Thursday, February 3, 2011

more Russian highlights

Chapel was interesting, but not so much because of the speakers.  4 people just had to speak about their summers.  So after a while, 2 guys behind us started chuckling as silently as possible; then I heard one of them whisper ‘alejandro, Roberto, Fernando’ and I almost cracked up.  No one expects whispered Lady Gaga lyrics during a Russian chapel.

Lunch with A—we talked about alcohol.  Kids start drinking vodka in 5th grade here.  The society as a whole lives from one holiday to the next and there is always alcohol for every holiday.  Always.  Drugs are a huge problem here. They have what we would call raves, with music that’s not even techno, it’s just a steady beat with no melody.  People go there specifically to do drugs and dance all night long.  There are a few Russian metal bands that are encouraging people not to do drugs, though…apparently there’s one that advertises, "this music was not written under the influence of drugs.  They will not help you enjoy or understand the music better."

Lunch with A—talked about wars and veterans.  His grandpa was a commander and he would beat his men if they smoked marijuana .   He said they could drink, but never smoke.  I asked if PTSD was a problem here and he said yes.  The vets are just destroyed.  I asked if they were put on medications and he said no, the government does nothing to help.

Yury was in the kitchen for a bit.  He speaks very little English, but still more than I do Russian.  He’s like an adorable uncle.  He came in with pictures of his daughter and him.  She lives in Magadan, which I’d never heard of so he went and got a map.  He said a lot of his family lives in Canada.  He had a beautiful wife, but they separated in 06.  His brother died in '95, I think in a war.  I asked him why he wasn’t in Canada, too, and he said something about WWII, 4 countries—France, Germany, England, America all fighting, Hitler went down, and at 6, his grandma put him, his mom and 4 aunts in a boat, and his dad somehow got in there too, I’m not really sure.  Then he used a fake cardinal as a symbol for a child, put it under his captain hat, and I don’t know if he meant his mom snuck him on the boat as a child because he took off his hat at one point like the child was a surprise, or that he became a captain as a kid.  But either way, he eventually became captain of a fish boat, and sailed around the world.  I love Yury.  I hope to understand his stories by next month.

The only other Western students here are 3 Canadian guys.  I was shocked to find out they don’t know who Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are.  One said, "we didn’t get the radio till last year," and I was like, "that doesn’t matter, they’re dancers!"  And then I retracted the statement, but I'd already dug my hole...'cause they had just showed me the youtube video, "talking to americans" a couple days ago.  The one where Americans believe the most ridiculous, ignorant rumors about Canada.
Christmas is an imported holiday here, but Russians have a Grandfather Frost instead of Santa Claus.  Дед Мороз/Dyed Moroz is in blue instead of red and has no reindeer.  He doesn’t fly in a sleigh, because that’s far too absurd for Russians.  He’s real, and hardy, and walks.  He has a grandchild, so he’s had a real relationship and family at one point.  But there are no chimneys in Russia, so he walks through walls.

I ventured out to try to find Mimigrantsy theater—a children’s/mime theater, but couldn't find it because there are almost no street signs in SPb.  So I wandered for a while in the rain.  Crossing the street by the metro was…interesting.  It reminded me how different it is here from the US and how much I’ve lost track of it.  There were 2 policemen running the massive amount of pedestrian traffic, and they looked and talked like Gestapo.  Really, it’s exactly how I’ve seen them in WWII films and I can absolutely imagine them knocking someone’s door in with a machine gun—but they’re just running a traffic corner.  So this one woman for some reason decided to cross on her own, and she got yelled at.  If someone talked like that to me, esp someone in a uniform, I’d cringe and fold.  But she argued back.  He won, of course.  But it was a fascinating exchange of two kinds of people in a kind of situation that would just never ever happen in America.  And everyone around them watched or ignored them silently.

I found a supermarket on Nevsky prospekt, in the bottom of a flea market.  They had brown sugar!  At least I think it’s brown sugar...I'll open it tomorrow and find out.  I couldn’t find baking powder, but they also had chamomile tea, lots of dried fish (including a whole trout…), beef jerky, pancake and cake mixes, instant meals, etc.  I just need to find baking powder and chocolate chips and marshmallows.  I also found a small dvd and cd vendor with ‘great performances’ and American blockbusters for about 7 bucks, including Russian Avatar, Sherlock Holmes, Twilight, and one of the Harry Potters (no idea which one).

The brown sugar is not brown sugar.  I went back to look at other brands...sometimes they color some sugar and call it brown, and sometimes it's just unrefined. 
I finally got to a show at the Mariinsky tonight. The theater is gorgeous—a deep, brilliant green.  I heard more English speakers there than Russian.  The performance of Eugene Onegin was pretty magnificent. 
Seeing "J's" reactions to the opera was really interesting.  It brought back so many memories for her.  Russian children have to memorize part of this poem in school, and she was lip-syncing several arias.  There’s so much beauty the Russian language itself unlocks that English speakers will never get in translation.  Simple things like Lensky changing from ‘ya lublyu vas’ in the beginning of his aria to Olga to ‘ya lublyu tebya’ halfway through—the formal to the informal, a huge shift in intention and comfort level.  And Onegin’s saying the formal ‘vas’ to Tatiana at the affects character development.  And other specific words that were clearly from the 19th century—they transport Russian speakers to another era, but English speakers lose that whole layer.  This is why I love Russia.

9/25 Novgorod.
Woke up before the sun…meaning 6:45.  I actually have no idea where the sun was at that point because I sleepwalked for about 3 hours.  We took the metro to another metro, walked for 15 minutes to the bus station, rode the bus for 3 hours, and arrived in Novgorod.  We met Leonid there, who immediately showed us a bust of the city’s ancient hero, Alexander Nevsky.  Leonid said (through A) ‘originally, this looked very different.  There was no helmet, he had a full beard and (something else, I can’t remember what...probably glasses), and he was called Karl Marx.  The street down here is still named Marx street, but now the statue is Nevsky.’  Ha.
We saw their kremlin, a church, some towers with a view of the whole city, a belfry, a local history museum (which was awesome till the icons—I can’t take any more of those), and a lot of beautiful countryside and forest.  The trip back felt like I was in Dr. Zhivago, seeing some of the farms on the roadside.  And I saw at least 5 signs with town names crossed out.  No idea why.
I liked Novgorod instantly.  St Petersburg is our New York, and I assume Moscow is our LA…Novgorod seems to be our…Seattle?  It’d be a great place to settle down.  The first thing I noticed is how many children were out, how many more women wore headscarves, and how crowded it wasn’t.  It’s very picturesque, like the streets around Delmar  in St Louis--cleaned up--and the buildings painted pastel colors--which looks stranger than it sounds.
We saw even more brides and grooms…apparently there’s a specific church outside the kremlin; if you walk around it 3 times right after you get married, you’ll have a happy marriage.  So we saw 2 or 3 couples out there.  One couple was taking a picture with their limo; he was in the driver’s seat and she was out pushing the car.
 The little cafe we found was pretty awesome.  Apparently in small restaurants, people don’t claim whole tables.  We were really awkward about sitting down with strangers, but to them it was completely normal.
I got back and talked to S till 2 am.  She's from Siberia, and knows a lot more English than the other girls.  She’ll probably get a proposal this winter, and she’s going to ask him to wait till she’s 19 (2 years).  People get married young here…she has friends who are 16 and married/pregnant, 17 and married with a child, and it’s normal.  We talked about marriage in the States.  She’d heard American women want to be independent and marry later or have careers first, and how the women sometimes work more than the men and don’t always stay in the kitchen and cook. She said a lot of women here don’t like to cook when they’re young, but learn to enjoy it by 30.  She said women in St Petersburg work as much as men, but in Siberia men work and women generally stay home.

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