Category: "Foreigner life in Russia"


June 28th, 2012

Once you arrive in Russia you have to register with the Federal Migration Service. The ‘Federal’ part probably doesn't sound odd to the reader, but it's freaky to me since that word is fairly new in the Russian lexicon, spreading widely only post-Gorbachev, roughly speaking. And although you may have to get a visa to come to the US, us gringos will want to know what's up with the registration thing? Myself, I think it's part of the tit-for-tat. We make it *very* hard for Russians to come to the US. It's not quite as hard for us Americans to come to Russia, but we first have to get an invitation, then a visa, and then we have to register once we are in Russia.

So... registration. The previous two times I've come to Kazan, my landlady and I went to FMS and did the paperwork there. Such a pain. You have to fill out things by hand. There can be no corrections; the paperwork has to be letter perfect, and I do mean letter perfect. You can't use white out to fix things. You can't scratch it out and rewrite. You can't write in pencil. So it's a grueling process, even if the form is only one double-sided page.

So yesterday we went to FMS. We took a taxi. Arrived. Quickly looking at the schedule we realized we had arrived during their lunch break, so we went to grab a cola across the street and waited an hour. Then we went back. Nobody there. Then we read the door more carefully. It turns out they don't accept the "Notification of arrival of a foreign guest" form on Wednesdays. That will teach us not to read every line. I'd feel particularly stupid, but Lena, my hostess, is an attorney, and she also made the assumptions that I made without reading every line.

Last year some of our students actually managed to process their forms at the local post office. Lena dropped me off at the one closest to home to make the inquiry. There are four windows at the post office. Numbers 1 and 3 are working. I stand in line at number 1. I get through in about 1/2 hour. Yes, they accept those forms at the post office, but the person who does it isn't here today, so come back tomorrow after 9:00 and go to window number 2. They will help you.

So today we went back to the post office at two o'clock, which is when their lunch hour ends. Window 3 is open. Window 2 is not. I figured we would have to go elsewhere, but I stood in line anyway at number 3 just in case. Wow, she will accept the form. She starts to read it. Turns out I had made an error on the form. Under the "valid time period" form there were two dates on my visa. I had figured that since this is my statement of entry, they were interested in the entry date. Wrong. They wanted the exit date. Of course, that's not directly stated anywhere. Very often Russians state that there are "sample forms" to see how to fill them out, but trying to find those forms and figure out which one applies to you is an art.

So back home I went. The form has to be filled out in duplicate. I had cleverly done it on my computer, so I went back home to reprint it. Fortunately I had enough ink in my inkjet printer. Then I went back to the post office where Lena and her husband Lyonya were waiting. We stood in line again.

Ohmigoodness. This day was a flawless example of the frustrations of Russian life. Since the person at window 1 had not shown up today, only the woman at window 3 was working. I of course was standing in line again. But every person who entered wanted to know why windows 1, 2 and 4 weren't working. They all demanded an explanation of #3, but she of course was not a supervisor and had no say in the matter. Eventually I got to the front of the line. No errors, but we had neglected to make a copy of my landlady's passport. At this stage #3 could have simply sent us away again to make the copies, but she had pity on us and made the copies herself. Grateful I am. And then we had to fill out an envelope and an inventory of documents. And even there we made an error because only one copy of the notification was to go to the FMS, not two. But that got corrected without walking away. And finally I paid my money and got my official registration.

In short, success!

I left having a great deal of sympathy for this poor, underpaid woman. These postal workers not only have to sell stamps and send packages, they also have to accept payments for gas, water and other services, receive various immigration forms, process packages to be tracked, sell toys and baby food from their windows, not to mention coloring books. For them to deal with all these things with people standing in line and people thinking they shouldn't have to stand in line is simply frustrating.

And of course all the Russians who came in felt a need to be acknowledged as individual human beings. #3 simply didn't have time to do that. She just wanted to get her work done. And then the customers start grousing among themselves, experiencing the fellowship of the powerless. That's a very odd fellowship; there's a momentary comfort, but in the end we don't increase in wisdom from it. And to my surprise a few of them had the breadth of heart to eventually turn to laughter and lighter-heartedness.

In short, God bless the postal workers of Russia. They are in a very difficult position, dealing with customers who have long been in a difficult position. Finding joy in the midst of that is a task that only the strong and the wise can fulfill.

Ten reasons why it's frustrating to talk with Russians

June 28th, 2012

I have a new language partner for the summer. He has reinforced the following impressions.

  1. They speak at machine gun fire rate. It takes a major effort for them to slow down to talk to foreigners. And if they talk at machine gun rate and are using simple words and you can't understand them, they think you are mentally deficient.
  2. They speak softly. They are brought up that way. Talking loudly is considered either gauche or egotistical. So how the hell are we supposed to understand them if they can't speak loudly enough for us to hear their words???
  3. They hardly open their mouths when they speak. This makes the problem just mentioned even worse.
  4. Entire syllables vanish when they are talking. Tebe becomes te. Govorit becomes grit. Skazat becomes skat. These ones I get nowadays, but they are tough for beginners.
  5. They have entire conversations without verbs. Oh, sure, in class we teach our students how to construct Russian sentences so that they all hang together in a sensible way. But then you find out Russians often leave 2/3 of the sentence out completely.
  6. When you are walking alongside them, they assume that you can hear their words even if their head is pointed away from you. That's not how it works, Russkis! Pull your heads out!
  7. They want to show you places that are interesting to them in Russia, but all those places have ridiculous background noise which makes it much more difficult to hear them.
  8. Sometimes Russian just doesn't make sense. For instance, otmena means cancellation, but the adjective otmenny, which would seem to be derived from it, means excellent. Huh? Where'd that come from?
  9. Stress usually isn't confusing, but sometimes is. Zdórovo means great, but zdoróvo means ‘hi.’ Vodíchka means water, but vódochka means vodka. Pisál means ‘he was writing,’ but písal means ‘he was pissing.’
  10. Word order is often not significant. ‘Anna ljubit Pavla’ means ‘Anna loves Paul.’ ‘Pavla ljubit Anna’ also means ‘Anna loves Paul.’

Morning tasks

June 30th, 2012
  • Walk to grocery store. Buy kefir, sour cream, sausage, cheese, and toilet paper.
  • Walk to market to buy khinkali (Georgian pelmeni with broth inside) and pelmeni.
  • Go to cafe and read.

Talk about a gloriously lazy day...

Unexpected joy

July 1st, 2012

I just realized today that something curious has happened with my Russian. I've begun to read for pleasure. Let me explain.

When I was in college/grad school, all the Russian I read was for my coursework. In other words, it was to read to meet some external goal. When I worked at Honeywell, I read and translated to be able to serve my colleagues. From my point of view, even the Honeywell work was a sort of extended graduate school, which, on the level of my emotions, had the purpose of improving my Russian.

What's changed now is this. The novels that I'm currently reading, I'm reading for pleasure. Not just for the purpose of improving my Russian or my professional skills. It's for the pleasure of the story. I find myself laughing at times just for the joy of it. In retrospect, I realize the these novels by Lukyanyenko plus the book «У них что-то с головой, у этих русских» (“There's something not right in their heads, those Russians”) have been the books that made the transition for me.

My mother will laugh when she reads this. She somehow made the transition in Spanish much quicker than I did in Russian.

Still, it makes me happy. Russian has somehow slipped away from being a series of tasks on my task list, to being part of my life. And weirdly, for other reasons, this is my first time in Russia when I feel like Russia itself is not on my task list, but rather it is now a place where I can live.

How very odd. I had no idea that this was a change that I lacked or needed. But today life is somehow better for it.

The trials of getting a Russian visa

July 17th, 2012

The July 5th edition of the Washington Post has a very realistic take on the difficulties of getting a Russian visa. Here is a mirror.