Friday, September 30, 2005

The Modern Gulag?

I am almost halfway through the roughly 600 page "Gulag" by Anne Applebaum. This is an amazing book, and I will definitely try to write more on it once I am finished. The history of the Russian Gulag system is unbelievable, as is the fact that the average educated American knows so little about it. (I actually thought I knew a good bit about the Gulag before I began reading this book; however, the knowledge I had of the Gulag system barely scrapes the surface of what is in this book.) Anyhow, last night I came across a passage that I found particularly striking, as it reminded me very much of an experience I had during my last trip to Russia. Here is the passage:

"General Gorbatov also describes how he sent an uncensored letter to his wife from inside a [gulag] transport train, using a method mentioned by many others. First he bought a pencil stub from one of the criminal prisoners:

'I gave the convict the tobacco, took the pencil from him and, as the train moved off again, wrote a letter on the cigarette paper, numbering each sheet. Next I made an envelope of the makhorka wrapper, and stuck it down with moistened bread. So that my letter should not be carried by the wind into the bushes beside the railway, I weighted it with a crust of bread which I tied on with threads pulled from my towel. Between the envelope and the crust, I slipped a ruble note and four cigarette papers, each with the message: would the finder of this envelope please stick on a stamp and post it. I sidled up to the window of our truck just as we were going through a big station and let the letter drop...'

Not long afterward, his wife received it."

Back in June 2005, I wrote a little on my other blog about the Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg. (I apologize to those of you who may have already read this segment.) This passage recounts an experience I had during my second trip to Russia back in 2000. Granted, this information is five years old, but there is definitely a similarity here:

My friends Alyosha (Russian) and Shannon (American) and I were walking along the Neva embankment (for those of you who don't know, the Neva is the river upon whose delta the city of St. Petersburg was built) when we walked past the Kresty Prison. I'd had no idea it was even there before that day. Alyosha explained a bit about the prison and its history... He said that this was the prison where alleged criminals were kept while they awaited trial... and that friends/family were not allowed to visit. He also said that the prison was incredibly overcrowded, and that tuberculosis was rampant within the facility. I don't know if that information is true or not though, but what really struck me was the people I witnessed standing outside of the prison along the embankment of the Neva. They were picking through what looked like trash along the sidewalk. We took a look ourselves, and discovered that the "trash" consisted of crude, homemade projectiles, sealed and weighted with a small chunk of bread, containing small notes to family members wedged inside, which had been launched from the tiny prison windows in the hopes that they would be found by loved ones. Some of the people found notes addressed to them, and were very excited. Others searched in vain, and wept. Some waved their arms towards the prison, spelling out Cyrillic letters in a charade-like form of communication; arms reached out through the tiny windows of the prison, spelling replies. The emotions I witnessed on that day were so incredibly strong, and this is one of the most poignant memories of my seven months in Russia.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Higher Education in Russia

To clarify before I begin this post: Galya is the 'director' or principal of the AH. Her husband, Alexei, is also employed by the AH doing various things, and in addition, he is a professor of English and Latin at the Vladimir Pedagogical University.

One of Alexei's classes is an English language conversation class. He invited any of the American AH teachers who were interested to come to the Ped today to participate in a discussion on higher education in the United States and how American institutions of higher education differ from their Russian counterparts. I thought the whole experience was extremely interesting. Six of us went. We (the Americans) started the discussion by talking about where we went to college, what type of college it was, why we chose that school, and the advantages/disadvantages to attending said school. Of our group, B went to Stanford, Y, J and I went to small liberal arts colleges (yeah, Sewanee calls itself a University, but as it only has a grad program in Theology, I’m lumping it in with Gordon and Swarthmore), and M went to Indiana University, a big state school. I've written a good bit on my other blog about my opinions of Sewanee, and what I liked and disliked about the place, so there's no point in getting into that here. Besides, this is from Russia with blog, not from small-liberal-arts-college-in-Tennessee blog. The students asked us questions about our schools and our experiences, and we compared the differences between our schools and theirs.

A lot of what I learned regarding the Russian higher education system is incredibly interesting. For starters, when you apply to a Russian university for undergrad, you must apply to a specific department. None of this applying to a college and then declaring your major a few months or a year into your college career. And no changing courses of study, either. Once you are accepted into a department, that's your department until you get your degree or drop out. In order to apply, you do not simply complete an application and submit essays. You must take both a written and oral entrance exam, for which you must prepare extensively. In other words, if you want to study, per say, English lit, you must already have damn good knowledge of English lit to even get accepted. Each department accepts a specific number of students (this varies by both school and department). Let's say for example that the English lit department accepts 30 students. Those 30 can attend the school for free. But, there might be more than 30 students who get to attend classes. Other people who score high enough on the tests can also enroll; however they have pay tuition. (I think the number of "commercial students" is limited, but I don't know for sure.) In the US, we get to choose which courses we want to take and when. There are certain core courses required for graduation and certain courses that are required for each major. However, when we take these courses is rarely predetermined, and we have a wealth of electives to choose from. (For example I, a Russian/PolySci major, got to take Astronomy, Geology, and Pseudopsychology while in college.) For most Russian students, there aren't any electives. Each department has a set of core courses and "electives"; however, the school determines which "electives" will be offered and which courses its students will take and when.

Another really big difference between the Russian and American educational systems is the attitude towards cheating. In the United States, cheating is viewed as a bad thing. If you copy someone else's work verbatim in an essay and neglect to cite your source, that's plagiarism, and will very often cause you to be kicked out of your school. At the very least you'll get a zero, and then you're pretty lucky. Same goes for copying someone else's homework assignment or cheating on an exam. Not so in Russia. The Russian cultural mindset regarding cheating is completely different from in the US. Over here, if you quote someone else's work directly within your work, and neglect to cite it, it does not matter. You are not cheating. The fact that you went out and discovered this information in order to use it in your work shows that you are scholarly. And now that you have read at least the portion of this work that you've copied, surely you now know that information, and therefore you have learned something. (I can almost understand this logic if you are copying out something by hand, but I do not think it can be applied to this modern age where one can simply cut and paste off the internet.) There is also the idea that copying the homework or exam of a fellow student is not cheating; your classmates are obligated to help you! And of course, students are not punished for cheating. Like I said, it is a cultural mindset. No one thinks it's wrong. When B and I mentioned the Honor Codes at our universities, and how there were no teachers in the room for exams and yet no one cheated, this was received with disbelief.

This whole view of cheating as acceptable is quite prevalent in my classes. Cheating on quizzes is very difficult to control, although I try my best. And it is not just the kids. I find adults of all ages hiding cheat-sheets or cribbing off their neighbors. I also discover cheaters after the fact (ex: when I was grading quizzes, I discovered that two students, seated next to one another, both spelled "spacious" as "spaceout.")

Additionally, in case you don't know, a pedagogical university is a university for training people to be teachers. We asked the students in the class (there were about 40) if any of them wanted to be teachers. No one raised their hands. Not a one. They all said that the salaries for first-year teachers in Russia were way too low (roughly $40/mo I think), and thereby really not enough to live on. They were all either planning on continuing to study at another university following graduation, or hoping to get a job employing their language skills (they were all studying English and German).

Unfortunately, there were three Russian classes all together for this conversation, amounting to 30-40 students, and the groups did not know one another. This made them all a bit shy around each other, not to mention in front of the Americans. Only a small handful of the students ended up doing most of the talking. Alexei is planning on inviting us back to the Ped periodically to chat with his conversations students in smaller groups, which will probably lead to more conversation. I will definitely go. Today was fun, and I certainly got something out of it. (Not to mention that Alexei compensated us for our time by giving each of us a very large and scrumptious Russian chocolate bar.)

After the morning at the Ped, we returned to the AH for the monthly staff luncheon. Supposedly the Russians and Americans take turns cooking these lunches, alternately called "Russian Lunch" and "American Lunch." I am sure the Russian lunches will always be better, as they have access to all of the proper ingredients. Lunch today was delicious, and I was totally stuffed. We had borscht, Russian salad, beef stroganoff, potatoes, and a yummy cinnamon apple and ice cream concoction for dessert. Mmmmmm.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

I got flowers!

I got flowers! One of my classes gave me roses for my birthday! No one has ever given me roses. They snuck them in and had them under the table. When I was starting class, one girl interrupted me and stood up with the roses. She said something along the lines of, "We want to congratulate you on your birthday!" Then all of the other students stood up and clapped! It was so nice and so exciting, I almost cried. How wonderful is that? They are in a vase in my bedroom (they smell wonderful) and they make me very happy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Birthdays Suck

The worst birthday I have ever had was in 2003, when I turned 25. I had a migraine which defied the norm and refused to go away despite a dose of both Imitrex and Zomeg. I spent about eight hours on my bed (which was unfortunately situated under the flight line for Lindbergh Field), in excruciating pain. When people called to wish me a happy birthday, the sound of the ringing phone simply made the pain worse. That one wins; it sucked.

My twenty-seventh birthday was this past Sunday, and it was pretty crappy. I had been feeling sickly throughout the past week, and felt really bad on Saturday. I awoke late on Sunday morning, and while I did not feel great, I did not feel worse than I had the day before. I needed to go to the AH to do some lesson planning, so I made my way down there. I did not do much other than check my email and roughly plan my Monday class. I definitely began to feel less pleasant. I decided to bring home all of the worksheets, quizzes and journals that I needed to grade, so that I could grade them from the comfort of my bed. Returning home was a good decision, as things rapidly degenerated. In addition to getting my lovely germs all over my students' stuff (sorry, guys!), I slept a lot, and began coughing and sneezing and in general feeling miserable. Nina M came home around six, and made me dinner. I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, and was feeling hungry, but imagine my surprise when at the sight of food, my stomach turned. I tried to eat the soup, but couldn't keep it down. I'll spare you the details. Anyhow, Nina M. fussed over me, and tried to make me feel better, but really the whole day was simply horrible. She told me that when her husband was still alive, when she got sick, he used to make her drink a glass (not a shot glass, a regular, tall glass) of vodka, mixed in with a tablespoonful of salt. She said that it was disgusting, but it made her feel better. I was terrified she would try to force me to drink such a concoction, but it didn't happen. She did, however, forbid me from taking a shower. Apparently, according to Russian lore, showering while sick will only make you worse. Unfortunately, according to Annie-lore, showering while sick feels wonderful, like you're steaming all the germs away. But instead of a warm shower, I was sent to bed with extra sweaters and blankets.

Monday was substantially better. I did not set my alarm. (If it had been up to Nina M., I would not have left my bed all day today.) I woke up at 11:00am, and while I did not feel like a normal, healthy person, I didn't feel like I was dying either. Woohoo! I have Russian lessons on Mondays and Thursdays at 11:30am, and unfortunately, I missed my lesson. I hadn't been up to doing my homework the night before anyway, and besides, I doubt my Russian teacher would have appreciated spending an hour and a half in close contact with my germs. We do not have a specific time when we have to be at the AH, so long as we have our lessons prepared before classes begin. I usually go in at 10:00, simply so I can spend a few hours attached at the hip to the internet before beginning my lesson planning. So, when 11:45 rolled around and I hadn't come to check my email or to study Russian, the school called my apartment, and received Nina M’s version of how I was deathly ill. I got on the line and said I wasn't dying, I'd be in. I was not sick enough to stay in bed all day. So, I went to work. They threw a little birthday party for me, and gave me a beautiful bracelet with traditional Russian scenes engraved on it, which I love. And we had cake and fruit, yum! My VEMZ lesson at the end of the day was a little off, simply because I was working off the plan I had written up on Sunday, and apparently I left out some key points. Well, go figure. Anyhow, I am not entirely prepared for tomorrow's classes, so tomorrow morning will be busy. Sigh. At least I am starting to feel better.

Birthdays suck. As a kid, you're conditioned to expect that this one day of the year is somehow special, something to look forward to with great anticipation. It's a day of great celebration all day long, where you're the focus. And when you're a kid, that is essentially true. But the older you get, the less special the day becomes, until one day you realize that your birthday is simply the same as any other day, and the only gift you want is the hot shower your babushka has forbidden you to take. Twenty-seven makes a girl bitter.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

In sickness and, er......

Friday, September 23rd was Male B's wedding. Male B is a teacher at the AH, and this is his second year teaching at the AH. His new wife is a Russian woman named Alyona. I have mentioned Russian wedding traditions before on this blog, but in case you missed it, I'll reiterate: First the bride and groom go to some sort of government office where they are legally wed. Then they, and a very small group of close friends and family, drive around the city, getting their photos taken at city landmarks, and visiting other friends and acquaintances. I think that this type of wedding celebration seems like a lot more fun than the ordeals that traditional American weddings tend to be. Anyhow, Male B and Alyona were married a little after 1:00pm. After a few photo stops, they came to the AH, where we had prepared a small celebration. For starters, as they walked through the AH, we had an American big band march playing. It was selected by the Russians, although we Americans thought it was odd. I don't remember the name of the march, but it is the song of the US Army! (It was on a CD that also had "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli" and "Anchors Away") So, after the rather amusing military march through the house, we all emerged in the backyard, where there was champagne, candy and fruit for everyone. Alexei had written a song (in Russian) about Britt and Alyona, and he played the guitar while we all sang along. (Part of the song included a simulated cannon-salute, performed by G and M popping balloons!) Toasts were given in Spanish (Male B was a Spanish major), English and Russian. There is apparently a Russian tradition where an apple is stuck with many toothpicks. The bride and groom are supposed to take turns pulling toothpicks out of the apple. Each time a person pulls out a toothpick, he/she has to say something nice about his/her lover. According to Russian tradition, whoever pulls the final toothpick will always have the final say in everything in the marriage. Not exactly the sort of tradition I am predisposed to be fond of, but when in Russia… I am not sure if Russians do the whole bouquet tossing thing or not (perhaps Alyona wanted to throw the bouquet to her friends, not Male B's coworkers), but instead of throwing her bouquet, they made a bouquet out of the popped balloons from the song's simulated cannons. All the Americans (male and female) from the AH stood behind Alyona as she tossed the balloon-bouquet. The damn thing came right towards me, and everyone else dove away from it. I instinctively put up my hand and then thought "wait a minute!" It smacked my hand and fell to the ground. Everyone else insisted that it meant I'd caught it. I tend to disagree. If I'd caught it, it wouldn't have ended up on the ground now, would it? Anyhow, we partook of the champagne, fruit and sweets, and then Male B, Alyona and their entourage went on their way. Russians do not have the tradition of trying crap on the back of the bride-n-groom car, so several of the AH people got together and tied a bunch of crap to the bumper. (And we all fervently hoped that they didn't end up with a traffic fine!)

I had been feeling fine all day long. I thought I was finally over my cold. Then, about an hour after Male B and Alyona left the AH, my throat began to ache. I snagged some rather potent cough drops from B, and set off for class. As classes went by, I began to feel less and less like a healthy person. I began sneezing and coughing and my sore throat got worse. I left my last class and went straight home (ahh yes, a fantastically exciting Friday night, that). I arrived home, and Nina M took one look at me and asked me if everything was okay. I had dinner and went straight to bed...

Saturday, I slept until nearly 11:00am (a nice, Nyquil-aided rest) and awoke to feel mostly okay except for the even scarier sore throat. This would not have been a problem, except for the fact that on Saturday at 3pm I was scheduled to give an hour long talk to AH students on the road trip that A and I took this past summer. I had been looking forward to giving this talk, although when I got up, the thought of talking for an hour given the way my throat felt was not pleasant one. But the talk had been scheduled and advertised, so I got dressed and made my way to the AH. The talk (aided by Cepacol and DayQuil) went pretty well, I think. The students all seemed very interested in the trip, and in my photos. Alexei took tons of photos of me giving the speech (inevitably every time the flash went off, my mouth was open, so I am sure they will be ridiculous), and the next time he distributes his photos to the teachers, I will post any that are decent. After my talk, we showed the movie City Slickers, which also seemed to go over well. (There is a lot of physical comedy in the movie, so students with low language skills can still understand the humor.) After the movie, I dragged myself home and returned to bed (mmm, Saturday night, just as exciting as Friday night here….)

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Linguistics, Denny's, Garbage and Yoshimi

This is going to be full of teacher geekery. Sorry. I just can't help myself.

I have office hours on Wednesday evenings for an hour and a half, for students with questions, students who simply want extra practice, and students who need to make up missed quizzes. I had several students come in for office hours today. One did not understand part of what we discussed in her class last time: This, That, These and Those. What it boiled down to was a simple linguistics problem. The Russian letter that looks like a backwards N sounds like "eee" and it is transliterated into the Latin alphabet as the letter "i". Because of this transliteration, words containing the letter "i" are often mispronounced (ex: the word "give" often ends up sounding like "geeev"; "him" "heeem" etc.) Conversely, words with the double-e are often misspelled (even the most advanced of our students often write "slip" when they mean "sleep"). Anyhow, in class, we discussed This v. That before moving on to These v. Those. My student had written "this" on her paper, but somehow neglected to write "these" (yes, I did write them on the board, and yes, these words are in her book, but this was one of my sickly students, so probably all pistons weren't firing...). Anyhow, when I began the discussion on These v. That, she simply assumed that when I said "These" I meant the word "this" which she had written on her paper. No wonder she was confused!

Students seem to really enjoy it when I bring real American things into class. I have had a lot of success with songs and with photographs. The AH is also full of various American items, collected over the years for use in class, including a set of ten Denny’s menus. Now, I like Denny’s and despite the fact that it's essentially an unhealthy grease-pit, I rather frequently find myself craving Denny’s fare. Looking at the full color photographs of Denny’s food featured in the menu definitely sets the mouth a-watering. These menus are also very different from the usual Russian menus, which are, in general, mere lists of foods and prices, sometimes with descriptions, sometimes without. Anyhow, I have decided that even though my VEMZ class is a business English class, they are going to learn about going to Denny’s. Well, okay... they are going to learn about going to restaurants in general, with Denny’s as the example. The way I see it, if they are ever traveling in the States on business, they may very well get asked out to dinner by a colleague, and are going to need to know what to do. Of course, as these students are at a very low level of English, I have to keep it simple. The grammar points I'm focusing on are "do you like" and "would you like to". I wrote up a nifty little dialog exercise, although once I finished, I realized it could make for a totally cheesy Denny’s commercial. What do you think? I think my VEMZ class is about to learn why so many Americans are so overweight.

1. Ed: Sarah, ________ you _______ to go to Denny’s after work?

Sarah: I _________ like to, but I have to work late.

2. Ed: Anne, ________ you want to go to Denny’s after work?

Anne: I don’t know. What type of food do they serve?

Ed: Everything! _______ you ______ eggs?

3. Anne: No, I _________. I ___________ like breakfast food.

Ed: ________ you ______ to eat hamburgers?

Anne: They have hamburgers? I ________ love to come!

4. Anne: Hey, Tom, _____ you _______ to come to Denny’s with us?

Tom: I ________ love to! Denny’s is my favorite restaurant.

5. Sue: Why ______ you want to go to Denny’s? I can’t stand that place!

Tom: Why ________ you like Denny’s?

Sue: I ________ like the food, because it is very greasy.

6. Tom: Well, I love greasy food! What kinds of food _____ you _____?

Sue: I ______ healthy food. I love salads.

Tom: ________ you like a Garden Chicken Salad?

Sue: Denny’s serves Garden Chicken Salads? I __________ love one!

Songs used in class so far this week: The World is Not Enough (hereinafter abbreviated as TWINE) by Garbage and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips.

TWINE did not work very well. My students did recognize that it came from a James Bond movie, which did lead to a very short discussion of the film (namely which JB film was it, did they see it and did they like it); however, as far as discussion of the lyrics or introduction into grammar it was not that great. The main problem was that there simply is not a coherent plot or storyline within the lyrics. I wanted to introduce "not enough," but how do you explain what the song *means* by "the world is not enough"?

I was disappointed in the reception of Yoshimi. This is another of my favorite songs and it is simply so weird! (Perhaps it was too weird??) It is sung slowly and clearly, and most of the words are familiar to the students (and the strange words and the meaning of the song are easily explained). The class seemed disinterested. Of course, this class contained my sickest students, so that might be one reason why no one got ecstatic over Yoshimi karate chopping some evil, man-eating robots. I do think it worked for introducing "those" though: "You won't let those robots eat me, Yoshimi..."

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Trinity Cathedral Reflected in the Windows of the Drama Theater

A Few Slightly Sickly Days


Well, the cold weather seems to be arriving. Today, the temperatures did not get out of the upper forties and lower fifties, and for much of the day the sun was reduced to a hazy orb, obscured by a dismal blanket of clouds. Not exactly the most inspirational day for accomplishing anything. I got up early (with the help of my alarm), for the sole purpose of beating everyone to the washer and dryer at the AH. I woke up before Nina M, and was simply planning on heading out without waking her up. I’m a big girl; I can fetch my own breakfast. Of course, she woke up before I could escape, and was horribly offended that I wanted to leave without breakfast. She insisted that in the future, if I wake up before she does, I should bang on her door and wake her up. Protestations that I didn't want to disturb her sleep fell on deaf ears. So, following some yogurt and some kasha (like oatmeal), I set off for the AH with my laundry. I succeeded in making it to the washer and dryer first, and spent the morning cleaning my clothes. And I got to talk to A while waiting for my clothes to finish, which made my morning substantially more exciting than it would have been otherwise. I spent a few hours in the office, grading tests and journals and preparing my Monday lesson for VEMZ. My tests had mixed results. The average grade of the AH class that is at the same level of the VEMZ class was lower than the VEMZ grades, although they still performed quite well, and I had several students score 99%. My other two classes are supposed to be at the same level as one another, although one is definitely "slower" (as they would say in Forrest Gump). The "slow" class had a lot of students who wrote, "I am from in Russia" (despite the fact that we have drilled "I am from Russia" vs "I live in Russia" every day) as well as many who did not remember the correct past tense forms of verbs or who did not understand the "used to" construction. (Of course, at least half of the students in that class *did* understand those concepts, so I do not feel too bad.) My more advanced class of that level did very well on the test, with at least three students scoring 100%. Woohoo! I did not stay at the AH for very long, once my clothes finished drying; I have been feeling more headachy and back-achy than normal the past few days, and such feelings are more conducive to lying in one's bed than to planning lessons or being social. (I am getting old!) Okay... off to do my Russian homework.


Well, while yesterday I did manage to do my Russian homework, I also took a four hour nap. Later, when I went to bed, I did so wearing not only my pajamas, but socks, an extra sweater and a ThermaCare heat wrap. No, it was not cold in my room; my chills were illness induced. Today I was still achy, and my sinuses were doing something funky, but I managed to keep myself high on a combination of Advil Allergy & Sinus and Excedrin, which buoyed me through the day. B wasn't feeling well today either. It seems that today she felt as I did yesterday, although while yesterday I took a four hour nap, today she taught three lessons. I am hoping that my four-hour nap nipped this thing in the bud, because Brooke is also suffering from a sore throat, and we all know what happens when I get a sore throat. Remember last year when I had to email in sick to work? Yep, when I lose my voice it's gone for days, which is not exactly conducive to teaching. But, I think I am on the mend. While I am still planning on taking some cold meds before I go to sleep, I feel infinitely better than I did this time yesterday.

When I awoke this morning, the thermometer outside the window read 3 degrees C. According to the Fahrenheit/Celsius conversion chart in the back of my Lonely Planet, 3C is 38F. (Ahh yes, 38, the unlucky number strikes again. No wonder I felt like crap.) Anyhow, the morning was cold and dreary, and the day seemed to hold little hope for improvement. Oddly enough, it blossomed into a beautiful day, with temperatures in the upper fifties, and a bright blue sky. Russians love to talk about the weather; I seem to be picking up this habit. My day was fairly uneventful, and the class at VEMZ went well.

On the bus ride home from VEMZ, a thought occurred to me about gender roles in Russia. The buses and trolleybuses each contain two members of the city transportation staff: drivers and conductors. The driver, as you might guess, drives the bus/trolleybus. The conductor collects the money. You do not pay right as you get on. Instead, the conductor walks up and down the aisle, collecting money from newcomers. I have ridden on many, many buses and trolleybuses in the past six weeks. All of the drivers have been male, and all of the conductors have been female. Today I found myself wondering why that was. Do women simply not want to be drivers? Do men simply not want to be conductors? Or are these gender-specific roles? It is not as though being a conductor is glamorous work. In fact, in the six weeks I've been in Vladimir, not one of the conductors has seemed the least bit glamorous. Additionally, the work of the conductor is not exactly easy. I have seen conductors break up fights, and forcibly throw drunken and/or non-paying passengers off the bus/trolleybus. I am curious as to why men never fill the role of conductor. Do any of you have any ideas?


Well, there goes that idea. I may have seen a female trolleybus driver today. Of course, it may have just been a shaggy haired dude, but I think she was a she. Still no male conductors though, but I'll keep you posted.

Today was my "long day," my day with three classes. The first one (my "slow" 3rd-level class) was observed by L, our Teacher's Assistant. L is a great help to all of us, as she know the library and our gargantuan collection of resources inside and out. She can always find you supplemental materials if you're having trouble finding them yourself. Anyhow, I wanted her to observe my "slow" class and to give me suggestions. They are always so lost! Meanwhile, my other 3rd-level class understands everything that I tell them and all of the students do really well on their work. I am glad she observed the group, and I hope she has suggestions, but since she has *only* observed that class, I am worried that she will now think that I am ineffectual! Ahh well; I will talk to her about it tomorrow. Anyway, getting the students in both the "slow" class and my second class to participate today was like pulling teeth. (I hate to keep using that tired old expression, but it gets the point across quite well.) Additionally half of the students in each of those classes were obviously ill (where oh where could B and I have snagged this bug? Hah.), and not wanting to participate in the slightest. In my second class, I have a student who is always raising her hand and volunteering to speak or to go first or whatnot, and this class, she was obviously sick and did not say a word. I really wanted to tell her to go home; English class isn't worth it! Luckily, my last class of the day (the "fast" 3rd-level class) went fantastically, so at least at the end of the day I had something to feel positive about.

I am definitely getting better; I am no longer miserably achy, although I still have the remnants of a cold. I am hoping it will be gone tomorrow, although who knows how many virulent new Russian germs I was introduced to today in my sickly classes. However are teachers supposed to stay healthy? I'm taking my vitamins and washing my hands, what more can I do? Ahh well.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Mushrooms in a tree

Mushrooms up close and personal

A typical Russian apartment building

How great to have the ability to read!


B (who lives about a ten minute walk from me) and I decided to go exploring today. It has been very easy to fall into the routine of getting up, going to work, then simply coming home. While I have done some exploring in the area surrounding the AH, I have not done much exploration near my home, and neither had she. So, we met outside my apartment a little after 11:00am, and began to walk. We went into a lot of different small stores in our neighborhood, and looked at various things we could buy if one day we happened to need those items. We discovered that exactly midway between her apartment and mine is the World of Shoes, a rather amazing shoe store full of all of the boots (leather and lined with fur, but pointy toed and atop stiletto heels) that any woman living in Russia would need during the winter. No, I did not purchase any (I'm certain I can get boots cheaper at the market), but I can easily envision myself purchasing several pairs. Sigh. We also discovered a nice bookstore very close to Brooke's apartment. No English language books, of course, but a nice selection of very Russian notebooks. (My students, male, female, adult, and teen) all have the most adorable notebooks that they use in class. I bought one today; I simply could not help myself. On the cover is the cutest little black kitten, sitting atop an open book. The Russian caption reads "How great to have the ability to read!" We took some pictures of typical Russian apartment buildings, and I took some incredibly cool shots of two mushrooms growing out of a knot in a tree. We also went to the post office and mailed some letters to the States. (Again: hint, hint, people!) Afterwards, we went to the AH. J offered a clinic in playing American Football this afternoon. I think I have mentioned before how impressive J is with a football. Anyhow, sports are definitely not my forte, but I was very pleased to see that not only was there a large turnout among our students for the clinic, but many of them were girls. Good for them! Meanwhile, I went inside and participated in the great American sport of internet surfing, which is far more up my alley. The Weather Channel had predicted a cold snap for the beginning of last week. True, it has been a tad cooler, but the cold snap never materialized. Of course, this evening it has begun to rain, and I suspect that the wonderful weather we've been having might now be coming to an end. We shall see.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sleeping With The Gulag

Thus far, I have not graded the tests from my second set of classes, so I do not yet know if they have caught on as successfully as my VEMZ class. (As the success of my students reflects on my success as a teacher, I cannot yet fully evaluate my performance.) I can say that the White Stripes did not work so well in the classroom. I only used the first few lines from Red Rain (I wanted to emphasize the phrase "in the morning") but I do not know if it served to do anything other than confuse my students. Up until yesterday, I had been making my students sing along with each song, but I did not bother with this one. Did I really expect them to keep up with Jack White? What was I thinking? And only one of the students seemed to appreciate the style of music. (This is too bad, as Get Behind Me Satan is starting to compete with In The Aeroplane Over The Sea for first place in my CD collection.) I only used Red Rain in my ZII (lower level) class. In the other classes I used the Dionne Warwick song, "Do you know the way to San Jose?" We were discussing how to ask polite questions, and the song led up perfectly to the lesson. And the students all seemed to appreciate the meaning of the song, and we got to talk about pollution in Los Angeles and how so many people go to L.A. to become movie stars and end up getting their dreams shattered. (Cheery, I know.)

I have finished reading Alexandra: The Last Tsarina by Carrolly Erickson. I have mixed feelings about this book. When I blogged about the Anastasia book, I said it read like a novel. Let me clarify. The Anastasia book was a well researched work, written in a literary style that made for good bedtime reading. Alexandra, reads like a Danielle Steele novel. It's an entertaining book, but not exactly profound. And a tad over-flowery with the prose. Erickson seems to have essentially taken the already researched story of the last Tsarina, and prettied it up for consumption by the layman. But while the flowery style of the book irritated me nearly every page along the way, I do feel that I learned a good bit about Alexandra and Tsar Nicholas, and the goings on during their reign. If I were still in college, working on a paper, this would not be the book to use, but if you are simply interested in some light historical reading, go for it.

One of the most interesting things in to book (to me) was this one sentence: "The vast blue and white Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo was made into a hospital for officers, its beautiful amber-, lapis-, and malachite-decorated reception rooms filled with beds, its ornate ballroom converted to an operating theater." See, I have toured the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo, and I have seen the "beautiful amber-, lapis-, and malachite-decorated reception rooms" and the gorgeous formal ballroom. I had no idea that during WWI the palace had served as a hospital. (Was I not paying attention, or did the guides leave this info out of the tour for some reason?) It is also interesting to note that Erickson states unequivocally that all four daughters of Alexandra (yes, including Anastasia), were killed in Ekaterinburg in 1917. She does not mention a hint of controversy on the subject. Hmm.

On a different, although slightly related note, I rummaged through the AH library looking for the next book to occupy me in my free time. The AH has a fairly large library, although since its purpose is to educate Russians about America, there are very few books in the library about Russia. (The ones that are there have, for the most part, been donated by previous teachers; I have donated Anastasia.) I did find another book on Russian history, although I can't imagine it will be very cheery: Gulag by Anne Applebaum. Is this really the book I want to curl up to every night before I fall asleep? Well, I have to admit I snagged some fiction too. There was one Dick Francis book in the library, and I have not read it before!! Dick Francis is one of my favorite mystery authors (all his books involve horse-racing to some extent, and most are set in Britain), and I was sure I had read all of them. The book is entitled Forfeit, and its discovery was quite a pleasant surprise. So, I'm off to bed, and I shall be curling up with Mr. Francis. I can sleep with the Gulag another day.

Friday, September 16, 2005

A lime green Matiz in South Korea

Foreign Imports

My class yesterday at VEMZ went a lot better than Monday's class, as I stuck to the normal amount of grammar and did not try to overload them. I gave them their first grammar quiz, over the stuff we've covered so far, and the lowest grade was an 86, and the highest was a 99. I am quite proud of them all for doing so well. I am giving tests to my three other classes today; I hope they all do as well. The VEMZ class also requested to have our classes start at 5:00 from now on, instead of at 5:30. That is fine by me, as VEMZ is the only class I have on Mondays and Thursdays, and the earlier we start, the earlier we finish.

The last time I was in Russia (2000), there were virtually no foreign cars. True, the wealthy (a teeny tiny percent of the population) tended to prefer Mercedes and BMWs (nearly always black, with tinted windows), which they imported from somewhere, and every now and then you would run across a rare Volvo or Volkswagon or something (and remember, I was in St. Petersburg, a big and modern city), but for the most part, Russia was the land of the Lada and the Volga, the two most common Russian brands of car. Russia is definitely beginning to import more vehicles. Here I am five years later in provincial Vladimir, and there has definitely been an influx of foreign cars. Not a substantial amount mind you (it isn't like the US or anything), but the Lada and the Volga have some competition. The two most noticeable imports are the Ford Focus and one of my favorites, the Daewoo Matiz. I have no idea how well these cars run, or whether or not they are reliable, but it seems that (in both Vladimir and South Korea), they most commonly come in Lime Green. That is enough to endear me to any car (except the impractical and overpriced new beetle). Lexus and Audi have also made good headway in competing with the other luxury car companies over here. Granted, most Russians still do not own cars (with reliable public transport, there is really no need), but I find this interesting. Go Daewoo!

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Classes - music and films

My classes went much better today than yesterday. I had enough time to rewrite my lesson (the one that was the same level as the one I botched yesterday), and, for the most part, that class ended up going very well. The song I chose for class did not work as well as I had hoped. I used one of my favorite songs, Here Come the Martian Martians by Jonathan Richman. Grammar-wise, it tied in with our last lesson (nationalities), so when we did our review, I added in: A person from Russia is Russian; a person from Mars is Martian. The students got it, and laughed. Also, we were able to discuss the lyrics, and I think they understood them, although the lyrics are so weird in English that it is hard to tell if they could be translated very well. The main problem came when we tried to sing. I had never thought about how incredibly FAST the tempo of that song really is, and my poor low-level students were simply not able to keep up. Things to keep in mind for next time, I guess. In my other two classes today I used Walking After Midnight by Patsy Cline, and it worked fabulously. The song is slow enough for the students to listen to, understand, and sing along with, and they lyrics were very easy to explain. AND the grammar topic of the day was that nasty phrase "used to." But I got to explain the story behind "I go walking after midnight, out in the moonlight, just like we USED TO do" (which is really depressing, actually), and it made a great introduction to the topic. I also used some of my photos from home (I used to have blonde hair. A used to have a beard. M used to be single. I used to live in Florida.), which the students seem to enjoy looking at. I have to admit that I got choked up, not once, but in both classes, in the middle of the damn Patsy Cline song. I am turning into such a sap in my old age!

In the Patsy Cline classes, we are watching Forrest Gump. The plan is to watch approximately five minutes of the movie every class. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand, I hate Forrest Gump. The first time I saw the movie, I thought it was neat how they managed to edit together real historical footage with the image of Tom Hanks, but that was all I really liked about it. In high school, I had some friends who loved this movie, and who insisted that we watch it at nearly every sleepover. I grew to detest that film, and I still do. Plus, I really do not enjoy sad, sappy movies. I may get all teary eyed at Patsy Cline, but I haven't yet degenerated to the point where I enjoy sobbing my way through tear-jerker films. Especially when it's a film I have already been tricked into sobbing my way through more than once. Life can be sad enough. Why should I choose to inflict extra sadness upon myself? Give me a comedy, or an action flick with a happy ending any day. Or Team America, which has both. But back to Forrest Gump. The reason why Forrest Gump is shown to the lower levels is because of the fact that Tom Hanks's character speaks so damn slowly, making it easy for others to understand. I was not looking forward to watching Forrest Gump; however, now that we are watching it, I have decided that it will be a very educational movie. After all, we are the American Home, and we are supposed to be teaching our students about American language and culture. The movie focuses on many of the important events of American cultural and political history. Today in my classes we talked about the Civil War, slavery and the Ku Klux Klan (in case you are wondering, Forrest Gump was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest). It was not a very in depth discussion (they are at a low level, after all), but they knew about the Civil War, and agreed that slavery was bad, and that you should not name your children after jackasses who found racist organizations. I also got to explain the phrase "His back is as crooked as a politician," which was simply an amusing thing to explain in and of itself.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Of Russians and Hobbits

Part I: Russian Lesson

Back when I took my hair raising trip to Moscow with Vanya in order to reclaim my suitcase, all the other Americans at the AH took a Russian language test, in order to see what they would need to go over in their Russian lessons. (Each American teaching at the AH receives two 90 minute individual classes in Russian per week for free... this is the same amount of instruction our students receive, except that our classes are one on one, which is fantastic.) I, being in Moscow at the time, did not get to take my test. Russian lessons began today, and the first thing I got to do was take the test. I did surprisingly well, especially considering that I have not studied Russian since I graduated in May 2001. Of course, I feel I have a bit of an advantage over the others, in that I have had a month of daily speaking practice to refresh my memory, and they had been here less than a week when they took their tests. But I did well on the test, and when Nellie (my Russian teacher) and I discussed my mistakes, nearly everything that I had done incorrectly made sense as soon as we talked about it. Woohoo! Of course, she assigned me what I thought was quite a lot of homework... and then told me (in complete seriousness, as far as I could tell) that next time she would not give me so little homework! Sigh. But, I told her that I want to study Russian so that I can work for an American non profit that does international relations and development work with Russia, and she says she will try and focus the theme of our lessons accordingly. I have no idea how one would do that, but I suppose I will find out.


Today my class at VEMZ did not go so well. This was not the fault of my students in any way. I simply got over ambitious and tried to cram two days' worth of grammar into one lesson. For some reason, when I had looked at the topics in the book, it seemed perfectly reasonable to combine the two grammar topics into one session. Unfortunately, it turned out that the authors of the book knew what they were doing when they divided the chapter in two. Instead of spending part of the class explaining boring grammar rules, and spending the rest of the class doing various written and oral (and fun!) activities to reinforce the grammar, I ended up turning nearly the entire class into one long and tediously boring grammar lesson. I feel terrible that it was so boring. Plus, since we did not do any reinforcement activities, we will have to do them next time. On one hand that is good; next class we will get to do all of the fun things I had planned for this class. On the other hand, the reason I did the two grammar topics in one lesson was so that I could accomplish more before the midterm. As it is, I will not be able to introduce a new grammar topic next class. I am going to have to rewrite my syllabus for both VEMZ and the syllabus for the class I have at the AH that is the same level as the VEMZ class... not to mention that I have to rewrite my lesson plan for that AH class (which is tomorrow) as I had planned on doing two grammar points in there as well. Sigh. I hope my VEMZ students do not decide that my class is too boring to attend in their free time!

Part III: Students everywhere

So, I am starting to feel like my mother. In my hometown it seemed that just about wherever she went, she would run into her current or former students. She has only been teaching in the small town where she currently lives for a little over a year, and already she is running into students all over the place. This has begun to happen to me as well. Yesterday, as I was walking down the street, I saw someone whose face looked familiar. She smiled and said hello (in English), at which point I realized who she was and what class she was in, and I was able to say hello in return without feeling too thrown off. Later the same day, I saw a friend of the daughter of one of the Russian teachers at the AH. (How small-townish is that?) I hardly know this girl (in fact, I do not remember her name at all), but there she was, waving at me from across the street. Today, on the trolley ride home from VEMZ, as I was preparing to disembark, I noticed a young woman watching me. Now, I do not always stand out as a foreigner, although when I do, people tend to stare. I did not think that I looked too non-Russian today, and I kind of thought I recognized her. Then she smiled. Russians do not smile at people they do not know and simply accidentally lock eyes with while on public transportation. Crap. I must know her. Who is she? I smiled back. When it was my stop, she stood up to get off too. I decided that she looked a lot like the new girl in my VEMZ class. I had only seen her today, and as she sat in the very back, I could not see her clearly. (At this point I figured that it was probably her, because the trolleybus came from VEMZ. Sometimes I am a tad slow.) Anyhow, as we disembarked she asked me where I lived, and then we had a nice little conversation. I am 90% certain that she was from my VEMZ class.

Part IV: Mushrooms!!

So this morning, Nina M asked me if I liked mushrooms. Well, what she said was the Russian equivalent of: You don't like mushrooms, do you? You know, the kind of question that is phrased such that you expect the answer to be No. She seemed genuinely surprised when I said that I love mushrooms. Perhaps none of the previous Americans who have lived with her liked mushrooms. Although I felt kind of like that scene in the Fellowship of the Ring (the book, not the movie) where Frodo and Sam arrive in Buckland with a basket of mushrooms given to them by Mrs. Farmer Maggot. The Hobbits in Buckland, upon hearing that Frodo and Sam had already eaten mushrooms once that day ask something along the lines of: Well, you won't be wanting seconds, will you? But of course Frodo and Sam want seconds. Who turns down mushrooms? Anyhow, Nina M made me mushrooms for dinner. I do not remember the name of the type of mushroom I was fed (it sounded something like the Russian number 5, so kind of like pyat, but not quite), but these were absolutely the best mushrooms I have ever had in my entire life. They were not cooked in any sauce or seasoning; they were simply stir-fried in some cooking oil to a nice texture, but wow! I have never tasted mushrooms with such a rich, incredible flavor before. I could have eaten them all night. No wonder Russians are such avid mushroom pickers if this is the kind of delicacy they can find in the woods!

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Power of Elves

Well, I had written a lengthy post last night, only to get here and discover that none of the computers would read my disk. So, I could either wait until tomorrow in hopes that I could save my writings to a functioning disk, or I could simply go ahead and write another post. I think I'll do that; I like writing.
Yesterday I had my second set of classes at the AH, and they went really well. The first two classes (the ones which had been really quiet the first time around) were a lot more willing to participate, and they seemed to even enjoy themselves. In the first class (as in my third), I used Nellie the Elephant by the Toy Dolls in class. We only listened to and discussed the first verse, but it was very easy for me to explain to them, and it also led into a good discussion of the simple past tense (grammer topic of the day), as I was able to ask questions like, "Where did the circus go?" "What did they bring?" and "What did Nellie do?" etc. I also used photos of friends and family to ellicit past tense statements. ("What did A do last April?" "He drank beer and played chess."). My third class of the day actually requested that I play them Jane by Elf Power, which I had used during my first class with them. One student even began singing it aloud of his own volition. The entire class sang to the whole song and several gave me tapes and asked me to make them copies, saying that it was a great song! My second class of the day (a lower level than the other two) got to listen to I am a Rock by Simon and Garfunkel. The lyrics were easy enough for me to explain them to the group; however, it is a sad and depressing song, so I think it may have put everyone in a mopey mood at the beginning. But they did all seem to agree with me that it was a beautiful song, if sad. (and as the grammar point was a review of present tense "to be," we focused a bit on "I am a rock," even though it's metaphorical.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Going Postal with Anastasia

Part I: Going Postal

I went to the Post Office yesterday. There were two different windows, behind which sat two different women. There was a long line in front of one window. I, lemming that I am, got in the line. I had been waiting in said line about five minutes, when I noticed that the woman behind the lineless window was staring at me and at the letters in my hand. I began to have a sneaking suspicion that I needed to go to her, but as she made no move to wave me over, I remained where I was. After a full ten minutes, when I finally reached the head of my line, I was told that I needed to go to the other window. Hmmm. Nope, I was not surprised. Neither was the woman who had been watching me. She knew all along that I needed to be in her line. You have got to love customer service in this country.

I returned to the Post Office again today. There was a chair blocking the entrance to the facility. The door was wide open, and there were no signs saying the place was closed or anything, so I climbed past the chair and went inside. No one was behind either window. I stood there for about a minute, and a woman walked into view behind the windows and said: We are having lunch. Well, I did not have anywhere to be for several hours, and as I had gone rather out of my way to get to the Post Office, I figured I would simply wait for their lunch to finish. About ten minutes passed, during which time various women poked their heads out and stared at me. Finally one gave an audible sigh and asked if I wanted to buy something. I told her I wanted to mail some letters. She sighed again, then agreed to sell me some stamps. Hah! I win.

The moral of this story is that I have started sending cards and letters and such to all of YOU (while braving the Russian Post Office to do so), therefore feel free to send me things in return (especially since the USPS is a lot more customer service oriented). Hint, hint.

Part II: Anastasia

Before I left the US, my mom gave me a book entitled Anastasia, the Riddle of Anna Anderson by Peter Kurth. I have been working my way through it ever since my arrival in Russia. It is the tale of Anna Anderson, one of the many women who claimed to be the daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. I (as many of you, I am sure) had heard the speculation that perhaps Anastasia had somehow escaped the execution of the royal family in Ekaterinburg in 1917, although I never gave much credence to the rumor. (I mean, they made it into a Disney movie, which of all improbable things cast Rasputin as the villain. How serious of a theory could this be?) Anyhow, Kurth’s book is well written (it reads like a novel, albeit a scholarly novel) and very well researched (although he is obviously biased in favor of Anna Anderson's claim). After finishing this book, I would say that it is QUITE likely that Anna Anderson was in fact Anastasia Nicolaevna, daughter of the Tsar. If any of you can get a copy of this book, I highly recommend it. Whether or not you believe that AA is Anastasia, you will be entertained, and it will give you a lot to think about. The next book I am reading is a biography of Anastasia’s mother: Alexandra, the Last Tsarina by Carolly Erickson which I picked up at the AH. I will let you know my thoughts on it when I am finished.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

My Russian Television Debut

This afternoon, as we were all sitting in the Teachers Office, working on various lesson plans and whatnot, Galya came into the office and asked if any of us were from the Southern United States, and if so, would we be willing to give an interview to a television news crew about Hurricane Katrina. Britt and I are the only ones from the South (he is from South Carolina) and he was uninterested. I said sure, why not. The news crew wanted to know if they could come over right away. Again: sure, why not. Apparently any time there is some sort of big news event in the United States, the local news crews like to get the opinions of actual Americans, and the AH is a reliable place to find them. Not that I am from New Orleans, or that I am in any way an expert on Hurricane Katrina, but Florida got hit first by Katrina, so apparently that made me prime interviewing material.

The whole experience was rather surreal. I mean, for starters, back on September 1st, I asked all of you to send me as much news as you had on Katrina, simply so I would be informed. (Thank you to all who did email me about Katrina, because I at least had something to say other than what I read/saw in/on the news.) Anyhow, first this crew show up, and films me several times walking up and down the street trying really hard to pretend they were not there staring at and filming me. It was really, really hard not to laugh, especially since the first time we did it they had forgotten to put film in their camera. So there I am, trying to walk down the street looking natural while fighting off a fit of the giggles as I prepare to discuss the biggest natural disaster to hit my country in my lifetime. I was worried I would look like a jackass.

Then we went inside for the interview. They wanted to know a little about me (the usual why are you in Russia? kind of thing), and then we turned to Katrina. First the woman asked me to tell her about the recent tornado in my country. Um, hurricane? Oh right, yes. Hurricane. So I told her essentially what I knew: that Katrina had hit Florida, and killed 11 people, before gathering strength and hitting near New Orleans. At first everyone was relieved that the city did not get a direct hit, but then the walls protecting the city from flooding broke, and the city flooded. She asked me if I had any friends or family members in New Orleans. I told her about my friend who had evacuated, and how her university had canceled classes indefinitely. I also told her that a natural disaster of this magnitude has not happened in the US in my lifetime, and that it was simply unbelievable. She asked how I had heard the news about Katrina (from emails, reading the news online, and from the news here in Russia), and then she wanted to know if what I had seen on the Russian news about Katrina was the same as what I had heard from friends and family. I said that I have a hard time understanding Russian, and that from what I can tell the facts presented by the Russian media are the same as what I have been hearing from my friends and family back home. Then they decided that since I received most of the hurricane related news via the internet, we needed to go upstairs so that they could get some footage of me on the computer. (At this point, several other AH teachers made their TV debuts as well: M, L, Y and J were all in the office, so they were filmed, albeit silently, as part of the ambiance) I got to pull up and and gesture emphatically to the screen while pretending to talk to the reporter about what I saw. Then we went outside and filmed several minutes of me pretending to have a conversation with the reporter, in case they needed an image or two to go behind their speech. Surreal.

After returning home from work, I explained to Nina M, and we had a rather frantic search for the correct channel. I had been interviewed by TV6, and I had rather assumed that TV6 would be channel 6. Of course, it turned out that TV6 was on channel 14, and we only discovered this just in time to witness my Russian television debut. As I gave the interview in English, I was of course dubbed in Russian that was mostly correct. And some of the shots of me chatting with my fellow teachers and reading the news on the internet were silent, with the reporter talking about things I had said. It was interesting, although possibly just to me.

I have never been on the news in the United States, or in any other country for that matter. I find it strange that the first time I was on TV was in Russia. It is also strange that I was there essentially as the token American, and that I was talking about a disaster that I really have no knowledge of other than what everyone else in the world knows. But there you have it. I do not know what else to say...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Keeper of the Koshka

Some of you may remember the phenomenon of the koshka, but as most of you most likely do not, let me explain. Do you remember back in 1998 and 1999, when beanie babies first became popular? Now, I am certainly never one to worry about following fads, and as fads go, I pretty much think that collecting beanie babies is one of the most ridiculous. However, on my birthday in 1998 (my Sophomore year of college), my roommate gave me a beanie baby cat. Do you remember what the beanie baby cats looked like when they first came out? (I say this because later they changed their design.) Anyhow, in spite of myself, I thought the beanie baby cat was adorable. I cut off the stupid Ty label from its ear, removed the beanie baby tag from its ass, and designated it the koshka, after the Russian word for kitty.

On my birthday, when I received the koshka, I was feeling depressed (about a lot of things that I need not get into here), but for some odd reason, looking at the koshka cheered me up. I took it with me when I studied for tests, so that when I felt down or otherwise distracted, it could cheer me up. I began to bring it with me when I took tests, and I aced every test the koshka was present for. I took the thing everywhere, and I became rather convinced that the thing had magical test-taking powers. Okay, so you think I am a freak, right? Well, I was not alone in the koshka fad; I managed to spread this nonsense to my group of friends. My Sewanee friends A, E, and S all got koshki, and I think B may have had one as well. I have numerous pictures from the length of my Sophomore year wherein I or my friends are posed with koshki (most often atop our heads or resting upon our shoulders). I even have pictures of members of the band Jimmy Eat World (before they became famous) in my house with koshki upon their heads. No, we were not shy about this weird practice.

 photo JEW_zps9508586a.jpg
Members of Jimmy Eat World. The fellow with the koshka on his head was the bass player.

In the summer following my Sophomore year of college, A and I, along with my Russian professor and six other Sewanee students traveled to Russia for a six week language and culture program. A and I brought our koshki. (Somewhere I have a photo of the two of us posing in front of a Russian sign that said KOSHKI, with our koshki on our shoulders.) We spent two weeks in Moscow, and then took the overnight train to St. Petersburg, where we spent our remaining four weeks.

 photo koshki_zps4f925c63.jpg
My Russian professor was always trying to get the members of our group to speak in Russian to complete strangers. Granted, one of the main purposes of our trip was to improve our Russian, but I have never been much of one for starting up conversations with complete strangers. Hell, I often have a hard time starting up conversations with people I know really well. A (like our professor) is one of those people who can have a conversation with anyone, anywhere, about anything, and he was always willing to practice his Russian with whomever came along. While on the overnight train to St. Pete, as I snuggled down in my bunk and prepared for bed, A and our professor went to the dining car to purchase booze and snacks, and came back with a Russian chick.

The Russian chick in question was roughly our age, and she was nearly identical to Uma Thurman’s character in Pulp Fiction. In other words, she was hot. And she was perfectly happy to meet two attractive American men and go back to their train car to drink booze with them. (She was also perfectly happy to chat with me too!) Anyhow, her name was Ludmila, she was a Mormon (although apparently not a very good one!), and as I said, she was really quite attractive. She was also very much they type (physically) of girl that A gets attracted to. We talked, drank and laughed late into the night. Anyhow, at some point, A brought up his love of monkeys. (This might have been because at that point he had only studied Russian for two semesters, and was at the level where it is really easy to talk about colors and animals, but not too much else. Of course, the dude also has quite a monkey obsession.) Anyway, as soon as we mentioned monkeys, Ludmila told us that just that very day, she purchased a giant purple monkey. In fact, since A liked monkeys so much, she wanted to give him her monkey. Would he like to accompany her to her train car?

Austin followed Ludmila out the door, but immediately darted back in to grab his koshka. He was gone for a while, so our professor decided to follow, ostensibly just to make sure he was okay, although I expect he wanted to spy. The two returned shortly thereafter. A’s face was flushed, and he held a gigantic (and hideous) purple and yellow monkey. Apparently he had gone to her compartment, and she gave him the purple monkey and began kissing him, at which point he panicked, tossed his koshka at her, and ran. Thus A lost his magical koshka.

And perhaps I have found it. Tonight, as we gathered in the large room to introduce the students to the new teachers, I saw a girl sitting in the crowd of students. She looked to be roughly my age, and (to the best of my memory), was a perfect doppelganger for Ludmila. And then it turned out that not only was she in my last (and best) class of the day, but her name was also Ludmila! I do not remember where Ludmila was from, although I do not believe she was from either Moscow or St. Pete. Could this be the same Ludmila? Surely not. That would be an absolutely insane coincidence. Nonetheless, all through class I kept wondering how I could ascertain whether or not she was in fact the keeper of the koshka. I wonder if I get to teach the Have You Ever Been to St. Pete unit? I can picture it now: Have you ever taken the night train to St. Petersburg? Are you now or have you ever been a Mormon? Do you like monkeys?

My Second Day of Classes

Well, the second day of teaching was not as fantastic as the first, although it went fairly well. My first class (A1, the third level) was very, very quiet. One main mission of the AH is to get students conversing in English, and with those kids (this was the class where the average age was 14) it was totally like pulling teeth. For the most part they just sat there. The other problem with this class was that the lesson was supposed to be a review of things they should have already known. Unfortunately, they did not already know these things very well, and I did not have enough time to do much more than a review. I am teaching two classes at the A1 level, and I was told one class would be more advanced than the other. This was definitely the less advanced class. The students were, however, all nice and well behaved. Woohoo!

My second class was Z2 (the second level, and the same level I teach at VEMZ, just without the business terminology). The lesson went very well, because I had essentially conducted the same lesson yesterday, and therefore had already practiced. However, unlike the VEMZ employees, who were all jolly and willing to participate, the Z2 class was very quiet, and again, getting them to participate was tough. One girl in this class likes watching the Simpsons, and I totally won her over when I hummed the theme song. (Although I personally do not find Gomer and Marzh nearly as funny in Russian.)

My third class of the day was awesome. It was at the A1 level, and they were far more advanced than the first A1 class I taught. It was definitely a review for them, and we were actually able to have conversations in English, and I got them to converse among themselves in English, quite an accomplishment for the first day! At the beginning of each class I have given a short autobiographical introduction, and this class clapped when I finished. They also clapped at the end of class, and apparently several told the AH staff that they really enjoyed my class :-) I am glad that is my last class of the day, because I left the AH in a great mood, feeling as though I had accomplished something.

Teaching three 90 minute classes in a row is exhausting. I ate lunch, but unfortunately, as classes went from 4:00 to 9:00, having eaten lunch did not really do me any good. I am like one of those stereotypical old people who eats supper at 5:00 every day, and by the time 9:00 rolled around, I was feeling positively light-headed. I am definitely going to have to cram in a pre-dinner before class. (There was a full, three course meal waiting for me when I returned home. If only I could have had it after my first class!)

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we do not have any classes. We have a teachers meeting in the early afternoon (which means I get to sleep late!!!), and I have office hours at the AH from 5:00 to 6:30. And, of course, there is lesson planning. I am mostly looking forward to the sleeping in......

Monday, September 05, 2005

VEMZ rocks!

I *just* finished my very first class, the class at VEMZ (the Vladimir Electric Motor Factory, or as they like to call it, the Vladimir Electric Motor Plant), and it was awesome. I was worried that the students would be at very different levels from each other, because had they been studying at the AH, they would have been divided up into two different groups (second level and third level). I was worried that the more advanced students (who supposedly were in the minority) were going to be bored out of their minds; however, while some students were a little more advanced than the others, they were all pretty much on the same page. They were also all very nice and very interested in learning, and really we simply had fun. The class was 90 minutes long, and it simply flew by. I love that class. I actually felt like I accomplished something today.

Let me tell you a little bit about the factory. VEMZ has a website (
click here), and if you can't guess, I am totally going to see if I (or my class and I) can make the English text on their website a little better. Anyhow, before I left for VEMZ, I had talked with K (who taught there last year) about whether or not I could bring my camera or my laptop to class. The camera part was not because I wanted to take pictures of the factory, but simply because I essentially take the damn thing with me every where I go. The laptop idea was because I thought it would be a good prop to talk about, and if I did a lesson on the internet, I could at least show them the offline version of my site. But K said that wasn't a good idea, and her explanations made sense. A lot of factories in Russia are either dual use or designed to become dual use rather quickly if need be. (For those of you who don't know what I mean, "dual use" tends to refer to a product that can either be used in the civilian or military sphere). Additionally, all factories, dual use or not, have to worry about industrial espionage. So, no camera, no laptop. Besides, it would really suck is some over-zealous security guard decided to confiscate my two most precious possessions. Anyhow, I was already feeling a little security conscious when I arrived, and of course I was met with a nice set of security guards who needed to be presented with a pass in order for one to go by. Luckily, I was expected, and was escorted in. In theory, I should receive my propusk (pass) tomorrow. So, I go through the security gate, and enter a complex that to me was very similar to a military base, both in layout and quality of the buildings. I felt oddly at home. The classroom was in some ancient factory classroom, with motor schematics and information on geometry and chemistry on the walls. And it had an ancient chalkboard. I haven't seen a chalkboard since elementary school, and this thing was pretty old. (I had even brought white board markers, but they weren't any use!) Nonetheless, we made do with the pathetic little chalkboard and pieces of paper. The class was a lot of fun, and they definitely learned things. Several of them walked me out and showed me how to get to the nearest bus stop. (One of the words I taught them in class was "security guard") On our way towards the security guards, one of the girls pointed at the security building and said, "They are security guards!" and she sounded really, really excited to say this. It is such a good feeling to have had a successful first class. Of course, I am still worried about tomorrow, when I have three 90 minute classes, one of which is packed full of 14-year-olds, but as for right now, I'm feeling pretty good about things.


Gosha's Woes and the Vladimir City Day

Part I: Gosha's Woes

Gosha, the AH cat, has been having some trouble of late with an adorable feral who seems to have decided that the AH property is a safe place where food appears on a regular basis. I first saw the feral near the beginning of last week. I think I have commented before on the fact that while there are so, so many stray kitties here, most are not afraid of people. This one, however, is; he will not let anyone approach him. He is adorable: part Siamese with beautiful chocolate points and incredible blue eyes. Unfortunately for the feral, Gosha is highly territorial. He has a good spot and he knows it; he is not about to give up his rightful spot as Chairman and CEO of the AH to some random alley cat. Unfortunately for Gosha, the feral is one big, tough alley cat. The other day, Galya was looking for Gosha. She was worried because the box he sometimes sleeps in had fresh blood in it. Eventually Gosha turned up, and he did not have any visible signs of having been in a struggle. At some point last week one of my fellow teachers told me that the AH staff was worried because Gosha was not eating. The other evening, as I sat in the Teachers’ Office, working on lesson plans and such, I heard that unmistakable sound of a catfight. I ran to the window and poked my head out. The feral was calmly sitting in the grass as though nothing unusual had happened; Gosha was nowhere in sight. Then one of my coworkers came running around the corner (scaring the feral) shouting: That cat just attacked Gosha! Apparently, Gosha did not do too well defending himself. Later that evening, I saw the feral stretched out full length on the picnic table in the back yard (one of Gosha’s favorite spots). I tried to go and talk to it, but it fled as soon as I opened the back door. Poor Gosha has been spending a lot more time inside than usual. And he has being friendlier than usual. I shall keep you apprised of any developments in this feline drama.

Part II: Sunday, Day of the City of Vladimir

Today was the Vladimir City Day (I believe today was also Moscow’s City Day celebration as well), and in Vladimir at least this made for rather a huge festival. I got off to a late start (intentionally, having decided to sleep until I awoke of my own accord, which was wonderful). I first went to the AH in order to check and send some emails, and (of course) to play with and comfort poor Gosha. I was the only one at the AH at that time (other than V, our security guard, who was out back mowing the grass. As far as I can tell, mowing the grass is simply what he does when he gets bored; it certainly did not need to be mowed!), so I decided to head out and check out the festivities by myself.

The normally sleepy town of Vladimir was quite transformed for this City Day celebration. Bolshaya Moscovskaya, the main street of the town, home to a multitude of high speed cars that seem to aim themselves at pedestrians without restraint, was closed to traffic and now a pedestrian thoroughfare. There were booths everywhere, all along Bolshaya Moscovskaya, Theater Square and Cathedral Square, selling all sorts of cheap festival type souvenirs and fair/festival type food. People were dressed in all sorts of costumes: ancient Russian warriors, Tsarist era maidens, clowns, jesters, even some dressed rather inexplicably as vegetables. (Seriously, there were tomatoes, carrots and potatoes!) Along Bolshaya Moscovskaya between Theater Square and Cathedral Square were several stages, featuring musicians, modeling contests, talent shows, etc. And the entire area was packed with people. (Vladimir has the same quiet atmosphere as a small town in the US, and I often forget that it has somewhere around 350,000 residents.)

I left the AH (which is near Theater Square) and decided to make my way towards Cathedral Square to see what I could see. I made it as far as the Golden Gates when I ran into G and J. They had planned to meet up with Nina (the daughter of the couple who own the dacha we visited last weekend) and some of her friends, and they invited me to join them. Thus began a day of gulyat. The Russian verb gulyat means to stroll, but in Russia, gulyat is a serious pastime. When you ask a typical Russian what he or she likes to do in his or her free time, a typical answer is gulyat. Essentially, you meet up with some friends, and walk around the city. Sometimes you wait absurd amounts of time for people who may or may not show up. Once your group has gathered, you essentially wander about the city without much of a plan. You might stop off at a cafe for some food or booze, or you might buy something like ice cream to snack on as you walk. If you smoke, you might stop occasionally for a smoke break. As you walk, you will probably lose members of your group, but you will undoubtedly pick up others to replace them. The whole day can be spent in this aimless walking.

Once our group had gathered (we were joined by M, one of the Americans at the AH, as well as Nastya and her sister Katya and another of their friends, whose name I have forgotten, who were Nina’s friends), we gulyali for many hours. We wandered up and down Bolshaya Moscovskaya, observing all the various goings on of the City Day celebration, and chatting. Nina and her friends all speak English very, very well, and they all seemed to want to practice their English with us. I know that they would have been perfectly willing to help me practice my Russian, but I felt quite intimidated by how well they spoke English. Did I really want to butcher their language in return?

At one point we stopped at a cafe, and we spent at least an hour and a half there. I decided to order a beer. Those of you who went to Sewanee (which, during my years of study always came in the top five booze consuming schools), will probably think nothing of Annie ordering a beer. Much less considering that Annie the Sewanee grad spent seven months in Russia. And all that time in Korea, land of Soju. But (as some of you know) I started taking some medicine last April which drastically affects the way my body processes alcohol. I have to be very careful with it, because I get drunk very, very quickly. On the surface, this sounds like a good thing (less money to have to spend on booze), but it is not simply that I get happy-boozy very quickly; I also get sleepy very quickly and very hungover feeling too. But, as I learned the last time I was in Russia (and every where else where English is not the main language), one speaks a foreign language much better when one is drunk. In other words, Annie stops worrying about whether or not she is going to butcher someone else’s native language. So, I decided to order a beer. Not only was my one beer more than twice as alcoholic as the Average American Beer (the one I had was 11% alcohol by volume), but it was also twice as big as the Average American Bottle of Beer.

While at the cafe, Katya said (in perfect English): I feel like a condom. Well, that is simply not something I have ever heard anyone say before. Surely I had misheard her. You feel like a what? Yep, that was what she had said. Anyhow, we had pushed two tables together so that our group could dine together, and she was seated along the crack between the two. She said that this phrase is very common to use (at least among Russian youth in Vladimir) when you feel like you are stuck between two things. Hum. Apt description.

Anyhow, while the beer did make the remainder of our time at the cafe very enjoyable, it kind of killed the rest of the day for me. We walked around some more, although I simply felt tired and uninterested. At around 5:30, the other Americans (we had picked up B and Y along the way) decided to go to the AH for a few hours of last minute lesson planning. I accompanied them, checked my email, and seriously debated drunk-dialing A. I decided against it, as dialing WA, drunk or sober, is expensive, and as it was a little after 6am there, I doubted the ringing of his phone would do much to rouse him. (No one should leave drunk-dialed voicemails. That is just a bad idea.) So, after sending him an email instead, I headed home, where I promptly took a two hour nap. Now I feel fine (no more boozy side-effects, although I think I am going to have to revert to my original teetotaling plan), although I am feeling somewhat nervous about the start of classes tomorrow (Monday).

Tomorrow I will only have one class, the one at VEMZ. I am not too worried about it, as I have already given my day one lecture in practice to my fellow teachers. And the VEMZ class will be full of adults who are learning English to further their careers, and as such will most likely be highly motivated. On Tuesdays and Fridays I will be teaching a full load of three classes, each 90 minutes in length. The first one contains a mix of ages, from 14 to 49. I am not too worried about it, as there are enough older students whose presence will probably help keep the class in line. The second class (which is also the lowest level I teach) is the one I am worried about. Most of the students are 14, which is a hellish age. There is only one out of place adult in this class, and she is only 23. My last class of the day will be all adults in their 20s and 30s. That should be a good class, and a nice way to end the day. I hope. I will keep you posted on how classes turn out!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Songs, Syllabi, and North Floridians

I have essentially planned out my syllabi. All of my classes (except the factory) will be subjected a good bit to my taste of music, as I have decided to include a song in every class. Before coming to Russia, I made a collection of five different mix cds with songs that I figured I would feel comfortable explaining in class. (Oldies are especially dirty when you stop to think about the meanings! And while I do not yet know the makeup of my classes, I know that I could possibly have students as young as 13. I figure I should try to keep things clean.) I did not select songs based on grammar points that they featured, which is somewhat unfortunate. There are certain grammar points that really can only be illustrated with one song off of all of my cds, and many of my favorites will not make it into class at all. I’m only using two songs by The Clash, and nothing from the White Stripes even made the list. If only the lesson that features illness-related vocabulary were in a more advanced class, then I would totally play the Acetaminophen song. But, since I have the lower level classes, I cannot use any of my Disk Five songs, as they all contain very advanced vocabulary. Anyhow, below is the list of all of the songs which, if all goes well, shall make an appearance in at least one class. (I don’t suppose anyone knows any good Thanksgiving rock songs? Sigh; probably not.)

Sweet Jane (the Cowboy Junkies version)
I am a Rock (Simon and Garfunkel)
Here Come the Martian Martians (Jonathan Richman)
Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline)
Bankrobber (The Clash)
Shiny Happy People (R.E.M.)
It’s Coming Down (Cake)
Eternal Flame (The Bangles)
Nellie the Elephant (The Toy Dolls)
The Deep South (The Promise Ring)
Do You Know The Way To San Jose (Dionne Warwick)
Blowin in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
This is Halloween (from The Nightmare Before Christmas)
Monster Mash (both the Bobby Pickett and the Misfits versions)
Dead Man’s Party (Oingo Boingo)
I Fought The Law (The Clash)
Jane Says (Jane’s Addiction)
Jane (Elf Power)
The World Is Not Enough (Garbage)
Homeward Bound (Simon and Garfunkel)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Dead (They Might Be Giants)
New Year’s Day (U2)
Griselda (Yo La Tengo)
Mysterious Ways (U2)
The Bird With The Candy Bar Head (Elf Power)

So, this weekend they will be celebrating Vladimir City Day 2005. I really do not have any idea what this entails. The other day, Nina M asked me if I knew who the Americans were who were going to be coming to the City Day celebration. I of course had no clue. It's not as if I know every American, right? Well, this morning she told me that she heard on the radio that the Americans coming to Vladimir's City Day were from North Florida. Now, I certainly do not know every person in North Florida, but I would like to know who these mythical Northern Floridians are. (I know that one of Vladimir's sister cities is Sarasota... and it would make sense therefore for some Sarasotans to be here, but I would never describe Sarasota as being located in North Florida) If anyone has any ideas, please let me know. If I ever find out, I'll post.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Birthdays, Tragedies, & the Impending Start of Classes

Today is September 1st! I will be twenty-seven in twenty-five days! Yes, this is a shameless plea for people to send me presents. (ul. Letneperevozinskaya 3, 600000 Vladimir, Russia - hint, hint!).

Today, Spetember 1st, is the start of classes for most Russian schools (the American Home being an exception, as our classes begin next Monday). Today is also the one year anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack on the school in Beslan. Not unexpectedly, security is high. There was a far greater police presence on the streets this morning than there is usually, especially around the schools and academic institutions. There is also supposed to be some sort of anti-terrorist protest and Beslan memorial going on this afternoon in Sobornaya Ploshad (cathedral square), and I would very much like to witness this. However, the police apparently called the AH and asked Galya to advise the Americans to stay away from this event in the interest of safety! So I suppose I shall not go.

Apparently, the United States has been utterly hammered by a monster of a hurricane. Being (for the most part) a Florida native, I have become somewhat accustomed to hurricanes. Most are generally blown out of proportion by the media, but some are disasters of near apocalyptic proportions. From what I am getting over here (and from emails from people back home), Katrina was one of the latter. While it did strike southern Florida, most of the state (as well as my current home state of Georgia) was untouched. From what I have heard of the devastation in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, Katrina was definitely a terror. In the kitchen in my apartment, we have one of those old Soviet era radios that only tunes into one station (Radio Rossii), and which you cannot turn off; you can only turn it down. Anyhow, every hour on the hour, Radio Rossii has the news, inevitably read by a woman speaking incredibly fast. Katrina has been making the news quite regularly. It is very unnerving, because while my Russian comprehension is generally fairly high when talking to a person (when I have context and gestures to assist me), my comprehension of the Radio Rossii news lady is close to nil. So yesterday morning during breakfast, and yesterday evening during dinner, I got to listen to what sounded like: blah blah blah Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, blah blah blah, dead, blah blah, dead, blah blah, dead, blah blah stadium, blah blah refugees, blah blah dollars. This morning, Nina M tried to tell me something about the hurricane: Do you know the city New Orleans? (Yes) Have you seen it on television? (No) Oh, it is horrible, just horrible, simply... (Telephone rings, and NM drops all to resume her favorite pasttime, gossiping.) I heard from a friend from New Orleans this morning - she is fine, and has evacuated from NO, and she says that her university has cancelled classes indefinitely! I have been following the story online, but if anyone has any news to share, feel free to send it my way.

Now to a very different topic: Classes begin on Monday, which is only five days away! We have certainly had a lot of time to prepare, and I feel fairly confident about teaching. (I feel exponentially better about it this time than last time! Three weeks worth of prep time and teacher training seminars definitely boosts my confidence!) In addition to my class at the VEMZ factory, I will be teaching three classes at the AH. One is the same level as the VEMZ class, so we will be doing the same grammar in the one as in the other. However, as I doubt that most AH students really want to learn the English words for things like market analysis, I will have to plan completely separate activities, supplemental materials and themes for them. My other two classes are the level just above the VEMZ class. I will not be able to get into any in depth discussions about anything with any of my students (B lucked out there), but the classes I have (other than the VEMZ class, for which I have had to create the syllabus myself) all essentially follow a very specific formula, with supplementals readily available. Woohoo! I know that I will be terribly busy once classes begin, but at least I have a lot to work with.