What’s In My Shower?

I’ve been watching YouTube makeup tutorials this evening, because apparently I’m now the kind of person who does that. So, I thought I would riff off of that into a blog format and show you What’s In My Shower! Mostly this is on my mind because, in the midst of my job-application and oh-my-god-I’m-leaving-in-two-weeks frenzy, the hot water is gone again.

The basic process is that you heat up water on the stove or in my case with electric tea kettles and then mix it with the cold water that still comes in great abundance from the tap. I didn’t have to deal with the autumn round of hot water shutoffs, so I never went to the trouble of buying myself a proper basin or a pouring device with a handle. And then the first time I had to deal with the hot water being off was the day before I left for Siberia. So I had to really improvise at the last minute, as so often happens in Russia! The first time I did this, I used a paring knife to cut off the tops of two old empty five liter water jugs, like so:

However, it turns out that when you pour boiling water into one of these, this is what happens:

So, I ended up using a casserole dish for the hot water, pouring cold water into my plastic jugs first, and mixing in the hot later. I used a small soup bowl to scoop up a little hot water and then let cold run into it from the tap until it mixed to an agreeable temperature, before pouring it over myself.

All in all, it wasn’t as bad or, more importantly, as time-consuming as I had thought it would be. It just takes a little creativity. And the discipline to carefully check each bowlful with your hand so you don’t accidentally throw a bowl of scalding water over yourself… like I did last night.

Anyway, just a short post tonight. I have to go take a shower.

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.

aMERRYca!

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.

this crazy world

Bler de derp. So much to write about! I’ve started to have experiences that are legitimately new and completely different from anything I’ve experienced in America, and a whole bunch of them happened in a pile in the last couple of days.

Last Thursday, to start off, was the Day of the Institute, the birthday of the new Institute of Philology and Inter-Cultural Communication (Institut Filologii i Mezhkulturnoi Kommunikatsii — ИФ и МКК). Every year, there’s a concert on a Thursday, and then everyone goes out to a club around the corner to celebrate. Everyone. Students, teachers, administrators, staff, all drinking and dancing and being entertained by scantily clad dancers together. I tried to express to a few people how incredibly much this does not happen in the United States, and the response has been mostly a nonchalant “Huh, that’s weird.” They don’t seem to get how hugely not okay this would be in America. But in Russia, it was pretty cool. I had dinner beforehand with some of the other foreign teachers and then we all went to the club together. I ordered an overpriced cognac, my newly-discovered favorite liquor, and danced a bit with one of the Finnish teachers, and then got pressured by the director of the Institute into dancing more, and then went home early, around 12:30 am.

Then, the next day, I was out shopping in preparation for the Thanksgiving celebration today (about which more later), and in the grocery store, there was a stray puppy running around, trying to get people to give it food. Stray dogs are a common thing in Russia, and there are a couple I’ve become familiar with here in Arkhangelsk. They are the kind of dog that you might hitch up to a sledge if you were so inclined. They run around or just hang out, more like delinquent teenagers than anything else. They somehow have figured out how to cross the street safely. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the stray ones apart from the ones that are attached to a human, because there apparently aren’t any leash laws, and people just let their dogs wander around and trust that they will eventually go in the same direction. But anyway, the stray dogs that hang out around the intersection near the university were particularly active around midday yesterday, and there was this one little black puppy in the grocery store, among the bananas and the cabbages. It was kind of adorable and kind of sad to see it just loping around, without any clear purpose, the shoppers not paying it any mind… A girl working at the store made the mistake of patting it on the head, and then it jumped up on her white sweater, thinking it had found a source of food. In the time it took me to find what I needed, somebody kicked it out, but it was impatiently bobbing by the door to be let back in when I left.

Then, at lunchtime, I was haphazardly invited to this party in the teachers’ lounge to celebrate the recent birthday of an English teacher I’d never met. There was champagne and fruit, little sandwiches, salmon, and mayonnaise salad, and there were toasts. Russians, I have always been told, love making toasts, long, elaborate toasts, and there are rules about who should make which kind of toast when, and what should be toasted and in what order, etc., etc. But I never got to see it in action until yesterday. First, the chair of the English department toasted to her as a member of the department. Then, the director of the institute, who was a former student of this teacher, toasted to her as a teacher. Then there were toasts to her example as a woman, wife, and mother; to her as a good friend; to her warmth and kindness, her openness and understanding, her ferocity as a teacher. And each time, she stood up to accept the toast, and we all raised our little plastic cups and drank a little more of our champagne or wine or tea. At first it seemed to me somehow artificial and mechanical, but as the toasts went on, they became more and more just excuses to tell stories and share remembrances of the birthday girl, and I ended up thinking of it like this: The whole framework of the toasts gives people a forum in which to be lavish and excessive in their compliments, and her a forum in which to accept it all without seeming vain. And it’s also a way to break the ice and get people talking about her life and her accomplishments, which is what a person’s birthday should be about! So, obviously, I’ve only seen toasting in action in one set of circumstances, and I’m not an expert. But I ended up enjoying listening to the stories and once more being forced to think differently about this crazy weird place I’m living.

Unrecognizable.

A broad but by no means comprehensive list of things I do regularly now that I never ever did before:

It takes me forever to get ready in the morning. If I hustle, I can do it in 45 minutes, but really for a proper preparation, I need 2 hours.

I take showers in the morning, and I blow dry my hair every day.

I take vitamins. [But I should take more, as everyone keeps telling me.]

I wear skirts on a regular basis. I actually don’t like wearing pants to work anymore because

I wear knee-high black leather boots every single day. [Seriously, how did I not discover these before? It’s like wearing pants when you’re not wearing pants!]

Sometimes I talk to myself in Russian.

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.