Emma's New Armchair
As loyal followers of the Jonathon blog and/or Emmathon whirl-world tour, you know that, due to some rather suspect real estate negotiations, this week will be our last at our current apartment. The move has been an event cloaked in desperate optimism: the new hour-long commute an opportunity to stop in to see the city center more often, the new apartment being close to a great park and a market and a pub we like, an adventurous shake-up to provide a spark for our last three months in Moscow. However, before we make the journey over to Izmaylovo, I’d like to say some words about the place we are dearly departing.
It’s a funny thing how you settle, not in a bad way as happens with many aspect of life, but simply how apartments, parks, shops, sidewalks, a station become home, create that sigh of relief, offer that familiar chair or smell or smile. This flat, for all the trouble of getting here and all the chaos of leaving, feels like we belong. At the moment, I can see our boots toasting near the radiator. I can see Emma sitting on her side of the couch, donning a crochet hook and a resolute expression, and it’s surreal to think it will be her last Monday morning there, where she’s become a crochet master. It’s a funny thing that, no matter how many times we go, that feeling follows.
This time, though, we aren’t leaving Moscow, at least not yet, so the goodbyes seem premature. The two robust, oft-amused ladies at our local shop have just, on their own accord, learned to say “hello” in English, parrot-ing over a little greeting every time we walk in. The pickle lady at the market fills my order with minimum speech and maximum smiles, always cheerily providing a bonus head of garlic or taste of pickled slaw. We know our supermarket, the paths around our block, how to time getting to places, and the brass columns of Prazhskaya Station platform. These things have represented—even or especially in -20o temperatures—the comforts of home.
Now, we have to say goodbye, dasvidaniya, or, the more informal, paka, but that’s pretty much the useful extent we can muster in Russian. I try to imagine the mysterious emergence and the sudden disappearance of Emma and me, whether or not our friendly shop ladies, who have worried all winter over Emma’s coat, will even notice we’ve gone, and to what effect. They’ve meant a great deal to me, a source of familiar, of welcoming, of camaraderie, respects and emotions that language barriers prevent us from going beyond. Will they take comfort in Emma getting over her cold before we vanish or that beer will be sold wherever we are?
This past weekend, two of our students, Natasha and Masha, hosted us on a boat tour along the Moscow River. At the end of our tour, Natasha’s father, one of the captains of the Moscow River tour ship, had come on his day off to give us all a ride home, as well as foot the bill for the whole affair. To the point, approaching our district, he asked for our address, but neither Emma nor I could say. It was the first time we’d come back by car. This dichotomy—feeling so at home and not even knowing your location—will never cease to amaze me about our lifestyle. This is the reason it pains me to say goodbye and the same that assures me we'll be just fine come next Monday.
EFL speak begins as an innocent mistake, an askew turn of phrase, a misdirection of accent that, somehow, like linguistic radioactivity, causes a mutant wart on the face of an entire nation of English learners. Unlike common mistakes, those seen globally, EFL speak is more regional and nationalistic in its offense to the English language. Now that English has nudged its way into the forefront of the world’s common language competition, the universal communicator is free to be twisted, turned, and wrung like an old time rag. EFL speak is when there is no rule to show it’s wrong. It just is, and some foreign country is using it like currency.
Here’s the thing: Sometimes an EFL teacher just has to roll with the hits (aka punches) and begrudgingly accept that an entire country has learned—really immovably embedded—a phrase incorrectly. In Turkey, my students would constantly show me their homework, asking me, “Is it true?” instead of “Is it correct?” or “Is it right?”. For my first few months, I attempted to correct, right, or true this expression, but my students refused to change. In time, correct or not, right or wrong, I came to accept that Turkish English-speakers would forever be afflicted, that somehow, some deep espionage occurred, and English phrasebooks in Turkish got funguzzled.
Usually, these types of mistakes are one-offs, a student using a ________-to-English dictionary, selecting the first word from the list of possible meanings, and letting you know she enjoys confabulating (chatting) with her family on the weekends. (This mistake, one of my favorites, which is actually grammatically correct but not exactly useable English, was made by an eleven-year-old girl in Korea.) This occurrence is easily fixable as the student obviously didn’t learn this word as a common expression, and other than her, students preparing for the SAT, or lexicographers (the people who make dictionaries) know what it is to confabulate.
My current EFL speak ear-poker is Russia’s “write a test/exam”. Unfortunately for me, being a teacher in a world that thrives on test scores, my students are required to write exams quite often, none of which were actually written by me, but rather were written by someone much smarter from Cambridge, unaware of my students need to take and/or do exams and leave the writing to a professional. Unlike Turkey, my recognition of the EFL speak was swift and decisive in Moscow, hearing the phrase about fifty-two times in my first couple of weeks, both from Russian-born English teachers and the students, such that I did not engage in the futile battle of making this phrase true. I’ve just learned to live with it.
Which brings me to my last point, one that you can take home with you, learn a little something useful from today’s blog. The problem with accepting such imperfection, shrugging at students (not teachers) writing tests, is that acceptance eventually leads to incorporation. You hear it all the time from people speaking to English learners: Suddenly, an otherwise well-spoken Brit is uttering phrases like, “You like shake booty. You want dance?” For some reason, because his/her audience can’t speak fluently, he/she finds it necessary to speak caveman to them. The same happens with EFL speak: As a teacher, you find yourself telling your students their answer is true on the test they’ve just written. Don’t do that! Someone has to teach it out of them!
So it has come to pass that we will be living in the living room of our landlords’ flat. This is not a position I’ve ever found myself in before. When I asked Diana, our guide to Russian homes and gardens, neither had she. It seems we had a paddled into uncharted arrangements. As adventurers, I suppose we always seek to break new ice. To break new ice, I suppose you have to make a few omelets…in a few different kitchens.
We’ve been renters on the Muscovite scene for just a snow-dusting under six months, and this will be our third home, as well as a brief, passionate stint at the Hotel Katerina. In real estate terms, surely that qualifies us as swingers, promiscuous tenants devoid of a conscience of home, willing to take on any board that will have us. In traveling terms, we are nomads, bare and bold, unafraid to pitch our tents where the spikes my fall. We represent the weird and wonderful expats of the world.
We didn’t get to this place without winding: After we’d been told that the landlord wanted to sell our flat, we cried contract, citing the plethora of legal-seeming documents we’d signed some months ago. After we’d been told it would be illegal for them to sell the flat, to rest easy and assured, we rested easy and assured, two caterpillars in our safely secured cocoon. After we’d rested easy and assured, warm in the embrace of legalities, they sold the flat.
When we asked how they could sell the flat with the documents and law and easy assuredness abounding, we learned that the documents and law were all some sort of sham-y show of formality. But…but, our landlords were ashamed of selling out from under us. Apparently, when our landlords are ashamed, they offer up their living room for rent. When you’ve got only three months to go, what are you going to do?
On the third of March, Emma and I will be relocating to Izmaylovo, a neighborhood on the far western side of Moscow, a place with a massive park and great sprawling market. It will mean commuting for an hour to get to our southernly-located office, daily taking the Metro right through the heart of the city. It will mean learning life again: a new supermarket, a new routine of timing, a new setting in which to dwell and consume. It's a nice place.
The landlords are leaving for us, locking their prized belongings in their master bedroom, jumping ship for three months while we settle in, nestle and nook. I didn’t ask where they were going, but it’s a great twist of fate, one that has my head spinning: landlords sell flat out from under you=landlord bad, landlords yell at Diana, guide to home and garden=landlords abhorrent, but landlords move out of personal flat so that you, homeless tenant, may take up residence for your final three months in Russia=?
_ Moscow, Russia, is no secret to the world. It isn’t a city devoid of known sights, nor is it the unapproachable destination of thirty years past. Moscow is full of stuff, all the stuff people travel to see: grand halls, sprawling parks, historical churches, cobblestone squares, military relics, thrifty markets, posh shopping, statuary and monuments and distinct culture. It’s a great place to be a tourist, stocked with the biggies—the Kremlin, St. Basil’s, and Arbat St.—but not without its nooks and crannies.
However, one of the most ironically wowing aspects of being a foreigner in Moscow is that, even standing in Red Square, you are still a minority. Visit the Coliseum, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall, or the Statue of Liberty and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a local inside the line of the coin-operated telescope, but here, Russians still largely dominate their iconic symbols. Take a picture of St. Basil’s Cathedral and a fur-clad Russian will likely be doing the same next to you. Though chockablock with souvenir shops, Arbat still bears way more Cyrillic than English.
Every other major destination I’ve visited, the ones people travel great distances to reach, is overrun with well-fed, neatly groomed tourists fumbling with maps or following guides in yellow jackets with bullhorns blazing. In the corners, backpackers seethe at those tourists wanting to see the Taj Mahal or the Pyramids of Giza, as if hostels, infrequent haircuts, and overnight bus trips should be a prerequisite to beholding the wonders of the world. Moscow, undoubtedly a global curiosity, has never come off this way to me.
The potential is there, but the ease lacking: Getting here is too time-consuming, step-oriented, processed, and daunting for even your fat-pocketed, five-star travelers or brass-ed and salty hostel-hopper to endeavor. The Red Curtain may have been drawn a long ago, but the red tape required to get into Russia hasn’t exactly left an open door. Invites, police checks, and registrations are but quick stops on the visa adventure, which, for me, was wrought with missing puzzle pieces, backpedaling, and praying to get it all before the departure date. Who needs the stress?
However, for those who do manage the gauntlet, the spoils are great. There is a feeling of authenticity here that has long been muddled in the world’s blockbuster cities. Sure, tat stalls bulge with fur hats, but unlike the French berets, the London bowlers, the Mexican sombrero, the Russian ushanka is kitschy but not completely inaccurate: People—nearly everyone—still wear them. As you giggle and put on your silly hat at the souvenir kiosk, you’ll turn around to find that you actually do fit in better this way. It’s not as though you’ve gone to Berlin in lederhosen.
That said, the outside world has invaded: There are three Starbucks on Arbat, a McDonald’s outside of Red Square, and Subway stands throughout Gorky Park. Similarly, many contemporary Russians have grown wary of the vodka-bears-and-blondes perception of their country, which will eventually wean some of the personality out of the place. For now, though, Russia is still Russia, and I love that about Moscow, how, while modern, sophisticated, and international, an element of the stereotype, what you come to see, still breathes true.
_ In the early nineties, I watched my mother sit at our kitchen counter, her eyes raining tears, snot oozing like hot, fresh lava from her nose, as she puzzled over the college algebra courses she was taking. After I’d been teaching SAT math in Guatemala for a while, my wife tried to revisit her old nemesis, getting back to her roots, squares and fractions, solving for x when x was greater than or less than utter confusion, until she was so bedazzled that a slurry of sobs, sailor-like slurs, math revis had left me with a shell of a student. Some people see numbers a go cross-eyed instantly.
Speaking in another language is my kryptonite. The mach speeds at which natives can deliver ridiculously unpronounceable vocabulary, words that roll off my tongue like gravel, leaves me dumbfounded. Before coming to Moscow, I studied Russian a couple of hours a day for a month, mastered oft-repeated phrases about engineers fixing computers, the location of the Balshoi theatre, and a deciphering whether or not I could smoke here (wherever here was). People in England were impressed, but when I arrived, faced with real Russians, speaking in real time, all I could muster was “ya nye magu gavaritz pa Russki”: I can’t speak Russian.
Consider either of these obstacles, or better yet both, the math mind melt and the language lull, and think, for a tick, about the quandary of the time at which I’ve written for you to do so: 7:15 PM (Moscow time). Consider the massive variety of ways in which we daily, thoughtlessly, provide such mundane information: the ordering, the fractions, the pluses and minuses, the complex systems of twelve and sixty (such ugly divisors and numerators), of twenty-eight or thirty or thirty-one days, the to-s and from-s, the ‘til-s and after-s, how the years go by…
What time is it? It’s seven-fifteen, fifteen past seven. It’s a quarter past. A quarter past what? A quarter after seven. A quarter after? Yes, seven. Seven-fifteen. Of course, Russia uses a twenty-four clock, so the PM aspect requires the quick addition or subtraction of twelve, depending if you are giving or receiving the time, which brings our sum total of hours and minutes to nineteen-fifteen, a number that sounds horribly like a year in English. This year/time confusion, of course, is a result of the o’clock tag only being used for on the dot time assessments: seven o’clock, but never a quarter past seven o’clock or seven-fifteen o’clock.
That gets us past seven-fifteen, leading us to a whole new “set” of problems. But, now it’s 7:30, i.e. seven-thirty, i.e. a half past seven, i.e. half past, i.e. half seven (the truncated British version), i.e. nineteen-thirty minus twelve equals seven-thirty PM, which can also be formulated in the equation: If 13 < x and x < 24, with 24 = 0, then x – 12 = y PM. Then, a half an hour from now is 7:45, which seven-forty-five, but also a fifteen to eight, a quarter ‘til eight, conveniently leaving the seven presence completely out of the picture in total. Forget the time being a quarter to twenty, and by the way, why in the hell did the English-time gods opt for fractions in the mix.
Now, the date: February tenth, two thousand twelve (aka two-ten-twelve) or the tenth of February, twenty-twelve (aka the tenth of the second of the twelfth). In numerical from, you could get the American 2/10/12 or the British (world version) 10/2/12, allowing the possibility of October in February or February in October. It isn’t bad enough we’ve both clung stubbornly to miles, inches, pounds (both for money and weight), gallons, and such? Can’t we at least give people an ounce of hope by not having national date idiosyncrasies? Isn’t the language already complex enough with exceptions to the rule and expectations of universal fluency?
As a teacher, from time to time, I wonder if I’m asking too much. At thirty-something, fractions brought my wife and my mother to muttering tears. Still this year, after seven abroad, five months of which have been in Russia, I waffle at the sound of someone speaking to me in the native language of the country in which I live. However, standing before a class of elementary students, in a very digital world, I expect a six-year-old to read the hands of a clock and know that 7:15, seven-fifteen, a quarter after seven, fifteen past seven, and 19:15 are all the same thing. I guess it’s not too much to ask: I did teach them to count to twenty a couple of months ago.
Your customary plate of fries
_ People worry about what you’re going eat. You move there; you move here; you move to Moscow. Where people once talked turkey, they attempt a new language, one of borscht, caviar, and Russian rye, only to find the necessary vocabulary lacking. Internationally, the culinary scene of Russia isn’t causing any fast-growing fads of fusion cooking, so when you arrive, the fabled sandwich (a British recipe, incidentally) will suffice until the old cultural soup pot gets to bubbling.
The less exotic truth is that just about everywhere, anywhere with cars and/or permanent building and/or money to be extracted, in turn has a familiar line of fast food joints calling: the Mcs, the Colonel, the Hut, Subway, and the highly-caffeinated, pre-packed Bucks. It’s a world full of pizza and burgers, high-end coffee and spicy chicken wings, a global globule of saturated fat and glistening cholesterol. There’s no need to worry anymore, if there ever was, about what you’re going to eat.
More so, the challenge becomes clearing the commonplace and finding those unique corners of the cultural kitchen that remain. The temptation to sum up a country’s cuisine in a couple of dishes is high, the methodology efficient and guidebook-friendly, but like any stereotype, only snippet of the whole. Besides, being a Louisiana boy, I have been stung one too many times by American food being carved down to hot dogs and hamburgers, when I grew up on gumbo, etouffee, and crawfish boils.
So, here you are in Moscow, and here are some unexpected favorites that I’ve found:
1. Pickles: Hit a veggie market or the deli counter at one the nearby 24-hour supermarkets and sample an amazing collection of vinegar-soaked delicacies: tomatoes, cucumbers, garlic, cabbage galore, peppers and more. Buy a bottle of vodka while you’re at it—this is a classic Russian combination—really.
2. Chocolate & Ice Cream: Sure, these are staple sweets in all places, but avoid the Mars bars and Magnum ice cream and opt for Russia’s take on the old standby. Get into the culture: Boxes of chocolate like handshakes between people here, and Russia is one of the world’s leading consumers of ice cream.
3. Deep-fried Rye Bread Sticks: That’s right. For all those lovers of the grease and finger foods, Russia brings a little something different to the snack pack as well. Accompanied by an appropriately unhealthy dipping sauce, these garlic-enthused fingers of bread just about rival the unbridled deliciousness of mozzarella sticks.
4. “Pancakes”: More like crepes, pancakes are a local favorite in Moscow and can be savory (with cheese, caviar, sour cream, etc.) or sweet (try one of the mind-boggling varieties of honey). When I asked my students what to try to really taste Russia, pancakes topped the list.
5. Salads: Mayonnaise can truly be the glue that binds. In Russia, the leafy garden salad is not the default setting for salad. Again, visit a deli or supermarket and get yourself an endless array to sample. Oliviye, a potato salad with loads of surprise trimmings, is the official holiday dish of Russia.
6. Mushrooms: Having a serious, ever-present Jones for fungal oddities, mushrooms proved to be sufficiently weird, wacky, and plentiful here. Easy to find marinated or grilled, or in great variety to cook yourself, mushrooms are one of the must-dos of Muscovite munching. Add them to your breakfast.
7. Mead: To wash it all down, one assumes vodka, but as the temperatures drop, in come the warm medovukha kiosk, which served the super-sweet, concentrated honey beer in steaming tiny cups. Before moving here, I’d only ever had mead at renaissance festivals, but now it’s a favorite treat when strolling downtown or taking a walk in the park.
So, that’s a lucky seven to get you started, a list that certainly isn’t comprehensive, nor does it come close to distilling (wink, wink) the options for the adventures of appetite that can occur. Imagine the possibilities of combining salt and fish, meat and sauce, cabbage and potato. Think of cool rye drinks in the summer, of steamed stuffed buns, of a whole new platter of cheeses (Russia has its own signature cottage cheese), and get borscht out of the way so you can really begin to explore.
Cheburashka skis and shoots guns.
_ You explain for the forty-second time in the last two weeks how, when coupled with the pronouns he, she, or it, verbs conjugated in the present simple tense must end in s, or some variation thereof: es in the case of verbs ending with sounds like “sh” and “ch” or, in the case of verbs ending in y (fly, cry, try), the y changes to i then gets the es. For some reason, these thick-skulled six-year-olds just can’t compute this basic tenant of English grammar, burning your ears with utterances so foul as “she get up eight o’clock”, “he brush teeth in the morning”, and “dog eat bone” (again with the no-articles thing!).
Then, as the lecture on when to use which indefinite article (a or an) at what time, how the an loves a, e, i, o, and u, the harangue reaching crescendo with an standing before umbrella, just an indefinite article in front of a word (beginning with a vowel sound, of course) asking it to love it, that’s when a familiar odor wafts over from the children to the board, letting you know exactly what they think of singular form nouns of non-specific origin and their respectively indefinite accoutrements: It’s a fart, an odorous blast from a non-specific child with a more pressing matter than learning this shit again.
It doesn’t take long for a hand to raise, this hand definitely belonging to the now exposed offender, whose body is presently tensed, an unholy struggle going on inside it. But, for you, the moment yields itself to yet another brain-bomb to drop on the whole class, that classic move of using one student’s mistake or confusion, question or bowel movement to teach the collective about the finer points of the English language. Dear sweet child, you mustn’t say the incomplete declarative sentence “I go bathroom”, for how ever will I decipher your rudimentary request—sniff, sniff.
So, after you’ve explained how to politely appeal for permission to do something, the students each taking a go at pairing May I with a verb, perhaps afterwards chanting “May I go to the bathroom?” a couple of times so that, hopefully, in the future, Neanderthal structures like “I go bathroom” can be avoided—after you’ve improvised another lesson for the day’s class, you look down at the squirming kid dying for the toilet, willing to give him or her another chance to ask you correctly: “Please, bathroom?” If you’re soft-hearted like me, you let the kid go anyway.
By the time this linguistically- and intestinally-challenged…not troublemaker but, perhaps, misguided youth has left the room, it’s apparent he or she first released another flurry of stink bombs. Powering on, you go back to the child who inspired the initial revisiting of the s-at-the-end-of-present-simple-verbs-prefaced-by-singular-or-uncountable-nouns discussion. He or she has made the same mistake on number two of today’s review exercise. Your eyes begin to well up in frustration as you consider another retelling of that old present simple yarn, but this time you settle for writing the s into the child’s workbook.
Standing there in lingering stench, another kid squelching in the corner of your eye, it dawns on you again why very few English-learners master the present simple s: fifteen minutes in and you’re playing hangman for the forty-second time in the last two weeks.