Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm off!

Leaving on the train in two hours to go to the North Caucasus. Then onto Kyrgyzstan and Moscow and probably Kazan. Who knows when I will blog again.

AAAAHHH SERIOUSLY LEAVING FOR THE CAUCASUS IN TWO HOURS! I am deathly afraid... of forgetting to pack something important. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


It has become the time to assess the year in terms of what things are annoying, and to what degree they are annoying. As I have said, for the most part, everything has been fine, and anything that I would really significantly complain about is really nobody's fault, not even Russia's.

I've always been into list-making, so here I will make three lists (and start from the negative so we can end positively) of things that are annoying, sort of annoying, or not annoying at all.

*Winter, and the clothing associated with it. Today is technically the first day of winter and I feel like it's been winter for months already. I am tired of wearing heavy winter clothes all the time and miss wearing dresses and sandals.
*The fact that my rent increased by a LOT.
*Things getting canceled (see earlier posts from November)
* Stuttering when I speak Russian. Everyone who knows me knows that I can speak Russian reasonably well, but if I go all day speaking English, or not speaking to anyone at all and suddenly I need to say something, I stumble over my words. Half the people who first hear me speak think I'm Latvian, the other half think I have a speech disorder...and sometimes I may as well be a Latvian with a speech disorder.
*People getting sick all the time. At least it isn't me (knock on wood)
*The fact that on the first trip to Ekaterinburg I bought a beautiful pair of earrings, and on the second trip to Ekaterinburg I lost half of said pair of earrings.
*The question "Why are you here?", or the assumption that I must really miss all things American and would of course, go home for all of break.
*Babushkas. Yes, I am a horrible person for saying this. There ARE most certainly exceptions, but for the most part, Russian Babushkas are not sweet old ladies that tell you stories and make you tea. Or maybe they are, but that's not the side I see. The Babushki I see are either really depressing (such as the Babushka that sits outside the grocery store-where they sell reasonably fresh vegetables- selling rotten vegetables and worn-out looking mittens...for any last ruble or kopek she might scrape up), intimidating (you NEVER argue with a Babushka), or just downright annoying. I will not question the wisdom that comes with age, but...and maybe this is an American or Western point of view... an individual knows his or her own body and behaviors.
An open letter to Russian Babushki who might know English (haha): NO, for the hundredth time, I am NOT COLD. If I was cold, I would dress warmer so I would not be cold. I am not cold in my running clothes outside because I am running and therefore my body temperature goes up about 20 degrees. And running will not make me get meningitis or infertility or whateveryouclaimimightget. In fact, it is probably part of the reason why I still haven't gotten sick. NO, I am not cold wearing this short-sleeved shirt indoors, BECAUSE IT IS ROOM TEMPERATURE (OR EVEN WARMER) INDOORS. My feet are perfectly fine in these "autumn" boots and I do not need to buy myself "winter" boots... if I were cold, I'd put on thicker socks, and when I am walking my feet warm up anyway. I have a pair of winter boots, but they are too warm to wear inside. And NO, I do not need to wear stockings underneath my pants, at least until it gets to be -30. It is not -30, so why must I dress like it is just because it is by calender winter and at some point at this time of year it has been -30?
And furthermore, dear Babushkas.... No, I am not going to steal your stupid pel'meni (long story). I am perfectly fine walking home from work when it's cold outside, I will not get sick from being outside (it's the opposite, I'd get sick from germs on the marshrutkas), I will not become infertile from doing yoga on the floor (plus, I use a towel, for crying out loud!) An empty wine bottle inside does not mean I will lose all my money, and I will not get bridenapped when I go to the Caucasus.
Get it?!

Ok, enough.

*Kefir. Not "annoying" because no one has force-fed me this stuff or anything, but how the heck to people drink this stuff? It's gross!
*The assumption that everyone wants cream added to their food.
*The bus driver on the 06:30 bus to Ekaterinburg who played Russian techno music the whole way. I had intended to sleep on this bus. Only "sort of annoying" because at least the music was Russian and not American pop, if I had to listen to Rihanna at 6:30 in the morning or something of the like, I would have jumped out the window and walked to Ekaterinburg. I also figured, that maybe the bus driver played this music so he wouldn't fall asleep at the wheel himself. Understandable.
*Ice skating, and it's popularity. Don't get me wrong... ice skating of course can be fun! I personally prefer to go slowly, or at my own pace, and not in huge crowds of people... and even so, only once in a while, it's not really my thing. In Russia, though, at least in Chelyabinsk, EVERYBODY ice skates. All the time. It's considered strange if you DON'T go ice skating every weekend. Why is this annoying? Because of unpredictable little kids darting around and causing a tripping-over-them hazard, and 13-year-old hockey players sharing the rink with you. So you have to watch out for little kids, hockey pucks, and the occasional hockey stick... not exactly what I call a fun afternoon.
*Pukhoviki. A pukhovik is a kind of Russian winter coat. It is not fur except for the collar, it is just a coat with a texture that looks something like the Michelin tire guy... except it doesn't make you look fat. They are usually long and slender shaped with a belt in the middle, so that even in warm winter clothes, Russian young women still show off their slim figures. People also wear pukhoviki when they go ice skating. I like my dublyonka, it is real fur and very warm and not as bulky looking as the American winter coats, but it does lack the sleekness of the pukhoviki, you cannot distinguish what kind of figure is underneath. I thought from before that wearing a dublyonka and high-heeled boots would make me indistinguishable from other Russians my age, but no... most people my age wear pukhoviki, plus "winter" high-heeled boots, and a hat on top. (Why, if the pukhovik has a fur hood, do you also need a hat?)
*Russian dates. A typical date with a Russian is a movie and a walk in the park... or sometimes, more ice skating. Somebody else correct me if I'm wrong. This kind of date is perfectly fine, I like movies (usually), and I like to go for walks, but for especially a first or second date when you are still getting to know someone, this isn't really what I have in mind. There are some things I like about this difference from American dates where people go to restaurants or something... they cost less money, they don't involve calories and/or being judged on what you do or do not get to eat... but when I want to go on a date with someone and get to know that person, I really need to sit down across from him and make eye contact and have a good conversation. You can't do this in a movie theater, and on a walk...while walking is great... there are too many other distractions, like other people, buildings, cars, cold, and what good a look do you get at someone when they are all bundled up in winter clothing? My ideal kind of date is to go and have a drink (just a glass of wine is enough) at a place where there is music, maybe live music (but not until after meaningful conversation) and dancing. Maybe this is too expensive?

*The actual temperature. Maybe because it's been a "mild" -15C on average, but the Russian Winter is more invigorating and strength-building than annoying. Once I am dressed right, I feel empowered after having gone running when it is -24 (that's the lowest temperature I have run through so far... about -12F)
*Kyrgyz bureaucrats. They get a 7.5/10 rating for me. I got the visa without any problem, they were quick with doing it and I never had to wait long. Maybe because there was not much going on there. The only issue was, I am pretty sure I am the ONLY female American they have ever in their lives seen come to their consulate in Ekaterinburg for a Kyrgyz tourist visa. I seemed to have blown their minds.
*Speaking Russian. Obviously. I LIKE to speak Russian. And if I get to do so for most of the time outside of English class, even better.
*Class periods/"pary". I used to think that 90 minute classes were long... but they seem to fly by actually.
*Trains. Call me crazy, but I actually like to travel by train. Yes, it's often long. We'll see if this changes after my 52-hour Chelyabinsk-Krasnodar mega-train-ride. But I usually meet interesting people and have an excuse to nap all day or read or do nothing at all.
*Running around a track. Even though it is much more boring than running on a road with hills, it has it's meditative points, and I am just so thankful for this Soviet track that it doesn't matter how boring it is, I'm just glad to have a place to run.
*Culture in general. As I have mentioned many times already, I've adjusted pretty easily. Well..until a Babushka comes around.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


I really have no name for this next blog entry, so I've decided to title it "December." There are too many things to write about.

Actually, it is a good point to make that it is NOT November. November was kind of a month of inertia... I got into this lull of classes and routines and people canceling things right and left and being bored and stuck in a comfort zone... which has the effect on me that doing anything out of the ordinary seemed like a big scary deal.

This month is the exact opposite. Things are busy. Interesting. Always involving people. Sometimes stressful, in a good way.
One thing that was NOT stressful was... this weekend! I finally made it to a Russian banya.  In the movies, it's when large awkward looking men drink vodka in a sauna and hit each other over with birch sticks. Fortunately, this is was not the case... I went to the sanatorium with two friends- the colleague Volodya and his friend Anton... they are neither large nor awkward looking, we did not drink vodka, and there were no birch sticks involved. It was pure, relaxing fun. The only problem was that sometimes we would argue about which language to speak. Everyone always wants to practice English with me, but if I speak English for too long my Russian gets all messed up.
It was a weekend of freezing cold frozen-lake islands exploration, deep and meaningful conversations, and бесцельные прогульки (aimless walks- something Americans lack. I noted yet another difference...when friends meet up in America, it seems like it always has to be IN or AT some place.. a restaurant or house or something... Russians can just meet up and walk, without a destination. I like this.)

A sanatoria is like a spa, but not necessarily so expensive and fancy. It's just a room or room suite you can rent with access to a sauna and fresh air. This sanatorium was located outside Chebarkul, a small town near the city of Miass, another city in Chelyabinsk Oblast. It's a completely different world, for those who associate Chelyabinsk with only heavy industry and dirty air. The names of the sanatoria are always something like "Sosnovaya Gorka" (sleepy hill- the one we stayed at) "Lesnaya Skazka" (Forest Fairy Tale), "Uralskaya Zorya" (Ural Sunrise).... except there happens to be one sanatoria named "Metallurg." Seriously, only in Chelyabinsk.
Really? A spa named for the metallurgical industry? Images of massages done with broken tractor parts come to mind.

My winter travel adventure is well on its way to being prepared. I have almost all the tickets bought, accommodations discussed about, itineraries brainstormed. This doesn't mean planned out... it means "options are being considered." It's an adventure, not a plan.
The grand general itinerary is.... North Caucasus-Kyrgyzstan-Moscow-Latvia. Which cities in Kyrgyzstan beyond Bishkek and which places in the Caucasus beyond Adygeya are still to be determined and will depend on money, time, willingness of other people, security, and who knows what else. Places in consideration are Nalchik and Dombai in the Caucasus and Osh and Karakol in Kyrgyzstan... Moscow and Riga...this is more obvious.

Yesterday was my first daytrip to Ekaterinburg involving the Kyrgyz visa. Even though this whole process seems very inconvenient, it is actually very lucky that I live so close to Ekaterinburg. First of all, it's a beautiful city (I will take pictures the next time I go), and second of all, it is easy to take a bus there at any time of any day. The Kyrgyz consulate is located near the center of the city, and I worried about getting there too late (as I did with the Russian consulate in New York, where I waited four hours in line only to be told to come back the next day). On the contrary, there was not much of a line at all, only two Kyrgyz families looking to get Russian passports, which is what I imagine most of their work involves. Russians and other CIS citizens do not need visas to go to Kyrgyzstan. I felt pretty weird there, a young blonde who looks like a Russian waiting around in the consulate asking about tourist visas. The people in the office didn't really seem to know what to do; for some reason or other, they don't get many Americans in Ekaterinburg looking for Kyrgyz visas. They did not ask me to leave my passport there, only took copies of my documents and the forms, my payment in cash, and said it will be ready in ten days. If there are any problems, they will call me.
If there are no phone calls from Kyrgyz bureaucrats in the next ten days... then all is well. I will give them a rating of 5 so far. They were polite and not slow, but kind of unsure of what they were doing. If all goes well and I get my visa on time I will boost their Bureaucrat Rating to a 6. In short: There are much, MUCH worse bureaucratic experiences to be had.
Ekaterinburg itself is gorgeous... very Old Russian. Next time when I am more oriented (assuming the visa situation in the consulate won't take too long) I will take the rest of the day to visit a museum or walk more around the center.
Mom, Dad... when this is all over, you are going to have SO MANY MAGNETS.
Definitely worth the 6:30 am bus ride.

As for the North Caucasus trip... it is to begin after Christmas. I will be leaving by train on the 24th and will be spending the entirety of Christmas Day on a train to Krasnodar, where I will meet and stay with an old time Adyghe State University friend Igor. I will then meet a fellow Fulbrighter named Alex and take a bus to Maykop where I will meet more old friends and celebrate the New Year, and then we are looking to travel onward. I'm not sure exactly the plan, but it will involve mountains, friends, music, wine, long road trips, complex languages, and fond memories.

Okay... now rewind for a second to last week. It is worth mentioning the extra three classes I picked up because one of the teachers was sick. These were elementary level classes, where the students knew VERY little English. I was only with them for one period each, but they seemed to be amazed. To be honest, it is a *slightly* uncomfortable feeling for me... I am not used to talking so much about myself and my own life and having it be so interesting for people... usually when people do that, it sounds conceited and self-obsessed. The students, however, were fascinated to here about my life in America, about Oberlin, about long distance running, about Drag Ball, about my friends from all around the world, about the red Volvo I used to drive. We  mostly spoke Russian (I figured, since I was only with them for one class, I might as well call it a cultural lecture instead of language practice, since their level was so low in English) but towards the end these students became more comfortable and could construct some sentences in English.
Who knew that college life was so fascinating!

Sunday, December 4, 2011


Something strange happened. Here, living alone in my apartment, I have needed to actually cook for myself, all the time, and.... I like it.

The two things I like to make the most:

PLOV. Rice with some seasoning and spices with random vegetables, and lamb (it's supposed to be lamb but I had chicken) I also add pomegranate seeds. Traditional Uzbek dish.

Ural Sandwiches. I love this. They are delicious and take only about 15 minutes to make. Stir-fried mushrooms with lots of spices (whatever I can find) on a sandwich of Ural'sky Xleb. Best with wine and halva.

Sometimes though, I just make soup by throwing into a pot whatever vegetables I happen to find. Usually more mushrooms and onions and a lot of pepper. It also ends up pretty spicy. Other times I get REALLY lazy and just boil some frozen pel'meni... but unlike the Russians I do not add cream... paprika instead :)