Edit Blog Post
Published: July 21st 2009
PART II: RUSSIAN FAR EAST
Impressions from Yul Brunner-town
Yes, that bold Yul was a Vladivostokian. Today the town lays peacefully at the shores of the Pacific ocean, and shares topographical features with its’ geographical counterpart San Fransisco - it’s made up by hills, hills and more hills.
“Vladivostok” quite literally translate as the Lord of the East. I have no idea who this historical gentleman was, but I’ll inform you as soon as I know. It is probably not referring to Yul, anyway.
The town which once was Chinese territory, lays peacefully in the Golden Horn bay. It used to be off-limit for foreigners, and most Russians as well, during Soviet-times, and it opened up only recently. Maybe that is why its’ inhabitants are so welcoming to visitors. Compared with St. Petersburg which annually get it’s fair share of tourists, this is at the other end of the scale. Should you stand at the street with a confused look in your face, people actually come up to you and ask if you need directions. Remarkable.
The town was founded in 1860, and it served as a naval base already in 1872. In 1891, the town was visited by Tsarevitch Nicholas II who inaugurated the new Transsiberian Rail line.
The number of population is only 650.000, and so it is fully possible to discover the centre by foot. The view from the harbour is quite unforgettable; mighty and dark peaks penetrate the grey fog, and the water has spots of silver as well as all nuances from black to steel-blue. Right now, sea-ice is still glittering in the far side of the bay.
People seem to be in pretty good shape here, maybe due to the hills. But the town is also overflowing with swimming-pools and fitness-centres. Some of he tallest and prettiest girls in all Russia are probably Vladivostokians, and they seem to frequent the sportclubs all day.
From a Kafka-like processes to Paradise
” My” dorm has eleven floors - no lift, hundreds of students, most of them Russian, living under completely different standards than I do (I heard there are cockroaches from the 6th floor and upwards), quite a few Asians and a buffet at the second floor. The faculty lies just across the street, so it is an optimal situation, concerning late mornings.
The way I was greeted in the university was overwhelming, comparing with the bureaucracy-hell-mill in St. Petersburg. There, one would spend at least one week, more probably two, only to register as a student, to get all the papers for the dorm fixed, and pay all the fees, not to mention the hell of having all the right scribbling-scrabbling-signatures from Mr. This and Mrs. That, so that all the sheets were valid, and ready to be stuffed in a thick, dusty portfolio. And not to forget the medical papers that you need. If you bring them in English, they have to be translated. By an official office. And for God’s sake - let’s not forget the Stamps - everything need a stamp, and everything has to be proven by a receipt that most often disappear to the mystical universe of odd socks, lighters and their likes. They are not at all where they should be, when you need them. And so, standing in a queue for three hours, which is not unlikely at all, can prove very unfruitful as - just in that very moment when it’s your turn, the magical paper has bid farewell. God work in mysterious ways. And so do little papers. If it, against all credible odds, is to be found, then most likely, the secretary has gone for lunch.
All this for registering as a foreign student. Plus if you wanted to leave to anywhere, you had to visit many of the same offices to get permission. Signing up for courses would also be a veeeeery lengthy process. Everything seemed to be miles apart too, so you would do a marathon to finish the paperwork.
Arriving in Vladik, I had all this in mind. None of you can imagine my joy and surprise when I discovered that: A: the administration was fifty meters away from my dorm. B: It is also my faculty, where ALL my lectures are given. C: It comprises both canteens, bookshops and a library. D: All the secretaries had more than enough time for me, they were actually looking for me when I arrived (!), giving me a tour (absurd!) with full explanation. I also got all the timetables for all courses. All in one day. No tears, no screaming, stomping with the feet or general waste of energy, cash and frustration. Miracle over all miracles! It was a religious experience. If this can not bring tears to a human beings’ eyes - then what can?
After going to several lectures, I am not too impressed by the actual content of the lessons here. But the teachers and lecturers are very cooperative. They give you personal consultations in whatever subject you like to discuss or have elaborated. However, the approach to science and culture, is old-fashion. (Sic. Not!)
The friendliness does not seem to have any limits, though. Yesterday every foreign student were personally greeted with a bag of Easter-eggs and cake by one of the employees at the administration.
The concept of “here” and “there”
Originally I chose Vladik, because the cultural centre of Russia, as presented abroad, is always Piter and Moscow. I was interested in Russian culture and literature from an Eastern perspective. With Japan, China, Mongolia and Korea as neighbours - and America on the other side of the pool, it ought to be different, somehow.
Indeed, the way of forming the individual during the Soviet time, was firm, and there existed very many common cultural and social references, so that the Homo Sovieticus, whether he or she came from Syktyvkar, Riga or Jerevan, would find some similarities in the behaviour and way of thinking. The different ethnic features were not entirely eradicated, but they were not emphasized either. The degree of conformism is expressed in a funny way in the Soviet-cult-movie “ S legkom parom” (something you say after a session in a Russian sauna), where a guy is (slightly) merry (i.e. thoroughly drunk), whereupon he ends up in a plane to Leningrad. As all towns tended to have the same infrastructural systems, the same kind of architecture, the streets having the same names and so on, he has no idea he is not in Moscow anymore. The guy takes a cab to “his” street, finds “his” building, gets into “his” flat and so on. The next day, he finds himself in a woman’s flat, in a strange street, in a strange town. Surprise, surprise.
To witness how everything slowly develops in all sort of directions (maybe), is thus exciting. Russia is so huge, consisting of so many nations, ethnic groups, cultures and languages, that in a way, I can see the point and use of conformism and creating common framework, common references. At the other hand, as a foreigner, I can never justify the result of nationalistic arrogance and violence (for instance in Chechenya). It is in this sort of discussion Russians and foreigners stand in front of mental gaps that are not easily filled with compromises and understanding. And maybe I can not, as a citizen from a tiny nation who is anyway bursting with self-confidence on one hand (but also shivering from lack of the same), a strong economy and a fairly well-working democracy, understand the reality and above all - the need of always using a certain level of propaganda in the ever-ongoing-nation-building-project. The closest parallel to draw, is perhaps how we relate to our own minority in Norway; the Laps, who has got their own parliament and flag (but nobody really pays attention to their parliament). It is a complex relation. A few decades back, we were busy assimilating the laps, forced them to speak Norwegian and generally treated them like unworthy citizens. So I guess we have to clean our own backyard to clean.
Soft-boiled eggs and a beheading for breakfast
Anyway, I had quite forgotten how the mass-medias work here. It is a very different approach to reality. I remembered the happening in the Dubrovka-theatre back in 2003, where a number of Chechens took hold of a theatre in Moscow, and several people got killed. Russian television showed the dead bodies, blood and whatever unappetizing scenes you can imagine. At all times of the day.
Several of my Russian friends were truly shocked, insisting that it was not usual footage. But they were inarguably shown. And maybe it indicates an abrupt change in the ethics that the mass-medias build upon. In the light of this possibility, I should not be surprised by the news-reportage thrown in my face during breakfast the other day.
That very day a guy had - out of jealousy - beheaded his friend with an axe (because he had an affair with the wife of the first guy). The morning-news showed how the police picked up this head from the ground. And so forth.
Furthermore a Russian friend back in Norway had not long ago, some tests done of her child. She feared there may be something wrong with the coordination, since the child is way premature. However, my friend was utterly dissatisfied with the way the Norwegian doctors communicate.
- Back home, the doctors will give you a cold evaluation of the situation, telling you any little detail that may be wrong, and give you all the spectre of diseases that it can indicate. But in Norway, the doctors won’t tell you if anything is wrong. They always try to give you optimistic information. It makes me suspicious, and I can not thrust the information, she said.
So the approach to reality - both on a broader social level, as well as in personal relations, is truly quite different from back home.
Talking about hospitals, I had to have a total check done in order to have all my stamps in my passport. I had to go to six doctors, do an x-ray and so on. The only test I had to do was to close my eyes and point at my nose. Since that went well, I got everything sorted out on the spot. But please - can anyone tell me what an otolarynologist is doing? I had to go to one, but the dictionary does not tell me what kind of doctor it is.
Don Giovanni di Beijing and Finnish crispbread
The other day, I sat in a seminar on linguoculturology, and the topic was to analyse and trace the origin of different words, put them in different context etc. One of the students told the class a saying, whereupon another girl promptly said; But that is not Russian. That is western.
In St. Petersburg, I often experienced that the one did not make a strong division between “the west” and themselves, quite the opposite. Often would the people point out the fact that St. Petersburg is the window to the west - with an underlying feeling that the word “window” could rather be omitted.
So Vladivostok - is it far east? Is it Siberia? Is it Europe? The inhabitants are predominantly white Caucasian. The culture and social patterns are easily recognisable for a European. But there is also a close relation to Asia. As the Japanese journalist living opposite of me said; It is very comfy to be Asian here, because the locals have adapted. They know our customs, our mentality, they eat a lot of fish - like us, and despite territorial conflicts, there are many common denominators. So Vladivostok is a crossroad, representing a whole range of cultures.
Yesterday I was at the academy of arts, were students performed Don Giovanni. The interesting part was that half of the singers were Chinese, and thus it was definitely a different touch to it. Dressed in wigs and 19th century European costumes (of which some were made of recreated Adidas sportswear), they could break every stereotype in the world.
And of course, globalism has reached town long ago. The Gipermarket (Hypermarket) nearby, offers anything from Crimea-wines, or ruby-red beauties from Bordeaux, to Finnish crispbreads and airborne chorizo from Spain, cheese from Holland, fresh sturgeons which swim in an aquarium situated in between glossy “Cosmopolite”, “National geographic” and “Men’s world”. You can have Chinese apples, fresh rambutan from Vietnam or Norwegian fish.
A whiff of “sea-breeze”
From my private sphere: it seem to be a well established law of nature, that in every student dorm, there must be that someone who has a fundamental need to pester life for everyone else, with his or hers abnormal passion for fish. What is a very unfortunate, that fish-adoring someone seem to always be within my radius.
In St. Petersburg I shared 12 square meters with a depressed Chinese girl who refused to speak. She spend all her time in bed. All her activity was done in bed, or from the bed. She hated Russia, and had a little calendar that she kept watching again and again, as if time would pass faster if she just kept an eye on the dates. She carefully crossed out one day after the other. Sometimes she would open her drawer, pull out the picture of her little child and husband who were waiting for her back in Northern China. She was a sad sight. I felt very bad for her.
She also had a little travel-TV, that she had on her lap, if she was not sleeping, or secretly weeping. If she was not sleeping, secretly weeping, crossing out dates or just generally being miserable - in bed - she would indulge in cooking. Of fish.
I have no idea where she got them from, but she used to buy some very small, white fishes, at the size of a thumb. I guess they were sardines or something. She usually fried them, and ate them with baoze - very tasty, airy dumplings, that she made by hand. In the bed.
Now, people may eat as much fish as they like. But since we spend all our lives in this room, it became very apparent what was on the others’ menu. Results of food processing - internal and external - were noticeable. In this room we had one small cupboard each, and a big wooden one with glass doors. To keep books. And as it turned out; sardines.
Since my neighbour had the habit of cooking extraordinarily large portions, there would always be leftovers. She would place them on the top of the books. Soon the foul gas of slowly rottening sardines would spread and penetrate all our belongings. In the evenings she would lay in bed, watch TV, sometimes remind me what a bad student I was (it is allegedly a good thing to be told off in, as it shows that you have potential, but I did not feel very special hearing this), weep or stare longingly at the picture from back home. I would sit and hold my breath, while fighting with the aspect of Russian verbs, syntaxes and a growing feeling of nausea. My sympathy was fading.
She would keep the fish for several days. It would not have shocked me if it suddenly started to levitate or forego in self-combustion. It was a primitive, but very cunning weapon of mass destruction. And sadly - every time - eventually, she would share it with me. Or in fact, she would bid me to have it all. I guess it was hospitality. Once or twice I swallowed a fish or two - with gills and eyes and all there was, while tears protruding my eyes, and suicidality peering in my mind. Not a gram of my initial sympathy was left. I did not need fish! I did not even stand the word “fish”! I was turning in to one myself!
So, I have just discovered, that the fish-syndrome has followed me all across the Russian steppe and taiga, from the cultural window to the west till the shores, where the Pacific ocean ends. True - the other day the fish-smell had to fade for the smell of boiling pigs-feet, but otherwise, it is constantly present.
Ding-dong - or simply; being persistent
So walls are ricepaper-thin. If my neighbour sneezes, a mild breeze blows through my fringe. And because of the outlet, I can easily detect whether he is home or away, as it serves as a canal for smoke from his cigs. He is, however, a funny soul; a businessman from Tokyo - extremely social, quite anarchic in his behaviour, seemingly quite professional at partying (watched a few hundred photos of his the other day. There seemed to be at least one bottle or girl in every single one of them).
Anyway, some time, around 18:00 last Thursday, my social life exploded, and for the time being, I am literally hiding in my room so to be able to fight on with the mystery of Russian morphology. It sure is a fight, since the bookshops are catering towards the Asian market., there is no good dictionaries to get for English-speakers. Or maybe my English is rotten? Or what do you guys think of how my dictionary translates “ding-dong” (three interpretations. I quote one of them, no 3):
Ding-dong: (adv, coll.): insisting, persistant, serious
(Anglo-russkij slovar’, izdatel’stvo Russkij Jazyk, Moskva, 2000)
Wish me luck!
Tot: 2.63s; Tpl: 0.051s; cc: 7; qc: 49; dbt: 0.036s; 2; m:saturn w:www (22.214.171.124); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb