Archive for February, 2017

I just got back from a trip to Murmansk and Teriberka, north of the Arctic Circle. Thursday was February 23rd, Defenders of the Fatherland Day, which used to be Red Army Day, and is roughly the equivalent of men’s day in Russia. Due to the holiday, the archives, as well as much of the country, shut down. The archives were closed Thursday and Friday and had a half-day on Wednesday. The side reading room in GARF also decided to have a half-day on Tuesday. The closures also mean that my document request times are pushed back and the soonest I can see documents again are this upcoming Thursday. Thanks to the holiday, I got to take an amazing trip to the far north reaches of European Russia with a few others. Because what is a better time to head north of the Arctic Circle than in February? Actually, February is a mild time. There is something called the Polar Night up there in December and January that lasts for about 45 days. They get dusk and dawn, but that’s the extent of the daylight, in reality its almost 24 hours of darkness. In the summer, they have the Polar Day where it’s light out 24 hours a day.

Murmansk.

Murmansk.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

The route from Murmansk to Teriberka.

On Friday morning I woke up super early to catch a 7:20AM flight to Murmansk, the largest city north of the Arctic Circle. I ended up having to take a taxi to Sheremetyevo as I needed to get to the airport before the Aeroexpress train started to run.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Morning at Sheremetyevo.

Getting out of the dorm was my first adventure of the day. I’m not quite sure what time they technically open the door to the street, maybe 5:00 or 6:00AM? The night before, I went to speak with the guard. The door guards work in 24 hour shifts, so the guy there in the evening would be there through the next afternoon. He’s friendly and asked where I was going and was excited when I said Murmansk. He was also quite drunk due to the holiday. I told the guard that I had to leave early and asked if I could due to the flight. He said it was fine and then rambled on about the holiday in slightly slurred speech. I congratulated him and walked off. In the morning, I went by the little guard office near the door and noticed he was asleep on the couch. I went and tried the door, which was open, so I didn’t have to wake him. From there, I just waited for my Yandex Taxi to arrive and went off to the airport in about 25 minutes due to the lack of traffic in Moscow in the early morning hours. As I’ve learned flying in and out of JFK over the years, as painful as it is to wake up for the early flight, it generally makes the process of getting to and through the airport much less stressful.

This was my first time flying domestically in Russia, and as such was my first time at the domestic “terminal” at Sheremetyevo. What this really amounts to is going to the far end of the check-in hall. There is a separate security point in the domestic flights terminal past security is just a wing of the overall terminal, which is blocked off by a wall. I quickly killed some time walking around the entire domestic part of the terminal before getting ready to board. As I saw I was at a lower level gate, I immediately knew that I would be getting onto a bus and then getting onto the plane with stairs. Boarding was fine and swift and we departed 10 minutes early from the “gate.” The flight was reasonably full. I had a mother and her 9 year old son next to me. The son was playing GTA San Adreas on his iphone, which was moderately interesting to watch. We got the same breakfast meal that I got on the flight to Tbilisi, a fish, pickle, and spread sandwich with a yoghurt and small chocolate bar. After two hours, we landed smoothly in Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

On approach to Murmansk.

Murmansk was founded in 1916 as a year-round port on the very northern shores of Russia. Due to the Gulf Stream, the waters remain navigable year round. As I have said, it’s the largest city north of the Arctic Circle and also features the northernmost trolleybus system. I have wanted to go for a while with my pop-cultural influenced love of Russia. The Hunt for Red October essentially features a submarine from nearby naval bases. These bases aren’t actually in the port of Murmansk itself. They’re spread throughout the nearby territory in closed settlements. Neither foreigners nor regular Russians are allowed to go to these places. Sometimes, to travel to nearby areas for hunting or fishing, or overland border crossings to Norway or Finland, special permission has to be received from the local authorities.

I traveled north with three acquaintances. The person who invited me was Vanessa, an Italian whom I had met in the dorm a few times while she was visiting some of my neighbors. She teaches Italian at a few places in Moscow. She casually invited me at dinner one night, and I immediately agreed to join the trip. The third member of our group was Terry, an American who teaches English at a private Russian school on the outskirts of Moscow. Our final travel companion was Alex, a Russian who somehow knows Vanessa through the other Italians. We all had different travel arrangements, more or less, that were facilitated by the February 23rd holiday. Terry arrived Thursday night, I arrived Friday morning, and Vanessa and Alex were supposed to arrive at the hostel around midnight on Friday into Saturday.

From the airport in Murmansk, I quickly grabbed a Yandex Taxi that was waiting in the parking lot. The cab drivers clearly hang out at the airport in the hours near the flight arrivals. It was only 500 rubles to go the 30KM from the airport to the hostel compared to the 1,000 rubles to cover roughly the same distance in Moscow from the dorm to Sheremetyevo.

I got into the hostel on the outskirts of Murmansk around 10:30AM, which was named the Little Mermaid in Russian. I found the reception staff, two nice men of about 40-45, and placed my things in my room before finding Terry. We spoke to the two hostel guys about getting food and then seeing things in the city as well as excursion outwards on either Saturday or Sunday. The guys recommended a food shack that was on the opposite wall of their office. We went there to get food before heading into the center of town to explore the city. The guy running the food shack was named Sasha, and he was super excited to meet two Americans in his little establishment on the edge of Murmansk. We ate some of his grilled wings in the unheated food shack. We wanted to get shashlyk, grilled meat, but he didn’t have any ready yet. He gave us his number and told us to call and come for dinner.

After lunch, Andrei, one of the managers of the hostel, drove us into the city and dropped us off at the main square. Terry and I wandered up and down and around some of the side streets of Prospket Lenina (Lenin’s Prospect) before popping into an Irish pub to grab some drinks and warm up. It was probably about 10F on Friday. In the Irish pub, we were met fondly by the bartender and one other patron who were excited to speak with some Americans. We tried some beers from a local brewer, which were quite tasty. If the option to drink Piligrim’s (Пилигрим) wheat beer is presented to you, go for it.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

Symbols of the city near the main square off of Prospekt Lenina.

A few hours passed in the bar and Terry and I headed back out to wander more in the cold. We walked past the obligatory statue of Lenin off of his street. We also found a monument to Sergei Kirov, a somewhat rival of Stalin and Leningrad Party Boss whose suspicious murder helped kick off the Terror of the 1930s. Getting cold and hungry, we wandered into a different bar that on the outside looked like a German style brew house. The inside was themed as an Irish bar, and they only had two types of beer as well as a weird menu that was a mixture of Russian classics and pub foods. From there, we headed to a supermarket to get something for breakfast before taking a taxi back to the hostel.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

Intense WWII monument in Murmansk.

For anyone looking to travel to Murmansk, do not stay in the Rusalochka Guest House (Русалочка). There is a reason why it was dirt cheap. As we were in two person rooms, we each paid 400 rubles a night to stay there, or roughly $7.00. The place was on the edge of the city in an industrial park. There was nowhere to walk to from it, and the bus that the internet said existed didn’t really exist. We had to take taxis to and from the place all the time. There were a few other foreigners there, but the clientele was mostly sketchy Russians.

Murmansk street corner.

Murmansk street corner.

My room was so-so. Coming first, I was a jerk and stole the more real bed. Vanessa got stuck with a folding cot with a decently thick mattress on it. Our room was also a former office. The key even said “Office No. 2” on it. Thus, there was a large desk and some chairs in it as well as an old bookcase. There was only one shower in the whole building of maybe 30 rooms, and there were two other toilets, which were basically unheated. I couldn’t figure out how to work the shower, either. There were no regular knobs. I went into the hall and asked a Russian guy if he knew how to work it. He somewhat laughed at me and came in but couldn’t figure it out. He also asked some other Russian man lingering in the hall outside the kitchen if he could figure it out, which he couldn’t. I found Terry and he showed me that it operated with a push button that had to be hammered in with your hand. It’s basically the same mechanism as those sinks where you push down on the knob and the water runs for about 10 or 15 seconds.

Our next problem with the hostel came from the overnight staff. While Terry and I were out, Vanessa and Alex messaged us that their flight was going to be delayed. They would arrive closer to 4:00AM. When we got back, Terry and I went to inform the staff. The woman working overnight was creepy and unfriendly. I told her about the delay and she told me to tell them to immediately find her so that she could copy their information from their passports. I sent this message along to Vanessa and Alex. In the mean time, Terry and I walked around outside the hotel a few times to see if we could see the Northern Lights, which was a failure. The guy from the food stand came up and asked why we hadn’t come for dinner, and when we went to see if we could walk anywhere along the road, a passing motorist seemed to stop to see if we needed assistance. Eventually we called it quits and went inside to go to bed.

Vanessa's bed.

Vanessa’s bed.

As I was getting ready for bed, the woman working at the guest house knocked on my door and asked if I was going to lock it when I went to sleep. I said I would, but she told me not to as the others were coming in late and it would be a disturbance if they knocked on the door. I said that no matter what, I would wake up when they arrived, so it wasn’t an issue for me. She then left me. At about 4:15AM I got a phone call from Alex asking me to open the door. I got up and went to the main door, which was unlocked. Vanessa and Alex didn’t even try to open it, figuring that the outside door would be locked at that hour of the morning. They had tried to call the posted number for the worker, but got no answer. I told them about the passport, and we knocked on the office of the administrator, but there was no answer. So we went to our rooms and to sleep. We forgot to lock the door to our room, so Vanessa and I were rudely awakened at 5:00AM by the crazy woman. She threw the door open and turned on the light, which scared us to death. She then started to demand the passport from Vanessa. I went back to sleep and then slept poorly and woke anytime I heard someone approach the office doors near our room.

In the morning, we got up and attempted to eat breakfast in the kitchen. The kitchen really served as the smoking room for the Russian clientele, who used a jar and its lid as an ash tray. The Russian men were also having beer for breakfast. We had gotten cereal to eat, but there were no spoons in the hostel. Instead, we just munched on the dry cereal and tried to figure out what to do for the day and when to arrange a trip to a village called Teriberka about 120KM away that was on the Barents Sea. We spoke with Andrei, who told us that he knew a guy and we could arrange a trip for the next day. He then dropped us all off in the center of the city, but this time by a restaurant where we got a second breakfast/early lunch.

Beer for breakfast.

Beer for breakfast.

We ate and then walked along the main road to the train station. From the train station, we crossed a series of tracks on some bridges towards the port, where we went to the museum for the first atomic icebreaker, named the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

The first atomic icebreaker, the Lenin.

It was built in 1959 and served until 1989. The only way to go on it is through a tour that runs certain days at 12:00, 1:00, 2:00, and 3:00. We got the 2:00 tour, which seemed to be the most popular. Walking through the ship was pretty cool. As a floating city, there was a very scary looking medical complex featuring a dentist office, an x-ray room, and a surgery.

The stuff of nightmares.

The stuff of nightmares.

The grand staircase of the ship was slightly ornate. However, unlike the famed staircase of the Titanic, which featured a centerpiece carving of Honor and Glory crowning Time, the Lenin had a giant Lenin quote and carving of his head.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

Grand Staircase Soviet style.

We got to go past the decommissioned nuclear reactor, which had a good display set up in it to see what it looked like while working. There was also a tour of the engine room and the steam turbines that powered the ship with over 144,000HP.

Steam turbine.

Steam turbine.

The best views from the ship were from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

View from the bridge.

After the tour, we headed back to the center via a stop at an old steam engine by the rail tracks. We climbed up it for some cool photos before getting a taxi to an edge of the city to see the giant war memorial.17021499_10212322263634583_4807174153905822397_n

Murmansk was a major city for Russia during the Second World War. Murmansk is one of the twelve Hero Cities of the former Soviet Union, cities of the most importance to the effort on the Eastern Front. Because of its year round port, Murmansk was a major target for Nazi advances and bombing campaigns. This port is where a lot of the Lend Lease goods came in to supply the Soviet war effort. The Nazis wanted to cut this off, but never managed to take over the city and do so. Murmansk was actually the third most attacked and ruined city of the USSR, and Russia, after Leningrad and Stalingrad due to its immense strategic importance. On a hill overlooking the city is a giant monument to the war effort, called Alyosha, of a Russian soldier that was built in the 1970s.

At the Alyosha monument.

At the Alyosha monument.

The view of the city from the top was absolutely stunning.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

Looking at Murmansk from the memorial.

We wandered all around the monument and took in the views of the city before walking down through the park back to the city. We walked the whole way from the monument to the main roads of the city. While heading back to Prospekt Lenina, we stumbled upon a Mexican bar and restaurant called Amigos right on the edge of the main road. We went in and enjoyed having fajitas and enchiladas in the arctic north. I haven’t even had Mexican food in Moscow, yet there is a decent place to eat it in Murmansk. Who would have thought?

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

I like Murmansk more than Moscow.

We wandered more and then took a trolleybus back towards the outskirts of the city in an attempt to find a place to look for the Northern Lights. After wandering around outside for about a hour, we headed into a café next to a park to have some tea and warm up. There was a DJ there playing songs off of his laptop who kept staring and me and Vanessa. If we started to bob along to the music, he would turn it up. If we didn’t, he would skip songs until we did. I ended up seeing a kid eating ice cream and talked about eating it outside. It was a bitterly cold day of -13F that was down to about -20F with the wind-chill. The others somewhat dared me to eat ice cream outside, so I got one and did so. It was wonderful.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

Photo taken from the comfort of the cafe. I had no problems eating my ice cream outside. It was refreshing.

We regained some strength and headed outside through the park to look for the lights again. On the way, we found a slide made of ice. I found a cardboard box on the ground, and we took a few turns going down the slide before heading back into the center on the trolleybus. We grabbed some breakfast foods and then went to bed fairly early after chatting in our room for a while as we had an early start the next day.

We arranged through Andrei to get a driver to take us to the fishing village of Teriberka. I highly recommend going there, but it is very important to go with an experienced guide in the winter. We were lucky that the road was currently open, though it closes sometimes for days at a time due to the snow, and people can be stranded in the village. Our driver Igor was an extreme professional. He had an SUV with studded snow tires. His trunk was filled with shovels, a sleeping bag, and a butane camp stove among other supplies. His day job is with the МЧС, or the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Basically, this means that he works as an emergency first responder. He has his own tour company for other days. I highly recommend his services. The price was 10,000 rubles for the day in which we left at 9:30 and came back at 6:00. Split between us, it was 2,500 rubles each, or roughly $45.00, which is not bad for a whole day with a knowledgeable guide.

His group is called Туры и экскурсии по Кольскому полуострову (Tours and Excursions along the Kola Peninsula)  and he can be reached through his Vkontake page.

As we headed out, the danger of the drive became a little more evident. He kept checking in with someone else on his phone. They try to take the drives in groups of at least two cars in case some sort of problem happens with one. You literally drive across the middle of nowhere with no available help. The road on much of the trip is really just gravel, though in the winter everything is snow. A few times we passed giant trucks that were removing snow from the road. Igor told us that on one recent trip, they had to wait three days for the road to reopen. As we headed farther away from Murmansk, we crossed into the tundra. The weather conditions immediately changed to heavy snow and essentially white out conditions. Both the road and the horizon were white. The only way to see where to go was orange markings on the side of the road, which also told the plow drivers where to plow.

Difficult driving conditions.

Difficult driving conditions.

Along the way to Teriberka, we stopped a few times for photos. At one point, we took photos on a dam. I reveled in living out GoldenEye fantasies of being on a snow covered damn in northern Russia. For those of you who don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of that particular film, the opening shot is at the fictional Arkhangelsk Chemical Weapons facility, which supposedly sits at the base of a dam. James Bond runs across the dam and bungee jumps off of it to enter the base. In reality, the scene was shot at the Contra dam in Switzerland, but I didn’t care. Arkhangelsk is another far north Russian port city with a sizable nuclear fleet base.

View from a Russian dam.

View from a Russian dam.

Another very interesting sight on the way to Teriberka was the presence of a group of para-snowboarders and skiers. These extreme sports junkies head out in convoys to the snow drifts of the tundra. They attach parachutes to themselves and have the wind propel them along the snow as they attempt to do some jumps.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

Bad photo, but para-snowboarding.

The road to Teriberka was also dotted with little fishing encampments, or just cars parked along the road for people to head to the many nearby lakes for some ice fishing.

Fishing encampment.

Fishing encampment.

After about three hours of driving including a few photo stops, we reached a fork in the road for Teriberka and New Teriberka. New Teriberka is a settlement that sits a little more inland on the Teriberka Gulf. It has a few buildings, a café, and a sandy beach.

Some of New Teriberka.

Some of New Teriberka.

The real Russia.

The real Russia.

We walked along the beach and took photos of the stunning countryside before heading into the café for a lunch of soup and local crab and scallops. Igor told us that the crabs were not native to these waters. Instead, Soviet scientists took crabs from Kamchatka and brought them to the Barents to see if they would take off, which they did. However, Igor told us that Russia has very strict regulations about the fishing of fish and shellfish to control the population. Apparently, the Norwegians don’t follow the same principles.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Old Teriberka as seen from New Teriberka.

Refreshed after having food, we got back in the car to Teriberka via a quick stop at the ship graveyard. They are early steam ships. Igor said that he’s tried to learn the history of them, but hasn’t been able to do so.

Ship graveyard.

Ship graveyard.

There wasn’t actually anything to see or do in Teriberka itself. Instead, we drove to the edge of the settlement before undertaking a 30 minute hike across the snow to the rocky beach on the Barents Sea.

Hiking to the sea.

Hiking to the sea.

The views along the way were also breathtaking. Murmansk is more of a stereotypical northern city near the water that has a few hills and trees. As we headed out of the city, the large pine forests started to surround us. Then we got to the nothingness of the tundra before approaching giant mounts near the sea.

The beach at the Barents was really just a pile of boulders that we had to carefully climb over.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

The beach at the Barents Sea.

Vanessa was partially insane and a trooper. She was insistent upon swimming. Igor helped her get to the water and loaned her his second jacket and sleeping bag in place of no towels. She got up to the water, took off the jacket, and got hit by a massive wave before quickly getting dressed again. I took off my shoes and socks and walked up to the water. It was quite painful, but eventually my feet just ignored the pain and went back to feeling normal. Due to the rocks and waves, I couldn’t really get into the water. Instead, I stood in a small puddle near the edge, which kept going up and town with the tide. I my book, it doesn’t count as visiting a body of water unless you at least stick your feet in.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Put feet in Barents Sea in February: check.

Alex also took off his shoes and socks. After having our water adventures, Igor pulled snacks and tea out of his backpack and we had tea on the rocks of the Barents Sea. It was an unreal once in a lifetime experience.

Picnic at the Barents.

Picnic at the Barents.

The tide was approaching our perch, so we warmed up and then hiked back to the car. Igor drove us back to Murmansk without any issues. Along the way, he started to talk about WWII a bit and I asked him a few questions. I knew that there were about 5 POW camps in the area. He said that the POWs helped to rebuild and that they were largely used in the construction of a hydro-electric plant that the Finns designed. He also mentioned that a lot of the nearby roads to the various fishing spots were first built by the Germans. They paved them with gravel and stones, and they are all apparently still in fantastic condition.

After arriving back at the hostel, we got dinner of grilled meat from the shack, much to the happiness of the owner Sasha. We relaxed and chatted in the room. We had a carton of milk that we hadn’t opened and were wondering what to do with it. Jokingly, we said we should freeze it and turn it into ice cream, so we put it in cups out of the window to do so overnight.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Homemade ice cream with a snow dusting.

Vanessa and Alex had the 5:00AM flight out of Murmansk so that they could be back in Moscow in time for work on Monday. They left the hostel around 3:00AM. I was dead tired and didn’t hear Vanessa get up. Nor dead I hear or notice her opening the window to try some of the ice cream, of which she took a flash photo. I only woke up when she said my name, goodbye, and walked out of the door. I woke again a few hours later to gather the last of my things, hand Terry the key to my room, and get my taxi. My taxi was at 8:45, and there was seemingly no one working at the time. Terry was OK with taking the key as his flight was at 1:00 or so.

I got into the cab with a nice driver. He first asked if I was from Norway or Finland, and was surprised when I said the USA. On the way to the airport, he insisted on us stopping at a natural spring at the side of the road so that I could try the local spring water. I did, and it was indeed fresh and lovely.

The spring.

The spring.

We got to the airport quickly and easily. I then waited in line to check-in. I wanted to be there early for my 10:50 flight as I couldn’t check-in online. The line moved fairly quickly as the check-in was just for my 180 seat plane. Oddly, there was a group of about 20 Chinese tourists also on my flight.

After a quick and simple security check-point I wound up in the mostly wonderfully Soviet airport terminal. There was a giant socialist realist sculpture on the wall. The layout was also that of a provincial train station. It had the same design and furniture of the train station in Ulyanovsk, for example.

Soviet airport greatness.

Soviet airport greatness.

The gates were also just two doors out to the tarmac. I got some great views of my plane coming in from Moscow as well as an old Antonov An-24 turboprop plane operated by a small regional airline called Pskovavia. The particular model of plane was manufactured from 1959-1979.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

This is why you only fly on Aeroflot within Russia.

Boarding was just us all massing at the gate door. Our tickets were ripped, and we got onto a bus to take us to the plane. We quickly boarded and left on time. As the airport is tiny, there isn’t much of a taxiway. There’s just a strip from the middle of the runway to the terminal area. We drove up the strip and along the runway. At the edge of the runway, the plane made a u-turn. I didn’t realize that an Airbus could turn around like that. Then we took off and landed in Moscow with a minimal delay caused by the traffic in front of us to land. Lunch on the flight was a simple ham, cheese, and pickle sandwich, a fruit bar, and a mandarin.

We got an actual jetway when we arrived and quickly got off of the plane. I walked to Aeroexpress and was back in the dorm by 3:00PM. And thus ended my adventures to the far north of Russia. I highly recommend taking a similar trip if someone ever gets the chance. It was refreshing to be outside of Moscow in the real Russia.

Yesterday evening I arrived back in Moscow after a short trip to the Republic of Georgia, a former Soviet Republic that is located in the Caucasus. I left Friday morning to go there with a friend of mine who studies Soviet history at Ohio State. He is currently doing research in Kazakhstan, and his visa requires him to leave there every 90 days. He was going to go to Georgia for his visa compliance trip, and I invited myself along, which he thankfully didn’t reject.

We met at the gate in the airport in Moscow before flying to Tbilisi, the capita of Georgia, together. We flew on Aeroflot. There were no problems boarding the plane, and the trick of getting seats in the back of the plane worked to our advantage. I got the window and he got the aisle. As it wasn’t a full flight, we had the middle seat open. The flight was pleasant enough, left roughly on time, and was mostly smooth. We were fed a snack, which was a, um, thing? It was a sandwich of smoked salmon, pickles, and mayo? Mustard? Mustard-mayo? I made it through about two bites before quitting. I like Russian cuisine, but this was far too Russian for my liking.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I've been offered to eat on a plane.

I love Aeroflot, but this might have been one of the worst things I’ve been offered to eat on a plane.

Migration at Tbilisi was quick and easy. We then easily grabbed a taxi to our AirBnB. The trip was off to an auspicious start, as our taxi was a late 1990s Mercedes C-Class wagon. The driver was very friendly, and conversed with us in Russian. He took us to our apartment and gave us a mini tour of sorts along the way. He showed off the newer glass police headquarters, a physical attempt at transparency with the police, and an American chemical company. The American chemical company was our first taste of the current Russian-Georgian relations. The driver said that it’s just a normal chemical company, but when it was being built, the Russians tried to convince the Georgians not to allow it, that it would be making chemicals and dangerous substances. Georgia is caught at a cross-roads between Russia and the United States. Russia clearly still has a lot of influence there, but the Georgians aren’t very pro-Russian, and often look to the US. This also led to a few tense moments at times when I didn’t know which language to speak, Russian or English. I didn’t want to be insulting and assume that everyone knows or would like to speak Russian, but I also didn’t want to come across at the rude American who goes abroad and assumes that everyone speaks English. It was uncomfortable at times.

Riding in comfort and style.

Riding in comfort and style.

After riding around a series of ridiculously narrow back roads, we were dropped off at our apartment, which was right behind the old Parliament building.  It was a pre-revolutionary former noble residence. After the revolution, it was turned into collective apartments, which were eventually privatized. Despite being privatized, we got a small taste of the collective apartment experience. There was a door off of the stairwell that went into an entryway with three doors. The door on the left went to our kitchen and bathroom. The door to the right went to the bedroom/living room/dining room. The center door was to another private apartment. “Don’t worry, they have their own entrance and rarely use this door,” said Eka. We have different versions of the word rarely, because they kept coming and going through the door all hours of the day and night. They also had their TV on all the time. And smoked. Best neighbors ever!

The doors off of the entry hall.

The doors off of the entry hall.

We put our stuff down and then headed to the basement of the building, which was accessed from the street. In one basement area there was a small shop where we bought milk, juice, bread, and eggs. In another basement area was a café that cooked up home style food that could be eaten there or taken out. For about $6.00 we got two huge portions of food with potoates and a tasty sauce, which the woman called “Georgian Ketchup.” The wine was home made and complimentary from the AirBnB host.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

Meal number one in Georgia was a delicious success.

After food and a nap, we set out to explore our neighborhood of Tbilisi. We were essentially in a government center. We walked down and back the main road of our district, Rustaveli Avenue. There were a few examples of anti-Soviet sentiment there. The first was a plaque on the Parliament building, which talked about free elections and independence in 1918 until the annexation by Soviet Russia in 1921. Another plaque down the road mentioned a peaceful demonstration that was “gunned down by the Soviet Regime” in March 1956. The national museum even has a permanent exhibit called the “Museum of Soviet Occupation.”

There's a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

There’s a law in Georgia against pro-Soviet propaganda.

We ended up walking up the hill in our neighborhood up to the Funicular, which took us to the top of the mountain that is behind Tbilisi. The view was nice at night, but it was a very cloudy night, which spoiled things a little. We wandered around the park at the top of the hill and took in the fake dinosaur park and the behemoth Soviet television tower, which was quite imposing while emerging from the clouds. We also grabbed a good dinner at a restaurant at the top before heading back to the apartment to go to bed.

The mighty TV tower.

The mighty TV tower.

On Saturday morning, we were met at 8:00AM by a driver, Gaga. Some of my Italian neighbors had gone to Tbilisi last semester, and I got his number from them. Gaga is Georgian and also speaks Russian, but no English, so all of our communication was in Russia. We got into the car and he drove us north to Gudauri, a ski area up in the Caucasus Mountains. On the way, we took a quick stop at a McDonalds drive through so that he could get a cup of coffee. The particular McDonalds was across from the American Embassy. I joked that it was a convergence of two American embassies. We also stopped briefly after switching to the Georgian Military Road so he could get more gas. While waiting in the gas station, I saw a W202 C-Class towing another W202 C-Class. At least half of the cars on the road in Georgia are used German sedans and wagons that range from 10-30 years old, though the average is about 15 years old. I saw quite a few W202s and W210s, arguably two of the worst Mercedes made. There were also a good number of BMWs and a smattering of Opels and VWs. There is clearly some sort of business that buys up used cars in Germany and ships them to Georgia.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

So. Many. Mercedes. So. Much. Joy.

The road to the Gudauri was harrowing. It was snowing, and we were generally on a two-land “highway” the whole way. Sanding operations on the road were also crazy. There were men riding in the backs of trucks and shoveling sand and gravel onto the roads.

Advanced sanding operation.

Advanced sanding operation.

The roads were poorly plowed and our driver was speeding like a madman. He was also aggressively passing other cars and trucks around blind curves. At times, the car would skid a little or I would feel the ABS going off as he did some rather questionable maneuvers. To make matters worse, he was driving a Toyota that had been imported from Japan. The steering wheel was on the wrong side, so it was harder for him to see around vehicles to pass. At one point, we were essentially driving down the left lane of the road for a few miles as we passed dozens if not hundreds of stopped trucks. They were forbidden from going up the steep mountain pass in the snow, so they were parked along the side of the road.

The stopped convoy.

The stopped convoy.

As we heading into the mountain switch backs, I really started to panic. I had a white knuckle grip on the seat as we weaved around corners and skidded in the snow with sheer cliff faces and not much of a guard rail. I made it through quite a few decades of the Rosary along the way, and was slightly hyperventilating as we got towards the top of the switchback.

This was literally the most scared I have ever been in a car, including that time that I was at a Mercedes driving event and went around the track with my instructor in his car. A trip that ended with him crashing his car after we had brake fade coming out of the straight. If you’re going to crash, crash in style in a limited edition Mercedes SL500. Thankfully we slowed enough through him pulling the emergency brake that when we hit the gravel pit and the deformable barriers, the airbags didn’t go off (thought they might, which is why I put my arm with the camera down in the video). It was just cosmetic damage to his car, but I didn’t think this Georgian driver would have the same skills as my instructor, plus we were on a track with safety equipment for to minimize damage and injury, including wearing racing helmets. Going off the side of a cliff or smacking into another car would have been a different story.

We finally reached Gudauri after two or two and a half hours of driving. Gaga left us to go to the ski rental, where I rented a board, boots, and helmet for about $11.50 for the whole day.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

This guy at the ski rental was a little far away from New England.

The lift ticket was about $15.00 for the whole day. My friend was a good sport and wandered around the base area for a few hours while I went up and snowboarded. The first lift was a slow-speed quad, which led to a different base area with a higher speed, detachable quad. Both were made by Doppelmayr, an Austrian lift company.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base of Gudauri. Ski the world.

The base areas for both quads featured a variety of food and souvenir stands and restaurants. From the second quad, I asked some Russians how to get down to the Gondola, which was a little unclear. They just told me to head left, which I did and basically found the Gondola no thanks to the lack of trail markings.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The only trail marking I could find, which was halfway down the trail.

The mountain itself was fabulous, the crowds weren’t bad, and the skiers were generally in control and weren’t crazy. However, the mountain isn’t quite up to American or European standards when it comes to trail markings.

Most American and European ski areas don't have stray dogs all over them either.

Most American and European ski areas don’t have stray dogs all over them either.

American mountains, at least in the North East, basically only have well marked trails. American resorts in the West tend to have more free skiing options, as do the European Alps, but the boundaries are fairly well marked. This was certainly the case in Jackson, Wyoming or Garmisch, Germany. The same does not hold true for Gudauri. Sign posts were very rare, and the limit of the trails was always unclear. I headed left from the middle quad to what looked like a trail that ran under the lift and doubled back to the side. At least in America and Germany, the small trail would have double backed into a main trail. Instead, I found myself in open free skiing. The snow itself was fabulous powder, and the area where I was happened to be rock and crevasse free, thankfully. I then went down that for a while before rejoining the actual trail.

Sun and perfect snow.

Sun and perfect snow.

The way down from the Gondola was easier to decipher. I wish I had had more time to ski the mountain all day. The runs were pure joy, some of the best skiing I’ve experienced in my whole life. I stuck basically to blues to the whole way, though, as I was skiing alone. The blues were super easy, more like an American green. They were all wide trails with good snow. There weren’t any icy patches at all, and they weren’t that steep. Had I been with a partner, I would have ventured off into the more difficult stuff, but I wasn’t going to push anything while alone on a mountain in a country with questionable medical facilities. The mountain was also interesting in that it has allegedly affordable heliskiing. The heliskiing tracks were super visible off on the mountains to the side. My favorite ski conditions are heavy powder, so I was sad to not get to track the fluffly stuff on this trip. But if I get the opportunity, I would definitely come back here and would totally recommend the place to others.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

Free skiing tracks in the distance.

After skiing for a few hours, I met my friend at the base. He had gotten an order of food for himself earlier for about $8.00, which was a giant portion of khachipuri and potatoes. He couldn’t eat it at all, and got the rest to go. When I joined him again, he gave me some of the food.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

Ski lunch Georgian style.

After the harrowing drive up, we asked the driver to take us back to Tbilisi, and at a slower speed. He had wanted to take us up farther into the mountains, but we were too afraid of the roads and didn’t want to be riding on them at night. Visibility during the day was bad enough, and there were hazards like cows, dogs, or people riding horses that we had to avoid on the way to and from the mountain. The driver relented, and took us back to Tbilisi. Along the way, we stopped at Ananuri castle complex, to see a 13th century castle and church.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

The view from the edge of the Ananuri Fortress.

In Tbilisi, the driver took us around the city for a while and showed us stuff from the car before taking us to the Memorail to Georgian History at the top of a hill. We climbed up and explored it for a while.

An imposing monument.

An imposing monument.

There was a great view of Soviet Tbilisi from this hill.Tbilisi itself is an interesting mix of national, pre-revolutionary architecture and Brezhnev blocks. After the memorial, he dropped us off in the center so that we could see the Museum of Soviet Occupation.

Soviet Tbilisi.

Soviet Tbilisi.

The Museum of Soviet Occupation was a permanent exhibit in the National Museum. It consisted of two rooms that portrayed a very bleak picture of Russian-Georgian relations. On one side of the first room was an old train car with bullet holes in it, in which hundreds were allegedly shot. Our AirBnB host later told us that this was a fabrication, it was a mock train car and had holes drilled in it. There was also a video showing the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and Russian bombings in South Ossetia. The next room was mostly just copies of archival documents that were execution orders for Georgian citizens, nobility, and clergy. Essentially, the Bolsheviks shot the majority of the Georgian nobility. It listed thousands of people who were shot during the Soviet era, as well as the 400,000 Georgians who died during WWII as victims of Soviet occupation. The final part of the exhibit was about continued Russian occupation with the contested territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are under Russian military control. Oddly enough, the museum didn’t mention anything about Stalin or Beria, two Georgians who initiated many of the killings that took place in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Gaga had let us borrow a metro card for the night, which was topped off, so we took a ride on the Tbilisi metro to see what it was like. It’s fairly small, and was initially built in the 1960s. It runs the same cars as the 1970s style ones of Soviet design, though they’ve been renovated with newer interiors and exteriors that feature Georgian pride.

We also popped into a wine store to get some wine. We wanted to get some red Georgian wine of the Kindzmarauli semi-sweet kind. The store had nice Kindzmarauli on tap, so we got two plastic 1 liter bottles for about $7.50, which provided us with drinks for the two remaining nights in Tbilisi.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

Nothing says classy like wine poured from a tap into a plastic bottle with no label.

The next morning, Gaga met us at 9:30 to take us to Gori, Stalin’s home town so that we could go to the Stalin Museum. The museum was oddly built in 1957, four years after the death of Stalin and during Khrushchev’s campaign of de-Stalinization. The museum has a major building of exhibition halls chronicling his whole life and death. It starts with his birth, features and exhibit with the 6th of the 9 official death masks, and a giant hall of gifts from his 70th birthday.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

The Stalin Museum Complex in Gori.

One of the funny pieces was a model of his secret, underground printing press.There is another copy of this exact model in the Lenin Memorial Museum in Ulyanovsk. I’m not sure whether or not to be impressed or distressed with myself for recognizing the model, though I’ve been to the Lenin Memorial three times.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin's train.

Climbing on Nicholas II/Stalin’s train.

Also at the museum are Stalin’s birth house and a train carriage. The house sits in its original location, and there is a giant stone structure built over it to protect it. The train carriage is an armored one that initially belonged to Nicholas II. Stalin left it basically unchanged with the exception of the addition of an air-conditioner. The train was given to the museum by Gorbachev sometime in the 1980s. Stalin travelled pretty much everywhere in the train car, especially as he had a fear of flying. He only flew twice in his life, from Baku to Tehran and back for the 1943 Tehran Conference with Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. As our guide Georgi said, “Stalin didn’t want to be too close to God.”

The tour with our guide was great. He made plenty of sassy comments towards Stalin and the Soviet regime. We were also joined over time by a motley crew of American and Indian tourists, who I really wanted to ask what they were doing in Georgia. During the tour, our guide mentioned that the museum has its own archives, including Stalin’s original death mask. We said we were historians of the period and asked if we could somehow get permission to enter the archives. He said that they are private, but that there was a public archive that we could see. The public archive is actually just an exhibit on the crimes of Stalin, mostly the shootings of the purges in the 1930s. The guide told us that the museum was a standard Soviet one that glorified the leader and the regime without mentioning any of its bad times, so he got the permission to create this additional exhibit with archival research that he has done. The only downside to the museum was that it really wasn’t heated. There were some space heaters, but it was absolutely freezing inside. There were, however, very nice and clean bathrooms in the museum. We later rated all future bathrooms on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a dirty Turkish toilet and 10 being the Stalin museum bathrooms.

After the museum, we got in the car and rode off through the countryside to the ancient cave city of Uplistsikhe. As we rode through the countryside, I was struck by how poor Georgia really is. I knew that the Caucasian Republics generally were poorer and were hit hard by the Soviet collapse. I had assumed, wrongly, that they had gotten a little better. Many of the villages were run down and looked almost like they had been bombed. People and animals were milling through the streets. Many of the houses did not have indoor plumbing, as outhouses were visible all over.

Uplistsikhe was fascinating. It was a city hewn into the sandstone of some cliffs. It was probably founded in the Iron Age, and featured a series of living quarters, wine presses, bakeries, jails, and theatres. There were even spaces for pagan ritual animal sacrifices and star worship. Our guide told us that there were some Soviet additions to the cave city, such as cement support pillars, which prevent it from being classified as a UNESCO heritage site.

The cave city.

The cave city.

I mumbled under my breath that it might have had something to do with the place being a giant death trap. We were climbing up worn down sandstone cliff faces that were covered in snow. There were no hand holds and very few places had level paths of any kind. I was worried about breaking an ankle in some places, and falling off the exposed side of a mountain at another. I’m not really a fan of heights and panicked a little at the completely open cliff face at one end of the complex. I would have lost my lunch had we been able to stop for lunch before seeing the place.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

No big deal, just a huge drop off.

After Uplistsikhe, we rode from about an hour through the countryside. At one point, Gaga started taking photos of the view while driving. At others, he was texting. Sometimes, he would have phone conversations without bothering to turn down the blaring radio. Eventually, he took us to a roadside café complex just outside of Mtskheta, the former capital of Georgia. It was clearly where all of the locals ate, and we again dined on khachipuri and khinkali. After lunch, we went to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, built in the 11th Century.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

The Cathedral in Mtskheta.

Gaga came inside with us and explained different parts of the history of it, such as the lore of it being built above the grave of someone who died and was buried while holding the robe of Christ from Golgotha. While inside the church, we witnessed a traditional Georgian Orthodox wedding, which was pretty cool.

Well this is awkward, I didn't bring a wedding gift.

Well this is awkward, I didn’t bring a wedding gift. The groom was clearly calling me out for it with his stare. Also, lots of other random people were taking photos, so I figured it was OK to do so.

From Mtskheta, Gaga drove us back to Tbilisi and left us off at the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi. We went inside it and enjoyed the view. We also went into a smaller church built on the complex before grabbing a cab that would take us to the gondola that runs over the city. To my happiness, we got into another Mercedes C-Class taxi. This one was a sporty W202 C180 with a manual transmission. To my regret, my seat was missing its seatbelt, which was extra unpleasant when we went down the super steep cobblestone road in a car in which the brake wear indicator light was flashing. The roads and drivers in general in Georgia are frightening. They make Moscow drivers look calm and people in the Bronx like grandmothers out on Sunday drives.

The gondola ride to the top was cool. It was just before dark, so the view was still great. Jonathon put some coins into the binocular machine and enjoyed the view from it. We wandered around the top for a while and got up close to the Monument to the Mother of Georgia. When we rode down, it was dark, so we got a different view. We then walked across the river on a pedestrian bridge. We resisted the urge to invest and double our grant money at the local casino. We walked back to our neighborhood and grabbed dinner before heading back to the apartment to drink wine.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

Old Tbilisi from the gondola.

In the morning, we had until 12:00 to leave the AirBnB. We got up and had breakfast before walking down the main road a last time. We popped into a local bookstore where we each bought a Georgian-English book to teach the Georgian language for about $10. We also walked along the street trying to buy stamps for some of the postcards that I had gotten. None of the souvenir shops had them, despite someone in Uplistsikhe telling me that those stores sell them. I asked if there was a post office, and one set of babushki told me that there aren’t any in the neighborhood at all, that I would have to walk a few blocks and then take a bus a few stops to get them. I gave up on the notion of sending some postcards actually from Georgia at that point.

After the failed stamp quest, we headed back to the restaurant below the apartment to get a last meal before going to the airport. Just after cleaning up after eating, our AirBnB host was there to collect the keys and call us a taxi to the airport. For future reference for anyone going to Tbilisi, Yandex taxi works there, and they have the cheapest rates to and from the airport.

Our driver was a nice older man who wanted to know where we were from and what two Russian speaking Americans were doing there. He complimented me on my Russian and asked Jonathon a series of questions about life in Kazakhstan. Along the way, he told us that there is more gender equality in Georgia, and that Georgian women truly have a say in their households. He then made comments about the Central Asian republics being dominated by elder males, and derogatory comments about Muslim families in general, such as Azeri women only voting for whomever their husbands tell them to. There is evidently a lot of rivalry between the ex-Soviet republics.

At the airport, boarding the plane was a bit of a free for all. The people working at the gate walked over and people just lined up and started getting onto the plane before boarding was announced at all. There was no regard to class or seat position for boarding. We then got onto the plane and proceeded to sit for a long time. Eventually, the captain said that we were being delayed due to slow boarding and baggage loading. About 90 minutes after our scheduled departure time, we pushed back from the gate and then de-iced before taking off (dégivrer, my favorite French word). I think what happened was the flight was not full and we waited until every seat on the plane was filled with passengers. Jonathon and I lost the empty free seat that was between us.

Argh, why is the flight delayed?

Argh, why is the flight delayed? Also, proof that we were indeed together in Georgia.

The flight itself was uneventful. It was a smooth ride and the skies were reasonably clear, so I had a great view of the Caucasus Mountains.

The sandwich this time around was better, too. It was ham and cheese with pickles and the strange condiment spread. When we got to Moscow, though, we were again delayed due to the weather. It was snowing, and we had to circle for about 20 minutes before the runways were cleared for us to land. Landing was smooth and fine. I still feel slightly weird when the whole plane erupts into applause upon landing, though. The pilot did his job and didn’t kill us, why are we cheering for fulfilling the minimum criterion for his job?

Due to the delays, I was panicking a little because I was supposed to go to the dorm and do my laundry at 8:00. We only have one working washer for the two dorms at the RGGU main campus, so if you lose your slot you can’t get another one for at least a week. We pushed to get onto the almost full bus that took us to the gate. We said goodbye quickly in the terminal, and then I rushed to immigration. I was worried that I might be given lots of questions for flying in from Tbilisi. I stood anxiously in line while the people spent forever processing some passengers from China. When it was finally my time, I had to wait three or so minutes for the staff at the window to change. I handed the woman my passport and she asked where I had flown in from. I said Tbilisi, she nodded, and then stamped my passport and migration card and sent me on my way. I then essentially ran across the airport to the Aeroexpress terminal and got onto the 7:00 train with five minutes to spare, which meant that I was back in the dorms 10 minutes before I had to start my laundry.

All in all, it was a spectacular trip. I cannot wait to visit Kazakhstan and Armenia later this semester. It’s interesting to see how these countries retain some of their Soviet past, and to what extent they reject it. I’m also fascinated by the changes that have happened in these places in the 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I’ve been fairly intensively consumed by archival work recently. Normally I don’t like to write too much about what I find or see in the archives, but I’ve come across some interesting stuff lately, and I had a quintessential experience with the head archivist at Socio-Political Historical Archive (RGASPI) this past week.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

Photo of a cool sunset by Red Square to distract from a ramble about the archives.

In the military archive (RGVA), I’m collecting more supporting evidence but I haven’t found anything particularly new or shocking. The folders entitled “Sentenced War Criminals” in the Stalingrad Oblast were not quite what I had hoped they would be from the title. After 1950, the Soviets insisted that they held no more German POWs; rather, they only had sentenced war criminals. While undoubtedly many of those held had indeed been properly sentenced for actual war crimes, others were likely falsely imprisoned through show trials under a pretext that was internationally acceptable during the burgeoning Cold War. I was hoping to find information about these trials that evaluated POWs and designated them as war criminals. Instead, it was about 600 pages of guys being sentenced to various periods of jail within the camps for refusing to work or obey orders. There was a funny one about a guy who was sentenced to a week in camp jail for wandering around shirtless and in his underwear and cutting in the line to get mail.

In State Archive (GARF), I’ve begun working in some different collections. One has to do with bread rations during the Soviet famine of 1946-1947. As typical Soviet documents, they don’t actually admit that there is a famine. However, it is quite clear from what’s inside the documents that there was a major famine. They talk about how the camps did not have enough bread to feed the POWs. There were also many documents, especially from the republics of Moldova, Armenia, and Georgia, punishing the POW camp staff for missing food. During the famine, the camp staff clearly stole bread and potatoes. At least in these republics, they were caught and sentenced to a variety of different punishments for this.

As I’m dealing with Russian archives, I also had two “fun” incidents recently. The first involves the electronic catalog for GARF. There is an online catalogue on their website, but it doesn’t work properly. I thought there was way less on my topic in GARF because of this. For example, typing POW in the online catalogue comes up with zero results, but if I search the catalogue on the computers in the reading room at the archive, I get hundreds of results. So now I’ve got a bunch more to read through there.

I also had my first personal experience with the true Misha treatment at RGASPI. He refused to give me volume 2 of opis 2 of the Molotov fond. When I registered he only gave me the third volume, and I found some great stuff with POW repatriation or UN commissions/Cold War related stuff in those files (lots of correspondences between the Western allies and the USSR about German POWs in Soviet hands). However, someone else working in the archive had specifically told me to get a folder from volume 2 as she had ordered it and seen things about the POWs in it. I asked Misha for volume 2 but was told that “foreign affairs are only in volume 3. There is nothing for you in volume 2. There’s nothing else here for you. Go to GARF.” After some arguing back and forth and me showing him a citation for a particular folder a few times, he relented and pulled out volume 2 to look up said folder. Trying to prove a point, he flipped directly to that folder instead of letting me look at the volume myself. When he got to it, he read aloud the description, which included the German POWs. “Well, you never said the word repatriation,” he grumbled as he handed me the whole volume and walked off.

While doing my laundry last week, I was perusing the bookshelves in the lobby of the dorm. I found a copy of an Ian Fleming collection in Russian, which includes “Diamonds are Forever,” “From Russia with Love,” and “Doctor No.” I’m pretty excited to read them in Russian. I was confused by the book at first, though, when I pulled it off of the shelf because it claims to be a collection of detective novels. If you know me, you know my love of James Bond films, video games, and books is pretty extensive, except for the travesties known as the Daniel Craig films. Those suck. End of discussion. Some of the coolest days in the archives for me are when I come across SMERSH documents. SMERSH was a Soviet counter-intelligence agency that stood for “Death to Spies.” SMERSH features prominently in Fleming’s novels and a couple of the James Bond films. Those are the days in which I don’t hate my otherwise fairly dreary existence of reading dusty documents.

Ian Fleming - Detective Novels.

Ian Fleming – Detective Novels.

How do I cope with the boredom or insanity of the archives? I’m glad you asked. Sometimes I have a variety of food adventures around the city or in the dorm. For example, we have become regulars at the Uzbek restaurant Café Anor. We go there often enough that the staff recognizes us and the server knows to bring us two portions of adjika, the hot sauce.

Some nights I just put copious quantities of hot sauce on my eggs. Eggs are somewhat interesting in Russia in that they don’t come in a dozen, but rather in a pack of ten. I feel like there’s some Soviet joke to be made about only decadent capitalist imperialists having eggs coming in a dozen. img_3331

Maybe I spent a little too long reading files from the propaganda department. They love throwing phrases like capitalist imperialist around. I also improved my eggs with Sriracha, which was one of the prized possessions in my suitcase full of odds and ends. If I have to be responsible and trek to an archive in sub-zero temperatures, then I get the liberty to draw on my food with hot sauce. There is also a reason that I study history and not art, which is evidenced by the photo. In some ways I bring nothing but shame to my maternal grandparents, who were talented artists and long-time art teachers in the New York City public school system. Don’t worry, none of this is cold induced brain damage. That all happened years ago when I frequently fell down the stairs in my youth. Gravity and I are still on neutral terms at best.img_3332

Or, I have the wonderful luck of being friends with Anne-Marie, who had gone to cooking school and worked professional in the restaurant industry. On Monday night this past week we made a delightful macaroni and cheese with a béchamel base to which we added three cheeses, one of which was brie. It was superb.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

There is no such thing as too much cheese.

Then, on Wednesday, we decided to make dinner with the leftover macaroni that was inspired by an internet food post about grilled cheese sandwiches with mac and cheese in them. I decided to step things up a notch by buying bacon at the store, which also happened to be on sale that day.

Om-nom-nom.

Om-nom-nom.

The other news in the dormitory is the turnover of the students. Over the course of the last week I said goodbye to the two remaining students who wouldn’t be back for a second semester. And, after a few quiet days of there only being three people on the floor, the new neighbors have begun to arrive in droves.

Napoleon has managed to somewhat achieve his goals 200+ years later. The three new French Canadian students are living on my floor. All of my Italian neighbors, with the exception of one, have gone back to Italy. Supposedly there are supposed to be eight new Italian students this semester, but if they’re here, they aren’t on my floor. Instead, we have quite a few French students from France on this floor, and there is also another group on the sixth floor. Thus, I am now completely surrounded by the French in the middle of Moscow. I feel like I’ve been transported into the world of “War and Peace.” I’m in some pre-1812 aristocratic Russian settlement as the corridors are filled with French speech and the only Russian uttered is broken. My only solace is that I don’t think there will be any balls held in the dormitory. Perhaps I should mention that I disliked the peace parts of “War and Peace.” There were too many balls, and Natasha’s inability to choose between her love interests was insufferable.

Outside of the comfort of food, I rely on going to Taekwondo to physically beat out my aggression.

Dojang sweet dojang.

Dojang sweet dojang.

This past week, I cut my arm pretty badly while fighting and there was a moderate amount of blood. When walking home from practice I thought about stopping at the pharmacy to buy some sort of antiseptic for the cut on my arm, but then I remembered that there is always vodka in a the freezer in the dorm.