Tuesday, June 30, 2009

сумки

Men in Russia have many important roles to fulfill. They bear a lot of responsibility for supporting their families – they are bread winners. They court and spoil their women – they are gift and flower-givers. As I learned from my textbook and from one of the girls from our group who received a bunch of pink roses from a secret admirer, the kind and color of the flowers has a lot of meaning. For example, white roses mean innocence, red roses mean love, and red carnations are a symbol of victory (and are typically presented to veterans on the Veteran’s Day). But flower-giving, romantic as it may be, seems very impractical to me. There is another Russian tradition which is much more to my taste – that of a сумка-bearer ([soomka] = pocket book). Yes - Russian males carry their beloved woman’s pocket book! I spotted them all around the town, especially in areas such as parks or at social events. I still have to figure out whose outfit the сумка's are supposed to match – the female’s or the male’s. What do you say ladies - should we adopt this nice tradition here?

Russian food

No wonder so many Russians are overweight - Russian food deserves its separate chapter. There is a lot of things here I want to stay away from, tasty as they may be – pancakes, pies, different kinds of noodles, heavy sauces, sweets (I have to confess – halva and strudel I could not resist), cakes, and of course their ice-cream (rich and creamy, but not as sweet as in the US). Luckily for me (well, relatively lucky – my goal here was to lose weight, not to gain), there are a lot of yummy things here I eat with pleasure. Fish is on the top of the list. I go to the local farmers’ market where the vendors let me taste different kinds of smoked and salted fishes (pretty much like somewhat salty sushi quality raw fish) before I decide to purchase what I like. Then there are cheeses – at least twenty different varieties at each kiosk – and the same procedure applies. The tasting easily suffices for my lunch, and I bring home a bag full of goodies I can eat for the next couple of days. On the way home I stop to buy some home made pickles, fresh radishes, tomatoes, and cucumbers from street vendors on Lenin Street. In the morning I visit the same tables to get my snack – sweet fresh crop apricots, muddy strawberries (half the size compared to the ones you can get for $1.25 at Smith’s, but they actually taste like strawberries that ripened under the sun and were washed by the rain), and nectarines. The cherries are amazing too, but unfortunately almost as pricey as at home. I haven’t been using any spices besides salt and pepper (yes, I am amazed I am surviving without my daily dosage of garlic), but all this produce is so tasty by itself that spices would only spoil it.
And then there is the food that my host mom makes. It’s quite simple because apparently she doesn’t like cooking (or other housework), but amazingly tasty. My favorites so far:
- cabbage leaves cooked with rice and meat (I remove the stuffing and eat the cabbage, but together they are even more yummy)
- beet and pickle salad
- pea soup
- mushroom soup
- kasha with shredded carrots

I yet have to taste the borsch she makes – by far my Russian cuisine favorite.

To my friends in SLC

Being ten years older than the kids in my group here, I feel a bit left out. Unless I am the one organizing an event (or inviting people to an event organized by Katya, my host mom’s 21-year-old daughter), I am left out. It’s probably my own fault, too – I am sure if I asked if I can come along, they wouldn’t say “no.” But I don’t even know what to talk with them about – a different generation and different interests. All I want to say is that I miss you guys: I miss biking with you, hiking with you and our dogs (oops – I almost typed “gods” – well, almost true :P), I miss skiing together, and barbecuing, and talking dogs and sports and food, and watching movies and listening to the Latino radio station

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Бездомные собачки (homeless dogs)

They are everywhere, especially during early morning hours – filthy bundles of dreadlocks stretched out along sidewalks if it’s warm, and curled up if it’s colder. Usually it’s a whole pack – three, four, or five dogs. I’ve also spotted lonely ones, often growled at and chased away by a united group. None of them look starved, though. I was told that beggars and drug addicts share their food with them. Of course it was a great surprise to Katya and her friends when I said that this would not be possible in the US. Even back home, where few dogs are as lucky as ours (many are chained or, at the very best, spend their whole life outside), there are no homeless animals - there is always someone who will give them food and shelter.

Surviving in a Russian car

First of all, many cars have the steering wheel on the right. My initial thought was that they must be mail cars, but no – they are simply cars that have been imported from Japan. They are not exactly legal, so to discourage people from buying them, they introduced higher taxes on such “machines.” Overall, they are still cheaper, and so quite popular. (the citizens belonging to the upper (affluent) class would rather pay more and get a European car, though.) Then there is the seatbelt issue. According to the law, the driver and the passenger in the front should wear them, and most Russians would rather not get a ticket (I have heard that it’s better to say away from the police here). But it’s the ticket threat alone that makes them wear it – when I put on the seatbelt in the back, people laugh at me. It’s like this country is full of my ex-husband’s grandmothers (his refused to wear the seatbelt; she’d also disregard red lights (why stop if nobody is coming?) and claim it was impossible for her to have had an accident (“How could I hit him if I didn’t see him?”)). And OF COURSE there are no lanes, and driving around town is like competing in a car race. After a ride with one of Katya’s girlfriends this afternoon I am convinced that going 85 on I-80 from Park City is very SAFE – as long as I don’t smell burning tires and there is no city bus stopping right in front of us when we are rushing to make the green light. Ok, well, I bet those of you who have traveled to places like India think I am being a drama queen. But really, having grown up in a country that is barely becoming civilized itself, I think this is a jungle!

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Dog show

There is a lot of affluence, and a lot of poverty around here. It seems that Russians want to get the best of the western world yet it doesn’t exactly work. Today we drove a BMW X5 to see a working dog show by the local police department. Fake polar bear skin seat covers spoiled the interior of the SUV. Roads without pot holes are unseen, so the drive was more like a jeep tour in Moab than a Sunday morning ride in a luxury car. The show itself was a little sad too. First of all, it was clear that most of the dogs – German Shepherds, Labradors, Caucasian Shepherds, with an exception of a Spaniel - suffered from hip displasia. Watching them run and jump was quite unlike watching our happy pack on a hike. Even the handlers looked like they were in pain as they were running along with their animals. True, the dogs were able to do many interesting tricks, but overall it seemed like a very unsuccessful attempt at a Schutzhund trial (if you have not seen one of those, imagine watching a K9 performance on Cops, except that the K9 and the cop are both handicapped). Then we went for an early afternoon cup of tea (заехли на чай – people drop by for tea all the time) to one of my host’s friend’s brand new mansion in the suburbs. It was evident that the owners have a lot of money, but everything looked like work in progress even though the house was “finished” four years ago. I have to wonder if it’s the mentality or the lack of skill. It’s like they never get anything done right, and stop half way in the middle – kinda the way I would go about installing an air conditioner without properly pre-drilling holes for screws and patching any openings with duck tape (that really is the way I would do it, which means I would most likely ask Alex to install it for me). The tea party actually started with quite a few shots of brandy and what I assume to be typical Russian snacks – slices of cheese, sausage, and other meats, caviar, bread, and cookies – and by the time it came to tea my host and her two female friends were beginning to sing. Thankfully our driver didn’t drink.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Russians

I can’t believe that it’s been a week since I left SLC. Definitely time to define some thoughts about the “new” world around me. It seems like a blend of the reality I remember from my childhood and all the things I have learned about Russians form my textbooks. It’s not just the way things look, but also how people around me talk and behave. The most striking – and yet so obvious – thing is that people try to dress elegantly. Some do it better than others. You will find girls wearing leopard-skin shirts and purple skirts, and tall blondes that look like they walked off a fashion show stage. Make-up is normal and expected. When Katya, who is a licensed beautician, suggested that she will help me with my make up when we go to the theatre, I knew right away that the only way out would be to say I am allergic to cosmetics. All off her friends, who stop by unannounced (ok, they call her on the cell five minutes before they show up) wear make up and high heels. They also call her mom “тетя Наташа” (auntie Natasha), and for Katya all of her mom’s girl friends are also “тетя.” This doesn’t surprise me that much as it was also a common practice in Poland when I was growing up, though not on such a wide scale (I perhaps had two or three тети). Then there are бабушки (elderly women) and дядушки (elderly men). I buy my veggies from them on Lenin Street and Karl Marx Street. They typically sit on their little stools placed right along the sidewalk all day long and try to sell a few bunches of leeks and a few pickles. They take lunch breaks, too: «Маша, давай поработай ниемножко, а я пообиедаю» (Masha, why don’t you work a little bit as I have my lunch) - said one of the street vendors to another as she was taking the first bite of her sandwich (бутер-брот) – two thick slices of white bread with something in between. But bread here is good. I found a full grain with NO SUGAR or SWEETENER ADDED! I get tvarog (Russian cottage cheese that is nothing like the cottage cheese we buy in plastic containers at Smith’s), canned fish, fresh tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers (they actually taste like tomatoes, radishes and cucumbers, not water – and you can find an occasional worm in them, too) and make my yummy sandwiches for breakfast and my first lunch. I get my second lunch at столовая – a student cafeteria, where I can get a nice cabbage or beetroot salad for 25 cents (soups and main courses run at 50 cents). Food at such low prices is not available anywhere else, though. Overall, the cost of living seems to be as high, if not higher, than in the US. And so I can’t understand at all how people here make it by.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Second day in Krasnoyarsk

I spent the first hour running. I haven’t run in quite a few days, so it felt very refreshing. I checked out the three main streets of the city: Lenin Street, Marx Street, and Mirskaya Prospekt (these three run parallel to each other) + a number of side streets. I found it quite surprising that the street names have not been changed, but I later learned that it is normal for Russian cities (in Poland all communist leader names were removed from the shields and replaced). The main goal of this run was to find an internet café and a gym. I didn’t find either at the end of the hour and pretty much gave up – decided to run up the stairs to the 10th floor and accept this as a part of my daily work out while here. I took another shower (yes! Two showers in one day) and decided to take off again, this time to find some food and an ATM. To my surprise, when I walked out of the apartment building, I stumbled into a Sportivnyj Klub – two minutes away! The price per month stunned me a little bit, but that’s really the only thing I can do here on a regular basis in addition to running (there will be some hikes, but only on weekends). Tomorrow shall I start.

I spent the rest of my afternoon exploring the streets again at a slower pace, visiting a local farmer’s market (oh, the fresh and smoked fish that they sell here, and the cheeses – amazing!), doing a little shopping to have stuff for breakfast, and still hunting – without success – for an internet café. Perhaps tomorrow at the university someone will have an answer for me – I can’t believe that there are no public places where one can use the internet. Then I came back “home” and took a two hour nap. When I woke up, the hostess (Natalia) and Katya were back, and dinner was already being cooked. I got nice food and a generous portion of Russian input and was also pushed to produce some output. And more is coming tomorrow.

Krasnoyarsk

Whew, today was pretty intense. First, we lost four hours of sleep because of the time change. Straight from the airport – well, straight may be a little bit of an exaggeration since it took almost two hours for everybody to scramble their luggage together and go to the restrooms (with very specific time for technical inspections – see the attached picture) – we went to the Pedagogical University where we will be taking our classes. There I was taken over by two Katyas and brought to the apartment where I will be living for the next four weeks (one Katya actually lives here, the other one was her friend). To my surprise, they walked me into an 1) huge (for the standards here) apartment and b) a very large room (their living room has been temporarily transformed into my bedroom). While I showered in a real shower, the Katyas prepared a light salad made of really fresh and tasty vegetables and after I was fed, the girls took off living me to do whatever I fancied. And thus began my four hour run / stroll on the streets of Krasnoyarsk.

First impressions

And so, so far I have not experienced any great surprises. People in Moscow were as elegant and as shabby as I had expected; as hospitable and unfriendly as one can imagine; and as poor and as rich as in any other place in the world, though here the gap between the two groups is way more obvious – there seems to be no middle class. My hosts, both of them with higher education, are renting a tiny apartment which they had to renovate at their own cost, and even with the fixes the place provides a quality of life closer to that of a trailer than that of an apartment building. All public bathrooms are unclean and paid. The only place where you can relieve yourself without purchasing a meal or without paying is McDonald’s, which btw has a luxurious interior and offers wireless internet (and is more crowded than any McDonald’s I’ve ever seen in the US). People smoke everywhere. Children, no older than 12, smoke openly in public places. Police is everywhere and does nothing besides enjoying little strolls or fast rides in their brand new Mercedes (ok, that one was a shocker). And the city architecture is a mixture of various styles, with the post-soviet buildings sticking out their ugly facades everywhere (I was told that in total they have nine buildings which look like the Palace of Culture in Warsaw, which, after all, was a gift from the Russians to my country). And just a quick comment on the program director here, our native lady from Krasnoyarsk – young, tall, good looking, very sure of herself, cocky and pushy. This is the first impression, and I hope I will be able to see the brighter side of things once we begin classes.

Moscow up close

Natalia and Alexiey picked me up, and after a lengthy discussion decided that the fastest way to get to their apartment would be by train. When we made it to the train station it turned out the train had just left, so the goal now was to catch a bus. And so we did, and Moscow welcomed me with a densely congested road so I could admire the world around me without being rushed.

On Sunday my hosts took me for a stroll around the center. We saw the Red Square, Kremlin, lots of Cerkovs, lots of monuments, and Arbat. It was a typical tour, I think, but so much nicer because of their company – what a great hospitable couple, and with what sense of humor! As I took a chance to display my Russian skills, I managed to say that Pushkin died on Natalia instead of saying that he died for her (he was involved in a duel and sadly was shot to death), as well as to thank my hosts for a boring (скушны) dinner (I intended to say “вкусный,” which means “tasty”). Oh, the joys of second language acquisition!


The two days in Moscow went by really quickly and we are already on the way to Krasnoyarsk. Behind me, a drunken Russian is snoring and spreading vapors of vodka. At least he is sleeping deep enough now so that he stopped kicking my seat. We were just served dinner – a round piece of ground something that reminded salmon (it must have been because it was pink and had bones in it) smothered in cheddar-like cheese. But at least there are no chickens flying around the cabin, and the pretty flight attendants are more cultured and helpful than the male attendants on my Air France flight.

Arriving in Moscow

The flight to Paris was really long and the airport there as confusing as always. I am glad this part of the trip is done.

When ascending to Moscow, I spotted a bunch of rainbows. Fortunately, lightning was far away. It wasn’t the smoothest landing I’ve experienced, so I was happy to be on the ground. The Pole who had spoken to me in Paris appeared again and we went through customs together. He pulled me through and I was out of there faster than other travelers, but I had to listen to his opinionated speech about the modern Russia.


NOTE: This and the next few posts were written a few days back, but I was unable to post them because I had no internet on my laptop. Now that's fixed. Yay!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Hi

Anna invited me to post on this blog and how could I say No?

I'm a second-year PhD student at the University of Utah, an occasional opinion columnist for the campus paper, and an all-around awesome guy. When I'm not studying, teaching, or resisting complete neural meltdown from information overload, I'm biking and hiking and skiing in some of the best alpine terrain in the world, right in my figurative backyard.

My interests include compositional and lexical semantics, philosophy of language, and I'm also looking for ways to introduce experimental methodology to modern linguistic research, following work in the nascent field of experimental philosophy.

Well this sounds like a personal ad for major nerds and geeks, so I guess I'll have to work on my blogging a bit more. Hooray for you.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

9 days left to departure

I have never traveled anywhere east of Poland, so preparing for this trip is a bit nerve racking for me - especially that I still don't know where and with whom I will be spending these 5 weeks (we're supposed to be living with host families). So, I am on the quest for some generic gifts. Any ideas?