Monday, December 28, 2009

Judging and a Photo Op

While Jesse was gone on his hunting trip I had a chance to be a guest judge at the "English Olympics" hosted here. This is the panel of judges (including some teachers):

It is where English classes from different schools get together and compete. Erin (Privyet) and I left early in the morning and stayed there all day listening to the different groups do presentations, essays, cartoons, and reading letters all in English. Here are some of the groups (check out the girls' hair - that's normal around here):

Then we would score each group on how they did. It was very interesting to listen to the different levels of English. Some of them had a lot of vocabulary but didn't speak well and others spoke with almost no accent but hardly spoke at all. All in all, I was very impressed with what I heard.

Before the award ceremony, they asked Erin and I to say a few words (let me say here I am not a public speaker). After Erin said a brief statement I got up thinking "Oh good. I only have to say a few sentences to encourage the students and then I can sit down."

Nope. After I said my 4 sentences, they asked if any of the students had questions (that I would have to answer). Well, the questions came. Thankfully they were pretty simple like "Where are you from?", "What are you doing here?", "Do you have any children?", and "What do you like to do?" Unfortunately for them, when I get nervous I talk (A LOT). One of the students even said "OK, you can sit down now". Yet, one of the groups asked me "Do you have a T name?". I didn't. So, they decided to give me one. I didn't understand it so they said it meant "Beautiful Girl" (Charash Kys/Чараш Кыс).

I guess they thought they could suck up to me in order to get some extra points. It worked! ;-) Here is the group:

During one of the long breaks in the morning, Erin and I decided to go do a photo op since we had both dressed up. Here are some of the pictures (which let's face it, this is the real reason I wanted to post :)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas traditions

The tree is up, the apartment is decorated, the music is on, the gifts are wrapped, and it's -40 outside. It's time for Christmas. Yeah! I love this time of year.

My family always did it up big and fun. I remember as kids we would pile in the car one Saturday and drive out to the Christmas tree farm and usually spend a few hours picking out that perfect tree. Dad would then cut it down, load it up, and we would drive back home singing Christmas carols. Then we would spend the next few hours decorating it while listening to Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas", Andy Williams with "It's the Most Wonderful Time of Year", and Alabama singing "Christmas in Dixie".

Once the tree was done and the stockings hung up by the chimney with care, we would sit down to hot chocolate and watch Christmas movies. Whether it was "Frosty the Snowman", "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", or "It's a Wonderful Life" were all favorites. Of course we would do the traditional baking and shopping which, I think, isn't as fun for the parents as it is for the kids.

Then came Christmas Eve. We had a tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve (because as kids you just couldn't wait another day). We would sing 12 days of Christmas, eat Christmas cookies, and watch Christmas movies until late (I mean, come on, we weren't going to sleep anyway). My brother and sisters usually slept in the same room and waited all night for Santa to come. When we couldn't wait any longer (which was usually about 4 am) we would sneak downstairs to see if Santa had come. If he had we would rush into mom and dad's room to get them up so we could start opening up gifts. They would usually shoo us back into our rooms until about 6 or 7. Of course, by then, we had already surveyed the gifts determining which gift belonged to which kid.
Then, all that waiting would come to a end as we ripped into the gifts with such excitement. Then crash. And spend all day with our new toys.

Of course, as we grew up, traditions changed but Christmas remained just as big and just as fun. Getting together with my mom's side of the family became a tradition. We would rent a cabin near Gatlinburg, TN for a week and spend time eating, playing games, going shopping, eating, going for hikes, eating, and eating.

The outlet malls were always overrun with people and sales. The restaurants were overflowing, and the ski lifts always had that one person to fall out and sprain their ankle stopping the lift from running until someone could help that poor soul out of the way (Tim):)

And the baking cookies turned into getting together with my cousins and making a gingerbread house. That turned into a tradition that my sisters and I expanded into entering our gingerbread houses into competitions (winning first place at the NC State Fair). And then eventually, going to a national gingerbread competition (although we did not win we still had a lot of fun doing it).

Now we kids have kids of our own. Thanks to our parents we are starting the same traditions with them. Although I am all the way over here in Russia, enjoying Christmas with my kids and husband, I will always hold a special place in my heart for those Christmas memories. I remember that song "Christmas Memories" by Alabama and I start to tear up but then I remember how much fun I will have giving those memories to my kids. Thanks mom and dad for giving us those memories.

Merry Christmas to all of you and hope you enjoy this time of year where ever you are.
Here are some pictures of my fun family:

My brother Tim
My sister Andrea
My sister Kellie (and me)
And the people who started it all, my mom and dad (Larry and Janice Williams)
The cousins (and sister-in-law) at one of our Christmases in Gatlinburg, TN
Again, the cousins
Enjoying my favorite Christmas candy, datenut balls
One of our traditions, each person in our family has gotten this cow as a present.
Another tradition started, making a gingerbread house
Which turned into this,
which turned into this,
which turned into this
Now, here in Russia, I am trying to pass the Christmas spirit to my kids
Steven's first Christmas
Steven with my mom and my sisters
Trying to teach the boys about Christmas
Even Jesse gets into the Christmas mood when around my family

Monday, December 7, 2009

Taking Off the Skirt ...

... yep, that's what I've been doing. When a T man goes out into the woods hunting or camping or something, he will return and tell others that he "took off his skirt" last weekend. And so, after a week of camping in the Siberian wilderness, I can say that I, too, am now wearing pants.

When I first started meeting with A, my new language helper, I wasn't sure how it was going to work out. It's hard to convince someone to do things like point repeatedly at a spoon and tell you how to say it. It's also hard to find someone who understands your desire to get "into" the culture. Not just to learn about it in an office from a list of questions, but to be there, in with them, doing the things that come naturally to people in the culture.

Well, A, while he might not be the best at spoon-pointing (he always laughs and wants to talk about something else, far more advanced and beyond my level of T right now), I think will be fantastic for things in that second category. He's very concerned that I learn the natural T way of doing things. When I mentioned that I'd love to go out to a village, and maybe even go hunting, he got all excited. Within a week or two, he had invited me to return with him to his home village and go on a hunting trip. So, when we got back from Y-land, we planned it out. He even wanted my coworker David to come along, so both of us got the exposure to this part of the culture.

I have a lot more to say about our time, but the pictures will tell it better:
So, for David and I it was quite a treat to go out into the wilderness with a bunch of T men and just soak up the experience, but we were a little nervous as to what it would mean. The first night was easy, though, we just stayed with A's uncle at his house in the village. A nice, cozy place.

I started to get worried the next day, though, when we went to get gas. The other T people at the gas station saw us loaded up for a hunting trip and asked the people we were going with "You're taking non-T people with you? Hunting? They'll die of cold!" We chalked it up to rhetoric and laughed it off. After all, I'm a seasoned hunter, and David climbed mountains in Canada! How bad could it be?

We had to ask, didn't we? (ominous foreshadowing)

The drive up was pleasant, if a bit chilly. We stopped frequently to go to the bathroom, look for mountain goats, and smoke cigarettes. Oh, and drink vodka. Every stop meant pulling out the vodka bottle for another round. The award for "Unintentionally Ironic Moment of the Trip" goes to the driver, who offered a toast "to a safe journey!" as he tossed back a shot.

This is Vodka Stop #12 or so:

Of course, along any road in T-land, no matter how remote, there are holy places where you have to stop and ask the gods for blessing on your journey. As an interesting side note, this one included a test of strength! You're supposed to pick up the rock and throw it over your shoulder, and if you do that, you do the middle one, and if you're really good, the one on the bottom. I managed the one on top, but didn't even try beyond that. If there really was anyone who could lift that bottom rock over their shoulder (the guys hadn't heard of anyone successfully doing it) I would have been mightily impressed.

Here's David searching in vain for a moutain goat. In fact, the only one of us who actually saw one was one of the T guys when he went out on his own several days into the trip. He missed his only shot at them, though, so we didn't bring any home.

As it got closer to evening, we decided to head up into the hills to camp somewhere that would be a good base of operations for the following day. However, there was no water where we would be going.

How to solve such a problem? Bring ice, of course! We got out the hatchet and hacked away at the river until a chunk of ice broke loose. Then, the assistant had to quickly grab the ice before it floated away in the current. This was tricky enough before the "happiest" guy in the group got into the 4-wheel drive van and almost drove it into the river.
A cold, wet, job, but in the end, we had a decent "harvest." I wouldn't have thought of this, but of course when the temperature isn't going to get anywhere near freezing, you can just haul the ice along, and then melt some in a pot when you need water.

The way up the hill involved some excitement when we came to a particularly steep section that we couldn't negotiate. A fourth attempt or so slid down the hill into a ditch, so we had to cut down a tree to free us from that. Eventually, though, the "happy" guy got in the driver's seat, and just as I remarked to David that he was sure to roll the van and leave us a lengthy hike home, he somehow fearlessly got the vehicle up the hill. I think it was mostly down to the fact that he didn't hesitate when faced with the possibility of sliding down off the road - he just gunned it. Sort of the Admiral Farragut approach to the problem, I suppose.

Following these adventures, we stopped in a meadow. I'm not sure why, as I was thinking of building a little shelter against a fallen tree or a rock or something to shield me from the cold. However, in the meadow, there really wasn't much you could do except lay on the ground. Which is what everyone proceeded to do after a supper of soup fixed at the campfire. I tried the van, which, if anything, was even colder, with the window that didn't roll up and freezing cold metal sides.

I'm not going to go into detail about the night that followed, because this is a family blog and any relevant description of the chilling cold might seriously affect young readers. However, suffice it to say that it was cold. Yes, you read that correctly. A night spent under the stars, in Siberia, in December, is cold. Go figure.

The scene the next morning at the campfire was a predictable one, if you've ever been around a group of men in a similar situation.

"How was your night?"
"Oh, fine. You know. I'm just ready to get out and bring in some meat."

That sort of thing. No mention of the fact that we were all feeling lucky not to be suffering from serious frostbite. Because you wouldn't want to seem like a wimp.

A couple of the guys (the more serious hunters) went out for a morning hunt while David and I gathered wood and stoked the fire. I borrowed one of their coats/bedrolls for a photo shoot, which does not at ALL look funny on me:

So, when they got back without anything, we were off to try another spot. But wait. When it's this cold, you can't just get in and crank the engine - at some point, the oil becomes too cold to lubricate, and starts to freeze. Hence, someone has to climb underneath and heat the engine block. They do it with a Bunsen-burner-like device, which you can see here ...

... and here. It's hard to see, but he has the flame right up against the engine block to warm it enough to start the engine.

So, possibly having noticed that we were a bit cold, the hunters decided to find a cabin for us to stay in for the remainder of the hunt. It may look like a shack to you, but it meant glorious warmth to me and David. The Plaza would not have been more luxurious, from our perspective.
The next day, we all set off for an all-day hunt. I wasn't sure how well I would do, not having done much beside sit in an office and study language for a few months, and the worry was not in vain. First, we climbed this mountain, "just to make a decision about what we should do." Then, we came straight back down again. It was at this point, out of breath, legs burning and an hour in, that I began to worry about the rest of the day.

I have no pictures of the next few hours, because I couldn't muster up the energy to take the camera out of my pocket. It was beautiful, but I wasn't paying attention to anything except the sensation that my heart was going to explode. Fortunately, A was also a bit out of shape and so I had company at the rear of the line.

At one point, we were struggling up a steep slope, knee-deep in snow, and I was just about to confess that I would need to go home, when we found that the rest of the party was waiting just ahead to have a snack. I was glad for the chance to sit still and gasp for a while, but even more glad when we started heading downhill and home:
We never did see any animals, though we might have heard a rabbit running away (we found its very recent tracks). In fact, we saw sign all over the place, but nothing actually moving. I'm not sure why T-land has so little wildlife, since it's much less inhabited than somewhere like, say, Montana, which has a similar climate and stacks of deer and elk.

Eventually, we managed to get home to the izbushka, or cabin. That's where the real culture learning took place. We learned from the old man who let us use his cabin how to read the future using a sheep scapula or 41 grains of wheat (more on that in a future post, maybe), as well as any number of good things to know about how to sit and act around other T people.

Plus, we had lots of T food - salty milk tea, lapsha soup, bread, all the kinds of things that they would fix on a hunting trip. It was actually really good, and the fellowship and story-telling, etc, was fun as well.

But eventually, it was time to travel home. After 2 weeks in Y-land, and another week of hunting, our kids were beginning to forget who we were, so we decided to go refresh their memories. On the way, home, though, A showed me this interesting plant:

Does anyone recognize it? The first person to guess in the comments wins an ounce of it, if I can manage to get it through customs.* In the summer, it would have much longer, greener leaves, but it can be consumed even dried up like this. It grows everywhere. In fact, I saw a huge field of it growing wild at one point, but mostly you'd see it alongside the road like this:

*Note to customs officials - this is entirely a joke, and I would in no way in real life be responsible for transporting any amount of this pharmaceutical herb through your airport. Please don't arrest me. Pretty please?

Of course, we couldn't return with no meat at all, so A picked up the goat that his brother had offered as a gift to his son last year. I don't know where he's going to keep it here in the city, but somehow, somewhere, his son is now the proud owner of a goat, despite the fact that he lives in an apartment in the city. The goat was a surprisingly passive passenger in the car, although he did occasionally make his displeasure known with a nice loud bleat or two.
And that'll do it for this week. Thanks for stopping by, and especially thanks for thinking of us. This week we're getting back into the groove of language study, so you can be remembering that. Tune in next week when we'll, well, you know, honestly, I have no idea. We're flexible. We'll be doing something.