Monday, March 23, 2009

In my Local Supermarket one Day

Whether you were wondering or not, Russian supermarkets are essentially the same as New Zealand ones; although there are some little differences -- as Quentin Tarentino and John Travolta would have you know (by the way, over here, a Quarter Pounder is called a Royal Chizberger). For instance, there is a great deal more fish available here, fewer dairy products, and an given specific product is likely to be stocked inconsistently. In addition, produce is weighed in the produce section of the supermarket by which-ever staff member happens to be nearby; not at the checkout counter (a point of difference which thwarted my inaugural attempt at buying oranges).

This little anecdote of mine begins with my being the entire queue for the above mentioned scales. With no staff on hand to work the scales, I stood and waited patiently. Whether I'm expected to call out for help, do the weighing myself, or simply look expectant, I haven't made up my mind over; so I usually err on the side of Anglo-Celtic indirectness, and wait quietly.

As I was waiting, a young woman walked up to me carrying some apples, and joined the queue (joined, or formed? Is one man standing in a supermarket, holding half a dozen oranges a queue, or just a guy standing around holding oranges?) She observed that there was no-one around who could weigh her apples for her, and probably began talking at length about it. When her stream of Russian finally came to an end, I decided not to make her feel as though she had wasted all of that effort in expounding her thoughts, so I simply smiled an nodded.

She continued what she seemed to think was out conversation, prompting me to say in my head Bugger. There goes my chance to apologise for not being able to speak Russian, and hope that she wouldn't ask a follow-up question. She appeared not to notice that I didn't say a word, but then I get the feeling that most people she spoke to did nothing more than nod and smile politely.

A staff-member emerged from the shelves at last, and my new friend exercised her social responsibility as a hot Russian woman to push in front of any men in the line without acknowledgment.

Let us now skip ahead in this story -- past an example of my grocery shopping method (which is mostly just wandering through the supermarket until I see something that I might be inclined to eat).

I spy a man: maybe 40, solidly built, warmly dressed and sporting a mustache you could clean your shoes on. He was swaggering through an alcohol aisle of the store (one of several, even in my small local supermarket), making limited use of his hips and knees, moving like a refrigerator being walked along a hallway. It gave the impression of confidence, but with a hint of a recent prostate exam.

He reached out, and plucked from the shelf a can of pre-mixed bourbon and cola, opened it, and began taking swigs as he walked. Between him and me was my chatty friend with the apples, past whom he swaggered. He looked at her, then down at her skirt, which was really more of a token gesture than a practical piece of clothing, and said "Kholodno? (Cold?)"

She glanced at him, a little surprised. "Nyet."

The man returned his head forward, took another swig, and said to no-one "Molodets (good on ya')," never missing a single stride.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Something that Bothers me Slightly more than it should.

A question that tends to confuse me is "How's it going?"

Before anyone accuses me of lacking even a basic understanding of the rudiments of casual conversation, let me take the opportunity to assert that I am aware that, when conversing face-to-face with someone and initialising a conversation,the standing convention is to utter "How's it going?", or an appropriate variation, which reflects the anticipated formality of the situation. Convention in this situation is so strong that it typically overrides our social imperative to avoid lying, to the extent that we nearly always respond in the positive, irrespective of the actual nature of our feelings.

Now that I have analysed the sentence to the full extent of my ability -- as well as demonstrate my social insight in the only way I know how -- I shall now complain about it.

What confuses me about "How's it going?" is when people ask me as we walk past each other in opposite directions. If the questioner slows to a halt in front of me, then what is expected is expected of me is fairly clear: an answer. But, too often for my pleasure, the person asking the question continues walking, not even slowing. Am I expected to answer? Probably not, since the opportunity to do so wasn't explicitly offered. But, why ask the question at all? One could argue on the grounds of functionality: it isn't a real question, but rather, a signal of acknowledgment. However, "How's it going?" doubles as a conversion initiator: it's something that we say in order to kick-off a conversation.

When people walk past me saying "How's it going?" instead of simply "hi", but not slowing for an answer, there is a mix of contexts. "Hi" is not a conversation initiator: it does not serve the purpose of beginning a discourse. Instead, it acknowledges solidarity, and the fact that the two speakers know one-another, but that they don't have the time or inclination for talking just at the moment. So the two just keep on walking.

When people mix these contexts -- a conversation initiator in the place of a superficial greeting -- it creates confusion (for at least one person in this world). To me, it amounts to functionally saying "I would talk to you but, well, I wouldn't give a crap."

This inspires me to undertake a little project. I will get to the nature of the project in a moment, but first, a brief tangent.

A friend of mine who studied linguistics with me, Rachel, (I wonder if she reads my blog. "Hi," if she does) once set out to change the standard plural of mattress to mattri -- with a small measure of success (impressive, really, if you consider how infrequently the plural of mattress comes up in normal conversation). This project led to a conversation over curry on how theoretical models of language change don't account for "Rouge Linguists."

Now I shall pick up the torch of "The Rogue-Linguistic Variable of Language Change". Here is my proposition: the next time someone asks you "How's it going", in a functionally ambiguous context, don't look at them blankly. Don't display your uncertainty, or say "Pretty-good-how-are-you?" in the few seconds that you are allowed. Instead:

"How's it going?"

"Pretty badly, actually."

Don't slow down, or give the other party the chance to respond. Let them be the one confused, unsure if they are expected to say something or not. I hope this amounts to functionally saying "You're not sure if you want to stop and talk to me or not? Well up yours, you indecisive jerk."

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How to Wash One's Feet in my Flat

As is typical for me, this post is about something that happened a while ago. In this instance, though, the time the time delay is large, even for me. I am recounting something which happened in September, while I was between flatmates; I began drafting the post when it was still relevant, but then forgot about it. I don't know how much affect this has on the verisimilitude of this anecdote for you to learn that the issue is long-resolved, but, oh well: here it is.

My bathtub/shower drain is blocked. It happened very suddenly: between showers, it appears. One day my morning shower was typically shallow, the following day, it wasn't. Now, every shower I have ends with me stepping out of soapy, ankle-deep water. Although, in all due fairness to my bathtub, I don't think that the drain is completely blocked; the water does drain away after a couple of hours.

Things were tolerable up until I tried to fix them. I found a plunger in my flat, wedged with admirable force behind the toilet, and thus I took to trying to clear the impenetrable drain. A few seconds of concerted plunging drew some black lumps of -- as a best case scenario -- skin and dirt out of the drain and into the water in the bath. However, the water didn't drain away any faster, and the black lumps simply floated, providing an interesting contrast to the soap suds.

Frustrated, I made lunch, read a book, and waited for a few hours. Upon my return, I found the bathtub empty -- and dark brown. I ran some water into the bath, and took to plunging again. It felt as though I was trying to slay a Galapagos tortoise. I drew up a great deal more partially composted filth, and yet the water was not draining any faster.

One more attempt that evening still produced no resolution to the situation. I can think of worse things than a filthy, undraining bathtub, but I can think of many things that I prefer.

My subsequent morning shower was, therefore, spent making sloshing noises in my paddling-pool of a bathtub; dirt, lather, and unidentifiable drain-filth floating ever higher as I washed.

There's more. It wouldn't be at all interesting if there weren't more.

The water from my bathtub appears to only travel the distance of a few centimeters through its pipe before meeting the water leading from the hand-basin. I know this because, now whenever I brush my teeth, a milky column of toothpaste billows from the drain up into the bath, lingers, then dissipates into the water, to merge with the list of impurities already in the unwanted bath.


I'm becoming frustrated with my clear inability to finish these little anecdotes of mine. So-much-so that I typed "how to finish an anecdote" into Google. My search did not match any documents. I looked up "anecdote" on Wikipedia, and I am now under the impression that an anecdote must have some sort of conclusion to it. Maybe it should be obvious that a story must have a conclusion for it to have an end. Well then:

After about two weeks of washing my feet with dirt and toothpaste, the drain cleared -- note the use of the middle voice: no external agent implied. One day, it wasn't draining, the following day it was. Problem solved. Anecdote concluded satisfactorally.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Murmansk: The Beginning

I can now claim to have visited the arctic circle.

Granted, I could have claimed that at any time I wanted to, but now I can do it without lying.

Early in January I, along with four other English teachers, one of whom speaks competent Russian, traveled by train to the military/port city of Myurmansk, the largest city inside the Arctic Circle. (The Arctic Circle, incidentally, is defined as the furthest latitude from the North Pole at which there is a 24-hours of sunlight at the summer solstice, and is currently 66° 33′39″ north. Fact of the day).

I could begin by writing about Myurmansk, but I won't. I'll get to the topic in good time, naturally, but, of equal interest is the trip itself. We took the train; and the experience -- everything about it -- was so different from any traveling that I have ever experienced before that it reminded me, as firmly as anything else that has happened to me here, that I am, most certainly, in Russia.

To begin the trip, I arrived at the inter-city train station in, what I thought was, good time. However, good time runs quite a lot slower as a foreigner, as I am learning.

Wandering back and forth along the intercity train platform in Moscow, I was beginning to feel a little concerned that there appeared to be only odd numbered platforms at this station. I looked down at my ticket once again, and it still read platform 6. With my train scheduled to leave at precisely 20:44, and the time being 20:42, I decided that I couldn't reliably expect to find my train in time without some measure of help. Presenting my ticket to a woman standing in the rear-most carriage of the nearest train, I presented myself as the bewildered foreigner that I can't seem to help being. She looked at my ticket, and began pointing along the length of the train, speaking in full speed Russian. Then she looked at her watch, and decided to change what she was saying. Her colleague, standing behind her, chose to offer her insight into the situation; and thus I found myself confronted by two Russian women explaining the situation to me loudly, and far beyond any speed I could hope to understand. I wish I knew the Russian for "What do you expect from me?!"

At 20:43, the first woman used her whole arm to beckon me onto the train, to which I obliged. At this point, a young man happened to walk past me, leaving the train. The second woman turned to him, and said something like "we have a stupid American here!"

The man, turned to me, smiled, and said "you speak English?"

"Yes." I said. I do so without expception, I might add.
"She say that you must to be on car six."

And there lay the root of my problem. While perfectly capable of discerning numbers written on a Russian ticket, I don't have such a knack for deciphering what the numbers mean. As this conformation of my monolinguistic capacity dawned on me, the train pulled away from the station. The first woman pointed along the length of the train, and I began to make my way towards my carriage as quickly as the narrow corridors would allow.

After walking through, perhaps, four carriages, I noticed that I was still dressed for being outside: merino undershirt, merino overshirt, woolen hat, woolen socks, my new boots that I got for when I go to Murmansk, polypropylene leggings and a down jacket. Coupled with the back-pack I was wearing, and having nowhere to shed layers, my back was increasingly adhering to my layers of clothing, to the extent that it took no small measure of effort to peel my shirt from my back, when the opportunity at last arose.

Periodically, I would show my ticket to someone dressed as though in a position of authority, and say "kuda?". They would typically respond by pointing towards the front of the train, and thus I would continue the trek. Nearing my goal, I made the mistake of showing one of the train staff my return ticket -- which resulted in my being pointed back the way I had come. It was only after two carridges of backtracking that I realised the inconsistency of the directions that I had received, double-checked which ticket I had out, and uttered a refelxive obsenity.

I did finally reach my bunk. Naturally, I suppose, but it didn't seem quite so inevitable at the time.

The platskart carriage (cheap seats), a relic of Soviet long-distance travel, is an interesting set-up; my first impression was one of a WWII refugee train. It is crammed full of beds, clustered into groups of six. The central aisle of the carriage separates, to the left, a pair of bunk beds, lying parallel with the length of the train, and, to the right, a cluster of four beds, all perpendicular to the train, arranged in two pairs of bunks. On the left, the bottom bed folds and re-arranges to form a small, square table and two seats for use during the day, and on the right, the two lower bunks double as seats around a larger, rectangular table. Regarding storage: the bottom beds fold up, to create a coffin-sized storage space for the lower bunk-renters, and each upper bunk is laid out beneath a flat board, creating a similarly sized storage area between it and the ceiling. There were, perhaps, eight or nine of these clusters along the length of the carrige, and personal space was, to inadequately describe the situation, limited.

At each end of the carriage was a small, air-lock-like area. It lacked measurable insulation, and had windows that were visually impenetrable due to a thick coating of depositional ice. There were ridged strings of air penetrating the room, and anyone with damp hands adhered to the door handles. Without seeking to convey a lack of faith in your deductive capicities, o faithful reader, I can most succintly describe the area thus: it was fucking freezing. It was also the only place where smokers were permitted to indulge their godless habit.

It was upon his return from one of these life-shortening disappearances that Redim, one of my traveling companions, introduced us to another smoker. Vanya was a volunteer soldier (in contrast to a young man performing compulsory military service), which entails an almost monomaniacal sense of patriotism. He couldn't speak a word of English, and told us via Redim that we were the first foreigners that he had ever met. This instilled in me a strange sense of -- what, exactly? -- pride and intrigue, in equal measures. In a world such as ours is, I wasn't sure how to interpret a man who seemed to live in one of the last remaining corners of society that was still untouched by globalism.

I would be surprised to hear that you are surprised to hear that the toilets on the train were: less than inviting. It was in a small, (preemptively lockable) room at the end of the carriage, and served 54 people with admirable success; a fact I attributed to the fact that passengers would visit the facilities in their own, liberal time -- a natural extension of the fact that there wasn't so much else to do. The uninviting nature of the room couldn't be attributed to efficient Soviet decor, nor the perplexing sliding-puzzle tap at the hand basin, nearly as much as it could be to the floor of the room: it illustrated the insurmountable challenge of urinating on in a moving WC. (I got the feeling that even some of the female passengers were having trouble.)

The toilet itself was made of bed-pan steel, and seemed to flush by simply opening a hatch at the bottom of the bowl, rinsing the contents out on to the track below. From this, it made sense that the toilet cubicle would be made inaccessible while the train was stopped at a station along the way; imagine a world where avoiding creating large piles of human excrement on the ground was not a priority. Yes, splattering it along the train-tracks is certainly preferable.

To return to my mention of the limitations of free space onboard the train: while sitting around the table between out bunks, chatting, playing cards and drinking vodka (god, how much vodka we drank on that train), we caught sight of a young man, leading a comparably young woman by the hand away from the toilet cubicle. His face betrayed little, but, contrastivly, she had a sheepish expression, aimed at the floor in front of her feet. We all knew what they had been doing, or, rather, all lept to the same conclusion, since, naturally, it is much less fun to assume that people have been behaving innocently. The appeals of sins of the flesh are so intoxicating that they can make even sloshing around in congealed urine romantic.

It took only slightly less time to travel to Myrmansk, in the far north of Russia, as we spent in the city itself; I never before imagined that I would, or could, spend 36 hours on a train, let alone twice in one week.

And thus, I have discussed the train. Next episode: Murmansk. This installment story is set to be the next Pacific Peso Adventure.