I’ve learned that when something about the way of life in Ukhta irritates me, surprises me, or otherwise requires adjustment, it’s generally a sign of an American cultural assumption/value that I wasn’t aware of.
For example: there is exactly one brand of pretzels here. No price or quality comparison to be had… if you want pretzels (well, соленые хлебные палочки), you buy these. Same deal with pasta. While I have come across three different pasta brands in the city, each store tends to carry one. This is very different from an American grocery store, where you’ll have (as a minimum) San Giorgio, Barilla, the store brand, some gluten-free brand, and probably one or two others. And while a single-brand pasta aisle isn’t bad (and makes shopping a lot easier, actually), it was surprising. In the same way it was surprising that my coworkers will often wear literally the exact same outfit every day of the week. My conclusion: I’m accustomed to variety. Variety and the power of choice are built into a lot of sectors of American life. Not so much here.
But variety and choice isn’t what I want to talk about. I want to talk about an American cultural value that is also a very personal value… an orderly and reliable schedule. For me, spontaneity is something I have to actively try to achieve, which probably defeats the idea entirely. And I never realized how well American culture catered to this need until I came to Russia.
Take this past week.
On Saturday and Sunday, there was a student ballroom dancing competition.
It’s a big deal here. Such a big deal that they wanted live music for the final round for the “adult” age category. That’s where I came in… see, the girl who was supposed to sing the song for the “Slow Waltz” category got strep throat. And then they called me.
It’s a pretty song, and it’s Russian, and I would have to sing it in front of a lot of people, and basically I was all for it but also hesitant at the same time. Especially when they started talking about what I would have to wear and suggested this monstrosity…
But the thing that was most uncomfortable about the whole deal was how impossible it was to get information about schedule. What day would I sing? What time? In what context? And where and when were the rehearsals?
I weaseled it out of them that I would sing Sunday, but beyond that… who knew? Not me. Not the vocal instructor/my friend, Ksenia, who I was mainly working with and who jumped through flaming hoops to get me there (and in something other than that red Halloween costume).
On Saturday evening it was finally revealed that I would sing in the evening slot, so sometime after 6pm. Great.
And then on Saturday at 11pm it was revealed that I had an extra rehearsal at 8:30 the next morning.
But when I got there, I stood there for 25 minutes and waited for what turned out to be 30 seconds of “rehearsal,” and then I was dismissed.
So then Sunday night rolled around, I got all dolled up (thanks for the makeup job, Vickie!), and headed over. There was a loooonnngggg opening sequence of “display numbers,” which were not for the competition, just to show off. They were pretty; some of them starred 5-year-olds in fluffy white dresses dancing with their fathers; it was nice. Here’s one…
But when in the program would I sing? And how much time would I have to switch costumes in between my song and Ksenia’s, for which I was singing backup? Unclear. To everyone, apparently. Finally they told me to get up there, and this happened…
Well, two things happened. First is, I went flat at the beginning and forgot all of the pronunciation things I’d been working on (which I never did in rehearsals, but guess I was more nervous than I thought). Second is, they cut me off in the middle of the song. …what?
And then they were like, oh, sorry, we’re going to start the Slow Waltz over, so they sent me back up to the stage where I had been standing. And I was like, okay, this is confusing, but at least I can redeem my flats! And then they started playing the music… but it wasn’t my music. It was a different slow waltz. So I just stood there and wondered what I had done and what they were doing, and I probably didn’t have a particularly pleasant expression on my face as I watched the week of costume-fittings, rehearsals, and schedule agonies fade out into a half-baked memory and a chance iPhone recording.
And all I could think was, goodness, no wonder I like plans so much.
To be fair, this is probably too much even for the Russians, but I felt pretty broken by it. Like I’d been streeeetttccchhheeeddddd all week with uncertainties, and then I couldn’t take it anymore and just snapped. Especially as someone who identifies as they Myers-Briggs type JJJJ (that’s a joke; there is no such thing), I was tormented by the thought that somebody somewhere had the information I needed to prepare myself, to plan my week, to put an appropriate amount of energy into each aspect of the preparation, etc, and just decided not to give it to me.
I’m know it isn’t that simple. Probably nobody knew, or else the person who knew didn’t realize that I needed to know.
Beginning last summer, I said that Fulbright was “an exercise in not knowing anything.” Last week was somewhat of a wakeup call: I need more training before next time I try to run a marathon.
So today I am taking the equivalent of a day off from the gym. I made myself a to-do list and some deadlines. Somehow, slowly but surely, those muscles that were ripped to shreds are going to rebuild themselves, and then maybe I’ll try again.