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...