Well, blog, here I am: at home in Siberia. I had internet installed today, so I guess it’s time to catch you up on that which has gone down. It’ll be a long one, so hunker down and lend me your ear- if you dare!
My journey began with me almost missing my flight out of Detroit. Not because I was late—I was at my gate with over an hour and a half to spare. But when they called me to the desk to verify my passport and visa, one very meticulous and mean Delta representative decided that, because my return-ticket was booked for after my current visa expires, I shouldn’t be allowed on the plane. After calling all of her supervisors and hotlines, they eventually convinced her to—very reluctantly—let me go. I was the last person to board the plane. Other than that, my trip went over without a hitch. I arrived in Moscow on Friday morning with nine other sleepy Fulbrighters, and a bus-driver schlepped us all to our hotel.
Throughout the next five days, I attended teacher training designed (it seemed) to remind me of my inadequacy and inexperience as a teacher, and a security briefing at the US Embassy designed to scare us all into submission. I met and bonded with the other ETAs (a great group of people!), I explored Moscow, I ate an inordinate number of bliny (pancakes), and I participated in a Russian flash mob.
And on Thursday evening, it was off to Siberia. It was another long journey—in a six-hour overnight flight, I crossed five time-zones, leaving me thirteen hours ahead of you folks at home. I flew Aeroflot/Avia Vladivostok and witnessed none of the horror often attributed to Russian airlines. I found the flight quite charming—from the completely unnecessary fourth-meal served promptly at midnight, to the offering of barf-bags for landing. It was also the warmest plane I’ve ever sat on, which was a treat after shivering my way across the Atlantic buried under a sweater, a winter coat, and a blanket. Ulan-Ude has the smallest, quaintest airport I have ever seen, consisting of a school-sized building and a parking lot with exactly one airplane—the train station here is more than twice as large.
And, to top off all the success, my host, Darima, was able to easily pick me out of the crowd at the airport. Lonely, confused American sticks out every time, I guess.
Living in the Lux
I’ll come right out and say it: my dorm/apartment is awesome.
Here is what I was told to expect: one room with a bed, desk, chair, fridge, and television. In my wildest dreams, I imagined maybe a private bathroom and a functioning kitchen somewhere in the building.
Here is what I’ve got: one bedroom with two beds, nightstands, and closets, and a desk; one living room with a comfy couch, two armchairs, a TV, and a table with two chairs; a private bathroom; and a foyer with a fridge and a big cabinet! Plus, there is a fully-stocked kitchen that I will eventually be sharing with a few international students when they arrive. All this for the same affordable price I was supposed to pay for the one room.
So I’m feeling pretty fancy these days. Bourgeoisie.
For the record, it was 36 degrees Fahrenheit when I stepped off the plane. Mornings and evenings are chilly, but the days are still warm. And sunny.
Darima and I spent Friday exploring downtown and running errands. I am now the proud owner of an eclectic jet-lag-influenced collection of groceries, a $15 indestructable Nokia phone, a big fluffy green towel, and an extension cord to plug in my fridge (Darima was unconcerned about the milk and yogurt I had left sitting out all afternoon, but she was worried about my poor pelmeny melting). We stopped for lunch, and I tried the national dish of Buryatia: pozzy (kind of giant meat dumplings). While this apparently was not a good place to get them, I found them quite delicious and look forward to eating “real” pozzy another time. By the way, there is no sliced bread here. I’m supposed to slice it myself, but sometimes I get lazy and just gnaw on my loaf like a savage. 🙂
Eventually, we met up with Darima’s friend Yanna, who teaches Russian to Chinese students (and soon to be me) at the Academy. We spent the next couple hours waiting at a policlinic so Yanna could get an x-ray—my first experience of the Russian healthcare system. Yay?
That night, I slept for twelve hours. Then, after getting up and unpacking some, I continued to nap off and on until Darima came to get me at 2. She took me over to the Academy so we could work out a schedule for me—including my English lessons and the Russian classes I’ll be taking. We were going to go to the Ethnographical Museum afterwards, but it was too late by the time we were done, so she took me to a nearby grocery store instead. I spent the evening alone in my apartment, reading, watching Russian TV, and cooking my very first pelmeny.
Everyone here thinks I look very young and also very Russian. Apparently (and I heard this all summer, too), there’s just something very Slavic about my face. Huh.
Ulan-Ude is unlike any city I’ve ever experienced. Russian everywhere, obviously, and less of the English alphabet than Moscow and St. Petersburg. With squares and monuments and an Arbat, the city-center has the feel of other Russian cities I’ve visited, except smaller and more laidback. As a whole, shabbier, less grandiose. Dusty, sunny, colorful. Traffic jams and narrow dirt roads. Many cars here have the steering wheel on the wrong side of the car, which is disconcerting when you don’t expect it. And never have I ever been in a down-town area and been able to see mountains surrounding me on three sides. There’s a distinct and different flavor—dragons and Siberian tigers, and Chinese markets (and trucks with Chinese markings). I can definitely tell I am in Asia.
I still haven’t seen much of the city, and my camera has not made an appearance outside of my room—with such a Russian face, I’m reluctant to expose myself as a crazy foreigner, I guess (kidding). But I must have patience—and so must you, I’m afraid. I’ve got nine months ahead of me. Plenty of time to explore.
My first day of teaching… I wish I could say it was wonderful and perfect, but I’d be lying. It’s hard meeting so many people all at once, and I’m still the same shy, public-speaking-fearing girl some of you remember. I only had one class to teach, and that wasn’t until 3:40, but I showed up at the Academy at quarter to ten. I stood awkwardly outside for half an hour waiting for Darima. We stopped by the international office, and the women there were very nice and happy to see me. Then we worked on getting my registration. I met all the other teachers—some were polite, some very motherly, and some very excited to have a rare American guest. I met the head of the Institute of Linguistics and Intercultural Communication, and she warned me not to appear weak and shy in front of my students (or to tell them I know Russian) and invited me to come with her to Lake Baikal on Wednesday (YES, PLEASE!). I met Darima’s boyfriend in the patent office (he asked me where they grow potatoes in America). I met the Academy’s Rector—who insisted on speaking in his very poor, very broken English interspersed with French and some Russian. He was a very funny man. He said he’ll be attending the English lessons I’m giving to a group of professors, promised to find me a violin, and told me to “find a man.”
My first class—a group of third-year students studying to be translators—was like pulling teeth. I was met by completely blank stares every time I opened my mouth, as if they didn’t understand a word I was saying. I felt like the teacher in Charlie Brown, except these kids don’t speak mwah-mwah-mwah. They had no questions for me at all (I had anticipated that taking up a good chunk of time), and no one would answer my questions. They sat practically in silence when I had them working in groups. It was the worst.
Day two went a lot nicer. My public relations students were much more talkative– at least, one of them was. They are going to take me sightseeing on Sunday. In the afternoon, I had a meeting with a group of professors who want to take English lessons (I’ll admit, that will be intimidating!). Then, my little children arrived. They were the best. They attend a linguistic gymnasium, so their English is very good, but– more importantly– they also like to talk and participate. We will have some fun times, I’m sure.
Clearly I have a lot to work on as a teacher… It feels so weird coming to teach at a university with no prior experience, my only qualification being that I speak English. I’ll learn, I suppose. Until then, I have to fake it.
To those of you still reading, thanks for bearing with me. Do vstrechi!