Greetings all! It is getting down to the wire here in Vladivostok with only six more days until I head out to Saint Petersburg. I think I can say this has been the fastest summer of my life. It is amazing how quickly we are able to adapt to new things, so much so that they become routine. And once that happens, the time flies. Overall, I think it has been mission accomplished here. I’m not fluent in Russian yet but I have made a lot of progress and I think I am going to be extremely well prepared to make the most of my time this fall, which was the main point of coming out. It is another beautiful, though uncomfortably hot and humid, day and I am sitting in my favorite hipster coffee shop as I type this out to take advantage of their fast internet and good music. Today it’s Ella Fitz and Air France.
So to begin this update, the headline story: Catholics. I don’t remember if I mentioned last time but when I found the Catholic church two weeks ago the lady who let me in, Tamara, told me that in a few days a group of American “missionaries” would be arriving to do volunteer work in the city and that they would be staying in the rectory. Sure enough, two days later when I came back for Thursday evening mass, I found a large group of Americans occupying the movie theater seating. About 15 of them. They were all college aged kids except for the leader who was still quite young, about 30. Several from the Midwest, which was cool, and all very nice people. They invited me to dinner every day of that week they were here and we just hung out. I showed them around, translated for them as none of them spoke any Russian, and went to mass with them about every other day. It was really nice to have that kind of family community that has been considerably lacking this summer, especially since summer is the hands down biggest family time of the year. In fact, unless I miss my guess, the usual MI city festivities are now underway. Hope you all have a great time and that the winners of the All Star Game remember to thank me when I get back for not being there to challenge. It was my year dammit! But yea, nothing beats sitting around a big dinner table and just hanging out, playing cards, whatever. As I said, there were several Midwesterners so we got a couple games of euchre in. Didn’t have time to teach them sheephead. Learned a new one too called 500 that is kind of a combo between euch and spades and extremely fun. I also got a chance to spend more time with the two American nun types. Not sure of their official titles but we called them sisters so I just figured. Anyways, two extremely young, funny and kind women in habits, one from Iowa and another from Virginia. Strangely enough, one really looks like Laur and the other like Sammy, kinda freaked me out at first. The slightly elder one, Sister Stella, did her undergraduate in music and then a masters in organ performance. She is very good and let me try out the beast after mass a couple times. Pretty cool. All in all, a really great, loving group of people that I feel very lucky to have run into. It’s another one of those serendipitous occurrences that I started noticing more and more ever since going to college. What are the odds that this group of Americans would be in Vladivostok while I was? What are the odds I would be in Russia at all? What are the odds I would go to school in Oregon and meet all the wonderful people I know now? It goes on and on. Whether it’s from God or sheer dumb luck, I’m not sure, but I can say that I am extremely grateful.
Another interesting thing that came out of all this was an aspect of Russian culture that I had heard about and therefore expected, but up until now had not experienced. Dave, a great guy from Kansas in the group, happens to have parents from Jamaica. So that makes him the first black guy I’ve seen in Russia. And judging by the amount of attention he got on the streets, he was the first black guy most Russians in Vladivostok have seen in Russia. Lots of stares, muttering and requests to take pictures, which got so annoying that I simply started responding “100 rubles” which helped depress demand. Dave was pretty uncomfortable, especially when we would get a guy who would just waltz up and go “hey nigger!” not trying to be offensive but just because a lot of times that’s the only way they know to call a black person and they don’t realize how bad a connotation it has in English. If you want to gain some perspective on life outside the US, Russia is certainly a fine place to find it.
Note the Russians looking on, suspiciously.
On to the police. I finally had my first document check by the jack-booted, baton carrying, military police. Not sure why they picked me as I was in the leather jacket which usually helps blend in pretty well. Might have been the facial hair, since no Russian really have it, except for in this hipster cafe of course. Anyways, no hesitation at all. Came around the corner, walked right up to me and asked for documentation. Of course they had to pick a time when I was busy stuffing my face with a juicy piroshki I had just bought. It was quite hard to try to extricate my passport from the slightly too small inside pocket with one hand while trying not to drip piroshki on myself with the other. It was really quite lucky that I even had it, as lately I haven’t been carrying it with me when I go out since up til now I have literally not seen the police do anything. But because I was wearing the leather jacket with that inside pocket that my passport almost perfectly fits in, I brought it along. What really struck me as funny was how briefly they “checked” my documents. They don’t know what an American passport is supposed to look like and I doubt they could read the scrawls on the the scrap of paper that is my “registration.” I probably could have forged all these documents myself and had the same outcome, which was them just handing me my stuff back and moving on.
And so we come the vulgar old man. This was another random meeting while out and about in the city. Taylor and I were walking downtown to meet up with John and Eric to go out for a drink when I spotted a strangely out of place looking guy and a few seconds later realized he was speaking English to the young Russian woman accompanying him. The guys looks about 60, bald, sporting shorts, a button-up and knee high socks with tennis shoes. Taylor and I broke off our conversation and stared at him as he passed right by us. He did a bit of a slow down too and abruptly stopped talking and we had this sort of slow-motion check out before I, brilliantly, said, “so you must be American.”
On all the other rare occasions I have run into Americans, they are usually very excited to meet a fellow countryman. This guys was decidedly indifferent and unimpressed. He told us that he teaches English in China and has been for about 6 years now and that he was in Russia to take the transiberian to Moscow because he thought he ought to. The girl with him turned out to be some random lady he had met on his plane who agreed to help him find the train station. He told us that he’s from LA which I immediately gave him shit for, which didn’t seem to bother him too much. He swore pretty casually and one of his favorite responses seemed to be “F that.” I do quite a bit of F thating myself but for some reason it always throws me for a loop when anyone older people I don’t know do it. He also obviously enjoyed being contradictory while I was trying to make polite, traveler small talk. An example:
Me: Yea so I’ve been here for about two months now.
VOM: Sure, but do you know the answer to the most important question?
VOM: Why do we have seasons? Do you know that?
I actually did know the answer to this but of course he was going to find something objectionable about it.
Me: Well yea. It’s because of the tilt of the earth, right?
VOM: OK well, how tilted is it?
Me: Like 20-something degrees I think.
VOM: 20-something? I thought you said you knew the answer. 20-what?
Me: Well what is it? I know it’s in the low 20s.
Me: Oh come on! I knew it.
VOM: Don’t be so eager to pat yourself on the back. This is science, you gotta be exact.
Me: Hey man you should be a college professor or something.
VOM: Hah, F that.
A strange stranger in a strange land. Makes for a good story though.
He bid us farewell with a sincere, “Have a nice life.”
And finally, we got to get out of the city again for some BBQ, swimming and a general good time. Notable events included a number of rousing, multinational U2 covers and a scientific breakthrough: box wine does indeed float! But further research is still very much needed in order to create a complete index that will account for all of the numerous buoyancy factors (whites vs. reds, country of manufacture, price, etc.) The key is having a large enough sample…stay tuned for updates on the continued efforts of our lab techs.