Снег. Много снега.

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So I’m never gonna be a professional blogger. I’ve already moved on from this setback, and so should you. In other news, winter has arrived in full force and it’s actually not so bad. Besides a few really blustery days temperatures have been quite balmy in the mid 20s, allowing us to get some snow. A lot of snow. It came down pretty much all week, and is supposed continue for all of next week as well. I can tell you, I surely don’t mind. It really gives the city a new charm and also makes it appear brighter in the permanent low light conditions in which we live in.

With only 12 days remaining until i fly into Chicago, this will most likely be the last blog post. Luckily i have a few good stories and photos to go out on. It’s been quite a long journey to this point but it is still strange to contemplate getting on a plane in two weeks and being back in our wonderful-newly-extra-appreciated country.  I’m sure it is gonna take some serious time before i can unpack the entire experience in such a way that I might more easily and clearly express it.

Every semester our program puts on a big end of the term theme party for the students. Ours happened last week and was 90s themed. They rented out the stage at a pretty big club just off of nevsky and we got dressed up and put on a show. Dave and I each sang a Russian 90s song and then also did Blink-182, Greenday and Weezer. It was a little sloppy but pretty fun and we got to meet some cool guys, the bassist and drummer who worked with us.

Then yesterday Dave and I met up for some coffee and then wondered around the snow before going to a concert at the Philharmonic. The hall was quite grandiose and beautiful as usual. They only hit on one of four pieces they performed but it was still excellent. Unsurprisingly, it was Tchaikovsky who saved the day with something perfectly bombastic. Neither David nor I remembers what the name of the piece actually was called but as soon as they archive the December playbill I’m gonna find out and listen to it again. After that was over we walked down Nevsky to my friend Shenya’s apartment where she was having a big birthday party. We were the only foreigners in an apartment of probably 20 Russians and we more than held our own. Got quite a few compliments on our Russian which was very vindicating. We stayed out past when the metro closes so we crashed on the floor and headed back this morning. It was an exceptionally good day and pretty close to what I imagined living here would be like before I actually got here. Here are some photos of recent occurrences. Enjoy and I’ll see you all soon.

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Moscow (and Kiev) nights

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Well hello comrades. After another long hiatus I’m back with some more stories from my recent travels. A month ago the leaves where changing colors and blowing around the city. Now, the leaves are gone, temperatures are much colder and we have had some snow. Actually the night before I left for Kiev we got about a good 5 inches that stuck. I had to leave pretty early, around 5:30, to get to the airport and it was still coming down on my walk to the metro. Very beautiful. Perfect and still untouched by the mess of the morning commute. 

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Kiev was a real surprise. Absolutely stunning and also a very dynamic city. It was great to have some topography again (Petersburg is as flat as a blin) and explore this old, rich, ex-soviet capital. This pictures are from the great war museum which was very grandiose and also massive. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera for the monastery/church section of our tour where we got to enter the extremely claustrophobic catacombs housing the remains of scores of saints, many of them several centuries old. We did get a nice sunny day to view everything by, so we were  grateful for that. Ukraine is definitely a place I would like to return to with more time if I have the chance. At least in Kiev, Russian is spoken almost universally. To me, it seemed like a more modern, friendlier, funner version of Russia. Even the food which is very similar to what we eat in Russia tasted better. And their money is colorful and awesome. A long list of pros. The only con was that we were only there for two days. Add to it your list of places to go off the beaten path.

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From Kiev we took the over-night train to Moscow which in itself was quite fun. Two full cars of rowdy Americans. I’m usually not one for big cities but Moscow was also very enjoyable and felt more vibrant and alive than Petersburg. Perhaps it’s just the new-place-syndrome (in fact i’m sure the morning commute in Moscow is awful compared to Peter) but it was a most welcome change. Also, the people there were much nicer and not as aggressive as people in Peter lead us to believe. There is something of a competition between the two cities, Peter considering itself more high-brow and cultured and enjoying a more refined, relaxed kind of as existence. They say Muscovites are pushy, unfriendly and that they talk too quickly. From out experience, which was limited I admit, I did not find much truth to these warnings. The city dwarfs Petersburg, is much older, and in a completely different style. The elegant symmetrical order of the northern capital is no where to be seen in Moscow. It made a very nice change of pace. One of my favorite things was going to the great Tretyakkov gallery which is full of Russian art. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures as by this time my battery was dead. It was really the first times I got to see a decent amount of Russian art and I was blown away. We have visited many museums, but until now the only one of art I have been in is the Hermitage which is all foreign art. The Russians keep their own stuff in separate museums. One of my favorite artists was Vasily Vereshchagin who was a really interesting guy. Traveled all around the world and spent a lot of time in the south and the far east and many of his paintings depict the Russo-Turkish War. The guy actually died when the battleship he was on hit a mine off the coast of Port Arthur in the Russo-Japonese War. A real adventurer. 

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Here is another I saw called Tsarevich Ivan Riding the Grey Wolf by Viktor Vasnetsov that I really liked.

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We also made it to Christ the Savior Cathedral as made famous by the infamous Pussy Riot. It was magnificent inside but photographs were not allowed. I wonder why…

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And here we have the Bolshoy Theater (big theater) where I was able to score opera tickets for $3 thanks to a nice little setup they have there. The theater sets aside about 30 tickets for students in the crap seats. In fact on the ticket is written неудобное место which literally means “uncomfortable spot.” This opera, The Tsar’s Bride by Korsakov (which was excellent), was about 3 hours long with four intermissions so many people didn’t stay for the entire duration and we were able to move to better seats. Anyways, back to the system. So the theater sets these seats aside but the students themselves have to organize who gets them. So in the morning on the day of a show, a student will come to the theater with a piece of paper, number it one to thirty and then write his name on it. He then waits until the next person comes along at which points he gives them the list and goes about his merry way as the newcomer puts his name down and waits for the next person. Then everyone comes back at 5pm to line up in the order on the list and go buy their $3 ticket for the 7pm show. Pretty cool.

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The singing, the pit and the set, were excellent.

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Red Square at night. There is now a three story mall (bright, lit-up thing on the left) directly across from Lenin’s Tomb (on the right). How times change.

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The view from INSIDE the walls of the Kremlin.

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Cathedral square in the Kremlin. 

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Inside the church where all pre-Peter the Great tsars were buried when Moscow was the old capital. Stood right next to the marker of Ivan the Terrible. 

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Changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldiers.

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The Air and Space Museum.

And here just a few more to round it off from today in Petersburg. Hope you are all well.

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Look around, leaves are brown…

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But as of yet, no snow. Patchy or otherwise. The weather here has thankfully remained mostly un-rainy, however temperatures have hovered around the mundane and frustrating 50 degree mark. Too cold to stand around with the constant breeze off the Baltic and yet way too warm to walk at my favored brisk pace. And don’t even get me started on the metro. Though, on a surprise upside, I now actually have something to do on that two minute thirty second escalator ride–shed all outer layers in relative peace. I must confess my envy for Portlanders who have, for nearly two weeks now, enjoyed near 80 degree sunny weather. I do hope that the regular group of reflecting pool bathers, with whom I am well acquainted, are making the most of this rare occasion and have perhaps even swelled their ranks. Do enjoy the sunshine.

But yes, we are right now in the middle (perhaps the end now) of a wonderful золотая осень or golden autumn and it has been beautiful. It is especially beautiful when you are at Peterhoff, the massive palace and gardens built about an hour west of the city by Peter the Great for his R&R.

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It really has everything. Upper gardens, lower gardens (both of which are huge), a palace, beautiful nature, reflecting pools that dwarf ours and would allow the LC Reflecting Pool Bathers Club (LCRPBC) to have the entire college attend their next frolic, gold, gildery, statues, monuments and of course the elaborate fountain system that, believe it or not, uses not a single pump, just gravity and fancy pipes. Oh and this is all located right on the coast of the Baltic Sea as well. That is in fact the large body of water you can make out through the trees in the first photograph. It was great to stroll through the mostly tourist free grounds and take in the sights and history. Great for an imagination out of practice. Visions of elaborate facial hair, jackboots, military uniforms and pomp, horses and carriages (lets be real, the actual reasons I’m here) came through quite forcefully and most splendidly. It would be worth it to go back to the 18th century right?! All in all, a very magical and romantic place. A place that you wish you could share with all those you love, in the moment, because the photos while good, of course can’t capture the whole experience. Luckily, I wasn’t completely alone.

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As usual, none of the other 90 Americans could quite hang with our coolness and thus mastery of the camera’s timer function was key.

We are officially a month in now. Finally, I feel that I have settled into the routine and that classes have arrived at a more or less acceptable spot, although the electives are still something of a bore. I hear back this upcoming week about whether or not my program is gonna be able to help me find a piano to practice on. David and I have also found the conservatory where you can often attend cheap or even free concerts. We went last week to a performance there of traditional Russian “choral music.”We are talking the old stuff here. While interesting and definitely different, it was not exactly what I expected for choral music and did begin to try the foreign listener’s patience after the second hour. We remain undeterred however and are going back tomorrow for what we think is a brass ensemble of some kind and some solo works for French Horn.

We also went to a voting party put on by the consulate general at the American school here. Forms and help with the special ballot, burgers, dogs and ice cream for free! The people in Vladivostok could learn something here. The usual light discussion on the economy and political system, football, state pride. Usual American topics. It was nice not feeling like doofi for being our loud, obnoxious selves. As usual, I was disappointed by the general lack of choice and the large amount of uncontested local elections so, Phil, I wrote you in for Milwaukee County DA. I have a good feeling about it. Carcetti 2.0

Here are some more photos of Peterhoff and a few from Novgorod too. Keep it real. GO PACK.

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Great Novgorod: Russia’s oldest city

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Metro Madness

Since I am now competing with several LC-student, St. Pete blogs I decided to do something a little special for all of you faithful readers as I begin phase 2. I’M KICKING UP THE ARMS RACE! MULTIMEDIA! Take that. Here’s four minutes of intrepid video journalism, giving you a never before seen look into the St. Petersburg Metro and its long escalators.

Phase Two….Engage!

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Привет все! After another long hiatus, I am back in the blog game. Pretty sweet new header photo eh? Tapestry from the middle ages taken with my own little point and shoot in the Hermitage. The other photo is one of the many Van Gogh’s in the collection. The place is absolutely amazing. Apparently, if you wanted to just spend one minute in each room, you would be in there for 8 years. So I definitely see myself going back several times.

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The champagne room–where the courtiers would all get wasted in order to get through the self-written plays and operas that Catherine the Great would make them watch in the Hermitage Theater that lies adjacent.

So  yes I have made it back to Saint Petersburg in one piece. I am living in a comfortable but old soviet style apartment complex with my host mom and the the gorgeous, white, diva-cat Marquis. Irena only speaks Russian, which is the whole point and we can communicate pretty well. The time spent in Vladivostok has definitely served me well. We are directly north of, and quite far outside the center of the city. It’s about an hour commute every day but the metro is beautiful and so streamlined and simple that it’s not so bad. Classes have started and are held at the very blue Smolny cathedral. So far they seem alright. Electives don’t start until next week so I won’t really get a true idea of what my schedule will be like until then.

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Field Marshall Hall….is anyone else reminded of Stratego? Number? *smirk* Bomb.

The program is huge, almost 100 American students so we stick out like a sore thumb when we have to do group things. For example, this weekend we have an overnight excursion to Novgorod, the capital of the old Russian kingdom of pre-tsar times. One of the oldest cities in Russia and very different from Petersburg. But other than instances like this, I generally don’t spend any time with the other Americans outside of Smolny except of course the LC people. There are five of us from LC which makes us one of the biggest delegations. It was mighty good to see them all as its been a long, lonesome summer at times. Our beloved professor Tatiana was in town for a couple days when we first arrived so we were able to get together with her and our former tutor, now LC alum, Danya for a small reunion on Nevsky Prospekt. Image

St. Sebastian, by some Italian guy.

We have the advantage in that we already have some contacts here. David met up with a friend of his sister who lives here now who is going to introduce us to some more people and before that we went together to see Sheynya, Sasha, Anton and Vera, the fine folks I stayed with on my short stint here earlier. David missed out. After he left to fulfill his previously made plans we had a big dinner, dessert and then went out to this awesome dive bar (one of the first I’ve seen here) with a custom foos-ball table (table soccer for non-Fendt readers). They play with a dense rubber ball which means you can do some pretty cool things in the course of play. No spinning of the bars allowed, only the standard wrist shot. Thomas wouldn’t like it though because you can not appeal to the ref when the ball goes into the goal and bounces back into play. The back of the goal has got some metal plating which makes a very satisfying sound when you score and they go by that.

Also, so far we have seen lots of good places for busking, and quite a few people trying their hand at it. I still like our chances. So as soon as I get over this cold we are going to take to the park guitar and melodica in hand and see what we can do. I’m thinking about maybe making a provocative sign as well to get more attention. “Talk to an American in Russian.” In Russian of course. Might make people stop, right?

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The October Steps–where the Bolsheviks stormed the palace to overthrow the provisional government in the October Revolution.

My interim travels were, for the most part, great and I’m glad it all worked out, though I’d be happy with never seeing the Riga airport again. Vilnius was really cool and I wish I could have spent more time there. The girls I was couch surfing with were really nice and did there best to show me around even though they had to work since I arrived in the middle of the week. Beautiful oldtown and riverfront. Good transportation. Not too big, which was really nice. Relatively cheap too. The white shades finally bit the dust there too. And by bit the dust, I mean I forgot them in a beer hall. Anyways….pictures.

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Massive Catholic Cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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Beautiful side-chapel of said cathedral.

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Ceiling of said side-chapel. There was a room like this between every single one of those columns in the first picture, on both sides. 

Germany was also great and again I had wonderful hosts. I saw the one and only Jakob again and also met his older brother and parents. The live in a really picturesque, small village called Shlangen. Again, everyone had work and school but they really tried to show me a good time. We also went to Berlin for a weekend which was awesome. Didn’t get any weisse beer Gene, but I did get some weisse wurst. Out of a can. It was interesting.

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Monument to Hermman in Teutorburg Forest.

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in front of The Reichstag

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One of the last standing GDR watch towers.

And the wall…Image

took this one while riding a bike. NBD.Image

used the timer for this one. can you tell?Image

and these cyclists had perfect timing.

As usual, this has kept me up past my bedtime but now hopefully I can get back on track with shorter posts. So I’ll leave it there. My best to you all and I thank you for your continued readership.

A Taste of Petersburg (and Latvia and Lithuania and Germany)

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Greetings one and all! My version of Euro tour 2012 has officially begun. I have left Vladivostok behind and have spent the past week or in St. Petersburg. I am now in the Riga airport waiting for a bus that will take me to Lithuania. I stay there for two days to process my new Russian visa and then head back to Riga, to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Finally, on September 5th its back to Petersburg.

As usual, the time to pack up and move along came upon me surprisingly quickly so I was scrambling around at the last minute to pack up my stuff in Vladivostok. Aeroflot once again proved itself a most capable airline. I took a good several days in Petersburg to recuperate from my travels before exploring in ernest. I  also had real humdinger of a wisdom toothache that had me worried for a few days before it went away. I’m hoping it stays that way as tooth extraction is not something I have on my “things to do in Russia” list. I was lucky enough to stay in a flat with some friends of a friend of a friend, right in the center of Petersburg for my interim period there. This was nice because I was able to get a head start on my navigating and exploration and also makes accessing public transit easier. Preliminary thoughts on Petersburg: in short, I’m very glad I choose this city for my longer period of study rather than the other way around. Now in all fairness, I think doing summer study in Vladivostok is not typical of the usual program there (I don’t want to freak out those who may be going/considering going to Vladivostok) but I definitely like Petersburg better. Even if you discount all the grandeur and museums, it also has some very practical advantages. 1) Much cooler in Petersburg than Vladivostok. At the end it was just way too hot in Vlad. Very uncomfortable. Way better in Petersburg. 2) Petersburg rivals Iowa in its flatness. Which again means that I am sweating less and also that you can walk very great distances and not get tired out. It’s also just cleaner, less claustrophobic and you can actually find a park with grass, something impossible in Vladivostok. Put all of that together with the knowledge that I’ll have a homestay instead of that accursed dorm, I am very excited for the semester. Here are some photos from the last days in Vladivostok and the short stint in Petersburg. I will try to write something or at least post some photos from Lithuania and Germany. Auf wiedersehen!

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Catholics, Police and a Vulgar Old Man

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Greetings all! It is getting down to the wire here in Vladivostok with only six more days until I head out to Saint Petersburg. I think I can say this has been the fastest summer of my life. It is amazing how quickly we are able to adapt to new things, so much so that they become routine. And once that happens, the time flies. Overall, I think it has been mission accomplished here. I’m not fluent in Russian yet but I have made a lot of progress and I think I am going to be extremely well prepared to make the most of my time this fall, which was the main point of coming out. It is another beautiful, though uncomfortably hot and humid, day and I am sitting in my favorite hipster coffee shop as I type this out to take advantage of their fast internet and good music. Today it’s Ella Fitz and Air France. Image

So to begin this update, the headline story: Catholics. I don’t remember if I mentioned last time but when I found the Catholic church two weeks ago the lady who let me in, Tamara, told me that in a few days a group of American “missionaries” would be arriving to do volunteer work in the city and that they would be staying in the rectory. Sure enough, two days later when I came back for Thursday evening mass, I found a large group of Americans occupying the movie theater seating. About 15 of them. They were all college aged kids except for the leader who was still quite young, about 30. Several from the Midwest, which was cool, and all very nice people. They invited me to dinner every day of that week they were here and we just hung out. I showed them around, translated for them as none of them spoke any Russian, and went to mass with them about every other day. It was really nice to have that kind of family community that has been considerably lacking this summer, especially since summer is the hands down biggest family time of the year. In fact, unless I miss my guess, the usual MI city festivities are now underway. Hope you all have a great time  and that the winners of the All Star Game remember to thank me when I get back for not being there to challenge. It was my year dammit! But yea, nothing beats sitting around a big dinner table and just hanging out, playing cards, whatever. As I said, there were several Midwesterners so we got a couple games of euchre in. Didn’t have time to teach them sheephead. Learned a new one too called 500 that is kind of a combo between euch and spades and extremely fun. I also got a chance to spend more time with the two American nun types. Not sure of their official titles but we called them sisters so I just figured. Anyways, two extremely young, funny and kind women in habits, one from Iowa and another from Virginia. Strangely enough, one really looks like Laur and the other like Sammy, kinda  freaked me out at first. The slightly elder one, Sister Stella, did her undergraduate in music and then a masters in organ performance. She is very good and let me try out the beast after mass a couple times. Pretty cool. All in all, a really great, loving group of people that I feel very lucky to have run into. It’s another one of those serendipitous occurrences that I started noticing more and more ever since going to college. What are the odds that this group of Americans would be in Vladivostok while I was? What are the odds I would be in Russia at all? What are the odds I would go to school in Oregon and meet all the wonderful people I know now? It goes on and on. Whether it’s from God or sheer dumb luck, I’m not sure, but I can say that I am extremely grateful.

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Another interesting thing that came out of all this was an aspect of Russian culture that I had heard about and therefore expected, but up until now had not experienced. Dave, a great guy from Kansas in the group, happens to have parents from Jamaica. So that makes him the first black guy I’ve seen in Russia. And judging by the amount of attention he got on the streets, he was the first black guy most Russians in Vladivostok have seen in Russia. Lots of stares, muttering and requests to take pictures, which got so annoying that I simply started responding “100 rubles” which helped depress demand. Dave was pretty uncomfortable, especially when we would get a guy who would just waltz up and go “hey nigger!” not trying to be offensive but just because a lot of times that’s the only way they know to call a black person and they don’t realize how bad a connotation it has in English. If you want to gain some perspective on life outside the US, Russia is certainly a fine place to find it.

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Note the Russians looking on, suspiciously. 

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On to the police. I finally had my first document check by the jack-booted, baton carrying, military police. Not sure why they picked me as I was in the leather jacket which usually helps blend in pretty well. Might have been the facial hair, since no Russian really have it, except for in this hipster cafe of course. Anyways, no hesitation at all. Came around the corner, walked right up to me and asked for documentation. Of course they had to pick a time when I was busy stuffing my face with a juicy piroshki I had just bought. It was quite hard to try to extricate my passport from the slightly too small inside pocket with one hand while trying not to drip piroshki on myself with the other. It was really quite lucky that I even had it, as lately I haven’t been carrying it with me when I go out since up til now I have literally not seen the police do anything. But because I was wearing the leather jacket with that inside pocket that my passport almost perfectly fits in, I brought it along. What really struck me as funny was how briefly they “checked” my documents. They don’t know what an American passport is supposed to look like and I doubt they could read the scrawls on the the scrap of paper that is my “registration.” I probably could have forged all these documents myself and had the same outcome, which was them just handing me my stuff back and moving on. 

And so we come the vulgar old man. This was another random meeting while out and about in the city. Taylor and I were walking downtown to meet up with John and Eric to go out for a drink when I spotted a strangely out of place looking guy and a few seconds later realized he was speaking English to the young Russian woman accompanying him. The guys looks about 60, bald, sporting shorts, a button-up and knee high socks with tennis shoes. Taylor and I broke off our conversation and stared at him as he passed right by us. He did a bit of a slow down too and abruptly stopped talking and we had this sort of slow-motion check out before I, brilliantly, said, “so you must be American.”

On all the other rare occasions I have run into Americans, they are usually very excited to meet a fellow countryman. This guys was decidedly indifferent and unimpressed.  He told us that he teaches English in China and has been for about 6 years now and that he was in Russia to take the transiberian to Moscow because he thought he ought to. The girl with him turned out to be some random lady he had met on his plane who agreed to help him find the train station. He told us that he’s from LA which I immediately gave him shit for, which didn’t seem to bother him too much. He swore pretty casually and one of his favorite responses seemed to be “F that.” I do quite a bit of F thating myself but for some reason it always throws me for a loop when anyone older people I don’t know do it. He also obviously enjoyed being contradictory while I was trying to make polite, traveler small talk. An example:

Me: Yea so I’ve been here for about two months now.

VOM: Sure, but do you know the answer to the most important question?

Me: Ummm?

VOM: Why do we have seasons? Do you know that?

I actually did know the answer to this but of course he was going to find something objectionable about it.

Me: Well yea. It’s because of the tilt of the earth, right?

VOM: OK well, how tilted is it?

Me: Like 20-something degrees I think.

VOM: 20-something? I thought you said you knew the answer. 20-what?

Me: 22.

VOM: No.

Me: 23.

VOM: No.

Me: 24.

VOM: No.

Me: Well what is it? I know it’s in the low 20s.

VOM: 23.5.

Me: Oh come on! I knew it.

VOM: Don’t be so eager to pat yourself on the back. This is science, you gotta be exact.

Me: Hey man you should be a college professor or something.

VOM: Hah, F that. 

A strange stranger in a strange land. Makes for a good story though.

He bid us farewell with a sincere, “Have a nice life.”

In other news we went to a house-museum where a very affluent family of Vladivostok used to live. Cool history, cool old furniture. Some photos.Image

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And finally, we got to get out of the city again for some BBQ, swimming and a general good time. Notable events included a number of rousing, multinational U2 covers and a scientific breakthrough: box wine does indeed float! But further research is still very much needed in order to create a complete index that will account for all of the numerous buoyancy factors (whites vs. reds, country of manufacture, price, etc.) The key is having a large enough sample…stay tuned for updates on the continued efforts of our lab techs. 

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