Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.
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Dispatches From Siberia returns: this time with an in-depth look at the process of returning home after a life-changing trip abroad. First up: snow days in Kentucky after a year in Siberia.
The final chapter of the long-winded St. Petersburg series: Soviet donuts, missiles on main streets, and an encore at the opera.
With a horde of end-of trip activities the last few weeks, there's a massive backlog of blogging material. The catch-up starts today with continuation of the Saint Petersburg travel log.
I checked in on top-rated coffee shops and encountered a problem that would hound me all week—and one that led me to want to write a full-blown St. Petersburg Travel Log. Namely: most people who visit St. Petersburg seem to do and write about the same dozen things and eat and review the same dozen restaurants. And I wasn't having it.
I'm on the road this week, visiting the incredible, vast, and sometimes confusing city of St. Petersburg. This place is and has a little bit of everything, and I'm busy exploring it, squeezing every milliliter I can from each of my five days in town. Because of that, this week's blog is short, but have no fear: there'll be a mid-week sequel once I get back to Novosibirsk.
This week's Dispatch From Siberia examines the important impact of small changes on the creative process, and considers the global ramifications of an American media company's disturbing process of downsizing.
This has been a week of contrast. Half of my mind is on tying the loose ends and enjoying the last few weeks of my time overseas. The other half is planning for what promises to be an exciting and busy summer back in the U.S. Half of the week was sunny and warm. Half the week was rainy backed with a brutal, chilly wind. I went for a run on Wednesday, the first chance I’d had to do so in ages. It was nearly seventy degrees. Half the university’s track was clear and bone dry, the other was still caked in a meter of built-up ice. Opposites and dualities all over the place, but in the end it’s just more opportunity and adventure.
This week's Dispatch outlines the birth of an observation-based short story and the ways in which real-life encounters can affect art.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This week, while my vulnerability was great, an Asian immigrant in an Islamic city deep in the heart of Russia stood by the side of a sick, suffering tourist from Middle America until he was certain everything was okay. That’s the kind of moment that permanently disables a person’s ability to hate, and it’s a sort of moment more people should encounter.
No matter which flavors and sights might escape me as I leave one town for the next, there’s always a next, wonderful place waiting with a new batch of kind, curious, and giving people.
I started this week by ringing in the new year at a party in an abandoned Soviet-era metro station/bunker and finished it up with a snowball fight on top of a frozen sea. In between, I was able to have my first unscripted, reactive conversations during Russian lessons, I thumped out the first 12,000 words of a new book, and finally got tickets to see the Novosibirsk professional hockey team play. It’s been a good new year.
As the end of 2016 approached, I saw a distinct trend online: an incredibly high percentage of friends posted sentiments to this general effect: “I know I’m supposed to think 2016 was miserable, but it was actually a pretty good year for me because…” And then the obligatory addendum: “But, don’t get me wrong, it was still a bad year because politics happened and people died and so on.”
I’ll offer the same addendum. Some awful things happened. All over the world, good people died, bad people had success, worse people treated others poorly, and the protestors of the poor treatment were ignored and met with more ugly behavior. But the trend of people having quietly good years under this backdrop is hopeful. Because at the end of the day, most of has have control of nothing more than our own quiet lives. I’m of the opinion that our job as humans on this earth is primarily to be as good to each other when we’re able, to resist and attack evil at every opportunity, and to work together toward these ends when possible. I wish that my sphere of influence were larger. I wish I were in charge of producing a list of presidential cabinet nominees, and that I were in charge of determining whether the people with whom I share a national identity were capable of being racists, criminals, or generally bad people. I think I’d make some pretty reasonable decisions on those fronts, but unfortunately, I don’t get to.
What I do get to do is interact with the great people I love, and to engage in work that I hope will inspire other people to make better choices about the concepts listed above.
Simply, I refuse to be bullied into adopting the idea that personal misery is a badge of honor. I plan to do what good I can for as many people as I’m able, to engage in my work in a way that lifts up as many people as possible and encourages them to be loving and gracious, and to resist panicking about the things I can’t change. That’s been my mode of operation so far in 2017, and it’s yielded new friends, professional success, and new possibilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t find complaints and faults with the world around me and even my community. But for me, personally, the collective handwringing at which so many of us have become so skilled just isn’t effective enough any longer. I’ll spend this year, and hopefully those after it, working to be the best human I can be and producing the best work I can in hopes of helping others to become better, too.
The hockey game I witnessed Tuesday afternoon was particularly interesting, partially because of the opponent. Novosibirsk defeated Yaroslalvl Locomotiv in a shootout. If Locomotiv sounds vaguely familiar to you, it’s probably because of a devastating event. They team’s players, coaches, and support staff were killed in a 2011 plane crash, eerily similar to the 1970 crash of the football team’s plane for which my home campus, Marshall University, is so well known. Similar to the NCAA’s relaxation of some rules to help the MU team get back on its feet, the Kontinental Hockey League relaxed some rules about foreign players, and Yaroslavl is once again a national powerhouse and a national symbol of a team working to overcome adversity.
On Thursday, I got to spend some time withFulbright alumnus who returned to Novosibirsk to visit friends, faculty, and students from his time in the community. A group of us trekked to the Ob Sea, an enormous man-made lake south of central Novosibirsk. We spent a couple of hours walking on the frozen sea, engaging in some pretty compelling snowball fights, and generally enjoying the season. Playing in six-foot-deep snowdrifts might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but when there’s been snow on the ground nonstop since mid-October, you’re eventually forced to make a decision about the world of powdery white around you: sulk in your room or learn to enjoy it. I think the attached photos should give you a pretty good idea of which direction I chose on that question.
Tomorrow is Russian Christmas. One of the Russian customs I’ve taken to heart is the way that parents teach their children to interact with the holiday.
Russian parents take their children to see Ded Moroz (Russian Santa, essentially) just like America parents, but with one notable difference. Instead of the children presenting a list of wants and demands, the children recite a poem as a gift to Ded Moroz—often one that they’ve composed themselves. Then, they accept whatever he gives them with gratitude.
Now, certainly I understand the origin of the Santa wish list: it’s a great way for parents to gather information about what their kids want. But what a great lesson to teach. Give before you ever expect anything in turn, and be grateful whenever something unearned comes your way. Also, the tradition doubles as one big, national poetry workshop, and you simply can’t go wrong with that.
Next week: more hockey, more writing and—wait for it—more snow.
Fulbright Disclaimer: the views represented in this blog are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
This is not a political blog, and so I won't discuss how I feel about how the week unfolded in my nation of origin.but politics shape the ways in which people from different cultures interact, and those interactions are part of my experience here.
I unplugged from social media before the election and avoided news sites once the votes started to come in. Years ago, I wrote a newspaper column about an experiment I conducted concerning the ubiquity of major sporting events in America. I refused to watch the NCAA basketball championship that year, and I unplugged my modem and told my close friends not to tell me any results. I wanted to know how long an American could go without learning the result of a major competition. The answer was about 12 hours, at which time a colleague with no regard for sports walked up and launched into a critique of the losing team’s clock management.
However ubiquitous sports are in America, American politics get a bigger reaction across the globe. When I tried the same trick this week, it was about five hours after the results were announced that a student walked up to me with pity on her face. I was on my way to a Russian lesson, and she was on her way to the bus.
“I don't understand,” she said. "Here, we have no real choice but you—you can have any leader, and you choose the liar who hates.”
“That's the thing about democracy,” I told her. “It reflects the character of people, and character is fluid. Right now, it looks like this is our character.
She shook her head. "I don't believe it."
I shrugged, as I suppose a lot of people all over the planet did all the way through the election cycle. "A lot of people are kind, but only sometimes—they haven't learned how to be kind to people who look and act and think differently.”
“I'm glad you're not one of those, she said. Then she went to her bus and I went to study verb cases.
A couple hours ago, I landed at the airport in Krasnoyarsk, an overnight stopover on my way to Irkutsk and Lake Baikal. I turned down a couple of cab drivers on the way to the bus stand, and the accent gave me away. A man dressed in camouflage and a litany of logos for countries and armies that no longer exist walked up to me, beaming. He congratulated me on America’s great day of liberation. He told me that together, his president and America’s new chief executive would grab the world by the throats. I smiled politely and told him to have a nice trip, while internally, I figured it would be a great success if they could restrict themselves to simply grabbing necks from here on out.
So there you have it: the cosmopolitan view and the rural view.The intellectual view and the emotional view. The curious and and the forceful. Two people, one country, utterly opposite impressions of how the world can and should look.
And of course, this week more than ever, the Fulbright disclaimer is apt:
The views expressed on this blog are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program and the U.S. Department of State.
When the notice came that I’d be spending nine month in Russia, it took a few moments to settle in. Once I got past the initial shock, one of my first coherent thoughts went something like this: “I’m going to stand in the middle of Red Square. I’m going to get fat on borscht. I’m going to see the Nutcracker in Russia.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
About twenty minutes into last night's performance of Anna Karenina: The Musical, a troupe of professional ice dancers rollerbladed onto the stage for a choreographed routine in which they weaved in and out of rolling benches and foot-bound dancers. In the corner, a rapping conductor in a leather waistcoat narrated, while crepe paper snowflakes fluttered from the rafters. Immense digital video boards behind the stage gave a richer visual image of snow meeting the surface of a frozen lake. Down in the orchestra box, the band pulsed energy into the Moscow Operetta Theater: a combination of driving electric bass, and one of the most articulated bassoon lines one could imagine. Later, peasants with sickles would mix traditional Russian dance with elements of American break dancing. A laser show sliced through the constantly moving backdrop, and the intensely talented singers repeatedly put goosebumps on the arms of audience members. It was manic, intense—and actually quite true (and respectful) to Tolstoy's text. Babushkas and teenagers clapped along with the music, from the somber and ominous opening, all the way through the final scene, in which Anna sang herself into the path of an oncoming train.
I left the theater with that tremendous buzz one feels when they've just encountered something spectacular. You've felt it before: maybe an incredible meal, a sight you've waited years to see. A first kiss, maybe, or something spectacular and unexpected that came from nowhere—that blindsided you with excellence or beauty or power or pure, innovative brilliance. The feeling of encountering something that you know you'll never experience in quite the same way, ever again. A truly singular moment. As I stepped outside, Moscow was glowing. One of the two-ton, glowing red glass stars from the Kremlin was visible just over the near skyline. A sprinkling of actual snow fell. The air was crisp and cool but comfortable. It was a dream.
Then, I turned on my phone.
The world, that phone told me, was on the brink of hell.
Except that it wasn't. And it isn't.
Through Facebook and Twitter feeds, I read that Russia has called the families of its diplomats home, that relationships between our countries have deteriorated beyond the depths of the Cuban Missile Crisis. That 40 million people have been evacuated in the face of a coming war. That in the Middle East, planes with their reds, whites, and blues configured into different patterns are flying ever closer to each other, with ever more ominous cargo loads.
Thing is: none of this is exactly true.
Pieces of this are true, but they're uneventful little shreds that would get a shrug or an eye roll instead of a page click, if stated in their most strictly true form. But we live in a world that revolves around page clicks. The (patently false) rumor that Russia has called home the families of its diplomats in preparation for war actually started to circulate the Internet in the early afternoon (local time) Wednesday. At that moment, I happened to be in the middle of Moscow traffic, seated in the back row of a van full of a dozen Fulbright scholars and program staff, on our way to the U.S. Embassy for an introduction to the consular services available to us while we're here. If the world really was on the brink of war, I don't imagine we would've arrived to find a group of American soldiers tossing beanbags at plywood targets in the embassy courtyard. I won't dignify the British tabloids that initially passed along this information by providing a link, but it's easy enough to find if you really want to. I'll admit that it got my pulse up for a few minutes. But a few moments of investigating the source material led to a simple understanding that in this instance, the truth had been pummeled into submission. Here's a more reasonable explanation, as offered by Snopes.com. Simply put: Russian social and political elites—much like their America, British, Saudi, German, and Chinese counterparts—love to send their children abroad to study at prestigious universities. An official merely suggested (as has happened in past instances, both in Russia and in all the above listed nations) that perhaps one should educate one's children in one's home country. Not unreasonable. But our click bait culture quickly twists that entirely logical suggestion into the brink of mutual destruction.
Reporters in both countries do it. Readers in both countries lap it up.
The evacuation of millions? It's a drill, one that takes place every year. No evacuation, just emergency preparedness. Security is a very real thing here, and it's taken seriously. Malls have metal detectors and guards at every entrance. Most shops and restaurants have security. Where the U.S. Has countered threats of globalized misbehavior through digital means, Russia has taken a more visible approach, utilizing drills and in-person security.
There is a gas mask in the dresser drawer at my hotel. I'm sure if I posted a picture of it, and enough folks shared it, some tabloid or another would use it as proof of some impending calamity. Then a reputable source would pick it up, salivating at the double-benefit: they get the clicks, but there's also plausible deniability to pass off on their source once the threat proves untrue. This is how the bulk of news organizations work now—mainstream or otherwise. I started my writing career as a reporter. Let's just say I'm glad I took up teaching when I did.
Are there very real tensions between our nations? Absolutely, and they require attention and gravity. Panicking about poorly written, half-baked online reporting? Save your blood pressure and go back to arguing about whether Dylan deserves the Nobel Prize. It's more productive, I promise—and that's not saying much.
Politics—domestic and international—have become sports rather than occasions for sober consideration. Maybe we never had sober consideration—but never have we been so loud of a cheering mob when it comes to global affairs. The U.S. Election is case in point. From my vantage, the whole thing seems to have turned into an exercise in arguing or complaining or grandstanding or executing some other personal agenda more than actually treating elections as a tool for corporate and personal growth of the individuals who comprise a nation.
And that's a shame.
During the 1992 presidential election, I remember sitting in the back of the car as my parents drove home from voting.
“Who'd you pick?” I asked.
“That's personal,” my mom said. “You don't tell people who you vote for. You just do what you think is best.”
Boy, has it become decidedly un-personal. It's identity. It's status. It's a marker of intellect or toughness or regional pride. It's opportunism. It's everything except an introspective, personal choice about governance.
Increasingly, we use digital platforms to treat global politics the same.
And if we don't stop making up fake conflicts in the name of being titillated—in the name of having something to share with an OMG! precursor—we're eventually going to talk ourselves into an actual conflict.
So, what's really happening in Moscow today?
In the corner of this coffee shop, a couple of kids are playing guitars. The lady across the table is practicing English with her daughter, using a well-worn textbook. Two tourists are picking out which mug to buy. On the sidewalk, a bigger group of tourists are pointing at restaurant possibilities. Next to them, a man plays the flute for tips, and he's making a killing. A girl in the corner of the shop is eating a piece of cake with her eyes closed and the most complete look of satisfaction that could possibly wash over a human face. The barsitas are playing a game, trying to say latte in the accent they guess belongs to the customer. They're not doing very well, and everyone is laughing.
Across town, parents are watching their children ice skate on a rink set up inside a shopping mall. And the cast is gearing up for another night of Anna Karenina, while another thousand audience members are not yet ready for the transformationally brilliant thing they're about to see.
The people of central Moscow, right now, are doing normal everyday things. Just like you are.
The thing here—and the thing we must always remember, regardless of what headlines say, regardless of which assumptions get baked into opinions—is that most people everywhere are loving, peaceful, friendly humans who just want to teach their children well and work hard and sleep comfortably at night. That's all.
As mentioned above, this particular dispatch comes not from Siberia, but from the center of Moscow. After in-country Fulbright orientation on Wednesday, I had the opportunity to stay on in the capitol for a couple of extra days, interviewing potential participants in the Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant program. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet with dozens of bright, motivated young teachers who have dedicated themselves to the teaching and learning of languages, both Russian and English. The best way to get a true understanding for the heart of a culture is to listen to its teachers tell their stories, and there were some spectacular stories during the last two days from people who are passionate about making a difference in the lives of their students, present and future. The future of Russia is in remarkably good hands with these bright, engaged educators moving up the ranks, full of ambition and energy. Many of these folks will be on their way to the U.S. this coming fall, and I dearly hope they'll be treated with the kind of vigorous warmth and overflowing kindness their countrymen and countrywomen have provided to me.
Some folks have written this week to ask whether I'm alright and whether I feel safe. I can say that unequivocally, I feel welcomed by a nation full of kind, thoughtful people who are full of the curiosity I value so dearly; full of hope for great days, weeks, and years ahead; full of love for each other and for the beauty and challenge that is life. I feel safe, warm, enriched, and happy, and I hope that when all of us see the fear-mongering reports that will undoubtedly continue to criss-cross the globe in the coming weeks and months, that my dear friends on both sides of this fragile planet will think of each other as the loving and optimistic, cheerful and good people that we all are.
Now that I've proven I'm alive and well, I'll keep things that way by following the most important rule--the weekly Fulbright disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.
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"Winter is Coming!" and then a pause until I nod and acknowledge that, yes, I know the show--that I understand. Over and over again, this conversation has happened. It hasn't gotten old yet, but it's getting a bit realistic. The primary catchphrase of the Game of Thrones television series is big deal here, precisely because winter really is coming. Quickly.
I always imagined it would take a blizzard to put a Russian into a parka. There was no reason for this assumption, but it just seemed logical: a historical reputation for hardiness, the prevalence of cold, the fact that most humans hate bundling up until it's absolutely necessary. Those ideas got shattered earlier this week when I walked to the university office to run a few errands. Wearing a T-shirt under a wool cardigan, I was warned by no less than four colleagues that I ought to have a scarf on, and probably a hat as well. It was 55 degrees at the time.
This is still shorts and short-sleeve weather for most folks at home, I wanted to say. I didn't though: one of my resolutions before boarding the plane to Moscow was that I would avoid at every possible juncture the opportunity to become needlessly comparative. You know--the person who always says: yeah, but back home we... More listening, less explaining, I decided (a good philosophy all the time, not just when traveling). So I nodded and said thanks for the advice. I have a couple of scarfs, and I'll use them. Hats, too. I'm just not quite ready to give in to them. Not during the daytime at least. But that 55-degree afternoon? It turned into a 28-degree night. So, they had a point: if my visit to the office required the normal commute home to the city center, I would've run into night, and therefore a deep chill. In reality, all I had to do was walk back across the street, which left me safely ensconced in my flat before the temperature took a cliff-dive. The next morning, my phone told me it was 26 degrees. "Well, that escalated quickly," I mumbled, but by the middle of the morning, it was back to cardigan temperatures and sunshine.
Before I left West Virginia, I heard more than a few people gasp as soon as the word Siberia came out of my mouth, mostly on the account of the assumed snow. As the last paragraph indicates, it's about to get cold here, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. But I've gotten a handful of notes from other researchers in Russia, proclaiming jealousy of the sunshine-laden photos I've posted on social media. Siberia, it turns out, is a veritable paradise of sun and pleasant temperatures. At least for the moment. And yet, many people are bundled like it's mid-winter. As I write this, it's Friday afternoon and I've got two windows propped open. At the bus stop below, at least half the students and all the ladies with shopping bags from the nearby store are in puffy parkas with hood up and hats on. Some wear gloves. There are a few in snow boots, even though there have been only two instances of precipitation in the last month. Where I had imagined a toughness with respect to the weather, the reality is thoughtful preparation.
Of course, pragmatic as life looks in the daytime, the evening will shake things up. After my Russian lesson this afternoon, I'll catch a bus to the city center, where a theatre is in the third day of an American film festival. Netflix and Hulu don't work here for licensing reasons. Pandora and Spotify are null for the same reason. So, I make it a point to enjoy entertainment in English when it comes. I fully expect that when I arrive in the center, I'll see the same thing everyone sees in every city: waiting outside the dozen nightclubs of Novosibirsk, the teenagers will have forsaken their daytime coats for short dresses and T-shirts. Because if there's one thing that can be counted on in every culture, the kids will put party before health.
Aside from the weather, my attention has turned to preparing for workshop classes, which begin next week, and the continued struggle of my own Russian lessons--one of the most humbling, frustrating experiences of my life. The struggle to remember subtle differences in letters. The conflation of sounds. The vocabulary that eludes me at every turn. But there is hope. Following Tuesday's two-and-a-half hour session with multiple teachers, I proceeded directly to the pizza place where I'd struggled mightily through an order the week prior. With no English and no pointing, I managed to order a large pepperoni to go. The same girl who was so patient but so confused a week ago clapped this time. She actually applauded, right there at the counter. Bored eaters looked up with scrunched brows and shaking heads. This should've made me feel like a child, but it was a victory. Learning to connect with a person on their terms is one of the most valuable and essential skills a human can possess, and this experience of struggling every day to communicate, to accomplish the most menial of tasks--it's letting me approach live moment-by-moment with greater nuance and greater appreciation for the people around me. Whether they've worn their scarf or not.
Next week, the primary work of my fellowship begins: the students have been selected and my merry band of burgeoning creative writers will meet for the first time. I can't wait to hear the stories they bring with them. Until then, I leave you with the immortal words of the Fulbright Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the Department of State or the Fulbright Program.