I went to the emergency response headquarters of Arkhangelsk today!

The call center workers are studying English in order to be able to respond to foreigners, and they got in contact with the English department at the university, to see if there were a native speaker who could help them out — that’s me! Today I met an Ira, three Olgas and an Anna, and they showed me around the headquarters, from the new rescue truck that they can’t use yet because it’s Czech and has to be outfitted for the severe weather in Arkhangelsk, to the rooms with bunk beds for the rescuers and firefighters to use during their twelve-hour shifts, to the honest-to-god fireman’s pole they use to get down to the trucks, to the canine unit and the rather excitable dogs who help find missing people.

It was awesome. They were all kind of shy and slow to speak as they were showing me around with their well-prepared speeches and notecards about their various units. But then we went up to the classroom and drank tea and ate candy and they asked me about America and about what other countries I’ve been to, and I asked them about what kinds of calls they get most often, how many days of vacation they get per year (40), and how many calls they get from foreigners. The answer was one. They’ve gotten one call from a foreigner ever. His phone was out of money, so the only number he could call was the emergency number, and he called to ask how to fix his phone. He spoke English, but his English was just as bad as the girl who answered the phone. So. I’m not sure why exactly they’re taking English lessons through the rescue service, but I’m not going to complain. They were all really nice and fun and I can’t wait to go back next month!

Story Map

I love maps. I don’t really understand them, and I’m not actually that good at using them, but I think they’re beautiful. They tell a story about how we think about our world, how we want it to look, where we see ourselves in connection with the rest of the world.

This week’s topic for the American Studies class I’m teaching was “Geography and Population.” No big deal. An hour should be enough to cover that, right? Right. Last week’s role-playing of the American government system proved to be enjoyable and successful as a super-condensed lesson plan, so I wanted something simple and interactive for this week as well. So I made a bunch of labels of major geographic features (Rocky Mountains, Lake Erie, Mojave Desert, etc.) and brought in my road map of the US, spread it out on a table, and invited them to gather around and figure out where everything went (with some help from me– one group guessed that the midwest was a forest).

That went well, but did not take nearly as much time as I had anticipated, so I improvised by telling them stories about everything. I told them about how horrible driving in Boston is and about the bells along the Camino Real in California. I talked about migration west and Manifest Destiny by describing the Oregon Trail computer game. I wish I could reproduce for you the gesticulations and sound effects I used to demonstrate the Gold Rush. They got a kick out of Seward’s Folly, because most of them knew that Alaska was bought from Russia. They surprised me by what they didn’t know– and what they did. Some of them had never heard of the Rockies, but one guy had heard of Jesse James, and most of them knew more about Route 66 than I do (though I am prepared to attribute that to the restaurant in Arkhangelsk called Route 66).

When we put down markers for the ten most populous cities in America, I took Los Angeles as a starting point for a story about my family’s geographic history, hopping from Arkansas to Denver to Pittsburgh, back to L.A., and then branching out to Oregon, Rhode Island, Illinois, New Mexico. They were really interested to see my family scattered across the map, but I think they were more interested because it was a story about me, a real person, instead of a list of facts about a monolith on the other side of the globe.

And the questions they had! They all wanted to know, had I been to Niagara Falls? The Grand Canyon? New York City? One group asked what my favorite place in the United States was. Another group wanted to know more about the Native American genocide. I am loving this class. On the one hand, I surprised myself with how much history I spontaneously remembered (did not even look up Seward’s Folly on Wikipedia last night). But on the other hand, I am going to learn so much this semester.

Where can I find a bar in this town?

I’ve been trying to reproduce the ratatouille that I made a couple of weeks ago, as more veggies in my life would be good, and also re-heating ratatouille is super low-effort, which is pretty much my Number One criteria when it comes to dinner. But, despite finding an honest-to-god yam in the grocery store the other day, zucchini have gone missing altogether. Cucumbers, yes. There are huge cucumbers in multiple locations in all grocery stores, as if they were Valentine’s Day candies. But no zucchinis. So, more in an effort to use my vkontakte (Russian facebook) account more than in any actual hope of finding a kabachok, I posted there, in Russian, “Where can I find a zucchini?” My fifteen-year-old friend Zhenya commented on this status, “That’s a bad idea.” When I pressed him why he thought a zucchini would be a bad idea, he conceded, “There are a couple of good pubs and bars in our city.” And then I looked up kabachok in the online dictionary again. Turns out it’s not only a delicious summer squash, but a common slang word for “bar” or “pub.”

Go figure.

At Dobrolyubova Library

I have got to get myself onto a better sleep schedule! Not getting enough sleep here has a much more powerful effect on my general wellbeing than it used to back home. I’m still procrastinating like a college student, but my body is demanding to be rested like a grown-up.

In other news, I got a library card today! I had to pay 15 rubles for it, and I’m not allowed to actually check out any of the Russian books, so this feels like a kind of qualified victory. But, it means that I know where the library is now, which means I know where the American Corner is, which means I’m that much closer to actually meeting the woman who works there. And, the reason I was at the library was a Norwegian-Russian folk music concert. Which. Was. Wonderful.

I went with the Norwegian teacher Liv, and her boyfriend, who are friends with the harmonica player in the group. On the bus on the way there, we ran into the Norwegian-American guy who is also a student at the university (SAFU) and lives in Centrin with us. Arkhangelsk is supposed to be as big as Pittsburgh, population-wise, but it’s still a place where that kind of serendipity can happen. I mean, I guess we were all going to the same place, so it’s not that serendipitous, but still! And then a bunch of my students were there, because they also study Norwegian, something I hadn’t pieced together when Liv invited me to the concert, so it was fun to chat with them before the show.

The concert itself was lovely. The music was new and beautiful, and the musicians were all so unassuming and relaxed; they just looked like they were hanging out together up on stage, playing some of the songs they love. They are two Norwegians (the harmonica player and a violinist) and a Russian guitarist, touring northern Russia and Norway together for a couple of weeks. They were communicating with each other in English mostly, and most of the audience understood English too (partly because most of the audience was students from the English department at SAFU), but the guitarist translated part of what they said into Russian. It seemed like such a wacky way to do things, just sort of throwing languages out there until one stuck. And then the music started, and all at once language didn’t matter anymore.

dziś był dzień polski

Today was Polish Day. Oh my gosh you guys, I thought I was coming here to learn Russian. Polish Day was WAY harder than English Day, let me tell you. But Łukasz is a very good teacher and is nicer with me than with his students at the university (or so he tells me). I learned the days of the week and months of the year today. To practice, and to promote international harmony between our two countries, we created a bilingual calendar and hung it on the bathroom door. I can’t show you a picture yet because we have to find Polish and American flags somewhere to complete the aesthetic element of the calendar. But it is a work of art, let me tell you!

Dziękuję za uwagę; do jutra! Cześć!

Back to the Beginning

Just barely over jetlag, I hopped on a plane to Moscow this weekend, for the in-country Fulbright orientation. It was a three-day whirlwind of information, emotions, new friends, and the whimsical, merciless magic that is Moscow.

On Friday, we went to the U.S. Embassy, where we had a security briefing, as well as talks from various people about American Corners and English teaching in Russia, and the political situation. It was very overwhelming for me. I have only been in Arkhangelsk about the length of a good vacation, and we were being inundated with a million new ideas and possibilities: writing for The Moscow Times, organizing recycling programs, speaking at American Corners, advocating for colleagues applying for U.S. grant money, networking with Fulbright alumni… I felt like so much was expected of me, and I had an obligation to make use of the unique position I am in—when I still haven’t done things like putting up pictures of my family on my walls, or buying plants for my room, or finding a Russian class.

What diffused that tension, for me, was making new friends with some of the people I hadn’t hung out with in D.C. On Saturday and Sunday, we had training from the ebullient and passionate Thomas Santos, the English Language Officer in Russia. The training was fun and interesting, but what was really important was having those two days to reconnect with the other ETAs. Talking to them here, in Russia, after we’ve all had some time to start our work, start to settle in, start to feel at home here (some of us for longer than others), was just the perfect thing to refocus me and give me a new lens through which to approach my time here. We talked about our experiences in the classroom, our attitudes towards the Fulbright, our concerns and fears, our different experiences of culture shock, and about what made us fall in love with Russia and Russian in the first place.

Just like in But I’m a Cheerleader, we all have a root, some trigger that turned us from normal people into Russophiles. For me, it was the first time I went to Red Square, in 2009. I remember a sense of the surreal on that first trip. I had learned about Red Square in middle school, and always thought that I would like to go there, but never really believed that I would. And then there I was. Reconciling the improbability with the reality gave me a sense of extraordinary excitement and accomplishment and possibility for a future very different from what I had always imagined as possible.

Now, the surreality comes from the fact that, again, a life that seems highly improbable has inexplicably become the one I’m living. I feel like there’s some little kid inside me who looks up from her Legos every once in a while and goes, “Huh?? Russia??” And yet, there is nothing in the world I would rather be doing than this. I have the chance to be in Russia, to learn Russian, to prove to myself again and again that I can thrive in this wacky world, and to be able to meet and be friends with the amazing people I hung out with in Moscow this weekend. At the embassy, I was overwhelmed by all the expectations and the weight of being the sole representative of America in my city; now, I’m overwhelmed by my luck and privilege to be able to do this.

Apart from the philosophical reflection this trip inspired, I just had an amazingly fun time. I made friendships that will be such an important support during the hard times that are sure to come. I talked at breakneck speed in a language I’m fluent in. I wandered around the jigsaw streets of Moscow, stumbling upon Bulgakov’s house-museum at 11:30pm with Randi and Juliana and Xirsti. I tried new food at the lunch buffet at the hotel. I revisited my old favorite spots—went back to Park Pobedy and gazed upon the magnificent Moscow State University building from afar. I was worried that things would be different between Moscow and me, two years after our crazy summer romance. I should never have doubted!

If you want more pictures from Moscow, you can check out my album on facebook.

Spurlock in Russian is ShporaZamok.

It’s 35°F here in Archangel, and everyone is talking about how warm it is.

I’ve been here over a full week now, and I can no longer avoid making my first blog post from the other side! There has been a lot to adjust to, and it’s been a little overwhelming. I arrived around 8:30 pm last Monday night, to be collected by my wonderful contact and host Elena, and another young English teacher from the department. Standing outside the airport terminal, waiting for the luggage to be delivered from the plane, in the autumn evening chill, they talked about how horrible it is to wait for your luggage in the winter.

On my first full day here, Elena whisked me all over the university and the neighborhood where I live, and we bought groceries, explored the shopping center near my dorm, bought a cell phone (it was the cheapest one in the store, and Elena told me that it’s a cell phone for grandmothers). We went and met half the English department, ate in the cafeteria next door, applied for an ID card to get into the main university building, sent my passport off to be registered, and all before dinner time.

On my second day, I was already going to classes. So far, I’ve been to classes with four different English teachers. I’ve been helping out in varying capacities, from sitting quietly as an observer mainly, to practically leading a class planned by the main teacher. And, on my third day, I conducted an entire class on intercultural communication entirely on my own, and entirely in Russian. I could not have done it without the help and occasional translation of a few enthusiastic and extremely well-prepared students. I mainly introduced myself and answered their questions, which ranged from “Do you have a boyfriend?” and “Do you drink alcohol?” to “What do you think of your president?” and “Were you affected by the financial crisis?” They were also very interested to see my drivers’ license.

My regular classes, I now know, will begin on October 24, but I will continue to visit other classes, as well as having drop-in hours for students to come for help, and maybe organize an American Club of some sort? As I keep telling people, I don’t know my schedule yet, but when I do, I’ll let you know.

On the home front, I am recovering from some serious homesickness, but getting better every day. I’ve figured out where the ATMs and grocery stores and home living stores are, started to make friends with the front desk people at the dorm/hotel where I live, and yesterday I bought myself a pair of proper Russian boots that don’t look like I’m getting ready for the Iditarod–boots which cost more than my monthly rent of $45!

All of this in just a few days, and already, I’m supposed to be getting ready to fly off to Moscow for the weekend on Thursday! It’s been quite a whirlwind, but I think that once I get back from Moscow, things will start to settle into a more regular routine. Now, if only I can figure out how to do laundry before the trip…

As a quick introduction to my new life, I’ll go back to old-school Montenegro style, and do a first-impression comparison of Archangel with Greensburg.

Things you’ll find in Archangel that you won’t find in Greensburg, PA:

  • wooden sidewalks — lumber is one of the main industries of Archangel
  • girls walking around in stiletto-heeled winter boots
  • children being carried around like packages in big puffy snowsuits
  • cars of the brand Volga
  • ragu! Not the familiar brand of spaghetti sauce, but a delicious stew of boiled potatoes, carrots, and cabbage.
  • the stolovaya, a cafeteria where I can get a heaping plate of food, a bowl of soup, and birch tree juice for lunch, all for less than $5
  • one of the last statues to Lenin ever built, erected in Archangel’s central square in 1989
  • a puppet theater that’s not just for kids!
  • electronics stores that also sell frying pans and bakeware
Things in Greensburg that you won’t find in Archangel:
  • Hummers
  • grocery store cashiers who automatically give you a plastic bag (you have to pay for them here)
  • peanut butter, marshmallows (I haven’t looked too hard, but I’m not optimistic)
  • 26-year-old girls who aren’t married
  • drinking fountains — BUT! they do have bubblers, for you Massachusetts folks