The Quirky Russian Lifestyle (Pt. 2)

7) Roads in Russia are the Real Wild West

Have you ever watched those crazy Russian driving videos? If you haven’t you should, they’re awesome! And I can tell you that they are fairly close to the truth (this video is a good example of what I mean).

The rate of accidents here in Russia is astounding. For my work, I’m shuttled to state schools four times a week and so I end up spending about two hours a week on the road. It’s a madhouse! People make dangerous plays on the road just to gain inches. Mopeds and motorcycles weave through traffic, and every other person is talking on a cell phone.

Hell, I was sitting on a bench in Moscow when a tram drove by. The driver didn’t glance at the road for the entire ten seconds that I watched, she was too busy using her phone.

Finally, one of the most memorable experiences here will be the time me, my girlfriend, and her parents were driving back from the dacha. It was like being on a roller-coaster without tracks. Her father was making potentially life-destroying weaves and maneuvers that would have netted thousands of dollars worth of fines in America.

It was one of the craziest experiences of my life!

8) Just Another Dog

Russians love dogs. I mean, Russians really love dogs. It can seem like everyone has one. Which perhaps accounts for the wild dog population. They run free and wild, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. They are everywhere, these wild dogs are pervasive. They run alongside the road, they wait outside shops in case someone feeds them.

They bark, and fight, and growl, and chase things. At this point, it’s not even worth looking twice at them. It’s a way of life, the dogs are everywhere (like in the book Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk).

9) Being Unhealthy on the Train

On the Elektreechka (a short distance train), where you always have the option to ride like a suicide case (see part one), you also have other freedoms. People frequently drink on the train, sitting in their seats, always glancing up to look for cops on the prowl.

What goes great with drinking?

Smoking.

Go to the ends of the carriage, the place where the obscenely loud, compressed air doors violently slam shut, and light up. Nobody will look twice, nobody will say anything, it just is.

Your author has indulged before. He isn’t a smoker, but there’s nothing like a bit of tobacco now and again. When in Rome…

10) Ready, Set, Get Married!

I remember in a class I had to teach my kids the meaning of a first, middle, and last name. That first lesson, they were physically incapable of grasping the concept. It didn’t matter how many times I explained it, or how effectively I presented the (seemingly simple) topic.

They were simply unable to understand it, too far out of their realities (in Russia they use familias, which is a whole other topic. Check out this nifty little guide to learn more).

That’s what happened to me when I heard about Russian marriages. It turns out that Russians don’t wait long after proposing, often a few months at most. That means if the proposal is in spring, the marriage is in the summer.

I can’t speak for other countries, but in America, the wedding is usually a year or two after the proposal.

I’m not sure which way I like better, but they certainly are different.

11) Cutting the Grass

You know what I’ve yet to see in Russia? A lawnmower!

I’m sure they exist somewhere, for the big parks and what have you, but I haven’t seen one yet. How do they cut the grass you ask?

With industrial sized weed-wackers. Small armies of immigrants rove through the parks, carrying these oversized, noisy, orange tools. The first time I saw this, I mentioned it to my friend and he said it’s normal. In fact, he seemed to think that using a lawnmower would be odd.

Maybe they have this in other cities too, I can’t say. But where I grew up, there were about 1,000 homes in my village and you can bet your life savings every single home has their own lawnmower.

Check out Part One of the quirky Russian lifestyle..

The Quirky Russian Lifestyle (Pt. 1)

1) Everyone Drinks

It was a Monday night and I was heading to the grocery store. It’s a forty-five second walk from my house and weather was beautiful. When I got to the parking lot, I happened to glance right, and there were two cops chilling in their cruiser.

The driver was looking out the window, and the cop riding shotgun was brown bagging a bottle of vodka. I slowed my speed to a crawl so that I could watch him pour a shot down his throat, and replace the cap.

2) A Casual Enforcer

Walking to work along the main road in my town. All sorts of cars passing me, I usually stare at the BMWs and imagine how badly I would like to own one. I came to a stop at a traffic light and waited for it to turn green.

Watching the cars, here comes a cop. Picture this, tiny little car the size of a mini cooper. It’s not the special cops, just two regular blokes, their hair brushing the top of this hilariously undersized clown-car. Guy riding shotgun, holding onto an AK-47 and frowning at people on the street. Middle of the day and it looks like he’s going to fight in Iraq.

3) How Many Ways Can You Ride a Train?

To get to Moscow from where I live, have to take a short distance train called the Elektreechka. It’s notorious for the unsavory class of people that ride it. Drunkenness and debauchery are common.

As are the ways people chose to ride it.

These trains work by electricity, and on top of every carriage is an intimidating array of electrical equipment that looks like it could fry Texas’s entire death row. They don’t even put warning signs around because it’s so obvious you shouldn’t get close it.

One day in March, guy riding on the train, sitting up there, three feet from enough electricity to power Vegas for a day.

This being a train, there is a gap between every train car. A scary, dirty, dark, loud place. A foot of space between each carriage, less when the train turns. Flashback to December. Man, propped up and riding in this space. No discernible reason, just is.

Of the three, least idiotic, grabbing onto a bar on the last train, very end of the carriage, propping your feet on the a little ledge, and holding on for dear life. Not going to lie, if I was a kid in Russia, I would have already tried this. Perfect amount of risk versus thrill. Of three irregular ways of riding the train, this is by far the least suicidal.

4) Does Anybody Have Insurance?

Taken as a whole, Russians are notoriously bad drivers. The rumors are true, accidents are common. But since most driving takes place in town, a majority of accidents are not that large. Fender benders, broken pieces, scratches.

Often, these problems don’t get fixed. Cars everywhere on the road, destroyed bumpers. It’s become normalized, I no longer know a life where a car is immediately fixed after an accident.

5) Creative Parking Spaces

In Russia, cars park on the sidewalk. Outside of buildings, it’s fairly rare to find designated parking. The result is a free for all, and sidewalks are the first to go. Cars pull up their left, or right, two wheels onto the sidewalk, half blocking the path.

This is normal, this is expected, and if you did it in America you would probably get your car towed.

Cars

6) One Student’s Dream

I have two students students who are almost fluent in English. When they told me this story, I was on the verge of tears.

The topic in our class book was boarding schools. From there we transitioned to talking about what it would be like to live in a school full time. Anna then pointed out that it would be impossible to live in their school, because there is no toilet paper in the bathroom. Nor has there been toilet paper in the bathroom for the last five years.

One of the girls then said “Our school notebooks are all missing pages at the end, because we have to rip them out and use them.”

I was chuckling by this point, as it’s such a funny situation. And it got ever funnier when she added only half ironically:

“My dream is to have toilet paper in my school”. Oh god, the laughter is growing..

Then my second student mentions that they only got soap in their bathrooms two years ago (2013).

“But we never use it, it’s always dirty” she says.

“Why is the soap dirty?” I ask.

“Because when students don’t have toilet paper, they…” And she mimes picking up the soap and using it as toilet paper.

I barely restrained the tears. We were all laughing so hard, in appreciation of just how ludicrous the situation is. Russia, what else can you say..

Part Two

The Three Steps to Starting an Adventure

If you don’t have a whole lot of experience starting an adventure, and doing something crazy, it may feel overwhelming in the beginning. Where the hell do I start? You may ask yourself. Or maybe you have an idea, but the obstacles lying in your path seem daunting.

Fret not, starting out on a trip is actually significantly easier than you think. Once you’ve got an idea in mind, turning it into a reality is perfectly doable, so long as you’re willing to exert the effort. By breaking it down into three steps we can find out that planning a big trip, even a multi-country one, really isn’t as hard as it seems.

1. Logistics

You have your place in mind I trust? Ok great! Let’s get started. I’m assuming you’ve already checked ticket prices, and you’ve found them to be manageable. The next step is a Visa.

If you’re from a Western country, most countries will not require you to get a Visa. However, you want to be very clear on this. Try not to not only find government websites, but also read firsthand accounts of other travelers. Visa requirements can change at any time, especially in less developed countries.

A quick note on Visas for Europe. Many European countries fall under a single Visa (called Schengen). For an American, that means you’ll only be able to spend a total of three months in any Schengen area. For example, even you if you visit France, Poland, and Germany, they will all add towards your ninety day total.

2. Three Reason to Travel Alone

To be honest, I’m not the person who should be writing about this subject. I’m horribly biased and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. See the thing is, I’ve never traveled with another person in my life. If I have an adventure, I cook it up and do it. This has always worked well for me, here’s why.

First, you’re not always going to be able to find someone to go on a trip with. If the choice is being doing it alone, and not going, well I hope you make the right decision!

Secondly, part of going on an adventure is meeting new people. If you have a friend with you, it’s going to be easier to hang out with him and not enjoy fresh faces. Meeting people, especially if they speak a different language, can seem daunting. If your friend is there, you’ll be way less likely to go out of your way.

Third, once you get there, you and your friend may have radically different ideas about how to have fun. Personally, I never get excited about museums. I would rather walk around on the street and go to random bars.

If your friend is interested in different things, it can cast a wet blanket over the whole trip. Neither of you is going to want to do the others activity. Then if you compromise and split it down the middle, each of you is not going to be have as much fun as you would alone.

3. Ignoring the Critics

What’s the difference between a vacation and an adventure? A vacation is safe, it’s the type of thing that everyone nods approvingly about and says:

“Oh man, that’s going to be awesome! I wish I could go.”

Then there is an adventure. This is when you head off into uncharted territory to really discover something new. This is something that many people will never do, and they will be quick to express their dissent.

“It sounds really cool, but is it safe?”

Or

“Are you sure, that doesn’t sound like it will be much fun..”

Ignoring these people is a crucial step in any large adventure. People who don’t support you on your adventure don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Likely, they have a limited view of the world. There’s simply no reason to give them any credit. The simplest test to see whether you’re going on a vacation, or an adventure, is to watch the expressions on people’s faces. If you tell them your plans, and they smile lazily; vacation. If you tell them your plans, and their eye brows shoot up; ding, ding, ding, ADVENTURE!

Other People’s Experiences

While you’re looking for information, it’s important to ignore the bad. Look, the deal is, no matter WHERE you go, there is going to be someone who has had a bad experience there and written about it. You can’t listen to these naysayers. If you want to go somewhere, it doesn’t matter what experience someone else had.

Your Visa and plane ticket are the two most important logistical details. The rest is icing. In the true spirit of adventure, pack light! Whatever climate your heading to, pack less than you think you’ll need and it will be just the right amount of stuff. If you don’t have a backpack yet, I have some suggestions for you. What I’ve found to be most important is that you can take it carry on. After preparing your whole trip, imagine how much it would suck to lose your luggage because of some stupid airline.

Learning a Second Language to Fluency

If you’re serious about learning a second language, you should consider immersing yourself in that country. Learning French, go to France. German, to Germany. Nubonics, off to Harlem with you.

There’s nothing like daily exposure to your target language, and an unlimited amount of people to practice with. However, unless you’ve spent time in a foreign country, there is another motivation that you may not be aware of. It has to do with human nature and the way we relate to other people. If you’ve never left your native country, this is not something you are going to be able to appreciate. Before I came to Russia, I was blind to it.

What Drives You To Learn a Language

When you start learning a language, you’re probably motivated by the usual reasons. It’s interesting, it makes you smarter, and if you become fluent it opens new job opportunities.

And let’s be honest, you can brag to your friends at the bar and impress girls. Name the reason, they’re all valid. And they are all important. If you can carry those motivations with you through your journey to fluency, you won’t have a problem keeping your motivation high. However, when you move to a foreign country, there is a new motivation that comes into play. You just want to be able to understand what the hell is going on around you!

If you’ve never lived outside of an English speaking country, you can’t appreciate that you understand everything going on around you. You probably take it as granted that you can read every street sign, understand every announcement on the subway, listen to the news, and so on.

Once you move to a different country, the game changes. You’re going to find out pretty quick that you don’t understand a lot of what is going on. Even after eight months in Russia, I still think it’s a big deal if I understand fifty percent of what I hear in a given day. What a world!

Human Nature

Humans are social. Extreme introverts and mail-room clerks aside, we like to speak to each other and be understood. You can use this to your advantage. By placing yourself in a foreign country, you’re going to feel like a fish out of water.

At first it may feel novel to not understand your environment. It’s certainly going to be a big change from anything you’ve experienced before. After a while, the polish wears off. Functioning without understanding the language is difficult. It’s fuel for your desire to study every day.

Make a Language a Priority

If learning a second language is a serious priority for you, consider giving yourself an upper-hand. See if you can arrange your life so that you can live in your language’s country. It will give you a kick in the pants towards fluency. Consider the case of people learning English. In my opinion, and you’re of course free to disagree with me, they have it easiest. Why’s that?

For one thing, English is an easy language to learn. Up to an intermediate level, before the tough grammar starts, it’s a simple language to start communicating in. However, my main point is motivation. People learning English, no matter country they live in, have loads of motivation. The world runs on English. You can be fairly certain that no matter where you go, someone is going to speak at least a little bit of the language.

Furthermore, most of the world’s widely recognized musicians sing in English. Not to mention Hollywood, which produces movies that are watched from Bangkok to Helsinki. Thus a person who is studying English has this pull to learn the language. For my students, teenagers in particular, it’s a big motivator.

The same cannot be said for other languages. If you’re living in America and you already understand Eminem and Hollywood movies, are you really going to study Mandarin so that you can watch Chinese films?

Me neither.

Case in Point

My roommate is living proof in the power of immersion. Even though we both started studying Russian in university the same month, he speaks significantly better Russian than me.

The Reason?

He spent three months in Moscow last year living with a host family. They didn’t speak English, which forced him to really step up to the plate and learn Russian. In those three months of total immersion, he learned the language to a very respectable level.

Since arriving in Russia seven months ago, I’ve studied every day and I still haven’t reached the same level as him. He learned so much in three months of deep immersion that it’s going to take me more than a year of regular study to catch up. If ever there was a cheat in the system, it is the idea of truly immersing yourself in the culture.

Find a way to put yourself into a position where you have to understand the language, or feel isolated, and you will swim. Use human nature to your advantage and you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a cool TED X video on the subject. Hopefully it will help to clarify the concepts that I’ve been talking about.

A Fish In Water, Experiencing a New Culture

If you spend your whole life in one country, you’re never going to get the chance to experience a new culture. For plenty of people that’s not a big deal. Hell, it wasn’t a big deal for me either. When I came to Russia, experiencing the culture was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to learn the language!

But with the language comes the culture. My first month in Russia was underwhelming. I felt like everything was the same, and I couldn’t understand why Russians and Americans don’t get along better. Only after seven months in Russia have I started to get some sense of the cultural differences. The defining moment for came on a Sunday night. First came the event, then an incidental explanation that showed me I’m not alone.

The Unwritten Rules of Bar Culture

Sunday night, in a basement bar. Downtown Moscow, drinking with my friend. By this point my Russian is good enough that I feel confident opening conversations. So when two guys sat down next to us, I introduced myself and asked them a few questions.

Turns out they were students from St. Petersburg , here in Moscow to study engineering. We talked for a few minutes and then I returned to my table. They finished their beers and left. Shortly afterwards a few guys took the empty table. They were talking amiably, although I couldn’t understand much over the music. When a there was a lull in the conversation I stood up and introduced myself.

And the first thing out of the ring-leaders mouth wasn’t a return hello, it was a question.

“Ты голобой?”

In case you don’t speak Russian, he asked me if I was gay. And it wasn’t so much of a question  as a statement. For the next five minutes I made my case, but I never convinced him. He probably got a kick out of telling his buddies about the gay American who hit on him at the bar. Frustrating, but I quickly forgot about it. What made the incident interesting to me was an article I read the next day.

Why Americans Confuse People

I was browsing through Quora and I saw an article on friendship in Switzerland. I started to read it, and three paragraphs in I came across an idea that fit my situation perfectly.  An American living in Switzerland discovered that at bars, men often thought he was gay.

Hey, that just happened to me! What the hell is going on here?

The authors suggestion is that in America, we have different social rules. For example, we mimic signs of friendship, even when we don’t mean it. When you carry that behavior to another country, people don’t know how to interpret it. So they revert to their first explanation for odd behavior: homosexuality.

To Understand Your Own Culture, First You Must Leave It

Learning a new culture is a way to shed light on your own. When you’ve lived in the same place your whole life, you have nothing to compare it to. Seven months in Russia has shown me that I like my culture better. But now I can say that with some authority, and I can say why I like my culture better.

When I eventually find my way home, I’ll be returning with a new perspective. Travelling is an invaluable experience that you can use to discover more about yourself. At some point though, travel isn’t enough. To truly understand a culture, you have to live in it over the course of many months.

The experience will show you how other people live, and it will shed light on customs in your own home country that you’re unaware of.

What the Hell is a Russian State School?

When I started looking for employment in Russia, I didn’t imagine that I would end up working in a Russian state school. In fact, I didn’t even know what a state school was! It sounds like something draconian where they send repeat offenders for a lobotomy and lithium. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. State schools is another way of saying public schools. For the last three months, I have gotten the opportunity to spend four days a week teaching in the Russian public school system.

After securing employment in June, I signed a contract in America that explicitly stated I would be working in a private school. I felt elated after having achieved my goal of finding work in Russia. However, after four weeks in country, the school I work for was forced to fire an incompetent teacher at a different branch. At the end of September it created a black hole that sucked in a teacher from our branch. His absence created another void. Josh was the designated state school teacher, who would teach in the schools now?

At the time, I had been flouting the dress code. Long past the date when my boss had mandated dress shoes, I had been wearing sneakers. When I was called into the head administrators office, immediately after sitting down I tucked my feet beneath my seat. I was apprehensive about being scolded for my breach in etiquette. In retrospect it seems silly but at the time, I sure was nervous.

They sat me down and Dave cut straight to the point.

“So, as you know were moving Josh to the other branch. Since he was supposed to teach in the state schools, we need someone else to work there now. We want you to do it. Would you be ok with teaching in the state schools?”

At the time I didn’t understand what they were asking. I had no idea that teaching in the state schools meant a car ride there and back. I didn’t understand that it would mean sharing a common classroom without the ability to customize it. I had never taught a class on my own before and I was wildly naive about the entire experience. With my two most senior bosses staring at me I was like a deer caught in the headlights.

I stammered out “Yeah ok, that’s fine.”

Teaching Kids, and Only Kids

Three months later I have my regrets, but they are not substantial. What’s affected me more than the location of the state schools, or the impersonal classroom, is the makeup of my classes. By agreeing to teach solely in state schools, I guaranteed that every one of my students would be a kid. A majority of my students are under the age of ten. In fact, it was Arseni’s birthday on Thursday. After we sang the happy birthday song, I asked him how old he is. Everyone in the class was impressed when he said ten! Turning ten is a momentous achievement for many of my students.

I work four days a week. I prepare lessons from 12:00 to 2:30 and I teach from 3:00 to 8:00. On Mondays and Wednesday I’m in school number eleven. Tuesdays and Thursdays I spend at school number eight. One of the nicest perks of my job is having Fridays off. I use the day to sleep in late, prepare for Monday’s lessons and then at 1:20 I have a Russian lesson.

Some things are the same as back home. Students learn about using computers, there is a cafeteria and a gym. Teachers walk around the halls with lines of stress etched into their faces. When I pass a teacher in the hall, I always give the formal greeting, здравствуйте. However, one of the quirks of Russia is that they number their schools instead of using names. Come to think of it, I haven’t a clue how they cheer for their sports teams.

“Давай, номер 11, давай ДАВАЙ!” (Let’s go number 11, let’s go LET’S GO!)

A Typical Work Day

The only thing the two schools I teach at have in common are their security guards. At the beginning of every shift I am greeted by overweight, bored and underworked security guards. Unless they’re on the phone they flash a smile as they hand me the keys to my room. Their job is superfluous. Russia has its problems, but unlike America, they don’t have an insidious problem with school shootings.

I usually arrive at the school fifteen minutes before class. I get the key from the guard and unlock my room. Unpacking my backpack takes a scant two minutes. After everything is sorted on my desk, I prepare for class. In maintaining discipline, body language and posture is indelible. By reaching towards the ceiling and then trying in vain to touch my toes, I begin to assume a commanding posture. Shoulders rolled back, neck straight and chin lifted. This Wednesday in my second class, I spontaneously stretched out with the help of my student.

Little Misha can’t weigh more than nine gallons of milk. The board was covered in math problems from the previous class and he was erasing the bottom half. The upper reaches were out of his grasp. When he had finished with the bottom, I grabbed him around the middle, the fingers from my two hands nearly touching each other. For twenty seconds I held him up high while he erased the board. Significantly less efficient than erasing it myself but loads more entertaining for everyone.

My Students Level of English

Every day I work my way up the fluency ladder. I start off with my spastic nine year olds. At their level, I’m thrilled when my more ambitious students produce a sentence like “he’s a crazy student” or “she has a card.” Most of what they learn is vocab without context. They can identify all sorts of words from pencil to swing but they haven’t discovered how to make sentences yet. At this age, however, they learn quickly and their pronunciation is better than adults.

Teenagers pour into the classroom next. Their level of English varies wildly. By the age of twelve or thirteen, some of them are capable of holding a normal conversation on a variety of topics. Other’s can’t distinguish between a person asking “how old are you” and “how are you.” Maybe it’s because in Russian, the two questions are very dissimilar: “сколько тебе лет” as opposed to “как дела.”

On Monday and Wednesday nights I am rewarded with a chance to teach two teenage Armenian girls. Both being named Anna, I refer colloquially to them as “The Annas.” At the age of fourteen, they are already fluent in three languages; Russian, Armenian and English. Because they speak great English and have a good work ethic, our classes are always interesting. The Annas hope to become architects someday. I like to cater to their future whenever possible. We have designed imaginary apartments filled with furniture. Mock cities with parks, subway stations and apartments. Last week we created our ideal houses while learning the vocabulary that goes with it. There are few Russian kids who are as familiarized with a floor plan as The Annas.

After My Shift is Over

During the winter, it’s dark in Russia before five. By the time I leave my school at eight, it might as well be midnight. Every day Leonard, my driver, picks me up from the front entrance of the school. He’s a stout six feet with a small sheath of grey hair on his mostly bald head. I’ve known him for four months and I’ve never seen him move with haste. Hands in his pockets, shoulders lightly slumped and frowning, he moves from point A to point B like a tank crawling across the battlefield.

I spend more time lost in confusion with Leonard than any other person in Russia. After forty-two-years of smoking, he speaks a deep husky Russian. It was indiscernible to me for a full two weeks. After three months of car rides I’ve gotten past the accent, but that’s only like peeling the skin off the onion. He speaks quickly and makes no effort to aid me in understanding. The only time he speaks slowly or consistently uses vocabulary I understand is while making a crucial point.

By the time I arrive home I’m usually running on empty. It’s nine at night and time for me to cook dinner. I bring my laptop to the kitchen and set it down on the messy table. If I’m especially tired, I watch South Park. If there is some spirit left, I’ll read the New Yorker online while my dinner sizzles in olive oil.

It’s an interesting life. As a whole it’s agreeable although sometimes it can be challenging. Many times have I imagined buying a plane ticket and leaving Russia for good. It’s a refreshingly pleasing thought that brings relief to me on the hard days. But I know that before my plane was even out of Russian airspace I would regret it. Challenges make life interesting (like the time I tried to eat a raw egg in my girlfriend’s Moscow apartment). They can make life hard in the short term but they are wonderful fodder for stories later on.