Disclaimer 1: I am very sorry for the long entry. I am determined to keep them as short and sweet as possible.
Disclaimer 2: I apologize for the thus far poor quality of pictures of Astrakhan. I am quite possibly the only Westerner in this entire city. Thus I am determined to stick out as little as possible. I swear, more and better pictures will come as I further adjust. And when I have friends.
I’m not even sure where to start, as these past three days have been intensely packed with information, meeting new people, trying to figure out what I want from my life here in Astrakhan, and even more importantly how to get what I want and need without insulting others.
Upon arriving I was placed at the dormitory. As I was being dropped off, my host, Lena was talking to the ‘babushka’ who controls entrance to the dorms. This lady informed us that supposedly last year a bunch of Iranians lived in my room, but afterwords they did tons of renovations, etc. As I walked it, I could definitely tell this babushka was a bit confused; renovations definitely did not take place here.
In the past few days, I’ve noticed the following: a broken toilet seat; a pretty gross shower; a sink that comes off the wall; water that smells much different from the rest of Astrakhan; a huge nasty fly; ants; little spider webs.. with spiders… ; spots all over the bed covers; three TV’s – none of them work; every moment I’m afraid they’ll place someone else in my room with me, and thus I’m afraid of the safety of my belongings; an air conditioning unit in the window, but no outlet near by to plug it into; a handful of dogs and pups outside my window barking, fighting, and growling at various times throughout the night and early morning; men hanging out below my window at early hours of the morning and chit chatting; main doors that close at 11pm, and of course forbid entrance afterwords.. unless I beg; the kitchen is a real gem, with great resources (not! so far I have not heard or smelt anyone using it, and I don’t blame them); no washing machine – “you must wash them by hand” says the babushka (that explains the green bowl in my bathroom). “When’s the last time you’ve washed clothes by hand?” asks Lena.
So, perhaps it was yesterday, Lena dropped me back off at my dorm and asked about a kitchen. The babushka said that there was a kitchen in my hall, look let me show you, and we discovered this ‘gem’. It looks quite clean from the picture; however, I really would not trust the picture with its cleanliness. In fact, the floor may be cleaner than the nice, Soviet appliances. There is nothing at all to cook with. Then Lena asked if there was anything else, or where could I get some pots and pans. The babushka then divulged a little secret — there was another kitchen, in the other hallway.. here, I’ll show you that one! It was at this time that I realized this corridor was completely renovated, everything from the floor, the doors, door mats, and then the kitchen.. it was gorgeous! There was everything there – pots, pans, utensils, dishes, everything-even a toaster! So Lena proceeds to ask if I can use it. Well, the babushka replies, perhaps, but you have to ask the Komondantka, or the warden (shawshank anyone?) of the hostel.. общежитие really does translate to hostel. i understand why. (yipping dogs!!! STOP!) Then the babushka further explained that there is was some sick man living in the dorms who uses that kitchen and his wife has to make everything for him, and he needs a strict diet, because he’s sick with this and that, and oh she can’t remember what he has; he was so sick.. We wait for the Komondantka, who then appears all stressed out because she’s so tired and her life is so hard-working with all these damn trouble-making students, just to inform me that no, you CANNOT use that kitchen, it’s for professors…. okay, says Lena, well then can she have some pots and pans to cook with? She agrees and then sneaks in something about how I need to sign a contract for the hostel and it will be 700 rubles (25$) a night, and WAIT, WHAT? um hm. yes, I speak no Russian woman, continue your rant…
Lena leaves, and I immediately call Olga, a contact of mine from the states who is originally from Astrakhan, went to visit her family for the summer, and was leaving on Wednesday for the States. She invited me over to her parents’ house along with her good friend from the university, both with a whole lot o’ information for me to take in. Suddenly I found out that I should be very, very aware of my surroundings and what the university offered me, as there was a possible risk of extortion
(they were not fond of the head of the department and had some personal experiences). It turned out that Olga told her friend about myarrival; her friend then called the department asking about my arrangements, only to find out they still had not done a thing to prepare for me, two days before my arrival. She then herself called the dorms and requested a room. They then were quite upset about the conditions of my room, and this whole price thing.. “you’re American, they think you can just dish out all this money for everything; you have continuous flowing money that they want to get their hands on.” okay. okay. makes sense. so, we sat there and made a plan.
First, they listed various contacts, and by contacts I mean high people in the university, including the dean, who they know personally. They said if things didn’t straighten out, we would go directly to them. And then, I need to write out everything to argue against this dorm contract and tell them all these things are wrong and here is what I need and am demanding. sigh.
stress… streSS… stRESS… STRESS.
Olga invited me to stay the night at her parents. I didn’t hesitate to accept. As we were preparing dinner, tea, and sleeping necessities Olga called her nephew Sergei, to set up a meeting for Tuesday. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more grateful and indebted to someone.. I owe her so much for all the help. (DOGS DOGS DOGS.) Olga’s parent’s place is extremely Russian. They built it in the 70′s, when Russians were first allowed to build their own houses. However, it follows a strict format created by Khrushchev, and as Olga explained, most Russian houses look similar. It’s also located pretty far outside the city and only accessible by a 1/2 hour marshrutka ride. Olga’s parents are quite old. She bought them a new shower and sink; they were previously bathing in the tub in the backyard.
Tuesday, I left Olga, while she departed for America. I wanted to bawl. My support group was leaving and I was so worried. However, she, once again, was amazing and left me more of a support group than I even knew existed. I first met Sergei; we walked for two hours, seeing the city, the REAL Astrakhan (pictures to come when I stop fearing weird looks and funny questions); we then sat in a cafe, were joined by one of his friends, and yelled at the security guard to let me into the dorms after hours. It turned out to be a great night. He then called me today to make sure everything was alright, and so on. A later got a random phone call, and was for a while very confused. Then I suddenly understood – another relative of Olga. Words cannot express…
Today I met Katya, another contact of Olga’s who has invited me to live with her. I went over to her house, where she insisted I take a good shower, eat, and wash my clothes. I’m not quite sure if I’ll move in with her yet.. I’m fighting for independence, and not dependence upon someone who could possibly act as a housekeeper (she is sooo kind, I just need to do these things myself). I also went to a departmental party at the university, where I met all my “colleagues”. That was a pretty interesting experience, and I’m not quite sure what to say about it or to even think about it. Some seem nice; I suppose I’ll discover more as time progresses.
Later this evening Lena took me to see another apartment of her friends. It was a cute little one bedroom (the living room acts as a bedroom) not far from the Volga. However, he wanted like $625/month. Nope. too much. I get my registration on Friday, which legally will allow me to rent an apartment. I hope to find something also by then and hopefully can move asap.
I will leave you at that for now. Who knows what the next few days and the weekend will bring.. maybe at least some good photos of Astrakhan? hopefully a lot more than that.