Thursday, January 18, 2018

Have you heard? There's a rumor in St Petersburg!

Not unless the rumor is that it's one of the world's most gorgeous cities, and that's just not a rumor - it's objective fact!

Hey everyone.
Immense apologies for the fact that it's been months since I wrote anything relevant to my experience on the ground here in Russia!
Of course there are other things to update, but none even remotely begin to measure up to the incredible nature of the experience that was our three-day trip to St. Petersburg.

Challenging and frustrating as other aspects of the direct exchange program between Beloit College and the Russian State University for the Humanities that I participated in may have been, one of it's hands-down most perfect aspects is that every year, my lovely advisor, Beloit Russian professor Donna Oliver, travels to Moscow to meet the students that are currently being hosted here, and accompanies us to St. Petersburg on a trip entirely payed for by our wonderful institution.

The time before and after the trip that Donna spent with us in Moscow itself - staying in our same dorm, no less! - also saw a number of cool experiences. The one that stands out the most in my memory is the dinner that we had with Beloit alumni living in the city. I had assumed for weeks prior that this meant we would be dining with some of the many amazing Russian RSUH students who have been exchange students at Beloit in past years. Instead, we met Kim and Todd, two Beloit alumni who have very similar stories: they came here as exchange students to RSUH in the early 2000s, when the partnership between our two institutions had only been active for a few years, and then wound up moving back, marrying Russians, and are now living long-term in Moscow and raising bilingual and bicultural children. Kim even works at the office of American Councils in Moscow, which is an organization that implements many of the NSLI-Y and CLS programs in Russia, as well as in other countries, and the FLEX program, which is a scholarship that brings young people from the former Soviet Union to the USA as high school exchange students (among which Kate, my first Russian friend who visited me in Moscow a few months ago).
It was really wonderful to meet such kind people to whom I could relate on so many levels of experience, interest, and passion.

The trip to St. Petersburg itself started on the 17th of October, when we set off for the train station to board our Sapsan high-speed train to the Venice of the North. Barring a few minutes of feeling dizzy and nauseous due to dehydration and sitting facing the opposite of the train's direction of movement, I was truly, pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, clean, efficient, and fast the ride was. I often enjoy getting to embark on such long stretches of voyage within a country, such as my bus ride from Bursa to Izmir in Turkey, and the program-chartered bus ride from Reykjavik to the Westfjords in Iceland, as it enables an intimate sight of the terrain, and both literal and figurative natures of the country, so I'm glad I was able to do so here too. The endless stretches of forest burning with the warm colors of mid-fall, broken up by steely streams and clusters of rustic dachas with old Jigulees parked out front did not disappoint.

Right from the beginning, as we left the train station and walked down Nevsky Prospect to a pelmeni restaurant on the way to the hotel, admiring the gentle magenta and violet hues of buildings that looked like they could have been transplanted from a Parisian street, I already knew I was in for something good.

Some highlights:

  • Our final morning in the Church on Spilled Blood, where we were treated to a dazzlingly colorful and all-encompassing splendor of Orthodox iconography;
  • All the delicious Russian and Georgian food that we enjoyed courtesy of Beloit College;
  • The half-day or so we spent in the Winter Palace at the Hermitage, which was full of absolutely beautiful and priceless artifacts from all epochs imaginable of Russian imperial history; 
  • Running into our Italian friend Jessica who lived on Brett and Qiao's floor back at RSUH randomly without planning it, proving the world is truly a cosmically tiny place;
  • Getting to take in the gorgeous sight of the city and the Neva at sunset with the lovely fall foliage to accentuate the pastel sky;
  • Getting to see the final resting place of Catherine the Great and the family of Nicholas II at the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose stories were one of the first forces that drew me to the Russian language;
  • Falling in love with one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen.

It goes without saying that my time in St. Petersburg was truly beautiful and formative within all the three months of my study abroad experience in Russia. I was able to come full circle and connect with history and culture that had first sparked my interest in the language, which I had nearly forgotten about. I was captivated by the dazzling details and colors of the architecture, and the aesthetics of all the restaurants and museums we visited. I felt much more relaxed in the noticeably slower and more European style of life present in the city compared to the perpetually hectic and fast-paced lifestyle of Moscow. And the city reached a comparable status of favoritism among the places I've fallen as madly in love with as Istanbul, Reykjavik, Rome and San Francisco. 

I could truly see myself staying more long-term in St. Petersburg if I had the chance, and now that I'm in Turku, Finland for my second semester of this junior year abroad of mine, and have the chance to sign up for a number of trips back to St. Petersburg (visa-free to boot), I hope I will have a chance to visit the lovely Venice of the North again soon. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Music that is special to me, continued: Soweto Gospel Choir and Rachel Ong

Hey guys!

So a few weeks ago, before I left home for Moscow, I wrote a post about my love for Disney music in other languages, and the bilingual a cappella group Penn Masala, and how this music has guided, inspired, and amplified my passion for learning other languages.

But when I wrote this post, I forgot to include two other musical groups that have had a very similar influential and inspirational role in the formation of these passions of mine - one is the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the other is a girl called Rachel Ong who posts original music of hers on YouTube. And today, I will share with you all some information about the groups, the story of how I first heard and fell in love with their music, and their influential roles in my life since.

When I was twelve years old, right around the time I was beginning to fall heavily in love with foreign languages and cultures, my mother took me to a Soweto Gospel Choir concert when they were performing in Ann Arbor. Their incredible vocal talent and prowess greatly impressed me and made me lose myself in the warm and joyful atmosphere of the event, and their vibrantly colorful traditional costumes, and the beautifully unfamiliar sounds of the Sotho, Zulu, and Tswana hymns they sang entranced me, bringing rhythms and expressions of spiritual fulfillment all the way from Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. We ended up buying a CD of African Spirit, the album they were performing that night, as it was performed live at the Nelson Mandela Theater in Cape Town. I remember lying in my bed late into the night in the coming weeks, listening to the songs over and over in a worn old walkman, which only closed with the help of a raggedy piece of duct tape, and making the album one of my first iTunes purchases when I received a bright red iPod nano as a Christmas present that year.

The timing of that concert and the effect it had on me was circumstantial, but greatly influential. Through that concert and the love of the group that it gave me, I enriched my musical knowledge with a truly beautiful collection of talented and unique cultural expression. And crucially, it greatly invigorated, catapulted, and accelerated my budding love of languages and cultures beyond those in which I'd grown up, and listening to it now reminds me of that formative time in my life. As such, I feel immense love and gratitude to the Soweto Gospel Choir's members and their music, and to this day I've maintained a great desire to travel to their incredible and diverse country, and hopefully see them perform live again someday.

Our second artist for today is Rachel Ong.

Once, when I was casually searching for videos on YouTube made by AFS students about their experiences, I came across one that was filmed by a Singaporean-Australian AFS exchange student to Japan named Rachel Ong, in which she filmed a collection of interviews with her fellow Australian AFSers in Japan at the airport as they were getting ready to return home at the end of their experience. There was a very beautiful song playing in the background, and I found in the end credits of the video that this song, called "Ano Koro Kimi To," meaning "That Time with You," was actually an original! I ended up watching a great many more of her videos and growing to greatly love a number of her other songs, but because of its sad but poignant lyrics, musical beauty, and the fact that I found it first, "Ano Koro Kimi To" holds a special place in my heart to this day.

Rachel's music has been greatly influential for me in two main aspects: Aside from the simple fact that I like it and listen to it, I started taking guitar lessons at Beloit my freshman year, which I had been wanting to do for quite some time, out of a desire to learn how to play Rachel's songs, and hopefully cover them someday. Secondly, though there are certainly a number of other cultural and historical motivations in addition to this one, the music has motivated and inspired me to start learning Japanese, which I intend to start taking at Beloit once I get back as a senior next year.
It's so strange and wonderful how the slightest and most circumstantial of decisions can bring us to things that we love, and life-changing decisions. I'm thankful for that, at the time, seemingly inconsequential YouTube search, for bringing me to one of my musical inspirations that has strengthened my linguistic passions too.

Thanks for tuning in, everyone. Be well.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Вещи, которые я заметил - Русская версия / Things I've noticed - Russian Edition

Hey guys!
As it's now been a few days since my one-month mark in Russia (which is crazy), for the sake of tradition, here is my post of things I've noticed in my time here so far, as those I've written in Egypt, Turkey, Iceland, and Azerbaijan.

Disclaimer: in this post I claim and aim solely to impart you all with my honest impressions and observations of what I've seen and experienced in the month I've spent living here. Keep in mind that my experiences are informed and affected by the fact that I'm living in and have so far only really seen this country's capital and largest city, and I'm largely surrounded by foreigners in much of my day to day life.

With that out of the way, let's begin!

1. In spite of this country's massive size, Russian has incredibly minimal dialectal varieties. 
It never ceases to amaze me that countries far smaller than this, like Japan, Norway, Italy, even tiny Slovenia, have immense dialectal diversity, with subtle differences in pronunciation, cadence, and vocabulary discernible even between dialects of towns scarcely ten kilometers apart, and yet the Russian language, spoken in the largest country on the face of the Earth, larger than the entire surface area of Pluto, plus being an additional official language or a widely understood lingua franca in a great many surrounding former USSR countries, has almost no such variation at all. I've come to pick up on a number of potentially contributing factors to this: For one thing, the western third or so of the country is in many ways dominant - it contains the vast majority of the population, all the largest and most influential cities, and, crucially, is overall quite monolingually Russian-speaking. Most of the rest of the country was effectively colonized by a gradual eastward expansion of the Russian Empire, so Russian as a language was usually artificially imposed in these areas and is still spoken alongside local languages (tons of them across the country, in fact). Additionally, the long history of strongly centralized governing bodies that ruled over the gargantuan country for a long time, tsarist dynasties and Soviet Union alike, paved the way for an almost universal register of educational and official use that left little room for the development of distinct dialects.

2. What it lacks in dialectal varieties, however, it makes up for in this aforementioned regional variety.
Having only seen Moscow thus far (and soon St Petersburg!), any commentary of mine on this comes solely from impressions I've gained while doing my own research, or hearing from friends or teachers that have visited such parts of the country. Many of its numerous oblasts, okrugs, and other provincial units of varying autonomy are historical homelands of unique and dynamic national minorities, all with incredibly rich histories and cultures. Much of the Russian Caucasus along the borders with Azerbaijan, encompassing regions such as Tatarstan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, which are majority-Muslim and generally speak Turkic languages. The Leningrad Oblast and Republic of Karelia, near the border with Finland, are home to numerous speakers of Karelian and other Finnish dialects, with the borders having sinuously shifted back and forth across the region over the centuries. The border region with Mongolia and the -stans of Central Asia are home to such groups as the Tuvans, famed for their skillful throat singing. The perpetually frozen northernmost regions of Siberia are the traditional homelands of the Nenets and Chukchi, with strong cultural ties to the indigenous people of the North American and Greenlandic Arctic. And the Far East even hides the bizarre and fascinating Jewish Autonomous Oblast, one of the only political units in the world possessing Yiddish as an official language.

3. Moscow boasts a surprising quantity of spunky style. 
Though it must be said that as an overgeneralized whole, Russians (at least here in this city) generally tend to put a great deal more of effort and investment in their appearance in public, and look very trendy and fashionable as a result, as this country's metropolis, Moscow still sports a great deal of more eccentric expression. People weave through the crowds of the metros and drift across crosswalks with full heads of bright purple, blue, and green hair, or even in somewhat intimidating full-on punk regalia. On one occasion I even saw a middle aged man with long hair tied back, dressed in a matching white crop top and short shorts, zoom past me on roller skates. It feels almost comforting in a way to see this spunky big city eccentrism which mirrors some of the more outlandish forms of expression that I'm used to seeing on my liberal arts college campus.

4. Little traces of communism are everywhere. 
For the most part, they're not glaringly obvious, aside from the well-known old government headquarters and such. But even twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, bits and pieces of its legacy can be found in great number if you look hard enough. Red stars topping towers of older buildings. Hammer and sickle stickers chiseled into the walls of metro stations. Old murals of collective farms and former leaders. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras. It's a fascinating touch of a large and important part of the country's history written into the cityscape.

5. Though not exceedingly diverse by American standards, there still are numerous immigrant communities. 
I'll be straight up when I say that one of my first impressions of Moscow when I got here was that it was very white. As time has gone on, and I've gotten to form a better impression of the city, I've seen that the city, on top of being a very important touristic hub that welcomes guests from all over the world, is also home to a great many immigrants, in particular from the Eastern European and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Many of them find Russia a logical and comfortable destination, given that Russian is usually widely spoken and understood in their countries, diminishing linguistic barriers, and the historical background of political and economic union and cooperation makes things easier from a bureaucratic standpoint. Many of these people, from what I can tell, are not seen as wholly foreign, due to their linguistic abilities and the shared cultural familiarity at play.

6. Stereotypes of unsmiling Russians are not (entirely) true. 
At its most generalized level, this is definitely a generational thing. I've found that, at least here in Moscow, younger Russians are generally a lot more boisterous, outgoing, and smiley, at least in public and when interacting with strangers, compared to their older compatriots. But even in the case of the older ones, it's not that they don't smile; they just seem a little more distant and closed off at first sight. But as you interact more with someone, they open up greatly after a certain level of mutual familiarity is reached. It's happened that people I've interacted with in bureaucratic offices or store settings that seemed a little cold and straight-faced at first, but who turned out to be friendlier, smiled by the end of our interaction, seemingly indicating an unspoken nod of social approval and friendliness. All in all, don't let stereotypes fool you; though perhaps more likely to maintain a poker face at first, especially if older, Russians laugh, smile, joke around, and enjoy themselves like any other group of humans.

7. For the most part, in spite of its immense size, Moscow is a pretty safe and calm city.
Of course, as with any metropolis, it pays to keep your wits about you in public spaces, particularly when crowded. But in most parts of the city, certainly in the central districts where I live and regularly move around in, serious cases of violent crime are quite rare. There's a park right across the street from my campus, where I've seen people walking their dogs or out with their children, even women jogging alone with headphones on, as late as 11:30 pm without a care. As interesting as it is to live in a city so much larger than any other I've lived in thus far, and as many unique opportunities and possibilities as that brings to my life that I'm thankful for, at times I'm very happy for that quiet and tranquility that I'm lucky enough to have so close to campus, even if I'm in the dead center of a place home to 20 million.

8. Official, efficient bureaucracy is valued. 
I'm not sure how best to word this part to get across my meaning, but this was something that I noticed even in the style of the announcements on my Aeroflot flight from New York, which sounded very, well, official. Having wrestled with the intense bureaucratic process of extending my visa (which, by the way, has now been completed successfully, and I am now no longer in a passport-less limbo land, thankfully), I can say I have witnessed the nature of the bureaucratic ins and outs that go into our presences here as Americans and foreign citizens close hand. Every step with these kinds of things is laid out in detail,  with specific steps and rules that have to be followed, and specific forms to be filled out with specific components to be completed. This meticulous rigidity dictates a great many elements of dealing with official aspects of the country.

9. There is great truth to the domestic stereotype of Moscovites always being in a hurry.  
Probably a stereotype that is applied to many cities of this size. But I think that it is truly a defining aspect of life and movement in this one. When riding the long escalators that descend into the subterranean world that is the metro, it is customary to stand to the right side to make room for people hurriedly gliding down the steps. If you are walking inside the metro tunnels, on sidewalks, or crossing the street, and are moving too slowly for the liking of the people around you, you will get passed. It's kind of a fact of life that people pass you, and that people bump into each other at times. No one really gets peeved about either of those things, they're just kind of things that happen, and then you move on. And the driving is not too insane - I mean, people on the road are quite crazy in their driving, and it's actually quite funny sometimes how people will literally lean against their horns for up to half a minute at a time if blocked by someone going to slow for their liking, mirroring the movements of their pedestrian counterparts. But without fail, even the craziest drivers will stop, or at least drastically slow down, well ahead of time to give any pedestrians passing in their path a wide birth - far more than can be said of the driving skills present in other places I've lived (*cough Azerbaijan cough cough*).

10. Visible history goes back only up to a certain point. 
Although Moscow recently celebrated its "birthday," having been founded in the year 870 (four years, incidentally, before the first Norse settlers arrived in Iceland), most of its buildings and traces of visible history don't go back much further than 1200 or so. This does make sense for a number of reasons, though. Namely the great fire that destroyed up to 75% of the city during the Napoleonic War. Nevertheless, as I've mentioned previously, it's quite beautiful and soothing to see the different historical eras intersecting in the city's architecture.

11. This is by far the city with the best transportation out of any of those I've lived in. 
And it's all thanks to the metro. I've gushed about it endlessly in some of my other posts since I got here, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it's truly remarkable how wide a scope it has. I feel like it's possible to get pretty much anywhere in the city just using the metro, as there are simply so many stations and lines, many of which are conveniently connected to each other, that there is usually a way. The longest I've ever had to travel somewhere on the metro was about forty-five minutes, and that was remarkably good time given the distance. I've never had any need to use any other kind of public transportation just because it works so well (though other options do abound in the form of buses, trolleybuses - which are basically little street trams - taxis, and so on). The metro is like a little world onto itself, a subterranean city within a city, where stations vary from being palatially ornate to sleek and minimalistic, like something out of a modern architecture magazine. Incredibly talented buskers sing and play guitars, or even foreign drums and didgeridoos, by the entrances. Overall, it's just a very interesting, convenient, and beautiful way to get around the city, luckily lacking in many of the aspects that made the public transportation in Baku, for instance, incredibly frustrating and unpleasant.

That's basically all that comes to mind for now! If I think of anything else, I'll come back and add it. I'll try to write again soon for more updates and reflections. Be well for now, everyone!

^A Russian song that has been stuck in my head constantly 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Un nuovo articolo mio in italiano - A new article of mine in Italian

Hey guys!

So a few months back, my lovely friend Sofia extended her invitation from the first article I wrote on the University of Bologna Blog's website to any others I might like to write. I submitted this one and figured I would wait to share it with you all until it was ready, published on their website, and with a link to share, but for some reason or another, it seems that they never got around to it. So since I was proud of this writing, I figured I would just go ahead and share it on this blog anyway.

As with last time, I will provide the original text in Italian, and an English translation for anyone interested who cannot read Italian.

I hope you all enjoy.

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” “THIS is what democracy looks like!” “No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA!”

Proietto questi gridi da battaglia con tutta forza, unendola con le migliaia di altre voci a mio fianco - voci afroamericane, voci gay, voci arabe, latinoamericane, ebree, musulmane, alleate. Diventano un unico strido gigantesco, motivando questa marea di umanità contro l'inserzione di un presidente sanzionato da gruppi neonazisti. Sono in centro a Chicago, partecipando alla prima manifestazione della mia vita il giorno dell’inaugurazione del quarantacinquesimo presidente degli Stati Uniti d’America, Donald J. Trump. Marciamo insieme in mezzo alla città, le autostrade attorno, e il lungolago, uniti dalla nostra nostalgia di un governo stabile e giusto, mentre i nostri urli risuonano in questa citta’ leggermente avvolta da una nebbia eterea.

“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” “Black lives matter!” “No ban, no wall!” "Donald Trump, GO AWAY! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!"

Questa volta di nuovo sto in piedi insieme a un gruppo dei miei compagni universitari, in un parco di Janesville, Wisconsin, una mezz'oretta da dove studio. Siamo in mezzo a una vasta folle di gente che doveva essere sotto i cento, ma invece sono giunti più di quattromille. Ascoltiamo le voci appassionate di una pastoressa di una chiesa cristiana locale, moglie di un immigrato indu, un'altra leader della comunità di una chiesa messicana locale dove si venera in spagnolo, e un professore iraniano di física alla University of Wisconsin Whitewater a meno di due ore di distanza, che ora bloccato si lamenta con una delicata cadenza shiraz si lamenta della la propria incapacità di tornare a casa a trovare i suoi.
Altra marcia, altri gridi di battaglia, questa volta tra gelidi venti e neve vorticosa. Mi scaldo periodicamente le mani per trovare un equilibrio tra orgogliosamente oscillare il mio cartello con su scritto “niente paura, niente odio, i profughi sono benvenuti qui” e non congelarle in questo freddo di meno sei gradi.
Quest’ultima è una manifestazione contro l’Ordine Esecutiva 13769, che proibisce ai profughi di guerra e qualsiasi cittadino iraniano, iracheno, sudanese, libico, siriano, somali, o yemenita di entrare “nel nostro paese.” In risposta ai cittadini di questi paesi che le autorità hanno cominciato a detenere quasi subito, tra cui bambini e anziani, una marea di manifestazioni così sono comparse in tutto il paese, in particolare negli aeroporti responsabili.
Assisto a questa manifestazione con in mente in particolare mia madre, un’immigrata italiana lei stessa dalla Provincia di Mantova, provando abbondante orgoglio come figlio suo e di due paesi a difendere i diritti e l’inclusione di gente che è tanto più uguale a noi di quello che ci vorrebbero far credere.

Questa purtroppo di qualche modo è diventata la nostra realtà degli Stati Uniti nel 2017. Svegliarsi alla mattina tutti i giorni significa fare un controllo dei danni, e i crimini di odio contro vari gruppi emarginati sono spaventosamente frequenti.

Anche su il mio campus, che si autopropaganda come un bastione di liberalismo nel Wisconsin rurale, due studenti, una ebrea e l’altro musulmano, si ritrovano con orripilanti e odiose minacce scritte su o sotto le porte delle loro camere. Nei giorni e le settimane seguenti, c'è  una spinta determinata verso l'unità e la solidarietà con i nostri compagni ebrei e musulmani, con spazi ed eventi speciali che vengono dedicati alle loro particolari lotte. Ma il fatto che siano necessari questi provvedimenti parla da solo.

Ho detto anche in passato che qualunque cittadino americano che non è un uomo cristiano eterosessuale di origini europee e non disabile è in vero ed imminente pericolo, e purtroppo questa amministrazione presidenziale continua a dimostrare la verità di questa idea. E va peggiorando.

Per combattere questa insidiosa ingiustizia, per proteggere le vite di chiunque soffre o sia in pericolo, dobbiamo tenere i movimenti di umanità così in vita. I cittadini che hanno qualsiasi tipo di privilegio tra queste diverse e multiforme identità devono osare a difendere chi ne abbia bisogno, o essere considerati complici nell'inserzione di un regime autocratico. Solo in unione ci potrà essere speranza.

“Tell me what democracy looks like!” “THIS is what democracy looks like!” “No Trump, no KKK, no racist USA!”

I project these battle cries with all my strength, uniting mine with the thousands of other voices around me - black voices, gay voices, Arab, Latinx, Jewish, Muslim voices; united. They become one giant cry, spurring this tide of humanity on against the insertion of a president endorsed by neo-Nazis. I'm in downtown Chicago, participating in the first protest of my life the day of the inauguration of the forty-fifth president of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. We march together in the middle of the city streets, the highways along its edges, and the lakeside, united in a nostalgia for the stable and just government we'd known that very morning, as our shouts echo through this city wrapped in a light, ethereal fog.

“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!” “Black lives matter!” “No ban, no wall!” "Donald Trump, GO AWAY! Racist, sexist, anti-gay!"

I again stand with a group of my college classmates, this time in the middle of a park in Janesville, Wisconsin, about a half hour from where we study. We are among a vast crowd of people that was predicted to be less than a hundred, and instead over four thousand of us have gathered. We listen to the impassioned speeches of the pastor of a local Christian church, the wife of a Hindu immigrant; another community leader from a Spanish-speaking church in the area; an Iranian business professor from the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, about two hours away, who in a gentle Shirazi lilt laments his inability to visit his loved ones back home.
Another march, more battle cries, this time with frigid winds and swirling snowflakes to contend with. I periodically warm my hands to strike a balance between proudly brandishing my multilingual "no hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here" sign, and avoiding losing feeling in my fingers in this 21-degree cold.
This latter one is a protest against Executive Order 13769, which forbids entry to all refugees and any Iranian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Libyan, Syrian, Somali, or Yemeni citizen into "our country." In response to the citizens of this country with origins in the aforementioned seven that the authorities began to detain almost immediately, among which children and senior citizens, a tidal wave of such protests has sprung up around the United States, particularly in the airports responsible.
I attend this protest with my mother in mind, an Italian immigrant from the Province of Mantova, who came to this country and built a life and identity for herself beautifully fusing the warmth and love from where she grew up, and the dynamic innovation and opportunities she found here. I feel abundant pride in my heart as her son and the son of two countries to defend the rights and inclusion of people that are far more like us than many would have us think.

Unfortunately, this has somehow become our reality in the United States of 2017. Waking up every day is an exercise in damage control, with hate crimes against all kinds of minority groups skyrocketing.

Even on my college campus, which defines itself as a bastion of liberalism and diversity in rural southern Wisconsin, two students, one Jewish and one Muslim, have found themselves the victims of hate crimes, with horrifying and hateful threats written on or below the doors to their rooms. In the days and weeks following, there is a determined push towards togetherness and solidarity with our Jewish and Muslim classmates, with spaces and special events dedicated to their particular struggles. But the fact that these are necessary speaks for itself.

I've said in the past that every American citizen who is not a straight, cisgender, able-bodied white man is in real and imminent danger, and sadly since it came to power the current presidential administration has only enforced this idea. And it keeps worsening.

To combat such insidious injustice, to protect the lives of all who are suffering or find themselves in danger, we must keep such movements promoting basic humanity alive. Citizens with any kind of privilege among these diverse and multifaceted identities must dare to defend who needs to be defended, or be held complicit in the rise to power of a dangerous authoritarian regime. Only in union will there be hope.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Московский жизнь / Life in Moscow

Всем привет!

As of this post, I have been in Russia for a little over two weeks. Which paradoxically like it has contained at least month's worth of sensory processing and new experiences, and yet seems to have flown by in the blink of an eye.

In a few weeks I'll publish my "things I've noticed" post about Russia (my policy is that if I'm staying in a country for more than a month, I wait until I've been there at least a month before writing such a post). For now, I will be telling you all a little more about the academic and everyday ins and outs of my life here at the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow.

The way that things have changed even just after two weeks has honestly stunned me. Though I still do occasionally find myself suffering from the homesickness that I mentioned the last time I wrote, it has subsided in an immense way compared to where I was even just a few short days ago. The greater  familiarity I've built up with the university environment and my surroundings has greatly helped in this regard, and beginning my classes, as well as switching them around a little (more on that in a minute), has given me a greater sense of routine and stability.

It's interesting, because in some ways, I feel like I understand and can move within some of the rhythms and structures of this university and my life within it as if I had been studying here all along. I know how to twist my key in my door just right so that it makes the least noise possible when I'm coming back to my room late at night, so my roommate doesn't wake up. I recognize and chat with my neighbors more and more when I run into them while cooking in the kitchen. I know to go to my Beloiter friends, Brett and Qiao's floor to shave and shower because there's a mirror and hot water up there, unlike the second floor where I live. I've reconciled myself to the somewhat bizarre ritual of signing up to do laundry every week (at least we don't have to pay for it though, which is something that has always filled my heart with irrational rage since starting college).

In other ways, it still seems...not necessarily unfamiliar anymore, but I feel as though I'm starting to identify more how it differs from the college experience that I'm used to, and what I miss about it. I chose to study in the United States, and more specifically at a small liberal arts school, because I wanted to be part of a community, a place where I could find dynamic and diverse opportunities, but not lose myself as a statistic in a giant crowd, and I definitely found that at Beloit. And miss it. I miss all my close friends, club meetings, the familiar and fun activities. And the simple, more intimate, like the starry skies that would smile down on me during my night walks across Middle College.

But with the greater comfort that I've built, and what I've overcome, even just two weeks after my arrival, I'm confident that I will build an experience in and relationship with this place that will make me miss RSUH just as much.

It's interesting as time moves on how I'm starting to gain a greater appreciation for just how particular the existence I lead here in Russia is. I live in the center of this great city, one of this country's two main beating hearts that most people from other areas look to with awe and envy, and the locals proudly praise and cherish (the other being St Petersburg), a microcosm of the world's largest country that is governed from beyond its borders. But the center of my own residence and experienced is ensconced within a bizarre pocket of foreignness nestled within the city, as I live in a dorm and attend classes with a community of mainly international students. I've noticed, however, that perhaps consciously as a result of this degree of removal from the direct experience of local culture, people attempt to compensate by making Russian the de facto lingua franca of communication within the dorms, regardless of nationality or English knowledge, resorting to English only for crucial situations or when there is otherwise a complete lack of comprehension. Something feels bizarre but satisfying about chatting with Canadians, Czechs, Serbs, Germans, Japanese, and Chinese in Russian, and I hope that we can continue to reinforce and build up each other's linguistic foundations by practicing together. Through both pre-existing friendships with former Russian exchange students to Beloit and casual happenstance of standing around in the right place at the right time during the smoking breaks between para (lessons - I don't smoke, as a clarification, but sometimes accompany my friends outside when they do to socialize), I have also been meeting and practicing with more local students as well, which is nice.

Not too much more to report in the way of big news. Last night I went to a Festival of Lights where cool light shows were projected onto the Bolshoy Theater, and then went out for pizza afterwards with Brett, Qiao, and our new Serbian friend Jelena who lives on their floor. I've dropped my language of mass media class (thankfully, as I was not enjoying it at all), and replaced it with a course called "aspects of history and civilization," which I'm extremely excited for. I'm still in a passport-less no-man's land for a few more weeks here (I mean I do have my Italian passport, but that doesn't really count since Italians also need visas here and I don't have one in it). And I'm finding it kind of crazy that the last week of September is about to start.

That's all for now.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Добро пожаловать в Россию! - Welcome to Russia!

Всем привет!

Nine days have now passed since I arrived in the so-called "Third Rome," that being Moscow. And it's already a time that I can tell will stick out distinctly and prominently in the course of my life, that has already given plenty of eventful and noteworthy memories.

I left my home in St Louis on the 1st of September, but much like I did when I left for Egypt five years ago as a high school exchange student, I traveled with my dad to his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and stayed at my grandmother's house for a couple of days, visiting with relatives, spending time with her, and going into New York two days in a row to explore the city and visit my good friend Sikander.

My East Coast visit was fantastic, as I used to go pretty often in my childhood but hadn't been back for a few years, and in particular gained a new appreciation for New York. But the truly Russian part of my journey began on the 7th of this month, when I said goodbye to my dad, and boarded an Uber to JFK to catch my direct Moscow-bound flight.
Unfortunately, my ostensibly toll-dodging driver took me on a route to the airport through Manhattan and Queens, rather than on the highway and over the Verrazano Bridge, that got me to the airport dangerously close to my flight's departure. At first the drive was rather relaxing, but as I began to realize just how close to the departure time we would arrive - forty minutes prior as a best case scenario, mind you - I began to panic. There have been few times in my life that I've felt as powerless and helpless as I did in the back of that Mazda in Queens, squirming in my seat with my anxiety soaring through the roof, thinking that I'd miss my flight for sure. But, lo and behold, we did reach the  airport with forty minutes to spare, and so I rushed through checkin and security as fast as I possibly could, only to find that by some miracle the gate was not even a minute long walk from the place where I exited the security line, the boarding line was super long, and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for forty more minutes before takeoff due to heightened air traffic.
I was rather frustrated, as I was looking forward to spending a few hours at the airport and having that be a time of nice calm introspection, especially seeing as I was about to leave the country for nine months, and even more so because I love flying out of JFK, as it's full of people from everywhere, going everywhere, and embodies everything I love about the dynamic fusion of humanity that is New York City in travel form. But given the circumstances, I was glad not to miss my flight, obviously.

The flight to Moscow was fairly uneventful. I wrote a lot in my journal and also a nice poem. I watched Enchanted in Russian to fulfill my desire to watch a Disney movie in my target language when I saw that the inflight entertainment sadly lacked Moana, and understood little. I slept for a while between meals. I watched a little documentary on the IFE about the Kaliningrad region, Russia's detached little exclave of territory situated along the Baltic. And by that point we were getting close to landing. I was in the dead center of an aisle, so I had to crane my neck from one side of the plane to the other, back and forth, to catch any kind of glimpse of my new city as I descended upon it. At first glance, with lush green patches of deciduous trees and grey high-rises visible in the distance, it didn't look drastically different from landing in some of the cities that I'm familiar with in the American Midwest. But as the wheels touched down, the Russians on board applauded thereafter, and the landing announcement came on, I knew I was in for something different. "Дамы и господар, добро пожаловать в Россию..."

As I waited in line at passport control, and the full extent of my jetlag began to truly set in, I remember thinking about how crazy it was that I was really here, seeing a human and routine side to the terms like "Russia," "Moscow," and "the Kremlin" that we toss around a lot in the States as abstract political monoliths. Now officially in the country, I took a cab with a company recommended to me by one of my Russian professors back home for their set prices. This promptly led to another insane driving experience upon arrival to mirror the one I had while trying to depart. You see, my dear friends, this taxi driver of mine tried to speed through a toll both at the edge of the Sheremetyevo Airport complex, so that he could make it through while the boom barrier was still up for the car ahead of him, and not have to pay. But his plan went somewhat awry, as I was jolted from my jetlag and disbelief-induced stupor by him crashing into the boom barrier so hard that I thought for sure it would break through the windshield. We both turned around to assess the damage, and the boom barrier was broken, bent all the way to one side. And upon seeing that, this man's response was to hurriedly turn around and speed away.

Добро пожаловать в Россию.

The rest of the ride passed comparatively uneventfully, and I met my two Beloiter friends Brett and Qiao in front of the entrance to the Russian State University for the Humanities, relieved to have some kind, familiar faces to guide me through the craziness of this arrival. Having already been in Moscow for a week prior to my arrival, the two of them were a little fresher with their Russian and familiar with the different required post-arrival rituals and procedures, so they shepherded me around to all the places necessary to register for my placement test, get my room assignment, my пропуск (an ID needed to enter the university and one's dorm), and just get situated.

From there, the memories I have of the first day honestly get blurry. I had to check out for a while and take a nap, as I was hopelessly jetlagged and sleep deprived at that point. I spent several hours in Brett and Qiao's room, talking to them, their Italian friend Michele, and some kids from Dickinson College in Virginia, which also has a direct exchange with RSUH like Beloit does, who they introduced me to.

The first couple of days have already presented some pretty great adventures. I've been to the Red Square twice, once with Qiao and an Armenian-Russian friend of his from RSUH named Tigran, where I got to admire the colorful majesty that is St Basil's Cathedral, thinking about how crazy it was to be seeing something I'd seen so many pictures of in my Russian language and culture textbooks right before my eyes. Irakli, the Georgian-Russian vice-rector of RSUH, who studied abroad at Beloit in 1998 when the partnership between our two institutions had only been active for three years, took us out and treated us to dinner to a Central Asian restaurant, and it was delicious. We managed by some miracle to navigate the unfathomable bureaucratic clusterfuck that is obtaining all the necessary documents to extend a Russian student visa in-country with little to no English assistance at any point along the way, and now our passports are in a bizarre no-man's land for a month as our visas get approved by all the necessary parties before being processed. My friend Kate, who was an exchange student in Ann Arbor five years ago, came to visit from St Petersburg, and we got to hang out and have lunch in a beautiful park while she was in town to get a Belgian visa to study abroad in Leuven this semester. Yesterday I went on a truly beautiful and restorative adventure in which Qiao and myself were led by our two friend Liuba and Alisa, who studied at Beloit last semester, with some friends of theirs and other international students from RSUH into the woods on the shores of a reservoir outside of the city by Domodedovo Airport, where we sat by the water, cooked food, played music on a guitar brought by one of their friends, and just reveled in the quiet comfort of the surrounding nature and the present company. And today Qiao, Brett, and I went out with Alisa, Tigran, and our German friend Angelina to Zaryadye Park, which just opened a few days ago, and then for a long walk around the city.

All in all, things are looking up. I have my schedule finalized now - on campus I'm taking grammar, speech practice, literature, and language of mass media, and additionally I'm taking an official Beloit course online called "Moscow in Transitions" with my Russian advisor Donna back home. I had my first day of classes, which passed fairly uneventfully. I'm in class with Brett, Qiao, and Michele, and so far have only had one full day, because our schedule is unbelievably light in comparison to what I'm used to - three days of classes a week, none of which start any earlier than 10 (like can every semester of college just be like this please??). The two professors I've had thus far, Evgeniya for grammar and Maya for speech practice, have both been very kind, patient, and skilled in their teaching.

And overall I'm just finding myself getting increasingly settled in and comfortable in Moscow. It's truly a beautiful city, with an architectural mix that I find alluring - in particular a lot of the low-hung, palatial twentieth century buildings, which are lovely baby blues, pinks, and greens, look magical when the late afternoon light shines on them. I love how the architecture and metro both kind of reflect the city's history - as far as the architecture is concerned, some buildings are very grand, ornate, and colorful, and make entire streets look as though they've been transplanted directly from Western Europe. Others are very imposing, monochromatic, symmetrical, and almost sterile-looking, clearly betraying the city's past as the beating heart of the Soviet Union. And others yet are modern as can be, freshly constructed and with immense glass facades. And the same goes for the metro as well; some carts have digital displays depicting their current position along their route, and glide effortlessly through the elaborate maze of underground tunnels in graceful silence. Others that are clearly a little more aged lack any indication of their whereabouts beyond sticker maps of their routes, and noisily bounce and clatter their way along, reminding me a lot, in fact, of the metro back in Baku.

Even just after a nine-day sojourn, this is proving to be a rewarding and informative experience. But I won't pretend even for a second that it has not come without challenges. Indeed, I was thrown off by how challenging it all was at first. Even for a person like me that's lucky and privileged enough to have experiences where I'm used to traveling and have had chances to live in a variety of different places, many in places very different from the ones I've grown up in, the beginning of this experience truly threw me for a loop. At times I'm kind of hard on myself in that regard, because I expect myself to be able to deal with pretty much anything as a result. But it's not right to think like that, because that completely ignores the diverse and multifaceted elements that go into defining any particular experience and making it unique. I'll be honest in saying that the first four or five days here, I found myself afflicted by strong culture shock, a sudden sense of panic and overwhelming over just how long I'm going to be away from my country and home, and some of the most intense and painful homesickness that I've ever experienced in my life. The object of which in particular was Beloit, as I've not been away this long since I started studying there as a freshman, consider it one of my homes, and very dearly miss a lot of close friends and people on campus, and the community and place as a whole. At times it's been so bad that I've legitimately worried about my mental health, and the pain I've felt has pushed me to the limits of what I thought I could deal with and even made me challenge basic conceptions I thought I had about who I am, and what I do.

But all in all, the important thing is that, particularly within the last few days, I'm steadily on the up and up. I feel increasingly more comfortable in my surroundings, confident in my linguistic gains, and welcomed by the community and friend groups I find myself becoming a part of, all of which work wonders on my mental health and have been healing the pain immensely.

I don't mean to scare anyone with the content of this post, I just want to be real about what I'm feeling and show that things are not always perfect, and that this in no way makes an experience like this any less valid or rewarding. I think in some of my past experiences abroad when I was younger, I bottled up and stifled a lot of the negative emotions I was feeling, because admitting to myself that I was feeling that way made me feel like a failure, and that's bullshit.

Anyway, thank you guys for keeping up with the first installment of my Russian adventures. I will be back soon enough.