I definitely owe my followers a longer post. I apologize for the brevity of the last few – I was writing them pretty late at night, barely awake.
The first few days in Russia have been really interesting and I’m going to talk a little bit about each aspect of life here in different sections:
Probably a little early to tell, but its going well so far. I am in the weaker of two “advanced” groups, which, judging by the instruction today, is exactly where I need to be. My teacher, a professor at KSU, is a native Tatar who speaks fluent Tatar, Russian, and English (although he always says he speaks terrible English, he speaks with almost no accent and he uses idioms and colloquialisms) and also knows some French, German, Spanish, and Chinese. He is the dictionary definition of a polyglot, essentially. The lesson today was almost entirely in Russian, but the teacher (whose name I’m leaving out intentionally – my program requested that names, etc. be left out of any Internet postings, e.g. blogs, Facebook, etc.) clarified complicated instructions and the like in English, which was really helpful. He was also careful not to baby us but rather let us pull the meaning out of his instruction ourselves. KSU itself is a really amazing place. We took a tour of the KSU museum today, with our Resident Director translating the tour guide’s speech for us. KSU is, among other things, the origin of non-Euclidean geometry, the EKG, and magnetic resonance. It was, at one point, the finest institution in all Europe when it came to Near Eastern languages, especially Chinese and Mongolian. Vladimir Lenin, Lev Tolstoy, and a number of famous scientists and mathematicians whom I’ve never heard of studied there. Part of the tour was an old classroom with the desks preserved. During her speech, the tour guide pointed at me (while saying something I couldn’t understand) and then at the back of the room. Our Resident Director laughed, saying that I was sitting in the spot where Vladimir Lenin sat while he was in school! The back of the room was where Tolstoy – apparently not the most studious of law students – would sit, not paying attention. We also saw the “Vladimir Lenin Award,” which is sort of hilarious when you think about it. One of my classmates wittily asked if the award is split equally among all the students. It’s not.
My host family is awesome. I already have so many stories and I’ve only been here for 3 days! The food is great and I didn’t know it was possible to be “too full.” Out of politeness and (mostly) basically being force fed by my host mother, I’ve been eating enormous amounts of food at breakfast and dinner – so much that I eat small lunches, both because I’m still full from the last two meals and because I want to make sure I have room in my stomach for later. Tonight my dinner consisted of borscht, a zucchini sandwich, pilaf, cucumbers, oranges, bananas, chak-chak (a delicious Tatar dessert composed of honey and bread), and, of course, chai – tea. I am sufficiently stuffed. My host brother has been really helpful in my transition. He speaks great English and although I beg him frequently to switch to Russian, I admit that occasionally conversing in English with him is a welcome break from the often frustrating conversations I have with my host mother. My host mom speaks zero English (except she knows the word “eat” – what a surprise) and speaks Russian at probably 200 mph. It can be overwhelming to converse with her and I sometimes find myself responding “da” or “ladno” (yes or ok) without even really understanding what she says. However, I have learned a great deal of Russian from her already, so I guess those frustrating conversations are somewhat good. The apartment I live in is definitely small by American standards. The outside of the building is really quite decrepit, as are the interior hallways and doorway. This, apparently, is a commonality among most Russian apartment buildings. The shower situation is also different from America. Apparently, the city of Kazan shuts down the hot water for different regions of the city for two weeks (or more) at a time, and right now one of those regions is the one in which I live. What this means is that my “shower” is actually a system of bowls. One bowl is lukewarm, one is hot (cold water heated up on the stove), and the other is full of cold water. I have my own personal bowl with which to scoop up water and pour it on myself. It’s by no means perilous or terrible, but it does make me yearn for my shower at home. That’s pretty much my home situation.
Kazan is a really cool place. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to go on a “city tour” yet, but that should be happening soon (I think). But it really is as advertised: a multicultural city. For example, my family is Tatar – descendents of the Mongols that once essentially ruled Russia. My host brother and mother speak Tatar. However, (or so they tell me), Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Russians all get along and live together here. A simple bus ride will reveal that statement to be true. The diversity is really amazing for a city that is so relatively small (about 1.1 million people) and remote. One downside for Kazan being the prized Russian city here on the Asian steppes is that it is seriously hot. Like 40 degrees Celsius hot – for those Americans out there (aka all of you) that’s more than 100 degrees. And that was at 5 o’clock in the afternoon! Apparently though this is a irregularly hot summer and it usually sits in the 80s (Fahrenheit, obviously). I’ve now ridden all 3 forms of public transportation here in Kazan: bus, trolley, and Metro. The bus is really kind of terrible. The idea of personal space is pretty much nonexistent here in Russia and so, it seems, is the idea of deodorant. It obviously doesn’t help that it’s hot as Hades. But basically its just a bunch of people packed like sardines on a bus that has little to no regard for comfort or, for that matter, the rules of the road. One sort of hilarious aspect of the bus is that often times its “stops” are more like what we might call a “rolling stop.” It slows down, the doors open, crazy people jump on, and the bus is still in motion. After about three seconds it speeds up and swerves back into traffic. My favorite part, though, about the roads in Kazan (besides the actually insane drivers) is these three way intersections that basically merge two roads. Each feeder road has lanes, but for some reason for the first 500 yards or so of the new road, there are no lanes. Madness ensues. The road literally becomes a free for all, with little scrapheap cars weaving in and out of traffic. Very bizarre. The worst part of the bus is that it takes me about 30 minutes to get to KSU and about an hour back. Maybe on a nice air-conditioned MTA New York City bus that would be tolerable, but my bus ride home today literally took me from wide-awake to exhausted. The trolley is pretty boring, except when some daring driver, hoping to get an edge, decides that it would be a great idea to drive ON the trolley tracks. There’s not much the trolley can do besides just honk its weak horn and wait until the idiot driver gets back on the road. The Metro, as I have mentioned, is sweet. The only problem with the Metro is that it doesn’t really come close to my apartment, which is probably the furthest from KSU out of all my classmates, which sucks because being far from KSU also means being far away from the city center. There are other problems in Kazan, namely random packs of wild dogs (which, as it turns out, are cared for by the local children and, coincidentally, my host mother) and prostitution. Everywhere you look there are phone numbers with VIP or LOVE or even, in one case, SEX written next to it. My host brother informed me when I arrived that he wishes he could figure out a way to end prostitution here, but it is very prevalent and therefore very difficult to end. Overall, though, right now, I really like Kazan.
Tomorrow we’re going swimming at a local lake where the water is apparently in the low 40s, Fahrenheit – brrrr. But it’ll probably feel AWESOME in the heat, so I’m pretty excited for that. Should be a good day and I’ll definitely take some pictures
Pictures…can’t really download them at home. The internet (if I understood my Russian correctly) is priced by kilobytes, so uploading costs a lot of money. I’ll try to find a place with free WiFi to upload.