Monday, December 23, 2013

Одна большая русская ошибка - One Big Russian Mistake



What a life. One day you’re a king, the next you’re a dirt digging peasant’s donkey. One day every girl in town wants your phone number, the next, you’re riding a crowded, nauseating marshrutka full of miserable people in a miserable traffic jam to get to a boring, tiresome job that pays next to nothing.

I've learned some valuable lessons in Russia. 1) I need to stand up for myself. 2) I shouldn't sell myself short. 3) In Russia, and maybe everywhere, you need to figure out how to write your own rules in life. I have never really thought about writing my own rules. I’ve always been one to play by the rules. I tend to take what is given to me, and often people give me a lot. Why, I’m not exactly sure.

The above 3 lessons may be summarized as "Becoming a man," but some days have been particularly revealing of how much of a child I can be at times. Let us take for example a recent track meet I participated in. A responsible adult, a veteran, semi-professional runner would have been prepared to put his best foot forward. By this point in life, I should know exactly what I need to do prepare, execute appropriately, and achieve a good performance. But I rebelled so completely from my former coaches system that I have forgotten the basics of how to take care of myself. I’ve forgotten what and when to eat, when to get myself to the line, to limit distractions, to be disciplined in my training, etc. Worst, when  I don’t know what to do, I simply wait for the problem to revolve itself, instead of resolving the problem. 

Maybe I’m being too hard on myself – I am in a foreign country after all. A new environment is prone to reveal ignorance. But this past Thursday was a complete disaster. Bear with me.

First off, the internet shut off on Wednesday morning and hasn’t been heard from since (it is now the next Wednesday, and I am sitting on a bench in the university to use the internet). Maybe they decided that since all the other foreigners went home to dodge the winter that we don’t need Wi-Fi in the entire dormitory. In any case, instead of calling my coach to make sure I had the schedule straight, which I had wanted to check on the internet, I just waited for the internet to return. I was overconfident, and was taking the route of complete inaction.

I’m completely embarrassed with my inability to problem solve. I also wanted to use the internet to look up a place to buy spikes, something I had put off until the very last moment because I was hoping against hope that the package my brother had sent would arrive. But he sent it very late and didn’t realize that the postal situation in Russia is quite different than in America. 6-10 days, says the US postal service, but it takes a month for anything to get to Novosibirsk. Again, I was overconfident that things would work out. To compound things, I got off to a late start because my schedule is poor – I’ve been having trouble sleeping. I can’t fall asleep before 1am anymore, even with a little melatonin, even when I’m tired all day and don’t sleep enough the night before. This is bad.

So it’s 1pm, I have no spikes, and all of sudden I realize my race is scheduled for 15:15, not 5:15. It was a fact I had known but then forgotten. I’ve never kept time on a military clock, but I am trying to switch, since Russia uses the 24 hour brain-bender, but my brain isn’t wired yet. So I started freaking out (again an immature response). I still didn’t know where to buy spikes, and I had 2 hours to get to the line of my first race since August. So I hurriedly made my way to the bus stop to encounter a few teammates heading to the track. I asked them where I could buy spikes, but I was also acting sheepish because I was embarrassed that I was doing everything so last minute. They told me of a store called “I Sport” in the center of town. Then a bus rolled up, the number 13 bus (unlucky!!), and they all hopped on. In my haste, I boarded as well, only to immediately realize that the 13 bus is incredibly slow and goes on the road with the worst traffic in the city. 

But it was 1pm, the traffic shouldn’t be too bad, right? Wrong. I should have just gotten off the bus and called a taxi. Ok, so it costs $10, but it will take me 15 minutes instead of anywhere from 40 minutes to an hour. But I didn’t, I was too shell shocked and ashamed to make a quick escape from the bus in front of these female teammates.

So I twiddled my thumbs on this bus, agitatedly glancing in all directions every time I felt the driver apply the brakes.  There was nothing to do but wait, but I just couldn’t relax. I haven’t been able to relax all week, I’ve been stressed, and this was the highest pitch. I waited on the bus as it crawled most of the 4.5 miles to the metro. And I mean crawled. Literally, a fit soldier could have army crawled faster than the traffic moves on Bolshevist Street in Novosibirsk on a work day. So 2 stops from the metro station I couldn’t take it anymore, and as the doors were closing I squeezed myself, my backpack, and my camera bag through the door and started walk/jogging to the metro.

I was hoping I was 1 stop away, but as it was actually 2 I ended up running down the street like a crazed person. No matter that it was snowing, I needed to move faster. Not only to make it to the metro more quickly, but also to make sure I beat the bus, as my actions were probably rather obvious and strange to my girl teammates patiently waiting in the traffic. I made it to the metro, and I beat the bus (which tells you how stupid bad the traffic was). 

I took the metro two stops to downtown, and started running around town like a maniac looking for any athletics store. I made for the general direction that the girls had told me this mysterious “I sport” store was located, but I did not find it. The two stores I found did not sell spikes, and had never heard of this store that did. With 50 minutes until the race start, I admitted defeat.

I finally called my coach and told him that I didn’t have spikes. He let out a Russian curse, but told me to come anyway. His voice sounded urgent, and my body was swollen from anxiety driven adrenaline, so I ran to the metro and hustled to the meet.

I finally emerged onto the indoor track, dressed and present about 25 minutes before the race was supposed to start. Or, at least, when I thought the race would start. My panic was rather amusing to the coaches, who didn’t seem to anxious about anything. In fact, there wasn’t much happening on the track at all. They directed me towards one of my teammates and said his shoe size was about the same as mine, maybe I could borrow his spikes? So I asked him, “Hey, I need spikes, like, right now… can I please, please, please have your spikes.” Or something like that, in Russian. He gave me a bit of a puzzled look, and then informed me that the schedule had been changed. He was running the 800 at 15:15 and the 3k had been moved to 17:25… you know, THE TIME THAT I MISTAKENLY THOUGHT IT WAS TO BEGIN WITH!!!

AND NO ONE TOLD ME IT CHANGED!!!

Not only was the internet dead, so I couldn’t figure this out myself, but no one decided to let me know that there was a whole 2 hour time change. I asked the trainer, and he said he had posted the most revised schedule in the locker room at the university. Well, THANKS A LOT. I kinda figured something that important changing in the days before the meet would be worth having a conversation about, hey, maybe just a text message, or a message on Russian Facebook, anything!

So hot damn, I had 2 hours to kill after all. All that running around town like a crazed squirrel, not eating lunch, not packing any food or warm enough clothes, abandoning the communal kitchen with my dirty dishes, and pumping two hours’ worth of performance enhancing adrenaline prematurely into my system were all completely for not. In fact, I would have had time, as I had planned in my mistaken schedule, to comfortably research a store, buy spikes, eat lunch, show up at the meet, and perform.

Instead, here I was on the track, tired, dehydrated, hungry, feeling light headed and a throbbing in my frontal lobe, without proper warm ups, and a full 90 minutes to twiddle my thumbs again until I needed to warm up. It also wasn’t enough time at this point to leave, eat, buy spikes, and come back, of course.

So there was nothing to do but wait. I hate waiting. I managed to acquire some spikes that were my size, and even took my chances on drinking the tap water in the stadium and didn’t get sick. One kind girl on the team gave me half her Twix bar, so I was becoming semi ready to race. I donned my sweat stained Whirlaway dri-fit t-shirt and William and Mary half tights and began warming up.

Now I could finally start thinking about the race. I had no idea what it would be like, but people were saying that one of these random Russians from Novosibirsk Oblast could run a 3k in 8:20. Which is not bad, not bad at all. They pointed out my likely competitor, and I prepared myself for battle, completely unsure of my current capabilities.

As the race neared, I was told I would be in the second heat. The second heat is the faster heat, right? I didn’t get a clear answer (at least not one I understood) and I just sort of figured it had to be. As I watched the first heat I thought, “Well, those guys look like they’re running pretty fast.” I would have been able to know for sure except the meet set up did not include a visible clock anywhere in the stadium, let alone a scoreboard. What they had for a scoreboard was a display powered by a standard classroom projector on a wall near the finish line (which someone currently racing has NO WAY of seeing) and showed results from a race long finished. Let’s just say my relatives in Georgia have a better projector capacity in their basement than this stadium.

Eventually someone told me that they were running 68-69s each 400 meters. Well, hell, why am I not in this race, that’s what I want to run? Man, if they’re running that fast, then the fast heat is really going to be… Oh, wait. No… I’m in the slow heat!! Jesus….

So I finished warming up, feeling dead legged and emotionally exhausted, and made it to the line for my scraggly section of the 3k. There were 5-6 of us, and the one semi-pro guy who was supposed to be in the race with me wasn’t there. Well, I guess I’m on my own then. I took the lead from the gun and was completely alone for the entire race, except when I was lapping my meager competition.
That last sentence is not in any way bragging – it was just a simple statement of fact. I was, in fact, running slower than the athletes in the other section. Indeed, I was on my way to running the slowest 3k I’ve run since… well let’s just say I ran just as quickly when I was 16 years old. That’s 7 years ago now, oh how time flies.

In typical fashion, I ran the first 1000 meters on (my slow) pace, ran slowly over the 2nd 1000 meters, and then rallied (after a fashion) over the last K to run a time competitive with my naïve, blusterous, exuberant, blessed, talented 16 year old self. The difference being that back then everything I felt was magic and I everything I touched turned to gold. That was before I had ever really experienced failure. I was fueled forward then by youthful courage, determination, faith, and even hate and anger. There was nothing I wanted more than to run fast. I rarely raced poorly, and although the races were painful, the pain was somehow sweet. My family and friends would watch with joy and pleasant expectations as I rounded the track. Teammates and competitors alike looked on me with admiration, and I felt like I could conquer any track, win any race, climb any mountain.

None of this emotion was with me as I, lonely, rounded the turns of Novosibirsk’s lone indoor track. There was no fire, for there was no glory to be had. I was a man in a dirty t-shirt in the slow heat of mediocre track meet in the middle of Siberia. Sure, it would have been sweet to run faster than the fast heat blokes had run, but it wasn’t going to happen on this day. Not alone, not after everything that had led up to this race. No, this was just 15 laps of reminding my body that I was an elite runner once, and maybe I can be one again. But nothing in the running world is given to you, you have to go out and get it. It never gets easier.

And the day dragged on, slowly sliding down from the climax until I finally arrived back at my dorm room. But still my mind will not settle, still my mind grasps at random thoughts and keeps me tossing and turning at night.

This was one day of what lately has been an eventful, busy, stressful life. My life in Siberia has really been effecting the way I think, the way I feel, and the way I interact with others. I feel like I stand in a hallway. In this hallway are a million open doors, each with profitable opportunities and rich experiences just waiting to be had. But the wealth of good choices has left me in complete indecision. I’ve stretched myself too thin, I’ve been unable to commit to anything, and I’ve gotten half-involved in too many projects to ever masterfully complete any of them. What I want seems to constantly change, and what I need is a complete mystery.

At the same time, I feel like much of what is available here is against my nature. It is far too easy to booze, schmooze, and lose yourself in this city.

I’ve always envisioned my ideal life as a quiet one – with a beautiful, loving wife, a house in the foothills of the mountains, a strong daily routine, happy, healthy, and fit. But at the same time I envision myself as someone important, well-connected, and influential in my eventual career. This second vision has brought be to this grey, traffic clogged, mud smeared city in the northern reaches of Asia, where you can party like a tzar and suffer like a serf. The popularity I experience is greater than it ever was in high school, when I could do no wrong. But here I can do plenty of wrong. Some days it feels like everything I do is wrong.  Every decision I make is the wrong one. I choose wrong even when I know better, like some other force outside of my control is guiding my life. I’m not one to believe in fate – it’s not fate that is guiding my choices. It’s more like a parasite, which intercepts my thought processes and spits out its own decisions. I feel like this place is slowly killing my soul.

And here I write, in a city of beautiful women but devoid of love, of endless opportunities but countless dead ends, of riches so plentiful it fills your mind with poison, and drudgery so inescapable it smothers your enjoyment of life.

Novosibirsk.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Too Cool for School!

So today I visited a school in Novosibirsk.

I had a really good idea of where to take it from there but all my thoughts are mashing together. Maybe it's just that the entire event was so incomprehensibly Russian. My mind is blown.

I'll start from the beginning. My contact, with two of her students from the 10th grade, picked me up at the ungodly hour of 8am this morning (seriously, the only other time I was outside at 8am in Russia was the Saturday night I spent dancing my tail off in Синий Инней). A coupled of things about 8am on Pedagogical University "island" in Novosibirsk. 1) Outside the university is consistently the worst traffic jam I've seen since any time I was on an interstate within 100 miles of Washington D.C. 2) It's still pitch black at 8am. 3) It was snowing. None of this was exactly planned for, so my contact was in a serious hurry to get to the university. As one of her students used GPS to try to find alternate routes (there are few), we raced as fast as we could through the traffic jam. When the traffic did briefly open up, we zoomed along to find two people nonchalantly crossing the road immediately in front of us. I felt the car slide - I feared disaster - but somehow we dodged them (I swear we went through them as if they were ghosts, I don't know how they escaped).

From there, we alternated between sitting in traffic and cutting down side "streets." As most shortcuts of this nature usually turn out, they probably didn't save us any time, but it did make for a nice adventure! I say "streets" because a series of potholes and torn up pavement doesn't quite qualify as a road, but you can drive a car down them if you are careful. If your not in the center of a city and it's not a main road, you better be careful in Russia. It may have involved blocking several lanes of traffic at various intersections, but in the end what should have been a 15 minute ride turned into an hour-long tour of Oktyabrskiy district, but eventually we made it to the school.

The school looks just about like you would expect a school to look, but noticeably featured four floors and narrow hallways. I was greeted at the door by two students holding a sign saying "Welcome Alex," and was quickly whisked away to a classroom to store by coat. With little fanfare, they then put me into a class of 7th graders and asked "what are you going to do with them? There had been some conversations about what would happen, but somehow I imagined only teaching senior students (11th grade) who spoke English well. However, based on my past experiences here, I knew I needed to be ready for anything. Fortunately, I had brought my flash drive with all of my presentations and spit out my much rehearsed presentation about New Hampshire. One student, Igor, served as my impromptu translator. This was followed by a question and answer section that included such novelties as, "Do you watch anime," and, "Could you compare the playstation 4 and the XboxOne?" Eventually a bell rang, and most of the students left, but the rest formed a little cluster around me asking more questions until eventually the teacher made it clear we had to go somewhere else.

The student cluster was to be a recurring theme. Perhaps I was the first American any of them had ever seen, or perhaps they thought I was a movie star, or maybe it was because I stood out like a sore thumb due to my clothes. No one managed to mention to me that Russian schools have a black-tie dress code - everyone wears suits. The university is casual, so I wore the argyle sweater that I often wear to teach at the university. Let's just say that an argyle sweater stands out pretty vividly against a sea of hundreds of navy blue suits. So everyone knew I was the American visitor, and the students would literally gather in the hallways and follow me around when possible.

These clouds of new friends were in addition to the group of 10th graders that was specifically assigned to be my tour guides. Our first stop was a 1st grade PE class, where I was goaded into participating in some calisthenics and several traditional Russian games. The first, called "hamsters and holes" is like musical chairs without the music and without the chairs (I guess you have to be more creative when you have less). It involved 1 group of students (the holes) standing with their legs apart, and another group of students (the hamsters) walking in a circle around them. When the teacher blew the whistle, the hamsters had to find a hole, but there was always one extra hamper. This unfortunate hamster would then leave the game and take any person from the "holes" group with him or her to make sure there was always one extra hamster.

The next game was something along the lines of "the fisherman and the fish." It involved one person in the middle spinning in a circle with a jump rope, while everyone else had to jump over the rope when it appeared underneath them. I think the closest I had ever come to playing this game before was in a round of Mario Party, but for the second round they decided to let me be the fisherman. However, my 10th grade hosts that I made play with me (heck, if I'm participating in this 1st grade PE class, they had to too!) were some pretty elusive fish, and I left the game dizzy and defeated by 16 yearolds. All the while one of my hosts filmed and photographed just about everything. Actually I think he filmed every thing I did while I was in the school.

After PE came tea time, which is where things really started getting a little awkward. I'm not used to being treated with formal hospitality, and, while it is flattering, it makes me uncomfortable because I have no freakin' idea what the protocol is! In one classroom they had a table set with tea, cakes, chocolates and even a samovar. They offered me everything on the table but didn't take anything for themselves until they had me completely situated. We then had an awkward 20 minute conversation about nothing in particular - Russian tsars, Russian tea traditions, what they want to be when they grow up...

Just as it was becoming more natural they decided now was the time to go on a "tour" of the school. They took me to various classes and I met with teachers and students. They even took me to the headmaster of the school, but everywhere they took me they only let me stay for 3-4 minutes and then they strongly suggested it was time to leave. Some rooms were comfortable, and some were downright awkward. There were many questions and answers and curious looks from 1st graders and 11th graders alike. I even visited a German class and tried to remember how to speak German (not very successfully). I met one PE teacher who had competed in track and field and had a brother in Reno, Nevada. This part of the day is all kind of a blur.

After lunch in an underwhelming cafeteria (it's a school cafeteria, what can one expect?) came the daily surprise. We set out for the school theater, and I was a little confused why. Oh, another stop on the tour? Nope, it's my presentation. My presentation?! What presentation? Presentation wasn't exactly written on the schedule, but they decided that I would be giving a presentation about my home state and answer some questions. Ok, same old, same old, no problem. But did they really have to scare me with this surprise presentation business?

The presentation went off without a hitch, and I'm not sure if anyone actually understood anything I said (it was all in English), but at the end they asked some interesting questions and they seemed to enjoy the whole process (although the young boys in the front row seemed to have more fun punching each other in the leg than listening to the presentation. I can't say I blame them).

After the presentation, I decided I had done enough and really needed to get home and get some rest (8am really is early for me). But making an escape from this school would not be easy, as we all gathered for a group picture, then changed photographers, then had individual pictures, and then we finally escaped to the room I had originally placed my coat. As I tried to make my escape, more students found me for photographs, and I said my goodbyes to my gracious hosts. One student, who spoke the most English and served as my primary host throughout the visit, deserves great thanks for her hospitality, and we shared a long goodbye.

We all exchanged gifts, and they gave me a pair of wool socks, a flash drive, two giant tombs on Russian history, and all the candies they could find. I returned the favor with a small flag of the United States and a postcard from New Hampshire with the Old Man on the Mountain on it. I felt like my gifts paled in comparison to theirs, but at least I had given them something. After some final pictures, I was finally home free! But then arrived two fourth grader girls (possibly?) who, of all things, requested my AUTOGRAPH. I can't say I've ever given my autograph before, but I obliged and they were as happy as two peas in a pod as they skipped off to their class.

The day in sum was both awkward and flattering. I'm glad I was able to bring such excitement and, I guess, joy to the students and teachers of this one small part of Russia. They treated me like royalty, but I feel horribly inadequate. I feel like a simple college graduate with a decent job in a foreign country, not much older or superior than anyone else I meet, but these students and teachers treated me like I was the American ambassador. It's hard for me to accept that I truly am in a senior, powerful, respected position here in Russia. It's an unnatural position for an American, and it's not entirely comfortable, but it does have its benefits.

Russia is really one of those places that picks you up higher than you've ever been one day, than drops you to the lowest of lows next. Those Russians who want to be your friend or impress you will treat you better than any American ever would, but those who have no reason to care about you will rudely make it clear what an intrusion you are in their life. After today, I definitely have some bad karma coming to me from the ladies in the coat-rooms and grocery stores.

In conclusion, hooray for mutual understanding!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving - Russian Style!

It's funny how the farther I get from home, the closer I feel to the traditions of my homeland. Before I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I never cared much for the city of Boston. I grew up in New Hampshire and, frankly, the "big city" of Boston scared me to pieces. But by the end of my time at College, I started calling Boston home. Now I live in Siberia, and today I found myself looking at a simple glass decorated with the landmarks of New York and thinking that New York really is, after all, the greatest city on earth. Wait, what? New York, the smelly, overcrowded, confusing, polluted, traffic clogged, crazy, confusing, city of the New York Yankees and Giants, is the greatest city on earth? This New England village boy can't really be thinking such a thing.

A similar phenomenon has occurred with holidays. Throughout my life I have done my best to avoid taking part in these so called "holiday traditions." When I was in  college, I took pride in not going home for the holidays, either out of a masochistic desire to be different or a masochistic desire to suffer, and therefore gather my victimization based strength. In any case, this week I presented to each of my classes the American holiday of Thanksgiving. I told about "American" traditions that I myself had simply researched ahead of the presentation. My fellow Americans, did you know that the president pardons a turkey on Thanksgiving? And do you all watch the Macy's Parade (I've literally never watched the Macy's Parade)? I don't like sweet potatoes and I've never tried cranberry sauce. Most sacrilegious of all, I don't like pie in general and only recently began eating apple pie. But here I was, standing in front of classes of Russians telling them what Americans do on Thanksgiving.

Invariably, a student or a professor will ask, "Are you going to celebrate Thanksgiving here in Siberia?" Under normal circumstances, I probably wouldn't bother celebrating. But hell, I'm the American representative in this town and I better show support for American cultural traditions. Besides, saying no to that question in front of a class is an indefensible position. Saying no would just be followed by a long pause with everyone confused as to what to do next. So I said, "Yes, I'm going to track down some turkey and have a Thanksgiving with my friends."

Another part of my past reluctance to celebrate holidays is that they stress me out. I hate making plans, such as finding a costume for Halloween, or buying a suitable present for each of my relatives for Christmas. It all stresses me out. So I almost decided to just forget the whole thing, except for a small group of my Russian students/friends who seemed excited about the whole thing. Nothing like a bit of peer pressure and responsibility to keep you on the "up and up".

So today I set out to the Russian version of a Walmart-BJ's hybrid in the hopes of finding some Turkey meat. It took a while, but I managed to track down 2 kg of turkey meat (there were no whole turkeys, and there was no way I was cooking a whole turkey anyway), some frozen corn and peas, and some nice looking white bread rolls. I even found some California wine. My friend, Lena, already had potatoes, carrots and onions at home from her family's dacha, so after picking up some Russian champagne and various pre-made salads, we had a nice hybrid Thanksgiving feast of sorts in the making. I even bought a Belgian chocolate cake (screw the pies ;-)...)

Also fortunately, Lena's mom was more than ready to help prepare the turkey. She injected a needed level of expertise to this venture, without which we probably would have all either been chewing on charcoal or fallen ill with salmonella. That said, the preparation was still not without a bit of chaos. At one point Lena noticed that the stove had stopped working. Strange... it seemed the circuits to the kitchen had blown. The problem was quickly fixed with a set of pliers, but a few minutes later there was a loud clicking sound from behind the refrigerator and the stove went out again. This wasn't a loud clicking sound like someone pressing on a mouse. This was the sound a spark makes when it jumps across from node to node like a little bolt of lightning. For a moment I thought the whole apartment was going to burst into flames.


Lena's mom quickly took control of the situation. It seemed to me that all of our preparation may have been done in vain, and Thanksgiving wouldn't be completed after all. However, Lena's mom quickly dug through a closet and emerged with a small gas powered hot plate, which was a little terrifying in itself. As she lit up the hot plate (which, when attached to its fuel, was unbalanced and leaned hazardously to the side) I again thought the kitchen might suffer a catastrophic explosion. There nearly was, as the flames lept around the frying pan and I began planning my escape from the kitchen, but the stalwart woman that Lena's mom is, she controlled the flame and brought the Thanksgiving turkey meat to a delicious finish.

Speaking of which, I've never had fried turkey before, but I wasn't about to interfere with the Russian cooking process. It looked delicious throughout, and tasted delicious in the end, so who cares if it wasn't baked in the classic fashion? This was Russian Thanksgiving, after all!

Besides the turkey, we all (myself, Lena, Zhenya, and Katya) helped prepare the food, almost like a little family! We pealed an obnoxious amount of potatoes, that ended up not fitting into all of the saucepans that the apartment could provide. In the end, we wound up boiling them in the microwave as the stove was doing it's best to explode.

I will say, only in Russia will the stove threaten to have an electrical fire, and only in Russia will a solution be so quickly thought up so as to avert disaster. Russia is a place where the plan never works quite how you think it will, everything is a little chaotic, but most things tend to work out in the end.  

Finally, the table was set, and we unceremoniously sat around the table and devoured our makeshift Thanksgiving feast. Everything was as tasty as I could have asked for. Even the Russian version of "So you think you've got talent" playing on the TV in the background was entertaining (it almost deserves a blog post in itself).

In honor of the spirit of the holiday, I must list a few things for which I am thankful. I am thankful for my new Russian friends, and that I was able to spend Thanksgiving with good company. I am thankful that this has been the warmest November in the history of Novosibirsk (although I feel like I'm not getting the true Siberian experience). I am thankful that we did not burst into flames along with the kitchen during the cooking process. Lastly, I am thankful that I am a free man living a free life.

In class I asked some of my students to say what they were thankful for. Most of them said things like family, friends, loved ones, and their mothers. One student said, "I am thankful that I am a man."

Gotta love Russia.


Friday, November 8, 2013

Down Time

Well, I seem to have caught my first cold of the year. That's generally what happens to me in the fall when it's cold, rainy, I start training, I share my water bottle with my teammates, and fill up my schedule so I'm working almost every day. Let's just say I never learn my limits. The good news is, this cold has given me two days of downtime to not have to worry about teaching and lesson planning. The bad news is I'm trapped in my coffin-sized room like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment.

I'd like to say I've made good use of this time, but instead I've been looking at the statistics of this blog out of curiosity as to who my readers are. It seems you guys really like my post about the "Ugly Coyote Bar and settling in", as it comes in first with 130 all-time views. Second with 119 views is, somehow, still my post on "Nastalgia" from before I even left America (maybe I should re-read that one). A close third place, with 117 all-time views, is my personal favorite, "Once a Runner..." and fourth is, possibly my second favorite, "Escape From Moscow" with 105 views. Nothing else beats 61 views.

I'm amazed that "Nastalgia" is doing so well despite being written when there were few people who were reading my blog and I hadn't even started my adventure. It's like that song a band writes before they made it big that somehow becomes a hit long after it was recorded. In any case, I'm glad people are reading, but you should really go back and read my post about Berlin and Vince Vaughn! I put a lot of work into it!

And where are my readers reading from? Well, perhaps they are all just random drones from Vampirestat.com, but if the stats are to be believed, my American readership is strongly leading the way with 1615 views, with Russia in a strong second with 699 views. However, over the last month Russia has supplied more views than my fellow Americans. I predict that Russia will end this year in the lead :). Next comes Germany and the Netherlands in a tie for 3rd with 22 views each (very fitting, I think), which makes sense because that's where I was before I arrived in Russia and I have friends there.

What doesn't make sense is what comes next: Serbia comes in 4th with 18 views. SERBIA! Who in Serbia is reading my blog, and why? Not that I'm offended, I just find this incredibly interesting (assuming you're not working for a shadow blog advertising company). If you read this, please leave a comment because I want to know you're real. Next come Belgium, Spain, and Norway with 6 views, and then Belarus and France with 5 a piece. I even have some "reader(s)" from China, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Australia, and Italy. Alright!!

I wont go on about this much longer, but you might find this entertaining: 42% of you use Google Chrome, and if you're still using Internet Explorer you should get with the times, because you're in the 6%!! As for my fellow Firefoxers, we form a respectable 22%. Windows is holding down the OS market as well as Google Chrome owns the browsers, with 45% of you using Windows to read my blog. But 34% of you have used an Ipod or a Mac computer. Isn't it scary that I know this stuff? I'm like the NSA!

And now I'll start counting the hours until my blog gets blocked...

Ok, but seriously, I have made pretty good use of my time. Training had been going pretty darn well until I got sick. I even did a set of Ks on the one and only indoor track in Novosibirsk. (Yes, it was the first week of November and we were already on the indoor track... I may never see an actual outdoor track in this town.) Speaking of which, assuming my Russian ability didn't fail me, my university used to have a track, but someone STOLE the surface of the track. I really don't know how that's possible, but the story is people came and pealed the rubber off the track and made off with it. That's why the track looks like the road to Oblivion, and not because they haven't bothered to maintain the track since they built the first railroad bridge over the river Ob (When Grover Cleveland was the President of the USA, remember that guy?).

Right, the Ks. So the workout was 6 x 1000 with 400 jog rest in between. The goals were entirely heart rate based. During the Ks heart rate should be between 160-180, and during the 400 jog my heart rate should get below 140. I remember doing something similar in high school, when we would do "3 minute ons" on the track. But we would always rest til our heart rate was down to 120, and I probably got over 180 on the ons. So the first one was silly slow as we found our bearings (3:34), but for the last 5 I ran 3:13, 3:13, 3:12, 3:08, 3:06. Afterwards we did some 50 and 100 meter flies as speed work. It was nice to finally get on a nice, banked track, and this indoor track was as nice as the better indoor tracks in the United States. It's not quite at BU level, but it was much better than UNH or CNU.

Getting to the track is kind of a story of its own. So I'm having a recurring bad dream of showing up with one plan in mind, to find out the plan is OH-so-different from what I imagined. This day it was raining pretty hard, and it turned out there was a miserable traffic jam on the only road downtown from our little university enclave. So I arrived at the locker room to find the Coach and a small group of girls from the team. They decided that the best thing to do was walk to the train station... which is probably about a mile away, because the traffic was so bad.... In the pouring rain... through the woods. Once funny is that, well, this was the best thing to do in the situation. It was the fastest way! Russia (smh)... The paths had turned to nothing but mud and one of the girls was wearing heels (girls are always wearing heels here). And it wasn't a stroll - we stretched over about 100 meters as everyone did their best to speed walk to the train station, but one girl was in heels, so how is she supposed to keep up?

In any case, we made it to the train station to find the rest of the team, which was a surprise to me. I would have asked them how they all got there, if I trusted my Russian ability to understand the answer. I figured I would just try to read their minds instead. Soaked, covered in mud, and a train ride, a metro ride, and a short walk later, we were at the indoor track on the other side of the river. I can only imagine what getting their is like in the middle of January when it's -30 outside...

At this point, after reading my other blog entries as well as this one, you may be asking me why the heck I chose to come out to this dreary, godforsaken city in the middle of Russia. Well, the coach at the university asked me that as well. "Why did you leave somewhere where everything was good for the place where everything is bad?" He asked (In Russian, more or less). Well at the time, all I answered was "In order to know!" But it's more than that. I feel the need to explain here (because I know you're reading coach!)

When I graduated from William and Mary and finished with collegiate running, I was tired, sick of running, and worn out from an emotional battle with a coach I despised. I simply wanted the freedom of not having to slave for the man every day of my life for a sport I once loved but that had turned into nothing but work. I took a month off from running. Over the summer I started running again on my own terms, and I realized it wasn't the sport I hated, just the situation I had found myself in. I trained hard for about 6 weeks, and was once again in decent shape. I attended workouts with a coach, but I did the majority of my running on my own with my own plan. However, I pushed myself too hard, too early, with too little emphasis on staying healthy and all-around strength. I injured myself.

So I took another 6 weeks off. And then I started jogging around on my own just to stay healthy. But my discipline was shattered. I could barely get myself to run 3 days a week. I decided I needed to start a training plan.

So, firstly, it wasn't really my intention to seriously train here in the place of "everything bad". But I find myself in a position where I need to seriously train to give my life structure and focus. Secondly, I came to Siberia in general to gain a new perspective on life. Sure, everything was "good," training in America. Except I couldn't see anything good about it anymore. We had nice tracks, nice gear, nice shoes, nice weather, free travel to events, "knowledgeable" coaches, and high-level competition. But I hated running and was living an unhealthy life by the end of college. It's so easy to take all the nice things for granted, especially when your psychologically stuck on the things you hate. I really need to get back to basics. I think I can do that here. And when I get back to the United States, all of those nice things will seem so nice again, at the very least for a little while. Or maybe I will appreciate the value of regaining that toughness of training and living with less, and appreciate life all the more.

Besides, not everything is bad. I like to highlight the examples of things that are different here, but just because they are different doesn't mean they are worse. Living, and training (training is a life, in a way) are entirely relative and entirely situational. A run in the best gear in the most beautiful landscape in the world with the sun shining can sometimes be the worst run of the weak, and a run in a freezing rain down a muddy street can sometimes feel the best. I'm going to stop here before I talk myself into becoming a Buddhist Monk and living on a mountaintop in Nepal.

Lastly, life in general. At this point I am teaching 8 classes of English a week at the university and volunteering my time at other English language centers when I can. I'm taking dance classes - I'm learning how to dance the Bachata (it's similar to Salsa but slower and easier)! Next week I will be taking part in a sociological conference and I wrote a paper on youth (18-29) voting trends in American national elections. I am now the proud owner of a Russian ushanka, my project on Russian track and field is off to a slow start, I drink lots of tea, and my beard and hair are growing long.

That's enough for one day. Good use of down time?

Monday, October 28, 2013

Training with the Russians, and "Stalingrad" 2013 vs "Stalingrad" 1993

The training plan is getting clearer. While my communicative abilities are still lacking, I'm able to figure out what I'm supposed to do on any given day. Today I finally got to go for a run in the woods with some Russian running buddies. They call it a "кросс." I also re-learned the Russian word for competition - "соревнование", or "конкурс". These are useful words when trying to size up my colleagues/competition.

Also, at least in this training program, they take Sundays off. Which is GREAT. And you really need a day off after running for 90 minutes around an 80 meter rectangle of a gym. I showed up on Saturday for the long run... to find out that the entire run would be inside the gym, and that every 5 minutes or so we would do some sort of drill or exercise. OK, drills and exercises, that's fine. But the entire long run in a gym???? As a Russian might say... ZA SHTO?? Except they wouldn't say that in this case because it's not abnormal for Russians (Apparently. Please forgive my blanket generalizations). Well, it was a little cold and rainy, so we stayed inside. To make it worse, we never changed direction. I made a 90 degree left turn every 5-8 seconds for 90 minutes... which comes out to 830 left turns. Besides being slightly mind-numbing, it's just asking for a muscle imbalance or an injury. I asked my new training partner Anatoly if his knees and legs hurt from running like this. He said they used to, but he got used to it. The near strain in my right calf leaves me hoping that I'll get used to it too. At the very least we could have done 400 right turns too!

But! But... I am now training like the Russians, if that means running in an endless ovalish-rectangle for eternity, then so be it. In general, the volume is far less and there are far more exercises and drills throughout the week than I'm used to. I'm more than willing to accept that change, as my overall strength and flexibility are severely lacking and it has lead to injuries and inconsistency in the past. So I'm willing to try this new approach... But I just may run on my own on Saturdays from now on.

The training is also having the effect of filling up my schedule. With English conversation clubs, teaching at the university, and training, I'm about at the saturation point of my participation capacity. But I don't feel overwhelmed (yet). Just the afternoons of going to a friend's apartment and smoking hookah are probably going to be few and far between from this point on. I wrote about settling in before, but now I feel much more settled. I have structure to my week now. My freedom is limited, but that's always the trade off, isn't it?

In my free time, I have managed to participate in some more cultural activities. Last week I watched the new Russian film "Stalingrad," which was entertaining as a movie but, to me, a complete farce as a retelling of the battle . A typical block buster movie, "Stalingrad" features slow-motion action sequences, a silly love story, and very little historical accuracy (Not to sound preposterous to my Russian readers, I happen to be one of the few young Americans who actually knows something about the Russian experience during the Second World War. Indeed, as I watched the German version of Stalingrad with three Russian students of history, they laughed at me when I told them the Battle of Stalingrad actually ended in February, not November. Then they looked up the date :).)

(SPOILER ALERT: IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW DETAILS OF THE MOVIE BECAUSE YOU PLAN ON SEEING IT, YOU MAY NOT WANT TO READ THE REST :) )

The newest Russian version of Stalingrad contains many archetypes of Soviet historical action movies, as well as Stalingrad re-tellings general (it had MUCH in common with the German version, although the German version was decidedly less glorious, longer, and focused on the suffering of the German soldiers and the retelling of their catastrophe, both psychologically and physically... in short, it was very German, naturally). The Russian version told the story from both the Russian and German perspectives (but in actuality, it was entirely a Russian perspective). In the style of Soviet War films, it showed the Germans as bumbling idiots, but numerous and well equipped. The Germans, of course, have all of the tiger tanks and aircraft. But what the Soviet (in this case, Russians, because hell, it ain't the Soviet Union any more so all the Second World War heroes can be Russian) heroes lack in material, they make up with cunning, skill, and bravery, all of which the Germans simply lack. Except, of course, for the one German who's a good soldier, but we can only like him because he isn't a very good NAZI.

While the German version ("Stalingrad" 1993) focused on the physical and psychological torment of the battle (there is a lot of gore, and scenes of soldiers freaking out when their friend dies, or they're under fire, or they receive a letter saying that their wife left them), the Russian version uses a stylized form of violence closer to that of 300 or Watchmen where people are brutally stabbed with knives (may I add that the Russian soldiers seem to be very adept with knives...?), but you don't see anyone blown in half laying in the ground like in the German version. The German version raises the questions of loyalty and faith among soldiers as they lose hope in their cause and eventually realize they're never going to make it out alive. The German soldiers go so far as to murder their own stereotypically evil NAZI officer. The Russian version doesn't really ask any important psychological questions - with the exception of when a Russian kills a German soldier trying to get water. The Russian soldiers end the movie by sacrificing their lives in order to kill as many Germans as possible, the ultimate statement of loyalty. They never question their officers, who are never shown aside from the leader of the group (and even he is not visibly differentiated from his subordinates). The Germans, however, have a distinct hierarchy, and the most senior German officer is shown as an out-of-place bourgeoisie dirt-bag (who is fittingly outsmarted by a lowly Russian soldier and stabbed to death).  

But the movies are similar in as many ways as they are different. Each movie focuses on a group of men and their common struggle in the ruins of the city. They even both include some little things like a soldier's joy in finally being able to relax and take a hot bath. And, of course, (spoiler alert!) everyone dies. It can't be Stalingrad unless everyone dies (unless it's Enemy at the Gates, in which case Jude Law and his lover HAVE to live). And, strangely, both films include a Russian girl who is first raped by a German, and then falls into a weird sort of love with a German, and is then killed by Russians. In the Russian version she is killed by a Russian sniper specifically because she fell in love with a German, whereas in the German version she just gets randomly mowed down because the movie was reaching the three hour mark and everyone had to die somehow.

The thing that irked me the most about the Russian version is that everyone was doing crap that just didn't make sense. Ostensibly the Germans knew that the Russians were in the building on the other side of the courtyard. You wouldn't know it by watching the movie, because they all liked standing outside in the open all of the time and never payed attention to the house from which the Russians were sniping them daily. In the most egregious scenario, the Germans had lined up all the civilians in the neighborhood in a search for Jews. Remember, this IS NOT German controlled territory, this is no man's land. The Russians are watching this happen and not doing anything. Finally the Germans find someone who might be a Jew and board her up in a wagon and burn her alive. At this point the Russians, instead of fighting from the cover of their building against the Germans in the open, decide to go on an all out charge - you know, so they could include some slow-motion scenes of Fritz getting sliced and diced by our knife wielding Russian heroes. But why the hell would the Russian's leave the house, where they were safe, to fight the Germans in the open and yield their advantage? This mind-boggling turn of events is closely followed by the Russians having a birthday party with no one standing guard on their last night, as well as the afternoon the Russians spent in the open aiming a canon (which magically appeared nearby...) at the German headquarters (as I said, the German guards were never paying attention). To emphasize Russian slyness, they aimed the canon so perfectly that it ricocheted off of a tank and into the German base.

Long story short, the film is worth seeing if you pride yourself as a World War Two buff and want to see a contemporary portrayal of, arguably, the war's most decisive battle. The Russian version does succeed in creating a colorful metaphor of the war. The opening sequences depict the aftermath of a terrible earthquake that has occurred in Japan, which has led to several Germans being trapped in the ruins of a building there. Russian aid workers have come to dig the Germans out of the Japanese rubble, and Americans, Canadians and British aid workers are there too (well, their flags at least, we don't actually see them doing any of the hard work). Through this image, we see the Russian perspective of the war in general - Russia playing the main role to save the entire world from the evils of Germany and Japan, the populations of which are actually victims too who were liberated through Russia's efforts. America, Britain and a few other countries helped in some way, but Russia was the indispensable cog in the wheel of liberty. The narration of the film further solidifies this perspective, as the narrator describes the battle in Stalingrad as the greatest battle in human history and Russia's victory there as more or less the salvation of civilization.

Do your eyes hurt yet? Mine do. Signing off, til next time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Once a Runner... and, "Don't freak out, you're in Russia now"

Today I finally took the plunge to commit to running again. Running on my own wasn't cutting it. Despite somehow being a relatively successful athlete and student, my personal discipline stinks like a dead rat. So I agreed to meet a coach and (I thought) some athletes for a run today at the school's stadium. It turned out that it wasn't a group run, but a workout (a test?). Maybe the coach wanted to know what shape I was in....

In any case, maybe I talked myself up too much when I was trying to make sure they would take me seriously. I was a little concerned they would just ignore me if I didn't (figuratively) tape my 13:55 5k PR to my forehead and tell everyone in the physical education department that I was, actually, a good runner. Maybe that's why the coach wanted me to do 65 second quarters around the track today...

As he led me to the "locker room" where the team meets to gear up and get ready, he said something along the lines of "Don't freak out, you're in Russia now." Well, he said that because the locker room is tucked away in what seems was supposed to be a storage room in the basement of the university. The only thing that should live in this room is rats, spiders, and coach roaches, but instead its a locker room with clothes hanging from every surface (oh, if only the administration of W&M could see it, they'd probably die from seeing so much dirty clothes hanging from dirty surfaces. Their heads would probably explode.) But this is Russia, and this is normal, and why shouldn't it be? It is a locker room, after all.

Well, 65 second quarters were just not going to happen. I haven't exactly been training like a 13:55 guy these last few months (have I been training at all???). So I did a farthlek sort of workout around the "track" including 6 quarters in 72-74... and well, I think I disappointed the group of sportsmen that were watching my first few reps.

See, in Russia there seem to be rankings of athletes. My 13:55 seems to grant me the title of "master" in Russian sport speak, which I think is pretty good. I don't know what the other rankings are, but I'm curious to find out. Perhaps some other trackies found out a "master" was doing a workout today and came to watch (poor them, poor me). At least now I know I have a reputation to uphold so I better start training again. I may not be fat yet, but I'm not in shape. But as they say, "Once a runner... Always a runner." This northern man who went to college in what used to be the South will rise again!

So tomorrow I'm (hopefully) meeting some folks for a standard run at the university at 3:40. But I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be 200s. I should also probably study some Russian track vocabulary in the mean time. How do I say "I'm not in good shape" in Russian anyway...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Writer's Block

Wooh, it's been a while since I've updated. Apparently people have still been reading my blog anyway, so that's nice, but I suppose you all deserve a new entry. It's been hard to write the last few weeks (hence the title) as I've been either, a) busy or, b) tired. I keep thinking "oh, I should write this in my blog," and then I get home at 11pm and remember I have to lesson plan for tomorrow's class and then the blog just doesn't happen. Speaking of 11pm, for the first time in my life I have a curfew. Technically, I need to be back in the dorm every night by 11pm or sleep somewhere else, which is slightly maddening. Luckily the sentries seem to like me, so I can get in a little later at times, but come on! 

So it's almost Noember, and time is flying by - I've been in Russia for over a month already! At this rate I'll be hanging out in New England next summer in no time at all. But of course, I have to survive the winter, and winter is coming. The weather here is already pretty much the same as winter in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I went to university. Almost everyone I've met has uttered some form of the verb замёрзать/замёрзнуть (zamyorzat'/zamyorznoot') which means "to freeze." Usually it's the informal "thou" form, as in ты замёрзнишь = "you will freeze." Everyone likes it when I tell them the average temperature in New Hampshire in the winter is probably 20-25 degrees or so (of course it gets colder sometimes). Then they get to tell me that Novosibirsk gets down to -50 and that I will freeze. We'll have to see if they're right.

So these last few weeks I have been teaching anywhere from 7-10 classes a week, even giving my first ever lecture in Russian to a small class of history students about America's educational system! Writing that sentence makes my Russian sound a lot better than it actually is, and I still have serious issues with communication at times. I can go on at length about some topics, and then on other topics I can't utter a coherent sentence. I should probably try to find some Russian lessons or start taking notes with my friends because trying to learn Russian simply by osmosis is not cutting it.

I've been trying to get involved with Russian culture when possible - and Russians love culture! I went to a showing of Lermontov's "Masquerade" in one of Novosibirsk's many theaters. For those of you who haven't read Lermontov's story, basically it's very, very, very.... very, sad. I could tell how sad it was despite having a seriously difficult time understanding the all-Russian dialogue, which I would piece together with friends during the intermissions.

The author of the originial story, Lermontov, was one of those incredibly dramatic, emotional, and ill-fated young Russian writers of the 19th century that obviously lived a tormented life and died young, like Pushkin. I say he obviously lived a tormented life because he couldn't have written a story like "Masquerade" without being depressed.

In general, I was impressed by how dramatic the play was. The music was impressive and dark, and the acting was very expressive and intense. There was hardly any color in the whole performance - everything was black and white or shades of gray, except for the ill-fated gorgeous lead actress who was allowed to wear a white dress with blue decorations. In sum, the story was extremely melodramatic, but beautiful. I couldn't help but think of the similarities of the story to "Crime and Punishment" by Dostoevsky (for the record, Lermentov wrote his story first). Apparently Lermentov established the genre of the "Russian psychological novel" (thank you wikipedia), so that would explain that.

Even more difficult than a Russian play based on a 19th century Russian story is a contemporary Russian comedy show. Called КВН ("KVN," an acronym for "Club of the Funny and Inventive") this show was the first round of a competition between comedy teams from various faculties of the university. It includes rehearsed performances of short situational skits, comedic musical performances, presentation of one-liners, and improvisational answers to questions posed by other teams. Basically, it was mostly rehearsed skits, and differed from popular American comedy. The live comedy I've seen in America is always either stand-up or improvisation. This was competitive-rehearsed-team comedy. A professor at the university helped translate some of the jokes, but Russian humor is hard to grasp even in an English translation.

In other news, I have managed to meet one other American here so far. And there seems to be an American professor living my dormitory somewhere, but I have yet to meet him. There's a German Consulate in town and I met one it's employees. But other than that, everyone else I've met is Russian or Central Asian, even at the "American Corner," which is a small room in a public library committed to American literature and culture. There is also a quite sizable Chinese student population and a few Mongolians. In general, there are an awful lot of Russians here from Kazakhstan, and occasionally one of them will stay in "my apartment" for a weekend conference at the University.

That probably requires some explaining. So before I wrote how I was presented with this large apartment and told that it was mine, only to find six Flemish students preparing lunch in "my kitchen." Well there are two extra rooms in my apartment as well, which are usually empty. So I've pretty much made the shower area my own since it's way more convenient than carrying my stuff back and forth through the maze of doors, especially since I forgot my toiletries case in Amsterdam (second world problems?). Well those two extra rooms get occupied by mysterious guests pretty regularly. Often the mysterious guests just duck in and out of their room and the only way I know they're there is I hear someone walking around in the morning or late at night. But sometimes I get to practice my Russian with a Russian girl from Kazakhstan, which is nice.

So I would upload some photos but my phone refuses to communicate with my computer through my $5-dollar-made-in-China camera cord, so it will just have to wait...

Basically, I've had a good first month in Novosibirsk, even though I don't run enough and my ears and throat ache slightly every day. It's been very hard to get into a physical groove, maybe because it's already cold, or my sleep schedule has been all over the place, or the food is different and mysterious, or I've been undisciplined in my routine (part of rebelling against everything I've been for the past 9 years, like running off to Siberia). But being slightly cold and achy all the time is an OK price to pay for a brand new clean slate of life to fill in with new people and experiences.






Saturday, October 5, 2013

Settling In... and Годкий Койот

It's been a few days since my last post, and now there are a thousand things I could write about, so I will just write what comes to mind. Get used to the stream of consciousness process...

The weather has turned nice, but cold. We had our first snowfall on Friday! But it didn't stick. It will stick soon enough. I've already invested about $400 on cold weather gear so I'm almost ready for a Siberian winter. Apparently my idea of a winter jacket is considered an autumn jacket around here, so now I am the proud owner of a giant, down, black snowboarding jacket. Also, I found some boots good enough for -15 Celsius for a decent price, but my new Russian friends made me spend an extra 2000 rubles for the boots that are good for -30. I suppose I'll be glad on those nights when it is -30 (or -50) out, but it's hurting my wallet.

Speaking of new Russian friends, I find myself being more popular than I have ever been before. For the first time in my life I am finding it difficult to engage with all of the people who want to engage with me. It's so easy to make friends that it is becoming a moral hazard. But I must remember to be kind, courteous, and fair in my relations with strangers and friends alike. At the same time, I need to remember to leave some space for myself. Today is Sunday, and I am taking this day to rest and relax in my own space.

Of course, I always appreciate a surprise visit from my host, Valery Molostov, who looks after me as if I were his son and who today brought me breakfast and, as always, good cheer. He is a former doctor who is now a professor in my department. It's nice to have someone who looks after me, especially as my personal cooking skills are severely lacking. 

Work in general hasn't quite hit full swing yet. This week I gave the same presentation about my hometown 6 or 7 times, each time to a different class of varying abilities. Some of the students struggled to introduce themselves and talk about things they like to do, while authors spoke fluently about history and cultural differences. It's going to be a challenge to accommodate both types of students in each class.

Ok, now for the good stuff. This Friday I decided I should go to the club, just to see what a Russian club is all about. When I was in St. Petersburg two years ago I didn't go out very much, but if I'm going to be here for 9 months I figure I better get accustomed to "the scene." So I agreed to meet up with Alla at the club Годкий койот (ugly coyote, or, rather, coyote ugly).

Let me just say that I have never seen the movie Coyote Ugly and have never been to any Coyote Ugly bars. I knew it was movie but I didn't know it was an actual, American, bar chain (I guess I really am from a village). But apparently it's the newest, coolest club in Novosibirsk. In fact, this past weekend was the one year anniversary of the club's opening in Novosibirsk. So they were having a pretty schnazzy party.

Another cool thing about bars in Novosibirsk - they are open until 6am. It doesn't even open until 10pm. It's called nightlife for a reason! Whereas in the US pretty much everywhere closes at 2am or earlier (well, I've never been to Vegas) you're supposed to party here all night. My dorm is closed from 11pm to 6am anyway (I have no idea why... it may be a problem). Basically, I went out at 10:00 and was committed to a full night of debauchery.

In any case, I would describe the Novosibirsk Coyote ugly as the best possible combination of a strip club and a discotheque. The scantily-clad bartenders constantly keep the party going by singing, dancing, and otherwise enticing the crowd to keep drinking and dancing. Dancing on the bar is not just allowed, but expected of all Девушки. However, at times the place would inexplicably lapse into a confusing fit of Limp Bizkit and Tubthumper ("I get knocked down, but I get up again..."). Годкий Койот is one of those places that your eyes and body love but also steadily kills your soul.
No, it's not me (Perhaps he's my Russian twin). Photo credit: relax.ngs.ru

Between tequila shots, cigarettes and dancing to anything from 90s rock to Russian pop, one can order a "body shot." They say that you haven't actually been in Годкий Койот if you haven't tried the "body shot." My idea of a "body shot" involves actually taking a shot off of someone's body. The "body shot" at Годкий койот is actually just your own personal (aggressive) lap dance, at the end of which they force feed you a shot of liquor. Naturally, Alla ordered me one. I may or may not have lost 3 buttons from my favorite shirt in the process (remember, I said aggressive), but I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy it.

So it turns out that 6am is actually pretty freakin' late, and 8 hours of not-so-ugly coyotes does eventually get a little tiresome, so we dithered away the end of the night talking on a couch, waiting for 6am so I could get back into my dorm. Why the heck does the dorm close for 7 hours again?

And now it's Sunday, and it is a sunny, brisk, fall day in Siberia. This time of year for the past 9 years of my life has always been the heart of cross country season. However, I must say I don't really feel a gaping hole in my being by not being on a cross country team this fall. That being said, I think I'll go for a run.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cujo



So do you all remember Will Smith’s Dog from the movie “I am Legend?” Remember how it gets bit and then turns into a mean zombie dog that Will Smith then has to strangle and it brings a tear to everyone’s eyes? If you didn’t see I am Legend, just think Cujo. And if you didn’t see Cujo, just imagine a shaggy, rabid wolf. Today on my run I saw that dog. Let me explain.

First of all, running (or as some like to call it, jogging…) is not exactly “a thing” in Russia. Some people run/jog, but they are looked upon with a mixed sense of mockery and admiration. Why do they wear such funny clothing and do something so miserable (but it is kind of impressive that they have the wherewithal to do such a thing)? You don’t get heckled for being a runner in Russia, unlike in the US, but people will blankly stare at you until you feel like you’re either the ugliest or the most interesting person they’ve ever seen.

A quick aside: my dorm is guarded by a sentry, to whom I always have to give my key when I leave and who returns me my key when I come back. The men who do this job work silently, grudgingly taking and giving keys; the old(ish) women who do this job like to chat or comment on the appropriateness of your dress. The women look at me questioningly and ask me if I will be warm enough when I leave for my run. Their skepticism reads plainly, “Silly American, he doesn’t know what he’s doing in Siberia.” When I return from the run they are surprised, and when I tell them that I was, indeed, running the whole time I was gone, their skepticism turns to admiration, as if I had done something truly impressive. A smile and a “молодец!” are my reward for 40 minutes of decidedly un-fancy footwork. Such is the average Russian’s attitude towards “jogging”.

So where I live in Novosibirsk is in a dormitory surrounded by apartments, the university, and shops, at the top of a hill that is separated from the greater part of the city by a ravine. But this ravine is not empty. Oh no, it’s not a river gorge. It is a “non-commercial rural” area that is actually quite well populated; just the roads haven’t been repaired in… well, ever? I ran here because I saw on the satellite images what looked like dirt roads, and I figured they’d go somewhere or maybe lead to a trail in the woods or… anything besides crowded roads and apartment buildings. This wasn’t too far off, except satellite images are limited in showing relatively minor changes in elevation and don’t show much detail. You know, details like every house has an angry dog, or the roads are treacherous to walk on, let alone drive on, and you just might drown in the mud.

Which reminds me: a Russian once told me that, “Russia is a country of a lot of very bad roads and a whole lot of mud.” In some cases, that is not very far from the truth, this being one of those cases.
So here I was, running past small houses between hills covered in towering, Sovietesque apartment buildings, trudging through the mud, being looked at like I was a space alien, and all of a sudden I see Will Smith’s zombie dog feverishly trying to escape his leash. There were other dogs, but this was the only dog for which I stopped to check that it was securely trapped by its leash. I took this moment to evaluate that, yes, it looks exactly like Will Smith’s zombie dog. Run!

Unfortunately the dogs and the mud led me to the next hill, covered by an apartment complex, so I had to turn around and possibly pass Cujo again. Instead of risk a swift death, I went left to cross the ravine in a different place. Hey, I’d rather take the mystery path towards the power lines than run by the man eating ravenous beast! The power lines almost swallowed me but I managed to return back to civilization on the south side of the Ravine, where I emerged as a mud covered monster of my own.

Basically, running here is going to be a challenge, especially once the snow falls. Time to learn how to cross country ski!