its size-giving fuzz, it was skin and bones. I really wanted to bring it home, but Gosha (the AH cat) does not like other cats in HIS house (I have seen him defend his territory), and I do not know how Nina M would react to a stray (and probably sickly) kitten. I may have cried over the poor little thing. I did not even have anything to give it for a snack. In the end I simply wished it well and resumed my walk. The whole experience left me feeling rather depressed.

Part II: Back to work

At 6:00pm we tested a group of approximately fifty new students (students who had never studied at the AH before) to determine what course we would place them in. The students took a written test (sentences and multiple choice) and had to do an oral interview with us as well. This was my first chance to meet average AH students (as opposed to yesterday when we met the cream of the crop), and I was still impressed. Certainly no one I interviewed was at the same level as the students I met yesterday (and some of them were literally either scared stiff or shaking like leaves), but for the most part they all seemed genuinely interested in being there. It was a good to get a feel for the average student.

Okay, it has been a long day. I did not get home until 9pm (we were grading tests!) and I still have Russian homework to do and EFL info to read……

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Part I: Work

I do not want to bore all of you with details of my work, although I will write a little summary of what we did today at the AH. In the morning we had Russian lessons (I do not think the teacher was too disappointed that I had not done my homework, since I was able to explain to her in Russian all about Nina M’s mysterious late night walks), and then we moved on to learning about teaching the A1/A2 levels (elementary knowledge). For lunch some of my coworkers and I ate at Traktir, the restaurant directly next door to the AH. Traktir has two sections, an indoor restaurant that is open year round, and an outdoor section that is open as long as the good weather lasts. The outdoor section is cheaper, so that is where we ate. Unfortunately, Traktir is very expensive by Russian standards. My meal cost about $5.60 (which was more money than I spent from my arrival through yesterday combined). By American standards, it is quite inexpensive, although as I am now living on a Russian salary, lunches at Traktir will have to be limited. I think tomorrow I will stock up on some bread and cheese to keep in the AH refrigerator for my lunches.

After lunch we delved into some of the AH textbooks. I am very pleased to see that these are real textbooks, from which students can actually learn to speak/read English. We spent some time discussing the good and bad aspects of the different books, and we also spent some time looking over supplemental materials.

Part II: Meeting the Students

After work we had sort of a meet and greet with about eight or nine of our students (approximately as many students as teachers). I do not know how they selected the group with which we met, although they all were very interested in studying English, and they all had excellent language skills. It is reassuring to know that students actually come here to learn.  Anyhow, we had a short conversation about politics. At least among the students present, Bush is not popular in the least. I was also relieved to learn that my fellow teachers are also fairly liberal, and no one likes Bush. (The AH teachers are like a window on America for the AH students, so apparently last year all of the students were really confused as to how Bush got reelected when none of the AH teachers liked him! Not that those of us who voted for Kerry weren’t equally confused, but that is more of a topic for elsewhere!) Interestingly enough, Putin seemed very popular among the students, and the consensus seemed that he will probably amend the constitution so as to be able to run for a third consecutive term. Anyway, several of the students told us why they like to study at the AH: the atmosphere. Apparently the interesting topics and the more laid back and informal atmosphere of our classes is very appealing to them. One girl said that she had enrolled in the AH because she was doing poorly in English at school, but now she loves it so much that she wants to make a career out of it! That is awesome. It is so wonderful to know that I am now a part of an organization that actually accomplishes things.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Cathedral, Suzdal Kremlin

Gosha the AH Cat

Blistery Tuesday

Today (Tuesday) was my first real day of work. True, classes do not begin until September 5th, but we have a lot of work to do in order to prepare ourselves for the teaching year ahead. In the morning we had a group Russian lesson for an hour. (Group lessons are for the week. After classes begin, we will receive three hours of individual intensive Russian language study each week. This is the same amount of time our ESL students spend in class at the school in a week, only we have individual instruction.) I have Russian homework to do, although unfortunately it involves interviewing Nina M. I would do it, but after I got out of the shower, she hopped off to go somewhere to do something (I must admit I was not really paying attention!), and I am starting to feel rather a bit like going to bed! It would not look good to leave my first homework assignment undone, but it is looking like that very well may happen. After the Russian lesson, we had a bit of a break, followed by lunch, and after lunch we delved into the Z1 and Z2 levels. These are the lowest levels of courses taught at the AH, for students who know no English whatsoever. It was essentially a very simple overview of the levels of the students and how to structure the class, although it was very informative. Tomorrow we will be discussing the next level up from Z2.

After seminar on Z1/Z2 classes, K, B, and I walked to the train station. We are going on a day trip to Moscow on Saturday (at least this time I will be able to see something of the city aside from the airport), and we leave from the train station at 7:00am. As such, we all have to know how to find the place. On our way to the train station, we saw numerous homeless cats (not feral, as they were all very friendly), and it was so hard not to bring them all home. One tortishell looked almost exactly like my cat back home, and there was also a calico kitten that was playing with a bottle cap that was so adorable... but not everyone reacts as calmly to my bringing home stray cats as my mother. Besides, there are so many strays that there is no way I could make an impact. Of course, I think many Russians make an effort to feed the strays. (I know this happened in St. Petersburg), and while most of these cats look pretty ratty, they are obviously not starving. Perhaps there are a lot of rodents? Then, of course, there is Gosha, the AH cat, who is essentially in charge of the place, and who serves as a good way for me to relieve my lack of cat frustrations. (And he bites! Like my cat! Love bites! Well, sort of, sometimes.) Anyhow, we walked to the train station and then back to the AH, which was a pretty lengthy walk. By the time we returned to the AH, my feet were hurting. Shortly before I left the US, I bought a pair of shoes (from Payless, as usual), and today was my first day wearing them. It seems common with Payless shoes to have a rather blistery breaking in period. I do not mind, as I like getting cheap Payless shoes, but by the time I returned home today I could barely walk. Luckily, I have Band-Aids and Neosporin.

Alas, this is not the most interesting of posts. I am tired, and need to do my Russian homework. But, as Nina M has not yet returned, I may simply go to bed. I am really getting old. It is only 9:30! I really need to be reading about English grammar tenses, but I know that as soon as I pick up that book I will be sound asleep!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

AH Staff in Suzdal

Cathedral, Monastary in Suzdal

Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir

The American Home

The American Home Teachers

Left to right, front: K, J, Y, me, B; back: G, Male B, M

Saturday, Sunday, Suitcase

Part I: Saturday: Suzdal

Today (Saturday) our group (teachers, staff and one former teacher) took an excursion to the nearby town of Suzdal. Suzdal is a very small and very old Russian town. It, like Vladimir, was once the capital of the ancient Russian state, and according to Lonely Planet, the first record of the town of Suzdal dates back to 1024. The town is full of churches, most of which are very, very old. It is unfortunate that I am not religious, as I would probably view them in an entirely different light. As it is, I am finding myself rather obsessed with photographing onion domes. I utterly adore the architecture of Russian Orthodox cathedrals, and to me all other historic churches and cathedrals pale in comparison.

We spent all day in Suzdal. We had absolutely perfect weather all day long, although as we were leaving it began to get cloudy, and they probably had one hell of a rain after we left. Today was the Suzdal City Day 2005, so there was a huge festival going on. Tourists (both local and from out of town) were everywhere. It was very strange to me, as the last time I was there (granted, this was back in 1999), there was hardly a soul in the town other than my group. I took an incredible amount of pictures (far too many shots were of onion domes), and am really, really happy that my digital camera is working. I have found that the best way to take fantastic pictures is to take as many as possible. That essentially improves your chances at snapping something great. I am sure any true photographers out there will simply laugh at this, but it works for me. I took 45 pictures in Suzdal, and four are absolutely incredible. I may go ahead and post a couple Vladimir and Suzdal images on this site (just a few) at some point when I have time to upload them all. Like I have said before, our internet connection is really slow.

Part II: My new home

I live in an apartment with a host mother named Nina M. She is (I think) in her upper sixties, although she may be older, and is a grandmother. The Russian term babushka (translated as grandmother) definitely applies to her. (There is a stereotypical babushka image, and she fits it to a T) Anyhow, she is very nice, and likes to make lots and lots of food. I usually tend to eat very little, but I feel horrible about not eating something she has taken the trouble to prepare. If only the portions were smaller! As it is, I think I am going to gain a ton of weight trying not to offend. The apartment is larger than that of my last host mother (from my 2000 trip) and we each have our own bedroom. My room overlooks a very busy Vladimir street. Nina M seems worried that I will have trouble sleeping because of the noise, but those of you who know me know that I could probably sleep through a war or an alien invasion. Plus, after living under the flight line of the San Diego airport for the past two years, I am essentially immune to noise. 

I must say that the shower leaves much to be desired in terms of water pressure. Usually I miss Triscuits the most when I am overseas; I think this time I will be craving a strong shower. Unfortunately, Nina M does not have a cat, or any other pets, which is somewhat disappointing. She loves cats, and used to have one, but it died after a long life and made her very sad (that is essentially a direct translation). She is contemplating getting another kitty, but has not decided. Obviously, I am trying to encourage this! (I also told her about how my mom has ten cats. She did not react in shock, the way most people do. So I said it again. Apparently, she had assumed that I misspoke. No one has ten cats! I have also shown her pictures of my cat and of my mom’s cats. She really thinks that the long haired and fuzzy orange cat is the most adorable of the bunch.) I have found that my Russian language skills are not nearly as horrific as I had assumed. I comprehend nearly everything (especially when I know the context), although I still have a very difficult time replying. Additionally, despite having been away for five years, I am still very comfortable with life in Russia. I know that several of my coworkers have commented on how different things are here, and yet to me it all seems normal.

Part III: Sunday: Frisbee

I went to bed at 9:00 last night. After the long day, I was feeling utterly exhausted. I slept until almost 11:00 this morning! I had kind of expected to wake up at 6am or something. Most of the other American teachers and I had agreed to meet up at the American Home (AH) at 2pm, so everything worked out well time wise. I actually made it downtown early enough to do a little bit of walking about. I took some photographs of the Golden Gates and the nearby former Trinity Church (now home to the blown glass and crystal museum) from atop the remainder of the ancient ramparts of the city, as well as a few shots from along Bolshaya Moskovskaya, the main street of the town. I also took a couple of pictures of the AH, which I will post for you when I have time.

By that point it was time to meet up with the group. All of the Americans except Y. and Male B. came. The day was wonderful, yet again, with perfect temperatures and not a cloud in the sky. (Of course, some of the others are from much cooler climates, like B. who is from Alaska, and they seem to think it is hot here. However, after having spent the last month melting in the nearly unbearable heat and humidity of FL and GA, this seems like paradise. Although I am guessing that B. will adapt to the winter better than I will!) B. brought a frisbee, and J brought a football... Now, for those of you who do not know me personally, let me just tell you that I am not athletically inclined in the least. I enjoy walking and hiking, and that is essentially the extent of my sporting activities. It is somewhat unfortunate that at the bulk of the group is a lot more into sports than I am. I don’t mind sitting and watching people play (we were all talking, so I did not feel excluded or anything), although I felt like I was being a bit anti-social. But we did have fun. We walked down to the stadium (which was not open for public use, but which had a nice, open, empty field for general use right next door), and I watched while the others played football and frisbee. I also took some funny action shots. I have not gotten used to the sports setting (for taking pictures of fast moving people and things) yet, so the pictures are not the greatest, but still amusing nonetheless.

After playing (or watching!) for a few hours, we walked back to the AH, where we tried to check email, but alas, the internet was not working. I think the hardest part about being over here (as it is when I do any traveling) is not being able to have access to the internet at all times of the day. I feel like I am going through internet detox, although perhaps that is a good thing. We ended up sitting around and discussing various things, mainly the AH, teaching, students, etc for several hours. I returned home around 7pm. Nina M is not home, although this morning she told me that if she wasn’t here when I returned that there would be food on the stove, ready for me to heat up. I have not yet checked, although I am sure it is there. (The babushki love to feed us!) I am actually rather frightened of this ancient gas stove. Granted, I had to light the stove via matches at my last Russian apartment, but that was five years ago, and to the best of my recollection, I was always worried that I would incinerate my fingers! Ahh well, I suppose I should check it out.

Later: Well, I am glad that I did not attempt the cooking thing myself, as the gas (in the pipe leading to the oven) has to be turned on before you can light the stove. I never would have figured that one out. Luckily Nina M returned shortly after I finished writing the above paragraph. After dinner, I received a call from G of the AH, telling me that tomorrow, while everyone else is involved in teacher orientation things, I will be going to Moscow to pick up my suitcase. I am very relieved to be getting it back in my possession, but I am not particularly excited by the notion of spending a long day in the car while missing out on whatever important things we would otherwise be doing tomorrow. Ahh well. Such is life.

Part IV: Monday: Suitcase

I have my suitcase! Today was a long, boring, tiresome day, but I have my suitcase. I arrived at the AH this morning, and set out from there with V, one of the security guards. We drove to Moscow, which took us three hours. I must say that it was quite a gut wrenching and knuckle whitening ride. Luckily, I’ve ridden in enough Russian and Korean vehicles that at this point I am rather complacent about it. Nonetheless, I was amazed at some of the maneuvers he pulled in his ancient Volkswagen Golf. (Yes, it was a VW Golf, not a Lada or something.)

We spent about an hour at the airport. We found some women working in the Lost Luggage Department, who were very much disinterested in whether or not we found my suitcase. I had to give them my copies of the various forms Galina and I had filled out on my first day, and I had to show them my passport and my baggage claim tickets. Then they pointed me towards a very large warehouse, stacked floor to ceiling with lost luggage (reminiscent of the warehouse where the Arc of the Covenant is housed at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie, and more than full enough to stock Unclaimed Baggage in Alabama and a couple additional stores besides) and told me to go find my suitcase. 

You might think this a daunting task, but let me just say, to all of you who have laughed at my garish bright orange and lime green ribbons attached to my suitcase: if it hadn’t been for them, I would still be crawling up and down the shelves in the warehouse checking each and every black suitcase to see whether or not it was mine. As it was, I was able to spot my suitcase immediately. Hah! (I must say that this rather surprised the women staffing the place.) V then tried to get someone (Aeroflot, LOT Polish, whoever) to give us some sort of reimbursement for the cost of having to drive all the way back to Moscow for something they lost. Of course, no one who was available claimed to be able to assist in any way. So, we returned to the car.

And the car would not start. (I remember thinking that at least I had my suitcase. And my towel; Ford Prefect would be proud.) There was definitely something terribly wrong with the starter. (The Russian word for starter, by the way, is apparently starter. Just say it with a Russian accent.) Luckily, the Golf was a stick shift. In theory, I’ve always known how to push start a stick, although I’ve never done it myself. There were many times when this could have been very useful in the Volvo, except that I doubt my petite friends and I could have pushed that tank fast enough to get it going. Anyhow, V push started it all by himself, then (as it was idling) proceeded to make some very unusual repairs with a pen knife and a rusty spring. It made it all the way back to Vladimir, although (due to rain) the drive back took four hours. A complete day shot, but at least I have my suitcase. I had to lug all 49lbs of black suitcase up several flights of stairs. There isn’t anywhere around my apartment where one can park, turn off one’s car, and then push start it, and V did not wish to get trapped in the alley behind my building. Of course, Nina M was utterly appalled that he did not bring the suitcase up to the apartment for me. I did not mind in the least. I keep telling you people that I am stronger than I look!

Saturday, August 13, 2005

suitcase update

Well, we just learned that the suitcase is in Moscow. I hope I will be able to get it within the week.....

My first full day in Vladimir

I woke up very early, about 5:30 in the morning, without the help of an alarm. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, and since I could not go back to sleep, I decided to write the previous blog entry. After typing that up, Nina M. was awake, and she made me bliny. (Bliny are very similar to pancakes. I ate mine wrapped around a type of jam. Yummy.) At that point, I was feeling very much like a nap, and I fell back into bed and slept until it was time to go to work.

The American Home (so far, at least) seems wonderful. All of us had been instructed to meet at the school at noon. Nina M. escorted me to the school, so that I would be able to find it. The school is about 15 minutes from the apartment by trolleybus, and half an hour or so to walk. If you have not visited the website of the school, click here! The school building is modeled on a traditional American “ranch-style” home. The living room, kitchen and laundry room are to be used as such (you know, for cooking lunch and doing laundry and whatnot). The rooms that would normally be bedrooms are offices, and the classrooms are in the basement and attic. The school is packed with teaching materials, and we will be spending the next two weeks learning to teach (we have a very hectic schedule of teaching workshops awaiting us before classes begin). Additionally, there are people who will cover for you if you’re sick, and people to assist you in disciplining students when necessary. All of the school staff (Russian) and my fellow teachers (American) seem like fantastic people, which should make this a great working experience, even if I will be really, really busy.

After touring the American Home and meeting all of its employees, we had lunch (no McDonald’s today; instead we ate at a traditional Russian restaurant, and had a fantastic meal of chicken Kiev), and then went on a short guided tour of the historic part of the city. Unfortunately, the internet connection here is way too slow for me to be constantly uploading photographs. I promise all will be online when I return to the US. You’ll simply have to take my word for it that today was beautiful – warm (but not hot) weather, bright blue skies, cool breezes… the perfect day. We visited the Dmitrievsky Sobor (the Dmitri Cathedral), the Uspensky Sobor (Assumption Cathedral) and the Golden Gates. All three of these buildings were constructed of limestone in the twelfth century, and all are utterly stunning. I took many, many pictures, and undoubtedly will take many more of these three landmarks before the year is out.

Mmmm. Honestly, I had meant to write a lot more about my day last night, but I was exhausted. Today we went to the nearby town of Suzdal, which was fantastic... I will try to write about that tonight and post it tomorrow or Monday.

Friday, August 12, 2005

An inauspicious arrival

Part I: LOT Polish Airlines

Previously, when I flew on Korean Air, no one on the plane really spoke English. Of course, I obviously stood out as a non-Korean, so no one merely babbled at me in Korean and assumed that I would understand either. The problem with flying on LOT Polish Airlines was that everyone assumed I could understand Polish… at least until whatever it was that was said to me was met with a blank and confused stare. About half an hour into my flight (From New York’s JFK to Warsaw), the girl to my left tried to start what sounded like a very jovial conversation with me. When I quizzically said, Ummmm, hmmmm?, she repeated herself, before then asking, in heavily accented English, “Do you speak Polish?” When I laughed and said no, she replied, “Ohhhh. I’m sorry.” And she sounded genuinely sorry. Additionally, Polish (as with other non-Russian, Slavic tongues) confuses my ears to no end. I recognize many words – or at least think that I do – but for the life of me I simply cannot match the words together in any sort of comprehension. 

My ride on LOT Polish was not the most comfortable of flights, although I found the food to be surprisingly tasty. The in-flight movie was Miss Congeniality II, but the audio for the movie worked in neither English nor Polish. The interesting thing was that no one complained. Everyone around me flipped through the audio channels over and over and had conversations (sometimes in English, so I understood) along the lines of “Can you hear it? No, me neither.” But no one buzzed the flight attendant. That’s the sort of thing that would have caused a plane full of stereotypical American tourists to raise a stink. Since no one seemed to care about complaining, I didn’t. I wasn’t dying to see Miss Congeniality II or anything, although it would have served to relieve the tedium of an eight hour flight without draining my meager literary reserves. The girl to my left and I flipped through the audio channels continuously for about ten minutes before shrugging, smiling at one another, and giving up. When in Rome. Er, Poland.

The only other thing that was interesting about my long and essentially boring flight on LOT Polish was that as soon as the plane touched down in Warsaw, all of the passengers broke out into spontaneous applause. I don’t remember that happening on any of my other trips to Eastern Europe, and it certainly didn’t happen on my flight into Russia.

Part II: Aeroflot

I’d heard a lot of horror stories about Aeroflot. Namely, I’d heard it characterized as “the world’s worst airline.” While onboard, I felt that Aeroflot offered the same level of service and comfort as LOT Polish, with the added benefit of the flight staff speaking a language I somewhat comprehend. The food was also quite tasty. I have a tendency to fold my tray table down and place my head on it in order to sleep while in flight (apparently this is something that only those of us of small stature can really accomplish – and there wasn’t even room for such a feat on LOT Polish, once the girl in front of me leaned her seat back), and as I was utterly exhausted, I promptly fell asleep in such a position as soon as I finished with my lunch. Imagine my surprise when I was awakened with a loud thwump! as the plane came to a jarring landing and my head smacked into the tray table. No nonsense about making sure your tray tables are in there upright and locked positions here!

Part III: My inauspicious arrival

We deplaned and went through immigration. I was pleased to see that we had landed a little early. Perhaps I wouldn’t arrive in Vladimir very late at all! My fellow passengers and I gathered around the appropriate baggage carousel and began to wait. We waited. And waited. And waited. After a little over an hour, the bags finally began to come. I had been slightly concerned about the fact that I took three separate flights through three separate countries on three separate airlines… would my bags actually make it all the way to Moscow? I had asked at each check-in: “Are you sure my bags will get there?” and at each location I had been assured that yes, they would. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my gargantuan new suitcase was the very first to come rolling down the line. I immediately felt all of my muscles relax. If one suitcase was here, surely they both were. Obviously, you can see where this is heading.

Soon there were no more bags on the belt. It was still lumbering in a slow circle around the carousel, and I hoped fervently that there would be more baggage to come. Then I realized that I was the only person still standing there waiting for luggage. And then the carousel switched off. Unfortunately, I could not see a single person resembling baggage claim staff anywhere in the vicinity. There was a nice, shiny booth labeled “Lost and Found” which would have seemed promising had it not been empty. I wandered around the baggage claim area a little bit, hoping to spot some sort of airport employee, before finally heading back towards immigration, since at the very least I knew people were working there.

At this point I need to interject the part of this tale, which at the time was completely unbeknown to me: There are two main airports in Moscow: Sheremetevo and Domodedovo. Half of our group was flying into one, half into the other. I was part of the group arriving at Sheremetevo. The Sheremetevo has a domestic and an international terminal. Now, this might sound fairly humdrum to you, but here the “terminals” are actually separate airports altogether. We were all expected to arrive at the international terminal. My plane, for some bizarre reason, flew into the domestic one. (I, of course, had no idea of this whatsoever.) Anyhow, after picking up the people who arrived at the proper terminal of Sheremetevo, my group determined where my plane would be, and raced to meet it. They were (I believe) about an hour late. I was not waiting for them in the arrivals section of the airport, and they began to worry. Had I missed a flight somewhere? Surely had that been the case, I would have gotten word to them by now. Perhaps I had realized I was at the “wrong” terminal, and had endeavored to make my way to the other. What if I had gotten lost? What if I were wandering about Moscow?

Meanwhile, I had tracked down an immigration officer, who brusquely told me to go to lost and found. When I told her no one was there, she directed me towards a closed door. It turned out to be the lounge area for the lost and found staff. I found one lounging, and looking none too pleased at being interrupted. She told me to go to lost and found. Again, I reiterated that no one was there. She sighed and made a phone call. “Wait here. Someone will come for you.” She went back into the lounge and closed the door.

I waited. And waited. Finally, an elderly fellow came out from a door next to the baggage carousel. That looked promising. I explained to him my situation and learned that yes, he had come to help me. I should probably explain that at this point I had been traveling for approximately thirty hours and had had very little sleep. When I am tired I get frustrated very easily, and have rather an unfortunate tendency to burst into tears. This isn’t something that I’m proud of, but it happens, and when it does, I simply have no control over it whatsoever. Anyhow, the old man gave me a form to fill out. It was in Russian, and my sleepy brain was having a hard time interpreting it. Luckily, the man was nice, and was very helpful at explaining what needed to go into which blank. Unfortunately, there was more than one form (there were three or four in all, I think) and the more Russian bureaucratic paperwork I had to fill out, the more frustrated I became. 

While still working on the first form, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker. “Would passenger Annie Nimity please report to the information booth to meet your party.” I pointed up towards the ceiling (you know, to the spot from which the sound had emanated), and said excitedly in Russian, “Those are my people. I need to tell them that I’m here.” (It didn’t occur to me until hours later that the man spoke no English. As the announcement had been made in English, he probably had no clue as to what it had said… and there I was pointing towards the roof and babbling on about “my people”!) He told me that I couldn’t go; I needed to complete the paperwork. As the paperwork continued (and grew more difficult), I began to grow more frustrated. Again, I heard the announcement. “Passenger Annie Nimity, please report to the information booth.” I told him I really needed to tell my people I was there, or else they would leave me. I asked him if he had a telephone. Perhaps he could call them and tell them I was there? (Again, I simply meant for him to call the information booth, although he probably thought I meant that I needed to place a call to the City of Vladimir.) He again told me no, and insisted that I continue to complete the various forms. This was the point at which I broke into uncontrolled sobbing. I had images in my head, of my group waiting over an hour for me, making some announcements on the airport loudspeaker, assuming that I had decided not to come, then hopping in their van for Vladimir, leaving me stranded in Moscow.

Luckily, a few minutes thereafter, a woman appeared in the baggage claim area. She seemed to be very agitated, and was talking to some airport staff about something she had lost. She looked a little like G, the woman whom I was supposed to meet. I had only seen pictures, and a brief video of G, and had seen neither recently enough to be certain of whether or not she could be the woman I needed to find. After all, I hadn’t yet gone through customs, and it didn’t seem likely that any member of my party would be allowed back where I was. Apparently, the lost and found booth is where Sheremetevo staff refer people with whom they really do not wish to deal. The woman was sent to where I stood. She began to ask the man a question, then turned to me in surprise, “Are you Annie?”

I was so happy I stopped sobbing and started crying in earnest. How absolutely embarrassing. Anyhow, I’m very glad she was there, as I don’t think I could have properly sorted out all of the paperwork by myself. So, we completed all the necessary forms. The old man told us that Aeroflot loses a lot of luggage, and said that it usually turns up in a day or two. Usually. G said that in fourteen years of doing this, she has had many employees lose their luggage, but only one person simply never received it. I am fervently hoping that I am not number two! It’s going to be a long, cold winter if I don’t have my coat. I have an entire Halloween costume and no winter coat. (I won’t even get into the impossibilities of life without all of the things in my second suitcase. They can, of course, all be replaced, although that will be expensive and rather difficult to accomplish from over here. At this point I’m still going to work on hoping that the poor thing makes its way to my doorstep.)

Finally, G and I made it out through customs, and met up with the rest of my party. At this point I learned of their trip between the two Sheremetevos, and how they were concerned that I might be off, wandering about the city or something. I had planned a nice visit to the ladies room, you know, to freshen up and make myself look all presentable after the long flight. Instead, the group got to meet a slightly hysterical and somewhat disheveled Annie. What a great first impression. Anyhow, we made our way to the van, loaded up my one (sigh) suitcase, and began the long drive to Vladimir.

The city of Vladimir is located approximately two hours east of Moscow by train. By car it's about three hours in good traffic, but it can take substantially longer if traffic's bad. It took us forever to get out of Moscow, simply because traffic wasn’t moving. We made a pit stop at a McDonald’s just outside of the city. I’m not entirely sure why McDonald’s, and it was quite odd to have my first meal in Russia be a cheeseburger and a coke (which I essentially inhaled), and then got back on the road. It took us (I think) about five hours to reach Vladimir. At this point I felt essentially as though I were about to drop dead. And of course at that point I got to meet my host mother.

I won’t talk much about my host mother, Nina M, since I’ve only just met her, and most of my impressions were probably distorted by sleep. Suffice it to say that she seems like a very nice woman who served me buttermilk and something very similar to cranberry juice before sending me off to sleep. More to come on that!

Anyhow, today was wonderful. The weather was perfect, and we had a tour of the school and a short tour of the city. I will write about all of that later, I think I've written enough for now. I do hope the suitcase comes.

Monday, August 08, 2005

So where is Vladimir anyway?

Whenever people find out that I'm moving to Vladimir, instead of either Moscow or St. Petersburg, they inevitably ask me if it's in Siberia. No. Vladimir is not in Siberia. It is approximately two hours east of Moscow by train, about three by car. Below is a nice map with an inset so you can feel oriented. Enjoy!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Desert Island Disks

If you've read (or seen) High Fidelity, or if you listen to any decent radio stations, you've probably, at one time or another contemplated your Top Ten Desert Island Disks. If for some reason you have no clue as to what I mean, these would be the ten albums you would pick if you were to be stuck on a desert island for all eternity with only ten cds. I'm not going to any desert islands, nor am I in a position to be forced to select a mere ten cds from my collection. However, with my upcoming trip out of the US, there is no way that I could possibly bring my entire cd collection and still have room for clothes. So, I limited myself to a small CD case which holds twenty-three disks. Then I had to go through the arduous task of triaging my cds and deciding which ones made the cut. First, I decided to eliminate nearly all of the cds that made the trip to Russia with me back in 2000. I had a great time on that adventure, but I'm a different person now, and this is going to be a very different trip. Only two cds from my previous trip are accompanying me on this journey.

(1) The first of these two is In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel. This is my favorite album, although if you compare it to the albums on the rest of the list, you might wonder. It has a very different sound. A friend of mine gave me this album when I was in Russia. He told me that it was possibly the greatest album of all time. This was a friend who had very similar tastes in music to myself, so when he hit play, I was confused. I actually didn't like it in the slightest! Yet somehow, it grew on me, and within the week, I found myself needing to listen to it several times a day. Additionally, I was living in St. Petersburg, a city which suffered greatly during World War Two, and which is home to a fantastic museum on the St. Petersburg blockade, and where I studied the blockade in depth in one of my courses. Jeff Mangum, the singer/songwriter of NMH has somewhat of an obsession with World War Two, and this shines through clearly in this album. Then there's the Kunstkamera, a rather creepy museum in St. Pete containing (in addition to other, non-creepy exhibits) Peter the Great's collection of human oddities. People with weak stomachs should really not visit this place.... I believe I've described it in the past as an exhibit of deformed babies in jars. I somehow ended up visiting the Kunstkamera at least three times. I also read essentially any English language book I could find. I do a lot of reading in general, and it's something I miss when I'm overseas. Translating my way through a Russian novel, while in some ways satisfying, is never as pleasing as a good old read in my native tongue. I acquired a book called Geek Love, which I read cover to cover. It was an interesting, although rather disturbing book about circus geeks (circus freaks). The parents in the book had decided to create the highest quality circus freaks, by having the mother ingest an abominable combination of illegal substances while pregnant. The children who died in childbirth (including at least one with two heads) we placed in formaldehyde and put on display. I know, this is completely gross and disturbing - that's not why I bring it up. You see, at the time I was reading Geek Love and visiting the Kunstkamera, I was introduced to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which contains the ever so memorable song Two Headed Boy. I don't know; I guess it was just a combination of things, but somehow that album seemed to fit so perfectly with the life I was living at the time. I love it. Jeff Mangum is a genius. And I couldn't imagine returning to Russia without it.

Don't worry - I don't intend to give that lengthy of a review for all twenty-four cds! Here are the rest:

(2) Tabera Noastra by the band Zdob si Zdub. I discovered this group while in St. Petersburg (and even got to see them live - they were incredible!), and I fell in love. They're not Russian (although some of their songs are in Russian). They're out of Moldova, and most of their songs are in Romanian. It doesn't matter that I can't understand a good lot of what they're saying... Zdob si Zdub produces a riotous folk-punk (a la Flogging Molly, but with Eastern European folk instruments instead of Irish) and they rock. If you can find this cd, buy it.

The remainder of the albums I selected either fell into the category of favorites, or hold the status of newbies (of which I have not yet grown tired - a huge thank you to A. for letting me burn so many of his cds!). Some of the newbies have already earned spots in the favorites category. Anyhow, in no particular order:

(3) Get Behind Me Satan by The White Stripes
(4) I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and (5) Digital Ash in a Digital Urn by Bright Eyes
(6) You are the Quarry by Morrissey
(7) Mer de Noms by A Perfect Circle
(8) This is a Long Drive with Nothing to Think About (9) Good News for People Who Love Bad News and (10) The Moon & Antarctica by Modest Mouse (To be honest, Lonesome Crowded West is my favorite Modest Mouse album... but it accompanied me on my last trip to Russia, so I'm leaving it behind this time.)
(11) London Calling and (12) The Clash by The Clash, in addition to (13) a mix CD I made of my favorite Clash songs from various other albums
(14) Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables by the Dead Kennedys
(15) Mezmerize by System of a Down
(16) Relationship of Command by At The Drive In
(17) Swagger and (18) Drunken Lullabies by Flogging Molly
(19) Doolitle by the Pixies
(20) Dry by PJ Harvey
(21) Le Tigre by Le Tigre
(22) I Megaphone by Imogen Heap
(23) The Dresden Dolls by The Dresden Dolls
Of course, I'm also bringing six cds with selected songs (some from the cds above, many from a wide variety of sources) which I'm planning to use in the classroom. However, that's work related, so I won't bother writing about it until I get over there. Anyhow, A. is flying in this evening. He'll be here until midday Monday, so don't expect to hear from me until Monday evening!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Arrival Plans

Below is an email (edited to remove personal contact information) explaining how one goes about collecting seven strangers at two different airports in a city of ten million or so.

Hi guys,
I think you are wondering who and when is going to meet you on August 11 at the airport. Traditionally, G. and A., our directors, meet everyone in Moscow. This year the arrival times are different for everyone. Also, the flights arrive at two airports: Sheremetievo and Domodedovo. So, we worked out the following plan:

G. and A. are planning on coming to Sheremetievo at about 2 p.m. to meet those who are arriving at Sheremetievo. The arrival times are different for everyone. Y. is the first to arrive (at 10:25), then M. - at 2:50 pm, then Annie at 3 pm. B. is coming to Russia on August 6 and is going to join everyone in Sheremetievo. Hopefully there'll be no delays and everything will be ok with the luggage. So, Y. could you wait for everyone else in the arrivals at the flight information board.

Then they all will go to another airport - Domodedovo - to pick up J and K. who are arriving 3:10 and 3:45 pm. So, J and K., could you please be patient and wait for everyone there in the arrivals.
Then you all will go to Vladimir. Since TG. is arriving much later than the rest of the group – at 8:05 pm, we’ll hire a driver to meet him at Sheremetievo in the evening. If you have any questions, please write to me. We look forward to meeting you.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005


I leave for Russia in ONE WEEK. I should really be brushing up on my Russian. I spent seven months in Russia back in 2000, and I majored in Russian (well, double major in Russian and PolySci, actually) at Sewanee, but I graduated back in 2001. Since my graduation, I have spent a total of seven months (not continuous) in South Korea, two months in Costa Rica, and a little over two years living ten minutes from the border with Mexico, in a heavily-Hispanic city. I've reached the conclusion that I now speak the rarest of all rare and useless languages: Spanglorusskikonglish. I can picture it now. Skazhite, please, odiessayo la kvartira de Alexei? Sigh. 

I would like to say that I spent my day actually doing something useful (so as to explain why I haven't so much as cracked a Russian book), but alas, the most useful thing I've done is go to Wal-Mart to purchase slippers. (In Russia, you take off your shoes at the door, and wear slippers, called tapachki, around your home. Most people keep an extra supply of tapachki near their door. When you visit someone, be sure to remove your shoes and to utilize the spare tapachki. While I'm sure I'll be able to find better tapachki in Russia, we were instructed to bring two pairs - one for home and one for work - and so I have.) It's simply hard to focus on the the fact that I'll be leaving for Russia on August 10th when A. is coming to visit on August 5th!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

two suitcases

The last time I went to Russia, I took two huge suitcases. I was planning to be there from five to seven months, and while I knew I might move, the cumbersome logistics of maneuvering two of the world's largest suitcases (plus a carry-on or two) around St. Petersburg by myself hadn't really occurred to me. I ended up moving three times. By myself. When I went to Korea in 2001,  I was planning on being there for a full year. I brought the same two huge suitcases that I had taken to Russia. I had no plans of moving whatsoever during the year. I also had no plans on fleeing the country in the middle of the night with a 103 degree fever (let's just say that when you're that ill, moving two of the world's largest suitcases - plus a carry-on or two - is nearly impossible). I really wanted to be substantially more maneuverable this time around; however, after spending all day organizing and reorganizing, and performing the ritual packing triage on my possessions, I have come to the conclusion that I'm really going to have to take two suitcases. After all, I'll be there for a full year, and it's not like I'm going to be moving or anything.... Sigh.