Peace Corps in Russia, 96-98 part 2

“Somehow as a foreigner, a person ends up in this place of belonging to no one and therefore belonging to everyone.”

When we left off, our mighty little volunteer was disheartened by a lascivious old man in power who was trying to put the moves on our slightly frozen, somewhat miserable little volunteer. She had left for furlough to Ireland to overcome her disillusionment by her inability to totally reform the compulsory education system in Russia.

She had a magnanimous time, but at a Peace Corps wage of 150 a month, she found herself without much in the way of means in a place more expensive even than the US.

Back to her little story.

As I geared up to leave Cheboksary, I felt very happy, like a second chance. All the Chuvash people I worked with though were rather confused. I told my counterpart, The Lyudmila, about the Minister of Hands and her response was:
a. don’t tell anyone
b. this could be an opportunity for you
c. so, this is a bad thing?

Peace Corps response depended on who in the office I spoke with, and ranged from silence, which sounded like indifference to it was my fault because I smiled, to “so what are you going to do?”.

Cornish, the volunteer who got me out of Cheboksary, put me together with the Volga Region Academy of Civil Service in Saratov, and in a phone call with an altogether different sort of Lyudmila, this one, apparently not in sweater pants, told me to meet her at the Rechnoi Vokzal (a river station for boats) and I would know her because she would be wearing red pants. My feeling was good.

The boat ride was to leave Cheboksary at something crazy like 5 in the morning. I needed a car. This is where I must talk about Diana Vladimirovna.

While I was in a pit of misery in Cheboksary, I met her. I was in a pit of misery because here I thought I was going to be one of these volunteers that was able to work, help and generally offer something to my placement. It didn’t seem like too much to ask, but it really really was. Since I was unable to fulfill this most basic thing, I was disappointed and had another year and a half of time to go. Either that or I flunk out as an “Early Termination” (this is the Peace Corps term for quitters). If it weren’t for the Minister of Education and his plans for our very special relationship, I might have been able to deal with this disappointment. But this along with 6 months of cultural adjustment in subzero temps with no idea of who I could trust (Peace Corps? My colleague? Other volunteers who mostly wanted to just get through their own difficulties?)…my coping skills were maxed and I was just in a low place.

As a side note here, I might mention that in a volunteer survey, 60% of all females reported that they experienced some level of sexual harrassment on the job. Folks, sexual harrassment laws are not ubiquitous worldwide, but harrassment is.

Diana was the only person I met who I felt like I could trust. I felt like she had no ulterior motive, no prejudice and was just a calm, sweet dispositioned older woman. When I was with her, everything felt sane for a little bit. I asked her to be my Russian tutor, but in my heart, I could not have cared less about learning Russian. I had a stipend from Peace Corps to spend on language training, and I wanted it to go to her. In exchange, we drank tea, she spoke to me and I understood very little, but I really, really enjoyed the small time we spent together. Her son was Kostya, the good conversationalist working on an advanced degree with whom I spent weekends in Moscow.

Diana drove me to the Rechnoi Vokzal in Cheboksary to set off down the Volga River with a mountain of stuff at the wee hours of the morning. She is, was a dear sweet woman to me.

So I arrived in Saratov, met by Lyudmila in the red pants and Valodya, a middle aged gentleman who was always a friend of the PC volunteers and a good friend of vodka. I got to the dormitory where they would have me stay and I began to settle in. Not 24 hours later, one Tatiana knocked on my door and in broken English invited me home with her to Astrakhan.

See this is what it is to be a stranger in a strange place. I knew nothing of this girl, nothing of her family or Astrakhan. Somehow as a foreigner, a person ends up in this place of belonging to no one and therefore belonging to everyone. So total strangers can come to your door at home and in a show of total hospitality invite you to their dacha. It is at once perplexing, charming, kind, and sometimes one might not really want to go, or might be afraid of what they find.

I was assured Tatiana was a student of first class and that it would probably be a nice time. So we went plattskart to Astrakhan. Her family was wonderful. We ate apricots and shashlik at their dacha on the delta of the Caspian Sea. They were incredibly sweet people. Tanya made it a 3 day English learning blitz, going everywhere with her dictionary. Astrakhan was this very nice little Russian port town. It was warmer, and just felt nice, easy.

At my new school, I learned that all my students were studying to be “managers”. I thought this was amusing. They were between the ages of 19 and 22. Again, I found myself in the circumstance of teaching in a system that I didn’t entirely comprehend. It is also standard that one will not have any chalk, textbooks were rare and photocopies were even more rare. To this day I don’t understand this idea of teaching without a logical curriculum in place. If I asked someone would write it down on a scrap of paper for me, or just tell me. As a less experienced teacher, I was hoping for some context to place my teaching in to give me a rudder.

Saratov was a better place altogether. I had email, there was an arbat to enjoy in summer months, more volunteers and Saratov was a bit more cosmopolitan than Cheboksary, but also less friendly. Not unfriendly, but in Cheboksary old dedyshki would invite me to tea. In Saratov the Russian distance in public was observed.

So the drama was gone. I still prepared feverishly for classes, even if most of what I taught was in vain. For example, if I taught cliche’s my serious “managers” felt this was a frivolous use of the time. Most of my spoken English was not understood and my Russian was not clean enough to use as a teacher in front of students. I had not yet learned the fine art of sheltered instruction and I slowly learned that for the best success I had to use Russian methods mostly, which were grammar translation. Teaching English as a Foreign Language is an altogether different beast from teaching as a Second Language. My first year was a baptism of fire.

My service was marked by ambition and a feeling of certain failure. It is conceivable that I just burnt myself out with these conflicting notions.

The time there though was positive, were it not for the dark cloud that I viewed all my circumstances through. I have a large collection of stories, memories, train rides, conversations, summer nights in the park with pirozhok and invitations to people’s homes. So now Russian is a language of nostalgia for this time.

I was able to go home for Christmas, the second Christmas into my service. My dad used his frequent flyer miles and got me this plane ticket. That experience, like my time in Ireland, had a cloud of a very different way of looking at the world around it. Nothing seemed very real or serious. America and my friends all seemed to live in this marvelous bubble. The only real thought went to what toppings to order for the pizza, what to do on the weekend or boyfriend/girlfriend problems. Depression seemed like a luxury that the rest of the world had earned moreso but didn’t have the ability to claim. I love, and loved my friends, but America, with its myriad varieties of toothpaste and diet grapefruit juice in containers that would serve a babushka for ten years or more…seemed really wasteful, self indulgent.

If I sound snotty, forgive me. I live the American life now. I pontificate about my favorite toothpaste and which place is best to buy pizza. But washing my own laundry by hand, riding Russian public transport (characterized by being squeezed so tight that I was inhaling the fluffy hats of 4’6″ grandmas) for a couple years changed my way of looking at things.

I have a million stories now. My best I will share in a part 3. I think/know sometimes these are only valuable to me– I struggled so hard there to keep positive that my whole sense of humor changed…I laughed at things that weren’t funny to stay afloat. Some memories I share with students. Some are buried in my journal, some I can only shrug and say, well…what can I say? Some come up and I smile occasionally. My work there never totally satisfied me, and so perhaps this fact is what makes me want to return to complete that aspiration.

When I left, to my total shock, I tested into the ACTFL rating of Intermediate in Russian. While my colleague, with whom I had the deepest conversation, knew the far reaching limitations of my Russian, I could fool people initially with a good accent. I think the accent got me the higher rating, because my grammar never advanced beyond a limited scope of what I had memorized.

I left Russia in July of 98, meeting my mom in Moscow and travelled with her to St. Petes, which was another really odd experience. I wasn’t in touch with my mom’s reality, and she wanted me anticipate her every need, which I didn’t or even consider doing. I was supposed to know when she was thirsty, and I was supposed to know Russia perfectly. I didn’t, I don’t. Chances like riding in taxis–to me very normal part of life, scared her to death. I extended the invitation, I suppose partially because I never thought she would take me up on it. I had planned a trip to Turkey. At the last minute she told me she was arriving in a week or so, and I was to be there.

Days after I got home, I took off to Costa Rica, penniless for 5 weeks. The plan was to get jobs, but my travelling friend has since gotten a job stateside that she loved. So if I were to get a job, it would be for very low wages and I would be alone. That sounded stressful, so I opted to go back home. Costa Rica was an attempt to get my Spanish back. My friend, with whom I had travelled in Ecuador and knew how good my Spanish was there was surprised to hear me answering “Da” and “Nyet” and trying not to start off in Russian and keep Russian words out when I was looking for the Spanish word. Given the amount of money I had spent to learn Spanish, this was all a little irritating. My Spanish felt buried under a pile of Russian. Not even very good Russian.

Now 8 years after the trip, I still burn in my belly to travel. But I have a daughter, a husband and not so positively, school debt. I also have a garden, friends, a community, neighbors who pump up my tires when the go flat and people who have known me for years. All these things end up as higher priorities than my own hopes for now, but I know the day will come. The clouds will clear, the opportunity will come up and I will find myself instead of the Betty the Unsteady I was in 96 more ready and prepared. At least I can hope, I know that the best way to make God laugh is to tell him my plans.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. jane says:

    Oh my! First let me just say that in a short conversation I can convince pretty much anyone that I speak Russian – my accent is AWESOME. Unfortunately, if the conversation progresses, it will become clear that my grammar is absolute shite. Sigh.Also, during my last trip to Costa Rica I frequently answered questions in Russian. Whoopsie!

  2. Mrs. T says:

    (sigh) I love languages. It is SO true that the “foreigner” is adopter by all when in a strange land. I do it on the rare occasion when there are visitors here. Great, lovely post. Love the last line about making God laugh. So, so, true.

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