First Day at Work

When my host contact dropped me off at my dorm on Friday afternoon, all he told me was just to come in on Monday. This vagueness did not do much to settle my detail-oriented, American mind, but learning to be okay with the unknown is just a part of adjusting to Russian culture. I had no idea whether I would be expected to teach on that first day, so I prepared a few get to know you games as well as spruced up a PowerPoint I had made about my life in America.

My host contact, and older man in his last year of teaching, picked me up from my dorm, and just like he had on our drive from the airport to Elabuga, he barely said a word. I was initially disconcerted by his silence, confused as to how to relate to him. I am still not quite sure how to relate to him, but this morning I was put much more at ease when I met many of the women who teach in the English department. One of the teachers, a small, unassuming woman also in her last year of teaching, helped me to set up a library account, took me to register my passport, and acquainted me with the curriculum.

And as it turns out, I will not be assisting teachers, but actually teaching my own classes! I will be teaching a conversation class twice a week, a current events/newspaper class once a week, and I will also be teaching a creative writing class. It is strange to think that only four months after graduating college, I will now be teaching college classes. It was definitely both exciting and nerve-wracking to see “H. Johnson” on the schedule hanging on the fourth floor of the institute. I will be teaching my first class on Wednesday, but until then, I am trying to get to know the city better.

After getting my schedule worked out, a student from the institute named Anya showed me around Elabuga. I saw “The Devil’s Tower,” which, according to her, it is over 1,000 years old and has lots of folklore surrounding it (which I will need to look up!).

Anya, her friend Dasha, and Dasha’s boyfriend Radion also took me to buy a winter coat and an umbrella. Radion was a considerably good driver by Russian standards- he only swerved around a corner once 🙂

Let’s just say there wasn’t as much choice as I would have liked in coats…so I am definitely going to look very Russian! The coat is a long tan puffer with a contrasting darker tan hood and belt, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything exactly like it in America. The coat also came with a hat that was both bedazzled and had pom-poms, but this, dear reader, is where I draw the line.

All in all, I am doing much better than I was over the weekend. Slowly but surely, I am getting to know the city, beginning to understand the transportation system, and best of all, starting to meet Russians!


New Every Morning

Saturday, September 28

I stare at the blank white screen, not knowing where to begin. My thoughts are jumbled and constantly moving, as easy to grasp as a handful of water. I don’t know if I should start with the airport that was little more than a hangar: a cement floor surrounded by walls of peeling lead paint. Or if I should tell you about the people I met, from strange characters who could have come straight out of a Dostoevsky novel to the kind women who helped me find my way when I got lost in the city. Maybe I should try to describe the emotions brought on by fatigue and new people, by a foreign culture and a lack of access to constant communication with those I love. But perhaps the best place to start would be with the One whose strength gives me hope in the midst of chaos, whose hand has been abundantly evident in this period of the foggy unknown.

My thoughts are jumbled and I am overwhelmed, but in the midst of overwhelming weakness, He has been faithful and has enveloped me in His love.

My introduction to the university was a whirlwind, after which I felt like I knew even less about what I would be doing than before I arrived. The people I met ranged from silent and detached to exuberant and energetic, but no matter the personality type, each new person seemed overwhelming and scary. While trying to settle into my new home that afternoon, a teacher’s dorm not far from the school, the emotion-charged thought kept attacking me: “What on earth are you doing here! Why did you decide to do this?” The fact that I was going to be here for 9 months started to sink in, and all I could think about was how alone I felt. As I was taking cold medicine, the morbid thought went through my head that if I choked on the pills, no one would find me for at least three days.

I felt desperate for contact with a loved one, and for that I needed Wi-Fi, so I set out into the rainy city, knowing only a vague idea of where I was going. Of course, I got lost. Marshrutkas (minibuses) and I have always had a rocky relationship, so I certainly wasn’t surprised when I jumped on and got in a position on the crammed bus where I couldn’t see out the window. After about 3 stops, I exited the bus and had no idea where I was. I asked a teenage girl for directions to the café I was looking for, and she seemed helpful. Apparently though, I couldn’t follow directions, because I wandered around for another hour, eventually asking someone else. I eventually found Café Shishka (Café Pinecone-great name, right?) and felt like a starving man who had just found a Thanksgiving feast. I went in, ordered smetanik, a distant cousin of cheesecake, and to my relief, was able to get through to my mom on Skype.

After talking with her, I had the task of finding my way back to my dorm. I stopped at a store for a few groceries, and the young woman working there named Irina started a conversation with me. After finding out I was new to the city, she offered me her phone number in case I needed help. Through grateful tears, I accepted, and began the search for my dorm with a bit more hope in my heart. I did finally find it, and I slept 15 hours before venturing out again into the city. This time I avoided public transportation and decided to walk, and after about an hour, I was able to find a telephone store, get internet working on my phone, and find the internet café I had been to the day before. It was here that I was able to connect with a good friend who is also living abroad, and our conversation filled me with encouragement and perspective.

After I hung up the phone, I walked out of the café with the first genuine smile I have shown in the past two days, even giggling a little in joy at the vastness and love and care of God, at his constant holding of my hand in the midst of change, of his abundant gifts in the forms of Irina’s kindness and an internet café and the encouragement of a friend. I have no idea what this week will bring, but I am convinced that God is good and that God is working. I am weak, I am tired, and I am overwhelmed, but I have hope because I believe, as the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:28, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” To Him be the glory in this crazy adventure.

Lamentations 3:22-23

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Sunday, September 29

I walked out into the rain this morning, intent on finding the church I had looked up online. I left a good fifty minutes before the service to give myself time, but lo and behold, the church turned out to be less than a five minute walk from my dorm! I opened the heavy wooden gate with a mixture of anticipation and nervousness, but as soon as I walked in, I was welcomed by the pastor and was soon in a flurry of conversations with women from the church. I was glad I had dressed conservatively: no jewelry and a longish skirt, but I didn’t anticipate that all women were expected to wear head coverings. From my experience in Bryansk, Russia, only married women wore headscarves. I explained my plight and told them I hoped I didn’t offend them, and a stout and exuberant middle-aged woman named Ekaterina told me not to worry about it and gave me an extra scarf.

The pastor asked me to speak a few words to the church about who I was and why I was here, so after the sermon, I walked up to the front of the church and told them about myself and how my family and I had prayed that I would find a church. Echoes of “slava bogu” (praise God!) rang throughout the small building, and Ekaterina even shed a tear. After the service I met a younger woman named Luba who offered to show me around the city next week, and an older woman named Olga invited me to eat with them. They took me to the basement with a few other families from the church, where we ate boiled buckwheat with carrots and chicken, followed by tea with cookies and candy. They asked me lots of questions about America, and they told me a little bit about the history of their church. It is definitely not what I am used to; it is clearly much more conservative than any church I have been to in America, but despite the differences, I felt truly welcomed. As I left, one of the women, Olga, gave me her phone number and told me to call her if I need anything. As I trekked back to the dorm through mud decorated with yellow fall leaves, I thanked God for his provision, for answering my prayers in a way that was abundantly more than I asked or imagined.

I start work tomorrow, and I have no idea what to expect, but I am not as scared as I was before. The last few days, where I have gone from weakness and almost despair to strength and joy have vividly illustrated God’s intimate care for my life.

My Almost Arranged Marriage (or the Irony of Fate)

“I am so happy to see you! I need to talk with you about a very important matter.” The elderly woman’s light blue eyes, circled in soft wrinkles, gleamed with urgency. I smiled and felt the characteristic excitement that comes with crossing the barrier of small talk to genuine conversation with a Russian, and I gleefully agreed.

I had met Tatiana in the hotel lobby a few days before; while she was checking into the hotel, she asked me to watch her bags. As soon as I opened my mouth, it became clear to her that I was not Russian. From there I found out that she spoke fluent French, had taught for quite a few years, and was staying for a few days in Moscow before going to visit her family in Israel. Tatiana struck me as eccentric from the beginning; she spoke to me with an intensity and openness that I have not typically experienced the first time I meet a Russian.

Before I reluctantly ended the conversation (two girls from my group were waiting for me), she looked me in the eye and said in a definitive tone, “Just don’t get married while you’re here. I know sexually there might be the attraction, but it is just not enough time to really know a person.”

“I completely agree,” I answered, pleased that she seemed to share my conviction that this year was not the one for romance, at least with a Russian.

“It was wonderful meeting you, and I wish you success.” She smiled at me as we parted.

But as fate would have it, this was not our last meeting…

Skip to two days later, when Tatiana bumps into me and exuberantly invites me to talk with her about a very important matter. My first inclination was to think she was simply lonely and wanted to have tea with a willing listener. Perhaps she would give me advice on teaching; after all, we seemed to have similar cross-cultural interests. Or maybe she was a Mormon who hoped to share her faith with me.

There was no way for me to know that the real reason she wanted to talk with me could be summed up in one word: судьба.

The English translation of the word судьба as “fate,” is a weak definition at best because of the stark contrasts in perception of the word in American and Russian culture. Whereas Americans have the culturally ingrained mindset that our futures can be molded by action and perseverance, the Russian culture emphasizes the role of fate in the paths that our lives take. So although we have the word in our lexicon, we do not attach the spiritual and emotional weight to it that Russians do.

Tatiana and I sat down in the hotel café, where I ordered a black tea and she offered me dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. For thirty minutes, she told me about her life traveling with her military husband, her work as a translator, how she adored France and French people, and how art and culture were integral parts of being an intelligent, educated person. I was entranced by her clear, slow speech, stories gleaming with details, and her love for learning. She even tried to teach me a few phrases in French. About thirty minutes into the conversation, she looked at me with a smile and said, “but you’re probably wondering why I asked you here.”

“Da,” I answered, a subconscious premonition hinting at where this might be going. She started to weave stories of her nephew into her narrative, “a talented artist who graduated with honors, a man who is humble and shy…would you like to see a picture of him?”

Biting my lip, I conceded. I was faced by a decidedly poor picture of an average looking man in his late twenties. He was standing beside a large painting, apparently talking about his work, his eyes turned away from the camera.

“Do you like?” she asked. The Russian way of asking if you like something doesn’t require an object, so it was ambiguous as to if she was asking about him or his painting. Not wanting to offend, I muttered a “da,” and grasped for a tactful way to exit the situation. As if hearing my thoughts, the plump, smiling waitress explained that we needed to leave since others needed to eat and we were only drinking tea.

Tatiana, however, had not made a full case for her nephew Ilya, and invited me to her hotel room. My fascination with the situation outweighed any qualms I had, so I agreed. After following her into her third floor room, Tatiana sat me down and said, “so, have you understood me?”

“Um…You would like me and your nephew to meet?”

“Yes, I knew you were an intelligent girl!”

“I don’t know…” I said weakly, my Russian skills fleeing as my nervousness spiked.

“I just want him to marry an intelligent, well-brought up girl, and I knew you were from the minute I saw you. You see, I just think it might be fate. Why else would I have met you in the hotel lobby that day, then bump into you two days later? It might be судьба.”

Or perhaps it’s because we’re in the same hotel building, I thought smugly, but managed to keep a straight face.

“But I don’t know him,” I said.

“But I know him! He has no problems.”

All this from the woman who had told me not to get married while I was in Russia because it was not enough time to really know someone. But as the Russian saying goes, you can’t outrun fate.

Still, I thought a little Russian bluntness might douse the fire of fate. I explained to her that I was a Christian and that it was very important for me to marry someone who shared my beliefs. This led into a very interesting exchange on religion and its place in the marriage relationship. I was able to explain to her the centrality of Christ in my life, which seemed to surprise her. “You won’t find youth like this in Russia,” she said.

Although she tried to convince me that cross-religious relationships would work (the dashing Ilya was Jewish), she slowly started to get the hint, and two hours after we sat down, we parted amicably. She gave me her number and encouraged me to call her, no doubt counting on fate to bring us together again.

I returned to my hotel room with a smile in my heart, energized by the reminder of why I am hopelessly in love with vast country and its mysterious, beautiful people who are not constrained by the prison of logic and practicality, but who allow room for belief in the unknown, the untouched, the unseen. I can already tell this is going to be a great year.

Moscow Whirlwind

After over a year of hoping and months of planning, I AM FINALLY HERE.  I am still jet-lagged and a bit overwhelmed, but I AM HERE!  You will be pleased to know that this time the Frankfurt airport did not outsmart me; I actually did manage to get on the right plane and arrive successfully to the Moscow Domededovo Airport as planned. Although achy, groggy, and sweaty, it was nice to step out of the plane to hear the din of Russian all around me: the lady who told me I was going the wrong way, the teenage girls talking about school, and my favorite, the mom teasing her little daughter that she better not go under the bars because she would be crossing the border without a passport.

I even managed to make the passport control officer(a breed which is known to be stern and heartless) crack an ever-so-slight smile with my delayed response to his questions.I couldn’t think in English, much less Russian, so when he asked me, “Where are you coming from,” I stood there dumbfounded for five seconds, probably drooling, trying to figure out whether he meant the U.S.A. or where my last flight had come from. When I finally went with “Frankfurt,” followed by a quick, “but I’m from the U.S.A.,” his mouth turned subtly upwards as he told me, “yes, that’s what interests me, where your last plane came from.” Before I knew it, he had given me a Da Svidaniya (Goodbye) and I officially crossed the border.

I had been told that the Fulbright Office would provide transportation for us from the airport, but as I wheeled my heavy suitcases awkwardly out into the mass of leather jackets and intermittent whiffs of B.O., I saw no one holding the promised Fulbright sign. Unfortunately, gypsy cab drivers have an eagle eye for the befuddled stare of a foreigner, and before I could get my bearings, a man who resembled a tall and skinny George Clooney approached me, convinced by my confused look that I could easily be ripped off. For those of you who have never heard of a gypsy cab, it is basically an unmarked/unregistered taxi that, well, should really be a last resort for transport in Russia, especially if you are a woman travelling alone. Our conversation went like this:

“Miss, do you need a ride?”

“No, I have someone coming. I am waiting for them and I’m not sure where they are.”

“Oh, you can come with me.”

“No, I’m waiting for them and I think they might be outside.”

“You speak good Russian…where are you from, Britain?”

“No, the U.S. Thank you, but-“

“You go call your ride, and if they don’t come, I’ll be here.”

“It’s okay, I don’t need one. If I do, I’ll let you know.”

He then kept shooting not-so-subtle glances at me as I called the Fulbright Office and waited for my ride. Thankfully though, soon I found the driver, a short, unassuming and polite man, and spent the next hour and a half, nauseated, in the pinball machine that is Russian driving. In Russia, the rules of the road are like Captain Barbosa’s code on Pirates of the Caribbean: they are more like guidelines. As the driver swerved in and out of lanes with only inches of room while talking on his cell phone, I looked out the window with a strange respect for Russian drivers and a confidence that I would make it to the hotel in one piece. I could never drive in Russia, but these drivers, wow, they have skills…

After checking into the hotel, finding wi-fi to check in with my parents, and running to a produkti to buy cheese, bread and juice to snack on in the room, I got as good of a night’s sleep as could be expected for a jet-lagged traveler. The next morning, I was able to meet my host mom from Nizhniy Novgorod for lunch at MacDonalds. She works in Moscow during the week and goes home on weekends, so our meeting worked out perfectly. It was so wonderful to see her, a familiar face in the midst of increasing newness, and although our time was short, it was very special. After sharing pictures from the past year while drinking tea and eating tiramisu (yes, they have that at Russian MacDonalds!), I went back to the hotel, took a nap, then got ready to go out to dinner with Drew, one of the other Fulbrighters who had come in early.

It was a fiasco in and of itself just trying to meet each other; after agreeing to meet each other on the first floor of the hotel, we both sat there, and waited, and waited, until I remembered that the hotel had two buildings! To test my theory, I asked the receptionist where he was staying, and it turned out that, yes, we had been waiting for each other on different floors, and he had knocked on a different person’s room and called a different room number. Eventually though, we found each other and had a really fun night on the town.

For dinner, we went to Yolki-Palki, which is a chain restaurant that serves traditional Russian food. With a stomach still a little restless from the jetlag, I decided to play it safe and stick with blini s sousom klubnika, pancakes with strawberry sauce. After a nice dinner, we strolled around night time Moscow for a few hours in crisp, misty weather. Since Drew had studied in Moscow before, he knew the city pretty well and we managed to get to Red Square, a statue of Dostoevsky, the library named after Lenin, as well as some other random finds, one of which was a stone platform on Red Square where beheadings used to be performed.

We got back at about midnight, which was when I met my roommate, Rebecca, who had just flown in. She left a note on the door telling me she was here so I wouldn’t be startled to walk in an find someone there, and the Russians in the room beside us found it very funny; according to her she heard them through the wall making fun of  her for about five minutes. All I can say is that I am thankful for the note, otherwise I would have made a very bad first impression. I am a very jumpy person, and I can just picture myself letting out a blood-curdling scream…

Anyway, after another night of bad sleep, I got up this morning and was to spend the day with my friends Masha and Bethany from Vladimir. I met Bethany through her brother, one of my classmates at college, when he told me that she also had a love for Russia. When I found out that I was going to Vladimir for my language program last summer, I contacted her since that was where she had lived the year before. She connected me with a wonderful group of people in Vladimir, one of whom was Masha, and it was actually not until today that we spent a significant amount of time together. Although the day was rainy and cold, we had a great time enjoying one another’s company, and I can’t wait to be able to visit my friends in Vladimir!

Masha, Bethany and I

Masha and Bethany

Finally, after a day in the rain, I got back to the hotel and ate dinner with a bunch of the other Fulbrighters who had flown in. We begin job training tomorrow, which will last for five days, then we will part ways and go to our host institutions. Right now I am a bit overwhelmed, really tired, and still wishing I knew more details about what I’m going to be doing in Elabuga, but I also am confident that I am supposed to be here. Moscow has been a whirlwind so far, but with a little bit of sleep and a lot of prayer, I’ll be ready to face whatever comes my way tomorrow!

Friday the 13th

Michael Scott says it best: “I’m not superstitious. But…I am a little stitious.”

Actually, I’m not superstitious at all, but that is my all time favorite quote from The Office, and I wanted an excuse to put this clip in a blog post, because I am in serious need of some comic relief.

Why am I in need of comic relief? you ask. Well, although we’ve established that I’m not superstitious, of course the only time for me to hit someone’s car would be on Friday the 13th. Right after I blogged about viewing inconveniences as adventures, my commitment to put my words into action was tested.

Although it was pouring rain outside, I climbed into the car with a slight smile on my face since a nice man had taken the time to open the door for me on the way out of the bank. I turned the key and slowly began to back out of the parking place. It was foggy and wet and I wouldn’t have noticed anything at first unless I had heard the angry scream,

“She hit my car!!!”

I gulped. braked the car and looked in horror to see that I had misjudged just how much room I had. The front end of the car had hit the side of her new silver SUV. I put the car in park, flustered and nervous, and  I stepped out into the pouring rain, bracing myself for the wrath of this short spitfire who seemed ready to fight.

“I am so, so sorry,” I managed.

“I hope you have insurance!” She shot back.

“I do, I-I’m so sorry. I’ll call the police.” It was at this moment that the nice man who had opened the door for me walked out of the bank and toward the woman.

“She hit our car!” The woman called across the parking lot. I felt shame creep into my cheeks. He opens the door for me, and I hit his car! Thankfully, he was just as kind to me as he was before the accident. His presence seemed to calm the wife down and before long, both of them were chatting with me and my brother good-naturedly. (Blake did most of the talking; I wasn’t much for small talk in my shocked state. I was so glad to have him there to keep me calm and carry the conversation- thank you brother!)

Standing in the rainy parking lot fighting back tears, I kept thinking of the G.K. Chesterton quote that I blogged about yesterday: “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” How am I supposed to view this as an adventure! I thought. How on earth can I view this as anything but an inconvenience caused by me!

Although in that moment, I didn’t fully succeed in viewing it as an “adventure,” in the romantic sense of the word, I gained some clarity on why it is easier for me to view inconveniences in Russia as adventures than inconveniences in America. In America, my relative permanence of location and understanding of cultural norms places on me the burden of high personal responsibility. In Russia, however, I have learned that it is inevitable for me to make mistakes; the only way to avoid cultural faux pas is to stay in my apartment.  I am not as hard on myself in Russia because I know that to be perfect is impossible, and because of this I feel much freer to take risks.

On a less positive note, one of the reasons I may have a more starry-eyed view of life in Russia is that I have never lived there long enough to assume personal responsibility. I’ve never had the chance to hit someone’s car in Russia. I’ve never had the fear of losing my job. I’ve never had to worry about making rent. Many of the inconveniences I’ve experienced have been out of my control,  and the only pieces I had to pick up were the words to make a good story.

So the conclusion I’ve come to in all of this is that I might have imbalanced perspectives in both of the countries that I call home. In America, I am overly responsible, prone to beating myself up about any and every mistake. In Russia, perhaps I need to temper my adventurousness with a tad more personal responsibility. As I venture off to Russia for nine months, I have high hopes that I will learn to stop see-sawing between the two extremes and achieve a more balanced perspective. I want my life to be characterized by an adventurous spirit, but perhaps it needs to be steadied a bit (but not weighed down!) by a realistic approach to responsibility.

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