All of the photos are now available on one giant page of thumbnails for casual perusal. That gallery lacks the witty descriptive captions of the journal proper, though, and just runs on filenames- don't expect those to make sense, be in any particular order, or even be spelled right.
Since this thing is now complete, the entries are all displayed flat on this page again, in chronological order. Have fun.
Links of Consequence
Report any inaccuracies, misspellings, or other screwups to me (John Stange <firstname.lastname@example.org>)
Walked in the door of the Governor's House Hotel in DC, and was immediately accosted by a small, chatty Indian girl who's also in the St. Petersburg group. Took about a minute to establish that we're both geeks, of the slashdot-reading free software variety. We glommed onto a third person (Laura? Lauren?) and walked around a bit. The street names near this hotel are Bataan, Corregidor, and then there's the Phillippine Embassy. Eh? Sumana, the chatty small one, made a Cryptonomicon reference (cool), and then we geeked, but had to stop because we were losing Laur[a|en]. Checked out my room, found two of the other three men on the trip (apparently to 16 women? jesus)- Gregg, who's been to Spain and isn't doing homestay either, and Joe, out of whom I got nothing. Called home, to soothe the fretting beasts. The first formal orientation event thing was a buffet dinner where we got free food, then listened to Cindy Martin (yay!) give a long shpeil about the whole experience. Apparently I'm getting 12 credits for this instead of 6 (or at least credit for four upper-level Russian classes). I think she's trying to bribe me into doing the second major. If she's gonna make it this easy, why not.
The dinner was supposed to be followed by separate meetings for the Moscow, Vladimir, and St. Petersburg groups at 8:45. Sumana and I (and nobody else) for some reason assumed 8:45 AM, and showed up 10 minutes late after we ran into Gabriel Coleman (one of the home office ACTR folk) and were told otherwise. At the meeting we met Jon Stone, the small, softspoken guy who's gonna be the Resident Director for us Petersburg monkeys. Everyone here seems to be humanities-oriented, apart from me, and the fourth male (Ross), who's a physics person. There're four girls from Harvard here, and also a second person from UMD whom I've never met before (Erin, a year ahead of me afaict). After this, we went and looked into setting up the shady WebTV internet connection thing in the room they moved me into (with one of the Moscow people). It's weird and doesn't actually work. Amusing sentence, started by Sumana: "We're gonna go and try to hook up..." "the internet connection." After that failed attempt a bunch of us went wandering around Dupont Circle, eventually ending up in a bookstore- Gregg (apparently my future roomate, beign the only other person not staying with a family); Sumana (already frequently mentioned, goes to UC Berkeley, has uptight Hindu parents); Lauren (somewhat quiet, goes to Grinnell); Carolyn (no real info), Katie (no real info).
The long and obnoxious part of the orientation was today. Picked up a few more names- Cara (doing grad work somewhere, has a 7 year-old son); Rasa (the tall one what looks like people from high school); Molly, Micaela (sp?), Mariah, Siri, and a bunch of other disconnected name/face pairs. The RDs (our Jon in SPB, another Jon in Moscow, and a quirky-mannerism'd Megan for Vladimir) put on some skits that were rather painful to watch, in that they were probably exactly as embarassingly bad as we're goign to be at communicating when we get there. Took some entrance exams, got my ass kicked (but so did others). They also gave us a "learning styles" assessment thing, for which Zhanna (my TA for 202) showed up. She apparently just got back from Moscow, and got her wallet stolen on the metro. We'll add that to the list of scary things they've been telling us all day about the water, crime, and scams. Whee. What else... oh, Sumana does stand-up comedy, apparently. Departure is tomorrow.
Criminy... airplane flights are fun at takeoff, but economy class is the the revenge of the little people. There really isn't any place for someone with 6'4" on them to put their legs, so I got no sleep at all, and the little bottle of mouthwash I drank to try and shed some bad breath issues (well, I wanted to see what would happen!) made me nauseous for the latter half of the leg from Dulles to Frankfurt. The unpleasant physical sensations made me really sick of listening to German people talk, too (Lufthansa being the German airline that it is). But, it was cool to fly for the first time and watch the DC area get really small- we have a massive number of baseball diamonds, apparently. Watching multiple layers of clouds drift by at varying speeds in a parallax-like effect was breathtaking, as was the sunrise over the horizon was we approached Europe. They hooked us around Paris for a few, but it was too foggy to see anything. All of the rooftops in Germany are red for some reason... soil composition, probably?
So the in-flight movie was Antitrust ("Conspiracy.com," according to the flight attendant). got to give it a few points for trying really really hard to be authentic, even if it did fall flat on its face and suck. Watched it with Sumana, who understands the pain. God, how many montages do you frigging need? "You don't know the meaning of open source."
So then we landed... Russia looks like hell from above. Things are visibly falling apart from thousands of feet up, and the area around the airport is a sort of urban nightmare (I didn't even catch the name- it might still be "Leningrad Airport"). Lots and lots of Russian people looking surly and talking very fast. I finally got some solid sleep on the bus ride to the dormitory, since there was room to extend one's legs. Traffic looks hellacious, I'm glad I'll never have need to drive here. Hauled our stuff into the building while blocking traffic on Ulitsa Kazanskaya, ran in, and started getting temp rooms (the homestay people move out on Sunday). One girl started throwing up in a CVS bag in the lobby, presumably from all the constant motion and then stoppage. Not like any of us were stressed out or anything.
We got some time to drag ourselves up to our rooms- the elevator only took us partway, and remind me never to enter one of those things again- and then Jon dragged us all back out to exchange money and get some nominal food at a nearby cafe. The money-changing thing was scary, being the first time we had to really interact in a functional way. The lady was pissed off by the time I got to her, because I had no change and she'd just dealt with half a dozen other dumb American students. The security guard was helpful and friendly, though. The dorm is right next to a really old cathedral with a small park in front of it (Kazanskii Sobor), the back of which appears to be a prime makeout spot judging by the locals. Got some sort of lump of cheese and shredded vegetable matter at the cafe (plus precious drinking watter)... bad selection. Navigating the streets reminded me of what little I've seen of New York- really damn crowded, and you're better off just following the locals than trying to figure out the signals. Gulyat tak gulyat.
Lots more running around the city today. Jon had us ride the metro and the bus, get food at another cafe, and do other stuff. I'm rooming with Ross for a couple of days- he's alright. Aside from being geeky, he's spent some time in Georgia (as in Tblisi, not Savannah), and his Russian is really solid. Ran around for a while looking for a grocery store, after snagging some internet access and assuring my relatives that rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated. Had some blond girl try to bum ten rubles off me to get home. I didn't have it on me, nevermind that it was BS. Never actually found the grocery store, or got other sustenance, which is what I get for waiting until the end of the day and only having two large (500 ruble) notes on me- you *don't* want to try to get a street vendor to take that, they're bastards about change as it is. That's another thing... nobody wants to make change when you pay them, they try to get you to make it for them first, and only do it if you don't have any. Guess I'm living off of leftover cashews and water until morning...
Jon took us all out on a canal tour a little after midnight (characterized by the bright sunlight). It was cold as hell, but neat- we spent the time snapping touristy photos and trying to follow the boat guide's Russian monologue about the stuff we were passing ("on our left, in the yellow building called *bzzzrt* *static* *translation failure*"). The tour eventually popped us out into the Neva River proper, which is really pretty in the dusky white night light. We did a pass by of the Aurora, and watched the bridges go up (that's a nightly thing- it actually isolates some parts of the city for a few hours). Hopefully some of the pictures I took on those disposable cameras will come out. Oy, but I need to find a place to splurge my additional budget (Greg says he got Eduardo to sublet my room) on a low-grade digital camera.
Ugh, that living off of cashews and water thing sucks. Woke up dehydrated as hell and ran over to Laima, knowing it'd be open. Whatever I ordered wasn't on the breakfast menu, but I did get my two bottles of water at least. Still hungry, I waited for Ross (my roomate pro tem) to wake up, and we wandered around looking for a decent Bulichnaya at which to grab breakfast. I got some kind of poppyseed roll thing that ruled. We also checked out a place that would appear to be a good source of school and office supplies, and hit Dom Knigi (they have an upper floor! maps and shit! and the cashiers are pleasant!). Also located the supermarket-type place that Gregg was telling me about. I think I'm getting a cold... lovely. Inhaling the Nevsky Prospekt fumes isn't helping much, either.
The homestay people moved into their places today. I sat around and watched, for lack of anything better to do. It was sort of like watching people pick up puppies at the pound or something- every few minutes a maternal-looking Russian woman would come in, locate her charge, give them a big hug, and lead them out. On the dorm front, Jon says our permanent room won't be ready until Tuesday. Bluch. Well, in any case, I went with Gregg to check out the supermarket place- it's scarily western. Random US brand-names show up everywhere, and it's overpriced. It does, however, have stuff that's otherwise a pain to locate- laundry detergent, and giant bottles of safe water. I gots me a five liter, plus some bread and prepackaged lunchmeat. Now, naptime, because I feel like crap. This is what I get for a week solid of continuously abusing my body...
(this is where I actually decided to start keeping a journal, since it was
*way* too interesting a day- entries hereafter should have more accuracy and
detail in theory)
So by means that needn't be gone into in detail, Sumana girled me into walking her home from Kazanskaya today (all well and good). Feeling less sick by this point, I agreed of course, but still being somewhat out of it I forgot my wallet, passport, the whole works, and didn't even think of it until we were approaching the metro station. She had some extra tokens, though, so I just rode on those- at 5 rubles a pop (~17 cents), it's no big deal. We do the scary metro ride to Cherneshevskaya, get out, and I walk her to about the first turn (for fear of getting lost on my way back to the station). Then I headed back to the metro station, past a dozen armed militsioneri with beers in hand (praying they wouldn't randomly stop me and ask for my passport), and entered the station. In the station, I realized that I didn't know which line went to the transfer point at Mayakovskaya, which I needed to get home. So I headed back up the eternal escalator (they had to tunnel under the marsh, mind you), in order to find a map. Didja know that that tosses you out of the metro station? Yeah... so realizing that I'm screwed, but knowing the I'm roughly northeast of my area of Nevsky Prospekt, I set off (past the drunk militsia) in what I figure is a southbound direction. Of course, that was assuming that the exit to the metro station was on the south side, which it wasn't- I figured this out when I hit the Neva River. So, it's 10:30, I'm in a strange city where I don't speak the language effectively, I've got no identification, no money, and no clue. Cool. I turned, past some park that I can't remember the name of, and re-oriented myself roughly southward, and stopped to ask a nonthreatening looking devushka for directions. She told me (I think) to follow the trolleybus lines to get to Nevsky Prospekt- a sound proposition, since after about half an hour of trundling I hit Vossinaya Ploshad', which is the ass-end of nevsky relative to wear I live. On the way, a few fine representatives of Russia's illustrious army asked me for cigarettes- when I explained in my slurred, dehydrated Russian that I didn't have any, they asked if I was drunk- I suppose that's better than sounding just foreign. Along the length of Nevsky Prospekt, some girl tried the "ice cream scam" on me (to which I honestly answered that I didn't have any money). Goes like this- moderately pretty girl stops pathetic-looking male on the street, asks him to buy her ice cream. If he's a dumb schmuck, he consents, hands her the ice cream, and she disappears (later on she reappears and splits the meager take with the ice cream vendor).
Anyway, I finally got home, and managed to squeeze my first hot shower ever out of the dormitory water system (aaaaah). No police stoppages, either. Less interesting stuff that happened today was the meeting with our teachers, and our placement exams. Needless to say, I'm in the SPED group. I sort of froze up during the oral interview, so that probably didn't help... but, whatever, if they have low expectations it gives me room to surprise them. Or not.
First full day of classes was today. The half-hour (22 minute, when you count the overruns) break for lunch blows. It's basically enough time to hop over to the nearby cafe and grab a couple of pirozhki and something to drink. Cara and Casey (the latter is a talkative club-hopper from Iowa) are the other two people in my group. The Audio/Video class (whatever the point of that is) is taught by Olga, who's really young and speaks to us veeeery sloooowly. Nice, lady though- I'd only get to fell talked down to if I didn't sound like a gimp every time I opened my mouth and tried to speak Russian. I suspect I've got as much grammar, listening, and reading/writing skills as the other two-year students, but my speaking is absolutely atrocious, even when I'm not all seized up. Duh. The prepodavatel'nitsa for the other two classes (Russian Press and Conversation, today) talks at a more normal speed, and is also very nice. Two classes totalling three hours was pretty draining, though. I think all of them are like this- incredibly patient with foreign students. Oh, and in the AV class we watched some of the moive that Inna showed durring 101 (102?) back when, about the guy who's supposed to get married in Moscow, gets drunk with his friends, and ends up accidentally being put on a plan to Pitr (check my lingo, d00d!). His key works in the apartment building that matches his address in Moscow, because Soviet stuff was like that, and so romantic wackiness ensues. There were two Swedish kids in the AV class for a bit, who'd apparently had about five days of Russian language- they were lost. I'm not sure whether they were put there deliberately- if so, that sort of says what they think of our language skill in this group.
Moved in with my permanent roomate (Gregg) this morning. We've got a suite on the third floor, in which we're supposed to split a room for whatever reason. The hot water works down here 24 hours a day, though, it rocks- plus there's a tv that gets shitty reception, and a phone I hope to avoid using. It's nice to be able to put things away and pretend that I live here. Washed my clothes in the bathtub, that whole experience sure did suck. A few of us did the five minute walk to the Spas' na Krovi, a really pretty St. Basil's lookalike that was damaged in WWII, and restored in the past 20 years or so. The interior was almost entirely mosaic (and cavernous, at that). Too bad no photos are allowed. I need to go back and get some exterior pics, which should be no effort since you can see it from my street. I should also get some pics of Kazanskii Sobor, since it's just right there- preferably with people making out or dogs fighting or gypsy children panhandling (I've seen all three in the vicinity).
I see dead people... Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Euler (only Sumana, Ross, and Mariah knew who he was). Apparently I missed Dostoevsky's grave. My laundry isn't dry yet, goddammit. I miss my laundry room with the cat turds in it. Got a suitemate today- Anna, one of the Harvard chicas. Jon also demonstrated the joys of the Russian phone system for us. We all watched the one channel that comes in on the tv in that room for a bit- it was something American which might've been a Stephen King movie (evil car terrorizes a small western town?). Also had lunch with Sumana, Greg, Ross, Katie and Rasa at some Georgian place (had to go way up Fantanka to get there). They had some neat stuff- I had some familiar-tasting cheese bread and my first local beer. Good, if you discount the one or two giant stomach cramps I got after the fact.
More classes today (Wednesday was our designated excursion day). The first was a lecture with all twenty of us in it, which was a thorough ass-kicking. Pretty much nobody understood what she was saying most of the time, with a couple of exceptions amongst the more heavily experienced people. It was supposed to be on Russian history, of the extremely early (pre-Kiev) variety, but her vocab was incomprehensible (her speed, while not too bad, wasn't helping either. A couple of people said something, and she sort of tried to turn it down a notch, but it's evident that she hasn't had much/any experience teaching low-end foreign students. Fortunately, a lot of us were able to fill in some of the comprehension blanks by picking out proper nouns and filling in what we know about early Russian civ- the people who hadn't had it before were hosed, though. Jon says he's gonna talk to them about it.
The other two classes (grammar and phonetics) were ok, and phonetics bordered on being fun. The sub for grammar also kicked ass, and accidentally let us out early. After she figured out what she'd done, she went to lunch with us, and so we checked the cafe that lives in the dorm building (newly renovated!) and spoke Russian with her for a while. The phonetics lady made us too tongue-twisters, and I managed to get an "on govorit kak russki chelovek" out of her during an exercise on clipping unstressed vowels correctly. Yay.
Grabbed dinner at Laima with Anna (Gregg has my cold now, muahaha). She seems nice, though we didn't seem to have too much to talk about. The chicken kiev was a bit dry. Bitch bitch bitch, I should shaddap. I stopped into the 'net cafe where some of the other people have been going, as Cara had reported some shady behavior on the part of the proprietors (remote-displaying her terminal window, or maybe just using cookie abuse to read people's hotmail accounts). The plan was check things out and maybe annoy them a bit, but they seem to have everything besides web traffic firewalled in (no smtp, ssh, not even icmp stuff). So, shady intentions + at least some level of technical competence and effort, all suggesting of Badness. I told people to avoid the place if they're worried at all. At least it didn't smell like armpit today, like it did when I was waiting for people there the other day. On the way back, I saw a street dancing act that consisted of a couple of kids (~6?) all dressed up and doing the tango. Disturbing.
More classes... had a non-lecture version of the history class. She's getting better- the poor woman is obviously trying really hard. Everyone felt pretty drained after school today, so we all went out and ran around. About half of us went to the Museum of Ethnography and Anthropology, which is known primarily for its collection of fetuses in jars. It seemed to bother Sumana for a bit, which I think is the first time I've seen her quail at much of anything. After that, we headed back to the dorms, where I'd promised to meet several people to head out for dinner as the designated male escort (all-female groupings aren't necessarily safe, plus the anniversary of the Nazi invasion lends itself to an increase in drunken military personnel). So eventually we (me, Sumana, Rasa, Krista, Susanne) went to the oft-talked-of Cafe Idiot, from where another chunk of our group had just departed. Decent place, good food, and a shot of vodka comes with your order. We tried to get Sumana (teetotaller) to down hers, but eventually I got charged with disposal duty (*shrug* *swallow*). A drunken, *loud* Finnish guy who spoke excellent english stopped to talk to us, about nothing in particular. A large percentage of the meal was spent with the women arguing over whether one of the other males in the group (the other geek) was attractive at all, with only one proponent. I think I'm supposed to be indirectly offended, or something. :)
We met our peer tutors today... as proof that ACTR has a sense of humor, they gave Sumana and I a matched set of club-chickies. Mine got two pager beeps while we were talking. Also, one of our club-hopping groupmates (Casey) recalls seeing her at some place called "Money Honey" last week. As I have no urge whatsoever to investigate the St. Petersburg club scene, I suspect I'm not going to get too much mileage out of this one... oh well.
Other than that, a mostly nondescript day of running around. Got breakfast at some arbitrary cafe with Susanne and Sumana, after meeting the tutors, then did some errands. There are a lot of people running around in foam bunny ears, foam pigtails, and face paint. The hairy guy with the unbuttoned shirt and the fake pigtails made me think of this Hotendotey cartoon. There was also a large group of Hare Krishnas making their way up the Nevsky Prospekt, complete with music and chanting (see today's title). Got a copy of Lem's Solaris (po-russki, and it's a book not an OS), which I've never read in any language. The Russian is way over my head... maybe Velichansky'll want it. Walked Sumana home *without* getting lost this time, which was extra special because of the holiday metro crowd (literally packed in like sardines).
So after finally getting a good solid look through Gostiniy Dvor, the town's big Potomac Mills style shopping mall, I've come to the conclusion that if I'm going to add photos off stuff to this page anytime before August, I'm going to have to order a cheap-ass digital camera from the US and have it shipped here. Fun fun fun. The shipping will probably cost more than the camera, after duties and whatnot. Good thing I've got that freed-up rent money. At least I found some clothesline at Gostiniy Dvor, which by the way appears to be where the local equivalent of yuppies (ruppies?) go for stupid status-symbol items.
Ok, so there's the chance that I won't be *that* financially solvent in August (fah, merely being in the black a little), so screw the camera idea. I will probably acquire a piece of crap at Gostiniy Dvor to minimize the hassle of the disposeables, though.
Had the first of the seminar classes today... apparently almost all 20 people had the same idea about the Phraseology one being the most useful, so with about 15 in there I bailed for the Folklore class. Good move, as it turns out that the prepodavatel'nitsa rules (rizules, in fact). Kickass class, and she ended up doing impressions of the various speech foibles of Russian leaders past and present (Gorbachev's southern hick accent is a popular favorite). The class is populated by Gregg, Sumana, Katie and Krista (as though this is relevant to anyone).
I let myself get talked into riding the godforsaken St. Petersburg metro seven stops up the blue line, for the purpose of looking at the massive statue of Lenin where the main highway to Moscow hits the city. It's, uh, a big statue, and stuff, and Vlad looks especially cranky in it. I didn't even have a camera, so it was basically pointless and stupid. The metro ride sucked extra, because it was rush hour... no amount of the conductor saying "ostorozhno- dverii zakriivayutcya" could amuse me enough to reduce the suckitude (nevermind the headache). We almost didn't get off of the car, on account of the 20 people on the platform trying to cram themselves into an already packed train, in our path- I think Gregg knocked over a couple of babushki and shoved an army officer on the way out. I liken it to nearly getting sucked underwater at the beach by a surprise riptide.
Had my first real meeting with the tutor chica (whose name is Anya, if I haven't mentioned it). She's not as club-obsessed as the first conversation would indicate, thank god, so I managed to actually have some effective conversation with her. Mostly mundane, but conducted entirely in Russian, which is sort of the point. I didn't have any trouble understanding her, and for the most part I could effectively communicate what I wanted at her. Yay me, it's almost like I'm learning something. Turns out she teaches english to small children, so she's got a passable english vocabulary to draw from too. I also managed to construct my first effective quip in Russian, which got a group of Russians laughing. The bunch of Russians laughing were Anya and a bunch of people she knew from (god help me) the previously-mentioned "Money Honey." I didn't get dragged in, thank god- she just wanted to walk around a bit while talking, and locate some friend or other of hers. It was really hard not to laugh, because it's essentially a country and western bar, with live muic- Russians singing rockabilly. I had a hard time not smirking, though trying to tune into the social chatter between Anya, her roomate, a girl named Sofia with a bunch of tattoos, and a guy who was trying way to hard to look like James Dean was all well and effective a distraction. I sorta caught a large chunk of it... I'm getting the hang of this crap.
Hung out with my roomate for most of the rest of the evening. We went to Laima, the 24-hour cafe, where I finally found the elusive breakfast menu. Plus, I had some chicken and mushroom julien thing that I think is the best food I've had here to date. My god, but it kicked ass. Laima has this bigscreen tv thing that plays mtv.ru (I shit you not)... today, Real Lady Marmalade played, and Gregg laughed hysterically at that oft-made comparison between Christina Aguilera and Marilyn Manson. We also both agree that Mya (who has the distinction of being from Roosevelt, class of 96) is the attractive one in the video. We also decided that the chick who tries the ice cream scam on people (see previous entry) up and down Nevsky Prospekt needs to have her picture taken. She's tried Gregg now, and we've both seen her a few times. Sumana's idea was to consent to buying the ice cream for her, then to just eat it in front of her. Personally, I just want a picture, so they can have it with a big "warning" and the anecdote in the ACTR handbook in the future. Smile, you're famous!
What else... lessee, today was the first time I forgot an English word for something and remembered the Russian word (courtyard==dvor). Gregg apparently was really into Babylon 5 and DS9, back in the day. Cool.
Now that's a breakfast. I love hearing casual conversations after a class activity, where everyone talks about rolling up to the street corner cafe for a bowl of borsch, like they're talking about getting a pizza or something.
In class today (the one about the Russian Press), we got to read an article about hackers. My god, it is the most frustrating thing to be unable to articulate an intelligent, informed opinion in the face of journalistic cluelessness. Fortunately the article in question was slightly better than your run-of-the-mill scare piece about the devastating antics of subterranian-based computer geniuses who can bring the world to its knees at any moment. They even mentioned phreaking, and some other stuff, with only a moderate percentage of ill-researched assertions.
Finally, it is my sincere belief that a skit in the style of the classic Python Spam skit could easily be written in Russian, revolving around blinnii and jam. Dzham, dzham, dzham, dzham, dzham, dzham, dzham....
Ye gods, Tsarskoe Selo is boring. Well, the tour of the inside of the palace is boring. "Look, a room. Look, another room. Look, a room with some paintings." Plus they made us wear these plastic slippers over our shoes, so every time we'd move to another room there'd be this giant crinkling noise. I'd never thought that a crinkling noise could be giant. The palace grounds were really pretty though- manicured gardens and the like. Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to get the relevant photos developed.
Sumana and I tried to go to a St. Petersburg LUG meeting, but failed wretchedly. Apparently they no longer meet at the Fontanka bridge on Nevsky by the horse statue with the WWII shelling damage. Sheesh.
The evening in the dorm was chock full of amusing goodness. First, we turned on the tv (feeling adventurous), and found a dubbed rerun of some ancient Star Trek TNG. The Wrongness is indescribable. Then there was a 45 minute Mosquito Safari, as we took it upon ourselves to hunt down every last one of the little bastards in our airspace. I'm going to start marking little mosquito silhouettes on my bedframe- I've got a half dozen or so to my credit. Gregg still managed to get bitten overnight.
White people! They're everywhere! AAAAAAAGH! So at the Marinsky the other day, Sumana helped some American guy from Yale find something on a schedule board (he didn't read Russian at all), and was subsequently invited to this singing dinner thing at the Smolny Cathedral. Not knowing what to expect, she tapped me for escort duty, and after meeting (and, of course, being fed by) her host mother, we walked our way there 20 minutes late. Fortunately, the people were 45 minutes late. They rolled up in a tour bus... then another... then another... 500 or so former Yale choir singers, dating back into classes of the 30s and 40s. There was a band there to play marching songs as they exited the busses and went into the cathedral. Needless to say, we felt out of place. The guy's son found us, and hauled us inside, where we watched the massive tide of Conneticut whiteness schmoozing with itself and being touristy with all of the Russians. Got some free food and vodka, and then sat down to watch various groups of them get up and sing (sometimes spontaneously) old glee club songs. The choir from Smolny was also into it, which was kind of pretty. The translator had an amusing take on some english idioms and song titles ("the whole world is located on his arms" was roughly the Russian she used for "He's got the whole world in his hands"). Oh, and apparently the really elite choir people are called "Whiffenpoofs" (don't ask me to spell that correctly). The cathedral itself, while quite pretty, was blanketed in off-white on the inside, completely devoid of the usual artwork. Creepy. Did I mention the white people? There were lots of white people.
We saw a performance of Dostoevsky's Dream of a Ridiculous Man today, in Russian. We had english copies to read beforehand, fortunately, because I wouldn't have been able to follow it at all. The performance was kickass, though- we had to trek to some dilapidated apartment building about a metro stop away, go up, and file into a tiny room lit only by a candle and furnished in 19th century fashion. Then the actor popped up out of a trunk in the middle of the room and started into his monologue, walking around and fiddling with things as he went. Twenty points for atmosphere.
Had a real American meal for the first time here today- sushi and a Guinness. Having sampled a few crappy Russian beers since being here made it that much more worthwhile. Well, Baltika is sort of drinkable, but the others taste like sweatsock to my (admittedly untrained) palate. I probably shouldn't have eaten the wad of wasabi, though.
Now, a question for the ages- in the Russian language, for certain declensions, it matters whether noun is animat (a person, moving animal, or otherwise alive-seeming thing) or inanimate (a breadbox). On which side of this partition would a muppet fall? Discuss.
Bought a real camera, finally, and some film, and got the three disposable cameras developed (bastards failed to do a bunch that came out just fine, according to the negatives). Went to the shady internet cafe and got them scanned and burned to a CD (only 120 rubles, including the CD!), then painstakingly uploaded and renamed the lot and added them to this page. Woohoo for content. I think this is the first genuinely complex (food doesn't count) set of purchases I've negotiated in this language.
With my shiny new camera in hand, I finally set out to trek all over the city and take pictures of pretty buildings. I got to use all four metro lines, too. There's a different voice for each line that says "be careful- doors closing." My legs hurt. But I have shiny pictures. I also just snapped a shot of the ice cream chick, so when that roll gets developed that photo will make an appearance. She's not even remotely "drop-dead gorgeous." Pretty, maybe...
More comprehensive chattering later, right now I have to rename and link to 30 photos (here, plus some retakes above).
The women who run the currency exchange desks sometimes like to transliterate your name from your passport into Russian as they fill out the receipt. I've got three that say "Stange, John McKinley" in english, and two that say "Stange, Yurii Kirallovich" and "Stangov, Ivan Klement'evich," respectively. Funny that they don't seem to know what to make of the "Mc" in me.
So while wandering aronud the other day, I found myself lost in thought about the staggering number of homeless people in this city. You can basically subdivide them into two groups- ragged gypsies and the elderly. You can't help but feel for the latter- they've been screwed over by the political and economic problems 'round these parts, and people who worked their asses off for their whole lives (someone in our group was talking to one lady who was a teacher and librarian for some number of years), and are now too infirm to support themselves, are pretty much left to a combination of begging and selling junk on the streets to survive. Some sing or play musical instruments, some sell handcrafts, a few sell kittens and puppies out of cramped cardboard boxes. There's one woman a bit up Nevsky who just kneels over an icon all day, bobbing her head up and down over it in a disturbingly frantic way. Most of them just beg, though, for lack of any other means. I think most of us try to slip them money fairly frequently, since the 50 rubles that an elderly babushka can live off of for a few days is something like $1.70 to us.
And then there are the Roma. The cultural training I've had in the US, interestingly enough, leaves me (I think) completely at a loss as to how to address these people. You know how white women back in the US clutch their purses, check their car door locks, and otherwise get nervous when a half dozen young black men walk by? The thing about that is, in the US, the odds are 50 to 1 in favor of those kids being completely harmless, minding their own business, and probably resentful of that paranoia. Around here, on the other hand, when you see a group of dirty, brightly-dressed, brownish women and kids running away from something with shit-eating grins, you are guaranteed to hear some babushka shriek about her stolen purse three seconds later. The kids like to surround obvious tourists in groups of five or more, groping at anything that's loose and running like hell if they manage to get something. I've been trained to place limits on the normal social-psychological process of profiling, for perfectly legitimte cultural reasons. Yet now I'm faced with a situation where I've built up a horrible stereotype of a bunch of people, and it's borne out by observation and statistics daily. As Gregg is fond of saying, "what the fuck is wrong with this country?"
Speaking of Gregg, he's asked me to credit him for a couple of the non sequitur journal entry titles... the gorilla one and the hand-licking one. So there.
In ligher social news, a couple of Swedes and a Dutch guy have been added to some of the other groups (not my lowly fifth group). The Swedish guys had some party on Friday, which four or five from our group attended... Casey apparently got drunk as hell and removed from whatever club it was at. Feels like home. :)
We're going to Moscow for a three-day trip on Friday. Wooha, can't wait for the hellish overnight train ride!
Teachers here are odd... a lot of the ACTR orientation was spent cautioning us that basically, in the Russian educational system, the burden of success is placed upon the instructors rather than the students. Thus, teachers tend to fall into mollycoddling students, and be very sensitive and blame themselves if students are having a hard time with something. Yesterday, for example, all three of us in my group were tired as hell for one reason or another, and just generally out of it. We were doing some exercise where Prepodavatel'nitsa Voronnina would toss out a situation, and were were supposed to come up with the appropriate verb of motion to describe it (as an aside, trying to explain the process of going from one place to another is the most oboxious thing ind this language, for foreign speakers. There are 14 different base verbs, with lots of prefixed versions and obnoxious nuances to their usage. As Sumana is fond of saying: "Verbs of Motion: They're Back, and They're Gonna Tell You How They Got Here!"). Anyway, the situations were sort of vague, and in trying to exlpain that I was having trouble with one, I apparently freaked her out... she got a little upset, almost, and eventually decided that we (the students) needed a break that day. We ended up playing various non-taxing word games for the rest of the day. Now I feel bad...
There's a ton of construction going on here the first day... it took me a week to realize that's not normal. They're repaving sidewalks all up and down Nevsky Prospekt, and most of it's still gravel (people just walk in the street, pretty much). There's a guy whose sole job is to take a big circular saw and cut the granite blocks nearest the buildings so as to make them look like brick. Uh, hooray for civic improvement, or something. They also just announced that the city is going to set up waterway taxis to relieve some of the stress from the other modes of transportation. I got yer' Venice of the North right here.
Them James Cook Cafe/Bar/Pub/Outhouse sucks, btw. Just went there for dinner, payed an exorbitant amount for small portions of mediocre food, and shitty service. They charged for a ramikin full of ketchup. Stupid tourist trap that happened to be close... that's it, from now on I'm only eating at Russian places with surly cashiers and handwritten menus.
Ok, good, the Russian State Museum (descriptive, name, eh?) wasn't half as dull as Tsarskoe Selo. Actual artworks, some of which I've seen before. There's a lot of Repin floating around (besides "Haulers on the Volga," which was already cool). All of the smaller paintings and portraits of his (and one of the more complex scenes) seem to have a creepy photorealistic quality. That's probably the first time ever that classical art has reached out and kicked my ass, in that special naughty way.
After that excursion, some of us went off with Katya (Jon's Russia-side counterpart) to Krestovsky Island, which seems to be a big park with a metro stop in it. Ostensibly, it was a 4th of July thing for us sorry expats, but whatever... I ate some poppyseed bread and rowed a boat around for an hour with Sumana and Katie. Pleasant day. I think I'll get dinner at the local Denn^H^H^H^HLaima.
Now I'm going to print out this journal, up through this entry (the Russian word for printer is- you guessed it- "printer" with a funny accent), and translate it on some scratch paper. All of my English-Russian practice on this trip to date has been in translating from my brain to my mouth, which is needless to say not the most effective thing for reinforcing grammar. So let's try brain->paper->Russian and see where that gets us.
Leaving for Moscow in a few hours. Got a batch of pictures to upload, yay, and this time with people. I'm tired as hell (and I'm not gonna take it anymore!).
Ross has been mentally compiling a list of what he calls "Gin-in-a-Can Moments," wherein a Russian (usually his aged host father) takes some sort of cultural item intended to be classy, and manages to remove any trace of class whatsoever. The example was a trip to the opera, wherein the man refused to be so gauche as to take off his jacket in the poorly ventilated Marinsky... his alternate solution was to unbutton his shirt down to his navel, sharing his chest hair with the world.
Large thanks to Rowin, btw, who scaled some of the horrifically large older pictures down to a reasonable size.
Yay for the overnight train trip. Sumana, Katie, and I ended up in a coupee with a Russian guy who mostly sat there and looked at us serenely, despite any attempts to engage in conversation. His name was Misha, and he claimed to be a programmer- I say claimed, because he really did look like a Mafia thug. He did tell me that "System Administrator" in Russian is "Systemnii Administrator," which at least sonuds plausible.
The hotel is *nice* by the standards we've gotten used to. I brushed my teeth with tap water for the first time in a month. Ended up in a room with Ross on the 25th floor. Tired as hell by the time we got there, though, after two nights of inadequate sleep. Even so, we started off with a bus tour... hit a bunch of nice viewpoints, including the huge Christ the Savior church (used to be a swimming pool). They dropped us off at Red Square. Many photos taken. After wandering off to get food, then returning, I had one of those "what the hell am I *doing* here?" moments as I walked out of the passageway to the sight of St. Basil's at the other end of the square, as though this object somehow was *supposed* to be in my field of vision. Yeesh. Speaking of cognitive dissonance, Olga Martiinyuk (one of the teachers) tagged along with the group, as did some peoples' tutors. There's something disturbing about one of your teachers, from a very regulated high-school-ish setting, walking around in a skimpy skirt and high heels with the rest (at least she's our age and nominally attractive).
After a bunch of wandering, we went back to the hotel for much-needed rest. A couple of us went to the Chinese restaurant in the hotel... the waitress, in a feat of profound linguistic confuzzlement, spoke almost no Russian. Trying to communicate that someone is a vegetarian behind two layers of language barrier is definitely interesting. I also had a Great Language Acquisition Moment... she had initially babbled something about giving us english menus, and rather than argue I just grabbed what she handed me, sat down, and read it. It took a full thirty seconds to realize I was blindly reading a Russian menu without realizing it. Yay!
Overall impression of Moscow relative to Petersburg... big. Goddamn big. Cleaner than I was expecting. I would've figured it to have a shithole look, like every part of New York I've ever seen firsthand. But the place was rather well-kempt, between the train ride, the bus ride, the bus tour, the metro, and the on-foot meandering. Petersburg is a wreck, and dirt, but there's a sense of construction all over the place (the signs saying "repair" literally every five feet are probably where I'm getting that). Moscow seems like it's on the flip side of that already, though the economic problems still shine through with the small children singing for money on the metro. Oddly enough, I'm mildly homesick for Pitr- this place is pretty, but too damned huge and hostile.
After a breakfast where I discovered that I don't like kasha, we went on a tour of some of the more novel metro stations. The Moscow metro is like Petersburg's on steroids. The same cars, and there's still a train every 3 minutes (they've even got the same clock at the end of the tunnel to prove it), but there's some insane number of stations (70-something?). The trains haul ass, and the driver has a tendency to close the doors literally five seconds after opening them. Lots more photos taken, including the crystal-lattice-like chandeliers in Mendeleevskaya (a shiny kopeck for kiddies who don't have to look that name up).
Once sprung from the organized group tour, we headed off to a reasonable looking landmark, the burial place of lots of famous people, Novodevichye Convent & Cemetery. Unbelievable, was that place beautiful. The weather was perfect, and the grounds well-maintained in a complex with a number of gorgeous 16th century religious structures. Even more pretty picures (Kodak is my friend). We only found one grave with a name we recognized (Turgenev, a wiseass 19th century writer), which as it turned out later was because we missed the main cemetery entirely. In searching for it, we walked around in a nearby idyllic park, and watched a cherubic child play on a series of brass duck statues that Barbara Bush donated 10 years ago. It was the most nauseatingly cute thing I've ever seen, and we ddin't get any pictures. Bah.
After that, we headed towards the center of the city, and stopped at a random Georgian place. Damned fine khatchapuri- I need to learn to make that, it's probably marginally similar to the Three Mile Island bread recipe. Then we went and found Gorkii Park, which as it turns out is an annoying-looking carnival at the moment. Went across the street to a sculpture garden instead. Nyah nyah.
After returning to the hotel for a break (and making a generous contribution to the local infrastructure utilizing the previous day's breakfast), we went out and did the Red Square at night thing. I *really* hope those photos come out, if they do they'll be awesome. Best of all, I got stopped for my first arbitrary document check! We had just walked by a classically stereotypical Russian couple, waklign across the middle of Red Square drunk as hell (not merely drunk, but drunk as hell- possibly even drunk as fuck), singing something very loudly in Russian and stumbling a lot. Then a cop walked over and asked for our documents. Right there in the middle of Red Square! It was so great! It's cute too, how under Russian law they have to give you their name, rank, and possibly some other stuff before saying anything else to you. It's the cheesiest, most superficial display of due process, which in this case went with a *random id check.* Silly Russians.
After breakfast, I promptly headed back out to Novodevichye to see the graves I missed. There were a lot of them. I went alone, and that early in the day nobody else was around. The lady at the front gestured vaguely and told me that Gogol and Chekhov were off in some direction, and Raisa Gorbachev over thataway, and so on. Turns out this was the dumping grounds for literally hundreds (thousands?) of deceased Soviet bureaucrats, state artists, engineers, minor military heroes, etc etc. I walked through row after row after row of people who in theory dedicated their lives to overthrowing the system of my native country. I figure if the dead takled to one another about the people walking amongst their graves, they would've been pretty ticked about my bourgeouis American ass walking amongst them with a camera and a Pepsi bottle in my pocket, silently mispronouncing their names as I read the headstones. After and hour and a half of this, continuously discovering that the place was, yes, even bigger than I had just thought it was, I stumbled upon Ross, Katie, Molly, and Carolyn, who had maps that I had been previously unaware of (the cashier had them hidden behind the counter, the hosebeast). So after acquiring one, I went with Katie and did the rounds, snapping pics of the graves of Raisa Gorbachev (it's creepy approaching that like a tourist when you know that someone's loved ons are still around and probably still grieving), Kruschev, Mayakovskii, Tretyakov, Chekhov, and Gogol. The prize of the bunch, however, was the set of snaps I got of the grave of the daughter of a poet, by the name of Marshak- daughter's name Sofia (familiya and imya of Rowin's wife). Other amusing ones were the guy who was buried with both of his wives (imagine their ghostly bickering and bitching), and the guy who's memorial very solemnly included a sketch of a launching ICBM (state engineer).
After that whole rigamarole, Katie and I made our way to the Kremlin to do the obligatory Kremlin tour. God bless these studenchiskii biletii, they get our foreign asses in for cheap/free at most worthwhile historical sites, where the heathen... er, foreigner rate is always something outrageous. 20 rubles later, I'm blowing an entire roll of film on the major cathedrals inside and out. Awesome. Wait for the developed photos, I'm not even going to bother in text. My last exposure went to what looked to me like God's own chili pot, a massive piece of cookware in the Patriarchal Palace.
After this I dragged my half-destroyed body back to the hotel, from where we were taken to the train station for the trip back to Petersburg. I've got a really cool-looking blister that's half the size of the toe it's on, it's too bad I don't have any film left right now. On the bus we traded off our nondescript female tour coordinator (hired wheel-greasers who handle the bus, train, and hotel accomodations for our excursions) for a fresh one named Sergei. Sergei is a trip... he was pattering up and down the train all night, randomly making conversation with everyone in sight (and bringing us candy and tea). One of those ineffably friendly types who's really good at realxing people. Turns out he's coming with us on our other long excursion to Solovki- rock.
We rolled into Petersburg at the asscrack of dawn (4AM in these parts), and guess what- they expect us to go to class tomorrow. This is ass. Fortunately the teacher for my first class was on the trip with us, and has no expectations of anyone turning in homework. Just as well, I didn't want to try to express an intelligent opinion on Stalin's reign with my woefully inadequate language skills. I can't wait to try to scan the 96 pictures I ended up taking over three days.
Last but not least, Sumana has watched many episodes of Full House.
After the Dostoevsky Museum tour today, stuff has been slow, so I'm gonna try to write a comment system for this journal here. Watch my code out of my ass, kids. Te tour was what you'd expect- running around the city, looking at where he lived and/or set his stories. I've been reading a book of Dostoevsky short stories I picked up in Moscow on the cheap, so that was well-timed. Our tour bus guide person talked like Miss Piggy, exaggerating the natural pitch jumps common to Russian intonation (especially with women, for whatever reason). Funny. Afterwards, Katie, Rasa, Susanne and I tried and failed to experiment with a new and different cafe, only to be ignored by the waitstaff. So we ended up at Laima. Boy that makes me feel dirty.
Brief lesson on the oddball name pronunciations of my classmates:
Dammit, the history teacher isn't even trying. She's been bitched at enough, and the other half a dozen or so instructors here are spectacularly good at tuning their diction to the level of people who've had two years of the language, so there's pretty much no excuse for this crap. Today's lecture was worse than usual... starting tomorrow in the seminar section, I'm going to stop her on every single unfamiliar word and ask her to explain (ironically, she's only had two years of english- it'd be nice to read an American history text to her sometime). I think nobody really cares if she bursts into tears after twenty minutes of this.
Apart from that, I did some miscellaneous sightseeing today. Got pics of a sculpture of the Nose (from the Gogol story of the same name), of the big-ass Lenin statue in the front of the city, and of Troitskii and Smolnii cathedrals.
The history teacher saved herself from a beating today by, for once, teaching well. Sometime between yesterday and today she got the message about her lectures (maybe she read the rant in my homework from last week?). I still stopped her on every unfamiliar word, but it ended up not being all that frequent. Huzzah for adequacy.
After class, Sumana and I hunted down the Chiizhyk Piizhik statue. It's this little bird from the start of a kid's rhyme (I think), which goes "Chiizhyk Piizhyk, gde tii biil?/Na Fontanke, vodku piil" (Chiizhyk Piizhyk, where have you been?/On the Fontanka, drinking vodka). It's cute, there's this tiny little thing halfway down the embankment and people throw coins at it (at a nice high velocity) from boats. The guy who did it is the same one who did the Nose sculpture.
Went with Gregg to meet Anna, Siri, Erin, and Casey at a jazz club near the Cherniishevskaya metro station (Mariah also showed up later). It was cool, they were singing real american jazz, and doing it mostly well and without trace of accent. It was bizarre when they'd finish a song and the singer would start in with "spacibo, spacibo bolshoe..." Also the song where the lyrics were, in large part, him going "well I was booorn way doown in Lousiana" cracked us up repeatedly. I had an embarassing language acquisition moment where I tried to order a beer called "Baltika #4" and she brought me four of whatever the default Baltika is. That's one way to buy a round for the table, I guess.
Finally dragged my dead ass out to Petropavlovski Fortress today. Not horrifically interesting overall, but it had its moments... we did get to go into the cathedral with the giant spire, where Catherine, Peter, and various other Petersburg tsars are buried (by "buried" I mean "kept in a box in the middle of a large room for all to gawk at"). Bought a nice collection of cheesy, touristy Soviet propaganda posters to disseminate on my return- there's one that loosely translates as "no screwing around" that would go nicely in my office. We also saw the local prison where Gorky, Dostoevsky, Lenin's brother Aleksandr, and others spent time. The cells reminded me of UMD dorm rooms.
After this, the assembled crowd (myself, Gregg, Erin, Joe, Cara) went with Joe and Cara's friend (teacher?) from Iowa State (and her host brother Ilya- phew) to a nice little cafe near Vladmirskii Sobor. Definitely my best food experience in this cuontry to date. Cheap as Laima, with fan-frigging-tastic food. Definitely going back.
I hate mosquitos. The dorm room I split with Gregg has to have a shut window to keep them out (they attack him mercilessly, and I feel bad for opening it when I do), but this makes the room unbearably stuffy. I actually hung out in the lobby this morning, ostensibly with Susanne, Krista, and Rasa, but really just to escape the damned heat. From this Wednesday thruogh the following Monday we're going to be at Solovki (subtract the 18 hour train ride each way), an island place way the hell up north of here. The mosquitos are going to get nothing but Off if they come for me. Little fuckers. I've killed two dozen of them by hand since I started counting. I should tattoo little mosquito silhouettes on my neck like WWII planes did with swastikas for every one I take down.
Finished a book of Gogol stories, hot on the heels of one on Dostoevsky stories. Gogol is a trip, I recommend him- apart from the Nose and the more serious Overcoat, he's a pretty accomplished wiseass, which is one of the quicker ways to my heart.
Today's visit was to the Piskaryov Cemetary, where most of the victims of the German seige in WWII are buried in mass graves. On the way there, we whimsically decided to take the metro to the end of line 1. We did this partly because we had to take a bus between two stations, where a tunnel collpased years ago (god bless Soviet engineering), and felt like we wouldn't be getting our money's worth to descend into the station, paying another 5 rubles, only to pop back out one stop up. The metro is really creepy on the other side of Lesnaya... as far as I can tell there's only one train (maybe two) that run the remaining five stations of the line past the collapse. They're like ghost trains- not half of the crowd you'd be used to from the center of the city, no ads plastered on the walls, the passengers are all elderly and pensive. Even the usually hearty and robust announcements ("Sleduyushii Stantsiya, Dostoevskaya" and everyone's favorite "Ostorozhno- dverii zakriivayutcya") are muted to the point of inaudibility. It's so sad.
So from there we went to the memorial site for a few thousand artillery and starvation victims from a hideous three year seige. Way to pick up the mood there. Unfortunately, I couldn't get any pictures from any angle that quite conveyed the numbers- mound after mound of mass graves, marked by a plaque with the year and a symbol (hammer and sickle for civilians, star for soldiers). It's good to make sure that things like this are still upsetting.
Isaakevski Sobor has a great view of the city. I got some neat pictures of my 'hood, with a bunch of highly visible landmarks involved. Then a nice big rainstorm (complete with hail and driving winds) whipped up, catching Sumana, Katie, and myself in the midst of a St. Petersburg wet t-shirt contest. Heehee.
Saw something interesting on the metro the other day... a guy with gin in a can, and his wife/girlfriend with vodka in a can. If they have kids, they'll probably pack them off to school with some random mixed drink in a can, like a martini- there'll be a little plastic pack on the side with an olive and a plastic sword. Lunchables, sponsored in part by Stolichnaya!
In class today, we learned that a verb "vindouzit'" has entered the Russian language. It means "to use Windows" (the OS). I'm getting out August 6th.
They have heat waves up here sometimes. We're about the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska (I think), and I'm sure there are people who would bring skis there (or to Toronto) in mid summer. Today was hotter than hell, and complicated by the fact that I don't really have clothing to cope with that. So, of course, this would be the day that we leave for the Solovki Islands, about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle. Not so, if getting there involves hauling a massive bag of overpackedness through the rush hour crush at the Nevsky Prospekt metro station, winding to Moskovskii Vokzal, and getting on an overnight train where the windows don't open.
That train sucked... it stopped at every little hamlet and rathole on its way to Murmansk (we get off at Kem, a fugly little port town on the White Sea). Also, all the male group members got stuck in kupe's with strangers. Mine weren't too horrifying, a Russian family on their way home from vacation. They tried to suck me into a conversation abuot religion, which I don't like in English (much less Russian). They were of the born-again variety, I think... they had some of the same WASPish qualities of the sort of person who *really* wants to share their religion with you in the US. Same way of dressing and speaking, same creepy over-friendliness, same 14-year-old daughter wearing skimpy clothes and just starting to rebel against the parents. Oh, and the father kept trying to get the poor kid to speak some rudimentary middle school English at me. I think that Jon Stone fared a bit worse than the rest of us, though- as we boarded, I noticed one of his Russian bunkmates stripped to his underwear and already well into a cheap newspaper-print porn rag. Anyway, the ride was hellish from the heat, which was likened more than once to a Russian banya (more on that later). One nominal highlight was that we got Sumana to sample a little bit of a vodka/juice concoction, enough to get her tipsy. I got some photos of the scenery, though I'm not sure if I got one of the shantytown near the "Leningrad" sign.
Morning on the train... the air's a bit more breathable, and at least the hallway windows open. I'm making headway with the big, thick book about the Siege of Leningrad (WWII, Nazis, commentary- it's basically a long History Channel monologue). It's messing with my head, I keep having this urge to hoard food.
After arriving in Kem, we got to sit around in pleasant weather on a dock for something like three hours, awaiting the boat to the islands. Showed off my photograph pile, talked with people, and in general had a good time. We chatted for a bit with a Ukrainian girl who spoke excellent British-accented English. After some phone wrangling, our intrepid excursion leader Sergei managed to get hold of the boat and get us on. Chilly, but very pleasant. A lot of us took naps in one of the cabins of the little thing (Rasa fell off the bench onto Katie in an amusing way, which is really the only reason I brought it up in the first place).
Upon arrival on the islands, we noticed first that it's very provincial- herd animals everywhere, buildings disintegrating, no pavement to speak of. Very nice and quiet though, so the overall effect worked out. The dock is right in front of the primary monastery, which appears to be a brick-and-wood thing inside a small brick kremlin (I seem to recall that they fought with the British Navy at some point in the 18th or 19th century and did fine- bizarre).
We boarded the bus. When I say "the bus," I don't mean it in the usual sense of "an arbitary bus which follows some route or other." I mean "the one bus on the island large enough to convey our group from point A to point B." This bus was not at all well- it continuously tilted about ten degrees to the right, strained to do anything other than move forward on a downhill grade, and spurted smoke and steam from the engine compartment. The tilting effect increased dramatically on turns, and whenever we went over a bump in the road (there was more bump than road, I think), it would bottom out completely, often requiring great effort on the part of the passengers to remain seated. Despite all the weird horror stories and danger you hear about in this country, at no point have I genuinely feared for my life- until riding this bus. Interestingly, it was painted freshly, in bright happy colors, so I think the consensus was that it would be called the Love Bus.
After the extra special trip to the cabin complex, we had a nice quiet evening at home and chilled. Poor Katie apparently sliced her foot open in the lake, in a banya-related accident. Yes, there's a nastoyashii, lake-using banya there, which was apparently the scene of a great deal of intra-group bonding and coed nudity that I missed for the sake of sleep and minor neurosis. This is gonna be an interesting trip...
For the unfamiliar, a banya is basically a sauna, only moreso. You burn the crap out of yourself with steam until you can't take it any more, then run like hell and jump into a nearby body of cold water- a lake in this case. Repetition of this results in a pleasant, tired sort of bliss, though in large part that's probably the dehydration. There are also rituals involving, amongst other things, being beaten with birch branches. Overall, there's no way to make this sound good, though I assure you it's quite pleasant.
Started off the day with a wonderful Love Bus excursion down to the monastery (I think it only broke down thrice). Our monastery tour was interesting, but kept going, and going, and going... from there, lunch (more Love Bus lovin'), and then to a dock where you rent boats to paddle around the canal-collected lakes all over the island. On the way there, Jon was trying to tell us about the plans for the next day, which included a bus trip to the highest point on the island- this was met with prolonged laughter, as the Love Bus continued to strain like a constipated elephant on level ground. At one point we went over a nasty bump, which sent Susanne (who hit her head on a handlebar, though she came out fine), me, and one of our numerous Russian guests named Katya, flying forward involuntarily fron the back seat.
We got to the boat dock, and proceeded to have a really nice, summer campy kind of day rowing around on the lakes, splashing the crap out of each other, and swimming. My boat carried Sumana, Susanne, Olga, a Katya, and Anatoly (Sergei's assisant?). For some reason the rowing wasn't too hard, probably because I had one oar and Anatoly the other the whole time. After several hours, we all docked at some random place where the monastery tour guide (still with us, never caught his name though) led us up a wood-planked hiking trail to the former dacha of the local Archimandrite (n Orthodox religious official), where there's a botanical garden. It turns out he speaks English (fluently, I'd say), German, and Swedish, and we had a lively conversation about phonetics and how to say "shit." He gave a word so mild it's hardly swearing, the equivalent perhaps of "poop"- blin (the word for a type of pancake). After the break there was more rowing, spalshing, and swimming as we made our way back to the docks, and then to the godforsaken bus. After about half an hour of waiting, it even started, and got us home alive (albeit tired and nervous as hell).
Once we got back and had to do some serious time outdoors, we started to get pounded in earnest by the legendary Solovki mosquito population. In Moscow, I ended up taking as many photos in three days as I had of Petersburg the entire time to that point. In the Solovki Islands, I'm going to have slain as many mosquitos as I have in Pitr up to now (and the city is no slouch in the skeeter department). Copious quantities of Off seem to do the trick, though.
So, people were doign the banya gain tonight. I had a little chat with Mr. Mendeleev (a vodka brand, if you must know) and decided to take the plunge, albeit with some boxer briefs on. Definietly interesting. Got to see a certain percentage of nekkid folks (though I think I could've done with less of Sergei overall, at least there were some women involved), in addition to having a woman named Lyudmila whup my white ass with birch leaves. The exhaustion from the rowing probably aided in the woozy tiredness that was the end result. Fun, though I'm probably not gonna bother repeating it too soon- deliberately overheating and then freezing the crap out of oneself is only fun in retrospect (my opinion may not be that of others), not during the process.
In a maneuver that I'm sure will save a life, Sergei nicked us a different bus from somewhere. This one can't quite carry everyone, but it does have enough space for the 80% of people who go on any given one of the voluntary excursions we have left. The first one was to the Labyrinth, a seashore spot with several ancient rock formations (of the human hands variety) in various mystical shapes. Took a walk through one which is supposed to cleanse your soul if you do the whole path. Made me think about how offensive I actually find Orthodoxy as a religion (these were unrelated landmarks, btw), with its heavy focus on followign a set path of ritual and observation without independent thought (criticial or otherwise), even above and beyond a lot of other relgions' dogma. At least they make pretty buildings. Turned out that we had to walk back from that place, which was something of a surprise, and must've sucked for Katie and her gimpy foot.
The afternoon excursion was the one to the highest point, also thankfully on the new bus (Soviet military issue, I think). Some stuff, and some more stuff, and an elderly monk with some goats.
The evening was spent in campsite leisure. We got tossed out of the cabins due to the arrival of a Finnish-Italian whalewatching group, so tonight was camping-in-the-fields night. Spent some time on rowboats on the banya lake, got yelled at by an obnoxious drunken Finn to stop hassling the loons we were watching (admittedly they were freaking out, but we were in the process of leaving them be, and I'm still ticked off that this random stranger decided to call us idiots at the top of his lungs from shore). Camped in the tents, and got good and drunk for the first time in this country. Originally the tent was supposed to be me, Jon Stone, and Sumana, but Jon got trapped in a different tent by the RAGING GNAT POPULATION which took up residence outside all the tents. We got Katie, though, so it was a trade up- not to cast aspersions on Jon, but he just can't compete with multiple women using my arms as pillows. We made a large dent in the Mendeleev, finally- Sumana even contributed to the cause. The gnat situation was insane- attempts to go outside resulted in an arm and face's worth of tiny bites. Best not to inhale, either.
Dammit, I worked quite strenuously for a hangover that never presented itself. Didn't even get to sleep much, partly because of the sunlight, and partly because of the calls of some bird that sounds like a screaming woman. I finished 900 Days (the Seige of Leningrad book) yesterday, so I ended up having bizarre dreams about managing troop deployments on the Solovetskii Islands. I think it's gonna take a good solid game of Starcraft to get that out of my system.
After lunch and packing up for departure, the Love Bus got us down to the docks in an uncharacteristically incident-free fashion, in spite of the rain. The boat ride back wasn't nearly so placid, though, do to a mild-ish storm that tossed the littlle boat around a fair bit and was cold as hell. Plenty of group bonding going on as various people used various other people for warmth and/or furniture (I spent some time on deck using Mariah's calves as shoulder harnesses, and got more arm-as-pillow usage from Katie in the cabin). Yay bonding. Lauren is a polar bear- she spent most of the three hour ride sitting in the back corner of the boat getting blasted by wind and water, completely nonchalantly. The boat by this point was dipping fairly deep between waves, and tilting somewhat from the wind, such that Sergei had a bunch of us move to one side to balance it. You know you're in Russia when...
Made it back to dry land in Kem, had a nice hot meal, and hopped onto the overnight to Petersburg after *another* death bus picked us up and (barely) got us to the station. The enging compartment of this particular model of bus lives where one would ordarily find a passenger seat or somesuch- the driver lifted the flexible plastic component at one point to expose the running engine. I left the guy a roll of duct tape, figuring he needed it more than I.
Had some really incoherent conversations with one of the Katyas on the train. Russian only, as with Sergei and Olga, though with Anatoly and the other Katya one could flip back and forth as needed to functionally communicate across vocab holes. Suck, I was too exhausted to speak English by that point, much less Russian (I said so repeatedly and stumblingly, in fact, it being one of the only sentences I could string together). I think that's the only time either of Susanne or Rasa has heard my Russian too, ugh. Blissful sleep comes precisely at midnight...
Went on my first attempt at a souvenir hunt today. Since we've got less than two weeks left, I sort of know my budget ("Kids! Tell Santa Stange what you want from Russia! If you say matryorshki you'll be summarily shot!"). Katy and I went to a place near a metro sto in the boonies where one of my teachers said we could find stuff. It was a book market (we knew that going in), but apparently souveniery crap isn't too big there anymore. That's ok, because I bought some really strange crap.
From there we did lunc, then went to the Hermitage- one of the largest museum collections int he world is ten minutes away, and it took me this long to drag my ass out there. It was interesting, though you can tell the place is having budget issues. A lot of paintings just sort sit there flapping in the breeze, open to the air, and to the people- I shouldn't be able to stand nose to nose with an unprotected Van Gogh. What they do have, though, is an armada of babushki. Apparently what happens in St. Petersburg when you retire, is you go work at the Hermitage- like Walmart in small towns, or Disney if you're from Orlando. There's one in each room, and their job is too scold people who stand too close to stuff or touch things or whatever. How Russian is that...
Photos! Big photo update today. All of the scans from Moscow and Solovki, plus various other crap, goes up today. Go look at July 7-9 and July 13-22.
It's a damn fine thing that Russian bathtubs have emergency drains, because I accidentally left the water running in mine for 45 minuets, soaking my laundry. My entire wardrobe is hanging around the room right now, finally fully recovering from the grime of Solovki.
So Katie's friend from Reed, Galen, roped a bunch of us from the group (me, Katie, Casey, Susanne, Sumana, Krista) into going on this boat tour with him and his class of Russian students who're learning English, so they could get a little native speaking in. An interesting thing I've noticed about Russia is an obsession with Yesterday (the Beatles one)... the first group activity on this boat was, of course, a rousing chorus of Yesterday. The students made me feel good about my language skills- there was only one of the five in my informal little cluster who could really talk about to converse. I guess her English was about equivalent to my Russian, in that she could hold forth on simple subjects like places she'd been, the weather, etc. I can do about that much with my tutor... trying to explain to Anya what a geek is just didn't work at all. I think the term may not exist in Russian slang, which means either that the society is far more tolerant as a whole, or that they just put all the nerds to work from birth in an ivory tower somewhere.
Second-to-last long excursion today, this one all about the Siege of Leningrad. Since I finished 900 Days while in Solovki, it was at once redundant and more in-depth than it probably would have been otherwise. Our tour guide was someone who was there at the time (at about age 10), so he knew his stuff. Then again, he was that bad sort of eccentric elderly person that you get sometimes who likes to ramble on nonsensically about unrelated things. I snapped to attention at one point when he started talking about how there are/were 99 churches in Moscow, but only one of them was a "khram dlya Satani" (church for Satan), and did we know which one (answer- Lenin's mausoleum)? The bus tour took us first to the blockade museum, which had lots of items and didn't underplay the starvation and death- supposedly in Soviet times that was a problem. After the detailed tour, though, they sat us through a horrible old documentary/propaganda film about the war, that consisted of a narrator droning on about the mighty Soviet war machine's triumphs over the Nazis. Stuff. From there we dragged down to the main airport (Pulkovo), which is in the Pulkovo Heights south of the city- the front line, or a critical part of it. We visited the hill where a 19th century observatory is and where one of the main positions held throughout the war was. As people were tuning out of the guy's narrative at this point, it probably wasn't clear that were were skirting a mass grave with 2000 soldiers in it. After that we skipped by a bunch of other small monuments, and headed back into town, stopping at the really big WWII monument at the front of the city on Moskovskii Prospekt. It was actually quite impressive, and well kempt relative to most places around here. There's a huge aboveground ring with statues and whatnot, then an underground museum. Took lotsa pictures, for lack of anything else to do with the film in my camera.
Later in the day, after an afternoon spent gossiping at varying points with Susanne, Sumana, and Krista (it's great when you need a chart after only seven weeks), we all met up with Casey, her host sister, and Katie at the Dostoevskaya metro station, and from there went to Mollie's Irish Pub for Casey's birthday. Good take on an American faux Irish bar- got a cold Guinness, thank god. Met up there with Anna, Siri, and Jon Stone there too. Fun evening, and it turns out that I can do that walk back to the dorm in twenty minutes, though most others have to scramble frantically to get to the metro. Stupid trains.
They sell this stuff in cans. It is, as I recall, a room-temperature mixture of vodka, cherry, and something else ghastly (pineapple juice, maybe). I'll be bringing one back, primarily because of the name.
The phones in this country reek. I spent 45 minutes the other day trying to make a local call, failing wretchely. I actually got through to the remote side a couple of times (by which I mean two), only to get a busy signal there anyway. Most of the time was spent finding the local exchange too busy to do anything,or, more amusingly, having it tell me the number was incorrect at random (it wasn't). So the phones are about as functional as the plumbing.
Souvenier shopping makes me feel dirty. I'm still accumulating junk to take back to the kiddies at home, but I don't think I can stand another trip to the giant souvenier yard behind Spas' na Krovi. There's loads of obnoxious americans there, and all of the vendors are into the hard sell (and refuse to speak Russian the instant they hear an accent, or see you hesitate).
On an up note, we had our last excursion yesterday, and it didn't suck too much. It was the Yusupov Palace, the place where Rasputin was killed. Well, the place where he was poisoned and shot, they still had to beat him, shoot him some more, freeze him, and drown him in a river to actually kill him. The palace was actually interesting, in a departure from the usual "here's a room with expensive junk in it" trend, with weird low ceilings and in in-house theater (of the live-actors variety).
Last day of actual classes today, plus one of our two finals. For the hell of it, a couple of us took shots of vodka going into the hellish history lecture, which I must say made the whole thing more tolerable. I shoulda started that at the beginning of the semester. The actual grammar test later in the day was nearly a joke, which was welcome. One more...
Dinner at Sumana's host mom's house last night, with Katie included. At one point she (Vera, who by the way speaks no English) belted out a song for the benefit of all- "Johnny, He's the Boy for Me!" -in English, after a discussion about my name which I no longer recall. She's cool, and has kitties of whom Sumana is deathly afraid. Katie and I spent most of the evening petting them. Lively dinner conversation, in Russian, about whatever our fuzzy language skills could keep up on. After being force-fed for an hour two (you can't say no to a babushka who's intent on feeding you, it doesn't work), the three Americans ended up watching a Russian infomercial in utter fascination. It was probably actually just dubbed from a US one, but geezus how weird.
Today's events, after the oral final (I bitched about the phone system), included a return trip to Krestovsky Ostrov with Katie and her people from Reed- Anya, the grammar teacher, plus that guy Galen and a couple of others whose language skills way overmatched mine and Katie's. We watched small children feeding swans, saw at least three pairs of newlyweds come by for a photo op with the lake in question, and listened to some Dr. Dre that was being blasted from across the idyllic scenery. Yay pop culture.
After that was the final banquet at Tblisi, a Georgian place somewhere on the Petrograd side. There was an honest-to-god lounge singer, who kept winking at any woman who made eye contact. Gifts given to teachers, lots of miscellaneous photo ops taken. I offloaded my book full of English idioms explained in Russian to Olga the phonetics teacher, who's gonna be teaching in the US next year.
Stocked up on crap for the people back home today. Had to grit my teeth and actually buy things in the big souvenier yard behind Spas' na Krovi- at least I got all the vendors to speak Russian with me. If this damned dorm room had any hot water I'd have taken a shower after that experience.
Looking for something to do on our last evening, Sumana, Katie, Susanne, Krista, Rasa (who's actually staying behind) and I ended up at some bar on the far side of Ploschad' Vosstaniya. They played this really catchy thumping techno stuff, but it looped every ten minutes or so and was too loud to have a functional conversation. From there we meandered off to Laima for a midnight snack before everyone went home. Pretty uneventful.
Last day. Morning spent meandering around and buying last minute stuff. I wanted to get a supply of pirozhki from Kafe Victoria, but they were closed for a banquet of some kind. Got Laima for breakfast. Hung around in the lounge for several hours waiting for people to filter in. Then we piled onto the bus to Pulkhovo, leaving Ross, Rasa, Anya the grammar teacher, and various peoples' host siblings and parents behind at the dorm.
After landing in Frankfurt, came the reverse culture shock. Clean, well-maintained streets, vehicles, and buildings. A bus ran us to the layover hotel, which was considerably outside of the city. I ended up with a single room, thanks to the (slightly misguided) good intentions of others, and and had me my first hot shower in three weeks. Dinner at the hotel restaurant, where I got to dip into the supply of 100 DM that my uncle slipped me back in DC on the way out. First good dark beer I've had in ages, not counting the occasional Guinness. Watched tv and chattered with Katie and Sumana until we all started collapsing to sleep. Single observation- South Park in German works appallingly well.
Morning in Frankfurt led us back to the airport, which as it turns out is obnoxiously put together (the gate names are all misleading). Stopped into the duty-free shop with an oversupply of leftover Deutschmarks, where Katie and I ended up splitting the cost of some bizarre South African liqueur so as to pass the transatlantic flight in a state of blissful stupidity, rather than of boredom and depression. Stuff is actually really good.
The in-flight movie- Someone Like You. I borrowed Sumana's book.
Dulles airport has to be one of the single most stupid places on earth. A lot of people had to make transfers, one within 40 minutes of landing. This involved taking the shuttle bus to the other building across the tarmac, going through customs (amazingly slow, even compared to the bureaucracy I'd gotten used to in Russia), then standing around for eons waiting for baggage, and *then* shuttling back to the gates. I suspect some folks missed their flights. In the ensuing chaos, goodbyes were almost dispensed with entirely- no closure for you! Katie ended up having to do something hideous involving customs and the baggage she'd checked through to Chicago, so Sumana and I went through without her planning to wait. Sumana got dragged off by her ride almost immediately, and I managed to keep mine around for half an hour to no avail. Dammit. Dammit. A few more dammits. Have a photo to lighten the mood.