Monday, January 31, 2011

The best defense is a good offense

Just a quick little post about some of my students and classes. (Internet was down all last week so I've still got to do some updates on my birthday last weekend, but I want to get outside for a walk while the sun - yes, the sun! - is still out! So it will be a short post right now)

Today I was reading an article about parenting styles with my private student, Oleysa, a young mother/dentist that I meet up with Mondays and Thursdays. One of the questions in the text was, "Your seventeen year old son is getting ready to go out on his first date. Do you lecture him about safe sex?"

Oleysa looked thoughtful. "I think maybe," she said. "It's important for him to know how to defend himself if such a situation occurred."

Defend? "Uhh, do you mean 'protect'?" I asked, trying not to laugh. I had this mental image of an insane girl attacking some boy, who would then be forced to beat her off with a stick or something.

"Can't I say 'defend'?" Oleysa was confused. "In Russian schools teenagers are taught how to defend themselves if they decide to have sex." Another hilarious mental image.

So that led to us having a conversation about "defend" vs. "protect" and how these synonyms can't always be used interchangeably. Particularly on the topic of safe sex!

Teaching English. Way more entertaining then some might think...

For my teenage classes, I've discovered how much fun it is to hand out lyrics to a song with some of the words replaced by blanks. Then I play the song and they have to listen and write down the missing words. Not only do they love this, but it can eat up a good amount of time (for those days when 90 minutes seems to draaaaaag on) and I get to rock out to my favourite songs! (although even "You Belong With Me" can get a wee bit irritating after the seventh play)

Last week, I played some Taylor Swift and Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream" for my class of all teenage girls. I think the only thing that could have made their day more was if I had handed out lip gloss and let them watch Twilight while we did each other's hair.

I did a 180 from super girly teenage stuff to super masculine teenage stuff when I taught Lebron last week. We've gotten all the way through the New English File Four book, so while we wait for the new textbook to be ordered, we've been mostly practicing his conversational English. And what does he love talking about more than anything? (my nickname for him should give it away...)

I've never met anyone who gets so excited about basketball! This kid started listing off stats and records from the 50s, getting more and more passionate about the topic. It was so awesome seeing his confidence in his English abilities grow as he spoke. And my own knowledge in basketball is certainly increasing!

Well, that's a bit of an update on some of my students and classes. Now off for a walk in the sunshine :)

Happy Monday!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


By now, news of the terrorist attack at Domodedovo Airport (the airport I flew into back in September, and where several of my friends have passed through and where my parents have been planning to fly into in May) has spread around the world.

I'm not a political analyst, I've had no firsthand experience with terrorism before, I'm not Russian or Chechen (I'm not saying that it was the Chechens who were behind this act, I don't think anyone has claimed responsibility yet). So I'm definitely not qualified in any way to comment on this tragedy except to say that my thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by terrorism around the world. Hate, ignorance, extremism in any form all NEED to be eradicated. Stepping up security just seems to be putting a bandaid on the problem, especially in a country like Russia where there already is increased security in malls, arenas, the metro, etc. But what else can we do?? This devushka has no idea.

Friday, January 21, 2011

It took you HOW long?! and a movie list

Last weekend Colleen, Stu and I journeyed to the end of the world...aka Strogino, on the west side of Moscow.

Life up in the northeast, Mytishi, is fun and all, but every so often you feel like you have to break free from the 'burbs and see some other parts of the region. (Great. Now I have "I Want to Break Free" stuck in my head. It could be worse, I guess. It could be the stupid rainbow song I have to sing to my Kids Box 1 class twice a week. Red, and yellow, and pink and green, orange, and purple and blue...I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow with do you SING a rainbow??? Life's biggest question for me right now!)

Anyways...last Saturday our friend Kendra from Atlanta, Georgia (therefore she is my hero because she's a Southern belle and Scarlett O'Hara is one of my top three favourite fictional characters*) had her birthday party, and we really wanted to go. Kendra lives about a 20 minute walk from Strogino metro station. Ok, we reasoned. We'll leave our flat at 6:30.

WE GOT TO HER PLACE AT NINE. 2 and a half hours later!! It was soul-sucking. First we had to walk to the train station. Then we took the train to Komsomolskaya metro station. Then the metro allllllll the way over to the blue line where Strogino is. Then the walk to her flat. On the way we were assaulted by a drunk man, almost slipped to our icy deaths a few times, paid for extremely gross toilets, and napped on the metro. What a fun commute.

Because I had to catch the last bus from Medvekovo metro station to Mytishi, I got to stay at Kendra's party for ONE HOUR before I had to turn around and make the trip back. So in total I spent 5 hours traveling to get to a party where I could only stay for one hour. Somehow, that doesn't make any sense. But I guess that's Moscow for you.

Kendra with one of her birthday presents - Russian Monopoly!

Melissa and Vic (one of the few pics I managed to
take in the hour I had there)

On a completely unrelated note, here is a list of the movies I REALLY want to see (but will probably end up waiting until I'm back in Canada so I can rent them with friends and fam):

- The King's Speech (ahhhhh I WANT TO SEE THIS SOOOO BADLY! George VI and Elizabeth = LOVE!)

- Sense and Sensibility (I may have watched the trailer for this movie five times in a row one night, dreamily envisioning myself as Marianne Dashwood with my own charmingly bumbling Hugh Grant/Willoughby)

- Morning Glory (Harrison Ford. You guys know my love for him.)

- Slumdog Millionaire (just finished the book, and it was one of those reads that you cannot put down. I really hope the movie lives up to the book and its own hype!)

- The Social Network (it sounds thought-provoking and interesting. Plus I like the catchphrase for the film: "You don't get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.")

- Easy A (I'm a sucker for Amanda Bynes' movies. She's so cute!)

- Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (this won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film sometime in the 1970s, and I have heard from many Russians how amazing it is. But I think I'd enjoy it more if I watched it with English subtitles!)

I'm sure there are other ones but I'll stop now - are there any you'd recommend?

*Top three fave fictional characters: Scarlett O'Hara, Jo March in Little Women - except for her lapse of insanity when she passed over Laurie for that old German guy (how could she? Broke my ten year old heart!) - and Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina.

Starr on Ice

Blades of glory? Meh. I'm no Evgeny "only real men can do quads" Plushenko.

But I enjoy skating even if there is no future for me on Battle of the Blades with Valerie Bure! On Sunday I went to Sad Ermitazh (Hermitage Gardens - get off at Pushkinskaya metro and its about a 5 minute walk from there) with Iain, Ilya, and their awesome Aussie friend Sophie for some nighttime skating. It cost 350 roubles in total to get into the park and rent skates.

They weren't anything fancy, but they did the trick! Does anyone else have a really hard time getting the hang of skating when you haven't done it in awhile? We paid for an hour of skating time, and it was just towards the end of our hour that I started feeling confident enough to go a little faster than the five year old in front of me. I realized Iain and I are both very aggressive skaters - we skate hunched over with our arms swinging madly for balance. I fail miserably as a Canadian, apparently. It was only Ilya's second time skating in his LIFE, but he was amazing!

The park was gorgeous - the pathways were all flooded with ice and everything was lit up like a winter wonderland. Music was playing, people were whizzing past me, and I felt like a Tolstoyan heroine. All I needed to complete my romantic little fantasy was to change into a fur coat and change my name to Kitty Scherbatsky!

These old photographs of people skating at the park
were set up towards the entrance - cool, huh?
This one says New Years 1966.

After an hour, we were all pretty frozen and ready to head back inside! But first...we had to try out the ice slide!



and me! Wheeeee

Now this might be a winter sport I could do! I'd still technically be a Starr on Ice...just on my butt!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Rolling in roubles and a Russian book review

Good news of the day: I got a pay rise! 3000 extra roubles a month! Cuz I am apparently just that good of a teacher :) (says the ESL teacher who is planning on watching The Doors documentary with her class tomorrow. Some English language learning AND indoctrination of the greatest band ever? Now that's what I call killing two birds with one stone. Or as the Russians say, killing two rabbits with one shot. But I don't like that one because it reminds me of Jack-a-diddly-dumfus. Ok, if I've completely lost you I understand, and I'm's midnight and I'm tired and not making any sense!)

I just finished reading a great collection of novellas by Tolstoy. I was going to write "short stories" but according to some bibliophile sources, there is a clear distinction between a short story and a novella (mainly to do with length...these novellas that I read are all between forty and sixty pages long).

The book consisted of four of Tolstoy's best-known novellas - Family Happiness, The Kreutzer Sonata, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and The Devil.

The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil are both fascinating psychological thrillers dealing with lust, adultery, jealousy, and murder. The Devil even comes with a "DVD-esque" feature, because Tolstoy included two alternate endings. I personally preferred the first ending, but I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself and see which ending you liked best! I read the whole novella on my forty-five minute bus ride yesterday, and absolutely loved it.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich starts off with several people receiving the news that their old co-worker Ivan Ilyich has died. Then it goes back to Ivan's life - his childhood, his perfect career as a judge, his marriage, his children, the way he set up his life according to what was considered seemly. Then the detached, somewhat cynical and ironic narrator switches gears, following Ivan's terrifying descent into illness (most likely cancer) and his own reactions and those of his family and friends. I could not put this down - it was one of those stories that makes you realize the importance of not taking life for granted. My mum has a coffee mug that says, "Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away." Beautifully and simply put, this sentiment is expressed by powerful characters, diction, and imagery in what is probably Tolstoy's most famous novella.

The only one I didn't really like was Family Happiness, and that was because it just struck me as very depressing. I've never been married, so obviously I have no idea what marriage is really like, but Tolstoy does not exactly make me want to rush out and get married to see for myself. Masha is a young, idealistic girl who falls in love with her dead father's best friend, an experienced, world-weary man in his late thirties. At first, everything is amazing for the newly-weds, but then the obvious dichotomy between old and young, man and woman, jaded and naive, ensues. I won't give away the ending but I won't recommend reading the novella, either. The first three though? Definitely!! And as I mentioned, they are all very easy, quick, and engrossing reads!

Off to bed now - Iain lent me "Slumdog Millionaire" (which I never knew was a book before it was a movie) so I'm going to start that tonight!

Qualifying for "Hoarders"

Because I always pick the wrong check-out line at the grocery store (you know, the one where the person in front of you is meticulously counting out kopecks to pay the entire 500 rouble grocery bill...kill me now), I have plenty of time to ruminate on life's Big Thoughts while I'm waiting.

Is Britney's disastrous new weave a disturbing sign that she's about to have another meltdown? Will Kim ever find true love with a non-professional athlete? Is that pack of gum really worth two bucks just because there's a "fruity burst of strawberry watermelon splash" in it? And what exactly IS "strawberry watermelon splash"? the job of a grocery store check-out clerk really as fun as I think it would be?

Okay, I know that like most jobs, it might only be fun for a day. If that. But I can't help thinking while I'm standing there (after my brain has already imploded from all the celebrity gossip headlines screaming new and disastrous hook-ups, break-ups, and breakdowns) that it might be kind of interesting to see what everyone buys. Sometimes its obvious why someone is buying specific products - if all they've got is pasta, pasta sauce, a loaf of garlic bread, and some spicy sausage, it's fairly safe to assume that they'll be having an Italian night.

Other times what people are buying can give clues into their personality or lifestyle. How many times did I wait in line at the London Loblaws back in Canada and laugh at the university guys with shopping carts full of frozen pizzas, ramen noodles, Doritos, instant oatmeal, frozen lemonade, and a few kilos of frozen pre-cut French fries?

As a check-out clerk, it must be at least somewhat amusing to see what kind of food people buy. Or maybe I've just been standing in line too long and have started to go just as crazy as Britney...

Anyways, this post DOES have a point. I just got back from the perekrestok (grocery chain here) and I have a feeling that the check-out clerk was seriously confused by my purchases. First of all, I bought an enormous 5-litre jug of drinking water. Our water filter is super old, and the replacement one Stu bought doesn't fit. So I saw this enormous jug of water that was only 41 roubles (a little more than a dollar!) and decided to buy it. Then I saw that the canned tuna was back!! This might not be that exciting to you, but I loooove canned tuna and I haven't been able to find it at any grocery stores for the past two months. Not knowing when I'll ever see it on the shelves again, I bought seven cans. Then I decided I might as well buy some dried chickpeas, so I bought two huge bags of them. (Can you tell I'm getting a little worried about my protein-intake here? haha)

So when the old man in front of me finally finished counting out his kopecks, the check-out clerk scanned my food, raised her painted-on eyebrows, and gave me a serious look, like "Are you preparing for the Apocalypse?" It certainly looked that way. Big jug of water. Numerous tins of tuna. Bags of dried chickpeas.

Either I was stocking up for the end of the world, or I was getting ready to audition for Hoarders...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

That's just so...Russian!

This phrase is repeated by me or my American/British friends quite often here. We also tend to shrug and say, "Welcom to Russia" or "Only in Russia." Sometimes, its the only thing you CAN say. Like when you get locked out of your flat because the bolts "slid back in" and the locksmith can't do anything about it until he gets the right documentation proving it is, indeed, YOUR flat and you're not just trying to break in. Fast forward 24 hours and you're finally able to shower and start preparing your Canadian Thanksgiving feast that is due to start in in two hours.

Or when your hot water just stops. And the administrators don't do anything about it for two and a half weeks. Yeah. You can tell I'm still not totally over that one!!

Or when you glimpse someone wearing a jacket that has the word "Cool" emblazoned on the back in rhinestones, and you totally know that they are not wearing it in an ironic way, but they actually do think they are very cool.

But those are extreme, negative examples. We also say these phrases about other, little daily life things, and I want to write down some of them here so I don't forget! Just little unique things that make Russia...well, Russia. Here goes:

- You can't buy big tubs of yogurt, or even packages of yogurt, say four or six mini-containers together. Each container (roughly 100-250 grams) of yogurt is sold separately. I think this is genius! You don't have to worry about who's going to eat the nasty flavour (because there is always one gross flavour thrown in can never buy JUST strawberry or vanilla, they'll throw in a prune/peach combo that just ends up sitting in your fridge!) and you can mix and match according to your personal preference. Plus, you don't have to commit yourself to a huge tube that might go bad before you finish it, or a new flavour you might not like.

- Clementines are also sold seperately here. In Canada, you can only buy them in those big wooden crates, which is great for a family but if you're a solo-shopper it can present some problems. For starters, it is a huge pain having to walk home with 5kg of mini-oranges. Then you have to eat approximately 20 oranges a day for a week in order to finish them all before they go bad! By selling the clementines individually, I can choose to buy however much I want/can reasonably eat without overdosing/can carry home. And you can also pick out the best ones! heehee...its not just me who does this...I see everyone manhandling the clementines here trying to get the "perfect" ones...

- Scrunchees. I haven't seen them in the West since the 90s, but here they are everywhere.

- There are men who are best described as outdoor or street "janitors" - their job is to pick up garbage, to shovel the sidewalks in the winter and sweep them during the rest of the year (you know, the other two months of the year where there's no snow!), and to generally just keep everything outside somewhat clean. This seems like one of the worst jobs in the world - you'll see them JUST finishing picking up some garbage and then some teenager will drop their McDonalds wrapper on the ground and keep walking...

- People spit on the sidewalks here a lot. I've never seen anything like it.

- Russians talk on their mobiles at a pitch approaching ear-deafening. It's like they think everyone else wants to know what they could possibly be talking about. But since I only understand one out of every 500 words, I can easily tune them out. I just find it amusing!

- There are warnings about looking up for falling icicles everywhere!

- On the buses, there's a woman who stumbles around precariously to each and every passenger. She asks you where you're headed, then enters some little numbers in on this box she carries with her, and tells you what you owe her for the ride. Then she gives you fifty (okay, more like four) random little pieces of paper that I think you're supposed to keep. She does this for EVERYONE who walks on.

I'm sure I will add onto this list later, but for now that's all I can think of and I have to go teach a class now!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Woe, Canada

Hockey is kind of a big deal where I'm from.

Naturally, then, the World Juniors is a tournament that most (REAL) Canadians follow with excitement and patriotic enthusiasm. So you can imagine the shock, dismay, and disappointment that settled over my home and native land last week when the Russians came from behind and won an incredible 5-3 victory over Team Canada to capture the gold.

My parents were curious to see what the reaction would be here, and my dad also mentioned that a guy he works with was wondering the same thing. So here is my take on it!

Because the game took place over the ten-day period from January 1-10 that is the Russian New Year holidays, not a lot of media attention was given to the win. And that's because the whole country is basically shut down right now (well, today was the last day...tomorrow is back to work for everyone and business as usual). I checked The Moscow Times website, but they are on vacation till tomorrow so there was no new news. Ditto for The Moscow News. I looked on and there were a few pictures of the Russians celebrating and a short article, but that was it.

I thought I would be given a lot of grief from my American friends, but I don't think they were really following the tournament. Too bad, cuz I would have loved to be able to say, "At least we GOT a medal!" :)

Russian reaction amongst the Russians I know here has been empathetic and quite friendly, actually. But maybe that is because I don't really know too many Russian jerks. At least on a personal level. (I know way too many Russian jerks just from taking the metro, the bus, walking outside, going to the grocery store, etc get the idea!)

At Orthodox Christmas, my Russian hosts, upon hearing that Colleen is originally from Buffalo, said, "Ahh Buffalo! Where the World Juniors was held!" Then, turning to me, sympathetically patted squeezed my arm. "It was such an exciting game! We are so sad your country did not win, they are the best hockey players in the world! It was just fluke!" They didn't say this in a condescending way at all, but more in a "wow-we-can't-believe-we-actually-won" shocked way.

Then, today at the Atlant game I went to, Andrei gave his take on the event. "We like hockey here, but we do not love it with the same passion as Canada does, I think," he said sagely, gazing out at the ice before us. "We have started to really like football, so I don't think too many Russians were paying attention to the World Juniors. Plus even if we do win, we feel that we are just lucky because the Canadians always win, they are the best." Maybe he was just saying that to humour me. Oh and side note here for Dad - Andrei was AMAZED to hear that you play hockey. I casually mentioned that my dad is a goalie, and Andrei gasped, "Your father? How old is he? Fifty??? And he plays hockey? That is miracle!" Then I remembered that the average life-expectancy for a male here in Russia is fifty-seven.

So I guess, to Andrei, it IS a miracle. Sheesh. Even though I wish my family had embraced my "multi-cultural nights" idea a little more, I sure am glad we're all Canadian.

In class tonight, I polled my students (all two of whom showed up; the rest were probably nursing a ten-day hangover). Inna declared that Russians are lazy by nature and that they are only spurred on to action if they have a leader who can give good speeches. "So maybe their captain or trainer yelled at them or something," she mused, "and that made them angry and so then they scored five goals."

So it seems that the Russians I know are mainly amazed at their country's win - proud yes, but more because they view Canada as a fearsome, mighty, and respected foe!

And as for their opinions on Team Russia's riotous and rowdy behaviour that saw them kept from boarding their flight home, the attitude here appears to be one that, as a girl, I've always hated...

Boys will be boys.

Comrade Lenin and I

Yesterday I went to Red Square with Colleen, Stuart, Victoria, Hannah, and Basil. Our goal: to see Lenin.

Since shortly after his death in 1924 (with some rare exceptions in wartime), the body of the Bolshevik leader of the 1917 Russian Revolution has been on public display in the mausoleum designed by Alexei Shchusev. The mausoleum itself is very simple in design, and was inspired by ancient mausoleums like the Step Pyramid in Egypt. It's to the right when you walk onto Red Square, but the entrance to see Lenin is actually back before you walk through Resurrection Gate, to the right of the statue of General Zhukov on his horse (we did a lot of backtracking yesterday, so I'm hoping if you are reading this and planning on a visit to see Lenin, you'll save yourself some time!)

Anyways, after we figured out where to queue up, we joined a fairly long line of people, mainly Russians. An older woman came up to us and said in English, "Hello, friends. You want to see Lenin? I can take you in through the employee's entrance if you want." It was pretty obvious that she was just trying to lure unsuspecting tourists into giving her money, so we politely declined. That didn't stop her from approaching us again, nor another man who tried to get us to buy the same line. So be warned! Although it may be tempting to say "yes" in the hopes of skipping the official line, it is just a money trap!

We found that the best thing to do was to stay quiet and try to look as "Russian" as possible. Ie. don't smile! There are guards who let in a certain number of people every so often, and after a bit of a wait, we were waved through the first checkpoint. Bring your passport just in case!! Also, the mausoleum is only open from 10am-1pm Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday/Sundays. We went first thing in the morning and there was already quite the line!

At the top of the hill (the biggest hill I've climbed in Russia so far! I have no idea how I'm going to manage the hills of Cambridge when I move back home in the summer!), we had to queue up again before going through the metal detectors. Cell phones and cameras are strictly prohibited, but apparently beer is okay. Stuart had a bottle of Scottish ale in his backpack that he had brought back from Edinburgh, and he was so anxious that the guards would confiscate it (and most likely drink it themselves!). Luckily, no one noticed, and we all got through security without any problems.

Then we were ushered into the mausoleum. Going down the steps, I felt this odd mixture of thrilled anticipation and dread. This was Lenin we were going to see! The man who snuck back into Russia in April 1917, after years of exile, when he heard the news that the Revolution had happened. The man who, whatever your political slant may be, can inarguably be listed as one of the most influential and revolutionary figures in world history.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, AKA Lenin, died on January 21, 1924 after a series of debilitating strokes. Within hours, the Soviet government received over 10,000 telegrams from citizens across the USSR, pleading for some sort of embalming method that would preserve their hero for future generations. On January 23, a prominent Russian pathologist and anatomist, Dr. Alexei Ivanovich Abrikosov, was given the duty (honour?) of embalming Lenin's body. There are some apocryphal stories floating around that it was a case of "preserve this body forever or we'll kill you" but I wasn't able to find any solid, researched academic proof of that, so I'm taking that little story with a grain of salt. Either way, a method of preservation was discovered, despite Lenin's express wishes that he NOT be embalmed.

The cult of Lenin was firmly established with the embalming of his body. "Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live" is a slogan that perfectly captures the "discourse of revolutionary immortality" that was so important to the continuation of the Soviet state, now under the control of Stalin.

What exactly is the process? Apparently, the well-guarded secret has been made public since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So if you're not too queasy, read on...

The corpse requires daily moisturizing of the skin and injections of preservatives under his clothes (a somber black suit, if you were wondering!). Lenin's sarcophagus is kept at a precise temperature of 16 °C (61 °F) and kept at a humidity of 80 - 90 percent. Every eighteen months, the body is taken out and "dipped" into a wax-like substance of potassium acetate, alcohol, glycerin, distilled water, and quinine. Whew...ok that was more than a little gross...

When we walked into the room where the body is kept, guards moved us along as a fairly quick pace. I paused for a second to put on my glasses, and right away a guard appeared at my elbow to physically usher me on. The mood was very solemn and respectful, and it was clear to me that for many of the other people in the room, this man truly was a hero worthy of immense awe and honour.

He IS looking a little waxy, to be honest. He had very little hair on his head, but he did have a moustache, and as I mentioned before, he was wearing a dark suit. His hands were laid across his lap, one fist clenched and the other laid flat. Everything else was red and black, and it was very dark in the room except for the lighting on the sarcophagus. Within a minute or two, though, we were already standing outside behind the mausoleum. The tour was not completely over though.

Behind the mausoleum is where you can find the graves of several other prominent Soviet citizens. I saw Yuri Gagarin's grave (the first cosmonaut to orbit around the earth), as well as that of Leonid Brezhnev's (the leader of the USSR from 1964-1982, famous for the era of economic stagnation over which he presided), Dzherzhinsky's (founded the Cheka, later the KGB), and Sverdlov's (gave the execution order for the Romanovs in 1917), to name a few. And of course the Other Big Guy, besides Lenin - Stalin.

Stalin's grave was REALLY creepy to see, because this was the guy who, despite looking like a jolly old uncle, murdered millions of his own people. And there were so many flowers and ornamental wreaths on his tombstone!!! A few years ago, there was a television contest in Russia to see who was the most famous Russian in history (we had a similar one in Canada). And guess who came in THIRD PLACE??? Yep, good ol' Uncle Joe. His third place ranking (behind Alexander Nevsky and Pyotr Stolypin) was reasoned to be because of the anti-Georgian sentiment that is currently rife in Russia. Okay, so people didn't want him to win because he was GEORGIAN??? Not because of the little fact that he was an evil mass-murderer?

Ok, I need to calm down. Mini-rant aside, seeing Lenin was definitely one of my most memorable (but eerie!) experiences here in Russia so far. Although I wasn't able to take any photographs of Lenin, here are some pics of Red Square I took over the holidays:

Gorgeous Red Square, lit up around 4pm. The "gingerbread house"
on the left is the department store GUM (pronounced "goom)

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: a sign in front of it reads:
"Your name is unknown; your deeds immortal." So beautiful.

The New Years' Tree

Vic and I

Vic and I again - isn't the house behind us pretty? The colour reminds
me of the houses on the Battery in Charleston, SC

The ice cream (mainly whipped cream) that Zach, Vic and I
shared at Coffee House

My Minnesota friend, Zach

Today was the first day back to teaching, but it wasn't as bad as first days back usually are :) My first two classes of the day were canceled - woo hoo! Then I went to an Atlant game at 5pm with my friend Andrei. They were playing a Belarussian team, Dinamo. That was really cool because I got to listen to the Belarussian national anthem as well as the Russian one in the beginning. It was also fun going with a Russian because he taught me a lot of useful words/phrases! Like chanting "chai-boo!" means that you want a goal. And I also learned a lot of things to yell at the players that I probably shouldn't repeat on a family-friendly blog ;)

Unfortunately it was tied 1-1 by the end of the third period; it went into a five minute overtime but both teams remained score-less. By then, it was 7:22 and I had a class to teach at 7:30!! I had to swallow my disappointment and run across the street to the school, still wearing my new Atlant t-shirt I bought earlier, and wait until after class to find out from Andrei what the final score was: 2-1 Atlant!!! WE WON!!! :)

Friday, January 7, 2011

Christmas the Second

Today is Orthodox Christmas (celebrated 13 days after Christmas because of when Russia was on the Julian calendar) and I was invited to dinner at Natasha's mother's flat. Natasha had hinted beforehand that her mother had designs to set me up with Natasha's 26 year old brother, Viktor, who according to Natasha is a recluse and spends all his time at the university or on his computer. Hmm. With that glowing description I set off with Colleen and Stuart for dinner...

Upon walking into Natasha's mum's flat, I immediately got the impression that for some reason, I was the celebrity of the night. "Ahhh, it's KATYUSHA!!!" Her mother and her cousin, Svetlana, gushed right away. A flurry of cheek kisses and hair stroking ensued, and before I knew it, I was sitting on a couch getting plied with blini and more of the dreaded salo (uncooked pig fat). Did I mention this was the first time I had met any of them?

Throughout all of this, Viktor was looking at me intensely. How can I describe him? Well, the first thought that sprung to mind was, He looks like a fourteen year old Leon Trotsky.

Take away the moustache and about half a foot of height and fifty pounds. I could have picked this guy up, he was tiny! I don't mean to sound like one of those horrible, gossipy shallow girls who write off guys faster than cheques to Daddy's account, but, well, he wasn't exactly my type. Which is a cross between Indiana Jones and Rhett Butler if you're wondering. :)

Anyways, while it was very, very nice of Natasha's family to welcome us into their home and prepare such a feast for us, I found the whole evening really stressful. Everything was conducted in Russian, and Colleen and Stu were basically ignored while questions were thrown at me almost without stop. They wanted to know all about my family, about Canada, about my hobbies, my favourite music and books, why I came to Russia, my daily schedule (down to the HOUR!!!)...I also had to go around the circle and guess how old everyone was, which was terrifying - what if I guessed too old? What if I mesed up my Russian numbers? It was just exhausting to always be so on. Katyusha, Katyusha, Katyusha...ahhhh!!

Viktor invited me to his birthday party next week, but you can trust that I will be dragging Colleen and Stu along with me. At one point in the evening, he stood up and awkwardly interjected, "You will come to my room now" - but it was not really a question. VERY taken aback. I made C&S come too, and we looked at his ever so exciting bedroom, a spartan square that had a huge map of the Russian Federation on the wall and a copy of the periodic table that he drew in the eighth form. Oh, but I can't forget his collection of cassette tapes. And his math and physics books. Yeah. This guy is right up my alley. Clearly.

One cool event of the night was when Natasha brought out her mum's old photo albums and we got to look through a bunch of old black-and-white photos from the 1960s and 1970s. Their family is from Siberia, and it was so interesting to see Natasha as a little girl in the 70s, wearing a huge bow in her hair, dressed in her Communist Pioneer (a youth group that every child had to join) uniform! Even Viktor as a kid was pretty cute, I'll give him that! And Natasha's mum was stunning - she looked like a Tolstoyan heroine!

There was soooo much food - blinis, "herring in a fur coat" (herring salad with beet root on top of the herring, hence the "fur coat"...oh, and mayo, mayo, mayo), the aforementioned and dreaded salo, tons of fruit, tons of pickles (Snooki would be right at home...oh wow, did I just make a Jersey Shore reference?), bread, crab salad, kasha, and this delicious homemade salsa. And of course alcohol...but does that even need to be mentioned?

Well, once again it is almost 1am here and I'm sooo tired...Scathing update on my love life (or serious lack thereof...thank goodness) accomplished, so off to bed!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Graveyard of Fallen Heroes

Sadly, my two weeks of vacation are coming to an end soon, but I've had a great time despite the fact that most of my American/British friends went home for the holidays, and my Russian friends went to Bali/Egypt/Bulgaria/UAE (lucky, lucky!).

Despite a few emo-esque self-portraits I was forced to take of myself in Red Square, I still managed to have fun and explore some new parts of Moscow. Plus, I also got SERIOUSLY into Jane Austen, and did a lot of reading, a lot of yoga, and a lot of running.

Oh, and a lot of soup-making. The fact that I've grown accustomed to the smell of cooked cabbage (and actually LIKE it!) scares me a little, as it means the odds of me becoming a babushka one day have greatly increased. At least I'm not hitting people with my purse or screaming at young girls for sitting on the cold pavement. Yet.

I went to the Graveyard of Fallen Heroes, a really cool, eerie, and moody sculpture park that is right across the street from Gorky Park and next door to the New Tretyakov. I got off at Park Kultury on the red metro line and walked across Krymsky Most (bridge). This was right around 4pm and there was an absolutely gorgeous sunset:

Ignore the mushroom cloud in the distance. Apparently
Russia was testing nukes the other day. Also, yes, that is a roller-coaster!
(in Gorky Park)

The Graveyard of Fallen Heroes is a collection of several statues that were toppled down in the wave of anti-Communist fervour that swept the Moscow area in the early days of the fall of the Soviet Union. Massive Lenins, Stalins, Brezhnevs, and more are set up in between modern sculptures. With the blanketing snow, the setting sun, and the deserted gloom of the place, it was both creepy and thought-provoking - reminding me of that quote by Napoleon: "Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever." All of these men were convinced that the USSR would last forever, that the answer to everything lay in Communism, but in the end their statues no longer proclaim this truth they held to be self-evident. Their glory was certainly fleeting, lasting only from 1917-1991, and now their statues are set up in a small little park full of gloom and shadows. Memento mori. Remember you must die. Sorry for waxing a little morbid here, but it was hard not to feel this pervasiveness of death while weaving in between the walkways. Definitely creepy, but also definitely something I'm glad I saw. (Incidentally, today my friend Zach was asking me how I entertained myself for the past two weeks, with mostly everyone gone from Moscow. "Oh, I took emo-pictures of myself in Red Square and visited a graveyard," I told him. "What's happened to happy, smiley Katie???" he asked in mock horror. Fear not, I am still my usual happy self!! Here is proof:)

Warming up with tea back in my flat!

Anyways, I definitely recommend checking out the Graveyard of Fallen Heroes if you're in Moscow. Here are some more pics:

Felix Dzherzhinsky, the founder of the Cheka secret
police, which later became the KGB, which is now the FSB.
This statue used to be in front of the Lubyanka, the KGB
headquarters, before it was pulled down by protesters in the
early 1990s.

A statue of Stalin standing guard over a collection of
"statue faces" - a symbolic tribute to the estimated 28-50
million victims of the Soviet concentration camps (GULAGs)
and of Stalin's Great Purge.

Close-up of the statue heads.

The New Tretyakov Gallery, an annexe of the Tretyakov, is right next to the sculpture park, and it houses 20th century Russian art. I LOVE the work of the avant-garde artists (like Natalya Goncharova, whose 1912 still-life painting The Flowers was auctioned at Christie's for 10.8 million USD, setting a record for any female artist!) and really wanted to check this musuem out, but for some reason the line snaking outside the door to the gallery was longer than the old Soviet queues for bread, so I decided to come back another day! It was SO cold out!!

I've also gotten to see quite a bit of Red Square in the past few days, but its almost 1am and I'm really tired, so I will post some pictures and stuff about that tomorrow. Tomorrow, also, is the Orthodox Christmas and I've been invited to a traditional Christmas meal! I'm betting it will be a lot like a traditional New Year's meal, so I'm preparing myself for more M&M...meat and mayonnaise...

P.S. I still have no idea what to think about this! On the one hand, I'm a little happy that they got their chance at some redemption after the Olympics...but I was sincerely cheering for Canada on this one...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

New Years in Russia

I was so good at posting lots in December - now its already five days into the new year and I'm forcing myself to write about how I celebrated New Year's Eve...hmm, maybe I should add another resolution to the list...

I had heard a lot about Russian New Years, and how its the BIGGEST holiday of the year here. I debated about going into Moscow to celebrate it, but even though the metro runs later than usual on NYE (until 2am), the buses, trains, and marshrutkas do not so I would have either had to usher in the New Year while sitting alone in public transit (uh, no thanks) or I would have been stranded in Moscow until 5am (again, not my idea of fun when its this cold out!). So when Natasha, one of the Russian teachers at the school, called to invite me to celebrate New Years with her family, I eagerly and gratefully accepted. I really wanted to experience a "real" Russian New Years, and spending it with a Russian family seemed perfect!

I headed over to her flat around 9pm, and we got right down to business: preparing a traditional Russian New Year's meal.

These are the ingredients for "Salad Olivier" (салат Оливье), the most popular dish on a Russian New Year table. Some background history: it was invented by Lucien Olivier, the celebrated chef of a fancy Moscow restaurant in the 1860s. His recipe was jealously guarded until it was stolen by his sous-chef, Ivan Ivanov (yes, there are actually names like that here in Russia...there was one student at our school named Sergei Sergeivich Sergiev, no lie), and gradually the fancy-pants French recipe became so popular and widespread that although it only faintly resembles Olivier's original salad, it is the quintessential New Year's food for Russians.

What exactly is in it? Well, like the majority of Russian salads, mostly meat and mayonnaise, and not a lot of vegetables. The ingredient list is as follows:

- hard-boiled eggs
- boiled potatoes
- boiled carrots
- canned corn
- canned peas
- lots of fresh dill
- pickled cucumbers
- pickled garlic
- mayo, mayo, and more mayo
- some kind of generic "meat" product: no joke, the Wikipedia entry for Olivier calls for Doktorskaya-type sausage, a type of meat product that "resembles a large, uncooked hot dog". Yep, that sounds about right.

I tried REALLY hard to like this salad, but I just couldn't. I'm not a huge mayo girl, and I haven't eaten pork or red meat in forever. I really didn't want to be rude though, and part of the whole "living in a foreign country" means eating food that you might not necessarily WANT to eat. It's part of the experience, right? So I ate it. But I think its safe to say I will not be recreating it for my loved ones back in Canada...

Another salad we made was a crab one, which was much better, although still heavy on the mayo. Natasha's husband Igor made a delicious smoked salmon, and we also had tons of "Moroccan oranges" (clementines), slices of fresh cheese and kielbasa sausage, and bread. In one moment of horror, Natasha turned to me and asked if I would like some "salo." Politely, I inquired what salo was.

"Uncooked, salted pork fat!" was the chipper answer.

My worst nightmare!! I really hate pork, and that just sounded so nasty. (Bacon is really popular here, but its never cooked. One of my friends told me that its because when bacon was first brought over here, no one realized it had to be cooked so they just ate it the way it was. Then, when someone pointed out that you generally fry bacon, no one could be bothered.)

Graciously, I declined, but served myself up another heaping plate of crab salad!

Anyways, to accompany all this food was the alcohol. Obviously. Hmmm, let's just say that the Russians know how to drink. Back in the 10th century, when Russia was trying to figure out what religion to choose, a group of delegates was sent to inquire about the religion of Islam. When they found out that Muslims couldn't drink alcohol, the Russians hastily backed away. "Drink is the joy of the Russians," they explained in a VERY fitting (but perhaps apocryphal) quote.

We had some (actually, all) of Natasha's homemade vodka, flavoured with berries from her dacha and steeped for several months, chased with vermouth. Then came the Soviet champagne, which is slightly sweeter than normal. Then more vodka. Then a fresh bottle of champagne to take with us out on the street. All I can say is...the next day when Skyping with my family, they could tell right away I was NOT feeling my best. :)

My incredible hosts: Natasha and Igor, and their 14 year old
daughter, Katya (who is one of my students!)

We ate in their living room while watching this New Year's performance on television featuring famous Russian celebrities. Oddly, Sting was also there, singing "An Englishman in New York." Then, right before midnight, President Medvedev appeared in front of the Kremlin on tv to give his annual New Year's speech. He talked about how, even though Russia has centuries of illustrious history, the Russian Federation is still a young country and is only turning 20 years old this year. "Our children are coming of age with this new country," he said, "the first generation not to have been raised in the Soviet Union."

Then the clock at the Kremlin started chiming midnight. We didn't do a countdown per se; not like in Canada where everyone chants, "5, 4, 3..." Instead, as the clock tolled twelve times, we set on fire pieces of paper where we had written our wish for 2011. Then we dropped the flaming papers into our glasses of champagne. At midnight everyone drank it, ashes and all, while concentrating on our wishes. It was very solemn and quiet, so unlike previous New Years. Then the tv burst into the National Anthem and we stood standing in silence while it played. It was a really cool, surreal moment.

After that, Natasha insisted on playing some Doors music, because she saw on my facebook page that The Doors is my favourite band. So we all chilled out to Jim Morrison, ate more food, and talked until around 1:30. That's when we started hearing the fireworks. Quickly we all bundled up and headed outside for the square in Mytishi. EVERYONE in the city seemed to be congregating there, dancing tipsily, waving bottles of champagne and vodka around, lighting off firecrackers in the street, and hugging random strangers while slurring, "S novim godom! Happy New Year!" It. was. amazing.

Awkward dancing in the square
I've never heard so many fireworks; they were going off non-stop from 1:30 till 5am. Little kids were running around with sparklers at 2 in the morning, as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as ever. We met up with Rhea, Polly, and Oleg, and shared some more champagne.

Finally, I made it back to my flat around 4am. Briefly, I thought it was almost midnight in Canada and I got really excited, but then I realized the vodka had gotten to me and it was, in fact, only 8pm. So I stumbled off to bed and slept until 12:30 the next day.

It was, all in all, an awesome start to the New Year!!

Monday, January 3, 2011

A very odd menage a trois

Yesterday at the Kremlin, I saw "Putin"...

"Joseph Stalin"...

And "Shrek"...

Oh, and there's Spidey lurking in the corner, too. He wants in on this action - can you blame him?