New Season, New City

So it’s literally been a month or more since I updated this blog… since then I’ve traveled by train to and from Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympics will be held, flown back to America, saw my little sister graduate high school, hit DC for a night, and somehow ended up back in this crazy country. Welcome to Part II of Masha’s Grand Adventure (coming to a theater near you!).

This is turning out to be the extended tale of the three most interesting people I have ever been blessed to meet.  My nearest and dearest at this moment are my roommate Anissa, who has been mentioned before, and our suitemates Richard and Corey. Myself and Anissa suffered together (over the phone, mainly) these past four months, and our lovely gentlemen are the textbook definition of wetbacks, but suffice it to say the best days are ahead of us, and I can’t even imagine how they can possibly top the past week.

Living in the dorms is proving to be interesting, awesome, and horrible at the same time. Like I said, my dorm family here is fabulous and I love them already. Living right of off Nevsky Prospekt in the center of downtown is convenient – right next to the university, lots of cafes and restaurants, of course the famous Dumskaya street filled with bars and clubs – but at the same time, how can you say no to all the opportunities? Everything is literally at our fingertips/a ten minute walk away past picturesque canals, churches, and monuments. Its honestly overwhelming. But this whole ‘feeding myself’ thing is not quite as fun. I buy bananas and yogurt, I saved and refill a water bottle from the filter in the dorm, we have a cheap cafeteria around the corner, but using our 300 rubles (approximately $10) a day is actually somewhat difficult. Moreso because I can’t cook for myself, and eating out gets old very quickly.

Let’s talk about some ridiculous things though. First, the white nights.

Byelyi Nochi or “White Nights” are famous worldwide for their exclusive appearance in St. Petersburg in the summer. No other (inhabited) city has such a phenomenon. There is a few hours of semi-twilight around 2 or 3 AM, but for the most part it looks like a bright afternoon. Talk about disorienting.

Second, WHAT IS GOING ON WITH THESE COTTON FLUFF THINGS?

There is a disturbing amount of fluffy pollen things floating around in the breeze, so much so that clumps of them on the ground could be described as “snowy.” It’s doing wonders for my allergies. But really, its worth mentioning.

Other than this, life here is like a fairy tale. I think this is what people mean when they say they want to “go abroad.” All it consists of is a few classes and then playing around in the sun for the rest of the time. I’m so glad I spent the entire semester here as well, and not even HERE, but in Vladimir, which I consider to be a much more accurate representation of the way Russians live. There is just so much money in Peter, and even more in Moscow. Bentlys and Beamers casually parked on sidewalks as if by a drunken 15-year-old make me shake my head. If this much wealth is here, how much poverty are we not seeing? Students can live here pretty cheaply, depending on your living situation, but for the average citizen everything is ABSURDLY EXPENSIVE.

I will now leave my soapbox to do some homework and prepare for what promises to be a wild Friday night, as per usual. More on the opera, etc later! I’ll leave you with this adorable group shot for now…

Looking fabulous for the opera!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Awkward Table Conversations

Христос Воскресе! That is, Happy Easter everyone!

After my 4 am arrival home from my belated spring break in Sochi, I awoke to sounds of the entire extended Cherkashina family once again gathering in our small apartment. Oh goodie.

But then again, it is Easter, and while I know Tatiana herself doesn’t regularly attend Orthodox services, it sounds like others in the family do. And of course, like any holiday, it’s a cause for gathering together. But like any holiday, there’s always that one topic to avoid….

Long story short, Uncle Seryozha asked me about Stalin. I have no clue why. But he does have a habit of bringing up historical/political/economic topics, so it’s not really out of character. But let me preface this with the fact that I am still in Russia. Which means that with Easter lunch we’ve been doing shots. I’ve maybe had four, with food, so all is well. The men however are at at least seven drinks, which shouldn’t be a problem, but when sensitive topics come up it certainly becomes one.

I tried to stay as neutral as possible. “Americans in general don’t really like Stalin. It’s just how we’re taught in school.” However Roman, Anya’s husband, takes this moment to jump in on the discussion.

“He shot 6 million people!” Of course the generation gap between him and Vladimir Vasilich causes problems.

“You’re young, you don’t know how bad it was, you don’t know how it was after the war! I lived-” 

The mothers/grandmothers at this point are yelling for silence, that it’s all a misunderstanding, etc. It ends when Roman, attempting to shout down Vladimir, gets shouted down himself, and he, Anya, and Liza leave, while he’s still shouting, “Even the Americans know!” After about half an hour, the rest follow. 

Fast forward to this evening, Tatiana and I watching The Lord of the Rings (dubbed in Russian, of course) on the couch. She got a call from Anya, and talked for a while. Apparently Liza was running a temperature too, so it wasn’t a bad thing that they had left early. This naturally brought up “nash Roma” (“our Roma”). “His head is so empty!” I suggest that maybe since he’s younger he just has a different perspective. Tat just shakes her head and sighs. “I think Vladimir Vasilich is…smart.” I try, searching for words. I forgot what wise was, so that was the next best thing, obviously. She laughs. “Well maybe not smart, but he has experience! That means he knows something.” She laughs again. “Was he in the war, or was he too young?”

“His father died in the war. He and his older brother were just teenagers. His wife, her father fought on the front lines. He came back with both legs and a hand missing.”

When you hear stories like that, it’s not hard to see why every city in Russia – from the poke-n-plumb towns you don’t even notice by the side of the road to Moscow itself – has at least one monument dedicated to those who died in World War II. I’m so excited to be here for Victory Day – May 9. One of my very favorite sights in Vladimir, other than Sobornaya Ploshchyat at night, is Ploshchyat Pobyedy (Victory Square) at night. It reminds me of a smaller version of the memorial in DC, names inscribed on a shiny almost reflective stone wall. While there are no names here, the dates are inscribed as well as outlines of famous figures from Vladimir. The national and regional flag fly above this, and an eternal flame burns in the very center. I’m just saying, does Carmel, Indiana have such a memorial? Maybe a section of each graveyard, but there is nothing so obvious, a meeting place for everyone to see. To be honest, the statue of Lenin that still stands in almost every town freaks me out a little, but you can’t say Russians don’t respect their history. If I didn’t actually hate history as much as I do, I would definitely push for America to do more of the same.

All in all it was what anyone could expect from a holiday – drinking, laughing, eating, drinking, yelling, watching soccer. And at the end of the day, I still got to see Johnny Depp as Icabod Crane dubbed in Russian. SUCCESS.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Birthdays in Russia… (written sometime back in March)

After that emotional drainage as well as most of my homework, it is now PAST midnight, and I have to be up promptly at 0710 for class. But for some reason (and this honestly puzzles me) I am not tired.

The reason this puzzles me is because for the last two days I have been privy to a holiday often portrayed in movies or TV shows made in/set in/about Russia: the Russian birthday party. The funny part is that March 22 (Friday) was my younger sisters birthday, and Saturday (the 23rd) was Tatiana’s. Parties all around!

Being a part of hosting a birthday party in Russia reminded me in so many ways of hosting a party back home. You wake up earlier than you’d like, clean literally everything, and start the cooking several hours before your appointed army of helpers joins the fight. Snapshot: Tatiana and I in our Russian dressing gowns (She got me one as a gift for Women’s Day. I am now officially Russian.) carrying the kitchen table into her bedroom which we have magically transformed into a banquet hall, while attempting to kick off our tapochki before walking onto the freshly-vacuumed rug.

But before I begin, I’m going to need ot organize my thoughts. Life here often reminds me of a cartoon I once saw referencing high school, claiming there were “too many characters, and not enough plot.” So to avoid that I’ll start with our cast of characters, move on to activities (including toasts, singing, and TV watching), and then come back and see what I missed.

There was Vladimir Vasilich, her father whom I’d already met several times. Her daughter Anya and granddaughter Liza also appeared, finally! I say finally because in the placement email I received before arriving in Russia, it mentioned that Tatiana’s daugher and young granddaughter came to visit often. Thus, I brought gifts for them too, and was thrilled at the prospect of a semi-extended family. However, I had until Saturday only come across Anya once, when she dropped something off here, and passed her and Liza in the building doorway once without realizing it. Finally, my little-little sister had arrived! But let’s remember: she IS five years old. I think the fact that I don’t really understand Russian 100% and she isn’t speaking English is the only reason I don’t find her entirely obnoxious. But as that’s how it is, we got along swimmingly.

After her initial fear of strangers was overcome (within about 10 minutes) she bequeathed to me several new hairclips with instructions on how they were best worn. Then she helped me pick out an outfit to wear for the party, and we both donned our prettiest princess dresses. Which of course meant I ended up in a clubbing dress that I wouldn’t have put forward for a family party, not to mention four coats of mascara and no less than 3 separate eye shadow colors. But what can you do.

As fun as playing princesses was, it became exhausting after so many demands of “Read! Read! I don’t know how yet! No, THAT one!” This is taxing because while my spoken Russian is passable (occasionally even “good,” depending on how many drinks I’ve had), bedtime stories in rhyme scheme are the stuff they test me on in Phonetics class. Ouch.

Interspersed with all this was meeting all of the other relatives: Tatiana’s “sister,” Irina (who is actually an aunt, I believe, but they call each other sister because they are approximately the same age); Irina’s husband Seryozha; their boys Artyum and Daneel, who are around my age; a pair of professors from her days at university, Nikolai Sergeiich and Katerina Romanovna; another Seryozha, who’s exact relation I couldn’t quite place but I assume is a cousin (Hession family equivalent: Stilwell’s Uncle Mark); and of course her mother, whom we all simply called ‘pro-baba.’ This swirl of Russian should have left me thoroughly drained. And while it has, it’s also invigorating.

After initial introductions I either was helping the women in the kitchen (most of whom had come early, so I had become comfortable with their speech patterns) or sat listening for whatever I could catch while eating.

The topics at the table ranged from politics, to finances – these matters often involved asking my opinion – to how Russia and America are different. This question is so broad it continually stumps me. Honestly, the weather in South Bend is pretty comparable to that of Vladimir, so no trouble there. The food is usually my biggest pet peeve. PIZZA. People, GET IT TOGETHER. Among other things Russia lacks are bagels and good (and by that I mean crappy-American-style) Mexican food. Russians on the whole eat more dairy products (which I already explained, ad nauseam), and fish is much more popular here.

I always forget that many Americans my age don’t like fish, so when Uncle Seryozha asked me if I had tried the fish, and I reached for a piece, he looked confused. I explained that my dad made salmon like this all the time. “Well then you’re already Russian!” I can’t tell you how welcoming it felt to hear that. After hearing that title given to our resident year-long student, whose skills I have continuously envied this entire semester, it seems that maybe I might be making some progress. Baby steps.

Of course, any sort of get-together involves copious amounts of alcohol. So between topics – and sometimes inspired by them – were various toasts, all to Tatiana and her wonderful life, spirit, daughter, health, etc. These toasts were some of my first clues to her single parenthoods beginning, and hearing the testaments of how hard it had been for her made me tear up at times. I think that’s when the family – mainly the women, of course – started to realize just how much I can actually understand. By the time it was my turn to toast it was really tough to focus on declining words correctly while attempting not to cry, so there were just a lot of “thank you’s” as far as I can remember, and by the end she and I were hugging and drinking, she her cognac and I my vodka. Successful Russian toast: completed.

After dinner was basically finished and the cards and gifts were distributed (of course it was almost all cards, as the “jubilee years” of 50, 60, 70, etc are marked by large sums of money typically) the drinking continued, but this time the men set to singing. Out of the four or five songs they sang I knew only one, the Russian birthday song (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rB5TEJfdmRs), which I obviously joined in for. The rest I asked about, when they were finished singing, and learned that they were Khazak songs that they had sung as children in Khazakstan, before they all immigrated back to Russia. Crazy. But cool.

After the singing and drinking wound down, the only entertainment to be found was the TV. What were we so raptly watching while sipping tea you ask? Sumo wrestling. Totally casual. I assume there’s some sort of respect between the cultures because sumo traditionally started with tea before the matches began, but I can’t be sure…

I’m sure there are things I’m leaving out, as I started this in March and its now May… in any case, just a small piece of my mind. And I’m not promising St. Petersburg or Moscow anymore. And all the photos from Sochi will be on Facebook. (A picture’s worth a thousand words! 🙂 )

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Pamyatnik

It’s almost midnight on March 24, the weekend of birthdays and parties, and after reading another Russian student’s blog I’m inspired to prioritize – while there is still homework to be done for class tomorrow, what matters more in the end? My pass/fail grade, or my most important thoughts and memories from literally the adventure of a lifetime? Yeah, that’s what I thought too.

So I want to begin with a long and drawn-out tribute that is far too long in coming. I get a little teary-eyed writing this, as I have every time I’ve composed these words on the bus ride home, while bored in class, or in random moments at home with Tatiana: Gramdad would love this place.

There are so many sights, sounds, and happenings that remind me of my late grandfather, Jack Bitter. Every time I visit a certain friends apartment, and see the innovative way her host family has rigged the toilet paper holder, I smile and think how he would do something just like that. When Tatiana’s father, Vladimir Vasilich, comes to visit, I am literally overwhelmed sometimes by the similarities. I’ve mentioned before that he comes over to help fix the pipes or whatever else needs looking at, just like Gramdad always did. And when meeting me, even though he is a man of maybe 80 and not likely to be very open-minded, he slowed down his speech and listened to what I had to say, just like Gramdad did when meeting our Hispanic friend years ago. He was a man out of his time, with the best qualities of back then and now. These people would completely fascinate him, and I know his curiosity would absolutely get the best of him in this strangely efficient yet utterly odd country.

 

And really, this entire trip is a tribute to him. Let’s review.

Why am I here?

-To study Russian.

Why am I studying Russian?

-Because the Air Force is paying me too (also because I love it, but lets stick to the cards)

Why did I choose to join the Air Force?

-Well there you have it.

Long story short, my entire life right now – my major, my career path, everything – is what it is because of this great man. I constantly think of new things that I wish I would have asked him. I would call them regrets, but any time with him I cherished and I just can’t bring myself to say that. I hope every day that I seize the opportunities he would, and follow my curiosity to the end of its path, learning everything there is to learn. Because thinking critically and finding out the truth (or even the truth behind the truth) was something he loved. And I’m sad to say that I don’t think he gets enough credit, from me or anyone else. So I think he deserves this post all to himself.

Rest in peace Gramdad. You are dearly missed.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

On Joining the Red Army… (PS Peter/Moscow coming soon!)

Russians are constantly at war. The people versus the elements is the most evident struggle. The weather here is obviously cold, having been compared by many to Siberia…which is also in Russia. The big cities like Moscow and Petersburg have big buildings and gross amounts of smog and pollution to trap the heat. No such luck out here in Vladimir.

The Russian winter breaks people. No one is safe from it, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I’m not talking about snow or even blizzards. I’m talking about temperatures near zero or lower (Fahrenheit) everyday, for weeks on end, which by the way is cold enough to freeze any moisture coming out of your nose (congratulations, you’ve been sniffling because IT’S COLD), which is the most pleasant experience ever. Obviously. This occurs approximately two steps outside of your building, and makes for some long mornings.

I have learned to dread the warm spells even more than the cold though. Outside my apartment building and the surrounding complex, the sidewalks are covered for the most part in up to a foot of ice. After enough pavement pounding and some snow to grant traction, parts can be uncovered by men who are hired to go around chipping the ice away. Of course these perfect days only occur a few times a month, leaving odd sections of stair-steps, from the top of the ice layer to actual concrete. That being said, the women here in their six-inch stiletto heels are responsible for using these as ice picks and preventing general mayhem. When the temperature rises to freezing or a little above, all of their hard work is disintegrated by the melting ice, which liquefies just enough to seep into the cracks and uneven surfaces, only to freeze over again the next day. Hell, you understand.

Surprisingly enough, I’ve only fallen once (on the ice, haha) since I’ve been here. It seems to me that Russians have an innate ability to keep their feet under them, though I have managed to catch a few moments of indignity.

This being said, I propose all military units send their trainees to Russia to survive the winter. Good luck.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

On How to Feed a Nation

Ever since I arrived here, the most striking difference that I notice every day (other than clothing, language, bathrooms, and everything else) is the food. Food in Russia consists of any and everything imaginable, but mainly centers on bread. I have heard explanations of why the Russians beat the Germans in World War II which completely disregard the climate or general lack of supply lines, and instead says that the Germans lost because they didn’t eat as much bread as the Russians did. That being said, along with the carb-filled meals is copious amounts of bread.

Things that I miss on a daily basis include Mexican (even crappy Midwestern Mexican!) and American pizza. Pizza does exist here, but typically not pepperoni, and never with any tomato sauce, oddly enough… Not only this, but there’s a distinct lack of spicy food. This is because Russians as a whole are an extremely superstitious people and fear any sudden change in taste/temperature/state of being, as it will inevitably make you sick. Luckily for me, Tatiana is actually from Khazakstan originally and thoroughly appreciates spicy food.

As much as I miss America and it’s foodstuffs, I LOVELOVELOVE Russian food. It’s honestly too good to be true, and just appeals to (almost) everything your tastebuds could desire. I just today learned how to make vinigriet, which is a salad of vegetables (potatoes, carrots, beets, and pickles, splashed with vegetable oil). Vinigriet is my favorite example of the perfect drunk/hangover food. The pickles in it make for a good drinking snack, but also a calming effect the next morning. Needless to say, I’ll be making it approximately every day when I get home.

Other fabulous dishes include tvorog, which I am currently obsessed with, as well as the related blinchiki, which are blini (thin crepe-like pancakes) rolled around a spoonful or five of tvorog. Perfect if you were hoping to gain 10 pounds in a week! But seriously, so good.

More to come on daily life and our trip to Peter…

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Help

Terrorism exists.

It is in place because of babushki who promote such a lifestyle.

I’m not actually sure how anything gets done in Russia. Honestly, I think before our dearest prince Putin gets up for his morning judo session at 4 am, he is rudely awakened by his babushka at 2:45 for tea and various waterfowl, accompanied by copious amounts of sweets. Likely with the explanation “You can’t rule the world properly without eating EVERYTHING!”

This post brought to you compliments of my own babushka, who upon hearing that I was heading to the cafe downtown to do homework and Skype my parents, force-feeds me half a rotisserie chicken. I’m not kidding. Her explanation went something like “If you eat more chicken, you’ll fly around downtown like a bird!” But really.

So I just had to tell someone about this.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized