FRIDAY AND A FLASH OF SATURDAY: BRIEF SOCIAL ENCOUNTERS

Starting on Friday (my second day in Russia, but my first real live full day in Moscow), I actually ventured out of the dorm building and had a few encounters that seem worthy of sharing with my patient readers.

The first thing on Friday’s to-do list was a diagnostic test over at the Philological Faculty, where the entire group is enrolled for the summer. We all have vastly different backgrounds and experience (some have lived many years in Russia, others are full time professors, I’m—obviously—holding down the caboose in terms of experience), so we had written and spoken evaluations intended to illuminate how to divide us into three well-suited levels in terms of coursework. The evaluations themselves were uneventful; it was the official “opening” of our program that preceded which was the occasion for far more hullabaloo than any old oral exam.

We had been forewarned at orientation in DC that ours was a cherished program for our Russian instructors, a chance for them to offer the full depths of their formal and experiential knowledge. We are all (or, in my case, will be) teachers of Russian, and hence, unlike all the other students that flicker through MGU, we are kindred spirits, not here simply to learn Russian, but to pass it on to others with pedagogical precision and passion.

This was heartily emphasized in our welcome. The welcoming committee was the core faculty of the department, with the five main professors in attendance. They each gave a formal welcome, one going to so far as to note that our common language was not Russian, but “the language of educators,” that we, as teachers of the Russian language, communicated on a level that no one else in this vast campus could fathom or imitate. Oh dear…

Each one solemnly began:
Oh Respected Guests, fellow Teachers, we welcome you here in this year of Jubilee….”

Yes, that’s right, the year of Jubilee! Look out Zion, its five years early. Yours truly is a member of the 45th Summer Program for Teachers of the Russian language. Each speaker stressed this; one even noted that perhaps we had not expected the 45th year to be a Jubilee. Mistaken! It was a Jubilee. “Take Note! Forty Five is, of course, a year of Jubilee!” One professor, so bent on expressing to us the significance of the Jubilee, asked us what year anniversary it was of the Summer Program for Teachers of Russian (they never, ever, just call it the summer program). We replied “45”, as this was now the third welcome we had received, stressing the Jubilee. Moreover, all of our handouts, programs and schedules also had the heading:

XXXXV YEAR OF THE SUMMER PROGRAM FOR TEACHERS OF THE RUSSIAN LANGUAGE, MOSCOW STATE UNIVERSITY, PHILOLOGICAL FACULTY

This third professor then continued—“I assume you can all do math, so please tell me then, how many years have we been offering the Summer Program for Teachers of Russian?” It felt like a trick question. Partly because it doesn’t require math to deduce “45” from “45th” [Note: in Russian, ordinal and cardinal numbers are equally as similar as in English, so there isn’t a huge lexical leap to make]. We actually just stared and one girl, almost whispered, “45?” We assumed we had misunderstood the question. But no, the answer was indeed, 45! The 45th year is the Jubilee for 45 years! Well said, class! Well, computed, fellow teachers! Just need to make sure we understand what we are participating in. She sat down.

A quick note on the professors. They were all beautifully, almost heart-breakingly completely stereotypically Russian, hence I have to mention them, if only in order to justify my own Russian stereotypes…Like every Russian educator I have ever met, they speak beautiful, perfectly enunciated Russian, their very intonation expressing the respect they have for their mother tongue. Their rhetoric is very formal, but not exactly stiff. They are comprehensible without dumbing themselves down.

Of the five of them, four were women, of those women, three were babushki and one was a devushka. In Russia, there are really two predominant types of women, devushki—young (decked-out) ladies, and babushki, grandmas. They are each equally emblematic of Russian types and it’s a two-party system that Russians themselves quickly acknowledge: the devushka, a stiletto-ed waif in cropped leather jacket and denim-meets-spandex skirt, and the babushka with the broad shoulders, square glasses and indomitable gaze. There is rarely anything in between, no zhenshini to be found [“women”, idiomatically, elegant middle aged ladies]. You basically go from being Paris Hilton to being Kathy Bates. I think it happens in your thirties or forties, but the details are unclear.

Sure enough three of our professors looked like they were in their fifties, maybe early sixties, but none were zhenshini. Instead, all had the same tired, washed out expressions, square bodies, earth-toned baggy business suits, and orthopedic shoes. Both my grandmas have more pep in their step, although perhaps less sting in their stare. The fourth was a devushka (or, as some less generous would say, a zhenshina who thinks she’s a devushka). At least in her thirties, if not her early forties, she was nearly six feet, at least four feet leg, six inches (max!) of skirt, and all kinds of tan. Her hair was a brilliantly unnatural blond, done up in a French bun. Her eyebrows looked like the arched work of a draftsman and her shoes were, to say the least, hardly orthopedic. The one male professor was a jovial, nutty professor type, who was easily outweighed by the babushki and out-heighted by the devushka. He was remarkably less intimidating than his colleagues as well, and the fact that he kept laughing to himself at his own hushed side-comments didn’t hurt. I’ll find out tomorrow in our first day of class if they stand up as much to Russian standards of education (quite high!) as they did to physiognomic expectations…

Now, skipping ahead (though I may fill you in on my brief evening with vodka-drenched South Koreans later)….

On Saturday morning, I decided to seize the day and got an early start on my walking expedition of the city. I’ll spare you all the details, but a few highlights:

The Overlook: MGU sits on top of a hill on the south side of Moscow, and so when you walk directly out from the front of the building, you reach an incredible overlook about ten minutes from campus. This was my first stop, and well worth it. It was early enough in the morning that Moscow was not yet completely obscured in smog, and the sky was absolutely piercing blue above MGU. A sloping park lies between the campus and the city, so there’s a lovely swath of green bordering the Moscow River and then the white and silver buildings of downtown. While campus had been dead quiet (and what campus isn’t on a Saturday morning?) the Overlook was bustling. There were mostly Russians—entwined couples and souvenir hawkers—and busloads of Asians.

Souvenirs lining the view over Moscow

After snapping a few shots of my own and bundling my camera back into my purse, an older Asian women (Japanese?) came up to me, waving her camera. I smiled, nodded and started to reach for her camera, but she pulled it back and shook her head, then pointed at her friend, who was also holding a camera. Then she stood next to me, and indicated that he was going to take a picture of us, not I of them. This was the first time I’d been asked to step into a photo rather than take it, but I tried to smile not-creepily and keep my eyes open, despite the fact that we were staring directly into the sun. The old Japanese woman rubbed my back and cooed in Japanese and seemed quite pleased with life. I wondered if they knew they were getting an American rather than a real live devushka. Maybe they didn’t know my skirt was eight times too long and infinitely too flowy for me to be a Slav…plus, I wasn’t even wearing mascara, let alone the kind of eye make-up that would mark me a Russia worthy of getting past Face Control…

Moscow State University (MGU), from the Overlook

To our left was the sweeping panorama of Moscow, with its skyscrapers and golden domes. To the left was the imposing four-winged stone tower of MGU topped with a Soviet star (see above). But the actual photo was just of the two of us, with the busy street dividing MGU from the Overlook in the background. We were perfectly positioned as to include nothing scenic in the shot other than ourselves. Even more, as soon as her friend took the picture and barely had she taken her arm from around my waist, when another Japanese tourist jumped in, and put his arm around my shoulder and posed for a picture. Now the original photographer and the lady both snapped away at the two of us. Finally, the first photographer handed over his camera, and stepped into our now well-established frame, which consisted of me, a highway, and a distant potato kiosk called Koshka-Kartoshka.

I was clutching my purse the whole time, now convinced it was some little known but perfectly masterminded con game, where I would end up purse-less, camera-less, or wallet-less at the end of the round robin of snapshots. How clever, I figured, to use aging Japanese tourists and the American sense of politeness to capture a young traveler in a round of waist squeezing and pick pocketing! They weren’t going to fool me! And yet I couldn’t just walk away, they were so doting, so clueless, all smiles. So I smiled too. Damn they were good!

The last man I was photographed with—the first one who took the original snapshots of me and the woman—energetically spoke to me in Japanese [planned distraction!], and finally kept repeating something, which the woman translated as “BOOO-tiful!” The man nodded, I squinted, and the woman clicked her pink Sony camera with one hand while shouting at me “Booo-tiful!” My hand clutched my purse a little harder, my smile grew a little more forced…

Then, like that, they scampered back to their bus and lo and behold!, my wallet and camera were in tact. What do you know…no need to become a cynic yet.

After the photo shoot, I ended up walking through the park, all the way along the Moscow River until I reached the center of the city, a few miles from campus. The walk along the river is a beautiful one, with shaded paths, benches, and even a monastery on the banks. Lots of people were out fishing, and a few out sunbathing. One fisher, dressed head to toe in camo, offered me a few shots of vodka, to give him good luck for his day of fishing. As I didn’t understand this logic, and only drink vodka before 10am on very, very special days, I declined, but marveled at the generally festive spirit in the air. Despite signs every couple of meters admonishing the public not to swim in the Moscow River, old men were splashing about. Public bathing in Russia is something that I immediately loved the first (and only) time I went to Russia, seven years ago. I marveled at how people of all ages, all sizes, congregate around water to swim or more likely just to sunbathe, regardless of how sightly or sparse the urban scenery. The Moscow Riverbank is certainly a lovely sunbathing spot, but I’d seen many a Russian strip down and congregate around far less…

Anyway, I had out my camera, intent on capturing a few shots of the local leisure I found so delightful….as you’ll see below, I got slightly more than I bargained for, but for your sake, the posted shot is pretty PG. I swear, I didn’t expect that as I clicked the shutter and a man sprung out of the water.

Skinny Dipper and Monastery Along Moscow River

There’s much much more to say—oh all the kooky people and strange impressions!—but if I write too much it will take forever to upload. Until next time…

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1 Comment

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One response to “FRIDAY AND A FLASH OF SATURDAY: BRIEF SOCIAL ENCOUNTERS

  1. Eileen

    Britt, that was a great read. Thanks for sharing all of your impressions.

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