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


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!