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.