Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Edge of Glory

At some point I realize I cannot avoid drinking the cobra whiskey.

Years of foreign encounters have primed me to always accept adventure. Am I comfortable traveling around a strange country on my own? Yes—I’m a grown-ass woman, damn it! Does holding a barbecue in three feet of snow in the middle of the woods when it’s 30 below out sound like a good idea? Hell no—but I’m sure gonna give it a try! Do I really want to get naked in this bath house so that someone I hardly know can beat me with steaming-hot birch branches? Not really—but even less do I want to miss out on some authentic Russian culture.

So when my brother Bob comes home from his family vacation in Vietnam with a bottle of cobra- and scorpion-steeped rice spirits, the part of me conditioned to always say “yes” in these situations does so before the revulsion in my gut forces me to reconsider.

A picture of the actual cobra whiskey which I actually drank.
Not that I’ve completely shut down my brain or sense of self-preservation. This stuff has poisonous animals in it, after all. How sure are we it’s safe to drink?

It turns out Ruou Bou Da, or Rượu rắn, or snake wine, or whatever it’s called, is indeed meant for consumption: apparently ethanol denatures snake venom. Variously considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac, a cure for farsightedness and hair loss, and the manliest drink ever made, records of its production in Southeast Asia date back thousands of years (thanks for that info, Wikipedia). In other words, it’s not just some kitschy tourist gimmick, which reassures me for the time being.

As Bob begins to pour, sediment at the bottom of the glass stirs and floats upward. With the alcohol level lowered, the top of the cobra’s head emerges glistening and somehow fresher-looking than anticipated. I’m trying not to over-think this decision, but I can’t help but be keenly aware that I am about to imbibe a drink that had dead, poisonous animals fermenting in it.

The moment of truth springs upon me before I can prepare myself, which is probably fortunate. It’s down to me, Bob, and our brother Eric, whose enthusiasm for this experience I blame for propelling us so swiftly to action. Bob passes me a glass, Eric raises his and says “cheers”, and I down mine with all the swiftness and resignation gained from drinking vodka with Russians.

I did not expect it to taste so strongly of snake.

Bob lurches toward the sink, Eric downs a glass of water, and I stand paralyzed with disgust as the consequences of my experiential openness hit my stomach. If my body is a temple, I have violated it. I imagine this is the sort of liquid orcs drink. I rinse out my mouth, but the taste returns every time I burp, which now happens frequently. It has the combined flavor of ripe fish and grassy, free-range chicken. I sense that I have crossed the boundary where bragging rights are no longer worth the price of initiation.

It is a good limit to discover.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Book Buzz

During this morning's procrastination routine, I stumbled upon a blog post by Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution. I've been out of touch with my old blogging and webcomic haunts ever since Google Reader shut down, so this one was a month out of date, but the bit that struck me was this:
If I may fill in some blanks, one possible version of the hypothesis — to pull an idea from Gary Becker and Steve Erfle — is that readers consume both “books” and “buzz around books” as complements.  ...That would explain the concentration of reading interest among bestsellers and books your peers are reading. 
Until recently, I held a fairly territorial position with regard to my reading material. With a reading list which already feels like a mile long, my default attitude to someone thrusting a book in my direction and ordering me to read it at once has been surly at best. However, this came as a two-edged sword: while I felt reluctant to accept reading suggestions from others, it also frustrated me to find no one else would take reading suggestions from me. Indeed, it seemed the more enthusiastically I promoted a book, the more my friends seemed to resist.

Then I discovered audiobooks, and my reading schedule cleared suddenly to the point where I could more comfortably accept—request, even!—book recommendations.

Might I just say, reading is so much more fun this way?

To those of you, like me, who have too often preferred your own literary judgments to those of your peers, I recommend rearranging your priorities. Pick a book you can share with those around you, while it's still fresh in their minds. Don't wait till your friend has forgotten half the plot and no longer even remembers suggesting you read it, but strike while the iron is hot! Reading on your own can be a lonely endeavor; why not join the buzz?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

To the Immortal Memory of Mr. Robert Burns

Burns' Night is an annual celebration to the memory of the national poet, and it typically involves a lot of fun and merriment. The toast to Mr. Burns is a key event of the night, and it is an honor to be asked to deliver it. I look forward to the speeches each year, as they are meant to be witty and light-hearted, and I am fortunate to know lot of very funny, well-qualified people. So it was from a sense of excitement and curiosity one day that I turned to one of the CSU's committee members and said "Dom, do you know who's giving the speech to Robert Burns this year?" In my mind I was picturing all the people I would ask, and of what a good job someone like Rory or Gabriella might do, and hoping that whoever it was, it would be someone good. "Actually," says Dom in reply, "I think it's supposed to be you."

Lord knows how my name got put forward, but I still feel a giddy rush of modest incredulity at the thought. Someone not only wants to hear me talk, but thinks that a room full of 50+ people will feel the same? I would have thought everyone was tired of listening to me speak by now.

Anyways, the event was last week, and as the speech went over well, I thought I would share the text here for anyone interested. I hope you enjoy it!


Dear friends,

We are gathered here together today to pay tribute to Scotland´s national poet, Mr. Robert Burns. But, in spite of this being my third Burns´s Supper, I didn´t realize until I was called upon to speak how very poor my knowledge of Burns was. It can be summed up very briefly: he slept around a lot and wrote some nice poems that are good for singing and such, but really, isn´t this all a little overblown? As such, my original plan for this speech was to try to divert a little attention away from Burns to celebrate some of the other wonderful contributions Scotland has made to world literature.

For instance, there is Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Then there is Sir Walter Scott, who once lived next door, and wrote one of my early childhood favorites, Ivanhoe. And of course, one the world´s most famous Londoners, Sherlock Holmes, was penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, coincidentally, once lived under this very roof.
But then, perhaps this is a case of apples to oranges: Burns, after all, was not an author of novels but a poet and lyricist. And indeed, in spite of my intentions to poke a little fun, I found it hard not to be carried away by the almost mythological greatness with which he is treated. Consider, for instance, the description of him given by the aforementioned Walter Scott:
“His person was strong and robust; his manners rustic, not clownish, a sort of dignified plainness and simplicity which received part of its effect perhaps from knowledge of his extraordinary talents... there was a strong expression of shrewdness in all his lineaments; the eye alone, I think, indicated the poetical character and temperament. It was large, and of a dark cast, and literally glowed when he spoke with feeling or interest. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men of my time.”
But perhaps Scott was a little biased! He was just 15 at the time, and a romantic, and he was writing about a fellow countryman. So let me take a quote from a more sober source, one of my own fellow countrymen, Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was a great admirer of Burns, and often shared excerpts from both him and Shakespeare. When asked to pen a line or two, or even write a toast to Mr. Burns, Lincoln wrote back:
¨I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.¨
In fact, there is a fairly significant connection between Burns and the United States. Ever eloquent on the subject of Liberty, Burns composed an Ode to George Washington on His Birthday, part of which reads:
But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia's offspring, brave as free,
In danger's hour still flaming in the van:
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man.
For those of you short on your American history, Washington was the 1st president of the United States, and this was written about fifteen years after the American War for Independence. The poem continues as a challenge to Scotland to follow America’s example and take their liberty from England, which those of you thinking about this year’s Independence vote may find inspiring.

American’s connection with Burns doesn’t end here, though. Some of our greatest authors have paid tribute to him, including John Steinbeck, who took the title for Of Mice and Men from a line of Robert Burns’s. And then there is J. D. Salinger’s novel, Catcher in the Rye, a personal favorite, which takes its name indirectly from Burn’s poem “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye”. And then, when it comes to lyrics, America’s greatest folk lyricist, Bob Dylan, selected “A Red, Red Rose” as having the biggest effect on his life.

So it seems that Burns has struck a deep chord with Americans, and perhaps it has to do with how many of us have a little Scottish blood in our veins. There’s many an American who’s proud to tell you of their Scottish heritage. Indeed, I myself have often proclaimed that I am 1/8th Scotch. However, Burns’s international popularity extends far beyond the United States: there are statues of him throughout the English-speaking world, from Canada to New Zealand. Not to be outdone, and ever lovers of freedom and democracy, the Soviet Union also declared him a People's Poet, and were, in fact, the first country in the world to honor him with a commemorative stamp. What Burns might have had to say about that can well be imagined.

So while I continue to be a little bemused by those who speak of Burns as “The Bard” (as if there could be no other), I find myself joining in with good will. Does an annual toast to the “Immortal Memory” of Robert Burns seem a little excessive? Perhaps, but the Scottish have never been known to do anything by halves, particularly not when there is such a fine excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. So if you would all please join me, I would like to raise a glass to Scotland’s favorite son, Mr. Robert Burns.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

And Geogie's always on my my my my my my my my my mind

I worry that I take things too seriously. I am afraid I am losing my sense of humor. It is getting harder for me to take a joke.

This has nothing to do with Russia; I noticed it some time ago. It began with fraping. Not only do I find the name itself almost obscene, but in execution, it is both annoying and rude.

Not that it necessarily has to be so. Here is an example of what I would consider an acceptable frape: I leave my facebook open in a public location, and a stranger walking by leaves a funny note on my status. This not only has the potential to be genuinely funny, but it also sends a nice message: a) there are nice strangers in the world who won’t take advantage of your inattention, and b) it’s a nice way to remind me to be more attentive in the future.
Here is the not cool, not funny, and generally more common form: you’re at home or at a friend’s, and you get up from your computer to go do something. Your friends decide its open season because everyone knows that leaving your computer logged in is basically “asking for it” (and man, could I go on a rant about that!). Not only is this incredibly inconvenient, it also sends exactly the opposite message to the previous example: be paranoid.

Seriously, Internet: fraping is old. It is not funny. Cut it out.

I could spend paragraphs talking about that, but actually there is something else which has my ire up. A friend of mine shared a link on Facebook today of a message from the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in New York. The relevant bit is this:

“The Czech Republic and Chechnya are two very different entities - the Czech Republic is a Central European country; Chechnya is a part of the Russian Federation.”

This is not a joke, but it is funny. It is both amusing and understandable that people get these two mixed up: their names sound similar, after all. It reminds me of when the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 broke out while I was in Germany. Not being in America at the time, I was originally under the impression that Russia was somehow invading the States. I remember thinking to myself that I must surely have something confused, because if there were armed tanks preparing to roll down the streets of Atlanta, I would surely be hearing more about it on Facebook.

Is the mistake funny? Yes. The incongruity of these juxtaposed Georgias tickles the mind. It is also understandable. We can all look back at stupid things we used to think. Then we learn better, and hopefully we have the honesty to acknowledge this before we start mocking another person’s ignorance. We learn everything we know at some point or another, and sometimes we learn it just a little earlier or later than other people.

So here’s what’s not funny: Chechnya. No one is making jokes about Chechnya as far as I know; it’s far too tragic. The same holds true for its nearby cousin, Armenia. When most of us think about Armenia, we think of the genocide of the early 20th century. Not really what most would consider rife with amusement.

Yet, for some reason, almost any country ending in -stan is an inherent joke. The really baffling thing is, they only seem funny because we don’t know anything about them (the obvious exceptions are Afghanistan and Pakistan: we are too well-informed). Azerbaijan is funny, though! Admit it: we all giggled when they won Eurovision last year. I mean, where the heck even is Azerbaijan? Is it even part of Europe? And how about Kyrgyzstan! Man, who can even spell that one, let alone tell you where it is!

Don’t believe me? What about Kazakhstan? Chances are, if you even know of Kazakhstan at all, you know of it because you watched Borat, and even then you may be under the impression that it’s a made-up country. Still, it's funny, right? I mean, whatever happens there?

One of the students I am teaching English to is from Kazakhstan. She is Ethnically Russian, but her family moved there during the time of the Soviet Union. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., they stayed in Kazakhstan for a few years. She learned Kazakh in school, but was never very good at it. Over 60% of Kazakhs speak Russian, and it is a popular holiday destination for many Russians. Some of you may recall my post about persimmons: they were imported from Kazakhstan. All in all, it sounds like a rather beautiful place.

In spite of all this, there are many ethnic tensions between Russians and Kazakhs. I had a group of 17-year-old Russian students tell me one day that Kazakhs are like monkeys, that they come over the border to work a lot, but don’t get paid much, and that they are dangerous and I shouldn’t mess with them. Meanwhile, my student tells me that an uncle of her's emigrated to Canada. He no longer tells anyone he’s from Kazakhstan, because everyone makes Borat jokes. Instead, he says he is from Russia.

Azerbaijan isn’t funny either, actually. It’s part of the Caucasus, a mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas which was long held in dispute between the Russian, Persian, and Ottoman empires. The region has been the subject of some of Russia’s greatest writers, including Pushkin, Lermontov, and Tolstoy. It has been much romanticized, but it is just as well known for its violent, bloody history. I think it would not be unfair to compare the Caucasus to America’s Wild West, in much the same way that we could draw strong parallels between Russian-Kazakh relations and those of America to Mexico.
Ignorance is funny when it is self-deprecating, but for some reason, most ignorance-based humor is either used to mock the unenlightened, or as a justification for prolonging said ignorance. Steve Martin once joked that you should “criticize things you don’t know about”, but he could just as easily have said “mock”. It is comforting to make fun of, trivialize, and belittle things we don’t understand, but if you take the time to learn about them, the jokes begin to fall flat. You can’t learn everything all at once and mistakes are bound to happen, but mistakes are meant to be learned from, not justified. This is the age of the Internet: ignorance is forgivable, not excusable.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

When sometimes all you want is a little milk for your tea.

Food is such a pivotal aspect of any culture, and some time ago I must have swung around that pivot without quite realizing it. Today, as I stood in the grocery store with my bag of kefir, it hit home: I grocery shop like a Russian.

My first night in Russia, Tatiana Petrovna sat me down and asked if I would like some tea. I said yes. I was dead tired, had been traveling for over twenty-four hours straight, and had not slept much, but I wanted tea anyway, just to feel like I belonged in the place. My big, Russian land lady put the pot on to boil, sat me down, and asked if I'd like a sandwhich. I didn't, but I took some bread and cheese to be polite. Those two, thick, dry slices of plain bread with only a slice of cheese in between stuck to my mouth so that I could hardly swallow. It was an effort to choke them down, and I thought maybe I was doing something wrong. Apparently I was, because between Tatiana Petrovna's gesturing and exclamations, I somehow made out that I was meant to make an open-faced sandwich. Then she gave me tea. I remember wanting milk in it, but I don't remember if I got any. I have since ceased to ask for milk in my tea.

At first, I had a hard time feeding myself. On my first trip to the grocery store, I bought some yogurt and oats, thinking to mix them the way I do at home (but which I had learned in Germany). Only, the oats were not the fast-cooking variety, and the result was less than palatable. I spent most of my first month living off of omelets and spaghetti noodles. Tatiana Petrovna brought home a bag of corn flakes for me following my early breakfast experiments, presumably because she thought I was a bit incompetent.

In the beginning, my difficulties came from an inability to find ingredients I was used to in the grocery store. It is very hard to predict what you will or won't be able to find, even in relatively normal places like Scotland. You assume there will be graham crackers, and then there aren't. Later, you are surprised to find peanut butter. You learn to adapt, to bring along and treasure ingredients you expect to be short of, and to substitute for those you can't find at all. But cooking, like language, translates poorly.

Little by little, I began using Russian foods. It began with bags of frozen pelmeni. Soon I discovered what a great topping adjika makes. One day I bought buckwheat, which I'd always enjoyed, but never dared to prepare myself. Turns out it cooks up like oatmeal, but is far more savory (as well as being high in fiber, good for your heart, and good for lowering cholesterol!). Eventually, I had to crunch my budget, which had the effect of doing away with what few luxuries I had tried to keep in tact: no more bacon, no more cheese, no more milk in bottles. Learning to make blinis changed my life. The cheapest way to eat in any country is just to give up swimming against the stream, and allow yourself to eat what is normal for your area.

Thus: kefir. It's a dairy product, something like buttermilk, or really runny yogurt. It's too sour on its own, but blended up with a banana and a little sugar, it makes an excellent smoothie. You can buy it in bottles, but it's cheaper to get it in plastic packets. If you set the packet upright in a plastic pitcher and cut off the tip, you can pour it just fine. You can also use the few extra rubles you save to justify a chocolate-covered tvorog bar.

I'm thinking of trying out a borscht recipe later on this week.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Your lips move but I can't tell what you're saying.

I had a nightmare the other night: I went home and couldn't speak Russian. Part of my dream was in Russian, which should make me feel more encouraged. It's also not the first time I've dreamed in Russian, which was actually about a month after I arrived, and also involved a lot of German. But really, none of this effaces the crushing discouragement I have been feeling lately. I'm just so damn frustrated.

For years, people have been telling me that once you're fully immersed in a language, you pick it up so fast! these are people who, more often than not, have either never learned a foreign language, or are native speakers of the language I am trying to learn. This is probably the most widespread and counterproductive piece of advice language students are given, because nothing provides a greater disincentive to study than the thought that it won't matter once I'm fully immersed! Furthermore, this attitude demeans the amount of hard work foreign language students have to push themselves through once they're in their target country. Do you know that feeling you get when you've been studying for so long that your brain muscles have worn out? That's what I feel like almost every day. It's exhausting.

Compounded to this is a very difficult truth: complete immersion is growing harder to achieve thanks to the Internet. Maybe the mythical full immersion experience might happen to me, if only I could force myself to give up my Internet connection. Only, that thought terrifies me. If I were at home, it would not be such a big deal. Even in Edinburgh, I would hardly be bothered. But I'm not sure I'm desperate enough to cut myself off from all but intermittent contact with my family and friends back home (and yes, probably an unhelpful number of terribly interesting blogs). But more importantly, the Internet is by greatest study tool. I use it to find vocabulary words, build my flash card decks, and post questions and sample texts to Russian language forums. I've taken to banning myself from English Wikipedia, but it's just too hard to make a rule where I can only access the Russian section of the Internet, when half of it is in English (and at my literal fingertips!).

But wait! There's more! Say I succeed at the end of my eight months abroad and go home decently able to speak Russian. A hypothetical being asks me: "so do you speak Russian?" I say, "yes, I do! I have attained x-level fluency." The response? "Well, of course! Full immersion will do that for you! But of course, there's nothing like being a native speaker."


Perhaps this hypothetical being is only a figment of my imagination. I admit, I spend far too much time being angry with the arguments put forth by hypothetical beings. And yet, I have this sinking feeling that no matter now hard I work, the result will be treated with a mixture of superstition and derision. Any artist will understand the first part of what I am talking about: you haven't put an incredible amount of time and dedication into honing your craft, only to be told you are lucky to be so talented (as if luck had anything to do with your hours of hard work?). I believe in talents. I believe some people are gifted with an advantage in certain skills. I am beginning to believe I do not have a talent for language learning. But there does not exist a talent which allows one to absorb a language by osmosis the way we did when we were children (unless you want to count prodigies, and I suspect they have to put up with a lot of myths as well).

As to the latter, it's true: I will probably never be mistaken for a native speaker in any language save English. I think it is possible to attain that level of proficiency, but I have no idea how many hours of work it would take. And yet, I have come to value native speakers far less these past few years. Except in the realm of Literature, I do not believe a native speaker holds much, if any, advantage over a highly-skilled L2 speaker. Even in teaching, were the native speakers have the greatest advantage, they sometimes struggle to explain their own language. Maybe I just wish more people had a better idea of what it means to be "fluent" in a language. I had a hard time trying to decide if I ever became fluent in German. Now I know the answer is a resounding "no". I went to Germany under the false notion that I would pick up German just by being in Germany, and while I still know enough German to communicate, I doubt I got beyond an intermediate level.

In America, and throughout much of the English speaking world, I believe we have a very backward approach to foreign languages. It bothers me, but I understand it. We use the chimera of language immersion as a scapegoat to excuse our poor foreign language skills. Then we dismiss the utility of learning a foreign language in the first place by exalting native speakers. Finally, most of us are comfortable in our monolingualism because so much of the rest of the world is eager to learn English, and we eagerly await the day when there will be one universal language anyway.

So many of us are monolingual these days, we are comfortable thinking it's a good thing. And yet, monolingualism is far from the historical norm, at least in Europe. Among the educated classes, anyone who was not French learned French, as well as at least Latin. Lower classes, particularly those around the Mediterranean, had frequent contact with multiple languages, as there was not always a common tongue even from one village to the next. To this day, Switzerland has three official languages.

We find experiences of being surrounded by an unfamiliar language unnerving. It is perfectly natural to wish we could all understand each other, and I believe there is a definite limit to the number of foreign languages it is useful to have in a particular area. I also believe there is an objective, definable, practical benefit to being fluent in more than one language.

Before I left home this summer, one of my brothers asked me what I would think if there were only one universal language, and all others were extinct. I said I would find it very sadas a student of both history and languages, I am inclined to find any language a curiosity, if only in a historical context. After thinking about it some more, I have found a more complete answer. Bilingualism has advantages which extend beyond the ability to communicate in two languages. We may think more rationally in non-native languages. I remember learning in my first year linguistics course that bilingual children move past the egocentric stage of cognitive development more quickly than monolingual children. Yet, in America, we are afraid of the growing presence of Spanish in our daily lives.

I understand that fear. I face it constantly. It is the fear that somehow, through our inability to communicate, we are inadequate. We are stupid. No wonder three-year-olds get so frustrated. But for me, my fear extends beyond this. I am afraid I will fail. I am afraid that it will be my fault. I am afraid that I will graduate with a degree no one values, not even myself, because I will lack the skill to put it to use. I am afraid of being locked out of a part of the world, and of only being able to communicate with it by means of an intermediary. 

And yet, there is hope. I took a test today. It was an online test, and very informal, but the results were encouraging. It estimates that according to this chart, I am at ТРКИ-2. The description is about right, but I don't know how it compares to this chart, which is the one I have been using as a reference for my own improvement (I estimate myself to be between levels 1 and 2, with a goal by graduation of level 3, and naturally a lifetime goal of level 4). Also, I am learning one of the hardest languages in the world. Seriously, I look back on the days of German and French with a certain nostalgia. If only I could go back to learning a language with only four cases, or only two genders! And yes, there is that final, soaring hope that crazy people like this guy are right, and that once I master Russian I will be able to move on to master other languages as well.

Because don't what to stop with Russian, but to continue with French, German, and Spanish as well. Because when my mind is closed up in the tiny space of a shrunken vocabulary, there is nothing more invigorating than when that door clicks open and my thoughts take wing in forms I never before had the ability to imagine.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Ilya, the Yolka Hero

The low point hits at 7:30 in the morning as I trudge through the sliding doors of Russia’s ubiquitous 24-hour Sem’ya grocery store, and slide my duffle bag off my shoulder. Beside it I set down my large, plastic bag full of the books I plan to send home, and struggle to pull the strap of my messenger bag over my hood. The weather outside is not cold, at least, but it is wet, and after slipping on the sidewalk I am feeling a little sore and more thoroughly dampened than even an hour of lugging my bags through drizzly streets could account for. I am tired from two nights of sleep on the train, and it is still fairly early. After a long and exhausting search, I have found my hostel only for it to be locked. Now I am standing in the grocery store just for an excuse to be indoors, for a chance to set my bags down, and with the faint hope that a cashier could direct me to a café which would be open. Altogether, I am a pretty forlorn sight.

Things began well. I arrived at the train station as expected, and there were clear signs pointing me to the metro. I love subways, and even got to feel good about helping an old lady get her luggage down the stairs. The metro token threw my for a loop at first, because I shoved it in my wallet thinking it was a ruble, and then thought the ticket lady hadn’t given me a ticket. But I caught my train right away, got off at just the right stop, and straight away bought a map of St. Petersburg from a stand at the station so that I would know where I was. So far, I was feeling pretty confident. Laura Lynch, World Traveler, has everything pretty much covered. Map in hand, I stepped forth from the subway and had my first glimpse of St. Petersburg.

Being not yet 7:00am, it was still dark. The streets were wet, but the temperature wasn’t all that cold. A drizzle of half-frozen rain misted the view causing street lamps and headlights to scatter yellow light everywhere. I picked a direction, hoping it was correct, and began to walk. My duffle bag was heavy and I had a bag full of books in one hand, as well as my messenger bag. Altogether, it was a burdensome, but all I wanted was a place to sit down, drink some tea, and maybe pop online for an hour or two until I could expect my hostel to be open. At first, I thought it wouldn’t be all that difficult. There were lots of cars on the street, and shop lights seemed to be on, and I figured that if there were this many people on the street, surely there would be cafés open to serve them. But a block or two later, my bags were beginning to weigh me down, and none of the shops with lit windows seemed to be open. Fortunately, from my map I could see that I was heading in a general direction toward my hostel, so I thought I’d continue. If I found a café on the way, so much the better; if I got to my hostel and found it open so much the best. Worst case scenario, the hostel would be closed, but at least I’d know where it was.

This proved to be not a bad plan. The walk seemed long, mostly because of all my bags, but I found the section of street it was meant to be on sooner than I had hoped. I had trouble finding the place, as the sign was less than obvious. My first attempt led me through an open door marked “hostel Yes” into an empty stairwell. Something told me this wasn’t the right place, and double-checking the sign I decided it meant the hostel was called “Yes”. I wasn’t comfortable hanging around in an empty stairwell easily accessible from the street, so I headed out again, and a little further along found my own hostel. It was locked. I decided it was too early to expect it to be open anyway, and resorted to my original plan of finding a café.

By now, however, I am growing a little miserable.  Why can’t I find anywhere that is open? I catch sight of the tell-tale “24 часа” sign above a Sem’ya down the street, and am filled with hope and relief. There is no way I can while away the next hour and a half inside a grocery store, but I head towards it nonetheless with this vague idea I can find help there.

So there I am, damp, chilled, tired, stumbling through Russian to ask help from a grocery clerk. “Can you tell me please where there is a café which is open?” I ask. It takes a few tries before she understands me, and then she shakes her head. Disappointed, I decide there is nothing left but to pick up my bags and head for the hotel where I am meant to meet Bob and Becca in a few hours’ time. Maybe they will let me sit in the lobby. But the walk is over a kilometer, and with all my luggage, it seems daunting.

And then, help arrived.

“What does she need?” a young man is asking the cashier.

“I’m looking for a café that is open,” I say.

“A café?” he asks me. “For breakfast?”

“Yeah, sure,” I say.
 “Ok,” he says, “follow me. I will show you.”

I know some of you are thinking “Oh no, Laura, don’t follow strangers.” My reasoning is this: the chances I should just happen to encounter a psychopath in a grocery store at 7:30 in the morning have got to be significantly less than encountering someone helpful enough to point me in the right direction for breakfast. At least, I like to believe I live in that sort of world.

We step outside, and right away my Russian friend offers to carry my bag. Or rather, he tells me to pass it to him, because Russians have this thing about not letting women carry anything they don’t have to, or even hang up their own coats in a restaurant. He probably meant my duffle bag, but I would have felt guilty dumping it on him right away, so instead I pass him my books. They are the result of a recent shopping spree I took at the bookstore, where I bought over a dozen copies of Russian classics for under $80. I plan to send them home with various family members. Added to that pile are copies of another book I decided I didn’t need to have with me, a box of candies Tatiana Petrovna thrust at me as I headed out the door ("for New Year's"), and a monstrous history tome called “A People’s Tragedy” which I am borrowing from an Edinburgh coursemate. All of this makes for a substantial amount to carry, and I am glad to be relieved of them. We walk to the corner, and he points across the street. “There’s a café just there”, he says.

“I know,” I reply, “but it’s closed.”

“Alright,” he says. “I know of one this way.” We begin walking, and he asks me where I’m from. He nods when I say I’m from America, and seems to take it in stride. In Perm, saying I am American has resulted in people wanting to shake my hand, take pictures with me, or practice their English. My friend doesn’t seem to speak any English though, because he continues to ask me standard questions in Russian about how I like St. Petersburg, and how I came to be here. As we approach the next corner, he pulls out his cell phone to check the time. “Wait here,” he says, along with something else I don’t quite catch, but which sounds like “yolka”. A Yolka (ёлка) is a Christmas tree, only Russians put it up for New Year’s. They’re a pretty big thing, but still, I’m not sure why he needs to run off to look after his Christmas tree right away. I must look confused, because he says “I’ll be back in five minutes, can you keep an eye on my bags?” I say sure. He pauses again. “Are you thirsty?” he says, pulling a box of juice which he has clearly just purchased at the store from one of his bags. “No, no, that’s alright,” I say. “I have water.” I pull out my water bottle to show him, and he nods. “Five minutes”, he says, and runs off.

Sure enough, he is back five minutes later. In his hand he is carrying a plastic bag with plastic pine branches sticking out of it. “Yolka”, he says, pointing to them by way of explanation. This time, he picks up my duffle bag right away, as well as his own collection of plastic bags, and we head on down the street. I am only carrying my bag of books and my messenger bag, but when he sees me shift my book bags from on hand to another, he decides even this is too much for me. “Pass them here,” he says, "my bags are light.” I expect he means to trade, but he doesn’t pass me any of his bags, he just keeps walking down the road, carrying my duffle bag, my massive collection of books, his groceries, and his bag of plastic pine branches. The bags are heavy though, and when we reach the place he is looking for, he is clearly relieved.

Only it’s closed.

By now it is 8:10, and the sign says it won’t open till 8:30. He is a bit annoyed and apologetic, but I say it’s just fine. It’s only twenty minutes after all; I can wait. I expect him to head about his day now that he has seen me to the restaurant, but he seems to feel that his mission isn’t accomplished until I’m well and truly settled, and there’s something more on his mind. He asks me for my name, and says his is Ilya. “What time did you say your train was?” he asks me.

“It was at 6:11,” I say.

“This evening?” he asks.

“No, no, I arrived just this morning,” I say, realizing that something has been miss-communicated. I had mentioned I was in St. Petersburg to meet my brother and his wife, and he asks me how long I will be in St. Petersburg. I say till the 5th of January, so he asks if I have a Russian phone, and we exchange numbers.

“You’re going to meet your brother after this?” he asks. “Your brother is Russian? He will meet you here?”

“No, I will meet him at the hotel,” I say.

“Your brother speaks Russian?” he asks.

“No, but he says he can make it to the hotel,” I say.

Ilya does not seem satisfied. I have pulled my map out to see what street I am on, and he asks to see how far I will have to walk to get to the hotel. He clearly does not think I can make it there with all my bags, and I feel inclined to agree. “You are all staying there?” he asks, and I say no, I am staying at a hostel, only it wasn’t open. He asks if I have the number, and then proceeds to call the hostel for me. “They’re open now,” he says, and then checks his wallet. He says he needs to find a cash machine, tells me he’ll be back in five minutes, and goes sprinting off.

Five minutes later, Ilya is back and has ordered a taxi. We pile everything into the trunk, and Ilya directs the taxi driver where to go. He won’t let me pay for it. We get let out at the corner, and Ilya initially makes the same mistake I did with “Hostel Yes”, but I show him the right door, and he has the novel idea of ringing the doorbell. We are let in to a clean, friendly hallway, where Ilya proceeds to chat to the guy at the reception desk for a minute. As soon as he sees that everything is in order with my reservation, he decides to head out. “Thank you so much” I say, feeling like it is entirely inadequate. Ilya makes nothing of it. We hug farewell, and he heads out the door. The friendly guy at the reception desk helps me finish checking in, and then shows me where to go. As I reach for my bags, I realize one of them isn’t mine. Fortunately, I have Ilya’s number. I call him up.

“Hello, Laura? Is everything in order?” he asks me.

“Yes, Thank you, but you forgot your yolka”, I reply.