Through other eyes

I haven't posted anything in a very long time, and while I could write two posts now, instead I'm going to write a single very long post. 

Since writing my last post, two big things have happened: I had two visitors, and spring started in earnest. 

In March my friend Lily came to visit. She's currently working as an auxiliar, or teaching assistant, in Galicia, a region in the north-west of Spain. She lives in a city called Santiago de Compostela and you can read her blog here. She decided way back in the autumn that she wanted to come visit, so the trip had been in the planning phases for a while, and it was a little surreal for her to actually come. Delightfully surreal. The very first night Lily was here, we went out for cocktails and to see a Fulbright researcher I know play jazz piano, and we ended up befriending and going out dancing with a very drunk but very amusing Russian who had spent much of his life in the U.S. and swore like a sailor. That should give you some idea of the general flavor of her visit - there were plenty of cultural things during the day, and plenty of going out and drinking at night. Conveniently, one of my non-Russian friends was having a party whose guest list ended up including a good chunk of the foreigners and Russians I'm friends with here, so it was a good chance for Lily to meet a lot of people that I know and like. 

Then at the beginning of April, my boyfriend Sam came to visit. This was also something we had been planning for a long time, and it was absolutely amazing to have him here. We did lots of cultural things, including going to plenty of museums. He's also a much bigger beer nerd than I am, so we made sure to drink plenty of local craft beer. I even took him to the art-centre where I volunteer, Art-Centre Pushkinskaya-10, for an exhibit opening. We even almost got in trouble for helping to put up posters advertising a new exhibition. The reason is a little complicated: the exhibit focused on flyers,which in Russian culture refers to a very specific genre of paper advertisements that are semi-legally posted around the city. What makes a flyer a flyer is that it's on cheap, colored paper, has black lettering, and usually has almost no visual interest or decoration. Most of them advertise prostitutes and just have a name and a phone number, but one can also find flyers for maintenance work, apartments, pest control... all sorts of things. The posters promoting the exhibit were designed to look like flyers for prostitutes until you actually read the text and saw that it was an art exhibit. Sam and I went with the artist, my boss (who was the curator for the exhibit), and another volunteer to put up these promotional posters, and some young, militarily-clean-cut (though not uniformed) guys saw the posters, came up to the artist, and started scolding her because they thought she was putting up advertisements for an actual prostitute. My boss tried to explain to them that it was an advertisement for an art exhibit, and tried to convince them to come to the art center to see the exhibit, but they didn't believe that there was a separate exhibit, and just kept saying that the flyers themselves were not art.

Luckily this encounter didn't escalate, but it did remind me that the kinds of hip, artsy things I tend to do in St. Petersburg (and to some extent in Pushkin, although there's less of it in Pushkin) are still at the margins of mainstream culture in Russia. It can be hard to remember, because there is so much hip stuff in St. Petersburg. Both Lily and Sam commented on it. Lily said something I really liked shortly before she left. She said she hadn't been sure what to expect because she'd heard a lot of not-so-great stuff from me last semester, but that her experience as a tourist ended up being really positive, and that it seemed like there was a lot of cool stuff to do in Petersburg. I think that gets to a truth that I have very much experienced in Russia: there's a lot of cool stuff going on that you can go out and be part of, but outside of those discrete events, day to day life can be a really exhausting slog. 

One of the other things Sam and I did while he was here was go out to Gatchina, a small town outside of St. Petersburg, about 2 towns over from Pushkin. We actually took the elektrichka there from St. Petersburg, partly because Sam really wanted to take a Russian train. 

 

Gatchina Park 

Ducks at Gatchina Park 

Ducks at Gatchina Park 

Gatchina Palace. It was originally built to be a hunting lodge for the Tsar, and Gatchina Park was the grounds upon which the hunt would take place. Since it was a hunting lodge, the outside is much less adorned than the outside of the Catherine Palace or Winter Palace; it was supposed to look rustic. The palace was burned by the Nazis during World War II, and much of it has yet to be restored. The part that is restored has beautiful parquet floors. Part of the unrestored portion of the palace is actually open to visitors, which I thought was very cool as a counterpoint to someplace like the Catherine Palace, which was also severely damaged during the war but has now been largely restored. 

The inside of a Russian elektrichka. Elektrichka is short for "elektronniy poezd", which means "electric train". They're the suburban/commuter trains of Russia... but also somewhat of a cultural icon. 

This may look like a cup of water, but it's actually a cup of BIRCH SAP. It was delicious, and apparently also has a lot of health benefits. 

 

Other than my visitors, the other big thing that happened is that spring has started. The weather went from being cool and rainy to suddenly being brilliantly sunny and warm. In some ways I'm happy, and in other ways it's made me kind of homesick. Spring and summer are two of my favorite times in Chicago. Spring is full of good memories of Spring Quarter, which was always my favorite time in college. As I write this, Scav Hunt is happening at UChicago, and missing it feels like a cosmic sign of adulthood. Having to seriously start planning my job hunt also feels like a strong marker of adulthood. 

I was somewhat surprised at how little both Lily and Sam were shocked by Russia. They both said that in some ways it was different from other parts of Europe they'd been too, but there were also a lot of things that were the same. I find myself feeling so alienated from Russia, so alien to Russia, that I sort of expected the uninitiated to be astounded by the difference. Sometimes I wonder if, as much as living here is supposed to be about adapting to Russian culture, what I'm really learning is the extent to which I'm not sure I can (or, to be honest, want to) adapt. The superficial things don't seem that different--there are tons of cool cafes and bars, interesting events, convenient grocery stores. It's the deeper things, things like attitudes towards work or looks that I'm not sure I could come around to. I've written about some of this before, in the context of my university/my housing issues last semester, and I've been thinking about it again because of the change in weather. Spring and summer are a time when usually I like to experiment with different outfits, wear things that push the boundaries of taste a little more. I realized the other day that I don't feel comfortable doing that here, because of the way it will affect people's impression of me. I'm even a little nervous about wearing dresses without pantyhose (all girls here wear pantyhose), but I hate pantyhose so I'm going to just forge ahead with that one. It's the subtle things like that that make me feel the most foreign, the most out of place, and I think those are hard to pick up on if you're just spending a week or two in St. Petersburg as a tourist. 

My mom loves quoting the line from the Grateful Dead song "Box of Rain" that goes "Such a long long time to be gone/And a short time to be there." Sometimes I go on trips and it really feels that way, like I'm gone forever but I'm not in the place for enough time. I was talking to a friend in my cohort on Skype yesterday and she was expressing that very sentiment, that she felt like she'd been gone so long, but there was still so much she wanted to do in Russia and she wasn't sure if she'd have time. I just don't feel that way here. I feel like I've been gone a long time, and I feel like I've been here a long time, and even though I know that I don't have that much time left, the days still seem to go by slowly. It's not a bad thing, especially when I'm having good days. It just is. 

I'm in control

I wanted to wait a couple of weeks before properly deciding that moving to an apartment has completely changed my Fulbright experience. It's been three weeks since I moved, and I feel confident saying that moving to an apartment has completely changed my Fulbright experience.

It helps that my apartment is really nice, even by American standards. By Russian standards I feel like it's extremely luxurious. It's in a lovely part of Pushkin, about a fifteen or twenty minute walk from the Catherine Palace and about a half hour walk or 10 minutes on the bus from the university. It's got a great kitchen and I have been baking all sorts of delicious things. I forgot how much I missed regularly baking. I've also been doing a ton of laundry, because the apartment has a washing machine. I can't express how magical it's been to have clean clothes and towels and sheets all the time. Oh, and not having a curfew anymore goes a long way towards making me feel like a functional adult again. 

Living in the dorm last semester taught me a lot of useful things about myself. The most important is that, at the end of the day, I'm an introvert, and no matter how much I might want to change that, I can't. I need to have quiet time when I know I will not have to interact with anyone. Even though I didn't have a roommate in the dorm, I never felt like I could guarantee that I wouldn't have to interact with people (in another language!) on any given day/at any given time. It wasn't for the reason you'd think, that I would have to interact with people in shared spaces. No, it was that the dorm staff had no compunctions about coming in to my space to do stuff (like hang new drapes in my room) without giving me any prior notice. Meanwhile my colleagues at the university find it totally normal to ask me to do work-related things at the last minute, and since the dorm was in the same building as the university I felt like I could never say no to last minute requests unless I actually wasn't home. When someone asks "are you around to do this thing?" it's hard to say "Yes I'm around but I wasn't planning on working today so I'm going to continue watching TV on my laptop instead of helping with this thing you're asking about". 

I felt like I couldn't even control something as small as my room when I lived in the dorm, and it sapped me of all my energy. I spent so much time lying in bed trying to hide from the world, but also knowing that it was useless because no matter how much I hid I couldn't be sure I wouldn't be disturbed. Somehow hating being at home made it that much harder to go out. Not going out and living in the same building where I worked made me feel like all I was ever doing in Russia was my job, which has its rewarding moments but overall is rather a mixed bag, and is often quite frustrating. 

In my apartment, I feel in control, at least of my living space. I can lock my front door and know that I won't have to talk to anyone if I don't want to. I can cook however much I want, at whatever time I want, wearing whatever I want, and I can leave the dishes for later if I want to. I can change my own lightbulbs and do my own laundry. I can keep all my shower stuff in the bathroom. I can keep my toilet paper in the bathroom (yeah, that was a thing in the dorm, the dorm doesn't provide toilet paper so everyone has their own and brings it to the toilet with them). 

Feeling like I'm in control, feeling at peace in my apartment, makes it so much easier to deal with all of the things in the rest of my life here that I have no control over. I may have absolutely no control over my schedule, or whether I can travel, or whether people come to my English club. But at least I have control over the space I live in, and when I leave work I get to leave work and not think about it until I have to go back. 

It's made me think a bit about Soviet projects that attempted to merge work and life. My university actually dates from the post-Soviet period, but the idea of having a dormitory that is in the same building as the university seems so Soviet to me. The idea is that you would want to have you work/studies be in the same place as your living space, so that you could eliminate time spent traveling to and from work and really focus all your energy on the work itself. My problem with this idea, based on my experience living in the dorm, is that if you don't love your job, feeling like you're supposed to be putting all of your energy into it feels awful. Even if you don't hate your job, if you don't love it with every fiber of your being, feeling like your whole life is just your job can make you miserable. 

I've used my move out of the dorm as an opportunity to start doing more stuff that has nothing to do with my job. I'm not over the negative feelings I had towards my host university prior to moving, and so I'm trying to refocus my energy into spending more time on things that have nothing to do with the university. I found two cool breweries in St. Petersburg that make great craft beer, I'm looking to get involved at Pushkinskaya-10 (the art center I volunteered at when I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg) again, and I'm trying to schedule more social time with friends, both friends from the university and other friends I've made. I might even go to a capoeira class with one of my Russian friends!

I decided to write this post because I wanted to get a little positivity onto this blog after some really dark moments in December and January. My friend & fellow Fulbrighter Vickie visited me in January right before we went to the mid-year conference, while it was hovering around 0˚F and there was no heat in my room. She and I talked a lot about how depressed I was feeling at the time, and she told me that she really hoped that those days between getting back from spending the holidays at home in the U.S. and going to our mid-year conference would be the lowest point during my Fulbright year. Now that my living situation has improved, I'm cautiously optimistic that her hope will prove true, and that my lowest point is behind me. I've had a good sign pointing towards this in the form of at least five different people between my friends & family, both here and back home, telling me since I moved that I seem much, much happier. I am. 

Note:  Title inspiration here

What I'm Eating: Shakshuka

This is a short post. I made a variation of shakshuka, the middle eastern dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce. The flavor backbone is cumin, coriander, dried rosemary, and cayenne because I have never seen fresh chilies in Russia. To make my version a bit healthier and more well-rounded, I added some fresh tomatoes and lots of chickpeas. This is the first meal I've made in my new apartment! And I was very pleased with how it came out. The new stove heats up much more quickly and is generally more responsive than the old one (both the old stove and the new stove are electric). 

My bowls are actually more of a purple color, but this was as good as an iphone food photo was going to get. 


The Thousand and One Russias

I was just in Moscow for my mid-year Fulbright Seminar. It’s a time when all of the Fulbright grantees in Russia come together for the better part of a week to give presentations on our experiences and connect with one another. I think both I and many of the other English Teaching Assistants thought it would be kind of like our orientation in September, which was mostly about teacher training and answering questions. This was more about just being together as a cohort. In some ways I think that was precisely what many of us needed. Everyone in my cohort is so different and has had such different experiences of Russia.

“There are a thousand different Russias,” began one of my fellow ETAs in his presentation, “and I’m going to tell you about the one that I’ve been living in for the past three months.” When you apply for a Fulbright ETA grant to Russia, you don’t know what city you will end up in. The program materials say “not St. Petersburg, not Moscow”, although those distinctions are hazy: addresses in Pushkin are written as Pushkin, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation. Russia is the largest country on earth by land area: when you apply for a Fulbright, you could end up anywhere from Europe to East Asia, from the arctic circle to the central Asian steppe. Before you get your placement, you can’t really imagine what it might be like. The closest I ever got were some vague thoughts of cross country skiing, banyas, and babushkas. What I learned last semester is that you can’t even really imagine what it might be like even after you get your placement. I ended up in the former village of the Tsar (before the revolution, Pushkin was named Царское село, literally “Tsar Village”), and so I imagined the cosmopolitan and genteel side of Russia I saw when I studied abroad in St. Petersburg: cute cafes, hip people with artistic ambitions, lots of exciting activities, huge amounts of creative energy.

What I’ve actually seen is closer to something out of a Bulgakov or Sorokin novel. Tiny stamped pieces of paper are paramount for reasons no one can describe, requests are denied without explanation, people are moved around in apparently pointless ways, schedules are changed without warning and often without concern for whether the changes are actually followed through on. A friend of a friend put it well, that it’s more important at my university (and this is also true of the dorm run by the university, where I’ve been living) to be able to indicate on a piece of paper that you did something than that you actually did the thing. In order to get anything done, the students create their own system beneath the official dysfunction, forming networks of help and support for resolving issues that fall on deaf official ears. No heat? Sleep in a friend’s room. No access to a washing machine? Find someone who does have access and come to an agreement with them. Mold in your room? Have friends help you move the furniture or put up new wallpaper. Teacher’s lessons don’t make any sense? Find a classmate who can explain the material to you.

I’ve spent a lot of time feeling really bitter about and frustrated by this Russia. Why did my contact in the international office not care when I had bed bugs? Why did she say “that’s not in my authority” when I asked her for help setting up my Russian lessons for my CLEA grant, even though that is precisely one of her duties? Why have I been forbidden from travelling within Russia even though there are no legal prohibitions against it? Why do some of the guards in my dorm still not know that there is a foreign teacher (me) living in the dorm, who does not have a student ID? There’s definitely been a part of me that’s been very disappointed that I’m seeing this Russia instead of a quainter one, that my life is full of irritated bureaucrats instead of sweet babushkas, full of prohibitions instead of invitations.

My head prior to the mid year seminar was full of visions of everyone else in my cohort having the best year of their lives in their host cities. I imagined them all having some vague idealized notion I have of the Fulbright ETA experience, full of invitations to homecooked dinners, bonding with old women, doing winter sports, going to the banya, getting students excited about American culture, hosting Thanksgiving dinners, etc. To return to a perpetual theme of this blog, that’s what I would characterize as the neat, travel-writing edition of being a Fulbrighter: it’s the story that sounds emotionally good when you tell it, the one that’s easier to sell to friends, family, and people who fund international exchange programs. Those stories inevitably depress me, because I inevitably wonder why my life doesn’t feel like the story does, and I think some of my mid-year blues were related to feeling like something was wrong with me because I wasn’t having an ideal experience.

Actually talking to my cohort at the mid year seminar gave me a lot of perspective. I don’t think anyone’s experience has completely conformed to the tidy travel writing version. We’ve all had so many problems, and we’ve all chosen to deal with them in very different ways. We’ve also all had a lot of successes, even if for many of us our successes didn’t feel very successful at the time. I felt like only getting 2-5 people to come to my English club every week was a failure until I heard that some people in my cohort can’t get anyone to come to their English club some weeks. I felt like the pumpkin pie my students and I made for Thanksgiving was a failure because it wasn’t a full Thanksgiving dinner, until I heard I wasn’t the only one who didn’t succeed in putting together a full Thanksgiving feast. I thought that the fact that my students didn’t seem to be getting that much out of our lessons was a failure until I learned that some people in my cohort have had trouble getting the opportunity to even teach a full courseload every week.

I very much agree with the idea that there are a thousand different Russias. Sometimes, it’s hard to determine where one ends and the next begins. Sometimes, I think several different Russias exist simultaneously. I can walk from my University and get to the Catherine Palace, going from a place of Soviet-style dysfunction to a place of glittering historical reverie. I can get yelled at by the guards in my dorm, and then smiled at by a woman coming to visit her daughter. I can wade through piles of dirty slush and then go ice skating. Like Scheherezade’s stories in the Thousand and One Nights, where one Russia ends another immediately picks up, and like the King who listens to Scheherezade, foreigners can’t help but be pulled in, almost against their better judgment, keen to find out what happens next.

Even the Russias that are less than pleasant, like my current bureaucratic brick wall, are worth experiencing. My experience of dealing with difficult bureaucracy is far from unique in modern Russia. Fulbright tries to do a good job of picking host institutions that will shield Fulbrighters from some of the red tape, rather than adding more red tape, but for many people in Russia, both Russians and foreigners, endless meaningless bureaucracy left over from the Soviet system is the norm. That will impact how Russia continues to develop over the next several decades; to use the terms of the Scheherezade comparison, this story will impact the stories that come after it. It’s knowledge of Russia that’s worth having.

 

That said, I am moving into an apartment so that I no longer have to live in this dorm. I’m sure the apartment will have its own challenges, but it will also give me a lot more control over my living space. No more metaphorical meatballs getting stolen out of my metaphorical pocket. 

How's Russia?

The two most banal questions I am ever asked about living abroad are "How is/was Russia?" and "What do you think of Russia?" The former mostly come from Americans, the latter mostly from Russians. What are you supposed to say to that? 

Last week I was talking to another Fulbright ETA in Russia. We both agreed that we can't get over our inclination to be polite and not explicitly say anything bad about Russia to any Russians, no matter how frustrated or displeased we may feel. If someone asks us what we think of our students we will find something nice to say, even if we find our students frustrating. If someone asks us about our dorms, we will find something nice to say even though the buildings leave something to be desired. 

After all, what are Russians expecting us to say? The other day I ran into one of my students on the bus and she asked me "HOW'S RUSSIA?" ("КАК ВАМ РОССИЯ?"). What did she expect me to say? We were on a crowded bus, there was a freezing drizzle, and her group happens to be one of the groups that has trouble listening to me when I give directions in class, so I can't say it's one of my favorite groups to work with. At that moment, Russia wasn't doing much for me. And even though there are things I find very positive about Russia in general, those things are too deep and serious for small talk on a bus. 

* * * 

The problem with the "How's [whatever]" question is that it is a banal question born of small talk that begs for two things that are inappropriate during small talk: honesty about your feelings towards something, and existential depth about what that thing means to you. 

Everyone who has ever lived abroad is familiar with these constructions. "What do you think of this place? How's it going for you in that place? Do you have a blog? Do you have pictures? Do you have videos? Did you post about it on social media?" Haven't you been spending your entire time in a new place recording your experiences and preparing to retell it to everyone who's interested? Don't you have concise opinions that can uniquely sum up the perspective on the world that you gained by being in a new place, thereby sprinkling our silly small talk with a light dusting of cosmopolitan Truth that will make the whole conversation sound more worldly? 

I actually always dread trying to explain things that happen in Russia to other people, especially things that are difficult. Good things, exciting moments can be turned into thrilling adventure stories that are met with appreciation and wonder. I think this is why Facebook is so dominated by positivity. People know how to react to a happy story, and as a result the story becomes easier to tell. You, the listener, know how to behave and I, the teller, know what to expect. In contrast, no one knows how to react to an unhappy story. Should you feel sad? Should you say "I'm sorry"? Should you try to offer advice? Should you try to cheer the teller up? The role of the teller becomes difficult, because she cannot prepare herself for the reaction of the listener. The role of the listener becomes impossible, because an improper reaction could hurt and upset the teller. Telling unhappy stories is stressful, and it's often easier not to do it. 

It's much easier to tell you about the pumpkin pie I made with some of the students for Thanksgiving. It's much easier to tell you about the sharlotka (шарлотка) I made this week with one of my students for Christmas. It's much easier to tell you about the different foreigners I met at a Thanksgiving dinner I went to, or the Tunisians I met at French discussion club, or the guy who works at my favorite anticafe who's a musician. It's easier to tell you about how happy I was to see my dad while he was visiting, than it is to tell you that I had a breakdown while he was here, and it was really good he was around to help pull me out of my emotional hole. It's easier to tell you about the times I go out than about the times I can't get out of bed. It's easier to tell you about the professors at my university that I like working with than to tell you about how emotionally drained I feel after having fought with my university over administrative issues.

It's also much easier for you to listen to the happy things. Then you get to be happy for me, and maybe a little envious that I'm having this experience. But what if I told you that I've been feeling depressed and miserable and I don't like being in Russia? How would you react? Would you feel sorry for me? Would you try to offer me advice about how I can feel better? Would you think that I was ungrateful for the opportunity to be here in the first place? What if you offered me advice and I told you your advice was stupid and unhelpful - would you resent me? Would you not want to listen to me anymore? 

"The truth is that there is no terror untempered by some great moral idea."

I've been meaning to write a new post for a full week now, but kept putting it off because I was unsure of what I wanted to say. Blogging reminds me in some ways of epistolary travel writing, the 18th- and 19th-century practice of writing letters from abroad that were intended for eventual publication. There is an audience that you know, the people to whom your writing is immediately addressed, but there is also an audience that you anticipate but cannot imagine that you are more subtly trying to reach. 

I wanted to write a post about the attacks in Paris because people are talking about them in Russia. The day after the attacks I was talking to my friend Oksana, and she said that she was scared there might be attacks in St. Petersburg. She told me to be careful taking the metro. I heard on Wednesday that earlier this week there were bomb scares in a couple of metro stations, but it turned out there were no bombs. I read that there have also been bomb scares in Moscow, along with demonstrations of support and the creation of a memorial near the French consulate. Moscovites are remembering terrorist attacks on the Dubrovka, and in St. Petersburg people are talking about the October 31st plane crash, which was recently confirmed to be the result of a terrorist attack.

One of my students asked me why American celebrities were posting messages of support for Paris on Instagram, but weren't talking at all about the Russian plane crash in Egypt. I told her that the Russian government had been initially reticent to officially label the crash a terrorist attack, and that had affected the way it was reported in the news. I don't know what to think about the plane crash. I don't know what to make of the flip in official Russian position regarding the plane crash, from first denying that it was the result of a terrorist attack to now asserting that it was a terrorist attack and claiming that act of terror as an impetus for renewed cooperation with the French. 

One of my good friends is in Paris currently, but it actually didn't occur to me to ask if everything was okay for him until I sat down for reasons unrelated to the news to write a reply to an email he'd written to me weeks prior. I actually got half way through writing a reply that didn't mention the attacks until I finally made the connection that he was in Paris and so he was in the midst of the news that I had been reading about on my computer. He's fine - I want to say, "of course", because how statistically likely is it that my one American friend would die in a terrorist attack in Paris? But I suppose I ought not be flippant. You never know what could happen. 

My friend said that he spent the evening like almost everyone else in Paris, watching the news on TV. He said that he started getting messages on Facebook from people he barely knew or hadn't spoken to in years asking if he was okay, and that rather than feeling like a genuine outpouring of support, it seemed to him like these people just wanted to have some connection to what was going on, and he was the only person they currently knew in Paris. His comment reminded me of getting letters in third grade from a class of Canadian students who were sending messages of support to New Yorkers after 9/11. Like my friend who's in Paris, who wasn't directly affected by the attacks, I wasn't directly affected by 9/11. Through sheer luck, both my parents were comfortably at home in Queens when the towers fell, far away from ground zero. Like my friend in Paris, what I remember of 9/11 is watching the news on TV and lots of adults crying. I remember having to write back to those Canadian students who sent letters of support to my class and not knowing what to say. "Thank you, but actually nothing bad happened to me on that day so I don't need your condolences," would probably not have been appropriate. 

I find it hard to be personally afraid of terrorism, because it's so statistically unlikely that after living through 9/11, I would find myself in a city where another major terrorist attack occurred, let alone that after living through 9/11 I would die in a terrorist attack. Terrorist nihilism seems so unthreatening in the face of pure math. 

If you're interested in the title of this post, click here.

"On Homesickness"

I came across this in the Paris Review's blog: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2011/11/02/on-homesickness/

It's another great meditation on being in a different place. I found so much of this discussion thought-provoking, both in the context of where I currently find myself and in the context of where I'm supposed to locate a sense of "home". I feel like "home" has been a fraught concept for me since I started college. 

I agree with the author of the piece that ideas of homesickness and "I can't cut it" feel, somehow, extremely un-American. I've been struggling ever since coming to Russia with feeling guilty every time I feel overwhelmed by homesickness. I think, "I have this great opportunity, I'm not supposed to feel sad when I've been gifted with something this desirable!" Or I think, "I wanted to come here, it was my decision, I'm not allowed to be unhappy after getting something that I wanted!" I wonder if my ancestors, arriving at the shores of a land of opportunity, felt guilty for missing their home countries, or worried that they weren't sufficiently grateful to have been lucky enough to come to America. I wonder if my ancestors felt like they weren't allowed to be unhappy after getting the chance to immigrate. All of my ancestors immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, so I can't ask them. 

I also appreciated that this piece touched on the transient nature of modern youth. Finding work that will help build your career so often means moving, sometimes with little notice and often to a place you've never lived before. Like pioneers traveling west, twentysomethings leave behind their roots to seek opportunity in a new land; as the article says, "immigrants in sweat pants with big boxes of books". Gratefulness for opportunity leaves no room for homesickness, the skeleton in your closet that suggests maybe you don't want your opportunity enough. 

But as the piece notes, after enough moves, home isn't really home anymore. New York as the aspirational city of a nation of young people dreaming of its exceptionalism is an idea that continues to fascinate me, because I will never know what it's like to feel that way about New York. I grew up in New York City: I was born in Manhattan, moved to Queens when I was eight, attended public school, including Bronx Science, one of the city's prestigious Specialized High Schools. When I think about my youth, and where I grew up, I think about New York: it is my hometown. But when I think about home, I don't think about New York. My parents, who had come to New York in their twenties for the opportunities the city afforded, left New York right when I went off to college--in fact, they moved to the same city I did (and, for the record, they planned their move before I planned mine, so I followed them, not the other way around). My home in New York was gone as soon as I left it, and there was never any way that I could go back. I made a new home where I was, in my university community, in Chicago. When I feel homesick, it's for Chicago, never for New York. I tell people that I'm from Chicago, even though I grew up in a city most people would kill to live in. New York just isn't my home anymore. 

Pictures are paltry

This is just a quick rant about pictures, particularly the idea of "travel photos". 

When I took my first photography class, my professor Laura Letinsky had a rant that she would give occasionally about how frustrating she found the language we commonly use to talk about photography. Her objection was specifically to the idea that you "take" a photograph and that a photograph "captures" something. Her argument was that saying that you "take" a photograph sounds like photographs are out there in the world and you're just snatching them up, like hunting butterflies with a butterfly net. "Capturing" similarly evokes the idea that there are moments out in the world, and you use your camera to scoop them up and take them home. Instead, Professor Letinsky argued, photography is a process of artistic creation just like painting or drawing: you create an image, you don't just take an image from out in the world and affix it to a paper backing. She gave us this rant to emphasize the importance of the photographer in the process of photography: the photographer is always the author of the work; the work cannot exist independently of the editorial choices of the photographer, because those editorial choices are themselves the work that went into creating the piece of art. 

Obviously travel photos are generally not trying to be works of art. That leaves me wondering, though, if they're not works of art, what are they? What are they supposed to be? What is the purpose? 

This post is inspired by several people who have said, after looking at my blog, that they want more pictures. This always happens to me, because I don't take a lot of pictures anymore. I used to photograph everything, because I was hoping that if I took enough pictures, some of them would turn out to be artistically powerful. Then I started taking photography classes and really thinking about my editorial power as an artist and realized that sheer quantity is not enough to produce an image that mattered, and so I started photographing less, but with greater intentionality. So now when I travel I take many fewer pictures, and unless I'm specifically intending to use the images for artistic purposes later, I usually just take pictures on my phone. 

I find it frustrating when people ask me for more pictures, because I find the idea of travel photos frustrating. If it were up to me, I would take almost no travel photos - maybe just one or two here and there to immediately text or send to someone, or because I'm looking at something that I really want to remember the visual details of. 

Here's why: I think that travel photos are either incredibly phony, or incredibly shallow. Travel photos are phony when they show good and interesting things. I wish I could just post photographs of all of the things that are broken: of the bedbugs in the first room I was living in here, of how the lights are all burned out in the hallway, of how the toilet wobbles, of how difficult it is to get the shower to be hot but not scalding, of how byzantine the laundry situation is, of how rude shopkeepers are sometimes. Pictures are phony because those kinds of things are not the things that we take pictures of. We take pictures of the things that make everything seem great and ok and wonderful, because those are the only things we want to remember ten years later. To me, that's phony. If "the travel guide might not be that far removed from the genre of self-help" (see the founding post for this blog), then these kinds of travel photos are not that far removed from the genre of promotional photography. Meanwhile, travel photos are shallow when they become evidence. Why do people photograph the Mona Lisa? Why do they photograph themselves next to the Mona Lisa? Because they want to prove that they actually went to the Louvre and saw the Mona Lisa. No one needs their own photograph of the Mona Lisa in order to look at the Mona Lisa. You need that kind of photograph as "evidence" to "prove" you were there. I think that's shallow. First of all, a photograph never proves anything in an age when it is laughably easy to doctor an image. Second of all, why should you need to prove anything?!?? If you know you were there, isn't that enough? Why do you need a photographic document indicating that you were in a particular place? 

I often find myself photographing while traveling almost begrudgingly. I begrudgingly think, "well, this is something that I guess other people are going to want to see so I guess I'm obliged to photograph right now." If it were up to me, I would only photograph interesting art that I want to look at later for inspiration, or ridiculous/funny things that make me laugh. I would never photograph historical locations or pretty landscapes. I would rather just enjoy seeing them with my own eyes, eyes that are better than even the best cameras. If those sights fade in my memory with the passage of time, so be it. That's part of being human.

Pumpkins

This is just a quick post to talk a little about Halloween. It's not nearly as big a holiday in Russia as it is in the U.S., because the Church is officially opposed to it. As one of my fellow professors put it to me, Halloween is "a celebration of evil spirits". That said, I still used this week to do a few lessons on how Halloween is celebrated in the U.S. I brought in candy for my English Speaking Club, and had a lot of my students watch "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown". I got a lot of questions about whether trick or treating is real. 

Tonight, my big Halloween plans are to go see a Jamie xx concert. Hey, I love Halloween as much as the next person (actually, more than the next person, because I love dressing up), but I have my priorities. 

Probably the best and most Halloween-y thing I did this week was carving Jack-O-Lanterns with the French discussion club I've been going to at an anti-cafe in St. Petersburg. The cafe is having a big, all-night Halloween fest, and had their various clubs (there are quite a few - there's a drawing group, a spanish club, an english club, a music club, all run from the same anti-cafe) do decorative activities in preparation for the Halloween festivities tonight. I haven't carved a Jack-O-Lantern since I was fairly young, and when I say "I carved" I mean "my mother carved and I watched". It was very nostalgic and very fun and a major highlight of my week. I'm including some bad pictures I took of our carving. Apparently there are much better pictures floating around VKontakte that the anticafe put up as publicity shots - I know this because one of my students actually said she saw a picture of me making these jack o lanterns! 


Tikhvin

It took longer than I thought, but I'm finally writing about my trip to Tikhvin.

Tikhvin is a little town to the east of St. Petersburg, but still in Leningrad Oblast (Ленинградская Область). It's very historical and is most famous for being the ancestral home of the Rimsky-Korsakov family and the location of the Tikhvin icon, which apparently is officially known as the "Theotokos of Tikhvin". The icon is housed in the Tikhvin Assumption Monastery (again, I'm getting this name from Wikipedia - when I was there people just referred to it as "the monastery"). I went there with my friend Natasha to visit her family.

My trip to Tikhvin was very different from my trip to Kingisepp. First of all, the weather was horrible. It rained the whole weekend, and since it's October in Russia, that meant icy cold rain. The rain made it a bit hard to enjoy the town, because most of the interesting stuff to do involves walking around outside, which isn't that fun if it's forty degrees and raining. Second, Natasha's parents live in an apartment, and so they don't grow their own food like Oksana's parents do. That wasn't a bad thing - I still ate a lot of tasty stuff. It was just different. Third, instead of a cute dog, Natasha has a cute six-year-old brother, whose cuteness was very dependent on whether he was behaving himself or screaming because he wanted attention.

Despite the rain, Natasha and I did walk around Tikhvin and I did see some of the major sights. Natasha's mom is friends with a woman who works as a tour guide in Tikhvin, and this woman (who's name I have, unfortunately, forgotten) took us on a little excursion around the town. I have to admit that I wasn't paying that much attention to everything she said. It was cold and rainy and so my ability to follow her Russian and ask clarifying questions where necessary was rather attenuated. We went to the Rimsky-Korsakov museum, which I really enjoyed, even though the composer Rimsky-Korsakov only lived there in his early childhood. I liked it, though, because unlike many writers' house museums I've been to in St. Petersburg, it had a lot of miscellaneous artifacts that really allowed me to imagine what it might have been like to be a member of the intelligentsia in the late 19th century. Things like furniture, old letters, writing supplies: somehow these things all helped conjure a different world for me. We also went to the monastery. In general, I find going to monasteries in Russia fascinating. I've gone to three different Russian monasteries in my life (in Novgorod, Pskov, and Tikhvin) and all three times being in that space has made me think a lot about religion and God. Faith, a belief in something that does not need to be supported by facts, is such a powerful phenomenon. It's the phenomenon that builds richly decorated churches, and preserves them through the ages. It's the phenomenon that convinces certain people to devote their life to worship. It's the phenomenon that causes people to line up to pray before a specific icon.

Yes, people were waiting in line to pray before the Tikhvin icon. It's famous because it's believed to have granted several famous miracles, and is further believed to grant miracles for those who pray before it. Natasha said that after she was born, doctors told her parents that they would not be able to have any more children. But her mother went to pray before the Tikhvin icon, and then her little brother was born. Because of the line and because I am not an Eastern Orthodox believer, I wasn't able to see the Tikhvin Icon myself. It seemed deeply inappropriate for me to wait in the line just so that I could look at the icon, when people were waiting to ask it for miracles.

When we weren't walking around Tikhvin, Natasha and I just hung out at her apartment. We watched some TV (mostly орел и решка, "heads or tails", a Ukranian Russian-language travel show) and movies, played games (scrabble, a jigsaw puzzle), and chatted with her parents. Natasha didn't tell me this until we were actually on our way back to St. Petersburg, but apparently Natasha's mom actually entered the green card lottery several years ago, and was very interested in possibly moving to the United States. I wish I'd learned that earlier, because it would have contextualized the seemingly endless stream of questions Natasha's mother asked me all weekend about life in the U.S., from what people tend to spend money on to what apartments are like to what kind of food I like to cook and eat. I ended up showing them pictures of kale and trying (and failing) to describe stir-fry. 

Here are some pictures: 

Visual aids

Here are some pictures I took so far. These are not intended as art, so they have not been edited for contrast, color, brightness, etc. 

This is a giant toy store in Moscow. It's really like a giant shopping mall just for toy stores, but it was a really impressive building. My friend Ksyusha took me there when I was in Moscow for orientation because they have an observation deck where you get a good view of the city. 

This is a panorama I took from the top of the aforementioned toy store in Moscow. 

This is me in the Alexandrovsky Gardens in Moscow. 

View from a bridge in Moscow. I don't know what the bridge is named, but it's the bridge that connects the Church of Christ the Savior (of Pussy Riot infamy) with this island upon which an old chocolate factory has been converted to a hipster art/commerce space. 

The beautiful pond in Catherine Park in Pushkin. 

More of the pond at Catherine Park. 

Serenity and symmetry in Catherine Park. 

Kingisepp's historic church. 

The Luga River in Kingisepp. 

The woods behind Oksana's father's house in Kingisepp. 

Panorama of the train tracks crossing the Luga River in Kingisepp. 

The Luga River in Kingisepp. 

Subtitles

Sometimes teaching really does get me a little down. Like when I think about the groups of advanced students I have who never seem to be willing to participate in any activities, who never seem to be willing to ask questions about difficult material. What do you do with students like that? 

It pains me, but I've decided to just show them TED talks with Russian subtitles. If they really don't care about learning English, I won't force them. They can keep their crutch. 

You can go home again (& that's a good thing)

Ever since I found out that I would be coming to Russia on a Fulbright, I've periodically fallen down the travel blog rabbit hole. It happens when I'm searching the internet for some miscellaneous piece of information about living in Russia that, inevitably, I can never find. I set off on Google looking for something specific, and end up spending at least an hour reading some random person's travel blog about their time in Russia. 

Tonight's travel blog rabbit hole was called A Girl and Her Travels and was written by a girl who lived in Moscow as an American expat for four years. She has a lot of "tips", most of which boil down to "try to embrace your experience as an expat!" That got me thinking. 

I've already had some really cool experiences, and I'm not even a full month into my Fulbright. Kingisepp was great, a Russian friend took me to a lecture by a French comics artist that was great, tonight I went to a French speaking club at an anti-cafe and that was pretty great (I'm definitely going to continue attending the French club). This weekend I'm going on a historical excursion to Старая Ладога (Staraya Ladoga) that may or may not be great, and the following weekend my friend Natasha has invited me to her home in Tikvin, which is definitely going to be great.

All that said, I definitely miss home. Every day. Because every day I wake up and I am reminded that I am in a strange place where everyone around me has different expectations than I do. This manifests itself in all sorts of little ways: my laundry situation, changes to my schedule, buying groceries, what situations are problems and what situations are just nuisances, etc. And on an individual, case-by-case basis, none of these things are a big deal. Rather, they add up to make me feel, very subtly, very consistently, and very profoundly that I am a stranger in a strange land. You can't escape that feeling, and no matter how great things are going, you will always feel a little out of sorts for the simple reason that you are, in fact, out of place

Being in Russia can sometimes feel like being in exile. For me, that feeling of exile in turn makes me out of sorts and listless. The canonical advice for feeling listless is to get out and do something fun that reminds you that it's better to be wherever you are than to be home. That advice is good until it backfires, until you go out to do something fun only to end up feeling even more isolated and exiled because you had an unfriendly waitress at the restaurant you took yourself out to in an attempt to cure your very listlessness. 

That's why I remind myself that I can go home, and that I am going home for the holidays. I think sometimes it can be seen as a travel-blog faux pas to talk lovingly about going home, but I like to remind myself that I'm not stuck in Russia for the rest of my life if I don't want to be. I can go home again. That doesn't mean I don't want to be here; it doesn't mean I'm not incredibly grateful to have received a Fulbright. What it means is that I'm not an exile. I'm sure this would not be true for everyone, but for me, reminding myself that I can go home again helps me appreciate my time away even more. It brings back the rarefied feeling of exoticism that can get lost in the day to day slog of teaching and trying to figure out where to take out my trash by highlighting that this is temporary, a fleeting time that I should make the most of. It helps me appreciate that hypothetical unfriendly waitress, because she becomes a symbol of an exciting exotic experience, rather than a symbol of a permanent state of unpleasant exile. 

What I'm eating: chili paste?!??

Anyone who knows about Russian food knows that it is not spicy. In fact, most Russians are extremely sensitive to spicy food, and even a bit of black pepper is too much. This past week, I was lamenting my lack of hot sauce or chili paste of any kind. I never realized I could miss Tapatio (or Tabasco, or Cholula) so much. For the last two years of college, I lived with two people who were so into hot sauce, they bought half-liter size bottles of Tapatio. Hot sauce was always around, and I never had to think about it. When I did think about it, it was only to buy harissa, the drier texture of which made it preferable for putting in yogurt. 

I should have thought to bring hot sauce with me to Russia, but it seemed like an unnecessary thing to pack in my already-stuffed suitcase. For the past two weeks I've been missing it, wishing every time I fry eggs that I had something tangy, spicy, and salty to add on top. Enter аджика (ajika). 

It's a little jar of chili paste. And it's actually spicy. It looked promising in the grocery store because it was labeled "по-абхазски", which means "Abkhazian style". Abkhazia is the partially recognized independent region of Georgia that has been a site of various political conflagrations since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The politics of Abkhazia were not why this jar of chili paste was of interest to me; rather, Abkhazia's proximity to Georgia means that they eat spicy food there. Before buying, I checked the ingredients, and was sold on the first one: spicy red peppers. It turns out there's a wikipedia article about ajika, so if you're curious I suggest you read more here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajika

I can report that the taste of ajika does not disappoint. It's nicely spicy (about as spicy as a good harissa, and a little bit drier in texture than most harissa), salty, and has a finish like smoked paprika (although as far as I can tell from the label there is no smoked paprika, just basil and coriander and dill and other spices). I mixed some with olive oil and put it on my eggs this morning; it was delicious. 

I also put some of the ajika-olive oil mixture on... cheese! That I fried in a pan! And it was delicious!

To give some context for my excitement about the cheese, I would like to remind my readers that current sanctions forbid the import of cheese to Russia. So think about all of the cheese that you normally buy in the U.S., things like cheddar, parmesan, swiss, mozzarella, feta, brie, etc., etc., and now imagine if the only versions of these cheeses you could get were poor imitations. As someone who adores cheese, this is a bit of a bummer. I put cheese in most of my food - queso fresco in enchiladas, parmesan or pecorino on my pasta, swiss or mozzarella on my sandwiches, more parmesan or feta in salads, and any cheese I have around the house on my toast, especially under some well-fried eggs. 

I'd rather not eat something that I know is going to disappoint me, so instead of making do with imitations of European cheeses, I'm trying to switch to only eating varieties of cheese native to Russia and neighboring regions. I previously had tried this weird heavily smoked and salted braided cheese that is a tasty snack on its own, but too strong in flavor to put on other things. On my last grocery store run, I went out on a limb and bought a semisoft cheese that was marked as "soft caucuses-style cheese". It was a creamy off-white color and had a little give to it when squeezed through the packaging. 

This is the cheese that I fried in the pan and ate with ajika. It has a slightly fermented but mostly milky flavor, and a soft but not overly-crumbly texture. What it reminds me of most is queso blanco but more fermented in flavor. (Now if only I had tortillas I could make bastardized enchiladas.)

I'm really pleased by these food developments. Just another example of how some of the best food in Russia is from Georgia or the Caucuses. Also a good example of how a little creativity is the key to cooking the kinds of things you like at home even when you're in a very different culinary environment. 

Kingisepp

Last weekend (yeah, I know, it took me a while to sit down and write) I was invited to visit my friend Oksana's family in Kingisepp. Kingisepp is a small town to the south west of St. Petersburg. It's not very far away, only about two hours by bus. It's a historic town, but not a site of much historical tourism, because the historic fortress (крепость) in Kingisepp was destroyed hundreds of years ago, and what used to be the fortress walls are now just strikingly shaped hills in an attractive park. 

In fact, I would say that the town is mostly attractive parks. This was a big plus last weekend, as it was right before the current cold snap (it is literally freezing - 34 degrees F) and sunny: in other words, perfect for seeing autumn leaves. In Russian they call the time when the leaves are changing color золотая осень (lit. golden autumn) because all the trees are turning gold. Everyone says that Pushkin has a particularly good golden autumn, but it's been difficult to tell, because it's cloudy all the time and that makes everything look more dismal than it would otherwise. Not so last weekend in Kingisepp - the sky was clear, the sun illuminating the golden leaves on the trees, which in turn contrasted with the bright blue sky. 

Oksana's parents grow a lot of their own food, and so almost everything I ate was delicious. Home-grown grapes, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, home-grown apples, borshch made from home-grown beets. Oksana's mother also made сырники, one of my favorite Russian foods (they're essentially sweet-cheese fritters) - it was a real treat. 

As usual I was peppered with questions all weekend about the differences between Russia and America. People keep asking me to "describe Americans" or "describe the difference between Russians and Americans", and the more I think about that task, the less I have to say. Americans are so different. I can think of huge variety even within the narrow world of my friends; there are in turn chasms of variety between that world and the rest of America. That's something that I think is good about America: people are so varied. But it also makes me uncomfortable every time a Russian wants me to explain Americans to them. I've been trying to explain that I don't think it's my place to explain Americans. I can explain myself, and speak to my own personal experience, but I would not want any Russian I speak with to assume that all Americans are just like me, or that all American culture is exactly as I perceive it. One of Oksana's friends from high school kept asking me about differences between Americans and Russians, and about my opinions on particular American things, and I kept not really having opinions or having examples for her, and she kept assuming that the reason I didn't have more to say was because I was having trouble speaking Russian. I wasn't. I just didn't have the kinds of strong judgmental views on all people that she seemed to think I ought to have had. 

Overall, though, I would say I had a better time in Kingisepp than I have had anywhere else here so far. It was just so peaceful, so idyllic. Oksana's house is next to a beautiful river, the Luga, and there is a little footbridge that goes over the river. She said that in the summer you can swim in the river and it's quite pleasant. People were fishing on the bridge when we went to walk Oksana's dog. 

Oh right - this dog was also a significant reason why I had such a nice time in Kingisepp. His name is Ritchie and I took way too many pictures of him (some of which will be forthcoming). He was full of energy and love and it was so nice to cuddle with a cute dog. Scenery, good food, a cute dog, and a more comfortable bed than the one I've been sleeping on in my dormitory. 

I continue to be impressed with Russian hospitality. People are extremely hospitable. That was evident my second night in Pushkin when some students (including Oksana) who I had only just met that day fed me a full dinner when I was having a difficult time getting settled. It was also evident in the huge amount of food Oksana's parents sent me home with. Apple juice (homemade, of course), apples, homemade jam, homemade pickled peppers, a squash, tomatoes, onions, and carrots. I was offered more (beets, cucumbers, other home-canned goods), but couldn't think what I would do with all of it during the week and so declined some of my potential spoils. But I must say, I am extremely grateful for the food I did take back with me - the squash and carrots were turned into lovely vegetable pancakes, and the jam went very well on some American-style buttermilk pancakes I made for Oksana and another friend, Natasha, to thank them for all the times they've fed me in the past three weeks. 

How do you talk about the internet?

In my first few lessons with Russian students, I've run into a serious conundrum. How do you explain the contemporary American internet to someone who is not intimately familiar with the culture of silicon valley? 

I'm interested in teaching using podcasts and radio programs, and have shared clips of This American Life and StartUp with my students. The particular materials I was using dealt intimately with the culture of silicon valley, with the ways that the contemporary technology industry in America operates and is talked about. One clip I used from This American Life was about the toast trend in San Francisco, and my students could not fathom why on earth anyone would pay $3 for toast. I'm not sure I want to pay that much for toast, but I understand why someone would, especially in San Francisco. Explaining aspects of StartUp was even harder, despite the fact that I was in a business English class. How do you explain why the billionaire investor has decided to talk to Alex Bloomberg on the street? How do you define "tech casual" as a form of dress? Why is it funny and ridiculous that Alex uses the jargon he does in his first, ill-formulated pitch? 

I don't even read that much about the tech industry, but still take it as such a given that phrases like "crushing it" and "disruptive" and "the uber of whatever" are representative of a particular demographic, that the linguistic and lifestyle markers of what people like me would term the "tech bro"  are immediately intelligible. I've heard that there's uber in Moscow, and maybe in St. Petersburg, but I don't know anyone who uses it, so it doesn't really make sense to my Russian students call anything the uber of anything else. To crush is to compress, to disrupt is to distract. I don't think there is a single digital invention that has disrupted anything in Russia so far, except maybe VKontakte disrupting traditional mail, but probably not because I don't think Russians sent much mail in the first place. The metro still uses tokens. Plenty of people in Pushkin have smartphones, but no one thinks for a second that they can solve all of life's problems with a simple app. There are barely laundromats, let alone laundry apps

I asked my friend Hunter, who works in the tech industry, how to describe the internet. He said, "So we put a bunch of teenagers in charge of several billion dollars; they continue to try and reinvent their mothers while 'crushing it'." Hunter and I programmed a film series that's just movies from the 80s and 90s about what the technological future might be. I feel like I want to show all those films to my students, and then have them read a bunch of issues of Wired, and then maybe they might understand American tech culture a little bit. Although, maybe not: there's nothing like the knowledge that you can summon almost anything you want, as long as you have money and a smartphone. It is a kind of power that is awesome and ridiculous, in the literal senses of both words, the former meaning "awe-inspiring" and the latter meaning "inviting ridicule", attributes that are attested to by the endless internet think pieces about the internet. Perhaps it must be felt to be believed. 

It's always too late

That phrase, "it's always too late," comes from this blog post at The Paris Review. The post is about travel guides, and obsolete travel guides, and places that change, and Myanmar.

I have reread that blog post again and again because something rings true to me about that idea, that for the traveler it is always too late. Where you are is not where you thought you were going; a place is not a picture, and places tend to defy capture by human records, whether those records are written, oral, or pictographic. 

For the 2015-2016 Academic year, I will be teaching English in Russia. I have received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant grant to teach at Leningrad State University, which is located in Pushkin, just outside the city limits of St. Petersburg. This blog will include some of my experiences in Russia, but in all likelihood will continue after my tenure as part of the Fulbright program. 

This is not my first experience in Russia, or in the St. Petersburg region. I studied Russian for six months at St. Petersburg State University in summer and autumn of 2013. When I went to Russia for that trip I had all sorts of ideas about seeing old crumbling Soviet things and buying vintage cameras at flea markets. It was too late for that - St. Petersburg had moved on and was a vibrant metropolis full of hipsters. Which was great in its own way. 

For my Fulbright year, I think I had all sorts of expectations about what kinds of ambitious projects I was going to accomplish as a teacher here. One of which was to start this blog before I left for Russia. Oh well - better a few weeks late than never. It's only been two weeks since I got to my placement in Pushkin, and it's already sort of what I imagined and also not at all what I imagined. I've heard that's the part of travel that's the most exciting.