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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#01: ya ne gavaroe pa-russki (I don't speak Russian)
Monday, September 08, 2003

Hi folks. Here we go. The first big news from Russia. (For those of you who don't know about this, just try and catch up. For everyone else, I know you've been on the edge of your seat in anticipation of this exciting, nay, mind-blowing letter.)

Oh, and since I haven't been doing a good job about updating anyone, this is going to be long-ish. And if you don't want to hear any more about this crap in future emails, let me know, and I'll never talk to you again. I promise.

Well, getting into russia was relatively easy, I suppose. After hassles in London about my baggage (too heavy) and my visa ("not in their system"), I made it on the plane, which seemed to be overrun with some geriatric tour group. Naturally, at some point the woman sitting next to me had to ask where I was from, and what I was up to.
"I'm going to study Russian."
"Oh, how many years have you studied Russian?"
"None. That's why I need to study it when I get there."
She gave me her best polite smile and stopped talking to me.

The area is fairly pretty. Very green and rural looking from the air. And flat. But nice. We landed, and I got through the passport line with no problems at all. My baggage even arrived perfectly as well (still heavy.) The only issue is that my language program was supposed to send someone to pick me up and take me to my dorm, but he wasn't there.

Not really knowing what to do (and having heard that you can't trust the taxi drivers at the airport) I wandered around trying to find phones and then a phone card. Both were located, but, Surprise! I don't know russian, and couldn't figure out how to use a phone card. Still don't. Finally I went to some guy with a badge who had offered me a taxi earlier, and as I'd been wandering around for over 2 hours, I think he felt like helping me out. With his negotiations, I scored a cab for way cheap by normal standards.

Unfortunately, the cab driver got us lost on the way to my dorm. There was no meter running, so I knew he was honestly lost. He handed me a map and indicated that I find it. I eventually found the street, but we still had to ask 3 people on the street.

The dorm itself is brand new. As in they're still building it. Every morning they're plastering the walls and painting in places. It's more like an apartment building in that there are no common spaces to be had, short of where the security gaurd sits and the administation desk, where the grouchy old ladies sit. There was a mess getting checked in at the dorm too, which at the time seemed awful but now I'm learning to just expect such things. Thanks to another student who could speak a tiny bit of English, I got checked into a room late that night.

The room itself isn't too bad, now that my roommate and I have worked on it a little. By this I mean brought in extension cords so the refridgerator works, the stove burner works (boiling your water is very important) and opening valves so that the toilet would flush. We also finally figured out which valve turns on the hot water flow, so I don't have to only take icy-cold "showers" with a wash cloth. It rules. It's also made me think about how weeks ago I was concerned with gamecube games, and now my big thrills involve basic plumbing. Hot water is the best thing ever.

My roommate is I think. He's from Turkmenistan, and is here getting something similar to a masters degree, as far as I can tell, in Arabic. He speaks a little english, which is a lifesaver. We spend a little time trying to communicate each day, and otherwise just work quietly in the room. He never seems to leave (as he only meets his professor once a week about this research project) and also rarely seems to sleep. When I go to bed, he's at his desk. When I wake up, he's at his desk. And then he's offering me some of the most disgusting instant coffee in the universe. (Yes, I do miss Dunkin Donuts). He also only seems to own 3 articles of clothing. He has one shirt in the closet. A big bag of books, but no clothes. So when I showed up with multiple bags, I felt like a total princess, although now I'm feeling like he's the weird one. I know that it's common for people here to only have a couple of outfits, but he only has one.

Sad part is that he's already feeling cold, and has to layer by putting on his second shirt. I have no idea what he'll do come winter.

It's been warm enough to walk around without being bundled up, but you generally want long sleeves. At night it gets a bit colder though. But it's still pleasant to walk around, which I do a lot. Probably 2 hours of walking a day. I live 35 minutes from my classes, and anything of interest (as my dorm is in a fairly dead part of town). There are also little vans that drive around that act as mini-busses. They're pretty handy, and have a neat payment system. You just pass money up to the driver, and the correct change gets passed back. It's somehow totally reliable, without tickets or anything. A huge contrast to everything else here which revolves around standing in line for tickets, reciepts, etc.

When walking, I've also done a good job of getting lost. That problem has since been solved by getting a map, but I did find some pretty, uh, fun neighborhoods that way. Shipyards and that kind of thing.

Classes have been pretty fun thus far. There's me, a kid from switzerland, a girl from turkey and bunch of kids from korea and china who can't say L's or R's to save their lives. (Although I can't say some vowels at all either. Hell, I can't even here what I'm doing wrong on these damn things, much less say it right.) Still, it's a good class, and at the very least my confidence is growing, even if my vocabulary is still pretty small.

This helps with getting food. Eating was an issue for a while. I couldn't ask for anything, or even prepare it in my room. But that is being solved, with large credit due to Kristin. She and her roommate (another american here running an exchange program for bard college) have been looking after me, and have completely saved my butt more than once. Aside from feeding me at their house, they've taken me shopping for food preparation items, and just sort of made sure I was ok. Kristin has even come out to my dorm (a decent journey) to see if I was ok when I first got here. (of course, she couldn't find me since they had moved me from one room to another at that point...)

Anyway, things are going well. I'm figuring things out bit by bit. It's a strange country. And I'm supposed to go to Moscow later this month. Whee!