Tuesday, March 26, 2013

“Borscht isn’t borscht without Sour Cream!” ~ my babushka

Now that I’ve been to Moscow and purchased my own stylin fur hat, I feel like a real Russian. Really, I’m far from that ... but in the less than 2 months that I’ve lived in the largest country on Earth, I’ve been able to experience some aspects of life that can only be described as quintessentially Russian. The obsession with сметана (sour cream) is just one of these cultural aspects. The other day my babushka sighed loudly and said that I was going to have to eat my soup without сметана because we had unfortunately run out. At first I thought “thank goodness!” Then it dawned on me, she bought a package 3 days ago. How is it even possible that we have gone through an entire container in 3 days? I’m on sour cream overload, I don’t think I will ever put sour cream on my enchiladas again. 

Me with the Maslenitsa doll
Following along with Russian superstitions has also become apart of my daily life. For instance, I have been yelled at several time thus far for sitting on the floor. Not because it’s unlady-like, nope it’s because Russians truly believe (their parents have ingrained them with this little tidbit) that a woman’s ovaries will freeze if she chooses to sit on the ground or any cold surface. Guess I’m not going to have any kids :/ Superstitions regarding medicine are also surprising. Currently in Moscow there is a flu epidemic, and the week preceding my trip to Moscow I received about a half an onion, cut into pieces, and distributed in my salad, my soup, and even my pasta. Apparently, Russians believe that eating onions will stop the flu. Who knew? It’s was even more surprising when one of my friend’s babushka lit an onion on fire and stuck it under her nose when she had a cold. 

A burning Maslenitsa Doll
So this past weekend, I was lucky enough to participate in one of the greatest Russian cultural experiences: Maslenitsa. Essentially Maslenitsa is the Russian version of Mardi Gras. It’s a full week long celebration that culminates with the Orthodox Church’s Lent Season. On the final day of Maslenitsa, there are festivals celebrated throughout the entire nation. People dress in traditional peasant clothing. There’s dancing, singing, games for children, and a wonderfully delicious snack known as a blini! Blini are the Russian versions of crepes and can be stuffed with anything from caviar (a Russian favorite), mushrooms, and potatoes to cherries and apricots. On the day of Maslenitsa I choose a yummy ham and cheese blini. Blini are symbolically essential to the celebration of Maslenitsa- they represent the sun and the approaching presence of spring. My favorite part of the celebration has got to be the burning of the чучело, the maslenitsa doll. This large doll made of straw represents winter. Spring comes when they burn this gigantic symbol of winter. All in all, the festival was a blast and highly ironic. How can it be spring when it’s -10 Celsius outside with snow covering the ground?

So I never mentioned a the uniquely Russian experience I had about a month ago with our entire group of American students: the Russian banya. We made our way out to the very outskirts of St. Petersburg where we were introduced to the luxuries of the Russian version of a sauna. Except, in the banya, there are certain traditions that must be upheld. The first step in the experience is to enter the steam room called a parilka. The steam room is made entirely out of wood and is extraordinarily hot. Russians recommend only to stay in this room for a maximum of seven minutes. I doubt I was able to stay in there even that long. In the parilka, it’s tradition to whack other bathers with birch tree branches called veniki in order to increase body circulation. I participated in the tree branch beating, but boy was it strange. I don’t know if my circulation got any better, but the branches made the banya smell really woodsy. And the final step in the banya process? leave the parilka and immediately jump in an ice cold pool or dump a bucket of freezing cold water on your body (see pic to the right... I thought it was actually a bit refreshing after being in the unbearably hot parilka). Hundreds of years ago it was common for Russians to roll around in the snow after exiting the parilka. Afterwards, it’s time to repeat the process.

Even though I’ve been able to visit some of the most amazing places I’ve ever been to (the Tsar’s Winter Palace and Red Square come immediately to mind), some of my most memorable experiences in this country have been enjoying the cultural interactions. In many ways, Russia is a world away from America, but that’s what makes this journey all the more special. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Russia is Fantastic, but I am Proud to be an American

Well I just finished writing a blog about how much I loved Moscow. Seeing as I will be going on the Trans-siberian Express sometime in my future, I know I will return to this lovely place. This makes me especially happy since there is still so much more to see in this metropolis! Now that I have repeatedly written about how spectacular moscow is, I’ll have to mention a not so spectacular method of transportation in Russia:  train travel. Our journey on board a train to Moscow was 8 hours overnight. Great right? I could just go to sleep in St. Petersburg and wake up in Moscow the next morning. That’s a joke. I bet that would be the case if you forked over the money to ride first class, but we decided to pay $80 roundtrip and travel in the cheap seats instead. So let me just bullet point the Russian train experience (I’m sure that riding the train is better in 1st world countries, it just has to be):
  1. My body was longer than the bed and there was a wall that blocked my feet from stretching over the bed. I was a little scrunched up in the bed to say the least.
  2. My friend’s first reaction when seeing our sleeping space: “Well this is decidingly third world” (actual quote)
  3. The beds were essentially hard metal. You have to roll an old and not-so-clean mattress onto the metal in order to make your bed. After doing so I prayed that there were no bed bugs (thank goodness I made it out alive)
  4. You sleep in the same compartment as at least 50 other Russians who don’t understand what personal space means
In the end, we made it to Moscow and back, so that’s really all that matters. The train ride was definitely a Russian experience that enlightened me to one of the reasons why Russians don’t often travel. because train travel is completely exhausting. I’m really looking forward to my 36 hour train ride to Sochi that I have in a month and a half (I’m slightly serious, slightly sarcastic). I do know that it will certainly be an journey of a lifetime. 

So you may be asking: why didn’t you just fly to Moscow, it’s probably only a 2 hour flight? Yes, you would be right. Flying would be much easier. However, Russia has this problem where all the domestic plane flights in the country have been BLACKLISTED. Yep that’s right blacklisted by the USA government. Domestic airlines in Russia actually buy rejected and discarded planes from other airlines and fly them around the country like it’s no big deal. So there is a significant chance you'll end up in an airplane crash if you are stupid enough to fly in one of the death contraptions. Don't worry this is only for domestic flights, it's entirely safe to fly into Russia from another country. Apparently Russia doesn’t have any meaningful regulations ever (example: it’s not uncommon for people to keep wild bears as pets). Sometimes, life in Russia seems so normal and then all the sudden you learn about Russia’s domestic plane carriers. Mind blown.

AMERICAN DINER!!- complete with vanilla milkshake
One small aspect of Russia that I find completely fascinating is the nightly news coverage. Slowly, I am beginning to understand more of the rapidly paced news stories, but it has been very difficult. Even though I may not understand everything, I have clearly gotten the gist that Russian news stations offer the opposite perspective that American news stations offer. For instance, when Hugo Chavez died, the news stations practically went into mourning. His life’s story was idealized to say the least, and I would have loved to have seen an American coverage of the event in order to draw a comparison. On a related note, our hostel in Moscow was a block away from the Venezuelan Embassy, and guess what? Russians left pictures, flowers, candles, and notes to Chavez in commemoration of his life and his successes in Venezuela. There’s no denying Russia is a world away from the USA at times. Even though all of us are having the time of our lives here in this very distinct culture, we can’t help but miss the comforts of the United States. So when we found a little American diner in Moscow we couldn’t help ourselves; we ate there twice. I mean I really couldn’t pass up a hamburger and sweet potato fries. They were just too yummy. 
Lavra in Sergiev Posad

On a completely different note, while in Moscow two of my friends and I traveled another hour and a half by train to the sleepy little town of Sergiev Posad. This town is the single most important location for Russian Orthodoxy in the country. The Troitsa- Cergeev monastery, complete with its own Kremlin, stands on a hill beside the city and is home to some of the holiest relics in the nation. Even Tsar Boris Gudonov is buried in this monastery. This monastery has been honored with the prestigious title of a lavra (there are only two lavras in the entire country). Well here is a picture of the monastery to the right:

My trip to Moscow was undeniably spectacular. The old and the new, the atheistic Soviet influence and the ever present culture of Orthodoxy, merge into one city that has undergone dramatic cultural shifts in its long history. Moscow was well worth the trip, and I can’t wait to revisit the historic streets one day, but I’m glad to be back in St. Petersburg where the streets are brightened by the multi-colored buildings and where tsarist opulence influences the very nature of the city. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Moscow: Even More Spectacular Than Expected

A Very Excited Kellie on Red Square
I am ecstatic to say that this weekend I was able to check another bullet point off my bucket list: Red Square and the Kremlin, Moscow. Not only was Red Square on my bucket list, it was listed on my number 7 slot. Even after my first impressions of this famous destination, I think that this incredible sight definitely deserve a seat among the world's best. After checking into Godzilla Hostel and grabbing a quick dinner, my friends and I wanted to explore the wonders of the once capital of the Soviet Union. While exploring the center of the city, I was immediately astonished by the opulence surrounding me. The streets were pristine and very europeanized; we passed stores filled with Gucci merchandise (which I’m assuming is a far cry from Soviet times). All of the sudden I end up standing in front of the infamous Bolshoi Theater with a view of the brick red Kremlin to the south. The Red Square at night is truly spectacular. The lights emanating from the St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin make this historically significant plaza sparkle. I was actually standing in the place where dozens of Soviet military demonstrations had taken place and where all the General Secretaries of the Soviet Union have been buried! Not to mention the grey stone tablet located next to St. Basil’s Cathedral that had been used as an executioner’s block for centuries. 

Church of the Annunciation in the Moscow Kremlin
The Kremlin oddly enough is a monument to the last strength of the Orthodox Church. The structure of the Kremlin itself is a huge red bricked wall that surrounds the administrative buildings of the capital. Once I ascended the stairs to the entrance of the Kremlin, I was significantly shocked at my surroundings. Ahead of me: dozens of yellow hued government buildings (I was hoping that Putin was going to hop out of one of them). Several black sedans drove by. I assumed these cars were driven by the Russian equivalent of the Secret Service. And to the right of these government buildings were about six golden domed Orthodox Churches. I have no idea how these church survived Stalin’s crusade to destroy churches, but they did and right in the heart of the Kremlin no less! What I did not expect was to see the tombs of all the ancient Russian princes and Tsars in the Archangel Kremlin Church. I can now say that I have seen the burial sites for some of the most famous leaders of Russia: Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Tsar Nicholas II, and Ivan the Terrible. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the so-called “Miracle of the Soviet Union”- Lenin’s preserved body in the center of Red Square. Apparently a 100 year old body needs a lot of TLC so Lenin's body was undergoing scientific repair (fermentation) while we were in Moscow. I’m determined to see this very strange aspect of Russia, so next time in Moscow, this will be the first stop.

On another Soviet related note, my friends and I found the only statue left of Stalin in the entire city of Moscow. Here he is, noseless and all:

The Last Joseph Stalin
Statues of Stalin used to cover the Moscow landscape, even in every Metro stop. After Stalin’s death, General Secretary Khrushchev initiated a de-stalinization campaign and removed the hundreds of the statues of the “fearless leader.” By 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, all the statues had been destroyed except this lone one. It was placed in what can only be referred to as a statue graveyard where propaganda statues of Lenin and Brezhnev also stand.

The last twenty-four hours I spent in Moscow were a whirlwind. My friends and I went to a Kareoke bar we sang our hearts out to “Back in the USSR,” Adele, and the Spice Girls among many others. Then it was up for an early morning at a flea market in the south of the city. This market was one of the best I’ve ever seen. People were selling old Soviet Propaganda posters, nesting dolls, samovars, and random old trinkets. I was able to buy the Russian fur hat that I’ve alway wanted. Yippeee! Then it was off to a few more stops before heading back to St. Pete on the overnight train. The first being old Arbat street where artists and street performers spend their days on this cobble stone street. Also, there was Pink Berry Frozen Yogurt!! so I had to have some of that.  
Cathedral of Christ the Savior

Last not very much not least, we headed over to the biggest church in Russia: Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Just look at this place! beautiful, and guess what? it’s a complete recreation because Stalin had the church bombed in order to create a swimming pool. Another fun fact about this church: this is the location where the band Pussy Riot held their infamous concert a year ago. After this concert, they were arrested  for “hooliganism” and were sent to prison. On a more positive note, this cathedral has an amazing view of the Kremlin and central Moscow. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hermitage Take Two

Me on the Jordan Staircase
One of the highlights of any trip to Saint Pete is a visit to the world’s second largest museum- The Hermitage. The museum’s massive scope can only be surpassed by the Smithsonian (but seeing as the Smithsonian comprises of a bunch of different museums, I think they’re cheating). Back in the 18th century, Empress Catherine the Great purchased an extensive western art collection for her personal enjoyment that slowly expanded over the centuries. Today the Hermitage has over 3 million works of art and ancient artifacts displayed in a maze of exhibits. What makes this place really special though is the location of its exhibits. The Hermitage museum is located inside the Tsar’s Winter Palace. When you look out onto the palace square from the museum, you are essentially looking out of the Tsar's home onto the location where Bloody Sunday occurred over 100 years ago. The architecture itself is a work of art, and to be honest I sometimes completely forgot about the famous paintings; I find myself looking at the ornately decorated golden doors or blue and white ceilings. When you enter into the Hermitage, you not only get to see the artistic works of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Monet, Picasso, and van Gogh, but you can also wander the amazing rooms that the Tsar’s enjoyed on a daily basis. 

Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
True story about what it’s like in the Hermitage. So we walked into a large sea foam green room with an absolutely magnificent gold trimmed ceiling (so basically like any other room in the palace) and I briefly looked at some of the pictures. One picture in particular caught my attend, I said hmm this looks familiar, and I continued to marvel at the architecture of the place the Tsar’s called home. So after my friends and I had explored for a few hours, we decided that we were going to search out some of the most famous paintings in the exhibit. and lo and behold, the painting I had  passed up earlier was one of Rembrandt’s most famous painting: The Return of the Prodigal Son

Here's just one more phot of the interior of the Hermitage. Let's just say that I know why there was a revolution in Russia now. The pictures don't do this place justice. The actual museum is something you have to see sometime in your life. Yep, write it down in your bucket list now. 

Tsar Alexander II's wife's boudoir. Yes the Tsar's wife would simply get dressed in this room

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Weekend with the Locals

Well this title might be stretching it, but this weekend has been vastly different from past weekends I’ve spent in St. Petersburg. I didn’t participate in any exceptionally touristy adventures such as exploring another Tsarist palace (yes there are many more in the area) or visiting another museum. Instead I was able to experience the Russian editions to some very popular activities: going to the movies and iceskating.

On Friday, my Russian friend (who I met through my host mom) invited me to go to the movies with her. So of course we decided to watch a Russian scary movie. Basically it ended up being the Blair Witch Project with a Russian twist: a Soviet experiment gone wrong in Siberia and five american college students pay the price for it. Yes, the movie was scary, but at least I understood what was going on even though the movie was in Russian. Ура! a Russian language learning success. 

The next evening I spent the entire night ice skating with some of my American friends. And yes I mean the entire night: from 11:30 pm until the metro opened at 6:00 am. We ice skated with a couple hundred Russians, played card games, and drank a beer in the bar that was located inside the rink. Overall a super fun night shared with my American friends and some new ones as well.
All Night Ice Skate with Friends

Even though I could go to the movies or ice skate pretty much everywhere in the world, I did notice some important differences between America and Russia. At the movie theater, when you buy your tickets, you are designated a specific seat that you must sit in during the movie. Very much unlike the American system of the free-for-all seating arrangement. Ice skating, however, was a very different scenario. There seemed to be no one there to preserve the order at all. The Russians tended to get a little feisty on the ice. I thought that I was getting shoved around because I’m a Californian who can’t ice skate. However, I was soon to learn from my friends that I was definitely not the only one who was literally getting pushed out of the way. The vast differences in authorial responsibility at the movies and at the rink serve as a perfect example of the contradiction inherent in Russian life. Sometimes, I feel like there are no rules in Russia and everything is a mad free for all: there are monkeys on the street, wild dogs even in the city, and police officers are notorious for taking bribes Then I remember that I’m currently living in a semi-authoritarian state where I definitely have no right to speak my opinion about politics. I find myself constantly saying: how is there no law against that? and then a minute later getting frustrated by thousand and one times I have to show my ID at school every day in order to get to class. Yet again, Russian life shows itself as a conundrum.