Archive for May, 2012

C is for Cookies

Posted: May 30, 2012 in Uncategorized

I have less than a month left in Russia. This is a very scary thought. At this moment, I feel divided. I am sad about the prospect of my time here coming to a close. I have a comfortable life here, and I have fun every day. However, I strongly miss my family, more so now than ever before. As usual, I’m craving a good New York style extra-cheese pizza. I also want Root Beer and Doctor Pepper. I miss my stuff polar bear, Mr. Polar Bear, as well as my car. I have been re-watching a series of Mercedes videos on youtube just to enjoy the wonderful sound of the Mercedes OM603 diesel engine. 6 cylinders of turbo-charged goodness make me happy.

As it stands, there are a few very important things going on in Ulyanovsk at the moment, and I am still going on adventures any chance that I get. Firstly, another American has come to the city to teach at the Simbirsk Resource Center, aka the private language school where I hang out from time to time. I was awaiting his arrival for months. Originally, the plan was for him to come in February, but thanks to the wonderful thing that is Russian visa bureaucracy, he didn’t arrive until last week. We have been in communication via email and facebook since January, and it was nice to finally meet him in person. It’s oddly refreshing and strange at the same time to have another American here. His presence proved to be quite useful at my regular Saturday night barbeque shindig at Vadim and Lena’s. After promising for a while, I finally made chocolate chip cookies. There was only a slight issue. While I remembered to bring baking soda, vanilla extract, and Ghirardelli chocolate chips, I forgot to bring a set of measuring cups with me. Eyeballing quantities for baking is not a good idea. The batter was a little too runny, so the cookies were a little thin, but they still tasted awesome. I still have more cookies to bake for people at the university, but I need to track down a working oven first. I suppose I could bake more cookies at Vadim and Lena’s, but I have the feeling that they would be devoured before I could take some home with me.

The night would only have been better if there were milk to go with the cookies.

On Saturday, I met up with one of the German teachers from my department again. She was eager to show me the Orthodox church near her house. I readily agreed to her offer to take me there after a discussion we had at her apartment one night about Orthodox churches and Orthodox church art. Since my time in St. Petersburg, I have greatly appreciated the awe inspiring interiors of Russian Orthodox churches. This was only enhanced by the course in Byzantine Art that I took my senior year of college. I am ashamed to say that I forgot a good deal of what I learned when it comes to reading iconography, but I can still understand some of it. The church was built fairly recently, since basically everything connected with religion was destroyed during the Soviet period. You can’t have churches in the hometown of Lenin in an atheistic state. The inside of the church was wooden and it had a surprisingly large number of old icons. By chance, we were there around the start of the service. We had not planned that, we just noticed a lot of people arriving whilst we looked at the icons. We decided to stay for the first ten minutes of the service, which was quite beautiful. One of the special features of the church, according to the German teacher, is the professional choir that accompanies the service. While I understood nothing of what was said, the language of the Russian Orthodox Church is Slavonic—a very ancient form of Russian—I still found it to be a very spiritual experience. I imagine this service to be similar to the Latin Catholic service of years ago. The service started with the chiming of the main church bell, followed by many other bells for about a minute. Then, the iconostasis was opened and the priests came out. One of the first things that the priest did was to walk about the church, saying prayers at the various icons whilst burning incense.

The nice little church that we went to.


After going to the church, I went to Vadim and Lena’s for the barbeque with a whole bunch of friends including the new American. That’s where I baked the cookies. Once our night was over, a few of us walked one member of the group home to her nearby apartment. This was past the jail, which I have wanted to take a photo of for a long time. Specifically, I wanted a photo of a funny sign that translates to “We are building for you.” Given its placement on the side of the jail, it is as if they are saying that they are building the jail for us. The moment was right and the photo was taken, which was awesome. I kept wanting to take a photo of it as I walked past the building after Tae Kwon Do, but this is now their time for prisoner transfers. As I walk past after practice, there are many trucks, guards with AKs, and German Shepherds around the building. I figured that is not the right time to take a photo.

“We are building for you!” Are they implying that I will at some point in time wind up in a correctional facility? Given my love of scheming and unethical behavior, they might be making a good prediction.

There are two other major developments in my life at the moment. Supposedly, on the 4th of June, there will be furniture in my long promised apartment. It seems that I will be able to move to the apartment on that day. However, it is not entirely complete. There are some things that will not be 100% done in the kitchen.While I am excited to finally get my apartment, I am also a little sad. I really like my neighbors (when they aren’t shouting or playing loud music, so like 10% of the time). Furthermore, I have finally befriended the babushki who act as security guards for the building. They control the 11PM curfew and lock the front door at that time (fire safety doesn’t exist in Russia). They now let me come home whenever I want, so long as I ask in advance. Also, when I happen to run 20 or 30 minutes late due to waiting for a marshrutki or a taxi, they open the door without yelling at me. Maybe it’s because I always say, “thank you” when they open the door for me. Due to the good weather, I have been returning just at, or a little bit after, curfew most nights. This prompted one babuska to ask me if I was returning from work. If walking around the city and having fun counts as work, then yes, I have a lot of work every night. Sadly, in the new building, I will have a new set of babushki to befriend. This is not an easy task.

An example of Russian fire safety. Someone on the floor has a key to the lock and will supposedly open it in the case of a fire. I should really ask for hazardous duty pay for my job.

Additionally, on the 5th and the 7th, I will be taking the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language. I have basically spent my months here learning Russian in preparation for this exam. At the moment, I have been doing practice exams and trying to cram as many pieces of vocabulary and grammar exceptions into my head as possible.
On a last note, someone in Russian has decent taste in music. Usually, I am surrounded by terrible techno and trance at an unreasonably loud volume. Today, though, while riding on the marshrutka, the guy next to me was listening to Ratatat. Namely, he was listening to one of my favorite songs by them, “Loud Pipes.” Ratatat was basically the soundtrack to Tae Kwon Do my freshman year of college. Fittingly, I was on the marshrutka going to Tae Kwon Do practice when this happened. In short, it put me in a really good mood.


A Weekend of Adventures

Posted: May 20, 2012 in Uncategorized

I have had a pretty awesome weekend. Last night, I went to a friend’s house for barbeque, or shashlik as it is known in Russia. The home belongs to Lena and her husband Vadim. Their two sons were there as well as many friends. We enjoyed round after round of wonderful grilled meat. For a change, we had sausages last night. I brought a small bottle of Jack Daniel’s to share with my wonderful hosts. As the night went on, we finished the Jack Daniel’s and Vadim brought out a surprise – samogon, or homemade vodka. It was surprisingly smooth and I didn’t go blind. People are warned not to drink samogon because one of the side effects of improperly made samogon is blindness. I’m not kidding. The night eventually came to an end, and I retreated to my room to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next, adventure packed day.

Mmm grilled meat.

Today, I went to the Museum of Aviation. I have been dying to go there for months. I saw an article about the museum on the blog and wanted to experience all of the Soviet planes and helicopters for myself. A graduate of my department picked me up in his car. We stopped to get one of the teacher’s from my department and headed off for a great day. Getting to the museum was easier said than done, as it is located in the opposite end of the city from where I live, and somewhat outside of the city as it is next to one of our airports. The selection of planes was great. The star attraction was probably the Tupolev Tu-144, aka the Soviet rival to the Concorde. There were only 16 of the planes made, so it’s pretty spectacular that our museum has one. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to climb onto or into it, but it was amazing just to see it.

Tu-144, the Soviet Concorde in all of it’s glory.

I was also very excited to see a small selection of military planes, including a MiG fighter jet. Technically, we couldn’t get into it in the sense that the cockpit wasn’t open, but I was able to climb inside the engine cowling.

Chilling in a MiG engine, no big deal.

The best exhibit was a Tupolev Tu-124. We were allowed to go inside of it. Although it lacked modern conveniences such as TVs and tray tables, the plane looked a lot better than most current jetliners. The seats were fairly comfortable and there was plenty of leg room. It was also a lot of fun to sit in the cockpit in the pilot’s seat and in the pit for the navigator.

All I’m missing is the captain’s hat with the winged hammer and sickle.

After a break for lunch, I met up with Lena and Vadim to go shooting with Vadim and Lyosha. Vadim is a hunter and fan of all military things. We rode out about five minutes north of the city to where there is a tank training range. When it’s not in use, children play soccer on the field and today I saw someone herding cows. We went down a path and went shooting. The weapon of choice was a double-barred 12-gauge shotgun. Vadim makes some of the shells himself. Today was actually the first time that I fired a real gun. My previous experience has been limited to video games and the bb-gun that I have at home. I always meant to go shooting with my dad or with a few of my friends, but nothing ever worked out. It was a lot of fun to shoot some glass bottles. I shot most of my targets, except for when Vadim threw some bottles in the air for me to shoot. Missing the bottles was good, though, because Vadim went to find them. In the grass, he found used infantry and tank smoke grenades. I had a great time, but my ears are ringing a little and my shoulder is really sore. I can’t wait to see the bruise tomorrow morning.

No comment. I think this photo explains itself.

After shooting, we headed off to Victory Park so that Lena and Vadim’s son could go on some of the rides. I have been meaning to go to the park for months because I wanted to see the WWII tanks that are there. Today was just a super day because I got to touch Soviet airplanes, fire guns, and climb on a WWII tank. Unfortunately, I could not get into the tank, but a hole had been made in the top so that I could see the interior. The whole thing smelled of gun-powder and oil.

Everything is better with tanks.

Victory Day

Posted: May 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

May 9th was a very special day, Victory Day. It celebrates the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the European Front of the Second World War. There were various parades and events throughout the city. I met with Lena, a teacher at the private language school in the city, and her family – her husband Vadim and her two sons Kostya and Danya. We watched a mini-parade that went onto Lenin’s Square as well as a very cool demonstration by the Russian police Special Forces. Unfortunately, we were off to the side at bit and the view wasn’t great. They drove in on a troop transport and then rolled off of it and fired blanks in formation. Then, they did a demonstration of hand-to-hand combat and strength in which they broke boards. I was a little depressed with the length of two-by-fours that they broke over the back of one guy. The boards were really long, so they are easier to break. Most Tae Kwon Do demonstration teams do the same breaks with smaller pieces of wood. Also, they didn’t break anything that was on fire. Everything is better with fire! The most impressive part was the fighting. They did excellent take-downs, which were even more spectacular because they did it on asphalt.

My new friends. I wish they could be my souvenirs from Russia.

After the demonstration, we walked along the pedestrian boulevard to the Lenin Memorial where there was a display of military vehicles and some fire equipment. Lena’s husband, Vadim, walked with me. He is a military buff, so he told me about all of the various vehicles. As the battalion stationed near Ulyanovsk is comprised of paratroopers, many of the vehicles were ones, which could be dropped to battlefields by parachute. As to be expected, most of the vehicles on display are older models. The most up-to-date vehicles cannot be put on display for obvious defensive reasons. It was really cool to touch real live troop support vehicles. I also got to get really close to a mobile missile launcher.

What I came to Russia for.

I also got to climb onto two different fire-engines and touch them. The people were surprised that an adult wanted to do that, but Lena explained that I was from America and people were excited. Actually, at one point during the parade, a babushka noticed us speaking English and told me to stand in front of her for a better view.

Sadly, there were no keys. I checked.

Once we had our fill of climbing around vehicles, we headed to an outdoor café at the Lenin Memorial. We had shashlik and ice cream. Also, I was told that it is a tradition to drink vodka on Victory Day in honor of those who died and in celebration of the victory. While we didn’t have vodka, we did enjoy some good scotch. George joined our group after I was a few shots in. After eating and drinking, I headed off to a nearby shooting gallery with Vadim and Kostya. We had fun shooting and I shot well enough that Vadim has agreed to take me out target shooting with him, maybe next weekend. After the shooting, we wandered around some more until finally bidding adieu.

Vadim and I having fun. I got to fire an AK-SU bb-gun. According to Vadim, the AK-SU is for paratroopers.

The 9th was a great day, and I wish every day could be the 9th of May.

Country Club Pt. II

Posted: May 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

Very late last night I got back from another English language camp for children. I got to spend three days in what is essentially a resort owned by the state university (aka the Lehigh of Ulyanovsk) located an hour away on the other side of the Volga. When leaving my room to head off to the camp, I was greeted by the surprise of a babushka herding goats across the lawn in front of my dorm.

First I saw people riding horses, then I saw a babushka with goats. Life is always interesting at the university.

The resort was great. Due to the number of staff, I got my own room, which had a nice balcony and view of the grounds. I spent three days playing with kids and teaching them English. The best activity was on the last day, which my assignment from morning until dinner was to teach the kids how to play baseball. The kids really seemed to enjoy the game and some of them were great athletes and instantly picked up the mechanics of the game. There was one kid named Herman who didn’t really seem to be interested in many activities, but he got really excited by playing baseball and made me play with him when we had free time. Another boy named Marcel was also a star at the game and always wanted to play. The kids weren’t the only people to enjoy the game. Julio from Indonesia loved it and wants me to call him to play some more before I head back home. Mahmood also enjoyed it and interrogated me one night about my promise to play with my students from the university.

The merry-go-round was third base and the trees were second. There was another merry-go-round, which was first base.

Another amenity of the camp was an old piano located in a hallway. I don’t really play piano, but it was fun to mess around with it. Apparently the tune “Heat and Soul” isn’t as widely known in Russia. Sadly, a quarter of the keys didn’t work, a quarter were misaligned so they hit either the wrong note or two notes at once, and the whole thing was horrendously out of tune. Lesson learned – old Russian pianos are cool, but they don’t hold up to time as well as Steinways.

As bad as it was, I want this piano. One of my newest hobbies is collecting pianos, and this would go nicely with my others.

One of the best parts of the camp was the beach on the Volga. It was nice to put my feet in the water during the heat of the day as well as to hang out on the beach at night after lights out for the kids. There was only one slight problem, the ice only recently melted in the Volga, so the water was absolutely frigid. My feet went numb after a few seconds in the water. It felt good after being on my feet running after kids all day, though.

Not long after this photo, we awkwardly hobbled out of the water on numb feet. The only problem was that the sand was also very cold.
Ohai, Devon-san. I told you I brought the shorts I stole from you to Russia.

The theme of the camp was advertising and each of the groups made commercials for the camp, which is called Country Club. There were some really great videos, one of which was almost professional in quality. My favorite video, though, was done by the group of youngest kids. They did a claymation video in which various words came on the screen and certain letters stayed to spell out “Country Club.” Playing baseball was also included in a few of the commercials, including the winning one.

On the last night, many of the kids were really sad to hear that a few of us were leaving that night and not with the rest of them the next morning. I wanted to go home early because the festivities for Victory Day started before I would have arrived back in the city had I gone back with everyone else (more on this will be covered in another post as I need to get the photos from someone else’s camera). I was hugged many times by various kids and some of them even started to cry. My response to this was to pick up the crying children and teenagers and walk away with them, telling them that I was going to kidnap them and take them home with me. They seemed to enjoy that.
The only bad part of the camp was that I forgot to take my sun block and bug spray with me. The result is that I have a mild sun burn on my arms and legs. I also have approximately 9 billion mosquito bites. This figure is not far from an exaggeration. Okay, maybe I only have about 40, but still. All in all, the bites and burns were worth it.

Day of Labor!

Posted: May 1, 2012 in Uncategorized

Happy Day of Spring and Labor! Due to today’s holiday, I had yesterday and today off, which made for what was essentially a four day weekend. I say essentially because I was helping people at the university with something on Saturday and I spent Sunday wandering around a few museums with my Russian teacher. As I have missed so many class hours, my Russian teacher has stolen the majority of my free time. Now weekends are no longer safe.

Skiing and snowboarding forbidden!

Saturday night was awesome as I went to a friend’s house for grilled meat goodness. Her husband and his friend grilled up some meet and we hung around in their yard for a few hours. The husband, Vadim, is an avid hunter and lover of military things. I asked him if he could find somewhere where I could shoot a Kalashnikov. He inquired with a number of friends, but apparently it’s very hard to do in Russia. While the Kalashnikov thing was a bust, Vadim asked me if I wanted to go parachuting. For a number of reasons, I politely declined the offer.

When it was time to go home, four of us ended up sharing a taxi to three different locations as all of the other taxis were busy. The result of this was that I arrived at my dormitory at 11.20PM, a good 20 minutes past my 11.00PM curfew. Lately the women who sit by the door have been changing frequently, so I always fear that the newly hired guards will be extra mean. Thankfully, I arrived at the same time as a group of somewhat drunk young men, so all I had to do was flash my ID and run off to the safety of my room.

After my escapades throughout three museums in Ulyanovsk with my teacher (none of which were Lenin museums), I wandered back to my room where a chance encounter with my neighbors led to an evening of fun. The guys next door to me were cleaning their room and they had a special wooden bat to beat the dust out of their rug. They made a joke about baseball and I asked if they wanted to learn how to play. They were interested and a few hours later we ended up playing waffle ball on the soccer field. Although there weren’t enough people, the guys were starting to pick up the game and were having fun. Unfortunately, we had to quit very quickly because it became dark and the lights for the field were not on. They seemed eager to try again in the daylight.

Ulyanovsk's first baseball team featuring players from Moldova, Turkmenistan, Dagestan, and the good old US of A. For an interactive adventure, guess who is from where.

I basically did nothing on Monday except wander around the city center in the moderately nice weather. The slightly depressing day was today. I wanted to see some of the festivities for today’s holiday, but that didn’t really go according to plan. I saw on the internet that there would be various speeches in the city center, which I figured I could skip. There was something written about a display of jeeps and other technology, but that didn’t seem to materialize. Lenin Square was actually pretty empty. Oh well, the real fun will come on the 9th.

I went to the center and all I got was this lousy picture. Happy holiday, dear citizens of Ulyanovsk!