Friday, October 26, 2012

How to Make Time Fly

Believe it or not, we have now been in Russia for two months! The time has really flown by so far (although I suspect come February it won't be moving quickly enough). The key to passing the time in a new place, of course, is keeping busy. And that's what I've been doing.

On Tuesday evening, I attended a book club for Russian high school students. There is an American Center here in Yekat, and a group of motivated high schoolers studying English meet there several times a month. Our Public Affairs officer has been very involved with this group of kids, and she asked the rest of us at the consulate to help out (when you have such a tiny community, everyone helps everyone else out). I volunteered to help with book club, since books are kind of my thing. The PAO led this session, centered all around scary stories and Halloween. We discussed the stories, carved pumpkins, and watched "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." I gotta hand it to these kids - they're way braver than I was in high school (hell, they're braver than I am now). Several of them got up and sang songs or recited poetry in English, voluntarily. One enthusiastic girl even painted her face like Jack from "The Nightmare Before Christmas." They baked little bone-shaped cookies and carved pumpkins like nobody's business. Next month I'm leading the discussion, in theory. Wish us all luck.

On Thursday night, John and I attended a reception for Czech Independence Day. It was basically a bunch of diplomats and other foreign dignitaries gathered in a ball room, listening to long speeches and waiting for the free food. I spoke with some Germans, a couple of very nice Chinese chaps, an Indian friend, and a Russian who thankfully spoke perfect English. I accidentally ate a ham ball that I thought was cheese (curse all those cleverly disguised hors d'oeuvres) but made up for it with several tiny desserts and a delicious Czech beer. Over all, it was weird and awkward and doesn't need to be repeated, but at least now I can say I've been to one of those events. John, on the other hand, is going to his third this week.

Today I did something even more out of my comfort zone, if you can believe it. We're making new post videos for the consulate website, and somehow I got volunteered for this project. One of the locally employed staff members, an IT/design/film guy, is really into this, and he has a lot of big ideas. Unfortunately, one of those ideas was forcing me to be the host. Any of you who saw our little stint on reality TV last year know I'm basically a disaster on film, but I can't seem to convince him of this. So today we went up to the top of the tallest building in Yekaterinburg and stood outside for an hour, filming and simultaneously freezing to death. I broke out my Canada Goose coat last week, and already my coyote fur collar has paid for itself.

Meet my good friend, Furdinand.
Tomorrow night we're hosting a wine and cheese party at our house, and next week I've organized a Halloween party at the consulate and a tour of the "mafia cemeteries" for the Americans. And this is all on top of my actual job. So like I said, I'm keeping busy. It makes it kind of hard to get any writing done, but it sure does make the time fly.

Friday, October 19, 2012

My Commute

Sometimes, every now and then, I forget that I'm living in a foreign country. When I'm in my house, for example, which is like a little island here, our warm American bubble (a little TOO warm, thanks to the overly enthusiastic radiators). But most of the time, I find myself taking in all the sights, sounds and smells that make up Yekaterinburg with a sense of wonder. It's a little surreal, being here, like a parallel world, or a dream (albeit a really long dream).

As I was walking home today, I started making a list of all the now-familiar sights that I see every day on my walk to and from work. I thought I'd share them with you, so you could get a sense of what my everyday life is like here.

When I leave the consulate to come home at the end of the day, I smile at the Russian guards, who sort of know me now and occasionally acknowledge me. (Incidentally, on our walk to work this morning, John and I saw a girl smiling at something on her phone; it was so rare that we actually had a conversation about it.) Then I cross through a parking lot riddled with potholes and make my way to the street crossing that will surely lead to my demise at some point in the next two years. As I said to John the other day, crossing that street is like staring into the face of death. Sometimes I get lucky and can cross immediately. Other times I stand there for four or five minutes before there's a big enough break in the traffic to run across. Occasionally, I give up and go the long way home, which takes almost ten minutes longer.

Once my heart-rate has returned to normal, I continue down the sidewalk and generally observe the other commuters out on the street. The men here really do dress terribly. It's generally some mix of athletic apparel and Euro fashion, which is, for the record, not a good combo. The women, on the other hand, are impractically fashionable. Even the female militia members who walk around outside the consulate wear skirts and heels with their pointy caps and batons. Despite the fact that it's not actually that cold here yet (40s for the most part), people are dressed like it's full-up winter, with fur-trimmed coats and knit hats. Their lower halves are a different story; most women wear skirts and tights with their high-heeled boots (and I've actually joined them, since my pants get too muddy during the walk. It's easier to just wipe my boots off at the end of the day). Russians apparently never got the memo about pantyhose, which they wear even when the weather is warm. I have yet to see a pair of bare legs.

I could write an entire essay about Russian hair. The woman here have some of the healthiest hair I've ever seen, which boggles my mind since the chlorine content in the water is so high that my hair is a frazzled mess (or maybe it's the heavy metals that don't agree with my hair. Hard to say). I've never seen so much waist-length, perfectly straight hair in my life. Occasionally you'll glimpse a woman with a 1980s Vidal Sassoon bob, but long hair is definitely the trend. Sadly, when it comes to men, the mullet is alive and well.

When I can see the ancient wooden house on the corner, I know I'm almost home. It's hard to believe that people actually live in these houses, which look like something out of a Russian fairytale. Even the metalwork on the windows and rain gutters is ornate. Unfortunately, the majority of the architecture I see every day isn't nearly as pleasant; mostly it's crumbling apartment buildings adorned with graffiti or ugly mirrored-glass paneling. I pass by several produktis on my way home, tiny grocery stores that you'll find on almost every block, along with the little kiosks that sell nothing but fruits and vegetables (sadly, the selection isn't great at this time of year).

I'm usually welcomed home by several giant gray and black birds, Hooded Crows, cawing noisily overhead. And then, of course, there's one more creature ready to greet me once I pass through the front door of our apartment: my little Jack, who's always himself, no matter what part of the world we're in.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Well, I am REALLY glad it's Friday, but the title of this post was actually inspired by today's lunch at - that's right - TGI Friday's. Can you believe we have one here in Yekaterinburg?

One really strange thing here in Yekat - the "business lunch" is super cheap ($5 for soup and salad), but then you'll have things like this dessert that cost about $10. Welcome to Russia.

Anyway, I apologize for not blogging last week. See, we got our HHE (household goods shipment) last Friday, and it's amazing how quickly my excitement at seeing all of our stuff, here, finally, turned to horror and eventually sheer exhaustion. Somehow, everything seemed to multiply ten-fold between here and DC. When the movers arrived and started dropping off boxes, I honestly didn't know how we were going to fit everything.

Then I got to my clothing. Note to self: next time we move, make sure the movers put my clothing in WARDROBE BOXES instead of just flinging everything into flat boxes. Suffice it to say, not a single piece of my hanging clothing was wearable this week because it was a wrinkled mess. Argh!

Aside from a couple of minor breakages and a few things arriving that were supposed to go to storage, it went relatively smoothly. John and I spent our entire three-day weekend unpacking. You know that stage of the move where you feel like you're just moving pieces from point A to point B without actually accomplishing anything? I had that feeling for three straight days. But now, finally, our house is starting to feel like a home. We just have to hang pictures and lay down rugs, and we'll be finished.

Of course, there's still the matter of our car, which is stuck in some sort of government black hole (even though it's been sitting in the consulate parking lot for over a week). Again, welcome to Russia.