Thursday, December 18, 2008

A conversation with one of my students:
"Mr. Slagle, it's so easy to tell you come from California."
"Oh really? How's that?"
"Because you can tell you spend a lot of time in the sun."
"How can you tell?"
"Because you smile really big."

Monday, December 15, 2008

My roommate Pete told me about how he was shoo-ed out of a building the other day because the "concierge" thought he was homeless. This isn't the first time he's been mistaken for a vagrant. A few weeks ago as he was walking to the supermarket, he was spotted by a bum. This guy would put out his hand to all the passersby, but when Pete walked by he pulled back his hand and gave a Pete a nod of recognition.

Oh, and here's a youtube link about Pete and his 15 minutes of fame:

I get a kick outta ol' Pete.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Some pictures from Thanksgiving.

One of the American families here has all the American teachers out to their apartment for Thanksgiving meal. Unfortunately, we couldn't take the day off so we had it on Saturday. This is one of my coworkers who had the misfortune to have one of the low chairs at the table (and he didn't get the memo that you could shave you Mo-vember moustache).

A view down the table of everyone wearing their Thanksgiving hats (except the one Korean present and the hostess).

Most of the American kids in the jr. high and high school dressed up for Thanksgiving. Here they are in the cafeteria. Side note: one of the Indians is a highly-Americanized Korean... guess which one.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Well, I have learned my lesson. Never take a trip to Riga too lightly. On the train ride there, one of my colleagues remarked that this trip was nothing more than a glorified TGIFriday's run. We arrived, gave our papers to a document agency, ate at TGIFriday's, went to the movies (saw Quantum of Solace), which were played in English (with Russian and Latvian subtitles)! We expected to come out of the theater and go pick up our passports with our visas, but we were told that there was a new Russian consulate general and that the consulate wasn't working on visas that day. 

At this point, we expected the worse. The reason we go to the Riga Russian consulate is because it is one of the few consulates that will issue visas to Americans. If the Riga consulate stopped doing visas for Americans, we would have to send our documents all the way back to the US to get them processed. So, since we couldn't get our visas that day, Thursday, we had to spend the night in Riga. We were in this interesting hostel; it promised a continental breakfast and free tea and coffee during your stay. I woke up in the morning, to find that my idea of continental breakfast and the hostel's idea of continental breakfast were not exactly congruent. No matter, I thought, all I need is some tea and I'll be good to go. Of course, they didn't have any tea. 

I had another day to kill in Riga so I went and got a real breakfast, watched another movie (Body of Lies), and walked around Riga. I now know Riga like I know my 5 fingers, as the Russians would say.  It turns out that earlier in the day, the document agency had told us that with this new consulate general it could take about 2 weeks to process. 2 weeks?!? Stuck in Riga for two weeks? At that point, the only reason  I would have to get back to St. Petersburg would be to catch my flight back to California for Christmas. However, about an hour later, the agency called again and said the consulate-general was calling back to Moscow to figure out what to do with "all these Americans." So, Moscow must have told him to let us back in, because the agency called about an hour after that and said if we bring the money, they'll bring the visas. So, after an uneventful train ride, I made it back to St. Pete yesterday (Saturday).

I did go to TGIFriday's twice, while in Riga. I got the BBQ beef sandwich and the BBQ Burger. I'm missing Fat Daddy's, can you tell?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Riga: take two

Well, in a few hours I'll be going to Riga again. I find it funny how I now look on an international trip of going to Riga, Latvia, the same way San Diego college kids look at a night in TJ. I'm going to take the overnight train there, go straight to the travel document agency, kill the day in Riga going to the movies, get on the overnight train back to St. Pete and be back Friday morning. Although, I am excited about the possibility of eating at TGIFriday's again.

I started reading this book by a guy about his experiences as an American living in Russia during the early 90's. Sometimes I think I missed all the fun, but, then again, I like eating regularly. This book is in English, but it's from a Moscow publisher. I wonder if it's even printed in America; half of the book is an inside joke that only Americans living in Russia and Russians studying the English language are in on. I also started reading Nabokov's autobiography, "Speak, Memory."

My Russian is still improving. I'm at the point now where I can actually have conversations with people. Usually, I preface my conversations by saying, "I'm a foreigner. Speak slowly, please." I wish I could know what my accent sounded like to a Russian ear. One thing that is kind of funny is that the intonation in English is significantly higher than in Russian, and when I speak, I use a high, questioning intonation because I never know if I'm saying something right. I must sound like Mickey Mouse! I've been told that I don't speak with much of an accent, and that my pronunciation is correct. Too correct, in fact, because only foreigners pronounce words correctly!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!

On Sunday, my roommates had about 20 Russians, mostly students or former students, all girls, over to the apartment for a Thanksgiving shindig. We had 2 small turkeys and tons of stuffing, maccaroni and cheese, biscuits, and an odd greenbean cassarole. We had piles of food; all the girls daintily picked at their strange American food. So we had piles of leftovers, which have been fantastic in my lunches this week. It's funny. A lot of other expats celebrated Thanksgiving early because they have to work on Thursday and can't take the day to cook, so I've noticed quite a few Americans in the teachers room with turkey sandwiches. During our shindig on Sunday, I downloaded "Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!" to show everyone, but I don't think the Russians quite grasped the cultural significance of ol' Charlie Brown. Maybe that's how they feel about Americans reading Pushkin... 

You know the thing that's been the hardest to adjust to? Watching soccer at night rather than in the morning. In the US, it's possible to watch live matches and still go out in the evenings and do things. In Europe (Russia especially because of the time zones it's in), I have to choose: do I grade those homework assignments or watch the soccer game? Do I go hang out with those friends and hope we'll go to a venue with a tv that has the channel for the game or do I stay home where I know I have the channel for the game? Such was the situation last night as Zenit played Juventus in the Champions League; needless to say, I didn't end up grading any papers last night.

It's really winter now. The snow just doesn't go away. It blows my mind. I've never lived in a place where the snow doesn't go away after a day or two. There was that one time a few years ago where the snow stayed, what, 5 days maybe? Every day, I look out my window and I'm amazed it's still there.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

caught in winter's icy grip

Well, I'm through the first week of snow here in Russia. Even though it's early days yet, I feel a lot more confident about this winter. On Wednesday, as I bundled up to leave school, one of my students who has lived here in St. Pete almost his whole life said, "Aw, come on, Mr. Slagle it's not even winter yet!" I told him that not all of us were as blessed as he has been to live in a cold, sunless part of the world their whole lives.

On Wednesday night I went to a professional basketball game here. The point guard for the team here, Spartak Basketball Klub, has two kids enrolled in the school, and he always leaves a few tickets at the front office so we can go watch the games for free. So, I went with another teacher and we met up with some German friends from church who are here in St. Petersburg studying. Spartak beat Lokomitv Rostov, but it was pretty close. The other nice thing about this night out: I can walk to the stadium from my apartment (even in the snow, it's not too bad of a walk). Here's a photo of Spartak BK of St. Petersburg during the team introduction:

Monday, November 17, 2008

And so it begins...

It snowed on me on the walk to work this morning... Nothing stuck, but it's just the beginning of a new epoch here in St. Petersburg: winter. Snow and darkenss for the next 4 months. On the plus side, some friends of mine that are moving back to America this week gave me several packs of handwarmers! Another way to beat the cold is going to the banya. The banya is the Russian version of the sauna. Some friends of mine rented one out for a few hours yesterday, so I went and got some steam. I felt like a Roman patrician, complete (sometimes) with a toga.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Being this far North does strange things to people...

I was walking back from the store today when I saw something interesting. I was just about to cross the street, but the light changed, so I stopped. However, across the street this one woman in her mid to late 30's saw the light about to change and hurried to cross the street. Nothing unusual there. Here's where it gets interesting: she hurries to the center of the road, stops, lifts her arm high, and raises her middle finger to the cars across the intersection waiting for her to cross so they can go. She then takes off her hat and makes a deep, formal bow and finishes crossing the street.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Red October

Last Friday was the  91st anniversary of Bolshevik Revolution. It's called the October Revolution because Russia was still using the Julian calendar at that point, which is 13 days behind our Gregorian calendar. I had a Russian lesson that night, and my tutor always begins by asking the date. I told her it was 7th of November, "Krasny Oktyabr" (Red October) and it got a chuckle from her. I told her I was planning to go to Palace Square (where it started) and check out the Communist Party members gathering there. She told me it was a bad idea and not safe. From what I understood, it's not so much the commies I had to worry about, but how the police dealt with them. Since the commies are one of the main opposition parties here, it sounded like it was going to be an anti-government rally, and it could get nasty. I thought I probably don't want to get caught up in an anti-government riot (especially with my visa situation being so fragile). However, looking back, I kinda regret not going. It could have been a lot fun!

Last weekend I played soccer with my Russian friends. I call them "Subotta Mal'chiki" (Saturday Boys). It was -1.6 degrees! It was cold, but that -1.6 degrees is Celsius (29 degrees F). I was lauded in the post-match report for playing in shorts. The Russian guys were impressed until I told them it was because I didn't bring any sweatpants or warm-ups with me to Russia. Despite it growing colder, the mosquitoes are still eating me alive. I think I sleep with my arm over my face; so, on the 4 inch by 4 inch space of my arm that is the only place the mosquitoes can get during the night, I have 7 bites. Some nearly on top of the another. I was wondering why the mosquitoes were still around, and someone told me it was because they hatch in the basement where it's warm and wet and then spread through the building that way. So, I have to go outside now to get away from the mozzies.

School's going well. Time is flying by and I'm confronted with the age old history teacher's conundrum: how do I get through all the information I want to get through in time for the end of the year? I'll tell you, though, it is incredible how much more enjoyable teaching is when you are well-prepared. It was funny, we were watching this film about the tsars for my Russian history class and they'd show clips of these places that are about 10-15 minute walk from the classroom; next week we are doing some fieldtrips, hopefully.

It's getting darker here earlier and getting light later. The sun here is full-time: only works 9 AM to 5 PM (doesn't take lunch breaks, comes in on weekends). Because it's getting so dark so early, right around 7-8 PM I start getting tired and body starts preparing for bed, but around 9-11 PM I get a second wind or something because I'm always so keyed up I can never get to sleep when I want to.

I just had my life severely rocked by learning the imperfective and perfective aspects to Russian verbs. So far, my language study was going very well; I felt like I could really dominate Russian. I was wondering why everybody was saying it was so hard... then... I had my life severely rocked by learning the imperfective (action done in the past, but not completed) and perfective (action done in the past, completed, with a result) aspects to Russian verbs. Before, I thought the verbs were pretty easy. They followed fairly rigid conjugation/tense rules. But it seems like every single verb has a different perfective prefix or suffix. There aren't any rules anymore. It's just plain memorization. I haven't even got gotten to cases yet. I'm pretty sure those will also rock my world (not in a good way). Well, I think this paragraph is just about boring enough, so I will end there.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Return from Riga

After receiving our brand new visas, we headed back to St. Petersburg, Rossiya. We stopped again at the border and had to go through the whole ordeal of getting passports and migration cards checked. The thing is, these guards come on to the train in the middle of the night, wake you up, and ask you questions in Russian. My Russian is not that great in the best of times, let alone when some surly guard wakes you up and immediately expect an answer to their question. This one guard woke me up, and asked me where my bag was. I pointed to it. Then they asked me something and I pointed to my bag again. They asked me something again and I pointed again, rather frustrated that this guard just won't let me go back to sleep. Finally, one of my companions said that they were asking what was IN the bag. "Whaddya think? Clothes. What else would I have in there?" What a stupid, stupid question to wake somebody up for! What's in the bag? If you think I'm smuggling something or doing something illegal, then just grab the bag and search it, I don't care. But if you aren't going to search it, why wake me up to ask? 

Well, Riga was nice. Latvia is part of the EU and it was much more European than I thought it would be. Just about everywhere I went, there was someone who spoke English, so I didn't even have to fumble around in my Russian too much. Because everything in St. Petersburg is so expensive, I've had to rely, for the most part, on my bachelor cooking; but in Riga, I ate enough to get me through Christmas. I ate at TGIFriday's every day I was there. It was terrific. It was so strange to be in a place of business that actually wanted to help you! 

Riga is a neat little city. Here's a photo from the top of the belltower St. Peter's Church of Old Town.
Here's a photo of the "legendary Uzbek pop group Yalla."
Here's a photo from the fashion show that occurred in the lobby of my hotel.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why do you care? Why do I care that you care?

So, here in the hotel in Riga, I've been watching CNN International and they've been doing this thing where they have people from all over the world send in their thoughts about the US election. My first thought: why do they care? My second thought: why do I care? I mean, honestly, what do I care that Pierre from Marseilles "believes in Barack Obama." Really, should I care that Benji in Haifa hopes McCain wins? Do these people lead lives that empty that they have nothing better to do than record a video of them with their thoughts on an election that they can't participate in, send it in to a news channel that is ridiculous enough to put it on the air, and sit back and think they have just done something meaningful? I can honestly say that the 2 minutes I spent watching this segment was the most pointless two minutes of my life. What I did next was much more meaningful (and I'm not being sarcastic): I watched The Simpsons in German. 

Little Caeser voice: "Visa-Visa"

I don't even know where to begin with the whole visa thing. The whole visa process here is ridiculous (although, to be fair, it is also very difficult for a Russian to get an American visa). Over the centuries, Russia has developed a horrendous system of bureaucracy designed to be so complicated and confusing that nobody knows how it works; therefore, those in power dictate how it works, and therefore, control the country through this intentionally ambiguous and  obdurate bureaucracy. For example, if you don't want foreigners in your country, what do you do? Make the visa process as confusing and stringent as possible. What do you do if a foreign person/organization has figured out how to complete the visa process without any problems? Change the rules! What if a person/organization still manages to fill out documents and applications correctly? Change the rules retroactively! I'm not kidding. They do this. For real.

Here's an interesting link:

The school's lawyer has come under quite a bit of scrutiny simply because his business represents foreigners. So much so, that just to avoid the heightened scrutiny, both parties thought it would be good if our relationship was terminated. So, now we are in Riga, Latvia, trying to get new visas. Supposedly, we were supposed to have work permits, but that's completely out of the question now. We'll be lucky if we can get them in the spring. A little later I'll put down some thoughts about Riga and Latvia after being here for a few days. Right now, I'm headed to Old Town to meet up with my friends at the statue of Grimm's Bremen Town Musicians (images of Belle and Sebastian's lyric, "Meet you at the statue in an hour.").

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Riga: or "How I Spent My Halloween"

Last week we finished up the first quarter. That Saturday I proctored the ACT for 4 students. It was weird being on the other side of standardized tests. We finished classes on Tuesday and then we had 2 days of parent-teacher conferences. I was really not looking forward to those. Dealing with parents is a rather terrifying prospect for me. But, as it turns out, the meetings went really, really well. I think part of it is that there are 6 teachers meeting with 1 or maybe 2 parents, so they are the ones that are intimidated when they come in. For example, the Korean consulate-general has 2 children in the school. He comes in and turns off 3 of his cell phones and we began. This is a very influential man here in St. Petersburg and here I am telling him I'd like to see his son participate in class more and do better on his homework.

My visa expired November 1st, so I had to leave the country yesterday. I met up with the director of the school and her husband and we headed off to Riga on the overnight train. We were joined by a Russian gentleman in our compartment. We found out his name was Gorbachev. Any relation, we asked. "Praise the Lord, no," he said. I slept almost the whole time, except when we got to the border and were rudely awakened to have our documents checked. This happened at or around 3:00 AM. And think about it: when you get up in the morning, what is the first thing you do? I usually head to the toilet. Of course, on Russian trains, they lock the toilet during this time, so no sneaky foreigners can hide in the bathroom from the border guards. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, but when it takes hours for them to go through the train (there are 3 rounds of checks and inspections) it can be frustrating. Wake me up in the middle of the night, ok. Poke around my luggage, no problem. But keep the bathrooms locked for several hours during the early morning hours when people would most desire its use, criminal. Especially as this is the best time to go in a train: when it's not moving!

Anyway, we arrived here in Riga and found our hotel with little trouble. It's quite nice, actually. And there are several television channels in English here!  Right now I am watching a special on European rodeos. There is this German banker, Gunter, who goes by the American name "Garfield" when he rides on the weekends. Germans are weird. Apparently it is fashion week here in Riga and they are having fashion shows at the hotel. So, the place is crawling with Latvian models. I walked out of my room to go to lunch and was nearly ran over by these rail-thin 6'5'' girls practicing their runway walks. Landed on my feet again, eh?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

More to follow

I know I haven't blogged in a while (thanks for being a jerk, Noah, and pointing that out). I don't really have time at the moment, but I will write more in the next couple of days. Here's what you have to look forward to:

parent teacher conferences
being dangerously close to not receiving my next visa 
mildly amusing anecdotes from an Innocent Abroad
what I told the Korean consulate-general

Monday, October 20, 2008

No P-Diddy "Vote or Die" death squads will get me...

I voted today. Almost by accident. I had to go into the consulate to apply for a second passport (aka "traveler's passport"). This passport looks just like my regular one, but is only good for two years. 

Let me explain why I needed this second passport. My current Russian visa is valid until November 1. Whenever I apply for a Russian visa, I must send in my passport. The Russians will not allow you to apply for a new visa until your old one has run out. So, I need to leave the country on the 1st, but also send in my passport on the 1st. Catch-Dvatsit-Dva (22). Hence, my need for a second passport. Hence, my reason to go the consulate (to apply for one). Hence, how I ended up voting today.

I thought that there was a deadline before one could fill out an absentee ballot. I was right; it is November 4th. The guy behind the glass said they could fax it to the election board and then once it got verified or whatever, they would send in my sealed ballot. So, I voted. I was little disappointed not to get a "I Voted" sticker.

The Agony and the Irony

If my posts are getting too pretentious, bear with me. Assume it's tongue-in-cheek... or that I'm being ironic... or referencing some movie (24 Hour Party People), song (Blur's "Park Life"), book (The Great Gatsby), or Noah Felsenthal ("In Soviet Russia, dinner eats YOU!").

"There are no second acts in American lives."

This Sunday I boarded a bus and left for Lodenoye Pole (LP), the city I taught at in the summer of '07. As we headed off down the highway, it was interesting to see places that I had stopped at before on the road between LP and St. Pete. It conjured up a host of memories ("Oh yeah, I remember that place. It has squatty-potties." "Oh yeah, this is where the driver had to stop to get cigarettes." "Oh yeah, this is the spot I almost got runover trying to cross the street to get to a market during a break.") The bus ride takes about four hours, so I got comfortable and ended up reading The Great Gatsby most of the way. I read it a few years ago and didn't like it all that much. I picked it up again because I saw it laying around the apartment and it was small and fit in my bag (I am reading Dostoevsky's Demons right now, which isn't as convenient to lug around). I don't know what changed, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Maybe it was because I remembered a quote of F. Scott Fitzgerald: "There are no second acts in American lives." I disagree, especially as I was about to begin mine in LP. It was funny, because I expected to recognize everything in the town and ended up recognizing very little. I like LP better than St. Petersburg. Everything isn't as flash and there's more puddles, but it just seems a little more genuine. Both cities were founded by Peter the Great, but St. Petersburg was modelled after Paris, Amsterdam, and Venice. LP wasn't modelled after anything. LP just was. 

I was going back to visit my favorite Russian family: the Prikhodkos. Their eldest, Olga, was one of my students last year and they were our neighbors. They had us over a few times and took me and Clint out to their dacha. I really enjoyed the family a lot. The mom and dad are wonderful to talk to (through Olga, our translator) and great people. There's another Prikhodko, Kiril, who is about 10-11 years old and is a budding soccer player.

Anyway, I was met at the bus station by Olga with her boyfriend, a tall, bookish gent who is big Miami Heat fan. She pointed out to me her family waving from the window (the apartments overlook the station). We went up and I barely had any time to ask any questions, as I was too busy just getting my replies out. Every now and then, Olga had to leave the room and so I was left without an interpreter for a few moments. In between my improved Russian and Stepan's (the father) military English, we were able to figure out what the other was saying and laugh a bit. Stepan was Soviet army officer for many years in Ukraine. Here's a picture of me with Kapiton Prikhodko looking suitably Soviet:

We had a delicious meal and went for a walk around LP seeing some of the sights, and before I knew it, it was time to go. So, I hurried onto the bus that was going to take me back to St. Pete, after promising to return and stay longer so I can see more old friends, talk more with the family, and go ice fishing with Kiril and Stepan. On the ride home I was awash in an enormous sense of well-being. I realized that it felt like I had just gone home (as in "home") and that's always a nice feeling when "home" is so far away. It was also like I went back in a time machine a year and a half; hearing the words I said then again, thinking the thoughts I thought then, and speaking with Prikhodko's as if I'd just been hunting mushrooms with them at their dacha yesterday.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Nor Cal

I love it when weird things from American culture permeate foreign shores. Like NorCal for example:

"An' the footba' has now robbed him o' the wee good sense he had."

Last weekend I had a great time playing soccer here. There is this group of guys who get together every weekend and play a match. They are all pretty good friends and funny guys (even though I can't understand most of what they are saying, it's still hilarious). For example, one of the guys goes by the name "Seryoga" and so they bought him a jersey and had Seryoga Ramos printed on the back (this is a pun off of the name of a Spanish soccer player, SERGIO Ramos). The best part is that one guy always writes a match report, keeps stats, and gives every player a rating for the day. It's quite organized for just a group of friends in their early 20's who get together for a kick-a-bout. My review for this match praised my technique and my ability to find extraordinary solutions for every situation, but deplored my timidity in defense. Here are some pics of me chipping the keeper and somebody explaining to me why I shouldn't be the one to mark Pavel on corner kicks:

Monday, October 13, 2008

I wanna be famous, a star of the screen

I think I've been in the city too long. As I was walking up the stairs coming out of the metro, I was slightly perturbed that the guy in front of me was walking so slow. He'd take one step, stand for a second, take two steps and stand, and then take another step or two. This was driving me crazy because I couldn't go around him because of the mass of people coming down the steps in the opposite direction. Of course, I didn't get too mad because I heard him talking to himself a little bit. Then we got the top of the steps, to the street when I realize what was going on:

The guy was a reporter and there was a camera at the top of the stairs and he was doing some sort of story about the metro. He wasn't talking to himself, he was talking into a microphone. So, if you watch the news tonight here in St. Petersburg, you'll probably see some slightly crazed, impatient foreigner, peeping up and around the reporter every other step, trying desperately to get around him.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

What I did for homework...

I'm taking Russian lessons and I had homework the other day. I had to translate a paragraph into Russian. Now, it might not seem like much, but I thought it was pretty cool that I was able to do it without reaching for the dictionary too many times (two). Here is what I was able to translate:

A lesson is in progress now. This is the teacher. This is the boy student and the girl student. The teacher is reading, and the boy student and the girl student are listening. They are listening carefully. Jim and Mary understand the text well. Then Jim reads. He reads quickly and correctly. The teacher says, "Jim, you read well." Then they speak Russian.

I'd type up of the translation but that would take about 5 hours. So here's a picture with my wonderful handwriting:

Friday, October 10, 2008

On the run from the law...

Ah, the miracles of bureaucracy! When a foreigner comes to Russia, he has 3 business days to register with the local authorities of the city he is in. That's the law. When I arrived 2 months ago, I gave a copy of my passport and visa to the school's lawyer and merrily went about my business. Little did I know at the time, but the school's lawyer was away on holiday for 2 weeks. Of course, he told his assistant to take care of stuff like this. And, of course, this assistant didn't. The good news: 99 times out of a hundred, registering late isn't a huge problem because there's so many different registrations to keep track of that it is easy to slip through the cracks. The bad news: we (me and 5 others from the school) didn't. 

So, on Wednesday I got a nice little break from school to go down at the Migration Office. We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, my turn came. So, I went into the back, signed a document saying I didn't register on time and so I will pay a fine to make sure that it doesn't stay on my record. The kicker was I had to write in Russian: "I understand Russian. I don't need an interpreter." I can write in Russian, but only with the same speed and accuracy of a 6 year old. I get about halfway through when they realize how long it's going to take me to write this out. They wrote it out for me on another sheet of paper to copy. Of course, it was in the Russian cursive, which I have trouble reading in the best of times, but especially when the handwriting is poor. So, another guy from my group just took the pen and finished writing it for me. Apparently an "affidavit" has a different meaning here... 

I then was thumbprinted. Then fingerprinted. Then handprinted. I don't know if you have ever been fingerprinted, but the ink they use is very sticky and difficult to remove. It is of greater difficulty when they don't provide you with anything to clean your hands with. Fortunately, we had come prepared with a pack of babywipes which left my hand smelling mountain air fresh all day. Then we waited, and waited, and waited, and then were told the fine we had to pay. The school took care of the fine and so I am now completely legal, almost. I still have yet to receive a new registration paper to erase my old (illegal) registration. 

I discovered  Highway 61 Revisited to be an excellent album to listen to while walking to work. 

I proofread one of my Korean students'  English paper. It was an essay on "The Road Not Taken." This kid is extremely intelligent. Maybe a little too intelligent for his own good. This 7th grader's interpretation of the poem as a social satire critiquing capitalistic society using neo-Marxist terms would be exhibit A. 

Monday, October 6, 2008

My roommate

When they talk about Moscow, they are referring to Moscow, Idaho.

My First Russian Lesson

On Friday I had my first formal Russian lesson. I'm pretty excited about it, because I felt like I'd kind of hit a wall. The first lesson wasn't really anything I didn't know, but it was good practice; and it's nice to have a formal time to sit down and study with someone.

I've known the alphabet for a while and I can read Cyrillic pretty well now, but there's a slight difficulty. The cursive. The cursive is ridiculous. I think it was specifically designed to make people who are used the the Latin alphabet go crazy.

It felt pretty good today as I walked home from school that I could understand different conversations of people. Ya panimayu luchshye chyem gavoryu ("I understand better than I speak"). I'm at the point where I can catch a few words in the sentence and I can construct and inferr the basic the idea.

On Saturday I went and tried out a Mexican food place just around the corner from me called "El Machete." I went in not expecting much. Everything is so expensive here, especially restaurants, that I was pleasantly surprised to find it very affordable. I ordered a burrito. It was horrible. It was NOT a burrito, actually. It was a tortilla with about 4 beans, weird rice, and a tiny amount of hamburger meat. It was an enchilada really, but it was topped with this weird Russian dill sauce. It really was awful, but at least it's kind of a cool place to hang out. I'm going to give it one more chance, try something different. See if I can find something there I like, because it's so close and it could be a nice spot to hang out at.

"Renior! Renior!"

The Hermitage was free again last Thursday so I went and checked out the collection of French paintings there. I wandered through the different rooms and I really enjoyed the French impressionists. Here are some paintings that caught my eye (Kudos if you know who I'm quoting in the title).

Camille Pissarro: "A Fair in Dieppe, Sunny Morning"

Francios Flameng: "Reception at Compeigne in 1810"

Claude Monet: "Waterloo Bridge. Effect of Fog"

Kees Van Dongen: "Lady in a Black Hat"



Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Apartment

Just in case you were wondering what my humble digs looked like, I anticipated this question and decided to put up some pictures:

My room came furnished with curtains and an odd painting or two.

Our kitchen

The bathroom

The water closet. It literally is a closet. If you spend too long in here, you get claustrophobic.

The living room (with Pete's room on the right, Jeff's on the left).

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Every day is like Sunday...

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. Sundays are great. The church I go to has its service at 6 PM because of remodeling, so I get incredibly lazy on Sundays. I wake up, have a long breakfast and go and do my shopping for the week because all the Russians are still sleeping around noon, so there aren't any lines at the supermarket.

One of the things that I really enjoy here in St. Petersburg is the graffiti. For some reason, I get a huge kick out of it. Maybe I'll take it up as a hobby in the future... Right now, I just enjoy taking photographs of some of the more interesting ones. Here is a nice one:
This is pronounced "skuchayu" and means "I miss you." It's comforting to know that the graffiti artists in my neighborhood are also sentimental.

Here's another photo showing the poor spelling of some NBA fans here in St. Pete:

Also, if you've seen my facebook profile you've seen my collection of photographs of my favorite graffiti artist from my neighborhood, "Animal":

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Everything Is Illuminated

I've been feeling like I've been shortchanging my blog a little bit. Treating it more as a travelogue than a place where I actually write down some of my thoughts. So, I think I'll write down some thoughts I had about the film Everything Is Illuminated, since Zach just watched it.

Let me give you a brief synopsis of the film in case you haven't seen it: Jonathon's(Elijah Wood) hobby is to collect random pieces of his family's history. For example, he has plastic bags with old retainers, photographs, ticket stubs, etc... hung up with pushpins all over his walls. His grandparents were from the Ukraine and so he ends up going to look for his family's history there. He meets up with Alex, a Ukrainian young man who is his translator, and they travel around looking for his grandparents' village. It's a road movie, but it's a road movie that is making a profound statement about history.

In college I had a history course and the professor spent the first day asking every student why we were in the class, what the point was of studying history. I don't remember what I said, but I remember a lot of people said the whole "if you don't know the mistakes of the past, you are bound to repeat them/ you can't know where you are going until you know where you've been" blah blah blah line. Anyway, the last assignment for the class at the end of the semester was to write a paper on the same subject: why do we study history? I had recently watched E.I.I. and I was struck by a few things. There is a part where the American in the film, Elijah Wood, is telling his Ukranian translator that his shirt is on "inside-out" to which he responds, "What does it mean 'inside-out'?" The American starts to respond but very quickly realizes the language barrier will make this conversation much more difficult than it is worth and he just ends up saying, "Forget it."

At the end of the film, the Ukranian is writing a letter to the American and says, "I know what you mean now about 'inside-out.' History is us 'inside-out.'" I thought that was incredibly profound and I started realizing that this film is a film about history (or at least it was to me, as a history major) and how it affects us.

I had this revelation in college that I can pithily sum up in the phrase: to know, is to love (partially stolen from the French proverb, "To know all, is to forgive all"). When we study history, let's say Russian history, we are seeing Russian people "inside out." By studying history, we are learning what is "inside" people in the present. To study someone in the past, is to love someone in the present. Does that make sense? When we know someone's history, they become "illuminated" to us. Bathed in a heavenly glow, if you will. So, to sum up, to know is to love; therefore, to study the past is to love in the present.

I could talk for a while about different things in that movie, but I'll just mention one more thing. I've copied Jonathon in that I carry around plastic bags everywhere if I find something interesting to collect during the day. I actually have a few boxes at my parents house of random stuff from Turkey and my last trip to Russia.

Still Smiling

I went to a "Slovo" (the organization I'm here with) event last night. Somebody asked me how long I'd been here now and I said a month and half (has it only been a month and a half?). He said, "Oh, and you're still smiling? That's a good sign!"

So, let's see it's been a little while since I wrote last. I didn't end up going to the Russian Museum of Political History. The weather was so nice that Svetlana and I decided to go walking around Peter and Paul Fortress (look it up, it's pretty cool) instead. She was a foreign languages major in college and one of her classes was how to be a tour guide. She told me about how she and her partner had to be able to conduct a bus tour of St. Petersburg and she used to know all sorts of interesting facts about the fortress. But, she had never actually gone into it and she forgot all the facts. There's a statue of Peter the Great there that's supposed to be life size and all the tourists go and sit on his lap and take a photo. Since it was Svetlana's first time seeing it (it was my second) she had to get a photo so...

I am attending a Calvary Chapel here and it's a really great church. The worhsip is all in Russian and the sermon is given by a Russian with an American translating after ever few sentences. It's full of great people and wonderful teaching. There's one guy there named Kostya who is just incredible. I've never met a man so full of love. He will never let you leave without saying hey and giving you a book to borrow.

I think I've written about how we have "sport day" every Saturday and play football, frisbee, soccer, etc... with all the kids from school that show up ( and they all do). The soccer team here, Zenit, has 2 Korean players on it, both of whom go to the Korean church most of my students do. In fact, one of my kids has their numbers. So, he called them and invited them to our sport days. Kim Dong-Jin (UEFA Cup winner, UEFA SuperCup winner, 48 appearances for Korea, including a few at the World Cup) seems to be a pretty nice guy and has promised to come to one and hang out with us.

Teaching is going well. We have chapel every Tuesday and they are fantastic! I mean, I've been in Christian schools my whole life and I've been in some pretty dull, terrible, and terribly awkward chapels, but these have been great! I dunno, maybe I shouldn't be so shocked, but I'm seriously impressed every week.

I bought my winter coat and boots the other day. Hopefully, I won't have to use them until November, though; but, if I have to, I'm ready. 

Well, I think this post is getting pretty long. I'll just have to publish posts more often so I don't have these mammoth posts.

Friday, September 12, 2008

2nd Week of Teaching

Well, another week of teaching has come and gone. And I am a little older and a little wiser. Teaching kids from so many different countries has been an interesting experience. I love how I teach American history to a class (7th+8th grade) that only has one American. It seems like one class, the 6th grade, is more ESL than history. I have one or two students that appear to be counting on me learning Korean before they learn English.  I did learn some Finnish today, though (Hi, bye, thanks, yes, no). 

I'm pretty excited for the weekend. I will be playing soccer with a my students tomorrow morning and I'm pretty excited for that. I realized the other day that this is the first fall that I haven't been regularly out on the soccer field. I'm a little sad about that; not because I love playing soccer that much (I do love playing it), but because it's an indicator that I'm... turning... into... an.... adult and  I now have more important concerns than "playing childish games." Pretty sad, huh? I was depressed about it, at least.

I'm going to try and go to the Museum of Russian Political History, as it's only about a 30 minute walk from my apartment (10 minutes if I took the metro). I'm going to try and meet my friend Svetlana there and have her get the tickets because of the Russian system of admission. At this museum, admission for foreignors is 200 rubles, but, if I give my money to Svetlana and have her buy the tickets, it is 60 rubles.

Night and Day

Monday, September 8, 2008

Thursdays Are the Best Days

The first Thursday of every month means one thing here in St. Petersburg: free admission to the Hermitage. Because of the difficulties of the Russian visa process, the Hermitage is "The Best Art Museum You Will Never See." It actually has more pieces of art than any other museum in the world. 

So on Thursday, after school, I fancied seeing some Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, Bruegel, Caravaggio, etc..., so I headed down to Nevsky Prospekt and went to the Hermitage. I had my school bag with me so I had to leave it at the coat check. So, I went up to the lady and held out my coat and bag. She said something to me that I didn't understand, so I said, "Prostitye, ya nye panimayu pa-Russkiy." ("Sorry, I don't understand Russian."). Now, I don't know exactly what she said after that, but my Russian has improved to the point that I got the gist of it. The gist of it was, "What do you mean you don't understand Russian? I can hear you speak it." She probably muttered something about "idiot foreignors" after that. So I told her, "Ya gavoryu pa-Russkiy, chut-chut." ("I speak Russian, teencey-weencey.") This usually gets a giggle from people, and I caught a barely discernible smile breaking out before she caught herself, remembered that it wasn't in her national character to laugh, and took my coat and bag.

School's going well. I wish I could write something interesting about it, but it's just school. The good news is that it was easy to start up again and it felt like I never stopped last May. The bad news is that it feels like I never stopped last May and I am already eyeing that quarter break at the end of October.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

First Days of School

This is a picture that I found while cleaning out my room that I decide to put up to remind me of the pedagogical skills and style I'm aiming for.

School is officially in session. In Russia all the schools start on September 1. Always, no exceptions. All the schools try to have these elaborate opening ceremonies, so my walk to work was much more interesting. There were all these little kids in their suits and frilly dresses, carrying flowers for their teachers and parents following with camcorders. Thankfully, the first day at IA was fairly low key. We had the traditional ringing of the first bell by the youngest and oldest student at opening session in the chapel room and then the students went off to their separate rooms where school policies were explained to them. I was out of school by noon.

Today, Tuesday, we got down to actual school. I always feel bad for my first class because I use them to figure out what works and what doesn't. Today was no exception. My classes are divided as follows: 6th (which has 5 Koreans, 1 American, 1 Finn, and 1 Russo-American) 7th+8th (1 American, 1 Japanese, 1 Finn, 1 Estonian, 5 Koreans) 9th+10th (1 American, 1 Finn, 1 Turk, 1 Canadian, 5 Koreans) and 11th+12th (I didn't have them today, so I'll let you know later.). Many thanks to the new Hyundai plant here in St. Pete that gave me so many students who have no idea what I said today. I actually will have a few more Americans but they are still en route for various reasons.

The school is really great from a teacher's point of view because of the small class sizes and I have the lattitude to do pretty much whatever I want. For example, there is no written dress code for teachers. The headmistress, Tammy, who is fantastic, said that as long as we looked professional she doesn't really care. And Friday is casual day. This is like the promised land after teaching at Liberty where I had large classes, 5 preps, a pretty restrictive dress code, these hulking, surly basketball stars, and no ESL teacher. 

I'm really feeling incredibly blessed here. So many little things just work out for me here, like how I don't have a class before the lunch period and can take a long, leisurely lunch; or, how there is a kid here from Missouri who is here to play hockey professionally and misses 3-5 period every day for practice, which doesn't effect my classes at all! All the other teachers are jealous of my location too. I only walk about 20 minutes to work, while most have to catch a bus and/or take the metro. Another thing that worked out was that we found a 6th grade Bible teacher so Aaron (the science teacher) and I don't have to do it, although we do have to cover it this week. My day is Friday. What does one do in 6th grade Bible? I guess we'll figure something out by then.

Oh, Aaron (who's from Arkansas) was really good friends in college with a guy, Paul Burank, who graduated from Liberty that was friends with my sister Annie. Amazing the people you run into in St. Petersburg.


I came across this picture on a bulletin board in the building we rent. Not sure how to take it...

My classroom before and after

Squeezing the Last Drops out of Summer

After spending all week getting the school ready for students on Monday, I spent the weekend trying to squeeze the last precious drops from summer vacation. On Friday night we (my roommates Pete and Allen, a colleague from IA Deanna, and a Russian friend Arina) went to Cam and Sonja's for taco salad. We had a good time watching a new episode of Wipeout! on Cam's computer and then we headed out to walk around downtown St. Pete. St. Petersburg is such a beautiful city and it only gets better at night. The weather was great (it was cold, but no rain, which means it's fantastic weather) so we walked down Palace Square in front of the Hermitage (the Winter Palace of the tsars) where the October Revolution started. There's a photo of everyone (except Arina and Allen) in Palace Square at the top.
When we got to Palace Square we discovered that this where all the hip, young cyclists in the city hang out on a Friday night. There were probably over hundred of them there hanging out, playing music, and trying to show off for their girlfriends. Since the weather was so nice (again, that means not raining) we decided to stay out until the bridges over the Neva River went up to let the bigger ships through. So, as we are waiting we remember that the city's soccer team, FC Zenit, were playing Manchester United in the Super Cup. We remembered because, suddenly, cars started showing up honking. Soon, people started spilling out of all the buildings cheering, shouting, singing, and waving their Zenit scarves and flags. More and more cars showed up honking and with people crammed into every inch and even riding on hoods, trunks, and roofs. So, the bridges went up and Pete and I go and start walking home, trying to avoid the bigger groups of drunk guys singing. Every so often, a car would drive by and honk at us and we would raise our fists in triumph and keep walking. It was great seeing people high fiving when they were stopped at traffic lights. We ended up getting slightly off course (not lost; we knew, basically, where we were) and I asked someone for directions and, miracle of miracles, understood them.
We ended up getting back home around 2:45 and I was so tired the next day I didn't leave the apartment at all. Just a lazy Saturday. The last one of the summer. Jeff, one of my roommates, has a friend who works at the Krestovskiy amusement park (think a pirated version of Disney Land) who gets free passes once in a while. Since she's been on all the rides and done everything a thousand times, she just gives the passes to her friends. So, on Sunday Jeff, Pete, Arina, and I went. Why I spent the last few hours of summer vacation putting myself through every sort of motion torture I could imagine, I don't know. Soviet engineering standards give all the rides an added element of suspense.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Yesterday, Monday, was the first day that all of the teachers at International Academy (IASP) reported for duty. We got there, the headmistress spoke a bit about how a lot of things are still up in the air, and we ate together. It was kind of a get-to-know everybody time; it turns out I'm the only new full-time teacher, unless we find a k-1st grade teacher.
IASP is really an interesting place. We are kinda flying by the seat of our pants here, which I'm sure is pretty normal at these international schools (or maybe it's just mine, I dunno). For example, we may or may not have a K-1st grade. Another example: the school rents the building from a Catholic organization and the contract is up in January and there is a slight, slight possibility of moving the whole school for the second semester. So, there's all these little (and big) things that are up in the air, but it's ok. That's just the way things work here in St. Pete and I'm pretty confident everything will work out fine. 
Today, Tuesday, we unpacked the school. Because the school rents from this Catholic organization, it got packed up for the summer and they used the building as a hostel of sorts. Of course, my classroom was used as one of the two main storerooms. Hopefully, tomorrow I will be able to post some before and after pictures with my room perfectly set up and looking good.

Gulf of Finland Beach Party

On Saturday evening a few of us had a Gulf of Finland beach party. Cam, an Australian (pictured above), is an excellent chef and he made some shashlik (Russified shish kebab) on this lovely little coal box. There was another teacher from the school I work at there and there were a few other Americans who are teaching English in St. Pete and Vologda. Add in a few Russian friends and you've got a beach party. Of course, on Russian beaches you wouldn't want to walk around barefoot because of all the broken glass. Also, one should always dress warmly because of the cold wind coming off the water. 

Saturday, August 16, 2008

я дикий мужчина (Ya Dikiy Muzhchina, I Am a Wild Man)

Today, Jeff, Max, and I decided we had been pretty lazy all week, so we went and walked around town a little bit. Of course, it was typical St. Petersburg summer weather: rainy. I thought you'd enjoy a picture of me enjoying this summer wind and rain. You'll notice in the back an advertising board featuring Matthew McConnaughey. This ad is everywhere! It's a little disconcerting seeing the Redneck Buddha on every street corner in St. Petersburg.

I was hanging out with Max the other day and he was going through my iTunes and brought to my attention a Russian band called Leningrad that was on there. To me, they were this cool band that was on the Everything Is Illuminated soundtrack that sang in Russian. It turns out they are one of the most obscene bands in Russia today. Their concerts have been banned in Moscow, in fact. They are banned because they use a way of speaking called "mat," ("mat" means "mother") which is similar to something like cockney rhyming slang; it's a jargon that distinguishes those who are within a certain milieu from those that aren't. In this case the jargon is obscenities. Take the most foul-mouthed person you know, multiply by 5, add a lot of linguistic creativity, a few double entedres, and that is about what "mat" looks like. Russians are the most imaginative and creative cursers in the world; I'd love love to provide some examples but I'd have to clean my keyboard and take a shower after doing so. It's that dirty. So, here I am enjoying this song because it has a cool Russian folk song vibe, and it turns out it's by the dirtiest band in all of Russia (which is saying something). Fortunately, the song, "Ya Dikiy Muzhchina," is one of their milder ones.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

My Friend Max

This is Max Levenko:

Max is a friend from last summer and he goes to university here in St. Petersburg. Praise God for Max, because he takes good care of me. The last few days he's come over in the early evening and we'll hang out and go run errands and he will translate. For example,  I got my cell phone (I'm using a phone a teacher from last year left, and I just need to buy a SIM card, which is a little memory card that allows me to pay as I go) and it didn't work right, so Max helped me straighten every thing out at the shop where I bought it. 
 Max came over today and we went for a little ride on the Metro so I could charge my metro card (40 rides, 300R, about $12) and we hopped on an Ikea bus. Well, it's not really operated by Ikea, but it is operated by a mall that has an Ikea, and the bus is yellow with Ikea all over it, so Russians call it the Ikea bus. This bus is free(!) and only goes from this one metro stop to the mall. Max is an Ikea fiend. He spends hours on the virtual home planner on their website. He's into anything Scandinavian and Ikea is probably apex of Scandinavian culture, so he recently applied for a job there. You'll notice in his picture he is wearing a Hatesphere t-shirt; he is a huge metal fan. You'll also notice in his picture a hot dog. We ate at Ikea and I got a hot dog and fountain soda for 60R ($2.40). Way to go Sweden!
Max's English is very good and he's actually German major at his university, so his German is pretty good too. His English is so good that he's able to joke very well in it. I've been told he is even funnier in Russian. So, basically Max is a great guy (music taste aside) and he is watching out for me and making sure that Russia doesn't eat me alive.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

First thoughts

After trying to go back to sleep, after trying to listen to some music and fall asleep, after messing about on the computer in hopes of getting drowsy, and after reading for a little bit, I came to the final conclusion that going back to sleep just wasn't going to happen. So, since I'm awake, restless, and full of thoughts, I might as well share some.

-Thought 1: I didn't think this whole Russia through a whole lot.
This thought struck me as I buckled my seat belt in San Fran. I don't mean that in a bad way or that I'm doubting my calling; nothing like that. I mean I really just didn't think about it. I just kind of did it. I didn't think about the reality of it. Being in an airplane on the way to the other side of the world helps to allow the reality to sink in; so, by the time you arrive at your destination, you're good to go.

-Thought 2: My roommate Jeff seems like a pretty cool guy.
I'm a big first impressions guy. I'm also a big 2nd impression guy. And 3rd. And 4th. And 5th. I'm not CONVINCED Jeff is a pretty cool guy, but, right now, he SEEMS like a pretty cool guy. Maybe it's the Russian suspicion rubbing off on me. I'll write again in April and tell you guys what I end up deciding. As of now, I'm going to go ahead and predict that we will get along pretty well and have a good time together.

-Thought 3:  I need to just forget all about my concept of personal space.
I just can't let it bother me when someone stands WAY too close to me in line. When people brush you. When you can tell what the guy just had for lunch.

-Thought 4: I live on the same street as the UEFA Cup Champions F.C. Zenit (Bolshoi Prospekt)
Today after dinner, Jeff, my Russian friend from last summer Max, and I went for a walk after dinner (the Russian verb for "walk" can mean a few different things. It can mean the physical act of walking, hanging out, or cheating on your wife. We just used the first two this evening). We walked down to the end of Bolshoi Prospekt to the Petrovsky Stadium.

-Thought 5: Jeff's Russian girlfriend, Dasha, genuinely enjoys washing dishes and ironing. I need to get me one of those!

Hooray for jet lag!

Here I am awake at 3:46 AM after I went to bed exhausted at midnight. Well, I guess when life gives you lemons, blog in the middle of the night.

What day is it?

Well, after leaving Redding at 5:30 AM on Sunday, I made it to St. Petersburg at 5:30 PM on Monday. I knew it was Monday because that's what it said on my ticket. One of the other teachers at the International Academy of St. Petersburg (the school I'm teaching at, IASP for short) picked me up and took me to my new home. The apartment I'll be staying is off of Bolshoi Prospekt, which is a very respectable (i.e., expensive) part of town. 

Right now, Jeff is the only other roommate here. We hung out a little last night and he seems like a pretty good guy. He's from Arkansas and he's been here for the last 2 years with a group called TeachOverseas (I'm a TeachOverseas Summer alumnus). His girlfriend, Dasha, came over with some small pies she made and we made some tea and chatted. 

Today, Jeff and I are going to go run some errands. Since the area we live in is so high falutin', we poor, Young Americans must go to a different part of town to get the best prices. 

Also, I don't know how many of you have skype, but if you do, my skype name is joelslagle . If you don't have skype, you might want to look into it.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

On the eve of departure...

This is my first blog. I haven't blogged in the past mainly because I thought it would be a little too self-serving. But now that I'm headed off to Russia for a little while, I think it will be good way to let my friends and family know what's going on, maybe show a few pics. So, read, comment, stalk, or whatever you want, and enjoy.