Russia so far is characterized by exceeded expectations. This post is a long one, but with good reason. If you persevere, thanks. If you persevere and are not my mother,  accept my heartfelt congratulations.
 
Although we had been planning to take the metro to the train station, Oksana arranged for a hired car to drive us there. This was fortunate, as it turns out that you can’t get to our train station from the metro. For  the eleventeenth time this week, I find my self saying, “Thank God for Oksana.”
 
The train was on time, our cabin mates (all 36 of them) were quiet and polite, and the ride was much more comfortable than I expected. They give you a thick, soft mat to unroll onto your seat when you go to sleep, as well as providing sheets (free of charge, contrary to guidebooks’ explanations), tea, and cookies (both for a small fee). Guidebooks, travel agencies, and Russians will warn you against traveling third class, but take their warnings with a grain of salt. Our trip would not have been improved by riding second class. 
 
I woke up just in time to watch the countryside turn into the village turn into the suburbs turn into rivers turn into Cherepovets while snacking on the trail mix Nathan had packed for breakfast. An English professor named Tatjana met us at the station and showed us to our room, a 5-minute walk from the train station (fortunately, passenger trains don’t have horns). When she took leave of us, she gave us a baggie of tea bags and moonpies (here they call them Choco Pies). One of the most enjoyable parts of Russian culture for me (as I know it right now, anyway) is their love of tea. We were very grateful for Tatjana’s gesture of goodwill, as well as the ability to sit and sip and soak in our new surroundings.
 
Everyone we talk to seems concerned that our housing isn’t adequate, but we’re quite enthused about it. We have a doorperson who holds our key when we’re  out, two radiators, a TV, a couch and some intriguing art deco chairs, a fridge, dishes, a leaky hotpot, a shared kitchen (thank God), linens/towels (thank God again), and a suitemate who I’m sure is charming, though all we know for sure about her right now is that sometimes she uses the bathroom. 
 
Really the only drawback at this point is that there is exactly nowhere to store our clothes. The TV is on a stand comprised of two small shelves, and we have a free-standing coat rack, but that’s it. We tossed around the idea of making furniture out of cardboard (inspired by a business at Yale that makes pretty nice furniture out of the stuff), but after determining that finding dry cardboard will be nigh impossible here, I think we’ll just start combing the classifieds for freebies. Do they have Craigslist or an equivalent in Russia?
 
After getting moved in and opening my apartment-warming card (thanks, Mom!), we were greeted by a group of four fourth-year English majors for a walking tour.  All of these girls (whose English names, by the way, are Anna, Kate, Kate, and Kate) speak superb English, better than any foreigner I’ve  known that hasn’t studied extensively in-country. Unfortunately, it rained throughout the afternoon, so we spent a lot of time leaping over huge puddles while dodging rogue Ladas. I didn’t mind. We discovered that we live directly across from the park, located a grocery store and a good cafe, were inconvenienced by a sidewalk remont (repair) site (anyone who has lived in Russia can talk for many hours about the ways in which remont has made his/her life harder), had a good flower shop pointed out to us (good to know if we continue to be invited over), and were directed to a variety of theaters, museums, and markets, although we were warned that the last are less “prestigious” than shopping malls. I think we can handle it.
 
The university is about a 30-minute walk from the apartment (I thought that university housing would be closer, but it’s not a huge deal. I might change my mind in January), so we wound up visiting the department on the 6th floor. The English and German sub-departments (kafedry) are both part of the Germanic Philology department (fakul’tet), which makes a lot more sense than UGA’s combination of German and Russian, or Agnes Scott’s combination of German and French (seriously, what’s up with that?). We met two German professors, two English professors, plus the head of the department (unfortunately, they all speak too quickly for me to understand in Russian, so I have to go back and ask to hear their names more slowly). After we chatted for a few minutes, I finally heard the words I’ve been looking forward to since I started studying Russian: “Let’s drink tea!”
 
Professor Preslar used to tell a story about when he was in Petersburg, and an Uzbek merchant gave him a “hot” pepper to try (of course, without saying that it was hot). Now Professor Preslar is from the Southwest. So he nonchalantly bit into this pepper as the merchant waited for his tearful reaction. Though hot for Russian fare, the pepper was hardly noticeable to Preslar’s jaded tastebuds. The merchant, impressed, beckoned and said, “Come. We drink tea.”
 
 Being asked to tea by a stranger is a compliment; it means that you’ve impressed or intrigued them in some way, and they want to get to know you better. Being asked by someone who you are in some way involved with is simply a matter of course, but still a genuine demonstration of hospitality. So while Kate, the professor Varvara, and I got out mugs, put out a table cloth and some cookies, and heated water (yes, they have all these things in the departmental cabinet), Nathan, Kate, Kate, and Anna went downstairs to buy some chocolates for the event. 
 
Varvara was careful to explain to me that drinking tea in Russia is a process: you don’t just have a cup and then go on your merry way. The point is to put out a small feast and sit around having deep conversations for at least an hour or two. And that is exactly what we did. Everyone except Nathan spoke Russian, although my ability is spotty; two of us spoke fluent German; all but one of the rest understood German but didn’t really speak it; all but two spoke fluent English; only Nathan spoke Spanish. The result was that we spoke mostly English, and Russian when that failed, except that the German professor (who doesn’t speak English but who can understand some) would participate in German, and Nathan would speak a bizarre mix of the four  (“Простите, pero ich spreche wenig по-русски. Aber я говорю in Espanol.”) The department head’s a linguist by training, and her main area of research is code-switching, the phenomenon in which multi-lingual people switch in and out of their various languages smoothly and unintentionally, often without even noticing. I imagine she’ll get at least one good article out of that conversation.
 
After tea, the department head (Galina?) took me  to my office (!!). We were warned in the  Fulbright handbook that Russians really will bend over backwards to make guests feel welcome; a family will spend weeks’ worth of pay to make a guest comfortable, even if it means not eating anything but kasha for days to make up for it. So they said not to be surprised if your accommodations are way nicer than any of the other professors’. This is definitely the case with me; while all the other professors share one big room as their office (it seems kind of nice; they have a very pleasant vibe in there), I have my own office on the next floor up, plus my own printer/copier, computer, shelves, and rolly-chair.  I feel bad, as I really would be happy to give that space to someone who needs it more, but there’s no polite way to refuse. As Nathan said, the only thing to do is to do my job and do it well, and to offer that space to any of the other professors if it ever seems they could use it. 
 
After tea, we met up with a friend of Kate’s named Dmitri (Dima for short), who drove us to the grocery store and then back to Kate’s apartment for a traditional Russian meal. The dish, which Kate said is just called “meat in a pot” (mjaso v golochke,” I think, although the word for “pot” might be not quite right), consisted of sauteed onions and beef, which you then pour into little terra cotta pots with sliced potatoes, cover with water, sour cream, and cheese, and bake for maybe an hour at 200`C. While those were baking, we made my very favorite, bliny! I thought that bliny differed from crepes in that they’re usually yeast-risen (so the taste is a little sour, and the texture chewy), but these were just like crepes. Either way, they were fantastic, and now Nathan and I both know how to make them! For toppings, we had home-made strawberry jam, sour cream, and sweetened condensed milk. Bliny are, at least for Kate’s family, a dessert food, so in between we rounded out the Russian theme with locally-made vodka and home-made pickles, the traditional Russian chaser. It sounds weird, but once you try it, you’ll never go back to vodka cranberry. Or anything else. 
 
It was during the process of creating and disappearing supper that we learned a couple of new sayings: the first, “the first blin is a lump,” is used to justify a failed first attempt at something (English equivalents would be more literally, “the first pancake always burns”, and figuratively, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”). Incidentally, Kate’s first blin was beautiful, an almost perfect rendering of the sun (which bliny are supposed to symbolize). The third, on the other hand, looked a little special. The second saying describes the tradition that one must wait a few minutes between the first and second shot of vodka. It is, of course, assumed that there will be at least two shots. 
 
After supper, we once again had tea and talked about the world. Finally, Nathan and I had to go home, since we were about to fall off our chairs (due to exhaustion, not vodka). We don’t get to rest for long, though: tomorrow, we have to stock the pantry, figure out Internet and cell phones and furniture and laundry, and then at 4:00 meet a group of second-years who also want to show us around. 
 
In conclusion,
 
Russia: you should go.

 

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