Some Russian Episodes

March 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm (Uncategorized)

We have a folklore class every other Tuesday where we sing songs and learn Russian dances and games.  The other day we played a game involving flowers, which is meant for Russian children.  If your flower is chosen, and you don’t answer fast enough, then it is required for you to take off something you’re wearing.  I am not kidding, children play this game in Russia.  Most people in our group took off watches, but Jeff was forced to take off his belt because he didn’t have a watch.  Apparently strip games are not only for adults in Russia.  I should not have been surprised.

We experienced Russian clubs for the first time this weekend.  We went to two different ones.  The first club played a lot of Russian techno music, with the exception of Lady Gaga, which the club played especially for Emily’s birthday.  There was a brief period in the first club where all of the power went off right after we first got up to dance.  We all joked that we were so bad at dancing that the system just shut down in protest.  The second club was really big and really expensive.  They played only English techno, and there were way more guys than girls.  It was a sausage fest.  The guys weren’t remotely interested in dancing with girls because they were all too busy busting out by themselves.  It was a bunch of guys in beaters and jeans acting like they were in the movie Step Up.  It was absolutely hilarious.

I saw my first Russian bar fight in the classiest bar I’ve been to yet here.  A tall, gangly guy with an arguile vest literally kicked some guy out the door because he was too drunk.  The guy came in again, so the innocent looking waiter kicked him out again.  And I mean, he literally raised his foot and kicked this guy in the back.  After the guy fell out the door, the waiter (I swear to God) did a superman dive out the door on top of this guy and started beating him to a pulp.  Afterwards the waiter came inside and called an ambulance because there was so much blood poring out of the guy’s head.  Meanwhile I was the ONLY ONE who saw any of this happen.  Everyone else in my group was too deeply immersed in conversation to hear me saying, “Guys did you see that??”  It was crazy.

I also went to Globus, which is the Russian equivalent of Costco (which is like Sam’s Club for those of you who don’t have Costco).  Except Globus was way nicer than Costco because it wasn’t in a crappy warehouse with birds flying around everywhere.  I honestly felt like I had somehow passed through a portal to America, because absolutely nothing in Vladimir looks like this.  It had absolutely everything.  However, there were several reminders that I was still in Russia.  For one, instead of workers looking bored in blue smocks, there were giant mafia-type men in suits with earpieces, standing still and staring at everyone.  There were also too many people walking around with whole fish for it to be America.  In America, most of our fish can be bought pre-gutted and without their heads.  The idea is laughable in Russia.  The Globus symbol is also too creepy.  It is a smiley face, but one eye is a globe.  It looks like it should be a villain in a James Bond movie because the globe looks more like a diamond.  It is particularly eerie.

I remember before I came to Russia, one of my friends told me that Russians make crazy remixes of American songs, and play them in clubs.  Today I found out that Russians do not limit their remixes to American songs, but ANYTHING American.  And I mean anything.  Today, a couple of us were in “Whiskey Pub,” a popular bar/nightclub, when all of a sudden we heard George Bush’s voice speaking over techno music.  That’s right, I kid you not, I heard a remix to George Bush’s “We got Saddam Hussein” speech.

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St. Petersburg Day Four

March 23, 2010 at 12:07 pm (Uncategorized)

The next morning we woke up and talked about how nice Dima was, and we all agreed that he was the nicest man we had ever met.  This led to the thought that he probably robbed us all blind.  Thankfully, he didn’t.  He came into our room later to give all the girls in our group roses because it was International Women’s Day.  It is traditional for people to give all the women they know presents, but it was really nice of him to think of us also since we had known him for all of a day.  It was officially the first flower a man has ever voluntarily given me (the only one I’ve ever gotten before was from my prom date, where its obligatory to give your date a corsage).  He even gave me two because he saw that my first one was slightly drooping, and he thought I needed a new one, despite my telling him that it was fine.

After that Misha, Dima, and Christina made us all breakfast, and videotaped us.  Misha asked us a million questions that he recorded on his video camera, and then he would randomly want us to throw our hands in the air, and yell “Whoo!”  It was all very weird.

Emily, Erin, and I went to go find the famous statue of Peter the Great, a.k.a the Bronze Horseman, that Pushkin wrote about.  It was not nearly as exciting as we thought it would be.  The statue a ways away from it was more interesting because it was a bust of a Stalin-look-alike with a camel sitting under it.  We could not for the life of us figure out what it was supposed to be.  But, naturally, we all took pictures riding the camel.

God had blessed us with the gift of Pizza Hut close to our hostel, so after we wondered around the park we went there to buy AMERICAN pizzas (as opposed to the Russian version of pizza, which involve way too much cabbage) for the train ride back to Vladimir.  We went inside and were immediately greeted by the cash register, which told us “WE LOVE YOU!!!!!”  No, no–Pizza Hut, we love YOU.  Erin ordered a whole pizza for herself, but Emily and I decided to order one large pizza that we would share with the rest of our group.  We sat down to wait at the “waiting area,” which had a pitcher full of nasty gas water for our enjoyment.  In Russia you have to differentiate between water with or without “gas,” which is the Russian way of saying sparkling water.  When we finally got our pizzas Emily and I realized that our pizza wasn’t big enough for us and Jeff and Courtney.  We decided that we didn’t want to share after all, so we ordered another pizza for them.  The restaurant must have thought we were so bizarre because after we ordered our third pizza, we began to eat our to-go pizzas in the restaurant.  When we finally got our third pizza, we had to sprint back to the hostel because we were running late for our train.

In order to make our train, we had to power walk through the city.  Naturally we were all thinking very violent thoughts toward all the slow-walkers of Saint Petersburg who were strolling leisurely in our way.  Of course it also began to snow violently along the way.  But it turned out all right because we made our train with five minutes to spare.

The train ride was mostly non eventful, but at around 11:30 I was awoken by a member of the militsia (Russian police) smacking me with his folder.  It was extremely frightening because generally when foreigners are confronted by the militsia, it is not for a good reason.  They usually want to find a way to prove we’re here illegally if we don’t bribe them.  So, naturally, I was like oh no, here we go.  I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I heard “purse” and “ticket” a lot so I decided he wanted me to get my ticket out of my purse, but when I looked up again he was walking away.  It turned out that he simply wanted me to put my purse in a safer place so it wouldn’t be stolen.  It was very nice of him, but I wish he hadn’t hit me repeatedly.

We got into Vladimir at 5 am.  We stood around waiting for a bus until 5:45.  It was cold.  I went home and slept until 7:30 when I had to get up and go to school.  It was a hell of a day, but it was totally worth it.  I absolutely loved Saint Petersburg, but I wish I could have spoken more Russian there because, like Moscow, they speak too much English.  Many people actually assumed I was French and started speaking French to me.  St. Petersburg was also super European, and not remotely Russian.  I am very glad I am studying in Vladimir for the semester because I am getting a real Russian experience.

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St. Petersburg Day Three

March 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm (Uncategorized)

On Sunday Jeff and I started the day off together because we both wanted to go to the Pushkin apartment.  Pushkin is a very famous Russian poet who died in a duel.  The man he dueled wanted Pushkin’s wife because she was apparently very beautiful.  The Pushkin museum is famous for having Pushkin’s death mask, a lock of his hair, and the vest he wore with the bullet hole in it.

We actually found the apartment pretty easily, and bought our tickets (successfully fooling the ticket lady into thinking we were Russian).  However, when we went up the stairs to the museum, the ladies who looked at our tickets said, “Oh you bought tickets for the apartment, not the museum, so you can’t come in here.”  We asked where the apartment was, only to be answered with “not here.”  It was extremely helpful.  We finally found the dumb apartment across the courtyard.  Inside we had to put on felt slippers over our boots instead of plastic booties, which was extremely frustrating because there were no slippers big enough for Jeff, and no slippers small enough for me.  So we both had to walk really awkwardly throughout the apartment so that we would stay in our damn slippers.  Once we finally got into them (sort of), we went into the first part of the museum.  It turned out to be two boring rooms with absolutely nothing interesting.  There were some letters we couldn’t even read because they were in fancy, old Russian script.  There was a glass case with a dueling kit (two guns, two bullets, etc), and I got excited and asked Jeff, “Is that the gun Pushkin used in the duel?”  We read the sign, and it turns out it wasn’t exciting either.  The sign said, “Pistols used in the time period.”  Big whoop.  Above the kit was a portrait of the man Pushkin dueled, and underneath the name it said, “Non-famous Artist.”  The poor artist wasn’t even named because apparently no one cared.  This didn’t surprise me too much because, after all, I didn’t care either.

At this point Jeff and I were pretty pissed.  We thought we had paid money to see two dumb rooms that weren’t even in an apartment, with nothing of any importance to Pushkin in them.  Luckily, it turned out that after these abysmal rooms there were stairs leading up to the actual apartment.  His apartment was very pretty and interesting.  He had a very excellent library, and now I want one just like it.  When we were finished looking at the apartment, we figured it didn’t turn out so bad like we previously thought, but we were sad that we didn’t get to see the awesome morbid stuff, like the death mask.  As we were walking out of the door, one of the ladies who worked in the apartment called us over in a harsh whisper, and started leading us over to something in a really shady manner.  She said, “Here, here, students you should see something over here” and then she pulled a black blanket off something we hadn’t even seen before, and there was Pushkin’s hair and death mask!  She walked over to another covered case, and revealed the vest with the bullet hole.  She acted the whole time as though we were going to be arrested if someone found out we were looking at these things.  It was incredibly odd, but you really can’t expect anything normal in this utterly bizarre country.  As we were walking down the stairs of the apartment, Jeff’s slippers finally gave way to his giant feet and he went crashing down the first level of the beautiful staircase.  After he picked himself and put his slipper back on, we started down the second level of the staircase, where he promptly almost ate it again.  I bought a book of Pushkin’s poems from the store, so now I can say I have a Pushkin book FROM St. Petersburg, FROM the house he lived in.  All in all, what we thought would be a disastrous visit, turned out to be good.

Afterwards, Jeff and I went to the giant, famous cathedral in St. Petersburg.  It looks like it is something straight out of the game Candyland, but instead it is called the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.  So clearly it is from some violent Russian version of Candyland.  Anyway, Jeff and I were buying tickets to go inside from ticket windows right next to each other.  I handed the ticket lady my Russian student card, and she looked at it like “What in the hell is this??”  The school I study at (KORA) is a very small technicum in Vladimir, so since this woman had never heard of it, she was turning it over in her hands, wondering if it was legit.  That’s when I saw Jeff’s ticket lady in the background, showing Jeff’s student card to a manager, saying, “What the hell is this??”  Finally they decided to make up a price for us.  We got charged below the foreign price, but above the Russian price.  Our ticket ladies made it very clear that we were a disturbance while doing so.

Inside the church was absolutely beautiful.  Churches in Russia are either gold inside or covered in mosaics.  This one was the latter version.  It was very interesting to see, but Jeff and I agreed that it was not worth the 130 rubles we paid for it, especially since the signs told us squat about the mosaics.   I finally pushed my way through a million people to get to the sign, only to find out that it said, “This wood was donated by so and so, blah blah” Are you kidding me?  No one wants to read about that; I wanted to read about the pictures!  Nonetheless, the inside of the Cathedral was still interesting to see.

After we finished with the cathedral Jeff and I went to the Russian museum.  This museum has many famous Russian paintings and sculptures, and I thought these were much better than the ones in the Hermitage.  There was one painting called “The Wave” that showed a large wave wrecking a ship.  The painting next to it, by the same artist, was called “The Ninth Wave” and it showed the ship absolutely decimated.  There was also a very huge, famous painting depicting the volcano in Pompeii exploding.  As usual, many of the paintings showed tragedies happening to people.  At one point in the museum I saw a tour guide holding a stuffed pony that had rope attached to it.  Attached to the rope were seven small children.  They were literally tied to the rope, and being lead around by a stuffed pony.  I just about died from trying to hold back laughter.

When I was in the gift store in the Russian museum, I realized exactly how much Russians love Nicholas II.  There were about a million and one books about him, and his face was plastered across practically everything.  You could buy magnets, postcards, and assorted other paraphernalia with his face on it.

That night Courtney, Jeff, and I made pelmeni, which is similar to tortellini, but with meat inside, and without sauce.  We met some Russians in the kitchen of our hostel and talked with them.  One of them, Misha, had taken five years of English, so he wanted to practice with us.  His friends Dima and Christina just sat and listened for the most part because their English wasn’t very good.  At one point Misha asked us, “So what do you think about us aliens from Moscow?”  We didn’t know how to respond, so we went with the ever-intelligent “uhhhh?”  After a very awkward, long silence, Misha said (in a very strong Russian accent), “So now I would like to talk about religion.”  Overall it was a very strange experience.

Later that night we all decided that we wanted to go dancing at a club that Jeff’s friend in the Saint Petersburg group went to a lot.  Just to be polite we asked Misha, Dima, and Christina if they wanted to come with us.  Dima decided to come.  At first I was a little concerned about him because he kept following me around wherever I went.  Eventually, however, we realized that he was the nicest guy that we had ever met.  Courtney and I talked to him in Russian a lot throughout the night because we three didn’t like dancing much, and everyone else in the group did.  At one point, a young man who we nicknamed “AC/DC” because he was wearing an AC/DC T-shirt, staggered up to Courtney to hit on her.  Courtney was obviously very uncomfortable with the situation, so Dima stood up, led the guy away, and gave him what looked like a very stern talking-to.  AC/DC never spoke with us again.  Later on in the night, we sat next to “Very Intense Mullet Guy,” who at one point secretly slipped something into Courtney’s pocket.  Courtney looked at me and said, “Very Intense Mullet Guy just put something in my pocket.”  In order to remember this event the next day, she wrote, “A mysterious person just put something in my pocket” on her hand.  Dima kept buying us drinks the whole night because apparently women never buy drinks in Russia (a tradition that should be implemented in America as well).  Even if men are not dating a woman they’re hanging out with, or interested in one of them in any way, they still pay for all the woman’s drinks because it is just part of their culture.  I kept saying, “No, no let me pay for this one.”  Dima just gave me this look that very clearly said, “You will do no such thing.”  Courtney, Dima, and I were the last of our group to leave the club.  When we got outside, Dima hooked his arm around Courtney’s, and then held his elbow out for me to take.  I said, “Oh no I’m fine,” but he gave me the “This isn’t optional” glare, so I hooked my arm around his too.  We realized that he did this because the streets are straight sheet ice in the wintertime.  All men help women walk on the street during the winter because women wear impractical shoes and need help walking, or else they will bite the dust.  When we got back to the hostel, he said goodnight to us, and headed off to bed.  It was honestly the first time I’ve ever had a guy buy me drinks, and walk me home without expecting some sort of compensation.  In the United States, women know better than to except multiple drinks from a man they’re not interested in.  However, men in Russia can be very different.

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St. Petersburg Day Two

March 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm (Uncategorized)

Since St. Petersburg is very far away from Vladimir, we knew that we probably wouldn’t come back a second time.  That meant that in order to see everything we each wanted to, we had to split up.  On Saturday I decided to go by myself so that I could see everything I wanted to get done that day.  I was the first one to leave the hostel at ten am.  I wanted to go to the Peter and Paul Fortress first, so I figured out my route on the metro ahead of time.  However, when I put my metro token in the slot, it didn’t through correctly.  The metro lady started saying something to me through a microphone in her little booth.  It’s hard to understand Russian normally, let alone through a resounding microphone, so I started walking towards her.  She stepped out of the booth, and I have never had a stranger scream at me like that before.  She was screaming something in Russian, and the only thing I understood was “Maybe if you took your headphones out you would hear me!”  So I replied, “No that’s not the problem, I just don’t understand you.”  She was not pleased.  After this point, of course, I understood everything she said, and it was not very pleasant.  She said (verbatim), “You can’t understand me?  Of course you can’t understand me you STUPID FOREIGNER!”  It was all I could do to keep from laughing in her face.  She led me over to the machine that I had tried to use.  As it turns out, my token had just not gone through correctly, and came back out, like a vending machine.  So she put it through a different machine for me, all while making it very clear what a nuisance I was.  When I finally was on the escalator going down into the metro, I started laughing to myself because I couldn’t hold it in anymore.  All the other people on the escalator thought I was a huge freak for showing so much emotion in public.

I had no problem finding the fortress after coming out of the metro because it was so huge.  I had to cross a bridge to get into the fortress because it is on an island in the middle of the river Neva.  I’m sure this was great protection during the summer, but during the winter you can just walk across the frozen water to get to the fortress.  I’ve seen people do it.  It is free to walk around the fortress grounds, but if you want to go inside the cathedral or the museums, you have to pay.  Since foreigners have to pay an extremely higher price than Russians do, it became kind of a game with us “how many people can we fool?”  We all got Russian student cards for the school, so the trick was to hand the ticket ladies the student card, and not say anything.  When we speak Russian, they can immediately hear our accents and tell we’re not Russian.  The lady in the ticket office at the Peter and Paul Cathedral, however, took one look at me, and said, “You’re not Russian,” and charged me the full price for foreigners.

I went into the Cathedral first, and it was incredible.  If I thought the Hermitage had a lot of gold, it was nothing compared to this cathedral.  It was covered in gold, and beautiful paintings.  I should have expected it though because this was the cathedral where not only the last Romanovs were buried, but also Peter the Great.  Anyway, I knew that the remains of Nicholas the Second and his family were buried in the cathedral, and I was worried that I would miss their graves.  The names were written in very flowery old Russian script that was hard to read, so I started taking pictures of every grave so that I wouldn’t miss theirs.  That was until I saw the large crowd huddled around a separate room that said, “Tomb of Nicholas II and his family.”  Turns out I had taken pictures of a bunch of regular Joes.  Peter the Great was buried behind the altar, and it was very hard to see him, so I was trying really hard to get a good picture without breaking anything.  I didn’t break anything, but I didn’t get a good picture either.

After the cathedral I went into the fortress prison.  Apparently lots of people were held in this prison during the revolution, including Lenin’s brother.  The first prisoner the prison ever had, however, when it was first built, was Peter the Great’s son.  Peter the Great even supervised his son’s torture.

I went into some other museums, but they weren’t as exciting as the other two.  One lady in the Fortress museum (which just had a bunch of pictures of what the fortress looked like, as though I couldn’t possibly have seen it properly from BEING there) yelled at me for not being in one room long enough.

After I left the Peter and Paul Fortress I went to the Artillery Museum.  St. Petersburg has the largest artillery museum in the world, and I thought it was really interesting.  I got in for really cheap because I successfully duped the ticket lady into thinking I was Russian.  I was one of very few women in the museum, and most of the people in there were fathers with their sons.  I thought it was really cute until I saw a bunch of father/son mullet combos.  That was not cute at all.  Families should not have mullets in general, let alone matching ones.  The highlight of my day was seeing a whole family with matching mullets.  No joke, the mother, father, and son all had the same mullet.

The museum had the tank that Lenin rode in during the Revolution.  That was pretty cool.  There was also a small section about Americans in World War II, but that was the only other country represented in the museum.  This is because the Russians believe that America and Russia were the only two countries that mattered in the war.  Which is actually kind of true.

After I finished with the museum, I decided to head back to the Dostoevsky museum.  I successfully pulled off being Russian again, and got in for FREE.  It was an interesting house museum, but it wasn’t the best one I’ve seen.  One of the ladies in the museum, whose job it was to make sure people didn’t put one toe over the lines, wouldn’t let me go around the museum as I pleased.  I went into the living room, and she let me stay there for about thirty seconds before she took my hand and dragged me over to the nursery saying, “You have to see this now.”  She did that in every room.

I headed back to the hostel after I was finished with the Dostoevsky museum.  After dinner we all went out since it was Sarah’s birthday.  Jeff’s friends from St. Petersburg told us about a German pub they like to go to all the time, so we went there.  It was very small, but the people who worked there didn’t mind trying to seat all 12 of us.  The bartender was very nice, and kept asking Erin to marry him.  She was very flattered until she realized that he asked several women that night to marry him.  He didn’t mind that she was mad at him.  When she ordered a beer for Joely, the bartender took a mug off the shelf in the shape of a voluptuous naked woman, and gave it to her saying, “It’s like you!”  It was a fun night, even if it was super crowded.

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St. Petersburg Day One

March 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm (Uncategorized)

We all woke up at about eight thirty in the morning.  We looked outside the train and realized it was snowing violently.  Because of the weather we decided to do something inside after we got off the train.  Since it was a holiday weekend, we figured that the Hermitage would be pretty crowded.  Friday would probably be the least crowded, since most people still had school and work.  So we decided to go to the Hermitage on the first day.

The train pulled into St. Petersburg soon after we all had finished breakfast.  Luckily, it was not snowing very hard there.  We got off the train and had to figure out how to get from the train station to the hostel by ourselves.  I was the only one with a map because my tutor, Volodya (everyone and their brother is named Vladimir in Vladimir), gave one to me.  We are proud to say that we actually got from point A to point B with no problems.  Which is a rarity.

We stayed in a hostel called “Cuba Hostel,” which decided to go with a Latin American theme.  We stayed in room “Verde,” and there were many other rooms with other Spanish colors.  However there was one room named “Sin Nombre,” which means “No Name.”  It was pretty weird.  The hostel was very nice.  They had a common room, a kitchen, and free coffee and tea.  Our room was indeed green.  There were four bunk beds, so we all stayed in the same room (Joely and Sarah stayed in a different hostel).  After we had gotten all settled in, we set off to the Hermitage, which was in walking distance because our hostel was located on Nevsky Prospekt in the center of the city.

It was really strange seeing the Hermitage after seeing so many pictures of it, and hearing so much about it.  The main building of the museum is located in the Winter Palace, so it was a very beautiful area.

The Hermitage is the one museum in St. Petersburg that is free for students of all nationalities.  St. Petersburg has an extremely annoying habit of charging foreigners way more than Russian citizens for popular attractions.  However, if you wanted to take pictures in the Hermitage you have to pay 200 rubles.  I did because I thought it was worth it since I didn’t have to pay an entrance fee.  The Hermitage is also unbelievably huge, so we all had trouble deciding where to start.  Courtney and I decided to try and find a map so that we could see all the famous things in the museum.  The information desk told us that we could only purchase maps in the gift shops.  Of course.  Courtney bought one, but I didn’t because I didn’t think it was worth it.  Which meant that I got obscenely lost every two seconds.

Courtney and I started off in the Egypt exhibit, where there was a real mummy on display.  We sat there staring at it for a good while before Courtney finally said, “It looks like a dried up apple.”  Which was pretty much a dead-on description.  Russia would put ancient dead bodies on display.

Overall I thought that the architecture of the Hermitage was much more impressive than the paintings and sculptures.  Although, that may be because the rooms made entirely of gold were impressive no matter how many times I had to go through them, whereas after passing through a room with a giant sculpture of a cup five times while lost, I was like “I KNOW, I’ve SEEN you already!”  I did see several paintings by Monet, Manet, and Renoir, but they weren’t as impressive as I thought they’d be.  It was probably because I had spent an hour looking for them.  I really did love all of the old rooms of the palace because they were so beautiful.  I took lots of pictures of the ceiling.  At one point I realized there was a bride right next to me in her wedding dress, holding her husbands hand, who was on the phone, looking really unimpressed.

At one point I managed to make my way up to the third floor, which was basically no man’s land.  There were many tiny rooms, with plain white walls, and each room would maybe have one painting in it.  This was where all the Asian art was displayed.  If you ask me, the Asians got totally shafted because there was nothing up there, and I decided very quickly that I needed to get out of there.  It was an amazing contrast between this floor, and the other two floors, which were decked out in gold.

Towards the end of the afternoon I ran into Drew, and we decided to rest in the café for awhile.  About ten minutes went by before we saw Jeff coming up to us, looking very frustrated.  Of course, it was because he had also seen some rooms all of five times by accident, and couldn’t find other ones.  He said that he had seen the Michelangelo sculpture, which I hadn’t seen.  We decided that he would show me where the Michelangelo was in exchange for me showing him where the Monet paintings were.  We both swore we knew where each was.  We both got hopelessly lost.  Finally, we found the Michelangelo…which was slightly disappointing because it was a crouching boy that resembled several other sculptures of crouching boys in the museum.  The Michelangelo was completely stood up by the sculpture next to it, which depicted the most terrifying dolphin I have ever seen.  I think I would only have seen that dolphin swimming through the oceans of hell.

We finally had to ask one of the ladies who worked in the museum where the French impressionist paintings were.  Even though we asked in perfect Russian, she responded in English.  After following her directions, I realized that there was a completely different room where French impressionist paintings were.  I still have no idea why there were two rooms with the same artists, at completely different ends of the museum.  But we don’t ask questions about Russia.

After being disappointed by the impressionists again, Jeff, Drew, and I decided to get the hell out of the museum, before we got any more frustrated with it.  We decided to head over to Dostoevsky’s apartment museum before it closed at six.  It was at this point that we realized that everyone in Saint Petersburg walks at a glacial pace.  After being frustrated with the Hermitage for five hours, it was all we could do to keep from bowling over old ladies in the metro and on the streets who could not possibly have been going any slower.  It wasn’t even just older people, but also younger people.  We wanted to plant one of them in New York City and see how they fared.

We found the Dostoevsky museum easily enough, only to realize that the ticket office closed at five.  It was five after five.  It was really only to be expected.  So instead we went into one of the little Produktees (small grocery stores) nearby.  There were two rooms inside.  The first one was a big room stocked with alcohol, and the second was a tiny room with all of the “less important” stuff, like food.  Jeff and Drew bought spaghetti with “tomato sauce,” which ended up being nasty tomato paste.  I don’t know why they thought they could buy something normal, like tomato sauce, in Russia.

We finally got back to the hostel and had to collapse.  Jeff’s friend in the St. Petersburg group came over to hang out with us.  We heard enough about their drama to conclude that we were better than them.  Jeff and Courtney decided to go out, but the rest of us passed out.

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On the Midnight Train to Georgia…I Mean St. Petersburg

March 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm (Uncategorized)

We had a long weekend again for International Women’s Day (a very big holiday in Russia), so we all decided to go to St. Petersburg.  We bought round trip train tickets for under one hundred bucks, which is cheap considering the train to Petersburg is 12 hours long.

The train to Petersburg leaves Vladimir at 10:20 pm, which meant Courtney and I needed to leave around 9:45.  We saw the number 15 bus go by, which we were pretty sure goes to the train station, so we got on it.  Almost immediately after the bus left we realized that this would be the absolute worst time to be wrong.  Luckily, for once in Russia, we were right.  Everyone had loaded up on cheap Vladimir food for the trip.  We all had things like bread, sausage, granola bars, and nutella.  Ginger cookies have also become immensely popular with our group, so between us we had about four bags of them.  We were set.

The train was totally awesome.  I had imagined miniscule, wooden planks for beds in a completely open compartment with twenty beds.  Instead, I stepped on the train and thought I had died and gone to heaven.  There were two bunks in a semi-closed off space, so we at least had some privacy.  The bunks also had nice red padding, as well as an extra puffy cushion to put on whenever you wanted to go to sleep.  Plus we got clean sheets and towels in a package we had to open.  The area was pretty small, but that was only a problem for Jeff, who is 6’5”.  Joely had also told us horror stories about train bathrooms, so we were extremely afraid of them.  Jeff was the first one brave enough to actually use one.  We huddled, waiting to hear his report.  He came back and said, “I do not know WHAT Joely was talking about.  That bathrooms is one hundred times better than our school’s bathrooms.”  Not only did the bathrooms have toilet SEATS, they also had toilet paper, a working sink, and paper towels.  It was truly a gift from God.

Jeff mentioned that he had the song “Midnight Train to Georgia” stuck in his head, despite the fact that we were on the ten-o-clock train to Saint Petersburg.  We all got it stuck in our heads anyway.  Thanks Jeff.

Vladimir was not the train’s origin, so there were already many people sleeping when we got on.  So we couldn’t be very loud.  About fifteen minutes after our train left the station, they turned off all the lights.  It was only after we got into bed that Erin and I realized the disadvantage of our bunk (Erin had the top, and I had the bottom).  We had the bunk that shared a wall with the bathroom, and every time someone flushed the toilet, the wall vibrated violently.  So throughout the night, every time someone used the bathroom, we woke up.  It was extremely unpleasant.  But when I was asleep, I slept pretty well.  I thought I would wake up when the train stopped in Moscow, but I only woke up once for about two seconds when someone flushed the toilet.  Emily couldn’t believe that we all slept through that because apparently there was some shady deal going down with the men across from us.  She said that a bunch of men kept coming into our area and talking suspiciously with our neighbors.  But for the most part, the train ride was way more comfortable than I had expected it to be.

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Defenders of the Fatherland Day

March 3, 2010 at 12:45 pm (Uncategorized)

Tuesday was the actual holiday for Defenders of the Fatherland (now also generally known as Men’s Day).  I am the only one in my group who constantly has a man living in my house.  Other people just have host mothers whose sons live elsewhere.  However, I got to actually see the holiday celebrated because of my host dad, Volodya.

It was a very funny day.  Volodya likes his vodka every day of the year, but I guess the holiday gave him a good excuse to drink openly, and a lot.  He came up to me at four in the afternoon and asked me (in Russian) “You want in?  You want in on the Schnapps?”  I said no, because I’m not sure it’s appropriate for young women to drink with older men in Russia.  He was very sad, but he went out anyway to buy more vodka.  When he came back, he sat down in the kitchen and watched the Olympic ice dancing with me while pouring himself shots.  He kept trying to get me to drink too, but I kept saying no.  Iya came home in the middle of this and got mad at Volodya.  She saw the vodka bottled and yelled, “Are you serious??  Another one?!”  Volodya looked upset and said, much like a five year old, “But it’s my holiday!”  It was all very funny.

Volodya also put on his old army uniform for me and strutted around proudly.  He showed me all his medals.  It was very cool and interesting.

In Russia, people have one pair of house clothes that they wear when they’re at home.  I wear my Lehigh sweatpants, and today Volodya tried to read them.  He knew the “L” sound in English, but got confused at the “H” because the “H” is also the Russian letter for the “N” sound.  So he read the “LE” in English, but the “H” in Russian, and suddenly his eyes lit up, and he gleefully shouted “LENIN!!”  So now he thinks that my sweatpants say “Lenin” even though I’ve tried to tell him that it’s not Lenin, it’s my university.

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Differences Between Moscow and Vladimir

March 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm (Uncategorized)

Well, first off, there are way too many differences to count, but here are some major ones.

Moscow is a very strange mix of Western and Russian styles.  It did not feel like a real Russian city because there were too many foreigners, too many people who spoke English, and too many American things.  The people who spoke English refused to speak Russian with us.  People in Moscow were also generally much ruder than the people in Vladimir.  Vladimir is very authentically Russian because it is hundreds upon hundreds of years old, and it is a smaller city.  Very few people in Vladimir speak English well, and next to none of them have met a native English speaker.  Russian culture is also much more prevelant in Vlad.  It is not easy to find anything here that is remotely American.  The people in the Moscow group also said that they felt their host families were more in it for the money than because they wanted to get to know the students.  All of the host families in Vladimir absolutely adore us, and are very interested about our lives in America.  I also noticed how much Russian I get from living with a host family.  Even though I only lived in the Moscow dorm for a couple days, I noticed that I seldom spoke Russian in Moscow.  With a host family, I am forced to speak Russian everyday outside of class, and I can tell that it really helps my ability with the language.  I also have to speak Russian in Vladimir if I want to buy something or need to inquire about something because people only speak Russian here.  In Moscow, people will switch to English the second they realize you’re American (which is almost always the second they look at you).  Moscow was definitely a beautiful city and I had a really good time there, but I am really glad that I am in Vladimir.  I highly recommend going to a smaller city in Russia is you want a full immersion.

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Moscow Day 5

March 3, 2010 at 12:43 pm (Uncategorized)

I realized on Monday morning that somehow I had been elected Team Leader of Group Garden of Stalin.  Drew said he couldn’t go because he was sick, but that he would meet up with us when we went to the Bulgakov Museum later.  So I lead Erin, Jeff, and Emily through the metro and towards where the map said the Garden was.  Because we were in Russia, and nothing is easy in Russia, the garden was not there.  There was also a mild blizzard outside.  So we tromped around in the snow for a little bit trying to find it before we finally decided to find a babushka to ask.  All too late we realized we didn’t know what the Garden was called in Russian, so we asked the first lady we found where the “really big, old statues” were.  She rudely pretended that she couldn’t understand our Russian, and walked away.  The second old lady was much nicer, and seemed to understand kind of what we were talking about.  She asked us if we could understand Russian well, and when we said yes, she gave us directions.  After we went across the street, the enormous statue of Peter the Great came into view.  Jeff said, “Oh great, that’s what the lady probably thought we were talking about.  Now she thinks we’re morons because who could possibly miss that statue.”  However, we decided to cross the bridge anyway to go explore Gorky Park (an amusement park with ice skating in the winter) since the Statue Garden seemed to not exist.  When we were across the bridge, we saw what looked like a bunch of statues in the distance, which of course turned out to be the Garden of Fallen Heroes (we think).  It was very far away from where the stupid map said it would be.  We had to force our way through knee-deep snow to get into the park.  We found a statue of a unicorn, and what we think was a bust of Stalin.  We couldn’t be sure because there was just too much snow, and it was probably covering the sign.  We all took pictures with who we hope was Stalin, and decided that it was too hard to continue through the snow towards the bigger statues in the distance.  So we went back to the metro and headed to the station where Bulgakov’s Museum was.

Upon arriving at the Mayakovskaya metro station, we decided to get lunch at Coffee House (the Moscow version of Starbucks).  The waitress asked to see our ISIC cards (international student cards) so that we could get a discount.  If by discount, she meant that she wasn’t going to ever bring Emily part of what she ordered, then yes.  But I didn’t care because I ate the best chocolate muffin, and it was probably the best thing I’d had in a long time (other than the McDonalds).

Drew met up with us right when we were finishing up lunch.  I knew that we were on the same street as the museum, but we asked the waitress where it was just to be sure.  She said that we were to turn left after leaving the restaurant, and it was close.  After wandering up and down the street for twenty minutes we learned that “close to” actually meant “directly next to” the Coffee House.  Of course.

I really enjoyed the museum.  There are two Bulgakov Museums right next to each other because they realized awhile ago that they had set up the first museum in the wrong apartment by accident.  So they created a second one in the real apartment.  We went to the first, incorrect museum because it was free and had a lot of artwork based on Bulgakov’s books.  Bulgakov is a Russian gothic author, and he is most famous for his book Master and Margarita.  I have never read any of his works, but now I really want to because I really love weird, gothic writing, and he is probably the weirdest of them all.  We weren’t supposed to take pictures, but I got a bunch anyway because I’m sneaky.

We had time to kill before we needed to meet back at the dorms, so we went to Cinnabon, for one last taste of America.  We sat there for an hour watched old nineties American music videos, and incredibly strange Russian ones.  One of the videos was for a newer Backstreet Boys song, telling people to “take it to the danger zone.”

We met back at the dorms, and then headed towards the train station to go back to lovely, cheap Vladimir.  We took an express train this time, which was nice because it didn’t stop every ten seconds, and there were no frightening men sharpening knives in anyone’s face.  Our car even had a TV in it, and they played a very weird American movie on it.

Moscow was very fun, but it was nice to be back in Vladimir!

I got back home and sat down to take off my boots, when suddenly I saw something creeping towards me out of the corner of my eye.  It was a cat.  Before I came to Russia, I got an email describing my host family, and it said they had a cat.  Upon arriving in Vladimir I found out that there was no cat.  I assumed something had happened to it, until now.  I tried to ask Iya about it, but I didn’t understand everything she said, so I am still unsure.  Apparently it IS their cat, but either their daughter was keeping it for awhile, or they’re keeping it for their daughter.  I don’t know.

Anyway the cat’s name is Zosya, and she is a very weird cat.  I am convinced she is the devil because she has HUGE yellow eyes, and she likes to sit and stare at me.  I woke up in the middle of the night the other night to find her sitting on my bed, staring at me.  It was one of the creepiest things I have ever experienced.  But otherwise, I like the cat ok, and she seems to like me.

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Moscow Day 4

March 3, 2010 at 12:42 pm (Uncategorized)

Today our whole group went to the Tretyakov Art Gallery (I’m sorry, I really don’t know how to spell that in English).  It was the first time that I’ve been exposed to Russian art, so it was all very new and fascinating for me.  In the lobby of the museum we had to check our coats and put little plastic booties on our boots so that we wouldn’t get mud and snow all over the museum.  It was especially funny to see women in four-inch heels walking around in these booties.

A lot of the paintings were political portraits, which really aren’t my cup of tea, so I powered through those sections.  Kelly and I seemed to go at the same pace through museums, so we were together the whole time, but the rest of the group branched off.  I saw some very famous Russian paintings, which were interesting because they all involved Jesus, death, or exile to Siberia.  My favorite painting was of a Russian princess who was trapped in a prison cell during a flood.  Water was flooding into the cell, and she was standing up on her straw bed trying to get away from it.  It must be horrible to know your death is inevitable.  There was also an interesting painting of Ivan the terrible, cradling his dead son after he committed suicide.  I really liked the Russian landscape paintings as well.  There were at least eight paintings named “Rye,” and Kelly noticed that two of these were in the same room.  The last part of the museum was all religious icon artwork.  I wasn’t incredibly interested in that part either, but I did learn which Madonna and child pose was “Our Lady of Vladimir.”

Kelly and I were the first ones to finish with the museum, but Joely and Sarah were not far behind us.  We all wanted to go to the Nunnery, and were going to leave without waiting for anyone else, but I realized that Erin and I had checked our coats together, and I had the number.  I couldn’t leave without her.  Everyone else was nice enough to wait with me, even though we had to wait for an hour and a half because Erin and Jeff went through the museum very thouroughly.

The Nunnery in Moscow is a very beautiful, historic place where men used to send their mothers, sisters, and/or wives if they quarreled with them.  If a man tired of his wife and wanted a new one, he could also send the first wife to this Nunnery.  When we got there, we all split up because we only had a little over an hour to walk around.  It was very beautiful because there was a lot of snow, which made everything look very serene.  The inside of the cathedral was gorgeous as well because it was filled with gold and chandeliers.  I have pictures of everything up on facebook, so go look!

Right next to the Nunnery was a very famous graveyard where anyone who is anyone is buried.  This was my favorite part of the day because I thought it was absolutely gorgeous.  The weekend we went to Moscow had the most snow Moscow has gotten in years, and it made the graveyard very symbolic and quiet.  I saw the graves of Chekov, Bulgakov, Yeltsin, Khruschev, Tolstoy, and Gorbachev’s wife.  There were also many soviet-style statues on the graves, so it was interesting to look at the graves of people who aren’t famous as well.

We went to dinner at Pancho Villa, the Mexican restaurant, which turned out to be quite an experience.  We were immediately seated in “jail.”  Each booth in our section was supposed to be a cell and had bars and everything.  They had it that way because Pancho Villa was an outlaw, but any Mexican-American who saw it would probably be none too pleased.  The waiter asked us if we wanted menus in English, Spanish, or Russian, so we said English.  Of course, some of us got Spanish menus anyway because the people who worked there could not differenciate between the two languages.  Erin, Sarah, and I could read Spanish, so we dealt with those.  The Spanish menus said “Amigos” on them, whereas the English ones said “Gringos.”  Sarah came back from the bathroom to inform us that the stalls played barnyard animal noises.  Sure enough, the bathrooms were made to resemble a barn, and when you went into a stall, a sensor went off and began blasting cow, donkey, horse, duck, and cat noises.  There was also an official sign in my stall that said (in a terrible mix of sort-of Spanish, and sort-of English) “Virginity causes cancer, get vaccinated today.”

The food was very good, just like we hoped.  I ordered a burrito without vegetables.  The waiter gave me a really weird look when I told him without vegetables, and couldn’t understand why I would want that.  This is yet another example of why Russia is the weirdest country in the world.  Normally looking for regular vegetables is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but when you finally find them, they’re ruining an otherwise perfectly good food.  And, naturally, they can’t understand why you don’t want them there.  But anyway, the food was very good once I finally got it, about twenty minutes after everyone else had gotten their food.  Clearly, not putting vegetables in a burrito confused the kitchen.  Although, Sarah didn’t get her food for a full forty minutes after most people had theirs.

Right before we ordered dessert, a live band started playing.  They played only Mexican style music, but they were under the impression that Mexican music was accompanied by frequent, very loud, and very long blasts of a whistle.  Even though we listened to the band for forty-five minutes, we couldn’t stop laughing every time the man blew his whistle (even though it happened every two minutes).  It was by far the most bizarre restaurant I have ever been to.

That night, in the dorm, we spent forever trying to find an interesting place or two that was not closed on a Monday.  Many places in Russia are closed on Mondays, and many places, if they weren’t usually closed on a Monday, were closed for the holiday.  Finally Erin, Jeff, Emily, Drew and I decided to go to the Garden of the Fallen Heroes, where all the old Soviet statues that had been torn down were displayed.

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