In search of a key

The key situation at SAFU is pretty absurd. All classrooms and offices stay locked all the time, until someone needs to use the room and gets the key. The default location for all keys is a little office at the entrance to the building called the vakhta, which Multitran translates as “watch” or “reception desk,” but which is really a kind of troll at the gate situation. Not to speak unkindly of the vakhtyory who work there and guard the keys– they are all perfectly pleasant. At the beginning of the day, a bunch of keys are taken to the dekanat, or dean’s office, which is now (due to renovations) on the second floor, where they sit in a little key tray made out of cardboard. The keys to some of the department offices, as well as many classrooms (but not all of them) are there for most of the day, and anyone, student or teacher, can go and get [almost] any key.

Even though last week was the official start of classes for students not in night classes, there weren’t that many teachers around in my department, or kafedra, due to the fact that the third years [I think] were on some sort of vacation, and a lot of teachers were on a different kind of vacation. There were several days I found myself the only English teacher in the building. Usually, the secretary opens the office on the third floor first thing in the morning, but she is also [maybe] on vacation, so it fell to me to find the key. A simple feat, one might think, but alas, it was not so. Apart from improving my Russian language skills, I have had to learn a whole new visual language of the kafedra key. Here, for your edification, is a basic phrasebook of key language:

  • Padlock on the door means no one has been there yet, and the key is [probably] still at the vakhta. You must go back down to the first floor to ask for it.
  • If the door is locked but the padlock is not there, someone has been here and has taken the key with them. A piece of paper stuck to the door will [probably] tell you what room they are in. It’s fine to interrupt their class in order to get the key from them.
  • If there is no one in the room indicated by the paper on the door, try the dekanat.
  • If it is not in the dekanat either, check the teachers’ lounge, the American Studies center, and the German kafedra. Sometimes people decide that those places are default locations for the key, or the secretary takes it there for a short break.
  • If it’s not in any of those places, go to the fourth floor and prowl for any English class. The teacher there probably has it and just didn’t mark their room number on the door. (This happens most often in the evening, but can happen during the day as well.)

Once I’ve found the key to the kafedra, there is still the matter of the classroom. Russian universities don’t work like American ones, where you have the same class in the same room every week. Room assignments change from day to day and week to week, all dictated by the dean’s office and announced each day on a posterboard schedule hanging in the hallway outside the English kafedra. Ostensibly this has to do with the general lack of classroom space and resources such as TVs and rooms with screens for projectors. But in practice, I’m often assigned a room with a TV when I don’t need one– and sometimes I don’t get a TV when I do need one, even when I’ve asked for it.

For example, last week I requested a room with a TV for my video class. But, because the class is still listed under Elena’s name, instead of mine, they weren’t able to give me what I asked for. So, I was left TV-less for the day. In a moment of inspired resourcefulness, I remembered that I’d used the flatscreen TV in the teachers’ lounge for this class before, checked the schedule to see if anybody else was assigned that room for that period, and quietly told the students to go there, without asking or telling anyone else. Success!

Earlier in the week, I was assigned the Swedish room, whose key, unbeknownst to me, can only be obtained by a teacher. Usually the students get the key and congregate in the classroom before I even get there. Not this time! In a crazy, haphazard, rule-free system, this one key has a special note on it warning that only teachers may touch it. And then, later, I was assigned a room that remained inexplicably locked despite the students’ efforts. I went to the dekanat; no key. I went to the vakhta, where I was informed that the room was the personal office of Andrea, the German teacher, and that they had a special note saying that only she could be given that key. I went back to the dekanat and explained this to them, to discover that they thought I was Andrea the German. They gave me a different room.

Dealing with this very free-form system is its own special kind of frustration, but offers its own special sense of satisfaction when conquered–especially when once you get inside the classrooms, you have the kind of engaging, enthusiastic, productive classes I was lucky to have this week. This semester is already looking good!

the English kafedra

Russia is BEAUTIFUL, you guys.

No philosophizing today. Just gratitude and wonder that I get to live in a fairy land like this one, much as it makes my feet hurt.

home again home again home again

Well, I’ve made it safe and sound back to Arkhangelsk, after a wonderful whirlwind two weeks home for the holidays. This trip was considerably easier than the first one, knowing the airports I’d be going through, knowing what was waiting for me on the other end, and having a lot more confidence in the language– I even got to use my handful of Polish words at the Warsaw airport! So I arrived late on Orthodox Christmas Eve to an, as usual, extraordinarily helpful Elena and a white Archangel, waiting to welcome me eagerly back.

Today, Christmas Day, I awoke at 1 pm, and ventured out sometime afterwards to do the bare necessity of grocery shopping and putting money on my Internet modem. Even the cashiers at Sigma were cheerful today, which was either a good sign or some sort of sinister omen, or just a glimpse of holiday cheer. I spent the rest of the day eating, avoiding eating, eating some more, and luxuriating (or is it wallowing?) in the deep, warm pools of the Internet, from which I’d been cut off for some forty hours.

I watched TED talks, the movie Dogville I’d rented from iTunes a month ago, tried not to think about the work I should be doing, switched to Timeline on facebook. I had two tiny breakfasts and two mediocre dinners. No lunch. While boiling water for second dinner, I met a girl in the kitchen, a hotel guest, whose phone was broken, and who asked to use mine to call a number of friends and tell them her phone was broken. I understood most of what she said; she was preternaturally short and spoke extremely clearly.

No emotional insights today. I’m trying to avoid emotions, which isn’t going so well; along the lines, in fact, of my attempts to avoid jetlag, which also are failing, as you can tell if you’ve done the math and figured out that it’s almost 6 am here.

I’m reading The Hunger Games and so far am entranced.

Artsy fartsy picture of me in an airport, maybe Moscow?

the first cold day

Some things that happened today:

Łukasz and I spent three hours going to all the shoe stores we could find downtown to compare styles and prices of winter boots. A clarification: I have my heavy duty L.L. Bean winter boots here, but I want a pair that I can perhaps wear indoors in professional situations and that don’t take ten minutes to take off and put on. I was hoping to only spend 3,000 rubles [about $100], but it seems I’m going to have to get used to the idea of spending more like 5 or 6,000. Honestly, though, I have to remind myself that that’s a really good price for genuine leather boots lined with real fur.

On the street, we overheard some people speaking IN ENGLISH! They were a woman and two men. The woman mentioned that she was German and had a definite accent, but I didn’t hear enough from the men to tell if they were native speakers.

While in one of the many shopping centers, we passed by a booth where a woman was outfitting her Chihuahua with… a snowsuit. Took us a good ten minutes to stop laughing at that one.

In shoe store number 18, there was a man who took longer than ten seconds to figure out that we were foreigners– it turned out he was originally from Azerbaijan. He was the only salesperson who managed to pressure me into trying on any of the boots, and he also thought that Łukasz and I were either married or brother and sister.

Later, we were in Lenin square, taking pictures of the monument. We asked a passing man to take a picture of us with the statue, but he said, “No,” curtly and hurried on without looking at us. That was the first time that’s happened to me, and it really weirded me out. I couldn’t help feeling something sinister hovering just behind my ignorance of how people feel about Lenin.

Fortunately, it was a beautiful day and my paranoia was quickly replaced by a joyful contentment at being in a place where it is always the most beautiful time of day, taking pictures of a frozen beach and listening to the ice music of the early winter river with a new friend.


Small Victories

Today was Halloween. There was no pumpkin.

I spent the weekend on a wild rollercoaster between feverishly weak and energetically running around to a dozen different stores getting together the things I needed for the Halloween party. I’ve never been so stressed for Halloween! I didn’t know how many people would come, or how active they would be, or what language they would want me to speak…

I shouldn’t have worried, as usual. There were over 25 people there, and even though I decided at the last minute to speak in Russian, everything went smoothly. We played the old classic children’s game of reaching into a bag with a “body part” inside and trying to guess what it really is — a peeled tomato for a heart, a pile of cold spaghetti for brains, grapes for eyes, and a dried apricot for an ear. They loved it.

After all the things I had planned were done, there was an awkward pause that could have gone badly, but they urged me to tell a ghost story, even though I could only do it in English. I chose the only one I remember well, the one about the travelers who stay at a mysterious house for the night and are awakened by a troll in the closet repeating over and over, “Now I’ve got you right where I want you, now I’m gonna eat you!” The punchline is that the troll is picking his nose and talking to his boogers. Figures the only ghost story I know is a funny one.

It went over well, and spurred them on to tell their own stories, most of them true, about spooky or mysterious things that had happened to them or their grandmothers. There were ghostly figures in mirrors and dead grandfathers appearing in photographs and one story about someone swimming away from a concentration camp during the war. I wasn’t able to follow all of the stories, but listening to the way they told them, the phrases they used to start them, the way everyone else recognized the frames, the “Once upon a time”s, was wonderful, sitting there in the candlelit classroom. This is why I went into comparative literature, because I am fascinated by the way people tell stories.

And even though there was no pumpkin, there were rice krispie treats! I may have been the only one who fully appreciated the marshmallowy goodness, but pulling off two batches of homemade rice krispies on the day of the event was quite the triumph for me. Unfortunately, two dozen treats used up all my marshmallows, so I will have to go back to Moscow to get more. Wait… did I say unfortunately?

In other news:

My diplomatic pouch finally arrived in Moscow! The reasons for going back are stacking up!

I have at last arranged to have tutoring sessions once a week with a professor from the Russian department.

Russia is not participating in Daylight Savings Time this year, so after next weekend, I will be 9 hours ahead of the East Coast instead of only 8.

I enjoyed shrimp for the first time yesterday– all I needed was to have it prepared in Russia by a Pole.

There are six inches of snow in central PA and zero in sub-arctic Archangel!

The winners of the mummy race!

Это Россия

The pavement outside Centrin, my dorm/hotel place, was just recently repaved and is now beautiful, clean asphalt; but the sidewalk further up the street, near the Embankment, is falling apart and made out of sand and disconnected concrete blocks. That’s Russia.

Arkhangelsk has made a hero out of Mikhail Lomonosov, who was born somewhere in the Arkhangelsk Region, and was the pioneering academic of Russia. Two universities are named after him–Moscow State University, and The Northern (Arctic) Federal University, here in Arkhangelsk. But nobody really cares about Lomonosov. That’s Russia.

If you aren’t quick enough to hear the cashiers in the grocery stores, you won’t get a bag with your sour cream. But they’ll always tell you, “Thank you for your purchase,” as you leave. That’s Russia.

In the electronics store, before buying our electric tea kettle and iron, Łukasz and I had to observe the guy working there test the appliances, and I had to sign a form confirming that they had been tested for me. But later, when I was buying a computer mouse at another store, and I asked if I needed to have it tested, the man looked at me like I was out of my mind. That’s Russia.

All the students in the English department are expected to know things like the difference between “solicitor” and “barrister” and what “deposition” means, and yet they still say “to my mind” on a daily basis. That’s Russia.

Medical care, including surgery, is completely free to everyone in Russia. But, to get a doctors’ appointment for a surgery, you have to schedule some six months in advance, and you can be turned away on the appointed day if you have a fever of even a few degrees. That’s Russia.