Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cute baby girl

Hannah is one week old!

We haven't gotten too many photos of her awake and alert yet*, but Angelica was excited to meet her new cousin.


*Edit: More photos!

Friday, October 30, 2009

Russia and the H1N1

I was cold in class.

It’s so hard to figure out how to dress nowadays. The metro is unbearable if you have too many layers on.

So on this particular day I had left my warmer sweater at home and was cold. As soon as we had a break, I jumped up and grabbed my coat, which I had thankfully not left in the cloakroom.

In the middle of class, the grammar teacher stopped and looked at me.

“Are you cold? Why are you cold?”

I shrugged, burrowing deeper into my coat.

“I KNOW why you’re cold! You don’t eat meat! That’s it!” continue/-

Well, I suppose I don’t eat a huge amount of meat daily, but I doubt that I would have a substantial layer of body fat even if I did.

“You have to eat meat! Sausages, cheese, yogurt, sour cream…fatty foods! Then you won’t be cold.”

She went over the window, promising to open it just a crack. Then she began to speak again.


I stared down at my desk in the awkward silence that followed.

“I went to buy myself a mask, and can you imagine? They said in the pharmacy that every morning, people come and buy all the masks! They can’t keep them in stock. You should ALL have masks! Right, Elizabeth?”

I squirmed in my seat, recalling an article I had read recently on a U.S. news site, proclaiming the futility of wearing a mask.

“People, you need to be drinking tea with lemon. What you do is take a knife, cut the lemon in half, and share it with your roommate! If you don’t like eating the lemon with sugar, then you can squeeze it into your tea.”

I tried to be serious, but I could hear the corners of my mouth twitching. I didn’t dare look at anyone else.

She told us of the different stages of Swine flu and all the symptoms. Then we were back to grammar, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

But I remembered that a small child at church has a lung infection, and I realized it isn’t so funny.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Back for another year

I visited the difficult orphanage.

I know I should come up with a new code name that isn't so negative. After all, it is where Nastia and Masha spent a portion of their childhood.

Every school year, I pray about whether or not God would have me go there. Relationships haven't "gelled" as much as in other areas of ministry. At this orphanage I used to see some kids that I had originally met at camp, but many of those kids have already graduated. Each year there is always at least one person that remembers me, and the cycle continues. full post/-

I normally just show up when the school year begins, but I was nervous about doing that this year. Some orphanages have become pretty restricted, especially with the flu going around. So I was kind of procrastinating and wondering if this was the year that I didn't go back.

I tried to call and got no answer on one phone. Finally I called the other counselor in the group, and found that she no longer works there, and that the kids had been redistributed among various groups. But she told me where to find the counselor that does still work there.

Since next week is school vacation week, I decided that I really should try and make it this week, so I met up with Mary and we hopped on the train, not knowing how we would be greeted. When we entered the orphanage, we asked for the particular counselor. The security granny merely nodded and told us what floor to go to. No questions asked.

That counselor was just the person we needed to see. She opened her arms to hug us both simultaneously! We were ushered into the girls' bedroom and given apples.

Now, this group is one of the youngest. They are 8 years old and haven't studied English before. I had taken along a lesson that would work for a few different age groups. As the children gathered and began to write their names as instructed, I realized that we were beginning at the beginning.

I quickly consulted with Mary: "Worksheet or colors?" "Colors," she suggested. I dug out the markers, my all-purpose prop, and began a demonstration.

We didn't get much further than that. Pretty soon, the kids were drawing all over themselves before we could stop them, throwing their slippers around the room, and rolling around on the floor wrestling.

I guess I will have to do some strategic lesson-planning for next time. ;)

So one prayer request is answered: we made contact. But how the rest of the year will go is another question entirely!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


I roll out of bed and turn on my computer. No, not my laptop...the computer that my brain becomes when I live in Russia. It often seems like my problem-solving skills are working every minute of the day.

I don't usually write about all the details of my day, because, well, who would want to read it? However, I decided to join some friends and do it just this once. Maybe you will find it interesting.


My morning routine is pretty basic, and I'll spare you the description. :) However, one aspect is worth mentioning. When I leave each day, I feel as though I am going on a long trek. Since my schedule is never the same two days a week, I have to think through my day very carefully as I am packing my bags. It is likely that after I leave in the morning, I won't come back home in between activities. So I have to plan carefully. read more/-

I might need to take any combination of textbooks for class, teaching supplies, my Bible, my flute, clothing for different kinds of weather, and possibly something to eat. Another aspect of life is that there is always something to pass on to someone else. On Sunday mornings, for example, I often have a full bag of items to return/give/lend to someone else. But on the way home, the bag has filled up again.

Since I have chronic joint pain, I can't carry more than a few pounds with me. So I can't take everything that I might need. It's a balancing act. If I need my umbrella, I will have to leave something else behind. If I absolutely have to take a lot, then I divide it into two bags, so that I can carry something on each side and avoid pain on a certain side.

And that's how my day begins!


At one point my daily commute was about 4 hours (total), but now it is only 3 since my classes aren't that far away. Still, I try to think of how to best use that time.

I have a lot of little tasks that I do when I have a few minutes. I catch up on phone calls while walking to or from the bus/metro/etc. While on the escalator (which goes very deep into the ground), I put away hat/gloves/umbrella and read my text messages. In the metro I write text messages, sending them whenever I have service in the tunnel. While riding the escalator up, I adjust all my outer clothing again and distribute my parcels so that they're comfortable to carry.

My day

Right now I am taking 1-2 classes a day. Let's say it's Tuesday. Today I have one class. Entering the building is like stepping into another world because there are so many non-Russians milling about. I make my way (with effort) up to the 4th floor and wait until the teacher comes with a key to let us into our classroom. Students sit at desks in pairs in university here. Kind of like the lab tables in the U.S.

There is always discussion over whether the window should be open or closed, because it is customary to "air out" the room, yet if the cold air touches your skin, you will surely die become desperately ill.

My instructors are all very kind and patient to us as foreigners. Many of the students are only here for a semester or two, so the instructors are trying to give us the best cultural experience possible! Unfortunately, I'm not usually free to go on excursions and such. But hopefully I will be able to spend a little time with my classmates outside of class.

The next phase

In the afternoons, I usually teach English. On Tuesdays I visit one of the many orphanages in St. Petersburg.

This particular orphanage is one of the best. It has great living conditions and just a pleasant atmosphere overall. But it is still an artificial environment and not a "home." Case in point: I still have trouble with the security guards each time I visit. It's not exactly trouble, but they do usually ask "What do you want?" as if I am an intruder. I have been visiting once or twice weekly for five years. Sometimes the security guards change, and when they ask me who I am, sometimes I want to answer, "Who are YOU?" But I don't.

I used to teach my own classes, but the kids were too busy with all their other afterschool clubs. Now I mainly help them with their English assignments for school. Sometimes it is hard trying to decipher what another teacher has taught, especially if I don't agree with the methods. But I know that I am serving an actual need and not just introducing something of my own that may or may not be helpful.


The tram often breaks down when I'm coming home from the orphanage. I actually like the transportation in St. Petersburg because there are a lot of options to choose from. If the bus pulls away as I am approaching, I know that something else will come along sooner or later. It's not once an hour as in some places.

When the tram breaks, there might be a line of 5-10 of them. Lately it has been breaking down near the end of my street, which is still a 20-30 minute walk home. What I do is cross over to the next bus/tram stop and wait for something to come from another direction. I don't usually have to wait more than 5-10 minutes. Of course at that point it might be very crowded, but the main thing is to reach my destination.


In the evenings I normally have a church meeting, English lesson, or social event. On Tuesdays I don't have anything regular, but I am often busy anyway.

I count it as a bonus if I'm home before 10 p.m. If I'm home at 7 or 8, I might actually have time to cook a hot meal, check my e-mail, do my homework, or make a phone call.

I have to try to be consistent about bedtime because otherwise I find myself nodding off during class. It is especially hard to remain alert during these gray and rainy fall days.

I keep various notebooks by my bed for writing down prayer or notes about the next day. It helps me clear my mind before going to sleep. After all, the next day is going to be totally different.

So that, in a nutshell, is my "typical" day!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

An (un)productive mind?

It's amazing how little there is to write about when you don't do a lot of reading. No input=no output. While writing topics don't always correlate with what we read about, the act of reading still does a lot to keep the mind sharp. That's what I tell myself, anyway. :)

Lately, my textbooks have doubled as my reading material. Not exactly the most enthralling topic to blog about!

Whenever I have a few minutes before bed and such, I read a little (in Russian) of "I Dared to Call Him Father,"an autobiography of a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity. I don't have too many Muslim friends, but I have enough that it seems worthwhile to read.

What are YOU reading?

Monday, October 26, 2009

The church and the opposite sex

The last dating scenario I posted was a bit dismal. To remedy that, I'd like to share a great 2-part sermon from Josh Harris.

He provides some sound biblical principles for relating to the opposite sex as Christians. It's helpful for both single and married church members, but emphasizes the current dating situation in the modern church.

Part one focuses more on singles, and part two focuses on what the church can do to support them.

I couldn't find the transcript anywhere, but you can follow the link and listen to the audio file. It's quite user-friendly.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Test your Russian

Here's one for you linguists.

There's a fun (and impossible to spell) aspect of language called "onomatopoeia." This exists in the English language as well as Russian. In fact, I think there are more examples in Russian. Either that, or I've just forgotten English. (I do have bouts of amnesia when we are discussing a Russian word and the professor asks me for the English translation).

With this latest topic we were learning something which I later found out translated to "interjection." We have plenty of them in English: Oh, Ooooh, Ahhh, Shhhh, Ahem, Uh-huh, Nuh-uh, Psst, Whew, etc. The Russian equivalent often sounds more guttural. read more/-

The examples below were listed in the textbook as interjections, but I prefer the term onomatopoeia. I think of them as the sounds of comic strips. When we were asked to recall the equivalent in our own language, I realized that in English we often just use the verb.

Read the Russian sound effects (transliterated) below and see if you can match up the noises (underneath) with the action they are describing.

1) prig-skok!
2) gahf-gahf
3) tuk-tuk
4) tyuk-tyuk
5) tyu-tyu
6) khlop!
7) djin!
8) fyoot
9) bul-bul

What it describes:

a) A doorbell ringing.
b) Something sinking.
c) Knocking on a door.
d) A balloon popping (pop!).
e) A jumping noise.
f) Something quickly passing by (woosh!).
g) A dog barking (woof!).
h) Tapping on glass.
i) Something disappearing (poof!).

Friday, October 23, 2009

A holiday and a fun blog


I actually don't use the caps lock button. I use the shift button instead. Nevertheless, I think the day is worth mentioning.

I found out via a blog where I landed while doing a search related to comic strips (to be explained later).

It turned out to be a quite entertaining blog on writing. Maybe the bits on publishing don't interest me, but I love all the grammar jokes and writing ideas. And the comic strips, of course! Check it out:

Thursday, October 22, 2009

An excuse to write

My conversation teacher knows that I am a Christian.

She has been giving us essay assignments lately regarding our opinions about various topics. I like these homework assignments because in class we often have to talk about trends that are typical in our home countries, or that we've noticed in Russia. It is not so much opinion as a list of observations. The "What do you think?" questions are much more interesting.

Last week, the topic was gender. I was quite glad to have a chance to get those thoughts down on paper :).

This week, we had to write about our dreams for the future. It feels natural to write and also to mention my faith in the process. These are all topics that I can't think about outside the context of the Bible.

I can actually enjoy writing in Russian now, in contrast to when I was in university and my language skills weren't as strong. It was a chore then to write, looking up every ending and verb form. Now I write more or less without a dictionary and can focus on the actual content.

The next assignment is to write about our approach to house-cleaning and "order." I have a few thoughts about that as well. :)

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A stolen joke

I was helping kids in the orphanage with their English homework yesterday, and I came upon this funny story, which I will retell as best as I remember it. Sorry for the lack of citation…I will try to get the name of the textbook later.

An Englishman in Germany on business visits a certain café regularly. As he begins his meal, a German man comes in, also on his lunch break, and greets him with “Mahlzeit!” The Englishman replies “Taylor.” The German man smiles and walks away and the Englishman resumes eating.

The next day, the same thing happens. And the next. Finally, the Englishman remarks to an acquaintance, “Why do the Germans always greet me with their last name, even when we have already met?” read the rest/-

“What do they say?” asks the acquaintance. “Mahlzeit.”
“That means ‘enjoy your meal!’"

The next day, the Englishman arrives at the café and the German is already eating lunch.

“Mahlzeit!” the Englishman pronounces.
“Taylor!” replies the German.

A similar thing happens to me sometimes when am teaching English. I have to avoid extra words, or I will be misunderstood. For example, if you turn to a pupil and use a direction such as “Say ‘my name is….,” they will repeat that exact phrase. And then you have to correct them and specify that they need only the second part of the phrase. And then they think that you have given them two variations of the same thing. So it’s best to think this through in advance.

Sometimes the world is such a confusing place! But humorous, nonetheless.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Source of light

Sometimes Christian themes are secularized, or lose their meaning.

Lately, the topic of "light" comes up everywhere. I remember how in high school we went around singing DC Talk's "I want to be in the light." Or how about the more recent one, "Into marvelous light I'm running..."? There's also the favorite, "Shine, Jesus, Shine." When we think about what light and darkness represent, of course these words hold meaning for us. But when taken out of context, they aren't so effective.

What does it mean when the light goes on? We all feel something when we see the flicker of a candle, yet what is it exactly that we're feeling?

I had a high school teacher who was Jewish. On the last day of class, he lit a candle and gave a poignant speech about how we could bring light to the world. A Russian teacher here also talked about being a light. Also popular is the theory that "light always conquers darkness." +/-

It's not a new concept. Everyone instinctively knows that light is good and darkness is bad. Almost everyone you talk to believes in a version of the "light conquers darkness" theory. If it is a person with very little hope, he may talk about everything being in darkness. But in order for there to be darkness, there had to have been light, or knowledge of light.

I suppose the difference lies in whether or not we name the Source, or acknowledge it for ourselves. My Jewish high school teacher may have been speaking of God. I will never know. Maybe he was afraid to speak of faith in school, or maybe he hadn't decided yet which god is the true one.

There are a lot of times when we leave topics open. We are afraid to fill in the blanks. We say "good luck," but are afraid to mention that we believe in the will of God. We say we will pray for someone, but we don't mention to Whom we will pray.

Or maybe I am the only one?

Monday, October 19, 2009


It can be intriguing to study in a cross-cultural environment. When I was doing my TESOL training, the most interesting part of the day was lunchtime. In the classroom, the students of different cultures had learned the rules. But once they got out their different assortments of food and began to eat, diversity was present once more.

Here are a few general observations I've made at the university here:

-Chinese students knock on closed doors, even to enter a classroom. Argentinians knock even on open doors, when entering a room occupied by other people. Americans knock on the doors of toilet stalls, changing rooms, or any room where a private meeting might be going on that they are interrupting. Russians....try the door handle?

-Only Russians use the cloakroom at the university. Everyone else is either really cold or doesn't know about this service.

-Whoever is in the majority talks the loudest. Not only Americans, but Chinese do this, yelling across a hallway to each other, even when speakers of other languages are present. But I can also testify to Russians doing this...for example, in an airport waiting room, when traveling in a group.

-No one seems particularly concerned about punctuality. :) Maybe the sleepy student mentality takes precedence over culture...

-When Russian words fail, the Argentinian and Polish priests speak Latin to each other. :)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Gender equality in Russia

I didn't think there was quite as much gender liberalism in St. Petersburg as in my hometown. When you look around, traditional masculinity and femininity seem to be observed.

However, according to the (Russian) authors of the textbook that we use for conversation class, the genders are, in fact, at war.

For homework, we read a cute little text about how little girls are raised to play with dolls and little boys to play with cars, and this determines their future. Later in life, girls must "suffer" through being courted by men, while the unlucky men must buy flowers and be constantly thinking of ways to show their affection. Why must it be this way? How unfair life is... full post/-

Exploring the chapter further, I found some interesting viewpoints represented by texts that we didn't cover in class. For example, there was a description of "gender theory"-the idea that gender roles are determined not by biology, but by stereotypes determined by the culture. So adult men and women only know what to do because of what they were taught in childhood or observed going on around them. There is no instinct or higher power to guide them. Women, naturally, have been repressed in this regard, and in many cases must depend on their husbands for income.

When we had our discussion in class, it turned out that all the male students were absent that day, and I wasn't able to speak my mind because the (young, female) instructor asked a lot of leading questions, such as:

-Who earns more, men or women?
-Can women be president in your country?
-What would you want to change about how women are treated?
-Has the situation improved in your country, or are gender stereotypes still observed?

In other words, there was no question which referred to any positive aspects of gender, and we were not asked if we liked, for example, the way things used to be, when chivalry was still around.

I was a little surprised because I would have expected the topic to be discussed more in the U.S. than in Russia. But I suppose in most cultures the question comes up at one point or another. There are, of course, places where women are still considered different from men, but are abused in relationships. That is certainly not a model I would support. But I think a more common situation is that as freedom of speech increases, complaints grow. We always want more of something.

I was delighted when we received a homework assignment to write an essay stating our position regarding gender. I wonder if there is a page limit? :)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Russian mothers and the imperative case

The average young adult in America does not expect a near-stranger to comment on how warmly he is dressed.

I think that the root of this discomfort is the emphasis of independence in American culture. To comment on someone's lifestyle is to suggest that perhaps he hasn't quite made the transition into adulthood. The boxes of macaroni and cheese, the baskets of dirty laundry....these are ignored. We focus on the accomplishments and refrain from criticizing adults.

Contrast this with the fact that in Russia you have several generations living under one roof, and you have a different story.

To make a long story short, I often have the experience of being "mothered." Think of a mother hen and you will have a pretty accurate picture. I'm often told that I've gained/lost weight, asked what I had for lunch, quizzed on some other rather intimate details. Maybe a curious hand reaches out to feel the thickness of my jacket, making sure it is warm enough. +/-

And maybe we all have a mother or grandmother who does it. But my groupmates and I were just a little shocked (and amused) to receive instructions from our teachers on how to dress! The grammar instructor folded up the hem of her skirt to show that it was lined, and therefore fit for winter. The lexicon instructor asked if I had medicine for my cold. The windows in the classroom are opened and closed religiously. We were told to wear boots and not shoes, now that it is colder. So I suppose I will have to least on the days I have class. ;)

And while we're on the topic of instructions...I have come to realize just how rude the imperative sounds to English speakers. Perhaps this is why Russians sometimes seem like they're angry.

I suppose in some context it's okay, especially in a classroom situation. "Raise your hand if you know the answer." "Turn over your paper when you're done." Even at the table: "Please pass the salt."

But other commands sound abrupt. "Give me a pencil, please." Adding words like "Could you" and "would you" always help. Perhaps that is a safe rule.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

An attitude towards Missions

I was reading this article recently in the Perspectives textbook. I broke up the paragraphs a little so that individual statements stand out.

-"Lack of interest in mission is not fundamentally caused by an absence of compassion or commitment, nor by a lack of information or exhortation.

-And lack of interest in mission is not remedied by more shocking statistics, more gruesome stories or more emotionally manipulative commands to obedience.

-It is best remedied by intensifying peoples' passion for Christ, so that the passions of his heart become the passions that propel our hearts. +/-

-Mission must never have first place in the Church's life. The Church is to have but one Lord-one passion-the One in whom all the fullness of God dwells...

-...It is insufficient to proclaim that the Church of God has a mission in the world. Rather, the God of mission has a Church in the world."

-Dearborn, Tim. "Beyond Duty," 1997. From the Perspectives textbook (p. 70); used by permission of World Vision.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Today is my anniversary! I moved to St. Petersburg five years ago. Well, give or take a few days. It was definitely around this time. But who's counting?

If you had asked me for my "5-year plan," I wouldn't have been able to predict all the things that have happened to me! I have now been visiting Russia for over half my life, and lived here for some of that time.


Almost everyone I communicate with on a daily basis was unknown to me five years ago. Or if I met them at camp in the early years, I probably hadn't ever sat down with them and had a heart-to-heart in Russian. I remember wondering who my friends would be. Now I know...

Of course it is hard to go back to the mindset of being a newcomer. We forget. But I have memories of some very specific instances; of learning different things; of failing and trying again; of being shown mercy. God has surrounded me with mercy again and again.

But we never learn to predict the future, no matter how "experienced, " we are. That is up to God. It's better that way.

I am thankful.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Vocabulary on the mind

In my lexicon class, we learn whole groups of words at a time, discussing their etymology and current use. We do a few oral exercises in class and then write sentences at home. In doing so, we can expect our "passive" vocabulary to increase.

Why "passive"? I don't know about you, but learning 40-50 words a week with insufficient practice means that I am able to recognize and understand the words in context, but not necessary use them in my speech.

Personally, I would like to build my active vocabulary as well!

So how can I memorize the words more effectively? Flashcards are great, but time-consuming to make. +/-

Lately, I have been taking advantage of modern technology to help me with vocabulary practice. Using a search engine, I enter in the words one at a time, cut and paste the 2-3 most representative examples that I find into a Word document, and print out my results for studying on the go. It's more current than even the latest textbooks.

Of course, there is no guarantee that online grammar is correct! But at least native speakers generally use vocabulary in the right context. Spelling and syntax can be found in a dictionary or textbook.

It is going to take some time before the words start showing up in my speech. But at least I am solidifying them in my brain in specific phrases, which will make them more accessible.

I need to do this with English as well! Many years have gone by since I passed the SAT's...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Bureaucracy and student life

I have felt like a secret agent, receiving one assignment after the other. Either that, or an errand boy. Anyway, the bulk of my paperwork is over, at least for a month or two.

I finally got my metro pass a few days ago. As far as I understood, the procedure normally goes like this:

-you fill out a form at the university
-they give you an invoice that you take to the bank to pay (this covers the cost of the plastic card)
-your information gets sent to the transportation authorities
-you receive notification that they have your information
-you go to the student headquarters of the transport authority with your passport and bank receipt
-they make your card
-after 10 minutes, you go to the kiosk in the metro and pay the monthly fee to begin using the card +/-

In my case, I went to the transportation authorities, but they didn't have my information. "But I was notified that it was ready," I said. "Well, you're not in the system." I couldn't argue with that.

I waited a few more days and tried again. They still couldn't locate me in the system. I got home and called the main office and they couldn't find me either.

Then I notified the university that I was having trouble, and they said they would fix the problem. A few days later, they notified me again that I could go pick up my metro pass.

At this point I was spending about 100 rubles/day on transportation. And the student metro pass is 500 rubles for a whole month. So let's just say I didn't want to waste any time...

I went to the transportation authorities, same procedure. They couldn't find me in the system. BUT this time they told me to go next door to the department that works with passengers, and ask them how my information is entered in the system. Apparently, there is sometimes a problem with foreign passports, because we have a different number of digits. Something like that.

So I went next door, and they took my passport and did a lot of tapping on the keyboard, and wrote on a piece of paper which then got stamped.

Armed with this new bit of information, I went back to the student department, where they told me to sit while they too did a lot of tapping on the keyboard. Then I was told to sit opposite a camera, look at the "birdie," and not blink. A minute later, I had a plastic card with my photo and information on it. They hyphenated my first and middle names, but that is beside the point. I was so impressed by the technology! It was a complete contrast to the long search for my name in the computer.

So I waited the requisite 10 minutes and then paid the fee at the metro terminal. Hooray!

After class the next day, I was fighting a cold, but managed to stumble over to the administrative offices to pick up my contract and student ID. The ID is of the "homemade" variety that I mentioned in a recent post. The photo and insert (handwritten) were cut out with scissors and pasted into a little cardboard holder, which had been covered over with red paper. The stamp makes it official, of course.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Full Circle

In May, I attended a seminar on orphan ministry. As I got ready to leave for the summer, I wondered just what role it would play in my life.

A few days after I returned to St. Petersburg, I got an invitation to a sort of reunion prayer meeting for the people who had attended the seminar (and anybody else that wanted to come). It was interesting that I was beginning on the same note that I had finished on.

I'll be honest, I hadn't gotten to know the other people that well since there was so much to take in during the sessions. But there was a general atmosphere of unity that drew us together despite being near-strangers. And we were all eager to try out these new connections and see what we could do as a representation of the Body of Christ. +/-

This time, there were familiar faces, even if we did have to introduce ourselves all over again. I immediately met some kindred spirits. As we went around the circle, specific callings started to match up. There was a sense of hope that we could work together. Some of us are visiting the same orphanages. Some of us are working with the graduates whom others knew when they were still at the orphanage. Even in cases where we are spread out, there are certain phrases and insights that strike a chord with everyone.

It is all just little pieces, and I still don't know what it means. But it is progress.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The day I accidentally paid a bribe

This happened a long time ago, but I was reminded of it again recently.

It was my first year living in St. Petersburg. My friend (also American) and I were riding the bus. As usual I flashed my all-purpose paper bus pass at the conductor. In those days, the conductor didn't have an electronic wand to check passes. But sometimes a "controller" would get on the bus with an instrument that he could use to scan your documents and take disciplinary action if necessary.

I obediently showed him my paper pass.

"Blah blah blah" he said. I guess my Russian wasn't very good at that time.

"Show him your electronic card," my friend said. I took out my electronic metro pass that accompanies the bus pass. +/-

"Blah blah blah." Apparently there was a problem. I finally understood from my friend that I was supposed to have (handwritten) the number of the electronic card on my paper bus pass, so that they would know that I had paid for them at the same time. I suppose the electronic one could have expired. But then how would I have obtained the paper one, since it said the name of the current month? Anyway, I had been buying this pass for months, all the while oblivious to this special rule.

The controller was yelling at me now and asking me to get off the bus and do something. I looked up and saw a sign that said there was a 100-ruble fine for unpaid fare. I shoved 100 rubles at him and got off the bus, since we were at my stop.

"Liz, you just bribed him," my friend said.

Did I? I didn't mean to.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A dream or not?

In the middle of the night, there was a sound. It wasn't coming from my alarm, it was farther away. I got up and realized it was someone at the callbox. I picked up the phone and placed it back on the receiver without answering, remembering how persons of "questionable character" had always tried to get into my old apartment building.

I decided to go to the bathroom while I was up. I opened the door and on the floor was a huge puddle. I decided to go anyway. Just then, the phone rang, and my roommate managed to get out of bed to answer it. I looked at all the water and realized that the phone call was somehow related. "There's water on the floor!" I grunted. +/-

I went back and collapsed on my bed. I checked the time. It was 5am.

The doorbell rang. We put on our bathrobes and answered it.

There stood a young man. "Okay, let's figure this out," he said. "There's water pouring into our apartment from above, and our power is out. He then went to check the apartment above ours.

I tried different-sized containers to catch the drip, but it didn't have a defined source.

Then there were some phone calls. A new drip was coming from the ceiling. The neighbors above us turned off their water, and we went back to bed for a few hours.

I dreamed watery dreams of swimming, sailing, boats, and fish.

In the morning, it had stopped. I was eating breakfast and my roommate advised me to take a shower in case they were going to turn the water off to do repairs. I abandoned my breakfast and ran to do as she had said.

I tried to work on the computer, but there was no Internet.

I called the transportation company, but there was no word on my metro pass. I wasn't in the system.

I headed out into the October sunshine to begin my day.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Just call me Sasha

This morning I finished my homework for Grammar and Lexicon, but when I got to class, I found that the schedule had changed and in the afternoon we had Conversation Practice, the class for which I had not done my homework. Sigh.

I was supposed to tell something "interesting" about my homeland, and over lunch I quickly composed a speech about the Mayflower and Plymouth Rock.

When I reached the classroom, I found it empty. Checking back a few minutes later, I found a note from my groupmates that they had gone to a "party." I noticed that other classes had been invited too, so I joined them, passing my bewildered teacher on the way down the stairs. +/-

This "party" was the celebration of 60 years of communist rule in China. The Chinese students had put together a little presentation.

In the department where I study, probably 75% of the students are from China. They mostly have separate classes, but we see each other in the corridor. In one of my classes, there was a student, possibly from Korea. When he pronounced his name, the teacher could not understand him. She shook her head and said "your language is difficult for the Russian ear to understand!" Then he replied, "You can call me Sasha" (which was nothing like his actual name, but would suffice).

Meanwhile, everyone had gathered to congratulate the Chinese students, who took turns giving speeches about their country in Russian. Some were more understandable than others, mostly due to intonation. We watched a slide presentation which featured a small child singing a sweet song while images of China's weapons of war flashed across the screen. It was humorous, yet tragic at the same time. I couldn't help but think that these weapons were in theory stockpiled in competition with other nations represented. And here we were congratulating them...

A few of the Russian teachers got up to give speeches in honor of China. This was one of those "official" moments in which Russians are usually very polished. Americans, if asked, would not know what to say. After the usual "health and happiness," one of the Russians wished the Chinese success in having more Russian speakers in their country. I wondered what kind of wish that was. As if I wished the Germans good luck spreading English in their country.

After the presentations were over, someone uttered something in Chinese, and suddenly everyone rose to their feet to sing what I can only assume was the national anthem. Then it was over, and we didn't have time for class. Saved!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

It's official...

One element of cultural shock lies in the difference in what is regarded as professional, or official.

There are times when I notice something like a typo and think...we would never allow that to be publicized in the States. And at other times, if I am performing or presenting something for review, I realize that to the Russian eye I look ill-prepared, because I haven't used a format that is up to their standards.

The mark of the ink stamp is very highly valued in the Russian Federation. Visitors have their first encounter with this at passport control. When you hear the big STAMP! you know that everything is okay and you have passed inspection (a lot of countries stamp you at passport control, but in Russia especially this is a sign of things to come). +/-

In fact, it seems that anything that has a stamp on it is regarded as official. I have been amused upon noticing seemingly mundane announcements with an ink stamp. It seems a bit excessive.

Another reason it seems strange to me, I suppose, is that I am used to everything in my country being computerized. Handwritten signs are a thing of the past. When I see something written sloppily in a Russian hand, it seems unworthy of the accompanying stamp. In the past this may have been a question of technology, but computers are fairly widespread nowadays. It must be by habit that a Russian form may be printed out, only to have all the remaining information filled out by hand.

When I went to my first classes at the university, I met with the advisor and she took down all my information by hand in a little notebook with lines. Then she filled out my form by hand, which I then took to the general office so that they could complete my contract by hand, which will then be signed by several parties and stamped (I assume). And then I'll be official!

It is still a bit disconcerting to see grocery store prices written by hand. Not because I think I am being cheated, but because I wonder how they can keep track of everything if it isn't computerized.

This is not to say that Russians have bad hand-writing. It is, in fact, very beautiful, and whenever I have received letters, the handwriting has been evenly spaced with the help of pencil lines which are then erased. There is nothing wrong with the way it looks other than the association. Handwritten text is for primary school homework and personal notes. Everything else, if it is meant to look professional, should be typewritten. It's the mindset that is ingrained in me.

I suppose, the equivalent of the ink stamp in the U.S. is that everything look as far from hand-made as possible. If any text is to be displayed, it is typewritten about 90% of the time, with the rest being special artsy publications like a menu that changes daily.

There are some cases where it is the opposite. For example, homemade pastries are considered celebratory in the U.S., whereas in Russia it is the custom to buy an elaborate cake in a bakery for a special occasion. I used to make greeting cards, until I discovered that Russians often buy them...however, a perfunctory message (store-bought or not ) is not sufficient, and they write out long, flowery birthday wishes.

My roommate received an invitation to study in the U.S., and found it strange that the organization had used a form letter. She said that Russian officials prefer that a letter be more personalized, with more specific information. In both cases, attention to detail and precision are present. But they are evaluated by contrasting criteria.

I could probably think of a lot more examples, but hopefully that will suffice for now!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Just for laughs

What's the result when you try to translate Chinese-English into Russian? Confusion!

My friend asked me to translate a user's manual for her, but I had a lot of trouble deciphering it, and often had to go by the diagram.

Most amusing were the "care" instructions at the end:

1) When you on-off the door, please do not overexert, for fear mangle the parts.

2) Every season put a few butter in the path, and let the door move about freely.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The pros of being a student

While language training is a must for missionaries, I have never really considered it a priority since I had studied Russian previously and get plenty of language practice in daily life.

But due to the current visa regime, I've been "forced" to become a student. Of course, I could have tried to get all my paperwork together to enter a degree program. But since I am trying to figure out about residency at the same time, it seemed practical to take a more low-key approach and become an "exchange" student.

I have three Russian language classes, 14 hours a week: Grammar, Lexicon, and Conversation Practice.

Here are some of the benefits that I've observed over the past week of attending class: +/-

-I receive feedback about my language skills. My friends don't normally correct my grammar/pronunciation. Error correction is a must in language training, so while I still acquire a lot of new words daily, there are some weak areas in which I've become stagnant. Now I can receive a little correction by attending class, and break through some of the barriers which remain.

-I have an excuse for making mistakes. It might sound cowardly, but I do get tired of being an outsider all the time, and it is refreshing to be in a place where people know that you are learning and are patient with you. This is not to say that the average person on the street is not patient with me, but here I can let my guard down a little more because it is a learning environment.

-It gives structure to my week. The class schedule changes from day to day, but the class periods are all the same, and I know that my day is planned out until about 3 pm, at which point I can engage in other activities.

-I have permission to discuss culture. Actually, culture comes up quite a bit in ordinary conversation, but it is often hard to put into words what I am feeling. While attending class I have realized that some of those feelings are repressed. I normally try to avoid analyzing Russian culture too much with other foreigners because it can quickly turn to criticism or just idle talk. But with other foreigners and a native Russian present, the environment is more conducive to edification. I was reading parts of the textbook during my commute, and found the observations to be quite poignant. Culture shock is one of those things that you have to work through; it does not just go away if you ignore it.

-Language training is fun when you already have conversation skills. Sure, my grammar can use some work, but at this point I can have productive conversations with the other students, and it is interesting to have discussions with them, rather than just for the sake of being in class.

-Discounts! I get a student ID and student transportation pass, which is less than half of the usual price. Of course, I have to pay for the lessons...but it is nice to have some perks!

5 years later

 After my latest  weird dream sequence , I found my mind wandering to an alternate scenario where our church never split up . I did the math...