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.

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!