Are you there, America? It’s me, Nathan. So I’ve been in Volgograd for about a week now, and let me tell you that there have been varying levels of “shock” since my arrival. I figured that this post would be best organized by a recap of the things that have shocked and pleased me most, in place of the normal narrative synopsis of what monuments I’ve seen etc. I mean there’s really only one big monument in Volgograd anyway. You’ll get a picture, don’t worry. Lets begin now:
Stepping into the streets of Volgograd for the first time was something that should have been captured on tape. I was reeling from the environment that I had been thrown into and I know that most of my classmates felt the same. Now, it’s been a week and that initial paralyzing sensation of “omg this is where good people come to die” has subsided a bit…but there is always something just waiting around the corner to bring those feelings back again.
To supplement posts, I’ve decided to add some vocabulary definitions to help you along. Let’s start with the city:
Volgograd, (n): A city in Russia that has thrice changed its name (Tsaritsyn, Stalingrad, Volgograd). Located on the Volga River, one could describe the feeling of walking through the streets as going off-resort in Mexico, though, not as nice and with no resort to return to.
Synonyms: Ciudad Juarez
Example: “I went to ‘Volgograd’ to study how not to build a road.”
There are just certain things about the city that seriously sketch you out. Take this for example: On my first day here, I decided to go for a walk to clear my head and calm my nerves. I stopped to take a seat on a concrete ledge for some people watching next to the local market and grocery store. Now visualize this: A mom and her daughter are walking on a side path along the store toward the entrance. The mom stops suddenly, pulls down her child’s pants and hoists her into the air like Simba to drop a dump in the bushes along the path. Not even joking, I wish I could be though. Things like that are sometimes normal here I guess…
Another point of shock may be the neighborhood that you live in. In Russia, there is hardly any transition from lower to upper class. You are either very well off or very poor. With pervasive corruption and machine politics, comes stagnation among the less fortunate as money and opportunities stay with those who already have them. It’s a seriously broken system and makes me very thankful for the institutions we have in the US. Call me dumb, but I absolutely believe that opportunities are available in the US at some level for every individual. But being here, you really feel the difference. I realize this because my neighborhood is slightly reminiscent of Alphabet City circa “Rent.” Or maybe the Five Points district circa “Gangs of New York.” So walking home is always a super safe and jovial affair (read: I poop myself sometimes). But here’s a daytime pic:
So…to be fair, there are some nice aspects to the city. There’s a Mcdonalds…and a CitiBank…and one nice street with outdoor restaurants…and of course the support of faculty and host families, but I’ll leave all those for the end so we can close on a good note. Still though, my walk home freaks me out…it’s in a far out neighborhood that many in the states would recognize as a sketchy area. So you would think that walking around in the center city, main strip of the town would be a breeze right? Wrong. One of my friends on this trip was walking down Lenin Avenue after a football (read: soccer) game this past Saturday when three drunken Russians suddenly cornered him. The guys backed him into a corner, took his stuff, and were about to do what we could assume to be something unsavory when suddenly two other civilians came over to help him out. They got his stuff back, told him to “run,” and dealt with the problem he was able to leave behind.
So how about transportation. In Volgograd, transport is yet another point of shock and distress. But before I go too far, here’s another vocab word to help you out:
Mashrutka, (n): A hallowed out van with many seats, an impaired driver, and rude civilians, which is used to transport individuals to wherever they didn’t ask to go. For efficiency and convenience, Mashrutkas are illogically numbered from 1(a.b.c) to 160 (a.b.c) and circulate in a similarly illogical order.
Synonym: well just watch this… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8gy2KYhHPss
Example: The doctors decided that surgery was not possible because the patient had been hurled through the window of a “Mashrutka.”
So anytime I need to get to the university, I have to jump on a Mashrutka. The ride is horribly inconvenient and beyond uncomfortable, especially given the state of Russia’s infrastructure (or complete lack thereof). I do have other options of travel within the city, though. There are trolleybuses, trams, and taxis. But the trolleybuses don’t always go where they are posted to go, the trams only run up and down the Volga (not me), and calling and paying for a taxi every time I’m required to go to class is just obnoxious. In sum, transport would be a breeze if there were on single, logical system. Of course, they would then have to find a way to make that system function, which I’ve learned can be hard over here.
On a still shocking but very serious note, I saw something yesterday on the main strip that drew my attention for a really unfortunate reason. I was walking with two friends to a bank on Lenin Avenue when I noticed two men crouched over and examining something on the ground. As we gained some ground I said out loud, “hey, that thing kind of looks like a body.” It was. When we reached the scene, it was totally evident. There was a dead person sprawled in a completely grotesque manner on the sidewalk being casually examined by two men, who I assumed to be detectives. The body scene was disturbing enough…I’ve only every seen a dead human as they’ve been prepared and displayed in a funeral home for visitation…but this person had clearly just died. What really threw me about the whole thing was that there was no ambulance, no police in uniforms, and no ropes. Basically no concern for a crime scene! It was being handled so casually but still so publicly that I would’ve expected a crowd or some sign of surprise from the passerby on the same sidewalk, but people barely took any notice. Everyone was still walking on the same sidewalk right past the body as if no one was there. It was messed. I assume that the individual had either jumped, or was pushed but who knows. It was being handled like nothing really happened. One of our friends in the group speculated that it might have been a training exercise…but the blood and body seemed real enough to me. And today there is word that one of the Russian hosts confirmed it might have been a jump. It’s so very sad.
So you may be asking yourself, why did he go on this trip? Well, first off I need to immerse myself in Russian language. Secondly, I needed the credits. Before I came on this trip, former students did inform me that it would be a sketchball tour 2.0. I don’t think I could have ever braced myself for this experience, though. I mean, after all it is a LANGUAGE and CULTURE study abroad. So I was preparing myself for a great deal of language and culture immersion. I arrived under the assumption that Russia was a 1st world, developed nation. Maybe it is on some levels. But public health, infrastructure, and other indicators may suggest otherwise. I’m not saying that what I’m experiencing here won’t be valuable, because it absolutely will be. I think we all need to experience the unexpected, offbeat places of the world. And Volgograd I’m sure is by no means the worst…Im just saying, Petersburg and Moscow were a fairytale…these past few days have not been.
But I did promise that we would leave on a good note. So let me highlight the very positive experiences of the trip so we can both leave smiling. Lets start with my living situation:
I live with Olya, a single mom, and her son Daniel. Olya is 25 and her son is 6, so Olya and I are relatively close in age. As with anything, the first week of our living situation was pretty uncomfortable as we both tried to figure out the dynamic in which we would be spending the next 5 weeks. Things like: what I like, what she likes, how late I should stay out, when to eat dinner, personal space v. shared space, etc. After a week of living there and working through any discomfort, I am truly very very very thankful to have her as a host. When Olya was 16 she did a yearlong exchange with a school in Indiana, USA. As a result, she knows what its like to be an exchange student and actually speaks perfect English, which is another plus. Ever since her return from the program she has said that it has been her dream to be able to give back and share with a student the very same way that her family in Indiana did with her. She is an extremely genuine, kind, and good-hearted individual who is wise beyond her years because of all of her life experiences. We exchanged stories and discussed our families a bit and it’s clear that she has had what many may consider a very hard life. She made it clear when we first met that she doesn’t have much as a single mom without an “official” job. She also made it very clear that what she values most in life are not new or nice things, but personal relationships with people. It seems that people and relationships are what fuels her and keep her completely optimistic and full of life despite any hardship. I think the most difficult thing for her to deal with is the acquisition of her real dream of American citizenship for herself and her son. She has made it clear that there is very little opportunity for her to get one but she still perseveres and holds to it as something to strive for.
It’s only been a week but the way she carries herself has reinforced the fact that love and generosity are the currency with which the best of people live their lives.
In addition to this, I have a fantastic group of students to enjoy class, free time, and weekends with. It’s especially nice to be able to get together and laugh about what crazy experience we just came from…and drink it away. Another positive is that my buddy and I were able to join a gym in the center city. I didn’t think there would be much opportunity for working out here, but another one of the hosts showed it to us and we signed right up. Best piece is that it was only 33 bucks (1000 rubles) for the time that we’ll be spending here, which is perfect because it allows me to bring some normal routine into my life…without losing that perfect bod, ya heaaaarrrdd ;)
There’s still over 3 weeks and so much to do. I really want to hit the beach on the other side of the river for a little weekend party and relax action. I’m also excited to head up to a dacha and experience a real Russian banya. (dacha, banya vocabulary for the next post :P)
Big LOVE kids, Ill be back soon
The Notorious B.L.O.G.
PS- bathrooms are the worst here. Squatting is always a must.