Archive for March, 2012

Why I’m in Russia

Posted: March 25, 2012 in Uncategorized

Nothing out of the ordinary has been happening lately. I have my routine and just stick with it. One thing that happens fairly routinely in my time in Russia is getting asked the question, “Why do you study Russian?” Well, dear readers, it’s a somewhat funny story. A long time ago, in a far away land called Connecticut, I was in the 7th grade in a wretched hive of scum and villainy otherwise known as Catholic school. Whilst there, I took French. Two months into the year, our French teacher abandoned us for another gig and a new lady came to teach us. It is partially this lady’s fault that I started my Russian career, though I mean this is a very good way. She should know that I greatly appreciate all that she has done for me.

In an attempt to learn our names, this new teacher had us write our names on little cards for our desks. Rather recently before this class, I had watched a rerun of “The Simpsons” in which Russia is at the United Nations and calls itself the Soviet Union. The other nations are confused, Russia pushes a button and their nameplate reverts to the Soviet Union, and hilarity ensues.

Due to the wonders of copyright, the only version of the clip available on youtube is in Spanish, and a mirrored image. The only really important dialogue translates roughly to “The Soviet Union, we thought you guys broke up.” “That’s what we wanted you to think.”

This episode also gave me a love of Lenin Zombies who shout “MUST CRUSH CAPITALISM!”

I distinctly remember drawing this instead of learning vocabulary for a German quiz. Then a friend added the werewolf.

Returning to my story, I had to write a nameplate for French class. My name ended up on one side, and “The Soviet Union” was written on the other. This became a joke between myself and my friends. That same year, I had to do a project for geography and wanted Russia as my country; however, we were not allowed to do a country from our heritage. I suffered through another year of horrible grammar school. I mostly passed my time in history class by reading ahead in the text book in the back of the room. The “current events” of our extremely up to date text books included a section on the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was one of my favorite chapters to read.

A year later, I was enrolled in high school. My mother, the other major reason why I study Russian, noticed that the school offered Russian in addition to French (and a bunch of other languages, which weren’t important at the time). She was in charge of signing me up for classes and my schedule worked out that I could take Russian as an elective in addition to French (I would have gladly dropped gym for the inclusion of German in my schedule, but alas things don’t work that way, especially at public school). I greatly enjoyed a year of remedial Russian. In a year, we basically learned the alphabet and how to introduce ourselves. We also watched a pretty funny “up to date” video about the Soviet Union. This is the best language soap opera ever. It’s about a taxi driver who falls in love with an MGU student, Olga. Olga’s brother is Sasha, who fixes tractors on the collective farm but dreams of one day becoming a rock star.

My mother was a big inspiration to study Russian because she majored in Russian. Due to the wonders of the Cold War, my mother earned a master’s in Soviet Studies on the government’s dime at Yale. Through this program, she got to spend some time in the Soviet Union. When I got a little older, it was fun to hear her stories of traveling there. I also began to appreciate her Russian literature and Soviet area studies book collection.

The collection came in handy when I was doing some research for my thesis.

During the college application process, I knew that I wanted to go to a school that offered majors in Russian area studies. Given my mother’s background, my parents were more than supportive of this choice. Once again, my grade school French teacher happily intervened in my life and told me to look at Lafayette, where she had studied. After seeing that the school had a Russian and East European Studies program, I applied. Upon receiving my acceptance, and needing to finally choose, I took another trip to Lafayette. There, I had the opportunity to sit in on an art history class, which partially made up my decision. The professor was simply amazing and I had the luck to sit in on one of the lessons on the impressionists. After lunch, I had the pleasure of speaking with a professor on the insistence of my former French teacher. This professor was on sabbatical that semester, but hearing me name drop my French teacher’s name, he came out of his way to come to school that day to speak with me. We had a great conversation, mostly about studying Russian and Russian history, and I knew that Lafayette was the school for me.

I have to admit, studying Russian at Lafayette was very good to me. I met one of my best friends on the first day of classes waiting for Russian. Although, I’m still angry that she quit after three semesters. Whatever, I’m over it, especially after we dominated our politics of post-communism course through teamwork.

After three years at college, one summer in St. Petersburg, and a winter trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, I knew that I wanted to live and studying in Russia again. The solution was to applying for a Fulbright, which I thankfully received. And that, everyone, is the story of why I chose Russian and why I’m in Russia now.

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Sweets and Sports

Posted: March 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

I have been back in Ulyanovsk for a week. The transition back hasn’t been too bad. What I have noticed while back is that winter doesn’t seem to end here. The snow has started to melt a little and parts of the road and sidewalk and visible in places, but we’ve still be getting a fair share of snow. I guess I only like two seasons, summer and winter, and detest what happens between them. I miss the warm weather, but I’m not looking forward to when all of the snow melts and everything turns muddy and wet. The puddles of slush are unpleasant enough as it is.

I also managed to get these roughly within 24 hours of returning. I missed the concert, but collecting the posters still makes me happy.

Being gone was both good and bad. I’m now even more behind in my Russian classes. Normally, this wouldn’t be a massive problem because I’m the only student in the class, but my teacher insists on making up the hours that I have missed. My Russian schedule has already gone from the five classes a week that I need to eight, and now my teacher wants to add more. The only redeeming factor is that my teacher gives me candy every time we meet. I’m very easily bribed by candy.

My students all noticed that I was gone. I was really happy when they all asked how I was and told me excitedly that they were glad that I had returned. Positive feedback like that is always appreciated and I’m relieved to know that more than just a few of my students really enjoy our classes together.

Perhaps the most exciting class that I had this week was with my English club. About eight people show up to the club from a variety of age groups. Yesterday, only three men showed up, two of whom are professors at the university. For my English club, we discuss grammar a little bit and then I field questions about America. The topic of baseball came up last night. I was asked to explain the rules of baseball. I tried my best, and drew a bunch all over the blackboard, and the result was mild confusion at best. The good news was that the history professor asked me if we could play baseball when the snow melts. I readily agreed and cannot wait to usurp of one the nearby soccer fields for a modified version of baseball. As my students love to remind me, there are plenty of baseball bats in Russia; however, baseballs and gloves are next to impossible to find. I’ll make something work. Maybe we will play stick ball. Now all that’s left to do is try to teach the Russians that the Yankees are the best baseball team, or in the least teach that the worst team on the face of the earth is the Red Sox.

My big brother and I are Yankees fans. It's a birth right that comes with being born 15 minutes from the Bronx line.

I’m Back

Posted: March 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

Guess who’s back, back again? Susan’s back, tell a friend.

I arrived in Ulyanovsk yesterday morning very tired and slightly stiff from the flight and train. I have to admit, I’m not entirely sure I wanted to come back. I really do love snow, but maybe I have finally had my fill of it. While at home, I realized how much I love warm weather and the ability to wear t-shirts. As I drove along the Hutchinson Parkway I opened the sun roof and then the windows all the way whilst sitting in lovely traffic on the Van Wyck Expressway. While parking the car at JFK, I noticed that it was 73 degrees Fahrenheit. My father and I walked to the terminal extra slowly to enjoy the sun and warmth.

Apparently Terminal 1 of JFK is the sketchy terminal, despite having been recently renovated. Since Aeroflot only operates one flight a day from JFK, they do not have their own check-in counter. Instead, a sign that says Aeroflot is put up above a different airline, whose staff handles the Aeroflot passengers. After having my bag weighed and getting the sticker for the airport destination, I was told to pick up my bag and bring it to a security area in between two rows of check-in counters. There, the bags were taken by one person, fed through an x-ray machine, and thrown roughly onto carts to be taken away. I was nervous about the fate of my bag, largely because I had roughly $140 worth of cold and flu medicine in it for someone in Russia. I made my father stand around the area while I made sure my bag wasn’t put aside or opened up for inspection. My largest worry, aside from losing my $140 that I would be paid back, was that my winter boots and coat were in the bag. It would be bad to arrive in Russia without warm clothes. In fact, a Russian woman yelled at me on the plane in Moscow because I didn’t have my hat and coat with me. She looked askance when I said they were in my checked bag.

The flight itself was fine and largely uneventful. I had an aisle seat in the center row of four, but was supremely unlucky because the woman next to me had an open seat next to her and the man behind me had a whole row to himself. It’s okay, I entertained myself with the movie “Patriot Games” before putting on my music and sleeping on and off for about three hours. I quickly made my way through migration control and got my bag with about five hours to spare before my train. Thus, I found a comfy lounge near the Aeroexpress train that runs from the airport to the city center and enjoyed the leather couches and free wifi.

Somewhat rested and up to date with all of the news of facebook, I hoped on the train. Behind me were three foreigners speaking English. They were talking about a Moscow map and were slightly confused. I turned around to offer them some help. Whilst getting off of Aeroexpress, I offered to walk with them to the Metro because I was going there myself. They accepted and we started to talk. They were two Swedes and a German man from Freiburg who work for Ikea. They were staying at a hotel next to the airport, but they had some free time and wanted to see Red Square. The German man and I started to speak in German and he got very excited when I said that I had studied for a summer in Bonn. I helped them buy their Metro tickets and then I was on the way to Kazan Station.

My train ride was peaceful. My cabin mates were a woman of about 45 and two men of about 40. We started talking and they were really happy that an American has ended up in Ulyanovsk. I mentioned that I have been offered a job to teach at a language school in Ulyanovsk if I would like to stay and they all said that it would be wonderful if I stayed. Americans may not have the best reputation everywhere in the world, but the Russians of Ulyanovsk seem to be very happy that an American likes the city and is willing to live there to teach English and to continue to study Russian. Unfortunately for them, I know that I cannot return for a lengthy period. Based on certain recent events, I cannot imagine living outside of the East Coast of the United States for any extended periods. However, I am committed to returning frequently to Ulyanovsk.

and why Delta does…

When I had to fly home quickly, I was a little nervous when I saw the only quick and affordable flight was on Aeroflot. One of my friends traveled to Russia in high school and told me of the horrors of her flight on Aeroflot. My Russian professor in college also told me some scary stories of the airline, so I admit that I was a little biased. In the end, I was completely wrong and am willing to admit the mistake of condemning Aeroflot before actually flying on it.

For the Moscow-New York route, Aeroflot flies new Airbus A330 airplanes, which are quieter than the Boeing 767 of Delta. On the Delta planes, I had a rough time hearing my ipod or watching movies without having the volume at a dangerously high level. Furthermore, I could not head any announcements made on the Delta flight, while they were crystal clear on the Airbus.

I generally prefer Boeing planes to those of Airbus, but that’s when they are newer. I don’t like flying like it’s 1995. Been there, done that. I don’t know how I survived on flights as a child without ipods and on demand movie systems.

The Aeroflot flight also had better entertainment than Delta. I was particularly annoyed on my return flight to Russia on Delta because the plane was really old and did not have the updated entertainment systems. I was forced to watch whichever film was on the screen. I disliked pretty much every film choice and spent about 6 hours of the flight going out of my mind with boredom. This was only made worse when after two or three movies were done, Delta essentially forced me to watch commercials for an hour or two. I absolutely hate commercials. I’m known as a spastic channel changer at the house because the second a commercial comes on, I’m looking for something else to watch. I was two or three rows behind the giant tv screen at the front of my section, so unless I had my eyes closed or turned my head to stare out the window, I was being force fed commercials. All I had to endure on Aeroflot was a quick 20 or 30 second commercial about frequent flier miles each time I started a movie or program. On Delta, these commercials were longer and more annoying.

Another difference between the two flights was that the people on the Aeroflot flight were better behaved than those on Delta. On the Delta flights, there were fights between passengers and the crew members when it came to putting things in the overhead bins and being seated for take-off and landing. Furthermore, there were multiple announcements made on both Delta flights threatening the passengers with the confiscation of their duty free purchases if they kept drinking them during the flight. On Aeroflot, there was just a quick announcement at the beginning of the flight that said the drinking of non-Aeroflot provided alcoholic beverages was forbidden. For the most part, I didn’t see too many people drinking on the Aeroflot flight, but on Delta everyone was drinking the free alcohol like it was the elixir of life.

An additional plus to the Aeroflot flight was that it was less crowded than the Delta flight. There were a good number of open seats on the plane. The man in the middle row next to me was completely alone. Before take-off, he brought out a bottle of beer (okay, so not everyone paid attention to the rules), downed it, and spent basically 7 hours of the flight lying across the whole row snoring. He must have taken some sort of pill or something to knock him out that deeply.

The smaller crowd on the flight meant that the overhead bins were not completely stuffed to the gills. However, this is probably also a result of another plus for Aeroflot. If I read their website correctly, passengers on Aeroflot are allowed two free checked bags on the Moscow-New York route. And, the smaller crowd also worked to my advantage when I had to get off the plane and get through passport control. Furthermore, I think many Americans are scared to fly on Aeroflot. There were not many people at all who got off of the plane with American passports, unlike when I flew on Delta. The result was a very quick stop at the passport station. The only thing that took a long time was waiting for my bag, but that’s a requirement of traveling through JFK. They seem to have a policy of one bag every five minutes for the first 30 minutes and then they put out all of the luggage in a free for all.

Finally, what is probably the coolest thing about Aeroflot is that they still are proud of their Soviet heritage. While they are now “Aeroflot Russian Airlines,” they still have the winged hammer and sickle symbol. I think it’s cool that the flight crew has the symbol on their uniforms.

Everything is better with a hammer and sickle.

All in all, I should have realized that basically any airline is better than an American airline. Let this be a warning note to American airlines – you know you suck when Aeroflot, long the source of many flying jokes and scares, becomes light years better.

Russian Bureaucracy

Posted: March 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

Due to a family emergency, I have gone briefly back to the States. In the past 24 hours, I have been on two trains, the metro, a ten hour Aeroflot flight, and a 90 minute car ride. I have been through Moscow, two boroughs of NYC (clearly a stop had to be made in the Bronx for pizza), and Norwalk on the way to my home. More of these travels will be chronicled at a later time, but right now I want to tell a tale of Russian bureaucracy.

Firstly, my “multi-entry” visa was not actually multi-entry. According to the migration office in Ulyanovsk, one can use a muti-entry visa to exit Russia, return, and once again exit Russia. As I had to go home, but also am planning on returning to Russia, this presented a slight problem. I did not foresee needing to go home, so I did not have a new multi-entry visa made when I returned from my Christmas and New Year’s vacation. While the situation at home was transpiring, I worked on the visa situation. I did not know until Thursday that I needed to go home; however, earlier in the week I felt like the case might happen so I began to prepare. On Monday, I filled out my visa application form, handed over 1000 rubles, and had a series of photos taken.

There was another problem in addition to the fact that I needed another visa. This problem is that it takes 20 days to process a new visa. Figuring I might have to leave in a hurry, I called in a favor from the government official. He proceeded to call his assistant and then hand me the phone. On Tuesday night, the assistant assured me that he would call the migration office the next day around 9AM, when they started work. At 10 AM, the assistant called me back and told me that the visa would be ready that day. Within three hours, the International Department at the university was notified that my visa was ready and that I could pick it up. Here was the other fun bit – in Ulyanovsk, people can only pick up visas on Monday and Fridays. However, I was given permission to pick up my visa on that very same day, Wednesday. As it was not a general day at the migration service, the office was mostly deserted and I did not have to wait in line to pick up my visa.

Armed with my new visa, I went to the airport. While leaving the country, I caused a slight spot of bother because my visa did not match the visa number on my migration card. Apparently, the migration officer was confused that I had acquired a new visa to leave and return to Russia instead of just leaving the country. Eventually, he accepted my new visa and let me on my way. I just hope that I don’t have any problems upon my return.