Wednesday, August 13, 2014

2. The Availability of Local Unprocessed Food

One of our weekly rituals is buying food from the farmers who set up shop in the parking lot outside our apartment building every Sunday morning. I say ritual rather than chore because buying fruit, vegetables, and occasionally prepared foods from the farmers, Larisa and Yevgeny, is still a bit of a novelty. 

It's nothing fancy; they unload a table, a scale, an old cash register, and twenty to thirty cardboard boxes full of produce to which they affix some prices with plastic forks. By this time there are usually twenty or so folks--mostly old women--waiting around, but they aren't necessarily standing in a line. Patrick learned that they figure out their order in line by asking, "Who's last?" when they arrive and telling whoever's last, "I'm after you." It isn't a perfect system, but it allows the babushkas to sit and rest on the nearby steps rather than stand in line for fifteen to twenty minutes.

Come to find out, the farmers grow a lot of the vegetables on their own land, and Larisa makes some of the prepared foods, such as eggplant salad, Korean carrot salad, and fruit leather, herself. Additionally, there are a couple of dairy farmers that sell milk, bryndza cheese, tvorog aka farmer's cheese, sour cream, and sometimes whole chickens and eggs from the trunk of their car. There's also a beekeeper who's shown up twice this summer.

I know that the farmers have documents that allow them to sell food, but I highly doubt their farm and products are inspected by some sort of agency to check that health or agricultural codes and regulations are being followed. The milk that's sold by the dairy farmers is definitely raw. An hour or so after we buy it, a layer of thick cream rises to the top. You know it's high-quality when one family regularly sends their son out with a few five-liter jugs to fill and when the babushkas fight to get to this milk, which they've described as настоящий. In other words, this milk is the real deal--not the processed crap in the supermarket. The honey isn't processed either. There are tiny bits of honeycomb in it, it crystallizes pretty quickly, and the taste--it's like nothing I've ever tasted. Its flavor rivals maple syrup in my opinion. According to Patrick, "you can taste the flowers."

Honestly, with all the chemicals, pesticides, and genetic tampering with produce; the antibiotics and hormones in animal products; and the frequency with which corporate and factory farm products are contaminated with lethal bacteria, I'll take my chances with the unregulated, unprocessed food, which I'm fortunate enough to have access to here in Russia.

Monday, August 4, 2014

1. Russians' Attitudes Towards Literature

Pushkin. Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky. Chekhov. Lermontov. Turgenev. Gogol. Gorky. Bulgakov. Nabokov. The list goes on. Russia has a wealth of writers, and one thing that surprises and impresses me is the number of students, both teenagers and adults, who say that they genuinely like reading classic Russian literature. Last week a twelve-year-old told me that she had been reading Pushkin before English class that day.

Lermontov Statue in Stavropol. Taken from Voices From Russia, Too.

I even read an article about a city, Novosibirsk, that offered free metro rides back on 6 June to people who could recite at least two verses from any poem penned by Pushkin. How cool is that? Stavropol can't commemorate great Russian writers with free metro rides, but it does have a few statues. I walk past Lermontov nearly every week and past Pushkin about once a month. I'll have to ask my colleagues and students if there are any more writers hanging out in Stavropol.

Pushkin Statue in Stavropol.

Anyway, I greatly admire Russians' interest in classic literature, and I hope that literature is able to maintain its position within Russian society even though younger generations are increasingly enticed by mind-numbing games and other technological distractions.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Putting Politics Aside

"Naughty America," said my student, grinning and wagging his finger. I smiled slightly. I had prepared some activities to practice asking and answering personal questions about name, age, family, address, phone number, likes, dislikes, etc. I wasn't prepared to respond to my favorite nine-year-old's comment about America, but I didn't want to ignore it either. 

I paused for a moment and wondered how to go about having a child-friendly converesation about culture and politics with the limited English vocabulary that he knew. 

"Where do you live?" I asked.
"In Russia," he told me confidently.
I nodded. "Do you like Russia?"
He rolled his eyes as if I had asked him a stupid question and then responded with an resounding "Yes!"
"Why?" I asked him.
He pressed his lips together and thought before telling me, "Because it's home."
"I like Russia too," I confided, "because it's beautiful and because I like my colleagues and my pupils."
He smiled.
"Do you like New York City?" I continued.
"Why do you like it?"
His eyes grew round as he told me, "Because it's got big skyscrapers, very big."
"And...?" I prompted.
"And it's nice," he added.
"You're Russian. Are Russian people good or bad?" I asked.
"Good," he quickly confirmed.
"That's right. And I'm American. Are American people good or bad?"
He shrugged. "Mmm, good."
"Am I Obama or a normal American?"
He laughed at the idea of me being Obama and said, "Normal American."
"Are Obama and Putin normal people or politicians?"
"Are politicians always good or sometimes good?"
"Sometimes good."
"Are politicians sometimes bad?"
He paused and then responded, "Sometimes bad."

I sometimes have to remind myself of the message that I was trying to send to my student. Of course I have my own opinions about Obama, Putin, and their domestic and international policies, but I shouldn't let that color my impression of Russian culture. Patrick and I put together a list of the top ten things we like about Russian culture, and I'll be posting about those topics over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!