Thursday, February 3, 2011

Russian adventures

8/26, day 1
Foreigners...stand out.  Everything is so subdued...lone women walk quickly and directly, whether for safety or purpose, I don’t know.
I was instructed not to befriend any street dogs after I mentioned I wasn’t sure if the German Shepherd I saw was alive or dead.  He was skin and bones, standing on 3 legs with one paw and his snout halfway through a fence.  Not moving a muscle for the 15 or so seconds it took to drive past.  Not even a breath, and from his size, I’d notice a breath.
The people aren’t friendly, but most aren’t unfriendly.  I see why our guide won’t let me go to theaters at night alone, though.  I might be able to go by myself at the end, though.
 It is comforting to have a Mcdonald’s close by.

Privyet!  48 hours on Russian soil and I haven't been harrassed, robbed by police, or kidnapped!  In fact, so far my experience here has been daunting but pretty awesome.
The newer buildings were built in the middle of the very old, rundown buildings, and it creates a very strange sense of the city.  Kansas City might be diverse, but its diversity isn't right on top of itself...even the poor section has a section of its own, you know.  Here, everything's mixed.  Old Soviet sentiments are still around--like the prohibiting taking pictures of forms of transportation or anywhere inside the Metro.  I guess the Soviets were extremely suspicious of anyone taking a picture of transportation, and flagged him as a spy.  The sentiment is still true today, apparently...
We are not supposed to talk much in the streets and definitely not loudly.  Our orientation guide says even in '95, 4 years after the Union collapsed, people were still not saying a word in the streets.  Nothing.  They were still afraid to be calling any attention to themselves in public.  She says that's slowly changed, just in the last couple of years. Some people talk now, even stop to say hi, but no one raises their voice.  It's very strange.  Most are still very silent, fast, direct.  Just walking down a street is like driving a car in LA.  You have to be aware and ready to dodge, pass, cut, and step aside every second.  Taxis and metro are much safer than cars.  Everyone smokes here on the streets.  And there are a LOT of gigantic pigeons all over, in streets, in the metro, in stores...everywhere, and they're not scared of people. There are also a lot of dogs sleeping on the streets.

Small business is booming here.

We went to Moskovskaya prospect and saw the Blockade museum--for the 1941 siege of Leningrad.  Amazing.  Truly incredible.  Supposedly they usually have a metronome sound going 24/7, but itwasn’t on yesterday.  The story goes that when all the power was out in the city, or maybe it was when there wasn’t any radio contact available anywhere, they broadcast a metronome sound all through the city.  That way, if the sound stopped, the people would know the Germans broke through.  Our guide said this was the only Russian museum that expressed emotion, or pathos, and the statues are especially important.   WWII is still very potent in Russians’ memories.  There’s a statue down the stairs of people dying, an incredible sculpture, everything about this place was just superbly executed, and probably 7 or 8 flowers were lying there.  People come every now and then and leave flowers, over 50 years later.  Americans might do that at a grave, but at a museum?  I don’t know, maybe we do.  There was a bride there yesterday, too, which was exciting.  Apparently it’s tradition that when a Russian woman gets married, the couple visits all the museums  and cultural landmarks.  And inside the museum, they had a display case just for Shostakovich and his 7th symphony, written for, or maybe during--I can't remember--the siege.  They had his violin and a diary, and I just about died...he was my favorite composer, and that was my favorite symphony as a kid.
We went down the upper class part of town, and across the street where it was literally a different world.  The upper class was very nice…kind of like Washington street in Chicago, but less claustrophobic.  We went into a clothes store, and I saw where Russians get their fashion.  There was a 10,000 dollar men’s fur coat, 75 buck umbrella, niiiice boots I didn’t bother to check the price on, etc…there were affordable items, too, though.  The women’s section was great; it felt like an ann taylor, just more sterile and less friendly.  It's very 'take care of yourself or ask for help'.  Basic, nice long sleeve shirts, cotton/cashmere feel were 20 bucks.  Our guide said she heard Russians had better fashion than the states, and I agreed.  It’s less diverse than the states, but more people are more fashionable.  Americans buy a lot of knockoff brands.  These are legit here.  I don’t know if they’re name brands, but they are quality, whatever they are.  It’s amazing how many upscale places there are in Russia, even in our neighborhood, Narvskiiy prospect, which doesn't seem to be a particularly upscale section of the city.  There are still a lot of upper scale stores mixed in with the lower scale, and it’s like you step in one world and out of another every couple minutes.
I saw the first homeless person today.  I thought I’d see a lot more.  First day in KC, I saw about 5, but here the definition of homeless is different.  Homeless in the States is usually far better off than a street seller here, which seems to be one or two steps above homeless, and seem to be only older people selling anything they can find.  They are still not considered homeless, like they might be in the States.
"J" and "O" took us out today, and Sundays seem to be much calmer on the streets.  We were able to walk down the street and talk, and no one seemed to care.  "O" likes to laugh in public, unlike most Russians, but the only time it felt weird was when we were on the bus.  We were the only people talking or smiling, and  we were out of place but no one seemed to mind terribly.  Except maybe the older grandma across from us.  But I can never tell if it's a cultural thing or if they’re really annoyed by us.  The dislike/avoidance I thought was directed towards us the first day may not  have been a dislike of foreigners, but a general attitude towards everyone.  I think that’s just the culture here: do your own thing and don't draw attention.  "O" and "J" just got back from 2 and a half months in the states, and they said when they first got back they got a lot of weird looks and stares ‘cause they were all ‘smiley from America,’ and it took a couple days to put their Russian faces back on lol.  Awesome.  It's another leftover Soviet sentiment: "The tallest blade of grass is the first to get cut down."  The younger generation seems a bit more relaxed.

This school is a pretty unique place in Russia.  Christians seem to be special people in Russia.  They’re the only ones I see smiling, unless it’s the young lovers kissing and hugging in the Metro.  Some souvenir shops on Nevskiiy prospekt are pleasant, an employee might even ask if they can help you and the clerk might smile at you, but the Christian communities are markedly different from civilian life here.  This church met on the 3rd floor of a massive former Lutheran cathedral that was founded by an American about 20 years ago, the Soviets took it over pretty quickly and converted it to a 3 story boxing glove factory.  The Christians got it back a few years ago, I think, maybe as many as 10, and now it’s rented out to dozens of churches who hold services there all day long, one after another, in at least 6 huge rooms.  The chapel room and anything that can be rented out at school always seem to be hosting a church group.  They need places to worship, and buildings are expensive.  A stark contrast to America, where there are more empty spaces than Christians who want to worship.
I haven’t experienced a whole lot of culture shock.  The transition has been pretty smooth. What I miss most from the States is a microwave, car, and cell phone.  I also miss dollars; I spent 550 rubles today on lunch…which was about 15 bucks.  At a Pizza Hut restaurant, like a legit restaurant.  We had service, they had fancy pastas, salads, specialty pizzas, liquors and coffees--their mocha was ridiculously good and presented like a parfait, I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t even mind their Mt. Dew, which I hate in the States.  "J" explained why their soda was so much better here: they all use real sugar, no corn syrup.  Their Coke and Pepsi are also unbelievably better than what's served in America.  Their Pizza Hut and Mcdonald’s are better than the fast food in the States, maybe 'cause they use half the grease.  A large pizza is more expensive here, about 20 bucks, but it’s worth it.  Supposedly they have Domino’s here, too, and I’ve seen a KFC, a couple Subways, and a Baskin Robbins here.  Not only did I not expect Russian life to be so similar to American, I really didn’t expect it to be better.
"M" was talking about sports after church this morning.  I mentioned I heard all of Russia was really upset about the past Olympics, and she basically said ‘ooooh yes.  Here, people train from childhood, too, like in Canada.  But the parents must pay for everything now, and few can do that.  That is why there are no talents rising.’  I asked what changed, and she said ‘when the Soviet Union…broke…  the government used to pay for the training, now they do not.’  I wonder if that was true for dancers and musicians, esp composers, too, and if that quality has changed.  Good place to start for my thesis research.
Other oddities about St Petersburg…the paramedics in ambulances smoke, the construction workers don’t wear masks with their jackhammers and some don’t wear goggles.  St Petersburg is perhaps the only city I never want to drive in.  Walking here feels like driving in LA.  But I love this place.  Absolutely love it.

First day of classes was awesome.  Our literature teacher is a German Russian Jew (I think he said he was technically a Baron), and might be one of the best teachers I will ever have.  He doesn’t stick to literature, he will talk about anything important and relevant, whether it’s history, geography, pop culture...anything.  He's really funny and incredibly smart. One thing he said really stuck with me: the Swedes, or maybe the Finnish, have a pure democracy.  And at one point, they had to decide whether to do away with democracy once and not allow a certain group in their country, or keep democracy then and let them in, but know that this group would destroy their system and they wouldn't have any democracy in 10 or so years.  They chose to violate their democratic principles once and keep them out, and they are still a democracy today.

We ate lunch with our director today.  Lunches with him are great.  I had no idea scientology was here…but apparently everything bad from the west has migrated here.  I said ‘sorry’ and he said, ‘no, sorry for us for letting it in here.’   Then we discussed Tom Cruise and how he made Scientology famous but not necessarily popular in the West.  Then we discussed Tropic Thunder.  We all agreed it was awesome.

We decided to go out to eat for dinner, met "V", and roped him into coming with us.  Good thing I brought a dictionary.  We used it all night, and it was ridiculous and comical.  "V" ended up learning a lot more English than we did Russian.  In the restaurant, Nyamburg, an old woman was suddenly sitting behind us, watching us and trying to say something.  He spotted her and went over, asked what she was saying, gave her a coin and told her we weren’t Russians and didn’t understand.  She hung around for a minute, and he asked her to go away.  Then he said people like that make a thousand rubles a day, and up to 5-10 thousand in the metro.  I tried to explain they would be considered homeless in America, 'nee dom', but it didn’t land.  Glad he hung out with us tonight.  He lives in Southern, middle Russia, it might have been Irkutsk.  His pictures of home were beautifully covered in snow and I was jealous.


We went to the store to buy food for the next 2 weeks, basically, and it came out to 1800 rubles…bout 60 bucks to feed 4 people.  Unreal.  It was pretty unreal to be walking around the store with my dictionary trying to find out what kinds of flour are what—unsuccessfully—but it was fun.  I’m getting more comfortable with the Russian people.  I know we still draw attention, but I saw at least one person there staring at us, I glanced at her and started to smile a little and she did the same…sometimes they’re testing the waters as much as we are.  They will be distant, but they’re not unfriendly, and it is probably really strange to see a group of kids come in and try to function without knowing the language.  Some will laugh at or with us, and some will be annoyed, but the younger generation seems much more open.  
Anyway, we start back to the dorm and stop at the fresh fruit/veggie shop at the corner.  I find something called Pepsi Africana in this cool gold bottle and have to try it, of course.  Then we buy a whole sack of onions for 18 rubles/kg, and some fresh-from-the-ground carrots covered in dirt.  I've never seen them so...real...the Pepsi turned out to be kind of weird diet/fruity thing.  Fail, Pepsi.
We went to lunch with "A" and discussed pop culture, movies, music…and Lady Gaga.   "A" said in Russia it means a small dumb bird who can scratch its head while flying or something like that lol.  It’s in a children’s folktale.
We go out to Nevskiy Prospekt, and just down the street there are about 6 booths of artists’ work set up in a square, plus 2 side-booths doing live or photo portraits.  All of them had incredible work.  Just incredible. Art is nearly impossible to get out of the country unless it’s a print. I couldn’t believe some of these paintings, or maybe I just couldn't believe that they were on the streets.  The photo portraits included Mel Gibson, Johnny Depp, Hermione, a Russian boxer, Al Pacino, Russell Crowe, and several Angelina photos.
We went to the park by the Church of the Resurrection/on the Spilt Blood,  The park was beautifully green and spacious, with calf-height fences that said keep off the grass.  We ran into an incredible performer: a guy operating a dancing puppet with a guitar, he played guitar, and had a harmonica and 2 other flutes on top.  Unbelievable.  We gave him money, for sure, and bought a cd.  His name was Tweedleduo, and his cd says 'unauthorized copying and distributing of this cd are very welcome' lol.
Then we came across 2 women sitting on a bench, singing.  I wanted to record it but didn't want to interrupt to ask if it was ok.  It was a little like shapenote, that haunting sound, but with Shostakovich and the weight of Russia thrown in.
We left the park and found a guy playing a hang drum outside and definitely bought a cd.  I'd never seen one before.  His cd included 4 other artists' work and histories of the hang drum, 'cause he cares about educating people.
We started back to the metro and I saw the guitarist sitting on the bridge, the one I loved the first time we went.  I bought one of his for about 4 dollars.  He plays a mean "Yesterday".
I also heard a folk singer and guitarist, and looked for him but didn’t see anyone playing…then I saw a girl sitting in a chair with a stack of cd’s next to a speaker, selling for the artist.  I’m like…that’s a brilliant business scheme.  Park next to the tourist spot with some good Russian music—I assume it's good—and hire--again, I assume--a girl to sit out there a couple hours a day.
Then we went to a free museum, the Kazan cathedral right outside the metro.  Outside, we got hosed.  2 people in costumes offered us a picture with them for 100 rubles.  We did it’s 3 bucks.
Oh, and my roommate finally came.  "L" is mid, maybe late twenties, and pretty awesome.  She has jet black hair, probably dyed, and a tattoo on her right arm that she says is bad but I assured her was very cool.  She’s been studying English for 6 months, and knows more English than I do Russian.  We’ve promised to work on each other.

We were joined at lunch by Dr. Negrov, who asked how we liked it, and said they would like their international program to be bigger.  He asked if I had a hard time negotiating between the schools, and I’m like, "no, not really…UMKC just had to approve the program, and you had an up and running website that helped a lot."  Then we planned a trip to the South Carolina v. St Petersburg hockey game on October 20th.  Psyched.

"V" says my Russian name is Ekaterina Mikhailova.  I'm perfectly fine with that :)

The dorm meeting was cool...rules change here from year to year, I guess.  This year, girls aren’t allowed in the rooms on the 3rd/guys' floor, and guys aren't allowed in rooms on the 2nd/girls'. If you get married, congratulations, but find somewhere else to live.  The dorm costs might rise next year because the apartment rent went up dramatically in St Petersburg.  The government sets prices, and the school officials have no control over how much their dorm/hostel costs.

Lunch was cool, "A" had an interesting view of the Cuban missile crisis.  He laughed at the fact that the Russians didn’t even try to hide their putting nuclear missiles there…I mean, we found them in pics from a space satellite…he laughed and said, ‘we’re Russians, we don’t hide our plans, we just say ‘try something and we’ll send a nuclear missile.'’  He did think it was justified, though, ‘cause nato had missiles in Turkey, and the agreement was that the Russians would pull their missiles from somewhere and nato would pull theirs out of Turkey.  Russians always keep their word, but then Bruzhnev tried to steal power from Krushchev, and Nato didn’t pull out completely because I guess they thought the Russians were distracted.  Same thing happened with Gorbachev and Yeltsin.

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