Letter Home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997) – Part 1

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

If you missed my first letter home from Moscow (August 1997), you can read it here.

Yekaterinburg, Russia, 9/27/97
Weather: Unseasonably Hot!

Dear All:

I have been in Russia for 5 weeks now, and I cannot believe the time has gone so rapidly. And the pace continues to increase steadily. This week, my university will hold a big conference with visitors from the States, and our country directors from Moscow will fly in to attend. My flat, since it’s the biggest, will be the first caravan stop for anyone flying into Yekaterinburg, and my first such guest will arrive on Monday at 3:30 a.m., so that will be a bright, early start to the week – or a late end to the weekend, depending on which approach I will take! Somehow Russian flights from West to East arrive at bizarre hours.

Hopefully the hours flying westward should be better, as the following week it will be our turn to fly several time zones west to St. Petersburg. My 4 colleagues and I will join the rest of the Russia team for our first planning retreat. It will be fun to see St. Petersburg for the first time in 10 years … and for the first time as St. Petersburg, as it was called Leningrad on my last visit!

And it will be interesting to compare notes with all the other Russia team members as to what life is like in their respective locations. We haven’t been in great contact with them, as email situations still aren’t settled.

For example, my email access right now is limited to 10 minutes a day, 4 days a week. I will have more access in the future; but like everything else here, it’s a complicated process which will drag along with seemingly no progress until suddenly and miraculously one day it will all be taken care of in a matter of minutes. Long-range plans are not standard operating procedure here, which is understandable in a country where no one is certain what lies ahead. So rather than spend a lot of time working on or toward something, they wait until something absolutely must be done and then just do it!

An example of how quickly things can get done here, quite in contrast to the old Soviet system, is an experience I had a few nights ago, when I was impressed by my downstairs neighbor’s ability to locate a plumber after hours to perform some type of pipe repair. The whole event was a rather amusing clip out of a John Cleese comedy skit, beginning with my neighbor knocking on my door at night trying to communicate the problem to me, a tedious affair for him since my knowledge of Russian language is still reeling from years of disuse. This difficulty was compounded by my neighbor doing what many people invariably do when a foreigner shows lack of comprehension: rather than speaking more slowly or searching for simpler words, my neighbor succumbed to the all too common reaction of speaking more loudly, as if an increase in volume would be the magic key to improving my comprehension – how I wish it were!

Finally, after much pointing and waving and pantomime, facilitated by my forcing simpler vocabulary into the conversation, I was able to grasp the gist of the problem: somehow, though still unknown to me, a pipe connected to my kitchen was leaking water inside the nether regions of a crawl space and was contributing to the untimely demise of my neighbor’s kitchen ceiling.

My amusement was compounded when the plumber arrived at the scene; my neighbor was trying to approach the problem as scientifically, technically and elaborately as possible; the plumber listened patiently and attentively; but in the end he simply pulled a tiny washer out of his bag, attached it to the kitchen faucet, and that apparently started some invisible and cosmic chain reaction of internal pipe adjustments, because after that the problem was apparently solved. I’m still not entirely sure what a washer in my faucet had to do with my neighbor’s ceiling, but somehow the fate of the latter was hostage to the former.

The entire time the plumber was working, he kept mumbling over and over something about houseguests causing bad luck. I was unsure whether he was referring to me as a “houseguest” of my landlord; or if he had some houseguest who was causing him grief – which might explain his prompt willingness to come out after hours to fix the pipe problem. Whatever it was, he continued to mumble about it as he left the building.

I’m still not sure exactly what transpired, but I am impressed with how quickly things get done when someone takes initiative. Under the old Soviet system, my neighbor would have despaired of getting a plumber to look at the problem within 6 months; the water leak would have continued; and my neighbor, unable to stop the problem, would have packed up and moved to a new flat!

To be continued next Sunday …