Sunday, October 31, 2010


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!

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,