27 February 2007

A Sunday Stroll Down Ocean Avenue

I think walking around a familiar place by yourself with the sole purpose of taking pictures is one of the most worthwhile things you can do with a few free hours on the right kind of day. It doesn't matter if you don't get any fabulous shots – it's just fun to walk around looking at everything as a potential photograph, and it gives you a chance to take another look at stuff you've been staring dully at and not really noticing for a long time. I'd been meaning to do it with Vladivostok for a long time (since September or so), but hadn't yet. Sunday was a nice warm, sunny day, so I finally did. Here's what came of it.

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DVGU's humanities building, home of my place of work (note: I use that term loosely), the Institute of Foreign Languages.

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The Orthodox church being built at Pokrovskii Park, across the street from DVGU. When I got here in September, the domes were still on the ground (they're HUGE when you see them from that perspective) and the red brick the church is built from wasn't plastered and painted yet. Sometime in October, they blessed the site with holy water. There was even a parade with monks! I didn't take pictures, though, and I think you can guess why.

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Vladivostok's administration building, which is ugly but features our coat of arms – a Siberian tiger climbing a hill. Note the hammer and sickle as well.

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The Hare Krishna café! It smelled so good, I almost bought a pirozhok even though I had just had lunch.

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The statue on our Central Square. I like it better viewed from the back, which is how I usually see it (walking down Okeanskii Prospekt, "Ocean Avenue"), because he looks a lot more like he's dancing and wearing a dress. It says, "In honor of those who struggled for Soviet power in the Far East, 1917-1922." There's quite a bit of Vladivostok history that has to do with the civil war after the revolution, but I don't know much of it. I think it was the last White Army holdout, or something like that.

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The train station. I wish I knew more about it – I just know vaguely that it's a Vladivostok landmark, but I'm not sure if it's old or new or what. It's very pretty, at any rate. I couldn't get the whole thing in the picture, though, because there's a busy bus stop in front of it and buses kept coming barreling toward me.

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Today was my first time inside the train station, and I completely fell in love with it. It's the warmest, coziest, cleanest-looking public building I've ever been in in Russia.

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Our Krai (literally "borderland," really more like "region") administration building, which is big and ugly and white, and therefore called the Wisdom Tooth.

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I read somewhere that "compared to the Russians, we [Americans] have completely forgotten World War II." I'd agree, I guess – it's so much more a part of Russian consciousness than it is American (if you need proof of this, visit Victory Park in Moscow... it's amazing) – but I think it kind of makes sense, considering how much they lost, and the fact that it actually happened on their soil. Anyway, this is Vladivostok's eternal flame commemorating WWII. Every city I've been to has one. That disc on top is a big navy hat.

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One of my favorite Vladivostok landmarks. This is an arch built in the 1890's to commemorate a visit by then-Tsarevich Nikolai II, who stopped by to celebrate the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railroad. It was unceremoniously destroyed by the Soviets and only rebuilt a few years ago. It's not my favorite because I think it's pretty – actually, I think it looks a little too much like a giant toy – but because it's a quaint reminder of what a frontier outpost Vladivostok has been for most of its history. I mean, the future Tsar came by, and they got SO excited about it that they built a huge, ridiculous ceremonial arch. There was clearly not a lot going on here back in the 1890's. (I guess not that much has changed – Putin was here right before I got back, and they made quite a big deal of that, too. Unfortunately, as far as I've noticed, no arch has been constructed commemorating the event. But now that I think about it, it led the governor to promise a new nuclear power plant in Arsenyev, which is kind of the same thing.)

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Our GUM (pronounced "goom;" it stands for State General Store, and was a fixture of Soviet cities). Speaking as someone who knows absolutely nothing about architecture, I think it looks really German. And it actually is German, having been built by a pair of German merchants in the 1800's, who were quite the businessmen of their day and even contributed funds to the building of the Oriental Institute, the precursor to DVGU. Another interesting note: Vladivostok has two GUMs, a Men's GUM and a Women's GUM. (This is the Men's one. The Women's one is ugly and Soviet.) The names persist even though the segregation of men's wares and women's/children's wares stopped quite some time ago, possibly when they stopped actually being state-run general stores.

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On the Набережная/Náberezhnaya (literally 'embankment,' probably best translated as 'boardwalk' in this case). The mermaid statue (a la Copenhagen) is in the water, although that's not immediately obvious in this picture. I wanted to walk on the ice, but Laura (who by this point had joined me for some quality boardwalk-strolling) seemed less than excited about risking it on such a warm day, so we didn't.

22 February 2007

I'm famous!

Well, not really, of course, but in case you needed proof that I'm in Vladivostok and not hiding out in Mongolia, living in a yurt and spending my grant trying to develop a world market for smoked yak jerky, my picture is on the DVGU website!

I'm in profile in the lower left corner.

This picture, for you non-readers of Russian, is from the Far Eastern English Language Teachers Association (FEELTA) winter conference that happened a few weeks ago. The translation of the page is as follows:

FEELTA, together with DVGU's Institute of Foreign Languages, recently held their yearly seminar, "Winter School," for teachers in the schools and universities of the Russian Far East.

The seminar was attended by 169 participants from Vladivostok, Ussuriysk, Artyom, Khabarovsk, Krasnoarmeisky and Shkotovsky regions, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk and Birobidzhan. At the three-day seminar, talks were given by leading English teaching methodology specialists Tatyana Ryzhkova (Krasnoyarsk), Vlada Lapshina and Oksana Pikhota (Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk), Galina Lovtsevich and Larisa Kul'chitskaya (DVGU, Vladivostok), Svetlana Semenovykh (Birobidzhan), and Judy Elliott and Jeff Bowman (USA).

The seminar also featured two interesting round tables; one on strategies for organizing and running English language summer camps, and the other, "My Success Story," a forum for teachers to share stories of their professional successes, such as students' victories in national English language contests.

This account of the seminar is... interesting. I'll leave it at that.

In other news, I've been SO busy. But in a really good way.

19 February 2007

Russian Names 101

I feel a bit lukewarm toward this post, which I wrote partly the week before last and partly last week. I'll post it anyway. And rest assured, I went on an outing yesterday (в шашлыках, just like Tanya and Misha in "Live from Moscow," for those of you in the know), so soon there will be more pictures to distract from actual content! Hooray!

I've just finished my second week of class with my new students, four groups of third-year future teachers and translators. I like them and they seem to like me (so far), with the possible exception of one really, really quiet group. I mean disturbingly quiet. I hope they're just shy... But anyway, I've already decided that the most notable thing about my students this semester is that I don't have a single one named Olga!

Last semester I had a whopping ten Olyas, with group 544A topping out at four Olyas in the same class, not to mention three Yulias and two Tanyas. That left three girls – a mere 25% of the group – who didn't share a name with someone. Group 544B came in second, with three Olyas, as well as two Natashas. Also, of the four male students I had, 50% were named Vladimir (and were, of course, in the same group).

In case it's not clear from that, Russian given names aren't nearly as varied as American given names, especially American given names of the currently-being-born generation. (Nevaeh, anyone?) There might be thirty men's and thirty women's names that get used and reused, with (as far as I can tell) little noticeable generational variation in the past fifty years or so. There's a whole slew of names (lots of Orthodox saints' names and Biblical names) that don't get used because they long ago became associated with the peasantry, and the association has remained. So we beat on, boats against the storm, borne back ceaselessly by the unending waves of Olgas, Annas, Yekaterinas, Ksenias, Vladimirs, Alexeis and Andreis.

Since this has clearly devolved into an educational entry, maybe I should mention that every Russian has an official name like those above (Vladimir, Yekaterina), but they rarely go by this name unless you're calling them by both their name and their patronymic, like my oft-mentioned boss, Ludmila Petrovna. Instead, most names have casual forms – Olya for Olga, Anya for Anna, Vova (not Vlad!) for Vladimir, Tanya for Tatiana, etc. (I was quite amused to find out that cute little Slava, the boy I teach English to, is actually a very important-sounding Vyacheslav.) Anyway, the tendency to use casual forms helps, because often a name has more than one casual form, not to mention an anglicized form that can be used in English class.

For example, this semester, the three Annas in one of my classes have tried to alleviate the confusion by dubbing themselves Anya, Annette and Anyuta. But the Yekaterinas are somehow always uncooperative, invariably insisting that I call them Kate. I'm puzzled both by their unwillingness to be called Katya and by their apparent ignorance of other English variations – after all, why not just Katherine? Or Katie? Kat? Kathy? Kathleen, maybe? I think it's a conspiracy.

Somewhat relatedly, I think today I permanently lost the respect of Leonid, a student in the really quiet class. He said his nickname was Lyonya/Лёня, but I misheard him and called him Lyolya/Лёля (which is short for Yelena/Елена, clearly a girl's name). I definitely got scowled at for that. Oh well. He didn't look like he was inclined to like me anyway, and if he had shown up for the first day of class and written his name and preferred nickname on an index card like everyone else, we wouldn't have had that problem. So there.

15 February 2007

On Snow (Again)

Well, I've learned my lesson. Apparently the gods decided to smite me for complaining about the icy sidewalks by delivering us a whale of a snowstorm yesterday. I'd estimate that between a foot and a foot and a half fell, most of it heavy and wet. Some departments at the university even closed – including the Institute of Foreign Languages, after the first two periods of the day. And then they felt the need to turn off the water in the dormitory. I think the city just does that kind of thing to remind us that they have us under their thumb.

Since I actually really like snow (a sure sign that I haven't spent enough time driving in snow yet), this wouldn't have been much of a punishment, but upon returning from the one class I managed to teach before we closed, I promptly fell ill with one of those cold/flu things that makes you feel dizzy and light-headed and makes your skin ache. So I didn't even get to enjoy the snow! But today I feel a little better, and the snow will probably be around for a very long time, anyway.

Also, I got this cold remedy from a Russian friend over the phone, but I didn't try it because I didn't have any of the ingredients on hand (no, not even the vodka... for shame, Leslie), and because I think there's another tablespoon of something that I've forgotten:

1 Tbsp. raspberry jam
1 Tbsp. honey
1 Tbsp. vodka

Mix all ingredients in a cup of hot water; drink. Then wrap yourself in a blanket and lie in bed to let the cold sweat itself out of you.

My friend, practicing her English on me, said, "I used this remedy and I got better two weeks after I fell ill." But I think she must have meant "days" – she gets a little flustered when she tries to speak English over the phone. Either that or it's a really, really ineffective remedy.

13 February 2007

a little update

Clearly I've forgotten how to be a good blogger, since it's been nine days already since my last post. I suppose I'm justified to some extent, since I've been occupied with re-settling in and starting the new semester, but I actually did write a new post a few days ago, and then forgot to save it to my flash drive and bring it to the internet cafe. To make up for that, I'll write a different entry.

I have a theory, which I may or may not have just thought up on the spot, that Americans living in Russia must always have a base level of "Russia is an absolutely ridiculous country" energy - you know, like an aura or something - that grows stronger and weaker depending on the day and depending on the person's particular disposition. (Some people - the more rational ones, perhaps? - have so much of this energy that it's completely impossible for them to live here. They go insane within a few months. I've seen it.)

Anyway, my "Russia is ridiculous" energy - which I try to keep at a pretty low level most of the time for the sake of my own sanity, not to mention the lofty ideal of "cross-cultural understanding" - has been ruffled recently by the ice on the sidewalks here in Vlad. Now that I've fallen on the ice twice in two days (once accidentally stretching my knee in a direction it was emphatically not ready to stretch... ouch), I can take it no longer, and I have to say, "Vladivostok, what is with you? Have you never heard of SALT?!?"

It snowed about two weeks ago here, and the sidewalks are now (and have been for about a week and a half) covered in thick, filthy sheets of ice that are a result of pedestrians pounding down the unshoveled snow with their feet, said snow melting and refreezing as the temperature hovers around freezing, said meltwater running down all the umpteen million #@$% hills in this city as it refreezes, etc. Instead of hiring people to shovel or salt the sidewalks and get rid of the snow right off, our fair city waits until the ice problem is well underway, and then hires men to go around with shovel-like implements and pound away at the ice in various spots (or poke halfheartedly, depending on how long they've been at it), breaking it up and hauling it off to God knows where. Is this efficient? No, of course not. It's ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

To be fair to Vladivostok, I suspect that this is the case pretty much all over Russia, although while we were in Pskov we did see a babushka walking down the street with a big shaker of table salt, sprinkling it in front of her. Haha. Way to go, babushka.

This gives me an idea for a new international exchange program. Instead of exchanging scientists and academics and useless people like me, the U.S. should send Russia our street sweepers, plowers, salters, maybe some garbage men for good measure. And vice-versa, I suppose. We could learn a lot from each other.

05 February 2007

Petersburg, Moscow, and other stories

Here are the rest of my pictures from my trip! But before we get to that, I failed to mention in my last entry that I found out at the conference that two other Russia Fulbrighters have also been hit by cars so far this academic year! Neither of them was hurt, thank goodness, and it does make me feel like a little less of an idiot for having it happen to me. But it gives me no comfort regarding pedestrian safety in Russia.

Also, in a cruelly humorous twist of fate, I found out this morning that my supposed-to-be new advisor - who picked me up from the airport here and who has also been hit by a car, along with her boyfriend (he broke his leg, she got a concussion) - fell and broke her leg on Saturday! I can't even think of anything to say about that. Can someone please check and make sure a little black cloud of bad luck isn't following me around?

Anyway, here are the pictures:

St. Petersburg
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A little smoggy, but beatiful, isn't it?

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If you speak Russian to the guard-ladies in the Hermitage, they give you mini-tours of the rooms they're watching, AND they let you take pictures out the windows even if you didn't buy a photo pass.

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Peter-Paul Fortress in the snow.

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Me being super-touristy and American with Peter the Great. All three of us posed like this. I'm not sure how the Russians felt about that.

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In Moscow we came upon a large collection of snowmen crowding the sidewalk. They even made the grouchy Muscovites smile! Here, a sampling: a lovey-dovey snowcouple and some mohawked snowpunks.

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Obligatory Red Square picture #1 - the State Museum, one of my favorite buildings. Doesn't it look so wintry?

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Obligatory Red Square picture #2 - St. Basil's Disneyland Cathedralpark (well, that's what I think it looks like, anyway).

To respond to a comment from one M.S., we did go to the Letnii Sad (Summer Garden) in Petersburg, at my request. Going in the winter is funny, because all the statues (and there are a multitude of statues) are covered in giant gray boxes.

Ok, I think that's all for now. I hope I didn't slow anyone's browser down too much with all my photos!

03 February 2007

I heart Pskov!

Because I love you and because I have enough internet time left, I'll post my Pskov pictures (totalling three, because I was conserving my camera's battery, because my battery charger, like many of my important belongings, was in Vladivostok while I was at home/in Western Russia).

(See post below for the full report on the trip.)

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Outside the kremlin. I bet you thought only Moscow had a Kremlin, right? Wrong! A kremlin is a walled citadel, and most old Russian cities have one. It usually houses a church and some other important buildings. If you look closely, you can see the enormous sword hanging from the wall in front of a big metal shield with Pskov's coat of arms on it (which you probably can't see). Unfortunately, I don't know what the story is behind the sword, except that it possibly commemorates Aleksandr Nevsky's defeat of someone or other near Pskov.

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The church. This church was beautiful inside: unlike many Orthodox churches, it wasn't covered floor-to-ceiling in icons and paintings, so the top 3/4 of the tall walls and pillars were just white. Combined with the sunshine streaming in the high windows, it gave the church a much brighter, less ponderous feel than most I've been in.

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We climbed down the stairs to this wall (difficult with the ice and my crutch) and walked out to the tower. The two towers stand at the confluence of the Pskova and Velikii (Great) Rivers, and between them there was an underwater gate that could be raised to stop invaders from traveling up the river!

Definite candidate for Best Week of My Life

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.