Friday, November 4, 2011

Running In Siberia

      In many ways, this blog is like confession. No, wait--I didn't mean it that way. You can keep reading without having to be exposed to the fact that I watched a movie with kissing in it last night or that, even though I promised her I would, I haven't always been wearing the rape whistle my mom gave me before I left. I just mean this blog is similar to confession in that, the longer I wait in between confessions and, in this case, blog posts, the more I have to say, and the less I can seem to sort it out. My overabundance of information feels instead like a deficit of it, and in both cases, in the end, I just feel like I haven't sinned in months and I don't owe anything to anybody. Instead of either writing a blog or going to confession, I end up sending yet another petition to the Pope for my premature canonization. I say premature because in grade school, they taught me that only dead people could become saints. (Of course if people had always listened to the poopooing of nay-sayers, then Alexander Graham Bell would've never invented the telephone, Lady Gaga would never have learned the alphabet, and the grandfather clock in my bedroom would have never have overcome his polio in order to a dance for me on my birthday this past summer.) In other words, watch out editor of the next edition of Lives of the Saints. There's an unwritten chapter of your next edition with my name all over it.
       Anyway, now that I've gotten the "I'm an insecure 22-year-old, and I can't write something for people to read without trying to be funny" portion of this blog off my chest I will get back to the initial point, which is that so much seems to change here in my life with every day, that if I haven't written a while, its hard to figure out what to write. There's like a million things I'd love to share with you about my life right now, and I'm not sure where to start. I guess I'll try my hand at something I've been asked about a few times, and that I keep meaning to write about--running in Irkutsk.
       I will start by saying that for about six months before I left for Russia, all of my runs were completed in a pair of canvas white bobos that I bought at payless for fifteen dollars. Did I say I bought them? I meant to say that I borrowed them so much from my roommate who bought them for fifteen dollars that they then became tattered and dirty within a short time, and I then bought her a new pair because I felt guilty, while continuing to run in hers. These little dandies had no arch-support, no cushioning, and in every way conformed to the mandates of the "less-is-more" fad founded upon a return to prehistoric values that has been sweeping the running nation since the publication of Cristopher McDougall's Born to Run. In short, I thoroughly loved them (as I do many fads.) And the teasing nature I use in describing them is only the result of an insecurity on my part that renders me incapable of showing too much enthusiasm for any popular thing without simultaneously making fun of it. (By the way, I really think this is a common Irish trait--to be really emotionally invested in something and then have to be sarcastic about it. Irish people make fun of themselves for being over-emotional, but the fact that they're making fun shows that maybe they're not as emotional as they think...more on that another time, though).
          At any rate, before I left the old США, I purchased a pair of Asics second-hand, more or less because my bobos were falling apart and the soles had literally been taped together for the past three months (not a joke lie) and also because I was sick of people giving me looks when I left for a long run. Perhaps ninety-percent of the things I do to improve the general comfort of my life I do merely to avoid having people sympathize with my lack of comfort. It hit a point where "You know, Rose, you should really buy yourself a decent pair of running shoes," was becoming unbearable for me, and I caved.
       So the day I left for Russia, I took a long run through the city of Philadelphia in the old canvas sneakers, and on the way home, I chucked them into in the garbage. There was a ceremoniousness and finality to it that struck my fancy. It felt like the end of something more than just my roommate's sneakers, and of course, it really was.
      Later that day, I was on a plane bound for Siberia. I arrived in Russia two and a half days later, and after spending the first day getting myself organized (What does that even mean coming from me? After 2 months, I still haven't even unpacked yet), I hit the road in my new Asics on the second day.
     Running, I got to discover the city a bit and I also learned a little a thing or two about Russian culture: Not many people run, and everyone feels the need to comment or make jokes if they have the good fortune of catching you in this bazaar act. It was interesting and funny, and I was so happy to be back on my feet again after days spent sitting. There was just one problem--after only three miles, my feet were already killing me, and I still had three miles to run home even if I were to turn around right then.
     The first week I had fun running around the city and it was great to get some new experience going up and down hills (Philadelphia and South Jersey are so flat), but my feet were absolutely killing me every time. Of course I can't blame this on the shoes exclusively. I think they're probably just too small for me. You see I've taken it upon myself to never actually memorize my shoe size, operating under the vague notion that when the time comes to buy shoes, I will just sort of know "by feel" if the shoes are right for me or not. Because, you know, "those sizes are all so relative anyways, right?"  I argued. 
           No Rose, they aren't. They're really not that relative, not nearly so relative as, say, figuring out the right shoe size "by feel." This has probably resulted in me owning several pairs of ill-fitting shoes, but that's the sort of thing I would never notice on my own, unless it was actually painful for me, as in the case of the Asics. Also, when I'm running, I'm way more focused and aware of my body than I am generally, so of course I would notice the wrong size then, in a way at other times I would be oblivious. At any rate, after about a week or so, I knew I could not continue in the shoes.
     I immediately decided that I would just run indoors and without the Asics. I soon found my university's gym or more to the point, the "sport's room," as it is called in Russian. The "sportivnii zal" is on the second floor of the same building where all of my classes are. This building also holds the library and all of the university's offices and classrooms. In short, the entire university is housed there. The room is a smaller-than-regulation sized basketball court, and I decided that from then on I would do my running in there, barefoot. The place seemed about the same size as a basketball court down the block from my parent's house in Wildwood, whose dimensions I knew. I figured twenty laps at the most probably constituted a mile. I could run around the room 140 times without dying of boredom, right?
    The first day I came into the sports room, I was met with some resistance from the woman who worked there, but thanks to a pursuasive group of tall young men in Allan Iverson Jerseys who wanted to practice their Russlish with me, the problem (whatever it was) was soon solved and the woman who worked there allowed me to run. At the time I thought that it was probably the result of some fear on her part that my entire reproductive system would fail and then walk out of my ear canals if I ran too close to the rough-housing young whippersnappers who had come to the gym to shoot some hoops at the same time I wanted to run. In retrospect, that's probably more reflective of some culture shock I was experiencing at the time regarding the difference between gender relations in America and Russia. Most likely, she just noticed that I was carrying running clothes but no running shoes and was worried about me scuffing up the floor with the flats I was wearing.
     All's well that ends well though, and so I continued to come back there every day for about two hours after my classes. The woman who works there and I are on the very best of terms now (we always share a word or two about the trashy beach novels she's reading) and I've come to recognize the other people who work in their two. 
        In short, for the past two months, its become something of a schedule for me, and that's just kind of how I've been running--barefoot, in a small b-ball court, going in circles for about two hours. Of course its tedious, but not nearly so much as I would've expected. I focus on my stride, try not to daydream too much, and watch the entertainment of the day. Mondays and Tuesdays are "Fizcultura," in other words, gym class. Russia is overwhelmingly female (People say its because of wars, alcoholism, and other things claiming the lives of males, but I've been to a few high schools here, and even among younger groups it seems like the room is just full of girls.) Anyway, gym class is just a bunch of girls sitting on the bench and texting, going to smoke cigarettes in the locker room, and then occasionally running with me for a few laps as they good-naturedly try to practice their english, while the only two young men in the class play some balencesta. Wednesdays I have the gym to myself, and Thursdays the boys who initially helped me on my first day play basketball. They're friendly and cool and sometimes we chat a bit, which is nice too. All of these days are pleasant in their own way, but none of them, none of them, compare to Fridays, which are by far, my absolute favorite day to run.
       In Russia, there aren't majors, there are faculties. Students are arranged according to faculty and you have all of your classes with the kids in your faculty. For two hours on Fridays, the international faculty has the gym all to themselves. Its even written on the calendar. Well, as I've already mentioned, with the exception of me and a few others,  the International Faculty consists almost entirely of Chinese people. Therefore this effectively means that Fridays are a completely fabulous weekly celebration of Young Chinese Men Play Basketball. Occasionally like two girls come too, but they never play. They just stand on the other side of the railing and clap for absolutely everything that happens. People get applauded for shooting, for passing the ball successfully, for passing the ball unsuccessfully, and for having successfully solving difficult math problems. Sorry. That was stereotypical. The point is, on a more politically correct note, Chinese Basketball Day is the best damn day of my week. This is true for multiple reasons:
     First of all: I (as well as the other occidental girls) am in love with every boy in all of my classes. Everyone is incredibly cute with their big brown eyes and soft dark hair. Moreover, while a huge deficit of females in Russia has led Russian men to be able to do nothing and still get girls, a huge deficit of females in China has led to the sweetest most respectful boys I have ever met. (One of my Russian teachers said that the Chinese should start exporting husbands to Russia the way that Russians export wives to America.) It is actually impossible to imagine the boys I'm in class with even being at a typical college party in America. I am so curious to see what they would act like in a bar. These guys are so sweet, and it makes me feel like a jerk to realize that I'm probably a little coarser than all of them, and I'm not even that coarse.
    Second of all: Watching the boys in my class play basketball is really funny. Yes, yes, I am well aware that there is no particular race or ethnicity that is more athletic than any other. Please don't accuse of me of being a racist. It is true though that every culture has its sports that come naturally to it. Basketball I do not think comes naturally to these particular Chinese boys, if only because, considering the large scope of the country's history, basketball is a very new thing. Whatever the reason, Friday basketball at the Irkutsk State Linguistics University is sort of the sports equivalent of this. I can't comment on anybody's athleticism or lack there of, its just that, well, basketball doesn't seem to be the right sport. In the two hours I'm there I might see one basket scored, or I might see people kicking the basketball into the nearest hoop. I might see someone box someone else out for a second, or I might instead see a group of boys who aren't really interested in touching each other too roughly laugh good-naturedly when they want the ball from one another and then start doing pushups in the middle of the game. Whatever I see though, its going to be great.
      Unfortunately, recently something came in between me and my weekly viewing of Chinese Basketball. In fact something came between me and running, generally: Winter. Tennis teams that previously practiced outside now were using the gym in the light of the cold weather. The coach begins by having the children spend the first hour hitting the ball against the wall, so I can't continue running laps the way I can when people are merely playing basketball. To make up for it, I was running up and down the steps in my school, and then spending some time doing push-ups and squats in the locker room, but still it wasn't the same, and I didn't feel like I was really getting anything out of this. Something had to be done.
    Sitting in class Wednesday, I finally made the decision, I was going to run outside in the shoes again. This time though it was five degrees below celsius (please don't ask me to convert that, I think its somewhere in the twenties?), and there was snow on the ground. It may sound silly but I thought this might work to my advantage. The snow would make my shoes wet and therefore more maleable, and then maybe they wouldn't feel so tight. Also the fizcultura coaches had been coming into the locker room almost every day to jam about running with me and try to bully me into running outside.
    "You have to start running outside."
    "Its too cold!" I would respond, not up for explaining the whole shoe fiasco in a second language.
    "Its going to be too cold if you wait. You've gotta start early and get accustomed to it," They'd say, eyebrows raised, hands poised on their hips, staring down at me as I put back on my shoes.
     Now maybe, I could avoid the argument. So after class I headed up to sportivinii zal to grab my running clothes. The two coaches were sitting side-by-side on the couch where I leave my things, and I told them excitedly that today I would be running outside.
     "Yeah, well, you keep telling me to run outside."
     "Today you don't need to."
     "There's snow and ice outside."
     "Well, I'll try it for twenty minutes, if I can't, I'll return."
     "Okay," they let up, much to my surprise. Being an adult female in Russia means that you automatically have license to tell everyone exactly how they are supposed to do everything at all times. I as another adult female could probably counter this, if I were firm enough in my speech, but its generally hard. When any woman (not just these two track-jacket wearing amazons) tries to tell me I need to do something, even if I think they're crazy, I usually do it here. Fortunately though, they didn't argue the point too much.
      So I grabbed my clothes, changed in the locker room, and then left. I was terrified at first, but soon found that I wasn't even cold. I really enjoyed the run but spent a lot of it in fear of when it was going to start becoming unbearable. In a way it seemed too good to be true. I ran around the other side of the city--Irkutsk is split in half by the river Angara--and up and down hills through the snow, and really it was all very wonderful. I felt so cheery after a bit, and it seemed other people who I passed felt that way too. It was a sunny bright day, the first with snow on the ground, and as I ran by people for the seven and a half miles I was gone, groups of people congratulated me or simply beeped and gave a thumbs up. By the time I returned to the school, I was actually hot from running so much, and the good news was, although my feet did still hurt a bit, it was so much to focus on running over the ice ( I mean ice and snow literally covered the entire way I ran) that I couldn't even really think about my feet. It was great.
     I did the same the thing the next day, and then yesterday couldn't run because I cleaned my running clothes and they were drying all day. Hopefully, though, I can keep it up for the rest of my time here, without being too afraid of the cold. I guess we'll find out! Alright well that's more than enough from now.
Catch you later,