Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Между прочим (By the way)

Other happenings (now that I've given up on writing every day):

- One of the students fell ill with GI problems and had to fly home about 3 weeks ago; they think it might collitis, in combination with / brought on by / exacerbated by a bacterial infection (I havent heard anything more definite since she went home)

Some other interesting excursions:
- a Russian prison
- a "center of experimental fine arts", ie. pretty much a bunch of artists live here
- Rolling Stones concert - this was awesome, they had a giant stage in the middle of the palace square (which they built in a week), flanked by the Hermitage and Alexander column; unreal. (Side note: the director of the Hermitage really hates these things as it rattles all the paintings; during a previous concert of some sort one even fell!). Pictures and videos will help convey how cool it was
- had a boat trip on the river to see the bridges open in the middle of the night
- Tsarskoye Celo, another place that I'd gone last year but was still nice to see again and remember

And soon (8/5) we'll be leaving on a weeklong cruise to Petrozadovsk a bit further north (as well as a bunch of islands en route there and back).

7/20/07 - Who Watches the Watchers?

Today was the closing of the New York Institute, its three weeks gone by as though they were days. Unfortunately the participants of our program could only take one seminar (out of the four) and were also unable to participate in most of the other offerings (lectures, films, discussion groups) but many of us met new people all the same, in our classes, and just in and around the university. I ended up hanging out with the group of Stony Brook study abroad students and some Croatian students fairly often, and it was cool to hang out with all the students and teachers together one last time during the closing ceremonies/party.

That night, on the way home (this all lasted until the late night), I had an encounter with the police. A police car pulled up next to me from behind and three policemen got out (Russian side note: although 90% of the time, the verbs of motion are incredibly annoying, in situations where you really do want to be specific, their annoying precision in everyday situations comes in handy, that is: Когда я шел домой, машина милиции подъехала ко мне, и три человека вышли). I still am pretty bad at understanding spoken Russian (though better), so I asked if they wanted to see my documents, which they confirmed. But then they said they were going to search me for drugs. So one was still looking through my passport, another through my wallet, and the third was frisking me, searching my pockets and backpack. I didn't think (or really know how to ask for) their badge numbers or anything like that, plus it was fairly hard to see and I was more-or-less just overwhelmed because they were all going through various things and I was trying to keep track of everything. I was mainly worried about my passport, wallet, and camera, and once they finished, they quickly left in the car and drove away. I thought I had everything, so I (stupidly) didn't make a note of the license plate (which I later realized is only four digits) but quickly after they left, I realized that my cell phone was no longer with me.

I was livid. I felt extremely angry, and betrayed. I swore to myself, cursing them, and this country (the irony of the previous post on politics is not lost on me, but reality tends to interfere with idealism). I decided at that point that I wasn't going to follow through with my plans after the program but rather would just go straight home after it and never come back to this wretched place. I asked, "Why am I here? Why am I here, trying to study their language and culture? So they can rob me?" and further swore to myself all the way home. The next day I was not quite so angry, and was not so sure I was really going to just call off all of my subsequent travels, and of course by now it's all fine. I'm not angry about the money (as should be clear already) and in fact would rather they'd have taken twice the phone's value in cash, because cash has no other value, but losing the phone was a huge inconvenience (though honestly I figured when I left there was about a 50/50 chance that the phone wouldn't be coming back with me). I only today (7/31) have a functional phone (barely: it's terribly designed, with every action requiring the traversal of seemingly a dozen menus, including simply reading or sending a message; it's really awful) and SIM-card again, because getting a new card with the same number was also a pain. I lost a bunch of numbers I had in it, e.g. that I'd just gotten that day, as well as a few others who I'd met in Russia, but all the same, it was a colossal nuisance. But more than that, it's just the fact that it hapened. Up until then, nothing bad had happened (more or less) but this put me back into touch with that inconvenience of reality. It also feels frustrating and helpless at times to still be so bad at communicating in this language.

Still, on the bright side, the phone was the least important of the things that could have been taken, and at least it taught me this lesson of caution here, while I still have the staff to help me (e.g. procure the new SIM card) rather than later on, when I'll be more-or-less completely on my own. Although you can hear stories about the rampant corruption, it really doesn't hit home until you actually have something happen to you. And then who do you turn to if the police itself is so corrupt? On that note, I also learned some new words and sayings, e.g. "Менты - козлы" (literally: cops are goats, but "goat" is slang for asshole.)