Friday, December 25, 2009

Don't feed the birds: Trafalgar Square

Christmas Day in London brought me to Trafalgar square where I watched people taking pictures with lions and climbing on the Battle of Trafalgar's memorial statue.

Not long after arriving, I noticed a young boy trying to get the abundant pigeons to eat out of his hand. They wouldn't have it, so he started throwing the bread and the birds began their decent. Not only did the pigeons come, but seagulls too, and then there was a battle for the food.

Now, most reasonable children would have been overwhelmed by pigeons flying at their face and landing on them, and most sensible parents would have tried to put a stop to the nonesense of dirty birds landing on their child. But ... neither of these things happened. Maybe it was the Christmas spirit, or maybe it was just intrigue, but the boy wasn't frightened and his parents didn't tell him no. Instead, he grabbed more bread and started tossing it. Finally, the boy began to get worried when the pigeons stopped dispersing after the food was gone and started crowding around him. They are not completely dumb birds, they knew who was giving them food and started coming up to ask for more. The boy, fed up and no longer willing to have birds fly around him, eventually started stomping at the birds, like he wanted to crush one - wonderful Christmas thoughts, crushed pigeons ...

Friday, November 20, 2009

Diamond in the rough: A silent laugh with strangers.

After a failed attempt to find an art gallery and the movie Julie and Julia, which overall was inspirational but dragged a bit in the middle and was disappointing in the end, I had a unique experience on the metro.

Usually, everyone on the metro wears their serious, worn out, or sad faces. They look through each other. They scrutinize the way others are dressed, and they definitely DON'T talk to strangers. But tonight was different.

In a good mood and feeling confident and a little talkative, I got on the metro with a sparkle in my eye. I watched others get on, and I noticed a group of three people who sat down across from me - a couple and their friend.

After the train left the station, the woman asked for a piece of gum. Her boyfriend didn't have any, so the friend looked in his bag and pulled out a piece of gum. It was a little crumpled, yet overall it looked all right.

The girl took it and stared at it like it was something alien, "What is this? What's wrong with it? Why is it all crumpled up?" she accusingly asked the friend.

He sort of shrugged, and she opened the wrapper, figured the gum was ok, and stuck it in her mouth.

In this midst of this, I couldn't help thinking about a parallel situation from high school. A good friend of mine often had "random snacks" in her sweater pockets and would offer them to people, regardless of the state. Maybe you'd like a Sour Patch Kid? or a saltine? Needless to say, I couldn't hide the smirk on my face which quickly turned into a giggle when the boyfriend and friend noticed my smirk.

The situation took a turn for the extraordinary when the boyfriend turned to the woman and told her that I thought the situation was funny. We all exchanged smiles and shaking of heads. Then the friend pulled out a piece of candy for himself, and the boyfriend asked, "What else do you have in there?", looked at me and sort of shook his head. I still couldn't stop giggling - maybe he had a Sour Patch Kid ...

At this point, the four of us were openly having a silent conversation. The friend took out another piece of candy and offered it to me - what was I supposed to do? refuse? "Thanks." The whole situation was ridiculous.

Finally, the boyfriend looked at his friend ... "What? Do you have more?" "Nothing. That's it." The friend turned his bag upside down to show that there was nothing else and shared his piece of candy with the boyfriend. "Eh, what do you do?"

Monday, October 19, 2009

A new vision of Moscow

My previous apartments were in "newer" areas of Moscow where the buildings were mostly stucco or cement. I am now living in an area that I understand exhibits one aspect of Stalin's Social Realist architecture - which could also be called Neoclassical Revival. This architecture is characterized by an older feel with roman arches, ornate brickwork, and pilasters.

My building is a little more Romanesque, with the heavy brickwork on the bottom, and lighter on the top. Above is the outside of my building on Козмонавта Волкова "Cosmonaut Volkova"

The view from my kitchen window. On the left you will see my lovely fire escape ladder, and while I have no idea how I will stretch from my window to the ladder, its still nice to have a fire escape. This is the first time!

View from my bathroom window

Fall outside of my new apartment at М. Войковская (Metro Voikovskaya)

I continue to be amazed by the different feeling a city is given just by the apartment you live in, the area that surrounds it, and your place of work. Being surrounded by "historic" Stalinist architecture and yet living in an ultra modern, Euro-style apartment provides an awesome and inspiring juxtaposition of eras. Nearly everyday, I walk through this Stalin era district then go underground and pop-up in the center of the city where the contrast between "old" and "new" is ever more evident in the historic buildings plastered with neon signs advertising Pepsi and other multinationals. While there are remnants of a city older than the 20th century with St. Basil's and other churches, during the 20th century much of the old was leveled to make way for the new. Hopefully as Moscow continues to fight its way to the front of modernization - the tallest building in Europe is in the new Moscow City district - history won't again be plowed over to make way for a newer, fancier, glass city.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Russian Lessons: Shopping - Soviet style

The traditional Russian shop or продукты (pra-duke-tee) carries an assortment of goods, all of which are safe-guarded behind a counter or in semi-locked cases. This means that in order to buy anything, you have to know how to ask for it. In other words it requires communication in Russian.

While I spent the first year in Moscow often avoiding these shops, I now live in an area that has one "Western style" grocery and many, many more small shops. Sometimes the shops are specialized, for example they carry only soaps, detergents and things. Sometimes the shops take the form of a vegetable and fruit stand. And sometimes they look a lot like a regular old American convenience store, only with the majority of goods behind the counter. Needless to say, there is a great opportunity to practice some Russian and force myself to step out of my comfort zone. I have made the resolution to stop in a produkty at least once a day to ask for something - whether it's something I need, like toilet paper, or something I want, like chips.

So far I have had a week of produkty adventures. Most of them going quite normally, but three of them teaching me something or becoming more than a simple exchange of:
"May I have some sour cream and onion chips?"
"That will be 35 rubles."

The first.
My resolution began the night I decided I needed bug spray to keep from getting eaten by mosquitoes. While I could have gone to the large "Wal-Mart" style supermarket, I chose to stop by the small store that carries household items. Before going inside, I texted Victor for the Russian word for mosquito. Комар (Kamar). I went into the shop and asked if they had Kamar Spray (the word for spray is the same). I also gestured, just in case my pronunciation was off. The man told me yes, and pointed out "Off" -- Then, just to make sure he understood what the issue was and to see if there was anything different to try, I tried to say "for my apartment" ... but ended up gesturing and just saying квартира (kvartira, which means apartment). He then nodded his head, and said something like they come out at night and bite you? I said yes, and he showed me "Off" and also suggested that I could try some tablets. The tablet idea confused me so, I just ended up with "Off." The first serious case of produkty shopping successfully completed.

The second.
After picking up "Off", I felt quite confident. As I was thinking about my dinner, I decided I needed an onion. Again, it was more convenient to stop by a vegetable stand then to go to the large supermarket. So, I sallied my way up to the stand ... looked at the different onions offered and then asked for two white onions. I later realized that I made what many Russians would consider a fatal mistake. I didn't ask if they were fresh, but I lucked out ... this time. The woman in the stand weighed the onions and said what I heard as the equivalent of "eighte..." With the traffic and my short attention span when it comes to listening to another language, I didn't catch much more. I asked her to repeat, but heard the same, so I assumed she said "eighty", which in Russian is восемьдесят (vosyem'deeset). I had a 1,000 ruble bill and three 10 ruble bills. So, I handed her the thousand with a questioning look to see if she would accept it. At first, she looked like she was going to, and then she looked again at the money I had ... and asked me if I had smaller bills. I was confused, so I took out the three 10s and showed them to her. She took two 10s, and all the sudden it dawned on me, she had asked for eighTEEN, not eighty! So, I said, "OOOhhh! восемьНАдят не восемьДЕсят (vosyem'NAdset nee vosyem'DEEset)." She just laughed and gave me my two rubles change.

The third.
Since I first arrived in Russia, I have learned many words meaning to-go, there, over there, etc., but until the other day at the produkty, I only knew one word that meant here. How did I learn it? The hard, humiliating way that language comes sometimes.

On the second day of my resolution, I decided I wanted ice cream. So, I walked into a shop and looked at the ice cream selection, it looked like I might be able to grab it myself, but rather than take the easy way out and try to open the case, I asked the shop assistant if I could. She told me to go ahead and then told me to make sure it was completely closed. Then, I tried to figure out where I could pay for the ice cream. There were two shop assistants, but it looked like only one place to pay. I tried to gesture what my confusion was, and she understood and said, "Сюда (soo-dah)." This did not clarify my confusion, I thought she meant "here" but on my way over, my brain started thinking. I knew a word that sounded similar to сюда, but it meant the opposite of here. Finally, she said "Сюда!" emphatically enough, that I understood she wanted to take my money. I had learned a new word! I quickly recovered from the confusion and embarrassment, which would have stunned me in a classroom and asked, "7 rubles?" ... She told me no, that's for the "white" ice cream, and mine was pistachio ... "15 rubles." Overall, it was a good trip, I learned a word and got some great ice cream.

Week one of produkty shopping down.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Russian name

While Cochrane is a pretty famous name in the United States, though it might be spelled without the "e" sometimes, I have found that many people in the U.S. don't know how to pronounce it.

I remember answering the phone when I was little:
"Hi, can I speak to Milton Coachryan?"
That's when I would hangup. It had become obvious that the person was a telephone solicitor because they didn't know how to say our last name.

You can imagine that if native English speakers often can't pronounce my name, native Russian speakers would have a hell of a time. So in Russia, to native Russian speakers, my name has become Kimberli Kochreyn (spelling) - with my last name pronounced "Coach-ryan". This mis-transliteration of my name has gone on for so long that I now just let it slide and recognize it as my name, but I have been able to trace back the missteps and see how it happened.

It all started back in September 2008, at the Russian Consulate in Seattle. Of course, I filled out the visa application myself and didn't think to put the transliteration of my name in Russian, even though I had figured it out. After waiting for about an hour for my visa, they called out "Cauchryan" and I sat in my seat for a little bit, until I realized it was me they were calling. I couldn't figure out why or how they could mispronounce my name so badly, until I looked at my visa. On the visa my name is in Russian and English. The English to Russian transliteration had been literal and ended up looking like this: Кимберли Кочрейн. Literally pronounced, "Keem-byer-lee Koach-ryan". On my original visa, the mess up seemed fine. They used my spelling of my name in English and their spelling of the Russian, so I thought, ok, no problem.

Yet, when it came time to apply for my year long visa, I was no longer filling out the application and the person applying didn't look at the original spelling of my name, rather they transliterated the Russian back into English. Making my name look like this: Kimberli Kochreyn. The second year long visa application just used the spelling from the first, so, in effect, in Russia, this is my name.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Tuesday was the third time I have moved since arriving in Moscow almost a year ago. I am now living in a very Euro-style apartment. A large entryway, completely separate bedrooms, the toilet is not in its own room, and the kitchen has a proper dining table -- not to mention, a whole lot of counter space (comparatively). So, what does this mean? I'm spoiled. Currently, I'm living in this ginormous flat alone, until the school gets another native over here. No one is quite clear on when that will be.

The adventure of looking for a place in Moscow was not too exciting. Basically, you (or in my case, my company) hire an agent and tell them what price you are willing to pay and where you want the apartment to be located. You then set up meetings to see each apartment and you have to make the decision right then, in front of your future landlord. This situation is understandable. Its not a renters market. Even with the crisis, there is an incredibly high demand for flats in Moscow. So, needless to say, there is a huge likely-hood that when you make your split second decision, you will have overlooked something.

My oversight wasn't too huge. The place is nice, it's in a fairly decent part of Moscow. I have option of going grocery shopping at small shops or a huge "hypermarket" - like a super wal-mart. Since I have been in Moscow, my love of baking has emerged. I like to make banana bread, or cookies, or brownies and bring them into work. And there is one essential tool needed for baking. An oven. When I looked at the apartment, there was a strange looking device in the place of the oven, but I didn't think twice about it being an oven. It sits where the oven should, under the range, so it must be an oven. (To my disappointment this is a faulty syllogism.)

You can imagine my surprise when I opened the device and found out what it was ... a dishwasher?! What do I need a dishwasher for? And it's so tiny. Fortunately, the apartment came equipped with something I hadn't seen previously, a giant microwave with grill AND convection settings. Basically, the micro-oven will function as my oven. I'm learning, but it feels a bit like an easy bake oven. Like a toy.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Moving is an adventure

Ah, moving ... trying to pack up everything you have and take it in the one trip in a taxi that the school provides. Granted, this is much better than the alternative via the metro. Moving via metro is a slow and grueling process that I have been fortune enough to avoid -- getting my luggage to the airport and back was enough of a pain, I can't imagine making similar trips throughout an entire day.

So, really, should I be complaining?

But am I going to anyway?
A little.

Because I moved on a Tuesday, everyone was working, so I refused assistance from the couple people that offered. I thought, maybe, just maybe, the taxi driver would help out, like the one who helped me out when I first arrived in Moscow. But I thought wrong. First of all, he was late. Secondly, he must have been paid by the hour because he tried going through the center of Moscow instead of taking one of the lovely ring roads that Moscow has which avoid the necessity to deal with central traffic. Finally, after arriving at the apartment three hours after leaving my old apartment (it takes 40 minutes via metro and an hour via other routes), the gentleman got my stuff out of his car, asked if that was all, and told me he had to go - leaving me, with my stuff, in front of the apartment building. I had sense enough to ring the landlord, get the door open and start putting my things near the lift, but really, I guess its just another example of not understanding service. My company has a contract, so my little complaint isn't going to change anything. Why should the taxi driver make sure I get all my things inside so they aren't stolen? In the end, all turned out fine. Kate, the landlord's daughter, helped me get my things up to the 7th floor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Going to the doctor

In the United States going to the doctor seemed like a fairly routine thing. I set up the appointment, and then went to the doctor and told them the problem. Basically, going to the doctor works the same here ... but with a slight tweak.

In the U.S., even if we don't always think so, doctors and clinics are focused on preventative care. Even when you go in for a shot, the nurse takes your temperature, weight, height, blood pressure and pulse. It's comforting to know that they have your blood pressure from every time you have been to the doctor since childhood.

In Moscow things are different. Maybe it's because I'm a foreigner, but I have never been asked for my medical history. The first time I visited a clinic, I didn't have to fill out a form that asked me about my allergies or my family history of heart disease. I simply filled out a form with my contact information and signed a release form. Additionally, there was no nurse that greeted me and put me in an exam room to wait for the doctor. Immediately when my name was called, I was shown into the doctor's office (literally) and the doctor greeted me. This actually is a nice change. No waiting in the exam room for what feels like forever, just to have the doctor ask you the same questions the nurse just asked. When I went in for a cold in May, the doctor took my blood pressure and temperature, but only after talking to me for a few minutes about what was wrong. Not so bad you might say. I could get used to that.

And really it isn't bad, just different. I go to English speaking clinics because I trust them more. I am better able to interact and communicate with my doctor. The down side of this is that I pay more and some doctors charge per minute, so the more he can get you to talk, the more money he makes (not the best system for the patient). Yet, overall, despite the cost, or maybe because of it, my experience has been more than OK on the medical side of visiting the doctor's office.

While I have not been treated in Russian public hospital, I have visited one, and they aren't as bad as those opponents of social medicine might make you think. In fact, in many ways they are similar to American private hospitals. Granted they seem a bit cramped because three patients are put in each room unless you pay extra, and not everyone gets a television unless they pay extra, but overall the place was pretty decent. And who needs a television anyway :)

After my brief study of doctors and hospitals in Moscow, I have decided that while no one is ever excited to go to the doctor, it is not exactly something to be feared. when visiting or living in Moscow.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

When it comes to Russian art many people don't know much more than Social Realism. You know, the idealized images of Russian peasants - strong and healthy men and women working together to harvest wheat. But Russia has a rich history of art that predates Social Realism, continued unofficially during Social Realism, and continues into the contemporary. is a museum that captures the essence of Russian art from the 1950s to the present.

The museum catalog and the museum itself are atypical of what many understand as a museum. The story goes that one day Igor Markin, a radio engineer, untrained in art, just decided to buy a piece of art. On a whim, it seems. Something caught his fancy, and he bought it. This first purchase spurred an interest in collecting Russian art that continues to this day and has inspired others to follow suite. Along with the fact that not all Russian art is Social Realist, the museum reminds us that not all museums are austere, serious places meant mainly for the trained academic eye.

Markin's collection and the way it is displayed remind the "trained academic eye" of the origins of museums. First and foremost, the museum serves as a tool for the collector. A place to organize, share, and display his collection. Then the museum serves as a tool for educating the public. Thank goodness for such a tool and thank goodness for the tradition that has made that tool educational. Markin's museum, the name of which can be interpreted as something like "Art for you" or "Art for Russians (everyday Russians)" reminds us of the humble beginnings and the concept of museum.

Ok, so that's the theory and the academic side of me admiring the fresh new take on "museum." Now, down to business. Does the theory and writing about Markin's museum hold up? Is it really an educational tool as well as a space for storing art? Roughly, I would argue, Yes, and a resounding, Yes!

At first glance, this museum feels a bit odd for what I have come to expect from a proper "museum" - It's atmosphere is more like a cafe or someone's home than a roomy, academically curated museum. Only open on Fridays and located in a back alley in the center of Moscow, I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but word of mouth told me it was "great!" I walked into the museum and paid my 200 rubles with a 1000 ruble bill. Rather than scolding me, the woman behind the desk smiled and pulled out her purse to find change. Right away, I knew I was in for something different. I gathered my change and began to make my way into one of the galleries. It was a kaleidescope of sound and images and seemed to be beckoning me.

At first, I was overwhelmed by images and sounds. The art was hung close together, but not overcrowded. Even so, after 15-20 minutes in the first gallery, I was exhausted. My emotions had gone from one extreme to the other and back. I laughed, was confused, disgusted, amused, and shocked. Luckily, I found a safe haven at a table and chairs covered in art magazines and catalogs. I sat down and began to read what this museum was all about. That's when I discovered it was one man's collection and the first private art museum in Moscow in a long time. Again, I felt I had been graciously invited to view someone's home, someone's soul.

While I was gathering strength in the first gallery, I noticed, the playful mood of the museum as a whole. The room I was in felt like a cafe, the next room had green carpet that looked like grass, and as I wandered the museum and noted the varying musical themes as well as the playfulness of a bathroom become art and a closet as an art installation, I began to appreciate the fresh voice this museum has brought to the world of art museums.

Markin's collection is varied and fascinating. It's self-referential, interactive, and educated but not stuffy. It is a wonderful ode to Russian art of the last 60 years. Unlike much else, it seems able to capture the "enigmatic soul" of Russia that foreigners love to discuss. And, though it may be boasting, the museum itself is a work of art. It challenges the viewer to question assumptions about what a museum is and should be. And it is an experience that I will revisit.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Welcome back to Moscow

I had a plan. When the plane landed, I would pick up my luggage, take the train from the airport to the metro and then take the metro home. It seemed flawless and very inexpensive. Needless to say, things did not go according to plan.

As planned, when the plane landed, I walked to baggage claim, picked up my luggage, painlessly passed through customs, and began making my way past the taxi drivers, trying to avoid eye contact, through the airport to the platform for the train.

Unfortunately, because I was so happy to be back in Moscow after a 9 hour flight and 24 hour delay, I couldn't stop smiling. This was my fatal mistake. Smiling. Taxi drivers are relentless. They descend on the unsuspecting and do not take you seriously if you say no with a smile on your face. The only way I got rid of the first taxi driver too accost me was by countering his 2,500 rubles with 100 rubles. He shook his head in disgust and left.

I thought I was home free as I continued to walk as briskly as possible through the airport, but a second taxi driver, this one younger and less threatening, decided to walk with me. "Taxi?" I told him, in Russian, no, it's not necessary, but again, the smile on my face convinced him I wasn't serious. Then I made the fatal mistake, "How much?" 1,900 rubles ... I couldn't think of the Russian for too much, so I gestured and said, "It's not necessary, I'm taking the train." But he persisted and walked with me all the way to the train terminal.

As soon as we arrived, the train began pulling away from the platform. A thinker, this taxi driver checked his watch and told me what time it was. Noon. Then he proceeded to look at the train schedule and told me ... "By taxi it will take only 30 minutes, but if you take the train you will not leave the airport for an hour. Then you will have to spend another 45 minutes on the train and then 20 minutes on the metro." He definitely held all the aces, but I wasn't going to give in that easily. "Ok, 500 rubles," I said. He looked at me and told me, "I can't." 500 rubles would only pay for parking. 1,300 rubles. I tried to talk him down more, but he made a good point and was in the ideal negotiating position. I did not want to wait an extra hour to get home and he knew it ... so I gave in. "Ok."

1,300 rubles and 30 minutes later I was at my apartment, still happy to be in Moscow and glad I did not have to lug my 80 pounds of luggage through the metro.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Family Life?

Today one of my student's told me that at the age of 22-23, women are considered "old mothers". Basically, as a 24 year old, I'm already past "prime child bearing years" according to Russian doctors. This student is 29 and has a 4 year old child, so she is considered an "old mother". She was as shocked as I was. In addition to the judgment that it's a bad idea to have children in your mid-twenties, I have heard that most doctors don't believe you if you tell them you've never been pregnant before at the age of 24. Of course, I haven't ventured to double-check this girl talk, but the mere fact that this message is floating around social spheres makes me wonder ... Why is this gossip spreading?

In Europe the age women decide to get married and have children is getting older and older. I think the gossiped average is in their mid-thirties. I read a BBC article recently that asked the question, "Are women waiting too long to have children?" ... of course in Britain waiting too long means something different than in Russia, but for some reason this topic seems to be on the radar lately. When is the right age to get married and have children? My single male students, who are in their late twenties, early thirties say they feel no pressure to get married and start a family ... but the women feel different. Families are part of what make women women according to my students. The women are worried that if they wait too long they will not be beautiful enough to attract a man.

I discovered these opinions through several classes where we discussed the different expectations for men and women in Russia. After a general discussion, I split the class into two groups (they don't get to choose sides, I pick semi-randomly) to debate whether it's better to be a man or a woman in Russia. The result? In most cases, the debate swings to the side of "a man" -- especially with adults. Teenagers are able to be more creative in their arguments, but adults seem to be stuck -- maybe because they are told women at the age of 22 are "old".

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Where are you from?

After introductions, when students find a lull at the end of the first or second class, they ask, "Kim, where are you from?"

My standard response, "I'm from the western part of the United States." (accompanying hand guesture to the left of me)

Follow up question, "What state are you from?"


A pause and an exacerbated look, "You don't know?!"

"No," slower this time, "I-da-ho."

I get a perplexed look, and they ask again, "Where?"

At normal speed, again, I respond, "Idaho. It's in the west, near Washington, Oregon, and California."


Finally, it registers with someone, "OH! eeDAho."

Depending on my mood, I will laugh or smile and say, "Yeah, but in English it's Idaho."

Like our Englishization of Russian names, Ivan versus eeVAN, we change the stress and make the names sound completely different, the Russianization of names can cause a lot of confusion. Especially when you are from a state that sounds like, "I don't know."

Monday, June 1, 2009

And then there were 3

The rumor has been spread, whether it's true or not, that if someone is able to live in Moscow, they can live anywhere. If this is true, I would like to think I have survived this trial and am now suited to survive any city in the world. Next stop ...?

While the rumor seems a little far-fetched. I do have reason to believe it's at least partly true. Moscow is definitely not a city I would want to raise children in -- too crazy, too big, and while there are tons of parks and open areas I think it would be hard to let them be independent. Also, like Seattle, the majority of the year, Moscow is covered in clouds. Modesty is not highly valued here, and I'm beginning to think it's cultural. Everything is expensive - this is probably another reason why the rumor could be true. If a person is able to make enough in Moscow to feel comfortable, then they will be able to do this anywhere in the world.

As I look back on the last 8 months, I realize I have gone through a lot and survived. Yet, not all the native English speakers who came to Moscow to teach English survived their 9-12 month stint. Some left early, citing cultural issues or a dislike for Moscow as their major reasons. Out of our school's native English speaker newbies, there are three of the original seven left. Only two of us have committed to another year here. Either we're crazy or masochistic or exceptionally tolerant and open-minded or a little bit of all the above.

As I prepare myself for a month at home, I'm also looking forward to what the next 12 months will bring. There will be many new experiences and insights into myself and my culture I'm sure. I have been told to prepare myself for reverse culture shock before I head home, and I'm sure my view of America will change. I look forward to new students and new native speakers who come to Russia fresh off the boat with no idea what to expect. I hope I am able to guide them like I was guided when I first arrived. And of course, I look forward to gaining further use of the Russian language.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What I miss from my native land

I will be back in the good ole U S of A for the month of July, and I have started to make a list of all the things I didn't expect to miss:

Whole wheat bread or 12 grain bread or ANYTHING hearty. While Russian black bread held my interest for the first 7 months, I now just want familiar bread ... that's not white!

Spicy foods. I'm actually scared that my stomach and taste buds will no longer be able to handle it, but I will eat all the spicy things I can handle when I'm home -- you know, the kind where you can't stand it because your mouth hurts from too much chili :)

Milk and milk products. Not that there are no milk products here, but the milk isn't exactly the type that I would like to sit down with a glass of, the taste is a bit off. I actually found the solution to this the other day, it's ultra-pasteurized European milk ... but it cost me 75 rubles for a quart/liter ... and at 32 rubles to the dollar, you do the math. Milk, even expensive organic milk, is CHEAP in the U.S. and I will indulge.

Drinking water from the tap. Sitting down at a restaurant and getting free water.

Driving. I actually don't miss this as much as one would think.

Wide open spaces.

Lack of people. This sort of goes along with the point above -- when you live in city of 15-20 million people, there is no hope of going anywhere where there isn't at least one other person (ok, except your flat when your roommate is out).

Supermarkets like Target or Fred Meyer - you know one-stop-shopping. I actually don't miss Wal*Mart at all. And Russia has worked hard so far to keep Wal*Mart out.

Buying inexpensive clothes, shoes, bags, etc. etc. etc.

Living rooms. A real bed. A real dining table. Soviet flats are small, and either the whole apartment is a common living area, like we think of living rooms, or the whole apartment lacks a common living area. Kitchens are generally tiny with itty-bitty tables. And the bedrooms are multi-function because instead of real beds, everyone sleeps on a sofa-bed. I had no idea there were so many varieties of sofa-beds.


Monday, May 18, 2009

Russian superstitions

It's funny. After a while, I stopped noting cultural differences and interesting things because they became normal and everyday occurrences. Despite this I have been slowly collecting some information about Russian beliefs/superstitions (of which there are many). Here are a few:

*It's a bad omen to kiss in a doorway.

*You should never give a watch as a gift because it means that your time with the person is short.

*A couple on a walk and holding hands should not allow another pedestrian to separate their hands.

*A bird dropping a gift on you is good luck.

*You should never give someone an even number of flowers, as even numbers are reserved for funerals and cemeteries. (This means a dozen roses is not flattering)

*If you drop a fork or spoon on the floor in the kitchen, it means someone will soon come to visit.

*You should never return home for something you forgot, it's bad luck. If you do have to return home, you should look in the mirror before leaving.

More on Yaroslavl and the service industry

As I said before, Yaroslavl is preparing to celebrate its 1000th birthday. With not quite a year until the big tourist event happens, the churches are all on track for being shown off. Weeds are cut, doors are opened, trash is collected. Yet, there is an overall lack of tourist spirit in the service industry.

Having lived in Yaroslavl about 5 years ago, Sarah did not expect to be able to find many places to eat. Fortunately this has changed a bit and there are quite a few different restaurants with various cuisines and prices. Unfortunately, the servers are of slightly lower quality than even Moscow servers. While Moscow servers generally don’t make eye contact and make it difficult for you to get their attention, they at least notice you when you enter a restaurant and aren’t scared off by a silly mistake on their or your part. Basically, they are used to dealing with foreigners.

On the other hand, servers in Yaroslavl seemed to be a little skittish of customers. Service at almost all places was slooooow. We would wait about 15 minutes to get a menu, then rush in the hopes of having made up our minds by the time the waitress graced us with her presence another 15 minutes later. Then, it’s always a hassle to get a check because a) you have to know to ask for it b) you need to expect to wait about 30 minutes before getting it c) once you pay the bill you will no longer get service. Basically, a lot of time needs to be devoted to venturing out to eat and when you are visiting a city and don’t want to spend all your time at your rental flat, then you should expect to spend most of your time eating or trying to eat.

The worst example of the simple lack of awareness was actually a bar with a great atmosphere. They had outdoor seating, so we waiting outside for about 30 minutes before someone finally asked if we had been helped, then once we got a menu and waited for another 10-15 minutes, we decided we would be better off inside. This was true until I made the mistake of wanting to know the difference between three different types of coffee. I asked Sarah how to say it in Russian, asked the waitress, and she ran off with the menu to the cash desk and promptly placed an order for the three drinks. Basically, if you are foreign, people stop listening to anything you say because it’s too much work, at least this was my impression. Needless to say, the city cafes have some lessons to learn quickly before next year. Granted many of the visitors will be Russian, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a fair amount of foreigners make it out there.

Friday, May 8, 2009


Yaroslavl is a city of nearly 800,000 people that is located about 4 hours north of Moscow. For the first of May holiday, I went with two other teachers to visit the town which is known for its many churches ... We walked around the city all weekend - enjoying the sun, eating, relaxing and looking at church after church.

Because next year is the city's 1000th birthday, the churches' interiors and exteriors are in the process of being spruced up. The frescos inside these churches were fantastic and covered the interior walls from wainscoting to ceiling. Unfortunately, because of the cost of taking photographs inside, you will have to close your eyes and imagine beautiful blues, reds, oranges, and yellows depicting various Biblical stories. These walls truly served a didactic purpose, educating the people and allowing them to reflect on stories they couldn't otherwise read.

First Photo in Yaroslavl.

Many of these churches are red brick and include decorative ceramic tile with various images of flowers, birds, or in this case grape vines. Yaroslavl churches are known for this tile and red brick.

This is the church in the center of the city in Yaroslavl's red square.

This church was definitely the most memorable with a daunting exterior, decorative painting, though faded, on the brickwork outside. The interior of the building was chilly, even on a hot summer day.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Don't know what you've got 'til it's gone

I have a wonderful, intermediate student who is teaching me Russian. Overall, it's great practice for both of us. She gets a practical application for her English, and I have a safe environment in which to experiment with Russian (and realize that I know a lot more than I think I do). While we only meet once a week, these lessons have increased my confidence. Usually right after the lesson I am eager to try out my newly discovered skills in the teachers' room. This works until someone says something that is above my beginner level, and then I just start responding in English. There is a down side to my confidence. Sometimes I assume someone is saying something different than they are actually saying. I am able to pick up a few words, so I respond thinking that I understand them when in reality I don't. I have found listening is one of the most difficult skills because while I am trying to understand what was said 5 words ago, new words are piling up, and it's definitely a test of my ability to concentrate.

Living in a foreign country where I don't know the language has really limited my independence, but over the past 7 months I have slowly been reclaiming this independence. The first week I remember not wanting to do anything alone, then I rode the metro and ventured out to the store alone, and now I have no problem going about my daily routine and occasional outings alone. I am still limited when it comes to the phone (I have not yet attempted to make a reservation or order take out). But my reclaimed independence has been great. The saying is really true that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Easter Vigil, Orthodox Style

19 April at midnight, I was standing in the Moscow cold outside a Russian Orthodox Church wishing I had had the foresight to realize I would be standing in the cold for the Easter service. I was wearing my light, spring coat, a calf-length wool skirt, nylons, and yes, high-heels without insulation, and the temperature was below freezing. You would think that a girl who grew up in Idaho would weigh looking fashionable against keeping warm and end up with keeping warm, but you have to keep in mind that it had been around 13 degrees C earlier in the week, and I was crossing my fingers and hoping for spring. Luckily Rachel and I crammed our way into the small church before it started snowing, but I still froze my legs and feet.

Due to the layout of Orthodox churches, they are constructed in the Byzantine style with sections of the church each devoted to a saint and columns obstructing the view of the front of the church, I was unable to see what was going on and because of the cold and overwork was completely exhausted. What I did understand was pretty spectacular. So many people crowded into such a small church, thousands of candles outside the church, a three hour service, incense, and the wish that I had made Rachel brief me on what would happen before I went.

Raised Roman Catholic, I am familiar with tradition, routine, and it all seeming strange to visitors. Regardless, I was still blown away by the amount of repetition and reverence in the Easter Vigil service. The congregation constantly crossed themselves. There was a call and response sounded over and over - in Russian, of course - the priest says, "Christ has Risen" and the response is something like "He has risen indeed." AND people stood for at least 3 hours! Again, I wish I would have known because heels are not the greatest things to stand in for a prolonged period of time. Despite the pain I experienced, perhaps it was my penance, I'm glad I attended the service, if even just for the vast number of people who attended, it was definitely unforgettable.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spring ... maybe

Sitting in the kitchen one morning, drinking tea and trying to suffer my way through Oblomov, I heard music coming up through the floorboards as I had before, but this time, rather than the familiar slowly ascending and descending cords of the piano leading someone in their vocal warm-up, I heard an operetta. The wonderful cacophony seemed to be played on a Victrolla or record player of some sort, and my mind couldn’t help but wander.

The apartment building was constructed in 1965, just after Khrushchev’s era. The walls and floors are thin but often the building is silent except the occasional flush of water through pipes. Lately, though, a different tone seems to have taken over the building or maybe spring is opening my ears to a life outside my own. Whatever the case, I have begun to hear the sounds of remodeling and the music that comes up to the flat from below.

On this particular morning, my mind wandered to mid-1960s Soviet Russia. What was life like then? I imagined the apartment new, filled with bright smiling people, drinking tea or vodka, eating, and listening to the foreign operetta, and closing my eyes to try and imagine seeing it performed. The daydream didn't last long, Moscow has changed a lot since 1965. Outside I am reminded of that everywhere I look - Foreign franchised companies have taken up shop including McDonald’s and Colin’s Jeans, many sushi and other restaurants have sprung up in the last five years, and foreign goods and produce are in abundance.

The theme of change seems to be right in line with the season. I don't want to get my hopes up too high about spring being here just in time for my birthday, but I did see tulips and daffodils pushing their colored little blossoms out of the ground yesterday. There is still dirty ice/snow in piles around town, but overall the weather seems warmer, the sky is sunnier, and the birds are chirping. I will continue to listen and look for signs of spring, and hopefully my ears will remain open to the various sounds of life in a large apartment building.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


What Russian money looks like ... (and in case you are wondering ... no, this is not a lot of money)

Milk Update

I began buying unrefrigerated, boxed milk about two months ago. I grew tired of how quickly the refrigerated, bottled milk went bad, tried bagged refrigerated milk, then finally settled on the boxed milk with the big “M” on it. The first few boxes of milk I bought astounded me with how far away the expiration date was – about 6 years, so I stopped checking dates … then I moved, went to a new grocery store and ended up buying milk that had been packaged in 2002 – quick, do the math, yes, more than 6 years ago! What were you doing in 2002? When this milk was being packaged. The reason this milk lasts so long? It’s been irradiated, and I wonder if it has any nutritional value whatsoever. Regardless, even past its expiration date, it is quite a bit better tasting than any other milk I have found. I can almost drink a glass of it! For some reason Russian milk has a slightly sweet rather than slightly bitter taste to it. The milk I liked in the United States had a nice, solid taste to it and if it was sweet it was not the same strange sweetness that milk here has. One of my British colleagues says that all the milk is from powdered milk, another of my colleagues says that Russian milk isn’t heated like American milk (for pasteurization) instead a chemical is added to the milk. Perhaps the reason the irradiated milk doesn’t taste as bad as the “fresh” milk is the lack of this chemical. Whatever the case, not all milk is created and processed equal.

Find the error, i.e. tell me what I did wrong.


The weekend before last, with the help of a Russian English teacher named Masha, I visited Vinzavod, a collection of art galleries in an old winery. The winery is a little difficult to find, and when I mentioned the gallery in the teacher’s room, Masha showed genuine interest.

On the whole I don’t like going with other people to art galleries – generally I find their pace too quick, and I find myself feeling like I have to defend the art somehow. Ironically, I almost feel like I put Masha in a similar situation at Vinzavod. We both enjoy art history and have a general familiarity with some aspects of contemporary art. While “classic” fine art can be appreciated on a surface level for its beauty or history, contemporary art is shrouded in the complexities of art theory, lost in the constant drive for originality, or forgotten as a simple study of form and material. If contemporary art challenges me on some level, I enjoy it, but I find its better for me to keep my mouth shut and process the art or I have a tendency to resort to critiques before I have fully examined the art.

Luckily in the end, Masha and I both came to the same conclusion with the exhibition “Recycled” – an experiment with transforming recyclable materials into art with a human form – it felt a bit cliché and more like design than fine art. There’s nothing wrong with design, it’s just difficult to understand in a contemporary art context. As I said, I expect art to challenge me in some way and design merely plays with form.

Another exhibition, we seemed to agree on, was called “Destroy and Rejuvenate.” The work felt a little disjointed and esoteric – each piece of art included an explanation from the artist. While at times I wish I had this explanation, I feel that visual art shouldn’t require a written explanation to be enjoyed and appreciated. Perhaps if the explanations were not so prominently displayed next to the art, the feeling would have been different. Regardless, while the artist of “Recycled” seemed to not reach far enough, “Destroy and Rejuvenate” took quite the stretch of logic and reasoning to tie all the pieces and explanations together. While one piece displayed florescent lights which spelled out “Amerika” and claimed to reference Kafka and the shattered dreams about immigration to America, another piece was a comparison of two clumps of key chain charms.

Fortunately, the beauty of the winery itself and one gallery in particular made up for the lack of great gallery installations. The most popular gallery at Vinzavod,, which despite being overcrowded served as a refresher and rejuvenated my interest. Aside from an exhibition of award winning photographs from American, German, British, and many other nationalities of photographers, the gallery had an excellent selection of art books. The gallery and books reawakened my interest in the history of photography, and the architecture of the entire Vinzavod campus, with its unpainted brickwork and the industrial look of exposed pipes produced a generally creative, isolated atmosphere which is sure to draw me back.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The wonders of Soviet electric wiring

Just before the second Friday the 13th of the year, I learned more about Soviet wiring than I thought was possible in one day. Most flats in Moscow were built during the Soviet era and obviously were not build with the idea that many, modern, high-voltage appliances would be ever be in use all at once. Live in moderation, right? While most people have washing machines, it's rare to see a dryer or dishwasher. Aside from the obvious reason for this (lack of space), I discovered another reason Thursday evening ... Soviet electric wiring, at least in my new apartment, would never function safely, efficiently, or well if flats had dryers and dishwashers in addition to microwaves and high-voltage refrigerators.

Thursday evening I was exploring the capabilities of my fancy Microwave "Grill" (imagine a microwave with an element ... it can easily function as an oven) by attempting to bake chicken in it. After I took the chicken out, I loaded the washing machine with clothes. I then began cutting up the chicken and discovered that it wasn't fully cooked. With the washing machine going, and without a second thought, I put the uncooked chicken back in the microwave and hit start. Not more than 3 seconds later, everything stopped. The washing machine no longer made noise, the microwave display had turned black, and I looked around the kitchen perplexed by the silence. The overhead lights remained on, so I thought maybe I just blew the power-strip that both the microwave and washer were plugged into. I later realized that everything plugged in had stopped -- the refrigerator, my laptop ... etc. All the outlets, in the entire flat, function on the same breaker circuit, and all the lights are on the other breaker. In total the flat has two breakers ... I'm surprised the system hadn't been overloaded before (my flatmate didn't know which breakers were ours). Luckily, I didn't blow an old fashioned fuse, and as soon as we figured out which breakers were ours, the problem was quickly solved. The wash started back up, and I finished cooking the chicken on the stove.

Lesson learned: never run two high-voltage electric appliances at once.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Playfulness of Installation Art

Yesterday, I finally ventured out to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The exhibition of Irina Korina's "Installations" at 17 Ermolaevsky, a gallery of MMOMA, allows the viewer to walk through and on the art. Korina creates installation art that communicates emotion, feeling, experience, and place. Her playful work tantalizes the senses and activates childlike imagination and fascination with the "ordinary". And because of the art's structural and conceptual simplicity, the overall effect is a feeling or a sensation of playfulness and joy. The exhibition space is transformed from rooms in a museum, to a journey with the artist's imagination.

After wandering through the first floor of installations ("Smiles" and "Back to the Future"), I climbed the stairs to the next two installations. I enjoyed the strange familiarity of "Night Rate", essentially the view of an open window at night from outside (TV flashing, curtains waving). Then I curiously walked through the dimly lit forest of "Positive Vibrations", inhaling the scent of fresh pine needles and sap, and giggling inside as I walked up to a human size peep box filled with bright colors. Because the gallery was fairly deserted, I was alone and felt as if I had "discovered" someone else's secret fort. What would be the surprise? I walked up to it feeling excitement, joy, and anticipation. And then, though the colors were cheerful and it felt wrong, the peep box jolted me out of the calm. This fear was purely irrational because as I stood there trying to sort the feelings out, nothing lined up. So, I stepped back into the reverie of the "forest" and out of the installation.

"Positive Vibrations" back of the peep box without trees

One other installation, in particular, fascinated me - "Urangst" (German for primeval fear). This installation was made up of short wood planks attached to the floor in such a way that as I walked over them they rocked back and forth, making noise, and creating an interesting sensation of silliness for me. I was filled with trepidation when I first saw the piece. (The guard had to encourage me to step into the piece.) And I could never quite kick this feeling, so I only really enjoyed the piece for it's structural quality. I knew I was supposed to walk on it, but this runs counter to all museum etiquette I know (stand away from the work, don't touch, keep a safe distance, etc.) This piece, more than the others, challenged my understanding of museum space, but unfortunately, because of my inability to truly step into the work - I walked on the planks, but didn't relax - I didn't experience the sensation of "primeval fear" which "Urangst" seems to have been intended to communicate.


"Urangst" picture of planks

Though sometimes the feelings that are meant to be communicated fall flat (usually due to the viewer's inability to let the art take them), I love installation art because it emphasizes art as experience and generally challenges the perception of art as a single "piece" that the viewer is unable to truly interact with. But because of this experiential quality, most installation art is essentially ephemeral. Its effect cannot be fully felt through photos, and time and place dictate which installation art a viewer can experience.

You can read more about Irina Korina's work (in English!) at MMOMA's website

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Russian versus American Fairytales

Sunday I saw Disney’s Beauty and the Beast in Russian. While the play was lovely, included fascinatingly elaborate props, sets, and costumes, and was understandable because I knew the story, I still have mixed feelings about seeing a Disney production in Moscow. While I am daily hit over the head with the idea that the a globalized world basically means American culture has saturated everything (McDonalds, Starbucks, Pepsi, Coca-Cola), and am also occasionally comforted by this idea, sometimes I’m a little unsettled by it. I still haven’t put my finger on exactly why.

With Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the only thing that was Russian about it was the language, the actors, and the location (in Moscow). Other than that this play could have been performed anywhere! It stayed almost too true to the Disney original. The songs were the same, only in Russian, the story was exactly the same, and the “Happily ever after” ending was about as unRussian as it gets. Not to say that Russian fairytales never end with happily ever after, because I have read many that do, but the path to happily ever after is never as simple as Disney has made it. Additionally, the audience was never exposed to Gaston’s comeupins, so his only consequence for being a jerk is that he doesn’t get the girl. The only moral we are given is something like be true to yourself, be beautiful and overwhelmingly kind and you will be happy.

From what I can deduce from the Russian fairytales I have read, the moral is never that simple. Most Russian fairytales are about being strong, proving yourself, and maybe somehow making it to a happy ending … if there is a beast involved, he already has the girl and someone ends up killing the beast and taking her from him – I haven’t found a story that makes you sympathize with the beast. I have yet to figure out what these types of morals say about Russian culture. American fairytales emphasize the importance of beauty (in the end … the ugly duckling did become a swan) and the idea that good will win. They emphasize the idea that we should be happy with our lot in life or do something to make it better. Russian fairytales are hardly ever this basic or straightforward. Perhaps, the meanings have been lost in translation, but sometimes the lazy man, who just lets life happen and gets lucky wins (“At the Pike’s Behest”).

In Russian fairytales hard work is not always rewarded, and self-reliance may be rewarded, but no matter who you are in a Russian fairytale, you will face trials and things might not turn out wonderfully. You never know if the lady you help is a wise woman or a witch, if the firebird you steal will help or hinder you, if you should ask for help or refuse it. One choice will make you miserable and the other will make you happy. In this way, Russian fairytales seem pretty fatalistic – you have no idea what will come across your path or what the right action is, but your best bet is to refrain from envy of others.

Monday, February 2, 2009

-10 C: Time for a walk

Добро Пожаловать Dobra Pozhalovat "Welcome" - a nice invitation into the forest

The sun shone in my window this morning, waking me up and making me realize that cabin fever had finally caught hold. I forced myself to bundle up and head out into the frozen outdoors. At minus ten degrees Celsius, with the sun shining and snow on the ground, the beauty of winter comes through. You no longer fight with the slush, the snow stays powdery rather than turning to ice, most people stay inside, and if there is any wind at all, it is a very light breeze. Of course, with minus ten in mind, I was only able to handle the cold for 45 minutes max. Regardless, the forest I have looked at from my window since I arrived in Moscow is gorgeous and huge, not to mention a quiet and ominous wintry landscape. In a city the size of Moscow, it is remarkable to get ten meters into a forest, only a maximum of 20 meters away from a major road, and realize the only sound you hear is snow crunching under the weight of your boots.

When it warms up and the days are longer, I will explore this forest to my heart’s content. With benches lining the path, it would provide a nice quietish spot for reading. Yet, I’m sure that when the weather warms up more and more people will frequent the forest because while the forest maintains a elegant monochromatic theme in the snow, the light greens of early spring, along with the wildflowers that are sure to appear, will be wonderful.

Aside from the forest, I saw a little more of the neighborhood in which I live.

4 Akademik Kapitza Ulitza (The building I call home)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Recycling? In Moscow?

Most days I close my eyes, hold my breath, and throw away my glass and other recyclables because as far as I can tell, there is no way to recycle here. There has to be some way to recycle, though, because very very occasionally I will see a бабушка (babushka: grandma/older woman) collecting aluminum from the few garbage cans around the entrance to the metro or from the ground. None-the-less, at work, at home, and in restaurants, recycling is something that is not understood or cared about in Moscow, by most people. Which begs the question, why? Why don’t the 15 million people who live in Moscow care about recycling? Don’t some of them live by a landfill or understand how many tons of waste (toxic and non) they throw out every day? The solution here is “out of site out of mind.” Muscovites are not concerned about the tons of garbage they accumulate because they throw it away, or throw it on the ground, and never see or hear of it again. The waste is shipped out to Siberia and the litter is picked up by immigrant workers – only when you take a маршрутка (marshrutka: minivan that is basically a cross between a taxi and a public bus, but the ride is closer to the price of a public bus) out of the city do you see the litter that has accumulated because immigrant workers aren’t hired to clean up the sides of the highways. Really, it’s appalling. At first I thought it signaled some sort of lack of pride or lack of respect for Russia’s largest city, but it’s more like displaced responsibility and who knows which came first – the workers whose job it is to pick up the trash or people littering without care?

Regardless of how much I try to close my eyes and hold my breath and recite the “out of sight out of mind” mantra, I am continually disturbed by new evidence of waste. Yesterday I was told that the copier’s drum cartridge would probably be thrown out, after which I tried to politely inform that there is a recycling project for this type of “waste” and all you have to do is sent it back to the supplier. Then I let it go – it’s out of my hands right? Or is this the attitude that has led to a lack of recycling in Moscow?

There is some hope – I believe. While I haven’t yet translated the flier I was handed two days ago, it looked like it was appealing to people to start recycling and to get a recycling project going. Time will tell if Europe’s largest city takes responsibility for its waste.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Godless Russians: A Cold War Myth

I am not sure that my generation fully internalized the Cold War concept of Russia as a Godless country full of heathen, Communists, though I have heard smatterings of comments concerning this rhetoric from previous generations of Americans. It seems that from the 20s to the 80s generations of Americans were saturated with this rhetoric concerning Godless Russians. The bulk of the propaganda hit the American populous during the 1950s via Hollywood. While I understand that this American propaganda rested on some truth about the Communist doctrine and the official, governmental rejection of religion, the thought of Russians as Godless really contradicts the hundreds of years of history deeply saturated with Russian Orthodox Catholicism. Most stereotypical images of Russia involve onion domes which top every Orthodox church -- and there are tons of them -- the buildings and monasteries survive all around Moscow, in surrounding cities, and throughout Siberia. The reverence people show emphasizes the fallacy of the idea that Russia is a Godless country – in monasteries photographs are highly discouraged, as they are holy places, the Russian icons are magnificent, and the religious are extremely pious.

Additionally, I have found that my students are very sensitive about religion and do not appreciate humor related to religion or breaking any sort of religious tradition. One week, the unit was on religion, so I picked a few BBC news articles for my students to discuss. Out of the five, they randomly chose two of them. One article was about a comedy/documentary made about religion that was meant to challenge people’s perceptions of religion or atheism – it was supposed to be humorous, but my students did not think that religion was something that should or could be challenged, questioned, or made light of. They thought the film was inappropriate, and they maintained a fairly conservative stance – not something one would expect from “Godless Russians.” The other group grabbed an article about a woman leading Muslim prayer, once and for a special occasion. Again, my students did not think this was ok and saw it as a challenge to and a diversion from tradition. They saw the woman as completely stepping out of line and didn’t care that it was a onetime occurrence. Out of my ignorance, I hadn't realized that my students would be this sensitive about religion and challenges to traditions. Overall, the lesson provided me with a huge learning experience – it’s better to give students specific articles rather than randomly picking two of five because even if you have a balance of viewpoints in the five, extremes could show up in the two chosen. Also, Russians are in no way, shape or form truly “Godless” and I doubt they ever could have been because of deeply rooted traditions and beliefs.

My flatmate’s father, of the Baby Boom generation, talked about how blown away he was when he attended a Russian Orthodox service while visiting Moscow. He mentioned the Cold War rhetoric and how he had thought of Russians as Godless, but after attending a service, he no longer holds this belief. I have not yet been to a Russian Orthodox service, but just in my few months of experience here, it is difficult to believe that Americans could ever have believed that Russians were Godless. I guess it just shows that no matter what comes from the top down in government, it’s really the people who make up a country, its culture and beliefs.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The New Tretyakov Gallery and early 20th Century Russian Art

Yesterday I saw Black Square, an icon of modern art.

Malevich, Black Square, 1915 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

It is touted as the first, truly non-representational painting, and therefore holds a significant place in history. My feelings about seeing it in person remind me of the stories I have heard about seeing the Mona Lisa in person -- only I didn't have to fight with a line of people. (I could stand and stare. I could easily come back three or four times.) Unfortunately, because the painting has begun to crack, it is being preserved behind glass, which means light reflects off the glass and the true presence of the painting is encapsulated. While I did much research on this piece and really looked forward to seeing it, my perusal of the 4th floor at the New Tretyakov Gallery led me to rediscover artists that I had previously pushed aside.

I found that I actually like Kandinsky - seeing his work in person makes a huge difference! The colors, lines, and shapes are dynamic, they seem to pulse and move. Kandinsky's paintings are usually of music -- he painted music -- and the painting seemed to communicate that music with the help of my imagination. Now I'm curious to know more about his methods, the music he used, etc.

Kandinsky, Composition VII, 1913 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

Also, I am much more interested in Tatlin than I previously thought. Tatlin and Malevich are usually pitted against each other in the early 20th Century Russian avant-garde race. Previously, I thought that Malevich won, hands down, but after seeing some of the select works of Tatlin that still exist as well as seeing some incredible reproductions of his work which bridge the divide between painting and sculpture - between 2D and 3D - the race seems closer.

Tatlin, Counter Relief (Material Selection), 1916 (New Tretyakov Gallery)

Unfortunately, the New Tretyakov Gallery has a small selection from each artist of the early 20th Century, some were not in the exhibit and others are presumably spread out all over the world. I spent all my time on one floor and will have to go back to look at the art from other time periods another day -- good thing I'll be in Moscow for a while!

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Analysis of three months in Moscow

When I first arrived, I was fascinated by the old buildings, by the size of the city, by Red Square (which I don’t see that much). I was open to experiencing new things (and still am) but my excitement mostly sheltered me from the actual Moscow and the differences between here and the U.S. (aside from the language). I didn’t yet realize how spoiled I was in the United States with a car, wide open spaces, not to mention the language, income, safety. I would like to say that three months in I understand Russia better than I did before, but I know there is quite a bit that I am still missing.

I realize that I have a skewed view of things because much of my communication and insight into the culture is coming from those who speak English. My progress with learning Russian is painfully slow – part of this is my own fault and lack of willingness to study. But there are, of course, cultural quirks of Russia that come through occasionally – the lack of tipping (10% is considered more than enough), the patience of the ladies in the shops putting up with my attempt to ask questions and decipher answers, decentralized shopping, a love for white, flavorless sauces (sour cream and mayo especially), a love for dill. Then there are the things that continue to fascinate me about Russian culture: the lack of motivation to talk openly about politics – the conversations are usually short and either full of praise or full of hate – and the perplexing lessons that come with common fairy tales.

While the West has often characterized Russians as having an enigmatic soul, I think it has more to do with the culture being vastly different from what we have in the West than the culture being enigmatic. Russia has a rich history of literature, music, art, and poetry that lends insight into the character of the nation – and it is difficult to come to a conclusion about what the messages mean. For instance there are many fairy tales that seem to end with the “moral” or conclusion that life isn’t fair, so you might have to cheat your way through things … or don’t ask for help, be tough and you will be rewarded. They are difficult lessons, and the Russian historical experience seems to have given “Russians” a very cynical outlook on life. It is possibly this surface layer cynicism is often seen as coldness.

But I think there is something deeper to Muscovites that these stories tell and that the faces of the people on the metro tell. Though people say Muscovites are cold, because they don’t often smile at strangers and the everyday person isn’t particularly interested in your well being as a tourist, they aren’t zombies. I have seen just about every human emotion on the metro. Most days everyone is in their own sphere, but occasionally I see emotions: laughter and gossip, fights (both physical and verbal), make-out sessions, drunk teens singing the Beatles. Even in the “blank” faces of the everyday person on the metro there Is life, depth, and humanity shown especially in the older women deep crow’s feet or frown lines. These people have lives that go far beyond their commute on the metro (perhaps that is the enigmatic part).

After three months do I feel like I know the “real” Russia … no, but I continue to enjoy and be fascinated by Moscow and its people.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Happy 2009!

Fireworks are continuously being set off in Moscow, but yesterday was exceptionally noisy, especially right after the clock struck twelve. The noise reminded me more of the fourth of July than New Year's. The fireworks here are huge and everyone has the fancy bottle rockets that explode like miniature real fireworks. Luckily I don’t know what war sounds like because I don’t think I would like this tradition if I did. The bangs and booms were constant and loud -- I'm not sure if I could have escaped the noise if I wanted to. Fireworks continue to be set off at about 5:30 PM on New Year’s Day – the noise and beauty is contrasted with a multitude of dead fireworks I saw lying around this morning. I have no clue how or when the garbage will be picked up, but at least at my apartment complex it WILL be picked up, just like the road through the complex WILL be shoveled with a single man and his snow shovel.

While I don’t believe we celebrated a typical New Year’s in Russia, no burning wishes into our champagne classes and drinking them down at midnight, no plethora of Russian salads (though we did have two!), no vodka drinking the entire night (we stuck to the champagne), bringing in 2009 was a celebration with eating, drinking, dancing, music, Russian MTV, Medevdev’s speech and two people who knew the Russian national anthem singing it! The party consisted of four Americans, an Irishwoman, and a Russian – so we had quite the cosmopolitan crowd.

Rachel and I at Ryan's on New Years

In Russia, they count the twelve bongs of the Kremlin clock tower and on the twelfth they celebrate by toasting and singing the Russian national anthem – this is quite a to-do as many Russians don’t know the newest words (I believe I was told they changed about 5 years ago). Counting up was confusing, and we all toasted when the clock began to strike twelve instead of waiting until the twelfth.

Happy New Year all! I hope 2009 treats you well!