Week One Host Family Recap

Russian Barbecues and Minty Tea

This past Sunday, I packed up my bags and said goodbye to the hostel where my fellow Americans and I spent our first month in Russia. Though it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would no longer be spending 24 hours with all of my amazing roommates, I still felt quite a depressing pang in my chest when I closed the door to room 304 for the final time. Within the span of two flights of stairs, I left my comfortable American-tourist bubble and ventured out into the “Real Russia” – my very own бабушка by my side.

Now, I knew that I would spend most of my first few days with my host family in a constant state of confusion, but I didn’t expect to meet a random Russian uncle that would guide me into the back of a van and drive me down a pot-hole ridden dirt road to a lake 30 min outside the city. At this point, it was 90 degrees outside, the van had no windows, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, so needless to say, I was a bit grumpy and would have rather taken a nap than swim in the lake. By the time we finally pulled over at our destination, I was ready to fall asleep on the sand, but my eager grandma and her friends pulled me onto my feet and lead me to the water.

I cautiously waded up to my ankles, the frigid water nipping at the 800 mosquito bites I’ve acquired throughout the last few weeks. When my friend’s uncle dove head first into the water, I gaped and made sure that everyone knew that I was deep enough already. Mr. Russian Uncle either didn’t understand or didn’t care, and he sent a wave crashing into my chest with the slap of his hand. Basically soaked at this point, I dunked and the headache I’d been building all day fell away.

After a few more minutes floating around in the water, the grandmas called us all to lunch– an perfect barbecue spread with fresh vegetables, sausages, and even a watermelon!

My host family helped me name everything on the table, and I promptly added those words to my notebook. After we packed up our picnic, we were back in the van and driving to my friend’s host family’s dacha.

Walking around the dacha was like a tour through an early 20th century country home. The house was small and colorful and smelled like fresh wood with only a few rooms but plenty of places to rest and relax. After the grandma’s led us through their gardens and let us taste everything they grew there, we sat down for tea, and if there’s one tradition from Russia that I’ll be packing in my suitcase, it’s mid-day tea.

I’ve never been much of a tea fan, but the minute you put fresh mint leaves and lemon wedges into your cup, English Breakfast becomes a lot less boring.

Coupled with a bowl of fresh strawberries and some sugar cookies… Mmm! Delicious.

That night, back at our apartment, I had my first nightly tea-time conversation with my host sister, half in Russian, half in English. This would become a part of our nightly routine, and probably the time my Russian improves the most every day.

The following morning, on Monday, we took the bus to class where I spent my typical five hours drilling grammar concepts, frantically writing vocab words into my notebooks, and receiving lists upon lists of homework assignments that I would later rant about in our LC meeting. After class, I got my first opportunity to roam Kirov with my host sister and a few other friends– something that I had been hoping to do since we arrived. We walked along the riverside, bought giant bottles of soda at the grocery store and went on a pancake hunt that brought us all the way across the city to a 24 hour cafeteria and a chocolate museum.

On Tuesday I was told that we were going on a “Quest” which ended up being an abandoned orphanage-themed escape room where I was reminded with every note of creepy, suspenseful music why I don’t watch horror movies. Fortunately, an intense rainstorm (which my teacher referred to as a “hurricane”) forced us to take shelter in a Vietnamese restaurant where I ate my weight in egg rolls and beef with broccoli.

Wednesday, our group wrote our dialogues in the park and toured an ice cream museum, and Thursday the van was back, this time driving my friend and I into the woods to a state park to ride horses. While we waited for our scheduled horse riding time, we took paddle boats onto the lake.

At that moment– paddling around and scaring мама утка and her ducklings with some country music– it felt like summer; the summer that I would be having if I were in the US right now.

Summer is stereotypically lazy; the time when we’re supposed to kick back and relax, but my experiences with the season have always been quite the opposite. I’m always busy, whether it be running around from rink to rink when I was younger, to pre-college programs these last few years. Although I’m happy that my Summer has always had a purpose, sometimes I wish that there was nothing on my schedule. It’s hard spending the 4th of July abroad every year and having no control over what food you eat or what activities you do. Sometimes, though, you’re just pedaling along in a lake at some state park in Kirov, listening to your favorite song on a cloudy day, and you think to yourself that at this moment, you could be anywhere in the world. No matter where you’re being dragged by your family, program coordinator, or strange Russian Host Uncle, you’ll wind up somewhere that feels remotely like home, and that can be just what you need.

The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard deck is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

Sleep Deprived on a Russian High

32 hours later…

It was a typical Tuesday morning. I crawled out of bed at 8:00, stumbled my way toward coffee, ate a banana and walked toward my car. This morning, however, I picked up more than just my backpack on my way out the door. With more than a few yelps and groans, I managed to get a 50 pound suitcase and 30 pound carry-on down the stairs and into the trunk of my car without falling flat on my face or breaking any toes. For the third time in a single year, I packed up my life and headed to the airport, not for a month of Spanish camp or a semester in France, but a six week stint in Kirov, Russia.

Fortunately, it only took a 45 minute puddle-jumper flight to get me to my orientation in New York, but this was only the first leg of what would prove to be an exhausting travel journey. When I arrived at the orientation, I knew what to expect. I met my  first group of friends at the airport, where I was instantly labeled “the one not from the Southwest”.

Our orientation was as all orientations are– a friendship factory meant to ally us before we were shipped off to our final destination, safety packets and pre-departure language guides in hand.

After two days of various seminars and history lessons, we headed to the airport to board a 10 hour red-eye to Moscow. As per usual, I didn’t sleep a wink, but I was smart enough to pack a toothbrush, cleanser, and concealer in my backpack, so I looked more, “Post-airplane Tousled” as opposed to “Exhausted, Caffeine-deprived Zombie”. From the airport we dived straight into the city, plopping down right in the center of Red Square. Seeing something that amazing surely shakes the sleep from your eyes, let me tell you that. From Red Square we headed to a small restaurant/buffet where we ate our first dose of Russian cuisine and experienced our first involuntary photo-op from a pack of confused strangers.

I supposed that Moscow would be similar to Paris, underwhelming at first and filled to the brim with tourists, but surprisingly, a group of rowdy Americans stuck out like a sore thumb. Anywhere I walk with my friends in Russia, native’s stares cling to our cameras and loud voices. It definitely didn’t help that we decided to do “morning energizers” at the park in front of the Kremlin. On the bright side, some of the guards started laughing at us and waved, so… win? Somehow, the constant walking tours and 3rd grade activities kept all of us at least partially awake, so we were able to appreciate our first day in Russia in its most recognizable city.

Flash forward 14 hours and voilá! Our train arrives in Kirov– home for the next six weeks. Sleep-deprived and somewhat wilted, I once again dragged my boulder of a suitcase up the hostel’s two flights of stairs to the suite I’ll share with three other girls, some of the best friends I’ve made so far. These suites consist of two bedrooms connected to a small, dimly lit common area with a bathroom, toilet, and a fridge– the best part of any room for every study abroad student. The rooms are adorable with window seats, armchairs, a table for tea, and two comfortable beds for those rare occasions on program when you actually get to sleep.

So, sleep.

If there is one thing that NSLI-Y lacks, it’s time to rest. Classes fill the morning hours until 1:15, excursions run until about 5, followed by culture classes, meetings with our local coordinator (also known as tea-time therapy hour), and activities with Russian peers until 10:00. As you may be able to imagine, the homework load for a language program this intense is enormous and takes about 3-4 hours to complete (with tea and rice cake breaks as needed). That puts bedtime at around 2:00 in the morning allowing for five hours of sleep on a good day. Whether it’s memorizing vocab lists for the following day’s spelling test, grammar exercises, memorizing presentations and dialogues, or reviewing the day’s lessons and looking up words you want to know, there’s always plenty of work to be done.

Because of all of this work, it’s hard to appreciate all of the excursions and activities that fill up our schedules.

I find myself dreading anything that inhibits my study time, but fortunately for my sanity, I wind up enjoying myself 90% of the time.

So far, we’ve taken walking tours around the city, visited a museum dedicated to a famous Russian heart surgeon from Kirov region, and spent a day line dancing to entertain kids at a Summer camp. With each step I take in this city, I appreciate this program ten times more. Kirov is beautiful, full of stunning landmarks, open squares, ice cream carts, and, most importantly, and Adidas store. Where else would people buy their matching track suits?

All in all, my first week in Russia has been quite an experience; I feel like I’ve been here for a month, though I know that I’ve only dipped my toes into this country’s  language and culture. I’ll keep plowing through the verb conjugations and continue adding cards to my Anki deck and continue taking as many pictures as humanly possible.

Rice cakes with peanut butter and Nutella await…