Sunday, April 26, 2009


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.