25 December 2007

Merry Catholic Christmas!

Although the time stamp on this post will say 3:00 p.m., I'm writing at 7:00 a.m. EST on Christmas morning. Merry Catholic Christmas, everyone!

I've been meaning to write for the last few days (and will write something more substantive soon), and the stillness of Christmas morning before the rest of the family is awake (except technically only my younger brother is still asleep - apparently we're all gift gluttons in this family) seemed like a good time to do it.

In my several trans-oceanic(?) flights, I've learned that jet lag from different time zones manifests itself differently: going 8 hours forward to Moscow time may require a long nap or two, but is otherwise not very challenging; the fifteen hour backward jump from the Russian Far East to the eastern U.S. manifests itself through total circadian confusion, normal bedtime and wake-up patterns paired with severe insomnia around 3 a.m.; and the 8-hour backwards hop from Moscow back to Ohio means total narcolepsy that kicks in between 8 and 10 p.m. and a tendency to wake up at 6 in the morning. I don't know why that particular change is so hard, but it's happened to me twice now.

As for "Catholic Christmas," that's what the Russians call our December 25th celebration. Russian Orthodox Christmas, thanks to the same calendar that gave us the October Revolution when the rest of the world had already turned their calendar pages to November, is on January 7th. While researching the history of Christmas trees for my party, I read on the History Channel website that Russians "celebrate Christmas on Epiphany (Twelfth Night)," but that is completely incorrect. Lesson: don't believe everything the History Channel tells you, kids. Anyway, the Bolsheviks changed their calendar to jive with the rest of the world, but the Russian Orthodox Church remained unswayed (they're not so into change - I mean, look at the Great Schism).

So, I don't know why the Catholics get to claim our Western Christmas ("So you're going home for Catholic Christmas, not Orthodox Christmas, right?" "Yes." "Are you Catholic?" "No, Protestant." "Ohh... wait, is Protestant Christmas the same day?"), but I figure it's not my job to correct the Russians. Anyway, my younger brother just came downstairs, so it's stocking time! Merry Christmas to all who celebrate, and to those who don't, I hope you can find a radio station that's not playing non-stop Christmas carols (oh, America...).

17 December 2007

In which my balalaika teacher continues to be the best

In addition to walking me to the tram stop after my Tuesday lesson - we had black ice, and with my less-than-perfect post-knee surgery balance (which may or may not be all in my head) and a fear of falling instilled by numerous painful spills on Vladivostok's slippery hills last winter, I'm pretty tottery on ice – Mikhail Semyonovich gave me a copy of an mp3 anthology of balalaika music compiled by some French balalaika enthusiast. Well, he gave me volume one, anyway, which is over sixty hours of recordings spanning from Vasily Andreev, the late-19th century father of the modern balalaika, to the best examples of the contemporary school of balalaika (including my teacher's teacher and two of his students!).

Besides enjoying listening to all this music, I'm getting a huge kick out of the jpegs of record and cd covers that are included with the anthology. Many of them are shining examples of Soviet graphic design (which I love):
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And then there's a whole genre of balalaika-player-superimposed-on-Russian-scene:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Plus one where the balalaika player is actually standing in the Russian scene:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
I am really digging the contrast between Mr. Necheporenko's stern demeanor and the flowing pink script in which his name is written.

And then the many that were clearly designed by musicians, not graphic designers:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Ok... uh... grab your balalaika... and... uh... stand... uh... oh, here's a nice-looking column. Yeah... stand here. No, a little to the right. Ok, ready? Smile! No... wait... maybe you should look a little more serious. Um... ok. Yeah. Yeah, that's good. One, two... three! Hmm. Do you think we need to take another shot? Probably not, eh?)

There are bad costumes:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Le Trio Star Treque?)

Russian folk costumes galore:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And finally, two of my favorites, both non-Russians:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
When I make it big, I can *only hope* that my group has a name as awesome as "Bibs and Vanya."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket... And that I have a style consultant as skilled as Petro Ivanovitch's of "The Ivanovitch Gypsies."

Sadly, Petro ended up with a receding hairline; on the bright side, he got a solo album:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And this is only the "Balalaika" folder – I haven't even uploaded "Domra" (a related Russian folk instrument) or "Ensembles." And there are three more volumes after this one!

15 December 2007

My (Half-)Week in Pictures

First I stayed up really late Wednesday night to make these:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Russia, being a nation that sources its sugar from sugar beets, lacks the molasses necessary to make gingerbread cookies, so I just used store-bought cookies.)

Then I stayed up really late Thursday night to make these:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Recipe courtesy of Nana's great-great grandmother, via Nana; cookie cutters courtesy of my great-grandmother, via my grandmother/mother/DHL)

Then I invited my students over to help me frost and decorate:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Olesya and Andrei)

(Polina was also there, but there are no pictures of her - or me - because our main duty was to stand around eating frosting – not a very photogenic occupation.)

In the end, we came up with this:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Finished houses)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(Olesya's masterpiece, a tiny snowman named Del'finchik ("Little Dauphin") for his vaguely French-looking hat. His eyes and nose are meticulously chipped-off pieces of M&M candy shell.)

And then I spent about ten minutes fudging a "script" (see end of previous entry) and we had a party!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(There were probably about 30 people!)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
(I was festive.)

13 December 2007


Having already had a bad encounter with Russian bread flour at Thanksgiving, wherein I used it to make a pie crust and it refused to roll out and I had to serve pumpkin pies without crusts, I shopped very carefully when I was buying supplies for Christmas cookies.

If it weren't so much work, I'd take and upload a picture of my bag of bread flour and show you just how tiny the word хлебопекарная (bread-baking) is on it; apparently they consider bread flour the norm here, or they just don't want you to notice what kind of flour you're buying. Anyway, that's how I got duped the first time, and I decided not to get duped again. The only other option at the grocery store (or the market) was labeled 'blini flour.' (Blini are Russian crepes.) I checked to make sure it was made from wheat (some traditional blini are made from buckwheat flour, but the word "wheat" on this package was in a font at least ten points larger than "bread-baking" on the other package) and bought it, figuring that it was probably more like all-purpose flour than bread flour is.

Well, I got home this evening and began happily measuring it out for my sugar cookies, at which point I noticed that this flour was... sparkly. Hmm. Almost as if it had granulated sugar in it.

I paused, my measuring cup dangling precariously (ok, not that precariously... I'm not prone to seizures or anything) over the mixing bowl. Do I check the ingredients on the flour bag, or just dump it in, hoping I'm imagining things? I had bad luck last night with forging ahead when I knew I was wrong (it involved trying to delude myself that the soft peaks in my royal icing were actually stiff peaks, and mortaring together two entire gingerbread houses before admitting to myself that the icing wasn't going to harden the way I wanted it to). The sting of this failure, which required pulling apart the gingerbread houses, beating the icing for another ten minutes, and re-mortaring, imparted the small modicum of logic usually absent from my kitchen frolics (or rampages, depending on who you ask). I looked at the packaging before dumping.

And it turned out that despite the fact that this stuff is clearly labeled МУКА (flour) in enormous letters on the front of the bag, it is not actually "flour" in the traditional sense of the word. Ingredients: flour, dried eggs, sugar, salt, baking soda, vegetable fat. So basically, it's Bisquick. I am very indignant about the fact that I came so close to ruining my cookies, not to mention that I now have a kilogram of Bisquick that I don't even want! I think it should count as false advertising!

The story has a happy ending, though, because I went out and bought real flour (bread flour again, since that's apparently the only kind available) and the cookies, which are from my friend Nana's recipe, are great! Unlike the pie crust, they rolled out just fine.

If this entry is a little random, it's probably because I got very little sleep last night (because of the gingerbread house debacle). It's been a strange day. I haven't done much of the sleep-deprivation thing since college, and I forgot how strongly it affects me. Unfortunately, I will probably also get very little sleep tonight, because tomorrow is the Christmas party for which all this ridiculous baking is happening. And I haven't written the script yet.

(Don't get me started. The fact that Russian parties require scripts is one point on which my cross-cultural tolerance is very, very low.)

08 December 2007

Thanksgiving Trip, Part 2 – Pskov, Izborsk, Pechory, Moscow

Now I'm just procrastinating, and I'll probably regret it tomorrow when I have to do my whole weekend to-do list in one day, but... you can't work all the time, right? (If you could really call what I do "work.")

So after we returned from Estonia, I hung around Pskov for about two and a half days. It was pretty murky/icy/wet there (in fact, there may have been some swearing and a minor temper tantrum about this $#%* country and its @#$% lack of *!&@ functional sidewalks on the way back to Amara's apartment from the bus station), so the pictures aren't great, but here they are anyway.

Here's Pskov's kremlin. It's my favorite kremlin ever. It's really beautiful. See? Inside:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

From the outside:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

From the ramparts:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

So Amara convinced me that it would be a good idea to climb up on the ramparts to get a good view of the river. I did so, not considering that I am a total wimp about jumping down from things (I'm afraid it'll hurt...), so there was a Moment in which I couldn't figure out how to get down and wouldn't let Wes help me. But they were patient:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And they even helped brush off my coat when I finally got down (the muddiest, but safest, way possible). Aww, what great friends!

We saw Wes off on the train to Moscow→Kazan, and the next day while Amara went to work, I took a day trip to Stary Izborsk and Pechory, two villages near Pskov.

Stary Izborsk (Old Izborsk) has the oldest stone fortress in Russia! It's from around the 13th century.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I was the only tourist there that day (it was snowing), so I had the place to myself. There's something to be said for wandering around old fortresses and villages completely alone. The silence was amazing. And when I did run into people (locals), they were all so friendly! It wasn't the most exciting tourist destination ever, but for those reasons, it was still well worth it.

Izborsk also has twelve springs named for twelve virtues (wealth, happiness, health, etc.). Or eleven virtues plus "the spring of maiden's tears," actually. They aren't labeled – you're just supposed to intuit which is which. I drank a tiny, tiny bit of the water (in case it does have magic properties) and immediately regretted it, being the cleanliness-obsessed American I am. No parasites yet, though, so hopefully I'm ok. On the other hand, I'm not measurably wealthier or healthier than before... but who knows which one I drank from?
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Pechory, a name derived from the Russian word for "caves" (пещеры/peshchery), has the oldest continuously-functioning monastery in Russia. (It achieved that status by actually falling in Estonia, not the USSR, during the years between the World Wars, the time when most other religious establishments in the Soviet Union were being closed, looted and turned into museums of atheism.) It's also pretty geographically unusual – it's nestled in a ravine that used to house hermits' caves! Here's me in the skirt they made me put on over my pants:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

A view from beyond the walls:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

And the chapel (red building), holy well (green pavilion), and entrance to the caves (yellow building).
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The former hermit caves are catacombs, and have been for centuries. The air inside allegedly preserves the bodies of the monks and famous/good people who are buried there. I couldn't go in because a) I wasn't in a tour group and b) I'm not Orthodox. I'm not so into lying about religion, but if a tour group had presented itself, I might have either tried, or tried to argue that being baptized Methodist is *practically* the same thing as being baptized Orthodox. Oh well. Caves are kind of creepy, anyway.

So that was Pechory. It was much cuter and more charming than my pictures captured, and if you're ever in the area, it's worth seeing.

When I left Pskov, I got to spend about 12 hours in Moscow between trains, during which time I wandered extensively:
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

(The Kremlin from Bolshoi Kamenny bridge – the Kremlin's not my favorite, but I have to admit it's pretty impressive looking) and finally visited the Tretyakov Gallery, probably Moscow's most important (and famous) art museum. Many of the treasures of Russian art are housed there, and it was fantastic to see them in person! Besides tons of nineteenth-century Russian art, I even saw Andrei Rublyov's famous Old Testament Trinity icon! By the end of the day, my feet were killing me, and I was happy to get on the train back to Taganrog. And thus ended my Thanksgiving trip. (Well, after another 17 hours on the train. But I was asleep for most of that.)

Teaser: my next trip should have even murkier photos, because if all goes as planned, it will be up to Murmansk (above the Arctic Circle!!!) sometime in late January. I can't wait!

Russia Votes for Putin

Sorry it's been a while! It seems like as soon as I got back from Estonia, I got totally flooded with goals and deadlines: with Christmas shopping and knitting, institute Christmas party planning, finishing up the grad school applications I meant to finish back in October, writing another article for the institute's newspaper (I wrote an article entirely in Russian back in November, by the way! My first published work in Russian!), stepped-up balalaika practicing so I can give a "concert" when I go home (family, steel yourselves), and helping one of my students rush to submit a grant application to spend a year at a U.S. university, it seems like every waking hour this week has been allotted to the service of some pressing goal. Ha, and my students ask me if I get bored living alone in my cold little apartment. Not a chance.

Since my illegitimate free internet has vanished, I might not upload my Pskov pictures until I go home; instead, I bring you a Politics Post (yay!).

First up, devoted reader Paul asked me my thoughts about the recent Russian Duma election. Well, Paul, I'm glad you asked. I think. My thoughts are rather confused, but I'll do my best to at least condense a few of them here.

Having read the fascinating but rather one-sided Anna Politkovskaya, and being an American who, like many of my compatriots, maybe tends to put a little too much trust in the picture of the world the American media presents, I spent a lot of the run-up to these elections with a very sour outlook on Russian politics. Putin, who is adored by a large sector of the population, frankly terrifies me, and a lot of what you can read in American newspapers about the elections seemed to be confirmed by what I observed here. (If you haven't seen any news about the elections, Google it, you'll find plenty.)

I was especially shocked on my recent trip through Moscow and Pskov just a few days before the election. For some reason, United Russia, Russia's ruling party (and, at least since a few months ago, the party of Putin), didn't advertise all that much in Taganrog. Some billboards here and there, posters in every shop window, but nothing too blatant. (For Russia, I don't count posters in every shop window as blatant.) Moscow and Pskov, though, were both total United Russia lovefests. Enormous billboards on every block, flags on street lamps, banners hanging from buildings, and all for United Russia. The Western media says that opposition parties had a lot of trouble securing advertising space, and I can believe it – I saw a few LDPR and A Just Russia posters here and there, and a noteworthy smattering of Communist Party posters, but that was all. A Just Russia, while an alternative to United Russia, is in no way an "opposition" party, since it's also pro-Putin and was in fact created by the Kremlin. LDPR, which ironically stands for "liberal democratic party of Russia," is a nationalistic party whose leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, alternately spews misogynistic, anti-Semitic and Russian chauvinist venom in such a ridiculous manner that he's basically a caricature of himself. The party is mostly seen as a joke, so it serves the convenient function of an opposition party without posing a threat to United Russia's power. That means that except for the Communists, no real opposition parties (and others do exist) had any visible advertising.

As a friend mentioned in his analysis of the elections, United Russia's advertising really pressed the concept that a vote for United Russia is a vote for Putin. The reason for this was probably that while many Russians love Putin ("Putin is great. He's made Russia strong. That's why your media hates him. America wants Russia to be weak," is a refrain I've heard over and over and over), no one seems to like United Russia. Understandably – Russia doesn't exactly have a history of kind, loving ruling parties. This United Russia = Putin setup worked because of the structure of the election: each party prepared a list of candidates; voters then voted for a party, and the seats in parliament (the Duma) were divided according to the percentage of votes each party received nationwide (minimum requirement to get any seats at all is 7% of the vote, raised from 5% four years ago – according to Politkovskaya, this change was made to further silence opposition voices, since most opposition parties get very few votes). Based on that, the top one or two or ten or fifty names on a party's list actually get seats in the Duma. Putin was Name #1 on United Russia's list. This led to ads like a picture of a hand checking box number 10 on a ballot (United Russia's box), which had the United Russia logo and Putin's name in big letters; or the most blatant, an ENORMOUS (covering the entire side of a building) banner looming over Manezhnaya Square (right off Red Square) in Moscow that said, "Number 10 – Moscow Votes for PUTIN!" – no mention of United Russia at all. And what a prime location! Most amusing and confusing to me was a banner I saw hanging over a bridge in Moscow. It simply said:

Voting in the Duma elections proceeds by party lists! Vote for party and its leader!

Russian has no articles (a/the), so that could be translated as either "Vote for the Party and its leader," or "Vote for a party and its leader!" It wasn't clearly associated with any party, but it did have a Russian flag in the same squiggly shape as the Russian flag on the United Russia logo. Subtle psychological advertising, or am I reading too much into it? I really can't say.

At any rate, with my American indoctrination and the clearly lopsided advertising, I should have had very negative view of the elections. What ended up tempering this point of view? Well, human psychology, mostly. First of all, all of the Russians around me were utterly complacent about the election. As my boss at work said when I asked whether the mayor of Taganrog had been re-elected (which I'm sure he was, since I didn't even see any advertising for either of his opponents), "I have no idea. What does any of this matter? It's completely irrelevant." Most Russians seem to feel that life will proceed in more or less the same manner no matter which corrupt politicians are controlling the public coffers. At one point my students got into a heated argument about whether Putin was really good for Russia or not, but even that seemed to be a point of philosophy rather than a call to action. And it's surprisingly hard to feel worked up about something when everyone around you is saying it's nothing to be worked up about – you start to feel a bit crazy for caring.

Second, and more frightening, was how much I could feel myself relaxing my views when I watched Russian media. The television media is totally controlled by the state, so all the election news was very positive – except when they were talking about opposition leaders, of course. Even though I was consciously aware of the spin they were putting on it, I could tell that the constant association of United Russia and Putin with security, order, and positive emotions had an effect on me. Very 1984-ish.

By now I've done enough reading of American Russia scholars to know that many of them don't like the purely negative image of Russia the American media serves up, and I guess I tend to agree. Putin has done good things for Russia, or at least, good things have happened to Russia while Putin has been in power. All the same, I don't like the cult of personality that's been built around him, the media's insinuation that he's the only one who can lead Russia, or the general direction he's taken Russia in in terms of human rights and democracy. I'm especially suspicious of his dealings with the Chechen Wars and the related terrorist acts, and I'm not particularly impressed by his international relations skills, which seem to be built on strong-arming, bravado, and endlessly repeated rhetoric about not letting other nations push Russia around. And the elections? Despite the hypnotic power of the French and American election observers the news showed saying, "They were so clean! Very democratic!", I'm not ready to call them fair by a long shot.

(Well, that was long! I guess my Estonian political post will have to come separately.)

01 December 2007

Eestimaa (Estonia) Adventures, Part the First

I'm back! Sorry for the long silence. I was on a pseudo-Thanksgiving break trip to visit my friend Amara and spend a long weekend in Tartu, Estonia with her and another Fulbrighter, Wes. And now I'm going to tell you about it. Or at least, a little bit about it. I'll try to keep it readably short. But it was an amazing trip, so it'll be hard not to gush.

So, why did we choose to go to Tartu? Well. They say Tartu, a smallish city in the south of Estonia, is the "spiritual capital" of the country. It's historic and picturesque, with plenty to do and see. It's also a students' city, the home of Tartu University, which is the country's oldest and best; plus Amara and I had both already been to Tallinn, the capital.

But that begs the question: why Estonia? For me, there were two main attractions:
1. Crazy language. The Finno-Ugric group (including Estonian, Finnish, Hungarian) is one of the only language families in Europe that's not Indo-European, i.e., not at all related to other modern European languages;
2. Folk mitten-knitting tradition.
Linguistics and knitting? Sign me up! From trying to figure out the case system based on street signs and restaurant menus to drooling/squealing over handknits in souvenir shops and museums, I was basically in geeky paradise all weekend.

Estonia has many other draws, though: it's the most Europeanized of the post-Soviet states, very clean, modern, and well-off, with well-developed tourism; it's nearby, and both of the languages I can speak are widely spoken there; no visa is required for U.S. citizens; and finally, it's JUST SO DARN CUTE! Seriously, a very cute little country. A nice reprieve when the sprawling hulk of Russia is starting to weigh on you. (It happens to the best of us.)

And what did we do there? I could write a book about it, but it might be more interesting if you just take a look:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
The center of Tartu's Old Town is Raekoja Plats, or Town Square. The pink building is the town hall.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
All the streets in Old Town were like this. So cute!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Tartu's oldest Lutheran church. Estonia was under German control for much of its history, so the Reformation came here swiftly. The church is noteworthy for its more than 1000 original 16th-century (I think?) terra cotta figures.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Tartu Ülikool (Tartu University)'s main building, the "symbol of higher education in Estonia." There's an attic room where they used to lock students who broke the rules, with authentic 19th-century graffiti (mostly in German, the language of instruction until well after Estonian came to be recognized as a legitimate language and not just a local "peasant dialect" in the mid-1800's) still intact!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
The hill in the center of town, Toome (dome) hill, has all sorts of interesting stuff, like the remnants of really, really old fortifications, plus the observatory where the idea for the Struve Geodetic Arc (it's ok, I didn't know what it was, either) was conceived...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
...great views of the Old Town...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
...Toomekirik (Dome Church), a Catholic church that lay in various states of disrepair for centuries after the Reformation took hold, and now houses the university museum (formerly the library) and a tower you can pay about a dollar to go up...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
...an ancient sacrificial stone from Estonia's pre-Christian days...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
...and a little hill called "Kissing Hill," where Wes proposed to me and I pretended to be surprised. (Note: not an actual proposal.)

All that wandering around outside made us hungry (and thirsty!). Fortunately, Tartu's restaurants, cafés and bars blow Russia's (even Moscow's, since you have to be an oligarch to afford to eat there) out of the water. Highlights included a French crepes café, three different marvelous coffee/pastry shops, a decent Indian place, a fun pub inside an old gunpowder cellar... and a bar called "Place Beer Colors." Maybe you can tell from the trippy name that this bar was trés hip. It specialized in beer cocktails (I had never had one before, but they're surprisingly delicious!), and each table had a button in the middle:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
...which you could press to order a half pint of A Le Coq, the ubiquitous local brew. Fancy!

Oh, yeah, and when we weren't busy with wandering, food, or drink, we found time to stop by:
the Estonian Postal Museum
the botanical gardens
the Tartu Toy Museum
the 19th-century Citizen's Home Museum
the Estonian National Museum
and the Tartu City Museum.

That's a lot of culture for one weekend! The Tartu Toy Museum and the National Museum were particularly fantastic. The adorable toy museum had a collection of Russian wind-up toys; several dollhouses, including one built and furnished entirely during a father's decade-long hideout from the Soviets, for a daughter he had never met; wooden folk toys; bizarre Estonian puppets from the national puppet theater; an extensive stuffed dog collection; a cool-looking playroom for kids; and much more. It was so much fun! At the National Museum I kind of freaked out and took 25 pictures like this one:

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
Folk mittens galore! I also bought two pattern books from the museum shop, so Estonian folk mittens may soon be coming to a pair of hands near you! (If you would like them to come to a pair of hands on you, holler.)

Okay, photo show is over... for now. For more pictures, you can check my facebook page or bug me when I get home for Christmas (so soon, I can hardly believe it!). And check back for some brief thoughts on Estonian history and the Estonia-Russia relationship, which is hopefully interesting to someone other than me. And after that, pictures from the Russian half of the trip: Pskov, Izborsk, Pechory, and even a little bit of Moscow!

21 November 2007

A Thanksgiving Excerpt: In Search of Turkey

This entry is not perfect - for one thing, it's really long - but I'm leaving tomorrow for a vacation in ESTONIA (woo!) and I wanted to post it before I left. Enjoy, and have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Turkey is not, to me, the most important part of the Thanksgiving meal, and I would have happily just left it off my party menu. But in all of my classes, the first thing my students said when I asked what they knew about Thanksgiving was, "You eat a big turkey!" I figured I would be in trouble if I didn't produce the bird, so I scouted out the market.

The place at the market where you go to buy meat is charmingly called the "meat pavilion." Here I should mention that I am sort of living a vegetarian lifestyle (without being a "vegetarian" in the moral sense – I eat meat if someone serves it to me), so I hadn't been in the meat pavilion yet, and looking at raw meat isn't something I'm really used to. When I got there, I found that it smelled overwhelmingly like raw meat, there were stray dogs roaming the aisles, and it was full of rows and rows of men hawking meat laid right out on tables in the open air. They all seemed to be selling the same two things, too:
a) cat-sized mammals, completely skinned except for one black paw that was left on so that you could tell they weren't cats; and
b) chickens, uniformly displayed in such a way that you got a nice view down their necks and could admire how great their internal organs looked.

Eww. I later found out that those mammals are nutrias. Nutrias? Yes. Nutrias. Anyway, I also found several turkeys, but since I don't know how to cook a whole bird, my oven is about the size of a standard microwave, and there's no room in my fridge for a whole turkey, I decided that wasn't going to work. I picked a nice, easy stovetop recipe for turkey breast tenderloins with caramelized onions instead. Unfortunately, I only found one turkey breast tenderloin in the whole of the glorious meat pavilion, sitting unwrapped and rather freezer-burned in a freezer case that was otherwise full of poultry organs. This was on my Wednesday scouting mission. I returned to the same freezer case on Friday and asked the attendant if she had any turkey breast.

"Oh, sure," she says, reaching in deep past the piles of chicken hearts and excising from some hidden crevice the same breast I saw on Wednesday.
I wrinkle my nose. "Is that the only one you have?"
"Yes, it's the last one. But it's fresh. Extremely fresh, even. We just got it in, actually. See, it doesn't smell at all. And look how high-quality it is, nice and fatty."
Just the fact that she was saying this about such a sad-looking hunk of meat was, I felt, an insult to my intelligence; add in the fact that as she said it, she was brushing off all the bits of freezery gunk stuck to it, and the nutria-induced queasiness I was already feeling, and I just couldn't buy.
"It's OLD," I said, and stalked away.

The next day – the day of the party – I returned to the meat pavilion, hoping one of the other freezers would have some turkey. Alas, it was not so, and I returned defeated to the same freezer. As luck would have it, the same woman was working, and believe me, she just exuded glee as she informed me that their turkey breast had sold yesterday, and wasn't I sorry now that I had called it old and refused to buy it? I sighed and told her she was right (even though she wasn't), and asked if they had any other turkey. "Just wings," she said, showing me one. They looked acceptable. Wings, breast – what's the difference? I bought two, anxious to get home and get cooking. It was only as I was walking away and she said, "I know you'll be happy with them. They make great soup," that I realized my mistake. In all of my Thanksgiving dinners (and I've had a lot, because my family eats two every year), I don't think I've ever eaten, or even seen, a turkey wing. And if they're used for soup, that probably means they're not all that meaty or the meat's not all that good. I peeked into the bag. My suspicions appeared to be confirmed.

This mistake on my part just galvanized me: I was going to make a good turkey dish if it killed me. I returned to the scary nutria-filled, non-freezer half of the pavilion and, without even trying to haggle, plunked down 600 rubles (24 dollars!) for the smallest turkey I could find (5.5 kilos, or 12 pounds).

I then spent a good hour or so bent over the illustrated how-to guide in my Betty Crocker cookbook, hacking away at this poor turkey with the only sharpish knife I have, trying desperately to extract some nice breast tenderloins (how can something be both a breast and a tenderloin? I'm still not clear on that). Since this is an instance in which saying that I totally butchered it might imply that I did the job well, I will be specific: I butchered it in the figurative sense. It was like, I don't know, a turkey horror film or something. I gave up on Betty around step four, when she instructs you to cut through all the rib joints on either side of the spine (Betty, you say that like it's even possible to FIND the rib joints) and started bushwhacking, with surprising success. But if there's some entry-level FSB hack in charge of spying on me, he or she definitely got a good laugh that day.

So in the end (sorry, I'm tired and this is getting long, so it is not going to have an exciting conclusion) the recipe turned out fine, or at least my guests said it did (I didn't eat any of it), but I was left with the rest of the turkey which did not fit in my fridge. Being a cheapskate by nature, I cringe to admit this, but I coarsely hacked apart the rest of that $24 turkey and fed it to the cats that live outside my apartment building. As for the wings, they were taking up my entire freezer, so last night I made them into turkey broth, which is now taking up less than my entire freezer. All's well that ends well, I guess. But if there suddenly appears a holiday that requires roasting a nutria, I am putting my foot down.

20 November 2007

Happy Anniversary!

Remember that time I got hit by a car?

Well, I sure do. And it was one year ago today!

Waiting for the ambulance at the neighborhood triage point, Utkinskaya Street, Vladivostok.

I'm surprisingly excited about that. On the one hand, the ensuing broken leg fiasco was pretty miserable in many ways. But on the other hand, it was definitely an adventure all the way – from flying through the air at the intersection of Okeanskii and Fokina, to two nights in a Russian hospital and a brief moment in the sun as the focus of an embassy panic, to my "medical evacuation" on three first-class flights that got me out of Russia and across the Pacific in time for Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma's, to readapting to life in America from the vantage point of my mom's chair in the family room, to getting packages and visits from caring friends, to surgery and physical therapy and finally to my triumphal return to Russia, a whirlwind winter tour of Pskov, Petersburg and Moscow on a crutch.

It was boring at times, and there were a few low points where all I could feel was soul-crushingly sorry for myself (never a good way to feel), but so many people were so, so nice to me. Especially my friends in Vladivostok, who went to the hospital with me, brought me food and things to do, railed against the crappy driver who hit me, tried to talk some sense into me when I said I wasn't going to go home, and ultimately packed up my stuff for me and sent me off with tears and homemade blini. Those three days would have been a total nightmare without them. And my parents, who not only put up with their cranky, immobile daughter reinvading their house, but basically did everything for me for two whole months without complaining even once. Thanks, guys! I really appreciate how great you are.

So anyway, I look back on it now without any real sense of regret or sadness. It made my year just a little more bizarre, I guess, and now it's a good story, capable of shocking and horrifying pretty much anyone. I'm not a very shocking/horrifying person on the whole, so it's good to have in my arsenal.

And because I believe that you can never be too dorky (well, maybe you can, but I haven't hit my ceiling yet), I got out an eyeliner pencil and decided to show you how my knee is feeling:

17 November 2007


I didn't disappear! I've been really busy because I decided on Wednesday to throw a Thanksgiving dinner today (Saturday). (I'll be out of town on Thanksgiving proper.) I sort of made that decision on a whim, and while I don't regret it, I definitely didn't find out until about a day after I made it just what I had gotten myself into. I've spent all of my free time the last three days cooking and cleaning, staying up past 1 am two nights in a row to get stuff done (long past my usual granny-bedtime).

But it was worth it, because it went really well!! (Except for the squash casserole, which no one ate. I think they were afraid of it.)Anyway, the last of my twelve guests just left, and now it's time to do the most pressing cleaning up, like reassembling my couch-bed and putting away leftovers. Then do nothing for awhile. That sounds like a great idea.

Anyway, this holiday involved many amusing and blog-worthy adventures, which I'll share in a while.

11 November 2007

Veterans Day

Since most of you know me in real life, you probably already know that I have a brother who is serving in Iraq. I'd like to share something he wrote in his latest email update:

Before I tuck myself under my cadet green blanket for the night, I would like to ask a favor of you all. As Veteran's Day approaches, most of America will celebrate with a day off or perhaps the purchase of a new car. As Americans, we enjoy the truly rare luxury of an all-volunteer military force. While it means that those who wish to do other things with their lives are free to do so, it also means that much of America is totally disconnected from her own military. There was a time when everyone knew a veteran. Now, the veterans are harder to find. Without putting too fine a point on it, for all the sturm and drang over the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, most Americans are untouched by the harshest realities of the conflict. While it's comforting to know that our country is not embroiled in daily misery over the war, it does highlight the disconnect between the country and the military.

Most people would be surprised to learn (as I was) that the number of veterans of both conflicts numbers over 1.5 million. It's well known that almost 4,000 servicemembers have been killed in Iraq. However, the advances in medical care on the battlefield have meant that those who would have died of wounds even ten years ago now survive. But they survive to face the loss of limbs, eyesight, and even cognitive function. In the past four years over 9,000 servicemembers have been evacuated from Iraq with traumatic injuries. Many of you often ask what to send us to support the troops, which is always appreciated. But my request of you this Veteran's Day is to take the time and money you would spend to send a care package and use it to support those warriors who are back on American shores. The Wounded Warriors Project is a group which provides support, care, and comfort to wounded veterans and their families. They assist family members in the months following a traumatic injury, allowing them the financial wherewithal to travel across the country to their loved one and stay by his/her side at Walter Reed or Brooke Army Medical Center, not to mention the support and comfort they give to the wounded. Please consider making a small donation to their efforts. There are many, many families of soldiers who have been through terrible pain as a result of their loved one's service. So in lieu of a care package, please take some time this Veteran's Day to support our recovering veterans.

I felt a little hesitant about posting this; having family in the military and having gone to a pretty liberal university, I've felt the heat of the dialectic of this war more than many civilians, and it's not something I enjoy or seek out. Is supporting veterans a political act? I can't answer that question for anyone else, but from my point of view, it's first and foremost an act of kindness.


"You think you have it bad? You should see how bad things are for X!" During my time in Russia, I've been tempted to say this over and over again (about pollution, race relations, women's rights, and a slew of other problems that Russia faces at ten times the scale of America), but by now I've realized that if it's ever a healthy attitude, it's only healthy in very small doses. Nonetheless, I'd still like to share a little bit of what I know of the Russian army. As my brother mentions, we do live with the luxury of an all-volunteer military force. Luxury or basic human right; no matter what it ought to be in an ideal world, I never had much perspective on what a luxury it really is in our world until I came to Russia, where people often react with shock and disbelief when I tell them that no one in America is forced to serve.

The Russian military still works by conscription, and many young men do whatever they can to get out of service. That may sound cowardly, but after all the horror stories I've heard about the army here, I can't judge them. Hazing of new conscripts is rampant in the army, and it sometimes results in death. Anna Politkovskaya collected plenty of accounts, but I can provide examples even without resorting to the writings of a journalist many in Russia are ready to automatically discredit as blinded by bias. (If you're interested in her accounts, you can find them in A Russian Diary.) My friend Sasha, who grew up in a village not far from here, had a schoolmate who voluntarily enlisted after graduating. Sasha says he talked enthusiastically about serving in the army, but after only a few months, "he returned in a coffin." According to Sasha, it was a case of suicide after excessive hazing; Politkovskaya maintained that many such "suicides" are cover-ups of cases of accidental death during hazing. Either way, it's horrific.

Furthermore, Russia's messy, drawn-out wars in Chechnya have been the stage for unspeakable atrocities (on both sides, as the Russians I meet who are even willing to speak about Chechnya are quick to point out). Again, Politkovskaya devoted a lot of ink to this topic, especially to the fates of those who return from service in Chechnya, and again, her version matches what ordinary Russians I know have to say. In short, those who return from Chechnya return psychologically broken – stereotypically, they become alcoholics, drug abusers and criminals, and it's not long before many of them end up in prison. They receive a little help from the government – about 40 bucks a month and special privileges like free bus passes and stamps – but that's all. No one wants to associate with a veteran, much less hire one, since it's considered likely that he's unbalanced. Armless or legless veterans slumped on the street or wheeling themselves onto metro cars to beg for change are a common sight. Russia still lacks a tradition of large-scale social movements, and those who want to help these young men (and women, but mostly men) really struggle to do so.

So on this Veterans Day, I'm feeling especially thankful that I come from a country where the military is professional and accountable, and a society that values social awareness, activism, and a free press. In my country, people don’t ignore wars they find unjust – they shout at each other about them. Any whiff of corruption or scandal is splashed across the front pages of the newspapers; and as my brother mentions, almost everyone knows how many Americans have died in Iraq. It can get overwhelming, and there are certainly those who long for those good old days when the world was black and white and wars were causes that uniformly united the nation. (Was that ever really the case?) And plenty of us wish we didn't have quite so much corruption splashing across those newspaper pages. But it's a lot better than silence, and my time in Russia has taught me that sadly, that's still an alternative in the world today.
While sitting here wondering why the call from Martha Stewart inviting me to co-author a cookbook hadn't come yet, it occurred to me that there's one thing most good food blogs have that mine doesn't have... Thanks to Julia for that second link!

If your first thought was, "a good cook," you are correct! But you're also a smart aleck. What I was thinking of is pictures!

It's actually pretty difficult to make food look appetizing, surprisingly enough. It seems like there are always splashes or splots or crumbs to deal with. But I did what I could with the not-so-abundant natural light we have around here (cloudy, cloudy, cloudy, every single day), and now my borscht post (scroll down) has some pictures.

Another post is coming later today, with actual content, so check back!

08 November 2007

Genderbending Wordplay, or One More Thing I Don’t Get about Russian

Russian past-tense verbs are marked for gender and number, but not person. That means there are four forms for every past tense verb, for example:

упасть/upast' – to fall.

упал/upal – fell-masc.
I fell (if the speaker is male), you fell (if 'you' refers to a male), he fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically masculine).

упала/upala – fell-fem.
I fell (if the speaker is female), you fell (if 'you' refers to a female), she fell, it fell (for objects that are grammatically feminine).

упало/upalo – fell-neut.
it fell (for objects that are grammatically neuter), fell (in subjectless constructions).

упали/upali – fell-plur.
We fell, you (plural) fell, you (singular formal) fell, they fell.

Got it? Ok. Just two small observations:

1. This gender marking causes problems for little kids, like a boy I saw in the library who was running around shouting, "I'm leaving! I'm leaving!" (Past tense – to say "I'm leaving," you say, "I've set off.") Except he was using the feminine form. His grandma gently corrected him: Я пошёл, солнышко. Ты - мальчик. ("[correct masculine form], honey. You're a boy.") In a country where the task of raising children falls mostly to women, I have to wonder if a lot of Russian toddlers take longer to gain command of the masculine past tense form than the feminine. Hmm.
Edit: I realized this probably isn't that clear to most people. What I mean is that children who hear women say "I + [feminine verb]" all the time and rarely hear men say "I + [masculine verb]" could get confused about whether the past tense -a ending marks gender or person. But after thinking it over, I don't think that's all that likely.

2. Today I was sitting in the foreign languages department when one of the other teachers got up to leave. "Ok, I'm leaving," she said – except she used the masculine form! When she left, I asked the remaining teacher, a Russian language professor, why she had done that. She explained: "Everywhere we go, we have to speak properly. All day long, nothing but speaking properly. Sometimes you just want to let go and play around with the language a little. If you say something like that, and people know that you actually know how to speak correctly, it's funny. It's funny to say the wrong thing in moderation." I was dissatisfied with this explanation. I mean, I don't understand what exactly is funny about it. Maybe that's because we don't have an equivalent in English – something you can say that would be grammatical if you were someone else, but isn't if you're you. So I wonder: (a) if speakers of other morphologically rich languages do the same thing; and (b) if it's primarily gender marking, rather than, say, number marking or case marking, that gets played with. And if so, do men do it, too? HMM. I'm intrigued.

(You can tell by all the posts that I've had a lot of work to do/procrastinate on. Hope you're enjoying it!)

06 November 2007

And an Amusing Addendum

PS – I recently noticed that I apparently picked the right title for this blog. There was a mermaid in the Sea of Azov at some point (and by “a mermaid” I mean “a tabloid story about an alleged washed-up mermaid”), and now a few people a week find my blog by Googling «азовская русалка.» So it's a good thing I've clarified that I'm not a mermaid; wouldn't want to confuse anyone.

And by the way, if you verb a proper noun like Google, do you end up with... a proper verb? If so, is that a relatively new animal, or are there older examples of such neologisms that I just can't think of at the moment? And is it still called a neologism if it's just a recategorization of an existing word into a different part of speech?

Ok, I'm done wasting time now. Over and out!

The Cold War(s) Continue, Or Pride Cometh Before a Fall (in Temperature)

This morning my landlady thoughtfully called me just as I was walking out the door (how does she do that?) to inform me that it was -2 degrees (28.4 degrees Fahrenheit) outside and that I should wear a hat to work. I rolled my eyes a little, but heeded her advice. Because actually, -2 degrees does feel pretty cold right now. Plus, I think it's safe to assume that I would have been in for a scolding at work if I had walked in with no hat on.

I would like to say to the weather: what is this?! This is supposed to be the south. I was expecting -2 degrees, yes, but not for another month or so. So I think the weather is mocking me – it must have heard me say that I’m not going to buy a warmer coat and decided to show me how cocky I was being about the local climate. Fine. Whatever. I was wrong, but I’m not going to break. (Southern) Russian winter, go ahead and hit me with everything you’ve got – I know how to knit, and I'm not afraid of you.

04 November 2007


Borscht! Comrades, we have missed our window of opportunity for to kill Doug!
-Svetlana Rootski, 'Neath the Elms (If you don't get the reference, don't worry... it's not worth explaining.)

Lately, my procrastination/relaxation method of choice has been cooking, and surprisingly, my recent experiments have mostly been in the realm of soup. (I've spent most of my life hating all soups except plain Campbell's tomato.) So far I've made a decent but too-thick split pea glop, a tragically overspiced pumpkin lentil soup, and some vegetable stock, and today I decided to try out borscht, a Ukrainian soup that's a standard of the Russian diet. It's delicious, and it contains two vegetables – beets and cabbage – that I think are underutilized in the U.S. (Note: I have no idea why the word "borscht" usually has a -t on the end, since the Russian word, борщ/borsch, doesn't. Maybe the word was borrowed through Yiddish.)

I've had a recipe for borscht for more than a year now, written out for me by a friend and sometime student in Vladivostok, but I've put off trying it because 1) like many Russian recipes, no amounts are given; and 2) it requires making beef stock, which I never really felt prepared to do (I don't even know how to buy red meat, much less cook it, and canned broth isn't available here). But now that I've become acquainted with the art of soup-making and have seen a few other borscht recipes that did give amounts, I decided I could try it out. I replaced the beef stock with vegetable stock, because I still don't know how to make beef stock, and I don't really do meat in general nowadays. That doesn't make it inauthentic – meaty borscht is much more common (and quite tasty), but some Russians do make it without meat.

Although I feel like borscht is usually identified by its beetiness, you actually only need one medium beet, julienned. Boil it in 3 cups of water with a quarter cup of vinegar, a tablespoon of sugar, and a teaspoon of salt until it's tender. I boiled it for about half an hour and it was still a little too firm for my taste. Drain.

While the beet is boiling, cook three medium-sized carrots, cubed, and two small onions, chopped, in a tablespoon of oil. Set all this aside.

Boil one third of a head of green cabbage, shredded, and three smallish potatoes, julienned, in 2 quarts of vegetable stock for 10-15 minutes; add the beet and sautéed vegetables and some spices and cook another 10 minutes or so. I used a spice blend called "spices for Ukrainian borscht," which contains dill, salt, pepper, paprika, parsley, celery seed and dried onion – I think the dill is the most important part for making it authentically borschty. I also added about 2 tablespoons of vinegar because I didn't think it tasted quite as sour as it should. Also, my vegetables-to-stock ratio was really high, and I would probably add another half liter (=1 pint) of liquid if I had a bigger pot.

Before serving, add chopped fresh garlic (I skipped this part because I don't like raw garlic), and top each bowl of soup with a dollop of sour cream and fresh chopped parsley and dill if you have them. Voila!

(After making this beautiful pot of more or less authentic borscht, I completely bastardized it by adding two cups of cooked kidney beans to make it more filling. Russians usually eat soup as the first part of a meal, but I eat it (with some bread) as a whole meal, so without the meat I felt like beans were a good addition. Plus I just really like the combination of cabbage and kidney beans.)

03 November 2007

In from the Cold

It feels like ages since I've written! I guess that's partly because I've been writing fairly regularly for the last few months, and partly because this was emotionally a pretty long week. Bad news from home, continued gross weather, and a very stressful Halloween party combined to make me pretty miserable for several days, but things perked up immensely toward the end of the week, and I'm feeling not just not-bad-anymore, but actually really good now.

So. The windows in most Soviet apartment buildings, quite frankly, suck. They're old and made of wood, which means they're warped and usually don't shut all the way anymore. The paint on the casements is thick, uneven, chipping, and probably lead-based. Also, there was apparently a shortage of painter's tape in Soviet times, because the window glass is always streaked with paint and the locks have big spatters – sometimes so big that they prevent the lock from working properly – on them. The paint is mostly an aesthetic issue, but the warping is definitely structurally problematic, especially in windy seaside cities like Vladivostok and Taganrog.

So when cold weather comes, people deal with their leaky windows in one of two ways. The lucky ones can afford to renovate their apartment with "plastic windows." (When I first heard this term, I thought it meant the glass was plastic, but it actually refers to the casements.) Plastic windows are ALL the rage in Russia right now, often the first thing home renovators splurge on. They seal. They lock. They don't require paint. "Do you have plastic windows?" is one of the first questions that comes up when the conversation turns to apartments; an answer of yes, it is understood, translates to a warm, happy home, while an answer of no translates to freezing your butt off.

Or it would translate to freezing your butt off, if the crafty Russians hadn't come up with a draft-stopping solution. (Of course they came up with a draft-stopping solution. They believe that living in a drafty apartment is tantamount to suicide.) Starting in September, folks around here started making noises about taping their windows shut for the winter. At first I was confused, but never fear! I didn't have to wait long for them to start warning me to tape my own windows for the winter and explaining exactly how to do it. Some recommended regular clear tape; others swear by masking tape; still others advised getting my hands on some special insulated window-taping tape.

I missed all this last year because I spent the fall and winter in a nice, renovated dorm. But this year, I live in a real Soviet apartment, and my windows are the crappiest of the crappy. The ones in the kitchen have half-inch gaps even when you close them as tightly as you can, and the locks don't work. (Don't worry, I live on the ninth floor.) By last weekend, despite fairly warm outdoor temperatures, my apartment was unlivably cold. Too lazy/busy to tape, I tolerated it by wearing my hooded sweatshirt on top of a wool sweater, but when I had a student over for tea on Saturday and she nearly froze to death, I decided something had to be done.

This meant a trip to my favorite men's-only hardware store, where I got foam padding and two-inch wide masking tape (I made this difficult choice based on the fact that it was the first kind of tape I found). I cut the padding into strips, taped them into the cracks in my windows for heavy-duty draft blockage, got maybe a little overzealous and caulked the hinges of the leakiest window (the padding wouldn't go in), and presto! raised the temperature in my kitchen at least ten degrees Fahrenheit in thirty short minutes. My landlord came by the next day to empty the air out of my radiators (this is a continuing saga, because everyone else's air apparently rises into my radiators, preventing the hot water from reaching me and heating my apartment) and praised my work. Gold star for me!

The next day, to solve the non-functioning heater problem, I bought a little electric oil-filled radiator, and gave my advisor nervous fits by carrying it home by myself. (I still don't see what the problem with that is.) And now, finally, my apartment is toasty warm. Except that now that the door to my balcony, which was at least as leaky as the windows, is sealed off, the electric heater is shut in my bathroom with my wet laundry, making the bathroom toasty warm so the clothes dry faster. Not very energy-efficient, but then, the other option is waiting a week for my clothes to dry every time I do laundry.

Next cold-related task: convincing my advisor, who shamed me into switching my fall polarfleece jacket for my winter coat this past week, that said winter coat is thick enough to see me through the Taganrog winter alive. I've survived both Ohio and Connecticut winters in it, plus a very, very cold few days in Petersburg last January, so somehow I think it'll be ok. But she thinks I'm out of my mind. And so the battle of the cultural attitudes toward cold continues.

28 October 2007

Dorky Music Moment

I was pretty surprised when my balalaika teacher said on Friday that we were going to practice flagellato. In turn, he was pretty surprised that I didn't appear to know what flagellato was. When he showed me, I realized that I did know what flagellato was – the problem is that we don't use the Italian word for it. This happens a lot: he's always asking me silly questions like, "Do you know what forte and piano mean?," because Russian and English don't borrow all of the same music terms from Italian, and it's hard to know which ones will be shared by the two languages. Anyway, flagellato is playing on the harmonics!

In this context, harmonics are the special spots on a string where, if you apply a light touch (not pressing the string all the way down like you do to play a normal note) and pluck just so, a high-pitched "ghost note" will sound. To explain rather vaguely, they have to do with dividing the string into even ratios like 1:1 or 1:3. (Yeah, physics was never my favorite subject.) Bassists use harmonics to tune their instruments, since you can get the same harmonic note by touching different spots on different strings. That way, you can tune your A and D strings to each other by playing a harmonic A on both of them and matching the pitch.

So the exciting thing here is that there's a balalaika technique called "artificial harmonics." The only "natural" harmonics you can reliably get on a balalaika are octaves and fifths above the open string – others exist, just like on any length of taut string, but they're hard to coax out. Not to be deterred from playing entire melodies on harmonics, enterprising balalaechniki came up with an alternative wherein instead of using your left hand to divide the open string into the proper ratio and your right hand to pluck, you finger any ordinary note with your left hand, touch the string at the octave of that note with the index finger of your right hand, and pluck with your right thumb. Voila! Harmonics of any note you please! Maybe physics should be my favorite subject!

26 October 2007

Выступление и наказание, часть 2–я

So I get to the conference and the woman in charge greets Seth and introduces herself to me.
"You'll be presenting in English, right?" she asks.
"Yes," I say.
"Ok," she replies, and turns to Seth. "And you - you'll be presenting in Russian, I hope?"

Now, she clearly has no reason to assume that I don't speak Russian, especially since she knows Seth does and we both have the same position. (Potential reason(?): I look like I'm twelve. This is an ongoing theme in my life. I forgot to mention that when Amara and I went to the Chekhov museum, they tried to sell me a high school student ticket.) But since this is what I wanted, I don't complain. In fact, I do a little inner cartwheel that things turned out so well on the English-presenting front and take my seat.

BUT, I should know better than to ever think anything is going well until it's over and all danger of anything going wrong is completely past. (This is kind of a Russian attitude - I mean, we're talking a culture where you aren't supposed to celebrate anyone's birthday even one day in advance, in case they die before their real birthday.) I get up to the podium and this woman introduces me... and then says that she'll be translating for me.

GRR! If she had said that when I walked in, I would have told her I'd do it in Russian and brought my Russian notes up to the podium. But she didn't, so I didn't. I got through it fine, and in fact it was way better than my last translating experience, but I've learned my lesson: from this day forward, I will always ask what the working language of the conference is before I write my whole presentation in English.


Today it's a dark, rainy, gray day, the kind we've been having for about two weeks straight now. It's perfect for setting that nice gloomy autumnal mood, but I'm getting a little tired of it. Maybe that's partly because the radiator in my apartment doesn't really seem to work unless I drain all the smelly brown radiator-water (and accumulated air - does it accumulate air because they turn our water off every night at midnight?) out of it every day. AWESOME.

Also, yesterday's class: one student. Today's class: one student. English club: three students (two of whom were the students from yesterday's and today's classes). Tomorrow's class: being Saturday, one student *if* I'm lucky. I don't mind one-on-one work, but sometimes, especially on gloomy days like today, I wonder just who I'm here for.

Anyway, it's balalaika lesson time, which is bound to cheer me up even though I have to walk through the rain to get there! (I know, I shouldn't say that until all chance that my balalaika lesson will somehow kill me has passed.)


Edited, 8pm, for content and to add that the balalaika lesson did cheer me up. In fact, it was a great lesson. Take that, gloomy day!

25 October 2007

Bыступление и наказание

(That title doesn't translate at all – it means "presentation and punishment." But in Russian, "presentation/vystuplenie" sounds almost exactly like "crime/prestuplenie" - get it?)

Since starting out as an ETA, I've had to get up in front of people and talk more times than I can count. Maybe that seems obvious, since – duh – I'm a teacher, but even if you take out all the lessons I've led, I've still made at least two dozen presentations. There was the time I had to present my senior project research to the phonetics department at DVGU and ended up getting drunk on Soviet champagne beforehand (no, it's really called Soviet champagne); the time I had to speak about Emily Dickinson at a poetry reading; the times (four) I've had to give "Welcome to the World of English" speeches to students or prospective students; the times (two, once in English and once in Russian) I've had to talk about my Iceland research at scientific conferences; the time I had to give a surprise lecture to local English teachers on English grammar (I did not talk about English grammar – I still wouldn't know a gerundive if it bit me); the time I had to talk about American Fulbright programs for Russians... the list goes on and on.

That was one of the things that scared me most about Fulbright – we went to the orientation before coming to Russia, and returning grantees talked about having to make stuff up about Che Guevara or the mortgage system like it was no big deal, and everyone else seemed to think it was no big deal, but I felt sure that I would rather be poked relentlessly with sharp objects than have to stand up in front of people and talk about something I didn't feel qualified to talk about. This begs the question of whether I was really the right choice for English Teaching Assistant, but now that I'm a safe fourteen months in, I think it's a moot point.

And besides, teaching pretty much squishes that fear response within a few weeks (although I still have days every now and then where I just don't feel like my lesson plan is solid enough and I consider running and locking myself in the teachers' bathroom), so by now I'm so used to getting up and talking in front of people that I actually volunteer to do it. Take tomorrow, for example. I am going to Rostov, purely out of the goodness of my heart (ok, and the promise of McBreakfast), to speak at a conference on improving Russian higher education in the humanities based on American standards.

This is something I actually am qualified to talk about, at least sort of, since I know plenty about both American and Russian higher education. So where's the problem? Umm, the problem is that I'm lazy and didn't start writing the Russian version of my presentation until today. About the time I got to the third paragraph (1.5 hours in) and realized that I just don't know how to translate "grade point average" (either words or concept) and had already used the same phrase for "to give a grade" four times in two sentences, I texted Seth and asked him to tell them I had come down with malaria. He responded: "Give the talk in English and they will love it."

Hmm. Why didn't I think of that? I guess now that I've given two talks in Russian more or less successfully, I feel like I have to do it in Russian. Amara confirmed this when I complained to her of my translating woes: "If you have time, do it in Russian!" she texted back. Crap. On the one hand, I feel like she's right – nothing makes you feel lamer than being the only person at the entire conference who doesn't present in Russian, even if you are one of only two foreigners present. But on the other hand, I can't say nearly as much in 10 minutes of Russian as I can in 10 minutes of English, what I do say will have lots of mistakes in it, presenting in Russian means standing there reading from my notes while presenting in English does not, and I can't express myself clearly in Russian, at least on the issue of the American grading system. (I can definitely express myself clearly on the issue of drivers who don't stop for pedestrians in crosswalks, as that guy in the green Volga found out today.) So, is it really worth the ego stroke of being able to say that I speak Russian well enough to present at a conference, if I actually... don't?

I'll let you know when I decide. Trouble is, I just remembered that there is one bad thing that can happen if I show up and refuse to give the talk in Russian: they could assign me a translator on the fly. That happened to me once before. She knew more about Emily Dickinson than I did, or thought she did, so she kept embellishing what I was saying and saying things in Russian that I had wanted to be my next sentence in English. It was SO horrible. So I think I'll at least make some notes I could stumble through in Russian, in case of emergency. And now, I'm going to go give myself a gold star for wasting half an hour writing this instead of working on those notes.

20 October 2007

In memoriam, etc.

Let's have a moment of silence for my long hair (may it rest in peace on the floor of the big barbershop in the sky). Yes, it's the anniversary of my most drastic and worst haircut ever; those of you who were reading my blog last year might remember this haircut. If you reread that old post, ignore the part where I said I liked it. I was just being optimistic. It was a TERRIBLE haircut, and I spent the better part of the year growing it out. Fortunately, the true low point of the style came in late November, when I was unable to walk and didn't care what I looked like.

But by now, I can look back on it all with amusement (the haircut, not the broken leg), and I celebrated the anniversary yesterday by getting a trim. Perhaps fittingly, this trim was basically a version of the haircut Laura suggested I get on that fateful day last year, when I didn't listen to her and instead asked the stylist to copy a cut I had seen on a model in a knitting magazine (lesson learned: get knitting patterns, not haircuts, from knitting magazines). So now my hair is as short as possible in the back without resorting to razors (I articulated this desire at the salon by saying "as short as possible without bzzz bzzz" – not fluent, but effective communication), angling down to chin length in the front. Nice.

On to other things: the Moldovan wine last night was good. It was homemade, and I don't know if it wasn't fully fermented, or just weaker than regular wine, but it tasted like more of a grape juice/wine hybrid than straight-up wine. Good thing, too, since they kept pouring me more and more.

Finally: Amara's visit was wonderful! It's hard to say what the best part was, but I think the part that I was most surprised about was our trip to Tanais. It's a really interesting little dig/museum, we got to interact with a drunk old guy who thought we were Russian (I brought out my Ukrainian alter-ego, Olesya, again; Amara became Tamara→Toma→Tomochka, although not by choice), the sun finally came out after hiding all week, we met some friendly stray puppies at the train station, and the train ride back to the city along the coast was beautiful.

The dig site. Excavated walls from the Greek settlement 3rd century BCE – 5th century CE (this part being from the 2nd or 3rd century CE).

Not an excavated tower – just a reconstruction – but it shows how nice the weather got.

Some impressions of the rest of the week:
Rostov: Georgian food and Updike read-alongs!
Azov: Rain. Cold. Mammoth skeleton! Misbehaving Russian child. Drunk women stealing begonias from city gardens! Old fort walls!
Taganrog: Chekhov-palooza! Silly seaside photo shoot, discovery of a delicious Chinese restaurant.
Boris Moiseev: Is this guy for real? Heart-shaped Russian flags. "Live sound" that clearly was not live. His parting benediction: "May you always be happy and loved during this short, beautiful word: life. And as for me, I will continue to get down on my knees and pray to God that not one bitch (!) ever keep us from living, loving, singing and dancing." Umm? ...Definitely worth the price of admission, though.

19 October 2007

Take a deep breath and repeat: "Your problem is not my problem."

For Pete's sake, I should have taken up the domra... What is it with people wanting English lessons in exchange for balalaika lessons?

Not my teacher, Mikhail Semyonovich, of course. I can't imagine he'd have any use for English. But he seems to have told a colleague of his that I'd tutor her grown son, who works with computers and wants to "perfect his spoken English."

I did my best to politely explain that according to the terms of my grant, I'm not allowed to earn money. Why did I say that? It's true, but what I should have said was that I am not interested in spending my free time doing the same thing I do with my non-free time, which is also the truth. Of course, when faced with the money problem, he came up with the solution that this colleague will pay for my balalaika lessons in exchange for the English lessons. Déjà vu, anyone? At least I wouldn't have to teach him Spiderman vocabulary and play endless games with his Scooby Doo trading cards like my last balalaika-exchange student (God willing).

Right now I'm just mad, because his reaction to my refusal seemed to indicate that he has indeed already told this colleague that I'll do it. (Well, your problem is not my problem, Mikhail Semyonovich!) And I'm determined that when I meet this woman at a balalaika concert next Wednesday, I'll say no. No more letting people co-opt my free time because I don't know how to say no.

Anyway, off to drown my anger in Moldovan wine at the home of one of my students, who is half Moldovan and half Turkmen.

13 October 2007

Fulbright Reunion!!

This might not really be blog-worthy, but I'm just so excited: Amara's here to visit!

It all started sometime last month, when posters for an upcoming Boris Moiseev concert started appearing around Taganrog. I knew nothing about Boris Moiseev beyond what Amara, a true Russian pop culture maven (I think she knows the lyrics to more Russian pop songs than I do American ones), had told me. Which is that he's really flamboyant and pretty cheesy, as you can kind of see from his website even if you don't read Cyrillic.

Since Amara and I text back and forth all the time (we're pretty good friends, since we were both here last year; plus text messages are really cheap), I soon mentioned to her that he was coming, and joked that she should come visit and we could go to the concert together.

To my surprise, she took me seriously, and despite the hurdle of the concert being on a Wednesday instead of a weekend, she decided to make the trip. She got into Rostov today, where I'll meet up with her and Seth, and tomorrow we'll all head to Azov, a fortress-town built by the Turks to keep the Russians off the Black Sea (thanks, Lonely Planet). I come back tomorrow evening, and she'll come down on Monday after my classes are done and we'll see the Taganrog sites, including the Chekhov family house-museum and general store-museum I haven't been to yet, and Tanais, a Scythian/Greek archaeological dig not far from here. And then on Wednesday we'll go to the concert!

When I told my colleagues that I was going to a Boris Moiseev concert, they were pretty horrified. I try not to do too many things that make them think I have no common sense (it's hard - not because I lack common sense, but because the definition of common sense is often culturally determined), but I think that might have been one. As mentioned before, being gay is not OK in Russia. Apparently last time he gave a concert here, the local Cossacks protested. I kind of hope that happens again; I'll be sure to have my camera with me.

Anyway, just thought I'd share what's going on in my life. :) Off to Rostov!

12 October 2007

How Much Is Voting Worth?

I think many people would agree that the right to vote is pretty valuable. If we're talking in terms of societies, maybe it's priceless. Certainly plenty of human lives have been lost over it. If we're talking in terms of individuals, well, I'm sure almost anyone could be bought, depending on the price and who's doing the buying. (Would you take ten million dollars if the only condition was that you could never vote in a government election again?)

But in this case, we're not talking about the right to vote. We're talking about how &%*@ long it takes for mail to get to Russia and how expensive DHL is.

Sadly, Congressman Paul Gillmor, my district's representative, passed away last month, leaving a vacancy in the House. We're having a special election in December to fill the spot, and I would like to vote in it. That requires three steps:

1) Getting my signed absentee ballot request to the Board of Elections.
2) The Board of Elections getting an absentee ballot back to me.
3) Getting the filled-out ballot back to the Board of Elections.

Simple, yes, but assuming we do it all on the up-and-up and don't have my mom forge any signatures or vote for me (probably a good idea, since my voting materials inform me that electoral fraud is a fifth-degree felony), that's a lot of mailing back and forth. My options appear to be air mail, which can take about a month, and DHL, which takes three days but costs more than 1900 rubles (about 80 bucks). The lady at the post office told me today that I can also use the Russian Postal Service's "very expensive" Express Mail, but I was previously told that that was only for mailing stuff within Russia, and when I asked her if I could really use it to send something to the U.S., she didn't answer me. I'll have to investigate that further.

Anyway, I have plenty of time before the ballots are even available, so I sent the ballot request by regular air mail, which cost 95 cents. Even I'm not too cheap for that. The plan for step two is to have the ballot sent to my house and DHL'ed to me by my parents. It has to be back at the Board of Elections 10 days after the election, and the absentee ballots are released 15 days before the election, so if it gets here in four days (11 days before the election), I have 22 days to get it in. Still not enough time for air mail to be safe, but plenty of time for DHL.

And now that I think about it, my parents have Power of Attorney for me while I'm gone, so maybe they actually could legally vote for me. AND I just remembered that for federal elections, you can just do a write-in ballot at the embassy, which would probably require going to Moscow but would at least mean spending a lot of money on a train ticket to a city that's fun to visit instead of just spending a lot of money, period. I'll have to look into that.

In any case, I'd like to know – would you shell out $160.95 to vote?

09 October 2007

A Linguistic Puzzle, or Cockiness Ill Becomes Me

Sorry to everyone who thinks this post is boring, which may well be everyone.

A few years ago in my introductory syntax course, we were learning about government and binding.

(What that is exactly isn't important; just know that it has partly to do with cases and noun declension. My readers will be familiar with noun declension if they've studied Russian, Latin, German, or any other language where you have to memorize a bunch of different noun endings.)

Anyway, we learned that one universal linguistic principle is that verbs and prepositions can never govern nominative case. Nominative case is the ending the noun has when it's the subject of the sentence, but the object of a verb or preposition can never be in nominative case. (That is, in the phrase "to give a gift," gift can't be nominative; ditto for house in the phrase "in the house.")

It was only later that I learned that you can't always trust "universal linguistic principles," and with two years of Russian under my belt at the time (that is, enough time to know nothing but still believe you know everything), I was pretty dubious when a grad student – a native speaker of Russian – raised her hand in class and said that in Russian there are prepositions that govern nominative case.

I won't share exactly what I thought of this declaration; suffice it to say that it was neither very charitable nor very wise. And I got my comeuppance, so to speak, in the form of this puzzling construction, which has been a thorn in my side for the past six months or so:

Что за невоспитанный мальчик?
Chto za nevospitanny mal'chik
What PREP ill-bred-NOM little boy-NOM
What's with this ill-bred little boy? or Why is this little boy behaving so badly?

I overheard a mother saying this to her misbehaving son on the bus last spring in Vladivostok. (His crime: trying to pull his wool hat off.) Despite the fact that I've heard the construction many times since, I still can't quite put my finger on what it means, so that gloss might not be quite right. But it sure looks like the preposition za (which has several meanings, such as "behind," "beyond," "to," "for") is governing a noun phrase in the nominative. But prepositions CAN'T govern nominative!

One solution is that za is actually governing chto ("what"), which has the same form in nominative and accusative case. In that case, "ill-bred little boy" is the subject of the sentence and the word order is highly unusual. But I've never come across another instance in Russian of a preposition following rather than preceding the noun it governs. (Doesn't a language have to be head-initial for that to happen? My syntax is rather rusty.)

Another solution is that I'm mishearing it, and that grad student was talking about a different construction.

If anyone has an insight, I would be happy to hear it. Russian native speaker linguists (here I am looking at Michael, who may or may not read this)? People who like syntax more than I do?

As a side note, воспитание/upbringing (like the oft-cited ремонт/renovations) is a word that gets a lot more airtime in Russian than in English, and seems to have much deeper and wider roots in the cultural soil. I'll try to write about it sometime if I can make it into an interesting post.

Вот что я люблю

McDonald's: looks the same inside as a nicer American McDonald's. Yes, you have to pay for the ketchup (ten rubles, about 40 cents), but it is American ketchup rather than Russian. Yes, there are "local-market" foods, at least at breakfast, and they're blinchiki. Yes, there are Happy Meals, and they appear to come with the same toys as American Happy Meals. I don't really know how much McDonald's costs in the U.S., but here, my Egg and Cheese McMuffin, hash brown, ketchup and coffee was 122 rubles, or $4.91.

It was pretty McTasty.

For big-city folk, McDonald's seems pretty run-of-the-mill, though (as my Petersburg host mom said) perceived as classier than it is in the U.S. But for many Russians it's apparently still a novelty and a big treat, since a tourist agency ad I saw on the trolley today offered three exciting attractions on its trips to Novocherkassk – a visit to the cathedral, admittance to the museum of Cossack history, and – a stop at McDonald's!! Same for tour agencies in Vladivostok advertising trips to Harbin, China, if I remember correctly.

06 October 2007

Billions and Billions Served

By my count, I've been in Russia for a total of almost exactly a year: one week the first time, on tour with my college concert band; one month the second time, studying with the Yale Summer Program in Petersburg; nine months of last academic year (for an eleven-month grant... stupid leg); and seven weeks so far on this grant.

Tomorrow (drumroll, please), I go to Russian McDonald's for the first time.

Ok, it's not that big of a deal, but I think it's kind of funny. I'm not a big McDonald's fan in the U.S. (despite what many of my students think, which is that all Americans eat fast food all the time; considering what they see of mass-exported American culture, I really can't fault them for thinking so. But I will try to convince them otherwise by feeding them homemade cookies). I've had several chances to go to McDonald's here that I've passed up. Surprisingly, we didn't have one in Vlad, though we did have a joint called "Magic Burger" – or just "Burger," in the local parlance – which I regrettably never visited. But there are McDonald's aplenty in Moscow and Petersburg, and even, as I learned a few weeks ago, in the not-very-big Cossack capital of Novocherkassk. (I'll blog about that trip eventually.) I also hear tell that there's a very attractive one in Sochi, complete with palm trees.

Anyway, I'm going to Rostov-on-Don tomorrow to give a presentation on my Fulbright experience at the American Corner library (which I'm currently procrastinating on by writing this post). Seth, my Rostov cohort, has promised a trip to McDonald's beforehand for McBreakfast. McAwesome! I'm not even really sure what to expect of this little blended-culture adventure. Will it look like American McDonald's inside? Will it be as classy as my host mom in Petersburg always said Russian McDonald's is? What will the local-market dishes be – hearty soups, maybe? Blinchiki and kasha? Do they have Happy Meals, and if so, what kind of toys do they come with? And do you have to pay extra for the ketchup packets like you do in most Russian restaurants? I'll be sure to report back.

02 October 2007

Do you like puppets?

The Kremlin does.

Because that link will soon vanish (thanks for being stingy, Moscow Times):
Putin has announced his intention to run for the State Duma (Parliament) in December's elections, and also mentioned that he might become Prime Minister when his second term as president ends early next year. (The presidential elections should be in March.)
Background: like in the U.S., Russian presidents can only serve for two terms. Well, almost like the U.S. - they can only serve two consecutive terms, meaning that in four years Putin can run again. But since the Russian government seems to think changing the constitution is about as serious as changing one's socks, for a long time no one was really convinced that Putin was actually going to give up power. So, this is good news because the constitution is going to remain intact, but bad news because - well, see the title of the post. I could write more about this, but to be honest, I'm a little scared to. Especially after reading A Russian Diary (review forthcoming, if I ever find the time to finish the last twenty pages or so).

(This next part is a tiny bit more controversial than what I usually offer on this blog. Just to warn you.)
Also, I was disappointed in the Communist Party of the Russian Federation when I read today that one of their slogans is "Better Red than Light Blue." In Russian, "goluboi/light blue" is a slang term for homosexual. The article I was reading went on to explain, "this slogan refers to the light blue color of the United Russia (Putin's party) flag, and not at all what our readers were probably thinking." Umm, correct me if I'm wrong, but if all of your readers make the same association, then the association is there. I don't know why I would expect a political party in Russia - where gay rights lag far behind gay rights in the U.S. and most of Europe - to be above a hurtful double entendre that would probably still be acceptable in many circles in America. But it still disappointed me.