Tuesday, September 13, 2011

New year, new country, new blog

I mentioned on a previous post that this year, I'm saying da svidanya to Russia and hello to England. If you're interested in following my UK adventures, I've got a new blog set up here - http://rainbootstowellies.blogspot.com.

(If you're like my dad, who needed an explanation for my blog title, I was inspired by all the differences between UK and North American English - I'm going to have to get used to calling my rainboots wellies, and referring to paper towels as kitchen roll! Weird! :)


Tragedy for a Hockey Town

The recent, heartbreakingly tragic plane crash that took the lives of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL hockey team has been weighing on my heart. After reading about it in my local newspaper back here in Canada, I felt that I had to say something. Here's my letter to the editor:

"I spent the last year teaching English in Mytishi, Russia – a town that quickly became my home away from home. I lived literally steps away from the KHL arena that was home to Atlant Moscow Oblast, and was immediately accepted by Atlant’s fans as one of their own (albeit one who still insisted on wearing Canadian Olympic mittens!) The memory that stands out the most for me happened after one match, when I walked to the corner shop to pick up some milk. A group of cheering Atlant fans stormed into the shop, decked out in full fan gear and boisterously singing hockey songs. Their joy and elation were infectious as they bought beers and vodka and trooped out again, still singing with pride. I never had the chance to watch a Lokomotiv Yaroslavl game, but I do know this – Russia is full of hockey towns, just like here in Canada. These towns come alive during KHL games, with everyone celebrating and supporting their team with a fierce love. I can’t even imagine the shock, pain, and heartbreak that Yaroslavl is experiencing. Kanada skorbit vmeste s vami. Canada grieves with you."

My prayers go out to all the family, friends and fans of Lokomotiv.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Happy 450th Birthday, St. Basil's!

This is the Google header for today - the 450th birthday of St. Basil's Cathedral in Moscow, which is the most breathtaking piece of architecture I've ever seen.

Red Square from inside St. Basil's, looking out

My parents and I inside St. Basil's

One of the several iconostasis (iconostasi for plural?) inside

St. Basil's

Looking up one of the onion domes from inside

In May, my parents and I toured the interior of the church. Its actually a collection of ten separate churches all clustered together, with those distinctive onion domes that a Russian Orthodox priest I knew referred to as "Dairy Queen swirls"! It is much easier to realize that there are ten individual churches once you are inside, as you make your way up twisting stairs and through arches to the different churches, all named after separate saints. The full name of the cathedral is the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, but it has always collectively been known as St. Basil's, named after Saint Basil (Vasily in Russian) whose remains can be found in the tenth church.

Who was St. Basil, anyway? Well, according to this information inside the church, he was a a "Fool for Christ and a nude walker." Wow. So this stunning historical artifact was named after a guy who was basically a streaker? Nice.

Anyways, if you go to Moscow, St. Basil's is an obvious must-see, but I also really encourage you to tour the inside of the church as well. Ticket prices are very reasonable (I think its around 150-250 roubles per person, about $5-7 CDN) and it offers a totally different visual perspective on Red Square, not to mention there are English-language pamphlets that explain some interesting history of the cathedral.

It is one of those sights that people just automatically associate with Russia, like the Eiffel Tower and Paris, but I promise you that as trite and touristy as it may seem from a jaded traveler perspective, IT IS TOTALLY WORTH IT. No words can truly describe how beautiful and other-worldly St. Basil's is. It is unlike anything in the world - magical and mystical, somehow encompassing the ancient power of Holy Rus and the might of a country that is simultaneously beautiful and barbaric. And it will be the sight that acts like a punch in the stomach to you, the sight that makes you fully realize, "Wow. I'm actually in Russia!"

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Missing the Wild East

Katie the Canadian girl

Katya the Russian girl

I've been back in Canada for a little more than a week, and I'm just getting used to being able to go running without looking over my shoulder for packs of stray dogs.

I'm getting used to sleeping in my big double bed and putting my clothes in the dryer after washing them.

I'm getting used to breathing clean, smoke-free, smog-free air.

I'm getting used to eating my daily jar of peanut butter again (slight exaggeration, but not really...I love that stuff).

I'm getting used to having conversations with random strangers in the street or in the shops that go beyond a simple "zdravs-voo-tye" (hello).

I'm getting used to the Toronto version of traffic jams and rush hour which, in comparison to Moscow's legendary chas pik, is almost laughable. Don't even get me started on the Toronto subway.

I'm getting used to having my "personal space bubble" back again, although I almost MISS having sweaty strangers rubbing up against me in the metro as we all cling wildly onto poles/each other. Almost.

I'm getting used to hugging my mum and dad, going for long walks around our neighbourhood, hanging out with friends, and seeing my sister in her usual semi-prone position on the couch.

I'm (slowly) getting used to not seeing rows and rows of vodka at the grocery store, although I still look around for the produce guy with the gold teeth to weigh my veggies. And where are all the street vendors selling everything from cabbages to knives to bras on the corners??

I'm getting used to walking past "old" buildings that are 100 years old, instead of buildings that are over 800 years old.

What I'm NOT getting used to is the fact that my time in Russia is all too quickly becoming almost an ephemeral dream in my head, as if I can't even believe I was actually there, that I called Moscow home, that I used to walk past the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and stop by the Kroshka Kartoshka there for a quick snack. Last night there was a news programme in Russian on TV and I almost cried when I heard the reporter say, "Skolka?" (how much?)

So yes, I'm getting used to being back in Canada, and although it has been wonderful catching up with my family and friends, I miss Moscow and all her history, her food, her winding, circular streets, her higgedly-piggedly array of architectural styles, from Stalin's neo-Gothic Seven Sisters to turn of the century cotton-candy coloured palaces, her babushkas and smoggy streets and romantic bridges and even the stray dogs and the old men who growl "tvoyu mat'!" at delinquent young men in Adidas tracksuits and mullets.

I've fallen in love, and I have a feeling this is going to be for life.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Land of Smiles

Quick update from Heathrow Airport.

The flight from Moscow to London was very smooth and quick. The best part of it all was that I had a window seat and an unoccupied seat next to me! But the reason for that is quite the interesting story...

While I waited in the departure lounge for my flight at Domodedovo, I couldn't help noticing one fellow passenger, stumbling around and slurring incoherantly to people, plants, signs, benches...he was hardly a discerning conversationalist. Clutched in his hand was a bottle of vodka, which he would periodically wave around in order to further illustrate a point, which I'm sure was very intellectual and engaging.

To my horror, I overheard him telling some poor entrapped guy that his seat number was 19E. Who should be the lucky person who had 19F?

That would be me.

I started to look forward to a loooooong flight.

However, when it came time to board, Mr Vodka had ceased his chatter, clearly finding plants to be not the best listeners I guess, and had passed out on a chair. More kindly, charitable passengers tried to rouse him by various means - shaking his arm, slapping his face, lifting up his eyelids, yelling "davai! come on!" at him, and finally pushing him off his chair...but all to no avail. This guy was out cold.

It was amusing but also pathetic at the same time, and I had a strong desire to take a picture of him but I thought that might be a little rude. Anyways, I boarded the plane and a few minutes later the pilot came over the intercom.

"On behalf of British Airways," he began in that delightful British accent, "I apologize in advance for what will be a short delay in takeoff. One of our passengers has been denied entry onto this flight, and he is currently being detained. However, he is offering up some resistance but we will deal with the problem efficiently. Thank you for your understanding."

I looked at the empty seat beside me. Ding ding ding! Clearly Mr Vodka had woken up and was not best pleased to realize he'd be missing his flight. I have no idea what they did to him, but I'm guessing he sobered up pretty quickly...!

Anyways, thats about as exciting as things have gotten, thank goodness. I've had a great time exploring the duty-free shops at Heathrow, and bought a super-cute Olympics 2012 tote with a Union Jack on it as well as some Cadbury chocolates and an international adapter that was on sale for 9 pounds (which I think is a good deal...still trying to figure out the pounds thing!)

The best thing so far though is just the sheer amount of English everywhere!! I can read all the signs! I can chat with shop clerks and airport staff and compliment the Starbucks barista on her nailpolish colour - all things I was so limited in back in Russia! And everyone is smiling...something I just can't get over! Russians have a saying about how only fools smile, but here I can walk around with a huge grin on my face and no one thinks I just got off the idiot train yesterday. That being said, I'm not comparing England to Russia in any positive/negative way. Just different. Its very interesting!

Well, they just announced my gate opening so I better wrap this up and head over to departures. Maybe I'll pick up some vodka at duty-free...but then again, that might not be the best idea...

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Farewell, Moscow

As I'm writing this, I'm sitting in the tiny, hot, stuffy flat on Dimitrovskoe Shosse in Moscow that has been my "home" for the past few days. I've got my window wide open in the hope of catching a non-existent breeze, and I can hear an ambulance wailing while car horns honk madly and the smell of cigarette smoke drifts up from the street. My stomach is pleasantly full (ok, maybe not that pleasantly, I'm actually stuffed!) from my "Last Supper" of tvorog and the delicious Russian bread that I've become addicted to. My month of camp is over, and in 5 hours a taxi is coming to take me to Domodedovo Airport. My destination?

Canada. Home. Or, rather, my other home.

I've always believed that your home is where your family is. Maybe that's because I moved a few times as a child and teenager, experiences that made me realize that it didn't matter what school I went to or what house I lived, as long as I had my sister (who was always my best friend growing up), my younger brother, and my parents. I still feel that way, and I'm excited beyond words at the prospect of being home with my family this summer.

But at the same time, Moscow has really become my second home this year, which is a little puzzling because I came over here in September entirely on my own, knowing no one and having no support system that wasn't reliant on wi-fi!

It surprises me how quickly I fell in love with the city. I made friends - both Russians and fellow expats - who became a second family to me. There were obvious things that I loved right away about Moscow - the history, the culture and museums, the language, the food...and even non-obvious things that I'm actually REALLY going to miss. Like the pigeons. And, dare I say...the ubiquitous mullets that 99.9% of men sport?!?

Today was my last full day in the city, and I wanted to make the most of it. I headed to the heart of Moscow first - Red Square and the Kremlin. For me, this was the spot where it finally sunk in that I was IN Russia, that day way back in September when I did the 5km Nike-sponsored run on Red Square. Still probably one of the coolest things I've ever done!

It was packed with tourists and I have to admit to feeling a sort of smug "I'm a local" feeling as frenetic Asian tourists madly dashed after flag-toting guides, even though I realized with a shock that after today, I may never be able to say "I live here" again (although who knows what lies in the future, right?)

My initial plan was to go to the Armoury, but even though I arrived an hour before the excursion started, tickets were already sold out. I was disappointed, but honestly somewhat relieved that I had a viable excuse to save 700 roubles. Those tickets are pricey! If you have an ISIC (International Student Identity Card) definitely bring it with you because you'll save 450 roubles. Or, you know, you could be a Hero of the Soviet Union and get in for free. I wonder what THAT card looks like?

So instead of the Armoury, I checked out the State Historical Museum, which is right inside the gates to Red Square. Ticket prices there are much more reasonable (250 roubles) although in hindsight I should have splurged for the English audio guide because all the exhibits were in Russian. I definitely would have gotten a lot more out of the experience otherwise, but it was still a very pleasant way to while away the hottest part of the afternoon! There are some interesting artifacts there, including a tapestry from 1389 that was commissioned in order to celebrate the Russian victory over the Mongols at Kulikovo Field in 1380, and some very old manuscripts in Old Church Slavonic. If you're interested in the Scythians or pre-Christianized Russia (prior to 988 CE) there is a LOT at this museum to check out!

After the museum, I met up with Rhea in the Alexandrovsky Gardens and we went on a massive walk around the city centre. I thought it was very fitting that my last day should end with Rhea, who played such a pivotal role in my first (disastrous!) day here! She's staying here and continuing teaching for Language Link, and I'm very excited to stay in touch with her and hear all about her adventures that will continue in the fall.

We eventually parted ways with a big hug in the Arbat metro, as she was headed off to the Gogol Bordello concert and I had to get back to my flat to finish up packing! How have I accumulated so many things?!? I'm actually leaving A LOT behind...this is hard for me as I'm somewhat of a hoarder...

So. Anyways. Time to say goodbye to Moscow. For now. I do feel a little sad, but I know that our goodbyes aren't forever, and that I'll be back.

Thank you Moscow, for an incredible, unforgettable year. I'm a different girl than I was when I arrived - I now feel SO much more confident in my own abilities, but who wouldn't after learning how to navigate the Moscow metro?! - but at heart I'm still the same devushka I've always been.

Mosvka, ya tebya liublu. Moscow, I love you. Thanks for the memories, and I can't wait to return one day. Maybe by then the fashion will have passed from the 90s to the early 2000s and the mullets and scrunchies will be gone. At the very least, a devushka can always hope, right? ;)

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Beet Stops Here

A shocking confession: I am beet. Beets - my longtime love - have beat me.

After eating them approximately twice a day for the last month, I don't want to see another beet for a very, very long time.

You see, about two summers ago, I entered into a rather passionate love affair with beets. I suppose I had liked them well enough before, but for some reason after I broke up with my boyfriend of two years, I turned to beets. Yeah, I know, its messed up. Girls are supposed to find solace in Haagen-Daazs after a break-up, right? Or Ben and Jerrys? Well, I'm clearly not a normal girl, because somehow I found myself making trips to the London farmers' market on a mission to buy beets.

And that was just the beginning. I used to defend my obsession to my roommates and family, who were all equally tired of finding beet juice stains EVERYWHERE, as proof of my Russian heritage. "This is just a sign that I really am Russian," I'd say smugly. "Its in my blood, my genetic makeup, to love beets." (Note: sadly, I must confess that there is very little likely chance that my ancestors were Russian, regardless of how much I love beets...and cabbage...and vodka...)

My beet love continued unabated and kept going strong during nine months of living in Russia. But in the past month, living at Euro Club camp and eating beets for breakfast every morning (breakfast of champions, didn't you know?), something has happened...

We've broken up. I honestly don't know if I can stomach the thought of eating beets EVER AGAIN. (Yes, I am prone to occasional hyperbole if you haven't noticed yet)

You know, I've spent a lot of time this past month fantasizing over what I want my "first meal" back in Canada to be. Mum, Dad, if you're reading this, please be aware that greeting me with beets would be a cruel, cruel joke...because I truly am beet.*

*In more ways than one. Finally back in Moscow for a few days before my flight back to Canada, and I am exhausted. Off to bed!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Things in a Russian supermarket

I was inspired today by David Lebovitz, an American chef/writer whose blog on food and life in the City of Light I like to read. He just wrote a post on "goofy things in a Paris supermarket" and I thought I would do the same here. So I brought my camera to the Perekrestok chain store on Novoslobodskaya, and here are the results:

1) Kefir

Kefir - I'd say the third most popular drink in Russia, after vodka and kvass! (only half joking) Kefir is a slightly carbonated, sour milk drink that is absolutely delicious (and, in case you were wondering, very healthy to boot!). There are approximately fifty billion different brands and percentages of kefir to choose from, but my favourite is Bio-Kefir (the green carton).

2) Lays "Crab" and "Red Caviar" flavoured chips

You know, for when you want to be classy while you eat chips.

3) Pickled corn in a jar, and various other pickled products:

4) Special K cereal

For some reason I have never been able to figure out, Special K cereal is RIDICULOUSLY expensive over here. That's one small box going for 689 roubles, which according to the fabulous website coinmill.com, is $23.92 Canadian. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (other cereal brands are nowhere near this expensive, if you were wondering. It's JUST Special K. Why???)

5) MedovukMedovuk is honey cake, a tasty Russian traditional dessert that is MUCH better home-made, but a store-bought version does in a pinch. My friend Natasha would always bring us a box of Perekrestok's medovuk whenever she would visit - yum! (Note: I had to fight off two businessmen in order to get a pic of this medovuk: it was the last one on the shelf! I think they were more than a little perplexed when I put it back after taking a quick photo, but they quickly snatched it up and ran off to the cash register with it...see how popular this cake is??)

6) Blinis

To Westerners, Blinis are perhaps Russia's most well-known culinary dish. They're thin pancakes which can be stuffed with either sweet fillings (Nutella, sugary condensed milk, honey, cottage cheese, jam) or savoury ones (mushrooms, fish, caviar, smetana, smoked salmon). Obviously, like the medovuk pictured above, homemade blini are the BEST. But for the Russian whose rushin', prepackaged "just heat and serve" blini are a popular choice, and you can pick up blinchiki (the cute form of the name) with just about every possible filling. These remind me of "Bagel-fuls" back in Canada - slightly creepy looking tube-shaped quasi-bagels stuffed with a cream cheese-substance that can pass for a "breakfast-on-the-go" if you try really hard to trick your tastebuds while simultaneously ignoring the list of 37 different ingredients. Appetizing.

7) Dried fish

The less said about this popular snack the better. I still have painful flashbacks of a vodka-fueled night where I mowed down on a bag of these.

8) Kotleti

Kotleti is an umbrella term for various types of patties - either meat/fish or vegetable-based (I've seen beet kotleti, carrot kotleti, and lentil kotleti, especially popular during Post, or the Great Lent fast before Orthodox Easter).

9) Mayonnaise in a bag

Mayonnaise. Ingredient number one in a Russian salad. Ingredient number two: meat.

10) Harry's American Sandwich bread

When I was reading David Lebovitz's blog, his number ten goofy thing found in a Paris supermarket was this exact brand of bread - Harry's American Sandwich bread. When I saw his picture, I immediately thought, "Wow! I know I've seen this somewhere!" So today when I walked into the Perekrestok on my food photography mission (and yes, I definitely did get some weird looks as I ambled around taking pictures of food), I made a beeline for the bread section to see if I was right. Yep, it turns out that Harry's is not just a Parisian phenomenon but a Muscovite one, too. David Lebovitz posited that the bread is so popular amongst the French because it is sweeter than most and makes large sandwiches - plus the "American" part of the description makes it seem trendy. I honestly don't know why Parisians or Muscovites would choose this bread over the delicious homemade varities you can get that are nestled right along beside (and that are baked fresh in the store nonetheless!) - Russian bread is something I've fallen in love with over here and I don't know how I'm going to cope back in Canada without my 20-rouble loaf of "domashni khleb"!

Anyways, there is your look into a typical Russian supermarket. I didn't get around to including the huge selection of sour cream, tvorog, vodka and beer, but you can take my word that it was quite extensive!

Now I'm off to rustle up something to eat. Perhaps some Russian bread? Gotta load up now - I only have two weeks left before I have to return to boring old Canadian bread!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Met-iquette: the unspoken rules of the Moscow Metro

I have heard it said that it is only on the metro that you will encounter Muscovites adhering to any form of polite etiquette. In the streets, anything goes. But on the metro, you best follow the rules or risk the wrath of a cane-wielding babushka.

Because the metro-riding forms of etiquette are unspoken and assumed to be universally known, I had to go through a bit of trial and error during my first few months here. But gradually, through some intense observation, I think I finally have it figured out. So here it is, folks - how to behave on the Moscow metro, as delineated by one certain devushka:

1) When the train pulls up to the platform, wait to the side of the doors and let the passengers exiting the car disembark first. Do NOT try to jump on right away, because you'll be trampled by the mass exodus of people streaming out who are on a serious mission. Trust me, there is plenty of time for them to get off and for you to get on before the doors close with a whoosh! and the disembodied voice comes over the intercom: "Sleduyushaya stantsiya: Novoslobodskaya" (or Biblioteka imeni Lenina, or Mendelevskaya, or whatever station it is that's next).

2) Once you get into the car, move it. Don't dawdle by the doors, because you will invariably be shoved by the person behind you who sprinted down the escalator to make the train in time. Either get thee to a seat right away, or, if all the seats are taken, move to the back, grab a pole, and hold on for dear life.

3) Staring at strangers is perfectly acceptable practice. Although it may be considered polite in some places to avert one's eyes, here on the metro EVERYONE checks out everyone else.

4) Bring a book. It seems to me that Muscovites never go anywhere without a book to read, and e-books in particular are very popular on the metro. When you're not staring at the person across from you, diving into some Bulgakov is always a good way to pass the time between stations and to fit in like a local. Newspapers and magazines, however, are not so common probably because of their unwieldiness.

5) Engaging in public displays of affection/groping one's partner is also completely acceptable. As is accordion-playing.

6) Don't worry about falling into someone during a particularly jerky moment on the tracks. Even if your legs are braced and your arm is wrapped around a pole, its still almost impossible to keep your balance. And people know this. So when you inevitably fall into a stranger, he or she is much more likely to grip your elbow supportingly than freak out. That whole "personal space bubble" that North Americans have? Yeah, it doesn't exist here.

7) Don't even try to have a conversation while you're on the metro. Even if you're traveling with your best friend, everyone seems to tune out, read their books, stare, or close their eyes and drift off. Naps are also very common here. If your friend is used to the rules of the metro, he or she won't be offended but will do the exact same thing. You can talk and gossip once you get off - for now, enjoy the little nap!

8) Don't feel obligated to hold the heavy swinging doors that lead out of the metro open for anyone. In fact, most people seem to take a perverse pleasure in letting the door slam in the next person's face.

9) Smoking is a no-no. (probably the only place in Moscow where this is true!)

10) And lastly, if you're a male and you're lucky enough to get a seat in the car (remember, 9 million people use the Moscow metro daily), get up and offer your seat to a woman if she's standing. I know some women may have a problem with this, but I for one am a huge fan of chivalry and I think this unspoken rule is really sweet. And for the most part, EVERY man follows this rule, gallantly getting up as soon as any woman - whether she's a Maria Sharapova look-alike or a tiny wrinkled apple of a babushka - walks on.

Word of caution: when you swipe your pass,
pause for a second (even if this causes the person behind you
to have a mild conniption fit) to make sure the red light turns
to green. If you don't do this, you risk painfully injuring your crotch/
upper thigh region and humiliating yourself as a barricade slams open and
and a loud alarm goes off, alerting everyone's attention to you and thus
revealing yourself as the Russian equivalent of a yahoo from the Ozarks.
Just take my word on it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Brief sojourn in Moscow

Guess where I'm writing this from?


Nope, I didn't escape from the compound by scaling the concrete walls and hitching a ride back to the city. I'm here on a fully-sanctioned, much-deserved (in my opinion!) four day break between camp sessions. I taught for the past seven days instead of taking my one day off, so this way I could get four days in a row free. Because Language Link moved my suitcase into a new flat in Moscow (Timiryazevskaya metro) after I left Mytishi, that's where I am now. I have to say, this flat is definitely not as nice as my one back in Mytishi was. It's not even as nice as my room at camp is! Its a small, cramped flat with a stained mattress on the floor, a dim lightbulb over a desk and rickety stool (on which I am currently perched) and a tiny kitchen and toilet, as well as another bedroom that I haven't seen yet.

I'm sharing the flat with James, a British guy who was an intern in the first intership training program back in August. Then he became deathly ill, spent a nightmarish couple of weeks in a Russian hospital, survived, then repeated the internship with me in September. I never really knew him well, but he seems nice enough. Of course, we got off to an awkward start tonight...

The Language Link driver picked Evan and I up at camp at nine o'clock pm. Evan was dropped off first, around 11, then I got to my new flat at 11:30. As I was turning my key in the lock, the door swung open and James was revealed, standing there in extremely tiny briefs. From the look on his face and the apparel he was wearing, he had clearly not gotten my message that I would be arriving tonight.

His British charm and ineffable politeness managed to rise to the occasion. "Katie!" he greeted me. "Er, do come in..."

It was REALLY awkward because his girlfriend was over, and she was set up in what was to be my bedroom, so she moved into his room but didn't look too pleased about it. All three of us were awkward, over-apologizing, and embarassed. I quickly asked for directions to the nearest produkti (I was starving) and hightailed it out of the flat to give them some time to move her things and get used to the fact that apparently their cosy two-some was now going to involve a flatmate.

So now I'm here, sitting in my new flat (for the next four days) in Moscow, at two am, and...I'm ACTUALLY MISSING CAMP. Yes. I just wrote that. This flat is just so small and dirty and depressing, and at least camp is bright and airy and surrounded by nature. Well, I guess that's how it goes, right? You don't know what you've got till its gone. At least now I'll return to camp fully recharged and more appreciative!

In the meantime, it will be nice to catch up with friends here (its my friend Melissa's birthday dinner tomorrow at Starlite!), do some more sightseeing, and try to get a little more souvenir shopping for people back in Canada done.

It's been a long day (I've been up since six!) so I'm off to try and catch some sleep on that mattress!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


1) The days have been melting together in a blur of early wake-up calls, back-to-back classes, eagerly-looked-forward-to mealtimes that culminate only in hungry disappointment, and daily swims which, to be fair, are pretty awesome. And its already been one week! Only three to go!

2) I've been spending an hour every day before dinner reading on the dock in the sun - Doris Kearns' book about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, lent to me by Evan - and it is such a peaceful, happy time in my day that I (almost) find myself falling in love with camp. Almost.

3) Met the girls' basketball coach today. He's a barrel-chested middle-aged man with a bit of a beer belly on him, but very solidly built, tanned and hairy. How do I know so much about his chest? Because he coaches them shirtless. There's something about this that makes me think North American parents would not be okay with their little daughters being yelled at by this man, but then again, this is Russia.

4) They don't really differentiate between meals here, and there tends to be a belief that vegetables are best digested in the morning. Hence, I ate an odd, mayonnaise-y beet salad for breakfast today. Oh Mini-Wheats, how I miss thee...

5) There's a Lady here who is in love with Evan. She's about fifteen years older than us, and seems to think I'm her competition because she glowers at me whenever I walk into the room, and then makes a point of ignoring me while falling all over him. If Evan plays his cards right, he might just get to become a Lord...lucky guy.

6) There was a TV news film crew here yesterday and they filmed part of my class! I was teaching the kids about syllables in English and then getting them to write their own haikus. Fortunately for me, I've been assigned a proper classroom where the kids are basically forced to pay attention to me, whereas Evan has been assigned the ballpit as his classroom (I am NOT joking...he has to teach in a giant ball pit like those ones you see at McDonalds' playplaces!) and as a result, his filming segment was a bit crazier than mine!

Well, that's all for now. Off to bed, with the curtains firmly drawn - it stays light here until about 11:30pm, then its sunny and bright at about 4. Definitely makes up for the four months spent in darkness over the winter! :)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

They tried to make me go to rehab...er, Russian camp

And even though I said "nyet, nyet, nyet," it looks like I'm stuck here at Camp Euroclub for the next month.

How can I describe this place? It reminds me of what I believe a fancy rehab to be like - beautiful wooded scenary, a little lake, a corral with horses, a football pitch - but all surrounded by thick stone walls and uniform buildings (called corpuses) that give off that institutionalized, "we're not just keeping people out, we're keeping people in" feel. In fact, I've taken to referring to the camp as simply "The Compound", or when I'm feeling less charitable, "Alcatraz."

There's even a doctor who walks around the property all day decked out in a white lab coat with a stethoscope around her neck, performing random checks on children. Every water cooler is unplugged because apparently cold water is dangerous to children, and the hottest tea or coffee you can get here is lukewarm at best because hot water is also considered dangerous. Mealtimes are strict - if you miss breakfast from 8:40-9:40, lunch from 1-2, or dinner from 6:15-7:15, well, you're going hungry. As I did my first full day here, on Thursday, when I missed out on lunch and dinner because nobody would tell me where to go or when they were being served.

BUT...ignoring the fact that I just wrote two paragraphs complaining about the place, I need to back up and start at the beginning. Because today I remembered with a twinge of shame something that my students had written on the back of a framed photo they gave me on Tuesday night: "To Katie, the most positive person". And the thing is, these past few days I have NOT been positive. At all. I've been wallowing in self-pity, indulging in a sobfest over the phone with Iain, and counting down the days until I can escape. How is that positive? How is that ME, the real Katie, who always tries to have a smile on her face? Being miserable isn't going to help things, so over the past couple days I've decided not only do I need to suck it up, but I need to make the best of everything and stop being so damn negative. Be the positive Katie my students in Mytishi knew!

I read this great article once about living in a foreign country. "Stop asking 'why?'," it advised, "and start asking 'How?'" So I'm not going to ask why anymore - why did I get shafted and sent to camp when other teachers are happily in Moscow, why do Russians call meat and mayonnaise "salad", why is the food so awful, why is Lady Victoria ignoring me...and start asking "how?" How can I make the most of this experience? How can I fit in, make new friends? How can I make this feel like home?

I'm not going to complain right now about the packing up of my things (how have I accumulated so much in nine months?), the sad goodbyes in Mytishi, the long commute from Moscow (it should have taken an hour but lasted four and a half! The joys of traveling during chas pik/rush hour), or that disastrous first night and day at the camp. If you really want to know, well, you can always ask me. But seriously - I'm done being negative, and no one wants to hear that anyways! (Although I have to say, Lady Victoria, the manager at the camp, lives up to her haughty reputation - she even has a man I can only refer to as her footman follow her around all day doing her bidding!)

Onto the positive things: there is another Language Link teacher here! Like a drowning man clings to a floating piece of debris, Evan and I have latched onto each other as the only foreigners here. The fact that he's also a cool guy definitely makes it better! He's from Seattle, is a history major like me, was teaching at a school in Moscow for the past nine months, and taught ESL for half a year in China before that. We've bunked in together after I convinced Lady Victoria there was no way I could share a closet with no lock on the door or room to unpack with two other women who both snore like freight trains.

We're also slowly being accepted by the counselors here, who at first viewed us with some suspicion I think. I went swimming yesterday and one of the counselors shyly approached me in the changeroom and we started speaking in English together. She's from Saratov, about my age, and is really nice. "What's your name?" I asked. "Lady Astra!' She replied in a bubbly voice. ARGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH...what is up with this bizarre insistence on being called Lord and Lady?! Can I not know her real name? Its a strange thing building a friendship with someone who you know only as Lady Astra. But a friendship is a friendship so...

Another positive thing was yesterday, which was actually a really fun day. Lunch was decent (as in, there were identifiable vitamins in the food selection) and even though dinner wasn't great Evan and I stole- er, kept for later - some bread and then went for a walk around the compound. It really is lovely here, with tall pine trees and clear stretches of blue sky. As we were walking back to our corpus, we heard some music blasting - "Scotty Doesn't Know" from Eurotrip! - and ran into Lady Astra who was just taking her group to the nightly disco. "Come with us!" she invited us, so we traipsed along inside with them.

Once inside the disco, with its pulsing lights that still couldn't disguise the fact that its normally a gym, "Can't Touch This" came on and the crowd of Russians went wild. And...so did I! I danced like a maniac with Lady Astra and all the campers, and eventually Evan joined us even though he said he usually needed more alcohol in him! There's something so freeing about dancing with total abandon - in that moment, jumping up and down to MC Hammer in a hot, sweaty gym, I honestly don't think I could have been happier. It was awesome!

After the disco (or, rather, when the girls realized the boys they were all crushing on weren't going to stop playing football to come dance with them), Evan and I watched "Eastern Promises" which is a really great (but very violent!) movie about the Russian mafia in England. Very cool film though, and lots of interesting details on the history of Russian mafia tattoos. I ate the bread I had smuggled away, drank some lukewarm water, and...all was right with the world. Seriously. Things may not be the greatest here, but it could certainly be worse and I'm determined to make the best of it!

Today I escaped from Alcatraz, albeit briefly, and went for a run where I was chased by killer bees BUT I did find a small cafe and signs of outside life. Then I came back to The Compound and read outside in the sun for awhile. Today is Parents' Day at the camp, so all the kids are eagerly dragging their parents around to show them everything, and a group of them brought their parents over to introduce me. It was really cute! There are these three triplets - Katya, Masha, and Nastya - about nine years old who are adorable and so enthusiastic about learning English.

Well, it's 6:11 here which means dinner is in four minutes and you know, I gotta make sure I don't miss out on kotleti, cold noodles and tepid tea. If I can pick up on a rogue wireless connection later I will keep posting updates here, but if not, at least you know I'm alive - and staying positive - out here in the Russian wilderness!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

So long, farewell...for now!

Off to camp for a month...will write if I can find Internet somehow but if not, I'll be back at the end of June! Have a great month everyone and wish me luck with Lady Victoria, the woman who runs the camp :) Should I be practicing my curtsy?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Weekend Recap

Besides packing for camp, marking tests, and waging an unsuccessful war against the new bane of my existence, mosquitos, I managed to get some sightseeing in during my last weekend in Moscow/Mytishi.

On Wednesday morning I leave for camp, where I'll be teaching English for a month before coming back to Moscow for one day and then...flying back to Canada! Where has this year gone?!?

On Saturday I took the metro to VDNKh, then using my powers of navigation (you can stop smirking, oh ye of little faith! Because...) I managed to find Ostankino Palace and parkgrounds. Touring the palace has been one of the things I've been dreaming about since I read Orlando Figes' excellent cultural history of Russia, "Natasha's Dance," and was introduced to the love story of Count Nikolai Sheremetev and Praskovia Zhemchugova.

Be warned, their love story is definitely not a classic "meet-cute" rom-com adaption starring Katherine Heigl-worthy tale. Nikolai was the heir of one of Russia's wealthiest aristocratic families, and, as such, he had little to do with his time but bum around Europe, get inspired by all the culture there, and return to his family's vast holdings in Moscow to try and replicate the art he had been exposed to. He set up a serf theatre on his estate, where his serfs (read: slaves) were trained in classical opera and would perform massive spectacles and plays for thousands of guests.

The star of his serf theatre was the beautiful serf Praskovia Zhemchugova (which means Pearl), and naturally, Nikolai fell in love with her. In a move echoing that of his contemporary across the ocean, Thomas Jefferson, Nikolai began a relationship with his serf - a relationship that must have had some odd dynamics, to be sure. Yet it really was true love, because eventually he married her - Moscow society be damned! - and he moved her to the beautiful pink and white stucco palace he had built in the northeast of Moscow. There, they lived together away from society's prying and scandalized eyes, and Praskovia quickly became pregnant. Tragically, however, she died shortly after giving birth to a healthy male heir. Nikolai, overcome with grief, built a hospital in her name to care for women, a goal she had always wanted to fulfill, and he himself followed her to the grave only a few years later.

I was transfixed by this story when I first heard it, and last year I used it as the foundation for a paper exploring the curious institutions of serf theatres that sprang up around Russia in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It is a story that continues to sadden and intrigue me, and so I was very excited to be able to tour the palace where Nikolai and Praskovia spent their brief period of happiness together.

The Lonely Planet guidebook was NOT very helpful in directions, so I just kept the massive Ostankino TV tower in my sights and eventually the wide expanse of a man-made lake filled my view and beyond that, I glimpsed the pink and white palace. Unfortunately, pretty much the entire exterior of the building was under reconstruction! Scaffolding was everywhere, blocking any real view of what the palace looks like - very disappointing!

You can only tour the inside of the palace on your own between 4-6pm, and as I got there around 2:30, I had to pay 350 roubles to join the Russian-language tour group. That was okay, as I managed to understand most of what the guide was saying (on a random sidenote, he increasingly became cuter and cuter to me as the tour went on...does this mean after nine months in the country I am falling under the charms of Russian men?!) and like I said, I had some previous knowledge of the palace. It was beautiful inside, but very cold, and we had to wear these giant slippers on over our shoes to protect the floors.

The highlight of the tour was definitely getting to see the legendary serf theatre that Nikolai had constructed! It truly is a feat - there was even a removable floor, and all sorts of props and stage equipment to make his productions a rival of the greatest theatres in Europe! I tried to imagine myself in Praskovia's shoes, having to perform in front of her lover - who also happened to be her master.

After the tour, I walked around the park, which was bustling with Russians out enjoying the warm weather and sunbathing. If only we could all be so comfortable with our bodies as this man, sprawled out in his speedo:

Saturday was also a celebration of sorts for some people, as I saw a group of rowdy, tipsy men storm through the metro waving a flag, wearing green hats, and singing loudly. I asked a friend later on if there had been a special day.

"Yes," he said. "It was Border Guards' Day."

"Oh. What do they do?" I asked.

"They guard Russia's borders" was the reply. Oh. Ok. As the Russians say, "спасибо капитан очевидно." Thank you, Captain Obvious.

Sunday was a museum-free day, as I spent a wonderful day at Tsaritsyno Park with my friends Iain and Ilya. We brought a picnic and a frisbee (a 700 rouble adidas frisbee at that, so you'd think maybe that would have helped us play better!) and walked all along the wooded trails as well. Tsaritsyno is such a beautiful park (it was my second time being there, I blogged about it previously here) and I had a great time! It was really sad saying goodbye to Ilya afterwards; as I'm going to camp, then to Canada, then to England, and he's moving to Finland after he defends his PhD on the 16th, I'm not sure when I will see him again. But I believe that we never know how or when our paths may cross again with people, so I'm keeping an open mind. Who knows what adventures (or countries) I may experience next year?

At the back of the palace, with some of the scaffolding

Outside the Tsaritsyno metro station

Intricate "royal icing" look that reminds me
of a gingerbread house!

Iain in action!

Breath-taking views of the lake at Tsaritsyno, which
is in the southeast of Moscow (on the way to
Domodedovo airport, on the same green metro line)

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!
Climbing to the top of a fairy-tale tower in the woods.

And of course, what would a day out in Moscow be
without a Segway sighting?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Russian word of the week: комар

The newest Russian word I have added to my vocabulary over here is directly related to my inability to sleep last night: комар (kah-MAR) = mosquito.

Yep, it looks like mosquito season has launched here in Moscow. I usually keep my balcony window open during the day because my room gets so stuffy and hot now, but the downside to the cool breeze are the mosquitos that are lured inside.

It's not until nighttime, though, when I turn off my light and prepare to sleep, that I hear that telltale whiny buzz next to my ear...

As a result, I barely got any sleep last night as I would JUST be drifting off when ...bzzzzzzzzz...I'd sleepily slap my hand in whatever direction the sound was coming from, but this meant that more often I'd be slapping myself - on the cheek, on the ankle, on my elbow...you get the idea! And then there's the psychological mind games mosquitos play with you when you're CONVINCED you can feel them on your skin biting you!

This morning I woke up groggy, itchy, and bent to destroy any mosquitos left in my room. I've been generous enough with my blood supply! Of course, they're silent now but I know by nightfall it will be...


Saturday, May 28, 2011

In their own words...again

A few months ago, I shared some of the essays that my advanced teen students had written on their favourite place in Russia. The overwhelming majority of them chose their own hometown, and the result were well-written, moving reflections on the importance of their family and friends in establishing a sense of home and community. For the final test of the year, I skipped the usual essay question and asked them a series of questions about English (with one trick question at the end!). Their answers are too good, cute, and funny not to share!

1) Why are you studying English?

- Because I want to know some foreign language and English for me the easyest and studying helps me to fill my time with great pleasure.

- I want to be a programmist, and all computer languages are in English.

- I want to speak English free and can speaking with people of another country.

- I'm studying English because I just like it. That's all.

- I'm studying English for many reasons. First, I need it to get good Job. Secondly, its intresting. Thirdly, English is international language and everybody should know it to communicate.

- I want to get a well pay job.

- My dad.

- I want to talk to people from different countries.

2) What is your favourite word in the English language?

- Congratulations! I don't know why :)

- soccer.

- Quintessentially.

- Congratulations!

- Cookies (accompanied by drawing of cookies)

- Pancake

- Bad-ass :)

- Awesome

- Okay.

- Maybe, or possible.

- F*** (except without the asteriks...and followed by the student writing - "I shame of me! :)"

- I know, that this sentence is the most beautiful: sellar door. I don't know why, but I love this sentence.

3) What is your LEAST favourite thing about English?

- Causative have.

- Grammar...I hate grammar!

- Pronouncing the word "although" (Russian doesn't have a "th" sound, so this is a very hard word for my students to say!)

- Tenses

- Phrasal verbs, I hate them.

- It has got too many tenses.

- Grammar and listening.

- Its alphabet. (Have you seen your own alphabet Valeria?!? All those backward Rs and triangles and handwritten Ts as Ms?!? And you think the English alphabet is hard?)

- Listen how african americans speak. (umm, okay...I know I've been in Russia too long because this answer didn't even faze me. I was just proud that Dmitri used the term "African American" instead of the standard "n word" that is used here!)

4) What was your favourite thing we did this year in class?

- Oh, to tell you the truth, I liked everything we did in class: games, tests, going outdoors, talks, watching films and so on. I'm really glad that I was entered your group. It was a very cool studying year. Thanks a lot for everything! :)

- Just communicating with each other, finding out more about you. I was really entertained when we were teaching you Russian swear words! (hahaha...a very memorable class for me as well, Polina!)

- Its a game, that we have played, but no too much. (Ah yes...that one...vague statements are the best)

- Lesson of studing American teenagers English

- When we play -> (student drew a stick figure swinging from a gallows...so I assume she means when we played "hangman" with vocabulary words as we did not regularly act out guillotine reenactments)

- Discussing funny topics with you!

- My favourite thing was when you had a New Years Party for us!

- Oh many things, but maybe when you had our lesson outside!

- When we went outside.

- I like in Christmas when we see film and when we speaking all class and you say "no grammar today!"

- I love our lessons and I can't say what is this.

5) And the final question...

- Russians :)

- RUSSIA!!!!!!

- When I look TV Russian team was better but now it possible Canadians.

- I don't like hockey and so I don't know anything about it! But I think...mmm...Russians :)

- Its a provocation question, but I don't really like hockey, because I prefer soccer and watch only its games.

- Of course, Russians. I'm patriot of my country!

- Russians - forever! But I'm not really interesting in hockey, so It's not important for me who win.

- Tajikistans! :)

- I'm not hooked on hockey, but I think both are very good. (Diplomatic answer...)

- Do we get better mark if we say Canadians?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Cat's got my tongue

I'm speechless.

I've seen some pretty strange things in my time here in Russia, from a woman riding her pony down busy, bustling Arbat to children playing in giant gerbil-like clear balls that float on water. From tough teenage boys drinking beer in the park while wearing shirts with teddy bears on them to six-foot tall "glamazons" stalking over treacherous ice and snow in stilettos.

But this one may just take the cake.

First, a little bit of background information. The fifth-floor landing in my apartment building (where my flat is) is usually quite bare, save for a random ladder (and, of course, the infamous magic witchcraft books that were there back in December). But gradually over the past week or so more and more furniture has been accumlating there, for some mysterious reason. Now it looks like someone is setting up an office!

(Added note: this morning when I went for my run I saw an addition to the bookcase: now it is packed with books. Very strange....)

So last night I went to take the garbage outside. I unlocked our heavy leather door, humming a tune to myself innocently, and stepped out onto the landing...

Where a veterinarian (at least, I hope it was a legitimate vet) was standing over an unconscious kitten performing some type of surgery on it while three other people (the cat's owners?) stood around watching!

I gaped in shock for a minute or two but no one seemed to register my presence or my disbelief. I've mentioned before that my family are not "dog people" or "cat people" so I had no idea what was going on to this poor kitten, save that it was sprawled out on the desk and...SOMETHING was being done to it. And that no one seemed to think this was strange!

I texted one of my Russian friends once I got outside and received this reply:

"Perfectly normal situation! The doctor was making the cat not have babies. Its usually done on the kitchen table but I guess they wanted to use a different table. Last year Maks (her cat) got this on our kitchen table!"

Um...okay, am I the only one who thinks that there is something incredibly unsanitary about neutering a cat on your kitchen table? Shouldn't that be done at a veterinarian's office, on a sterilized table that people don't have to eat off of? How is this "normal situation"??? I don't mean to sound like the judgemental foreigner here but everything about what I saw last night just FREAKED. ME. OUT.

Only in Russia? Russians out there, is this standard practice?

Monday, May 23, 2011

You say da, I say yes, they say ouai

Today I got into a debate with a Russian man over Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada. I was strolling down Arbat, enjoying the sun and the fact that I don't have to make treks out to the Wasteland anymore on Monday afternoons. I popped into a Russki Souveniri shop and right away was bombarded by an over-zealous shopkeeper trying to talk me into buying the tackier of his offerings.

"Mmm, panyatna," I said in an attempt to shrug him off. "Understand." As in, ok ok I get it, now leave me alone to peruse in peace!

He got the message and left me alone for a bit, until I approached him with my intended purchases in hand (I won't reveal what I bought, in case the recipients are reading this, but I do hope Kelly and Jacqueline will enjoy their gifts!).

Now that I had to speak more than just a word in Russian, he could tell by my accent and frequent pauses that I was a foreigner. "Oh, I thought you were Russian!" he exclaimed, which is definitely flattering - I love it when people mistake me for a local! I always feel a slight thrill like, Yes! I managed to trick you!

"Ot kuda? Where are you from?" he asked.

"Canada," I answered, pronouncing it the Russian way - Kah-NAH-dah.

He then asked me if I was from the French part of the country. I suppose I answered this question a little TOO vehemently, blurting out, "oh nyet, nyet!"

And somehow he interpreted that as a reason to engage me in a good-natured debate about why I apparently don't like Quebec. It's not that I dislike la belle province; I did an immersion program there three summers ago and loved the experience, the language, and the culture (the lard-heavy diet, not so much!). It's just that I think Quebec needs to suck it up and get over the fact that the English beat the French back in 1759. Anyways, that's neither here nor there on this blog...it was just really interesting and somewhat surreal to be debating the issue of Quebec separatism with a Russian souvenir shopkeeper thousands of kilometres away from the subject in question!

On a totally unrelated note, now that its May, the hot water is getting shut off throughout the country for two week periods as workers fix the pipes. According to Katya no one knows when their hot water will be turned off, as it depends on the district you're in, but if you're lucky, you will know someone in another district who still has their hot water and will let you shower at their flat - with the agreement that you'll return the favour when its their turn! Since I went three weeks in December without ANY hot water (a bitter memory that I will never forget and probably keep complaining about every now and then!), I think I can deal with no hot water in May.

Well, its just after 7pm here and I have a class to teach at 7:30 - better get down to the school!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

VDNKh - the Stalinist Disneyland

Happiest place on Earth?

Entrance to VDNKh

VDNKh (an acronym for Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy - whew, what a mouthful!) opened in 1939 as a general purpose trade show, designed to showcase the economic prowess of the Soviet Union and its republics. By 1989, the waning twilight of Communism in Eastern Europe, there were 82 pavilions covering an area of 700,000 square metres. Each pavilion was dedicated to a specific republic (for example, Armenia or Belarus) or a specific industry/trade (the Engineering Pavilion, the People's Education Pavilion, the Space Pavilion, etc). And of course, there was the architecture - breathtaking, ornate Stalinist buildings designed to send a strong message to the world and to the USSR's own citizens: look at us! Look at how successful and mighty we are!

Nowadays, it has been renamed the VVTs (All-Russia Exhibition Centre) and the only remnants of its former Soviet glory are found in crumbling pavilions and statues of proud proletariat workers with chipped paint and missing mosaic tiles. There would be a certain ghostly gloom to the place, a fairy-tale gone awry, if it wasn't for the massive crowds of people who swarm the parks and pathways of VDNKh every day (although the name change was brought about 1992, Muscovites still refer to it by its former name - pronounced va-din-ha - and the nearby metro station also bears this name).

It has now expanded to encompass 2, 375,000 square metres - larger than the principality of Monaco! There are amusement rides, bumper cars, fountains, a giant ferris wheel, games, and food stands - truly something for EVERYONE. People of all ages whiz past on rollerblades and bikes, and you better watch out for the train - loaded with children but still chortling along at a very fast pace! - that comes barreling down on you with no warning! It is like Disney World...on steroids. In an alternate universe. Truly, only in Russia!

I went there with my parents two weeks ago, and we were all captivated by its mix of the ornate, the gaudy, the free-wheeling fun, and the sense of historical atrophy. Today, I returned with my friend Katya (from yesterday's Dior adventure) on a day that dawned warm and sunny. As we bounced along on the bus into Moscow, the radio DJ urged the listeners to "grab some friends, grab some beers, grab some sticks (for grilling shashlik) and let's head into the forest!" Indeed, on the bus ride there and back home later this evening, I saw people going into and emerging from the forest loaded down with shashlik supplies!

However, shashlik wasn't the only thing on the Muscovite agenda today. We got to VDNKh around 1pm, and it. was. PACKED. First thing we did was head to the giant, 73 metre-high ferris wheel that would normally dominate the skyscape if it wasn't for the Ostankino television tower (reminiscent of Toronto's CN tower, it even has a glass floor too!) and the enormous, mighty Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue that famously opens up the beginning of every Mosfilm studio movie made in the Soviet era.

The ferris wheel cost 250 roubles for closed car and 300 roubles for open car. Katya and I opted for the open car option, as it was such a beautiful day out, and I'm certainly glad we did. The view was outstanding! (Unfortunately though I did something to my neck the other day, so my view was restricted to just what was in front of me!) If you want an unparalleled view of Moscow, I definitely recommend it. I was taken aback just by how GREEN the city is. You imagine Moscow to be a city of gray, bleak blocks of apartments but this is just not true. Check it out for yourself:

After the ferris wheel, we rented rollerblades - 300 roubles for 2 hours which was more than enough time for exploring the area (including the beautiful wooded Botanical Gardens that is attached to VDNKh) and for stopping to sit by the fountain and enjoying a cold cup of kvass and some cotton candy!

Cooling off in the fountain

Naturally, my inherant grace and athleticism were on full display to the envy of all:

You can't see it here, but I am clutching that
railing with a death grip to keep from falling
into the lake.

All in all, it was a great day and if you're in Moscow - and want a break from the forest and shashlik, although why would you? - head over to VDNKh, rent some rollerblades, ride the ferris wheel, soak up the slowly decaying Soviet architecture, and watch out for that train!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

J'Adore Dior

On February 12, 1947, a Frenchman named Christian Dior launched a fashion collection that immediately took the style world by storm. Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, upon viewing the wasp-waisted dresses and coats, the full flounced skirts, the wide petticoats, and the ample decolletage, was moved to exclaim, "It's such a new look!" The name stuck, and Christian Dior's "New Look" entered the fashion history books.

Why was this so revolutionary? Europe and North America were just recovering from the devastating Second World War, a period in which women - fighting on the homefront as well as the battlefields - were less preoccupied with dressing in a "ladylike" manner. Fabric rations also meant that clothes were simpler, more austere, and much more focused on comfort and practicality than haute couture.

By 1947, the time was ripe for change, and Dior was the man of the hour. His ultra-feminine dresses and coats - he once memorably said, "I have designed flower-women" - ushered in a new era of femininity and grace, an era in which women proudly expressed their desires to "feel pretty" again after a long period of wartime asceticism.

Last month, a new exhibit exploring Dior and the infuences he drew upon opened at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts here in Moscow. To say it has been wildly successful would be an understatement. Muscovites have been FLOCKING to see the exhibit, and buzz has been generating that the exhibit may show in New York, Milan and Paris at some point. As a fashion and history lover, I was very curious to check out the exhibit for myself, so today my friend Katya and I took the metro to Kropotkinskaya station, got off in front of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, and came face-to-face with...a long, snaking queue to get into the museum!

Apparently the lines have been out the door since the exhibit opened, regardless of the day or time. We waited outside for about an hour, which wasn't that bad, and luckily it was a beautiful, sunny day! The Pushkin Museum is a gorgeous building dating from 1912, and the grounds around it are just beautiful - lots of fresh tulips and lilacs!

Once we got inside, we paid the fee (400 roubles for me, 200 roubles for Katya as she is still in university and got a discount with her student card - lucky! I miss my student days!) and checked our coats. No cameras were allowed, unfortunately, so you'll just have to take my word when I say that the exhibit was stunningly, jaw-droppingly beautiful. Everything was arranged so creatively and with a deep knowledge and appreciation of aesthetics. One room, for example, had massive Ionic columns marching down the centre, with mirrors EVERYWHERE (including on the ceiling) so you felt like you were floating through the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Tchaikovsky was playing in the background, the room was lightly scented with Dior perfume...it was incredible!

Not only were more than 100 dresses on display (ranging from his first ones in 1947 to just-off-the-runway Spring/Summer 2011!), but there were also paintings by Picasso, Malevich, and the Impressionists, all of whom were sources of inspiration for Dior. There was an Egyptian mummy with mannequins grouped around it, all robed in Egyptian-inspired Dior gowns. Russia and Asia were also strong influences on Dior, as well as the Belle Epoque period, the 18th century (think Marie Antoinette!) and of course...flowers. Dior LOVED his flowers!

Another room was all about the "Stars of Dior" - the celebrities throughout the years who have been clad in Dior. This was probably my and Katya's favourite part, although we'd be hardpressed to choose. The room was dark, with flickering lights, flashbulbs, and video on the walls showing famous people in Dior couture. And then there were the dresses...

They had dresses displayed that had been worn by Princess Diana, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Grace Kelly, Olivia de Havilland, Elizabeth Taylor's dress she wore to the Oscars one year, Penelope Cruz, Charlize Theron...it was incredible! Katya and I just kept clutching at each other as we passed gorgeous dress after gorgeous dress, each one imbued with its own history and story. These were dresses we've lusted after in magazine pages, now all come alive in front of us - so incredible!

This exact dress was one of the gowns
on display at the exhibit, worn by Princess
Diana at the 50th anniversary of the
House of Dior in 1997.

Nicole Kidman at the 1997 Oscars, back
in her Tom Cruise period.

This coat, worn by French first lady Carla
Bruni-Sarkozy in 2008 on a state visit to England.
I stood next to this coat today, and the Queen stood
next to it back in 2008, so by proxy does that mean
I've stood next to the Queen? :)

The entire exhibit was just breath-taking and if you are in Moscow or planning to be here up until July, I strongly recommend visiting it. Of course, plan to spend several hours in total here, not only because of the queue but because you will not be able to stop gaping at all the clothes, objects, sketches and paintings on display!

Now I'm off to daydream wistfully about ballgowns, gloves, and red wool traveling coats. Why couldn't I have been alive in the Fifties?!