Archive for February, 2012

Personality Cults

Posted: February 21, 2012 in Uncategorized

I have pretty much decided to quit my stint living in a dacha and working for a local government official. The deal was for me to speak English with the wife of the official. In reality, I became a nanny for their neglected and overly energetic child. I was mostly left alone with the child for hours. The child’s main form of entertainment was jumping on me and hitting me. I’m not sure if some of the bruises that I have are from Taekwondo or the child. I have decided that having the use of a driver and living in my own dacha is not enough of a compensation for being attacked by a child five days a week. I think I will go to their house twice a week after Taekwondo. If the wife is there, I will try to speak with her in English. If not, I think I can brave spending an hour or two with the daughter. In addition to fearing for my safety whilst trying to eat my dinner (four year olds are quite proficient at stabbing you with pens apparently), I was tired all of the time and couldn’t properly prepare for all of my classes. This is a valid concern of mine. At the end of the year, I will be taking a state Russian language exam. As I have to pay for the exam, and because it is an accomplishment that I would like to achieve, I really need to buckle down and prepare. Is there such a thing as delayed senioritis? I managed to get through last year without any problems, but recently I’ve developed a sever aversion to studying and doing my homework.

I prefer taking photos of cars to doing my homework. A Land Rover Discovery, probably from the mid to late 1990s. I love the missing bumper. Fun fact about these - the terrible electrical system meant that the airbags often didn't deploy during accidents. Also it was improperly designed so that in frontal impacts, the engine would go into the passenger cabin and break the legs of the drivers and passengers. Good thing we had one of these for about six years.

One thing that I have realized whilst living with the government official is that the Soviet system never really ended. The strange personality cult for leaders still somewhat exists. This particular official’s house is filled with objects with his face on them. Granted, many are probably gifts, but it’s still pretty strange to have a large portrait of yourself in your office. I also didn’t really enjoy drinking my morning tea out of a mug with a photo of the official and Medvedev on it. Lastly, I really hope he didn’t pay someone to paint his face on a nesting doll.

Also, as I have already mentioned, I find it funny that the vehicle of choice for the officials is still primarily the GAZ Volga sedan. While talking to one of the drivers, I found out that there are only a few foreign cars owned by the local government. They have a few UAZ jeeps, which are made in the city; however, the majority of the vehicles are Volgas. After riding in a series of them, I couldn’t quite tell if they were five years old or twenty years old. The majority of them have around 250,000km on the odometers (roughly 155,000 miles). My beloved Mercedes passed that milestone years ago and now has roughly 260,000 miles on it. Unlike the Volgas, most of the things on my car (save for the A/C) work. For example, my seats, while slightly warn out and sprung, do not shift oddly in undersigned ways while the car is in motion. Also, all of the seat belts work. Snowy Russian roads plus crazy drivers really make me want working seat belts. Additionally, the Volga was designed as the vehicle of the Soviet government official. Although it was meant for the elite of Soviet society, it is far from luxurious. The interior is sparse and mostly made of black plastic. The seats are all cloth. As far as I can tell, the cars have maximum four speakers for the radio, most of which never seem to work. I’m not sure what the engine specs of these cars are, but the engines are underpowered for the large size and weight of the whole car. The only positive that I can find is that there is a lot of leg room in the backseat.

The GAZ Volga. What I am usually driven in. I get super excited when I get to ride in an UAZ instead.

On Monday, I brokered a deal with the family to let me sleep in the dormitory again. Living in my own dacha for two weeks was fun, but far too inconvenient. Upon returning to the dormitory, I realized how much I missed my neighbors. Generally, I don’t spend too much time with them, but it’s nice to talk with them in the kitchen or hallways from time to time. Tonight, one of my neighbors said that he was beginning to get worried because he hadn’t seen me in a while. One of the other neighbors, from Moldova, offered me some cognac from Moldova as well as tea. Another group of neighbors gave me some of the plov that they had made. As much as I may complain to people at the university about how my neighbors make a lot of noise (9.30AM on a Saturday is too early to start playing Eminem at full volume), I truly do like them very much. I am glad to have met each and every one of them and will miss them.

My bear and I will just have to readjust to the small bed in the dormitory.


Clubs, Drivers, and Dachas

Posted: February 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Dear loyal readers, may fun things have been going on in my life. Firstly, my friend Anas came to Ulyanovsk this past weekend. The group of us who were counselors at the children’s camp in January, as well as a few teachers from the camp, met up to hang out with him. The result was a few too many days of adventures and not enough sleep.  One of these adventures was winding up at one of the dance clubs on Saturday night/Sunday morning. To my chagrin, four of us went to the club. Our party consisted of myself, George, Anas, and Mahmood. Mahmood is from Palestine and studies at the other university in the city. He was also a counselor at the camp. I don’t particularly enjoy clubs, dancing, or house/techno music. Thus, I was not looking forward to the night. Eventually, I was pulled onto one of the dance floors. Things got slightly awkward when I was tapped on the shoulder by Dasha, one of my first year students. Instead of just saying hi, she basically joined us for the rest of the night. At one point, Mahmood went missing and George and I tried to find him. This resulted in me running into another first year student, Anton.

I better be her favorite teacher now.

As it is February, the true Russian frost has set in. We’ve basically hit the temperatures where it is too cold for snow. For example, I woke up on Monday morning and the temperature was -31C/-24F. This may not be much in comparison to some of the people who are stationed in Siberia, but it’s still really f***ing cold. In comparison, today was a balmy -13C/+8.6F. At this point, it it’s in the positive end of Fahrenheit I’m overjoyed.

Additionally, I have started going to Tae Kwon Do again. This time, however, my schedule permits me to train at the really nice gym in the center of the city. While I don’t always understand the instructions for some of the drills, I had a great time last night. At one point we put on sparring equipment (read: they put on equipment and didn’t have enough for me, just the old and illegal style chest protector that has not back or shoulder protection) and went after each other. I disregarded any pain in my shins or arms and did pretty well against my opponents. I wasn’t fighting the best of the club, but I fought one very good and young girl. I scored a few points against her, which made me feel good. I think I also redeemed myself in the eyes of my trainer. Usually, she isn’t too fond of my technique or inability to do her drills, but she was shouting words of encouragement when I proceeded to score some points against her students.

The final development in my life is that I have a new house and second job, of sorts. Through my volunteering and hanging out at the local private language school, I came to the attention of the wife of a prominent local official. Her idea was for me to live with them and speak with her in English during breakfast and the evening. She also said that I might sometimes speak a little English with her 4 year old daughter, who was described as a “child with character” by her mother. Well, in reality I’m like another nanny/play thing for the daughter. I try to speak with her in English, but she often resists. While this was not the deal that I originally agreed to, I can live with my arrangement for my compensation. I am not paid by the family. However, I now have my own dacha (little Russian house) in which I live. I went from a cold and noisy dorm room to having a sweet set up. I have a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, office, living room, entry way, and two unheated rooms that are meant for summer use.

Moving into the dacha was a little strange. I spent four nights in the family’s house. Then, the were supposed to move me to dacha number 9. They wanted me in dacha number 4, which is directly across from the house, but the said that there was a problem with it. The didn’t elaborate much, just something about the guy who lives/lived there. On Monday, I thought I was moving into dacha number 9, but I was brought directly to dacha number 4. I don’t know what happened to the man who used to live here, but I’m assuming that he was kicked out the day that I moved in. His things were still all over the dacha, including dirty plates in the sink and food in the fridge. When I returned on Tuesday night, all of his things were gone and the internet and cable TV were set up.

The man's things.

I now live in the middle of a forest, about 15 minutes away from the university, in a gated community. There is a private branch of police, who guard the territory and the policeman who opens the main gate salutes the driver every time. When I am done with work, a driver meets me at the university and takes me to the compound. I am fed dinner and play with the daughter for a while before I retreat to my dacha. In the morning, I walk back across the street to the house where I am fed breakfast before being driven to the university. I have gone from being a regular citizen who relies on public transport to the lowest level of the Soviet elite, in terms of the cars that I am driven in. Usually, I am picked up by a Volga sedan. In the Soviet era, Volgas were only driven by party members (or rather, the drivers of party members). Only the super elites of the Soviet government were driven in Chaika or ZIL limousines.

The final thing that I get out of this deal is that I essentially have a Russian host family. Usually, the wife is tired and speaks to me in Russian, instead of our agreed upon English. Her husband, with whom I have only briefly interacted, only speaks Russian. Additionally, her parents come over every day to watch the child until the parents return from work much later in the evening. Grandmother Olga and Grandfather Yuri only speak Russian, and they are willing to converse with me. I’m now getting far more practice in Russian because I am forced to talk with them and I cannot cheat and try to speak English with them. Additionally, the grandparents are very sweet. They had me stay in their apartment last weekend, which I tried to avoid. I could not refuse. There I was stuffed and then some with various foods and the grandmother is insisting that I return for blini this weekend. The grandmother is pretty awesome. She has accounts on a series of social networking sites and asks me to sit with her and translate things for her from English to Russian. Although I’m currently completely exhausted, I’m loving life.