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I miss... [Mar. 6th, 2009|02:04 pm]
... my wife. More on that later.

It seems like so much has happened in the three weeks since I last posted. There's a reason for that: a lot HAS happened. When we last "met", I was just starting my job, Nastya was just starting hers, and we hadn't found a place yet. Well, we have found a place, and there are pluses and minuses galore. My job is going well; Nastya is working WAY too much for either of our likings, but there's not much either of us can do about it since we need the money. And there are lots of little things all mashed in there as well, so let's get to it. Strap in... and you may want to pace yourselves, go to the bathroom, and be well rested. Just a warning.

First, the apartment. I'll begin with the search. The long and the short of it is, my mother-in-law, Lena, stresses me out from time to time (as mother-in-laws are prone to do). And when she inserted herself into our housing search, I got REALLY stressed out. It's a tricky situation; I don't always feel like people here take me seriously. By that, I mean the Russians whom I know, and by THAT, I mean my in-laws. Don't get me wrong, they all love me, want to help, and are incredibly nice people. But sometimes they make off-the-cuff remarks about which they don't even think but which sting, such as, "Oh, you're such a naive American," or, "You just don't understand." This things are a bit demeaning, especially to someone who has devoted his entire adult life - the last 5 years of his life! - to studying Russia. I don't claim to be the O Wise Russian Expert, but give me some credit, jeez. I'm not a tourist. Well, Nastya and Lena were kind of joking with me like that, and over the weekend it just got too much. I didn't feel like I was in charge of where I was going to be living, and Nastya and I had a terse blow-up, and while I've since realized that I, too, played a role in making myself miserable (as I tend to do from time to time) I don't feel I was making a mountain out of a mole-hill... there was definitely a decent-sized hill.

That Saturday, Lena and Leonid (her husband) came to Moscow and drove us around with our housing agent, Alla. Alla is a sweet woman, but I realize now that I gave her perhaps too much credit. Of the three places she showed us on Saturday, there was a sense of, "This is the best you could do? You had a week to scope out apartments for us..." We were about to settle for one apartment just because it was the best of the three (we still weren't all too satisfied with it) when Lena got a call from HER housing agent, Andrei. Lots of people named Andrei here. Andrei convinced her to convince us to wait and see a few places with him. At the time, I was skeptical - I was stressed out, I didn't know Andrei from Adam, and he might have just been interested in our commission. I just wanted the search to be over. But Sunday we saw two more places, and one of them we really liked. We eventually went with that one, which meant telling Alla that we were taking another direction. That wasn't too pleasant, as Alla, like I said, is a good person (if not the most effective Realtor) and you always hate giving good people bad news. But the place we found is 25 000/month, and literally across the street from the metro (the biggest plus, and it's a freaking big one). The station is Nagornaya, just 3 south from the Circle line, which, as I said before, is the best line, so location wise it's a vast improvement. And it now only takes Nastya 30 min. to get to work, where before it took her almost an hour. She can sleep an hour more each night, which makes me feel slightly less bad for her.

There are, however, more than a few cons with the place. When we got here, it was dirty. And I mean, filthy. The old woman who lived here before apparently hadn't cleaned it in years. The bathroom looked a bit like the one in the house on Paper Street in "Fight Club" - rusty tub, dilapidated sink, small and cramped. The floors were layered in crud, the doors were black even though they were painted white, the kitchen was... you get the idea. We moved in on a Wednesday, and Saturday and Sunday (last weekend) Nastya and I spent probably 12-14 hours total cleaning the place top to bottom. Now, the bathroom looks a hell of a lot nicer (we don't cringe at the prospect of taking a shower), the doors are now white again, the floors are clean. We feel a lot better now in our apartment, but we didn't really get a weekend since we were exhausted from working so much both days.

Still, we really do like the place. It's the old Soviet style, so while it's a bit old it's cozy and warm. There's tons of furniture, so we don't have to hide all our stuff under a couch like at the old place. Unfortunately, there were other Soviet appliances in the apartment, which don't work as well after 40 years... like the washing machine. The first time we used it, it completely flooded the bathroom (by some miracle, though, the neighbors downstairs didn't come running, complaining about their own apartments becoming flooded). Since then, it just leaks water whenever you put any in there. Our landlords, Dima and Masha, say it didn't do that before, but we can't figure out how to fix it, and it's so old there's no real sense in trying to get it fixed. We've been without a washing machine this week. We're getting a new one next week, though - yay! Finally, I'll be able to wash my clothes!

But then... the toilet broke. And by broke, I mean the pipe connecting the basin that holds the water to the actual toilet bowl was flooding water onto the floor whenever we flushed. For two days we couldn't use the toilet, except, you know, we had to. We "flushed" by just dumping water from a pail into the toilet bowl, hoping that would wash, um, everything away... no such luck. Thankfully, after dicking around with it, I realized that the toilet was so old that the basin had to be held at just the right angle to the bowl to keep the water in the pipes, so I found a piece of wood, padded it with plastic bags to make it thicker, and wedged it behind the basin. Ta-da! No more leakage! At least, until some other pipe bursts or the ceiling caves in or the floor falls out or some other thing goes wrong with these crappy old building.

At least we have a gas stove. No more electric for us!

Really, though, I like our apartment.

Now onto other things. Nastya's job is keeping her way too busy. She works 12 hours a day - 8am-8pm. I pretty much don't see my wife anymore, which explains the opening line of this entry. She gets home around 8.30pm, except I teach every night until 9.30, so by the time I get home she's asleep already, and she gets up about an hour before I do. Bummer. She's asking for Wednesdays off, and they've agreed to give them to her, but this week she had to work Wednesday to cover for a sick guy. She's also not sure about actually taking Wednesdays off. The more she works, the more money she gets, and while I really want her to rest, get some sleep when she can, and we can have at least Wednesday afternoons together, she's worried about our money. But now, this weekend, though, is Leonid's birthday, and we're torn about going. She has work on Monday (even though it's a national holiday here), and we both desperately need two days off - the last two weekends we've been working, either looking for housing or cleaning the apartment - so we can actually be together. It's easily the most frustrating part of all this, is that we don't actually talk to each other during the week anymore, let alone see each other. The weekends are all we have, and we really don't want to spend 6 hours on a train to and from Tver and be with 40 other people in a loud cafe, drinking and dancing and drinking. We just want two quiet, calm days together, to reconnect, reboot, and rejuvenate ourselves and each other. But Leonid was a big help two weeks ago in looking at apartments, and Nastya and he haven't always had a great relationship but they're on really good terms lately and I don't want to jeopardize that by not going and offending him. To go or not to go... that is the question.

Finally, about me. My job is actually going really well. I have two adult classes, Monday through Thursday. They're both beginning levels, but both classes are sharp, and we have a good time together. I also have a little boy, about 6, with whom I play games and color Pirates of the Caribbean and Ninja Turtles. His name is Aleksei, or Lyosha, and while he's a fine kid, I'm just not too into teaching children. They don't speak any English, so I can't talk to them about anything, and there's only so much coloring and playing Bionicle I can do with Lyosha before I get bored myself. Oh, well, at least it's only 3 hours a week, MWF. Could be worse, I could have a whole class of them.

But the real feather in my cap is my adult individual student, Igor (pronounced "EE-ger" or "eager"). He's 45, advanced intermediate, incredibly smart and intelligent, and is just looking for someone with whom to have conversations in English to improve his skills. Topics he enjoys range from politics to the world economy to Russian history to Russo-American relations... hmm, now whom do we all know likes to discuss those things? :-D I've had one session with him, 2 1/4 hours, and it was awesome. I basically just have to send him articles to read the day before we meet, he'll read them, I'll explain new words to expand his vocabulary, and then we'll discuss the content while I correct his mistakes. I cannot tell you how awesome it is to finally have someone with whom to discuss these things on a regular basis. Not to put down the Russian people, but most of them are vastly ignorant of or apathetic to the economy and politics, and do very little thinking on their own. Nastya is an exception, except that she works so damn much now that she doesn't have time to read the news or keep abreast of current events, and besides, we never see each other anymore. Igor will be a welcome release for me. As some of you may know, Obama seems keen on improving relations with the Bear, and now I have a discussion partner... how exciting!

Well, that's all for now. Another long and strong entry in the books. As always, I sincerely hope all is well with all of you. Leave your comments, drop me a line, and be well!
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(no subject) [Feb. 16th, 2009|05:21 pm]
Hey all -

So I guess enough of you convinced me to keep this blog going, at least for the time being. Give yourselves a pat on the back. :-)

So my trip to the US was nice, if not a bit long. It was odd, because I got married, then left the country. But the time spent with friends and family in Milwaukee was lots of fun. I spent a total of 3 weeks there, mainly because getting the visa took longer due to various oversights on my part. But I left Feb. 2nd and was back in Moscow the next day, this time with great layover times of 1.5 hours in Chicago and 2 hours in Stockholm. The downside was that, apparently 1.5 hours is not enough time for the ground crew to transfer baggage, as mine did not leave Chicago with me. It was, however, delivered 24 hours later to my apartment. Could have been worse (in fact, it was one time).

I arrived to Moscow this time on a Tuesday; Thursday I met with my new bosses, Andrei, Grigory, and Vladimir (the latter two are colloquially Grisha and Volodya). We signed the contract, clarified a few things, and they set me up with training. All of last week I went to training at Language Link (the company I work for is a franchise of LL, basically), and that was... eh, who am I kidding, I really didn't enjoy it. It was me and one British guy, Andrew, who I severely doubt will make the cut as a teacher. He seemed not really to get what they were saying in training - his practice lesson on Wednesday was just painful to watch. On top of that, it was 12 hours each day, except that with all the break time we had throughout the day it could have been done in 8. Finally, the trainers, Rachel and Jim, left much to be desired. Rachel was blunt to the point of rudeness when training, discouraging questions in the process (I guess there are such things as stupid questions). Also, I remembered her from a year earlier, when she didn't hire me for basically the same position because she found out I was dating Nastya and flipped out at the end of the interview, accusing me of "hiding something", as if I should have volunteered the information during the "tell me about yourself" part of the interview. Last time I checked, marital/dating status was not fair game during an interview in an American company. She didn't recognize me, but I had to resist (successfully) the slight temptation all week to throw into her face that I a) got the job anyway, just a year later, and b) married that dirty little secret of mine. As for Jim, the guy couldn't have been any duller. Combined, the two did a lot to make me feel stupider than I actually am for not knowing the answers to all the questions they used as intros to the training points. It wasn't overt, more just in their mannerisms. For instance, as a teacher, you're supposed to ask, "Can anybody tell me whether it's A banana, or just banana?" instead of telling them that it's A banana. Rachel and Jim, being teachers, used that approach with Andrew and me. Except that they both made it clear that they got really annoyed when they asked questions and we didn't answer them, and Andrew, as I mentioned wasn't getting it, so I felt the need to take my best stab each time. You would think after two or three wrong answers, or a minute or so of silence, they would volunteer the information; but no, they just kept letting me make an ass out of myself as I made more and more wild guesses, and Rachel especially seemed annoyed with each wrong answer.

So, by the end of the week, I was relieved to be done with that. And as annoying, time consuming/wasting, and ridiculous as the training was, I do feel well-prepared for teaching English, and even am looking forward to it. I guess they did something right.

But that leads me to my next point: today was my first "work day." Except... not really. I met Volodya and we went to a "business building" a few kilometers outside of Moscow and had an interview. I was TOTALLY unprepared - Andrei had led me to believe I was filling a position, not interviewing for it. I had not prepared any answers in advance, and not brought a copy of my resume with me. Thankfully, though, I was able to BS my way through some of it. I only told them one outright lie, under the direction of Grisha - I told them I have more experience than I do (guess it's a good thing I didn't have my resume, cause on there it reflects that I quit the teaching job I had while a student here in January, instead of teaching through May, as I told Mariya at the interview). So all in all, the interview went well. They have 5 corporate execs at intermediate level who want one-on-one teaching, so I'd be coming in on Monday and Wednesday to teach each of them for 1.5 hours a piece. As I left with Volodya, I was a bit worried just because I had really thought that things were already settled with this company; instead, I had promised to send Mariya my resume before the end of the day.

I expressed my concern to Volodya, who reassured me that Andrey was going to talk to them, and that I didn't even have to send in a resume. At that point, I realized that Andrei was a real Russian businessman, and guessed that he had some connection and was going to get me the job. It sounds a bit alarming to Westerners, perhaps, but it's totally normal here to have somebody behind the scenes making or effecting the final decision. The main difference between Russia and the US is that there are laws that, in theory, protect against nepotism in the US, whereas here if you complained to a lawyer they'd just tell you that you need better connections.

So I'm not worried too much about that position. My other position is actually in the city of Moscow (thankfully), and it's Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Tomorrow I start there, and Volodya mentioned that I will be teaching there, so I think that position, at least, is locked in.

As for the wife, she found a job two days after I came back. She was initially incredibly relieved, and is still incredibly happy to have a job (especially in this economic climate), but the initial euphoria has given way to a bit of grim reality. And that is: she's working at security/reception at a bank, recording who comes in, directing them to various parts of the bank, etc. Not just any bank, though: it's THE WORLD FREAKING BANK! I just thought that was cool, cause now I get to brag: "My wife works for the World Bank." :-) However, it's not exactly the field she wanted, and it has a couple of other disadvantages, chief among which is a 12 hour work day. :-/ There doesn't seem to be a lot of career growth, and she's ambitious enough not to want to spend the next 30 years behind a reception desk. There's also just not a lot to do; if people aren't coming in, she gets a "break" where she can't read, listen to music, or anything. However, it's in the middle of Moscow, so it's convenient to get to, and the pay is pretty decent - 33% more than she was making at the hotel. We figure she's just work there for a while until maybe her mom can help her find something better (I'm telling you, connections are everything here). Oh, and she works with only men (which is an advantage only depending on your POV). She's glad she doesn't have to try to get accepted to an already-established female "collective" because she's a bit too strong-willed to suck up like they want, and in Russia the "collective" can get you fired, as happened last time. I'm not too keen on her working with only men, including Dima, who has already flirted with her, and Ruslan, who is apparently hilarious. But then, I'm not the raging jealous type, and I trust her enough.

Finally, the last big news is, we're moving! Prices have fallen in the crisis, and our landlady didn't want to go down on the rent, so we're outta here. To give you an idea, we pay 30 000 rubles in monthly rent, and are 25 minutes by metro from the Circle Line; my buddy from American Councils, Brad, is renting the same size apartment as we ON the Circle Line for... 30 000 rubles. And trust me, living on the Circle Line makes life a bajillion times easier, since it's the only metro line in the city that connects with every other line. Nastya and I aren't going to be able to do that, since our new target rent rage is 24 000 or lower, but we're confident we'll get set up in a good place with a decent location. The move will happen before the 27th, since that's when our lease ends here. And just a forewarning, the new place will likely not have internet at first, so I might go silent for a while.

Well, I guess that's it. No deep analysis of Russia this time, sorry. Once again, congrats on convincing me to keep this blog going. I hope you guys are all doing fine, and (I may have neglected to mention this before now) feedback is always appreciated. Seems like something I should have put in one of the very first post, but eh.

Stay well! Peace!
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a possible end...? [Jan. 8th, 2009|03:32 am]
Hey guys -

So here's the deal: trying to keep this blog up-to-date is pretty time-consuming, and let's be honest, I do a pretty bad job at it. Besides that, my time in Russia has become much more mundane than when I started back as a student - no more weekly excursions, things aren't all new and wondrous, and so there's no real motivation for me to keep updating, even if it is only once a month. (Usually, when something blog-worthy DOES happen, I just don't have the time to make the entry, and when I finally do get around to it, whatever happened has passed and is no longer relevant.)

There is, in fact, only one source of motivation to keep this journal moderately in order, and that is all of you. For some of you, this is the only way to really keep in touch with what's going on in my life. So here's my offer: if I get enough feedback, either in personal emails or comments left on this entry, I'll maintain the blog. If not, well, my next entry might be the last...

A nostalgic thought, but oddly, not the focus of this entry. When I left you all a few weeks ago, I was a bachelor, but I write this with a ring on my finger. :-) The wedding was simply amazing, which is even more astonishing when you consider everything was pulled together on 5 days. At the end of the night, when Nastya and I were finally alone, we were just kind of shocked at everything that had happened. There were so many positive emotions, and we were so physically exhausted, we just sat there, stunned, for about 20 minutes. But I'll start at the beginning.

There's a Russian tradition of "buying the bride" before the wedding. It involves the groom - in this case, me - spending the night away from the bride - in this case, Nastya - the night before the wedding so that the day of the wedding he can arrive at the house to buy his new wife from the family. It's not really a dowry, though, cause it's all for fun. I spent the night at her cousin Denis and his wife Valya's house, and when we showed up in the morning, Nastya's maid of honor, one of her best friends, Taya, met us right at the entrance to the building. It was FREEZING cold, somewhere around -10C/15F, but that didn't make Taya any nicer about actually getting into the building. The first task was to shout up to the windows in the courtyard "Nastya, I love you!" - in 3 different languages, Russian (Ya lyublyu tebya!), English, and French (Je t'adore!). As we worked our way up the stairwell, we stopped at various points for me to complete various other tasks. I doubt I could really describe them effectively, so I'll just say that if it hadn't been for Denis (who was my best man), I would have been completely lost. It's not that I didn't understand what people were telling me, it's that the "vykup", as the tradition is called, is full of subtleties that are difficult for foreigners to get. I do remember that I barely said a word the entire time, which only highlighted how lost I was, even with all of Denis' help.

When we finally got up to the apartment and I'd cleared all the obstacles, I found Nastya sitting on the couch waiting for me, and let me tell you, I just about fell over. She sincerely was absolutely beautiful in her dress. Yes, I was tired, nervous, a bit anxious after the vykup, and about the day that lay ahead, but when I saw her, I couldn't move or think of anything to say for a good minute because I just wasn't expecting that beautiful of a bride.

But enough gushing. I'll speed things up. We had champagne at the apartment, Nastya and I took pictures, then we headed to the registry. The registration took about 15 minutes - short, sweet, and to the point. After that, Nastya and I, with a few other people, went around the city in a limo and took pictures. Remember how I mentioned how cold it was? Well, despite global warming, winter had arrived in Tver just a few days before the wedding, so the day of, everything was covered in a layer of pure white snow, making it absolutely beautiful. We're looking forward to the pictures, with high expectations.

Finally, after we'd all frozen our tails off, we headed to the restaurant, where the evening really took off. We had a pretty good gathering for the registration of about 20 people (good for such short notice, I should say), but if that was good, the turn-out at the restaurant was staggering - 50 people. Again, this is with 5 days notice. What's more, the hostess for the evening was entertaining, the music was good, the food was great, there were professional dancers who put on shows for us, a fountain made out of chocolate, and plenty of dancing. As I wrote above, when Nastya and I were in the hotel room later, we just couldn't believe how wonderful everything turned out in such a small amount of time. It was as if we'd had 5 months to plan everything. The only thing that was missing, naturally, was my family. With such short notice, there was obviously no time to get visas and buy tickets for everyone, nor the money for them to do that, which is why there was, sadly, no point in waiting. I'll admit, I had a harder time without them than I'd anticipated, but there are plenty of pictures and even a video, so when I'm in the States for a while starting in two days, we'll definitely go through everything together.

As for what we've been up to since the wedding, the answer is - jack shit. We were in Tver for a week for New Years, but without going into too much detail, we left abruptly after a nasty exchange in the family. While we were there, though, we spent our days sleeping, reading, watching TV, seeing a few friends (including going to the banya, which was awesome - getting hit with birch branches in the sauna is always a good way to pass the time), and generally relaxing. It was sad that it was all cut short the other day, but while it lasted it was great.

Now, though, I'm ready to start working. By the way, at the last minute, a school in Moscow offered me a MUCH better job contract than with Sunny School. Minimum hours, minimum monthly pay, visa support, housing supplement, and paid round-trip tickets. I'm going to sign the contract and everything from the US, and since the school needs teachers rather quickly, I'm hoping to be back in Moscow before too long. It's not that I don't want to see my family, but that I haven't worked for 3 weeks already, and the sooner I start my new job the better. Plus, I want to spend as little time apart from the wifey as possible.

Anyway, I'm going to finish this entry up. It's 4.30am, and I'm falling asleep. In regards to the question of whether or not to maintain this journal, I'd say people have a good couple of weeks to get their votes in, as it were. In any event, I'm going to make one last entry, so I won't say goodbye just yet, should it come to that.

I hope you guys had an awesome Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/whatever, and a great New Year. I'm sure I'll see some of you when I'm Milwaukee - I'll try to hit up Madison for a day, as well. Anyway, peace to all!
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One last time... [Dec. 24th, 2008|06:46 pm]
Well everyone, this is my last entry as an unmarried man. In 3 days, on December 27th, 2008, Nastya and I will be married in Tver. It's been a roller coaster of the last 3 weeks, with lots of little details coming in to focus since my last post announcing the news. Want to know what those details are? Well, you're in the right place, just read further.

First off, my job is over. It was always only going to be a seasonal job, until the end of December. Friday the 19th was our last day. This was preceded by two weeks of back-to-back traveling, one week in Voronezh and another in Volgograd. I went with Yana to Voronezh, which was our last trip together, and it went a lot smoother than our previous trips, probably because, besides when we were working, we just ignored each other. As acute readers I'm sure you've picked up on just how different the two of us are. I don't remember if I wrote about our trip to Saratov, but it was REALLY rough because of Yana's attitude to the work. But for Voronezh, we just discussed each candidate for a bit before moving on to the next kid, and that night I wrote up the reports in the comfort of my own hotel room. That was definitely the way to do it. I went to Volgograd with Irina, our program... actually, coordinator is the wrong word. I don't know what her title is, but she's permanent staff. That trip started out rocky, mostly because she seemed to think that, since she had been working there for over a year already, I should just shut up and listen to her cause that would be easier for both of us. Which I did - she ended up writing all the reports for the kids, mostly because she was a bit uncompromising with so many aspects that I realized the reports would end up reflecting her work more than mine. Instead of fight about it, I just let her do all the work, leaving me heaps of time in the evening to read Gogol's "Dead Souls" (I highly recommend it, it's hilarious) and watch BBC news.

However, there was one thought that haunted me throughout all this time, even literally keeping me up at night, and that was: when I get back from Volgograd, my job ends, and I'm out of work and left with no visa. Since I'd spent the last two weeks on the road, I couldn't spend any time at all job hunting, which led to me being incredibly stressed out. After all, Nastya and I were getting married (at that point, it wasn't clear when, but almost for sure before the New Year), but without a job and a steady source of income, it would be a pretty rocky start. Leaving Volgograd was both relieving and stress inducing; relieving because I needed a break from work, and my job was ending, which would give me all the time off I wanted, but stress inducing because I knew I'd have to hit the ground running. To make matters worse, this time of the year couldn't be worse for finding a job. For New Year's, the country literally shuts down for 10 days - nobody works if they can avoid it at all, and the federal government sure as hell isn't going to process visas or anything like that. So when I got off the train in Volgograd, it was with one thought, that I had a week - 7 days - to find a job. If I didn't, I would be left without a way back to my wife, no job, no income, and no real way back to Russia for the foreseeable future. Now, that's a pretty bleak opportunity for me, I'd say. But...

... things have improved and come together with my future employment. I'll start by saying I, sadly, kind of blew the interview I had with the Open World that I mentioned in the last entry. I will admit that I walked in there subconsciously expecting him to give me the job, which was obviously a huge mistake. I think I wanted the job so much that I convinced myself that I'd do fine; did too good a job convincing myself of that, in fact, because I prepared for it incredibly poorly. In my mind's eye, the interview was probably worse than in reality, but not by much. John just didn't seem to impressed when I left, and he mentioned there were other applicants, which really scared me; I left with an acute sense of how under-qualified he seemed to think I am for that job (and probably am in reality, honestly), and thought if there was anyone else applying, I'm toast. I haven't heard back from John, but I wasn't supposed to until, say, the end of January. At this point, though, I'm not expecting to hear from him, either.

The blown interview really rattled me, especially cause I'd built that job up in my mind to be my safety net - no matter what, I'll end up with that job, so there's no need to panic. Take away that job, though, and panic is just what I did. Saturday I spent a much-needed day with Nastya, since we hadn't really spent any time alone for 2 weeks, but Sunday I spent the day sending my resumes to schools and businesses around Moscow. Monday was spent calling those same schools to talk. Most of them said that, because of the crisis, they weren't hiring anybody at the moment. But a few schools (including Windsor, from the last post) invited me in for interviews and practice lessons. I've spent the last 48 hours doing a whirl-wind of interviews. Windsor turned out to be a bust; my practice lesson went fine, and Yelena, the school administrator who observed my teaching, was ready to hire me, but the school director said that since they didn't know me in any sort of professional capacity, they couldn't (or wouldn't) give me a visa. Yelena was apologetic, but promised that if I find another job and get back to Moscow, I should get in touch with her and they'd set me up with lessons. A few other schools also turned out the same - they liked me, but weren't prepared to give me a visa. I was feeling pretty distraught on Tuesday, afraid I might not find a job...

... but then, the Sun came out! (A bad pun, you'll get it in a second). One of the schools who invited me in for an interview, English School Sunny Plus, said they'd give me the visa support for which I was so desperate. I went in for an interview on Monday, and they wanted me to teach a class on Tuesday to fill in for one of their teachers, who had left already for the States for Christmas, and after the lesson the principal agreed to hire me. She's actually a really nice woman (also named Yelena), very polite and personable, who said she's always ready to give a new teacher a chance. She realizes we all need to start somewhere, and as long as the teacher is willing to learn, she's willing to train. Yelena promised they would process the visa invitation right away, but again, because of the holiday season, it would take a while. They promised to get it to me as soon as possible, but that won't be much before January 19th. After that, I'll send the documents to the Russian embassy, get my visa, and come back.

So, here's the deal: I'm getting married on December 27th, I leave Russia on January 9th, I should get my invitation in the mail by January 19th, and my visa by the end of that week, putting me back in Russia the last week of January (almost certainly before January 30th). It's not pretty, and I don't want to spend so much time away from my new wife, and I'll be a bit nervous about not making money during that time, since we'll still have to pay for an apartment and my student loans. But, we should have the money, left over from my last job, to last. And the most important part, my visa, is now taken care of. So finally, I can relax, and enjoy my wedding. :-)

Tomorrow I leave for Tver after filling in at Sunny for one more lesson. Friday I have to hide from Nastya - they're very strict here about not seeing the bride before the wedding, it seems, cause she's sending me to her cousin Denis and his wife, Valya, for all of Friday, until Saturday morning. At that time I'll have to partake in various wedding traditions, about which I don't know a whole lot right now, but will write more next time.

For now, that's it! Seeing as it's Christmas Eve, I'll end by saying Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to everyone. I miss you all, and hope to see most of you when I'm back in the States in a few weeks. Peace!
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Big News! [Dec. 2nd, 2008|08:33 pm]
It's been almost a month since my last entry, and what a month it's been. Lots of changes, lots of things happening, lots to write, so let's get started, shall we?

First, I'll start with my job. It's ending in about two weeks - December 19th is my last day in the office - and I'm trying to find more work. With the economic crisis, this is easier said than done. I sent my resume to a bunch of English schools last week, but sadly haven't got any returns except for one. That school, Windsor, has said they can give me visa support and free-lance work, but no contract (and therefore, no promise of steady pay). This isn't as bad as it sounds. First of all, the guy who interviewed me made it clear that I was only there cause I'm already here (here being Moscow); if I were in the US asking to come over, they wouldn't have even given me a second thought. Second, since there's no contract, if I find something more stable or with better pay, I can just leave Windsor without any hassle. And third of all, I'll have lots of time for private lessons, which is where the money is.

However, I'm really, really hoping I won't even have to worry about teaching English; there's a position that might be opening up in American Councils, where I work now. To clarify, at the moment I work with the FLEX program, but AC runs multiple programs throughout countries of the former Soviet Union. One of those programs, Open World, might need someone starting in January. I'm interviewing for the position tomorrow, and I feel pretty good about the situation: the program is "up for bid" in the US government, which is the uncertainty that is keeping them from officially needing someone, but the situation will resolve itself shortly after the New Year. Right now, it looks like they will, in fact, need someone, and pretty quickly after the New Year, too. Since I will already be in the country, have experience with AC, and will be the only candidate they've interviewed at that point, it seems very likely that I'll have the job.

Now, I don't want to jinx anything, and also don't want to wind up unemployed (especially when I'll have to start paying back my student loans), so I'm still looking around. But I'm hoping and feeling that things are going to come together and work out.

The last thing connected with my job is that I am going to Voronezh, 9 hours south of Moscow, on Thursday for a very intensive trip... with Yana. I didn't write about our last trip together to Saratov, but that was pretty rough. Yana's attitude was poor, to say the least, and made the entire week longer and 10 times more stressful. I won't go into details, but it was bad enough that I'm dreading going to Voronezh with her. She's going to be in the office tomorrow, and I might talk to her about it. The only thing is, I don't know really what to say... "Yana, you're attitude sucked in Saratov, if you don't pull your weight in Voronezh, I'm going to kill you"? Sigh... I'll let you know how it goes.

Next, there's an observation about Russians that I'd like to share. The content of the observation has been starting me in the face for a long time, but I only recently put my finger on it. The observation is this: Russians rush to explanations of almost any matter, situation, or issue. An example of this is: Russians feel their motherland is home to more miracles than other parts of world, because the Russian people are special. One of the most common miracles is the "crying icon." Often, where there is some stressful, difficult trial in life, for support people start praying to icons of different saints. After the prayers, some people claim that the icon "cries" some kind of oil. Nastya's family experienced something like this a few years ago, just after she and I started dating. She and her mother were quick to say that it was a miracle; personally, I've always felt that with all the candles people put around the icons when they pray, it seems pretty likely that some of the melted wax would be blown onto the icon, say if there's a breeze in the room, they sigh heavily, or the flame crackles. But Russians, including Nastya and her family, swear up and down that it's a miracle. Or another, secular example: politics is just evil. There's no hope against corruption or the evils of politics, it's just evil, end of discussion. This is what Nastya has said several times when we discuss topics such as the war between Russia and Georgia, or international relations between our two countries. There's never an attempt to delve deeper, to use logic or deduction to come to well-thought-out conclusions pertaining to important affairs in their lives. It's almost as if Ockham's Razor has mutated into a farce of itself.

I'm not claiming that Russians are "simple" or "foolish" to believe in miracles, or that complex issues such as international relations are beyond the grasp of their society. I see this simply as a peculiarity in life philosophy. I will, however, say that I hope most people will sooner rather than later be motivated to obtain that deeper understanding of the world around them. Historically, Russia has always lagged behind most of the rest of the developed world, and as far as I'm concerned, one of the biggest obstacles to Russia catching up with the rest of the developed world is her people's apathy to ask the questions that lead to the critical thinking that is necessary for the social and intellectual development of the country. It's okay to be apathetic; it's inexcusable to remain stubbornly so. Believing in miracles is one thing; oversimplifying the world to your own personal detriment because of a laziness to improve yourself is another.

Finally, as the title of this entry would suggest, there is, indeed, big news, which I have reserved for last. That news is... Nastya and I are getting married! As one friend already pointed out when I announced it to him, judging by my last few entries, one might think that things aren't gong well, or are at least rocky. But actually, Nastya and I have reached a sort of equilibrium in our relationship. We both know that marriage is not an answer to life's problems, but a beginning of a whole new life, full of it's own problems. Our relationship isn't a painting; we will never reach a point of perfection, where we feel the relationship doesn't need any more work and therefore it's "ready for marriage". However, we've reached a point where we trust each other enough to have faith that we will be able to work through our new life with new problems. Once we realized that, getting married seemed almost logical, if not pleasantly inevitable.

However, let me tell you: getting married in Russia is quite the trip. In the US, if you want a small service, you can just go to a courthouse, find a judge, and be married with as much or as little incident as you may like. But since this is an international wedding, there's a lot of red tape that we have to cut through before we can actually, legally be married. Yesterday I went to the American Embassy and filled out a form that says I'm not currently married to someone and got it notarized. Today we went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and submitted this form for their approval. It takes 5 business days, so it will be ready on Monday. There was a small problem when we went to the bank to pay the processing fee of 100 rubles, cause the minister of accepted our documents at first didn't give us the receipt form we needed for the bank, so we had to go back and get it. Then we set off to get an official, notarized translation of my passport page. The Embassy gave me a piece of paper that had one address written on it, but we spent about 20 minutes walking to this place and 10 minutes looking only to finally call and find out they had moved to a new location, 2 metro stations away from where we were and only about 5 minutes from where we had been at the Ministry. That was annoying, but we made it over there, found the place, and paid for the translation. Nastya will pick it up tomorrow, and the form from the Ministry on Monday, after which we'll just have to go to ZAGS (Zapisi Aktov Grazhdanskogo Sostoyaniya, or the registry) and get a date for the registration.

And that's all. Kind of makes you thankful you're not marrying internationally, doesn't it?

So, while this blog is not the ideal place I would want to make an announcement of this importance or magnitude, I am sadly left with little alternative. I HATE sending out mass emails.

Okay, that's it. This is PLENTY long, for which I apologize. But I applaud you for making it this far. :-) I'll catch you guys later! Peace!
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It's finally here... [Nov. 4th, 2008|05:32 pm]
Hey everybody.

Well, it's here. Election Day. In the last entry, I pretty much said everything I wanted to say about the election, McCain, and Obama. It's 5.35 right now in Moscow, and because of the time difference, I won't know who won until I wake up tomorrow to go to work. I'll admit, I'm pretty nervous. I can't remember an election really as big as this one. Of course, the 2000 election turned out to have HUGE consequences for the US and the world - just imagine if Gore had been president on September 11 - but at the time, it just seemed like bitter party politics and who would have bragging rights. This time around, though... I'll stop myself there to keep from snowballing into another pages-long outburst on the subject of American politics.

And, in what has become a rare moment for my Russian blog, I'll talk about Russia for a change! It's already dark right now - the sun has been setting around 5pm every day. The last winter I was here for, in 2006-2007, there were only about 6 hours of daylight, from 9-3. I'm remembering how important it is on days like today to get out of the house and walk around a little bit. If I don't, I tend to become distorted. If it's dark so early and for so long, time just kind of loses meaning for me, especially if I just sit at home and veg out online or something. Today I took a walk around the neighborhood, then went shopping for a few household things. It was only for 2 hours or so, but I'm glad I did something, at least.

It's also getting cold. It's been around freezing, or a few degrees Celsius above, for at least a few days, if not a full week. Ah, Moscow winters... hopefully this year, we'll have a lot of snow. As many of you know, I don't really consider it to be winter unless there's snow on the ground - otherwise, everything is just gray, cold, and ugly.

A week ago today, Nastya and I celebrated our 2 year anniversary. As it was in the middle of the week, we didn't really do much besides say, "Happy Anniversary." But Friday, we went out to a delicious Georgian restaurant called Gumiya (the soup was just amazing). Afterwords we walked along the shore of the Moscow River on the south-west end, talking and trying to stay warm. It was a very nice evening, and as events like anniversaries and birthdays tend to do, this one got me thinking about the last 2 years. Up until this last August, we had almost exclusively a long-distance relationship (barring last summer in Milwaukee). Lots of people wouldn't have made it as far as we did, putting up with, at first, just seeing each other once a week, then going 10 months without seeing each other.

Now, we see each other almost every day, we share an apartment together, we cook for each other, clean up after each other, go shopping, and sleep on the same futon. Quite the reversal from earlier, wouldn't you agree? And as Nastya is apt to remind me, love sometimes passes. We sometimes find that the person we think we want to be with for the rest of our lives simply isn't. We get tired of people, start to take them for granted, and then begin to neglect them, even if we don't mean to, even if we do still love them.

To avoid all this requires immense strength of mind. I'm beginning to understand that spending the rest of my life with this woman is going to be not as easy as previously assessed. Of course, I never had any delusions, and was always aware of this fact. But the difference between knowing and understanding is the difference between wisdom and folly. I'm doing my best to be wise.

Well, I think I'll end it at that, cutting it short to make up for the last few lengthy entries. I hope all of you are doing well. Since it will be post facto when most of you read this, I hope first of all that you all voted, second of all that you all voted the right way. :-) Or is that the left way?

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Another rare moment... [Oct. 26th, 2008|07:04 pm]
Hey all!

First of all, I want to apologize if my last entry seemed a bit whiny. That week, Nastya and I had a few heated discussions about world politics, and that’s what I wanted to say to her – of course, I never would, that would be only destructive. So I had to vent. Thanks for reading, but again, sorry for the lack of content quality. This entry, though, will definitely be better.

Work is going well. Last week I went to Saratov, which is a city on the Volga River. It’s also the home of the longest bridge in Europe, leading across the Volga to the neighboring city of Engels. My hotel room was right on the Volga, but it wasn’t as scenic as you might think. My room faced the construction of another tower for the hotel, and on the third floor, to boot. Besides that, industrialization has done to the river the same thing it’s done to every other body of water in the industrialized world. Sadly, this means the mighty Volga is no longer as beautiful as, I’m sure, it once was.

But the trip was infinitely better because we remembered our materials this time. Who knew – when you don’t forget your materials, things go so damn smoothly! Although this time, I didn’t go with Yana, but with Irina, a woman who works in our office. Yana is having issues with her university and had to study for a while, but she’ll be back next week. She and I will go to Voronezh the weekend after next, and she’ll be around for our Round 3 trips, as well.

After I got back, we pow-wowed about the letter, which is still not forthcoming. We’ve basically given up on ever getting it, and are moving to Plan B. A few words, though: I don’t remember if I already wrote about this, but we’ve only been able to do testing so far with oral permission from the Federal Ministry of Education, not the written letter we usually get. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Russian bureaucracy, some cities are insisting they can’t allow us to come without the letter. There are 4 of these cities, and two of them are mine, which means that while everyone else did four cities, I only did three.  One city that doesn’t want us to come without the letter is Volgograd, which I’m disappointed about. It’s a really nice city and very new. It was previously Stalingrad, which was razed to the ground in WWII. Only one building survived still standing, actually, and they have kept it as a memorial to the dead. I enjoyed being there last time when I took the cruise down the Volga, and was looking forward to being there again. The other is Orel, which I’ve never been to, so don’t know what I’m missing. The other two are Astrakhan, which is in the south of the country near the Caucus Mountains, and, ironically, Moscow. Although apparently some of our people have ins at the Moscow ministry, so we’re going to see if we can’t get them to allow us to do testing here, as well.

As for Plan B, we still don’t know exactly what that is. But I did confirm with Matthew that Brad (the other American recruiter) and I are definitely going to stay employed for until the end of December, as was originally planned. So I’m really happy I don’t have to worry about being sent home early, or suddenly finding myself without income. That would be bad, to say the least.

Nastya’s working now! I’m kind of jealous, she’s working at the Hilton, which is in a Stalin building, one of seven commissioned by the dictator and which have become quite symbolic of Soviet life. I’d love to work in one of those buildings. She works in Guest Services, and while the pay isn’t great, nor the job glamorous, she’s happy she’s working, and the job gives her a lot of benefits – free meals from the kitchen, health care, and experience. The drawback is that she works late and doesn’t get home until midnight or so, which means we’ve seen a marked decrease in amount of time spent together. But we’re making it through, albeit difficultly.

Boy, I’m looking out my window and realized – night fell about a half hour ago, and right now it’s only 6.20. I forgot, this far north, in the dead of winter, the sun’s only up from about 9am till 3 or 4pm. That should make for an interesting winter.

Now for a bit about the good ol’ US of A. For the love of God, I wish this election was over. The tension is killing me. Every day I read some article that reassures me that Obama is definitely poised to win, even if it’s not by a landslide, and then I read a different article about how polls are flawed, or Americans are closet racists, or the GOP is screwing around with voter registration and trying to scare off the people who are more likely to vote Democrat by spreading lies about being arrested at polling stations if you have outstanding parking fines or a warrant out for your arrest or something. I can’t help but think – why is Obama not leaps and bounds ahead? I mean, lets review: the Republicans deliberately misled the American people AND the world about staring two wars, than grossly mismanaged both of them; squandered good will towards and sympathy towards us after Sept. 11 (especially with Russia; Putin was the first world leader to call Bush after the attacks and offer the sympathies of the Russian people and the help of the government); under GOP guidance, the army has become one of marauders torturers; we’ve let global warming go unchecked for 8 years; domestic policies like No Child Left Behind have failed miserably; the government has spied on American citizens in the name of defending Democracy; and, oh yeah, THE ECONOMY HAS ALMOST COLLAPSED! Everyone who knows anything about the economy agrees it’s the worst crisis since 1929. Add to that the sleazy underhandedness of GOP campaigns techniques and a conservative religious right that has fused itself with the party and, for 8 years, been able to dictate who can marry whom and what kind of sex we’re going to teach our kids, and somehow, defying all logic, Obama has not being able to take a commanding lead. Of course, the polls have him ahead, and every editorial and opinion column I’ve read has been enthusiastically for Obama – you get the sense of begging the country to elect this man so we can finally make an attempt to wash ourselves clean of Bush’s Reign of Error. But all the media outlets come with the caveat of “electoral tie” and “closet racism.”

I debated with myself for a while about whether or not to put this up here. After all, this is a blog about me and my life in Russia. I’ve never once thought of myself as a political blogger, nor of this journal as an outlet for my opinions. There are so many of those on the internet nowadays, what’s the point of throwing mine out there? And based on what expertise? But I’m going to break tradition, make for myself one exception, and do it: vote for Obama. It really will be a message to the world: “We, the American People, in order to form a responsible Union, realize what a danger the types of political practices, foreign and domestic, of our country have posed to ourselves and the rest of the world. We are officially disavowing them, and are going to do our best to repair the damage wreaked by our country.”

Obama isn’t perfect. I’ve been disappointed a bit with his campaign – it seemed to me the best way to combat the GOP’s political attacks was to ignore them as much as possible, since he isn’t a terrorist, nor anti-American, and simply talk about the issues, and instead he engaged in a little bit more sparring than I would have liked to see. And while he’s only been a senator for 4 years, I have two words to that: Sarah Palin. Thanks to McCain’s health (about which we know very little) and age, people are conscious of just how close this VP candidate will be to the presidency, and if you think McCain would be a bad president, just imagine how horrible Palin would be.

But Obama really is “one of us.” He doesn’t receive $150,000 new ward robes for his family; he has personal and political roots in poverty and the lower- and middle classes, and far better than anyone the GOP has to offer, he knows what those people need.

So while he isn’t perfect, he’s definitely a positive candidate, one who, at the absolute, very worst, if he doesn’t live up to everyone’s expectations, he’ll at least prevent 4 more years of GOP ridiculous-ocracy, and at the very best, will lead the US to it’s rightful place in the 21st Century – not a science-denying country which ignores international laws because it considers itself above all of them, but as a partner in the global community which offers it’s resources up for the good of humanity around the world.

Vote Obama.
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A rare moment... [Oct. 5th, 2008|10:26 am]
Hey all!

First of, I'll start by saying that life has been going, well, okay. Work could be better, but nothing to get in a fit about. Things with Nastya are pretty good, but buried within that "pretty good" is something that I've just got to get off my chest. And so, in a rare moment for my log of life in Russia, I present to you: my Rant.

Nastya and I, again, are doing pretty good. Lots of time spent together, lots of discussions that lead to insights about the other person, which is in turn leading to more serious reflection about the future of our relationship. But within those discussions I've noticed a rather annoying trend: it's as if Nastya and I compete to see who has the right to complain more about their homeland.

First, the Russian case. A collapsed political and economic regime has only in the last 7 years or so really given way to development, to a better life for Russians in general. Although, while I have no data or observations to back up the following, I suspect that if you were to graph "modernization of Russia" you would see a correlating decrease in quality of life the farther away you are from Moscow; in other words, the farther from Moscow, the less "modern" life is. So the villages and po-dunk towns, of which there are hundreds, scattered around Russia give Nastya an excuse, it seems, to eternally complain about how life in Russia is so hard, and therefore anyone from the US or the EU should think twice before they complain about their own life. She also cites statistics that Americans and Europeans are able to go on vacation more often, have bigger houses, higher salaries in general... everything you would expect would be the case for why Americans are spoiled (sadly, the case completely evaporated 10 days ago when Wall Street melted faster than the Wicked Witch).

In response to this, I point out that while her mom makes the equivalent of only about $10/hr at her job, with this salary she can buy a luxurious apartment a stone's throw away from the Volga and downtown Tver, support a family, throw parties at least once a month at home, and go a few times a year to Turkey for vacation. I made about $10/hr working in Madison while living in a VERY modest efficiency in downtown Madison, and while I was able to save up enough to afford a trip to Russia for 2 weeks, I could hardly afford to do that "a few times a year", let alone once I start returning my student loans. My place was so small that a "party" was definitely out of the question. Never mind the fact that if I'd had 2 kids like her mom does, I never would have finished college and $10 would be the upper end of the pay scale for me.

Now for the American case. I'm of the social opinion that America is on the way out, or at least that Bush has, with stunning quickness, gotten our hat and coat handed to us. Our economy is... well, enough said. Our infrastructure is crumbling all over the country. We rely on a 19th century technology to fuel our 21st century world. Two wars. Rising unemployment. Stop me when you get tired. And while I've been able to repeat these facts to Nastya with ease, she simply brushes them off. When I talk about the sorry state of Medicare and Social Security, she points out that at least those institutions exist. Pensions in Russia are hardly enough to really do anything, except stave off hunger. I point out that there are homeless people on the streets of our cities; she responds that at least they have shelters where people will give them a bed and a hot meal. In Russia, if you're homeless, you ride the Circle Line of the metro for the whole day, passed out, and when the metro closes at 1am... actually, in the dead of winter, I'm not sure what they do. But I've never heard of a homeless shelter in Moscow.

And so goes the trend. Quite frankly, it's getting on my last damn nerve. I can't really say a bad word about life in the US without getting the look of, "Please, life is golden in the US compared with Russia." (Of course, this doesn't keep her from noting from time to time that America seems to be full of idiots and life there is getting worse and worse to the point that Russians have stopped wanting to move there. She herself has said on several occasions that, considering the current economic situation, she's glad I came here instead of the other way around.) The most frustrating thing of all is I get the distinct feeling that she, like many Russians, would feel lost if they didn't have something to complain about. For centuries, the Russian people under the tsars, with the notable exception of the nobility, had every right to complain about almost anything. The Soviet people had a good decade under Khrushchev, but the rest of the Soviet history is just a continuation of the tapestry of woe and suffering that is the Russian life.

But, by their own admission, the Russian people are living better. Putin has given them more than they've ever had before. People are able to travel more. Everyone in Moscow and the European part of Russia has the latest cell phone/MP3 player/digital camera from Apple, Nokia, or whomever. They host friends and families at parties at home on a regular basis. There are internet cafes in just about every medium- to large-sized city, if not decent speed internet at home. Their economy is finally starting to diversify from oil and gas (thank God, cause the moment Europe goes green, the Russian economy is going to collapse like a house of cards). And while it's a far cry from the hey-days of US life, when it seemed everyone owned a car, each family had 2.5 kids and a dog or cat, road trips were abundant, and it seemed like your children would actually have better lives than you did, America's hey-day is ending. Poverty, unemployment, homelessness, debt, foreclosures, and war have thoroughly wrested away from the US the title of "World's Sole Remaining Superpower" - or rather, the gross incompetence of the Bush administration has, since these problems are not unique to our age (cf. FDR).

I guess my point, which I'll try to spin into my grand observation of Russian life, is that Russians need something to complain about. If they travel a few times a year to Egypt or Turkey, it's not enough, and anyway the people from the countless villages of Ivanovo across the country are still living poorly. If they live in a decent one-room apartment close to the metro 30 minutes from the Kremlin by said metro, oh, "Moscow is too hard of a city to live in, too loud/busy/crowded/soulless." (As if New York is any easier). What especially gets me is, the shit that has gone wrong for Russians in the last century or so are all to be blamed on foreigners. It wasn't Stalin that was a blight to the Soviet Union, it was the invasion by Nazi Germany that derailed the USSR. Never mind that Khrushchev was actually a pretty good leader whose "forced retirement" by other Russians led to Brezhnev's tenure as Soviet Premier (Brezhnev is equal to Bush on the incompetency scale); Russia is just too big a country to effectively govern anyway. And for good measure, America has ALWAYS tried to undermine Russia's standing in the world, even before the Cold War, because a strong Russia means a weak US, so if it hadn't been for the US, Russia would still be the Soviet Union and would have won the title of "Sole Remaining Superpower" - Brezhnev's ineptitude and the overly-centralized Soviet economy were NOT contributing factors.

A line from "The Matrix" comes to mind, which I can't quote, but will paraphrase: when Morpheus has been captured and Smith is "sharing a revelation" with him, the computer program explains that human beings define their world and life by suffering. If they aren't suffering, they can't function, as evidenced in the movie by the original Matrix, which was supposed to be a "perfect world" but led to massive crop failure. I think you see where I'm going with this. The more I live here, the more I sense that without something to complain about, Russians would be lost. If Russians were ever really, truly happy, or lived as well as they think the rest of the world does, they'd have no clue what to do. What I'd like to tell Nastya and all the other Russians who focus on just the complaints they feel justified in making about their everyday life is this: like it or not, Russia has, for the time being, joined the Club of Elite Nations. They're not full-fledged members, but they definitely have junior status. And who knows, with the vacancy that the US seems ready to make, they might just make it into the big dining hall. This means, in my opinion at least, that they have no more right to complain as vehemently as they have been, seeing as Zimbabwe has an inflation rate last estimated at 11,200,000% and a government that can't stop bickering long enough to do something about it, China has tainted milk scares going out into the world, the prolonged conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan is threatening to spread to the rest of the Middle East at the drop of a hat, the Caribbean and Gulf Coast of the US is being swallowed by the sea as we speak, and the US financial meltdown is threatening to take the entire damn developed world with it.

Enough is enough, Russians. I acknowledge your difficult, woeful history, but shut the hell up already, you're officially out of the Third World.
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He closed a door... where's my window?! [Sep. 24th, 2008|10:10 am]
Hey folks!

It's Tuesday, and I'm off of work because I got back last night from my first recruiting trip to the sleepy city of Naberezhnye Chelny (roughly translated, it's "Shored Canoes"). When I came back, the internet was installed, so I'm finally able to update and email, yay!

Now, for the story of my weekend. Sadly, it couldn't have gone rougher. First, a description of my job: there is a program called FLEX that sends teenagers from former Soviet countries to the US for a year, and my job with my partner, Yana, is to go to cities around Russia and conduct three rounds with them. The first and second rounds last one day each, and so are done on one weekend. Round 3 is much longer, involving interviews with individual students and so on, so that's done later over a 4, 5 day span. Yana and I get to a city a day before Round 1, which consists of a short 15-minute test of English. Well, Friday we got to Chelny, conducted brief testing with disabled students (we also send physically disabled kids whenever we can), meet with program alumni from Chelny and recruit them to help out on Saturday at Round 1. R1 is usually the most hectic - we have no idea who's going to show up, how many students, because there's just no way to know beforehand. The best you can do is look at previous years' numbers and estimate. Well, we expected around 200, so we brought materials for 300 (they say always prepare for 100 more). Registration for R1 was supposed to start at 9am, so Yana and I showed up at 8.30 to set up. The principal of the school that was hosting us met us at the door, asking where we'd been, cause they'd all been waiting. Yana and I thought, "Uh-oh." Well... turns out that we did an amazing job with PR. We got TWO newspapers to write articles about the FLEX program, announcing the date and time of R1, PLUS the alumni from Chelny made collectively 20 presentations, PLUS we managed to call every single school in Naberezhnye Chelny, the neighboring city of Nizhnekamsk, and the not-so-neighboring city of Bugulma and formally invite their students. So right from 8.30, there were about 300 kids waiting for us. Well, Yana and I went to work - we spent the next 5 hours registering kids and administering the short test. By 2pm we'd tested everybody, and now we had to grade the tests and figure out who passed to Round 2 for Sunday.

Given the volume, that took longer than expected. The rule is - you take 30 percent of your kids to R2, unless significantly less show up, in which case you can take up to 50 percent. Since we had significantly more, it was 30 percent. The end tally was 324 kids, but there were 11 who didn't circle the version of the test they took - to prevent cheating, there are 7, and no two kids near each other are given the same version - and we weren't about to grade 11 tests 7 times, so those kids didn't even get graded, and so automatically didn't pass. After about 1.5 hours of grading, we figured out our cutoffs - out of a possible 22 points, how many points kids from bigger cities (therefore, with stronger English) had to score to pass, and how many points kids from the smaller village schools had to score to pass. We made our list of kids who passed, taking 94 kids in total, hung the list on the door to the school, and headed home.

Well, lots of little, insignificant things happened along the way that made a long, tiring day worse, but I won't go into them, cause they're really of no consequence. The big thing that happened Saturday night, well... that requires a brief explanation of R2.

R2 comprises of 4 parts - the SLEP test, a more detailed test of English, with listening and reading comprehension sections (that's 2), three essay questions they answer in English, and Bio-Data sheets - basically, information about the kids, their parents, and schools, so that we can get in touch with them if they pass to R3. Well, Saturday night, I discovered that we had the wrong tapes: there are 3 versions of the SLEP, each with separate audio, and we needed V4, but had V6. Turns out, our tapes somehow got mixed up with the tapes of another recruiting team, cause they had V4 and needed V6. Well, with about 12 hours before R2 starts, there's no way to get the tapes to us on time, so I texted MAO - that's the Moscow Administrative Office, but with an acronym like that, they get plenty of jokes (Matthew, the guy who runs the entire FLEX program in Eurasia and whom I texted, is referred to as Chairman MAO) - and asked what to do. No answer. Tried calling - still no answer. Got in touch with Denise and Anya, who had our tapes, and Denise, who runs the Moscow hub of FLEX, said we might have to cancel. Finally, I went to sleep, hoping to hear from MAO before 9am tomorrow morning, when R2 was scheduled to start. Success: he texted me at 3am and said we'd just have to do everything we could - essays, B-D sheets, and the reading comp - and for those who passed to R3, reSLEP them with the audio. That seemed good and well, except...

Sunday morning, as I'm gathering materials for R2, I made an even worse discovery - we didn't have the essay questions either. I called Matthew, and miraculously got in touch, waking him up on a Sunday morning at 7.30 when he'd gotten home after 3. "Hey, Dan, did you get my text about reSLEPing?" "Yeah, but..." "Oh, good. Yeah, don't worry, the essays are the most important part, that's what gets graded the most for going to R3, so coupled with the reading comp, it shouldn't be too bad." "Well, about that, Matthew..."

Let me tell you guys - Matthew is a hell of a guy and boss. He got out of bed, went to the office, and emailed me the questions, while Yana went ahead and filled out the B-D sheets with the kids (however, as the American, only I can administer the SLEP test, so that's all she could do until she got the essays). I expected to be right behind her, but I discovered that the front desk didn't have access to the internet, just to it's own email account, so when Matthew sent me the essay questions to my wisc.edu account, I couldn't open it. Matthew and I consulted, and decided to send it to the hotel account. The problem is, our testing materials are very confidential, and I'd have to delete the questions from the inbox, as well as the deleted folder, to erase any materials that would be beyond our control.

Well, an hour and a half later, still no email. I had no idea what was taking so long, so Matthew and I decided just to fax the questions (should have done that earlier, but we weren't thinking). Finally, 2 hours behind schedule, I get to the school with the essay questions, and we begin R2. In Yana's classroom, there were 16 desks, in mine there were 14 (important later). We were practically stumbling over ourselves to catch up - the kids who were supposed to start at 9 started at 11; the essay and reading comp each take 45 minutes, and the next group was coming at 12; Yana accidentally let her first group go before they took the SLEP reading comp; then, later in the day, she also forgot to give one group the B-D sheets; at the end of the day, we realized that because I'd never moved one desk into my classroom to give it 15 places instead of 14, at 6pm, when we wanted to go home (I had skipped breakfast that day, and lunch, and lunch the day before, so I was starving and exhausted), we had to stay another 1.5 hours to test two more girls. We did, then finally went home.

Don't ask me why, but both Yana and I blamed the whole day on me. We both felt it was my fault for not packing the essay q's, and my fault for mixing up the tapes. At the end of the day, Yana was crying tears of rage and about ready to kill me, while I was apologizing profusely for screwing up so badly, especially for not putting the desk in the classroom at the beginning of the day. In my defense, though, I was a little preoccupied with the 50 kids waiting impatiently downstairs to be tested, and just wanted to get it over with ASAP. Monday I woke up and, skipping breakfast again, immediately began sorting out all the Bio-Data sheets, SLEP answer sheets, and essays, alphabetizing them and seeing who was missing what. It was then that I realized that the day wasn't as bad, from the point of view of the overall FLEX program, as previously assessed. Yes, it was long and painful and stressful and tear-inducing, but almost everybody filled out everything they were supposed to - SLEP reading, B-D sheets, and essays. I say "almost everybody" because there was a group of 16 students Yana let go before they took the SLEP (her fault) and, in the middle of the day, when we switched classrooms, she didn't have them fill out the B-D sheets (also her fault). So I felt a hell of a lot better about myself and how I handled the situation - I'd managed to procure more essay questions, had administered everyone I could the SLEP, secured the confidentiality of the essay questions (the email Matthew had sent with the essay q's came just as I was checking out, so I just deleted it), and through all the chaos, no confidential materials - SLEP booklets, essay q's, filled-out B-D sheets, answer keys, pre-test versions or answer cards from the kids - were lost or misplaced. The two materials we hadn't packed were OUR responsibility, as a team, so she was just as at fault for that as I was. And, in fact, Yana had made mistakes that were worse than mine, resulting in one group not SLEPing, and the other not filling out B-D sheets.

However, I didn't gloat. I didn't throw it in her face. I realized that the weekend was stressful enough as it was, and doing something like that would just aggravate the entire situation. Besides, since we were going to reSLEP at R3 anyway, the SLEP reading comp didn't mean a whole lot, and we have at least home phones for the kids who didn't fill out the B-D sheets, so we can do that with them over the phone. Nothing irreversibly bad, in hindsight. So, in the interest of getting back to Moscow in as serene a state as possible, I kept my mouth shut... until the airport, when Yana began accusing me about the tapes all over again, saying it was my fault they were mixed up because I'd started gathering materials on Wednesday before the trip, and only finished on Thursday, so next time I should do it all at once. I finally just snapped; I apologized for all the mix-ups, but said that she should lay off, since nothing was lost, our jobs weren't in subsequent jeopardy, and the weekend was now over and there was nothing we could do about it, then stormed off. I think after that, Yana realized she had been a bit harsh, and after a plane ride where we sat apart and I cooled off, in Moscow we were at least on speaking terms again.

And that's it. I dropped off the materials at the office, where I saw Matthew, and we had a laugh about how horrible the weekend was. I came home, saw Nastya, had home-made sushi for dinner, several cups of tea, then just went to bed. Now I'm up, writing this entry. With the internet finally installed, I have upwards of 80 podcasts I need to catch up on. And since I have the day off today, I'll be doing that most of the time, I think. That, and just spending some QT with the GF.

Thank you all for reading such an exhausting entry. If you can believe it, there were several details that, in the interest of succinctness, I skipped over that would have made the story funnier and conveyed an even bigger sense of, "What else could go wrong?", including calling cards that didn't work, slow sales girls, slow taxi drivers, and a mean old battle-axe of a night lady at the school. Anyway, hope you enjoyed, if you got this far. I miss you all, and I hope to hear from you soon! Peace!
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It's not quite the Big Apple, but it's close [Sep. 14th, 2008|02:00 pm]
Hey folks!

Originally, I had intended to write about once a week – instead, it’s been almost a month since my last entry. Sorry about that. The reason is, I only have internet access at work. The company we are trying to get to install our internet, Akado, is dragging their heels with coming to our apartment to actually install it. At the moment, I’m in Tver, visiting Nastya’s family. I have a few free minutes, so I figured I’d take this moment to inform the rest of you as to my goings-on.

First, as some of you have probably heard, work has been quite unusual. For those who don’t know, my job title is FLEX Program Recruiter. FLEX is the “Future Leaders Exchange Program”, funded by the US Dept. of State, and each year gives high school students from former Soviet countries the chance to study abroad in the US for one year. My job is to administer tests and interview students who want to go on the program, and report back to our office in DC. Back in June of this year, ACTR submitted a letter for approval by the Russian Federal Minister of Education to give us permission to recruit for the FLEX program in Russia. As of Friday, Sept. 12, no letter has yet been issued with said permission. What that has meant is, we haven’t been able to really do... anything. We’ve spent the last two and a half weeks basically tooling around the office, because without the letter, we can’t contact any schools in any other cities to set up testing for Rounds 1 and 2 of our recruiting process. And since that’s, you know, our job and everything – to set up and proctor these tests – everyday at work was mindnumbingly boring. Well, finally, we had a breakthrough this last week on Wedensday – while we don’t have the letter, we were given oral permission from the Federal Ministry of Education to begin recruiting... finally! So we spent Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday calling schools and local ministry officials in the cities of Penza and Naberezhnye Chelny (henceforth denoted as NC) to set up our testing centers, or TC’s, there. One of our three recruiting teams, Brad and Nelly, were finally able to go to Penza, and are there right now. I was supposed to be in NC with my assistant, Yana, this weekend, but we just didn’t have enough time to set up both TC’s, so we pushed testing in NC back another week. This Friday, I’ll leave for NC, and get back Monday evening. I’m so happy to finally be doing something. Plus, this job seems like it will be pretty fun – lots of interacting with official people, principals, ministry officials, etc, networking between schools to get them to send their kids to testing, etc. – so I’m glad it is finally starting. Actually doing the job ACTR is paying me to do is fun, too. I call schools and invite their students to participate in Round 1 testing, I coordinate with program alumni in different cities, I write letters to principals, journalists, and newspaper editors asking them to spread the word about our program. I’m actually pretty pleased with the experience I’m gaining. Hopefully, when I start to look for a job in November/December, other employers will agree.

The downside to all this is, we’ve already had to push back another TC, the city of Orel (pronounced Oryol). That was supposed to be last weekend, and now that we’ve had to push back two of 5 TC’s, this means that for the next two weeks, I’ll almost never be home. Nastya, obviously, doesn’t like this, and neither do I. But it’s only until December, and besides, we’ve been apart for so long already, a few weekends here and there won’t kill anybody.

So that’s the news with work. Some of you may be thinking, “I wonder if this has anything to do with the political situation between Russia and the US?” In all probability, yes. The Russians are pretty pissed off about American instigating in the conflict between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia. They especially don’t appreciate Secretary of State Rice, as they put it, “enticing” Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, to military action in South Ossetia. The Russian media is painting, and rightfully so in my opinion, the McCain-Palin ticket as anti-Russian. And, as always, Bush is just about the most unpopular politician in this part of the world. But don’t worry, those of you inclined to do so. My American colleagues and I are safe, no one insults or threatens me, and I don’t walk around in a shirt that says, “God Bless America”, shouting “USA! USA!” So far, there is no reason to assume I’m more likely to get hurt; at least not any more likely than anyone else is to get hurt in any other city at any other time.

Now, time for play. Nastya and I found a really nice apartment that we are very happy with. It’s only about 7 minutes from the metro, which is really key since I use the metro every day to get to work and back, and when it’ll be really cold in a few months, I’ll appreciate the quick walk. It’s a one-room apartment, which is different than a one-bedroom. We’ve got the one room with two futon couches, a shkaf, or wardrobe, and access to a balcony, then a kitchen and bathroom. Fortunately, the apartment came with furniture, and Nastya’s wonderful, generous mother, Elena, gave us sheets, brought Nastya’s clothes to Moscow, and has been helping us out a bit financially until we get on our feet. Also, our landlady, Valentina Borisovna, has been very patient and kind. We didn’t have all the money we owed her right away, and she agreed to wait until I got paid for the rest of the money. In the meanwhile, we gave us towels so we could shower, had the fridge and washing machine delivered, brought a small table for our room, gave us plates and silverware and a couple of cooking dishes, and is generally a very pleasant woman. Nastya and I are planning on inviting her for tea – she lives just a few floors below us – once we’re able to get completely settled in. So all in all, the apartment is incredibly nice. Nastya recently got a phone with a camera, so we’ll take some pictures and I’ll try to post them on LJ for all to see.

Nastya herself, well, she’s busy looking for a job. Until we get the internet installed, she’s constrained to the jobs she finds in the newspaper “Zarplata i Rabota”, or “Pay and Work.” Fortunately, it’s a great resource. She’s been calling, and I’ve been sending her resume from work to people who want an interview. She’s gotten one or two offers, but we’ve agreed that for now, my job is providing us with enough money for the apartment and so that we don’t starve to death, so she’s not going to take the first offer that comes along. There’s one job offer she has that she might take, if the interview she has in two days doesn’t pan out. The current offer is to work as a coordinator for the program Work and Travel, through which she came to the US twice herself. She’d be working on sending more students there. The pay is a little low, but we’re realizing that as a fresh college graduate with no experience working in her field, she won’t make 40,000 rubles a month right away. The other thing she doesn’t like is that it’s pretty far from home, about an hour on the metro one way. But it’s good experience (I think, at least), and she could certainly do a lot worse. The job for which she has an interview on Tuesday, however, is the one she really wants. It’s decent pay, a great location (only about 30 minutes on the metro from home), and, as they say in Russian, “by her education” – it’s what she went to school for. If they offer her the job, she’ll take it right away. All in all, things are coming together.

Finally, a few words about Nastya and me. As you all know, we were apart for almost 10 months. The last few months were especially hard because I was supposed to have left at the end of June for Russia, but due to the new visa system, I only made it in August. But finally, the nightmare has ended, and we couldn’t be happier about it. The first few days were the typical “honeymoon”. Of course, that ended pretty quickly. Now, we spend our time being deliriously happy that we’re together finally, and working through the issues that every young couple has to work through – tolerance, patience, flexibility, trust. Some days, there are arguments. Sometimes, the arguments are big. Other days, there’s just the two of us. Some days there are both conditions at the same time. Sometimes we argue, and I go, “What the hell was that? That shouldn’t have been an argument!” Sometimes, I think, “Wow, we’re working through this better than I thought.” It’s confusing, it’s frustrating, it’s difficult – but honestly, I couldn’t be happier. I’m building a life with the woman I love, and we all know Rome wasn’t built in a day. We live poor, but far better than some; we eat modestly, but we eat; we argue, but it’s based on love for each other, and not spite or wickedness. This is the period of my life to which I’ve been looking forward for a long time. We’ll make it through it all, and we’ll be stronger for it.

Well, I think that’s all for now. I know this is a long entry, and that most of you don’t have the 30 minutes required to devote to reading it. Once Akado actually installs the internet, I’ll adjust my frequency to about one page a week, instead of 3 pages a month. I miss you all, and hope all of you are doing well. As always, I invite individual letters from people. I hope to hear from at least some of you!

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