Sweet American Ground….

December 31st, 2009

First thing’s first: Aren’t we all amazed at my ability to post a blog two weeks after I said I would? Oops. Turns out being back in the US combined with a good bit of my extended family being at my house was a little more overwhelming than I thought it would be. Writing this two weeks later actually turns out to be a bit better, as I now have a little bit of perspective on reverse culture shock (pretty sure a blog two weeks earlier would have just focused on how jet-lagged I was and that I kept getting up at 5 am).
The bus ride to the airport was…. eventful. We left Vladimir between 4:30 am and 5:00 am in the morning (don’t ask me, that’s too early for me to function) in about -30 degrees Celsius. In a bus with a mediocre heating system at best. It was cold. Very cold.
In our almost 5 hour journey to Moscow, we had one pit stop. What did our teachers do in this -30 weather? They bought ice cream. I’m still trying to recover from the shock of that one….
The most interesting part of our journey to the airport; however, was getting the bus to the airport itself. The drop-off zone for this airport was not the most organized I’ve seen in my life, on top of very pushy traffic. The bus had to go through a gate with a mechanical arm in order to get that parking ticket that they give out at every airport. Our bus driver decides to go through the gate to the far right…. Immediately before the road veered sharply left (not a turn I could envision our bus doing comfortably in even the most ideal of circumstances). And of course, there is a car parked, sans driver, right in our way.
So our bus driver manages to pull the bus forward only about halfway through the gate and begins to lay on the horn…. To no avail. All the while the mechanical arm, desperate to do it’s job, keeps hitting the roof of the bus as it’s trying to go down. After a few moments, our bus driver exits the bus to go hail a policeman (who has been watching the escapade from a distance). Keep in mind it’s -30 plus windchill, this man is BUNDLED UP. The policeman walks over to the obstructing vehicle, looks at it… And that’s it. He continues to look, to the left, to the right behind him… As if this would magically fix the problem and appease both our bus driver and the line of angry traffic stuck behind our bus.
Finally the owner of the offending vehicle comes running out and quickly drives away before anyone can do anything about his parking offense. Our slightly appeased driver maneuvers the bus so we are now parallel to the airport, but decides that pulling up along the curb to drop us off would be all to easy. So he decides to pull a u-turn in order to drop us off on the other side of the street. So we can lug our stuff across eight lanes of already irritated Moscow traffic.
In order to do this; however, our bus driver had to pull the bus through a rather tight hole in the barrier separating the directions of traffic. Ever the go-getter, he proceeds to pull the bus across FOUR LANES of angry traffic, only to realize he can’t quite pull the bus through the barrier. So, he puts the bus in park, exits the bus, makes an angry gesture at the four lanes of honking traffic he has blocked and proceeds to move the barrier himself. Having satisfied himself that there is now enough room for the bus to pass through, he makes more gestures at the traffic, gets back on, and drives through, the entire time muttering, “I hate the airport… I HATE the airport.” Does he move the barrier back once we’re parked? No.
Other than that, our journey home was relatively uneventful (nothing like 42 hours of travel to make you appreciate being home in sweet, sweet California).
I had initially thought that being home wouldn’t be a challenge at all, but the first week especially was pretty tough. Not that it’s a surprise, but I’m still amazed at the amount we consume. My first day here my father took me to the local drugstore, I found my feet firmly glued to the entrance as I just stared at everything. Did you know, in this small drugstore, there were thirty varieties of dish soap? Four different colors, different flavors, grease-cutting, moisturizing…. All this for dish soap? Wow. That being said, I do enjoy having variety back in my life.
I’m finding that I’ve become very pushy on the street (I think it dawned on me at the museum the other day when I found myself trying to navigate through a group of sugar-happy six year olds). People here are also so much friendlier on the street, I’ve had random strangers say Merry Christmas (that may just be my strange town)!
All in all, I am very happy to go home, but I wouldn’t trade that semester for the world. That being said, if you were to offer me a plane ticket back to Russia, I wouldn’t just jump at the opportunity, I’d probably have to think about it for a little bit. And don’t worry Russia, I’ll be back.
I hope you all are enjoying the holidays, and Happy Almost New Year!

We will close to a small tribute to my dear, dear Vladimir….

The Golden GatesMind you this was taken at a point in time where the hood to my coat had frozen…..  Makes the Golden Gates look good though.

Assumption Cathedral and its Christmas Tree

Babushkas, Banks, and Bazookas

December 6th, 2009

Murom ParkThis will be my last blog before I get back to the US (expect one the weekend of the 20th). And let me preface this sum-up blog with one thing: this is my experience, this is what I have taken from this country. Of course you can’t judge the entire country based on what I have seen, better to do it yourself. So I am sorry if any of you disagree with me, but please respect that this is my experience, my Russia.
Our time in Russia is rapidly winding down, and the frost has finally set in. This winter has been relatively mild (much to the Russia’s dismay). I must profess that I will be happy to have endoured only one week of true Russian winter. Being in California will probably be tough, you know, all that warmer weather. And sun. Darn.
All this being said it’s going to be hard to leave now that I’ve finally adjusted.
It won’t be hard to leave before I get into trouble with the police. As I’ve said, I generally attract a strange amount of attention (which included, last week at the market, being picked up and carried to a man’s fruit stand), and ergo walk a relatively straight line when it comes to the Russian law. My friends; however, do not. After her birthday party, a friend was walking home, and jaywalked, and was consequently stopped by a police car.
Any interaction with the police in Russia generally spells trouble. We have been taught to cross the street when we see a policeman walking towards us, if this helps to give you any idea. The police in Vladimir are, on a whole, pretty decent (especially compared to Moscow), and my friend was stopped by one of the cleanest cops in all of Vladimir. It is traditional in Russia for the police to fine you on the spot and not record it, win-win for everyone. The police get a little pocket money, and said criminal pays less than if it was an official fine. This policeman; however, took the time to write out a ticket for jaywalking. He took my friend’s passport (never, ever, ever actually give the police your passport), and sat for five minutes filling out a double-sided 8” by 11” form. As it turned out, he actually filled out a traffic violation, as they don’t have fine forms for jay walking.
Ticket in hand, my friend had to figure out how to pay said fine, which apparently implied going to the bank. Any bank. Off we went (I do my best to provide moral support, power in numbers!) to, of course, the busiest bank we could find. One of the tellers kindly offered to help us, and took us over to an ATM and proceeded to try to get to the correct screen to help my friend pay said fine. After a few minutes of fussing, she turned to my friend and told her to get in line at a particular window. My ever patient friend did this, and after waiting for ten minutes, was directed back to the ATM. And then back to the window. And then back to the ATM. The third time at the ATM another clerk helped us, and after we explained the situation, placed us 2nd in line at the cashier’s window.
She cut five people, two babushkas, to do this. Mistake number one. One babushka loudly started to complain, and told the babushka in front of her to cut in front of us. Babushka number two, a very large woman, proceeded to do so. And by no stretch of the imagination did babushka number two do so gracefully, she sharpened her elbows and managed to show my friend a few feet. And no, I am not exaggerating. This of course, used up all of our patience, having been at the bank for close to an hour. We proceeded to (not politely) eJoin the Army!  xplain the situation, and managed to start a small quarrel with said woman, until the man actually at the till yelled at our new friend, saying he had heard the entire exchange and we were next in line. The situation quieted down, and once my blood had cooled down I thanked him.
We related the story to my host mother, who laughed at my friend for even paying the fine, and taught me a new word she says she uses for Russian babushkas: “brutish,” or “хамский” (ham-skii). A thoroughly Russian experience, I’m all the more thankful that we don’t pay our fines at the bank. And that I will probably never be shoved in line after I have two feet planted stateside. But I will miss traveling.
A friend and I went to a little town called Murom yesterday, said to be one of the prettiest towns in Russia. And yes, it was very cute, but Murom left a foul taste in my mouth. Getting to Murom (closer than Moscow to Vladimir) took three hours. I find it extremely amusing that what would have been a two-hour round trip in the US took six hours. And it will only take me ten to get half-way across the world next Tuesday. That; however, only amused the two of us.
Murom is a historic town with a number of still working monasteries pushing five-hundred years old. Before you make it to these monasteries (all grouped together near the river) you pass an arms manufacturer, complete with tanks littered across the yard. The city is littered with advertisements encouraging young men to sign a contract with the Russian military. The same Russian military with a startlingly high suicide rate, outrageous hazing, and a altogether a pretty outrageous history (hence the birth of the Mother’s of Soldiers political party within the last few years in Russia). All this being said, conditions in the army are slowly improving. What most upset me about this advertisements was the fact that each one had a young blonde man posing with a very high powered weapon, ranging from a bazooka to a grenade launcher. Seeing these advertisements on every corner was just unsettling.
The public safety announcements at the bus station; however, blew everything that’s ever upset me in Russia out of the water. The series of signs were titled, “For Passenger Information,” and regarded terrorist attacks. The series began with a series of pictures, a crowded stadium, a crowded public street, a bus, and a school, and various other situations. “A terrorist attack can happen anywhere.” I cannot dispute that fact, but already, 1/3 through the poster series, the Russian government was clearly encouraging its people to live in fear of a terrorist attack.
Then the poster proceeded to present pictures of potential terrorist, all dark haired and implied to be Muslim. The series showed these terrorists taking hostages (of course all light-haired women and children), to finally being arrested. There was one picture; however, that I will probably never forget. It Murom churchwas a portrait of a potential terrorist, a Muslim woman. This woman’s face was completely veiled, but aside from that she was completely nude. And not tastefully nude. From the waste up she was completely exposed, the only thing covering here were the bombs strapped to her hips. I’ll let you make your own opinions about this situation, but I’m sure you can understand it upset my Californian self very, very much.
Murom was extremely cold, and the wind from the river did not help. It made all these old churches and monasteries all the more beautiful, if only because they were warm and the bright colors served as a wonderful contrast to the grey Russian sky. In most Russian churches, as a woman, your head must be covered and you must be wearing a skirt (as the sign said, women are not to be in men’s clothing). Luckily we anticipated this, and while we only went inside two churches, I’m glad we did. My friend and I generally try to avoid going into working churches unless tourists are invited. We’ve always felt like we’re interrupting someone’s religious practices.
And of course we did, we managed to stumble (or as my host-mother likes to say, “We fell”) into some church on the river ten minutes from the nearest paved road. Freezing despite all our layers, we decided to go in. Not only was choir practice going on (which was simply amazing), but the priest was also performing a baptism. The baby in question was not extremely happy about this process, but the choir always managed to drown the baby out. And the priest consequently managed to chant above the choir. This makes the entire scene sound entirely too loud, but on a whole it was pretty magical to watch this process.
This next part I’ve spent a long time thinking on, and I still don’t think I can effectively sum up how I feel about Russia. I will be very sad to leave, and I am coming back. There is something very magical about this country that just draws you to it. All that being said, I will be happy if I never see another alcoholic again, and can drink water from the tap (I drew myself a bath yesterday, you know, because my host family does, and discovered the water was so yellow I couldn’t see my hand at the bottom of the tub… I didn’t take a shower). Russia is a country of polar opposites, my host mother herself told me that in Russia, things can be simultaneously wonderful and unbearable.
The best comparison I can make about Russia, to help you understand how I feel, is that Russia will break your heart mercilessly every day. Only something very, very special can break your heart that many times.

On that corny, corny note, goodbye till I’m stateside! Expect a blog around the 20th (depending on how my jet lag goes). And for this week’s artist check out the group БИ-2 (that’s B2, like the plane), it’s all I’ve been listening to!

Post-Script: Been sitting here for an hour and the pictures still haven’t loaded. Being 3 pm in Vladimir, Russia, it’s dark. I’m going to head home, and I’ll upload the pictures later! Sorry guys!
I do not know what I am going to do with all that high speed internet that’s waiting for me when I get home… Wow.

Jumping train tracks and surviving… Does that mean Russian Fate is smiling on us?

November 28th, 2009

suzdal-sunsetShort preamble: Sorry this blog is so late! It’s sat around for over a week; however, life has intervened. Between the internet not working (do I love you Russia, why yes), and sadly having to move host families, it’s just been impossible to post. So I apologize and there will be another post next week! Hope you all had a great Turkey Day (ours included carrot soufflé, grilled cheese, and eggplant parmesan), until next week!

I’d like to start out with a shout out to Stephanie and Olga, whom I spent a fantastic weekend with in Moscow. And what a weekend it was…
I have a friend who was just awarded a Pickering Fellowship, so the government is paying for her school and giving her a job as a Foreign Services Officer (I honestly couldn’t think of a better person for the job). She is currently going through her security clearance, which meant she had an appointment at the Embassy in Moscow. You know, the Embassy no one can find. The poor girl spent over an hour looking for the Embassy (and of course all the phone numbers she was given did not work). Finally she managed to come upon the back of the Embassy and managed to explain to the guards (who spoke no English) that she had an appointment. God help you if you ever have to get to the Embassy in Moscow quickly (what should have been a 15 minute trip turned into over an hour).
Meanwhile I spent my free time at the Russian Museum of History at Red Square. The Museum is organized chronologically, with some very interesting artifacts from the very beginning of Russian history. The collection makes it harder to place Russia in Europe or Asia. Many of the artifacts could have easily been in a British or German museum, and many more could have been easily been mistaken for those in Asia. It seems from the very beginning of time Russia has not been able to identify itself solely with the West or the East.
The next morning we made our way to Lenin’s Mausoleum… Boy was that an experience, starting with the line to get into the Mausoleum. Just within the line to alone there were probably ten different nationalities, and of course the other American zoned in on us immediately. As we were being prodded along by the police through the line, he made a fantastic comparison: “Geez, getting in here is like getting in line for Space Mountain.” And yes, it was exactly like standing in line for Space Mountain.
Once we finally made it through security (which included metal detectors and a friendly frisk thanks to my large collection of kopeks). Going through the memorial gardens leading up to the Mausoleum, and the Mausoleum itself, was yet another one of those Russian experiences that left me more confused afterwards than I had been going in. You are rushed through the gardens preceding the Mausoleum, and then comes the pit. The Mausoleum is very somber and poorly lit, I had the distinct impression I was walking into a dark pit. The guards are, like most Russian guards at monuments, very somber and slightly intimidating (as they’re meant to be). The only time I saw any of the guards move was a) when I was asked to remove my hands from my coat pockets, and b) when they told you to keep moving.
We were lucky enough to spend all of ten seconds in the same room as Lenin (fine with me, that was one creepy experience). He is poorly lit, besides some red light that just makes him look waxy and pink (gross). Lenin; however, was not the most interesting part of the Mausoleum, the cemetery in the Kremlin wall following the Mausoleum was far more interesting.
Various Russian heads-of-state and other important Communists are buried here, from Kruschev to Stalin and other Communists most Americans have never heard of. Every grave has (red) flowers on it, some more than others. Most people breeze right through the cemetery (I don’t feel comfortable calling it this, it didn’t quite feel like a cemetery), and miss many of the graves. My friend and I found Stalin (surprise) most interesting. Stalin was at one point housed in the Mausoleum, but moved into the cemetery next to the Kremlin wall shortly after. His bust is by no means extraordinary unless you take the time to look at it, and you would notice that, unlike all the other busts, his eyes are in fact hollowed out. This gives him a look so disconcerting that it reveals the creepiness that was seeing the dead man that should have decomposed already. It also tells you quite a bit about how the Russians felt about Stalin in the years following his death.
The Kremlin aside, we managed to make our way to the tourist market in Moscow (which is huge, touristy, and I highly recommend). I did my best to torture all the vendors who greeted me in English by refusing to show any interest in their products unless they responded to my Russian greeting in Russian. The majority of them had played this game before with students and happily obliged me. We were lucky enough to stumble into a dark corner of the market and meet one of the artists, who sold my friend a beautiful piece. This woman complimented us on our Russian (always a plus) and asked if we could do her a favor.
This woman has a daughter living in Moscow, who has read (like many of the Russians I interact with) that the American government is forcing all its citizens to get a vaccine against swine flu. The artist said her daughter was considering leaving Moscow until the epidemic was over, and asked us to email her daughter and explain that the government was not forcing everyone to get vaccines (the implication was if they didn’t get the vaccine, they would die). We agreed, but I’m only 90% sure Obama isn’t forcing all of the US to get a vaccine (such is our access to news here).
At last came the time to buy train tickets back to Vladimir, which took over an hour. The lines at train stations typically move very slowly, but they moved especially slow at 4:00 pm on the 21st of November because, as it turned out, we had arrived right when the entire station started its fifteen minute break. And thus people continued to line up; luckily the Russians were none the more pleased with this than we were. Tickets bought, we decided to sit in the station as we only had a little over an hour until our train left. Twenty minutes until departure we set off to find our train, confident that it was at platform six. We make our way to platform six, where it says “Vladimir Express.” I hand my ticket to the conductor, who tells me I have the wrong way and points me in the general direction of twenty other trains.
Getting frantic, we walk away and I ask some Russians I pass if they know what platform I need, and they point me right back to platform six. I approach a different conductor, who tells us to hurry back to the station (600 yards away) to the platforms that feed from the station. Seven minutes left, we take off at a dead sprint to this particular group of platforms, only to discover we turned too early and hit a fence. We saw a number of young men jumping the tracks (a five foot drop), and I momentarily forgot that I am indeed not a man, and jumped down onto the tracks.
My much wiser friend decided to book it backwards to make it through the station back to the platform, at the very moment I discovered that I could not make onto the other side of the platform (something about it coming up to my nose). Panicked, I asked two young Russian men on the platform if they could help me, and very quickly found myself being pulled up onto the platform. This being said, I am by no means a light person and need to give a quick shout-out to this two means: thanks for not attacking me and also not leaving me to get hit by a train.
By making this stupid move, I had essentially stranded my friend, who could not get into the group of platforms we needed without her ticket. Which was in my purse. So she stood at the gates as people scanned their tickets to open the automatic doors, until, by chance, someone scanned their ticket on the wrong door and opened the one she was standing in front of (with, I imagine, the look of a stunned deer on her face). The guard on the opposite side, who could clearly tell she had no ticket, looked at her like she was the world’s most honest idiot, and said, “Well, what are you waiting for, go on!”
Russian fate was smiling upon us, as we found each other only by means of collision, and ran past trains asking if it was the Vladimir Express. The Vladimir Express was, of course, the very last train. We hopped on the first car (ours was the ninth) only seconds before the train departed. I’m going to chalk that one up as a win.
After we had found our seats and caught our breath, my friend turned to me and asked, “Katie, what would have happened if you weren’t beautiful and I weren’t athletic?” Well, dear, I wouldn’t have been helped up (only to be later hit by a train) and you wouldn’t have made it to the platform. And that, ladies and gentleman, is Russian fate at its very finest.
No songs this week, but check out the previous blog (film recommendations).

chess-at-the-market

Some of the Best of Russian Cinema

November 28th, 2009

I thought I’d share what I consider to be some of the best (and most insightful) Russian films I’ve seen. I’ve put some careful thought into this list, and I highly recommend that you see every single one you can manage, especially if you have even the slightest interest in Russian language and culture. Please forgive me if any of the information I give you isn’t correct (mostly release dates), I don’t own many of these films and am just speculating (and no, the internet here is by no means fast enough to google each film).

Двенадцать (Twelve)-While I’ve already suggested this film to you, it’s worth recommending a second time. Made by Nikita Mikhailkov, the film is based on the American film Twelve Angry Men. The story revolves around a jury deciding the fate of a young Chechen accused of killing his adoptive father (an officer in the Russian army). All twelve jurors represent various facets of Russian society, and have incredible stories to share. It’s a fantastic commentary on racism in Russia, and extremely well done. All the actors are fantastic, and the cinematography (especially considering it was filmed in a gym) is spectacular. I apologize for not saying more about this film; however, I’m afraid I’d give too much away.

Franz and Paulina: Released in 2006, this film received a Golden Lion award in addition to a number of others. Based in Belorussia during WWII, it revolves around a young Belorussian woman and a member of the German SS. In short, he saves her life (because he has a heart and he loves her, duh), and the rest of the film is spent with her trying to protect him from the Russians. In order to truly appreciate the conflict in this film, you must first understand the immense conflict among the Russians during WWII. Many defected to the Nazis, many more simply felt it best not to fight. Partisans and soldiers of the Red Army alike had no problem shooting defectors and even those who chose simply not to partake in the war. Towards the end of the film there is an excellent example of the conflict within the Red Army itself at the time. It is an absolutely fantastic film, and will help you understand a lot more about Russia during WWII. This being said, have something fun planned for after the film because it is without question the most heartbreaking film I have ever, ever seen. And Russian films are no cake walk. Don’t let this scare you off, it’s an absolutely amazing film, of a type more people in the world need to see in order to understand exactly how horrible WWII was.

Плюс Один (Plus One): A very recent film (2008), this film will actually make you laugh! Based in present day Moscow, it’s a very ridiculous film about a Russian translator of English hired to help a rather goofy British puppeteer. The two are absolute polar opposites, the translator is a typical, very serious Russian woman, while the puppeteer is ridiculous to the extreme. They represent, respectively, Russia and the West. It’s a silly and entertaining film, done by a very well loved director (who also did Питер ФМ).

Русалка (Mermaid): Based (loosely) on the story Mermaid, it starts out in Russian port town. It’s based around the life of a girl who aspires to be a ballerina. Through a series of events, she discovers she has the ability to influence events with her mind, and by this token ends up in Moscow. The film follows her in Moscow as she grows up, falls in love, and generally just learns about life. There’s not really a whole lot more I can say about this story without giving too much away, aside from prepare yourself for the end. And I highly recommend it.

Ирония Судбы (The Irony of Fate): A classic Russian movie, it’s simply not the holidays in Russia without seeing the movie Irony of Fate. This movie portrays Russian fate at its very best, a Russian man gets drunk with his friends and they put him on a plane. Where does he end up? In an apartment that looks exactly like his own (an old Soviet joke, all apartments look the same). Hilarity and a rather cute love story ensue as Russian fate has its way in the movie.

Honorable Mentions: The Day Watch Series (Night Watch and Day Watch). Based on a popular series of Russian fantasy books, the Night Watch and Day Watch movies represent Russian pop culture at its best, and the first Russian film based off of Hollywood (many more continue to follow, these films truly were the beginning of a new era for Russian film). The series isn’t finished (there is at least one movie yet to be made, possibly two), and I highly recommend reading the books (I know they’re printed in English, I’m currently torturing myself by reading them in Russian). Andrei Rublev (or any other Tarkovsky film, such as Stalker): based around the life of the famous Russian artist Andrei Rublev, it’s simply an interesting film. Tarkovsky films are not easy to wade through, but they’re a hallmark of Russian cinema.

In Russia, Alcoholism is a Fulltime Job

November 6th, 2009

Russia has its first Disney movie! Hurray (or Ура for you Russians in the audience)! It’s called Book of Masters, or Книга Мастеров. It is a huge step for the Russians for Disney to recognize them as significant enough to make a film in their language. It’s a very RuMonument to Ёssian story (watch it if you can, I’m sure it’s on youtube already), and it includes a number of racial stereotypes, only one of which I’ll share with you. All the heroes and villains in the story get a happy ending, save for one: the Caucasian fellow (and by Caucasian I mean looks as if he is from Georgia, Chechnya, etc). He does start out as a villain, but in true Disney fashion redeems himself and helps the heroes in the end. What does he get? He’s turned to stone. And he stays that way. How about the witch who spends the whole movie terrorizing people, killing their fathers, and in no way redeems herself? She, literally, prances off into what looks like the set from Wizard of Oz immediately after she forgot she was trying to destroy the world. But the Caucasian soldier is turned to stone. Where’s the justice in that Disney?
On a light note, I had a very interesting conversation with my babushka the other day. I asked her if our (very loud, constantly drunk and sometimes violent) neighbor was an alcoholic (the obvious answer being YES). But of course that was not her answer. When she said no I asked, “But, I thought you said he is always drunk, that he is always drunk.” Her reply: “Why yes, yes, he is. But he works. You can’t be an alcoholic if you work.” Apparently in Russia alcoholism is a fulltime occupation. It’s a wonder more of America’s frat boys haven’t found their way here.
On an even lighter note, I also learned how to say “to kill hope” in Russia. Убыть надежду (Oo-beet nAh-dezh-doo). Careful, if you capitalize the Н in Надежда it means you killed a person (named Надежда). Don’t do that, the Russians will think you’re weird. And you’ll hear it more than you would think.
In other news, my personal Battle of the Bulge continues. Russians take a great amount of delight in feeding their guests. Silly me, the summer before I came I almost cut carbs out of my diet entirely. And what do I get here? Potatoes and bread. And what has this done? Let’s just say my metabolism does not take kindly to the Russian diet. So I have been having a small war with both my babushka and my host mother over how much I will eat, and I am beginning to win (it’s the small victories). How do I know this? First of all, the size of the portions (thank God) have decreased, and magically my host mother has started to read an article on how fruit is good for your health.
I think the turning point for my host mother (babushka not so much) was when babushka was yelling at me for not eating enough and I replied, “But when I get back they will have to roll me off the plane! Like a barrel!” For those of you learning Russian: it’s amazing when you get the opportunity to practice your verbs of motion, to roll, or катать, for example. Lucky the portions have decreased and I am no longer eating enough for a small army.
This has also included turning into a gym-rat of sorts. Women here do not go to the gym, and when they do it’s to pick up men, so they’re always in these strange cut off shirts and use the mirrors to redo their makeup. And then there’s me and my friends. I show up in a baggy t-shirt and men’s gym shorts. I run, bike, lift weights, all that good stuff. The first few times the men at the gym just stared. Now they’re starting to get brave and talk to us. Which is creepy, only because every single one of these men is, in all seriousness, built like Hulk. And I mean Hulk, the giant green thing, not his human counterpart. I’m waiting for the day when one of them wants to talk to us and just picks up the treadmill in order to get our attention. I’ll let you know when it happens.
Aside from the gym, I have another favorite pastime to share: the bus. Everyday, if not at least once, I have to ride the bus during rush hour (which includes stuffing 90 people in a 65 person maximum used bus from Germany). Often my bus-ride dictates how my day will go, if it’s a horrible bus ride sometimes it’s hard to look at things positively for the rest of the day. Sunday my lovely alcoholic neighbor caused enough of a ruckus that I managed to get not a bit of sleep, so come Monday morning I was not looking forward to the bus. I was standing, stuffed in with the masses, and one of the straps of my bag kept falling down, enough so that I started to ignore as it was too difficult to adjust it in the sardine can that is the bus. An older (very tall, think Andre the Giant) gentleman saw this, adjusted the straps for me, and, as he began to exit the bus, picked me up be the shoulders and very gently placed me in a more comfortable place to stand. It was quite endearing, although very, very strange for Russia. But I’ll take what I can get.
Another small anecdote about the bus: I have learned an excellent way to remedy the bus experience. In the evenings when I grab a seat near the window for me 30+ minute ride home, I turn on my iPod. I have a rule here, if it’s not Russian music it cannot have lyrics. What could I possibly listen to, you ask? The William Tell Overture. It is hard to keep the cold, outer Russian façade when listening to this song as the bus driver opens his window to swear at some car in front of him, some fat old babushka literally gets stuck in the bus doors, you get sat on, the bus goes roaring past the nuclear power plant (the Russians insist it’s not nuclear… I think they’re trying to pacify me), some drunk man starts hugging the conductor asking if he really has to pay the fare, and the bus accelerates and decelerates in such a manner as to fling people on top of each other and into the windows in a very comical manner. I’m sure it all sounds awful, and it really is. But if you don’t laugh you lose the will to live. And the William Tell Overture is hilarious. So hilarious in fact I’ve had to cut back on my William Tell on the bus, because I just can’t help but laugh. A lot. And it is not very Russian to laugh in public. Oops.
Having made more Russian friends, I have finally asked what it is about me that makes me so unique in Russia (I am stared at and approached much more than the other Americans here). I dress Russian (heels included), rarely speak English on the street or on the bus, and I even wear a hat all the time! I assumed it wasn’t my red hair, because there are redheads here. But none of them are natural redheads. Apparently most of the people have never seen a natural redhead, and for this reason I am an anomaly.
That doesn’t mean the Russians can’t pick out the foreigners. The Babushkas have an eye for it. In a true Russian fashion, two of my friends and I were walking in a snow storm, two of us had hats, but our friend did not. We passed a pair of babushkas on the street, who very loudly discussed how our friend was clearly not Russian. Their exact words: «Вот, она не русская» (There, that one’s not Russian). So if you ever come to Russia and people keep figuring out you’re foreign and you haven’t even opened your mouth, put a hat on!
To all your foreigners, I apologize that I made us all look very, very weird last week. My friends and I went to a club where we could bowl last week. Because it was also a club, the men were frisked and the women’s bags were checked. Early that day, I had been to a friends house to watch a movie, as well as to an internet café with my computer to do homework. So what does this man find as he’s searching my bag? Little Mermaid in Russian, the charger for my computer which I forgot to take out of my bag, an LSAT study book, a Russian book of Pushkin, a Russian children’s thesaurus, my Sigg water bottle (which he could not figure out for the life of him, poor man), bandaids, a half-eaten bar of chocolate…. He stopped after a while, sighed, and just waved me through. Only after he was convinced my computer charger wasn’t a bomb. Oops. But don’t worry, he asked where I’m from and I said Latvia. Haha.
The snow has stopped and everything has iced over. Everything. The sidewalks are all ice, and the Russians have never heard of salting sidewalks. So every day they just get slicker. I’ve learned a good rule to live by: if it’s sparkly it’s okay to walk on, if it’s shiny don’t (snow versus ice). I was walking to the movie theatre near my house the other day, and instead of walking on the path I walked just off it in the snow to prevent myself from slipping. At this point a group of Russian men pass by and one of them asks me, “What are you doing, there is a perfectly good path here, walk on it!” I simply replied that I was more comfortable in the snow. He mumbled something about snow and cold feet, and then what did he do? He slipped and fell. Sweet ironic justice exists in Russia too!
I shouldn’t poke too much fun. Those of you who know me know I have the grace of a baby hippo, and the iced sidewalks are particularly difficult for me. Imagine a cross between a penguin trying to dance and an emu trying to take off on a greased runway and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what I look like walking to school every day.
The cold has also forced me to break out my white L.L. Bean coat. Best decision I have made in Russia. First of all, I have pacified babushka (when I first wore the coat she mumbled something about thanks to God, the girl has some sense and I won’t have to call her mother to tell her that her first born has died of Russian winter). While I do look like a marshmallow (the Russians have even commented on it and my American friends call me the Michelin man), I am warm. So warm. I was waiting for the bus the other day and it occurred to me that I do not care how late the bus is, I can stand outside forever in this coat. Another small victory over Russia. Ha.
No song this week, instead a movie: 12. It’s a pretty recent Russian movie based on Twelve Angry Men. It focuses around the jurors deciding the fate of a young Chechen who has been accused of murdering his adoptive father. It is a very telling film and very, very well done. It’s probably my favorite Russian film (and I’ve watched a lot of Russian film). The end is a very happy one, but I’m not quite sure I think it reflects the direction Russia is going at the moment. We’ll see, the potential is certainly there. I hope you all make time to see this film; it got an Oscar nomination, so I imagine you can find it with English subtitles.
Until next time, everybody stay warm and wear a hat or babushka will find you!

PS: Thanks to Jim Clough for his comments… I know there are more of you reading!! Comment!

Welcome to Petersburg… Land of the Tourist

October 25th, 2009

One of the entrances to the Hermitage

The trip to Petersburg was, overall, surprisingly painless (considering we once again had an overnight train ride). We were lucky enough to stay in the historic center of Petersburg, meaning we walked everywhere (rain, colder rain, or snow). Petersburg is an enchanting city, especially at night, and I hope you all get an opportunity to go. That being said, Petersburg is a very European city; very unlike Russia.
I have never heard quite as much English (or other foreign languages) as I did while I was in Piter (as the Russians fondly call it). There were many foreigners, even though it wasn’t tourist season, and I had my first opportunity to use my Russian to “rescue” someone (small moment, big triumph).
We of course spent a day wandering around the Hermitage, a museum I recommend you all go to if for no other reason than it is an absolutely gorgeous building (the impressive collection of European art not withstanding). The Hermitage is easily a close second to the Louve in Paris, but ten times more overwhelming. The amount of art I saw in just under 6 hours is ridiculous, so much so that I’m having a little trouble categorizing it.
What is sad though is that is painfully obvious that this jewel of a Russian building, holding one of the most impressive art collections in the world, is entering into disrepair. This being said, there is no water dripping on the da Vincis or anything of that matter. It’s more that occasionally you come across a window that you wish they had replaced when it cracked in the Raphael Loggias (in the New Hermitage, the Raphael Loggias is a beautiful copy of the Papal Palace in the Vatican). All things equal in Russia, I have seen museums in worse disrepair than the Hermitage, and I think to most people these things would not be noticeable (I, for whatever reason, was looking). It’s just that it’s such a stunning building with such a magnificent collection that it feels like it deserves only the very best, that nothing should ever be out of place.
We also went on a tour to see the Royal Jewels; however, when we arrived at the Hermitage we were told there are only tours in Russian available. The clerk gave me the up-down, thought for a moment, and said, “You speak good Russian. You will go on the Russian tour.” And I went on the Russian tour (another point of pride in the trip). This turned out to be the best thing I could have down, because the Russians on the tour weren’t very interested in what our tour guide was saying, and in many instances it ended up being a one on one discussion with a woman who had an extraordinary wealth of knowledge about the collection we were viewing.
The Hermitage houses two collections, the Diamond Collection and the Diamond and Gold Collection. We went to see the Diamond Collection, and you would think this would be housed behind some high-tech door, nope, pretty sure it’s the same one they put in when the built the Hermitage in the 18th century. Let me tell you: no one can do sparkle like the Russian royalty. There were saddle pads (what you put on the horse’s back underneath the saddle) in this collection with enough diamonds they looked like they were straight out of a rap video. A lot of instances if you positioned yourself just right the light would reflect of the pieces and hit you in the eye in such a way that you’d be seeing spots for a few seconds. All joking aside the collection is extremely impressive, it has some amazing samples of art from the Caucasus dating back almost to
Better than the Hermitage, in my humble opinion, was the Russian museum (I’ve been lucky enough to travel through a lot of Europe and see a lot of European art…. Madonna and Bambino gets old, for this reason Russian art was refreshing). The Russian museum houses an impressive collection of Russian art spanning a few centuries. While the art was stunning, and moving in a very Russian way, I found the materials the artists were commonly using very interesting. Our friend the Art major explained that while cardboard is the cheapest canvas, you are only supposed to use it with certain types of paint. But these Russian artists used cardboard for anything simply because they couldn’t afford anything else, and these pieces are no less stunning than the da Vincis in the Hermitage. If you only have time for one, go to the Russian Museum. This being said you’ll appreciate the cozy atmosphere of the Russian Museum more after the simply overwhelming Hermitage.
The other wonderful thing about Piter is that students get in free to almost all museums and historical monuments. This being said, this means you meet a lot of skeptical clerks who look at your student id for a long time and then announce that you can’t possibly studying in Russia and the Russian student id isn’t actually a Russian student id. And they say none of this kindly. Please don’t think less of me, but there is no polite way to effectively react to this in Russia. You simply have to be rude right back. This happened at Peter and Paul Cathedral (as usual, I was the first in line, and the clerk was in a particularly sour mood). She spent a minute or two longer than she needed to staring at my student id (or as it is called here a student ticket, or студентческий билет) and then announced that it was not a real student id and I was just a tourist. At this point in the day I had quite enough of this routine and asked her if she wanted to see my Visa and city registration. She mumbled something about how I probably did not read Russian and ergo did not know my Visa was a tourist Visa. So what did I do? Pulled out my Visa. This lovely Russian women screwed up her face in the most delightful show of Russian frustration and begrudgingly printed me a ticket. American-1, Russia-0 (really it’s more along the lines of Russia-45738, I’m just happy to have chalked up a point).
While I enjoyed my trip to St. Petersburg I am certainly glad to be back in Vladimir. I am not quite sure how my peers in Petersburg learn any Russian, I am quite happy to be back in good ol’ Vlad where everyone thinks I’m German (sorry to the Germans if I do anything stupid that will reflect on your country instead of mine). But being in St. Petersburg also helped me realize the extent of the economic crisis in Vladimir. I cannot say how much, but a startling amount of the city is out of work. And the men, for the most part, turn to alcohol. The region around Vladimir has one of the highest rates of alcoholism in Russia. This finally helped me realize why I have such trouble understanding men in Russia: because most of them are drunk. It’s not my Russian, it’s their Russian (another point for me).
As I am writing Vladimir is getting its first snow (I only know this because Babushka came in and threw a blanket over me as I type…. Not helping since my room is like a sauna) and I am finally in store for a Russian winter. Next entry I am sure I will be able to write about how Babushka and I are having a small war over exactly how many layers I need when I leave the house. I also eagerly look forward to what will happen to the Russian babies, who have already been dressed to the extend they look like stunned starfishes.

This week’s song: «Прощание славянки» (cut, paste and youtube): or “Farewell Slavinka” It’s an orchestral piece, it was written in honor of the Bulgarian women saying goodbye to their husbands going to the first Balkan War by a composer named Vasily Agapkin. It’s most well known to Americans for its place in the Russian film «Кафказий Пленник», or “Prisoner of the Caucasus” by Sergei Bordov (got an Oscar), if you can manage I highly recommend you see it. It’s a pretty insightful look into Russia’s interactions with the Caucasus.

Pictures will come later….. Vlad is having a bad internet day.

Pondering the Поезд, or Musings on the Russian Train.

October 10th, 2009

Let’s start off with a bang: I spent около (about) 50 hours of my life in the past ten days on a train. A Russian train. And mind you, this was not the kind of train where you get your own sleeping cabin that you share with three other people. Oh no. The whole car was a sleeping cabin… And people sat on your beds and ate really stinky fish. I am happy to say it was an очень русский опыт (very Russian experience, something I’ve had a lot of in the past week). Both times I was not seated with any of the Americans, but with Russian and Uzbecks. The first train (a simple overnight trip, as opposed to the thirty hour trip from Астрахань near the Caspian Sea to Москвa) I sat next to a Russian couple who didn’t say a whole lot at first. Knowledge of Russian culture came in very handy here: after I offered them food (which they politely refused) there was not a moment of silence. They praised me for my excellent Russian (that’s a stretch at best), and told me all about Russian culture. Overall, it helped make a very unpleasant experience more pleasant.
The second ride; however, was not quite as pleasant. First of all we were on the train for 30 hours, and I sat across from an older Uzbeck gentleman, who, I’ll be honest, scared the dookie out of me. After offering him some fruit, he turned out to be pretty pleasant. But before that the only impression I had was a rather intimidating man with Гулаг (prison) tattoos. Not a person you want to find yourself sitting across from anywhere. It turned out to be fortunate that we shared food, he shared his perspective on Russian culture and the steppe (more on that later); but more importantly I think he actually saved our loud American butts. I feel I have a solid grasp on when to be quiet (strange, right?) as an American in Russia. Some of my 50 peers; however, did not. And this upset a group of young, drunk, Uzbecks on the train. There were some threats thrown around, but no one seemed to get the hint that it would be better to keep our heads down. Luckily my Uzbeck (yes, he is my Uzbeck) and another older couple later went to talk with these men and said something like, “No, no, no, they’re not all bad.” This did not stop the complaining, but it certainly made it seem less physically threatening. So if we have learned anything from this experience it’s: share your food with people on the train.
The second train ride took us all the way across the Russian Steppe and through Kazakhstan. As it was explained; however, we weren’t technically in Kazakhstan as the rail-lines were Russian territory. But seeing the sun set and the moon rise over the Steppe was quite an experience, as one of the Russian professors put it “Там нечего нет” (There there is nothing). The land was almost completely flat (I can understand why people thought the earth was flat) and uninhabited aside from some Tartars. Tartars, as best I can describe them, are a group of people who have stuck to a relatively simple and sometimes nomadic lifestyle. As to how they scrape a living out of the Steppe I do not understand, it was explained to me that nothing lives there, water even avoids the Steppe. The Tartars keep herds of animals which they often just let wander, which I found very strange. Apparently you just have to know what your cows, horses, and goats look like (and please don’t be fooled, the horses in the picture were for meat).
We were lucky enough to see a lot of Russia on this cruise, but Volgograd (aka Stalingrad, as it is still fondly known, despite the attempts to stamp it out) was by far the most memorable thing on the cruise. If you didn’t already know, the Battle of Stalingrad (or siege if you prefer) is one of the best-known in WWII history. The entire city was practically razed to the ground, and yet the Nazis never took Stalingrad. Rebuilt today, it is home to what I consider to be the greatest war memorial I have ever seen (I took a fantastic video of the changing of the guards, I hope it uploads for you guys…). Unlike many memorials I have seen, there was an overwhelming sense of despair there. There were quotes written all over the staircase leading up to the main memorial, including one that has stuck with me: “Они были простыми смертными” (They were all simply dead/gone). You can’t help but understand the travesty that was WWII, something no other memorial has ever done for me.
The memorial complex in Volgograd is huge, but the crowning jewel is definitely the statue, the Motherland Calls. It was actually modeled after a woman in Volgagrad, legend has it people would recognize her on the street because of the statue. Built in the late 1960’s, the statue is about 85 meters high, and a little under 8,000 tonnes of concrete. Sadly, the statue is leaning and they don’t expect it to be able to lean much farther without collapsing. Go to Volgograd while you can!
Volgograd is also home to what I consider to be the best war museum I have ever seen, the Panorama Museum. The museum gave a very thorough history, and had more war artifacts than I have ever seen in my entire life. We joked that this was because they simply had to pick up the city after the Germans fled. The memorial and museum aside, the entire city stands as a monument to the hardship that WWII brought to Russia and is something everyone should see within their lifetime.
Now that the fun part of the cruise is over, I have a few culture notes to share: Firstly, and most importantly, peers and parents of peers, study abroad is not a vacation nor an excuse to act like a jerk. It is not an opportunity to be loud and obnoxious (like on the train, or worse, at war memorials where people are weeping at graves). Nor is it ever appropriate to stand on someone’s gravestone to take pictures (luckily an older Russian took care of this one, I’m sure if I’d understood everything he’d said to the young man standing on the gravestone my ears would have been on fire). The Americans I saw at the monument (not just my group of students) simply did not know how to behave. It was appalling, so for heaven’s sake please learn from this and have some respect for whatever country you decide to visit. Have fun, enjoy the sites, but respect it.
I guess that’s all for today folks, the Germany v. Russia soccer match is coming on soon and that is not something I want to miss. This week’s song: Счастье@ru by Маркшейдер Кнуст and also Катюша. I would youtube Катюша, it’s one of the most famous Russian songs from WWII, and if you find a translation please don’t be like me and think it’s about a woman, it’s about a bomb (Катюша was the name of a Russian WWII rocket). How very Russian, to write a love song to a bomb.

Language Purgatory

September 26th, 2009

Suzdal ChurchThis will be a short post, as the past few weeks, aside from our day trip to Suzdal, has been relatively quiet. We are preparing to take off on a cruise down south on the Volga river, which promises better weather and the chance to see a lot of Russia. Needless to say we’re all very excited.
We did get the opportunity to visit what is quite possible one of the world’s cutest towns, Suzdal, last week. Suzdal has something like 15 churches/cathedrals/monasteries, all of them in very good condition and very striking. The weather the day we visited was rather dramatic, which just lent everything in Suzdal a very dramatic feel.
I have hit what we jokingly call the language wall (everyone in an immersion environment eventually hits this), where my ability to understand and my ability to respond (all things in Russia being very not equal, it is far easier for me to understand conversation than it is to respond) have finally frustrated me beyond belief. This has also pushed me into what is referred to as “Language Purgatory,” I cannot speak Russian well (the bench mark being a native speaker, of course), and I seem to be forgetting English as well. However, towards the end of this week I’m gradually regaining my Russian skills, and the sun is out today (things are looking up!!).
I’m going to end this post with a few cultural (I use this word loosely) observations that I hope you find amusing:
-How to spot a Russian: They (and there children) are often wearing shirts with English phrases that are either A) Completely nonsensical or B) Surprisingly lewd
-You know you’re on a Russian bus when the maximum capacity is 60 but there are 80 people on the bus
-You also know you’re on a Russian bus when the driver is frequently engaging the emergency brake with his erratic braking
-You know you’re eating lunch in Russia when they yell at you for not eating soup (soup is a traditional lunch time meal, and the woman at our cafeteria has made it very clear that we must have soup).
-Men at the gym are always wearing sandals and what, to many Americans, looks exactly like underwear in lieu of shorts…. But don’t call it underwear, the Russians are very sure they are wearing shorts.
-Everyone thinks your German (I don’t correct them)
-There is no such thing as chicken, pork, or beef in Russia. If you ask what you are eating the response is always, “Meat.” I have also learned it is best not to press the issue, you often don’t want to know what kind of meat it is.
-Russian women are constantly afraid everyone around them is going to catch cold and die… As a consequence they take it upon themselves to dress everyone they can in ridiculously heavy winter clothing when a tshirt would have sufficed.

That’s all for this week! The post-cruise post promises to be exciting, the South should be quite an adventure!

Oh, the Autobus…

September 12th, 2009

Church of the Intercession on the Nerl Typical Dinner babushka-and-sheep

Skimming through my last post I realized I had failed to inform you of the joy that is my daily commute. Because Vladimir is a small city, the only way you can get around is by bus (афтобус) or taxi (такси). I have only been a taxi a few times, but that’s enough to observe that taxi drivers in Russia don’t necessarily have a good sense of which side of the road they should keep the cab on. Which brings us to my favorite, and primary mode of transportation: the bus. And when I say favorite I mean taking the bus will put hair on your chest. I live 30 minutes away from the center of the city, so in order to get to a 9 am class I need to be at the bus stop no later than 8:15, which is, as the Russians love to call it, час пик (rush hour). There is nothing more awful than a crowded Russian bus. The best analogy I can give is imagine being in a tin of sardines (but double the amount of sardines) that’s being shook around. And I use this comparison not only to illustrate how crowded it is, but also the smell. This experience has turned me into a pushier person (you have to be, or, as some of my classmates found out, you’ll miss your stop), but also taught me a lot about smell. I really don’t mean to sound like a jerk (but I’m about to), but the smell can be unbearable. Russian men love their vices (smoking and drinking), especially early in the morning, so it’s not uncommon to be overwhelmed by these smells. If anyone feels like sending me smelling salts, feel free. I’m considering taking a can of Febreeze with me on the bus, and a small saw to cut a hole in the window for ventilation (I’m fairly certain Russia buys a lot of its buses second-hand from Germany, and there are no windows).
Russians are among some of the most frightening drivers you’ll ever encounter, they stop for nothing (including avoiding a head-on collision). Everyone assumes they have the right of way, and only recently has the government implemented a small fine for hitting pedestrians (but only if they’re in crosswalks, otherwise it’s fair game). Already here I have seen somewhere between 6-10 car crashes. It is not at all uncommon for a bus to straddle a lane line for many city blocks, nor is it uncommon for bus drivers to stop their bus (and traffic) to yell at whatever pedestrian or driver has upset them. I have also learned it is best not to laugh when this happens, no one else thinks it’s funny.
Speaking of funny, I haven’t elaborated much about Russian men. Russian men love women, and have no problem shouting so on the street. Two weeks in, I’m beginning to understand some of what is said to me. My favorite thus-far is the 15 year old boy that stands outside the store near my apartment building and every day after class says “Сдравствуйте, Женат” to me (literally: Hello, Wife). I must admit I admire his persistence; but what amuses me more is that fact that Russian men use the formal case when they hit on you, instead of the informal. As I learned last night on the bus, you have nothing to worry about until they start using the informal. Going home on the bus at 11:00 last night there was a (clearly very drunk) man, who sat across from my friend and me. My friend (who has spent time in Russia before) quickly whispered in English, “Whatever you do don’t look him in the eye.” In the next five minutes before my stop he badgered us in Russian with propositions I didn’t fully understand (I do know they were in the informal and not the formal and involved his apartment and alcohol), grabbing our legs and hands trying to get us to look at him. Much to my dismay he got off at the same stop as me, and the badgering and invasion of my physical space continued until he found some other poor woman to bother. He made the kid who shouts “Сдравствуйте, Женат” every day look pretty good.

Funny cultural experiences, we’ve been pretty lucky to have visited a lot of the UNESCO monuments in and around Vladimir already while the weather is still good. Most recently we visited Боголювов Монастырь (literally translates as loved by God) and Храм Прокрова на Нерли (a very small church outside the city limits which they think was the personal church of the Russian prince Andrei Bogolyubsky. Legend has it Andrei Bogolyubsky was riding his horse to his father’s palace in Suzdal when his horse suddenly stopped 11 kilometers outside of Vladimir, in Bogolyubovo. The people here were very generous to Bogolyubsky, giving him almost everything they had. Bogolyubovo later claimed that these people must be loved by God, and established his capital in Vladimir (another legend claims his horse stopped and refused to go any further, so he was forced to establish his capital in Vladimir). Between 1158 and 1165 Andrei built a fortified palace at this same place. Fragments of this palace still stand at what is now a monastery, and not far away is Andrei’s personal church, the Church of the Intercession on the Nerl (Храм Прокрова на Нерли). The Russians like to say that Andrei has this church built in memory of his favorite son Izyaslav, who was killed in a battle against the Bulgars (this being said, sadly very little is actually known about either of these monuments).
I plan on returning to these monuments within the next week before the rains begin (Храм Прокрова на Нерли was built on a marsh, and floods every year so you can’t get to it) to really soak them in. It’s one thing to go to a national monument that’s been turned into a museum, but both the monastery and the church are still working, which lends an enormous amount of, and ooze of Russian culture and history. Sadly we were not allowed to take pictures inside the monastery or church, but the monastery especially was overwhelming (helped a little by the fact that we went there during a service). The women among us had to wear skirts over our jeans in addition to covering our heads (I have a deep respect for their traditions; however, it was a little upsetting that many of the men wore sweatpants and t-shirts while we were forbidden to show any skin or hair). I think the general conception of Russia is that the Soviets destroyed much of Russia’s culture and history, but this is simply not true. The monastery and church along contain much of their original artwork and hold their own against the best of Europe’s monuments; I encourage you all to visit if you ever get the chance. Not only is visiting these places a cultural experience, but they are incredibly rich with history which any Russian will be happy to share with you (assuming you’re willing to give your Russian a test drive).
I cannot end this post without telling you about Russian home remedies… Within two weeks I’ve already had more experience with home medicine than I care to talk about. Last Friday our group spent the day walking around Vladimir and Bogolyubovo, and after about 6 miles of walking I decided I was going to stay home Friday night. In addition to this fateful mistake (my host mother assumes I must be sick if I don’t want to go out…. It’s going to be a long semester), I had a small cough from inhaling water down the wrong pipe earlier in the day. My host mother observed all this and swept in to rescue me. This rescue included two shots of vodka (I know I’m in the wrong country for this, but I do not drink vodka), followed by a mixture of lemon, sugar, and vinegar “to help it all go down.” I thought this would be it, but then she painted both my throat and the bottoms of my feet with iodine and sent me to bed. Then she woke me up at midnight to do it again (if you think speaking a foreign language is hard, imagine being woken up suddenly by someone trying to explain what they’re doing when you wouldn’t understand it in any language). It also did not help that my feet are incredibly tickelish and I almost kicked her in the face as she tried to apply iodine to them. Just for the record, I was not sick before this experience, but I definitely was afterwards.
Following this unique cultural experience I vowed not to get sick in Russia, and I haven’t, but my host family has found another way to treat me. Those of you who know me know that I have the grace of a baby hippo with vertigo, and Vladimir is just one big Katie trap. Yesterday we were walking to a store which had a small flight of concrete stairs in front with a small awning over the door. Hanging from this awning was a potted flower, on which I of course gave my head a good, solid, smack. Following this smack I lost my balance and managed to summersault backwards down all the stairs. (Amusing side-note: while my American friends freaked out, there was one Russian who actually stepped over me at the bottom of the staircase and kept walking). I’m probably lucky I didn’t break anything; however, when I got home with the trophy bruises my host mother immediately set out painting my bruises with a brownish substance and wrapping me in saran wrap. I wish I could tell you what she painted me with, but it was not in any dictionary I have access to and my host sister did not know the word in English. I’m not sure I want to know anyways. I have also not told her about the massive bruise on my butt from the game of Russian musical chairs we played Tuesday. I don’t think I will either.

This post’s song: Маня by Pep-See. Fun song by a pretty well-loved Russian pop group. In the spirit of fostering international understand there’s even a little Spanish in there too (I’ll let you figure out what it is).

What do you mean your full? You have 5 potatoes and half a cow left.

September 1st, 2009

I said I wanted to be somewhere where no one speaks English, and let me assure you, no one speaks English (this is not entirely true, I’m sure, but they don’t want to speak English with me). My interactions in English in the past week alone have been incredibly limited, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to put Russian aside briefly. A combination of lingering jetlag (it took us 10 hours by plane followed by another 5 on a bus to get to Vladimir), constant excitement, and fatigue from constantly thinking and speaking in Russian has left me pretty exhausted.

I am living with a family of three women, a grandmother (Galiena), her daughter (Oksana), and Oksana’s daughter (Vika). All are extremely kind and I cannot express how warmly they have received what I perceive to be one of the most awkward Americans ever (namely, myself). Their apartment is modest by American standards, and almost every room has a second purpose (I think every bedroom but mine also serves as a sitting room). And in a truly welcoming fashion, the local government has turned off the hot water in my neighborhood. My host mother has persisted in boiling water for a bath, but today I insisted on a cold shower (she’s now convinced I’m going to catch my death of cold and keeps asking me what she should tell my mother when I die). But I got my cold shower, and I can assure you that you have not had a cold shower until you have had a cold shower in Russia.

My experience with food thus far has been interesting, but for the most part very good. While my host mother and grandmother cannot eat sugar, they have no problem loading me up. The other day my host mother gave me cake for breakfast (that’s right Mom, cake), and for two days in a row she has been very insistent on trying to give me some sort of Russian ice cream for breakfast with my Бутерброд (bread with butter, cheese, and cold sausage). I have thus far avoided ice cream before 9 in the morning.

While for the most part my experience with Russian cuisine has been mild, I can say I’m fairly certain I ate hedgehog. My host sister told me, in Russian and in English, that the dish was called hedgehog. And then she told me that their neighbor raises hedgehogs. It was very good, but I’m not so sure I can do it again if they remind me what I’m eating.

The food has all been very good, but there is so much of it!!! I do not know how Russian women stay so skinny when their mothers give them enough food for a sizeable American family. Luckily, I know how to say I can’t eat anymore in Russian (this doesn’t stop my host family from trying their best to give me more). Some of my classmates are not so fortunate as to bridge this language barrier and have been forced to eat everything that’s set in front of them (refusing in English doesn’t do much).

I am happy to say my language skills extend past the dinner table, and I have thus far been able to navigate around the city (I did get lost once and had to have my host sister come find me among the maze of Soviet-era apartment buildings). I have been able to make simple purchases, ask for directions, order food (with some help), and I even asked for our bill at the bar today! Don’t be surprised when I say bar, it does not mean that every day after class finishes the American students head straight for beer (пиво). Most bars sell a lot more than alcohol (for instance today I had bleeni, a Russian pancake, and tea), and this particular bar happens to be the only place in Vladimir with reliable internet. This weekend we went to an internet café hoping to inform our family and friends in America that we were indeed not dead. But instead we were told “It’s Sunday, the internet is not working. Maybe come back in a week or two and it might work again.”

Phones in Russia have also been frustrating. While some of us have been able to buy phones/SIM cards, the majority of us have not been able to buy anything from Russian cell phone companies because we aren’t registered in the city yet (the Russian government really likes to know where you are). We’ll have our registration documents by the end of the week, but this did mean giving up our passports and Visas in exchange for a photo copy while the local government processes our registration papers. While this is perfectly legal, and the police in Vladimir generally aren’t as bad as in St. Petersburg or Moscow, we were told to be very careful. You want to avoid interactions with the Russian police (милиция) at all costs. Thanks to a long period in the Soviet Union when the police were only able to feed their family through bribes (the government couldn’t pay them), police in Russia are very corrupt. Being a foreigner makes you an especially attractive target, and if the police do ask to see your documents (it’s illegal not to carry them with you), you often cannot get them back without paying a substantial bribe. Not to mention it’s not unheard of for police to throw camera-happy tourists in jail for being spies.

I have been pleasantly surprised that my language skills are better than I gave them credit for, but it is still incredibly frustrating to communicate in Russian. The best thing you can do is turn your English brain off, if you try to translate every English word you know into Russian you quickly become aware of how little you know. If you stop thinking in English (also not easy to do) it becomes slightly less frustrating. And the more Russian you speak the more you give Russians the opportunity to critique you (and who would want to deprive them of that privilege?).

Russian criticism (and I say with all honesty they do this in the most loving way) extends far beyond language. While all the women in my host family were thrilled that I wore high heels and makeup, they have had no problem critiquing my outfit or my hair. And I do not mean a simple, “Oh, you’re wearing that?” Yesterday my babushka took one look at my shoes and said “No. You can’t go out in those.” And off I went to make sure my outfit met babushka’s approval.

While it helps me fit in, the problem with wearing heels and makeup is the male attention it gets. While I don’t think I’m ever in danger, Russian men are much aggressive than American men. They have no problem shouting exactly what they’re thinking to you on the street (luckily I have thus far not understood most of it). The upside to this is it’s an excellent opportunity to pretend to be a Russian woman, who are incredibly frigid in response. My street face (Russians never smile at strangers and look pretty grumpy all the time) is excellent (and yes Mom, it just might freeze that way), but I definitely need to work on the slang employed by so many of these women when telling said Russian men exactly where they to stick it. For this reason, I have great admiration for Russian women. While gender roles are perhaps a little outdated in Russia, I can safely assure you that you do not want to upset a Russian woman. Your ears will be burning for weeks, it’s really quite impressive. And as I observed on the bus this morning, sometimes they throw rocks.

All in all living in Vladimir is like living on another planet, but I like this planet. Everything here has strong roots in history and culture, from the way the women behave to Russian holidays (of which there are many). As a Russian friend told us yesterday in attempt to prepare us for the upcoming city holiday, Vladimir Day, “Russians like to celebrate more than other people. Maybe, you could say, they like to celebrate a little too much.” Being the prudent (read: sort of really scared of putting myself in a stupid situation) type I think I’ll happily observe the upcoming holiday (праздник) with the my American peers. And you can bet you’ll hear about that one next post.

This post’s song: “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Because pretty much every Russian loves Billy.

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