Thursday, May 18, 2006

I’m leaving Russia tonight, going to Frankfurt to meet up with my parents and explore Germany and Austria, and I’ll be home on Memorial Day…. Be prepared!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Spring has arrived in Vladimir (ironic, considering only two months ago Russians celebrated springs coming in one of the coldest experiences of my life). While I was away in Sochi, everything sprang to life- the trees, the grass, and even a few flowers. Though it still feels the same (mid 50s the past few days) the scenery has greatly improved, and often times that’s far more important anyway. It’s been amazing to see Russia transform in these past four months.
I don’t know what the man at orientation was talking about, when he said Russians come alive in the winter. Though I wouldn’t go as far to say that Russians actually smile now that it’s so beautiful outside, they do seem to have lost some of their rough edge. And at least they don’t frown as much anymore. I have realized, however, the most Russians are card-carrying fridge-a-phobics. Regardless of the fact that there is no longer (and I’m very excited to say this) snow on the ground, every single child I see under the age of five is still wearing a snowsuit. Most Russians still wear surprisingly heavy jackets, and occasionally hats as well. My family, in a typical Russian fashion, expects me to die of pneumonia at any second because I am not wearing proper clothing (and yes, of course, this includes Vlad, because who would want to miss out on a chance to call me stupid). An even better example would be my tutor, who sported a turtleneck sweater and pink leather jacket every day in Sochi, even when I was in shorts. She was so afraid of being cold on our boat cruise that she actually packed the blanket from the hotel bed in her giant purse and, naturally, used it whenever she went outside the main cabin. Russians reaffirm their quirkiness almost daily.
Russia celebrated Victory Day (marking the end of the war with Nazi Germany) this past Tuesday, and Vladimir was filled with balloons and flowers galore. I got to see some of the parade and celebration at a nearby square, and after scrounging for enough rubles on the ground, bought myself a good looking Russian flag to show my support (and blend in too). The rest of the day my family and I went to a nearby village and celebrated with their old neighbors. After some very strong coaxing by Mama Olga, I ate pretty much every kind of meat available- chicken, fish, and pork. Needless to say, it wasn’t the best meal I’ve had in Russia, but I appeased my tummy by gorging on dessert.
Russians are a very funny people, especially when they’re drunk. It’s hard to accurately describe a situation where you’re surrounded by six, rather drunk, Russians adults who are all screaming (and by screaming, I mean that normally they talk a new notches louder than your average American, but then in a group it is magnified about ten fold) at you to try this alcohol or try that dessert or come smoke (each and every one good Russians habits) or tell you they want to find you a Russian boyfriend (they clearly don’t know about my муз). All you can do is laugh. But then again, that’s often times the case when it comes to Russia. I guess that’s why I love it.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sochi effectively cemented my love for Russia. I had loved this country for its harsh winters, its tough-as-nails inhabitants, its hilarious randomness, its overly fattening but delicious food, but now I can also love it for its beauty. Sochi was absolutely wonderful. It proved to me that 1) that Russia can experience warm weather, 2) that Russia can be incredibly beautiful and most importantly 3) that under such circumstances, Russian people really can be quite friendly and considerate. I saw the color green again, and it was absolutely everywhere. I saw flowers in bloom and dolphins jumping in the ocean and I felt the sensation of warmth again (and even got a little tan). And I loved every minute of it.
Our 34-hour train ride to Sochi proved to go faster than expected and involved a lot of talking, reading, and more than enough needless eating. It was promising to see the landscape change from the drab grey/brown color of Vladimir to the lush green of Sochi. The first day there some of us took a hike to the top of Akhun Mountain where we got a gorgeous view of the Black Sea and the Caucus Mountains. Our hike along this old mountain road to get to the top sadly proved, however, that even in beautiful Sochi Russians find no problem in putting trash just about everywhere but in a garbage can; Russia is where trash goes to die. On Monday we visited the Sochi botanical gardens (and though we didn’t find the peacocks, we did get an up close and personal view of the ostriches) and spent the rest of the day exploring the ocean, playing Frisbee, and skipping rocks (which I can now, thanks to Amanda’s patience, actually do).
That night we took a boat cruise along the coast, which proved to be much more adventurous than I had expected. Contrary to my previous beliefs, I can actually appear attractive, or at the very least interesting, to Russian men. On the boat, a certain Russian gentlemen wearing blue jeans, a jean shirt, and a funny felt hat (it was quite the ensemble, trust me) decided that our table seemed like the kind of people that would like to dance with him (a side note- Russians will dance to just about any music, in just about any place). When he took an interest in me, I decided it would be a very good opportunity to practice my Russian. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but it went something like this (only naturally in Russian)-
Blue jean catastrophe- Come dance with me!
Me- No, I don’t want to.
Blue jean catastrophe is persistent in his request and will not take all my Russian variants of ‘no’ for an answer.
Me (desperation beginning to set it)- I can’t, I have a муз (Russian for husband, pronounced ‘mujz’ but I really like the word so I’ll be using it instead)
Blue jean catastrophe- I have a wife as well.
Me- But my муз says it’s not allowed. I cannot.
Blue jean catastrophe- It’s only dancing, it’s not like sex. You can still dance with me.
Me- Sometimes dancing and sex are the same thing. Sometimes you can do them together. (for the record I had no idea what I was saying)
Etc etc, you can probably get the gist of just how well this conversation flowed. I went on to try and explain that I was in a religious group where dancing was not allowed, which was more than this poor blue jean clad man could comprehend. ‘Dancing, not allowed?!’ I tried to explain that if I danced, I would go to hell, and blue jean catastrophe was still utterly beside himself. I’ll give him credit though, he never gave up, and you have to appreciate this quality in a man, no matter how it manifests itself. At this point my муз gallantly stepped in and asked me to dance, and despite my religious convections I took the opportunity and gladly accepted. After we left to dance, poor blue jean catastrophe asked the table if we really were married, and when he was told that we really were, left the table somewhat downtrodden. It did the trick though, as he left our whole group alone the rest of the night, and I, of course, acquired a Russian муз. We danced the rest of our ship ride away, under the light of a sad looking disco ball and the setting sun.
On Tuesday we went on a hike through the mountains to a few beautiful waterfalls that reminded me a lot of the Smokies. Wednesday took us on a long excursion with a final destination of a ski resort near Sochi, though we had to survive numerous side trips to finally get there. One of these side trips included a stop at the beehive where we got to taste all kinds of alcoholic honey drinks as well as numerous different kinds of honey, and obviously, I was absolutely in heaven. Another stop was interesting in an entirely different way, as it was a 20-foot tall cement pyramid that claimed to have healing powers. I cannot possibly describe to you all the odds things about this place, but my favorite was a map of the world painted on the side of the pyramid that showed the locations of the worlds’ pyramids which left out the pyramid in Memphis, Tennessee as well as the one of Las Vegas, which wouldn’t have been such an odd thing had it not included itself, all 20 cement feet of it, on the map. Not to mention the fact that the map was hilariously inaccurate, leaving out the large portion of land that is India among other things. We finally made it to the ski resort, where we rode a series of 4 ski lifts for a total of over 2,000 meters up the mountain. It had, at this point, been raining off and on for about a day, and the temperature had cooled down considerably. This, in addition to the great altitude change, made for a very rough ride. Midway up the second ski lift we saw the first ruminants of snow on the ground, and somewhere on the third ski lift it actually began to snow. This was great, because on our beach vacation we were all clearly dressed to handle this kind of weather. The view from the fourth ski lift was incredible because the mountain looked like any other mountain I’ve skied on out West (and we actually saw a few people skiing down the mountain), only it was May and I had become a solid block of ice sitting on the ski lift. And according to mythologists, Krasnaya Polyana, the name of the ski resort, is supposed to be the most likely place for a Cyclopes to live (that is assuming it actually exists). With the snow and fog and rain interferring with our field of vision, who knows how many of them were walking within our midst totally unbeknownst to us. All in all, an experience I’m glad I had, but pretty much only for the stories it will enable me to tell after the fact.
On Thursday we visited the most Northerly tea plantation in the world, which inspired me to start growing and brewing my own teas. On Friday, we went on another daylong trip that involved some wine tasting on our way to an area with 33 waterfalls. To get to the waterfalls, we had to get in the back of a truck with wheels nearly as tall as me and ford a river in what I can confidently say was the most exciting truck ride of my life. The waterfall hike was beautiful, and I even went for a very quick swim in the basin of the very top fall.
Otherwise, I spent my free time on the beach, walking around Sochi, and visiting McDonalds for 20-cent ice cream cones (for all I’m concerned, the best buy in Russia). It was great to have so much time with the other students, and made me very thankful for being surrounded by such a great group of people. The Russian tutors we brought with us were great, including my муз, though it’s hard to sustain a marriage, however fake it may be, through our language barrier.
Basically, the trip was amazing.
Now I’m back in Vladimir, where it’s been raining and cold all day (they, of course, had warm weather while we were in Sochi). I’ve got eleven days left in Russia, an unknown number of tests (have I mentioned the fact that I haven’t had a single test the entire time I’ve been here, so panic will ensue shortly), and far too many things left to do. But with a little tan and newly refreshed spirits, I think it’s doable.

pictures... a view of sochi and the black sea, bubbling blowing amy, the black sea at sunset (and amanda trying not to fall over again), the tea plantation, and the crazy ladies playing in the very cold water