a big beautiful mess

this crazy world

Bler de derp. So much to write about! I’ve started to have experiences that are legitimately new and completely different from anything I’ve experienced in America, and a whole bunch of them happened in a pile in the last couple of days.

Last Thursday, to start off, was the Day of the Institute, the birthday of the new Institute of Philology and Inter-Cultural Communication (Institut Filologii i Mezhkulturnoi Kommunikatsii — ИФ и МКК). Every year, there’s a concert on a Thursday, and then everyone goes out to a club around the corner to celebrate. Everyone. Students, teachers, administrators, staff, all drinking and dancing and being entertained by scantily clad dancers together. I tried to express to a few people how incredibly much this does not happen in the United States, and the response has been mostly a nonchalant “Huh, that’s weird.” They don’t seem to get how hugely not okay this would be in America. But in Russia, it was pretty cool. I had dinner beforehand with some of the other foreign teachers and then we all went to the club together. I ordered an overpriced cognac, my newly-discovered favorite liquor, and danced a bit with one of the Finnish teachers, and then got pressured by the director of the Institute into dancing more, and then went home early, around 12:30 am.

Then, the next day, I was out shopping in preparation for the Thanksgiving celebration today (about which more later), and in the grocery store, there was a stray puppy running around, trying to get people to give it food. Stray dogs are a common thing in Russia, and there are a couple I’ve become familiar with here in Arkhangelsk. They are the kind of dog that you might hitch up to a sledge if you were so inclined. They run around or just hang out, more like delinquent teenagers than anything else. They somehow have figured out how to cross the street safely. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the stray ones apart from the ones that are attached to a human, because there apparently aren’t any leash laws, and people just let their dogs wander around and trust that they will eventually go in the same direction. But anyway, the stray dogs that hang out around the intersection near the university were particularly active around midday yesterday, and there was this one little black puppy in the grocery store, among the bananas and the cabbages. It was kind of adorable and kind of sad to see it just loping around, without any clear purpose, the shoppers not paying it any mind… A girl working at the store made the mistake of patting it on the head, and then it jumped up on her white sweater, thinking it had found a source of food. In the time it took me to find what I needed, somebody kicked it out, but it was impatiently bobbing by the door to be let back in when I left.

Then, at lunchtime, I was haphazardly invited to this party in the teachers’ lounge to celebrate the recent birthday of an English teacher I’d never met. There was champagne and fruit, little sandwiches, salmon, and mayonnaise salad, and there were toasts. Russians, I have always been told, love making toasts, long, elaborate toasts, and there are rules about who should make which kind of toast when, and what should be toasted and in what order, etc., etc. But I never got to see it in action until yesterday. First, the chair of the English department toasted to her as a member of the department. Then, the director of the institute, who was a former student of this teacher, toasted to her as a teacher. Then there were toasts to her example as a woman, wife, and mother; to her as a good friend; to her warmth and kindness, her openness and understanding, her ferocity as a teacher. And each time, she stood up to accept the toast, and we all raised our little plastic cups and drank a little more of our champagne or wine or tea. At first it seemed to me somehow artificial and mechanical, but as the toasts went on, they became more and more just excuses to tell stories and share remembrances of the birthday girl, and I ended up thinking of it like this: The whole framework of the toasts gives people a forum in which to be lavish and excessive in their compliments, and her a forum in which to accept it all without seeming vain. And it’s also a way to break the ice and get people talking about her life and her accomplishments, which is what a person’s birthday should be about! So, obviously, I’ve only seen toasting in action in one set of circumstances, and I’m not an expert. But I ended up enjoying listening to the stories and once more being forced to think differently about this crazy weird place I’m living.

1 Comment

  1. 4 December 2011    

    Nice description of the “toast ritual.” I’ve never experienced it, and have always felt impatient with the one kind of traditional American toast that I know, which gets rolled out at weddings. Seems like if we really had a tradition like the one you describe, the wedding toast might turn into an elaborate, and touching (perhaps) ceremony. Of course, I hate ceremonies and rituals, but if we have to have them, then…

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