Archive for December, 2009


December 27th, 2009

So, I’m posting again because I just uploaded new pictures, and I forgot to talk about a couple important events this week.

First of all, I went to see United Bit in concert on Thursday. It was pretty sweet. Some parts were just like what I’d seen before at various events (the conference, the Dzhanelidze concert, etc.), but my favorite numbers were the ones with music by Yann Tiersen (who did the Amelie soundtrack). One had a puppetmaster with “puppets” in masks, and there was another where girls were dressed up as different instruments dancing. The only problem with concerts in the Dom Kultury is getting out afterwards. You have to shove your way through the crowds to the coat check, wait in the incomprehensible Russian “lines” to get your coat, and shove your way back to a place where you have enough room to actually put your coat on before being carried out the doors by a river of people. There are eight doors into the DK…four in from outside and a second layer of four into the lobby. However, only the rightmost door from outside and the leftmost door of the second layer were open. This is standard practice in Russia, and I just don’t get it. Why put in so many doors if you’re only allowed to use one? This is why people get trapped and die when there are fires. I mentioned this to my friend Yulia who came to the concert with me, and she just laughed and said “Oh yeah, well, that’s Russia, there are all kinds of incomprehensible things here.”

Secondly, I’m going to be taking a class at the University of the Arctic next semester. UArctic is really just a network of northern universities that offers various courses in Circumpolar Studies and some travel/study abroad programs. UGTU is a member of the network, and Lera is trying to increase our involvement in it. So she’s been roping people into taking the first class in the Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies program next semester. It’s in English, online, and you basically do some readings and an assignment once a week throughout the semester. It’s free for students and staff at members of UArctic. So we’ve got a class of about 20 signed up. I’m pretty excited because it seems interesting, and I miss school, but I think I have an unfair advantage, being a native speaker of English. It fits into my grant pretty well, though, because I’ll be learning about the region where I’m living, and I can help the others with English while I’m at it.

Our korporativ (work party) last night was pretty fun. I made macaroni and cheese again (didn’t turn out as well as last time, but oh well), and other people made sushi and buterbrody (bread topped with salami and cheese). It was nice hanging out and talking to people from work that I don’t see as much as those in my immediate office. I was tired though, and later we somehow got into a bunch of arguments, about gay rights in Russia, how much employers should control your personal life, and so on. Those were interesting but I was too tired to participate much, and they got slightly heated at times. I finally went home around 4…Nadya is determined to somehow make me stay out past three and enjoy myself, but I’m not sure she’ll succeed.


December 26th, 2009

This week, it got steadily warmer, until on Friday morning it was -8 C and snowing, only to drop to -25 overnight. It’s supposed to get cold again over the next few days. This week I didn’t really have any classes at the university, because the “session”, or exam period, has sort of started. Classes still meet, but students are running around trying to finish up all the work they didn’t do over the semester so they can get either a “dopusk” – permission to take the written exam – or “zachot” – a grade on an easier, oral exam, if a written exam isn’t required for that class. From January 1st until the 10th, students are technically on holiday, although some exams can still be scheduled during that time. Exams continue all through January, which is why I can leave and romp around Europe for almost a month. I think I’ve mentioned before that the 25th of December is not a holiday in Russia, first of all, because the Orthodox Church still goes by the old Julian (as opposed to Gregorian) calendar, so Orthodox Christmas is January 7th, and secondly, because Christmas is an exclusively religious holiday here. The big holiday that everyone celebrates with their families, and when Grandfather Frost comes to bring all the children presents, is New Year’s.

So every day this week, I was sitting in the international office helping out with stuff and writing the script for yesterday’s Christmas program. I was an MC, with Andrei Antonov, a Master’s student who studied in Norway for a semester in English. I wrote an English version of the script, and he wrote a version in Russian (different information, not just a translation), our coworker Nadya put them together, and at the show I read the parts in Russian and Andrei read in English. We wanted to make a really international program, but the German center backed out on us, and it was difficult to find students willing to memorize poems or songs or write skits, especially in any language other than English or Russian. In the end, we had a couple songs in English (I sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem” with Nadya), a couple songs in Russian sung by Lera’s musician friend, one poem in German (read by me), a couple poems in Russian, and “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in English with a Russian translation. We also had a little quiz about the history of European Christmas symbols and traditions and how to say “Merry Christmas” in different languages. Nadya baked gingerbread cookies and German Christmas bread, too, which were delicious. All in all, it went pretty well, even though it was chaos trying to find a projector, screen, and stuff for tea and cookies at the very last minute, and not very many people came.

This Tuesday was my last day at the lyceum. I am really not so good with children. Even 11th graders. I am too serious and would feel ridiculous standing in front of a class trying to do fun, silly things to interest them because I’m afraid it will backfire on me and they’ll just think it’s dumb. Anyway we reviewed articles and went over the usage of the simple present and talked about Christmas for two awkward hours, and they informed me that they hadn’t been able to write their compositions because it had been too cold. So I had to come back the next morning to pick up their papers and give them grades for the semester. I’ll have to think up something more interesting to do with them next semester.

So, yesterday after coming home from the Christmas program and Skyping with the fam after they opened their presents, I spent my Christmas night watching Avatar. I had high hopes after having seen Sigourney Weaver on the Daily Show, but I have to say it didn’t really live up to expectations. The technology that went into the avatars and the landscape of Pandora was pretty cool, but the plot was disappointingly unoriginal. I felt like I had seen the exact same movie many times before; it was especially similar to Disney films like Fern Gully and Pocahontas. However, it was fun to go out again with Lera, Nadya, and her friends. The movie theater is super-Soviet and 70s. It only has one screen, but the room is actually huge, much more spacious than our theaters, and I think the screen might have been slightly bigger, too. The seats are better-spaced – I actually had room for my legs – but they’re extremely hard and uncomfortable to sit in for 2-3 hours. I’m glad I went. One of the constant questions I get here is “Have you been to our movie theater yet?” People seem very eager to know about it, but when I say I haven’t been, they say, “Oh yeah, it’s not worth it, our theater is awful and the seats are too hard.” Well, now I’ve seen it for myself.

This morning I was awakened a little before ten by a text message from Vanya and then a phone call saying we had to go immediately to the passport office to pick up my visa, because it closed at noon. Getting the visa was easy – it’s beautiful, multi-entry, and valid until the end of June. Hopefully getting it extended one more month shouldn’t be too difficult – there’s a spot right on the visa for extensions – but I don’t have to worry about that for a while. Then we went to re-register me, which turned out to be more difficult due to the fact that my previous registration was in the office on campus and that I’ve now been un-registered for 10 days because of the delay in sending my visa (the limit is 3). Plus a host of other bureaucratic problems: we have to fill out some form, only Olga Yurievna has the authorization to register me, blah blah blah. It should be ok as long as O.Y. goes there with the right forms in the next couple days. I signed a form saying I received my new visa only today, so they can overlook the not-being-registered thing.

Tonight we’re having a New Year’s work party, and I think we’re making eggnog again. Should be fun!

Ну как тебе наши морозы?

December 17th, 2009

A few words on 40 below zero. It’s not as bad as you think; it’s not unimaginably cold. True, it hasn’t been that windy yet, so perhaps I’ll change my mind later. I liken it to 40 above (i.e. 100 F). Walking outside in the humid heat of the Midwest is like walking in an oven where your skin is about to be boiled off. It’s not only the sun that burns you, but the air itself. Now, I feel like I’m walking in a huge freezer, my legs turning into ice as I go. I’m not sure yet which is worse; so far I’m inclined to say the heat, because you can always buy appropriate clothing for the cold. If I lived here permanently, I would definitely buy myself a floor-length fur coat and some deerskin boots. I’m pretty sure if the PETA people lived here, they’d do the same. My own clothing is not ideal, but definitely adequate. I wrap up my face in my scarf the way my friend Irina advised me: not too tight, so you have space to breathe, and the scarf pushes up the hot air to warm the rest of your face. If I wear the thick wool socks I got for my birthday (I’m considering buying a second pair because they’re awesome!), the only thing that gets really cold are my legs. I bought some thick panty hose – the Russian word is the same as for panty hose, but I guess they’re more like footie leggings; men wear them, too – but no matter how many layers I put on, they still freeze. The only solution is to stay inside, which people usually do whenever possible in this cold. The university’s still open, but all the schools are closed for cold. I usually still walk to work, because waiting for the bus isn’t much better, but I would never stay outside more than 20-30 minutes. Once I arrive at work I almost can’t feel my legs, and my eyelashes, scarf, and the fake fur of my hat are frozen and wet. I’ve stopped wearing mascara because it’s not waterproof, and I arrived at work on Monday with two black eyes. If you stop to look around at all, though (for a few seconds, before tucking your face back into your scarf), the cold is beautiful in a way. The frozen trees, doorways and windows, the shadow of your breath on the snow.

However, it also causes a lot of inconveniences. Many of my appointments (social and professional) have been canceled due to school closings, sickness, or people’s unwillingness to go outside. The electricity and wireless internet have been working erratically, at best. And let me tell you, it gets pretty boring when you live alone and the electricity goes out at 8:30 PM (it’s been completely dark for over 6 hours by that time of day), it’s too cold to go outside, and your laptop battery is dying. There’s literally nothing to do but lay in bed where it’s warm. Under the covers is really the only completely warm place. My apartment is not too bad, but at work we all sit and freeze because of the drafty windows. We drink a LOT of tea to stay warm. The shower takes forever to warm up. But worst of all, I’ve been told not to use the stove or microwave for a while because the cables just can’t handle it in this cold. What the heck am I supposed to eat?! I wanted to make an Olivier salad, and bought the ingredients I needed today before realizing that I would have to boil potatoes and eggs. So I just ate some dry sausage and cheese and a tomato with balsamic vinegar and basil. Not too bad, but if these temperatures continue through next week, like I’ve heard they could, I don’t know what I’ll do. No morning porridge, no stir fries at night…But everyone keeps telling me they’ve never seen anything like this before…that -40 usually only happens in January or February, and only for a couple days at a time.

I guess the only other exciting event this week was the play I saw on Monday, “Five Evenings”. A group from Moscow came to perform it, and I went with my friend Oleg, who loves the theater.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the play, but it was kind of funny in parts, and it was nice to get out and do something out of the ordinary. And Oleg is a cool guy. It turns out we might be on the same train to Kirov after New Year’s, which would be fun. Oh, and I also got my hair cut. Just a trim, nothing drastic. But it was exciting to me. And it’s super convenient, since the hair salon is in the same building where I live, and it only cost 500 rubles (~$17).

Holiday Planning

December 13th, 2009

Last night I watched a few recent episodes of the Daily Show for the first time since I got to Russia (thanks to my improved home internet) and almost DIED from happiness.  I very much recommend the Dec. 8 episode about the Fox News bimbo. Hilarious.

I also recently watched this movie called Kislorod (Oxygen) for the second time. A student lent it to me, and it is one crazy film. I would like you all to please watch it and tell me what to think of it, because I can’t figure it out! I definitely like it from a purely stylistic point of view: it’s a series of clips like music videos that are very original and based on the ten commandments, but it tells a love story. The ending reminds me of “Jeux d’Enfants” (i.e. you don’t know what really happens), and the movie also weaves in themes of alcoholism, terrorism, stereotypes, and more.
Anyway, in other news, I’m still basically the same. Working, bumming around Ukhta, enjoying our Friday-night VIP English club, planning holidays, and reading Der geteilte Himmel again (<3).
We’re having an International Christmas show of sorts on the 25th – singing, poetry readings, and skits in English, German, French, and possibly Korean. Should be interesting… Here, Christmas is actually January 7, since the Russian Orthodox Church never switched to the new calendar, and nobody really celebrates it except religious people. New Year’s is the big holiday, when people put up trees, celebrate with families and friends, and Grandfather Frost (Russian Santa Claus) and his granddaughter Snegurochka bring presents to all the boys and girls. Apparently it’s pretty crazy, so I’m looking forward to celebrating that holiday here.
After that students have exams basically all of January, and I’ve suddenly got exciting travel plans, but I’m nervous about them, since my visa issues aren’t 100% resolved yet. My plans are to leave Ukhta on Jan 3 (at 3 am…ugh) and visit the cities of Kirov, Ekaterinburg, Perm, Nizhniy Novgorod, and Moscow. My friend from study abroad, Alisa, who is on a research Fulbright in Moscow, is meeting me in Ekaterinburg. When we get back to Moscow she’s going to get back to her research for a few days while I hop a train to Vladimir. Then I’ll come back to Moscow and fly with Alisa to freaking Munich!!!! There we’ll meet two more study abroad friends: Anna, who is living in Nuremberg (not far from Munich) this year as a Fulbright ETA like me, and Kate, who is working in Lviv, Ukraine this year. Kate’s only staying a few days, but Alisa and I will stay for a little more than a week – Anna has planned a wondrous-sounding sight-seeing and hiking trip for us. On the 25th of January we’ll fly back to Moscow and from the 26th-29th is our mid-year seminar there, after which I’ll fly back to Ukhta for the beginning of second semester on Feb. 1.

I am a bit sad to leave my friends in Ukhta for a whole month, but it will be great to hang with Americans, spend some time in a Western country, and just get out of this town for a while. I love it but I’m getting cabin fever, especially with the six hours of sunlight a day thing. Also, it’s supposed to be around -40 this whole coming week. Brrr.

However, I won’t be going to Germany if I don’t get my visa issues resolved quick. We all initially got 3-month, single-entry visas to come to Russia, which our hosts were supposed to change to year-long, multi-entry visas. I was always a bit confused on this point since normally you have to return to the US to get a new Russian visa, but other people seem to have done fine. Since my current visa expires Dec. 15, I’ve been asking my university people about getting it changed since early November. After the fiasco getting here, I didn’t want to take any chances. Well, now it’s down to the wire again, although Vanya keeps assuring me that it’s all under control.  I really don’t want to revisit the frustrations of September, so I hope he has a reassuring answer for me on Monday…

Conference and more

December 6th, 2009

This Wednesday I judged a conference held at the lyceum where I’m teaching. Russians love to have conferences about anything, all the time. Various people have asked me about my previous participation in conferences and whether I want to take part in any here. I was confused at first and could only answer, “Uhhh, I presented my thesis once at my university?” and feel lame. I know there are conferences in the US, of course, but mostly for grad students and scholars, in my experience. Or for science people. But I have to say, I think we should take a page out of Russia’s book on this. Wednesday was the Ninth Annual “Integration” Conference, held at the Ukhta Technical Lyceum, sponsored by the university and some oil/gas companies, and attended by about 8-10 other schools from a few different cities in the Komi Republic. Most of the participants were in 10th or 11th grade (11th is the last grade in high school), but there were also a good number of 7th and 8th-graders and even a couple 5th-graders who presented. First, at 9 AM, was the opening in the Culture Palace (the same place I’d been for concerts previously). Representatives of the lyceum, UGTU, and the gas companies said a few words, the conference was declared open, and we all filed out and rushed over to the lyceum (about a 5-minute walk) to start. The conference was divided into sections in different classrooms; the one I, along with some other English teachers, was judging was the Foreign Languages section.

The students gave 7-10 minute presentations about basically any topic they wanted. Some students were very traditional and spoke about the use of grammatical concepts like phrasal verbs, idioms, or the influence of anglicisms on the German language. Some submitted professional-looking papers as long as 10-15 pages (single-spaced). I was pretty impressed. Others did comparative presentations on cultural aspects such as names, youth organizations, the role of newspapers, or stereotypes. Some of them spoke in English and others in Russian. Overall, I thought they did really well, and I think that this kind of event would be very good for high school students. Obviously, it’s only the best students in the school who present, but with all the different sections, that’s actually a pretty good number, and it gives them experience with researching, writing, and speaking formally beyond the basic requirements of school. Also, other students get a chance to see their classmates present, and different high schools cooperate and interact.

Throughout the day, with a coffee break and a lunch break, we heard 13 presentations in our room and then had to make a decision on 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, as well as honorable mentions. The decisions were pretty difficult, because different people did different things well – some presented better or spoke better English, while others had more solid analysis and research in their projects. We ended up giving first place to a girl who spoke very good English and talked about stereotypes Americans have about Russia (she apparently spent a year in Idaho and interviewed people there), and second place went to a girl who did a lot of work to analyze anglicisms in German but didn’t present very enthusiastically or thoroughly (and in Russian). For the closing ceremony we went back to the Culture Palace at 4 PM. I couldn’t believe the awards – students got stuff like MP3 players, DVD players, and printers. That’s what gas money gets you, I guess. 😉 After each section’s awards there was some sort of musical performance – Eka Dzhanelidze, who I told you about last week, some ballroom dancers, choirs, and of course, United Bit – check out this movie, and then imagine 10-12 year old boys and girls doing it. That’s what I saw. It was pretty sweet. I was one of the presenters for our awards; I gave the little introductory speech. The other jurors thought I should do it in English and say a little something about every presenter. So I did – not sure how many people understood how much of it, but I was glad to speak English rather than make a fool out of myself in Russian. Public speaking – especially on a big stage where you can’t see your audience – creeps me out.

By the time I got home after the closing, it was 6:30, and I was exhausted. I watched “Friends” and then made my new favorite dinner – Indian stir fry. I haven’t branched out much from the vegetables-in-a-skillet dinner, but damn, I am becoming a master at it. Thanks to this site, I have been spicing up my veggies. I basically bought everything on the list that I could find at the store and threw it in the pan in the order laid out on the site. The first time I was way too cautious with the spices at the beginning, so I had to make up the difference with an abundance of cayenne pepper and lemon juice at the end to get the level of flavor I wanted. Definitely overdid the lemon juice a bit. The second time I made it, though, the spice level was perfect, and I also added more tomatoes to make it juicier. De-lish. The only remaining problem is the cloves: I bit down on one hard last night by accident and was not happy with the result. I don’t want to remove the cloves too early and lose the flavor, but it’s a big pain in the butt to pick them out while eating. Does anyone know the proper timing for clove removal?

I’ve seen a couple strange TV ads this week. The first is a still-frame ad: there’s a picture on one half of the screen, words on the other half, and a voice talks over it. It’s for windows (actual windows, not the OS), and I never really paid attention to it before, but the other night I began to actually look at the picture. At first glance, it’s a close-up of a girl with really freaky bright-green eyes holding something in her hand in front of her face. Upon closer inspection, I figured out that the thing was an apple – the same green as her eyes – with something else on it. The something else on the apple was, in fact, a round window. Okay, so they got the window connection in there at the last minute. The fact that you wouldn’t know it was a window from a casual glance is one issue. Most importantly, though, why is this window in an apple, about to be eaten by a witch? I think their ad people need some work. The second ad I enjoyed was one from the post office urging people to write the zip code correctly on their letters. ‘Nough said.

This week has been pretty warm, in general. Some days, I think, were above freezing – when I walked outside in the morning, it felt like a balmy sea breeze on my face. Today was pretty cold, though, and next week it’s supposed to get to -40 … holy shit! (By the way, all temperatures I’ve been listing in my blog are in Celsius. But -42 F = -42 C, so this time it’s irrelevant I guess.) It’s been a pretty good week in general in terms of teaching, too, although I was very tired the first half of it because I didn’t sleep much for a few nights. After the conference I slept wonderfully, though.

Yesterday I went to Sosnogorsk with Masha. I met her six-year-old brother, who quickly became obsessed with me. He thought I was from a different planet because you have to fly there in an airplane. We hung out mostly with her friend Lyosha who drove us around in his car. That was basically the whole evening – driving around, stopping occasionally and just chilling in the car, talking. It was pretty fun, though – we had some good conversations. Also, I had a little lesson in driving stick-shift. We went to a country road and I got in the driver’s seat and worked the clutch and pedals while Lyosha changed gears for me. I was a bit freaked out but it went fine. And now I can say I drove in Russia! I slept over at Masha’s and now I’m just doing my Sunday thing…getting ready to teach again tomorrow.