Thursday, March 30, 2006

Spring is in full swing here in Vladimir. And let me tell you, it is every degree of nasty. But, in a little bit of exciting news, we had our very first rain last night. Though this might not seem like such an exciting event, it means two very wonderful things. 1) It is now warm enough, even at night, for precipitation to take the form of rain and not snow and 2) the rain will help get rid of the lovely brown snow. I wanted to go out and dance in it, but refrained because frankly, I get stared at enough here as it is.
Now I know that this is Russia and that in theory one white person shouldn’t stand out in a sea of other white people. And given I don’t have the best sense of style, or hair, or general appearance in the world. But my gosh, I get stared at a lot. (And I’m not talking about the good staring here, though sometimes I try and think so to comfort myself) The predeparture guide warned that Russians dress nicer than a typical college student and advised us to bring nicer clothes for school and other occasions. I’m personally pretty glad I didn’t invest too much in ‘nice’ clothes for Russia, because I will probably never understand Russian fashion. Europe is known for having an extremely fashionable population, and though it doesn’t always match American ideas, it’s a least not far off. Russian fashion, and perhaps it would be more accurate to say fashion in Vladimir, is completely crazy. You know how I described the houses here as being tacky but beautiful in their bold colors? Yeah, well, I’d say the same for Russian fashion, minus the beautiful part. Walking in the halls of the technical school where we have classes, I am completely engulfed by 80s flashback clothing. The girls like to wear tight (and I mean tight) jeans and randomly colored sweaters with a hit of brightly colored bra poking through and super-point high heeled shoes with their size 0 jeans tucked in while the boys really get into their tight black jeans and these amazing elfin shoes where the toe curls up to make almost a complete circle. If this is the nice Russian dress the booklet was talking about, I’d rather go naked. And if there’s one generalization I feel comfortable making with Russian women, it’s that they all have bad hair. A combination of horribly outgrown die jobs, lack of conditions, and too much styling (yeah, they’ve even dug their crimpers out of the closet) makes for hair that just begs to be covered by a big furry hat. Everything for a reason, I suppose.
So yeah, however nice my American clothes are, I don’t really fit in much at school. But even walking around in town, people can tell the difference. It’s funny how things we normally don’t give a second thought to in the US, like facial structure, make such a difference in a place without much diversity. I’ve even been working extra hard on my stone cold Russian face, but still the stares continue. I need some good plastic surgery, or a really bad dye job.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

I’m not going to let any literature professor fool me again by letting me think that spring is symbolic for rebirth, beauty, and life. Spring in Russia (and by spring, I clearly am meaning temperatures that hover right around freezing) thus far has been anything but. It’s funny, but it seems like spring is an even more dangerous time the winter in terms of general safety and well-being. Child-sized falling icicles aside, a slightly warmer Russia has created absolute havoc on the roads and sidewalks. Where there use to be only snow and ice, there now exists snow, ice, slush, and lake-sized puddles. Basically, every from water that can possibly make now fills the streets of Vladimir, not to mention creating a good deal of deception – solids that look like liquids (and cause embarrassing falls) and liquids that look like solids (and cause embarrassing falls and ruined clothes as well). It’s a good thing that roughly one third of the population of Vladimir is employed by the city to move said substances around. Though of those people doing this heavy labor, roughly ninety-nine percent of them are over the age of sixty-five. In my opinion, these are the last people in the world who should be doing this kind of work, but this is, afterall, Russia (not to mention that fact the elderly people are so few here- they should be in a museum, not cleaning the streets). Regardless of who’s cleaning the streets, I’ve slipped more times on my way to school this week than I have the whole time I’ve been here.
I’m also beginning to realize why there are so few runners in Russia (other than they fact that the amount of fat and oil they consume renders them completely unable to move). It is unbelievably hard on your body (my host family would whole-heartedly agree, as they blame my current cold on running). I’ve had more injuries resulting for the small amount of time I’ve been running in Russia than I did in a fourteen-year soccer career. Running on ice and snow (and currently, a whole slew of other substances) is simply not something any body likes doing day in and day out. Not to mention the fact that for most Russians, life is far from easy, so adding more strain on their bodies doesn’t seem terribly logical.
I had my first big fall running on Monday in a miserable attempt to leap over a small version of the Black Sea onto a mountain of snow to avoid totally ruining my clothes. Sadly, I didn’t buy running shoes that come with an attachable ice pick; I think that would have been an invaluable investment. Needless to say, clothes very dirty, pride very hurt.
Spring is in the air – Russian style.

The pictures are of the lovely Russian sidewalks and there amazing snow dump trucks and take mass quantities of snow to unknown places- Gulag style. (note- I was almost run over by not one, but two, of these dump trucks once while out on a run)

Sunday, March 19, 2006

First and foremost, I would like to apologize for the lack of photographs from Petersburg. I didn’t take along my digital camera because frankly, its batteries aren’t worth a pile of beans when it’s below freezing.
That said, the group took its trip to Petersburg from Tuesday until today. The train rides there and back was luckily uneventful, and a good deal nicer than I thought. We got really luck with the weather during our stay; every day was bright and sunny with gorgeous blue skies and rather warm weather (relatively speaking of course, though I went without long underwear for the first time in since being in Russia on Saturday). Also, quite fortunately, no one in our group was hit with what the guidebook called the ‘child-sized, sword-shaped icicles’ that are known to frequent the city. We did, however, get our fair share of experience with the city’s horrible water (including a bacteria that can give you a type of diarrhea that can last for years). All in all, a great city if you’re willing to put up with all the crap (quite literally).
Our travels took us to a few of the city’s most famous and beautiful cathedrals, all very different in their styles and purposes. My favorite was the Church of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was built as a memorial over the site where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The outside looks like a more elaborate St. Basil’s while the inside contains more mosaics than any other church in the world. It was recently restored, so all the mosaics were beautifully bright and bold; it was the most incredible interior I could imagine. We also went to Pushkin’s old apartment, now a museum in which the only authentic things were the bullets that killed him, a vest, his death mask, and a lock of hair (in most cases, these four items would not usually justify the creation of a museum, but Russians really, really like Pushkin, and I don’t blame them). I also spent some time in the Russian Ethnographic Museum, a museum dedicated to the numerous different peoples that occupied the Russian Empire. After living in the extremely homogenous town of Vladimir, it was good to see just how much diversity Russia actually has (or rather, had at one point). My favorite artifact was a giant spoon from a few hundred years ago used for ladling sour cream, it was the epitome of Russian cuisine. The Hermitage was another great museum, though I’m pretty sure the museum is actually bigger than Petersburg itself. I’m not even kidding, I got lost in this place more times than I care to share, and I still missed seeing the huge ballroom from Anastasia (I am a complete failure). The main building is the Winter Palace, the former main residence of the Tsars, so just seeing the elaborately decorated rooms was artwork in itself. On Thursday night we got all dressed up to see the ballet Ondine at the Mariinsky Theater (now in its 223rd season…geesh). But after spending all that time getting ready, as soon as we got to the door of the theater I realized I left my ticket at the hotel. So Tim (who accompanied the girl who forget her ticket last semester) literally ran back to the hotel with me and hailed a cab while I scurried around finding my ticket. We got to our seats as the ballet was starting, but a good deal sweatier and smellier than expected. The ballet was great, despite the ticket fiasco, and it momentarily made me wish I hadn’t quit my extremely rigorous and competitive seven-year old ballet class. Then I realized how small all the dancers were, and decided I liked food entirely too much to pursue such a career. Otherwise, I did a lot of walking around the city, especially the main street, Nevesky Prospect. I also wandered through Mars Field and the Summer Garden, but I simply had to imagine how beautiful these places, and the city in general, will look when everything isn’t dead (a few tears may have been shed). On our last day we went to Peterhof, the palace and gardens of Peter the Great, known for its incredible fountains (which, believe it or not, were closed for the winter and all the statues were hidden under picturesque grey boxes… again, tears were shed). It’s been called the Russian Versailles, but I liked it a lot more than what I can remember of Versailles, due in part to the fact that it wasn’t designed to meet the needs of a man with a serious case of Napoleon syndrome.
I liked Petersburg a great deal more than Moscow, and I think most Russian share my sentiments. It’s so much prettier with the non-Soviet style buildings and canals, and the smaller size makes it seem much friendlier. It may be a lot more European than the rest of Russia, but sometimes that can be a very good thing.

Monday, March 13, 2006

If someone had told me that by the middle of March the daily high would still be below freezing, I probably would not have come to Russia. Yes, ignorance was bliss. Currently, however, it is the farthest thing from that. So this is Russia.
This past weekend I went with two of my friends, Amanda and Erica, to Moscow. We had our first experiences of Russian trains, which went much smoother than we expected. We even got complimentary candy and soap on one train. The weather this weekend was very Russian: cold, snowy, and greatly dominated by the color grey. This fact didn’t keep us from seeing a few sights, like Russia’s biggest toy store, the former KGB headquarters (strangely enough, right across the street from the toy store), the Mayakovsky Museum, Red Square, and a giant souvenir market. The Mayakovsky Museum (Vladimir Mayakovsky- revolutionary Soviet poet and propagandist, committed suicide at the age of 37 because of a lost love and disillusionment with communism, though I think it was mostly due to overly bleak Moscow winters) was one of the more bizarre things I’ve seen in my life, but if you’ve read any Mayakovsky, you couldn’t expect anything less. More deconstructivist industrial art exhibit than museum, it was uniquely Russian. Red Square was also amazing and increased my obsession with St. Basil’s and its fairy-tale-like quality, which was only made better by the heavy snowfall.
The souvenir market we went to on Sunday was absolutely incredible, but extremely geared toward foreigners, especially Americans, which gave it a strange feeling. Most of the vendors could speak some English and I saw Americans everywhere (Russian are right, we do really stick out). Beside that oddity, the market had just about everything a person could ever want to buy, including a Gary Potter matrushka doll (sadly, Neville was not one of the little figures inside).
Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was the food, which included pizza, Tex-Mex, and Ethiopian food. Now, I’m sure I’ve gone eight weeks without Mexican food, but there’s something about the utter lack of spice or strong flavor in cabbage that makes you crave Mexican like a pregnant woman craves pickles. The Tex-Mex restaurant we found near Red Square was absolute heaven- they gave us menus in English, there was a Britney Spears music video on the TV, and the waiter spoke to us in a very sweet attempt at English. The food was pretty bad by our standards, but for Russia, it was a tear-jerking event. The three of us were literally gushing the entire time; it was an incredibly beautiful thing. My tequila sunrise literally made my heart smile. Then we paid our huge bill, and walked outside into the snowstorm and back into reality. The Ethiopian cuisine was a similar experience, with the same atrocious shock at the end.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really glad Moscow is so close. But when it comes down to it, it is a dreadfully ugly and drab city. Bleak winter weather aside, the buildings usually mirror the Soviet utilitarian style and though they have somewhat better upkeep than in Vladimir, they lack the tacky, randomly bright colors. Especially at this time of year, everything is covered in a mixture of ice, snow, and muddy grey slush. Personally, it makes me pretty glad to be in Vladimir.
A word of advice- don’t bother buying a guidebook for Moscow unless you need something to shield your face from the razor-like snow. Most things it lists will either have closed as soon as the book was printed or changed locations approximately twelve times. Out of the three restaurants we tried to find, we found one successfully, and the bar we tried to find on Saturday night resulted in an hour and a half long walk on a very abandoned island in the center of Moscow (it was not a fun experience, and no, I don’t want to talk about it). So do yourself a favor, and spend the money on a Gary Potter matrushka doll instead.
We leave for the group trip to Petersburg tomorrow, which I hope proves to be a more upbeat, bright city.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Happy women’s day! Or, as the Russians would say, “Congratulations on the 8th of March” since it seems to be bad luck to ever call a holiday by anything other than its date. The international holiday was actually created in the United States, but I had never even heard of it until I came here. It was instated during the first years of communism, and seems to be as important as ever (imagine a combination of valentine’s day and mother’s day, but as a federal holiday with no work or school). I went shopping all by my big self to get gifts of candy and flowers for my teachers and host mother, and was rewarded with a lifetime supply of chocolate in return (some of it I may have regifted, ACK tacky American!). My family got me a big soap gift box (I guess they think I’m dirty, too) and a wind chime covered in big red hearts (Amanda, immediately, “What in the world are you doing to do with a wind chime in Russia?!”). It’s the thought that counts, I hope.
In celebration of women’s day, Vlad, my tutor Katya, and I went cross-country skiing. The weather worked in out favor again, as it quickly became a bright and sunny winter day. It felt a lot more natural the second time, and I figure with a few more days I should be able to make the Jamaican cross country team (let’s just say, I can ski faster than Vlad now). Unlike the first time, I remembered to actually take advantage of the fact that I can lift my heels. The fact the skiing down hills on cross country skis, was however, greatly reinforced today, as I continued to ever so gracefully fall going down hills multiple times (to the great enjoyment of Vlad). An extremely graceful and proper way to start the day, as always.
Otherwise, I’ve been enjoying what I hope to be the last few weeks of winter. Though it’s gotten warmer since the body freezing Malsenitsa celebration, Russian winters are a stubborn thing and the temperature just refuses to go above freezing. One thing I really have grown to appreciate and love about Russian is their different ways of coping with the long, grey winter. Outside of very strong vodka and the constant state of stupor many of them seem to be in, they are pretty ingenious. My favorite winter coping method is their unabashed use of color. Though not universal, many buildings and houses around town have a very unique splash of color to them. The painting is usually fading and crumbling, the colors almost never match, and it often borders on tacky- but it is absolutely and wonderfully heartwarming. When it seems like life is turning into a black and white movie, these houses remind you that color is Russia is more than just color- it’s hope. That might be a little sentimental, but whatever it is, it’s gotten me through almost two months of winter so far, so they must be doing something right.
Another peculiar thing about being in Russia is the English language. My friends and I have recently been running into the problem of completely forgetting the English translation for relatively commons words (for example, this morning I forgot the word lufa, and my friends have forgotten ‘utilities’ and ‘shishkababs’). When I was walking back from the flower store yesterday, I heard English, American English at that, spoken on the streets. Though that might not seem like a big deal for people in bigger European cities, I have never once heard English being spoken in Vladimir apart from the 20 or so people I intimately know. I just stood there for a minute trying to make sure it was English, because it is just the most bizarre sound ever when it isn’t expected. I was overcome with the urge to talk to these people; it was just that surprising. Oh Vladimir, how I love your randomness.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

After a few hours camped out in front of the heater, I have finally defrosted from a very fun, but very cold weekend. On Friday our group went on an excursion to a local nursery school, where we got a chance to participate in the school’s own version of Maslenitsa. There, we played outside with 40 overly clothed little Russian children and sang and danced and traded candy for necklaces (I bartered for a few really good lookin ones that I’ll be sporting all over town). I’m not exactly sure the fine details of Maslenitsa, but with the children we held hands in a circle and chanted and did some dances and then a lady dressed up like a rag doll (I think this was spring) came into the circled and sang to us, and then a lady dressed like a bird of some sorts ran around frightening all the children and trying to take their noses (this, I’m assuming, is winter). And then there was fire, candy, and some more blini and a lot of playing in the snow. The children were just about the cutest things in the world, all looking like a rainbow assortment of marshmallows in their winter clothing. Amanda and I were planning on kidnapping one, but we couldn’t decide which one was the cutest, so we left with nothing. (We asked the head lady about children rentals, and she sadly said no). Then we went for lunch at a Chinese restaurant and I got my first meal not based primary on cabbage; it was heaven.
Saturday’s adventures took me cross-country skiing for the first time ever. I’ve wanted to go ever since I got here, but had been holding out for weather slightly warmer than –30, and this was the perfect day. It was still below freezing, but the sun was shining for a few hours and it was glorious. My skiing, however, was far from glorious. I went with Vlad, my host dad Nik, and Amanda (previously mentioned kidnapper). Russians aren’t much for explanations, so after we figured out how to put on our skis, Vlad said “See, see, Amy” and took off. So I may or may not have been doing it right (I’m leaning more towards doing it incorrectly and looking like a buffoon), but I had a great time. We skied in this big park on the edge of town that made you totally forget that you were anywhere near a city. The sun was shining through the trees and giving everything a brilliant glow. It felt like I was in a fairytale. And then I fell over because I wasn’t paying attention. Yeah, that’s pretty much how it went- awe and embarrassment. It was really cheap though (less than $2 for an hour) so hopefully I’ll make it back a few times and become a pro. Later in the day I went to the market with my host mother, which is one of my favorite things to do in Russia. The markets have absolutely everything, and most of it’s extremely cheap compared to the States. There were about 10 shops in a row entirely dedicated to selling sweets- it was glorious. The meat section is also very interesting, as Russians like to sell, and conversely eat, just about every part of the animal they kill. On display, to my great delight, were body parts such as tongues, entire legs (hooves included, of course) and animal heads. I’m so glad I’m a vegetarian in Russia.
Today, Sunday, Amanda and I rode with two friends of my family, a very nice and funny young couple named Roman and Tania, to Suzdal for the big Malsenitsa celebration. This experience was probably my favorite in Russia so far; it was just amazing. The town center had been blocked off, and there were people literally covering the streets, most with a jug of honey beer in hand. The streets had been decorated, and there were people wondering around on costumes of various sorts (probably representing seasons and other such pagan icons) and dancing and playing accordions on every street corner. This celebration seemed to embody the phrase “Eat, drink, and be merry” because that’s about all that was going on. Little blini stands were everywhere, and the alcohol was overflowing (which was good, considering the –8 temperature and a good burst of wind chill to make the welcoming of spring seem even more ridiculous). It so hard to explain, but it was just the most Russian experience I could ever imagine. I wanted to stay forever, but sadly, I preferred to save my toes and fingers (which had, at this time, been exposed to the cold air entirely too long) and had to go back to Vladimir. But it was a wonderfully Russian celebration and by far my favorite experience here.

can anyone find the car?!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

As of yesterday (and according to a very questionable Russian calendar) it is now officially spring. This week is the Russian Orthodox equivalent of Mardi Gras (or something of that nature) called Maslenetsa. Thus far, it has consisted of eating lots and lots of blini, or little Russian pancake thingies (so basically, it is absolute heaven). It all culminates on Sunday with a big festival of sorts, where a little grass lady is burned and another half ton of blini is eaten. This information is of course all second hand; I’ll find out for myself what happens on Sunday when I go to Suzdal for a good ol fashion Russian holiday.
Spring thus far has brought lower temperatures and a lot of snow. It’s great too, because this snow isn’t the big fluffy kind, but the little razor-sharp ones that attach your face. At times it looks like a sandstorm outside, and trust me, you don’t want to be outside in these. My running depends on the weather conditions, which haven’t been very favorable lately. So this, combined with the blini-eating extravaganza, is creating one plump Amy.
Spring has showed its face in other ways though. The sun was shining beautifully yesterday (do you see the blue sky in the picture, I think I’ve seen the color blue three times in Russia, so this is very exciting). With the sun, however, brings another danger- that of falling snowing and icicles. I’ve had numerous warning from my teachers to not walk directly under buildings for the next, err, two months or so. They talk about falling icicles with the same seriousness that I would expect them to use when talking about World War II. Falling ice is clearly serious business around here. The city has taken part in helping prevent snow deaths as well by often times blocking off entire sidewalks so people are forced to take to the streets and fight equally annoyed cars. Yes, I think spring will be a beautiful thing is Vladimir. (Did I mention that my teacher told me we wouldn’t get blooming flowers in Vladimir until May 10?!)