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