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What it’s Like to Embrace a Second Culture

I haven’t stepped foot in an English speaking country (except for Germany) in the last 397 days. Of that, 370 of those days have been in either Russia or Ukraine. This has given me a chance to fully embrace a second culture. I’ve subtly become accustomed to the post-Soviet lifestyle. Ostentatious displays of wealth, appearing against a backdrop of harsh poverty.

You could say that the experience has lifted the hood from my eyes. If you’ve spent your whole life in one country, then you don’t realize how much that effects your thinking, attitudes and beliefs. I don’t necessarily believe this is bad, but I do think it’s something people should be aware of. If you’ve never fully immersed yourself in a foreign culture, I think you might be interested to hear what the process is like. Here’s what I’ve found out.

Becoming Acquainted

At first it’s wicked difficult to adapt to a new culture and society. Everything feels different and annoying. You may feel out of place, and you might even get scolded by citizens. It can feel like your personality is being suppressed. This can be especially difficult if you don’t have other people from your native country to speak with.

The funny thing is that after a while, say ten or twelve months, the thought of going back to your own country seems hard! By this time you’ve become used to the customs in the new culture. You’ve adapted to their way of life and you feel comfortable. If you went home you could discover yourself having minor difficulties relating to everyone around you. This was driven home to me last weekend.

I was hanging out at a bar in Kiev with another American. He’s been in Ukraine for a month or two, but he’s light years from understanding the culture. I watched him, and I could pick out most of his behaviors that labeled him as a foreigner. His style of talking, style of relating to people, even the way he stood. It was only then that I really realized how much I’ve internalized this new culture.

When I came to Russia I felt like a fish out of water. Thirteen months later and I can label the out-of-place behaviors of an off-the-plane American.

Learning the Language

Without a question, learning the language is going to help you to understand and embrace a second culture. In fact, I don’t think you can gain a full understanding of any country’s deeper culture without being able to speak the language. Why’s that? It might not be what you think.

Being able to speak the language allows you to communicate with the older generation. These are the grandfathers and grandmothers with stories to tell. They’ve experienced an entirely different life than most people our age, and what they have to say reflects that. Unfortunately, if you don’t speak their language, you’ll almost never be able to hear from these preservers of oral history.

Of course the language is helpful in all situations. Not everyone speaks English. If you’re at the bar with a group of friends, and one or two people don’t speak English, then the conversation tends to default to the native language.

Things you May Miss

As much as I enjoy being in Ukraine, I’m really starting to miss home. Rationally I think America is pretty fucked (obesity, mass shootings, fucked healthcare, ineffective political system). However, I still miss feeling like I’m home. I miss driving a car, going to the pharmacy and knowing what to buy, and the feeling of understanding what’s happening around me.

When I think about this, it helps me to put into perspective the ethnic communities that you find in large cities. People (me included) like feeling like they’re at home. These communities are safe havens where people can speak their own language, order their favorite dishes, and discuss the weird fucking culture of the country their living in.

What about you, have you ever spent time in another country? Have you thought about what it would be like to go home?

5 Things I Love About Russian Culture

I lived on the outskirts of Moscow for eight months. To be brutally honest, it was a low point in my life. Most of the blame fell on my job. I hated falling asleep at night because I knew that in the morning I would have to wake up and work. That’s no way to live. Despite this, I learned a tremendous amount about myself, and about the world. It was the first time that I was immersed in a foreign culture and the experience was a positive one. Here’s why.

1. Russian Food is Delicious

ОливьеOf all the unexpected surprises in Russia, this was the biggest one. I ended up falling in love with almost everything I ate. The key was to not to stray too far from the beaten path. I saw a few things in Russia that made my stomach do a somersault. On the other hand, Russians (Babooshkas in particular) really know how to cook some amazing food.

Borsch, Oliva, Caviar (so, so cheap in Russia) and Blini are classic dishes that I still enjoy eating to this day. There’s also this delicious wrap made with raw salmon and mayonnaise that I don’t know the name for. Wash it all down with some Kefir or Kvas and you’ve got a hearty Russian meal that will shut up any skeptic.

2. Receptive to Language Mistakes

Russians know that their language is hard. In fact I get the feeling that’s a source of national pride. Maybe that’s why they’re so patient with language learners. In eight months I never had a truly bad experience with someone getting angry at me for my poor Russian. Think about America (if you’re American that is). Imagine some Russian comes in and is butchering English as he tries to order something from the restaurant or bar. I imagine that he would have a much less pleasant experience than I enjoyed in Russia.

Almost everywhere I went I would meet someone who would help me to learn Russian. A verb here, a saying there. Month in and month out that really adds up. The other thing I noticed is how many people complimented me on my Russian, even when I was speaking so horridly it was nearly unintelligible. I can’t think of how a culture could be more supportive of people trying to learn their language.

3. There Will be Order on the Escalators!

МетроThis is admittedly a small point of order, but I think it’s an interesting one. To understand this, you have to understand that everyday the Moscow Metro pulls a double shift. It ferries millions of people across an unbelievably large city. At the same time it’s also a very effective bomb shelter.

In Moscow, most of the older metro stations are buried several hundred feet in the ground. In order to reach them you take a ride on the escalator. This can take minutes. It’s actually a really unique experience when you’re relaxed. If you’re in a rush it’s a nightmare. Thankfully, there is an express lane. On the escalators everyone who is standing stays to the right, allowing others to run past on the left. And if someone is violating this rule, you can yell at them in your gruffest, most cigarette soaked voice and they’ll quickly get out of the way.

4. Russians are Wonderful Hosts

Going over to a Russian’s apartment is always an enjoyable experience. There will be food, tea, entertainment and probably something a bit heavier than tea as well. Even when I was with friends, if he or she didn’t have food for the apartment, we would stop beforehand to get something. Once there, as a guest I wouldn’t be expected to do anything but eat and enjoy myself. In fact, trying to wash the dishes after a meal is borderline rude. Better to relax, and remember that you’re in Russia now.

5. In Russia, Anything Goes

America has so many damn laws it’s mind boggling. There is a fine for breathing incorrectly, a ticket for blowing your nose too loud, and a jail sentence for tying your shoes the wrong way. These laws lead to some of the outlandish lawsuits that we see all the time in America. Are we really living in the land of freedom, when anything you do can get you potentially sued?

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It may to surprise you then to hear that in this situation, an average Russian has far more freedom than an average American. In Russia you can be reckless, retarded, annoying, disrespectful, offensive or drunk as hell. People don’t bat an eye and they sure as hell don’t call a lawyer. I saw so many reckless things happen in Russia that it doesn’t have any meaning to me any more.

It’s another Russian person acting entirely irrational, defying the laws of gravity and all of Darwin’s theories. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

I like this because you can join in. Me and some of the other teachers at my old school did some funny stuff that could have gotten us into a lot of trouble in America. In Russia, it’s just another day. Welcome to the land of insanity. Welcome to The Wild Wild East. 

Living on a Commune in Ukraine

Right now my life is interesting as hell. I’ve been living on a commune in Norther Ukraine, several hours by train from Kiev. How the hell did I get here?

It’s a question I ask myself often. I mean when you look at it, the amount of people who will do something like this has got to be less than 1%. Hell, if you look at it from the right perspective, I’m a one-percenter now! Don’t tell Occupy Wall Street..

Before I get into my life, I’d like to first offer a definition of the place I’m living. I previously called it a commune, but I don’t think that’s entirely correct. It’s the closest definition there is to this place, but it wouldn’t really be fair to call it a commune. Here’s what it’s all about.

The Founders

The life behind this place is a family. Leonid and Diana are the husband and wife. They have two girls, Magda and Patagonia (named after her birthplace) and Diana is eight and a half months pregnant at the moment. They live here during the summer and travel in the winter. Being social people who have traveled across the entire world, they have met literally thousands of people.

With that comes an open invitation to come their place. This is the place that I’ve come to. It’s about two acres of land in the middle of nowhere Ukraine. There is a 97 year old building that has been converted into a hostel with ten beds. Then there is also a standalone kitchen building, with a stove that runs on firewood and no running water.

Next to the kitchen is the main house. It’s the only place on the whole property with internet, and it’s where the family sleeps. Across from the house is a barn, and then further down are a few more assorted buildings.

My Work

All of the buildings sit up on a small hill. If you walk down that small decline you hit the garden. That’s where I’ve been getting my sunburn for the last week. I’ve turned a pasty gold (that will fade quickly) pulling weeds and doing other odd jobs.

In return for my work, I have the privilege of indulging in three amazing traditional Ukrainian meals everyday. I’ll tell you, I might not enjoy weeding the garden all that much, but coming up from it and sitting down to a big Ukrainian dinner, with an assortment of people speaking four different languages, it feels awfully swell!

So that’s why I don’t think commune is quite the correct definition. I’m basically staying with a family, who often host people, and have extra bed and extra work. In return I get to practice Russian all day, eat awesome food, play with some great kids, and I don’t pay for rent.

Langauges

I mentioned that it’s possible to hear four different languages at the dinner table. How the hell does that happen on a rural farm in Ukraine?

Well it breaks down like this.

Of course everyone can speak Ukrainian, that’s a given. As the farm is not that farm from the Russian border, everyone speaks fluent Russian as well. So that’s two languages.

Next is a language whose name I can never remember. It starts with a C and I think it’s Cashmish, or something like that. It’s a local dialect, a cross between Russian and Ukrainian. Then finally, since I’m here, I speak a bit of English with anyone who speaks it. Mostly I speak in Russian, but people here want to practice their English as well.

Hearing Russian every day is definitely helping me out. I’m not necessarily learning that much, but I am getting to practice everything I already know. I’m speaking quicker, more accurately, and my accent is decreasing. I still have exactly two months left in Ukraine, and I expect to be killing it with Russian by the time I leave.

How Long am I staying Here

I like it here, but I can’t say I love it. I miss Kiev. In the four days I spent there I had so much fun it shouldn’t even be legal. I also miss hanging out with people age, going to restaurants, and consistent internet.

The patchy internet here means that for the first time since I started this blog, I probably won’t be posting daily for the next week. In fact I may not post at all. I wish it wasn’t the case, but hey, where I’m living is pretty cool, and if there isn’t internet, well it’s a trade off.

That being said, I’ll probably only be here for another week or so. I don’t really feel a huge draw to stay. I like my life, but I liked my life in Kiev a little bit better. Even though I can live comfortably in the country, I think that in my heart I’m a city kid. Miami is my one true love, and I love New York and Kiev to death.

So another week probably.

P.S. – That’s Olga at the top. She’s another volunteer here with me. At that moment, she’s telling off a little crazy kid who bit her. Ukrainian kids, like Russian kids, are a riot..

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

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.