Tuesday, July 3, 2012


As most already know, I am already back in the United States.
The trip was long but... surprisingly... easy. Two days on a train, one day in Moscow with a night in a hostel (also met up with fellow Fulbrighter, Brian) the next day a flight into Washington and then Boston and then home. Absolutely nothing went wrong.
The only remotely interesting things that happened on this trip were:
- A Ukrainian woman in the hostel heard my accent and thought I was from Dagestan. Another person said I sounded South Ossetian.... but then a different person said I still sounded just American.
-A Tajik in the hostel told me I was fat and most likely out of shape. (Anyone who knows me knows this is pretty far from the truth)
-When I got to the Passport Control just about to officially leave the Russian Federation, I gathered all my documents... my passport, visa, migration card, and my precious REGISTRATION- that document that I went through so much to legitimize, paid a fine, risked deportation, encountered the Ugly Sweater Lady and the Bashkir Hotel that still thinks I should be deported.... I had every past registration ready in a bag in my hand, but still hoping that my current registration was enough and nobody would ask any more questions.... I hand the registration over... and then.... "What is this? We don't need this."
-I almost missed my connection flight home, as I was given only an hour to go through customs, find my bags and re-check them, and find the next terminal which was located as far away as one could possibly place it in the same airport... so, just like a scene from a movie, I ran through the entire Washington Dulles airport, screaming, EXCUSE ME, COMING THROUGH, ИЗВИНИТЕ!! in frantic, exhausted half English/half residual Russian, in five-inch heels.
Everyone was making fun of me for wearing the heels. What, was I supposed to dig through my bags and find another pair of shoes for the occasion? Or go barefoot?

So now that I'm home and *almost* over my jetlag, it's time to review the things I'll miss and not miss about Chelyabinsk, the Urals, and I guess Russia even though I'll be back before too long.

-Bureaucracy and Bureaucrats, particularly Ugly Sweater Lady (the woman who said I should be deported)
-Constant subzero temperatures in the winter
-The dry climate in the spring that makes me thirsty all the time
-The air pollution.
-Young women who make a point of not eating anything.
-Heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking, bulge-eyed, barrel-chested, Severe Chelyabinsk Men (Суровые Челябинские Мужики, this really doesn't translate well). Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of handsome Russian gentlemen, even in Chelyabinsk, but the stereotypical image of this kind of Russian man is not attractive to me. At all.
-Couples that comprise of the aforementioned Chelyabinsk Man with a beautiful woman, who engage in public displays of affection... especially in places where there is nowhere to escape, like Platzcart Trains.
-Students who give every excuse to not come to class.
-"Passport chasers." People who are interested in you only because of your nationality or citizenship, be it American or any other. This works both ways.
-Chelyabinsk drivers. (Although where I live now is not known for the best road etiquette, and most certainly not where I am going for the next year!)
-KEFIR. Can't say I'll ever learn to like that stuff.
-Being told I am not dressed warm enough, or that something cold is going to make me sick.

-My friends, my students (well, most of them) and my Chelyabinsk colleagues who have become like family this year.
-My awesome apartment.
-The Ural Mountains.
-Going to the Ural Mountains to camp out in a cabin when it was 20 below.
-Going tubing in the Ural Mountains when it was almost 30 below.
-Shashlik, kumyz, vareniki, adzhika, Abkhaz wine, oliv'ye, solyanka, ukha, vostochnaya khukhnya, lagman, bulochki.
-Marriage proposals from various Central Asians.
-Gagarin Park.
-The train ride from Ufa to Chelyabinsk.
-Bargaining at markets.
-Bargaining with taxi drivers.
-Meeting people and allowing them to mistakenly guess where I am from.
-Walking back home from class in heels.
-Bashkir ice cream.
-Getting lost in South Ural State University.
-The sun rising at 4am and setting at 23.30.
-Just being able to walk everywhere (almost) on foot.
-Walking along the river bank, along the Miass.
-The Communist Babushkas who used to give me pamphlets around election time.
-The guy dressed up as an eyeball who stood outside on Lenin Avenue a few times every week.
-Blinni stands.
-Kriov street.
-Very beautiful and very inexpensive clothing (in Kyrgyzstan).
-Understanding jokes in Russian, even having dreams in Russian.
-Teaching grammar with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Barenaked Ladies.
-Oh heck, even the Soviet track I used to run around, I will kind of miss it...

Saturday, June 23, 2012

ACCESSing Bashkortostan

A bit about my work in the ACCESS camp in Salavat, Bashkortostan...

Last week, I took my final trip on that familiar Chelyabinsk-Ufa train route to go to work at the summer camp in the nearby city of Salavat. A friend, Bulat, met me in Ufa and his friends drove me there, free of charge.
Salavat is a city named after the Bashkir hero, Salavat Yulaev. He had fought in the Pugachev rebellions when he was younger than I am. Some years ago, the city of Salavat had not much there to speak of, in terms of money or attractions (this was what I was told). Then, GAZPROM came. Now everything is state-of-the-art... all the schools, athletic centers, you name it, it has been repaired and/or rebuilt or completely created from scratched, and GAZPROMized with new generous investments from the company into the Bashkir Republic.... whether you like this company or not, the city does look pretty awesome.

More awesome than the city itself was the hospitality of the people I met there. The head teacher and leader of the ACCESS program, Guliya Shaykhutdinova, took me with her family around town and out to eat in a nearby city, and basically took me under her wing for the whole week with making things as smooth and easy for me as possible. The day after we arrived, we met with all her students and attended the Bashkir festival of Sabantui... a large gathering with singing, dancing, wooden pole climbing, horse riding, and kumyz drinking (see first Bashkortostan post about kumyz)

Oh... what is ACCESS? It's an advanced English program for underprivileged high school students. I regularly work with the ACCESS groups in Chelyabinsk... the main one is the group I have had since September. This camp, with all due respect to the Chelyabinsk program... was a lot more well organized with regular attendance. The students were attentive, enthusiastic, and very sweet. Each day we had our lesson and our meals, and then in the evenings we would take a walk around the city and just share each others' experience and learn from each other about inter-cultural connections and differences.... but it would be mostly in Russian. (Fine with me, I wouldn't forget the language, and the children would understand more).

On the weekend before my departure, I went out to a club with a friend of Guliya's named Olesya, who was obsessed with the color green. She happened to have not only green eyes, but green sandals, a green car, green fingernails, a green handbag, green sunglasses... and I forgot what else. We met with some of her friends for chocolate and champagne (which, unfortunately, did not really agree with my stomach).
Bashkir night clubs play the best music of anywhere I have been.

The ACCESS week in Salavat unfortunately ended as fast as it began, and I took the very last beautiful Ufa-Chelyabinsk train ride (shared in a compartment with five Kazakh soldiers. Interesting time that was.) to return to our own (rather inconsistent) ACCESS camp schedule... and preparation for the Great Journey Home. More about that later.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Many Victories

I usually start out with a complaint about the weather. For the past two months, I really can't do that. April had been, on record, the warmest and driest the South Urals region has experienced... and the good fortune has continued into May. Even so, many Russians warn me about how it can still snow in June, and that I should STILL dress warm, because in the morning it can be colder, and if the wind blows, I may catch a cold.

Even so, Chelyabinsk has come alive for me in the spring. Not that this city has ever lacked life... it is that I am more enthusiastic to go for long walks around the city when the sun is out and I don't need a coat... it is not the same repetition of home-class-meetings-home. I walk around different roads home every day, sure to see the most in my last month here. For a city with a "severe" reputation, the center roads are certainly magnificent... especially at night, when everything lights up, with the decorated trees and fountains.
One of the reasons for this decoration was that Chelyabinsk just hosted the All-European Judo Championship, and of course, hosted a LOT of foreigners. Some of my students had the opportunity to volunteer at the hotels where the athletes were staying, and I heard many stories about how good looking they were.
From what I hear, both Russia and Georgia performed well in the matches.

Another reason, was that last week, May 9th, was one of the most important Russian holidays- Victory Day. This day honors those who fought in World War II (The Great Patriotic War), on the day recognized as the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. In theory, that Wednesday was supposed to be the only day free from work, but many classes that whole week were canceled as some people like to take trips with family out of town.
I was in town, even though most of my friends had left. I spent the holiday rather low-key, but was sure to attend the parade and the concert on Revolution Square.
Never in my life have I ever seen so many PEOPLE just walking around. (And smiling! In Russia!)  It was also, again, unusually warm, about 85 degrees Fahrenheit (Nevertheless, I saw a Russian girl in a pukhovik and another wearing tights under her jeans. *head shake in disapproval*)
In the evening, I watched the fireworks display from the banks of the Miass, joined by a random Tajik with (surprise) another marriage proposal.
Just another day in Chelyabinsk.

The rest of the week, however, became rather irritating. My students had all caught a severe case of Spring Fever, and absolutely NOBODY was in the mood to work. My lesson plans were just not catching on. This past week things turned around a bit, but I still get the sense that everyone is just tired of school.

Last Saturday, in another effort to "see as many of my favorite places in the city before I suddenly have to pack up and leave it" I took a walk with my students and friends from the Music Institute, just to take pictures. (And in Russian, "сфотографироваться", to take pictures, usually requires a minimum of about 300)
As I said before, when I talked about the marshrutka mixup,  I am finally beginning to get a better layout of the city. I recently took a few trips to the dreaded, infamous "Leninsky district", where everyone says to avoid. As it turns out, in the daytime, most of Leninsky is fine... the bad reputation is simply because it is a residential district for the working class, and is home to a few ugly looking factories. I took a run around the bank of a big lake there (it wasn't as pleasant as I had hoped though... the running path did not go very long and I ran into more than a couple naked old men) I also visited a truly state-of-the-art health clinic there. I help a woman, Natalya Borisovna, with her English sometimes on the weekends, and she happens to be the boss of the clinic. Because it is against the Fulbright contract to receive extra money, she decided that as a "gift" I could get a free doctor's checkup at her clinic. It sounded good to me (and they check things that I usually don't get examined at home... like the weird gooey stomach roller thing and back roller thing and different kinds of cardiograms etc) The only thing is, I'll have to translate the documents once I get the results.

To add yet another "win"... I expanded my passport and now have room for another visa, and it only took one more 6:30 am bus ride to Ekaterinburg, a hundred dollars, four traffic jams, and one marriage proposal from an Uzbek.
That day though, happened to be National Museum Day, so I took advantage of it and went to an art museum in Ekaterinburg after my consulate appointment.

Finally... last night, was truly one of the most fun nights I've had this spring. One teacher I work with, Anna Spiridonova, invited me to go with her to a concert called Student Spring. We had VIP seats right on the floor of the arena, because her husband was the sound technician.
Student Spring (Студенческая Весна) is a nationwide contest that begins within universities, then expands to cities, federal districts (Russian republics, oblasts, krais, etc etc etc) and then ends with one final competition. It just so happens that this year's contest is hosted in Chelyabinsk, and I got to go.
The winner of the competition was Tyumen Oblast (they had several acts in the finals), followed by Kemerovo and Novosibirsk.
Some other acts worth mentioning:
Rock&Roll Yakut throat singing
Chuvash robot techno I'm-not-really-sure-what-that-was (dance? mime? some kind of skit, set to techno and robot costumes?)
Kalmyk Buddhist folk music and dance
a Cossack band from Stavropol performing Lady Gaga and the infamous song "La gente esta muy loca ALL DAY, ALL NIGHT, WHAT THE F..." (a techno song that has seriously PLAGUED all of Europe in the past year) on accordions and balalaikas
and a dance performance of four different nationalities (Russian, Kalmyk, Bashkir, and Dagestani) integrated, to a medley of songs.

There was so much positive energy, that after this concert, I arrived home and had nothing left to say except: Я ЛЮБЛЮ РОССИЮ! 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bashkirs, Marshrutkas, and other things

Yesterday's bureaucratic nightmare kind of overshadowed the events of the previous week, so let's back up in time to something more interesting...starting with last Friday.

For the most part, even though I have lived in Chelyabinsk for seven months, I rarely see outside of the Center or Soviet regions... which is where I work and where I live, respectively. Chelyabinsk is a huge city, but area-wise, I really only see a small fraction of it. For those who know the city, I live close to the train station, so you can generally only find me from the train station to Park Gagarin to sometimes just past bank of the Miass. Outside of this district, I hardly ever go...and most people have told me that I don't need to.
My friend Zhenya lives a few bus stops beyond the Miass river, but it's still basically the city center.
Anyways, with this kind of limitation, it is easy to get into a "comfort zone" with transportation. I almost always take either the Bus #64, or the Trolley-bus #1. They are sometimes slow, but safe, reliable, and predictable nevertheless. Occasionally I will take Bus #18 or Marshrutka #64.

Маршрутки are a purely Russian... transportation experience that I know I will start to miss once I get back to the US. A marshrutka, or marshrutnoye taksi, is translated as "route taxi." When talking about them in English, I prefer to just use the Russian word because to Americans, "route taxi" doesn't really make sense, because we don't have them. Basically, a marshrutka is like a carpool bus/van. The main difference between a marshrutka and a bus is that it only stops when someone flags it down, or when someone asks for it to stop. They are smaller, usually yellow, and full of people you have to climb over to pay your fifteen rubles and exit on time. You also have to make sure to yell loud enough to stop on time, that is, if you can see out the window and know when is your stop. This is also assuming the driver speaks intelligible Russian.
Sometimes, marshrutkas changes routes without warning. So you always have to ask the driver if they are actually going to the place where the outside of the van says they are going.
This all being said, marshrutkas are generally the fastest way of getting around.

Anyways, last Friday, I finally got to see other parts of the city. A friend named Dasha invited me as a guest to her place, and told me which marshrutka to take to her place, but this marshrutka would be if I was coming from home. I was not, so I asked people I work with how to get there. They told me to take Marshrutka #4... but this marshrutka decided to go in a completely different direction... not to my friend's place, but to the Metal District!
NOW I have seen "Суровый Челябинск". We've got factories, all right. From there I took two different marshrutkas and finally reached my friend.
After a good dinner and martinis and card games, we decided to take a ride around town, including past the stadium where our first-place hockey team TRAKTOR competes.

The one region where I have never ended up is Leninsky. It is actually not that far in distance from where I live. It is on the other side of the train station, over a bridge of some kind. Apparently, it is a different world. I am always told to avoid Leninsky region, that it is where the hooligans lurk. I'm curious, but I know I probably shouldn't.

Now about even before that... a recap of our amazing Bashkir weekend!
The main purpose of the return to Ufa was for the conference, which took place on Friday. About sixteen of us reached Cathy at Bashkir State Pedagogical University and gave a speech about some topic related to America... mine was about health and fitness (thus, disproving the stereotype that all Americans are fat).
We were all accommodated by volunteer host families. My host was a Bashkir woman named Aliya, who was (as to be expected) wonderfully hospitable. She was unfortunately feeling down with a cold, and I felt kind of guilty at times, for example, when she woke up extra early to fix me breakfast. I had hoped to sneak out and not disturb her. It was wonderful talking with her though, and she really wanted to practice some of her English with me.
The person who originally wanted to host me was a Bashkir character named Salavat. He was a funny kid... that's all I can say.

At one of the events, I met an Iranian girl named Zahra who was studying art. This was one of those chance meetings, where I wasn't sure whether I should bother to make a fool of myself and say something to her in broken Farsi, but in the end, she was very impressed, and we continued to hang out. Hopefully she can visit sometime.

Yet another new friend from this trip was Valeria, from Almetyevsk. I thought she was just Russian, but she is originally from Central Asia. Her English was impressive, and it was great to have her along with us. If she wants to, we think she could definitely have a good chance to study in the US.

The best part about the Bashkir Bash, was the overnight weekend in the domik. I had kind of assumed that this "cottage" would be like the one I went to in Taganai, with an outhouse and a wood stove we heat ourselves (in other words, freezing cold). On the contrary, this was one high-class domik. Two floors, many rooms, a refrigerator, two bathrooms, hot water, the works.. and even a cellar that apparently has no dead body in it (inside joke). Our night was full of laughter, massages, songs, various languages, beer, and shashliks. Everything but sleep, obviously.

Probably the second best part was the Bashkir-language play we watched the next day back in Ufa. I find it cliche and low-brow to use the word "adorable" to describe something that is foreign to you... but in all seriousness, it was. We had the option to listen to a Russian translation headset, but it kind of distracted from the actual play. It was so lively and upbeat, and from what I gather, had a very feel-good ending. Bashkir music is also such. The story line was something along the lines of a young girl from the village is the object of affection of a rich, out-of-place man from the city, she doesn't really like him at first, she would rather stay in the village and gaze at the stars... in the end he builds an airplane for the girl and her father so they can go up into the sky and be closer to the sky. I believe they marry in the end. Cute))) And in Bashkir, of course.

Anyways, that's all for now. 

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How to handle Russian Bureaucracy with poise sand success

1. Dress nicely.
Seriously, it will put you in the mindset that you are going to conquer all, handle any curveballs, take on the world.
2. Never ever ever ever go to any "migration services" (unless it's a neatly organized International Department in a university) alone. Always go with someone you feel comfortable with and trust.
3. Do everything and say everything the person you most trust tells you to.
4. Be competent in the language, but not over-confident. Leave room for a "margin of error", and don't feel like you can argue and/or talk-back to people in Russian. Leave that for the person who accompanies you to handle.
5. Bring cash.
6. Be extra polite to everything. Act as if formulating your documents is the most wonderful thing anyone has ever done for you.
7. When asking questions, make sure you ask the RIGHT questions. Meaning, make sure that everything is 100% clear. Never ask questions about unnecessary information (not related to what bureaucrats are asking for). If you do this, you might dig yourself into a bigger hole, i.e, if you uncover an issue, a bureaucrat might ask more questions about it.
8. Keep in mind, these people most likely have boring, tedious lives. It's better to be hassled by a bureaucrat than actually BE a bureaucrat.
9. NEVER assume any bureaucratic process to be based on logic or common sense.
10. It's always good to have friends. Even friends of friends of friends in higher places.
11. Read up on the laws, requirements, and processes, so you can know if such a cost or document is actually necessary or not. Realize, that sometimes people say things to scare you. Their work is BORING. Some people will scare you because it makes their work more interesting. But then, you come across the rare bureaucrat that actually realizes that helping someone out of a difficult situation is more fulfilling than scaring them :) 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Spring.... (eventually)

March has never been my favorite month of the year, but this year it hasn't been so bad.
It is finally consistently above zero Celsius (even though it snows practically every night). SPRING is coming.

Along with spring came quite a lot of good news.
First, I will be working at an ACCESS (American English language camp with high-school-aged children) camp in June. The camp in Chelyabinsk, unfortunately, is in July, so I would not be able to make it, so I will instead be going to nearby Bashkiria to a smaller city called Salavat. Everything is all worked out, I am in contact with the director there and might even be able to stay with a host family. This will only be for a week, I know that Svetlana will need my help during this month as with any time.

Also... BIG news... I am officially hired to work at Adyghe State University next year! My friend will be preparing the documents this summer. It is exciting, I will get to live in the North Caucasus and teach both English and Spanish! It is also just good to know that I have something in line for next year, and not have to worry about the "parents' basement" unsuccessful-job-search possibility.

As for life in Chelyabinsk, classes are going smoothly for the most part. As you may know, I do teach at three different institutions, which does get confusing (sometimes schedules don't really coincide, and it is really nobody's fault). The only really difficult classes I have are when I occasionally cover Svetlana's classes with the Sports Faculty. These students, as athletes, have a lot of energy, and have a very low level of English, and most of them would rather just pal around with me in Russian, and I need to set some sort of authority. It can get pretty exhausting.

Most students, however, are consistently very enthusiastic. There are two particular students in the ACCESS group (the younger students who will go to the summer camp) that have really impressed me. One of them wrote me a terrific essay about Michigan (long story about how we got to this topic) and another student has never failed to turn in her homework and always seems to be eager to be on task. Believe me, in Russia, this is very refreshing to see.

Because of the more consistent schedule, I have been able to put together a new batch of lesson plans, which were for the most part both useful and unorthodox (in a good way) for the students.... including a talk about the Boston Irish and St. Patrick's Day (including the Boston Celtics and the Dropkick Murphys), debates for the YURGU students about internet piracy and social networks, a discussion about the "real world" American workplace featuring clips from "Office Space", and an analysis of Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics. "Californication" certainly surprised people, when they found out the real meaning of the text... I myself was pretty surprised when I found out for the first time that it was not some happy song about California... and "Especially in Michigan" produced some rather strange imagery. Most students DO agree that Michigan looks like a mitten.

Also... this weekend I probably made the best contribution to the side project of mine, and got to professionally record some Russian folk songs. It so happens that one of the teachers I work with has a husband who works as a sound technician in a theater... the only theater in Chelyabinsk with an full-professional recording studio.
Here are the Dropbox links to the songs:
Tonight, I'm leaving for a conference in Ufa (Bashkortostan, the place where I visited Cathy in the summer). Cathy Trainor, the Fulbright ETA there, has organized the whole thing, молодец! I'll be giving a lecture on "Health and Fitness in the USA" and signing some of my "Songs from the Urals" (that part will only be for the ETA circle, as I didn't see much point in presenting that for some people who already live in the region) Oksana will be there, as well as the new American Consul from Ekaterinburg!

So much to prepare for...

Sunday, March 11, 2012


...Absolutely guilty of blog neglect for the past month. If I said it was because I was too busy, this is only half true. Yes, I do have a fuller schedule this time around, but I have had plenty of time in front of my computer to blog... I just didn't do it. I was never really inspired. After a month of traveling and telling all those stories, regular routine has not seemed interesting enough in comparison... but this doesn't mean it has been boring!
The thing is, there just isn't any news. Well, not really.

Since the last blog (about Kyrgyzstan), there haven't really been adventures, just... good times, for the most part. Right after Kyrgyzstan I flew into Moscow, got a miserable cold (thankfully, the only one so far, knock on wood) then left to go to Kazan with some other ETAs. Kazan is just another awesome city. I was glad to have gone. Altogether it was a good time, with Tatar food, beautiful buildings, kol'yan, banya, and a friendly, clean hostel.

Oh wait... something weird DID happen between Moscow and Kazan. Word of advice: When someone asks to help you with your bags, beware. Sometimes they'll ask you for money right after.... and sometimes, they'll ask you for marriage. This happened at the vokzal in Moscow... a seemingly friendly Tajik helped me with my bags. I offered him 100 rubles (he did carry them a long way) but he wouldn't accept it, instead, he followed me around for the rest of the day, which ended with a marriage proposal.
I declined.

After returning from Kazan, I was so tired of traveling, that when I finally reached my apartment, I did not go out for three days. Running in the park, yes, but in no way did I want to ехать anywhere.

Of course, there were interesting activities since then, mostly surrounding cold weather.  Here is a picture of what you need to wear when you go running at -34 C:

Without a doubt, that was the coldest temperature I have ever felt. I decided to run, just so I could say I did it. It was cold.

The next weekend's cold-weather activity was "Ural Tubing". It's what it sounds like: sliding on a tube in the Ural Mountains. It took place in the city of Zlatoust (another big city in Chelyabinsk Oblast) with Volodya.
Oh yes, here is news, SAD news. Volodya moved to St. Petersburg!! Well, it's good news, he loves his new job, but it sure is not as much fun without him here. I've still got Zhenya though as a close friend here... but I really miss Volodya.

More recently, I took a trip to Taganai (remember, the mountain I climbed back in September?) with another friend named Olga and several of her friends. We stayed overnight in a log cabin in the middle of the mountain trail, and then hiked up further on a different fact. It was breathtaking, but COLD!!

The scenery does outweigh the cold, though.

Yesterday, these same rebyata all came over to my place to sing songs. I hope to record them and add to my collection.

Anyway, I will try to update the blog more. This was just a recap; more teaching-related or life-related, deeper thoughts require more time to write about.