Land Down Under?

Posted in Uncategorized on February 20, 2009 by sevodnya

So I’ve been heartily welcomed back into Russia, and although I’ve only been here for two weeks and two days, it already feels as if I never left.  Something things have changed, of course.  The bus now costs 18 rubles instead of 16, and the exchange rate is now hovering about 36 rubles to the dollar, versus the 25 rubles to the dollar of last semester.  Apparently the Russian government spent 3 billion dollars slowing inflation over the past six months.  Good luck with that, guys.

Other things never change.  The store clerks are as uneager to sell me things as ever, and I’m still being either groped or pick-pocketed as I am carried (quite literally) by the crowd streaming into the one open door into the metro at rush hour. It kind of makes me feel warm inside knowing there are things that I can depend on, count on, and trust.

My host family was so excited that they made me a special salad in honor of my arrival.  I returned to floor 18 of Dom 8 to find a small plate of ambiguous fish bits and olives waiting for me.  I can handle fish bits, really, but you know how I feel about olives—the only thing worse than olives themselves are there juices, which have an unpleasant tendency of remaining and insisting on by drank after they themselves have been consumed.

Have had many adventures since my return!  The best being my first time hailing a gypsy cab aka hitchhiking (albeit with two other people) at 2:30 AM!  Hailing gypsy cabs is a totally normal and commonly accepted form of transport in St. Petersburg, and goes on 24/7, although their business really picks up at night after the buses and metro stop running around midnight.  The deal with gypsy cabs is:

1.    Agree on a price for your ride BEFORE getting in the car (it’s just some guy’s car—there are no meters). Only get in a car if there is one person inside
2.    Make sure you get a cheap ride—if the first driver that stops asks for too much, let him go, because 25 MORE CARS have stopped for you in the meantime! The choice is yours!
3.    Make sure car does not reek of alcohol, and do not offer to PAY your driver with alcohol.
4.    It is preferably that your driver have a really sick nasty hat and that he is grooving to some sweet jams—this will insure that you have the coolest gypsy cab experience ever, like I did.
5.    Get in the car, and away you go!

In other news, today I was taken on a speedy, three hour tour of the Petrograd side of the city, a side which, being a west-side Vasilevsky Island girl myself, I carelessly neglected last semester.  The Petrograd side is referred to, by my well-traveled program comrade and current east-side Petrograd resident Eli (or as his host mother refers to him “My Little Grandson Ilyusha the Koala Bear”) as the best side of Russia.  I am inclined to agree.  Despite the upsetting lack of pedestrian walk lights, which requires that you just look anxiously at other pedestrians and follow them out into the street when they walk, hoping that they have some idea of what they are doing, I found the home of the Zenit Stadium to be a rather KICKING side of St. Petersburg.  Just consider that for a moment.
While on our adventure the two of us made the rather careless mistake of stepping too close to the road while waiting for the walk signal to change.  By too close I mean that we were standing about four feet away from traffic rather than seven feet away.  Ilyusha KB and I suffered immeasurably when a large truck sped by and covered us, quite literally, from HEAD TO TOE IN SLUDGE and SMUDGE (as they call it in Chicago).  Was shocked.  Am usually quite careful about these things.  As a result, we did not only look like two Americans wandering about Russia, but two HOMELESS Americans wandering about Russia.  It’s hopeless, really.

Am also very discouraged by my inability to overcome constant slipping.  Although I have not yet, as they say, “fallen on my ass,” each day I fear for my life walking the black-iced sidewalks of this city.  Perhaps I would not be so embarrassed about my walking inability if each slip was not accompanied by involuntary shrieks and curse words that always explode from my mouth rather loudly, and cause an overall disturbance of the peace, resulting in rather disapproving looks from all those with fifty feet of me, and encouraging the babushkas to grab the hands of their grandchildren and cross to the opposite side of the street.  Learning to take the danger of slipping in stride is a skill I have yet to master, but hope to in the coming months.

SUN!  We have sun!  My day is bright and cheery!  Today on our walk Ilyusha KB and I stopped to contemplate a touching moment:  turning the corner we found the sun glowing miraculously, so much so that we had to squint to see at all.  In front of us a lone babushka, all gold around the edges, slowly walked towards the brilliance, packet in one hand, cane in the other.  It was symbolic really, of what, I’m not sure, but definitely symbolic—imagine My Antonia but with a babushka instead of a plough.  There you go.

So yes, in conclusion, still alive and well, and missing you all almost as much as I miss marked down and expired organic fruit and nut bars from overstock stores, but looking forward to a great several months of buckwheat kasha for breakfast!

Hogwarts and Helsinki-A Russian Apotheosis

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on November 28, 2008 by sevodnya

So yes, I am well aware of the great amount of well thought out, eloquent neglect that I have put into this blog.  Nonetheless, I consider my lack of entries a good thing, as it means that I have indeed been busy!  It’s so difficult for me to believe that I’ve been here for over three months already, and that in three weeks I’ll be back home.  Throughout my time here I’ve felt so fragmented—my life, family, and friends seemed so far away and separate from myself that sometimes it seemed as if none of the past actually existed, and that the only thing real, true, and pure, was the trip to the supermarket that I managed to get through each week.  Nonetheless, I have reached an APOTHEOSIS.  Last night I had one of those dreams in which everyone whom you have ever known or have heard of in your life makes and appearance, and in which everyone interact in the weirdest of ways.  Russians and contra dancers and high school and college friends all thrown together into one fantastic, magnificent dream that took place in none other HOGWARTS.  Waking up this morning, after literally dreaming of sitting through an entire Herbology and History of Magic class with everyone I have ever known, I realized that this, more than anything else, is a sign of acclimation, or as close to acclimation as I’m ever going to get.

My friend Laura and I went on a short vacation to Helsinki last weekend—we left on Saturday night and got back on an overnight bus, arriving in St. Petersburg at 6:30 AM.  Finland is absolutely AMAZING, and not only because it is full of clones of my very being (lots of blond, health crazy, socialist democrats who also have a perhaps slightly unhealthy love for Christmas).  Our timing was perfect.  Albeit we arrived at 3:00 AM, at which time Helsinki is full of drunken Finns, in which state they become no less good natured, but slightly louder.  There is only one restaurant open in the city at this time, and it is called SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN.  It sells fast food for $9 or $10, and people eat it because they are drunk and hungry, or because they are foreigners who have just spent six hours listening to their sketchy, hilarious and wonderful Russian bus drivers sing along avidly to ridiculous Russian pop music the whole six hours of their overnight bus trip (I remember in particular one song which was playing at about 2:30, which must have been at least 7 minutes and consisted of only one lyric.  “I drink, I drink, Green tea, green tea, I love you, I love you.”  Another travel tune was “I didn’t want to and I didn’t have time.” AM NOT JOKING.)  Anyway, by the time the sun came up we knew the layout of Helsinki, and continued to have a magnificent time smiling in the streets, eating pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, ogling over the magnificent selection in supermarkets and at the TIMERS that tell you how long until the trolley comes to your stop!
Despite the thrill of such an efficient, clean, and happy city, it was relieving to get back to St. Petersburg.  Even though most people (particularly those in service jobs) in Helsinki seem to speak several languages (Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian were the most common) I felt anxious and guilty not knowing any Finnish, and kept switching accidentally into Russian-mode whenever anyone tried to talk to me, which made it even more confusing.  Secondly, the politeness, efficiency, and formality were exhausting and a little uncomfortable.  I don’t consider Russian’s rude at all, rather I think they’ve rejected the ridiculously excessive nature that cordiality take exists in Western culture, particularly in Western service culture, where the customer is king.  The prevalence of politeness makes it not only overbearing, but also hollow and superficial.  When someone smiles at me, thanks me, or says they’re sorry here you know it’s sincere.
I’ve gotten used to going about my business without worry about making sure I say “thank you” for everything or “excuse me” for every little push and shove.  In Helsinki I began to feel that responsibility that comes with knowing that I had no excuse for being late, since the transport came on time and there were clocks everywhere telling me the time and temperature.  Before long we were back on the bus (this time an overpriced Finnish bus, as the Russian buses left too early in the day), so I didn’t have to worry or think about all these things too long.  Helsinki now seems long gone.  I’ve made up for lost time in St. Petersburg, and compensated for my weekend of timeliness and responsibility by promptly skipping all my classes yesterday and not returning my overdue library book.  Particularly reveled in the fact that the woman at the groceries asked “WHAT?,”  when I came in, rather than saying, “Hello, miss, may I help you?” and offering to personally gift wrap all my purchases.  Granted, I don’t think they gift wrap bananas, even in Helsinki.

Boot pockets: Make the most out of your footwear!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 22, 2008 by sevodnya

So, I have officially been in Russia one month, an anniversary I shall celebrate by departing some deeply studied and researched reflections on Russian culture.  I mention in my last entry, all those days ago, that I would disclose my thoughts on fashion in Russia, or, more specifically, fashion in St. Petersburg, and I shall not disappoint.

We must remember that Russia could, excluding the last ten years or so, be always (in my opinion) be defined as a deprivation culture.  As I’ve already explained, having to wait for things is critical to the cultural mindset.  Immediate satisfaction did not exist, and the American “I want this and I want it now,” philosophy would have appeared absolutely ridiculous and unsustainable within a culture where first there was NO food in stores, and then there was LOTS of food in stores that no one could buy because of gross inflation.  After the collapse of the USSR, there was a cultural backlash that manifested itself in the form of the satiation of random, immediate, often materialistic desires.  Prostitution and narcotics were rampant, and the weak-kneed police force maintained little control.  The opening sequence to the film Window to Paris shows a man jumping on a trampoline in the middle of the street, while a full-sized band roams about, with dancing babushkas in toe.  You get the idea.  I’ll do what I want when I want.

While perestroika and the collapse of the USSR are buried in the recent past, materialistic fascination still exists, and is particularly evident in the fashion world.  According to people I’ve spoken with, GAUD has calmed down since the 90’s, and having huge rings on each finger is no a popular a fashion phenomenon amongst the Novie Russki (the Newly Rich), thank god.  Now a disclaimer is required to explain that as a long-time resident of Happy Valley Western MA, I am unqualified to speak about fashion.  I have never lived in a city, and thus living in St. Petersburg is not only my first experience with Russia culture, but with city culture, and thus it is hard for me to distinguish what is a metropolitan phenomenon, and what is a distinctly Russian phenomenon.  Fashion, I believe, is the bastard child of both.

St. Petersburg is ridiculously well dressed.  Painfully so, and I mean that literally.  Most women sixteen and older are wearing high (HIGH) heels, often high heeled boots.  The result of living in a city populated with over five million is that every day I see many examples of shoes I would love to have, and other shoes that tempt me to gouge out my eyes in Oedipus-like despair (though, thankfully not for the same reasons.  I don’t think Oedipus’ kingdom was in the midst of a fashion crisis, but who knows).  For instance, literally sat on a bus for a half an hour in a state of utter stupor, transfixed by the fact that the girl sitting across from me was wearing calf-length, plastic black boots, studded with rhinestones, with four inch heels, and, horror of horrors, enormous POCKETS with BUCKLES on the sides.  And when I say pocket, I mean ordinary sized pockets, like the ones you find in your jeans.  Almost as bad was her huge red, fake (hopefully) snakeskin bag, also covered in inappropriately placed pockets and metal bobbles and studs.

Such is the St. Petersburg tendency.  Bags and shoes are the most obvious displays of wealth and fashion, often covered in studs, rhinestones, buckles, and the like.  I’ve also seen a few rhinestone covered cell-phones—quite fab.  Jeans are very tight, skirts and dress are very short.  Hair is fixed up very nicely, and makeup and nails are done very well each day.  What I find most impressive about the entire situation is that women are able to maintain their composed, gorgeous appearances throughout a day of hopping on metros and marshutkas, walking miles along REMONT filled streets, and standing in escalators, elevators, and stair wells.  By the end of the day I always look like I’m back from Mongolian conquest.

As for the men of St. Petersburg, they do not escape to high maintenance fashion culture.  Leather is big, as are fancy designer jeans, ridiculously printed designer sweatshirts and hoodies, and nice dress shoes.  No t-shirts or khakis, and, god forbid, no shorts (although there’s obviously a weather issue that comes up when wearing shorts as well).  Women are big on the leather too, and everywhere there are advertisements for FURS AND SKINS, or FURZZZ AND SKINZZZZ, if you so prefer.  To each his own, I suppose.

And how does poor little Cathy react to the fancy St. Petersburg get up?  Well, I couldn’t compete if I tried, and all my attempts are half-hearted, if they can be considered attempts at all.  Clothes here are EXPENSIVE, and thus buying things is virtually an impossibility in my case.  Obviously my jeans are not very tight, and I may be the only person at any given time wearing corduroys in Russia.  Nonetheless I feel that there is a personal safety risk involved if I was ever to don high heels, particularly with snow and ice right around the corner (yes, the calls of fashion persist into the winter months).  I can barely keep my balance on a bus in my L.L. Bean light hiking boots, so forget about dress shoes.  I’m also more comfortable carrying a crappy bag and old briefcase around the city to decrease my chances of being mugged, even if the decrease my scene points in fashion circles.  The only place I every really feel uncomfortable and underdressed (or overdressed, in the sense of too much clothes) is at the gym.  Gyms are generally for the wealthier crop of city residents, and it’s certainly evident at my FITNESS CLUB, which always has a very judgmental, critical, and passive aggressive locker room environment.  Nonetheless, I will do anything for free access to clean, cold drinking water and a SAUNA, and the cold stares of women with the latest waxings and gold, gaudy gym suits is worth it.  I can run faster than them anyway.

Reminded of “Requiem,” but not quite as poetic.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on September 3, 2008 by sevodnya

September 2nd:  a discourse on two typical Russian phenomena, which are not mutually exclusive—namely, waiting, and standing in lines.

To put it bluntly, I had the most awful day.  Yesterday, September 1st, was a holiday—The First Day of School, on which all the school children and students don their finest, that being enormous bows, cute jumpers, and mini tuxes for the little ones, and fish nets and leather for the older ones. Old women selling flowers stood outside every metro station, surrounded by (surprise, surprise, enormous LINES).  In the morning, everyone under the age of 21 is carrying at least one bouquet, a gift to their teacher/professor, and in the evening, instructors can be identified by the dozen of bouquets that they are struggling to keep hold of on the metro.  It’s a festive holiday, and, of course, although it’s specific purpose is to celebrate the BEGINNING OF THE SCHOOL YEAR, many students and teachers skip class.

Unfortunately, this extends beyond September 1st into the beginning to the month.  My class yesterday was cancelled, and I was able to go home early.  Today, I had two classes (six bloody hours) of Russian Art History that I was planning to attend.  First class:  waited for an hour, no one shows.  Apparently no class.  As a result, I had four and a half hours to kill, so I got myself a migraine and didn’t get anything done.  By now I am skeptical, tired, and want to go home.  Go to classroom two, students have gathered and my hopes rise, but alas, after another hour of waiting people start leaving, giving up on our no-show of a professor.

It’s culturally accepted that professors don’t have to show up to class, especially in the first week, and even more common for students to not show up at all, ever.  Nevertheless, I found it exhausting and discouraging; an entire day I could have spent out doing something interesting in the city (the whether was uncommonly gorgeous) or getting a little bit of work done (prohibited by onset of migraine) wasted.
In a depressed, tired state, I dragged myself back to the metro station at rush hour, and observed gloomily the flood of people crowded outside the three entrances.  I joined the crowd, and proceeded to wait, for what felt like the hundredth time that day.

As I stood in the crowd, breathing down the neck of a leather clad teen, and a Babushka shoved against my back, I suddenly recalled Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem, in which she describes waiting in line, day after day, with hundreds of other women, for a chance to give notes and small gifts to security guards at the prison for their sons and husbands, contained as political prisoners.  Talk about waiting on disappointment.  Talk about a waste of time, discouragement, and exhaustion.  I thought about the former bread and ration lines—disregarding personal space to receive mere scraps of food.  Waiting has always been a part of Russian culture—this doesn’t make it less tiresome or disappointing when the results are negative or worthless, but it does make one accept them, and live to wait another day, hoping that eventually you’ll be rewarded.
Time moves slowly—part of this is just city life, and part of it is Russia.  Granted I walked and took buses a lot at home in MA, more than most people, but my awareness of the process of going somewhere seems stronger here.  The blocks in St. Petersburg are LONG, and the subways, due to the marshy ground, are DEEP.  While the subway ride itself is only five minutes, it takes five minutes to get down one escalator one, and five minutes to get up another.  As I go up, I stare at people, and they stare at me.  If you don’t have anyone to talk to/mack on, staring is the thing to do.  That’s one thing I love about Russia.  None of that confusing “who do I smile at or acknowledge of the streets, and when do I start smiling.”  Here you just don’t smile, eliminating that very confusing and uncomfortable social phenomenon that we experience in the states, and staring, hey, it’s no big deal, what else are you going to do while you’re waiting in line?

Line multitasking is also very popular.  Often, the woman in front of me in the line for the cashier at the supermarket will tell me “remember me, I’ll be back in a minute,” which essentially means that she’s going to start doing her shopping, and she’ll be back with her purchases when I’m about to reach the cashier.  She probably has also reserved places in all the rest of the lines (if there are any, despite the number of cashier stations often only one or two are open), and, when she’s done shopping, she’ll go taker her place in the line that’s moving fastest.

I’ve never been a very efficient person, but I like to have a rhythm.  Right now, unexpected disappointments and fruitless waits are throwing me off, but I expect that as time passes, these will simply become part of, to quote that wonderful middle school chorus song, THE RHYTHM OF LIFE (puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet, oh the rhythm of life is a powerful beat).

That’s all for now, but I plan next to discuss the fascinating subject that is RUSSIAN FASHION (aka, the unfortunate prevalence of the MULLET and knee high stiletto boots—reasons why Cathy is automatically identified as an American on the streets) and perhaps divulge the super exciting tale of “How 300 old women saved Cathy from being crushed by a bus door.”

Drink Tea and Be Macking

Posted in Uncategorized on August 28, 2008 by sevodnya

Have lived in Russia about a week, and have already developed miserly, shrewd tendencies.  Have begun hording things, like free chocolate and water.  It’s 25 approx. 25 roubles to a dollar, but not knowing what’s a ridiculous, tourist-inflated, price to pay for water, and what’s a reasonable price, I end up by being over aware of every rouble (approx 4 cents) I spend on the cell phone.  The only thing that I feel liberal about spending money on is public transport.  Have already become big fan of the metro, and love being the last stop (Primorskaya) on the third line because I can’t go wrong.  Also find the Metro man recording (warning, the doors are closing) very soothing.  Give me somebody with that voice ANY DAY.
So, top two things Russians like to do:  Number One:  drink tea.  Number two:  Mack on the streets.  Or on boat tours.  Or on the escalators in the metro.  Clearly I can acclimate to this culture.  Have been drinking lots of tea, as the tap water in St. Petersburg is undrinkable unless boiled or filtered.  Giardia, you say?  If only I had only beaver feces to worry about.  The water is filled with heavy metals, bacteria, and viruses.  As a result, water isn’t simply given out at restaurants, and one needs to buy individual bottles of water (or six liter jugs of it like miserly me) if one wants STILL WATER.  And by still I’m referring to the lack of bubbles, not a location.
AS FOR THE MACKING, have not gotten around to that yet, although I will try not to disappoint.  I know you are all waiting on the edge of your seats for my macking exploits.  Well the sad truth of it is that I doubt there will be any macking action until bodily response to massive gluten exposure calms down.  Yes, I know you really want to hear this.  Unfortunately Russian cooking involves approx. -6 vegetables, and all of there are fried cabbage.  For sustenance my very sweet, lenient host mother Elena gives me KASHA, BUTTER, KASHA, BUTTER, BORSCH, BORSCH, KASHA, KASHA, BUTTER, BUTTER, BUTTER.  In that order.  It’s hard for my body to handle, and will probably return home as one giant scab, judging from this week.  But will take probiotics and pray (to the Jesus statue above my bed) that I can last four months before having a decent salad.
In other words, despite the flamboyant and alluring Public Displays of Macking, I doubt I will be taking part.  Will make up for this by participating in the FLAMBOYANT AND ALLURING PUBLIC DISPLAYS OF DRUNKENNESS (which are actually a criminal offense).
Toilet paper.  Either there is none, or it has the consistency of a tiny paper towel.  Often there is no toilet seat.  I just pretend that I’m in Plainfield, and am swamped by feelings of nostalgia, and have crying fits in the bathroom.
Callie, I tried to have conversations while using the toilet with other people in the program, but no one would answer when I asked questions.  Was slightly awkward, and made me realize how much I miss our in depth toilet conversations.  Apparently this isn’t the norm among Russians, or American students in Russia, or perhaps anybody.  WTF.

THE BEGINNING

Posted in Uncategorized on August 25, 2008 by sevodnya

And so study abroad begins.  After saying tender farewells to Bard College, we set off for JFK, and the twelve or so hour flight to Russia.  Pre-orientation was highly informative, our program manager Bryan told us the essentials about St. Petersburg, namely, two things:  the two most dangerous things in St. Petersburg are, one, race-related violence performed by packs of skinheads in fashionable sports attire, and two, falling icicles.  No joke.  Am hoping the first will not be a problem, although I have marked off all the skinhead hangouts on my map with big stars and notes “DON’T HANG OUT HERE,” and will avoid people wearing ADIDAS.  The second, however, is a danger I shall simply have to be consciously of and look out for.  Icicles don’t choose their victims, and they are EVERYWHERE.  Has not yet snowed yet, however, and hopefully have a few weeks before I need to think about walking underneath the edges of rooftops.

The plan rides weren’t god awful, as I had expected them to be.  On the second plane (Frankfurt to St. Petersburg) I sat next to a Russian woman named Renada, her son, and her Pekinese.  Although I do not have a fondness for small dogs bedecked in little pink bows, they were a friendly sort, and when I mentioned that I was a 19-year old American student Renada insisted that I take her phone number, saying “Ah, you are so young!  I have a 23-year old son, which is still young too, you know!  He studies at the Film Institute and can show you around, and you will become friends!”  Indeed, the typical mind of a Russian mother at work.  She also was concerned when she noticed that I did not have a jacket with me, but only a sweater.  Thus received my first berating from a Russian mother.

I experienced Russian efficiency at work at customs.  We had a number of musicians, mainly violinists in our group, and declaring their instruments consisted of filling out forms, re filling out forms, making double copies of forms, stamping forms twelve times, signing forms seven times, examining photos, stamping, signing, and dating the photos, and carefully examining the instruments.  Took about an hour for four people to get through.

When we finally left the airport, the first thing I noticed was St. Petersburg’s very distinctive smell.  I could almost taste the smoke in the air.  Actually, I could taste it, along with the vodka, and although it will take some getting accustomed to, it brings back sweet memories of Middlebury times 100 and with more pollution. Smell has always been such a secondary sense for me in the US, but here it’s overwhelming.  Also, people keep giving me chocolate.