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


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.