25 January 2008


Hello from Murmansk, everyone!

I can't write much since I'm a) paying for internet and b) more interested in getting out and on with my day than composing a blog entry, but I thought I'd say hi. Being above the Arctic Circle is pretty amazing. No Northern Lights (Murmansk is, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the best-lit Russian cities I've ever seen, so there's a lot of light pollution at night), but we've witnessed the entire 4-hour course of the sun (this time of year, it rises at 11am and sets at 3pm), gone on what I consider a legitimate polar expedition, complete with whipping wind, drifting snow, and sub-zero temperatures - never mind that we were still technically within the city limits - and just generally had a great time. Add in that thrilling sensation of being in a place that's truly off the beaten track (one of my favorites - no surprise that I came to Russia, I guess), and you have an amazing winter break trip. I can't wait to show you the pictures when I get back to Taganrog!

But first: Moscow - ho! We leave this evening for a (YUCK) 40-hour train ride and then a few days of conferencing. I'll be home next weekend.

15 January 2008


One thing I've really noticed in the past few years is the way time seems to dilate and contract as it goes by. This is true of life in general, not just life in Russia, but it seems especially noticeable when, like I am now, you're in a situation that you know will last for a limited time. At first, the entire duration stretches ahead of you, its vastness and possibilities apparently limited only by your own expectations of what's going to happen. Then the year begins to pass, and that vast, amorphous chunk of time contracts into a series of discrete moments and a list, surprisingly short, of the things you managed to get done and the things you didn't. What's in front of you still has that widened, unfocused perspective, as long as it's far enough away, but time seems to be flowing faster and you start to get the uneasy feeling that nothing is going to last quite as long as you were led to believe. Before long, the little bubble of contracted time you float along in will bump right up against the end of your stay and you won't have any vast, fuzzy future time in Russia left to savor – just a lot of packing and a ten-hour plane ride home.

Lucky for you, though, the human capacity for memory is limited, and because of that, autumn will already have re-expanded to almost its former proportions before the last snows of winter have melted. The discrete moments become less discrete, with the best and most memorable ones swelling to fill much more time than they first seemed to, bleeding together at the edges. It becomes harder to tell whether drinking beers with your friends on the beach, watching Chekhov at the theater, or finally managing to make a really good joke in Russian were things that happened once or over and over, for a few minutes or hours or days on end. In grammatical terms, it's a shift from the rigidity of the preterite – "It happened." – to the more forgiving past imperfect – "It was happening." And in your memory, it all keeps happening and happening.

Sorry, I know that's not at all the kind of thing I usually write here. I guess I'm feeling a bit sloppy and sentimental; we're halfway through the academic year now, I've submitted all my applications for things to do for next year, and I can see the future hurtling toward me (and contracting) at an alarming rate. On the bright side, a confluence of factors made this past weekend one of those ones that will definitely expand in memory, and maybe end up defining the whole of January 2008 or even the whole winter for me. Mostly in good ways.

The best, I think, was the New Year's party I played unsuspecting host to on Sunday. I was under the impression that a few of my students were coming over to watch a movie and eat some peanut butter cookies. But a lot more people came than I thought I had invited (sort of my mistake, sort of not), the person who was supposed to bring the movie forgot it, and it turned out to be Old New Year's Eve. (That is, New Year's Eve according to the old Julian calendar.) So I had a party without stressing out about planning a party, and it was great. We sang, we toasted the new year with champagne, we made noises about playing charades but never actually did it, we roamed the streets in search of New Year's trees and then danced around them in the traditional way, we took up a collection to buy new year's party food and drink, and we came back to my apartment to toast the new year again, this time with vodka. I think from now on I'll try to keep myself in the dark about all my parties.

And now I'm headed off for (another!) vacation – my much-anticipated trip to Petrozavodsk and Murmansk followed by the midyear conference in Moscow – so hopefully there are more great memories to come! There probably won't be any new posts for a couple of weeks, though – sorry!

09 January 2008

Ok, just one more picture post and I promise I'll shut up about the cold and my cold apartment and all that other boring stuff. I just had to show you the latest addition to my arsenal:

It's a partition! My living/bed/all-purpose room is sort of L-shaped, with a nook extending from one edge of a big rectangle. That nook is where my computer desk and couch (the one that's not a sofa-bed) are, but since it's directly opposite the windows and door to the balcony, it gets a lot of draft. No more! Now when the wind comes back, I can hole up there with my little electric heater and be toasty warm.
My friend Amara dubbed it "adult" and "Martha Stewart-like," especially since I actually had the curtain tailor-made. (Of course, she points out, Martha would have made the curtain herself.) Admittedly, its classiness sort of clashes with my hillbilly Draft Dodger and '70s decor, but on the bright side, if feng shui is all about balance, my apartment must score a perfect 10.

Just Saying...

So I'm planning this trip up north, and out of curiosity I decided to check the weather. What did I find?

It's warmer in both Petrozavodsk (-7 C/19 F) and Murmansk (-2 C/28 F) than it is here (-11 C/12 F)! And the forecasted highs for both places continue to outstrip ours for the next ten days. (Let me remind you that Murmansk is above the Arctic Circle.) Looks like I'll be warming up on this trip!

I'm not really complaining - since the wind shifted here, my apartment is a lot warmer, and I don't have to go outside all that much. And now everyone who was worrying in the fall that the "cold" Southern winter would shock my poor American system (in America, you see, we have only sun and palm trees) is busy assuring me that they haven't had a winter this cold in years and years. That makes me feel a little better about my shock at how cold it really is here.

07 January 2008

Merry Orthodox Christmas!

Most Christmas traditions familiar to Americans, like Christmas trees, gifts, and Santa Claus, happen at New Year's in Russia. The main tradition associated with Orthodox Christmas seems to be a form of mock-begging in which children go from door to door on Christmas Eve with a bowl of кутья/kut'ya, a wheat-based porridge with chocolate, fruit juice, nuts, raisins, and various other sweet stuff thrown in. They offer the master and mistress of each house a taste of the porridge, and in exchange they're given candy, money, or some other treat. This is supposed to bring good fortune to the house for the next year. Not surprising that this is the kind of tradition that weathered the Soviet era, I guess, since it seems innocuous and non-religious enough to have not been seriously frowned upon.

Anyway, I knew about this, at least peripherally, but somehow I didn't think to buy candy so I'd be ready when kids came to my door. So it caught me off guard last night when the doorbell rang as I was sitting in my kitchen knitting with the oven turned on for warmth. I opened the door to a group of little boys, who shouted some kind of incomprehensible verse at me.

"Excuse me?" I said, probably looking as baffled as I felt.

[Incomprehensible verse!] they shouted again. (I think it's something like "The carolers have come, open the gates!," but you sure couldn't tell from the cacophony of prepubescent voices.)

"Oh." I stammered. "Ah. I see. This is your Christmas, right? The thing is, I'm a foreigner, I didn't know..."

"Will you try our porridge?" interrupted the oldest boy (thankfully, before I crashed and burned too badly).

"Umm... sure. Ok. Yeah, hang on," I said, feeling pretty sure that that's not what you're supposed to say, and went to fetch a spoon. I got the spoon, and then proceeded to spill the porridge awkwardly all over my sleeve and the floor as I pried off the Tupperware lid. I declared it delicious, and then continued to stumble through the encounter:

"Ok, so, now I'm supposed to give you something, right? See, I didn't know... I mean, I didn't buy any candy. But if you'll just wait one more second..."

"Oh, uh, that's ok, we understand," the oldest boy cut in, probably plotting the group's escape from this babbling person in her porridgy sweater, but I had already wandered off to retrieve some quarters from the depths of my suitcase: "Ok, so, the thing is, I'm American, right? So here are some American coins. They're for you. Thank you. Merry Christmas. Thank you. Goodbye."

Christmas only got better from there: I was prepared for the next two groups of kids who came by, and when my supply of quarters ran out I went over to a student's house. We took some kut'ya to her godmother, where we were rewarded with 100 rubles each (about $4 – score!) and a sack of candy. We used the money to buy wine (although I vetoed the idea of drinking it on the street) and proceeded to one of her friend's houses. Another Christmas tradition is apparently that Christmas Eve is the best night of the whole year for fortune telling, so this friend's mom told our fortunes over wine, cake, and more kut'ya.

I'm fairly sure that neither of these traditions is exclusively Russian. The going door-to-door can be found in various cultures, I think, including medieval Europe (which is probably where it comes from). As for the fortune-telling, isn't there an Alexander Pope poem about that? It's not Christmas, but some saint's day in early January (which would coincide with Orthodox Christmas, anyway) when maidens are supposed to dream of their future husbands. Maybe it's not Alexander Pope. Whatever. (Edit: try John Keats, Leslie. "The Eve of St. Agnes.")

Anyway, my fortune was neither great nor bad. I'm supposed to lose my passport or big money sometime in March or April, which makes me wonder if this woman somehow knows me – it seems like not a year goes by where I don't lose a relatively large sum of money. (That $50 from this past summer? I still maintain that TSA stole it out of my suitcase.) On the bright(?) side, she gave me advice about grad school (both of my top choices are good) and husbands (look for a Russian one, not an American).

So that was all yesterday (Christmas Eve), and then today I had a massive Christmas dinner with one of the guards from the university and his wife. Our university, like many institutions in Russia, employs men to sit by the door and check your ID as you walk in, so as to keep out the riff-raff. One of these guys is a retiree whose son and daughter-in-law are in the U.S. doing PhD work at... Bowling Green State University! (That's really close to my hometown, for those not in the know.) I took them a big package of Russian stuff from their parents when I went home for "Catholic" Christmas, and in return their parents invited me over for Orthodox Christmas!

The parents are really, really kind (they both call me заенка, a Russian pet name that translates as "bunny"). We had a nice dinner, drank some champagne, sang some Ukrainian folk songs, and they sent me home with pounds and pounds of preserves from their garden – raspberry jam, pickled tomatoes and zucchini, salted cucumbers – and a big ol' slice of liver pie. (Sad but true: most Russian party food seems to be stuff I don’t really like, such as liver pie, fish (fried, baked, stuffed, chopped up in salads, salted, pickled), meat jello, and salads made with entire jars of mayonnaise. But I've made it through the big holidays without offending any hosts – I even ate two slices of liver pie today! – and at least now I have the preserves to look forward to.)

04 January 2008

Cold Comfort Addendum: You Win Some, You Lose Some

I decided not to move in with my landnobility (landlord+landlady...I know, lame joke), on the grounds that not being able to eat what I want, sleep when I want, play my balalaika when I want, etc. would drive me nuts. Instead I've launched total war against my leaky windows; so far, that looks something like this:

I know it's ugly. I know it's not a triumph of engineering. But the Draft Dodger (I named it myself!) is a triumph of resourcefulness - I think I could make Eagle Scout with this thing. You can't see all of it, but so far it uses my extra bath towel, plastic sheeting, bubble wrap, a lot of masking tape, the hideous wall hanging (just a big piece of furry fabric) that used to hang in my living room, both of my 70's-era leopard-print armchair covers, the cut-off bottoms of my too-long yoga pants (I knew I kept those for a reason), a hand towel, a whole bunch of furniture foam, two postal boxes, and the remnants of my blue vinyl cabinet liner material. The room is still drafty, but a quick test shows that it is indeed significantly colder between the Draft Dodger and the window than in the room, so progress is being made. I tentatively declare victory.

As for losing some, I went to the movies with my advisor, Nastya, today. As I approached our appointed meeting place and waved to Nastya, she gave me the most horrified look I have ever seen on the face of a fellow human being. This look seriously stopped me dead in my tracks, and I knew before she even opened her mouth what it was about - I promised her back in November that I would get a Russian winter coat, and I haven't yet. And in fact, I didn't actually intend to (I was hoping she'd forget about it, or magically become more reasonable). I wanted this to be a Point of Principle, an instance in which I was not going to give an inch to the Russian fear of cold. But ultimately I think keeping the peace is more important than asserting my will; plus I thought Nastya was actually going to start crying right there on the street if I didn't give in. So we went to the shopping center together and I got a down coat, which is thankfully both much cheaper and significantly less heinous than last year's Russian winter coat, of which I do not speak anymore.

Cold Comfort

So, one thing I didn't mention in my last entry is that it is really, really, really cold in my apartment. (You may think, "what does that have to do with an entry about Moscow?", and you'd be right – but since my apartment temperature is basically the only thing I think about these days, I was still tempted to somehow work it in.)

When I left Taganrog, this was not a problem, as it wasn't very cold here – probably right around freezing – but now the temperatures are in the low teens and we have a relentless east wind blowing in off the bay. Unfortunately, my apartment windows face the bay, and I'm on the ninth floor, where it seems (may the meteorology gods smite me if I'm wrong) the wind is even stronger than at ground level. This has caused my apartment's temperature to drop from its usual "merely chilly" into the range of "intolerably cold." I don't have a thermometer, but I'm guessing it's in the high 50's in my living room and the low 50's in my kitchen.

Of course, dedicated readers may remember that I taped my windows back in October. On days that are merely cold, not windy, that sort of helps, but the problem with taping your windows with masking tape is that the adhesive, already not exactly the greatest in the world, breaks down completely when hit with the combination of cooling surface temperatures and cold air currents of any strength. So the windows are still nominally taped, but that hasn't stopped it from being breezy enough that the candles I had burning yesterday were guttering.

So the reason I'm writing about this (besides the fact that it's the only thing I can think about) is that this morning my landlady called and suggested that I move in with them for a week or so until the windy weather passes. I can't decide what to do – on the one hand, it would be nice to be warm for a while, but on the other, I think I might like my independence too much to be able to just move in with people I hardly know. If it weren't the holidays, this wouldn't even be a problem, since I could just hide out at work or the library all day. Hopefully some kind of solution will present itself before 7 p.m., when I'm supposed to call and let them know what I've decided. In the meantime, I'm going outside to warm up.

Moscow Believes in Pictures

Apparently I have an artist's temperament when it comes to blogging – I've got plenty to say and plenty of time on my hands, but in the last few days I just haven't felt like writing. So I'm trying to get back into the swing of it by starting with the easiest post format – pictures!

My relationship with Moscow has always been a little complicated. It has a long-standing rivalry with St. Petersburg, my first Russian love: Peter I moved the capital from Moscow to Petersburg in the 1700's. Two hundred years later, the Bolsheviks moved it back and devoted a lot of energy to eroding Petersburg's position in the popular consciousness; by now, the state smear campaign is long gone, but now the two cities have developed a sort of rivalry between their ruling political classes (Putin and his gang are Petersburgers). Even Tolstoy got into the fight, using Moscow – an ancient Russian city that grew up more or less organically – to symbolize the natural and the Slavic, and Petersburg – a younger city planned by Russia's first great Westernizer – to symbolize the artificial and European. Nowadays the rivalry focuses more on Petersburg as a cultural city and Moscow as a commercial one (especially from the pro-Petersburg side; those who prefer Moscow still invoke Tolstoy's stance).

It's true that Moscow is very commercial, and its commerce has developed around the "New Russians;" that is, the post-Communist business elite. Since practically everyone who's riche in Russia is nouveau riche, conspicuous consumption is the order of the day, and it shows – nowhere in the world makes me wish I had money quite the way flashy downtown Moscow does. When you compare it with the historical feel of downtown St. Petersburg – after all, it was the capital for 200 years, so a lot of the events most sacred to students of Russian history played out there – Moscow's bling can start to feel a little culturally bankrupt. Add to that the sheer unmanageable sprawl of it (it's the largest city in Europe), and the less-than-positive associations Westerners tend to have with the Russian government – and the Kremlin is, after all, the heart and soul of Moscow – and it can be a hard city to like. I spent a long time trying hard to like it as much as I like Petersburg. I eventually realized I just couldn't, and then spent a long time hating it with all the fervor that seems to be in fashion among non-Muscovites (both Russian and foreign).

But on the other hand, I've now spent significantly more time in Moscow than Petersburg, and I know the city pretty well. And if you can look past the bling (shield your eyes), the claim of cultural bankruptcy is totally absurd; for Petersburg's Peter and Paul Fortress, Moscow has the Kremlin; for Petersburg's Church on the Spilled Blood or Kazan Cathedral, Moscow has St. Basil's; for Petersburg's Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery, Moscow has Novodevichy Convent; for Petersburg's venerable Hermitage and Russian Museum, Moscow has the equally venerable (if smaller) Tretyakov and Pushkin museums. Arriving in Moscow still doesn't give me the same giddy feeling that arriving in Petersburg does, but with all the fond memories I have there and all the great things I've seen, I've finally grown out of my fashionable anti-Moscow attitude, and I like the city a little more each time I visit.

The other thing that complicates my relationship with Moscow (I promise we're getting to the pictures soon) is that it serves as my gateway in and out of Russia. Russians love to say that Moscow "isn't Russia," and on my way out of the country I tend to agree with that. The lifestyle and pace there are completely different from the rest of the country, in more than just a big city/small town way; getting to Moscow feels like I've already got one foot back in the West. But Moscow changes on my way back into the country – fresh from America, the pure Russianness of the city is what I feel most of all, from the fashions to the smells to the flood of Russian voices, the intonations I recognize even when I can't make out the words. This dual face makes Moscow feel like a portal into another dimension, especially since traveling between the two countries really does feel less like a move from one spot to another on the same globe than like a shift in the nature of reality. (For this effect I blame the disconcerting speed of air travel more than the actual degree of difference between the two cultures, although that's also not insignificant.)

Right, so that's where the pictures (sort of) come in – spending the day in Moscow between my flight from the U.S. and my train back to Taganrog, I took a picture of a New Year's tree. That gave me the idea to write a post about how weird it was to leave the U.S., where the holidays were already kind of winding down, and arrive in Moscow, where the run up to the New Year (the biggest holiday of the year in Russia, bearing more than a passing resemblance to American Christmas) was in full swing. And *that* started me thinking about all the reality-shifting that happens in Moscow.

Anyway, here is the picture:

This is in GUM, a gorgeous, castle-like building on Red Square that used to be the state-run department store but is now an extremely ritzy shopping mall. I spent an hour or two there just wandering and watching the rich buy Burberry and Chanel and Cartier and just be their rich, fur-clad, diamond-studded-cell-phone-bearing selves. Everything was really decked out for New Year's, and they even had a live jazz combo playing, dressed in Santa suits!

The gee-I-actually-do-kinda-like-Moscow part of this post was brought to you by the other way I occupied myself that day. Sandwiched between a long plane ride and a long train ride, I really wanted to spend some time outside, so I went to Kolomenskoye, the 17th-century tsars' country residence on the Moskva river (it's not in the country anymore – you can get there from the downtown in about 15 minutes by subway). It's now a "museum-reserve," so sort of a big park with a lot of old state-protected buildings on it. Kolomenskoye was actually one of the very first places I visited in Moscow, back in the summer of 2006 with Amara on our second or third day in the city, so it was very nostalgia-inducing.

This church was being renovated last time I was in Kolomenskoye, but now its scaffolding is off and it totally dominates the landscape along the ridge by the river. It was completely closed up when I was there, and it's still very, very new-looking, which somehow added to the bleakness of it on this bleak December day – it made it seem not just deserted, but as if it was never used at all.

And those are actually all the pictures I have. I hope you don't feel cheated after reading that whole long post! I guess it turns out that I couldn't get myself to write anything because I had too much to say – so check back soon for something (hopefully) shorter!

(The title of this post is just a silly play on the title of the film Москва слезам не верит, Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears.)

01 January 2008

S Novym Godom!

I've dreamed of celebrating New Year's here in Russia pretty much ever since I started learning Russian. This year, I finally did it! I will write more about that – and about several other things that I've been meaning to get to – soon, as the benevolent Putin has given his subjects (and hangers-on like me) nine days of vacation as a New Year's present. To amuse you until then, though, this is what I woke up to at 11 o'clock this morning, as my friend Aina's mom poked her head into the room where I was sleeping:

Her: Leslie, get up and drink with us!
Me: What? Drink? You mean like wine?
Her: Of course, wine! What else?!
Me: (groaning and burying head under pillow) I don't understand.
Her: What's there to understand? Ah, you want to sleep more?
Me: No, no, I was already awake. But I got drunk (lit.: напилась/napilas', "drank my fill") yesterday!
Her: And your point is...?

Happy New Year, everyone!