Ideologies? Or Just Friends?

I grew up in the Cold War. I know it looks like ancient politics now. But it was real for us.

We knew the world could be destroyed by nuclear weapons. That undercurrent ran beneath daily life. Two countries with tons of nukes hated each other. I lived in one of them. It’s not that we thought about it every day. But some months or years the tension would cycle up. By the time I was in high school, the prospect of nuclear war seemed very real. Even scarier was the thought of a land invasion.

I grew up in an international city. My 6th grade classroom was like the United Nations. From childhood, I was interested in other cultures. I felt called to work in diplomatic relations, so when I got into college, that’s what I pursued. In the early 80s it was a given that I would learn Russian language and study Soviet politics.

I attended a lot of workshops and conferences with guest visitors from the Soviet Union. Nobody knew who they could trust. Everyone was sizing each other up. I thought I knew how to be diplomatic and ask the right questions. I remember getting very uncomfortable when my fellow American students would go into inflammatory mode when interviewing a Soviet visitor.

I traveled to the USSR as a college student. I thought I would get to know the culture better, see behind the Iron Curtain so to speak. But we were kept under such controlled circumstances that it was hard to meet anyone except people approved by the Party. The few others we met were the ones who interacted with foreigners under the radar, and it was all about money. Before long we were buying items for them in hard currency stores where they weren’t allowed to buy things, using money they made on the black market. None of it seemed real. Everything I learned was one form of disinformation or another.

It wasn’t till the Cold War had ended that I had the privilege to go back to Russia and teach at a university. I lived with a family and shared every part of life with them. Spent time enjoying life with my neighbors. Played with neighborhood kids.

During those years, I got to know my university students and loved their personalities, laughed with them, encouraged them, dreamed their dreams. Ended up in the hospital when I got bit by a rabid dog, and became internationally vocal about healthcare needs in the new Russian Republic. Helped college students start and lead a series of community round table conversations on issues at the intersection of their new constitutional rights and the struggles of daily life. And traveled to places that had only just opened to Americans.

I lived on a local wage and found daily life challenging. I had to take a second job teaching English. I was grateful my local family fed me. I was not in the same situation as my Russian friends, because I had health insurance, a US passport, and an open one-way ticket to New York. But when it came to daily life, it was hard and I was often alone.

That made me all the more grateful for the friendships that came into my life. Those were precious people I’ll never forget. I felt like I had known them forever. They meant the world to me. In those years, they became my friends, family, neighbors. They were my life.

I rejoiced when they rejoiced, I cried when they cried. Missed my train one night so I could stay with a distraught family whose daughter had disappeared. (She eventually came home and was okay, but had gotten some bad news that was difficult to handle.) Spent hours on the phone trying to find a medical organization that could give medicine to a friend who was going blind. (I was not successful.)

I remember one night in Russia, sitting in someone’s living room with a group of my closest friends. I looked from person to person, how well I knew them, and how much each person meant to me, just for who they were. I didn’t see nationality. Just saw my friends.

And I realized, dear God, at any time in my growing up years, my country might have launched a weapon that would have killed them, the very people sitting in this room, my friends who had become so important to me.

It wasn’t an international relations textbook anymore. It wasn’t the evening news. Nor was it a conference with visiting dignitaries and heated arguments.

It was as simple as the room we were sitting in. These were my friends. Through my tears I thanked God no one had launched a nuke. Not because I was afraid to die. Not because I didn’t respect security measures and the difficult decisions government leaders have to make. But more because I couldn’t imagine a world that wouldn’t have my friends in it.

I have no desire to make a political observation in all of this. That wasn’t what came to my mind at that time. It was more this: Friends are precious. And real. Take care of them. Appreciate and value them.

Ideologies are shortcuts that help us avoid the messy, valuable work of getting to know real people. Don’t miss that.

Be open to realize that people who are different from you could just as easily become a close friend. Before you judge someone or dismiss them, consider what your world might be like if that person were a good friend.

Most people don’t want to blow up the world. They’re trying to get through the day just like you are. They love the people they’re close to just like you do.

Can you see that real person through all the rhetoric, through all the hype?

Can you see the world through the eyes of someone you don’t know, someone who could just as easily be your friend?

Letter Home from Russia (April 17, 1998)

It’s early on a chilly spring morning in Moscow, and I’m being carried across the tarmac at Domodedovo Airport by our country director and a fellow visiting lecturer. We’ve just returned from the Civic Education Project (CEP) Russia student conference in Tyumen. A mishap on the last night of the conference caused a ligament injury in my leg, leaving me temporarily unable to walk. This is strangely familiar, I think. Four months earlier I was similarly carried away from the CEP Ukraine student conference in L’viv. A mishap on the last night of the conference left me with two broken toes!

Leaving the conferences injured is nothing compared to the logistical nightmare of getting there, a procedure that consists of five easy steps … easy, that is, outside of a John Cleese comedy skit:

(1) Collect photocopies of student IDs and passports in time to buy tickets. Anyone who thinks this is simple either works in a place where photocopiers are taken for granted or is unfamiliar with university students’ understanding of the word “deadline.”

(2)(a) Proceed to the airline ticket agency. Wait in line one hour. Discover that, for reasons known neither to you nor to the agent, you must go to a different agency, on the other side of town, which closes in half an hour. If you wait until tomorrow, the rules will change again. Flag down a car to take you across town; but don’t tell the driver you’re in a hurry, or you’ll soon discover that the shortest line between two points lies across parking lots, back alleys, backyards, parks and frozen ponds. Arrive at the other agency, only to have them reject your photocopied documents for poor toner quality.

Or

(2)(b) Proceed to the railroad ticket agency. Ask the administrator which window to go to. Wait in line one hour, until that clerk sends you back to the original window. This is not done on a whim. The rules simply change by the hour. Wait in line one hour and arrive at the front of the line just as the window is closing for “obyed” (lunch break). Wait for “obyed” to end. Get sent to a different window which has just closed for “teknicheskii pereryv” (technical break).

When you finally make contact with a clerk who agrees to hear (in the passive sense) your request for tickets, the exchange will end with the clerk doing one or more of the following: telling you these tickets cannot be purchased today, for reasons known neither to you nor to the clerk; insisting that your visa is not properly stamped, registered and/or extended and that you are here illegally; bringing to your attention the poor quality of the photocopied documents and perhaps refusing one or more of them; saying you can’t purchase tickets with photocopied documents (but, you can); insisting you can’t buy tickets for other people (but, you can); complaining that the students’ passport photos (taken years ago) don’t match their ID photos (taken only months ago); claiming that you don’t look like your passport photo, to which you respond that this is what dealing with the railroad bureaucracy has done to your appearance; screaming at you and throwing all the photocopies in your face; and/or (it happens sometimes) processing your tickets.

(3) Help one of your students make brief, last-minute changes to her conference paper. Discover that a virus has wiped out the entire document. The only hard copy has editing marks all over it because a printer has not been available for weeks. It took your student days to type this paper. It’s the night before departure. You will be retyping it.

(4) Struggle to the airport or train station at 4:00 a.m. over mounds of snow frozen at -30 F.

(5) Arrive at the conference. Discover that your luggage was lost in transit – at least this is better than discovering a student was lost in transit.

Given the nightmare of getting to the previous two conferences and the memories of being carted painfully away, am I looking forward to the international student conference in Budapest? Absolutely! If asked to name the highlight of my first year as a CEP lecturer, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.” If asked to name the highlight of my academic career thus far, I would answer, “The CEP student conferences.”

I cannot imagine a more rewarding academic moment than reading the final draft of a paper written in English by a Russian student and realizing that this paper meets the standards of articles published in academic journals; supervising a student engaged in primary research on a cutting-edge topic in a transitional polity; listening to students calmly yet vigorously debate contentious issues concerning their countries’ immediate futures; watching a Russian meet a Belarussian or a Moldovan for the first time; helping a student at a cocktail party successfully network for international career opportunities; seeing a Kazak student ask a US embassy official to dance at a conference disco; watching a Russian student discover halfway through her oral presentation that she can speak English confidently in public; listening to a student change gears in the middle of her presentation to reflect on her conversations with other students at the conference and on how their comments and discussion made her think of a new approach to her topic; watching a student hyperventilate when she learns her paper was selected for Budapest; or attending a first-class, highly professional academic event, organized through hard work under conditions of tremendous adversity, during a momentous period in a nation’s history.

After being attacked by dogs, falling out of a train, falling through a snow-covered steam grate, hitting my head several times on car doors, having a flying screwdriver (launched accidentally by a drunk plumber) graze my head, being body-slammed by another lecturer falling down steps and landing on top of me, sustaining the two conference injuries, and in general feeling like Martin Short in the movie, Pure Luck, injuries barely faze me anymore. And after crossing Siberia, the Russian Far East, China and Mongolia by train over the winter break, dealing with the transportation bureaucracy also seems second nature. But I won’t ever think of CEP student conferences as just ordinary academic events. They are nothing short of miracles.

With my Russian students at the CEP International Student Conference, Budapest, Hungary, April 1998.

Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 4

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

If you missed part 1 of my Yekaterinburg letter (Sept 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

One of the primary reasons the economy is starting to boom here in Yekaterinburg is the strong presence of the mafia. They invest money that the government cannot invest; corruption is still sadly widespread in the Russian government, and any money that goes in is never seen again in any shape or form. The mafia, by contrast, invest money, initiate projects, get things done and keep things running smoothly.

While the city cannot and should not depend on the mafia to run things forever – and people here know this – the residents are still grateful for the leadership the mafia have provided during the transition! And ironically the strong presence of organized crime has kept petty crime and violence to a minimum, such that the city is a lot safer to live in now than in the earliest days of the transition before the mafia strengthened and consolidated their presence.

From the standpoint of Russia’s future presence in the international political economy, the mafia cannot substitute for an effectively functioning government which enforces stable laws on which foreign investors can count; but at least here in Yekaterinburg they have served as a much needed catalyst and have provided new infrastructure, which is part of the equation needed for successful foreign investment.

What the mafia cannot do for the city, though, is address serious social problems, two of the most immediately apparent being the environmental situation, on which I am working as one of my outreach projects, and the overwhelming presence of homeless children who are victims of the transition, and on which my colleague, Dan, is working as one of his outreach projects, trying to train social workers to build a series of centers for homeless children.

Social work is a very new profession here, so the need for training is tremendous. And environmental issues are not even thought about in political terms. The typical Russian reaction to environmental issues is that the country has a wealth of natural resources, so they are in no danger. But this precludes their thinking about issues close to home, like why water from the tap contains visible brown and black metals, as well as issues further from home, such as Russia’s participation in international environmental conferences and regimes.

As for the effect of the environment on our personal living conditions, they are visible, though not nearly as much as in other nearby cities like Nizhny-Tagil and Chelyabinsk, some of the biggest industrial and metallurgical sites in Russia – the Ural Mountains provide a huge source of metals and ores. The factories in our area, however, are to the northwest of the city; we live in the south, so we do not breathe factory smoke directly, though pollutants from the factories get into our drinking water, forcing us to boil and filter the water; even so, I use this water only for cooking and cleaning food, preferring to drink the bottled spring water.

The big problem with the air here is automobile exhaust, caused by an overabundance of cars in the city, as well as numerous trucks and buses. None of these vehicles uses unleaded gasoline. The effects are mitigated somewhat by spacious boulevards and numerous open spaces, plazas, parks, etc. But even so, since I am out walking anywhere from 3 to 6 hours a day, I stick to side streets.

Despite these problems, the city is very green. Streets are tree-lined, and this effect is conscientiously maintained. The city has many botanical gardens and green areas surrounding the river and ponds, as well as many wooded areas with hiking trails, one of which is located only a 15-minute walk from my flat! The apartment blocks have elaborate gardens, and the former collective farms and small wood houses have fruit orchards and vegetable gardens. Even the mafia are planting trees at each of their new construction sites!

What is severely lacking are street-side trash cans, animal shelters, any notions of recycling, and other relatively small yet potentially critical things which, though small, are difficult to implement here. One of my outreach projects will be to set up at the university an environmental politics research and discussion cluster group to discuss and work through such issues.

As for my university work, I am teaching two courses this fall, in completely different subfields from what I was initially told, meaning that my first week here was spent in a frantic search for course materials and developing two American politics courses off the top of my head within the limitations of available materials! But they really wanted these courses taught, as I am qualified to teach them, and they have never been taught here before. So I agreed.

This is the most refreshing teaching environment I have ever worked in. I have a group of 20 third-year students (age 19) and a group of 20 fourth-year students (age 20). Students study here for 5 years and stay in the same group all the way through – very different from what I’m used to. They are students of international relations, and about half specialize in English language and half in German, the latter having studied English only peripherally, but with enough knowledge to tackle my classes, which are taught in English.

I give them 10 pages to read every week, not only because of the language difficulties, but because they take 7 to 9 courses per semester!! They write short essays each week, and these are some of the most thoughtful and insightful essays I have ever read. And they are always eager to discuss issues in class, something they’ve never been allowed to do before.

It is rewarding beyond belief to be working with these kids. Additionally, I’m working with other students at the university to help them write proposals for conferences or attending programs in the United States; it is easy for me to locate such opportunities, but very difficult for them.

Till later –

Bcevo khoroshevo!

Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 3

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

If you missed part 1 of my Yekaterinburg letter (Sept 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

Even though Russian life is a struggle right now, this is not to say that the economy is stifled here. Quite the contrary. Yekaterinburg is one of the most booming and economically up-and-coming cities in Russia (by some statistical accounts it is the country’s third-largest, with a population of 1.5 million).

Construction is proceeding at a frantic pace. New apartment buildings, new shops and businesses are opening everywhere. Even former collective farmers do a tremendous business selling products on street corners, with goods which range anywhere from giant melons, carrots, potatoes, sunflower seeds and berries to fresh fish, crystal bowls, and shoe polish … and of course, the ever-present ice cream which is traditional, year-round street-corner fare all over Russia and Eastern Europe, but now including imported ice cream from Germany and the Netherlands – outrageously priced at $1.15 … the local ice cream sells for 15 cents.

The street-corner vendors are mobbed at every hour of the day, but they get especially crazy at lunch time and rush hour – they even sell lunch, consisting of hot pizzas or pierogis for 10-20 cents. A typical, endearing rush-hour sight is the Russian businessman, dressed up in a 3-piece suit and tie, walking down the sidewalk, talking shop with his colleagues or clients, thumbing through brochures or reports in one hand while holding a raspberry ice cream cone in the other hand and struggling to hold a briefcase with the same hand while carrying a bundle of raw fish tucked under the other arm; the colleagues/clients are similarly laden with street-corner goods.

They are talking so animatedly about the materials they are discussing that of course they give no thought to stepping off the curb in front of an oncoming car, which is somehow attempting to drive 70 mph through a crowded city street at rush hour. The car of course does not hit them – I have yet to figure out what magnetic force or pinball mechanics are at work here to keep pedestrians from being mowed down, but somehow it just does not happen.

The car swerves or stops. If it is a Mercedes, it moves around and continues on its way. If it is a Russian car and its driver is having a lucky day, the car stalls, the driver shifts gears, and after a few lurches manages to squeal off.

And if it is a Russian car whose driver is having not necessarily an unlucky day, but a typical day, the car breaks down completely; or is rear-ended by a bus, whose connecting wire snaps off the overhead cable, forcing the bus driver to climb onto the roof of the bus to reconnect the wire; or lunges into a 3-foot-deep pothole which sends not the hubcap but the entire wheel bumping down the street unaccompanied by the rest of the car, which the driver abandons to the pothole as he climbs aboard the bus to get a ride to the car mechanic.

The chatting businessmen, oblivious to all of this, cross the street and continue on their way. At most, one of the fish might fall onto the sidewalk, to be swiftly snatched up and carted off by a resident street cat. And of course I am the only one observing this whole scene in partial shock and partial amusement. No one else is fazed. Just a typical daily scene in Yekaterinburg.

To be continued next Sunday …

 

 

 

 

Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 2

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

If you missed part 1 of my Yekaterinburg letter (Sept 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

I am writing this letter during an Indian summer that has lasted a month already, with apparently no end in sight! Blame it on global warming or some natural millennial cycle, but the weather here is crazy!

Apparently Yekaterinburg just went through the coldest summer in recorded history; in fact, the day I arrived here it was absolutely freezing, and I was wearing a winter parka on August 31. The contrast was striking, because we left Moscow in sweltering heat. Once our train crossed the Ural Mountains about 26 hours later, we stepped out onto the platform at one of the stops and nearly froze. From that point it was a scramble to scrounge around for coats and boots buried in our luggage which was carefully and intricately stowed in our two train compartments; it was not an easy feat of engineering to stow this stuff in the first place – 7 people, 3 of whom had a year’s supply of luggage and text books! – so trying to dig through everything as the train approached Yekaterinburg was completely chaotic!

Within 2 days after our arrival here, however, the temperature shot up to 80 degrees F and has not dropped since! Heating is subsidized here, so the city is responsible for its supply. Every year on September 15, the heat goes on in every building in the city, automatically. Fortunately the city decided to delay for another month. We’re just hoping the temperature doesn’t take a sudden nosedive before October 15. Meanwhile I heard from someone recently that back in NYC it is cold already … and here I am in Siberia in sweltering heat. And I brought only fall and winter clothes with me.

The nice thing about the weather, though, is that it has given my colleagues and I some time to get out and see most of the city before it becomes buried in snow! I am here with two other visiting CEP lecturers; one is a social worker from West Virginia named Dan, and the other is a lawyer from Hamburg, Germany named Robert. Even though we live in different parts of the city and teach at different schools, we chat on the phone and also try to plan some group outing once a week, to a park or market or hockey game – as soon as the theatre season starts, we’ll plan outings there, too.

We also have two other CEP colleagues here, Vitaly and Sergei, who are permanent, i.e., Russian lecturers. We see them on occasion, too, but much of the time they are quite busy with their families and working other jobs. The economy here is tough, and I have yet to meet anyone here who works less than 3-4 jobs and fewer than 18 hours a day, 6 days a week – yet Sundays they observe very seriously as a day to spend relaxing with their families, strolling in the park, meeting for a big dinner, etc.

The economy is tough and their lives are even tougher, but the Russians who live here in Yekaterinburg are remarkably optimistic, energetic and enterprising people who are not waiting around for opportunities to come to them; instead, they are trying to make opportunities happen. I am truly impressed with the way the Russian people are pushing through this transitional period. And they are very concerned with each other’s welfare and state of mind, as if they want to be sure they all pull through the transition together.

As hard as I try to see what they are facing, I am only able to experience the hardships they are going through on a small scale. I am paid a local salary of $60 a month, the same as my Russian colleagues in my department; of course, tenured full professors are paid more … $100 a month. CEP kicks in an additional stipend for my CEP colleagues and I; this is based on local cost-of-living factors and is intended to boost our standard of living to that of an adjunct lecturer in the United States or Western Europe.

But I wanted to live as the locals do, so I put my CEP stipend aside and am living entirely off my local salary. Amazingly enough, it can be done … with regard to food and household items like soap and light bulbs, which is all I need to pay for. My rent of $250 a month is paid by CEP, as are things like utilities, phone, email, furniture, dishes, linens, water filters, space heaters, books, notebooks, paper, pens, traveling and entertainment costs, etc.

This means that where food is concerned, I can relate to my local colleagues – I go to buy a can of Coke for 50 cents or a bottle of spring water for 70 cents, which to an American from the New York area seem like prices from the 1950s, and I think to myself that with that 50-70 cents I could buy an entire dinner at a cafeteria. And even so, I still buy the occasional Coke or spring water or imported coffee mix, whereas my Russian colleagues would refrain from doing so.

But I relate to them only at this level. What about all those other amenities, including rent, that CEP provides for me? How do my Russian colleagues pay for all those things, when I am spending their entire local salary on food, and not on fancy, imported food but on the same local food that they eat? This gives a clue to why they work several jobs at once, day and night. And yet they see in this situation not despair, but hope … because while their lives are chaotic and uncertain now, the one thing they do have, finally, is freedom. The opportunities they need are not all there yet, but finally they are no longer denied the ability to pursue whatever opportunities they can create.

As one of my students wrote in an essay last week, “We in our [Russian] history have made a lot of great mistakes which now hamper reforms and disturb our progress … If someone wants to do something very good and useful for our country and our people, many things stand in the way … But notwithstanding we try not to give up and we rejoice at even little victories above our old system. And so I think step by step we can solve our problems.” The thoughts expressed by this 19-year-old named Tatiana reflect the perspective I have encountered here in general. These are remarkable people.

To be continued next Sunday …

 

 

 

 

Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 1

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

I have been in Russia for 5 weeks now, and I cannot believe the time has gone so rapidly. And the pace continues to increase steadily. This week, my university will hold a big conference with visitors from the States, and our country directors from Moscow will fly in to attend. My flat, since it’s the biggest, will be the first caravan stop for anyone flying into Yekaterinburg, and my first such guest will arrive on Monday at 3:30 a.m., so that will be a bright, early start to the week – or a late end to the weekend, depending on which approach I will take! Somehow Russian flights from West to East arrive at bizarre hours.

Hopefully the hours flying westward should be better, as the following week it will be our turn to fly several time zones west to St. Petersburg. My 4 colleagues and I will join the rest of the Russia team for our first planning retreat. It will be fun to see St. Petersburg for the first time in 10 years … and for the first time as St. Petersburg, as it was called Leningrad on my last visit!

And it will be interesting to compare notes with all the other Russia team members as to what life is like in their respective locations. We haven’t been in great contact with them, as email situations still aren’t settled.

For example, my email access right now is limited to 10 minutes a day, 4 days a week. I will have more access in the future; but like everything else here, it’s a complicated process which will drag along with seemingly no progress until suddenly and miraculously one day it will all be taken care of in a matter of minutes. Long-range plans are not standard operating procedure here, which is understandable in a country where no one is certain what lies ahead. So rather than spend a lot of time working on or toward something, they wait until something absolutely must be done and then just do it!

An example of how quickly things can get done here, quite in contrast to the old Soviet system, is an experience I had a few nights ago, when I was impressed by my downstairs neighbor’s ability to locate a plumber after hours to perform some type of pipe repair. The whole event was a rather amusing clip out of a John Cleese comedy skit, beginning with my neighbor knocking on my door at night trying to communicate the problem to me, a tedious affair for him since my knowledge of Russian language is still reeling from years of disuse. This difficulty was compounded by my neighbor doing what many people invariably do when a foreigner shows lack of comprehension: rather than speaking more slowly or searching for simpler words, my neighbor succumbed to the all too common reaction of speaking more loudly, as if an increase in volume would be the magic key to improving my comprehension – how I wish it were!

Finally, after much pointing and waving and pantomime, facilitated by my forcing simpler vocabulary into the conversation, I was able to grasp the gist of the problem: somehow, though still unknown to me, a pipe connected to my kitchen was leaking water inside the nether regions of a crawl space and was contributing to the untimely demise of my neighbor’s kitchen ceiling.

My amusement was compounded when the plumber arrived at the scene; my neighbor was trying to approach the problem as scientifically, technically and elaborately as possible; the plumber listened patiently and attentively; but in the end he simply pulled a tiny washer out of his bag, attached it to the kitchen faucet, and that apparently started some invisible and cosmic chain reaction of internal pipe adjustments, because after that the problem was apparently solved. I’m still not entirely sure what a washer in my faucet had to do with my neighbor’s ceiling, but somehow the fate of the latter was hostage to the former.

The entire time the plumber was working, he kept mumbling over and over something about houseguests causing bad luck. I was unsure whether he was referring to me as a “houseguest” of my landlord; or if he had some houseguest who was causing him grief – which might explain his prompt willingness to come out after hours to fix the pipe problem. Whatever it was, he continued to mumble about it as he left the building.

I’m still not sure exactly what transpired, but I am impressed with how quickly things get done when someone takes initiative. Under the old Soviet system, my neighbor would have despaired of getting a plumber to look at the problem within 6 months; the water leak would have continued; and my neighbor, unable to stop the problem, would have packed up and moved to a new flat!

To be continued next Sunday …

 

 

 

Memories of Learning Russian with Rita

My favorite memories of living as an American in Russia include the early evenings I spent in the kitchen, sharing in Russian conversation with Rita, the mother of the family I lived with. Twenty-one years later, I remember it like it was yesterday.

Rita spoke a little English and a little German. I spoke the American college version of Russian and German. So we could communicate somewhat. She was such a dynamic person with a strong heart, and we got along instantly, even without much of a common language. When we couldn’t figure out what the other was saying, we made a note to ask her grown, married daughter, who was an English teacher and stopped by almost daily.

My employer offered an allowance for Russian language instruction. Rather than sign up for yet another class, which I had done for years, I asked if they would pay Rita just to talk with me in Russian. They agreed.

Several early evenings each week, when I got home from teaching at the university and Rita was home from work and preparing dinner, we would hang out in the kitchen and talk only in Russian. Sometimes I asked her to talk, and I would listen and ask questions. At other times, she would ask me to tell her about my day or answer questions about my life back home in the States.

This was a total immersion way of learning – she had to use the Russian words I understood to explain the ones I didn’t. And hand gestures, pictures, and sometimes, “We’ll ask my daughter when she comes for dinner.”

Through these conversations and her willingness to correct me, I began to speak real Russian, better than any class could have taught me. And I learned more than the language. I learned about Russian family life and culture, as well as Russian Orthodox traditions.

In the spring, when the family was planning for the summer garden at their dacha, Rita sat at the kitchen table holding seed packets. She asked me to read what was written on each packet. Then she described the plants that would grow from these seeds and what their garden would be like. At the tail end of a long Siberian winter, our conversation about the garden lifted our spirits.

At other times, she would talk to me about the dishes she was preparing for dinner. Or about our neighbors and what they were struggling with or celebrating.

I learned about birthday customs and Rita’s family history. She showed me their Russian Orthodox icons and explained how at one time, they were hidden from the Stalin regime, and now they were hidden from potential burglars.

I will always remember the day in late spring, when the landscape was still covered with ice, when Rita came home after a drive to the dacha and set a handful of green leaves on the table in front of me. In the middle of the woods near the dacha, she and her husband had found one of the first budding trees of spring.

Those early evening Russian conversations will always remain one of the fondest memories of my life. Not only did I learn how to understand and speak the language. I also learned so much about life that has stuck with me all these years. Most importantly, I grew in friendship with an amazing Russian mom who will always have a special place in my heart. What a blessing from God.

If you have the privilege to live overseas as I did, make the most of opportunities like this one. Those experiences will shape your life in ways you can’t imagine.

 

 

 

 

 

Letter Home from Moscow (August 1997)

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

Moscow, 28 August 1997

Weather: hot, humid, muggy

Dear All:

You are getting this letter courtesy of my mom in Florida, who has been kind enough to spend the time needed to copy and mail this out for me. I will also try to write each of you directly from Russia on occasion, but my mom sending letters will enable me to reach more of you more frequently.

Mail from Russia takes 2-5 weeks to reach the United States, so I wanted to send a letter fairly soon after arriving here. I didn’t imagine, however, that I would have seen enough in the first 3 or so days since I’ve been here to fill an entire letter, but I have!

First of all, I will say that I’ve been here long enough already to know it’s been too long since I’ve traveled here. But in a way that may not be a bad thing, as the 10-year gap since my last visit to Moscow is long enough for me to truly be astounded by all the changes. Those who have witnessed these changes gradually over the years might not get quite the impact I am.

This place strikes me in some respects as being like Poland of 10 years ago, though with even more of a Western influence than Poland had at that time. (Of course, now Warsaw is like West Berlin of 10 years ago.) Moscow now has private markets everywhere, and prices are quite reasonably low by U.S. standards, though of course quite high compared to the old Moscow.

Hungarian goods (the ones you see displayed at trade shows in NYC) seem to dominate the processed-food market: all manner of blended fruit juices (the kind sold in boxes, including “sippies” with straws); seasonings; jam; yogurt; milk also in boxes – previously nearly impossible to find in this part of the world.

Peppers – red, hot, spicy, mild, yellow, you name it – are the rage here … everything has to have pepper in or on it. I’m told this is the case throughout Eastern Europe. Also big are potato chips (Pringles, Ruffles, Lays) with every manner of seasoning from “Paprika Pringles” to “Chicken Ruffles” to “Hot Dog-Flavored Lays.” Another big thing is instant flavored coffee, similar to KGFI coffees.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing sold in the markets are “cocktails in a can” – cans, like soda cans, of cocktails such as gin and tonic, screwdrivers, Lynchburg lemonade, and Long Island iced teas, all priced around $1.50. I haven’t figured out yet if open-container laws apply here, but I’m guessing not, given the prevalence of these pop-top drinks at all the outdoor markets.

In the clothing area, Moscow has become a very dressy place, and even little kids wouldn’t be caught dead strolling through the park in anything less than formal evening attire. I gather quite a lot of money goes into clothes, and they can be quite pricey … comparable to NYC prices. They are big on either the black-white combination or also very bright colors (the same goes for car colors), though coordination stops with color and does not extend to pattern-matching! For women, the long skirt slit up to the hip constitutes formal evening/park-strolling/business-meeting/academic-conference attire.

Red Square by night has so far been the biggest shock to me. It is something like “Disney World meets Times Square,” and no amount of staring open-mouthed enabled my brain to absorb what has taken place here. First of all, a lot of money is being poured into renovation, restoration, painting, and construction in this area – financed somewhat by the City of Moscow, but primarily by local (domestic and foreign) business enterprises.

Let me try to give you a blow-by-blow … We travel as a group to Red Square one night – this has always been a thing to do in Moscow, as it’s always been beautiful to see St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin stars lit at night. But no amount of mental gymnastics could have prepared me for what I was about to see. We step off the metro (subway), which is still as beautiful as ever [Moscow metro stations have always been gorgeous – huge, cavernous marble constructions adorned with arches, mosaics, murals, statues, chandeliers – and this hasn’t changed, though what is new are the advertisements displayed in every train car (DuPont mattresses, Adidas running shoes, Red Baron frozen pizza!), and the Coca-Cola/Ruffles hot-dog stands inside the stations and the news kiosks selling Western papers and magazines like “Der Spiegel” and “Cosmopolitan.”]

Anyway, we step out of the metro station and are instantly bombarded by lights – neon lights, twinkle lights, flood lights. The first thing we see is the Bolshoi Theatre, all lit up. Then we walk toward Red Square and come to the main street which dead-ends into the Square. The Square is on the left. We look to the right. Giant, bright, flashing signs announce the presence in Moscow of “Panasonic,” “Sanyo,” “Hitachi.” The street below is lined with trees decked out in twinkle lights and flood lights.

We look left to the Square (actually, I keep staring backward in disbelief at the giant flashing signs), and in front of the history museum is a newly built Black Madonna Shrine, open and brightly lit. We walk through the gates, and on the left is a church, entirely rebuilt using old Russian architecture (the church which originally stood here was ripped to the ground by Stalin, because it blocked the May Day parade route); it looks like a fairy-tale structure with beautifully carved wooden shutters and domes.

Now we walk into the Square, and are accosted by peddlers selling old Soviet memorabilia (scrambling for cover when the police drive by). In the Square, the first noticeable thing is the absence of guards patrolling the now closed Lenin Mausoleum. But on the left is something more astonishing – GUM, the old Soviet state department-store, now looks like a Western-style shopping mall, with brightly lit window displays that could easily be found on Fifth Avenue. This is a shock (and this is only from the outside!). Another striking change is the addition of banners and giant murals all over the Square displaying the old Romanov eagles and crowns. Somehow, though, the scene which left the biggest impact on me was the red/white/blue flag of Russia waving atop the Kremlin. That was an incredible sight.

We step back out of the Square, thinking we’ve seen it all. But wait; there’s more! We cross the plaza to what used to be a giant parking lot where all the tour buses parked as they brought people to stand in the 5-10 hour line at the Lenin Mausoleum. What I didn’t realize ten years ago is that the parking lot covered a very old, dried up river bed – a channel of the Moscow River – which was closed off long ago and converted into a large drainage system. Within the last six months, the river channel was uncovered and turned into a long fountain pool, the bottom completely covered with tile mosaics and light displays – flashing, of course. Standing in the pool and fountain are giant sculptures of Russian fairy-tale characters. The fountain is crossed by wooden bridges with white-washed railings and has a serious Disney look.

Fronting this area – visible all along the pool length via floor-to-ceiling windows and above through giant glass domes, is a 3-story underground shopping mall, to be opened in a few weeks. Each floor will be decorated, in descending order, in 19th C, 18th C, and 17th C Russian style. Already 75% of the space is rented/sold, which I find amazing. They are working overtime to get the mall opening to coincide with the festivities celebrating the 850th birthday of Moscow.

In short, for better or worse (and arguments can be made both ways), capitalism and Western culture have taken Moscow by storm and perhaps gone overboard. The downside is apparent with the plethora of panhandlers and illegal peddlers, increase in alcoholism and crime; this was never seen under the old system. On the flip-side, what was seen ten years ago were 15+ people cramped into tiny apartments and paranoia run rampant. So the situation is improving, but in fits and starts, and Russian traditions are fighting with Western styles to seize the benefits of capitalism without the foreign culture accompanying it in its initial stages.

Overall, the mood is ambivalent. Many Russians feel pessimistic and optimistic at the same time … pessimistic about the national situation as a whole, but optimistic that their personal situations can and will be eventually improved; hope is, of course, pinned particularly on the private sector, and the enterprising energy and initiative are definitely present. In general, people seem more proud, confident, and happy than before. There is a much more jubilant atmosphere among all age groups. When faced with proposed initiatives, people tend to offer the same response – skepticism that something won’t work coupled with an expression, more hopeful, that the initiative should be tried anyway. This optimism, however guarded, is very new, and in some ways is the most astounding change of all. This attitude is more prevalent among the young than the old, but seems little connected to socioeconomic circumstances.

As for what hasn’t changed, the hotel dining experience is still very much the same. Even the hotels look about the same, though the lobby kiosks sell goods never seen before in such places – including a matrioshka doll sporting a Chicago Bulls uniform! – and very over-priced – e.g., $3.50 for a bottle of spring water which sells for about 70 cents in the open-air market.

Another change is the presence of ethnic restaurants – Indian cuisine, Middle Eastern souvlaki kiosks, Japanese sushi bars.

Having overwhelmed you with details of changes in the new Moscow, I’ll close here. For those who don’t know what I’m doing here, I’m spending a week in Moscow prior to traveling to Yekaterinburg, Russia (in Western Siberia), where I will spend a year teaching university classes in International Relations and Constitutional Law, as well as participating in the Russian educational reform effort through the Yale-based Civic Education Project (CEP).

Bcevo khoroshevo! 

If you would like to read the next letter in this series, it is my letter home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997), in four parts.

Locked Out on a Siberian Winter Night

Last night, in the freezing weather, a friend came to visit. She was wearing clothes that probably belonged in late fall or early spring. Acknowledging this, she said, “I knew I was just going across town from my house to yours.”

This reminded me of a time when I did the same thing. Except I was living in Siberia. I began to share that story with my friend.

I was a visiting lecturer, an American (a Miami, Florida native) living and teaching for two years at universities in Siberia. It was mid-winter and the temperature had dropped to minus 35 F.

I lived with a Russian family in an apartment building. That night I had visited a friend in his apartment building across town, where several of us gathered for dinner. Being a Miami girl, I couldn’t stand all the layers we had to wear in the Siberian winter weather. Since I knew I was just going across town, from my home to another, I dressed in what might suffice for a high-40s winter.

The dinner was wonderful, a great time with friends. The time seemed to pass quickly. It was late, so I headed home, flagging a car for a ride as was the local custom. The roads were nearly deserted.

The car dropped me off at my family’s apartment building. To my dismay, the gate was locked. It had never been locked, nor did I have a key. I looked around the building, trying to think of any way inside, but I came up with nothing. The minus 35 chill began to numb my hands and legs.

I thought about places where I might find some warmth. Utility service wasn’t a given in every building. Was there a hospital nearby, or a police station? I had no idea. Everything was so far apart in the outskirts of this city. Most people didn’t venture out at night, so there were no passing cars, no people I could ask for help.

Finally, I made the decision to go back to my friend’s apartment, if I could. I walked out to the main road and saw one pair of headlights in the distance. The style of car told me the driver might have been mafia, but I was willing to take the chance. My toes felt numb and my shivering was steady now.

The man drove me silently across town to my friend’s apartment building. After he dropped me off and I trudged through the snow to the front entrance, I realized it was locked as well. The first floor of homes was one flight up – way above my reach.

Maybe I can call my friend. I had never used a Russian payphone but was willing to try. As I trudged back to the sidewalk, shivering deep inside, I remembered someone telling me that the payphone system had changed that night. I would need to buy a phone card in a kiosk, all of which were, of course, deserted.

I will never forget standing on that icy sidewalk, not knowing what to do. Helpless doesn’t begin to describe the emotions. A news article from earlier in the day flashed through my mind. A woman had been found that morning, frozen to death in the university courtyard. Would I be on the front page when the sun came up?

I walked in circles, trying to keep moving. It was harder to think. My brain seemed sluggish, my movements even more so. I became confused. I just stood still, lost.

I heard some commotion farther down the sidewalk. Two teenagers, clearly drunk and staggering along the icy walkway, approached me.

“I need help.” I pointed to the building. “I can’t get inside.”

Motioning for me to follow, they stumbled through the snow mounds to the apartment building. I don’t know how, but one boy managed to climb onto his friend’s shoulders and stretch high enough to pound on a first-floor window. Shortly, the curtain parted. An elderly woman was pointing a gun.

“Hooligans!” she shouted. “Get out!”

Standing behind the boys, I waved my arms. “I need help. I got locked out. I’m an American. These boys are trying to help me.”

With a few more angry words at the boys, she disappeared. A few minutes later, my entire body shook with relief. She was opening the door.

As the boys stumbled away, she yelled at them some more. Then she turned her attention to me. “Foolish girl.”

I nodded.

She continued to chide me all the way inside.

I thanked her for letting me in. “I have a friend who lives upstairs.”

Still muttering, she returned to her apartment and closed the door.

I don’t remember how many flights I had to climb, but my friend lived on the top floor of that apartment building. The coldness of the stairwell was like a Caribbean summer.

My friend was from Minnesota, so he knew I needed to warm up slowly. He handed me a glass of cognac and said, “Just sit here. Don’t move. Sip this slowly. Give your body time to adjust.”

When I returned home the next morning, my Russian family was there, and worried about me. They knew the gate had been locked and didn’t know why.

When the mother of my family saw how I was dressed, and heard bits and pieces of my tale, she reprimanded me. “In Siberia, you don’t go out, no matter what, unless you are dressed appropriately. Always dress as if you will be stranded. You have no idea what can go wrong.”

From that point on, I wore so many layers I looked like a baked potato.

I know those boys were sent by God to help me. To this day, I am grateful – to them, and to Him. There were many teens like that, wandering the streets of Siberian cities at night. I know some women were afraid of them. I was too – until that night.

 

 

The Beauty of an Ordinary Moment in Belarus

I crossed the border between Russia and Belarus at a tumultuous time. I had a lot to worry about – and to be excited about. I’m amazed at how, some 19 years later, what stands out in my memory isn’t the dramatic backdrop. It’s an ordinary moment with a student whose name I don’t remember, but whose heart I will never forget.

As a visiting university lecturer, I was based in Russia for two years. A friend had invited me to travel to her university in Belarus and give a guest lecture. I was always excited to see a new place, and I was so passionate to teach on human rights, anywhere I was invited.

I was struggling with visa issues – nothing I had done wrong, just a mix-up on paperwork. This train journey was supposed to provide a chance to get a new exit/entry stamp that would clear up all my problems. Little did I know, the tension between Russia and Belarus meant that the borders were “removed.”

While the border confusion might have inconvenienced me, the tension affected a whole nation far worse. The country’s leader canceled elections and the value of currency plummeted the day I arrived. My friend who had invited me was married to the American consul. When he met me at the train station in Minsk, he just shook his head by way of explanation, and we went to McDonald’s for a burger. He expressed sympathy over my visa situation but there was nothing he could have done.

I was to speak that evening, and again the next day, as part of a weekend conference. Meanwhile, I had a few hours with nothing to do. A student from the university in Minsk had been assigned to help with whatever I needed. She was willing to take me on any official errand or to any of the famous tourist sites in the city.

After a moment’s thought, I said with a laugh, “What I’d really like to do is buy some eye liner.” I also asked where I could find a CD of my favorite Russian pop singer.

She smiled. “I know where we can go.”

We spent the afternoon at a shopping mall, looking for makeup and CDs. This was an old-style Soviet-era shopping mall – not what probably comes to mind when you read those words. The arrival of Western items was still fairly new. But this student knew where to find the things I needed. We could barely communicate but we had so much fun. Eye makeup and music doesn’t require translation to be enjoyed together.

I’ve never forgotten that day. It stands out as one of my favorite moments living overseas. Forgotten were all the politics, border patrols, visa problems, and even the excitement of presenting my work at the conference. We were just two kids having fun at a shopping mall. An ordinary moment that brought such familiarity and peace in an otherwise tumultuous world. I am thankful for that student spending the afternoon with me.

When you travel or live abroad, these are the moments not to miss. They are the memories that will last far longer than the bigger dramas. Be fully present in those ordinary moments. Enjoy the company of the people who cross your path. Then write about those experiences, as an encouragement to others.

Have you encountered an ordinary moment in an extraordinary situation? I’d love to hear about it.

Be blessed!