Thursday, September 25, 2008

mini update

Hello again-- I just read my last post and realized how much time has gone by! Sorry to leave all you faithful readers hanging, but without any substantial events to center a post around, I've been hesitant to write in this thing. Right now I'm at the computer lab in the university, which we're allowed to use on Thursdays after 4pm. It seems odd that for a university where all the students are of the rich upper-middle class, everything happens in one building and there is only one computer lab with limited access for students. But then again, maybe that's the spoiled American in me talking.

Speaking of rich students, now that the Russians are back at school (us EAP students had the school to ourselves before the Russians came back from summer vacation), our academic environment is slightly... intimidating. Well, when I say intimidating, it's only because all the young people in Moscow love to dress every day like they're going to a club. In every direction one can see shiny black pumps and matching Gucci handbags, sleek hairstyles and designer jeans. It's a bit of a spectacle, and even though I don't really respect that kind of ostentatious wealth, I have to admit I'm not always immune to all their conspicuous consumption. At any given moment you can walk into the ladies' restroom and find greater than or equal to 2 girls primping hair or touching up makeup in front of the full length mirror next to the sinks. And for some reason when I walk in, they immediately look down at my feet and then I feel slightly embarrassed that I'm wearing flat mary-janes or dansko clogs instead of trendy patent leather high heels. The other day I was minding my own business in the university when I saw a group of Russian girls looking in my direction, talking and laughing. Then when they realized I had seen them, they sarcastically yelled over, "OCHEN' CLASSNO!" (really cool) and then pointed to my clothes as if to explain that they were talking about my outfit. But I don't think they really thought it was ochen' classno.

Classes are going tolerably well, but I still feel like an absolute idiot most the time. I haven't felt truly competent in a long time. I think that's one of the things that I miss about America-- feeling like a competent adult. Here I feel like a child, messing everything up and then being constantly reprimanded for misunderstanding or not anticipating the way things are done here. A lot of people (especially older people) here love to ask the question "why?" in a very rhetorical, chastising way. "And why didn't you take check your jacket in the coat room before getting in this cafeteria line?" "I see you handwashed your laundry-- why did you have so much of it? You should have done it sooner." "Why were you waiting here for so long? You could have come in the room." "And why do you need to know that?" "Why didn't you tell me you were going to ____?" "Why did you hang your sweater like this? It's going to stretch the fabric." The list is endless, really. Usually in my head I try to come up with a good response to defend myself, but usually in my head I can only come up with, "Well, I forgot..." or "I don't know, I must be an idiot." I don't think they really want an answer, they just want to call your attention to the fact that you messed something up and it rubbed them the wrong way.

I went off on a little bit of a tangent there, when what I really wanted to talk about was how my classes are going. At first I thought the film class was my favorite. While I do enjoy that class, literature has far surpassed it, if only because of the wacky/wise professor. His sense of humor is at the same time very silly and very subtle. (For those of you who went to high school with me, it will be easiest for you to grasp his personality if you imagine the Russian counterpart of Mr. Holmes.) I gather that some people in our class don’t quite understand his sense of humor; when he makes sweeping generalizations or says something wildly exaggerated or biased, he’s really laughing at us behind a straight face. Let me try to recall some class discussions to give you an idea… the humor might not translate very well, not because of a language barrier but because I can’t possibly convey in plain text his delivery:
1) We’re reading Pushkin’s short story “Pikovaya Dama” (queen of spades), and after we read a passage detailing the old countess’ makeup/dress regime, our professor asked us if men wore makeup in those days. After it was decided that yes, they did, he posed another question:
-Alex, do you think that girls are prettier now or were they prettier back then?
-Um… now?
-Well, okay. [to the whole class] And what about men?
-It’s a very strange thing, but men are better looking now than in the old days. Look at photographs before WWII and you’ll see. They had short legs, big bellies. Yes, for some reason people got more beautiful after the war.
2) -What are people talking about in America now, what’s in the news?
-The election?
-What about it?
-One of the presidential candidates chose a woman from Alaska for his running mate.
-Her daughter is 17 and she’s pregnant.
-Okay. So?
-She’s not married?
-Right! By the way, to be 17 and pregnant—that’s normal.
3) –This story begins with a girl. Her name is Irina. What is she like?
4) -Don’t ever buy any vodka from a kiosk. Be sure you get it from a store. The stuff they sell in the kiosks… it’s a risk. It could be floor cleaner. And by the way, all that vodka they sell in America, it’s good stuff. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not good quality.
-What about Popov? In America we say that if vodka comes in a plastic bottle, it’s bad.
-No. Popov is good quality vodka. A plastic bottle? No.
5) -So Lizaveta and Germann look at each other for a week. And when does she first smile at him? After a week! That’s how relations between men and women used to be. And now, how do YOU carry on? Blehhh! [Waves arms wildly, presumably to illustrate the reckless behavior of modern youth]

Different people have different ideas about his system of blinking and winking after he says something he wants you to remember. To me, the deep blink with an accompanying nod means something like, “This is how it is. Remember that.” The wink, on the other hand, is a little more whimsical, and usually I think it means, “Get it? Hehe.” But I don’t mean to say that the blink is always more serious, because usually the blink is quite playful in its own way.

In our film class we’ve finished 3 films and are almost finished with our 4th. The second film we watched was called “Rusalka,” (mermaid) a slightly dark melodrama about an odd adolescent girl who moves with her mother and grandmother to Moscow. I don’t think a lot of people liked that movie because the girl was a little bit alien-like and hard to relate to. After “Rusalka” we watched “Kukushka,” (cuckoo) a movie set in WWII where an outcast Finnish soldier and an outcast Russian soldier, through various circumstances, end up in the home of this Laplander woman who takes care of them. None of them speak each other’s language, so it’s funny to watch how they all talk to each other and come up with their own interpretations of what the others say. I was surprised at how many layers that movie had, especially with the “kukushka” theme. For one thing, all the characters thought the other characters were a little “cuckoo,” and kukushka also retains the “crazy” connotation in Russian. Also, cuckoo mothers reject their young and throw them out of the nest, like the Russian and Finnish soldiers in the movie were cast out by their own. In Russian folklore, the kukushka is believed to have the ability to tell how many years a person has left to live. So after you ask a cuckoo bird how long you’ll live, the number of times they call out is how many years you have. During WWII, Russians called Finnish snipers “kukushkas” because of that parallel to kukushka folklore. Pretty cool stuff!

I ended up dropping the history/political science class, for a few reasons. First, I think if I were to take that class for credit I would surpass my unit ceiling at Berkeley, and I don't want to stress out about having too many units. Also, I wasn't prepared to fight for that class because the lectures are very confusing. Even though the class is taught in English, I understand it less than all my other classes that are taught in Russian. Some people need to keep that class to get credit for a political science major, but for my major at Berkeley, they are going to give credit for an advanced language class and 2 general electives, so it doesn't matter which classes I take here. The good thing is that I can still audit the accompanying Russian-language seminar that the literature professor teaches. I just can't get enough of that guy.

The weather has been significantly cooler these days. I think it’s a bit uncharacteristic of Russian Septembers for it to be this cold. It’s not unbearable, though. The past couple of weeks I’ve been able to get away with wearing long sleeves and then layering 2 lightweight jackets during the day. Although every night it’s a little chilly in my room, and I don’t think it helps that I have a big window that is a poor insulator. Usually I put on a sweater at night and I’m fine. However, getting up in the morning is a bitterly cold and cruel affair. I asked Regina Konstantinovna (yep, I found our her name) when they would turn the heat on (whoever “they” are—I haven’t exactly figured out the antecedent to this vague pronoun) because I guess that stuff is controlled municipally. She said usually they turn it on sometime around October 15th, unless the weather is really bad, in which case they turn it on October 1st. Today she said she thinks they might turn it on October 1st because everyone else she knows in the area already has their heating turned on, but for whatever reason this building gets everything last.

Incidentally, Regina approves of my sport Dansko clogs. She says they’re perfect for rain and puddles. And to think, I took them on a whim. What I don’t tell her is that I prefer to wear the clogs not for the puddles, as I usually just avoid them altogether, but rather because my jeans are too long and it’s one of my top 5 pet peeves to have my jeans drag the ground. Speaking of shoes and puddles, I have no idea how people in Moscow keep their shoes clean. I bought a new pair of little blue tennis shoes a couple weeks ago and they already look 4 months old from all the dirt they’ve picked up. My friend Jaime has a similar problem with her white-background slip-on Vans. The other day as she was leaving for school in the morning, her xoziaika told her she should wash her shoes because otherwise no man would want to marry her. No wonder I haven’t found a husband yet; my shoes are filthy.

I don’t think my xoziaika is quite that old-fashioned. In many ways she seems fairly liberal, and generally appreciates Western ways. A little while ago, I came home at night and to my dismay, the code to open the building’s door did not work. The door was completely unresponsive and the keypad wouldn’t register any new code submissions. It was slightly nerve-wracking, especially because it was a cold night and it had just started to rain. Shortly after I tried to open the door, a young man came home and then we both started troubleshooting. Well, mostly I watched from a distance as he first tried using brute force to pull the door open, and then as he found a bizarre metal antenna contraption nearby and tried to pry it open that way. Meanwhile I had already called Regina and she said she would get help, so I stood back and watched this guy struggle in vain with the door. Eventually I heard her voice on the other side of the door accompanied by a man’s voice. There was some banging, and then the door swung open to reveal a large, shirtless man with his leg in the air, having just kicked the door in. He grumbled something and then went back inside his apartment on the ground floor (he might have been some kind of superintendent, I’m not sure). So when the three of us (Regina, me, the stranger guy) got in the elevator, he pressed the third floor (you have to do the floors in sequence, I think it only remembers the last number you press). Regina, surprised, asked him why he pushed the third floor, when we were on the 5th.
“I live on the third floor.”
“Oh, and I thought you were with us!” [chuckle]
So the fact that she would be that nonchalant about me bringing home male guests suggests that she’s not an altogether conservative lady. But since I wasn’t planning on doing that anyway, this information doesn’t particularly delight me.

The annoying thing is that Regina doesn’t give me keys regularly. Before I leave each morning, she either says “take the keys today, I might be at the store this afternoon,” or “don’t take the keys, I’ll be home.” That’s all well and good for weekdays, when I don’t make it a habit of staying out very late. But on weekend nights it’s downright stressful to be out later than 11. Not because I feel unsafe being out late—on the contrary, my neighborhood is actually quite safe. In fact, I feel more at ease walking home here after dark than in Berkeley. No, on the contrary, it’s a stressful situation because I have to ring the doorbell late at night and wake Regina up so that she can let me in. And of course it’s not just an open door that greets me. It’s an entire rhetorical interrogation. I say rhetorical because she doesn’t really care about what I was doing when she says “Why were you out so late?” or “What would happen if you missed the metro?” It’s rather like having another mother here, but without love… and without the ability to argue coherently. I told her that I didn’t want to disturb her that usually I don’t like to stay out very late, it’s just hard in a situation where your friends want to stay out late and you don’t want to walk to the metro alone. She still doesn’t want to give me keys full-time, and says that she would wake up if I used the keys in the door anyway. She says that she knows I’m not really the partying type, since she’s seen me studying in my room a lot. But her knowing that about me doesn’t really help the situation with the awkward late-night arrivals.

Another thing that stressed me out with Regina was that one of these nights where I accidentally came home later than planned, she chastised me for giving her too much laundry to do in one load. Before I left, I told her that it would be all right to wash everything together. When I said this, I wasn’t thinking of the size of the load, rather it was referring to the colors/whites issue. But when I got home and she had done it all, she said she had done it all in one load like I told her, but next time I needed to give her smaller loads because the washing machine is really small. You know those little plastic bags at the grocery store? That’s how much laundry I had. So this is kind of a drag because laundry is $8 a load… Lately I’ve been thinking of trying a shirt-recycling policy, especially because it’s cooler weather and maybe I can get away with wearing things twice and not have them be so dirty. And then every time I squeeze into the metro and am wedged between a tall man’s armpit and a short man’s waxy ear, I wonder why I continue to be so obsessive about laundry and hygiene here.

A week or so ago I, horror of horrors, got a pimple, and it really freaked Regina out. Granted, it was kind of an intense one, but I was counting on people to be gracious and turn a blind eye until the situation sorted itself out. No such luck. The first time she saw it her eyes widened and she said, "What is that??" Not knowing the word for pimple at the time, I shrugged and said, "Nu..." (well...) and trailed off. Then, trying to elicit a concrete response from me, she asked if it was ___ or ___. I didn't know what either word meant.
"Is it ___ or from nature?"
"Well, technically it IS from nature, but..."
Finally we agreed that it was a pimple (pryshch), and so I thought that was the end of it. Nope! When I came home later, I told her I was planning to go out that evening with friends. I ate dinner with her and we successfully managed to avoid the pryshch topic. But then after I got up from the table and was making preparations to leave, she stopped me.
"Listen, I'm going to give you something for that. I really don't like it. I just don't like it."
Then she gave me some antiseptic and a cotton ball and then something that doubled as a type of topical cream and cover-up. So that was a rather humbling ordeal.

I see a lot of old women with white-purple hair here. Originally I thought this was a Russian thing. I even appreciated how spunky the old ladies here seemed, trying out something new as if to say, “I’m not dead yet! Here’s my purple hair to show you that I’ve got a little bite left in me.” But today I found out that this is actually a pretty common phenomenon around the world, and it just means that they had a botched dye-job. Oops.

Oh, I almost forgot to write about my birthday. Since my actual birthday was on Sunday and I didn’t want to be out late then, I told everyone to meet at the retro club (the same one I mentioned a few posts back) on Saturday evening. We met at 7 to avoid face control and an entry fee, and spent a leisurely evening dining and dancing. One of our Russian friends was surprised that we didn’t want to spend the whole night in the club (most clubs close at 6am), but since the metro closes at 1am we called it a night at around 12:15. The funny thing about this club is that they played the same retro music on the ground floor (there were different floors that had different kinds of music) as they did the last time we were there. The same songs. In the same order. So even though it wasn’t any retro music that I grew up with, it felt retro from a few weeks ago, and I got excited when they played the songs I “knew.”

As for my birthday day, well it wasn’t anything special. Sometimes birthdays are just that way. But I don’t know how to stop looking forward to birthdays so as to avoid the disappointment of the anti-climactic ones. I got home late morning, having spent the night at a friend’s house (to avoid the wrath of Regina). Then I went to meet some friends who were going to see an independent film near Belorusskaya station. It was called something like, “Uzhas, kotoriy vsegda s toboi,”—“The Horror That is Always With You.” I fell asleep for most of it, but I got the gist. Some guy and his wife are intruded upon by these government soldiers who carry out a stake-out mission in their apartment, except in the end I gathered that it was the wrong apartment and the wrong guy got killed. Anyway, after the movie my friends wanted to go home, which was kind of disheartening because I had hoped to get together some more people that night for a casual birthday dinner. Maybe that was being a little greedy, since I had already had a birthday fling the night before. So I went across the street to KFC because they have free wi-fi there, but the internet wouldn’t work on my iPod so I read my book there for a while—Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” which I bought in English because, frankly I’m tired of feeling like an Idiot when I read things in Russian. Then I got a text from my Russian friend that a group of them were going to see a movie and to meet at Kurskaya on the dark blue line at 7 (I’m not sure if anyone’s following the metro references, but I like to throw them in to give a little bit of info about the setting of my anecdotes). We ended up seeing “Stepbrothers” dubbed in Russian. To me it was funny because I could imagine how Will Ferrell would say the things that were being dubbed, and also it was satisfying to be able to understand jokes in Russian. The Russians hated it, though. And I can understand why—I think that kind of humor is hard to translate, especially because most of it is absurd and childish. I couldn’t really explain to them why Americans would think that movie was funny. I told them that that kind of humor is indeed very silly, and it shouldn’t be taken too seriously because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But honestly, I was hard-pressed and a little embarrassed to explain it.

This week I signed up for a V Kontakte account, which is the Russian version of Facebook ( I think Facebook is suing them because they lifted the design and layout from their website. As if I need to be distracted by more friend-networking sites like facebook and myspace...

One thing that I really want to try to bring back to the US is "tvorog," which is like cream cheese but sweeter and a little bit more curdled. Someone translated it at "cottage cheese" once, but really it's not that at all. Regina makes these tasty little pancake/blintzes with the tvorog called "cyrniki" (a translation of this could be "little cheesy things?") Sometimes she gives it to me raw for dessert, and then I mix it with sour cream and jam. Russians don't use jam like we do, on toast or bread. They eat it plain or mix it with kefir (this yogurty sour milk stuff), or they mix in a little milk and drink it like that, kind of like a room temperature milkshake. Another Russian thing that Regina introduced me to last night was drinking pickle juice. She gave me a little shot of the brine she had used to make her pickles, and said that it's very healthy. I think she said that it helps drunk people get rid of their headaches. I told her that when I was younger I used to drink olive juice, but everyone thought I was weird. She said "ah yes! That's also healthy stuff."

This weekend we’re going to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s birthplace. We’ll be there all Saturday—meeting at 8am at Chkalovskaya on the light green line and taking a 3-hour train to get there. I heard this weekend is supposed to be cold and rainy in Moscow. I looked up the forecast in Yasnaya Polyana and it said it would be cold and rainy there, too. Ironic, since "yasno" means "clear."

6 comments: said...

This was a very thorough post! Some points:
--I like that professor a lot, I think he and I could get along. He sounds amusing.
--And yes, I am familiar with the dark-blue line--or, rather, the "Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya" line ;)
--Tolstoy's house!!

Erika said...

your prose has so many memorable tidbits.

my 2 favorites:

--"wedged between a tall man's armpit and a short man's waxy ear."

--"greater than or equal to 2 girls primping hair..."

Mark and Velina Petrovic said...

This is good stuff. And lots of it, too. More is better. And, I am delighted that you are still a funny human.

Velina said...

These Russians girls sound like something out of "Mean Girls". Have you explained you are from California and we dress casual's all about looking good AND being comfortable. I can't imagine traveling on the metro and walking in pumps..and if your shoes get as dirty as you say...what the heck.
Love the professor stories!! Keep them coming.
I laughed outloud when you told your landlady you drank olive juice when you were a kid..
Also, just curious but do these Russian students speak English much?
I love you and miss you soo much!

Anonymous said...

How long does it take you to write a post of this length?

John said...

Hey! You write well. I have enjoyed most of your posts, but did not know how to comment. I would like any advice you have for my future Petersburg endeavor.