Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Can’t leave Russia? Might as well travel to the border

Me and Vyborg
For the first time since I've received the glorious document known as an American passport, I am trapped in a country. Due to problems with visa regulations and corrupt border officials, I am not allowed allowed to leave Russia until May 16th. Well I can leave, I just wouldn’t be allowed to re-enter the country. In a way, the inner globe trekker in me is being tempted. St. Petersburg is within a 2 hour train ride of both Finland and Estonia, but alas I can visit these fascinating places. Obviously I have no room to complain since living in Russia for 4 months is a journey within itself, but every once in a while I need a break from all the Russianness. So my friends and I decided to escape to Vyborg for the day. This city, located on the Russian side of Russian-Finnish border, is certainly a mixture between the two cultures. This mix was readably visible in both the architecture and language in the city. All the signs in Vyborg were either in Finnish or Russian. Even the menu at quaint cafe Cова, was written in Finnish and Russian. 

Shooting a film in Vyborg
When arriving in Vyborg by elektrichka (small train), we most certainly entered the Russian side of the city first. The buildings were not exactly well kept. Identical sky-rises stood next to one another, stray dogs were wandering the street, and barbed-wire still surrounded many of the building complexes. Once we got off the train and headed off toward the touristy section of Vyborg, Finnish Russia appeared it all its glory. Cobblestone streets, well preserved buildings, and quaint little cafes selling pretzels all overlooked the navy blue waters of the Finnish Gulf.  The old town of the city simply screamed early 20th century European. Yet again, that might be because there was a camera crew there filming a scenes for a movie that used WWII style police cars as props.

Vyborg Castle
Even though I am a huge fan of cobblestone streets, my favorite aspect of Vyborg was the Swedish castle. Originally built in the late 13th century, this castle has passed between Swedish, Finnish, and Russian hands for centuries. Plus the castle’s tower had an amazing view of the city, the Russian coastline, and rugged forests for as far as the eye can see. Vyborg was an aspect of Russia that most people don’t get to see. It was definitely worth the short trip. Also, I’ve now become a pro at Russian train travel. 

So now I am back to St. Petersburg and 6 hours of classes each day. Good news though: today was a success! Sometimes I consider learning Russian to be the most frustrating experience of my life. This language was created specifically for people who enjoy delayed gratification. For weeks at a time, I feel like I haven't improved. I listen to at least 7 hours of Russian a day, I have headaches far more frequently than in America, and Russians seem extremely impatient when listening to my broken Russian. Well today the story was different. This weekend I lost my cell phone at a bar, so I had to go to the local telephone company to purchase a new sim card. Well the store clerk who speaks english was preoccupied so I tried handling the transaction in Russian. and let's just say I left the store with a working phone in hand. I successfully told the cashier what I wanted. He asked me questions about how often I make calls and texts, and if I travel outside of the city often. I understood everything he said and he understood me. Remarkable. I would have never been able to buy the correct sim card at the beginning of the semester and now I can. Thank you Russia. Apparently my language skills have improved. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Feeling like a Princess

Me at the Mariinsky Theater
If there’s ever been a time where I’ve felt extraordinarily fortunate, it’s now. Not many people can say that they’ve strolled around Tsarist palaces, travelled to Moscow for the weekend, or been able to unwind in the comforts of an authentic Russian banya. This week has been one of those weeks when I have felt particularly fortunate. This feeling in large part revolves around my experience at St. Petersburg’s premiere theater, the Mariinsky Theater. Last Sunday night, four friends and I made our way to a stunning light green palace (the infamous Mariinsky Theater) to watch a ballet performance of Anna Karenina. The performance was spectacular. The role of Anna Karenina was performed by the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater. Watching her and the other ballerinas perform was a treat of a lifetime. They were remarkably talented. I have no idea how it’s possible for a human being to hold his or her leg into the air in a splits position, but the ballerinas in the performance did so with remarkable grace. The set designs were especially creative- my favorite being the train they used throughout the play. Yes, the performance was spectacular and unforgettable, but so was the theater itself. The interior of the theater was dripping with gold ornaments, charming lamps, and decadence. It’s easy to imagine a tsar attending a ballet in this theater; tsarist opulence simply radiates from this place. 

On that note, I recently traveled with our entire group on an excursion to Gatchina Palace. Yep another Tsarist palace within an hour’s travel from St. Petersburg. However, the architecture of this palace is significantly different from the others. The exterior of the colossal dwelling looks more like a European castle. There’s even a moat and a secret underground tunnel connecting the residential area of the palace to the lake that lays in the middle of the palace gardens. However, the interior of the palace was like any other residential dwelling. Gold trimmings, intricate ceiling designs, you name it. My favorite room was the baby blue bedroom (picture to the right). Absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, all the rooms are not the originals. During WWII, the Nazis occupied the suburban areas surrounding St. Petersburg, including Gatchina Palace. When the Nazi’s began their retreat at the end of the war, they burned the palace from the inside. Today, only a few of the rooms of the Palace have been renovated to its pre-war opulence, but it was fascinating to see the contrast.

Even the simple comforts of Russia are particularly rememberable. Every week without fail I eat at this gem of a cafe located about 10 minutes from the Winter Palace Square. It’s a local hangout and absolutely delicious. I’ve never particularly like coffee in the past but their coffee with milk is to die for, so sweet and scrumptious. I know that I’m going to be craving this coffee when I leave Russia. As for the food, the only thing to buy is пышки. These delectable treats look like doughnuts but are 1000 times better. They taste more like beignets. And it’s so cheap! Four пышки and a cup of coffee with milk only costs $3. Oh how I will miss this place.

Holy Cow only a Month Left!!

I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I have been living in Russia for approximately 3 months now. But now that the snow is beginning to thaw and the ice is slowly melting, (yes it is mid April- yes it did snow 5 days ago) spring is in the air and anticipation for the beautiful gardens and the sun is building. Here’s the ironic part through: spring is in the air, but a perpetuating theme of darkness seems to be following our small group everywhere. 

For starters, when the snow finally disappears off the Russian streets, a whole new world appears. Today, I looked out the window of my classes per usual, and BAM I saw it: a running track located right next to my classes. Never noticed it was there... running for exercise is now in my near future. On a more morbid note, my friend passed by a frozen cat that had been covered in the snow throughout the winter. According to our study abroad program, finding corpses at the end of winter is not uncommon. From time to time, even human corpses are uncovered when the thaw begins... I have to convince myself that this is real life sometimes. 

Imagine a museum room covered with jars like these- Kunstkamera
And then there are the times that we ourselves search out the morbid. This past weekend we visited the St. Petersburg Ethnography museum, more famously known as Kunstkamera, the oldest museum in St. Petersburg. The original museum was the brainchild of Tsar Peter the Great, which speaks to how bizarre Peter must have been during his lifetime. The main exhibit of the museum is host to deformed baby animals and human fetuses. I can only say that it was more than a bit disturbing. Some of the fetuses were given names such as “monster” and “cyclops.” I’m not even kidding. Some of these little unborn babies were given the name monster. You may be asking: what was the purpose for building this museum? Well back in the 1700’s Russians still believed that deformed babies (with multiple limbs, one eye, spinal chord issues, etc.) occurred because a witch had put a hex on the mother. Tsar Peter wanted to show the Russian people that this was not the case, that deformations occurred throughout varying steps in the mother’s own womb. 

On a less horrific note, several of my friends and I went to visit the second most important monastery in Russia: Alexander Nevsky Monastery. To be honest, I was a underwhelmed by the monastery after visiting the colossal monastery in Sergiev Posad near Moscow, but the cemetery was definitely the most memorable part. In the cemetery, the famous writer Fyodor Dostoevsky is buried alongside the renowned composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and the Russian painter Shishkin. 

Raskolnikov's apartment 
entering Raskolnikov's sketchy abode
Last, but certainly not least, my resident director arranged a tour of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. If you’ve read the book, you probably noticed that Dostoevsky drew a a very intricate description of the novel’s setting. Because of this, scholars of Dostoevsky know exactly where all the major events of the novel took place- about 15 minutes away from my university in St. Pete. But, like most experiences in Russia, this tour took a turn toward the sketchy. As the tour guide handed over the keys to the Raskolnikov’s apartment (main character in Crime and Punishment) she informed us that we would be going alone. Alright red flags, why? because the neighbors have gotten aggressive with her in the past. Apparently the neighbors are some shady Russians. So we had to tread with caution up the decrepit apartment staircases. Well, we all decided to take our chances, and we made it all the way without incident. We unlocked the door and then... there were two more flights of staircases. I soon figured out that Raskolnikov had lived in the attic, an attic that could only be reached by passing through 2 different sets of bolt locked doors. Now let’s fast forward to Raskolnikov’s room. Just kidding it was more like a rat invested haven with barely enough light protruding through the holes in the ceiling to see the person in front of you. I accidentally touched a pipe in the room; it was slimy. I washed my hands at least 30 times a day for a week afterwards. All in all, I’m alive and I want to read Crime and Punishment again. Thanks St. Pete for another truly memorable day!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Exploring Ancient Russia One Llama at a Time

Another Russian city checked off the Russian bucket list. This time I traveled with a group of about 20 American and Hungarian students to the sleepy city of Veliky Novgorod. Sleepy because it can by no means compare to the hustle and bustle of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Veliky Novgorod is essentially a small city filled with ancient churches and a brick kremlin that dates back to the 1400’s. The Kremlin isn’t just a phenomenon of Moscow. There are Kremlins all over Russia, in cities that used to be important centers of culture, government, and trade during the middle ages. Kremlins are fortresses that were used to protect the cities against invasions. Here I am with the Novgorod Kremlin. 

St. Sophia Cathderal
Upon arrival at the Kremlin, I was immediately assaulted with a version of Russia that had somehow mixed together a contradictory past with a countryside present. In front of me: the Kremlin dating back to the middle ages. Behind me: a statue of Stalin and countless rows of the monotonous apartments that the Russian people lived in during the Soviet Union. Oh and then there’s the strange: a “modern" children’s carnival to the right complete with pony rides and yes even LLAMA rides. The most memorable part of the trip was my visit inside the Kremlin to St. Sophia Church, the oldest standing Church in the Russian Federation (it's 1000th year b-day is coming up in 32 years!). The church inside was stunning if you consider its ancient history. The walls were painted with beautiful gold frescoes and the Mother Mary of the Sign icon was on full display. According to legend, this icon saved the city of Novgorod from conquest by the Princedom of Suzdal in 1169 AD. After getting stuck by an arrow during the battle, the image of Mary on the icon began to cry, sending the enemies into a fit of despair. Even today, you can see a notch in the icon itself that looks as if an arrow had struck this ancient miracle maker. 

Llama Sighting!
Our group made a few more stops in Novgorod before heading back on our 3.5 hour journey to St. Petersburg. One of these ventures included a visit to the oldest monastery in Northern Russia - Yuriev Monastery. The churches were quite beautiful (especially the fresco painted walls and ceilings), but exceptionally cold. It was the last day of March, and I could see my breath even while standing inside the church!! Not to complain, but Russians have been dealt the tough end of the stick when it comes to weather. There should be pleanty of sun on April 1st not 5 inches of snow. Nice April’s Fool Joke Russia. But at least I can say I survived a Russian winter. Something to be proud of. I must commemorate one of me friend's recent status: "Listening to Russian radio this morning, I learned that this March had been the coldest one Russia has had since 1953. You know who survived more Russian winters than Napoleon? This guy." Ray, I couldn't have agreed more.
Ancient Rus Museum

Another memorable stop was the Ancient Russian village museum, complete with children’s games and old wooden homes. Personally, I think the domes of these wooden homes are worth mention. How did ancient Russians build a perfectly shaped dome out of wood like they this? Quite spectacular. Plus I got to ride around in a sled and play on a wooden swing. Any time that happens, you know it’s been a great day.

I am grateful that I have now been able to see Russian life in one of Russia’s smaller cities. Veliky Novgorod has that Soviet building vibe complete with gray sky-rises for a population that is significantly smaller than that of my hometown in California. Yet, it is always surprising to see the 1960‘s Soviet architecture built adjacent to the ancient church buildings and brick Kremlin walls. Unlike Veliky Novgorod, the center of St. Petersburg seems to be a modern city. I sometimes forget that even if I travel 3 miles outside the center of city (or to another city like Veliky Novgorod) life is not so modernized. Most Russians still live in second world circumstances. This brief excursion to Veliky Novgorod reminded me that my experience in St. Petersburg is especially exceptional. Most Russians don’t leave their apartment in the morning to stroll along famous Nevsky Prospect and glance at all the imperial era palaces along the way. I am blessed. 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Off the Beaten Path

Architecturally Stunning and Historically Significant. Those are four words that I believe encompass the general vibe of St. Petersburg. The city is simply magical when it is feather dusted with light snow, and is even breathtaking during its usual sunless gloom. Personally I think the beauty of this city can be contributed to the windy river canals, buildings that look like they should be the homes of kings, and of course the charming number of churches scattered throughout the metropolis. After living in St. Peter for 2.5 months, I can honestly say that Francesco Rastrelli wins the “My Favorite Architect Award.” Not only did this man design the Tsarist Winter Palace and Catherine’s  Winter Palace, he also is responsible for this little beauty of a church: Smolney Cathedral (bottom left). It used to be a women’s monastery, but now it serves as a concert hall where everyone can admire the blue and white exterior of this magnificent architectural masterpiece. Oh, and here’s another beautiful blue church I recently visited: Sampsonievsky Cathedral. Not a particularly well know Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Sampsonievsky hold the city’s largest bell and tallest iconostasis. I particularly like the black and gold domes that rest atop the church :)
Sampsonievsky Cathderal

Smolney Cathedral

And then there’s St. Isaac’s Cathedral (image to the right). The largest cathedral in St. Petersburg and the second largest cathedral in Russia. I can’t believe it took me this long to actually tour the inside of this stunning architectural marvel, but it did. And the interior is even more spectacular than the exterior. Jade, marble, granite cover ever square inch of this cathedral, and the icons were created from stone mosaics. No wonder it took 40 years to complete. We could even climb to the top of the cathedral for an aerial view of St. Petersburg. I was able to see the actual scope of the “cultural soul of Russia,” and I could even see the winter palace and the Church on Spilled Blood (my two favorite locals in the city) from this height. Man am I thankful that the Soviets didn’t completely destroy some of these churches during their reign. 

The Eternal Flame and Mass Graves 
125 grams of bread- an entire day's worth of food
Historically Significant: History has been in the making eveywhere I turn. I live a block away from the apartment where Dovtoesky wrote one of his most famous novels, Brothers Karzmazov. I attend classes in a unversity that is a 10 minute walk away from the Tsarist winter palace (the place where Bloody Sunday occurred and where the Bolsheviks took control of the country in October 1917 during the coup et-detat that kick started the Soviet Regime). Sometimes I forget that I walk on the same streets where people during WWII waited in lines over 2 hours simply to receive a pitiful ration of bread. St. Petersburg’s history is essential to understanding the nature of the city. To learn more about the Leningrad Blockade, a particularly grim time period in St. Petersburg, some friends and I traveled to the Leningrad Blockade Museum and the Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery.  At the museum, I was amazed by the resilience of the Russian people. During the most brutal winter of the Blockade, each person only received 125 grams of bread per day. Schools continued to run and actors died out of starvation on stage while attempting to provide entertainment for those suffering from the war of attrition with Nazi Germany.  It’s hard to believe that less than 25 miles away from the city center, the war between Nazi Germany and Russian forces was being fought for control over the city. At Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery, over one million people were buried in mass graves during the Blockade. A memorial to commemorate the deaths stands by the graves that are only marked with a date, no names. “They defended our city... We will never forget.” When I returned home after my trip to the cemetery, my host mother asked what I did that day. When I told her, I immediately wish I had lied. I thought she was going to start crying. The blockade is still a highly emotionally charged subject for many in the city, demonstrating that St. Petersburg stands true to the message at the memorial.. They have not forgotten, nor do I think they will ever forget the suffering and loss during the WWII. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Tongue, “Gnomes,” Chocolate, and Other Craziness

I don’t even know where to begin. Over the past several weeks I’ve been memorized, horrified, and astonished by Mother Russia. So let’s start with the horrified: my host mother secretly fed me cow tongue! I felt like an innocent victim. I was just happily chewing my dinner when all the sudden she brings the bombshell down: I’ve been eating tongue for three straight nights. So of course after knowing that it was tongue, I could barely eat another bite without gagging. My mind is playing dirty tricks on me. Oh yes, and on a slightly unrelated note: the other day I payed 15 rubles to go to the bathroom in a Russian train station. I entered the stall door and lo and behold mud everywhere and simply a hole. no toilet. I guess I’m not a spoiled Southern Californian anymore. Life in Russia has truly taught me to appreciate the small comforts in America, like access to free relatively clean toilets instead of holes in the ground. 

Astonished: Well here’s two eyeopening tidbits about life in Russia that would not happen in America (at least hopefully not): 
  1. I am one of the lucky few on my study abroad program who’s blog has not been shut down by the Russian government. The funny thing is, the Russian government clearly doesn’t understand discreetness. While trying to access their blog posts, about five of my friends instead were forwarded to a webpage that actually said “This website has been shut down by the Российская Федерация (Russian Federation).” I am determined to stand strong, I will win and continue to write about my travels here :)
  2. Apparently there are several young Russian students (ages 7-12) who believe that if you eat too many chocolate candy bars, you will turn black. How do I know this? Two of my fellow study abroad friends, who live in a household with a kid, have told me that their little host brother or sister believed this. One of the children had even received the information from a teacher at school. Could you imagine the political correctness storm that would circulate around this in America?
Me at the Beer Tasting Event in Baltika Brewery
Fun Fact #476: In some restaurants and cafes in Russia, beer is actually cheaper than water. I’m not kidding. I may have mentioned that beer’s the most popular alcoholic beverage in Russia, so as to honor the favorite drink of the Russian people, my resident director arranged a tour of the Russian beer company Baltika for our weekly wednesday cultural excursion. Baltika may seem familiar to you because it is the #1 brand of beer in Europe, and it’s made at 11 different breweries around Russia. The tour itself was pretty awesome; I had never been inside a brewery before and it was amazing to see how many steps there is to the process of making a single bottle. The best part of the tour was the beer tasting extravaganza. We were able to drink about 30 flavors of baltika beer. My favorite were the fruity flavors of course, and afterwards we received a complementary beer mug. Cheers to a great day in Russia!

Me in Mikhailovsky Theater
And now it is time for me to retell one of the most bizarre experiences of my life in Russia thus far. Last Wednesday, our entire group ventured off to the infamous Russian opera "Eugene Onegin" (originally written by Pushkin) in the Mickhailovsky Theater. But I can’t really call what I watched Eugene Onegin. First off, the entire set design (costumes, furniture, walls, you name it) were in black and white. For a 19th century opera, there was an excessive use of refrigerators and washing machines. Oh, and not to mention the narrator of the opera was a little person who had a white, then black, then white again beard that was longer than himself. Btw, the Russian word for a little person is гном (pronounced gnome- like as in a garden gnome with a hard g sound). I can’t even make this stuff up. So you may ask, when exactly in this opera did I break into tears of laughter? Not when the little person got stuck inside a washing machine that was suspended in midair after the set failed to raise successfully. or when an actor picked up one of 50 jugs of milk on the set and poured it over the “dead” character lying inside a clock. Nope, I started laughing when the main character, Eugene Onegin, in the third act threw a fit of rage, began throwing knives at the floor and proceeded to pick up the litte person, drag him across the set, and literally throw him out of the window of the set.
Oh Russia, sometimes I don’t even know what to say. All I can do is take it in stride.