August 11, 2008

The Late Start to Murom

July 2, 2008

Today was the first day that didn't go according to schedule.

The major wrinkle in our day is not fodder for blog postings. Suffice it to say that we might possibly have a deportment situation on our hands and one of our participants might have an official invitation to return to Chicago a few days earlier than planned. For those of you who are thinking that we had a kamikaze teacher who decided to hijack a tram or who was detained for public exposure, get those images out of your heads. In fact, we learned today that if one travels on a humanitarian visa, one is not allowed to talk about politics. The American Home is working to sort out the situation, but the bottom line is that one of our young men was NOT on the bus with us to Murom and the collective morale on the bus is in the proverbial toilet. In a show of solidarity, we voted to stay in Vladimir until he was back at the American Home and we knew that he was - at least physically - OK.

We arrived in Murom as the evening was approaching and the military equipment we could see behind walls and the armored train Ilya Muromets took on a strange significance after the events of earlier in the day.

But, our gracious hosts - including Ilya Muromets himself - met us at the Murom Institute and welcomed us with bread, salt, and open arms. They held a small ceremony to introduce us to a few salient points of Muroms ancient history and sent us off to our new homes with our hosts. My host, Lena, is a teacher of English at the Murom Institute. She lives on the ninth floor of a Kruschev-era apartment building with her husband, Yura; her daughter, Lilya; and the real ruler of the roost - Persik, the cat. The view from Lena's kitchen and great room looks onto the Oka River and the enormous new suspension bridge that is being built across the river. The view from the bedroom that I occupied is over a patchwork quilt of kitchen gardens. The land used to be a communal farm and is now divided into personal plots filled with produce to sustain one's family through the long winters or to sell for a few extra rubles.

The sight from the balcomy is quite breathtaking - it's really beautiful aesthetically. The impression is bittersweet though, tinged with a sadness born from the realization that these few rows of carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers aren't about enjoying the hobby of gardening. The painstaking care of these gardens comes from the survival mechanism that is somehow ingrained in the Russian psyche in a society that has almost no middle class. One of the very obvious differences between the Russia of 1992 and 1994 and that of 2008 is that almost everything exists in Russia today, but much isn't even remotely affordable for the majority of Russians. Case in point: FOOD. At least in the supermarkets, food costs about as much as it does in the United States. I often balk at the price of groceries in Chicago on a decent salary for someone in my administrative position - I don't quite know how a teacher, who might make as little as the equivalent of $125 per month, can survive!

This has been a day in which lots of comparisons between Russia and the United States have been raised, but the final vision for me is of the same serene moon that will rise several hours from now in Chicago and I am happy to end the day with something universal and beautiful.

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