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?