Sunday, February 26, 2006

Thanks to the newly instituted holiday of ‘Defender’s of the Fatherland Day,’ I’m enjoying the tail end of a four-day weekend. Created two years ago by Putin as a kind of equal opportunity holiday to counteract women’s day, defenders of the homeland day basically means no work and provides an especially good excuse for all Russian men to get drunk. In the one-minute walk from my apartment to the bus stop that night, I passed about ten rowdy men celebrating, well, themselves. But I was a good little Russian and bought my host father and brother little gifts, but stubbornly refuse Vlad’s demands that on men’s day I do everything he orders me to do.
Otherwise, the weekend included some more deep snow running, more than enough eating, and a lot of snowballs fights (or rather attempts, as the snow is way to dry to make a solid mass that will survive the twenty foot flight) with Vlad and friends. We celebrated a birthday of one of the Americans in our group on Thursday night, which was a lot better than I had ever hoped. According to Russian tradition, on your birthday you’re supposed to buy gifts for other people. So when we showed up at the bar to celebrate, we were greeted with cakes and chocolate galore (and believe me, I took advantage… Russian candy is wonderful). I watched a little of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets on TV last night, dubbed over in Russian of course. Even knowing the story and having now five weeks of Russian, I sadly understood very little. It was amazing, however, to hear them all in Russian (Ron sounded like a chipmunk). Russians have changed the name from Harry to Gary because apparently Harry sounds too much like the word for male genetalia. So yes, Gary Potter and the Magic Room = amazing.
I was forced to forgo running for the day due to continued heavy snowfall. It may be getting a little warmer, but the snow doesn’t seem to care. I’ve seen a few puddles though, so I’m assuming it’s only a matter of time before I have to trudge to the market and buy some galoshes.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

So I thought I was going to have exciting news to tell of… I thought spring was coming. It was a positive temperature on Sunday, and the sun was out and shining gloriously and the birds were chirping and I was feeling alive. But no, Russia loves deceiving me. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday it has been overcast and snowing non-stop. It has been a good deal warmer than by first month here, but temperatures still stay below freezing. Alas.
On the other hand, I have taken advantage of the slightly warmer weather to being running everyday, which proves to be quite an adventure. I just don’t know where to start. Maybe I’ll start with the fact that I’m rarely running on the ground, but instead on packed snow and ice. I haven’t fallen yet, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time before I totally wipe out (and with my luck, it will probably be right in front of a car). At times it’s like running in a sand pit and I have horrible flashbacks to high school soccer conditioning, except OJ is usually wearing a fur hat and speaking Russian. People aren’t exactly accustomed to runners, and this fact is painfully obvious by the looks I get every day. Russians has this peculiar way of either walking down the middle of the sidewalk so it’s impossible to pass them or walking like they are in a drunken stupor and meandering all over the sidewalk. Needless do say, I do a lot of shuffling and quick footwork. Today was the first day I knew I was getting made fun of, however, by a group of schoolboys. I consoled myself by knowing that they probably won’t live to see fifty (life spans for Russian men isn’t quite up to par). Most people don’t exactly hurry to get out of your way either, which resulted in physical abuse my a few plastic bags. I also, and this is just another example of random Russia, had to jump into a snow bank to avoid both a taxi and a bull dozer on the sidewalk (keeping in mind that the sidewalk was about 20 feet in from the road blocked by a 5 foot wall of snow, it appears that their presence on the sidewalk was no accident). It’s been fun though, and so far a good way to see the town and all it’s lovely residents.
I’ve been walking to school through a more rural district lately, which is much more pleasant and quiet than the busier main street. Most of these streets are lined with a few little shops, but mainly houses and apartment buildings (some of which served as communal apartments during the Soviet era). It’s absolutely beautiful, and most of my recent pictures are from my morning walk.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

I’ve now been in Vladimir for a month, and it’s a strange mixture of feeling like I just got here to feeling like I’ve been here forever. It’s been a great month, full of experiences I could never image and resulting in a warm, fuzzy love for this cold tundra.
We had our second trip this weekend to a nearby town called Suzdal. Its claim to fame is being Russia’s largest open-air museum because the town has basically been shut off to the outside world in order to preserve its quaint historic features. It has a population of about 12,000, most of whom making their living off tourism and/or cucumbers (they’re famous for these, they even have a cucumber festival in July). Suzdal also serves as a religious center for the Russian Orthodox Church, which is convenient seeing as there’s a church or monastery about every other block. It’s an absolutely adorable town, and very Russian in that fact that they’ve worked extra hard to ensure that there’s no Western influence (read – no McDonalds, and sadly, it also lacks the casinos that dot Vladimir’s skyline). They’re also famous for a beverage that translates roughly into ‘honey beer’ but is essentially the nectar of the gods. Quirky old Russian babushkas with no teeth sell it all over town, telling you when you buy it that they’ll see you back the next day to get more (which is, from experience, somewhat false… we were back within the hour).
Our guided trips included an old, deserted church on the outskirts of town, a much prettier church with beautiful blue domes with gold stars, and a monastery. Otherwise, we did a lot of walking around town and haggling with more babushkas for souveiors (which I discovered I’m surprisingly good at).
After seeing a few Orthodox churches, I’m beginning to think I like them much more than they’re more dramatic counterparts in Western Europe. My absolute favorite part of these churches is the interior walls. Unlike Western churches, which are usually very tastefully, elaborately, and richly decorated, Russian Orthodox churches are absolutely covered in paintings. From bottom to top, and literally all over the church, murals depicting Jesus and his travels as well as a kind of ‘wall of fame’ for icons. It reminds me of the bulbous circus lady who is so covered in old, faded tattoos that you can’t even see her skin. Though it’s nowhere near as elegant, I think it’s that much more beautiful in its eagerness and drive to tell the story of the Bible to the illiterate masses.
For now, I’m back in Vladimir busily working on applications for a summer job, so if you know what you’re doing or where you’ll be, let me know so I can be insanely jealous of you. Suggestions also appreciated.

also.. if anyone can figure out this billboard that we saw in moscow...

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone! Sorry it’s a day late, but I’m still reeling from one of the most awkward Valentine’s Day celebrations in recent history. School was fine, and I opted out of the gym because of a certain lingering illness, so I was all excited about a dinner party and movie at my tutor Katja’s dorm. She called me a few days ago saying it would be her and some friends, and an English subtitled movie, so it sounded very safe. But by her and a few friends, she apparently meant (and this is where the language barrier must fail me) her, her boyfriend, and another equally affectionate couple. Being the fifth wheel is even more fun when they speak Russian the entire time (I think Katja got a little tired of translating, because after about ten minutes, I was completely lost). So we’re all just hanging out, I’m sitting there awkwardly trying to make small talk while Katja begins cooking, when all of a sudden the lights go out (this is clearly a very common occurrence in Russia). This, however, works in my favor for a while since in the dark, no one can tell how incredibly awkward I feel. Then however, we found candles and decide to start on our salads, since we were all hungry and couldn’t cook the rest of the food without electricity. I had suspected Katja was skirting around the issue of there being meat in the salad, and when I felt a fish bone in my mouth, it seemed to be a sign. So I nibbled around at the rest of the salad, eating all the beets I could find (and if you know how much I love beets, you can imagine how good the rest of the salad was).
So there we are, having finished our salads, still in the dark of course, and have toasted to just about everything we could think of (Russians are very particular about their toasts, and there are too many rules to even name). But luckily, Katja had planed this cute game where you draw a card out of a box and have to do whatever it says. Naturally though, this being Valentine’s Day, they were romantically themed. The first card requested everyone to tell how they met their significant other. It was cute, especially when you hear the story from both sides and they fight over little details and then decide the best way to tell the story is to make-out instead. The next card was to tell your significant other how much you loved them as if you were a cat. Also extremely cute and with excessive making-out afterward. The next card brought about an exciting game that Katja loves to play, called the compliment game. So each couple goes back in forth complimenting each other (and boy, did they have some strange ones) until well, thankfully someone got tired of all the cuteness. I don’t remember the last card, probably because at this point my soul was dying inside from all the cuteness engulfing me.
After some more talking about love and cuddling with each other and some heavy petting and whatever else they could think of to make me feel great, the lights finally came on. We ate big balls of dough and other strange Russian concoctions, along with more wine and toasts (the third toast, for example, if always to love and you have to drink your entire class… I passed, and am probably cursed for the rest of my life). As soon as dinner was over, and the heavy petting had resumed, I excused myself saying that my family would worry. So after almost four hours, I escaped the cave of love and general grossness just in time to miss out on the showing of “A Lot Like Love.” I’m sure the rest of them were too busy making out to see much of the movie though.
I hope most of you had a day filled with much, much, much less awkwardness than yours truly.

here are some new pictures of Vladimir and my stalker-like picture taking

Sunday, February 12, 2006

You know what makes a four-room apartment feel even smaller? Getting sick. Yes, this weekend was just about as eventful as fly-fishing (no offense dad). After an excursion to a local historical museum (fun fact- did you know the Russians were cleaning their teeth over a century before the rest of Europe, and about ten centuries before England began) and mailing a stack of postcards (start the countdown!) I declined a trip to the local indoor market to begin my house arrest. It seems I even get a sinus infection in a place where most of the things I’m allergic to have died from the cold. Russia truly is a land of wonders.
The majority of the weekend was spent blowing my nose, drinking funny concoctions the family made me, being entertained by Vlad, and developing cabin fever. I spent some good quality time in this lovely hind-a-bed chair, with a pillow so soft I have to turn over every few minutes because my ear hurts. Have you ever heard that eating sweets and ice cream every five minutes will help you get better? Because my family swears on it. I have to admit I got luck with this family and sickness, as I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories from my friends. Most Russian families won’t let you bathe when you’re sick, and others will do nothing more than soak your feet in iodine (yes, feet in iodine). Perhaps the best sick story is from our resident director, who was forced to wrap his hurt knee in his own urine to reduce the swelling.
My illness did allow me to spend in inordinate amount of time with Vlad, who I now call my little brother  I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that I don’t remember being eleven well, or he’s just an extremely creative/insane young man. Do any of you remember pogs from maybe late elementary/early middle school? Well, Vlad has a few of the playing pieces, but no big metal piece to flip them. So instead, he just throws them on the ground and counts how many flip over. He can also do some magic tricks with them and the lid to my hair stuff, while singing a little chant. Our favorite after dinner game, a solid routine by now, consists of hitting a Styrofoam ball across the room (full of kind comments from Vlad such as, “In the air, please, Amy” and “Follow this trajectory, please”). This game, however, does not often end well. Usually we hit something fragile or his mother saves me by making him do homework. I guess that’s how it is, though, having a brother. Sometimes they’re amazing and funny and cute, and other times you just want to ring his little Russian neck. My friend was over today and Vlad was showing her his collection of legos and other toys, and she whispered to me, “And I thought my Russian brother was a nerd.”

pictures - my hide-a-bed CHAIR and vlad with his beloved legos

Thursday, February 09, 2006

I never thought I’d say this, and I may change my mind in a few weeks time, but I’m really glad I came to Russia during the winter. During orientation, the speakers told us that this is most Russian’s favorite time of the year. It is when they feel alive. Initially, I thought I’d prefer a dead feeling Russia in exchange from some warm weather. But I think they may be on to something. (And coming from perpetually cold Amy, this means a lot)
Every society or culture aspires to define themselves by what makes them unique from other cultures. Though Russia has many amazing aspects and an incredibly rich history, I think they way the define themselves the most is by their winter. In my opinion, it takes an incredible person to go through this kind of a winter year in and year out. They know this, and I think it is their biggest source of pride. They’re tough people, there’s no denying it. A lot of older ‘babushkas’ make their living shoveling snow and chipping away at ice (both amazing and sad at the same time). Now that I’m here, a feel a kind of pride in surviving the winter thus far that lets me hold my head a little higher. The cold is invigorating and fresh, and maybe, just maybe, I too feel just a little more alive in it.
At the same time, however, a new cold front has led me further discover the joy of objects freezing. I’m not sure why I didn’t discover this in my first few weeks here, but if you don’t stretch out your eyelids nice and wide every minute of so, the snowflakes forming on your eyelashes will actually start to crust together. If your not paying attention and ‘stretching,’ the very edges of your eyes will weld shut. This was not a fun discovery to make. I also get something of a ‘snowbeard’ and out of sheer embarrassment; I’ll let you figure that one out for yourself.
On another exciting note, my teachers decided to start talking entirely in Russian with me today. Russian winters are nothing compared to the Russian language. It was really hard, and I feel slightly brain dead right now, but it was challenging in the best sense of the word. In a weeks time, I have no doubt I will be entirely fluent 

Monday, February 06, 2006

After my first trip to Moscow, I’ve decided I need to go back about 15 times before I leave to see everything I want. Our weekend trip was packed with activities, but I still feel like I’ve seen nothing of Moscow’s glories. But in a city of almost 10 million people, it figures.
On Friday, we drove up from Vladimir and checked into our hotel (one of the premier during the Soviet times, but pretty shabby and dirty by now). We then went to the Kremlin, where we walked around outside for a little too long (resulting in an entirely numb Amy) but we did get to see the biggest cannon in the world and where Putin works. We also saw a slew of churches, all very beautiful and very different from the western style churches I’m use to. Afterwards, we visited the Kremlin Armoury, which is full of examples of tsarist Russian gems. A few of my personal favorites included a carriage sled used by the royal family, fur-lined crowns, and the Faberge egg collection. Later in the night we went out to a bar/club, full of ugly balding Russian men and beautiful Russian women, who seemed very oblivious to the fact that these men were so unattractive (this, I’ve heard, is how life works for Russian singles).
On Saturday, we visited Lenin Mausoleum, the resting place of Lenin’s waxified (or otherwise sustained and unrotting) dead body. It’s even weirder than it sounds, trust me. Then we headed over to the Tretyakov Gallery, which houses the largest collection of Russian art in the world. (Strangely enough, many Russian painters felt the need to paint Italy and the surrounding Mediterranean life. This, of course, made me feel very silly/sick for coming to Russia instead of say, Sicily. I’m so jealous of you Sarah.) Later in the evening, we attended a classical music concert at the Moscow Conservatory, where we heard the musical stylings of one Sergei Rachmaninoff. (It is rumored that the first time this symphony was preformed, the conductor hated it so much that he conducted it drunk… o Russia)
On Sunday, we visited the World War II Museum, which was pretty impressive, especially considering the fact that Russia suffered far more causalities than any other country fighting. All in all, a very good trip, but there is still so much more to see. I know I’ll have to go back at least once, hopefully when it’s warmer. But at the same time, being in Moscow made me appreciate living in Vladimir, which I wasn’t expecting at all. Moscow really is a pretty dirty city, and not at all as picturesque as say, Petersburg. Regardless, it was a great weekend, and if you want to receive any of the thousands of postcards I bought, send me an e-mail, or just e-mail me anyway, because I love them just as much as I love you.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A question for the ages…why do boggers immediately freeze upon contact with sub zero temperature, but snow remains in its liquid form while it covers the entirety of your face? If any of you science people have an answer for me, I’d love to know, as it is a dilemma I face everyday walking around town. I’ve decided that the reason all Russians look at the ground while walking it’s actually to avoid sexual-innuendo eye-contact, but to in fact hide the immense amount of snot crusting over on their faces. I’m pretty sure this is culturally correct, and it makes me feel a lot better.
Another pretty amazing thing about Russia that I’ve discovered in the last week is the music. I’m not really talking about Russian music, per se, but about the extreme overplay of eurodance music, and a few oldies but goodies. Most recently, two flashback songs I heard were ‘I’m blue abba dee abba die… I have a blue house with a blue window, blue is the color, most often I wear’ (yeah, I’ve heard it enough times to know pretty much all the lyrics of the song) and also the bloodhound gang’s ‘let’s do it like they do on the discovery channel.’ Both amazing songs that simply aren’t heard enough on most American radio stations, but thanks to Russia, I have been given the chance to relive both these timeless songs. I’ve even heard singer of the ‘I’m blue’ song being called the modern day Dostoyevsky. (ok, a lie, I don’t understand squat of Russian, but I think it’s a good parallel). On another interesting cultural/language note, I saw the host of a TV show wearing a shirt that said “Fuck Me, I’m Famous.” Yeah, I know it said that because it wasn’t blurred out, she was just being filmed for Tuesday morning television wearing that shirt. Wonder if that ever happens in America and we just don’t know! Scary!
On a more mundane note, I’ve finally finished the Cyrillic alphabet. As exciting as these seems, it simply means that I now get to move onto grammar, not exactly my strongest area in English, much less Russian. Otherwise, life is going well. Homework and activities keep me pretty busy, and the food is getting me nice and plump. We’re going to Moscow this weekend, so hopefully I’ll have some more exciting stories to tell. Until then, до свидапия!