Saturday, August 23, 2008

some more info

Well, here I am once again in McDonald’s— if you’ve got a metro map in front of you (Omar) it’s the one right outside the Novoslobodskaya metro station on the brown circle line. My apartment is near the Oktyabrskaya Pole metro station on the pink/fuchsia line. I hope I don’t gain tooo much weight from all these McDonald’s trips; I’m not sure if it’s a requirement to buy something to use the internet, so I err on the side of caution and do it anyway so that I can keep up appearances with a cup of coffee or orange juice next to my laptop. Sometimes they do have a “security guard” circle around. I’m not sure what kind of offenses they’re hired to keep at bay, but I also don’t want to find out. Something else that I’ve noticed about Russian McDonald’s is that it’s a huge ordeal to order something without mayonnaise. This is usually what happens:

-Cheeseburger, without mayonnaise please.
-Without mayonnaise.
-Uh… what about ketchup?
-Well… okay, that’s fine.
-Without mayonnaise?

Then the employee has to go over to the grilling station and yell, “CHIZBURGER BEZ MAIONEZA. BEZ MAIONEZA. I KNOW, I KNOW. JUST DO IT.”

Okay, that’s my McDonald’s story of the day. For some reason I always feel the need to provide unsolicited details about it since that’s where I usually am when I have get internet.

So! Tomorrow it will be a week since I moved into my new apartment. Things are going pretty well. I feel relatively comfortable in this new home, and I even got used to the cat pee smell to the point that I don’t notice it. Not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but for now let’s say it’s good. For as small as this apartment is, the cats are fairly unobtrusive. Although one of the cats (Romashka – “chamomile”) insists on jumping up on my desk every morning to roll around vigorously on all my papers and books. She does it because she wants to be petted, which is endearing until she pushes a stack of paper and notebooks onto the floor.

I’ve been talking to my landlady more and asking questions about things. (Regina I think is her name, there was only a vague introduction and now I’ve definitely missed my window of opportunity for asking what her name is.) She’s really good about helping me learn words and repeating them a lot, but sometimes I feel like my brain is full and I can’t absorb any more words or grammar. From talking with Regina, I’ve gathered that she used to work in TV and radio, and then she sang in a choir for 14 years, and then she was a teacher until she went on her pension. She still gives music (mostly voice, but maybe piano, too) lessons regularly to students in her apartment. Yesterday I came home earlier than usual and she was in the middle of a lesson with one of her pupils, a teenage boy who was trying to sing through some classical pieces. She’s kind of a tough teacher. I wondered if he was embarrassed that I was overhearing the lesson, because it seemed to me a rather humbling and personal affair.

I told Regina that I was interested in cooking and that I’d like to watch her do her thing in the kitchen, which she said was fine but so far I haven’t been home to make that happen. One thing I was particularly interested in was this kvas she makes from scratch. For those of you who don’t know, kvas is a popular Russian drink that is made from fermented bread. It’s very mildly alcoholic and has this rich, woody taste that I can’t really describe. I’m not a big fan of kvas, but the stuff that Regina makes is interesting because it’s not made from bread, but rather from rice. Apparently the rice she makes it with is from the sea… I still don’t quite understand how she got it, she said they don’t sell it and you have to get it from a friend. But what I understand is that you can use the rice over and over again to brew as many batches as you want. Basically she puts water in a jar and adds the rice, sugar, and some golden raisins and lets the concoction sit for a few days. Then she strains it to get the rice out and then strains it again through a funnel and some cloth. Et voila! You have a clear, slightly tangy liquid that Regina says is good for basically every part of your body. I asked her if it was alcoholic, and she seemed a little shocked and said, “no!” I said, “Isn’t kvas generally just a little bit alcoholic?” Nope, not according to her. I think that’s because the alcohol content is so low that to call it an alcoholic beverage is funny to Russians. When Regina drinks the kvas she usually says, “ahh, lekarstvo” (medicine), and then cackles good-naturedly. This makes me wonder if it really is healthy or if it’s a just a little joke of hers. Nevertheless, I drink it up happily with her every morning and night, and imagine all the alleged vitamins coursing through me and doing good deeds for my body. Regina said the kvas might help with my “hair problem,” since I explained to her that the reason I shower every day is because of how oily my hair gets. As you can probably guess, Russians aren’t nearly as obsessive about bathing as I am. This is something I had previously guessed based on the overwhelming smell of body odor on the metro.

Speaking of the metro… I’d just like to say that I’m sorry I ever mentally cursed BART and how smelly or uncomfortable it is. Now I know what a luxury it is to get a seat 9 times out of 10 when I ride BART, and how deliciously cool those air-conditioned trains are in the summertime. In the Moscow metro’s defense, I will say that the stations are absolute works of art. The architecture is really amazing and in quite a few stations there are all sorts of grand monuments to artists or influential historical figures. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people (myself included after only 3 weeks) tend to become desensitized to all of the amazing historical art in the metro and in Moscow in general, because usually you find yourself staring at the back of someone’s head being pushed by someone else’s shopping bags when you’re trying to get from point A to B. There’s just no time to stop and smell the roses, or at least that’s how the hustle and bustle of the city makes you feel. When I first got here, I wondered why people insisted on running down the escalators (the left “lane” is always left clear for passing) and would run to catch a train, because a new train comes every 30-90 seconds. However, after a few weeks here I’ve found myself doing the same kind of mindless hurrying that everyone else does, pushing others out of the way just to get 3 feet closer to your destination.

Yesterday we went on a tour of the Kremlin, which was very beautiful but like all our tours, not terribly informative. Usually they’re not informative because the tours are given in Russian and we all tune out. This time it was in English, but the tour guide was so softspoken and spoke so slowly that it was equally as difficult to follow. I wish I had more to say about the Kremlin, since it’s a pretty big deal in Moscow, but like everything else that I’ve seen, all I cay say is that it was a big and beautiful place. One thing I did find interesting was that they keep birds of prey on the grounds so that they can minimize the raven population in the Kremlin. Apparently it’s a problem keeping the roofs clear with all the ravens that take over.

To answer a few questions:

Yes, TV programs here (including Murder, She Wrote) are dubbed in Russian. The frustrating thing is that they don’t mute English language track underneath, so sometimes I find myself trying to listen to the English track and then I get on a roll with that but then the Russian sound level overpowers it and then I don’t know what’s going on so I tune it all out.

No, generally dryers are not used here. Fortunately Lena called Regina about the steep laundry prices, so the other day I did my laundry and she only charged R100 (about $4) because it only filled up half the machine and the other half was filled by her clothes. Still a little pricey, but that’s the going rate in the other homestays. At first I was afraid Regina was being passive aggressive when she said that she would charge me less because she “didn’t want to go against the university,” but I don’t think people here are passive aggressive like that. Generally she takes pretty good care of me, and is loving in her own way. She taught me how to properly handwash clothes, she tells me if I need to iron my skirt before I leave the house, and wakes me up if I’ve slept past the time I said I would wake up in the morning. The only thing is that she doesn’t let me carry my own set of keys with me unless she knows she won’t be home. Sometimes I wonder how she keeps sane staying home for so long, but she is always home when she says she’ll be. Last night I felt uncomfortable about this because I had planned to go out to a club to celebrate a friend’s birthday and knew I wouldn’t be back until late. She said she wouldn’t sleep until I got home anyway, and that if I used the key in the door she’d wake up quick as a flash. I ended up going home with my friend so that a) I wouldn’t have to worry about walking home alone at night, and b) wouldn’t need to feel guilty for bothering Regina. The metro closes at 1 anyway but to be getting home at 1:30 and ringing the doorbell is something I’m not eager to do.

Incidentally, the club last night was pretty fun. A large group of us met at the Mayakovskaya metro station and from there walked to this club where they play retro music on the dance floor. The retro music they played was a little odd, though. It seemed American, but I had never heard any of the songs. Then when they started playing the Russian retro music, it was really funny to see all the Russians singing along. It’s weird how every culture has those songs that everyone knows from their past. Before he played one really popular song, the DJ was like “It will be impossible to just listen to this one!” And then he played this random song that everyone knew and we all pretended to know the words, too.

About the stray dogs. They really come in all shapes and sizes. In the beginning I was really tempted to pet this one little dog that was wandering in and out of the metro because he was so little and looked so innocent. But then I was warned about all the diseases those dogs carry. There’s one dog that lives near our dormitory that I call the Bob Marley dog because it looks like he has huge shaggy dreadlocks instead of fur.

Regarding classes, this coming week will be the last week of only having language classes. Then starting September 1, we have the option of taking 2-3 other electives in addition to our language classes, the choices being history/politics, Russian film, and literature. The problem I have right now is that they seem to have changed the number of units that the language classes are worth. So instead of 8 quarter units, the language classes are now worth only 7. We have to take a minimum of 18 quarter units, and while the history class is worth 6 units, the literature and film classes are only worth 5 each. This means that unless they give us an opportunity to take 1 more unit, we HAVE to take the history class to fulfill the minimum unit requirement. And I really wanted to just take the literature and film classes.

I do have a snail mail address, but I’ll have to ask Regina about mail and also get the address with the zip code and everything. In my last entry I made a mistake—the address is Volokolamskii proezd, not Vokolamskii. I’ll have to look at the spelling again when I get home.

Kofe Xauz – depending on how hardcore you are with the KH sound, it could either be a hard H or a more intense fricative. I haven’t heard any actual Russians pronounce the name yet, but I’m assuming they lean toward saying “khhh-ahh-oo-z.” Maybe not that exaggerated.

The weather is not at all consistent. One day it’s swelteringly hot, the next day I’m walking home from the metro taking a cold shower in the pouring rain. The beginning of last week was very hot, but now the temperature is mild and sometimes downright cool. I have to find a blow dryer soon so that I won’t have to walk around with wet hair in the chilly weather that is coming soon. Finding blow dryers (let alone reasonably priced ones) is a real headache around these parts. Regina said she might be able to take me shopping at a place that has them, but I’m not sure when that will happen.

I’m glad everyone is enjoying the blog! I had no idea it would reach such a wide audience, but it’s nice to know that people are finding my daily goings-on here interesting. I tried to cram as much into this entry as I can, as internet visits are few and far between now that I’m in my new apartment.

Monday, August 18, 2008

home sladkii home

Since this is probably going to be the most interesting aspect of my life here in Russia, I decided to find a McDonald's (wi-fi) and spin you a little yarn about my homestay; I realize yesterday's post was a bit of a cliffhanger. And don't worry, I haven't been choked or stolen from at this McDonald's yet. Although I did get some weird looks after ordering an iced coffee. I know I know, it was a bit ambitious of me to even try. People were mostly amused by the request. In the end all I could get was a cup of ice and a regular cup of coffee. An old woman ordering next to me pointed and smiled and said "Interyezno! (Interesting!) I've never seen such a thing before." I told her I was from America, and that it was just that kind of day, you know? (It's really hot here and I've been toting around a heavy backpack all day.)

Okay, the homestay. Yesterday was the second day of moving all of us into our homestays. We went in pairs based on the general regions we were all in. Our program director Lena and some other guy vaguely associated with the university (Igor) drove us to our apartments to meet our new xoziaikas (landladies, but this Russian word has a slightly different meeting-- basically it's pronounced huh-zyAHee-kuh). One guy has a xozyain (a man host) but most of us have old women who live alone.

So first we drove to my friend Tinian's apartment (she's the other girl from Berkeley on this trip). She lives about a mile away from me. Both our landladies are new to the program; they have another stockpile of known quantities that, for better or worse, we didn't get. So we got to Tinian's and at first I was a little freaked out because Tinian got this big, clean, awesome room to herself. Her landlady seemed very welcoming, too. While Lena was talking specifics with the landlady, Igor was telling Tinian and me that although Tinian was pretty far from the metro, she'd really lucked out with the quality of apartment, especially because he'd already seen 90% of the homestays. And then he told us that both of us were really far from the metro. So again, I was really freaked out and did not know what to expect. It turns out that I am not so far from the metro, about a 10-15 minute walk in a fairly decent neighborhood. BUT. Igor and Lena got lost several times before we actually made it to the place. So we're driving down deserted dirt-road alleys with lots of stray dogs (there are so many of those in Russia, my friend Igor got attacked by 3 of them yesterday after he left the McDonald's in his area and had to fight them off with a cart). And I'm hearing Igor (the man Igor, not my friend from the program) talking to Lena in Russian, saying "What is this?? She's not living here, is she? How could she live in this!?" They kept bickering which would have been funny because he kept saying she was stubborn like his wife, except I was paralyzed with fear in the backseat, imagining myself walking home and having to fight off dogs with an umbrella or something.

Anyway, after they called my landlady a couple times, we successfully drove to my homestay. 1 Bol'shoi Vokolamskii Proezd. It's next to a big police station, and my landlady said the neighborhood was generally pretty quiet as a result. Then I told her that frankly, I was scared of the police here. She seemed surprised at this, so hopefully that means there's nothing to worry about. There are a lot of families and playgrounds here, and the local church is quaintly beautiful. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. That was on the walk my landlady and I took so that she could show me where the metro was.

So Lena and I take the elevator to the 5th floor (incidentally, one of the elevators has no light whatsoever, it's a creepy ride so I usually try to wait for the fully-lit elevator) and we go to the apartment #26. There's an entryway with other apartments on the way to that, I'm not sure who lives there yet. And so the landlady greeted us, we exchanged our shoes for slippers, and went inside so that Lena could discuss a few details with the landlady. Oh, did I mention that the smell of cat pee filled the air once we were in the entryway? Right. My landlady has 3 cats. 3 fat cats. Which is fine. Except sometimes when I think she's talking to me, she's actually talking to the cats. I mean usually it's not hard to tell who she's talking to because she puts on a falsetto and does the whole baby talk thing. She's either teaching them how to say "Mama" or she thinks they already know how, because sometimes she says "MAMA" really slowly to the cat, and when it meows in response, she gets my attention and says "See? Mama. They know." The first thing she showed Lena and me was 2 different framed photographs of her cats. I'm not making fun of her though, she must be lonely. Her daughter is grown and lives/studies in Ohio. But I'm not sure how much she knows about American life through her, because when we were watching Agatha Christie together in the living room and eating dinner, she asked if we have tv commercials in America, too. I said "yes" and then tried to explain that some channels like HBO don't have them, but I don't think she understood. Later I realized that in the USSR there were obviously no commercials because there would have been no need to sell any particular brand.

Generally things are comfortable in the apartment, it's small but I have my own room with a degree of privacy if I decide to close the door. The only thing is that there IS a pervasive cat pee odor that I haven't adjusted to yet. Maybe I will, maybe I won't. I might try to get some Febreze or it's equivalent later, and hope she won't be offended.

Another thing that is bothering me is how much she has decided to charge me for food and laundry. I had heard a lot about how some landladies are happy to cook you meals for free, but this lady is clearly not in that camp. For me to take breakfast and dinner with her would be $300 a month, so I told her I would just eat breakfast on my own dime and then she could make me dinner. That is $200 a month. I asked her if it might be okay to cook my own meals and shop for myself, but she said it might be inconvenient with all the pots and pans being occupied etc. We'll see. I'm just going to try this only-dinner business out for a month. Then she said that a full load of laundry would cost $20. So at that point I mentally decided to just suck it up and handwash everything. However, this morning, of course all of us come to class exchanging stories about our homestays. Generally it sounds like the biggest problem for a lot of people is how far their homestay is from school (my commute is about an hour), but mostly the landladies sound nurturing and generous. I talked to Lena and asked her about how expensive everything was. She said that while $200/month for only dinners was reasonable, $20/load of laundry was not, and that she would give the lady a call about it.

I think right now I just don't want to exchange stories with anyone about our homestays. Last night I didn't have a bad time, nor did I feel an overwhelming sense of doom when I went to bed. Sure, it smelled like cat pee and my landlady is a bit of a kook. But even though I felt really awkward and a little out of my comfort zone, it still felt really awesome to be living in Moscow, not just living in a dorm isolated from the nitty gritty. Right now after I leave McDonald's, I'm going to get on the metro, buy some yogurt at the grocery store, and maybe take an ice cold shower at my new home. Oh yeah, a lot of people don't have hot water in the summer... kind of messed up but not totally unbearable in this hot, hot heat. And apparently it's going to be back on in a week or so. This morning my landlady boiled some water for me to wash basics in, but I ended up just taking a cold shower because it was easier to take a gaspingly cold shower from a shower nozzle than splash some water on my armpits from a bucket. She was worried about me that I washed my hair though, and said I would probably get a cold or at least a runny nose.

Okay, poka for now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

off to the homestays

Today I'm moving out of the dorms and into my homestay! I'm a little nervous but trying to be excited in a good way right now. Some students moved into their homestays yesterday and reports back were mixed. Some people are about as far away as you can get from the university, but I'm hoping that's because most the students who got moved in yesterday were boys, and they'll be safer on their own than a girl would be metroing/walking home a long distance. I'm hoping for a few things: a) that my landlady is nurturing and isn't some sort of no-nonsense ice queen, b) that my landlady won't try to take advantage of me when it comes to negotiating prices of food or laundry services, c) that there is at least a washing machine, d) that the apartment will be at least within 2 or 3 metro stops. Some of the people who moved in yesterday said that they don't have hot water in their homestay right now; it gets turned off during the summer. According to one student who asked his landlady about it, it will be off for another 10 days or so. This is somewhat disturbing, although to be honest it's been so hot here that I can't help but wonder if I'll even mind. Last night it was so unbelievably hot and humid, and of course there's no air conditioning here so we all just had to suffer and be sweaty and sticky while packing up our suitcases.

There's been a lot of silly melodrama between the EAP students lately. I'm ashamed to say that I am a part of it, although I have no idea how I got involved. It's usually something I try to avoid. I feel like I'm back in my freshman year in the dorms, getting riled up over petty things and caring too much about being liked and accepted.

I'm not sure what my internet's status will be once I'm in the homestay. Hopefully I'll be close to a McDonalds or Kofe Xaus because those places have wi-fi. I'll try to check in again soon!

P.S. Martine had a question about night life and the clubbing scene here. A few people have been more hardcore about pursuing that arena than I. A lot of people are intimidated by the "face control" that they have here, which basically means they don't let you into the club if you don't look or aren't dressed a certain way. Some clubs are stricter than others, I think some girls went out the other night and had no problem getting into a club (like America, it's generally easier to get into a club if you're a girl), but they went early and that makes it easier. The first week after we were here, we were going to go out to a club for a student's birthday here, but since we're such a large group and some people felt like they didn't pack snazzy enough clubbing clothes, we were afraid not everyone would get in. We ended up going to a bit of a dive bar, which was basically like an American bar but way more expensive. They were playing American country music for a while, which was kind of awful and not exactly the Moscow nightlife experience people were looking for. There's still more time to explore the club scene here, I'll keep you updated about it.

As for the food question, I do like it but it's hard to say what defines Russian cuisine. Lots of mayonnaise salads, beet and cabbage soups with sour cream on top. They use dill in practically everything, so I've come to associate that as a very Russian thing. Sosiski (sausage) is a big deal here, they usually have it on open faced sandwiches. They eat bread with everything (which is okay by me!). Something I've noticed about buying things from food vendors or from the dorm cafeteria is that meat is often undefined.
"What is this?" I ask while pointing to some kind of breaded patty while in line. "Meat."
"What is this stuffed with?" I ask about a meat pie (pirozhok). "Meat."
I guess I'm getting more comfortable with eating meat that comes from an unspecified part of the body of an unspecified animal. People who came here as vegetarians or who leaned toward vegetarianism have set that diet aside for this trip, I think.

"everybody watch your chicken!"

You would think that being in Moscow, it would be comforting that there are well-established American fast food chains to get a little taste of home. Quite the contrary! Maybe it's a coincidence, but the few times I've been to McDonalds or KFC, strange and terrible things have happened.

Exhibit A: McDonalds. About two weeks ago. A small group of us students decided to go to there for the free wi-fi and cheap coffee (as a side note, cheap brewed coffee is something that I really miss here; there is a chain here called "Kofe Xaus" that is like the Starbucks of Russia, but it's too expensive to be a casual daily thing). Admittedly, we did pick a pretty late time to go, maybe 10 or 11. As the 5 or 6 of us tried to get in the door, there were a couple of burly men inside trying to get out. I guess it was taking a long time for all of us to file in, because one of the men got so impatient that he grabbed my friend Igor by the neck and dragged him aside so he could pass. Kiinndd of scary. When we told that story to one of the ILP teachers, she said it was probably our fault for being in his way.

Exhibit B: KFC. Last Saturday afternoon. Some of us set out to get lunch near the Belorusskaya metro station because we knew there were some places in that area we wanted to check out. They have this thing here called "bizness lanch" (business lunch) that is considerably cheaper than the regular prices, usually ranging from 150-220 rubles (about 6-10 American dollars). It includes an appetizer (usually salad, something mayonnaise-based with assorted vegetables), the first course (some kind of soup), and the second course (something with meat, also includes a side dish like mashed potatoes, rice, macaroni, etc). Basically the only thing bizness lanch doesn't include is the third course (dessert), which is usually fine for me because I end up waddling out of the restaurant after all that food.

ANYWAY, that's just a little cultural note I wanted to squeeze in. Not being real businessmen, it didn't occur to any of us that they wouldn't offer business lunch on the weekend. So we ended up at KFC, which is across the street from the fancier place we had in mind. After waiting in line for what seemed like an eternity (these fast food places are always extremely crowded), I got my food last and went to join the rest of my group at the end seat on the table. I open my box of chicken and immediately a hand creeps from behind my shoulder and snatches up a chicken wing. At first I thought, "weird that someone from my group would take a piece of chicken without asking, but whatever... wait... no one from my group is wearing a beige trenchcoat..." At that point I looked up and there was this creepy homeless woman who held up the piece of chicken in the air with a smug smile and looked at me as if to say, "thanks for the chicken!" and then went out the door. It was such a shocking moment (for all of us, but mostly for me) that I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Then, as if that weren't enough, she came back into KFC, laid the half-eaten chicken wing on the table next to us, and showed us a sign that said "Heep for food." Before I came here, people told me that there was a lot of random rudeness that brings out irrational behavior in you. In that moment, I finally knew what they were talking about. I actually shouted insults at a stranger, in Russian. Well, maybe not insults, but I was definitely yelling. After she showed us the sign I said, "WHAT? I ALREADY DID THAT! NEXT TIME ASK. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET AWAY FROM ME." etc.

There's just a lot of absurdity that goes on here. I don't know if there's any way to keep cool 100% of the time here. It's a mad house! The best thing about these situations is that they make for great stories. Finger lickin' great.

Friday, August 15, 2008

privet vsem!

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.