Friday, November 26, 2010

Let There Be Light

Today the electricity in our apartment building was turned off from 8am until around 6:15pm. Since the sun doesn't rise until around noon, and then its dark by 3:30, let's just say dressing and getting ready for work this morning was an adventure. I guess its a good thing I'm known for wearing mismatched socks anyways, because once I got out into the semi-light on the sidewalk, I noticed that one sock was blue, the other was hot pink. And don't even get me started on makeup - I wasn't about to risk going out in public looking like Bozo the Clown, so I opted for the fresh faced approach...

The school is in the same building as my flat, so even at work we were surrounded by the darkness. We taught by candlelight (so romantic! haha) until we exhausted our supply of tealights, and then I just resorted to playing old games with my students like "Ghost in the Graveyard" and "Telephone." After work, Colleen and I found a hardware store and bought six big candles in preparation for a dark night in our flat. But, as Murphy's Law continues to prove, once we returned with said candles, the power came back on and there was light.

A very interesting day, all in all, and one that I don't think would ever happen back in Canada. But, as my Russian administrator Vlada said with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders when I asked when the power would be back on, "Ne znayu. I don't know. This is normal day in Russia."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

No Diner Finer

Blast from the past: E and I at Prince Al's in 2006

I am a sucker for diners. You know the type: those kitschy, old-school, greasy-spoon establishments with vinyl booths, jukeboxes, malt milkshakes, 1950s paraphernalia on the walls and Elvis playing in the background. The food is simple and unapologetic - just good ol' burgers and fries, with maybe some Dad's Famous Root Beer in a bottle or Stewart's Orange Creamsicle Soda. There's a great diner in my university town that I frequented a lot in my four years away at school. It was the scene of many late-night coming-home-from-the-bar "Hey, I could really go for some fries right now" pit stops (Prince Al's knew who their main audience was and catered to us uni students, staying open until 3am) as well as several dates (what is more romantic than sharing a milkshake with your loved one, a la Lady and the Tramp?) and family lunches. Their slogan was "No diner finer" and I have to say that this boast still holds true for me, although Moscow's Starlite Diner comes a close second.

On Sunday, a bunch of us went out to this Russian version of an American diner for Colleen (my flatmate and fellow teacher)'s 25th birthday. To be fair, Starlite Diner was started by five American guys, so there is that element of legitimacy (although a Russian-created American-style diner based on their notions of 1950s Americana would be kind of hilarious). The first restaurant opened in 1994, and it has since grown into a bit of a franchise here, with four additional Starlite Diners here in Moscow. They're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and boast all the usual (and welcome!) trappings of a true diner - red vinyl booths, nostalgic black-and-white photos, a jukebox (!), black and white tile floor, and bright pink neon lights running along the wall. Plus - the menus and service are in English!!! Definitely a bonus for tourists in Moscow, although I know it might seem like a bit of a sell-out to be in Russia but choose an American diner. But there's something to be said for the familiarity of home when you're in a strange place, I think. Either way, at least it wasn't McDonalds!

We went to the Starlite Diner that is about a 10 minute walk from Tretyakovskaya station. It was already dark by the time we got off the metro, and this area of Moscow looked absolutely gorgeous by night, the ground covered with snow and the buildings lit up by spotlights.

The Tretyakov Gallery

We had to cross a bridge to get to the diner, so we stopped for a few minutes to fool around, slide on the ice, and take some photos.

Here I am with two of my fellow ESL teacher friends, Hannah and Jon. In the centre of this bridge are several "love trees", metal trees where couples have attached locks with their names written on them. The key to the lock is then thrown into the river. I think I've mentioned this before, how it's a wedding tradition here - so romantic!

I've heard that there are similar traditions in both Austria and Italy, so maybe it's a European thing. Either way, can we please make it a Canadian thing too? I love it!

Jon and Hannah sliding down the icy bridge

Next to a statue of the famous artist Ilya Repin, who was
the first artist to actually use the serfs as subjects in his paintings,
rather than just aristocrats

In front of Starlite Diner! So hungry and excited!

One of our Russian friends had called ahead and made reservations; there were about 16 or 18 of us expected so that was nice. When we got there, a big long table in the middle was set aside for us, and there was also complimentary cake (for Colleen) and champagne (for all of us!). The waitresses took our orders almost immediately and the food was ready very quickly. I did my usual "go to the bathroom" trick where you go the bathroom and then when you come back the food is magically there on the table, and even though it wasn't quite ready when I returned, our food came a few minutes later so that was great!

However, when it came to my own meal, I have to say I wasn't too impressed. As soon as I saw that they had chili on the menu, I knew that's what I wanted. I LOVE chili, and a big bowl of hot, spicy chili was exactly what I wanted after traipsing around snowy Moscow. I also ordered a side dish of broccoli (I know, I know, not exactly "diner food" but I haven't tasted broccoli in almost three months and I was sorely missing it). The chili was decent, but I wasn't a fan of the massive, melted, gelatinous mass of congealing cheese on the surface. Cheese on top of chili can be a good thing, but only if it was just sprinkled on top and is slowly melting...this cheese looked like it had had quite a while to melt. And then form a solid blob. Yuck.

Not to toot my own horn here, (although I guess this is my blog, so personal horn-tooting may be more acceptable here than elsewhere) but my own homemade chili is a LOT better. Nevertheless, this was passable. The broccoli was a very odd, vibrant shade of unnatural green, and it tasted like it had been microwaved. I really should have just followed the crowd and ordered burgers like everybody else, because they all seemed very pleased with their choices. Hannah got a burger with guacamole and loved it, and Jon ordered...the infamous Really Big Shawn Burger!! I had heard about this legendary burger from Nate's blog, so I convinced Jon to attempt to master this monstrously large piece of meat. It's three patties with cheese, bacon, and chili, as well as fries piled up around it. Check it out:

I don't have a beef with this burger, but its definitely not something I'd order. Kudos to Jon though for attempting to take it on; sadly, he failed but it was a valiant effort nonetheless! :)

So in terms of a comparison between Starlite Diner and the Prince Al's of my university life (which seems so long ago...*tear), I'd have to say Prince Al's wins out. At least for now. I plan on going back to Starlite as soon as possible and trying something else on the menu - perhaps the lamb burger in the pita? It sounds intriguing! One thing that Prince Al's offers that Starlite doesn't are more vegetarian options. Besides a few salad choices, Starlite didn't have any veggie burgers or falafel like Prince Al's. It does, however, have some of the most amazing milkshake flavours ever, and just may beat out Prince Al's for that. Snickers? Blueberry? Peanut butter? Check, check, and check.

It was an awesome night out with people who are truly becoming close friends of mine, and was a great way to wind down the weekend. On the walk back to the metro, the only thought running in my head was "I love my life, I love my life, I love my life..." Nauseating, right? haha but it's true. I am so happy here and sometimes I just have to pinch myself that I'm actually walking around Moscow. This city is gorgeous and I am falling in love with it more and more every day. I've got plans to try out more restaurants (around Mytishi though this time) so I'll try my hand at restaurant reviewing again. Although my meal wasn't the greatest at Starlite, I do definitely recommend the restaurant for its kitschy atmosphere, its delish milkshakes, and, of course, the English menus - such a nice change from all that Cyrillic! :)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Alexandrov Adventure

Yesterday morning, I woke up to this:

It was 7 a.m., pitch black outside, and pouring rain. My bed had never looked so tempting.

But I forced myself to get dressed and head outside to wait for the bus into Moscow. My friends and I had planned to go to Borodino, the battlefield 130 km west of Moscow where Napoleon "won the battle but lost the war" in 1812. Being the history nerd that I am, I was incredibly pumped to explore this battlefield. Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to go to Antietam, a Civil War battlefield in Maryland, and one of my dreams is to visit as many famous battlefields as I can - Gettysburg is definitely at the top of the list. And so is Borodino...still!!

Because surprise surprise, for some reason the train going to Borodino wasn't running yesterday. The woman behind the ticket counter at Belorusskaya Vokzal (train station) didn't offer a reason, just a curt "nyet." My friend Jon suggested going to Mozhaisk instead and trying to get to Borodino from there, but I remembered hearing about Nate and Tom's adventure last year and quickly quashed that idea. Instead, we decided to make a day out of it anyway and go visit one of the towns in the Golden Ring, Alexandrov.

This pair looked cozy on the metro...I wonder how long they had been sleeping.
It was on the circle line, which just goes around and around in a circle in the
centre of Moscow, and people DO tend to just ride it for hours while
they nap...

The entrance to Belorusskaya Metro Station

Even on a Saturday morning, the metro at Komsomolskaya was still bustling

One of the ceiling mosaics at the Komsomolskaya metro station

Outside Belorusskaya Vokzal, one of the train stations in Moscow. Note how perfectly
my coat matches the building :)

Alexandrov is a small (population 64,000) town 120 kilometres northeast of Moscow. It's part of the "Golden Ring", a ring of ancient cities to the northeast of Moscow that played pivotal roles in the development of both the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. They've been called "open-air musuems" and offer tourists a great panorama of traditional Russian architecture - churches, kremlins, etc. Although the Kremlin in Moscow is the most well-known in Russia, its not the only one. Kreml', or Kremlin, means fortress/citadel, and many towns in old Muscovy had kremlins constructed to protect the citizens.

In a great travel article on the Golden Ring, the author states that this cluster of old towns wrapping around Moscow provides the perfect way to experience the "real" Russia:

"...rural hospitality; somnolent landscapes and tree-lined lanes where pedestrians stroll and cars are few; wooden cabins with plumes of smoke trailing from the chimneys; the dreamy susurrus of the wind through the trees... a visit to the Golden Ring surrounds one with the artistic and spiritual treasures of Old Russia: the masterpieces of Orthodox ecclesiastical architecture, and the evocation of a hazy, half-mythical era of lost liberties, a time before Moscow arose as Russia’s unifier and despot."

WOW! I wish I could write like that...although I have to add in a disclaimer here. Maybe I chose the wrong time of year to visit my first Golden Ring town, but the weather yesterday was definitely not the greatest. The town itself seemed pretty depressing, but that could very well have been because of the slush, the mud, and the rain/snow. After arriving around noon, we made our first stop at the washrooms outside the train platform. I'm struggling right now trying to think of the right words to describe this washroom. Disgusting, hole, unsanitary, and revolting are the first to come to mind. On top of that, I suffered the indignity of having to PAY to use this concrete hole in the ground. 10 roubles!! The doors to the stalls were, for some odd and embarassing reason, really short so everybody could see the upper half of your body as you squatted over the toilet (there was no way in hell I was touching that so-called seat!) Look, I'm not a princess when it comes to roughing it. I enjoy camping and as an avid long-distance runner, I have no qualms in peeing in the bush if I have to. But those toilets were the most disgusting ones I have ever seen!!

After emerging from the terrifying experience that was the public washroom, we walked around the town for about 30 minutes in search of a cafe or somewhere - anywhere - we could warm up. Being 2 hours northeast from Moscow, there was actual snow on the ground in Alexandrov and it was at least a few degrees colder.

Bundled up outside a store called Zvozdochka - Little Star!

We finally found one called the CCCP Cafe (CCCP is Cyrillic for USSR). It was very cute and Soviet-kitschy, with interesting memorabilia and photographs on the wall.

The tablecloth was an old Pravda newspaper - the mouthpiece of the Communist Party. (There's an old Soviet joke about the two main newspapers at the time, Pravda (Truth) and Izvestiya (The News): "There's no truth in The News and no news in The Truth."

We ordered some tea (150 roubles each) and it came in a very pretty clear glass tea pot. We stayed at the cafe for quite some time, just chatting and enjoying the atmosphere. It was very nice because nobody pestered us to order more, or gave us looks or tried to make us leave. They just left us in peace to drink our tea and talk. It was lovely!

We left the cafe eventually and made our way to the Kremlin, about a 10 minute walk uphill from the cafe. Alexandrov is famous for being the site where Ivan the Terrible (Ivan Grozny in Russian; it is translated more accurately as Ivan the Awesome or Awe-Inspiring, but Terrible does invoke a certain amount of fear and power that I would say was true) fled in December 1564 after suffering a fit of insanity. He took all of Moscow's historical and religious relics with him, ran away to Alexandrov, and proclaimed the town as Russia's new capital. He refused to leave until the Church - aghast at how the tsar had just up and left Moscow - agreed to allow him to set up the Oprichnina, a section of land that he could govern himself in any way he chose. The Oprichnina also included the creation of the Oprichniki, Ivan's secret police force that rode around on horseback terrorizing the countryside. Maybe this guy does deserve his "terrible" sobriquet...

View from the bridge - the church towers inside the Kremlin can be spotted over the trees

The one and only time I think anything to do with pigeons is cute

Comrade Lenin and I

Despite the fact that these ancient white walls once housed a royal madman for three brief months in 1564-65, there is an innate calm and peace to Alexandrov's Kremlin. Perhaps it is the influence of the still-operating convent within the walls. The blanketing snow also helped add to the peace and silence of the place, where only a few tourists, a wedding party, and a couple of nuns outfitted in flowing black robes and wimples weaved between the tree-lined paths.

The entrance to the Kremlin

Check out the rules that were posted at the entrance (in English too!): I especially like "keep ethics, silence and don't drink alcohol" and "make thrifty use of the historical and cultural heritage of Russia, keep clean and accurate." I don't even know what that means...

Because it was a Saturday, and there seems to be numerous weddings every Saturday, there was a wedding party inside the Kremlin taking some pictures. It is part of a traditional Russian wedding to drive around to the different historical landmarks of the city and take pictures there. This bride was wearing a beautiful big white skirt that she lifted daintily around the puddles of slush and snow.

We walked around the pathways for a bit, stopping to read the signs in Russian (or trying to) before going into the musuem. Here we paid 30 roubles (approximately $1) as an entrance fee and had a great time walking around looking at the exhibits. There were a lot of books in immaculate condition from the 16th century, written in beautiful, flowing Old Church Slavonic, as well as some caftans, earrings, a French hood that I think belonged to Elizabeth I (or had something to do with her; it was next to a portrait of the English queen, who ruled at the same time as Ivan the Terrible and was rumoured to have considered him as a marriage prospect...a fascinating what if? of history!), and some armour and weapons belonging to the oprichniki. It was all very interesting! My one wish though was for more English captions. Everything in display was numbered, with a description underneath in Russian, but unfortunately I could only understand about 50%. This was disappointing because I would have loved to learn more.

The layout of the Kremlin

An oil painting of Ivan...those eyes were like the Mona Lisa's...they seemed to
follow me around the room...SO creepy!!

Check out Ivan's throne - pretty impressive with its intricate carvings and the Byzantine double-headed eagle his ancestor Ivan III adopted/stole after he married the Byzantine princess Zoe Paleologue. I think I would like a throne in my house one day...

After we left the musuem, we went into the Pokrovskaya church. The Christianisation of Russia occurred in 988, and there is an old, beautiful legend in the Russian Primary Chronicle that tells the story of how Russia chose Christianity over other religions. Prince Vladimir (later Saint) sent delegates to various neighbouring countries to research the different religions. One delegation went to see the Bulgars, who were Muslim, but the Russians were not impressed by the no-alcohol rule. "Drink is the joy of the Russians," they famously explained - not much has changed in the ensuing millenium! When they met the Jewish Khazars, a similar dismissal was made, because the Russians didn't like the fact that the Jewish people didn't have their own homeland. They weren't impressed with the Germanic tribes' religion either. But then they got to the Greeks. And that's when history was made.

Faced with the awe-inspiring beauty of the Greek Orthodox churches, the Russian delegates wrote back home to Vladimir that "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it." Russia chose Orthodox Christianity, and with this choice, a Messianic path was forged that would affect the rest of Russian history.

As I stepped into the church, I felt much like the Russians must have felt when they walked into the church in Greece back in the late tenth century. Pure awe and wonder. In Heaven or on earth? It was hard to say. The interior was dark, with only candles and the gold gleam of the saints' halos painted on the walls for light. The iconostasis at the front was framed by mosaic icons of Mary, Jesus, and other saints. The air was heavy with incense as priest made his way through the crowd of believers swinging a heavy censer. Babushkas, with their hair covered in headscarves, knelt in front of the altar, crossing themselves numerous times the Orthodox way - instead of forehead, chest, left, right (the Catholic way), its forehead, chest, right, left. In one corner of the church, a group of nuns were singing a beautiful chant acapello. Its very simplicity drew me in, captivating me, and it was a very spiritual experience for me personally. The thing about the Russian Orthodox Church is that is appeals to all of your senses. We stood there in silence for a while, observing the service before quietly leaving and heading back outside, where twilight had fallen.

Get thee to a nunnery! The convent at Alexandrov

By this time, it was around 5pm and growing darker, so we made our way back to the train station and caught the train home to Moscow/Mytishchi. Two and a half hours later, I walked into my flat, tired but beaming from a great day in Alexandrov.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Its Friday afternoon here in Mytishi, and the only thought running through my head right now is TGIF!!! It's been a long week, but one that had TWO very big highlights...drum roll please...


How exciting! While I was skyping with my family on Sunday night, they told me that Canada Post had just alerted them that the package they sent had finally arrived at Language Link's Central Office in Moscow. My mum mailed it on September 26th, so it took just under two months to travel across the rest of Canada (Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes), over the Atlantic Ocean, past several European countries, and push past what was the former Iron Curtain to arrive - safe and sound, with only one casualty - here in Russia.

I set off for the Central Office on Tuesday afternoon, after getting one of my administrators, Vlada, to call ahead and tell the people working there that I was coming to pick up my package. For once, I didn't mind the long commute into Moscow, eagerly counting down the metro stations as we whizzed through the underbelly of this huge city - Medvedkovo, Babushkinskaya, Sviblovo, Botanichesky Sad, VDNKH (pronounced vah-din-kah haha...when I first saw this station I was like, "uhhh where are the vowels in this word?"), Alekseevskaya, Rizhskaya, Prospyekt Mira, Novoslobodskaya.

Then out onto the busy street of Novoslobodskaya, where I crossed the street through a tunnel (this is the common way to cross the street here in Moscow. Traffic is so insane that it would be a death wish if you tried to cross the street aboveground) and made my way to the Central Office. You can imagine my soul-crushing disappointment when the woman behind the desk informed me that the delivery man had just set out for Mytishi with the mail. Even though Vlada had called them less than two hours ago to say that I was on my way...grr...I bit back a retort because hey, when in Moscow, you have to do things the Moscow way (also known, half the time, as the nonsensical, futile way. Welcome to Russia.)

So I got back on the metro, then back on the bus, and then finally arrived back at the school in Mytishi, where my package was waiting. It was like being a kid on Christmas, I was sooo excited to open it and get a whiff of home! (Although it was more like a whiff of chicken stock, as the packages of powdered chicken stock my mum had sent had partly opened and spilled out)

Inside were letters from my mum, my brother and sister, as well as a newspaper article, some photos, my first university alumni magazine (I still cannot believe I'm actually an alumna, and not a student anymore! I feel so old...), and...chocolate chips!!! Chocolate chips are something you just cannot get in Russia (or anywhere else in Europe, I'm told) so they were a very welcome treat from home. Whenever I've done any baking with Rhea, we have chopped up chocolate bars in lieu of chocolate chips, so now it will be fun to use these for some "real" chocolate chip cookies. I showed everything to my classes, getting them to sample the chocolate chips (definitely intrigued by them but also a little disappointed that it was just semi-sweet chocolate, with nothing overly special about it...I think I'll have to bake some cookies and bring them in for a taste-testing!) and look through the pictures and letters. Everyone thought my dad was very handsome and they loved that he was drinking beer in the photos! Overall, I was really touched by how interested everyone was in my family and my life back home. This is why I love teaching! Uhh...not so that I can blab on and on about myself (duh, that's why I love my blog!), but because I really get to develop relationships with my students, to learn new things about them and to share things about myself. Yes, Nastya is still nasty and probably always will be, but students like that are definitely in the minority. My students here are all wonderful, funny, smart, engaged people who I generally have a blast with. Actually, that's a nice segue into the second highlight of my week...


After two and a half months away from the pool, I finally got my feet wet again! :)

I love swimming, maybe even more than running although the actual "getting wet" thing kinda sucks sometimes (my hair is long ok? It takes forever to dry!) I swam competitively for several years and worked as a lifeguard/swim instructor for the past five, a job that I highly recommend for teens. I mean, I got paid way more than your average Tim Hortons' employee and all I really had to do was sit in a chair in the sun and get a sick tan (haha ok, there was a little more to it than that, and unfortunately I only got two summers at an outdoor pool, but it really was a great job and I made some fantastic friends through lifeguarding). ANYWAYS, I've really missed swimming and I've been very curious about trying to swim here.

Unfortunately, to be allowed to swim in a pool in Russia, you need to have a spravka - a health certificate from a doctor asserting that you are healthy enough to use the pool. This was a problem - how was I supposed to get a certificate? I posed this question to my class of upper-intermediate adults last Monday night and nobody really seemed to give me a straight answer. THEN the next day one of the administrators, Olga, dropped by the staff room with a piece of paper. "One of your students dropped this off for you," she said, looking confused and passing me...a health certificate!!!

It turns out one of my students, Tatiana, bribed a doctor she knows to write me a certificate! Ahhh finally the corruption that Russia is famous for works out for me! Tatiana and I made plans to meet at School No. 10 (schools in Russia are numbered, rather than named after, say, saints for Catholic schools or famous people or street names) on Tuesday evening. I borrowed a bathing cap from the daughter of one of the Russian teachers here and then walked over to the school for 7:45pm. The pool is only open for specific times, and on Tuesdays the pool is open from 7:45 to 8:45. We showed our certificates to the ladies at the desk in the lobby (they looked at my foreign-sounding name and for some reason thought I was Italian) then checked our coats and shoes and made our way to the changeroom. It was awesome having Tatiana there to lead the way and show me where to go and what to do. Full of trepidation, I made my way out onto the deck. The pool was 25m long and 4 lanes wide, and was packed with about 30 people! It seemed to be segregated, although I don't know if that was intentional or not, with the men in the far lane doing the "serious" swimming and the ladies taking up the other three lanes chatting and floating blissfully along. Tatiana and I slipped into one of the lanes and started doing some head-up strokes. The water was really warm, about 85 or 86 degrees I'd say, but I can't lie - it WAS nice to not have to hold your breath and force yourself to jump into freezing cold water!

One thing definitely did scare me though - the complete lack of supervision of the swimmers in any way. I had asked Tatiana while we were changing about lifeguards, but she seemed very confused. "You know...people who watch the swimmers to make sure no one drowns?" I asked, miming out my best lifeguard pose (hey, after doing it for five years, I know how to do the lifeguard pose like a true Baywatch girl) and then doing the "climbing ladder" action of a DNS (drowning non-swimmer - OMG how much fun am I having pulling out my old lifeguarding lingo!?!) but I was just greeted with a blank stare that plainly said, "Uh...are you ok?" So I dropped that topic and just decided to see for myself...but there was nothing to see. No lifeguards. Not even one of the ladies from out front doing a walk-by or body count. Nothing. Nyechevo. This freaked me out a little, as liability has been drilled into my head countless number of times. How is this legal? Oh yeah. Right. This is Russia.

I don't want to sound all dramatic and Tom Cruise "save the day and be the hero"-esque, but I definitely was concerned about a potential drowning or injury and made sure to swim head-up the whole time so I could keep an eye on everything. I also didn't have any goggles and I wanted to avoid swallowing what could be sketchy water (I didn't smell any chlorine, so I'm not sure what they use to clean the water...), so my head-up strokes weren't entirely for altruistic reasons. It was really fun to be back in the water, and I am going to try and go once a week. Once I buy some goggles, I'm going to hopefully do more strenuous strokes than head-up breaststroke, although honestly, the next morning I was definitely feeling it in my arms. I've been doing a lot of running here, but nothing upper-body wise so my arms are slowly losing all muscle tone and getting way too skinny. I want my strong swimmer shoulders back!! For 200 roubles a swim, it seems a pretty good way to achieve this. And one major bonus...HOT SHOWERS!!! I had my first real hot shower on Tuesday night since moving here...utter and complete bliss.

After showering, Tatiana and I made our way out of the school where her boyfriend Ilya was waiting, and the two of them drove me home, practicing their English while I practiced my Russian and we all laughed at the awkward friendliness of it all. It was very fun! I am so thankful for the awesome people I have met here, who have gone out of their way to help me and welcome me to their country.

So, although it was a stressful work in terms of workload, the swimming and the package from home made it all worth it. Now I'm off to bed in prep for what should be a terrific day tomorrow (hint: I also prepped for tomorrow by watching the BBC documentary entitled "Napoleon: Road to Moscow." So excited!) Will post more about it tomorrow plus pictures now that my fabulous family has reunited me with my camera's battery charger!! :)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Moscow by night

Here are some recent pics of Moscow by night, taken after leaving the Pushkin Musuem of Fine Arts last Sunday evening:

The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

Me in front of the church

Standing on the bridge spanning the Moskva River (the cathedral is to the left of this picture)

The Moskva River again (can you see the faint red star gleaming on top of the tower? That is part of the Kremlin)

Saturday, November 13, 2010


Not much has really been "blog-worthy" lately, I'm sorry to report. Work is really starting to get busy, with new classes being assigned to me every day. Today (Saturday) was technically treated as a Friday at the school (because of some convoluted holiday schedule put in place last week for National Unity Day), so I had to teach my Friday classes yesterday (on the real Friday) as well as today. On top of that, one of the teachers here was sick so I had to teach his classes this morning. The only bright side to this was that I was forced to wake up at 8am, something I haven't had to do since ending the Intern Training Program at the end of September! (I know, I know, my life is sooo rough...but I did spend the whole summer getting up even earlier than that so I figure I deserved a month of sleeping in!)

My usual trick to jolting myself awake on early mornings is to go for a run. It's a little masochistic, but it works and usually gives me enough energy to last until lunch. Blearily, I laced up my runners and stumbled down the five flights of stairs to another balmy (for Russia) morning. It was about ten degrees - perfect running weather. The habitants of Mytishi were already up and going about their day, which included selling very large, very strong-smelling dead fish on the sidewalk. In the past couple of months, I had gotten used to seeing people selling just about everything on the sidewalk, from fruit to turtlenecks wrapped in cellophane to bras (how do you know if it fits?) to sparkly butterfly stickers. But the fish thing - giant dead fish with their eyes gazing sightlessly back at you - has been a recent development. From what I can tell you point to the fish you want, then the babushka wraps it up in newspaper and hands it to you.

Another trend I've been noticing here in Mytishi, and one which was sadly very evident today, is the prevalence of stray dogs. They're everywhere! I have to admit (knowing that fanatic dog-lovers may jump on me for this) that I don't entirely trust dogs. And I definitely don't trust stray dogs. I think this probably has to do with my upbringing. My dad is allergic to dogs, so besides the requisite goldfish and an adorable (and much missed!) bunny named Jack, we weren't really a "pet" family. Even if my dad hadn't been allergic, I can't really have seen us getting a dog. I think the dad from the movie Beethoven sums up my family's attitude towards pets in general: "We're not dog people. We're people people."

So I'm not super comfortable around dogs. Yes, I know they're man's best friend and I do think they can be cute and fun. But when strange dogs aren't on a leash, I get panicky. And here in Mytishi, stray dogs are ALMOST as common as the flocks of pigeons (I estimate that there are probably five pigeons per person in Mytishi, and there are 160,000 people as per the 2002 census). Yikes! And these aren't necessarily cute, cuddly, harmless-looking dogs. They are mostly of the German shepherd/husky/blood thirsty wolf breed, albeit slightly scrawnier because of malnourishment. But that just makes them more desperate, doesn't it?

Ok, I know I might be coming off a little harsh here. Whenever I've been out walking with Rhea, an animal-lover from birth, she happily and unsuspectingly gushes over the dogs and pro-offers a hand to them, whereas I cringe in horror and do my best to sidle away without them catching a whiff of my tasty human meat scent. But truly, my heart does bleed for these stray dogs. Especially on mornings like today when I ran past SEVEN of them sleeping curled up in a row against a wall for warmth. And today was ten degrees!! What's going to happen to them in the dead of winter?? I haven't seen any animal shelters around, and other people tend to just walk right past the dogs unblinkingly. So I'm in this kind of weird limbo here, where I fear the dogs but at the same time want to help them. I just don't know what to do!

In other updates, I went out to buy an alarm clock today and saw...advent calendars!!! This made me unbelievably happy, as Russia does not really celebrate Christmas so I wasn't expecting to find the chocolate-for-every-day-of-Advent tradition of my childhood. It's still a little early to buy one but I definitely plan to!

And finally, in the happiest news by far, I have a new little cousin - Adelaide Bridget. I can't wait to meet her (over Skype)! Congratulations Angela and Paul!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

To Turgenev

One last thing I wanted to mention before heading off to bed...

Today is the birthday (post-humous) of one of my favourite Russian writers, Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883). His name is pronounced ee-VAHN tour-GAY-nev, which sounds completely different from the way I was pronouncing it before I moved here (EYE-vin tur-je-NEV). I don't mean to sound like a pompous snob giving you the correct pronunciation; it's only because, as everyone who knows me can attest, I so frequently mispronounce words and names that I try to save others the embarassment I put myself through!

How do I love Turgenev? Let me count the ways...

1) He was a smart guy. University-educated, well-travelled, an ardent admirer of the Enlightenment, and a vocal opponent of serfdom in Russia.

2) One of his best friends was Gustave Flaubert, the French author of Madame Bovary and another one of my favourite writers. How cool is that? I'd love to have been a fly on the wall during one of their conversations.

3) He was the first noted writer in Russia to actually (gasp!) give peasants a literary voice. No longer were they relegated to tertiary, one-dimensional characters. Turgenev showed readers that peasants were people too, with their own dreams, thoughts, and desires.

4) His writings perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the times, yet still manage to remain relevant and poignant today. Russia in the 1840s, 50s, and 60s was a tumultuous country in the middle of redefining itself. Would it gravitate towards the East or the West? Would serfdom (ie. slavery) finally be abolished? Not only do his books make excellent social commentary on the contemporary issues facing Russia, but they also transcend the time period. Who hasn't experienced inter-generational conflict? Fathers and Sons, Turgenev's most famous novel in the West, perfectly illustrates this age-old "tug-of-war" between parents and their children. Yeah, it's cool to see the historical relevance of the novel, but what I loved most about the book was the feelings it evoked in me. You truly feel for the father, Nikolai Kirsanov, as his idealistic young son basically writes him off as an old fogey. Nikolai struggles to embrace the new technologies and trends, but he really just comes off as endearingly pathetic, and his son's mocking new friend, Bazarov, is so lifelike and vibrant that he stays with you long after you've turned the last page of the book.

5) Turgenev is famous for his strong female heroines. Female protagonists are a rare find to begin with in such a patriarchal society as Russia in the nineteenth century, making Turgenev's heroines - who often save the day, rather than need to be saved - a welcome addition to his cast of characters.

Turgenev may not be one of the "literary giants" we associate with Russian literature. His name is not as well known in the West as Tolstoy's or Dostoevsky's. Which might actually be the reason why you should give him a try. I'll be the first to admit, when I decided to start tackling Russian literature, I was afraid. It all seemed so imposing, so monumental! I mean, let's be real here - War and Peace is a freakin' behemoth. There were days when I had to force myself to read it, and I took well over a month to finally get through it all (note: this was during my first month off of school in first year, so I wasn't working yet and didn't have anything to do BUT read, and it still took me a long time!). The Brothers Karamazov? Well, it's a good thing I decided to read it during exam time when I was desperate for any excuse to not study, because it was only AFTER the first 500 pages that it started to get interesting for me. But the thing is, Russian literature does not need to be scary. There are still books I'm either still intimidated by, or I've tried reading but inevitably abandoned - Dostoevsky's The Idiot, for example. But Turgenev is one writer that has never turned me off or lost me in the first few difficult, begrudging chapters. So maybe give him a shot. And what the hell? Try War and Peace or The Brothers K too. You never know what you might like. Whether you end up with Turgenev or Tolstoy, Tarasov or Tsvetaeva, you just might discover a brand new favourite author.

So here's to Turgenev - happy birthday and na zdarovie! (Cheers!)

Russian Bears

The other day I read an article in the paper here about one side effect of the heat wave that swept Russia in July and August. Deprived of their traditional food sources because of the scorching forest fires that ravaged the countryside, bears are now making their way into villages and towns around Moscow in search of victuals. It is estimated that there are between 120,000-140,000 hungry bears on the prowl, forced to scavenge for food well into November, when they should be preparing for hibernation. A few weeks ago, one bear was caught digging up a corpse in a cemetary in Vyezhna Tchova!

The article went on to instruct the reader that, if one is unlucky enough to stumble upon a hungry bear, one should "speak loudly and firmly to it in Russian." But not in English? The fact that the article specifically instructed the reader to use Russian as the language of command struck me as hilarious. It was, however, the only funny part of the article. The heatwave and subsequent forest fires have been attributed to yet another instance of global warming rearing its ugly head, and this bear problem is further evidence that global warming truly does have a ripple effect on the environment.

Another Russian bear who has been making the news a lot recently here is Dmitri Medvedev, the President of Russia. How is he a bear? you might wonder. He certainly doesn't seem like one - slight and short in stature, with mild brown eyes, he is often in Putin's shadow rather than aggressively promoting his own agenda. But medved' is Russian for bear, so he fits in nicely with the overall theme of this post. :)

Medvedev has slowly been gaining more of a voice in Russian politics as of late, which is always a good thing considering that he IS the president, after all. Forbes recently ranked him as the 12th most influential man in the world (last year he was a lowly 43rd). Too bad Putin was ranked number 4 on the list...

Anyways, Medvedev has been in the news a lot lately for vocally and vehemently condemning the recent and horrifying beatings of journalists here in Moscow. The violent assaults have sparked a fresh debate over the hot-button issue of freedom of the press in Russia. "Whoever is behind this crime, he will be punished, irrespective of his status and his achievements – if there are any,” Medvedev said during a meeting with staff of the Rossiiskaya Gazeta newspaper. But what exactly will Medvedev's condemnation mean, in real and viable terms for journalists? It remains to be seen, and I for one am not too optimistic.

Medvedev has also been speaking out about much-needed reform of Russian political institutions, and last week vetoed a new amendment on rallies. This was a timely veto as last Thursday (November 4th) was National Unity Day here and a prime date for rallies and protests in Moscow.

National Unity Day is pretty much a made-up holiday, to replace the Communist celebration of the October Revolution of 1917. Russians still wanted their November holiday (why is the October Revolution celebrated in November? Because back in 1917, Russia still followed the Julian calendar and was thus 13 days behind the rest of the world...insert joke about Russia always being behind the West here) so the government established National Unity Day, a day that is allegedly supposed to celebrate the trouncing of the Poles in 1612, as well as to honour the various ethnic nationalities in Russia. However, only 36% of Muscovites can correctly name the holiday and indeed, I saw this for myself when talking to my class of upper-intermediate adults last Wednesday. "Excited for the holiday tomorrow? Our lesson today on different ethnicities was relevant to tomorrow, which is cool!" I asked, only to be greeted by laughter. "We don't know why this is a holiday, we just enjoy the day off!" one student informed me. Hmm. Fair enough, I guess. Does the average Canadian really know why we celebrate May 24, for example?

Anyways, I digress...the point is, Medvedev vetoed an amendment that toughened sanctions on holding rallies and assemblies in public. Although some of the rallies that took place last Thursday were, frankly, very disturbing (think Neo-Nazis and people shouting "Russia for the Russians!"), Medvedev's veto reminds me of that famous quote from the French philosophe Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I shall defend, to the death, your right to say it."

This Russian bear has clearly been taking a few steps in the right direction, and I'm curious to see what exactly will transpire from his words. It's very exciting to be able to follow the politics while I'm actually living here, and it gives me "the shivers" (for lack of a better word) to think that not too far from my little flat in Mytishi, Medvedev, Putin, and other power players in Russian politics are going about their days too.

In a little bit of non-related news, guess what the temperature was today?? 15 degrees! (yes, that is Celsius...!) No sun though, unfortunately, although I guess beggars can't be choosers. I came across a hilarious quote by Napoleon last night in the book I'm reading (Moscow, 1812 - I highly suggest it!!!):

"They accuse me of ambition, as though it was my ambition that brought me here! (Napoleon's invasion of Russia) What have I got to gain from a climate like this, from coming to a wretched country like this one? The whole of it is not worth the meanest little piece of France. [The Russians], on the other hand, have a very real interest in conquest: Poland, Germany, anything goes for them. Just seeing the sun six months of the year is a new pleasure for them!"

How true those last words are. The sun has been too rare of a presence in my life since I moved here!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

(Armenian) Amish Adventure

On Monday during my lesson with Lebron, we read a review of a reality show called "Amish in the City," where five Amish teenagers move in with five L.A. teenagers...and hilarity, culture shock, and miscommunications assumingly ensue. I tried to explain to Lebron what exactly the Amish way of life is - the religious aspect, the language and geographic location of Amish communities, the shunning of individuals who deviate from its tenets, the clothing and modesty issues, and the whole "no modern conveniences" thing. I even managed to work in a brief shout-out to my all-time favourite actor, Harrison Ford, and one of his best movies (in my opinion, although when is H-Ford ever in a bad movie, right?), Witness.

Exhibit A: the intense Harrison Ford face in full force. "It's not our way, John."
"It's MY way."

After doing what I thought had been a great job of pre-teaching "Amish," I asked Lebron if he understood the word now. He nodded. "Oh yes," he said confidently. "My father was Amish."

Seeing as how I had just run into his father backing out of their driveway in a fancy black BMW, and that Lebron has told me about his father's extensive business trips to Barcelona, I was fairly certain that Lebron Senior was not, in fact, Amish. The fact that we were studying English by IKEA-lamplight in a mansion and not by candlelight in a barn somewhere was another tip-off.

"Umm...are you sure?" I asked.

"Yes, yes." Lebron said. "My father was Amish. In Armenia. He grew up very poor, wears clothes like these people, had cows and chickens. Then he leave Armenia and he stop being Amish."

I bit my lip. "Okayyy...well, not really...the Amish usually live in the States, and speak Pennsylvania Dutch...and it's a religion..." My voice trailed off. Lebron looked at me in confusion. "No, no," he said. "You are wrong. My father was Armenian Amish." This was said with a note of finality, and with that I decided that maybe I should pick my battles. This was not one I could see myself winning, so I ceded to Lebron (much like the Timberwolves last night, hmm?)

Today being our next lesson, I brought in a clip of Weird Al's parody "Amish Paradise," and tried to point out the lack of Armenians in the music video. Still to no avail. Lebron is convinced his father was an Amish Armenian before coming to Russia, and in fact, I must admire his dogged belief in this, despite The Man (me as the English language teacher) telling him otherwise. It's a very Harrison Ford-esque quality, don't you think?