Monday, November 16, 2009

Staying Warm in "Winter"

We are lucky in Batumi that winter comes late and is overall pretty mild. The temperature rarely reaches down to freezing, and while we get plenty of rain, there are lots of sunny days, too. Nonetheless, even in this mild climate the house needs to be heated, because walking around in 40s-degree weather is not the same as sitting around in it. Brr!

Here in the older part of town, homes are typically heated by a combination of wood stoves, fireplaces, and electric heaters. Step outside in the evening on our street, and your eyes and lungs are hit by a haze of smoke, which clears once everyone goes to bed and all the fires die down. During the Soviet era everyone's homes were heated by natural gas (or maybe steam, like in Petersburg? Well, anyway, heating was centralized and government controlled). After the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the newly-privatized natural gas became too expensive for most families – when there's barely money for bread, gas becomes a true luxury. Thankfully, since then the situation has improved, and more and more people are able to get natural gas hooked up for heating and cooking.

Alas, even in natural gas hookups there's politics. We live in a forgotten part of town. To give the government its due, we do have streetlamps and modern electric meters. But, half our street isn't hooked up to the city sewage system (ours is the last house that squeaked in); they all still have septic tanks. Batumi was recently given 47 million euros (unconfirmed, but that's the number Reziko gave me) by Germany to fix our aging plumbing infrastructure. The money, at least for the most part, is going towards fixing the sewers – but only in the “good” part of town, where much of the sewage system is as new as 30 years old. Where we live, where some people have never had plumbing, there's been no work done whatsoever. The (naive?) hopeful me would like to think that they'll get to us once the rest of the system is in better working order, but history shows that that rarely happens, and that they always have an answer when we cry, “What about us?” In the same vein, the same few, main, “good” streets get repaved just about every other year, but in our quarter, which has never been paved, it will only happen if all the neighbors raise the money to do it themselves. And to get back to gas – people who live in the “good” part of town got gas lines put in for free on their streets, they had to pay only to have a line run into their homes. We have a gas pipe on our street, too, but only on our side of the street, and only because a bunch of neighbors pooled their money and paid to put the pipe in. Should the Gvarjaladze household ever want a gas hook-up, we'd have to buy into the pool (about 500 lari), as well as pay for the line into the home, the furnace, etc.

All injustices aside, what it comes down to is we'll probably be using our wood stove and electric heater for a few years yet. Growing up in Iowa, we always had a wood-burning fireplace, though more for atmosphere than for warmth, and Dad always seemed to know someone who'd give us the wood if Dad would cut down the tree for them. Here, where a significant portion of the population burns wood, firewood selling is a whole industry.

As often seems to happen, Basa waited till a rainy day to order firewood. It was already dark when one of those huge construction trucks used to haul sand and debris came rumbling down our street and halted in front of our house. It was filled with huge logs – entire tree trunks 2-3 feet in diameter and 2-4 feet long. The truck driver tipped the bed up, and all that wood came crashing down into the street. What a racket!

Reziko and Gogi rolled as many of the waterlogged rounds as they could into the courtyard; the rest stayed on the street. After the truck lumbered away, the next industry players showed up: local guys with chainsaws. For a few lari, they cut the larger rounds into more manageable chunks. The next day, two of Basa's workers came by to make some extra money and chopped all that wood into fireplace- and stove-sized pieces. We don't hire out every year; there have been many years when Gogi and Reziko are tasked with chopping all that wood themselves.

After four or five hours of steady chopping, the men finished up. Two mountains of wood now completely filled the courtyard. They stayed that way a couple of days, then, tired of tripping over the wood constantly, I rallied the forces and me, Reziko, and Gogi stacked it all under the stairs. It took three and a half hours and we ended up with three cords as tall as me. A great workout – and now we're set for winter!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Georgian Halloween

We had Halloween! Reziko designed and carved his first pumpkin ever:


Here he is drawing the face he finally decided on, after we cut out the top and scooped out the innards.



And here's the final result, goopy stuff on the table included! Pretty scary, huh? Our camera died before we got a picture with the candle lit, but believe me, Reziko's jack-o-lantern delighted everyone who saw it. Added bonus: they insisted on leaving the lid on when it was lit, so a nice burning pumpkin smell filled the room. :)

On the table you can also see the first plate of about a million pirozhki, or homemade Hot Pockets, that Inga made that day. I helped with some of them - we made them with eggs and onion, potato, hamburger, and cabbage. So yummy!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Running Georgian Style

A Georgian friend and I decided to start running in the mornings. This lasted all of three days, I'm afraid I have to report, but our first run out was so funny from an American viewpoint that I just have to share.

For comparison purposes, here's what I typically do when I go for a jog: I try to run more than I walk, and I give myself time limits on how long I can walk. At my peak, I was running a good 10 or 15 minutes before walking 2-4 minutes, then repeating. The time I spent out rarely exceeded about 45 minutes.

We decided to go running on the Boulevard, a stretch of path running several kilometers along the coast of the Black Sea, which turns into a track in the early hours of the morning (although it's mostly men, and mostly older men, who are running). We met at seven and headed out, our walk to the Boulevard taking about twenty minutes.

My friend has long been off the workout wagon, and I haven't been doing too great myself, so we decided to start slow, alternating three-minute jogs with walking periods. The morning sea air was fresh and invigorating, and it was motivating to see so many other people also out exercising.

About six minutes into our exercise, which means we were already walking after an initial jog, my friend saw someone she knew, and we stopped to talk for about 10 minutes. We kept going, running three minutes at a time, but walking at least 10 minutes in between, aiming to get a total of 20 minutes of running in. We did eventually reach that goal, but it took an hour and a half! This is why even though having a workout partner is a great motivator to get out of bed in the morning, sometimes it's hard to run with a partner - if your goals or abilities are too different, you can be left feeling like you haven't worked at all, or it can take waaaay to long to reach your relatively modest goals.

The biggest kicker? On our way back, we were passing by my friend's godmother's apartment, and she decided we should stop by. The walk up to the sixth floor was a great workout, but when we arrived, we woke up her godmother, which I felt bad about (but is totally normal and acceptable in Georgia - the random stop by is the preferred method of visiting). We ended up staying there, drinking coffee and eventually eating breakfast, until almost noon... when they gave us a ride home in their car! It was nice visiting, her godmother and her husband and daughter are lovely people, but it was definitely not what I was expecting from a morning run. Especially riding home in a car afterwards....

Anyway, this was an interesting insight into Georgian social patterns and their take on fitness culture. I'd still like to go running in the morning with a partner (because I really don't seem to be able to get out of bed otherwise), but I need one who is similarly focused. Reziko has offered to go with me countless times, but this offer has the caveat that I have to wake him up, which defeats the whole point of my workout partner motivating me to get out of bed because I know they're making the effort for me, too. It's so much easier when the alarm goes off to just snuggle back in and doze off than to climb out into the cold air and try to convince a happily sleeping husband that he, too, should brace for the cold and go exercise. Just doesn't happen.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Georgian Wedding

On October 7, Reziko and I had a BIG party to celebrate our union. Well, it seemed big to me, as we had about 100 invited guests, but Georgian wedding receptions often run 300 or even 500 guests.

You can see pictures of the event here.

The morning of we were still running around, picking up sweets and khachapuri from the bakery and delivering them to the reception hall and attending to a thousand other details it seemed like we should have thought of before. At one I was dropped off at the salon to get a mani-pedi and my hair and makeup done, which took a good couple of hours. The girl who did my makeup spoke a little Russian, but everyone else was almost completely Georgian-only, so that was kind of awkward. They dressed me right there, which is good, because I couldn't have gotten into that dress without help. I was then whisked home in a taxi, where I sat very still and straight, because it's painful to slouch in a corset.

Everyone had gone to the reception hall except me and Reziko and our mejuarebi (best man and maid of honor) Tamazi and Irma. The reception started at 4, but apparently it's normal for the bride and groom to come a little later than that, so that the guests are all seated and waiting by the time they make their grand entrance. This was sort of a bummer for me because I was starving, but finally, at about half past four, the car showed up to ferry us to the event.

As is traditional, Reziko and I sat with Tamazi and Irma at the table of honor on a raised stage. However, the layout of the room was such that I couldn't see all of the guests. At the table closest to ours sat my parents with Eliko, who was interpreting, and my mother-in-law, Inga, and Gela, who was our tamada, or toastmaster.

I didn't have the benefit of the toasts being translated for me this time, but I think Gela did an excellent job of shouting over the guests to deliver his toasts. The first toast, naturally, was to me and Reziko and our happiness, and Gela toasted us with a khantsi, or bull's horn. Khantsi come in many sizes; I think the one at our wedding was a one-liter, and it was clear crystal, rather than a natural horn. After Gela toasted, other men who can handle that much wine at once also took their turns toasting us with the khantsi. Every time we had to stand up and hold our glasses, which at first were connected to each other with what looked like Mardi Gras beads (to symbolize everlasting union?). We quickly removed the beads, as they were a spilling hazard (our table, like every table in the place, was loaded with food), and we thought they looked kind of dumb anyway. Once everyone who wanted to toast with the khantsi had done so, Gela moved on to other toasts: to Reziko's parents, to my parents, to our mejuarebi, etc, and these were done with regular-sized glasses.

The party went on for a good three or four hours. There were mostly men there, people my father-in-law Basa knows from his job and neighbors on our little street. Reziko and I danced to a couple of slow tunes at the behest of our ever-more-drunken self-appointed DJ, and my Dad tried out his variation on traditional Georgian dancing (think doing the twist only real low). The Georgians just went wild over that. Dad also danced with Inga, which left her breathless and, I'm sure, will be fondly remembered for years to come.

The food was prolific and fantastic. One of my favorite dishes were these absolutely delicious, plump and juicy roasted mushrooms, prepared on traditional Georgian clay cookware. So yummy! There was roast suckling pig, beef dishes, chicken dishes, eggplant dishes, khachapuri, tons of other stuff. I even asked that they just bring me out a little plate of tomatoes and cucumbers, so as not to make myself sick eating just meat. One interesting tradition that I didn't anticipate is that the wedding cake is not cut on the day of the reception, but rather just sits in front of the table of honor, looking sparkly and pretty.

At the end of the night a couple of especially drunk and especially happy for us guys came over to personally give rambling (but heartfelt) toasts in Russian, wishing us long life and millions of babies. As the guests left, the food was packed up for day two (yes, it goes on!), and I finally got to go home and take my beautiful but heavy dress off.

On day two we prepared our living room for about twenty guests, serving some of the massive quantities of food that remained from the day before. I spent the morning cleaning chairs that had long been stored in a dusty attic and helping to put together an extended table. In a smaller room, the toasts seemed even louder than before, and I had a harder time staying smiley on day two (Georgians are very good at celebrating until it's not actually fun anymore), but they didn't stay too long, and we got to cut the cake this time, so that was good.

And then the wedding stuff was over at last! Now I've got the rest of the weekend to spend with my parents, who fly out on Sunday. It's been great to see them!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Wedding Reception Planning

Basa and Inga are throwing me and Reziko a wedding reception. Normally this would have been done right after the venchanie at the church (which we had July 26), but we wanted to wait so my parents could be present. And now I'm learning lots about wedding planning in Georgia!

Clothes: Most wedding dresses in this part of the world look like Disney princess gone awry. Here's a sampling from the first couple pages of a Google search; these are very representative of what's available in the stores around here:





Basically, they're way not my style; many of the dresses I saw here could easily be confused for the wedding cake. If I'd been more on the ball, I would have picked out a dress I liked from the internet and had someone custom make it for me, but since it didn't occur to me early enough, I was limited to what was already on the rack. Fortunately, we did find one dress that isn't shaped like a church bell, and even though it's still sleeveless (i.e. it's a corset top - don't think I'll be eating too much!) and covered in strings of blingy rhinestones, it's still a pretty nice dress. We got a little bolero to go with it, so I won't be cold or feel so naked. I also bought my very first pair of peep-toes, so it's a good thing that my salon work-up includes a pedicure (along with manicure, make-up, and hairstyle).

Of course, I'm not the only one getting a new outfit. Reziko bought his first suit and dress shoes (do you know how hard it is to find a coat and pants for someone as skinny as he?), Gogi got a snappy new shirt, pants, and dress shoes, and lovely Inga got a new haircut and a dress, and will even be wearing heels!

Food: Basa, Gogi, and Tamazi set off at about 4 AM yesterday morning to the villages in the mountains to buy meat. They came back with about 30 kilograms of cheese, an entire cow, hacked up and stuffed into grain bags, four live piglets and about twenty live chickens. Our courtyard has temporarily been turned into a barnyard. The animals are cute but stinky; the chickens are constantly knocking over their water, and one of them is an escape artist, always squeezing out through the wire. We eventually just let her roam; she can't get far anyway, as the yard is fenced. Butchering time is scheduled for four o'clock; I'm not sure yet if I'm going to watch. I'm half grossed-out and half curious, since I never have seen how animals are butchered before. So maybe I'll watch one or two and then skedaddle. All of this food will be taken to the chef at the reception hall tomorrow morning so they'll have time to cook everything by 4 PM on Wednesday.

Clean-up: We've been scurrying around getting the house guest-ready, which has involved a lot of sweeping, mopping, scrubbing, etc. I try to stay out of the way and stick to what I know how to do, which has been mostly dish-washing and sweeping. I had a little battle of wills with Inga this morning as she physically tried to stop me from moving the couch with Gogi, saying, "You can't do that, Alli! You're a WOMAN!!" Which, I know, is just how she was raised and is used to looking at the world, but it really pissed me off. And I moved the couch anyway, and explained to her that in the US I don't just wait around for a man to show up to move something marginally heavy for me, and fumed about it for awhile afterwards, and now I'm mostly over it. Most of the time I can deal with this gender-role stuff without much trouble, but when the reason why I can't do something is not because I'm not strong enough or not tall enough, but specifically because I'm a female, that irks me. Anyway, in the end we've got the house pretty presentable, which is good, because my parents arrive tomorrow!

I hope Mom brings her camera, because I don't have one, and I'd really like pictures of us looking all spiffy, and of all the food, and of the party in general. Georgian weddings typically run to 300 people, sometimes even 500, but we're keeping ours to about 100. Still, it's going to be raucous. Stay tuned for updates after Wednesday.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Allergy Update

After another miserable, snotty, sneezy morning, Reziko and I finally went to the drugstore and got me some allergy medicine. Ah sweet, sweet relief! And I'm not drowsy or loopy, and it only costs 35 tetri per pill (about 20 cents). I can handle that much per day, especially if it means I'm not going to feel like shit all winter (at least not from allergies). Yay!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Rain Rain Rain Rain Rain Rain Rain

So, guess what the weather's been like here... ugh. Apparently this has been an unusual September; normally it's considered the most beautiful month of the year in Batumi. But it's only been sunny maybe five or six days since I got here, and the rest of the time it alternates between a dreary drizzle and downright downpour. I wouldn't be so bummed about it, except I'm discovering that with all the windows closed all the time, the allergies I found tolerable this summer (to mold/mildew and cigarette smoke) are making me completely miserable now. Not only is there no air exchange with all the windows closed, but when it's pouring, we can't even go out for walks by the sea, which always clears my sinuses right up. Whaaaaaah.

But it hasn't been all bad. We have had a couple of really lovely days, during which Reziko and I went for hours-long walks that seemed to pass in minutes. Last week, in the first clear day after four or five days of rain, we walked down to the beach to watch the roily post-storm waves and look for interesting rocks. The tourists are pretty much all gone now, so we have the Boulevard and the beach and the benches and the bar by the port back to ourselves again.

We also went to the local registry the other day to find out about the process for getting me a long-term residence permit, which, as far as I knew, was required for folks planning on staying beyond the 90-day no-visa-necessary period. The girl behind the counter looked at us like we were crazy (Why do you want to stay more than 90 days? her gaze inquired), then, after consulting with some other people in the office, suggested that I simply cross the border for a day to restart the 90 days. Wow, great suggestion. I guess we could go to Turkey... Well, that just didn't sound right to me, because I was sure I'd read about the process for getting a residence permit on the Georgian Embassy's website sometime last year when I was preparing for my first visit, so we decided to check back with the ol' Ministry of Foreign Affairs online. Turns out that sometime in the last few months, the no-visa-necessary period was extended from 90 days to 360! That's almost a whole year! So, I guess THAT problem's been resolved. And the United Airlines lady in DC didn't want to let me leave without a return ticket......

My and Reziko's language lessons are heating back up, as I slowly start to chip away at my Georgian beginner's textbook, and we review the English he studied this summer in preparation for further work. I've also had a little translating work to do, but I haven't been terribly active in seeking non-Reziko students of English yet.

There has also been lots of reception planning going on, from haggling over the date (the 10th. No, the 11th. No, the 12th! No, the 11th again!), to finalizing the guest list (slashed at Reziko's insistence from 250 to around 100), to writing the grocery list (meat to vegetable ratio around 10:1). In the next couple of weeks I'll be purdied up with dress and hairstyle, myriad livestock will be handpicked and butchered from the farms around Batumi, the post-no-roof-during-rain-season disaster that is our living room will be repaired, and we'll all be ready to have a grand old time.

I'm extremely happy to report that I have not had a single intestinal problem since arriving (knock on wood), which I attribute to generally less pigging out on pork and drinking of tap water than this summer. I'm hoping my luck holds out at LEAST till after my parents' visit - they arrive next week! - so that we can have a good time together, eat a lot at the reception, and not have to worry about me feeling ill constantly. Speaking of their visit, I hope the weather clears up! We have lots of neat things to show them if the weather cooperates, but I'm afraid if it's super-rainy the whole time, our options become much more limited. This isn't exactly a huge metropolitan area, after all. Well, we'll figure it out.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Back in Batumi

Welcome to the recently renovated blog, which I am hoping to NOT abandon without warning like last time.

I got in last Saturday and had pretty awful jet lag for about three days and couldn't sleep at night, and I also came down with a cold a day after getting here (that's what I get for a week and a half of traveling around and not sleeping enough). But I appear to be pretty fully adjusted already, which is amazing, since it always seemed to take longer in Russia (same time zone). Maybe because the weather's nicer here. I've been in Batumi for a week now, and it has passed as if in a single day! We've managed nonetheless to have a few adventures. The day after I arrived, a huge storm blew in from Turkey and we had monsoon-like rains off and on for three days straight. This happens frequently, and usually isn't a problem, but this time, part of our roof was gone (it was in the rather slow process of being replaced), and so half of the upstairs got completely soaked. It also fried the electricity, so Reziko and I are still sitting in the dark in our room.

Why only in our room? Well, apparently, during the Soviet Union it was common practice to have two kinds of electricity running to your house: left and right. Right electricity was funneled through the meter; you ran your TV and lamps and whatnot on it, and you paid for it. Left electricity bypassed the meter; you ran your washing machine and other big appliances on it and got it for free. Legal? No. Widespread? Absolutely. Today the government has wiped out this practice by placing meters on the street before where the electric lines are split for each home, but the electrical systems themselves haven't been updated. Thus, our room is on left electricity, and that's the one that fried. We're still waiting for the electrician.

In other news, I've managed to get some baking done the past few days. I made peanut butter cookies and chicken pot pie, both of which went over rather well. Poor Inga's been sick (drinking bad water, perhaps?) so I've had the run of the kitchen, which has been nice. Not that I want her to be sick more often. I'm getting a little more assertive about cooking and whatnot, and now that I'm part of the family, Inga's been more willing to let me go wild with the cooking and cleaning and whatnot. It's a good feeling to be contributing, as well as to have a sense of control over my life and my space that is often lacking when you live with a host family (or your sweetheart's parents).

The past couple of days the weather has been great - it's warm and sunny during the day, but quite cool at night. Reziko and I have gone for some really great walks, and it's getting even nicer now that there are fewer tourists.

This first week has been a bit lazy, but we're gearing up to start our language lessons - Reziko learning English, of course, and me Georgian. I am still hoping to get a few English students while I'm here to help cover the cost of our plane tickets home.

Speaking of, no word yet on our visa petition. We know it's been received and it's in the works, but it can be a couple months or more before we hear anything - unless they need further documentation or something like that. Keep your fingers crossed that all will go smoothly - we'd love to be in the US as early next year as possible!

Not much else to report. Oh, except that the grapes are ripe and boy are they delicious! Nice to be living in the cradle of winemaking. :) Hope all at home is well!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Quest

All our documents are in order. We went to church. We're nervous as hell. We're off tonight to Tbilisi... at 9:30 tomorrow morning, Rezo has his visa interview. Wish us luck!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Mushmula


This funny little fruit is called a mushmula. It is very delicious. I've eaten about 100 of them in the past couple of days.

Now children, play nice...

Our power was off during the day every day for almost three weeks. Finally, on Wednesday, they finished the work, and we had our power back. Yay! Yesterday we had power all day. Then today, around 10.... off it went.

Why? As it turns out, the company that has control over the power switches in the city was miffed that they didn't win the contract to do the work changing the power meters. So to punish the company doing the work, which is still trying to finish everything, and whose workers get paid only when the work is done, and who needed power to do what they were doing today, they just turned off the whole city. Or at least our whole neighborhood.

Um, childish much?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sea!

Went swimming this morning for the first time this season. The water was wonderful. I paddled around for about half an hour, swimming out a few meters, then swimming back, over and over. Rezo gets nervous when I go too far out for him to "save" me, should the need arise, since he's not much of a swimmer himself. The Black Sea is full of jellyfish that don't sting, which delights me. They're fun to scoop up. As floaty as they are in the water, they're kind of rubbery in your palm. Then you hurl them back into the water and think, “Wow, I bet that jellyfish never knew it would fly one day...”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let me tell you a story

They looked at each other over their steins of watered-down local beer. In the distance across the bay a fog obscured the peaks of the mountains. The sea washed silently against the port wall; the impending rain had transformed its hue from blue-green to gray-green. Further out a few freight ships waited their turn to dock and unload, but this close to the bar the only thing in the sea was a solitary orange bobber, which demarcated for those in the know how far out they can swim without being fined. It was a trap for milking tourists.

They looked at each other for a while, then looked out over the port. It was a strange location for a bar, but the view was still breathtaking, as far as the girl was concerned, and it was close to home.

The boy spoke up. "In August, when we were talking online and the lights went out, that was because the Russians were bombing us. They blacked out the whole city. Everyone stood out on the street to watch. We didn't have any bomb shelters, so what did it matter if we sat at home or out on the street? The places they bombed weren't military at all, they were just regular streets with houses, like ours. And they weren't small bombs, either. One bomb fell on a car and didn't explode. It was twice as big as the car, both in length and width. It was just luck that it didn't explode, who knows how much damage a bomb of that size would have caused if it had exploded.

"One time when we went into blackout, they forgot to turn the streetlamps off on our street. Imagine, the entire city is dark except our little street. Of course, we called and they turned our lights off too right away.

"It's funny what a person can get used to. The war only lasted five days, but even within that time, we got used to just waiting. When the lights went out, we just had to wait to see if we'd be next. The waiting is the worst part."

The boy paused and took a swig of his beer. Gazing out over the now-empty port, he continued, "You can't imagine what this port looked like then. Every American military vessel in the Black Sea gathered right here in Batumi. They were ready to jump in and help us if given the signal. Not just little ships either, but huge warships. Imagine what would have happened if some drunken Russian pilot took it into his head to drop a bomb on one of those ships. The Americans would have responded, and there'd have been war between the US and Russia.

"See those silos over there, across the bay? They're filled with oil. If the Russians had bombed them, there'd have been a chain reaction and the whole city would have gone. Thank God the Americans were there, and the Russians didn't dare to bomb us anymore.

"So while Europe did nothing, America really helped us. They were ready to help militarily at any moment, if it came to that. I know you don't like Bush, and maybe he did a lot of bad stuff for you at home, I don't know, I've never been there to see, but he truly saved us from Russia, and I can never think he was a bad person and I will always respect him for that."

The boy fell silent once again. Throughout his monologue, the girls eyes had not fallen from his face even once, though he looked off into the distance as he spoke. Now he looked at her for the first time, and his eyes grew wide when he saw that hers were brimming with tears. "Hey," he said a little roughly, shaking his head. "What is that?"

The girl wiped her eyes quickly and said, "It's just that I didn't know, and I'm imagining everyone I know here standing out on our little street just waiting to be bombed, and it's awful. When you went offline suddenly that day last August, I scoured the internet for information about what was happening here, but there was none. No one knew what was happening, and even now no one there knows what happened. Why would they bomb Batumi? You're not even close to Abhazia or South Ossetia. And why bomb Poti? And Gori? And Kutaisi? There was just no information. But now I know."

And now you know.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Two-week Update

Time slips by unnoticed when you don't have work or school to worry about, so I was quite surprised when I realized almost two weeks have passed since I arrived. It has rained a couple times, it got blistering hot for a few days, and for now we've settled into a partly-sunny, cool-in-the-house couple of days. Here, have some vignettes:

"Electricity"

The power has been out during the day every day since I got here, including the weekends. They've been replacing the electric meters in the neighborhood, but apparently this whole side of town is on one power switch, so we've all been sitting in relative darkness for two weeks, sometimes till 9 or 10 at night. There's no A/C anyway, but it's also meant no fans, no internet, no TV, no baking (the oven is electric), and food going bad in the fridge. They say today's the last day, but they've said that every day for the past two weeks, so who knows if it's really true or not. [NOTE: By evening they told us four more days. Sigh.]


"Food"

In culinary adventures, I made tacos for my fam the other day, which were met with rave reviews. There's a sauce here that fairly closely approximates salsa, I brought with me all the spices for the meat, and Armenian lavash is practically the same as tortillas. All in all, a success. We had one rainy day when the electricians didn't work, and I baked banana bread. It was also a hit; next time we have power I'm making a double batch.

On my end, I'm still getting accustomed to all Georgian food, all the time. Inga (future mom-in-law), luckily, understands that I can't handle a lot of really fatty food, and in general doesn't use much salt at all, but nonetheless my diet here is much richer and heavier than at home, with much fewer fruits and vegetables. Sometimes this makes me fell really ill (actually, the last few days I feel ill almost all the time), and the thought of eating more bread and meat and cheese nearly brings me to tears. But mostly I try to keep a good attitude and mix a little of "when in Rome..." with introducing my own, vegetable-rich recipes.

Rezo says that's all well and good, but he has reminded me several times that it's okay both to not eat what they put in front of me if I don't want to, and that it's okay to ask for more veggies and fruits. They're just not used to it, so they forget to buy them. After the latest round of Alli-clearly-has-an-upset-tummy, brought on by a breakfast of meat dumplings, a lunch of fried cornmeal cakes and cheese, and a mid-afternoon snack of khachapuri (more bread and cheese), I gently reminded Inga that not all of us were born with carnivorous intestines, and could I please have something not from an animal? They bought me fruits and veggies. :) Including a DELICIOUS local fruit called a mushmula, which tastes a little like a Sweettart and which I ate about 7 of. Num num.

"Passport"

I've gotten a first-hand look at the Georgian bureaucracy as I've followed Rezo around while he applied for his passport. Things kept coming up which slowed the process. The first day Rezo showed up with too little money; he didn't know how much it was going to cost. The next day he discovered that his ID was expired, and he had to renew it before he could apply for a passport. So we stood in line for about 45 minutes at the civil registry to turn that in. "In line" is a broad term; it was more like standing in a very tight clump of sweaty people who were worried about losing their place, despite the established order (I guess not without reason; there were occasional cutters). I've gotten used to people in this part of the world standing much closer than they do in the US, but when this one woman's ample bosom kept squishing into my arm, I really wanted to say "Geez, lady, we all know you're next. Back off!"

Anyway, the next day we picked up Rezo's new ID, then had to leave and come back to apply for the passport later, because right then the whole place went on break for two hours. When we got back, we got all the way to the front of the line just before closing and realized we'd left a document at home. By this point, I wasn't even frustrated anymore; I just laughed, it had all gotten so absurd. The next day we finally got everything turned in, and on the 10th we can go pick up his new passport. Then we'll jump right on the visa application process.


"English"

Reziko and I have been working on his English. We agreed when I arrived that we'd set aside 2 hours a day, from 3 to 5, just for English. He's a good student and is picking things up quickly (though probably not as quickly as he'd like; we're very similar in that regard, we like things to turn out RIGHT AWAY). Hopefully, by the end of the summer he'll be ready to start his "real" English classes at Kirkwood.


"Dave"

An acquaintance of mine, Dave, decided to include Batumi in his summer travels, so we spent a few days showing him around. We walked around the zoo and the Boulevard (by the sea) one day. The next day we drove out to the Green Cape and Botanical Gardens, where the views are absolutely stunning and there are plants and trees from all over the world. Sometime in the 19th century a Frenchman came and planted the gardens; when the Communists arrived in 1921 he headed back to France, but the garden remained and has been growing for 100 years. For Dave's last day in town, Rezo invited him over for a taste of real Georgian hospitality. Inga and Liana cooked up a storm, and over the course of four and a half hours or so we made our way through almost 10 liters of wine. It was nice to not be the guest of honor for a change. While the guys regaled Dave with Georgian history and traditions, I was able to sit back, relax, and have side conversations of my own. I remember wondering back in December and January why people at the table talked while the tamada was giving toasts, bu I've come to realize that you can only listen to the same nine toasts in various permutations so often before finding your own conversation more interesting. After dinner, we packed Dave off in a train to Tbilisi, where he'll spend a few days before continuing his journey around Central Asia and Eastern Europe.


"The Fall"

The other day Rezo and I were hanging out in our room when we heard an awful thud and then cries of pain. A man had fallen from a neighbor's roof. He mangled his leg and spine and received head and eye trauma. It was awful to see. However, twisted as this may sound, it did give me an opportunity to see one of the ways conditions in Georgia have improved during the presidency of Saakashvili (since 2003). For one thing, the ambulance actually showed up within three or four minutes of calling; Rezo tells me that before, you could wait half an hour, and by the time the paramedics arrived, the person in trouble sometimes had died already. Secondly, the ambulance was new and in good condition. It did not have all the fancy equipment you'd see in an ambulance in the US, but it didn't look like it was going to break down on the way to the hospital, as the old ambulances apparently did. So the situation was still terrible, but at least the response was better than it would have been before.


"Chill"

Other than the adventures listed above, I really don't do much here, and for now, that's fantastic. I sleep as much as I want each night. I have time to read and write and cross-stitch to my heart's desire. I spend quite a bit of time chatting with Inga and watching the two kittens grow and play (I'm going to be sad when they're old enough to go to their new homes; kittens are such fun!). Reziko and I go for walks, enjoy evening beers by the sea, and talk talk talk talk. He's teaching me Georgian little by little, and sounds which two weeks ago seemed impossible to me I'm slowly learning to make. Although it's sometimes frustrating when everyone around me is speaking Georgian, and I spend much more time in a listening role than in a speaking role, I'm trying to let the language wash over me and just pick up what I can, when I can. Most of the time I love that I'm here, and I have the feeling this summer is going to go by way too quickly.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Georgia fun begins

I arrived safely and on time in Batumi yesterday at around 2 PM. It was absolutely thrilling to fly in over the Black Sea and land at the tiny Batumi International Airport. The passport control guy was really suspicious this time; despite the fact that I'd clearly been to Georgia twice already in the last year, he inspected my picture under a microscope, then asked me what state I was from, and where in the US it was located – some sort of test to see if I actually was from where I said I was from? My guess is they've gotten more careful about letting people in since the anti-government protests started a couple months ago.

Anyway, I've been sleeping a LOT since I got here, trying to get caught up after my long trip and after generally not sleeping enough in Piter. It has helped that the electricity has been out all day yesterday and today; no TV or internet to distract me from sleeping. :) It's FANTASTIC to be here again; the weather is wonderful, I'm still allergic to Rezo's room, but we'll figure out what from soon enough, and I'll keep you all updated on goings on. For now, time to watch soccer. Go Manchester!!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Road Notes: What could have been a 3-hour direct flight was 36 hours of layover fun

1 PM - in a coffee shop in Frankfurt

I met the other Americans in my group leaving for Frankfurt early Monday morning. There were only five of us left – everyone else had either already gone home or were extending their stays. When we went to check in, there was a problem: I was the only one in the system with an e-ticket number; the other four were nowhere to be found. I suspect that I only had a number because I changed the second leg of my ticket to accommodate my trip to Georgia; in any event, the other four didn't end up getting on the plane. Hope everyone gets home alright.

On the plane a very ill young man and his wife sat in my row. I was nervous the whole trip because I was just waiting for him to barf (he had the bag at the ready the whole time), but luckily he didn't, and just slept most of the time. Still, all that recycled air – hope he wasn't contagious. Maybe he drank the water or something. Anyway, the flight was uneventful, I stored my carry-on at the airport, totally got ripped off exchanging my last thousand rubles (I shouldn't have done it. I should have just kept them and exchanged them for lari in Batumi instead of for TEN FREAKING EURO. That was like thirty bucks when it came out of my account!), and found my way onto the train into town.

The first couple hours of the morning I sat outside at a cafe and read a book in Russian. Then I wandered around for a while. Frankfurt is so.... western! It's so clean, and the sidewalks are all even and maintained, and there are bicycles everywhere. People are friendly – they smile at you for no reason; I crossed in front of a car and waved thanks, and the driver waved back instead of speeding up to try and hit me... Being here sort of blows my mind. Also sort of weird, there are a lot of sex shops and peep shows scattered in among the coffee shops and designer clothing stores. But mostly what Germany has done for me so far is to make me feel like I don't belong anywhere. I realize how accustomed I've become to the nitty-gritty of living in Russia, and in a way I'm glad I'll be going back to that in Georgia. This western Europe thing is strange. It's hard to explain exactly what I'm feeling. I think it's a feeling of “People here just don't know how good they have it. They go around in their fashionable but relaxed clothes and buy their not-shitty coffees and work in offices for decent wages, and just a three-hour plane ride away it's a completely different world.” And now I feel like I'm a product of the western world that's aware of the uniqueness of what we have, which makes me uncomfortable in that world. At least for the moment. Luckily for me, I'll be back in Batumi in 22 hours.

4:00 PM - waiting in the Frankfurt airport

I'm being serenaded by a Turk with a guitar in the Frankfurt airport. It's quite enjoyable. Makes me wish I smelled better. This shirt is NOT fresh.

It's nice to think there's less than 24 hours left in my journey now. I'm glad I got out and walked around Frankfurt a bit; it really helped pass the time. Also, lucky for me some people speak English here, because seriously, I would not have been able to figure out which train to take to get back to the airport. Um, DUH, next time I go somewhere, I should at least know the word for “airport” in the local language.

It's extremely comforting to hear Russian in the airport sometimes. My ears strain for it; every foreign language becomes Russian until I notice I don't understand anything and admit to myself, “Oh, that's German. Or Japanese. Or Turkish.” It's nice when, occasionally, it actually IS Russian.

Rats, my serenading Turk doesn't speak English or Russian! Probably is a good thing, otherwise I'd have to stave off advances at least through boarding and possibly through the flight. Although a little conversation wouldn't kill me. I swear, I only write so much when I travel because I need to say something to someone, even if it's just a notebook.

6:00 AM - 9:00 AM - Istanbul

Wow, before we took off, my musician found me and gave me his email and facebook. Wow. After the flight, we were on the same shuttle and chatted a bit in very limited English. I found out he's a professional actor and singer and was in Frankfurt for four days to sing at a festival or concert or something like that. Neat.

Last night I flew in over this city in the dark for the second time this year. It's gorgeous at night; someday I'd love to get the heck out of the transit terminal and actually SEE the city.

I drank coffee after dinner on the plane, so to help burn off energy and pass part of my 12-hour layover, I put my stuff on a cart and walked laps around the terminal for about an hour. With my iPod, it wasn't that bad. Then I found a bench and slept for about four hours, waking up every hour or so. It was freezing.

At four-ish I got up, too cold to stay any longer, and got a big cup of coffee and a huge but dry chunk of walnut bread. A man from Israel who now lives in Spain struck up a conversation with me. At first my brain was too fuzzy to engage, but he was actually quite interesting. We talked a little about politics, about Turkey, the role of the US in the world, and how people's relationship with money belies their relationship with themselves. We talked so long that only at 5:45 did he realize that boarding for his flight started at 5:15. Hope he made it!

Then I spent about half an hour in the bathroom changing clothes and cleaning up. This, apparently, turned me into Turk-attracting goddess, because a security guard who said hi to me last night asked me for coffee when his shift got over at 8! I declined, but what the heck - that's two Turks in 12 hours, neither of whom speaks English. Strange I'm not attracting anyone I could at least talk to.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Nostalgia: A reflection in three parts

Part One: A week to go

Happens every time. I spent the whole year wishing the year was over, quietly (or sometimes not quietly) grumbling about how most of my classmates annoyed me in one way or another, crying about the food, desperately wishing to go home. And here we've gotten to the end, and suddenly I realize how fond I am of my classmates, and of this city. Piter is one-of-a-kind, and I'm always going to love and appreciate this place. This year was so unexpectedly different from 2005-06, but there are parts of Piter I know will never change. I only wonder now if I'll ever make it back here again.


Part Two: The long goodbye

I've been saying goodbye to people all week. I really hate this part. I had such a good time with Elya on Tuesday (we went to the Communications Museum, which has hands-on exhibits to play with thanks to their numerous super-rich sponsors) that we decided to get together on Thursday, ostensibly so she could help me mail stuff to the States, but really just to hang out more. But every day since Wednesday I've been saying goodbye to someone for the last time. Wednesday it was everyone at work. Thursday it was Kira (who flew back to California early to see her brother graduate) and Elya. Friday it was Anya. Saturday I had such a good time hanging out at Nadya and Lyuba's that I ended up spending the night, and then left for the airport from their house at 3:30 AM Monday morning. At one point we were just sitting together, Nadya was playing her guitar and singing, and I was just so content and happy to be in their company that I nearly burst into tears. Ugh, this sucks. I wish there was a way to take them all with me. It's always moments like that when I think, “Yes, I could live here forever, as long as I could be with my friends.”

While there's a lot that drives me crazy about living here – long commutes, poor air and water quality, maddening bureaucracy and menacing police, there's a lot I'm going to miss about it, especially since I don't know when I'll be back. Like I was at Avtovo metro station Friday, and it's a really pretty station, and I thought, “This may be the last time I'm ever in this station, looking at these lovely columns and rotunda.” I look at all these fantastic old buildings that I've come to take for granted, and I know that they'll never be another place like this. But most of all, it really is the people that make the place. Piter wouldn't be Piter without Nadya, Lyuba, Elya – it's a tough place to be without friends.


Part Three: Departure

Sunday I came home after spending the night at Nadya and Lyuba's and packed my bags. It was one of those processes that had me jumping from pile to pile, unable to concentrate on any one section of stuff for too long. At one point I was seized by the need to throw everything else aside and paint my toenails so I could pack the nail polish, although rationally I knew that was not really the top priority. I finally got everything together, dusted and vacuumed (man, did it look nice! Wish I'd done that earlier. :P), and took a bath myself. Then I sat in that clean, empty room and thought about all the time I'd spent in it this year.

Galya got home from the dacha around 7. We had tea and watched TV, like usual, till 9. Then she helped me lug my stuff down to the metro, where the lady opened the turnstile gates before I was ready and denied me a proper goodbye with Galya (we hugged and kissed each other on the cheek and didn't have time to say much). Then I nearly burst into tears again on the escalator.

At 3:30 AM the taxi arrived to take me to the airport. I got one last quick hug each from Nadya and Lyuba as we held open the elevator doors, and then they were gone too. I didn't cry that time. If I'd been more awake, I probably would have, but it still doesn't seem real that we once again live in different parts of the world.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pregnant or Irresistibly Hot?

My yellow dress, skinny jeans, and black heels either make me look pregnant or turn me into a total sex bomb.

Evidence for the first: I took the No. 1 bus to the university today, toting two heavy bags of clothes for the orphanage. A guy gave up his seat for me, even telling another guy who sat down before I could get there to get up so I could sit. I thought he was just being nice, but then I thought, “Why me in particular and not one of the other girls that got on?” Well, the empire cut of that dress can make it look like I have a baby bump (particularly after nine months of Russian food), so I suspect he tapped me in particular for just that reason. In any event, it was nice to sit....

Evidence for the second: Within five minutes TWO men hit on me today. One of them approached as I walked won the ped mall towards the metro, his arms stretched wide in preparation for a hug, he said, “Девушка, я Вас люблю!” (“Girl, I love you!”). I sidestepped him and said “И я Вас тожe” (“And I you”). Gotta tell ya, this encounter put a little extra spring in my step.

Then just a few minutes later, the guy behind me on the escalator in the metro compliments me on my dress and tries to get acquainted with me. I get a creepy vibe from him and literally run away down the escalator. Luckily my train was waiting for me at the bottom, and he didn't catch up.

We're two out of three for sex bomb. I can go for that. :)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Who's a student? Not me!

Oh yeah, I'm done! Finals have been taken. Language level has been tested. I passed Level 3 (again). I got a fancy certificate. And after seven years of constant study, I'm DONE being a student for a while. Woot!

Spring Sprung! Oh wait, nevermind.

On Monday, April 27, spring exploded into Petersburg. Some people were unprepared, and hit the 70-degree streets in their long winter coats and hats, but most people seemed like they'd just been waiting for this day, and came out bedecked in miniskirts, short sleeves, and strappy sandals. I sat on a bench in teh sun and studied for two hours. It was marvelous.

This unbelievably fantastic weather continued for two weeks: temps in the upper 60s and 70s, light breez, and sunny sunny sunny. It gave Mom and me excellent wandering weather for her visit at the beginning of May. It called out to me while I tried to force myself to study during finals. It made my morning and afternoon walks between home and school exceedingly enjoyable. We got a little rainshower and all the buds on all the trees in the city popped simultaneously. Suddenly, we are surrounded by the freshest, most beautiful spring green I've ever seen. I was starting to think I shoulda sent my fall/spring coat home with Mom.

Boy am I glad I kept it! I woke up one day to threatening gray clouds, howling winds, and a temperature of... 35!!!! It's winter again! Argh!!!!

Luckily, it didn't last. And it didn't snow, thank goodness. But it was a quick reminder not to take good weather in Piter for granted, because it never lasts long.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Graveyard Girls

Kira and I have made an awesome discovery: Russian cemeteries. They are fantastic. Wooded, lots of little paths to walk down, neat old graves, quaint chapels, and few people. They're the quietest place to hang out in all of Piter, and it's like getting to wander around the forest without leaving the city.

Russian cemeteries are more haphazard than American ones. Plots are demarcated by little wrought-iron fences, within which are often little benches and tables - Russians picnic when they visit their dead. In older sections, sometimes a path will suddenly be interrupted by a grave; old graves have sometimes been split apart by trees growing through them.

Our first venture to a cemetery was a couple Fridays ago. The weather was nice, I had a couple hours to kill, and Kira suggested we try to find the grave of the holy fool Ksenia, the patron saint of Petersburg. We never did find her tomb, but we had such a nice time wandering about that we decided to do it again the next week.

The second cemetery we visited was near-ish Kira's apartment, way out on the Northeast edge of town. Nestled between an industrial area and a dog pound, the roaring sounds of the street and the incessant barking of dogs is instantly muffled by the stillness of the necropolis; it was peaceful and wooded and wild. It was also a swamp. Literally. We wandered for a good two hours, found the chapel (it was locked up - they're usually only open for funerals), found the newest section, where they were digging a grave, and then wandered back into an older section, where it just got muckier and muckier, until we were literally climbing around the edges of plots trying to keep our feet dry. The idea of dead people water was a little gross, so I was glad when we finally found our way back to dry land. We followed a duck waddling among the graves for a few minutes, tried to get a good picture of a raven on a gravestone, spent some time at a reflecting pool at a war memorial on the edge of the cemetary. I got teary when I saw the graves of people born in 1984 - my age. What would they be doing now if they'd lived?

Perhaps not the most joyous places to hang out, but the cemetaries of Piter are some of the most peaceful places I've found here. If you get the chance to visit any Russian cemetary, I say go for it. They're facsinating places.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Kronshtadt

This weekend I went to the island of Kronshtadt with Nadya, Lyuba, Father Pietro, and Sasha, one of Nadya's friends from church. Kronshtadt used to be a naval base, and until 1996 it was closed to foreigners. Father Pietro drove us over the dam connecting the island to the mainland. The highlight of the little community was the giant church, part of which has been turned into a pretty boring naval museum. We spent much of the day just wandering about, seeing the highlights. Nadya bought a little tour booklet and read to us from it at each point of interest. We saw some neat old buildings and some warships. We played an Italian card game in the park. We ate ice cream. I got a little sunburned. It was wonderful. Pictures here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Televizor!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Love you, Misha!

I went to the 25th anniversary concert of probably my favorite Russian band, Televizor, on Saturday night. I missed their show in October, so I definitely didn't want to miss what may be my last chance to see them play live (I really think they're better live than in the studio). Last time I saw Televizor was around this time of year in 2006; then they played a packed Red Club, where they confiscated our chewing gum at the door, a dentist/photographer attached himself to me and Kerry the whole night, and a guy with a bowl cut helped himself to my beer, then gave my hand a sloppy kiss of thanks. That time I heard Televizor for the first time ever. They were rockin. I liked what I heard enough to buy an mp3 disc of all their albums (I know, I know, crummy way to support a band), and for the past three years I've been happily rockin out to the quirkily snythesized sounds produced by a band that formed the year I was born.

Saturday's concert was held at Lensoveta Exposition Center, a half-hour-ish walk from my apartment. Lensoveta is an old Soviet "House of Culture" - which means it was pretty hideous and smelled like pee. I arrived ridiculously early (I didn't know before I walked there that it'd take only 1/2 an hour) and milled about outside the closed theatre doors with everyone else. Fans covered a range of generations, from those who'd clearly been following the band from the very beginning, to those like me, who discovered them only after we were out of diapers, to young kids there with their parents, who belonged to the first group. Lots of people had Televizor t-shirts, but they weren't selling them at this concert, which bummed me out, because I wanted to buy one (despite the fact that I long ago outgrew wearing band shirts). Misha's voice filtered through the closed doors during sound check - the voice of an angel, it sent thrills down my spine.

When the doors finally opened, I was surprised to learn that the balcony, where I was to sit, was closed. "Wait till the second bell and find an empty seat," the stern old-lady ushers commanded everyone who approached with a balcony ticket. "Uh-oh," I thought. "Nothing worse than a 25th anniversary concert where you can't sell out the house. They shoulda picked a smaller venue - it'd be less embarrassing." My fears were allayed as the house slowly filled - by the time the concert started, pretty much the whole floor was filled, and I was glad for the free upgrade (although if I'd known I was going to get one, I'da bought the cheapest ticket in the house instead of springing for mid-range). The chairs were nice and cushy, and I had a great view - about halfway back in the house, slightly left of house center.

There are two things I adore about Russian rock concerts: 1) They start at a reasonable time, in this case at 7 PM, because most people take public transport, which stops running around midnight. This means that I'm not sleepy by the start of the show, as often happens at home. 2) Russians cut to the chase - none of this mucking about with opening bands for two hours before the headliner, so you're already worn out by too-loud music by the time the band you really came to see starts. Nope, your favorite band comes out first thing, and rocks your socks off for three hours (with one 20-minute intermission).

The show was awesome. Despite a small technical glitch right at the beginning (Misha's mic didn't work. How that is possible after sound check, I'm not sure), Misha and gang rocked us. All the songs from the new album (which I bought after the show) were interspersed with old favorites. I have to say, it is exceedingly more enjoyable to see a band when you already know the songs. What a thrill to hear the music I've pounded miles of pavement to at full volume, with fantastic acoustics. Misha's voice blows me away, and although there were definitely moments when he didn't hit the note he was going for, his energy and funny dancing around totally made up for it.

Misha's songs have always been political, but it's clear from his new songs that he feels much more free to speak his mind than he did in the 80s and 90s, when his lyrics were more metaphorical. For example, one of the new songs is called Gazprombaiter, which is a combination of the name of the energy giant Gazprom and the word "gasterbaiter," which is a fairly condescending but widespread word for immigrant workers. Misha calls Petersburg Gazprom City, Putin our tsar, etc. One song entreats us, "If you're scared, then stay home. But don't ask later why things are the way they are." And when they played the classic "Your dad's a fascist," Misha changed the words to "Your Putin's a fascist."

During the intermission, a guy in his 40s sitting behind me was talking on his cell phone. I shamelessly eavesdropped - he was talking so loud it was hard not to. His speech was interesting for several reasons. 1) He stuttered. 2) He swore, a lot. He never stuttered on the swear words. 3) Apparently, I look 18!! He was telling his interlocutor about the wide age range of people at the concert, and mentioned me, "the blonde 18-year-old sitting in front of me" as evidence. Who cares if he's a bad judge of age - in this country filled with stunning Slavic nymphs, it was nice to be confused for someone almost 7 years younger. 4) Most poignantly, he said this: "I've served my country for 20 years, and for nothing. It was all for nothing! Misha is singing the same songs as he was in the 80s, and they're just as relevant today as they were then. Nothing has changed in this country."

Straight from the horse's mouth, kids. Russia's got a ways to go. Still, have to give them ups for advances made in the freedom of expression department. This is the first concert I've ever gone to by myself and really enjoyed. I'm so glad I got to see Televizor this year - it was the perfect way to begin wrapping up my time in Gazprom City.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

One Month to Go

I'm flying outta here one month from today. It's hard to believe. Each month seems to take ages to pass, but the whole year has sped by pretty quickly. And there's a lot I still want to do in Piter! This coming week is my last week of class. Mom is coming to visit (yay!!!) May 1-4, so I'll be able to get some good touristing in next weekend with her. I have exams May 4-8. May 9-11 is another three day weekend (May 9 is Victory Day), so I'm thinking of going to Finland, or maybe somewhere in Russia - but taking a trip, in any event. On May 12 we are all giving presentations about our internships. May 13 and 14 (or 14 and 15?) we have language testing. And then we're free till May 24 to do what we please. I want to spend that time sleeping in, working out, going to all the museums I've neglected all year, taking in some theatre, going to Money Honey for an evening of rockabilly and Confederate flags, and just wandering around with friends while it's light out till really late.

We went on an excursion today to Nabokov's country manor, which he unfortunately lost less than a year after receiving it from his uncle, due to the Revolution. The house is over 200 years old AND made of wood, which makes its survival to the present day even more impressive. The museum itself wasn't particularly fascinating (our guide mostly went on and on about how Nabokov's son, Dmitri, is still an eligible bachelor at 72 and about the ghosts in the cave), but it was truly wonderful to get out and just wander around the park around the manor. It was pretty squishy underfoot, but it was sunny and warm, and just lovely to breathe fresh, not-Petersburg-smog air. Here are a few pictures.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lucky to be Alive

Last Friday, one of my classmates was assaulted on his way home from a night out. He was threatened with a gun, and then jumped by a group of guys, who bashed his head with a rock multiple times and left him for dead. He was discovered a few hours later in the entrance of an apartment building that wasn't his.

Kira and I went to visit him today in the hospital. His skull is fractured and he's going to need surgery to remove a dented-in piece of skull that could present a danger to the brain. However, all things considered, he's doing amazingly well. He is awake, alert, and in good spirits. An incredibly social and talkative guy by nature, it's clearly hard for him to sit alone in the hospital; he talked for almost an hour straight while Kira and I listened. He's not bitter about what happened - it could have happened in any big city, he says. The doctors have taken excellent care of him, and the police are working hard to find the perpetrators (in typical Russian fashion, the investigation has been sped along by connections - my classmate has friends who have friends in police forces around the country, and they immediately started making calls and calling in favors, without him even asking). They've been checking security cameras, and already have parts of the incident captured on tape. Additionally, his passport, which had been taken, probably to try to make it harder to identify him, has been discovered. It has been deemed safe for him to fly, so as soon as the hospital releases him, he'll be flying home.

He is an amazingly lucky guy. Had they hit him in the head one more time, he probably would be dead. If he'd been discovered even an hour later, or if he'd crawled to a less-frequented place after the attack, he would probably be dead. The doctors expected to see negative effects of the trauma on his reactions, speech, etc, but there have been none so far. When we talked to him, he seemed very cavalier about the whole event, but even just visiting, I was overwhelmed by this reminder of our mortality. I don't feel invincible like I did as a teenager, so I make much wiser choices now, but all the same, I never really think I could die anytime soon. Yet all it could take is a few blows to the head with a rock.

Insert cliche about living life to the fullest here. Seriously. I've been thinking about it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pascha Party and Russian Racism

We didn't have class on Monday, because the university was conducting some huge round of exams and they needed all the classrooms in our building. As it happened, my host mom, Galya, hosted a lunch party on Monday to celebrate Pascha (Orthodox Easter) and her birthday. Six of her friends came over - five women and one of them's husband.

At first, it was a lot of fun. Russians dye Easter eggs, but rather than having an egg hunt, they play a game in which two people each hold an egg and bash them together. Whoever's egg breaks loses, and the victor goes on to the next person. I don't really know what the point is, but it's fun. Then you eat your egg.

Galya's friends were raucous - the one man could have given Georgians a run for their money with all his shouting. At first it was a lot of fun; I don't often hang out with the older set here, and it was interesting for me to hear about life during the Soviet Union in the 50s and 60s. One of the women there Galya has known since sixth or seventh grade! I know it's easier to maintain contact with friends over time if you don't move as much as we do in the US, but nonetheless, I was impressed that even 47 years later, they were still getting together for Galya's birthday.

After a while I got sort of worn out by the yelling. And at that moment, they decided to start giving me relationship advice. Apparently Galya has told all her friends that I'm engaged to a Georgian. In typical Russian fashion, they saw fit to give me unsolicited advice about this, in essence declaring that Rezo couldn't possibly actually love me, he's just looking for a way out of Georgia. Galya tried to stick up for me, but in comparison to her friends, she's really quiet, and I don't think they heard her. They weren't listening to anyone but themselves anyway. The worst part of the whole situation was that I just sat there and didn't say anything.

Now, I know some of you at home are thinking the same thing that these well-intended but out-of-line Russians think. The difference is, if you decide you need to tell me about your opinions, you do so in English, and probably not by yelling at me, flushed with cognac. I felt uncomfortable interrupting, which is why I sometimes go whole evenings without saying a word in Russian and Georgian company - their rules of interaction are different and don't exclude interrupting, whereas I can't seem to get over my upbringing, which says I should wait my turn to speak. I also felt out of my league linguistically - if these people had been my age, I would have known how to tell them off, but I discovered that I don't know how to tell people older than me in Russian with a respectful but firm tone that they're full of shit. And finally, I felt like crying, and I was afraid if I tried to talk, I really would. Actually, that might have been the best thing to do to get them to shut up, but at the time I didn't think about that.

Again, I know they had good intentions. All the same, I hate stereotyping and overgeneralizing, and it drives me up the wall when people talk about things they don't know anything about. Had they actually known Rezo personally and had real concerns about his intentions, that would be one thing. But it's another thing entirely to comment on the motivations of a person you've never met based on some fuzzy perception of national characteristics.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

New Rules

I think there should be a new law of nature which states that it is physically impossible to slip on a patch of ice after March 31.

May I just say: "OW!" and look around furtively to see if anyone saw me. I don't think they did.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Alli vs. marshrutki

(The experienced Reader will note that this picture was not taken in Petersburg)

These yellow vans (sometimes more like minibuses) run all over, between, and among Piter and its suburbs. They have fixed routes, but not fixed stopping points - you just tell the driver when you want to get out. Riding on them used to terrify me.

The biggest problems with riding a marshrutka arise when you don't know where you're going. That is, you know you need to take the K-425 to get to where you want to go, but since you've never been there before, you don't know when to get out. In 2005-2006 this led me to almost never take marshrutki, because I was shy of my Russian and terrified to talk to the driver.

Nowadays I no longer fear talking to the driver, but I still haven't mastered marshrutka riding. For example, on Wednesday I was running late to meet a friend, so I decided to take a marshrutka, which I figured would be faster than walking. I thought I'd recognize when I needed to get out - but it turns out I didn't, and I ended up riding to the end of the route without even realizing we'd passed my stop. When I told the driver where I was supposed to get off, he was like, "Why didn't you say anything? We passed that place 40 minutes ago!" Oops. I caught another marshrutka headed back the way we came, and explained to him that I needed to get off at such-and-such an intersection, but I had no idea what that looked like, so could he tell me please when to get out? Needless to say, my "time-saving" manoever actually made me about an hour late to meet my friend.

However, I wasn't frightened. Annoyed at myself, yes, felt like a dolt, yes, but I wasn't terrified about having ridden to some unknown part of the city. This is HUGE progress. Doesn't mean I enjoy riding marshrutki, but it does open up much more flexible transportation options. I think this means I've accomplished the goal I set for myself at the beginning of the year of not fearing marshrutki. Yay me!

Happily, the next day I had to take a marshrutka to Sestroretsk, a small town about half an hour out of Piter. Once again, I knew I was supposed to get out at the train station, but I didn't know what that looked like (or if I'd see it in time to tell the driver to stop). Instead of panicking (or riding to the end of the route, duh), I just asked the guy sitting next to me if he'd tell me when to exit. Worked like a charm.

Petersburg weather is weird in the spring

The weather here is consistent in only one respect: we have yet to reach a temperature above +4C (39.2F) since, I'd say, about last mid-October. Yesterday I walked to school in the most dreadful wintery mix I've encountered in a long time (how is it even possible that half the precipitation makes it to the ground as snow, and the other half as rain?). Even though I had an umbrella and relatively waterproof boots, I actually took the bus to school for the first time this whole year, breaking my vow to myself to walk every day. It was that unpleasant. But this morning I woke up with the sun in my eyes.

Thanks to Daylight Savings Time and Piter's northern location, we already have more than 12 hours of daylight a day, and it doesn't get dark till about 9 PM (and daylight hours are ever-increasing). It is deceptive, though, because it looks like it should be warm. But it's not.

Last Saturday our group took a tour with a guide from the Hermitage around unusual places (from the touring perspective) on Vasilievsky Island (where my school is located). It ended up being a tour mostly of courtyards, and was actually one of the most interesting excursions I've been on in Piter. I didn't take pictures of everything, but here is what I did photograph.

So when we started the tour a little after 1 PM, it was snowing. Hard. By the end of the tour an hour and a half later, the sun was peeking out. What the heck, Piter? This happens frequently - I'll wake up with the sun in my eyes, then look out the window at school and see that it's snowing, and then it'll be sunny again on my walk home. Well, I guess that's probably better than it just snowing constantly all the time.

Still, it's April, people! I'm not asking for beach weather, but if we could push the temp up to +10-12C, it would be much appreciated.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Bookends

I forgot to mention this in my previous post, but I think it's funny:

On the flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi, I sat next to a Georgian man. I spoke to him as necessary in Russian. By the end of the flight, his curiosity got the better of him, and he said, "You don't look Russian. How do you know Russian so well?" I explained that I've studied for five years, including almost two years in Petersburg.

On the flight from Istanbul to Petersburg, I sat next to a Turkish man. I spoke to the flight attendants in English, as I don't know Turkish. By the end of the flight, the Turkish man's curiosity got the better of him, and he asked me, in excellent Russian, "Excuse me, but how do you know English so well?" I explained that it was my native language. He thought I was Russian!!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Spring Break


I'm sitting in the airport in Istanbul, about halfway through a grueling 7.5 hour layover. I'm not a big fan of this airport limbo-world, all the more so since I've slept maybe an hour or two since waking up Friday morning - we left Batumi in a car bound for Tbilisi at around 10 Friday night, and I was afraid to sleep in the car lest the driver also nod off.

But this is the end of the story. Let's start at the beginning, it's easier for everyone that way.

I flew out of Piter on Friday the 13th (oo-oo-ooh!) on the emptiest international flight I've ever been on - there were maybe 40 people on the whole plane. Was that related to the date, or is there just not much traffic between Piter and Istanbul? Not sure. Anyway, it was nice, I laid out flat across three seats and got a little nap in. I arrived in Tbilisi at about 4 AM, where I was joyfully met by a freshly sheared and shaved Rezo. We immediately clambered into an SUV driven by a friend of Basa (Rezo's dad) and set out for Batumi. Batumi is only about 365 km (227 miles) from Tbilisi, but it's a five hour trip minimum, because the road looks like this:

Okay, so my representation of what the road looked like is an exaggeration. But it did wind a lot, and with the way Georgians drive, it was a pretty intense experience. However, I can't really complain, because apparently there have been vast improvements made to the roads - before, it was a 10 hour drive. Between Tbilisi and Batumi, I learned that if you happen to decide to pass a truck and find yourself face to face with another car barrelling towards you, rightfully in their own lane, there's no need to slow down and get back in your lane. Nope. Because three cars will easily fit where there's only supposed to be two. Yep.

Rezi and I slept away much of Saturday, but Saturday evening I got a full-on Georgian experience, which, admittedly, slammed me with culture shock. Maybe I didn't get enough sleep, maybe I just forgot to prepare myself, but I was completely overwhelmed by having six people talk to me at once, trying to keep up with the Georgian that switched to Russian and back to Georgian, eating delicious food, drinking homemade wine, and the shouting, oh the shouting! But after Saturday I managed to switch over to "Georgian Alli," that is, I got used to not understanding a lot of what people were saying and spending a lot of time nodding and smiling, and had a marvelous time.

Basa is determined to teach me Georgian as quickly as possible, and often spoke to me in Georgian. Amazingly, even though I don't know more than a handful of Georgian words yet, several times over the course of the week I simply knew what people were talking about. More than once I answered in Russian a question that was asked in Georgian, and I guessed right what they were asking about. In each of these cases, of course, the context was pretty clear, but all the same, I think it's a good start on the language-learning path. There are some words I understand when a Georgian says them, but I couldn't repeat them back to you. The thing about Georgian is that it's full of sounds my ears simply don't pick up on yet - for example, a word may have 4 consonants in a row, but I only hear 2 of them. I'm not a phoneticist, but my phonetics teacher explained that the ear of a native English speaker focuses on the vowels, since we have 20 vowel phonemes (which is why it's difficult for a Russian to differentiate between the words "pin" and "pen," for example. Their ears hear the short i and the short e as the same sound). Georgian has only five vowel sounds, so their words derive much more meaning from the various consonant combinations that I find so befuddling. So that's going to take some getting used to.

On this trip I met Rauli, Rezo's best friend, who is a sailor and therefore spends a good 8 or 10 months of the year at sea. Our schedules coincided at last, and I got to meet him. I also briefly met Iva, Rezi's friend who is currently living/studying/finding himself or something like that at a monastary. So now I think I've met the whole gang.

Rezi and I spent a lot of time just walking around Batumi, talking. Most of the week the weather was wonderful; on Thursday, it was actually hot. Friday it was rainy and gloomy though - as if the skies knew it was time for me to leave. On Wednesday Rauli took me and Rezo up in the mountains and we hiked around some pretty beautiful spots. I bet in summer, when everything is fully green, it's absolutely stunning. Here are pictures from our hike, plus a few others. Oh yeah, and I managed to fall flat on my butt on a slippery rock before taking my very first picture. I wasn't hurt at all, but I was concerned about the awful cracking noise of my camera meeting the stone full-force. Amazingly, despite its new, less-rectangular-than-before shape, it still works just fine.

The first couple days I ate way too much meat, and my stomach revolted. Inga, Rezi's mom, was very sympathetic, and on Wednesday we went to the store together and got everything for an American-style salad: lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, red and yellow bell peppers, radishes, green onions, and parsley and dill. I tossed everything together, explained that it's better when everyone adds their own oil, didn't add any at all to mine, and just about cried it was so delicious. I haven't had a real salad since I left the States last August - nothing fried, no oil, everything fresh and delicious. My guts thanked me. This was the first time my Georgian family had eaten salad, and I was worried they wouldn't like it, but it was a hit. We joked that they were the first family in Georgia to eat salad. They made me laugh: "this would go great as a garnish to meat!" I explained that you can add just about anything you want to a salad, that in the summer, I would make them different versions, and that in the US, salad often IS eaten as a side to a more substantial main dish. Rezi liked it too - and tells me that Inga is making it again today. Can't wait to hear how it turns out!

So I ate that salad for three meals in a row (it was a big one!), including breakfast. And this made me think about how much my palate has expanded since I started traveling abroad. I remember barely choking down some things in Japan and in Ukraine - in Ukraine I couldn't bring myself to eat corn for breakfast. I just had very solid notions about what can and can't constitute breakfast. In Georgia, at least in Rezo's family, breakfast is comprised of the same foods as any other meal. And I don't mind at all. What's strange is that I noticed not minding eating salad for breakfast more than I noticed the fact that salad for breakfast is kind of weird.

This post ended up a little more random than I intended, but I hope you enjoyed it anyway. I had a fabulous week in Georgia, and it went by way too quickly. It was even better than in December, because Rezi and I weren't at all nervous about meeting each other, and we were immediately relaxed and chatty. Two more months in Piter, and I'll be back in Batumi. We have big plans for the summer, involving early-morning trips to the beach, grilling out, and hiking. It's going to be the best summer ever!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Metro

I've had a metro blog entry churning in the back of my mind for about four months. I've just never been inspired to actually sit down and organize the myriad impressions I want to give you into a readable entry.

I wanted to write about the sort of fantastic, fusion feeling of being completely alone in a huge mass of people, yet feeling connected to them by your shared desire to get somewhere more quickly than you probably will. You start thinking like a metro rider - what car do I need to sit in to be closest to the exit at my destination station? What cars will be emptiest? What cars will likely be full of old people you'll have to give your seat up to? What car has the intractable drunk guy stirring up trouble? (Don't worry, he'll be thrown off the train by the sturdy matron at the station.)

I wanted to write about feeling like an ant as I transfer between Sadovaya and Sennaya Ploschad, just one member of a huge throng of people snaking through tunnels hundreds of feet below Piter's noisy streets, dipping and scurrying around babushki with carts and dedushki with canes, dashing down that dangerous zone on the edge of oncoming traffic. Will I crash into the mulleted young man charging towards me, as anxious to get to Sadovaya as I am to Sennaya, or will I make it around this slightly-slower-than-me couple before we collide?

I wanted to write about that unmistakable, yet indescribable, metro smell, that pheromone trail left over the past fifty-odd years by millions of other ants in the tunnels, and how the smell intensifies when the wind picks up as a train comes barreling into the station, its single headlight visible around the bend in the tunnel long before the rest of the train comes into view.

I wanted to write about the dreadful cars on the red line which are painted bright yellow on the inside - and how I noticed that one I rode in sometime last fall was manufactured in 1964! How many passengers has that car faithfully carted from one end of the city to the other, swaying and rocking around the dips and bends in the track?

I wanted to write about the escalators: three minutes down, three minutes up; two if you run down (this gives me vertigo, but I do it anyway if I'm late on the off chance I won't have to wait two or three or, on a slow day, four minutes for the next train), two also if you walk up (thighs and lungs burning, it's a matter of principle to keep climbing, even if I want to stop and just ride). How much of our lives do we spend on escalators, listening to that ever-patient female voice entreating the Dear Residents of Saint Petersburg and Guests of Our City not to sit on the steps of the escalators and to give up our seats for pregnant ladies and old people and not to delay the trains by prying the doors back open to pack a few more in (or to free the poor fellow who jumped in a fraction of a second too late)? In older stations, there are three escalators, the third one is used only during peak hours and in whatever direction has the most traffic. One day I rode the middle escalator up at Nevsky Prospekt, and I noticed what isn't acoustically noticeable from the side escalators: that the exhorting speakers are staggered. That beseeching voice pleaded now from my left, now from my right, then back to the left again, three whole minutes up to the swarming surface of the city. It felt poltergeisty.

I wanted to write about all of that, but never got around to it, until a long-awaited, yet still unexpected shakeup to my metro routine finally arrived. All year rumors have abounded about the new metro line opening in Petersburg. When I got back from Georgia in January, all the maps had been changed in the metro, so I got off at the wrong station, thinking I already lived on a new line. Turned out only one new station was open, so I still lived on my beloved orange line (No. 4). On Sunday, March 7, all that changed.

Here's what the Petersburg metro system looked like before March 7 (click for larger image):

As you can see, I live near Chkalovskaya metro station, and could quite conveniently transfer to any other line at one go. I had all the transfer stations memorized, not just for the orange line, but for all the lines, and could quickly figure out the shortest route to wherever I needed to go even without a map. By pure luck, all my best friends lived on the orange line: Kira at one end at Komendantsky Prospekt, Nadya and Zhenya at the other end at Ulitsa Dybenko. After my Wednesday evening coffee dates with Nadya, we could easily hop on the metro at Dostoevskaya and part ways right there on the platform - I'd go one way to Chkalovskaya, she's go the other direction to Ulitsa Dybenko.

All that has changed. Here's what the new metro scheme looks like (click for a larger view):

Okay, okay, I know I'll get used to it. But I don't want to live on the purple line. For one thing, I now have to transfer to get almost anywhere I regularly go - no more parting at Dostoevsky with Nadya, or sleeping till the end of the line on the way to her apartment. For another thing, I haven't quite wrapped my head around the fact that Sadovaya is now a purple station (old station, new line), and the new station, Spaskaya, is the orange one (new station, old line). I'm not the only one; despite surprisingly good signage in the cross-over tunnels, I've seen quite a few confused babushki tottering along the wrong way (Sennaya-Sadovaya-Spaskaya is Petersburg's first three-way transfer station). And I'm annoyed that if I want to go anywhere on the green line from my home, I now have a guaranteed minimum two transfers. Totally lame.

The new stations (three of them so far, but four more in the works on the expanding purple line) have a weird building-materials smell. They are impossibly shiny, bright, new. Despite the efforts of the metro cleaning staff, this won't last long. First the vandals will marker them up, and over time that most intense, take-no-prisoners Petersburg grime will set in and those lustrous, slippery granite floors will lose their sheen and become gritty, the walls will start peeling; they will stop feeling so out of place among the older stations. The new escalators have a different mechanism than the old ones; they're slower and bumpier. The new train tunnels sound different than the old tunnels as we zoom between stations at 85 miles per hour. The new male voice announcing the next station is overly perky, cautioning us too cheerfully that the doors are closing, as if we hadn't heard that warning a million times before. Perhaps it's a young voice actor trying too hard, looking for his big break.

I'll get used to it. So will the other three and a half million daily riders of the Petersburg metro (a drop in the bucket compared to Moscow's daily ridership of 9 million). And after I leave, they will continue to adjust as more stations are added and more new lines are opened, bringing those in the new high rises on the edges of the city into the fold with those living in the center. If all goes according to plan, there will be 8 metro lines in Petersburg by 2030. By then, I won't even pretend to know all the transfer stations, or the quickest route to anywhere. For now, I'm focused on remembering that Sadovaya is a purple station.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

...And we're back!

I would like to apologize for my month-long silence. In addition to my computer being broken for most of that time (although he's all back up and running now), I had been off and on horribly depressed. My logic was that no one wants to read about a person being depressed all the time, and a depressed person doesn't have the energy to write anyway. I am extremely happy to report that I am now NOT depressed, and have not been for this entire week. Whoo! However, I still haven't written, because not-depressed Alli still has a ton of homework, and I have simply not found the time. But I'm writing now, and I'm going to do my best to not allow so much time to lapse between entries again.

I was awakened by the sun shining in my eyes this morning and yesterday morning. That's so awesome! Even though daily temperatures are still in the 30s and there's snow on the ground, it definitely feels like spring is sneaking up on us. It's light out for a reasonable number of hours each day, the birds are singing, it feels like the whole city is waking up. Kira and I went for a really nice walk yesterday; you can see pictures from that and other post-Georgia Petersburg adventures here and here.

Speaking of Georgia, I'm going back for spring break! I leave this Friday evening, and will return to Petersburg Saturday, March 21. It's a bit of a lottery as far as the weather goes in Batumi in March - it might be gorgeous and sunny the whole week, or it might rain every day. Last Monday it snowed all day in Batumi; yesterday Rezi couldn't sleep even with all the windows open because it was so hot.

Although I haven't been writing, lots of little events have occurred which I thought people at home might enjoy hearing about. Thus a return to that favorite of blog forms, the vignette.

I'm sitting in a cafe, by the window. A man just took a picture of the cafe, which I invariably ended up in. I looked hard at the guy, studying him. Why take a picture of the Ideal Teacup? He saw me staring, clipped his heels and nodded crisply. I decided that was a gentlemanly thing to do.

***

Walking home from my internship, I notice that the lights at the soccer stadium are on. I vaguely remember fighting my way past a line to the ticket windows at the stadium on my way to school a couple weeks ago. Apparently it's game night. The sidewalk across the street from the stadium, about as wide as a two-lane road, is packed with cars. Another car almost hits me as it drives past, looking for a parking spot - I grumble vaguely to myself about pedestrian rights. Despite the below-freezing temperatures and laws against public drinking, people are tailgating. The underground crosswalk, also a metro entrance, is packed with fans. So is most of the street I need to walk up to get home. I'm swimming against a current of fanatical Zenit supporters, all wearing the tell-tale blue and white football scarves and carrying flags and banners. I silently thank myself for not wearing my Freemantle football scarf that day - Zenit fans are unpredictable, and any sign of supporting ANY other team is just asking for trouble. The stream of fans headed toward the stadium finally thins out as I get closer to home. I turn the game on over dinner - I can probably see better watching on Channel 5 than most of those fans freezing their butts off in the stadium. It's snowing; the bright green field takes on a soft-mint hue. When I turn off the TV to go to bed, the roar of the fans doesn't stop - I'm hearing the real thing, live, even through my shut windows.

***

Writing class. Darya Vladimirovna, my favorite teacher here, has just passed back our essays and is giving us some general commentary and suggestions. As I dutifully write down her comments, a sinking feeling overcomes me. "Think of an interesting title. Have a title in general. Work on your conclusions - the essay isn't done just because you've stopped writing." Oh dear lord. Those are the same comments I made to my ninth graders when I was student teaching last year. 24 years old, and I'm getting the same feedback I myself gave to 14-year-olds.

At first this was somewhat depressing. But then I thought about it: we Flagshippers are at a point in our language learning journey where it's not just about choosing the right grammar forms and trying out new vocabulary anymore, although that's still a big part of what we do. The Flagship program has taken on the gargantuan task of trying to make us fully capable of doing all the things an educated Russian person can do with the language - from writing various official documents, to understanding and properly using various stylistic choices to write academic versus personal essays, to being able to pick up on cultural references in conversation. I feel like we've been given nine months to learn what Russian schoolchildren get 10 years to master, which of course, is impossible. So I'm trying to give myself a break, remind myself that we can't master everything all at once, but we need this introduction to get us started. And if that means feeling like I'm back in ninth grade every once in a while, so be it.

***

The Russian word "посторонный" (postoronnyj)means "outsider, foreigner, extraneous;" taken literally, based upon etymology, it means "someone or something by the wayside." Some days it is really hard to come to terms with what feels like a pervasive and all-encompassing Russian indifference towards "extraneous" people. Take libraries, for example. Even in the public library, you can't just go there to study, you have to take out a book to sit in the reading rooms. Kennon and I tried to go to the journalism library at the university, because we heard that we could study there, but we made the mistake of telling the guards that we were from the philology department, and they basically told us to take a hike. We were utterly extraneous. The idea of who's in and who's out, it seems to me, plays a much bigger role in day-to-day life for me here than it does in America (where, probably thanks to my citizenship and skin color, I rarely feel like I'm "out") , and as a foreigner in this city, sometimes the feeling of being extraneous is overwhelming. But it's not just foreigners - it's homeless people, immigrant workers, and anyone who doesn't know the secret code or the right people to get "in" somewhere. You're not "in"? Then they don't give a shit about you.

***

The other day on the metro, a man sitting across from me starting yelling at a young couple standing in our car. I looked over; I couldn't see the young man, just his girlfriend. I thought the old guy was yelling at them for making out in the metro; Russians aren't shy about PDA, and the guy was yelling about decency, etc. But he got more and more threatening with his remarks, saying that it was disgraceful, that he was going to beat up the young man, etc. I started to feel really uncomfortable; other Russians in the car did too, and showed it by closing their eyes. At the next stop, the young couple moved to another part of the car to get away from the yelling guy, and I finally saw what the man was upset about - the boyfriend was black. And when I realized I'd just witnessed a serious display of racism, and that this probably wasn't the first time that couple had had this problem, and that everyone just closed their eyes and probably agreed with the yelling guy, even though they weren't willing to say it themselves - I just got really angry. But I didn't do anything either, because I didn't want to get myself into trouble. And then I got depressed about that too.

***

I've been thinking a lot lately about how this city doesn't surprise me as much as it used to, which is why it's sometimes hard to find things I think it will be interesting for you to read about. I was thinking just that thought on the way to school the other day, when I saw a man run out of the metro. On one foot he had a normal dress shoe. On the other, a plastic bag. As he ran past, I couldn't help but wonder how he ended up with a plastic bag on his left foot, and why he was running. I see all sorts of odd things like that all the time; after a while, you almost stop noticing.

***

So as not to end on a negative note, I would like to point out two things that make me feel happy and sort of negate the "extraneous" thing I talked about above. The first is that most cars really do try to drive around the huge puddles in the street so as not to splash pedestrians, at least on the street I walk down every morning. That makes me feel better about humans in general. The second thing is that twice in one day I saw a bus driver wait when he saw people running to catch the bus, when he could easily have slammed the doors and driven off (I've seen that before too). So yay for caring about other people!

Well, there are probably other vignettes I could write about, but I'm on my way out the door to eat sushi with Nadya and Lyuba. Happy Women's Day to all those awesome women out there!