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mix up, I thought it was because perhaps my card was physically broken, my account had been hijacked and all my money withdrawn, and any other number of horrifying explanations.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.