Russians, for all their helpfulness, aren’t too keen on sharing information. When you visit a bureaucrat to ask them a question, it’s common for them to listen to you and then, without responding, pick up the phone or walk away. Most of the time, this doesn’t mean they’re ignoring you; they’re working on your problem, but until there’s something that you need to do, they don’t see any need to tell you what’s going on.

A similar philosophy informs the academic and student life administration: I was expected to choose my place of residence (old dorm – about $10 a month in a room with 2-4 roommates, new dorm – about $10 a month in a room with 2-4 roommates, host family – about $300 a month, apartment – about $300 a month) based on no more information that I just gave you. I was assured that I would have housing somewhere, and that that housing would contain the basic things needed to live, but more details were not deemed necessary. So I had no idea where the dorm was, what it looked like, who my neighbors might be, or whether it contained facilities like a kitchen or laundry or gym or cafeteria until I had already moved in.

In the same way, Liza came here having been assured that she would be allowed to study, but she didn’t even know what her department was until yesterday. She still doesn’t know who her dissertation adviser will be, but it sounds like s/he will be chosen for her. No need for her to ask for more information on the possibilities, as she won’t get to choose anyway. As for me, my classes start Monday, and I have been instructed to come to the department on Monday at 1:30 PM to get my course schedule. I didn’t bother asking what I should do if I wind up having missed one of my classes by the time I get the schedule. I’m sure it’ll be fine.

On Friday, the Russian as a Foreign Language department held a “meeting” at “10:00” (if you’ve dealt with Russians before, you understand the need for quotes). After arriving at the designated place and time only to find no one there but the department secretary, I asked where the meeting was meant to be. “Follow me,” she said. And lo, I was led to a computer lab full of little Germans and Brits clicking away at their electronic placement tests. I took a seat at the only free computer. “PLACEMENT TEST – RUSSIAN AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE” the page was entitled, followed by a list of nine labelled sections, each testing a discrete grammatical topic: (1) Singular case declensions, (2) Plural case declensions, (3) Singular and plural case declensions, (4) Complex sentences… and so on.

Grumbling to myself about the stupidity of placing students based solely on their memory of grammar (and very basic grammar, at that), I opened the first section and was horrified to see that it contained a hundred questions. Ditto for the second section. The third section, which, if I may remind you, simply tested the skills from the first two sections all over again, had 75 questions. Some of the questions were infuriatingly similar: Test 1 asked me to decline the noun in the sentence “I live on Peterburg Prospect,” and ten questions later asked me to do the same for “I live on Tatarstan Prospect.” I had just finished my 375th answer (and calculated the minimum number of questions needed to ballpark our knowledge of declensions–about 40*) when the connection died, and I lost the whole thing.

When the proctor came over, she said I would have to redo the whole thing unless I remembered my scores–which, fortunately, I did: 98, 98, and 97. She straightened up and said, “Why did you do three sections? You only needed to do the first.” I was torn: was I more annoyed that I’d done so much more work than was necessary, or that the entire placement was based on the degree to which we’d memorized a few tables? I still can’t decide.

Setting aside my frustrations, I put my name on the roster and, after a short argument about whether the average of 98, 98, and 97 is 98 or 97 (I won),  set off to receive my schedule. Despite their lack of communication through the registration and placement process, the professors all seem very nice and eager to help, and I’ve heard only good things about their classes. I’m pretty excited about them.

There are three mandatory classes, each offered at two levels: Grammar, Vocabulary, and Speaking. An additional 5 or so optional classes are offered (Business writing, language of mass media, etc.), and we can take as many as we want; they’re taught in combined groups, so you get more time to schmooze with your fellow students. You will find me on Wednesday afternoons belting out my best Slavic drone in the class on Russian folk songs and on other days staying as far away from Business Russian as I can. Many of the other students are from Gießen like my erstwhile roommates and have a similarly low level of Russian. Hopefully we are more compatible, and there will be German-speaking opportunities outside of class with them.

I have purchased the textbook for the Tatar class about which there is as yet no more information than the name of said book and the fact that the professor has promised to write when she finds a suitable class for me. And so we go blindly into the void.

*Russian has six cases and three grammatical genders, all of which have singular and plural forms and one of which has two declensions for masculine nouns, depending on whether the noun is animate or inanimate. 6*3*2+1, plus some fudging to include questions on irregularities in the system.