My Trans-Siberian Adventure: pics or it didn’t happen

I crossed the majority of Russia’s landmass by train—in winter, no less—and lived to tell the tale!

The Trans-Siberian was a huge undertaking  and my impressions are numerous enough that a summary-style blog post won’t do them justice. Here are some bare-bones details: I spent 13 days traveling by train with 3 friends (Kasia, Drew, and James, also Fulbright ETAs). We saw five major cities—Vladivostok, Ulan-Ude, Irkutsk, Ekaterinburg, and Kazan—as we traveled westward to Moscow. It was cool.

I’ll start the process of web-memorializing this super-important-life-event with some photos that I took along the way. I didn’t photograph much because, guess what, it’s cold in Siberia in January and I mostly avoided taking my hands out of my coat pockets. Also, my travel buddy Kasia is an avid photographer and has a fancy camera, so I plan to steal all her photos from her when she gets around to uploading them to Facebook.

Proof that we actually made it to Russia's great far-eastern city

Proof that we actually made it to Russia’s great far-eastern city, Vladivostok

Kasia walking on the Pacific Ocean

What a typical kupe (2nd class) car on a Russian train looks like. Other than the stifling heat, the ride was pretty comfortable since we had pleasant kupe-mates (Vika, her daughter Polina, and their cat Kuzya). We did about half of the trip in kupe and the other half in third class.

The first leg of the trip from Vladivostok to Ulan-Ude was also the longest, so I had plenty of time to sleep, read, and take photos from the train’s window. It was probably -30 Celsius on this particular day.

Some of our cute neighbors

Kuzya!

After 66 hours on the train we finally arrived in Ulan-Ude to meet with James.Ulan-Ude is known for being the capital of the Republic of Buryatia and having the largest statue of Lenin’s head in the world.

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We visited a Datsan (a Buddhist monastery) outside Ulan-Ude. The Buryat people are mostly of the Buddhist faith.

Ice slides in Ulan-Ude’s central square. If you have an abundance of cold, why not have fun with it?

Next we (now a party of three) took a seven hour train from Ulan Ude to Irkutsk. The train ride itself is really beautiful, but unfortunately our window was filthy and none of my photos turned out well. On our second day in Irkutsk we took a bus to visit the town of Listvyanka on the bank of (my favorite place in the world) Lake Baikal. Here you can see the remnants of Kreshenie, the Russian Orthodox holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the Baptism of ancient Rus’. Russians recreate the baptism experience by taking an outdoor swim in icy January water. I was too chicken to join.

More Baikal

I almost had a heart attack watching these kids slip around on the dock.

Listvyanka’s harbor

One of the highlights of the day was seeing one of these guys again–Baikal is home to the world’s only fresh water seals, the Nerpa.

Kasia took a nicer photo on her fancy camera, but this one will do until I get that one :)

Next we (party of four now) took the 50-someodd hour train to Ekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. We arrived at 5 am and my god was it a cold day. Here we took a short-cut during our foot tour by walking across the frozen river.

While I had honestly expected Ekaterinburg to be an ugly industrial city, it ended up being the surprise favorite stop due to it’s artsy vibe.

Did you know that Siberia is cold in the winter?

The last stop before Moscow was Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan. I’ve always wanted to visit Kazan to see mosques in a Russian city (the Tatar people are traditionally Muslim). Here is a grainy iphone photo in which you can see Kazan’s Kremlin in the distance.

This mosque inside the Kremlin is supposed to be the largest in Europe outside of Istanbul.

That’s really all I have in terms of the Trans-Sib for you right now! I’ll share more as I can in the upcoming days.

The Holidays, Loneliness, and the (Bright and Shiny) Future

I’ve always been mystified by Russians’ preference of New Years to the traditional western Christmas holiday. For me, New Years has always been a bit of a let-down; I usually spend it at home with my parents watching the ball drop or classical music on PBS. Snore. As you can imagine, things go down a bit differently in Russia.

New Years became the primary winter holiday in Russia during the Soviet era. New Years is a secular holiday, so that makes sense. For the uninitiated, celebration of New Years in Russia is basically (western Christmas+New Years) X 100. There are presents, Father Frost, champagne, tangerines, fireworks, wishes, and enough mayonnaise salad to give a Kenyan marathoner a heart attack. Some key dishes are “Olivier” salad (a blander version of a basic American potato salad), “Herring in a fur coat” (a weird, multilayered salad that includes beets and tastes kind-of okay until you get to the herring), and “Kholodets” (it’s meat aspic you guys. I’m not kidding). One American friend complained that New Years is celebration of the worst cuisine in the world. I’m going to plea the fifth on this one.

As many of you know, I went home to celebrate Christmas in the US with my family. It was a fantastic mental break (not to mention weather break), but I’m very glad that I decided to return in time for the Russian holidays. My celebrations started with an unbelievably awkward party with colleagues at the Institute. Highlights included seeing my boss (drunkenly?) shimmy to some of the worst Soviet-era disco music I’ve ever heard and an painfully awkward slow-dance to Abba’s “Happy New Year.”

I spent actual New Years Eve in the company of almost-strangers, which was both entertaining and kind of a bummer. A friend invited me to spend the holiday with her friends, a group of mostly 30-something couples who spent 2 hours preparing a huge feast that they barely ate. One highlight of event included an adapted game of musical chairs in which the men predatorily circled an a group of women, attempting to grab one with the music stopped. At another point in the evening I decided to refresh my own champagne (a woman pouring her own drink is a no-no in Russia. I know this and make a point of ignoring it. Obviously), one of my new male acquaintances scolded me, reminding me that “we have a patriarchy in Russia.” OH REALLY?

The actual highlight of the night of the night was the incredible fireworks display in the city center. Seriously, this provincial Russian town put any 4th of July display I’ve yet to see to shame. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of it because we had switched to vodka by that point. But here’s a picture of the feast no one ate!

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My favorite holiday celebration was at the home of my colleague Natalia Vladimirovna (you will remember her as my “Russian grandmother” who always brings me food). She invited me and three of her old students who graduated about ten years ago, one of whom I know from the Institute. The three  met and became friends during their college years and are still best of friends to this day. Hanging out with them was fun, but had the side effect of making me really miss my own college friends. The holidays do weird things to even the most stoic among us.

Speaking of emotions, it’s been a pretty long time since I’ve updated you on the goings on of my life here. This is in part because life has gotten pretty boring, at least from my perspective. My reactions to my everyday experiences have normalized; not every Russian-y thing seems like an event worth sharing anymore. It’s just life. And that’s a good thing and a bad thing.

I’ll give you some examples. That my life has slowed down to a normal pace is good because it gives me the opportunity to feel what it’s like to really live here. This isn’t some abbreviated, study-abroad, excursion filled tourist experience. I have time to read, rest, think, get bored. I have to deal with my own housekeeping problems, cook my own food, make my own financial decisions. I’m at the point where I’m considering whether or not I want to prolong my stay in Russia another year, so it’s helpful to have real experiences to base this decision off of.

On the other hand, the slowness has made things really difficult. I’ve been hesitant to admit that because it feels like failing. I mean, I have this prestigious fellowship and this once in a lifetime opportunity; shouldn’t I just be making friends left and right and seamlessly integrating myself into community life at every opportunity? The reality, of course, is that things aren’t as glamorous as I’d hoped they would be.

It’s been hard to fight the feelings of loneliness, especially now during the holidays when I have so much aimless time. Yes, I’ve made lots of new, cool, welcoming friends. No matter how often I see them, though, I often feel guest in their company. It’s hard to integrate yourself into a group of people who have known each other for years (especially with a language barrier, but I’ll talk more about that later). I grew so accustomed to being surrounded by my close friends 24/7 in college: I never had to eat a meal alone, I always had someone to talk to. The transition to living alone for the first time, especially in with the confluence of other circumstances, has been really tough.

I’ve talked to some of my recently graduated friends in the US about this, and it seems like a pretty common experience. I force myself to recall my first year of college when I felt similarly lonely to give myself some perspective; it takes time to build deep relationships. I know that I need to be patient. The language barrier, however, has added another level of separation between me an my new and potential friends. When I tell them this, they always seem shocked because I can definitely communicate at a basic level and I understand everything that they say to me. There is a very specific, insidious kind of loneliness, though, that comes from not being able to communicate oneself fully, especially for a very verbal person like me. I never actually went through the “nobody understands me” phase during my adolescence, so I guess it had to happen eventually!

But you guys! I have some really amazing stuff coming up this month! I’m packing up and heading out of Murom on Saturday morning to hang in Moscow for a while. I’m hoping to get the chance to meet up with the group of Wellesley Russian students who are in the city for wintersession, to see old friends, and to do some touristing. On the 13th, I’m flying to Vladivostok (a city on the Pacific coast of Russia) to start my westward journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Unfortunately, the trip is going to be a little rushed since I have to be in Moscow by the 26th for a Fulbright event. Just a good excuse to have a second go during the summer months, eh?

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A map of the Tran-Siberian railway. I’ll be sticking to the red route.

A friend and I are starting together in Vladivostok, where we will depart on a 66 (!!!!!) hour train journey to Ulan-Ude. There we will hopefully meet up with two other Fulbright teachers and continue our journey westward. The itinerary is pretty up in the air so far, so it should be an adventure.

Once we make it to Moscow, we have a Fulbright training event thing that lasts a couple of days. I’m looking forward to seeing the other teachers again and catching up. I’m hoping that talking with them will give me some perspective on my experiences here, both as a teacher and an American living in Russia. After that, I have about two weeks until my work starts again. Maybe I’ll travel a bit more around Russia’s Golden Ring. We’ll see!

I won’t be able to blog while I’m traveling, but I’m taking a notebook and a camera so that I’ll be sure to have stuff to share with you. Until then, С Новым Годом! (Happy New Year!)

10 dumb things I am really looking forward to when I visit the US in 10 days

I got a crazy idea this morning when I found out (surprise!) that I don’t have to teach during the last week of December. Could I…go home for the holidays? Two hours later I had tickets to and from Little Rock. Crazy! Crazycrazycrazy. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I’m going to the US; mentally, I had prepared myself to be away from the homeland for a full 9 months. I’m really excited though. Triply excited, in fact, thanks to the combination of the excitement that I always feel pre-international travel (I leave in only 10 days!), the fact that I’m going HOME, of all places, and also because Christmas is wonderful. I’ve channeled this excited-energy into making a list of some of the frivolous things that I intend to embrace with gusto during my week in Arkansas.

1. Having conversations about things other than America, my nationality, or cultural differences. I’d be willing to bet money that I say some variation of “America” more times in one day than the President.

2. Driving. Everywhere. By myself. Power 92 JAMZ on full blast. Yes I know carbon emissions climate change evil American behavior cut me a break it’s the holidays okay?

3. Jogging outside without looking like an alien. I was running around 15-20 miles a week at the end of the summer, which is not much for serious runners but was a really big deal for me. The recent snowfall has made jogging completely impossible here, but honestly I was too chicken to do it before anyway because of all the weird looks I got and I’ve only done it twice since September.

4. PEANUT. BUTTER. On a toasted English muffin.

5. Small talk with strangers. One of the weirdest things about living here is that I move around in public in total silence. Even if a someone asks me a direct question I rarely if ever answer with more than a word or two to avoid outing myself as foreign.

6. Coffee culture. Cheap coffee with unlimited refills. Fancy fair-trade bougie coffee shops. Breakfast, brunch, lunch coffee. Decaf after 4. Coffeecoffeecoffee.

7. Guacamole. Tacos. Chili Rellenos. All of the Mexican food. This is going to be a Feliz Navidad Christmas all the way.

8. Listening to Wilco’s “via Chicago” during my Chicago layover. Okay so this one is kind of hipster-specific, but it’s been a holiday tradition of mine since I started flying home from college. To the point that it’s the first thing I thought of when I saw Chicago O’Hare on my flight itinerary. Any excuse to listen to Summerteeth again, right?

9. Candy canes and popcorn. Maple syrup. Easy open ziplock bags. Holiday candles. And all the other random consumer-stuff that I’m embarrassed actually matter to me.

10. My bed. As nice as my dorm room is here, the dorm bed is basically a cot. Even after I piled the “mattress” from my second cot-bed on top of my first mattress. Yeah, my bed is going to be a hard thing to part with now that I know what my Russia-alternative is.

A Tale of Comically Low-Level Russian Bureaucracy, or, My New Refrigerator

OY! I haven’t updated my blog in well over a month. Forgive me and I’ll promise to do better?

Rather than do a piecemeal rehash of all mundane events of the past month, I want to share just a snippet. You see, recently I’ve had an encounter with the Russian bureaucracy.

It all started when my electricity started to go out. One night in early October my lights went out for the first time. After a few minutes they came back on and I returned to watching dumb Russian TV (this was early-on enough that I didn’t even have internet in my room). No big deal. Then, it happened again, and since the problem didn’t resolve itself this time I went to the dorm guard and explained the problem. It turns out that I had thrown my breaker, and, having not just fallen of the turnip truck I realized that I needed to maybe not boil water and use my space-heater at the same time. I thus adjusted my electricity consumption habits. But the problem persisted. Sometimes the breaker would be thrown even when all my lights were out and I had unplugged everything save my fridge. Clearly there was a problem with the electrical wiring, right?

Well, that was impossible, the head of my dorm explained to me. You see, they had ESPECIALLY renovated my dorm room (including the electrical wiring) JUST FOR ME right before I arrived. Everything was new. How could it be a problem with the wiring? “You are using too many things at once,” the dorm-head said to me, “You cannot use both the heater and the water kettle at the same time. You must use them in turns.” I got this speech at least 10 separate times. “Yes,” I replied, “I understand how electricity works. I never use them both at once.” Still, no response other than to reprimand MY behavior. (It probably didn’t help that I can’t even begin to translate “to throw a breaker” into Russian. But still.)

There were many incidents, but the electricity fiasco ended with a guard yelling at me when I asked him for help (my dorm-head later told me in the most patronizing tone possible that I had mis-interpreted the exchange, that some people just have a stern tone about them), which I finally reported to my boss who reported it to her boss and according to the rules of Russian bureaucratic chain-of-command and the fact that my university is trying not to embarrass itself with its first foreign visitor in a decade, something finally had to be done. When rational negotiation fails, there is always tattling.

And this is the point where my most recent comedy begins. Unwilling to attribute my problems to shoddy workmanship (the same workmanship, by the way, that left a gap underneath my shower doors so that my bathroom floods every single time I shower), the heads of my dorm placed the blame on my large, admittedly old refrigerator. I told them that since they fixed my electricity I had had no problems, so it probably wasn’t the fridge. So they got me a new fridge. As per the order of the head of my University. I’m not kidding. In the one conversation I’ve had with this man he asked me 1.) what I hoped to contribute to the university this year and 2.) how my fridge was doing.

It took them a month to get my new fridge. They decided to install it on a Friday morning. I was not warned before, so when they knocked on my door I had not yet dressed and my room wasn’t exactly tidy. Two men of questionable hygiene installed the fridge (I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but seriously the smell of their body odor lingered in my room for hours, which did absolutely nothing to allay my general annoyance at this never-ending epoch). I signed at least 3 documents after the fridge was issued. And then I had two fridges.

Yesterday, more than a week after the installation, one of the the women who works in the dorm knocked on my door (again, with no warning and at an inconvenient time). Apparently, the university’s accountant needed my fridge’s factory number and date of production–information that could be found on stickers on the back of the fridge. First of all, SERIOUSLY? Second, instead of letting me find this info or looking herself, this episode included yet another strange, smelly man coming to my room with no prior warning. And I laughed out loud because it was just so dumb and everybody here probably thinks I’m a crazy, spoiled American princess. Because they renovated my dorm room and bought me a new fridge.

Maybe I sound like a jerk. Like a jerk who doesn’t appreciate the fact that my university bought me a brand new, if utterly unnecessary fridge because “our electricians did a shit job the first time” is an unfathomable explanation for a very simple electrical problem. But I don’t appreciate having my privacy violated on multiple occasions, my paternalistic dorm-head entering my room while I’m in my bathrobe, peering into my bedroom and telling me that too many things are plugged in. And I find it embarrassing to be forced to discuss minutia like my refrigerator with the head of my university. I dislike that my home life always seems to make it’s way into my work life. For example, the dorm staff took it up with my boss when I returned home at 3am for the first time. I had to negotiate the terms of my curfew VIA THE HEAD OF MY DEPARTMENT. I could have died from embarrassment. Another, albeit less unsettling incident was when my colleague reported to me that the director of the local philharmonic had seen me at a recent concert (but didn’t actually introduce herself to me at said concert). There are spies everywhere! God forbid I should start dating someone, right?

This has been very rant-y and very negative, and for that I apologize. In my recent lessons on Thanksgiving with my English major students I’ve been talking about the importance of reflection and being aware of the things we have to be grateful for. I haven’t forgotten that! But if I can’t rant to you, then who else do I have?

Some photos

ImageFrom my first weekend in Murom. Shashlik with new friends in a Russian village.

ImageAnother new friend!

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I took a trip to Nizhny Novgorod with my student Sofie.

OuALrQ_RYOEAt the Murom Philharmonic with Stas, Ksyusha, and Alyosha.

ImageMy first years took me bowling this weekend!

ImageWith Sevo.

ImageWith Nadya. (And beer. She tells me that when you take a picture of a bunch of booze it’s called palevo.)

On teaching

My life has been so fast-paced recently that the task of summarizing a mere two weeks seems impossible. I don’t have the time or the energy to type all of the stories that I want to share with you, but I’ll give you a rapid-fire summary of a few.

On my first weekend, my new friend Kseniya took me to her friend’s home in a small Russian village. We ate shashlik, drank samagon (Russian moonshine), and with gusto and great ceremony they shared many, many “Raaaashin Tradiiiiitions” with me (some real, some made up for my entertainment).

I’ve begun to mentally refer to one of my colleagues, Natalya Vladimirovna, as my adopted babushka. She always has a story to tell me when I arrive to the department (around 8 am, before I’m awake enough to hold a conversation). On my first day of class she brought me a mason jar full of stewed vegetables because, “you probably haven’t had time to cook yet.” The next day, she asked me if I preferred plum or apple jam. I said I liked both, and the following day she arrived with a full jar of each, homemade from fruit she had grown herself. The plum jam is probably the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

Although I’ve really been struggling with my Russian this trip—perhaps because speaking English is my job here, whereas it was something I avoided during previous stays in Russia—I’ve had one or two really successful conversations in Russian. Those kind of moments make living here not just bearable, but ecstatic.

I finally found the electric burner in the communal kitchen that actually gets hot enough to boil water (stove on the right, burner on the back right).

I spend a lot of free time socializing with the secretaries in my department. Like, a LOT of free time. I think they may want me to stop bothering them. Anyway, I was hanging out in the department when a teacher from another department dropped by (although I remember his name and specialty, I’m keeping these details vague on purpose). We got into a conversation about the places I’ve visited in America; he mentioned that he has always dreamed of visiting the US some day. One of the secretaries suggested that he had a year to convince me to marry him in order to make the visa situation easier. You would think that it would be clear that she was joking. But alas, I have no idea. Russia.

On a related note, I’ve learned to stop making jokes about finding a “Russian husband.” Such statements are rarely if ever taken at anything but face value.

My social life is going well. I’m more popular than I’ve ever been in my life (I’ll talk more about that later) and it can be hard to find time to settle down, wash my dishes, write a blog post. Most of my time on the weekends has been spent with students. I love getting to know them outside of the classroom and, if any of you are reading this (and I know some of you are!!), I definitely want to keep doing that. On the other hand, I need to put some work into finding not-student friends. Among other fairly obvious reasons for this, I feel like I owe it to my students to speak English with them and not use them as Russian conversation buddies. I owe it to myself, however, to improve my Russian while I’m here. I don’t really know how to approach socialization as a teacher, though, because although I am nearer to the students in age and experience, I am not part of student culture. Nor am I old enough or married enough to fluidly socialize with my colleagues. I don’t know. I’ll keep ya updated.

Teaching has been alternately challenging and rewarding. I didn’t know whom or what I would be teaching until I arrived in Murom. As such I had no opportunity to prepare or bring relevant materials. Now that I’m here and I am teaching “American English” to first and second year English majors, I am sorely wishing that I had had the prep time. I hesitate to complain about my situation in part because my colleagues, particularly the head of the department Elena Aleksandrovna, couldn’t be kinder, more nurturing, or more supportive. I also have a feathery-light workload compared to the other teachers, who teach 3-4 one and a half-hour lessons a day, often six days a week. On the other hand, I have no books, no curriculum, and no guide other than a hand-written semester plan that dictates the topic (example: illnesses and their treatments) and the skill set (example: monologue speech) that I am supposed to address in each lesson. This simultaneously vague and strict semester plan makes finding relevant course material time consuming and frustrating. To further add to my difficulties, my initial unfamiliarity with my students’ language levels has made it near to impossible for me to know what will and won’t work in the class.

I know that I should accept failures in the classroom stride, learn from them, move on. From my perspective as a very recent college student, however, it’s also very important to me not to waste my students’ time. Unlike in my college experience, my students really have no choice whether or not they will take my class, have no agency to drop my class, and are probably just happy that I don’t give them homework. (Also, they’re not paying $50,000/year for the supreme honor of having me teach them, but that’s a different story.) Still, I refuse to let my only asset as a teacher be my native-fluency in English. I care much, much more than that.

I began by sharing my woes, but this whole teaching thing really is going much better than I honestly expected it to, at least in the beginning. It seems like most of my students, at the very least, don’t resent me. Some seem to like me. There are magical moments when I catch someone paying close attention to me. My humor is starting to communicate. Sometimes I can tell that they find my classroom activities tedious, other times they bring so much (careful) creativity to their work that I my heart swells. I’m slowly getting to know them as people—some were spitfires from day one, but as is true anywhere, some people take more time to open up. I’m beginning to realize that as much as people keep telling me what a unique opportunity it is to get a native-speaker teacher, I’m going to get way more out of this year than I could possibly give back.

Also, can I just say that it’s supremely weird to be so in demand just because I happen to be an English speaker? I get that that’s the whole point of the Fulbright ETA program. But it’s still true that where you are born, and by extension the language you speak, is just as determined by chance as your race or gender. So what I’m trying say is, damn. Why can’t you just value me for my MIND or my PERSONALITY? Just kidding. Kind of. But it is genuinely bizarre how much people care—from the lady that sells tickets on the bus to my colleagues—that I’m an American. I’ve never been so popular in my life and I don’t really have the requisite social skills to deal with it. I wonder how long it will take people to realize what a giant, albeit lovable, dork I am. I’ll keep you updated as the situation progresses.

First post from Russia: better late than never

I wrote this post about four days ago. Murom is as pretty as it can be, but seriously, kak po-russki “WiFi desert?” A lot has happened since I wrote this, but since I’m not looking to write a Russian novel I’m just going to post this as is and then bring you up to date later:

Wow. Just wow. Let me just start with the important stuff.

My travel to Moscow went by without a hitch. Orientation was fine. Honestly, I feel like I learned more about my potential inadequacies as a teacher than I did actual teaching skills. Coming back to Moscow was a little strange; it is such a familiar place, but being back didn’t inspire either positive or negative emotion in me. Moscow remains my favorite Russians city, but I must admit that I’m glad I won’t have to cope with the crowded metro or the obscenely high prices this year. On a more positive note, all, and I really mean all, of the other ETAs that I met are wonderful. It was so great to make friends with them if even for a short while, and I look forward to seeing them again in my travels throughout Russia. The five-day orientation ended yesterday and I took a train from Moscow to Murom this afternoon. I’ve arrived safely and am now sitting in my palatial dorm room, warm, fed, watching weird Russian variety shows (BECAUSE I HAVE A TV YOU GUYS… but more about my lodgings later).

But really, I’ve got to tell you about my journey here. It started off well with my cab ride to Kazan train station. My driver was a little horrified by the immenseness of my luggage and was kind of rude to me at the hotel. Once he found out that I was an American teacher of English in the “provinces,” however, he really opened up. After giving my spoken Russian a 4 (basically a “B” grade according to the Russian system, which was really rather generous of him) he started giving me advice: “Go only from your dorm to the university, from the university directly to the dorm. Don’t ever walk alone. Never go out at night. Understand??” Okay thanks, dad.

Then the trouble started. Of course, as soon as I tried to board the train I was told that I should have bought a ticket for my excess baggage and that I had to go buy a ticket immediately. So, I left all of my worldly belongings in the care or complete strangers and ran to the nearest ticket booth, only to find out that it was the wrong one, ran to another ticket booth, same deal. Turns out that baggage tickets could only be purchased outside the station in a special booth, but at this point I had ten minutes until my train left and there was no way I was going to make it. I sprinted back to the train on the verge of tears, prepping myself to play the “dumb American” card as convincingly and endearingly as possible. When I got there the conductor-lady seemed to be in a nicer mood, telling me to remember about the baggage rules for next time. As I loaded my stuff onto the train car I heard another conductor call me a “bednaya Amerikanka” (basically, poor little American girl). Oy. Good thing I decided to leave my pride/sense of shame back home in America.

Then it got really interesting. I had a third class ticket, which on Russian trains means that you are in an open car with six bunks in each section. In my section there was me, a quiet, middle-aged woman, and four men aging about 25-40 who seemed to be previously acquainted. They helped me with my bags, and when the train departed they immediately started to drink vodka. I took a nap, and by the time I woke up they had had time read my luggage tags (from my flight from the US to Russia) and also had gotten good and tipsy. Apparently they had been waiting on the edge of their seats to talk to me. They barraged me with the typical questions: “Are you not Russian? Where are you from? America?!?! Why are you here? Where are you going? You are going to teach in Murom? Why not Moscow or Saint Petersburg?” I found out that my Russian is totally insufficient to explain the Fulbright program; I don’t know words like “grant” or even “Department of State.” I should mention that two of the guys were very clearly skinheads: super buff, shaved bald, one even had a visible prison tattoo on his hand. Super duper friendly skinheads though, I have to say. One, Vadim, was clearly the most interested in talking to me. He totally lost it when he found out I was going to Murom, since he’s a Murom native himself. “I’ll show you around the city!” When I showed hesitancy, he assured me that his girlfriend, Olya would accompany us. He gave me his number. Don’t worry, I’m not going to call it. Prison tat guy, Sergei, also gave me his number. He’s not a Murom native, but lives in a town nearby: “20-30 minutes away. If you have any problems, any problems at all, call and I’ll come help you.” Sergei was drunk, and perhaps consequentially very impressed with me as a person: “I’ve never in my life met someone like you. A smart young woman, all the way from America, comes to Russia to teach from the provinces. I can’t comprehend it!” He kept reassuring me that he was a nice person who would truly be happy to help, but for some reason felt the need to punctuate this point by calling himself a “patriot of his homeland.” Let’s just say that I’ve never been so thankful that I happened to be born a white person. Another of the party, one of the not-skinheads, suggested that I while I came to Russia to teach, I might decide to stay if I find a Russian husband. I replied that my parents had only allowed me to come to Russia on the condition that I would not get married or start smoking. The joke seemed lost on him.

And then they started giving me gifts. It started with a wooden bracelet with icon-paintings of the Virgin Mary. (I forget exactly what they are called, but they are really common.) The train made a stop at a town known for it’s glasswork, I forget the name, and both Vadim and Sergei bought souvenirs that were forced upon me. They offered me food and juice, I declined, and then I got food and juice anyway. I started to get pretty annoyed, but I decided not to make a big deal about it. No means no means no, but a train ride is a temporary situation so I didn’t feel too threatened by their possessiveness. It probably came from a kind, if completely drunken place: they kept asking me to reaffirm that yes, someone from my university was meeting me at the train station. Yes, I had a ride and a safe place to stay. When we finally got to Murom, they helped me with my bags (which I probably couldn’t have done on my own, to be honest), and Vadim took it upon himself to make sure that my contacts were going to take care of me. Thank god Elena Aleksandrovna and Olya were there waiting for me. I wouldn’t have wanted to try to shake off Vadim on my own!

Now that my parents, not to mention my aunts and uncles, are totally and utterly horrified, I should probably move on to the reassuring stuff. Like I mentioned before, Elena Aleksandrovna, my contact and the head of the foreign languages department at my university, met me at the train station with her colleague Olya. They drove me through Murom to the university dormitory, my new home. They personally showed me around my new place, and holy crap y’all, it’s a palace. I have two big rooms, a sitting room and a bedroom, and a huge bathroom all to myself, as well as access to a common kitchen down the hall. I have two beds (!), a chair, a table, a couch, a refrigerator, a desk, a bureau, two wardrobes, tons of storage, and a working television. They clearly went out of their way to make things comfortable for me for my arrival. My dorm-apartment came already supplied with new bedding, towels, cleaning supplies, dishes, a water kettle, an iron, an umbrella, a hair dryer, an electric heater, and even food and tea! When I arrived dinner was already prepared for me, so the three of us ate together and got to know each other a little. Elena Aleksandrovna was clearly very concerned about providing me with a good first impression of Murom, that I would have a good first night and that I would be comfortable here. And really, it meant so much to me.

Tomorrow I’m going to the university to prepare for my first lesson on Monday. Then, a woman named Natalia will show me around the center of Murom. I promised Elena Aleksandrovna that I would buy slippers immediately (“It is cold and you will get sick! I have a daughter, you know.”) On Sunday I will have lunch with another Olya, and on Monday I will have my first day of classes. I have been asked to simply talk about myself and my background on the first day and be prepared to answer questions. I’ll be teaching first- and second-year students a course called “American English.” It looks like they have a pretty clear idea of what they want me to do, which is really reassuring to me since I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing. Apparently my students have been anxiously awaiting my arrival and have lots of questions for me. Some have even volunteered to help me seal my windows for winter since they know that I don’t know how to do it. I think I will let them! I’m unpacked and settled in, feeling very welcomed and well taken-care of. It was a weird, challenging, humorous, and ultimately joyous day. I hope I have good news to share with you once I actually start teaching!