Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Day in Homestay

Getting There
The heaps of snow are finally beginning to thaw due to the "warm front" (20s-30s degrees Fahrenheit), which means that despite the more pleasant weather, the streets are not covered in grimy, gray slush. As usual, people pretend that the elements do not exist and continue to invent make-shift solutions, such as a wooden boards to walk the plank over icy/watery lakes on the sidewalks.

When the cab driver saw my large suitcase, she exclaimed, "Oh! What a nightmare!" Somehow, we got my three pieces of luggage in the trunk and drove off to my new home about two miles away from the university. A few minutes later we arrived near Ploshad Mushestva and I attempted to direct her to Apartment #22. In Russia, the apartment buildings are nightmares. Built mainly during the Krushev era, they are run-down, stained, and crumbly pieces of Soviet architecture. Nevertheless, the homes inside are often quite comfortable (by Russian standards).

We struggled to find a way to approach my new home due to the side streets covered in snow. My driver even attempted to drive through a children's park on the sidewalk; however, the delineation between sidewalks and streets are often overlapping, a fact incomprehensible to foreigners. We have lived here a month, yet we still are shocked when cars suddenly veer off the main path to park or get closer to a storefront. Plus, there are no designated parking spaces, let alone parking meters (in Chicago that would save hundreds of dollars).

After some swearing, getting stuck in the snow, and feeling like I was on the brink of having to lug three heavy suitcases through the snow to the apartment, the driver found #22 and exclaimed, "Hurrah!" My hostess mother was waiting expectantly outside the entrance door.

Just another example of how a simple task in the US takes 2-3x more effort in Russia.

Settling In
My hostess mother is a lively, expressive Russian woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and perpetually purple-lipsticked lips. When we went to dinner here the other night, she explained that she loved to swim, work, and go on vacations. She has even been to Chicago and Milwaukee before, although she explained that Milwaukee was too small of a city for her; she likes lots of people all the time. She speaks minimal English, but I had asked her not to speak any to me in order to learn the maximum amount during the next couple of months.

As she helped me carry my luggage from the elevator ("lift"), she did not seem to understand that the suitcases have wheels. Instead, the semi-plump, shorter woman hurled my suitcases from one side of the threshold to another, all the while wearing her stockings (you must take off your shoes upon entering a Russian home, which is highly contradictory to Dad's policy of wearing shoes in the house).

Tea Party
After unpacking, my hostess prepared some tea for me. However, this "tea" she offered actually included bread, cheese, butter, cookies, and candy...oh, and tea. As usual, she does not eat with us because she complains that she gained 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in the past three years, and she does not want to look like a fat babushka.


1. My Room
As in the dormitory, the beds also double as couches. At first, I thought that it was just the Soviet-era dorms that utilized these couch-beds, but now I realize that it is a uniquely Russian type of furniture. For instance, the bed in my very nice room most closely resembles a lip couch. No joke. It can also fold out to a double bed, but I would rather have the extra space in the room with the wardrobe, three chairs, night stand, and standing piano. Yes, for some reason I have a piano in my room.

2. Water Security
For the past month, we have bought huge 1/2 liter bottles of water to last roughly a week since we cannot drink the tap water. Of course, we may boil the metallic water to get rid of the parasites, but the taste never really goes away.

In contrast, here my host mom has a sink in the kitchen with both water for washing dishes and filtered water ("clean water"). Little as it may seem, this is a huge surprise and delight since I will no longer have to walk 1/2 mile to get a heavy bottle of water every week. Oh, by the way, when bought in bulk, water is less expensive than vodka, particularly now when the President Medvedev is attempting to eradicate alcoholism from if others have not already tried.

3. Homestay
I will be living with a 50-some-year-old woman named Margarita (Rita) and her 25-year old son, Maksim. During the pre-homestay dinner, my roommate and I were unsure as to whether Maksim lived with her because he does not have a separate room from her, but sleeps on the other couch-bed in the family room-like room. He almost is never here, although I do not know what he does. He may be a dentist, but I really have no idea. I just met him some ten minutes ago.

Rita explained how she didn't want her son to get married anytime soon because she doesn't want to be a grandmother and she doesn't want him and his new wife to live with her. In Russia, newlyweds often do not have sufficient funds to rent their own apartments, so they live with one of their parent's for a number of years, even if they have children. Rita adamantly stated that she would hate this, although even now in Russia, it is extremely common.

In comparison to my expectations, Rita's apartment is extremely clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. She recently remodeled the whole place, including new cabinets and floors in the kitchen, new doors in the bathroom, and a new front door ("the most beautiful door in the complex"). I felt even safer when given the keys to the half-foot thick door: 1 top lock turned 1 time, 1 bottom lock turned 3 times. Nothing like when Kori's potential host mom said that she had been robbed a number of times.

Oh, I also have an enclosed balcony from which I can see half of the city, as we are on the 12th floor. So far, it has been a strange, yet comfortable, transition, and I hope that my Russian will improve significantly by living in a more complete immersion experience.

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