Friday, February 28, 2014

Things That Happen to me in Russia

I started a "note" on my phone the first week I was here, just to write down random, interesting things that happen to me while I'm in Russia! I use that list kind of like a personal Twitter feed, anytime something about my new life here or culturally peculiar is on my mind, I put it on the list! Today I thought I would share the list with you guys and give you a little taste of what goes on here on a daily basis...

1. In a bookstore I heard an instrumental jazz version of 50 Cent's "In Da Club"

2. Creepily standing close to or following people speaking English becomes a thing...

3. I discovered super delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, absolutely addictive 12 ruble (35 cents) pyshki!

4. I've more than once seen a man walk past a car, take off his gloves, sweep up a handful of snow off the car's hood and use it to wash his hands all without breaking his stride

5. I got trapped-ish in the metro for about 20 minutes one day...

6. People seem super concerned about not disturbing each others' space by not speaking too loudly (or at all) on public transportation, in the grocery store, etc. but seem to have no problem being obnoxious with their cell phones! Ringers are always on, not even vibrate. When a ringer goes off, people don't even scramble, embarrassed, to find the source and turn off their blaring Selena Gomez ringtone as soon as possible like they would in America, which leads me to believe that it is totally normal etiquette here to just let your phone ring, answer it at your leisure, and carry on a conversation on an overcrowded marshrutka (mini-bus).
           *Note: this phenomenon extends to university classes!

7. There are SO many young people married/with babies! Not sure if it's a Russia thing or just a big city thing

Stock photo, but I see hot mamas in heels every day

8. Leather pants (on women) seem to be really popular

9. English words start to lose familiarity. The other day I couldn't remember if "economy" or "hit man" were words

10. I got stopped and asked for directions three times this week! Usually I'm the one doing the asking! I am finally starting to blend in- woo hoo! Unfortunately, I only actually knew the directions for one of the three requests.

11. On the street near my apartment that I take to school, there is a pretty canal running along it, and every day I see a (apparently) homeless man sitting on the side of the road with a cardboard sign. The past couple weeks the weather has been pretty warm (hovering around freezing) and it looks like this homeless guy has a fan club! There are usually 4 or 5 people standing around, chatting with him, they laugh and sometimes are drinking and smoking cigarettes and it's just really confusing

The "club" is on the left, right in front of that blue building

12. Russians will 9/10 hang their coats on a coat rack (restaurant, classroom, library), and foreigners will 9/10 leave their coats on the back of their chairs.

13. One morning it was raining pretty hard and the street sweepers at my school were shoveling water from one puddle to the next...Russian efficiency

14. My scaryyyy flame-throwing gas water heater also has a light switch next to it. But then I found out it wasn't a light switch- it's a water pressure switch! When you turn it "on", water pressure about doubles haha

15. The other night Tatiana made me eat seconds (typical) and when I told her I didn't want to eat too much she said "ешь, дорогая!" (yesh' dorogaya) which translates to "eat, dear!" I think it's the first warm and fuzzy thing she's said to me! I'm trying to make a real effort to chat with her more and we're becoming closer all the time <3

Fancy-plated dinner and of course Tatiana's Paris placemats!

16.  Cheddar cheese...where is it...I need it...why

17. Chunky snowflakes. Yes they exist.

18. Before coming to Russia it never even crossed my mind that it might be dirty to sit on my bed in my "street clothes", but now as soon as I get home I immediately change into house clothes and feel awkward touching anything inside while wearing my street clothes

19. It seems like Russian interviewers start off every questions with "скажите, пожалуйста" (tell, please)

20. I have noticed a strange language phenomenon. Whenever I remember back to conversations, I can never remember if I had them in Russian or English. With certain people I know I only speak Russian (my host mom, for example), but even in those cases I cannot remember exactly the words used. In English usually I can recall conversations pretty specifically- but not in Russian! It really feels like I had the conversation in English. For example: My host mom doesn't have an oven, and I asked her why. She explained that the whole apartment building was renovated two years ago, the oven she was supposed to have never got put in, and she just got used to it and forgot about it. Now, I clearly understood our conversation, I know exactly why we don't have an oven, but if I had to explain it back in Russian, I wouldn't be able to reference her Russian explanation at all! I have no idea how I can understand a conversation so well but only remember it as if it were in English...pretty frustrating, honestly

I'll leave you with this adorable kitten. One of the two who seem to spend their days hanging out in this bar on Griboedova- with Kazan Cathedral in the reflection!

Hope you enjoyed a glimpse into my life and my thoughts! Leave questions and comments below))))

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Life Coaching and Civil Society in Russia

First of all, HUGE shout out to my number one British babe Rebecca who recently acted as my errand girl from 4568.80 miles away and was an enormous help to me <3

This blog post is a little unusual. I sat down to write about my week and ended up with this! I think for anyone interested in, well, life there is something here you'll like  =)
Comment and let me know what you think!

Chapter 1

As some of you may know, over the past four or five years I have been pretty much addicted to reading Peace Corps blogs. I have attempted to put myself in the minds of Peace Corps volunteers serving all over the world from Azerbaijan, to Vanuatu, to Suriname. I have learned a tremendous amount about how Peace Corps works and what experience is like, about life in the countries where Peace Corps serves, and, I believe, about fulfillment and purpose.

I have just finished reading one of my favorite blogs thus far, by PCV John Williams who served in a remote jungle village in the interior of Suriname 2011-2013. As his service was drawing to a close he posted this video, and I while I'm sure everyone has heard some variation of this advice and there are plenty of other similar videos out there, I really loved this succinct, moving, beautiful clip. I am at that stage in my life where I have to contemplate the vast expanse of time ahead of me and decide how I will fill it, decide who I will strive to become. With so many interesting things in the world and so many problems to solve, if you take the time to actually examine all the choices and not just shuffle along the path of expectations predetermined by thousands of others whose minds and bodies work completely differently than yours, it's completely overwhelming. If you're reading this blog, then you have likely stood at this crossroads or are standing here with me now. 

I still have a few more years to figure it all out, but I think my life is probably too short and too much of a drop in the bucket not to throw myself into it 100%.

Chapter 2

As I promised in my last post, I want to go a little more in depth into what my internship organization, Deti Peterburga, does and why I think it's so important.
Civil society in Russia is not very well developed, and there are only a very small number of NGOs working to help immigrants. My area of research and deep interest is in the Caucasus, particularly Russian-Caucasian relations, and Deti Peterburga is the only organization in Saint Petersburg that does work related to that sector. Russia has the second largest number of immigrants (appx 11 million) after the United States (45.8 million) and there are big problems in that regard. Many Russians have a "Russia is for Russians" mentality (despite the fact that Russia has always been very ethnically diverse).
Illegal immigration is a big problem, and understandably very frustrating, as it is in the United States, but even legal immigrants face discrimination and prejudice. One of the reasons immigrants, particularly from Central Asia or the Caucasus, are seen as undesirable is because many Russians link them with increased crime and a dilution of traditional Russian culture. Most of these immigrants, for example, are Muslim, and thus desire to practice Islam when they come to Russia. They build mosques and Muslim community centers and as Russians see these developments many fear that the new immigrant population will eventually take over their cities and prevent Russians from practicing their culture.
I think the perspective from both sides is understandable, and that is where the question of "melting pot" vs "salad bowl" comes in. The idea of a country (notably the US) as a "melting pot" is that people from all over the world will come together to create a new culture that is a blend of all their existing identities. In recent years I have heard the term "salad bowl" used more, in which instead of melting down cultures and identities into one cohesive, unified, (in theory) culture, the country would preserve all the unique heritages of its citizens and encourage them to retain their differences yet still work together. I think each of these simplistic metaphors have flaws- a completely new culture will not organically emerge as an equal blend of all the ingredients, but it is not exactly practical to neither share a common language nor encourage multilingualism on behalf of all citizens.
So how does this apply to Russia? Russia is not like America. It was never meant as an immigrants' haven or a land free of religious persecution. Russia does not want to be a melting pot or a salad bowl or any other pleasant, positive metaphor for cooperative diversity. The options as I see them stand as this:
1) Force all the immigrants out of Russia.
      a) Will Russians fill their jobs (construction, hard labor, factory work) or will there be a workforce shortage?
      b) Who exactly qualifies as an "immigrant"? (see map of ethnic diversity above)
      c) How can they all be forced out without intense violence and riots and chaos?
      d) Example: Tajikistan, where many immigrants are from, has an economy that runs largely on remittances and drug trafficking- what will the consequences be of a large influx of citizens returning to a place they left because there were no jobs or money?

2) Leave everything alone- let immigrants come in as they please, build their insular communities and ignore them as much as possible until anger on the part of Russians bubbles over to the point of violence (we already see frequent examples of inter-ethnic violence). Then who knows what will happen...

3) Help immigrants integrate into Russian society.
      a) The majority of these people packed up their lives and left their homes, their families, and the security of being a native to come to Russia in search of a better life. Remember, Russia isn't exactly the easiest place to live, so what kind of lives are these people leaving that living here is the dream? They want to be accepted here, they want to feel wanted- doesn't everyone?
     b) By pushing against legal immigrants so harshly with racism and hatred, the only rational response is to push back. If you tell me I'm worthless and of no value, I can either run home with my tail between my legs (see 3.a as to why that's not really an option) or I can stand up for myself- this often results in physical altercations and a growing wall of misunderstanding and anger between the populations. It certainly doesn't help that in both Russian and many Central Asian/Caucasian cultures, it is important to stand up for yourself physically (especially men). Someone cuts you off in traffic? Pull out your baseball bat. Someone looks at your girl the wrong way? There's a switchblade.

In the States, we have one word for our population- American- and anyone can be American regardless of skin color, accent, occupation, place of birth, etc.
In Russia, there are two words- Русский (Russkii) and Российский (Rossiiskii)
Русский means ethnically Russian, while Российский means a citizen of the Russian Federation.
(This is a blog post by a Russian espousing one view of the immigration issue.)
The distinction between the two is acute and important. While an immigrant can never be Русский, he can be Российски if you let him, and there is value in that.

Clearly, I advocate for option 3. I think the work Deti Peterburga is doing is so important if option 3 is to be considered a realistic possibility, because as option 2 ferments time is running out. Russians must look at immigrants as enriching, as a source of growth and development. It's not like the country is overcrowded, and the birthrate is down. If Russia is going to prosper, it cannot be stagnant, it must accept the tools its been given as use them to build up the state. Rather than forcing immigrants to isolate themselves, which only furthers the problem, help them to become Российский. Teach the children Russian, teach them tolerance and acceptance, teach them love, and they will grow up to love and support their adopted homeland as the land adopts them in return. 

**Author's Note**
I'm not a Russian (Русская or Российская), so this is not really my problem to solve. I don't know if I really have the right to have an opinion on this issue- but I do!
If you disagree (or wholeheartedly agree) with what I wrote, let me know in the comments! Tell me if I'm missing something.
I don't mean to make anyone feel uncomfortable, only to shed a new light on the situation and perhaps provide an option that is often overlooked.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Russian Food from an American Perspective

Hey everybody! It's been a while since my last post, in which I promised you a post about food, so here it is! Before I get into it, a quick update on my life:

I have started working at my internship and I LOVE it! I work for an organization called "Deti Peterburga" (Children of Petersburg) which teaches Russian language and culture to children of immigrants, generally migrant workers from Central Asia and the Caucasus. I get to work with the most adorable little kids, I learn new Russian phrases (giraffes have spots, zebras have stripes, etc.), work on translating, and I am passionate about the mission. I'll go into more detail on that at some point.

Unfortunately, classes still have not started yet...I have been out of school for nearly two months now and I'm going a little bit crazy. I've been taking private lessons the past two weeks, and classes were supposed to start this Monday, but they got pushed back again, so hopefully I will actually go back to school next Monday!

On Saturday my SRAS group took a tour around Saint Petersburg. It was chilly and a long ways to walk, but I really enjoyed it! Our guide was great, he gave us lots of facts about the history of buildings and areas and showed us some more off-the-beaten-path sights that I hadn't seen before.
I also went to the top of St Isaac's Cathedral for the first time, and that was great!

This one's my favorite))

Now: FOOD...the problem is I could talk about food forever, and there are plenty of resources online that describe Russian food in detail, so I will just try to hit the basics and then tell you some of my observations on what I found interesting!

Russian food in general is delicious. There is a lot of diversity because of the country's long history, enormous land area,  diversity of climates, and the influx of other national cuisines during the Soviet period. Popular flavors include: dill, mayonnaise, beets, sour cream, and meat cooked for a really long time!

Soups are very popular to start a meal, but I haven't yet been fed soup, even the heartiest of borsch, as a meal by itself. Borsch is something you've most likely heard of- it's a kind of vegetable soup that has as many different varieties as cooks, but it's basically beets, tomatoes, potatoes, and pork or beef topped with dill and plenty of sour cream to give it a pinkish color. The first time I ate borsch I had to force it down, then a few hours later I found myself wanting more, I think that's part of getting used to new foods, you just have to take it slow. Now I absolutely love borsch, I would eat it everyday!
Cold soups are also a thing, but mostly seem to be cabbage and sour milk based and are really only eaten in the summer so I'm holding off on that as long as I can...

Russians don't typically eat salads like Americans do. In the States we generally get a salad of lettuce and other raw vegetables topped with dressing before or accompanying a meal. Here, the word "salat" has a few different meanings. First, it's the word for lettuce, which is confusing as all get out-
-What do you like in your salat?
Salat also refers to both more American-style raw veggie mixes and Russian style mayo-festivals. Russian salat olivier and stolichniy salat are both very popular, especially on holidays, and basically consist of mayonnaise, tiny chopped up vegetables, peas, little ham cubes, and of course dill. Some people find this delicious. Not me.
Stolichniy Salat

Russians really love their bread. Pretty much all meals are accompanied by bread, and not some delicious warm flaky rolls or a garlic smothered baguette, but room temperature sandwich bread without butter or anything. I guess you're supposed to dip it in soup and bite into it after vodka and so on but while it's not unappetizing, I don't really find it necessary- this gets me a lot of strange looks.
There are two types of bread- black and white. Black bread is really hearty, thick, and made with rye, and white bread can range from Wonder Bread to whole grain. Generally the bread is oddly small, in the US when I buy sandwich bread it's about 8" tall (this definitely exists here, it's just not that popular) and bread here is usually only 3" or so.

There are lots of types of meat available- beef, pork, chicken, fish, shrimp, rabbit (NO). Generally I've noticed that meat seems to be kind of thrown into a meal just because. I guess as a source of protein, which is great, but it's never really cooked to intentionally highlight the flavors or whatever chefs do. I think availability of good cuts of meat is not great here (people often drive across the border to Finland to buy fish). Kotletti (cutlets) are popular, I think they're kind of flattened balls of ground chicken and spices- sounds better than it actually tastes.

Sweet stuff: my favorite! Russians are really excellent at pastries. There is a perfect balance between savory/bready/cheesy and sugary that creates the most satisfying desserts! Homeade or storebought, piorzhki (little pies) are delicious- they are generally thick bread shaped like a football and filled with either savory fillings like cabbage, eggs, and potatoes or sweet fillings like cherries and tvorog.
Blini rolled up with tvorog and berries!
Tvorog: the lost dairy product of the east. I am obsessed with this stuff! It's somewhere between cottage cheese and quark (so I've read- never actually tried either of those). It can be mixed with raisins and used to fill or top pastries as a sweet treat or mixed with garlic and dill as a tangy dip or spread.
Another sweet favorite are blini. This is the one Russian dish I've ever attempted making and although I am a disaster in the kitchen, these are so easy I get it right probably 70% of the time! Kind of like crepes, blini are very thin pan-cooked dough circles. You can eat them with gooey, sweet condensed milk, tvorog and fruit, nutella, peanut butter (really hard to find in Russia) and bananas, or anything else you want! I suggest making a big batch because you're going to want to eat about 10.
Ice cream is worth noting because in addition to all the regular flavors, a Soviet-era nostalgic favorite is plombir. "Regular" or "milk" flavored is how it's often described, very mildly sweet and creamy.

When it comes to drinks Russia has it down (although Azerbaijan set a really high bar). Alcohol: well, yes, the rumors are true, Russians love to drink! Not everyone drinks vodka almost every night, but my host mom does, and most people enjoy vodka much more frequently than in the US, where I think adults whose goal is not to get drunk will generally prefer wine or beer on a week night at home. "Napitki" (drinks) are varied here. Every type of soda you could want, Georgian "dushes" (pear soda so delicious when it's fresh), flat and sparkling water in abundance, "tarxhun" (some kind of grassy green soda that I can't stand), aloe vera juice, kvass (slightly alcoholic fermented bread juice that most Russians really love) and anything else you can think of!
Of course tea is extremely popular. I hear "chai budesh'?" (will you have tea?) several times a day- with breakfast and after dinner usually. Tea is more popular than coffee I think. It's not some fancy eastern style tea, generally it's just Lipton tea bags with some sugar and lemon, but I've really grown attached!
If you plan on visiting Russia, though, note that there is rarely, if ever, free water in restaurants. Drinks are expensive and come in tiny glasses with no free refills, so drink sparingly!

Anyway, I know I left a ton of really great Russian foods out, so if you come across something interesting, feel free to ask me what I think of it or encourage me to try it if I haven't yet!
Please tell me your thoughts, I look forward to hearing from you!