Archive for June, 2012

Yes, I do have to make as many references to the 1963 James Bond film “From Russia With Love” as possible.

My last few days in Ulyanvosk were eventful and bittersweet. On Friday, I said goodbye to a group of people from the university who were leaving on a business trip. Then, in the afternoon, there was a miniature celebration with my department about the successful defense of the fifth year students’ theses. We had some food and joked around. It was a relaxing end to the semester.

On Saturday, I went to one of the museums in the city with my Russian teacher and her friend who works in one of the museums. The museum has two floors. The first floor is a cross between a general history museum and a natural history museum. There were fossils and displays on which animals live in the region. There were also exhibits on the area over the centuries. There was a really cool exhibit on the Second World War, which had a nice collection of guns, both Russian and German. The second floor of the museum is art. There are many nice works by both famous Russian and European artists. I think I like the icons the best. They have only a few on display, which were from the Novgorod, Pskov, and Yaroslavl schools. Later, on Saturday, I packed up my things and then went over to my old dormitory to say goodbye to my former neighbors. Although they were noisy and messy, I will really miss them.

My awesome neighbors.

Sunday was an adventure. In the afternoon, I went off to a sort of paradise with a few friends. We went to go swimming in a lake and have grilled meat. To get there, we had to walk through a forest for about 15 minutes. On the way back in the evening, we were attacked by mosquitoes, but it was worth it. The water was wonderful.

Paradise in the forest.

After swimming, we enjoyed yummy meat and salads. A special treat were the wild strawberries that we found growing next to where we decided to put our things. We also played Frisbee and badminton for a while. The most amusing part was when the shuttlecock got stuck in a tree. They tried to get it out by throwing a racket, which also got stuck. Then, the second racket got stuck as well. Roman solved the problem by finding a very large branch and having Liza sit on his shoulders to reach the various things stuck in the tree.

Solving problems with teamwork.

On Monday, I got up and spent my last day at the university. I said goodbye to a number of teachers in my department. I basically enjoyed hanging out with everyone for the last bit. George showed up a little bit before I had to go to the train station with a present for me – ushanki. I had wanted to buy an ushanka, but I was never able to find the perfect one (I had very high, and perhaps unreal, standards). George gave me two very cool ushanki, which belonged to his brother. They are from the aviation university in the city and have special emblems on them for the students learning to become pilots. Although they are not fur, they are very warm. It’s a bad idea to wear winter hats in the June heat.

Toasty.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. I had to go to the train station. I was lucky in that a large people came to say goodbye to me. When the conductor yelled at everyone to get on the train, she was nice enough to take a picture of the whole group. Then, she was also nice enough to let me hug everyone one last time before getting on the train. Thankfully, my cabin mates were good. They were three men of about 45/50. One read the whole time, the other slept, and the third one kept watching children’s cartoons. The first one he watched was a German movie that was poorly dubbed into Russian. I am very happy that no one drank in my cabin and that no one threw up on me this time.

Super sad goodbye at the train station.

In Moscow, I met up with my friend Anas again. We wandered around the city and had fun. I also went to see my relative Tatiana again. She was glad to see me. We talked for a while. She seems interested in staying in contact with me and invited me to come back whenever I can. While leaving her apartment, I was greeted with the fun sight of a stolen Mercedes taxi, probably from Germany. I know it was a taxi because of two reasons. Firstly, it was a diesel E-Class, which is a very common car for taxis in Germany. Secondly, it was German taxicab yellow, or ivory. Mercedes stopped making this color available to the public after 1996. I’m assuming it was stolen because it was too new to have been sold after having served as a taxi.

I love seeing stolen taxis in Russia. This was not the first time.

I returned home very late last night, well actually this morning. My trip went very well, but was long as usual. It started with a taxi ride to the airport. For years I have wanted to go on the BMW ring taxi of the Nordschleife at the Nürburgring in Germany. It turns out that you can get a similar experience with Moscow taxi drivers. I have the feeling that it is slightly more enjoyable in a BMW M5 than a Chevy Lacetti, but hey, it was a fraction of the price. Calling the driver insane would be an understatement. He was driving at breakneck speeds and weaving around various cars and trucks. There were a few times that I thought my adventure to Russia would end right then and there. Thankfully, though, we avoided colliding into anything and I made my way through Domodedovo Airport.

Domodedovo is smaller than Sheremetyevo, and about a million times worse. The airport is physically smaller and not designed to handle high volumes of people well. The hallways themselves are narrow and there are nowhere enough seats near the gates. The check-in area was a mess. There were no signs to direct you to the location of where the check-in desk for a particular airline would be. I found my counter by chance. I got to the airport a few minutes before check-in for my flight began. Thus, I stood around as a giant crowd amassed near the area for British Airways. I noticed the people beginning to set up the check-in area, and attentively looked for some sign, which would direct me to the correct row for my check-in. Thankfully, I noticed someone holding a placard with the euphemism for economy class on it and stood right where they placed it. Thus, I was at the front of the line. This worked well for me, as I was given a seat upgrade on my flight from Moscow to London.

In September, I was sent an email after I had arrived notifying me that my original flight from Moscow to London was changed. I was confused because the new flight information said I would depart 15 minutes later than the original flight and arrive 10 minutes earlier. I did not understand how that was possible until I got on my airplane, which was a Boeing 747. I had expected a crappy, old Airbus like the one that I flew to Moscow in. Instead, I got to enjoy premium economy class for a little over three hours. This was nice, but also a little annoying. The woman next to me got the last steak dinner and I was forced to watch her eat steak au jus while I got to enjoy some chicken in a sauce-thing with mashed potatoes.

Goodbye Russia.

I had enough time in Heathrow to buy a candy bar, the newest issue of “Top Gear” the magazine, and a carton of Ribena. Then, I was ushered into another Boeing 747. I got the luck of having the fourth to last row. The seat was a little depressing after having had the premium economy on the shorter flight, but at least I got home.

After waiting forever to get off of the back of a 747, I then had the fun of waiting for a while at immigration. The next annoying step was waiting for my luggage. I had a short layover at Heathrow of about two hours, so I figured my bags would be some of the first to come off. I was dead wrong. Also, I had arrived at JFK. That meant that two or three bags would come out and then there would be no bags for another five minutes. After waiting for about 15 or 20 minutes, I finally got my luggage. Then I had to pass customs, which was a mess. A Cathay Pacific flight from China had arrived around the same time as my flight. There were tons of Chinese people who didn’t speak any English trying to get through customs without all of the proper forms.

Eventually, I cleared customs without any problems and was greeted by my dad. We walked off to the car expecting a quick ride home, as it was after 11PM. Apparently the majority of the construction on the Whitestone Bridge is done at night. The traffic was closed down to one lane, which never goes well in New York. No one wanted to merge from the three lanes into one and various people kept cutting through the traffic on the shoulder. After sitting for about 40 minutes, I remembered that I have GPS on my phone. We got over to the Throgs Neck Bridge and over it quickly only to be stopped in terrible traffic on 95 after the bridge due to an accident. Lucky, there is a way to cut over from 95 to the Hutchinson Parkway via the rotaries near City Island, but we had to drive about ¾ of a mile in the shoulder before the exit. Being New York, no one was merging properly and people were stopped in the exit only lane. Thankfully we weren’t crushed by various trucks and the rest of the ride was a breeze.

From Moscow traffic to NYC traffic. Apparently no one in the world knows how to merge from two or three lanes into one.

We made it to the Post Road Diner by 1.45AM. I ordered a peanut butter milkshake and a buffalo chicken sandwich. I gluttonous gorged myself on some of the finest American food while regaling my father with stories of Russia. Over our late night snack (well, snack for him, feast for me), we discussed going to Russia. Hopefully, the two of us will venture to Ulyanovsk in September if all goes well.

Buffalo chicken sandwich. Peanut butter milkshake. Daddy’s arms. Almost 2AM. So much happiness.

While my Fulbright is over, my connections with Ulyanovsk are not. As I told the people from the university, they are stuck with me for life. Ulyanovsk is now my new vacation destination.

Advertisements

Fun and Games

Posted: June 23, 2012 in Uncategorized

Once again, I apologize for the delay in updating my blog. Life without the internet in my apartment is frustrating. Also, I haven’t been home all that much. I have been keeping busy in my last days in Ulyanovsk. Last Thursday, I went to the Country Club language camp for one day. I help George lead some science lessons with the kids. Then, Emory and I played baseball with the whole group of kids for about an hour before lunch. Rather, we tried to play. Some of the kids really liked it, others were bored and wandered off to play on the playground. After lunch, we had fun messing around on the beach and in the River Volga. It was a really hot day and the water was warm. I had fun throwing kids around into the water. I also picked up and threw George into the water. Then, at one point, I flipped him over with a Judo hip throw. At one point, George and I played chicken with two twelve year olds. It was a lot of fun, but my neck was absolutely ruined after playing with them.

Still swinging for the fences.

Last Friday, I had a housewarming party at my apartment with the people from the university. When I lived in the dormitory in a regular room, no one wanted to visit me. Now that I have an apartment people want to hang out with me. We sort of did the same thing on Sunday as well. Three of the people from the international department came to play baseball with me and Emory, the other American. Unlike with the children, they picked up the game quickly and we played for almost two hours before having tea and snacks in my apartment.

The new apartment keeps brining adventures to my life. On Monday morning, I woke up to the sound of my door bell. I had not set an alarm because I didn’t have to be anywhere at a specific time. I thought that maybe someone from the university was trying to find me, or that the workmen had returned to change another thing in my apartment. I checked my phone and saw that it was 6.30AM. Thus, I realized that it wasn’t anyone that I knew trying to find me. I just rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Unfortunately, the door bell rang again, this time a little longer. I got up to look through the peep hole. I was surprised to see a police officer there, and figured that I was required to open the door for him. He apologized for waking me and showed me his identification. He then asked if I had seen my neighbor from the next apartment. I replied that I had just moved into this building and don’t know any of my neighbors. He accepted this answer and then asked if all of my neighbors were foreigners. I again replied that I wasn’t sure. He then asked, “If it’s not a secret, where are you from?” I told him that I was from America and he was moderately interested. He once again apologized for waking me and went off to the next apartment. When I studied in St. Petersburg, we were told to be scared of and suspicious of the Russian police. I was pleasantly surprised by how polite and nice this officer was. Also, as bad as the neighbors were in the other building, the police never came looking for them early in the morning.

Another adventure for my apartment was paying for it. I pay for my housing through an ATM in the university. I used to live in the third building, so at one point, I pushed the number three to select that building and pay. I now live in the sixth building, so when I pushed six, I was surprised to see the machine say that there is no 6th building. When I asked someone at the international department, the response was that it’s called the 6th building, but it’s really the 4th building, so I should have pressed four to pay for my room. Yes, Russia, that is very logical.

The building also has a series of really funny evacuation signs that are translated into English. I’m slightly worried as to why one prepares me for situations of chlorine contamination. I thought I was at a university, not a super secret weapons facility.

Why would there be chlorine contamination at a university?

In my preparations for leaving, I have done a few things that I have been meaning to do for a while. Firstly, I finally baked chocolate chip cookies for the people at the university. I have been promising to do so since January, but I haven’t had access to an oven. Thankfully, Iriny let me come to her place to bake cookies in return for a few of them. They turned out perfectly this time.

Perfect cookie goodness.

I brought the cookies to the university on Tuesday, where the international department threw me a little going away party. It was awesome. I will miss everyone at the university so much next year.

Pavel Borisovich being funny.

On Wednesday night, I made tacos a la Russe in my apartment. I was able to find taco seasoning in Metro. I used lavash for the tortillas. I also had cut up tomatoes, onions, and green peppers as well as cheese as garnishes. I went with George to Magnit near my place. Iriny and the others were supposed to go to Gulliver to get good, German white wine. While in Magnit, I got a call from Iriny. She said that they had gotten off at the wrong stop and were at a Magnit. I thought they were at the other Magnit on the other side of the university, which is not far from Gulliver. As I was talking to Iriny about hot sauce, I turned around and noticed that Iriny, Emory, and Haidar were in the same store as us. We had a good laugh and then headed up to my place for drinks and fun. Emory provided Mariachi music from his laptop.

Tacos make me happy.

Thursday night was also an adventure. I had dinner with George and Julia before heading off to Lena and Vadim’s house for one last barbeque. There was a large group of people there and we had a great time hanging out and talking. I’m sad to be leaving my adoptive Russian family, and they are sad to see me go. Vadim calls me his American girl because I also like fighting and things related to the military. Lena got a little jealous, but realized Vadim was just joking. At the end of the night, Vadim and Lena didn’t want me to leave. They told me to give them three good reasons why I have to leave Russia. I told them that my visa expires on the 30thof June and that I don’t want to pay the fine. The accepted this answer and let me go.

Last barbeque with Vadim, for now. I would buy a plane ticket to Russian and a train ticket to Ulyanovsk just to hang out and eat grilled meat with these cool people in a heartbeat.

Keep on Rollin’

Posted: June 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

It has been a while, dear readers, and I apologize for being MIA. In my defense, I truly was missing in action. The activity, which has consumed most of my time as of late, was the Test of Russian as a Foreign Language, or the Russian language equivalent of TOEFL. I took this exam on Tuesday and Thursday of last week. In the weeks leading up to the exam, I have been preparing intensely in my Russian class. The week before the exam, I had about three plus hours a day of class time plus an additional hour or two of homework each night. The work paid off, because I passed the test! In some unknown period of time, I will receive a certificate from Moscow, which states that I have a certain level of proficiency in Russian. According to the test itself, I think they claim it to be advanced. Whatever. What’s important is that I will have a piece of paper with a stamp and a signature on it.

The exam itself was not fun to take. It has five parts to it. On the first day, I took three of the parts: grammar, writing, and reading. On the second day, I had speaking and listening. The final subsection of speaking was a ten minute discussion. I was lucky because the first question I was asked was, “What is a topic that you are very interested in?” Clearly my response was Russian cars. Thus, I had a discussion about the development of the Soviet automotive industry in Russian. You know your life is complete when you can say “agrarian nation” and “Five Year Plan” in Russian.

In addition to studying, I have also been having some fun. Two weekends ago, our usual gang headed off to one of the beach areas in the city to celebrate Larissa’s birthday. The spread of food was great (yummy smoked fish, salad, fruit, and my beloved shashliki). We hung around the beach and had a great time. On the evening after my first exam, I went to another friend’s apartment for the birthday of her daughter. We had a tasty dinner and a wonderful cake baked by the hostess herself. Russian hospitality truly is the best in the world. You can never eat enough at their houses.

The first course of the birthday feast. The fish was perfectly smoked and was delightful.

Saturday, the thing that I have been waiting a long time for finally happened. I moved into the apartment that was promised to me in August. When I arrived in September, they told me that there were renovations and that it would probably be done in two months. Basically, after almost ten months (or more?) the apartment was “finished.” I say it this way because despite the major renovations and new furniture, there is still no refrigerator. Furthermore, they have not gotten around the installing the cable for the internet. Thus, I have to use the wifi at the university. All in all, the apartment is spectacular. I have a real bed instead of the thin cloth sack of fibers that I used to sleep on. Also, my neighbors either don’t exist, or the soundproofing here is pretty good. As they say, “Better late than never.”

View from my balcony. The building on the left is the one that I used to live in.

Then, last weekend, I had dinner at the apartment of the new American, Emory, with Iriny and George. We assisted Emory in making an Asian chicken dish. It was comprised of shredded chicken, cucumbers, carrots, and green onions drenched in a yummy, homemade spicy peanut sauce. It was a wonderful dinner and a refreshing change from the usual cuisine here. While I love Russian staples like potatoes, meat, and dumplings, there’s only so much of the same ingredients/flavors that I can stand to constantly eat.

I will never get tired of grilled meat, though.

Sunday morning, I met up with the other American in the city, Nathan. He is in Russia for the summer to learn Russian at my university. I went with him and his girlfriend to the Catholic Church in the city. I didn’t know that it existed. It’s rare to find Catholic churches in Russia, especially out of the major cities. The church is located twenty minutes away from where I live by foot. The church is in a three story residential building in a residential neighborhood. The church is served by three priests, all of whom are from Argentina. There are also three or four nuns at the church. This is a surprisingly large number of clergy for a very small parish. Nathan, the American, told me that there are about 100 people who attend this church. Most of these people are Armenian.

The Mass was very interesting to attend. Before the start of the service, the whole congregation said the Rosary. As expected, the Mass was said in Russian. The translation of the liturgy into Russian must have been made about fifty years ago when the language was switched from Latin to the local language. All of the prayers were in the older forms and the Kyrie was in Greek. Although it was not a High Mass, the service lasted for almost 90 minutes. Following the actual Mass, there was a special procession and Benediction for a feast day. This involved an extra 30 minutes of prayers and kneeling, which was an adventure of sorts. The pews at the church were plain wooden benches and the kneelers were strips of wood. Part of the Benediction procession took us outside of the church, where we kneeled on the brick walkway. After the Mass, we went into the basement of the church to have tea and cookies. It was nice to talk with some of the nuns as well as with the members of the parish.

Later, on Sunday afternoon, I went to the Lenin Memorial with Emory and Iriny. It’s basically the main tourist attraction of the city, so it’s stupid that I have only just been there. When we got there, we somewhat joined a tour being led for some press conference. The tour guide was interesting, and it was clear that he has been working at the memorial for a long time. I was pleasantly surprised by the museum. I expected it to be very boring, but it really had some great exhibits. One funny part of the museum was a display case that had all of the Soviet/Russian leaders from Lenin to Putin; however, there was a curious occurrence. The display made no mention of Konstantin Chernenko, who was the premier of the Soviet Union after Yuri Andropov, but before Mikhail Gorbachev. Poor Chernenko, no one seems to remember him.

How do you forget about the leader of a nation? That would be like saying William Henry Harrison didn’t exist.

Some of the displays in the museum included a series of different sized statues of Lenin, made out of different materials. There were also vases with Lenin’s face. At one point, there was a model of the Mausoleum in Moscow. They also had a death mask, as well as one of the hands, of Lenin. In case you can’t venture to Moscow to see dead Lenin, you can stare at a creepy version of his face and hands at the memorial. There was a pretty cool statue of Lenin in front of the Soviet globe with the hammer and sickle. The whole display was cool because it had Marx’s famous line, “Workers of the world unite” written in the 15 different languages of each of the republics of the Soviet Union.

Workers of the world unite!

The pièce de résistance of the memorial was a carpet that had Lenin in the center with a series of socialist realism motifs including what seemed to be nuclear scientists.

I really, really want to own this rug.

On Monday, I had yet another very awesome adventure. Along with most of my friends who work at the international department of the university, we went to a rock festival called “Rock on the Volga,” which was located near the city of Samara. I got up at 5 something in the morning to be at the entrance of Park Pobedi (Victory Park) by 6AM, located about a thirty minute walk from where I live. We made the drive in a rented minibus very quickly and were fairly close to the front of the line to get into the concert. Thus, we were fairly close up. Sadly, we weren’t super close, but in retrospect, we had a great location. There were over 225,000 people at the festival, so being in the first section of the field was great. The festival was 12 groups in 12 hours – 11.00AM to 11.00PM. Most of the groups were Russian, of which I only really know one group, Leningrad, thanks to a tutor from St. Petersburg who shared my taste in music.

Leningrad.

One of the acts that I was most excited for was the French singer Zaz. I really love French gypsy jazz, ala Django Reinhardt, and she has a minimally pop, modern interpretation of this style. Her songs are infectiously catchy. She played a couple of my favorite songs as well as some new songs and a cover of “I’m So Excited” by the Pointer Sisters. Zaz was really energetic and it was funny because she doesn’t speak any Russian and it’s clear that she also doesn’t really speak any English. She had a sheet of phrases written in Russian to read to the crowd, but she spent most of her time speaking in French and occasionally shouting “Everybody” instead of “Tout le monde.” I feel accomplished because I can understand a crazy French singer’s shouts to the audience after six plus years of French. There was a funny moment when she shouted, “How many of you understand me?” The set was awesome, but the whole crowd wasn’t into it. There were a decent number of happy people, but it’s clear that Zaz’s style didn’t really fit in a rock festival.

Zaz being awesome.

Another act that I was excited for was the group Garbage. They did the title song for the 1999 Bond film “The World is Not Enough.” It was a mediocre film at best, but the song was pretty decent. I also like a number of their other songs. Their lead singer also doesn’t know any Russian. She could say “hello” and “thank you.” At one point, she said, “As you can tell, my Russian is sh*t, so I hope you don’t mind that I speak to you in Scottish.” Garbage played an awesome set that the crowd seemed to like.

Garbage.

The headline act of the night was a surprise to me. I didn’t realize that Limp Bizkit was still a band. They were most popular in America roughly 10 years ago. The crowd went nuts for Limp Bizkit. They were pretty good, but the show was a bit of a cop out. There were very long breaks in between each song. Then, on top of the breaks of nothing but darkness on the stage, each song was preceded by Fred Durst saying various expletives and clowning around. I assume that was the main attraction of this foreign group to the Russians. Even for people who don’t speak any English at all, it’s clear that they understand curses. Durst’s favorite word starts with F and rhymes with duck. Every time he randomly uttered this, the crowd cheered. The set was both awesome and slightly annoying, because while all of the hits were played, they were played throughout the act. “Rollin’” was the second song that was played. “My Way,” “Behind Blue Eyes,” and “Break Stuff” were also played during the act. Sadly, “Nookie” was not played. I guess it was disappointing because one of the major hits was not the last song of the night, so the end wasn’t quite as powerful as it could have been.

Fred Durst and Limp Bizkit do still exist.

After Limp Bizkit, we wandered around through the parking lot attempting to find our minibus. Then, we got back to Ulyanovsk around 3AM and I walked back to my apartment, most of the way with a friend named Roman, who lives nearby. I got back to the apartment building around 3.30 and woke up the babushka. Clearly, the babushka from the morning before forgot to tell her that I would arrive early the next morning because when she opened the door, she made a comment about it being light already outside. Then, I stumbled into bed for one of the best night’s sleep ever.

Group of some of the coolest people ever at one of the coolest places ever. Russian friends are awesome.