A Student’s Overseas Adventure:
Interview by Mark Baker
Nicole Carrasco, one of our history majors, recently made an unusual and rather peculiar decision: she decided to take a break from her B. A. to travel to Moscow and teach English as second language, while also learning Russian.
Moscow was for centuries the center of the sprawling, autocratic Russian empire, then the capital of the Soviet Union, and now of the Russian Federation. The city’s more than 10 million inhabitants are mostly Russians (84%) though also include a large number of diverse minorities, from Chinese, Vietnamese, and Chuvash, to Germans, Tatars, and Ukrainians. Most Russians (though not Petersburgians) would agree that Moscow is the historical, cultural, political, and intellectual center of Russia.
Nicole has no ethnic or familial connection to Russia or eastern Europe. She grew up speaking Spanish and English. Rather she has great intellectual inquisitiveness. As long as I have known her, she has expressed a serious curiosity about Russia and its inhabitants. In fact, she wrote her History 300 paper about the contradictions of the Bolsheviks’ attitude towards WWI and their seizure of power in 1917. In essence, she is following her intellectual curiosity and passion for adventure. Recently, I sent her a few questions over email. Her responses follow below.
MB: Why did you decide to travel to Russia to teach English? Put another way, what ever possessed you to do such a thing?
NC: Many people have asked me "Why Russia?!" Sometimes I'm not sure how to answer that. It's not as glamorous as Italy or France, but through my studies I just became fascinated by the history and culture of this place. It really is unlike any other country in the world and I find it endearing in a weird little way.
MB: When was the first time you realized you had come to live in a very different sort of country and culture? Can you describe the event?
NC: I think the first time I realized I was in a completely different place was right when I got off the plane and realized no one was smiling, and that I was the only person for 6000 miles wearing flip flops. And every second since that moment I am reminded that I am in a very different place.
MB: How is the food? What do you like? What do you hate? Are there enough McDonalds near your flat?
NC: The food is very different. Russian people seem to think it's a good idea to pickle everything and fresh vegetables aren't really in abundance here. There are some dishes that I have come to enjoy: Pelmini (beef dumplings), blini (very thin pancakes that can be filled with everything from ham and cheese to chocolate), and plof (rice pilaf with beef and carrots). But when all else fails, I can always walk into a McDonalds and order a Big Mac and fries, and it tastes exactly the same as it does at home.
MB: Is it as cold as most Americans think and if so, what are you doing to stay warm?
NC: At first I was always freezing, but now I think I'm used to it. Everyone keeps telling me that so far it's been a warm winter, but February is usually the coldest month of the year. I think I've been doing a good job staying warm. It's still a little uncomfortable, but all women (including myself now) wear a pair of tights under their jeans and it really helps. A scarf and gloves are also very necessary. All my Russian friends have been trying to convince me to invest in fur, but I just can't bring myself to do that. I love animals too much, and it doesn't matter how cold I might get; I am going to resist. But here it's so common. It's a big part of the culture and no one even for a second questions the ethics of it.
MB: What is the most unexpected experience you have had so far living in Moscow?
NC: I think the most unexpected experience is how at home I feel here. It's a huge foreign city, but I feel so comfortable after only 3 months. I have a great group of friends (Russians as well as other Americans), a great flatmate (a French woman named Emma), and have become very familiar with the city. I've also discovered what a great adventure public transportation can be...i.e. the Moscow Metro System :) I absolutely love it!
MB: If you could dispel one western misconception about Russia, Moscow, or Russians, what would it be?
NC: Most Russians have seemed to happily embrace capitalism. From my experience there aren't as many Communist hold-outs as one might think. Most people I meet think it's incredible that I am from California and always want to ask me a million questions about what it's like. And I think the general attitude is positive towards Americans.
MB: What has been the most difficult thing to do there?
NC: Right now the most difficult thing for me is dealing with the language barrier. I knew no Russian when I arrived and my Russian is still very poor. Sometimes it's hard to deal with little everyday things like going to the grocery store or asking a salesperson if they have your size in a sweater you're considering. It's very frustrating and makes me feel helpless sometimes.
I can certainly sympathize with Nicole’s frustration with the language barrier. Although I had two years of Russian language instruction and could read it fluently before I first lived in Russia, on my first extended stay there I could only infrequently understand most of what people were saying. As with all language learning, though, there is no better place to learn quickly than immersed in a society speaking that language. I predict she will soon be speaking Russian without a problem. Thanks, Nicole, for sharing some of your experiences with our readers.