Sunday, March 28, 2010

my exams and the stray bears on the street are more likely to cause any harm to me than the metro. In other words, to quote GLaDOS: "I'm doing Science and I'm still alive.I feel FANTASTIC and I'm still alive."

I really hope this counts as an insightful and newsy blogpost to break the monotony of no updates.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


I'm gruesomly behind in uploading pics. But some photos from one of the cameras for our New Year's trip to Ukraine are up now :

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Here we go again

I'm getting really good at this short story stuff. By now I have enough material to drop out of school and become a professional writer. Where am I getting all of my material from, you ask? It's simple really. You try to spend two weeks amidst Russian conversation where you have to make up four out of five words. Most of the time I'm comically far from the truth and so come my ideas for short stories. I'll call them "Russian Conversations", I think.

Actually, it wasn't that bad. Spending so much time away from native English speakers has taken a toll on my mother tongue, but has done wonders for understanding and even participating in conversation. The last part is a lie, I still can't even talk my way into giving alms to someone on the side of the street (It took a couple of iterations before she understood that I wanted to give her money). Understanding is a whole 'nother story though, and it's worked wonders during our two week trip to Ukraine.

In short we wandered around our first city with a brilliant artist, stayed at a self-important weapon collector's house for new years, slept beneath telescopes, in the middle of an excavation site, swam in the icy waves of the black sea at the feet of mountains littered with palaces. You know, all the usual new years stuff.

As eyes are the windows into your soul, strangers are the mirrors through which you can look back through your eyes. This is even more true when you're immersed in a different culture and language. Things become simpler, those complex, dramatic ideas you have floating around in your head are distilled to the simple ideas easily communicated by hand gestures, grunting and occasionally a coherent sentence or two. In this way, I spent two weeks learning a great deal about myself and my friends (not to mention Russian).

Details? You want details? Oh man, that's a long story. We'll save those for the slideshow when I see you next. We'll keep with general impressions. Ukraine is a palpably different country from Russia. What do I mean? When I first entered the Ukraine, Oksana and I were greeted with the stereotypical police bullying-for-bribes scenario that we are all told to expect. The cities at first glance looked similar to Russia, the language was the same, hell even the potatoe pies were the same. You have to wait for the differences to show themselves. For instance, I saw fewer than eight police on the streets, in all the eight cities I visited in Ukraine. People were not only better versed in politics but they had an opinion, maybe because there was more than one opinion broadcast on tv. Presidential elections are this week, and all around Yalta and Sevastopol there were booths for not one, two, but five different parties. And not all of them were directly affiliated with an authoritarian president/prime minister regime.

I left Moscow two weeks ago, and I returned to a completely different city.

I'll try my best to put up some photos in the near future, and maybe write some more narrative before I forget the good stuff.

I hope you meet the new year in festivity, joy, and good champagne!

Sunday, December 27, 2009

... bad news : we've had a few rat sightings

Coincidence, it rules my existence here. For instance, today happens to be the 28th. The same day that I left in August three months ago to leave for Moscow. When you're in a culture that you're familiar with, it's easy to look at coincidences and find a plausible explanation for it. If you run into someone you know in the middle of Portland from a different city, you might guess that there's a concert going on that night and that anyone with a decent pair of taste buds and as an empty wallet as mine will end up on Stark St. for some grub.

However, when you're in a city whose culinary and cultural landscape you are not yet familiar with, it's much more amazing when you see walking down the street someone who weeks previous had pointed out that your shoelaces were untied in the metro.

Last week was the third and last week of finals. I was embarrassingly late to my last final after I spent too much time in the worst congested metro station in the world, barking up the wrong street, and backtracking my way to the correct street.

My flatmate, Katya, has already left for her new year's shindig in Finland. Monday I hand off my keys to Natasha who'll house sit for us while we're gone, and on Tuesday I meet up with Oksana to start our way to Kharkiv to join Kirill and from there we lazily make our way through Ukraine to celebrate the new year.

Happy new years and see you next year!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Good news is : we don't have cockroaches...

Last week I took my Russian final, as I finished each page, she took it from me (I was the only student in the class) and graded it on the spot. I took it as a good sign when she continually said "wonderful, splendid!" and even before she was done grading she said something about a "true A". My knot theory final went just as well. Out of six questions, I answered perfectly 5 1/2. I finished the exam in record time and left to go celebrate the new snow fall. I later found out from the other students that Prof. Sossinski started to grade my final right after I left and was laughing for most of the time... I was a little concerned about his reaction to my exam, until I learned that I had also earned a "true A" on it. Not everything that starts well ends well, however. Next week I have my most difficult finals, for which I'm frantically scrounging what notes I took, from when I happened to go to class, and I'm completing the homeworks that I didn't do during the semester (most of them). Wish me luck!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Errata, Sundry, and Voronezh Take 2

I would like to start with some errata from the blog. Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, but it contains some large corrections.

Vova and Kirill study Lithuanian, and not Estonian as published (ask Peter about the Dutch/Danish fiasco of 2005), and Kirill most definately has not graduated.

Speaking of publication, I feel like I have adequately forewarned and otherwise explained my parents my actions in Russia (this preface inspired by feedback from my post : "Nothing to see here"), such that I am free to post any and all my adventures here with the understanding that I am indeed being more safe than you think, but maybe not as safe as you'd like, and that some cultural differences make things not as dangerous as you'd believe. I wish I were talking about love, but that's always more dangerous than you can imagine. But then again it's Love. Love is everything : dangerous, scary, fun, an education,an addiction, thrilling,and beautiful.

Anywho, I'm actually talking mostly about hitchiking. Once a state sponsored institution (you give the driver a receipt, the driver gets money from the govn't), and now still an undying facet of Russian culture, hitchiking is a godsend for people who want to spend as little money as possible (like me!). Within the city, every car that passes by you is potentially a cab to those hard to reach pockets of moscow not near bus, trolley, tram, or metro. Drop a couple hundred rubles and you're there presto! Outside the city, it's a great way to make a long trip a little less boring with someone to talk to.

Sure enough it's just as easy as it looks. You stick your arm out, wave it about, (do the hokey pokey?) and sure as flies on shit, there's a car at the other end of your arm.

Thus starts my second journey to Voronezh. I spent 60 cents to get just outside of Moscow, a couple steps outside the MKAD, on the highway joining Moscow to Voronezh, M4. I get picked up just at the start of twilight by a delivery truck heading just a little ways south, but I'm excited, anxious even, to hop into my first catch of my life, and with a spring in my boot clad step, I swing my backpack and myself into the cab. We quickly cover the easy vocabulary : where he's from, why in the world would I want to come to Russia, what I think of Russia, what he thinks of the States. It's amazing what you can force yourself to come up with in a foreign language when you're deathly afraid of silence. Why so fearful of silence? Just the principle, I'm getting a free ride from someone, I feel like I should repay them with entertainment. I didn't let the conversation lapse once. Go me and my improving(?) Russian! Though perhaps I was being selfish, and was using this as an opportunity to practice my Russian at his expense of having to listen to my horrible accent. Oops it's 71km and this is his exit! Time for me to hop out. Nice to meet you, good luck! I walk down the road a bit, my lonley thumb getting chilly through my gloves, then turn around so potential drivers can see my irresistable smile. I turn around, and there's a semi-truck headed straight for me. I jump on the other side of the rail and the truck stops. I open the door and the driver is red in the face from laughing.

This guy is a riot. I have never seen such lewd window stickers, nor have I ever heard more foul language in any language in my whole life. It was always male-member this, female-parts that, and I've-had-intimate-knowledge-of-your-mother-go-buy-some-eyes-and-get-your-heap-of-iron-off-the-road that. He started his journey in Berlin carrying BMW's somewhere far south to the Black sea. You're going to Voronezh? I can take you all the way there! And so he did, my remaining 400km. I now know all the good and crappy cafes along M4. I also know about his pug (the one he picked up in Poland), the 20 years he spent as an officer in the army, his two degrees (law and economics), and his miserable pension (did I mention he's a semi driver?). Never has 400km passed that quickly in my life (250 miles have, however). This guy was all over the map with questions and stories. Moskovskaya oblast turns into Tulskaya into Lipetskaya into Voronezhskaya oblast. We're not far from Voronezh and we stop at a cafe to grab a bite to eat. 50 rubles for all you can eat borsch, pelmeni, and xleb. We strategize where best to drop me off, neither of us know the city, so we call it a "we'll know it when we see it" thing. On the bypass I spot a marshrutka and this would be a perfect spot to debark. We make our farewells, and I make my first step on the last part of my journey to Voronezh.

And I count my lucky blessings, route 90 is frequent service downtown! I hop on the swedish bus (you signal and the Stoppen light lights up), and we're blazing down Leninskiy prospekt, across the river and here I am! I've made it! I'm in Voronezh! At last, I've vindicated my last failed attempt to make it to this fair, 2 million city nestled in the hills divided by a river (Remind anyone of someplace? Portland maybe?).

Anyways, I think the hitchiking part is already enough for my parents to handle. I'll cut the rest of the story short (including serendipitous irony), and give general comments about the hospitability of Russians, the beauty of Voronezh, and how it awaits me for yet another visit. I'll leave you with one more story.

I got a haircut in Voronezh for 200 roubles. That was easily the most terrifying experience I've had in Russia. I walk into the salon and five women immediately stop what they're doing and all turn to look at me.

"What do you want?" One of them asks

I try to explain that I want a haircut, without knowing what the word for haircut is... They look horribly confused, "So... What color do you want?" "Color?" "Yes, Color. Blue, red, pink, silver..." "no no no, I don't want any color, I want" And I procede to pantomime a pair of scissors with my hands accompanied by snipping sounds. "Ah, all you need is just a haircut? Have a seat!"

Now, before I walked into the salon, I spotted the immenent problem of describing exactly how I wanted my hair cut. So I spent some time constructing a beautiful phrase from basic vocabulary and grammar. I had it perfect. These were all words I knew how to pronounce, I even know which sentence intonation patterns to use. And there's no way that the meanings could be mistaken for something else. So I sat down in the chair and let it rip, "Not as short as policemen. Longer on top than the sides." She looks at me and says flatly, "I didn't understand anything you said." I was flabbergasted. Doesn't she speak Russian? What a poor woman, going through life not speaking the language of her peers and friends. How can someone live thus? As soon as the surge of righteous pity left my system, I felt devastated that my Russian skills after working so well the day before would fail me now in my moment of greatest need. I shrugged it off. I said, "Do as you like". No sooner had those words escaped my lips than did I realize that I might be walk away from a haircut with a mullett for the first time in my life since 1st grade. She recognized the futility of further discussion, took her scissors and went to work. I wasn't joking when I took one look in the mirror and said to her it's never been better (Oh, *now* she can understand Russian... Sheesh).

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I've got about an hour until my next adventure. Let me tell you about a typical day in Moscow.

I walk from my flat down Mozhaiskiy street with the metro station waiting for me at the end, the bright red M shining like a beacon. Just beyond Studencheskaya station, on a clear day, you can see the Russian Acadamy of Sciences, and as you approach Studencheskaya you see track after track leading to the Kievskiy train station, the terminus and origin for many south-western bound trains (Such as ones to Kiev). The metro from this station pops up above ground again as it crosses the Moscow river, from which you catch sight of the Russian white house, the imposing main building of Moscow State University, and a second look at the Kievskiy station.

Our university sits in a triangle formed by three metro stations, and we have a choice of two to debark. The first one leads to a ho-hum walk past another of the seven sisters : the ministry of foreign affairs, and down Arbat street, a 1km long pedestrian street once home to Pushkin and one of the oldest streets in Moscow. The second station (my favorite) leads you down Gogolskiy boulevard, a street split down the middle by a wide park. From a statue of Gogol to a sculpture of Mikhail Sholokov you walk down a cobblestone path arched by trees. Turning down Sivtsev vrazhek, you pass by a sculpture park and you're at our university in the heart of Moscow.

Class usually starts 15 minutes ago, so you excuse yourself and quickly and quietly sit down. We have a wonderful lunch lady, have a delicious lunch, and an hour later we sit for our second class. Do some chores, wanna come over to my place for some tea?, make some dinner, chat with my chatty flatmate (she's a girl... she constantly talks), do some homework, rinse and repeat.

Now I'm off to pick up a power cable from the last tennants of my flat who now live by the Patriarschiy ponds, see some friends at the dorm, and pack for my second attempt to get to Voronezh. This time I have valid documents, not just in theory, but in hand.

See you Sunday!