28 August 2006

What's a pirate's favorite Russian city?

Why, Yarrr-oslavl, of course!

Our trip to Yaroslavl, Kostroma, and Ples was great. I'm still frustrated that I can't post pictures yet, because pictures would be much better than verbal descriptions of the cities. They were all old Russian towns - Yaroslavl and Kostroma were of the thousand-years-old-with-a-kremlin-and-a-bunch-of-monasteries sort, and Ples was of the thousands-of-years-old-with-a-lot-of-archaeological-digs-going-on sort. My favorite parts:

1. Seeing (and wading in) the Volga for the first time!
2. Hearing the church bells at the monastery (or was it the kremlin?) in Kostroma. It was beyond beautiful. Getting to go up in the bell tower in Yaroslavl was also neat, since the bells were cool and it offered a great view of the city.
3. A museum that consisted of a reproduction of an 11th century Russian household along with a real house from about a hundred years ago. This was in Ples, which was hardly more than a village, so it was a wooden peasant house. The tour guides there were really great, and we got to learn about peasant life and folk beliefs. (Another one of the best parts was that all of our tours were in Russian! It makes paying attention both harder to do and more fun.)

My least favorite parts:
1. They kept serving us fish! Yuck!
2. Three instances of anti-American sentiment and/or xenophobia. I won't go into detail, but I will say that I'm glad I won't have to travel in a big group of 17 Americans when I'm in Vladivostok. It's like wearing a big neon "FOREIGNER" sign.

In other news, I'm leaving Moscow tomorrow!!!

24 August 2006

Happy birthday to me!

This is just a quick note to say thank you to everyone who wished me happy birthday yesterday through electronic means! I have to admit, I haven't even read all of your emails yet because I've been in such a rush the last two times I checked email. But it was a wonderful birthday - we even went out to an Indian restaurant and I had saag (which some of you may know is pretty much my favorite food)! And I got candy, flowers and a book (Anna Karenina in Russian), which is about as Russian a birthday as you can hope for - these are all very common gifts in Russia.

But the best parts were a) getting my ticket to Vladivostok! I'm flying to Khabarovsk and then taking the train the rest of the way (16 hours!), because this is a big travel time (people returning from vacation) and there were no tickets direct to Vlad. But now I know I'm getting there for sure!

and b) the "cake" the other Fulbright girls made me. It was a pile of syrki (see food entry for a description of them) and two bottles of Baltika beer, with candles stuck in the syrki and taped to the top of the beer bottles! Truly marvelous.

Anyway, I'm now off to Yaroslavl for an English teachers' conference and a weekend of fun before we prepare to leave Moscow for good early next week. I hope everyone is well and I'll respond to all the lovely emails the first chance I get!

22 August 2006

Извините, вы не знаете где почта?

I'm not saying that life in Russia is hard. Really, I'm not. But what's the deal with the post office?

See, I've been trying to send my brother his birthday present for the past couple of weeks. My first encounter with the post office involved having to ask five different people how to get there, not being able to figure out where the line ended when I did get there (note: Russian lines are not like American lines), and accidentally standing in the line for pension payments for ten minutes. But I finally got my postcard stamps (except they don't have postcard stamps, so if you receive a postcard from me it will have four different stamps on it. Sorry if your name is covered up by stamps). I didn't send the package because I lacked the vocabulary to ask how to do it and the will to tussle with a Russian who was clearly already irate at my so-so language skills.

My second encounter, which was yesterday, involved AG and I searching for a post office downtown for about forty-five minutes (not only are they not marked on our maps, but no one you ask on the street seems to have any knowledge of their existence, much less their location) before we gave up and rode the metro to a neighborhood where we knew there was a post office. There I was informed by the woman at the counter that I couldn't send my package internationally from that post office; I would have to go to the Center for International Mail. Hmph. At least she wrote down the address for me. (But really. There's only ONE place to send international packages in ALL OF MOSCOW, which by the way is Europe's largest city??)

This morning, I woke up bright and early to head to the Center for International Mail. It took me an hour to get there by foot and metro, but when I got to the right metro stop I was delighted to find that one of the exits to the street was labeled "To the Center for International Mail." In my foolishness, I assumed that this meant the Center for International Mail was somewhere within, oh, a half-mile radius of the metro stop.

And indeed, when I got to the street level, I was right in front of a building labeled 39 Whatever Street. "How convenient," I thought, because in my foolishness I believed that this meant that the building I was looking for, 37 Whatever Street, would be right next door. But the only thing next door was a very high wall; beyond this wall, there was a long driveway with a sign that said "Auto Repair." In my foolishness, I assumed that there must be something besides an auto repair place (say, a post office?) behind that big wall. But there wasn't. I walked a little farther, noticed that the buildings across the street were down to numbers 26 and 24 Whatever Street, and decided I had better turn back. I went back to building 39 and inquired of the security guard where I might find the post office.

Leslie: Where is the post office?
security guard: Not here.
Leslie: And you don't know where it is?
security guard: What do you mean, I don't know where it is? I know it's not here!
Leslie: ...
security guard: What's the address?
Leslie: 37.
security guard: Well, this is 39.
Leslie: Yes, I KNOW. But where's 37?
security guard: Dunno, probably somewhere down that way (points down the street).

So I continued walking down the street, and after passing two more widely-spaced buildings (un-numbered) I finally found 37. I asked another security guard where the post office was, and he directed me to the other side of the building. I found it, walked in, discovered I needed to take a number, took number 63, saw that numbers 47 and 48 were being served at the moment, and decided that since I already only had 55 minutes to get back home, I had better cut my losses.

So, at least now I know where the international post office is. But it looks like TJ won't be getting his present until October or so.

20 August 2006

С легким паром! (or: a day at the banya)

Yesterday I checked another item off my "Things I must do in order to be Russian" list by going to the баня (banya). What is a banya? Well, first and foremost, it's an excellent way to get really dehydrated. But basically it's a sauna. I think if you live in the country and have your own, it's just a shack with an oven in it, but the banya we went to was quite fancy. A brief recap of the experience:

First you buy your tickets (for the мужской or женский side, depending on your gender) and go into a big, fancy changing room with leather sofas and a little cafe, where you undress and rent your sheet and towel and buy your dried birch twigs. Then you disrobe, wrap in your sheet (yes, a bed sheet) and go into a big room with showers, a small swimming pool, and these two giant wooden tubs of cold water. Off of this room is the sauna itself, which is a smallish stone room with an oven in one wall and a wooden platform in it. You climb up on the platform and sit there (on your bedsheet, because the benches are hot!) until you can't stand it anymore, and then you go out and get a bucket of water from the big tubs and pour it over yourself. This can be repeated many times, with breaks for snacks and drinks in the changing room when necessary, or dips in the pool, or showers (some people still use the banyas as their primary means of bathing).

So really, the big difference between the banya and a regular ol' sauna is the birch twigs, which you take turns beating each other with while you're sitting in the sauna room. This is supposed to get the toxins out of your skin, but as far as I could tell all it does is cover you in bits of dried leaf. It's fun, though.

The most interesting(/dangerous?) part is when the banya worker comes in and reheats the sauna. Everyone gets down on the floor of the platform and dries themselves off, because if you're wet or sitting too high up, you'll get burned. The worker does some stuff with the fire and throws buckets of water on it to make more steam, and keeps the oven door open until the people in the sauna have decided it's hot enough. Then she flicks birchy water on everyone (to cool them off? I wasn't clear on why this was happening, but it smelled really good) and everyone gets back up off the floor and sits on the benches. The first time all this happened, A. and I didn't know what was going on, so we sat on the benches, and then it got too hot and we wanted to leave. That was a big mistake, because when we stood up we were even higher off the ground, and it was too hot to breathe in without causing moderate to severe pain. Yeouch. Fortunately the second time there was a nice person in there who explained it to us, and no permanent damage was done to my skin or nostrils.

So. The banya is fun. I'm hoping there will be banyas out in the wild and woolly east, because I definitely wouldn't mind going again. There are a great many other things I could write about right now, including our visit to the American Center where we were attacked by ravenous Russian teachers of English, our trip to the Great Patriotic War (aka World War II) museum today (note: it was amazing, and you must go if you ever find yourself in Moscow), or how Russians and Americans apparently have very different concepts of what matches with what when it comes to clothing (imagine: leopard-print sundress and knockoff Burberry plaid high heels). But this has been a long post already.

One last thing! It is my birthday on Wednesday. I'll be 22. (Yay!)

15 August 2006


Yesterday my teacher enlightened me that the nun who scolded me probably said Вам кто позволил? ("Who permitted you to do this?") not Вам кто позвонил? ("Who phoned you?") like I thought. So I guess she really was yelling at me about taking her picture, and not trying to convince me to become a nun.

Mystery: solved!

13 August 2006

Super Mega All-in-One Post!

I think I got yelled at by a nun today!

The story: We didn't have anything scheduled for today, and since I haven't done much sightseeing, I decided to do something "Moscow-y" and go to the Novodevichy Convent. It was a really nice trip - at my roommate's recommendation, I got off the metro a few stops away and had a nice long walk down a quiet boulevard to the convent. It was sunny and the convent was lovely - built (I believe) in the 1600's, with much "Moscow Baroque" architecture - and, to my surprise, there were REAL NUNS there. So I took a picture (from afar) of one standing in the doorway of the nun-barracks, and before I knew it she was coming up to me and scolding me about something! I guess I should be flattered that she thought she could effectively scold me in Russian, but I was so confused and mortified that I was struck completely dumb. I swear the first thing she said to me was "Вам кто позвонил?" ("Who phoned you?"), and I don't think she said anything about нельзя or фотоаппарат ("mustn't" or "camera"), so I don't know what I did wrong. Maybe she was trying to convince me to become a nun?

Another thing I wanted to mention:

On Thursday I went for a morning jog through a beautiful park near the university (formerly the estate of some duke). "Fixing" pets isn't as common in Russia as in the US, so there are a lot of stray dogs around. This fact is usually frightening (ask me about the dog fight in the subway sometime), but that morning one of the strays in the park decided that I was playing with it, and jogged with me the whole way through the park! Once I realized he wasn't going to bite me, I enjoyed the company. I was worried he would follow me home, but right before I left the park he encountered another dog and lost interest in me. So cute!

And another:

I think there is a general sentiment among Americans (at least, Americans who don't study Russian) that Russian food is bad. I would like to dispel this vicious rumor. A sampling of five delicious things I've discovered (or rediscovered) here:

1. Milk products. They're so good! One great one is kefir, a tart yogurt drink that's best (I think) when fruit-flavored. Another is tvorog, a soft, sweetish cheese (a bit firmer than cream cheese) that's used to make my new favorite food: syrki (сырки). Imagine little cheesecake logs covered in chocolate.
2. Blini! Blini are like crepes, and you can get them with savory fillings (I like ham and cheese) or sweet ones (jam, fruit, Nutella). Apparently there is a difference between blini and blinchiki, but I haven't quite worked out the finer points of that.
3. Pel'meni! These are my other new favorite food. They're like meat ravioli, but rounder and more delicious. You eat them with smetana (sour cream) or vinegar. I prefer the latter.
4. Juice. Russians like juice a lot more than Americans do. It's cheap and there are a zillion flavors. In fact, there's a whole aisle devoted to juice at our grocery store.
5. Chocolate with lots of little holes in it. I think you can get this elsewhere (Nestle Aero bars?), but Russia is where I first had it, and I think it's the best kind of chocolate ever made. It kind of crumbles in your mouth.

Mmm! So you see, I haven't starved yet, despite the lamentable lack of peanut butter. The verdict is still out on borsch, because I've still never had it, but I'll be sure to report when I do.

Also, the winner of the guess-the-largest-embassy contest was Diana, for actually trying. No one guessed correctly that the largest US embassy is in fact in Baghdad! (Big surprise, right?) Diana's prize is a postcard and the food-related portion of this post.

Hopefully I'll eventually find a way to get my photos from my internet-less computer to a computer that does have internet, or I'll find some wireless. Then you can see pictures of the convent! But not the picture of the nun, because I felt so guilty that I deleted it from my camera.


08 August 2006

The ins and outs of blogging...

Sorry there haven't been many posts. Life is Moscow is... well, not so much busy as time-consuming, at least when it comes to internet access. There is one computer for student use in the department at the university where we're staying, but it's often tied up. There are internet cafes downtown, of course, but getting there takes time because we live at the last metro stop (or rather, a twenty-five-minute walk from the last metro stop) on the purple line. So 25 minutes walking + 20 minutes riding + more time walking once you're off the metro makes internet access time-consuming. I don't really mind, but I thought I should explain for the benefit of the impatient. ;)

Of course, we are also busy here. Yesterday we got to hang out in the American Embassy! Did you know it's the second-largest in the world? (Can you guess the largest? No googling!) We joked that it was nice to be back in the US, since we were technically on American soil. At any rate, the visit was nice, and pretty inspiring. We met with representatives of the embassy's English Language Office, who were wonderful, and we received all sorts of teaching materials and advice, and it finally felt clearer that we're part of a community of English educators here and that we have a specific role in that community. It also helped that Elena, our main speaker, was really excited about Vladivostok - apparently my boss there is a wonderful person, there's an ELF (English Language Fellow - professional English teachers who come to Russia to work with Russian teachers of English) there for her second year, and FEELTA, the Far Eastern English Language Teachers' Association, is quite large and active. To top it off, DVGU is apparently really a top-notch school.

Right. So, another reason I haven't written much lately is because I've been trying to figure out what exactly I envision this blog to be. I don't really want it to be an "and this is what I had for breakfast" kind of play-by-play of life here, only (mildly) interesting to people who know me. I guess I see it as a possible resource for future Fulbright ETAs and for travelers to Vladivostok (both of which groups could use more accessible resources, I think), and hopefully also as a forum for discussing Russian culture and society, not to mention the trials and joys of living as a foreigner in Russia. But I also want it to be interesting to people who are just reading it to keep in touch with me... So I guess for now I'll play it by ear.

Another issue is the fact that last year a Fulbrighter got in trouble (not serious, but trouble nonetheless) because she wrote some things in her blog that were "slightly critical" (not my words; I haven't seen the blog) of her host city/institution, and feelings were hurt/harsh words exchanged. It is still unclear to me the extent to which this is a real danger, especially in a big place like Vladivostok, where it's conceivable that people will be less interested in my activities (but also conceivable that they'll be equally interested; I still haven't gotten a grasp on how rare Americans might be in Vladivostok). So the extent to which I plan to censor my writings hasn't been decided yet. I can't imagine having to go through the whole year only saying good things, because I think there are some bad things that are very worthy of discussion.

For example (this might get deleted later, I suppose), one of the most frustrating things about life here in Moscow is that when I walk into a store, I know two things: one, it will be obvious that I'm a foreigner no matter what I do, especially if I'm required to speak, and two, there is a good chance that the store employees will treat me with obvious distaste because they can tell I'm a foreigner. Obviously not all Russians are xenophobes - the ones I work with and see every day are all wonderful, understanding people - but you encounter a good deal of it, and Russia is one place where you rarely get bonus points for "at least trying" to speak the language. I think a discussion of Russian xenophobia - its causes, its effects, comparison with attitudes in other regions - could be interesting and fruitful in leading to foreigners' better understanding Russia's reaction to them. But is someone going to get mad at me for wanting to talk about it??

And in "and this is what I had for breakfast" news, we're going to the Kremlin tomorrow!! Should be great!!!!

02 August 2006

О Москве

I thought I should explain something from the last post that I realized wasn't clear - I'm currently in Moscow, and will be until August 29, when I leave for Vladivostok. We have a month of English Teaching Assistantship orientation here, so I'm living in a dorm on the campus of Moscow Humanities University with the other 6 ETAs.

I'd like to write a post about my impressions of Moscow compared to St. Petersburg, where I spent a month two summers ago. Partly just to share my thoughts, since that's the point of a blog, but partly because I'd like to discuss it with anyone reading this who's spent time in both cities. Being the two "big" Russian cities, culturally if not population-wise (although I think they might be the biggest in that sense as well), and being so different from each other even from the beginning, they get compared to each other a lot by a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, and my impression so far is that some of the stereotypes about them are correct and some of them don't really seem to be. But I don't have much time right now, so I'll save that for later and just share these two language anecdotes, which I hope are funny even to non-Russian speakers.

The first is an example of how we often mishear foreign words we haven't heard before, hearing words we're more familiar with in their place. In the grocery store, I picked up a box of Earl Grey tea (which was imported from Britain, so the box was in English - always helpful). Amara, a fellow ETA, saw it in my basket, and the following exchange occurred:
A: Oh, you got some chai s bergamotom (tea with bergamot)?
L: (absently) Yeah. (I pause and think) Wait. WHAT did you say?
A: Chai s bergamotom. That's what Russians call Earl Grey tea.
L: They call it chai s begamotom (tea with a hippo)?!?
A: ...

The second is an example of English speakers' distorted perception of Russians' ability to understand our attempts to speak their language. Amanda is a girl from the University of Arizona who was here on a study-abroad program and lived in our dorm.

Amanda: Ok, so I hate it when Russians act like they don't understand you just because you made a little mistake. Like, I'm TRYING, ok? Like this woman came up to me on the street and asked me what bus she should take, and I actually knew where she was going, so I said, "Bus 190." But instead of one hundred ninety, I accidentally said one hundred nine hundred. And she looked at me like I was from another planet! And it's not like she couldn't figure out what I meant.

I don't know about you, but if someone told me to take bus "one hundred nine hundred," I don't think I'd be able to guess that they meant 190.