Sunday, February 17, 2013

Log and community

It has indeed been a busy time the past few weeks. I would like to highlight a few events in a different manner than previously done and then write about a few thoughts I've had the past few weeks.

To start in no particular order:

Daria and I went to a balalaika (traditional Russian instrument I've wanted for a while, but have had no money to buy) concert. The guy was incredible and we bought his CD with over 3 hours of music. He didn't play much of the traditional tunes, but it was incredible nonetheless and well worth going. Just fueled my desire to buy and learn.

Last Saturday we went to the home of famed poet and member of the intelligentsia Anna Akhmatova. Well the room she had that she shared with fellow intelligentsia member Nikolai Punin and his family (through his invitation, not through forced commune yet) during the early Soviet years. This room had a beautiful view of the courtyard of the Sheremetevskij Palace and Akhmatova was tolerated as a scholar of Pushkin, but her poems were not published during soviet times because she held anti-soviet views. Eventually she was sent to a gulag, but she did return to this apartment.

After viewing her apartment we went to a modernist concert in the aforementioned palace (possibly the former duke's private concert hall). The two composers were there, although many musicians played. Some of the pieces were wonderful, but some I found, well banal. Maybe banal isn't quite right, as it was obvious they worked hard to write them, but they didn't appeal to me. But some of their pieces were great and included things like musicians hitting a hand drum stuffed into her belt as she played the flute or using the piano to knock on the door as the vocalist then opened an imaginary door before continuing to sing. Overall, a good performance.

Daria and I also went skating in a park where it was evident that they used natural ice (maybe with some added water, but certainly some was there before) on the walking path in the park. They put up barriers and the rink was about 15-20 meters wide, but probably 80+ long. No zamboni so it wasn't perfectly smooth and this was a new experience for me, but quite enlightening. I can skate backwards on a smooth rink, but I cannot on real ice. I now have so much more respect for the early hockey players and figure skaters before the modern ice rink.

Prior to the skating we were at the end of the park and walked out onto the gulf. Seriously, I cannot get enough of the frozen gulf. Saw the re-frozen part where someone had fished. We also went into a small zoopark and saw some foxes, deer, ostriches, and a goat escape his wooden pen because someone was illegally feeding the animals. The poor sheep left behind wanted the food, but couldn't escape.

I have also been sick, missed some work, had some Russian lessons on skype b/c I was sick and my teacher was sick. On Thursday I received compliments from two people that they can see my Russian progressing nicely. Neither are my students, but one is a person I speak to quite often on the way to the bus after work.

This evening (Sunday) we completed events by babysitting Nadia allowing Olya and Vova to attend the opera (Marriage of Figaro – Mozart). She is quite the wise child. Fortunately she’s also easily entertained with her favorite children’s cd.

Aside from events, I’ve spent the past few weeks pondering various things. One of the main things I’ve pondered is community. I don’t know if I can accurately express with words the differences I see and feel about community between the US and Russia. Certainly there are more people walking on the street and using public transit and public parks than I have experienced in the US.

I know that some of the differences come just from being in a city versus a suburban or rural area. However, there is something that I feel is different even more than that. The larger parks are always full of people playing with their kids, walking their dogs, walking without accompaniment, skiing, sledding, and quite a number of other activities. The smaller parks are full of kids always on playsets or slides. I’m sure people in places like NY or SF use Central Park and Golden Gate as well, but I perceive there is a community ownership of the parks in a way that Americans do not have. I suspect, although I am not sure, that this is left over from the American sense of the individual and the Russian concept left over from communism.

Additionally, there is an aura of community when people just walk down the street that lacks, even in other large cities. When I walk through NY I sense busyness and the hustle and bustle of a fast-paced life. When I walk on the streets of SF the ambience is of technology, youth, and hipness. When I was in college and went to Detroit I felt the hardness of working class life. Walking through the streets of Boston I feel a mixture of cerebral, working class hardships, and the spirit of the American Revolution. In SPB, I just feel community and communal ownership of the city. People in SF don’t walk the streets. They all drive. For an environmentally friendly city, the public transit sucks and there are cars everywhere. NY has public transit and lots of people, but the vibe is less friendly; at least from my experience.

Like I said, I can’t quite put my finger on the difference in feeling, and I really don’t know if my words did any justice. I recognize that I may be overgeneralizing quite a bit. I’ll also admit that my feelings may not be actual factual auras of the cities, but it is what I feel about here. Perhaps part of it is the legacy from communism; perhaps part of it is the apartments are smaller and there is less to do in one’s home so everyone is always out and about; perhaps part of it is city life that differs from the community of a small town like where I grew up. But I have been in many cities all across the US, Mexico, Canada, and all around Europe and I feel a sense of big city community that I haven’t seen elsewhere.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

No down, no feather. To Satan's minion.

There is a transition at work right now. Many classes are ending and students will soon start their next level. My upper-intermediate class will soon be in advanced, but thankfully I will not be teaching them. While they deservedly have their reputation for being a difficult class (I was their third up-int teacher after they “fired” the first two and weren’t happy with me because apparently none of us are exactly like the teacher who taught all their previous courses – no duh, every teacher is different), I am more thankful that I will not be spending 12+ hours every Tuesday and Thursday with a schedule of: teach – Russian class – teach. My intermediate class (T and T evenings) took their final test on Thursday and I’m proud to report they all passed. My pre-intermediate class takes their test on Wednesday and I’m confident they will also prevail. We had to rush through their last few lessons to cover material in the book, but they seemed to grasp the concepts quite well.

Sadly one of my pre-int students will not carry on (actually he hasn’t been to class since the holidays) because he is in France for a semester abroad. I was glad that he and I, along with a couple other students, were able to grab a farewell drink before his departure. His personality will surely be missed in class. One of my intermediate students will also not be joining us for upper-intermediate due to time constraints and she wants to spend more time with her family. Completely understandable, but she will also be missed. Luckily we will still see her at the bar.

As noted last week, we had frosty adventures in Tavrichesky Cad. Sunday those adventures took us to a park where we went cross-country skiing. The park’s name translates to Central Park of Culture and Relaxation, but it is often known by its acronym, Ц П К и О, which sounds similar to “typical.” It’s not exact, but enough for me to remember the name of the park. Like Friday taking us onto the ice of the pond and canals, we skied on canals and depending on where you draw the line of the Gulf of Finland, we skied either on the Gulf or part of the river. It is certainly brackish water under the ice. Unlike English, Russian does not have a verb “to ski.” Rather you ride skis, кататься на лыже. That last word sounds similar to “luge” in English.

After an afternoon of skiing we went to the Philharmonic with Daria’s grandma and her free tickets. Once again I had to pay, but a whole 100 rubles, which is about 3 dollars. It's hard to believe that we can listen to Rachmaninoff (with an American soloist on the piano), and a later Russian composer whose piece was written in the 1970s.

Daria and I also started to read 2 pages a night in a Russian book to help me practice my Russian and to learn new words. I read aloud and she corrects my pronunciation (almost every word). I had wanted an abridged version of something like Dostoevskii or Pushkin, but their abridged works were still too difficult so I am currently reading a sci-fi/fantasy titled трудно быть богом, Hard to be God.” It is about an historian from earth in our future that travels to another planet that is more like our medieval era. Overall it’s not terrible and actually still discusses some good philosophical issues. He is like a god to the people on the other planet and his role is difficult as he also tries to study them from a humanist, scholastic perspective.

It has also taught me a good phrase that one says when one is departing on a journey. Person 1) ни пуха ни пера.   Person 2) К чёрту. It literally means “no down (like goose down), no feathers” followed by “to the devil.” Oddly however, it’s a phrase for “good luck” on the journey. Perhaps a little more demonic version of “break a leg” (something bad meaning something good). And devil may not be best translation. Rather the figure is more like Pan from Greek mythology and has taken the role as one of Satan’s minions. When you speak of чёрт on its own he’s the minion, but in the phrase it carries none of the negative connotations, or at least none that I know of. However, in my mind all I can think of is some of the characters from Dante's "Inferno."

Lastly, I’m glad today got cooler. It warmed up the past few days and when the temperature sits around the freezing point it’s very bad to be on the street. Enough water melts, but then it still freezes and people fall everywhere. I took a spill on Friday and while mine wasn’t bad, I hate to think of all the elderly trying to walk on that stuff. The current temp is -7C, so I’m glad for that.