Thursday, November 15, 2012

Kiitos Suomi! (Part 1)

Merja, Syd, Derek, Ahrne, and I
I'm back!  It's been a very busy month since I've last posted, so inevitably I will have to leave out or glaze over many of the interesting and fantastic things I've done to really focus on the big stuff - namely my week long trip to Finland.  My Finland trip was an interesting one, even before it started.  My friends Derek and Syd had invited me to go with them on a trip to Finland at the beginning of September.  However it wasn't clear whether we would even be able to get there until the end of October.  Even though the Soviet Union collapsed more than twenty years ago, Russia remains a rather difficult country to enter, and in our case, leave.  As anyone who has been to Russia knows, the process to get a Russian visa is a long a difficult one that involves -among other things - passing an HIV test, wrangling a Russian "host" who can officially invite you to the country, and a long an arduous list of questions detailing all of one's experience with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.  Securing an initial visa can take months.  Once one is in the country, they need to fill out both a migration card and registration.  All of this is meant to, ostensibly, keep illegal immigrants out of the country (since Russia is obviously a highly desirable destination for illegal immigrants from America and Western Europe, right?) but as far as I can tell it is simply meant to make everyone's life much more difficult than it needs to be.  With our original visas, we couldn't leave the country and come back again, so we were forced to apply for multiple entry visas.  The Russian government claims that, barring something "extraordinary", one is supposed receive their new visa within 20 business days of applying, in our case, we would get our visas three days before we were supposed to leave.  Unfortunately, Russia seems to be the home of "extraordinary" circumstances (IE bureaucratic incompetence, corruption, etc.) and it was completely possible that we wouldn't receive our passports in time.  Luckily for us we got our passports early (gasp) and were on our way.
The drive to Finland was relatively uneventful, or as uneventful as a seven plus hour bus ride on a tiny micro bus across a Russian controlled border can be.  We got hung up on the border for about two hours (a long time in our minds but apparently a rather quick one by normal standards.  As far as I can gather one can expect to wait as long as five or six hours at the border on busier days) and passed through seemingly infinite passport control booths in areas.  All were manned by rather surly Russians, who all seemed to enjoy giving directions in uncomfortably loud and menacing voices.  We all made it through however, and made it to Finland around mid-afternoon.
A few of downtown Helsinki
Finland (and especially Helsinki, Vespoo, and Porvoo - the three towns we visited) was paradise; a cold, snowy, eternally dark paradise, but paradise nonetheless.  We stayed with the distant relatives of one of Syd's high school teachers named Ahrne and Merja.  Ahrne -a structural engineer who apparently has designed many of bridges in and around Helsinki - and Merja -a physical therapist who works in a Helsinki hospital- are extremely kind, intelligent, and friendly people who gladly put up with three grown men eating and drinking them out of house and home for a week.  Among the highlights of our time with them (and there were many) by far the most unique (and humorous) experience was our sauna adventure.  Finns are rather obsessed with saunas -sauna is actually a Finnish word- and many of them actually have saunas installed in their homes.  Ahrne was no exception, and we got to use his sauna on Wednesday night.  Sauna basically entails sitting in a boiling hot room (literally boiling, the temperature in most saunas pushes 200 degrees) and pouring water over piping hot stones, that sends waves of boiling steam through the room.  Bouts in the sauna itself are alternated with either swims in cold water, rolling in the snow, or in our case, standing outside in mid-20 degree weather drinking cans of beer.  Sauna is also done naked, which would probably offend the sensibilities of most Americans.  I don't think any of us were too fussed by it, and it is kind of surreal and rather humorous to find ones self standing outside stark naked in 20 degree rain/sleet drinking a can of beer.  While I'm kind of in the dark as to the benefits of sauna (it can be rather dangerous and people have been known to die doing it) Finns, Russians, and other cultures with similar traditions swear by it, and I have to say it is rather enjoyable once all is said and done. 

Helsinki at sunset (my poor photography skills fail to do it justice)
During the week we met with many other members of Ahrne and Merja's extended family, many of whom they themselves did not know.  Unfortunately, due to the fact that my computer is rapidly running out of batteries and I'm getting rather tired,I think I'm going to cut myself off for the day.  I'm hoping to get a few blog posts done this weekend, since I have a pretty nasty head cold and am probably going to be inside most of the time.  So, until later I guess!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Meat Jelly, Gut Sausage, and Other Culinary Adventures.

холодец, this isn't my picture, but it looks like the холодец that I ate.

I'm back, but with very little to report.  However, given the choice between a blog post and a 15 page grammar packet, I'm going to go ahead and write a new blog post.  Life continues to roll quietly along here in St. Peterburg, a fact that I'm almost glad about.  I feel like my last time here was a bit of a circus/roller coaster/house of horrors experience and I got a somewhat skewed view of what life in St. Petersburg was really like.  While Russia is still a bizarre and often times baffling place (even for those of us who speak Russian), and I still experience my full share of hijinks, it's still a place where people lead relatively normal lives.  I have had my share of little adventures though, and that's what I'm going to write about today.  First and foremost (thought it actually happened several weeks ago and I simply failed to mention it), I am proud to write that I can now officially say that I have had холодец!  For those of you who don't know; холодец (pronounced kholodetz) is a Russian dish that can best be described as meat jello.  It's essentially chunks of meat that have been formed into blocks with a jelly made from (I can only assume) it's own juices. Russian students always learn about холодец, and it quickly becomes the one Russian food that no one ever wants to try, regardless of the fact that they have no clue what холодец would even look like, let alone what it might actually taste like.  I have to say, that while холодец does look disgusting (picture a block of opaque yellowish jello with chunks of meat floating in it) it is in fact quite good, and I would recommend it to anyone brave enough to try. 

Over the past couple of weeks I have had several other culinary adventures, including trying wild mushrooms, and what I would call "gut sausage".  Russians have an obsession with mushrooms, especially with mushrooms they have picked themselves.  As Americans, we all learn that one should never EVER eat wild mushrooms.  We're told that they are all lethally poisonous, and even the smallest bite is enough to punch a one way ticket to the great beyond.  Therefore, every time I have been to Russia, I have been skeptical of most any mushroom I see.  Additionally, my first few encounters with the idea of mushroom hunting did nothing to bolster my faith in the safety of mushroom hunting.  Two years ago, I read a small chapter in a mushroom hunting book my host father had a required.  While two years later I am obviously paraphrasing, I distinctly remember one passage on identifying a particular type of mushroom reading as such: "Mushroom X is poisonous and can not be eaten no matter how it is prepared.  It can either have red cap and white stem, or a yellow cap and white stem.  Or it can look completely different."  I don't know about you, but I really doubt the qualifications and skills of a so-called authority on a life-and-death subject is limited to such articulate and exacting descriptions as "or it can look completely different".  However, this time around I decided to take a leap of faith.  While I didn't try any mushrooms picked by my family (apparently this was a bad year for mushrooms at the dacha) I did try wild mushrooms picked by others that my host parents had deemed to be edible.  I figure that if at ages 70 and 72 they had yet to die from picking a "completely different" looking poisonous mushroom, the chances of my dying from one were relatively slim.  Ultimately, the experience was somewhat anti-climatic, the mushrooms tasted like one would expect mushrooms to taste (though one of them did look rather unnervingly like a penis), and I am still alive and kicking.  Gut sausage was also a new experience for me.  In America, it is fairly rare that we eat internal organs.  While organs are gaining traction as a new culinary trend for food and restaurant snobs, most Average-Joes haven't had much experience with guts of any type.  I have to say that I, and everyone else who hasn't had kidney, liver, etc., is really missing out.  There is a great sausage here that isn't just one type of organ, but a bunch of different types (if they're from the same animal [and even what animal they're from] I don't know, and have no intention of finding out) all mixed together.  The stuff is addictively (perhaps not a word) delicious, and I put in on or eat it with anything I can (I'm sure my parents, and especially my mom, are cringing at the thought).
There are a few troubling signs on the culinary horizon though, mainly the disappearance of vegetables and my new found love of condiments.  It is with great chagrin that I say it appears as though fresh vegetables have completely disappeared from my dinner table.  While the usual Russian array of vegetables (tomatoes, cucumbers, and dill) can get pretty old rather quickly, one grows to miss it after many consecutive nights of potatoes, beets, and canned corn.  That being said, I feel obligated to add that I think my host mother is a very adept and able chef, and that this blog entry is not meant to be a slight in any way shape or form.  The other disturbing development has been my new found love of condiments, especially (I am somewhat ashamed to say) mayonaise.  Some of you may know that I have always had a fondness for a few condiments, especially horse radish and spicy mustard, but I have never been particularly fond of mayo.  But for whatever reason, I can't seem to get enough of it here.  The worse thing is that it seems to go great on everything.  No sour cream?  Put mayo in your soup!  Is your chicken feeling lonely?  Add some mayo!  Is your rice lacking that extra something?  MAYO!  I do feel somewhat redeemed because I have found a really delicious condiment that I think will satisfy those readers of my blog who have a more refined palate (if they are any).  It's called аджика (pronounced adjhika) and according to Russian Wikipedia, it's an Abkhazian sauce made from a combination of paprika, salt, garlic, and dried hops.  All I know is that it is delicious and it goes great with -of all things- mayo...
I hope you all enjoyed this blog post, it's a lot of fun writing things that are a little more specific and not just a dull list of everything I have done in the past week of so.  If anyone has any requests for something they would like me to write about (if anyone reads this) I will gladly do so; I did the last time I was in Russian and it was a lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fun and Games in St. Petersburg

So I've decided that I'm going to switch things up with this post and instead putting up some long, poorly written recounting of all the things I have done since I last posted, I'm just going to write about some of the things that my friends and I here do for fun.  As I've said many times before, my life here is rather quiet.  Most of my days are spent either in class or at home doing homework, with some time spent sitting and chatting with my host family or watching tv.  That being said however, my life isn't all drudgery and there are a lot of things that we do for fun.  The biggest thing is that we bought a football so now we can play American football.  I love football, but am honestly not to good at it.  Originally we were going to buy a soccer ball or a basketball, but at the store we decided on a football instead.  Why we at the last minute decided to buy a football I can't say, but I can say that it was the right decision. Last week a few friends and I went and played football out in a park.  The park was very typically Russian (IE it was bizarre and really didn't make much sense) we played on a gravel soccer field (by and large you aren't supposed to walk on the grass in Russian parks) next to what a appeared to be a training course for prospective drivers.  Regardless of our rather strange venue I think we all had a lot of fun and even drew a few spectators.  A man with his dog sat and watched us play as did some of the attendants at the driving school course.
Some of the other things we do for fun aren't nearly as organized, and almost all involve the metro, or more specifically, the giant escalators leading down into the metros.  I don't know if anybody who reads this blog has been to Russia (or if anybody reads this blog at all), but for anyone who might know, the escalators leading down into the metros are massive.  Russian metros, or at least the Moscow metro (and I would assume the St. Petersburg one as well) were originally built to serve as bomb shelters as well as subways.  By being located so deep under ground, the metros were bomb-proof.  During World War II, the Moscow metro did see use as a bomb shelter, as the citizens of the city would flee into the underground during German bombing raids.  While no longer bomb proof the metros still have their ridiculously long staircases which is all that is important to us.  The first game is simple, run down the escalator as fast as you can.  While it may sound simple, the game can actually take a surprising amount of thought and skill.  Like a on most escalators, metro goers follow the rule of people who want to stand stay on the right and those who want to walk down go on the left.  People don't always follow that rule and there inevitably is someone on the right side who is not going nearly as fast as they should be, usually and old person, a little kid, or a fat person.  So instead a straight sprint, you inevitably end up having to dodge around people, bags, etc. on your way down which can really slow down your time.  The other big issue is actually your own mind.  While you have to watch your own feet to avoid missing a step, we've all found that actually thinking about where you are going to put your feet makes you more likely to miss a step.  While I've never heard of anyone falling down the escalator and dying, I'm sure its possible, especially if you fell near the top.  As such, the goal is to desperately try and distract yourself and keep your mind otherwise occupied as you run full tilt down the stairs.  While you always eventually think about your feet and mess up, you can try and get yourself close to the bottom before you do so.  The last trick is to avoid the wrath of the escalator monitors.  The escalator monitors, usually middle aged women who look like they hate their jobs and hate you, sit in little tiny booths at the bottom of the escalator and yell over the intercom at anyone they think is not behaving properly. The fastest time that we have recorded is 32 seconds which was done by my friend Syd (we're the only two who actually actively play this game), but I think the escalator was a shorter one PLUS he got yelled at by the escalator monitor.  Syd thinks the time should still count while I'm inclined to say that getting noticed by the escalator monitor disqualifies it.  Beyond that time though, the times drop off significantly, the second fastest time, also on the same questionable escalator, is 36 seconds.  My fastest time is 42 seconds, thought I definitely think I have it in me to go faster. 
The other game we play is a lot safer and a lot easier, but it infinitely more embarrassing.  The game is simple.  As soon as one steps on an upward going escalator you plant your feet on the step (you can't move them for the rest of the ride) and you grab the hand rail.  You win the game by making it to the top of the escalator without removing your hand from the rail or moving your feet.  The catch is this, the hand rails and the escalators move at different speeds.  The hand rails often times move significantly faster than the steps.  In most cases this would be fine, you simply move your hand whenever it gets too far ahead of you, or you could (theoretically) move your feet and follow your hand.  We don't do that though, and the results are often hilarious.  By the time you reach the top of the escalator you are often stretched out over several steps, impossibly leaned over, and dangerously invading the personal space of those around you.  Since there is no rule as to where you need to initially place your hand, it is almost always possible to make it to the top of the escalator without moving it, the question is more how willing you are to alienate and annoy those people around you.  I've ended up touching other people's hand, having my head perilously close to people's rear ends, and in one case, ending up being face to face with a rather un-enthused cat in the handbag of the woman in front of my.  Syd and I are working on rules to make the game harder, but for now it's simply fun to play, especially when you play with more than one person at a time.

Unfortunately, you aren't supposed to take photos in the metro so none of us have actually recorded any of our achievements in the Metro games, so I'll leave you with some fall photos of the park and canal near my apartment block.  I hope everything has a lovely end to their week and hopefully I'll have another post up by Sunday!

Saturday, September 29, 2012


So as usual I failed miserably to keep up with the blog, but I think this week I had a pretty valid excuse.  This week I tried to withdraw extra money (I use my ATM card for money here) but for some reason it didn't work.  This was, understandably in my opinion, quite a crisis, since not only did I not have money to pay for my metro card (I can't really get anywhere without using the metro), I had no money for things like food and no way with which I could get that money.  Unfortunately, I first noticed the problem around mid-day, which meant that back home where my bank is, it was four o'clock in the morning, giving me plenty of time to think up any number of horrible explanations as to why my card didn't work.  Rather than simply assuming that it was a simple mix up, I thought it was because perhaps my card was physically broken, my account had been hijacked and all my money withdrawn, and any other number of horrifying explanations. None too surprisingly, it was a simple mix-up.  Even though I had informed my bank that I was going to be in Russia through the month of May, they put a block on my account.  Luckily, though not without many hours of worrying, the problem has been resolved and I am back on my merry way.
A picture from the canal tour I went on (can't have a blog post without a picture!)
In this post I figured I would talk about my daily life a little bit and some about the area I live in, since both topics haven gotten the shaft in my futile attempts to cover everything big that is going on in my life here.  For the most part, my life here is pretty routine.  My commute to the university is about 50 minutes or so, so I'm up pretty early each day to be there by the time class starts at nine.  For the most part, classes are pretty standard, we have a class each morning in small groups of five people and then have a second period of class each day with everyone on the program (20 people) about things like literature, writing, or reading comprehension.  We all then take one direct enrollment class at the University.  The class I'm in, along with two of my friends, is called "National Security and Safety" and is all kinds of ridiculous.  The three of arrive on the first day of class to find a completely empty classroom (we were pretty early) so we all went in and sat down in the back of the class.  The class is at a pretty high level so we figured we wouldn't understand a lot of it, and since we are technically only auditing the class, we figured it would be best to be in the back of the room, an "out of sight out of mind" type deal.  As we are sitting there, a number of seemingly random students come in and ask if we have class in that room.  We of course answer yes, after which the students all seemed to get confused and leave.  As it turns out, they were all taking the class too, but since they didn't recognize us, they thought they had the wrong room.  The class has since been a series of such shenanigans.  For example, our real professor has yet to show to the class.  Instead, we have a substitute professor, who in my opinion cannot be more than fifteen years old.  I only know him as the tin man, because of the shiny suit he changed into before last week's class.  He actually showed up to class in a different outfit, but (this is only a theory) after seeing some of the girls in our class (some of whom are very attractive) he left for a a solid five or ten minutes, returning in a disturbingly metallic silver suit, in what could only be an attempt to impress his female students.  This week, he wore a black velvet suit (it looked like a leisure shirt), or as I called it, the "Grim Reaper at Home" look.  He also seems to hate America.  While I freely admit I miss a lot of what is being said in class, most of the parts I do understand are devoted to explaining why America is the source of all the world's ills.  Over the past month I have learned that the United States secretly supports all of Russia's competitors in global politics (China, India, etc.), that we are trying to take over Libya in an imperialist war, and something about using Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative, not the movie) to attack countries with lasers.
My life at home is pretty quiet.  I spend a lot of my time doing homework.  When I'm not doing homework however I spend a lot of time with my host parents.  Most of the time, Natalia Evgenievna and I watch TV.  Russian TV is really bizarre, there are a lot of spinoffs of bad American TV shows and then some stuff that is just completely strange. By far the strangest, and most entertaining, show is one called "Давай Поженимся," which translates as "Let's get Married."  The show is a really bizarre form of a dating show, where one contestant meets three potential significant others.  The show is really ridiculous because it is presided over by a panel of "experts" who are all older women, who pass judgement on the potential candidates.  They have judges who are tarot card readers, zodiac experts, etc. who all do their various things on camera.  Then everyone seems to have friends or advisors with them whose sole purpose seems to talk over everyone else and confuse me. 
I'm going to wrap things up for now, seeing as I have already spent an unseemly amount of time writing this post, hopefully I'll write some more tomorrow!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pskov: День своего убийства

Me outside the Pskov Kremlin
So as usual I have failed to keep the blog up to date, but I am going to try and post twice this weekend to 1. make myself feel better about missing last weekend and 2. try and write about everything that has been happening in the past couple of weeks.  The big thing that has happened since my last post was our trip to Pskov. Pskov is an ancient Russian city located near the Estonian border.  The city is old, having first appeared in Russian history over 1,100 years ago, when some prince or other is recorded as having married one Olga of Pskov.  I'm a little hazy on the facts, but from what I remember, Olga eventually became the queen of Kievan Russia and is now considered a saint.  Since then, Pskov has had a rather bloody history, even by Russian standards.  The city was attacked by just about everyone under the sun, including the Livonian knights, the Teutonic knights, the Finns, the Swedes, the Poles, and the Nazis.  The city was captured several times, most notably the Teutonic knights in the 1240's, but they were expelled by Russian forces under Saint Alexander Nevsky, Grand Duke of the Novgorodian Republic.  In the 1400's, the city was laid siege to 26 times within the space of a century.  The city still has a lot of the marks of all those wars, including the foundations and several restored sections of the city's ancient walls (at one point the city had five rings of walls), the ancient Kremlin, and at one corner, a series of sapping and counter-sapping tunnels built during a Polish assault on the city in the 1500's.  To make a really long story slightly shorter, the city withstood pretty much everything until the Nazis invaded in 1941.  Usually in the case of WWII, the Nazis destroyed most everything they could get their hands on, but in Pskov, that wasn't the case.  The city, while heavily damaged in the initial invasion, was only really destroyed when the Red Army retook the city in 1944 (a fact that most tour guides ignore or are reticent to talk about).  The Red Army bombarded the city for days before they retook the city and in the process leveled nearly 80% of the city.  By the wars end, a city with an original population over 200,000 was reduced to 250.
The wedding
Our trip to Pskov was significantly less violent.  To get to Pskov is a bit of a hike though, over six hours on a bus, so a significant part of our excursion was spent either waiting for, getting on, or sitting in a bus.  We arrived in Pskov last Friday around 3 PM.  The first day we went a tour of the Kremlin and then took a bus tour of the city.  The tour was was interesting (that giant first paragraph more or less sums up what we learned) and was relatively uneventful with two exceptions.  The first was at the beginning of the tour, when two of my friends and I were outside our hotel taking pictures of the Kremlin from across the river.  Right outside of our hotel was a group of benches, on which were sitting several homeless people (or so it would appear) who were clearly rather drunk, a feat that in Russia is rather unsurprising.  As we walked past one called out "We're celebrating!" What they were celebrating was absolutely unclear, since last Friday was not a holiday known to any of us.  We decided that the only real possibility was the celebration our imminent kidnapping and dismemberment in one of the many nearby abandoned buildings.  As such, we rather quickly moved on, since the area in front of the hotel played home to several stray dogs, a social caste in Russia which I have traditionally had a rather poor relationship with.  The second thing was a wedding that was taking place in the Kremlin's church at the same time we were taking our tour.  While it was often to get to watch part of the actual ceremony, the wedding party then proceeded to loudly take pictures at every area we wanted to go to, and then drove around the area continuously honking their horns which was more than slightly annoying.  The day ended with an evening get together of everyone in the program.  We drank tea and played games, most of which were games traditionally played by Russian school children.  While it was slightly corny, I had a great time.  The best part of the evening was the most enjoyable, in my perhaps somewhat biased opinion.  We played a game of musical chairs, which as a kid was a game I hated since I never won (contrary to what you may believe, being tall is not in a game that involves sitting down quickly); however, through a combination of determination and progressive (others might be inclined to use other, more abusive terms like "shady" or "cheating", but I think those are unecessarily negative terms, don't you?) tactics and won!  I got a nice little mug with pictures of sites in and around Pskov, I don't know what I am going to do with it, but who cares, I won!!!!

Печеры Monastery
A sign saying "Izborsk", about the most interesting thing the castle had to offer...
The second day we went to a monastery whose name roughly translates as the Pskov cave-monastery.  The monastery began centuries ago with Orthodox monks living within the caves of the area.  The caves are unique, they are apparently the exact right level of humidity and heat that they naturally mummify bodies.  As far as I can gather, the bodies from monks that are centuries old as still in the caves.  The most interesting part of the monastery's history (also the bloodiest) is the story from the time of Ivan the Terrible.  Ivan, as you may be able to guess, was the not the nicest of guys, and at one point suspected the abbot of the Pskov monastery of treason.  Ivan had the abbot beheaded, and his headless corpse carried to one of the shrines (my translation of what the tour guide said is a little unclear).  The path is now called the road of blood, and there is a ceremony each year to commemerate it, in which the path is lined with flowers.  The second part of the day we went to Izborsk, an ancient fortress near Pskov.  I was singularly disappointed with Izborsk.  I've always wanted to go see a real ancient castle but Izborsk was a cold, wind swept mud puddle with half a wall and a tower that you couldn't go in.  Alas alack, you can't win 'em all.  Anyway, that about raps up my trip to Pskov, tomorrow I am going to try and post again tomorrow and try to focus on more of my regular life, but we'll see!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

I'm Back!

The pond near the dacha with the Stepanovi's son Yura, and granddaughter, Masha.

Well actually I have been back for two weeks, but being true to form, I haven't posted anything until now.  I'm back in St. Petersburg with the Russian Language Flagship Program, part of an overall government initiative to increase American proficiency in strategically important languages (Russian, Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, etc.).  I will be here in St. Petersburg for about nine months total, taking classes and eventually completing an internship with a company here in St. Petersburg (I'll talk about that in a later post when I've done some research about my internship position).
I'll try to be quick and give a quick run down on the first two and a half weeks of the program, and then try to be more consistent about posting in the future.  The first two weeks here have been pretty nice, I'm settling in nicely and making friends.  My host family are great kind people.  Their names are Vladimir Nikolaevitch and Natalia Evgeniovna Stepanovi, both are in their early seventies.  Natalia Evgeniovna works as a graphic designer and Vladimir Nikolaevitch as an engineer.  They have three children, all of whom are adults and have families of their own.

Some of the Bryn-Mawr/Haverford Flagship students
Over the past couple of weeks I've done quite a bit, so I'll for now just give a quick list of the big ones.  I've done a lot of the really touristy things, going to Peterhof (a palace of Peter the Great famous for its fountains) and St. Isaac's cathedral (has one of the best views in St. Petersburg).  But the big highlight of the first two weeks was going to my family's dacha, of summer house.  As some of you may remember, my brief with dachas is a rather sordid one.  My last trip to a dacha resulted in a dog bite and two months of rabies shots, so understandably, I was somewhat hesitant to try dacha life again.  I am proud to announce however, that I returned safe and sound from my dacha trip with no unpleasant encounters with stray dogs.  It actually ended up being a rather quiet weekend.  Arriving late on Saturday afternoon, we went swimming in a pond close by (an extremely cold pond) and relaxed the rest of the day.  Sunday we were supposed to go mushroom hunting, an idea that I have found both intriguing and vaguely horrifying for quite some time.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to try my hand at finding non-lethal mushrooms due to a day of rainstorms.  As such I spent the rest of the day inside, helping do housework and watching soccer.  Yesterday I went to a hockey game with friends, which as usual was quite a bit of fun.  In the past two years the league has changed quite a bit, the price of tickets has gone up about one hundred percent (tickets are now twelve dollars instead of six), which is probably a smart business but a bummer for me.  The team now has a band that plays during breaks in play and a bizarre "Pirates of the Caribbean" intro that I found rater strange and rather out of place at a hockey game.  But nonetheless it was a good time, SKA won 7-3.  Going to the hockey game yesterday meant that I didn't do any work yesterday, and so today is devoted to getting all of my work for tomorrow done.