I brought a suitcase full of American food to Russia thinking that I was bringing was something incredibly new, but really most of my students had already tried everything or the food I brought can be bought in the local grocery store. When I mentioned peanut butter half of my class piped up with an “Ewww”. Yes they have tried it but they still have no I idea what to do with it given I went to the grocery store and found the peanut butter in the refrigerator! In the store they also had every RitterSport chocolate bar imaginable.
I thought a good way to make friends with my new Russian floormates would be to make some mexican food. It was pretty comical for me seeing them picking up the tortilla and ask if its like a pancake. No no its not. They really enjoyed the meal and after the 3 girls ate I said “That was good. So who’s next?” The next day I got a tasty meal of mashed potatoes, salad and tea. We are planning on cooking borscht next week.
During the weekend I met with the previous ETA who taught in Smolensk and he happens to live in Moscow now. We went together to the English club meeting which was held at Место cafe. The cafe has a really neat concept. You can drink as much coffee and tea with small snacks as you want and you pay around $4 for the first hour and then $2 for the next hours. The cafe is set up to be kinda like a continuation of your home. It has a library, wifi, lots of board games, TV, projector, playstation and even toiletries in the bathroom. I really like it there and the woman running it is super hippy.
At the meeting, one guy spoke English so well I went up and asked him if he was from England, Wales, Scotland, or Ireland? The guy with the perfect british accent light reddish hair and freckles told me he’s from Smolensk. Really fooled me!
After talking about the battle of the sexes and social networking sites, the former ETA introduced me to the ultimate Frisbee club. It’s incredibly hard. After 4 months of chillin I felt I was going to pass out playing. I will probably get involved with the club. Really need to play more sports
After we went to watch the Olympic torch festivities. The torch is going to go to many cities across Russia, underwater in a Submarine, to the top of Mt. Elbrus and possibly outer space. Just putting it in as many crazy places as possible before the Olympics.
Of course Coca-Cola was there and made the event special by giving out free stuff and hosting a 20 minute concert of fist pumping to “coca-cola” and “влывайся” meaning drink up.
That night we drank vodka with the essential bread to sniff on and the pickle to eat afterwards. I have never seen a woman drink vodka so easily. She was drinking it like a boss while I coughed some up my nose which burned a bit. That night I was bestowed with the title “2nd American to visit Smolensk without a Bible”, the first one being the last ETA in Smolensk.
After having a couple refreshments we went out to Havana Club which was pretty cool and played a very interesting mixture of Gloria Gaynor and the Village People.
Then we tried to go to “Gold”, didn’t make it in cause the drunk Russian boy ran in first and to make it short we saved him from a fight with the bouncer and from getting run over by a taxi. We were good friends and made him eat lots of bread and drink water before bed. Of course, I woke up to him giggling and taking pictures of me sleeping with my coat over my head. Breakfast was a McMuffin. Ahh Russia you don’t disappoint.
As I was walking past the movie theater Современик on the way to the Frisbee field with the past ETA, a Russian girl and some new Russian friends, I pointed out the big movie poster for Сталинград-Stalingrad. The Russian boy commented that the movie supposedly looks like a video game and they just wasted several million dollars. Despite this I talked the Russian girl who lives down the street from me into going with me.
With low expectations we went back to Современик the next night smuggling in snacks-закуски and got our seats in the crowded theater.
I expected the movie to be propaganda-like with the battle depicted as a fight between the righteous communists against the barbaric German-faschists, but it really was something I’ve never seen before. The movie does a good job at depicting the trauma and horror of war by showing how the battle of Stalingrad really was. The movie showed the bad military planning, the killing of deserters, the Nazi propaganda depicting Hitler as a liberator from Stalin’s terror and the Wehrmacht officer’s anguish as he watched the Wehrmacht flatten and terrorize Stalingrad. The story constantly switched between a love story between a Wehrmacht officer and a Russian girl, who was later killed for her relationship in front of him, and a young woman who refused to leave her apartment and later fell in love with a Soviet soldier. The constant switching between plots gave you an emotional connection to both sides and a sense that it was the same people fighting the same people. In many parts of the movie you couldn’t tell which side was which.
When the movie ended everyone quietly left the movie theater. As I left I realized most of the audience just witnessed a depiction of how their grandparents or parents died.
I asked the Russian girl what she thought of the movie and she said “It was unrealistic. I’m not used to watching such Russian films.” But in her eyes it was clear she was about to cry. We quickly changed the subject to our plans for the next week as we walked past the eternal flame and WW2 monuments.
My conversational English lesson plan for the week:
1. Ask about weekend
2. Play the drinking game from Inglorious Bastards, the one with the personalities taped to your forehead
3. Once everyone in their groups found out who they are, I told them they are on a life raft and they have to kick one person off the raft and told them to debate who should be kicked off.
4. Give presentation on Florida State University
5. Give them the student survey I made to get to know them and what they are interested in so we can talk about it in class.
And then I did that for 5, 1.5 hour classes over the week. Each time I learned how I can present better and the different personalities of each class. Ironically the class that was the most difficult to manage was class for the Master’s students and professors consisting of only older women. They weren’t too good at following the directions of the game and were too talkative. I remember the French professor hysterically laughing at being Batman, which was a pretty funny sight but disruptive nonetheless.
I was looking for a table in the cafeteria and a student offered me a spot with him. The boy turned out to live on the 9th floor of my dorm. More people came and sat with us and suddenly I was given a tour around Smolensk with 5 new friends. They told I can visit them on the upper floors anytime and hang-out or play ping pong. That night I added them on VKontakte and immediately got a message to come upstairs and play “Mafia” with them. I felt really uncomfortable going upstairs to play “Mafia” in Russia but I went. It turned out to be that role-playing card game and about 20 people were playing and eating. They showed me around the dorm which houses over 600 students. We popped in and out of rooms with many faces. The upper floor dorms are pretty rough. Most rooms have 4 people in them and one bathroom is shared by 8 people. Some of the floors dont even have hot water and one girl told me the process of waking up early to heat up water on the stove to take a shower all the while with a big smile on her face. Some of them complain but I reminded them that they paying almost nothing, while I would have to work an equivalent of 70 hours a month at Макдак to pay for my housing in Florida. A lot of them go to their parents over the weekends or visit relatives in Smolensk to take a shower or wash their laundry. Generally people seem pretty happy in the dorm. Always hanging out, playing games or singing songs together out the window.
One of the songs they sing is Жить в кайф- live it up. I was pretty shocked by the video because it was summer 2012 for me. I used to skate at that very same skatepark and I went camping on the Volga with my Russian friends.
The same boy introduced me to the gym in the university. The quality at the gym is also not the best but it is free. The trainer at the gym told me most of the equipment he used 30 years ago in the USSR when he was a student. He was repairing the equipment and with a smile and with some level of pride he told me that “Through ерунда(nonsense) us Russians can make miracles”.
Which reminds me of the popular phrase “Россия- Страна возможности” which means “Russia-Land of possibilities” which is said with sometimes pride and sometimes sarcasm.
When you go into the gym and leave you have to say hello and goodbye to everyone in the gym. I’ll be going to this gym a lot.
I went to the Kuindzhi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arkhip_Kuindzhi) art exhibit and took some cool pictures:
The Russian Smile:
One of the first few days in Smolensk I went into a cafe for coffee and to hook up to their wifi. I shyly ordered coffee and answered their questions in pretty bad Russian. I was in a good mood and found it kinda amusing how awkward I was at ordering a coffee so I had this big grin during every interaction with the barista all the while she stared at me with this very shocked and confused face. She never smiled at me just shock.
A week later I see the same girl in my class. Her face was familiar, yet I didn’t remember at the time our interaction at the cafe. I smiled and gave a little wave at the beginning of class to acknowledging that I remember her from somewhere.
My classes so far have been really fun not just for me but for my students as well. For them talking to me is the first time they have ever interacted with an English speaker. I really enjoy sharing my experiences in the US, Germany and Russia and my students have a good sense of humor and are pretty quick at laughing at my jokes. So during the class I had a big smile on my face.
The barista waits outside the class and catches me while I’m leaving:
“You’re always smiling why? Americans are always smiling.”
No, I explained to her I was in a good mood and that I don’t smile all the time even though its good to smile because your face is connected to your mind and when you smile your mood gets better.
“But you even smile to strangers.”
No I don’t. “Yes, yes you do, you did to me.”
I realized later who she was. From that interaction I learned that I have a lot of American attributes, I might not even know about and that understanding your own culture oftentimes only comes about by these interactions when you are faced with other opposing customs.
The “American smile” in Russia is stereotyped as being fake. I remember watching the clip “the Americanizer” at a short film festival in Moscow. A helmet contraption was placed on a Russian’s head, two hooks were hooked around his top and bottom lips and then a man screwed the top of the helmet until his face made a distorted smile.
In the U.S. Russians are stereotyped as not smiling at all.
What I can tell you is that I see her all the time, in the university, at the cafe and stores in the neighborhood and she smiles at me and its sincere and I know it. My Russian students and people I interact with are always smiling and laughing. I see more smiles(more PDA…) and hear more laughter around Smolensk than I am used to and its completely contrary to what I or most people would expect. Even the babushka(granny) who mans the front desk of the dorm is always smiling and talking to me offering students snacks, but she sometimes yells at me to wear warmer clothes or to clean my room.
My guess is because their lifestyle is more communal. They live together and study together in close small groups, and are of the same socio-economic stature. They complain but they complain together and “They are used to it”. Very Soviet.
It’s very strange to be on this divide between two cultures that really have no idea what the other one is like. Oftentimes the views of America are so extreme I have to ask them what country they are talking about. I get people thinking thanksgiving style feasts happen daily in the US and everyone lives in excess without having to work. The other extreme is one woman I met last winter told me: “America must not be that bad if you are from there.” which was both an insult and compliment.
Maybe Smolensk is just a special place or I’m just at the honeymoon stage of being here. I’ll probably have more to say later on this. Next lesson is on happiness.
Funny/interesting things said or talked about:
Russian babies come from cabbage.
“Я там был, мёд, пиво пил,
Да усы лишь обмочил”
“I was there, honey, drank beer, and yes beer ran down my beard”- how Pushkin ended his fairytales
“Why do you have a cow here?”- points at US passport page “It’s the American heartland”
“So every American has a cow in his heart?”
“Russia has two problems: bad roads and idiots. Sometimes we combine the two…”
“I heard my name means something not good in English.” -Nastya shyly asking me after class
“Just call yourself Anastasia”
“Ok, this isn’t related but today I saw a marshrutka pull up to a stop, two men get in and one stray dog with a broken leg hop out. The marshrutka drove off and the dog trotted off down the street. My student seemed to think this was totally normal, but I thought it was the funniest thing!”
“Stop saying okay all the time. I’m already annoyed. Say ясно, хорошо, ладно just anything but okay” Russian student getting annoyed of my favorite word
“Everyone is named Sasha, Dasha, Masha.” “Our mother’s didn’t have much fantasy.” says with a smirk
My students band performing, watch the crowd jump at :45 pretty fun)