It was a balmy +6 Celcius today. I took off my coat in adulation only to be met with a good scolding by a babushka. Just yesterday I felt sad about leaving Volzhsky so early in June but today reminded me why there’s no place like home. Volzhky is nicknamed the “city full of sun.” It’s been glorious and strange to have so much sunlight this year. It would even wake me up in the mornings at 6AM (before we changed our clocks). I’ve grown to love just sitting in my window sill to soak up the light (especially when it was too cold to spend much time outdoors). Still, I must confess I miss the rain. I miss spectular cloud formations. Or just the comfort of that dull gray blanket across the sky, signaling everything is as it should be. I heard that they don’t expect much rain in April. What is spring without rain? I can’t imagine living in a place with so few clouds and such little rain forever. It’s wonderful to appreciate rain and clouds. I am not sure if I feel more excited to see rain or sunshine now but I am glad I’ve learned to appreciate both.
Today I learned that too much sunlight can be scary. At mid-day I met some friends for a stroll. The light was so intense I could hardly keep my eyes open. Everywhere I looked was so bright that I missed my friends when they passed by. My friends joked that I must be a vampire since they supposedly prefer the Pacific Northwest for its cloudiness. Before we set out on a trail I even mused “it’s like we have no atmoshphere to protect us from the sun.” I began to notice how dark and nearly black some of the tree trunks were. Before I could ask whether there was ever a fire here my friend pointed out that some smoke was rising from the horizon.
A brush fire was sweeping through fields several hundred feet in front of us. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a wild fire before. My friends assured me we were fine and that our path back wasn’t cut off. We were never in real danger but the idea of periodic brush fires scares me. I realize the steppe is probably much like the South Western region of the U.S.
Finally, I present to you a brief explanation of my institute and academic culture in Russia. I am stationed at the Volzhsky Institute of Humanities, an affiliate of Volgograd State University. I work with students and instructors of the English/Linguistics department. Most of my students are majoring in English language instruction and translation.
The “Specialist” program lasts 5 years and is roughly equivalent to a bachelor’s and master’s degree. My institute has recently added a four year degree program but it’s not as popular since job options for this degree seem to be limited. In general, Russian students study with the same groups of students for all 4-5 years of their university education. For the most part they do not choose their own classes as their program requirements are determined by their major. Imagine studying with the same group of 7-15 students all four years of your education.
Let me count the ways through pictures! Enjoy this link and photo reel:
My journey here began with an overnight train ride from Volgograd to Moscow. I quickly traversed the Metro system to the airport only to discover my flight had been delayed. Just when I thought of complaining I met some other foreigners who had been trying to leave Moscow for three days. My 11 hours in the airport became a lot easier with that perspective in mind. And although everything is way overpriced it’s like staying in a relatively safe, clean hotel without a shower or bed. Thanks to my gift of distraction and a thoughtful friend I somehow managed to stay awake to hear my boarding call at 3:30 am. I slept through most of the 8 hour and 40 minute flight.
I arrived a day before the New Year. Elena helped me register as a foreigner as required by Russian laws. After spending nearly a whole day jumping through some bureacratic hoops we prepared for the New Year’s night by taking a short nap and primping up.
For Russians the New Year is the ultimate holiday. It is their Christmas. Their Superbowl. Their Everything. They celebrate it like many Americans celebrate Christmas. They decorate a coniferous tree or ёлка (yolka), buy each other gifts and spend time with family or friends. Дёд Мороз (Dyod Moroz) is roughly the equivalent of Santa Claus.
In Vladivostok some celebrate New Year’s twice; once around midnight and again around 7 am when Moscow celebrates the New Year. I wish I knew this as I prepared to join my friend Elena and her friends celebrate. I would have brought a pillow.
The party started at 9pm and I am told everyone left by 8 am. By 6 am most were still there. Elena and I left “early” around 6am. By 5 am I stopped all efforts to be “part” of the party’s games and dancing and tried to feign my physical and social exhaustion by escaping into the blank pages of my notebook.
Elena’s friends rented a classroom that was once a cafe. I was most impressed by the disco light.At the party the techno music was paused only for occasional games and toasts. The most exciting moment of the night was when my friend Elena’s boyfriend proposed to her. I wish I could be here for her wedding but I am elated to share such a wonderful memory with her. It’s been fun helping her choose a wedding dress.
So over the last few months I’ve been trying to gain a sense of what makes Southern Russia a distinctive region. I was hoping the answers would be as obvious as they seemed in the Russian Far East where people readily shared their opinions about how their region was different. Here more people seem to shrug and add that life isn’t so different from Moscow. Perhaps it’s harder to explain Southern Russia because I know less about European Russia than I do about the Russian Far East.
I found a helpful source online called “Beyond Borders: The Real Geography of America & Russia” that compares geographical regions of the US and Russia. You can read chapters from this project on their site: http://www.beyondbordersbook.com/maps.html
Images courtesy of: http://www.beyondbordersbook.com/the_book17.html
This book has helped me understand more about this region. When I first arrived I was amazed by how dry, flat and brown much of the land was. It reminded me of my visit to Gallup, New Mexico which confirms some of the parallels these authors find between this part of Southern Russia and the US Southwest. This book further explores how these regions share similar histories. I like the patterns they draw between the history and geography of the US and Russia to show how much we share in common.
The greatest difference I notice between Southern Russia and other Russian regions is its weather. I am told it’s been unusually warm for this time of year in Volzhsky with temperatures hovering around freezing. For comparison Moscow’s temperature has ranged around 14-25 degrees. This week Volzhsky is hovering around the 40s. It feels much like Portland. It’s been a wet and fairly warm winter. After hearing about other ETA’s winters in -30 degrees Fahrenheit I can’t complain that this winter feels much more like home.
Last week my institute held a variety of student led activities to celebrate American Culture. Students reported on the different regions of the U.S. and popular U.S. holidays. I impersonated the host of Jeopardy and tested students’ knowledge of the U.S. As one of the judges for the essay writing and poetry writing contests I realized how difficult it is to be impartial. Students also sang pop songs, break danced, performed skits from O. Henry stories, the sitcom “Friends” and a variety of movies. As impressed and proud I am of my students I wish I could have encouraged them to explore other facets of U.S. culture besides pop culture and Hollywood. I will devote the curriculum of English club to uncovering other facets of American culture as much as I can.
I am so relieved it’s all over! I felt responsible for everything and yet powerless to ensure everything went right. There was so much I couldn’t control. I couldn’t keep the projector from dying just before my presentation. I couldn’t ensure that the performances would begin on time or even count on knowing where the events would be held. I am learning how to “go with the flow” when everything doesn’t go the way I expect.
My favorite part of American Culture Week was probably baking a pumpkin pie with one of the students and discussing art. If this evening wasn’t enjoyable enough on my way home I was presented with a 12 piece spice rack. I learned her dad works for a spice company! I’ve been adding curry powder to my meat and potatoes devoutly.
The Linguistics department thanked me with a shiny bag of Italian coffee grounds. It’s funny that when instructors announced my name they paused at first as if searching for a title or my last name until they settled for saying: << A big thank you to . . . Наш Джессика!>> Hearing them call me “our Jessica” instead of the usual formal addresses made me laugh. I like hearing my name spoken so affectionately by Russians. Perhaps they get more delight from speaking my name because the ending sounds like one of the suffixes they add to names to show endearment. For instance, a woman named Anna can be called “Annushka” by her parents, close friends or spouse. I was going to insist Russians here call me by my middle name but I enjoy hearing Russians repeat my name with such enjoyment. I grew up with two other Jessicas in my classroom and considered my name to be the most unoriginal in our school (it didn’t help to have friends named Maya, Nai Fou and Elvira!). So yes, living in Russia is even making me grateful to be a Jessica.
On Friday I frolicked around puddles and took in the beautiful colors of Autumn while inhaling the wonderfully nostalgic smell of coffee from my thermos. It had just rained and the sun was reflecting light from all the puddles and wet leaves. I am told this weather is called <<грибный доджь>> but I affectionately call it <<Погода Портленда>> or the weather of Portland. At 53 degrees the weather is still warm for Volzhsky in late October and reminds me of my hometown. I’ve promised myself to savor every rain shower and blinding flood of sunlight that comes my ways while it’s still warm enough to enjoy (I can’t imagine loving it as much without snow at -22 degrees). Just when I thought the evening couldn’t get better my friend who lives close by joined me for a stroll. Afterwards we sipped the coffee (from an espresso machine my host family has!) with vanilla icecream and made a savory medley of buckwheat, veggies and spices. I couldn’t ask for a sweeter or more unexpected way to end the week!
Last Thursday I flew to Moscow for the in-country orientation for Fulbright ETAs (English Teaching Assistants), Scholars and other Student Fellows in Moscow. For those of us living outside of Moscow the Fulbright Office made arrangements for us at the Holiday Inn hotel. I’ve never been so grateful to see a Holiday Inn after navigating my way through the Moscow Metro system. Although I didn’t get lost there was something unnerving about practically being carried along by such a large crowd. I wonder if I would be able to turn around at all in such a mob during rush hour. It took all my courage just to push my way on the train without getting caught in the doors. I still have much to learn about being assertive in Russia.
I wish I had an impressive list of all the museums and monuments I tried to visit during my short time in Moscow. Instead, I prioritized spending time with other ETA fellows to hear about their experiences, commiserate together, make plans and exchange ideas. Two fellows even flew from Kamchatka and the Russian Far East (that’s an +8 hour flight and an 8 hour time difference!). Although I didn’t get to appreciate as much of Moscow as I would have liked I am glad I cherished my time with other Americans teaching across Russia.
I tried to stick with other ETA fellows as much as I could. We found ourselves searching for the tastes of home. We went on a treasure hunt to find peanut butter (only $8 for 350g). For three out of my four days in Moscow I visited bookstores. My favorite day in Moscow was spent sipping an overpriced (yet deliciously nostalgic) mocha, perusing the “Powell’s” bookstore of Moscow, strolling through Red Square and eating at a “pan Asian” restaurant (in search of “spicy” food, of course).
I know I will be in Moscow at least four more times. Overall, I realized that I much prefer my smaller city for its livability. I’ve decided not to take its better air quality and affordability for granted. I am delighted to have contacts all across Russia and hope to use them for travel. I still miss the Pacific Northwest and even the Russian Far East but I realize I have much to appreciate and explore where I am. Besides as someone very wise once told me, it’s not where you’re placed that matters but the quality of your connections with that community. I hope to have our American/English Club running in the next week!
FYI: By the way, once I get an address you should consider donating to the “supply an American with peanut butter in Russia” fund. I somehow ate nearly half of my tiny jar already. Soooooo good. I think I will hide it so I can still have a PB&J party for my friends. My only fear now is that I will lose it. What to do?
Over a month later and I still don’t know:
a) where I will live for the next 9 months
b) how I will continue studying Russian (classes vs. tutor)
c) the exact nature of my role in classes
I have been feeling like the porcupine in the fog. How I miss the predictability of life at Lewis & Clark College! Watching and sketching Russian cartoons has been my escape.
Please enjoy this classic short animated Russian film at this link:
Over the last two weeks I have been learning about Volzhsky and how classes are taught at my home institute.
Volzhsky is a young city, which prides itself for being green because of its successful cleanup campaigns and its many planted trees. I am told that most trees here would dry up naturally on the arid steppes if they were not watered and cared for by the city. Still, the city also boasts several factories that produce plastics, chemicals and pipes. I am currently living in one of the nicest and oldest parts of the city with my host family in a “Stalinesque” designed apartment building. Overall, I am grateful to be surrounded by so many trees in a nice part of one of Russia’s “greenest” cities with better air quality.
I am an English Teaching Assistant for the Linguistics department and I currently work with 2nd, 3rd and 5th year students. The class schedule seems to always be changing so I am still unsure when my classes are but I will hopefully know with certainty by October. The institute is a branch of Volgograd State University and has a four year bachelor’s degree program and a five year master’s program. I am already leading a class on essay writing/composition with advanced students that I really enjoy. Teaching their standard English classes with their textbook is proving to be more difficult but no one said learning to teach would be easy!
Students have classes nearly every weekday lasting an hour and a half. When students enter the institute they are put into groups according to their major/specialization and will take nearly the same classes together all four or five years of their education. Students typically enter higher education after finishing secondary school when they are 16 or 17 although there are always older students.
I have been elated to be invited to anything social, including day trips to Volgograd across the river, a dinner at a dacha, walks on the river banks and beach parks among other things . . .
Enjoy my pictures for a glimpse of some of my adventures.
I was first greeted in Volgograd by strong gusts of wind and blinding sunlight. Including the time I drove to Seattle and waited in airports it took nearly three days to arrive to Volgograd. But I won’t complain about the trip here because for some reason the airline upgraded my ticket from the East Coast to Moscow to business class (it was nearly a 10 hour flight). I could actually stretch my legs and even lay down! I was so amazed I wanted to take pictures but noting the nonchalance of my fellow business class passengers I tried to feign my disinterest (Anyone who knows me well can attest to how difficult masking my enthusiasm would be for me but it was good practice!). For instance, they actually gave us a choice of gourmet dishes, refilled my water in a fancy glass and even offered me warm lightly salted nuts in an elegant glass container. Yes, I am easily impressed! I hope I will always appreciate such luxuries.
Sleeping was still hard because of the time difference but I don’t want to imagine such a long flight in the economy section. I had a long flight from the West Coast to Korea once before but Korean Air offers much more space and luxuries than the U.S. carrier I took this time.
I was so relieved to retrieve all my baggage and even more happy to see the familiar face of my Fulbright coordinating host at the airport. I stayed in the Institute’s guest room for several days and my coordinating host even ensured I had food, water and tea. Did I mention this guest room included toliet paper? What luxury compared to my arrival to Vladivostok as a mere exchange student just two years ago!
Everyone at the institute has heard about my arrival and I am pleased to be received with such enthusiasm. I am very grateful to have met so many kind people. I was even invited on a boat trip on the Volga with some German guests, the Dean and other administrators of the institute.
For now I am living with a very sweet host family until I can find a suitable apartment for the year. My class schedule is also still being configured so I have been trying to get oriented with the city and learn as much as I can about how I can imitate my host mother’s delicious food.