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Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Dispatches From Siberia #27: Current Currency

Money can be as tough to translate as language, if not more so: with currency exchanges, cultural norms, and value discrepancies, cash fluency is a moving target.

Dispatches From Siberia #26: Playing Tour Guide

Dispatches From Siberia #26: Playing Tour Guide

Showing your city to others is a great way to learn about how you interact with it. Last week, a pair of fellow Fulbrighters based a few hours north accompanied a group of students to Novosibirsk. In between the group’s scheduled tour of the zoo and attendance at the opera, we met up and I got a chance to show some colleagues around my adopted city.

The time constraints led us to stay in the city center, where we checked out the famous teal constructivist-style train station, took a stroll down the city’s primary pedestrian street, and had a late lunch. If this sounds more relaxed than exciting, that’s sort of the point.

Remember last week when I said spring had arrived? Well, technically it has, but don't tell the clouds and this car that.

Remember last week when I said spring had arrived? Well, technically it has, but don't tell the clouds and this car that.

The quick tour, just a couple hours including food, made me appreciative that I’ve gotten to know Novosibirsk as an inhabitant and not as a tourist. As a tourist, I would have been underwhelmed. Frankly, there’s not a ton to do in the walkable center. There is certainly good food, and the aforementioned zoo and theatre undoubtedly make up a hefty percentage of the trip for many foreign visitors, because these are the most accessible interesting places. But to really appreciate the city, it takes a deeper dive—and most of the more interesting places are far-flung enough that a short-span tourist would likely never find them—or would spend the whole trip traveling back and forth between a very limited number of actual sites. The Monument of Glory, for example, takes less than an hour to see and appreciate, but the trip there—between public transit and the walks between bus or metro stops—would eat up half a day and perhaps more if the traveller was just getting her or his bearings in the town. Akademgorodok, which is listed in nearly every tourist guide as one of the most interesting spots in Novosibirsk, can take well over ahour to reach from the city center, depending on traffic and bus connections. A visit to the City of Academics would take nearly a full day from a traveler’s Novosibirsk itinerary.

Other cities I’ve visited, such as Irkutsk, Krasnoyarsk, Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, and Ekaterinburg, have more centralized, walkable zones filled with the key touristic sites. There was plenty to do during a couple of days, and the sites were clustered close enough together to be easily reachable. Did I miss some things in those cities? Absolutely. But these smaller and more compact cities are friendlier for those just stopping through. I feel like I got to enjoy the very best of those interesting places in a way I might not have been able to do on a quick breeze

It’s harder to do that in Novosibirsk, and so I’m glad I’ve gotten to dive deep into this place.

So, which genuine, authentic Siberian restaurant did I take the visiting scholars to? Well, the Mexican restaurant, obviously. Listen: both colleagues live and work in Tomsk, which is about four hours away and a third the size of Novosibirsk. With plenty of authentic regional food available in Tomsk, we opted for a different flavor: something familiar.

Georgian food is incredible, and prevalent in Novosibirsk. But when guests come to the city, we skip the local and find a taste of home.

Georgian food is incredible, and prevalent in Novosibirsk. But when guests come to the city, we skip the local and find a taste of home.

The steak fajitas were a hit, and the burrito appeared to be solid. I can also vouch for the queso (which is spicy, rich, and full of mildly cooked red peppers) even though no one partook during this particular lunch. The cheesecake, I hear, was take-or-leaveable, but sometimes when you haven’t had cheesecake in months, you see it on the menu and you have to try.

When travelling for a brief time, it’s worthwhile to spend as many meals as possible enjoying local cuisine, but when you live in a foreign land for an extended time, it’s okay to go for a little flavor of home now and then. Sometimes—don’t judge me—that even means a trip to KFC.

A few weeks ago, I mentioned some of the lessons I’ve learned in Siberia. One of those included avoiding hot beverages when the temperature plummets, and a couple of readers have asked for clarification. So, without further ado, here is my vastly oversimplified version of the science: basically, when you drink hot liquid such as coffee or tea, the tissue in your mouth and throat expand, in much the same way ones pores open during a warm shower. The next cold breath, then, injects brutally cold air deep into your throat tissue. Not a pleasant thought, right? Here’s another example: think about how asphalt expands and contracts in changing weather. Add some moisture to the mix, and by the time all the havoc’s done, you get a street full of potholes. This is why no one walks around Siberia with a cup of fresh coffee when the temperature hits negative thirty: they’ve got no interest in a throat full of potholes.

Siberian coffee: best enjoyed inside (and with waffles).

Siberian coffee: best enjoyed inside (and with waffles).

On that cheery note, we’ll wrap up for the week. Next time, I’ll have some stories about spring classes, currency exchanges, and whatever other blissful mayhem I run across in the meantime.

Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

 

Dispatches From Siberia #11: One Bad Apple

Dispatches From Siberia #11: One Bad Apple

On the flight back from Irkutsk, the hard looking Russian man in a black mock turtleneck folded his arms to register his displeasure at the Latin letters of my ebook. But as soon as he thought I couldn't see him (of course, I could see his reflection in my screen), his eyes traced every line of Anne Valente's Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down.

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

Dispatches From Siberia #8: Let it Snow. And Snow. And Snow. And Snow Some More.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This lady lives at the Novosibirsk Zoo. I'm feeling like she had a pretty good week.

This week was all about work. And snow. And more work. And more snow.

Tuesday’s snowfall was a Novosibirsk city record for that particular date. The snow hasn’t stopped (save for a few brief pauses) since Monday, and the sun hasn’t made itself fully visible for more than a week. And that’s perfectly fine with me: with a mountain of story and book edits, revisions, a couple of fiction contest entries to finish and, two 90-minute conference presentations to prepare, and looming deadlines for a whole slew of book and story submissions, this has been a week at the desk, becoming cozy with the array of teas and coffees I’ve purchased during the last few weeks. Some stories, it turns out, go best with cherry tea. Others with black Sumatran coffee. And sometimes, you just have to take a break and raid the grocery store down the street for a box of Oreo cookies.

The tea helps with writing.

The Oreos help with editing.

I’m working with two different editors on two different projects right now. One situation is hard work but harmony. On the other project, the editor and I seem to have slightly different visions about audience and story direction. It’s a good experience to have—this close comparison of styles. It’s good to be stretched this way as a writer, and it’ll serve me well as I learn, grow, and develop as a writer. But it requires cookies. Lots of cookies.

With all those projects ongoing, organization has become important. Not just organization between tasks, but also the rather key tenant that I have to keep in mind: I’m not just here to lock myself in a room and work. Part of my job is to explore.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

Looking and feeling like a proper Siberian.

One of the great benefits of a Fulbright Grant is the freedom it allows. That’s also one of the biggest challenges. With new books, books in revision, stories, poems (yes, I said it—I’ve been writing poems), query letters, presentations to prepare, and a number of other projects of various size and scope, I count at least 30 ongoing writing jobs right now. The good news: I generally spend between six to eight hours in the classroom per week, plus a couple hours reading and preparing and a couple hours taking Russian lessons. So, there’s fairly boundless time to work on all these projects. But I can’t do them all at once, or I wind up wasting days on indecision and halfhearted taps toward working on a project, then flitting over to another with no real impact on the mountain of work.

And then, the imperative of seeing the world and meeting people.

So far, this is how I’ve arranged it.

As is the case at home, my first work hours go to my students. Teachers have all sorts of philosophies about this, but my prime work hours each week go toward preparation, innovation, and response to student work. It’s just how I operate, and that will always be the case.

After that, I slice my time into layers. First, I work. Then I explore a little. Then I come back and work, taking motivation from the exploration. Then I venture out again, then I work again. By tackling my goals in stripes like this, I stay invigorated, motivated, and inspired.

This week, though, I had to fall back on a different pattern, one I learned well during my days as a reporter: when the deadlines, come, everything else waits.

So, next week, I’ll resume the stripes. My life this week was a bit boring. Thankfully, though, my students filled in the gaps.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

Just going for a little ski at the university stadium.

The Siberian Writers Workshop is in full effect. Students seem to become bolder and more talkative during each session, and so the class meetings get richer, more exciting, more focused and even more funny. For all their skill and seriousness, I’ve got a fun and funny group of students. The more they laugh, the better the class works, and so I’m excited to see them prodding and joking with each other more and more with each class—while maintaining a seriousness and focus befitting their task. But that’s something we writer have got to remember from time to time: it’s okay to step back from the ledge and have some fun with our work. The world won’t end if we get our ending skewed a little bit in the first draft. Well—unless it’s a draft about the end of the world, and we did have one of those this week.

As a pair of colleagues explained earlier this week, Russian students are quite used to a style called the Pedagogy of Cooperation. There can be critique, but it must first be buffered with kindness and positive remarks. Those versed in the Iowa workshop method (also called the American workshop and simply the creative writing workshop) will understand that there’s seldom space for anything beside unmitigated truth. Often the critique can become quite competitive, intense, bold, and even ferocious. I’m working hard to keep the workshop on a middle ground: I don’t want students to spend too much time on unwarranted platitudes, but I also want respectful and purposeful honesty. So far, they’ve toed the line brilliantly, and the texts have been astonishingly good, even in their first go-around. What I’m even more excited about, though, is the growth of enthusiasm, as the students work together, share ideas, and process through new concepts just what might be possible to accomplish through fiction. This is fun to watch and to read and to hear.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

It's a drivable snow. I promise.

Now, this snow: there’s a solid foot of it on the ground, even though we had a couple of mid-week melts. This is enough white stuff to shut down a mid-sized Midwestern U.S. town for a week, but the Siberians have it under control. It’d beautiful to see.

When the plows haven’t made it to the street yet, they manage to drive, but with some sensibility. For example, drivers don’t come to complete stops and then look confused when they start up again and fishtail. They slow down enough that they can time their arrival at lights and avoid stopping at all, thus keeping both momentum and traffic. It’s amazing what a bit of knowledge about the properties of physics can do for snow travel.

Thus: I propose a new international exchange. America should send drivers to Russia so they can learn and see firsthand that with just a touch of common sense, snow driving is, indeed, very possible. And Americans could return the favor—since last year featured record summer heat in Siberia, maybe U.S. citizens can share some if our proven methods in sunscreen application.

But seriously (and I’m looking directly at you, Huntington, WV and Cincinnati, OH) after what I’ve seen folks cope with just during this first snowstorm of the year, I will have no sympathy whatsoever later this winter when history repeats itself and your Facebook posts begin chronicle cities incapacitated by the local government’s inability to remove four inches of snow. No. Sympathy. At. All.

In the meantime, be nice to each other. This lousy election is almost done. It’s important, but don’t lose any friends over it. Seriously.

And remember, no matter who wins the presidency, the Fulbright Disclaimer will still apply: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.

A little work in the warm cafe.

A little work in the warm cafe.