Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Oh, Fyodor Mikhailovich, you've done it again!

I've been watching this Russian miniseries on Youtube of Dostoevsky's The Idiot. It's very powerful. The premise of the book is what would happen if a truly Christ-like individual appeared in 19th century Russian society. Because he is so nice, kind, gentle, forgiving and trusting, everyone assumes he is a a half-wit; an idiot.

Check it out here if you are interested. It has English subtitles. It's difficult to say if it would be as powerful if you haven't read the book, but I trust it would be.

Crooked Doctors, Cloak and Dagger

I returned to the medical center to pick up my booklet and was met by the same Deep Purple-loving doctor. He took me around and asked me how my life in Russia was. It's like a fairy tale, I said (I've found this to be a good response; people are able to interpret it as they want). He interpreted this as very clever sarcasm on my part. He told me how he didn't like living here and that all of his classmates from med school now live and work in the US. He helped me get my medical booklet and then walked me out. As I was about to he leave he told me he was a good doctor and if I ever had any health problems or needed any more tests done I should come to him first and he would take care of me. He then gave me his cell phone number. So, I now have "a guy" I can go to take care of pesky things like official medical checkups.

The time changed here last weekend and it's feeling like winter more and more. I've started reading this book The Charm School by de Mille. It's a fun read about American spies in the Soviet Union in the 1980's. Funnily enough, it's actually helped my attitude about being here in the former USSR. When I try and process everything I see and hear through my Western filter, it causes me so much confusion and stress. Honestly, it's just easier to think of these strange people as "the enemy." Russians are simply different.

Thinking this way also makes every small interaction more interesting. Every successful interaction in society is me getting away with something; meeting "the enemy" and living to tell about it. In the book, of course, there's a conflict between the girl who thinks there is hope for the Russian people and the man who thinks they are just cracked and too far gone. I still haven't made up my mind about where I fall on this.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Warmer Climes and Relieving Times

It snowed on Monday; not enough to stick very long, but it was enough to signal the beginning of another cold, dark winter. Recently, I've been thinking about where I'm going to be next year. After spending some time in prayer and talking with a few people, I've decided, almost for sure, that I won't be coming back to St. Petersburg next fall. But now the big question: if I'm not in St. Petersburg, where will I be? The short answer is that I plan to be in warmer climes this time next year. The long answer is that I am planning on staying in the US for a bit, but... I may be taking a trip this spring to go check out a school in Central Asia that needs teachers. I'm going with the attitude that I am going back to the US and I will need to be absolutely convinced that Central Asia is where the Lord wants me.

One of the things I will not miss about Russia is the ridiculous amount of bureaucracy that goes in to getting my visa. One of the hoops I have to jump through is I need to get a medical exam to prove I won't be infecting any Russians with my nasty diseases. I wrote about that a while ago. As it turns out, I had to go back to the medical center for round two so I could get my medical booklet.

So, on Tuesday, I returned to the medical clinic armed with a little foreknowledge of what to expect. I had been briefed by my colleagues who had gone already. I knew I was supposed to ask the man who ran the turnstile that I needed a booklet and he would tell me to go downstairs to a certain office. From there, they would fill out some papers, bring me back upstairs where a doctor would administer another blood test and the not-very-nice-man-test. I'm not talking about the "old-man-not-very-nice-test", but the "young-man-other-end-not-very-nice-test" that involves a Q-tip. They don't have Q-tips in Russia; for the test they use a small pipe cleaner. I am not making this up. I had been practicing a few phrases for a while so I could try and talk my way out of this fate worse than death.

I arrived, went into the room, and headed toward the turnstile. But the man wasn't there... already my carefully rehearsed plan was falling apart. I waited. Nobody came up. Finally, I hopped the turnstile into the waiting room (weird, huh?) and waited in line for the receptionist. Again, the plan fell apart as the receptionist was not the usual one (who spoke very good English), but a girl who didn't speak any English. Finally, my turn came and I told her I needed a booklet. She looked at me like I had two heads. She flagged down a passing doctor and he asked me what kind of booklet I needed. I said I didn't know, the medical one. They looked at me like I had 3 heads. They then asked me for several things that I didn't understand.

"Do you have your -somethingblahblah-?"
"I don't think so. I only have this paper (which had my results from my last exam) and my passport."
"But do you have your -somethingelseblahblah-?"
"Probably not. I only have this paper and my passport"
"Well, do have a -blahblahsomethingsomething-?"

After a few more minutes of this, the doctor took me back to his office to examine my paper and passport. Finally, I called the school and asked for our Russian director to talk to the doctor. While we were waiting, the doctor examined my passport. You know how in the new US passports they have picture of buffalo and the Statue of Liberty on the visa pages? Well, the doctor turned to the one that has Mt. Rushmore and told me how he knew this from a Deep Purple album cover he used to have. Is it a natural mountain, he asked? Yes, I said, an artist made it from the mountain. He thought that was pretty cool. Finally, my Russian director came to the phone and communicated that I needed my booklet. Which booklet, he asked? His medical booklet, she said. Ok, he said.

He then took me downstairs to a nurse that started filling out the paperwork for my medical booklet. After a few Russian difficulties (they use very official, technical Russian in these situations of which I know absolutely nothing), we managed to get it all done, and she then told her partner that she's taking me upstairs for the tests. Those heartless crones laughed. They knew what was coming... and so did I. We go back upstairs and tells me to sit down and wait. She went into the doctor's office and I could hear them arguing a little bit. A minute or two later she came out looking very frustrated. The doctor shortly followed and seemed just as unhappy. Great, I think; I don't want this guy in a bad frame of mind when he administers these tests. He motioned me over and took me aside, somewhat conspiratorially.

"I don't need to check anything else on you, do I?"
The phrase I had been practicing all week came out effortlessly:
"No. You don't need to do any more tests. Everything's just fine down there."
"Ok. Come back in a week and I'll give you your medical booklet."

I floated home, my feet barely touching the pavement. I think this doctor was a little lazy and was feeling slightly embarrassed about the language problems. I had already been something of a hassle to him and I think he was running a little behind because of it. The dumb foreigner card plays again!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Post-Modern School of Historiographical Thought

I was just talking to one of my former students who is now attending school in Finland and he told me about his first day in his history class. The teacher asked what history was. People raised their hands and said the usual comments, and then my former student raised his hand and proceeded to give a post-modern historiographical definition of history. Excuse me for asking, but from what teacher did you get this kind of influence and teaching, he asked. From Mr. S at International Academy of St. Petersburg, my student responded.

This student will be visiting next week and he's supposed to bring me some Dr. Pepper from Finland. I've heard rumors of a shop that sells Dr. Pepper (at an absurd markup) here in St. Petersburg, but it would be quite a trek. Well, it couldn't be worse than having to go all the way to Finland for it...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Short video

I made a short video this morning with some camera movies from Russia. Spans from the Summer of '07-Spring of '09.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Good morning. Beer or Coffee?

The question I get the most about Russia is, "Do they really drink vodka all the time?" No, they don't drink vodka as much as we think, but they do remain pickled the whole day. There's a popular saying here that says a beer in the morning means it's your day off. I go to my bus stop at 7:15 AM and I always see at least one guy going to work drinking his first beer of the day. 7:15 AM.

I've asked my Russian friends if this was normal. Oh no, they all assure me, these are very bad people; alcoholics; it is not socially acceptable. Judging by the fact that I see it every day, it's not THAT socially unacceptable. My thought was replace morning alcohol culture with coffee culture. If you were look at a bus/metro stop in the US at 7:15 AM, what would be the most popular beverage present? Coffee, the drug of choice for the proletariat. Want to know why my solution won't work? Opening times. In my part of the city, I've only found one place where you can get coffee to go. It opens at 11. I could get a beer at, literally, any hour of the day and on any street. For example, there is a store called "The Beer House" that opens at 10, a full hour before the only cafe in the Chkalov district that serves coffee to go opens.

I was discussing this with a Russian colleague of mine and I said I was going to start opening up coffee kiosks near the metros. It would never work, she said (half-seriously), the workers would steal money from the till to buy alcohol.

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Back from Budpest. Actually, I got back a week ago, but this is the first chance I've had to sit down and write about it. On Tuesday, I flew with 3 of my students to an international Christian school conference in Budapest, Hungary. We got in the night before it started, so on Wednesday morning we headed into the city. The conference was at a camp on a hill on the outskirts of the city so we had to hike a bit to the bus stop (Picture 3). We ending up catching a bus to a metro station and found a Burger King. I was looking for Cinnie-Minnies, but they didn't have them so I had to settle for a breakfast burrito. We walked around the city a bit and then headed back to the conference.

The conference was great. The kids had a really good time meeting kids from all over Europe (Picture 1: a kid from Norway, Czech Rep., and Korea) and I think they learned a lot. They paired the schools up for the week and our partner school was Thames Christian College of London (Picture 2). Their chaperone was a really interesting guy who did his masters thesis on Russian filmmakers.

Even though the weather was perfect (80 degrees, sunny) all week, it was nice to get back to cold, rainy St. Petersburg. My students were met at the airport by their parents and I got a ride home with one of them; it was interesting because they were Korean and couldn't speak English, so Russian was the lingua franca.