Bags of Milk

Something I’ve never mentioned before, much to my shock and amazement, is the fact that sometimes, in Russia, milk is sold in bags.

I’ve never been able to rationalize this on any level. Liquids should just not go in bags. The end. Liquid goes in jars or cartons or bottles or cans, or sometimes, on rare occasions, in barrels, but not in bags.

I was in the grocery store this evening, puttering forlornly over the baked goods section, when I noticed a subtle line of tiny milk puddles on the floor. I soon traced the trail to a nearby cart, overseen by a beautiful blonde Russian woman with turquoise eye shadow. She was taking her shopping very seriously, but not seriously enough to notice the fact that her bag of milk was dripping all over the floor. I chose to ignore it, often the best course of action for a foreigner confronted with cultural differences in a new country.

Some ten minutes later, I found myself in the check-out line, two customers behind the lady of the drippy milk bag. She had blazed a trail all over the store, leaving little happy milk puddles in her wake, like those dotted lines from the Family Circus. She was still oblivious, even as she dumped the offending bag onto the conveyor belt. I watched with a sense of mounting doom as the bag slowly ringed itself in a halo of milk, approaching nearer and nearer to one of the crankiest cashiers in all of Sigma (according to experience).

And then a miracle happened. The cashier picked up the drippy bag, took in what had transpired, asked the woman if she still wanted it, while deftly folding the milk bag into another plastic bag. The customer declined, the cashier instructed her to get another of the same product. By the time the customer returned, the cashier had finished ringing everything else up. It all went by like clockwork, as if rehearsed down to the second.

And then I think about what would happen if this same situation occurred in some sort of parallel-universe America where milk is sold in bags, and it makes me sad that I’m going home soon.

The P-word

After reading 23 rough drafts from my second year students and finding just one that is [apparently] completely plagiarism-free, I decided to make the last half of today’s American Studies class about what I euphemistically called “academic culture” in the U.S. I’ve been struggling to get my head around the culture of casual plagiarism here, to see it from a less biased point of view, and understand the factors that go into making an academic environment in which the professors and administrators condemn this kind of blatant plagiarism, but in which literally 95% of students still feel comfortable simply copy/pasting their essay from Wikipedia. I framed my lecture this way:

There are two reasons you should write your paper yourself and not simply copy it:

1. The assignment was to write a paper. You have shown me that you are very good at reading, at comprehending what you read, and at choosing relevant information from what you read and putting it together. But this assignment is meant to test your writing skills, your ability to produce your own sentences and language.

2. If you go to study abroad in the United States or in Norway or Germany, you have to understand that this is taken much more seriously there. If you do this in the U.S., you get expelled. Maybe not the first time, but if you do it three or four times, you’re a goner.

That second one blew their minds. They seemed to take my talk seriously, and I tried not to make it too preachy. As I told them, I was trained from fifth grade in how to cite sources and use parenthetical documentation, and it’s not fair of me to expect them to figure it out in two weeks. But, I do expect them to produce their own sentences. So, we’ll see what I get when they turn in their final papers.

Dad Comes North

My dad visited me last week, and it was wonderful to see him, as always. “Inspiration” is not quite the right word for him, so much as “motivation” or “reason” or “root.” He took me out of America for the first time, when I was 9, to Madrid. That trip caused me to study Spanish, and ultimately to return to Madrid for a semester when I was 20. He took me with him on his Fulbright to Montenegro when I was 15, and that trip in many ways directed my path in college, to Russian, to Moscow, to follow in his Fulbrighter footsteps. His influence on me is something I’ve been privileged to take for granted, because his cosmopolitan attitudes and assumptions have pervaded my upbringing since I was very small. Seeing him here in Arkhangelsk, getting to be the reason for his first trip to Russia, was a wonderful opportunity to take a closer look at the motivations and purposes in my life.

We had a good balance of us-time and of spreading the Fulbright Word. Beyond my own personal story, the mission of the Fulbright has been more fully fulfilled between the two of us than I’ve been able to even begin in my five months here. My being here facilitated him connecting with another history professor here, and, hopefully will result in their students connecting and sharing their different understandings of World War II. Dad lectured at the American Corner and at the university, and also had time to chat one-on-one with some of the professors from my department.

And then he went home. I think that is such an important part of the Fulbright. It’s something I bring up every time I try to explain myself to people, when Russian and American stereotypes inevitably come up. I’m not here to preach America, to convert anyone. I’m here to teach about America to those who are interested. But my contract requires me to return to the U.S. I’m also here to learn about Russia, and take that knowledge back to America, to give Americans a more complex and nuanced image of Russians.

For me, Dad represents that constant seeking out of new experiences, new knowledge, new culture. But he also represents home, the going back and putting that knowledge into the American context and using it to inform a more well-rounded American perspective.

A Year Abroad

The thing is, Russia isn’t anything like what I expected it to be.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I was talking to my friend Robin today about her upcoming very first trip outside the country, and she told me that while she was looking forward to it, she honestly wasn’t that excited about it. It reminded me of how I wasn’t actually that excited before going to Moscow that first time in 2009. People would find out I was going to Russia and say, “Oh WOW, you must be so excited!” And I would answer, my cool, nonchalant, world-traveled answer, “Yeah, it’ll be an adventure.” I’d been to Eastern Europe. I’d been to foreign capitals. This was an excellent language-learning and cultural opportunity, and I knew it would be interesting and fun, but I had no idea how fundamentally life-changing it would be.

When I got the Fulbright, after making a tearful first phone call to my dad, I called my mom, and I remember, after telling her, “I have so many emotions!!!!” that she asked, “Are they all good emotions?” And I was confused for a moment. How could anything possibly be negative about this moment, about this experience, this accomplishment? But moving to Russia has demanded more of me emotionally, personally, linguistically, than I ever imagined. It’s demanded that I leave behind my everyday in America, and live the everyday in Russia–not just the glorious architecture of Moscow, not just the beauty of sunny stands of birch-trees dripping with folk history, not just the charmed moments of forging deeply personal friendships over the whimsy and travails of Russia. I have to also live the inexplicably stinky shower and the unpredictable water shut-offs, the cryptic negotiations with colleagues and weekly strained dialogues with people who’ve lived here their whole lives. The grumpy grocery store cashiers aren’t a novelty anymore; they’re a daily minor demon.

Living in Russia has made me realize how much I value living in America. Don’t get me wrong. I love Russia. I love the challenge of living here, and I love how much it makes me think about myself and my assumptions and my world and my language, every single day. But it’s a challenge, a hurdle, an experience, still. It’s a much more complex experience than the five weeks of heady bliss back in 2009, but it’s still an experience, a trip, a year, in a whole life that will always call America home.

That summer, the evening before I left for Moscow, I saw Guggenheim Grotto for the second time in St. Clair Park in Greensburg, and their song “Cold Truth” has become one of my many theme songs up here in the Arctic:

Hey Maria, I’ve been thinking, been thinking about moving… far away ‘cross the sea, maybe, somewhere cold and magnificent.

Christmas reflections

Christmas break has always been a kind of check-in moment for me. No matter how far or how long I’m away from home, I’ve always been here for Christmas, always slept in absurdly late, always written an unusually long and pensive entry in my journal on Christmas Day, after all the presents are opened and Dad’s treasure hunt is solved. I never thought about it before, but those kinds of things are meaningful to me; the first Christmas away from home will be something just as new and strange and life-changing as Russia. Or maybe not life-changing, but a marker of how my life has changed. And my life has certainly changed a lot, but not enough that I don’t come home for Christmas.

While I’ve been here, I’ve been enjoying some of the cultural things I missed about America:

I got my hair cut and was able to explain to the lady exactly what I wanted, ask questions, clarify, and have a conversation that we both understood.

Driving! I love driving so much, and being in my car.

I went to the grocery store with Andrew today, and I just TOOK a bag, without even asking, and they didn’t make me pay for it!

Paying for a $3.45 hot chocolate at Starbucks with a $10 bill and not getting yelled at for not having exact change. I think I may have taken advantage of this a little too much, because now I have just piles of American change that I’m not going to be able to use for seven months. I guess that’s what I have a piggy bank for.

Hit all the major food needs: cheesy corn at Mom’s last night, Yuengling, pizza, macaroni and cheese out of a box, Eat N Park multiple times, tiny marshmallows shaped like snowmen. Oh yeah.


One of the things I never missed about America is the super-saturation of Christmas spirit in the month and a half leading up to Christmas. And I know, I know, everybody complains about how Christmas carols start way too early in the stores, but look, I have to be a Typical American in some way, right? I’m supposed to be representing all of us. (Except that doesn’t really count, because the Russians complain about how early New Years decorations go up, too.) But the pre-holiday cheer is much more humane in Russia than in the States. Of course, there were decorations way earlier, as I mentioned back in October, but as far as I’m concerned, those decorations are much more classy and actually attractive than the red-and-green gaudiness we usually get in America. I went into a Dunkin Donuts the other day, and all the employees were dressed up as elves. One woman had candy canes dangling from her glasses. Why, America? WHY? But the biggest difference is in the music piped into commercial establishments. In America, we have the constant recycling of a few dozen old Christmas tunes over and over and over again. In Russia, the music is the same as it always is. I like this.

And I think that part of why I like to keep the cheer at bay for as long as possible is that without family, it’s just annoying. It’s not meaningful. As soon as I got home to Greensburg, I turned on the Christmas cheer full blast. Esther and Dad and I went out to Domasky’s to cut down a fresh Christmas tree. Back at Mom’s, I played our five Christmas CDs pretty much as constantly as Esther would let me. I baked gingerbread cookies and Esther and I decorated them. I made hot chocolate. I wrapped presents and even went shopping a tiny bit, even though I thought I’d bought everything I needed in Russia. (I ended up mostly buying clothes for myself.)

Sitting around the tree opening presents with Mom and Esther on Christmas Eve, a mere three days after my return, I felt at just the right level of holiday cheer. And the next day, as Christmas Day came to an end, Esther and Dad and I lit the Yule log from last year, and settled in to watch the flames, to the accompaniment of Bing Crosby in the background. It was just about as idyllic a Christmas moment as you could ask for. But by the time Bing was done, so were we. I think five days of highly-concentrated Christmas spirit with Mom and Esther and Dad is just about as much as I ever care for.

Because the real Christmas spirit doesn’t come from the shopping and the decorations and the music. Even when I was at Smith, still in America, I managed to avoid the December holiday commercialism pretty well, whether because of the hipster atmosphere of avoidance of the mainstream or because I was just so lazy that I never wanted to walk down to the CVS. I can appreciate Russian holiday culture, I can love to be with my college friends, but it’s being home with my family and doing things the same way we’ve done them for almost ten years that gives me that warm, cinnamony, Christmas feeling. So, okay, I could’ve just told you to go read How the Grinch Stole Christmas! for the same end effect, but I’m pretty sure the Grinch never went to Russia. So.