HI. It’s a little over two weeks into this epic Moscow adventure and I’m just now sitting down at my desk to write what I hope will be a long-winded and informative account of my experience here so far.
If I had written this two weeks ago, I’m sure there would have been more emphasis on my feelings about how I was in a B (middle) seat on the flight to London, and how wedged between a young British woman and a kindly old German tourist (nurturing yes, but truth be told she was a bit of an armrest hog), I managed very little sleep on the 9 1/2 hour journey. But now that I'm here dealing with a multitude of other things, that stuff seems silly.
The four-hour connecting flight was quite a bit more enjoyable than the first, but still pretty nerve-wracking. Being on a plane where I could overhear everyone speaking Russian was something that, at the time, was really exciting to me. Before coming here, I’d be lucky to catch rare snippets of Russian conversations on the street. I’m sure you can guess that now the novelty of overhearing Russian dialogue has all but worn off.
Immediately after boarding, I hadn’t even begun to lift my backpack in the overheard compartment when I see the older man in the seat next to me order his younger friend, “pomogi!” (help her). It was kind of a perfect stereotypical first exchange for me to have with Russians, to see the gender roles in action. Not that chivalry has completely died out in America, but here they really take it seriously. My Russian teacher joked in class today (or was she joking?) about how the boys need to be the ones to move the desks and that the girls don’t do anything since they’re weak and all. She did say it exaggeratedly, like “ohhh we’re sooo weeeak,” but she still insisted that I stand by and wait instead of try help move the desks when there were boys around.
So I sat next to the older gentleman toward the front of the plane, roughly aged 60-65. I conversed with him in broken Russian for the duration of the flight. He was a nice old guy, but there was something vaguely sleazy about him. Maybe it was that he was unnaturally tan, maybe his Hawaiian shirt that was unbuttoned just-so, or maybe it was his ill-kept mouthful of teeth. I didn’t feel unsafe or anything, it was just the usual nervousness that comes with sitting next to a stranger for 4 hours, plus I was ill-at-ease on a broader scale (flying into a new country and whatnot). Vladimir (the old man) told me that he and his 12 colleagues were all on the plane. He said they were “specialists,” which I didn’t really understand but I think he said it had something to do with sports. I think. He ended up giving me his phone number in hopes that I would call him to do some sightseeing. He said that Moscow has a lot of great nature, and that we should go see it together since he has a car. There was also some talk of ice-fishing and barbecue. Fortunately it wasn’t a lie when I said I didn’t have a telephone number in Moscow to give him. I didn’t think I would ever be in a situation where that would actually be a true reason for withholding a telephone number.
I should probably add that right before and during our descent into Moscow, my nerves finally fried themselves and I was a silently twitching, almost-tearful, anxiety-ridden wreck. I’m not really sure what I fears I was responding to exactly; I guess my body just knew that I was about to be immersed in a completely different world for 4 months. No going back, though.
When we landed in the airport at 8:30pm it was mildly stressful finding the right migration line to get in (what horde of people do I follow?), but eventually I found another student from EAP (Tom from Michigan) and we successfully got our little white migration forms stamped (but not our passport, which was disappointing). We made our way to the baggage claim, and miraculously both pieces of my checked luggage made it all the way from SFO to Domodedovo Airport. I say “miraculously” because there were about 5-6 students whose luggage did get lost, and they had to go without it for the first few days.
We waited for a long time at the baggage claim for those with lost luggage to sort things out, and slowly I met and chatted with a few more EAP students. With a few exceptions, everyone was and has remained very friendly and supportive of each other. It’s a good group of people, about 23-25 of us total from different UCs and two students from Michigan. I suppose since this is a public space I have to be politically correct and gloss over any drama that’s already unfolded between students in the program. Again I’ll say that with exceptions (there always are, right?), everyone continues to be civil.
Eventually we all found Lena (kind of like the assistant director of the program, she’s more of the go-to person for questions and concerns than Zhivov) and Platon (a young Russian student working for International University for the summer). Then we all got on a bus and headed toward 9 Skakovaia, our new home for the next 2 weeks. Like the excitement I used to feel for overhearing Russian speech on the street, the novelty of seeing Russian billboards and advertisements has long since worn off. But on that late-night bus ride I was simply overwhelmed and delighted by all the Russian words and buildings and cars. There was so much eye candy, bright lights from clubs and lit-up modern supermarkets, not to mention all the fabulous historical architecture we casually drove past. I think it hit everyone on the bus at different points, because the frenzied chatter was eventually replaced with everyone staring in silence out their window. Exhausted though we all were from traveling 24+ hours, I don’t think anyone actually fell asleep on the bus ride.
When we got to the lobby of the dormitory (none of us have quite figured it out, but we think this place is also a hotel and an apartment building..), everyone got paired up with a roommate then we all began the long process of settling in. In the beginning, and even still, there were rumors and speculation about how our life here would be. My roommate lived in Russia before for 6 weeks and told me some pretty crazy things at first, i.e. you can’t flush toilet paper down the toilet (we would just have to take out the trash often), we wouldn’t see a washing machine our entire time here, etc, Some rumors and assumptions have proved to be true, others not. I have yet to encounter a place where toilet paper has not made safe passage through the plumbing (thank god). True, not everywhere has toilet paper, but I’ve usually been prepared for such situations. I did have to handwash my clothes, which was considerably labor-intensive but feasible. I’m hoping my homestay has a washing machine, but if not I think I have enough mental and emotional fortitude to grin and bear it for another 3 1/2 months.
Since moving in, the rest is almost a blur to me now. I’ve been keeping a good balance of touristy outings, practical outings, and relaxing down time.
We’ve already done the Red Square/GUM thing. I think that was the Saturday before last. GUM, in case you’re wondering, is a grand shopping center in Krasnaya Ploshad’ with shops that put the ones on Rodeo Drive to shame. It’s more of a clothing museum, really. We stopped there to check it out and ate some sushi in a sequestered area of the food court. Red Square, in case you were wondering, was everything I had imagined it would be. It’s going to sound cheesy, but I think in this instance I’ll indulge myself in a little cheesiness. I just couldn’t help being swept away by how big and beautiful and REAL it was, right there in front of me. After seeing all those famous pictures of St. Basil’s, to be standing in the foreground posing for pictures of my own was kind of great. The bad part of this story is that I don’t know if I’ll be able to post any of these pictures any time soon; I think I forgot my camera USB and will have to do a little searching among my colleagues to see if anyone has a cord that fits my camera.
The next big excursion we took as an official group (we all went to Red Square, but orchestrated it ourselves without authority figures) was to Tsaritsino, a large, beautiful estate/park that was just opened to the public a few years ago after construction had been done on it. The pictures for that trip will probably do the best job of describing the experience; it was amazingly beautiful. Admittedly I didn’t learn very much historical information about the place, the tour was in Russian and it was difficult to concentrate on what our guide was saying.
It’s times like those where I feel like I’ve absolutely reached my plateau with the language, and don’t know if I’ll be able to conquer a hill again. There’s so much work I need to do on comprehension, speaking, vocabulary… I have to keep reminding myself that it’s only the 2nd week, and that I will eventually improve. It’s something that’s hard to remember when you’re being verbally berated by an irritable metro ticketing agent when your card doesn’t work, or when the cleaning ladies scream at us for leaving things on the floor or in disarray, or when a fast food employee has to exasperatedly repeat a simple question multiple times before it finally sinks in (“Do you want something to drink with that?”).
Our Intensive Language Program (ILP) ended yesterday (Thursday), which we’ll be starting up more specialized classes soon. The ILP was, to be honest, not as intensive as I thought it would be. Rather than a language class, it was more of the orientation that I thought we needed immediately following our arrival in Moscow. We practiced potentially useful dialogues (i.e. what happens when a policeman stops you, how do you interact with people on the street to ask for directions, etc.) and went out on excursions on the Metro to the mall and then another day we went out to lunch in a restaurant. Not that those things weren’t useful, but I felt like we all had to struggle to survive and get around and eat with minimal guidance from the program itself. In the three days before class, we pretty much had to wing it on how to ask for things at the local grocery store, how to ride the metro and know where you’re going, and how to ask strangers for directions. Not to be melodramatic, but I don’t know how we survived on so little food between the time we arrived at the airport and the time that classes started and we discovered the lunchtime cafeteria at the bottom of the dormitory.
Tomorrow a lot of people are moving out of the dorms and into their homestays! I’m not going until Sunday, but I’ll try to keep you all posted even after I’m not in the dorms with this internet access. I have a lot more to say but while I have internet I’m going to post this to give you all a tiny glimpse, just to keep everyone’s appetite sated for a while. J
Let me know if you guys have any specific questions that will help give my posts some direction and get at the stuff people are actually interested in.