Archive for October, 2011

Halloween in Russia

Posted: October 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

Today was Halloween, and boy did I have a fun day. My department had a bit of a Halloween celebration, so I decided to come with a costume. I didn’t bring anything with me that was costume worthy, though, so I dressed as a “typical” American with my battered Nike sneakers, Homer Simpson pajama pants, and my Lafayette hoodie. I got quite a few stares walking across the university campus, and a few looks and laughs inside, but for the most part everyone loved the Simpson pants. Not everyone gets to go to work in their pajamas, that’s just anther reason why I love my job.

It turns out that the only people celebrating the party were first year students. They had assembled quite a feast. The room was decorated with jack-o-lanterns and candles. They were all in costumes ranging from pirates to witches. One boy was a deceased Hogwarts Student, which I greatly enjoyed. They all wanted to take photos with me. I now know what I feels like to be one of those people in costume at Disneyworld. All you do is stand there while people come up one at a time, or in groups, and take a series of photos with you. All you have to do is pose and smile.

I love my students.

I also met a new group of students today. We were doing a unit on movies, which prompted me to write about my favorite Halloween movies. Being a huge film buff, I feel obligated to go on a bit of a rant about my favorite movies for Halloween. While I haven’t participated in Halloween activities too much, the one thing I always do around Halloween is watch movies. In case there are any Russians reading this blog, I feel I must list the best Halloween movies for you to watch.

1. Shaun of the Dead

This is probably one of my favorite movies ever. As the box says, it’s a romantic comedy of sorts with zombies. What could be better than having a pair of video game loving slackers trying to survive the zombie apocalypse in London? The correct answer, not much. I watched this movie at least once a year with my friends at school.

You can kill a zombie by removing the head or destroying the brain.

2. The Evil Dead Trilogy, especially the third in the series, Army of Darkness

Each Evil Dead film improves on the last one. Bruce Campbell is a joy to watch in these movies. Enjoy as an ancient book called the Necronomicon wreaks havoc on Ashley “Ash” Williams and his friends (hehe he’s a guy and his name’s Ashley. No, I am more mature than a ten year old, why do you ask?). Army of Darkness is easily the best as Ash winds up battling the undead in the Middle Ages. Oh, and one of his arms in a chainsaw. The movie also has some of the best lines ever. “This is my boomstick!”

Who doesn't want a chainsaw for a hand?

3. The Resident Evil Series

There are a few reasons to check out these movies. Firstly, they star Milla Jovovich, who is always awesome in whatever role she plays. Secondly, there isn’t much plot, mostly killing. Well, that about sums up the reasons why these movies are good. The moves are pure plotless entertainment that involve awesome fight scenes against hordes of zombies. That and they’re loosely based around a fun series of zombie killing video games. I love zombie killing video games. Someone needs to make a movie for Dead Rising. Horray for being trapped in a mall and killing zombies with whatever you can find in your environs.

Kayak paddle + duct tape + chainsaws = best weapon ever.

4. Sleepy Hollow

A Tim Burton film starring Johnny Depp, generally that’s a recipe for success. While this film doesn’t stay very true to Washington Irving’s original story, it’s a fun adventure. Little known fact: I used to live in North Tarrytown, New York before my family moved to Connecticut. Washington Irving’s story is set in Tarrytown, New York. Just after my family moved to Connecticut, the town of North Tarrytown changed its name to Sleepy Hollow in honor of the story. We had a cartoon of the Headless Horseman on our recycling bin instead of one of those regular and lame recycling symbols.

5. It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown

Fact: I love both the Peanuts cartoons and comic strip. Snoopy is awesome. If you haven’t seen this movie, or if you don’t like it, I can’t be bothered to associate with you.

6. Beetle Juice

I loved the cartoon series as a child. This is also one of the two movies with Alec Baldwin that I like besides the Hunt for Red October, but I like that movie for Sean Connery. It’s a timeless tale of the undead communicating with a child and the restless Beetle Juice causing problems for all who summon him.

7. Hocus Poucs

I remember watching this movie as a young child, maybe five or six years old, with my brother and mother in our house in New York. Halloween lost importance for me after we moved to Connecticut. In New York, we lived in a great suburb with tons of houses. It was fun to go out with my dad and brother on a quest for as much candy as we could get. Then we moved to Connecticut, to a giant hill with lots of space between all the houses. From that point on, trick or treating was futile. I do still love this movie that’s full of all the request parts of Halloween: witches, pumpkins, a zombie, a black cat, and trick or treating.

8. The Mummy

I love the film from 1999. The original from 1932 was interesting, but it wasn’t very exciting or scary. This is another one of my all time favorite movies. A lot of the dialogue is funny and quite memorable. The movie has a perfect blend of action, horror, and comedy to keep me interested. It was one of the movies that I watched many times with my friends at school.

9. The Corpse Bride

Another Tim Burton and Johnny Depp film, although this one is animated. I prefer this for Halloween to The Nightmare Before Christmas because I consider the Nightmare Before Christmas to be more of a Christmas film than a Halloween Film. Danny Elfaman’s soundtrack is great as always, which adds to the film.

10. Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock was the king of suspense. None of his movies were more suspenseful or frightening than Psycho. Much of the credit for the scariness of the film goes to the talented composer Barnard Herrmann for his chilling score. Fun fact, the score for the film is comprised of only stringed instruments, which is somewhat unusual for movie soundtracks and more so for Herrmann who favored lush orchestration in other Hitchcock classics like North by Northwest and Vertigo. If you watched the film muted, many of the scenes are almost comical, but with the piercing music it becomes terrifying.

I got really excited when I watched the latest episode of the Simpsons, the annual Treehouse of Horror Halloween episode. One of the segments was a spoof of Psycho. Bernard Herrmann’s flight theme followed Homer Simpson around as he tried to abscond with a sack of candy.


In Russia, Tae Kwon Does You

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Uncategorized

Yesterday night, I went to my first Tae Kwon Do practice in Russia. I went with a girl whose aunt works at the university. I don’t know her aunt, but the aunt knows the people in the technology transfer department. I was both excited, but terrified to go. I met up with the girl at a bus stop and then we walked to the gym together. I didn’t know what to except. For example, I didn’t know where we were training. I also didn’t know what style of Tae Kwon Do we would be doing. At Lafayette I trained WTF, or World Tae Kwon Do Federation, style Tae Kwon Do, which comes from South Korea. There is also ITF, International Tae Kwon Do Federation style, which comes from North Korea. I did not know which style we would be doing.

Training with Master Eom at Lafayette. Photo credit to Chuck Zovko.

We went to a large gymnasium that was set up just for Tae Kwon Do. Apparently, it is the headquarters of the Ulyanovsk Tae Kwon Do Federation. I was worried because the girl told me that the coach is strict. We got to practice only a few minutes late. Warm-ups had only just begun. The coach told me to join in right away. After not doing Tae Kwon Do, or anything remotely physical besides walking, for two months, the warm-ups were the near death of me. I felt like puking. After the warm-ups were over, I had passed my wall and felt great. There is nothing that makes me happier than kicking targets, well except for fighting. I enjoy doing kicking drills, and it was very similar to the way in which we trained at Lafayette.

The gym we train in. The photo is taken from a tournament photo on the Ulyanovsk Tae Kwon Do Federation website.

It is an interesting group of people to train with. The woman is a third degree black belt and clearly knows her stuff. Amongst the students, I was ancient at 22 years old. I think the oldest of them was probably 17. The youngest were about 10. Many of them are professional sportsmen. They had great techniques and unbelievable speed. I did my best to keep up with them, which wasn’t too hard when we were kicking the targets. I may be slow, but I hit hard. As usual, I was one of the hardest hitters there. The coach even complimented me a few times.

For the last 20 or so minutes of class, half of us sat down in two groups. Then, a handful of students fought each other. It was some of the best fighting I have ever seen. I thought some of the A division ECTC sparring was intense, but these teenagers were really fighting hard and quite skillfully. I have some apprehensions about sparring in Russia. However, I don’t think I will ever have to fight the semi-professional kids.

After the class was done, I had a conversation with the trainer. She asked me how long I had been doing Tae Kwon Do. I told her that I trained for four years at Lafayette and that our school had a team that competed in tournaments. She seemed happy to know that I mostly trained WTF-Olympic sparring as our focus as opposed to traditional Tae Kwon Do with a focus on poomsae, or forms. I also told her that I have been doing Tang Soo Do for fourteen years, but no one in Russia seems to have heard of it.

That time that Arthur and I won gold medals in sparring at the Garden State Cup last year. No big deal.

The trainer seemed very happy that I wanted to train with her. She told me that I could keep coming to her class, but that I should probably go to another classes that happens on other days of the week where there are fewer people and I can get more attention and coaching from her. We had an interesting conversation mostly in Russian, but the trainer knows a little English. She also seemed a little interested to learn some English with me.

Training Tae Kwon Do in Russia is wonderful in so many ways. Firstly, it ensures that I will stay somewhat healthy. Secondly, it means I can get my aggression out. Over the years, my temper has gotten better. I think some of my peace and anger management comes from me being able to regularly get my aggression out in a safe and controlled way. Finally, I get to work on Tae Kwon Do and Russian at the same time. Some of the commands, like the names of the techniques, are given in Korean, but the majority of the instructions are said in Russian. I’ll quickly get to learn and practice Russian in a whole new and exciting classroom.

Although I am stiff and sore today, and I know I’ll be worse tomorrow, I’m excited to go to practice again tomorrow night. Nothing says a work out well done like pain and sweat. I’m excited to have been welcomed by the coach and the kids training at the gym.

My rent-free life in Ulyanovsk has come to an end. Closing in on two months of me being here, I was finally asked to sign a contract for my housing. This means that I was also finally asked to pay for my room. I was hoping that if I didn’t bring it up, they would just forget. I’m not saying that I wanted to rip off the people at the university; rather, I didn’t want to go around announcing that I wanted to pay. I prefer to be cautious and not set myself up for any possible scams. They happen here. On my first day at the university, I was warned on multiple occasions by multiple groups of people to be very suspicious of people around the university asking me to pay for things. I was told to check with my university contacts before paying anyone.

It was somewhat amusing when I signed the contract. The kommondantka, the woman in charge of the building, asked me if I had paid yet. I told her that I had not. I really wanted to say, but thought it would be better if I didn’t, that it was impossible for me to pay without the contract. First of all, I didn’t know how much to pay. Secondly, without the contract, I have no contract number. I pay for my room through the same ATM that I pay for my Russian classes with. You need to have a contract number to pay for anything. I was asked to pay for three months today. That’s okay, as I’m paying roughly $60 a month for my room. If only rooms cost $60 a month at Lafayette. Actually, you would think that they should cost around $60 a month given the mold in the rooms and the heater/AC unit that never worked properly. I had to pay $100 extra either a year or each semester to have A/C in my room. It never worked properly past sophomore year. Actually, the A/C worked in the winter, when I didn’t have heat in my room when it was 15 degrees outside. And that was after plant ops had been in my room over vacation to service my heater. Complaints aside, I love Lafayette and Ramer (the dorm, not the History House. I also love the History House, and while it was almost like a second home to me, I felt truly at home on the CHANCE Floor).

The walls in Ramer were particularly good for climbing. Too bad I only discovered this senior year.

One thing I can say about my room here is that the heat works very well (well, after they bothered to turn it on), too well in fact. But that’s why we have windows. I have the feeling I’ll be cleaning snow off of my desk before long.

Aside from the rent issue, nothing much of interest has been happening in my life. I go to class, either to learn Russian or teach English. I hang out with the people in the technology transfer center. Actually, they had me call America for them the other day. They’re trying to set up some visit for some woman who teaches at the Bronx Community College and they wanted me to speak with her about a few details of her trip. It was nice to hear a Bronx accent again. She quickly realized that I was not Russian. I believe her exact words were, “You sound American. Are you?” She then asked where I was from, which prompted me to tell her that I come from Connecticut, but that I was born in Yonkers. It’s a neighboring city of the Bronx for those of you who don’t know New York geography. I also lived in West Chester for the first six and a half years of my life. Once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. I don’t really understand the appeal of Connecticut. Except for my friends and family, I pretty much hate everything about where I come from. You would understand my position if you also came from the town that inspired the “Stepford Wives.” Let’s just say that I don’t really get along with preppy people, or that I don’t really enjoy their lifestyle.

I had a great class with the second year students today. It took some effort, but I finally got some of them to be more active and ask more questions. I also tried my best to keep them interested and have them laugh. By the end of the period, I had succeeded in making them all laugh. I’m okay with being the awkward American. I prefer to use the term eccentric to describe myself because it’s less pejorative than weird and crazy, plus it implies that the subject has a little class. They told me that the department is having a Halloween party and that they want me to come. I asked them if they will dress up, which they confirmed they will do. I then asked if they were just telling me that to get me to dress up so that they could laugh at me. My quickly acting paranoia got them to laugh. I promised to “dress up” for them. I don’t really have anything costume worthy with me, but maybe I’ll play the stereotypical American with my Nike sneakers, New York Yankees t-shirt, LAF knock-off Ray Ban sunglasses, and my Homer Simpson pajama pants. Nothing says class like an outfit like that.

And one last tidbit, I was approached by a babushka when I was walking to the university the other day. She stopped me and handed me one of those “the end of the world is nigh” pamphlets and then rambled to me about lies, war, and death. It was a most excellent start to my day. I just wonder if she targeted me in particular (American with jeans, ratty old snowboard jacket, and knock-off Ray Bans with bright blue arms) or if she gives them out to anyone she comes across. The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania holds the copyright to the pamphlet, although it was printed by a branch of the society in Britain.

"Suffering will soon cease to exist!" Presumably because we'll all be dead.

Mercedes of Ulyanovsk

Posted: October 24, 2011 in Uncategorized

For those of you who don’t care about cars, sorry. Also, please humor me. This is the stuff that I’m really into. Would it really ruin your life to spend five minutes reading about my mild obsession? No? Thanks. I’ve included pictures, that should make it more bearable. I’ve also included jokes, as usual.

If you know me, you know I’m hopelessly obsessed with Mercedes, especially those from 1974-1995. I’ve spent far too much time filling my head with facts about Mercedes and I’ve stared at enough pictures of them to tell the differences between model years via the shapes of headlights and various bits of metal and plastic trim. Being in Russia is a wonderful experience for the connoisseur of European Mercedes, which were often quite different from those brought to America. Mercedes are extremely common in Moscow, but not so much in Ulyanovsk. Still, though, I have seen a wonderful array of them in Ulyanovsk. For the most part, they are older. Usually, from before 1995, to my delight. Although, that may have something to do with the fact that the Mercedes made from 1996-2002 were complete crap. In an effort to increase profits, Mercedes stopped over-egineering their cars. For example, the E Class of the 1996-2002 era was the fastest Mercedes to rust. Seeing the rust on some older Mercedes here, I’m guessing the later model Mercedes either turned to dust, or their more temperamental nature caused them to self-destruct on the Russian roads. It seems that many Mercedes have “retired” from service in Western Europe only to continue faithfully serving their drivers in the harsh environs of Russia. Nothing is a better test of road worthiness than Mother Russia and her fierce winters.

I'm a little confused. Personal experience tells me that any Mercedes other than a G-Class is useless in the snow and ice. Nothing says fun like sliding backwards down your driveway with you foor flat on the accelerator or getting stuck on the ice on the flat part of the driveway.

There are a few Mercedes by the university. Someone who lives in the apartment building by the local supermarket has a late 1990s C Class, and not a regular one. They have one with the upgraded Kompressor engine. While I’m not a fan of that car at all, and they’re basically the death traps of the Mercedes line, I give credit to the owner for having taste in an autobahn cruiser. Just today I was looking out on the parking lot from my Russian classroom. Amidst a sea of Zhigulis, Sputniks, and Saramas, I spotted a 2004-2008 C Class, again with a Kompressor engine. Again, the standard Mercedes will not suffice. The Russians seem to feel the need for more responsive vehicles.

I suppose the real reason for this post concerns one car that I frequently see near my dormitory, a 1991-1993 190E. Affectionately known as the “Baby Benz,” I have always had some interest in this model. But the car parked near my dorm is not a normal 190E. No, it is a European model with the wonderful black checkered cloth interior that was never available in the United States. Additionally, and more importantly, it the Sportline package. You see, dear reader, when the 190E came out in the mid-1980s, it premiered the most advanced rear-suspension in the world, which later went into other Mercedes models. The Sportline package took a superior driving car and tweaked it even more. The Sportline package was only available on a few models and only in 1992-1993 in America, but was widely available in Europe. The package included wider wheels, lower profile tires, quick ratio steering, a slightly lowered ride height and a specially tuned suspension with shorter, stiffer springs, struts, anti-roll bars, and bushings. Forget BMW, this is one of the ultimate driving machines.

The picture is terrible, but the Mercedes in the dark red car in the back of the picture.

I also generally love the 190E because that model debuted the kind of rims that are on my car and are still used on the damage inducing vehicles in the Mercedes-Benz crash test center. These rims had the lowest coefficient of drag in the era, which reduced road noise and increased fuel economy. At the same time, the holes in the rims were strategically placed to vent the brakes and prevent overheating during heavy braking. Take it from someone whose had the brakes go on fire on their other car, it’s not fun when your brakes overheat (well, that’s because the brake calipers froze on multiple occasions which leads to fires when you drive on the highway. Never trust British engineering).

Stylish and prevents brake fires - a double win.

Stylish and prevents brake fires - a double win!

The 190E also holds special places on my Mercedes wish-list. Well, technically not the 190E. E stands for Einspritzung, or fuel injection. I would love to own a 190D. These were somewhat rare in the US. For the most part, they were naturally aspirated 4 cylinder engines. But, the 190D that I want the most was available for only one year in the United States, the 1987 190D 2.5 Turbo, which was a turbo charged 5 cylinder engine. Clearly, 1987 was the best year for diesel Mercedes in America. Naturally, my favorite in my precious 300D Turbo, which took the 3 litre, 6 cylinder engine normally reserved only for the S-Class and put it in the more nimble and lighter E-Class (technically not called the E-Class until 1990, but that’s not important). The 1987 300D Turbo was the fastest diesel production vehicle in the world when it debuted. While not a racer, it is still adequately powered and still holds true to its roots as an autobahn cruiser. I never get why so many cars have to brake in certain corners of the Merritt Parkway and get frustrated when they can’t accelerate up the hills.

The other 190E related car I want is the AMG 190E 2.5-16 Evolution II. Only 502 of them were made, and they were fully street legal race cars. The car was designed to race in the DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft, or German Touring Car Racing Series), the rules of which stipulated that the cars had to be available for purchase by the “general” public. While these are extremely rare and costly, I can always get a regular 190E and pretend that I’m in the extra-special racing version.

I don't think the paint scheme or the spoiler draw enough attention to the car.

A Trip to Moscow

Posted: October 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

I have just returned from an amazing handful of days in Moscow. Don’t worry, though, I still prefer St. Petersburg. Fulbright hosted an in-country orientation for us; thus they paid for our transit and accommodations. As I fear flying within Russia, I took the overnight train. The two women and man in my compartment were very nice. About fifteen hours after departing, I arrived in Moscow’s Kazan Station. I hopped on the metro and got off for the hotel’s stop. Eventually, I arrived at the hotel. When I walked in, there was another Fulbright ETA attempting to check in. I knew I was way too early to check in, but we were able to check our bags and wander around the area near the hotel. We grabbed some food at a little café and then returned to the hotel, where we ran into a handful of other ETAs and a few research scholars.

The standard photo with St. Basil's. The camera didn't freeze this time, we'll see how it goes in January.

Some people ran off to do other things, but the majority of the group headed off to Red Square. Everyone wanted to see dead Lenin, which I really wasn’t too keen on doing (gasp, I’m now using British expressions). You see, dear reader, when I was seven years old, I was traumatized in a Danish Viking Museum with an exhibit on bog mummies. I’m cool with seeing violence and dead people on tv, so long as it’s fictional — there’s nothing like a good zombie movie to make me happy — but I still get the creeps when there are real dead things near me. Really, ask anyone with whom I went to the Metropolitan Museum for art trips at Lafayette. We had to avoid the mummy exhibits there.

Somewhat grudgingly, I headed off to see dead Lenin, as opposed to any statue of Lenin. The word “dead” is necessary to signify the difference. I was more interested in seeing the plaque signifying the burial place of Yuri Gagarin as well as the graves of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Sadly, to see those, I had to pass Lenin. The mausoleum is absolutely creepy. You enter and it’s immediately hard to see in the difference between the brightness of the outside world and the dark interior, which is great because you have to descend several staircases. As if it weren’t creepy enough that I was going to see a dead guy, I had to seemingly descend to the depths of hell to do so. Additionally, there are honor guards in the mausoleum. They stand perfectly still and say nothing. Occasionally, they slowly gesture to indicate in which direction you should head or to take your hands out of your pockets so as to show respect to Lenin. Whether or not he’s real, he’s still unpleasant to look at. I suppose it’s good that I saw him, as I’m stationed in his birth city. What I was more excited to see at Red Square was an UAZ 469.

Some people get excited to have their picture taken with St. Basil's while at Red Square, I get excited when I see an UAZ. Ulyanovsk pride!

After our group paid our respects to dead Lenin, we headed off to the Fulbright Office, which is about a fifteen minute walk from Red Square. As I was the only person who had been there, I was charged with leading the group. We mobbed the office, but the staff was happy to see us. We had tea and coffee while chatting with Oksana, the woman who seems to oversee everything for the program. She was checking up on us and we exchanged tales of teaching and our adventures.

The next day, we ventured off to the American Embassy. There, were listed to a few speakers including the theatre critic for “The Moscow Times,” an English language newspaper. On the way to the metro, we walked past one of Stalin’s Seven Sisters, the Kudrinskaya Square Building, which was built as an apartment building for the Soviet elite. Interestingly, in front of the building I saw two old Volga sedans, one from the 1950s and one from the 1960s. This was extraordinarily fitting, as in Soviet times only people who lived in a building such as that would be able to own a Volga sedan.

A 1960s Volga.

After lunch, we headed off to the Carnegie Center for a lecture on Russian politics by a Russian research scholar. We finished pretty late that day, so we headed off to a café before venturing back to the hotel. I was happy to just wander the streets of Moscow and stare at all of the Mercedes. I saw a series of my favorites. Also, like back home, I tended to see more of my era of Mercedes than the model that followed after it. I’m guessing the cars of the later series, the W210, all self destructed or rusted to pieces while the last of the over-engineered Mercedes, the W124, continue to dutifully serve their owners.

The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, the ETAs had special training by our RELO (Regional English Language Officer). He was amazing, and I picked up a series of wonderful techniques and ideas for lessons. Unlike the ETA workshop in Washington, his advice was actually practical and interesting. Saturday afternoon/early evening, I headed off with three other girls to the Izmailovsky Market. I knew how to get there because our hotel was right next to it when I went to Moscow on the Lafayette interim trip. I found a few souvenirs that I was looking for. I also had a great time because I successfully haggled with a vendor. I got him to reduce his price by 150 rubles, roughly $5. After our transaction was made, he asked me how long I had lived in Moscow. For once someone felt that I could speak Russian properly!

Kari and I love souvenirs and street food.

Sunday was a very special day as it was my birthday. Word quickly spread amongst the Fulbrighters. Just when we were about to start the session for the day, everyone started to sing Happy Birthday. They then sang the first verse and the chorus, because no one knew the rest of the verses, of the Russian version of Happy Birthday, which comes from a Soviet children’s cartoon. The real surprise came after lunch. Once again, just as we were starting, Oksana and a few others came in carrying a cake with candles on it. They also presented me with a sweet card signed by everyone. Unfortunately, the candles were of the trick variety, so they refused to go out without a fight. Cake was served and then we discussed culture shock. On that exciting note, we finished our sessions.

I really do love the UAZ.

And, as a bit of a birthday present, I saw a Mercedes of my favorite series, the W124, parked in front of the hotel. It had had a hard life, as evidenced by the rust, but it was still running. Also, it seems that someone broke the windshield wiper and fixed it themselves as it now went in a fixed position and no longer oscillated as designed. You know I know my Mercedes when I can recognize the correct pattern of windshield wiper travel.

A 1992-1994 E200.

Sunday night, I met up with my friend Heather, with whom I studied and lived in St. Petersburg. She’s currently teaching English in Moscow. She led me and a handful of other Fulbrighters to a restaurant called Taras Bulba, which is basically the Ukrainian equivalent of Yolki Polki. The food was good and the prices were pretty reasonable. The menu was hilarious, though. The waitress gave the group a few menus in Russian and a few with English translations. The translations were absolutely hilarious. My favorite was “rabbit extinguishing sour cream.” My fellow Fulbrighters also bought me a series of shots of vodka. After two shots of plain vodka, they ordered a bottle of pepper and honey vodka. Eventually, the night drew to a close and we headed off to the hotel to sleep.

Rabbit Extinguishing Sour Cream - I'm not sure what that is, and I'm not sure I want to know.

The next morning, I had a bit of time before my train departed. I headed off to the Izmailovsky Market for a second time because someone else wanted to head there. Then, I had to return to the hotel to collect my things before heading to the train station. The train ride back to Ulyanovsk was great. I shared the compartment with an older man, who was also going to Ulyanovsk, no to the other side of the city. The train was a Moscow to Chelyabinsk one, which was much older than the Moscow to Ulyanovsk train; however, the train was nicer in the sense that for whatever reason the staff were nicer. Maybe they took more notice to the fact that I wan a lone American girl riding off to Ulyanovsk. They would not allow me to carry my bag through the train. The attendant also looked askance that I was not being met by anyone at the station. It’s okay, the marshrutka ride back to the university was fairly pleasant and without any issues.

Today was fun in that I returned to the university and shared my tales with my Russian professor and the people in the technology transfer center. The people in the technology center made a wonderful card for me in the shape of a birthday cake. They also gifted me a set of traditional Russian wool socks, so I won’t lose my toes in the winter!

Take that Halmark!

A Trip to the Countryside

Posted: October 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

I went on an adventure today. Lana, from the Simbirsk Resource Center (the private language school in the center of the city), invited me out with her friend to visit the house of other friends. The friends own a farm out in the countryside, about and hour away from the far side of Ulyanvosk in a village called Staraya Maina. Apparently, Catherine the Great once visited the village as a break on her tour of the Volga.

Lana, and her friend Pasha, picked me up in Pasha’s Jeep at the university. The ride out was fun. Pasha would sometimes tell me stories about the things we were passing. For example, we passed a power plant, which supplies power to the airplane factory. The factory is supposed to produce 80 planes a year. In the process, it uses so much energy and generates so much heat that goes through the smokestack. However, the plant is not running at capacity, and thus the operating temperature is much lower than intended. For this reason, the smokestack is falling apart. Fun other fact, this year was a record for production at the airplane factory – one whole plane!

Doomed to fall in the near future?

The country house wasn’t that far from the city; however, it took a while to get there because of the condition of the roads. For the most part, they are two lane roads full of pot holes. Pasha was driving at 50 mph maximum. It’s days like today in which I truly value the Eisenhower Defense System. I-95 may suck, but I’d rather drive on it than have to make extended trips on roads like the ones, which we took today.

Standard Russian road.

After a while, we pulled off of the main road. We got to a gate, called шлагбаум (Schlagbaum) in Russian. Yay for learning German, it has taught me so many more words in Russian. Pasha got out, punched in a code, and we carried on down a dirt road. Due to the wet weather that we’ve had pretty much the whole time I’ve been here, the road was a field of mud and it was clearly fortuitous that Pasha’s car is a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Pasha asked me if our roads looked like this and when I told him that we mostly have paved roads he asked me why so many Americans have SUVs. I replied that we need them where I live. There is no reaching our house in the snow without an SUV, usually even after the road and driveway have been “plowed.”

Offroading in Russia!

The country house was once a retreat of sorts in the Soviet era. When the Soviet Union fell, Alexander (Sasha), bought the land for a very low price. At the moment, it’s a farm. Sasha built his own house and tennis court. He also renovated a series of other buildings on the grounds, one of which acts as the guesthouse. Sasha also has some neighbors who use their house only as a weekend retreat, while Sasha, his wife, and young son live year-round in their house. Pasha and Lana go out to visit Sasha as much as once a week in the summer. Their most frequent activity is to play tennis, which they made me do. I’ve never been very good at tennis. I didn’t so much play as aggravate Pasha with my baseball swing. Furthermore, years of weekly playing racquetball with one of my good friends at Lafayette has taught me to almost always hit the ball as hard as I can.

The tennis court.

His farm was beautiful. While walking around on the grounds, I got excited when I saw an old Ural motorcycle. The Ural was originally a BMW from the 1930s that the Soviets stole and reverse engineered to create the Ural, which is still made to this day.

I got to sit on another Ural!

Sasha’s farm is also right off of the Volga. He has a nice beach on the river.

We had dinner with Sasha, his family, and the family of Sasha’s good friends. Sasha and his friend Stas made plov in the outside kitchen, where they properly grilled the meat. It was quite tasty. Sadly, after dinner, we had to return home.

The Joys of Marshrutki

Posted: October 6, 2011 in Uncategorized

Dear reader, unless you have been to Russia before, you will have no clue what a marshrutka is. In Russia and many former-Soviet countries, marshrutki are common forms of transportation. They are basically a cross between a bus and a taxi. They are mini-buses or vans and have set routes. However, you can flag them down pretty much anywhere in the street and can ask them to stop wherever you would like on the route. The primary form of transportation in Ulyanovsk in the marshrutka, which makes traveling around the city a somewhat annoying. The issue is that you have to know where the marshrutka goes, which is difficult because there aren’t route maps. There are also 150 different marshrutki in Ulyanovsk, so good luck learning where they all go. The most common practice even amongst the locals is to flag the driver down, open the door, and ask the driver if it goes anywhere near where you want to go.

The ГАЗель (GAZelle) is the most popular marshrutka.

One aspect of living in Russia is having tales from riding on marshrutki. After the performance I went to on Monday night, my companion and I, a floor mate of mine, had to wait about twenty or thirty minutes in the cold before we could get into a marshrutka that would take us back to the university. Two others that we could have taken arrived, but there was not enough space for us. Eventually, after standing in the cold long enough, we decided to squeeze into the one that finally came. The two of us, as well as a few others, were standing. About half of the people in the marshrutka were drunk, which was pleasant as always. At one point, after some people got off, a babushka grabbed my arm and shouted “Girl, sit down” and somewhat threw me into an open seat. This was a bit of a problem as in the process I brushed against the inebriated young man next to me. He told me that he was not well and that I had hurt him. I apologized and he proceed to open his jacked and show me what looked like bandages for a series of cracked ribs. Then he told me that his heart wasn’t real and he told me he wanted to show me that as well. I told him I didn’t want to and that it wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. He pulled down his shirt to show me, but it was dark in the marshrutka. Thus, he pulled out his cigarette lighter and held it close to his skin to shed light on his possible chest wound. I didn’t really look too closely.

The marshrutka ride back the next night wasn’t as bad as the previous night. We decided to walk the four blocks to the main avenue of the city in hopes of finding more service. We still waited for about fifteen or twenty minutes for the correct marshrutka to come. In the process, I studied the passing cars. Surprisingly, at one point I saw a fairly new Ford Mustang. I also got the pleasure of watching two males joy riding in their BMW M5. The went up and down the street a few times, racing between the lights. Just a hint guys – BMW puts traction control on these vehicles for a reason. When done properly, you can get a quicker start off the line without traction control, but when you don’t know what you’re doing, it looks stupid when you skid around a bit. Also, you look really stupid when you’re driving too quickly and don’t stop in time, skidding to a halt by hitting a marshrutka sidewise. Two of my companions remarked that maybe it would be wiser to walk home instead of taking a marshrutka. I’m inclined to agree with them.

BMW M5, probably my third favorite currently produced German vehicle behind the Mercedes G-Klasse and the SLS AMG.