Sunday, January 11, 2009

I Miss Public Transportation

As you know, I firmly believe that men and women are different. Even though I think that feminism was originally a decent idea, I don’t necessarily agree with what it turned into now. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe that women are worse in any way; I just believe God created us differently and for different purposes. When the majority of men are better in some things, the majority of women are better in others. If you want to prove me wrong, show me a guy who can drive as poorly as I do.

Friday night I decided to go to one of the nearby malls – Palmer Mall. I knew the directions pretty well, but since I felt adventurous and I had a Tom-Tom GPS in my purse, I thought it would be a good idea to take a different route.

I looked up the address online and it said: 123 Palmer Park Mall, Easton, PA. I tried entering the information into my GPS, using “navigate to” option, but it didn’t recognize the address. After randomly and stubbornly clicking different buttons, I finally ran into “point of interest” option; I typed “Palmer Park Mall” and found it. Or that’s what I thought.

The drive was fine for awhile. I even listened to some Russian music and switched tracks twice. When I was getting off the highway the mall was supposedly only 3 minutes away.

The voice of John Cleese on GPS ( hubby set it up) took me left, then right; then made me merge left and take the second right. One minute left. I started getting suspicious. The streets were narrow and dark. Most of them were one-way. No traffic lights or any lights for that matter (not even in the windows of few houses I was driving by). One minute away from the mall, but no traffic, or people, or mall in my view. I kept driving until in the middle of a narrow-one-way- dark street the annoying voice said: “You have reached your destination. You may get out now and I am not going to help you carry your bags.” (it always does that). What do you mean I can get out now? I stopped the car (in the middle of the road of course) and looked at Tom-Tom. “PALMER STREET”. Somehow this little bastard took me to Palmer street, which has nothing to do with the Palmer Park mall. I panicked. WHAT DO I DO? WHERE TO GO? HOW TO GET OUT OF HERE??? Of course, at this very moment a car appeared out of nowhere and started beeping. Praying, I drove forward, then left, then right, hoping to stop again, but the car kept following me. Not sure what it was about, but after 5 minutes of driving, it finally got off my car’s butt.

I stopped (in the middle of the street again, because I can’t parallel park), called home and my smart man was able to find the mall’s address. Parkway avenue/248 intersection. Let’s try again.

Five minutes later the Tom-Tom took me out of this dark evil place. I don’t remember ever being so excited to see a traffic light. Maybe a little too excited.

“Left turn ahead” John Cleese announced. I moved to the left lane and stopped at the red light. Then something weird happened. A huge van across the street slowly started moving in my direction while blinking its head lights. HELLO? WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM, BUDDY? I STILL HAVE A RED LIGHT HERE!

Suddenly with horror, I realized that the red light was not directly in front of me. It was on the right. OH MY!!!! I AM SITTING IN THE WRONG LANE! IT IS A TWO WAY STREET!!!. I hid most of my face in my scarf (thank God it was dark) and moved to the right lane. The big van angrily beeped at me one more time and passed me. Now I was standing directly under the light, but I couldn’t see it, because I moved too far front. In a moment I saw another car behind me and its persistent beeping and flashing gave me a clue that my light turned green. GOD PLEASE HELP ME. I HOPE IT IS NOT A COP. I guess it wasn’t, because they passed me on the next block, where the road did have two lanes...

I made a few more boo-boos before I got to the mall. I stopped on a crossroad, where I though was a stop sign and confused and made angry at least two other cars. Then I slowed down sharply when Cleese told me to make a U-turn, where one was not allowed. In fear of making more mistakes, I was probably driving 20 miles per hour (with a 45 limit) and annoying I don’t know how many drivers.

Yes, I made it to the mall before it closed. And yes, it is a typical driving story for me.

Even though I suck in driving, I still don’t think it makes me (or any of my female friends, who drive similarly) worse than others. There are a number of things that God blessed me (and women in general) with, but for understandable reasons, I am not going to list them here. Driving is just not one of them and I am fine with it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Culture Shock Continues: Showers, Mops and Knobs.

During my first summer in America, I worked in a Catholic children’s camp in Wisconsin. For more than a month I was getting acquainted with some brilliant American cleaning solutions like Lysol and Kleenex and learning the advantages and disadvantages of differently shaped brooms, mops and vacuum cleaners. Considering the fact that I was working as a housekeeper, it was quite appropriate. However, American mops and brooms were the only exposure to an American culture that I had in this camp.

All the other non-counselor staff was from Europe; the directors of the camp talked to us only to give us tasks (they either thought we were dumb or they simply didn’t like us too much); kids and counselors ate at different times and at different tables and had their activities when we cleaned and cooked. It didn’t look like it would be “the best summer of my life” which the Camp Counselor USA organization, through which I came to the US, promised to us before we signed the contracts. The idea of the program was to come to America, work for free and as pay, learn the culture, see some of the country and improve our language. Right.

You can imagine my excitement when on one beautiful morning Ben, one of the American camp counselors invited my friend (she was from Kazakhstan) and I to spend a weekend with his family in their suburb home somewhere close to Green Bay. I didn’t have any problem leaving my brooms and Lysol smelling rugs behind and accepted the invitation. So did my friend.

It was my first time going to an American home and spending time with a “real” American family. For almost a month I was dreaming of such an opportunity, but when it came I started panicking. (Three years later I learned from my communication textbooks that it is called cultural apprehension) The fact that the family was Catholic added to my stress, because I wasn’t very religious (or spiritual) at the time and everything unknown was freaking me out. I didn’t know what to wear; what to expect; how to behave and which jokes not to crack. On our way to the house I was cursing myself (and my Kazakhstan friend) for coming, missing my cleaning supplies and regretting the decision to wear a long-sleeved (I was going for modest) synthetic shirt and dark-indigo jeans in 90 degree weather.

I was sweaty and exhausted when we arrived. Ben’s mom greeted us at the door. She seemed nice and her smile was sincere.

- Are you tired, girls? Would you like a drink or a shower?
Now, in my country, you are supposed to say NO to everything, because when people offer something they EXPECT you to say no. If they really want to you have it, they will ask again and then you may say yes. It’s just like “HOWAREYOU” in America. You don’t care and you know the other person doesn’t care, but you still ask and reply.

So I said:

- No, thank you.

Either they have different rules in Kazakhstan, or my friend was so desperate for a drink and a shower that she didn’t care, she said:

- Yes please.

I still don’t know if Ben’s mom was interculturally competent, or I was too stinky, but she brought us two huge glasses of water and two sets of towels.

- I’ll show you where the shower is.

I was the first one to go. I took my smelly clothes off and hopped in a shower stall.
Ok, where are the knobs? Here they are.

In Russia knobs are designed for people with average intellect. Left is for cold; right is for hot. One is blue, another is red. To turn it on, you twist it clockwise; to turn it off,- counterclockwise. Simple.

In this country you need to have at least a Bachelor’s degree in engineering to figure these things out. I twisted the left knob. Nothing happened. Twisted the right one. Nothing. I tried pulling one. Then pressing. Then pressing and pulling and the same time. Then pressing and twisting. Still nothing. I repeated all the manipulations. Tried pressing/twisting/pulling harder. The water still wasn’t coming out.

The smartest choice at that moment would have been to get out of the shower, put my stinky clothes back on and ask someone to show me how this invention works. But I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want them to think I was dumb (better smelly than dumb) and I was in the shower for more than 10 minutes already. Darn!

After pushing both knobs for the last time without any reaction from their side, I said farewell to my dream of taking a shower. With a third try turned the water in the sink on; washed my face, splashed some water on my hands and legs and put clean clothes on…

I did end up taking a shower later that evening. My friend turned out to be smarter than I was. She somehow figured out the monster by herself and generously showed me what to do.

Thankfully, my shower adventure was the only stressful experience that weekend. I fell in love with Ben’s friendly family (Ben also had a father and 4 siblings), who loved God, who sang Christian songs in evenings; who joked with us and prayed for us throughout the weekend.

Even though I wasn’t a real Christian back then, I wrote in my journal: “I haven’t seen anything like that before. There is so much love in this house, that I don’t want to leave. I want to have a family like that one day. Just like that. God, if you are there and hear me, let me have a family like that.”

And you know what? HE heard me!

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Ant Hill Cake Recipe

After writing my previous post, I started feeling guilty, so to make up for all the negativity from my previous post, I decided to post a recipe for one of my favorite Russian cakes: Ant Hill.

IMHO this is one of these “to die for” cakes. Although not terribly attractive, it is delicious and is VERY easy to make.

You need:

1 can of condensed milk for the cream

2 sticks of butter (or about 200 grams) + 1 stick for cream

2 tbsp of water

half a tsp of salt

1 tsp of baking soda +2-3 spoons of white vinegar

2 eggs

2 cups of flour

2 tbsp of sugar

walnuts or pecans or poppy seeds (all optional)

For dough
: mix 2 sticks of butter with 2 blended eggs. Add 2 spoons of sugar and 2 spoons of water. Mix soda and vinegar together. Add to the mix. Add 2 cups of flour. Mix until your dough forms small to medium crumbs. If it doesn’t, add more flour and mix again. Put crumbs on a baking sheet (I usually use 2 baking sheets) and spread them evenly. Bake for 7-10 minutes or until light brown at 375 Fahrenheit.Let them cool down a little.

(if it seems like too much, buy shortbread cookies and make small crumbs out of them;-))

For cream
: Boil a can of condensed milk for an hour - hour and a half. MAKE SURE YOU ALWAYS HAVE PLENTY OF WATER IN YOUR POT, BECAUSE OTHERWISE THE CAN CAN EXPLODE! It happened to me once and it was not pretty!!! (If you have never done it and are scared of the process, don’t boil it.)Mix it with 1 stick of soft butter. If you wish add a cup or two of chopped nuts or half a cup of dried poppy seeds.

Mix cream with the crumbs. Form a little hill or whatever you are capable of, because it is quite messy. I usually wet my hands in cold water, so all the good stuff doesn’t stick.

Put to the refrigerator for at least an hour.It always tastes better the next day though.

If you want to be fancy, you can cover it with chocolate icing

Try it. It is worth it!

Feel free to message me with any questions.

PS. This is how it is supposed to look like:

Culture SHOCK in the USA: America Through a Foreigner’s Eyes

When people hear my accent and learn that I am Russian they usually ask me two standard questions. One of them is “how much vodka can you drink?” The other one is “How do you like it here?”

I LOVE America. It is a great country and there are many things to love it for. I think that the majority of Americans are very kind and friendly people. America is not as corrupted as many other countries and if you work hard and have some intellect, you really can achieve a great deal. I don’t ever see myself going back and I just swore loyalty to this country a couple of weeks ago.

Nevertheless, there are a "few" things in this country, which I had a very hard time understanding and getting used to. I already wrote about food. Now, as I promised, I will continue…

The first thing that shocked me was the friendliness of American people. I remember arriving in JFK airport and having difficulties finding and understanding the subway. I didn’t sleep for two nights prior, due to a very long trip and a couple of rather wild farewell parties, and I looked like a bum. My English skills were lacking, but everyone I asked for directions was polite, patient and very helpful. Even people who didn’t know the answers to my questions, tried to help me figure out the map. The majority of people in my country wouldn’t be so nice and helpful. Many Russians don’t trust people, especially strangers who look like bums, so they often just ignore you, or run away from you.

American friendliness comes with smiles and to be honest it irritated me that people smiled all the time. I don’t have anything against sincere smiles, but more often than not I’ve seen insincere mechanical smiles, which meant absolutely nothing. I like when people are honest and sincere and seeing somebody showing their teeth to you, but having cold eyes, makes me feel creepy.

Also, it still makes me VERY uncomfortable when people I barely know or don’t know at all ask me how I am doing. After spending some time in America I started to realize that there is no reason to freak out when people ask you “How Are You?”. And there is no reason to tell a stranger about everything that is going on in your life. However, it still feels awkward. I personally just can’t say “Fine, thank you. How are you?”, to a stranger because firstly, I know the person doesn’t care. Secondly, if I am cranky, sad or tired I can’t say that I am fine, because it would be a lie. So, if you don't care, DO NOT ASK ME how am I doing, because you may end up listening to a 15-minute whining monologue about lack of free time, too much homework and diaper leaks.

Another big challenge for us, foreigners, is understanding American English. British English is usually taught at schools, and I think that the American version is much more simplified than British, at least when it comes to Grammar and vocabulary. But the American accent is very different and Americans tend to use much more slang, which is not found in a classic English language dictionary. Many foreigners have a hard time understanding sports-expressions. I was and still am confused when people use words such as “curveball’, “homerun”, or “Monday Morning Quarterback”.

I can’t but mention that the American obsession with sports still makes me wonder. I think I hear the words Eagles, Giants and Super Bowl almost as often as I hear the words ‘how are you?”

I tried to like and understand sports and I even went to see the Iron Pigs last season. But when in the end of the game someone as clueless as I was (also from Europe) asked me who won and which ones were the iron pigs and I didn’t know, I gave up. And I apologize for my ignorance, but I still don’t know what the Super Bowl is and what’s the big deal. Who knows, maybe I’ll get it one day.

Another big shocker for many Europeans, particularly for Eastern Europeans and Russians is the way most Americans dress. T-shirts, flip-flops, sneakers, sweats seem to be very popular. I couldn’t understand why people who could afford to dress nicely wore sweatpants and oversized t-shirts all year long. My first year in America was particularly hard. In Russia looks are more important than comfort, and it was normal for me to wear 3-inch stiletto heels, a short skirt and a dressy top to go food shopping. Here, when I was putting high heels and a skirt on, my new American acquaintances were often assuming that I was going out on a date or to a bar; or was hitting on a cashier at the store. It was almost impossible to prove that I was innocent.

I don’t have this problem anymore, since I got Americanized pretty quickly and started wearing sweatshirts, flat shoes and sometimes even sneakers.

The other thing that is difficult for me and for many other Eastern European women to get used to is feminism. I was raised believing that the man should be the head of a household; he should provide for his family; protect it and be responsible for major decisions. To me it never meant that women were worse and defective. I always believed and still believe that women and men are different, by nature,

and when men are better in, for example, crisis situations and decision making; women are generally much better in raising kids, multitasking and taking care of a house. Of course, there are exceptions, but I always thought that if men and women had certain roles in a family it would avoid confusion and conflict.

Also, in Russia, Belarus or Ukraine I was used to guys always paying for me in a restaurant or in a bar - whether it was a male friend, a boyfriend, an uncle or a brother. I know that is not always the case here. Luckily for me, my husband is old-fashioned and he not only paid for me even before we started dating and always opened the car door, but he also shared and continues to share my views on women and men.

Mindless spending
is another thing I can’t understand. Before I came here I thought that all Americans were rich and dollars were pretty much growing on trees. Later I discovered that it was just a fabricated delusion of wealth and Americans have much less money than Russians.

Credit cards are not very popular in Eastern Europe. When you buy something, you spend cash. If you have to buy something, even if it is a two thousand dollar fur coat, you actually have to count out two thousands in bills and hand it to someone. This is an important reminder of what you're really spending.

In America there's no real money: It's all just numbers on a piece of paper where you sign away your future earnings to credit card companies. It scares me that you can spend money you don't yet have.

The mindless credit card system in America encourages lifelong enslavement to the financial institutions. Trapped in hopeless credit card debt, many Americans try to spend their way to happiness, further deepening their dept. Another reason for that is probably a consumer culture, which makes you believe that in order to be respected in this society and impress your neighbors and friends you have to have a big house, the newest cell phone and one heck of a car. Different advertisements make you want things you cannot afford, so you get hooked and become a slave of your credit card company.

People say that they have to take credit, because they need a car to drive to work, and need a house to move from their parents’ house. I can understand that, but, from my observation, people usually decide that they need a much nicer car and much bigger house then they can afford. To live by consuming seems to be the chief goal and the operating value of many people. They work two jobs and long hours to pay the debt and then in the process they get into more debt, they mortgage themselves to the hilt and it becomes an endless cycle which draws them in and makes them forget how to live simple but happy lives.
So, credit cards along with food, friendliness, American English, sweatpants, flip-flops and obsession with sports were the hardest things for me to get used to in this country.

Of course, there were and are many other minor things, too. Like, for example, I often hear from Americans, including my husband that I speak too quietly. I wasn’t aware of that until I came here, so I always say to my husband it is not me who is quiet; it is he, and the Americans who are too loud.

Also, when I was pregnant people kept asking me who I was having, when I was due, and whether the baby kicked me a lot. In my country people don’t ask you these- it is considered to be too personal. Also, we don’t do baby showers in Russia. My grandmother nearly had a heart attack when I sent her pictures from my baby shower. In Russia it is a bad sign to celebrate anything until the baby is born. We have the party after the birth, which might not be the smartest choice since the parents are usually exhausted, but that’s how it always was.

I also noticed that many Americans take lots of pills and heavily rely on drugs. For some reason, antibiotics seem to be very popular even though it's been proven that more often than not you don't need them and that they cause a lot of harm. From the amount of commercials advertising drugs on TV, I started to believe that Americans are the unhealthiest nation in the world.

I also have a problem with medical doctors in this country, who push drugs on you whether you need them or not(antibiotics included)and mock all the alternative medicine and holistic approaches...

The list goes on, but I better shut up before you delete me from your blog list.

Despite of everything I said, I love this country, which is now my country also.

There is no perfect state and I am sure when Americans go to Russia or any Eastern European country, they experience a culture shock as well. Probably, even a bigger one.

If you do go there, feel free to send me a message. Let me know everything that you think sucks in Russia. And then we can laugh together on all the imperfectness of this world and on human nature, with which we just can’t help but complain.