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Published: July 21st 2009
A prophets report
I tried to finish this letter already two months ago. So I have had to make a lot of changes here. It is there (again) - a bit messy…. But I think you will manage….
I finished my lessons a few weeks ago, and I have been studying on my own, socialising (a lot) and done a few trips. However, we still wear hats, gloves and wintergear here, so its not very tempting to travel for a longer period. The other day I went with six girls to an island outside of Vladivostok. It was so hardcore cold; the cold, the rain and the useless campsite (light only two hour at night, no heating, no washing facilities, swamp everywhere, no bedclothes. In fact nothing at all!) and it was only due to the local amount of vodka that we survived, I think (But actually - people here drink less and less vodka, they have switched to wine and beer).
Not very long ago, I went on another trip with some girls to Khabarovsk. It was also not entirely successful, mostly due to cultural differences; three did not want to spend money and secretly ate sausages in the hotel, one had a neurotic breakdown, crying for several hours, because we could not go to a restaurant (because of the three who wanted to save money), the fourth had no sense of direction. And me. Who turned out to be some sort of a guide. It is adviceable to check the compatibility on beforehand. That is all I can say. We are still friends, though!
Sudba - destiny
However. The nature is more and more amazing, green, flowers and dramatic mountain formations. It’s the coldest summer I have lived, but very interesting. The colours here are unique, and the transformation of Vladivostok from being a grey and dusty place to become a green and flourishing town is a little miracle. So much about nature. When it came to the subjects, it was not exactly a success. I wanted to do contemporary literature here. But due to a teacher in linguistics, the teachers in literature refuse to lecture on the contemporary writers. Not because they are so bad, or because the language is offensive - but they don’t like the subjects that the contemporary are writing about! A kind of weird attitude, but okay.
One learns something here everyday anyway. The other day I saw a reportage on the telly: “How to define middle class in Russia”. Bottom line was that it was hard to find suitable criteria, upon which everyone can agree. One number that was suggested was that a wage of 600 dollars a month would barely be enough to qualify as a middle-class citizen. Also, the middle class in Russia, do not enjoy the same privileges as the middle class in Europe; i.e. holidays, luxury-items, fashion-shopping etc. is extravaganza.
Yet, they are way better off than the immigrant-workers from China, Caucasus, the former Soviet-states and students; Russians as well as non-Russians. Let me tell you about Maryan, who is in my language-class in university. Maryan is a very diligent and smart student, who came from Bulgaria five years ago because his grandfather died. Because he could not afford the return ticket at the time, he stayed on.
He does not like it very much, but this is what life gave him. Now he goes to university. At the same time, he works nightshift in a nightclub. Not because he likes it. But he needs the money; he gets 1 - one - dollar per hour. No insurance, no points for the pension, no social security advantages. Factors on the plus-side: okay - here they are: he pays no tax. This is what people around here call sudba - your destiny, and nevertheless - one of the absolute favourite words for Russians, together with suffering and Russia.
Sergej - The Rasputin
Let me continue a bit on language…since that is why I am here. While living in St. Petersburg, I learned two expressions that have been very useful in my career as a student in Russia. I remember the teacher up there forbade us to use them; “Everything is relative” (“Vse otnositel’no”) and “It all depends on the context” (“Eto zavesit ot konteksta”) - which became magical mantras for anyone who had not done the homework. These answers are always the right ones! So our teacher there hated them. He was, by the way, one of the most interesting characters I have met in the Russian educational system ever. Sergej something.
I have always wondered how Rasputin, with his dirty beard and unappealing looks could have such a magic effect on women. But after having witness Sergej giving masses on declination-systems, formation of irregular verbs and so on, while all the girls eyes turned shiny and glossy and their cheeks blushing, I realise that the chemistry of attraction is an unpredictable phenomenon.
Sergej had long, bushy beard, he was a rather smallish man, and all in all, his advantage was not manhood, but academic humour and weirdness. Besides being very animated himself, he would tell tales about his two brothers; one of them was a hashish-loving rock-musician. The other one was a priest. Sergej was probably a mixture of the two; carrying his brothers pious outlook, but preaching free hashish to mankind. Every protest on this view, was categorically and passionately refused.
So Sergej’s approach to grammar and teaching was unique. No - he did not teach grammar - he was grammar! And as we know - grammar can be very distracting, very sensual, not at all dry and boring, only listen to these terms: heteroclitica, clitica, ø-copula, masculinum, attribut, genus.
Sergej was a figure. And he went bananas if anyone dared telling him that “everything is relative”.
Life as a prophet
The quest for identity still goes on. My surroundings still have some trouble to place me. Home my inside is right, but my outside wrong, here its all the other way around. But rarely have I had such an extraordinary analysis as my neighbours gave me.
Opposite of me, there are two funny Japanese residing; one journalist, and one young student. The first time I met Masaki, the journalist, he may have been a little carried away. He claimed I was the most exotic person he had ever met. Exactly what he meant by exotic, I have no idea. And I thought it was merely an enthusiastic way of speaking. But I must have made an impression. Because next day, he stopped me, and told me in a sincere and serious tone:
Masaki: You know, you are like. . . a prophet.
I (perplexed): ?
Masaki: Like Buddha. Or Jesus.
I: Whatta . . . . . . . ? ?
Masaki: I mean, everybody must like you, even (!!) grandmothers!
Two years ago, while in Sri Lanka, I started to collect strange dialogues for an art-project. This would more than qualify for that project.
First of all, I had no idea that the ultimate recognition of someone, is expressed by the degree of which grandmothers are praising you. Secondly; Who does not like compliments? But prophet?? What the hell do you answer to such an exclamation?
Yes, there seem to be a certain dissent about just the Jesus/Buddha-thing amonth the two neighbours. Two days later, sitting with Masakis neighbour, Kochiro, we were talking about the weather - and as I had been watching the weather-forecast, I could tell it would rain the following day; whereupon he promptly said: “Oh - you must be a devil!”
So as you can understand, it is not easy to fulfil all the expected social roles here.
Stalin - the fisherman?
So for us prophets, and I think for ordinary people too, time is passing in Russia. Not only has prices gone up. Wildly! But so has the level of services and availability of luxury goods. Moscow has the highest density of dollar-billionaires in the world. They all live in a area outside Moscow, where Putin also resides, creating their happy world.
From my window, I can see new blocks in glass and steel. But I can also see houses made of cardboards, barely keeping the rain out, I can see piles of shit that someone just left, I can see Chinese immigrant workers who has to use an outdoor-toilet, I can see flee-ridden stray-dogs and so on. In many ways, the reality here in our dorm, is like the reality the rich billionaires have build in Moscow; sadly, it gives a very limited view on real Russia.
One example that can picture how isolated we are here, is the following from one of my lessons with foreign the students in university. The lecturer talks about Stalin. Then she glances at us, adding; “Oh, do you know who Stalin were?” Personally I got insulted. And I asked the professor whether we looked so stupid? She replied: “But a lot of students coming here have no idea about who he was!”
The Eminem-clone of Ekaterinburg
The other day, I asked my Chinese neighbour, Alla, what differences she sees between the Russians and the Chinese culture. The first thing she pointed out, was the way the two peoples relate to work vs. free-time.
- If there is a leakage in your house on a sunday afternoon, or during a holiday, you can just call the plumber, and he will be there immediately to fix the problem. But here, if something breaks, you have to wait until the working hours. No way you can get it fixed before. The Russians guard their leisure-time thoroughly. Of course, for the human being, the Russian way is more pleasant, she concluded.
That Is not entirely true, though. Let me tell you of my visit to Ekaterinburg three years ago. 9th of May it was. I remember the date, because it is the Djen Pobedy, the Victory Day (II WW), and every single person in town was in the centre, celebrating, having great fun. I was heading home, and I felt quite lonely, sleepy and tired. When I came home, the door (with NINE locks) would not open. So the landlady had to be called. And a locksmith (who looked like an exact Eminem-clone). And thus I spoiled one of the greatest partydays in Russia for two people back in 2003.
But on the whole, Allas point is not at all unfamiliar…
While the bear is asleep…
There is yet another difference. Because of racism, and maybe also tribalism - the Chinese students (especially girls) refuse to go anywhere one by one. In fact they pretty much refuse to go anywhere at all. They have this idea that Russia is a very dangerous place, and that all sorts of crime and murder can happen all the time. So using the old nature-trick; protection in numbers, they will move like one huge Chinese organism from building to building. Otherwise, they stay in the dorm. Many of them have to study here for years, and it is not rare that they will leave this place afterwards, without a single Russian friend.
It is not entirely wrong though. A recent Amnesty-report states that the racism in Russia is completely out of control, there has been a double-ciphered number of killings and triple-ciphered number of attacks already so far, last incident was done by neo-nazis killing in cold blood, a nine-year old girl of Tadjik origin in St. Petersburg. Apparently the Russian government does nothing about it, and when people are taken to trial, they are not charged due to racism-paragraphs, but maybe violence or some other less serious charge that looks better on the official statistics and also gives considerably lower sentences.
This racism is of course also very visible when it comes to other, not-mainstream groups. Gays have a hard time here, they just tried to have a sort of happening in Moscow. They were not guarantees security, and of course there came to confrontations with the church and other conservative groups. So when the Russian bear is asleep, all sort of unacceptable (in my point of view) political directions are flourishing. To put it that way; if you are an African gay, it may be more fun to go to San Fran than Moscow for the weekend.
But then again - Russia is huge, and no need to panic!
“U nas nje kurjat!”
This initially was meant to be a letter on health. Maybe because of the inspiration I found in the local museum.
It was suppose to be a nice, harmonic visit, watching the amur tigers again (stuffed - but very successfully placed in dramatic groups, as you could see last time). Instead, I ended up nearly puking.
They had a temporary exhibition, items from Kunstkamer, in St. Petersburg. Now Kunstkamer must be one of the weirdest museums on earth’s surface, containing everything from foetus of Siamese twins, the oversize-member of Peter the Greats African servant, a sitting mammoth, inner organs of all sorts and so on. Three floors. Upper floor also has the sickest collection of live cockroaches and millipedes I have ever seen (in aquariums), they come in all colours, and sizes).
Here in Vladik, they only had some 20 - 30 items, but the focus was clear: Inner organs, and how dreadful they look after a few drinks, cigs or (ab)use of narcotic substances. The guide was very well-informed, and she told me in details about the effects. I could see little - and big - holes in the brain - all from (ab)use of narcotics, I was shown lungs of a smoker, lungs with tuberculosis, a heart with an enormous blob - thanks to syphilis, I saw kidney-stones - wow - they are huge (!), and very pretty - good for a necklace or a wind-chime - white and round like little stones you can find at a Greek beach or something. They were carefully placed in a glass-container, and it looked mysteriously similar to any standarised IKEA-decoration (sterile, boring, pseudo-innovative), I saw the result of some sexually transmitted diseases that I will not even try to describe for you, and a few foetus; Siamese, a healthy one, and one very unhealthy one (due to mothers intake of alcohol). I was close to throw up many times during the guiding. Finally the guide told me; So, these are the result of unhealthy lifestyle. I hope you will keep that in your mind.
In all Russia, there are more and more places with the sign: “U nas nje kurjat” - No smoking. Drinking in public is prohibited. Officially. At least. But you really don’t see that many drunkards around. But to die in public is still permitted. Two days ago the sun came out. And along with it, all the heavy alcoholics. I just passed by when the police and paramedics picked one up, carrying him away in a worn out, dirty installation that most of all looked like a huge fish net. It was sickening.
“Skip the protests! Buy perfume!”
The last thing I will mention, are all the national feasts they have in the spring, its an endless row of days, possibly only conquered by the official Calendar of Malta (it’s a 365-feast). One of them, I already mentioned; Den Pobedy. 9 april; Victory Day. No need to specify which victory, I believe.
You will automatically notice when it approaches in time, as the medias slowly fill up with historical movies, documentaries and debates. Second World War is incredibly important here in nation-building projects. But interestingly enough, as my professor said: “You will not find many of the older generation who will tell you about the war. Not because they don’t want to, but most of them have blocked out the memories. They were too gruesome.”
Another funny day here, is 8th of March, which is a day when women gets flowers and gifts. My very first Russian teacher in Norway, told me that during the Soviet times, the authorities used to explain the demonstrations and parades abroad with the fact that: “All western women are suppressed and subsequently need to protest. But here, in Soviet, we have solved all these kind of problems. So we can spend this day for pleasure, giving each woman flowers and chocolate and small gifts like, for instance, perfume”. Sweet.
strong>Vladivostok - just around the corner
Due to very high prices everywhere, I had to wave my dream Kamtchatka and Sakhalin goodbye (for this time. . .), and I head for Japan already next week. It will be great to see my friends there, but also sad to leave the excellent people I met here. Most of my closest friends have left already anyway; Matthew from USA, Evy from Germany, Samir from everywhere. . . but I still have the boxer-fighter Johanna (German) with the iron-hand, and Astrid (Austrian), Jeff (USA) left, as well as the lovely Koreans Chang U, Chi Ho and Natasha. And Gota from Japan, a bit of a anarchistic philosopher that I will miss dearly. But there is always departure-time! And now that I have been here once, it seems incredibly close from home!
PS: an advice: if you ever want to hide your credit card, don’t hide in the fridge. I did. And it somehow froze, or it just got stuck. I had to wait for the ice to melt, and then I spend three hours, a fork, a spoon, a knife and some other surgical instruments to get it our again. It was safe. Very safe.
Ah - and a joke (but maybe mostly funny for insiders….):
A Russian man comes into a zoological shop, wanting to buy a parrot. There are three to choose in between. The first parrot, a lovely, yellow beauty, costs only 100 roubles. The salesman says: - Ah, this one can speak ten words, but its’ potential is enormous!
The second parrot is a blue one, and under the cage hangs a note: “50 words. 200 roubles”.
Then the man comes to the third cage. A blue, rather disgusting bird sits in the corner, half sleeping. The note says: “Two words. 12.000 roubles.”
The man asks him, quite stunned: But why so expensive? The other birds know so much more?!…
The salesman says: - Oh, yes, this one knows only two words, but on the other hand; such words; national project!!!
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