Friday, October 28, 2011

Russia from a Distance Runner's Perspective

I found a place to go running!

Be careful of forest fires.

 The pond.

I decided to start this post with these nice pictures. But don't be fooled... running in Chelyabinsk (and Russia in general) is not a simple and beautiful as this might suggest.
First, I chose a sunny day to take these pictures. The sun maybe comes out once a week here.
Second, its only realistic to run here on the weekends, for my long run. It is a short bus ride or a long walk away... so not really practical for the mornings before class.
Third, this park seemed big enough...the first two days I ran here, when I didn't know my way. Now, the reality has set in that these nice, windy paths that look like they are far from the urban bustle...just end up right back onto the city roads if you follow them for more than ten minutes. Any decent long run requires retracing your routes at least twice.

This is where I run most mornings.

:) I love my Soviet track!

Really, I am so lucky to have this right next to my apartment. Otherwise, I don't think I would keep up my running much at all, or it might be extremely inconvenient.

This week during orientation in Moscow (I guess I am supposed to dedicate a blog post to Moscow eventually... it's not my favorite city in the world, but obviously this weekend was worth mentioning) we had to listen to yet another lecture about culture shock, how it happens to everyone, how it is unavoidable... etc...
I do not want to try and say I am some kind of exception to the rule..of course not... I just never noticed the four-stage pattern that everyone talks about. There does not appear to be a "honeymoon phase" or a "depression phase"... in Chelyabinsk at least, I have been pretty much even keel all the way through... some days are better than others, but nothing looks skewed out of proportion. Moscow, two years ago, was a lot harder to adjust, but this year, I am settled in and everything just feels like life as normal, just in another place.
That is kind of how I operate, I guess. I live in different places, and make the adjustments accordingly... but life is still just life, I am still myself..

That said. The NUMBER ONE, MAJOR thing I miss, or that is difficult for me living here: Running.
Russian women don't run. Sometimes when I mention to someone that I am going running, they answer "from what?" Even on the Soviet track nearby, which seems to have a gym class take place there every morning... there are guys that jog around it and then go play soccer, but the girls, they usually either jog for 50 meters and then go back to walking and talking with their friends, or they don't bother trying to run at all. They are even sometimes dressed in boots and stockings and fur coats.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a distance runner. I never claim to be the fastest on any team... my times were "respectable" when I was competing (5K time was 19:56) but really, I run now not out of competition but out of pure addiction. I have been doing this for nine years. My weekly mileage has been between 30 and 55 miles, this summer I tried to reach as high as 60 although my legs pretty much rejected that idea. I figure my summer training is around 80 kilometers per week.
My favorite...or maybe top 5... things to do in all of life is to go on a 15 mile run during a cool, dry August evening, during a beautiful a moderate, 7:40 per mile pace, listening to the best of Caucasian mountain music, increasing the pace up my own hills.
In Russia, it's not that much of a letdown to make do with a Soviet track and a medium-sized park. In fact, one of the things I liked about running on long, hilly roads back home was that I could mentally "escape" from my hometown and picture myself in some faraway land... and now, here I am in a faraway land.
In the park, by the way, running is not so weird... it does feel weird on the way to and from the park, dressed in running clothes, but it's worth the 20 minutes of bracing myself on the bus and ignoring the well-dressed people who surround me to start the run in the small forest, which does look distinctly Russian. There are others running, especially on nice days, and I even encountered one person who was actually faster than me!
On the track however, I am certainly puzzling to people. I kind of enjoy this. For one, I sometimes take off my pullover and am in just the short-sleeve athletic shirt... something unheard of to everyone else. Here, if it is not summer, because it is Russia, everyone is dressed in winter clothes from head to toe. It is as if the concept of warming up from athletic activity does not exist.
Second, I am a girl and I run fast and for a long time... also unheard of.
Track "etiquette' does not exist here. What is supposed to happen is when someone runs faster than you, you let them pass you, or if you are walking you use the outer lanes to let the people doing a workout have the inner lanes. Here, this is not the case. It would not be a problem if the walkers just kept walking, and I would pass them just as I would pass a standing obstacle.. .but instead, they turn around with a bewildered look on their faces, and actually end up getting more in the way than they were before.
This doesn't really bother me, it's kind of amusing.

I haven't really gotten to the non-awkwardness level of being able to run the opposite direction around the track. I normally do that in order to make sure my skeleton remains aligned. 20 circles every morning in the same direction can make my hips uneven, but if I were to try to even this out, it would certainly be a revolution. Russia's not a place that makes it easy to go against the grain, literally.

Now I seem to face yet another obstacle: Snow. Of course, having gone to school in Oberlin, I certainly know what running in the snow is like.. but that's a place where it is okay to run on roads that are occasionally plowed. I am assuming here that nobody is going to plow the track, so my running season will end as soon as the snow gets too high to trudge through. Right now, there is about two centimeters of snow covering the ground.... but it's only October.
It's also worth mentioning that my first time running around the track in the snow, yesterday morning... went not without a few major wipeouts from the slipperiness... fortunately, it was not embarrassing, because only one other person was crazy enough to also be there at the track.
I also enjoy the irony of seeing people smoking on the side of the athletic stadium.

On Sundays, I take a short bus ride to Park Gagarin, where I do my long run (about 80 minutes... 20 songs) which is the pretty place pictured above. I have yet to try it in the snow, but hopefully it will хватит... 

Friday, October 7, 2011

On cultural differences and other things..

I know you might look for in this blog for a recap of how classes are going, what I do during the day, what I did last weekend, and so on... but right now, I don't feel like listing the daily events of the past week. Classes are going fine, I have nothing to complain about, everything has gone smoothly, easily even... there is almost nothing interesting (by way of strange or earthshattering) to say about daily events!

Right now I'd rather share deeper thoughts and impressions about life in Chelyabinsk, and Russia as whole. Cultural differences. Different attitudes, different habits. And where do I belong?

First: Regarding physical appearance.
It is a stereotype- but yet quite a valid observation- that in Russia, the stunningly beautiful women outnumber their attractive/available/sane male counterparts. (For me, this is nothing new, at Oberlin the idea about single men was: "Attractive, straight, sane. Pick two.") For this reason, physical appearance is VERY important to most Russian young women. This is not the same as being shallow. I remember two years ago being intimidated by supermodel-looking women in Moscow, thinking that they would have the same snotty attitude as someone of that attractiveness from an American high school.. and it is absolutely on the contrary. How stunningly beautiful -or not so- one looks like here has NO relation to how someone acts.
Now, for me, this is both good and bad. Good, because no one makes fun of me for OVERdressing or "trying too hard" the way some did at Oberlin, and beauty and fashion-related services are cheap and convenient. I got my hair done the other day for a very good price, and on every corner practically there is a "remont obuvi"= "shoe repair" to fix the heels on your shoes and boots, which costs about 200 rubles or 6 dollars and takes a few hours.
Bad, because, well... there are some times when I just feel awkward letting my hair out of place. For example, when I return on the street from my morning run at the stadium... all sweaty and in my spandex and under-armour, around nicely-dressed Russians. This doesn't really faze me anymore though.
The other issue is being skinny. It seems to be so important here. It's not quite as extreme here as in Moscow... and it is not that there are NO fat people and ALL skinny people... just very few overweight people, and more thin people, and quite a few VERY skinny people. Now, if you know what I look like, I'm not exactly what you would call overweight. If anything, I might have lost weight here (last time I checked I was 54.5 kilograms on an empty stomach... just under 120 lb) and I have even beed told I was "stroinaia" (slender). Even so, on a few occasions I was asked if I was trying to "pokhudet'" (lose weight/go on a diet). And so I asked, "Why, do you think I should?" and the answer was "Well, everyone else here is, so I was just asking if you were too." The other people in the room were about my size or thinner.
For me, even if I tried to go on a "diet" or just eat less, I have no energy and feel like crap. Even though I am not training 50 miles a week anymore, I am still running most days and working out, and I can't get by on tiny portions of dinner and lunch and a breakfast of only tea and a piece of bread.... it just won't cut it for me... and I do NOT want this to be misinterpreted of the stereotype of Americans demanding huge portions of everything.

Which brings me to my other discussion. Cultural differences between Americans and Russians... those that are perceived, and those that exist. For what it's worth... in classes, everybody obviously knows I'm American, and therefore understands that the differences I bring with me (especially my teaching methods) are particularly American. In other places, as I have mentioned before, I've had a plethora of nationalities given to me... usually German, British, or something Baltic...although I've been told I look everything from Swedish to Georgian (despite the blond hair? "because you have large dark eyes and a bent nose").
The one issue that has bothered, or concerned me the most, is when Russians or other locals talk of the другой менталитет... the different mentality. Everything is attributed to having a different "mentalitet." On three separate occasions someone has mentioned this and I felt a bit uncomfortable and even defensive. First, a friend told me that "oh, you should marry an American, because in America they have a different mentality", and "You could not live in Russia because we have a different mentality," and lastly... the incident with the apartment:
Perhaps the most negative thing that has happened so far (knock on wood). 
Valentina Dmitrievna is the mother of the former owner of this apartment (Natalia, who moved to Moscow, remember?) and the person who I pay rent to. She occasionally comes by to pick up Natalia's remaining things that need to be sent to Moscow. Last Saturday I came back from my run to find her in the apartment, and she seemed very angry. When I get nervous, my comprehension gets really bad, and so I did not understand a lot of things she was saying... but in general, it was about how the floor was dirty, how I must never wear shoes inside, and how the ground outside is so dirty. To be fair, the floor WAS dirty... there were also spots on the kitchen floor... but the problem was NOT as she said difference in mentality, that Americans are okay with a dirty floor... it was that I intended to buy a mop, and hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to do so. I tried to explain to her. Then she told me that in Russia, we don't mop, we clean the floor by hand with a rag. (It turns out that some people DO use a mop, but if for some reason this apartment floor requires me to do it by hand, whatever).
The "cultural difference" of this incident was NOT that I had a dirty floor because I'm American... HOWEVER, there IS a bit of a cultural difference in that I was a little taken aback at the fact that a person who does not live here was getting angry at me for the way my private space which I personally pay for was looking.

Anyways... the "American mentality" or "American cultural differences"... these discussions become more and more complex, because there isn't really just one mentality or culture for all Americans. In a lot of conversations, people are surprised (and possibly a bit disappointed?) that I do not speak of much culture shock experience. I have explained that, no, I am not homesick at all (although I do really miss Oberlin!), I do not try to seek out other Americans that might live in the area, and that I do not find life in Russia that difficult or depressing or unfriendly or whatever... and I most definitely never feel the need to duck into a McDonalds or a Subway or a Starbucks to "feel right at home." 
The other part of this perceived mentality is as I have mentioned before... Americans are more individual-, business-, and production-oriented, while Russians are more family, social-, and quality time-oriented. With these descriptions, I would fit in more with the Russians, as I feel that quality of life and time spent with friends and family should be more important than economic productivity. And I'm not the only one... my mother, who would certainly describe herself as very American, is VERY selfless, hospitable, and family-oriented. 

I know there are deeper cultural differences, but I am not yet at the stage to articulate them (in either language). I also do not want to minimize the differences in culture and lifestyle, it would be a very "ugly American" of me to pass off all differences as superficial, stereotypical, or wrong... and of course I recognize that my life has been significantly easier than the life of someone who grew up in the Soviet or Post-Soviet era here. 

That said... what exactly is my "American mentality?" I don't want to seem like I'm trying to describe myself as some kind of worldly exception... but I see who I am as not exactly a product of American culture as many people here interpret it.... my culture is influenced by the intellectual values of my parents, the carefree uniqueness of Oberlin College, the discipline of a long-distance runner, the creativity of a singer, and the curiosity of a traveler and (aspiring) polyglot..

I think that the biggest difference in менталитет I have is my wide-eyed curiosity. It may come across as naivete. I understand the hardships of the people who live here and have even faced some of the inconveniences... but I still love Russia, in a way... and want to see more cities, more regions, more far-off places, many of which are not considered to be top destinations for Russians and Americans alike... this interests me far more than staying in a nice hotel in a Western European city... or touring the best of Moscow, Petersburg and the Golden Ring... but others here just ask me, Why?