Monday, December 8, 2008

The Market

Aren't our kids adorable? I was just trying to take a picture of me, the snowman, and the twins, and was suddenly surrounded by some of my favorites. The little boy in the front (Sasha, surprise, surprise) says Merry Christmas in the most adorable accent every time he sees me. I got it on video, so hopefully I can post that sometime soon!

This past weekend our Saturday activity was going to the Tretyakov art gallery in Moscow. It was really really amazing. The best part was that Gulya has been showing us prints from there during our culture classes as she taught us about the history of Russia. It made me feel pretty intelligent when I recognized a lot of the paintings and even knew a little about the history of some of them.

We were going to go tour a submarine after that, but when we got there we found that it would be a 90min wait, so we decided to leave. Lisa (my cousin) and I were together, apart from the rest of the group, so we just went and shopped around the nearest market for a little while. We each bought a pair of rabbit fur socks, and that's all. If any of you know Lisa, you know how miraculous that is. Let's just say, I think everything ever made that turns out ugly is sent to Russia to be sold in the market. At home, when I go shopping in a coat or boot store (which is the bulk of what there is at the market) I think most things are cute and then I find one or two things that are ugly. Not so here—we play the "find the one thing in this booth you might be caught dead wearing" game. My theory is that during communism there wasn't much variety—cars were all the same color, everyone lived in the same drab apartment buildings, wore plain black coats, etc. So, now that there is more variety available, they still haven't caught on to the idea that certain things are fashionable and others aren't. I kind of forgot about fashion, and got used to the black Russian boots with buckles and the long shiny coats with ugly fur on the hats and sleeves. But then we went and toured Sweden and Finland and I remembered there are cute things in this world. And I bought some for myself. That was fun.

Unfortunately I forgot my camera on Saturday, but one of the other girls took these pictures in September. The fall coats are definitely less ugly than the winter ones, but it kind of gives you an idea of what the market is like.

The fun thing about the market though, was that I could speak some Russian. I don't get a chance to speak much at all during the week because we're either in our apartment or at the school teaching English, but I got some practicing in at the market. It was tons of fun. I found myself asking if they had things in other colors and if I could try them on. Of course it starts getting really fun when it's time to leave...(I only have 2 weeks left!) Hopefully someday I'll have more of an opportunity to speak it. I feel frustrated sometimes that I didn't get to learn much Russian, but then at the same time, I can understand enough to get by, and communicate enough to get around the city. I know what Russian sounds like, which is a big part of learning a language for me. And now I know I'll really learn it, eventually. We were walking home from church on Sunday and a woman stopped us and asked us something in Russian. I didn't understand what she said, so I said we didn't speak Russian, but she just kept on talking. She said she spoke German, and asked if we were American. I said yes, and then she asked if we were there learning Russian. I felt embarrassed that I could hardly speak it so I said "no, we're here teaching English." I thought it was funny that I had said we didn't speak Russian and she still kept on chatting. It was fun though. It's not too often you meet chatty, smiley Russians on the street, so I thought I'd take advantage of that one!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanksgiving weekend in Russia

We had a fun Thanksgiving weekend. Our home teacher, Dean Meservy (& his wife Shaura) invited us over to spend the evening with them. We still had to teach that day, but he came and got us that night. We were going to take the bus into town, but he insisted on picking us up. It was really nice of him, but he got stuck in traffic and was about an hour late. We left our school at 6 and then didn't get to their house until 8pm! I felt so bad for them, but Moscow traffic is just like that—bad! Anyway, the meal was so nice, and the best part was that after we ate they let us decorate their Christmas tree. They'd bought beautiful Russian ornaments that were hand carved and then painted. I coveted them, but I haven't found any like that. It was nice to decorate and listen to Christmas music because it helped me feel like it's actually Christmas. There are trees up in the city, but it still doesn't feel quite like it does at home during Christmas time.

On Friday we didn't have to teach so we went into the city.

We went to Arbat Street, which has vendors and shops and walked up and down the street shopping and taking in the sights. This picture is in front of the wall of peace. We stopped at My-my's (pronounced moo moo's) for lunch. It's a popular Russian cafe that was decorated with a cow theme (hence the name—that's what cows say in Russian). I lucked out because I went for fish, salad and potatoes, but the girls that got what they thought was a chicken drumstick ended up with the outer skin of a chicken stuffed with what we call meat surprise. It's a Russian favorite, but not so surprisingly, not our favorite.

Then we went to red square to the Tchaikovsky conservatory to see what they had showing that evening. It's a music school so the tickets are sometimes a little cheaper than the full-on professional concerts, but we'd heard they're still amazingly good. I somehow always get dubbed ticket-buyer, so I went to the first window, and couldn't understand quite enough to buy tickets, so I called a friend and she translated for us. I absolutely detest having to do that. I want to be able to be completely self-sufficient, but Russia is just not tourist-friendly and my Russian's just not good enough. So, although I felt humiliated, I passed the cell phone through the little window, and then they passed it back. Their tickets were a little over $40, so we opted not to do that, and they told Julia I could just go to the next room where they possibly had some cheaper ones for the smaller theater. We found the booth, and by then I decided just to ask from the start if the ticket vendor spoke English. She said no, but told me to try the next window. I went to the next window and the woman said no, she was sorry, she only spoke Russian and...Spanish! I was so excited. It turns out she had lived in HONDURAS (of all places) for about 10 years. I was elated that I could finally communicate with ease! The girls were all surprised because one minute I was speaking my broken Russian and then the next I was going off in Spanish. But, they loved me for it because not only did I get all 10 of us tickets for an AMAZING Mozart and Mendelssohn concert that evening, but our tickets were under $4! That's one thing I love about Russia.

On Saturday we headed to Vladimir. It's a three hour bus ride from Moscow. It was beautiful. During the 12th -14th century it was the capital of the 2nd most powerful Rus state (after Kieven Rus). We went into the main church there (the one pictured above, in the mist) and happened to be there for part of a service. I LOVED the music and could have stayed there for hours listening. It's not very comfortable though, because they don't believe in benches so everyone just stands there. There's always a choir singing from one of the balconies, and then a priest who conducts the meeting. While we were there he walked around spreading the incense, and all everyone would cross themselves and bow as he passed. It was really neat to see in action, finally, after all the times we'd been in the churches!

Then this morning (Sunday)after our restful night in a hotel that I'm sure was probably built in the 70's and not touched since then (it rivaled some of the cockroach and spider hotels I've stayed at in Latin America) we took a taxi about 40 kilometers outside the city into Suzdal. It was so so so gorgeous. I just wanted to come back some summer and spend a few months there learning Russian and maybe studying painting. The town is known for the churches—-there are 4 monasteries and 30 churches just in the little town. The churches each have a winter meetinghouse that's small and easier to keep warm, and summer one that's larger with high ceilings to keep cool, and a belfry. We were lucky that it wasn't snowing, but it was bitter cold. I told Gulya I just couldn't believe people can actually live in Russia. She just laughed at me and told the store owner where we were standing what I'd said. They laughed together at me. I don't think Gulya realizes I understand Russian. But that's okay. Anyway the river was frozen and it was just gorgeous—so picturesque I can't even describe it. Walking around that beautify town with all the churches made me feel sorry for those people. Obviously they have a love of religion and they just had to abandon it all during communist times and watch their church houses being used for storage rooms. But now most of them have been beautifully restored, as you can see.

Oh, and this monastery is where the tsars would send their old wives when they were ready for a new one. They had really high morals so they only believed in having one at a time...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Let it Snow!

Today was magical. It was the first snow day of the season. There's something about the snow that's magical to everyone. The kids could hardly keep their faces away from the windows, my teachers had an extra bounce in their step on the way to classes, and even the guards were light-hearted. On our way back to the school after lunch I could see out of the corner of my eye that all three of them, lined up along the fence, had snowballs in their hands as they watched us walk up the steps into the schoolhouse. I could tell they were debating whether or not we would take it well, so I told the teacher with the best aim to chuck one at them. She did, snowballs flew, and we ducked into the schoolhouse as quickly as possible. Everyone who saw us laughed. I love seeing those stout-faced Russians break into a hearty laugh—there's not much more rewarding than that. But also pretty high on the list are the children all bundled up for recess.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Lions and Tigers and Russians

On Saturday we went to the circus. It was amazing! I had so many mixed emotions during the entire performance. By the time it ended I was completely tense. It smelled delicious when we walked in—like kettle corn and cotton candy. It was starting as we crawled across people to get to our seats, and I suddenly felt like I was in Vegas. The scantily clad women with large feather headdresses in bright colors were dancing up the aisles, music was blasting, lights were flashing and confetti was falling from the ceiling. It was probably just an ordinary circus show, but I haven't really been to many circuses. They had some of the usual acts—horses, lions and tigers, trapeze fliers, clowns between the main acts, contortionists, etc. The shows were pretty spectacular. But the whole time my body was so tense because I was pretty sure I was going to witness someone's death right then and there. The acrobats were amazing, but they had no form of netting or anything, and they were swinging and tossing each other through the air. It was pretty unreal. And then the one that almost made me throw up were two guys who ran around in a contraption that looked like those things hamsters run around in, except that there were two, and they had to coordinate with each other. They had one net at one end of their contraption with a little mattress that I'm sure would have done almost nothing if they'd fallen. They were walking around in the middle of them, then they went to the outside. Then one of the men jumped rope on the outside of one of them. It was the worst because we were so close to them I could see their expressions. I could tell how much they were straining and feel that with any false move, they were gonners. At one point one of them even put a black bag over his head and walked along the outside. That was where I almost threw up.

The act that got me thinking the most was the lion and tiger act. So, I have to preface my description of it with a short description of what is going on right now in our teaching. As I've stated before, we live in a very wealthy area, just outside of Moscow. We all came into this teaching gig with the idea that we would be serving in Russia, helping kids learn English who might not otherwise have that opportunity. Our training consisted of a day or two listening to classes about what teaching would be like, but by no means are we professionals. In fact, two of the girls in my group just turned 18, and haven't even started college. But they do a really good job. All of them try their best and put a lot into their lessons. But last week our coordinator visited our classes, and all she had to say were comments like, “Why don't they all know the words to the songs?” “They should be speaking more English,” “One of the teachers talks too fast,” “The school is upset because you broke seven chairs, two tables, a sink and a curtain...” and so on... And then later that night I got home to an email about one more thing, and then on Sunday I got a phone call about a few more things...

So, back to the lions and tigers. As I was watching them and feeling incredibly sorry for the poor, skinny, very likely sedated animals, I watched the lion tamer crack his whip whenever they made a wrong move. And that's when I realized what was missing. In the US whenever I've been to Marine World or other such shows with live animals, they've always had a large bag of fish or steaks, or some kind of animal treat. In a nutshell, I could see in the circus act what was making it so hard this past week for my teachers. Russians are just not big on positive reinforcement.

But, all in all, I just have to say that the circus was so good, I could hardly believe it when I looked at my watch at then end and saw it was 10pm, making for a three hour show! So, next time you're in Moscow, I'd recommend a trip to the circus. But you might want to bring along a barf bag, just in case.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Our vacation: St. Petersburg

Since we've been home a few days now I figure it's high time to write about our vacation. Gosh, when I was in Latin America I loved writing about all my adventures. But for some reason when I'm not in a third-world country things just don't seem quite so exciting. It just feels like normal life. But here goes...

We started on Halloween day. Which I must say, was quite a day. We decided to dress up and give our students a taste of how we celebrate it in the US. We raided our drama box and came out with some pretty nice costumes. I was Winnie-the-Pooh. I must admit it wasn't the most flattering costume... I found a Pooh head and then a random bear body that I stuffed with a pillow. I was huge. The kids loved it, and the part I loved the most was that the Russian teachers loved it too! They're almost always really serious, but that day they kept staring at us and smiling and laughing. And one of the teachers even swatted my huge belly and laughed as she walked by. It was definitely a bonding moment for us all. Pooh, Russian teachers and me.

So, back to the vacation. We started by leaving our house at 9pm the night of the 30th. Well, even that requires a little bit of an explanation. You see, if you read the previous entry you'll remember that our house is surrounded by guards and gates. And last time we got locked out. Well, this time when I pressed the buzzer, the gate wouldn't open, so we were locked in, luggage and all. “No problem,” I thought to myself, “I can just make a quick call...” Oh, but then I remembered my phone still had no minutes on it. We decided our best bet was just to wait until the driver came to pick us up (yes, the school provided us with our own personal driver for the evening). I heard the car drive up, but there still were no guards to let us out. He rang the bell, and no one came. So, I mustered up my very best Russian and all my courage and opened the window. I yelled below that he should call Gulya because we didn't have a key. He made some calls, Gulya called me, I explained, she called the guards in the other guardhouse, and lo and behold, someone finally came to let us out!

We boarded our train at about 12:45 and left at 1am. It was my first ride on a sleeping train. It definitely wasn't my most comfortable night's sleep, but compared to a few that awaited me on that vacation it was divine. The train was divided into compartments of 4. There was a table in the middle with benches on either side. Then along the hall there were two seats with a little table in the middle. When night came the whole thing converted into a sleeping space for 6 people. The two lower benches were beds, with benches above them that could also be folded down and converted into beds. Then the table and chairs along the aisle folded into a bench/bed with one folding down from above. I got an upper bed, and was somewhat concerned I might fall off in the middle of the night, but then I remembered my dad teaching me about packing things on top of the car and how heavy things don't fly off.

We arrived in Saint Petersburg at 10am. We had to get moving pretty quickly because that was our only day there. We started with a visit to the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood which was built in the late 1800's, taking 24 years to complete but ironically 27 years to finish the restoration work before it reopened in 1997. It carries such a long name because it marks the spot where Alexander II was blown up by a terrorist group in 1881.

We also wandered through another cathedral...but I can't remember what it was called. They all start to run together after a certain point. But the highlight of that trip (besides finding an English bookstore for the first time during my stay in Russian and loading up on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) was our visit to the Winter Palace. It was used by the tsars of Russia for the last 200 years of their rule. I can't even begin to describe how spectacular this building was. I felt so small as I climbed the red-carpeted spiral staircases that I later found out was merely a side entrance. We couldn't help but grab a partner and dance in the coronation room while one of the girls whipped out her video camera and another hummed the appropriate tune from the move Anastasia. We were so enthralled in our dancing that the other girls didn't notice one of the Russian guards sitting on the side of the room motioning for us to come over. I braced myself for getting chastised once again (we can't seem to do anything right in this country), but the guard was smiling at me as I approached her and in her broken English she informed me that it was not the coronation room where Anastasia would have danced, but the ballroom next door! And the best part of the palace was that it not only let us see the grandeur of a Russian palace, but it now is a museum as well. Peter the Great began an art collection that Catherine the Great added to, and so it went through the ages. Now it fills not only the Winter Palace, but 4 other buildings, equally extravagant and massive that link together, forming the Hermitage. The Winter Palace alone has 1057 rooms and 117 staircases. And besides all the artwork on display in these five buildings, there is 20 times as much in storage in the vaults below. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time there and barely scratched the surface. I loved it!

Well, since this is getting so long, I'll post about Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia in separate entries. I'll just stick to some highlights. And I'll add pictures soon...

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Two art museums, two cathedrals and two Russian conversations

We had this past weekend to ourselves, meaning that Gulya didn't plan things out for us like usual. We decided we wanted to take full advantage of our limited time here, so we planned to start with the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. We got to the metro station, and as I was telling the girls to turn left and go up the stairs so we could exit on the side of the museum, I noticed their expressions of awe and excitement at something they were seeing out the other exit. I followed them and could hardly believe my shoe-button eyes (that was for you mom)! It was so amazing to just stumble out of the subway into this:

It's the Cathedral of our Christ the Saviour. And there it was, looming right above our heads. We took tons of pictures, but were somewhat disappointed after reading the guidebook to find that it's only 11 years old. I don't know why that makes such a difference; it looks every bit as majestic as it did when I thought it had been there for centuries, but there's just something different when you know it doesn't hold so much history within its walls. But, although this building doesn't hold great history within its walls, the grounds it is built on have an interesting past. Apparently that location was home to a similar church with the same name built in the mid-1800's, but it was destroyed by Stalin, who planned to replace it with a “Palace of Soviets” that would include a 100 meter statue of Lenin. However, the palace was never built, and instead the land served as the world's largest swimming pool for 50 years. The current church was built to commemorate Moscow's 850th birthday in 1997, and cost an estimated $350 million. And, according to our guidebook, “Muscovites should at least be grateful they can admire the shiny domes of a church instead of the shiny dome of Lenin's head.” And if the Muscovites don't appreciate that, I sure do.

We did eventually make it to the Pushkin museum. Here's a picture of it.

I'm glad we went, but I have to admit I was a little disappointed. It wasn' t quite as grandiose as I expected. It was smaller than I thought, but I did enjoy seeing their Rembrant collection. And we had a great lunch at a piroshki stand right outside. I mean, who can beat fresh-baked pastries filled with cabbage and potatoes? And then fruit-filled ones for dessert?

After lunch we decided to head across the bridge and check out the Chocolate factory on the other side of the Moscow River. We'd seen it on our river cruise and decided we should stop in just in case they give out samples like Ghirardelli Square. The building itself was intriguing enough, but when we got there it felt quite deserted. There was a club on the corner, a dumpster in the middle of the road, and if we hadn't been there in the middle of the day with people around us, I would have been scared a ninja turtle might jump out of the ally. The girls weren't about to give up the possibility of chocolate, however, and just kept right on going until they found a door. One of them was actually brave enough to open it, and found two tall straight-faced Russian men in black jackets staring back at her. They just looked at us and said “fourth floor.” I was ready to drag them out of there with promises that we could just buy chocolate at the next store we came across, but then we saw some signs in English for an art gallery on the fourth floor, and we noticed people walking out of the building (always a good sign). So, we hiked up the stairs into an amazing gallery. I felt like I was in New York or San Francisco. Here are some pictures.

We finished looking at the art around 4, and decided we still had time to rush to St. Basil's in Red Square. We still hadn't seen the inside, and with our newly acquired student ID cards it was much cheaper (a mere 50 rubles--$2). That cathedral was definitely old. It was built sometime between 1555 and 1561 to celebrate a victory of Ivan the Terrible. And terrible he was. According to a legend, he had his architect blinded after the project was completed so he would never build another cathedral like it. Here's a picture from the outside, just to refresh your memory, and one from the inside as well.

And, our fun-filled day could have ended there, but no, not yet. We went to a ballet that night. We went do a different theater this time, which was smaller and much more beautiful that the theater in the Kremlin where we saw Swan Lake. This time we saw Snow Maiden, which was also spectacular, but I can't say it was quite up to par to Swan Lake. The dancing was more professional at our first ballet, and this time the violinists didn't make me cry. But, don't get me wrong, it was still out of this world amazing.

Our last bus home leaves at 9:30, and the ballet didn't end until after 9, so we jumped on the metro to get as close to our end of the city as possible, and then to look for a taxi from there. When we got to our station I realized that my cell phone was out of minutes. Normally that wouldn't be too big of a deal. I could just pop into any little cell phone shop and buy more. But, after looking around for a minute or two we realized they were all closed by then. I'm okay at getting by without a phone most of the time, but I have to idea how to tell a taxi driver where we live. I have the address, but we are pretty far on the outskirts of the city, and I really don't think he'd be able to find it. Plus, it takes me about 5 minutes to get out any number larger than about 100, and considering the going taxi rate for that distance is about 1,000 rubles, that may take awhile to agree on a price. Luckily one of the other head teachers was still with us after the ballet, and she called Gulya on our phone, who arranged everything with a taxi driver. I could tell while he was talking that he looked like a really nice guy (he kept joking and laughing throughout their conversation), and that he probably wasn't Russian (he had a fairly dark complexion). We agreed on a price, and piled in (with four girls in the back and me in the front. We started driving, and I just wanted to be able to talk to him so badly. So, I just went for it. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: Are you a Muscovite?
Him: No. I'm Armenian.
Me: Do you live in Moscow? (I know, bright question, but we're dealing with a limited vocabulary on my end).
Him: Yes, I have been living here for 17 years.
Me: Does your family live in Moscow?
Him: Yes, I have three daughters and two sons. There are five children.
Me: I have four brothers.
Him: Oh, you also have five children in your family.
Me: Yes.
Him: Blah blah blah Armenia. Blah Blah...
Me: I don't understand.
Him: Same blah blah but with more hand motions.
Me: Oh, you are returning to Armenia in December?
And so the conversation continued. We agreed he would take me with him in December so I could see Armenia, and then I could take him to California. My favorite part of the whole conversation, though, was when I asked him if he had grandchildren. Well, I actually asked him if he was a grandfather because I couldn't think of the word for grandchildren, but he pulled out his cellphone and showed me the two pictures of his grandsons and kissed their pictures and said Ya lublu, ya lublu, telling me he loved them. It was cute. I kept running out of things to talk about because I'm limited to about two topics (the family and food), so I just kept asking random things like his children's ages. It was really fun though. That was the first time I had a real conversation with someone who didn't already know I can't really speak Russian, like all the teachers here. And he was so willing to try. He left us with his number to call him if we are ever in need of another taxi ride.

But our night still doesn't end there. You see, after about 9pm they let the guard dog out to roam freely around the property where we live. I've seen him before and he's very big and very mean. And I've been bitten twice by dogs not nearly so big or mean, and that was bad enough. Needless to say, I didn't want another dog encounter. So, as instructed, we rang the doorbell at the gate so Peter, the groundskeeper, would let us in. But there was no answer. And then we realized the light inside wasn't on. And, come to think of it, we hadn't seen Peter in a couple days. So, I thought, no problem, I'll just call good ol' Gulya on my cell phone...oh, yes, my cell phone with no minutes left... So, there we were, all alone in the middle of a residential neighborhood with 12 foot-high fences around everyone's property, in the middle of Russia, barely able to communicate with anyone. And it was about 35 degrees and dark. I decided if we were really in a bind we could always walk down the street to our school and wake up the guards there (who are really nice) and ask to sleep on the child-sized bunkbeds.

But, I thought of a better idea. I took two of the girls with me and we walked down to the other end of the fence where there is a guard station to let people into the development where we live. There was a guard there, luckily, so we started to talk to him through the fence. The conversation went something like this:
Me: I live there (pointing).
Him: What's the family's last name.
Me: I don't know their last name. They live there.
Him: What is their last name?
Me: I don't know the last name. Can we call?
Him: What's the last name?
Me: I don't know. Their names are Oksana, Deni, Sasha, etc. We live there. (Keep in mind I'm sure he's seen us pass by before, and he knows what house we're talking about.
Him: Blah blah blah blah.
Me: I don't understand. I don't speak Russian.
Somewhere in there he finally buzzed us through the gate so we could at least come up to his window.
Then I could see he had a phone, so I asked again to use the phone.
Him: Blah blah...
Me: I don't speak Russian. She (me pointing at the phone) speaks Russian. My phone doesn't work. Can I call.
Him: Blah blah What's the last name?
Me: I don't know the last name, can I use the phone.
Him: Looking up a phone list of the guardhouse inside. What's the last name? Blah blah.
Me: I don't know. I don't speak Russian. She speaks Russian. Can I use the phone? This time I said it louder (very American, I know) and used more gestures. I showed him my phone and said that it didn't work, and he finally realized that I just wanted to call on his phone and he didn't need to call (I had been saying mojna tielephone, which is just can...telephone, so it's not very specific). And he let me call. And luckily Gulya was there, and called our guards who let us in. Hallelujah!

Oh, and here are a couple pictures from our Sunday stroll through yet another monastery.

Friday, October 24, 2008

The Director's House

I just sent the girls off shopping without me and I'm home alone in the peace and quiet. They call me mom, just as kind of a joke, but I have to laugh at how mom-like I feel at times. I gave them the money with instructions on what to buy, and as they were walking away they kept asking questions about what ingredients we had left in our cupboards. I didn't feel very good yesterday and today, so I decided to skip out on the grocery shopping to conserve my energy for yet another weekend of touring. And I must say, I'm thoroughly enjoying the alone time. I'm really a very social person, and I missed the girls already when I told them goodbye, but as I walked up our steps and unlocked the front door, I found myself grinning with excitement and the prospects of having the whole apartment to myself. Then I realized I'd left my boots at the school, so I just had to turn around and go right back. But I was glad I did. The director of the school and his family were all there picking up their youngest son. They were teaching him to ride a bike out in front of the school, so I stopped and talked to them and a couple of the teachers for a minute. Only a minute because that's all my vast Russian vocabulary allows. And while I was there I decided it's very important to learn people's names. We can barely communicate to each other, but it feels so good to have people greet me by name as I walk by. Maybe it feels extra good because I can't understand much more than that! Anyway, back to the director and his family. We actually live in a guest house over the garage of his house. They have a guardhouse in the front where the guard lives along with some of the other help. Then in the middle of their grounds is their house, and our apartment (along with two other rooms for the housekeeper and groundskeeper) is in the back over their three garages. They have two houses in Spain, and Oksana, the wife, is trying to learn Spanish. Since I got here she has been wanting to trade me Spanish for Russian lessons, and we actually were finally able to start last week. It is quite an experience.

First, just being inside their house is an experience in itself. I'm at a loss of words to describe it. It is quite large, but it's not the size that gives it its grandeur, but how every room is so tastefully decorated that it just emanates wealth. From chandeliers in every room (even the children's bedrooms) to the china cabinets with treasures they have purchased all over Europe to the handpainted portraits of family members, including one of the husband, Andrey, in his military uniform and Oksana posed over his shoulder in an elegant evening gown. Then there is the theater downstairs lined with velvet walls and two rows of leather recliners for the parents, and a mini version of the same theater across the hall for the two boys. Oh, and we musn't forget the indoor swimming pool and, my personal favorite, the table in one of the front dining rooms where the center of it can be raised to revel the bottles of alcohol underneath.

As far as the lessons go, I'm sure it would be very entertaining to watch one from the outside. We agreed that Oksana should speak Spanish and I should speak Russian, which works pretty well well most of the time. She speaks hardly any English, and my Russian is minimal, to say the least. Thankfully her Spanish is descent—she can't think of how to say a lot of things, but she's very good at understanding. So if I have no idea how to say something in Russian, I revert to Spanish and she can usually understand me. And if she can't manage to get something out it Spanish, she says it in Russian. But if I don't understand the Russian then she says it in French. It's quite interesting to try to “converse” with someone when our common language is not the native language of either one of us. It is surprisingly quite functional, however; I always come away with a page of notes of new Russian words and their Spanish translations and she has her new Spanish words with Russian translations. Basically, it reminds me of this episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy is almost arrested by a Frenchman who can't understand her. But, a French and German speaker, and German and Spanish speaker, and Ricky all show up just in time to bail her out. You can watch it here.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Conference and Red Square

Sunday a great day. We got to go to the central church building in Moscow to watch General Conference. For any non-lds readers, General Conference is held twice a year in Salt Lake, and is broadcast around the world. There are four main sessions, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. It’s a very big deal to us because that’s when the world has the chance to listen to the prophet and his 12 apostles speak to us. You can check it out here (,5239,23-1-947,00.html). At home it’s no problem to get because it’s available on cable, the radio and the internet. Well, here in Russia it’s also readily available, but the frustrating part is that because we’re about 11 hours ahead, we can’t get it the weekend it’s actually being broadcast (obviously, because it hasn’t taken place yet). So, we had to wait until the following week to go watch it in the church building with everyone else. It was great though. It was fun to meet at the same time as the Russian members. They watched it in the chapel and we had a smaller room in the back with the broadcast in English. I’ll admit I snuck out during a hymn so I could hear them sing in Russian—I just couldn’t resist. I really enjoyed President Monson’s (our prophet) talk about enjoying the journey of life. He said “This is our one and only chance at mortal life—here and now. The longer we live, the greater is our realization that it is brief. Opportunities come, and then they are gone. I believe that among the greatest lessons we are to learn in this short sojourn upon the earth are lessons that help us distinguish between what is important and what is not. I plead with you not to let those most important things pass you by as you plan for that illusive and non-existent future when you will have time to do all that you want to do. Instead, find joy in the journey—now.” I just enjoyed hearing such positive messages from all the speakers. That’s not what you normally get from the radio or TV these days…

After conference we took a Sunday stroll through Red Square. It’s just so majestic and beautiful. At one point we were standing outside of one of the smaller cathedrals listening to Gregorian chant while taking in the scene of the square around us. And I couldn’t help but think about how my time in Russia is so short. Of course I miss friends and family back home, but I’m just so grateful for every day I get to be here. I think I put too much pressure on myself, but I feel like I just want to take in as much as I can from this experience. Yet, trying to take in this people and culture without speaking the language I feel is like trying to taste cake through a straw. I’m using all the wrong tools. I’m observing the culture from the outside. How do I swim with the fish rather than just squish my nose against the fishbowl while peering in? But alas, I will take Pres. Monson’s wise counsel and just enjoy every moment I can!

This is the church building. Nice, huh?!

And our Sunday stroll through Red Square...

Olga and piroshki

Saturday morning we went to the mall to go coat shopping. It’s already starting to get pretty cold, so my down jacket just isn’t going to cut it much longer. We walked to the bus stop, took the bus to the metro, the blue line to the purple line, then crossed the street to a shuttle that took us to the mall. It was crazy, but worth it because this mall actually had reasonably priced items. It was weird because it felt like we were just back in the US. Until I went to buy something and I remembered I can barely communicate. But I did end up getting a pretty sweet coat. The last foot of it zips off horizontally so it can be a regular hip-length coat that I’ll actually wear again, as well as a Russian winter coat that goes a little past my knees. I was proud of myself for finding it and for being able to talk to the salesclerk well enough that she could help me find the right size!

After the mall we went to Gulya’s apartment. That was especially exciting because she has a really good job working for ILP, her husband has a good job, she’s well educated and has traveled all over the world, and yet she lives in a tiny cement apartment like everyone else. I’ve wanted to see the inside of one since we got here, mostly because I wanted to see what Russia is really like! I’m sure anyone who has spent any amount of time in Europe knows what their tiny apartments are like. When I walked in my first thought was that I was in a motor home! The bathroom only fits a tiny shower barely as big as a person and a sink big enough for one set of hands. Then there’s another tiny closet containing the toilet. The kitchen could fit about 4 people in it, but only one or two comfortably, and it has a fridge, oven, stove and tiny washing machine with a little microwave on top. There are two bedrooms, one doubling as an office, and the other disguised as a living/dining room with a couch that pulls down into a bed. But the best part was that besides inviting us into her apartment, Gulya taught us to make piroshki. They’re best described as a Russian pastry filled with meat, cabbage or potatoes for dinner and then cream cheese, cinnamon and sugar for dessert. They were divine! I can’t wait to go home and make them for my family. And most of all it was just nice to be in a home with a family. I’m not too big on apartment life. Our apartment is beautiful, but it feels like a college dorm with 5 girls living between two bedrooms. Yuck!

Just call me Olga.

No worries, it's convertable so Olga can stay in Russia.

Gulya's front door.

The living/dining/bedroom.

The picture doesn't do it justice. These mashed potatoes are actually dough filled with raisins, cream cheese and sugar, topped with butter and cinnamon.

Three of us squished into the one-man elevator.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

one month!

In honor of having spent one month in Russia (as of today), I’m listing some of my observations. These are tallies I have made around town (mostly on buses, in the subways and grocery stores). Only a few are exaggerated.
Pregnant Russian Women: 7
Russians wearing sweats, torn jeans, or yoga pants in public: 0
Russians with tattoos: 2 (and very small)
Russians with multiple piercings: 2
Russians with gold teeth: 800
Russian men with hard liquor in hand: 550
Couples kissing passionately in public: 684
Russians smoking: 100,000,000
Overweight Russians: 20
Russians in wheelchairs: 2
Russians who are mentally/physically handicapped (excluding those in wheelchairs): 0
Children in our school wearing Dolce and Gabbana apparel: 80%
Children wearing Burberry or Dior: 20%
People who consider deodorant optional: 980

Monday, October 6, 2008

Happy Teachers' Day!

Teachers' Day is October 5th in Russia. Our school celebrated it today by letting the parents know they needed to pick their kids up by four and then having a full-blown party during regular school hours. That's my kind of celebration. I think my school should do that...cancel classes so the teachers can party. And it was no small party. As you can tell from the pictures we had tons of food, and yes, the teacher that's unpacking glasses is unpacking shot glasses. When we came down to eat she had them on the table. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself. I think this is an evening that needs to be recounted chronologically so I don't miss anything.

First we dismissed our kids an hour early. Then we went down to the cafeteria and found some of the other teachers assembling platters of food. We offered to help, and they actually let us. It was stressful because our Russian teacher was giving us orders right and left, and she'd just taught us food, so we felt like we should understand everything. Somehow we managed to slice the right fruit the right way, and then we were directed upstairs where they had some games for the teachers. It was set up like a game show, and the teachers competed against each other doing things such as eating a small container of yogurt faster than their opponent with a popsicle stick instead of a spoon. They gave out amazing prizes, too, such as a bar of soap, wet wipes, or Q-tips. I’ve never seen those teachers laugh so much.

After the games we went back to the cafeteria to eat. And that’s when we noticed the shot glasses next to the wine glasses. Oh, and I must mention that we set the table, but were immediately corrected. Apparently in Russia they put the fork on the right and the glass on the left. I guess that was so they could put the shot glasses on the right. Interesting. We sat down to eat and everyone filled their glasses first. Luckily they had pineapple juice on the table. Everyone else just used it to mix with alcohol, but we were just glad they had it because I’m sure it would have been very rude to ask for water. Anyway, the principal made a toast, we toasted, and everyone started eating. We felt like pigs, though because we filled our plates and then dug in. Then we noticed the Russians were just taking small portions and eating them slowly. We pretty much cleaned up our platters and they were just still picking at the food. But that wasn’t the most embarrassing moment of the evening.

This was:

After eating they asked us if we’d like to sing a song for everyone. Well, we figured that since they’d been playing silly games all evening, and now they’d all had plenty of alcohol, we could sing a silly song. So we decided to sing “Princes Pat,” the camp song. We had two girls in the middle leading it, and the other three did the echoes. We got all into it and did the dance moves and everything. And the Russians just stared at us. I think one or two may have cracked a smile. It was humiliating in the least. So, I recommend that if you’re ever at a Russian school party, even if they’re serving hard liquor, don’t break out into a chorus of “Princess Pat” no matter how much you hope to win a box of Q-tips.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Trinitiy Monastery of St. Sergius

Yesterday we saw one of the gems of the Golden Ring of Russia. Just northeast of Moscow there are a number of old towns that before the current capital were the heart of Russia. They form a loop of old towns that contain some of the area’s most beautiful art, museums and architecture. We visited the Trinity Monastery of St. Sergius, which was founded by Sergius (surprise, surpise) in 1340. He is buried in the trinity cathedral where they have an ongoing memorial service for him during the 8 hours a day it is open. There’s a constant line going that sprawls into the courtyard of people who come from miles around to light candles there and kiss his grave. We saw a procession of townspeople marching toward the monastery carrying banners, crosses and candles. I asked a Russian lady who they were, so needless to say I’m still not sure because I only understood about two to three words per sentence, but she said something about them walking from afar and stopping in different towns gathering more and more followers. There is more than one cathedral, but only the one where St. Sergius was buried was open when we went. I must say I got a little cathedralled-out while living in Latin America, but this one was so different that I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was very small, but astoundingly beautiful. The inside was covered with murals, mostly individual paintings depicting various scenes of Christ’s life. Of course it was lit only with candles and dim hanging lanterns, but what made it so amazing was that there was a little line of nuns softly singing Gregorian chant. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, so I’m posting pictures of the outside of the cathedral and the grounds of the monastery. Apparently the Bolsheviks closed it during Soviet times, but it was opened by Stalin (who had a higher tolerance of religion) and used as a museum and monastery until 1988, when the patriarchs there moved to Moscow. It still functions as a monastery to this day, but on a smaller scale.

After our tour we spent some time shopping in the town. It was so beautiful. It was really nice to walk up and down the streets and get a feel for what Russia's really like. We live in such a weathy area that I feel like we could be practially anywhere. It was nice to see the tree-lined streets and quaint little houses and talk to some of the townspeople who were there selling their goods. They get a lot of European travellers, so a number of them spoke English. It was funny too, because they kept giving us prices in euros. Isn't it obvious I'm not European? Anyway, among other things, I bought this cute little apron there, which you will have to tilt your head to view because I don't have time to save it to my computer and turn it. I apologize for the neckache.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Swan Lake

Last night we did my favorite activity so far. We went to the ballet. Normally I’m not so much the ballet type. I mean, who wants to look at men leaping around with dead squirrels in their pants? But we saw Swan Lake—you just can’t beat seeing Tchaikovsky performed in his own country at a theater in the middle of Red Square. It was unreal. We had to go up two escalators to get to our seats, but it didn’t even matter. We had a great view of the stage, including the orchestra pit, which was my favorite part. Two of the girls in our group are dancers. They were sitting on either side of me, their mouths gaping open while they were shaking their heads from side to side in disbelief. I’ll admit I even shed a tear our two during some of the violin solos. We have tickets to Snow Maiden in a couple weeks, and we splurged for better seats on that one. I’m counting the days...

Attending the ballet made me think even more than normal about communication. Well, and about human nature in general. I mean, there we all were, Americans, Asians, Western Europeans, but mostly Russian, all enjoying the same production together. Some of us speak languages with umpteen million declensions (can you tell I’m a little frustrated in learning Russian?) where others favor word order variation, but it didn’t matter. We cried together, we cheered together and we shouted bravo (which I particularly enjoyed). It just amazes me that so much can be communicated without speaking. I realized not long ago that in my career I’m basically a professional charades player. I don’t enjoy playing charades when its purpose is for the entertainment of others; I’m horrible at it. But in my career as a Spanish teacher, I spoke the target language as much as possible, and just used gestures to help my students fill in the blanks. In those circumstances it served a very useful purpose. And I never realized how much I would use that talent until I came to Russia and couldn’t speak well enough to communicate everything I needed to. I mean, today alone I had to use those charades skills to ask our groundskeeper for new lightbulbs (that was pretty funny—I pretended I was screwing them into my make-believe ceiling), and I had to ask the lunch lady for more bowls—I could only remember the word for plate. I guess my point is just that no matter what country I’m in it just never ceases to amaze me how similar the people are. And how fun it is to laugh together.