Saturday, September 3, 2011

Greetings from Half-way Around the World!

      (Unless of course you are not half way around the world from me right now, in which case, consider yourself ungreeted.) So as I said in my last post, I am so over writing about the female reproductive system and I'm now ready to tackle the hefty topic of the old USSR. On Thursday morning, I arrived in Irkutsk and was met by my host here, Sarah. The plane itself was kind of a funny experience. In the airport in Paris all of the Russian speakers were eavesdropping on one another's conversations and making comments to eachother in voices dripping with sarcasm. (I imagine it was sarcasm; it may have just been their accents. I didn't catch much of it anyways.) An old lady would say something to her daughter, and then some nearby forty-something-year-old man in a jean jacket and matching jean pants (for whatever reason, this is a really popular outfit for middle aged men here) would comment and everybody would laugh. It was kind of cozy, and it almost seemed like we were all at some big family party where the uncles were drinking too much and cracking jokes. So, in the spirit of things, I of course joined in with my trademark performance for everyone of "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow" as I would do at just such a function back home. I'm pretty sure they loved it, because they paid me by throwing vodka in my direction.
        (Important: Did I steal this joke about having things thrown at you and thinking its a good thing from somebody, maybe Sarah Walsh? Perhaps not the same thing but something similar? It feels maybe a little too familiar. If so, I apologize. As a sign of my repentence, I give you this as a peace offering. That way, I can make amends at the cost of an innocent person totally unrelated to my transgression, in this case, George Bush.)
        The Russians seemed really cool in Paris so I was excited about what the next few months had in store for me, but once the plane landed in Moscow, the whole vibe changed. It was as if once they got back on native soil, they no longer owed each other anything. And because they were all now just Russians in Russia, as opposed to Russians in Paris, they could finally go about their business, being as rude to one another as they were able, and perhaps make some sort of sport of it, which may one day be acceptable to the olympic commission. Such is the way of Moscow, I suppose.
        Irkutsk was another matter, as I soon found out on my flight further east. On the way over, I sat beside an expat from Russia who was returning to her home in Irkutsk for a visit with her parents. She talked to me the whole time--except for the periods when, after a mere yawn, I would immediately become comatose. I could've imagined it, but I had the distinct feeling that she was trying to help me. I actually thought she might have been talking to me with the mere purpose of giving me a chance to improve my Russian before landing. We had little to say to eachother. Still, in between conversations she'd have this look on her face as if she were fishing for something. Within the minute, she'd have picked a new topic replete with its own set of specialized vocabulary. We'd begin talking about this new thing, and the whole time she would provide me with better ways to say whatever I had just said, which for the most part, would have been something like, "Fooding. We stand, stand? Giving the hand, under the--Good Morning. Who. Fooding, Spatulaing," in English. Some how, she still understood, and managed to help me get out whatever I was trying to communicate.
       Occasionally, if I got a little teary--which by the way, I did several times, especially when talking about home, she would grab my arm and say "Ne Grusti, Rosa. Vsyo budet horosho." (Don't be sad, Rose. Everything will be fine.) I didn't get to thank her for making my transition to Siberia that much easier, but I was soon to find out that her behavior is pretty typical of the area. She was merely like so many other Irkutsk people, and the first of several kind women I would meet in this city that is so cold, and yet somehow, so full of warm people.
          When we landed, I was met at the airport by my host, I'll call her Sarah, who is an amazing woman. She is a gynecologist and endocrinologist and also a wonderful mother to her thirteen-year-old daughter Lily (another made up name. I feel bad using their names without them knowing I'm writing about them), who is also incredibly sweet and affectionate. Sarah is extremely bright and full of interesting things to say about the Soviet Times and life in general. My only regret is that I can't communicate better with her, because I have questions about some of the things she says, but can't really ask them because, as of now, I can speak about as well as those cardboard sheets that come inside shoes to keep their shape before they are worn.
         In addition to being bright and interesting, she is also loyal and kind. On my first day in the country, when she took me to the University to get everything situated, it turned out that I had accidentally thrown out my migration card at the airport. This is a small piece of paper which the person entering the country has to fill out. It doesn't seem like a big deal, especially because you write it yourself, but it gets stamped when you land in Moscow, and that is the important part. Its just as necessary to have on you as a passport; you really gotta have this thing to be in the country. I was on the verge of tears at the discovery that I had lost it, but Sarah kept telling me it was fine. When we were in the office of the University, as the woman behind the desk was finally able to fix this for me, Sarah said, "See, Rose? Its fine."
           "Its not fine," the woman replied. "This is very bad." She looked at me, and not Sarah, as she said this last part.
           "No, everything is fine."
           "No, its very bad."
           "It turned out alright, right? Everything was solved. Its fine," Sarah responded with finality. That was the end of the conversation.
          On the ride home, I looked around at the city, and--I can admit this now that my opinion has changed--I was a little disappointed. The city, although a sort of historical center, looked run-down to me. So many crumbling steps led over so many muddy hills, stained brick buildings, well built, but unkempt, with random piles of wood or stone in their back yard. (I have no idea where they even get that stuff from, but its there in a surprising majority of the Irkutsk yards), and circling all of this, massive apartment buildings erected during the Soviet Era, now in a period of decay, the gloom of which, no amount of joy could ever usurp. (or so it seemed to me at the time.)
        I doubted the correctness of my choice in coming to Irkutsk. I was kicking myself for it even, but then I would comfort myself with the knowledge that, if nothing else, I was getting an immersion course in Russian, and no less, in the comfort of a loving home full of wonderful people. On top of that, I was sleeping in a bedroom from which I could see the beautiful Lake Baikal, the oldest (what does that mean though? Seriously,) and deepest fresh water lake in the world. Even as I write, this wonderful slice of moon is rising over the lake and the sky is inky blue like the water below. Sarah's apartment, like all Irkutsk apartments I have seen, is in an enclosure of several other huge apartment buildings that sort of wrap around one other. In between the buildings sandboxes, mud parking lots, and sad playgrounds on whose benches sit only old men, pensive and hopeless, the whole day long. Here in these enclosures, there is a coziness that cannot be felt in America because all of the apartments leave their doors and windows unlocked and open, even on a night like this when the air is crisp and it feels like Thanksgiving outside.
        The benefit of this (and some other factors) openess is, that you can experience the best of both the warmer seasons and the colder seasons simultaneously: the sounds of other people's lives (i.e. babies crying, people chatting amongst themselves after dinner, etc.) and the smell of fireplaces. The combination is heavenly. Also, I can't really get a good idea of school hours here, but I know that a lot of the kids, including Lily, don't go in to school until about noon, and then get home at about eight. The effect of this is that there are a lot of kids out playing in the evening when most American kids are inside watching TV. Around nine o' clock the apartment complex is suddenly brimming with children, and its so nice to hear them all. It is really sweet here right now. There is so much else about the city I'd like to say, but I'm tired for now. I'll try to write more when I can. Goodnight from Siberia,


  1. You'll be able to communicate with your host soon! Near the end of my semester in Ecuador my host mother and sister both told me that my Spanish was quite good, "You really couldn't have a very long conversation in the beginning," they said. It will come. It's frustrating, but I understand the barrier.

  2. Hey Liz, I for some reason only saw this now. (I'm really new to this blog thing). Actually its funny you say that. Already we are really communicating. Before I could speak to well, I could understand her and she would just kind of tell stories while I listened. Now I can express myself so different. Getting better at speaking a language is so weird. I can't even begin to explain it, but you know the experience. In a way its like the whole world keeps changing colors. Its like your stuck in this layered womb thing and every time a layer is peeled off everything becomes a new color but it just keeps opening wider and wider. I can't put it into words but its amazing how you here the same words, see the same billboards all the time, but each day you understand more and more of it, and slowly it becomes different. I guess its the closest I'll ever come to knowing what being a baby was like. I would say we go through the same process every time we meet a new person, but somehow, I forget each step of the process more with people. Like if I meet someone who I think is really quiet, and then I see that they're not, I almost forget I ever thought otherwise. In the end, I only remember a few key moments in our acquaintance stage, or maybe some first impressions. Here I'm more conscious of each level of "russian awareness" or whatever. Its so cool.