Sunday, May 9, 2010

Victory Day and a red rose

I woke up at Rachel’s to the sounds of the airplanes I was hoping not to miss, threw on some clothes, and ran outside to watch the rest of the planes fly toward Red Square. They had been practicing for this, the big day, the 65th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis, all week, but there were still some planes I hadn’t seen yet.

BBC "In Pictures" 9 May

After the excitement and adrenaline rush created by planes flying low overhead, I went home, and then went for a walk in the park I recently discovered near my metro stop. I am amazed by this park which feels like wilderness in the middle of a concrete jungle. As I walked I smiled to myself about boys racing their bicycles and girls with improvised roller shoes. I wondered at the grandfather talking to his grandson as he pushed him in his stroller. I noticed litter strewn about – bottles left on trees and juice boxes discarded near the path.

As I walked, I half thought about sitting to read but didn’t rush to find a place. I passed a group in their late teens, standing, talking, drinking, smoking. I wandered, taking in the changing breeze, wondering at how sometimes it smelt so fresh, crisp, and pure, but when I took a few steps further the air smelt stale and worn out - like beer and cigarette smoke. I walked toward the playground, where there was less cigarette smoke and more “nature.” As I wandered further away from the partying teens, I saw an open bench. I assessed the situation – making sure I wasn’t downwind of cigarettes and noticed a young man in uniform with an orange beret. What part of the military is he? Then I sat down to read.

Occasionally, I stopped reading and looked up to take in my surroundings – the children playing, the birds chirping, the beautiful variety of greens and trees around me. Then, I noticed the trash pouring out of the garbage can on my left. The beer bottle caps pressed into the dirt near the bench I was sitting on. I noticed the ants that had come to feast on whatever food particles were left around and the breeze that wafted the scent of early summer blossoms past my nose. As I was reading, I felt in tune and at peace with the juxtaposition of wild and civilized that encompassed me.

Suddenly, I noticed that the young man in the orange beret was walking toward me, in front of me, and then he stopped. I looked up, and he said something in Russian that I didn’t understand but somehow I knew he was saying something nice or sweet. I got a bit flustered and couldn’t think of what to say, my brain stopped, and I felt my cheeks grow warm. Finally, I forced out, “Вы говорите по-английский?” (Do you speak English?) He looked a bit shocked, and said no. I told him, in Russian that my Russian was very bad, and of course, being polite, he said, “No, no, it’s not. You know a lot.” I said, “No I only know a little, but thank you.” Then he asked where I was from and my name. He sat down next to me, and we had a brief conversation where I tried to ask him what branch of the military he worked for. He couldn’t explain in English, and I couldn't understand in Russian, but I figured out later he works for МЧС РОССИЙ (basically like the National Guard – they do civil defense and emergency response). After this struggle to communicate, he presented me with a red rose. Apparently it’s not a tradition that military men give women flowers on Victory Day, and of course, I felt like I should have been doing something for him. Yet, in my flustered state, I was unable to say even, “Happy Victory Day.” I just got out a “Thank you” before he walked off. Rattled, amazed, and of course flattered, I watched him go, disappearing through the park and toward the metro.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A new view of play dough

It was the last day of my pre-advanced adult class, and I decided to bring in Cranium. Before class I went through all the cards to make sure that the language wasn't too challenging and the questions weren't completely culturally irrelevant, and then I looked at my "Cranium clay". It was pathetic - a crystallized, purple lump.

I asked around to see if anyone knew where I could get some clay and took the first suggestion that I was given, a bookstore across the street. The purchase was quick, painless, and the only choice I had to make was weather to pay 300 rubles for four colors or 100 rubles for 8 colors. I took my 8 colors of игра форма eegra forma (play dough) back to the school and proceeded to mix the red and blue together to make just the right amount, and just the right color of "Cranium clay". I was not at all surprised that it looked, felt, and smelled exactly like the Play-Doh I played with as a child - that's what play dough is after all. I had not anticipated the reaction of Russian teachers and students, who are around my age, when they saw, felt, and smelled this clay.

When I brought the game into the classroom, there was curiosity about the tub of clay, but no one opened it to see what it was. I put my students in teams, set up the board, and then gave them a quick rundown of the instructions. A couple rounds went by, and then someone got a "Sculptorades" card - the card that is like pictionary, but you have to sculpt with Cranium clay instead of draw. One student began reading the instructions out loud to the other team, and when they got to the word sculpt, they all lit up. Now they understood what the little tub of stuff was. My student looked at the word, took the clay out of the tub, and started sculpting. She seemed a bit confused and delighted by the texture of the clay, and after her partner guessed the word, all the students wanted to touch the clay because it was strange, new, different. So, I asked the obvious question:

"You didn't play with play dough or clay as a child?"

"We did, but it wasn't like this. It was Soviet clay."

"Soviet clay? What do you mean? What was it like?"

"It was hard and colored your hands." (It was what I call modelling clay.)

"And it didn't smell nice like this."

"Yeah, this smells like cookies."

"Well, you better not eat it. I don't think it would taste like a cookie!"

My students were almost more interested in the exotic play dough than in playing Cranium. After class, I thought maybe just these students hadn't yet been exposed to play dough, but each time someone saw me playing with the play dough in the teacher's room, the reaction was the same.

"What is that?"

"Is it food?" (perhaps because I was chewing gum)

Because the question was asked so often, it got to the point where I simply handed over a piece of the play dough as a response. Each time, the reaction was the same. Pure delight! A smile and a curious sniff - some would then hand it back, while others would play with it for a while. Most commented on how wonderful it smelled and said it reminded them of something - for me that something was Play-Doh - for them, usually vanilla (even without the suggestion from others).

Often "new" and "foreign" things are made in Russia, like this play dough, so sometimes I can't tell the difference between what is a given worldwide product and what is new and foreign. I discovered that even if something exists in a country, is easily accessible, and looks like it was made by Russians for Russians, it doesn't mean that all Russians have seen it or played with it.

My teens weren't nearly as impressed with it, so play dough worked it's way into childhood culture at least ten years ago.