Samara crushes Belgium!

Posted by Bob on Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

Transportation is a real trip here in Samara. There is a near constant traffic jam on the main road outside our hotel. Snow removal does not seem to be a high priority in this city either. Taxis routinely have to barrel their way through the snow rutted side road to get to our hotel entrance. One quaint little custom of Russian drivers is to pull off the main road and drive right down the middle of the tram tracks when traffic is heavy. The drivers take care to avoid the trams but they don’t seem all that concerned about pedestrians. The Samaran trams are much like the light rail in Minneapolis, except that the cars were built during the Stalin era and they have no heat. But for 10 rubles (about 30 cents) it’s the best ride in town. Oh yeah, and you better get off quickly when you come to your stop because there is no messing around with stragglers. Two of our party got left on the tram when it stopped by our hotel yesterday. They got off at the next stop which gave then an extra half mile hike through the snowstorm, lugging most of the camera equipment. The coolest thing about getting around Samara is the custom of flagging down cars on the street for a ride. It’s sort of like hitch hiking only you pay the driver whatever you can negotiate. We have only done this with the help of our interpreter, Luba. If we tried this on our own, with our Russian language skills, we would probably be somewhere on our way to Siberia by now.

We spent most of yesterday at Samara University. We received a warm welcome from the dean of the history department and the vice president of the school. The welcome got even warmer when we took a break for coffee and began toasting each other with cognac. That’s what’s wrong with the American educational system. Not enough cognac at noon! The most enjoyable experience for me at the school (besides the cognac) was speaking with a classroom of about 40 Russian students. The room was about 50 degrees and all the students were wearing coats, Maybe that keeps them from falling asleep in class. I may try this technique the next time I teach. The students were quite open with us and curious about our project. They had questions about life in America such as “Does everyone have a car? Does anyone ride a bike? Do Americans read much or do they mainly watch movies?” These young Russians seemed interested in American pop culture but not enamored with it. They were sometimes critical of their own government (just as Americans are) but they also projected a real pride in their country. This has been a recurring theme in our interviews.

Last night we attended a women’s basketball game where the Samaran squad crushed the hated Belgium team (I don’t know if they are really hated, I just wanted to throw that sports page cliché in). Afterward, I had a short interview with Maria “Masha” Stepanova, one of the top women players in all of Russia. Masha is about 6’7” with long, very blonde hair. She was wearing boots, which made here even taller. She played in the WNBA in Phoenix for five years. I asked if there was anything about America she would like to bring back to Russia. She told me she liked the Grand Canyon, the American highway system, and Las Vegas, but she added that she loves her country and prefers to live in Russia. With that I thanked her and got down off my ladder to end the interview.

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