Saturday, November 12, 2011

An Afternoon with a Russian Family

A panorama of Orsk from the Television Station hilltop
I was thrilled Saturday to have the opportunity to have dinner with a Russian family in their home.  Nadezhda Tusina, an English Professor whom I work with at the Institute, and her family showed me warm Russian hospitality as they spent the afternoon showing me the sights of Orsk and opening their home to me with a delicious home cooked dinner!

At my request, we stopped for some photos on the bridge over the Ural River which is the border between Asia and Europe.  As strange as it may seem, the Ural was actually frozen over on the Asian side of the river, but there was no ice on the European side - believe it or not!

The next stop was at the oldest church in the city, located on the highest hill, and built on the site of the original fortress which dates back to 1735.  The old part of the Orsk is located on the Asian side of the river.  It wasn't until World War II (The Great Patriotic Was, as they call it) that the European side to the city was built as factories in larger cities, in danger of being bombed by the Nazis, were relocated to this remote location.  Since there was no service going on in the church at the time of our visit, I was able to take photographs.

A view of the newer and more industrial part of the city from the high hill where
the television broadcasting station is located
Andrei in his office 
It was very interesting to visit the business of Andrei, Nadezhda's husband.  He is the owner of an automotive supply store in Orsk which sells tires, rims, automotive parts, and performs automotive services.  Andrei drives a newer Ford that was manufactured in Germany.  He laughed when he found out that the American drives an older (1999) Japanese car!  He gave me an oil additive treatment for my car, Suprotech, which is manufactured in St. Petersburg, Russia, and according to him will keep my car going for another hundred years!  This is a great time of year for his business, as everybody is buying snow tires for the change of seasons.

Mounting customers' snow tires for the upcoming winter

There is just a whisp of snow on the ground now, but everybody is taking this as a sign to get ready
for the coming winter weather.

The snow tires have little studs that look like rivets to give better traction on winter roads.

Our next stop was at the community bath house/sauna, closed on Saturdays, but the Babushka was there selling "vyenik", bundles of birch and oak twigs.  A bather in the sauna dips them in boiling water for 10 seconds and then slaps his/her bare skin with them in the sauna.  There are different types of bundles, some with dried blossoms and some without.  Each type gives a different fragrance.  The oak bundles have coarser leaves and offer a more stimulating experience than the birch.  While she initially protested that she did not want her photo taken, Nadezhda told me that she would be bragging to her friends about her "American experience" for weeks to come!  Click on the link below to hear an audio program about Russian bath house culture and history.

By this time, we were all ready for dinner, so we went to the family's apartment to spend the rest of the afternoon.  They have a beautiful, spacious apartment which is modern and very comfortable.  The large kitchen has a stainless steel refrigerator and up to date appliances.  Nadezhda is a fantastic cook and set a table fit for a king!  She made four different salads, and for the main course, home made pelmeni, a Russian dumpling that is stuffed with three kinds of meat.  It was delicious!

Daughter "Marcia" also speaks beautiful English and recently competed in an English poetry contest in school.  I coached her for an hour one afternoon before the competition.  She feels like she performed well, and is eager to get the results of the contest at school tomorrow.  Their son, Vova (the nickname for Vladimir), is also learning English and eventually got up the courage to try it out with me by asking, "What city are you from?"  As you can see here, you don't really need snow or ice to be ready for a hockey game!  The family has invited me to go to a hockey game with them in early December.  I gladly accepted!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Russian Weddings

Saturdays are the most popular day of the week for weddings in Russia, so I decided to take my camera with me on my walk to the gym, and sure enough, I got lucky!  These newlyweds were observing some Russian wedding traditions.  After the civil ceremony, the bride and groom take a tour of the city which lasts several hours.  They visit the historic landmarks of the city and stop at important monuments to take photos.  The groom is supposed to carry the bride over seven bridges in the city, and they are to place a padlock on one of them and throw the key in the river.  This ensures that the couple will have many happy, and harmonious years of wedded bliss together! 

Carrying the bride across a bridge

A popular bridge with newlyweds!

Flowers at the World War II memorial left by the brides and grooms.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I Went to Church Today

This neighborhood church is alive and well.  It has Sunday services at 7:00am and 9:00am.  I went to the 9:00 service, and it was full.  While at least half of the worshipers were over 50 years old and the majority were women, there were men and women of all ages at the service, from babies to pensioners.  Of course, I didn't understand the content of the service, but I did enjoy taking in the experience and making some observations about what I saw.

As people entered the gate of the church property, they stopped and crossed themselves.  With the tips of the fingers on the right hand gathered together, they touched forehead, abdomen, the top of the right shoulder, across to the top of the left shoulder, and then with a deep bow, dropped their right hand to their right knee, or at times, all the way to the floor.  Men took off their hats before then entered the church.  The first stop when people entered the building was the small church store, where everyone purchased candles to light in the sanctuary.
One of the large ornate icons in the church.

They then entered the main open part of the church where they took off their coats and hung them on a rack.  The women either took off their hats and covered their heads with scarfs, or left their hats on.  The church is filled with beautiful and ornate icons, both small and large. They are adorned with gold details and reflect the rich tradition and culture of the church in Russia.  There are no pews in the church. People remain standing for worship.  As people arrived with their candles, they lit them and placed them on one of the candle stands.  If there were no available spaces on the stands, they handed their candles to one of the attendants lit them later when needed.  They then  

Each candle station had a female attendant who received
candles from the worshipers and lit them to replace candles
 that were burning out.
proceeded to one of the icons, crossed themselves, and leaned forward to kiss the icon and gently touch their forehead against is, crossing themselves again.   A small group of women, perhaps four or five - I could not see all of them - we in a small balcony above us reading aloud from the Bible before the service began.  During the worship service, they sang beautiful acapella harmonies (there is no instrumental music) that interplayed with the priest's chanted readings.  It felt as if there were angels aloft in the church.

Near the end of the worship, three priests brought out the vessels for communion.  People with children went forward first.  Using a long handled gold spoon, a priest placed something in the mouth of a worshiper who then kissed the gold chalice.  A red cloth seemed to be used to bless the children, who were held by their parents or grandparents.   People flied out one by one, most of them with their arms folded and hands held flat against their chests.  

I wish I understood more of what went on, of the traditions and the symbolism.  Perhaps I will be able to find out and understand more before I leave.  It was a rich experience.

The new church that is being constructed right beside the old.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Shower Caps for Shoes

On this cold, rainy, windy day, the first heavy snowflakes of the season danced among the raindrops then disappeared before they hit the ground.

We can't pretend it's summer anymore - not even Indian Summer.  It's been a cold, drizzly week.  When it rains, the streets fill with water and there are puddles everywhere.  There are no storm gutters to drain the water away.  When it rains for one day, the puddles stay for a week, and everything turns to mud.  The cars spash muddy water as they pass.  Sometimes it's impossible to cross a street without slogging through some mud to get around a puddle.  The cuffs of my slacks are muddy when I arrive at work.  It's that time of year here.

But there is a wonderful detail on these days that makes it all seem just so normal and routine.  Whenever I enter a public building on a messy day, there is a basket of little disposable "shower caps" for my shoes, so I don't track in.  How civilized!

I'm ready for winter now.  The sooner the better.  It's funny how a few messy days have changed my perspective on the seasons.  Summer is over.  Freeze up the mud and cover the ground with a beautiful white blanket of snow.  Please.  

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Moscow and Beyond

Things are getting busy!  Since my last blog entry, I've been to Moscow, given a talk on "Life in America," taught teacher training workshops for both secondary school English teachers and elementary school teachers who are learning English so they can teach it in the future, started taking private lessons in Russian, and guest taught English in two different classes each day (90 minutes each) at the Institute.  I'm doing just what I came here to do!  My hosts at the Institute are fully engaged with me and are making this a wonderful professional experience for me.

Topics that I will be teaching in class in the coming week include, grammar (use of the simple present tense vs the present continuous tense), American movie stars and their characteristics, the structure of the American educational system, American art and entertainment, diseases (their symptoms, treatment, and prevention), and phonetics!!

Click here for more photos of Moscow.
My quick, two day visit to Moscow last week was the fulfillment of a life-long dream.  The Russian Fulbright Office invited the Fellows to an in-country orientation consisting of a day of meetings at the American Embassy and the Moscow Carnegie Center (a subdivision of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace in Washington DC) and 60 of us attended. I went one day early for sightseeing, and I was absolutely giddy as I ran about Red Square taking in St. Basil's Cathedral, the Bolshoi Theater, and paying my respects to Lenin.  None of my Russian friends understand why we want to see Lenin, and most of the Fulbrighters DID go to see him.  Rumor has it that his body will no longer be on display as of some time next year.  For me, it was an important thing to do if for no other reason than to contemplate the enormous influence and impact this man has had on the course of human history.  I didn't get to go inside the walls of the Kremlin; it is closed to tourists on Thursdays, but I will when I return to Moscow for a few vacation days in mid-November.

Click here to see a video clip of Red Square and hear these men's voices fill a chamber of the Cathedral!
It was interesting and stimulating to see colleagues that I had met in Washington DC last summer to learn how they are doing and hear how their projects are coming along.  One professor is working on a project to clean up river pollution to prepare it for restocking with salmon to revitalize the caviar industry.  Another is doing a comparative study of photographs from the 1920s in Russia and the USA.  The largest contingency of Fulbrighters is a corp of approximately 60 recent college graduates who are teaching English in parts of Russia even more remote than Siberia in places whose names I can neither remember nor pronounce!  We are individually bringing the face of the United States to Russia, having an impact on the world one person at a time.  This brings great satisfaction to the experience.

In one recent class that I taught, I asked students in groups to create a list of stereotypes that Russians have about Americans, and also what stereotypes they thought Americans had about Russians.  About Americans they said: Americans are friendly, always smiling, and confident.  When required to include at leastone negative stereotype they added that Americans are sometimes sly, pretending to be the saviors of the world.  They were immediately afraid that they had offended me!  When asked about their sense of what Americans think of Russians, they were quick to respond.  "Americans think we all drink vodka all day long, that it is always cold and winter here, and that wild bears walk in our streets downtown!"  In fact, based on my experience to date here, I would have to conclude that Russians are teatotallers; they drink tea at every meal and during breaks throughout the day.  I haven't seen a single person drinking vodka yet!  While the weather is now turning cold - we had our first frost last week - recent days have been beautiful, with sunny clear afternoons climbing into the high 50s.  Yes, I can see my breath in the morning, and the puddles are frozen over on the sidewalks when I set out to work.   And no, I haven't seen any dancing bears, or any bears at all for that matter.

My most recent Russian lesson was on the topic of shopping, and I've been going to shops in the neighborhood to practice.  Today I bought an iron. Alas, the one thing that is missing in my life is a washing machine.  I do my laundry by hand in a plastic tub and dry it on the radiator, so my shirts really do need to be ironed!  As I entered the store, I snuck a glance at my cheat sheet, took a deep breath, and asked the first idle clerk that I saw - in the best Russian I could muster - "Good afternoon. Do you have irons?"  Without moving, the young woman replied, "Yes."  I waited a moment, then asked, "Where?" This time,with the smallest movement of her head, she responded, "There."  I made my way over to the irons.  There were about 15 or 20 models to choose from, ranging in price from $10 to several hundred dollars, from the size of a travel iron, to a super duper unit almost the size of a vacuum cleaner!  I looked the lower end models over and picked out a $12 iron that was self cleaning.

It looked like it would serve my purposes.  I took another breath and hailed a different clerk, this one more helpful and talkative.  I went through my now standard apology for not speaking Russian well.  If I don't, they look at me funny, as if there is something wrong with me, wondering why I am being rude and not responding.  At least, that is the tape that plays in my mind.  When I tell them I don't speak Russian well, they usually smile and become very friendly and patient with me.  She informed me that I had made a bad choice.  The iron I had selected was no good.  I needed the $22 model.  It has a  )(*#&)Q(#* coating on the bottom that @#%!^^&*.  I asked her if they were made in Russia.  She said that they were.  (I find that it's much easier here to find things that are not made in China than it is in the US.)  I took her advice.  We went to her work station.  She made some entries in the computer and printed out a form.  She opened the box and unpacked the iron.  She instructed me not to let the hot iron touch the plastic bag and then threw out the plastic bag.  She showed me the instruction book and told me that this was the instruction book in the Russian language. She plugged in the iron to be sure it worked, showed me how to fill it with water with the included plastic cup, and demonstrated the steam and mist buttons.  I was then asked to sign the invoice in three different places to acknowledge that she had tested the device, shown me the instructions, and I guess thrown away the plastic bag.  I was then instructed to proceed to the checkout, where the clerk would stamp the warranty card (in four different places!) and we said goodbye to each other.  At the checkout, my credit card didn't work (which also happens quite frequently), so I paid cash and was on my way.  I don't speak Russian very well, but I'm working on it!

Monday, October 10, 2011

They Even Have Peanut Butter!

I feel like I have my feet on the ground here now.   Here's why.

My first conversation partner, Aman,
studies mathematics and doesn't
speak much English.
The student residence where I live.

I'm in my second week of teaching!  I don't have my own class, but rather guest teach in two different classes each day.  The Dean of Foreign Languages wants all of the English students to have contact with me.  Last week on Friday, I also conducted a 3.5 hour workshop for local secondary school English teachers who are graduates of the Institute.

Classes are small (10-15) but absenteeism can be a problem.
I have a great living situation.  It isn't the home stay that I was hoping for, but it is the next best thing.  I live in a student residence that houses a medical facility.  Students at the Institute have the right to stay here for three weeks out of each year for R& R, or to be treated for minor medical conditions.  I met my first Russian conversation partner here in the student cafeteria.  He is a math major, and speaks just enough English to help me learn Russian.  We've gotten together for conversation practice the last three evenings.  With the help of Aman, I was able to learn the sentence in Russian that I needed to go to the reception desk and get a malfunctioning lamp traded out for one that works.  We both viewed this as a great victory!

 I have just contracted a professional language tutor.  Fulbright has generously given me a budget for language study, and I will begin formal instruction in Russian next week with a language professor from the Institute.

I found a great gym with a nice lap pool.  I did an hour of cardio on Sunday afternoon.  Several of the students are members there, and I plan to go to the gym with them regularly to keep the mashed potatoes off!

Click here for more gym photos.

And the number one reason I feel like I have my feet on the ground?  I discovered a super modern supermarket just down the street that sells PEANUT BUTTER!!!  And let's face it, if you can get peanut butter, you can get just about anything.

On Wednesday, the Moscow Fulbright office is flying 60 of us from all over the country to an orientation meeting at the US Embassy in Moscow.  I'll also have one day free to see the sights.  This is a dream come true for me.  I've always wanted to see the Kremlin.   Stay tuned for photos of Red Square in my next post!

Click here for more supermarket photos.
So yes, I feel like I've landed with my feet are on the ground.  As one of the local newspapers in this city of 250,000 people declared in its frontpage headline on Saturday, "One foot in Asia, the other in Europe, an American Professor Teaches in Orsk."

If you can get peanut butter, what could be missing? By the way,
I haven't given in to the urge to buy any yet.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Historical City Tour

(Note: I was not a very good student on the city tour.  I did not take notes! I ask my Russian readers and friends to please forgive me for any inaccuracies or omissions in the text below and ask them to please send me any corrections I should make.)

On Thursday, I had the opportunity to go on a city tour of Orsk with students from the Institute.  It was organized by Professor Yelena (Helen in English) Leontyeva, an English teacher/teacher trainer at the Institute.  This is what I learned.

The Ural River divides Orsk between two continents:
Asia the left, and Europe on the right.
Orsk officially celebrated its 276th anniversary as a city this year, but its roots are much older than that.  Because it is located on the Ural River and was on the only trade route between Europe and Asia at the time, a fortress was built on the highest hill in 1735 on the Asian side of the river.  A settlement grew up around the fortress and a church was constructed.  The town changed hands over the years through the course of many battles and Orsk rose in prominence when gold was discovered, setting off a gold rush similar to the California gold rush in the United States.

Because of its isolated location (on the border of Asia and Europe, and on the border of what is today Kazakstan), far from any major population centers, it was a favorite location of both the Russian Czars and of Stalin to exile dissidents and intellectuals.  This contributed greatly to the cultural foundations of Orsk.  Some of the intellectuals who were exiled here created a school that was the predecessor of the Institute where I am guest teaching.  The city is also the home of some famous poets.
With the students in front of a culture center in the newer
part of the city.  The city name, Orsk, is OPCK in Russian.

The newer part of the city, on the European side of the river began during World War II when several factories were moved to Orsk from the large cities of Russia to escape the threat of bombings.  Housing was constructed for the workers and the industrial side of Orsk developed.  The city today has a population of slightly more than 250,000 inhabitants.

The original church fell into disrepair during the Soviet period, when many churches in Russian were closed  and/or destroyed.  Since that time, the church has been beautifully restored and expanded with new buildings and ornate towers added to the complex.

The main tower of the church, is the oldest structure in Orsk
built in 1735 and reconstructed in 1894 
The newest church in Orsk, nearing completion
on the European side of the city.

The eternal flame at the World War II memorial.
Tablets with the names of the fallen in the far rear.

Click here to see more photos.
Our tour concluded with a visit to a World War Two memorial for soldiers from Orsk who lost their lives in the war defending Russia.  They are honored there with an eternal flame and with row after row of tablets with their engraved names.
The world famous red star symbol
at the entrance to the memorial.