russian thanksgiving.

November 26, 2012

I worked until 7:30 pm on Thursday, November 22nd, known in the United States as Thanksgiving. Actually, it was one of the most stressful days I’ve had at work thus far. Between jetting into the center of the city for a meeting for which we were late; trying to explain that it would be extremely difficult to cover the entire discipline of Rhetoric and Composition (which as I’ve explained doesn’t really exist yet in Russia) and Writing Across the Curriculum and how to write a research paper in a four-day conference; and rushing back to my school for an appointment with a student (for which I was also late), the day felt a little hectic.

Amidst all my running around, though, I did see a real, stuffed turkey in a store window. And that seemed very Thanksgiving-y.

Actually, missing Thanksgiving didn’t feel like that big of a deal.  After all, my younger sister Alyssa did it last year in London. And if your younger sister can do something and make it seem easy, as the older sister, you’re sort of obligated to just grow up and do it. I definitely missed seeing my family and I really missed Grandma Wiseman’s rolls and Grandma Pat’s homemade pumpkin pie. But, I assume that if I ask (both on the blog and in person) and if I smile real nicely, I can have those things when I visit for Christmas. Maybe knowing I get to do Christmas makes it easier, too.

Luckily, my workday eventually ended and I got to go to an expat Thanksgiving potluck. The night before, I roasted part of a butternut squash while video chatting with my family. I had to roast it in chunks because both my oven and the one pan I own are both small. And the butternut squash was huge. No matter; I roasted the other half over the weekend and used it in soup and my apartment smelled like fall for days and I was happy. With bestie Molly’s help, I decided to make couscous with roasted butternut squash and roasted apples for the potluck.

Expat Thanksgiving potluck was great. We had most of the things you’d expect to have plus some other things–spinach salad, bread + cheese + deli meat, dressing, MASHED POTATOES, rice + mushrooms, pumpkin pie, apple cobbler and chicken (since a whole turkey was not to be found). It should be noted that I can say almost all of those foods in Russian. We accumulated enough alcohol that everyone could have their own bottle of wine. We were young PhD students and young photographers and young journalists and some of us were even young Russians having their very first Thanksgiving. And in the crowded flat with palm tree wallpaper, we talked about our jobs/projects and our families in the States and our lives in Moscow. I barely made the last metro home.

And there was no Black Friday; we just went to work. No one was trampled at WalMart in the midnight rush to get one of three $15 GPS systems for their car. Here in Russia, we just push each other into overcrowded metro cars and run out of things at the grocery store like milk. But no one ever gets trampled.

In other Thanksgiving miracles, my friend Jen had to fly to NYC to get a new visa. Okay, that’s not a miracle–it was probably frustrating for her–but she brought me back crunchy Peter Pan peanut butter.  I love it, I love it, I love it.

The first session of my Russian class was FUN. It was fast; I had to write really quickly to keep up.  And the teacher–Katya–calls on us individually and then we have to speak out loud in front of everyone (everyone being three people). She corrects us, kindly, but it still makes me a bit nervous. It also means that soon, once I become educated, my Midwest friends David and Jen and I will know longer be allowed to refer to Russian letters as “the backwards Z” or “the backwards double K.”

I should be studying Russian right now. I know this. Already, after only one 1.5 hour class, there are so many rules to memorize. And soon! But, they say that teaching someone something is actually the best way to learn it, so my theory is that instead of studying, I will: a) write a poem (in process…) and b) write a short blog entry with an abridged version of the rules. I’ll be learning. Teacher friends agree? Good. Let’s go.

Section 1: e ё ю я

The characters e ё ю я make two sounds (e [jэ] ё [jo] ю [jy] я [ja]) in these situations:

1) at the beginning of a word, like in елка [jolka]

2) after another vowel, like in моя [maja]

3) after a hard sign or soft sign, like in друзья [droozja]

but after consonants, they’re pronounced as just one sound (e [eh] ё [yo] ю [00] я [ya])

Section 2: O A E

When under stress, there are no changes to pronunciation for O A E. But

1) an unstressed O sounds like [ah], like in OHA [ahna]. This is where my favorite phrase что это comes into play. Since the о in это is unstressed, it sounds like [ah]

2) an unstressed E sounds like [ee], like in PEKA [reekah]

3) luckily, the A never changes, regardless of stress

Section 3: Voiced and Voiceless Consonants

This blew my mind.

These are the voiced consonants: б B г д  ж  з

And the voiceless consonants: п ф к т щ с

They match up: б goes with п, B with ф, г with  к, д  with т, ж with щ, and з with  с.


1) At the end of a word, voiceless consonants, like in лог [look] or олег [Alek]

2) Before voiceless consonants, voiced consonants become voiceless

3) Before voiced consonants, voiceless consonants become voiced, like с братом [zbrahtom]. For this example, you also must know that prepositions are simply connected to the next word (so the с is just added directly to братом).

And actually, though that’s only 1/3 of tonight’s lesson, I think I’ll stop. You got all that?

Work: Week One

September 3, 2012

Preface: I write you from a coffee shop near my temporary apartment (please note that I successfully ordered myself an Americano in a broken, but complete, Russian sentence). There is a child here with his really beautiful Russian mom. And in between playing with the napkins and sugar cubes, eating some kind of pastry I wish my mom would buy for me,  and dancing to “Moves like Jagger” by Maroon Five in his chair, he keeps staring at me. Over and over again. I don’t know why. I’m on my MacBook Pro writing. I’ve showered, though I am sorta dressed like a lumberjack. I’ve looked WAY weirder than this in Lawrence and gotten no looks at all. When children stare at me, I feel weird and wonder why I am worth staring at. But he’s the one touching all the sugar cubes, so maybe he’s the weird one.

But I digress: A major part of my first week of Moscow life was going to my job. I arrived in Moscow Friday morning (8/24) and started work on Monday (8/27). At first I was worried that starting work so soon was a bad idea, but in hindsight it seems perfect. Going to work and having a purpose and meeting a lot of people was just what I needed to help myself feel more settled here.

I haven’t exactly told you what I’m doing. Many of you know because we are friends or you’re in my family but here’s a quick description of my job. This is an extended version of what I tell the Russians when they look at me, perplexed, and say “But why Moscow?”

When I chose Rhetoric and Composition for my Master’s, my goal was to focus on writing center work and eventually get an administrative job in a writing center, ideally as an Assistant Director so I’d have some practice working with someone before I went for a big, ol Director position.

I maintained my interest in writing centers throughout graduate school and so as graduation approached, I applied primarily for writing center jobs. This job at the New Economic School in Moscow was listed, so I thought about it for a few days and then applied. Because I have zero Russian experience and zero economics/business experience, I didn’t expect to even get an interview for this job. But then when I did, I was really excited. And when the job was offered to me—the exact position I’d hoped for paired with a major adventure—I couldn’t imagine not taking it.

These things are also worth noting: 1) NES is one of the best economic schools in Russia. 2) This is the first writing center in Russia. The first writing center in Russia. My boss Olga started the Writing and Communication Center on her own last year and realized she needed an assistant. So, I’m coming in at a great time for growth/development/professional experience 3) The discipline Rhetoric and Composition (my field) doesn’t really exist in Russia.  We are bringing new teaching practices/theories here. So, I’m really getting to do something quite unique.

So here I am. As the Assistant Director of the Writing and Communication Center at NES, I’ll have a number of roles. Right now, my goals and responsibilities are as follows: 1) I will work with students one-on-one—on academic writing, professional writing, personal writing, maybe even creative writing. I will help plan and lead workshops for students. I will work with English faculty, helping them design their courses/syllabi/writing assignments. Obviously my goals and responsibilities will change/develop as the academic year progresses, but for now, these are the most pressing issues at NES. Eventually, I may teach a course but for my first year, I will only do writing center stuff.

It’s also worth noting that this is my first ever real, adult job. Obviously, teaching for three years in graduate school was a real job; however, grad school is in between being a grown up/having a job-job and being a student. So, then it was appropriate for me to wear flannel and/or Keds to work and also to fill my backpack with leftover food from department events. Oddly enough, when I was preparing and being super anxious/excited/nervous, I thought very little about the fact that I was making a transition into a job-job. I think that’s because I assumed the job in a writing center/academia, would be the most normal/comfortable part of my Russian life.

And after a week at work, I think it definitely is. I mean, there are lots of differences between this school and KU, I’m still meeting people, and I’m definitely still figuring out my place/role at NES, but from this first week, I think I am going to love this job and the people here. Much of the week was spent doing paperwork and getting an email account and having long lunches and being shuttled around the school meeting people. But, I’ve had little moments of a “normal” day and those moments feel really good.  I also kind of like wearing work clothes; I think it makes me seem important on the Metro. Side note: That’s how ugly my temporary apartment is. We’ll talk more about Russian decor later.

Highlights from the first work week include:

1) Brainstorming with Olga, an English teacher, and the website content manager (who is also a painter) about how we should decorate the WCC.

2) I’m embarrassed to admit this, but…the cafeteria (“canteen” here). It’s just that–a cafeteria–where you walk through with a tray and ask for food. Very orderly, very Soviet. The food is actually quite good and it’s allowing me to try things inexpensively.

Every day here’s what happens: Olga reads the menu to me in English. Regardless of what the entrees are, I have pretty much the same thing. Some kind of cabbage/beet/or greek salad. And soup because I’m usually cold.  And, then, even though I say I won’t, I always have a pirozhki. If I get fat from Russian food, these guys will be to blame.

The first time I ordered this “small” lunch (a Russian lunch would be these things plus an entree), the women who work in the cafeteria were surprised and asked in Russian “Is that all?” but now they understand my system. They smile when I come through the aisle, and on Thursday, when I asked for borscht for a second day in a row and they had run out, they told Olga that they wanted me to try another one instead. Then, the women at the cash register told Olga that she liked it that I ate pirozhki every day.

3) Having two lovely evenings out in Moscow with colleagues at two ultra hip restaurants. (I’m easing my way into nightlife here).

4) There are free cookies and tea every single day at work. Cookies. Every. Single. Day.

5) Attending two orientations for students—one for the MA program and one for the BA program. It was actually quite funny…Olga would talk somewhere between 5 and 7 minutes in Russian about the WCC and the services we offer students. And then I’d hear “Kara Bollinger” and I’d take the microphone and talk for about 45 seconds. I spoke my English slowly so they’d understand. I introduced myself. And said my Russian was bad and then laughed. And explained to them why I was at NES. And told them that I was really excited to work with them at the WCC. And both times, the students leaned forward. And laughed when I laughed. And nodded at me encouragingly. And smiled real big.

Last June, I titled a blog entry First Ever Guest Gardeners. “First Ever” implied that there would be more guest gardeners. EEEK.  It took me a little while, but I’m coming through on that promise today.

Meet Guest Gardener Megan Kaminski. I really like Megan Kaminski. She is a poet. She has been published in a lot of cool places. I will name three that I like: CutbankDenver Quarterly, and Everyday Genius. She recently had her first full-length book of poetry published–Desiring Map–and it is great. She teaches at KU, and she does a lot for her students. Not only do I hear about how helpful her teaching is from friends, but she has founded a few different reading events for her undergraduate students, including an exchange with creative writing students from other states. She also curates a non-KU based Lawrence reading. That’s a lot. Yesterday I saw her sitting outside in a circle in the sun with her class. I wanted to yell “hello!” but I didn’t want to make a scene. Have I convinced you of Megan’s level of cool yet?

Most important to this blog entry, Megan is my friend. I wanted to be her friend for at least a year, but was too nervous to ask. Then, sometime last year we realized that we both had gardens. And after some encouragement from a mutual friend, I invited her to visit the community garden. Then she took me to her garden. You can figure out the rest of the story. Since she’s a successful poet and academic, Megan gives me quite a bit of advice–about publishing and not publishing, about MFA programs, about how being a writer means actually writing.  And I trust her opinion. Sometimes she buys me french fries at the Burger Stand, and that’s also cool. This is us at the AWP book fair in Chicago.

Before she moved to Lawrence, Megan lived in a lot of different cities (Portland, Paris, LA). She told me that she had successful gardens in those cities. She even had two successful summers in Lawrence. You can see photos of those successful gardens on her blog here.

However, last summer, the rabbits and deer and maybe other creatures ate almost everything. So, a few weeks ago, Megan asked me to help her with her garden. She’s given me so much guidance, I was honored and excited to reciprocate.

When I got there, Megan already had a plan drawn out. Essentially the idea was to put greens on the edges of the garden and to planta lot of stuff, so that even if the rabbits did eat stuff, there would still be plenty left.

Then we put up the pea trellis and planted peas, lettuce, chard, spinach, beets, and onions. That is Megan with her garden. I think it’s going to be a good year for her.

Afterward, we went inside and ate nice cheese from The Merc and crackers and grapes. I also accidentally spilled water all over the table because apparently I am like a small child.

Kara Bollinger, M.A. writing you directly from the bright, lovely state of Kansas. I defended my thesis with zero hang ups. I didn’t even need the nerf gun I had stashed under the table. After writing my thesis for two semesters, I’m able to intelligently talk about it to a group of professors. Hells bells, imagine that.

After spending Tuesday defending and celebrating, I did garden things Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. If this surprises you, well…um…that’s weird. Four days of work means there’s a lot to tell you. But mostly photos.

Wednesday I discovered I was tired. Sometimes I finish something major, and then I crash. Or get sick over Thanksgiving break because it’s the only time I have time to be sick. I think this happens to most people. Anyway, I realized this on Wednesday, my busiest-on-campus-all-day-long-no-breaks day. I didn’t want to build a pea trellis that day, but garden mate Clare and I had already decided we would.

Building stuff in the community garden is a fun puzzle where you find whatever scraps are around and then create something out of it. It hasn’t not worked yet. Clare already had a general plan of how we should build the trellis. And after a bit of brainstorming, we had one. Again, like last year’s trellis friend Justin help me build, it’s very One Hundred Acre Woodsy. I love it. It’s not that tall yet, but in a few weeks when I’m antsy with free time, I’ll add to it.

I also took some photos of things growing, because they are my favorite before they grow up.

Baby kale.

Baby bok choi.

The pretty mixed greens.

Though the day was hectic and I still had a softball game to play that night at 10 pm(woah!), I felt so much better when I left the garden, as I always do.

Much like the compost in the fall, the city of Lawrence sells mulch in the spring, so on Thursday garden pal Nic and I went and got a truck bed full. I don’t have much to tell you about this except that 1) getting mulch has been my personal goal all spring because the weeds around my plot are getting real crazy 2) it sorta sprinkled the whole time which gave the whole loading/unloading mulch thing a new level of intensity and 3) I really enjoy doing things that oppose gendered norms (ie girls aren’t supposed to be good at unloading mulch). Take that masculinity/femininity.

On Sunday, I worked in the garden for almost 2 full hours. *Sings “Glorious” in high pitched annoying voice* I invited my students to come to the garden. We’re reading Michael Pollan’s  The Omnivore’s Dilemma. It’s also at the point in the semester where they decide they really need extra credit, so…I offered them a few extra credit options related to the book, one of which was coming to the garden and writing about it. Another option is to write about the Farmer’s Market. This morning one of my students asked if I knew how to cook swiss chard; he bought some at the market. After I spouted off a number of spices he could use and what he should serve with it, he said “Oh. So you definitely know how to cook it.” Best teaching moment of the day. I know I’m supposed to teach them English and not how to garden or eat locally, but can’t I do both?

Though I had six or seven students excitedly tell me they were going to come to the garden, no one showed up initially! I was a little bummed, but then…when we were almost done working, one student showed up. Faith in humanity restored. We planted okra, popping corn, and put down a bunch of mulch to keep the weeds out. Today I told my students that I cried myself to sleep in a bed of spinach because of the low turn out…and they thought that was hilarious.

The crying thing isn’t true, though. I’ve never cried in a bed of spinach. Sunday evening garden time makes me feel sunny and smiley and worn out and like it was all worth it. It might be my favorite of the week. Our attempt to be at the garden at the same time at least once a week is working out well. There were eight of us there, and not only did we get a lot done, but we also got to chat/brainstorm/laugh/smile. There were also salted caramel cookies.

**I realize I skipped Friday. A third guest gardener is on the way.**