Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

If all had gone according to plan when I was getting my Russian visa last May, I would have arrived in Moscow June 1st and left March 1st. But, luckily, things didn't go according to plan; my trip was delayed, and my departure date is now March 15th. I say "luckily" because I got to participate in my first Maslenitsa festivities in Russia on Sunday the 6th. Maslenitsa is roughly the same as Carnival or Mardi Gras, which all mark the week of celebrations before lent. But Maslenitsa, Mardi Gras, etc. have their roots in pre-Christian pagan holidays celebrating the beginning of spring.

Sunday was the last day of Maslenitsa week here in Russia and I joined my roommate and another friend for a festival of games and blini (or traditional Russian pancakes, the sun-like symbols of Maslenitsa) in Istra, a town an hour or so outside of Moscow.

We were greeted with shots of vodka:

And different games/activities, such as jumping rope and walking on stilts:

You may have noticed that it doesn't look particularly spring-like in the pictures. In fact, it looks a lot like the dead of winter. It's no optical illusion. It was very very cold and I wasn't fully prepared. There was a half an hour or so when I was preoccupied with worries of frostbite. I thought that my feet, in particular, were in danger of permanent damage after my shoes got wet and the temperature seemed to steadily decrease...

But then we found the bonfire, cognac, and fake gypsies and everything got better. A LOT better.

For the first time I experienced hard liquor dulling the pain of cold weather. Perhaps not coincidentally it was also the first time that hard liquor has ever gone down so painlessly. Liquor and bonfire are the perfect pair. Whenever my feet started to feel cold again, I would just stick them fearlessly into the fire pit.

But it wasn't all liquor and fire. We enjoyed some more traditional Maslenitsa activities as well. Most importantly was the consumption of homemade blini (look in my left hand for the pancake and at my face for the excitement).

And the event that marks the end of Maslenitsa: the burning of a scarecrow (here a rather large one):

I think that the first week of March may be a wee bit early to legitimately declare the onset of spring in the middle of Russia. But, in the end, I can't say that I mind the farce all that much. We'll just say that for whatever reason the sheep (spring) feels comfortable wearing the wolf's (winter's) clothing for a little while.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Blog Lapse

I haven't found the time to blog for a couple of weeks now. Things have just been too hectic. But I promise I'll get out at least one more real blog before I leave on March 15th.

In the meantime here are a few pictures of Kazan, which I just visited. My last Russian excursion for a while.

The new mosque in the old kremlin --

Inside the mosque --

Two official languages: Russian & Tatar --

The Old Tatar settlement on the bank of the frozen canal --

Monday, February 14, 2011

Winter is long and I am short...

...on time.

Thirty days from yesterday I'm coming home! I'm really looking forward to seeing family, friends, and a certain furry little monster very soon! And I won't lie, I'm also looking forward to some creature comforts and everyday things; here are five of them:

  1. Coffee. (Is anyone surprised about this?!)

  2. Pizza. Russian pizza is gross. There, I said it. Eastern Europeans don't get pizza. Sorry, but it's true.

  3. Clothes dryers. Many people have washing machines in their apartments, but dryers are a rarity. Apparently they're considered a luxury. Well, call me a princess, I don't care. I'd be happy if I never had to hang another piece of wet clothing over a drying rack ever ever again in my life.

  4. Lines. I miss American etiquette for standing in line. Dear Russians, Please wait behind me if I'm standing in line and don't pretend to be clever and slip in front of me, even if you are an 80-year-old grandmother. And please don't stand so close to me. That extra inch of space won't actually get you to the front of the line any faster, it just forces us to stand agonizingly close to one another while we wait.

  5. Recycling. Capitalism brought a whole lot of garbage to Russia. And I'm not talking about the absolute worst of American culture that made its way here. (Speaking of which, have I told you about the Russian Married with Children and Everybody Loves Raymond knock-offs?) I'm talking about the excessive material waste and ill-fated attempts to recycle. Russia's really done a 180 in this respect. People used to re-use things to a painstaking degree (largely out of necessity) and many Russians of the older generations still do (I had a house mother who sifted through my trash when I was on a study abroad program here several years ago). But Russian youth are more like 1980's Americans. All consumption all the time.

This isn't to say there aren't things about Russia that I'll miss. One of these things is the Russian Orthodox church. This probably seems odd to you, considering how unreligious I am. But it's not the rituals of the church or any religious beliefs that I'll miss, but rather the form of the church itself. I like the way it punctuates the landscape - whether it be urban Moscow or rural Russia - adding a bit of history, peace, and mystery. The churches are especially nice complements to a white and wintry Russia. (A winter which is beginning to feel everlasting. Like a gobstopper.)

I've also grown to appreciate Russian icons. Say hello to Orthodox Jesus:

A note on Russian orthodoxy. It is part of Eastern Christianity. Western Christianity (i.e. Catholicism) and Eastern Christianity split off from one another in the year 1054 because the East would not recognize the primacy of the pope (and because of some disagreements over unleavened bread and a few other things). Russians aren't the only Orthodox Christians, the Greeks were first. Now there are Georgian, Serbian, Bulgarian, etc. Orthodox Churches.

People of other faiths reside in Russia, for example Muslims and Jews, but the country itself is steadfastly pravoslavny or Orthodox Christian. While I haven't been inspired to convert, I'll miss admiring the churches and icons. But I definitely won't miss the pizza.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

At the grocery store

The supermarket chain Ashan is sort of like the Russian version of WalMart (except that Ashan is French-owned).

Let's take a little tour and see what we find...

Milk! Un-refrigerated! In bags!!

Russians do pretty much everything they can with dairy products. In this picture there are three different kinds of "sour milk" products: kefir (which you may have heard of), ryazhenka, and prostokvashino. I'm still working out what each of these is, exactly, and stick to kefir and yogurt for the most part.

Every type of grain you'd ever want... and more. I've learned new words for grains in English after living in Russia. One meal where all of these grains typically appear is Russian breakfast, specifically in porridge. In the US we have oatmeal and that's about it (well, there is also Cream of Wheat but I'm not sure what that is.. wait, yes I do, it's wheat porridge!). The word kasha means porridge in Russian. There's ovsyanaya kasha = oat porridge, grechnevaya kasha = buckwheat porridge, pshennaya kasha = millet porridge, mannaya kasha = semolina porridge, wheat porridge, rye porridge, rice porridge, etc. I like buckwheat and semolina the best.

Now, I don't want to be too cliché about Russia, but there is an entire vodka aisle at Ashan...

Moving on to the frozen foods section we have a popular brand of pelmeni, or little meat dumplings, sort of ravioli-esque.

And meat-filled blini, or pancakes/crepes.

And let's not forget about dessert! For special occasions, there's cake.

But for everyday tea-time, candy's just dandy (I know, I know, grooooaan).

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's a big, a really big city

Moscow, my friends, is big. I don't think people realize just how big. It's huge. Dare I say it is the most sprawling city I've ever been to. Maybe rivaled by LA, but Moscow sprawls densely. Some compare Moscow to New York City. I don't see it. NYC is geographically constrained; Moscow has no natural boundaries. It just keeps growing and growing, turning once independent neighboring towns into measly suburbs.

People continue streaming to Moscow year after year. In Russia, there is nowhere but Moscow that Russians can move to find work and make a decent living for themselves. (Well, to be fair, a small handful of other cities, such as St. Petersburg, are staying afloat, but none of them offer the same breadth and scope opportunities as Moscow.)

And not just "ethnic" Russians, but also people from the Caucasus and CIS countries stream into Moscow. (FYI -- CIS means "Commonwealth of Independent States," or many of the countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.) People from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Caucasus, parts of Ukraine, and so on. Different groups assimilate differently and are perceived differently. In this process a labor divide has arisen; many of the immigrants from the south now do the dirty work Muscovites won't do. (Reminiscent of anything closer to home?)

This is more or less the current CIS (sans Georgia):

I'm not going to comment on the terrorist attack on Monday, January 24th at Moscow's Domodedovo airport; I just want to say that this is a big, complex, changing city with lots of complicated problems. This is not to say that the terrorist attacks are a Moscow-specific problem, the problem is bigger. But Moscow is a frequent locus of such tragedies.

I said that Moscow sprawls densely. Big cities almost always have a lot of big buildings, but Moscow feels particularly packed with them. Not only are there big buildings in the center, where political and financial goings-on go on, but high-rises continue out beyond the center into the outskirts of the city. Most of these multi-story complexes are apartment buildings. Apartment buildings packed with people, like this one that I'm currently packed into ☺:

Among the high-rises of Moscow I always find Stalin's Seven Sisters (or Stalin's vysotki 'high-rises') to be an interesting sight. This one is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:

And this one is now a Radisson hotel:

And last, but not least among my photo collection, is Moscow State University's main building:

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Making the Most of January

I happened to read that it was a bitterly cold -31 degrees Fahrenheit in Grayling, Michigan last night (Grayling is my hometown, by the way). In the last month here in Moscow it has barely reached zero degrees Fahrenheit and more often hovers around 20 degrees, so I'm feeling pretty lucky. At least as far as Russian winters go, this isn't so bad.

Nevertheless, the Russian winter has been a bit of a novelty for me after living in the Bay Area for many years. Some of my new favorite activities are ice skating and jogging in parks. While Russians aren't so keen on jogging (and when I'm out they often offer me unsolicited advice, chastise me, or less frequently praise me), many of them do make the most out of winter. A fair number of people cross-country ski and the city is full of ice-skating rinks, which themselves are full of people. I find all of these activities to be a nice, wholesome counterweight to Moscow nightlife.

My first ice skating adventure was on the rink on Red Square.

I fell twice. Please refer to exhibit A: the snow residue on my jeans. (You're lucky I'm posting this picture, because it's pretty awful, but it's the only one of me ice skating so far.)

I fared far better yesterday at a different rink. These were my ice-skating companions:

Perhaps the mulled wine helped. (Refer to exhibit B: mulled wine stand on ice skating rink.) Ice skating doesn't have to be entirely wholesome, I suppose!

I too am hoping to make the most out of this winter. For example, I am bound and determined to go on a horse-drawn sleigh ride. (That was the original plan for yesterday, actually, but there were complications... The horses, apparently, got cold and so the rides stopped at 3 instead of 6 and we found this out around 3:30. This sort of thing is extremely typical for Russia...) But at least we got to go ice skating and spend a little time strolling outside of the city in Izmailovsky Park.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Moving Mayhem

My newest "adventure" features, yet again, my suitcase. When I first arrived in Europe from the US, my large blue suitcase was burdensome because its hugeness precluded me from transporting it easily from the Berlin airport to my 2-month residence in Leipzig, Germany. So I rented a Fiat. But last week the heaviness of the suitcase was burdensome for an entirely different reason: it led me to believe I could leave it unattended on the street for five minutes. Who would steal a 100-pound suitcase??!?! (You can probably see where this is going.)

When I moved into my new apartment on Saturday, I called a cab to come and transport me, my very large suitcase, and my other things (mainly books) to the new place. A few minutes before he arrived I decided to take my suitcase out to the courtyard to save some time. I didn't think twice about leaving the suitcase there unattended for less than five minutes (allow me to remind you, again, that it is very large and very heavy). When I returned to the courtyard with more of my things the driver had arrived and my suitcase was not where I had left it. I assumed the driver had already loaded it into the car, and asked him as much, and he looked puzzled, clearly not having seen any suitcase.

That's when the hot pursuit of the large navy blue suitcase began. First -- on foot.

At every dumpster on the street there was at least one homeless person sifting through the trash, including the dumpster by my apartment building. I had never noticed this in the past.

I asked one dumpster diver - a woman around 50 - if she had seen my suitcase and she started screaming profanities at me. So that wasn't going to lead anywhere. Then I asked a group of young-ish men in the adjacent courtyard if they had seen my suitcase and one said yes, he saw someone wheeling it into the courtyard and behind the building. But it was clear that he was lying, which was confirmed by wheel tracks leading in a completely different direction.

Tracing the wheel tracks was the cab driver's idea. He really stepped up to the plate for the occasion, turning out to be a real suitcase sleuth.

We continued the pursuit from the cab, hot on the trail of my suitcase tracks. But at the end of my very long block we came to a dead end. Traffic at the intersection obscured the suitcase tracks. The cab driver ran across the street, actually a large boulevard, to see if he could continue tracing the tracks or see any sign of my suitcase, but to no avail. When he returned to the car, it became clear that my suitcase was gone for good. Just as I was about to completely resign myself to the loss of the great majority of my clothing, shoes, my back-up hard drive... I looked across the boulevard one more time and...

There it was! I spotted my enormous navy blue suitcase being wheeled around by some man on the other side of the large road. It was unmistakably my suitcase: I could even see the pink luggage tag flipping back and forth as the man spun the suitcase around.

The cab driver ran and retrieved my suitcase (the man said he "found" it by a dumpster; he relinquished control of it fairly easily, saying "you're welcome" as he walked away), I made it to my new apartment with all of my things in tact, I tipped the cab driver very generously, and that was the end of my move.

Perhaps out of excitement for the move, or out of the frantic-ness that inevitably accompanies all of my moves, or because I was starting to develop an ever so faint warm and fuzzy feeling toward Moscow... anyway, whatever the reason, for the second time in Moscow I came frighteningly close to losing a major possession. You may recall the Starbucks incident in September.

I don't think this, or the Starbucks incident, necessarily reflects poorly upon Russia or Moscow. I do think it's necessary to be much more careful than I would ever be in the US about watching my personal possessions. Petty theft just seems much more rampant than it is at home. The last time I remember being a victim of theft was in 6th grade when I forgot to lock my locker and a girl stole my gym shoes and then wore them to school the next day. (It seems that I have quite the streak of dumb luck when it comes to this sort of thing.)

It's very nice to be in my new place. No longer sandwiched between two large, loud streets; no longer next to a dirty train station. Since I moved, things have been much more peaceful and I've been able to get a lot of work done. Sure, I flooded the bathroom and broke the toilet (unrelated incidents... and I actually don't think the toilet is my fault), but all in all, it's been very peaceful and uneventful.

View from my new 13th floor apartment (the park's in the other direction):

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Winter Wonderland

Happy New Year!

It's been a crazy month. I worked very hard. Then I played very hard. (I got help on that last bit thanks to a visit by Alicia!**)

The new year finds me in a new apartment. While it's been a rewarding experience living with a family, it's also been a strain on my work productivity, so I've relocated to a more work-conducive flat in a quieter region of Moscow. I'll report some more on my new pad once I get settled in.

The holidays, my move, and most of all Alicia's visit re-opened my eyes to what Moscow can be. And it's not all bad. The city is fast-paced and crazy, in areas it's gray and dingy, but there are pockets with really amazing treasures, things you just can't see anywhere else, such as a gorgeous Russian orthodox church alongside a Stalin-era skyscraper; or the embalmed father of the USSR directly across an ice-skating rink... and me in the middle:

I also started to see the forests and the trees. This huge city is packed with parks full of beautiful trees covered in fluffy white snow. I just wasn't living anywhere near one of these parks in my old apartment. But I am now.

(Technically, the park above, or rather the former tsarist estate Kolomenskoye, is nowhere near my new apartment, but you get the idea. Here are links for more winter pictures of Moscow and St. Petersburg, if you haven't already seen them on FB.)

Moscow was impressing me so much that I started to let my guard down a bit. That's when Moscow reminded me that it cannot be taken too lightly. But the story of how my 100-pound suitcase was stolen... and then recovered... during my move yesterday requires its own blog entry. I hope that one of your New Year's resolutions is to exercise patience ☺

**I dedicate this blog to one of my very best friends, Alicia, who has managed to visit me in every place I have lived for more than a month (Dallas, Italy, Czech Republic/Eastern Europe, California, and Russia! For Russia, Alicia even learned how to read Cyrillic!) and who is an A++ traveling companion. I swear that next time she gets to pick the locale! Oh, and Alicia also took many (most?) of the pictures in this blog and in the new Moscow & St. Pete albums.