Can I even get it down to a top ten? No, I don't think so. My first week or so since my re-arrival in Russia was amazing. Here are some highlights – sorry if it's a bit of a play-by-play:
1. Pskov. Pskov is a small city near the Estonian and Latvian borders, and is the host town of one of my fellow English Teaching Assistants. For the sake of this entry I'll call her Amanda, because I know she's not into having her name, especially in the context of her grant, easily Google-able. Alice (also not her real name – she's another ETA) and I went to visit Amanda in Pskov before all heading to Petersburg together. We were only there for 19 hours, but she showed us a good time nonetheless. Pskov has one of the most beautiful kremlins I've ever seen; pictures will follow at some point. The downtown area is pretty nice, too, featuring several really old churches and a monument to Pushkin, who spent some years in exile near Pskov. There’s also a square called Lenin Square, which features the obligatory statue of Lenin along with a huge video billboard that flashes advertisements all day, to the accompaniment of blaring sound effects. The irony was not lost on us. After walking around all day seeing the sights, we spent the evening in a local bar with some of Amanda's Russian friends until our train left for Petersburg at the ungodly hour of 3 a.m.
2. St. Petersburg. Strolling down Nevsky Prospect and around all the famous Petersburg places through gently falling snow, taking pictures out the windows of the Winter Palace, chatting for hours in warm cafes; it was like spending three days living in every romantic dream I've ever had about Russia. Plus we ate Dagestani and Indonesian food, went to an opera (Gounod's Faust), and saw a pretty cool exhibit of the winter outerwear of various Eurasian peoples at the ethnographic museum. And I had the added pleasure of returning to some beloved tourist sites (the Bronze Horseman, the Cathedral on the Spilled Blood, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage) for the second or third time. I love Petersburg.
3. Trains. I'm now fully convinced that riding in a train, even though it takes longer, is better than flying. It's cheaper, for one (except in America); there's more room to move; and you get a real bed with sheets and blankets. Plus, despite the fact that I have no hard data on this, I feel safer on a train, since there's significantly less risk of falling out of the sky. I’m now determined to make the Trans-Siberian trip happen at some point.
4. Moscow. What's not to love about Moscow? Well, a lot, probably, but it was still fun to be there again. Reuniting with all the other Russia Fulbrighters was great, for one thing. The conference involved a lot of people who were supposed to talk about their research for ten minutes talking for 25 or 30 minutes, but since that ended with me not having to present anything at all, I can't complain. And when we weren't doing that, we were having fun. We did get to meet Thomas Friedman, as promised (who now, thanks to our flat, flat world, could be reading this to see what I wrote about him – Hi, Mr. Friedman!). He talked about his book and we got to chat with him afterwards, but perhaps the best part of that evening was the copious free food and alcohol, which most of the Fulbrighters were eager to take full advantage of. On Tuesday we went to a round-table discussion at the Carnegie Moscow Center on the future of Russia, given by Russian and American experts in various Russia-related fields. That may have been the highlight of the week for me. The speakers were uniformly excellent, and the topics were really interesting. After that, we saw a good piano concert (Beethoven, Schubert, Ravel) by Petr Laul, who I had never heard of. He gave four encores!! Is that normal? As an added touristy bonus, I had time to go down to Red Square and take some pictures, which I somehow missed doing last time. They had an ice skating rink set up right on the square! Maybe next winter I won’t be gimpy and I can go skating there.
So, after all that and some other stuff too, I boarded the plane and made my way back to Vladivostok, which is where I am now, floating in a weird sort of suspension between having a ton of stuff to do because I just got back and not really having anything to do because the semester hasn't started yet. And needing to do a lot of laundry, but only being able to do as much at one time as can fit on the heating element in my bathroom to dry.