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!

Introductory Post/Two Weeks Until Takeoff

Full disclosure: I hate blogging. I’m bad at it. I consider this to be a lifelong issue for me (the literate part of my life, at least). Example: my childhood bookcase shelves at least three fancy leather-bound journals, purchased in different phases of my adolescence, each containing 1-3 entries followed by 100 or so blank pages.

I hope this blog is different. I’m writing it for you (my friends, family, teachers, colleagues, students, and beloved internet randos) so that you know what’s up with me during these ten months that I am living in Russia. But I’m also writing it for me, so that I have a record of my memories that won’t be abstracted by time. I wish, for example, that I had actually followed through on the blog I started during my semester in Moscow during college. That would be cool to have now. I also see this blog as a challenge to me to be a more active observer and participant during my grant period; it will hold me accountable to being present so that I can report back to you in full. The content here will be mostly personal, but I have aspirations to write more topically (i.e. about more broadly political/social issues) once I get my footing.

But now I should bring you up to date: after a long summer chilling at my dad’s house I’m happy to say that I leave for Russia two weeks from tomorrow. (Love you, dad!) Once I’m in Moscow, I will have a weeklong orientation before I move to my host city of Murom. Murom’s about 4-5 hours away from Moscow by train, which is really not bad when you consider the vastness [, glory, and splendor] of the motherland. In fact, it’s located in the same oblast’ (Russian administrative district) as Vladimir, a city where I lived last summer as an intern. Murom is also pretty close to Nizhny Novgorod, a city of 1.25 million that I’ve heard awesome things about but have yet to visit. That being said, I don’t know much about Murom or what to expect from life in a Russian city of just over 100,000 inhabitants. According to Wikipedia, Murom’s been around since around the year 900, making it one of the oldest cities in Russia. It’s the home of the “East Slavic epic hero” Ilya Muromets, not that that means anything to me (YET!). Apparently, during the Soviet era Murom was a closed-city, meaning that foreigners were prohibited from entering because of secrecy surrounding the defense industries there. There is not much else to learn about Murom via the internet, so I guess we’ll have to wait until I get there!

Vladimirskaya Oblast' (Murom's county, essentially) in relation to the rest of Russia

Vladimirskaya Oblast’ (Murom’s county, essentially) in relation to the rest of Russia

I’ll be teaching beginning and intermediate students of English, other teachers, and some graduates at the University in Murom. My contact tells me that we will go over all other specifics when I arrive and not to worry. So basically I am trying to be as chill as possible about not knowing the details. I’ve developed a very zen attitude toward the mystery surrounding my lodging for the next ten months. (My parents do not share the zen. Go figure.)

I’ve scored a decent coat, so all that’s left is to gather up the rest of my teaching supplies (if you have any suggestions for cool/spatially efficient items that could help me share “American culture,” please comment!) and pack. I’ll keep y’all updated!