Три белых коня

It’s been awhile. I made a commitment to actually keeping up with this thing, so I’m forcing myself to sit down and write. Fortunately, I have been up to quite a lot, and I realized that the last time I wrote winter had just barely crept in to my life. Now I’m writing from the heart of it, after having taken the time to smell the roses in -42, watched the snowdrifts outside my dorm finally grow taller than me, and finding myself again after losing my mind during the longest night of the year.

Point number one: Russians (at least those that live this far up) refer to the solstice as the longest night, rather than the shortest day. That quarter-life crisis inducing thought that Russia can no longer surprise me is something I’ve finally made peace with, and my method for doing so is to make note of every tiny little itsy bitsy new thing I learn. For example, I had the realization that because of the metric system, there is no standard size for a ruler here. I watched a woman at a bookstore ring up a ruler without a price sticker by taking a smaller ruler and calculating how much to charge by the centimeter. Incredible. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

So yes, back the darkness. That.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t that difficult to get used to. In fact, it always gives you something to talk and joke about when you have nothing to say, which I truly appreciate whilst trying to make friends and seem like a normal human being. Even if it doesn’t happen at the bus stop or in the grocery store, small talk is a thing and it tortures me no matter where I go. Fortunately for arctic dwellers, the cold and the dark are always there, lurking around and inserting themselves into the conversation.

The cold, yes the cold is also a thing. We’ve had our frigid days, but fortunately when the temperature drops gradually you can adapt pretty quickly and appreciate -27 after a week of -30. Some people have asked me what exactly -40 feels like, and I usually just say “it hurts.” It does. It’s noticeably harder to breathe, your fingers always find a way to hurt worse than anything you’ve ever experienced (with or without fur/wool mittens), your nose is somehow always bleeding just a bit, you become aware of every single hair on your face if you stay outside long enough for the frost to set in on your body, and the sun that’s always perched right above the horizon and never higher starts to look blood red. But honestly the biggest thing that bothers me isn’t the fact that it’s cold, it’s the fact that Siberia gets all the attention. Um, excuse me, arctic circle? Hello? Don’t forget about us up here when you complain. We want in.

I have truly fallen in love with the winter. It teaches you to appreciate every degree, very ray of sunlight, and every warm embrace. My favorite moments are mornings (whether that’s 8am or 11am, depending on whether it’s February or December) when it snows and you step out into a world of bright white and every color has been muted to a pastel. The cold wakes you up. The only bright colors are the various fur coats and ski jackets, and the tiny white flakes dusting them make the deep reds or bright pinks look that much more saturated. But enough with the bad poetry. Anyone who’s seen snow isn’t amazed. It’s just that the snow here is perfect–dry and fluffy and endless. The winter is something that makes me comfortable even in sadness or solitude. There’s no pressure, you can just be. It teaches you to remember, to remember the warmth of the sun or the feeling of grass. To make use of every bit of warmth you can find, even if it’s just the presence of a stranger next to you on the bus.

I spent two weeks traveling around Russia for my holiday vacation. I organized the trip with the intention of crafting an experience that would remind me why I loved Russia so much, and thus I chose two cities that were once my home and two new cities that were on my list. Nearly every day I had a moment of bliss where I realized I was falling in love with Russia all over again and that my plan to revamp our relationship was working quite well. I would sit and gaze at a cathedral or a sunset or a forest and try to remember that one quote from Lermontov about nature that ends in “what a country” but never remember it fully. I started in Kazan, where I saw old friends and enjoyed the hip city that’s been growing more modern every single day.

After a few days of romantic solo walks and warm (non-solo) coffee shop conversations I made my way to Saint Petersburg, where I proceeded to hold back tears for five days as I kicked myself for not appreciating the city enough when I lived there. I made some new friends in my hostel, celebrated the New Year, drank six coffees a day in six different hip coffee shops (a consistent trend of going to places that don’t exist in good ol’ Ukhta), shopped for New Years gifts, sketched on Nevsky Prospect, and even managed to see some art. No matter where I end up living, I know that the ideal city will always be Peter, and I’ll always aggressively ask myself how, how did I actually live here once, how did I walk around this incredible place and not realize how lucky I was?!

I then traveled back up north to Arkhangelsk to visit a dear friend and experience -42 degree weather. With wind! The few days I spent there were the polar (ha) opposite of my week in Peter, but in the perfect way–I got to feel warm and toasty in an actual home, eating home-cooked food and laughing with someone I already know. No pressure. Plus, Arkhangelsk feels truly northern, and I’ve already given my heart to the North.
The last part of my trip landed me in Siberia. I ran off to Irkutsk with a fellow Fulbrighter and saw Lake Baikal, the oldest and deepest lake in the world and one of the 7 Wonders of Russia. 10/10, did not disappoint. What can I say? Irkutsk was also a lovely city that I would love to return to, and the combination of the peace and quiet of the lakeside and the bustling beauty of the city was a fitting finale. I definitely need to see more of Siberia, and I will. I like fur and claws and antlers and various other cold-weather animal-related art and goods enough that I just have to.

I’ll end this post with some honesty: I don’t want to go home. It’s the Super Bowl today and I woke up with a craving for Mexican food, so yeah, I’m not saying I don’t miss it. I do. I miss my friends and my slang and my culture. I miss my parents. I’m remembering everything that makes my country wonderful no matter what. This is a surreal time to be away. But, again, I don’t want to go home. There are so many things about my personality that always made me feel a strange sense of longing for places I had never been, but I wouldn’t call it wanderlust. When I came to Russia for the first time I found my superstitious, romantic nature wasn’t a joke everywhere. I can save my smiles and “I love you’s” here and it doesn’t make me cold. Of course, most of the way I feel at home here is in the little things, the little feelings that I can’t explain and wish I could. I’m terrified to leave this place not knowing when I can come back. I can’t face a life of only visiting for a few weeks from time to time, but I may have to. I’ve exhausted my study-abroad programs and scholarships and there is some part of me that wants to settle in one place for longer than 9 months.

But I think no matter what I will eventually need to accept the fact that I’ll always feel a little foreign, no matter where I go. The American friends and family who I love more than anything and who are truly my people have yet to see me in Russia and don’t understand me when I speak my second language. That alone is shocking. This side of me is half of my personality, and not only that but I have changed so much in the past few months that I think my identity isn’t split between my languages by rather caught up in a mix of the two. Perhaps the biggest problem is that I like it that way.

Sometimes I just look around and think to myself, hell, it’s a damn shame there are so many people in this world who will live their whole lives without experiencing Russia.

 

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В тесноте, да не в обиде

On writing and rewriting a summary of an experience yet to come

I currently have six drafts full of half baked analyses of my life in Russia. Perhaps it’s my way of organizing my thoughts and categorizing my experience so next year I can look back and check all my boxes on a to-do list of unforgettable experiences. When I get halfway through a post I usually realize I’ve still yet to do anything noteworthy. I shut my laptop and make myself a cup of coffee. I plan some lessons. Text my friends. Take the pressure off myself.

There are days when I’m very frustrated with what seems to me a lack of ambition on my part. Why haven’t I sought out adventure? Why haven’t I pursued more extracurriculars at least? It’s not for a lack of invitations, and I’m usually much more outgoing in my second language so there’s no reason for hesitation either. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps its the second-month-abroad struggle that always happens, perhaps I’m just still decompressing after four years of being an American university student. I spend a good amount of time just staring at the wall and trying to motivate myself to make plans for next year. I’m embarrassingly behind on my grad schools applications and as much as I love teaching I’d rather not spend another year teaching “proper English,” because apparently that means British English and it will never not sound weird to me. Until Tuesday, I was certain that I’d move to Saint Petersburg and study or work there, but for the first time in my life I feel loyal to my country to the point that I feel guilty not being on American soil right now.

Courtesy of Tanya: “That moment, when they ask about politics”

It feels like I’m watching my country burn from behind glass, and no matter how hard I throw myself against it the glass wont buckle. I’m the only American in this city and thus the single representative of my country. An election doesn’t change the fact that I signed on to be a diplomat, and thus a diplomat I must be. That means being calm, collected, and ready to respond to questions without really answering them.

That was a joke. Did you laugh? I’m trying here. I really am.

A few weeks ago I started writing a blog post about discovering a new part of myself not in my first or second language, but in the combination of both of them. I was thrilled at the realization that a whole new type of humor and understanding of humanity had sprung up inside of me somewhere in translation between Russian and English. I started writing that post after spending a few days (not enough days, I assure you) with my friend Tanya (hi, Tanya) who was Lewis and Clark’s Russian Fulbright Language Assistant last year. Her visit has been the highlight of my trip so far. In fact, the highlights of my trip are all connected with people, conversation, and multilingualism. I haven’t ventured to the Arctic Circle yet, but I have become dependent on speaking a strange mix of Russian and English to get my point across, which requires people who speak at least a little of each language.

God I wish I had more to say. The elections really took it out of me, and I know I have very little right to complain, but I feel so far removed from my country and my people that what’s really exhausting me is the constant sense that I’m craning my neck to keep an eye on what’s going on.But there are more positive things I can reflect on in regards to my Fulbright experience that might help distract some people that want to be distracted. After all, there’s nothing I can say about the elections (or the hostile political and cultural climate in my country at large) that is genius or revolutionary or hasn’t already been said by people smarter and more driven than I.

I’ve finally decided what my next language will be! That’s exciting, at least for me. Everybody has known me as the Russia girl for so long, I was always afraid to commit to learning a new language or living in a new country. Russia will always be my home and my fate, but as the young, ambitious little rascal that I am I feel the need to do a little more exploring while I feel as mobile as I do. I’ve had the good fortune to have a good friend in Ukhta (I have heard that making friends can be the hardest part about Fulbright) who hails from Serbia, and thus my interest in the Balkans that was piqued by reading Ivo Andric last year has turned into a serious academic pursuit. I keep joking that my dream of getting a Fulbright to Russia came true but every time someone checks in with me about my experience all I can tell them is something new I learned about Serbia. If anyone were to ask me what I’m most excited about for the rest of my experience abroad, I would say that it’s living in Serbia with my friend for (probably) a month after my grant ends.

Sometimes I feel like a traitor, like I’m betraying my dreams of living in Russia by looking forward to leaving the country. But I think what’s really happening is like what happens when you study abroad and return home: “Yeah, I should visit more museums in my city,” you tell yourself after spending every afternoon at a new museum in Saint Petersburg. “I’ll hit up the Portland Art Museum tomorrow,” you tell yourself, realizing you live two blocks from it.

Did I ever end up going to the Portland Art Museum even once during the nine months that I lived two blocks from it? You’re right: no. Not even once.

So with the feeling that Russia is my home and is not longer foreign comes the bad habits we all pick up when we get used to a place. I often choose hanging out with my friend over seeking out an “unforgettable experience.” I’m looking forward to going to Serbia because it’s new and exciting, and while that doesn’t mean Russia isn’t exciting, it does mean that the former is my new idea of “abroad” while the latter is more like “business is usual.”

And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I love being able to speak Russian and I love speaking Russian. I love knowing that I don’t have to beat around the bush when something is bothering me and I can just tell people straight up how I feel. I love when the snow falls and when a bowl of borsch is 50 rubles. I love all the comforts of home.

But I also love falling in love with the melody of a new language and allowing myself to be curious about a new culture. I love walking around Ukhta and taking a moment just to feel Russia all around me, whilst knowing that I can go back to my place and enjoy the simple comforts of home without forcing myself to keep that “I am in Russia, I am living my dream” thought in my head even when I’m just brushing my goddamn teeth like a normal human being. I certainly feel that pressure to do something revolutionary, and sometimes I count every moment as one moment closer to my nobel peace prize for mending U.S.-Russia relations. But so what if I look back at my Fulbright in Russia and my favorite memories are just sitting and home and spending time with a friend? When I look back at college, the most formative period in my life thus far, the majority of the highlights are pretty similar.

At the end of the day all I am is a pack animal who just so happens to be madly in love with Slavic languages, and it’s okay if I’m not going to change the world any time soon.

Почему вы выбрали Россию, именно?

On avoiding becoming a stereotypical post-grad American teaching English abroad, finding my personality in my second language, and realizing I no longer consider Russia “abroad”

It’s been a busy few weeks.

Before I came here I was genuinely worried I wouldn’t have enough work to do here and that I’d spend many days at home in the cold and the dark, friendless, waiting to go back to the states. I’m sort of an all-or-nothing type, if that wasn’t obvious, and before I came here I kept telling myself that this trip couldn’t be perfect because nothing is perfect, and thus it would probably be extremely difficult and maybe even depressing.

I’m an optimist, I swear.

No really! I am. The thoughts that kept running through my head were along the lines of, “yes, it might be dark and lonely and depressing for most of next year, but you’ll be fine.” I’ve somehow managed to survive everything so far, so I like to remind myself how many times my prayers have been answered as a way of separating the potential reality of a situation (dark and lonely and depressing) from my own personal way of handling said situation (I’ll be fine).

Well, turns out I don’t have to fight with reality to keep my optimism alive, because I’m currently writing my my cozy room, exhausted from work, just having finished eating a dinner that my neighbor (and friend) cooked. Okay, so maybe it’s a bit dark, but I’m not afraid of the dark. It doesn’t feel so dark when you’re constantly surrounded my people who smile at you, who tell you they appreciate you, who thank you for everything you do. Yesterday was Teachers’ Day (Congratulations to all the teachers reading this!) and I was able to briefly celebrate with some colleagues over tea and chocolates, and today at the Lyceum where I also work I had an incredible cranberry pie and received multiple chocolate bars from different students in honor of the holiday. Children of all ages came up to me in the halls, giggling, looking and their shoes, and shyly greeted me in English. The look of sheer delight on their face when they caught me speaking Russian (“she speaks better than we do!”) was enough to warm my heart all through the winter. The instructors themselves are some of the loveliest people I have ever encountered in my 22 years on earth, and the director of the school addresses me only as “darling” or “my dear” in her remarkably Russian accent-less British English.

Between classes at the lyceum, classes at the university, classes at a primary school, four different English clubs, various presentations for different teachers, translating the university news, casually helping friends and acquaintances with English, teaching Russian phonetics to the international students, and my own Russian tutoring–I’m a bit overbooked, but loving every minute of it.

My Russian tutoring has thus far been one of the highlights of the experience. After four years of being shy and terrified to admit when I didn’t understand something, I’m finally confident enough to ask questions and to admit when I’m confused. It’s also worth noting that I’m at the point where tutoring doesn’t feel like something I just need to do to learn Russian, but rather something I genuinely want to do and feel good about doing. I’m not sitting in a classroom with a grammar worksheet, I’m actually speaking and processing new information quickly and (hopefully) effectively.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bad days, or that there wont be any in the future.

As of yet, it’s not that dark, and it’s not that cold. I’ve only been here a month. My stress is mounting, as it’s due time to make some final decisions in regards to graduate school applications but I spend all my free time either sleeping or getting some much needed social interaction. However, I do think I can justify that in the sense that in order to be entirely sure about my future goals, I need to take the time to think about what I truly enjoy. I am reaching? Yes and no. I still should probably get on that whole application thing, but the more interactions I have with people here the more my mind starts to change. I don’t want to pay a $100 application fee for an “eh, why not.”

Now less about me, more about wonderful, ridiculous, beloved Russia.

All that garbage I just wrote is connected with the third point in my subtitle. I’m realizing now that there are professors who may read this and want to smack me for writing the signposts for this “article” in the opposite order of which they are presented. I’m choosing not to go back and do a few simple edits because I this this little side note humanizes me and might get me a few halfhearted chuckles from the few readers I may have. Sue me.

But yeah, all this regular stuff, me having a schedule and drinking tea during breaks and living on my own in Ukhta has made me realize that Russia is just another place I call home. It doesn’t feel like a foreign country at all. Even the language struggles I have here from time to time doesn’t remind me that I’m miles away from home. They’re just part of my life here. I think part of that comes from me not being a student. I look forward to Russian tutoring because it reminds me how much I want to teach the Russian grammar I love so much but it also reminds me that I’m only a student on the side. I have colleagues not classmates. I have a desk in an office. I get to use the staff cloakroom!

I’m thinking of all the little things about Russia that bothered me, or bother me, and I can’t figure out how any of these little inconveniences or cultural differences would be a deal-breaker. No hot water? Either freeze or put off your shower one more day. Can’t use your American debit card to pay for your wifi online? Go to kiosk and pay there. None of your usual products in the grocery store? Change what you eat. Everything can be remedied so simply, and everything has in an equivalent in my own country. Most of the inconveniences at this point just stem from the fact that I’m still a foreigner. Only now I’m a foreigner who feels a little less foreign.

So now, my personality. Spoiler alert: it’s back! I found it!

I can now make friends with people and build relationships with colleagues po-russki. I could before, but there was always a part of me that felt like my personality was “I’m an American” and that without the ability to take advantage of the linguistic nuances of the local language I wouldn’t be able to have the kind of relationships I’m capable of having in the states. For some reason it took me awhile to realize that the biggest difference between my relationships here in Russia and my relationships in the states is that I’ve never been in Russian for longer than four months, and my closest relationships have become what they are over the course of years. That seemingly obvious realization has given me enough confidence to pursue friendships without constantly telling myself that they’d never be real because of the language barrier. I already have several people I’d call friends here, specifically my neighbors, who I spend most of my free time with. It’s very convenient to have good people living one door down from you. It’s a very low maintenance friendship.

A big part of my personality, though it isn’t so much connected to my mannerisms and general demeanor, is my overzealous attachment to this ideal future that I’ve created in my head and want to spread like wildfire (or propaganda) to everyone in earshot. The image that I see when I close my eyes isn’t me as president, me discovering the cure for cancer, me winning the house cup for Gryffindor. It’s me with a headline: “Scout Mills successfully mends relations between the United States and Russia and ensures that Russians and Americans will picture each other when they hear the word ‘friendship.'”

I’m not kidding. I actually fantasize about that in a very concrete manor.

But my drive to push society towards this bright future in any way possible sometimes conflicts with my role in Ukhta as an ETA. I’m harshly critical of the way Americans can casually decide to go abroad to teach English. The American who goes to a foreign country with only a lonely planet book and a selfie-ready phone and takes up a job as an educator is not someone I’d like to associate with. I’m not afraid of offending anybody when I say that I think it’s selfish and disgusting to close your eyes, spin a globe, and pray your finger lands on an exotic country that will impress your American friends and family.

Obviously that’s not the case with me, but I still worried that my presence here would just be reinforcing the status quo that says English is the priority, Americans are superior, and everybody on this earth was put here to learn our way of life at the expense of their own culture. Fortunately, I see something incredibly special in Fulbright and the autonomy it gives our host institutions. We’re guests in a foreign country, and Fulbright clearly expects us to behave as such, allowing our universities to call the shots and treat us as employees with job expectations. At least, that’s my experience.

I try to frame every comment about the importance of English with a disclaimer. I try to take this opportunity I have to teach my own culture to remind others that they don’t need to throw theirs away because of the current global hierarchy. Most people already know them, but sometimes when they hear a real live American say it, they look shocked. Of course English is important, and honestly I’ve grown rather fond of it. But people with other native languages shouldn’t have to learn English to break even. We shouldn’t live in a world where an American who learns a foreign language is some kind of exotic superhero whereas a Russian who learns English is just a person. Who was this Russian before? Less than a person? Why is my ability to speak Russian so incredible, but a Russian’s ability to speak English is usually noted as “oh, and he speaks English, so.”

When students ask me, “why Russia, specifically?” I like to ask them what they think. I sometimes forget what drew me to this country in the first place. All I know now is that I love it, I believe in it, and I’m starting to truly understand it. Strange things are happening in my brain. I’ve realized that I could never marry someone who doesn’t speak even a little Russian. I’ve realized that the warmth, honesty, and romance of Russian culture is something that everyone should experience at least once. I’ve realized that somebody somewhere has given me a mission, to connect two strikingly similar peoples separated only by politics and stereotypes, and I’m reading and willing to spend my life on this mission.

Of course I’ve said all these things before. But only now am I starting to truly understand the weight of my own words.

Будь как дома

[bud’ kak doma] – make yourself at home

 

After less than a week in Ukhta my head in already filled with a jumble of first names a patronymics strewn across a mental chart of who I address with “ты” and who I address with “вы” (informal and formal “you,” respectively). I’ve missed home approximately three times: once when I got lost when I already late and wished I had google maps with bus routes, once when I didn’t have WiFi or work to do so I just looked at photos of my dog, and once when I looked at the Facebook page for my college’s Russian club and realized I was no longer the overzealous billboard for the Lewis and Clark Russian Department. I’m ready to feel like a local, and fortunately given the size of this city that feeling will come much quicker than it did when I was living in Petersburg. Or Kazan. Or Krasnodar. Or Portland.

This eagerness to fit in, to establish a routine and to navigate the city effortlessly, I don’t think it would exist if I hadn’t received the welcome that I’ve received here through Ukhta State Technical University. Before starting my Fulbright grant I was concerned that I would merely be a peripheral figure in a university that could care less about me. That was probably just my self-doubt and uncanny ability to jump to the worst hypothetical situations possible speaking, but that sort of thing certainly could have happened, and since I knew I was going to be living in a very small city I feared falling into the sort of loneliness I felt at times in my own tiny hometown.

Well, it turns out my fears were completely unfounded. Upon my arrival (after a good night’s sleep of course) I was photographed, interviewed, and handed a list of all of my duties and opportunities for the year. Suddenly I didn’t have the urge to look at my Fulbright colleagues’ pictures of enormous cathedrals and silently envy them. I’ve done the tourist thing in Russia already, and now I’m at the point with my language level and my cultural competency to experience Russia as an ordinary person with a job to do. Even though my friends may have selfies at the theater, I’ve been fortunate enough to discover a place that I would have most likely never visited otherwise.

There’s something special about Ukhta. I can tell.

I don’t know what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s the strength and organization of the university. To be frank, it’s much more put together than SPBGU (Saint Petersburg State University) and this is in a city of 100,000. Perhaps Ukhta is special because of its large population of international students, the sincere friendliness and hospitality of its people, or simply the fact that its size makes you feel like you live in one big family. Either way, Fulbright did something right when it placed me here, and it’s hard to tell how exactly they knew this would work out. There are things about this place and about my university that feel like they were made for me, but the vast majority of those things I never voiced in my Fulbright interview nor wrote on my application. I said I wanted to go North or East, and I said I wanted to go somewhere I hadn’t been before. Now here I am.

It’s hard to describe everything, but here goes:

  1. I have befriended several of the women who work in the dorm where I live. After having a long conversation with one of them after I got home last night, I managed to guess where her accent was from and she in turn offered me her grandson’s hand in marriage. When I said I wasn’t sure about that, we then settled on just letting him teach me to ice skate. “But,” she said, “remember, he’s not married!”
  2. I somehow found myself translating fire safety and dorm rules into English for the international students who didn’t know Russian yet. I am a pretty horrible interpreter, but to be fair I had to translate five minute speeches all at once and many of them involved very specific terminology about fire extinguishers.
  3. I’m pretty much always lost, but I’ve managed to get where I need to go somehow every day.
  4. I gave my first presentation to students of English at the university and it went alright. They asked great questions.
  5. On my first day I decided to see if I could get away with leaving my light jacket on (in Russia you are usually required to put coats and jackets in a coatroom) but the security guard got sassy with me and made me check it. I’m pretty sure he’ll never forget that, because now every time I walk past him he smirks and greets me only after I’m almost out of earshot, which always makes me jump.
  6. The “I’m an American” gimmick is starting to wear off, so I need to develop an actual personality.
  7. It’s not cold here yet. The weather as of yet is typical Pacific Northwest autumn. I’m ready for the snow. I haven’t seen snow in two years, and the snow I saw two years ago was dirty Petersburg snow. (Fortunately Petersburg is pretty enough that it doesn’t matter if the snow is white or gray. Did I mention I miss Petersburg? I can’t wait to visit.)
  8. I’m at that phase in the process of foreign language acquisition where everybody thinks I’m fluent. It’s a very unfortunate phase, I’d say. I’m not fluent at all, but because my accent is good and casual conversation is easy, people expect I can do a lot more than I’m capable of. I shouldn’t be too hard on myself — I’m certainly proficient (highly proficient at that), but what I’m able to say in Russian is nowhere near as eloquent as what I can say in English, and sometimes even when I understand 90 or 100 percent of what’s said to me, it’s harder to process and remember because it’s in Russian.
  9. I bought overpriced towels. In my defense, they are very, very soft.
  10. My colleagues (am I allowed to call them that?) are helpful, welcoming, and generally quite wonderful. I feel wanted here. My main goal for these first couple weeks is the prove just how ambitious I am so that these people feel the same way about my placement at USTU as I do.
  11. It’s very surreal walking around the university and being greeted formally by students and professors. Despite my baby face I think I’m starting to hold myself as a teacher who is worthy of respect. Someday I hope that I’ll finally become a real teacher, but not before I practice by being a pseudo teacher so I can give my future students the education they deserve.
  12. I get a desk in the office! I did a little work there the other day and I heard some of the other professors whispered, “Is that her? Is that Scout?” The best part about the office is that there’s a little table in the back stocked with chocolates and tea. Russia is great.

Moscow – Labytnangi

купе (coupé) – a type of train car on a russian train consisting of private compartments


They say northerners are the friendliest in Russia. The first one I met during this trip, Irina, was on her way to Inta and seemed to fit that mold. After wrestling with our suitcases so that they wouldn’t bother our feet (her words, not mine: “we paid for comfort! this is our luxurious kupe!”) I gave her the spiel, as I do with every Russian I meet and plan to interact with.

Hi, I’m Scout, I’m from the States, I started learning Russian four years ago at my university, no my parents aren’t Russian, yes I love your country, no I don’t hate mine, yes I want some tea.

The biography I wrote in Russian 101 still covers most of it. I’ve had to learn new words this time around for things related to the scholarship/job/internship thing that Fulbright is, but it’s nothing I can’t handle. After all, the better my Russian gets, the more words strangers expect me to use to describe just what exactly I’m doing alone in provincial Russia.

Irina and I ate our dinner as our train chugged along on its way north. Her hard-boiled eggs and vinegret looked much better than my pathetic supermarket pirozhok, which she reminded me of at least three times before and after I had finished it.

“An American, yeah? Well, looks like we get to talk about politics! I can see you’re excited. You know us Russians.”

She winked. I laughed. Politics it is.

I don’t think my language level has improved my ability to have a good political discussion, because my dumb romantic brain always decides that “I just don’t want war” is the wisest way to polish off any argument. However, I thoroughly enjoy my Russian friends’ and interlocutors’ love of healthy debate. Once in Kazan I got overwhelmed and upset with my host mom’s views and thought I had ruined my relationship with her, only to come home to a piping hot dinner, a bottle of vodka, and what would become the best night of my study abroad experience. I needed to learn then that the old American maxim of “agree to disagree” is not necessarily the norm, and sometimes a heated political or religious argument can be the best way to form a strong bond. Whilst in Russia I have never really felt attacked about my views, my predispositions, or my nationality, whereas in the U.S. I find it much more dangerous to slip up and say the wrong thing in the wrong circle. Though there’s a very large part of me that would rather ignore political discussions altogether (the American part, I suppose) there’s also a growing part that wants to engage with people I disagree with because our disagreements just might be the best way to get to know each other.

Out of all the wonderful friends I’ve made in Russia, Lilya, my host mom in Kazan, is one of the closest. We don’t agree on much politically, but I didn’t come to Russia to preach my politics. I’d rather listen to her than talk at her, that’s what made our relationship strong — our ability to converse without trying to convert, shall we say. Irina didn’t hesitate to tell me a few of my opinions were wrong, but there was never a moment when I felt that she deemed those opinions invitations for hostility. I didn’t have poor character, I just didn’t believe in astrology. I gave her the same treatment in return. She wasn’t a bad person, it’s just that her favorite book was wrong. (Everybody knows the correct answer to “what’s your favorite book” is always Master and Margarita.) All of our wrong opinions were a means for lively conversation during out 30 hours together.

We waited for the two other beds in our compartment to be filled, but when we woke up far from Moscow we decided no one else was coming. Thank goodness Irina wasn’t alone, or else she wouldn’t have anyone to tell her life story to. I now know all of her best friends, every prank she ever pulled, every man who’s ever wanted to marry her, and every noteworthy American politician’s astrological sign (Irina and Obama are both Leos, so she says she’ll always understand him). She advised me to get married young not because of social norms, but because young people are the best people, and I might lose my chance to fall in love with one of the best. She told me all about Ukhta, from the crunchy, sparkling snow to the eye surgery clinic that is apparently the best in the Komi Republic. Irina’s uncle, a Tatar former prisoner of war, was sent to Gulag there. Her father ended up working as a miner alongside Gulag prisoners.

“There were nazis, nationalists, artists, musicians…what a group! Now all their children are just regular people.”

She laughed. She finished every story with a laugh that lights up her entire face.

Irina gave me the contact information of several of her friends who have pictures and stories to tell about the northern Gulag. She then tried to convince me that “the entire country” is on Odnoklassniki, but I decided not to argue. After all, she has been living in Spain for three years and to her Russia is already starting to feel foreign. She kept talking about how we were returning home together, in a way. I didn’t argue with that either.

The conductor on the train delivered our mugs for tea and told us all about the other passengers, specifically the men. She said they don’t seem dangerous and we could relax. She has a soft voice and a warm faces and answers every question with “of course.” Perhaps she’s from the north too. I forgot to ask her.

She was right about the men, who had helped Irina and I get our suitcases to the upper storage area back in Moscow. I’m no longer insulted when men help me carry my bags. I need the help, someone might as well do it. If a man wants to make my day a little easier and he truly believes in his heart that he’s just doing his job, so be it. This is one battle I haven’t picked.

My train got in to Ukhta at roughly 23:06. Olga from the University was waiting for me outside the train car and Irina helped me get my bags off the train (older, smaller stations don’t have platforms) and looked Olga up and down to make sure she was “alright.”

“Take good care of this one! You’re lucky to have her!”

To boldly go

To say that receiving a Fulbright ETA grant has been a dream of mine for the last four years would surely be an understatement. I first heard about the scholarship as a freshman in college and as the semesters ticked by I began to envision my hypothetical Fulbright experience as the ultimate culmination of my education, the precise point in my life that would transform me into a young person worthy of respect. The weight that I placed on it became so heavy that when it finally came time to start my application I could barely fill in my passport number without completing six rough drafts beforehand. You could call me a romantic, but we both know that the proper term for such irrational passion is probably a lot more derogatory.

People have complimented me on said passion. I have been told that it’s a strength in the same way a solid GPA is. Though I do recognize that passion is a valuable trait and it has in many ways driven me to achieve what I have achieved these last few years, I also am aware that it has gotten me into a lot of trouble along the way. The particular trouble I’d like to make note of here is the current state of my head on the eve of my departure to Russia and the beginning of my Fulbright grant period.

The years I’ve spent calculating and planning the best way to make myself a viable Fulbright candidate have been full and life-changing. I grew up in a rural town without a passport and even traveling to Canada was a financial impossibility. I worked at McDonald’s to fund college application fees and I’ll never cease to be bewildered at the idea of families so flush that they are able to pay their child’s rent. And yet, in recent years I have managed to find myself in the right place at the right time with just enough privilege to carry me across the world to live my dreams. Fulbright will be my fourth experience in Russia.

And here I am, asking myself over and over again if I really want to go.

I knew I’d be nervous, but I could never have even begun to imagine just how terrified and pessimistic I’d feel before running off to live my dream. I keep yelling at myself, berating myself for being ungrateful and out of touch with the wide eyed small town girl I used to be. I’m wondering if maybe I’m overdoing it, having already had three amazing trips to Russia. Perhaps I should have quit on a positive note rather than risking a less than life-changing year in the country I fell in love with. Maybe I’ve become one of those clickbait listicles about traveling written by wealthy people with designer luggage and an uncanny ability to “find themselves.”

All of this may be true. If I think too long about it I know it will start to feel very, very true.

But there’s no going back now. I’ve checked into my flight, my bags are packed, my first grant deposit is in the bank. I’m going and now it’s up to me if I’m going to like it or not. My passion has put quite a bit of pressure on me, and now I’m forced to live with the consequences of putting borderline religious significance onto a scholarship. It’s time to lower my expectations and remind myself why I do what I do. So then, why do I do what I do? Promise not to laugh, but it has a lot to do with Star Trek.

The summer before my freshman year of college was much like the summer I’ve just spent preparing to leave for Russia. Panic, frustration, bureaucracy, anticipation, you name it. Both summers I spent at home with my parents and with dogs (alas, the dog from the summer of 2012 is no longer with us), desperately searching for ways to soothe my anxious brain. If you didn’t already know this about me, you may be surprised to learn that the remedy I discovered for many of my anxieties involves getting lost in the cardboard sets and over-acting of the original Star Trek series from the ’60s. Four years ago I wasn’t really sure why, but after some serious introspection I’ve determined that it’s because I’m completely addicted to an optimism that only a cheesy feel-good scifi universe can provide.

As I grapple with thoughts of privilege and power structures in a American-centric, Anglo-dominated world, the only thing that offers me any sort of faith is an idealistic portrayal of a future without money, where exploration is the priority and humans fire only when fired upon. In the Star Trek universe there are captains who don’t believe in no-win scenarios, indigenous species who are not colonized, and magical technology that makes 10 hour flights a thing of the past. In Gene Roddenberry’s 23rd century, even the problems that can’t be solved leave us feeling hopeful.

Hope. That’s the silly, unrealistic thing I’m so desperate to keep alive.

I’m comforted by the strength of my fictional family as they go where no man (hey, it was the 60s, nothing’s perfect) has gone before. And now, as I prepare for my 9 month mission, I’m comforted by the fact that I am able to put so much faith in a universe that seems unreachable. Even as I mock my own addiction to optimism, it is that addiction that will carry me across the globe to a new home in less than 24 hours. I travel with my phaser on stun, without the intention to change any lives or convert any minds. I’m not going to Russia expecting to get material for a novel or reaffirm my schema. This will be my fourth time in the country and I’m finally to the point that I’m not searching for anything there. All I want from this experience is a good year doing what I love in a place that I love, and I’m doing that because I wholeheartedly believe that meaningful international exchange is the very embodiment of hope. I may be naive, but I choose to believe in a future that is built on even the simplest conversations we have with people different from us.

But I’m not looking to change the world.

I can’t. And it would be selfish to assume that I could. I’m looking to do what I can that supports what I believe in and I’m also just looking to have a good time meeting new people and trying new things. I refuse to see anywhere on my planet as exotic, simple, mysterious, or evil. I refuse to see the Earth as anything but a place. I refuse to see people I’ve never met as anything but people. I refuse to believe in a no-win scenario, wherein said people eradicate each other because they’d rather kill than have a conversation.

And you can call me foolish. You’re allowed to think I’m an obnoxious brat who thinks her fancy scholarship makes her holier than thou. If I weren’t me I couldn’t promise I wouldn’t think that way. Hell, I am me, and sometimes I think that way. I’m guilty of so many of the crimes I abhor simply by existing and benefiting from the global hierarchy, and I certainly don’t do enough to warrant exoneration.

I have work to do. But I’m ready to do it.

I’m going to attempt to be candid on this blog. I’m going to try not to write disclaimers about the well of pseudo-intellectual drivel in my mind that never seems to run dry, even though this very sentence was one big self-deprecating apology. I’m going to try to convey hope, love, and relentless optimism in a way that makes me seem utterly shameless.

If you’ve made it to the end of this, I hope you’ve decided it would be more fun to make fun of me for being a Trekkie (my dog’s middle name is James, after Captain James T. Kirk, for heavens’ sake) than to make fun of me for blindly believing in something lofty. But please, make fun of me for something, I need to lighten up every once in a while.

Mills out.