Ever wonder why Russians have a reputation for strength in the sciences? My best guess, based on personal experience, is that they’ve got to use so much science every day to navigate and survive.
Everyone is an amateur astronomer, interpreting the evening skies, understanding the atmospheric conditions that cause them, and predicting what the wind, the clouds, and—most importantly—the temperature will do.
Everyone is a chemist, sorting out which foods and which drinks at which temperatures are good and bad for the body, which reactions will be beneficial, and which can leave one on their back upon an operating table. Drinking hot beverages outside for example, is a no-go: the hot liquid expands throat tissue and welcomes in all sorts of unpleasant reactions, vascular responses, and various other circumstances, most of which sound connected to doctor’s offices. Carry your coffee outside, sure—but don’t sip it until you’re safely indoors.
But physics: that’s the big one. Walking in winter is a six-month, active dissertation in controlling the body with and against the laws of physics. Walking on ice is all about momentum. Adjusting the speed of ascent and descent. Never, never, never stopping if it can be helped. Calculating for the grade of a sidewalk and keeping those critical changes in speed as gradual as possible. Between the entrance to my flat and the bus stop that connects me to the rest of Novosibirsk, there is a pair of parallel sidewalks. One sloped gradually downward, hugging the edge of a narrow street. The other remains flat until a flight of stairs at one end, which leads up to the bus stop. Before the ice, my formative experience as a (very slow) cross-country runner taught me to take the ramp: the diagonal would slightly decrease my workload. Once the ice came, it was a different story: take the stairs and get on flat ground as quickly as possible. The slope means a battle with physics, all the way up or all the way down, depending on the time of day. When someone walks slowly in front of you, there are calculations to be made. Can you pass the walker without one or both persons winding up on the ground? How much is the slow-walking person swerving? How much will you have to speed up or slow down, and how quickly?
It’s more math than I’m comfortable with, frankly, but it’s critical for staying upright.
There are other problem solving tools, too. Shoes with a sharp right angle in the heel are useful: if you strike heel-first, there’s some grip against the ice. There’s also the most critical tool, eternal vigilance. Anything that looks smooth is a bad idea. Anything that looks soft might get you 20-inches deep into a snowdrift. When I played basketball, coaches taught us to defend by keeping our eye always on the ball. The offensive player, after all, can’t go anywhere without first moving the ball. In Russia, you take a similar approach to the ground. Anything you might run into is likely connected to the ground. You can identify people by their feet, signs by their posts, bins by their base, buildings by their footers. There’s no reason to look up. Look away from the ice ground you’re trying to walk, most likely you’ll wind up on your back.
So, like for me during the past few weeks has boiled down to these two critical rules: physics is your friends, and never look up.
Of course, there’s a third option: stay inside.
I’ve done a lot of that lately, too, especially as the temperature hovers around negative 30, Celsius.
When I’ve gotten out and about lately, it’s been largely work related. The first group of the Siberian Writers Workshop had their final meetings this week. They’ll have some time to revise their wonderful stories before submitting final portfolios, but their work was brave, bold, and exciting this semester. I’m looking for ward to reading their polished work, and also to meeting additional groups of students during the spring term.
A few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak with a large group of students at a journalism conference, and we discussed the modes of storytelling in fiction, journalistic nonfiction, and in plain, simple daily interaction. One of my fellow presenters, a lecturer at Novosibirsk State University, invited me to come to the school’s campus in Akademgorodok to speak with some geologists who are studying English in order to broaden their professional possibilities. In addition to speaking with them about language and American culture, I was privileged to judge their end-of semester group projects. A couple of the groups finished neck-and-neck, and so there was only one logical way to solve it: dance contest. It was awesome to connect with some students, but perhaps even more exciting to watch students from an intensive and prestigious university cutting loose a little bit at the end of a long term and a high-pressure presentation situation. It reminded me—and I hope reinforced to them—that no matter how serious your pursuits, there’s always room for a little fun.
Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent those of the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Department of State.