Letter sent by Kaitlyn Wild '06, August 2004

"Culture Shock: A Travel Journal"

Sunday, 1 August 2004: The Long Weekend

The trip to Russia was brutal, as expected seeing as how it had three legs and covered many thousand miles. I really met my classmates for the first time on the flights from New York to Moscow. I was able to call home from each country I visited and have already emailed everyone. I plan on doing more emailing during the week.

It was so nice to be able to see some of Moscow on my first night
in Russia because I hadn’t seen any part of the city previously and I felt that I was really missing out on something because of it. We stayed at the Hotel Rossija right near Red Square and got to see the Square on out way to and from the restaurant we had dinner at that evening. The hotel was very interesting in both that it was absolutely huge and that it charged for local telephone calls. Figuring out how to phone home from my room, even with a calling card, proved a tiresome process, but I managed to make to calls in the end despite the fact that the telephone’s buttons often refused to work. When
I return to Moscow I plan on being more of a tourist.

I was extremely nervous about meeting my Vladimir host family on Saturday for the first time: Would they be nice? Would they understand my lack of Russian? Would I be what they expected? As it turned out, my host family wasn’t even at home my first evening in their apartment. I got extremely worried that the KORA Institute had put me in a homestay with just a twenty- something-year-old guy. Pavel was extremely nice and kept talking to me even though I was incapable of holding an actual conversation. He was a great sport and kept diving into my dictionary when ever I hit a linguistic wall (which was at least once every sentence), and was nice enough never to expect too much of a reply from me. And no, he is not cute.

He cooked lunch and dinner for me and, lol, he got a babysitter for me for the times he had to leave the apartment for work. I haven’t had a babysitter in nearly a decade. The first time Nina, the neighbor, came over she just watched me watch Shrek for half an hour. I might as well have been five years old. She also came over to make my breakfast after Pavel had to leave for work. She then took me to the Institute in the morning via a bus ride and a walk. I never understood much of what she said, but I know that she cared when she squeezed my hand as we neared the building.

Once all of us amerikanskiye studienti were at the Institute we had a brief orientation and our first excursion – to the old water tower and the “Starii Vladimir” museum within.

Kathleen, Ellie and I are to be in a group together starting tomorrow when classes begin; we are the three students with the most Russian, though I fear I shouldn’t have claimed to have studied as much as I have for fear too much will be expected of me! (Just joshing). Our teachers seem like they are all very nice and know what they are doing. They have received descriptive letters on all of us and quite honestly I wish that could read Susan Scotto’s description of me.

The museum we walked to from the Institute was devoted to the Vladimir of the 18th and 19th centuries. I sort of find in strange that the museum was called “Old Vladimir” when in actuality the history of the city goes all the way back to the 10th century. Our guide, Pavel, spoke English well and was amusing to boot. The view from the top of the water tower was beautiful and showed most of the older parts of the city.

Nina picked me up after the excursion and took me back to my apartment. I was planning on just relaxing and taking a shower, but was greeted at the door by Luba, my Russian mother, newly returned from her mother’s 70th birthday party. It was a great relief to see her there (nothing’s wrong with Pavel, but still). She, her husband Nikolai and younger son Zhenya are all so nice (though Zhenya has not yet talked much). Luba and Nikolai are really into helping me improve my Russian and I felt my tongue loosen as I talked to the two of them over lunch. After lunch Nikolai even turned on a sports channel
because I had said that one of my hobbies was to watch sports.

I am still not perfectly at ease with everything – I have yet to take a shower (the knowledge that there is no hot water is kind of a turn off) – but I have my own key to the apartment which makes me feel like everything will be fine eventually!

Tuesday, 3 August, 2004: Officially a Junior

Well, on Monday, 2 August, I officially became a junior in college
when I attended my first class of the year. This month is supposed to be devoted entirely to the study of the Russian language which will equal one semester of language study by the time September rolls around. To keep things from getting dull, Russian Language 351 (or whatever exactly I’m getting credit for) has been divided into three types of lessons: Phonetics, Grammar and Conversation.

Obviously, Phonetics is the easiest, at least at first, as we have spent most of our time practicing the pronunciation of the Russian “L”. This is actually harder than it would seem because the English “L” is right between the soft Russian “L” and the hard Russian “L”, making neither of them very natural. A mispronounced “L” is also a dead giveaway that you are a foreigner, even if the rest of your accent is impeccable. Our teacher, Elena, worked with us on it quite a bit and made us practice the “L” in combination with every Russian vowel, and Russian has quite a few vowels (10 to be exact).

Grammar class was quite difficult, and not just because Russian grammar is difficult. During phonetics, Elena spoke slowly and clearly (a good sign in a Phonetics teacher) and broke into English when it was obvious we couldn’t understand what she was saying. On the other hand, Tatiana, our Grammar teacher, spoke very quickly and Kathleen contends that she mumbles – I couldn’t tell because I couldn’t listen that quickly. Not only that, but we had only passively learned the grammatical terms in Russian. No matter what the course book said, or what our professors planned, we have, until this time, always learned in English. Now we have to try to figure out what
Tatiana’s saying before we can learn anything. I also find that the
organization of the class is quite strange: we have jumped right into the use of prepositions with verbs of motion. This means that all at once we have to know our case endings, verb conjugations, stem and prefix meanings as well as be able to figure out the correct preposition to fill the blank space in the sentence. I would have preferred that we tackle each of these elements in some sort of order instead of battle them all at once.

Conversation with Larisa turned out differently than I expected. I had
assumed that the hour would have consisted of the four of us having some sort of conversation guided by Larisa. In actuality we read over a text and listened to Larisa talk. I have to get back into the habit of not giving just one word answers, or I shall never learn anything. At home one word answers are fine, but when Larisa asks if I like Russia I should not just reply, “Yes,” but reply, “Yes, I like Russia,” the way I had to the last two years. This class is also not improved by the fact that both Kathleen and I are called Katya and Ellie is Liza. Nothing makes me more homesick that people being unable to call me by my name (Note: this is actually not a problem at my homestay; they can all pronounce it well and they say it before every sentence directed at me – which is my cue to pay attention. J)

Anyways, three hours of classes a day are no burden at all (especially when the only other option is usually to just sit in my room at home and be nervous), though I expect I will come to find our days with double Grammar to be like Harry Potter’s days with double Potions. The transition into classes has been the easiest transition of this trip so far: I am already answering practically every question posed – regardless of whether or not I know the answer – and filling up my notebook pages at what I hope is not too rapid a pace.

Outside of class I still feel like I’m floundering a bit. I still feel like I
have the palsy the way I shake when I’m at home (from nerves – but okay, not really) and hope no one tries to talk to me (though they always do, which is probably for the best). For the first two days (Orientation and Day 1 of classes) I was dropped off and picked up. I felt much better today taking myself to the Institute and being able to hang out with everyone after classes and our cultural activity ended.

Things are getting better and better for me little by little. I think that
I’ve found a sort of schedule that I can follow. The mornings are nice in that they are leisurely. Of course, they wouldn’t be so frickin’ long if I didn’t keep waking up at 5:00a.m. for my 10:00a.m. classes. Damn jetlag. I can’t sleep through the night yet, but I sure am dead by 2:00 in the afternoon, which doesn’t help the way I feel any. On other fronts, I walked with Luba and Nikolai to the store near the apartment and it turned out to be a Western-style store (stuff on shelves which can be put into carts and paid for at the end), which I am glad to know is nearby. At a typical Russian store everything is behind glass and counters and has to be asked for and handed to you. I have also taken multiple showers since my arrival at Building 8 University Street, Appt. 4 ! This shouldn’t seem like such an accomplishment, but you try bathing in a house with no hot water. I’m able to wash off every day in the cold water, but I ask for hot water every other day to wash my hair. To get hot water the cold water has to be heated in a large pot on the stove. After getting the hot water in the pot one must figure out how to bathe with it (Hint: it requires conserving water and praying the shampoo rinses out easily). I am very proud to announce that
this evening I bathed, washed my hair and shaved (something I had not done before) all without obnoxiously hogging the bathroom that has to be shared among five people.

The only real issue is that I started sweating as soon as I had dried off. In an apparent attempt to make up for the very rainy months of June and July, Mother Russia is trying to jam all of the summer into the month of August. I don’t know how hot it has been, but I know that it has been too hot for all my long-sleeved shirts and pairs of jeans. I am always drenched with sweat and the heat doesn’t make my jetlag-ridden sleep any softer. From now on I’m not going to listen to Europeans when they say that they don’t need air conditioning. I understand that hardly any of the buildings can support it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t needed! At least there aren’t too many bugs to
make the open (screenless of course) windows unbearable. There is one fly- like guy that seems to have been in residency in this room longer that I have, but he isn’t too much of a bother and he has never invited his friends over. I can’t ask for much more than that.

Wednesday, 4 August, 2004: Food I Never Ate at Home

I suppose this would be a good time to discuss Russian food,
seeing as how I just ate dinner. The first things that I learned about
Russian food was the word for food (åäà [yeda] – a word I hadn’t learned in favor of memorizing the words for the meals and specific types of foods) and that most Russians use the verb [kooshat’]( – to partake in) instead of the verb I learned, [yest’] (– to eat]); the only real difference between the two verbs that I know of is that the command form of kooshat' is considered more polite than the command form of est' ; the other difference is that est' is also used to mean “to have” – which is very confusing. I then learned that
the food in this country is decent and not overly exciting. The Russians eat the “simple” fare that they grow for themselves and don’t add any spices. Most of my meals consist mainly of meat and potatoes. The meat is beef and the potatoes are often from the dacha. If meat and potatoes aren’t the only elements of my main course, then pasta is. The other option is to have soup– made with meat and potatoes.

If any of the above is flavored, it is done so with onions,
mushrooms (occasionally) or beets. Pavel is now pretty sure that I don’t consume the other two main flavoring agents: salt and sugar. This came about because this morning I refused salt on my hardboiled egg and sugar in my tea. Ellie had a similar experience with her family: she tried to tell them that she doesn’t like just plain cheese – she likes cheese in things. Unfortunately, she could only come up with the Russian name for one cheese dish (macaroni and cheese), so now her host mom thinks she only likes cheese with macaroni and at no other time.

Speaking of foods not liked, I’m sure that you noticed that the
above list of onions, mushrooms and beets form a perfect subset of the list of foods I don’t eat. If you were to add those three to cooked fruit and tomatoes you would have the majority of my “Do Not Eat” list. Guess what I have eaten since coming to Russia. All of the above actually. There really is no way around them. Well, okay, there is – just ask anyone else in the group and hear that they have drawn a line down their family’s diner table. I have really just sucked it up and eaten. The onions (usually stuck to the meat) are unavoidable, cooked mushrooms aren’t all that terrible, and I really do like borscht. As for the tomatoes and cooked fruit, well, I don’t want to get scurvy. Honestly, there are very few fruits and vegetables in my diet here, so I eat the tomatoes whenever they are offered and put homemade currant jam on my bread multiple times a day. The jam is actually not bad, though I don’t think that I’m about to request any.

When it comes to being offered food and requesting food here in my
Russia, instant gratification is the rule. When food is offered, it is
expected that I stick it in my mouth immediately; if I don’t I am met with looks of concern. I have no idea what they are concerned about: that I don’t like their food? That I’m not eating enough? Both? All this concern really upsets my eating habits. I’m the type of person who must all of one type of food before moving on to the next. I have a lot of trouble putting down my forkful of pasta to take a bite out of the piece of bread forced upon me. Besides just messing up my eating habits, all of this force-feeding adds up. My meals here are huge! Not only are my initial helpings of meat and potatoes quite large, but then I’m given multiple pieces of bread, usually tomatoes and desert as well.

Dessert is one thing that the Russian’s don’t do well. Most of the
deserts that I have come across are the overly-manufactured things that mix fruit and chocolate (yes, I have eaten these too). The ice cream, though IceCreamMan-like, is good, but I have learned to be weary of it. My family doesn’t appear to keep ice cream in the freezer, so whenever I’m asked if I want ice cream, it is not the hypothetical question “Would you possibly like some ice cream for dessert sometime in the future?” but more like “Would you like me to hand you this melting serving of ice cream that you must then eat
instantly?” I accidentally ate ice cream twice in a two-hour period because I failed to recognize the true nature of the question. This is the only desert I have yet eaten seconds of. I usually just eat one helping as they watch (the trick to not being told a second time to eat a certain kind of food is to make sure that someone watches you eat it the first time) and politely decline a second immediate helping and the privilege of taking the leftovers back to my room with me for later. Tea is the only thing that I have ever requested seconds of, though I often wind up eating multiple pieces of bread (either because multiple kinds are offered or because more than one piece has been especially buttered and set on my plate for me). Another reason I wind up eating multiple pieces of bread is that I can’t just sit and do nothing while my food cools. The food I’m given is always right off the stove and the temperature of the flame that was just heating it. My family never seems to notice the burning, cauterizing effect of the food the way I do. Maybe Russians have evolved without nerves in their tongues; that could also explain the bland food and fondness for beets.

Correction: I have just realized that I have been speaking untruthfully about the Russian cuisine, but the correction has no real place in my narrative, so I will put it here. The Russians do use one spice in great quantities: dill. They pickle pretty much everything. Fresh food is either eaten instantly (milk, some produce) or preserved (currants, cucumbers), while other food is known to keep (potatoes). Cucumbers are like the national vegetable of Russia and they are kept for long periods of time through the process of pickling. This rocessing turns them into dill bombs so potent that not even bacteria
will eat them. That’s unfair, I’m sure that Russian pickles are just a taste that has to be required. That being said, I’m never going to try the pickled apples or pickled garlic, I don’t care what the situation is.

I have drunk tea with every meal I eat at the apartment and my family now thinks of me as the tea-drinker. I was offered currant juice once, but I know that currant juice can lay you out if too much is drunken on an untested stomach, so I declined that – in favor of tea –, but on time I said that I like milk, so I was given some. Nothing here seems to be pasteurized, so it turns out that the only safe way to drink the milk is to boil it first. I’m a girl who has subsisted on ice-cold, skim milk. Needless to say that the hot, whole milk I was given did not make for the most pleasant of moments. I went right back to drinking tea, though there are too issues with the tea. First issue is the heat; some days it is nearly too hot to drink hot tea; I wind up sweating through the meal. The other issue is my teacup. I’m always given the nice pretty teacup and saucer taken from the cabinet in the living room.
My host family always drinks their beverages out of the cups that match the dishes or out of mugs. It’s strange getting such specially treatment.

One last topic related to dining is paper products. There don’t seem to be many paper products in Russia. I always leave the kitchen table with sticky hands because there are no napkins. The napkins at the cafeteria where we eat on school days seem to be nothing more than single squares of really, really, really, cheap toilet paper that makes the fingers more messy than they were before touching the napkin. Luckily though, the actually toilet paper isn’t bad. It might be made of newsprint quality paper, but I really have nothing to complain about on that score.

Three hours later:

I suppose this would be a good time to discuss Russian food, seeing as how I just ate dinner – again. That’s right. I have just eaten dinner for a second time. I can’t seem to say no to these people!

When I got back to the apartment after classes, no one was home but Pavel. He gave me cabbage, potato and meat soup, along with bread, for dinner around 5:00p.m. I have no idea where anyone else in the family was at the time; Luba wasn’t at home in the morning, Nikolai is at work and Zhenya was off wherever it is that a thirteen-year-old boy goes everyday. I probably won’t figure out this family’s schedule until the day I leave; I could just ask, but since there comings and goings don’t really affect me much (someone is always home when I am and this was the first irregularity in meals that I have encountered) I feel it would be prying to check up on them so bluntly. Anyway, I digress – so, around 8:00p.m. Luba returned home – at which point Pavel left the house – and began preparing dinner. She invited me to have
fish with her and I told her I had already had soup, but she asked if I would like to eat some more dinner. I couldn’t say no – I don’t know why – so I sat down to have some fish, potatoes, pickled cucumbers and more tea with her. I am so stuffed. At least she didn’t offer me any bread.

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