Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Onto The Classics

There are many possible relationships between people that one doesn't normally even think about. This evening, I went to a classical music concert at the conservatory and the piece that left the most tangible impression was an unscheduled addition to the program. The show had started one hour before schedule to make room for this piece (at my puzzlement, a friend succinctly explained: this is Russia). I don't even know the name of the near-forty minute piece, but it had my undivided attention for the entire time. There were two grand pianos on stage and a man and woman played on them, facing each other (with the audience to one side of them). Sometimes their eyes met and at other times they concentrated on the frenzied movements of their fingers on the keys. The piece had several sections, ranging from the passionate to the disconsolate, the frivolous to the heavily serious. As the sections changed, so did the relationship between the two pianists, who remained oblivious to the audience throughout the piece. They played in perfect synchrony, without either of them looking at any notes. I hadn't paid much attention to classical music before, but this was simply beautiful. I must have grown old, I guess.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

First Day Jitters

Although I went to bed fairly late last night, I woke up really early today (6:30 am!). I think its because it will be my first day of Teaching English to toddlers (2 of them). The lesson is in the afternoon, but since I was awake and it's probably not a good thing to postpone everything to the very last minute anyway, I spent the first couple hours of this morning doing a little research and creating a lesson plan.

Update: The class went much better than I had thought it would. We almost abandoned the lesson plan- which was definitely the right thing to have done. The two mothers stayed in the room the entire time- a good thing, since the boy, when unable to wrestle a toy from the girl, burst into tears. Twice. The girl was preoccupied with a guitar for most of the first half of the lesson. Nonetheless, they enjoyed the singing and dancing ("Here we go 'round the mulberry bush" was particularly popular) and by the end of class, both had said a few words in English. Who would have thought I'd be working with toddlers, without it being a complete disaster?!

Monday, October 13, 2008

Silent E

"Who can turn a can into a cane?
Who can turn a pan into a pane?
It's not too hard to see
It's silent e

Who can turn a cub into a cube?
Who can turn a tub into a tube?
It's elementary
For silent e

He took a pin and turned it into pine
He took a twin and turned him into twine

Who can turn a cap into a cape?
Who can turn a tap into a tape?
A little glob becomes a globe instantly
If you just add silent e

He turned a dam - alikazam! - into a dame
But my friend Sam stayed just the same

Who can turn a man into a mane?
Who can turn a van into a vane?
A little hug becomes huge instantly
Don't add w, don't add x, and don't add y or z,
Just add silent e "

A CouchSurfer and fellow English Teacher came over today and while talking about names of places in Russia, Tom Lehrer's Plagiarism song came up (there's a nice list of Russian cities in it). We started listening to his songs on YouTube and came across the "Silent E" song. I hadn't heard it before, but it can be such a perfect supplement to a lesson on pronunciation. I love Tom Lehrer!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Flight- in search of travel or perfection?

In a class last week I mentioned to my student that I was reading "The House of the Dead" and that it had put me in a strange, brooding frame of mind. "I have just the thing for you," she claimed, and started rummaging amongst her things. Finally, she triumphantly pulled out a small binder from the storage space below her bed. It was a bilingual copy of Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingstone, Seagull," printed from Cool, I thought. Here's something that should help with my Russian. I can try to read the Russian text on the right and use the English on the left for words I can't understand. I certainly wasn't expecting the thin little binder to get me thinking about 'life, the universe, and everything' (i.e. what I'm doing with my life today, and where I want to be tomorrow- so technically, my life, my universe, and everything to do with me).

To start with, our main character is a seagull who is different from other seagulls, with unconventional values and aims. He is not interested in screeching and bickering for scraps of food. Instead, he wants to spend his days perfecting the techniques of flight, to fly higher, lower, faster and slower than all other gulls. For this, he causes his parents immense grief and worry and even gets kicked out of the flock. Sticking to the professional, "definitely a good book for a Teacher to discuss with a Child Psychologist during an English lesson," I thought.

But then entered the sage gull Chiang. Some of his philosophies seemed reminiscent of Buddhism, and, I want to say Daoism (but I really dont know enough about the latter to make that claim with any conviction). John initially believes that the enlightened gulls, those who place a greater value on flight than food, are in heaven, but Chiang explains that "Heaven is not a place, and it is not a time. Heaven is being perfect." I can be particular about things, but I'm not exactly a perfectionist, so I was simply reading along when Chiang threw another nugget of wisdom at me, and this one made me stop in my tracks.

"The gulls who scorn perfection for the sake of travel go nowhere, slowly. Those who put aside travel for the sake of perfection go anywhere, instantly."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

On the way back from Puja tonight an ambulance passed me by on the road. The sirens were wailing, the van was slicing through traffic and there was every sign that they were up to something important. The woman sitting in the front seat was exhaling a cloud from her cigarette. Smoke therapy?

Friday, October 3, 2008

Нехорошая квартира (Not-good Apartment)

No. 302 B on Sadovaya Street is (in)famous, at least as far as apartments go. On his last widely publicized visit to Moscow, the Devil a.k.a. Professor Woland stayed with his retinue in this very same apartment. As this was during Soviet times, apartments, particularly in the city center of Moscow, were hard to come by and the devilish group had to decapitate one man and magic another away to Yalta in order to be able to lay claim to this place. Oh what deliciously evil, majestically comical events took place here! In addition to Woland (who, according to all the atheist authorities, could not possibly exist), a thin man in a prince-nez, another sporting fangs, and a decidedly cat-like man (or was it a man-like cat) romped around the place, startling passers-by and terrorizing visitors of the official kind. They held a grand ball of the most famous damned in history, shot at cards while looking away, drank vodka in copious quantities, committed arson and partook in much other revelry. It is in this same apartment and through the help of these same characters that the gorgeous Margarita was reunited with her clinically insane and self-deprecating lover (who, fondly named “The Master,” plays the role of a societally shunned author in a book that was certain to never be published during the period in which it was written). All in all, the apartment in question has been the site for a lot, literally and literarily.

Luckily for Bulgakov fan(atic)s, one of the main locations in his most famous novel is the same place he himself used to live in- that is, a real place that exists outside of fiction. No.302 B on Sadovaya, christened the ‘not-good apartment’ by the author, is now a Bulgakov museum, open to all enthusiasts, the mildly curious and everyone else in between (and entrance is free!). The modern tourist can see the same rooms that the historical Bulgakov and the fictional Woland and his posse lived in, filled with the paraphrenalia of the writer’s life and pictures and paintings depicting scenes from the novel. For the truly enthusiastic fans, there are even midnight tours of Moscow city a la Master and Margarita, including a walk near the ponds where Muscovites had their first conversation with the devil, not far from the street where the tram-car decapitated the unfortunate non-believer, Berlioz. Unfortunately, unlike the novel, this tour does not include visits to locations in Jerusalem, despite the fact that it costs approximately $40 per person. For that, read the novel- at the very least, its much more economical!

A (not) Bad Area

I recently discovered, on an online blog not unlike this one, that the metro station closest to my apartment is considered one of the scariest places in the city. Sure, I've seen a man brutally beaten by policemen near the entrance, a drunken crowd perpetually hovers near the entrances and exits and yes, I agree that the tunnel that feeds into one of the entrances does smell like a putrid combination of urine, faeces and vomit. While the general public is very well behaved and lines up incredibly peacefully and with a strong emphasis on fairness, the crowd at the ends of the escalators can get suffocatingly large (every time the thought of an emergency comes to mind, I promptly banish the ensuing visions of stampedes). I'd read articles detailing high rates of hooliganism among teens and heard stories about foreigners who had been beaten up (even killed) by 'skin-heads' in broad daylight. I know a certain dark-skinned expat who has lived in this city for decades, but who refuses to take the metro alone at night. Certain others, who don't speak the local language well, refuse to go anywhere for dinner, as it would mean returning home late at night. During my first week here, while quietly standing in the metro, I was yelled at by a man who mistook me for a "Kavkazi" (someone from the Caucassus and thus apparently highly inferior due to murky but nonetheless racist reasons). I didn't understand the language at all at that point, so the word 'Kavkazi' is the only thing that stuck.

Although in turns puzzling, annoying and terrifying, I assumed such features were simply 'how things are,' and besides, which city doesn't have its share of problems? Passing the drunken group on my way to and from anywhere I may be going, I have gotten used to it. I always ignore the crowds, the sights, the smells, and they, in turn, almost always ignore me too. On the rare occasion when someone decides to attract my attention, I play both deaf and dumb (the latter in all senses of the word). So, I guess, I have gotten used to it. I have heard the advice to "come home before dark" as I must pass a "not nice area" on my way home, but since its incredibly difficult to follow such advice, I have convinced myself that it is ridiculous.

Going back to the list, I have to admit that since I considered the sights at my metro station as 'normal,' I was indeed surprised to see it on the list of 10 Scariest Places in the city. I mentioned as much to a local friend, and she agreed wholeheartedly with the list. Stating her last experience visiting me, she used this opportunity to explain why next time, I should be the one visiting her home instead. Someone who has lived all her life in this same city found this particular area "creepy."

I still can't see (or perhaps, refuse to acknowledge) a very significant difference between my metro station and all others in this city. Sure, this is not the best part of town, but it certainly can't be the worst! Or perhaps this is self-deception based on a need to survive and the desire to acclimate- since I can't live anywhere else, the more 'normal' this place seems to me, the better. The only other option is to stay at home- the mere thought makes me feel claustrophobic. All over this city, there are people who meet, dine, dance, and I want to be part of it all too. And so, the sights at my station must be normal, and I too continue my life as usual.