russia: day 7

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when i got up this morning, svetlana had left me a note about breakfast, letting me know that everything on the table was for me to eat. and a separate note on the bag of instant coffee letting me know that was for me too. usually i just fix a cup of tea and eat some of what she sets out, then i put the rest back in the fridge. generally she has made a bowl of some kind of grain - oatmeal, millet, rice, etc. - and also provides stuff for "butter bread" - which is some white bread, cheese, and cold cuts.

i took the metro over to the island the school is on. this was the first day of class in the other building. i had walked down the street a day or two before, just so i'd have some idea of how far it was, what the street looked, etc. except of course with the numbering conventions they use, i wasn't sure which building it actually was. they had said it was a yellow building, but there were several of those on the same side of the street. when i got to the street, i sort of walked along trying to figure out for sure which building was number 7, but i couldn't tell. i tried a door at one building, but it didn't open. i finally walked over to another building and entered a door and said i had class there, and she asked if i was a student then let me through the turnstile. (this place loves turnstiles.) i noted that the entrance to the building has two fairly distinctive features: it's right next to an entrance for cars that has a red and white gate/bar for vehicles; and - more distinctly - there is a big clock over the door that sticks out so you can see it coming from either direction. it would have been a pretty nice marker for them to have given. but oh well, now i knew.

i hadn't done my homework from the previous day, so i went into a small sitting area in the courtyard space and did my homework. there is a monument there that i suppose is related to world war ii, as it has 1941-1945 on it. there was originally some metal letters higher up, but they have been removed. but you can still see where they were due to the weathering. there are a couple of letters that you can't tell for sure, so i haven't tried to see what it said. once done, i went upstairs and had my second class here. i like dennis's style. he jokes, and tries to get people to converse and tell stories. it makes speaking have a purpose other than just reading exercises and finishing the sentences or changing the verb tense or whatever. (although he does that as well.)

after the class, mike and shant and i decided we were going to go get something to eat, and then have a drink or something. we walked around and discussed different options, but shant was pretty interested in going to mcdonald's. i wasn't too excited about it, other than seeing what a mcdonald's is like in russia, but mike was cool with it so i reluctantly agreed to go. i got a cheeseburger, beef roll, and a large coke. there were quite a few people ordering, so a lady was going through and taking orders on a handheld device, then giving ticket numbers. when i got to the cashier, i gave her my ticket and she rang me up. once again, as in times past, she wanted exact change if possible. none of the three of us speak russian all that well, so we were all a bit unsure of the ordering and paying process. at one point the lady asked shant or mike something and they didn't know what she said, so a guy in line said "here or to go". we went to an upstairs seating area and ate and talked. when we got up we were trying to figure out if we were supposed to bus our own tables or not. there was a guy changing out trash bags, so mike went up to ask him and i followed. when i walked up, the guy looked at me and said (in english) "you're from Texas?!" (he saw the Texas flag on my jacket.) i said i was and he said "i'm from san antonio!" so i told him i was from houston. i asked him what he was doing in russia, and he said his mom was russian, so they'd moved back here at some point. he was probably in his late teens or maybe early 20's. he seemed pretty excited to meet someone here that was from Texas. i talked to him for a few minutes and then mike and shant and i took off.

we decided we would go have a beer, so we went to a place near the mcdonald's called munhell. i figured it was maybe a german bar or something, but they didn't have all that big of a selection of beers. we sat in the outside area. i had timmerman's kriek. one thing i've noticed in places here is that most of them only have a list of a few beers, but when you go to order them they are usually out of at least one or two, or even three. what i mean is that it's not uncommon at all. but what they are pretty much never out of is baltika 7. shant and mike and i sat and talked for an hour or two, then we went our separate ways. fortunately for me, munhell (as well as the mcdonald's) is right by the metro station i use to get to/from school. so i got on it and went back to my part of town.

later on, i decided i was hungry so i went out for a walk to see where i wanted to go. i've learned that places that seem foreign to me make me more nervous. i guess because i don't speak the language well and i'm not familiar with the food choices, so i feel like i'm going to be completely unsure of what i'm ordering or how to order it, etc. if i weren't by myself most of the time, i'd probably feel more comfortable trying out these kinds of places - but that's not the case. the funny thing is, even though i may end up picking some place that feels more comfortable or familiar as far as types of food or atmosphere or whatever, the food usually ends up being different somehow and no one is more likely to be able to interact with me better than anywhere else. plus i really don't want to give up completely and go to american chain restaurants or something, where i know the menu and the food exactly. so for all these reasons, i ended up choosing a place called kino pizza. i walked in and immediately wasn't sure if i should seat myself or if i should wait for them to seat me, etc. plus the place split in two directions, and i wasn't sure if it was all the same place, or if i walked into the back it'd be some other place, or if that was a different kind of dining area, or what. i stood around a bit just kind of looking around and trying to figure out what to do, then a waitress walked up to me and asked me something in russian. i realized i really had no idea how to say "do i wait for you to seat me, or do i seat myself?" so i said in russian that i didn't speak russian very well, and then started trying to ask about seating. she looked at me a bit and then asked in russian if i wanted a menu. i said da and she brought one, in english. i stood there for awhile looking at it, then some people at a table got up and left so she brought me over at sat me there. i ordered a "tropical" pizza (ham and pineapple) and a baltika 7. when she asked in russian what size and i said "pol-litr" (half liter) she seemed to smile and be impressed i knew how to order it. she brought the pizza out, which was pretty decent but nothing amazing. when i was done she came over and smiled and asked me something about the beer in russian. i understood all of it except one word, which was unfortunately the key word in the sentence. i looked at her and said in russian i didn't understand and she asked the same question again. i just kind of smiled and looked confused. at this point her expression sort of changed from smiling to looking upset or disappointed and she turned around and walked off. i paid and left.

i tell you, interactions like that are depressing. whenever i have a successful interaction - even if it's with basic language and some simple words and even use of hands/fingers, or even if they resort to some english words at times - it feels really good, like i've accomplished something and am succeeding. but when things like this happen - when they seem to not be able to understand me at all, or they look at me and seem disappointed or upset - it just really makes me feel like a failure and that i shouldn't be here trying to interact with people.

as i've been writing people about this via email or sms, it really makes me think of what it must feel like to be an immigrant to a country where you don't speak the language (either very well or at all). even if you are very intelligent, even if you were a very successful and sociable person where you were from, none of that matters. suddenly you're afraid of being able to successfully negotiate the most basic functions of life: taking a bus, riding the subway, ordering food, going into a grocery store or convenience store. everything is fraught with the peril of knowing you might not be able to read signs somewhere and might do something wrong, or someone will question you or ask you about something and you won't understand them. then on top of the language barrier, you are also operating in a culture that is foreign to you, so it's possible at any point you may do something that is inappropriate or rude or incorrect to these people, stuff that everyone here knows but you don't. when your emotions can be bolstered or crushed by whether you are successfully able to order some food or buy a ticket for the bus or subway, you've been reduced to pretty basic functioning. i'm trying to not do it, but i can easily understand why people would want to surround themselves by other people who speak their language, to seek out places where they can comfortably and with confidence be able to order things, buy things, have a discussion, ask questions, etc. i don't think it's the best thing to do, because you're now in another place and should try to fit in there, but i can see how the fear and frustration and humiliation could be overwhelming. plus i am also living in the age of technology, where i can use my phone and computer to help me translate, talk to friends in real time on the other side of world by text, voice, or even video. it's difficult imagining what it must have been like 150 years ago, when the only communication was by the postal service, and that took weeks or even months to be sent and get a response (if they made it at all).

when i got home, i talked with svetlana (my landlady) for some time. i talked about the ups and downs, and how it's frustrating and depressing at times. she studied english in books, but never had chances to speak and listen in it a whole lot, so she understands from that perspective where i'm coming from. i found out that her family is originally korean. during world war 2, when russia and japan were on opposite sides, korea was sort of in the middle so a lot of koreans moved from korean more inland into other russian territories. her grandmother, as a young girl, was one of these people. svetlana grew up there (i forget which place), then moved to saint petersburg when she was 16 to study medicine and economics here. a boy she knew from there went to moscow to study geology. years later they got married, and they had a boy and a girl. about 6 or 7 years ago, he passed away from liver (i think) cancer. her children still live in saint petersburg. the rest of her family lives in moscow. she decided to rent out the two bedrooms in her apartment because she recently needed to buy a new car, and the payments are very high. (she had an older car, but her husband used to fix it, and after he passed away she had no idea how to work on it, and it was very expensive to repair it all the time.) at some point recently she met a man from finland, and he's coming here a day or two after i leave, and they are going to meet her family in moscow, and it's possible they will get married. she is hoping to travel, because she doesn't see how she can really afford to live here by herself on her pension money. she'll be able to retire in about two years (in russia, retirement age for women is 55).

4 Comments

You shouldn't look at not being able to communicate effectively as a sign of failure. In language learning,
failure is quitting, not encountering difficulty. Everyone encounters difficulty. The differences between
learners involves how that difficulty is handled. I often use an analogy with language students (because the
way you are looking at this is actually quite common). I ask them, if you're walking from Houston to Austin,
and you're halfway to Austin, does that make you bad at getting to Austin? Obviously not. It simply takes
X amount of time to get there, and if you're progressing towards the goal, then you are not failing, you just
haven't arrived yet. Half of winning is just being there when it's over.

Also, as far as the culture thing. No one goes to a foreign country without making faux pas. You can
read books to prepare you, but that stuff can't be mastered from books. You master it by interacting
with people, making mistakes and learning from them. Don't be afraid of making cultural errors,
because they will happen. And you shouldn't feel bad about it either, because like I said, it happens
to everyone and you're not doing it with malicious intent. Think of it this way. You making the
error is an accident of time and place. If the roles were reversed, and the person you accidently
offended was in Texas, they might very well be offending you with some cultural faux pas. Actually,
those things usually end up becoming good stories anyway.

I agree with Ash that you are doing very well. I have alwsys had a large safety net when traveling overseas -- a guide, a friend or a military base to make things easier. You are out there without a net, so that's very courageous of you, and I can understand your occasional apprehension.

One thing I learned about foreign culture may (or may not) relate to Russian culture. Getting yelled at is, at times, part of the culture in some countries. That just the way people are. I know there is some concern about being the ugly Amercian tourist, but sometimes people are going yell at you. So I'd recommend that you not let fear of that deter you from exploring and trying new things.

So, when do we get to hear about what happened after day 7?

i've got short notes on all of the remaining days, i just haven't had time to sit down and write them out into entries. i was jet-lagged for several days, plus work threw me right back into the fray, so i haven't had the time and/or energy. so, hopefully i'll start posting them sometime soon. of course, i'm also lazy so you may never see them. : )

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