Saturday, December 4, 2010

С Днём Рождения!


The snow outside is preventing me from shoe shopping, and general laziness is preventing me from doing anything productive, so I'm going to try and crank out a blog post. Saturday the 27th was my host sister Katya's birthday. Alexander Sergeiovich came over an we had a little celebration. The celebration was a fun, but interesting one. I had slept in that morning (it's so dark here that all anyone wants to do is sleep) so the many obligatory celebratory shots of vodka largely served as my breakfast and lunch for the day. As I desperately shoveled down food in the desperate and ultimately futile hope that I wouldn't be on the floor by mid-afternoon, Alexander Sergeiovich took it upon himself to rather drunkenly explain how I needed to fix the world. In the future, Senator Thomas Hanley Mahoney (yes, I am going to be a senator) is going to socialize the United States of America. I was informed of all the evils of globalization and capitalism, and informed that only a closed, state controlled economy works. That was followed by something I couldn't quite follow about a green flag and the U.N. Needless to say a good time was had by all, though by that afternoon it was quite clear that I wasn't going to get any homework done that day. Instead, I went and saw Harry Potter with Lyuda. I enjoyed it, but at the same time I almost expected hobbits to pop out during the scenes where they were carrying the stupid amulet. That about does it for me tonight, I'm always tired it seems so I'm going to go to bed pretty soon, I have a lot of work to do to prepare for finals. Hopefully I'll write another post soon!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Никто не забыт, и ничто не забыто

In a rare stroke of motivation, I'm writing a blog entry before I have weeks of stuff to write about. Tuesday night Lyuda and I went to a CKA game with my friend Stephanie. The game was quite exciting. CKA feel behind by three goals by the end of the first period, but managed to fight their way back into it by the end of regulation. The game went to a shootout, where unfortunately CKA lost. We were all a bit confused by the way the shootout worked. Spartak (the opposing team) took more penalty shots than CKA, and CKA's captain took three of CKA's shots! It made no sense! We all had a bunch of fun though, and they even put us on the jumbo-tron!
This week has been bitterly cold in Peter (the predicted highs for Monday and Tuesday are 9 and 6 degrees fahrenheit), but on Wednesday, Hannah, Emily, and I decided to brave the cold and set out for the cemetery for the victims of the Leningrad blockade. I had already been to the cemetery, but I think it's a really important place in St. Petersburg and worth a second look. What should have been a short half hour walk however, turned into a 2 hour odyssey through swirling snow and bitter cold. Russia doesn't seem to get how useful street signs would be, and as such there are practically no markings as to what street one is actually on. After much staring at the map however, and an adventurous ride on the taxi bus, we arrived.
The cemetery was beautiful in the summer, but in my opinion, it may have even been more beautiful in the winter. We were alone in the park except for those workers clearing the paths between the burial mounds, and it was really quite moving to take in the cemetery in the quiet. As the snow swirled in the wind, you could pick out the faint traces of Schostakovich's "Leningrad Symphony" being played. While it is still debated whether the 7th Symphony was meant to be critical of Stalin's regime or the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the "Leningrad Symphony" became a famous symbol of Soviet resistance and survival during the War. While the symphony was originally premiered in Samara on March 5th 1942, the most famous premiere was in Leningrad itself on August 9th, 1942, more than a year after the infamous "900 day Siege" had begun. Played by an orchestra reduced to only 15 members by starvation and death on the front lines, but filled once again by musicians pulled from the city's starving inhabitants, the performance was broadcasted over the radio across the Soviet Union, and in an act of defiance, over loudspeakers across the city, so loudly that even besieging Nazi forces could hear.
All in all a visit to the cemetery is a sobering experience. Over 600,000 victims are buried in the cemetery, most in mass graves, marked only by the year they were dug. There are literally hundreds of theses mounds, each with hundreds and hundreds of people in them. Even though we were all completely frozen to the core, I think we were all glad that we went. I had hoped to take pictures, as my camera hadn't worked last time we were there, but alas, my camera, the batteries, or perhaps both had succumb to the cold, and refused to work. So no pictures for this entry, sorry!
Thursday was Thanksgiving. Obviously Russia does not observe Thanksgiving, no matter how wonderful a holiday it is, so I decided rather than trying to recreate it and failing, I would just do something else. I ended up spending the evening with Lyuda, we went out to dinner and then went to the movies and saw "the Social Network", which while extremely difficult to comprehend in Russian at times, was still highly enjoyable. Yesterday Hannah's aunt and uncle met up with us for пишки, little tiny Russian donuts that are probably destroying my arteries. It was nice to meet them, and get out of the never-ending snow. Which brings us to today, Saturday. The snow is now entering it's fifth day and shows no sign of letting up anytime soon, but at least it's still a balmy 16 degrees outside! Got to appreciate the small things in life. I hope everyone at home had a wonderful, joyous Thanksgiving and that everyone enjoys their long weekend!
Much love,
Me

Sunday, November 21, 2010

All Caught Up!



This is it everybody! Today is the day I bring my blog up to date! Nicola left on that next Sunday. It was sad, but at the same time she left before the weather go too too bad and before the sun decided to disappear for the rest of time. The few weeks since have been interesting ones. Lyuda and I have gone all sorts of adventures including hockey games (she now is obsessed with it) and the theater. Our last two theater trips have been to a students' theater in one of my favorite parts of the city. The first time we went with my friend Sashenka and her tutor Sasha, who was originally going to be my tutor. The play we saw was called "The White Cloud of Genghis Khan". The theater itself is kind of reminiscent of Harry Potter, in the scene where they're trying the Death Eaters, and the play itself was incomprehensible. The acting was good, but no one could figure out what the hell was going on. I gathered that it was the life story of SOMEONE (I thought it was Genghis Khan, but I was to be proven wrong) but who that someone was was unclear. Even determining that much was difficult, because actors who had played the younger someone kept coming back in different roles, and I had no clue who the story was following. The play ended with a rather odd dance piece as well, we were all thoroughly non-plussed. Lyuda and I tried again yesterday with a theatrical interpretation of the "Decameron" which involved a lot of people in leotards writhing rather gruesomely on the floor. While I felt they did a very good job being creepy and capturing the horror of the plague, and the acting was quite good, the play itself left something to be desired.
I've had a very cultural week this week, in addition to the two plays, my friend Hannah and I went to see Tschaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on Wednesday. Just like the "Nutcracker" the dancing was beautiful, as were the sets and costumes, well worth the rather modest $45 we payed for the tickets. This Thursday was also my 21st birthday. I had been rather torn as to how I would celebrate my birthday, but luckily events and commitments rather decided that for me. My birthday was rather quiet, because Thursday night I had an interview for Customs Week Co-Heads with Franklyn. I am very pleased to announce that we got the job! So come Spring Semester Franklyn and I get to start planning Customs Week! Friday was more of a day of celebration, several of my close friends here and I went out to a lovely dinner at an Italian restaurant, which was quite a bit of fun, even though their oven wasn't working, and they had no beer. And that about brings me to the present. Today for an excursion we went to a classical music concert at the Marrinksi concert hall for a performance of different pieces by Russian composers. Stachevember soldiers on, and I now sport a rather stylish "Southern Gentleman". That about does it from here, I hope I'll be more punctual about updating this in the near future!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Remember Remember the Month of November






What I didn't realize is that my last entry rather nicely left off pretty much right at the start of November, so hopefully in this entry I can really bite the bullet and get everybody up to speed. November has been a super busy month for me, which has been great for many reasons, including but not limited to the fact that staying busy distracts me from the fact that we're losing daylight here like no ones business (we already have less than eight hours of sunlight a day) and the weather is absolutely atrocious (today marks about the 20th day since I've seen the sun). I'm going to try and start at the beginning of the month and work my way through gradually, but if I remember things later I'm just going to throw them in.
At the start of November (actually the week before, but whatever) I started work at the "Soldiers' Mothers of St. Petersburg", a advocacy group that fights for Russian soldiers who have had their rights violated by the Russian Army, and helps draft age men assert their right to other forms of civil service if they are not draft eligible. The work is hard, and often times mind numbing in terms of the violence and suffering these young men, often times only 17 or 18, have been exposed to. I had originally hoped to volunteer at an orphanage, kick a soccer ball around with some kids for a few hours a week to relieve stress and give something back, but this is definitely better. "Soldiers' Mothers" does really important work (they currently have three cases before the world court) and it's really an honor to contribute in some way.
The first week in November we largely had off. That Wednesday was "National Unity Day", supposedly commemorating the day Kuzma Minin and Prince Pozharsky drove the Poles out of Russia to end the "Time of Troubles" in the mid-1600's. As luck would have it, that was the week my good friend Nicola came to visit. We had a lovely week together, and I think Nicola got to see Russia at its most Russian. One of our more interesting adventures was going bowling. After meeting up with my friend Kelsey and enjoying some of Russia's finer (IE cheaper) and more delicious (Jaguar, the finest "alco-energy drink Russia has to offer) beverages, we made a journey through the metro to Sennaya Ploschad, where we enjoyed another one Russia's favorite pastimes, eating at McDonald's. All along the way we had adventures. While purchasing Jaguars, a random Russian man approached Nicola and Kelsey. Kelsey knew the drill, say anything and everything to get the creeper to go away. As I leave the store and hand out the beverages, our new friend decides to befriend me as well. Rather lovingly holding an umbrella over my head, the man asked if we were Finns. I know the drill too, and launch into a story about how we're Canadian students (not American but close) who don't speak much Russian. What I hadn't realized is that Kelsey had in fact informed this same man that we were English bloggers in Russia writing something about blogs. Our dear friend finally made the connection that we were in fact not Finns, English, Canadians, but people who just wanted him to go away. After informing me that I was an asshole who spoke Russian just fine, our dear friend walked away, never to be seen again.
But that wasn't even close to the end of our adventures. The second bizarre occurence transpired at good Mickey D's. Since Nicola doesn't speak any Russian, she rather intelligently asked for me to order her chicken nuggets for her. I rather politely tell the lady at the counter that I would like a Big Mac, fries, and a drink, as well as Nicola's meal of nuggets, fries, and a coke. After staring at me for about 20 seconds, the girl behind the register simply starts laughing and tells me that I am in fact far too high to order chicken nuggets. This is where I got confused. First off, I was inebriated, not high, and two, WERE I to be high, wouldn't she want me to buy more chicken nuggets? From my experience, you tell a high person they want 100 chicken nuggets and they would probably agree with you. The girl however, didn't seem to understand the fact that beer and jaguar makes you drunk, or the basic rules of making a profit, and I was denied Nicola's chicken nuggets. Kelsey however, who valiantly agreed to try her luck accruing some chickeny goodness, apparently was just high enough, and got the nuggets no problem.
Our last adventure comes at the bowling alley itself. Even on a Wednesday night, the 36 lane bowling alley is completely packed, so we have to wait over an hour for a lane. Nicola and I decide we want to play air hockey as we wait. We turn the table on, but no pucks come out. Rather incensed at the prospect of losing 100 rubles to the air hockey table, I inform one of the bowling alley workers the table is broken, and that I would like him to fix it. After poking around the table rather half-assedly for about 12 seconds the dope looks at me and informs me there is nothing he can do, and walks away. I know that customer service doesn't exist in Russia, but this was too much for even me. I stop him and inform him that if the table doesn't work, than I want my money back. When he tells me he can't do that, I tell him he better get to work fixing the table. Rather flabergasted by this, he returns to the table, and again does nothing. He finally looks to me and tells me that I need to call the air hockey table and get them to fix it, or give my money back. I tell him that he needs to call. After about 20 seconds of this he points to the table and says that I can call using that phone. Now, I might be dumb, but I know that no air hockey table has a phone built into it. We go back and forth again, until he finally begins to walk away once again. This is the scene of my great victory; as he walks away I offer him a few choice phrases about the various things he can do with the male anatomy. Cowed, shocked, or both, he returns and offers Nicola and I a free game on the Nascar simulator. Great success.
And so the night went on. In my first experience with anything other than candle pin bowling, I bowled a rather horrible 22, but a good time was had by all.
The rest of the week was a success as well, we saw bears on leashes, bad Russian driving, and made an excursion out to Vyborg, a city on the Russo-Finish border that was the closest thing to sanity and the real world that I've gotten to in almost three months. Like all things Russia has come to possess however, Vyborg has seen better days. We spent the day climbing on ruins, imitating Russians and their rather preposterous photo shoots. I'm going to post this entry to stop it from being too long, but I will finish it soon!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Meanwhile in the Rest of my Life...

So it has come abundantly clear that I am not going to finish telling you about my Volga trip anytime soon. And since life has all of a sudden decided to get busy for me, I have had very little time to update my blog. As such, I am going to devote this entry to trying to briefly sum up what has happened in the past month of my life. I've actually done quite a bit surprisingly, so I'm going to try and hit the main highlights. The first week we got back from our cruise our RD managed to arrange a basketball game at a gym against some local Russians. As most of you know, I am perhaps the whitest white boy on the face of the planet, and despite my height, any sort of skill in basketball is completely beyond me. Thinking however that this was going to be a friendly game among the members of our group, I gladly signed on. It was not. After having arrived at a gym that probably fulfills every expectation you could have for a soviet era gym (if you have expectations for soviet era gyms...), we were met by a group of Russian men who clearly spent too much time playing basketball, and not enough time doing other things like holding jobs. Led by "Shirtless sweaty man", "Guy who looks like the guy on our team" and "the Leviathan" (I got to cover him), team Russia thoroughly trounced team America plus Nathan's friend and "Really Really Old Guy" 100-82. We had a lot of fun nevertheless, I scored my share of points and even stuffed a guy on the other team, "Really Really Old Guy" showed that he could still run with the young guns (until he got knocked to the floor one too many times), and we all learned that we don't have much skill at basketball. The only downsides were that I had to cover "The Leviathan", who was approximately nine feet tall and twice as heavy as me, "Shirtless sweaty man" elbowed me in the face and gave me a bloody nose, and the bathroom didn't have any toilet paper (thank god for newspaper). That Wednesday we went to a CKA hockey game. Tickets that would cost $90+ in America cost approximately $6 in Russia, so needless to say I have been to, and plan on attending more games in the future. The next week we went to the Michailovsky Theater and watched their production of "The Nutcracker". I love "The Nutcracker", I took ballet and then modern dance for many years (until I was about 18) and have been in many productions of "the Nutcracker", so the ballet is quite near and dear to my heart. The performance was absolutely amazing, and the theater was beautiful. I'm going to end this entry here, since I don't want it to be too long, but I promise I'll write another one soon!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

STACHEVEMBER!

A rough night of sleep means I'm feeling far too lazy/unmotivated/exhausted to write another full-fledged entry right now, but I do have enough energy to write this... Stachevember! It starts today! Follow the adventures of a group of daring and brave young Haverford men as they grow out crusty mustaches for the month of November!
http://www.stachevember.blogspot.com/

Friday, October 29, 2010

Kazan: Lights Out



After what might have been the busiest week of my life, I am back at cranking out blog entries, desperately not trying to fall months behind. So the next day our excursion was in the city of Kazan, capital of Tartarstan. Founded either by Volga Bulgars or the Golden Horde, Kazan had always been the center of Islam in Russia. I was super excited to see Kazan, I had read quite a bit about it, and wanted to see the churches and mosques that I had read so much about. Unfortunately it was not to be. We got caught behind a fog bank, and spent quite a few hours idling in the middle of the Volga river. It wasn't all bad though, we had our first dance class that day. Apparently the Moscow and Vladimir kids have dance classes as part of their course load, and one of their teachers came on the excursion with us. We learned to dance a quadrille and we learned how to Salsa. I enjoyed the quadrille quite a bit, it was fun and different. The salsa wasn't really my thing, my hips have never heard of this "Latin flare" business, and were none too pleased to be moved in the way I wanted them to.
We made it to Kazan late in the evening, so our excursion was kind of a whirlwind. We toured the Kazan Kremlin, whose main selling point is the Qul-Sharif Mosque. Finished in 2005, the mosque is the largest outside of Turkey and is exceptionally beautiful. The original mosque, was destroyed when Ivan the Terrible razed the city in 1552, and is fabled to by the inspiration for St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow. I couldn't see much of a resemblance in the new mosque, but maybe I'm just stupid...
The evening was topped off by a bit of free time to roam the city. I have to say I was thoroughly nonplussed with what I saw, a bunch of drunk Russians who were more than a little touchy, and a bunch of very ugly, very Soviet looking buildings. I guess you can't always have everything though right?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nizhni Novgorod: It Begins





Our excursion started with an overnight train ride on Thursday. After school we all met at the aptly named "Moscow Train Station" (if you couldn't guess, the trains all go to Moscow or cities in that area). I love taking overnight trains in Russia, everyone is crowed into these tiny little coupes with four bunks a piece, with another two lying parallel to the aisle across from you. It's kind of romantic in a way, everyone sits around the tiny tables and eats, since there is pretty much nothing else to do for the twelve plus hours on the train. I had a lovely time sitting and chatting with my bunk mates, eating, laughing, and trying to organize a night of partying in Moscow with the son of the head of the North American Cossack League (he is also a Duma member) but unfortunately those plans fell through, since he was apparently off doing Cossack things in Rostov on Don. In the end it didn't matter, we did just fine for ourselves in Moscow, but that's a story for a different blog post...
We arrived in Nizhni really early Friday morning. As much as I love Russia trains, sleeping on them is absolutely impossible. I had ended up passing out around 10 without actually having made my bed. Coverless, I spent a night of fitful sleep getting my feet mangled by approximately every single person on the train. The bunks on these trains were made for someone approximately the size of a leprechaun, meaning that a rather large portion of my body hangs off the bed and into the aisle. Over the summer, I always had the top bunk, so when I wasn't squeezed into the overhead storage bin like I was on my first ride when my feet ended up hanging out the window, my feet were safe to dangle in the aisle. Since nobody wanted to rick getting my sasquatch feet to the face, they usually ducked out of the way. Being on the bottom bunk was a completely different matter. Having your feet at knee level is practically asking for mutilation. I honest think people made a conscious effort NOT to get out of the way, if only to see my combination look of sleepy consternation and grimace of pain. Nizhni Novgorod itself is a beautiful city, and one of my favorites of the whole excursion, we first visited the apartment that was used to basically imprison the inventor of the Soviet A-bomb (his name escapes me at the moment). I found the museum to be dreadfully boring, I was stuck at the tour group with a small group of people, so we couldn't really hear anything people said. We ended up having to entertain ourselves. IE, sign the guestbook and sit on this guys furniture. The rest of the city I loved though. Nizhni's Kremlin walls are still standing, and command a giant hill that overlooks the city. The Kremlin even has WWII tanks, trucks, artillery, and planes that the city produced during the war on display which, if so inclined, one can climb on. I was so inclined and spent a blissful 10 minutes or so climbing all over T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket trucks. That evening a few friends and I went to explore the city ourselves. We ended up getting more than a bit lost and ended up in some of the city's seedier areas, but even so I thoroughly enjoyed myself. My highlight was our adventure to find water. Which ended in a basement grocery store which one could only get through by walking down a dilapidated stair case and going through a door which I couldn't really differentiate from the wall around it. Only in Russia I guess...
The evening was spent on the boat. That night we had our first encounters with Vera and Denis, otherwise know as the waitstaff from Hell. Vera, who you will hear much more about in future entries, was a dour, rather unpleasant girl, who was our waitress for the week. Everything and everyone appeared to be a major inconvenience for her, and that included us and getting our food. The first night dinner took over two hours because Vera was so slow, and we simply left when she apparently refused to bring us our after dinner tea (a necessity in Russia) Denis was the barman's assistant upstairs. Denis wouldn't serve anyone a second drink until they had payed for the previous one, a system which he didn't bother to inform anyone of. So after one rather delicious white Russian, we spent a good 45 minutes trying to order drinks that never came. Finally, we threatened to just walk out, it was only then that nasty Denis bothered to inform us of his preposterous system. Needless to say we left in quite a huff. The evening was saved however, and I spent a rather lovely couple of hours drinking wine downstairs in another bar with a couple of friends. I apologize that my photos of Nizhni are rather limited in number, I had various camera fails throughout the day (no batteries, no memory card, etc.) and unfortunately as of this moment only a few other people have posted their pictures of the excursion. I do have a few though, and hopefully those will suffice.

Long Time No Post




After receiving a surprising amount of hate mail concerning my lack of posting, I've decided to get my act together and sit on Friday night and write blog posts (not that I would be doing anything better, it's snowing outside and I have no urge to battle snow in mid-October). I have more than two weeks, and a giant cruise down the Volga to cover so I'm going to try to punch these bad boys out as quick as possible. Two Wednesdays ago our excursion was to Pushkin, formerly know as Tsarkoye Selo, which is home to the famous Catherine Palace. I've been in Russia for almost four months now, and I can tell you by this point, I was pretty much palaced out. It's kind of a "you've seen one, you've seen them all" type deal. Painfully, and sometimes grossly ornate palaces, often (or so it seems) filled with second rate art works that didn't quite make it into a museum. I have to say though that Catherine's Palace was an exception. The palace is an eye-catching shade of robin's egg blue and is covered in gold and white trim. The interiors are huge, lined with gold leafed sculptures of cupids, angels, and human figures, and mirrors, all a refreshing change from the endless enclosed rooms of other palaces. The Catherine Palace (named for Peter's wife, not Catherine the Great as many believe) is also home to the amber room, a room paneled in amber. The original room was stolen by the Nazis in World War II as they gave the palace the stereotypical German treatment (IE completely ransacking the place) and was lost for decades. I believe it was recently discovered that the panels were destroyed in a fire accidentally set by the advancing Red Army somewhere near Koenigsberg, but I could be mistaken. The room has been painstakingly restored however and is now a proud symbol of the new Russia. The room is awe inspiring, even though it doesn't cover the entire room (the original was a gift from Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, and was meant to cover a room a quarter of the size) the amber is beautiful as it is, but it has been carved into picture frames, trim, and about anything else you can imagine. I wish I could have taken a picture, but unfortunately the army of babushkas guarding the room were quite vehement about enforcing the no photography rule. I've decided, if I ever become the Theocrat of a country, I'm going to build myself an exceeding opulent palace like the Catherine Palace, complete with my own Amber Room, which will take up the ENTIRE room. The rest of the afternoon after the afternoon was spent rather peacefully wandering the extensive gardens and grounds of the palace.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Some Musings on Russia and the Russians




As I lay in bed with a stomach infection (I get to have an ultrasound Tuesday to see if there is swelling in my stomach), pondering why it seems that I have caught every kind of bizarre disease known to mankind, I've decided to change things up and be a little bit more insightful and thoughtful than simply just tell you what I've done since my last blog post (Sit in my bed and watch South Park). I've been in Russia almost three months now, and as cliche as it sounds, I'm still learning new things about Russian culture and life everyday. Russian culture often seems to be completely obtuse and preposterous to those who see it from the outside. "Potatoes, vodka, bears, and suffering" was how one friend of mine summed up his thoughts on Russia. While I won't deny you that I've seen more potatoes and vodka here than I ever care to see again, that I've seen my fair share of bears on leashes walking down Nevsky Prospekt (I've seen two!), and that the suffering of many Russians is completely mind-numbing, there is much more to Russia than that. In my three months here I've met some of the most interesting and intelligent people. I really feel like I've grown to appreciate the life I have after my time here. Whether it be discussing world politics over a dinner of beer and raw fish (anyone wonder how I got a stomach infection?) or just learning to enjoy sitting on a bench in the park for a few hours, I've grown to see life from a different perspective.
While that's all well and good, there are still some things about Russia that even I still find to be preposterous. I find that no matter how intelligent many Russians are, they often believe, and say, the most absurd, ridiculous things. They believe in the most obtuse and irrational things, that time and time again completely throws me for a loop.
Take for example an encounter I had in class a week or so ago. We were sitting in class as usual, and as unfortunately seems to happen more often than not, I had absolutely no clue what was going on. As is par for the course, there was a complete jump from what I thought, quite possibly wrongly, we were talking about (something about perfective, imperfective verbs and aspect) and jumped to something completely different, and completely irrelevant to the subject of grammar. All of sudden, at a decibel level that was more than slightly uncomfortable, we started hearing about the city of Paris. We were told, quite correctly I assume, that Paris is one of, if not the single, most beautiful city in the world. We then told that there was a huge problem in Paris. The city was being defiled by cigarette butts. I completely agreed. Cigarette butts are gross, the ground in St. Pete is covered in them and it's really disgusting. I was pretty pumped, "She agrees!" I thought, "Ok, you say it lady!" Alas, it was at this point that the rationality train completely derailed. "Do you know why," she asked, "there are cigarette butts all over Paris?" I had no idea why Paris is plagued by cigarette butts, and quite eagerly waited to hear the source of this menace. Her answer? "Muslims. Muslims and all those Arab and African foreigners who come to France to work." I'm fairly confident the sound of the palm of my hand being slapped against my forehead could have been heard for miles around. For real? Arab and African immigrants are the reason for Paris's problems? My god, I wonder what she has to say about the purpose of the pyramids or the JFK assassination...
But that is Russia I guess. "Conspiracy syndrome" as I call it, seems to be another one of the quirks of the Russian character. And while at times it can be kind of shocking, or evenly offensive to some with more delicate tastes (luckily I have never been one of those). I just find it amusing. In my opinion, it's kind of endearing and something that definitely can keep a conversation going. Who doesn't want to argue about whether the Chernobyl reactor exploded because it was dirty (an actual argument I have had) and whether now it is still radioactive (apparently, according to this woman, it stopped being radioactive five years after the explosion).
That about does it from here. The highlight of my week has definitely been the new kitten my host sister brought home two days ago. He doesn't have a name yet (I bounce between calling him Thaddeus and Frankidor) and he's super tiny (he can sit in the pal of my hand) but he's super adorable. He sits with me and chases just about everything, string, the cursor on my computer screen, any moving part of my body. He's been my buddy for the past couple of days, sitting with me as I lay in bed. So I leave you with a rather adorable string of pictures my mom and dad took as I was skyping them today,

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Hermitage: 2 Tom: 0

Sickness may have kept me in bed for four days, but it didn't stop me from failing to update my blog. I spent Thursday, Friday, and most of Saturday in bed, and by Sunday was very close to dying of boredom. As such I decided that perhaps a little bit of an outing was what I needed. My friend Hannah and I ventured to the Hermitage, in hopes of seeing a new exhibit or trophy art stolen by the Red Army as the Soviets rampaged across Eastern Europe and Germany at the end of WWII. Many of these pieces, such as Heinrich Schliemann's gold from the city of Troy, are super valuable, and in many cases, thought lost forever until they "turned up" in the Hermitage's vast storage facilities as little as five years ago. We were however, defeated in our quest, not only did we not see the exhibit, we couldn't even FIND it. Not that that fact is particularly surprising. The Hermitage is unnecessarily huge, filling up three stories of the former winter palace and an adjoining building. And that's simply the art on display. Legend holds that the Hermitage's collection is so extensive, that to even glance at each piece of the collection for a couple of seconds, one would need nearly nine years.
As such we spent the next few hours wandering about the museum. The most surreal part of the day for me was going up to the museum's third floor. In dark, dingy rooms lit with fluorescent lights like you would find in a public school classroom, filled with famous Monets, Matisses, and other works by French artists. The visit, while completely unsuccessful, was a good deal of fun. I spent the evening with Lyuda, we went to the movies. We ended up seeing some French movie about oceans. I can't say as though I found the movie particularly entertaining or enjoyable. Take Planet Earth, remove the audio, and then replace it with classical music and some really pretentious narration about discovery and some other mumbo jumbo I couldn't understand. And then make it last almost 2.5 hours. And to top it all off, end the movie with a 10 minute montage of beautiful dolphins and whales getting harpooned, bludgeoned, and stabbed to death. Needless to say I didn't eat the fish I was offered for dinner that night...
Today, instead of an excursion (apparently no one checked to see if the museum we were planning to visit was open on Wednesdays...) Hannah and I (this time with some reinforcements) again ventured to the Hermitage, determined to find this damned exhibit. The Reader's Digest version of the story is that once again the Hermitage foiled our plan. Another few hours spent wandering the museum in the desperate hope of finding what I would like to think would be a pretty obvious exhibit. On the plus side though, we did see two Da Vinicis and I got to go to my favorite part of any museum, the arms and armour. Hopefully if I don't procrastinate too much/understand my homework, I'll write another post tonight, but right now I'm going to go eat dinner.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Down With The Sickness





The downsides to being sick are obvious. 1. I'm sick... Nobody likes spending the day with their head spinning and their stomach hurting. 2. You don't see any of your friends. 3. You don't get any work done.
What it does mean however is that I can write blog posts! I'll keep this one short though, I'm on my last legs for the day. Our excursion this week was to the fortress of орещек, or roughly translated, "the nut" due to the fact that it looks like a nut when viewed from above(?) I can't say as though I found it to be particularly nut-like. The fortress is now largely a ruin, located on a wind swept island at the mouth of the Neva River on Lake Ladoga. Despite it's ominous, and decidedly melancholy appearance, the fortress has a fascinating history. Built first by the Swedes in the 11th or 12th century, and again by the Republic of Novgorod in the 14th, the land around Ladoga was the prize territory sought by the Swedes and Russians over seven hundred years of warfare. After it's seizure by Peter the Great during the Great Northern War, the fortress took on the role of prison, housing many famous inmates, such as Ivan VI, the ill-fated Russian heir to the Tsarist throne who spent all 24 years of his life in prison, before being shot and killed by prison guards during a botched breakout attempt by his supporters, to Lenin's older brother, who was hung beneath the fortress's crumbling walls. In more recent history, the fortress served as a vital bastion in the defense of Leningrad that prevented the Germans and Finns from completely sealing off the city. The fortress withstood three years of nearly constant bombardment from German artillery, and kept open the vital "Road of Life" across Lake Onega, allowing the beleaguered city to cling to life for the nearly 900 day siege. Surprisingly enough, the Soviet garrison of the fortress only suffered 24 casualties in almost three years of fighting. To put that into perspective, the 1943 offensive to break the German blockade only miles away ended in almost 50,000 Soviet deaths. Now the fortress is only a ruin, a stark memorial to a long history of violence and death.
That being said, the tour was fascinating, and it was quite enjoyable walking around, and in some cases climbing on, the rather surreal ruins of walls, towers, and churches. My friend Rob climbed the spire of the fortress's dilapidated church, a harrowing and impressive feat that I imagine required no small amount of skill/
Alas however, now I am ill, my plans to meet with Lyuda have once again been torpedoed, and my work load is piling up. Such is life I guess...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Whoops?






Per usual, I fail to update my blog in any sort of timely manner, so now I have a whole week of stuff to fill you in on. First of all, I AM RABIES FREE! OFFICIALLY! Last Tuesday was my last shot, and I am finally free from weekly visits to the health clinic. Unfortunately no one at the clinic seemed to join me in my enthusiasm, the nurse refused to let me give her a celebratory hug after she jabbed me with the needle, and the doctor as usual asked why I had asked for a doctor's consultation (in my defense I NEVER asked for a consultation with a doctor after the first shot, and this time they told me it was against policy clinic not to have a doctor's consultation, fail?). They did know who I was when I called this time though, which was rather heartening, maybe that was their way of congratulating me...
Wednesday was our first excursion day, like over the summer we did a tour of the canals and waterways of St. Petersburg. The tour was meant to introduce the new American students to their Russian tutors. The excursion differed from in the summer however in that approximately none of the Russian tutors showed up. No matter though, I knew Lyuda wasn't coming so I had a lovely time sitting outside (it was a beautiful day) sitting outside, chatting, and taking pictures.
The rest of the week was pretty quiet, two other students were moved into Pasha's and my group, Sean, a graduate student with beautiful Russian, and Kristina, who speaks Russian at home. I feel like I've been put in the ring with heavy weights. It's for the best though, I'm being pushed to my speaking limits everyday, which I'm sure will do wonders for my Russian.
Friday night was interesting, it is prohibitively for me to take a taxi home after the metros close, so every night I go out I have to choose between going home at midnight, or staying out until 6 when the metros open. I chose to stay out. The night started out fun, we went to a club called mode on the roof of a building near 'sposno krovi' or the Church on Spilled Blood, a beautiful St. Petersburg monument. I met a lot of the people in the Flagship program and was having a great time. The night kind of went downhill from there. Starting around 2:00 AM we started losing people, and me and a few other people were led away by a Russia guy who probably hadn't showered in a few weeks who I none so kindly dubbed 'The Goatee of Lies'. Goatee of Lies said he knew some great clubs in another part of the city. after leaving three bars/clubs, all of which I found quite enjoyable, Goatee of Lies led us to approximately the middle of nowhere, home to his infamous clubs. The clubs were as followed, two closed clubs (apparently closed for quite some time), and pretty sketchy looking club that thankfully wouldn't let us in, and a reggae club with approximately seven people in it. Anyway, after half an hour of watching four geeky men dance to a remarkably horrible DJ, I and the two other survivors of the evening decided to hit the road. We journeyed back to the bars we had found earlier and spent the rest of the night/morning there. However, I lost my friends after about four, so I spent the two hours between four and six AM by myself. Long story short, by the time I found an open metro station by seven I was rather thirsty and thoroughly miserable. I consoled myself over a bowl of borscht at about 7:30, and was in bed at 8.
The week thus far has been better. After having given a presentation about our excursion Monday, we went to the palace of Gatchina on Wednesday. Gatchina is an odd place, a castle that looks more like a fortress than anything. The palace belonged to any number of people throughout history, Peter's sister, a knightly order with an impossible name, the infamous Count Orlov, the Tsars' personal physicians, and finally Paul I. The palace was subjected to extensive renovations by all who possessed it. In the end, it is a rather ungainly looking leviathan of gray stone, half fortress, half french castle, complete with extensive English gardens, a grotto that answers questions, and Paul I's personal 'Island of Love'. The palace was occupied by the Germans during WWII, and per usual, the Nazis did a stellar job with the upkeep. By the time the city was liberated in 1994, the palace was almost entirely obliterated by Luftwaffe bombs and Wehrmacht tanks, and the gardens were almost entirely chopped down, burned, or otherwise destroyed. Restoration of the palace continues to this day, with many rooms still bombed out and bare. It is really quite sobering to see the bare walls and shell holes that still dominate many of the rooms.
That about does it for me. Lyuda comes back from Sochi tomorrow, so hopefully I will be able to see her soon. I'm still trying to make friends, so it looks like I will be going out at least one night this weekend, and next weekend I might go see a soccer game, very exciting! Hope all is well back home!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Russia 2.0: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

I'm back! Today was our first of class. This semester is going to be a bruiser, my class is only two people, me and my friend Paul (henceforth known as Pasha). That means I'm really going to have to be on my game everyday. Nowhere to hide now when I don't know how to conjugate a verb or haven't quite finished the day's домашнее задание. I guess I can't complain, my русский is going to be pretty damn good come December.
My first four days have been pretty quiet, getting to know everyone in the new group and getting re-adjusted to life in Russia. Even after only three weeks of being home, coming back is still a change. Whether it be avoiding the flock of pigeons that apparently decided to die in the courtyard of my apartment block, fighting my way onto the metro (I will never understand why St. Petersburg feels the need to close metro stations during rush hour.), almost getting pick-pocketed, or averting a disasterous attempt by my host mother to flavor spaghetti with maple syrup, life in Russia is always exciting, if not slightly ludicrous and non-sensical.
I hope everyone at home is doing well and enjoying the warm weather, it's already pretty cold here!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Northern Exposure and Home





I feel as though I owe you guys one last entry, you who have suffered through a summer of inconsistent posting and my lackluster writing skills, riddled with misspellings and and poor grammar. So here it is. First of all, I'M HOME!!! After 3.5 days of traveling, and nearly 52 hours without sleep I arrived home on Tuesday morning. Being home has been a quite a change, and I've had a big case of reverse culture shock. Whether it be my willingness to not shower for days on end (I've been told not showering for two days is unacceptable) or having to consider that the police man walking down the sidewalk in DC might actually have no interest in extorting me has been a bit of a change. I'm happy to be home. The week before we left was spent in the Republic of Karelia, a region of Northern Russia known for its stunning beauty, and a lot of churches. Our week of travels brought us to different sites over more than 1500 kilometers. We saw some truly beautiful things. The Solovetsky Monastery on the White Sea, where we ate seaweed and swam in/drank from the White Sea (apparently I will now be sore throat free for a year) to the city of Petrazavodsk, a beautiful, if not slightly rundown and melancholy city, perched on the shores of Lake Onega, the churches of the island of Kizhi, two huge churches (one with 28 onion domes) built without a single nail, and whose island is apparently home to a rather vicious viper population. We went white water rafting, rowing, and hiking through the mine shafts of a marble quarry. All in all the trip was a success, and minus the suffocating smog from Russia's raging forest fires, highly enjoyable. But once again I am home, 16 pounds lighter and with a potential case of rabies, but home nonetheless. Thank you guys for reading my blog and following my adventures, and make sure to keep reading in the Fall when I head back to Russia again!

Friday, July 30, 2010

"If You Like Something, You Need to Drink it"


Some sage words I received from my host father Sasha last night. I've been asked to write a little bit more about food culture in Russia, and I am all too happy to oblige. Food and drinking are, in my opinion, vital parts of the 'Russian experience', and some of my favorite times here have been spent over a good meal or a bottle of vodka. Russian food is often considered by foodies to be pretty damn horrible, but like their opinion about German cuisine, I have to disagree. I have found Russian food to be on the whole to be quite tasty. Unlike in America, Russian cuisine is still very much seasonal, the time of year very much dictates what one will find in the продукты (grocery store) or киоск (roadside kiosk, of which there are hundreds). Being the summer, I have eaten a lot of fish, and vegetables, and by vegetables I mean tomatoes, cucumbers, and the ever present dill. Meat, usually chicken fish or sausage, is in soup form, even in the hottest of weather. Борщ (borscht) is always a possibility, since everything seems to go well with beets, though often times soup will have barley or some other grain in it. Russians are positively obsessed with mushrooms, and they are considered quite the treat. One can often find them in the traditional Russian блины (a crepe like pancake) or served over rice or meat. I have eaten, (and also cleaned and gutted I am proud to say) quite a bit of fish, which can be a soup, served on its own, smoked, or salted. I quite enjoy salted and smoked fish, especially with a can of beer. In the summer, strawberries and raspberries round out my diet.
What is most fascinating in Russia however is the drinking culture. The American stereotype is that all Russians are drunk all the time, and that is partially true. A large segment of the Russian population, especially men, drink to excess. Drinking, as well as drugs such as heroine, are an escape from what for some is a rather miserable existence in the new Russia. As such, the average life expectancy for Russian men hovers right around 50, and Russia's ethnic Russian population is nosediving. Among 'cultured' Russians however, drinking is quite different. Russians really only drink on special occasions, what they don't tell you however, is that anything can be made into a special occasion. For example, a special occasion was the day after my first rabies shot, when I felt good enough to drink again. And let me tell you, when Russians drink, they drink. If I have learned one thing in Russia it is never try to out drink a Russian, you will lose, and in embarrassing style. My first Sunday here (at 6 am mind you) was spent in near horror as I was almost drunk under the table by a 16 year old Russian girl. Traditionally in Russia, special occasions were celebrated with vodka, and it was considered rude not to finish a bottle of vodka once it was opened (many old Russian vodka bottles can't be resealed once opened). This tradition still survives, and Russians will sit and make toasts (as I was told by one Russian, "You don't have a drinking problem if you aren't drinking alone or can still make a toast to something.") to one another with shots of vodka (no mixers here) chased with pickles or cucumbers, until they have drained one or more bottles. After the fall of the Soviet Union however, the price of vodka has skyrocketed (a bottle of Russian Standard will cost you at least 900 rubles, which for most Russians is quite a bit) and as such, beer and wine (often with a very high percentage of alcohol per volume) have become staples of Russian drinking culture. Russian food and drinking culture have deep roots in the Russian psyche. In the days of the Russian Empire, Russian Orthodoxy was a mainstay of peasant life. The bible preaches against wealth and the hording of wealth, and as such, Russians viewed, and still do, frugality and wise spending as negative character traits. This, coupled with a environment that was often times too hostile to grow food to eat, Russians came to become a culture of consumption. If Russians came into a large sum of money, food, or drink, it was immediately consumed, anything else would be un-Christian and un-Russian. That mentality, with a few exceptions, survives until this day. Russians don't save money, and good food is consumed almost immediately, the one exception I have seen being rare fruits like lemon, which are often rationed out in thin slices over many days, and even weeks!
Andrew, I hope you found this informative/coherent, I'll gladly chat with you about it more, Russian culture (food and drinking culture included) is so multi-faceted that it is almost too hard to describe in such a small amount of space.
In other news, I'm done with classes!!! Today was my last day of exams, and now I can officially say I have completed courses at an elite Russian university. Our last day was celebrated with a banquet, where every group did a small presentation, such as singing a song, or reading poetry. Our group did a short play of Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" with a script I borrowed from my Second Year Russian class at home. I reduxed my role as Lisa, the beautiful (?) grand daughter of the old campus. Once again, as seems to happen far too often in my time as a Russian student, I ended in a dress, much to the enjoyment of our classmates. The rest of the evening was spent with Lyuda, exploring the half of the water museum that was open. It was fascinating, and it was great to see Lyuda again. Our tutors had been payed for the time they had spent with us earlier in the semester, but it was really touching to learn that she considers me a friend, and wants to spend time with me on her own accord. That about does it from here, I'll hopefully post once more before we leave for the Arctic. Our first stop is going to be the Solovetsky Islands, then the island of Kizhi, and lastly the city of Petrazavodsk (in case anyone was interested in looking those places up).

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Been...




One week since I've posted last, I apologize once again. I got a lot to write so I might as well get down to it. When I left you last I was still haunted with thoughts of putting small children in jars. I am proud to say that since then I have not encountered any canned mutants, and I am rather content know that if I so choose, I never have to set foot in Kunstkamera again. My past week has been real busy, as evidenced by the fact that I didn't post anything. I spent Tuesday afternoon with Lyuda, trying first to find, and then go to St. Petersburg's "water museum". I was rather fascinated by the idea, what exactly does a water museum display, collections of rare water samples? The history of water? As it turns out, the water museum is a history of all of Peter's many different water ways and water works. I would like to say that the museum was fascinating, however, I never got to saw it. As per usual, the museum was inexplicably closed. We ended up spending the evening walking around the area, one of St. Petersburg's more scenic neighborhoods. Wednesday was spent as the mass grave for the victims of the Leningrad Siege. The area, where over 490,000 unidentified civilians and soldiers lie buried, is truly sobering, and oddly beautiful at the same time. To think that one could almost bury every American who died in the War in that same area is mind blowing. Not only that, but you could bury all the dead and NOT know who they were. The park, not typical of most things Soviet, is rather unpretentious in its design. Simple dirt mounds with stones marking the year of the grave, flank a central walkway leading up to a statue of "the Motherland" behind which stands a wall marking the spot as the place where the heroes of the city are buried. For being basically a piece of propaganda of the Soviet government, the words written there and the park as a whole were surprisingly touching and moving. I would have taken pictures, but of course that was the day my camera decided to malfunction and stop taking pictures. The rest of the week was spent in obscurity without a camera. The highlight being Friday, where a group of friends and I went to St. Mixail's Castle, otherwise know as the Engineer's Castle. I think I explained the history of the palace in an earlier post, so I'll forgo giving you all another long winded history lesson, however much I might enjoy them. The castle ended up being rather disappointing. The castle is filled with secret passages, trap doors, and tunnels built by the paranoid Tsar Paul, but the museum made no mention of them. Instead, it displayed some rather unimpressive Russian art from the 18th and 19th Centuries, which mostly consisted of Russian artists trying to rather poorly knock off the art of their decidedly more talented Western European compatriots. To top it all off, there was a temporary exhibition of contemporary and modern art. As some of you may know, I rather despise modern art, and let's just say this exhibit did nothing to change that feeling...
The weekend I spent doing things with my friend Evan. Everyone else went on a trip to the medieval city of Pskov, and only Evan and I were left to keep poor Peter company. Saturday we hoped to go to Pavlovsk, home of the Tsars after Catherine up until the end of the Monarchy in 1917. Due to some rather unexpected and rather heavy rain, we delayed our trip, and instead spent the afternoon at the Russian ethnographic museum. The museum, still heavily reminiscent of a Soviet propaganda effort, has seemingly endless displays of the endless number of ethnic groups in the former USSR's borders. The museum was thoroughly enjoyable, though the museum never explained how the shore dwelling reindeer herders (the rough translation of some ethnic group's name) managed to make not only clothing, but roofs and boats out of fish skin. I really wanted to know! I had no clue you could skin a fish, let alone use that skin to make a house!
Sunday we made our much anticipated trip to Pavlovsk, which is about 20 kilometers south of the city. The palace is surrounded by seemingly endless parks studded with, as my guidebook puts it, "hidden temples and the like", while we didn't find the Temple of Doom or anything like that, we did find some rather nice statues of Greek gods and perhaps my favorite structure круглый зал, or roughly translated, circley hall. The place itself was quite beautiful, but like all the Tsars' palaces, it was painfully ornate, often to the point of being garish. Sandwiched between tours in Russian, German, French, and English, we managed to learn quite a bit about the museum. The most interesting, ridiculous, and tragic part of the palace's history the Second World War. Occupied by the Germans in 1941, the palace, beyond being looted, as most all landmarks were by the Nazis, the palace largely survived four years of warfare intact. After the museum's liberation in 1945 something tragic occurred, the Red Army accidentally blew up the palace... Now, at this point, like me, you may be wondering, "How does one accidentally blow up one's palace?" I'll tell you, smoke a cigarette in a room full of landmines like one genius Red Army soldier, and you can kiss your cultural heritage goodbye. In the ensuing inferno the palace was largely reduced to rubble, understandable, since most of the palace's 100+ rooms had been booby-trapped with explosives. Due to a painstaking restoration effort however, the palace has been largely restored to its former grandeur.
Today was our second to last day of class, and probably my MVP performance of the summer. In addition to supplying a nearly ready written script for my classes final presentation (thanks to second year Russian we will be performing a comic rendition of Pushkin's "Queen of Spades" with me once again taking on the role of the beautiful young Liza) I spent over an hour today giving a presentation of Soviet Policy during the first months of WWII. Needless to say I was feeling pretty good about myself academically. To top it all off, I passed my first random document check by the Russian police. My ramshackle photocopy passport, coupled with my rather vehement assertions that all my documents were in order I'm pretty sure made the poor cop wish he had picked on someone else to try and extort for money.
That about does it from here, I'm currently lying on my bed recovering from a delicious dinner of sausage, sauerkraut, soup, and 11.5% alcohol by volume beer. And with that I leave you with a video of Russian tanks dancing ballet, oh Russia how I love thee. Hope all is well with you guys!

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kunstkamera: I'd Like My Mutants Pickled Please...



Once again, sorry for the lack of posting, seems just have a tendency to crop up and unfortunately eating, sleeping, and going to school all come before blogging on my list of priorities. The past week has been an up and down one, sickness mixed with some fun mixed with some interesting adventures. It would take too long to write everything here so I'll give you the Reader's Digest version. Wednesday's excursion to the Baltika beer brewing factory was a lot of fun. Beer brewing is really fascinating to learn about, and being the biggest brewery in Europe, the factory tour was quite impressive. The tour ended in the sampling room, a huge table lined with multiple bottles of the 30+ beverages Baltika brews, plus some rather odd tasting (white mushroom flavor anyone?), yet extremely tasty chips. While much fun, my attempts to sample all thirty beverages ended in delightful failure, and the rest of the day was spent rather blissfully lying in the sun at the park. The rest of the week was quiet, the most interesting point probably being my failed attempt to purchase a copy of Cosmo in Russian. The woman behind the counter first stared at me, and then refused to sell me the magazine on the grounds that I am a man, and only women can read Cosmo. My assertions to the contrary were disregarded and rebutted, and I went home cosmo-less.
Today my friend Kelsey and I ventured to Kunstkamera, Peter's first public museum. Founded by the ever-busy Peter the Great, the museum was meant to dispel Russian notions that illness and child deformities were caused by such things as the evil eye and curses, but rather were caused by "internal damage as well as fear and the beliefs of the mother during pregnancy", only a slightly more enlightened interpretation, but a step in the right direction none-the-less. Regardless of its good intentions, I think both of us would agree that the museum is more gross than anything. In a few short words, imagine cases full of deformed fetuses (two-headed, cyclopses, and multiple limbed fetuses just to name a few), babies, decapitated heads of children, and random amputated limbs and organs, all nicely pickled in varying sized jars. Next to these rather morose displays, were rather gross (though informative) explanations of what was in the cases, how they were prepared, and how Peter came to acquire them. Apparently, in addition to his various other obsessions, Peter came to be rather engrossed in human anatomy and dissections during his time in the Netherlands. The collections were acquired from two Dutch (their names are far too garbled and Dutch to be memorable) men, one of whom apparently became rather famous for his life-like "jarrings". Basically, the man injected brandy mixed with pepper into the veins and tissue of his 'masterpieces' (the museum's words, not mine) to make them appear more life-like. His most famous works include various 'studies' (my words, not the museum's) in human intestine, and a preserved head of a child with glass eyes. Needless to say the museum is not for those who are weak in the stomach, have just eaten lunch, or plan on eating any time in the next week or so.
After the museum we sat in a park near the Admirality and the famous Bronze Horseman and recovered for a while. By a while I mean a few hours, in which every time I saw a small child or baby all I could imagine was them sitting in a pickle jar for 240 years. Now I'm going to try and eat dinner, a venture that may very well end in failure, wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

St, Isaac's, Peter and Paul Redux, and Lyuda to the Rescue


My week up until this point has been very quiet. Sunday was spent at the hospital getting my third rabies shot, and wishing my mom a happy birthday. Even though all I did that day was walk the three or four miles to the clinic and back, I was exhausted. Unfortunately the vaccines seem to wipe me out, and afterward I always seem to wind up only having the energy to sog in front of the TV, though sometimes even that is hard. Yesterday was quiet as well, though I was successful in my quest to find an electrical adapter for my computer cable. Yesterday's second highlight was learning more about our final 8 day excursion. We're going to travel up north to the White Sea, later I'll be less lazy and include the names in a post so you guys can find them on a map if you want. Today was a fun day, I spent the afternoon with Lyuda and her college friend Olya. We went to St. Isaac's Cathedral, a really beautiful church whose rotunda you can climb and look out across the whole city. Being the idiot I am however, I forgot to put a memory card in my camera. I was in luck though, Lyuda had a camera and took pictures, hopefully she'll email them to me soon and I'll be able to post them here. Afterward we went on a very long walk (almost 5.5 miles by the end I believe), which took us through the Peter and Paul Fortress again, and to the Mixailsky Palace, or Engineers palace. Mixail was a rather paranoid tsar, and built the vibrantly orange palace with numerous secret passage ways and doors, in an attempt to foil assassination attempts. Ironically enough, after only forty days in the palace Mixail succumbed to the very thing he feared, assassination. He was strangled with a curtain by his military officers. The palace is surrounded by beautiful parks, one of which contains a rather nice (for Soviet architecture) memorial to Leningrad soldiers how died during World War II.
That about does it for me, I'm exhausted, and want to get enough sleep before our tour of the Baltika Beer Brewery tomorrow. I'll leave you with the picture of a shack made out of cardboard that has sprung up on the way I walk to the Metro.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Peter and Paul Fortress and Stachevember 2.0 Fail



I feel like I need to compensate for the fact that I didn't post much of anything this week. So here I am with my second post of the weekend. Today we were quite touristy and spent the day at the Peter and Paul Fortress, the center of old St. Petersburg and the city's main defensive installation. The fortress, in typical Russian fashion, is an inexplicable mix-match of things. Barouque, neo-classical, and any number of different style of architecture compete for attention, just as the varied different museums, monuments, and beaches compete for one's time. We started out our day at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, the city's first, and the final resting place for the members of the Romanov Dynasty. As most things commissioned by the Romanovs, the Cathedrals interior was ostentatious and opulent to the extreme, but the caskets however, were surprisingly plain. Simple white marble tombs with an orthodox cross on the cover. We spent a good hour there, tacking on to different tour groups and trying to puzzle together the long and complicated Romanov family tree. Except for wanting to give a piece of my mind to some Chinese tourist who chose to sit on some poor Tsar's tomb, it was quite enjoyable and one the highlights of the day. After a short break and some surprisingly good ice cream (who would have ever thought orange and mint ice cream would go well together with white chocolate?), we moved on to the fortress's prison, which housed such notable inmates as Maxim Gorky, Leon Trotsky, and Vladimir Lenin's brother. The prison was actually pretty boring, plus we had an insufferable group of French tourists in front of us, who took up the entire corridor and wouldn't let us past. After that it was off to the space museum (why would an 18th Century fortress have a museum about space and rocket technology you ask? I couldn't tell you...) another museum that was slightly disappointing, and probably hadn't seen an update since the end of the Soviet Union. Lastly, it was the fortress museum, which we had been led to believe was a walk along the fortress's walls. While that was not the case, the museum was fascinating and provided some relief from the sun outside. We ended our day with lying on the bank of the Neva outside the fortress. It was about seven, and while looking at the sun you would think it was still noon, it had cooled down to a rather pleasant temperature. After an hour of sun-bathing (my skin now almost doesn't look like I've lived in a dark cave my whole life) and "admiring" the Russians and their interesting swimwear choices (speedos don't look good on fat Russian men)I went back home.
Starting around the first of July, I was thinking about things I could do/write about in my blog. After too little thought, I settled on the idea of doing a second Stachevember. Stachevember, celebrated in November (hence the name) is a yearly exercise in humiliation as my friends and I spend a month growing rather disgusting mustaches (an accompanying facial hair). Stachvember is always fun, we write our own blog about it, and it's fun to watch us all grow from mostly well-kept young men into men who look like they're homeless. However, this Stachevember 2.0 was not at all fun. Needless to say, growing a grody disgusting beard by one's self in the middle of summer isn't really all that much fun. As such, as of today I officially throw in the towel and concede my attempts at Stachevemeber 2.0.
That about does it for me. I wanted to watch the Germany-Uruguay world cup game, but unfortunately the channel it was on comes through as static on my home tv. I hope the Germans won, I thought they deserved to go all the way to the finals. Tomorrow is my third rabies shot, but other than that I don't have anything planned, it might just turn into a homework day. Now I'm sitting and admiring the first true darkness I've seen in about a month (it's 1AM and the sun set about 20 minutes ago).

Friday, July 9, 2010

Я ещё живь: I'm still alive!




Hey all,
Sorry I've been MIA for the past week, I've had the week from hell. After my lovely day in the hospital Sunday my week just seemed to hover at shitty for a very long while. Monday and Tuesday were downer days, I guess coming off of an emotionally draining Sunday. Wednesday should have been better, but I ended up spending the day getting intimately acquainted with my apartment's toilet, as well as the bathroom at the Russian museum of political history. I think I ate something bad and got food poisoning, but whatever it was it was pretty unpleasant. That being said however my week did have some highlights.
Highlight #1. (If you can call it a highlight) I got my second rabies shot, I'm one step closer to not being rabid!
#2. I met my tutor finally this week! Her name is Lyuda and she's super friendly and super sweet. We went for a nice walk at the beginning of the week, and watched a new Tom Cruise/Cameron Diaz movie in Russian at the movies last night.
#3. Not so much a highlight as an adventure. Tuesday I decided to walk home from school, thinking it would be a nice 45 minute walk or so to calm my nerves and relax. Needless to say I should have done a bit more looking at the map, because it was only after walking through some of Petersburg's seedier areas for two hours that I finally managed to stumble home.
#4. I got to talk to a lot of my friends from home this week who I hadn't heard from in a while. Thanks Mickey, Liv, Nicola, and Dana, you guys really helped me out this week!
Other than that all is quiet here. I might take the night off and try and get some sleep, but we'll see. This weekend is rather open, a planned trip to Pskov was moved, and except my rabies shot on Sunday, I have no commitments. I think I might go and see the Kunstkamera museum. A museum of deformed body parts and preserved animals collected by Peter the Great meant to educate the Russian people on "modern" science concerning disease and deformities. I was hoping to go see a soccer game next weekend, but according to everyone I talked to, there is approximately a 90% chance that if we try to go to a soccer game we will be beaten up by hooligans, harassed by the police, or arrested by the police because we're foreign (an unofficial crime it seems like in Russia) or some combination there of. Needless to say I don't think any soccer games are in my near future...
And with that I think I'm done, I'll leave you with some pictures of the rather scenic beginning to my multi-hour trek home on Tuesday.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Shots

No, not the good kind of shots. I canceled my beach trip and decided to go to the doctor instead. After sitting for six hours, I was told I would need rabies shots. So instead of partying on the beach for the fourth I got two shots in the arm, one for tetnus and the other for rabies. And the good news doesn't end there. Not only am I lucky enough to get two shots, I get to have five more! I'm going to be getting rabies shots periodically for the next two months. A nice little memento from my summer abroad...
Hope everybody has a better 4th than I did.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Дача visit: A study in Fermented Bread, Physics, and Russian Field Medicine






The weather held up this weekend so I got my first chance to visit the дача (summer house). After a successful day at school (my tutor finally got in touch with me) a дача visit seemed like a perfect way to end the week. And it was. I met Aleksander Ivanovich (my host dad) at the електричка (a train as far as I could tell) station, and spent a lovely half-hour riding out into the Russian countryside. Once there, we met up with Aleksander Vassil'ich (my host grandfather I guess you could stay) and after buying fish from a none too sanitary looking styrofoam box on the side of the road, we set out to the дача. The evening was really quite wonderful. After having cleaned and gutted our recent fish purchase (I am pleased to announce that I am apparently a natural at fish-gutting) we had a delicious dinner of fish stew, sauteed hotdogs and the obligatory tomato/cucumber/dill salad. As I have discovered is typical of all gatherings of Russian men, alcoholic beverages were a necessity, and I had my choice of vodka, beer or квас, an oddly sweet drink made from fermented bread. After more than a few toasts to the victorious Dutch national team (congratulations Joost, if you even read this...) and a discussion about physics and religion with Aleksander Vassil'ich, I was quite exhausted and ended up falling asleep rather early.
I was up and at 'em early today though, and while I passed on trying to learn how to weld, I did do some yard work and helped pull out some weeds that had grown to block the door to the outhouse open. After, I decided to take a walk on the roads around the dacha. They all ran through some really beautiful birch forests, and I wanted to take some pictures.
This is the point however, where my story takes a turn for the decidedly comical. As I was walking home, after having arranged a gathering spot to celebrate the 4th of July tomorrow, and still musing about the rather funny looking milk truck (it was like an American oil truck, except it was full of milk) when all of a sudden I hear a dog barking from the woods. I think nothing of it and continue walking. All of a sudden out of nowhere I see this grayish-black blur burst out from the grass, I keep walking until I feel a sharp pain in my calf. I look down and this nasty little dog had latched its mouth until my leg. Needless to say I was none to pleased, and in a fit of annoyance, punted the little bastard back into the woods where he came from. For all you animal lovers out there I think the dog was ok, it yelped and ran back into the woods. I personally think it got what it deserved, as did the two babushkas behind me, who nodded rather approvingly after my display of long unused soccer skills.
The dog managed to put five little holes in my leg, which bled a surprising amount. Anyway, back at the dacha I was subjected to more home Russian medicine. Which in this case consisted of dumping near boiling water on my leg. As I writhed in pain, the logic of this rather sadistic treatment was explained to me. Fevers are meant to cook germs and kill them, the prevailing logic is that boiling water can be used to induce a similar affect. If enough boiling hot water is applied, ones blood will get so hot to the point that the germs will boil and die.
After my boiling treatment, and the application of a brown looking liquid to my leg, I was sent off home to (one can assume) receive more treatment in a place with clean, running water. Apparently my situation wasn't bad enough that we couldn't scope out the beach that we're going to tomorrow first, so Alexander Ivanovich and I spent an hour or so sitting in the sun.
Now I'm home, after another round of brown gel I'm sitting and relaxing. Soon I'm going to take a much needed shower (I still smell like fish guts) and try and get some homework done. I'm posting some pictures of the dacha, as well as some from my university, including one of the university's cat, who I've fondly named Evgenni Stalin.