Home Sweet Home

After the forty-some odd hours of travel that I discussed in my last post, my counterpart and I arrived in Sergeyevka around noon last Monday. The taxi ride from Petropavlovsk was on an empty road that plowed through the country in a perfectly straight line. It was a gray day, and  rolling miles of scrub grass dotted with birch and poplar trees reminded me of Minnesota farm country. The taxi dropped us off at the school that I’ll be working at, and after a brief tour of the building, the principal and her husband drove us to meet the head of the regional education department. I was happy to have changed into dress clothes at the train station, although there wasn’t much I could do about my bloodshot eyes, three days growth, and mustache.


The first day was a rush, full of intensity, misunderstandings, and lugging heavy bags in and out of cars. Meeting a host family is always a trip, but the geniality of my new host family made up for situational awkwardness and lack of language skills. The family has a father, mother, 22 year-old son, and 17 year-old daughter. The parents are friendly and kind; they’re always joking with each other, and both of them find the father to be hilarious. The son is living with us briefly to recover from an appendectomy before returning to work, and although we only speak in Russian, him and I get along great. Finally, the daughter is sweet, shy, and always embarrassed by her parents. She’s going to be one of my students, which feels a little strange to me, but I’m trying to roll with it and speak English with her as much as I can.


It took me about a day to figure out the layout of Sergeyevka, which roughly runs along the bank of a river. We have both a beautiful church and a beautiful mosque that look almost identical to each other, some small shops, three schools, a police station, a hospital (by far the biggest building, and strangely our of place) and a public sauna. The hospital and my house are on one end of the village, and the water reservoir and “center” of town are on the other. My house is literally as far from the village as you can get. Although Sergeyevka has a small population, it’s rather spread out, so it’s around a 45-50 min walk from my house to the center of town. That’s a little bit rough, because it definitely increases the intensity of my isolation. It seems as though our part of town was industrial in soviet times, as there are five or six  abandoned complexes behind our house. I have no idea what purposes they once served, but one of them has a huge painting of Lenin, which is pretty sweet. Sometimes I find myself thinking of my life like a James Bond movie, but I’m sure that will wear off in a month or two. Hopefully not though. Actually, it probably won’t; this has been a problem for a while.


I’m slowly easing my way into this village and its way of life, but I know that the change of pace will be a challenge for me. After growing up in cities all my life, the lack of things to do and people to see has been a little hard to adjust to. I’m not sure how this will play out later on, but I can see it either getting even harder, or easier, as I get more involved in the town. This has to do with a lot of factors, some of which are in my control and some of which are not. First of all, almost everyone my age (late teens and twenties) have moved out of Sergeyevka to look for work or to go to the Universities in bigger cities; this is out of my control. My regional manager told me that this was a great opportunity, because in her opinion, all young men are really no good…  As that was my first night in town, I didn’t have the energy to remind her that she was speaking to a no-good 22 year-old, and sometimes being up to no good is a good thing. On the other hand, I’m trying to bro it up with the local male teachers, and that seems to be going well. If that doesn’t work, I’ll probably just take up knitting and hang out with old ladies.


Only a few houses in Sergeyevka have running water, and every house is heated by a coal/wood burning stove. This lack  of central heating and running water will be a challenge to my desire to move out on my own after a year or so. I’m working on ideas to overcome these challenges, and have a few, but time will tell whether or not living on my own will be a possibility. In the mean time, I’m balancing planning and preparing for the future, with living in the moment. This mostly means that I’m preparing for the worst (cold, long, lonely, winter), and seizing upon everything pleasant that I can.


Something that’s been great is the running. Our house borders the steppe (prairie) that stretches about a half a kilometer before it hits the river.  Every day I’ve run either along the river, through the town, or straight into the empty miles of steppe. Jumping over crevices, running down river banks, and feeling the stiff November wind has been amazing and much needed. Aside from lack of hill training, it looks like this will be the perfect place to train for the Istanbul marathon next October. I’ll see if I can save up some money from my Tier 5 stipend (4/65 of us are on the lowest tier) to buy a Garmin watch so I can measure splits and distances.


Other than running, I’ve been reading War and Peace for fun (yeah, I know, fun is relative). I started it a couple days ago, and now I’m about a quarter of the way through and can’t put it down. I’m trying to slow down in order to draw it out, but to give you an idea, it’s kind of like Lord of the Rings meets Jane Austin…weird but good. And finally, like many houses in town, ours has a Russian banya (think big sauna), which has been great. I’ll admit that the whole being naked with other dudes thing took me back a bit, but once I got over that, banyas are a nice way to kick it. I love the contrast between the US, where every sauna has a sign that explicitly says no alcohol, and Kazakhstan, where one is told that one cannot not banya without beer. Anyways, hope that all is well back in Minnesota, and that those of you who partake are savoring the taste of real coffee and vegetables.

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7 Responses to Home Sweet Home

  1. Lora Koppel and the entire Stege family says:

    Oh, my, you are so brave. I would be taking up knitting. Love and miss your smiling face.

  2. Mary McCrossan says:

    Hi Collin,
    I really enjoyed reading this post! Through your descriptions and personal comments, I am able to visualize and experience your new home. I’m really happy that you are enjoying good runs. I started running when I was 22 and it has helped me get through a lot of challenging times and stress. I’m hoping you are able to establish a decent social life, but if not, I’m looking forward to receiving a hand knit scarf from you for Christmas or my birthday! I will think of you the next time I am enjoying a tasty cup of coffee!
    Keep on taking care of yourself!

  3. Rick Cousins says:

    What a delight it has been to experience your adventures through your writing. I, for one, am glad that your four years at Macalester were not for naught. But seriously, your ability to describe to your readers the contrasts of the landscape and culture as you witness them is a good hook for us. What I find especially fascinating is how much of your reactions and feelings are also included in the updates. You may find that your friends, family, and readers can offer reality checks as your challenges are revealed, and I hope that we can provide some support in this manner. Thanks for taking the time to make this blog as entertaining as you have.

  4. Keith says:

    Hi, I noticed you were reflecting about something in Minnesota. Are you from MN? I just got back from a summer long study abroad in Russia. I stayed in Moscow, Rostov, and Yaroslavl. I have lots of pictures and currently uploading them on a website because a lot of my friends in the Twin Cities wanted me to. Shoot me an email: sparrowing077@gmail.com , I would love to hear more about your experience in Russia.



    • ccousins says:

      i’m actually in kazakhstan. 100 km from the border so close to russia though

      • Keith says:

        How did your trip go. Sorry just getting back to you in 2013.

        I presented my research in a paper competition and won second place! Bomer, I was hoping for first. I’ll use the money wisely 🙂


  5. Rick Cousins says:

    Collin and All,
    I wanted to clarify my comment posted above: What I was trying to say is that the written conversation that is happening between you and your audience may have good value to you in a variety of ways. Using the phrase ‘reality check’ was, apparently, misleading. Please keep it up!

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