Monday, March 23, 2009


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


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!