Wednesday, December 21, 2005

why I love lunch AND Russia

While I still hold to my aforementioned opinions on why lunch is inconvenient, I won't deny that I love having an utterly delicious three course lunch cooked for me. Today (Tuesday) was "Russian Lunch" at the AH (the second such affair this year) wherein the Russian staff spent two full days creating a scrumptious feast of soup, salad, beef and onions, and a lemon-cake desert. Wow. So yummy. So full. And again, so full of champagne. The AH gifted each of the American teachers with a beautiful shkatulka (a hand-painted lacquer box) bearing the image of one of the cathedrals at Sergiev Posad. It is incredibly beautiful. After dining, we sang American Christmas carols and traditional Russian songs, alternating from one language to the other, backed by Britt on the guitar.

Following lunch were my last three classes of the semester. My first class (the slower 3rd level group full of disinterested teens) presented me with a ton of gifts (and apologies for their hooliganish behavior throughout the semester!). They presented me with another shkatulka (this one painted with a traditional Russian fairy-tale scene), a box of candy, and a can of red caviar (which I was instructed to eat with my mother on Christmas day - so prepare yourself, mom!). After class, two of the students gave me individual gifts: a really cool hand-carved traditional Russian wooden toy, a home-made Christmas card, an incense burner, and something that can only be described as a Solstice Necklace (some of you will know exactly what I mean).

Of my second class (the 2nd level), which had dropped to eight students by the end of the semester, had only half of its membership show up, but the four who came arrived bearing tons of food. Cake, candy, soda, cookies... We certainly weren't able to make a dent in the goodies among the five of us.

My last class (the more advanced 3rd level group) brought me a Japanese tea-cup-and-saucer set (not the least bit Russian, but absolutely beautiful!) as well as two pizzas and a chocolate cake!

I realize that I sound like an obnoxious kid on Christmas day listing all his presents, but I kind of feel like a kid on Christmas, and this was all totally unexpected, which makes it doubly nice. I'm sad that it looks like I won't have any of the same students next semester (other than my VEMZ group), because my students are awesome. (Even if some of them need to study more, hint, hint!)

And (of course) when I came home, there was a full meal prepared for me by Nina M. I swear, I've been eating all day and I feel like I'm about to burst. I won't have to eat for a week!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

why I hate lunch and love Russia

[I wrote this last night after a good bit of champagne. I looked it over this morning and thought about editing it, but then I figured.... no.]

This morning (Monday), we arrived at the AH early (okay, by that I mean 10am, so I shouldn't complain) for the purpose of watching an apparently much beloved Russian film called Irony of Fate (a romantic comedy set in Russia on New Year's Eve). We didn't finish it; it's three hours long, and we left the third hour for Tuesday. So far I'm not sure how I feel about the flick, as a lot of the humor is drunken-humor, and there seem to be some characters who are definitely getting the short end of the love stick here. (Oh yes, the ironies of fate, how well I know them.) But we shall see how it ends. At this point I totally recommend that everyone watch at least the first five minutes of this film. It's an animated introduction (without words) that should be utterly hilarious in any language. 

After two hours of Irony of Fate, I maneuvered over to the nearest computer and spent most of the afternoon working on my grades. Yawn. I'm pleased to report that three of my five classes did remarkably well. Of course my "hooligans" (my disinterested teens) obviously did not study. I gave them a *very* detailed study guide, which - if they had studied it - would have netted them all very high grades. As it is, half the class has to re-take the thing. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him study English. After learning that M's third level hooliganis did just as poorly as mine, I felt a little better, although I am still very disappointed in my class. Of course, as 80% of my students passed with flying colors, I shouldn't feel too discouraged... should I?

Anyhow, grades take up a long time, and I simply didn't have time to eat lunch. (Lunch is an inconvenient meal, and I've hated it ever since elementary school and those utterly unpalatable institutional "lunches" which nauseated me every day as soon as I entered the cafeteria, and which I never, ever ate. There's a reason I never grew. I got into the habit of doing without, and now, even when I can and frequently eat whatever I feel like, I'm often too busy to bother with it. Damn my body for wanting to eat when it's inconvenient.) So, I didn't eat lunch, and as a result, I arrived at VEMZ for their last class of the semester having eaten nothing but four cookies since breakfast.

My VEMZ students (whom I love, even if their constant and flagrant cheating annoys me to no end) definitely came prepared for the last day of class: Four bottles of champagne, three boxes of chocolate, a dozen oranges, plus a "New Year's gift" (Russian New Year's is analogous to the American secular side of Christmas) of a piggy bank that's a dog (doggy bank?) as 2006 is the Year of the Dog, another box of chocolate, and another bottle of champagne (the last two I was instructed to take to the US for consumption on New Year's Eve. Let me tell you: a Certain Someone is totally missing out on New Year's. Meanwhile, my American friends and family totally win. M, this group specifically told me I had to drink the champagne with you! I had used you as an example in one of my lessons, and they remembered!) Anyway, let's just say that splitting four bottles of champagne amongst eight people (when one of them is a quick drunk running on an empty stomach) makes for an interesting evening. We talked about all sorts of things (in high quality Ruslish), from holiday customs to politics. I'm pleased to note that if my VEMZ class were Americans they would've voted for Kerry. They also think that Bill Clinton is a "genuine man" (I didn't ask what they meant, but from the tone of voice and the Russian willingness to talk about Monica Lewinsky, I'm assuming that it had something to do with his sex drive), and they agree that it's absurd that Putin can ride a horse and Bush can't. I also may have sung an solo version of Hotel California (upon request, really), and I taught them to sing Jingle Bells, although halfway through I realized that one woman was singing, "Uncle Ben's, Uncle Ben's" instead of Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells. (Apparently the great rice-maker markets some sort of delicious sauce over here, and at some point had a commercial to the tune of Jingle Bells, so it turns out the situation wasn't as utterly insane as I first thought.)

So now I have to figure out how to get an absurd amount of chocolate and an unopened/unbroken bottle of Russian champagne home for the holidays. Woohoohoo.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Xmas Party Pictures

Last night was the AH Xmas party. I'm afraid I just can't bring myself to get as excited about xmas parties as I can about Halloween parties. Blah. I did take a few pics though.

Dance party.

Left: Carol Singing. Note G standing sheepishly under the mistletoe.
Right: J does the limbo

Left: Gosha is the reason Crazy Snow Dude is losing his hair
Right: B makes kick-ass mulled wine.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

to my WD40 peeps

We have our students keep journals in English in little notebooks. Since many students drop out every semester, we end up with quite a collection of abandoned journals for the teachers to pick through if we ever find ourselves in need of a notebook. I found this one the other day. Some of you might appreciate why it made me so excited. I wish I knew which former student had selected it!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Yesterday we decorated the xmas tree

Garland-covered girls L, me, Y, J and B

J the Christmas Hippie played carols while we decorated.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Wipe out!

So I totally bought it on the sidewalk alongside Bolshaya Moscovskaya on my way to VEMZ today. I was walking to the bus stop, where I catch the #7 trolleybus (the only public transportation that goes all the way to VEMZ), and it was snowing: a strong, steady, wet snow, but without the fearsome winds of the other day, so at least it was tolerable. And it was a little warmer, being about -5C or so. Anyhow, I was about half a block from the bus stop when the #7 passed me. Now, I know from experience that the #7 comes along roughly every 15 minutes (unlike, say, the #8, of which there are at least six for every #7 that rolls past). I did not wish to stand in the wet snow for fifteen minutes waiting for the next #7 to roll up, so I did what I have done many times in the past when in this situation: I began to sprint for the bus stop. And about three steps later I was flat on my back with the wind totally knocked out of me. Complete wipe out. Apparently, running in the snow is trickier than it looks. (Hey, don't laugh! I grew up in Florida.) As I lay on my back feeling thoroughly unpleasantly battered (remind me to never get kicked in the ribs, mm'kay?) I received an utterly incredulous look from the middle aged chap who, after witnessing the miraculous flying devushka, helped me to my feet. I also a stern lecture from a passing babushka on the dangers of running in the snow. "Devushka! What were you thinking? You should not run in weather like this! Next time you could get hurt! You need to walk slowly and carefully..." Yeah, well, she was catching the #8, so she only had to stick around the chilly, wet bus stop for thirty seconds after slowly and carefully shuffling herself there. Meanwhile, I waited a full seventeen minutes for the next #7. Yes, I timed it. At least I had my lovely, new, warm, orange, down-filled coat. Pleasure in the simple things, Annie, pleasure in the simple things.

At VEMZ (I wasn't late, although usually I arrive 20 minutes before the start of class, and today I was only about three minutes early). Nearly all of my students were there (a rarity of late, as they've been off on sporadic business trips quite frequently in recent weeks), and they were hoping that my "tardiness" meant that I wasn't coming due to the weather. See, today was their Oral Exam and they would have loved an excuse to avoid taking it. I don't know why they were all so worried - they did exceptionally well. The lowest grade was an 87, and the rest were in the 90s, with 97 being the highest. Rock! I am so proud of them. Let's hope their written exam (Thursday) goes as well. And of course there are the three oral exams I'm giving on Tuesday... we shall see. It's unfortunate that so many of my students missed last Friday because of the crazy weather, as it was the last review day before exams...

Monday, December 12, 2005

Snow, photos, xmas, and (yes) more book reviews.

Yes, yes, ladies and gents, the Russian winter has indeed arrived. It blew in on Friday morning, and continued to blow all day, depositing at least half a foot of snow, if not more, and blowing me all over the place as I stumbled about, grateful for my wonderful new winter coat. I trudged over to Grossmart around 1:00 to snag some lunch (they sell a Korean-made ramen that I've grown rather fond of), and felt totally hobbit-like as I trudged through the snow. You know that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (either book or movie, as it was in both) where the Fellowship tries to climb Mt. Caradhras, and the hobbits especially are nearly buried in the snow? Okay, obviously the snow hasn't reached that sort of mythic depth as yet, but I felt like a hobbit. And being buffeted about by the wind didn't help matters. The walk to Grossmart and back (normally no more than 15 minutes round trip) took over half an hour.

Apparently Friday was a particularly bad winter day, even by Vladimir standards. I rather expected the locals to shrug it off as just another day in Russia, but when classes started, I realized something different was going on. My 4:00 class of mostly disinterested teens is usually packed (as their parents make sure that they come to every class). However, at the start of class, only half of the group was present. The remainder did manage to straggle in throughout the course of the class, flushed from the cold, with tales of having walked for blocks because the busses weren't running. Yes, Vladimir's public transportation ground to a halt in the midst of Friday's snowstorm. My second class had only three students; my last class had five. Y's last class had only one student.

Now, it is entirely possible to walk from my apartment to the American Home (I've done this many times) but the idea of walking home (a 30 minute walk in normal weather) in Friday's not-so-lovely weather was not all that appealing. B and I set out together in the hope of finding some sort of transportation home. We did find one trolleybus... disabled and all but buried in the snow. Sigh. But, as there were people waiting at the bus stop, we decided to wait too. Soon, along came a marshrutka (a minivan that follows the same route as the busses)... and everyone waiting at the bus stop crammed into it. The thing was seriously at least double its planned capacity, and no one (other than B and myself) seemed to think that this was in the least bit odd. But hey, at least I didn't have to walk home.

The wind had blown a layer of snow under the cracks in the windows in the second floor hallway of my apartment building.
In the morning the day was beautiful: the sun was shining, the sky was bright blue, and the world was covered in a beautiful fresh blanket of white. And it was -12C outside. I decided that -12C or not, I was going to walk to work. I took a couple of pictures of the snow banks and of the snow collecting on tree branches. The day was so beautiful and perfect. I wish I could have spent more time outside. But, as usual, I had woken up late, and since we had English Club in the afternoon, I was destined to spend the bulk of my day inside the AH as usual.

English Club is essentially AH-speak for get-students-to-come-help-plan-our-parties, and the goal of this meeting of the English Club was to plan next week's Christmas Party. (Side-note: I have weird feelings about Christmas. On one hand, it's kind of hypocritical to keep celebrating it as I'm not a Christian. But on the other hand, there are so many heathen-pagan influences in the whole modern day celebration that it is entirely possible to have a secular Christmas. Er, xmas. Besides, I am a big fan of the idea of a holiday where people get together with and give gifts to the people they care about.) Anyhow, the AH is having a Christmas party next Saturday (even with an agnostic-pseudopagan and a genetically Jewish atheist on its staff), which will probably turn out to be a lot of fun. The party will (aside from a few mentions of Jesus/Christ/etc in some carols) be a secular xmas party, involving dancing, feasting, gift exchanging, singing, and most likely an appearance by Ded Moroz (the Russian equivalent to Santa). Preparations during English Club took the form of Games Committee, Decorations Committee and Music Committee. B and I were in charge of decorations, meaning that our group made wreaths and candles and paper chains and snowflakes (all from construction paper) which will be used to decorate the place come next weekend. The caroling group, led by Y and J learned a rather comprehensive collective of carols, backed up by J on guitar. After they learned their songs, they came and serenaded the decorations committee, which turned into a rather boisterous and fun group-sing event.

After English Club, (and after attaching myself to the computer for a few hours), a group of us (accompanied by L and several Russian chaps with exceptional English of the sort which makes me embarrassed to speak in Russian in their presence) wandered over to Biblos (a Greek-ish / Middle Eastern-ish restaurant in the center) where some of the group smoked a hookah as we chatted about pointless things. Upon departing Biblos, we were accosted by two drunken Russians who hit on Y... by saying hello to her in very formal Korean (anyeonghasimnika)! This kind of threw everyone off for a couple of seconds. ("Is he so drunk that he is slurring his Russian to the point that it makes no sense whatsoever?" followed by Y and me realizing, no, that's Korean...)

After Biblos, the bulk of the group began discussing a venture to some hillside for sledding, but I decided to go home. The same weird thing that has recently occurred in my brain causing me to possess the new life goal of becoming a professional hermit has caused me to become substantially less interested in things like night-time-sledding-in-sub-zero-temperatures. I think what I mean to say is that I'm getting old, and that I am valuing comfort over excitement. And, as it had started snowing again, I rather felt that I should maneuver home lest the public transportation grind to a halt a la the previous day.

I didn't leave my house on Sunday. The weather was back to its common Russian winter state of grey, although it was several degrees warmer (albeit still below freezing) than Saturday, but I simply had no need or desire to go out. I stayed in bed until 2:00, and finished reading 1984. (This course of action was encouraged a good bit by the rather splitting sinus headache I awoke with, and which never really went away.) I am embarrassed to admit that I had never read 1984 before. I love, love, love dystopian novels (with We, Brave New World, Animal Farm and Ape and Essence being several of my all-time favorites), and I have wanted to read 1984 for many years. Really, I should have simply gone to a library somewhere and checked it out, but instead I have been waiting to find it in a thrift store or at a yardsale or something. Instead I found it a few weeks ago in L's room, and asked to borrow it. I only started it a couple days ago, as I'd been reading Middlesex (I'll get to that in a minute; don't worry. Damn, I should really have named this site From Russia With Unrelated Book Review), and I found 1984 riveting and if any of you, for whatever reason haven't yet read it, go and do it. I'm not going to bother writing any sort of review or analysis of 1984; there are plenty enough of them out there if you're interested. I will comment that reading 1984 shortly after finishing Anne Applebaum's Gulag (which I reviewed a while back) is unbelievably eerie. 1984 was first published in 1949... I wonder how much access Orwell had to the goings on in the machinery of the GULAG system in the Soviet Union - after all, it was shrouded by secrecy - for so much of what happens in Oceania very closely paralleled the Soviet system in incredibly creepy detail. And then there's the telescreen, a device in every room of every apartment, which can never be shut off, which continuously spews forth political dogma while monitoring the residents of said apartment. I believe I've mentioned before the Soviet-era radios that still remain in most Soviet-era apartments... the radios which can never be shut off. (I believe that Russian Journal even mentions the radios prompting Soviet denizens into coordinated morning exercises, just as the telescreen does at the beginning of 1984.) My apartment still has one of these annoyingly never silent radios, now owned by Radio Rossii, and sponsored heavily by some sort of Moscow-based pharmaceutical company, forever urging me to call 974-64-04 to learn how to get a good night of sleep or how to unclog my capillaries, or some other such bit of medical nonsense. I hear that phone number so many times every day that it has been forever ingrained in my mind. I can only imagine what it would be like to have that thing spewing political propaganda. I would also like to comment that the little description of 1984 on its back cover reads: ...a startlingly original and haunting novel that is completely convincing... Completely convincing, yes. Startlingly original, not exactly. I mean, even if Orwell did not intentionally base Oceania on the USSR, wasn't Zamyatin's We written first? Mmmm?

Okay, while I can easily relate 1984 to my current location of Russia, Middlesex, the tale of a Greek hermaphrodite growing up in the United States has no relation to Russia other than that I read it while living here. B lent me this book, and it was definitely interesting and weird. I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the end kind of left me wanting something more out of it. This book is not simply the story of a hermaphrodite, but it provides the historic and genetic histories of various individuals, culminating in the birth of a hermaphrodite. I found the segments on the war between Greece and Turkey and the riots in Detroit to be almost as fascinating as the tale of the hermaphrodite h/im/erself. This probably isn't the book for everyone, although if you have any of the same tastes I have, you will probably enjoy it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Russian Squirrels Attack and Kill Dog!!!

And I'm not even making it up - this comes to you straight from the BBC.

A "big" stray dog was nosing about the trees and barking at squirrels hiding in branches overhead when a number of them suddenly descended and attacked, reports say. "They literally gutted the dog," local journalist Anastasia Trubitsina told Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. [full text]

Monday, December 05, 2005

Sunday's Miscellany

Sunday, I slept in late, got up, and went to Dobryak. Dobryak is the wonderful/evil place where I keep spending my miniscule salary on things like lime green spring/fall coats and winter skirts with matching summer shirts. I should probably stay away from Dobryak. But, I've been wanting a winter coat at is warmer and that fits better than the one Nina M. gave me, so this afternoon I went to Dobryak... and left with the coolest winter coat ever. It's orange and it's stuffed with down. Mmmmmm.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

The Cat In My Hat and other stories

Part I: The Cat In My Hat
Friday night, I left the AH and walked out into the snow. About fifty yards down the sidewalk from the AH, a cat was sitting in the snow on the sidewalk. I've seen this kitty before; it looks a lot like Gosha, only smaller and with a fluffy tail. I don't know if it's one of the strays that has claimed the AH block of Letneperevozinskaya as it's territory, or if it actually has a home. Either way, the thing was out in the snow and fur or not, that's got to be cold. So I knelt down to pet it, and the thing immediately hopped into my squatty-lap and began purring. I petted it for a while and then decided to dislodge it and be on my way. But instead of hopping back into the snow, the kitty climbed up onto my shoulder, and when I tried to dislodge her, instead of falling onto the ground, she fell squarely into my hood. Now, this cat was no dummy. I mean, when given a choice between the snowy ground or a fuzzy, dry, fleece hood, which would you choose? I found that short of disrobing in the cold, or getting scratched all to hell, there was no way I could remove the purring bundle of fur from my hood. So, I turned around and went back to the AH, where Vanya (one of our security guards) promptly admonished me for bringing a strange cat to the house, and he refused to let me in. B took some pictures of the cat in my hat (which I will post as soon as she gives them to me), and G stole some of Gosha's cat food, which we used to convince the furry-purry that she really didn't want to remain in my hood for the rest of the evening.

Part II: Snow
So far, this most recent snowfall has stuck around. Saturday morning I took a bus down to Cathedral Square for the purpose of getting some snowbound shots of the ancient and famous cathedrals that I already have an entire folder of sun-shiny shots of. I also walked about the parks surrounding the cathedrals and amused myself by walking through vast, previously undisturbed patches of snow. (I grew up in Florida, so I have a bit of a child-like fascination with snow, despite the fact that this is my second Russian winter.) I was planning on posting the pics I took online, but somehow I forgot to bring the Vladimir-in-the-snow images along. Check back tomorrow! I do, however, have an entirely unrelated shot of me and Gosha...

Part III: Swing Dancing
B gave her presentation Saturday afternoon on Swing Dancing, which is something she does in the US. It was an excellent presentation (on the history of the dance and how she got involved with it) and then she taught a lesson in how to dance to the students and teachers present. I, being rather a chicken, and knowing how horribly uncoordinated I am, opted for the role of paparazzi. Everyone had a great time, and everyone was laughing, giggling and grinning by the end. A definite success.

Part IV: Straw Kitten
In the early evening, K, M and I went to "Old Venice," one of the two pizza places in town (and while the pizzas don't taste quite like they do back home, they're still really damn tasty). While we were waiting for our pizzas to come out, a kitten (almost a full-grown cat really, but still at that stage when you can tell that it's fairly young) wandered out of the back and into the restaurant. This is one of those things that I love about Russia; you would never see a cat or kitten wandering around a restaurant or a store without the staff and/or clientele erupting into some sort of fit about sanitation or whatever. I mean, somehow I think the US Health Department frowns on cats in the kitchen. Obviously I've let my inner crazy-cat-lady out of the bag with this post, so it shouldn't surprise you to learn that I had no problem whatsoever with the kitten that first wandered the room and then sat itself in the empty chair next to K. It was fascinated with the things on our table, and looked adorable as it watched us fiddle with our straws and bottle-caps. Of course, I decided to take a picture... and through sheer photographic luck I managed to snap its picture right as it lunged for K's straw. It managed to wrestle the straw from her cup, and played with it for nearly the entire time we were in the restaurant. It looked so happy, playing with that straw. I would love to be a cat. It would be wonderful be able to feel such sheer pleasure from something so simple.