kball11 September 12th, 2009
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).