Saturday, February 1, 2014

Hitting the Reset Button

After having filled in the gaps and come to better terms with the successes and failures (and stress in every case) of the past 2 months, our mid-year enrichment seminar with Fulbright in Moscow could not have come at a better time. Having lived in a new place for 4 months, I had forgotten what used to be normalcy. I had forgotten who I used to be and I hadn't noticed the changes that had already occurred in my personality, competence (mostly Russian language) and confidence (mostly feeling comfortable living in Russia).

There was no repeat of the near 5000 ruble taxi bill that my utterly broken Russian almost negotiated for myself the last time I arrived at Sheremetyevo. Not even a ride by myself through the Moscow metro with all of my luggage could throw me off my game. I went where I wanted to go and got the things I wanted – from point A to point B, my aero express tickets, my room in the hotel – with ease and confidence. 

But the most notable change was the relations between the fellow Fulbrighters. While everyone was cheerful and friendly in September when we all met for the first time, we were also timid, unsure, and held a tangible sense of fear for what lay ahead of us. This time it seemed that despite the 4 month layoff and the onset of the Russian winter, there was no ice to be broken. Everyone with an American passport was my best friend (even the ones I was meeting for the first time, such as the researchers) and I think the feeling was mutual for everyone. It was just so nice to be around my countrymen once more! From the fellow English teachers, to the slightly awe-inspiring researchers, to staff from the embassy, to our mentor and protector Joel Ericson who guides our program in Russia – it was as if we were all relatives who had known each other all of our lives. And of course, it was a pleasure, as always, to see our Russian member of the delegation, Marina :).

During the conference, several of us presented on various aspects of Russian life and our research, and it was incredible watching people blossom at the lectern. We all knew we were of high academic quality, but we had never seen what our fellows were capable of. Each presentation was more humorous, enlightening and interesting than the last.

One thing living in a foreign country for a while will do (especially as a teacher) is eliminate your fear of approaching and conversing with other people, as well as lessen your fear of public speaking. It’s simply far more terrifying to approach and converse in a foreign language, and once you have achieved some success at doing that, approaching someone who speaks your language is a pleasure, not a difficulty. Same goes for public speaking. Each of us has been doing presentations almost every day to groups of various sizes, and our presentations from this past week reflect the skills and confidence we have accumulated.

However, one thing I did have significant apprehensions about was the screening of my video about track and field in Novosibirsk. I actually spent one full evening and night of my stay in Moscow editing and re-editing my video and then editing again. After watching one day of impressive presentations, I knew this video had to be top notch. I was finally satisfied with it after 8 hours of editing on Tuesday night (Wednesday morning??), but I still wasn’t sure if my fellows would find it even remotely interesting. Fortunately, my work was not in vain, and everyone was happy that I had a unique presentation. (Note: confidence continues to increase)

You also know you had a pretty good week in Moscow when you receive two marriage proposals, spend an evening in a “banya” and dance the night away with good company in a club on a Tuesday (emphasis on good company, dancing in a night club on a Tuesday night isn’t exactly a commendable activity in and of itself….). 

Just the Boys and the Banya


And you know we're all nerds because none of us can play pool. Also, Russian billiards - big balls, tiny pockets. Whhaa?

The Banya is your own personal playground. Just don't go this way

Ahh, the Banya

Just in case we needed to nap?
Wait, but marriage proposals?

So while I was slaving away on my video on Monday evening, I remembered that I was hungry and would probably starve if I didn’t eat at some point. So I went to the nearest place where they served hot meat and ordered some Шашлык. At some point during the ordering process they realized that I wasn’t Russian, and by “they” I mean a 45 year lady. She asked where I was from, and I said I was an American. I think she almost jumped for joy. “What a beauty!” she said. Then she told me to marry her and take her to America. I said I’d think it over. After I’d gotten my Шашлык and walked out the door I realized they hadn’t given me a fork. I decided it was better just to eat the mound of food with my hands than to walk back in and get into some “til death do us part” situation.

So while that was strange and flattering, what’s even better is that it happened again the next day. When I was signing in to breakfast (you have to give them your room number), the woman (also 45ish) with the clipboard stopped me mid-sentence. In Russian, “Don’t worry; I remember your face ;). Самый красивый мальчик (The prettiest guy)” she said. Not knowing what to say, I said, “thank you,” and “I really don’t know what to say,” and left it at that.

When we came back for coffee break she cleared our table, gave me a big smile and told me to “eat some pies.” I figured it was a good idea so I went to get some pies, but I should have known that it was a trap. On my way to the pies she gently grabbed my arm and presented me in front of a group of young women who worked the kitchen. She introduced me to everyone and more or less told me to pick one and bring them back to America. (Actually, she literally asked me in front of them, “which one do you like best?” which is one of those questions that should be erased from introductions vocabulary forever.) While I’m not exactly ready to get married, it wasn’t an altogether terrible proposition, but then again it all seemed like more trouble than it was worth.

All told, it was a merry (NOT marry) 4 days in Moscow, and I’m sad it’s over. It’s quite possibly the last time the 2013-2014 Russian Fulbright group will have been together in one place, so some of the goodbyes felt serious and permanent. It’s hard to say goodbye to 30 friends! I definitely didn’t make an escape from Moscow this time, but rather a melancholy (and fortunately uneventful) trek to Sheremetyevo for one more flight to Novosibirsk.

But now I feel refreshed, armed with both experience teaching and a reminder of the proper techniques of lesson planning and conducting class. I have no startled confusion this time, although it does once again feel like a new beginning. This time I know exactly what’s waiting for me in Novosibirsk and I’m excited to return. It almost feels like home…

(Note: I hope you got the foreign policy allusion in the title)

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