(Soviet) planes, trains, and automobiles

Friday was my city tour, given to me by one of the students at Sergei’s college, Valeri. Valeri is also probably one of the stronger leaders in the youth group “A Step Forward”, led by Sergei.

We did a quick drive through the city center, which isn’t too big at all. Then headed out to the Lada factory, which is huge. Across from the factory is the Museum of Transportation, one of the biggest.. ever. Here we perused old submarines, planes, tanks, war vehicles, radars, helicopters, and trains. With freezing feet, I attentively listened to Valeri explain the vehicles – he knew so much and explained the purpose of each vehicle, such as – this one drops bombs, and this one carries cargo, and that one, oh it can transform into a bridge – no really it can!  I’m obsessed with things that fly, so the planes and helicopters were particularly awesome.

There was also another separate building that had great remnants of Soviet equipment used in space: land rovers, and other cool machinery. Of course, photographing the coolest stuff was prohibited.

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Hoping that I wouldn’t develop frostbite in my toes, we trudged onward, to the Volga River. Tolyatti has some pretty astonishing territory on the Volga: it overlooks a peninsula of sorts. Across the way is another small city called Zhigulyovsk, but aside from that Valeri tells me its a great place in the summer.  According to Valeri, most Tolyattinites refrain from using the beaches on their side of the Volga, as they would rather go across the Volga where the nature is much more in abundance. Of course right now the Volga is still completely frozen over, evident by the man and his dog half way across the river, playing catch on the ice.

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We then headed to another area on the Volga, where I discovered a large statue of Vasiliy Tatishev, who supposedly in 17something something founded the city by protecting it from nomads. The city was originally called Stavrapol on the Volga and was equipped with many great wooden structures.  Check out these old photographs, which are envisioned to be what life was like at that time: https://m.vk.com/album-46784524_166709884

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Valeri went on to explain, that in the 1950s, a hydro electric power plant was built in Zhigulyovsk, across the Volga, bringing in many new residents and a boom in the economy. At that time, the plant was supposedly one of the biggest in the world. Of course, Tolyatti encountered much overflow from the plant and added new regions to its city.  Valeri also found these really awesome pictures of the plant construction: https://vk.com/album-46784524_166709515

Later, in the 1960’s Fiat begin a plant construction in the region, doubling the city’s population. If you’re a fan of old photographs and imagining life in that era (as I am), here’s more for you: https://vk.com/album-46784524_181737910

Hopefully the links work.

Anyways, my general perceptions of the city are as follows – it seems crazy small, though actually it has around 700,000, making it conceivably larger than Astrakhan, which truly shocked me.  Tolyatti is pretty industrial looking, and sort of disorganized, as there is no really city center to give it a core base.  Valeri explained that this is probably because the city center moved each time the city grew, or a new government came into power. As new regions have been added every ‘x’ years, there are sort of random neighborhoods all over the place, though I bet it makes more sense to the natives. Yet, as we zoomed past bus stops in Valeri’s dad’s Lada, I couldn’t help but wonder where in the hell the people waiting at the stops came from, as all that was situated on either side of the road were big fields of snow.

Tolyatti is not directly situated on the Volga, and to get there we had to drive off on a side road. Valeri pointed out the restaurant/party/wedding venue, one of Tolyatti’s night clubs. He stated that the beaches were not that clean, but on a nice day the shore of the Volga would be full of active people, even if it meant flying mechanical planes.  He also mentioned a dog-sledding festival the city holds annually.  They have their own huskies in the city, but get many participants from all over the world, including Alaska.  The participants begin in Tolyatti and continue on a dog sledding trip down the Volga hundreds of miles to Kazan. He stated that two years ago, the only foreigner to make it to Kazan was a German woman; the rest of the participants surrendered to the -30 degree weather.. in other words: we are weak.

Additionally, the city had a forest intertwined into its plan; however, in 2011, when wildfires overcame much of Russia, the majority of the forest burnt down.  We did, however, take a really nice road (by nice I mean scenic, not well-kept, because it was far from that) through part of the forest.

Here are a few more snapshots of the Volga:

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The rest of my weekend consisted of visits to other museums and hanging out with students. We spent a good amount of time in the Tolyatti Museum of History, which of course, ran through the history of Tolyatti.  It had fascinating artifacts from the city, back to nomad days, clothing that I would probably still wear today, and kettle bells that may not be Crossfit approved.

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Not to mention adorable animals, such as the owl below, who was located in the entry way because he had been around people so long, they didn’t want him closed off in the back of the museum.

Can I please take him home?!?

Can I please take him home?!?

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Oh, just hanging out with all my favorite Soviet stars.

We went iceskating (I really suck), and also enjoyed a production of the comedy show, KVN, which I absolutely love (I had gone before in Astrakhan and watched many clips on line).  Though it was hard to understand some of the jokes, especially those made about local events, people, or places, it was still really enjoyable.  There was a group of students who participated from Grozny, Chechnya, and they did a fantastic job delivering one-liners and also poking fun at the stereotypes that surround many from Chechnya. It’s easy to say that they, by far, were the stars of the show.

The KVN Stage

The KVN Stage

Bravo, bravo.

I’M BACKKKKKK!

actually, I should have never left. I should have continued these musings throughout my time in Turkey to justly prove its similarities. But alas, it’s in the past, and the real reason I’m back is because I’m BACK IN RUSSIA.

It’s been almost 3 years since my departure from St. Petersburg in June, 2012. While living in Turkey I continuously dreamed of returning, simply for pleasure’s sake and to keep up with old friends. That not having happened, I longed to come back again and experience all these crazy Russian emotions.

Needless to say, here I am.

It’s been an absolutely insane 36 hours. Or make that a full week. After waiting on my visa, which I received last Friday, I was informed I’d be leaving on Tuesday, the itinerary, which I received on Monday, consisted of four different legs and around 36 hours of travel and time change.

And then there’s Michigan winters. Naturally on Tuesday morning, we were greeted by a heavy dose of lake effect snow, which eventually transformed into an ice storm. Although we left significantly early, and my dad is a beastly driver, the check-in attendant was only able to check my bags, but not me. He called the gate, asking them to reopen it for me, but they had already given my seat away. The attendant then sat on the phone for about fifteen minutes, only to ensure me that I could be rebooked at a cost of $2200. Ha. Hahahaha. No way.

Frustrated, I immediately called the Eurasia foundation and was instantly rebooked (rebooking #1). My dad and I made an infamous donut stop and returned to the airport. This time I was fortunate enough to get a different attendant. I also noticed that due to the weather my original flight was still delayed and had still another hour until it’s scheduled departure. My new favorite delta attendant looked over my tickets with curiosity and put me on stand-by for my original, 10:20 AM now 1:00 PM flight.

Upon arriving to the gate, I approach the attendant and state that I’m on stand-by. Last name? Brown. Ah, I’ve been looking for you. And hands me my boarding pass.

An hour later were still on the runway awaiting de-icing. The pilot told us a few corny jokes every half hour, though I’m not sure if us passengers wanted to laugh or punch him: at least many were cordial enough to give him a few chuckles. Around 3:20, still not having landed in Detroit, our flight attendant assures us that we’ll make our 3:45 flight. To the others, well you’ll make it… If you fight, you gotta fight if you really want it. Reassuring. it would have been better had she broken out in song. Of course, upon landing in Detroit, we encounter issues with our carry-ons and are forced to wait an addition (what seemed like hours) five minutes for them to fix the mechanical door and allow us access to our bags, and once that door opens.. it’s a free for all, especially on a extremely delayed flight.

Zipping through Detroit airport is not quite as practical as one would hope, though in perspective of all my plane-mates, I probably had one of the more fortunate commutes. Down two flights of escalators, through a tunnel lit by neon lights, playing odd elevator music, up another two flights of escalators, slightly to the left beyond the cafe awaited my gate. I booked it as fast as could with a roll-on carrier, computer bag, and overweight purse.

My lack of success was evident to me as I was observing the glowing fish out of the corner of my eyes while hustling through the tunnel. But still I tried, and only gave in as I noticed the empty gate and the lack of plane at said gate. The nice attendant, Carmen, rebooked me (rebooking #2), rerouting me this time to Paris, then Moscow, only to arrive in Samara at 1:30 am. I related the news to my contact at SEE, who asks me to rebook again in order to arrive in Samara during the day, as he would prefer someone pick me up. It’s then I learn that the place I’m going, Tolyatti, is another 60 km from the airport. Yes, I agree, I concur.

Back I go to the DELTA help center, where I’m assisted by a wonderful representative who simply adores working for DELTA with accolades flowing from her mouth like a river. I agree with her, not just to suck up (give me what I want ms!), but truly because this was not DELTAs fault, and actually she’s right, DELTA does rock.  Yet, this time, I make my own concrete decision… I’m staying the night. And so, she rebooks me for the same exact flight I was originally supposed to have on Tuesday, but on Wednesday (rebooking #3). She presents to me a hotel voucher and a cute little overnight pouch and wishes me luck as she’s off on her break – she had come in extra early due to the weather.

I overnight at a vouchered hotel resembling a mix between many soviet hotels, or “restoration houses” I’ve stayed at during my travels and old Florida beach motels I recall from my childhood. The hotel was even equipped with an indoor pool, pool tables, a tanning room, and a restaurant with fountains… All placed in a big atrium, overlooked by this awkward platform with airchairs.

Between feeling like I was about to see ‘redrum’ painted on the walls, expecting to encounter a girl riding a tricycle down the hallway, and admiring the crumbs that covered the carpet outside the doors, the rooms were quite well kept and comfortable.

BUT I’m still in Michigan. 

Wednesday I again found myself running through JFK, recovering from yet another late plane, greatly afraid of missing my Moscow flight. However, With plenty of time and copious amounts of leg room I made it to Moscow, and sat casually at Sheremetovo, awaiting my flight to Samara.

At Samara airport, an airport so new the painter dudes were admiring us as we waited for our luggage to pass underneath their scaffold, I was met by Sergei, who was then met by another guy (I don’t remember the link) and we were driven to Tolyatti.  I endured the ride gazing at the wonderful fields we passed along the way, simply attempting to be polite and not doze off (at least I don’t snore).

So what exactly am I doing? Where am I going? These are great questions, though some of the answers will only become apparent through time in the fellowship.

I was chosen to be a fellow through a program called SEE, or the US-Russian Social Expertise Exchange.

Video: SEE Program Overview

Through this program, Russians come to American cities and visit American institutions, including hospitals, schools, and other private and public organizations. Likewise, Americans travel to Russia to do the same. Fellows are both emerging professionals in their fields, such as myself, or advanced practitioners, such as doctors or business owners, UN employees, or civic engagement activists.

The fellowships are then grouped into smaller working groups with more specific foci and agendas: materials they would like to publish, collaboration they would like to encourage, or social projects they hope to create and stabilitize. My working groups is Youth and Education. Others include Rule of Law, Protection of Flora and Founder, and Gender Equity.

The purpose of this fellowship is to exchange information, knowledge, and cultural perceptions; to promote mutual understanding and to realize our differences, as well as our similarities. In my specific sub-group, this exchange takes place through dialogue regarding youth, their involvement in the community, and ways in which youth education can be improved or enhanced, whether that be through technology, or simply cultural literacy.

Throughout the many transactions we are to have, as fellows were required or maintain a blog, frequent social media, and digitally document what we can.

Personally, I also hope to get another in-depth look at the Russian education system, build some connections, and even get some interviews in.

First, and where I currently am, is Tolyatti, a small town to the north east of Samara, located just off the Volga River. So far I’ve learned that Tolyatti is quite an industrial city, home of the famous Russian automobile: Lada.

Sexy.

Tomorrow I will tour a bit of city and head to various museums. I’ll be here for another ten days or so, then I’ll head to the Karelian city of Petrozavodsk in the north.

For now, I’ll enjoy being back in Russia and exploring a Russian city I’ve yet to set foot in.

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The view of Tolyatti from my hotel room.

Leaving the land of steel.. With no matches.. Or steel.

Time goes by really fast and no matter where you go you seem to make a bigger impression than you intended or really ever thought you would…

The last few days in Cherepovets have gone better, granted I really had to fight the desire to hermit up in my apartment. However, every time I actually got out and got active the time really passed by twice-fold and much more pleasantly than I thought it would. The camp was really enjoyable the last few days. The kids played a ton of games and I think also quite enjoyed it.

Wednesday was an “American potluck” theme. The kids all brought goodies, mainly sweets, and I made forty plus cookies. We sang songs related to food and I taught them the spaghetti and meatball song, where the meatball rolls through the town; they enjoyed that one. I also taught them apples and bananas, where the vowels change with each verse. I think they also enjoyed that one, as in the end they practically had it memorized. They then played a whole bunch of food relating games with blind folds that involved stuffing bananas into each others faces and eating food with no hands. They were really good sports, though the same kids participate in almost all the competitions. That evening I went to a cafe with a new acquaintance. Afterwards we went to the theater and saw the most depressing play. Essentially a 21 year old girl comes upon keys to a woman’s apartment and invites some guy there that she meets at the club. He ends up stealing all the things in the apartment, but the girl’s in loveeeee. The owner, a middle aged woman, ends up returning home early and unexpectedly and sees her apartment a mess with some unknown girl in sexual pjs. They take turns threatening each other with calling the police, pulling out a gun, and tying each other up. Then they have conversations about life, and become friends. They end up drinking vodka. The young girl pretends to drink while the fifty year old women gets hammered, forgives the young girl, and takes her in as a daughter. It all ends when the young girl decides to leave. The woman doesn’t want her to go and shoots her. Yeah, happy Wednesday.

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Thursday was a game day. They split up into small groups and rotated game stations. They really enjoyed this day, as they continued to ask me today, “can we play UNO?!”. I taught them how to play Jenga, however our game had a twist. On all the blocks I wrote questions or commands. These included everything from calling your mom (which I ended up getting at 3am Michigan time), jog around the room, throw the block across the room, and recite the alphabet backwards. After lunch we played some simple outdoors games. At the end of the day we went to a local center for the elderly. Essentially this place didn’t have elderly people in in, but was rather a place they could go if they needed help or food. The kids had made Buranovskie Babushi dolls for them (the Babushki who took second place in Eurovision). So we really didn’t meet any elderly people, but just the directors of the center. The kids preformed some dances and showed off their musical talents. I said some words in English and they translated for me. Once again I spent my evening in a cafe, conversing with one of the employees from the youth center as time passed by unnoticed.

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Friday I gave a “lecture” on American slang, teaching them some fun words that my brother’s age group uses, such as ‘tight’, ‘ill’, etc. Even I had to refer to the Internet and conversations with my brother on Facebook, as in reality I am so disconnected from the general register of our youth. But, it was enjoyable describing the words to the kids and learning how to reconnect with my youngest bro. After that the kids had a talent show where they sang, danced, and showed off other various talents. They then showered me with gifts, which was naively unexpected by me. The Russians have a strict tradition of gift-giving, so I should have been well prepared, but I was not. See the picture below. So, as I was planning to leave with less things, I ended up leaving with two extra bags. Of course. After the performance the ‘workers’ gathered for pizza and tea and I was presented with yet another awesome, homemade gift. Returning home, I cleaned, packed, and headed off to my host, Anna’s home with Sasha, a new acquaintance. We had dinner, wine, and toasts, after which Sasha escorted me to the train station where I’m full and tired and really ready for St. Petersburg.

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The makers of steel… And matches.

I’ve been in Cherepovets since Friday. I’d like to make some witty comments and have a very witty post. I’ll try to do so, but I have to admit that coming here after Astrakhan was a very poorly thought out idea.

It was a lot harder to leave Astrakhan then I thought it would be. I had a wonderful last night. And despite the mosquitos, I some how ended up getting all of my friends and good acquaintances in one place.

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I then flew, absolutely exhausted, to St Petersburg. With an enormous amount of help from my friends, I got rid if my luggage and was fed and beveraged. After wandering around Piter and catching up, my friend and I then raced to the train station and accidentally got lost in the parking ramp. As I was emptying my things from her car, she tells me I have ten minutes until my train leaves. Neither of us had been to this station before and had no idea where to go. I start shoving things into my carry on, completely forgetting some necessary items and we start running.. Shes got my purse and I have my heavy carry on in one hand and my jenga in the other. Obvious necessity. I almost didn’t make my train, as when we got there the stewardess yelled at me saying I had to go register my online tickets, naturally what one would think to do with an online-purchased ticket. However, the gracious lady in the next cart, the one I was supposed to be in, let me in without questions. Thank you kind lady.

I arrived the next morning in Cherepovets, greeted by a very enthusiastic and nice Anna, who is a professor at the local university and director of the camp at the local youth center. Within an hour I was on a bus to some little village-museum between Cherepovets and Vologda. Here we toured original wooden homes that had been imported from different parts of Russia. It was quite reflective of the wooden village Kizhi, located north of St. Petersburg. The most interesting part was the master classes they held. I learned the original, Russian painting technique that is on a lot of the dishes and other souvenirs; some of the students made birch ornaments; others carved little animals out of wood.

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So, Cherepovets eh?
Yeah. I thought the same thing.
It’s located here:

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Or what I like to call, the middle of nowhere. They like to call it provincial. I wont argue.
So yeah, what’s here? Well at first I was all excited about matches (which I still haven’t seen here, actually). However, what I didn’t know was that they have a massive steel plant. Essentially, the plant is the same size as the city and employes somewhere around 150,000 people; the city has about 315,000. Supposedly the steel company, Severstal’ bought out a Detroit plant not to long ago. Everyone and their mother works there.

What else? Oh, the general region is famous for their dairy products. And there’s a natural spring nearby.. Somewhere. But the city itself is so provincial in so may ways. The people look so much more Russian than I’m used to. The cars are much different, even than Astrakhan. The shops are sparse and less famous. There are so many more drunks and drug addicts than what I saw on the streets of Astrakhan, or even St. Petersburg. In their free time, people park their cars in the street and just stand there, maybe drinking, but definitely smoking and talking, and smoking, and talking and smoking.. Oh, there’s also a strip, on the river embankment; yeah you know like the one in Grand Haven where you drive you car back and forth, playing your loud music, revving your engine, showing off for the ladies. They have one here, except it’s no longer than my driveway.

On a positive note, the city is really clean, despite it’s lack of trash cans. There’s a lot of greenery and some really luscious parks. Also the roads are significantly better than in Astrakhan.. So for example there is only one big pot hole per kilometer, rather than say, 10. And they have some cool bridges here, unique to only three cities in Russia. A few pictures:

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What have I done here? Or, what the hell am I doing here?
Well, so far I’ve done a lot of sight seeing. This included riding a Soviet ferris wheel that scared the shit out of me, followed by one of those amusement rides that my stomach really hates, followed by a really shitty stolovaya, or canteen, followed by ice skating, which I really suck at. My guide did a really good job of not listing to my “no”s.. I suppose I should be used to this by now. But in all honesty it turned out fine and I enjoyed it all more than I expected… except for that stupid carnival ride.

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June 1st was the holiday Day of the Protection of Kids. Yes, official holiday. So there were lots of weird costumes all around town, some competitions, games, and a creepy clown in the stolovaya approaching kids while the “…what the fuck” song was playing in the background. Did I mention my love for Russian paradoxes?

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There’s also been the camp. Really it’s been quite an easy week. The camp starts at 10 and ends at 2pm. I don’t even need to participate in all of it, but just give some lectures, play some games, and help provide ideas. Tomorrow I don’t even have to go in until 12. The kids are great, as always. They’re probably 14-15. Some of them speak pretty well, or at least are not afraid. Others don’t speak a word, and many are really scared to talk, or play games, or really do anything. Today they created these really great skits based on some fairy tails. Tomorrow were having an American potluck and I successfully baked forty cookies while listening to a killer Russian folksong on repeat and having an amazing conversation with two locals, my age.

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That says welcome.. Rikki Brown. I just noticed it today.

All in all I have to admit that it’s really hard being here, and that my heart is really not into it. I don’t do well in limbo-land; I left Astrakhan with a really heavy heart and I’m eagerly awaiting both Piter and Turkey. Being here I’ve really felt homesick and would prefer to just stay in my apartment, rather than do anything at all. I miss all my friends, a lot; everyone of them, wherever they may be in the world. I think part of me just wants to seclude myself in this little cyber world with them so as to avoid meeting anymore wonderful people whom I must then, once again, leave behind. Unfortunately, I think it’s too late for that already.

Leaving Astrakhan…

It hasn’t really hit me that I’m leaving yet. Perhaps because things have been so crazy recently. Ive downsized my things to two boxes that I’m sending home and a suitcase and a half of belongings. I gave away five bags and a suitcase things.

I spent an hour at the post office just to mail two boxes. It’s these sort of things that really exhaust you, even if you’re just standing in line.. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

Last marshrutka ride in Astrakhan. Last taxi ride. Last walk in the Naberezhnaya… I mean perhaps not my very last but more or less its really weird, and if I were to come back, things will never be exactly as they are now.

I’ve concluded that I hate these exchanges. I mean it’s a great opportunity to see a place that you maybe would have never even dreamed of going to. But then you get here, and you get used to it, and as much as you really hate certain aspects of the city or of life here, you more or less get used to it. However, the worst part of it all are the people. You come here, you meet people and shove them into your life, and vice versa and then time flies by and the next thing you know you’re ripped out of there lives and they out of yours. Just like that. And it all happens so fast and time, life gives you no time to react to this or to fight it. You sit there saying, “this is it”, wishing you would have done more; done things a bit differently. Of course you can’t dwell on this, but nevertheless you do.. It’s inevitable. Fuck this is it.

On a much lighter note, I must keep in mind that I’m off on new adventures and to do other things, meet other people, and well have this same kind of experience all over again.

Next up: Cherepovets, a small city located between Moscow and St Petersburg, a bit to the east. Famous for…

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Russia: where nothing ever goes according to plan.

Things happen in Russia that don’t need to happen; but they just do, whether you like it or not.

Our washing machine is located in our kitchen. So I went to do laundry, and opened the door, of course. Our kitchen door has no handle, so you can’t shut it too hard or you have to stick your finger into the key hole and pull to open it, which kind of sucks. However, today both big windows in the kitchen were open and a hefty breeze was coming through (though I don’t know how, as I’m two windows down and have NO breeze). So I walk in, close the door, and put my laundry in, start the machine, all as I usually do. I go to leave and realize the door is stuck, really stuck. I try to pull at it with my finger, no luck. I try these little rubber pieces to the laundry machine, no luck. I try a chair leg, didn’t fit. Of course our kitchen has nothing helpful and no one really uses it except to smoke, boil milk, and now do laundry (we just got machines maybe in March.. Oh and get this, they had machines all throughout the dorm last year and at the end of the year they took them away, hoping the students would forget about them so that the ladies working in the dorm could just take them home. Oh the stories we have from this damn dorm..) SO, I sort of waited, starting to get a bit worried because I realized I could be stuck there forever, until someone came in to smoke at midnight… Thankful the migrant workers saved me. They’re remodeling the room next to the kitchen for an Iranian family that’s coming. They walked by and I yelled for them to please open the door. They pushed it open and the look on their faces was so confused and even a bit scared. I thanked them gratefully. I will now excuse their loud, obnoxious drilling at all, yet random hours and days.

In other news I have major mosquito bites all over my body. The Mosquitos here are some breed of crazy and can supposedly bite through clothing, which I now fully believe. It doesn’t help that outside our dorm the water pipe has a major leak, and I mean like a fluid stream coming out of it. It’s been leaking since Feb, which probably explains our lack of hot water. But recently, it’s become the hot spot for mosquito reproduction. Yesterday they “worked” on it for a bit and now it just drips. #progress

Friday night we went to this beer pong tournament at a local bar and hung out with the local hipsters, average age: 21. If anything, the last few months here have made me feel really old and I seem to find myself at events like these with people way younger than me. Also, these people do not know how to play beer pong, or more like they do not follow any rules including the elbow rule; they practically were shooting from half table, defeating so many purposes of the game. Us foreigners were playing and they kept trying to move the our cups, in the middle of our game. I did a bit of yelling. They also had these really crappy tables; on one it was written “Astrakhan Association of Beer Pong”. This place is killing me.

Saturday we went to one of the clubs, where I had my last moment of endurance for the same twenty songs that clubs, or the DJs put on repeat. Then they brought all the local “journalists” on stage, thanking them for their wonderful pictures. All at once they all started snapping away, flashing lights everywhere. This was hilarious, mainly because Russians have a good obsession with photography, taking pictures of everything, everywhere. There’s this one company throughout Russia called Geometria, and they attend all local events taking nine million pictures. You can’t avoid them if you want to, and often you do.

Pev-Pong

Paparazzi in Dair

Sunday I went to one of my student’s house and her mom taught me how to make Borscht… Watch out America, Borscht is coming..

Monday I gave away four bags and one suitcase of my belongs to a homeless shelter.
There’s still more to give away.

A market for educational necessities.. And that doesn’t mean books.

A lack in writing results from a change in mentality.
I suppose things have just changed around here. It seems that things that weren’t typical have now become typical, or that perhaps I have simply learned to just deal with certain things. I’m tired; I’m worn out. Regardless of a churning desire to leave immediately, I already clearly understand that upon leaving I will greatly miss this place – the horribly wonderful paradox that is Russia, and by Russia I mean non-Piter, non-Moscow Russia, because after living here I’ve realized how big the difference is and how wide the distance from reality.

While things are winding up, the work is still piling up. I took up an editing gig for the director of the Department of Foreign Languages. I am editing a 70 page text on the Kremlins of Russia: Pskov, Uglich, and Astrakhan. Needless to say, whoever did the Russian to English translation was really lazy, and I’m only on page four.

Things have almost ended completely at the university, even though according to some (mainly colleagues), we still have lots of time left. However the halls are bare, over twenty students have already taken their exams and many have left for home or America on work-study. I’ve been holding a lot more casual lessons. I’ve shown most of my students Jazz Chants and played Apples to Apples – a huge hit.

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Over the last few weeks I have had a lot of personal issues with the university system. This is a system based on personal likes, dislikes, and desires, where regardless of how much students do or do not work, their fate is determined by higher authorities. I’m quite sick of teachers sitting in the faculty room, gossiping about students, whom I know well and whom I know have a lot of potentional but are brought down by this stifling system and its teachers, who are not here to encourage learning, but rather to force what they think is best for the student.

Its quite common for students to be able to buy their diplomas, exams, papers, pay off teachers for grades, etc. There is one student in the dorm who joked that he can’t write his own diploma because he’s too busy writing others’. There was some market today at our university and we joked about the ability to buy there all the exams, teachers, etc that you may need at the end of your year. But that’s the reality of Russia and there have been countless examples of teachers not liking students and giving them bad grades just to get money from them.

Unfortunately, my department is not such. I say unfortunately because I’ve recently learned the necessity to be able to buy these things. Sometimes you just can’t control who likes you. One of my favorite students had this problem and now he doesn’t know if he’ll return back to the university, or even Russia. He planned to go to America for work and travel this summer. He had his flight, visa, everything. He asked to take his exams early and one of my colleagues wouldn’t let him. Why? Because she doesn’t like him. This happened literally three days before he was supposed to leave. She controlled everything; if she didn’t allow him, then no one else would. And she didn’t. So what was he to do? He couldn’t bribe her, and bribing anyone else would do no good. If he didn’t take his exams then upon returning next year he would have to join the army or enroll in another department. Conceptually, I got so mad about this situation. He’s one of my mot talented students. Not that he gets good grades necessarily, he has average grades, but he has the actual passion for English and American culture and he has the ability to think, which so many students lack here. Perhaps it’s for the better that this happened… He can just stay in America; if only it was that easy..