Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Learning by Leaving

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I have immensely enjoyed the opportunities I've had this week to sit down with classmates, old friends and professors who all want to hear about my travels in Eastern Europe. Their questions - whose answers are often "so obvious" to me - have been incredibly insightful and helpful in reminding me how much I actually learned while I was gone. Their reactions to my responses have ranged from utter surprise to indifference, from "I told you so," to "I'm so glad you're still alive!"

I am among only a handful of seniors who still have a meal plan at Belmont's cafeteria, so when I'm not hurriedly trying to finish reading for my next class while munching my veggies, I'm often joined by one of the four other seniors whom I might run into there. These past few days I've eaten a few times with Steven, an accounting major with whom I used to work as a Resident Assistant in one of our dorms.  There couldn't be two more different students at Belmont, but we always seem to get into serious life-planning discussions.  Steven has lived in middle Tennessee his entire life, and would be happy to stay here indefinitely. Tonight I heard the most adventurous statement he's ever made in my presence:  "I might consider moving across the country if I had to."  I first thought I had heard "to another country" and almost fell out of my chair and flung a carrot across the room, but he quickly confirmed that it was across "the country" -- the one and only country worth living in, in his book -- the United States of America.
There's a simple sweetness about Steven's contentedness here; his happy-go-lucky and laid-back personality make him unassuming and easy to be around.  His genuine interest in other people's life and experiences and willingness to listen give us license to be genuine and unworried about being too quickly judged.

My neighborhood church.

Looking at the Admiralty from across the Neva.

Tonight Steven asked, "What was life like in general over there?"
I told him about registering with the city government and the need to re-register with the municipal authorities of a another city, should you visit for more than three days. I talked about the ├╝ber-high cost of living in the big cities; $10 cups of coffee in St. Petersburg; a subway line that is so far underground, it takes five minutes on an escalator to get down there. I told him about the warm, genuine, intelligent people I met and their curiosity about the West.  I even told him about my good friend Yuriy, the photographer with whom I effectively covered most of downtown St. Pete on foot.
Steven stopped me halfway through my first sentences, exclaiming, "...And you want to move back there!?"

I had to think about it for a minute.  "Well, yeah, for a time," I said. "There are a lot of things about life in Russia that I miss."
"You know," I told him, "there are things about every place that I've lived that I miss.  It's like being a little bit homesick for six countries at once.  But I like it that way.  I don't take any day for granted, and I know that I make the most of every day because wherever I am, I live in constant awareness that I won't be in this place for very long."
We were both silent for a minute; the din of students eating and laughing in the background faded out as we both lost ourselves in contemplation.
Finally Steven said, "Wow, that's an interesting way to look at it.  It's like not taking anything for granted because you know you could die any day -- except you're not dying, just leaving.  For all of us that just live here, we get into a routine and sometimes it becomes about just getting through the day."
I completely understand what Steven is saying, and I see the truth in his observation. But to me, what he is describing is a tragic existence.

A canal near the Hermitage.


















"I just couldn't live like that..." Steven went on, "...I couldn't live in a place where there are so many rules and regulations - especially with the government and everything." Another friend I saw this week prefers the safety of America to the many, many (both perceived and real) threats and inconveniences of daily life that expatriates and inhabitants of other countries face. I can't say that I blame her, but I approach life from a completely different angle.  It's a challenge and a game for me -- to see how fast I can adapt to life in another place; how quickly I can fit in seamlessly and be taken for a local; how uncomfortably I can live and still be happy; how many oddities and quirks I can find and embrace in a new culture; how low-maintenance I can become.

Downtown St. Pete.  A big pole falls and no one shows up to put it
back in place.  No orange cones. Nothing.
I actually got stared at while taking this photo,
as if this is an everyday occurrence.

Sometimes it takes a conversation like the ones I had with these friends to realize the logic that underlies our daily actions and attitudes. Sure, I'm aware that every morning I open my eyes, remember where I am, and pick out all the things I want to do that day that I know I can't do anywhere else. I just hadn't taken into consideration the fact that everybody else isn't doing exactly the same thing.
Speaking of taking photos for people...I snapped this shot for my brother
Jared.  It's "his" car - same make, model & color as the one my aunt
gave him as his first car!  And I saw it in Russia!!
For me, leaving and exploring new places and meeting new people is as much about cherishing my old home and friends and past experiences as it is about exuberantly embracing the new.  I remember walking to work every morning in St. Petersburg - 45 minutes in many degrees below zero - and smiling as I thought about all of you. Some of the pictures I took were for me, because I came upon a nice view or some unusual scene that made me laugh; but honestly, most of them were for you. 90% of the time I pulled out my camera because something triggered a memory of one of you and I thought, Oh my, so-and-so would LOVE to see this! 
Now I walk to school every morning - 10 short minutes under the warm Tennessee sun - and think about the community I left in Russia....my wonderful co-workers at the Consulate, my passionate film- and music-loving young friends, the man with no legs who wore black fingerless gloves and scooted around between traffic on a little square board with four wheels, asking for spare change.
Just as traveling introduces you to parts of yourself that you might not have ever otherwise encountered, it also prompts the discovery of your home in a new light and from a new perspective, namely, the perspective of an outsider.

The giant poster reads: "Russia. Land of Opportunity."
Wait...wasn't that America's trademark??

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Culture Shock - Southern Style

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On my many walks through campus today, on this first day of fall classes at Belmont, I realized (for the fourth or fifth time in my life) how much more intensely I feel the culture shock when re-entering my own culture than when  initially leaving it for another.  As I strolled up the newly repaved paths from my apartment in Belmont Commons to the Massey Business Center at the top of the hill, I was puzzled by the happy faces making eye contact with me as I passed and even - gasp! - smiling!?  I kept thinking, "What's going on? What do these people want from me?"  

I learned very quickly in Russia - and was reminded during that first month in Western Europe - that making eye contact isn't the proper way to conduct oneself while walking on a city street.  And smiling is simply out of the question; socially acceptable only as a kid or teenage girl, and even then - only when greeting very close friends or family. To smile at a stranger is downright provocative.
(No wonder I had a perpetual trail of Russian guys behind me those first few weeks in St. Petersburg...)

There are other things I'm still getting used to, too.  Like driving.  Everywhere.  It was nice to rediscover my personal vehicle upon my arrival in Nashville, and even nicer that I could profit from its use while moving into a new apartment. But I'm still in the habit of forecasting the day's mileage every morning when getting dressed and selecting footwear from my closet, and frankly I'd rather be out in the fresh air, using the legs God gave me - than scrunched up lethargically in a car. 

Yesterday I ran across this long-abandoned journal entry on my desktop, dated February 17th, the anniversary of my second week in St. Petersburg.  It seems that adjusting to life in Russia, though much different, wasn't that hard after all. 

February 17, 2011 
It’s amazing how quickly you can adapt to a new place and a new way of life – even a new mindset. I’ve noticed this week that I’m really getting the hang of things around here.
I don’t cringe anymore when I turn on the faucet and a stream of rust-colored water pours out. I expertly navigate sidewalks and street crossings and can spot black ice several meters away. I can pile on seven extra layers and be ready to go out in about 30 seconds flat. And I’ve learned that when I find a product from the States that I like, or think I might need in the next few weeks, I need to buy it on the spot – there’s usually only one or two on the shelf and when those are gone there’s no telling when, if ever, they might reappear.   
A prime example of the black ice of which I speak...
This photo was taken at about -18 Celcius. See the water frozen in the pipe?
Oh look! Lucky Charms!! What a find!

And they can be yours for the low price of only 
FIFTEEN US DOLLARS :)
Thank you, Russia. My grocery bill
(for one rather small person) in St. Pete was
often $80 per week - and that's just cooking at home!
"Kracks" - one example of the many foreign knock-offs
available in Russia. Usually found on the shelf alongside
their more expensive American equivalents, these knock-off
brands in their almost perfectly identical packaging can fool
some consumers. But don't be mistaken - companies like
 "Kracks" cut corners wherever possible and quality is
sacrificed in favor of bringing something to market that is
actually affordable for the middle class. 


On the positive side of culture shock, I stopped by the offices of many of my current and former professors today, and was completely overjoyed and delighted to remember how supportive and caring are the faculty at Belmont. Some have stopped me in the hall, welcomed me back, and said they loved traveling with me via my blog; others welcomed me and encouraged me to continue writing and traveling and studying. I couldn't imagine a nicer homecoming. In contrast, most of the professors that I met in Russia (and the two that now follow my blog are certainly the exception) - when I explained my research project and asked for their assistance - weren't quite so enthusiastic about helping in any way.  Only one of them really thought my project was "cool."  When I did manage to elicit any sort of support (i.e. the promise of assistance in recruiting students to complete my research survey), it was quickly squelched when the professor realized they would have to put out any effort to participate in my research...namely, reserving a half hour time slot for their students to take my online survey in the computer lab.  Honestly, it's hard to hold it against them. Things just work differently in Russia, and for all I know it could be a bureaucratic nightmare to reserve any room in any academic building.  The piles of paperwork I had to do (including a tuberculosis test, HIV test, and x-ray of my lungs) just to live in a public dorm in St. Petersburg is enough to deter me from ever pursuing such a living arrangement again.  And if you could have seen the place!  View some of the photos of my room in this blog post.

I do miss my friends in Russia, and even many aspects of life there.  But I'm certainly glad to be back at my home in Belmont, and - once I get used to it again - I'm certain the South will suit me just fine for the next few months.

My Dutch roommates, Debbie & Marlou, and myself, enjoying zakuzki (midnight snack) hosted by the friendly
Russian and Turkish guys in the adjacent room.
Sergei and Pasha (in the green jacket and white tee, respectively) were such interesting people - very curious
about our countries and lifestyles - and patient with our Russian! Even though they spoke no English whatsoever,
and at that time my Russian was pretty poor, we still communicated a lot of different ideas and became great friends.


Monday, August 15, 2011

Moldova: Who/What Are You? A country in the midst of a major identity crisis

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**Written July 24, 2011.  Published August 15, 2011.



The road to Moldova...Sunflowers for as far as the eye can see!
Last Thursday night I was thinking about the weekend ahead and decided spontaneously to make a trip to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.  Two of my friends from Belmont - Stas and Eugen - are international students and are back visiting their family in Moldova this summer.  (In fact, Stas just graduated this spring and got married this weekend -- a big congratulations to him and his new wife, Mariana!!)
Stas and Eugen have told me a lot about their country during the past few years at Belmont, and I always told them one day I would visit them in Moldova.  Now, living just 180 km away, I couldn't pass up the opportunity!  So on Thursday evening I walked into the kitchen where Anna, my Austrian roommate, was eating a buterbrod
, and said, "Hey Anna, I think I'm going to Moldova this weekend.  Do you wanna come?"
When I pulled my water bottle out of the fridge and turned around she was just staring at me.
"Are you serious?" she asked?
"Yeah, of course.  Let's just go for the weekend; spend one night; see the city a little; and come back by Sunday afternoon -- we'll still have enough time to do our homework and take a nap!"

Saturday, August 06, 2011

"Kid History" Short Films

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The themes of my blog posts are definitely indicative of both my current mental state and physical location.  Already two posts about kids this week...Can you guess where I am?
Home, with my five younger siblings, of course.

They always have some hilarious youtube video that they're absolutely dying to show me. Half the time I'm thinking, how do they come across these things anyway? Inevitably, it's a friend of a friend who's cousin showed them the video on an iPhone while at a sleepover for some sports team....or something equally complex. But most of the time they do turn out to be pretty funny, if you can get past the initial oddity.

These are the latest in my fourteen-year-old sister's youtube discoveries...
Give these short films a try; they just might make you laugh!

People's Republic of Beer

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"How one man’s yeast research is propagating China’s craft beer culture"


I read an article about the proliferation of micro-brewing in China in Beer West magazine this afternoon while sipping a glass of Pinot Gris at Southern Oregon Brewing Company, our neighborhood brewery and taproom where my parents are regulars. Unfortunately S.O.B. doesn't offer any gluten-free beers, so I'm restricted to wine (but really, with a plethora of award-winning Southern Oregon wines at my fingertips, I can hardly complain).

Visiting with my Grandpa Rick at Southern Oregon Brewing Co.

What stood out to me most in this article about Yan Gao's new enterprise is his innovative solution to the obstacles posed by China's often hostile business climate, which can be especially unfriendly toward small businesses. Beer West's Emily Hutto writes,

"While microbreweries in the U.S. receive tax breaks if they're producing under a certain amount of beer, microbreweries in China must comply with macro-brewery laws, which dictate higher tax rates and expensive facility requirements that most small breweries can't afford. That is, unless they find a loophole.
Yan Gao inspecting yeast cultures in his lab.
photo by Bjoern Walter
In 2008, Gao opened Nanjing's first microbrewery, Oktoberfest Biotech Co.
While friends and imbibers recognize Oktoberfest as a fully-licensed production brewery, the state recognizes it as a yeast research firm. It's illegal for Chinese companies to dump their byproduct, in this case beer, so Gao drinks and sells it instead. 'I know how to deal with those dummies,' he says of the Chinese government. 'In order to grow yeast, we need to make beer. And in order to save the environment, we need to "recycle" the beer.'"

I love this nothing-will-stop-me entrepreneurial spirit and passion for his craft.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Where Children Sleep

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Every so often a book comes along that really captures the soul of its subject.  James Mollison's Where Children Sleep does just that, and in an unconventional way -- by photographing the bedrooms of children around the world.

I read this NYTimes article about Mollison's new book, and, after browsing through the sneak peek photo gallery, look forward to purchasing a hard copy of the tome.





P.S.....I hear the cover's glow-in-the-dark.  All the more reason to add it to your library!!
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