Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat...or Pushkin?

Happy Hallowe'en everyone! On the metro ride home tonight I saw a few people dressed up in costumes (zombie, cat, witch) but that has been it for any Hallowe'en cheer today. On friday I watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" with my teen classes - such a cute movie! We all brought in candy and juice and I wore this witch's hat I found in my flat. It was a fun little Hallowe'en party, but I've got to say past Hallowe'ens in Canada have been a lot better. My housemates and I threw two awesome Hallowe'en parties the last two years of uni, and I'm feeling very nostalgic remembering them tonight. On the other hand, I DID get to go to a really cool musuem tonight, the Pushkin Musuem of Fine Art. I met a friend at Kropotkinskaya on the red line, and we walked the short distance (about ten minutes) to the musuem, which is directly opposite the gorgeous, golden-domed Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In the early evening dusk, as the sun went down over the Moskva river, the domes appeared to be on fire. The Cathedral is the tallest Orthodox church in the world, and is a very impressive sight. Later, after the musuem, we walked along the bridge that leads to the church. It reminded me of the Taj Mahal, with its ornate, Eastern-style architecture that is so unlike anything I have ever seen.

Not the greatest pic of the cathedral (this was taken the night I did the Nike run back in September)

Here is a better one, taken from a river cruise on the Moskva River last weekend

Its absolutely breath-taking, especially when you're standing on the square next to it and just looking up at those brilliant gold domes (or "Dairy Queen swirls" as an Orthodox priest I met in London once described the distinct style of architecture!). During the USSR era, Stalin blew the cathedral up and tried to turn it into the Palace of the Soviets, but lack of funds and the outbreak of WWII put a damper on his grandiloquent schemes. During the Krushchev period, the empty foundation hole was actually turned into the world's largest open air swimming pool. Finally, in 1990, permission was given by the failing Soviet government to the Russian Orthodox Church to begin reconstruction of the cathedral, and now it has come full-circle.

Ok, back to the Pushkin was built in 1912, although it was originally named after the Tsar Alexander III rather than Russia's most famous poet (it wasn't until the centenary of Pushkin's death, in 1937, that his name was given to the musuem). The raison d'etre for the musuem? Professor Ivan Tsvetaev (the father of the famous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva) was convinced that Moscow desperately needed a fine arts musuem to parallel the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. The building is very neo-Classical, with huge marble pillars and lush foliage and landscaping.

We walked in through the entrance and paid for tickets - 300 roubles each, although if we had been students, it was only 150 roubles (next time I go, I think I'll bring my student card even though sadly, I am no longer a student - such a weird thought!). 300 roubles isn't bad though, about $10. The woman working at the ticket booth spoke English as well as Russian, which was nice especially since we got kind of confused at the start. Before you enter the musuem proper, you have to go into the garde-robe and check your coat and any bags that are over 25x30cm.

After we figured that out, we toured the musuem. It was about 5:00pm when we arrived, and it closed at 7:00, but it gave us enough time to really see a few exhibits in great detail. I'm definitely going to go back, as I didn't get to see the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists (they're housed in a separate building next door) and Cezanne is one of my all-time favourite artists. I read in my tour book that they have a few of his landscapes of Mount Ste-Victoire!! There are also several Monets and Manets, as well as works by Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso.

The area of the musuem we toured tonight was mostly Classical (Greek and Roman statues) and Byzantine, which was really cool! The icons were gorgeous - such vibrant, deep, and rich colours. The saints depicted in the icons are much more mournful-looking than Western portrayals of saints, and I noticed that so much emotion is depicted in their eyes. I really want to learn more about the history of icons in Russian Orthodoxy.

There was also an exhibit currently on, featuring paintings by Armenian artists. That was really interesting as I know very little about Armenia, besides the fact that there was a genocide of the Armenians by the Turks. The paintings were beautiful, particularly one that was of a violent storm. It reminded me of this work, a favourite of mine called The Monk by the Sea by the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich:

There's something I just love about paintings that capture the beauty and turbulence of Mother Nature, and this painting just captivates me. The colours, the violence of the storm and the relative calm and repose of the monk in the face of such a vignette...the Armenian painting conjured up a similar feeling in me. I'm really happy I went to the musuem tonight; it was a fun way to spend the evening and I can't wait to go back. If you are coming to Moscow, I definitely suggest stopping by, and since its so centrally located (Red Square is a 5 minute walk away - you can see the spires of the Kremlin easily) it makes the perfect starting off point for a day of sightseeing!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Shop till you drop

Today Rhea and I went to the mecca of commercialization here, Zolotoi Babylon, Golden Babylon (rather aptly named, huh?). It's a huge mall (over 300 stores) in Rostokino, only about a 15 minute train trip away from Mytishi. My goal was to buy a winter coat, but I didn't really find what I was looking for - nothing seemed warm enough, or else it was too expensive. I did, however, buy a winter running jacket! It's lined in fleece and has a hood with a drawstring, a high collar, and extra sleeves inside with thumbholes to provide another layer for your hands. I'm actually almost excited for it to really snow here so I can try it out! (Famous last words, I'm sure...!)

Golden Babylon was a fun place to check out. There were a lot of Western stores - H&M, Zara, Topshop, Mango, LaSenza (woo Canadian brand!) - as well as international sporting ones like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok (with a HUGE poster of Alex Ovechkin holding a shoe in his hand and smiling diabolically). There was also a Stockmann's, a gourmet delicatessan that is basically a Western foodie's idea of heaven. There were tons of fancy imported products from Europe and North America, as well as the typical stuff that expats miss - Oreos, Skippy, marshmallows and Rice Krispies, Betty Crocker icing and Pepperidge Farm cookie mix, mini Breton crackers...and brown sugar!! Rhea bought two packages of it, as well as some cocoa powder, to make brownies and chocolate chip cookies. After a few hours of exploring Babylon, however, Rhea and I started to go a little crazy. Have you ever noticed how malls just suck all the energy out of you? The lack of windows also make it possible for a nuclear holocaust to occur outside without you having any idea until you finally brave the real world once more. Luckily, nothing that drastic had happened, but it was still a relief to get outside again and hop on the train back home!

In other news, I finally got some English-language books!! Following Nate's advice, I went to Biblio-Globus, this gigantic, three-storey bookstore right across from the Lubyanka. The Lubyanka has a very dark, grim history for Muscovites: it was the headquarters of the KGB and the most feared prison during Stalin's Great Purges. It is one of the cruel ironies of life that in times of desperate fear and terror, some people turn to jokes as a way to deal with the unbelievable horrors with which they are faced. There was a popular joke during the height of the Stalinist Terror that referred to the Lubyanka as the tallest building in Moscow, because "you could see Siberia from the basement" (the "lucky" prisoners were the ones who got sentenced to hard labour in Siberia, rather than death...but I would argue that death might have been preferable).

So it was with a solemnity that I exited the metro at Lubyanka and walked past this infamous building. Oddly enough, the Neo-Baroque building itself is beautiful, but on second thought, maybe that isn't too odd. Russia in its entirety is a curious juxtaposition between extremes: the sacred and the earthy; cold winters and warm Russian hospitality; brutal rulers like Ivan Grozny (the Terrible in Western lore) who alternated between fits of incredible violence and moments of sincere repentence and religious fervour; centuries of political and cultural oppression and literary and artistic works of the greatest depth and beauty that managed to flourish regardless; and, perhaps most famously, the differences and tensions between East and West. So it kind of makes sense, in a way, to walk past the Lubyanka and be struck both by its physical beauty and its historical ugliness.

The Lubyanka, built in 1898

Biblio-Globus was very easy to find, as there were actually signs getting off the metro that pointed the way. It is one of the most famous bookstores in Moscow, and is actually ranked #74 of 622 things to do in Moscow by Lonely Planet travelers (fun fact!). It is also housed in a stunning building, which was absolutely packed with eager bookworms much like myself. The English section is on the second floor, along with other foreign languages, and the selection is pretty good. There was a LOT of chick lit (Cecilia Ahern of P.S. I Love You fame, Sophie Kinsella of the Shopaholic books, and the ubiquitous Danielle Steele), as well as a wide array of Stephen King, Dan Brown, and Agatha Christie. I saw one Clive Cussler book (Inca Gold, in case you were wondering Dad) as well as shelves of English classics - James, Joyce, Shakespeare, Austen, Bronte, etc. I was a little disappointed by the selection of Russian novels translated into English. There was the typical Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, but I was hoping for more eclectic choices, maybe some Turgenev or Bely? Anyways, I finally narrowed down my wishlist to two books: one non-fiction (Moscow 1812: Napoleon's Fatal March by Adam Zamoyski - preparation for my trip to Borodino soon!) and one historical fiction (The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, starring the captivating trio of Lev Trotsky, Frida Kahlo, and Diego Rivera. Rhea recommended it to me and I loved Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, so I have high hopes!). Both books were around 450 roubles each (about $15USD, which my mum has told me is EQUAL to Canadian dollars right now!!). I also bought a cute tote bag from Biblio-Globus and some post-it notes for class (the Russian version, because the Post-It brand name ones were ridiculously expensive...500 roubles for a little pack!!)

This teacher may be devoted to her classes, but she is not THAT devoted. 500 roubles for post-its? Do you know how many beets that would buy?

Oh my gosh, I'm turning into a Russian...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Life lessons (learned while out and about in Moscow today)

On the surface, today might not seem to have been very successful for me. That is, the goal I woke up with in the morning (find a bookstore that sells English-language books)* was not achieved. But I realized that today actually taught me a few really important lessons, things that I might have already known in theory but definitely not in practice. So here goes:

Don't be too proud or too shy.

I thought I had come prepared for everything when I set off for Moscow this morning. I had googled my destination, drawn a map, tucked my Moscow guidebook in my purse, AND I was even wearing my glasses!! (That "AND" is for you, Mum and Dad!) I still managed to get lost though...arghh!! When I got off at Mayakovskaya and stepped out onto Triumfalnaya Ploschad' (Triumph Square), all I could see was the crazy Moscow traffic, huge billboards, statues, and people and pigeons everywhere. Naturally, there were no street signs. I think normally I would have tried to figure it out on my own, but today I was on a bit of a time crunch so I sucked up my shyness and asked these two women how to get to Sadovaya Triumfalnaya, the street I needed. Of course, there was a bit of confusion because I was stressing the wrong syllable (embarassing!! That's where the pride part comes in) but in the end they ended up pointing me in the right direction. And they were so sweet! Later on, I wandered into an area forbidden to pedestrians, and was stopped by this guard yelling "Devushka!" at me. My initial impulse was to scurry away in humiliation and confusion, but instead I turned on my most charming smile and asked him for help. And again, just like the two women, he showed me what way I needed to go. He also grinned at me and told me I was "ochen krasivaya" - very beautiful! :) Just goes to show you what a smile can do to improve your appearance when you're living in a city populated by tall, leggy Maria Sharapova-look-alikes!

So, thanks to the directions of these kindly strangers, I found the address I needed: 6 Vorotnikovsky Pereulok, a little sidestreet in the Tverskaya area of Moscow. But instead of the nice, cosy looking English bookstore I had expected, all I saw was a sign for a hair salon. I wandered around for a while, probably looking very suspicious (or just lost) until I got frustrated and decided to just stomp home. Then I had a change of heart (again with the sucking up of the pride) and marched inside the salon and asked if they knew where the English bookstore was. The security guard spoke a bit of broken English, and between his English and my Russian, I gathered that the store had switched locations three years ago. Blin! (a mild swear word, like "crap! in English) Google maps, I am disappointed in your faulty directions!! Anyways, he drew a map for me showing me how to get to their new location. If I hadn't worked up the courage and humility to ask, I would have never known!

Have goals, but be flexible.

That is, don't beat yourself up about it if your goals aren't achieved by the date you had set, or if they take a more circuitous route on the road to completion. This morning, I was so excited to finally have the chance to be surrounded by English books, but after the security guard told me about the new address, I realized I just didn't have enough time to get over to that area of the city (I had to teach a class back in Mytishi at 17:15). So, what to do? Well, I was in the middle of Moscow with about an hour to kill before I had to head back to Mytishi, so I decided to just enjoy an afternoon in the city. I window-shopped along Tverskaya Ulitsa, which is Moscow's premier shopping street, and popped into a makeup store called Etoile (star in French, how could I resist my last name?) and United Colours of Benetton, where I drooled over...well, everything. It actually ended up being a great afternoon!

Tverskaya Ulitsa then...

and now.

Enjoy the little things.

I had been prepared to spend money today when I was anticipating English literary nirvana, but upon my hopes being dashed I figured it was probably better this way. The old Katie might have consoled herself by buying something - anything - you know, in one of those horrible consumerist moods where you just feel the urge to buy. But I didn't spend any money today (besides on metro and bus passes) and it felt really good. It also gave me the opportunity to enjoy the little things, like the free shots of hot chocolate Starbucks was handing out on the street :)

Sometimes its more about the journey, not the destination.

Ok, I realize this sounds like a fortune cookie. But on my way back into Mytishi, I didn't have anything to do but just sit and enjoy the bus ride. Normally I bring something to read, or I have Rhea to chat with or, worse case scenario, I sit there and seethe over Moscow traffic. But today I had no books to read, I was alone, and the traffic...well, it finally hit me that its out of my control (let's just say that the Winnie the Pooh nightshirt I had as a kid that said "Type Bee Personality" on it doesn't exactly describe my personality) and all I could do was sit back and enjoy the ride. So I did. And I noticed things I probably wouldn't have noticed if my nose had been in a book or I was mentally cursing crazy drivers. Like, I noticed this pouty little girl, stuffed into a marshmallow-esque snowsuit, sobbing her heart out over what I could only assume were her life's injustices. Her mother was sitting beside her with this classic, motherly exasperated look on her face. I also noticed that whenever we passed a church, a few people on the bus would cross themselves in a very solemn, respectful, and reverant way. It was very moving. What surprised me was that it wasn't only the older babushkas who were making the sign of the Cross, but younger people too - men and women my age. There is something about quiet faith that I find so beautiful. I remember at my great-grandmother's funeral, a woman who was the epitome of grace and style and whom everyone loved very much, I saw out of the corner of my eye my other great-grandmother approaching the coffin to pay her respects. I don't think anyone else was watching except for me, and what I saw was an image that has remained in my memory for its absolute beauty. She paused at the coffin, this tiny, stooped-over little woman, and very slowly and reverently crossed herself. The phrase "sic transit gloria mundi" - thus passes the glory of the world - came into my mind at the time. It just seemed to sum up everything about life and death and faith and beauty and love to me. Seeing these people on the bus make that same Sign brought back my memories of my two great-grandmothers, and gave me some time to reflect on them, something that would never have happened if I had been more transfixed with my destination.

And finally...don't sweat the small stuff.

Most of us have probably either read the book by this same title or heard of it, but it really sums up just how important the right attitude is. So I didn't make it to the English bookstore today - who cares? I explored a new part of Moscow; I got over my shyness and pride and asked for directions; I got to practice my Russian; I got to meet some very kind and helpful strangers (oh! I almost forgot - I met a man from Holland who spoke English and together we helped each other figure out the right metro station to get off was really fun talking to him!)...and most importantly, I got some quiet time on the bus heading home to think about my amazing great-grandmothers and how much I love and miss them. Big Nanny, I learned to love my curly hair because you always fussed over how much you loved it and wanted to know what products I used so you could get your hair to look the same. You remain the epitome of style to me and you are missed so, so much by so many people. Nanny Ivadel, I wish I could visit you right now in Cambridge and give you a hug, but I will ask my mum to give you one for me next time she visits you. I love you and miss you!

I hope these life lessons I learned - and lived - today don't come across as preachy. I am definitely guilty of not always being the most "go with the flow" person, but over the years I've been learning to let go of control sometimes, and especially here in a foreign city that is more true than ever. Life is too short!!

* This goal was put in place so that I can finally stop scrounging around my flat for ANYTHING in my native language to read...and by anything, I really do mean that. I read a book on the history of tractors in Ukraine.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Would you like fries with that?

In grade ten, I remember my crazy (but brilliant!) art teacher Mr. Schnarr telling us about a painting one of his former students had done. The student had manipulated the ubiquitous symbol of McDonalds', the golden arches, to stand in as a nod to the ancient Roman practice of building triumphal arches over cities they had conquered. The painting was meant to be a social commentary on commercialism, capitalism, probably a lot of other -isms...and 16-year old me thought it was very clever and edgy. I still do, actually. Because one thing is true...those golden arches of McDonalds' are recognized around the world, and they really can be said to symbolize the triumph of America at its best/worst, depending on your viewpoint.

Irony: a McDonalds in Russia with a typical cement block/apartment building behind it. Capitalism meets Communism.

Since the first "Mak Doh-nalhdz" opened in Russia in 1990, the previously foreign concept of "fast food" has become part of daily life. At first, people were so excited by McDonalds that they were actually getting married in the restaurants! (somewhat similar to my previous post on engagement photos in Starbucks here) Today, the novelty doesn't appear to have waned. Russians still love their Mickey Ds. In a recent poll I did in my class of teenagers, ALL of them professed a love for McDonalds over any other type of fast food, although Burger King came in a close second. Here in Mytishi, there is a McDonalds, a KFC, and a Subway all in Krasnii Kit, or Red Whale, the shopping mall. It was a little disconcerting the first time I walked into the mall and saw the mini food court set up just like something you'd find in North America. It was like coming home! A little piece of North American culture in the middle of Mytishi (although that's pretty sad, that McDonalds and KFC remind me of home...and I can't even remember the last time I ate at either of those places! I have to confess though that the presence of Subway makes me really excited. I haven't tried it yet but I'm saving it for a rainy day...which is pretty much every day here in Mytishi now that I think about it...ok enough with this long, random train of thought).

Anyways, American-style fast food is very popular here, but that's not to say there isn't a Russian version of fast food. Perhaps the most popular is called "Kroshka Kartoshka." I originally translated this as "My Darling Little Potato," but a Russian student I taught last month, Katya, told me it's more like "My Little Potato Crumb." Either way, its a really cute name!

Standing out front a Kroshka Kartoshka in Moscow

You can find Kroshka Kartoshka stands, kiosks, and little restaurants EVERYWHERE, and there are always line-ups. What exactly is their specialty? Potatoes. Baked potatoes, specifically. With just about every topping and stuffing imaginable - several different kinds of cheese, smetana (sour cream), real (!)bacon, crab meat, pickled vegetables, peppers, herring, mushrooms...honestly, there are more but these are all I can remember. And the price? A standard potato with butter and cheese is 26 roubles (less than a dollar Canadian) and the toppings/stuffings are only 8 roubles each. Wow!

My friend Hannah deciding what toppings she wants...a hard choice!!

As someone who has never really been a fan of McDonalds or other standard American fast-food, I think something like Kroshka Kartoshka is a really cool idea. Its definitely very Russian, and I wonder if it could ever catch on in North America the same way that McDonalds has caught on over here. Either way, one thing is sure - potatoes, whether in french fry or baked form, are definitely popular here!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Journey to No-Mans-Land (aka my Monday and Wednesday afternoons)

On Monday and Wednesday afternoons, I have a private lesson with a fifteen year old boy - let's call him Lebron, after his favourite player in the NBA (or "the National Basketball Association," as he keeps calling it despite my efforts to get him to use the acronym). Lebron is a great kid, his English is very good, he's a huge fan of the 19th century literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (what 15 year old - or anybody for that matter - has a favourite literary critic?!), but he isn't stuck-up or arrogant at all. He also happens to have a very wealthy family, which means trips to Barcelona and Paris, a private driver in a big black SUV, and a house.

I haven't seen a house since arriving in Russia almost two months ago, because everyone lives in the stereotypical communist-style block apartment buildings. Most people have a dacha, a small cottage in the country where they grow their fruits and vegetables, but houses are just not common here in the Moscow region. I was talking to two of my friends here, Oleg and Sasha, and they were asking me about Canada and whether I lived in a house or a flat. "I've lived in both," I answered. "A house with my family and then an apartment and a dorm for a couple years in university." "What do you like better?" they asked next. This was when I had my horrible "spoiled North American brat" moment, which I'm still so embarassed and disgusted about. I told them that I like living in a house when I have my family or friends there, but that I feel safer in apartments if I'm living alone. "Why do you feel safer in a flat?" they wanted to know. "Well..." I thought out loud. "My house is pretty big, and sometimes if I'm alone there at night I get worried about all the different entrances or windows someone could use to get in there." Then this little voice went off in my head, like Listen to yourself, Katie. Aww, woe is me, my house is just too big that I get scared. Like, barf. Ugh...I sounded so spoiled, and suddenly I just felt incredibly guilty and disgusted with myself. Most families here live in a two or three ROOM flat, and there I was, sounding like I was complaining about having a big house!

Alright, well enough about that. Needless to say, I was not too happy with myself. I'm really learning to appreciate just how lucky I have had it growing up...I think I always kind of knew that, but living here is making me realize more and more that my happy North American experience is certainly not the norm. Knowing something and understanding something are two different things.

Ok, there's my moralizing, Full House-hug-it-out moment of the day. I don't want to sound like I'm preaching!! Back to Lebron and his house...

Despite his having a private driver, my lessons with him have to be at his house, rather than the school, and I have to take a series of buses and marshrutkas to get there. I know, what is the private driver for then, anyways?? a very stupid move, the company I work for sent me out to find his house on my own, with very brief directions consisting of "Take the 11 or 13 marshrutka to the bus station, then take the 314 bus, then walk to his house." Umm...ok.

So I managed to eventually find the 314 bus, but since I didn't actually know what stop I was supposed to get off at, I rode the bus for quite some time before the woman who makes you pay for the tickets told me to get off (On Russian buses, there is usually some woman who sits at the front and teeters around everytime a new passenger gets on, and then she asks you where you're going and takes your money. The bus driver has no communication with anybody, and is usually completely encased in a little glass cubby).

So I was basically kicked off this bus and stranded on the side of a highway. Oh, did I mention that this was the day we got our first snowfall? And naturally, I was wearing a skirt. I waited around for about 30 minutes, freezing. I started to cry at one point but then when my tears started freezing on my face I made myself stop. Luckily, Rhea had let me borrow her mobile just in case (haha, self-fulfilling prophecy?!) so I called the administrators at the school, but that was completely pointless. So then a bus came along and I hopped on it and rode back to Mytishi. When I walked back into the school, one of the administrators actually had the nerve to be mad AT me!! For failing to find this random house when they had given me no house number, no street number, no stop to get off at...ARGHHHH!!!

The next lesson, they sent a Russian with me, Vlada, and to my delight even SHE got us lost! Hah! So it wasn't just me being stupid! Now, however, I know how to get there, what stop to get off at, and how to find his house, so it's not that bad. The other day, the bus ride was actually very nice, (probably because for once it was sunny out) and the sun-dappled forest with the birch trees and golden leaves were absolutely breath-taking. It does take about an hour and a half to get there, though, and an hour and a half to get back...all for an hour and a half long lesson! Grrrr. And then I have a class immediately afterwards, at 7:30, so its pretty rushed and stressful.

Lebron's house itself is very nice, but there's a reason I called this post my journey to "No-Man's-Land." That is because his house is right in the middle of what can only be described as a barren wasteland. Seriously. When I get off on the side of a highway somewhere outside Mytishi, I have to walk down this dirt road for about 10 minutes...and those 10 minutes are the bleakest minutes of my day. There is no vegetation, just mud (I'm suddenly reminded of a line from Wilfrid Owen's WWI poem, Dulce et Decorum est: Bent double, like old beggars under sacks/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge), and no sign of life besides some crows picking at a cat corpse. Lovely. An empty swing at a decrepit-looking playground swings ominously back and forth in the wind. It is honestly the creepiest place EVER, yet there are all these huge McMansions around, which gives No-Man's-Land an eerie, horror-film-esque sense. Lebron's house has high brick walls built up all around it, and a big iron gate with one of those huge wrough-iron knockers that reminds me of something from Beauty and the Beast.

Today being Wednesday, I was mentally preparing myself for the journey to No-Man's-Land when I got an email from the administrators letting me know that Lebron had to cancel his lesson! Yay!! It's postponed till tomorrow, so I'm still going to have to go out there, but seeing as how its raining and depressing out in Mytishi right now, its really MUCH better to just stay inside and drink tea and watch Pillars of the Earth then confront the living embodiment of T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"Pen-friends", PO-lice, and puke

I haven't really written about any of my classes yet, so I thought I'd shed some light on what exactly I am getting paid the princely sum of 20,000 roubles (not dollars...sigh) a month for. I have five classes: a group of advanced teens (who are not actually advanced), upper-intermediate adults, intermediate teens, and two private lessons - one with an upper-intermediate 15-year old and the other with a 7-year old beginner (who I haven't met yet...we start this Thursday).

I meet with each of these classes twice a week, for a total of three hours each. Most of my classes are in the afternoon and evening, and I am done teaching every night by 9pm, which is great. Generally speaking, I love all my students (with one exception; a girl with the ironic moniker of Nastya. Ironic because the first five letters of her name truly describe her personality). For the most part, they're all interesting, witty, enthusiastic, and intelligent people, and I find that I'm learning just as much from them as they are (hopefully) from me!

When I was studying French and Russian in university, I constantly worried that my professors were secretly laughing at me whenever I'd attempt a difficult-to-pronounce word or a complex grammar structure (or, sometimes, not-so-secret laughter: on one memorable occasion in Russian class, I accidentally told my male professor that I "wanted" him...his eyes bugged out a bit first before he started laughing uproariously at me. I still want to sink into the ground whenever I think about that, but at least I never made the same grammar mistake again!)

Well, it turns out my language profs probably were laughing at me, but maybe not quite in the sadistic way I feared. I DO secretly laugh at my students sometimes, but its in a very loving, not pitying, manner, more along the lines of "that's so cute!" then "what an idiot." Last week, I played a game called "Fax machine" with one of my classes, where everyone has to think of five questions and five answers for "Who, what, where, when, and why." One of the questions a student came up with was "Who is your penfriend?"

It actually took me a second to realize that she meant "penPAL," and then even after I told her the correct word, she was still confused. "But pal is the same as friend. So why can't we say penfriend?" she asked. "Umm...because you just can't. It doesn't sound right." I replied lamely (does anyone have a better explanation for this one? Help!) It was really cute though, and I could see how easy of a mistake that would be for a non-native English speaker to make.

A common pronunciation error I've come across is with the word "police." Today I drilled that word about fifty times with one of my students, who insists on pronouncing it "PO-lice." "pah-LEES," I say. "PO-lice," he answers. Arghhhh!!!

And then, to finish off my Monday classes, I spent a considerable amount of time tonight explaining different slang words for "vomit." (Hey, I'm just happy everyone already understood the meaning of the word "diarrhea" so I didn't have to spend too much time on that vocab word!)

I mean, who actually uses the word "vomit," right? Nobody says, "I vomited." The book instructs students to use the phrasal verb "to be sick," but again, nobody says "He's being sick" in lieu of "He's throwing up." And so, since teaching colloquial English is an important part of Language Link's philosophy, I did a whole mini-lesson on synonyms - puke, barf, throw up - and in what context to use them. Needless to say, I was relieved that I hadn't had time to eat dinner before the class!!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy birthday, Mr. Prime Minister

A few days ago, Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of Russia, celebrated his 58th birthday. Ok, you might say, who cares? After all, who even knows when Stephen Harper's birthday is? (Actually, a better question might be who even knows who Stephen Harper is, besides Canadians?) But here in Russia, Putin is a national hero. There are music videos in his honour, featuring gyrating Russian girls crooning about how they want a "man like Putin." A political youth organization, Nashi, was created in 2005 and has been referred to as the "putinjugend" by Western journalists, a play on the hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) of Nazi Germany. His approval rating in 2007 was 81%, the highest of any world leader, and has only continued to rise in the wake of the forest fires and heat wave of this past summer, when President Medvedev's incompetency was only highlighted by Putin's expert dealing of the situation. A lot of Russians credit him with restoring Russian national pride - as well as its economic and political pull in both the domestic and international spheres - following the breakdown of the Soviet Union. In comparison to bumbling, drunk Yeltsin, Putin is sober, ripped (he has a black belt in judo and is frequently photographed swimming in lakes, working out, and showing off his pecs), and very, very smart. He is, in many ways, exactly what Russia needs, and although I DO profess an admiration for Vladimir Vladimirovich, I have to admit that a cult of personality has arisen over the figure of Mr. Putin that I find truly disturbing and frightening.

The pop songs are bad enough, although I can laugh at them and not think much of it. But in honour of his birthday on October 7, a group of female journalist students at the prestigious Moscow State University released a special birthday calendar entitled: "Vladimir Vladimirovich, We Love You! Happy birthday!" with the text appearing over a photograph of a woman's bountiful cleavage. Inside the calendar are provocative poses, scantily-clad girls (all JUST 18 years old!), and cheesy lines like, "The fires are out but I'm still burning" and "How about a third time, Mr. Putin?" (referencing the possibility of Putin running for a third term as president in the upcoming 2012 elections, but the sexual innuendo is so obvious here they might as well hit you over the head with it). Ugh. This disgusts me in so many ways I don't even know where to start.

But the biggest problem with this calendar is the fact that these young women are all part of the same faculty that the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya graduated from. Politkovskaya was a talented and fearless journalist who reported on some of the worst human rights violations happening in Chechnya. She was also a voice of criticism of Putin's regime, calling out for fair elections and an end to the corruption that exists in a country that is far from democratic. I read one of her books a few years ago, on the state of Russian political parties as well as the horrific events happening in Chechnya and within the Russian army, and it truly was one of the those books that forces you to wake up and pay attention to a tragedy that most of the world knows little about. On Putin's birthday four years ago, Politkovskaya was assassinated in Moscow, and the details of her death still remain murky. Seeing that she had been a vehement and vocal critic of Putin and his government, it doesn't really take a rocket scientist to draw some conclusions about the person, or people, who lay behind her assassination.

Journalistic freedom, then, is far from a reality here in Russia. Other journalists who have opposed Putin and his party, United Russia, have met similar fates.

For these young journalism students to degrade themselves in such a way, to me, is morally repugnant. They are, as students in the same program Politkovskaya graduated from, effectively being passed her torch, yet they seem to have completely disregarded this in favour of pandering to the prime minister in skimpy lingerie. Not only are they degrading themselves as women, but to me, the most important thing about this is that they are degrading themselves as journalists.

Criticism from other journalism students at MGU has, thankfully, been loud and public. Another group of young female students released their own calendar, featuring photos of them with tape over their mouths and questions such as "Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?". One of these students succinctly explained, "Breasts are pretty, yes - I have them too. But I also have a head on my shoulders."

Please, from one young woman to another, regardless of our nationalities, experiences, and upbringings, I am begging the students who put together this erotic birthday calendar to start using their heads.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Canadian Thanksgiving in Russia a Thanksgiving dinner is tough. Its Sunday night in Mytishi right now, and I am counting down the minutes until my family comes online to Skype during their Thanksgiving meal...and then I can go to bed! I haven't gotten much sleep this weekend, but it has definitely all been worth it.

Multi-tasking: mashed potatoes, stuffing, ratatouille, and gravy all goin' at once

On Friday evening after teaching my group of advanced teens (who are not quite so advanced as I was led to believe, but that's another story), I made my way over to Rhea's to prepare some apple pies for the big feast. I was really tired and planned to go home after a few hours of prep, but then, to my surprise, Rhea received a phone call from Colleen, my flatmate. It turned out that somehow the huge bolts on the door to our flat had retracted, effectively locking Colleen in, and Stuart and I out.

We didn't think this was going to be a problem at first, but since this is Russia, it meant that Stuart and I wouldn't be able to get into our flat until Saturday afternoon, because the locksmith company wouldn't be able to come until then. Not to mention, the administrators at our school here had to show the company written proof that Stuart and I actually live in the flat, because otherwise we could just be thiefs trying to break in. Um yeah...and what about the girl trapped inside the apartment?! What if Stu or I were diabetic and needed to get into the flat to take our medication? Or Colleen had some emergency? Needless to say, none of us were too impressed by the situation. But, what can you do? Rhea and I put on some Jersey Shore and Glee and got peeling some apples.

(Stuart, on the other hand, had to deal with an angry babushka in our apartment building who was raving about calling the cops on him, since she was convinced he was trying to break in...)

I slept over at Rhea's, and the next morning Dima came to pick us up for one last turkey search. It turned out to be a futile search (which was probably a good blogger friend Nate just commented on how a turkey last year in Mytishi cost them 16,000 roubles!!). We did find turkey pieces, and for a few brief minutes we hysterically considered buying the individual pieces and somehow trying to assemble a whole turkey out of it - wouldn't that have been hilarious? We settled on two chickens though, and picked up some other stuff - plastic cups, plates, napkins, ice cream (sold in a bag rather than a plastic container or a box like Chapman's), and a bunch of ingredients for the salad Dima was planning to make (a "Cleopatra" salad - very traditional in the Russian sense because it uses a LOT of crab meat, pineapple, black olives, and mushrooms).

Then we headed back to my flat, arriving there just as the locksmith company was fixing my door - perfect timing! By this time it was around 3pm, so we didn't have a lot of time to waste dilly-dallying. Right away, I prepped the chickens (rubbing olive oil, sea salt, lemon juice, thyme, rosemary, and basil on them, and stuffing them with some onions and garlic) and got them into the oven.

Dima cutting up the olives for his salad; Rhea and Hannah in the background getting the pecans ready for pumpkin pie!

All in all, it took us about 4 and a half hours to get everything ready; in this time, a bunch of guests had arrived and were just drinking and enjoying Colleen's amazing appetizers (roasted pumpkin seeds and mushroom caps stuffed with Roquefort cheese and bacon). There were 22 of us, which was a little intimidating at first, but luckily there was enough food for everyone! My friend Michael, from Munich, brought me 16 authentic Oktoberfest bratwurst, as well as some mustard, so I cooked them up too and they were a big hit! Ooh - also added some Canadian decorations which I ended up wearing as the night progressed...

From this...

To this...Canadian pride!

The rest of the night was very solid - lots of drinking, chilling, and listening to music. My Canadian playlist, unfortunately, was quickly changed by my dear American friends, who clearly have no taste for true talent (haha). Here's a sample of the music I had picked out:

Summer of '69 - Bryan Adams
If I Had a Million Dollars - Barenaked Ladies
Keep on Rockin' in the Free World - Neil Young
Best I Ever Had - Drake
Banks of Newfoundland - Great Big Sea
American Woman - The Guess Who
No Sugar Tonight - The Guess Who
Patio Lanterns - Kim Mitchell (woo! Sarnia shout-out!)
Baby - Justin Bieber (as a joke!)
Working for the Weekend - Loverboy
Closer to the Heart - Rush
Man! I Feel Like a Woman - Shania Twain
New Orleans is Sinking - The Tragically Hip
My Heart Will Go On - Celine Dion (again, as a joke!)

Sigh. Like I said, no appreciation for real art. :)

Here are some more pics from the night:

Hannah and I, with the delish cookies she made!

Apple pie with crumb topping

My flatmates, Colleen and Stuart, and I, showing off our pumpkin pie. What you can't really see in this picture is how dark our kitchen is (we have one light bulb, so cooking after sundown is pretty much impossible) and that we're using a flashlight to check on our pie. Oh, and our oven has no temperature gauge or numbers written on it, so we have no idea how hot the oven actually is)

About 10 or 12 people ended up crashing at our flat, which is great because our flat is pretty palatial compared to Moscow standards. The pull-out chair/bed that one of my friends slept on was even bigger and longer than the little "coffin-bed" he sleeps on in his Moscow flat! Dima passed out fairly early, sitting totally upright on the couch, and whenever Iain would mention Belarus (where Dima is from), he would jerk his head up in response in his sleep. It was hilarious! Especially when Iain started talking about the upcoming Belarussian elections and joking that Dima was the perfect example of how Belarussians vote. "Just nod your head, Dima, that's what Lukashenko (the president of Belarus since '94) wants!" Then Dima would nod his head in his sleep, almost like a puppet.

Mmm getting sooo sleepy...and my bed is looking so inviting...Canadian Thanksgiving was probably one of the best ones I've ever had, and so, in the spirit of thanksgiving, I will end this blog with a few things I am thankful for:

- My amazing new friends here from all over the world - the US, Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Germany, Belarus, and Russia - who helped me celebrate my country's holiday this weekend

- My family, who I got to see and talk to tonight - I love you and miss you all so much!! Seeing you tonight made me SO happy!

- My health and the health of everyone I love in this world!

- And, to keep things from getting too sappy, the fact that I finally learned how to torrent the new episodes of Gossip Girl!

On that note, I think I'm going to climb into my bed and watch an episode now! Good night!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Turkey Hunting...and some MGU and Sparrow Hills recap

Rhea and I went out turkey hunting this morning.

No, not that kind of turkey:

Armed with purses and shopping bags rather than bows and arrows (or whatever else hunters use to catch turkeys), we ventured out to a different kind of jungle - Ashan, the Costco/Sam's Club "hypermarket" that I blogged about earlier. Ashan is somewhat manageable on weekdays, but Fridays are CRAZY, no matter what time you go, and today was no exception. Although, I guess the "fight of flight" atmosphere inside Ashan - including some elbowing, shoving, butting in line, and muttered curses - did add some authenticity to our turkey-hunting expedition.

We made it out alive, but alas! No turkey! Will I have to resort to roast chicken for tomorrow's Canadian Thanksgiving dinner? I'll keep you posted! I don't know if turkey is just a North American thing, but I am really starting to crave something along the lines of this:

A girl can dream, right? Well, wish me luck...the dinner is tomorrow and I'm hoping to have SOME kind of tasty, golden, delicious bird to feed my guests!

Anyways, to finish up my Sunday update:

After enjoying our Starbucks and people-watching at Arbat, Dima took us to Moscow State University (MGU), up in Sparrow Hills, which is in the southwest corner of the city and is the highest point of altitude (up to 220 m). MGU was founded in 1755 by Mikhail Lomonosov, the famous Russian scientist, polymath, and poet. Today, more than 40,000 undergraduates and 7,000 post-graduate students, as well as 5,000 specialists participating in "refresher" courses, call this stunning campus home. MGU is, perhaps not too surprisingly for Russia, very research-intensive with a focus on the sciences and maths. In 2010, it was ranked 93rd by QS World University Rankings (out of interest's sake, I googled the list - Cambridge was first, followed immediately by own alma mater, the University of Western Ontario, didn't make the top 100, although Canada had a good showing: McGill was 19th, U of T was 29th, and UBC was 44th).

1 down, 6 to go: my first picture with one of Stalin's "Seven Sisters"

MGU's main campus is absolutely stunning. I always thought Western's campus was gorgeous, but this was just unreal. I tried to imagine myself as a student here, walking in between the buildings with my books clasped to my chest, but I just couldn't fathom actually casually being like, "Yeah, this is my school."

The building in the photograph above is one of Stalin's "Seven Sisters," seven huge tiered, neo-classical buildings he had commissioned in the post-World War II era. The MGU main campus building is the largest of these sisters, and at the time of its construction, was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City. It truly is huge, with a spire that seems to reach on forever, topped only with a massive star at the top like some kind of Communist-inspired Christmas tree. The central tower is 240 m tall, 36 stories high, and flanked by four huge wings of student and faculty accommodations. It contains a total of 33 kilometers of corridors and 5,000 rooms!

I wish this was my own picture! :) MGU on Christmas, 2009

On both tree-lined avenues leading up to the main building, there are statues of famous Russians - from what I gathered, mostly scientists and "math-letes," although there were a few writers in there as well. This was very exciting for me!! I ran around and let out thrilled little yelps of recognition whenever I saw a statue I knew (in my defense, I'm a history major! Whatever gives you your little kicks, right?)

Here's Mikhail Lomonosov himself, the founder of MGU

With Alexander Herzen, the pro-Western writer and "Father of Russian Socialism." His autobiography is considered one of the best of the genre.

Dmitri Mendeleev, the guy we all have to thank for inventing the periodic table (and for all those hours spent trying to memorize it in high school science...ugh)

Here I am pretending to be one of Pavlov's dogs from his conditioning experiments
(Rhea is too busy laughing at me to play I said, HUGE history nerd!!)

Pondering "What is to be done?", the name of the book Nikolai Chernyshevsky is famous for writing (revolutionary democrat and philosopher)

Ok, enough with the lame, cheesy historical poses! My favourite picture of the day was one of Rhea, Dima, Polly and I at the top of Sparrow Hills, overlooking the city of Moscow:

It was a VERY fun day and I am super grateful to Dima for showing us new parts of Moscow. I can't wait to keep exploring this city!

Now off to tackle more Thanksgiving cooking preparation! Hope all you Canadians out there have a fabulous long weekend full of family, friends and food! :)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sunday in Moscow

After touring the honey festival - and sampling an insane amount of honey - on Sunday, the four of us - Rhea, Polly, Dima and I - meandered around Tsaritsyno park, where the festival had been set up. Despite the chilly weather, the park was full of people out enjoying the gorgeous grounds. Tsaritsyno first belonged to Tsarina Irina, the sister of Boris Godunov, before it ended up in the hands of Catherine the Great two centuries later, in 1775.

The entrance to the park

And those were some very capable hands. Catherine liked to have her fingers in all the pies at the time, so to speak, and when it came to renovating Tsaritsyno, she insisted on total control. Which probably drove her first architect, Vasilii Bazhenkov, nuts. The estate combined elements of traditional Russian, Gothic, Classical, and Arabic styles...before Catherine decided everything was unacceptable and had the whole place gutted. Her second architect attempted to cater to her (man, I'm really making Catherine sound like a "b with an itch" as my mother will sometimes say!) but the Empress' death at the end of the 18th century put an end to any renovations and the grounds and buildings gradually fell into a state of dilapidation.

Walking into Tsaritsyno Park

There's an abandoned fairy-tale atmosphere to the park that still lingers, I think. The old ruins of the palace and buildings are still there, although everything has been rebuilt in a massive reconstruction project, completed in 2006-2007. The original pathways, fountains, gardens, bridges, palace, church and lake are all beautifully restored and it seemed to me (although I've unfortunately never been) to mimic what I imagine Versailles to be like. You can take a virtual tour of the grounds here!

The fountain: water sprays up in time to classical music! Beautiful!

The lake - a huge expanse with several old fashioned bridges spanning it

The fall colours were absolutely stunning, and we saw a lot of young families taking impromptu photo shoots with the leaves.

Here you can see the old ruins (in the foreground) and the newly reconstructed palace in the background

In addition to the many young families, tourists, and couples strolling the grounds, I also glimpsed some art students working on their sketches (how I wish I was actually talented and could do the same, it looks so poetic!):

How beautiful is this palace? I should have taken more close-up pictures of the detailing, but it honestly reminded me of the royal icing trimming on a gingerbread house. Which just added to the whole "abandoned fairy-tale/Hansel and Gretl" vibe I was getting.

The Church of Our Lady Life-Giving Spring

While the four of us were walking around the grounds, two young twenty-somethings approached us, one of them armed with a very state-of-the-art looking camera. It turned out they worked for Moscow's official tourism magazine and were doing a piece on tourists to Tsaritsyno. They interviewed us for a few minutes, then snapped some pictures of us - it was very cool! Afterwards, we were all freezing so we piled into Dima's car and headed to Old Arbat for Starbucks.

Back in Canada, I'm not the biggest Starbucks person. Its nice for the odd treat, especially when you're at Chapters, but I am far from one of the Starbucks afficiondos who rattle off grande caramel macchiatos like its nobody's business. Still, how happy was I to walk into the Starbucks here?! Price-wise, it was about the same as back home - my tall green tea was 110 roubles, which is about $3.25. But when it comes to Starbucks, its also about the atmosphere I think - that cozy, chill feel where you can just sit back, warm your hands on a hot drink, and people-watch. Which is exactly what we did.

One couple next to us were getting their engagement photos done. Yes, at Starbucks. According to Dima, in Russia this is a way to show off how wealthy you are (actually, I remember reading somewhere how, when the first McDonalds started appearing in Russia, people were lining up to get married there!! So maybe this is along the same lines) It was very awkward to watch, yet fascinating at the same time. The photographer was getting them to arrange their hands, showing off the engagement rings, against the white Starbucks cups. Then the photographer ran outside and started taking more photos of them through the window as they ate cupcakes. Coming from one of the most beautiful parks I have ever walked through, I had to wonder: why wouldn't they get their engagement photos done somewhere like Tsaritsyno? Like, c'mon - Starbucks? Seriously?

We finally managed to draw our eyes away from this happy couple in the throes of romance. Since we were in the Old Arbat, a very trendy, expensive, and historical district in the heart of Moscow, we walked around for a bit just taking everything in. Arbat boasts one of the oldest surviving streets in Moscow, mentioned in a document from 1493! The name for the district comes from the Arabic word arbad, or suburb/outskirts, and was an important trading area of the city (hence the Arabic etymology: there are lots of Turkic loan words in the Russian language thanks to the Crimean Tatars and the Golden Horde's domination of Russia for a few hundred years). It is now a complete pedestrian-only zone, and an absolutely delightful place to stroll around. Rhea described it best, remarking that the colours of the buildings were like "walking through an Easter basket."

Ok, here's a Cyrillic Word of the Day: (if you guess correctly, I'll buy you one of these when I'm back in Canada! :) Actually, I'll probably buy you one anyways if you've gotten this far down my massive post!)

Old Arbat was beautiful, but also, readers be warned, very touristy. And thus, expensive. There were a lot of "souveniri" shops to be found, but a quick scan at the prices made me realize that I've still got nine more months to buy people gifts, and that maybe coming here to find them isn't the wisest choice!

Oh, a note for all you car lovers out there: Arbat is also THE place to go to spot some nice cars. Audis and Mercedes? Pfffff...they're nothing. Think Jaguars, Bentleys, Aston Martins (!)... WOW!

After we left Arbat, Dima took us to one final sight-seeing must - Moscow State University (MGU) and Sparrow Hills. But, seeing as it is getting pretty late here and this post is reaching epic proportions, I'm going to save that for another post and say good night :)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Round and round I ever going to know my way around here enough to not get lost every few days? I just got back from a trip to the Ashan (the "hypermarket," like a Sam's Club but without the membership fee) that should have taken me maybe an hour, roundtrip. Instead it took me almost three. I bought A LOT of groceries today in preparation for the Canadian Thanksgiving party I'm hosting this Saturday. A kilogram of apples for apple pie. A huge bag each of flour and sugar. A sack of potatoes. You get the picture...the bags I carried out of the Ashan weighed, oh, approximately the mass of a baby elephant. All I wanted to do was hop on the bus and merrily ride back into Mytishi.

Alas, the #419 or #169 bus never I waited around on the side of the highway for 20 minutes before a little marshrutka came chortling along, with a (deceptive) sign in the front window proclaiming, "Mytishi." Sweet, I thought to myself. This will take me right to the arena, across from my flat, and it only costs 22 roubles instead of the usual 50! Score for Katie! Ahh, famous last words...I guess this marshrutka must take the "scenic route" (kind of like the London to Kitchener Greyhound that goes on all the back roads and stops in every Godforsaken little town along the way) because I rode around on that bus for a good hour. At first I was oblivious to the fact that this was NOT the right way back to Mytishi, because the view out the window really was beautiful, and I was lost in admiring the changing leaves and the little rooftops of the dachas we were passing. But then I clued in: dachas. As in, the little weekend cottages where Russians grow their veggies. Not high-rise apartment blocks. Where was I???

I started to panic. Fittingly, "I Want to Break Free" by Queen started to play on the tinny little radio in the marshrutka as I desperately started considering how I too, could break free (The song was also a welcome change from the previous one, this Russian pop song that must be very "au courant" right now because I keep hearing it all the time...its just this girl's voice constantly repeating the phrase "Dolce and Gabbah -nah-nah-nah-nah"...soooo irritating, but definitely manages to capture the nouveau riche attitude here).

Finally, finally, I glimpsed the apartment blocks of Mytishi. Home sweet home!! I rejoiced in my head. I ignored the creepy guy with ALL gold teeth who was trying to hit on me, asking me if I spoke German, and waited for a familiar landmark. The marshrutka let us all off at the train station in Mytishi, which is still a good forty minute walk (and five flights of stairs!) from my flat. Honestly, though, I had kind of been expecting my grocery bags to break at some point during the walk, and the fact that they didn't was enough to make me happy. That, and the fact that I'm now sitting down and relaxing with an hour still to finish up lesson planning for tonight's class of upper-intermediate adults. I was so worried I'd end up missing the class because I was lost in a cornfield!

Alright, blogging will continue at some point tonight because I really want to finish writing about yesterday! Thank goodness I live only 2 minutes from the school so I know that, despite my clear lack of navigational ability, I won't ever get lost walking home from there!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Oh honey, honey

Today I finally achieved one of my goals for the first month living in Russia. I went to the Honey Festival.

The entrance to the All-Russia Honey Expo (The sign, "Yarmarka Myoda" means honey market)

Our friend Dima from Belarus (who we met last week at the Run Moscow 5k) came to Mytishi this morning to pick Rhea, Polly (an intern in Rhea's training from Virginia) and I up. It was AMAZING being in a car for the first time in a month; not having to take both the bus and the metro was wonderful and really saved us time and money. Spasiba bolshoi, Dima! We whizzed down the highway and around the three different rings that encircle Moscow until we got to Tsaritsyno, a park in southern Moscow that dates back to the 16th century. This is where the Honey Festival has been taking place, since it opened on September 3rd. Today was the last day of the festival, and it was absolutely packed with eager people!

A honey stand from Sochi, where the 2014 Olympics will be held- this is where I bought a jar of honey, made from apple trees and cherry blossoms

Honey is a big deal here in Russia, and people take it very seriously. Vendors from all over Russia and the former USSR sell their artisanal honeys, and each stall must pass a careful inspection to ensure that no honey is mislabeled or made from sub-par ingredients. The former (as of September 28, when President Medvedev dismissed him as a result of his vacationing during the wildfires and smog crisis) mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, keeps bees himself, although this fact has been somewhat controversial lately...let's just say Luzhkov has not been very popular lately, and his little bee-keeping hobby was derided in the press as just one more thing that kept him from doing his job.

Anyways, honey is a very serious thing here, obviously, and the Honey Festival certainly illustrated that today. There were so many vendors, and so much information! much taste-testing! Despite all the honey we tasted though, I don't think any of us tired of it. In fact, I just had a slice of bread smeared with a generous helping of delicious honey from Sochi! good! I love honey, and it was amazing to see all the different variants of it, especially when I'm so used to the generic "Billy Bee" honey in Canada.

Rhea, Polly and I testing some of the honey

A fermented honey drink, called "myedovooka"

Damskaya and moozhskaya: loosely translated, "Women's juice" and "Men's juice"... a honey drink, but still very oddly named...we avoided it

An "artsy" photo I tried to take

They sell honey in bear-shaped containers here too!! :) So cute!

Pondering what kind of honey to taste next

Decisions, decisions!

Ladling the slow, golden honey I chose into the container

Rhea and I also bought some honey that the vendor called "magical" - supposedly, it has some special natural, organic ingredient that is nature's most powerful antibiotic...Dima typed the Russian word into his translator on his mobile and in English it came out as "glue." Hmm. So we weren't too sure about that. But it definitely tasted good, and I do believe that honey is great to spoon into some tea when you're feeling sick, so I'm willing to give this a shot. The only thing that kind of worried me was the vendor telling Dima that we shouldn't ingest more than one teaspoon of the honey a day, or else we might have some kind of reaction to it that would make our ears turn least, I think that's what he said...

If you see some new pictures of me with red ears on this blog, you'll know I've been eating too much of this honey!

Tomorrow I'll continue writing about the rest of our day out in Moscow, after we left the honey festival! Till then, its time for me to have some sweet (literally, after all that honey!) dreams! Good night!