Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm off!

Leaving on the train in two hours to go to the North Caucasus. Then onto Kyrgyzstan and Moscow and probably Kazan. Who knows when I will blog again.

AAAAHHH SERIOUSLY LEAVING FOR THE CAUCASUS IN TWO HOURS! I am deathly afraid... of forgetting to pack something important. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


It has become the time to assess the year in terms of what things are annoying, and to what degree they are annoying. As I have said, for the most part, everything has been fine, and anything that I would really significantly complain about is really nobody's fault, not even Russia's.

I've always been into list-making, so here I will make three lists (and start from the negative so we can end positively) of things that are annoying, sort of annoying, or not annoying at all.

*Winter, and the clothing associated with it. Today is technically the first day of winter and I feel like it's been winter for months already. I am tired of wearing heavy winter clothes all the time and miss wearing dresses and sandals.
*The fact that my rent increased by a LOT.
*Things getting canceled (see earlier posts from November)
* Stuttering when I speak Russian. Everyone who knows me knows that I can speak Russian reasonably well, but if I go all day speaking English, or not speaking to anyone at all and suddenly I need to say something, I stumble over my words. Half the people who first hear me speak think I'm Latvian, the other half think I have a speech disorder...and sometimes I may as well be a Latvian with a speech disorder.
*People getting sick all the time. At least it isn't me (knock on wood)
*The fact that on the first trip to Ekaterinburg I bought a beautiful pair of earrings, and on the second trip to Ekaterinburg I lost half of said pair of earrings.
*The question "Why are you here?", or the assumption that I must really miss all things American and would of course, go home for all of break.
*Babushkas. Yes, I am a horrible person for saying this. There ARE most certainly exceptions, but for the most part, Russian Babushkas are not sweet old ladies that tell you stories and make you tea. Or maybe they are, but that's not the side I see. The Babushki I see are either really depressing (such as the Babushka that sits outside the grocery store-where they sell reasonably fresh vegetables- selling rotten vegetables and worn-out looking mittens...for any last ruble or kopek she might scrape up), intimidating (you NEVER argue with a Babushka), or just downright annoying. I will not question the wisdom that comes with age, but...and maybe this is an American or Western point of view... an individual knows his or her own body and behaviors.
An open letter to Russian Babushki who might know English (haha): NO, for the hundredth time, I am NOT COLD. If I was cold, I would dress warmer so I would not be cold. I am not cold in my running clothes outside because I am running and therefore my body temperature goes up about 20 degrees. And running will not make me get meningitis or infertility or whateveryouclaimimightget. In fact, it is probably part of the reason why I still haven't gotten sick. NO, I am not cold wearing this short-sleeved shirt indoors, BECAUSE IT IS ROOM TEMPERATURE (OR EVEN WARMER) INDOORS. My feet are perfectly fine in these "autumn" boots and I do not need to buy myself "winter" boots... if I were cold, I'd put on thicker socks, and when I am walking my feet warm up anyway. I have a pair of winter boots, but they are too warm to wear inside. And NO, I do not need to wear stockings underneath my pants, at least until it gets to be -30. It is not -30, so why must I dress like it is just because it is by calender winter and at some point at this time of year it has been -30?
And furthermore, dear Babushkas.... No, I am not going to steal your stupid pel'meni (long story). I am perfectly fine walking home from work when it's cold outside, I will not get sick from being outside (it's the opposite, I'd get sick from germs on the marshrutkas), I will not become infertile from doing yoga on the floor (plus, I use a towel, for crying out loud!) An empty wine bottle inside does not mean I will lose all my money, and I will not get bridenapped when I go to the Caucasus.
Get it?!

Ok, enough.

*Kefir. Not "annoying" because no one has force-fed me this stuff or anything, but how the heck to people drink this stuff? It's gross!
*The assumption that everyone wants cream added to their food.
*The bus driver on the 06:30 bus to Ekaterinburg who played Russian techno music the whole way. I had intended to sleep on this bus. Only "sort of annoying" because at least the music was Russian and not American pop, if I had to listen to Rihanna at 6:30 in the morning or something of the like, I would have jumped out the window and walked to Ekaterinburg. I also figured, that maybe the bus driver played this music so he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel himself. Understandable.
*Ice skating, and it's popularity. Don't get me wrong... ice skating of course can be fun! I personally prefer to go slowly, or at my own pace, and not in huge crowds of people... and even so, only once in a while, it's not really my thing. In Russia, though, at least in Chelyabinsk, EVERYBODY ice skates. All the time. It's considered strange if you DON'T go ice skating every weekend. Why is this annoying? Because of unpredictable little kids darting around and causing a tripping-over-them hazard, and 13-year-old hockey players sharing the rink with you. So you have to watch out for little kids, hockey pucks, and the occasional hockey stick... not exactly what I call a fun afternoon.
*Pukhoviki. A pukhovik is a kind of Russian winter coat. It is not fur except for the collar, it is just a coat with a texture that looks something like the Michelin tire guy... except it doesn't make you look fat. They are usually long and slender shaped with a belt in the middle, so that even in warm winter clothes, Russian young women still show off their slim figures. People also wear pukhoviki when they go ice skating. I like my dublyonka, it is real fur and very warm and not as bulky looking as the American winter coats, but it does lack the sleekness of the pukhoviki, you cannot distinguish what kind of figure is underneath. I thought from before that wearing a dublyonka and high-heeled boots would make me indistinguishable from other Russians my age, but no... most people my age wear pukhoviki, plus "winter" high-heeled boots, and a hat on top. (Why, if the pukhovik has a fur hood, do you also need a hat?)
*Russian dates. A typical date with a Russian is a movie and a walk in the park... or sometimes, more ice skating. Somebody else correct me if I'm wrong. This kind of date is perfectly fine, I like movies (usually), and I like to go for walks, but for especially a first or second date when you are still getting to know someone, this isn't really what I have in mind. There are some things I like about this difference from American dates where people go to restaurants or something... they cost less money, they don't involve calories and/or being judged on what you do or do not get to eat... but when I want to go on a date with someone and get to know that person, I really need to sit down across from him and make eye contact and have a good conversation. You can't do this in a movie theater, and on a walk...while walking is great... there are too many other distractions, like other people, buildings, cars, cold, and what good a look do you get at someone when they are all bundled up in winter clothing? My ideal kind of date is to go and have a drink (just a glass of wine is enough) at a place where there is music, maybe live music (but not until after meaningful conversation) and dancing. Maybe this is too expensive?

*The actual temperature. Maybe because it's been a "mild" -15C on average, but the Russian Winter is more invigorating and strength-building than annoying. Once I am dressed right, I feel empowered after having gone running when it is -24 (that's the lowest temperature I have run through so far... about -12F)
*Kyrgyz bureaucrats. They get a 7.5/10 rating for me. I got the visa without any problem, they were quick with doing it and I never had to wait long. Maybe because there was not much going on there. The only issue was, I am pretty sure I am the ONLY female American they have ever in their lives seen come to their consulate in Ekaterinburg for a Kyrgyz tourist visa. I seemed to have blown their minds.
*Speaking Russian. Obviously. I LIKE to speak Russian. And if I get to do so for most of the time outside of English class, even better.
*Class periods/"pary". I used to think that 90 minute classes were long... but they seem to fly by actually.
*Trains. Call me crazy, but I actually like to travel by train. Yes, it's often long. We'll see if this changes after my 52-hour Chelyabinsk-Krasnodar mega-train-ride. But I usually meet interesting people and have an excuse to nap all day or read or do nothing at all.
*Running around a track. Even though it is much more boring than running on a road with hills, it has it's meditative points, and I am just so thankful for this Soviet track that it doesn't matter how boring it is, I'm just glad to have a place to run.
*Culture in general. As I have mentioned many times already, I've adjusted pretty easily. Well..until a Babushka comes around.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I really have no name for this next blog entry, so I've decided to title it "December." There are too many things to write about.

Actually, it is a good point to make that it is NOT November. November was kind of a month of inertia... I got into this lull of classes and routines and people canceling things right and left and being bored and stuck in a comfort zone... which has the effect on me that doing anything out of the ordinary seemed like a big scary deal.

This month is the exact opposite. Things are busy. Interesting. Always involving people. Sometimes stressful, in a good way.
One thing that was NOT stressful was... this weekend! I finally made it to a Russian banya.  In the movies, it's when large awkward looking men drink vodka in a sauna and hit each other over with birch sticks. Fortunately, this is was not the case... I went to the sanatorium with two friends- the colleague Volodya and his friend Anton... they are neither large nor awkward looking, we did not drink vodka, and there were no birch sticks involved. It was pure, relaxing fun. The only problem was that sometimes we would argue about which language to speak. Everyone always wants to practice English with me, but if I speak English for too long my Russian gets all messed up.
It was a weekend of freezing cold frozen-lake islands exploration, deep and meaningful conversations, and бесцельные прогульки (aimless walks- something Americans lack. I noted yet another difference...when friends meet up in America, it seems like it always has to be IN or AT some place.. a restaurant or house or something... Russians can just meet up and walk, without a destination. I like this.)

A sanatoria is like a spa, but not necessarily so expensive and fancy. It's just a room or room suite you can rent with access to a sauna and fresh air. This sanatorium was located outside Chebarkul, a small town near the city of Miass, another city in Chelyabinsk Oblast. It's a completely different world, for those who associate Chelyabinsk with only heavy industry and dirty air. The names of the sanatoria are always something like "Sosnovaya Gorka" (sleepy hill- the one we stayed at) "Lesnaya Skazka" (Forest Fairy Tale), "Uralskaya Zorya" (Ural Sunrise).... except there happens to be one sanatoria named "Metallurg." Seriously, only in Chelyabinsk.
Really? A spa named for the metallurgical industry? Images of massages done with broken tractor parts come to mind.

My winter travel adventure is well on its way to being prepared. I have almost all the tickets bought, accommodations discussed about, itineraries brainstormed. This doesn't mean planned out... it means "options are being considered." It's an adventure, not a plan.
The grand general itinerary is.... North Caucasus-Kyrgyzstan-Moscow-Latvia. Which cities in Kyrgyzstan beyond Bishkek and which places in the Caucasus beyond Adygeya are still to be determined and will depend on money, time, willingness of other people, security, and who knows what else. Places in consideration are Nalchik and Dombai in the Caucasus and Osh and Karakol in Kyrgyzstan... Moscow and Riga...this is more obvious.

Yesterday was my first daytrip to Ekaterinburg involving the Kyrgyz visa. Even though this whole process seems very inconvenient, it is actually very lucky that I live so close to Ekaterinburg. First of all, it's a beautiful city (I will take pictures the next time I go), and second of all, it is easy to take a bus there at any time of any day. The Kyrgyz consulate is located near the center of the city, and I worried about getting there too late (as I did with the Russian consulate in New York, where I waited four hours in line only to be told to come back the next day). On the contrary, there was not much of a line at all, only two Kyrgyz families looking to get Russian passports, which is what I imagine most of their work involves. Russians and other CIS citizens do not need visas to go to Kyrgyzstan. I felt pretty weird there, a young blonde who looks like a Russian waiting around in the consulate asking about tourist visas. The people in the office didn't really seem to know what to do; for some reason or other, they don't get many Americans in Ekaterinburg looking for Kyrgyz visas. They did not ask me to leave my passport there, only took copies of my documents and the forms, my payment in cash, and said it will be ready in ten days. If there are any problems, they will call me.
If there are no phone calls from Kyrgyz bureaucrats in the next ten days... then all is well. I will give them a rating of 5 so far. They were polite and not slow, but kind of unsure of what they were doing. If all goes well and I get my visa on time I will boost their Bureaucrat Rating to a 6. In short: There are much, MUCH worse bureaucratic experiences to be had.
Ekaterinburg itself is gorgeous... very Old Russian. Next time when I am more oriented (assuming the visa situation in the consulate won't take too long) I will take the rest of the day to visit a museum or walk more around the center.
Mom, Dad... when this is all over, you are going to have SO MANY MAGNETS.
Definitely worth the 6:30 am bus ride.

As for the North Caucasus trip... it is to begin after Christmas. I will be leaving by train on the 24th and will be spending the entirety of Christmas Day on a train to Krasnodar, where I will meet and stay with an old time Adyghe State University friend Igor. I will then meet a fellow Fulbrighter named Alex and take a bus to Maykop where I will meet more old friends and celebrate the New Year, and then we are looking to travel onward. I'm not sure exactly the plan, but it will involve mountains, friends, music, wine, long road trips, complex languages, and fond memories.

Okay... now rewind for a second to last week. It is worth mentioning the extra three classes I picked up because one of the teachers was sick. These were elementary level classes, where the students knew VERY little English. I was only with them for one period each, but they seemed to be amazed. To be honest, it is a *slightly* uncomfortable feeling for me... I am not used to talking so much about myself and my own life and having it be so interesting for people... usually when people do that, it sounds conceited and self-obsessed. The students, however, were fascinated to here about my life in America, about Oberlin, about long distance running, about Drag Ball, about my friends from all around the world, about the red Volvo I used to drive. We  mostly spoke Russian (I figured, since I was only with them for one class, I might as well call it a cultural lecture instead of language practice, since their level was so low in English) but towards the end these students became more comfortable and could construct some sentences in English.
Who knew that college life was so fascinating!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Something strange happened. Here, living alone in my apartment, I have needed to actually cook for myself, all the time, and.... I like it.

The two things I like to make the most:

PLOV. Rice with some seasoning and spices with random vegetables, and lamb (it's supposed to be lamb but I had chicken) I also add pomegranate seeds. Traditional Uzbek dish.

Ural Sandwiches. I love this. They are delicious and take only about 15 minutes to make. Stir-fried mushrooms with lots of spices (whatever I can find) on a sandwich of Ural'sky Xleb. Best with wine and halva.

Sometimes though, I just make soup by throwing into a pot whatever vegetables I happen to find. Usually more mushrooms and onions and a lot of pepper. It also ends up pretty spicy. Other times I get REALLY lazy and just boil some frozen pel'meni... but unlike the Russians I do not add cream... paprika instead :)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A great weekend.

Enough about the snow and cold. That should be understood by now.

I have mentioned before that I haven't really been experiencing the dreaded "Stage Two Culture Shock", that things have been pretty stable and steady and normal... the only problem was that some days, especially weekends, end up being kind of lonely. It turns out that sometimes there is just a... cycle of cancellations... mozhno skazat'. Someone get's sick, and everyone else's schedule is thrown in a loop. I kept hearing the words "ne poluchitsa" (it's not going to work out) and day after day I was preparing for lessons/meetings/get-togethers and finding myself only turning around and going home. Alone.
Well, people were right, and that... "cycle" seems to have passed, and things have started to pick up again.

I also had felt that I was kind of stuck in a rut... not that anything was wrong or that I was unhappy, necessarily... but I had fallen into a sort of comfort zone, in a negative way. I got stuck in a repetitive routine and every day had been pretty much predictable and unfulfilling. Get up, go running, do my workout, take a shower, do yoga, get ready, eat, go teach a class or prepare for some class and go teach it, come home, maybe stop at the store, think up another lesson plan, eat dinner, waste time on the internet, go to bed. Repeat. I do walk a lot, but I never seem to leave this same 3-kilometer radius (the Center Region and Sovietsky Region of the city).
This isn't Adventurous Helen. This is Boring Helen. It had gotten to the point were any variation of this was some kind of big and scary deal... like needing to go to a store located out of the center. Or calling the Kyrgyz Consulate in Ekaterinburg to ask about the visa pickup times (which I still haven't done yet).
This worries me. How is this winter break going to be the Epic Adventure of a Lifetime if I'm stuck in a rut like this?

I think this weekend things have turned around a bit. A colleague named Larisa invited me over for dinner (Fish, salads, and vodka!) with her family and something felt internally...uplifted. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe because I was actually out somewhere on a Saturday night after midnight, which hadn't happened yet this month. Maybe because her daughter and I plan to go to a club this next weekend. Maybe because we all sang songs together in Russian and English and other languages. Or because we spoke only in Russian and I felt like I was fluent again (my fluency/proficiency in Russian tends to rise and fall periodically). Or because we talked about more deep, pressing, sensitive topics and found ourselves in agreement from the bottom of our hearts. Or maybe it was the vodka. Who knows.... but something feels like it has turned around.
The next day, a student Anilya came over to record acapella songs in Russian and Bashkir. Finally, some work done on my other project! I'm also working on some music to perform, with Volodya at the dinner on Thursday and sometime in December... we'll be singing Katyusha as a duet.
My neighbors so far have never complained...

Today I received news that my visa is extended and all documents are in order, and tomorrow I will go to the train station and take care of the first leg of the Epic Adventure of a Lifetime... a train ticket from here to Krasnodar, leaving December 24th.
(Yay for all of Christmas Day being spent on a Russian train! Santa can find me somewhere near Volgograd or a Astrakhan or something...)

Also tomorrow... a lecture I need to give in front of students I have never seen. At least it's in English, I may have had to give it in Russian, although we found a person to translate so things can go faster and easier.
Next week, no excuses... KYRGYZ VISA TIME.

Progress is being made.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

On winter, cold, and snow.

Today was rather mild. It was about -5C, or 23F.
The same cannot be said about last weekend, when the temperature dipped to -16... or very close to 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
Did I mention it is only November... and therefore not even actually winter?

The first snow fell on October 18th and has stuck around ever since. The entire city is covered in at least three inches of snow and it is not going anywhere until April.
This doesn't bother me, though. This is what I expected. It's RUSSIA. Russia has a COLD CLIMATE. Sometimes Russians will try to tell you that it's all a stereotype, that Russia is not actually all about snow and cold and fur hats... but in reality, 9 months of the year, it IS.
Even Sochi, the vacation place, the "warm" climate there is about the same as New York. In the winter, it snows there too. The south of Russia is no Florida... it's not tropical... and when you consider the high altitude there... forget it.

My dear home, Chelyabinsk, is exactly your typical cold Russian city. In January, it can get as cold as -35, and has gotten as cold as -40 (the convergence temperature, it doesn't matter whether it is F or C).

Now we have the debate of whether or not I am in Siberia. Technically, I am, since in the broad definition, Siberia is the land to the east of the Urals. If you ask most people, however, I am most certainly NOT in Siberia, I am in the "South Ural" region.. Siberia would begin in Tyumen or something.

This reminds me of another geographic oddity... Russian relation to mountain ranges. I guess that, Russia being an enormous country, everything is all relative... so, even though it takes a three hour drive to see any mountains, Chelyabinsk is "на Урале" (literally, "on the Ural"). I remember that Maykop (Adygeya) is considered на Кавказе, even though you can't really see any mountains from the city, but I figured this meant that it was undoubtedly Caucasian with respect to culture....but really, to call Chelyabinsk a city in the Urals would be like saying my house was in the Berkshires (again, a three hour drive away). Even so, everything, from  хлеб (bread) to banks to snowboards to shopping malls/you name it.. is "Ural'sky". Nobody calls this place "Siberia."
A friend the other day said that technically, the border of the Siberian Plane is actually located in Chelyabinsk Oblast, about an hour East of the city.

Siberia or not... it doesn't matter. This place is COLD. And it's only getting colder.

Along with the cold weather comes some perplexing cultural differences... and привычки (habits).
So. Last weekend it was -13.
Me: It's time to wear the dublenka (Fur coat. sometimes I call it a shuba, although its not actually a shuba... a shuba has fur on the outside, a dublenka has fur on the inside and the hood)
Russians: It's only November, it's too early to wear a dublenka.

Yesterday. It was only -3.
Me: I still wear the dublenka, but over only a short sleeved dress and without a scarf or mittens. I'm fine.
Russians: Aren't you freezing? You have no scarf!

Yes, outside it's cold, but inside it's still room temperature, or even warmer.
Me: I'll take off my warmer layers. If it's warm inside, I can wear short sleeves like normal.
Russians: Aren't you freezing? It's so cold outside!
Me: But I'm inside!
Russians: And why do you walk all the way home in the cold? Why don't you take the bus? You are going to get sick!
Me: Cold weather doesn't make you sick, being around sick people makes you sick!

Let's not even go there with the babushkas that see me in my running clothes. My running clothes, these days, consist of:
Spandex pants
A short sleeve shirt or sports top
A long sleeve Under-Armor running shirt
A shapka-ushanka (looks goofy, but something has to prevent frostbite on my ears)
A sweatshirt, which I remove when I get to the track.

But no scarf or gloves and especially no fur coats are necessary when running.... but I'm not even going to try to explain to the babushki how when you run, the temperature feels ten to twenty degrees warmer.

It's never a good idea to argue with a babushka... but we'll keep score this way. (The score being the argument over whether or not exposure to cold weather is the actual cause of getting sick) People are getting sick left and right. Everyone I know who works or goes to the university has been sick at least once.... but not me (knock on wood). Not even a cold. My guess is because I live alone (and not in a dormitory), I don't spend all day in the university around sick people, and I walk usually instead of ride buses or marshrutkas crowded with germs. I maintain a healthy lifestyle... and it has nothing to do with whether or not I wore a scarf today.

Don't get me wrong... I'm not saying that being around people is gross, or that people or gross, or that I don't feel bad when someone is sick. I just think that it has much less to do with the number of layers you pile on both outdoors and indoors than people want to think.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Russia from a Distance Runner's Perspective

I found a place to go running!

Be careful of forest fires.

 The pond.

I decided to start this post with these nice pictures. But don't be fooled... running in Chelyabinsk (and Russia in general) is not a simple and beautiful as this might suggest.
First, I chose a sunny day to take these pictures. The sun maybe comes out once a week here.
Second, its only realistic to run here on the weekends, for my long run. It is a short bus ride or a long walk away... so not really practical for the mornings before class.
Third, this park seemed big enough...the first two days I ran here, when I didn't know my way. Now, the reality has set in that these nice, windy paths that look like they are far from the urban bustle...just end up right back onto the city roads if you follow them for more than ten minutes. Any decent long run requires retracing your routes at least twice.

This is where I run most mornings.

:) I love my Soviet track!

Really, I am so lucky to have this right next to my apartment. Otherwise, I don't think I would keep up my running much at all, or it might be extremely inconvenient.

This week during orientation in Moscow (I guess I am supposed to dedicate a blog post to Moscow eventually... it's not my favorite city in the world, but obviously this weekend was worth mentioning) we had to listen to yet another lecture about culture shock, how it happens to everyone, how it is unavoidable... etc...
I do not want to try and say I am some kind of exception to the rule..of course not... I just never noticed the four-stage pattern that everyone talks about. There does not appear to be a "honeymoon phase" or a "depression phase"... in Chelyabinsk at least, I have been pretty much even keel all the way through... some days are better than others, but nothing looks skewed out of proportion. Moscow, two years ago, was a lot harder to adjust, but this year, I am settled in and everything just feels like life as normal, just in another place.
That is kind of how I operate, I guess. I live in different places, and make the adjustments accordingly... but life is still just life, I am still myself..

That said. The NUMBER ONE, MAJOR thing I miss, or that is difficult for me living here: Running.
Russian women don't run. Sometimes when I mention to someone that I am going running, they answer "from what?" Even on the Soviet track nearby, which seems to have a gym class take place there every morning... there are guys that jog around it and then go play soccer, but the girls, they usually either jog for 50 meters and then go back to walking and talking with their friends, or they don't bother trying to run at all. They are even sometimes dressed in boots and stockings and fur coats.
Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a distance runner. I never claim to be the fastest on any team... my times were "respectable" when I was competing (5K time was 19:56) but really, I run now not out of competition but out of pure addiction. I have been doing this for nine years. My weekly mileage has been between 30 and 55 miles, this summer I tried to reach as high as 60 although my legs pretty much rejected that idea. I figure my summer training is around 80 kilometers per week.
My favorite...or maybe top 5... things to do in all of life is to go on a 15 mile run during a cool, dry August evening, during a beautiful a moderate, 7:40 per mile pace, listening to the best of Caucasian mountain music, increasing the pace up my own hills.
In Russia, it's not that much of a letdown to make do with a Soviet track and a medium-sized park. In fact, one of the things I liked about running on long, hilly roads back home was that I could mentally "escape" from my hometown and picture myself in some faraway land... and now, here I am in a faraway land.
In the park, by the way, running is not so weird... it does feel weird on the way to and from the park, dressed in running clothes, but it's worth the 20 minutes of bracing myself on the bus and ignoring the well-dressed people who surround me to start the run in the small forest, which does look distinctly Russian. There are others running, especially on nice days, and I even encountered one person who was actually faster than me!
On the track however, I am certainly puzzling to people. I kind of enjoy this. For one, I sometimes take off my pullover and am in just the short-sleeve athletic shirt... something unheard of to everyone else. Here, if it is not summer, because it is Russia, everyone is dressed in winter clothes from head to toe. It is as if the concept of warming up from athletic activity does not exist.
Second, I am a girl and I run fast and for a long time... also unheard of.
Track "etiquette' does not exist here. What is supposed to happen is when someone runs faster than you, you let them pass you, or if you are walking you use the outer lanes to let the people doing a workout have the inner lanes. Here, this is not the case. It would not be a problem if the walkers just kept walking, and I would pass them just as I would pass a standing obstacle.. .but instead, they turn around with a bewildered look on their faces, and actually end up getting more in the way than they were before.
This doesn't really bother me, it's kind of amusing.

I haven't really gotten to the non-awkwardness level of being able to run the opposite direction around the track. I normally do that in order to make sure my skeleton remains aligned. 20 circles every morning in the same direction can make my hips uneven, but if I were to try to even this out, it would certainly be a revolution. Russia's not a place that makes it easy to go against the grain, literally.

Now I seem to face yet another obstacle: Snow. Of course, having gone to school in Oberlin, I certainly know what running in the snow is like.. but that's a place where it is okay to run on roads that are occasionally plowed. I am assuming here that nobody is going to plow the track, so my running season will end as soon as the snow gets too high to trudge through. Right now, there is about two centimeters of snow covering the ground.... but it's only October.
It's also worth mentioning that my first time running around the track in the snow, yesterday morning... went not without a few major wipeouts from the slipperiness... fortunately, it was not embarrassing, because only one other person was crazy enough to also be there at the track.
I also enjoy the irony of seeing people smoking on the side of the athletic stadium.

On Sundays, I take a short bus ride to Park Gagarin, where I do my long run (about 80 minutes... 20 songs) which is the pretty place pictured above. I have yet to try it in the snow, but hopefully it will хватит... 

Friday, October 7, 2011

On cultural differences and other things..

I know you might look for in this blog for a recap of how classes are going, what I do during the day, what I did last weekend, and so on... but right now, I don't feel like listing the daily events of the past week. Classes are going fine, I have nothing to complain about, everything has gone smoothly, easily even... there is almost nothing interesting (by way of strange or earthshattering) to say about daily events!

Right now I'd rather share deeper thoughts and impressions about life in Chelyabinsk, and Russia as whole. Cultural differences. Different attitudes, different habits. And where do I belong?

First: Regarding physical appearance.
It is a stereotype- but yet quite a valid observation- that in Russia, the stunningly beautiful women outnumber their attractive/available/sane male counterparts. (For me, this is nothing new, at Oberlin the idea about single men was: "Attractive, straight, sane. Pick two.") For this reason, physical appearance is VERY important to most Russian young women. This is not the same as being shallow. I remember two years ago being intimidated by supermodel-looking women in Moscow, thinking that they would have the same snotty attitude as someone of that attractiveness from an American high school.. and it is absolutely on the contrary. How stunningly beautiful -or not so- one looks like here has NO relation to how someone acts.
Now, for me, this is both good and bad. Good, because no one makes fun of me for OVERdressing or "trying too hard" the way some did at Oberlin, and beauty and fashion-related services are cheap and convenient. I got my hair done the other day for a very good price, and on every corner practically there is a "remont obuvi"= "shoe repair" to fix the heels on your shoes and boots, which costs about 200 rubles or 6 dollars and takes a few hours.
Bad, because, well... there are some times when I just feel awkward letting my hair out of place. For example, when I return on the street from my morning run at the stadium... all sweaty and in my spandex and under-armour, around nicely-dressed Russians. This doesn't really faze me anymore though.
The other issue is being skinny. It seems to be so important here. It's not quite as extreme here as in Moscow... and it is not that there are NO fat people and ALL skinny people... just very few overweight people, and more thin people, and quite a few VERY skinny people. Now, if you know what I look like, I'm not exactly what you would call overweight. If anything, I might have lost weight here (last time I checked I was 54.5 kilograms on an empty stomach... just under 120 lb) and I have even beed told I was "stroinaia" (slender). Even so, on a few occasions I was asked if I was trying to "pokhudet'" (lose weight/go on a diet). And so I asked, "Why, do you think I should?" and the answer was "Well, everyone else here is, so I was just asking if you were too." The other people in the room were about my size or thinner.
For me, even if I tried to go on a "diet" or just eat less, I have no energy and feel like crap. Even though I am not training 50 miles a week anymore, I am still running most days and working out, and I can't get by on tiny portions of dinner and lunch and a breakfast of only tea and a piece of bread.... it just won't cut it for me... and I do NOT want this to be misinterpreted of the stereotype of Americans demanding huge portions of everything.

Which brings me to my other discussion. Cultural differences between Americans and Russians... those that are perceived, and those that exist. For what it's worth... in classes, everybody obviously knows I'm American, and therefore understands that the differences I bring with me (especially my teaching methods) are particularly American. In other places, as I have mentioned before, I've had a plethora of nationalities given to me... usually German, British, or something Baltic...although I've been told I look everything from Swedish to Georgian (despite the blond hair? "because you have large dark eyes and a bent nose").
The one issue that has bothered, or concerned me the most, is when Russians or other locals talk of the другой менталитет... the different mentality. Everything is attributed to having a different "mentalitet." On three separate occasions someone has mentioned this and I felt a bit uncomfortable and even defensive. First, a friend told me that "oh, you should marry an American, because in America they have a different mentality", and "You could not live in Russia because we have a different mentality," and lastly... the incident with the apartment:
Perhaps the most negative thing that has happened so far (knock on wood). 
Valentina Dmitrievna is the mother of the former owner of this apartment (Natalia, who moved to Moscow, remember?) and the person who I pay rent to. She occasionally comes by to pick up Natalia's remaining things that need to be sent to Moscow. Last Saturday I came back from my run to find her in the apartment, and she seemed very angry. When I get nervous, my comprehension gets really bad, and so I did not understand a lot of things she was saying... but in general, it was about how the floor was dirty, how I must never wear shoes inside, and how the ground outside is so dirty. To be fair, the floor WAS dirty... there were also spots on the kitchen floor... but the problem was NOT as she said difference in mentality, that Americans are okay with a dirty floor... it was that I intended to buy a mop, and hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to do so. I tried to explain to her. Then she told me that in Russia, we don't mop, we clean the floor by hand with a rag. (It turns out that some people DO use a mop, but if for some reason this apartment floor requires me to do it by hand, whatever).
The "cultural difference" of this incident was NOT that I had a dirty floor because I'm American... HOWEVER, there IS a bit of a cultural difference in that I was a little taken aback at the fact that a person who does not live here was getting angry at me for the way my private space which I personally pay for was looking.

Anyways... the "American mentality" or "American cultural differences"... these discussions become more and more complex, because there isn't really just one mentality or culture for all Americans. In a lot of conversations, people are surprised (and possibly a bit disappointed?) that I do not speak of much culture shock experience. I have explained that, no, I am not homesick at all (although I do really miss Oberlin!), I do not try to seek out other Americans that might live in the area, and that I do not find life in Russia that difficult or depressing or unfriendly or whatever... and I most definitely never feel the need to duck into a McDonalds or a Subway or a Starbucks to "feel right at home." 
The other part of this perceived mentality is as I have mentioned before... Americans are more individual-, business-, and production-oriented, while Russians are more family, social-, and quality time-oriented. With these descriptions, I would fit in more with the Russians, as I feel that quality of life and time spent with friends and family should be more important than economic productivity. And I'm not the only one... my mother, who would certainly describe herself as very American, is VERY selfless, hospitable, and family-oriented. 

I know there are deeper cultural differences, but I am not yet at the stage to articulate them (in either language). I also do not want to minimize the differences in culture and lifestyle, it would be a very "ugly American" of me to pass off all differences as superficial, stereotypical, or wrong... and of course I recognize that my life has been significantly easier than the life of someone who grew up in the Soviet or Post-Soviet era here. 

That said... what exactly is my "American mentality?" I don't want to seem like I'm trying to describe myself as some kind of worldly exception... but I see who I am as not exactly a product of American culture as many people here interpret it.... my culture is influenced by the intellectual values of my parents, the carefree uniqueness of Oberlin College, the discipline of a long-distance runner, the creativity of a singer, and the curiosity of a traveler and (aspiring) polyglot..

I think that the biggest difference in менталитет I have is my wide-eyed curiosity. It may come across as naivete. I understand the hardships of the people who live here and have even faced some of the inconveniences... but I still love Russia, in a way... and want to see more cities, more regions, more far-off places, many of which are not considered to be top destinations for Russians and Americans alike... this interests me far more than staying in a nice hotel in a Western European city... or touring the best of Moscow, Petersburg and the Golden Ring... but others here just ask me, Why? 

Monday, September 26, 2011

From Bashkortostan with ҡымыҙ


The most important thing to know about this AMAZING weekend is: Bashkortostan is not a country. It is an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, just like Adygeya, Chuvashia, Chechnya(well not really), Yakutia, Tatarstan and so on... it has nothing to do with Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and so on...

I decided to take the weekend to visit Catherine (Katya), another Fulbright ETA. Ufa is only 5 hours by car from Chelyabinsk, but the car ride didn't work out, so I took the train instead. Technically, we cross into a different continent (back into Europe), but it's still in the same time zone.
The fun started on the train. I spoke Russian well enough to not immediately be spotted as a foreigner (!!) but admitting that I was always makes for good conversation. I ended up having one of the funniest "neighbors" I've ever had on a Russian train... a Tatar guy about my age named Timur. He didn't allow any of us to sleep much that night, and every time I tried to, I could sense that he was still making silly faces at me, and I'd open my eyes... surely enough...

As soon as I got there, Catherine picked me up, and we walked to her Saturday class. It was just an introduction class where she met two of her 17 groups of students (poor thing! Bednyashka!) We had a blast doing it... drawing a terrible map of the United States and explaining about how I am from Massachusetts and she is from California, and we both went to school in Ohio...and subsequently, explaining the words "like", "hella", and "wicked."

After that, we took a walking tour of the city (of course, I was wearing heels... eek.) around beautiful roads with both European-looking architecture and very picturesque Russian provincial/Bashkir residences.

We ended up at this place. The park and monument of Salavat Yulaev, the Bashkir national hero. "You haven't heard of Salavat Yulaev? WHAAAAT?!" The park had a beautiful of the river and the hills, and on the otherside there were cafes and souvenir shops that looked like yurts. Funny though, how in a completely tourist/family setting, they decide as background music that they should play a techno song that repeats the words "WHAT THE F***". Ohhh Russia.

After a long and painful high-heeled walk to search for a good Bashkir cafe, we rested at the apartment, and then out to a club with some recent acquaintances-turned-close-friends. We went to meet Vadim, a seriously completely-recent acquaintance of Catherine's, at an upscale club for his friend's birthday. By upscale club, they weren't kidding. High heels were a REQUIREMENT for women. It was pretty surreal... we felt like New Russians . The family of Vadim was a Tatar family (New Tatars? Or just a special occasion?) with yet another display of hospitality. I had only known them for those four hours, and may never know them again, but they provided us with a dinner, several drinks, hookah, and entrance to the dance floor without letting us spend a ruble.

All of us.
Ruslan, probably the funniest character of the night.

The night ended at 4am. One of the conversations we had was the difference between American and Russian (or Tatar) mentality, in which in America, productivity and punctuality and success come first, while here... not so much... I responded, that I actually preferred it this way, that quality of life and relationships with others should be primary... to which they answer... добро пожаловать!

The next day, we slept pretty late (understandably), and then took another journey to the other side of the river, where people reside in their dachas (weekend cabins). To get there, you take a bus (on which I made the decision that Bashkir men are probably the most attractive in most of Russia) to a park, follow down some dirt paths (accompanied by Catherine's friend Kadriya, a local), take a ski-lift-type-thing down to the river bank, take a boat across the river, and then follow some more paths. By fate, we chose one path that led us down a row of dachas were one woman was garden and curious about Catherine's photography (she wants to make 5-minute films once a month about life in Bashkortostan). We introduced ourselves, and she let us into her cabin for tea. Her name was Albina, and she had the most beautiful garden with delicious vegetables! Unfortunately, we could not stay long, because Cathernine needed to hurry back to teach her Zumba class... also a blast.

Albina's garden

Finally, that evening after the Zumba Fitness class, we all went to our long-awaited Bashkir feast at a traditional restaurant (well, not really, it was kind of a generic 'Eastern' restaurant, but whatever). We were joined by a friend named Bulat, a Bashkir who speaks the language and plays the kurai, a traditional flute-like instrument (but not very well, he says) and his friend, a girl from Finland, and two other friends. Between the seven of us, we only had to pay 500 rubles each for this feast about $15, which in some other cities (ahem... MOSCOW) is unheard of.

Now... ҡымыҙ.... кумыс... kumys... what is that? It iiiiis

Fermented horse milk! It's delicious! and very good for you!

More pictures from Izyum, the Bashkir(ish) restaurant

 Irik, Bulat, me, Catherine, Petra
 Horse meat! Eat with your hands!
 Denis, Irik, Bulat, me, Catherine, Petra... almost all of us
Salavat Yulaev, looking especially majestic at night.

How lucky am I to have a September birthday

First thing, never have I ever had such a cold birthday before. On September 22, I turned 23, and it was 43 degrees outside. Ohhhh Russia.

This seriously was the most Russian birthday I ever had. It was awesome. It wasn't easy, spending most of the day cleaning and cooking and trying to find the right wine to buy (after my tutoring session with Yury Vladimirovitch, who gave me chocolates!!!) I invited over everyone I knew who was around my age plus Svetlana. It was a great excuse to invite over random people, and resulted in getting to know them better and probably having a new group of close friends.

Our beautiful dinner:

In the picture: Yuliya, Volodya, Svetlana, Sasha and Dasha (twins), me
Not in the picture: Zhenya (a former Fulbright from Chelyabinsk to America, she was taking the picture), Katya (she was late)

Most people spoke English to a degree but this night was Russian Russian Russian.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ooh, so suddenly I'm really busy, actually.

Teaching has officially started.
Last week, I only taught the younger group, the ACCESS English club, which consists of mainly 15-year-old students. Most are really shy, but their English I feel will catch on. Today I began with one of the "regular" classes, a group of 5th-year students who are in real need of conversational practice. The Russian education system is mainly lecture-based and not so much participation-oriented, but for this class, participation will be absolutely mandatory. Shy students will have to break out of their shell...  because really, the problem seems to be mainly getting the courage to speak up. Once they do, their grammar isn't all that bad, it's just a matter of practice, as in not hesitating after every word because they are not sure if it is right or not.

With Yury Vladimirovitch (the vice-governor whom I tutor English) is always charmingly enthusiastic. Our classes are always quite random (I remember actually explaining to him the word "random" and how we use it in conversation... best translated as случайно or беспорядочный) and topics are sort of digressions upon digressions... but hey, whatever works. He appears to be making progress!

Anyway, I have just received my full schedule. It looks pretty loaded. I'm kind of split around all different institutions... at the Pedagogical University, the Cultural Institute, Yury Vladimirovitch, and it looks like I will be teaching a class at YOGURT. Basically, it looks like I am taking a bunch of classes off the hands of the other CHELTA (Chelyabinsk English Teachers Association) teachers' hands. Sounds good enough. I like changes of scenery.

I am SO going to accidentally refer to YuUrGU as YOGURT out loud.

So... I am no longer "lonely" here. I have several acquaintance now, and there is definitely always something or someone to be occupied with. Last week, I finally met in person Zhenya (Evgeniya) a former Fulbrighter to America who is from Chelyabinsk, to whom Oberlin's Fulbright Anna introduced me. With her friends, we went to an all-night short film festival on Saturday night into Sunday morning... and we ALMOST made it to the end. As funny as some of short films were, it gets increasingly hard to keep your eyes open as the hours turn from 3am to 4am.

Annoying things of the past week:
A) Hot water outage. Apparently, this happens sporadically in Russia. The building WAS actually notified, discreetly by a white piece of paper hung among other unimportant white pieces of paper, and the reason was that "ремонт идет". "Repairs are happening." What kind of repairs, what broke and why... who knows. All I see is a pit outside with a pipe exposed (see: "What's a Chelyaba?") and a bunch of people in construction uniform smoking cigarettes and talking about it.
B) Random power outage. At least it was only three hours.
C) My internet decided that it didn't recognize my password anymore (even though I had it autosaved?) and I had to reconfigure everything.
D) Chelyabinsk doesn't have a logical timetable or route map of its buses, you just kind of have to learn by experience. I'm always afraid of taking a bus that I think will lead somewhere and end up in the Metallurgical district. But then again, maybe that would be an adventure too..
E) Most banks won't let me take more than 5000 rubles out at a time (about $160). Which means I have to pay a $9 commission for EVERY $160.

Non-annoying things this week:
A) The dollar versus the ruble keeps going up and up. When I got here, it was only 27 rubles to a dollar, now it is 31. Good for me, not so good for the locals unfortunately.
B) Did I mention things are 4x cheaper than in Moscow?
C) Every single person I have met is amazingly nice.
D) After not having any showers at home and then having only cold showers here for a while, I will NEVER AGAIN take for granted a hot shower. Or better yet, a bath.
E) Running is absolutely NOT out of the question like I thought it was going to be.

Some pretty awesome news...
I get FIVE weeks off during winter. Not saying that I don't like what I'm doing so far, I'm saying that it is good because I have the flexibility to realize the Epic Central Asia Journey with fellow Oberlin grad Joseph Campbell. I hope you are reading this, Professor Dumančić. Svetlana says that holiday break is from December 25th through January 8th, then exams, and then there is another break somewhere in there after exams... and that I might as well take the whole month off because there won't be any real classes.
Potential destinations for this time period:
long long train ride perhaps through Astrakhan
Somewhere else (possibly Altai Republic? Not that it's exactly on the way or anything.)
Probably coming back through Ekaterinburg.

LOL... one of the many, many, MANY obstacles of planning this epic journey is... can I go from Adygeya to Azerbaijan by train without crossing into any restricted and/or disputed territories? Because flying could get VERY expensive... because Krasnodar probably won't fly me to Baku, they'd probably reroute me all the way back to Moscow or something.
I know it's early, but a trip this *epic*  WILL take months to work out.

As for this week, I have my birthday celebration and Bashkortostan to look forward to! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

What's a Chelyaba anyway?

It's a Bashkir word meaning "pit". I didn't even have to walk far to find one.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

And now suddenly, everyone is... gone:((

Well then. Natalia and her daughter have moved to Moscow, and I have my very own apartment! Yayy!!
Except, it's more like this:
I had to say goodbye to Natalia who has been incredibly sweet to me and hospitable, and had introduced me to new people every day, and now suddenly everyone is gone and I'm living alone. I'm not used to this at all. Especially because everyone I had met happened to be "busy" this weekend. This better not be a regular thing... I am a social person. I do like my own space, but I cannot go an entire weekend without any interaction with people.

In order to break up the lonely weekend, I set out to find a place to run, other than the track nearby (which is in rather poor shape). I managed to find the park where Katya took me last week, and indeed, there was a forest with miles of trails to get lost in, and a pond clean enough to fish in... a place where you forget you're in the middle of a big industrial city. But then you get to the other side of it and you get to the lake, and on the other side of the lake, the familiar Soviet factories greet you once again.
I imagine I shall run here many weekends.

I'm still waiting for my actual classes to start...I have become introduced to them (maybe that's why this weekend felt so awkwardly quiet.. I had been running around meeting new people all week and suddenly there wasn't a constant flow of introductions) Today is only the private tutoring session with Yury Vladimirovitch, the vice-governor.
My favorite English sentence of his: "Chelyabinsk-region, ecological, not good."
Nah, his English is fine for someone who has only learned it less than a year, it is actually really impressive how he constructs sentences and recalls particular's just the humility and honesty sincere effort of this sentence that kind of brought tears to my eyes... anyway...what he says is true, but really, it is not as bad as some people say .

Yes, Chelyabinsk has Internet Meme status. In Russian, of course. Any search for "суровый город" (literally, "severe city", could also mean closer to "tough city" or maybe "badass city") The tease on the city's dirty industrial (and formerly, nuclear) reputation has given its residents Chuck Norris qualities.
They usually begin with something like, "Челябинцы настолько суровы..." (Chelyabinsk residents are so severe that...)
One example of a Chelyabinsk "fact":
Челябинская водка настолько сурова, что ее запретили в 190 странах мира как ядерное оружие.
Chelyabinsk vodka is so severe that it is forbidden in 190 countries like nuclear weapons.
Oh, and I found another fact:
Chelyabinsk muzhiki (guys, blokes) are so severe (tough) that Chuck Norris considers himself a Chelyabinsk muzhik.

Well, obviously... Chuck Norris doesn't live in my neighborhood. This part of the city is perfectly normal.

Katya, by the way, is an acquaintance I made through Natalia. She drove me around different parts of the city... we both speak each other's languages equally, I'd say, and she has an overall great personality. I hope we can meet up again, it is good to know someone close to my own age. She goes to the same school Olga went to (the one near the park where I went running) called YuUrGU: Yuzhno-Uralsky Gosudarstveny Universitet. South Ural State University.
I'm sorry, but that school will ALWAYS be thought of by me as YOGURT.

Today, I'm going out. I refuse to do any work at home, I need to be in a public setting. I need to at least... TALK to people, even if it's asking for a coffee or the time of day. Yeesh. I hope I don't have to live alone forever, it's depressing to think that there are many people who do. 

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Chilling in Chelyabinsk.

I was almost going to title my blog this... but decided against it (Thank God.)

I must say, after the first push through the 72 hours without actually sleeping, I have probably had the smoothest transition out of the Fulbrighters here in Russia. My living situation is ideal: I get my own apartment, walking distance from the university, and it's a really nice place. Plus, for this first week, I am living with Natalia Kommissarova, a colleague of my host Svetlana. She speaks English (although we usually speak Russian) and has helped me settle in and has introduced me to people and places around the city.

I also get a whole week to adjust before I start any regular classes. I'm not exactly clear on what I am doing... but my main classes will be at the State Pedagogical University, in addition to assisting other classes at the Music School and the Institute of Culture... AND three times a week, assisting the governor with his English before his trip to Chicago this month...???? It seems like I will be pretty busy. I better continue all this week with my nine-hours-a-night sleeping pattern...

Every person I have met has been BEYOND hospitable. Natalia insists on making me dinner every night she is here, and other colleagues of Svetlana spent the last two days showing me around and putting up with my mundane concerns such as cell phones and sim cards and registration and documents... I only hope they realize how much I appreciate all this. Sometimes I am afraid I may seem unappreciative because of my overall fatigue. There are times when I have been unresponsive and energy-lacking,,,, but it's not because I am not enjoying myself and don't appreciate their help... it's because immense jetlag + not being able to speak my native language ALL DAY wears me out pretty quickly. I hope this will change soon.

Did I mention... my apartment has A WASHING MACHINE? Yayyy, no need to go to and pay for a laundromat!!! AND it's got a really snazzy shower with a million buttons and functions in it, including a radio. It took me a while to figure out how to set the right temperature.

Now. About the city.
Chelyabinsk is known as the "capital of the South Urals region". It wants to be known as "the Switzerland of the Urals." To be brutally honest, it's got a long way to go before that can be true.
The city was founded 275 years ago this week, named after the fortress Chelyaba. (Yes, I arrive just in time for the City Day celebration! More about that later) I am still not entirely sure why its coat of arms features a camel. During Soviet times, it was the main industrial center for metallurgy and T-34 tanks, and earned the name "Tankograd."
Before I arrived here, one of my concerns was the radioactivity in the region. About fifty years ago, Chelyabinsk Oblast (the region) was the site for a lot of top-secret nuclear research, one of which went terribly wrong. The areas around Lake Karachay and the Techa River were very contaminated and known to be dumping grounds for nuclear waste.... eeek...
....but they are located far, far, away from the city and any place I might go, and are completely filled in with cement.
One would hope.
Until 15 years ago, the Oblast was a closed-off region... NOT necessarily because of radioactivity, but because of the military production bases. There are still some cities that are closed off because they are mainly artillery production centers.

This all being said... most of what I have seen of Chelyabinsk Oblast is absolutely beautiful. The region has thousands of lakes, and a few hours drive takes you to the Ural Mountains (more about this later).

Anyways, the first night I arrived was the beginning of what appears to be a week long celebration of the City Day, or the city's anniversary celebration.

Here are a few pictures from the parade the next day:

                                            In historical costume

I tried to get a picture of this guy but kept missing. The creature-looking thing in the middle, in the blue with the gray hair, is a mascot of some metal company. These people are really proud of their metal companies. All  workers can march in this parade to represent their industries... you have to love this Soviet legacy.
                                    Cossack kids!!!!

And now more pictures from City Day:

                                         Please!! You have to take a picture with our visitor from America!!!
                                            With the handsome Bashkir
                                                         With my own Ural Cossack knight

Anyways. Aside from the holiday celebrations, let's keep it real. Chelyabinsk is... well.. not known to be the most beautiful city in the world. Many people used to Western European cities or Moscow and St. Petersburg would find this place very ugly. There are some parts of it that are indeed very ugly. The outskirts of the city are mainly factories, and not "green" factories in the slightest. Apartment buildings do look very Soviet.
Entering the city:

It really is the epitome of "it's what's on the inside that counts." The city looks dirty, but the people are wonderful and the center is just like any normal city. The buildings sometimes look depressed from the outside, but the insides are clean and colorful and nicer than any other apartment or dorm I've lived in. The "Soviet" look is something you just kind of get used to, and even has its charm in a weird way. Another thing worth mentioning is how all around the Oblast (and maybe in others?) there was this tendency to construct the  gas pipes ABOVE the ground... so you see them everywhere... and it looks kind of weird/ugly/interesting.

I'm still not done yet...

Yesterday, Natalia's neighbor, a tech person at the university named Olga (it's been less than a week and I already know three Olgas) (oh yeah, and how convenient is that, a computer/technology person nearby to help me set up my internet??) drove me and two friends of hers to Taganai National Park to climb Bely Klyuch (white spring), a mountain in the Urals... it is about 1000 meters... higher in elevation than most of the New Hampshire mountains I've seen but not exactly the Caucasus. The Urals are interesting not because of their height but because they divide Europe and Asia. It's fun not knowing exactly what continent you are on!
Olga is awesome. I can't believe how nice she was and generous with her time, she even offered me to drive me to Bashkortostan to celebrate my birthday weekend! I only felt awkward, because again, the language plus fatigue is just very taxing. She and her friends only spoke Russian, and along the way we picked up two other Russians, and there was just SO MUCH RUSSIAN. I understood everything, or maybe 90% of the words (the other Russians spoke pretty fast) but I sometimes just didn't have anything to add, or did not quite process everything fast enough to respond... so I was just pretty quiet for the most part, and I hope I didn't come off as unfriendly or unappreciative. Olga was very understanding though. But I just felt my brain exploading and my language getting progressively worse.

Last few pictures for the day:

                                            I'm so hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh I can see Bashkortostan!

                                                   Valentin and Marina, Russian friends